In 2004, every corner of popular culture was populated by men in crisis, and I don’t just mean George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. We had men in trouble, men in triumph, men in uniform, men on the cross, men in squarepants; men being men with other men, talking about masculinity—what it is, how to have it, keep it, get it, make it last. We might even call it the Year of the Man, but the response to such a title could reasonably be, So what’s new? Isn’t every year the year of the man?
Detailed discussions of diarrhea (Survivor). On-camera vomiting (TheBachelor, The Biggest Loser). Extensive cosmetic surgery (The Swan). Endless hot-tub makeout sessions (take your pick). On reality tv, no subject is too personal to reveal, no biological function too intimate to discuss—except for one final taboo too terrible to mention: menstruation.
It is not my pleasure to remind anyone of the 2001 teen flick Sugar & Spice. Teetering between the black humor of Heathers and the girly glitz of Clueless, it achieves the success of neither, and I bring it up now only because of a single scene.
Two years ago, the preppy mall staple Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of t-shirts that paired early 1900s–style caricatures of Chinese men (complete with coolie hats, big grins, and slanted eyes) with slogans like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White” and “Wok-N-Bowl—Let the Good Times Roll—Chinese Food & Bowling.” The clothing chain then professed great surprise when Asian-American activists cried foul; A&F’s pr flack Hampton Carney told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We personally thought Asians would love this t-shirt.... We are truly and deeply sorry we’ve offended people.” As a result of continued protests, the shirts were eventually pulled from stores (and quickly became hot commodities on Ebay).
A film studies professor once told me that everything you need to know about a movie is revealed in the first five minutes. This is particularly true of The Stepford Wives.
In the opening scene of Bryan Forbes's 1975 original, Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) takes a long, scrutinizing look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her reaction is one of mild surprise, then subtle resignation, as if she's thinking, That's me?…Oh, well. She appears wistful and introspective as she walks around the silent Manhattan apartment that has been emptied for her family's move to the suburbs. Compare this to the start of Frank Oz's 2004 version: Joanna (Nicole Kidman), a powerhouse network executive, struts like a supermodel up to a podium, delivers a self-congratulatory speech, and previews the coming season's reality shows to a huge industry crowd. The mood is loud, flashy, and in-your-face. The difference between the two scenes is night and day, and therein, as my professor foretold, is everything we need to know.
The first thing you see is food. a breastlike dome of cake towers at the top of the ad, frosted pink with a raspberry on top. “It’s like dessert for your legs,” declares the text, and just in case this copy wasn’t clear, below it a pair of cellulite-free gams balances a bottle of Skintimate After-Shave Gel in lieu of icing.
From the ancient Greeks to the current Queer Eyes, the cocktail of knowledge, ideals, aesthetics, and manners that makes up the concept of taste has served as a tireless organizing principle for a class-based society (and really, is there any other kind?). Like all organizing principles, taste is a construction rather than a law of nature: It’s almost impossible to say why, for instance, we believe it’s in good taste to put flatware in a certain order, or in bad taste to wear vinyl pants to your cousin’s wedding.
To stroll the aisles of your local Toys “R” Us is to venture into the heart of gender darkness. Whether you believe that boys emerge from the womb with dump trucks clutched in their tiny fists or see toys as an early means by which kids are trained to hew to culturally determined gender differences, you’ll find plenty of evidence to back you up. (It basically comes down to how you interpret all that pink.)
Few would debate the fact that before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements percolated into mass culture, representations of black/white relationships in popular media, particularly Hollywood, were thoroughly unbalanced. Viewed in retrospect, seemingly amicable duos like Uncle Tom and Eva, Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy, and Shirley Temple and Bill Bojangles make us cringe with the obviousness of the black character’s one-way caregiving role. The minstrelization of African-Americans—alternately portrayed as countrified nurturers or urban entertainers—reveals the extent of their oppression in Hollywood. But a look at contemporary film exposes the perhaps more troubling fact that little has changed, and nowhere does this become clearer than in narratives that take on the societal ramifications of interracial romance.
"Analysis is hard, it's complicated, and it disturbs the comfortable simplicity of familiar worldviews." So writes Susan Bordo, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Kentucky. And she should know: Her incisive writings on a wide variety of topics cut through thickets of controversy and rhetoric to produce a fine, elegant, and, above all, resonant analysis.