the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, March 31, 2006

Girls Gone Wild

A recent essay in Time (posted to Time’s online magazine a week ago) entitled “The Myth about Girls Going Wild “ criticizes the prevalence of the “girls gone wild” stereotype, and particularly its association with Spring Break bacchanalia. Cox argues that an overly conservative attitude toward women’s behavior makes drunken revelry one of the few appropriate ways in which certain kinds of libidinal urges can be expressed: “Maybe it would be progress if we had a definition of femininity expansive enough to include shaking one's thing without raising one's top — so that girls could go a little wild without having to rely on what we used to refer to as the "sorority girl's mating call": "I am soooo drunk.”

This argument is undoubtedly basically correct, but what is perhaps even more intriguing is the essay’s by-line: Ana Marie Cox—an independent journalist who is, of course, best-known by her former alter-ego in the blogosphere: Wonkette (though it was announced in January that Cox was stepping down from the blog to be a full-time author). Wonkette (whose blogs would frequently celebrate their drunken origins, and reveled their unabashedly prurient fascination with the sexual underside the American politics), ironically, shared far more in common with the “girls gone wild” stereotype than she does with narrative voice of the Time essay.

This contrast between the two starkly opposed personas of Cox (as seen in the Time essay) and Wonkette is reminiscent of Nieh Huanling’s 1976 novel Mulberry and Peach , in which the two eponymous “women from China” referred to in the English subtitle are actual two distinct personas of the same Chinese immigrant. The novel begins with “Peach” insisting adamantly to an INS officer that “Mulberry”—a culturally conservative Chinese woman who, like the Nieh Hualing herself, fled the Communists to Taiwan in 1949, and then fled the Nationalists to the US in the 1960s—is “dead,”

At the beginning of the fourth section of Nieh’s novel, Peach is living in an abandoned water tower in spring of 1970:
We just wanted to live off the land naturally; we weren’t threatening anybody. But they discovered that the dilapidated water tower was unfit for habitation. There were no sanitary facilities. The wood was rotten, and there was the danger that it would collapse at any time. Reporters came to interview us and take photos. We became newspaper headlines. They called us “the people of the water tower.”
The water tower here is one of the many figures of enclosure and confinement in the novel, and the media spectacle that ensues is an extension of the voyeuristic fascination with which the INS office doggedly pursues details of Mulberry/Peach’s past throughout the novel.

At the same time, this water-tower media spectacle in the novel coincidentally anticipates a very similar scene in the current movie recent teen movie Aquamarine (Elizabeth Allen, dir.), wherein the eponymous protagonist—a mermaid who has come ashore in order to find love and thereby sidestep the marriage which her father has arranged for her—befriend two young teenage girls, who help sequester her in an isolated water tower every night (her legs invariably revert back into a fish tail every day at dusk). However, a slightly older queen-bee whose father happens to be a reporter accidentally stumbles upon Aquamarine’s secret, and (in a fit of vengeful jealously) arranges to have a live media circus waiting for her when it is time for her to emerge from the water tower one morning.

Both Mulberry and Peach and Aquamarine revolve around a tension between two different feminine personas. Whereas Mulberry and Peach are actually (like Cox and Wonkette) the same person, in Aquamarine the play is on three characters who embody different facets of what is arguably the same subjectivity. That is to say, the mature Aquamarine’s two teenage companions both have crushes on the same local lifeguard, but are too young to act on those desires. The sudden appearance of the confident and fearless Aquamarine, therefore, functions as a projection of the girls’ desires, functioning as a liberated “girl gone [modestly] wild” whom they are not yet able to be (though they do diligently do everything they can to help Aquamarine in her quest to seduce the lifeguard.

Another film which hews even more closely to the schizophrenic model of Mulberry and Peach is Clara Law’s 1989 Farewell China, about a conservative and traditional Chinese woman (Maggie Cheung) who is determined to come to the US at all costs. When she finally does secure a visa, she leaves her husband (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and young child behind in China as she travels alone to New York to seek a new life. Life in New York turns out to be brutish and grueling, and in attempting her character apparently fractures into two starkly antithetical personalities. The first is the conservative and devoted wife and mother who appears at the beginning of the film, while the second is a vicious parasite presents herself as a wealthy New York sociality while at the same time conning other Chinese immigrants into giving her their money (ostensibly in order to help them send it back to their families in China).

Farewell China’s violent conclusion—in which Tony Leung’s character finally catches up with his estranged wife in the streets of New York, only to have her mistake him for a sexual predator and stab him to death—is preceded by a brief and enigmatic scene of an elderly Chinese women calmly walking down the street with a pet turtle on a leash. We might make sense of this peculiar scene by reading it in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s almost identical description, in his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," of nineteenth century Paris socialites walking their turtles down the Champs d'Ellyses: "It was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk ... The [dandy] liked to have the turtles set the pace for him. If he had his way, progress would be obliged to accommodate itself to this pace." Benjamin's essay is currently best-known for its development of his notion of the “flaneur”—a figure is presented as being able to move freely through a modern urban space. More recently, the gendered implications of Benjamin's model have similarly come under critique, as it has been observed that the flaneur is typically coded as a masculine.

From Benjamin's notion of the nineteenth century male flaneur moving freely through the modern city, to Nieh Hua-ling's and Clara Law's use of the theme of split personality to explore the psychological difficulties inherent in women's transnational movement (even Aquamarine is presented as an immigrant struggling with a sense of culture shock), an ideal of unfettered transnational movement (of what Aihwa Ong calls “flexible citizenship) is implicitly premised on a systematic blindness to the gendered asymmetry which underlies, and undermines, that ideal.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home