Archive for the ‘Clarification’ Category

Branding self-identity.

June 11, 2009

Everything looks different if it’s pictured in print, on TV, or within the frame of a computer screen.

When I was kid, my parents’ garden was selected to be featured in Sunset magazine.  I had grown up in that garden — climbing the plum tree to reach the ripest fruit at the top, lying on my back in the moss to find shapes in the passing clouds, sprinting down the back steps to fetch my parents bell peppers or spinach or basil for dinner.  I was familiar with the beauty of the garden but also with the dirt and mud, the snails and pill bugs lurking everywhere, and the reeking compost heap in the back shed.

And so when a shiny copy of Sunset arrived in the mail and my parents showed me the images of our garden, I barely recognized it — the lotuses wide open, the California poppies without even a hint of wilt.  Every color looked more vibrant than it did in real life.  The pictures were either very close-up or taken at angles that allowed our tiny city garden to seem to extend long into the distance.  It was our garden, but bigger, brighter, and someone’s version of better.

company-identity-brandingWhen it comes to human beings, I would argue that media has an even more marked effect.  Flattering lighting, photography, and airbrushing has been brought to the level of an art.  These phantasmic images can be used to create allure and social power.

As my month-long advertising purge came to a close, I began thinking about how individuals market themselves.  Through facebook, myspace, and other social networking sites, we become our own products.  Nothing is a simple representation of fact; we decide what images and information will represent us to the world.  Check out this article on building a personal brand, and this posting on facebook-fueled self obsession.  The process is even more evident when it comes to blogs and personal websites.

Authenticity: come out, come out, wherever you are.  The modern world misses you.


Protein, pastries, and Plato.

April 28, 2009

Under the terms of my month-long advertising purge, I can no longer drink milk or eat peanuts. I have also been forced to break my longstanding Subway sandwich habit cold turkey (ba dum ching).

At this point, I’m tempted to shield my eyes every time I pass a billboard, just to preserve a few pleasures. Over the weekend I was walking in my Brooklyn neighborhood with my love when I saw a hand-painted sign announcing that there would soon be a flea market.

“Ooo, let’s go,” said my part fashion-queen, part shopaholic, all butch companion.

“I can’t go now that I’ve seen that!” I wailed, pointing to the sign.

“But that’s not advertising,” she objected. And after a few moments of further deliberation, I was sure she was right (whew! now I can continue my hunt for the perfect sailor dress under $10). What I wasn’t sure about was precisely why this wasn’t advertising. Today I referred to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, where “advertise” is defined as:

To give public notice of, to make publicly known, or call attention to, by a published announcement in a journal, by a circular, etc., as ‘to advertise the resolutions of a meeting’; and with various elliptical constructions, as ‘to advertise goods (for sale), a child or ring (as lost),’ etc.

Highly unsatisfying. Advertising is much more than a public announcement, and journals and circulars aren’t the half of it. And the phrase “various elliptical constructions,” while humorous, does little to convey the power of slogans (not to mention images, music, etc) routinely used to sell products.

I found this somewhat more thorough definition in the Marketing Dictionary:

[To] appeal to a mass audience through the communications media for the purpose of calling attention to a product, service, idea, or organization so as to arouse a desire to purchase or patronize, to give information or to modify the thinking about, to promote the concept of, to motivate behavior toward, or otherwise to persuade the general public to buy, approve, or support the product, service, idea, or organization.

Yes. Advertising seeks to modify our thinking and our behavior. It is not an educational announcement (like the flea market sign), because it’s aim is not merely to inform. It’s aim is to persuade, to create a new understanding, a new reality — one in which the product is irresistible.

To get a little philosophical on your proverbial asses: advertising is rhetoric.

Did anyone else love Plato’s Gorgias as much as I did? In these dialogues, Plato explores the difference between philosophers (who seek truth) and rhetoricians (who seek to persuade, irrespective of truth). Plato likens rhetoricians to pastry bakers: both produce something that is compelling to the senses but which has no real substance or value — no truth. Plato (or Socrates, the real-life character in whose voice Plato writes) felt that rhetoric was a destructive force — one which was chipping away at the foundations of democracy in Athens — and he committed himself to maintaining “purity of mind and soul.” It was Socrates’s insistence on truth that led to his eventual execution.

You read it here first, folks: no pastries = death.

On that note, I’m off to lunch, to find food I can still eat from a restaurant or grocery I can still eat from. Wish me luck!

Ethical community.

December 17, 2008

“We do not want to be hated for who we are, where we come from, and what we do.” — A prominent queer femme activist.

Wait. You don’t want to be hated for what you do? There seems to be an underlying assumption here that “we” only includes the honorable ones, the ones who are out there fighting the good queer fight, challenging outdated and oppressive assumptions, defending the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us — and, moreover, spreading kindness and charity along the way.

But the queer community, like any other, is made up of good, bad, and — mostly, if we’re honest — complicated characters. I don’t think we should hate each other for instances of bad behavior, but I certainly think we should be discerning and explicit about what we expect from one another. No matter how talented and devoted an activist, no matter how brilliant a social commentator, no matter how attractive or intelligent a person, people — femmes and feminists included — fail.

And when “what we do” just isn’t right — when a person spouts racist invective or unexamined class assumptions, or is emotionally or physically abusive, or crosses sexual boundaries, or acts in ways that fly in the face of common sense and shared values — then I would argue that it is the right and the obligation of the community to hold our own accountable.

I don’t think of community as a group of people behaving as they please with mutual agreement not to judge or even react to unethical or destructive acts. I envision community as a dynamic, diverse network of people who are deeply committed to interrelated goals and who rely on one another to encourage and — if necessary — enforce behavior that leads us towards those goals.

We have to build trust if we want to build solidarity.

Uncoupling consumerism and high femme.

December 14, 2008

Being an avid flea-market-treasure hunter and coupon-wielder myself, it’s taken me a while to realize that frugality alone doesn’t do much to combat consumerism. All those newly minted recessionistas are still spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.

Nope, sorry: just because you don’t spend as much money on material goods doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the cycle of obsession and possession.

There’s a disturbing tendency in our culture to equate happiness and self worth with purchasing power. And while everyone is in danger of identifying too closely with the objects that allow them to feel comfort, confidence, and contentment, women have been the targets of particularly damaging and divisive marketing campaigns.

Magazines, billboards, and commercials conspire to make us believe we aren’t lovable or desirable without certain beauty products, clothing, accessories, and other items – and, as if that weren’t harmful enough, many ads propagate the myth that women must compete against one another to prove our value in the world. One of my dearest hopes is that women, and femmes, can work together to challenge and dismantle these frameworks over time.

High femme is not a synonym for high maintenance.

December 8, 2008

To clarify:

Performing femininity can be effortless, or it can be an ambitious creative undertaking, a project to which a person chooses to devote thought, energy, analysis, and emotion. The body, like it or not, becomes a billboard for social and societal messages the instant we set foot (or stilettoed heel) outside our homes. For me, part of the joy and the challenge of being high femme is to play with public perceptions through how I adorn my body and how I behave — and, more to the point, the interplay between the two.

I’ve frequently seen the phrase high maintenance used to dismiss or demean the physical and psychical work that goes into crafting some of the visual aspects of femininity. In writing this post, I initially felt tempted to provide actual figures on the amount of time I spend applying makeup, selecting an outfit, et cetera. But I’m afraid that anything I could say would play into existing judgments. Would you take me more seriously if I said I spend 15 minutes getting ready in the morning as opposed to two hours?

Well, I think that’s fucked up.

If I were an artist making murals to draw attention to gender inequities and social wrongs, would you slam me for spending too much time on a given project? More or less high-maintenance-womens-tshirt-pinktime — it shouldn’t matter. What matters is who I am and what I want to say. My femininity is art I create, wear, and perform daily, and I’d rather be critiqued on how successfully that art challenges gender expectations than how long it takes me to pose the challenge.

There is, of course, such a thing as vanity, but we should be careful to distinguish it from the considered and inventive work that people do to display and play with femininity. Vanity is excessive pride in one’s attractiveness or achievements, and it is focused on the idolization of the self. As a queer high femme, my gender work is focused on creating more accurate, flexible, and nuanced social understandings of femininity, both for my personal comfort in the world as well as for the good of other women and feminine-performing people.

It’s closer to advocacy than to vanity.