McDonald's turned 50 this year. And, like many 50-year-olds, Ronald is in the thick of a midlife crisis. Yet, in contrast with the pencil-pushing, righteous-living ways of many who feel the urge to indulge their inner adolescents, McDonald's has gotten all the play out of the way. The Happy Meal lifestyle couldn't last forever, much as the joy that comes from shoving a Big Mac down your craw and following it with a haystack of fries turns inevitably bilious and dyspeptic. So now McDonald's is on a bit of a health kick, pushing salads and apple slices instead of slobbery sandwiches and snotty apple pies.
Deprived of the interior tick of mortality that often occasions a Porsche-buying spree, McDonald's found an unusual motivation for its revamp: the one-two punch of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Morgan Spurlock's garish science-project of a documentary, "Super Size Me." After Schlosser exposed horrifying facts about the fast-food industry (there's poo in the meat, dawg!) and Spurlock turned gassy and grey after his month-long McFest Quest, McDonald's had to respond. It rose from the grease fire, newly svelte and shapely -- and as slick as ever.
Or maybe not, if "McLibel" has anything to do with it. Franny Armstrong's new documentary takes a huge bite out of the attempt by McDonald's to create a shiny new image for itself. Filmed over a period of 10 years, "McLibel" tracks English activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris as they battle libel charges that McDonald's filed against them. Their alleged crime? Distributing leaflets that warned of the restaurant's unfair work conditions, manipulative kid-focused advertising, and its negative impacts on consumer health and the environment.
"McLibel" starts out in the infotainment/propaganda vein now so familiar to weary documentary viewers: Armstrong unreels background context ("A friendly clown persuaded children to love the company") in Star Wars fashion, giant yellow type receding into black. Fussy British actors play opposite Steel and Morris in court-scene reenactments -- very McMasterpiece Theatre. But despite the bells and whistles, and unapologetic partisanship, "McLibel" remains a complex and fascinating film, with heroes all the more convincing for their unflashy devotion to their cause.
Steel and Morris make an interesting contrast to Spurlock (who structured "Super Size Me" so he could forever have his mug in the camera). The McLibel 2 are stubbornly self-effacing, which allows Armstrong time to supply viewers with gruesomely fascinating information about the business, employment, advertising, and manufacturing processes at McDonald's. Armstrong makes excellent use of her experts, including a former Ronald McDonald clown who decided that he couldn't live with himself any longer if he kept manipulating children. Other highlights include footage from inside a McDonald's chicken processing plant. Fuzzy, adorable chicks roll down conveyer belts; unwanted ones are gassed -- some 1,000 per week.
The sight is horror-inducing, even for a callous, defiantly carnivorous junk-food whore like me. Nearly as awful, despite their familiarity, are the images of overweight diners, ferociously cankled, massive boulder buttocks roiling underneath elastic waistbands. Who are these feckless fatties? Does anyone ever recognize his or her own giant heinie in one of these films? If the fast-food exposÃƒÂ© becomes a cinematic genre, the fat footage could become a mighty deterrent indeed.
While Armstrong walks viewers through the McLibel 2's attempt to defend each of their pamphlet's points in court, she creates a damning case against the corporation -- if a fuzzier picture of the U.K. libel law that has led to the suit. Despite that deficiency, and the urge to lionize its heroes, "McLibel" paints a deeply satisfying portrait of what was at stake in Steel and Morris's case and how much it cost them to wage England's longest legal battle with nothing but a grassroots campaign for support. Morris, a single father, found less and less time to spend with his son; Steel made do with wages earned from a bartending job at a disco.
Neither Steel nor Morris see their struggle as a David-and-Goliath scenario, in the conventional sense. "It's the public that are the giants," says Morris. In a way, he implies, he and Steel were just the people's servants. It's a startlingly unique, and individual decision, their insistence on their own quirky, stubborn ways in the face of the crushing -- some might say homogenizing -- power of McDonald's. This attitude carries through every moment they are onscreen as well. Steel and Morris never showboat for the camera or detract from the issues for the sake of their own self-aggrandizement.
I wish "McLibel" all the viewers it so amply deserves. But I also worry that viewers might feel like they've already seen "the McDonald's documentary" after viewing the comparatively lightweight and self-indulgent "Super Size Me." That would be a tremendous pity. Although "McLibel" might not be as slick going down, it's a lot healthier and more fulfilling in the end.
Comic artist Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries is a bawdy love letter, a work on a smaller, more intimate scope than her previous books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, which were set against the backdrop of two revolutions -- Iran's Islamic revolution, and the West's sexual one. The first book featured Satrapi's young alter ego grappling with the hypocrisy of a movement that promised freedom but brought oppression. In the second, the teenaged Marjane struggles through ill-fated romances and brutal xenophobia in Europe before she seeks solace in Iran -- but once home, she finds the Islamic Republic's sexual repression intolerable as well. She returns, ultimately, to the West -- an exile who cannot purge her passion, animosity and hopes for her homeland from her artistic imagination.
Embroideries returns to that home, taking place over one long afternoon as Satrapi's women relatives and friends drink tea and talk over a favorite subject -- sex. Embroideries is an X-rated (and actually entertaining) version of The View -- one where grandmothers, mothers, and granddaughters talk about hymen restoration, the virtues of being a mistress, and the questionable aesthetic value of the penis.
In Embroideries, Satrapi documents the ways in which strong-willed women in Iran have fought back -- in secretly gleeful silence or through overt rebellion -- against misogynistic traditions and piggish men. The book is also a celebration of these women's resilience, their tough-mouthed, tender-hearted talk over tea. Satrapi spoke with me on the phone about geriatric sex, the appeal of the ass, and the promise of young women in Iran today.
Noy Thrupkaew: How did Embroideries come about?
Marjane Satrapi: Embroideries is appearing in America after Persepolis 1 and 2, but I made it between those books. Persepolis was a heavy story -- I had to remember unpleasant things, and had in my mind a mission to teach people about my country, because there has been so much misunderstanding. So I really needed a moment of joy, just joy -- and I wrote about this afternoon that I spent with women of different generations. I really loved the stories the women told me. I don't know if they are made up or true. I don't think it matters. They made me laugh so much I just wanted to share them.
It's very interesting how women make use of gender segregation in Iran -- which definitely can have its disadvantages -- to create such a powerful and private space for themselves.
It has always been like that. Even before the Islamic Republic, we were always a very traditional country. When you have such strong traditions, you have very extreme reactions. In such societies, discussion between the women is the space for freedom. These stories don't present a complacent point of view about women, that they are all suffering, oh my god. They're not victims. And I refuse it completely, I hate that image. Even in the worst days under the Islamic Republic, I never saw myself as a victim. We always have the choice to do something else, to make a parallel life.
And part of that parallel life seems to be these talks over tea. No matter where we are in the world, women will get together and talk about sex.
Absolutely. And so do the men. But the women go more into the details. A woman will tell you about every corner, every inch.
Yes, they certainly do in your book, even saying the penis is ugly. What do you think about the penis, as an artist?
It's not so special. Other parts of the body are more interesting to draw. The penis is not photogenic, I would say. [Laughs]
What other parts are more photogenic?
I like very much the breasts, the shoulders, the neck, whatever leads to the head. Actually, a nice ass is beautiful, too, a continuation of the leg. A continuation of the balls is nothing, just a hole. And then that thing hanging. [Laughs]
Did you have opportunities to draw nice asses in school?
Oh yes, there were many asses. Well, not in Iran. When I went to school in France, we could draw nudes. But when you draw, you become like a doctor, these things don't have any sexual connotation anymore. All you think about is a matter of proportion, just a part of the body.
If you have this sort of scientific detachment, how do you draw something erotically?
Actually, I haven't drawn anything erotically, except maybe one image in my most recent book, which will be published in the States in 2006. I am a little bit too shy for this kind of thing. For me, words are just air. I can say dickdickdickdick! But when I draw, it becomes much more real. Telling is nothing. I was brought up by a grandmother for whom these kinds of words were like hello and goodbye. Even though she never read any Freud, everything had a sexual connotation, which is very funny, especially coming from the mouth of an old woman -- it is ten times better. That's why my grandmother is the central character in the book -- she is the most sexual. She was around 78 at the time, and she was the one who laughs the most. I wanted to show how women of all ages are interested in sex. In Europe it is different, people are sexual only until they are 45. After that, talking about the sexuality of older people is almost like committing a sin!
Why do you think that is?
In Western society, people don't want to face the idea of death. Society is very high-tech -- we shouldn't die, but we do it anyway. So we don't want to see the procedure of getting old, dying, and the suffering in between. We put old people in hospices: you go in, then you disappear. I think that's very specific to Western society. All this plastic surgery, everyone wanting to look young, is very sick to me. Not admitting that you're going to get old is not admitting that you are going to die, not admitting that you're just a human being.
As for the young people, on news reports, they always talk about the young teenagers who commit crimes. A society that is scared of its adolescents and rejects old people is a society that doesn't want to look at its past and is scared of its future. Every two seconds on TV [you hear that] if you don't have sex five times a week with your husband or boyfriend, you're fucked up. But after a certain age, it becomes perverted? We always have sexual needs. Of course, you can't perform the same when you're 60 or 70, but you're not dead yet.
Is sexuality among older people more accepted in Iran?
In Iran, sex is not considered something bad. A woman can complain if a man doesn't satisfy her. If you read the original version of One Thousand and One Nights, they are fucking everywhere. I mean, you have the robbers and the flying carpet and all of that, but basically, it's full of sex.
People might be surprised to hear that Iran might have more progressive notions about sexuality.
In Iran, you don't need a prescription to get contraceptives. It costs almost nothing. There isn't really this feeling of guilt about the idea of abortion, even though it's not something the law permits you to do. All the friends of my mother have had abortions. Many of my friends have had them.
What do you make of sigheh [a Shi'a "temporary marriage"]?
Well, that means they can marry a woman for one or two hours. If you are a virgin girl, your father has to give you permission. But if you are married and then divorced, you don't need a witness. You can be his wife for one day, or three hours, or a quarter of an hour, depending on what you want to do, of course.
Some critics say it's just prostitution without the economic exchange.
You could say that, but imagine a woman who is divorced or a widow, and she wants to have a sexual affair and doesn't want to feel guilty towards her God -- that makes it possible.
It's interesting how you're reframing it -- most of what I've read about sigheh talks about the benefit for the man.
All these points of view completely forget the pleasure of the woman. If the woman can also have pleasure in the sexual act, it can also be freedom. To be honest, in most of the sigheh cases, it is the man who has the woman. But a sexual thing is made by two people. If it isn't, yes, it could be rape or prostitution. But if you like him, you can also have satisfaction.
It's clear in your work, however, that women's choices and pleasure exist concurrently with societal, economic and governmental control over their sexuality.
Absolutely. The day we can say that we are civilized is the day when women can have the same relationship to their sexuality that men can. If we could share the notion of satisfaction, we could be equal toward the notion of pain as well.
Why is it so important for fundamentalists -- and not just in Iran -- to control women's bodies?
Well, in all societies, the base of fundamentalism comes from a patriarchal schema. When half of a society feels they are better than the other half just because they have penises and balls ... you have big trouble from the second the man says, "I am the man, which means I am the leader of the family and decide everything." Big things start with the small things. If we don't have any equality in the family, how can we have a society of justice?
Your book has universal appeal, but is also very immersed in the context of Iran and gender relations in that country. What would ideal gender relations look like in Iran?
They are already starting to happen. Twenty years ago, the thought of a girl living on her own without her parents, or with her boyfriend, was unimaginable. But now I know people who do it. Two-thirds of Iranian students are women -- that is going to change things. In the past, most women weren't educated, didn't have jobs. You have all these rights, but what happens to you when you have been living with the same guy for fifteen years, and no education, no job? You stay with him even if you don't want to, because you are economically dependent on him. But these days, women have education and jobs. And in 20 years, when the law changes, not only will we have the law but we will be able to use it, because we have everything we will need to do so -- economic independence and education. As for our patriarchal macho society, who brings up the children? The mother. The woman makes her son macho, calls him doudoul tala or "golden penis." If this woman is educated, maybe she will bring up a son who is less macho. For me, the education of women is the key -- sexually, intellectually, professionally.
Persepolis 2 has quite a strong critique of the sexual revolution of the West and the sexual repression in Iran. I noticed that you often draw both Iranian fundamentalists and naked Western people without heads or eyes. Why is that?
Because it's the same kind of intolerance, I think. The debate about the veil -- I am not a religious person, all my life I've been fighting against it. But I can imagine that someone might want to put a veil on. To say that a woman cannot wear it is the same as saying she has to wear it. You cannot just forbid or force someone to do something. From the point of view of some Westerners, the woman who wears a veil isn't worth anything. But to sell orange juice or cars, you have to show a pair of breasts? Isn't that also another kind of veil for women? Isn't nakedness veiling what they really are?
But the women in your book clearly embrace their attractiveness also.
Of course! Me too! God has given me nice breasts for me to show, so I can be attractive. Otherwise, why would God have given them to me? All the men like to watch, and personally, I like to watch men's asses. A well-made ass is always cute to look at, no? God has made it, and God has given me eyes, so I look. [Laughs] It is very good!
I completely agree. Thank you, Marjane. It was a pleasure.
For me, as well. You know, talking about sex and pussy is always a joy for me.
The tale of Enron unreels like an ancient parable -- something out of the Old Testament, perhaps, or maybe a gory Greek tragedy: clever men allowed to rise to impossible heights, and then dashed to the depths for the sin of pride and hubris. Director Alex Gibney knows as much -- he opens his savage dissection of the 2001 energy-company collapse with a shot of the church that stands next to the corporation's glistening, mirrored offices. "Jesus Saves" is written on the church's faÃƒÂ§ade, dwarfed by the Enron building. When men have tried to fashion themselves into gods, the scene seems to point out, divine intervention is the last thing they can expect when they fall.
Based on the 2003 bestseller of the same name by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a devilishly entertaining film, tracing the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the seventh largest U.S. corporation with meticulous zeal. The company's demise was a financial scandal on an epic scale -- one that relied on the complicity of a huge array of Enron executives, lawyers, financial advisers, banks and perhaps even the White House, the film alleges. The consequences for employees were staggering: 20,000 jobs and two billion dollars in retirement funds and pensions evaporated when Enron went belly-up. Meanwhile, the execs at the top had cashed in their stock options before the company hit bottom -- they now face multi-billion dollar lawsuits from their former employees, many of whom have lost their entire life savings.
Enron does a bang-up job clarifying the imposingly complex schemes and "accounting" behind Enron's spectacular failure. "People perceive [the Enron story] as a story that's about numbers, ... " says McLean in the film, "but in reality it's a story about people."
The film brings those people into sharp relief through interviews with former employees, C-SPAN footage, phone recordings, and, most devastatingly, through internal Enron promotion videos. One such recording -- a comedy skit, no less -- shows former Enron CEO and president Jeffrey Skilling har-har-ing over his new invention, "HFV," or the "hypothetical future value accounting" system. Unfortunately for Enron, the joke was on them. The HFV was nothing other than the company's real-life accounting method -- the mark-to-market system, in which the future profits from deals were recorded the day the agreements were signed. There was little interest afterwards in checking to see if those projected numbers ever matched up with the true earnings. And in nearly every case, they didn't, by millions of dollars.
As the company's accounting system demonstrates, Enron wasn't exactly a reality-based organization. Headed by Skilling, a devotee of The Selfish Gene and a profligate gambler in his youth, the company had an ubermenschian passion for "visionary innovation" and "the newest thinking" and "big ideas." When those big ideas didn't reap big profits, Enron execs devoted their energies to finding shady ways to drum up the funds. They also expended vast amounts of effort towards convincing stock analysts and the general public that Enron could defy economic gravity. The books complied -- through the magic of mark-to-market accounting, the company always posted tremendous gains. At Enron, says one observer in the film, "Perception is the reality." The company seemed to turn the Cartesian declaration of "I think, I am" outwards: I think, therefore it is.
As depicted in Enron, the company's corporate culture was ruthless, a nightmare brew of Ayn Rand and Social Darwinism. Employees were ranked on their work performance by their colleagues on a scale of one to five; a full ten percent of the workforce was required to be slotted in the "five" ranking and fired every year. At the same time the corporation was winnowing the weak from its ranks, Enron was rising high on the puffery of ego and hot air -- the corporation told the survivors that "if we were smart, anything could be accomplished," says Amanda Martin-Brock, a former Enron executive. And so, with the feeling of invincibility particular to those who sail unsinkable ships or tattoo lovers' names onto their bodies, Enron set out to make over the financial world in its own impossible image.
Enron is impressively sourced and researched, and takes its audience through the labyrinth of the company's daunting array of back-door deals and unethical schemes with admirable ease. Among them: an oil-trading run that depleted Enron's reserves and a plan to sell bandwidth and provide home-video content that tanked fantastically. Jury selection for the executives in charge of the bandwidth scheme has already begun -- trials for Enron chairman Kenneth Lay and Skilling will begin later this year.
Perhaps the most notorious of Enron's disastrous plots was its role in the 2000 and 2001 California energy crisis. Desperate to dig themselves out of a hole, Enron execs began exploiting loopholes in California's energy deregulation policy -- the company's traders began ordering power-plant shutdowns to drive up the price of electricity. As images of California brush-fires and rolling blackouts flicker across the screen, Enron plays recorded conversations between the corporation's traders as they whoop with glee at the rising price of energy, wish a plague of natural disasters on the state, and guffaw over the possibility of retirement "by the time we're 30." The cost to California? $30 billion and one recalled governor, the film alleges.
Enron points to a 2001 meeting between Lay and Arnold Schwarzenegger, implying that the corporation helped Schwarzenegger take advantage of an environmental fiasco the company had created. Gibney also draws tantalizing connections between the White House and "Kenny Boy" Lay, implying that Enron escaped monitoring by federal oversight agencies because of Lay's generous contributions to the Bush campaign. While these aspects are perhaps some of the most intriguing elements of the film, Enron can't ultimately do much more than speculate. The film does a far better job documenting the ways in which investment banks, stock analysts, and the accountants and Arthur Andersen greedily lapped up and helped perpetuate Enron's tales of success in order to secure their own millions.
Enron moves at a brisk clip, its stock footage and interviews woven together tightly for maximum impact. Occasionally, however, the film slips into a bit of glib shorthand in order to make its points. The documentary abuses some footage from the notorious Milgram experiment and is rather too impressed with its ability to find just the right pop tune for ultimate didactic effect. This affinity for rhetorical zingers also afflicts its portrayal of at least one of the top players -- the film's depiction of Asian-American former exec Lou Pai as mysterious, meek, and fascinated by strippers is just one step away from calling the man an inscrutable perv.
The film is a savagely entertaining success, however, when it takes a broad view -- tracing out the company's hare-brained schemes, showing the collapse's effect on employees, fleshing out the mythos of Enron's culture, and raising the larger questions about the impact of unchecked business on the hearts, souls, and well-being of Americans far away from Enron's Houston offices. Enron was the house that free-market capitalism and deregulation built -- examining its allure and demise can tell us much about what responsible business and responsible individuals should avoid, the film seems to say.
In the end, Enron was brought to its knees by its inability to put its own advertising slogan -- "Ask Why" -- into practice, says one former worker. Why were the books not making sense? Why didn't employees protest Enron's cutthroat culture? Why did so many become complicit in plots to rip off stockholders, colleagues, and the unwitting U.S. public? This film dares to ask -- and provides some harrowing answers along the way.
"Afghanistan Unveiled" (airing on Tuesday, Nov. 16 on PBS) makes much of its powerful backstory, and with good reason: the documentary is the first film "about Afghan women, by Afghan women," says one of its 14 native filmmakers, a graduate of an international program that produced the country's first newly trained women journalists in years. The doc's conceit will win it politically obligatory kudos, which is a bit of a shame – the film is mostly slight and unchallenging, hitting the dual notes of women's empowerment and oppression with passionate, yet emotionally unmoving, obstinacy. But "Unveiled's" filmmakers are also a courageous, compassionate, and keen-eyed group – their future work could be powerful indeed, if they are pushed to grapple with many sides of a story, and complement their desires to capture testimony with more complexity and analysis.
Funded by the Asia Foundation through a grant from the U.S. State Department, the documentary takes viewers on a road trip, minus the usual revelations. Most of the 14 young filmmakers have only lived in Kabul – their lack of familiarity with the harsher conditions for women in places like Jalalabad, Herat, and Badakhshan is truly startling, especially for Western viewers who have been well-informed of Afghan women's suffering by U.S. feminist groups (passionately dedicated to the well-being of Afghan women) and the Bush administration (dedicated to passionate rhetoric about the well-being of Afghan women). As a result, watching one of the reporters blurt out, "I realized that women in Kabul have more freedom than women in the provinces!" feels less than earthshattering.
The profound chasm between the educated, presumably more well-off filmmakers and their poverty-stricken sisters in the countryside does point up the ongoing situation of life in Afghanistan – a frightening lack of security outside the capital, unending struggles with warlordism, drug trafficking, and draconian restrictions on women's rights that neglectful U.S. policies towards Afghanistan have done little to alleviate. But overt criticism of U.S. actions is nonexistent in the film, save for a story about a cluster bomb that killed one woman's relatives – not surprising, perhaps, given the source of the film's funding.
The documentary does offer some fascinating insights into the elaborate hierarchy of Afghan society, the harsh beauty of the landscape, the overwhelming hospitality with which many Afghans greet the filmmakers, despite the villagers' apparent impoverishment. And it does offer those subversive glimpses, that underground critique of the Western inattention to Afghanistan in stories like that of Zainab, a Hazara widow who lives in the caves near the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan. Zainab asks, "Meat, what is that! We don't remember what it is like," as the filmmakers note that there is little evidence international aid has reached this hungriest of communities. Zainab reaches down with her gnarled hands to show the camera her thin, worn leg - "I'd like to get a little fatter," she says, with a bit of angry humor. "Where is the meat?"
Zainab speaks with an uncommon poetry – "Where did the Taliban come from? Were they sent by God?" she asks. "They came like a great plague." A subject like Zainab suits the filmmakers, who have formed the bulk of "Unveiled" around interviews and oral histories – in some ways a fitting approach for a country recovering from the systematic silencing of women's voices. All of the women tell their stories of horrific murder, abuse, and oppression without shedding a tear – many give their testimony with the flat affect of the shell-shocked. But when one speaks of her future, her desperate wish to study, she begins to weep. Her past haunts her, yes, but the agony of thwarted hope is somehow even sharper. The journalists also cry as they film her, as they do with each story they hear. But after they dry their tears, they seem even more fiercely determined to resist the restrictions that they face as women filming other women.
One winds up debating a man about veiling and sharia law in public – he asserts that the chadari or burka is mandated by the Koran, and she retorts that it isn't. "Any person who is that ignorant is beyond comprehension," she says defiantly, before noting that she refuses to wear the chadari in honor of her mother, killed by mujahideen for her outspoken views. "I am not afraid," she says. "I am brave."
While these moments of debate and conversational insight provide some power, the film would have benefited from featuring more of the wordless moments that can speak volumes about subjects' lives. But following women throughout their days, watching them doing things rather than just talking about them, requires a good deal of time, and patience as well – things that seem in short supply for this fired-up group of filmmakers. This first film is a fledging effort – rough but promising. Hopefully, as the journalists keep filming life in Afghanistan, they'll find a way to balance their desire to expose women's lives with the ability to wait for life to reveal less pat but more provocative messages. As is the case for Afghan women themselves, unveiling is only a start.
Watching people write about Jacques Derrida – his theories, his passing on Oct. 8 – has been a fantastic sight, much like watching a man shinny shimmy up a rope while simultaneously trying to unravel it with his legs. Because how does one write about the so-called father of deconstruction, who helped unmoor text from authorial intent and dismantle notions of black-and-white absolutes, and whose insistence on reading against the grain of a piece yielded unnerving contradictions and unseen possibilities for interpretation? Writing about Derrida can be a treacherous exercise: You are writing, but also reading against yourself, trying to pick out echoes of trace meaning; you are writing, but also aware that you are being erased from the very text you are creating.
My head hurts.
I spent much of my undergraduate career in a similar state. I majored in both comparative literature and religious studies, which meant that I far exceeded the daily recommended allowance of theory. At first, I had no idea what people were talking about – it was like another language. I read some Derrida and found myself thinking, "What an ass!" Who crosses out words in the middle of his piece and leaves them there, like stinking dead bodies? What is this? Say what you mean, dude! I left falafel crumbs and grease splotches in "Of Grammatology," like my own angry signifiers of resistance.
But I had to read Derrida for my classes, so I persevered, rageful grease stains and all. And then ... strangely, through the thicket of his writing, I could begin to glean something – his meaning, my meaning, who knows what it was. But something rather beautiful began to emerge out of the shit-whiff of his words, like the favorite Buddhist image of the lotus, whose muck-mired roots create an otherworldly, serene bloom. I loved the idea of play in language, that I wasn't confined to trying to discern an author's intent, that I didn't have to read literature with an eye toward drawing a one-to-one correlation between the author's life and times with the text. And I became especially enamored with the way Derrida confronted the absolutism of structuralism, that he was able to locate contradiction in the primary narrative of a text – the Other meanings. A beautifully holistic way to read.
In typically nerdy fashion, I went overboard. I began speaking in tongues in my classes, wrote papers in opaque, outlandish language. I Derrida'd everything, wrote papers on semiotics and Zen koan, about literary images of tattoos and the body in pain as metaphors for the act of reading, about ritual theory and the construction of textual space, about erasure, metonym, mimesis in everything from Kierkegaard to Soseki to Novalis. There were a lot of words ending in "-ology," buckets of Latin and French. It was gross. So gross, in fact, that I stopped writing poetry (yes, I had wanted to be a poet, put that eyebrow down). The problem was, I was so busy theorizing – or mimicking theoretical language out of insecurity, rather – that I had forgotten what my own voice sounded like. I had become a professional reader, and I couldn't figure out how to transition back into writing.
So I wound up hating Derrida again. I was sick of the way theory became a sort of shibboleth in my classes – either you knew the lingo or you didn't. The emperor was totally starkers, I thought. Mad as hell, I ran away from the academy, despite my professors' attempts to push me into it. Derrida gathered dust on my bookshelves.
And here I am, a writer again, of a sort, and definitely still a nerd. I was dreading writing about Derrida, revisiting my tawdry little affair with a pomo theorist. But over the course of this week, I realize that my relationship to him has been utterly transformed by my ostensible abandonment of him. I think I love him again, but this time as one would an old friend. He has colored the way I look at text, film, the world, in ways I never saw until I started thinking about him again. His devotion to complexity, to looking at the white space around the intended meaning, to unearthing what is excluded and what is different and what isn't supposed to be there but is – I find myself obsessed with trying to achieve these things in my writing, these aspects of his ideas that I find deeply ethical and liberating.
Part of this surely has to do with my own personal makeup, someone who has lived in Asia and America, felt out of place and at home in both, struggled with other languages and then felt something was missing when I reverted back to English. How can we express our totality, the contradictory (but not unharmonious) aspects of our selves? Others on the left – among them, feminists, gender outlaws, postcolonials – have also embraced Derrida for his love of difference, of so-called marginalia, of the impossible to classify. But I also wonder if some of his supporters have turned his ideas toward the task of creating something that he might have sought to shake down: the divisive and hard-and-fast categories of identity politics. Perhaps in discovering our differences, some of us have ossified them – and, in the process of doing so, lost some of that egalitarian, radical fluidity Derrida suggested in his work.
To his detractors, Derrida is a cheap nihilist who is seeking to topple the pillars of morality, truth, and values. The resulting cacophony of voices, of relativism, of armchair-critic skepticism – these are threats to acting with clarity, swiftness, moral responsibility. Anything goes in Derrida's world. Or maybe nothing does, because you're too busy making bad puns. Wordplay, indeed.
I'd argue, however, that Derrida is not advocating moral lassitude or an ethical free-for-all. While he does question the existence of absolute truth and knowledge, he does not say that we should toss aside cognitive, religious, and social values wholesale, but that we should question them, seek out those whose opinions may differ, be cognizant of our ideas' potential limitations and contradictions. He argues for a certain humility, a deeply attentive attitude toward our philosophies and those of others. For Derrida, faith can only be strengthened by doubt, action with contemplation; they are inseparable.
Derrida's ideas animate the very heart of a democracy – the continual flow of ideas, the movement and collision and resolution of difference in an ongoing process. It's a deeply relational and solitary movement – the way we formulate ideas in our minds, articulate them to others, argue them out, mull them over again – the same way reading is. Reading is static and dynamic, unmoving words unreeling in our minds. And if we attempt to read as Derrida would, we enter into a simultaneous communion and catechism with the text.
One of the things I love best about Derrida is the way he stressed that reader-text relationship. The author, instead of reigning over the hermetic little kingdom he or she has created, is not dethroned exactly; put aside, perhaps. The text is not a closed, unchanging system; the words are written, but all the narratives are not. They are created through the act of readerly devotion and skepticism. It's a subversive, power-to-the-people thing that Derrida is pushing, something that flies in the face of the attempt to declare or create a single narrative or mythology or truth, which seems crushingly authoritarian ... and futile. Because as both Derrida and history would bear out, there is always resistance. It is up to us whether we will listen or not.
As I write this, I'm very aware that Derrida tells us that when we write and create, we necessarily leave things out. We make one choice, and a multiplicity of others go unmade. Derrida himself – his biographical details, quotations, his personal meaning – isn't really in this piece, even though I spent years chasing the man, then spurning him, and only just now realizing that he had somehow taken up residence in my mind without my knowing it. I'm not really here, either, despite the confessional form of much of this piece. How can one write everything about a theoretical love affair? And who would want to? Something must be left to the imagination.
So after I've finished writing this, gone on to eat Pringles, loll around on the floor, whatever odd activities we writers tend to do in the middle of the day, there will only be these words, and you, dear reader. Derrida is gone. I am, too, having only left this pile of unfinished text for you to play with. I don't often think about the inevitable relinquishing of (the illusion of) authorial control that happens every time I write something; it is a bit scary, to tell you the truth. But ... I'm finally stepping away from this one. Perhaps you'll love it or hate it, or think, "What an ass!" Maybe you'll be bored or indifferent or find meanings I could never have fathomed. I've done what I can. Now it is, as Derrida might say, what you make of it.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Noy Thrupkaew, "Jacques and Me", The American Prospect Online, Oct. 18, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DALLAS - Call them Ishmael, the fans of director Mike Wilson, transported on a quest of mad righteousness rivaling that of Herman Melville's Ahab. Just as Melville's hoary old sailor took to the seas to hunt down a murderous white whale, Wilson goes in search of a similarly terrifying nemesis: the elusive, bloated doppelganger that scarred his soul and smashed his dream of home. The beast in question? Michael Moore.
Moore was the unseen but omnipresent bogeyman at the American Film Renaissance (AFR), the nation's first conservative film festival, where he was like a great black hole that pulls everything, inexorably, into its gravitational field. Some of the draw was a sort of attraction. A number of the younger conservative filmmakers expressed exasperated admiration for Moore's films and looted from the director's bag of signature tricks to craft their own documentaries – a hopeful bit of artistic exchange that seemed to run counter to the notion of a whistling, impossible gap between the conservative world and the liberal one.
But the overwhelming majority at the AFR wouldn't brook even this slimmest of cultural bridges. Every screening and question-and-answer session I attended featured some jab at the filmmaker's girthy greasiness, his god-awful documentaries. For many, Moore was a convenient Goliath upon which to project conservative rage at America- and religion-hating, traditional-values-shredding left-wingers. So when one wit at a screening of Wilson's Michael Moore Hates America asked if Wilson's favorite book was Moby Dick, I had to marvel at the erudition of the barb. It was, after all, the cleverest iteration of what the majority of the AFR's moviegoers and filmmakers – inflamed with rage but muzzled by the nice manners characteristic of many conservatives – were dying to say: Michael Moore is a fat fuck.
As the fan's Ahab reference makes clear, just as important as the chance to see conservative films was the merry mythmaking that accompanied them. For the three-day duration of the AFR festival, founders Jim and Ellen Hubbard ran through the festival's creation legend with a weary cheerfulness. A year and a half ago, the two former law students got the idea to start up their pro-American film festival after they saw that their local theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, was screening only two movies: Frida, about a "communist artist," and Moore'sBowling for Columbine.
"Where were the films for normal people?" Ellen Hubbard asked.
Sadly, not at the AFR. Among the cinematic offerings were plenty of conspiratorial tracts – discourses on the potential fall of Western civilization due to the forces of immigration, terrorism, and a low birth rate for native-born U.S. citizens (The Siege of Western Civilization); on Bill Clinton's cover-up of the Islamic terrorist operations behind the Oklahoma City bombing (The Mega Fix); and on the astounding thesis that the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia stemmed from gun-control laws (Innocents Betrayed). When they weren't weaving an unlikely web of cause and assumption, the films banged on single-note themes: the piousness of our president, the heroics of our veterans, the insanity of the "Islamo-fascist" agenda of the anti-war left.
Underlying the AFR's films was a sense of disenfranchisement at being cut out of the circles of the "cultural elite" in Hollywood, on campuses, and in the blue states. Adding a dose of additional heat was a touchy outrage at the left's criticisms (perceived or made) of the righteousness of American policies, the accessibility of the American dream, and the honorable conduct of the American military in forays past and present.
In their identification with being downtrodden, they would be displeased to know, the festival attendees have much in common with the hated Moore, the self-made Everyman champion of minorities and the underclass. Just as this rich, white man indulges a sense of ersatz oppression to speak for the "voiceless," so the AFR moviegoers displayed a curious myopia to the larger situation in America – that for the imbalance of Republican views in Hollywood, a conservative president sits in the White House and Republicans have control of Congress. Conservative power in the government mattered little to the attendees, who saw only their second-class status in Hollywood. They roared with righteous anger when keynote speaker and conservative culture columnist Michael Medved railed that those on the right are "just now, as creative people, getting out of bed."
Medved, however, pointed out opportunity for conservatives in the overt cultural partisanship inspired by Moore's documentaries, and in the success of The Passion of the Christ, before he veered into an anti-gay-marriage diatribe that left half of the audience cheering and the other half squirming. ("I hope you don't judge all of us by the ayatollah," said one filmmaker critical of Medved's views, who declined to be identified by name. "That was just wrong. People are going to think we're a bunch of right-wing gay bashers.") Liberal gatekeepers were behind both the unfailingly positive portrayals of gays in the media and the stifling of right-leaning perspectives in Hollywood, Medved argued.
One filmmaker, however, pointed to other causes for the conservatives' game of cultural catch-up. "It's a business, and liberals have been smarter than conservatives about it," said David Balsiger, head of the Grizzly Adams production company, which uses polling by Gallup to identify which of its family-friendly pitches will be a success. "You have to meet what the network wants ... have good production values, and good quality."
Entertaining content is nice, too, said Anne Maddox, an ebullient flight attendant and pajama designer whose tales of meeting President Bush on a charter flight and persuading him to do the quirked-pinky Dr. Evil face were far more interesting than most of the films we watched. Maddox's favorite film? The ones that featured confrontations between conservative counter-protesters (The Protest Warriors) and inane left-wing activists, or showed Republican students taking on the draconian speech codes on college campuses. "The films need more stories," she said. "They're just so absurd, and so funny."
Michael Moore Hates America, for its shrill title, was just one such film – the cinematic documentation of filmmaker Wilson's quest to provide damning context to some of Moore's past work and to hunt down the filmmaker and ask him why he insisted on painting such a bleak picture of America. While I disagreed with Wilson's "the lack of personal responsibility in America is its biggest problem" stance, his film had an unusual humility and nuance. He couldn't help but stack the deck sometimes (picking imbeciles to represent opposing opinions, for example), but was often unafraid to expose his own moral failings or to let viewers make up their own minds without bludgeoning them into submission – a refreshing change after the bullying oeuvre of Moore.
Despite its opposition to Moore's views, Michael Moore Hates America was a consciously black homage to its titular character – the guerilla filmmaking style, use of cruelly funny found footage, the editorializing, even the central conceit of trying to pin down Moore himself is straight out of Roger & Me. Maddox's favorites also drew on oddly familiar techniques, springing interviews on the unsuspecting, or rigging up situations to make sitting-duck opponents look horrifyingly bad. The films by these younger directors gave me a sense of cinematic déjà vu. They seemed like the work of ... right-wing Moore Mini Mes?
"Yeah, we're using the techniques of the left to get out the message of the right," said Jude Rolfes, when I asked him about some of the seeming lefty stylizations of the films. Rolfes is one-half of an affable duo launching a web site "channel" dedicated to streaming conservative media and video content. When I first met Rolfes and his partner, J.T. Ehrman, they were struggling to hang up a large banner.
"Oh, crap. There's a typo," said Rolfes.
"The Rightway.tv," read the banner. "There is a wrong way and there is the The Rightway ... ."
The two, both 24, gave half-chuckling, half-serious descriptions of themselves as "Arnold Republicans" – "dominant in fiscal policy, laissez-faire in social policy, and with a dominating physical presence." But they also emphasized the importance of creating "conservative art" for young people; they had originally thought of launching a conservative T-shirt company.
"The state of conservative T-shirts was really sad," said Rolfes. "You could get something that said 'Bush Country' on it. Lame." The T-shirt they had wanted to develop was a bold, black-and-white graphic portrait featuring Bush's face.
"Like the Che Guevara thing?"
"Like that volunteer's shirt?" I pointed out a red T-shirt, emblazoned with Ronald Reagan's face and the slogan "Viva La Reagan Revolucion." "Isn't that sort of just copying? Where's some original conservative art?"
"Liberals have a monopoly on the marketplace of ideas. They have cooler shit, it's true," says Ehrman. "Republicans focus on other things: They go get jobs and shower. ... I'm kidding, I'm kidding!"
"But now we're trying to create our edgy, conservative art, too," says Ehrman. "And it's OK to use lefty tools to do the job."
I took it as a hopeful sign, this seepage of lefty forms into young conservatives' attempts to express themselves artistically. Perhaps along with those techniques would come a little of the attitude that created them: the "power to the people" sentiment behind the agit-prop monochromatics, the indie groove of making noncorporate art, some of the playfulness. Or maybe not. But in the era of what I'll call cultural gerrymandering – you take your conservative talk radio, we'll take our progressive documentaries, and split up the country that way – the traces of mutual artistic influence, of cultural interdependence, seemed a subversive element that belied the divide between blue and red states.
A heartening thought, because earlier in the festival I had been lamenting the fact that many conservatives here hadn't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 yet were reviling it, and that so few liberals were in attendance at the AFR.
"It's a problem," said Aaron Zelman, director of Innocents Betrayed. "This cultural balkanization. The one-sided views in documentaries. I would do a Bill of Rights festival instead. Those are the values we're supposed to espouse in America – real freedom of speech. Anyone from Michael Moore to Jerry Falwell would be welcome. We'd watch each other's films. And then we'd talk."
But perhaps a little of that is already happening, even if we are only watching one another's films and listening to one another's radio programming to co-opt useful techniques. At least we're tuning in.
"You make a documentary to argue a point," said James Lambert, the volunteer in the Reagan T-shirt, who is also studying documentary filmmaking at the University of North Texas. "But it should also make you feel like you're seeing something you never see."
That sounded a lot like the seemingly liberal-leaning Louis Menand, who argued many of the same points in a New Yorker essay. "Did you read that?" I asked.
But it didn't matter. Lambert reminded me that I was indeed seeing something I felt like I wasn't meant to see, especially in the documentaries by younger filmmakers: a hint of cultural cross-pollination across a supposedly insurmountable political divide. After all, even Ahab, hunting Moby Dick with a single-minded determination, still had a leg made of whalebone.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Noy Thrupkaew, "Texas Film-School Massacre", The American Prospect Online, Sep 20, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to email@example.com.
As I staggered out of Zhang Yimou's latest epic, Hero, I found myself puzzling over a question bordering on blasphemy: Can a film be too beautiful? I felt a twinge of shame at the thought. After all this time banging my spoon over an unrelenting diet of grey, cinematic gruel – this year's spate of political documentaries – how could I whine about Zhang's dishy film? The murderous ballet of the fight scenes, the blistering beauty of the cast, the optic nerve-sizzling colors – Zhang's art-house chopsocky flick verged on visual rapture, yes. But fickle ingrate that I am, I longed for my gruel, its gluey political convictions, the quiet devastation it wreaks on one's innards.
A strange reaction, because Zhang isn't known for pulling his punches to the gut. He's one of the greatest of China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers, the artists who wrung brilliant, feel-bad cinema like Farewell, My Concubine (by director Chen Kaige) and The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang) from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang's films were marked by a masterful sense of scale and balance – To Live, for example, played out one family's plight against a massive scrim of history. Zhang's work was also remarkable for its defiant rage against governmental repression, which resulted in repeated bans against his films.
Hero, in contrast, initially reads like a bit of impersonal state propaganda. Zhang has taken on the legend of the Qin dynasty emperor – the real-life despotic ruler who first managed to unite China in 221 B.C., after years of war. When the film opens, the emperor is greeting a guest called Nameless (Jet Li), who has killed three would-be assassins conspiring against the king. For his act of heroic loyalty, Nameless is given the right to approach within ten paces of the ruler, and begins to recount, at the king's request, how he managed to slay his formidable opponents.
Hero has drawn comparisons to a technicolor Rashomon, but unlike that marvelously noncommittal film, Zhang's movie lays out one clear truth after flirting with a few other false narratives. Nameless spins a few tales and the king counters with others, each wrought in a different super-saturated color – cold gray, a singing red, blue, lush green – until they arrive at the facts of what happened to the assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), his lover Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and "Who stole my cool adjective?" Sky (Donnie Yen).
Buried underneath the dazzling images is an interesting movie about the sacrifice of individual human rights for the sake of state stability (or autocratic rule, however you might want to read that), about the battle between the hard-power tactics of the sword and the slipperiness of artistic resistance. Scratch beneath the extravagant wire-work, the exquisite tableaux, Broken Sword's flowing Pantene-worthy man mane, and you might find . . . The Emperor's Shadow, a 1996 film about the Qin emperor that is a far more satisfying treatment of the philosophical and ethical issues that are swamped by Hero's gorgeousness. In Zhou Xiaowhen's film, the emperor is locked in a fierce struggle with a childhood friend turned consummate composer; the king believes the musician has the power to write a national anthem that will unite the whole country. Their contentious relationship, of course, lays out the dilemma of the ruler who is attempting to impose a nationalist narrative on his unwilling subjects: You can rule people's bodies, but what about their hearts and minds?
Hero is too busy flouncing in the mirror to attend to these ideas, or to acquaint us fully with its characters. Without the human element to flesh out the film, the stunning graphics seem almost pornographic – only surface, slick visual titillation. All that swordplay, a hailstorm of arrows that leaves a building bristling like a porcupine, the silken swirls of Cheung's dresses, her ravishing face – cinematographer Christopher Doyle, famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love) and on films like The Quiet American, is one of the finest directors of photography out there, and he's done magnificent work in Hero. But without a story to anchor his images, without real people in those sumptuous robes, his images veer from shocking beauty into pure camp. Some of the moments that were meant to be most jaw-dropping – a swirl of yellow leaves turning red from a slain woman's blood, say – stink like an overripe durian. The audience cackled at that one.
For all of its failings, however, Hero doesn't kowtow completely to the state line. The film's release has sparked heated debates – has Zhang sold out at last? Has this dissident director been co-opted, put his artistic imprimatur on a legend long used to justify and glorify state repression? I would argue no, despite the film's glowing postscript about the legacy of the Qin emperor. At the end, Zhang's king has been crushed under the weight of his own laws, facing a fearsome, unison chorus of thousands of warriors calling for blood. His dream of a unified China, the words "Our Land" have been written in shifting sand. These are hints that all is not well in the kingdom of Qin – Zhang's subterranean cues, a subversive undertow that runs counter to the golden glory the director tacks on at the end.
Unfortunately, that complexity is missing from much of Hero, along with the human elements at which Zhang has excelled in the past. Hero is much like its hero, Nameless – full of wiles, flash, and fire, but ultimately unknowable at the core.
* * *
Was it all just a dream – this wistful, elliptical love story, its eruptions of violence, its bruised beauty? The wounded characters in Last Life in the Universe may be wondering just as much as the film's audience. Ever since I watched Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's fourth feature a few days ago, I've been wandering through my life in a delirium of melancholy, pondering again whether a film could be too beautiful to bear. Again, the answer is yes, although for far different reasons than occasioned by Hero.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle also put his visual stamp on Last Life – an unlikely film about an unlikely love between an emotionally numb, self-effacing Japanese librarian and a chain-smoking, defiant young Thai woman named Noi (the sensitive, sensual newcomer Sinitta Boonyasak), who lives in the midst of spectacular squalor in her sprawling beach house. Dirty dishes clatter on the couch; a dried squid has a cameo as a bookmark. Why would the obsessively neat Kenji (Japanese star Asano Tadanobu, in a beautifully nuanced performance) find himself amidst this thickly crusted chaos, speaking in hesitant Japanese, Thai, and English to a volatile, vulnerable Thai girl?
We are first introduced to Kenji by way of his feet, which are dangling over a kicked-over pile of books, crowned by one fallen slipper. "This could be me three hours from now," he muses in a voiceover, before the camera reveals him fitting a noose to his neck and positioning a Post-It reading "This is bliss" to the palm of his hand.
Kenji is enamored with the rope, the suffocating pillow, the perfectly sharpened knife, the gun stashed in a teddy bear – beloved accomplices all, but failed ones, too. Every time Kenji gets ready to off himself – with the same distracted, desultory air of habit with which he compulsively lines up beer cans or arranges miniature bars of soap – he's rudely interrupted by doorbells, alarms, the irritating presence of others. "Suicide again?" says a visitor upon spying the poorly tied noose. "Hanging yourself this time?"
Kenji is shaken out of his stupor one day when he glimpses a young Thai woman reading a children's book at his library. She's his alter ego, we're meant to know – she's reading a book the film's subtitles call The Last Lizard (although the actual Japanese title is something more like The Other Side of Loneliness) about a lizard who wakes up one day to find himself completely and terrifyingly alone. Kenji and the mystery girl – soulmates in sadness.
But before he can talk to her, she's killed in a car crash right before his shocked eyes. Stunned, Kenji takes up with a distraught driver from the accident scene, the crackling Noi, and soon finds himself scouring her house and flinching at her verbal barbs and "did you fart" topics of conversation. It's the meet-cute setup of the screwball-comedy couple – violently upended.
Ratanaruang clearly delights in tweaking cinematic conventions – putting in gentle temporal distortions, switching actresses mid-scene, throwing in the title of his movie 35 minutes into it. As for thematic expectations, he draws on an unorthodox stew: the fevered yearning of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love; the deadpan humor, unspoken tenderness and explosive violence of Kitano Takeshi's yakuza-love story Fireworks; the cacky jokes of Thai cinema; the winking self-referential work and naked plot contrivances of Quentin Tarantino; and Japanese cinema's barking id, director Miike Takashi (who has an unforgettable cameo in this film). And somehow Ratanaruang has created his own cinematic tone poem from these disparate influences, an impossible-to-categorize ode and elegy to two people fumbling their way back into life.
Last Life pushes us into an uncommon dream state – a land between fantasy and waking life as laid out by Doyle's peerless camera-turned-magic-realist beacon. Most of the movie is set in Noi's house, which undergoes a remarkable transformation, reflecting the growing rapport between its two inhabitants. At one point, the house seems to clean itself, books whisking themselves onto shelves, papers rustling away, Noi dancing with a heart-breaking joy in the midst of it. Doyle gets far beneath the surface in this film, showing us the hidden dreams of these characters with his expressionist lens, speaking for them more clearly than they can manage with their halting conversation. He shows us the darkness in Kenji's past in one concise shot, the decay in his sterile apartment, contrasting it with the bubbling life that Kenji coaxes out of the epic disarray of Noi's home.
Ratanaruang has created an elegant calculus of grief and desire; Noi and Kenji have the interlocking, symbiotic pathologies that work so well in movie couples who are meant to save each other. But Ratanaruang is also a director for whom paradise is always fading, shot through with seeds of its own destruction – and one who is simultaneously too tender and disciplined to force his characters into the redemption he's laid out for them. They cannot help who they are, pulled into the chaotic messiness of life despite themselves, tethered to the gravity of their pasts just when they seek a new future. Last Life is the kind of movie that has the compassion to measure their transformations in the tiniest of increments.
One of those tremors of change comes when Kenji picks over the detritus of his past, bypassing the usual favorites – two guns, a knife – to pick up a cigarette, which he lights up even though there's no ashtray in sight. It's a profound act for this once death-obsessed, neurotically neat man, a silent consummation of the Forsterian urge to "only connect" to another human, to an improbable love. Even if only for a moment, in the infinite space of a dream as beautiful and ephemeral as the smoke rising from his cigarette. This, at last, is his bittersweet bliss.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Noy Thrupkaew, "Cinema Paradise", The American Prospect Online, Sep 10, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is Karl Rove? Just a round-faced man in glasses – homely, unremarkable, beige in affect and color? Or perhaps someone far more powerful than his bland natural camouflage would indicate? The new documentary Bush�s Brain tries to answer those questions by tracing the political career of President George W. Bush�s senior adviser, from his Young Republican days to his ascension to the inner sanctum of the White House. The verdict? For filmmakers Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey, the unassuming Rove is the puppetmaster behind the current administration, the Svengali-political Pygmalion who molded a good-looking, popular, but rather dim high-school quarter-back type into the leader of the free world, the duplicitous genius and spin doctor behind smear campaigns, low-blow political shenanigans, and garish photo opportunities for his favorite dummy, George W. Bush.
Based on the book Bush�s Brain by Texas journalists James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, the film is the latest political salvo in a year crammed full of partisan documentaries. As the stakes have gotten higher, the more outraged and one-sided political documentaries have become – a reaction, perhaps, to the seepage of partisanship into our news (the �fair and balanced� Fox News Network) and the ongoing ad-fueled hearts-and-minds campaign for American voters. Uncovered: The War on Iraq unspools like a prosecutorial brief against the Bush administration and its trumped-up calls for war; Fahrenheit 9/11 has the sledge-hammer impact (and lack of delicacy) of well-made war-time propaganda; Howard Zinn: You Can�t Be Neutral on a Moving Train bathes its progressive historian subject in a golden, hagiographic glow. None of these films makes much of a pretense at showing the other side – although one could argue that the other side has done such a good job of twisting the media�s arm, shushing and discrediting official dissenters, and churning out its own take on history and the contested present that they shouldn�t get to grandstand in lefty documentaries as well.
Bush�s Brain digs into Rove�s past in an effort to lay out the adviser�s tactics – the filmmakers track his dirty run for the Young Republicans� presidency in 1973, and his intimidation tactics on the high-school debate team. His early political career also comes under scrutiny. While he was managing the 1986 Texas gubernatorial campaign of Clements, Rove charged Clements� opponent White with bugging his office – a flat-out lie, the film�s experts allege. Bush�s Brain also devotes some time to the sandbagging of Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower�s career, stymied by an FBI investigation (performed by the same agent who investigated the 1986 bugging incident) into the campaign fundraising efforts of two Hightower staffers.
As Bush�s Brain author James Moore says, Rove has a �dark part, this thing that moves within him,� based on �power, manipulation and control.� That darkness, Moore asserts, �absolutely demands that he destroy his opponents.�
One failing to which an unapologetically one-sided documentary will frequently succumb is the dreaded �preaching to the choir� syndrome. Bush�s Brain suffers from this malady more than most – its creators are so convinced of Rove�s nefarious omniscience that they don�t bother laying out a case against him that feels fully convincing. What follows onscreen seems more like filmic conspiracy theory – based on rumor, conjecture, and alarmist inference – than a well-reasoned argument.
It�s a pity, as one section of the documentary has a striking relevance to today�s current battles: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth�s attacks on John Kerry, and the alleged collusion between electoral campaigns and non-profit-funded negative advertising. Bush�s Brain looks into what it alleges are Rove-masterminded advertising scandals and various �whisper campaigns� against former Texas governor Ann Richards, former Republican presidential candidate hopeful John McCain, and former Georgia senator Max Cleland. In the case of Cleland, misleading and manipulative ads targeted the senator�s voting record on homeland security, even though Cleland had voted for the Democrat�s version of the bill. In 2000, one of McCain�s great strengths – his history as a Vietnam War veteran – became suspect after opponents began floating rumors about war-induced mental trauma. In the film, columnist Molly Ivins characterizes the rumors as ��Poor John, he had a very tough war�� mock-concern. Along with gossip about McCain�s daughter being a love child with an African-American prostitute (the child was actually adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage), the war rumors helped finish McCain�s presidential run.
While its subject is compelling, Bush�s Brain relies on the now-routine formula for political documentaries – hordes of talking heads (Bush�s Brain authors, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq Joe C. Wilson, McCain campaign staffer John Weaver, Cleland, among many others) and the use of old stock footage – without plumbing any of its strengths. Bush�s Brain lacks the excellent, nonpartisan feel to its sourcing that Uncovered boasts, with its exhaustive interviews with U.N. inspectors and Republican dissenters. Nor has it mined the glories of the �seen, but unseen� footage as laid out by the takedown of Fox News, Outfoxed, or Fahrenheit 9/11.
Instead, Bush�s Brain offers up tantalizing allegations – Rove was behind the Valerie Plame leak! – that may well be true, but the film provides little evidence outside of partisan innuendo. Bush�s Brain also tries for a bit of Fahrenheit�s manipulative pathos, with a wrenching sequence on the death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq. But as the filmmakers haven�t sufficiently linked the soldier�s death with Rove�s under-handed dealings, the scenes seem off-topic and gratuitous.
Rove is a fascinating figure, but never more than a shadowy villain in a film that is ostensibly all about him – Bush�s Brain never profiles its criminal, or taps into the psychology behind the ruthless hunger for power. Rove is only of interest because he is �Bush�s brain,� and sadly, this seems to have kept the filmmakers from delving more deeply into their subject, drawing out his motivations as a strong narrative line. Perhaps that is the genius of Rove, that he is never caught in the act, that he leaves only a trail of slime in his wake. The filmmakers� would have done well to have openly acknowledged the elusive nature of their quarry. Although they do a nice post-mortem on Rove�s victims � and in ways that shed a strong light on the current troubles of the Democratic presidential race – the man behind the curtain remains, in the end, frustratingly out of sight.
The New York Asian Film Festival is arguably most famous for its horror films. As The New Yorker recently documented, a critic staggered out of one of the more gruesome screenings several years ago, emitted a gurgle, and then dropped in a dead faint in the lobby.
This year provided no exception to the high scary quotient. Along with art-house dramas, broad comedies, and martial arts- and Japanese comic-derived movies, the festival featured the likes of Juon: The Grudge, soon to be remade into a Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle; Doppelganger, about an innocuous engineer whose evil double is taking over his life; and Marronnier, which features a mad genius who turns women into satanic killer dolls.
The rising popularity of "J-Horror" in Hollywood would seem to necessitate a viewing of these movies – but for a few things. First of all, the film-festival program billed Juon thusly: "If you thought The Ring was scary," – and I did, terribly so – "please don't see this movie – we can't afford to cart you out of the theater after you die of fright." And second, my usual viewing partner was not available to be clawed at and climbed like a tree during the course of shriekfest screenings.
Yes, it's true: Your reviewer chickened out completely.
I am happy, however, to report that this failing led to opportunity, and I was thus able to see a number of remarkable films, ones that break away from the usual fare that trickles in to U.S. audiences. There is something to be said for the Asian standards – the sleek gorgeousness of films by Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai, the kinetic delights of martial-arts movies, the freakishly frightening horror flicks.
But must films from abroad that center on recognizable human emotion, ideas, and characters be lost in translation, barred from our cinemas? These films will be on festival circuits for the rest of the year; I can only hope American distributors pick them up. What a pleasure it is to watch characters in these Asian films eat, brood, weep desperate tears, laugh like real people! They tell us something harrowing or comic or true about everyday love and suffering, without the sensational, marketable trappings of extreme visual ecstasy or horror.
Three of the movies I viewed seemed to take a special joy in slamming different genres together, exploiting slapstick and Buddhist doctrine to talk about morality, and human interaction and engagement. Drive is a delirious Japanese trifle that takes off with a bang when three screaming bank robbers carjack a migraine-prone salaryman. Little do they know that they have picked the absolute worst getaway driver – a compulsive who cannot go a hair above the speed limit. More shrieking, supernatural encounters, and the requisite bonding ensue, with each of the quartet confronting karma and crash-diving his way toward fulfillment over the course of one fateful night. Drive stubbornly refuses to fit into any one filmic convention, and it gives its characters a happiness that is saved from sentimentality by the movie's quirkiness. What could be better for an obsessive-compulsive than riding off into the sunset, right on time, with a lemon drop bulging in your cheek?
Running on Karma, a Hong Kong smash hit, takes a darker tone in its exploration of causality and fate. Former monk turned stripper Big (Andy Lau in a hilarious rubber muscle suit) can see karma. When he meets an earnest cop, he decides to help her work off her bad karma accumulated from a past life. The film is a freaky, genre-bending pop-noir with plenty of good-natured stripper gyrations and Buddhist ruminations from its star. It shouldn't work: It plunges into melodrama, gives its audience gore and a little chopsocky and then wants to have its beefcake and it eat, too, by preaching about nonviolence. But through the sheer joy and madness of its concept, somehow Running on Karma does just that.
The Thai film Baytong also explores the Buddhist concepts of nonattachment and suffering, but this time through the story of Tum, a Buddhist monk who moves down to the Muslim south after his sister is killed in a terrorist attack. The film is an unusually timely poem to compassion and religious tolerance. (Thailand's southern provinces have erupted this year in a wave of religious strife, and nearly 200 have died in Islamic uprisings that were put down by brutal police force.) Tum (Poowarit Poompuang, in a beautifully expressive performance) struggles to live amid people he holds responsible for his sister's murder. He also puzzles over the temptations of sensual pleasure, plus emotional attachment to new friends and his beautiful little niece. The movie opens with a quote from the Buddha, a rough paraphrase of which is, "One must be willing to surrender all that remains in the world." While there may be a few too many monk-out-of-the-monastery scenarios, Baytong is blessed with a gentle humor that lightens its examination of the inexorable gravity of that world on religious ideals.
Two other films go elbow-deep into human suffering, without even the calm detachment of Buddhist doctrine to provide ballast. The Japanese film Antenna depicts the nearly complete disintegration of a family after the disappearance of an 8-year-old daughter: Mom joins a cult, younger brother thinks he is channeling his missing sister, uncle commits suicide, and oldest brother engages in harrowing sex-therapy sessions with a tender dominatrix. The film has a strange, loopy rhythm – slow in between fits of frenetic terror and guilt – but is shocking in its intensity, in its cool refusal to look away from unthinkable pain.
Vibrator, the masterpiece of the festival, shares a similarly intuitive frequency with Antenna. Rei Hayakawa (the extraordinary Shinobu Terashima), a deeply lonely, bulimic freelance writer with a drinking problem, wanders through a convenience store. She's swaddled in her coat and scarf, her thoughts – of alienation, of hunger, of the need for gin and white wine – drifting in via voice-over. Occasionally her deepest emotions flash onscreen in intertitles, like the ones used in silent movies. A bleached-blond trucker (Nao Omori as Takatoshi Okabe, in an equally nuanced performance) walks in, deliberately grazes her behind with his hand, and Rei's cell phone, set on vibrate, goes off over her heart.
Rei gets into Okabe's truck with him – and stays. The film is based on the simplest of plots: girl meets boy, road trip, emotional revelations. But the film is a magnificent chamber piece. Cast like a two-person play, Vibrator explores the duality between the intimacy of the truck cab and each character's yearning for the independence and freedom of the open road, between being haunted by one's history and the fear of forging a new one. "I want to touch you," Rei murmurs to Okabe, and then sits paralyzed, like a woman terrified into stone.
Based on the novel of the same name by award-winning author Mari Akasaka, Vibrator gives Rei a vibrant complexity. She constantly hears voices – her own dark thoughts, schoolyard taunts, her mother's cruelty – but also has a deep capacity for joy, a warm curiosity. As for Okabe, there's a puzzling sweetness under his braggadocio. "I wonder why this man understands me," Rei thinks, and we realize that we know him far less than we think we do.
The couple grapple together, fighting, probing, speaking little but saying volumes, droning on, and sleeping together in scenes that are astonishing in their emotional impact. By the end, they've staggered into an exhausted grace; stripped of artifice, they're too naked to do anything but cling to each other. " If you don't eat," says Okabe to Rei, "there's nothing to puke up." A clearer declaration of bittersweet love was never heard.
The film is unflinchingly, almost mercilessly, clear-eyed in its assessment of emotional transformation. But it also holds out redemption – in the impossible golden light of an early morning, in halting words over noodles, and in the warm hum of a truck cab looking out over the wide open road. The film has none of the thrills and screams of an Asian horror film, no flashy wirework, no period-piece gorgeousness. But it's one of the finest movies I've seen this year, and certainly the most moving, this devastatingly simple story of two people fumbling at each other's clothes, each other's hearts. Vibrator sends its aftershocks right through you.
I should be congratulating you – Sundance airing the movie version of your latest one-woman show Cho: Revolution last Saturday was a big deal. But I'm writing for a different, less gracious reason, and I'm kind of nervous about it. When I started typing, the dorky little paperclip icon popped up on my computer screen and asked if I needed help writing my letter. I sent it away with a snort, but now I'm regretting it.
That paperclip had my back, just like I would have had yours years ago, when you rose from the ashes of drug abuse, eating disorders, and the cancellation of a hellaciously mismanaged sitcom to bring us your live show I'm the One That I Want.
Girl, I always loved you. I thought that I'm the One was especially good – smart, sharp, unabashedly brave. You turned the experience of having your hair fall out in clumps and losing creative control over All-American Girl into wrenching comedy. You were like some crazy, Richard Pryor-esque alchemist, turning the pain of racism and oppression into a routine that was simultaneously revenge and embrace.
But now I'm writing to say... that you're not as funny anymore.
I know, I'd best run and hide. Your posse of the sassily disenfranchised will be coming for me. I should know – I used to be one of your minions. Four years ago, if anyone had said a bad word about you, I would have said, "Ooh, hold my earrings, hold my earrings," and then sunk my Frito nail extensions – all square and curling and corn-chippy, with maybe some rhinestones and airbrush art – into that bitch's face. But now, here I am, cowering in the whitest, straightest, most male place I can find, because I have cast aspersions on Our Lady of the Oppressed People's Hilarity.
I started laughing a little less with Notorious C.H.O. My friend Aaron still came out of the theater deaf on the side where I was sitting, but it wasn't the same. You were getting... preachy. And when I watched Cho: Revolution live last year, I was still laughing, but I was sort of forcing myself. All of my friends were too – it was an emperor's new clothes situation, and we were all shifty-eyed before we came clean that we felt sledgehammered by your self-validating message, your rage against the -isms. Revolution was like the end of Ghostbusters, but with a giant, Stuart Smalley affirmation golem menacing Manhattan instead of Mr. Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man doing the job.
I know you're getting attacked viciously all the time. I know about the Drudge Report thing – how Drudge selectively excerpted portions of your performance at a MoveOn.org event where you criticized Bush in your usual fierce manner. FreeRepublic.com then linked to it, and you got torrents of awful hate mail from right-wing conservatives – people were calling you a gook, a slut, a pig. And just a few weeks ago, the president of the Omni Hotels, where you were doing a convention gig, turned off the mic and stopped payment on your check. He's a close friend of George Bush, so I guess he didn't like what you had to say about the Mess o' Potamia.
When stuff like this happens, I'm reminded just how radical – and, yes, revolutionary – it is for you to be you: Korean-American, feminist, queer, sexual, and scatological, an unflagging advocate and political activist on so many fronts of injustice. I see your Web site in support of queer marriage: loveisloveislove.com. I see you stumping for Ms. Magazine. I want you to keep on keeping on, you know? But I want you to make me laugh, too. Is that so selfish?
Yes, you can still be political and funny – whoever says those things are incompatible is too stupid to live. The issue is the approach. Before, it was enough for you to lean on the "I" in the identity politics. I felt blessed that you even existed. When I interviewed you for a story long ago, I was plotzing the whole time, and I couldn't find the wherewithal to thank you for being a role model, an inspiration to this Mini-Cho wannabe. That "I Will Survive" feel to your comedy – the same thing that made some magazine call you and Cher, Ms. "Do You Believe?", comeback queens – was exhilarating and great. But your shtick is starting to feel indulgent. It's not enough for us to just survive anymore, to bask in the glow of our adoring gazes, to mirror each other, audience and performer.
We're the ones going to your show: the converted. And we need to be jolted, provoked, we need to second-guess ourselves. One way to keep us on our toes is to mix up your timing – lately, you've gotten into the habit of repeating punchlines, stretching out a joke forever, hitting us with this staggering, marcato rhythm. It's delivery dogma, man, and I just want something subtler.
Instead of hitting me with a fastball where you tell me what I already know and expect me to give you snaps in return, come at it sideways, all sly the way you do sometimes. I know you have it in you – I read your blog entry on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and marveled how you just articulated everything I struggled over for hundreds of words, and how you were hella funnier than I could ever be about it.
I know you operate from the premise that the personal is political, but maybe you could ease it back. Keep those personal stories coming, but don't lay out the analysis for us. We can figure it out ourselves. You're a generous person – so be a generous artist, too. Give us the freedom to interpret, to be puzzled. Otherwise people start drawing this one-to-one correlation between your life and your politics, in this amazingly reductive way. So yeah, you got married. And you're way skinnier these days. Are you not allowed these things, if you are happy and healthy and are still fighting the good fight?
This has a lot to do with the way you identify with your friends, with the suffering and joy around you. You say you're turning into a gay man in drag – but you're not. You're the queen bee of the haggarati, it's true, but you are not a gay man. So explore those tensions, those differences, that relationship. You're such an insider in your communities, but what gives your comedy power is your outsider status, too – that ability to see incongruity, hypocrisy, absurdity. Why abandon that just because you're talking about your own people?
So yeah, you will survive. That old joke about cockroaches, Cher, and the nuclear holocaust should be amended to include you. I know you'll be sitting there in the dead of nuclear winter, fighting those bitches for the last can of Spam. The question is, will you still be funny? Will you still have the gift of comedy that is your shock-and-awe campaign against intolerance, whatever injustice may live in the post-apocalyptic world of this fantasy? I can hear Cher now, hootling, "Do you believe?" And you know what? I do. Now go out there and prove me right. Make us laugh again.
Your fan, Noy
Now that I've talked to Margaret, you're gonna be a piece of cake. So you have this Steven Spielberg movie that opened last Friday: The Terminal, about an Eastern European immigrant who winds up stateless and homeless, living in an airport and jonesing for the incomparable Catherine Zeta-Jones. I have to say, I'm a little worried. I thought you had pulled out of your sanctimonious slump – the tedious, noble crap for which you abandoned your "winsomely comic" movies like You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, where you put up with the tuffet-headed Meg Ryan. I haven't seen Ladykillers yet, but I thought the enormous fake choppers you were sporting in the previews were a good way to get you out of your toothless phase. Don't prove me wrong, please.
You didn't start off this way, as stiff and golden and tasteful as the Oscars you won for being a gay martyr in Philadelphia and a simpleton in Forrest Gump. I remember you when you were making junk like The Money Pit and The 'Burbs and Turner & Hooch. I remember you in your far better work: Big, Splash, Punchline. You were crazy, that affable likeability just a cover for some serious rage and confusion. You had this bray you would let out sometimes – not a laugh or a shout, but more a hack of comedic anger. Where'd you put that? Did you bury it under the halo and the angel wings?
I know you tried to be all bad in Road to Perdition. You were so bloated with badness, with sadness, with angst. But you were this somber creation. Don't you know that you are your best bad when you feed off that manic, antic grace, the frustration you have behind that Everyman face?
I've been taking a lot of potshots at liberal icons today. First Margaret, now you. I so appreciate your support of queer causes, of liberal politics, of little indie movies, even if they turn out to be as hideous as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But does being a card-carrying liberal or progressive mean that you can't be a little bit evil, a little bit funny anymore? Look at your buddy Steven Spielberg, the prototypical Hollywood liberal. Too bad his humanistic feelings toward his characters have run rampant – his deep concern, his sense of moral righteousness, his inability to inflict unhappy endings on characters he loves keeps him from following the natural arc of his storylines and making the art he so badly wants to create. If someone came by and guillotined the last twenty minutes of almost all his movies, we'd have a serious oeuvre. If ET kicked the bucket, if the little boy robot of A.I. froze to death, if Minority Report's Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) rotted in prison forever... well, those would be some damn fine movies, instead of some damn fine movies nearly wiped out by a landslide of goo at the end.
This Terminal movie – I've seen the trailer and am feeling skittish. Your Viktor Navorski character is supposed to "make new friends... play matchmaker... help a beautiful stranger... discover America." I hear the rumbling, the sound of a goovalanche on its way down to obliterate me.
But I'm still hopeful. I hope you go against the Spielberg grain and your recent tendencies. I know Spielberg specializes in little boys lost, but I hope you dig deep and find some of the adult anger of dislocation, the darkness of fractured identity in your character. He is, after all, loosely based on Karimi Nasseri, a man who has lived in France's Charles de Gaulle airport since 1988. Nasseri sounds like he is seriously troubled, yet well-loved by the people around him – won't you give us a bit of this complexity? Yes, your character is supposed to discover America, maybe make a home of it – but does he find the America that offers such promise and menace? Does he react with only a simple shrug and a cutely accented epigram to life in the existential hell of a waiting room?
I hope not. I'd love to see you give this role some unsettling dimension. You don't have to be a gentle, bumbling, lost saint with feet of clay. Let me know what you'll do. I'll be watching and hoping that you find a way out of your own purgatory, return to your comedic roots – to that prickly-pear persona that gives humanity to anger, and warmth to rage. It's time to come home, Tom. Come home.
All the best,
The immigrants in the documentary "The New Americans" are indeed the tired and the poor to whom the Statue of Liberty extends her welcome. But faceless, huddled masses they are not, thanks to this series, which follows five immigrant stories over the course of four years. Debuting today, tomorrow, and Wednesday on PBS (check local listings), "The New Americans" begins in its subjects' homelands and traces both their wrenching goodbyes and their first years in the United States. Over the course of the seven-hour program, viewers become intimately acquainted with some of the human stories that underpin ever-fiercer debates over immigration in the United States.
One of the most recent additions to the fray is Samuel Huntington's essay "The Hispanic Challenge", which appeared in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. Excerpted from his upcoming book, "Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity," the essay is Huntington's notion of the "clash of civilizations," writ to fit the domestic realm. The "them" this time is the swell of Hispanic immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, who refuse to assimilate in rising numbers, splitting the unified "Anglo-Protestant" United States into a country of two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.
As Gregory Rodriguez noted in an incisive Los Angeles Times piece, Huntington's work is fueled by "cultural determinist" ideas, in which his notions of culturally mandated behaviors -- the Protestant work ethic versus "the maÃ±ana syndrome," for example -- are ossified into rigid categories and set against one another. The problem with Huntington's "Hispanic Challenge" thesis, Rodriguez writes, "is that it doesn't take into account the people whose actions it presumes to predict."
Those are people like Pedro Flores, who has spent the last 13 years working in a Kansas meatpacking factory, more than a thousand miles away from his beloved family. Flores' story is perhaps the most agonizing one in The New Americans. This unbelievably hardworking man sacrifices nearly everything in his attempts to bring his family to the United States, to give them educations and all the tools and opportunities to do what Huntington says the members of the Flores family, as Mexican immigrants, have no interest in doing: becoming full-fledged, contributing members of American society.
Pedro Flores' story is a refutation of Huntington's thesis on only an anecdotal level, it's true, but that should not be interpreted as immediate grounds for dismissal. Others, including David Glenn in the Chronicle for Higher Education, David Brooks in the New York Times, and Rodriguez have already laid waste to the rhetorical and statistical follies of "The Hispanic Challenge." Huntington's ideas about people have precious few people in them, so why not also rebut the macro with the micro? Like all the stories presented in The New Americans, Flores' story moves beyond the anecdotal in its rich telling; in its depiction of a loving, heroically struggling family, it does much to erode the fear of the alien other that gives fuel to Huntington's work.
Israel Ngozi, a former petrochemical engineer from Nigeria, is no stranger to struggle in the United States (nor are any of the individuals depicted in The New Americans). He is a refugee fleeing political persecution for his outspokenness against Shell Oil. Naima Saadeh Abudayyeh, a young Palestinian woman leaving the West Bank to marry a Palestinian American, negotiates a new language, her husband's consuming devotion to the Palestinian cause, and the wishes of her traditional mother. Jose Garcia and Ricardo Rodriguez, two aspiring baseball players from the Dominican Republic, cope with the crushing pressure to make good on their dreams, and a South Asian computer programmer, Anjan Bachu, seeks fortune in the dot-com boom.
Over the series' three episodes, we see the forces -- lack of opportunities, stifling poverty and squashed hopes, dreams of economic and political freedom -- that have brought these immigrants to the United States. We also see proud identities and close-knit families left behind. With the wryly loving humor she passed on to her son, Israel Ngozi's mother watches the video letter her son and daughter-in-law have sent her. "If you cry like this now," she says, gesturing at the image of her weeping daughter-in-law on the screen, "where will you get the tears when I die?"
The stakes are so high for the immigrants: Every test, every job interview is weighted with the realization that this might be the one chance to scramble out of desperation. "Baseball is a good opportunity, but you must grab it by the hair â€¦ but it only has one hair," says one of the Dominican ballplayers with a smile. Those fragile dreams of stability, of making a new home, are slowly ground down for nearly all the immigrants, and there is only one unconditional success in the series. The others toil at their new lives with charm and amazing good humor -- or, when that begins to wear thin, sheer grit.
The filmmakers have also fleshed out the larger issues unique to each individual's arrival in the United States. They probe into the oil issue in Nigeria, the ethics of athletic scouting and recruitment, the "brain drain" that can result from the highly educated leaving their native lands for outsourced U.S. jobs, nonunionized immigrant labor, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
At times, the filmmakers lose the narrative thread of their stories to provide all the backdrop; the second episode, in particular, loses a bit of focus when we travel back to Nigeria for the funeral of a prominent activist, one of the immigrant subject's brothers. And at times the urge to universalize the plight of their subjects leads them astray. How many happy wedding scenes do we need, and isn't there a better way to illustrate tensions in a marriage than through shots of a laundry machine vomiting foam, or tiffs over furniture shopping? The producers have also attempted to humanize rather archetypal figures -- the Dominican ballplayers, the Indian programmer -- but perhaps it would have been more compelling to feature a subject who does not fit a pre-existing image of immigrants from a given country. Instead of an Indian programmer, why not someone who works the flip, underreported side of that industry: a woman who puts those keyboards together?
Despite these quibbles, "The New Americans" largely avoids easy dogmatism or bland universalizing. Anjan muses on "what would Gandhi do" and eats a whole artichoke leaf by accident; Jose dances in front of his family's pink house; Naima's old-school mother, to her daughter's horror, fingers grape leaves in a Chicago park before deciding they are too small for cooking. The documentary is made up of such small, perfectly observed moments at the nexus of these characters' personal and political lives -- lives that form their own refutation of the kind of polemics put forth by Huntington.
"There is no Americano dream," Huntington writes, in concluding his essay. "There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English." Huntington is issuing a warning to Anglos and Latinos alike: He's telling the former to beware the masses and safeguard the "Anglo-Protestant" culture of the United States, and handing down a scorching indictment of Latinos' obstinate, rebellious refusal to assimilate, to try to conform to the hardworking ways of their adopted homeland.
It's a pity he hasn't seen this documentary. "Poor peoples' dreams are very deep things," says one of the baseball players' mothers, and no one illustrates that more than Pedro Flores' eldest daughter, Nora, a star student who loses a place in her beloved Kansas high school when the family moves to be closer to her mother's relatives. "I thought if I could finish high school â€¦ at least I would be a step forward in my life. It would have been something very beautiful â€¦ complete happiness for me. But I couldn't reach my dream. I might never finish high school," she says, with a resignation that's not bitter, stooping in a Californian field. Her next goal? One that flies in the face of Huntington's theories: She wants to learn English. "It may be the only dream I can realize," she says quietly, her hands darting over the strawberry plants.
It's a damning -- and heartbreaking -- rebuttal.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor
"I would not call myself a feminist," says Natalie, a University of Michigan junior. "I'm experiencing a lot of the advantages that feminists worked to achieve, and I'm thankful. ... But I don't know that women are still that much uneven from men, especially in the workplace." Told that on average a woman today makes only 76 cents to a man's dollar, Natalie is shocked. "I don't understand how that could be fair or even possible," she says.
Young women in the United States today do not seem to be opposed to feminism, as the Feminist Majority Foundation (FM) has defined it on the back of its business cards ("the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic and social equality for women"), so much as they are put off by a bra-burning, hairy-legged image of the feminism of their mothers' generation. The daughters have reaped many benefits from the feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the "Second Wave" of the U.S. women's movement. (The "First Wave" is associated with the women's suffrage movement.)
Young women today have greater access to reproductive health services, greater opportunities in the workplace and more lifestyle choices, including the freedom to gleefully take up lipstick and miniskirts without conceding anything to the patriarchy. This is a generation that feels equally entitled to stay single, marry or cohabit, and with same-sex, opposite-sex or varying partners. Perhaps as a result, a do-it-yourself ethos permeates many young women's lives, and they have tended to shy away from group affiliations of all types.
That individualism is, in part, a healthy thing. But it also has a dark side: The reluctance to work together as a constituency -- or to fully engage in electoral politics -- may lessen this generation's ability to resist attacks on the freedoms it now enjoys. The American right has been working hard to overturn reproductive choice, roll back recent gains on gay rights and push "abstinence-only" policies on everything from sex education to funding for international health programs. And the Bush administration, for the most part, has signed on to this agenda. The president has also moved against overtime-pay and family-leave laws, steps that could strongly affect young women juggling work and family responsibilities. After years of helping ourselves to a full buffet of life choices, we may one day find the spread sadly diminished -- and on the table a sign telling us to get back into the kitchen.
Feminist activists say the current political moment is pivotal, a crossroads for young women and for feminism. Battling conservatives and fighting accusations of their own movement's stagnation and irrelevance, the organizations started by Second Wave feminists hope to draw young women into the movement and its leadership. The FM and the National Organization for Women have launched campus campaigns, held conferences for young women and pushed to improve women's health services on campus. Alarmed by news that only 44 percent of women under 31 voted in the last election, compared with 66 percent of women 31 and older, they've also launched voter-education and registration drives.
And a number of young feminists have emerged. They are planning a massive abortion-rights march to take place in Washington next year, and their campus performances of The Vagina Monologues have raised money for Afghan women. Says Whitney Cabey, a recent Spelman College graduate and new FM campus organizer, "Calling myself a feminist is basically like calling myself my own name."
But there are more young women who, like Natalie, are ambivalent about joining in.
Part of the challenge may be feminism's own successes. To many young women today, their lives have little to do with the oppressions faced by their mothers' generation. Compared with young women in 1975, today's 25-to-34-year-olds are, on average, better educated and more likely to be employed. They are also more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, decisions associated with greater family stability and higher incomes. Those under 25 have come of age in a time of considerable freedom of sexual identity and "girl power," which, despite its current status as a marketing cliché, has had a positive impact on young women's attitudes toward athletic, social and intellectual prowess.
So has feminism outlived its usefulness?
Certainly not, says Jane Mansbridge, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who's writing a book titled Everyday Feminism. "We've gotten rid of a ton of overt discrimination," Mansbridge says, "but there's tons of structural discrimination still remaining." That kind of sex discrimination -- in workplace policies and in the general culture's assumptions about job productivity, family roles and caregiving responsibilities -- has particularly affected young women, for even more than their mothers 25 years ago, today's young women are juggling work, family and education demands simultaneously.
For example, nearly 64 percent of young, married women with children worked in some capacity in 2000, compared with only 38 percent of women in the same category in 1975. With their higher education levels and increased workforce participation, today's young women between 25 and 34 are "truly squeezed between the time and money demands of simultaneously investing in education, finding and climbing the first rungs of the career ladder, acquiring a life partner, establishing a home, and having and caring for children," say the editors of the demographic study The American Woman 2003-2004. "No other age group bears such a complex burden."
Young mothers have responded to these multiple demands by tailoring their work lives -- working flexible schedules or part-time, leaving the workforce temporarily or alternating work periods with a partner, if they have one. Such strategies allow them the time to be the primary caregiver, a role still largely filled by women, but they pay a price. Fewer work years can translate into lower Social Security and retirement benefits for women; part-time work may eliminate health and retirement benefits entirely. And all of the above take a toll on women's opportunities for advancement. "Those young women who say they might not need feminism -- they need to look at their lives in the future," says Mansbridge. "They'll need it later, with additional job, family and partnership pressures."
Young women who think we live in a postfeminist era have often led fairly privileged lives, says Amy Richards, co-author of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future" and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an organization of young feminists. Feminism's past successes haven't much diminished the burdens on the country's least privileged women, Richards says. Indeed, the wage gap between unmarried mothers with less than a high-school education and married women who are college graduates has grown over the last 25 years. In 1975 the poorer group made more than 20 percent the wage of the college grads; in 2000 its members made only 17 percent. Lack of education translates into the kind of low-wage work that keeps people at the bottom. And more than a third of young Latinas have less than a high-school diploma -- a troubling statistic for the country's largest growing minority group. As for African-American women, they have the highest work-participation rate of any group of women but are disproportionately in lower-wage occupations. They make up 7.1 percent of employed 25-to-34-year-olds but only 5.7 percent of those holding executive, administrative or managerial positions.
Poor women and women of color in the current generation face continuing inequality, and both they and more privileged women of the same age face a difficult time-money crunch. Feminism's work, particularly for young women, is clearly incomplete. It has also gotten harder. Due to an increase in life expectancies and low child-bearing rates, the U.S. population is steadily aging.
In 2000, for the first time ever, more than half the American population consisted of adults aged 35 and older. Women under 25 now represent a much smaller percentage of the population than was true in their mothers' day. "As a result," say the editors of The American Woman, "the younger adults who traditionally have dominated the adult population are losing 'market share,' with predictable effects on their political, cultural, and economic impact."
In light of these challenges, young women's ambivalence toward feminism -- a movement that ostensibly recognizes and fights for their needs -- may seem surprising. But young women haven't missed the backlash against the feminist movement: the conservative messages of pundits like Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly, who make lucrative careers for themselves out of telling other women to stay at home; the numerous articles and books on eligible-bachelor shortages, shriveled ovaries and the dangers of day care; the baby-scare tomes such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children." They all imply that "it must be all that equality that's causing all that pain," as Susan Faludi put it in Backlash. "The women's movement, ... we are told time and again, has proved women's own worst enemy."
Not all the blame can be laid at the feet of feminism's foes, though. Even self-identified feminists among the younger generation confess to ambivalence about the movement. Some believe that the Second Wave was uninterested or even hostile to motherhood. One young feminist, who asked to remain unnamed, said that when she had children, she felt as if feminism had "abandoned" her.
"Motherhood was left out of traditional feminism," she said. "I think the Second Wave of feminism had a necessary push against traditional gender roles in order to get equality in the workplace. And I'm really thankful for that. But in that push, motherhood was pushed against."
In general, this generation seems to have contradictory views on women's issues. On abortion, for example, the number of American adults who identify themselves as "pro-life" has increased as this younger generation has entered the polling sample. (According to Gallup Polls, 45 percent called themselves "pro-life" in 2000, up from 33 percent in 1995.) And the number identifying themselves as being in favor of abortion rights has decreased (from 56 percent to 47 percent).
But the number of Americans who say the procedure should remain legal -- either across the board or under certain circumstances -- holds steady at near 80 percent. Young women appear to be more willing than their mothers' generation to explore the issue's complexities and their own misgivings, but they are not falling in line with conservative pressure to roll back Roe v. Wade.
So if young women aren't flocking to the women's movement, it isn't because they are against it. And if the activism of those who do consider themselves feminists has taken a decidedly nontraditional form, it isn't because they oppose feminism's traditional political positions. "Third Wave" feminism, however, is playful. It's tuned in to pop culture. It's ironic. Third Wave activists have reclaimed stereotypically feminine toys -- knitting, the color pink and Barbie dolls, for instance -- from the Second Wave trash heap. They've set out to strip formerly taboo words of their misogynistic trappings: The word "girl" has made a comeback; magazines are called Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and Bust: For Women Who Have Something to Get Off Their Chests; Inga Muscio penned a book praising female anatomy and titled it Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. Even more than the Second Wave, the Third Wave has created feminist porn, feminist hip-hop and feminist spoken-word poetry in its efforts to explore the convergence of politics and art.
Some critics have charged that young feminists today are dabbling in identity politics and nail polish instead of working toward legislative change. But many young feminists seem to be active in other social movements -- doing environmental, racial-justice, anti-death penalty and/or anti-globalization work -- and they believe that in the process they are disbursing feminist ideas. It's an approach that may well reach and reflect a more diverse population than Second Wave feminism, which has so often been criticized for being primarily a middle-class, white women's cause.
Young women and men have "internalized feminism too much, thankfully, to swing too far from it," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who is writing a book titled The 'F' Word: How Women Are Redefining Sex, Power and Politics in America. But she also poses an important question: Do young women realize that the opportunities to be who we want to be, sexually and in other ways, and the self-sufficiency to enjoy the ironies of pop culture were won by political action -- and may have to be defended that way? "If we don't engage electorally," Rowe-Finkbeiner asks, "will we [remain] able to create our own identities?"
There are reasons to suspect that young women are figuring this out. Even Natalie, though still put off by unpleasant associations with the word "feminism," has signed up to take a women's studies class this fall. "As a woman," she says, "I just want to know where some of these rights have come from."
And who knows? If feminism faces a fight, perhaps at the center of those riding to its rescue will be its greatest beneficiaries, the young women who may be ambivalent, dismissive or unaware of the movement now but who have grown up enjoying its gains -- and know the power of taking a "bad word" and making it one's own.
They're our latest superheroes, expertly coiffed and outfitted, ready to blaze a path of good hygiene and high fashion through the Animal Houses of America. Grooming guru Kyan Douglas, fashion maven Carson Kressley, food expert Ted Allen, interior designer Thom Filicia and "culture vulture" Jai Rodriguez are the gay miracle workers on Bravo TV's new series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Otherwise known as the "Fab 5," they barrel into a different straight guy's home each week to perform a brilliant, bitchily witty exorcism of their victims' pleated pants, prune butter, nose hair and nasty underpants, just in time for some special event like a wedding proposal. It's too bad that they can't clean up the god-awful mess that airs just one hour before, that dating-show monstrosity known as Boy Meets Boy.
Bravo TV debuted its two queer-themed shows within weeks of each other, with Queer Eye arriving first. Boy Meets Boy, the first gay dating show ever, was originally conceived as a Bachelor-esque trifle starring one eligible "leading man" who would choose a boyfriend from among 15 suitors. But the producers began worrying that a show featuring only gay people couldn't hold a wider audience, so they decided to add a twist: A number of the suitors would actually be straight, and if one straight man could fool the leading man into selecting him, the "gay-acting" straight man could win $25,000. No one else (the leading man, the other potential boy toys) -- except the audience, of course -- would know. After each contestant is booted, the producers tell us his sexual orientation.
The twist has angered many, including leading man James, a 32-year-old executive. He learned of the producers' deception only partway through the series. "They told me they put the twist in there because they wanted straight people to watch," he told MSNBC. "I said to them, 'Well, you've played gay people as entertainment for straight people. Of course they're going to watch.'"
Indeed, the presence of a straight man seems to offer an excuse for heterosexual viewers to test out their "gaydar," their ability to discern queer from straight. The producers flatter themselves in the show's intro by touting Boy as an edifying show that creates "a world where gay is the norm and straight men must stay in the closet. . . . Will boundaries be crossed? Can stereotypes be shattered?" As if the show's contrivances can undo power dynamics and norms in an instant, or become anything more than a crass guessing game -- one that "trivializes what gays and lesbians are forced to go through every day," one of my friends recently remarked. "In 36 states in this country," he added, "it's legal to fire someone based on his or her sexual orientation. On this show, role-playing is done for 'fun' or for a cash prize -- the opposite of what a community has to do to even survive, to avoid the risk of being fired or even gay bashed."
This dichotomy is heartbreakingly illustrated by suitor Jason, a shy, heavy-lidded young man who is also a combat systems instructor for the military. That's right: Don't ask, don't tell. And when Jason's sexual orientation is revealed at the end of the show, he's effectively told the whole damn world. What will become of him? Will the U.S. military drop-kick him right out of a job? None of the other suitors, or the mimbo that is James, seems to have noticed or cared that Jason might be committing career immolation right in front of them. His decision to come out is extraordinary -- especially in contrast to the rest of this deceptive show. Here we have a gaggle of straight men with everything to gain by lying through their gay minstrel act -- and a gay man who has everything to lose because of his astonishing, honest insistence on being exactly who he is. Well, maybe that's not exactly right. Perhaps some shame would come along with the prize money. And maybe Jason will lose his job, no small problem, but gain something priceless. As he said of a young man's limited prospects in his native Mississippi, "That was the only real way out for me, to join the military." Perhaps appearing on Boy is his way out -- in more ways than one -- of an escape hatch that led nowhere.
Some have argued that the Fab 5 of Queer Eye should break out as well -- from the stereotype of the hysterical, prissybritches, shopaholic gay man. The Fab 5 are indeed fabulous. But isn't it disturbing to have this stereotype, "positive" though it may be, stand in for a diverse population? Is the Fab 5 anything other than hilariously bitchy and culturally on point? I personally feel delivering cultural shrewdness with a soupçon of snark is a lofty and laudable goal, but concede the validity of the question. Are gay men just the comic relief, the zany, artistic freakshows straight people bring home to make their lives aesthetically pleasing -- and remove before the gay folks start doing something aesthetically displeasing, like talking about their rights or kissing one another? Is the Fab 5 the new queer help?
Queer Eye did seem to flirt with these problems at the beginning. The Fab 5's members were nearly indistinguishable at first, emitting nonstop shrieked quips and throwing around a mind-boggling array of "product." "Whoa, nelly!" critics cried. But as the series has developed, each expert is bringing his own knowledge and delightful personality to the show. The "Jack factor" (of Will and Grace's over-the-top Jack) is mostly confined to hilarious fashion expert Carson Kressley, for whom the world is a scratching post. "Do you get all your clothes at Home Depot?" he asks innocently. On seeing a girlfriend's trashy outfit, Kressley snaps, "There's a hooker in Trenton who wants her shoes back."
The others are more recognizably human (if exceptionally handsome). Kyan Douglas displays a warm compassion, urging one man to donate hair to a charity that makes wigs for sick children. As the interior designer, Thom Filicia gets a bit frazzled by his daunting work. Upon surveying one mountain man's house, he announces, "It's like a kitchen hell in here. . . . It looks, actually, like you're nuts." Then he turns it into a chic, livable space. Jai Rodriguez is sprightly if underused, assisting with the social niceties, and Ted Allen offers whole menus for the straight guy to make -- some of which are sadly out of touch with the less highfalutin' diners.
"They hate my foie gras," Allen moans, as guests choke down their canapés.
Allen blew $150 on the liver alone, which raises another issue: the innumerable product placements, the insane spending sprees required to transform the frog princes and the seeming conflation of good (gay) taste with rampant consumerism.
"Hmm," said my straight male viewing companion, rubbing his improperly shaved face. "I'll do it. I would love to have all that nice stuff, but I don't have enough money. They pay for everything, right?
Although the money the makeover artists seem to spend is indeed rather shocking, they take care to enhance whatever sartorial, culinary or cultural strengths their hapless straight victims might have. "It's not a makeover show," Douglas has said. "It's a make better show." This is no gay My Fair Lady, with a brutal takeover of someone's identity. No, there's not enough time for that. Instead, the Fab 5 weaves its members' techniques in with each straight subject's lifestyle. "In keeping with his basic look and his basic attitude," marvels Douglas at one transformation. "But it's, again, with style."
Perhaps that's where Queer Eye finds some substance. The Fab 5's main goal isn't a tit-for-tat subjection of straight men to an oppressive, anonymous male gaze -- one with which gay men and straight women alike are too often familiar. No, the experts are trying to improve a man's relationship to his family and, more often than not, to his wife or serious girlfriend. "Where's Lisa going to fit in?" asks Douglas, reminding straight guy Tom that he has to think of his girlfriend's needs if he's going to ask her to move in. Kressley adds, "Make a space for Lisa, not just in your heart but in your home." The scene then cuts to designer Filicia, who's hurling an atrocious piece of furniture out the door.
It's a little wrenching to watch gay men -- so often maligned by conservatives as immoral, commitment-phobic, sex-crazed affronts to nature and marriage -- act as raunchy, hilarious fairy godmothers and relationship counselors to commitment-seeking straight people, and with such genuine warmth. Family values, indeed. In the last episode, the team's members threw themselves into their most ambitious project: helping a young man craft a marriage proposal, down to every perfect candle, orchid and jaw-dropping dessert. Straight guy John, sitting with his benefactors in the lush, Moroccan-themed tent where he would propose, was overcome. Adam's apple bobbing, he ducked his head as the team patted him comfortingly. "Oh my God, it's all right, don't cry, we're glad you like it," the experts soothed. John raised his head and his wineglass and said, "To all you all." It was a lovely moment, a recognition of the gay men's efforts and emotional investment, a realization that the Fab 5 had become inextricably intertwined with -- indeed, had made possible -- one of the most significant events in his life.
As for the actual proposal, the experts watched it unfold on a TV in their chic "loft." The men were breathless, fanning themselves, holding hands. And when girlfriend Tina struggled out a "yes," they screamed and jumped up in delight. The moment would prove cruelly ironic not 12 hours later, when President Bush declared his opposition to gay marriage with the announcement that his lawyers were drafting legislation strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This came after news of a growing backlash against gay rights, perhaps prompted by the recent Supreme Court ruling against a Texas anti-sodomy law, or, conservatives speculated, the increased visibility of queer people in culture and entertainment.
So the five men who had wholeheartedly orchestrated this elaborate marriage proposal would face the possible banning of their own potential unions, just a day after their show aired. Perhaps they wouldn't want to get married, perhaps they would reject it. But social conservatives want to make sure that they, and every other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered person, won't even have the chance to choose.
In the end, the show has situated its dream team somewhere between servants and superheroes. The team watches the success of its efforts from another room, not privy to reaping the benefits firsthand. The Fab 5 lives in a gay world, coming to straights' rescue when summoned. The opening sequence has each of the men, living on Gay Street, snapping open his cell phone to reveal the glowing Queer Eye insignia. It's a straight-guy emergency! As the team struts down Straight Street, the men are magically transformed. "You came into my life / and my world never looked so bright," goes the techno song on the soundtrack. And it's true: The Fab 5 players work with a scathing yet warm professionalism that is a joy to behold. But at the end of the day, must they return to their Batcave, their chic servants' quarters? Perhaps they want each protégé to shine on his own. Perhaps they prefer the "gay world" of the loft, with its tasteful decor and brightly colored cocktail drinks. This is all fine and good. But deliberately boxing them out of full access to all the rooms in the "straight" house is not. After their work banishing the horrors from straight men's closets, it seems especially wrong to ask the dream teamers to adjourn to theirs.
After all, though Queer Eye has its historical "adversaries" meeting in a safe, product-swaddled world, there's no mistaking the goodwill, camaraderie and respect that the show's participants feel toward one another by the end. The men bond over the intimacies that only fast friends share -- handling skanky undergarments, hugging enthusiastically, forcing one another to try on hideous outfits. (Yes, it cuts both ways. Straight guy Tom made Kressley put on an embarrassing swimsuit.) There's a "we are family" vibe, a feeling of interconnection that is only heightened at moments like John's tearful toast and the Fab 5's joy over his proposal. Sure, the show presents a cartoony little utopia -- but it's a half-subversive one. Underneath the makeover veneer and the celebration of straight families is the suggestion of something else: the possibility of new friendships and the realization that with freedom, family can take many forms. As Kyan Douglas might say, it's our world, only better.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor. She saw Kyan Douglas walking down the street in New York two weekends ago but was so starstruck that she froze like a bunny in the headlights.
Cable channel FX has decided to give professional life -- as shown on TV -- a makeover. Literally. FX wasn't about to trot out any of the old gray mares of workplace shows -- the comforting cops-n-lawyers format of "Law & Order," the faux drama of "ER"'s doctors, the ludicrous hysterics pumped into "The Practice" to make lawyering look sexy. Instead, the characters on FX's newest show are practitioners of that most au courant of professions: plastic surgery.
"Nip/Tuck," which is a drama, comes on the heels of a slew of makeover-themed reality shows -- make over your face, body and house, thereby making over your whole life! -- that have only grown more garish with each new incarnation. The front-runner in this category is currently ABC's "Extreme Makeover," which takes normal humans and turns them into anatomically enhanced mannequins or facsimiles of plastic talk-show hosts and toothpaste-commercial actors by dint of nose, boob, jaw and cheek jobs. Name a body part and there's a job to be done with it.
The makeover show takes that most American of pastimes -- personal transformation -- and turns it into family entertainment. Our nation's fondness for presto change no doubt has to do with our history as both a frontier country and a uniquely mobile society: In America, at least in theory, you can just discard your old identity and create yourself anew -- if you have the drive, the inclination and the ruthlessness. No collective community memory to thwart; no fuss, no muss.
As the hapless Dr. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) of "Nip/Tuck" reminds us, external change is just one part of the process. "For 10 years I've been consumed with transforming other people,'' he rants. ''Starting today, I'm transforming myself!" It's all very Dr. Phil, and perhaps that's the point. In its nasty, messy drama of two plastic surgeons, "Nip/Tuck" wants to tell us just how sad our Oprah-ized culture is, just how self-absorbed we all are and just how brilliant the show is to choose the metaphor of plastic surgery to cut into the vacuous heart of upwardly mobile American malaise.
"Nip/Tuck" punctuates this social message with images of ass-implant surgery and liposuctions gone explosively awry, as if throwing gobs of fat at the audience will drive home just how ugly our self-improvement culture has become.
The show works best when it steps down from its gore-n-glam pulpit and lets its characters out of the tight confines of stereotype. Dr. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) is the dashing, amoral rake who seduces beautiful young women, marks up all the flaws on their bodies and sends them screaming to the operating room. McNamara is his partner -- emotionally deadened, morally conflicted and about to lose his furious, desperate wife (Joely Richardson), who wants breast implants to put the spark back in their marriage. As the show's frustrated moral conscience, McNamara gets saddled with lines like, "We let people externalize the hatred they feel for themselves," while Troy runs around schmoozing, having loud sex and hitting on McNamara's wife.
Thankfully, when "Nip/Tuck" goes beneath the surface of its own plastic-surgery conceit -- when McNamara shows a cold-blooded competency in taking care of a nasty problem, when Troy reveals hidden darkness under his too-perfect smile -- the show finds some complexity. Richardson makes the show crackle with tension every time she's onscreen; with every glance she conveys her character's despair and the bitterness of dreams deferred.
The show shouldn't abandon its gimmick entirely, of course, but it should find something else to flay besides such straw-man statements as, "When you stop striving for perfection, you might as well be dead." Why not probe deeper into the truly complicated issues surrounding plastic surgery? How about dealing with the complex notion of people of color "deracinating" their appearance? Or the rhetoric of empowerment that increasingly surrounds women's decisions to operate? Or a male character who has insecurities about anything other than his penis? (Lots of penis anxiety here, even in just the first episode.)
As for our merry doctors, why do they want to perform plastic surgery anyway? Their midlife crises have them foundering, but one wonders what first drew them to the profession. During commercial breaks, I toggled over to "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and watched five gay men with impeccable taste mold helpless straight schlubs into handsome men. There was a clear sense of Pygmalion joy, a sort of creator chemistry that enlivened the show. Do the more extreme makeover artists of "Nip/Tuck" feel any such happiness? Or anything besides guilt and avarice?
FX has billed its series as a "disturbingly perfect new drama." "Nip/Tuck" is far from that. But if the show stops trying to disturb viewers with gory visions and quits struggling to perfect its relentless messages and pat characterizations, it could be better than perfect. It could be human -- warts and all.
Noy Thrupkaew is an American Prospect contributing editor.
The Iranian regime has its visions of Iran, which it expresses in public art that hangs above Tehran's traffic-snarled streets: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the thunderous-browed father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, scowls down from a giant mural; young men who perished in the eight-year war with Iraq, barely bearded, gaze out from their martyrs' fields of painted red tulips; protesters throw rocks at an Israeli flag; a Statue of Liberty sports a skull for a head; more mullahs, more martyrs. We Americans have our visions of Iran, too: seething crowds besieging the U.S. embassy, fanatical women in chadors. For us, the images add up to a nation with which we have no official diplomatic relations, only bitter words.
To hear her tell it, Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi is doing battle with these images -- the ones produced by both the United States and Iran. Her ammunition? The memoir of her childhood, Persepolis, a "comic," as she calls it, that tells the story of her coming of age during the violent birth of the Islamic Republic. She eschews the stereotypes Americans find so familiar (mullahs and chador-clad women) and replaces them with complex portraits of the government's unknown victims and her own defiant, progressive mother. Above all, Persepolis details the adolescence of a young Iranian girl -- rebellious, fiercely intelligent and furious at the hypocrisy of a revolution that promised freedom and delivered tyranny.
Iran is full of many such girls now, said Satrapi, from her Washington hotel room last month. Indeed, young women form a significant part of the pro-democracy protests that have rocked Iran's cities all this week; nearly 70 percent of Iran's population is under 30, and many of these children of the revolution have turned against it. As for why the protests have erupted, Persepolis, in chronicling the revolution from its bloody beginning, suggests ample answers.
Satrapi introduces herself to readers as Marji, a precocious child who's sure that God, a benevolent white-haired, amorphous figure with whom she has bedtime conversations, has selected her as Islam's next prophet. As the story unfolds, Marji's sense of injustice spurs her on: Worried about her grandmother's knees and ashamed of her father's Cadillac and their maid, she decrees in her "holy book" that no old people should suffer, everyone should have a car and maids should eat at the table with everyone else.
What happens when such a child hears of the terrors of the shah's rule? She wants to join the revolutionary protests. When the British- and U.S.-supported leader flees at last, Marji and her family rejoice -- until things begin to go terribly wrong. Chadors come out, schoolchildren are separated by gender and former political prisoners, released after the toppling of the shah's regime, begin dying mysterious deaths. Even the young aren't spared: Marji meets an innocent teenager who is targeted and executed for her communist beliefs.
Marji's exceptional family provides a buffer of sorts. The little girl is the great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Iran; her parents are privileged, intellectual Marxists who give their daughter a comic book on dialectic materialism. "It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked like each other," Marji muses in the book. "Though Marx's hair was a bit curlier." But soon neither Marx nor God can spare Marji the toll the regime will take on her life, transforming her into a dangerously outspoken young woman.
Persepolis beautifully captures the quality of childhood memories -- the misperceptions and misunderstandings of overheard conversations, the moments of piercing clarity into adults' hypocrisy and deception. Satrapi depicts the growing darkness of the Islamic regime in rich, inky black-and-white drawings, a style critics have called faux-naïf. "I don't have any faux-naïf style," Satrapi responds. "I cannot do any better than that!" Nevertheless, some of her drawings reflect the perspectives and styles seen in Persian miniatures and the friezes on Iran's ancient ruins -- a potent combination when paired with the emotional immediacy of her high-contrast images. Satrapi has also drawn her adult self for the back flap of Persepolis -- a figure clad in all black, cigarette in hand -- a striking likeness of the woman Marji has grown up to be, a self-defined "representative of the axis of evil."
"It is not to send myself flowers," Satrapi tells me, laughing, "but I have a sense of justice." The child who rebelled against the Iranian regime now finds fault with U.S. foreign policy; it's not clear which she wants to discuss more, her book or her views on the United States. "How can you talk about human rights and democracy and support China and Saudi Arabia?" she asks. Democracy in Afghanistan? "It's just the same people running the country; they just shaved their beards. Democracy is not a matter of a razor and shaving cream."
Sitting in a cloud of smoke, puffing, gesturing with an ever-present cigarette, clad in a black shawl, black sweater, black blouse, black skirt, black tights, black shoes and black liquid eyeliner, Satrapi says she opposes the war on Iraq, too. The young Iranian boys who strode across Iraqi minefields armed with nothing but a golden "key to paradise" around their necks, she says -- are they really so different from the young U.S. soldiers with green cards who died in Operation Freedom, and then got their citizenship?
I pause to think, but Satrapi has moved on in a flood of rapid-fire, French-accented English, dark eyes flashing as she punctuates her most passionate statements with laughter and cigarette smoke. She speaks five languages. (Persepolis ends with her parents sending her to boarding school in Austria, out of fear of the trouble her outspokenness might bring at home). She studied illustration in Strasbourg and Tehran, and now lives in France, where she is working on a sequel that will detail her years in Austria. Satrapi says she wrote Persepolis to humanize her homeland and to depict the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary Iranians; she worked in the comic form to bring humor, but also precision, to her book. Without the illustrations, Satrapi says, readers would think that her mother wore a chador all the time. She snorts.
The "axis of evil" branding rankles in particular. When Satrapi arrived in the United States for her book tour, she was detained at the airport, photographed and questioned for over an hour and a half. One security official heckled her over the pronunciation of Iran -- "Why do you call it Ee-ran? Not Eye-ran?" After her ordeal, she fainted "like a lady from the 19th century."
Satrapi often turns her critical eye on herself. In her book, she contrasts the exploding bodies of poor Iranians sent to die in the Iraqi War with her attendance at a punk-rock party -- well-off children jumping around, Marji in a sweater her mother knitted full of holes. Even in her hotel room, that finely tuned awareness of inequality never leaves her. "You can call me Alexis," she says, shaking her head in dismay. "This is the room of Joan Collins [the actress who portrayed the glamorous, malignant Alexis] in Dynasty," she declares, jumping up and gesturing at the elaborate trappings of the hotel room her publisher has reserved for her. "I can check my e-mail on my bed, my God." With that, we raid the minibar for juice.
But it is when Satrapi discusses Iran-U.S. relations that she becomes the most animated. She still despises the regime, one that keeps much of the oil-rich country in poverty, jails journalists, deems women unequal to men and operates under a constitution that hampers the efforts of reformers at every turn. Nevertheless, she believes there's hope for Iran -- if the United States doesn't interfere. Most analysts, conservative and progressive, would agree with Satrapi's claim that Iran's young people are the strongest forces for change. She breaks with American neoconservatives, however, in her insistence that the United States should not foment "regime change" in Iran. Instead, she says, America should allow war- and revolution-weary Iranians to push for their own, slower evolution. This, she argues, would lead to more permanent reform than the lightning bolt of revolution ever could.
The change could be years in coming. "Do you think it gives me pleasure to talk about an evolution?" Satrapi asks. "Evolution takes such a long time that I might never see my country free; I might die before that. But I don't care, because there's an after me also, and I want my kids and the kids of my kids to see their country free." Resistance is necessary, if absurd. "Of course I want to change the world," she says, "and of course it is idiotic."
In the early panels of Persepolis, God appears frequently, a white mass with Marji swaddled in his embrace. This is before the horrors of the revolution forced her to drive God away. In the scene where Marji does so, her small, angry figure stands on her bed, in tears, pointing at the door. Did God ever come back to visit her again? Satrapi pauses. "No, never," she says at last. Her passionate voice is muffled, and she falls momentarily silent for the first time. "Never," she says again. "You know. When you know that a 17-year-old girl can get executed just because she thought differently from the other ones, then you stop believing in a divine justice." Her voice low, Satrapi is speaking not only of herself but of the young people battling the Iranian regime today. "And you say, then, the justice should come from you," she says. "You should make this justice. No above power, no one else, can do it for you."
Noy Thrupkaew is a contributing editor at the American Prospect.
The unveiling took place amid the giddy whirl of an all-star production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" on Feb. 10, 2001. Raucous merriment had come and gone: Ensler conducted a chorus of ecstatically groaning celebrities, Glenn Close urged the audience to reclaim the c-word by yelling it at the top of its lungs. Then Oprah Winfrey recited Ensler's latest monologue, "Under the Burqa," and a hush fell over the crowd as Oprah exhorted its members to "imagine a huge dark piece of cloth / hung over your entire body / like you were a shameful statue." As the piece wound to a close, a figure in a burqa ascended to the stage. Oprah turned and lifted the head-to-toe shroud.
Voila! There stood Zoya, a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the group of 2,000 Afghan women who had seized the West's imagination with ferociously anti-fundamentalist rhetoric, secret footage of Taliban atrocities and clandestine schools and hospitals for Afghan girls and women. Center stage, Zoya delivered a fiery speech about the oppression of Afghan women and RAWA's ongoing resistance to the Taliban regime. Eighteen thousand people leaped to their feet, and New York City's Madison Square Garden rang with cheers.
RAWA has always had a flair for the dramatic, and this appearance was no exception. It was pure, delicious theater: the stark words, the ominous, oppressive burqa and the "hey presto" transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem. The unveiling also captured part of RAWA's appeal to American feminists, as it let the audience appreciate the friction between the image of silenced Afghan women and the brand of outspoken feminism that RAWA espouses.
Although the Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based group was founded in Kabul in 1977, RAWA didn't receive worldwide recognition until U.S. feminist campaigns for Afghan women's rights hit their stride in the late 1990s. After September 11, the attention only intensified. Hundreds of articles and two books chronicled RAWA's struggle, the group's burqa-clad members spoke across the United States and, at one point, a flashing banner reading "Welcome, Oprah viewers!" greeted visitors to RAWA's Web site.
But is a group that is inspirational in the United States effective in Afghanistan? With its confrontational, no-holds-barred language and allegiance to a secular society, RAWA reflects much of the Western feminist community's own values -- a fact that has earned RAWA strong support in the West but few friends in a strongly Muslim country weary of political battles and bloodshed. Similarly, part of RAWA's allure, for Ensler at least, has been its militant, radical, "uncompromising" nature, as Ensler told Salon.com in November 2001. But this quality has a dark side. RAWA has denounced numerous other Afghan women's groups as insufficientlly critical of fundamentalism. It has also publicly attacked prominent Afghan women activists -- some of whom have in turn raised questions about RAWA's own political connections. As a result, Afghan women's nongovernmental organizations and Afghan feminist expatriates have expressed concern about a radical, lone-wolf organization garnering so much Western attention. In Afghanistan's slow, painful shift from war to nation building, they say, perhaps the country needs stronger support for voices of coalition building rather than for those advocating solitary revolution.
To understand the nature of RAWA's partnership with Western feminists, it helps to return to the starting point for U.S. feminist activism on Afghan women's rights: the Feminist Majority's "Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan." Although the campaign has come under fire for a few alleged missteps -- some critics have charged it with focusing too much on the burqa as a symbol of victimhood -- the Feminist Majority's project has earned widespread praise for mobilizing grass-roots support and scoring significant U.S. political victories for Afghan women's rights.
After the Taliban militia seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, the Feminist Majority's staff began noticing "one-inch Associated Press clips that women couldn't go out unattended, couldn't gather, wear noisy shoes, white socks," according to Eleanor Smeal, the Feminist Majority's executive director. Shocked by these reports and by news that the Taliban had denied countless women access to work, health care and education, Feminist Majority staff consulted with the U.S. State Department and Afghan women activists in the United States before launching their campaign in 1997. Through a series of petitions, protests, celebrity fundraisers and political negotiations, the Feminist Majority played a significant role in the 1998 refusal by the United Nations and the United States to grant formal recognition to the Taliban. Its next pressure campaign helped push U.S. energy company Unocal out of a $3 billion venture to put a pipeline through Afghanistan, which would have provided the Taliban with $100 million in royalties. Within three years of launching the campaign, the Feminist Majority and its allies had also improved U.S. refugee policy toward Afghanistan, set up support for Afghan schools for girls and pushed through increases in emergency aid.
RAWA was only one of about 240 U.S. and Afghan women's groups the Feminist Majority contacted over the course of its campaign. But when the Feminist Majority invited RAWA to its Feminist Expo 2000, the campaign helped catapult the Afghan group into the spotlight. Dispatches from the exposition, a conference of 7,000 feminists from around the world, invariably mentioned the RAWA delegates' powerful speeches and passionate conviction. RAWA had officially caught the eye of the feminist world.
Ensler, too, played a vital role in bringing RAWA to the U.S. public's attention. After seeing RAWA's Pakistan-based orphanages and schools, where little girls were "being brought up as revolutionaries," Ensler became "completely smitten by [RAWA]" and decided to help, she told Salon.com. "V-Day," Ensler's worldwide campaign to eradicate violence against women through performances of "The Vagina Monologues," awarded RAWA $120,000 in 2001 and a similar grant in 2002.
Nothing, however, drew attention to the plight of Afghan women like the aftermath of September 11. The Feminist Majority and RAWA were soon deluged with calls from the media. Smeal was quoted in countless articles; RAWA was so overwhelmed that members had to decline interview requests. RAWA's secret footage of public hangings and shootings, captured on video cameras hidden under its members' burqas, aired over and over on Saira Shah's Beneath the Veil documentary, which was in heavy rotation on CNN. Oprah viewers sent more digital cameras than RAWA could use, while poems from Western women imagining themselves under the burqa choked the group's Web site. The site also featured numerous songs, including one about RAWA's martyred founder written by the women's rock band Star Vomit. In short, RAWA became "the darling of the media and the feminists," recalls Illinois State University women's studies director Valentine M. Moghadam.
September 11 brought both the Feminist Majority and RAWA new momentum. The Feminist Majority purchased Ms. Magazine and published a special insert on its Afghanistan campaign to introduce itself to Ms. readers. Along with coalition partners Equality Now, the National Organization for Women and Ensler, the project, renamed the Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls, pushed for an expansion of security forces beyond Kabul and an increase in funding to the interim government and women-led NGOs. RAWA continued to raise funds for its schools and hospitals and went on speaking tours around the world. Both organizations were busy but productive, blessed with a resurgence of public interest and largely positive media attention.
And then came the letter.
On April 20, 2002, a U.S.-based RAWA supporter posted an open letter to Ms. on RAWA's listserv. It would later appear all over the Internet -- on Middle Eastern studies' listservs and feminist online communities. Written by Elizabeth Miller from Cincinnati, the letter called Ms. Magazine the "mouthpiece of hegemonic, U.S.-centric, ego driven, corporate feminism." Miller proceeded to take the Feminist Majority to task for failing to mention the work of RAWA in its Ms. Magazine insert; it also charged the organization with ignoring the atrocities Afghan women suffered under the current U.S. allies in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance. Even worse, the letter continued, was the Feminist Majority's support for the work of Sima Samar, then Afghanistan's interim minister of women's affairs. Miller claimed that Samar was "a member of the leadership council of one of the most notorious fundamentalist factions Hezb-e Wahdat [the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan]."
Asked about the letter, Smeal chuckles, then sighs. "The idea [behind the insert] was to introduce us by one of our campaigns," she says. Part of the insert's role was to tell "the pre-September 11, U.S. feminist story behind the campaign," according to Jennifer Jackman, the Feminist Majority's director of research. That story necessarily highlighted the unsung work of UN feminists, the two women appointed to the interim Afghan government and Afghan expatriate activist Sima Wali. The omission of RAWA was not political, Smeal insists. "We felt everyone knew RAWA," she said.
As for the letter's allegation that the Feminist Majority had not spoken out against the Northern Alliance, Smeal's own words to the media discount that. "The Northern Alliance is better than the Taliban toward women, but they are still not good," Smeal told me shortly after September 11. "We have to think beyond wartime, and we can't call some crowd 'freedom fighters' if they're not."
But the allegation against Samar was the most disturbing and difficult to dismiss. Human Rights Watch has charged Hezb-e Wahdat, a largely Hazara group, with taking part in reprisals against Pashtun civilians in northern Afghanistan. Some probing, however, finds little evidence that Samar has anything to do with Hezb-e Wahdat. Rather, what comes to light is a pattern of RAWA-led smear campaigns against other Afghan women who rise to prominence.
A strongly outspoken advocate for women's rights and a former RAWA member herself, Samar seems an unlikely member of Hezb-e Wahdat, although she is Hazara. Samar is renowned for her nonprofit group Shuhada, which operates hospitals and schools for girls throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. In light of her women's work, the allegation of Samar's affiliation with a fundamentalist group is "baseless," says Jackman, especially considering the recent ultraconservative attacks that effectively prevented Samar from being reappointed to her position as women's affairs minister.
The Hezb-e Wahdat allegation surfaced throughout RAWA's interviews with the press, and also in a series of e-mails that a RAWA supporter named Sarah Kamal sent to Afghan expatriate activist Zieba Shorish-Shamley and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, a Canadian organization that planned to award Samar a human-rights award in 2001. (The e-mails also included attacks against Fatana Gailani, executive director of the Afghanistan Women's Council and a four-time humanitarian-aid award winner for her work on behalf of Afghan refugees.) After conducting an investigation, the president of the organization wrote a letter dismissing the charges and lauding Samar's humanitarian work. Backed by Amnesty International research, the Canadian group found that Samar had set up schools and hospitals in Hazarajat, a Hezb-e-Wahdat-controlled area, and it concluded that "it would have been inevitable for Dr. Samar to be in touch with leaders of this party to facilitate her work. Contact with party officials is a common feature of humanitarian activity throughout Afghanistan but does not amount to taking up the membership of the party." Bolstered by references from organizations including the UN and the U.S.-based Afghan Refugee Information Network, the jury panel granted Samar the award.
As for Shorish-Shamley, she says she was initially supportive of RAWA but that her feelings changed when she saw the "vicious" nature of the accusations against Samar and Gailani. Shorish-Shamley shared an e-mail that she said RAWA wrote to Samar:
While our beloved land is being reduced for more than a decade to a pulp in the filthy claws of a handful of fundamentalist executioners ... and RAWA, as the sole anti-fundamentalists organization, is at a tough strife with the insane Taliban and Jehadi gangs, it sounds really illogical to discuss the 'fighting with each other' but we are committed to expose it, for you are no longer 'ours,' as it is long ago you have aligned yourself to the rank of the most traitorous enemies of our people. We, thereby, treat you as a leader of the fundamentalists' party; alas it is as a part of our struggle against fundamentalism.After continuing on for eight more vitriolic pages (" ... persons like Sima Samar enjoy the favor of the fundamentalist slaughterers") the letter ends with an absurdly polite postscript: "As I was busy with many other preoccupations, sorry that it took time to reply [to] your letter."
Not surprisingly, RAWA's letter offensives and the distrustful atmosphere in Afghanistan have fueled rumors about the group's own political ties. Azadi Afghan Radio has reported that RAWA is "alleged to be run by men who belong to the former Afghan Maoist (pro-Chinese Shohla Communist Party) group." Other rumors include RAWA's alleged connection to Pakistani intelligence or Mujahideen-e Khalq, a group the U.S. State Department deemed a terrorist organization in 1999. RAWA member Saba denies all accusations, saying, "When women ... are leading a movement, it is difficult for people to tolerate. They think politics is only something for men."
The allegations haven't slowed RAWA down much. As the only Afghan feminist organization with significant Western support, media access and an Internet presence, RAWA has remained productive and resilient. Nor have RAWA's accusers chosen tactics likely to scorch the earth. The Azadi Afghan Radio, which has ties to the Northern Alliance, was careful to praise RAWA's "courage," and it advised Western supporters to speak to Afghans and NGOs about RAWA before making up their minds about the group. Afghan expatriate activists Wali and Shorish-Shamley have fielded many complaints from Afghan NGOs about RAWA, but both women were initially reluctant to air the grievances they heard.
Many of RAWA's Western backers, in turn, remain unfazed by rumors of unsavory political connections. Ensler has denied RAWA's alleged Maoist ties, telling Salon.com, "I may not be the most thorough investigator -- that's why I'm not a journalist." Nonetheless, she said in the same interview, "I've become RAWA's greatest defender."
The Feminist Majority, however, was none too pleased with RAWA's role in lobbing accusations at other groups. "We really have problems with groups attacking each other," says Jackman. "There needs to be solidarity among women's organizations." The Feminist Majority has refuted RAWA's attacks, but not as a matter of "public debate" because "we have not wanted to engage in debate other than over what strategies are most effective. It's not our role to be passing judgment on groups," Jackman says.
Now that the Feminist Majority is focusing on nation building rather than on fighting the Taliban's oppression of women, RAWA has ceased in any case to represent the strategy in greatest demand. "They're not involved in the [push for] security, women's participation, reconstruction, working with a lot of different groups," says Jackman. Some Afghan and Afghan-expatriate feminists put a finer point on this concern. The ability to work with others, build coalitions and use tactics that are in keeping with the more moderate "Afghan norm," says Wali, are all crucial skills for making the transition from resistance to reconstruction -- and they are skills that RAWA seems to lack.
Navigating the factionalism and distrust of post-war Afghanistan would be a challenge for any political group, but the ground is clearly most fertile for one that is moderate and inclusive. Civil war, drought and interference from neighboring states have contributed to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion among Afghans, according to Neamat Nojumi, a Central and South Asian specialist and former mujahideen unit commander in the Soviet-Afghan war who is currently a United States Agency for International Development consultant. After years of Soviet occupation and wars among factions with extreme agendas, intimations of Maoist, Marxist or any overtly political agenda are terrifying for many Afghans, he says.
In this fragile environment, RAWA's perceived strengths -- the uncompromising, radically feminist quality that Ensler recognizes as that of a "kindred spirit" -- seem more like liabilities. As Ensler's quote attests, for many Western feminists, RAWA reflects a familiar yet glorified self-image: the fiery words, the clenched fists and protest signs, the type of guerilla feminism that seems unflinchingly brave. But to many Afghan women, RAWA's tactics look altogether too dangerous. Says Sayed Sahibzada, an Afghan United Nations Development Programme officer who has worked with more than 40 Afghan women-led NGOs, "I have not heard one group that goes along with RAWA. They say, 'If there is a RAWA participant [in a training], we are not going to participate.'" New York City's large Afghan-American population is similarly conflicted about the group. Masuda Sultan of Women for Afghan Women lauds RAWA's "long and committed history" of bravery. But she notes that "most Afghan women don't feel that RAWA represents them," because of the group's revolutionary rhetoric and alleged ties to Maoism.
RAWA has done little to build bridges. In addition to the campaign against Samar and Gailani, it has often shunned other women's groups. RAWA member Saba took issue with all the prominent Afghan and Afghan-American women I mentioned, saying that they had been part of the Northern Alliance, or the Soviet regime, or hadn't taken a strong stand against fundamentalism. This stance hasn't won over many Afghans: One activist calls RAWA the "Talibabes" because of its fiercely judgmental attitude.
But to effectively counter RAWA's perceived intolerance, opposing feminist groups need to build coalitions themselves. "I'm not trying to bring [RAWA] down. We have to work across political boundaries and viewpoints," says Wali. "They are one of the diverse voices of Afghan women." But RAWA's radical language and tactics, along with the strategies of some Western feminists -- such as Ensler, who brought "The Vagina Monologues" to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- "backfire on people like us," says Wali. "We are trying to influence the men, many of whom still have Taliban ideology, and they say, 'You are part of these extremists.' It's not time yet. We can't do something extreme and leave Afghan women to deal with it. [RAWA has] a very Westernized radical approach. They are revolutionary. The Afghan people are saying we don't need a revolution, we need a democracy."
Afghanistan may be closer now than ever to a day when voices such as RAWA's won't seem dangerously radical. But in the meantime, Western feminists need to support, fund and take their cues from the other "moderate ... diverse voices of Afghan women," and keep the pressure on their own governments, says Wali. This is something that even RAWA fan Ensler is beginning to do by working with Samar, contributing to other groups, and cosponsoring a summit for Afghan women -- over 50 participants convened in Brussels and created an agenda for the inclusion of women's rights in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The Feminist Majority has nurtured connections with Samar's Shuhada group, which kept open numerous clinics, hospitals and schools in the central part of Afghanistan despite the Taliban's restrictions, as well as with the Pakistan-based Afghan Women's Resource Center, among many other Afghan NGOs.
In their own way, these Afghan groups are themselves "revolutionary," says Jackman. "This is a place where giving a girl a book and a pencil is revolutionary." Equally revolutionary is the dedication "to sharing the same agenda," adds Jackman. Even women who were formerly "arch rivals" are working together, says Wali, and their willingness to reach across ethnic and political divides is an important step toward forging trust in the strife-torn country. "There are so many non-partisan Afghan community organizers and leaders," says Wali, "but no one hears them because they are trying to mend society. RAWA has a place in that society, but we need to sit down together -- especially with the dissenting, far-fetched voices -- and realize that we have a common agenda. ...We are waging a jihad of social justice and peace. We need to transcend our differences and work together -- that is the key to rebuilding Afghanistan."
Perhaps the first thing you notice about Vin Diesel is the bald head -- a great, shiny expanse that seems to go on forever. Like much else about the star of XXX, Diesel's head seems both larger than life and mysterious -- he keeps it shaved so cleanly that no one knows exactly how much hair he might have. No one knows what kind of hair he has, either -- kinky, straight as a stick, wispy fine? And minus that clue, it's hard to tell what ethnicity he might be -- which is just how Vin Diesel wants it.
It's only natural that this summer's breakout International Man of Mystery have a few secrets of his own. If Diesel had his druthers, the public wouldn't know anything about him, not even his real name (Mark Vincent). And they certainly wouldn't know his ethnic background, although speculation runs wild in magazines and on-line message boards, with most guesses tagging him as Italian and African-American.
Diesel has preferred to call himself "multicultural" for the most part or perhaps "Italian and a lot of other things," as in a Bet.com profile. "There's something cool about this kind of ambiguous, chameleon-like ethnicity," he told the website's reporter. That quality has allowed him to play a range of ethnicities -- from Italian American (Adrian Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan), to black (Richard Riddick in Pitch Black), to ethnically indeterminate (Chris Varick in Boiler Room and Xander Cage in XXX).
Along with The Rock -- a Samoan/African-American professional wrestler turned action movie star -- Diesel is being marketed as Hollywood's new superhero: a self-made man unconfined by racial categories. He seems to agree with the assessment.
"A man of color is being exposed to so many different opportunities," he told Bet.com, "Hopefully, it says something about my acting." But does Diesel's optimism about breaking through Hollywood's color barriers hold true for anyone but Diesel? And is his refusal to reveal his ethnic background tearing down outdated racial categories or merely putting him in the color closet?
Diesel isn't the first multicultural actor on the scene. Lou Diamond Phillips played a whole gamut of ethnicities: from Native American and Latino to Thai and Middle Eastern. Of Scottish, Irish, Cherokee, Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Spanish background, Phillips had the sort of versatile looks that got him plenty of work on the screen and stage.
Most biracial or multicultural actors don't have the luxury of playing so many different parts, however. Many play to one part of their background almost exclusively -- and the breakdown of roles and actors says much about how conceptions of race are configured in the United States.
In what seems to be Hollywood's version of the one-drop rule, the majority of multicultural actors who are part African-American play African-American characters, not biracial, white, or characters of different ethnicities. Halle Berry, Lisa Bonet and Shemar Moore, among many others, play African-American characters almost exclusively, although their heritage is multiracial. But the one-drop rule alone doesn't explain the casting -- these actors themselves often identify as black, not multiracial. In Berry's case, she has told numerous interviewers, her mother raised her to think of herself as black, because that is the way the world would see her.
Aside from a few exceptions like Kelly Hu and Lindsey Price, actors who are white and Asian, however, often wind up playing to their white background. Jennifer and Meg Tilly, Keanu Reeves and Kristin Kreuk, among others, play white characters -- and few seem to know about their non-white background. The same often applies for actors who are white and Latino, like Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Lynda Carter and Madeleine Stowe. Raquel Welch (Bolivian and white, according to mixedfolks.com) had passed for white for over 40 years in show business -- and she only recently came out as a Latina, not a biracial woman.
"I'm happy to acknowledge [being Latina] and it's long overdue and it's very welcome," she told the New York Times. "There's been kind of an empty place here in my heart and also in my work for a long, long time."
Multiracial actors seem to face difficult choices -- choices that almost never include the option to play multicultural characters. (One notable exception is Jennifer Beals' character in The Devil in the Blue Dress, in which Beals played a woman who was spurned because of her black and white heritage.) So is it better to identify with one's "colored" side and face pervasive Hollywood discrimination, be typecast in the roles of drug dealer, Vietnamese refugee, illegal immigrant? Or is it better to pass, and face the potential scorn of (and loss of dollars from) communities of color?
In light of these frustrating options, Vin Diesel's decision to label himself as ambiguously "multicultural" is less surprising, an attempt to turn what could be a detriment into a strength. Before he became an actor, Diesel directed and starred in a short film, entitled "Multi-Facial," about an actor who switches ethnicities at auditions -- trying to pass as Italian, Latino and African-American in an attempt to get work. After being turned down repeatedly, the discouraged actor plunks himself down in a diner, where a white woman orders a coffee that's "not too light, not too dark." Diesel used to see his mutable features as a disadvantage: "Being multicultural has gone from the Achilles' heel of my career to a strength," he told www.eonline.com.
What has aided this shift, he says, is that "the world has become this big melting pot, and I think people are ready for a hero who is more ambiguous." But Diesel has also benefited from other multiracial celebrities' attempts to raise awareness of being multicultural -- golfer Tiger Woods' is a prime example. When Woods told an Oprah audience that he had invented the term "Cablinasian" to describe his Native American, Thai, white and black backgrounds, he sent some African-American communities -- who viewed his action as an attempt to deny his blackness -- into an uproar. Diesel's refusal to comment on his ethnic background seems more potentially inflammatory than Woods' actions, yet the relative lack of controversy on his decision speaks volumes about the gradual acceptance of multiracial individuals.
As revolutionary as they may be for Hollywood, Diesel's notions about melting pot racial dynamics seem overly naive for the real world -- he's even gone so far as to name his production company One Race. Diesel has been able to remake himself in remarkable ways, professionally and ethnically. But the majority of actors don't enjoy this same ability, the freedom of po-mo perform-it-yourself ethnicity, nor do the majority of biracial individuals. Colorblindness, the ability to see only one race, is only an ideal so far, and not a reality. In this light, Diesel's refusal to reveal what his ethnic background is and claim a multiracial identity ultimately limits his ability to help break down color barriers for others. As long as his actions can be interpreted as attempts to pass, he is only a marketable Mr. Multicultural action figure, without the political clout to make greater change for others.
But this still is the real world we're talking about, one in which Mr. Multicultural is still better than Mr. Same Ol' White Dude Spy. Vin Diesel is the perfect guy to crash the action hero parade: XXX opens with Hollywood's ubiquitous Eurovampire bad guys offing a blond, tuxedoed spy in the whitest of arenas -- a Rammstein concert. Diesel's character, Xander Cage, who is taunted with the words "Do you speak English?" will eventually invade this lily-white party, and the Ivy League/British realm of the secret agent. The actor is doing the same in Hollywood -- and even if his "multicultural" success is only for himself at first, maybe other multiracial actors will eventually find their way alongside him.
Noy Thrupkaew is a fellow at the American Prospect.
"You know, you really should be looking for the next Arundhati Roy."
I plucked at the phone cord wrapped around my neck, sighed, and said, "Oh, absolutely."
It was 1998, and I was working at a publishing company that had just launched an imprint featuring "the writing of women of all colors." It was my internly task to call independent booksellers across the country to find out what and whom they thought we should publish. Their advice inevitably boiled down to variations on one response: "That Indian subcontinent is really hot. Oh, oops, do you say 'South Asia' now?"
"Nah, our customers don't really like stuff in translation. But have you read that Jhumpa ... "
Yes, yes, yes.
Literary brown ladies were the new new thing. Arundhati Roy's poetic, multilayered novel "The God of Small Things" had just garnered the Booker Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri would debut in 2000 with "Interpreter of Maladies," her collection of elegantly written short stories that went on to win a Pulitzer. But Roy and Lahiri were just the beginning of what was to become a craze for South Asian and South Asian-American women's writing.
Of course, this wasn't the first time the publishing world had found its newest darlings in female writers of color. And it wasn't the first time bookstores would create pretty displays of books by authors of a "hot" ethnicity, or the first time readers would strip those displays as neatly as ants eating a sandwich at a picnic. The early '90s saw an explosion of Latina narratives a la Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate." And Terry McMillan's success with "Waiting to Exhale" in the mid-'90s ushered in a rash of books in which middle-class black women griped about their no-'count men.
Color has become a marketing boon.
Interviewers probe into a writer's upbringing, seeking out ethnic factoids for a voracious public. Details about unusual foods, struggles with immigrant parents, and cultural oddities are all fair game. And in the case of attractive authors, whose images are emblazoned all over magazines and poster-size publicity photos, one can hardly be sure what is for sale anymore -- the "company" of a beautiful, exotic woman or the power of her words.
The Importance of Being Exotic
What is it that makes a certain ethnic genre hot? If I could nail that one down for sure, I'd be rolling around in a room filled with nothing but money. But one can hazard some guesses.
Many of the Asian-American and Latina books had lots of incense and spirits -- "ancient Asian wisdom" and religious tidbits, or mystical realism in the form of pissed-off ghosts and fantastic visions. They also featured nearly pornographic discussions of food; Isabel Allende's "Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses" even had recipes. The mystical stuff and the food seem to reflect the reasons why some white people are drawn to different cultures -- either in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment, or to exhibit their open-minded adventuresome selves by eating our food. Our cultures are tagged as "better" somehow -- closer to the earth, purer, more attuned to sensory pleasure -- but in nice, non-threatening ways, wrapped up neatly in fortune-cookie wisdom or duck tamales.
The doyenne, the matriarch, the empress dowager of all women-of-color literary trends is Amy Tan. The success of "Joy Luck Club" prompted a flood of Asian-American novels, whose "exotic" content was mirrored in their titles. Asian-American women's fiction titles often featured either: a) some nature-related motif to show that we are in touch with the elements (Gail Tsukiyama's "The Samurai's Garden," Mia Yun's "House of the Winds"), b) a familial relationship that displays how wonderfully traditional we are (Tan's "The Bonesetter's Daughter," "The Kitchen God's Wife"), c) or the number 100 or 1000 which demonstrates that we are an ancient, wise people fond of the fairy-tale trick of enumerating knowledge. (Yoshikawa's "One Hundred and One Ways," Tan's "The Hundred Secret Senses"). Some titles even double up on these themes, such as Mira Stout's "One Thousand Chestnut Trees."
Two other Asian-American mini-trends emerged in the late 90s. One comprised novels like Mei Ng's "Eating Chinese Food Naked" and Catherine Liu's "Oriental Girls Desire Romance." Instead of Tan's bickering kitchen wives, here were hard-bitten, angst-ridden Asian-American protagonists who had ostentatious sex by page 30. Hot-pants Asian books seemed to fulfill readers' appetites for sex that was extra-spicy for being ethnic.
But if Asian women weren't screwing, the publishing world wanted them suffering (and maybe bravely triumphing after they got themselves to the United States). The Asian historical memoirs were based on a simple formula: Asia was hell; the United States is a hell of a lot better. This is not to disparage the truly awful circumstances of many of the authors' lives. Being abandoned, purged, "reeducated," jailed, tortured, chased, hunted, raped, and/or nearly murdered in Cambodia, Vietnam, or China would leave scars on anyone's soul. But the Asian- hell-to-Western-heaven motif leaves a U.S. reader in a nicely complacent spot: reclining in a La-Z-Boy and thinking, "Well, thank god for America!"
Attack of the South Asian Women
Despite all the doom and gloom I've laid out so far, literary trends can be good for women writers of color. At least more voices are finding their way onto the store shelves; one can't protest the fact that Americans are expanding their reading horizons, or that female authors of color are receiving much-deserved attention. I'm not advocating a return to the color closet for authors -- why shouldn't ethnicity be ripe for novelistic exploration? And even if the books are published as part of a trend, they are often far from formulaic.
While "My Year of Meats" fits the multigenerational aspect of Asian- American women's writing, the tale of a feminist documentary filmmaker who uncovers the sordid underbelly of the U.S. meat industry is radically wonderful. And even the much-imitated The Joy Luck Club hit on something lasting and powerful -- the fierce, complicated love between mother and daughter.
So I tried to feel optimistic when the South Asian craze appeared in the late '90s. It became a juggernaut among ethnic trends, shaking the book world from top to bottom with the potent combination of crossover appeal and literary acclaim. The work of Indian women had been notably absent from our bookshelves. But now stores were suddenly flooded with it -- Kiran Desai's "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," Indira Ganesan's "Inheritance," Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Mistress of Spices," among others. The books and the attention they brought with them were especially welcome, considering that the modern Western literary realm was already a rich one for South Asian male writers like Vikram Seth, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie.
On the happy side, the books were generally wide-ranging in style and topic, some drawing on Raymond Carver more than Rushdie or Seth, others exploring the complexity of a diasporic identity. As much as one can generalize, these authors were writing some wonderful literature. And although the texts were often seen as part of a single, monolithic publishing identity, their styles and subject matters varied greatly, with a broader range than was usually present in a given ethnic trend.
Inevitably, however, I started to feel an itch of irritation. It wasn't just the spread of the craze and the concurrent cultural obsession with all things Indian -- something chafed beyond the sight of a Sanskrit-mangling Madonna, blotchy with, or the ubiquity of foul-tasting boxed chai. There were many other dark reasons why this infatuation annoyed as much as it pleased.
For one, there was the distasteful fawning over the authors' beauty: Roy was gushingly named one of People's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" in 1998. After her Pulitzer, Lahiri was crowned a "Woman We Love" in Esquire. There was the awful sameness of the booksellers' responses when asked about exciting female authors of color -- all South Asian this, Indian that.
And although most of these writers avoid the kind of mystical realism (also labeled as "Rushdie-itis"), some share a certain tinkling, quirky, food-based exoticism -- offering a tired roundup of the angst of arranged marriages, bitchy squabbles over whose chutneys and pickles are better than whose, and slobbery details about saris.
Perhaps the most egregious example is Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Kiran Desai's debut features Sampath, an affable dreamer who seeks to escape the hubbub of life by climbing into a tree. Unfortunately, he then finds himself besieged by crowds who claim he is a holy man. Riotous high jinks ensue -- drunken monkeys marauding through the village, Sampath's mother embarking on a mad quest to plunk a monkey into her curry, etc. This pleasant, pastoral, chutney-flavored fable is sort of entertaining, but Desai's characters are that easily dismissed brand of colorful, weird, and harmless; one can close the book and think fondly disparaging thoughts about their foreign little ways.
Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Punjabi-Canadian critic Phinder Dulai offered up a biting criticism of what he termed the Indo-North American novel: "In the North American-style Indian novel, the focus is on domestic family prattle while larger themes of migration, racism, caste and generational conflict are barely touched. When things get too hot, the characters can slip away to the kitchen or the pickle factory to cool off."
The Failure to Represent
While Dulai's attack on such gloppy romanticism is well-deserved, his critique also reveals trendification's double-edged sword: Readers of color can place as many restrictions on "their" writers as mainstream expectations can. Many do grapple with serious themes: Lahiri, for example, addresses the bloody creation and partition of Pakistan and India, poverty, harsh discrimination against women, and familial fractures. However, there is a certain amount of variation in any given literature -- is the onus of political seriousness necessarily greater for writers with brown skin?
Some would say it is: that if someone has made it past the gatekeeper of literary trends, they have a responsibility to speak for the people. When an author of color makes it big, he or she is sometimes viewed as the returned messiah, full of potential uplift but also heavy with the responsibility to take on all the experiences of the oppressed and relay them to the world in great tablets of wisdom. When the author reveals him- or herself to be a mere human telling a tale spun from one imagination, the crown of thorns is angrily snatched back, to be placed on the head of the next likely candidate to come along.
This sort of pressure is almost too much to bear: Who wants to be a sure-to-fail Jesus, dealing with the dashed expectations of a disappointed people? And critics of color often blame the wrong individuals. Those crushed hopes have more to do with the gatekeeping forces of literary cool than the power of any one author's pen. If there were truly more diversity in the literary realm, we wouldn't have to rely on only a handful of imaginations to represent us.
Another oft-heard criticism of immigrant literature is that it is not true to the motherland. It's part of the endless debate about the effects of diaspora on cultural identity -- and no one's going to win that fight. People have been waging it since kids first left their parents' homes. What boils down to arguments of purists/traditionalists against rebellious hybridists/iconoclasts ultimately makes for tiresome book reviews. Better questions might be: Is this author exoticizing her ethnicity? Is she just feeding the public more stereotypes of lotus- blossom ladies and guacamole-hipped mamas? If she's inaccurate or exceptionally critical or dewy-eyed in depicting the culture of her forebears, is it done in a way that suits the general public's fixed ideas? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then there's a problem. But if not, I'm happy to read South Asian-American novels for exactly what they are -- South Asian-American, with all the complications and richness that might arise from that hyphenated identity.
Then there's the final pitfall of being the darling of a literary trend: Stray from the pigeonhole into which you've been placed, and you can kiss your darlinghood goodbye. Two years after her People Beautiful Person crowning, Arundhati Roy cut off her long hair, telling the New York Times that she doesn't wish to be known as "some pretty woman who wrote a book." Instead of another work of fiction, she has since produced two books of essays, "The Cost of Living" and "Power Politics" and wholeheartedly thrown herself into activist work. But Roy's radical activism has received little support either in the U.S. or India. Critics who once lauded her have turned their backs: "One Indian intellectual compared Roy to Jane Fonda -- a celebrity troublemaker superficially grooving on cultural uproar," notes Joy Press in the Village Voice. For Western critics, her intense scrutiny of the World Bank and globalization marked her as just another famous face touting the political cause du jour.
Just as being too politically ethnic can make one unpopular, not being culturally ethnic enough can also bump a writer from the in crowd. Aspiring authors attending the South Asian Literary Festival in Washington, D.C., last year told stories of editors who declined their manuscripts because it didn't deal with traditional Indian life. Their works were, in essence, too American. In seminars sarcastically entitled "There Are No Poor or Huddled Amongst Us" and "No Sex Please, We Are South Asians," participants grappled with widening the diversity of South Asian and South Asian-American narratives appearing in the Western press.
Critic Amitava Kumar once wrote, "If immigrant realities in the U.S. were only about ethnic food, then my place of birth, for most Americans, would be an Indian restaurant." The language of cultural consumption is particularly apt here. At its worst, South Asian and South Asian-American writing is just like tasty Indian food -- to be chewed, digested, and excreted without a lot of thought. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps Americans, having tasted something delicious, will seek out books that outrage and challenge, narratives written from the diaspora or in translation that don't rely on bindis or kulfi to make their points.
In the meantime, South Asian and South Asian-American writers are making themselves at home on the New York Times bestseller lists and within literary-prize committee sessions -- but they have their eyes wide open. "I would be wary of the notion that South Asia is hip and can attract publishers," said Yale English professor Sara Suleri at the literary festival. "Those fashions come and die. Maybe in five years, we will be hunting for Tasmanian writers."
Maybe so, but maybe some readers will demand more, and writers will be able to find success while defying trendiness. Perhaps we can all wedge the door open a little more firmly, making room for stories that will last longer than a peel-off mehndi tattoo.
Noy Thrupkaew is a fellow at the American Prospect. Lamentably, she consumed no Indian foodstuffs while writing this piece. A version of this piece first appeared in Bitch Magazine.