Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Angela gets the Gurlesque.

I tend to agree with her in that I don't quite understand Arielle's formulation of it. Though I am in favor of "creeping out" people.

I don't know the pop culture references from the 70s, but I tend to think more of Kara Walker than Charlie's Angels.


Blogger Lara Glenum said...

Kara Walker's in our anthology!

8:45 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Certainly Glenum's version of the concept is a far darker one than that developed by Greenberg.

It's interesting to see how this difference plays out in relation to the cute--whether it's a feminized repressed aesthetic denied by masculinist seriousness or actually a key part of patriarchy because its sentimentality serves as a cover story for dynamics of power and control. I feel more inclined to see it as being fundamentally the second, but am also intrigued to see what if anything can be done well artistically in relation to the first.

Though of course, if I'm being honest with myself, I'd have to admit that my skepticism about the cute probably has something to do with being raised with fairly conventional notions of male behavior.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think cuteness has to do with a rejection of a sunny notion of agency. We like to think of authors as agents with agency, but the cuteness invites a totally different vision, a violent one at that. That's why Lara's essay on Berg is good. And also Berg's and Matthias Forshage's Surrealist lemur-manifesto from 1996 is so good. That can be found in a link somewhere on this blog and also on the web site of the Surrealist Group of Stockholm.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:37 AM  
Blogger D said...

Interesting, Mark! I always enjoy your comments on these topics...When Arielle looks at the cheerier tropes of Gurlesque (plain ol' good time unicorn sans maggot-mane), I definitely see not a feminine cuteness repressed by masculinist seriousness, but a cuteness by which the masculine aesthetic constructs the feminine. Charlie's Angels, Barbie dolls, unicorns, rainbow knee socks, all pop (culture) out of masculine creators and are used to code girls/women as trivial or subaltern. The act of repression is most certainly part of the whole routine, but important that the masculine is repressing something that it has constructed to appear "natural feminine." Important that girls think they're naturally attracted to unicorns, and this makes them innately silly. Recently, other parents at the preschool told me the 3-yr-old girl princess obsession was "genetic." Which makes my preschooler a mutant :).

Anyhow, if we read it this way, then the reclamation of these tropes is always grotesque, if not always obviously dark. So I wonder if Greenberg's concept is actually any sunnier in practice. We'd have to look at the actual poems, eh? But maybe useful to consider the Japanese lolita fashion (which looks very bubbly-sweet, but strikes me, like the killer lady in Audition, more frightening than an obvious threat), or Sian Ngai's great article , which looks at some straight up cutesy-bootsy products. What's dark about cuteness is not always on the plastic surface...

I'm thinking aloud a bit, so hope that isn't too rambly--and actually off to teach Natsuo Kirino, another fine intersection of cuteness and violence!

11:53 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Kate and Danielle,

It's not that I don't agree with Arielle, it's that I don't quite understand it, primarily the references. But certainly it doesn't have to be one or the other.

1:58 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

D, thanks for your thoughtful response. I think I was trying to say feminized rather than feminine (and it looks like I did!)--that is, not something innate to women but that is socially constructed as the domain of the feminine and therefore looked down upon. So then it would be both constructed by masculinist seriousness and then also rejected by it. Neat trick, that, and I appreciate your detailing it so precisely.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

So is the gurlesque kind of like the character Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill (what with the "cuteness" and the "violence")?

3:49 PM  
Blogger D said...

Ah, thanks Mark... I'm not sure I quite get the distinction, but I'm def. curious b/c it sounds quite useful. I don't myself differentiate between feminine and feminized as socially constructed categories, unless it's to suggest that feminizing is a more overt practice? You seem to suggest that feminine has to do with what's innate to women? (In which case we'd be at theoretical impasse, since I'm of the feminisms that don't believe in much of anything innate :).)

Johannes, I don't see Kate's comment, but I didn't mean to suggest you disagree with Arielle...I'm just responding to the general conversation--the sense that there's a sunny Gurlesque and a dark Gurlesque--a binary I see taking shape and one in which I'm likely guilty of participating. And also trying to figure out how, if at all, the girly cute works differently in A's & L's visions (ie, how close to the surface does the violence need to be?).

As for the references themselves, I think you could update them for later generations with the same effects, as Lorraine's doing over at Spooks by Me.
My own girlhood references are way more New Wave, since I was born just a tiny bit too late for the 70s biz. I'm not sure, but I suspect I could replace Arielle's Charlie's Angels & Wonder Woman with Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, valley girls, and get similar results. We had that valley girl brouhaha about Chelsey's work, and that's not unlike arguing about whether Charlie's Angel is a powerful subject position, yeah?

4:45 PM  
Blogger The Primes said...

It's silly, but three weeks ago I was talking to my daughters about farting and burping barbie dolls-- and now I read Lara's essay and am thinking about the gurlesque topic.

One thing I wonder about is the violence of "cute" and the power of not only projection, but "male paranoia". A buddy of mine is in the midst of a divorce. His wife, a friend of ours, is the typical literary lolita with a dose of geek hotness. I think he really fell for the girly character, but the unhappier he became, the more tyrannical she seemed. Basically, he hadn't been a good guy to her. I don't for a second believe her to be tyrannical, but his stories say otherwise. While there is a lot of projection going on, there also seems to be a lot of guilt and paranoia happening as well. The violence of cute seems an imaginary violence that occurs because of guilty male-conscience, paranoia perhaps.

I also like Lara's language in terms of having some roots in s and m. I think a study of (not necessarily practice) bondage, role-playing, and power exchange
is important to this topic.

Who knows? My reading was quick and sloppy, my comments may suck, but had to get them out.

6:38 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Hi D:

No, I wouldn't be suggesting that the feminine has anything to do with the innate nature of women. I think the point was fairly well established even by the 60s and 70s that masculine and feminine are social ways of describing (and inculcating) various character traits that can be found in either men or women in various degrees. In fact it was common then (not that I knew anything about it until much later) to suggest that the feminine as such in behavior was really more or less the equivalent of "powerless" in the sense that personal traits associated with displays of power were "masculine" and personal traits associated with submission were "feminine." Obviously, things have changed, in that people now talk about the power of the feminine and so forth and so on.

I feel like it's been a long time in academic/literary discussion since anyone much thinks that there are behavior traits natural to women, although obviously it's never gone out of fashion in mainstream conversation.

To feminize something (is this verb usage personal to me? I didn't think so but maybe I'm mistaken) is to claim that some particular behavior or practice is naturally feminine, usually as a way of seeing it as worthless or weak.

7:28 PM  
Blogger The Primes said...

Just wanted to post a link here to Archambeau's Sammizdat Blog... The title is "She's so cute" The Aesthetics of Parenthood....

Some interesting points (including biological points) about cuteness...

6:13 AM  
Blogger D said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Mark--yes, I think you're right that we on the literary end of the spectrum are suspicious of the "natural," and would feel silly advancing such. Sorry if I assumed you were...but it were so well established! So much evolutionary biology and social science verging on hard science ("hard" science, operative) that suggests otherwise. So, when I'm teaching intro to women's studies, my students often bring in articles that suggest X function of the female brain is responsible for X "natural" feminine behavior. Scientific American's rat studies, a constant culprit! My anthropologist partner's been to many a job talk about post-partum depression as evolutionary adaptation in all human females, or some such. And since the general population often embraces and runs wild with scientific suggestion of sexual difference (our pal at Harvard, for instance), I think visions of the innate are having a bit of a renaissance. Def. the more grotesque end of the Gurlesque (Lara's book for instance) plays with the still common assumption that their are feminine behaviors tied to uterus and lactation and such.

In my reading, "feminize" seems to mean coopting or making feminine something culturally constructed as androgynous or masculine. This usage suggests active intention and identifiable actor (ie, bad mother "feminizing" her boy, or good activists "feminizing" the workplace). And the result is similar--the feminized quality or entity is then viewed as "weaker" or "empowered" depending on one's perspective on all things feminine. But I'm maybe thinking of a particular discursive usage? How messy all our sex/gender language! And getting messier with the recent attacks in the Southeastern states on gender & women's studies departments, queer theory, etc.

But now we're far afield from cute. Where is my fluffy puppy emoticon?!


10:23 AM  

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