Interventions into Academics-as-Usual

Over at my Undisicplined site, I’m working on my intellectual history, from 1996-present. For the past week, I’ve been mulling over a question that has haunted me ever since I came across my Senior Thesis evaluation (1996) and my advisor’s opening lines: “This was, without a doubt, a very strong thesis. Indeed, we could not remember one in our experience that was stronger.” The question is: Am I living up to the promise that I showed in my undergraduate senior thesis?

The process of thinking through this question and detailing my experiences as an academic since writing this thesis, have been tremendously helpful in enabling me to keep pushing at my questions, conflicts and uncertainties over my current (liminal?) state as beside/outside of the Academy. Just a few minutes ago, I posted the entire essay (almost 3000 words!) on Undisciplined. I thought I’d post an excerpt describing four critical/creative projects that I completed in order to resist/disrupt/intervene in the damaging effects of my training and practice as an academic.

Intervention One

To counter the effects of this academic training, I decided to create a project that would enable me to take many of the theories about storytelling, women’s agency, identity, selfhood, memory and home and experiment with them in a different medium. Instead of writing an esoteric academic paper, I, along with my husband Scott Anderson, created a digital video about my family’s most treasured homespace, the Puotinen family farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The themes that I had been studying for years (like the tension between wanting to belong and needing to critique simplistic notions of belonging) served as the foundation for our project.

After completing and screening the first video, The Farm: An Autobiography, in 2001, we created another one the next summer, The Puotinen Women. This video, which was a continuation of themes and questions raised in the first one, also focused on the contradictory roles that women played in Finnish immigrant households and was heavily shaped by the miscarriage I suffered just before we started filming.

These two digital videos enabled me to experiment with communicating my ever-increasing feminist theoretical knowledge to audiences outside of academic spaces. And, they allowed me to use these theories to make sense of my relationship to the farm and generations of Puotinens. These videos reminded me that theories weren’t just abstract ideas and academic knowledge wasn’t just academic! They could help me understand and connect with my family and heritage.

Due to the success of those digital videos, I briefly considered shifting the focus of my dissertation so as to include them. But I didn’t. I can’t remember the thought process that went into that decision, but I imagine that I was reluctant to subject my highly personal work to the rigid (and often stultifying) demands of academic scholarship.

Intervention Two

When I was nearly finished with my dissertation, over two years after I started writing it, my mom got sick. Really, really sick. She was dying from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was working on my fourth chapter, “Working to Become Allies, Working for Alliances,” and reflecting on Judith Butler’s difficult questions, What is the livable life?, and Who gets to achieve it? I wrote a big chunk of that final section in the hospital on the day of my mom’s whipple surgery. If the surgery was successful, she might have six months to a year to live. If not, she would most likely be dead in a few weeks. The surgery was a success and, with the help (?) of chemo, she beat the odds and lived for almost 4 years.

When I look back at this chapter, and reread my section on livable life, I don’t see any evidence of the pain and fear that I was experiencing on that day. No footnote referencing my own powerful connection to the concept, serving as an intervention into the “academics as usual” prose. But, I know that Butler’s theories about the livable life, and my critical engagements with it on that day, and the days to come, was crucial in enabling me to survive that horrific month when my world shattered.

Intervention Three

I can’t remember when the idea first hit me, but in the spring of 2009, I decided to create and write in my own blog. I had been using blogs in my classes since 2007, but I had yet to experiment on one with my own theories and research. I decided to use my blog as a space for documenting and archiving all of my ideas and theories about the value of troublemaking and troublestaying. These ideas had been fermenting for over 10 years, almost since the beginning of graduate school, but I had never had time to write about them. And I didn’t make the time because these ideas—about The Brady Bunch and Jurgen Habermas; Michel Foucault and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who; Eminem, Borat and Socrates; or Judith Butler and Hannah Montana, didn’t seem as “serious” or “important” as my work in feminist theory and ethics.

From the minute I started writing on the blog, I loved it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably wrote more in that first month on the blog than I had written in the three years prior to starting it. And I was having fun. Finally, I was taking all of these theories that I had been learning since 1995 and not only applying them, but infusing them with my own perspectives and ideas! I was playfully experimenting with my own writerly voice and working to connect various parts of my life with my academic work. My passion for researching and writing was back!

Intervention Four

Months after my mom died, in 2009, I began writing about grief and loss on my blog. The blog gave me a space for processing my grief and for thinking through how my experiences of being in a sustained period of not-quite-grieving as my mom was unable or refused to die fit or failed to fit with Judith Butler’s theories on the value of grief. When I came across a call for papers on grief, bereavement and motherhood in an academic journal, I decided to submit a critical/creative essay for it about my own experiences with being a mother who recently lost her mother. I used my blog to document and share the process of reflecting and writing on grief and motherhood. My finished essay, Living and Grieving Beside Judith, which was published in the Journal for the Motherhood Initiative allowed me, through the process of writing it, to understand and live with my grief.

I vividly remember how powerful and profound the process of writing that article was. On one day in particular, I recall sitting at the table in my backyard and writing about Judith Butler’s chapter, “Beside Oneself” in relation to a memory of how my sisters and I sat and comforted my mom on her bed the night before her surgery. After writing out this memory, I realized that that moment on the bed had haunted me for some time. I had always remembered (whether it was true or not, I’m not sure) sitting off to the side as my sisters lay next to her. My not sitting beside her symbolized my failure to be there for my mom when she needed me most. In writing myself back onto that bed, next to her, I was forgiving myself.

And, here’s part of my conclusion:
“Living and Grieving Beside Judith,” along with my other academic interventions are, without a doubt, the most important projects related to my academic research that I have completed since starting graduate school. Some days I cannot even remember the title of my dissertation, but I will always remember what I learned and what I was able to communicate through my digital videos about my family’s farm (which has since been sold). I will always reflect gratefully on how I used the final chapter of my dissertation to cope with the uncertainty, fear and sheer devastation that I felt as my mom suddenly became someone with stage 4 cancer. I will always read through my blog with delight, remembering the various theories I’ve encountered over the years and how they connected to my life at the moment in which they were written. And, I will forever cherish the experience, on a hot summer day, of working on my journal article and being able to imagine, through writing, a way to forgive myself for what I believed I should have but didn’t do for my mom as she was dying.

My 100th Post or the Winner of the Chewy Bagel Award for 2010

It is hard to believe, but this is my 100th post. Way back in July, I wrote my 50th post. Sure, it has taken me a while to double that number, but I am still very proud of how much I have written in this blog. In the 50th post I mentioned how I had written a total of 36,301 words. Here is the word count now: 79, 418! Why does this matter? I am not totally sure…maybe it just sounds more impressive to say such a big number (am I admitting too much?)

What, you may ask, is the “chewy bagel award”? Many years ago my dad read my presentation on Judith Butler, radical democracy and identity politics that I wrote for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. After finishing it, he remarked on how dense it was and what careful attention and concentration it demanded of the reader. On the top of the presentation he wrote, “Winner of the Chewy Bagel Award for 2004.” I think that this 100th post, which is all about Foucault, critique, Butler and virtue is worthy of the “Chewy Bagel Award for 2010” for 2 reasons. First, this post is a chewy bagel because it is dense and requires that both the writer (me) and the reader (you) devote substantial time to thinking through the claims that Foucault, Butler and I are making about critique, disobedience, troublemaking and virtue. Second, this post is a chewy bagel because it is about promoting slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents. I love the idea of cultivating patience and persistence; it resonates with one of my own visions of troublemaking, which I wrote about way back in May.

Okay, enough build up to this 100th post. Here it is. Enjoy, or should I say, bon appetit!

A couple of days ago I wrote about how I had found a way to frame the second part of my essay on Butler, troublemaking and virtue. I plan to do a close reading of her essay, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue?” In coming up with this approach, I was particularly inspired by Butler’s aside at the end of the essay. She writes:

…I do not mean to rehabilitate Aristotle in the form of Foucault (although, I confess, that such a move intrigues me, and I mention it here to offer it as a possibility without committing myself to it at once (319).

Yes! While I am also not interested in rehabilitating Aristotle through Foucault or Butler (what would it mean to rehabilitate anyway–to return or restore?), I do see a lot of potential in thinking about troublemaking (in Butler and beyond) in relation to virtue ethics and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Discussions of character/attitude, flourishing, the need for role models, and self-making are important for my own development of the moral significance of making and staying in trouble. I want to use this entry to work through some of the connections between Foucault, Butler, troublemaking and virtue.

So, what is the connection between Foucault and virtue? Here is an answer that I gave a few months back:

My vision of troublemaking as an ethical attitude is partly inspired by Michel Foucault and his discussion of the limit attitude in “What is Enlightenment?.” He describes this attitude, which he also calls the “critical ontology of ourselves” as “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (319).

In his discussion of the critical attitude (or critique), Foucault uses the language of virtue ethics. His emphasis on attitude/ethos/philosophical life is about the quality of one’s character and how we should live and approach our actions. While my own thinking about virtue and Foucault is based on “What is Enlightenment,”  virtue-speak is also very present in “What is Critique?” (a lecture from 1978 that predates his more well-known, “What is Enlightenment?”). Consider what Foucault writes about critique/critical attitude as

a certain way of thinking, speaking, and acting, a certain relationship to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, a relationship to society, to culture and also a relationship to others (24).

And how he explicitly connects it to virtue:

There is something in critique which is akin to virtue. And in a certain way, what I wanted to speak to you about is this critical attitude as virtue in general (25).

Hmm…note how Foucault doesn’t say that the critical attitude is a virtue, but virtue in general. What does that mean? How are critique and virtue connected here? I hope to revisit this claim later. After contrasting some ways in which critique is often understood (as a judgment, way of evaluating ideas or norms, centered on fault-finding, distanced from actual practices) with how Foucault envisions it (as the suspending of judgment, only realized in concrete situations and practices, aimed at exposing the very framework of evaluating good/bad, right/wrong, productive/unproductive), Butler takes up the claim that the critical attitude is (a) virtue on page 308 (in The Judith Butler Reader). She ruminates on what Foucault means by virtue, writing:

  • virtue is about an attribute or a practice of a subject OR a quality that conditions and characterizes a certain kind of action or practice (308)
  • It is not only a way of complying with/conforming to norms, but a critical relation to those norms (309)
  • Foucault envisions this as a stylization of morality [stylization = fashioning = self-making]

This critical relation to the norms is about not fully complying with those norms and about questioning their validity and their limits. This questioning is not meant to merely refuse or resist a norm–in the case of this essay, Foucault positions his argument in relation to the norms of governmentality/what it means to be governed, or “how not to be governed” (312). Instead, a critical relation to the norm (to being governed) is to ask after why one is governed in such a way and “how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them” (Butler, 312). For Butler, raising these questions goes beyond calling out a form of being governed as invalid; it marks the limits of how governing is established and calls into question “the epistemological orderings that have established rules of governmental validity” (313).  In other words, to question a rule/the rules of governmentality is to do more than find fault with that particular rule (a “traditional” role of critique); it is to question and expose how governmentality has been ordered in a particular historical/cultural moment. And it is to open up a space for critically exploring how the system of rules is ordered and how that ordering shapes who/what is governed and how. Butler writes:

To be governed is not only to have a form imposed upon one’s existence, but to be given the terms within which existence will and will not be possible (314).

Wow–this language sounds strikingly familiar to the discussion of the livable life and which lives are possible that she makes in Undoing Gender, which was written 4 years after this essay on Foucault and critique. Interestingly enough, in her more recent work (from Undoing Gender in 2004 and on), the work that is labeled as her “turn to ethics,” she doesn’t explicitly invoke Aristotle or virtue ethics. What happened? She still uses virtue ethics language, like “flourishing” or “the good/livable life,” but never theorizes them in relation to Aristotle or Aristotle through Foucault. More on that later. For now, let’s focus on Foucault and virtue as a critical relation to norms.

A critical relation to norms is not just a rejection of or a judgment against those norms. Throughout his work, Foucault discusses a number of reasons why he isn’t interested in rejection or judgment:

  1. Foucault doesn’t think that one can ever fully reject and be free of norms because it is through those norms that we come to exist (and be produced) as subjects; to reject those norms is to reject ourselves (which is not possible).
  2. He dislikes how judgment usually takes the form of polemics that discourage thought and prevent engagement with ideas and with each other.
  3. Finally, he is not interested in determining what is good or bad because that type of judgment shuts down action. He writes:

    My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism (256, Foucault Ethics: Volume I).

So, instead of rejection or judgment, a critical relation to norms is about something else. It is about virtue as “a non-prescriptive form of inquiry” (308) that is not based on rules or on training one’s character to properly submit to rules. Foucault’s idea of virtue is about the “the art of not being governed, or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost” (312). Foucault and Butler want to distance their version of virtue from obedience to rules and the idea that virtue/virtue ethics is the training of one’s character so that it properly (and effortlessly) conforms to the standard/norm of what is “good” or what leads to happiness (eudamonia). Instead, they envision the practice of virtue to be concerned with the transformation of the self into a person who not only questions the rules, but who questions their own relation to the rules and who asks: a. how have I been produced in relation to those rules? b. how do these rules determine whether my life is possible or not? and c. how might I live otherwise in relation to these rules?  Here’s how Butler asks these questions:

What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth (314-315)

I am again struck by the close parallels between Butler’s language in this essay and her language in Undoing Gender. Undoing Gender still shows traces of virtue-speak, but there is not explicit connection made between the above questions and Foucault’s virtue. Why not?

Again, I hope to take the point about Butler and the shift from this essay on Foucault to Undoing Gender and other ethical texts (Precarious Life, Giving an Account of Oneself)  later in my larger project on Butler and her “ethical turn.” For now, I want to get back to the crucial connection between a critical relation to norms (as not obeying, questioning) and virtue. The key here (and the key, I think, for my own thinking about why troublemaking is a virtue and why virtue ethics are important for envisioning projects like Butler as ethical projects) is that a critical relation to norms or being critical of authority necessarily demands the transformation of the self into one-who-doesn’t obey or one-who-questions. Butler writes: “To be critical of an authority that poses as absolute requires a critical practice that has self-transformation at its core” (311). Transforming one’s self into one who questions or who refuses to accept authority as absolute requires training that self through repeated practice (habit) of questioning and interrogation of the limits of that authority. Butler describes this repeated practice in terms of Foucault and his idea of “the art of voluntary insubordination” or the styling of the self, through the cultivation of a particular set of practices, into someone who resists and thinks otherwise. I wonder: what connections can we draw between Aristotle’s habitual practice of virtue and Butler’s notion of performativity/citationality?

Now, this sounds a lot like virtue and the forming of a virtuous self through the repeated practice of virtuous acts. Is it the same? While I don’t have a space to (this entry is already ridiculously long at 2230 words and I am not interested in making it a ridiculously ridiculously long entry) or the interest in (maybe in a future essay) outlining how virtue and habit work in Aristotle, I want to briefly mention one way that Butler (and presumably Foucault) wishes to distinguish the art of insubordination with Aristotelean habit: Foucault’s stylization of the self is not done by an autonomous self who can easily or fully reject authority or whose ability to resist can be derived from an autonomous will or some inner essence that is free of the power that she resists. The person who transforms themselves into one who resists/who questions/who doesn’t accept authority as absolute risks a lot in doing so. What do I mean by this? I confess that my patience (and I fear, yours) has run out. Chewing on an idea is great, but at a certain point your jaw gets tired–Am I taking this metaphor too far? I think I need to wrap this entry up. Before I do, here are two passages from JB that speak to my last point that I want to address in a future entry…or two…or three…or more:

In deliberating on what Foucault is suggesting about the self and their agency and intentionality in their actions, Butler writes:

Although Foucault refers quite straightforwardly to intention and deliberation in this text, he also lets us know how difficult it will be to understand this self-stylization in terms of any received understanding of intention and deliberation (321).

In concluding her essay on Foucault, Butler writes:

The self forms itself, but it forms itself within a set of formative practices that are characterized as modes of subjectivations. That the range of possible forms is delimited in advance by such modes of subjectivation does not mean that the self fails to form itself, but to form itself within forms that are already more or less in operation and underway. Or, one might say, it is compelled to form itself within practices that are more or less in place. But if that self-forming is done in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed, then virtue becomes the practice by which the self forms itself in desubjugation, which is to say that it risks its deformation as a subject, occupying that ontologically insecure position which poses the question anew: who will be a subject here, and what will count as a life, a moment of ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint (321).

Wow, I could write a whole ridiculously long entry unpacking this final statement. I love the last line about breaking habits. How might troublemaking as virtue be about breaking old habits (or breaking from habits) and forming/training new ones? What does a virtue ethics that emphasizes being un-trained instead of just being trained? Cool–now I just need another week of spring break to explore these questions. Sigh…

Word Count: 2680

The Elf on the Shelf and other Holiday Panopticonisms

I am very pleased to welcome Kandace Creel Falcón to the trouble blog! When she told me about the Elf on the Shelf and its connection to Foucault’s panopticon, I knew the topic would be great for my blog (especially considering my interest in children and the link between regulation, discipline and moral education). Kandace is a fellow blogger (check out her amazing blog, La Kitchen Chicana), so I asked her if she would write about it. The following are her brilliant ruminations:

It’s not very often that I am able to read Foucault for pleasure, and for that I must thank the wonderful scholar blogger, Dr. Sara Puotinen. To me, theory is only relevant when it can be applied to one’s own life, and so when I had a revelation when becoming acquainted with “the new holiday tradition” of the Elf on the Shelf that it actually is a representation of Foucault’s panopticon I just could not help but scream it from the rooftops for all to hear. When Sara asked me to do a guest blog on the subject I was more than happy to, because as she notes, troublemaking takes many forms and I have a hunch that my thoughts on Elf on the Shelf (and even the great Santa Claus) might cause some “trouble” for those who hold these figures of surveillance dear.

“The Elf on the Shelf is watching you…”


Let me take you back to the beginning of this story, last year one of my high school friends who is married with two children started photographing this skinny elf around her house in different positions and places. She called him “Eddy Peppermints” and I thought to myself, that’s cute, I wonder where she came up with that idea. I wasn’t surprised then when this Christmas rolled around Eddy re-emerged causing more mischief in her house for her boys. It was when I spotted the “Elf on a Shelf kit” at the Highland Park Barnes and Noble that things began to take a dark turn.

When I picked up the Elf on the Shelf I realized that my friend had not simply made this up herself, but rather she was ahead of the Elf on the Shelf explosion where the Elf began showing up everywhere! (My chiropractor in between back adjustments exclaimed to me that her kids just love their little elf!) But what became the most alarming was the description on the back of the box detailing exactly how the Elf on the Shelf should function as your very own new family, Christmas tradition. I’m not sure if this exactly what the back of the box reads, but this is what you can find on the official Elf on the Shelf website.

From My Family to Yours,

This charming tradition began for our family when my children were very small. Like most children through the ages, they wanted to know how Santa really knew who was naughty or who was nice. Their answer, as in my own childhood, came in the form of a small pixie-elf.

The first time the elf arrived at our home, my children officially adopted him by giving him a name. Each year he would arrive around the holidays, usually at Thanksgiving. His sole responsibility was to watch the children’s behavior and report it to Santa each night. The next morning after the children awoke, they discovered the elf had returned from the North Pole and was now resting in a new and different place. My children would race each other out of bed to try and be the first to spy him in his new position.

Over the years the tradition was perfected and rules were introduced. For example, to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.

Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.

I never dreamed this simple tradition would lead to so many treasured Christmas memories for our entire family. It is my earnest desire that The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition will bring as much joy to your family as it has to mine.

Enjoy this tradition, and MAKE IT YOUR OWN!


Now, my partner and I read this and my immediate thought was, wow, what a great idea (sarcasm) nothing like creating fear in your children (in addition to already having to be good for Santa) now kids need to watch out on what the elf might report back to Santa!? Now, I must admit, I do not currently have children, but the fun “new tradition” aside, what types of messages are we giving to our children if parents are constantly employing methods of surveillance to ensure “good” behavior? Isn’t the point of raising children enabling them to make the decisions of what is good or bad, as opposed to simply scaring them with the illusion of “someone is watching you”? But I digress, the wording on the back of the box/website implied the underlying purpose of the elf on the shelf is to monitor children’s behavior, report back to Santa and to serve as the liaison between the big guy up north, parental powers and children’s innermost hopes and dreams during the Christmas season. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But the moment when it all became blatantly clear for me was when my partner and I were innocently watching a Christmas movie on ABC FAMILY when on pops a commercial for the Elf on the Shelf.


“Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been goooooood. The elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do, the elf on the shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas. <musical interlude> The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas.”

In Foucault’s chapter entitled “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) he highlights the rise of the prison and the mechanisms that are put into daily practice when hierarchies are created to control those who do not fit the norm. Beginning with tracing the policies enacted when the plague hit and then going on to discuss the measures taken within Bentham’s Panopticon in the prison context. Foucault deftly weaves together how the projects of exclusion (he uses the example of ridding the town of those with the plague or lepers) and how the image of the plagued person/leper becomes a stand in for “all forms of confusion and disorder” (199). It is both the processes of exclusion and the marking of the abnormal that becomes the cornerstone of disciplinary mechanisms created solely for the ridding and ordering of that which is not normal.

Generally speaking, all the authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal); and that of coercive assignment, of differential distribution (who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be exercised over him in an individual way etc.). (199)

For the sake of my argument, I would add in the “naughty/nice,” or in the language of Elf on a Shelf, “naughty/good” binary, such that the Elf on the Shelf comes to represent the disciplinary figure and or mode of control that both names or “brands” a child naughty/nice in it’s ability to channel directly to the top of the hierarchy (they don’t call him the “big guy up North” for nothing) and the constant surveillance of children’s behavior. In the song the Elf sings, “the elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do,” which seeks to position an unknown yet known appropriate behavior in which children should engage. The Elf on the Shelf never dictates exactly what you should do, but the Elf’s sheer presence guides children to do what they perceive to be the “right” thing. The creator, Carol V. Aebersold mentions in her letter to parents that “Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.”

Foucault discusses how then the panopticon then becomes an effective measure of disciplining those who are bad, naughty, abnormal, troublemakers you name it, “All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy” (200). In this case the Elf on the Shelf serves as the “supervisor” that children see, find in various locations at each new day’s sunrise and Santa works as the mechanism behind the scenes, the pinnacle of the hierarchy that ensures that the supervisor is doing what he should be doing. Here I would like to point out that I would be remiss not to mention that the creator and her daughter (who wrote the book explaining the Elf on the Shelf’s mission) are both former teachers – in many ways it makes complete sense then, if Foucault aligns the “prisoner” with the “schoolboy” modes of power work similarly in various contexts (the prison and the school). I would also be remiss to mention that there is a spoof of The Elf on the Shelf commercial where someone has dubbed over it Sting’s Every Breath You Take, fitting no?

As the supervisor in the tower the Elf on the Shelf keeps order, Foucault notes that this deployment of power through exclusion and surveillance works precisely because the subject being surveilled, “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” (200). From the hand and “tradition” of Carol and her elf, “to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.” This clear pathway, or one-way communication, along with creating mechanisms to separate those in power (don’t touch the Elf) from those without (children) upholds what Foucault sees as the “guarantee of order” (200).

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate [child] a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the [children] should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (Foucault, 1977, 201)

Need I really say more? In essence the Elf on the Shelf serves as the panopticon, regulating behavior through its very presence, but has become a central figure with rules regarding children’s proper interaction with it for the intention of controlling children’s bad behavior (which is also vaguely determined). By this I mean, that so often the fallacy of binaries is that they are socially constructed, which is why the Elf on the Shelf becomes such a perfect, malleable “observer” in the tower. When children simply know they should be good and that they should fear being bad (because the Elf will tell on them to Santa and they won’t get any Christmas presents) what real lessons of morality are they truly learning? Again, I don’t have children and I imagine it must be easy to say things (when children are cranky/misbehaving) like “you better watch out, you better not cry…” oh wait, that’s another song about someone who “knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’ve been good or bad” or you know, some other type of scary off in the far away make-believe-land for threatening children about not getting their Christmas presents; but personally I would like to try to inspire my (future) children to be able to make moral decisions without the need of panopticisms (in any form).

Lastly, I would like to conclude with a few notes about race and gender in regards to Elf on the Shelf. In Foucault’s understanding of the ways power is manifested in society, he often fails to include the gendered analysis piece, whereby if the “inmate” or “schoolboy” are constantly observed and then kept in line because of the (presence or invisibility of an) “observer in the tower” what can we imagine happens to little schoolgirls within these mechanisms of power exertion? What I can assume is that these processes are even more dangerous. In many ways, girls and women are constantly observed by male power and the fact that Elf on a Shelf reads male to me, is disturbing. Little girls are often more tightly observed and their behavior more closely monitored (i.e. what is ladylike, proper for girls etc.) And while I’m generalizing here, to me the Elf on the Shelf (as a male elf particularly) only seems to reinforce this type of thinking, that it becomes even more important for not just girls but boys to exhibit their “proper” socialized, appropriate, gendered behavior in the presence of the Elf on the Shelf. The makers of the Elf also problematically assume that “male” is normal, upon closer investigation of products you can purchase for your Elf on the Shelf is a skirt that transforms the male Elf into a female Elf. Seems like some Aristotle “women are incomplete men” propaganda to me.

Also, the politics of race (especially when examined under the context of the Elf on the Shelf as a commercial, branded and marketed product) seem problematic. In all of the representations of the Elf on the Shelf that I have observed –friends’ pictures on facebook, the Elf on the Shelf for sale at Barnes and Noble, the commercial, everyday persons’ homage to Elf on the Shelf on youtube– the Elf is always white. As though it were not bad enough to know that the most effective exertion of power in our society would be a white man observing any other group of people but in particular this becomes an issue when they are attempting to exert control over people of color. This brings up a lot of anxiety for me around historical memory and trauma for people of color, i.e. Spanish/English colonialists taking land away from indigenous peoples with threats and acts of violence; white slave owners working their Black plantation and household slaves denying them the rights to read and/or learn, maintaining control over slaves with threats and acts of violence; Japanese American internment in response to an affront to our nation’s “security” rounding up and penning Japanese Americans with threats and acts of violence; U.S. Border Patrol killing Mexican and Mexican American peoples on the border, the threat and act of violence a reality in the borderlands…

Not that I’m necessarily arguing that the Elf on the Shelf is the Border Patrol, Plantation Slave Owner, U.S. Military or Colonist but, for those of us who have this mechanism of power within our homes regulating the behavior of our children, it is implicated in the very system of power that allows for and fuels the disenfranchisement of people of color in this nation. Especially when the panopticon is led by a white (specifically the language on the website notes “light skin tone”) figure. After recounting just a few of the horrors that white people have perpetrated against people of color I find it difficult to read the “dark skin tone” Elf as anything but a false belief in the potential of multiculturalism as the road to equality (get one of each color then white supremacy is destroyed) assertion.

Based on the history of the white male figure of control and domination as a reality in the lives of people of color, I find it difficult to believe that many people of color would want to have an Elf on their Shelf—neither the “light skin tone elf” nor the “dark skin tone elf”. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the elf gets named in the white version and is simply “Dark skin tone pictured” in the same mold of Elf, just a different color, version.

In essence, this “new holiday tradition” needs to be examined closely. Is it just “all in good fun” as many, I’m sure will argue? Or, is it a symptom of a larger structure of power that is always already constantly acting upon us and which we are also enacting daily? I believe that to not think critically about the representations of power, race, and gender even if that critique comes in regards to a “new holiday tradition” or children’s toys or popular culture in general is important to engage in. Especially if that means we can one day imagine a future where gender, race, sexual and class equality is a reality.

A Disciplinary Problem? The unruly child as troublemaker

In the documentary, Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind, Butler recounts details of growing up in Cleveland:

I was never very good in school. I was what they call a problem child. A disciplinary problem. And, uh, I would speak back to the teachers. And I would not follow the rules. I would skip class. I did terrible things. And, yet, I was apparently smart in some way. But I didn’t understand myself as smart. I understood myself as strategic. One had to get through. One had to find one’s way in the school and in the synagogue. And I didn’t really like authority. My mother was called into the principal’s office…the principal who runs the school in fifth grade, I think. Probably the age of 11. She was warned that I might become a criminal and at that point they told me that I couldn’t go to the school anymore, to the Jewish Education program anymore, unless I studied privately with the rabbi. So, this was for me, terrific because I loved the rabbi.

Now consider how Liz McMillen shapes those details (given to her by Butler in an interview from 1997 entitled “Berkeley’s Judith Butler Revels in Role of Troublemaker” for The Chronicle for Higher Education) into a coherent—and rather neat and tidy—narrative and origin story about Butler as a troublemaker:

Long before Gender Trouble caused a stir, and before she became a prominent theorist with a devoted graduate-student following, Judith Butler was a kid in a Cleveland synagogue who frequently got herself in trouble. She disrupted classes. She made faces during assemblies. Finally, she was kicked out and told that she wouldn’t be allowed to return to the school until she had completed a tutorial with the head rabbi. The rabbi sized the 14-year-old up and decided that it was time for her to get serious.

So what do you want to study? he wanted to know.”Holocaust historiography” was her quick reply. Martin Buber and existential theology. Whether German idealism was responsible in any way for the rise of fascism. This after-school punishment laid the groundwork for a scholarly career marked by extreme diligence — and a knack for making trouble.”I was always talking back,” she says.”I guess I’ve elevated it into an art form.” Once a disciplinary problem, always a disciplinary problem.

So, according to McMillen, Butler was an unruly child. A student who refused to play by the rules and got into a lot of trouble. A disciplinary problem. Now, she is an adult who gets into a lot of trouble. She disrupts widely accepted notions of sex and gender. She challenges feminism as identity politics. She refuses to merely accept any idea as common sense. And she encourages others to be critical of their most treasured values. It would seem that Butler willingly (perhaps even proudly) takes on the role of unruly-child-as-troublemaker. Her acts of trouble (which up to the point of the interview included: Subject of Desire, Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, The Psychic Life of Power, and Excitable Speech) are at least partially inspired by a desire to continue to be a disciplinary problem. She finds pleasure in instability, being uncomfortable, and pushing at the limits. She enjoys laughing at/mocking the system and causing trouble for all those who perpetuate it. She even mocks herself and refuses to cash in on her status as superstar academic.

Samuel Chambers and Terrence Carver reinforce this assessment of Butler as the unruly child when they write in their introduction to Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics:

how else to read the line that Butler leaves on its own as the fourth paragraph of the preface to Bodies That Matter, ‘Couldn’t someone simply take me aside?’, than with more than a touch of sarcasm and sass (x)? What other way to hear this question than as Butler’s declaration that she plans to continue getting into trouble, that she never expects to get out it? While her critics will persist in their desire to force her into line, she will continue to make trouble–and to trouble them (2).

And while they aren’t certain that she is actively taking up the trope of the “unruly child” (“We could ask her–she might even answer us,” they ponder, “but we’d still never know“), they do suggest that Butler’s role as the “disciplinary problem” is proof that she is a troublemaker. See, she disobeys. She disrupts. She sasses back. She must be a troublemaker. Immediately following this discussion, Chambers and Carver suggest that, while Butler is engaging in unruly behavior, her actions “prove to be of the far more sophisticated and important sort” (2). So, Butler is not just your average disciplinary problem, she is a serious and sophisticated disciplinary problem.

So, as the story goes: once upon a time there was a little girl from Cleveland. She always got into trouble…big trouble. She challenged authority figures. Disrupted class. And got kicked out of school. Everyone thought she was a disciplinary problem. Then, she grew up and became an academic superstar. She learned how to turn her knack for troublemaking into some serious and sophisticated scholarship about troubling sex, gender and sexuality. And she remained a disciplinary problem.

Sounds great, right? I like the idea of rethinking what it means to be a disciplinary problem (and I can relate to it, having gotten into trouble a lot as a child), but this narrative (particularly about Butler’s beginnings and more generally about the origins of troublemaking for theory and politics) raises some red flags for me.

The purpose of the narrative
First, the story offers some background on Butler. It demonstrates that she is a person and not just a theorist. In the McMillen interview, Butler reflects on the desire, by her readers, to know who she really is:

I was so theoretical in my presentation in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter that you barely got a glimpse of who I was, which then produced this desire to expose this hyperintellectual, you know, hidden person.

Second, the story also offers some background on Gender Trouble and the idea of troubling gender. They come from someone on the outside, from a problem child, who always challenged authority. Gender Trouble, according to the story, is just one more (perhaps more sophisticated and “grown up”) example of how a “problem” child acts.

Finally, this story provides both Butler, as a queer theorist/theoretical activist/political thinker, and her work in Gender Trouble and beyond, with some credibility in queer activist communities. Butler isn’t just an academic who writes esoteric and overly complicated books like Gender Trouble; she is a bad girl! A rebel! She makes trouble for the establishment! She resists and fights back! And, where did it all start? When she was (*gasp*) a juvenile delinquent!

How much control has Butler had over the shaping of this narrative and the image of her as feminism’s and queer theory’s bad girl? Is the playing up of her as a problem-child a marketing ploy by others to sell more books? Or, could it be an attempt to discredit her work in troublemaking as childish? Oh, don’t bother with her, she’s nothing but trouble!?

The person as Subject/the author as Agent
The story, particularly the one articulated by McMillen, feels a little too neat and tidy. There appears to be a seamless connection between (1) the person who made trouble as a child with (2) the author who not only writes about trouble but makes it too (!), and (3) the book that successfully makes trouble for our understandings of gender/sex/sexuality. But, does Butler-the-person really fit that neatly with Butler-the-author? Does the move from Butler-the-person to Butler-the-author work that easily? And, does Butler-the-author have that much control over what her book did/does?

In the first chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler famously invokes Nietzsche and argues that “there is no doer behind the deed” (34). She challenges the idea of the agent as willful subject who has (total) control over their actions. She offers in place of the person who does, a subject who is created/perpetuated through the process of doing. Where might the story of Butler as a troublemaker fit in here? Is it reinforcing the notion of the person-as-willful-agent?

And, what about the connection between author and book? What control does Butler-as-author really have over what her writings do and mean for others? I need to think through theses ideas some more, but I wonder what we might make of this narrative in relation to Butler’s word at the end of Bodies That Matter. She is discussing the troubling question, “How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose” (241)? In her reflections, she discusses her writings and the effects they might have on others:

The reach of their signifiability cannot be controlled by the one who utters them. They continue to signify in spite of their authors, and sometimes against their authors’ most precious intentions.…This not owning one’s words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself (241-242).

Finally, in offering up this story of herself (through her written and spoken words) as an unruly child who turned into a troublemaking adult, what is Butler doing? Or, conversely, what is being done to her? In one of her more recent works, Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler argues that “telling a story about oneself is not the same as giving an account of oneself” (12). So, which is it–is the tale of Butler-as-unruly-child a story/narrative or an account? I am eager to re-read Butler’s ideas in Giving an Account to find out what she might say about all of this.

Okay, she was a disciplinary problem, but why?
The story of Butler as a disciplinary problem is compelling, but it leaves a lot out in the telling. Why was she considered a disciplinary problem? Or, more pointedly, what caused her to make (and be in) trouble? In “What is Critique?,” Butler writes:

One does not drive to the limits for a thrill experience, or because limits are dangerous and sexy, or because it brings us into a titillating proximity with evel. One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis…(307-308).

What sorts of crises did Butler run up against that made her push at the limits (against authority figures, etc)? Without a discussion of why, we are left with a narrative that is too easy and that could too easily become a story of a girl who was bad (maybe born that way?) and then found a way to continue to be bad (and earn money doing it!) as an adult. There is much that should be said/written about what causes girls to act out and/or to be dismissed/punished as troublemakers. In fact, the specific ways that gender and trouble get connected is part of the reason Butler wrote Gender Trouble. Take a look at her discussion of “female trouble” in her 1990 Preface for more. Of course, Butler speaks to the “why” in many of her writings. So, why is it left out of the narrative of unruly child–particularly the one shaped by McMillen?

*Note: At this point, I must veer off into a discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about half-pint and the episode, “Troublemaker.” I promised to watch it and report back. I watched it yesterday morning. Actually, I had intended this article to be about Laura as one example of the “unruly child” and what kind of trouble they cause (or are accused of causing). As you can tell, this entry has gone in a different direction. I enjoyed the episode–aside from the fact that it convinced me that Mrs. Oleson is just plain evil. I was surprised out how much room there is for a feminist interpretation of how/why Laura is labeled as a troublemaker. I would like to devote an entire entry to it (and perhaps include the recent New Yorker review article about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane and some other thoughts from Little House in the Big Woods). Anyway, my point in referring to Little House and Laura here is that the “Troublemaker” episode offers one example of how/why a little girl might be dismissed and also punished for being a troublemaker. The (how/why) reasons have a lot to do with the fact that she is a poor little girl with no money who has very little status or, in Bourdieu-speak, cultural capital. The narrative of Laura as troublemaker in this episode has as much to do with how she has been labeled a troublemaker (and the consequences of that labeling) as it does with what kind of trouble she makes. What would a narrative of Butler that linked her troublemaking with her experiences growing up in Cleveland look like? Butler only hints at that in her 1999 Preface to Gender Trouble.

The origins of troublemaking:
The story of Butler as an unruly child seems to function as an origin story for gender trouble, both as a book and as a concept. To the question, where did gender trouble come from, we get the answer, a problem child who skipped class, made faces at assemblies, and did other terrible things. So, according to this line of thinking, troublemaking as a concept/practice/action is produced by someone who does it in order to disrupt/unsettle/disturb. And this disruption that they do takes some very particular forms: skipping class, disrupting assemblies, being kicked out of school, all of which conjure up images of the juvenile delinquent. But, is this the only source of troublemaking and the only way to imagine how children engage in it? Is the troublemaker fundamentally a bad girl (or bad boy) who willfully flouts the rules?

At this point, I have to stop writing this entry. I have more to say, but have run out of steam. I do like my final thought here. I will return to it an upcoming entry. The question becomes: is troublemaking all about daring to be bad (this is a reference to Alice Echols’ book) or could we think about it as daring to be good (another reference to the edited collection by Ann Ferguson and Bat-Ami Bar On)? What would that look like and what possibilities for ethics does it open up?

Uh Oh. Hannah Montana is in (gender) trouble.

-1What, you say, could Hannah Montana possibly have to do with Judith Butler and gender performativity? If you are asking, this must be your first visit to my blog. This kind of crazy, seemingly impossible connection is what I do and is, for lack of a better phrase, how I roll.

Anyway, my daughter RJP and son FWA have recently taken an interest in Hannah Montana. Perhaps they are a little too young for it, but they just want to be like their older cousin IIE (who incidentally now thinks Hannah Montana is “treated.” Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are much cooler). This week we were watching one of the two Hannah Montana DVDs they possess (at least, so far) when an episode entitled “Good Golly, Miss Dolly” came on.

Before launching into an analysis of how gender is performed and enforced in this episode, let me offer this disclaimer: I have watched less than a handful of HM episodes (and by a handful, I mean about 4. Okay, I just saw the Hannah Montana movie with my kids two night ago, but I don’t think that counts. The tv formula is much different than the movie one). Because of my somewhat shallow knowledge of the show, I can’t speak to how gender is discussed/performed/reinforced/joked about in the whole series. Instead, I can only speak to how it functions in this one, (gender) troubling, episode from the first season.

So, I’m sitting on the couch between RJP and FWA watching the episode. A couple of minutes in, Dolly Parton shows up as Miley Stewart’s (aka Hannah Montana’s) Aunt Dolly. What can I say–someone could write a book about Dolly Parton and her parodic (intentional or not) performance of gender. And I am sure someone has–link anyone? Anyway, the appearance of Parton didn’t initially register as particularly gender troubling. Neither did the first mention by Miley’s Dad (Robbie Ray) or her brother (Jackson) of how Aunt Dolly was “girling” up the house with frufru pillows. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes in that I got really suspicious and started to think about and question how gender was working in this episode.

(note: I originally had youtube clips from the show here, but they no longer work due to copyright issues.)

The troubling inspiration for this blog: Hannah’s friend Oliver is over at her house. He tells her that he has to go because his Mom is dropping him off at school early. Suddenly there is a very deep, very masculine voice in the background yelling to Oliver to hurry up. Then, the following exchange between Oliver and Miley’s best friend, Lilly, occurs:

Lilly: I thought you said that was your mom.
Oliver: It is. [audience laughs] When she’s mad, she uses her man voice (said in a deep voice). [ha ha ha ha ha]

So, what’s so funny here? Is it just that we find it funny to hear a woman sound like a man? Wait, why is that funny? My immediate reaction was that it was just another example of how it is okay to make fun of trans folk (ha ha–his mom isn’t really a woman, but a man!) or women-who-are-really-lesbians (ha ha–his mom is soooo butch). While I think there is definitely some anti-trans/anti-gay sentiment lurking in this joke about the mannish Mom, I think there is something deeper (albeit connected) going on here. This joke, when placed in the larger context of this entire episode–with its persistent jokes about how Miley’s Dad and brother are being femininized by Dolly the uber femme Barbie–is about enforcing and regulating certain gender (more specifically heterosexual masculinity) roles. The threat of men acting like and then, gasp, possibly turning into women is the punchline of countless jokes throughout the episode.

Let me list off just a few examples:

Example 1: Robbie Ray, Miley’s father, comes in from his (manly) jog, looks around at all of the pink pillows on his couch, and comments on Aunt Dolly’s decorating: “Woah. Looks like my home has been invaded by aliens from the planet fru fru.” [Ha Ha Ha Ha from the audience]

Example 2: Jackson, Miley’s brother, is upset because his shirt smells too girly; it turns out Aunt Dolly used “special” fabric softener. Jackson is convinced that he will be beaten up for wearing it to school. [audience laughs and so does Dolly.]

Example 3, part 1: Jackson and Robbie Ray are upset because Aunt Dolly has replaced their regular (manly) shampoo with her girly shampoo; their hair becomes “volumized and dollycized.”

Jackson: I can’t take this anymore Dad. I mean, between the shampoo and the smelly tissues and the potpourri and all of these flowers, I mean, I’m losing my manly essence.
Robbie Ray: There’s only one thing we can do son. Let’s go the gym and fight back with the one thing she can’t take from us: our MAN stink!” [audience laughs]
Jackson: Uh, Dad. Could we maybe do it tomorrow? Aunt Dolly buffed my nails and I don’t want to ruin them.
Robbie Ray: Do you hear yourself son?
Jackson: Oh no! Get me to the gym fast. Argghhh!! [they run off as the audience laughs]

Example 3, part 2: Jackson and Robbie Ray are back from the gym and they smell bad (or stanky as Robbie Ray likes to say).

Robbie Ray: [smelling himself] Breathe that in son. That’s the sweet stench of independence, freedom and manly pride. [ha ha ha]
Jackson: I hear ya Daddy!
Jackson: [smells himself again] Awww… My eyes are burning, my eyes!
Robbie Ray: I’m so ranky, I taste my own stanky.
Jackson: I can’t stand it! I’m taking a shower and I’m using Aunt Dolly’s peach body wash with exfolliating loufa glove! [audience: ha ha ha]
Robbie Ray: Well you loufa all you wanna. I’m going to take a bubble bath with one of her citrus fizzy balls. [smells himself again] Maybe two! [audience ha ha ha]

Listing off these examples and watching the show again (this time more closely and without FWA and RJP) got me thinking about what exactly is troubling about how Robbie Ray, Jackson, Aunt Dolly and Oliver’s mannish mom play (as in: play their part, play with/against standard and accepted roles, playfully poke fun at) with gender roles in this episode. First, to understand the Jackson/Robbie Ray/Aunt Dolly storyline (and punchline), it is important to think about it in relation to the main storyline of the episode: Miley has a big crush on Jake Ryan but she is afraid to tell him how she feels. Aunt Dolly is trying to give her advice about how to get and stay in the game (that dating game, that is). So, the episode is all about relationships/heterosexual love and how men and women can learn to come together.

In light of this larger context, Robbie Ray, Jackson and Aunt Dolly seem to be playing the gendered (and heterosexualized) roles of women-as-wives and men-as-the-husbands-they-must-tame and playing with the gendering process of marriage as the domestication of (stinky, manly) men by (very feminine/girly, sweet-smelling) women. And, it seems as if they are poking fun at these roles–ha ha, isn’t it funny how men and women get along with each other: men try to hold onto their manly essence and freedom while women systematically take it away from by converting them into whipped, emasculated, frufru-loving wusses. And, ha ha, isn’t it funny that the only thing men have that women can’t take away from them is their manly stinky-stank? But, what are they poking fun at here? Is it the rigid gender system that (strongly) encourages little girls to turn into feminine, sweet-smelling women and boys to turn into stinky, independent, manly-men? Or, are they making fun of anyone who tries to resist this system–ha ha, you can’t fight it, so why bother trying. You’ll just look like an idiot (like Jackson and Robbie Ray) and you won’t be able to escape it anyway. The gender system (and the peach body wash with exfolliating loufa glove) will always get you in the end.

So, you may be asking yourself (those of you who have stuck around to the end of this lengthy entry), what does this have to do with Judith Butler and her theories on gender performativity and gender trouble? Well, Butler provides a great theory about how gender is a performance or a set of stylized acts and daily rituals that we repeatedly practice (rituals like washing with citrus fizzy balls or buffing our nails or even going to the gym so we can smell ranky and stanky). While we understand these daily rituals to be merely an expression of our gender (we take baths with citrus fizzy balls because we are girls and girls like to smell *pretty* or we go to the gym and work up a sweat without bathing because we are boys and boys like to smell *stinky-stanky*), Butler suggests that our practice of them, repeatedly and faithfully, does more than express (or indicate or signify) our gender; it helps to create it. It is through these repeated practices that we establish and reinforce that we are girls or boys. For example, how do we know that Aunt Dolly is a real woman, someone who can give Hannah Montana proper advice on how to win a boy’s heart and become a real woman herself? We know this because Aunt Dolly effectively performs her femininity/womanliness: not only does she decorate with pink frilly pillows but she smells great, she wears tight jeans with high heels, and she sounds like a woman with her sing-songy-cutesy voice. It is not the fact that she is a woman that establishes her credibility, it is the fact that she properly acts like one.

Here is a key point for Butler: these daily rituals (some we do deliberately, some we do not) produce the illusion that our gender performances (and the idea that girls smell sweet and boys are stinky) are natural–of course real girly-women smell nice and use pretty body washes and of course real manly-men smell stinky and don’t bathe much, duh. And to keep up appearances, we must repeatedly and faithfully practice those acts. When we don’t practice them as much as we should or we fail to practice them properly, we get into trouble, GENDER TROUBLE–like Robbie Ray, Jackson, and most importantly Oliver’s mannish Mom. These examples of gender trouble serve a dual purpose in the episode. First, they are meant to make us laugh. Ha Ha. Isn’t it funny to see these fools failing to do their gender properly? Second, they are meant as a warning to us. See what happens to men (Jackson and Robbie Ray) or women (Oliver’s mom) who don’t do their gender right? They become the butt of our jokes. So, make sure you always act properly! Now, in the case of Jackson and Robbie Ray, the poking fun is harmless enough. They are in on the joke and, perhaps because they are main characters, we like them and aren’t really making fun of them. But, what do we make of Oliver’s mannish Mom? I can’t help thinking that she is the real threat–what Butler refers to as an abject–that haunts our gender performances. And the laughter we make when we find out that the manly disembodied voice that calls out to Oliver to “Move! Move! Move!” is a she and not a he isn’t lighthearted and fun but nervous (and scared) laughter.

Just to be clear here: I really don’t mind my kids watching Hannah Montana. In fact, I don’t really mind watching it myself. I am bothered, however, by the inclusion of the joke about the mannish Mom. That joke changed the tone of the whole episode for me and made the playful gender trouble that Jackson and Robbie Ray were engaged in much more serious. I can’t help but wonder: Why do tv shows like this have to take the joke too far? Could there have been another way to play with gender in this episode so that (once again) getting into trouble wasn’t always accompanied by the threat of gender punishment? Would it have been enough to just leave out the mannish Mom joke? I don’t think so, but it would have been a start…

Wow. This entry was, in the words of my dad AEP, “a chewy bagel.”

Word count: 2021 words