Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Through the hard work and relentless efforts of their foremothers, 21st century women are afforded a multitude of personal freedoms. Yet television shows, films and novels about this modern women all lead us to the same conclusion: women are still unable to find satisfaction in their lives. Many mediums of the current era would lead us to believe that it is romantic dissatisfaction that is bringing the female gender down. Taking a close look at the messages being transmitted by the different mediums of the media, including film and television, it is clear that lack of fulfillment within the parameters of their personal lives is definitely of issue for many women. Modern women have the freedom to live, work and even have sex like men, but it seems to be leaving them lacking. What is it, exactly, that has failed these women, feminism, capitalism, or both? In a society where everything can be bought and sold, and the very idea of romance been turned into a commodity, has sexual liberation led women to see their sexuality is terms of its exchange value? Through an exploration of an episode of Sex and the City titled “The Power of the Female Sex,” and the Steven Soderbergh’s film, “The Girlfriend Experience,” it becomes clear that American culture is taking commodification of the individual to a frightening extreme; love itself is being consumed by American society.
The American society that was first introduced to Betty Friedan’s controversial book, The Feminine Mystique, was a society much different than that of 21st century America. Friedan uncovered what she called a “problem that has no name,” which she described as an internal sense of weakness in women that resulted from the lack of independence in their lives (qtd. in Busch 1). It was her belief that women could not be happy because, by keeping women isolated in the domestic sphere, society was not allowing them to live up to their full potential (Busch 1). One would think that once the problem was diagnosed and the cure was determined, it would only be a matter of time until American women found themselves liberated from their frustration and unhappiness. While it is true that women now have legal rights, access to education, entrance into the professional sphere, and control over their own reproductive and sexual organs, there remains an emptiness and discontent deep within a vast majority of American women (Busch 3). According to sociologist Elizabeth Busch, this phenomenon is occurring because of what she coins the “feminist mystique,” a damaging ideology which commands women to discard all traditional female roles, renounce traditional feminine traits, and refuse any help from men by striving for autonomy (4). These strict limitations pressure women to trade in their traditional feminine roles for the part of “the sexually liberated professional” (Busch 5). But this move does not shift women into a new role of their own so much as encourage them to now model themselves after just as impossible an example as the ideal female; now they find themselves striving towards the example set by men. In this way, feminism is subjecting women to another type of ideological slavery rather than setting them free.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that these women find themselves searching for a way to compete in an increasingly consumptive society. According to Baudrillard, “Consumption is an active mode of relations, a systematic mode of activity and a global response on which our whole cultural system is founded” (417). 21st century women find themselves struggling for power in a society in which virtually everything is a prospective possession. Marvin Prosono asserts in his article, “Fascism of the Skin,” that such a society “commodifies everything in its path, including the body, thus subtly shifting the manner in which the mind itself incorporates the body into its calculations” (635). This places women in a precarious situation, as a group they must now find a way to struggle against another group that has historically oppressed them, and yet, as Simone de Beauvoir points out in her book, The Second Sex, “she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another” (5). Because they find themselves trapped in a “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” type scenario with men, some women are lead to believe that when it comes to the battle of the sexes, they “have the right to use every means at their disposal to achieve power” (Sex and the City). And nothing, not even the commodification of their own love, affection, and sexuality, is off limits.
New York, as a keystone city in the US capitalist society, is a perfect setting to examine how feminism and consumerism are merging, and the affect this merger is having on women in society. “Sex and the City,” an incredibly popular television show that is based on a book by New York columnist Candace Bushnell, is set in this capitalist Mecca. It is considered by many women to be an incredibly progressive, modern, and radical look at women that carries a strong message of female empowerment. But although it is marketed as a series with a focus on the friendship between four strong, successful and independent New York women, each and every episode inevitably revolves around male / female relationships. Many women feel they can “see themselves” in one or several of the characters, and identify with the inability of these female protagonists to decipher the root of their inability to feel completely satisfied despite their successful lives (Busch 2). Though Carrie and her three friends certainly are not dependant on men, they are consumed by the thought of obtaining them, and as a result much of the shows focus is devoted to the pursuit of the very gender they are attempting to convince the women of the world they don’t really need.
The episode titled, “The Power of the Female Sex,” remains faithful to this typical plot arc. In this episode, Carrie is experiencing a bit of a financial crisis. Her bills are piling up, and when she is trying to cheer herself up with a little shoe shopping, the judgmental sales clerk at Dior takes a pair of scissors to her credit card. But like kismet, Carrie’s old friend Amelita arrives and purchases the expensive footwear for Carrie, with a shimmering platinum card belong to a man she only refers to as Carlos. Carrie describes Amelia as a woman who’s “life was a blur of rich men, designer clothes and glamorous resorts” (Sex and the City). It is also made clear that Amelita does not possess what one would consider to be a conventional job. What she does possess, however, is “a dazzling sexual power that she exploited to her full advantage” (Sex and the City). It seems that Amelita is cognizant of the consumerist society that she lives in, a society which “does not structure social relations: it demarcates them in a hierarchical repertoire. It is formalized in a universal system of recognition of social statuses: a code of ‘social standing’” (Baudrillard 415). This places Amelita in an odd position, as she dances on the line “between professional girlfriend and just plain professional” (Sex and the City). Amelita is aware of the exchange value of her sexuality, and therefore is using it as a kind of financial leverage. But for a woman like Amelita, “to decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal- this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon then by their alliance with the superior caste” (Beauvoir 5). She sees her relationships with men in a purely consumerist way, and bases then on exchange value. Simply put, she has something men want, and she capitalizes on that fact.
When Carrie later meets a rich, French architect through Amelita, they spend one fantastic night together before he has to leave the country the next day. Carrie wakes up in his hotel bed with a smile, only to find he has left her one thousand dollars cash on the nightstand.“What about me screams whore?” she asks her girlfriends, whom she has invited to the hotel room to have breakfast on the Frenchman’s tab. Samantha’s reply is curt and to the point. “I don’t know what you are getting so uptight about,” she asks. “Money is power, sex is power, therefore getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power,” (Sex and the City) she explains, drawing shocked faces from her three female companions. Samantha is a character that has efficiently shed the traditional female role and as a result she sees what transpired between Carrie and the architect as a clean and simple business transaction. As feminist and gender theorist Judith Butler would say, the traditional female role is just a performance (Barker 298). However, what Samantha doesn’t appear to be aware of is that by attempting to behave like a man, she is still performing. Carrie feels hurt because in her eyes there was a connection with the man, and he cheapened it, with his envelope full of cash and “thanks for the good time” bedside note. Carrie ends the conversation with the curt remark that she had established her rate for a one night stand. Though a trade did take place, Carrie does not feel like she was in control at all, demonstrating Beauvoir’s theory that “what particularly signalizes the situation of women is that she - a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other” (10). Carrie’s sarcastic statement expresses the fact that she now realizes the value her body hold as a commodity, but she is unsure as to whether she wants to allow it to be on the market.
Steven Soderbergh’s film revolves around another Manhattan socialite, who is nearly impossible to differentiate from Carrie and her girlfriends at first glance. She too shops at Dior, wears 400 dollar stilettos and dines in fabulous restaurants with sophisticated men. But this young woman is a high class escort, who specializes in giving her clients something called “the girlfriend experience.” The film defines the girlfriend experience as dinner, conversation, affection, in addition to the sex; it is basically intimacy with an expiration date. The protagonist of the film is Christine Brown, a twenty two year old girl next door type, thin, pale and pretty. The film is set against the backdrop of the 2009 presidential election and financial crisis, and Christine, like many other people during that time, is concerned with securing herself financially. What sets her apart is the uniqueness of her business, which revolves around a persona she calls Chelsea. Through this fluid and flexible persona Christine peddles her products: a presence, a personality and a sexual body, all tailored to each individual client. As she states in the film, she must “adapt and become something they want” (Girlfriend Experience). In a high class society obsessed with ultimate gratification, Christine Brown has found a way to capitalize on the objectification of the female form; she has completely transformed the art of romance into a marketable commodity.
As asserted by Baudrillard, “Any buying process is an interaction between the personality of the individual and the so-called personality of the product itself” (Baudrillard 411). Because Chelsea is selling these men the experience of a genuine girlfriend, she must take great care to generate authentic merchandise for them, or lose their business. This is always on her mind; no matter how affectionate she may seem to be, she never loses sight of the fact that “this is a transactional situation, a business” (Girlfriend Experience). This commerce-based focus is emphasized by Christine’s ongoing attention to branding herself, expanding her business, and increasing her rates. Throughout the course of the film, she engages in as many business meetings as she does interactions with clients. She has a web designer, a business manager, and a financial advisor, all occupied with ideas in regard to how to better market the commodity that is her body. “This business is all about appearance. If you weren’t beautiful, you wouldn’t be in it,” (Girlfriend Experience) one of them reminds her during a business lunch, emphasizing the fact that for Christine, her appearance is her livelihood. This attention to the details which make her appear to be an investment in pleasure are also in line with Baudrillard’s “System of Objects,” which states that “One of the fundamental tasks of all advertising, and of every project destined to promote sales, should be to permit the consumer freely to enjoy life and confirm his right to surround himself with products that enrich his existence and make him happy” (Dichter qtd. in Baudrillard 410). This is why Christine is meticulous in both her appearance and her words, even going so far as to keeps detailed records of every transaction with a client, in order to keep their lives, interests, and preferences straight and met. This is a crucial element to the business of being “Chelsea,” because this illusionary interest in the clients themselves is what elevates Christine out of ordinary call girl status; “She puts on the charade of friendship” (Johnson). “This is what I like about what we do,” one client says to Christine / Chelsea when they are about to engage in sex and she remembers to ask him about an important business deal he had pending. “We are always exchanging!” he exclaims (Girlfriend Experience). There is humor and irony in his assertion, they are always exchanging, but not in the manner in which he is implying. She is not trading power for power; she is exchanging her body for his cash. She “has not been socially emancipated through man’s need-sexual desire,” (Beauvoir 5) but rather, has adjusted to it.
Not surprisingly, Christine’s adjustment to the opportunities that the sexual freedoms of women can garner in a society built upon commodification has a negative effect on her own personal life. Karl Marx talked of the alienation that would occur when workers were separated from their product (Barker 13). But what if the workers are themselves the product? Christine often times throughout the film appears to be alienated from her own life and her own pleasure. Her boyfriend, Chris, is a one hundred and twenty five dollars an hour personal trainer who is clearly capitalizing off his physical form in his own way. He is even approached for a trip to Vegas by one of his clients; the man wants to pay his way on the trip, so that he can cash in on Chris’ presence as a “chick magnet” (Girlfriend Experience). The relationship between Chris and Christine is more like a business partnership than a relationship, with most of their talk revolving around her client comparisons and how to improve rates. Lasch characterized this sort of behavior in the western world as a product of the ‘culture of survivalism,’” in which “self-centered individuals become increasingly apathetic as a consequence of being enmeshed in a consumer culture that offers the good life but delivers only a hollow echo of meaningfulness” (Barker 164). Chris seems to feel affection towards her, and be interested in receiving it in return, but Christine appears to be sold out of it.
This flat affect and decreasing ability to muster up emotion proves to be Christine’s downfall. There is a new escort in town, “Tara,” beginning to cut into Christine’s business. Tara is just a little taller, a little flashier and a little bubblier than Christine’s performance as “Chelsea.” As a result she begins to lose clients to Tara, who is offering up a better “girlfriend experience.” This is reflective of Baudrillard’s theory that “within the very framework of this homogeneous system, we can observe the unfolding of an always renewed obsession with hierarchy and distinction” (416-417). The clientele these women are striving for are extremely high profile individuals, they are always going to be obsessed with finding the best product they can. And Chelsea and Tara are both marketable commodities at their core, and “all products are offered today as a specific acronym: each product worthy of the name has a brand name” (Baudrillard 414). The loyalty these men feel towards any particular escort is comparable to their loyalty to a car manufacturer; show them a better product, and they will happily “trade up.” What Chelsea fails to understand is that “she has made herself into the image of a product, and effectively become an “object of self-negation,” and as such, she has inadvertently also made herself very much disposable (Prosono 650).
Carrie receives the offer of a lifestyle that is strikingly similar to Christine Brown’s. When she meets with Amelita again, she is introduced to a new rich and available-for-trading man. He offers to whisk her off on a trip to Venice and Carrie realizes the position she is standing on the cusp of. She says, “I realized I could leverage myself like the human equivalent of a sexy junk bond” (Sex and the City). She was able to see that her very body had “become an emporium, over every detail of which a commodity may be marketed (Prosono 650). But, “one of the fundamental problems of prosperity is to sanction and to justify its enjoyment, to convince people that making their life enjoyable is moral, not immoral” (Dichter qtd. in Baudrillard 410). When the rich Italian gentleman grabs her suggestively she feels revolted and walks away, thinking that money troubles or not, she is going to walk away with her morals intact because she realizes that “for him she is sex, absolute sex, no less,” (Beauvoir 3) and she knows that she wants more than that from her interactions with the opposite sex than a relationship of commodity exchange. Carrie realizes that the reality of “having sex like men” is “affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible” because they are, at their core, “business deals, not romance” (Busch 7).
Though these two pieces end in very different ways, both the selected episode of Sex and the City and “The Girlfriend Experience” demonstrate is that in some ways feminism and sexual liberation, when combined with a consumerist society in the throes of commodity fetishism, can have detrimental effects on women. But it must be remembered, “if woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change” (Beauvoir 4). Sex and the City investigates the feminist concept of sexual liberation, and in the end wind up “rejecting “the contention that women can win the sex war by becoming as sexually explicit, demanding, and free as men,” (Busch 5) while The Girlfriend Experience” inadvertently demonstrates the failures of sexual liberation in a highly consumerist society. “Consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs,” (Baudrillard 418) and it is clear that it is the signs ‘love,’ ‘relationship,’ and ‘intimacy’ that are being consumed in this film. In the end, though some see Sex and the City as surprisingly retrograde, it proves itself to be very radical, because it actually gives women options in an honest, frank manner. Women can have it any way they want it, according to the show, but there are consequences, no matter what road you choose. At the end of this particular Sex and the City episode, Carrie is able to walk away from self-commodification, still optimistic about her options in terms of romance. In contrast, at the conclusion of The Girlfriend Experience, Christine has traded in her limo rides to five star restaurants for a cab ride to a sleazy tryst in the back of a business. This is because, as long as “people define themselves in relation to objects,” (Baudrillard 413) rather than in relation to other people, they will remain on this path towards the commodification of the individual, romance and even love.
Works Cited and Consulted
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Sage Publications Ltd,2008. Print
Baudrillard, Jean. "The System of Objects." Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 408-19. Web.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Bantam Books: 1965 Web.
Busch, Elizabeth Kaufer. “Ally McBeal to Desperate Housewives: A Brief History of the Postfeminist Heroine.” Perspectives on Political Science. Mar 22, 2009. Web. 1 December 2009.
Johnson, Brian D. “A New Kink in Cinema’s Porn Habit.” Maclean’s. Toronto: July 6, 2009. Vol 122, Iss 25/26. P 73. Web. 12 December 2009.
Prosono, Marvin T. “Fascism of the Skin: Symptoms of Alienation in the Body of Consumptive Capitalism.” Current Sociology. 2008; 56: 635-655. Web. 11 October 2009.
The Girlfriend Experience. dir Steven Soderbergh. per Sasha Grey.2929 Productions. 8 July 2009. DVD
“The Power of the Female Sex.” Sex and the City: The Complete First Season. 1998. DVD
Personally, I think the romantic comedy genre is far from innocuous. It pushes an ideological agenda that is anything but healthy to the average human psyche. For what do we learn from this gimmicky variety of film? Happiness and fulfillment come only to those who are in a couple. It does not matter what you do for a living, what your social circle is like, what your habits and hobbies might be. You will have a big, black vortex in your life until you find that other person to COMPLETE you. But in reality if you aren’t a complete you when you meet someone, the relationship has little chance of survival. So the rom-com sets people up for failure.
Where are the movies that demonstrate what it is actually like when you are in love? It isn’t all roses and candlelight, and it isn’t all witty banter. In real life when you lie and manipulate you don’t end up with a perfect make-up and a happily ever after. You end up with hurt feelings and emotional baggage. They yell cut after the couple gets back together the first time in these films for a reason. They don’t want you to see that the cycle is going to continue another seven times and that it might also end in divorce court.
But my real issue is WHY they do this. More than any other genre of film, it seems that the rom-com pushes a consumerism culture and a social agenda on its viewer. We have to buy, buy, buy all this stuff so that we can be better, like the couple we see on the screen. This way we can attract the perfect heterosexual life mate and live the rest of our lives out in monogamous bliss.
The problem with this is we do not all fit the mold. And if we don’t, this genre of film leaves us feeling bad about ourselves.
Though it was written more than 50 years ago, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex it is still applicable in a lot of ways. Women really don’t have a past, a history or a religion of their own. Though we have come a long way, we still live in a male dominated world, and we often times have to play by their rules if we want to play at all. I have often wondered why it is that the struggle for equality for women has been so slow, why so many women just accept things as they are, or worse, side with the status quo and label women who do not trouble makers or femi-nazis. But de Beauvoir said several things that put it into perspective for me. Her point about a lack of unification amongst women and a simultaneous unbreakable bond with men was so obvious a point and yet I had never really thought about it along those lines before. There are so many factors that can divide women: race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status. Our need for men is basic, biological. And then there is the cultural aspect. Females are also taught from an early age that they “need” men, whereas males are taught to stand on their own, and “be men.” Boys grow up learning the importance of “bros before hoes” while girls grow up seeing each other as competition.
While reading de Beauvoir I thought about Virginia Woolf, which reminded me of last semester. A teacher had assigned the class a reading from “A Room of One’s Own.” When we returned to class the next day, a male student in the class began our discussion by asserting that he had no interest in having a dialogue about “useless female drivel like this.” When further questioned he told us all that he had not yet read a female writer worthy of his time. He said the things that females wrote about had nothing pertinent to give to male readers. His response to Woolf (and all female writers, apparently) was eye opening for me. As a lit student I spend a lot of my time reading male writers and I have never once thought to reject them on the basis of their sex. But judging by the chuckles in the room that day from other male students, I would venture to guess that there are more people than I would have imagined still believing that female writers as prolific as Virginia Woolf are worthless based upon the fact that they have ovaries rather than testicles. Wow…just wow.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Being in the discussion group for Summer Palace was quite a challenge. Our first obstacle? We had to manage to actually see the movie! I finally found a copy and we organized a day to watch in the library. Only about ½ of us were able to make it, but it enabled us to start. Those of us who watched figured out areas to begin working on; I focused on coming up with discussion questions along with figuring out what scenes of the movie to show versus what to skip, since we were made aware that there wasn’t time for the class to watch the film in its entirety. When we were coming up on a week till our original presentation date, I sent out an e-mail, suggesting a way to organize the remaining work. Most of the group let me know that they appreciated my attempt to get the ball rolling, and most importantly, it opened up an e-mail dialogue with all of us that really allowed us to communicate with relative efficiency. I also took my discussion topics and combined them with the questions, topics, and quotes that were come up with by other members of my group and merged them into a somewhat linear list that corresponded with the scenes we planned on showing and sent it to Brittani to put into our PowerPoint.
All in all I would say that the project was a successful one. Our group was talented and diverse, and as a result I believe our presentation was well-rounded and interesting. I only wish we had a longer class period and could have shown the entire film from start to finish.
The location for the TV series, “Sex and the City,” is arguably one of the most important factors in regard to the success of the show. This is in large part to the classification of the four main characters residence, New York City, as a location of glamour and sex appeal. But for Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends, their city is more like a friend than a location alone. In the preceding clip, Bradshaw refers to New York as an entity, telling Mr. Big he owes both of them (herself and the city)a proper goodbye. Here she transforms her city into a thing rather than a place (Barker 403). But as Rob Shields asserts in the Barker text, “while we may happily speak of the ‘reality’ of the city as a thing or form, they are the result of a cultural act of classification” (403). Carrie Bradshaw’s version of New York is just one representation of that particular urban space, but because of the wide reach of cable television it “gives meaning” to the location for people around the country, and beyond (403).
New York, through the lens of this particular show, became classified as sensational, partially through the use of clever writing techniques, but these representations are, as stated in Barker, largely poetic (402-403). They are limiting their scope to only one narrow (and dramatized) aspect of the location, showing their audiences a fast-paced world that begs Mr. Big to “do it up right” just one last time.
At the end of the clip, the four girlfriends sit in a café wondering how anyone could possibly want to leave their great city, and head out for, as Miranda Hobbs so aptly puts it, the “real world.” This further demonstrates the fact that the New York of the famed “Sex and the City” is a television construct, created to entertain and delight rather than to portray a true urban setting.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
“The consumer society needs its objects to be. More precisely, it needs to destroy them.”
The world Bret Easton Ellis creates with his fictional Camden College in the novel The Rules of Attraction is a dark and disturbing place, full of what appears to be shallow characters lost in a pursuit of meaningless carnal pleasures. But are these privileged and self-centered youths a product of their small and relatively isolated environment or is something larger at work? A juxtaposition of this novel against another of Ellis’ works, The Informers, clarifies that what is being displayed within the pages of The Rules of Attraction is much bigger than Camden College. By looking at these two works together, an understanding of the motivation behind the self-destructive actions of the characters can be achieved. As Anne in The Informers states in a letter to Sean Bateman of The Rules of Attraction, “I realized that no matter where I am it’s always the same. Camden, New York, L.A., Palm Springs – it really doesn’t seem to matter” (The Informers 134). Because they live in a society in which everything, and everyone, is seen as an object that has the potential to be possessed, they base their happiness on the process of consumption, but since they cannot actually consume one another, “it is the idea of the relation that is consumed,” and they wind up unable to find satisfaction in their personal lives (Baudrilliard 418).
In both novels, what could be labeled a consumerist approach to sexual relations can be seen in the ways the characters refer to one another. In The Rules of Attraction, Lauren describes losing her virginity at an event titled “The Dress To Get Screwed” party. At this party, everyone comes for a singular purpose, to get intoxicated and find a sexual conquest for the evening. Lauren describes her prospects the way one might describe produce at the grocery store; “only a little gay, with blonde hair, a great body and these amazing gray eyes,” is how she labels one individual up for the task of taking her virginity (The Rules 13). She also compares her fellow females in the same physically descriptive way, her competition for the boy is Kathy Kotcheff, “who was wearing a black bra and black panties complete with garter belt” (Rules 13). Lauren looks at others and herself in terms of packaging, which brings to mind Baudrillard’s theory that “this efficiency is obtained at the price of a radical simplification, of an impoverishment, and of an almost irrevocable regression in the ‘language’ of value: ‘All individuals are described in terms of their objects’” (416). But these characters take Baudrillard’s concept one step further, they do not just define themselves in terms of objects, they actually begin to see each other as objects. Their value to one another then, becomes purely corporal.
So Lauren and her fellow classmates are not only objectifying each other, but are also finding their own value in how they themselves measure up, as objects. But is this a phenomenon unique to the social scene at Camden College? When comparing Camden to the L.A. depicted in The Informers, it is obvious that though these locations are on opposite coasts, they do not lie so far apart. In one scene, the unnamed narrator has just been told that his dead friend had been having an affair with his ex-girlfriend. He recalls the girl, Carol Banks, who was “cute, blond cheerleader…nothing too great,” and then goes on to say that he “never really liked Carol that much,” except for during sex (The Informers 12). Much like Lauren, this unnamed male sees his partner as a conquest, and what he recalls about her is little more than her outer casing.
It is clear that the characters in both these novels see one another as merchandise fit for use and subsequent disposal, but there remains the question of why. Gramsci’s theory of ideology can be applied to both of these texts in order to demonstrate that these characters behaviors are in a large part determined by the culture of their times. Gramsci stated that ideologies “provide people with rules of practical conduct and moral behavior” akin to a religion (Barker 66). Both The Informers and The Rules of Attraction take place during the 1980s, a time when the United State’s capitalist society was experiencing a consumptive peak. Marvin Prosono asserts in his article, “Fascism of the Skin, that such a society “commodifies everything in its path, including the body, thus subtly shifting the manner in which the mind itself incorporates the body into its calculations” (635). This casts a much different light on the risky sexual behavior of Lauren and her fellow students at Camden. Their bodies, because they are viewed as exchangeable products, are no longer valuable to them. They are only “objects of self-negation,” and as such, they use them the way one would use up a disposable product purchased at a convenience store (Prosono 650). These individuals that Ellis is portraying are in part products of their consumerist environment, and their very bodies have become nothing more than consumables to them.
However, all the blame cannot lie solely upon the culture of the time. There is another important factor at work, and that is the way in which these characters are being cared for and looked after by the adults in their lives. They have parental figures who believe that money, rather than attention and support, can solve all their problems. Ann in The Informers has been sent to live with her grandparents while she works through a depression. But instead of nurturing her, they simply throw money at her. “They buy me anything and everything I want,” she states (135). And yet these same caregivers “Don’t really notice [her] absence” either physically or mentally when she begins to slip away from them into the L.A. party scene (149). Similarly, in The Rules of Attraction, Sean’s brother asks what has happened to the seven thousand dollars he placed in Sean’s bank account but never bothers to ask how Sean is feeling, and this is at a time when they have come together due to the pending death of their father (239).
All this emphasis on possessions as the resolution to tribulations is passed down to this young generation, but instead of helping them, it leaves them feeling empty. This is because “within the very framework of this homogeneous system, we can observe the unfolding of an always renewed obsession with hierarchy and distinction” (Baudrilliard 416-417). Since their every need is met with no effort on their own part, and there are no expectations placed upon them, they are left with nothing to strive for other than the fleeting distractions they can get from their varying reckless behaviors. But the very act of consumption is a temporary solution that needs continual repeating; it only leaves these characters feeling hungrier in the end, and constantly in search of their next fix.
Every individual Ellis portrays is desperate and hungry, but the more they try to satiate this hunger with parties, drugs, alcohol, and casual sex, the more unsatisfied they become. Worse still, it places so much value upon the unstable act of sexual conquests that it leaves these individuals dependant on an unreliable variable. Sean Bateman attempts suicide when Lauren rejects him. Mary succeeds in her attempt to end her life after a perceived rejection from Sean. “”I’m doing this because I’ll never have Him,” she states (The Rules 173). It seems ridiculous for these young men and women to be so dramatic in their romantic pursuits, but they are acting in accordance with the social structure they live within. This consumerist world that they are within the confines of “does not structure social relations: it demarcates them in a hierarchical repertoire. It is formalized in a universal system of recognition of social statuses: a code of ‘social standing.’” (Baudrillard 415). This is how they form their very place in their world, and to fail at it is to lose an invaluable part of their identity (Barker 225).
Furthermore, they must continue the behavior because they are trapped in the ideology of their time. Towards the end of The Informers, an unnamed female character lies on the beach, wasting away. She has ridden the hierarchy to the very top and what she finds there is not happiness, but rather the AIDs virus. She receives no sympathy from her boyfriend, however, who describes her decline in the following manner: “her body was supple, carefully muscled, aerobicized, and now she basically looks like shit” (214). He does not have any compassion for his own dying girlfriend, he only mourns for the loss of her objectified body. She fed the system, with not only her physical form, but her very substance, and now there is no more use for her (Prosono 650). He leaves her alone on the beach to die; she is past her expiration date.
In both The Rules of Attraction and The Informers, people are viewed as products meant to be used up and discarded. Ellis uses the scenery of a small college in New England against the opposing large and vapid entertainment world of L.A. to demonstrate that it does not matter where these individuals are in the physical sense; they must live within the boundaries of their 1980s consumptive society in which consumerism dictates the hierarchy, and as a result they all relate to one another only as objects for the sole purpose of obtainment. Their affluent parental figures also contribute to the problem by seeking to connect to their children with money and possessions instead of through guidance and nurturing. This leads to a hollow existence in which “the body has become an emporium, over every detail of which a commodity may be marketed (Prosono 650). Unfortunately, this also leads to a void of inner satisfaction, because fulfillment through objects, even if the objects are people, can only be felt temporarily, while the object is being used. The world Ellis creates gives the reader a warning of sorts, against the extremes of capitalist commoditization of the individual. The only predictable result from that type of objectification is the shaming, vulgarizing and wasting away of each person who subscribes to the system.
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Sage Publications Ltd, 2008. Print
Baudrillard, Jean. "The System of Objects." Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 408-19. Web.
Ellis, Bret Easton. The Informers. New York: Random House Inc. 1994. Print.
---. The Rules of Attraction. New York: Random House, Inc. 1987. Print.
Prosono, Marvin T. “Fascism of the Skin: Symptoms of Alienation in the Body of Consumptive Capitalism.” Current Sociology. 2008; 56: 635-655. Web. 11 October 2009.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Location: Arena Sports Bar, Simi Valley, Ca.
Time: 8:00pm, Friday night
The bar is practically empty, a few men are scattered around the large main room watching football on various screens. After about five minutes a group enters, three men, one woman. They stand off to the side in a circle. The men stand with their hands in their pockets, talking. The one female stands slightly further back but still in the circle, arms crossed over her chest. She looks around the room and glances toward the door frequently. After about three minutes, she gets on her cell phone and steps out of the circle. She asks the person on the other line where they are. A fourth man joins the group. He glances over at the woman but does not say hello. When he looks away from her she looks over at him. The woman sits down at a table alone, still on phone. The men in the group break their circle to head over to the bar. The later arrival man stops at the table and grabs her arm; she looks up at him, frowning. He says, “What do you want?” She puts down phone, tells him she is thinking about going, looks down. He says he is getting her a gin and tonic and walks away. She sits at the table alone, fiddling with her phone. He returns to her table with the drink. The girl sits up taller when she sees him, and she accepts her drink with a smile. They converse for awhile and then he sits down at the table across from her. They cross their legs toward one another. As they talk, the woman smiles wide and laughs loudly. He leans in toward her. She touches her chest and her hair as she speaks. Their drinks get placed on the table closer to each other; they brush hands when they grab them at the same time. She begins to dominate the conversation, talking about work and people at work. He begins to look around the room. Another woman arrives; she greets every member of the group, heads over to their table. The two women begin to talk, after a few minutes the man gets up and begins to talk to another woman up by the bar. The woman at the table watches him as she talks to the other woman with her. After awhile others come over and the first woman stops conversing, pulls out her phone and begins texting. She stays and fiddles with her phone and watches the man she had been talking to for awhile while she finishes her drink. She exits the bar around 10:00pm without saying goodbye to the man. He watches her walk out of the bar and then turns back to his conversation.
The exchange between the woman and man I focused my observation on was quite interesting. Though their conversation was bland and impersonal, a lot was communicated by both of them via body language. But this communication was ambiguous; their signs did not appear to be picked up by one another. This immediately reminded me of the Saussure chapter we read in class. As Saussure stated, “language is a system of signs that express ideas,” and I think this definition can be applied to body language. Like any other language, the message is in danger of being lost or misconstrued. As an outsider, I could see the interest that the woman had in the man. She seemed bored and disinterested in the bar until he showed up. Once he was there, she focused on nothing but him. And I believe that her interest in him is what she intended to signify to him. Unfortunately for her, the signifiers she chose to express her original concept, attraction, did not clearly translate to the man. She did a lot of hair flipping, smiling and touching, but these signals did not seem to translate. As far as the man’s signaling goes, he seemed to also be interested. He brought her a drink and sat with her instead of staying with their main group. He leaned in close to her when he spoke and used his body to close them off from the rest of the room physically. He too seemed to be attempting to signify an interest. So why were they unable to translate each other’s signals? This is where I think ideology comes into play.
Gramsci saw ideology as “ideas, meanings and practices which, while they purport to be universal truths, are maps of meaning that sustain powerful social groups.” If we look at men and women and two very different social groups, with very different expectations of one another, it becomes easier to see why communication between this pair went sour. They both believed that the actions they were using to convey interest in one another were “universal” and believed that common sense would dictate that their messages were received loud and clear. But although hair flipping may be seen as a universal signal by women, men as a social group do not necessarily identify it as such. But because she was so caught up in her ideology, she stopped paying attention to his signs, such as his growing disinterest when she began to dictate the conversation or when she ignored him to talk to a friend. She failed to realize that he had his own set of “common sense” ideals that were dictating how he interpreted her communications. He seemed to think she had lost interest in him, and moved on to other potential women.
Finally, as I watched the woman’s mood visibly swing in accordance to how much attention she was receiving from this man, I was reminded of what Gidden said about self-identity as a project. Her confidence appeared to soar when he was around, but plummet when he was directing his attention elsewhere. Gidden said that an identity project built on “What we think we are now, in light of our past and present circumstances” as well as “what we think we would like to be, the trajectory of our hoped for future.” From the moment this man entered the bar, the woman was tuned in to his every move. Once she had his attention, she sat taller, smiled larger, she seemed to relax into the environment. His presence seemed to increase her self-confidence. And conversely, when he retreated, she seemed to shrink down into herself. She identified herself as attractive and confident when she was receiving his attention, but this self-assurance definitely wavered once he cut the attention off. She became insecure once more, retreated to her “crutch,” the phone, and eventually retreated from the scene altogether. Because she had drawn her self-confidant identity directly from his affections, when he withdrew them she became completely insecure. A lack of clear communication, expectations and ideals seemed to mow down this love affair before it could begin.