Category: Television


Reading the Bromance

Reading the BromanceI’m very thrilled to have my work included in this terrific new book on the ‘bromance’ phenomenon, Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television, edited by the wonderful Michael DeAngelis (DePaul University), out in June from Wayne State University Press in both print and ebook formats.

Reading the Bromance examines a wide range of films and TV shows replete with bromantic affection. As well discussion and analysis of bromance staples like The 40-year-old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), and I Love You, Man (2009), the book also focuses analytical attention on texts like Grumpy Old Men (1993), TV’s House, and Scream (1996); it addresses cross-cultural bromances as well, buddies in Hindi cinema, and much more. Readers will find discussion of men engaged in bromance’s obsession with mimicking homosexuality while insisting that these displays are indeed only mimicry.

My chapter is titled “‘This ain’t about your money, bro. Your boy gave you up’: Bromance and Breakup in HBO’s The Wire.” As its title indicates, this piece focuses on the acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire. This show probably isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind when one thinks of bromance, yet The Wire abounds with close male partnerships. Centrally and critically celebrated is the relationship between drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his right-hand man, Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), which is phrased in terms of family but—I argue—consolidated in a series of romantic and virtually sexual gestures.

Authors include Hilary Radner, David Greven, Nick Davis, Meheli Sen, Jenna Weinman, Ken Feil, Peter Forster, Ron Becker, Murray Pomerance, and editor Michael DeAngelis.

Praise for Reading the Bromance:

Everything you always wanted to know about the bromance, but were afraid to ask! This new volume explores contemporary masculinity, homosocial desire, and homosexual/homophobic knowing as it plays out across film and TV texts such as I Love You, Man, Superbad, The Wire, Jackass, and Humpday. In thoughtful and provocative ways, DeAngelis and his authors cover the history, forms, and multiple meanings of this curious phenomenon. Essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary models of gender and sexuality.

– Harry M. Benshoff, Professor of Radio, TV, and Film at University of North Texas and author of Dark Shadows (Wayne State University Press, 2011)

This lively and perceptive collection of essays posits the ‘bromance’ film as an ambivalent response to gay liberation and the women’s movement that allows for expanded representations of male intimacy even when operating within heteronormativity. Reading the Bromance is a valuable volume for those who want to understand the role of gender and sexuality in contemporary popular cinema.

– Mary Desjardins, author of Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video and co-editor of Dietrich Icon

Reading the Bromance‘s remarkably sophisticated essays analyze the twisted generic complexity of a long history of representing male-male relations. Studying the formula’s homosocial and heteronormative behaviors, these authors demonstrate how these texts permit fluid cultural and social adventures involving emotions, maturity, gender, taste, and physicality. A terrific collection.

– Janet Staiger, William P. Hobby Centennial Professor Emeritus in Communication and Professor Emeritus of Women’s and Gender Studies.

Reading the Bromance is available in June from Wayne State University Press.

 


 

My Kitchen Ideology Rules

mkrlogoNote: I have not watched every episode of My Kitchen Rules, nor do I intend to. So it is certainly possible that events might occur on the show that challenge the perspective I have put forward below. But I doubt it. Nor do I think such events would invalidate in a general way my main point.

On the weekend, my partner and I went to the Royal Hobart Regatta, which includes a few water-focused attractions, but primarily exists as a series of carnival rides, sideshow games, and food stalls. Nevertheless, Hobartians are afforded a public holiday in the Regatta’s honour, and since the sun was shining we decided to walk my dog Ahab down there (where I popped a handful of balloons with a dart and won a fluffy toy, which Ahab—with an immediate thrill—recognised as a gift). I didn’t expect to encounter any vegan food there, and we only intended to visit quickly, so I decided I’d just have lunch when I got back home.

regatta1However, once we arrived I was delighted to spot a van advertising both vegetarian and vegan tacos. To find such an offering felt like a small coup, and I strongly believe that such endeavours (especially from small businesses) ought to be rewarded, so I made sure I grabbed one of those vegan tacos on the way out—and very fresh, delicious, and challengingly spicy it was too. Nor was I the only purchaser: the operators had three more vegan tacos poised to go. At a carnival, surrounded by corndog and fairy floss vendors, vegan food was being served—and selling. Ten years ago, I seriously doubt whether the young person serving would have known what a vegan was. Moments like these are satisfying because they bring to attention that for an increasing number of people eating is an act invested with moral significance. More and more people are bothering to consider where their food comes from, how much it suffered when it was an animal, and whether the mere taste of something is worth an animal’s suffering or being killed at all.

mkr1Yet to watch the Seven Network’s My Kitchen Rules is to be transported to an earlier time—one almost Medieval in its emphasis on varieties of animal flesh, and on animals as not more than mere ingredients. Let’s bear in mind that a 2009 survey indicated that 7% of the Australian population identified as vegetarian (5%) or vegan (2%). In addition to vegan food now being served by carnival vendors, there are several reasons to suspect that this figure has increased since 2009 (e.g. the growth and large-scale campaigns of Australian anti-cruelty alliance Animals Australia; the emergence of a majority consumer-preference for cage-free eggs and other products with a higher welfare value). Yet any vegetarian or vegan viewer of My Kitchen Rules is struck hard by how thoroughly the show excludes all ethical comment on meat and dairy consumption. Veal is a perennial favourite on MKR, as it is on rival Network Ten’s hit cooking show Masterchef. Both Masterchef and MKR do not address, critique, respectfully (or even disrespectfully) disagree with cruelty-free diets; they enforce the dominant ideology of meat-eating by pretending that they do not exist at all.

The purpose that products of animal death are put to on My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef is transparently frivolous—is purely recreational: this is sport-cooking. Consequently, it is in the show’s interest to exclude totally any questions of whether it is ethical to eat meat as a general matter, and to broadly disacknowledge that such questioners exist within the general public.

In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer described the process of indoctrination through which budding scientists were inured to the ethical problems raised by animal testing. Students’ success and certification depended on their learning to regard animals as replaceable laboratory equipment (equipment that was in many cases purchased from the same catalogues and suppliers as non-sentient items like clamps and scalpels). For the scientists described by Singer, ethical questions were not fundamental to animal use but an irrelevant and irrational (and thus ‘unscientific’) interference in scientific progress. The use of animals clearly differs in the case of My Kitchen Rules: living animals are not tortured by MKR contestants the way they are tortured by the scientists Singer mentions. However, MKR, like Masterchef, subjects contestants and viewers alike to a culinary culture in which ethical questions are similarly irrelevant. The animals concerned are ‘ingredients’ and do not warrant ethical contemplation. Historically, many scientists and students who have opposed animals’ treatment as ‘equipment’ have found their professional and educational opportunities blocked. Willingness to disregard animal suffering is constructed as an inherent and non-negotiable sign of one’s ability and identity as a ‘serious’ scientist. Similarly, the deliberate disregard for cruelty-free diets in MKR and Masterchef perpetuates a culinary ideology in which ethical objections prevent one from being a ‘serious’ chef. Consequently, the show perpetuates the myth that vegetarianism or veganism is ‘anti-culinary’ in its exclusion of particular, ‘important’ ingredients, and that vegetarian/vegan cooking has marginal culinary, artistic, or labour value.

Harry and Christo of Seven's My Kitchen Rules. Much to the judges' and their own disappointment, they fucked up the veal dish. Imagine how the calf's mother felt.

Harry and Christo of Seven’s My Kitchen Rules. Much to the judges’ and their own disappointment, they fucked up the veal dish. Imagine how the calf’s mother felt.

MKR presents a domain in which meat operates as a signifier of many things. It may signify class belonging, due to a particular meat’s expensiveness or cooking difficulty; labour or artistry, through a delicate balancing of flavours and textures; familial bonds or affections, through recipes bestowed and inherited; it may signify national or ethnic belonging, or operate as a signifier of friendship between contestants. Yet it never signifies what it most nakedly is: the flesh of a once-living creature, and an artifact of slaughter. In this totalising and certainly deliberate disacknowledgement of meat’s origin, MKR constructs a kind of consumer fairyland, located in an ethical vacuum—a simulated reality in which eating animals raises no more ethical question than shooting someone in a videogame. Contestants (and viewers) are invited to ‘play’ with it to the fullest extent—to revel in its variety, smells, tastes, textures, to take an almost hysterically bourgeois interest in its presentation. Here is food as an artistic medium seemingly without material origin.

But, crucially, it does have an origin: it comes from sponsor and supermarket monopolist Coles, who flood the show’s breaks with advertisements for the products utilised by contestants. And here of course lies the reason for the veritable matrix of normative consumer-behavior the show constructs. In the world of MKR, the animals killed for meat-products are non-existent; they are ‘absent referents,’ as Carol J. Adams famously described the animals we eat. Absent also is the farming, transport, stocking, and scientific labour involved in food production. Instead, food is the fresh and seemingly ‘magical’ production of the supermarket giant. Clearly, contrasting ethical positions are deliberately disregarded because of the sponsor’s desire to profit from the sale of animal products. Yet the show’s ‘reality’ format makes especially insidious its manufacturing of a cultural and consumer landscape bereft of all ethical questioning and protest.

 

Cited:

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. 1990. Continuum, 2010.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 1975. London: Pimlico, 1995.

 

 

*Readers are advised the following concerns the show’s Australian 2012 incarnation.

The Biggest Loser is over for another year—and it was difficult to not be charmed by the triumph of bashful grouch Margie, who provided much of the show’s humour: in her tantrums against her trainer and regime; her self-deprecating humour; her refusal to dilute her personality in social niceties like many of her peers; and in the show’s embarrassing failure to observe her sexuality in a mock-dating segment early on. Yes, the theme was ‘singles,’ this time around, with a focus on readying contestants for the love from which their weight had apparently disqualified them.

The Biggest Loser, like Extreme Makeover or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is in the business of policing deviant appearances, and dramatizing the urgency and fundamental goodness of that policing. However, part of that dramatization is of course dressing it up. This season, that policing was rephrased as defense against the threat of deep, social and personal exclusion (as the ‘singles’ theme indicates): contestants simply could not live fulfilling lives because of their weight. Or so we’re led to understand.

Locating deficiency solely within its contestants, The Biggest Loser never even entertains the notion that society’s expectations of individuals are not empirical, immovable, and infallible. From the show’s perspective, if a contestant had ‘never been kissed’ because of their weight (as at least two had not), this was an understandable (and, actually, condoned) disqualification. They had the power to fix it. It was not worth considering that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being kissed, at all—nor indeed from kissing someone. Desire for social (and, through this, personal) acceptance is a crucial motivator in The Biggest Loser; however, it is always the individual who must transform, totally, to bring this about.

With self-righteous urgency, the disciplining of unacceptable bodies also wears the altruistic mask of ‘serious health concern.’ Now, many of the people on this show are overweight to an extent that puts them in real danger, and it is difficult to take issue with their avoidance of early death. Similarly, I am not denying that this show has an emotionally transformative effect on those who participate in it. What I am getting at is the somewhat cute assumption that what its producers seek to create primarily, and what its audience are primarily moved by, is deep investment in these transformations, in the revelation of inner potential—or in the warding off of diabetes and heart attacks. The show’s medical concerns are undermined by its more conspicuous fascination with exposed blubber, with rituals of humiliating bodily exposure. Moreover, it takes little imagination to consider those contestants who must have been rejected from the show in its initial intake for being too overweight, too far gone. Behind The Biggest Loser that we see must slump those who were more medically urgent, yet could not usefully reinforce the show’s ideology of magical rebirth and integration into the status quo (for more on this see Fiona Whittington-Walsh’s essay, “Beautiful Ever After”).

Where we are gripped by a contestant’s emotional transformations, their ‘journey’ (as the show unceasingly puts it), we have also to consider to what extent our joy is, again, the joy of normalcy, of new acceptance. Are we actually celebrating the achievement of a dream that one, of any size, should not have to ‘dream’ in the first place?

I’ve argued that in the appeal of The Biggest Loser is a desire for social conformity, for the policing of ‘abnormality,’ for the correction of that which seems to challenge the status quo. What these very large bodies (humiliatingly paraded at various junctures prior to their transformation) troublingly suggest is not some mere visual affront (the offensiveness of ‘fat’), but a more disturbing denial of the social norms in which the rest of us are painstakingly expert, and through which we measure and understand ourselves. In the revelation of shirtless contestants—fat obscenely cascading the length of their bodies—is not simply an eyesore. Shockingly evoked is also the idea that one could possibly live without observing the codes and conventions surrounding physical appearance the rest of us take so seriously.

Within any culture, a level of difference between people is expected and desired, however only within the parameters of what that culture finds acceptable. René Girard writes that “Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, and its mortality” (The Scapegoat 21). For Girard this dynamic is most easily exemplified in the case of physical disabilities, which can challenge with their “impression of a disturbing dynamism” (21) an otherwise stabilized and accepted system of physical differences. Similarly, the ‘obscenely’ overweight is so perhaps because it challenges the individuality we cultivate and believe we have achieved within the rules—achieved while actually rigorously observing society’s every standard, especially those relating to how others perceive us. According to Girard, each of us values ourselves as somehow ‘different’ from those around us. Yet what we see here is difference on a scale that upheaves the very coordinates of that difference, of our difference. Extreme difference, I’m arguing, tends to uncomfortably highlight, to even insult, our total and unquestioning adherence to social norms—tends to suggest to us that we’re not different or individual, at all.

Following this, encouraged in the viewer of The Biggest Loser is, surely, an almost aggressive desire to see normative codes of appearance and behaviour reinforced and revalued, to see awakened in contestants a ‘necessary’ self-discipline. In this we also see a reflection of the fascist ethos. The trainer “Commando,” an unsmiling military-themed character in combat boots and camouflage who runs fitness programs like R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), clearly illustrates this connection. One might easily argue that behind the most rigorous fitness routines lies a kind of fascist idealism—a preoccupation with strength and endurance, with self-denial and discipline (leading frequently to a desire for self-discipline in others, or revulsion at its absence). Through Commando this tendency is utterly undisguised—even glamorized. Whatever the case, the barking soldier was a useful enforcer of a broader cultural desire for physical conformity, for machination, for the regulation of difference outside the system. And he was so because of the affinity that the broader status quo shares with the fascist mentality when it comes to policing these disgusting bodies.

Much more positively, with the show’s intense focus on social acceptance, particularly that proven by romantic (heterosexual) coupling, it was heartening to see no-frills lesbian Margie come out on top, and the show come to terms with her sexuality along the way (a revised dating segment allowed her female suitors). In Margie’s victory one could celebrate someone fitting in, finding acceptance, and learning to love herself—however not quite in the ideologically homogenized way the show seemed most keen on.

 

Cited:

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Whittington-Walsh, Fiona. “Beautiful Ever After: ‘Extreme Makeover’ and the Magical, Mythical Spectacle of Rebirth.” Popping Culture, 6th ed. Eds. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris. Boston: Pearson, 2010. 179-190.