Category Archives: Literary Theory

M. Butterfly (opera): Postcolonial: Colonial Expansion vs. Native Orthodoxy

One of the more interesting aspects of the opera is that while America is acting as a colonial power (metropole), such as Pinkerton’s attitudes towards Japanese (colony) traditions (the concept of marriage), as well as the aggressive stance of the US Naval gunship presence in Japanese waters, the Japanese themselves (other than Butterfly) revert to a more traditional / orthodox “Japanese-ness” towards the American presence. So much time is spent in Japan with no real colonial power as a representative, other than Sharpless (who seems quite sympathetic to the Japanese anyway), that we could read the opera as offering us a glimpse into the mind and culture of a society that is attempting to refuse colonization. From Butterfly’s Uncle who disowns her, to Prince Yamadori who attempts to set up a traditional marriage, the Japanese are mostly unified in their mistrust of the Americans and in their own desire to remain Japanese.

Of course the Japanese in the opera are not wholly on board with antagonism against the Americans. Goro, for example, while he plays the traditional role of a matchmaker, has been influenced by the American idea of capitalism and greed (the imperialist influence). In fact we could look at Goro and Sharpless as two subtly distinct discourses about colonial influence on Japan. Both men take part in the devaluing of Japanese culture, however Sharpless is hesitant and seems to struggle with the morality of Pinkerton’s actions, whereas Goro has no such qualms and sees only a business opportunity.  Sharpless at least sees Butterfly as a human being; Goro sees a dishonored object to be sold to the colonial power. Ironically, Goro is acting as a pure capitalist that does not value the individual over profit. And perhaps the reason why Sharpless is hesitant is because he can see both sides of the issue within his western discourse because he is a westerner whereas Goro either does not have access to this discourse, or at least chooses not to take part in it.

When we dig deeper, we should next ask ourselves what does it mean to be Japanese (as opposed to a colonial power)? Is there an essence of “Japanese-ness” like there is a supposed feminine essence? This question seems to be at the heart of the Japanese attitudes towards the colonial power, as well as the American’s attitudes towards the Japanese. For example, Butterfly’s uncle represents the traditional mindset of family honor and duty and Butterfly’s willingness to be appropriated by an American is unacceptable to the uncle. This essence is bound up in duty and honor and family, and can be seen in contrast to the essence of the westerners who value profit, and leisure. And this identification with a Japanese essence is what motivates the more orthodox members of the society to rebel against the colonial imperialist influence and this idea of an essence creates a discourse of what it means to be Japanese. Ultimately, the characters are creating their own discourses based on what they feel is the essence of their culture, but as we see everyone seems to have a unique take on what this means.

In contrast to the Japanese in the opera who hold on to an orthodox, anti-western discourse towards the west, is Butterfly. She allows her Japanese essence to be colonized by an American discourse. She, like Goro, sees an opportunity in Pinkerton to better her life. However, unlike Goro who is using the situation for purely financial gain, she is doing so because the Japanese discourse she has grown up in has let her down. Duty to her family has only landed her in a geisha house with little prospect for honor in her culture and so she sees Pinkerton as an escape. She is buying into the colonizer’s discourse: that of becoming a typical American housewife who is free from the oppressive orthodox traditions of Japan. She appropriates American culture in her manner of dress and the locks on the doors, and she sees the west as being exotic (other) much like Pinkerton sees her as exotic. However, the truly sad part of all this is that Pinkerton is misappropriating Japanese culture by using Butterfly and not taking her seriously. He just wants to have fun (he devalues her and her culture), whereas for her the choice to give up one discourse for another is nearly a matter of life and death for her and the child.  

In the end Butterfly cannot escape her own culture no matter how many American dresses she wears or locks she attaches to the doors because no matter how many individual choices she makes that run counter to her Japanese culture, her life is not self-determined, she is at the mercy of the power structure of her own culture as well as the fetishization of a western male who does not value her or her people’s past and culture. Once she finally accepts the truth of her situation she, like many of the people around her, reverts to orthodoxy and commits seppuku, which ironically is also the only truly self-determined action she can take.

Stepping back from the opera, I think this idea of how cultural appropriation and colonization leads to the people in a community to revert to an orthodoxy is a driving force in current world politics. The massive divide between Western and Muslim beliefs seem to only entrench each side further and further into orthodoxy whenever one side attempts to interfere with the other’s culture. For example when the west overthrows the leader of a middle eastern nation, like Saddam Hussein, the moral justification may be for human rights reasons, but the people who actually live there, even knowing they live under a tyrannical leader, do not accept western influence and in the void left by a lack of leadership they revert to the orthodoxy of their culture. The same is true in the west when someone of Muslim faith carries out a terrorist attack and in the aftermath the voices who are the loudest are those who are the most conservative.

The irony is that the more a culture attempts to colonize another, the more likely the result will be a strengthening of the colonized orthodoxy. The more the colonizer devalues the colonized culture and people, the more the colonized will hold onto and value their own culture. Even in the case of imperialism where it seems a culture benefits by more economic opportunity (like Butterfly and Goro in the opera), there comes a point when people begin to question these materialist values and may begin look to a more traditional discourse that gives their lives more meaning, even if it comes at the expense of the comfort and leisure capitalist colonialism provides.

Colonialism / Postcolonialism: McIntosh’s Argument Against Kindness to end Racism

What is problematic about the belief that “racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude?” Why is emphasizing individual kindness among interracial interaction not valid as the primary strategy for ending pervasive racism in society according to McIntosh?

 

As we learned in the Marxism unit we have systems in place that privileges white skin whether or not those same people are aware of the system existing or not, or whether they approve of the system or not. She goes on to say that only changing our attitudes is not enough, we must “acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions,” of the system and construct a new base.

McIntosh believes individual kindness is not enough to change the system since the system is so entrenched that “freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people,” and this system must be fundamentally changed to really allow there to be true equality. But how do we change the system? Being aware of our attitudes and the systems in place that privilege white skin over other skin is vital, yet what is McIntosh proposing we do? Do we “seize the means of production,” as Marx said? Is just being aware of privilege enough to end privilege?

I believe that kindness is, in fact, the only real strategy. Kindness, however, is not the act of being gracious (which implies a sort of power structure consisting of a dominant party conferring their graciousness towards a disadvantaged party), it involves empathy, humility, and the putting aside our own ego. It involves seeing the worth in not just ourselves but also in another individual and recognizing that someone else might be the better person for a job, or an apartment rental, or that their argument is better than our own. A society consisting of truly kind people is a society in which there is no inequality, in which no structures are built in the first place to oppress others or disadvantage others. In such a society everyone’s worth is valued to its earned degree and the contents of everyone’s knapsack are valued.

McIntosh says, “it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base”. To do this we have to put aside our own egos, our own pride, and have empathy for all the people in our lives.

In Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” one of the main characters, a monk, comes upon a group of children beating up another child. When the monk intervenes to help the bullied child, that child bites the monk’s finger and runs away. The monk was surprised by the child’s reaction to his kindness, yet what he did not understand was why the child was being bullied. The child was being bullied because his father had been seen drunk in town and had made a fool of himself and his very poor family. The boy was ashamed to have this attention heaped upon the fact that he was already poor and looked down upon and he saw that having this “kindly” monk (a person of privilege) step in to “help” in would only make his social situation even worse. The monk realized that we can’t help everyone, but what we can do is be aware of their situation (as well as our own) and be empathetic to their situation (as well as our own), to value them as human beings and not as someone who is just labeled as being poor or of a different race or gender.  True kindness is valuing each person as a vital human being.

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

My favorite novel is War and Peace, and part of the reason why I love it isn’t just because of the writing but because of the reasons why Tolstoy wrote it. Now I never considered that my love of the novel was in fact a part of what the new historicism critics were doing, but I think I can give a good example of how this works.

Barry says that, “the word of the past replaces the world of the past,” (Barry, 175) meaning that all we have to go on are the texts that have been left behind to us since the actual time in history no longer exists.

In Tolstoy’s case we could include in our analysis of War and Peace:

  • His wife’s daily journal. If you ever wanted to know what a pain in the ass Tolstoy was, as well as some insight into Tolstoy’s attitude towards women, serfs, the upper-classes, and how he behaved in general, read his poor wife’s journal.
  • We could look at Tolstoy’s military records (he served in the Crimean War 10 years previous to writing the novel) as well as his correspondence writing from that war in which we see him grow more disillusioned with war itself.
  • We could also look at the political reforms of the 1860’s, specifically the Russian Serf Emancipation of Emperor Alexander II.  

 

So armed with these additional texts we could get a better picture of what the author was living through at the time as well as give us extra insight into the author himself. Combined we get a bigger picture of not just what the novel is about, but why it exists in the world, why Tolstoy felt a book about the beginnings of the Decembrists Revolt was relevant half a century later.

War and Peace as seen through the old historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are constrained to act in accordance with their constrained social status under the ultimate rule of the Tsar and their desire to fight Napoleon’s invasion of their country.

 

War and Peace as seen through the new historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are greatly influenced by the new thinking of the age, such as nihilism, radical political reform, social justice, and the erosion of and political complicitness of the Orthodox church in regards to the power of the Tsar.

M. Butterfly (opera): Marxism: Power Relationship Nodes and Connections

I thought it might be fun to do a map of some of the connections found in the Madame Butterfly opera and explore how these relationships relate to historical and materialist criticism. I stuck to only a few major relationships, however many, many more could be explored. I had also intended to do a map for Pinkerton as well, but Butterfly’s alone was so in-depth that I’m just sticking to this one example. I intentionally left out Pinkerton and Sharpless (and their corresponding connections and nodes) so I could limit my focus to that solely of culture / society / the state (the power structures).

For Butterfly’s map of power relationship nodes and connections I placed Japan at the top and Butterfly at the bottom since I felt this best explains the pressures Butterfly feels in the opera and this gives us a good visual shorthand visualizing how complicated her situation is as well as how powerless she seems to be with so much weight bearing down on her. Marx explains how the individual can often feel alienated or oppressed from the world in which they are participating and this map shows how Butterfly might feel about the world / society she wishes to divorce herself from.

As we learned at the beginning of the unit our condition is affected by our environment and shapes how we interact with the world. In Butterfly’s case she is greatly influenced by her being Japanese, as we see with a line directly from Japan to Butterfly, and this is a major factor in how she interprets her world. Even her desire to break free of this power structure is informed by her Japanese-ness, and not an American-ness (such as the ideal of American individualism / rebelliousness) of which she knows very little outside of magazines and Pinkerton’s relationship to her. In this sense Japan is what Marx calls the base and everything that follows (below on my map) is the superstructure of which that society (Butterfly’s world) consists.

I’ve next made a split below Japan into Family and Society. These are smaller units of the larger Japan and are directly related in both directions, but they are distinct in that Butterfly would identify with each in different ways. For example Suzuki and her son, Sorrow are part of her intimate network of caregivers and providers while her Uncle, though a blood relation (unlike Suzuki) is a reminder of the pressures of Society. Both nodes also represent unique ideologies: Family is that which Butterfly is trying to create anew – the dynamic of Butterfly, the servant Suzuki, and the fatherless child is not a traditional family – and Society is that ideology from which she is trying to free herself from, as we can see with nodes such as Goro, Prince Yamadori, and the Geisha House all falling under that heading.

Other connections we could make might be economic, such as the Geisha House which can provide her with a source of income if she is willing to submit herself to that life again, but also the economic situation of her own House which, with the money quickly running out, is a source of stress and oppression which, if unresolved, could force her, literally, from one house (her House under the Family node) to the other (the Geisha House under the Society node).

All-in-all this map represents the state and State in which Butterfly lives in. The state is broken up into two categories: the repressive state apparatus which coerces power, such as the nodes Goro and Prince Yamadori, both of whom actively try to influence her behavior. We could also look to the dream sequence in the film as a coercive apparatus where the black and white newsreel imagery of a modern and powerful (military) Japanese society is, as Freud might tell us, is actively influencing her through the subconscious.

The other category is the ideological state apparatus and an example from our map that fits here would be the Family. The Family is, of course, related to Society in that Society is informing the Family members how to behave (as Japanese) – as we see with the Uncle’s influence / warnings – but it is also a separate node in this case because Butterfly is part of a non-traditional family – she is married to a foreigner, she is a single mother, and her only close companion is someone from a lower class, Suzuki. This ideological state Butterfly exists in also helps us understand how, as Althusser questions, change can take place within the State (capital “S”) because we can see how her circumstance isolates her and informs her decisions to insist on this Family ideology over the Society ideology.

Yet even though she is favoring one ideology over another, we can see how these ideologies are interpolated and how Butterfly is an interpolated subject (and Subject) within the overall ideology of Japan / Japanese-ness. Althusser wonders how is it that societies remain stable and why do people chose to remain submissive to their state and State, and these interconnections explain how a person is defined by their state (State) and how complicated it can be to extract oneself from these ideologies – if that’s even possible at all.

One final point, and one which is not on our map, is that of the magazines Butterfly reads. For her these magazines are a source of education and information that she uses as motivation (power) to free herself from her current ideological state (and State). This information she has access to runs counter to the ideology of Japanese society by showing how western women should look and behave. She is consciously privileging this counter-narrative (binary) and she is interpreting this information in a way that she believes will give her power. For example, she begins to dress as an American thus privileging one interpretation of Society (American) over another Society (Japan). From this information she has constructed a narrative in which she is the good American housewife and this gives her a power of will to endure the absence of Pinkerton, an absence which is not just emotionally painful, but also economically (the lack of money) and socially painful (the shunning of her Uncle’s Family).

Finally we can trace Butterfly’s discourse, or the limits of her experience as it relates to her state / State. Butterfly’s relationship to the ideology of the State is unique and she seems to be actively rebelling against her condition within the State, however she is not doing so as, say, a modern feminist who is challenging the hegemony (such discourse does not exist for her, even if some of her actions do coincidently align with that discourse). Butterfly’s discourse is chiefly social / societal because her previous life as a practical slave in the Geisha House (which came about because of her family’s fall from respect and a need for money) is something she refuses to return to. She has existed within the machine of Society and she wants to free herself from that oppression, and oppression so powerful it actually took her real name, Cio-Cio-san, away from her (loss of identity via the State). She has seen how alienating and oppressive the State is, she bears the scars of her state, and so she reacts against these states by attempting to forge a new narrative / ideology / identity. Yet her tragedy is that she cen never really escape her state / State and in the end suffers the ultimate alienation of all states: Death

Marxism: Althusser’s ‘Ideology’

For Althusser ‘ideology’ is a very particular term that he theorizes very carefully. Explain in your own words, using quotes from Althusser’s essay, what he means by ‘ideology’? How is Althusser’s notion of ideology different from 18th and 19th century theorizations of the relationship between an individual and his social conditions?

 

He begins with Thesis 1: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Thesis 1 ideology is saying that what we refer to as “religious ideology, ethical ideology, [etc.],” (693) are “largely imaginary,” and “do not correspond to reality,” (693). He does say that ideologies make “allusion to reality,” (693) and therefore need to be interpreted so we can see the real world that exists behind these imaginary representations of our world. In other words it’s like the René Magritte’s painting The Human Condition where we’re looking behind what the canvas (the canvas in the painting) is hiding.

He then explains there are two ways we can interpret reality: mechanistic, which he relates to the relationship between the King being a representation of God, and hermeneutic, which says “God is the essence of real Man,”(693). He sums this up by saying we use the imaginary to represent reality.

Next he explains that one way this worked was that those in power (Priests or Despots) were the responsible agents that “forged,” (694) an ideology to control the people. Another way was through “material alienation,” (694) in which we create an imaginary (alienating) “representation of [our] condition,” (694) because we have been alienated by these representations. Not quite sure what he’s getting at with material alienation – why would we create that which we has already alienated us?

He explains, “What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live,” (695). In other words, Thesis 1 ideology is our relationship with our condition of existence.

M. Butterfly: Feminism: Is Gender Identity Natural / Innate or Socially Constructed?

Is gender identity natural/innate or socially constructed? Are specific bodies linked to specific behaviors/appearances/identities male= masculine, female= feminine?

 

Considering how contentious both sides of this debate is I believe the answer is “a little bit of both”. For example, in the film Song is constructing a feminine identity designed to please a Western male, while Gallimard (the Western male) possesses many innate feminine characteristics. Both sides of the debate are presented here amid a backdrop of social revolution to show how fluid and complicated the distinction is while hinting at a “radical” possibility of a world in which there is no distinction to be made (the communist state where everyone is “equal”). The film is using the characters as binaries to help us understand gender by differentiating between them and then mixes them together until the distinction is so blurred that we can no longer tell where one end and the other begins.

When we look at the essentialist argument we are presented with biological differences: a woman’s body is (usually) reproductive, whereas a man’s body is (usually) more muscular. Just inhabiting a certain physical body can influence how we interact with the world, such as someone who is blind will interact with the world differently than a sighted person. The essentialists believe that “[w]omen are more caring,” (Rivkin, 530) but also can be defined as that which is “not male”, a nonidentity expressed through ecriture feminine that is fluid and non-rational. The problem here is that, as with my example of someone who is blind, it seems to be creating a hierarchy where there might perhaps be a preferred state of being (sighted is preferred over blind), or with the ecriture feminine that women will fall into the stereotype of being mysterious as opposed to logical.

From the constructivist side of the argument it seems the essentialists are “taking an effect to be a cause” (Rivkin, 530) where biology is used as a sort of excuse to subordinate women. The argument is taken even further to say that in a capitalist society women are assigned from birth, based on their sex, to behave in a way that benefits the state by staying at home and performing as “domestic laborers,” (Rivkin, 530). In other words gender is a social construct and therefore can be deconstructed or thrown out altogether. However, this is also problematic in that it has the possibility of leading to there being no distinction at all between men  and women and that our biology plays no role in our gender.

The film presents this problem of competing ideologies by showing us that gender exists on a spectrum, that gender is a representation of a reality, a reality we construct but that it is also based on the hyper-real in which there is no absolute ideal model or form to base it on. Both Song and Gallimard construct their reality out of what they think defines their gender.  Song looks at fashion magazines, Gallimard looks to Puccini, but in both cases they are drawing on constructed identities and not anything concrete and specific, it is all imitation where there is no original.

All this then leads to the performative nature of gender, “the way in which gender is constructed through specific corporeal acts,” (Butler, 2). The most extreme examples of this is within the media where we are influenced and stereotyped into performing a specific gender script. The models in Song’s magazines are grotesquely feminine with their gaudy makeup, and the characters in Puccini’s opera are embarrassingly stereotypical. Yet both Song and Gallimard have been heavily influenced by these images and initially act out according to what they believe is the script they should be following. It is no wonder then that they both wind up being punished by society for breaking away from these “putatively regulated cultural fictions,” (Butler, 4). Society believes Song and Gallimard are gender “imposters” who have been exposed and must be punished for going against the roles they have been assigned.

Yet what and who is this society that is imposing these roles on the actors? Again, the film seems to be commenting on this society by giving us characters who are both male. Typically males have held the dominant role in society (hegemony) yet here both males are struggling with what it means to even be male. Gallimard does not fit the role of the typical male in that he is ridiculed by his colleagues, is ineffectual in his attempt to assert his political views, and winds up falling in love with a biological man. Song, too is a critique of the male hegemonic system in that Song as a biological man seems to know more what it is to be a woman than a biological woman does. Song controls the relationship, demands a child be given to her/him, and puts Gallimard in a subservient role in the relationship. In short Song acts very masculine while putting on the staged trappings of the feminine. And again we have a blurring of the lines of what it means to be masculine in that during the time we believed Song to be biologically a woman we accepted her seemingly masculine actions as being “normal” because she was a foreigner who acts different than we do. But when Song is exposed as a biological male, Gallimard turns against Song even though the only thing that has really changed is the biology – Song’s actions had always been quite masculine but once the male essence had been added to the male biology then Gallimard rejects Song even though he had been attracted to a very masculine identity in every other way other than in the biological sense.

This is an interesting critique of the patriarchy in that it shows how fluid and malleable this institution really is. And in the end there does seem to be – from Gallimard – an understanding that the patriarchy has been in control the whole time and has dominated his view of what a relationship can be. The entire time he has been manipulated by a biological male who has control over him and so by setting up Gallimard as a more feminine male we can really see how this affects biological women because we see how the power dynamic oppresses and penalizes women in this system through the lens of taking away the power from our example of a biological male (Gallimard). In other words by exposing a male as feminine and then oppressing this male, we can see how men use power to emasculate other men as well as oppress women by attempting to make them inferior. This also exposes the troubling subordination of homosexuals in society.

Through all this it is no wonder that society seems to be comfortable in creating very rigid and specific roles to play because at least by having a script we aren’t left to have to figure out how to navigate gender with no guide whatsoever. Connell says that, “[t]here is likely to be a ‘fit’ between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity,” (Connell, 61)  because having these defined stage directions in our script is, “more familiar and manageable,” (Connell, 61). In other words we do not have to worry about being placed on trial or sent to a quarry to break rocks as long as we stick to the roles given to us.

Feminism: The Ascendance of Masculinities

Why do men need the ascendance of masculinities (Rambo, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger) that highlight the failures of living up to these hegemonic figures and expectations?

 

I’d argue men do not need it and quite often are very tired of this “creation of models of masculinity,” (61). For many men the whole “ritual of induction into trade and masculinity,” (62) as highlighted by the example of London printers is very much a drudgery and the relief of acceptance is more a relief that it’s over and that the ritual doesn’t have to be repeated (at least at such a base level), not so much that men actually enjoy it. The feeling of being “brothers,” (62) is more akin to a sort of Stockholm syndrome than one of having participated in a system they were proud to be a part of as they went through it. Ask a man who’s been in the military and then been in combat and while he’ll talk of the brotherhood of his unit, he’s not going to have much (if anything) good to say about the war itself. A band of brothers is created out of necessity rather than as a goal to cope with the horrors of the indoctrination.

There is also the level of insecurity men feel specifically because there is no attaining the ideal of someone like Mohammed Ali. And the inherent violence in many male “fantasy,” (61) figures is not an extension of men’s (assumed) seething violence that is ready to boil over at the drop of a feather, but rather a feeling of aggression towards that which makes men feel inadequate. Men are at war with insecurity itself because men are unable to attain the “model of masculinity,” (61).

The real takeaway, however, is for men to be aware of what this system is actually perpetuating. By being complicit in this system (61) it has the effect of forcibly subordinating (specifically) women by maintaining “the maintenance of practices that institutionalize men’s dominance over women,” (61). Through awareness of the consequences of participating in hyper-masculinity then perhaps change towards equality can occur while at the same time relieving men of the insecurity of not being able to live up to a concocted ideal.  

 

Adam Wagner’s response:

I am inclined to agree with Dan to a certain degree. I think society as a whole is seeing a stray from the hyper-masculine physical type of portrayal we’ve seen in the past. The most classic example of Superhero movies is (slowly but nonetheless) moving towards a more diverse cast. Heroes are becoming more complex rather than just a Superman-esque beat ‘em up type.

That being said, I do think there is still a hegemonic masculinity in regards to being ‘center stage.’ We may not see the Arnold Schwarzenegger types nearly as often, but there is still a strive for “a social ascendancy achieved in a play into the organization of private life and cultural processes” (Connell). This is seen specifically in blue-collar type media. Take, for instance, Wolf of Wall Street. While this film was based on a true story, it is interesting regardless to view it as placing men center stage. The main character does despicable things to reach his place of wealth. Despite this, does the audience despise him? No, rather he is almost cheered on. Why? Because there is always an inclination towards wishing victory for one – specifically, victory for one we’ve considered as historically ‘victorious’ for so long. The audience is accustomed to supported the strong, leader male in the aforementioned physical strength way and this transfers to the ‘new’ wealthy protagonist; money is taking priority over physical ability.

This can also be seen in the general mindset of college-aged Millenials. If one were to approach a white, twenty-something college male student and ask “what do you want to do after college?” the response would most certainly involve trips and expenses that would, at their current wage level be impossible. There is a general assumption of success in the future. This is the idea of Wolf of Wall Street – any man with intelligence can achieve fantastic success. Of course, in an actual society, the level of wealth most individuals strive for is unattainable, leading to general unhappiness. Despite these examples, most white males cannot help but imagine themselves this way as that is what the modern day role model (Robert Downey Jr, Leonardo DiCaprio, so on) portrays.

As well, in a similar setting, if you talk to females about the future a frequent joke is “oh, I’ll just marry rich!” This isn’t the overall mindset, but it is heard often nonetheless. While female-empowering movies are, thankfully, appearing more frequently, these movies are focusing on the physical aspect of before. While this is still important, there are not nearly as many economic and intellectually empowering movies coming to light. While, admittedly, not a big movie-goer, the last big-hit success of this nature I can recall was Legally Blonde in 2001. Women in power are becoming more vocal about this issue; however, it is still not nearly as prevalent in big-hit media.

With regards to the physical attributes, I think Dan is certainly right. We are seeing a decline in the physically masculine ascension. Yet, I do think in commercials and other media the blue-collar, white businessman is becoming even more prevalent. Being rich is the new masculine.

My response:

Excellent point about Wolf of Wall Street being a more modern ideal of masculinity. I do think it’s interesting that this ideal is played for comedy, however. A lot of the film is very funny and the filmmakers do not pull any punches on judging these characters harshly – they are greedy, vain, and egocentric. The ideals of masculinity are being made fun of for how buying into these ideals can be seen as negative and have a negative effect on the people around them.

Other films which also question these roles would be There Will Be Blood that is quite critical of the drive for greed at all costs, even though Daniel Plainview (the main character) is hyper-masculine. No Country For Old men shows how old fashioned the John Wayne type is and how the old ideals of masculinity can’t exist in the modern world. The Social Network goes even further and makes the main, male character who is wildly successful into a lonely, maladjusted figure deserving of ridicule. And a film like Goodfellas that seems to glamorize that lifestyle is really a harsh critique of it and exposes the male ideal of being a powerful male who can do anything he wants (including murder) as being a false ideal that can only destroy us.

Adam Wagner’s response:

I find your back-and-forth interesting, but I would also like to point out that every example you give (Wolf of Wall Street, There Will Be Blood, The Social Network, etc.) the men are *still* rich, white, and successful.  Yes, the films/filmmakers judge them harshly for their behavior, but they are also still portraying these traits as something that will ultimately lead to wealth/success. To be sure, there is a lot to be said for the negative connotations being portrayed here, but in my opinion it is also saying that the metaphorical “Deal With The Devil” will always pay handsomely if you are willing to sacrifice your soul.

I know this kind-of leads back to your original point, but I am also still troubled by the current ideology that equates being rich with being morally corrupt.  If, as you say, Rich is the new Masculine, then we are *also* tying Masculine with morally bankrupt. If it has become impossible (In popular culture) to obtain financial success without also sacrificing your soul (metaphorically speaking), what will the next generation be left to conclude from this line of reasoning?  I, myself, do actually see this change as a positive one because it will ultimately discourage the narrative of “Masculinity” as something Noble or Admirable. In my mind, anything that makes it harder for the world to produce more power-hungry people is a positive change, but I am also left asking what this will cost humanity as a species.

I know I’ve derailed your conversation a bit from where you started, but I find all of this super interesting in a meta-societal way.

Feminism

Barry asks, “If normative language can be seen as in some way male-orientated, the question arises of whether there might be a form of language which is free from this bias, or even in some way orientated towards the female.”

Perhaps a difference can be seen in examining the stereotypes of how men and women use language. For example, men are seen as using language with a specific goal in mind, the stereotype being men try to fix their partner’s problems with “why don’t you just tell your boss X or Y?”. Conversely, the stereotypical female use of language is to use language as a way of expressing emotion, such as “I’m really frustrated with my boss.”

These of course are stereotypes and tropes in our society since men do express their emotions to their partners and women do explain to people how to perform tasks. And the same can be seen in art, such as the character Ripley in the Alien films who performs both stereotypically male and female roles, often at the very same time (protecting a child in her arms while firing a flamethrower).

So what then would be a non-masculine language? Marks and Courtivron seem to be saying that a whole new language – written through their (women’s) bodies – must be invented. Even “pronouncing the word ‘silence’” would be done away with since that would impose a syntax, or a male-dominated control over the language. What this language would be I could image as a form of dance, a physical expression of want and desire and feeling, sort of like bees using their bodies to tell the hive where the pollen is located. Of course this presents the problem of their still would be a language with a rigid syntax that has been imposed on the culture.

M. Butterfly: Psychoanalysis

Each of the major characters in the opera can not only be slotted into each of the three topographic landscapes of Freud’s theory – Id, Superego, and Ego – but that the overall structure of the opera is representative of the entire model Freud is positing where there is a) desire, b) a mediating conscience, and c) an individual who must decide what to consciously pursue and what to repress.

One possible assembly of these pieces could consist of Pinkerton as the Id, Suzuki as the Superego, and Butterfly as the Ego. Here Pinkerton represents that which Butterfly desires to have: a husband who will give her life new identity and take her away from her previous, unsatisfactory life. However, Suzuki, who is always close at hand (much as we can’t ever escape our ever-nagging conscience) and whom is necessary for Butterfly to do pretty much anything in the home, represents the Superego who is attempting to instruct Butterfly that her decision to pursue Pinkerton is doomed. Finally, Butterfly is the Ego which must try to negotiate between the two, and on a few occasions verbally threatens Suzuki because Butterfly does not like being confronted with the painful advice being given when Suzuki tries to get Butterfly to really consider the consequences of her desire, or in other words to confront the possibility she is repressing her fear that this relationship is doomed.

Within this Freudian dynamic we can see the pleasure principle at work in Butterfly. She substitutes the pain she feels – the loss (lack) of Pinkerton’s physical presence, but also the pain of the repressed fear she has as to his actual intentions – with a reality she can control: a delusion of certainty that he is absolutely coming back (transference). Pinkerton’s absence is similar to the Fort-da game Freud describes in that Butterfly is processing this unusually long and painful separation as a sort of pressure gauge whose eventual relief will produce an even greater pleasure upon his return. In this sense she might believe Pinkerton’s absence is actually a voluntary renunciation she has control over because she tells herself it is her duty as the wife to support her hardworking husband even while he is away. She is, in her mind, the good American housewife who will be rewarded for her sacrifice.

Yet Butterfly’s separation (lack) from her desire (Pinkerton), the object she desperately needs in order to complete or at least maintain her constructed identity as a dutiful American housewife, is really a separation from a desire she can never really possess. For her Pinkerton is the key to her shedding the Japanese identity into the ideal American housewife, yet which itself is something she has almost no concept of other than what she imagines that to even mean. Probably she has never even met an American woman before and has based her identity on what Pinkerton has told her it could be like. Ironically, Pinkerton might not even know what the ideal American housewife is supposed to consist of!  

It is in this misunderstanding that we can see Butterfly attempt to symbolize her desire through a sort of created language when she wears the American style dress and sets the house up with western locks (symbolic of her repressing her Japanese-ness). She’s trying to approximate a meaning to a system she’s practically ignorant of (American culture). And the further she commits to this reasoning the more she’s invested into it because the consequences would be shame and the ridicule of everyone in the village. How her family and the villagers see her drives her on to separate herself from that identity, in effect her identity is being influenced by the outside world, an influence she rebels against.

Butterfly is living a highly fragmented existance, she is neither her old self nor is she the self she desires to be, she’s become, in effect, the uncanny in that he looks like Butterfly, but she also no longer resembles Butterfly. Not to mention the name Butterfly being problematic itself. She is a prosthetic, what we call the Ideal-I, a being existing somewhere between the experiential I she is and the ideal person she can never be.

Lacan explains we can never really posses what we desire, yet Butterfly does wind up back in Pinkerton’s embrace, literally the embrace of her desire. Yet in the Freudian sense to completely indulge that desire, to let that animal nature we repress to fully embrace and nurture us (as Pinkerton does as he holds her like a helpless child as she dies from her wound), would be to strip away our humanity and figuratively cause our death, a psychic death dramatized in the opera as her suicide since that accepted embrace of the repressed desire (the animal nature) is a form of suicide. She has attempted to return to a sense of wholeness, but by accepting the embrace of this Ego, it is a perverted and unnatural act that strips her away of her ultimate identity as a living human being.

Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Freud mentions the “compulsion of destiny” as something that “seems intelligible on a rational basis,” (174) or in other words what the ancients called “Destiny” is little more than our inability to break from the habit of “‘perpetual recurrence of the same thing'”(173), our own repressed compulsions manifesting (what Freud calls transference) themselves over and over through the same (or seemingly similar) outlets.

One example (and in keeping with the theme of the ancients) is that of Heracles in Euripides play Herakles. Hercules is a warrior, he has been on numerous dangerous missions (the 12 labors) where his life was in great danger, and in fact he was even in Hades right as the story begins. Hercules has taken the lives of countless men and beasts, he is death and he brings death wherever he goes. Heracles is, in effect, a killing machine.

The play, tragically, ends with Heracles killing his own children in a fit of rage, or what we would now call something akin to PTSD. All the killing he has done, because that is his “Destiny”, causes him to continue to kill, which is his inescapable “Fate”. He repeats the same terrible acts over and over, even against those he loves because he can’t escape this destiny: a repressed compulsion to kill that he tries to keep repressed but which manifests itself in the most terrible ways possible, even against his conscious will and desire.

Hercules wishes he could live a normal life with his family, but he’s doomed to express his repressed “Destiny” (killing) because he has no other outlet and it becomes a compounding issue: the more he kills the worse his PTSD becomes and thus the more he kills. But he was born to kill, not to be a family man sitting at home smoking a pipe and listening to Perry Como on the hi-fi. He can’t repress his desire and though the actions of his desire to kill are terrible to him he repeats them over and over and, in effect, becomes sicker and sicker.

M. Butterfly: Post-structuralism: ‘Textualized’ subjects of post-structuralism and other ‘metanarratives’

Consider the characters of the movie and/or the opera as ‘textualized’ subjects of post-structuralism – that is, as subjects whose ‘reality’ is always referential, never absolute.

I keep coming back to the scene when Butterfly is wearing an American style dress during the height of her resistance to the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back when Prince Yamadori shows up instead to marry her. Her identity is referencing that of a what she believes is of the typical American housewife, albeit one who is rather fancy and quite wealthy judging by the quality of her dress. She tries her best to “dress” herself in this identity, but it’s an obvious mask everyone sees through, in fact nobody even comments on her change of clothes because they are seeing right past what she is referencing and are seeing only the Butterfly underneath the foreign garb. This is interesting because she looks totally out of place in this dress, too. She seems to be playing dress up the way children would with dolls, though based on her experience as a geisha, putting on a costume to inhabit a role of fantasy (for male customers) is nothing so foreign to her or, for that matter, to any of the Japanese. Technically, she is simulating a reality in an attempt to create for herself a new reality, but as with all simulations, she falls short.

This, in turn, reveals another layer of reference because under her American dress is the girl they call Butterfly, which isn’t even her given name. To Prince Yamadori she is just a prize to be had, a conquest to add to his harem. He sees her as a prostitute to be bought but does not see the Cio-Cio-san underneath. But then with these onion-like layers, we have to wonder then if everything is referential, is there any identity at all? Who is the “real” Cio-Cio-san under the American dress and behind the Butterfly persona? Here then we are presented with an example of différance in that this individual woman can be called “Butterfly”, or “Cio-Cio-san”, or “Housewife” and in each instance she takes on (or attempts to take on)  a new reality that is different from her other realities. We are seeing Butterfly in a different reference; she no longer is wearing the traditional Japanese dress, she’s identifying herself with an other in defiance of what she no longer wishes to be associated with: a Japanese woman.

Yet she can’t help but expose a slippage back into her other identity because she is, after all, a Japanese woman living in Japan. She can’t fully inhabit her new binary because she isn’t a white, American, blonde, woman (like Pinkerton’s American wife). However, we do need to be careful here because if she had been raised in America from a small child (like her son will be), and was only ever raised with American culture, and dress, and American speech was all she knew and inhabited, then her mere biological characteristics would not necessarily preclude her from “legitimately” identifying as a typical American housewife, albeit as someone who also possesses Asian physical characteristics.

In fact this leads into part of the next question from the take-away: How reliable is what we think we know about the characters and cultures in the opera? If I had been born and raised in, say, the Amazon and had never been influenced by any culture outside of the deep Brazilian rainforest, I might not make much of any distinction between who is Japanese and who is American and what either of these two foreign cultures might represent or mean. I, as this supposed foreign observer, would not be interpreting the situation through the lens of what I think “Japan” is vs what I think “America” is, or what “honor” is vs what “individualism” is, rather I might see a contradiction in that the male in the relationship is acting one way whereas the female is acting another and that they are not adhering to my own (foreign) concept of what a relationship “should” be about.

To take it even further, if I was aware of what honor is I might think she is using honor as an excuse to not face the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back and that she’s just being stubborn and not because she really is honorable, as is the prefered reading of “honor” in this case, doing so because she truly believes absolutely in what she is doing with no doubts at all. All-in-all everything becomes relative, not absolute, but always from the point of view of another observer. To Butterfly or Pinkerton their reality may seem perfectly “absolute”, but  from a relative point of view those realities fall apart.

 

And this idea of how a reality might seem absolute to the individual experiencing it leads us to the next topic:

Postmodernism

What other ‘metanarratives’ do you see in the movie and opera? What role do they play?

The metanarrative which most interested me was that of the importance (or not) of telling the truth as we understand it. I was first struck by this during the courtroom scene when Gallimard is asked, by a incredulous judge, how he could not have known Song was a man. According to the court Gallimard must be telling a lie, right? How could anyone be so unobservant? Yet we the audience who have spent nearly 2 hours riding along in this situation did not know either! We too were fooled and if we had been quizzed by a legal tribunal as to whether or not Song was a woman, most of us would have rolled our eye at such a boneheaded question: of course the truth is that Song is a woman!

Yet suppose we were to place the characters in the film into an impressionist painting. Would we then be able to clearly distinguish who was whom, and which gender any of these figures posses? Would we be lying if we said we were certain a figure holding a baby was a woman? Or a figure on a motorcycle was a man? And if we changed our answer would we then be telling the truth?

And so like in an impressionist painting, the characters are creating and inventing their own truth about their identity. Perhaps Song is more willing to be fluid while Gallimard is more resistant to slippage between identities, but is the possibility that either of them are lying even necessarily a “bad” thing? Yes, we favor the “truth” and, like the judge are initially incredulous to any idea outside of Song being a man and Gallimard being a spy, but are these “facts” actually the real truth?

Both characters live very post-modern lives in that they are lonely and isolated and live in worlds that is seething with energy to reinvent themselves (mostly through political revolution), a world neither of them seem to fully comprehend, either. Both characters reject traditional “realism” in an effort to invent their own “truths”, and not necessarily because either of them are lying, but because they are more open to other possibilities, even if it comes at the expense of willfully (or unwittingly) failing to investigate their reality much further under the surface reality they’ve created – in other words, neither seem willing to undress their reality and expose it in its naked condition, until the very end.

Yet even in the end when Song strips naked and Gallimard takes on a persona of Butterfly, are they still any closer to the truth, or are they just inhabiting a new truth as they define truth now?

Ultimately it comes down to how the characters are creating their own reality by creating a real from an unreal. Gallimard, in his role as a diplomat (inept as he is) believes he is telling the truth about how the Chinese and the Americans will behave in the current political crisis in Southeast Asia. He may not be totally confident in his beliefs and is hiding behind a dismissive, almost arrogant attitude, but he has to look good in front of the ambassador and his less than friendly coworkers. Song too believes she is truthful in being a woman because, as she says, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”. She’s become more woman than woman, she’s become a meta-woman, the ultimate simulation of a woman based on what she thinks a woman is supposed to be. She too has to put on a good show to convince Gallimard and in her own way is also telling the truth about the reality she is inhabiting.

Yet as with any specific reading of a text, these characters readings of their reality and what they believe is truth is unreliable and artificial. From Comrade Chin’s point of view Song is decadent and a disgrace to the cultural revolution. Song should inhabit the established cultural roles and norms as imposed by Chairman Mao and anything deviating from that is a lie, perhaps even treason! Comrade Chin sees Song as a deceitful liar, albeit a useful liar for China’s political gain. The same holds true for Gallimard. He’s a meta-Westerner, an educated, arrogant, in-over-his-head colonialist who thinks all Asians are exotic butterflies and the Chinese take full advantage of this reading of him as if this is an accurate, truthful reading of Gallimard the individual. Gallimard begins the story believing this narrative of himself and very much wishes to inhabit that defined reality, yet he’s not nearly qualified to really be of any political use to the Chinese because he really isn’t a meta-Westerner after all, it’s a lie, and like the impressionist painting, he and the Chinese made a poor reading of who he really was.

Ultimately how then can anyone ever really be telling the truth when our own realities can be so easily thrown into doubt or are at least fluid? Song is more woman than woman, so is she lying when she says she’s a woman? Gallimard loves Butterfly and so is he telling the truth when he says he didn’t know she was (at least physically) a man? Even if we could read the minds of Song and Gallimard we might still be no closer to determining who is telling the truth here because what is the truth?

Deconstruction / Postmodernism: Simulation of the Real

René Magritte’s 1928 painting “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”) is a fun example of the simulation the real. On the one hand it is just the image of a pipe, not a pipe itself – it is a simulation of a pipe. On the other, however, is the fact that it is, in fact, a real painting of a pipe. The painting does in fact exist even if what it is a painting of does not exist.

Another example is from the novel War and Peace when Marya gives her brother Andrey (an atheist) an icon to wear around his neck as he heads off to war. She simply believes this icon will keep the grace of God with him as he heads into danger, and though he does not believe in God he does wear this because he loves his sister. In neither case is the icon actually God nor is it love, but it simulates both of these things at once (in a different way to each of them). Later in the novel a peasant woman describes how an icon in a distant church was physically weeping, yet Andrey’s friend, Pierre, explains it was all a trick to separate poor people from their money. The peasant woman takes offence because to her the weeping icon was a sign of and by God, but for Pierre it was a sign of corruption and deceit.

I use these two examples of icons because Baudrillard talks about religious icons and the role they play in the religious experience. An orthodox Catholic places great importance of the icons of Jesus and Mary and St. John the Baptist, whereas some Protestant faiths (those of the iconoclasts tradition) do not believe religious imagery should be used since it gets in the way of the act of God’s breath of life into the soul. This then raises an interesting paradox within Protestantism’s belief of self-salvation (the individual working out their own salvation) of thus interpreting God differently than their neighbor, unlike the Catholic’s who have a structured hierarchy of images with which God is already interpreted for them. The iconoclasts may be “the ones who accorded [the images] their actual worth”, but what exactly is this “actual worth” since it differs from individual to individual?

In short, which is real? The icon or the absence of the icon? The pipe, or the simulation of the pipe?

To build on the religious experience of images, Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the fruit that Adam and Eve ate as being an apple, yet nowhere in the Bible is there any distinction as to what fruit it might be, it’s simply the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the fruit of the tree of life). No apples are in the Hebrew Old Testament book of Genesis. Yet ask any “man on the street” what fruit was eaten in in the bible and they will (most likely) say it is an apple. The apple has become a symbol of the downfall of humanity, the fruit we ate which got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden (Paradise). Humanity was tricked and the apple has becomes a symbol of this deceit, a dissimulation, when in fact it was originally that which gave us the knowledge of good and evil (the knowledge of God himself).

Deconstruction / Postmodernism: Derrida’s ‘différance’

In their introduction to deconstruction, Rivkin and Ryan explain that Derrida’s term ‘différance’  is a ‘primordial process of differentiation,’ a ‘simultaneous process of deferment in time and difference in space’ (258). Attempt to explain this concept in your own words and/or examples.

 

I have to admit with struggling with this concept for awhile before I felt like I might have gotten a handle on it.

In the introduction to Derrida’s essay, the author mentions the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander. Anaximander wondered that if Z has a beginning then there must be a state, Y, in which Z came from. But where did Y come from? Y must have come from X which also had a beginning.

Further complicating this concept is at what point does X become Y, and Y become Z? Or to use another analogy, at what point does a person who is dry become wet? Is there a state of dryness and wetness that is either both or neither? Even in math we see this concept when we keep dividing by 2. 2 divided by 2 is 1, half of 1 is 1/2, half again is 1/4, and so on. At no point is there ever really half, or even a defined point in space anymore – it’s just an infinite series of points we can say is there, but never really point to since there is not a “there” there.

Time is another example. When is “now”? “Now” happened in the past and there might be another “now” coming in the future, but the slippage between the future and the past is immediate; “Now” never happens, it’s either going to happen or has already happened.

I started to think of this concept in relation to M. Butterfly. At what point is Song Liling the Butterfly or the spy? And for that matter at what point are any of the Chinese actual individuals or a collective (‘commrades”) who make up the new communist state? What concrete identity do they posses at any given time? Is there a point where Song Liling is Butterfly “right now” and is there another point when Song Liling is a spy “right now”? Or are they fluid and do they overlap with no discernible distinction between them?

Also, as pertains to how symbols are related to each other (a trace, as the text uses the term), how would Song Liling as Butterfly be defined if Song Liling wasn’t also a spy? Each symbol, or binary, is dependent on each other for meaning since while Song Liling could easily be one or the other, each in themselves would not have the same context as we understand it from the film without being each related and necessary to the other.

This is what, I believe, Derrida means by différance.

Structuralism: Barthes definition of the intermediate; the ethics of signs

Barthes says that ‘the intermediate sign[…]reveals a degraded spectacle’ (84). What does Barthes mean by intermediate? And how does this relate to ‘an ethics of signs?

 

‘Intermediate’ means a sign that stands halfway between “the artificial and [the] natural,” (84), it is a sign that is attempting to explain a particular effect (in this case that the offending senators of Rome were under great moral and psychological stress), but is also so completely artificial that to even achieve the effect for the actors it required large quantities of vaseline.

Barthe’s believes a sign must either be completely abstract, such as the flag in a Chinese play signifying a military regiment, or it must be formed naturally from the genuine experience. Here Barthe’s mentions Stanislavski who is famous for his school on acting and preparing actors to react genuinely to the material they are performing rather than just taking a few vocal and dance lessons. An actor who is genuine in their performance would not need vaseline to convey moral struggle, their moral struggle would manifest itself naturally without the aid of a prop.

This relates to an ‘ethics of signs’ in that the ‘intermediate’ sign is thus considered a “degraded spectacle,” (84) because it is unethical in that it fails to be genuine in how it is attempting to signify its intent and it adds a layer of artifice to the real world where none should be needed. Barthe’s goes as far to say that this intermediate sign is “deceitful” because it can actually “confuse the sign with what is signified,” (84) – in this example it confuses the sweat with real moral struggle. The sweat is not the moral struggle, however, it is an artificial prop attempting to show moral struggle, but it fails to actually represent the moral struggle of the killing of Caesar and the plunging of all Roman civilization into political turmoil.

Structuralism: Saussure’s “arbitrary” nature of the sign

Saussure says that the nature of the relationship between the constituents of the sign, the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.  Consider what Saussure means by this “arbitrary” nature of the sign.

 

What Saussure is getting at when he uses the term “arbitrary” is that the word we use to signify, say “car” is, is just the sound wave we use to represent that personal vehicle in my driveway. The word “car” isn’t actually The Car Itself, it’s just an agreed upon soundwave we use to signify The Car Itself.

Of course we have to keep in mind that this word, “car”, is something we are all agreeing to use so in that sense it is not completely arbitrary since both you and I have been taught this word and agree to continue to use it. Saussure says the words we are using are not “left entirely to the speaker,” but rather the word “has no natural connection with the signified,” (79).

However, there is nothing to stop us from agreeing to use a different word, such as in the 1985 episode of The Twilight Zone, “Wordplay” where society decides to change what every word means, much to the frustration of the main character who never got the memo and winds up having no idea how to speak the new language.

Also when confronted with something that as yet does not have a name, while a new word to signify this new object can be picked quite arbitrarily (such as the infamous “Boaty McBoatface”), the person or people giving the name often draw upon established language as guidance, such as using Latin to name a new biological species. In such a case there is a naming convention agreed upon to deal with new discoveries in order to maintain consistency rather than being completely arbitrary.

Saussure goes on to explore onomatopoeia and interjections as being possible exceptions to the rule, but even in these cases we see in comparing languages there is a large degree of variance: in English, when we hurt ourselves we say “ouch”, in French it’s “aie”, and when a dog barks we mimic it in English by saying “bow-wow”, whereas in French “oua-oua” is used. These examples sound quite different, even though they are supposedly mimicking the typical sound of a dog’s bark.

Cultural Analysis of Anheuser-Busch’s “Born the Hard Way”

While America’s largest brewer of beer might not seem a likely source for social activism, the Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl commercial “Born the Hard Way” deals head-on with the negative attitude some Americans have towards immigrants. Immigration is currently a hot political issue, specifically in dealing with immigrants from the Middle East, and the most recent Presidential election seemed to be temperature gauge for how some segments of American society negatively feel about foreigners. In this essay I will demonstrate how “Born The Hard Way” ultimately supports American hegemony and the ideology that immigration is good for America by summarizing the text, applying the storytelling and race analytical methods, and discussing an article from The Atlantic which strengthens this claim .

Summary

The Budweiser commercial, “Born the Hard Way”, which I will refer to as “the text”, begins with a medium shot of the protagonist, Adolphus Busch in a bar. A person off the right side of the frame comments (in an accent) that the protagonist doesn’t look like he’s “from around here”. The commercial uses flashback to show the journey the protagonist has taken to get to the as yet unspecified “here”. Our protagonist is shown traveling on a ship in stormy seas and telling a doctor who stitches up a wound on the protagonist’s forehead that he wants to go to America to “brew beer”. We jump ahead to his arrival in America where an angry crowd is telling immigrants like him to “go back home”. The commercial jumps ahead again to our protagonist on a river boat standing next to a black man who is also a passenger. This riverboat catches fire and the protagonist must jump into the river and continue his journey by foot and rowboat until he reaches the city of St Louis. The commercial ends back with the opening location in the bar when the protagonist explains to the man who had originally made the comment about where he might be from what sort of beer he’d like to make. This man introduces himself as Eberhard Anheuser. The commercial ends as the two man shake hands and the scene fades to a title card of the brand name “Anheuser-Busch, When nothing stops your dream. This is the beer we’ll raise.”

Storytelling method

The text can be categorized into multiple narrative elements. The genre of the text would be closest to the drama with elements of the historical and the western mixed in. The subject deals with an immigrant who comes to America to brew beer. The theme of the text is that of the unwanted immigrant finding and making their way in America through hard work and fighting adversity. The conflict of the text is man vs. society. The master plot can best be described as that of the underdog. The tone of the text is serious but also a little romantic, too. The mood of the text is sentimental, and sometimes gloomy and mysterious. The text uses a third person narrative to tell its story.

As this is a commercial for a consumer brand (not a specific product) the text employs historical characters to tell its story. The protagonist of the story is Adolphus Busch who is the first and most prominent character we see in the text and is present in every scene. The antagonist of the story would be a combination of society (in scenes where he is told to “go home”) and nature (as with the various bad weather the protagonist must endure). The foil of the text would be Eberhard Anheuser in that he appears already established in America and is the one who reaches out his hand first during their introduction. The minor characters of the text would be the doctor on the ship who gives our protagonist stitches, the angry American who tells the protagonist to “go back home”, the black man on the riverboat with whom the protagonist shares a peaceful, friendly moment, and the man who welcomes the protagonist to St. Louis. The archetype of the protagonist can best be described as that of the creator because he has a clear vision (as we see in his notebook he writes in during all through the text) and a desire to see that vision realized at all costs no matter how dangerous.

Clocking in at only 1 minute long, the text has numerous examples of intertextuality weaved throughout. The first example is an allusion to the “Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn” wherein our protagonist is shown on a riverboat with a free black man presumably somewhere along the Mississippi. This allusion contrasts with the immigrant’s story of the protagonist and places into historical context the less than immigrant status of black people who were already living in America at the time while at the same time showing how these two communities were connected and had something in common. The second example of intertextuality would be to that of the Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”, specifically in the “go back home” scene of the text. In Scorsese’s film immigrants are one the one hand shown as being criminals, but on the other are also as being discriminated against to such a degree that it was very difficult for them to integrate into the wider American culture. Our text acknowledges this aspect of American history but by showing our protagonist in a positive light and not being embittered or turning to crime it rejects the idea that immigrants are criminals and argues they are vital to America’s economic and cultural success. I admit to enjoying both of these intertextual examples and I felt they were appropriate to the story being told.

The most prominent symbol in the text is that of our protagonist’s notebook which is the most prominent image on the screen for two of the three scenes our protagonist is seen interacting with it. The meaning of this notebook symbol is it carries the dreams and ideas of our protagonist, something he is continually updating and refining through the text. This notebook is important to the text because it represents the mind and thoughts of our protagonist, a person who we can believe is smart, thoughtful, and studious because of their assiduous notetaking. Another interpretation of this symbol could be that it shows immigrants as being literate since the prevailing stereotype of immigrants is that of illiterates who offer nothing to society. The notebook itself is a common symbol used to show the thoughts and motivations of a character and can be seen in numerous other texts such as in the texts “Heathers”, “Death Note”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”.

Race and Ethnicity method

The race I will be analyzing from the text will be white since they are the most prominent race depicted in the text. Two distinct behaviors of the white race are depicted in this text, 1) the hard working and imaginative immigrant who prevails through his own agency against any adversity is the predominant behavior shown (chiefly through our protagonist though also in the minor characters), and 2) that of the racist, angry native who wants immigrants to “go back home”. The physical appearance of the characters is of them wearing period accurate clothing, however our protagonist’s clothing is well kept and clean, even in the bad weather, whereas the angry, immigrant-hater has an unkempt appearance due to his longish hair sticking out of his hat. The hegemonic values of white people in this text revolve almost exclusively around work, specifically a strong work ethic, even the immigrant-hater can be assumed to hate immigrants because he fears they will take his job away. White people are seen on the move in search of work and even when relaxing in a bar, such as our protagonist and foil, are still “at work” in that they are making contacts and business deals with each other.

It is much easier to compare the portrayal of white people as representing the value of hard work than it is to contrast this representation, especially when dealing with advertising which seeks to enforce hegemonic values of work ethic in hopes of influencing potential customers into identifying with their brand. Most television shows and films perpetuate American hegemony and ideology by showing white people as having jobs or careers, and even when they do not, white people are shown as being highly resourceful, such as in the films “Jerry Maguire”, “Boiler Room”, and “The Social Network”. In contrast to this image of white people valuing work ethic would be the film “Gangs of New York” which, incidentally, is used as intertextuality in this very text we are analyzing. In “Gangs of New York” white people are shown as being criminals and more apt to kill each other than possessing a “pull up your bootstrap” ethic. It would be fair to say examples of white people valuing a strong work ethic far outnumber those which do not, and on the occasions where texts show white people not engaging in the traditional work ethic, such as the television series “Breaking Bad”, the amount of hard work going into a criminal enterprise outweighs the amount of work that a person would have to put into a traditional 9-5 job. White people, therefore are consistently shown as being hardworking, and highly resourceful.

While one example in the text is shown with white people interacting with another race the main relationship in the text lies between the various white ethnicities and cultures. The audience of the text is rooting for our protagonist because the audience can relate to this hard working outsider who is trying to succeed against great odds, a struggle many in the audience, an audience which spans the globe since this is a Super Bowl commercial, may be very familiar and sympathetic with. The power in this text is held by the same race as our protagonist, however since our protagonist is German he is singled out as being a foreigner among his own race and thus is not in a position of power outside of his dreams, as represented by the notebook symbol. This fracturing of a similar racial group via ethnic differences is one we know through hindsight as one which is a temporary setback for our German protagonist since the brand being represented is literally named after the protagonist, and since German people are not typically singled out anymore in America as being a hated class. Each of the characters are shown as being active in this text, chiefly through their hard work as with our protagonist making his way across an ocean and continent, as well as the numerous people, blacks included, who fled the burning riverboat on their way to a new life in St Louis. Everywhere in the text people are moving and are on the move and this represents the active, hive-like nature of hard working Americans – most of whom happen to be white in this text.

Overall the text provides a positive portrayal of white people. White people are shown as being hard working (as with our protagonist’s difficult journey), studious (as with our protagonist’s assiduous journal keeping), kind (as with the doctor who stitches up the protagonist), and industrious (as with the business handshake at the end of the text). The audience would be highly influenced by this text because it represents white people in a manner the audience is used to seeing them portrayed, and it reinforces what white people believe themselves to value: hard work leads to success. In a small way the text does hurt white people’s social standing among whites across the globe by exposing the American hatred and anger sometimes levied at immigrants in this country, specifically in today’s political and social climate where immigrants from the Middle East are not trusted and seen as dangerous and whom our government is actively trying to keep from entering the country. Though only one person of color is shown in the text, the audience is being persuaded that the white protagonist immigrant is a stand-in for all immigrants.

Supportive source

In Brian Alberts’ article in The Atlantic he describes the role immigrants played, specifically German immigrants, in bringing beer to America and the role it played in naturalizing these immigrants. And like today’s climate which has seen a sharp rise an anti-immigration sentiment, hostility towards immigrants was strong enough to form groups, one of which was known as the “Know-Nothings”, who banded together into temperance organizations protesting this beer these immigrants were attempting to brew and sell to Americans. Our text taps into this moment in history where beer played a role in “immigrant activism that negotiated American economic and cultural life and in turn transformed both German-American citizenship and the brewing industry.” (Alberts)

Conclusion

“Born  the Hard Way” aims at a political and social message that reinforces the positive role of the immigrant in the American experience. And while the status of the immigrant has often been the focus of hatred and jealousy, the ideal of America as a nation who values immigrants and their hard work is a deeply held belief and a major component of American ideology. This text supports the traditional ideology and hegemony of America through its focus on immigrants, mainly white men, and how they can prosper and achieve business success. Though this ad does not attempt to directly deal with the status of people who are Muslim, it attempts to show immigrants as being hardworking and productive members of society who can contribute to our culture so fundamentally that what they offer might eventually become a major symbol of hegemonic American identity: Budweiser beer.

 

Works Cited

Alberts, Brian. “How Budweiser’s Super Bowl Ad Taps America’s Contentious Immigration Past.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 05 Feb 2017. Web. 18 Apr 2017.

BudweiserCanada. “Born the Hard Way.” YouTube, January 31, 2017. Web. 12 Apr 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZmlRtpzwos