November 8, 2007
Following the most recent Democratic Primary debate, on MSNBC this past October 30, much of the news media reported that a room full of male candidates seemed to all gang up on the sole woman in the field (and front runner) Hillary Clinton. She was roundly deemed to have been given a bruising. You can see the video of the debate and judge for yourself at the New York Times.
I find it hard to see. What these reports find so blatantly apparent, Hillary stumbling and taking her licks, to me looks more like one person who has become the center of everyone’s interest and who can hold her own against a roomful of formidable opponents. Let me stipulate that I am not especially a Clinton supporter and not particularly motivated to defend her (she is too middle of the road and too much of an establishment candidate for my taste).
Still what I see in the video is a woman who is defiant and has a powerful understanding of the issues, for the most part a greater understanding than the other candidates. Even on the New York State driver’s license question, where the news media almost entirely understood Hillary to have botched the end of the debate, I see her simply taking a complex position, which the rest of the candidates want to falsely and maliciously portray as double-talk.
In the end, to me, what the video shows, but which is not reported, is that Hillary really seems to have become the center of power. She has what everyone else wants. What else could it mean that both the Democratic and even the Republican primaries have come to be almost entirely defined by the question: Who can beat Hillary?
And yet, there remains this curious disjunction between the debate itself and the way it has been generally reported in the media. Why were reporters so eager to latch onto the idea that Hillary had been hurt by a roomful of attacking (male) opponents? It is as if, while appearing to critique the problematic gender dynamics of the debate, or at least the imbalance of the critical remarks made during the debate, and while simultaneously ignoring the power of Clinton’s position, what the reporters were really salivating for was the opportunity to tell the story of a woman taking a hit (whether they were sympathetic to that woman or not).
We all know, from the invention out of thin air of the Howard Dean scream (compare video shot from the crowd to the audio enhanced version aired by FOX news and others), that what the media reports can bear a much greater reality than its putative subject matter. But in this case it goes farther. Not only does the media seem to have invented the story of Hillary’s bruising after the fact, it also seems to have been trying to stage it in the first place. In the video, you can see that, from start to finish, criticism of Hillary by any candidate was for the most part initiated by Tim Russert, one of the two reporters playing the role of “moderator” for the debate, and to a lesser extent by Brian Williams, the other “moderator.” Candidates criticized Clinton in response to repeated questions from Russert and Williams that followed the formula, “Hillary said…What do you think?”
I don’t know if Russert and Williams have personal vendettas against Hillary or both of the Clintons, but they clearly wanted to stage the bruising that Hillary was subsequently reported as having undergone; even though, again, I think if you actually watch the debate Hillary comes out looking stronger, not bruised. So there you have it, the news media sets the stage and then after the fact reports what they wanted to have happened, as having actually happened, whether it did or not.
But there’s more to this. It doesn’t really stop or start with Clinton and the debate. The spectacle of a blonde woman raised onto a pedestal only to be taken down a notch by the media and popular opinion seems to be in the air these days. It’s like a sure fire hit that no one can resist. I’m reminded of the now famous YouTube video of Miss Teen South Carolina making a terrible gaffe in the Miss Teen USA pageant, this past August, and then only a couple weeks later Britney Spears delivering a commandingly lackluster performance on the MTV Music Video Awards. (I also learned, while writing this post, of another similar video that made the rounds of disparagement in the past few months–Merry Miller botching an interview with Holly Hunter for ABC News, this past July.)
In the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, it’s worth dwelling on a few statistics. If you add up the multiple postings of the video of her gaffe on YouTube (there are dozens), it has been viewed in two months over 28 millions times. If there were simply a single posting of the video, given these numbers, it would at this point in time be the 9th most viewed video in YouTube’s entire history. The only other videos that have come close to rising this quickly to the top of YouTube are a handful of popular commercial music videos. But even in comparison to the most popular of these commercial music videos, the Miss Teen South Carolina video appears to have had the quickest rise to the very heights of YouTube viewership of any video in it’s entire history. (This video in fact eclipses the number of views currently garnered by the Filipino Prisoners’ “Thriller” video—8 million—which I previously posted about, an arguably far more startling and fascinating clip.)
What accounts for the unprecedented YouTube popularity of the Miss Teen South Carolina video? Can it really be said to be, by some measures, the most interesting and entertaining video ever to be posted on YouTube? Many pious viewers attempt to explain what draws them to the video, by wringing their hands about whether or not they’re watching out of sympathy for someone letting her nervousness spectacularly get the better of herself or on the contrary because the video offers a galling indictment of American ignorance (Miss Teen South Carolina was unable to answer a question about why one fifth of Americans can’t place the U.S. on a world map). Even ostensibly feminist columnists seem confused or torn about what’s actually going on here.
Certainly Miss Teen South Carolina’s gaffe is astounding (and for me painful to watch). Certainly many Americans are ignorant. But is that really enough to explain the overwhelming numbers of viewers in comparison to other engaging videos? I don’t think you have to go far to find an answer. Look at the comments on YouTube itself, or on sites like Digg and Technorati, or do a Google search of blog posts about Miss Teen South Carolina. It’s hard to miss the mean-spiritedness (usually explicit) that completely dominates what people are saying. This video, people seem to think, is the perfect example of a dumb blonde and that makes it immensely entertaining. Consider even the numerous video responses on YouTube to the Miss Teen South Carolina video, many of which have become popular in their own right. They all take the dumb blonde routine and run with it (or to a lesser extent the dumb Southerner routine).
No wonder so many people, after the recent Democratic debate, were dying to tell the story of Hillary stumbling and dropping the ball or at least of her being subject to “withering” rebuke (as the New York Times said), even if it didn’t actually happen. Clinton is a blonde woman, she’s symbolically from the South, due to her association with Bill Clinton and years spent in Arkansas, and it looks like that’s all it takes to fit the bill. Indeed, some bloggers are already making an explicit comparison between Hillary and Miss Teen South Carolina, for the purpose of ridiculing the presidential candidate.
And so, to pretend that the enormous popularity of the Miss Teen South Carolina video has anything to do with the rationalizations of a tiny minority of viewers who claim to view the video for sympathetic or socially critical reasons, is to ignore what the utterly vast majority of people are saying and to willfully blind oneself to an essentially misogynistic media phenomenon.
After all, can it be any coincidence that yet another Southern blonde woman, Britney Spears, within a couple weeks of Miss Teen South Carolina, managed to become the subject of overnight fascination for a bungled performance at the MTV Music Video Awards (to say nothing of being the subject of general fascination for her ongoing tabloid decline). Of course in this case, there were those who followed the prescribed routine and attempted to lay out critical responses to the Music Video Awards by tempering them with a whole host of morally self-justifying palliatives. Spears was purported to represent the mediocrity of popular music, or her experience exposed the exploitive nature of the music industry, or she was served up as an exemplar of bad parenting, or she simply showed us another rich spoiled brat getting her comeuppance. Yet, if you look into the comments on the MTV Music Video Awards on mainstream web sites, what you again find is an enormous majority of people ridiculing Britney’s body and the flaws of her performance. (Despite the fact that, as far as Spear’s body is concerned, it is svelte and lithe and could only be considered undesirable in comparison to the fetishized teenage body that helped her rise to fame–and her performance was at worst dull and unprofessional, not ridiculous).
The same sort of analysis could be done of the popular video of Merry Miller, which I mention above, in which she botches her interview of Holly Hunter, for ABC. And here again, it is a case of a blonde woman from the South subject to ridicule for a blunder.
With each of these videos, though most prominently in the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, there seems to be a willful refusal by much of the media to distinguish the insights of their social critique from the broad phenomena that determine how and why these videos capture general public attention. There seems to be a general desire to make it all much more complicated than it is. There is a powerful motivation to muster a whole host of real but in each case sideline issues (American ignorance, personal failure, the music industry, etc.) to rationalize and mask the overwhelming mass of public opinion.
And so I return to the recent Democratic debate and Hillary Clinton’s putative bruising. On the one hand, there’s the actual video, which shows Hillary as the focus of the entire election, aside from the war, and therefore as occupying a position of central importance. On the other hand, you have the story told in the news after the fact and the way Tim Russert (mainly) egged the candidates on, seeming to actively want to hold Clinton up for ridicule. It’s as if the desire to see Clinton, the only female candidate, taken down a notch by a roomful of attacking men, is more powerful and more real than anything else.
I can only conclude that in America, even when it’s not true, everyone likes to see a blonde (from the South) fall on her face. And I have a sneaking uneasy suspicion that this could be what comes to drive interest in the entire presidential election. I can only hope, despite my misgivings about her politics, that if Hillary wins the primary, she also wins the presidency and gets the last laugh.
Sweating it out in my un-air-conditioned apartment, during an overheated New York summer, I recently received an email from my friend Jo, of a sort that thousands of people around the world must have been receiving at the same time. She was alerting me to the latest YouTube phenomenon video. I mean, of course, the prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, in the Philippines, restaging Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. In twelve days (so far) this video has been viewed over two and a half million times and is on track to become one of the most viewed YouTube videos ever.
The email from Jo also contained a question that probably did not appear in many other emails on this topic. She asked: “What would Michel have made of this?” Jo was referring to the seminal late twentieth century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who famously wrote about the history of prisons and their place in contemporary societies. (Foucault also wrote ground breaking work on other topics, such as sexuality, madness and psychiatry, the human sciences, and medical practice). Since I wrote my doctoral dissertation about Foucault’s work, it certainly made sense that I might have something to say about it.
My first reaction, however, was an honest sense of being completely dumbfounded. The vision of over a thousand prisoners precisely re-choreographing Jackson’s “Thriller” dance, in their orange jumpsuits and sandals, was just too odd. It seemed more like a mockery of prison decorum or like the accidental coming to life of a musical in the wrong place, than like a purposeful instance of punishment, justice, rehabilitation, or even vengeance.
Two minutes into the video, I got over my amazement and realized that in fact it all made sense, as far as Foucault goes. Thinking back over his theories of disciplinary society, it fit almost too well. Indeed, perhaps I was astonished at first, more because, as Freud says, what is uncanny is what is most familiar and therefore strangely hard to recognize.
And so the more I thought about the dance and about the appearance of the video on YouTube, the more I saw that it conformed quite exactly to Foucault’s theories about the social function of the prison. It was simply hard to believe that Foucault’s theories might be enacted in such a literal manner. Here we have in the prisoners’ dance, I realized, and in its appearance on YouTube, the model itself, as Foucault proposes in at least part of his work, for how all individuals become proper citizens, workers, students, family members, patients, and all the other roles we play in our contemporary life.
So I had my answer for Jo. What would Foucault make of this? He’s chuckling to himself in his grave and saying I told you so.
What we see in the video of the Filipino prisoners are thousands of people in identical clothing being marched around in a military like fashion. Apparently they are dancing, but in fact they are being taught discipline. The security consultant who came up with the idea freely acknowledges the disciplinary goal of the dance. This accords with Foucault’s contention that one of the crucial functions of the prison is to create “docile bodies.”
But more importantly, the dance is videotaped and posted on YouTube. This is done again by the security consultant who came up with the idea. The consequence of this is that, once the prisoners realize how popular the video has become, they feel compelled to better perfect their dance/discipline. Once again, it turns out that this accords with Foucault’s discussion of the impact of prisons in contemporary society. Prisons, according to Foucault, early on became sorts of panopticons (following a type of architecture invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century). The function of a panopticon is to make people feel they are being watched at all times. In turn, this feeling of being watched (for the Filipino prisoners potentially of the whole world watching) makes people take it upon themselves to better regulate their own conduct (literally for the Filipino prisoners to come in line with the dance). And so in the final instance, self-regulation turns out to be the mechanism by which external forces control the body.
This last point is probably the most crucial element of Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish, his deeply influential history of prisons. It is also a point more often than not misunderstood. Foucault does not argue that in our disciplinary society people are being controlled by the fact of other people watching (or videotaping, as the case may be). Rather he argues that we control ourselves by making ourselves feel watched. The sense of being watched comes from the individual and is an act of the individual on him or herself. In fact, according to Foucault, it is this very act of self-surveillance which is the means by which we become individuals at all in contemporary society–how we fit into the workplace, home, school, church, etc. Beginning in the 18th century and definitively by the 19th century, when this model of conduct was perfected in prisons and simultaneously expanded beyond their walls, and up to the present, we have been and remain a society of individuals formed in the act of making ourselves feel observed by others.
This is what is most fascinating about the “Thriller” video: the fact that it is placed on YouTube. It brings starkly into relief the underlying social dynamic bound in the fact that YouTube is precisely a place where people, more than anything else, post videos of themselves. And then they post videos of their friends and families, their most intimate relations. It is where collectively, and more and more, we are all subjecting ourselves to the idea of the disciplining gaze of others. We think we’re sharing, when we’re really conforming.
And once one begins to think about the Internet this way, there’s hardly any reason to stop at YouTube. For example, most forms of blogging make up even more powerful acts of forming oneself under the possible gaze of unknown others. How is it, after all, that the diary, a sort of text a person conventionally writes only for him or herself, a sort of text once symbolized by the lock that closes it, how is it that this sort of text has come instead to be published happily and willingly in the most public and global of forums ever devised? It is almost a complete inversion for the act of writing a diary, to turn into the act of writing a blog.
Dating, blogging, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, craigslist, discussion forums, webcams, more and more we are enacting every aspect of our personal lives under the gaze of potentially any other person in the world.
I’m going to stop now. What I have said is all pretty abstract and rather quickly sketched out. I think this topic is worth subsequent posts, where I will go into many of these points in more depth and less abstraction. I want to try to make plain the disciplinary medium we swim in and form ourselves out of every day. In the meantime, perhaps it is worthwhile returning to and keeping in mind my passing remark about Freud and the uncanny. Beware of what is most familiar. In our globalizing world, perhaps we do not need to be on guard so much against the encroaching interests of others (governments, corporations, terrorists), as we need to be on guard against the way we incorporate these interests as the things we take most for granted about ourselves.