Tag Archives: lifestyle politics

New Technologies of Style and Selfhood

When Mimi suggested I post about Blair Fowler, the 17 year-old haul vlogger from Tennessee (a.k.a “JuicyStar07”) who was the subject of a recent Jezebel post, I resisted. Fowler is certainly worthy of a post or at least our acknowledgment since her significance in the mainstream fashion culture of the 21st century, in particular, and in the new creative economy, in general, is undeniable. Her fans number in the high millions and a single haul video of hers can “amass over 300,000 views in just a couple of days.” Yet I still resisted watching Fowler’s haul videos for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written about haul vloggers before. My observations about ChanelBlueSatin as well as Tavi Gevinson and the new digital work order in which they and indeed most of us labor might easily be transposed to Fowler. For example:

  • Fowler’s compulsion for digital productivity is a topic I’ve previously discussed in “Why I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Blog”. (Fowler notes in the video below that she feels “bad and guilty about [sleeping in when she should be] . . . getting up and responding to emails and doing videos and stuff like that.” Remember, she’s seventeen years-old.
  • Child entrepreneurs like Fowler (she’s an older teenager but she also has a 7 year-old sister who’s vlogging) is suggestive of the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are dissolving the boundaries between labor and play, is reliant on child labor, and is capitalizing free and democratic spaces – some of which I discuss in “Digital Work and Child’s Play”. In this GMA segment, we learn that Fowler’s devotion to vlogging led her to quit attending regular classes at her high school (she’s now home-schooled) to focus on shopping which, for haul vloggers of course, is working

But perhaps the primary reason I resisted writing about Fowler is that while haul vlogging is interesting to me as an academic, it holds very little appeal for me personally. I enjoy shopping with friends and sometimes I even enjoy glimpsing their “hauls” but a stranger’s haul? Not so much. It isn’t that I’m offended by haul vloggers’ “bragging,” as Fowler assumes of her detractors; instead, I find haul vlogs boring. In my low blood sugar moments, I find them downright tedious. But I’m in the minority. According to the GMA segment on Fowler and her sisters, their videos have gotten a combined 75 million hits – enough to make YouTube offer them a partnership, guaranteeing them a cut of the ad revenue from their vlogs. And along with the Fowler sisters’ YouTube videos are about 110,000 other haul videos that are viewed thousands of times a day.

In previous posts, we’ve emphasized the ways in which lifestyle experts and technologies instrumentalize neoliberal forms of governmentalization that correct and regulate populations to normative social formations of professionalism, middle-class respectability, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, etc. But such technologies of power do not operate by coercion alone. As Terry Eagleton reminds in The Significance of Theory,

No oppressive power which does not succeed in entwining itself with people’s real needs and desires, engaging with vital motifs of their actual experience, is likely to be very effective. Power succeeds by persuading us to desire and collude with it; and this process is not merely an enormous confidence trick, since we really do have needs and desires which such power, however partially and distortedly, is able to fulfill.

The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-not-to-wear fashion blogs, what-to-buy-now haul vlogs, and the shopping and style guide apps available for our smartphones, demonstrate that millions of people (particularly women and girls, who are still the ideal subjects of the highly dispersed fashion media complex and its makeover logics) want the expertise of life-conduct authorities. But why are these lifestyle technologies so appealing? Why do millions of people search for, share, and subscribe to the RSS web feeds of life-conduct gurus? What is it about this particular moment that makes such expertise a matter of urgency? What conditions, in the words of print and online fashion journalists, the “fashion emergency” that iPhone apps like Ask a Stylist, Elle Shopping Guide, Net-App, and Gilt on the Go are said to rescue us from? (Download Ask a Stylist and you’ll have a small cadre of stylists  available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to provide you with personalized responses within 2 minutes of your question.)

The desire for self-improvement is not unique to this historical moment. While new technologies such as blogs, video sharing, smartphones, and GPS deliver the tools of and paths to self-reinvention faster, more often, and to more people than ever before, the desire itself is a foundational element of the American Dream in which the exceptional potential for and possibility of self-improvement is central. Recall Horatio Algers’ 19th century rags-to-riches stories which assured Americans that wealth, success, and happiness were available to anyone through hard work and determination. Today, the ethos of success through hard work persists however the site of this labor – particularly for women – has shifted inward, from the office, factory, and field to the body.

The role of technologies in women’s histories of selfhood and self-reinvention is especially familiar. New kitchen technologies, as we know from Laura Scott Holliday, played a major role in creating and securing ideologies about femininity. In the post-war years, when women were no longer needed or wanted in the work force events like the Kitchens of Tomorrow exhibits enticed women to return to their homes and their roles as (newly liberated) homemakers.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, kitchen and home appliances located proper femininity in the home and particularly in the kitchen while large cars and the new car radio situated ideal masculinity “on the road.” In the neoliberal post-welfare present, digital lifestyle technologies like blogs, vlogs, and iPhone apps privatize (rather than domesticize) femininity. Personal and personalized technologies allow and encourage us to be responsible for our own well-being. For women and girls, the health of our “well-being” is intimately tied to the look and style of our bodies, which includes our sartorial appearances. The unprecedented availability of life-conduct expertise through lifestyle technologies that are always at our fingertips through our laptops and our smartphones facilitates the transfer of the responsibility for our welfare from the government to individual women. Such responsibility is articulated in the neoliberal present as freedom. That is to say, lifestyle technologies give us the freedom to work on our bodies and appearances whenever we want. Such technologies do more than shape our social identities; they deliver directly to us the  immaterial and material tools (i.e., information and consumer goods) for realizing our optimal selves.

Providing up-to-the-minute product and sales information, style rules, and GPS mapping, these lifestyle technologies are timely instruments of rational consumption, self-determination, and social and physical mobility that enable us to be enterprising agents of our own care and happiness. (Lifestyle technologies have also expanded into biomedical spheres, monitoring and regulating our diets, exercise routines, and even menstrual cycles.) Such care and management of the self is the mark of good “post-welfare citizenship.” As Laurie Ouellette and James Hay write in their wonderfully useful essay, “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen”:

Today . . . the state relies primarily on the private sector rather than public bureaucracies to produce ‘good’ citizens. Acting more as a supporter and less as an ‘overseer’, the United States has offloaded much of the responsibility of governing onto public–private partnerships and depends more than ever before on cultural technologies.

As such, blogs, vlogs, and mobile phone apps are at once technologies of power as well as technologies of self-optimization. Thus, the promise of the American Dream and particularly the dream of self-reinvention at the heart of the American Dream is located not merely in the free market but in the fashion media complex specifically. The rapid digitalization of fashion media from the online publications of print magazines to the lifestyle technologies discussed here (many of which are owned, in varying degrees, by media and/or fashion corporations) makes it possible for anyone to create the Perfect Outfit, the Perfect Shopping Experience, or the Perfect Smoky Eye. This is the democratization of fashion and style. Like the Perfect Day in Davin Heckman’s fascinating study of smart homes, the Perfect Outfit is a technologically-enhanced, media-saturated, and future-oriented narrative of “the good life” that is the promise of an “exceptional consumer lifestyle.” Heckman explains:

The Perfect Day is a grand goal, a utopian dream for the subject of neoliberal capitalism that owes its existence to the numerous promises that are conjured up daily in the marketplace . . . It is a technologically facilitated experience of subjectivity as life without deficiency and without doubt.

And as with all consumerist ideals of perfection, the Perfect Outfit that is the utopian promise of the Ask a Stylist app, is always, in Heckman’s words, “just beyond the present and stopping short of perfect satisfaction.” The anticipatory but not yet fulfilled promise signified by the Perfect Outfit is precisely the driving force of consumer capitalism. But in desiring the Perfect Day or the Perfect Outfit or the Perfect Body –  mass-mediated “spectacles,” to borrow Guy Debord’s term —we have to concede that we are deeply un-perfect and thus in need of the lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise that will surely improve not only our outfits and bodies but our chances for happiness, future employment (as the Chicago Bar Association, would have it), love, and, in places where racial-sartorial profiling is institutionally sanctioned, the right look can improve our chances for living a life without police harassment.** This is the appeal of lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise. A complex of biopolitical affective power, these technologies and agents produce “post-human” neoliberal subjects who are no longer determined by biology but are instead self-determined through their consumer choices.

Personal, convenient, and mobile technologies of (economic, social, physical, and sartorial) health rationalize the care and management of the self. Women who are not (yet) style experts can still be “entrepreneurs of the self” if they take the initiative for searching out, downloading, and conducting their lives and themselves according to this expertise. And since lifestyle technologies and life-conduct gurus are so easily accessible, enabling anyone to have the Perfect Body and the Perfect Outfit, there is no excuse for obesity or sloppiness. A disorderly look, as we are reminded everywhere in our makeover culture, signifies a disorderly worker, low self-esteem, and bad consumer citizenship. It is as such that Nikolas Rose finds in advanced liberal democracies, there is an “ethic in which the maximization of lifestyle, potential, health, and quality of life has become almost obligatory, and where negative judgments are directed towards those who will not adopt, for whatever reason, an active, informed, positive, and prudent relation to the future.”

Although this post has focused on women and girls who, as I’ve mentioned before, continue to be the ideal subjects and target consumers of lifestyle technologies, men are not excluded from makeover culture’s ethical imperative. To quote Tim Gunn before making over some of the husbands and boyfriends of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers on the “Makeover My Man!” episode (November 19, 2009):
“Men have no excuse. It’s so much easier for us.”

Tim Gunn: "It was all about respecting who they are at their core and making them better, enhancing them."Josh: "I feel like a new man."

** A footnote: Xenophobic legislation such as California’s Prop 187, the Homeland Security Act, and Arizona’s just-passed SB 1070 which allow state agents to question or imprison people they suspect are “illegal”or “terrorists” often implicitly sanction racial-sartorial profiling. That said, the histories of Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos are full of instances of creative sartorial subversion! See Debbie Nathan’s Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border; Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943; and Min Song’s chapter in Q&A: Queer in Asian America.

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VINTAGE POLITICS: Appadurai, Fashion and Nostalgia

The “French Explorer” Jacket from “vintage style” retailer J. Peterman (recently discussed here), described thusly: “Remember Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, considered by many to be France’s greatest explorer? Some think it was his unique brand of Colonialism…. But I think the secret to his empire-building was this jacket, which he often wore to meetings with tribal chieftans. Historians agree with me.”

The problem of patina, which McCracken has recently proposed as a general term to deal with that property of goods in which their age becomes a key index of their high status, disguises a deeper dilemma, the dilemma of distinguishing wear from tear. That is, while is many cases, wear is a sign of the right sort of duration in the social life of things, sheer disrepair or decrepitude is not….

Objects with patina are perpetual reminders of the passage of time as a double-edged sword, which credentials the “right” people, just as it threatens the way they lived. Whenever aristocratic lifestyles are threatened, patina acquires a double meaning, indexing both the special status of its owner and the owner’s special relationship to a way of life that is no longer available. The latter is what makes patina a truly scarce resource, for it always indicates the fact that a way of living is now gone forever. Yet, this very fact is a guarantee against the newly arrived, for they can acquire objects with patina, but never the subtly embodied anguish of those who can legitimately bemoan the loss of a way of life. Naturally, good imposters may seek to mimic this nostalgic posture as well. but here both performances and reviews are a more tightly regulated affair. It is harder to pretend to have lost something than it is to actually do so, or to claim to have found it. Here material wear cannot disguise social rupture.

— Arjun Appadurai, 1993, “Consumption, Duration, and History,” in Streams of Cultural Capital, D. Palumbo-Liu and H. U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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The Incensed Beauty Guru and Pop-Feminism

Oh, my. A vlogger who was mentioned in a post about the phenomenon of “haul vlogging” in New York magazine’s The Cut last week is fighting back against what she perceived as the slandering of her reputation, in particular, and the profession of haul vloggers, in general. To be sure, The Cut’s assessment of haul vloggers was rather piquant:

“‘[H]aul videos’ . . . consist of girls videotaping themselves showing the world what they just bought at the mall. Like, they go home, plop down in front of their webcams, and pull their new purchases out of shopping bags. And discuss each item in way too much detail . . . Haul vloggers seem to be primarily of one species: the girl who flatirons her hair, wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and gets her brows waxed regularly. She also wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish and probably gets chemical peels at regular monthly intervals. Haul vloggers seem to favor, typically, cheap stores like Forever 21 and Target. Also, they don’t ever seem to wear half the trendy crap they’re constantly buying. And to think these people think they need this stuff, when what they need most of all are lives, hobbies, jobs, maybe cats.

As an example of haul vlogging, The Cut offered this popular video – apparently viewed nearly 8,000 times when the post was published.

The haul vlogger ChanelBlueSatin, a 22 year-old “Blogger, Youtuber, teacher, model, and wife!” from Texas, was so incensed by The Cut’s characterization of her that she made this response video.

Last week, I posted about the backlash against fashion bloggers and what this backlash might suggest about the shifting meanings of fashion’s democratization. The Cut’s review of haul vloggers is yet another example of this backlash. But what’s particularly interesting about this kerfuffle between ChanelBlueSatin and The Cut (mostly its readers now rather than the blogger Amy Odell who has since issued a mea culpa to the vlogger) is the ways in which the response calls Odell out for the misogynistic tone of her post:

Shouldn’t the editor of New York magazine try to be inspiring to women rather than bashing other women? I mean, shouldn’t they try to report on factual information rather than accusations based on outward appearances? . . . Bottom line is I respect the editor for having an interest in us beauty gurus on YouTube but I don’t respect the fact that she took a negative spin on it. Listen, there’s a whole lot of hate in this world so let’s just stop hating and start loving again. So keep the peace.

While the vlogger misidentifies Odell as the “editor” of New York magazine (Odell is the magazine’s fashion blogger) and misrepresents the blog post as a “featured article,” she is right to feel gender bashed by Odell and especially the readers who commented on the blog post. There’s a lot of “dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim” talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity. (Click here for another example of this as well as Susie Bubble’s response.) We’ve posted about the stupidity of this line of logic but for a summation of the significance of fashion that is so spot-on that I wish we had written it, see Good Morning Midnight‘s post, which Mimi has also cited in a previous post. (See especially the paragraph that begins, “Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably.” – a blogger after my own heart.) Moreover, the classist strain of Odell’s evaluation of ChanelBlueSatin and haul vloggers in general is incredibly ugly. Odell seems most bothered not by haul vlogging as such but by the inauthenticity of haul vloggers who shop at down-market stores like Forever21 and “wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and . . . wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish.”

Yet, how does ChanelBlueSatin’s call for peace (among women) square with her self-identification as a “beauty guru”? How is the mastery over one’s image and body (the real commodity beauty and style gurus sell) the means and measure of pop-feminist inspiration, according to this vlogger? Put another way, how are material entitlements to Forever21 jewelry and teeth whitening strips coextensive with a moral discourse about love and inspiration among women?

Unfortunately, ChanelBlueSatin’s pop-feminism is commodified rather than politicized in consumer culture. It is, as Sarah Banet-Weiser describes postfeminism, a “commodity-driven empowerment.” More from Banet-Weiser’s essay “What’s Your Flava?”: “As a contemporary social and political movement, then, feminism has been rescripted (though not necessarily disavowed) so as to allow its smooth incorporation into the world of commerce and corporate culture.”

As a self-professed “beauty guru,” ChanelBlueSatin as well as the growing cadre of fashion bloggers, vloggers, television personalities, and print media authors of the what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear makeover variety disenables precisely the humanist feminist project she claims to be leading. The relationship between the makeover guru and makeoveree is an inherently hierarchical one that is based not simply on an uneven distribution of skills (shopping, styling, etc.) but rather an uneven distribution of personhood based on the apparent mastery of or incompetence about dominant codes of beauty and behavior. The subject “in need” of the expertise of the lifestyle guru is imagined as a deficient person – a person who lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth – and thus, in need of correction. I’ve cited Brenda Weber’s account of the role of the fashion/beauty guru before and she’s useful here again:

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities.”

So while ChanelBlueSatin’s self-identification as a “beauty guru” made me giggle, it is worth recalling that being a lifestyle guru is serious economic and cultural political business that is also ideological and disciplinary. The social relationship of lifestyle gurus to their subjects is one of casual, consensual, neoliberal domination. As Tania Lewis, the editor of a wonderful special issue on the topic of makeover television in the journal Continuum (volume 22.4) explains: “As government seeks to devolve responsibility for welfare to individuals, television, and in particular what they term ‘life intervention’ formats . . . can be seen to play an increasingly central role in inducting viewers into new neoliberal modes of self-governing citizenship.”

The Internet, which is quickly surpassing the television as the primary medium of visual and consumer culture, makes “life intervention” ideologies especially appealing. Whereas television is generally understood to be a top-down medium controlled by a handful of profit-seeking corporations, the prevailing logic about the Internet is that it is an inherently democratic form in which ordinary people participate in the structuring and content-building of new cultural publics. And indeed, the celebrity of bloggers and vloggers like Tavi Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin are particular to the way the Internet works. What is especially appealing about these “gurus” is that they are ordinary people, people whose person and style of modern personhood seem to be easily accessible. As embodiments of the democratization of fashion, the figure of the citizen blogger/vlogger occludes the uneven access to commodities and communication technologies between makeover gurus and makeoverees (both Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin, for example, are privy to the deep pockets of fashion and media companies) and thus conceals the ways in which the promise of self-invention is shaped and limited by one’s successful self-governing and normativizing of body, image, and behavior.

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RuPaul as Style Guru to Baby Drag Queens and Everyone Else

Tonight’s the Season 2 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race (9pm on Logo TV or Logo Online)! Among reality contest shows about fashion, style, and beauty, this is my favorite. Hands down. Drag Race has the most diverse group of contestants – in race, gender, sexuality, and likely, class. Last season, three of my favorite contestants were from outside of the U.S.: Bebe Zahara Benet (Camaroon), Ongina (Philippines), and Nina Flowers (Puerto Rico). Also, one of the guest judges last season was Jenny Shimizu (who I adore even if she looked like she was on an Asian American literature panel at MLA)! The photo of Shimizu below (circa her Calvin Klein days) has little to do with this post but it’s there because: I. love. Jenny. Shimizu.

I’m looking forward to this season but I’m also a little nervous. The guest judges that have been announced for this season are Kathy Griffin, Cloris Leachman, and Debbie Reynolds. I can’t honestly say any of them excite me much. Another reason to be apprehensive about Season 2 is precisely because it’s Season 2. Reality shows are always best the first time around. In proceeding seasons, contestants seem too versed and too ready to manufacture drama in order to stand out as a “personality.” Ru seems to be hinting at this when she says:

The biggest change in this season is the contestants are actually a bit more – how can I put this? They’re more tenacious. In the first season, they were a bit more diplomatic because they were representing drag for the first time in a decade. This time around, though, the kids have seen the first show, they know what the prize is, and they know what’s at stake, so they have taken the gloves off.

Still, can’t wait to watch! If you missed Season 1, you can catch up online.

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In related news, RuPaul hates fashion people. She tells W Magazine why she has nothing to do with New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: “I think the fashion people are so nasty and so pretentious.”

Also, she’s got a new book out called, Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (Harper Collins 2010). Both the TV show and the book firmly position Ru within the increasingly familiar trope of the lifestyle specialist/style guru. In Drag Race, she plays (wonderfully!) the matriarch/mentor to baby drag queens (Nina Flowers even calls Ru, “mother,” during their private lunch together).

With Workin’ It! (totally judging said book by its cover here), Ru expands her domain of influence, to “provide helpful and provocative tips on fashion, beauty, style, and confidence for girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between!” The neoliberal makeover logic at work in the book is, by now a pretty trite one. As Brenda Weber explains the logic in her essay, “Makeover as Takeover” – see also her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Duke UP 2009):

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities . . .

RuPaul’s embracing of her role as neoliberal style guru is evident in the title and description of the book. In articulating style in the language of democracy (here. the Declaration of Independence), RuPaul’s book connects the consumption of resources like fashion, beauty, and style commodities to political acts. Workin’ It! suggests that “girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between” who wants to be free (and who doesn’t want to be free?) needs her style expertise. This is a central tenet of neoliberalism’s lifestyle politics: consumer power is political power.

What is different about RuPaul as style guru is the difference of race, gender, and sexuality. And while this is a significant difference, it isn’t a radical one. Instead, the book (maybe more than the TV show) is a function of what Lisa Duggan has called “the new homonormativity” of neoliberal sexual politics:

[I]t is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them . . . [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.

I love RuPaul. I think she looks amazing and will never be outclassed by any of the contestants on her show. And basically, I can get behind her general message. But her book nonetheless illustrates the power and pervasiveness of neoliberalism as this era’s cultural logic.

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