High On The Hog (2021) 3 part documentary series, dir by Roger Ross Williams, Jonathan Clasberry, Yoruba Richen; wri by Jonathan Clasberry, Shoshana Guy, Christina Lenis (Black cast and crew).
Hosted by the cook and food writer Stephen Satterfield, High On the Hog traces the Black history of American food from Africa to Texas, via the Middle Passage.
Beautifully shot, leaning heavily on Satterfeld’s engaging personality, the program is an accessible engagement with the political history of slavery in America. It is just plain great. To see a screen full of Black cooks and thinkers speaking about cultural production is enough to make a hardened feminist weep with pleasure.
Available on netflix.
nb If you don’t know much about the topic, this is a great point of entry to the early years of Black American history. Its focus on food and community is a balm.
I keep thinking about this series.
On one hand it’s a fairly conventional travelogue/food show. A host travels to different places, meeting local cooks and eating local food. But on the other hand, it’s different.
The host, Stephen Satterfield does travel to different cities, but he travels as someone looking to learn. When he goes to Benin in the first ep, he says something like ‘All my life I’ve tried to fit in in America. But now I’m here.’ And you see this palpable releasing of tension as he’s welcomed into people’s homes, kitchens, and shops. One of the Benin women speaks about the importance of welcoming the descendants of Africans kidnapped by slavers. It’s a joy.
So this traveling is about Satterfield discovering family and history. This discovery is a radical act, because you can never ignore the fact that every Black American person in this series is the descendant of kidnapped people. Satterfield expands this personal discovery to a larger act of remembering and commemorating Black families and history. This is a radical act in modern day America.
When Satterfield visits people’s kitchens, restaurants, and homes, he is respectful. He listens. He gives them space to speak about the food, their families, their history. He feels gentle, and respectful. Sometimes this respect is articulated (he calls older men ‘sir’ and older women ‘ma’am’).
Most of the time it’s implied: the listening. The waiting for people to tell him things. He doesn’t explain history to them, or interrupt. When he tastes their food, he takes time to savour the flavours, then he responds in a thoughtful, but positive way. By respecting their food this way, he is respecting not only their own work, but their family and history.
Most importantly, he doesn’t dictate the cooking on screen (even though he is a chef). He might assist, or be given tasks, but he is always there as a respectful guest.
A lot of time there’s silence. This silence from a host in this type of program, particularly a male host, is unusual. And it sets up a feeling of gentleness. These people, some of whom have very little, are unfailingly generous with their knowledge, their time, their food. It’s often a moment of vulnerability for them. At one point in the Freedom episode, Satterfield asks a woman chef (who is baking in her home kitchen) what it means to be baking cakes for Juneteenth. Her reply is moving. She’s holding back tears as she explains that in the kitchen she can be proud of who she is as a Black woman in a society that doesn’t value Black women. Satterfield’s response is utterly respectful. He just waits and listens, and then thanks for for sharing her space.
I think this sense of sharing and respect is the nicest part of this program. These people invite Satterfield to their tables. They often have their own family or friend at the table with them. They share family stories and recipes. The stories can be difficult to hear. But there is always a theme of strength and sophisticated technical prowess. Cooking and eating becomes a site for empowerment.
I love it.
“The ruling went over the history of the ban, and said it “arose out of a concern that, as a result of the rising popularity ‘of ‘Kung Fu’ movies and shows,′ ‘various circles of the state’s youth’ — including ‘muggers and street gangs’ — were ‘widely’ using nunchaku to cause ‘many serious injuries.’”
“New York lawmakers worried that some young people might be using the device nefariously. “
In 1974 ‘muggers and street gangs’ in New York was code for ‘Black kids’. ‘Kung fu’ films, tv, etc was hugely popular with Black kids (you can read more about that here).
The ‘nunchuck’ ban is interesting because it was clearly targeting this segment of the community in a period of economic freefall and city corruption.
I’m fascinated by this period in American history. There’s a really good documentary called Blank City, which looks at the rise of indy cinema in NY at that moment as well (including Lizzie Borden’s radical feminist film Born In Flames).
I’m rewatching Bridgerton, and this time I’m actually watching the screen.
You know, there’s a fair bit of nudity in this show. Had anyone else realised this?
– The littlest Bridgerton boy doesn’t know his right from his left.
– Insufficient lesbians.
– The race stuff is truly truly bad. If you can have characters wearing ridiculously historically inaccurate clothes with no explanation, just make the crowd and cast multicultural with no explanations. The whole ‘the king married a Black woman, so we don’t have racism any more’ thing is painfully bad. If you think you can ignore the economic importance of slavery to 19th century England, you’re on crack.
– The race stuff is HEINOUS bad. Ok, so if you’re making your society multicultural, you’re going to need to undo your own bullshit white person racism in your character construction, plots, and society.
– It steals all its best jokes from Austen. Which is ok, as it’s clearly some sort of well-funded Austen fanfic. But still.
– We all know the withdrawal method doesn’t prevent pregnancy, right? Pre-cum, anyone?
– I’m ok with the bullshit costumes and hair, honestly. I actually like it.
– I have trouble with the whole ‘pleasuring yourself’ storyline. I’m not buying it as a line from Mr Hotpants to his mate/prospective wife. But I could almost have bought it as chat between women.
– Totally insufficient lesbian content.
– A ladder. Seriously? Ok, I guess we’ve all got our Thing. But, honestly, what self respecting servant would have left a ladder out in a big house for the family to see?
– I liked all the sideburns.
– People have really gaspy, growly sex. Not a problem, more of an observation.
– Jane Austen just looks better and better. The feminist stuff is heavy handed and awkward.
– I know it’s a modern song in the first ball scene, but fucked if I know any modern songs. It’s not a new thing; totes stolen.
– Daphne is one fucking painful bitch. So. Annoying. She simpers an awful lot.
– I have to talk about the race stuff again. Sure, you’ve got a bunch of brown faces on screen. But all your main characters are white. Except for Mr Hotpants, who seems to function primarily as the quintessential ‘buck’: oversexed, dangerous, unpredictable, troublemaker. Mr Hotpants’ arsekicker aunty does not get anywhere near enough on-screen respect from the young Bridgerton bros.
– Polly Walker is great. But she’s played this character one hundred times before, so it’s a diddle for her. Except it could have been improved by more full frontal nudity and bull’s blood.
– BridgertonWhistledownFeatherington Samantha Samanthason.
I’m part way through ep1 of Small Axe, a BBC short film series about the West Indian community in London in the 1960s-80s. It’s directed by Steve McQueen and has a w o w cast (incl. Letita Wright and John Boyega).
If you want to know about the Black migrant history of the UK during this period, AND want regular doses of everyday eating, dancing, singing, and FIGHTING THE MAN, i reccomend. It’s a great companion piece to that BBC podcast series about Black music in Europe.
I’m nuts about fashion docos, and this week I saw First Monday in May, about the Met’s gala, and specifically, about the China Through The Looking Glass gala. It’s a clever bit of documentary making. I was really digging the way it set up the discussion of orientalism/racism at work in the exhibition… or was it all a clever sensationalist PR tool?
I’ve also watched Bill Cunningham New York, September Issue, Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has To Travel, Iris*, Advanced Style*, Unzipped, Fresh Dressed… I love them all. And Harold Koda is in all of them.
I love the marriage of documentary film and the little diatribes about fashion as art/fashion as truth/fashion as sociology/fashion as real life. But I don’t have time for whole television series or reality television. Just films. I’m also fascinated by the same few figures turning up in each of them – Anna Wintour, Bill Cunningham…
Another reminder that green/feminist movements are as marked by gender and class as right wing politics…
I’m seeing correlations between slutwalk discourse and this little trail of articles dealing with race/food politics/gardening/environmentalism/cycling. While I’m fascinated by discussions of food and health and environmentalism as a socialist project, for a while now I’ve had a little voice in the back of my brain saying “Dood, where’s race in all this? Can we talk about ethnicity a little bit more? And not in a ‘Mysteries of the Orient’ Food Safari way?” I stumbled over The Doree Chronicles’ post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How the Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on Tumblr, then traced its references back. This post read as a sort of snippet of idea, in the context of a general Tumblr blog dealing with all sorts of things the author found interesting. Tumblr shits me a bit as this sort of backtracking is unnecessarily complex, but I guess that’s a consequence of personal sites which encourage a ‘collector’ approach rather than a ‘writerly’ approach.
Can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?
I’m really not up to speed with food politics’ talk, but I feel as though all this talk is echoing some of my reservations about slutwalk, and some of my thoughts about food politics. It also reminds me of some things I’ve read about the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, where the peace movement in particular was also quite sexist. In that context, the ‘free love’ discourse was a double-edge sword. While the pill gave women contraceptive control of their sexuality and bodies, there was also an attendant shift in the way many men began thinking about these women as ‘sexually available’. I wonder if we should perhaps be a little sceptical of a new women’s movement (or new stream in a broader feminism) that lauds heterosexual freedom in such uncomplicated ways. Because of course the pill didn’t function the same way, ideologically, for lesbian women that it did for straight women.
I feel as though we’re also revisiting issues raised (and continually raised) by women of colour from that period and recently. For those women race was a far more pressing concern, organising their activism in a way that gender did not. And these women were very critical of ‘mainstream’ feminists for not interrogating their own privilege. Or, more simply, for not noticing that everyone signing books in the wimminz bookshops was white.
I’m of course thinking about bell hooks and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, but I’ve also heard Australian Aboriginal women like Marcia Langton make similar arguments. I haven’t found it, but I’d be certain there’d be some cool stuff written about ‘bush tucker’, the Northern Territory intervention (where government pensions are ‘retained’ specifically for buying food), gender and equity. I’m also certain that there’d be some really interesting stuff by migrant women writers in Australia (and elsewhere) about food, gender, class and social (as well as bodily) ‘health’. Someone has to have taken the bike movement to task as well? I mean, if I’m banging on about it on Faceplant when people say stupid things like “There is no excuse not to ride distances under 10km”, then surely someone else has made the same points more cleverly?
I’ve just had a quick look but I CAN’T find that interesting study a Victorian university group did recently where they found that if women felt safe cycling in a city, then the numbers of cyclists in that city over all were higher. I was telling this story to some hardcore environmentalist/sustainable energy types at a party the other week, and they were all “Oh shit, I’d never thought of that!” And I was thinking ‘That’s because you’re over-achieving, able bodied, young, male engineers living in well-serviced cities who dismiss feminism as ‘something for women’.’ But I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I laboured through a gentle (and brief) point that environmental movements have to be socially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. I wanted to talk about how birth control for women in developing countries is directly related to environmentally sustainable development in those same countries, but I didn’t.
I think there are also some really important points to be made about ‘food security’ for children in poor communities and families in big cities, and how food security is directly related to educational and social achievements, and how getting enough to eat (let alone eating ‘well’) is directly related to justice and equity in relation to gender and race and all those other lovely identity markers. I don’t know much about this at all, but I heard an interesting Health Report podcast about this and started thinking about the relationships between organic gardening, social justice, ethnicity and economic power. And goddamn bicycles.
To sum up this messy, ill-informed, poorly researched and unsubstantiated introduction to my mess of thoughts, I direct your attention to Tammi Jonas, who’s trekking through the American wilds with the Jonai clan in glorious 70s campervanning style, writing and thinking about food and family as she goes. Her progress is written up at Crikey, but I quite like the posts on her blog. Tammi is all over these issues.
I talk an awful lot about women’s bodies, and women and the erotic gaze. I am, of course, working with the assumption that most dance performances are geared towards a male gaze, which Laura Mulvey introduces in her 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and which caused such a stir Screen then devoted an entire issue to the matter. But I wonder if that’s what’s actually going on in dance performances? Are we really that dull? In this post I’m going to look at some hot male bodies, and see how we might go about fucking up shit in the modern swing dance world. High heel shoes: for all!
This idea of the male gaze was originally constructed as a response to mainstream narrative cinema, and argues that mainstream narrative films are constructed (from story to shot framing and mise en scene) for an imaginary, idealised male viewer. In this context, men and male protagonists operate as the active, subjective heroes (the people the viewer wants to be) and the women are reduced to bodies to be objectified, acted upon by others (the object the viewer wants to possess or act upon).
You can see how this approach would stimulate lots of discussion. It’s an inherently heterocentric reading: what about queer women watching these female, sexualised bodies on screen? What about queer men watching and wanting to possess and be the male subject? And is it really useful to use this fairly fucked up psychoanalytic approach to cinema which boils everything down to sex? Whether you dig Mulvey’s approach or not, she certainly started people talking – in loud and quite excited ways – about the way cinema constructs stories and images of bodies and people, and she invited us to critique assumptions about gender and power in cinema studies. Which can only be a good thing.
Now I don’t have much patience with psychoanalysis as a tool for analysing film and performance. I don’t think it works, mostly because it boils everything down to sex, and I think that this approach tells us a lot more about 19th century middle class Austrian men than about cinema. But I do think there are some interesting starting points, here. And I want to apply them to dance. Because that is what I do. I’m also interested in the way vernacular dances – on-stage and off – allow the audiences and performers to interact, in a way that cinema does not. In a dance performance, the sexualised body (be it male or female) is capable of physically, verbally and discursively interacting with the audience whose gaze they’ve invited. I think this adds a really interesting and exciting element to the fairly dull model of visual pleasure.
…I have to mention, much of this discussion draws – in a fairly long distance way – on Judith Butler’s talk about gender performance in Gender Trouble. If I had room, I’d go into that, and then into transgender performance, but I don’t think any of us could be bothered with that now. Another time perhaps.
It’s tempting to leap into a discussion about burlesque here. But I’ve done that already (in this post ‘My concerns about burlesque’), and I’m kind of over it. I want to talk about something new. I want to remind people that it’s not only women who are sexualised and men who are sexualising. Just as Mulvey was a starting point for discussions of cinema, I want to move on from talking about sexualising women’s bodies in dance (in the context of contemporary swing dance culture) and talk about sexualising men’s bodies.
I’d like to pause here, and note that I once delivered a conference paper on the sexualised male body in blues dance performance. I was squished, once again, into a panel that featured no other dance talk. In fact, I was after a woman talking about child rape and sexualised children and before a woman talking about literature by women who’ve survived rape. The crowd was all women, with one or two scared young men, and these were hardcore queer studies women, who were absolutely disinterested in men. Sexually, socially or academically.
At one point during my paper, as I began a section discussing the appeal of a young, well-muscled man performing a highly sexualised solo blues routine, I thought “aw fuck.” Needless to say, my lines about the pleasures of gazing upon Falty’s fine young frame and his own pleasure in his body and performance did not go down well.
But, then, this is the point of it all. We are not all watching cinema in the same way. Each text yields – encourages! – a range of viewing positions and ways of looking.
But let’s pause and consider the clip with which I tried to excite those angry lesbian separatists:
The nice thing about this clip… well, hells, there are plenty of nice things about this clip. But the one I most prefer is the way solo dance is more accommodating of a queer gaze than partner dance. In fact, solo dance gives us a chance to side step heteronormativity. Here is a young, healthy man dancing for his own pleasure, and engaging with a range of discourses about gender and sex and sexualised bodies and audiences and performances. He is not anchored to a particular partner (and associated sexual preference). He is autonomous, sexually complete in himself. Which is pretty interesting, as women-as-sexual-object are pretty integral accessories to the heteronormative, hegemonic Man that patriarchy digs.
Despite Mike’s independent display, this is also definitely a performance for an audience – the audience in the room, watching, the audience behind the camera, the other dancers in the performance itself, who are following and imitating his movements. The last is especially interesting: here is a young, white man modelling sexualised dance movements for a range of women and men.
Most importantly, though, Mike’s performance climbs and climbs and climbs, the tension increasing, the sexual show exaggerated and exaggerated until it suddenly tips over. His taking off his shirt is met with screams of delight and excitement, embarrassment, laughter, clapping – all the lovely responses this sort of display requires. It’s not until we see his grin that we are let in on the joke. He knows that this is exaggerated play, and we are allowed to see that he both enjoys the attention (as he should – this is the point of it all, right? Pleasure in being the object/subject as well as pleasure for the observer?) and has performed for us. He doesn’t quite slip out out of character, but it’s very clear that this has all been framed as performance. It’s not, for example, a real performance of sexual invitation. … is it?
[Note: understanding the difference between real sexual invitation and, well, just being there in your body, is something a lot of men have trouble with. They assume that all women are constantly available. If they are outside their homes (or inside them), wearing revealing clothing (or not)… hellz, just breathing. I feel the urge to explore the currently-raging slutwalk debate, but I don’t have the energy. But I would like to link to this article to suggest my concerns about the topic.
But all this makes it clear that we cannot compare male and female sexualised performance in a cultural vacuum. We need to remember context. And for me, that is patriarchy.]
Well, the point of my using this clip here is to say, well, fuck. That conference paper failed. Can you see how it went down awfully in that session? Right. Framing is everything for this sort of show.
So let me show you three other clips. They’re all blues dancing performances. Two are partner blues, one is solo blues. But to frame that one as ‘solo’ blues is a little misleading. The most successful of these types of solo blues ‘battles’ or competitions rely, utterly, on engagement between competitors, and between competitors and audience. Visual play, but also aural and oral engagement. Between dancers and audience, but also between musicians and dancers. There is no solo in solo blues competitions. Not if you’re doing it right. This is not a self-contained performance of sexual immanence. It’s a battle, a demonstration, a performance of sexualised movement which requires interaction. Demands it. This is the call; you bring the response.
I’ll begin with that other solo performance, then. This is the solo blues final from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in New Orleans, 2009. I’m most interested in the first minute of the competition. You might be interested in the rest, to compare the male and female performers/performances, but I just want to talk about the men, here. Though I have to note: it is rare to find men in solo blues comps. And their style is very, very different to the women’s. And don’t get me started on the whole not wearing shoes thing.
That particular dancer is Dax Hock. He’s been a professional dancer and performer for years, and, obviously, possesses the mad skills. I like the way he engages with the other (women) performers, and the way he displays his body (and mad skills) to the audience. This is at once a highly sexualised male body, but also a very professional demonstration of performance and dance skills. He won that competition.
As you watch, listen as well. Listen to the audience’s response. To the band and consider the way Dax engages with both. This, to my mind, is where the real skill lies.
There are so many things to talk about in this performance. The references to Snake Hips Tucker, a frightening, mesmerising performer. The moments where Dax spreads his legs ridiculously wide, from the hip, suggesting invitation and echoing a woman’s spread legs as invitation for penetration. In a man, this is transgressive: he invites the gaze, the penetration. But it is also aggressively hegemonic masculinity: admire the phallus (down here!). This is sex talk. With the body. He makes eye contact with the audience, with a suggestive/aggressive invitation to admire him (a cocked head, a nod, the eye contact). He repeats this when he turns to address the other competitors, but his more blatant hip thrust (and display) is less a marker of sexual invitation as an invitation to compare sexual/dancing ability in competition. It’s derision dancing at its finest (I’ve written about derision in dance in regards to race and violence in blues music here, and there are links to references there).
The comparison of male and female sex/groin/performance is interesting as well. A man asking a woman to compete with him for the audience’s attention… is he asking the women to compete with him for the male gaze? For a male/female gaze? Really, I think this is where the term ‘queer’ really comes in useful: he’s inviting women to participate as equals (well, as not-quite-equals) in a performance/display/competition to be both sexual object and subject for a male/female/straight/gay/bi queer gaze. He’s fucking up gender norms here.
But it is the music that makes it all wonderful. The song is shouting ‘sex!’, but it’s also shouting ‘humour!’ and ‘laugh!’ and ‘shout!’ and parody and engagement… so many things, so many different points from which to engage with it, that it defies that heteronormative, male gaze narrative. Which is how blues and jazz roll, really. Slippage. It has it. And Dax, wonderfully, extends that aural invitation with his body.
Do note, here, that we are looking at two young, fit, healthy white male bodies. Not too transgressive, huh? But perhaps it is…?
Let’s move on. Here’s something different. Another competition from that same ULHS 2009. This time it’s partner blues. So we see heterosexuality on display. Or do we? As with most of these sorts of dance competitions, I always wonder if the men are really engaging with the other male performers and with the men in the audience (who are also ‘dancers’) more than with the women they dance with.
So let’s look at the point where Peter dances with Ramona. They’re the second couple, entering at about 0.24 (and yes, Todd’s exit, facing them, his back to his own partner, legs spread, does invite some discussion of phallic competition, yes?). The point I like most is at 0.29, where he breaks them into open position – they’re not touching – and he proceeds to perform for her, and ultimately for us within the frame of their heterosexual pairing. Yes, this is for her (and she responds), but ultimately, we all know that this is for us, the people watching and judging. How are we to assess his performance? In part through Ramona’s response to him. She likes it? He must be hot/good. But we’re also invited to see how his sexualised display (more hips, more pelvis) invites her creative response.
With all this to-ing and fro-ing between Peter and other male competitors and the audience, I’m seeing a whole lot of queer, right here. Particularly when you think about the dance partnership as a professional, working creative partnership. It is always implied, but a professional dancing relationship like Ramona and Peter’s, is not necessarily sexualised. So while Peter and Ramona present as a nice, straight couple, they don’t work that way on every level. So they become available for a little queer co-opting.
The best part of reading on the slant like this, is that I’m pretty sure the men involved wouldn’t be comfortable with my reading them this way. Straight man panics! omg! they might think I’m gay! I’d better butch up! And NSFW!! there’s nothing queerer than the hypermasculine, right?SFW Right? And I have a feeling they’d be equally uncomfortable with the thought of straight and queer women and straight and queer men (let alone transfolk) finding this queering hot.
Here, a short aside. There’s nothing new about straight women imagining straight male pairings as gay. Queering them. Camille Bacon Smith writes about it in her book Enterprising Women, in relation to Spock/Kurk slash. Personally, I enjoy the thought of Sam and Dean Winchester as secret boyfriends. And I’m not alone. But for me, the real pleasure lies not so much in what they actually do together in this imaginary sexual(ised) relationship, but in the thought of their queering – their fucking up – the heternormative world. I like imagining that Dean and Sam have whole lives beyond the television episodes we see. And this enriches what I do see on screen.
I mean, to make alternative readings of women and women’s sexuality work, we have to have alternative masculinities as well. It’s the subversion, the transgression, the rule breaking and naughtiness that I find so appealing. I especially like the way we can read against the grain this way and no one can stop us.
But let me give you one final clip. This one is another partnered blues performance. But it’s not in a competition. So there’s display, but not the same sense of competitiveness.
This one is interesting for the fact that this is a white woman dancing with a black man. There are all sorts of discussions about the young African American man as hypersexualised ‘buck’ to be explored here (check out Donald Bogle’s work on stereotypes of black American identity for a starting place). But I don’t have the references to hand. But I do think it’s cool to see the way this performance subverts that mythology. Here is a young black man with seriously mad dance skills. He has brilliant control. We can see culturally specific as well as gendered movements and bodily awareness at work here. But they are working together as partners. The difference in style is what makes this work. The humour – the parts where we laugh or smile at the jokes – defuse the sexual tension, but at the same time heighten it. It’s the adrenaline and chemical high of laughing that makes us feel good, and we’re more likely to read sexualised subtext as sexualised if we’re feeling good. Or so the theory goes.
This is my favourite partnered blues dance performance. I like the humour, it reflects the things I like about a lot of blues music. I love the use of solo and traditional jazz steps. I adore the use of tango rhythms and styling, as tango was massively popular at the same time as blues music in the 1920s. This is recorded music, not a live band, but it’s a modern performance – Winton Marsalis – covering Jelly Roll Morton’s song ‘New Orleans Bump’. Marsalis himself suggests an engagement with race and ethnicity (though he never seems to gain any sense of reflexivity about gender and sexuality!). And Jelly Roll Morton? Well. He’s all about braggadocio and sexualised masculine performance.
There’s lots more to say about all these. But I think I want to end here, pointing out that my favourite parts of all these are:
The male bodies (rather than female) presented for an eroticised gaze.
Men are presented (and presenting themselves) as sexual objects as well as subjects. I think that this transgression is a useful model not only for other male dancers, but for women dancers as well. As I said on FB, these guys make it clear that the sisters need to put their shoes on and get their action in gear.
The invitation to play and to laugh is central to the sexualised display.
Laughter is about rule breaking. It interrupts power and control. It is power and control. For many women, their greatest fear is being laughed at or ridiculed because they aren’t sexy/beautiful/young/skinny/white/whatever enough. I think that we can gain some sense of self power to engage with the humour in an assertive way. Combining humour and dance is very difficult. It requires a great deal of skill and confidence. Why not model our dancing on the example set by men, and then twist it, queer it, to undo the traditional gender and power dynamics?
It’s all about breaking rules.
I really, really like performances which break rules. I don’t like to see people hurt or humiliated. I do like to see assumptions about what is ‘proper’ tipped upside down. I do like to be surprised. Patriarchy is boring. Heteronormativity is dull. I want to be entertained. And these are performances. If I’m going to stop dancing and sit down for 3 minutes (or longer), you need to make it worth my while.
[EDIT: I would really like to engage with the race stuff in the final clip, but I don’t feel I’m properly up to date on the literature, so I’d just be bullshitting my way through. But race is absolutely central to this stuff. Contemporary American swing dance culture (accommodating all the related dances) is dominated by white, middle class young people. Dancing dances that developed in black working class and working poor American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has to be addressed, if we are talking power.]
Bacon Smith, Camille, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Pennsylvania Press: USA, 1992.
I will watch any SF or supernatural television program at least once. Some stick, some don’t. I favour programs with female protagonists. I like queer stories or subtexts because they tend to fuck up the gender norms.
Besides the usual big names (Buffy, Dr Who), I am also into Bgrade stuff. Mostly because Bgrade stuff tends to be far more subversive, and that’s where you find the women protagonists. For all sorts of reasons. But apparently women don’t sell advertising, so we don’t see such great stuff from them in the Agrade programs. The ethnicity stuff is a bit of a fail (everyone is whitey mcwhite unless I’ve noted otherwise).
I tend not to remember the names of actors, but I like to read across programs, following a particular actor. I also tend to read all these programs as part of a broader metanarrative or general universe rather than as separate and distinct worlds. This is encouraged by the fact that many of these actors turn up in the other programs.
Lost Girl: 1 season, 2010. Canadian supernatural, female protagonist, sexual content (which of course is the predominant theme in many of these shows). Definitely B.
Story: woman hero (and female sidekick) work as ‘private detectives’ in the ‘fey’ world, which humans don’t know about. She’s trying to discover who her family is (she doesn’t really understand her super powers).
I don’t mind it because it looks quite good (in a ‘cinematic’ sense), has two female protagonists (one of whom turned up in Nikita once – I think she speaks Russian?) with a male werewolf love interest for the bisexual woman hero. That male love interest reads a little queer (though his character isn’t), or at least a little gender-flex (rather than solidly Super Straight Hegemonic Masculinity), which is nice. I’m still undecided about the gender politics in this one, though there are obviously some challenges in a sexualised succubus identity for the hero. I watch this one.
Blood Ties: 1 season, 2007. Canadian supernatural, female protagonist, sexy themes but not too sexy. Low production values.
Story: human private detective discovers supernatural world, begins to work with teh sexy vampire Henry Fitzroy solving supernatural crimes.
This one is important because it’s an adaptation of Tanya Huff’s Blood Books series, which is one of the best vampire series I’ve ever read, when Huff was really at her best (I think she’s a bit weaker these days). The female hero is excellent, and while the telly series doesn’t mention it, Huff’s characters are often bisexual or queer, which makes watching the telly series (within that context) a bit more interesting. The main actor has gone on to do other bits and pieces, mostly in crime shows like CSI.
Sanctuary: 3 seasons, including 8 webisodes. Canadian supernatural.
Story: ‘Sanctuaries’ are linked places where supernaturals are a) contained/held captive or b) educated (this bit is unclear and dodgy). These places are big ‘historic’ buildings, run by a team. There’s an international network of them. They solve ‘monsters of the week’ stories.
Female and male protagonists (three or four, depending on season), very decent gender politics. Season 2 introduces an Indian-American female character. A bit too much greenscreen special effects, and not really high-end stuff. A sort of swirly aesthetic that I find soothing when I’m ready for bed. The second season picked up the editing speed/tempo a bit. Less of the sexy stuff, more of the stronger female characters (the ‘boss’ is a centuries old woman scientist). Still Bgrade.
Moonlight: 1 season, 2007, American supernatural.
Vampires…. doing vampire stuff? I think the hero was… some sort of problem solver? Indolent rich? Who knows. This one is bad. I’ll stick with something really bad if the hero is female, but this hero (the actor is now the hero on Hawaii 5-O) is not good. Totally Bgrade, but with an Agrade aesthetic at times (in terms of special effects at least), and it was a struggle even for me to get through all the eps of this doomed program.
Vampire Diaries: You know this one. High production values, sometimes very, very poor scripting and acting.
Story: teenagers and vampires!
The second season started well with the way Caroline’s turning into a vampire was handled, but this hasn’t been sustained. There’s quite a bit of sex, which is a bit weird in a teenage character/high school setting, and the relationship between the brother vampires is ripe for a little slash fiction, even thought it’s a very straight show. Sometimes the show almost seems to be self-reflexive, and the ‘bad’ brother Damon assists this with his treatment. But it doesn’t quite get there. The best bit is having the ‘bad boy’ werewolf character from Wolf Lake as the ‘good’ brother Stephan. I think he’s actually a decent actor, though he struggles.
Wolf Lake: American supernatural from 2007, 1 season. Bgrade.
Story: ex-cop (Lou Diamond Phillips!) comes to small mountain town looking for his missing wife. Town is run by werewolves. He doesn’t quite discover their existence by the end of the series.
Hispanic protagonist! Tries to bring in some Native American subtext, but fails a bit. This is a weird mix of Twin Peaks and… some strange show set in a small rural town. It’s not consistent with its kooky Twin Peaks vibe and humour. Some sexy bits, some violence, but mostly laughable. It stars Stephan from Vampire Diaries, though, Lou Diamond Phillips, and a few other characters who turn up all over the place, including Phillips’ missing (werewolf) wife, who’s also in Vampire Diaries (as the sooky Stephan-girlfriend’s vampire mother). Dodgy special effects. Just didn’t quite work.
Demons: British supernatural, 2009, 6 eps of 1 season.
Story: basically Buffy with a teenage boy hero who’s descended from van Helsing and kills supernatural things.
This one is hampered by its bad acting (esp the hero), and I’m not all that interested in a male hero. The ‘mentor’ figure is played by that guy from Life on Mars who’s in all those British cop shows. I think he was miscast. I couldn’t finish watching even the 6 episodes. I’d say B, but the people who made this also made Merlin and Hex, and they have really good special effects and a glossy look.
Hex: British 2007, 2 seasons, supernatural.
Story: Witches and ghosts and teenagers and stuff.
Sexy, bit queer, except the queer character reads a bit too much like a thrill for male viewers – I was totally unconvinced. The other female protagonist is a rubbish actor. I just couldn’t handle this one, though my mum loves it. Despite the female protagonists, it’s genderfail. Bgrade, but with Agrade production values.
Supernatural: 6 seasons? You know this one too.
Story: 2 brothers travel around rural American south (sort of American gothic, but actually filmed in Canada I think) fighting monsters. More horror than supernatural, really.
Mainstream American telly. I quite like it, even though it has just about no women in it all, fails the Bechdel test. I like to watch it as though Sam and Dean are actually lovers with a rubbish relationship. They cry and talk about their feelings all the time, but they never kiss. Well, I haven’t caught them at it yet. Jensen Ackles is interesting because he was in ‘Dark Angel’, ‘Smallville’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’, which are big teen shows. I like the way Supernatural plays on its wider fan discourse, including the slash fiction stuff. Total gender politics fail if you read it straight. Excellently queeraliciously genderfuck if you don’t. Not Bgrade at all.
Dark Angel: 2 seasons 2000, American supernatural/SF/post-apocalyptic whatever. Stars Jessica Alba. I like this one.
Story: Female protagonist who’s a bike courier in some post-apocalypitc city (Seattle?). She’s a clone or something, reads as kind of ethnic-flexi, has cat DNA mixed in with hers. She and some other kids escaped some corporate facility as kids and she’s constantly in hiding, looking out for searchers, though she has a job and pays rent in a dodgy apartment. Decent gender politics, except for the sexing up of the hero via the cat DNA – she ‘comes into heat’. The female protagonist has a lesbian housemate who has partners and the queer stuff is negotiated. I think this is actually an ok show, though it’s Bgrade.
Haven: American/Canadian coproduction, 2010 1 season (renewed).
Story: woman FBI agent goes to mysterious town where people have random (and usually uncontrollable) supernatural skills to find her mother/follow some mystery or something.
I love this one. She has a male partner (a local cop) who is suitably deferent to her leadership, but also has spine. He has a supernatural power (doesn’t feel pain), is good looking but not too good looking, and they have some really great unspoken sexual tension that could just as easily be platonic love and mutual respect. Their relationship is what makes this show for me. That and the amazing location. It’s Bgrade, the stories are silly, but I like it. It uses the ‘kooky rural town’ trope. Also stars that guy Eric Balfour who is kind of the Kevin Bacon of teen telly.
Eastwick: American 1 season 2009 supernatural.
Story: set in the Eastwick of the great film Witches of Eastwick, with three similar protagonists (same talents, etc), but with slightly different backgrounds, etc.
Genderfail, and undoes all the good work of the film. Okish special effects, Bgrade in execution, but intended as something more. Reminds me of Gilmore Girls in terms of setting. One of the few with a non-anglo protagonist.
Other programs that I watch, and which inform my reading of the above programs:
Murdoch Mysteries (19thC police crime)
Hellcats (female athletes)
Veronica Mars (female teenage private detective teen)
Being Human (UK and US)
Caprica and BSG
Sarah Connor Chronicles
Smallville (early series only)
Dead Like Me
Dr Who, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures
Ultraviolet (British vampire/crime show)
Buffy and Angel and Firefly
Dollhouse (totally fucking gender FAIL and I hated it so much I had to stop watching. This show convinced me that Joss Whedon is actually fucked up RE gender stuff and that Buffy was a fluke we should attribute to Jane Espenson and other people NOT Whedon).
Nikita (a woman spy = supernatural in my book)
The rain has eased a bit, and Brisbane is recovering. Slowly. Here in Sydney the weather turned mild, but the humidity increased, and we’ve had drizzles of rain off and on every other day.
I’ve been crocheting like a crazy person (you can see some of the amigurumi I’ve been doing here) and watching lots of Jane Austen television, mostly because I have a dentist’s appointment tomorrow, and I’m beginning to get really scared. No real reason for all that fear, but since I had that horrible root canal I’ve had dentist fear. So I’m doing lots of crocheting and watching lots of television, occupying my brain entirely so I can’t think of anything else. During the other parts of the day I’m exercising obsessively, which is helping with anxiety.
I’m also doing job applications, which sucks. The pgrad diploma I did last year didn’t actually teach me anything useful about cataloguing or library routines, which is the stuff they actually want in new employees. This shits me no end. But I’ll keep doing the applications, and try to get better at writing my CV. I’m rubbish at it.
In other news, the neighbour has gotten a cat, which she lets out during the day, and which has taken to harassing the birds in the gardens. I have taken up the hose and become cRaZy Cat Watering Lady. I fucking hate the way cats kill everything. I particularly hate it that someone in a block like this has an outside cat kills all the birds that the rest of us enjoy in our shared gardens.
I DJed a set the other night that didn’t go very well. I had lots of excuses: the dancers had been dancing to too much live rock and roll music and that had screwed their lindy hop. The rest of us had been dancing to too many good jazz bands and that had spoilt us for recorded music. It was hot and humid. I was out of practice.
But buggered if I actually know why I did an ordinary job. I didn’t feel connected. I haven’t really practiced DJing properly in ages, and, to be honest, I’m much preferring dancing these days. I’d really rather be dancing like a fool than sitting on my arse, fussing over music while other people get to dance. Time to have a break, I think.
This is turning into a dreary post, isn’t it? I hadn’t meant it to be. But I guess things are a bit frustrating round here. I really need some sort of job or something. I think I’m going to go into the library next week and do some hardcore discography work. I have lots of music that I’ve bought from emusic which just has one artist’s name and a date that may or may not be accurate. And I need to tidy it all up.
Otherwise, I’m involved in the usual round of DJ coordinating gigs (MSF in Melbourne later this year for a start) and I’m helping a friend run his irregular late night dance gig, which is going to be lots of fun.
I’ve also finally gotten the Big Apple choreography under control. Now I need to really make it good. That means learning the trickier transitions and getting the arms right. And doing proper, clear, performance-ready weight changes and shapes. So it stops looking like a bunch of jiggling on the spot and starts becoming a series of complex, dynamic shapes and contrasting movements that’re actually fun to look at. This also means videoing myself dancing and then watching it over and over til I figure out what’s going on and how I can improve it. This, once again, is quite satisfying for ob-con girl.
I don’t really have much else to write about, so this is going to have to be a boring summary of my boring days, all framed by some fairly dreary self-pity. Sorry about that.