Kathryn Williams - "No-One Takes You Home"

I am not one of those people who glances back to adolescence nostalgically. Being a teenager sucks. There, I said it. Probably the best bit of teenage-ing is that when it ends you get to suppress all its horrors, be that with the help of legal alcohol, an ephemeral and organic blossoming into one's person, or intensive application to the work of re-inventing oneself. I can't remember exactly when I heard Kathryn Williams' track "No-One Takes You Home" (2002), but it was deep into my teenage wilderness, in the period where I obsessively loitered in the CD section of my local library, sourcing any and all balms for my soul. To this day, the song makes me cry. It encapsulates the unsettling isolation of trying to figure out who you are in the world, how to navigate social landscapes and to make connections. It's that slippery feeling of needing to move beyond an emotional economy based on external validation - who likes me and how much?; what box should I be in? - to inhabit instead one founded on authentic extension of yourself into the world. And how desperately difficult, if not impossible, that shift can be. So I guess, this is a track for teenagers only in the sense that that it when I discovered it first. Really, it says a lot about adult-ing too. I would argue - perhaps predictably - that it is a song that expresses in particular the tensions of woman-hood, of being a feminine object entrapped in the patriarchal system, whose worth is defined more or less explicitly by being taken home by a prospective sex partner, rather than by one's ability to create a home for oneself in the world: 

Now is the time to find out why you're buying everything
Now is the time to find out why you sigh at everything
You dress your self up to the top of your knickers
And you smell so good it's like a box of chocolates
But no one takes you home
No one takes you home

You've watched all the romance on the television
It's too much to bear you've got to get a new sort of vision
You've done your best at the gym you've got your lip-gloss on
You're going to the doctors to see if it's a medical problem
'Cause no one takes you home
No one takes you home

It's breakfast, it's lunchtime, it's dinnertime
Spent with all those women's magazines
That tell you you're not as fine as you look
To yourself in the mirror
In the morning when you smile
To get yourself out of the door
To give life why can't life give you some more?
'Cause no one takes you home

The lyrics are deceptively simple, with clean lines. And that sparseness, the banality of some of the imagery - knickers, gym, the television - lets your own life fill in the gaps. Or at least it did back when I first heard it, and every time since then that I have listened, as my connection to the track evolves as my own life changes over the years. This is a heart-breaker of a song - a yearning love song for the self, for the satisfaction of being taken home one day and the hope of not needing that validation at some point. 

Soothe Your Millenial Despair with 10 Hours of Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows

The Guardian, bless their liberal cotton socks, are currently doing a series on the problems besieging my generation (i.e.us lucky sods born between 1980 and 1995ish). Hello, my name is Alicia. I'm a Millenial, and that means I am fucked: 

A combination of debt, joblessness, globalisation, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations. [from here]

This is the story of basically everyone I know.  Honestly, it's a relief that somebody is starting to pay attention, and show how really very bad it has been, it is, and will likely be for a whole generation of us. I pray to the gods, goddesses, pixies of national zeitgeist that every single person who espouses unhelpful, paternalistic, bootstrapping "advice" about jobs, careers, mortgages, savings, Millenial self-indulgence, etc will read these articles and now knock it the fuck off.  But it is damn hard reading, particularly if you're oh-so intimately aware of this stuff already. I literally scrunched up my eyes when reading the Guardian's coverage, a sour lemon stuck in my craw, even as I nodded my head in solidarity. Yes, this is true, and this is urgent. The models of adulthood, career progression, social status that were proffered for older generations no longer exist for us.  Show some empathy. And use your greater portion of - well, mostly everything - to help us out. We'll be running the retirement homes, you know? I sure needed a palate cleanser after wading through my existential Millenial despair. So, I self-medicated with my usual drug of choice, "shit on the internet" (TM). May I present to you a deluxe find: ten full psychedelic hours of pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows. Make sure to turn your volume up to full, your housemates will need to listen in too I imagine. This might not make you feel better directly, but it will distract you and/or trigger underlying medical conditions. You're welcome! Come the ensuing generational war, I vote for this as our anthem.

 

Robyn - "Who's That Girl"

Ladies! Today is our special day! Don your brightest pinnies and rejoice! OK, I'm snarking, I admit it. It's 8th March, which makes it International Women's Day (IWD), a day to '[c]elebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women'. Bringing women's vast contributions to every human sphere out of the enforced closet of patriarchal neglect is important, even essential. I am 100% in. But, I have to snark - because otherwise I might weep and wail - about the necessity of a special day in which to warehouse this undertaking. If we recognised, valued, glorified women's achievements as standard, then every day would be "International Women's Day", and the acknowledgement of women as equal partners in humanity would be woven into the fabric of our society. Frankly, it'd be a bit banal: women are often awesome too, duh. In all fairness, the IWD website does flag the point that things are not all rosy and a-glow for women worldwide, noting that 'progress has slowed in many places across the world, so urgent action is needed to accelerate gender parity.' Perhaps it's just that I feel a bit weary. That 'urgent action' occupies the 364 patriarchal days of the rest of our year.

Anyway, IWD always makes me think about the definition of the terms "woman", and "women". There's no one way to do "woman-ing" right, despite what the media might tell us. And women from different classes, races, geographical locations, levels of ability, sexualities - you name it - all have significantly different experiences of what this state of "woman" is. Above all, "woman" is not monolithic. This is in direct opposition, I think, to the advertised roles enforced by the patriarchy. So in this vein, I appreciate the proclamation of rebellion issued by Swedish singer Robyn, the song "Who's That Girl".  Sample lyrics:

Good girls are pretty like all the time
I'm just pretty some of the time
Good girls are happy and satisfied
I won't stop asking until I die
I just can't deal with the rules
I can't take the pressure
It's got me saying ooh, yeah...
Who's that girl that you dream of?
Who's that girl that you think you love?
Who's that girl, well I'm nothing like her
I know there's no such girl
I swear I can't take the pressure
Who's that girl?

Robyn's had enough of this shit. She's calling out the fantasy of a singular acceptable womanhood: the pretty, good girl that covers the media landscape like a particularly pernicious mould. I love how the video intersperses images of Robyn doing her thing, her way, with stock footage of models, seamstresses, women in bathing suits. There's more than one way to be a woman; women are pressurised to conform to more than one alienating paradigms of acceptable womanhood and/or femininity. Also, I really like Robyn's eye make-up in the video. Dismantling the patriarchy is hard. Personally, I find on-point make-up fierceness helps gird my loins. I also think "who's that girl?" can be a fairly useful tool for evaluating one's life and life choices. From time to time, I ask it of myself, drawing out why I'm doing what I'm doing, choosing what I'm choosing. Am I trying to conform to some mythic (and perfectionist) fantasy? Or, am I responding to my own desires, thoughts, caprices? It can be an eye-opening reality check, let me tell you. So this IWD, I wish all of you, dearest readers, the time and (head) space to ask yourself that same question. Substitute preferred identity markers in place of "girl" as necessary, and Bob's your uncle. Happy questioning to one and all.

Mary J Blige - "No More Drama" (Live, 2002)

Only a few scant words from me for this FYVP. Below is one of the most powerful, moving live performances I've ever seen, as Mary J Blige performs her anthem "No More Drama" on TV music showcase Live...with Jools Holland back in April of 2002. Absorb the lyrics, the emotion, the journey. Exquisite. Trevor Nelson, BBC Radio 1 DJ, explains the significance of the song and the performance at the start of the video - so there's nothing else left for me to do apart from wish you happy listening! 

Bingo Players - "Knock You Out": Electro-House and Domestic Violence

I do not got to a fancy gym. If my gym were an airline, it would be EasyJet. It costs £30 to check in your first bag for an EasyJet flight. Everything is virulently, vehemently orange. I assume management is going for "cheap and cheerful"; in my family, the airline is known as "SleazyJet". There is a website dedicated to customer venting of EasyJet rage, including a shared safe space of forums to tell your story. Like an online support group. One is not an EasyJet customer, one is an EasyJet survivor. But, the problem remains that we all go back, because EasyJet does enough - it gets us cheaply (sometimes suspiciously cheaply) out of our Fair Isles and off to sunny lands afar. And so it is with my gym, cheap as chips with loads of cardio machines and tons of free weights, seemingly open forever and providing fresh water from the taps in the loo. I am particularly fond of the fact that the taps are mismatched, at least in the ladies' bathroom. "What more do you want, people? We fixed the sodding tap, now you want it to match the others? Spoiled urban hipster types, jog on. You don't even know you were born."

      Obviously, my gym does not pay for premium entertainment services in the facility. There are a couple of LCD screens in each room which show a mish-mash of ads, tube service updates, and music videos that are usually either a) minimally 7 years old; b) featuring nobody you've ever heard of before. So it was the other day, when I looked up from the elliptical (low impact cardio for the win!) and feasted my eyes on the video below, "Knock You Out" by Bingo Players.. No-frills music-tainment is sometimes most useful! You find stuff you'd never see before! As you're a captive audience until you finish your work-out, the mind tends to over analysis of the video imagery and tropes!  Before I launch into the fruits of such over-analyses, I must offer a trigger warning: the video contains scenes of domestic violence, so please bear this in mind before you choose to view it. 

     What intrigued me about the video was how it upturned my expectations pretty effectively. At the beginning, we see a lone pretty waifish woman, sporting injuries to her face typical of a beating. She looks both deeply pensive, and - frankly - somewhat broken inside. I literally sighed out loud when I first saw the opening. Great, more woman-as-victim imagery. She just needs to listen to an upbeat empowerment electro song and she will reclaim her subjectivity and escape her violent partner! The woman passes some older men loitering by a doorway, and one in particular lasciviously eats an orange: the stage is set for creepy male objectification. Again, I sighed. But then: we see the woman without her facial injuries, in a changing room, with a serious "I've had e-fucking-nough" face filled with weary despair. A man with a red cap, out of focus, hovers in the margins of several shots. Remember him, he's important. Cutting again to the exterior, the woman shakes hands with Creepy-Orange-Man, and pow - evidence of her beating is back. Later in the video, though, it turns out this dude is not-super-creep. He is, in fact, a boxing trainer, and trains her in the ring so she develops her own pugilistic skills.

      Distaste for and fear of the Creepy-Orange-Man is initially guided more or less explicitly by the video, and then an alternate perspective on him is provided. To me, this initial fear/suspicious response to him mirrors the standard operating procedure many women must take when inhabiting public spaces. Male violence against women is a fact of life in patriarchal society, and women must deal with this reality, often safeguarding themselves with practices and modes of behaviour to avoid becoming victimised. The safest course of action is to interpret Creepy-Orange-Man as, well, creepy. The reveal later in the video, though, that he is a somewhat paternal, supportive coach figure muddies the waters. The 2012-2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that 45% of female murder victims in the UK are killed by their partners or ex-partners. That is to say: creepy male strangers are certainly not the only or primary threat to women's safety. Intimate partners can also be significantly dangerous, as the video demonstrates with the woman's abusive partner, revealed as Red-Cap-Man. So, does the viewer need to rethink their negative judgment of Creepy-Orange-Man, and focus our contempt on the woman's abusive partner? I don't think so. For me, the two characterisations of the man uncomfortably co-exist side by side: he is both creepy and potentially dangerous in the one instance, and then warm and supportive in the other. He is not a caricature of masculine evil, a black-and-white case of Abusive Man. Instead, we see his potential for taking up - and acting on - this abusive identity. And then we see his potential for behaving with compassion and respect towards a woman. The problem is in judging - accurately - which identity this man is inhabiting in a particular moment for the woman with whom he makes contact. This is a problem a woman may face in almost all environments, and in all areas of their life - not just out in public, but potentially at home too. 

      The interleaving of images of the woman with and without injuries continues throughout the video. It subverts linear narrative, and challenges the reader to unravel the woman's circumstances. What happened to her? What is her story? Are we seeing three periods of her life: 1) pre-beating (no injuries); 2) immediate aftermath of beating (injuries); 3) after injuries have healed, in next phase of her life? Or just 1) and 2)? Such interleaving also leads the viewer - or at least this viewer - down several different narrative alleys. For example, we see the woman (not injured) running on a treadmill, posters of boxing stars pasted all over her walls. So: the injuries on her face are from the ring, right? Her facial wounds are a sign of her reclamation of (female) power, not victimisation from a partner. Yet, no. Next, we see the woman (uninjured) fighting with Red-Cap-Man (the one hovering in the margins earlier), who is now revealed as her abusive partner. His vicious beating is inter-cut with images of her training in the boxing ring, where Creepy-Orange-Man is shown as a supportive and encouraging figure. She strides out of the gym to meet a long-haired man, Jason, who carries her bag for her - a sign of his respect for her, and general nice-ness. As the pair walk down the street, she pointedly stares at Red-Cap-Man who looms hazily in the right of the shot. He fades away: he is a specter of her psyche, one who she defeats by assuming her own power both in the ring and out of it. With this final image of Red-Cap-Man, we can perhaps re-read his appearances earlier on in the video: abusive partners do not just inflict visible wounds with beatings, but colonise the internal landscape of those whom they terrorise, becoming ever-present ghostly figures of control and oppression in the women's lives. Emotional abuse is a component of domestic violence, and is equally damaging. (For an excellent accessible overview of domestic violence patterns, see the first chapter of Harne and Radford's 2008 Tackling Domestic Violence, available as a .pdf here.) Ultimately, the video does not provide the viewer with an easy-to-grasp and coherent conclusion. Yes, the long-haired Jason is shown to be thoughtful and nice, but...so what? If Creepy-Orange-Man could turn into Supportive-Coach, what's to say that Jason doesn't end up as another abusive partner? The fact that the woman can now box? Hmmm. Why does her "happy ending" have to feature another romantic partner? Can't she just be kick-ass and strong in her own right?

       Looking at the circumstances of the song's creation does not offer up any definitive reading of the song either. Bingo Players are  a Dutch electro house / dance DJ outfit, going since 2006, and with a bona fide #1 UK single in 2012 with "Get Up (Rattle)" (feat. Far East Movement). The band started out as a two piece, with Maarten Hoogstraten and Paul Bäumer collaborating on tracks. After Bäumer died from cancer in 2013, Hoogstraten decided to keep going with the project solo, a proposition Bäumer actively advocated prior to his death . I mention this not to inject some tragedy rubbernecking into this post, but because Hoogstraten himself characterises "Knock You Down" as a song which conveys his own struggle with grief:  

“It’s all about overcoming struggles and emotional challenges, it really reflects [where I am] right now,” he says. “When I play it, it’s spot on. I could write those lyrics myself.”

It was the last song the pair worked on together, and operates in some ways as a means for Hoogstraten to preserve an emotional link with his dear friend, particularly through witnessing the fan's enthusiastic reaction to the track the duo crafted together. Hoogstraten is clear that the lyrics to "Knock You Out" can "be interpreted in many ways". Indeed, the music press lights on the song's lyrics as a metaphor for Bäumer's struggle with cancer (see, e.g. this article in Dance Music Northwest).

      The track's success is arguably due to this plethora of possible interpretations offered in the allusive lyrics. They speak elliptically to a kind of personal empowerment and triumph against adversity that listeners can apply to almost any situation(s):

My fight is won / Who needs a gun / Boom boom knock you out / You knocked me down / But who's laughing now / Boom boom knock you out / [...] /
You pick on the weak / Your twisted tongue speaks / All the fears you hide / The fear inside / You think I don't see / You're not talking to me / I'm the mirror, the knife / The fear inside /
But I get stronger everyday / One wrong will be all it takes / My power's fed by your hate / One wrong will be all it takes / [...] /
And the bully's best friend / Is the poison pen / But you can't touch me / While you sit at home / Plan attacks all alone / You try to phase me / [...]

The lyrics were penned by a woman, Australian singer-songwriter Sia. Produced in advance of the rest of the track, they formed the kernel around which Bingo Players created the soundscape. The song's power is at least in part due to the great vocal performance of female singer Kim Viera, who is not credited overtly (i.e. in the official artist slot) and does not feature in the video.  I'm not sure what to make of all this. It feels as if there is both female erasure and over-emphasis going on here.  The male DJ behind the song, under whose moniker it officially circulates, views the track as offering a generalist empowerment message, and for him speaks to grieving over the loss of a male friend. The song's video directly spotlights violence against women, but the track-as-media-artefact renders Sia and Kim Viera basically invisible. Sure, Sia is credited on liner notes and receives royalties for the song - but the average radio listener or YouTube viewer does not know that. Same again for Kim Viera. Why the choice to depict gendered violence? Did Bingo Players consult with Sia on this choice? Does the video then reflect her intended lyrical thrust? Is it conscious-raising for some viewers - an important move to show the horrific realities that many women experience? Or does it slimily trade in such intimate violence, using it as a quasi-titillating hook to attract attention? I am undecided personally. It is an imperfect narrative, as all narratives are wont to be. The woman overcomes her abuser and stakes out her own claim to power through boxing. But why should she have to take up boxing in order to do this? Why does she have to find another - nicer - man to partner up with at the end? Why does her trainer have to be a previously-creepy-dude, and not, say another woman with no baggage attached? All these questions and more remain unanswered. 

 

Ke$ha, James van der Beek, and Unicorns

This is definitely one for the "Old News" tag. In February 2011, Ke$ha released the track "Blow" from her Cannibal (2010) album. It's a classic Ke$ha tune, including namedrops for glitter, dirt, and dancing manically till you drop. (A+ would recommend for running playlists the world over.) However much the song conforms to the Ke$ha oeuvre overall, the video is something special. Here, we have:

  1. Laser guns

  2. Unicorn-douchey rich people hybrids

  3. A cameo by D̶a̶w̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶L̶e̶e̶r̶y̶ James van der Beek, heart-throb star of ye olde teen drama Dawson's Creek (RIP 1998-2003)

  4. James van der Beek and Ke$ha (newly crowned President of Uzbekistan, apparently) engaged in an all-out laser gun war for supremacy

  5. Rainbow rays "bleeding" out of wounded unicorn-douchey rich people hybrids

Seriously, what more could you want? At about 2:41, Ke$ha and van der Beek have a beautifully odd face-off:

K: Well, well, well, if it isn't James van der Douche
v d B: I don't appreciate you slanderBeeking my name, Kah-dollarsign-ha.

They then go on to discuss the deliciousness of Munster cheese, termed "edible lactose gold" by van der Beek. Apart from its exigent and awesome surrealism, I love this interchange as it draws attention to the constructed-ness of both stars' public personas. Ke$ha has long been known in my house as "Kay-dollarsign-ha", as we joyously milk the "silent" dollar sign for all its worth. To feature this so prominently in one of Ke$has's own videos reads like unabashed and most likeable self-deprecation on the singer's part. Yup, she inserted the dollar sign. Nope, that's not what her birth certificate says, let's all move along. As for van der Beek, he's not appearing as himself per se - it's another occurrence of a star playing a version of themselves, so here it's James van der Beek acting as "James van der Beek".

      Just a year after "Blow"'s release, the actor stars in a similar role (sans lasers / unicorn hybrids, sadly) in the TV comedy "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23".  It's rare that Wikipedia get's something so right when it describes Fake James as "arrogant, self-centered, and shamelessly self-promoting as he takes on increasingly bizarre roles to revitalize his career". Frankly, his performance as, well, "James van der Douche" - complete with episodes littered with "Dawson's Creek" references - were the best bit of the show. (For other actors-playing-versions-of-themselves TV, see Matt LeBlanc in the phenomenally good Episodes, also starring Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig.) 

      By ramping up the surrealism to mammoth proportions, the video to "Blow" reveals, I think, a truth about both van der Beek and Ke$ha's existence in the public eye. As they are playing "themselves" in the video, so too are they playing a role for - or being forced to play a role by - a gossip-hungry audience. It's interesting to note that after the "Blow" singer received treatment for eating disorders this year, she decided to ditch the dollar sign from her name - she now goes by Kesha, her birth name. I have no idea what motivated her decision precisely, nor is it my business to know really. But, from the outside looking in, it appears to be a shift away from an uber-constructed popstar identity to one that more closely resembles her inner life.

 

"Bloodline", Doughnuts, and Muffins

Things that "Bloodline" has taught me about Florida:

  1. Internecine family drama is de rigueur
  2. Humidity rests at about 100% at all times
  3. Wearing linen is obligatory
  4. Wearing sunglasses on a lanyard around your neck is obligatory
  5. Murders - not OK; also obligatory

No, "Bloodline" is - funnily enough - not an advertorial put out by the Florida Tourist Board. (Sad face.) It's a super-moody family crime drama produced by Netflix. As is Netflix's style, God love 'em, all episodes of a series are released simultaneously, so you too can fall down the rabbit hole of suspense and thrill for hours/days on end binge-watching this top show. Profit from my troubling experience, though: do not mainline "Bloodline" whilst watching "Friday Night Lights"... For a while there, I got pretty confused at the lack of (American) football spirit in the former, and seemingly landlocked "Floridian" landscape in the latter. Don't judge me, it was - always, all the time - about 3am and Kyle Chandler acts in both series. Though you should, immediately, block out large swathes of your schedule to watch both shows all the way through. So. Worth. It.

      Mentioning Chandler's omnipresence permits me a pastry-themed tangent. (Honestly, guv'nor, it does.) In her 2002 novel, Faking It, Jennifer Crusie (one of my all-time favourite authors) sets out what I like to call "The Doughnut vs. Muffin Grand Theory of Men".  This is not a gross generalisation, obvs, but a consistent and coherent taxonomy for all menfolk everywhere. As one character, Nadine, puts it: 

Doughnuts are the guys that make you drool. They're gorgeous and crispy and covered with chocolate icing and you see one and you have to have it, and if you don't get it, you think about it all day and then you go back for it anyways because it's a doughnut. [...] But then the next morning, they're not crisp anymore, and the icing is all stuck to the bag, and they have watery stuff all over them, and they're icky and awful. You can't keep a doughnut overnight. [...] Muffins are for the long haul and they always taste good. They don't have that oh-my-God-I-have-to-have-that thing that the doughnuts have going for them, but you still want them the next morning. (pp. 161-63 from 2004 Pan Books edition)

In both "Bloodline" and "Friday Night Lights", Chandler clearly plays a Muffin. And, I think, much of the conflict in both series can be viewed through the lens of Doughnut vs. Muffin conceptions of masculinity, if we expand the categories a little. Beyond the framework of female desire Nadine explicitly sketches out to define the two types of man-pastry, I think that other ingredients come to light, amongst which: 

  • Muffin = a stayer; a family man; holds your hair when you puke over the toilet; reliable; respectful; a good sport, who plays for the game not the win; values his roots; expresses emotion, or at least tries to
  • Doughnut = a booty-call guest star; an adventurer who prioritises his own life story, needs and desires; won't buy you tampons; plays to win at any cost; probably not respectful of women, at least not all the time; a bro; potentially violent and/or sexually aggressive; emotionally detached

Basically, I view the Doughnut as more immersed in the foul soup of toxic masculinity (thanks, Patriarchy!), whilst the Muffin has been able to negotiate his role within patriarchal culture a little more. Personally, I think that makes Muffins entirely preferable to Doughnuts - and much more drool-worthy too. Anyway. Not all Muffins (or Doughnuts) are the same. In "Friday Night Lights", Chandler's Coach Taylor operates as a valorised blueprint for other men - he is at the vanguard of progression of masculine identity for his young male team-players and other men in the community. Whereas, in "Bloodline", being a Muffin ain't easy - nor is it necessarily idealised. In this show, we see the push-pull between the brothers Rayburn, John (played by Chandler; Muffin) and Danny (played by Ben Mendelsohn; Doughnut, albeit self-avowed Doughnut). What makes a Muffin frost himself up, thereby sliding into Doughnut category? Can a Doughnut ever be redeemed, packed full of oatmeal and delicious for days, not just a juicy one-night-bite? In "Bloodline", all is shades of grey - and there are no easy outs or stable identities, no matter how hard a Muffin might try.

       With all this in mind, I present to you below the opening credits of "Bloodline". For interested parties: the music is "The Water Lets You In" by Book of Fears. These are perhaps my favourite TV opening credits of all time. Foreboding, menacing, and evocative, they capture the overarching themes of the show, and the central concerns of the characters, without any simplistic fading in/out of an actor's face or scenes from the show itself. Grab yourself a pastry - muffin or doughnut, I throw no shade on whichever type you choose - and enjoy 74 majestic seconds of emotive imagery.

Hours and Hours of Calming Bison (Honestly)

Public service announcement: do not take selfies with wild animals! Really, no! I'm a little surprised that there needs to be a PSA for this - but after all, I am a solid urbanite, and the kind of wildlife I see mostly amounts to yappy dogs in designer coats. In July, a woman was attacked by a bison at Yellowstone National Park in the States as she turned her back on the massive (horned) animal to pose for a selfie with it. Violent altercations between wild animals and human interlopers seeking Instagrammable selfies seems to be on the up, at least according to anecdata. If you want to take a nonchalant selfie with a bison - without the spectre of death unhelpfully moistening your selfie stick - why not play the video below, and pose in front of your laptop screen? It's almost like you are really there with the bison! Yeah, OK, I really am putting my personal stamp of recommendation onto a three-hour-plus video of bison grazing at Yellowstone. Nothing notable happens. There's no plot, no drama. It is utterly transfixing with its mesmeric power. Seriously, I have now seen this video a few times through - the whole way through. (Somebody might need to save me and charitably donate me a life one of these days, but hey.) The video works well as a soothing background to life, work, meditation, yoga, you name it. Also, you get to name all the special bison in your own little herd, and figure out which one you identify with most. Important stuff, to be sure. 

George Lipsitz - "Inured to Suffering: Ferguson as a Failure of the Humanities"

On 1 May, George Lipsitz gave a talk at Harvard University entitled "Inured to Suffering: Ferguson as a Failure of the Humanities".  In August 2014, police in Ferguson (Missouri) shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. The New York Times has a detailed run-down of the events and aftermath, including protests which spread across the US and intense political debate on institutional racism, here. In his talk, Lipsitz, a professor of sociology and  black studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, relates events in Ferguson to failures of academia (and academics) in tackling systemic racism and racist ideologies, and also discusses contemporary racial politics in America more generally. The video runs to about 90 minutes, of which some is Lipsitz' responses to audience members' questions at the end. I know it's long, but it is well worth your attention. This is inordinately important stuff which must be talked about, both inside and outside of academia. For a very brief overview of the talk, read also The Harvard Crimson's coverage of the event.

(My thanks to Prof  Christie McDonald for bringing Lipsitz's talk to my attention by  discussing it during her plenary at this year's SFS conference.)

 

Pistol Annies' "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty"

Ok, so this is perhaps more "For Your Listening Pleasure" than "For Your Viewing Pleasure", but still. This track, "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty", is from female country group Pistol Annies' 2013 album, Annie Up. It's never been released as a single, hence there's no official music video floating around. No matter, as the video below showcases the most important thing about the song for me, the powerfully simple lyrics which spell out the endless, expensive and tiresome work of performing femininity. To quote the chorus: "Being pretty ain't pretty, it takes all day long / You spend all your money just to wipe it all off / You spray on your perfume, you spray on your tan / Get up in the morning, do it over again / Being pretty ain't pretty at all". I particularly appreciate how the video projects the lyrics over a still of the Annie Up front cover, which shows the three Annies working their best sultry sexy womanhood - teased-out hair and smokey come-to-bed eyes and all. The disjuncture between the "final product" of their presentation on the cover and the song lyrics (and almost mournful minor key) really pushes home the point, I think. Yes, the Annies can and do look like that - but it ain't easy work, and it certainly comes at a (psychological and literal) cost. It feels like a good counter-point to the last FYVP, which centred on the empowering nature of make-up as a means to control self-representation and identity in the world. Again, I confess my love of make-up and the spectacle of feminine image management, but when such self-presentation is required (socially or otherwise) it is a destructive drain on resources of all kinds. 

The Make-Up of Marilyn Monroe

The BFI is, indubitably, a national treasure. In almost all their offerings, they display a commitment to education and accessibility - allowing people with varying levels of interest to just watch the damn film and walk away, or to delve ever deeper into meaning, history, and cultural significance. Shout-out to the BFI player, which is a magnificent resource, offering a beautifully curated selection of cinema on-demand.  Anyway, my little love affair with the BFI was heightened this week with their video showcasing the make-up of Marilyn Monroe. It's not quite a how-to tutorial, and not quite a piece of cinematic-historical analysis. It demonstrates the ways in which Monroe consciously cultivated and controlled her look in order to manipulate her persona in the world. As the narrator points out: "Contrary to popular belief, Marilyn wasn't a passive product of the Hollywood system. She was instrumental in the construction of her own myth." Make-up is not always - or not solely - a tool of the patriarchy to objectify women. Sometimes, it is a powerful and political means of curating one's own projection into the world. I say this as a committed feminist who adores "putting my face on" to ready myself for the world, constructing my own myth one swipe of lipstick at a time.

Wanda Sykes & "Detachable Pussy"

At some point in the far too recent past, somebody fairly prominent in the comedy scene cracked a rape joke. I can't remember the name of the comedian, but I do remember that the joke was unfunny and punched - bludgeoned - down. In case you're not familiar with the metaphor, let me summarise. "Punching up" means using comedy as a tool to satirise and thereby deflate those in power, those "above" the comedian. "Punching down" is making those with less power, those most often victimised by the issues at hand, the butt of the joke. So, in a rape joke scenario: rape culture is "up", whilst rape survivors are "down". Like many, I had long hypothesised the impossibility of ever telling a funny rape joke, or at least a rape joke funny to feminists. Then, in a forum discussing the comedian's ill-advised "humour", a commenter posted the Wanda Sykes routine below. Total mic drop moment. The clip, from Sykes' 2006 HBO special "Sick and Tired", skewers rape culture with verve and venom. It blends humour and startlingly on-target social critique with ease, creating a segment which is an educative joy to watch and re-watch. For me, it's arguably the epitome of a rape joke which is 1) funny and 2) "punching up" with vigour.

"That Gives Me an Idea": An Explanation, of Sorts

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

About five or six years ago, my dearest friend – let’s call her Sybil – gave me a t-shirt for my birthday. The design on the front is pretty much everything: Jessica Fletcher kindly staring out from the chest, “Medieval, She Wrote” emblazoned flirtatiously beneath her. This blog has had official merch for over half a decade before it even started. Apart from the ready supply of choice merch, why name this blog “Medieval, She Wrote”? I offer, as an explanation of sorts, the reflections below.

Sybil basically couldn’t go wrong with her choice of custom apparel. I’ve been a devotee of Murder, She Wrote as long as I can remember, as long as I’ve had eyes and the capacity to blink. Love is probably too banal a word for my feelings towards Murder, She Wrote’s heroine, Jessica Fletcher, a fifty-something fiercely intelligent mystery writer and globe-trotting detective. I can’t figure out when I imprinted upon Jessica; I have seemingly always been in awe of her. 

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret". London, BL, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r.  From BL online.

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret". London, BL, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r. From BL online.

By comparison, I can pinpoint the moment that medieval literature got me. You see, I started my French and German undergrad degree absolutely sure I was going to do super-modern stuff. I wanted to pull apart texts that let me look at big abstract questions: gender, power, relationships, civilisation, and on and on. It was a leaden grey day, with students huddled miserably in the middle of an overly large lecture room, fitted out with a pointless chalk board and un-openable windows. We were there for an intro to French lit course, and this was the week for which decrepit medieval narrative would be wheeled out as a kind of courtesy. Yeah, no. The snappily dressed lecturer took those fifty minutes on Marie de France - covering the construction of gender, the meaning of the supernatural, the problems of authorship – and Blew My Mind. After that, I basically stalked medieval literature through all further higher education.

Despite my adoration of both Mrs Fletcher and medieval lit, the two have tended to occupy very different places in my head. Which is perhaps not entirely surprising. Medieval lit is for hardcore intellectual labour, for challenging traditional paradigms and my own biases. It is for footnotes and out-of-print editions and the glory of ironing out how something really difficult theoretically works in a text. Ultimately, medieval lit offers a bone-deep satisfaction, but is not always an immediately pleasant undertaking. Murder, She Wrote offers uncomplicated, easy soothing. It might be a generational thing, I think. The show always used to occupy the after lunch slot on BBC1, following the soaps Neighbours and Doctors. It was reliably there, Monday to Friday, offering an oasis outside of earthly concerns. It did not hurt that Jessica Fletcher looked vaguely like my Grandma, a resemblance made more striking by the Murder, She Wrote producers’ dedication to filming everything in fuzzy soft-focus and my squinting at the screen a bit. Jessica would always solve the murder and the murderer would always confess, avoiding any disturbingly grey concerns about criminality, innocence, and guilt. She had loved a man very deeply once, but he died and she carried on. She built a new independent life for herself, supporting herself as a best-selling author, and living a life filled with joy and human connection, even though she was childless. In these ways, Mrs Fletcher always represented to me the potential of pop culture to represent various social and ideological stances, to shape who the viewers are and also to challenge their assumptions of who they can be. I’ve realised that referring to Murder, She Wrote operates often as a kind of personal shorthand, as I intend to point less to the specificities of the show itself but instead to its theoretical functioning and potential effects, i.e. to products of pop culture more generally. At stake, I think, in the separate warehousing of Murder, She Wrote (as pop culture) and academic medievalism is a division between the personal and the professional.  Underlying this split was the assumption that pop culture is not sufficiently worthy a topic of intellectual investigation: it can’t be professional, so it has to be personal.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of  Murder, She Wrote  and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of Murder, She Wrote and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Despite my conscious reluctance to conjoin Murder, She Wrote with my medievalism, the two have always been yoked together in some subtle form or another. Sybil’s magnificent t-shirt materialised that reality. “That gives me an idea!” is Jessica Fletcher’s oft-repeated catchphrase. After letting the particularities of a situation marinate for a while, hunting down new clues and avenues of investigation, a bolt of inspiration hits her. This “idea” will usually lead to the murderer’s disclosure: it reorients the game, and lets Jessica underscore her position as the sleuthing queen of Cabot Cove, Maine. And so, Sybil’s t-shirt “gave me an idea”. Granted, it’s taken years to percolate through my system and lead to this blog, but there it is. I don’t think I’m destined for a life lived in episodic TV tranches of forty-five minutes to resolution. For me, Murder, She Wrote is a staunchly feminist show, offering a fairy tale tailored almost exactly to my personal and professional dreams: a woman becomes independently successful (socially and financially) thanks to her intelligence, kindness, hard work, and writing skills. Apart from the functional similarities of Jessica’s life and that of a successful academic, Mrs Fletcher and Dr Academic both decode – almost obsessively – the hidden or ambiguous signification that underpins the world around them.

Let’s move away from Jessica Fletcher for a moment or two. One of the common complaints about plying one’s trade as an academic researcher is the demolition of boundaries between work-time and “off-the-clock” living. There are certainly economic and industry-specific structural reasons for this. Young researchers must often pick up extra work on the side – adjuncting, tutoring, barista-ing – to get by. This doesn’t always leave you the luxury of having much coherent leisure-time to speak of, as you’re always juggling the balls of pursuing research passions vs. paying the rent vs. carving out time for family and friends. Often – in the Arts and Humanities at least – you aren’t afforded institutional workspace, and thus no office to quarantine work concerns in. When you work from home, at a desk shoved in the corner of your living room, you don’t really – or, rather, automatically – get a sense of a demarcation between your professional self and who you are apart from that. The difficulties of research-life that are directly exacerbated by entrenched institutional – and arguably social - issues, are being exposed and challenged by a wide swathe of scholars these days. Look at, for instance, National Adjunct Walkout day in the US on 25 February 2015. (On the reasons for the strike, check out, in particular, pieces by Sarah Kendzior and Cameron Conaway). On the micro-level: chatting, bitching, and commiserating with colleagues is often pretty eye-opening. Such problems are not what I really want to talk about right now, and currently seem somehow “above my (knowledge) paygrade”, if you’ll permit the obvious metaphor. I hope to learn more, do more, about this in future.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet.  Via Flickr.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet. Via Flickr.

In research, there are no punch-cards, or shift changes, or slick-haired managers yelling at me from the next cubicle over to Get Things Done. I am enormously thankful that these things are absent from my working life: in their place, I have autonomy and a sense of intellectual and logistical freedom that are, frankly, fucking amazing. Nevertheless, at worst, the research day is marked by an unrelenting feeling of oily guilt that you haven’t done enough, read enough, been intellectual enough. Research, so often, is the glory of being left to your own devices, analytically and otherwise. And that means developing the self-discipline and motivation to do the damn research. Self-discipline is a skill so necessary to research that, I think, it can mutate into a bulging brute-like sensation of “never enough-ness”. Oh, if I only had the self-discipline to eschew seeing my friends and work through the night, I could get this paper finished! I could get that post-doc! Look, every other scholar I know seems to be doing it, I’m lagging behind if I don’t too! Hypothetical peers and working practices out from the shadow of The Man seem to be perniciously useful as a means of self-flagellation.

A complement to “never enough-ness”, I’ve found, is “everything everywhere-ness”. In some ways, I think this is the glory of research: you find something that interests you, obsesses you, something that’s important and ZOMG cool and intellectually rich.  It invades your brain, as it must do really in order to do decent high-quality research. But your brain isn’t walled-off from the rest of your life, and the project infiltrates pretty much everything you do or think about. Basically, your research interest comes with a whole side-dish of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for free. My PhD thesis, broadly speaking, is about saints, divine visions, and film spectatorship. Let me tell you, pretty much anything I read or watched “in my spare time” (ha!) suddenly, dazzlingly connected to lady saints and eye-beams from God and we are all screens and and and and…Indeed, I once woke my husband up in the middle of the night, after trying to unwind from a heavy writing day with an episode of the ‘90s crop-top fest witch show Charmed, to proclaim: “No, but you see, we are ALL PIXELS. ACROSS TIME.” He insists, to this day, that I uttered this solemnly, even reverently. I could not decipher the scribbled note I made on the back of a take-away menu that explained my intellectual breakthrough, alas. But I think my point still stands. Probably.

Anyway, the point is that what you’re working on tends to seep ineluctably into every nook and cranny of your life. Methodology – or more plainly, how you approach your work – also seems to slide into everything else. This is a chicken-or-egg thing: am I super-analytical, and am thus drawn to a profession of textual/social/cultural analysis? Or does the fact that I spend all my working life teasing out significations of textual and other artefacts mean I, almost on auto-pilot, do this “at home” too? Either way, this can be hellaciously annoying. I would like to be able to turn my research-brain off sometimes. That way I could enjoy reading “proper” literary fiction without feeling like I’m teaching myself an A-level English Lit course in my head, breaking down sodding motifs and allegorical flourishes. And yet. This state of affairs can also be breathtakingly enjoyable. I hoover up content, letting the delicious connections between everything roll around my brain. Growing up, my mother and I primarily did three things: watched films and TV, went for coffee, and talked about films and TV over coffee. Analytical work – so often paired with that academic ambrosia, strong coffee – is deeply rooted within my pleasure and comfort centres.

Murder, She Wrote  artwork by Robert Ball.  Via Flickr .

Murder, She Wrote artwork by Robert Ball. Via Flickr.

How does this all relate to “Medieval, She Wrote”? Well, this blog is conceived of as a space for me to sketch out the little shards of ideas that lodge in my brain, when the “everything everywhere-ness” bites. I say “space” consciously here, with a droll over-emphasis, as this locational element of blogging feels important. “Medieval, She Wrote” constitutes a space that I have consciously carved out for myself in order to (try to) balance the demands of “everything everywhere-ness” and “never enough-ness”. Blogging feels like a form of supportive space-claiming and community-building, even if that space is only digital and that community is formed of one. Equally, it is an experiment of sorts. Instead of seeing the blurring of professional/personal in academic life as negative, what if it is posited as productive? What if we allow the random “non-academic” analytical findings we generate every day to mean something? And what if we let such findings directly inform our “proper” work? In this way, the blog also exists to push back against the endless waves of the “never enough-ness” gremlins. “Personal” intellectual activity – i.e. work outside research projects, publication plans, and so forth – can be viewed as taking away from our professional life. Yet, such thinking has intrinsic worth, whether or not it makes it into an academic monograph. It has worth, even if that is solely because it is pleasurable.  

I hope to post to “Medieval, She Wrote” with some regularity, though I’ve not yet established a specific schedule. I’m enjoying letting my writing follow my caprices, to be honest. I anticipate posting both longer and shorter pieces, in various stages of “finishedness”, about stuff that strikes me as interesting, important, or just worthy of comment. Posts may be less about what I think than the process of figuring out what I think. In any case, I hope you, dear reader, enjoy whatever unspools from this first post. As a token offering to those who have waded through this long explainer, may I present to you an excerpt from Jessica Fletcher's...no, scratch that...Angela Lansbury’s 1988 health and fitness VHS, “Positive Moves”, below. Your mornings will never be the same. You’re welcome!