Saturday, April 9, 2011

Woman on an Airplane

The woman in the airplane.... Oppressed? Too easy, I think. Certainly this advertisement contains a ton of images and suggestions that can make one's skin crawl. When one thinks about the target audience (presumably wealthy White men who can afford [or almost afford] to fly in business class) the sexual overtones, the patriarchal alpha male, the submissive Asian woman ready to please him... one has much to be upset by. More disturbing, perhaps, are the forces that make such an advertisement 'work'. In a way, this advertisement is not only reflecting gender, class, and race in society, it is also producing them. This is, I believe, the most important thing to remember here.
Our readings of this clip last night centered around the notion that this guy was an oppressor and the flight attendant was oppressed. Her nervous giggle signified subservience, passivity, and a willingness to please. The man's slick haircut, the various mechanical gadgets around him, his suit all tell me this is a certain 'kind' of man. But the tension that seemed to arise in class was over the status of this 'woman' (more on the apostrophes later). Is she inherently oppressed? And is he inherently an oppressor? I think that while power is always at play, the answer to both questions is a resounding “NOT YES”. The primary reason I resist the urge to label her 'oppressed' is because of the point I made above. The advertisement, as well as our readings of it, not only reflect power relations in society—they invariably create them as well. Our readings are always productive. Naming her 'the oppressed' (and therefore naming him the oppressor) is not some great realization, it is a means through which we reify power relations. We can start with the woman's giggle. It might be a defense mechanism to ward off the sleazy advances of this customer. It might be a way of flirting with him to ensure he 'enjoys his flight'. It could be read as a way of her using her sexuality because she's been placed in a position where her sexuality is her only defense. Perhaps it's a sign of passivity that she has been forced to take up in order to thrive in a male dominated society—a performance the men of the world require of her.
This is all quite possible. That isn't the only place I've seen such giggles. I see it quite often among young Korean women- sometimes in my classes. I can read such actions as responses to my White, male, American, educated English speaker authority in the classroom. This all may be very very true and a little too close for comfort. BUT (and there's always a but)... power is always at play. It is never static or fixed and it is never complete. If power is optimized when it is transparent I have to ask what I'm taking for granted here.
There is obviously some normative way of reading this exchange that makes it 'correct' to understand that the woman is oppressed and the man is oppressor. I've been trained in cultural studies—I've had a liberal education and I've learned how to deconstruct such images. The fact that my reading is or can be sanctioned in such a way means that it has power. Gee would say that its power is produced by discourses that I've been socialized into. In other words, certain discourses are speaking through me. These discourses are, of course, interested. In order to ascribe an identity to 'women' (oppressed) I have to assert that a certain reading is more 'correct' (Freire's side of the literacy problem). But this reading is normative, not just descriptive. We are constructing a normative representation of what the proper woman SHOULD be.
The danger I see is that this sort of reading is perfectly aligned with the same liberal enlightenment values that sought to free the world from its own ignorance and darkness during the era of European colonialism. If this woman giggles it's because she's been forced to do so by men. If she does so willingly it's because she's oppressed and doesn't even realize it. In order to resist oppression she should or we should [insert cultural values here]. Lucky me to be so enlightened as to know the proper social roles for women—and lucky her for being exposed to my wisdom.

The apostrophes...
This isn't a flight attendant. This is a representation. This 'woman' that I am so concerned about is an actress. My entire rant, for all my concern and preaching, is referencing a completely hypothetical person in a scripted exchange. The moment I began talking about this woman as if she were real (rather than discussing the symbols used in this advertisement and the forces that give them power) is the moment I lose myself in the representation. I took it as real.

Magritte painted The Treachery of Images in the late 1920's. What seems like a paradox is actually no such thing. Magritte is correct. This most certainly is not a pipe. It is an image of a pipe.
So what is the value in recognizing that 'this is not a pipe'? This is a reminder that any representation we are faced with is partial. There is no 'thing in itself' (and if there is, it is beyond our capacity to represent is as such). But we tend to take what's shown to us as what is. The image itself comes to stand in for something that is inaccessible. A complete picture of gender, class, and race relations as they play out in any society is inaccessible. Though for some reason we feel the compulsion to claim access to or knowledge of such things. Magritte, I believe, is trying to remind us to avoid that trap.
So back to the question... is this 'woman' oppressed? There's no fair way for me to answer this. But this in no way means that there aren't deeply embedded historical and cultural uses of power constantly at play. It just means that I can't fully and accurately describe them because I am always in the act of performing them! This doesn't mean that we have no responsibility. Quite the opposite, the task at hand is no longer to discover the oppression out there and remove it. The task is much more complex. The task is to recognize much more subtle forms of fascism—the one's we are continually confronting and performing in the here and now. Prescribing the correct reading of an advertisement, and the correct way to understand gender, class, or race (or other) oppression, are ways that power is at play right now. Perhaps this is much more 'real' than the flickering images we saw on the projector last night.

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