Saturday, March 26, 2011

One Nation, Indivisible?: Rebranding American History (#redallover)

The United States Soccer Federation has revealed a new uniform and a new motto to go with it: "Indivisible." The single world slogan is the product of a "crowd sourcing" campaign, in which fans were encouraged to submit their ideas to team-sponsor Nike. Dubbed "Red All Over," the project created a lot of buzz and raised a big question: Why would the USSF want to replace the old motto, "Don't Tread on Me"? 
Grant Wahl suggested (via Twitter) that the Red All Over re-branding was provoked by The Tea Party's appropriation of the colonial image of a coiled rattlesnake and "Don't Tread on Me" as its official emblem. (He also explained that "Yes we can" - another popular suggestion - is similarly partisan.) I can imagine a number of factors prompted this campaign, but this suggestion stands to reason and Wahl is as good authority on this matter as any.

Perhaps I just want to believe that the USSF is purposefully taking a step to disassociate itself with what the Tea Party represents.

The need to refuse any identification with the increasingly fascistic character of the anti-immigrant far right is particularly important for US soccer fans, given the political and social diversity of its community of players and fans. The sport has long been identified as an immigrant sport (which masks the very high profile of immigrant families in other sports, like baseball), it is played and watched by women (and this is a distinctive aspect of soccer culture in the US), and it is the one major sport in the US that is not isolationist - our participation in football culture expresses a desire for a relationship with the rest of the world, and we enter into that playing field not as a powerhouse, but as a respected, and hard-working side. (This is slightly different for the women, but more and more, the women's team is one good team among other good teams - a fact that fans celebrate.)

Before looking more closely at what that word "Indivisible" represents, let's consider the emblem the USSF has put to bed. As most readers well know, that emblem has a long and rich history - which is exactly why the Tea Party is drawn to it.
There are two separate aspects to the core image for this emblem - the image of the rattlesnake, and the motto. The conjunction of the two in a flag dates to 1775: the "Gadsden Flag" was flown on the flagship for the newly formed "Continental Navy" and found on revolutionary Marine corp drums - this image in fact still functions as an emblem for the U.S. Marine Corp.
Gadsden Flag, as we know it today.
Rattlesnakes appear all over colonial culture: on coins, flags, and in writing about American identity. They are paired with different slogans: In an 1751 political cartoon authored by Benjamin Franklin, "Join, or Die" captioned the image of a snake cut into pieces - a reference to the need for the colonies to band together in opposition to colonial power. In other images (e.g. the flag for the Culpeper Minutemen) the snake is coupled with the stark declaration: "Liberty or Death."

Benjamin Franklin's 1751 political cartoo
The venomous rattler is native to the Americas: this is the primary reason they emerge as a symbol of opposition and independence. Benjamin Franklin helped its career along with an essay, "The Rattlesnake as a Symbol of America" (1775). His observations in that essay help explain why it is still a compelling symbol for certain kinds of political formations - but they also suggest that its appropriateness as a symbol for the US soccer team is perhaps mixed, at best. In his view, it is an elegantly defensive reptile: "ever vigilant," "she never begins an attack," he observed, "nor, once engaged, ever surrenders." The snake, as he characterizes her, is wholly defensive - the rattles are there to warn "stay away," what poisons others is necessary to her survival. This makes a lot of sense as a military emblem (even if it conflicts with the US's post WWII "preemptive strike" ethos). The image is both nativist (in the right wing-sense) and isolationist.

In 1751, however, he used the same snake in an entirely different kind of polemic. Responding the practice of shipping felons to the New England colonies, Franklin suggested sending rattlesnakes across the Atlantic as a fair exchange: "this exporting of felons to the colonies, may be considered as a trade, as well as in the light of a favor. Now all commerce implies returns: justice requires them: there can be no trade without them. And rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by out mother country." He goes on to say that England gets the better half of the trade, for at least the snake gives a warning before it strikes. Here the rattlesnake does not represent the colonists - it represents in fact a toxic element that endangers colonial health. Unfortunately, today we see Franklin's polemic cited by anti-immigrant groups - who are always on the hunt for bits of American history which they might re-purpose in order to legitimize reactionary politics.

Complicating this story is another national emblem involving a snake:

Mexico's coat of arms has its own complicated history - it is an appropriation of an image embodying the founding myth of Tenochtitlan - Mexico City. The cactus represents the island on which the city was built, and the eagle stands for the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. Within that tradition, the snake signals Coatlicue - who is something like "mother earth." From what I can tell (and I am far from an expert on Mesoamerican icons), the image of the snake being devoured is a colonial hybrid - a transposition of Judeo-Christian mythology onto a Tenochtitlan origin story. This may be why the Mexican football federation emblem does not feature said snake. El Tri may want to recuperate the hybrid image, however, as a nod to its border rivalry. Or not.

In any case, the rattlesnake is not much of a team player, it has a shady history, and it appears on the Mexico's flag, caught in Huitzilopochtli's beak. Not a place the USSF wants to be, really. But I digress: By losing the snake, the USSF is disassociating itself from Tea Party politics, and in choosing this word "Indivisible," it is also trying to disentangle itself from the generally hateful nature of nationalist rhetoric.

"Indivisible" is not an uncomplicated choice, however. The word is a clear reference to the pledge of allegiance - written in the 1890s by Francis Bellamy, a Socialist minister. (Yes, you read that right.) The original pledge went roughly like this:
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
It was first read to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, and it was written - of course - in a wave of nationalist panic, formed in reaction to immigration patterns and the changing demographics of the U.S. That pledge was used in schools until the 1920s, when it was revised slightly to read:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all." 
The phrase "one nation under God" was inserted in 1954. Incredibly, given the name for Nike's campaign (Red All Over), this was during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, and was done as a way to distinguish the U.S. from "godless communists." 

Adding to yet another layer of complexity and ambivalence to this story: the word "indivisible" is a clear reference to the Civil War: It is an assertion of the triumph of "union" over secession - but, as is the way of such things, in asserting the indivisibility of the nation, the pledge of allegiance raises the specter of disunion as a latent possibility.

Which brings us back around to the current state of affairs. The assertion of "Indivisible" as the national team's motto could not be more apt, for, in signaling the team's unity as its strength, the USSF is doing so precisely in reaction against the culture of hate and fear propagated by the far right, in a campaign provoked by that movement's theft of the team's motto.

"Indivisible" is quite literally the least divisive (or do I mean divisible?) of the proposed slogans entertained seriously by Nike and the US Soccer Federation. That said, no slogan or motto for a national team will ever banish the sinister shadow of nationalism's enterprise.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (1989-90)

Friday, March 18, 2011

FALW Women's World Ranking

FIFA's latest ranking of women's national teams has just been released. As I can't figure out how the hell FIFA ranks the US Women's National Team #1 and places Nigeria below, say, Scotland, I figured I should post my own purely intuitive ranking.

My top 15:
     1       Germany    Germany

     2       Canada    Canada

     3       Brazil    Brazil

     4       USA    USA

     5       Nigeria    Nigeria

     6       Japan    Japan

     7       Korea Republic    South Korea

     8       England    England

     9       Sweden    Sweden

     10     Mexico    Mexico

     11     Australia    Australia

     12     France    France

     13     Colombia    Colombia

     14     Norway    Norway

     15     Korea DPR   North Korea
Mind you, this is pure polemics. But I do actually think Canada looks stronger than the US. Mexico surely looks stronger than Iceland. To my fellow bloggers: I await your rankings - they will surely be more informative than the crap statistics that FIFA puts out.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

In the Game: Documentary on impact of Title IX needs our support!

I'm really excited by In the Game. This film by the producers of Hoop Dreams looks the realities of the highest levels of professional women's sports and the daily grind of girls fighting for access to training and facilities at especially urban high schools.  From a leader in the WNBA, "Our biggest challenge is media coverage." Good segment at about 9 minutes in this clip on unbelievably sexist attitudes which define sports media. But this story is centered not on that shitty fact, but on the people who play, coach and manage women's sports. Watch this!

Ball & Chain: Notes on Anne Hathaway, James Franco & the Oscars

This has nothing to do with soccer. I wrote this rant last weekend and posted on my facebook page.  Some readers asked that I post it here. I'll be back to soccer stories as soon as I put the manuscript I'm finishing in the mail!

Anne Hathaway's performance as an Oscars co-host was heroic. When one focuses on her performance, the whole ceremony takes on a surreal aspect. Take the ULTRA real dynamic of soporific Franco and hysterical Hathaway: This was a rather extraordinary performance of a high-energy female/femme dragging the sad-dog-weight of her man behind her. It is the flipside of sexist narratives about the “ball-and-chain” in which women hold men back, rather than prop them up (as is, well, more usually the case).

My favorite study on sexism and the academy: according to an analysis of gender and faculty promotion at the University of California, the people most likely to advance are men with wives. Then men without wives, then women without husbands, then women with husbands. I could not see from this study if they accounted for same sex couples, or the ways in which being gay/lesbian might impede one’s progress in such a hetero-dynamic system. In any case, I think we can all agree that, according to such studies, one is “better off” having and not being the wife.

Anne Hathaway showed us how true this is - the mere presence of that man standing next to her impedes our ability to value her work. And it was pretty clear to me, at least, that her performance itself was commenting on this.

On Her Own
For example: In a deeply ironic moment she took the stage in a tux to sing “On My Own.” The song choice, she explained, was a reference to her all-too brief appearance on stage with Hugh Jackman in another Oscar ceremony – she had been plucked from the audience to sing a duet, in which they adopted the identities of Frost and Nixon. There was a hell of a queer subtext to that performance, given the take on Jackman and his having just belted out some fabulous gay-positive, out-loud-and-proud lyrics about Milk. Hathaway said she’d hoped the actor would perform with her this year, but he’d bailed at the last minute. She might well have been talking about Franco: Franco's non-performance was by this point in the broadcast clear to everyone in the audience.

Franco gave us plenty of warnings, including his recent discussion of "bad acting" and performance - a line of thought/fascination I pursued in my work own on Andy Warhol, esp in the introduction to Pop Out (co-authored with José Muñoz and Jonathan Flatley). As we worked on that project we talked explicitly about Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix et al in relation to the performances in Warhol's films.

Eventually, I felt that in my own work I could not talk about the performances of Joe Dallesandro etc without acknowledging the hyper-active energy that is produced by the women around those underperforming men. At times last night I felt like I was watching "Bike Boy" - in one infamous scene Warhol instructed Joe Spencer (Bike Boy) to ignore Ingrid Superstar, she tries for a minute to get his attention and then just fills the rest of the time with nearly diassociated babble while he stares off into space and strokes his manly arms every now and again. It took me a while to understand that the film is not about Bike Boy at all, but about the gay men and women around Bike Boy. Bike Boy is a void. Reeves and Phoenix in their own way played with that dynamic in their films - and in a queer setting one can. But in the straight-jacketed public sphere, it just reads as so much more heterosexuality. As women basically doing all the work, and getting none of the recognition.

Which brings me back to Hathaway. Taking the stage as if one's been left at the altar is an old gag: The performer sets herself up as abandoned, standing before her audience if she’d been left there alone and unloved. She proceeds to seduce an entire theater. This kind of performance toggles back and forth between “nobody loves me” and “love me or else." The genre has been remastered by diverse figures - Judy Garland and daughter Liza, but also Sandra Bernhard (e.g. “Without You I’m Nothing”). That dynamic shapes some of the most compelling queer performance, in which the artist emerges as both intensely vulnerable and invincible. (eg Franko B's "I Miss You!" or just about everything from Dynasty Handbag.)

THIS, I think, is why when Franco walked out in drag, it seemed like such a failure: not just because he was styled in a jokey sort of drag more apropos of a Judd Apatow movie than a drag club, but because "showy" Hathaway was always already working drag territory.

It would have been amazing if they’d found a way to give Franco the same kind of elegance that Hathaway has in a lady-tux – but that would have perhaps been too risky for the Oscars, as it’d have required making him look both gay and hot. Given who we are talking about here, that should have been easy. Instead, he looked like the next chapter of Hollywood's drag devolution (Jack Lemmon to Robin Williams to James Franco, each one being a worse version of his drag-as-gag predecessor). A more visionary look would surely have brought Franco's appearance in drag closer to Kalup Linzy's zone, and it might have allowed us to see Franco's look in relation to Hathaway's. For Linzy’s "bad drag" looks nothing like what Franco did last night. Linzy's version of drag is queer assemblage of signs. He doesn’t look any more “natural” or “realistic” in drag than did Franco – but he inhabits drag, fully, in a dialogue that makes sex and gender and race come alive, and feel both real and unsettled. That is no easy thing to do. And it is way more than a matter of his outfit.

The fact of the matter is that in last night’s performance the person on stage closest to Kalup Linzy’s universe was Anne Hathaway – producing a theatrical, desperate and frankly scary version of feminine performance, not just alone, but in compensation for someone else's failure - as if, if she worked hard enough, nobody would feel Franco's absence. As if, if she worked hard enough, it would feel like her presence mattered. As if, to matter, her performance must anchor his.

She was not being the person who could care less, but the person who cares too much. The less Franco put out, the more she had to make up for it. The worse his performance became, the more it obliterated hers. Because when we wake up in the morning, who is the press talking about? Not the show's "wife", but the show's drag - the sad-dog manchild bringing everybody down. Fine, that's what the media does.

The whole point of performance studies for me is not that it enables actors to expand their practice into the artworld. Although that’s an interesting effect, actors never needed the discipline of performance studies to do that (a few names at random: Andy Kauffman, Sandra Bernhard, Ann Magnuson). Performance studies, however, does give us a few tools for considering the political dimensions of moments like these, and resisting mass media's flow.

Female actors with comic sensibilities and wit are particularly hard for Hollywood to accommodate these days. Things on this point have not gotten better but worse. At least we have Tina Fey, and why isn't she hosting or better, writing - the show?

Hathaway’s performances (as, for example, The Brown Duck) were eye-opening. They gestured to a Hollywood legacy otherwise completely ignored by last night’s nostalgic gestures to its own past. Comic geniuses like Lucile Ball and Carol Burnett never hosted the Oscars alone (Ball never hosted at all). Many women have taken the stage as hosts, but nearly all were required to share it.*

Few have been allowed to be on her own. Perhaps in singing that song, Hathaway was trying to tell us something.

There are plenty of goofy, smart, chatty showboats out there in ballgowns. Not only does Anne Hathaway not need a straight man to make her audience laugh, that straight man is the very thing that’s holding her back.

*Note: For the record, many women have worked as co-hosts: Thelma Ritter in 1954; Claudette Colbert in 1955; Celeste Holme in 1957; Helen Hayesin 1972; Carol Burnett in 1973; Diana Ross in 1973; Shirley MacLain in 1974; Goldie Hawn in 1975; Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda in 1976; Lina Minelli in 1982; Jane Fonda in 1985; Goldie Hawn in 1986. (Thanks Wikipedia.) To date, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopie Goldberg are the only women to have hosted alone, in the show's entire history. Goldberg hosted the show a rather miraculous four times.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...