Tuesday, January 25, 2011
(early draft) Hostile Tolerance: Gendered Mythologies and the Performance of Identity in Showtime’s United States of Tara
May 7, 2009
Hostile Tolerance: Gendered Mythologies and the Performance of Identity
in Showtime’s United States of Tara
It is commonplace, even expected, for competing perspectives to dominate contemporary discourse communities across the disciplines in America, as well as in our popular culture. American society has developed a strong cultural mythology around the notion of inclusivity, tolerance, and acceptance of difference, which roots itself deeply in the American ideals of freedom, acceptance, and the notion of equality. An uneasy tension accompanies this tolerance of difference, however, especially in the areas of religion, race, gender, and disability. Furthermore, the cultural mythologies that inform how this discourse “plays out” in the consumption of mass culture are largely invisible, and the individuals who consume and replicate the value systems inherent in the artifacts of popular culture subconsciously accomplish an ideological hegemony.
Sometimes, the cultural mythologies that inform a particular discourse actually work to undermine the merit and importance ostensibly accorded by this very act of entertaining the topic in discourse or representation. In other words, sometimes what seems to be the case in a particular representation, on closer inspection, is not the case at all—and the discourse of tolerance may prove to be damaging to the discourse being tolerated in the first place: a phenomenon I term “hostile tolerance”.
Hostile tolerance is particularly notable in representations of gender on contemporary television series, as observed in the work by several pop culture essayists in recent years. In her essay “Signs of Intelligent Life on TV”, for example, columnist Susan Douglas reflects on three popular TV shows: ER, NYPD Blue, and Chicago Hope. Douglas identifies herself as among the target audience for these shows because of their ostensibly positive and empowering representations of women, but concludes that, although the surface message seems to empower women, on all three shows women “take a backseat to the boys” and ultimately, their entry into traditionally masculine domains causes damage to heteronormative structures, such as the family and male/female relationships.
Marisa Connolly mounts a similar argument in her essay “Homosexuality on Television,” about the long-running, popular series Will and Grace: a show that, purportedly, represents a divergence from compulsory heteronormativity. As Connolly demonstrates, however, the show systematically “heteronormalizes” Will and Grace’s relationship, undermining its theme of difference in sexual relationships. In this show, then, there is another incidence of the tolerance of discourse—the realistic and normalized representation of non-normative sexuality—which proves hostile to the discourse of homosexuality itself.
My analysis of Showtime’s new show United States of Tara joins these authors in the discourse about what is, ultimately, a tolerant narrative in popular culture that proves hostile to its apparent discourse. The comic/dramatic series follows the life of Tara, who suffers from DID—dissociative identity disorder—more commonly known as “multiple personalities.” Tara is a professional muralist, wife to Max, and mother to two teens. The show centers on Tara’s various identities, how they interact in the family and the community, and Tara as a patient in treatment for a psychiatric disorder.
United States of Tara encompasses two theoretical strands that are important to consider: that of mental illness (disability) and that of gender, particularly the cache of gendered characteristics ascribed to maternity. Appealing primarily to an audience of postmodern mothers—mothers who struggle with competing demands from the workplace, the family, and their own personal needs for care and self-actualization—the show entertains the possibility for alternative manifestations of identity in the mother’s body.
In the end, however, deviation from the heteronormative gender roles is pathologized and censured, metatextually, by Tara’s family and community. More significantly, deviation is marked and censured by the audience itself through cultural interpretation. Ultimately, United States of Tara reifies heteronormative values. Furthermore, by using DID and the behavior of Tara’s alters as a trope to signify the performance of alternatively gendered identity, United States of Tara participates in a long tradition in artistic representations of pathologizing, diminishing, and demonizing difference by casting it as mad, grotesque, or monstrous. Consumption of United States of Tara by a mass audience signifies two interdependent aspects of the cultural mythology of normativity. It demonstrates the audience’s receptiveness to the normative perspective that is implicit in the program, and it also signifies the audience’s perpetuation of the mythologies that inform the normative perspective.
Historically, the mentally ill characters on television programs have been ancillary characters who serve the narrative by providing a locus for such tropes as evil, disorder, or unruliness. They are cast as violent, dangerous, and unpredictable, providing dramatic tension, and acting as foils to mentally able characters, who, in turn, interact with them toward a resolution that restores a normative status quo: goodness, order, and rule-of-law.
Another historical function that the representation of madness serves is that of the spectacle, which inspires pity and loathing while at the same time it expresses a cathartic, temporary release from the normative status quo. Several Hollywood films have capitalized on the spectacle of mental illness in a range of genres: from those claiming verisimilitude to those of pure fantasy; this madness often serving the demonizing function at the same time as it fascinates. Entertainment by the spectacle is a longstanding tradition that epitomizes the concept of hostile tolerance as I am using it: it represents a temporary relaxation of normative boundaries, a release from convention that alleviates ideological tension implicit in oppression that is, nonetheless, temporary. At carnivale’s end, rule and order are duly restored and the king of the festival is sacrificed to the catharsis.
A more recent trend in the treatment of mental illness on television is toward normalizing the mentally ill protagonist. House MD, for example, features a protagonist who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Dr. House’s mental illness is openly acknowledged and treated as part of the subject matter of the show. He is shown to be a productive, quite valuable, member of society—a huge step toward normalizing the condition of mental illness. An HBO series entitled In Treatment, focuses on individuals in the midst of long-term therapy. The range of personalities, their realism, believability, and identifiability all point toward a trend of normalizing the representation of mental illness on television. Reality shows that center on rehabilitation and therapy highlight its being more commonplace than demonic as well.
The popularity of mental illness as a theme in contemporary television shows suggests a few things about the target demographic for these shows, i.e. consumers of American mass culture. One thing that is apparent is that the craving for the spectacle – the curiosity, voyeurism, and catharsis – are persistent strands in popular entertainment. Furthermore, it suggests a destigmatization of mental illness in the popular imagination. This destigmatization means that, now, it might be acceptable to identify with a mentally ill character—where historically that would have been a monstrous or grotesque identification. Identifying with the mentally ill suggests the ambiguous relationship the audience has with postmodern reality, its inconsistency and fragmented worldview. It reflects anxieties about appropriate behavioral roles and identity politics. Finally, television functions as a medium which both explains cultural phenomenon and acts as a refuge from cultural reality. Mental illness provides a device to facilitate a disconnection from cultural reality—which is, in fact, comprised[k2] of and shored up with cultural mythology, not reality.
United States of Tara is juxtaposed with other contemporary representations of mental illness that seem to normalize psychiatric conditions and invite viewers to identify with those mentally ill characters. The show also collides with the genre of “family comedy” with a female foil in the lead (think I Love Lucy,or Roseanne). Tara is cast as a believable wife, mother, sister, and daughter. As herself, the target audience (recall, postmodern working mothers) can readily identify with Tara. However, as analysis of the treatment of gendered performances exhibited by Tara’s alters will show, Tara’s DID isn’t normalized through the semiotic discourse in the show at all. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. Tara’s DID becomes a trope by which a semiotic deconstruction of the fluidity of gender performance takes place, heteronormative mores are reinforced, and deviance is pathologized, which links it more closely to early representations of deviance as monstrous and fearsome than it does to postmodern acceptance.
The choice of mental illness, and specifically DID, is a complex signifier in terms of contemporary popular culture as well as one of the reasons that United States of Tara attracts a broad audience. DID, as a device, specifically speaks to the notion of postmodern indeterminacy and polysemy[k3] (or the possibility for multiple meanings to exist in a single sign, word, action, or person) in the cultural imagination. In “Television as a Deep Metaphor in Deconstruction,” Raymond Gozzi Jr. demonstrates that indeterminacy is and must be a primary motive for media programmers trying to attract a mass audience in today’s popular culture. The more indeterminate the message, he argues, the more likely the broader audience is to interpret that message in a way that is consistent with their multifaceted set of independent values. Vagueness, in other words, guarantees that more people will find a way to identify with the vaguely conveyed notion, and more people identifying with the message translates, for network programmers, to a larger share of the audience.
The phenomenon of multiple personalities also appeals to the audience’s anxiety about postmodern identity politics. Competition from oppositional discourses and the illusion of choice—which is in reality dissonant with the larger cultural discourse—cause anxiety in many individuals. The target audience for a show like United States of Tara shares much with the audience for a show like Desperate Housewives—specifically, the shows target working mothers, who feel compelled to navigate a labyrinth of complex and incompatible possibilities. To put it simply: embracing one possibility necessarily precludes another possibility. However, this is dissonant with the American myths of meritocracy and choice. Entertaining the notion of multiple personalities provides a framework for dissociating and embracing conflicting possibilities simultaneously. The logical extension of this play within the context of identity is the appeal that United States of Tara has for wish fulfillment. Like Desperate Housewives, United States of Tara explores the complexity of female identity in a postmodern context. And like the spectacle of carnivale, identifying with Tara enables the audience to play with multiple manifestations of identity and to contest the dominant gender narrative, at least temporarily.
Tara performs four semiotically constructed identities. According to Umberto Eco, semiotic theory is implicit in all systems of interpretation, which is salient being that interpretation itself is the pivotal point on which semiotic analysis rests. Other theories and critical viewpoints, however, provide the ideological lens by which an interpretation is made. The framework for this semiotic analysis of gendered ideology and performative identity in United States of Tara rests on the foundational semiotic theory of Samuel Peirce, the body theories of Judith Butler, and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies.
Peirce’s semiotic theory establishes the framework of sign systems, whereby a “signifier”—arbitrary in and of itself—suggests a “signified,” or an endowment of meaning; together, they constitute a complete sign[k4] . Signs, then, accumulate to construct “sign systems,” which, in turn, compromise meaningful units of knowledge about larger concepts, phenomena, and so on. One very significant aspect of Peircian semiotic theory is the notion that signfication, or the creation of meaning, is simultaneously interpretive, subconscious, and instantaneous. Peirce also gives us the notion that interpretation is accomplished through accessing the larger cultural consciousness, thus resulting in the creation of “knowledge” that is socially agreed upon. While important, this notion alone is problematic insofar as the phenomenon of interpretation is ambiguous and vague. The “how” and “why” of that instantaneous interpretation remains largely evasive.
Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” intersects with Peircian semiotics by applying the interpretive framework of socially constructed sign systems to the concept of gender. Butler shows how gender is different than sex and encompasses a moray of social mores, behaviors and values that are constructed as masculine or feminine and enacted through the performance of socially agreed upon signifiers of masculinity and femininity. Her work separates the concept of gender—a significant aspect of identity—from the body and deconstructs it, showing how gender itself is a semiotic construction reflecting communally agreed upon social signifiers. Still, Butler’s theory doesn’t explore in-depth the mechanism by which the interpretation of social signifiers occurs.
Roland Barthes’s Mythologies provides the link that explores the mechanism by which instantaneous, subconscious, and socially agreed upon judgments—in Barthes’s words, the “what-goes-without-saying”—that occurs in the interpretive process. These mythologies represent the cultural narrative constructed upon unspoken assumptions that are both the foundation for and the cause of the interpretations they produce. They both constitute and enable a socially constructed interpretation of signifiers. Finally, they embody the corpus of signifiers called upon to perform identity. Mythology, perception, and performance interact perpetually to produce meaning.
Tara performs four semiotically constructed identities that explore alternative possibilities that are largely gendered and centered around the feminine ethic of care and the role of the mother. According to the premise of the show, Tara’s other personalities, or alters, compensate for Tara’s perceived deficiencies. Clinically, the development of dissociative personalities is theorized to derive from trauma, particularly violent or sexual trauma. The audience’s ready identification with a dissociative protagonist implies the correllation of trauma with socially imposed behavioral mores and proscribed roles—specifically those associated with gender and maternity. [k5]
The ethic of care itself is a hotly contested issue deriving from second wave feminism in the United States, particularly in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. However, debate around this issue seems to center on whether or not caring should be a compulsory role for women and whether the choice to embrace a feminine ethic of care can be cast as a feminist position. The discourse fails to interrogate the notion of a care ethic itself, and whether or not the domestic tasks and chores associated with that ethic should be so firmly entrenched in the notion of femininity and motherhood. The question seems to have been all but abandoned in contemporary feminist discourse—eclipsed, as it were, by the notion of “choice”. A contemporary woman has the power to “opt out” of marriage and maternity. The problem with the assumption that choice offsets the negative implications in a feminine care ethic is that it obscures the very real fact that that choice is not unmarked. Contemporary popular imagination still associates femininity with the ethic of care.
The choice to opt out of a domestic ethic of care marks a woman as unfeminine in many ways. And women who choose to pursue family as well as career are represented in popular culture as undermining traditional gender values  Furthermore, these women are largely expected to embrace the feminine ethic of care by taking on the domestic and emotional tasks of nurturing the family at the same time that they pursue professional goals. It seems that accepting women in the public realm isn’t an accommodation of the multiplicity of women’s roles, but rather another hostile tolerance.
The fact that this is still true in the popular imagination is evidenced by the advertisements that support United States of Tara. Aired on Showtime, Tara is not subject to commercial interruption. However, the website for the show is primarily sponsored by Albertson’s grocery chain. The advertisement run on the site shows a working mom desperate to find a way to replace fast food with home cooked food in the “15 minutes” she has available. Incredulously, she says to the audience “I’m a nurturing mom! I can make a nurturing meal!” signifying both her anxiety about possibly not being an adequate nurturer, as well as conflating the notion of nourishing with nurturing: all of which are combined as maternal responsibility in the sentimental imagination.
The protagonist of this show, then, performs four different personalities as a way of contesting the narrow role ascribed to her (host) character as a working mother in postmodern American society. The four [k6] personalities performed by Tara are semiotically constructed via a complex set of signifiers, including appearance, demeanor, [k7] and history.
Tara, as herself, represents the target audience: a contemporary working mother, struggling to navigate the complex labyrinth of possibilities and obligations to herself, her family, and her profession. And she is portrayed as failing miserably at it. Her husband manages the household and the family. Her son does the cooking. Her sister stands in as surrogate mother. Her parents even try to take custody of her children. However, Tara doesn’t get a lot of “air time” as herself, and is eclipsed by her alters, signifying also the eclipse of the mother’s identity into her compulsory ethic of care. In keeping with this erasure, Tara’s appearance is nondescript. She wears little makeup, and casual, plain clothing. Most significantly, she has a fragmented access to her own history, presence, and desire.
It is not surprising that as a working mother, Tara’s host identity is positioned in opposition to her dominant alter: Alice. Alice is the quintessential vintage housewife circa 1950. She embodies the semiotic construction of the feminine ethic of care. She wears vintage dresses, and is always impeccably made-up and fully accessorized. She is prim and conservative, eager to please and dependable. She subverts her own identity to accommodate masculinity—even cleaning the house in high heels. She is also in command in the domestic realm: attending parent-teacher conferences, baking for the school bake sale, and educating Tara’s daughter in the proper performance of femininity. Although Alice is unpopular with the children, the amount of agency she exerts suggests that the overall ideology of the show supports Alice’s character[k8] . In fact, she is the only alter who is openly embraced by the husband on the show. Alice manifests the greatest agency of all of Tara’s personalities. She is “in charge” of the alters, and to a certain degree, Tara’s access to these aspects of herself. And while it may be true that many TV shows will afford a great deal of agency to unpopular characters, or those who provide ideological counterpoints, those shows will typically also “punish” those characters with judgment or comeuppance. However, at the end of Season 1 at least, Alice sits above reprieve.
Tara’s other two alters, Buck and T, overtly challenge gender norms. Aaron Devor’s 1989 essay “Gender Role Behaviors and Attitudes” elaborates on the performance of masculinity in popular culture emphasizing that “ideal maleness must remain untainted by female pollutants”. Tara’s male alter, Buck, most explicitly accomplishes this with his blatant refusal of any and all signifiers of femininity. Buck’s identity is an appropriated identity. He gets his clothing from Max’s closet. He has borrowed his history from a mélange of war movies. His body language is large and intrusive. He embodies violence, crudeness, and ignorance. He is irreverent, loud, judgmental, and self-serving. Buck rejects the maternal ethic in the extreme: not only does he disclaim the two teenagers as his offspring, he openly rejects them as individuals.
However, recall that, as DID is understood, Buck must embody advantages for Tara that compensate for her perceived deficiencies. For example, he enacts a masculine version of caring when he fights her daughter’s abusive boyfriend, or when he serves as a sort of gatekeeper between Tara and her new therapist, or when he teaches the kids how to bowl, or drive. Women in the audience are attracted to Buck because he allows them to entertain the notion of being able to embody these attributes that are, perhaps, attractive about performing masculinity. One might even argue that United States of Tara, through the use of DID as a trope, is trying to signify the notion that women should be able to perform these attributes without compromising their status as women. However, the fact remains that the notion “status as women” roughly correlates with the term “femininity”—an identity that Buck strictly refuses to perform. Buck also represents a negative parody of the butch lesbian—a semiotic signifier that goes uninterrogated on the show. In the main, Buck is largely an embarrassment to Tara.
T represents another “embarrassment,” although it is not initially clear how her identity violates the heteronormative ethic. T is a 15-year-old girl. She is bold, loud, and intentionally shocking. She dresses in revealing, even trampy, clothes, wears bright, bold makeup, and wild hairstyles. T enacts Tara’s taboo impulses toward sexuality. On premise, T provides the locus for Tara’s shame over some obscure and unremembered sexual trauma/rape. Semiotically, T suggests that her sort of bold and uninhibited sexuality is inappropriate in the maternal body. This is reinforced by the fact that Tara has asked Max not to have sex with her while she is T. The suggestion in the show is that having sex with the alters is cheating, but semiotically it also signifies something about whether sex with these various alternative personalities is appropriate or not in the sentimental imagination.
Furthermore, T also rejects her maternal role and is often at cross-purposes with Tara’s teens. T’s relationship with the kids is cast as something of a sibling rivalry, like when she borrows Kate’s clothes without asking. As a signifier of wish fulfillment, T attracts women in the audience by enjoying her sexuality, and flaunting it in such an overt way. Working mothers can be vicariously liberated from the fully developed care ethic and vicariously experience her carefree and expressive identity. It is partly spectacle as well, as her behavior is simultaneously titillating and embarrassing. However, the existence of T reflects on the ethic of maternal care in a very significant way which undermines her representation of carefree, youthful joy.
T has a complete lack of empathy: for her family, for her community, for Tara, even. This is most apparent when she gets caught making out with Marshall’s boyfriend. T is stuck at a developmental stage short of empathy, and is therefore unwilling and/or inappropriate to the task of domestic and emotional nurturing. The notion of T’s rejection of the role of motherhood [k9] gets lost in the spectacle of T’s behavior, though, and so another complex signifier goes unnoticed and uninterrogated in the narrative of the series.
So, Tara’s four identities enact four permutations on the feminine ethic of care implicit in gendered mythologies in contemporary American popular culture. The host personality is conceived of as “broken” by some sort of trauma. Each alter presents an alternative response to trauma, but each alternative is quietly undermined by the overall narrative of the series. This censorship occurs textually and metatextually: within the fictional community and echoed by the audience. Buck is censored for his inappropriate masculinity. T is censored for her inappropriate sexuality. Alice is censored for her lack of verisimilitude. And Tara is censored the most for her lack of identity, for the imperfections and deficiencies that manifest themselves in her need for alters to act on her behalf. As a protagonist, Tara evokes pity—there is an emphasis on finding a cause, and a cure. However, Tara is portrayed as unsuccessful in both domestic and professional roles. The semiotic message is that perhaps it’s too much to have both. As the show is in its first season, it will be noteworthy to see how they continue with this implication. It is certain to say that the feminine/maternal care ethic is valued in the show, albeit there is clearly tension as to how it should be embodied.
The social sanctions implied in the semiotic construction and response to all four identities undermine any liberal feminist imperative in wish fulfillment enacted by watching Tara. Simultaneously, the show allows for play within the treatment of gendered norms and their underlying mythology. Viewers get a vicarious trial run at performing alternative manifestations of identity. Still, since the inherent judgment in socially sanctioning Tara’s alters both reveals and reifies heteronormative value systems, the show demonstrates a strong case of how tolerance of an idea in discourse, such as the performative potential in gendered identities, can be hostile to the actual subversive discourse.
In closing, I chose this series for analysis because I am a fan of the show, and had an early insight into the notion of wish fulfillment as an explanation for its popular appeal. I fancied myself as liberated by watching a show that normalized mental illness and valued an alternative embodiment of motherhood. I somehow expected that the evidence would support how smart and witty the interrogation of gender roles was played in the series. I expected to prove United States of Tara to be a subversive text in the discourse on mental illness, motherhood, and the feminine ethic of care. In sum, I expected to corroborate my current ideas in the research. I did not mean to violate my own intellectual stance.
However, the argument shows that while appearing as subversive commentary, United States of Tara in fact reifies the heteronormative care ethic. It doesn’t interrogate mental illness as a logical response to normativity. It pathologizes deviance from the norm. It doesn’t deconstruct the feminine/maternal ethic of care, and doesn’t make evident the need to redistribute the burden of bodily and emotional care in the family. And still, I like the show. Why? And why do so many others?
I posit that this is because the concessions that we make in accepting the show mirror the choices that we make when we accept and carry out the feminine care ethic in our daily lives. This is contrary to what feminist theory tells us is currently the case. It is dissonant with the notion of “choice” as an empowerment for working women who are still burdened with the myth of feminine mystique and motherhood. It is probably different from the life narrative you would get were you to ask the average fan of United States of Tara. Nonetheless, it represents a pervasive mythology that is represented in the most current of popular culture artifacts.
As fans of United States of Tara we have a chance to acknowledge and experience our cognitive dissonance. We vicariously act out on our impulses to do or to be something other than what we are perceived to be. We witness the spectacle of Tara’s multiplicity and the fear and loathing that it elicits. We are treated to a catharsis through this vicarious experience. All this, and then the show quietly restores the status quo, thereby reinforcing the decisions we are already making in our daily lives. I had thought the show a subversive text that would undermine the persistent gender inequities in the American sentimental imagination. But that would be too aggressive to attract a mass audience. Rather than undermining the choices we make to perpetuate inequity, United States of Tara reinforces our choices, and thus the status quo. And, of course, it also ensures that its viewers will be back again next week.
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 This episode is a complex signifier in terms of Marshall’s homosexuality—a tangential but relevant gender signifier in this text as well. Buck’s reaction and T’s reaction undermine Tara’s.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
which do y'all think we should order?
Monday, May 17, 2010
To Tickle or To Skewer? or Poking Fun versus Driving Home the Point: Merits of Humor as a Didactic Strategy
Professor Steven Wexler
May 17, 2010
To Tickle or To Skewer? or
Poking Fun versus Driving Home the Point: Merits of Humor as a Didactic Strategy
The inspiration for this work derives from the now-hackneyed Horatian maxim that literature should strive to “delight and instruct”. Noting that Upton Sinclair’s intended didactic subject in The Jungle—namely the perils of capitalism versus the merits of socialism—failed to garner the sort of class-consciousness that Sinclair perhaps hoped to elicit, this work begs the question of whether the tone of the novel had something to do with the diversion in response. To wit: if Sinclair's efforts with The Jungle fell on deaf ears, maybe it was because the novel was so graphic and horrifying. Maybe, as a collective, the American public simply resists casting itself as responsible in any way, for the exploitation of an entire class of working immigrants.
As a tangent, it's also possible that the didactic lessons on Socialism were too indirect for the mass public to see its own role, as consumers, in perpetuating the cycle of capital's exploitation of labor. In other words, Joe the Plumber doesn't really see himself as having a role at all in The Jungle. This being the case, however, this work focuses on the role of Sinclair's tone in the novel—which, of course, begs the question of whether or not a different tone might be more effective. A lighter tone, perhaps. Maybe even a humorous one? One might conjecture that to shed light on the issues of wage slavery in a humorous tone it might be necessary to be somewhat opaque as opposed to outright didacticism.
In line with this thinking, then, this work examines Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas through a Marxist lens. Robbins’s novel falls under the rubric of popular culture, with potential to reach a mass public. It's certainly written in a playful tone, but not without complex theoretical discourse. And the notion of work—cheating at work, lack of work, the need to work (or not,) compensation for work, and satisfaction with work, or lack thereof—plays a huge role in the theme of the narrative.
In their book Tom Robbins: a Critical Companion, the only published criticism of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Catherine Hoyser and Lorena Stookey recognize that it “seems appropriate to consider Frog Pajamas’ vision of the contemporary working world in the light of Marx’s insights,” (154) and indeed, they do pay lip service to such a reading with a cursory overview of the topics I explore in detail with this paper. These include the diminishing power and numbers of the American middle class, the widening gap between the super-rich and the poor, the value of work and workers’ alienation from the products of their labor, and workers’ (dis)satisfaction with labor itself.
Working with a substantial body of foundational political criticism, including Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser, while integrating these political ideas with contemporary research into the effect of humor on communication, comprehension, emotion and learning, this work joins in an ongoing conversation, and contributes to the discourse surrounding the intersection of these two ideas. The theoretical conversation that links humor with political critique extends back to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, and his analysis of Rabelais and His World, in which Bakhtin explicates Rabelais’s use of scatological humor as a device to explore sociopolitical topics inherent in the ritual of carnivale. However, theoretical work addressing the use of humor as a didactic strategy in literature is thin, and two of the major contributions to the conversation in this paper are not journal articles or book chapters, but doctoral dissertations. Furthermore, those dissertations have a gap of almost 30 years between them. In 1976, Helen Marie Whall-Seligman completed her doctoral dissertation exploring the use of humor as a didactic device in Tudor drama, and it wasn’t until 2003 that Sandra Eileen Van Pelt published her dissertation, which examines the use of scatological humor in Juvenalian satirists Taylor and Swift. Van Pelt’s work is more closely aligned with Bakhtin’s analysis and also this analysis of Tom Robbins’ work. However, the academy has largely ignored a vast corpus of satirical work, particularly that produced in the postmodern epoch. The work done so far in this area both opens a space and points to the need for further research into the intersection of humor with political didacticism in literature.
Louis Althusser’s Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses provides one of the most significant foundational premises for an argument supporting the use of humor as a strategic device to communicate a subversive message to its reading public. Building on the notion of political hegemony as put forth in Antonio Gramsci’s manifesto, Althusser’s discussion of hegemony begins to illustrate its recursive, almost tautological quality. To illustrate, Althusser explains that men’s interpretations of their conditions “take literally the thesis which they presuppose, and on which they depend, i.e. that what is reflected in the imaginary representation of the world in an ideology is the conditions of the existence of men, i.e. their real world” (694). In other words, what Althusser is describing is the invisibility of a naturalized ideology, which is instituted at maintained, according to Althusser, by the state apparatuses such as school, churches, and government. Ideologies are so instilled and maintained that the citizen who is educated—or “indoctrinated,” as Althusser would say—within that ideology is unaware of its ideological quality and, rather, takes the ideology for granted as “the way things are”. For Gramsci and Althusser the discourse surrounding hegemony and ideologies are firmly entrenched in Karl Marx’s capitalist critique, wherein they are necessary to reconcile the alienated labor pool with the conditions of their existence (Althusser 695).
The notion of political hegemony and the ideological state apparatuses collides with the notion of humor as a dissident strategy where humor theory asserts that one of the most prominent forms of humor and humor response occurs when the joke violates a social norm, prohibition, or taboo. Recognition of the transgression, combined with an appreciation or affinity for the worldview that transgresses whatever social norm or taboo that is violated, produces the humor response, that the humor response—or appreciation of the joke—provides a bridge that enables for the serious entertainment of subversive ideas. Two studies in the field of humor theory lend credence and support to the thesis that humor serves as such a bridge. Christophe Harbsmeier’s exploration of Chinese ancient texts, "Confucius Ridens: Humor in The Analects" argues that Confucius utilized often self-deprecating humor as a political strategy for diffusing hostilities, and obscuring his own uncertainties. In 2002, Ronald A. Berk’s "Does Humor in Course Tests Reduce Anxiety and Improve Performance?" suggests that the experience of humor is likely to reduce anxiety and enable students to reduce focus on themselves and appropriate behavior.
Humor itself is enjoyable or cathartic in the sense that it permits the participant to transgress or violate social taboo under the rubric of a sense of “fun” or “falseness” much like the ritual of carnivale as elaborated by Mikhail Bakhtin, and, as I suggested earlier, Bakhtin’s work with Rabelais’s novels is foundational in this respect. “Laughter,” for Bakhtin, is “linked with the bodily lower stratum…[it] degrades and materializes”. However, degradation as Bakhtin employs the term should not be misconstrued as a diminutizing or dismissive term. Degradation, in Bakhtin’s analysis means “coming down to earth, the contact with earth…in order to bring forth something more and better” (688). In the case of Rabelais’s work, this means laughter that is concerned with base bodily functions—with defecation, sex, and birth. For Robbins, in Frog Pajamas, this degradation through humor also locates itself in base bodily functions such as urination, defication, sex, and rectal cancer. Following in the tradition of scatological humor Robbins connects the rubric of elimination with that of procreation—in fact one of the earliest sexual innuendos made in the novel is the suggestion that when the main character urinates she will be reminded of her new love-interest, as they have both eaten asparagus and will therefore have matching urinary odor. Furthermore, Robbins infuses this scatological romp with a dose of class-consciousness by conflating the reproductive functions of the lower body with the rhetoric of capitol. Gwen doesn’t long to bear children, Robbins writes, but rather longs to “swell with a pregnancy of moola” (83).
In the world of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, late monolopoly American capitalism takes center stage. Althusser’s state apparatuses are seen as operating in full force, indoctrinating the culture with an ideology that privileges the work ethic in and of itself as its own end. Value is measured in dollars. Even religion is being supplanted by capital: which is not to say that “faith” is supplanted. Faith, rather, is diverted—for many. Gwen herself has displaced faith from religion into the commodities market, as have many of her colleagues. After the market crashes in the novel’s opening pages, Gwen reflects that “the market’s been chugging along on faith alone…and [when the market crashed] that faith was badly strained” (42). Significantly, not everyone has displaced their faith into financial markets—but that is a significant source of tension in the novel. Those who still exercise a religious faith (Belford Dunn, for example) serve as comic dupes in the novel. And those who signify wisdom or transcendence place their faith in an entirely different, mystical and mysterious sphere. Larry Diamond, who serves as the voice of the Fool, signifying enlightenment, states the conflation of faith with finance quite simply when he asks, sardonically, “did you really expect that a culture that believes the Second Coming is right around the corner could have the long-range vision or long-term will to sustain a superpower economy?” (122). Clearly, Larry Diamond does not. What’s more, it is apparent that, to Larry Diamond, the wherewithal to sustain a superpower economy is neither here nor there—it’s a diversion from what is truly important.
The important players in Frog Pajamas include the novel’s protagonist, Gwendolyn Mati—a struggling commodities broker, Belford Dunn—her boyfriend, Q-Jo Huffington—Gwen’s best friend and the local mystic/tarot reader, Larry Diamond—a new love interest, guru, and former commodities broker, the “Rich Boys,”—a gang of independently wealthy hoodlems, the growing class of Seattleite homeless/destitute, and Dr. Yamaguchi—who seems to have discovered a cure for colon cancer and is giving it away for free. Each character represents a different ideology within the matrix of late capitalism, and also a different status with regard to the alienation of labor.
Gwen has a less-than-middle-class background: her father a bongo-drummer with a penchant for hallucinogenic drugs, her mother a poet and suicide in the fashion of her idol, Sylvia Plath. She suffers anxiety over her Filipina heritage, her second-rate university degree, her tenuous middle class status, her mediocre job performance, etc. etc. She is characterized mainly by way of her narcissism and ambition.
Gwen’s boyfriend and best friend each serve as a sort of foil to Gwen’s ambition. Belford exemplifies the sort of arbitrary quality that is associated with financial success in the contemporary climate of late monopoly capitalism. That he has earned his substantial nest egg as a real estate agent by virtue of naïve, boyish charm and serendipitous connections is an irony not lost on readers fresh out of the 2009 collapse of the American real estate bubble. Gwen suffers extreme envy of Belford, whom she perceives as having achieved the American Dream “without ever dreaming it” (35). And while she claims no attraction to Belford, and consistently reveals his foolishness, naiveté, and simple-mindedness, she has been dating him for 3 years at the novel’s opening, and frequently considers settling on a marriage of convenience for the financial security he provides. Although Belford is a foil to Gwen’s ambition, he is treated as a dupe in the novel—often missing the fact the he is the butt of the joke, and firmly entrenched in a born-again Christian ideology that illustrates Althusser’s concept of indoctrination by way of the state apparatus.
Q-Jo Huffington, on the other hand, serves as a foil representing an enlightened point of view. Q-Jo is the only main character in Frog Pajamas who is not alienated from the form and product of her labor. In fact, Q-Jo is firmly grounded in her work, reaping emotional and spiritual rewards as well as a modest stipend for her tarot readings and for serving as a one woman audience for lonely citizen’s vacation memorabilia. Q-Jo has insight into Gwen’s character that (apparently) exceeds her own, as afforded by the unique second person narration Robbin’s uses. She serves as a spirital guide and emotional ground for Gwen.
Larry Diamond, as alluded to already, serves as the voice of enlightenment of this narrative. A former super-star as a commodities broker, Diamond is alienated from the worker of the brokerage and disillusioned with the (vast amounts) of money it earned him. In Diamond’s own words “no matter how sweet the scores, they never added up to anything.” Aware that his point is ambiguous, Larry sighs, “I suppose you don’t [know what I mean]” (162). The way Larry Diamond sees things, the possibility that the stock market may not recover from the crash is a good thing, the end of the “Big Lie”.
So far, Robbins commentary seems fairly obvious and straightforward—greed is bad, religion a bit foolish but harmlessly so, and the real happiness is found by engaging with one’s work in a spiritually rewarding way, free from greed. And once seen in this light, the rest of the narrative does fall into place in a similarly straightforward way. Perhaps this is the reason that Hoyser and Stookey devote a mere 2 pages of their 160-page volume to a Marxist reading of Frog Pajamas. However, the message is not completely uncomplicated. For example, Larry Diamond is the one character suffering from fatal colon cancer. And, contrary to what one might expect, given Robbins’s mystic agenda, Diamond doesn’t embrace the end of his life and the promise of the hereafter. Clearly, enlightenment doesn’t solve everything.
Furthermore, what is more interesting about the didactic message in Frog Pajamas isn’t so much the message itself, but the method of delivery. In his essay "Political Satire and Hegemony: A Case of “Passive Revolution” during Mussolini’s Ascendance to Power 1919-1925" Efharis Mascha examines the critical role that humor played in the establishment of what he refers to as a counter-hegemony during Mussolini’s rise to power. According to Mascha, the subtle uses of satire increase inversely with the rise of censorship. What Mascha illustrates is the efficacy of humor as opposed to explicit didacticism in communicating a counter-hegemonic message. Mascha is careful to distinguish between “anti-hegemony” and “counter-hegemony”—an important part given that all teaching (or indoctrination, according to Althusser) is inherently ideologically driven. A counter-hegemony, however, is driven by socially prohibited or taboo ideology. Humor provides a critical device that enables transmission and response to the counter-hegemonic message.
This essay argues that Tom Robbins’ Frog Pajamas, taken in opposition to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, suggests strong support for the thesis adapted from the foundational work of Mikail Bakhtin, and advanced by Mascha, Seligman, and Van Pelt, that humor provides a platform for dissenting discourse, alternative ideologies, and counter-hegemonies.
Robbins, Tom. “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.” Bantam: New York.1994. Print.
Hoyser, Catherine E., and Lorena L. Stookey. "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas." Tom Robbins: a Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood, 1997. 139-56. Print.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Second ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. 2004. 693-702. Print.
Gramsci, Antonio. "Hegemony." Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Second ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. 673-74. Print.
Marx, Karl. "Labor and Capital." Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Second ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. 659-64. Print.
Berk, Ronald A. "Does Humor in Course Tests Reduce Anxiety and Improve Performance?" College Teaching 48.4 (2000): 151-58. JStor. Web. 7 Apr. 2010.
Harbsmeier, Christophe. "Confucius Ridens: Humor in The Analects." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50.1 (1990): 131-61. JStor. Web. 17 Apr. 2010.
Political and/or Didacticism and Humor Theory Combined:
Mascha, Efharis. "Political Satire and Hegemony: A Case of “Passive Revolution” during Mussolini’s Ascendance to Power 1919-1925." Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 21.1 (2008): 61-98. Academic Search Elite. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Rabelais and His World." Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Second ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. 2004. 686-92. Print.
Van Pelt, Sandra Eileen Body. "Excremental Recycling in Selected Writings of Edward Taylor and Jonathan Swift: A Structuralist Study in Scatological Humor and Didactic Accommodation." Diss. University of Mississippi, 2003. Digital Dissertations and Theses (2003). ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
Whall-Seligman, Helen Marie. "To Instruct and Delight: Didactic Method in Five Tudor Dramas." Diss. Yale University, 1976. Digital Dissertations and Theses. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.