The Second Person in Citizen: An American Lyric

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.

Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics.  While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years).  Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.

Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action.  And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black people are dying

That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted).  So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”

This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice.  The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation.  On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading.  There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness.  A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish.  It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books).  Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.

So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.)  The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience.  How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.

Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this.  All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.

The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The After Hours”

April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

CM Capture 14See also all five preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ve mentioned before that Serling had two daughters who were growing up as The Twilight Zone had its initial run on CBS.  This seems to be one of the main influences on some of the female-protagonists episodes which he wrote for the series, and none more so than “The After Hours” (viewable online on YouTube).

A few months before The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959, Barbie was introduced to the American marketplace.  Whether or not Serling and/or his wife bought the dolls for their daughters, it’s pretty obvious he noticed her appearance.  Because look: Marsha White, our protagonist in “The After Hours,” is Barbie.

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This becomes explicit late in the episode, but the resemblance is there from the very beginning.

Many of the themes that Serling and his collaborators examine through these five episodes — the increasing mobility and independence of women in post-war America; women seeing their own, anxious images in mirrors, doppelgangers, and filmed selves; a pervasive sense of loneliness; a subtext, perhaps unintentional, of sexual violence — many of these themes are wrapped up here in the image of the Barbie-mannequin come to life.  They are accompanied by other themes that we now think of as integral to an understanding of the 1950s: consumerism, the understanding of Americans primarily as customers, purchasers, consumers, and the blossoming of advertising and marketing to encourage such an understanding.

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Marsha White, in this episode, is the desirable image, the advertisement, brought to life.  She is, in a way, her own doppelganger, her own uncanny second self.  This episode is ahead of its time in the way in which it points out how often such images encourage women to pursue an impossible body, an impossible image of perfection.  One of the ways in which this is foregrounded is in repeated shots of Marsha’s legs.  After her attempt to purchase a gift — a thimble, for which she has seen an advertisement — ends in an odd trip to an empty floor of the department store, she finds herself locked into the store, alone, after hours.  And in her desperation, she tries to run in her heels; the shots of these attempts are painful, showing the way in which a real women’s legs are made to look like a doll’s when any physical exertion is attempted in the shoes they are encouraged to wear.

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Ankles ready to snap at any moment.

In one particularly effective sequence, Marsha cries for help with mounting panic through a frosted-glass window: “Somebody?  Please, I’m locked in here… Anyone?  I — I — I — I need some help… Anyone? Please?”  The smearing and blurring of the perfect image through this bubbled glass is powerful, in ways that are hard to define.  It’s a view through a non-window of one who begins to realize, or believe, or remember, that she is a non-person.

"I need some help."

“I need some help.”

Welcomed back to the fold of mannequins at the end of the episode, Marsha says it was “ever so much fun” to be a person, an “Outsider.”  And yet she is relieved to be back in the store, among her fellow mannequins, with no decisions to make, frozen, displaying the store’s wares.

There’s a bizarre touch in this scene of exposition, when Marsha remembers what she is and the nature of the mannequins’ agreement — each gets one month as a human, then returns to let the other one leave.  In the background are three skiers, each wearing his own ski mask.  It’s an odd choice, to say the least.  In 2013, it reminds one equally of a hostage situation and of the Russian feminist activists of Pussy Riot.  And perhaps that’s as good a note as any on which to sum up this series of posts.

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The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

March 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

CM Capture 14See the first post in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one for background.

“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (viewable online at Vimeo) is a quintessential TZ episode, and Rod Serling script, in the way that it teeters between indulgence in nostalgia and examination of nostalgia as a force in American life.  It was directed by Mitchell Leisen, an art director and costume designer who broke through and became a director of some important films in the 1930s and ’40s.  It makes perfect sense that he worked with Billy Wilder and other heavy hitters of the studio golden age; this episode would be a great entr’acte or palate cleanser for a double feature of Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, between which it fits chronologically.

Leisen’s emphasis on costumes and design shows through in the episode, which features an aging actress (Ida Lupino) who, rather than seeking out new roles, prefers to sit in her darkened study watching her past performances, alone, wearing terrific dress after terrific dress, with a glass of something strong.  It looks great, and the flickering light of the projector is used evocatively and beautifully as a visual motif.  (You’ll have to take a look at the episode online; I’m too lazy to gif or video clip examples of these sequences at the moment.)

Early on, the episode features a gorgeous sequence in which Barbara Jean, the actress, startles her maid by emerging from behind the screen on which her younger self, playing a nurse in a golden-age war romance, is being projected.

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The episode had begun, in Serling’s narration, with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.”  The reflexivity of this construction, the near-mirroring of Barbara Jean’s younger (ostensibly fictive) and older (ostensibly real) gestures, and the horror on that supposedly fictive self’s face, are the first glimpses of the theme that Serling, the episodes’ directors, and the talented actresses would carry through these five season one episodes: women mirrored, glimpsing their own objectification, their troubled place within both the episodes’ contemporary America and the frame of the viewer’s television screen, their supposed need and desire for the attention and protection of others.

Leisen does wonderful work with these frame-within-frame structures throughout the episode.  But Lupino adds her own strokes of genius (I presume, not having seen the script, not having been on the set): the way, in the sequence shown above, her hand begins and stays at her neck, while her younger self’s hand begins at the mouth and works its troubled way down to her neck, exposes her self-consciousness about aging, and about, well, her neck.  (Lupino, incidentally, would later become the only woman to direct an episode of the original TZ series.)

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The aging Snow White in the land of studio moguls.

Barbara Jean’s agent encourages her to “get [her] war paint on” and come to her studio to hear about a new part being offered to her.  Dressed like a young starlet, she is told that the part would be that of a mother.  Horrified that she is no longer expected to play the young romantic lead, she leaves in a huff, retreating to the screening room.

Seeing her leading man, now an happily aged businessman, is the last straw: Barbara Jean manages to will herself into the screen, living inside the projector in Hollywood’s idealized past, a half-person half-projection.  Now, there is more than a little of the typical 1950s plot element of a woman needing her man above all in this episode (more than in the others under discussion here).  But in the end, Barbara Jean makes her own choice, and that choice has as much to do with “the pictures getting small,” to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.  The questions remain more or less the same today: Who wants to play a second-fiddle mother when they’ve been the lead?  And why can’t the romantic lead ever be older than 25?

This escape into film is set up beautifully by the episode’s beginning, in which the viewer’s television screen is filled with the film being projected onto Barbara Jean’s screen, making the fictive “real” until the camera cuts to her watching that screen.  It is somewhat interesting to speculate on how obvious it was to contemporary viewers that they were watching a pastiche of an old Hollywood film: the treacly lighting and music tend to make me think that they were partly let in on the joke, but it’s not as though material so far removed from this were uncommon on television in 1959.

Hearing the cries of her agent from within the screen to come back and live in the present, “Barbie” (as he calls her — and yes, the Barbie doll was launched earlier in 1959, and yes, this will come up again) turns back to the “camera” and camera, gazes out at him, kisses and throws her scarf toward him (or at least, toward the fictive “camera”).

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Leisen’s background really comes together here: in this shot and others, the layering of interior set on interior set, the inclusion of frames within frames, the desire to wear elaborate, cumbersome, gorgeous costumes always, leads to a conclusion of remarkable beauty.  (It’s also possible, as an aside, to see the episode, and especially this ending, through the lens of camp and the gay embrace of glamour, especially in light of Leisen’s oeuvre.)

Barbara Jean’s decision can be seen as a choice to become an image, an object: she is blowing a kiss and throwing a scarf to messy reality, to her declining prospects for celebrity or employment, to a woman’s natural aging.  But of course she is performing as a subject, too, choosing to “live” on her own terms rather than “age gracefully.”  It’s probably my least favorite of the five episodes under discussion here, but it contains riches, and it fills me with questions about its production and how (or whether) it fits with the other episodes in Serling’s writing.

Women in Trouble: The Twilight Zone, Season One

March 17, 2013 § 5 Comments

On February 19, 1960, at the end of the twentieth episode (“Elegy”) of a new series entitled The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, the mind behind the series, unexpectedly came onto the screen and delivered the following message:

[First clause cut off in surviving footage, likely “I want to”]… settle an argument to the effect that I’m not at my best when writing scripts for women.  Miss Vera Miles takes my side, in a most unusual and unique story we call “Mirror Image.”  I hope to see you next week: you in your living room, and Miss Vera Miles and the rest of us in the Twilight Zone.

tz - women scripts

I’ve been watching the Twilight Zone in chronological order via Netflix’s streaming service; on-screen appearances by Serling were not yet a normal part of the series, so this made me sit up and take notice.  It made me notice, too, that only two of the first twenty episodes had focused on female protagonists.  I would agree that these were not the best-written episodes, but I had appreciated the conceits of both episodes, and they were among my favorite episodes visually.

As it happened, the weak ratio of female star turns in the first season only slightly improved — five of 36 (36!) episodes — but these five clearly mattered a great deal to Serling, and I’d love to research the backstory of his reasons for the on-screen proclamation.  The five episodes hang together in fascinating ways, and form (consciously?) a suite of stories about women in American life on the cusp of second-wave feminism.

In some ways, the focus in the series on male protagonists and, often, exclusively male narratives was in keeping with the 1950s television (and broader cultural) emphasis on the heroic male in westerns, science fiction, and other genres with pulp roots.  The female episodes of The Twilight Zone must have stood out for contemporary viewers from such offerings, especially as all five are focused not on domesticity or even married women, but women working, traveling, making their own decisions (for better or, more often, worse).

I’ll explore each of these five episodes in a series of posts.  I’m especially interested in a really interesting subtext in these five, and in series as a whole: women as subjects as well as televised objects, women looking back at the male gaze.  This would be nicely summarized in the very first image of the opening sequence used for the last few episodes of the season:

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Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.

Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate.  The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.”  Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad.  While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest.  Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone.  Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.

Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot.  Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance.  We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment.  Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.

Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead.  It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me.  If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you.  But if you do, I’ll kill you.”

With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr.  The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming.  Go and meet her!”  (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.)  They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.

Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often.  The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief.  Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women.  But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her.  Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing.  That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.

Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here?  Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son?  Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source?  Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.

Fortune Is a Pirate: The Second Day

June 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

The second day’s tales are devoted to the theme of “those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a state of unexpected happiness.”  Fortune leads the ten’s protagonists to the bottom of her wheel, and back up again.  What forms does Fortune take, in these stories?  Let’s see, a la those creepy “Love Is” comics:

Fortune is a fickle mob.

Fortune is a jolly nobleman.

Fortune is a band of robbers.

Fortune is an absent lover.

Fortune is unexpected war.

Fortune is a disguised princess.

Fortune is a pirate (repeatedly).

Fortune is a storm at sea (also repeatedly).

Fortune is a counterfeit sister.

Fortune is a greedy priest.

Fortune is beauty.

Most of all, fortune is lust.  An interesting feature of this day is that Boccaccio seems to insist on the prerogatives of the body.  Chastity is depicted as a rarity, unrealistic (and perhaps undesirable) for the vast majority of both sexes.  Panfilo’s story, the seventh, is interesting in the lengths to which it goes: the daughter of the Sultan of Babylon is caught in a sea-storm on her way to her promised husband.  She is incredibly beautiful, and claimed as a wife or mistress by nine men in four years, all attracted to her beauty, and frequently killing off her previous lover to claim her.  With the help of an advisor, she’s returned to her father.  Of course, the sultan demands to know how she’s survived; prepared by the advisor, she concocts a story of how she’s protected her virginity for four years.  The joke is that he buys it.

In the ninth story, Filomena (queen of the day) tells of a merchant, Bernabo, who is so confident that his wife remains true to him while he’s away on business that he bets a huge amount of money that a more cynical merchant cannot seduce her in six months.  He doesn’t (he sneaks into her room in a chest to steal proof instead), but Bernabo believes that he has, and orders his wife killed for her betrayal.  Later, having disguised herself as a man and become a powerful advisor to a sultan, she gets the liar to admit the true story and is restored to her husband.

All of this sounds very traditional, but it is instantly rebuked by Dioneo.  (Dioneo, it’s become clear, is the Dionysus of the group.)  He changes his planned story to illustrate “the stupidity of Bernabo” in thinking that wives remain chaste while their husbands are away.  As he says in his introduction: “I shall show the even greater foolishness of those who, overestimating their natural powers, resort to specious reasoning to persuade themselves that they can do the impossible, and who attempt to mould other people in their own image, thus flying in the face of nature.”  He tells of a woman who, married to an old, impotent man, is kidnapped by a horny pirate and discovers the joys of getting it on every day.  It’s a funny story, full of puns and witty devices.

Another note: for the time, Boccaccio seems remarkably sympathetic to women.  The stories his people tell can contradict or support this thesis to varying degrees, but it especially shows up in his framing narrative: he seems to have genuine affection for his women as well as his men, to a degree I did not sense in, say, Dante.  After all, even though Dioneo receives his privilege, he receives it from a woman; and the first three rulers are women.  He also has already shown a remarkably progressive attitude toward Jews and Muslims for the time, although I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop on that.

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