I generally don’t wear hats. I rarely use hair pins or barrettes. I mostly wear my hair down and often without hair products. But I’d change my unadorned head policy for this Philip Treacy sculptural headpiece which makes me all kinds of happy.
Monthly Archives: May 2010
Minh-Ha is jet-setting, and I’m writing. We have several things lined up for next week, including an annotated list of queer blogs that discuss dress and embodiment and a couple guest posts on dyke hair and insulin pumps (separately, in this instance). But, meanwhile, in honor of all the bad-ass young ones who are eking out the last few weeks of school before summer (like Tavi Gevinson, who once again makes some choice observations about Terry Richardson), check out eight year-old punk rocker Venus screaming, “I don’t like beer!” in 1981 (Thanks, Layla Gibbon!), and The Brat’s “High School,” also 1980 or ’81.
Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.
But I admit that I keep looking too. Why? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph’s punctum, “that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Camera Lucida, of course). For me, it’s the flower on her lapel catching in its petals the chain from the police identification board hanging around her neck, after her arrest. Evoking both vulnerability and defiance, that “minor” sartorial detail, as Barthes puts it, bruises me, is poignant to me, even as I am wary of those other dangers.
This post is inspired by Sarah Scaturro‘s comments to one of my previous posts about the Black Fashion Museum Collection. In her comments, she mentions the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which she describes as “an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event” that travels to different cities to discover, preserve, and celebrate the material cultural histories of African Americans.
One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this program is precisely because it doesn’t operate through the heritage capitalist logics of the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. From what I can tell, the Save Our African-American Treasures program is primarily a conservation effort and not a public display of one’s vested interest in the heritage of Americana. It’s the Forest Gump-like display and valorization of what I can only describe as “heritage capitalism” by the predominantly white appraisers and guests that irks me about the Antiques Roadshow. (Why is there so little scholarship on the Antiques Roadshow‘s circuits of commodities, capitalism, and racial citizenship?)
I began watching the Antiques Roadshow on and off just a couple of months ago. What I found amusing about the show is the guests’ reactions to the appraisals of their family heirlooms – you can tell when someone is genuinely surprised or disappointed with the estimate and when they’re feigning surprise. Also funny (to me, at least) are the various stories guests tell about how they or their families acquired these objects. Most are pretty quotidian stories about unexpected discoveries at yard sales, thrift stores, and estate sales but some are really grand narratives about their genetic linkages to American founding fathers, European royalty, and a motley crew of adventure-seeking, risk-taking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, off-the-beaten-path family relatives who acquired Persian rugs, Chinese Ming vases (always Ming era), French antique jewelry, and Native American dolls in their world adventures. I have to admit that I get a little giddy when the appraisers myth-bust these stories. There was an episode devoted to family myth-busting, if I remember correctly. Actually, Marie Antoinette never owned this hair comb set you inherited from your great-aunt. It’s likely a reproduction made in the 1940s in Watertown, New York.
Other than the human interest aspects of the show, I never found it that interesting. (It’s probably because I wouldn’t know a Biedermeier from an Oscar Meyer, as Martin Crane put it in the Frasier episode featuring the Antiques Roadshow called “A Tsar is Born”.) But my casual disinterest turned into a serious criticism of the show when I caught this recent appraisal of a Tlingit (indigenous people of Alaska) bowl and ladle.
The guest narrates a valiant story about Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood (the great-great-grandfather of the guest),who was on a “scientific expedition” to the Sitka area of Alaska in the spring of 1877 when he somehow came upon this bowl and ladle. The guest is unclear on the details: “And I don’t know specifically if he was given these or if he may have bartered something.” (That these objects might have been stolen is not a possibility imagined by the guest but one that I immediately considered.)
After her story, the appraiser fills in the details about the history of the bowl and ladle telling her and viewers, “These would have been considered family heirlooms of the Tlingit people.” “These objects are alive in the Native consciousness.” “It’s as rare as can be. It’s a Native American masterpiece.” The guest nods and utters a few “wow”s while she listens. (Meanwhile, I’m screaming, Give them back! Give them back!)
The excitement builds, reaching the climactic event: the actual appraisal. “The mountain sheep horn ladle at auction would sell in the range of about $75,000 . . . at auction this bowl would realize easily in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.” Overcome with emotion about her cultural-capital inheritance of the spoils of history, she responds thusly:
The guest’s facial gesture projects a self-satisfied smugness that exemplifies the privileges of heritage capitalism. Hardly concerned about verifying how someone else‘s rare “family heirlooms” and “masterpieces” came into her family’s possession, she’s simply thrilled to have them.
More important than the monetary value of these objects, is the wealth they materially signify: the wealth that comes from centuries’ long and continuous accumulation of property and assets, the emotional and physical security and entitlements such property and assets enable, and the ability to pass down to future generations the socioeconomic status that inheres to such property and assets. This wealth secures and reproduces, as George Lipsitz explains in his book with the same name, “the possessive investment in whiteness.”
Whiteness is more than a racial identification; it’s a racial inheritance of a history of privilege, property, and opportunity secured by and through heritage capitalism. More still, “the advantages of whiteness,” as Lipsitz asserts, “[are] carved out of other people’s disadvantages.” In situating the bowl and ladle within her family history in the context of a public television show, these objects become public objects of a particular heritage of whiteness. Their public display publicly recognizes and reaffirms this racial narrative of American heritage – one that depends on the historical and ongoing disadvantaging of Tlingit people and their descendants. The significance of the bowl and ladle to the Tlingit are contained and limited to the ways their exotica adds to the wealth of the guest’s inheritance, to the way they help to accumulate further the possessive investment in whiteness. Through the Antiques Roadshow, “the structural and cultural forces that racialize rights, opportunities, and life chances in [the U.S.]” are sentimentalized as heritage and secured as natural (Lipsitz).
Such appropriations are not external to fashion. Mimi’s compilation of blog posts addressing “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions as well as the numerous comments we received about this issue bear this out well. The bowl and the ladle at the Antiques Roadshow, like the feather headdress at Urban Outfitters, are put into the service of “materializing,” in Philip Deloria’s words, “a romantic past” forged by a long and persistent tradition in America of “playing Indian.” This tradition, Deloria reminds, “clings tightly to the contours of power” to create a national subjectivity of whiteness constituted through racially gendered and classed “contrasts.”
The recent addition of clothes as a category of antiques explored on the Antiques Roadshow makes alternative programs like the Save Our African-American Treasures program all the more important for materializing non-dominant histories and for articulating a radical politics of vintage. (Mimi’s already begun this project in her series of posts organized under the category “Vintage Politics!)
If you’re interested in watching the fashion appraisals on Antique Roadshow, look for episodes in which appraiser of antique clothing, lace, and textiles Karen Augusta appears.
When America discovered that Sandra Bullock’s star-crossed romance with bad boy Jesse James had come to a crashing infelicitous end, every public and private detail (the categories tend to blur in tabloid news) about James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee was quickly and widely scrutinized. A special focus was paid to the copious tattoos etched on McGee’s face, neck, and body.
Unlike the understated butterflys and floral garlands that adorn more than a few sorority girls’ ankles or the modest kanji script reading “courage,” “love,” “strength,” or some such cherished individual characteristic found on various parts of undergrads’ backs and biceps (or so they think), McGee’s ink inscribed a deviant sexual female body. This wrecking ball of ink, kink, and Nazism, as the story was told for weeks, had lay waste to the happy home of America’s sweetheart.
A chain of binary associations at once distanced and connected these two women in the popular imaginary. McGee represented the trashy (copious tattoos), slutty (stripper), immoral (swastika tattoo), low-class (implied from all of the above) whore who contributed to the heartbreak of the monogamous Academy Award winning wife (and as we later learn, mother ) whose own tattoos are as modest as she is. (For the spectrum of female morality and ink size/placement, see Jezebel blogger Katy’s post on “Painted Ladies.”) Even Tina Fey rehearsed this dialectic in an SNL weekend update:
When your body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop it doesn’t bode well for your character. . . For every Sandra Bullock there’s a woman who got a tattoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia.
But McGee’s 15 seconds of fame has timed out (at least from my corner of the world) and yet, if yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece by economics professor and Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt and its 167 comments (at the time of this blog post) is any indication, concerns about tattoos and women’s sexuality remain strong. Upon news of a Pew Research study that found 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36% of those age 18-25 report having a tattoo, Levitt asks, “So what makes tattoos so popular?” Levitt surmises that people who get tattoos “are mostly trying to signal something about themselves to potential mates”:
Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk. I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list now!
This image of the “wild, impulsive, risk-taking woman” who Levitt’s apparently outgrown (for his modest and methodical wife?) associates tattoos with a young, unrefined, and attention-needy female sexuality. Katy argues, understandably, that “Not every tattoo is about sex.” I couldn’t agree more and yet I would qualify her point. Tattoos in the history of U.S. racial imperialism especially in relation to non-white women have always been about sex.
Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, non-white people from Africa, the Pacific Islands, South America, Asia, and Australia were displayed as live exhibits at World’s Fairs, museums, and circuses throughout the U.S. These displays operated to give (pseudo)scientific evidence of the diversity of the “family of man” while also reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy of white superiority which conveniently justified an array of imperialist projects in the name of bringing civilization to the “primitives.” While all such displays contained a racial-sexual dimension that titillated and shocked the virtues of White Western audiences, heavily tattooed women were a particularly popular attraction. Legal scholars Lucille Ponte and Jennifer Gillan describe these attractions in their article about workplace anti-discrimination jurisprudence in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy:
In these shows, heavily-tattooed females partially stripped before huge crowds to display their tattoos, concocting wild stories of ‘savage’ kidnappings and forced tattooing to explain their appearance. Embedded in these fanciful back-stories were the false assumptions that no woman would intentionally tattoo herself and that her own ‘natural’ frailty would make her unable to fend off the attacks of dangerous primitives.
These shows provided an opportunity for the audience to explore ‘culturally repressed desires and emotions,’ and ‘to experience subversive pleasures with and tortures of the flesh without sacrificing commonly held cultural understandings of corporeal responsibility’ while affirming ‘dominant cultural ideas about sanctity of the body.’ These carnival show settings also helped to embed negative stereotypes about women with tattoos as ‘loose’ or ‘tramps,’ labels that still persist in contemporary United States culture.
I want to recall this history as a reminder that class and gender hierarchies cannot be divorced from racial imperialism. The construction of middle class white female respectability has always depended on a racially and classed primitive other. While this history goes unspoken in the public discourse about (white) women and tattoos, as Ponte and Gillan make clear, it structures contemporary perceptions of “natural” beauty and White women’s bodies and sexuality.
I’m going to guess that nearly everyone reading this blog either has at least one tattoo or knows someone who does well enough that they are familiar with the process. But for the ink novices among you, here’s a general rundown:
- Decide what you want and where
- Make the appointment and if necessary, the consultation visit – good tattoo artists like mine will be booked up for weeks, sometimes months
- Ensure one’s bank account can stand the hit (all together, mine cost about $500 – a modest sum for the size and quality of tattoos. I wouldn’t presume to say I got the homie-discount but I didn’t pay full price after the first one having forged a solid acquaintanceship with this particular artist)
- Arrive on time at appointment (unlike medical appointments I’ve had, tattoo appointments are implausibly on-time)
- Tattoos can take 30 minutes or they can take weeks (healing time also varies depending on where you get it, how big, how well you look after the fresh scar, and who you are). As luck would have it, I’m not a bleeder so this part of the process is relatively easy for me.
And yes, getting tattoos hurt (a lot, if the needle is making contact with bones like rib cages and spines) and no, the pain doesn’t subside as the process goes on. It gets worse. But pain has long been part of the point of tattoos. A friend in grad school who had numerous tattoos including one covering almost the entirety of her back as well as her ear lobes stretched to about 0- or 00-gauge told me that she undertakes body modification to see how much pain her body can tolerate. I know exactly what she means. This isn’t an abuse of your body but an acute awareness of it.
Each of the four tattoos I have mark moments of my life when I was particularly aware, for better and worse, of my own solitude. (Attracting a sexual partner played no part in the mental, logistical, and corporeal experience of getting the tattoos.) The pain of the hot needle scraping raw flesh and bone helped me to viscerally mark these moments. This is why I rarely talk about my tattoos and find questions about them to be a violation of privacy. Visible tattoos or, for that matter, any mark of visible racial, gender, and class difference are not invitations to surveillance.
I want to note, too, that tattooing as a ritual of pain and a rite of passage is a significant part of many cultures. The Maori people of New Zealand and the Dayaks of Borneo, for example, use tattooing as a means of signifying social rank for women and men. Yemeni women tattoo their faces and hands to promote fertility as well as to protect against diseases. Such histories, unfortunately, are not a part of the mainstream American view of tattoos.
Edited to add: Mimi just sent me this link to a new movie called Covered: Women and Tattoos. If the movie lives up to director Beverly Yuen Thompson’s vision, I’ll be very excited to see it. Below is the Director’s Statement and a short video of the making of the movie.
I got my first tattoo at seventeen; it was nothing special, regrettable even, immortalizing an unfortunate relationship. But it was my first introduction to the world of tattooing; and more specifically, the world of women’s tattooing. I had accidentally ended up in one of the top all-female tattoo artists’ shops in the nation—Madame Vyvyn Lazonga in Seattle, Washington. My second tattoo was much more appropriately thought about and unique to my personality. From then on, I was hooked. At nineteen, my good friend was a tattoo artist, Charissa Vaunderbroad, and I spent my days studying in the tattoo studio, observing the customers. As I became more heavily tattooed, social reactions to my visible tattoos began to impact my life. I was interested in finding out about the experience of other heavily tattooed women and the ways in which they managed these social sanctions. Thus, the idea for Covered was born.
Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women’s voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States.