Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pocahontas and Panopticism: Power and the loss of Individuality

The critical theories we have studied aim to explore and explain systems of social structure and oppression from specific sociological perspectives. Independently, they tie sociological oppression to a community-specific narrative; where the social structure becomes intertwined with the personal lives of individuals in society. Seeing as how the world is an extremely diverse place, one single sociological theory cannot account for all of its ills; in fact, what begins to appear is that a myriad of social structures exist that continue to dictate how individuals think and punish any sort of socially deviant behavior that poses a threat to that power structure. These ideological structures crisscross one another and form a web of subjugation and power; reminiscent of a spider’s web, where seemingly independent threads of webbing form a larger body that makes up the web as a whole. A microcosmic example of this exists in the plot of the 1995 Walt Disney film Pocahontas where the theories of Post-Colonialism, Marxism, and Gender intertwine within the context of the plot and the interpersonal relationships of the characters. More specifically, Pocahontas herself embodies two theoretical narratives: as both a Powhatan and a woman, she faces the ascendancy of European imperialism and the engendered oppression of patriarchy. Additionally, there lies a classist narrative as the ostensibly adventure driven British colonialism overshadows its Capitalist substructure. As the film progresses, the audience comes to terms with the reality that social power structures rely one another in order create a complacent society where the individual is never free to exist on their own terms.

Pocahontas’ grand overture opens with this majestic anthem:

In sixteen hundred seven
We sail the open sea
For glory, God, gold
And the Virginia Company. (Pocahontas)

With that, the age of British exploration takes off; a time where the glory of adventure rises above all other passions and pursuits. As Western history tells us, the British colonialists find a North America full of beautifully spacious land, resources, and grand opportunity; Pocahontas reflects that belief as the following verse proclaims: “For the New World is like Heaven/ And we’ll all be rich and free” (Pocahontas). While it is easy to only tie a Post-Colonialist perspective to this film, the fourth line of the opening theme, “And the Virginia Company” (Pocahontas) introduces another theoretical aspect to the mix: classism. As Michael Parenti notes that in North America “[…] from colonial times onward, men of influence received vast land grants from the crown and presided over estates that bespoke an impressive munificence” (Democracy 40), the film is attempting to add on a classist narrative by highlighting how behind the guise of exploration there lies a class driven historical context. Following Marx’s argument that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist 50), the opening sequence of the film reflects both that idea and the concept that society is a puppet firmly controlled by the Bourgeoisie. The scene’s choir only further cements that belief as it sings “so we have been told by the/ Virginia Company” (Pocahontas); echoing how the Virginia Company is what is behind both the “exploration” and ideology of what the New World embodies.

Speaking strictly from a classist historical perspective, Marxism does its part in explaining the socio-economic climate the film’s British characters find themselves in. However, it fails to explain how power is allowed to be exerted over the various aspects of society. One needs to understand how power comes to be and how the individual reflexively reacts to that power. Since Michel Foucault asserts that “[…] the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (“Discipline” 549), it can then be inferred that any sort of social subjugation stems from and is enforced by all aspects and members of society. If that is the case, Marxism finds itself ignoring the larger sociological context of oppression; the Bourgeoisie need not just exercise their power from top to bottom because there will be other social elements that help in the suppression of the Proletariat. While Marxism acknowledges that the British bourgeoisie wield control over the proletariat through means of propaganda, it fails to illustrate the eagerness with which the proletariat not only accept but perpetuate this propaganda; in this case, the exploited sailors have cast their voyage as a Homeric adventure and thus accepted and reinforced their own subjugation. The Bourgeoisie are able to exert control only because the proletariat willingly gives them that power

And that is where one need only turn to John Smith: the brave, blond, masculine, strong, sword-carrying, savage-fighting British hero. Musically represented in a later scene where the British land in North America, the audience is presented with the juxtaposition between John Smith’s and Ratcliffe’s reasoning for being in North America; while Ratcliffe’s surreptitious goal is to find gold and be rewarded by King James, John blinds himself from that by focusing on the adventure that is North America:

All of my life, I have searched for a land
Like this one
A wilder, more challenging country
I couldn't design
Hundreds of dangers await
And I don't plan to miss one
In a land I can claim
A land I can tame
The greatest adventure is mine! (Pocahontas)

Here, Marx’s proclamation that “working men of all countries, unite!” (Communist 91) finds its foil; no such revolution can take place if the Proletariat itself reinforces the Bourgeoisie’s power over them. Much like how Foucault argues that “[…] the two processes---the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital---cannot be separated” (“Discipline” 564), so does the Bourgeoisie power structure finds its foundation within the dynamics of populist propaganda. If the Bourgeoisie can successfully convince its Proletariat to embrace and embody its ideals, then there is little need for it to conceal its Capitalist intentions; Ratcliffe so masterfully demonstrates during this same musical sequence where he sings: “Keep on working lads […] mine, boys, mine/ mine me that gold” (Pocahontas).

Correspondingly, the Post-Colonial interpretation of Pocahontas’ and the Powhatan tribe’s encounter with the British offers a non-western example of the universal range of this web of power. As Ratcliffe adamantly proclaims “I hereby claim this land, and all of its riches, in the name of King James the First and do so name this settlement Jamestown” (Pocahontas) and fastens a British Flag to the Virginian coast, the audience now encounters what Edward Said describes as the true basis of power: “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces” (“Orientalism” 2). Here British colonialism begins to create and establish the imperialist discourse of the European versus the Savage, where the audacity of claiming an inhabited continent in the name of a European monarch is heralded as an accomplishment. Suddenly Pocahontas and the other indigenous people of North America find themselves situated within a new geopolitical context where they are no longer the rulers of their land or destiny but subjects of a new political-cultural order. So while there is nothing natural about European supremacy, it is the swift political action of claiming the land with a European flag that effectively establishes European socio-political dominance.

Appropriately, North America’s indigenous people decry such imperialistic directives with Pocahontas becoming the voice of what will emerge as a newly marginalized people. However, the film reinforces European supremacy even while Pocahontas attempts to defend her culture during the “Colors of the Wind” musical sequence: “You think I’m an ignorant savage/ And you've been so many places I guess it must be so” (Pocahontas). Here Foucault’s assertion that “what the [social] apparatuses and institutions operate is, in a sense, a micro-physics of power, whose field of validity is situated in a sense between these great functionings [sic] and the bodies themselves with their materiality and their forces” (“Discipline” 550) mirrors the socialization that is created by the presence of Euro-centrism; before the arrival of the British, such a statement would not have even been thought of by Pocahontas and thus only exists as a by-product of the imposed socialized acceptance of European supremacy. Having been previously told by John Smith that her people “have much to learn” (Pocahontas) and that the British have “improved the lives of savages all over the world” (Pocahontas), Pocahontas finds herself initially unable to defend against such an ideology and attempts to storm off in anger; her subsequent weak defense that since the British having been to “[…] so many places […]”(Pocahontas) gives John Smith and the British the right and agency to decide what is savage or civilized. Here, the concept of "micro-physics of power"... becomes evident: It is a dialogue between two individuals that enforces the social subjugation, rather that a dialogue between a hierarchical institution and a commoner.

Mirroring her subservient position within a colonialist narrative, Pocahontas’ role as a woman in both European and Powhatan society serves to further cement this idea of a panoptic power structure. As Butler argues that “[…] to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman’” (“Performance” 902), so too does Foucaultian discourse find itself within Pocahontas’ relationships with both European and Powhatan patriarchy. As the Powhatans return from war, Pocahontas finds herself futilely fighting off a marriage proposal and contemplating the implications of accepting during her “Just around the River Bend” song:

Should I choose the smoothest course
Steady as the beating drum?
Should I marry Kocoum?
Is all my dreaming at an end? (Pocahontas)

While Pocahontas yearns to be like “[the river], always changing, always flowing” (Pocahontas), the patriarchal requirement of her marrying finds itself being championed by her father and thus, power is being exerted by an individual in society with an extremely personal connection with the subject of oppression. His influence as her father can socially coerce her into believing and accepting that perhaps the individuality she holds dear should be cast aside “for a handsome sturdy husband/ who builds handsome sturdy walls” (Pocahontas). Pocahontas, in considering adopting the patriarchal role of as a housewife, reflects what Butler states is the key component in structural power: “the personal is thus implicitly political in as much as it is conditioned by shared social structures […]” (“Performance” 906). While it was her father's initial desire that she marry, for her to contemplate the merits of marriage goes on to show how it is a more personal form of subjugation that occurs within structures of power.

The cultural duality of Pocahontas’ role in the film exemplifies how patriarchal domination also comes from the European narrative. As Pocahontas finds herself saving John Smith from execution and denouncing the racial hatred shared by both the British and Powhatans, she outlines her argument within the framework of heterosexual love:

I won’t [stand back]. I love him father. Look around you! This is where the path of hatred has brought us. This is the path I choose father, what will yours be?” (Pocahontas)

While noble and endearing, using the proclamation of her love for John Smith as the basis of the film’s resolution is problematic as she is now performing “in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions [of gender]” (“Performance” 906). Even though Pocahontas attempted to question her father’s patriarchal desire for her to wed, she inadvertently runs back to that patriarchal oppression as she forgoes the free spiritedness she so desperately wants to retain and becomes a simple love interest for Smith---his dyadic other in heteronormativity. Thus when it comes to the climactic scene where Ratcliffe attempts to shoot Chief Powhatan, it is Smith who is regarded and remembered as the hero of the film. With him taking the bullet for Chief Powhatan, Smith effectively protects the patriarchal leader of Powhatan society and reinforces the supportive role Pocahontas is supposed to embody as a woman.

The multitude of panoptic social structures inherent in Pocahontas reflects how society exerts power over the individual. As Foucault makes the observation that “[…] the productive increase of power can be assured only if […], it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest way possible […]” (“Discipline” 556), so do the characters in the film embody and project the various power structures. While the classist narrative finds itself within the socio-political relationships of the British colonialists, Pocahontas herself represents an engendered post colonial account; although these power structures seem separate, they all come together within the shared experiences of the characters to both reinforce and affirm their sovereignty over the individual. Therefore, there cannot exist any sort of truly individual entity, as this web of power structures imposes its subjugation on all, both from social hierarchy and through the daily routines and interpersonal relationships of its subjects.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Disney, Walt. Pocahontas. 18 August 2009. < http://www.disneypicture.net>. Path: Disney Movie Pictures; Pocahontas; Pocahontas Wallpaper 1024 Picture.
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.
Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few. 8th ed. Massachusetts: Thomson & Wadsworth, 2008.
Pocahontas. Gabriel, Mike and Goldberg, Eric. Dir. Perf. Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, John Kassir, Russell Means, Christian Bale. 1995. DVD. Walt Disney, 2000.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Course Handout. Major Critical Theory. Department of English, Cal State Northridge University. 1 August 2009.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Youtube Analysis #5

Gloria Anzaldua's “Borderlands/La Frontera” creates an interesting dialogue that attempts to bridge the gap between racial and sexual stigmatization as she explores her own experiences as a Queer Chicana. This short clip from Monica Palacios’s solo show, entitled Queer Soul, offers a window into the life of such an individual. While stating that her older sister is also a lesbian, Palacios recounts how her family asked “Did you guys eat the same thing? How did this happen?” (Palacios). This line of questioning then begins a subconscious and subcultural discourse that attempts to explore the reasoning behind such a defection from the Latino/Chicana social structure. If “culture forms our beliefs [and is] made by those in power---men” (Anzaldua 1018), then the hierarchical basis of this power structure is reflected within a partriarchal context. Her parent’s inquiry into their daughter’s development is a clear sign of a subconcious social panic; if the only social avenues a woman could take in latino culture were that of “[…] the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother” (1018), then what would their two queer daughter’s be thought of? More importantly, what kind of existence can they have within a latino society if they fail to follow any of their prescribed gender roles?

Accordingly the parents then experience a sense of confusion over the situation: “Just when the Mexican, Catholic family thought they had one Lesbian daughter, they actually have two. Experience their confusion in ‘Double Dyke Familia’!” (Palacios). Here, the queer person of color is shown to be both a deviant and revolutionary; “For the lesbian of color,the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behavior. She goes against two moral prohibitions: sexuality and homosexuality” (1020). Deviating from the norm sets up the queer person of color to be ostracized as he or she, in this case the female lesbian, denies the latino culture the ability to force its gender and sexuality moral codes on to her. For how can a female lesbian be subjugated by patriarchy if she is not attracted to, and thus not susceptible to, social and sexual male domination?

As the skit goes on, Palacios makes it evident that it is the family structure that needs to reinforce their patriarchal social norms for the sake of both the individual and the family: “Every year, the familia had the same holiday wish---por favor, let them bring home men for dinner!” It is this aspect of family structure that begins to be detrimental in allowing latino/a individuals to live their lives how they see fit. If “most of us unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable aspect of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us” (1020), then the oppressive aspect of latino culture and society both polices and constrains individuals within rigid socially acceptable behavior.

Of course, the follow up thought to that reinforcement is that with any deviant behavior there comes the risk of it being passed along to other members of the society. It should then come as no surprise that Palacios’ familia makes the second wish that “we don’t want to march in that gay parade!” If “the Chicano, mexicano, and some Indian cultures have no tolerance for deviance” (1019), any deviance becomes a direct threat to both the social norm and power structure of a society and thus must be repressed or eliminated.

Works Cited:
Anzaldua, Gloria. “Borderlands/La Frontera.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Palacios, Monica. “Double Dyke Familia.” Queer Soul. Highways Performance Space, 2002. < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfztfYWfFkI>

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Youtube Analysis #4

After reading through Foucault's "The History of Sexuality" and Butler's "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution", this idea of sexuality and gender linking itself to power becomes evident in the Mad Tv "Gay Straight Guys" skit. As the skit opens up, the audience is presented with two guys who are partaking in a very distinctly masculine American pastime: watching the big game with a fellow male sports fan. While this masculine behavior may not necessarily imply heterosexuality, the blond guy's statement that he "[...] has to meet Susan [and her parents] later" for dinner establishes his relationship with a woman and a connection to the aforementioned sexuality. Similarly, the brunette guy responds with "Oh, dinner with the parents. I did that last week with Kelly; good luck dude" to also lay some claim to heteronormativity.

As of this point in the skit, the audience begins to see what Foucault describes as society's attempt "[...]to reduce sexuality to the couple---the heterosexual and, insofar as possible, legitimate couple" (897). By laying claim to relationships with readily identified female individuals, the two guys are establishing a sense of sexual normality within the social reality of the skit. That manufactured normality is then accentuated by the distinctly masculine behavior and attitude of each guy: they both wear identifiably masculine football jerseys, both address each other in masculine sounding voices, express excitement and emotion through their enjoyment of the game, and continue to emotionally and physically bond through the game and conversation about their respective heterosexual relationships.

If Butler's assertion that "the formulation of the body as a mode of dramatizing or enacting possibilities offers a way to understand how a cultural convention is embodied and enacted" (905) holds true, then their behavior serves to reinforce both the traditionally masculine persona of men and the connection between masculine behavior and mentalities and heteronormativity. Since this behavior is "[...] a shared experience [...]" (906) by all members of society, then it is possible to acknowledge that any sort of subversion or, in the language of power dynamics a perversion, becomes either a collective rebellion or stigmatization.

At the height of their excitement, a sexual outburst occurs: they embrace and heavily kiss. Quickly forcing themselves apart, the blond guy asks "what just happened?", only to be ignored by the brunette's denial driven response that "The Buck's scored". Since Foucault's assertion that "a norm of sexual development was defined [at a young age] and all possible deviations were carefully described" (892), the two characters know they have crossed a social taboo; an abominable act that threatens heteronormative sexual practices. In their attempt to deny their passions, they attempt to re-orient that abnormal behavior within a socially acceptable context: "it was just a thing, a football thing. It happens all the time."

It is at this point then that their behavior and mentality make a drastic change; what they experienced was distinctly queer and thus, they must now position themselves within a queer discourse. The admission that "yes, I was a little bit excited" by the brunette then leads to the conclusion that they are now both "a little bit gay". Interestingly enough, it is this idea of pleasure that Foucault touches on that allows the audience to explore the subtext of the character's enjoyment: "The pleasure comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting" (897). Their queer experience then becomes a way for them to challenge, but more importantly, reaffirm heteronormativity as their ensuing conversation allows them to explore the idea of what makes a person gay.

However, it is their perceived engendered behavior and mentality that directly contradicts any notion of them being gay. Since they aren't into "scented candles" and are more into "[...] cheerleaders, short shorts, [and] bouncing hooters", they can't be gay. Their subsequent effeminately inspired dancing though then allows them to reengage their passions for each other as that specifically engendered behavior allows them the agency to do so; singing "I'm gay" over and over again during this further justifies their homosexual behavior.

It is then that their engendered behavior creates and justifies a heteronormative power structure that demonizes and dictates how and what people should feel and do. If they follow their masculine persona, they are then heterosexual and thus, normal. However, the truly liberating aspect of the skit is that despite their misgivings and attempts at placating the power structure they created, in the end they still embrace in a last kiss.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. "The History of Sexuality." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

MadTv. "Gay Straight Guys". Fox. 12 August 2009. < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ulb3tZU8vsk>

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Youtube Analysis #3

I unfortunately cannot get the embedded code for this video but here is the link:


Off of the soundtrack for the 1998 Film Godzilla, “No Shelter” serves an ironic exploration on how consumerism both fuels the system and blinds individuals into believing that their existence is embodied and even made significant through the commodities they can purchase. The opening shot of the video depicts a few individuals strapped to some chairs while a group of business men look on, then go on to supervise the band itself as they begin to play their song. Their vocalist Zach De La Rocha then begins to introduce the concept of how power is structured within our society:

The main attraction, distraction
Got ya number than number than numb
Empty ya pockets son, they got you thinkin that
What ya need is what they sellin
Make you think that buyin is rebellin'. (1-5)

Here, Rage uses the Marxist idea of Commodity Fetishism to explain how “the main attraction” (1), whether that is the Godzilla movie or Rage against the Machine itself, is really a “distraction” (1) from the socio-economic subjugation of Capitalism. For Rage and Marx, the commodity can be anything and is inherently a fetish for the consumer because “[…] it appears to them as an objective character” (Marx 667) disconnected from the reality of worker subjugation. What isn’t taken into account are the labor power and raw materials needed for the creation of the commodity. So while the consumer may fawn over purchasing an Iphone or an Xbox 360 and in doing so express a seemingly individual desire to own such an item, it is the system that has them thinking “what ya need is what they sellin” (4) and not their own wish for such an item.

The consumer then becomes indoctrinated with an ideology that promotes and encourages the concept of personal ownership as the sole means of expressing one’s existence. And even if the consumer believes he or she is rebelling either by purchasing fair trade products or even a Rage album, making them believe that “buyin is rebellin” (5) is just another form of ideological control that the Capitalist system uses to create the illusion of freedom of choice. Since the finished product has “[…] absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom” (Marx 667), then it is clearly understood that no amount of seditious purchases can over throw the system as all commodities are connected to this exploitive system.

To further drive this point home, Rage end this stanza with the following proclamation: “From the theaters to malls on every shore/ The thin line between entertainment and war/ The frontline is everywhere, there be no shelter here” (6-8). Creating the image of theaters, malls, and other relating venues of consumerism on “every shore” (6) , it is evident that both the Capitalist social structure and ideology are completely globalized and a part of our very existence. If truly “the frontline is everywhere” (8), then nothing, not even a truly revolutionary Rage against the Machine song, can provide you with any sort of shelter from Capitalist oppression.

Works Cited:

Marx, Karl. "Capital". Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Rage against the Machine. "No Shelter". Godzilla The Album: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. 19 May 1998.