Tag Archives: Masculinity

Radio Silence + Some Noise

Apologies for the recent radio silence — I’m suffering a terrific head cold as well as ever-anxious anticipation for my manuscript workshop this week. Being ill has been something of a relief, quite frankly, as it feels like a legitimate reason to stop working for at least a little while. (Or to do other work, though I have my cat Morton to do my laundry for me!) I’ve actually taken a bit of a break from the Internets –except for vintage shopping on Etsy!– but here are a few things I’ve enjoyed reading in the last week or so, while Minh-Ha has been on a research trip.

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Queer novelist and performer Michelle Tea is blogging for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now, and in her latest missive she ponders the return of possibly regrettable fashions past:

I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.

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It seems that the Internets is spitting up reflections on the impact of fashion bloggers these days (we’re no exception), especially with Style Rookie Tavi’s skyrocketing interplanetary profile as both model and muse. Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion offers this new social media reality check to industry insiders, while Evil Monito’s Lindsey Ibarra chimes in with some thoughts on the increasingly blurred divisions between insider/outsider status, as well as shifting measures of expertise, especially apparent as amateur fashion bloggers appear to replace professional stylists:

As the fashion blogosphere has grown it’s become packed with new voices, talents and faces. Through its evolution it has become clear that in order to be a valid blogger one must be a visible blogger and in turn the World Wide Web has been flooded with boys and girls eager to show themselves off to the rest of the world. No longer is it just about the clothing; suddenly it’s also about a face wearing the clothing, and yet I suppose in some ways it always has been. When supermodels ruled the world their faces were just as important (if not more so) as the clothing they were modeling but the added element of worldwide exposure at the click of a button has created an entire generation of “I’m famous on the Internet” icons.

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Next, there be black dandies all over! Jezebel covers the recent release of photographer Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the phenomenon of sapeurs, or the Congolese subculture of dandies. I’d been worrying at this postcolonial knot of politics and desires since I read a few months earlier Patty Chang’s review at Fashion Projects of George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. Chang’s comments are insightful:

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.

Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.

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And finally, Fashion for Writers is on some kind of posting roll with wonderful prose and lovely photographs. I’m inspired, though not enough to get dressed in something besides yoga pants and my old Maximumrocknroll t-shirt right now. Damn this cold! I will just have to heal in the warm glow of the Kate Bush Dance Troupe!

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PICTURING POLITICS: On “Pride In His Work”

This past Monday, in what brings nothing less than Driving Miss Daisy most prominently to mind, the Sartorialist posted a photograph from his book tour, featuring his (unnamed) driver in San Francisco. In his commentary, the Sartorialist remarks: “As you can see he was very elegant and practically oozed self-confidence, dignity and pride in his work. I love people who show pride in their work, regardless of the job.”

Seemingly unaware that service workers labor under constant public scrutiny, he continues: “This man’s car was spotless, his shoes were shined and he knew exactly where he was going. He wasn’t dressed like that for me, he had no idea who I was, this was just another day and just another ride done in his own stylish way.”

My first reaction was, What the fuck.

I’ve written about this before with regard to the Sartorialist’s photograph of a presumably (but not assuredly) homeless black man and the commentary in which he imputes a quality of dignity to the man on the evidence of his well-matched accessories. This quality reappears here in the suit and smile, now matched with “pride in his work.” Those structures of privilege or social realities that might mediate the encounter are nowhere accounted for. Instead, we are presented with what appears to be the snapshot of an individual who has risen above those unnamed social structures (only apparent in the condescension of “regardless of the job”) to attain self-confidence and dignity, but who (in this story the Sartorialist tells) does not challenge those structures at all.

I want to quote again the brilliant Lauren Berlant on the icky sentimentalism of such regard:

The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.

As before, the Sartorialist’s rhetoric is the affective symptom of this world-view that first expresses amazement at the other’s dignity (“he wasn’t dressed like that for me”/”he is communicating his sense of pride and self-worth”) and second expresses self-satisfaction at his own willingness to recognize that dignity — without ever confronting the conditions or ideologies that enable such assumptions as its absence in the first place.

The comments performthis same economy of affirmation and forgetting — this is the conditional affirmation of the other’s dignity in so far as he appears to be “like us,” and this is the selective forgetting of the histories of labor and race that continue to exclude the other from the measure of humanity. Especially here, because conceptions of labor are always interpolated with considerations of race, gender, sexuality, and nation, the figure of the black driver signifies in all these at once.

That is, in the following comments we see certain conceptions of contracted and service labor as they intersect with forms of racism and racialization (about black masculinity through prisms of racialized threat and its “domestication” in particular), material privileges and class comfort (consider the remarks about “trust” and “politeness”), and rules of gender stylization:

I immediately thought of Marshall (Ossie Davis) the limo driver in Joe vs the Volcano. Very nice.

He looks clean, and he looks proud of his job!

Pure style indeed. Could you post his contact information? I am in the Bay Area every few months and would like to book him.

VERY well put. everyone should take such pride in their jobs, regardless of the profession.

What a nice-looking man! You’re right; taking care in one’s appearance definitely inspires confidence. I’d definitely trust him to drive me anywhere.

Echoed repeatedly is the notion that “pride in one’s work” is an important but increasingly rare quality. (This leads many commentators to wax nostalgic for an idealized image of the past, which carries its own historical racial connotations.) But what sort of attitude is this about those forms of labor that are comprised of economic vulnerability and racial exploitation? To emphasize, indeed to belabor, “pride in his work” as such is thus merely to raise a rather conventional attitude about the other’s compliance with capitalism’s often violent inequities.

That is, when does “pride in his work” slide seamlessly into “knows his place”? Such comments as “I would like to book him,” “He looks proud of his job,” express pleasure at what is presented as the scene of a black man proud to be at the service of others.

Thus the violence of historical servitude disappears, and it occurs to only a very few in his audience (of the commentators) that perhaps this performance is less pride and more prudence. In an uncertain economy, an individual employed in the service sector –especially as a driver or some other position requiring also affective labor (e.g., smiling, nodding, chuckling at terrible jokes)– must perform satisfaction with their position in order to ensure their continued employment.

Showing this post to my students, many of them understood this immediately: that doing service work is a careful negotiation of bodily and sartorial performativity informed by race, gender, sexuality, and nation, under unequal conditions of labor and capital.

Meanwhile, I want to believe that this comment is the work of a minion at The Onion, because the final bit about his teeth seems so ludicrous it must be satire lampooning the racism of above-mentioned observations about the driver’s cleanliness: “Well put, Sart! Regardless of one’s job, even if it’s just to drive people around, one should always look nice, as this gentleman certainly does. We can’t see his shoes, so we’ll have to take your word that they are shined, but we can see his teeth, and they are well brushed indeed, further proof of his self-esteem.”

A few comments do protest (“The fact that he is a driver doesn’t mean he has a personal sound track which consists of ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’……”), and Stephanie writes at length:

You write all of this as though the fact that someone with a lower-class service job actually cares about themselves and has self-confidence and “dignity” is remarkable. He might not have been dressed like this specifically for you, but who knows why he dresses like this…could very well have something to do with wanting to get ahead in a service industry. As a friend of mine said, “Additionally, the post, especially in remarks to politeness and “self-worth” makes me think of Richard Wright’s novels, and specifically of Bigger Thomas in “Native Son,” or of generations of black porters who learned to smile at every white person, or of cooks, drivers, and other employment groups of subservient Negroes that have faded into cultural memory.”

Not that there is anything wrong with that on his part, just that I feel like you are romanticizing/aestheticizing away a lot of the more gruesome aspects of class, labor, and race in America. Which is potentially dangerous, and not in a good way. (Or, at least not in a good way for those of us who care about changing those conditions for the better.)

While allowing other comments –notably, the more obviously fucked-up ones expressing surprise and pleasure at the driver’s cleanliness– go unremarked, the Sartorialist did respond to Stephanie with a few disproportionate sentiments, including: “The problem is not me ….it’s you! you try to scare people with your hyper-political correctness so everyone is scared to say anything…. Next time read what i wrote and not what you think you can twist around to fit your daily pc rant.” (Oh, cliche*!) After Stephanie gently pointed out that she was just one comment among many –most of which are uniformly fawning– and had no actual power to censor anyone on his blog, the Sartorialist apologized, sort of (“we were too harsh on each other”).

* From this post: “Underlying every complaint of ‘PC’ is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry.” And furthermore, from Racialicious: “Berg explains that in its original context, PC was a pejorative term used by people who felt they were losing something. Exactly what they were losing is very hard to describe, especially to them. But many sociologists and historians today have come to a consensus on what they call it: it’s a loss of privilege—and in terms of race, a loss of white privilege.”

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The Height of Racism

Not too long ago, a minor firestorm arose over race and nationality (with huge implications about masculinity) in The Sartorialist, one of my favorite fashion blogs (check it out if you aren’t already obsessed with it – thesartorialist.blogspot.com/). On July 13, 2007, Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist who is also affectionately called “Sart” by his fans, snapped a photograph of “a young Asian man doing a great take on American Prep.” While most of his readers seconded Sart’s admiration for the man’s easy-breezy ensemble of plaid shirt and ribbon belt, some readers took exception to what they believed was his racist presumption that this man wasn’t American. One anonymous user wrote, “Have you equated whiteness with American-ness? It seems likely that this man is from Asia–judging by the cars in the background you shot the photo in Europe and thus the man is, like yourself, a visitor from afar–but by only labeling him Asian you don’t clarify whether or not you are making a distinction between those who are racially marked as Asian (people with the physical features we call Asian) and people of an Asian nationality. Be more precise or leave yourself open to charges of racism.”

The rather confusing comments by “Anonymous” (“it seems likely that this man is from Asia . . . [because] the cars in the background [suggest] you shot the photo in Europe”??) created a triple-pronged debate between those who defended Sart against charges of racism, those who lambasted the rigidity of political correctness, and Asians from across the diaspora who assured Sart that they didn’t mind being described as Asian.

I’m not interested in defending or accusing Sart of racism. More interesting to me is the inattention to the ways in which masculinity quietly frames comments offered about Asian men—comments, I might add, that have never been (so far as I can tell) made about other non-Asian men Sart has photographed.

Responding to photographs of Japanese men’s take on Dust Bowl-era fashions (9 July 2007), one reader noted:

“I love these interpretations! Maybe it’s the petitness [sic] of these men, but it makes me wish I was a boy . . .”

An aside: Why is it that when Madonna dons an Indian sari or Gwen Stefani co-opts Japanese Harajuku streetwear, we commend them for their forward-thinking globally conscious sartorial decisions but when Japanese men wear overalls, we wonder about “minorities appropriating fashion from this particular era in American history”? Who owns culture anyway?

And over a week later, responding to a photograph of “A Man of Undeterminable Origin, Florence” (19 July 2007), readers wrote comments like these:

“I want to put him in my pocket.”

“Now that’s what I’d call a cute wee man!”

“He is so compact!”

Ok—so I might be preaching to the choir here but for those who aren’t already scowling at the diminutive adjectives used to describe MEN—here’s a super abridged history lesson on the representations of Asian masculinity. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to verbally describe and physically portray Asian men as “little monkeys,” “little brown men,” and “little [insert your choice of Asian ethnic epithet]—underlying these descriptions is a tacit distinction between white men and Asian men based on unequal degrees of masculinity. (The same logic underlies the use of “boy” to describe Black men.) The fixation on the “small” bodies of these men rather than their clothes (the focus of The Sartorialist, after all) reflects a stale and racist point of view that Asian men are naturally smaller, and so less masculine, less sexy, less capable than “normal” men whose body size and masculinity are unquestionable.

To be totally honest, though, I wasn’t shocked so much by the racist underpinnings of these comments (I’m not a cynic but I’m hardly naïve about the existence of racism in the most well-intentioned people) as I was by the absolute staleness of these descriptions which hearken back over a century. Even more baffling to me, though, was these users’ ability to discern the stature of these men—is there a height chart I’m not seeing??

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