Honored to be invited here as a guest-blogger. For a first shot, I thought I'd try picking at some ideas currently stuck to a brain too desk-like already with gum and graffiti. (That I was only able to wrap this post up by Christmas Day suggests I’ve got all the timing of a young Jon Heder.) Let's say the class started when I caught the new Britney Spears video.
The biggest shock initially was the extent to which it rips off "Never Again", the video for Kelly Clarkson's single from last year. Apparently, they are directed by the same guy. (I mean, of course they are.) Both tell the story of a hound pursued by a fox, where being caught means being tossed back in with the bathwater. Both videos also employ suites of images which are pretty much identical. They’re alike in every way, except for their ideological content, which is strictly opposed. The lesson learned here, I guess, is that you don't have to squint your ears very hard before Ibsen starts sounding like Strindberg.
The difference begins with the evidence against the defendant, and ends with a message about what constitutes a female exemplar. The target in the Clarkson is a genuine malefactor, whose guilt finds proof both in the witnessed act and in the remorse-flavored mental pudding he becomes. It is also for the most part a localized triumph. Clarkson's heroine and the blonde interloper fail to forge the dread female dichotomy, as there is simply too much talented and solitary about the one and too much doubt about the other. What is commendable about Clarkson's character ultimately is her critical faculty. Compare that to the Spears. Her mark does nothing worse than check his planner at breakfast; that he flirts with Spears as she’s got on different wigs is less sinister than her own plot, as she's out to burke him. It’s the decision to have Spears play all the women that’s the drag, and what makes the video’s politics something mustier than the slang of the title, itself disinterred from the abandoned disco hall that had been its tomb.
By making Spears their proxy, “Womanizer” implies that women are psychopaths, whose sole path to empowerment rests in acting sexy in public, luring a man around until he’s in the bedroom, where he can be made into toast. It's a joke which begins in a kitchen styled after a Korova Milk Bar and ends in the molestation and deletion of some nameless catalogue model: the only plausible way to market Spears now is as a crazy thug; the only way to market her as a crazy thug is by attempting to normalize the idea that women are crazy thugs; and that, as a seriously arrested person addicted to fame and lacking a meaningful conception of privacy, her moral agency may as well begin and end at the fact of each performance.
Basically, it is important that Spears be marketed, as it is the view of the consensus that that is the only time she acts rationally. Her compromised state should be considered a sign of grave damage, not that we’ll ever know its true extent or all those responsible, as that would lead to hassle and diminished profits. Too bad, as I think her profiteers likely committed some real atrocities against her, a suspicion that stirs with the Rolling Stone article and other anecdotes. One example is my music instructor’s explanation (backed up by Wikipedia) that the Spears vocal coaches taught her as a teen to sing in a way designed to sound "sexy," a method that was guaranteed to ruin her voice. What do you even call that, the vocal equivalent of foot-binding?
In context, the whole idea of Spears’s comeback makes a similar impression as the Kubrick version of Clockwork: endless violent childhood followed by a period of distinct suffering, followed by society offering the reward of doing it all over, with the caveat that what offended be done next time with more discretion. Meanwhile, there's nothing left in the body to make you an adult, and no help in that direction either. It’s us failing, again, to mark the difference between civility—which are manners—and decency—which are morals. (See here, for the popular explanation by Blumenthal, or here, for an example of it being put to important use.) The distinction is important, because it necessitates the concept of private space: the domain for behavior that is regarded as decent, but which cannot usefully be made civil. In the same way, abolishing privacy (say, by a lifetime of perpetual fame, or by a belief in a particular conception of G-d) can lead to the conflation of the two concepts. See also how privacy is eroded by consistently attacking a group's moral agency.
When I consider the difference between the concepts of public and private space, I can’t help but think the answer might involve the idea that only one of them contains children. It would make sense, as motherhood has always appeared to be an important trigger for confusion about female agency. Sarah Silverman got in trouble for a joke she told at the VMAs in which she says that the Spears kids "are the most adorable mistakes you'll ever see." (The gossip at the time was that Spears had told her kids they were mistakes in a flash of anger.) The word “mistake” in that lexical category should offend, as it impugns the worth of guiltless people based on choices made by a second party, thus implicitly endorsing the removal of that choice, to protect the lives of the innocent. It’s sexist. What should happen afterwards but that the routine be scrubbed from youtube to protect Spears’s two children: an act which essentially neutralized Silverman’s agency to tell a joke targeting a term that endorses the neutralizing of female agency, so as to protect Spears’s two children. It’s quite funny, and makes me wonder if it was Spears who used her agency to call for the scrubbing, though I doubt it, as the universe has not yet committed the final headdesk of collapsing in on itself.
Another trigger, I’d argue, is the act of performance itself. Walter’s review of Jesus is Magic has always bothered me, mostly for his assumption that there’s some ambiguity regarding the artifice of Silverman’s persona (there is??), and his ire in response to a character break:
"Yet protesting her innocence defuses her subtext, doesn't it? In this mad desire to not be taken seriously, suddenly Silverman comes across as ignorant and run-of-the-mill crass. It might be in that shift in paradigm that her jokes are suddenly toothless, replaced by uncomfortable silences and bursts of nervous laughter."
My problem, I guess, is that I don’t understand what exactly separates Silverman from that other popular comedian who says horrible things, and who also happens to break character all the time, to the enormous and obvious delight of his audience. Without that distinction clearly expressed, all I’m left with is a queasy feeling I associate with bearing witness to the act of confusing art with nature. (It’s a feeling that's become familiar, ever since the Emmys decided that the actors on The Wire don't deserve awards because they all must truly be drug dealers from Baltimore, even Elba.) It particularly disturbs me because it’s also something I’ve been guilty of, thinking this counted as the most tolerable of Spears’s output and not the most heinous. That it manufactures such a plausible posture for Spears results in me forgetting all the evidence that Spears doesn’t actually regard fame with anything resembling a jaundiced eye. In its deftness, it has me denying her performance, even as I suspect that's all she's got. What an asshole, right?
But more thoughts on Sarah Silverman later.