Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What is plagiarism?

Oh, please; don’t start this good vs. evil shit. This isn’t Star Wars. People on all ends of the spectrum fuck up.

The UC Berkeley Campus Code of Student Conduct defines plagiarism as
the use of intellectual material produced by another person without acknowledging its source.
It includes:

  1. Copying from the writings or works of others into one's academic assignment without attribution, or submitting such work as if it were one's own;
  2. Using the views, opinions,or insights of another without acknowledgement; or
  3. Paraphrasing the characteristic or original phraseology, metaphor, or other literary device of another without proper attribution
The English Department adds:
Unacknowledged use of the words or ideas of others from any medium (print, digital, or otherwise) is plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another's words or ideas without acknowledgement.

The recent controversy over white feminists appropriating the work of feminists of color reminds me of a student I once had who very blatantly plagiarized a good two thirds of a paper.

When I discussed it with em, e claimed that e thoroughly understood the definition of plagiarism outlined above, and that e had also read and agreed with the section on plagiarism that I'd assigned from Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers. I put a few questions to the student about it, and e seemed to understand what, in theory, constituted plagiarism.

But when I brought up eir own practices, I met with something mindboggling. E freely and cheerfully explained how e had read the Cliffs Notes on the text in question, taken notes on it, including exact phrasing, and plunked things from the aforementioned notes directly into eir paper. These acts were unambiguously plagiarism, even if the words and ideas did take a brief detour through the student's notebook. But the student adamantly denied that e had committed plagiarism.

Finally, after much painful discussion, I realized that it was the word plagiarism that the student could not accept. This student simply felt that plagiarism was something that Evil People did, and that as long as one was not Lord Voldemort, whatever one was doing could not be plagiarism.

A similar thing happens all the time with racism: people who have had the life-long privilege to rarely or never be subjected to ethnic or racial oppression believe that racism is a thing that Evil People engage in, so that joke they told or that comment they made simply couldn't be racist, and dang, lighten up, get a sense of humor! Then we hear that our culture is oppressive to white people because they live in mortal fear of being labeled a racist. Such reasoning presupposes that it is worse to be called a racist than to be called by a racist slur. Because, you know, white people get lynched for being suspected of racism. Really!

My friends, let us call a spade a spade. Plagiarism is plagiarism. Racism is racism. Even if you left your swirly black cloak at home.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Boston Jane: An American Girl

I recently read two works of fiction marketed toward girls, Jennifer L. Holm’s Boston Jane: An Adventure and Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre. Both were published in 2001 by Harper Collins. It is my understanding that Boston Jane is a series, and that Levine is working on a sequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

The one thing these two books have in common is embroidery. I am serious; both protagonists are very good at embroidery. But in other respects they’re like night and day.

If you were to guess from the covers which one was the retch-worthily patriarchal of the two, you might have gone with the one that involved princesses. There is a long and shameful history of YA novels that make girls the protagonists primarily insofar as they put on male drag, embroidery and other needlework being a typical and convenient emblem of idle and worthless femininity (Tamora Pierce, I am looking at you).

You might also have thought that, Gail Carson Levine being a Disney sellout, she would surely be the patriarchal hack of the two.

But no.

When I picked up Boston Jane: An Adventure, with the drawing of a spunky girl TM on the cover and the subtitle assuring us of said girl's spunkitude, I almost looked for an American Girls logo somewhere on the book, it was that evocative of the genre.

This should have tipped me off, but didn't, that I was in for a tiresome, awkwardly written tale that pays lip service to politically progressive values while keeping its real goal firmly in its sights, namely: to take a nineteenth century girl and make her stop kissing the patriarchy's rear end in nineteenth century ways in order to have her start kissing the patriarchy's rear in twenty-first century ways.

In the novel, Jane is raised by her father, a surgeon, since her mother has conveniently died in childbirth. Because there is no evil female taint in her life (except for Mrs. Parker, a servant who exists only to make cherry pies year round, since apparently Pennsylvania has an extraordinary cherry season), she grows up a healthy tomboy, spitting, slinging mud, and generally wishing she were Lyra from His Dark Materials. Jane remarks that during this period she thinks herself lucky, which is code for "masculine and therefore good."

Along comes Nellie Olsen Sally Biddle, who mocks Jane for her failure to perform femininity. This is the primal scene, so to speak, and at this point, Jane tells us, her luck runs out. Around the same time, Jane's father takes on a cute apprentice, William Baldt, who plays good cop to Sally's bad cop, gives Jane ribbons, and tells her to go to etiquette school.

Jane is quickly brainwashed by Miss Hepplewhite's Young Ladies’ Academy. Every possible trope is trotted out, including fancy embroidery and the corset, and of course the uselessness of everything that Jane learns at the academy. William approves of her progress and gives her hope that she will not be a social reject forever, while her father expresses scorn that Jane has stopped being interesting and has become useless and feminine.

Father, of course, believes that "you make your own luck," which is his way of saying that you are free to choose masculinity (all that is good and holy) even if you were born with a body that is socially constructed as feminine, and that Jane's oppression is therefore her own damn fault.

We are meant to see, of course, that the dear old patriarch is right and William is a jerk, but his total lack of empathy for Jane's position -- that if she continues to fail to perform femininity, she will be screwed as soon as her father is no longer there to shelter her -- merely reveals that Jane is caught between two misogynists: one who would manipulate her and shame her into performing femininity and rejecting her favorite pursuits, and one who despises all femininity and urgently wishes that Jane were a boy (with the attendant freedom to eschew femininity).

Eventually William heads west to make a fortune in timber, for which Father holds him in contempt. William writes letters to Jane and, when she is fifteen, proposes to her. This is repulsive, of course, but it will turn out later that he is a snake for other reasons, so apparently it is okay for this to go under the radar.

Jane talks her father into letting her go to Oregon to marry William, and he finally relents, although he warns Jane that William is an idiot. Of course, father is right about this.

After a two-month delay, Jane sails to Oregon with her Irish servant, Mary. Once Jane has learned a Very Special Lesson About Class from her, Mary kicks the bucket, enabling Jane to Grow.

When Jane gets to Shoalwater Bay, she is horrified to find that William is not there, that the place is thinly populated by crusty pioneer types and a quirky proto-anthropologist, and that she is surrounded by Savage Natives.

She does a fainty-haughty-lady routine, a caricature of the stereotypical silly Victorian lady, and much is made of her total uselessness. She pays a Chinook man to go find William, and meanwhile makes a life for herself. She eventually becomes spunky, and once a Chinook woman named Suis teaches her a Very Special Lesson About Race, Suis kicks the bucket, enabling Jane to Grow.

Jane is very conflicted about Not Being A Proper Lady Anymore, but in the end she rejects William, who is a racist and only wanted to marry Jane so he could get more land anyway, and Finds Herself. The end.

What raises my hackles so much about this book is the way it pats itself on the back for its supposedly conscientious treatment of race, class, and gender.

We are supposed to hate William and love Jane because William wants to put the Americans on reservations, while Jane wants to work and live with them in peace. But we know that actually, the Americans eventually were put on reservations, and that it doesn't matter how many spunky white girls are respectful of native Americans, since they can't vote anyway. And of course, once we have Learned A Lesson from Suis, she dies. We couldn't actually have a strong native woman survive. Why, she might compete with Jane's spunkiness!

Similarly, Mary is there to show that Jane's state as a lady is "useless" (ironically, since nineteenth century conduct manuals for middle class ladies emphasize usefulness -- usefulness to men, of course -- as the pinnacle of a woman's achievement; it is the aristocracy, which does not exist in Philadelphia, that is seen as useless). Once Mary is dead, Jane is free to raid her stash of recipes so she too can become useful. These "lessons" about race and class are here solely for the benefit of the privileged white woman.

And the novel's gender politics are the worst of all, because the novel makes the greatest claims for its gender politics. Mocked at the beginning of every chapter is a different one of Miss Hepplewhite's precepts for gracious middle-class femininity. But there is nothing particularly radical about mocking Victorian standards of middle-class femininity; very few people today think that fiercely adhering to the correct number of petticoats or always exclaiming about what is "proper" are reasonable priorities.

Jane reflects at the end of the novel that Miss Hepplewhite taught her to always perform passive femininity in order to be pleasing to men, but that it doesn't make sense for her to marry William or wear long dresses that restrict her movement. With her recuperated presexual tomboy masculinity, her luck has returned!

Well called? Oh, I think not: for it is not that Jane stops trying to please men at the end of the book, but that she starts to succeed at pleasing the right men (which, of course, includes her father).

Jane's father and the men she meets out west are therefore figures for modernity, but certainly not for women's liberation. Caricaturing Victorian femininity in order to have the protagonist reject it is cheap feminism, especially when it's just a means for Jane to become a spunky-but-nonthreatening woman, aspiring to masculinity (because, as the novel repeatedly assures us, femininity is useless and vapid) while never challenging the order that keeps men in power and defines femininity as worthless.

Sally Biddle, the great enforcer of feminine mores, is always seen as a villain, never a victim, and all sympathetic and competent women except for Jane are killed off. There is no option of real female independence; it's just a matter of figuring out which men to serve (mend their clothes, make them pie, trade your most treasured asset for a canoe so you can financially rescue them, etc.).

Same patriarchy, different dudes, and the fact that they aren't making Jane wear a corset doesn't mean they don't still hold her in disdain for being a woman.

I meant to write about The Two Princesses of Bamarre today, but I think that's enough book-reviewing for now.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Vogue's hot voodoo

I recently re-read a chapter from Mary Anne Doane’s Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis, in which Doane tries to tease out some of the complex relationships between articulations of race and gender in cultural history.

In particular, she explores the way that the sexuality of white women has been figured in terms of race; the "pure" (racially pure, sexually pure) white woman is the figure against which the black man is constructed as a violent, hypersexual taint, as seen in the rhetoric of racist organizations in the nineteenth century (and continuing to today) and thoroughly played up in D.W. Griffith's famous Birth of a Nation, a landmark in film technique and in deeply horrifying racist propaganda all at once.

At the same time, white female sexuality is also seen as profoundly unstable, the "weak link" in civilization, so that the white woman is prone to "falling" (like Eve) and becoming a "fallen woman" whose sexual "impurity" translates into a kind of racial "impurity." The white woman, in other words, exists (culturally speaking) in the madonna/whore binary, and the "whore" half of that binary is mapped onto blackness. Meanwhile, the black woman is the invisible term, erased from the cultural map by the black man/white woman complex of social anxieties. As Doane observes,
Just as Africa was considered to be the continent without a history, European femininity represented a pure presence and timelessness (whose psychical history was held, by Freud, to be largely inaccessible). The trope, however, reduces and over-simplifies the extremely complex relations between racial and sexual difference articulated by the colonialist enterprise. For that enterprise required as a crucially significant element the presence of the black woman (who is relegated to non-existence by the trope)." (212)

All this recently in my mind, I was completely shocked to run across this Vogue cover on the internet:

A quick google revealed that I was by no means the first to notice the cultural contexts evoked by the cover (here, here, here, here...)

As usual, any time a historically oppressed group is publicly subjected to further oppression, a bunch of astonishing people have to crawl out of the woodwork to inform the world that there is no problem, because they "just don't see" the racism in the photo, because after all they are "colorblind" and the world would be perfect if everyone would be as blind as they are and stop complaining about racist images.

It is true that you pretty much have to invoke the imagery of blindness to get away with claiming that the photo above is not racist, although as I'll elaborate, it's not as straightforward as the press is making it out to be.

In the photo, the basketball player LeBron James is enormous, but not standing up quite straight. Instead, he is hunched forward, his right arm dangling, notionally to dribble a basketball but effectively striking an ape-like pose, his right hand reaching nearly to his knee. (And let us face it; they probably photoshopped that ball in.)

His mouth is wide open in a growl (other bloggers are taking it as a matter of course that basketball players growl as part of their job; I will have to take their word for it).

His clothes are short, revealing bare limbs and evoking nakedness; apart from that they are entirely black -- athletic wear, as many have observed, but in no way his actual athletic uniform (research in the form of googling "Cleveland Cavaliers" reveals that the players wear uniforms that carry, you know, the team logo).

In James's left arm, model Gisele Bündchen leans sideways at a crazy angle, her body barely supported by her feet, her head leaning away, her fair hair blown up behind her. Her odd angle evokes helplessness; our casual experience of physics tell us that she would be sprawled on the floor were it not for James's arm around her. Her clingy, sleeveless dress reveals the contours of her limbs.

The composition of the shot -- the coloring of the models (especially James's clothes and Bündchen's hair), their poses, their positions in the frame, James's growl -- thoroughly evokes the iconic image of King Kong clutching a screaming Fay Wray, from Merion C. Cooper's 1933 film King Kong.

Except for one thing.

Bündchen is smiling. She looks happy.

Her pose is unstable, and she certainly looks helpless, as if she might fall, but hers is not the stricken backwards arc to which Wray's unfortunate spine was subjected. (Of course, Bündchen's unfortunate spine is subjected to her shoes. Perhaps Annie Leibovitz felt that this was enough.)

It looks more like Bündchen is playing with weight and balance (in a "roses, roses, we all fall down" kind of way) than that she's been grabbed by a giant ape. And although her head is tilted back, her eyes are directed back down at the viewer.

Her fair hair, though evocative of Wray's, is not falling abjectly, a visual indication of what would happen to Wray if King Kong were to drop her; rather, Bundchen's hair defies gravity, billowing up behind her as if to insist on the contrived quality of the photo.

After all, the shot is clearly taken indoors; her hair could not be windblown without a fan and/or enormous amounts of environmentally unsound chemicals. (Ironically, perhaps Wray's hair in the film should be more windblown, given that she is supposedly outside at a pretty high altitude.) This hair signifies glamor, and specifically all the technologies of contrived glamor that a high-status fashion magazine can marshal for its photo subjects.

Seen in that light, Bündchen's mischievous, playful smile is jarring next to James's dramatic scowl.

What is she so happy about? What is he so angry about? It's as if James is diligently playing King Kong, while Bundchen gleefully breaks character to wave at the camera.

* * * * *

Vogue, of course, is the blind that proudly leads the blind, insisting that the photo has no iconographic context. A Daily Telegraph article quotes their position thus:
Patrick O'Connell, a spokesman for Vogue, said the magazine had chosen to "celebrate two superstars at the top of their game" for the cover of the annual "Shape" issue, which also features a series of unusual athlete-and-model combinations inside. "We think LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honoured to have them on the cover," he said.

The insistence is that the photo is not racist because it's not a still of King Kong and Fay Wray, both abject in their own ways; it's a photo of successful basketball star LeBron James and successful fashion star Gisele Bündchen.

But no one ever said that the photograph was the still from King Kong. The fact that the photo subjects are LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen is precisely the point: the photograph both evokes the 1933 still and departs from it.

Here's the photo again:

There is absolutely zero possibility that Annie Leibovitz didn't know what she was doing when she composed this photograph; she is a visual artist, and visual composition is what she does. Of course, Leibovitz's awareness is not the question; even if she were magically unaware of what she was invoking, the objective resemblance remains. The Vogue cover mimics an iconic American image in very clear ways.

At the same time, the photography plays with the icon that it mimics -- and the icon's racist context. As I noted above, Bündchen does not completely keep faith with Wray's character, looking playful, secure, and happy where Wray is terrified and totally without control of her body's relation to its physical environment.

James continues to evoke the "black man = voracious ape-like predator" image, with his near-perfect King Kong imitation, but his stance is alienated and objectified by the image. However fearsome his scowl, he is not scary to Bündchen, who is smiling happily and not even looking at him; if he is a predator, she is not his prey.

But neither is she engaged with him as an equal; as noted above, she does not look at him at all. In fact, both their gazes are directed outward -- James's toward the camera but vaguely off center, Bündchen's deliberately focused on the viewer, despite her tilted-back head. James functions more like a stage prop than a photo subject, since his gaze is met by no one, and his clutching arm is being used by Bündchen more or less like a piece of playground equipment. And though James has the "basketball," his figure is curiously static; it is Bündchen who, thanks to her turbo-fan, appears to be in motion. Though James's enormous figure dominates the field of the photo, it is Bündchen's photo -- Bündchen's Vogue cover.

Of course, it may also be argued that the 1933 still is Wray's scene. Sure, there's a giant ape tromping across the city, but the image does not receive its cultural meaning until we spot the tiny abject white woman in King Kong's hand. Buildings can be destroyed and rebuilt, but racial taint, figured in the violation of the sexualized white woman's bodily sovereignty, is, according to the logic of the film, forever. So even the way that Bündchen seems to be the real subject of the photograph in a way reproduces the dynamics of the 1933 film.

But that's clearly not the only thing going on. Playing on a reconstructed Hollywood stage set, Bündchen is all carefree glamor. The racist specter of the predatory black monster is still there all right; it's just that no one really cares about it any more, least of all the supposedly threatened white woman, who in this case happens to be famous for being one of the most highly paid women in the world -- paid, of course, for renting herself out as a highly sexualized clothes-hanger, still one of the most lucrative professions available to women.

Mary Ann Doane argues that by the 1930s, the figure of the New Woman of the 1920s had made it impossible to maintain the madonna/whore binary stringently enough to invest racial purity in white female sexual purity; white female sexual purity was by now too much in question. I don't really buy it; it's kind of a cheap historical link, and even if maternal melodramas like von Sternberg's 1932 Blonde Venus(1) registered sympathy with the "fallen woman," the madonna/whore binary was still going strong. (It still is, although now our society rewards whore status, up to a point, in order to then indulge in the gleeful and lucrative shaming of said "whore"; see also: Britney.)

Moreover, as Doane herself points, out, the white woman's sexuality is always seen as unstable and capable of reverting to sexual licence/blackness.(2)

What is worth noticing is that there are multiple ways that white female sexuality is used to repudiate blackness on behalf of the white community, not just via the omnipresent Birth of a Nation "black-man-as-raping-ape" stereotype, and these modalities clearly coexist. (King Kong is 1933; Blonde Venus is 1932.) Doane's reading of Blonde Venus is therefore instructive; in the film's "Hot Voodoo" number, Marlene Dietrich appears onstage as a cabaret singer, wearing a gorilla suit to the sound of drums, attended by a chorus of women in blackface decked out as "natives."

In the number, Dietrich removes the gorilla suit to reveal herself as a blonde Venus, white sexualized femininity itself, and a white sexualized femininity that is completely commodified, as her glitzy show outfit indicates. (She even puts on her blonde Venus wig, with two arrows through it, right onstage, covering over her already blonde hair.)

Instead of revealing a fear of the blackness within the white woman -- her proclivity toward sexual licentiousness -- blackness becomes yet another prop for fully commodified white female sexuality. As Doane puts it,
It is as though white femininity were forcefully disengaged from blackness once and for all in the process of commodification of the image of white female sexuality. Such a commodification is already announced by the neon sign flashing "Blonde Venus" which introduces the sequence and slowly dissolves into an image of Dietrich preparing for her act in front of the mirror. Blackness functions here not so much as a term of comparison (as with the Hottentot and the prostitute), but as an erotic accessory to whiteness. The black women (represented by the chorus primarily composed of white women in black face with huge black wigs and shields and spears) becomes the white woman's mise-en-scène. Black masculinity is so fully exhausted representationally by the gorilla costume that the black bartender can only be presented in relation to a stuttering fear produced for comic effect[.] (215)

If the Vogue cover directly invokes the image of King Kong, its logic is closer to that of Blonde Venus; blackness is invoked as spectacle.

Posed like the eminently fake giant ape King Kong, James is not so much exhausted by the gorilla suit as he is standing in for it. He is Bündchen's mise-en-scène, and Bündchen's commodification, already clear from her status as a "supermodel" (remember Vogue's insistence that she's not screaming Fay Wray but a successful model "at the top of [her] game") and emphasized by the contrivedness of her improbable hair, is the point. Blackness does not need to be repudiated by her purity or her performance of helpless white femininity à la Wray, not because real racial harmony has intervened but because the logic of the market, which controls Bündchen, James, and Vogue, obviates any such need: your racial history is meaningless to the parent company, which just wants to sell ad space. If the image recalls King Kong, what of it? "We think LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honoured to have them on the cover."

I suppose it's no surprise that a publication that's devoted to selling luxury goods to wealthy white women by enforcing those women's status as luxury goods chose a cover that focalizes the sexualized-white-woman-as-commodity. I'm rather surprised that they decided to use black masculinity as a prop for it at this late date (although if there is one class of men that is commodified it is surely athletes).

Oh, don't worry, Vogue; this is still completely racist. It's just that you're only getting called out on one of the racist tropes you're exploiting, and on none of the misogynistic ones.

* * * * *

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge-Chapman Hall, 1991.

(1) This film is crazy.

(2) This is why the girl in The Searchers goes from being the object of rescue to the target of murder; she's "gone native." Being raped is equated to sexual impurity, which is equated to racial impurity; hence she is now one of "them." Since, as a white virgin, she was once the bearer of the whole family's racial purity, the ex-Confederate maniac character feels that she and her impurity have to be wiped out.