Monthly Archives: June 2013
The heart of Paula Deen’s popularity–and the enmity for her–likely lies in her populist image: Deen’s Southern drawl, unpretentious and expansive personality, and embrace of a rich diet of comfort foods resonates with many people alienated by haute cuisine, bourgeois foodies, dietary crusaders, and Gordon Ramsey’s emotional brutality. Deen’s acclaim is firmly rooted in the sentiment that she is like a lot of us: Deen seems apparently unaffected by celebrity in her celebration of her Southern drawl, the love for delicious if fatty foods, a personal style far removed from high fashion, and her heartfelt affection for her family and friends. Regardless of how we each feel about the pitched battle over her unrenewed contract with Food Network, much of the depth of feeling for Deen can be illuminated by examining the material culture of Deen and thinking critically about us, our own kitchens, and our deep-seated feelings about the South, the color line, and food.
Deen’s youth in the Jim Crow South may well have been confirmed by her admission that she has used the N word and a variety of racist language, and she may have engaged in discriminatory employment practices. Yet much of the zealous pleasure taken in Deen’s apparent undoing is targeting her public materialization of a Southern culture whose real and perceived racism, poverty, and desire unsettle bourgeois notions of 21st century society. In a historical moment when public sentiments are often governed by ironic detachment, Deen’s inflated sincerity, expansive if not tacky style, and personal intimacy evoke key dimensions of what we might circumspectly call a “Southern personality.” W.J. Cash’s 1941 study The Mind of the South gathered together a series of prescient if rhetorical 1929-1937 essays outlining the Southern personality. Cash painted Southerners as romantics who were expressive, emotional, and wary of intellectual rationality. In his telling, Southerners embraced their desire, celebrated spontaneity, and lived for the moment as fierce individualists who were polite, conservative, and apprehensive of difference.
The degree to which her media presentation is the “real” Paula Deen may be irrelevant: what does matter is people’s genuine feelings about Deen’s sincerity (witness fans’ assault on the Food Network’s facebook page) and the strong sense of hypocrisy some observers seem to cast on Deen. Television reality shows carefully construct emotionally involving characters rooted in a real person’s personality: probably much of Paula Deen’s television presentation is unfeigned, but much of it is managed by handlers eager to craft a profitable entertaining product, because little if anything in these shows is impromptu. Deen’s incessant invocation of Southern culture refers to a hackneyed popular notion of the South that may never have existed outside TV, and her vision of Southern cuisine is indebted to convenience cooking and a populist kitchen as much as it is anything distinctly Southern. Deen and her Food Network peers—the persistently perky Rachael Ray, the blue collar appeal of Emeril Lagasse, the painfully egostical Bobby Flay—are personalities constructed to enchant us with hyperbolic traits we find alluring, familiar, and ideally “real.”
Like any popular cultural figure, Deen may be no more “real” than Colonel Sanders. Harland Sanders developed a fried chicken recipe in the 1930s at his gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, and in 1939 Duncan Hines lauded the fried chicken in his Adventures in Good Eating. Around 1950, Sanders began wearing a white suit and string tie and bleached his mustache to match his white hair, and in 1952 the 62-year old Colonel Sanders (a reference to his status as a “Kentucky Colonel”) franchised the restaurant as Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders appeared on the game show “What’s My Line?” in 1963, and despite selling the American chain in 1964 the Colonel did television advertisements from the 1960s until his death in 1980. Sanders’ “American success story” is still celebrated by the chain, and his cartoon likeness still peers out from the KFC sign.
Colonel Sanders became a supremely successful branded sign, but he would likely be envious of Deen’s devoted following. Deen’s following has been exceptionally defensive in the midst of her deposition, and much of this depth of feeling reflects how Deen’s fans identify with her. Shannon Lynn Knepp’s 2012 thesis Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much plumbs Deen’s following as a fandom. Knepp captures Dean’s persistent mantras that define her as self-taught, “down home,” and a success story rising above a difficult life. Knepp underscores how books like Deen’s 2007 autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’, are littered with Southern turns-of-phrase (e.g., “ya’ll” and “darlin’” aspire to capture the intimacy of private speech between friends) and self-revelatory explorations of her agoraphobia, sexuality, and youth. Knepp points out that Deen drops the –g off “trigger words” that imply emotional intimacy, like cookin’ for cooking, or talkin’ for talking, but leaves them on words like sitting. These textual mechanics reproduce the language she uses on television and evoke Southern turns of speech that are at the heart of Deen’s persona.
Much of Deen’s appeal revolves around her embrace of our universal desire for food, which implicitly evokes eroticized bodily desires. In 2011 Maxim dubbed Deen TV’s hottest female chef, observing that “imagining the slippery, sloppy butter-sex we’d have with Paula makes us…hungry for a bacon-wrapped, beer batter-fried stick of butter, weirdly.” Many of Deen’s less-sarcastic defenders are apprehensive of any dominant efforts to control their most basic bodily desires, and Deen openly acknowledges that the profound satisfactions delivered by Mississippi Mud Cake.
Deen’s style is much like her personality in its overdone aesthetic in which the meaning of food, the body, and dress cannot be separated. Deen certainly is sufficiently wealthy to wear designer label fashions, but her clothing is consistently unpretentious off-the-rack wear. Much of it might be characterized as garish or unflattering, but the 66-year-old Deen is not a size three, and attacks on Deen’s style and body are inevitably perceived as an assault on her fans’ bodies as well. In the midst of a story on Deen’s 30-pound weight loss in 2012, she was referred to by the New York Post as the “First Lady of Lard”. In January, 2012 the Huffington Post referred to Deen as “the large-living queen of heavy cooking,” and Chow referred to her as “disturbingly tanned [and] faux-fur-haired.”
The Vancouver Sun’s Randy Shore criticized Deen’s style and her version of Southern cuisine in one fell swoop when he indicated that “Deen’s extreme cuisine is a caricature of real home cooking, just as she is a caricature of a cook. Big hair and all.” Like Shore, many observers seem confused by Deen’s overblown persona and style. In 2012, a Chicago Tribune reporter interviewing Deen observed that “Meeting Paula Deen is like meeting someone wearing a Paula Deen costume. Many famous people look less airbrushed the closer you get. Deen, 65, looks like Paula Deen. Meaning, her tall pouffy head of silver hair stands out no matter how many assistants with clipboards surround her. When the entourage clears she smiles, and teeth whiter than fresh whalebone actively compete with her hair for attention.” Deen’s material style is much like that of many working-class Americans in its un-self-conscious sincerity and visibility, a naïve notion of style that ignores style arbiters’ proscription for a beautiful body, dapper threads, or good hair. Deen’s crass language, relaxed innuendo, and apparent tackiness evoke universal bodily desires for eclairs and sex alike.
In a nation eager to find scapegoats for pervasive obesity, Deen has often surfaced as an easy target. In 2011 Anthony Bourdain complained to TV Guide that “the worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.” Deen cleverly responded by invoking her association with “real” people and took aim on Bourdain’s bourgeois sensibilities, arguing that “not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.” Of course there are lots of cuisine options between Bourdain’s high-style restaurants and Deen’s comfort foods, but her populist response fashions an emotionally satisfying if contrived distinction between high-style and mass taste.
Last week the New York Times’ Frank Bruni observed that in 2012 Deen undermined her own claim to sincerity and risked now being labeled a hypocrite when she acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years earlier. Deen announced on the Today show in 2012 that she had signed a contract with a firm manufacturing a non-insulin diabetes medication that costs $500 a month at normal therapeutic dose; the deal somewhat miraculously aspired to transition Deen from fat-laden recipes to a healthy lifestyle and reportedly netted her $6 million. Type 2 diabetes is indeed an adult-onset “lifestyle” diabetes shaped by diet, a lack of exercise, heredity, and resulting obesity and high-blood pressure, so despite her clumsy defensiveness that diet was simply part of the problem–“I’ve always preached moderation. I don’t blame myself”–it is difficult to exonerate her Krispy Kreme hamburgers and similar comfort foods. Deen had been reluctant to share her diagnosis publicly, but she implied the eventual public admission was a decision of faith when she told the New York Times TimesTalk that “I’m a very spiritual person. I knew that the opportunity to share would present itself.” Bourdain subsequently took a dig at Deen’s public invocation of faith and the $6 million contract with Novo Nordisk, tweeting “What was Jesus’s position on gout?” Bruni complained that Deen had “waited three long, greasy years since her diagnosis to come out. During that period, she promoted the deep-fried life without acknowledging her firsthand experience of how a person can be burned by it. That’s a profound, unsettling act of withholding.”
A host of fans and defenders were not particularly unsettled by Deen’s diabetes announcement. For instance, National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff defensively concluded that we should “let Paula Deen eat fried butter in peace.” Chow’s John Birdsall somewhat more thoughtfully defended Deen, arguing that “Perhaps our notions of health and excess are rooted in class. Deen, we assume, speaks to a down-market audience that needs to be lectured about nutrition and willpower. Bourdain speaks to the well-heeled traveler for whom a foie gras hot dog is an occasional indulgence, not a moral failing. Right? Or is it somehow acceptable for men to engage in extreme eating, while women have an obligation to show restraint?” As a strong and assertive woman Deen likely inspires anxieties among defenders of patriarchy, yet even as a diabetic, Deen condones our inexpressible taste for fried chicken and Twinkies; while nutritionists may not be happy with her suggestion to practice moderation her counsel does not deny our desires.
Shannon Knepp recognizes that much of Deen’s autobiography is a confessional that at least implicitly seeks atonement: Dean smokes, she had a decade-long affair, and she expresses shame for her experiences across the color line. Deen’s revelations consider her youth in the segregated South amidst civil rights transformations, indicating that “Black folks had always been a big part of our lives in the South; I played with the kids of the black women who took care of me and they were my friends. None of us were strangers to the black community . . . I would say we lived a pretty unexamined life in terms of politics or civil rights. . . I’m plain horrified that things could have been that way and I was so blind that I didn’t get that it was wrong.”
Deen’s history and experience are in many ways not at all remarkable. During an appearance on Who Do You Think Are?, genealogists confirmed that her family had owned captives, which somehow came as a revelation to the chef. In a Fall 2012 TimesTalk interview Deen struggled with that heritage when she indicated that after the Civil War “My great grandfather was so devastated, the war was over, he had lost his son, he had lost the war, and he didn’t know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. You know, there was thirty-something people on his books and the next year census I go to find that there’s like zero. Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out, I’m sure, into the barn and he shot himself.” Those “workers” were of course captives imprisoned against their will, but Deen’s struggle to preserve her romanticized picture of her ancestors and reconcile them with the historical realities is not at all unique. Deen awkwardly noted in the same interview that she had close personal links to African American employees, asking one to come out for the cameras. In a clumsy moment, she calls to him that “We can’t see you standing against that dark board” and compels him to face the cameras in the status of a silent prop as the crowd laughs without any particular self-consciousness.
The comments and episode are perhaps innocuous, and there is no reason to doubt Deen’s genuine love for this person or her multiple weeping apologies and insistence that she is “not a racist.” Racism thrives in the absence of critical and reflective thinking, but Deen is no more guilty of such an inability to see let alone address racial privilege than many of us. Deen pleaded to Matt Lauer that “I’m not an actor,” but she is in fact a character in our experience, reducible to the easy caricatures like Southerner that she has so expertly wielded on TV. Given Deen’s amplified sincerity and some genuine hypocrisy over her own diabetes and the impact of her food on others, she has lost some credibility to now speak against racism, but she has an enormously powerful position from which she can do so. Apologies do matter, and the ability to have forgiveness in the face of ongoing self-reflection is good for society, a point made in John McWhorter in Time. Calling Deen a racist risks missing that her unpleasant asides and everyday stereotypes of people unlike her are the ways racism and inequality are socialized into all of us. Much of the acrimonious attacks on Dean that grasp at her hair, makeup, drawl, or weight are inelegant but familiar tirades about class, gender, and the South that caricature all of those dimensions of contemporary life and may reveal less self-critical reflection than Dean herself is now experiencing in the blinding eye of public space.
2000 Vicarious Consumption: Food, Television and the Ambiguity of Modernity. Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 23(3):113-124. (subscription access)
Lori F. Brost
2000 Television Cooking Shows: Defining the Genre. PhD Dissertation, Indiana University.
1941 The Mind of the South. Knopf, New York.
Sherrie A. Inness
2005 Secret Ingredients : Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
2005 Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography. Harper’s Magazine October:55-60.
2005 The Essence of Cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs Consumer Fantasies. Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(3): 217-234.
Shannon Lynn Knepp
2012 Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much. Masters Thesis, University of Georgia.
2001 Cultural Feeding, Good Life Science, and the TV Food Network. Mass Communication and Society 4 (2):165-182. (subscription access)
2006 Cultural Citizenship : Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
2009 Out of the kitchen, onto the couch. The New York Times Magazine, 2 August.
Paula Deen in kitchen image from Artists Agency
Matt Lauer and Deen image from New York Daily News
Diabetes ad image from CBS News
On the afternoon of July 7th, a column of reenactors will launch yet another futile assault on Cemetery Ridge, 150 years and four days after the slope was originally charged by 12,500 Confederates who left half of their number dead on the hillside. The Pickett’s Charge performance will cap four days of reenactments at Gettysburg a century-and-a-half after the battle. Visitors will be able to tour camps with roughly 10,000 reenactors and watch the key moments in the battle from grandstand seating or a live pay-per-view “battlecast.” This summer similar sesquicentennial reenactments will be held at the Battle of Corydon (Indiana), Morgan’s Raid (Ohio), the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky), and the Battle of Chickamauga (Ohio), following 150-year anniversary reenactments at Manassas/Bull Run in 2011, the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Antietam in 2012, and the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 2013.
We are now in the midst of the 150th commemoration of a series of America’s most horrific military engagements and a war whose legacy continues to provoke anxiety. These battlefield reenactments are not about historical inquiry, since we have dissected every hour of battles like Gettysburg, and the Civil War has been relentlessly analyzed by a legion of scholars. Reenactments instead uniquely evoke the bodily and emotional experience of 19th-century warfare: conventional historical narratives debate the social effects and results of the war or even single battles without satisfying resolution, but a reenactment is a concrete physical experience for participants and audiences alike. Reenactments sidestep most of the historiographical discord over the war over 150 years, betraying that many of us dislike a disputed history lacking clarity, especially one that has been linked to America’s complicated regional divisions and racist heritage. The physical experience of warfare is not especially clearly captured by conventional scholarly narratives, but reenactment evokes the affective and bodily experience of combat. It is of course impossible to capture the genuine visual horrors or experienced terrors of Civil War combat, so reenactments simply evoke some of the aesthetics and sensory cues of engagements and aspire to honor anonymous foot soldiers without clear reference to the structural discord that fueled the war.
There are myriad types of reenactment including forms of living history such as Renn Fairs and museums that can range from highly scripted theater to largely improvisational and informal discussions. Battlefield reenactments are partly distinguished from these other performances by their effort to demonstrate reenactors’ mastery of the materiality of soldiers and the movements of troops on battlefields like Gettysburg. These battlefield reenactments strip away the complicated legacy of the Civil War and pedagogical narratives to a bodily combat aesthetics, a portrayal of the war articulated in sensory bodily dimensions—smoke, sound, temperature, sight, and space–we all can experience and grasp. Gordon Jones’ 2007 dissertation underscores that reenactment appeals to many reenactors and audiences because it is an intense emotional experience: muddy hillside charges, clouds of gunpowder smoke, sweat-soaked period uniforms, and chest-rattling cannon-fire make a distant but hallowed heritage seem “real and tangible.”
Leigh Clemons’ analysis of battle reenactors suggests that this embodiment of foot soldiers in battle implicitly celebrates combatants’ anonymity; reenactments are essentially a populist theater that mirrors the reenactors’ identification as “ordinary” people. The week before he goes to participate in this year’s Gettysburg reenactment, Clint Johnson made the same point when he indicated in the Winston Salem Journal that “reenactors go out in the heat and the cold, and the blazing sun and the chilling rain to honor the men of both sides. It’s as simple as that. These Northern and Southern men left their homes to fight a war in which they had no personal stake.” Gordon Jones concurs that reenactors celebrate the Civil War soldier as an honor-bound citizen cast into an inconceivably unpleasant war beyond our 21st-century comprehension.
It would be easy to fixate on reenactment as transparent nostalgia, and battlefield reenactments do tend to focus on the bodily sensation of battle and sidestep the thorny sociopolitical heritage of the war. Yet studies like Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic have risked casting reenactors simply as clichés standing in for a caricature of the White South. Jones’ demographic research on reenactors does verify that they tend to be White middle-class conservatives. For instance, Jones found that 67% of reenactors described themselves as Republicans; 92% of his sample was White; and 56% had not completed a college degree. Nevertheless, only about 40,000 people can be considered reenactors, so their imagined Civil War is not necessarily an accurate reflection of Southern culture or broader American visions of the war.
W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s assessment of Horwitz’s clever if flawed study concludes that reenactment reveals “our age’s hunger for intense and `authentic’ experiences” (a similar point is made about living history by Richard Handler and William Saxton). Rather than focus purely on reenactors themselves (despite the rich ethnographic possibilities), we might instead divine a telling desire for such authenticity in reenactment. Some of this likely reflects our aversion to scholarly master narratives. For many people, scholarly history often has not been particularly compelling or accessible; social histories of the war and the subsequent century-and-a-half paint a complicated heritage that squarely confronts privilege, class, and racism that continue to inspire our collective anxiety. Yet a reenacted battle also frames a story of sorts that coherently unfolds in time and space, and that implicit narrative of warfare—people locked in combat, bound by a commitment to honor–is ironically much more coherent than our everyday lives.
Scores of people have long ventured to battlefields to physically experience those spaces. In 1903 thousands of spectators witnessed about 430 veterans who met at the site of “the Crater” in Petersburg, Virginia to recreate the 1864 battle in which they had exploded four tons of dynamite at the site. Ten years later veterans marked the 50-year anniversary of Gettysburg, with surviving combatants meeting in positions at the site of Pickett’s Charge. Those reenactments were not about the sensory experience of battlefield combat; instead, gathering soldiers from North and South crafted a contrived vision of reconciliation that awkwardly ignored Emancipation and racism and granted Southerners their honor in defeat.
The Civil War’s centennial was marked with reenactments in 1961 at Manassas and Fort Sumter and Antietam in 1962, but the Manassas reenactment damaged much of the battlefield, resulted in a series of injuries, and caused some observers to question warfare as entertainment. The National Park Service Director subsequently created a policy that did not authorize future reenactments on Park Service properties.
Many reenactors are certainly exceptionally well-versed in the minutia of everyday life in the war, and much of the highly particularistic detail valued by reenactors—encyclopedic knowledge of uniform fabrics, the biographies of soldiers, the topography of local battlefields—is outside the interest of most scholars. Reenactments aspire to fire our imaginations with material authenticity, so much of the reenactment discourse revolves around prosaic if not mundane details such as clothing stitching and firearms and spatial movement of forces. Scholars routinely point out that no representation or discourse can capture a historical reality, and some reenactors do somewhat naively fancy reenactment as a relatively seamless simulation of a battle. Yet reenactment is at its heart a structured imagination of documented events and material culture, and it has no power if it does not invoke what we consider to be verifiable realities. Those realities of uniform details, troop placements, and camp life are actually much more straightforward to interpret than the broader meanings of the war itself, so the realities of reenacted Civil War battles seem more more coherent than more ambitious narratives about the war itself.
“Authenticity” is a clumsy term, but battlefield reenactments are real experiences that exactingly recreate an inaccessible historical reality; their authoritative claim to authenticity is based on the seamless materiality and immediacy of the physical experience: seeing intricately detailed buttons and uniform trim, feeling the percussive impact of gunfire on the battlefield, witnessing the choreographed movement of soldiers, and hearing the sounds of screaming and firearms on the battlefield provide an experience we do not derive from even the most eloquent textual narrative.
The picture of the Civil War painted by battlefield reenactments is necessarily particularistic, focused on the sensory experience of combat. Pedagogically, reenactments are likely to only provide details of everyday soldiers’ lives that do not illuminate the war itself, and we could accuse reenactments of concealing the complicated heritage of the war itself. Tony Horwitz wrote a piece in The Atlantic last week that presciently questions the American tendency to cast the Civil war as a heroic and noble cause and battle as glorious; Leonard Pitts has similarly championed seeing the war’s irrefutable link to enslavement and racism.
Reenactments likely do not undermine the tendency to reduce the war to a show of honor and battlefield glory, but they do not necessarily lapse into ideological distortions of the war either. Battle is an inexpressible experience we laboriously imagine yet cannot articulate, and the reality of grim combat between Americans evokes our apprehensions about how tenuously the nation has always been held together. Reenactments can push the boundaries of historical interpretation and narrative in novel ways, and they likely reveal the anxieties provoked by challenging social histories and the limitations of conventional historical scholarship that cannot evoke the physical experience of war so effectively.
2005 Introduction: what is reenactment? Criticism 46(3):327-339.
2007 History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and its Work in the Present. Rethinking History 11(3): 299-312.
David W. Blight
2001 Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
W. Fitzhugh Brundage
1998 Commemoration and Conflict: Forgetting and Remembering the Civil War, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz [sic]; Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America by Kirk Savage. The Georgia Historical Quarterly 82(3):559-574. (subscription access)
2008 Branding Texas : Performing Culture in the Lone Star State. University of Texas Press, Austin.
2011 Present Enacting Past: The Functions of Battle Reenacting in Historical Representation. In Enacting History, Scott Magelssen and Rhona Justice-Malloy (eds), pp. 10-21. University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
1994 Civil War Reenactors and the Postmodern Sense of History. Journal of American Culture 17(3):7-11. (subscription access)
Richard Handler and Eric Gable
1997 The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.
Richard Handler and William Saxton
1988 Dyssimulation: Reflexivity, Narrative, and the Quest for Authenticity in “Living History.” Cultural Anthropology 3(3):242-260.
1998 Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Vintage Books, New York.
Gordon L. Jones
2007 “Gut history”: Civil War reenacting and the making of an American past. PhD Dissertation, Emory University. (subscription access)
2006 Landscapes and the Lost Cause: An Analysis of the 1903 and 1937 Crater Crater Reenactments. Civil War Memory http://cwmemory.com/ accessed June 22, 2013.
Scott Magelssen and Rhona Justice-Malloy (eds)
2011 Enacting History. University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
Iain McCalman and Paul A. Pickering (eds)
2010 Historical Re-Enactment : From Realism to the Affective Turn. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Robin D. Mittelstaedt
1995 Reenacting the American Civil War: A unique form of serious leisure for adults. World Leisure and Recreation 37(1):23-27. (subscription access)
Mark L. Shanks
200 Very civil wars: Reenactors, academics, and the performance of the past. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Timothy B. Smith
2008 The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
1990 Bloodless Battles: The Civil War Reenacted. The Drama Review 34(4):123-136. (subscription access)
Florida Agricultural Museum reenactment image from iambrianna
Gettysburg 2009 Pickett’s Charge image from ronzzo1
Ohio reenactment image from proftrusty
Stonewall Jackson 1962 Manassas Reenactment image from Frank Harrell
A road trip across America is a prosaic journey over long stretches of relatively uniform landscapes punctuated by cities, rest stops, and a scatter of gas stations. In the midst of these miles of non-descript interstates are scores of fast food venues hawking pretty much the same convenience fare we would find at home. Travel takes us to novel places that remove us from the prosaic flow of everyday life, so desire for a Big Mac on the road trip—perhaps the most banal of all commodities–seems contradictory. Yet much of contemporary road travel appears intended to eliminate surprise along the way, and the string of McDonalds and fast food chains along the roadside are comforting but banal. In the context of the road trip, what is perhaps undervalued about fast food chains is their total predictability if not outright tedium; that is, we seem to value everything that streamlines the journey: well-maintained roads, a predictably operating car, conveniently placed rest stops, clearly marked roads, easy interchanges for gas and burgers, and rapid delivery of food requiring no thought.
The road trip is ideally efficient, predictable, and controlled, all of which are at the heart of what George Ritzer has referred to as a “McDonaldized” society. Ritzer used McDonalds as a metaphor for a hyper-efficient rationality, efficiency, and standardization that reaches beyond the Golden Arches, and the thousands of roadside fast food restaurants certainly make many of Ritzer’s points. Fast food restaurants all tend to foster some ennui and patterned tedium, but the road trip McDonalds may have somewhat different effects than those dotting our local neighborhoods. The interstate convenience restaurant actually may intensify McDonalds’ embrace of convenience, homogenization, tedium, and predictability.
The material spaces of fast food restaurants have not been examined especially closely by scholars, but the fare McDonalds and their peers offer have been dissected and are routinely panned: for some observers, fast food is simply unhealthy; others deplore the environmental implications of fast foodways, some question the social implications of a fast food culture; and a legion of foodies deplore the products. Yet simultaneously these restaurants are crowded with Americans attracted by inexpensive, predictable, and—to many palates—tasty, carbohydrate-rich, and salty foods.
The design creativity of fast food chains is rarely lauded by style mavens; instead chains are utterly standardized, mostly interchangeable spaces crafted from plastic. The plastic furnishings, pastel crawl-tubes and ball pits, and indestructible tile in McDonalds and other food chains are fundamentally functional, but they also tend to weather gracefully in the sense that they do not readily betray their age and appear to be from a particular stylistic moment.
For many of us making long-distance car trips, McDonalds and gas stations are the face of the small towns and rural stretches along the way. That face is predictably familiar, even though small details of accents, car tags, and weary fellow travelers betray that we’ve stepped outside our local everyday lives. We rarely fancy ourselves as being attracted to patterned repetitive banality, and our road trips to distant places are often considered to be akin to pilgrimages removing us from everyday life and yielding the personal clarity we may only get from contemplating a lovely park, touring a historic site, or assessing our dreams with Mickey Mouse as our mirror.
Perhaps the long drive remains a social experience, a forced bonding in the face of road trip boredom and mounting traveling tension. The road trip does pull us out of our everyday lives in some ways, if for no other reason than because the passage of time is experienced as a spatial dislocation, and floral changes, topographical transformation, and new symbols (e.g., regional restaurant chains) underscore our distance in space. We tend to romanticize the road trip as a journey of discovery or rebellious critique, and we sometimes fancy the road to Orlando as a metaphorical wilderness. But the monotony of the road and the prosaic familiarity of the golden arches and Big Macs make the road trip a less jarring dislocation. They may confirm that for many American road travelers it is less about the journey than the destination.
2007 Driving Women : Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, eds.
1997 The Road Movie Book. Routledge, New York.
2003 The Taste of Boredom: McDonaldization and Australian Food Culture. The American Behavioral Scientist47(2): 187-200. (subscription access)
1983 The “McDonaldization” of Society. Journal of American Culture 6.1 (1983): 100-107. (subscription access)
2001 Explorations in the Sociology of Consumption: Fast Food, Credit Cards and Casinos. SAGE Publications, London.
2003 Islands of the Living Dead: The Social Geography of McDonaldization. The American Behavioral Scientist47(2): 119-136. (subscription access)
1990 A Theater for Eating, Looking, and Thinking: The Restaurant as Symbolic Space. Sociological Spectrum 10(4): 507-526. (subscription access)
Rowland A. Sherrill
2000 Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque. University of Illinois Press, Carbondale.
2013 Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonalds in Beijing. In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, pp.449-471. 3rd Edition. Routledge, New York
McDonalds Connecticut image Scoobyfoo
McDonalds Nevada image from Zach H
McDonalds Sign image from smenzel
McDonalds Spokane image from Sport Suburban
This week it was confirmed that the Duchess of Cambridge will have Buckingham Palace’s first sanctioned baby shower. Sister Pippa Middleton is hosting the shower, at which guests will “toast mum with cupcakes and champagne,” and receive luxurious goodie bags that The Telegraph indicates will include Jo Malone candles and items from the White Company. Increasingly the baby shower is joining a series of celebratory life events involving material gifts—not just weddings and birthdays, but wedding proposals, graduation parties, bachelorette parties, and baby showers are now orchestrated rituals served by a range of firms and specialized consumer goods (the Middletons’ family business is Party Pieces, a party company committed to just such celebrating, and Duchess Kate worked for the firm, was as a part-time buyer for Jigsaw Junior, and launched First Birthdays, a junior brand to Party Pieces).
A variety of cultural traditions mark the impending birth of a child, just as marriages, deaths, and other life events are governed by myriad distinctive rituals, but many such events are increasingly materialistic–if not pretentious–consumption rituals. These orchestrated events are often reduced to American consumer superficiality, but they are clearly reaching beyond American bourgeois. The Independent observed that 28% of British mothers-to-be have showers, leading the paper to wonder if the shower was a “vulgar American import offering the worst of Hallmark consumerism.” The South Wales Evening Post likewise mused that the baby shower was “another American gimmick that has swept across the pond faster than the child-bearing stork itself.”
Baby showers emerged around the turn of the 20th century as an exclusively women’s event that fortified traditional motherhood roles while providing a modest assemblage of essential goods. In 1902, for instance, the St. Paul Globe complained about “showers of all kinds” and indicated that the “baby shower is the crowning affliction which has sprung into popularity.” The paper observed that “showers have ceased to become a fad; they are a mania. . . A baby shower is the latest phase in the development of the mania. . . The mother is supposed at one of those showers to receive enough clothes to last the infant for the first year of its life.” In December, 1908 the St. John’s Review (Oregon) felt compelled to explain the custom to its readers when it reported that “Mrs. W.L. Plummer was the recipient of such a `baby shower.’” The paper reported that it was not “a shower of babies, but a baby shower, where a houseful of the friends of the new baby’s mamma gathered to pay their respects to the new arrival and shower him with presents of everything useful for his comfort.”
Some social and ritual dimensions of showers did not really change radically. In 1939, for instance, a Bridgeport, Connecticut woman identified only as “Mrs. A.” indicated that baby showers were both women’s leisure and a sort of positive reciprocity: “Once in a while I go to a show — not down town — it costs too much . . . I go to Baby Showers — I try to keep up with them, even if I can only bring something for twenty-five cents. I know that if I do that, when my turn comes next, they’ll help me.”
Baby showers became more popular in the wake of World War II, alongside a post-war baby boom, Cold War consumer affluence, and a move to larger homes in the suburbs. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, the baby shower became increasingly more commercialized. By 1988 The New York Times was moved to ponder the emergence of opulent baby showers that one woman referred to as “power showers.” Lee Salk suggested that the baby shower that once provided essential goods for parenting had in 1988 become a celebration of late parenthood, and by the late 1980s the shower clearly was assuming many of the consumer dimensions now taken for granted. The Times noted that the “baby registry business is still in its infancy,” but southern California store Bergstroms had introduced a registry in 1984 and some New York firms were introducing registries.
Since her pregnancy was revealed in December, the Duchess’ every material move has been closely monitored by royal-watchers who have assessed her pregnancy fashion, food cravings, and exercise regime. One British baby shower planner is offering up a special “Royal Baby Shower” package “inspired by the understated elegance of the Duchess herself.” Ironically, though, the royal shower may be a somewhat staid model in comparison to the overdone celebrity showers followed closely by the press. Reality star Kim Kardashian, for instance, invited friends to her baby shower with a satin-lined music box that opened to reveal a ballerina dancing to father-to-be Kanye West’s “Hey Mama.” Among the gifts at her shower, Kardashian received a Swarovski crystal-studded high chair and a cashmere baby gown, and no-show Gwyneth Paltrow sent a “21-day cleanse.” In 2006 Sean Combs and Kim Porter sent shower invitations carved in a child’s toy block, and their registry included an R-class Mercedes Benz; their shower consultant fancied the couple was much like other parents-to-be, observing that she showed the mother-to-be “a $17,000 diamond-encrusted pacifier and she laughed because she’s down to earth. They are realistic people. Everything (on the registry) wasn’t just the bling bling.” Victoria Beckham asked guests at her shower to bring only pink gifts, which included a five-foot tall giraffe.
In the early 20th century shower gifts were relatively functional and modest goods. In 1915, for instance, The Omaha Bee’s column “Advice to Lovelorn” counseled a woman preparing for a shower that if the mother was “poor or in moderate circumstances, something useful, particularly a little nicer than the parties themselves, would be likely to buy, would be appropriate. Anything too expensive would out of place, however, unless the family of the recipient was affluent.” The early 21st century marketplace, though, is crowded with high-end goods. Some of these baby items are ludicrously expensive, like the Baby Suommo luxury cot (13,310 Euro’s), the Roddler stroller (described as the “Rolls Royce of strollers,” $4495), or a diamond-encrusted pacifier ($17,000). Some expensive gifts are rationalized as “keepsakes,” such as the Cristofle Savan baby cup, on which “Animals of the sub-Saharan [sic] decorate a stunning, silvertone baby cup with two handles and a polished finish.” Other products like the Tiffany sterling silver bubble blower or the Lamborghini Murdielago battery-powered ride-on car delicately attempt to make a humorous show of affluence.
Rachel Thomson, Mary Jane Kehily, Lucy Hadfield, and Sue Sharpe’s Making Modern Mothers suggests that the pretentious contemporary shower may be a reaction against the 1950’s shower that framed the mother as selfless. Yet exceptionally outrageous baby gifts are perhaps most important to the baby product industry for establishing an expectation that the shower is a unique and obligatory life event that must be commemorated with something more consequential than a cotton layette. For many first-time mothers, the shower that once was ideally an entrance into the world of motherhood now becomes an initiation into a new corner of consumer marketplace
Web sites like The Bump and Martha Stewart provide detailed planning guides for those contemplating a less affluent shower than Kim and Kanye, and for those simply seeking stylistic and organizational inspiration Pinterest is awash with images of showers, favors, gifts, and shower foods. Yet while scores of women (and increasingly men as well) have showers, many still do not: Thomson and colleagues’ 2011 study of British women found that few mothers-to-be were swayed by opulent infant goods or even had showers. Baby showers may be a “manufactured” ritual that most consumers see as “timeless,” but nearly all holidays and ritualized life events share some constructed dimensions. Increasingly these manufactured holidays and consequential social rituals cannot be separated from material consumption.
1988 Now Bringing Up Baby Can Start With a Power Shower: Bringing Up Baby and the Power Shower. The New York Times C1, C10.
Alison J. Clarke
2004 Maternity and Materiality. In Consuming Motherhood, eds. Janelle S. Taylor, Linda L. Layne, and Danielle F. Wozniak, pp.55-. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway. New Jersey.
Eileen Fischer and Brenda Gainer
1993 Baby Showers: a Rite of Passage in Transition. NA – Advances in Consumer Research 20:320-324.
Linda L. Layne
2000 “He was a Real Baby with Baby Things”: A Material Culture Analysis of Personhood, Parenthood and Pregnancy Loss. Journal of Material Culture 5(3): 321-345. (subscription access)
2006 Oh Baby, Baby: (Un)Veiling Britney Spears’ Pregnant Body. Michigan Feminist Studies
The New York Times
195 Golf Widows Not Bored: Wives Putter and Chat while Pros Chip and Putt. The New York Times 11 August:16.
Cele Otnes and Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck
2003 Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. University of California Press, Berkeley.
2003 Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943-71. University of Illinois Press, Champaign-Urbana.
Janelle S. Taylor
2000 Of Sonograms and Baby Prams: Prenatal Diagnosis, Pregnancy, and Consumption. Feminist Studies 26(2):391-418. (subscription access)
Rachel Thomson, Mary Jane Kehily, Lucy Hadfield, and Sue Sharpe
2011 Making Modern Mothers. Policy Press, Bristol, UK.
Baby shower table setting image zAppledot
Most pictures of the geek experience highlight the aesthetic and material visibility of geeks: that is, we can “see” geeks, who signal their social distinctions with material style ranging from clothes to super-hero statues to backpacks to body form. Among the pantheon of geek material goods, perhaps no element is more visible or common than the prosaic t-shirt, and geek t-shirts provide a compelling if somewhat novel mechanism to illuminate geek-ness, the notion of “geek culture,” and the intersection of geeks, style, and marketing.
The idea of a geek culture carries with it some intellectual baggage rooted in conventional anthropological definitions of culture, and the problem of defining geek “culture” is common to definitions of many other contemporary social collectives. Anthropologists have been destabilizing the idea of culture—the very concept that defines the discipline—since the 1970’s, complicating the facile distinction between the West and the Other that characterized colonial analyses of the world. We live in a moment in which something approximating a global consumer culture has collapsed how we see difference, imagine community, and craft distinction, leaving us in an interconnected world in which “us” and “them” are not especially useful polarizations.
Culture is a somewhat mechanical concept if we approach it in terms of bounded membership (e.g., “real” geeks and poseurs) or simply oppose it to some caricatured foil (e.g., geeks as a contrast to the “mainstream,” “sports/jock culture,” or some other stereotype of “normality”). For some anthropologists, culture is produced for specific sorts of social reasons; that is, culture is not something essential like where you were born or your skin color, but it is instead constructed to represent distinction and create a sense of separateness. When geeks appropriate the moniker of “culture,” they perhaps stake a clumsy claim to the social legitimacy, authenticity, and distinction associated with traditional definitions of culture. Social groups like geeks routinely celebrate themselves as a “culture” because that concept distinguishes them as a unified and distinct group separated from the materiality, taste, and practices of the masses. We can literally see those differences in mundane things like distinctive t-shirts.
Few elements of geek material culture are more common than the t-shirt. Every convention is now crowded by a host of merchants selling every possible geek motif shirt; specialty stores and increasingly more mainstream shops hawk geeky t-shirts; and many more firms and individual sellers cover the internet with countless geek icons (e.g., Star Wars), crossovers (featuring two or more franchises), and individual creations paying homage to the likes of zombies, Lovecraft, and Minecraft.
The emergence of the branded t-shirt is a relatively recent phenomenon. The superhero and sci-fi shirt market once stopped at middle school sizes just as Batman jammies transitioned to teen sizes and adult styles. Concert t-shirts—the obscenely over-priced confirmation you did indeed see Grand Funk Railroad—were one deviation from that t-shirt market (the first concert souvenir shirt was apparently a 1956 Elvis shirt, and the Monkees sold shirts on their 1967 American tour), and some resorts began to produce branded shirts advertising their resorts in the 1950’s. Popular franchises like Planet of the Apes and Doctor Who were long tied to branded goods like toys, but adult clothing was an uncommon branded item. Kids’ clothing was sold in department stores alongside other children’s fashions, and toys had a dedicated department in most stores, but adult t-shirts were mostly available only as undecorated undergarments in the men’s underwear section.
An emerging marketplace in the 1980s and into the 1990s was sci-fi conventions. Fans had gathered at science fiction conventions like WorldCon (1939) since World War II, but they were joined by many more fans with the introduction of Gen Con (gaming) in 1968, Comic Con in 1970, Eurocon (European sci-fi) in 1972, the World Fantasy Convention in 1975, Comiket (anime/manga) in 1975, the North American Science Fiction Convention in 1975, DragonCon (multiple genres) in 1987, and a host of more specialized and regional conferences and ever-more comic and sci-fi shows in the past 20 years.
Fueled by the explosion in geek conventions, the most significant expansion of the t-shirt market—and many other geek commodities—came in the past 20 years, and much of it has been driven by internet sales and marketers’ increasingly aggressive appeal to geek consumers. The scatter of homemade silk screens and DIY shirts made in the 1970s and 1980s now pale in comparison to the legion of shirts that are marketed internationally online.
As with all things geek, the conditions that qualify a shirt as geek are somewhat ambiguous. Mass marketers aspire to manage brand symbolism, so somewhere in the flood of officially branded Iron Man or Walking Dead shirts there are corporate efforts to structure the meaning of the franchise and manage fan demand for the goods. In a do-it-yourself moment, though, a crowd of modest artists, fans, and marketers appropriate those brands; legally we cannot make and sell Portal shirts, but the corporate legal effort of shutting down every modest seller on Red Bubble and ebay may not be worth the cost, and it is certainly counter-productive in fan communities. The result is an absolute flood of shirts in every possible motif, some officially sanctioned and many more fan homages.
This flooded market has yielded symbolic geek riches. Perhaps the central geek value that shapes the meaning of t-shirts is novelty. Geeks value clever and novel plays on shared symbols—for instance, the “Ewoking Dead” hybridizing two geek franchises (zombie crossovers range from Peanuts to Hello Kitty to Tron), Mad X Men, or various interpretations of icon scenes like ET riding an airborne bike in the moonlight. A “good” shirt is inevitably a subjective notion, but the most compelling motifs seize on geek franchises (e.g., the universe of Doctor Who shirts knows no bounds), employ phrases familiar only to insiders, or are timely (e.g., within days of his reference to a “Jedi Mind Meld,” a t-shirt appeared featuring a Vulcan Obama in a Jedi robe; a “Red Wedding” shirt from Game of Thrones was available the day following the episode).
At major conventions it is increasingly more common to find that very few people are wearing the same t-shirts. The sales floor of every convention is always its busiest space, and a series of web pages like T-Shirt Roundup and Hide Your Arms do nothing but inventory t-shirts for sale on any given day. The highest geek fashion complement today may be “Where did you get that shirt?,” yet this is a tribute to shopping resourcefulness as much as it is flattery to taste: demonstrating t-shirt style requires a geek to be as good a shopper as many of the masses so commonly dismissed by geeks, so t-shirts underscore the geek immersion in consumer culture. Certainly many t-shirt sellers are individuals managing modest operations and celebrating their favorite geekery, but a host of firms now sell a vast volume of t-shirts and assorted commodities explicitly marketed as “geek.”
A t-shirt is perhaps a somewhat distinctive geek commodity, since it is worn outside the confines of conventions and comic shops and confirms in public space the consumer’s attraction to Game of Thrones, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock, Firefly, Lord of the Rings, and myriad other geek realms and franchises. Some symbols have pretty universal recognition (e.g., Superman and Batman), but others are much more of a niche that may be incomprehensible beyond geek circles (e.g., the Torchwood Institute symbol). For some observers these shirts are homing signals that identify fellow geeks and weed out those who cannot recite Roy Batty’s final soliloquy. Nevertheless, such symbols are not purely “other-directed” and meant to establish affinities with other geeks: geek symbols are perhaps equally if not more important for how they make the consumer feel. Batman, for instance, could be a sign of law-and-order, rebellion, or style, and none of those meanings are exclusive to each other or necessarily even articulate.
We can circumspectly acknowledge a body of social practices that distinguishes “geek culture,” but at the same time it is firmly embedded in broader marketing patterns and consumer values. The notion of a clearly defined mainstream culture against which geeks are contrasted is mostly a rhetorical maneuver that evades the deep impression of geeks in consumer culture, if not their centrality in that society. Any efforts to define geeks—call it a culture, subculture, post-subculture, tribe, or any other term–need to examine who we imagine ourselves to be; what socially unites a circle of people attracted to games, sci-fi, cosplay, and comics; and how dominant ideologies and market structure shape the expression of geek selfhood. Culture is partly an idea that imagines self and others; it is partly a document of shared experiences, a common everyday life; and it is partly a set of structural material conditions. Any reflective understanding of geeks needs to examine all of these interconnected dimensions of geekhood and contemporary life.
Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson
1992 Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology 7 (1):6-23. (subscription access)
2009 Digital Subculture: A Geek Meaning of Style. Journal of Communication Inquiry 33(1): 58-70. (subscription access)
2007 The Well-Dressed Geek: Media Appropriation and Subcultural Style. Paper presented at MiT5, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (29 April).
2007 Looking Inside Out: A Sociology of Knowledge and Ignorance of Geekness. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 5(2): 41-50.
Wizard World images from author
Dawn of the Doctor shirt image from ShantyShawn on Red Bubble
Doctor Who Hearts image from okse on Red Bubble
ET/Aliens shirt image from runstop on Red Bubble
Jedi mind Meld image from T Shirt laundry
Comic, sci-fi, and anime geeks share an intensive if not obsessive commitment to genre and characters, so it is not surprising that fans so well-schooled in the finest details of characterization can reproduce those characters flawlessly. This weekend a phalanx of Pikachu’s, Catwomen, Storm Troopers, and myriad other comic, video game, and movie characters have invaded the City of Brotherly Love at Wizardworld Philadelphia Comic-Con, one of countless settings in which a host of costumed fans take on the guise of their favorite characters.
Cosplay (i.e., costumed play) is a performance in which a fan demonstrates their depth of character understanding, seamless reproduction of character, and creativity and craftsmanship by interpreting and assuming the materiality of that character. Cosplay is visual theatre delivered through costume, pose, and bodily presentation, and cosplayers’ bodies inevitably invoke gender and sexuality, sometimes in subtle forms and other times very assertively. Cosplay is compelling because it exaggerates dimensions of identity in the same way as comics and movies: That is, it takes the essential and familiar threads of class, gender, race, and sexuality and hyperbolizes them. Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Hunter would not be at all interesting if they were “real”; instead, they are alluring because they and their broader narratives capture some compelling dimensions of our own selfhood projected onto distorted realities or pure fantasies.
Characters like Lara Croft (from Tomb Raider), for instance, are strong and independent personalities painted as physically and sexually confident, so there is a legion of women who cosplay Lara Croft. In her video and movie portrayals Lara Croft is modestly clad and physically abundant, aesthetic cues invoking Croft’s confident sexuality and agency, so Lara Croft cosplayers aspire to reproduce her character in personality and physical form. Cosplayers performing characters like Lara Croft self-consciously “perform” gender, while other cosplayers illuminate gender by “cross-play” (e.g., female Doctor Who’s) or assuming the part of an alien (e.g., “She-Bacca”) or things. This cosplay theater obliquely turns a light on our mostly unexamined everyday performances of gender and selfhood.
Yet some observers reduce such cosplay performance to a shallow erotics of scantily clad women manipulatively transfixing straight male nerds. Last year, for instance, Geek Out’s Joe Peacock lamented “fake” cosplay women “pretending to be geeks for attention . . . I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street. . . They decide to put on a `hot’ costume, parade around a group of boys notorious for being outcasts that don’t get attention from girls, and feel like a celebrity.”
This clumsy defense of geek subculture makes a familiar appeal to “authenticity” for those who satisfy ambiguous standards for being a “real” geek. Normally this means demonstrating a mastery of a geek oeuvre, which should be represented in the visual performance of well-done cosplay. The mystification of geek authenticity and challenges to cosplaying women’s right to that geek identity reflects a shallow sense of cosplay. A cosplaying body can aesthetically signify beauty, strength, and sexuality in clear ways most of us can “read” visually: in contrast, the ephemeral characteristics we associate with our favorite characters, like intelligence, angst, vulnerability, confidence, deviousness, or selfishness, are much more difficult to perform visually. Cosplay is in most instances a theater without voice whose meanings are completely expressed in visuality and dependent on an audience knowing the visual cues. Those with the oeuvre understanding will recognize most characters and know the qualities of the character, and practiced geeks will know the meanings of genres like steampunk or mecha anime that cosplayers often don.
Shallow critiques of cosplaying sexuality and gender performances evade the complicated gendered politics of cosplay. Much of the cosplaying of powerful female characters in modest dress is an effort of women to secure a symbolic and social foothold in a fan community–as well as a broader social world–that is routinely hostile to their ambitions as both women and geeks. Like any subculture fancying itself distinct from a monolithic mainstream, geeks spend a considerable amount of time patrolling the confines of geek authenticity, but much of that defense takes aim on women. The caricature of geeks as poorly socialized straight men eternally mystified by women hazards becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: a modest but vociferous circle of geek men seems to warily view the entrance of smart, beautiful, and strong women into the geek fold.
It seems too simplistic to suggest that this use of sexuality in cosplay mechanically perpetuates women’s objectification; nevertheless, much of the aesthetics of cosplay clearly appropriate erotic visual fantasies in which men gaze on women without expecting them to “look back.” Unlike an on-stage performer, a cosplayer is physically in the midst of a swirling audience in which the cosplayer may play their part and then peruse a convention booth as a fan—at some point in the midst of their fierce poses for fellow fans, even Slave Leia needs to have lunch–, but not all audiences distinguish between the cosplayed character and the cosplaying individual. A convention floor is a distinctive space in which character is theatrically explored—cosplayers often acknowledge they would not dress the same way in their everyday lives—but to believe that the codes of everyday life are not going to reach into the convention hall is perhaps overly optimistic. A cosplayer may see themselves as being “in character” and playing the role of a scantily clad and flirtatious character empowered by their sexual agency; audiences on convention floors, though, may respond to visual or vocal cues with personal responses that do not make the distinction between cosplayed character and the cosplayer within.
An especially overwrought complaint was made by Eisner winner Tony Harris in a rant on cosplay and female fakery in which he proclaimed that “I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. . . . `Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC.’” Harris’ facebook tirade on cosplaying women bared a self-loathing insider desperate to secure access to fandom. Peacock and Harris’ tirades reveal anxiety in the face of bodily if not sexual agency that many female and male cosplayers take from assuming the role of strong characters or deviating from normative gendered notions. That strength may aspire to theatrically invoke traits such as intelligence, resourcefulness, deviousness, or self-confidence, but observers’ apprehensions suggest that some audiences will be unable or unwilling to see beyond narrowly defined carnality. A Slave Leia outfit—among the most revealing of all cosplay wardrobes–may be experienced as an empowering performance by a cosplayer, but some audiences will inevitably interpret it as a shallow if not objectified display. Much of the “liberation” celebrated by comics producers, popular cultural marketers, and some cosplayers alike risks reproducing shallow and troubling stereotypes that paint simplistic pictures of carnality.
It is naïve to think that cosplay is not being shaped by a variety of social and marketing forces that influence how we approach cosplay characters. Some conventions offer significant financial incentives for the best cosplayers, and cosplayed characters are walking ads for the companies controlling their images, but for the vast majority of cosplayers the capital is in-group social prestige and individual satisfaction. Conventions seek to attract the most dramatic cosplayers, and on the crowded stages of the most popular conventions some cosplayers capitalize on the visual dimensions of gender and sexuality. It is superficial to conclude simply that “sex sells,” but it is not at all unreasonable to acknowledge that we all respond to displays of sexuality and gender because they are dimensions of selfhood that we all possess.
Cosplay caricatures ultimately risk ignoring or even condoning various forms of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy in fan communities and broader society. In March the developers of Tomb Raider hosted a booth at the PAX East convention in Boston and invited a group of Lara Croft cosplayers to their booth. A reporter at the booth opened an interview asking the women “How does it feel to be at a convention where none of the men could please you?” When the developers objected to the question, the reporter replied that “the girls were dressing sexy, so they were asking for it.”
In some ways the distinctive masquerade of cosplay may seem to license some people to behave boorishly or acknowledge their deep-seated prejudices, but gendered cosplay tensions reveal various forms of sexism that course throughout geek culture and mainstream life. We can find comparable ideologies embedded in video gaming and comics that reproduce the same inequities in popular culture, so geek subculture and cosplaying are simply threads in a broad social fabric.
We risk forgetting that in nearly every fan’s hands cosplay is theatrical if not reverential fanhood, a genuine show of love for a character and a community of like-minded people even as it is a consequential effort to know oneself. The act of being “in” Lara Croft, Darth Vader, or Captain America’s character inevitably involves knowing oneself as well and being comfortable in our own skin. People are forever “putting on” their identities in material culture, social practice, and imagination, and cosplay simply brings that out into the open in a spectacular if distorted reflection.
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All images by author at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con