Can a Mirror Reveal the Truth?
Willa: A few weeks ago, Lisha McDuff and Harriet Manning joined me for a very interesting discussion about Harriet’s new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. In fact, it was so interesting we couldn’t stop! We continued our discussion through email even after the post went up, and in the course of those emails Harriet suggested a fascinating idea:
Perhaps, because racial identity by appearance is still so fundamental to our perception of others, racial facial features (in Michael Jackson’s case, skin colour and nose shape) are processed by our brains as being “bigger,” more all-encompassing than they actually are. So, even when a face has otherwise not changed much, if these particular features – these strong racial signs – are altered, the perception is that the whole face has radically changed, when in fact it has not.
Lisha and I were both blown away by this, and now we’re all itching to talk about it. Harriet, I really think you’re onto something important here. Thank you both so much for reconvening to talk this over!
Harriet: You are very welcome, Willa, but it was born out of all our thoughts, so a group effort!
Willa: You know, this idea reminds me of a book I read a long time ago – like 25 years ago, so I may not be remembering it exactly right – but I was totally fascinated by it. It’s called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. According to Edwards, most adults can’t draw very well, but it isn’t a skill problem – meaning, an inability to draw lines on paper. It’s a perception problem. Her theory is that most adults have the skills we need to be able to draw very well, but ironically our knowledge of the world gets in the way.
For example, she says if you give an adult a photograph and ask them to draw that image, most draw something pretty amateurish and not very accurate. But if you turn the same photograph upside down and ask them to draw it, they do much better. In fact, most can draw it fairly well.
Lisha: I read that same book many years ago too, Willa, and that’s exactly the way I remember it as well. I always wished I had a little more time to spend on the drawing exercises in the book. Apparently the drawing isn’t really the difficult part. It’s the seeing that is really hard to do.
Willa: Exactly! She says the problem is that most of us don’t really look at the world around us – or in this case, the image on the photograph. We look just long enough to label it – oh, that’s a face or a chair or a cat – and then we try to draw our idea of what a face or chair or cat looks like. We think we’re drawing what we see, but we aren’t. We’re drawing what’s in our mind’s eye instead.
But most of us don’t have a mental image of what an upside-down face or chair or cat looks like, so when we try to draw the image that way, we’re forced to actually look at what’s in front of us and draw the shapes and lines the way they actually appear on the photograph. So our ability to sketch the image on paper is much better – sometimes astonishingly better.
Lisha: Amazing, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and like you I’d love to spend some time working through her exercises. Anyway, I wonder if something similar was happening with public perceptions of Michael Jackson’s face. We tend to look at a face just long enough to categorize it – oh, that face is black/white/Asian, young/old, male/female, handsome/not handsome – and then once we’ve categorized it we don’t really look at it anymore. We think we are, but we aren’t. We’re just looking at it long enough to label it. And as you pointed out, Harriet, some signifiers are more important than others in determining those labels: for example, the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes and nose, the color and texture of your hair, the length of your eyelashes, the color of your lips.
Harriet: Yes, “important” because dominant culture (from which we take our cues) has defined certain features as such in its constructions of race and gender.
Willa: That’s an important point, Harriet. They are just social constructs – or social “conditioning” as Michael Jackson would say. But even though they’re “just” constructs, they’re still very powerful. We can see how powerful they are by looking at how people read and respond to Michael Jackson’s face.
When he was young, people would look at his face just long enough to label it (young, black, male) and then would only see the labels, not his actual face – which as Betty Edwards suggests is fairly typical. But when he began altering some of the signifiers we use to determine those labels, people would think “young,” “black,” “male,” but his face didn’t really fit those labels anymore. It set up a dissonance between what we saw and the labels we had stored in our heads. So as you suggested in your email, Harriet, this caused people to think his face had radically changed when it hadn’t. It was actually the way we interpret his face that had changed, not his face itself.
Lisha: That was certainly true for me back in the 80s as a non-fan. I remember when photos from the Victory tour hit the newsstands, it was really hard to believe that was actually Michael Jackson – he looked like a totally different person to me. I had to really study the photos to see it was him, especially since I had missed the Off The Wall era. The shape of his nose and his skin color had changed a bit – no doubt about it – but what I remember most is how the new, thinner eyebrows threw me. I don’t think I could rectify the image of a good looking black male with feminine, old-fashioned Hollywood arched eyebrows and makeup. At the time it was fashionable for women to have full eyebrows and very natural looking faces, like Brooke Shields. So, it was startling and confusing to see this. It was amazing how these details changed the way I interpreted his entire face – to the point he was unrecognizable.
This is what Michael Jackson looked like in my mind’s eye back in the early 80s, and this is what he looked like in Victory tour photos:
Willa: Those are great examples, Lisha, and I know what you mean. I’ve experienced that too – of doing something of a double take when he came out with a new look, like for Thriller or Bad or Dangerous or HIStory … It seems like he unveiled a new look for each album. And sometimes it was a radically different look, altering his image at a more fundamental level than just a new hairstyle – a level that really challenged the mental image I had of him.
And maybe, as you suggested, Harriet, those shifts in the image we had in our mind’s eye is what led people to believe he’d had far more plastic surgery than he’d actually had.
Harriet: I think his changes in image also revealed how business-savvy he was, too. He was a kind of recurrent reinvention, which worked to keep him “new,” fresh and exciting.
Lisha: Yes, for sure. At the time I think I assumed it was all about marketing but I don’t think that way anymore.
Willa: That’s a good point – it did capture a lot of attention and keep him “fresh and exciting,” as you said, Harriet. But like you, Lisha, I think there was a lot more going on as well.
Just as a mental experiment, I’ve been playing around with two photos that illustrate this issue of “seeing” and “labeling” very well, I think. I really like these two photos because they look very similar to me, but we tend to interpret them very differently. The first one – from 1987 – registers fairly clearly as “black” and “male,” while the other – from 2003 – is more ambiguous. What I mean is, if you don’t know who it is, it’s harder to figure out how to label it. Here are those two photos:
And here are black-and-white xeroxed images of the same photos:
In the black-and-white xeroxes, you can’t see the difference in skin tone, or the red lipstick in the later image, so the racial and gender signifiers don’t stand out so much. What you do see – much more clearly, I think – are the basic lines of his face, and those are unchanged.
Harriet: What an excellent experiment, Willa. Thinking this over and studying these images, I have become very aware of the parts that makeup and hairstyle play also, plus that of the camera. Willa, you go into the latter quite a bit in “Re-Reading Michael Jackson,” don’t you? Makeup, hairstyle and camera angle (and linked to all of these, the context in which a photograph is taken) massively affect an image of a face. Here in the UK (and in the US too, I am sure) there is a tabloid trend for juxtaposing two hyper-different images of someone famous, such as an image taken at a red carpet event versus a caught-in-the-street paparazzi shot. Google Images comes up with these comparison shots a lot, too. The trick (and that is exactly what it is) illustrates very well the huge effects on imagery of makeup and hairstyling, photography and context.
But furthermore, in the case of Michael Jackson – amidst the attention given to his plastic surgery and skin change – the role played by more “regular” physical processes affecting appearance, such as weight change and aging, have been continually denied. Weight change, for example, drastically alters someone’s face especially if, like Michael Jackson, they are of a slight build; then, even a very minimal weight change up or down can have a big effect, especially in the face. If you compare images of Michael Jackson in 2001 around the release of Invincible (and his protests against Sony bosses) with 2009 This Is It rehearsal photos, weight change plays a big part in the difference. Here is an example photograph from each era respectively:
The two images you select, Willa, visualize (to my eye at least) the effects less of plastic surgery than weight change and/or that of the work of the camera. I’m sure everyone will have noticed how sometimes, when an image is moved or played about with (quite often when trying to resize it) its proportions can change? This can make a face quite slim or really quite rounded in comparison to its original. The later photo of yours, Willa, looks like it might have been subject to this.
Willa: Really? Because to me the proportions and lines of his face look exactly the same in both photos. That’s why I like them so much. He’s 15 years older in the later photo, and the hollows of his cheeks have become a little more pronounced, but other than that the basic structure of his face looks exactly the same to me. The only differences are surface signifiers such as lipstick and false eyelashes.
Lisha: Yes, I agree with you, Willa. I think the basic structure of the face looks the same though we tend to focus on the differences. With Michael Jackson you have to look very closely and very deliberately to see the actual structure of the face because the surface signifiers somehow really take over.
Harriet: So I guess we are highlighting our own argument: that impressions or readings of an image can be variable, even polar opposite, and (in my case but not so much yours, Willa) based on certain features over fundamental structure. However, the more pronounced “hollows of his cheeks” you do note, Willa, are signs of weight loss and/or aging I would say, in which case his whole face would likely have been a little slimmer at the time the second photo was taken.
Lisha: He does look slimmer in the second photo through the cheeks, which could be due to weight loss, aging, or even medication used to treat skin and scalp issues. I can see a tiny difference in his overbite that might be the result of cosmetic dentistry. But the interesting thing to me is that I think we’re pretty used to absorbing some changes in the appearance of entertainers and performers, including surgical procedures, that aren’t magnified like they are here. You don’t have to go beyond the Jackson family to look for some good examples this. We sort of accept their beauty and fabulousness and don’t comment too much about the changes they have made.
But with Michael Jackson, this is not the case. His changing appearance caused so much confusion and produced some very strong reactions and assumptions. Still does.
Harriet: Yes, and there were a whole host of reasons for this. I would put part of our resistance to his “change” down to the amazing longevity of his career that started at such a young age. This meant that he was forced to contend with an inescapable ever-present pictorial past of himself as distinctly black-skinned and boyish. Subconsciously, I would argue, we always perceive Michael Jackson in relation to these early images, which continue to float around in the media, continue to have cultural currency, and yet provide nothing but an outdated mode by which to try and “read” him. This, I think, further fuels the common perception that Michael Jackson’s face altered in a way that needed explanation through excessive plastic surgery more than was ever actually indicated.
In addition to Michael Jackson’s ever-present pictorial past, I wonder whether his highly distinctive choreographic and iconic self-repetition also worked to highlight his physical change.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Harriet. So for example, every time he performed “Billie Jean” it was compared to his iconic performance at Motown 25?
Harriet: That’s exactly what I mean, yes. It’s a bit like if two woman wear the same dress: we suddenly focus in on their differences not their similarities. The same process works in mimicry more broadly, as with the many Michael Jackson impersonators.
Lisha: I wonder if that could be a part of it and I agree that we compare Michael Jackson against his own past. I also think we subconsciously judge his appearance against a huge number of images we have previously identified as things like “young,” “entertainer,” “black,” or “male.”
Here’s another piece of photographic evidence that was highly persuasive to me – an image taken from a rehearsal for This Is It. This photo convinced me that my eyes play tricks on me when I look at Michael Jackson.
The shadows across his face obscure his skin tone and makeup here, sort of like those black and white xeroxes do. I was struck by how differently I see his features in this photo compared with the way I usually interpret them. His eyes, nose, and mouth all register as much more “African” to me, though many assume he surgically altered his face to look more “white” or “female.”
Harriet: I guess if we were to apply our own thesis, though, this photo would rather exemplify the “interfering” roles played by camera, lights and makeup (or rather “non makeup”)?
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a rare opportunity to observe what happens when some of the most common techniques are absent. My understanding is that this image was captured for documentation/study purposes only, not for promotional use. It’s one of the very few photos where I cannot see the effects of makeup contouring (strategic use of light and dark shades of makeup), special poses or “attitude” for the camera, flash photography or other strong lighting on the face.
Willa: Yes, and those poses or “attitudes,” as you called them, have a powerful effect. You can really tell when he is adopting the pose of Michael Jackson, icon, and when he isn’t.
Lisha: Yes, there is no doubt he knew how to work the camera!
This keeps reminding me of one of my all-time favorite TED talks, which was presented by neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a few years back. Dr. Taylor gives a brilliant explanation of how each side of the brain functions, and I think it really supports and expands on what we are talking about here. She says the function of the right brain is to perceive sensory information in the present moment (possibly even well enough to draw it as Betty Edwards says), while the left brain methodically categorizes all that information, kind of like a serial processor on the computer. While the right brain is busy collecting information, the left brain is analyzing and interpreting it in order to project out possibilities for the future.
Michael Jackson so forcefully disrupted how we perceive, analyze and interpret his appearance, I think it’s important to grasp how this works. It’s worth watching Dr. Taylor’s talk and consider why Michael Jackson might have been cuing us to step to the right of our left brain.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! It’s like the two sides of our brains represent two completely different ways of understanding the world. As Dr. Taylor points out, the right side is more sensory, while the left side is more analytical. The right side is focused on the present moment, while the left is constantly making comparisons with the past and projecting out into the future, as you mentioned. The right is more about feeling, while the left is trying to capture what we feel and express those emotions through language. In fact, the “mind chatter” our brains tend to constantly engage in comes from the left side of our brains, according the Dr. Taylor.
It was really interesting to hear her talk about her stroke, which was in her left hemisphere and how, ironically, she felt an unexpected sense of euphoria as it was happening. It’s like her right side was momentarily released from the constraints of her left side, and it reveled in that freedom.
She also said that, during her stroke, she couldn’t distinguish her own boundaries, which was very interesting to me. She couldn’t tell where “she” ended and the rest of the world began, so in a very literal sense she experienced the phenomenon of “you’re just another part of me.”
Lisha: Yes, Dr. Taylor goes into detail about this in her book, My Stroke of Insight. I thought it was a fascinating read. She also talks about a fact we all accept as scientifically true – that our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water – and she claims this is also quite literally true. Once the part of your brain shuts down that interprets the body as a separate, solid mass, you can actually perceive the body as a liquid and experience that as a part of your ordinary reality.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating! I’d love to experience that somehow – without having a stroke, of course …
Lisha: Me too! She said she really liked knowing her body was liquid and it was one of the last parts of her brain to heal from the stroke. According to Dr. Taylor, “you’re just another part of me” is not just a philosophy, it is a scientific truth. Perception is everything – which begs the question – what’s really out there?
Harriet: “What’s really out there?” We need to come back to this!
Willa: That is the question, isn’t it? And can we ever know what’s really out there? Philosophers have debated that for centuries.
So in terms of what we’ve been talking about with perceptions of Michael Jackson, the right hemisphere of the brain is trying to gather in all the sensory input available at any given moment – it’s trying to collect “what’s really out there” – while the left is trying to make sense of it. It’s categorizing and labeling that input, and putting it within a historical context. That ties in exactly with what Betty Edwards says in her book, though she emphasizes that our left side also prioritizes and filters what we look at, and therefore what we see.
That leads to another reason why Michael Jackson’s face was so misinterpreted: our perceptions were strongly influenced by the constant narrative of plastic surgery that was repeated again and again in both the tabloids and mainstream press. That narrative shaped the mental and cultural filters through which we saw his face, and those filters are really powerful. It gets back once again to what Michael Jackson called our cultural “conditioning.” We were “conditioned” to see the effects of plastic surgery whenever we looked at him, and so we did.
Harriet: Absolutely, and I think that’s why it’s important to consider the role of the stereotype here, for in the realm of identity formation (which is where we are in grappling with “reading Michael Jackson’s face”), it is the stereotype that largely creates this conflict between the two interpreting parts of our brain. In understanding Others, the stereotype is deployed: built on previous “knowledge” and imagery, it “makes sense” of a person by, as you say, Willa, categorizing, labeling, and contextualizing. Meanwhile, though, the other side of our brain knows that to a large extent this is all just a construction, a fiction, and that there is other “matter” (parts of a person) left undiscovered and unexplained. Because this “matter” is more difficult, less instant in interpretation, we leave it out.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Harriet.
Harriet: Not only did Michael Jackson have to contend with pervasive stereotypes of masculinity and blackness, he had to contend with the stereotype of the Hollywood plastic surgery addict that generated once his face began to change. By this, he provides a wonderful example of someone (an “Other”) onto whom multiple stereotypes were projected but none of them fitted. He therefore generated lots of this remaining “matter” that our brains couldn’t quickly make sense of, and this “stuff” just got left behind in our reading of him. It just got submerged and forgotten (or in some cases, was maybe not even ever acknowledged).
Lisha: I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head. The multiple stereotypes we tried to project onto him just wouldn’t fit. There were too many labels and categories being disrupted all at once. We lacked a quick, easy explanation that could make sense of this.
Harriet: Totally, and the result is really quite confounding. My own brain, for example, is constantly battling between two visions and two readings: Michael Jackson radically changed aesthetically, and Michael Jackson didn’t really change aesthetically much at all. And this conflict continues despite the close observations we have made here, which point toward the latter.
Lisha: You’re touching on something that I find in many aspects of Michael Jackson’s work, Harriet, when you say Michael Jackson appears to have both changed and not changed aesthetically. I’ve noticed Michael Jackson is not an “either/or” type of guy – he’s a “both/and” proposition. If you’re looking closely, his face appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.
I decided to take a look at the psychology literature to see if I could find some research that would support what we’re talking about here in terms of perception and how the brain could potentially misinterpret visual information. I’m really amazed by what I am finding, especially in the area of facial perception and race. Apparently facial perception is a rather complex brain function – it isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think. Belief and expectation radically alter what people actually see. This is something that has been studied for years.
For example, there was a study in 2003 by Eberhardt, Dasgupta, and Banasynski titled “Believing Is Seeing: The Effects of Racial Labels and Implicit Beliefs on Face Perception.” Researchers morphed head shots together until they had an ambiguous photo that 50 percent of respondents identified as a “black male,” while the other 50 percent identified the exact same photo as that of a “white male.” The photo was given to another group who were then asked to draw the photo. Each copy of the photo was randomly labeled either “black” or “white.”
Participants were told that they would receive a nice monetary bonus if the next group could correctly identify the photo from their drawing of it. But despite the incentive for making an accurate drawing, the “black” and “white” labels altered what participants drew and their drawings were consistent with their beliefs about the labels. This study was summarized by Adam Alter in an article that appeared in Psychology Today magazine titled “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People: Why labeling a person ‘black,’ ‘rich,’ or ‘smart’ makes it so.” Here is one of the photos used in the study and two drawings of the same photo:
Harriet: Lisha, this article is so in tune with what we have discussed.
Willa: It really is!
Harriet: This is the nub:
The people we label as “black,” “white,” “rich,” poor,” smart,” and “simple,” seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we’ve labeled them so.
Of course, as a society we like labels because they help us to apparently understand the world around us and our place in relation to it. As the subtitle of the article puts it, with them we are constantly “decision making.” Michael Jackson shook up decision making in so many ways it was almost like society couldn’t cope with it, so we over-compensated in defining him, as in the extensive plastic surgery narrative / imagery that was so strongly projected that we all came to believe it. I personally think we need to take from Michael Jackson’s cues and look towards a utopian way of Being without “decision making” though this might be a big ask …
As you put it, Lisha, labels are largely about “either/or”; that is, they are often structured as an oppositional binary (black/white, man/woman young/old etc). But Michael Jackson blew this out the water by being a “both/and proposition”: Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”
Lisha: It’s as if he didn’t cross boundaries – he inhabited them. And it’s much easier to believe these changes were achieved through plastic surgery than it is to consider our own psychological lapses in perception.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way before – that we prefer to believe the difference is out there, in him, there rather than in us, in our own minds.
Harriet: The “both/and proposition” that is visualized in Michael’s face, and the complexity of perception and identity more broadly, makes me think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit doodle in Philosophical Investigations. The doodle, which many will recognize, depicts at once the outlined images of a duck and a rabbit, and therefore also their continual oscillations.
This doodle has been applied (I’m thinking here by W.T. Lhamon Jr. in his wonderful book Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop) to illustrate how two identities can be held together, can be variably seen either together or separately or even with the exclusion of the other but all the while together in a kind of “third.” This is Michael Jackson all over to my mind and what I understand to be at the core of his attraction. He could be anyone and everyone. Michael Jackson was not about strict definition or separation but about crossing and merging and bringing us altogether, label-free, as one.
Willa: Or as three-in-one. That’s really interesting, Harriet. So it’s not a process of becoming one by shedding or denying our differences – a oneness of homogeneity – but by developing a more complex understanding of identity, of the multiplicity of identity.
Harriet: That’s it, yes, in which “difference” becomes less absolute and all-encompassing.
Willa: To be honest, I’m still kind of blown away by what you were talking about earlier, Harriet – about stereotypes and how half our brain applies those kinds of labels to help us quickly identify and categorize sensory input, while the other half realizes those labels aren’t true – that it’s “all a fiction and that there is other ‘matter’ (parts of a person) left undiscovered or unexplained,” as you said. That’s such an interesting idea, and I wonder if this kind of double knowledge – with half our brains (the more accessible part) thinking one thing while the other half (less accessible) secretly knowing it’s not true – helps explain something that’s been a big mystery to me.
Before Michael Jackson died, it seemed that most people believed he was utterly corrupt: a pedophile, a drug addict, a plastic surgery addict, a man who used his fame and his wealth to twist other people – especially the parents of young boys – into doing whatever he wanted. But the moment he died, there was this outpouring of grief, and public opinion shifted dramatically. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would so many people grieve so deeply and feel such tenderness for an utterly debauched rock star? I can understand how people might change their minds gradually as more sympathetic information began to emerge, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t gradual. It was instantaneous. Why would people feel such a profound sense of loss if they genuinely believed he was “a monster,” as he himself describes it? I just can’t understand that, and I’ve puzzled about it a long time.
I wonder if this sort of double knowledge you’re talking about, Harriet, helps explain it. I wonder if, at one level of consciousness, people saw the tabloid headlines and heard the innuendo and seemed to accept those horrible labels that were being forced onto him. They threw him into “a class with a bad name,” as he says in “They Don’t Care about Us.” But at a deeper level, they knew it wasn’t true, knew it was just a fiction, knew those monstrous labels didn’t fit him. So when he died, that deeper knowledge led to a grief that couldn’t be explained.
Harriet: That is intriguing and very insightful, Willa. In other words, death allows us to finally “feel” without (social) restriction. It is like the death of a person rids us of the limitations imposed on us by a society fearful of difference, of the “matter” that cannot be explained by labels, which, deep down, each one of us knows is really there.
Lisha: I absolutely believe this is true. One of my favorite research projects is to log onto the “Toys R Us” mega-store website and search their merchandise using the search term “Michael Jackson.” They offer dozens of Michael Jackson products for children – puzzles, games, toys, child-size glitter gloves, etc. If as a culture we really believed Michael Jackson was “an utterly debauched rock star” who committed crimes against children, would we be mass producing these products?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Lisha. And would there be so many CDs of Michael Jackson songs performed as lullabies to play for your children as they go to sleep? I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are five different CDs of Michael Jackson lullabies. Would Amazon really be selling Michael Jackson bedtime music for children if people genuinely believed he was a pedophile? I don’t think so.
Lisha: I actually started a collection of Michael Jackson baby CDs to illustrate this very point – if Michael Jackson is safe enough for your baby’s nursery, then Michael Jackson is safe, end of story!
Harriet: I agree, but I can’t help but wonder if it is also about seeing a market (the mothers of young children) and exploiting it. After all, when there is a fortune to be made anything can happen, as Michael Jackson himself knew only too well.
Willa: Yes, but would the mothers of young children be buying if they really thought he was a child molester?
Lisha: And would the demand for these products be high enough to mass produce them for a giant mega-store chain like “Toys R Us”?
Harriet: Maybe I am being too skeptical, but a large tranche of the demographic of Michael Jackson fans will be mothers of a child-bearing or rearing age, don’t you think?
Lisha: It’s a good question and I don’t really know for sure. Those of us in Michael Jackson’s age bracket (age 55) are more likely to buy these for grandchildren rather than our own kids, so maybe there are at least two strong markets there – mothers and grandmothers.
Harriet: I wanted to return to something that is just so fundamental to “reading Michael Jackson’s face,” and that is what you touched on earlier, Lisha, that “perception is everything, which begs the question – what’s really out there?” As philosophers have explored and identified at length, nothing is really “out there” because it is all filtered by our own individual interpretation. That is, there is actually no “true” reality and no “truth.” It seems to me that in Michael Jackson’s face we see this impossibility of grasping at reality, at “truth.” Not only do we all seem to read Michael Jackson in very different ways, some of us also read him differently within our own minds at different times (sometimes he has changed aesthetically and sometimes he has not).
I’m sure people can recall the collection of promo shots released ahead of Michael Jackson’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey back in 1993. This is one of them:
From the commentary I have found it seems this image (and the decision to “black out” Michael’s face), was quite widely read as a marketing ploy used to entice viewers by playing on the cultural fascination with Michael Jackson’s face. However, I wonder if there was actually more going on. The decision to “black out” the detail of Michael’s face could be read as a very public recognition on his part of the issue we have raised in this discussion: the huge problem we have with the (mis)interpretation of visual information and especially that relating to identity.
Perhaps Michael Jackson is saying here: “People will see what they want to see anyway.” It could be his resignation to this or, more likely I would say, a way by which he was inviting us to think very seriously about how we saw, or didn’t see, his face.
Willa: I agree. It reminds me of the Invincible album cover, where instead of being “blacked out” his face has been “whited out” to the point where the details of his face have been lost. So as you say, in both cases we are left to fill in the image for ourselves. As he sings in “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: A face is like a mirror: it can reflect back at us (it “mirrors”) what we want, hope or expect to see, rather than reflect what is really there. This photo perhaps argues this. So, to read Michael Jackson’s face we need rather to read ourselves. I’m reminded here of the phenomenon “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which shifts the power away from the subject towards the spectator in the creation of visual image, meaning, and significance. I go into this in the conclusion of my book and consider it paramount in discussion of Michael Jackson, whose ambiguity – his “both/and proposition” – allowed this interpretative process in a very elaborate way.
Lisha: It’s absolutely true. With this is mind, we should have another look at the HIStory teaser, one of Michael Jackson’s most misunderstood works. His first appearance in this film (1:14) is quite possibly my all time favorite Michael Jackson image for all the reasons we have talked about here. We’re not just looking at Michael Jackson, we’re confronting our own psychological projections and seeing who we believe he is.
Harriet: And there it is. Brilliant.
Willa: It really is. He continually reflects our projections back at us in ways that utterly amaze me.
So before we wrap up I wanted to mention a couple of things. I’m sure everyone is very curious to know more about the new album, Xscape, scheduled to come out in May. Damien Shields has an interesting post describing each of the songs predicted to be on it.
And there’s a new book coming out the end of June that ties in with the ideas we’ve been talking about today in fascinating ways. It’s by Lorena Turner, a photographer and sociologist who contributes to the conversation here sometimes, and it’s called The Michael Jacksons. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I’m really intrigued by what I’ve seen so far.
It looks at Michael Jackson impersonators not only in terms of how they interpret and reenact and memorialize Michael Jackson himself, but how they continue his legacy of “performing” race and gender in fluid ways. Lorena quotes J.Martin Favor that “Race is theatrical – it is an outward spectacle – rather than being anything internal or essential,” and looks at how Michael Jackson and his impersonators “perform” his/their identity. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she develops these ideas. Here’s a link with more information, as well as a gallery of some of her photos.
Harriet: I am really excited about Lorena’s book, not least because it is closely linked to my own work. I mean by this that we could understand Michael Jackson impersonation as being part of the theatrical tradition of blackface minstrelsy, a tradition that was built on (cross-racial) impersonation – performers “putting on” and “taking off” an Other’s body. Despite the minstrel show’s racism for which it is best known, the tradition could at times in its long history articulate cross-racial admiration and alliance (“love”). This reminds me of Michael Jackson impersonators who are so dedicated to and passionate about their subject. Depending on their individual skin color, Michael Jackson impersonators even “black up” or “white up.” I understand Lorena plans to include a chapter on the history of blackface impersonation.
Willa: Yes, I think that’s true. She mentions blackface minstrelsy in the pages I read, and also looks at the history of black artists performing for white audiences, from minstrelsy through Motown.
Lisha: Sounds fascinating!
Willa: It really does. So thank you both so much for joining me! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Posted on April 10, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged Betty Edwards, Damien Shields, Harriet Manning, Jill Bolte Taylor, Lisha McDuff, Lorena Turner, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, Psychology Today, The Michael Jacksons. Bookmark the permalink. 131 Comments.
The biggest thing that changed about Michaels face is that his smile went away. No one ever talks about that. He used to be such a happy person. That changed in the 90s. I believe thats as much a factor as anything else.
yes, dee. i commented on that a few years back on this blog or raven’s (all for love). that, to me was very noticeable. seems like it began right after Thriller and coincided with wearing his ray bans so often. of course he wore sunglasses prior, but it became more prominent with indoor/on camera use as well). i remember wondering if it was part of his new look, but there was always something deeper. but i agree, it accelerated in the 90’s and relating to this topic is pervasive.
What a fascinating post – so much information to read and ponder, that I will have to read it several times before i can comment more.
Just wanted to say that for me Michael is very much both/and, in his work and his looks, and I am sure that as Lisa Presley said he did ‘sculpt’ himself and considered his face and body as ‘a work of art’. He did indeed love the camera, and always had someone with him videoing what he was doing – wonder if any of that footage will ever make its way onto a DVD or 3 – wouldn’t that be great.
While I was reading and thinking about his looks, I remember that for a while people thought he was trying to look like Diana Ross and I remember a remark by Nancy REgan to the effect “why would he want to do that, he is much more attractive than she is” – always loved that. I wondered for a while if he rather wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor and remembered that photo of them both arriving for her 65th birthday concert. Just dug it up and they really do look very similar, Michael with ‘bangs’ and all!! Just replayed the video of Michael singing Elizabeth I Love You and the resemblance is remarkable.
More anon when I have time to read and reread, but thanks again for a fascinating discussion.
“He did indeed love the camera, and always had someone with him videoing what he was doing – wonder if any of that footage will ever make its way onto a DVD or 3.”
Hi Caro. I’ve thought about that a lot! There must be a tremendous amount of video footage somewhere – meeting with people, visiting foreign countries, personal concert footage … And then there are all the films he made that haven’t been released. Halperin quotes a producer who said there was a whole “library” of them:
Wouldn’t you love to see those? Maybe if a Michael Jackson museum is built someday, it’ll have a theater where you can see some of that video footage. Something to think about…
years ago I had a theory about why Michael had cameras following him all the time, and it had to do with the reason Andy Warhol had cameras around him all the time. Andy said something along the lines ofthey were collecting video information for his robot so he could live forever. I always thought maybe Michael heard Warhol’s idea and was thinking the same thing. I just watched something recently about where artificial intelligence is giong and how someday soon we might all have the option to save a record of ourselves for future generations. the fact that MJ posed for a hologram back in the eighties also makes me wonder.. I’ve been thinking about this alot since that Trancendence movie trailor started coming on TV…
I just want to say that the comment from Dee is moving and so true!
A persons smile shapes the character of one’s face and features and that is applicable especially to Michaels face – and vice versa sadness can brand itself on a face and I see this in Michaels later face, too.
… and his smile WAS gorgeous and irresistible (and the filthy press seemed to know only a few photographs, sadly first ranked the mug shot which – in my opinion – was not intended for public consumption, they would never have presented a Michael with a beaming smile).
Hi Dee and Lilly. You’re right – we didn’t even mention facial expressions in the post, and that has a huge effect on how a face looks and how we interpret it. When reading your comments, I immediately thought of the 2005 trial, and the line of photographers lying in wait for him as he walked in and out of the courtroom each day. I remember reading several articles that called his face a “mask” during the trial, and they attributed that to plastic surgery. I would say it was more a mask of pain. The things he had to endure are almost unbearable – I don’t know how he withstood it.
Indeed, and yet in some of those photos there is a dignity and strength that still shines through for me. Caroline Myss writes of living one’s life with ‘spiritial elegance’, and Michael did that and it showed even in moments of extreme pressure – perhaps even more in such moments!! What a role model he was in everything he did – I just find him so inspiring.
Hi Caro. I love that idea of “spiritual elegance.” And I know what you mean. Even though you can tell he was in pain during the trial, his face was beautiful to me…
Yeah, apropos smile: Even adopted children can look a lot like their adoptive parents just because of the fact that they imitate their smile and other facial expressions since they were babies!
And here’s some of Michael’s sexy elegance coming at ya!
These photos were taken in the early days of the trial but by verdict day he looked so sad.
I agree with Dee, what happened to that beautiful smile?
Thanks, stephenson! There are some great images in there – and that’s despite the fact that many photographers were actively trying to portray him as “monstrous” and take the most unflattering photos possible. Apparently the tabloids paid more for “monstrous” shots. Someone who covered the trial talked about that – maybe Aphrodite Jones? – that as he walked to and from the courthouse each day, you would see a long line of photographers down low, shooting up at his face, because it tends to be an unattractive angle.
That’s another thing we didn’t talk about in the post – the consumer pressure for different types of images at different times of his life. When he was young, consumers wanted “cute” so publishers – and therefore photographers – tried to give them cute. When he became older, consumers (especially teen girls) wanted “sexy” so photographers tried to give them sexy. And then it became “weird” or “wacko” and “monstrous.” Then he died, and things shifted – seems like the current look publishers are going for is “tragic” …
Hello guys. Dee, I have often been sadden by the fact that not only did Michael’s beautiful smile retreat, his whole fun-filled character also disappeared. When searching images for the post from the ‘Invincible’ and ‘This Is It’ eras (in which it is the latter he flashes a huge wide smile) I was more than conscious that this was not representative at all in terms of what we really saw.
Amazing, though, that he faded from life not only with style and grace (‘spiritual elegance’, Caro) but also with a smile …
‘Smile though your heart is aching’.
“Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”
How on earth was Michael Jackson “man and woman”? No one ever describes Elton John that way, or Alice Cooper, or Marilyn Manson. They get to take feminine names, wear heavy makeup, and marry another man, yet no one ever ‘honors’ them in a similar fashion. I think this insistence that there was anything womanly about Michael Jackson is sick. It’s particularly an insult to a black American man.
Awesome point, VC. There are so many glam rockers, gender benders and crazy antics in popular music, yet they don’t get the same response Michael Jackson does. They don’t even come close to shaking things up the way Michael Jackson did.
I suspect it is because, as Harriet said, Michael Jackson shook up multiple stereotypes all at once – too many categories were being disrupted simultaneously. It seems to me Michael Jackson deliberately toyed with every convention he could think of. He questioned everything. If the convention is to wear white at weddings and wear your wedding ring on the left hand, then MJ wore black to his weddings and wore his ring on his right hand. “Bal a Versailles” perfume is for women? Really? Who said so? Who gets to determine what smells are for women and what others are for men? If there is something we accept as true, MJ questioned it, which is a big difference from being womanly or otherwise, imho.
As Willa says in her book, it is the art of defiance.
There you have it Ultravioletrae Michael was breaking the boundaries and challenging peoples norms – Black or White, male or female etc. I also think he was a very sexy man – who can watch the short movie Come Together and think otherwise????
I was thinking about his facial expression and the trial and the media. Many people who knew Michael said that he had 2 personalities – the Michael Jackson on stage and the Michael Jackson off stage, and they were very different, as his stage persona was very flamboyant and his off-stage one very shy and quiet. I recently watched The Awards DVD and am aware of his demeanour at the various ceremonies. Even when he was happy and smiling, he always seemed very self-contained to me. I think the media never really understood that, because they were so focussed on the public Michael, and never really knew the private Michael, or rather didn’t want to. When you think of what he must have gone through during that trail and how he must have felt on that last day when considering the consequences of a guilty verdict – which he surely must have done in the darker moments of his anguish. No wonder that in terms of his facial expression he checked out – who wouldn’t!! Perhaps they expected him to air-punch with his fist, or fall to the ground and kiss it, or pull his shirt over his head like a football player when declared not guilty. Well that wasn’t how the private Michael behaved, even in his happiest moments on camera. He always behaved with dignity and charm no matter what the occasion.
And, yet, he claimed to be the most conventional of men — just an average guy who wanted to fall in love, get married, have a family — who happened to be a great artist. Perhaps it was his insistence that he was just a “normal” guy — as he deliberately went about blowing the norms out of the water — that drove people nuts.
The glam rockers were not claiming to be normal.
Hi VC and ultravioletrae. This is such an important issue, and I’m so glad you’re talking about it.
To my mind, Michael Jackson was the sexiest man who ever lived – certainly the sexiest I’ve ever seen. He is my definition of hot, and has been since I was a teenager. He is the gold standard by which hotness is measured. Joie and I have talked about this many times (maybe too much!) especially in the notorious sex post a couple years ago.
I think a lot of (white male) critics were very threatened by that – by the fact that so many women, including a lot of white women, were so very attracted to him – and so I think there was an effort to symbolically “neuter” him and deny his sexuality. I think that’s what you’re getting at, VC – is that right? I’ve seen critics do that and I hate it. As you say, VC, “It’s particularly an insult to a black American man” given the long history in the US of white men literally or figuratively emasculating black men.
At the same time, I think that culturally we have falsely designated some things as feminine, and Michael Jackson resisted that and said, No, this isn’t feminine, this is human. And so he reclaimed some of those areas that have been falsely denied to men in the past. I think this is what you’re getting at, ultravioletrae – is that right? It includes superficial stuff like wearing false eyelashes and lipstick, things others have done without the uproar Michael Jackson caused. But as you suggest, ultravioletrae, for him it went much deeper than that and included challenging cultural norms more fundamentally. I mean, glam rockers may have worn makeup, but how many of them sang about child abuse? or violence against women? And how many rockers told rebellious teen boys they should listen to their mothers and sisters, as well as their brothers, as Michael Jackson does in “Bad”?
So for me, I guess the way I would phrase it is that he was fully masculine, and that includes areas that are often (mistakenly) labeled as feminine.
Michael Jackson disrupted dominant constructions regarding ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ and by this forced us to question our strict division of these positionalities. His decision to wear lipstick and eyeliner, yet also remain very masculine, provides one such example. Another example is his singing voice: it is gritty and gravelly in its timbre and has an aggressive attack (it is ‘masculine’), yet its pitch not only matches that of many female singers, but its range also extends much higher (it is ‘feminine’).
Michael Jackson invited us to rethink our understanding of gender as two clear, uncompromising polarities and this is of amazing cultural value. The reality, after all, is that there is a whole spectrum of qualities that are ‘male’ and ‘female’ and these qualities merge and mingle. Michael Jackson is ‘man and woman’ but so is Elton John; so, indeed, are all of us.
I am conscious of the long history of the feminization or ‘castration’ (literal and figurative) of Black American men, from minstrelsy to lynching rituals, and that this emasculation shamefully repeated itself in the treatment of Michael Jackson, not only at the hands of the tabloid press but also of authorities in his treatment during times of child molestation charges. But with this in mind VC, I wonder whether you might take a look at the highly acclaimed book ‘Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety’ by the equally acclaimed Marjorie Garber. Garber argues that through their own ‘self-feminization’, a number of Black American artists (from Little Richard to Prince and Michael Jackson) have effectively taken this once enslaving scenario ‘by the nuts’ to create powerful performances of Black self-empowerment, control and reclamation. Furthermore, not only could all these artists find fame and fortune (Black Power), but they also (even) achieved it whilst ’emasculated’.
I did do a bit of research on Marjorie Garber’s book Vested Interests, but she herself is more interesting than her thesis. I discovered that she is herself bisexual, and once the mentor and lover of Camille Paglia, who now describes her as “the ultimate symbol of what has gone wrong in academe, and of the bankrupt university which has a moral vacuum at its center.”
Frankly, I don’t have a dog in that fight. I don’t care what they think of each other, or what Garber thinks of Elvis, Liberace, or Michael Jackson, because I sense her need to put forth a specific agenda.
My question remains, how on earth was Michael Jackson “man and woman”? Because of his lupus he lost most of his eyebrows and eyelashes. Because of his unartful makeup artist we were made aware of it. That doesn’t mean that he “invited” us to speculate about his sexual identity. Oprah introduced and championed a young Filipino singer named Charice for some years. She was a sweet-faced girl with long hair, usually dressed in flowery pastels. But she changed radically, first by declaring herself an out lesbian, and now sporting a ‘butch’ haircut and dressing like a typical young boy. Yet I’m certain that if anyone called Charice “both man and woman”, there would be howls of outrage.
One reader-reviewer on Amazon of Garber’s book found some of her language “racist”. As I haven’t read it, I’ll reserve judgment, but as a black American, I am skeptical of white “observation” of black culture. So very often, it’s dead wrong.
“My question remains, how on earth was Michael Jackson ‘man and woman’?”
Hi VC. I would say the biggest is that he liked kids – he spent a lot of time with them, he talked about how much he loved being with them in interviews, he featured them in a lot of his videos, and he wrote songs about them. I can’t think of another rock star who did that. Kids should be seen as a human issue, but they aren’t. They’re seen as a women’s issue. If a woman likes kids, it’s assumed she has a strong mother instinct, but if a man likes kids he must be a pervert. Later, he raised his kids on his own (without a mother figure) which is becoming more accepted – finally – but is still unusual.
Secondly, he enjoyed being with women, older women, not as trophies but as friends. There’s Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, Lady Diana, … You would think just hanging out with women as friends would be seen as a normal human activity, but it doesn’t seem to be – not according to the commentators who criticized him for it anyway. Again, I can’t think of another rock star who did that.
Third would be the makeup and hairstyles, but as you and ultravioletrae already pointed out, a lot of singers have done that (Mick Jagger, Steve Tyler, David Bowie, many others). I don’t think that would have resonated nearly so much if it weren’t for the fact that the press was already characterizing him as somewhat feminine.
In movies, television, and real life, single fathers who have custody of their children and care for them in the most ordinary way are considered heroic, not womanly. Only an ignorant lout would ask a same sex couple which one is the man and which one the woman.
Lots of men have female friends, of all ages. Only Michael himself knew the true nature of his relationships with the women you cite. Maybe he did think of them as ‘trophies’, maybe he was star-struck. Maybe they were. But he did state, in no uncertain terms, that Diana Ross was the love of his life. The photos they took together are stunningly romantic, he was emotionally devastated when she married Arne Naess, but to most Michael Jackson ‘experts’, this relationship is invisible.
If anyone looks at Michael and thinks he exhibits some sexual duality, my opinion will not change their mind. But I am struck by the fact that no one else in public life gets talked about in this manner. No matter how you slice it, it’s an insult.
VC, I would like to highlight my earlier description of Michael Jackson’s voice, which is particularly troublesome to sex as ‘only male’.
In relation to Garber, it does worry me that her sexuality might suggest a ‘specific agenda’ and as such that she be denied valid contribution on issues relating not only to race but also gender.
However, I think we need to return to my original point of which the dreaded ‘man and woman’ comment was a part (and that chimes with the main thrust of this post). That is, that labels, such as ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, play important roles but for a lot of people and for a myriad of reasons these labels are not always helpful or adequate in their exclusivity. This is such a huge cultural debate, and, indeed, one at the very heart of Black and African-American studies.
Harriet, I read your book “Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask”. This discussion of MJ as man and woman fits with a disagreement I have with something in your book. Chapter 7, The Burden of Ambiguity, page 147, you discuss a photograph: “…while holidaying in St Tropez, Jackson apparently dressed in women’s clothes so as to disguise himself from photographers. Jackson’s charade was caught on camera by paparazzi and the press revelled in the incident…”
I am quite sure from my research that this photo was not of MJ but was of an anonymous woman. The incident was denyed by MJ’s spokespeople, and debunked on several MJ fan sites. The way you discuss the incident, you seem to believe that it was actually MJ in women’s clothes.
Hi sfaikus. Thanks for your comment. In my brief description of the St Tropez story, which hit the tabloids, my emphasis is certainly intended to be on ‘apparently’. Indeed, the paparazzi shots of the incident are evidence enough that it was not Michael Jackson at all.
Ok Harriet, thanks for clarifying.
Hi VC. You’re right, things are changing and perhaps people are more open to men in traditionally “feminine” spheres now, in 2014. But was it true in the 1980s? or the 1990s? That’s when the attacks really began, and it wasn’t white academics attacking him, for the most part. Here’s an article from April 14, 1984 – so almost exactly 30 years ago – about a radio broadcast where Louis Farrakhan “called on black youths to reject the ‘female-acting, sissified’ image of Michael Jackson.” So what do you think Louis Farrakhan is talking about?
btw, the article includes this quote from Farrakhan’s broadcast:
I would respectfully disagree. The way he challenged gender roles was perhaps the most threatening thing he ever did, perhaps even more than transgressing racial boundaries, and he paid a huge price for it. I only wish he had lived to “die of old age.”
I agree with Harriet: we are all “man and woman”; and I also appreciate Marjorie Garber’s analysis of the ways black male artists have proposed more expansive ideas about gender identity and black masculinity. We should not forget the U.S.’s violent history where the (literal) castration of African American men was routine procedure, and even a form of entertainment for white spectators; though for the present discussion, keeping this reality in view might allow for an even greater appreciation of the inroads these black artists have made. We might consider the artistic responses a way of *resisting* being defined by that history.
In addition to Garber, other scholars, artists, and writers—-many of them African American—have written similarly about the ways Michael Jackson has, in a progressive fashion, abrogated boundaries of gender and sexuality.
And in recent decades, many independent films have appeared wherein the filmmaker explores his/her own experience of marginalization within the intersections between several different communities. Generally, more attention has been drawn to these complex identities, which I think is all to the good.
Anyway, I agree with Willa: Michael Jackson is undoubtedly the sexiest man I’ve ever seen.
The problem as I see it is not that we need to talk about someone being both a man and a woman, but that we need to stop putting such tight boundaries around the definition of what is masculine. I find it interesting that women have, over time, been able to take on masculine characteristics and dress, but when men take on what are supposedly feminine characteristics all hell breaks loose, and this is something I have commented on before, i,e. that it is much more threatening to the dominant male power structure for men to question the boundaries prescribed for males than it is for women to challenge what is feminine.
In this connection, I find it very interesting to read about a few recent cases where boys of age 9-11 have been bullied b/c they love the program My Little Pony. One boy actually tried to commit suicide after being bullied and is now alive but disabled. Another boy took a My Little Pony bookbag to school and was bullied to the point that the school asked HIM not to bring it to school, as opposed to addressing the students who were bullying him. Now if the kid had a bookbag with some macho male figure of violence on it, there would be no bullying. I am worried about this male culture of violence and how it is preventing–deliberately preventing–a more compassionate and loving male personality as a normal and accepted one. If little boys can’t like My Little Pony b/c it’s too ‘feminine”–wow–there is just too much social control to shape men in the direction of ‘hyper masculinity.’
Yes, Michael was also bullied for breaking these boundaries but in terms of gender he was a man, and that is what needs to be remembered. He was a nurturing, loving, creative and sexy man who defied the boundaries prescribed by the power structure for what is masculine. I think it would be good to avoid terms that confuse this issue.
IMO it’s more accurate to talk about MJ stretching/breaking/expanding socio-cultural expectations of gender roles but not gender itself–he was always a man. When terms like ‘man’ and ‘male’ are used, they usually refer to physical sexual anatomy. Terms like ‘masculine’ or ‘gender roles’ IMO are more helpful when speaking of the characteristics that are attached by society and culture to that physical anatomy.
Re MJ’s voice, he characterized himself as a “high tenor.” I don’t see how it is helpful to say that a male high tenor has a ‘womanly voice’. All males have a falsetto voice, which females do not have (although recent research argued that a female falsetto exists).
I completely get and fully agree with what Willa and Harriet and others are getting at re MJ breaking the prescribed boundaries/socio-cultural definitions for acceptable expressions of masculinity but I think a more precise way of expressing this would be helpful. MJ expanded what it means to be human as well as what it means to be a male human being. This does not mean he was not a human being or not a male.
Am I making a valid point here? Would be nice to get a response.
My response is that Michael Jackson had no intention or desire to expand what it means to be “male”, and did not do so in any aspect of his life. He wanted to be the best entertainer in creation, period. People simply lose their minds when the subject is Michael Jackson, as proved by the French believing that the person in the St. Tropez photo, with the picture hat and the wide child-bearing hips, was a man.
From Ms. Manning, “labels, such as ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, play important roles but for a lot of people and for a myriad of reasons these labels are not always helpful or adequate in their exclusivity. This is such a huge cultural debate, and, indeed, one at the very heart of Black and African-American studies.”
In my personal experience as a black American, living in black neighborhoods my entire life, I have never heard anyone express any such concerns. Employment, crime, the high cost of college education – these things are important to the black man and woman in the street, not labels. (One would hope that black history is the heart of African American studies.) I do believe that white people, who seem to find us endlessly fascinating, spend an inordinate amount of time on these issues.
All I would say in relation to this, VC, is that ‘academia’ (i.e. the worlds of Black and African-American studies) does not equate to ‘white people’, which your comment seems to indicate. Correct me if this was not the intention.
No, I don’t equate “academia” with “white people”, and I’m sorry that the way I juxtaposed my opinions gave that impression. I mean that white people in the US, from high brow to the lowest rungs of society, give an inordinate amount of attention to what they see as black pathology. You’ve written of the American minstrel tradition. It extends beyond entertainment – problems that exist through all strata of society, such as drug addiction, unwed motherhood, gun violence, are often “blacked up” and discussed as if they were specifically African American problems. Television networks produce endless ‘documentaries’ with titles like The Crisis in Black America. But now that heroin addiction for example is actually more prevalent among middle-class whites than ghetto blacks, it has been whitened up into a tragic social problem instead of social degeneracy.
When film director Lee Daniels screened his film The Butler for friends and family, he was shocked when his grown nephew asked him of the scenes depicting attacks on Freedom Riders, black demonstrators being fire-hosed, assassinations of black militants, “Did that really happen?” I think that academia has dropped the ball if African American studies departments are more concerned with discussions of what it means to be black or white or male or female than teaching our vital recent history. I rather think Lee Daniels, who is an out gay black man, would agree.
VC, from what I’ve observed in the academy, vital recent history, as well as longer-ago histories, are definitely included in the curricula of African American Studies programs. There’s much attention to the Civil Rights movement, *as well as* long-delayed attention to complex, “intersectional” identities and histories. One example is a renewed interest in Bayard Rustin (who I’m sure you’re familiar with), an out gay black man who was instrumental in organizing (alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other major civil rights initiatives. If you have Netflix, you can view an excellent documentary on his life and work called “Brother Outsider.” It’s on streaming as well as DVD.
In my view, one historical concern needn’t exclude another; and it shouldn’t. ALL of these issues, historical and contemporary, should to be considered *together.*
Moreover, I agree that white commentators have all too often focused on “black pathology” as a distinct strategy of ignoring structural racism and inequality—-it’s a way of laying “blame” at the doorstep of the black community itself. This is extremely harmful and counterproductive. But a recognition, however belated, of the experiences and struggles of gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender people in the black community and other communities of color is BY NO MEANS a focus on “pathology”—-no matter what the racial/sexual/gender identity of the writer. Quite the contrary. That’s why I mentioned a CRUCIAL distinction between writers who frame Michael Jackson’s (perceived) ambiguities of race and gender as somehow “pathological,” (à la tabloid reporting), and those who admire these ambiguities as part of the larger effort to dismantle oppression along these lines.
Regarding some recent discussions of “black pathology,” Bill O’Reilly is one American TV personality who, following the “not guilty” verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin last summer, reiterated this kind of drivel by asserting that young black men need to pull up their pants, clean up their language, and stay in school. Following O’Reilly’s lead somewhat, certain black commentators—notably, CNN commentator Don Lemon—-concurred with his basic argument. (Interestingly, Don Lemon is an out black gay man: so I wonder how this might prompt us to revisit some more traditional ideas in the discourses of black LGBT identities.)
So I started to follow discussions about what has come (in some circles) to be called “respectability politics.” Really, this is a conversation that has gone back in time quite a ways. In it’s most recent form, these conversations were initiated by a number of bloggers and writers—mostly black—who wanted to respond directly to the pathologizing of blacks, and black male youth especially. Many expressed the view that that it really doesn’t pay to conform to the expectations of “the man”—- in other words, white expectations of bourgeois “respectability.”
Sorry for going on and on here; this may seem like a digression perhaps best left for another time. But in my opinion, this has EVERYTHING to do with the particularly thorny issue of the way Michael has been perceived or represented as “male and female,” “man and woman,” and “black and white.” And it has especially to do with the issue of Michael’s changing appearance, as Willa, Lisha, and Harriet have been talking about here (about which more later).
Thank you for your thoughts, VC.
Anyway, for more on “respectability politics,” I recommend to everyone (if you haven’t seen it already) the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes regularly for “The Atlantic” magazine.
Most recently, he has a piece called “Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind”:
and along similar lines, Coates wrote:
“Other People’s Pathologies: Black Culture and the Culture of Poverty are Not the Same Thing”:
Coates also participated in a discussion on the Melissa Harris Perry show on MSNBC, “Breaking down narratives of racial discourse”:
In terms of the academic scene: on HuffPost Live, Marc Lamont Hill speaks with Jafari Allen, Rev. Kevin Donaldson, Sr., Mark Anthony Neal, and Ishmael Reed on their various views about including an LGBT studies course at Morehouse College, and other HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities):
“Historically Black College To Teach Gay History”:
Totally valid Stephenson, and very well articulated. Thank you for what you say, which is really useful to this debate. I guess, ultimately, the problem with terms like ‘male’ and ‘black’ is that they do relate to biological differences but also to what society has imposed in terms of what they mean and these two elements are very hard to separate. This is the nub of the debate about race and gender (essentially, nature v. nurture) and it is an incredibly complex one, as you point out really well.
One of my favorite novels is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin which takes place on another planet. The inhabitants of this planet can be either male or female depending on whether or not they become sexually attracted to a male or a female. As far as I know, this is not a characteristic of the species homo sapiens. I am a woman, not a man. Michael Jackson was a man, not a woman. And, oh, how I celebrate his manliness. And, oh, how I wish I had known Michael Jackson. In every sense of the word.
I don’t think that MJ was saying that differences create social problems, but rather it is the cultural values we assign — whites have value, blacks don’t. Men have value, women don’t. Etc.
MJ was shaking up the value system, celebrating differences while at the same time elevating characteristics that had been devalued and giving them value. He made white people want to be black. He made women sexually respond to a non-macho man.
In the morphing sequence in Black or White, each face is fascinatingly different, fascinatingly beautiful. He included that for a reason. I really see MJ as loving diversity not homogeneity in humans and in non-human nature. I see his white skin emphasizing his blackness, his use of make up emphasizing his maleness. Absolutely brilliant!
The way I understand “both and” is not that he is both man and woman, both black and white, but both a non-macho male and incredibly sexy; both black and incredibly cool. He gives high value to non-macho maleness and blackness in a culture where both have been routinely devalued.
an addition and clarification: In addition to assigning cultural values to different categories (black, white; male, female, etc.) we assign cultural attributes which have little or nothing to do with being male or female; black or white, and we assign values to those attributes. Those who conform to the set of attributes we identify as male have high value; those who don’t have low value. Etc.
We belong to a sexually dimorphic species, i.e., we reproduce sexually, not asexually. It takes two types of humans, a male and a female to reproduce. The fact that some people are gay or transgendered does not change that evolutionary fact. These two categories exist. The problem is not with the categories, but with the fact that we devalue and dehumanize those people who do not fit neatly into one or the other category. Denying that we are a sexually dimorphic species seems to me to be counterproductive, when it is not about the categories, but the value.
This whole line of argument seems to me to be a throwback to 60’s feminism which argued that women were just like men. Arguing that women were just like men implicitly accepted the cultural value system that dictated that only males were fully human and had intrinsic value, so to be valued women had to be “just like men.” I don’t think we need to argue that we are all both man and woman — and deny real differences between men and women — to give value to those who are transgendered or gay — or who otherwise deviate from the cultural norms. We need to change the norms. However, denying that there are differences that are not culturally assigned, but have biologically evolved, can have terrible consequences.
For example, arguing that women are just like men has had dire consequences for women. Because women argued that they were just like men, the law hoisted us on our own petard and now women in the US are not given time off with pay for having or taking care of children — because the law does not acknowledge that women are different from men in any way — even tho’ women get pregnant, men can’t; women labor and go through childbirth, men can’t; women nurse their babies, men can’t. Because the reproductive burden falls more heavily on women than men, and because the law refuses to acknowledge this biological fact, women — especially single moms — and their children have been forced into poverty. Because many single moms cannot afford to pay for full time child care, they have to quit their jobs to take care of their children. And lose their source of income. The largest group of poor people in the US today is single moms and their children. Academic arguments have consequences in the real world — not all of them good.
In his very blatant use of make-up, MJ was not saying that he was both man and woman (or that we are all both man and woman), but fearlessly expanding the definition of what it means to be male, and at the same time according value to behaviors that were associated with the feminine and, by extension, according value to women. He also accorded value to women in his music, cherishing them/us; loving us. And we love him back. Love begets love — to quote Oscar Wilde.
His white skin was something else entirely. He did not choose to have his skin turn white. But, when faced with the calamity of vitiligo — he used it to make a statement. And that statement was that although my skin color is now white — although you perceive me as white — looks can be deceiving because I am black. He decoupled culture from skin color. He then made it very clear that he identified as black and proud, that he chose and honored and valued black culture.
Of course, I am only scratching the surface of how Michael Jackson impacted and changed cultural values. Although we may argue endlessly about how he changed them, there is no argument whatsoever that Michael Jackson shattered the mirror that we see ourselves in.
My experience with this debate on several MJ discussion sites has shown me that a “Tower of Babble” can spring up in very short order, like a cluster of mushrooms in damp soil. Then, all kinds of misunderstandings inevitably arise around terminology. Which kinds of people are saying what about whom? I can offer a few observations here.
VC, the central concerns of the “black man and woman on the street” (as you describe them)—crime, unemployment, and lack of access to education)—are extremely pressing, real, and essential. At the same time, the last few decades have seen an increase in writings, films, and other forms of cultural expression that grow out of the very real lived experience, and the felt need, to account for the complex identities of black men and women who are also gay, queer, or trans.
These identities—which are not “labels,” as you call them—intersect in MANY ways with the struggles you’ve mentioned here: especially since queer and transgender men and women disproportionately become the victims of violent crime, poverty, and lack of access to education and employment. (One well-publicized example: a 23-year-old black transwoman named Islan Nettles was murdered by three men in Harlem last summer.)
So these issues are not “simply” academic: they have real-world consequences. The need for increased visibility and recognition of the experiences of black LGBT people—-and LGBT people of color more broadly—-is a matter of real urgency, both in AND outside of academic institutions.
So in view of these needs, it’s not surprising that many, many black scholars and critics (starting with James Baldwin and Kobena Mercer in the mid-1980s) have, over the years, written about Michael Jackson as a black man who—intentionally or not—-performed a version of black masculinity that was a departure from his predecessors’ achievements. To many, Michael represented a decisive shift in the ways race and gender (in particular) could be manifested. Speaking of “the feminine,” some ‘80s commentators thought he was part of a trend called “the new androgyny” that also included Prince, Boy George, and Annie Lenox, among other artists.. So it’s not that Michael Jackson was singled out in this way. And David Bowie had always been seen as cool: not despite his androgynous appearance, but BECAUSE of it.
Michael produced this effect through his voice; often through his dance moves; and most certainly through his appearance—notably, hair, makeup, and other details of his visual style.
I think there’s an absolutely crucial distinction to be made here. Some commentators—in the tabloid press, for example, or even with figures like Louis Farrakhan, who Willa cited— spoke of Michael’s seeming femininity in demeaning and disparaging terms, as if there were something WRONG with a man who chose to “feminize” his appearance in some way. On the other hand, there have been critics and scholars (from all categories of gender, sexuality, and race) who have noted Michael’s shifting appearance and his seeming abrogation of the “firm” categories of race and gender as something potentially liberatory, even powerfully utopian: in other words, something you might call “positive.”
Many of these scholars are white, but a great many of them are black—so your assertion about how white people like to talk about black people (and Michael Jackson) doesn’t hold much water. Since I’m preparing a bibliography, here’s a partial list of black critics, artists, bloggers, and other authors who’ve noted a progressive tendency in Michael’s boundary-breaking performances:
Lynee Denise, Francesca Royster, Scott Poulson Bryant, Mark Anthony Neal, Steven Fullwood, B. Scott, Margo Jefferson, Kobena Mercer, Andreana Clay, Jason King, Ali Babu Che Johnson, Nicole Fleetwood, Gregory Gondwe, Tavia Nyong’o, Jakeya Caruthers, Sherrow Pinder.
This is a PARTIAL list, incomplete: it should include many more essays. I’ve read all this material. While I wouldn’t uniformly endorse all of it, I think it’s noteworthy how many black scholars have been celebrating (not denying, not denigrating) a new set of social possibilities, which Michael Jackson’s art is seen as previsaging in a lot of important ways.
If anyone’s interested, I can provide links to those articles that are available online, and citations to sources that are only available in print.
Thanks, guys, for your responses. This is an exciting conversation! I agree, Harriet, that it’s hard to find terms that can separate the biological, anatomical physical differences from the socio-political attribution of characteristics and values (thanks, Eleanor, for bringing in the high and low value that goes along with this separation!) imposed on those differences, and thanks for your comments that my points about this were well-taken.
The male-female characteristics and how they are separately assigned and valued in world-wide culture are so destructive (as when young boys are bullied for liking My Little Pony, one small example). Michael enacted a totally different worldview, and thanks, Eleanor, for bringing up the morphing sequence in Black or White–such a potent performance of celebrating diversity and seeing a high value in each difference. I love your comment, “Michael Jackson shattered the mirror that we see ourselves in”!! That’s a whole new way of looking at the Man or Woman in the Mirror, isn’t it? Julie-Ann Scott writes, “Jackson’s embodied performance forced us to confront a cultural space in which identity categories were rendered nonexistent,” now that would be something if we looked in the mirror and nothing was there! We are so accustomed to these ‘identity categories” and their stable boundaries, but, as in the morphing sequence, what if they get destabilized and show us something beyond our comfort zone? Even the no-self?
I’d like to also refer to his environmentalism and anti-war thesis in Earth Song, not only in the lyrics, but when onstage he brought on a tank (!) and when the soldier walked up to him with his weapon raised, Michael put out his hand and lowered it. In This Is It he planned to put himself right in front of the tank (as in Tienenmen Square). I remember too in an interview when he was asked about war and he said, “I don’t think anyone likes war. I’m a peaceful person.” These ways of being in the world were showing young males and all of us a different way to be–that there are other forms of power than guns and violence.
I just listened to Luther Vandross’s The Power of Love, and Michael also believed in this power–love involves enlightening and educating and caring for people so that these ways of relating to all life gain ‘high value’ (as you might say, Eleanor).
David Dark writes, “His call to see ourselves (and ineluctably himself) anew is simultaneously a call to see poetically and to perceive reality as it is. Each performance and, in some sense, his every public appearance were infused with the hope that it might be understood as one more assertion of goodwill, a space-making enterprise in which healing and renewed consciousness might occur.”
Nina Fonoroff, regarding your comments, by all means teach LGBT history, but in an African American studies department, one would expect some subjects to take primacy over others. I can’t imagine a scenario where an adult member of Steven Spielberg’s family would watch Schindler’s List and then ask Spielberg if the Holocaust really happened. That a young black man was so ignorant of the struggles of the civil rights era is tragic, and definitely indicates a failure of the education establishment. And questions of who is black or white don’t really exist in the US the way they do in Brazil or South Africa. We already know. No need to spend precious instruction time on it.
As for Don Lemon, he was making a career move with his saggy pants nonsense. It worked – he is now on the air in prime time on CNN every night hosting their endless coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner. Black Twitter and other black websites had a field day when he came out with that. The consensus was that apparently Uncle Tom is alive and well in post-racial America.
I found a copy of Ms. Manning’s book in my local library, although it wasn’t available for checkout. I had to read it in the reference area and I confess I didn’t read all of it. I don’t wish to be impolite, but I believe that her view of Michael Jackson is, well, essentially wrong, and some of the language she employs unnecessarily provocative. Pardon the pun, but our views of this great artist are as different as black and white. I don’t recognize the person she describes at all.
‘I found a copy of Ms. Manning’s book in my local library … I don’t wish to be impolite, but I believe that her view of Michael Jackson is, well, essentially wrong, and some of the language she employs unnecessarily provocative. Pardon the pun, but our views of this great artist are as different as black and white. I don’t recognize the person she describes at all.’
VC, thanks for seeking out my book and for your comments here. This seems to bring the whole debate full circle: ‘Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”’
If I had to be pushed on ‘my view of Michael Jackson’ it would be that he had the ability to provoke a whole host of different ‘views’, and very often (as with you and me, VC!) strongly oppositional ones. But this all adds to why Michael Jackson was, and continues to be, an incredibly valuable cultural figure – a ‘great artist’ – worthy of much attention and celebration; an opinion on which I’m sure we can all unite.
Lisha said: “I personally think we need to take from Michael Jackson’s cues and look towards a utopian way of Being without “decision making” though this might be a big ask …”
I found this statement fascinating and mysterious; but I think it is at the root of the problems surrounding interpretations of Michael Jackson. I think I understand Lisha to be saying that in a perfect “utopian” world we would see people “as they are” and not through the lens of labels. We would not see people as male or female or black or white or rich or poor or smart or stupid or….But there is an assumption underlying that statement, that we would all agree that utopia is a world without labels — that we would no longer see through a glass darkly — see the world in the mirror of our cultural projections. But, that is actually too big an ask; we couldn’t function without labels and it is not labels themselves that are the problem but the information they carry. As long as cultural labels fairly and accurately portray what or who they are labeling, the world is a just place. Serious social problems occur when the labels and what they are labeling have little or nothing to do with each other. It’s like when your speedometer or your oil gauge or your fuel gauge go out on your car. Or when an airplane’s instruments no longer work. The results are catastrophic. I think we are at such a juncture socially and culturally — our cultural labels are so wrong that they are sending us completely off course. As Michael sang in Earth Song, “I don’t know where we are, but I know we’ve drifted far.” So for me, Michael Jackson was not doing away with labels, he was trying to re-align them — to bring them back to reality, whatever that is. Human beings cannot function collectively without culture, and culture provides us with a collective perception of reality. In healthy cultures, perception and reality are not too far apart, i.e., what our culture is telling us about something or someone and our actual experience of that something or someone pretty much jibe. But when individual experience is constantly at odds with the cultural message, “gotta make a change.” Or we die. And coming back to conflicting interpretations of MJ, what I object to in the current discussion is the suggestion that androgyny itself is not a label — that the androgyne is a symbol for a labelless utopian vision.
But perhaps I have misunderstood.
TBC — gotta go, will finish later.
Hi Eleanor. It wasn’t Lisha who made that comment, it was me! Thanks so much for what you say, this is all so important. Of course, to be without labels would just not work because culture needs them to function. They also provide us with identities that we may indeed cherish. As I note, this label-free scenario would be ‘a big ask’. You put it more realistically, it would be ‘too big an ask’.
What I was trying to articulate was the need and value in interrogating labels and the need for conversations just like this one. This is because, as you point out, labels become inaccurate. They become the stuff of over-definition, also, and tip all too often into stereotypes. I think I am of the view that being a bit on the radical side of things in debates like this is not always a bad thing, because the social status quo, such as labels regarding gender in this instance, pretty much look after themselves due to their immense cultural weight (as well as biological involvement).
The androgyne observation is a really good one, Eleanor, and highlights the conflictual role of ‘the label’; that labels do point to something, to ‘realities’, that should not be rendered invisible.
Sorry for the mix-up Harriet. Just somehow missed the “Harriet” label. (Can’t help myself.)
Also, my followup comment was written before I saw your reply to the first part.
More later. Clearly this is a very significant discussion for me. So, thanks to you all.
OK, I have a few more minutes…
As Harriet rightly points out, MJ, like the constitution or the bible, is subject to many interpretations and gives rise to many, and often, conflicting views. This is a measure of his genius. And many of us who study Michael Jackson have our own agendas, that is, we want him to represent our views, our version of utopia (myself, certainly, included). And so we use him to further our own personal agendas, which brings us into conflict, when our utopian visions are in conflict.
It seems to me that in many of the discussions on this site, there is an implied assumption that difference itself is somehow suspect, that it does not fit in with a utopian vision. But it is not the fact of difference, it is the cultural attributes and values assigned to these differences which cause problems. We don’t find it suspect to label a cardinal a cardinal or a labrador retriever a lab; these are useful labels; we don’t find it suspect to label a mare a mare and a stallion a stallion or a gelding a gelding; these, too, are useful labels. They carry an enormous amount of information with them. We need labels; we cannot function without them. And, we live in a world rich in diversity. I don’t want to lose that.
But, somehow, when we get into discussions of differences associated with race and sex, we get into very troubled waters, and when we try to talk about it, the whole discussion seems to disintegrate, as Nina says, into Babble. So, I think we should try to become as conscious as possible of our own agendas and our own biases. I am biased against homogeneity — even homogenized milk. I like the cream on top. I don’t want to lose differences or variety. So, I resist the idea that Michael Jackson was both man and woman, both black and white, both young and old. FOR IT SEEMS TO BE BOTH AN ATTEMPT TO ERASE REAL AND VALID DIFFERENCES, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME ACCEPTING FALSE CULTURAL ASSOCIATIONS.
However much our culture would like us to believe it, false eyelashes and some pancake make-up do not a woman make. As a woman, I am a much more complex being that. To reduce womanliness to make-up is absurd. Loving children does not make a man unmanly. Nature creates males for reproductive purposes. Caring for young is part of reproduction. It ensures that we live on in another generation. Among non-human animal species, male and female reproductive behaviors evolve along with the male anatomy, that is, male behavioral characteristics are both species wide and species specific. Among human animals, nature constructs the male and female anatomies, but culture constructs male and female behaviors, psychological attitudes, etc. AND WHEN CULTURE IS WRONG, CULTURE CAN BE CHANGED. In wearing make-up, in caring for children, Michael Jackson was pointing that out. He was showing men that they could be expressive in ways they hadn’t even imagined and they could still get the girl. He was showing fathers that it was a good and positive thing to help out with the kids, that being a dad had great rewards. As a human male, unlike non-human males, he was free to manifest maleness as he wanted to, and, for artistic reasons he wanted to wear make-up and sing in a high voice, etc. In making the choices he made, he was demonstrating enormous courage, because he was saying ” I, Michael Jackson, do not have to accept your cultural assignments of value or attributes. Because they put me in conflict with myself and what I believe to be the common good. I am going to be absolutely true to myself, and in so doing serve the greater good.” This is very challenging to the cultural gate keepers, because he is pointing out that the current cultural norms and attitudes are operating against the common good, against collective survival. Michael Jackson was not a cultural icon, but a cultural iconoclast. He was throwing down the gauntlet in the form of a spangled glove.
Correction — When I said “male and female reproductive behaviors evolve along with the male anatomy, that is, male behavioral characteristics are both species wide and species specific.” I meant to write ” male and female reproductive behaviors evolve along with the male and female anatomy, that is, male and female behavioral characteristics are both species wide and species specific.
Must have been a little confusing, especially given the context.
Wow, fascinating discussion! I just wanted to add a note that, for me, the issue isn’t really about who Michael Jackson was. I strongly believe we each have the right to self-identify and decide for ourselves who we are, and he called himself black, and straight, and male. So that’s how I see him – as a black heterosexual man.
But what’s really interesting to me is how he called attention to the constructedness of identity, and forced us to acknowledge that those labels are not something “natural,” something we are born into, but cultural constructs and therefore a choice. And in doing that he also highlighted that those labels are a choice for all of us. I choose to be who I am, whether I realize it or not, and I can choose to define myself differently if I wish.
In other words, Michael Jackson was a black hetero American man not because he was born black, and hetero, and male, in America, but because he chose to be a black hetero American man – and that’s a choice each of us has. But he also chose to define those categories in radically expansive ways – ways that call into question how those labels have been defined in the past.
btw, Harriet and Stephenson, I was really interested in what you were saying about voices and the gendering of voices – especially the high male voice that many call “falsetto.” Joie and I talk about that a little bit in the post going up next week.
I may be jumping the gun here, since you’re going to talk about voices next week, but I am struck by the number of commentators who try to attach sexual identity to Michael Jackson’s vocal range. Barry White was the exception that proved the rule – deep male voices are virtually absent in American pop music. From Smokey Robinson and Frankie Valli to Pharrell Williams and Bruno Mars, high male voices prevail. I honestly believe that because of his exceptionally long career, many people have Michael’s childhood voice in their heads when they claim that he sang and spoke in an unnatural male range. Even when he was a child, Michael had a heavy boy alto timbre, as opposed to a boy soprano sound. (In that leaked “Star Wars” video of Blanket playing with his cousin Donte Jackson, Blanket’s voice is very much like young Michael’s.)
I think it takes an enormous leap in logic to make the argument that Michael Jackson ‘must’ be transsexual, transvestite, or transgender because of his vocal range.
did you watch the ”Bad 25” documentary?
Seth Riggs clearly said that MJ possessed a (much) deeper speaking range than the one he usually let the public hear. But for some reason he chose to speak in the high part of his range. (And of course it was his right to do so!)
Now, I don’t think MJ sounded ”like a woman”. But I do think that he had an unusually high public speaking voice. (I’m a man, so I might be negatively conditioned by the dominant ”macho” culture here.)
Spike Lee also seemed to think (Bad era) MJ’s voice was ”unusual”. But interestingly, he didn’t make any ”gender bender” connections – as I read him, he rather takes the ”wish to remain a child” interpretation. You can watch an interesting interview here:
I do wonder if it was nerves that caused Michael’s speaking voice to go higher on the rare occasions that he spoke in public? In situations where he’s relaxed with no audience, or recorded without his knowledge, his voice is not notably high. On those lengthy “Glenda” tapes where he’s just shooting the breeze, he sounds like a regular black dude on the street.
Fascinating discussion, indeed!
I only partially agree with you here, Willa.
Michael Jackson chose to self-identify as straight and American and black (in the cultural sense).
That was his right.
On the other hand, he was BORN a man. He was born brown-skinned. People were labeling the obvious. (It’s useful to have words describing sexes and colours, as long as you don’t position them in value hierarchies.)
I’m male and blonde. If I suddenly started telling my friends ”no, you’re mistaken, I’m actually a black-haired woman!” I’m sure I’d lose them pretty fast…
So, as Eleanor also said, some labels point to physical realities, and there’s no need to discard them. Other labels, however, point to socially constructed realities, and it’s here Michael Jackson has something to teach us.
The absurd scene when Bashir tries to discuss MJ’s skin colour springs to mind, with MJ saying that black people come in all colours, from as ”dark as your shirt to as light as my hand”. Bashir is thinking ”dark-skinned” in the physical sense, while MJ is thinking ”black” in the cultural sense. The discrepancy of their views is thrown at ”people all over the world”, who now are forced to consciously examine their own worldviews.
Hi, I agree with so many comments here! And, Bjørn, I had to laugh at your ‘transformation’! Thanks to your discussion of Bashir’s thick-headedness when it came to not understanding MJ’s talking about ‘people of color.’ And so true that we can choose to change what is ‘socially constructed.’ MJ deliberately forced us to confront those social constructions, and that was a huge cultural change (throwing down the spangled gauntlet, as Eleanor says!). Many can’t accept this so they distance themselves from him, objectifying him as an ‘other.’
I love how Eleanor’s puts into words what MJ’s said to us by living as he chose: ” I am going to be absolutely true to myself, and in so doing serve the greater good.” Yes, it took a lot of courage to do this, and I really think he never wavered in being true to himself no matter what the cost.
Here is a wonderful interview done in 1987 before the Bad tour where he makes some points that I think are relevant to our discussion, including about looking into the mirror.
4:30-6:08, 8:50, and 9:28 are very interesting. Here he talks about growing, learning, looking at yourself honestly, making better of yourself and the world. It is this never settling for what is; the continually reaching for fresh and new expression, the “radical open-endedness,” as David Dark says, and the curiosity to discover yet unknown things that was so remarkable in MJ. He was constantly innovating and innovative.
I thought about this post and racial labels as I was watching the film Transcendence. It stars three people of African descent, but only one, Morgan Freeman, is publicly identified as such. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall are considered completely white, even though she is a “quadroon” with a black-identified mother, and he is a direct descendant of one of the most significant figures in African American history, Elizabeth Key Grinstead, the first black slave to sue for her freedom in court and win. (I wish Transcendence had been about her. As is, it’s a beautiful snoozefest.)
Likewise Michael Jackson’s children have been declared “white”, in my opinion, in no small part as a way to emasculate him – see, he can’t even father his own children! I come from an African American family that matches Michael’s description of black Americans as varying in tone from literally black to white, so insignificant details like skin color don’t keep me from seeing the Jackson family resemblance in all three, which is particularly strong in Blanket, so like his father that they have identical eyes, hairlines, and even the same heart-shaped palm prints. It amazes me that, as far as I know, no one has ever questioned that Rashida Jones, with her freckles and sandy hair, is the daughter of Quincy Jones. In her long career, she has never portrayed a black or even mixed-race character. To me, this is more evidence that Michael’s treatment was especially designed to denigrate him.
Hi VC. That is so interesting. Thanks. And, I, too, have often thought that about Rashida Jones.
Hi Harriet, you opened the door to philosophy, and I walked through it. I have been working on a book for several years that deals with the mechanics of cultural construction and Michael Jackson’s role in the construction of cultural views and values. I will try to sum up in a few paragraphs what I take around 50 pages to explain in the book, currently entitled “The Algorithm of Desire.”
You said, “As philosophers have explored and identified at length, nothing is really “out there” because it is all filtered by our own individual interpretation. That is, there is actually no “true” reality and no “truth.”
Well, yes and no. Although I agree that we can never know absolute truth, I don’t think that we can then conclude that “nothing is really out there.” Even if we were all just brains sitting in bottles on a shelf and being stimulated by the Great Brain Stimulator in the Sky, there would be something out there. It may even be all an illusion, but it is an illusion we have to deal with, and deal with both collectively and successfully to survive. But, given human limitations in our ability to perceive “reality,” we will never know exactly what “reality” is.
And, although, as you say, reality is filtered by “our own individual interpretation,” in terms of this discussion, it is not the individual filter that matters as much as the cultural filter, because culture provides the worldview and value system that influences individuals in their perception of reality.
To promote survival, nature gives each species, including humans, the ability to sense, and make sense of — in other words to perceive — the data it needs to function. These abilities are species-wide and species-specific, and, among humans, are culture-wide and culture-specific, creating perceptions of reality which differ from species to species and from culture to culture, yet are shared within a species or a culture. Each species, and each culture, for that matter, lives in its own world.
Having a shared perception of reality is critical to collective survival, because, without it, social groups could neither cooperate nor collaborate in the business of life. So, our cultural filter, for reasons of survival, has to be almost as powerful as a biologically-determined one. We are fooled into believing that what is culturally-constructed is biologically-determined. Which causes no end of problems when cultures collide.
Sometimes things go terribly wrong and the biological or cultural filter becomes so out of synch with “reality” that it becomes a liability, a threat to existence. When that happens, as is happening today, a new perception of reality is called for. Among non-human animals, that is often too tall an order. Because human-caused change is happening so rapidly, many species don’t have time to adapt. Which is why we are losing so much biodiversity. In giving humans the the ability to construct culture, however, nature provided us with a little more wiggle room. Culture can rewire brains faster than the process of natural selection can. The cultural construction of reality is a uniquely human survival strategy. And it is my belief that the drive to survive will motivate us to reconstruct our perception of reality and “make that change” and stop the destruction of the resources we depend on to survive. And Michael Jackson is critical to that process.
Collective survival depends on two primary relationships – the relationship of a species or a society with nature which ensures day-to-day survival and the relationships of males and females that ensure survival from one generation to the next. And how a species or a society relates to nature and how males and females interact within a species or a society differs from species to species and culture to culture. Among humans, a culturally-constructed perception of reality both arises from and constructs these relationships. It determines how we view and value these relationships and their participants – humanity and nature, male and female. Currently, the way our culture is relating to nature, and the way males are relating to females within our culture, is operating against collective survival. We’ve got to stop fracking the earth and f***ing women. We need to re-imagine and re-construct both of those relationships.
Culture is both promoted and transformed through art, in its many forms. Through his art — his music, his dance, his face, the performance that was his life — Michael Jackson was re-visioning the relationships of humanity and nature, male and female, reaching our deepest emotions, restructuring our psyches, giving us a new model, new models, to live by.
There is hope!
Happy Easter, everyone!
Eleanor, thanks for your detailed response and observations. My comment about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ was really intended to be understood in the context of the post: the complex arena of identity formation, and in particular ‘racial’ identity, theatricalized in the figure of Michael Jackson. However, I perhaps did not make that adequately clear and, as Nina recognizes, the debate has somewhat mushroomed!
In response to your comments, I wonder if you might expand on what you refer to as a ‘biologically-determined filter’. I also wonder where variegated subject positions (‘individual filters’) within wider cultural understandings or ‘truths’ (the ‘cultural filter’) might feature in your model?
You’re welcome. And thanks for the interest in my philosophical musings.
As to a biologically-determined filter —
All animal species, including humans, have sense organs, and these sense organs vary in kind and degree from species to species. Nature biologically determines what we and other species need to sense based on the need to know, i,e., what we need to know to survive, and provides the requisite organs. Dogs can smell scents and hear sounds that are beyond the human range. Sharks and dolphins and bats have sense organs that humans don’t even possess. Sense organs are biologically-determined filters. What we are able to sense has a great deal to do with how we perceive our environment, both social and physical. They are a first stage in the creation of a perception of reality.
Secondly, nature programs the brains of non-human animals to organize and filter the data streaming in from the outside world in terms of what the species needs know and do in order to survive, as a species, collectively. So, their brains are also biologically-determined filters.
To a large extent, culture programs the brains of human animals to organize and filter sense data for the same reason — to promote collective survival. Culture provides a perception of reality, a worldview and value system, on which human societies base collectively-held thoughts, feelings and actions. As nature programs human brains to create culture so culture can create us, culture, itself could be looked on as a biologically-determined filter. In other words, we are biologically-determined to culturally construct a collective perception of reality.
However, as sex hormones are pretty powerful in the foetal stage of development, I am pretty sure there are some biologically-determined differences between male brains and female brains, which would mean that male and female brains filter reality differently. Having never been a man, I don’t have a clue how it feels to be a man.
As to “where variegated subject positions (‘individual filters’) within wider cultural understandings or ‘truths’ (the ‘cultural filter’) might feature in [my] model,” they don’t.
Since I am interested in cultural change, I’m not especially interested in variegated subject positions. I am far more interested in the mechanics of the creation of the” collective psyche.” Individual filters have had little to do with how our culture has reacted to and treated Michael Jackson — or the environment or women or people of color or “the other” in general. Within a culture, we are far more alike than we are different. I am trying to get at and understand what creates that likeness and what that likeness consists of. Because cultural reactions to Michael Jackson are so extreme, they are also very revealing. I want to know and understand what they reveal.
That’s why I love this site.
Thanks, Eleanor, for these insights and comments. I am intrigued by your title–The Algorithm of Desire!
I agree there is something really real out there. One example, fire–forest fires or the flame in your kitchen that burns. This is how real life impacts on our senses and lives. Drought, heat, cold, etc.–these are universally felt by organisms. Sometimes the mind just isn’t involved that much–if you are getting burnt the mind will say move away for survival, but it is not going to get philosophical about it.
I love the speeches I have heard by Oren Lyons, the Native American elder who has spoken to the U.N. (“tell your leaders to get off their asses,” “who speaks for the water, the air, the wildlife?”)–the “United Nations” where indigenous peoples are not regarded as ‘nations.’ He speaks about ‘natural law’ and how it can’t be negotiated. For example, when the winters are not cold enough to kill the pine beetles, they infest and kill the pine trees–creating dead stands of trees that contribute to the intensity of forest fires. As he says, “You can’t negotiate with the beetle.” He argues that natural law will have the last word b/c we can’t control it. We are unleashing effects and consequences that we cannot reverse–unless we, individually and as a culture, make that change that MJ advocated.
Hi stephenson, I’m glad you like the title. And I’m glad you brought up the realities of nature and the reality of our situation within nature — our impending extinction if we don’t change our ways.
The way we treat nature is culturally constructed, but nature’s response is not. It’s as real as it gets. As long as we think of ourselves as disembodied beings who inhabit a separate realm from nature, we will continue to believe that we can destroy nature with impunity.
Michael so clearly saw himself as part of nature, as embodied. We are not minds floating about in space, but embodied beings who exist within nature, embodied beings who are threatening the health and well being of all other embodied beings, and risking our embodied lives.
We have chosen to identify ourselves as transcendent, as existing outside of nature, but this is a case of mistaken identity. in making this choice we have made a terrible mistake. But, as you say, natural law will have the last word. Biology is destiny.
Bjørn wrote: “So, as Eleanor also said, some labels point to physical realities, and there’s no need to discard them. Other labels, however, point to socially constructed realities, and it’s here Michael Jackson has something to teach us.
The absurd scene when Bashir tries to discuss MJ’s skin colour springs to mind, with MJ saying that black people come in all colours, from as ‘dark as your shirt to as light as my hand’. Bashir is thinking ‘dark-skinned’ in the physical sense, while MJ is thinking ‘black’ in the cultural sense.”
And VC wrote: “Michael Jackson’s children have been declared ‘white’, in my opinion, in no small part as a way to emasculate him – see, he can’t even father his own children! I come from an African American family that matches Michael’s description of black Americans as varying in tone from literally black to white, so insignificant details like skin color don’t keep me from seeing the Jackson family resemblance in all three …”
Hi Bjørn, VC, Eleanor, others. This is such an important discussion, and gets to the heart of why Michael Jackson was so threatening for some, and liberating for others. It seems to me that one of the (many) messages he tried to convey to us is that biology isn’t destiny – meaning, it doesn’t have to define us.
As you wrote, Bjørn, you were born a blond male. Those are biological facts. But does that constitute who you are? My mom is very blond, and has been her entire life. Recently she had chemotherapy and lost her hair, but she’s still the same person. It hasn’t changed her identity. When I talk to her on the phone, I can’t tell a difference. You could die your hair red, or black, or shave it off, or you could choose to live in a gender neutral way. Your identity is your choice, as Michael Jackson showed us – it doesn’t have to be biologically determined.
That doesn’t mean that race and gender don’t exist, obviously, or that they don’t matter (but only because, culturally, we’ve made them matter). But as you and VC both pointed out, there is a difference between biological and cultural realities. I believe that identity is determined by our character, our imagination, and our cultural experiences, not biology, and we can choose to be who we want to be.
I think Michael Jackson saw himself as black, and that was an important part of his identity, but it was because of his background growing up in a black family and community, his experiences traveling on the “chitlin circuit,” and the way he drew on the very rich traditions of black culture in his music and dance – and most importantly, because he chose to define himself as black. It didn’t matter what color his skin was – his identity remained the same.
Actually, Willa, I think he was showing us that our identity doesn’t have to be culturally determined, i.e., in terms of this discussion, our identity as male or female or black or white. We don’t have to accept cultural projections that devalue us: we don’t have to disavow our sex or our race, but merely reject the cultural associations assigned to our sex or our race. A woman in a society that values men over women does not have to distance herself from femaleness, but from the value her culture places on femaleness. She can be woman and proud. A person of color, who has been brought up black in a dominant white culture does not have to distance herself from her black culture, but from the value white culture has placed on black culture. She can be black and proud. But even changing one’s cultural identity is very difficult, which is why, we can’t seem to shake the identity as transcendent beings that our culture has thrust upon us, and why we keep on behaving in self-destructive, suicidal ways.
To return to Michael and his use of make-up, etc., for some reason, I have never seen that as feminizing him. There is a tv commercial for a soap “specifically formulated for a woman’s V,” as they put it. Basically female nether regions. In the commercial, a woman’s husband is using it by mistake and she points it out. Cut to man chopping wood, under the hood of the car, using a chain saw, etc., frantically doing manly things to get rid of the “female contamination.” This commercial is so revealing of the fact that it is still OK for men to feel contaminated by something feminine — even amusing. Imagine if it were a product “specially formulated for black skin” and a white person, upon realizing he had been using it went into a frenzy of “white activities” to decontaminate himself. This is how many white people felt about blacks in our society not so long ago, but thankfully, no longer. People would be outraged. Cultural change can happen. (Which doesn’t mean that we live in a post-racial society, just that things have improved.) So, in using make-up, etc., Michael was showing us that he did not fear female contamination, because he did not see women as contaminating. Also, in using make-up, he was re-defining masculinity (I am male, I use make-up, therefore, the use of make-up is now an approved masculine activity.) And at the same time, he was de-genderizing its use. He was not de-sexing himself. So, his vitiligo forced him to use make-up, and he made a fascinating lemonade out of lemons. Lots of stuff going on.
Of course Michael “saw” himself as black. He was black. While it may be fashionable these days to declare that differences in race and gender are artificial, they are not superficial. In this country, the arc of one’s entire life was once determined by whether one was seen as black or white. Homer Plessy, of the landmark court case Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established the concept of separate but equal public accommodations, was only one-eighth black. “Passing”, and its tragic consequences, has been a staple of American popular entertainment, from The Octoroon to Showboat to Imitation of Life. I am amazed to see our country led by a black President, but even more amazed to see Kanye West hugging Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue – when Sammy Davis Jr. married Mai Britt, all hell broke loose. ( Mai was a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian, and Kim is a dark “white ethnic”, so that may have made the Kim Kanye cover more acceptable.)
I believe that Michael’s vitiligo made it easier for white fans to like him. But even though they may have thought of him as neither black nor white, a notion African Americans find ridiculous, it doesn’t mean that he himself was ever under that illusion. Being black in America is an ethnic and cultural identification more than a skin color.
Hi VC. I think that’s a really valuable way of looking at this: “differences in race and gender are artificial [but] not superficial.” In other words, the way we think about race and gender is largely a cultural construct, but just because our perceptions and ideas about race and gender are “only” something we’re conditioned to believe doesn’t mean they aren’t real, and don’t have very real impacts on people’s lives.
btw, you mentioned that “I am amazed to see our country led by a black President, but even more amazed to see Kanye West hugging Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue.” I took my son to see a fun little kid’s movie called Tooth Fairy a few years ago, and Dwayne Johnson (a black actor from California) is dating a character played by Ashley Judd (a white woman whose family is from Kentucky). He gives her a passionate kiss – at least, by kid’s movie standards – and there was no discussion of it in the press or the reviews at all, that I know of.
Later we went to see another kid’s movie, Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, and Dwayne Johnson was married to a white woman, and most of the movie is about him helping his (white) stepson find his (white) grandfather. Again, it was obviously an interracial family but race wasn’t mentioned at all – either in the movie itself or in the reviews.
I’m old enough to remember when quite a few radio stations wouldn’t play “The Girl is Mine” because Paul McCartney (a white man) and Michael Jackson (a black man) are fighting over the same women – so whether she’s black or white or some other race or ethnicity, there has to be some sort of interracial romance going on. Just that hint of miscegenation was enough for some radio stations to ban it. Yet here was Dwayne Johnson planting a big smacking kiss on Ashley Judd in a kid’s movie, and it was no big deal.
Sometimes I get frustrated and think the world hasn’t changed at all, and then sometimes I’ll see something and realize, yes, the world is changing … slowly …
Tomorrow is Earth Day, April 22nd, and so I wanted to remember Michael’s love and concern for our planet. Here is a video that combines Earth Song and the spoken poem Planet Earth. (There are many beautiful fan-made YT videos on Planet Earth. This shows me his message is being heard.)
Thanks, stephenson. I loved it.
I would join Caro in wishing everyone Happy Earthday, but, honestly, I am in despair about the earth and what we are doing to it — the loss of so many species, the contamination of water and air and food. It makes me ashamed to be a member of a species engaged in so much wanton destruction. We really are a piece of work.
But, I am heartened that Michael continues to make a difference. I do hold on to the hope that his power can make us change our ways, even tho’ I believe it is too late to avoid catastrophe. We are really in for it. But maybe he can help those of us left to rise from the ashes. He did it in Earth Song!
Tooooo beautiful – I am sure Michael would have loved this. Thank you Stephenson for posting it. HappyEarth Day everyone everywhere
Thanks, Caro and Eleanor, and Happy Earth Day to “everyone everywhere,” as Caro said. I always find it so poignant that Earth Song was the last song MJ sang in his life–and he emphasized in This Is It that he wanted to bring ‘awareness and hope” to people.
This ties into what Willa wrote: “I believe that identity is determined by our character, our imagination, and our cultural experiences, not biology, and we can choose to be who we want to be.” I agree we can choose to a certain extent, but, as Willa points out, we need to have education to make informed choices (‘cultural experiences’ and ‘imagination’) and to help us expand our knowledge of what there is to choose from. That’s why MJ speaks of wanting to bring “awareness” to people. For example, I read that in India, humans are regarded as having 11 senses, not 5, and the most important sense is the mind. We perceive the world through the mind’s interpretations–and yet how much education is directed towards helping our minds open up and mature? In the 87 interview MJ is asked What interests you the most? And he answers “learning,” “exploring different worlds.” He had that curiosity, that love of learning, and that enabled him to keep growing.
I love this line from the same interview: “That’s life to want to grow and become more. Like you plant a seed and it grows into something beautiful and it never dies really. I think people should be that way.” I love the organic metaphor of a seed growing into something beautiful and how MJ compares it to human growth.
I agree, Eleanor, that MJ sang ‘from the ashes’ in Earth Song as he held on to those burned tree trunks–warning us of the destruction we were causing. I hope more people will hear his message and respond. We need education and informed action to turn this around.
FYI the ebook Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth is free on Amazon to help celebrate Earth Day.
Happy Earth Day!
I too find it poignant (and although very sad, somewhat appropriate) that Michael’s last song was Earth Song and I love that song so much – it definitely is his magnum opus. I love the video you gave the link to – I think it really does justice and true tribute to Michael’s idea of the trilogy that he wanted to express. I feel very much that Michael did ’embody’ his message as Eleanor writes, and in so many ways, but none is more obvious to me than in his words in Planet Earth –
“Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced to the rhythm of the tide and floor
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form’
doesn’t get more ’embodied’ than that!! Don’t give up hope for the planet Eleanor – Michael didn’t!!
Hi Harriet –
I thought I should further explain my position as to the “variegated subject positions (‘individual filters’) within wider cultural understandings or ‘truths’ (the ‘cultural filter’),” which you asked about. But first, I would like to quote a pretty good definition of the post-modern position, which you appear to be an exponent of. I think things would not dilapidate into the babble that Nina mentions, if everyone understood the philosophical position you and other academic posters are coming from, and which you seem to have embraced as if it, itself, represented some kind of ultimate truth. Not everyone shares the postmodern point of view, and, as it is a view held primarily by academics, some readers may not even be aware of it.
Postmodernism] stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, … reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually….
Interestingly, this definition also points out “the paradox of the postmodern position, [which] is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philospher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism “cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself.” (http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/postm-body.html)
Not only is post-modernism subject to postmodern skepticism (and skepticism in general), in at least one very important way, postmodernism is more of same, offering us no relief from, or alternative to, the current, destructive and self-destructive, hubristic western cultural paradigm. The post-modern philosophical tenet that it is human nature to construct reality, leading to the really shaky and dangerous notion that there is no reality outside what we, as humans, construct, is a contemporary version of the doctrine of Christian transcendence. In Genesis, God’s transcendent mind, located outside of and unsullied by materiality, creates the world, ex nihilo. Made in his image, post-modern man’s mind also creates the world, affirming humanity’s position of transcendence vis a vis nature. As I said, more of same. This incredibly arrogant point of view is not solving social and environmental problems, but is contributing to them. If reality doesn’t exist, then the logical question to ask is, “what does it matter what we do to it? If bodies don’t exist, then who cares how we treat them?” So, I think it is really questionable to use Michael Jackson to promote a postmodern agenda, for Michael Jackson cared desperately about the world he lived in and the suffering he so often encountered.
My philosophical position is that we do not construct reality, but cultural symbols, which we can create and uncreate, interacting with our brains, install a cultural worldview and value system that constructs our consciousness of the reality we inhabit. And, our brains are desperately in need of an overhaul.
In the same vein, I also would like to respond to the comments you made to VC —
“Michael Jackson invited us to rethink our understanding of gender as two clear, uncompromising polarities and this is of amazing cultural value. The reality, after all, is that there is a whole spectrum of qualities that are ‘male’ and ‘female’ and these qualities merge and mingle. Michael Jackson is ‘man and woman’ but so is Elton John; so, indeed, are all of us.”
Like VC, I don’t think Michael Jackson was inviting us to do anything of the kind. And, I also question your claim that that there is “a whole spectrum of qualities that are essentially male or female.” There are bodies that carry male and female reproductive organs. We label them male or female, man or woman. The whole spectrum of qualities – psychological attitudes, behaviors — which you refer to as male or female, are, for the most part, actually sex-neutral characteristics, like wearing make-up, that a particular culture has defined and valued as male or female. In some cultures, men decorate their faces to enhance their masculinity – e.g., warriors going into battle. I think that is exactly what Michael Jackson was doing. He was decorating his face to join the battle, but he did it as “a lover, not a fighter.” And tho’ I love Elton John, never in a million years would I compare Michael Jackson’s approach to masculine identity to Elton’s. I mean, come on.
To return to your comments –
“However, I think we need to return to my original point of which the dreaded ‘man and woman’ comment was a part (and that chimes with the main thrust of this post). That is, that labels, such as ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, play important roles but for a lot of people and for a myriad of reasons these labels are not always helpful or adequate in their exclusivity. This is such a huge cultural debate, and, indeed, one at the very heart of Black and African-American studies.”
A person who is physically both man and woman is a hermaphrodite. No one has yet claimed that about MJ, but you may have opened the door. I think you meant to say that Michael Jackson was both masculine and feminine (although I don’t agree with that either). There is a difference between sex (male and female, man and woman), which is a physical fact, and gender (masculine and feminine) which is generally a group of culturally-assigned attributes.
But, I also think it is very revealing that you described the man/woman comment as “dreaded” as if your readers’ reactions were somehow childish and/or uninformed – the dreaded bogyman. Here we are, fans of Michael Jackson and not even understanding what he was all about. Here we are, fans of Michael Jackson and buying into the self-same cultural biases that helped bring him down. But, I think, in sensing that dread, you may have misinterpreted its origins.
I disagreed with your description of Michael Jackson as both man and woman because I thought your terminology was wrong. I also disagreed with you because, since I am not proceeding from a postmodern perspective, I do not think Michael was deconstructing his identity as a man. I think Michael Jackson accepted the categories of man and woman as valid and viewed himself as absolutely male, just as I think he identified as black. However, I do think he was deconstructing the cultural definition of maleness. And there is a huge difference.
I also think, in juxtaposing his made-up visage with the underlying structure of his face, the strong chin, that imposing pillar of a neck, sinews bulging when he sang, he was actually emphasizing his own essential maleness, while reshaping cultural definitions of masculinity.
Also, in not being afraid to use make-up, he was showing the world that he was man enough to take it, that his own masculinity was strong enough to stand up to the ridicule that he knew he was in for. Not that courage is essentially male. But he had a statement to make, and he was making it!
Also, as I mentioned in a previous comment, he was showing that he did not feel in any way contaminated by doing things that were sometimes associated with femaleness. He valued femaleness, therefore, it did not threaten his value to use make-up, etc. He was redefining maleness to mean valuing femaleness, not having contempt for it.
As a heterosexual woman who has, herself, redefined femininity to mean independence of thought and independence of action, who is not afraid to compete with males and come out on top, who is unwilling to assume the missionary position, figuratively speaking of course, but who identifies absolutely as a woman (why shouldn’t I, when i enjoy it so much?), why should I interpret Michael Jackson’s embrace and use of the feminine to reach his own artistic and professional goals as anything but manly? I have been dreadfully disappointed by conventional masculinity and the males who express it, males who routinely not only devalue women, but also abuse them, so, I have found Michael Jackson, who clearly loved and cherished women, to be, to put it mildly, a breath of fresh, but very manly, air.
We do not have to dishonor the categories of heterosexual male and female to honor other manifestations of sexuality, lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered. We have no right to take Michael Jackson’s maleness away from him. In fact, we can’t.
Hi Eleanor. Thanks for elaborating on your own position and postmodern theory.
As you rightly say, Michael Jackson was a man and identified as a man. You conclude: ‘We have no right to take Michael Jackson’s maleness away from him.’ I agree, but I don’t see being readable as ‘man and woman’ does that.
The ideology behind my observation that Michael Jackson was ‘man and woman’ (as well as ‘black and white’, ‘young and old’) is one that does not deny an identity (male, black) but rather promotes a universality. When Michael Jackson came under attack for the lyrics of ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ (‘Kick me, kike me don’t you black or white me’), he responded by articulating just this positionality: ‘I am the voice of everyone.’
‘Michael Jackson is … a precursor of hybridization that is perfect because it is universal – the race to end all races … [He is] such an innocent and pure child – the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions … [He is] an embryo of all those dreamt-up mutations that will deliver is from race and sex.’ (Jean Baudrillard).
I can not recall a single instance where Michael Jackson ever articulated the notion that he was not specifically a black man. He had no illusions that vitiligo changed his race, and he certainly never expressed any need or desire to be considered both “man and woman”. It is beyond naive to believe that he would not see this characterization as a profound, and calculated, insult.
Michael Jackson is … a precursor of hybridization that is perfect because it is universal – the race to end all races … [He is] such an innocent and pure child – the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions … [He is] an embryo of all those dreamt-up mutations that will deliver is from race and sex.’ (Jean Baudrillard)
With all due respect to M. Baudrillard, this is utter and complete nonsense.
“‘Michael Jackson is … a precursor of hybridization that is perfect because it is universal – the race to end all races … [He is] such an innocent and pure child – the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions … [He is] an embryo of all those dreamt-up mutations that will deliver is from race and sex.’ (Jean Baudrillard).”
Hi Harriet —
I was afraid the position set forth in the above quote was what you were getting at in your post. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your finally coming forth with it, and I can’t tell you how much I disagree with it, although I have certainly tried.
I find this particular utopian vision nauseating. I mean, who wants to be “delivered from race and sex?” Certainly not Michael Jackson!
This vision is about as attractive as the merging of all bird species into a single, boring, and unworkable bird. I can’t bear the idea that anyone could and would look forward to a world with no diversity. Every day, I enjoy the beauty of the many bird species that visit the marsh on my farm — ibises and egrets and herons and wood storks and geese and cranes and diving ducks. Why is the diversity among the races and the cultures of the human species any less beautiful and valuable.
I also find this particular utopian vision to have strayed about as far from Michael Jackson’s message in his life and his work as possible. It is diversity Michael Jackson celebrated in the morphing sequence in Black or White, and the loss of diversity that he mourned in the Earth Song short film. But, this vision is so far off the mark, even if it has found a home in academic circles, that ultimately, it won’t fly (like my ppor hypothetical bird). However, I feel it is my duty to challenge it every time I encounter it.
As to his being the voice of everyone, he just meant that he was not being anti-semitic, but representing Jews insofar as they, like the other groups he mentions in the song, had been abused by the power structure.
Hi-jacking Michael Jackson as the poster boy for hybridization does no honor to him or to the different cultures of the world, all of which have something valuable to offer, and the two sexes, both of which make a significant contribution to the health and well being of the human species.
Sexual reproduction in both plants and animals evolved as a way of promoting survival, because it provided the opportunity for new and different genetic information to enter the gene pool, an improvement on asexual reproduction, which had no choice but to repeat mistakes. Boiling down both sexes into one unisex (different bodies, but identical behaviors?) and all cultures (because you are really referring to culture rather than skin color) into one culture would be a disaster and a deadly bore. We need cross pollination of various types to keep the species healthy. Michael Jackson, of all people, recognized the beauty and value and wonder of diversity.
Again, thank you for clarifying your position. Incidentally, I thought postmodernism did away with the idea of universals.
From an ecological standpoint I appreciate what you say here on behalf of biological diversity, so I’ll extend this word of caution: Baudrillard’s view of hybridization shouldn’t be literalized, as I believe you’ve done here. As I read him, he is not asking that we *do away with* the biological diversity that occurs in nature, nor the cultural diversity that has arisen out of human histories. That’s not what it’s about, in my view.
Instead, I suggest we think about Baudrillard’s (and other postmodernists’) move toward eradicating the symbolic POWER of these categories: race, gender, sexuality—to SIGNIFY in ways that make it possible for dominant groups to oppress subordinated ones. So I believe that’s what’s meant by being “delivered from race and sex.”
Make no mistake: signification is an extremely powerful thing; it’s the way we interpret what happens to us in the world, and what happens to others. So when we discuss concepts like “male/female,” “man/woman,” and “masculine/feminine,” it can be very difficult to grasp that these are CONCEPTS, not facts, so overdetermined and naturalized have they become for us. (We tend to take them for granted, when we should be interrogating them in the first place.)
Foremost among the “justifications” of for forms of bigotry that continue to dog us, are the arguments that are (presumably) based in biology, often presented as “natural facts.” So we’ve continually hear the argument (for example) that blacks are “naturally” inferior to whites, at least in certain areas; that women are “naturally” weaker than men; that homosexuals are living in defiance of the “natural” tendency to procreate; and so forth.
But history has more often than not proven that all the “excuses” we’ve concocted to justify and promote the oppression of “marginalized” groups actually rest on a very FLIMSY substrate, mainly consisting of the ideological uses of language to perpetuate certain TYPES of narratives, and to suppress others. The narratives that are favored at any given moment in time turn out—-not surprisingly—-to be the ones lend support to those who hold the most power in the society at large, and who have the most to lose should they relinquish any element of that power to signify and to determine meaning.
I’m sure you’re aware that biologically-based arguments for perpetuating the existence of categories like race, gender, sexuality, etc., have come under criticism in recent years. The idea that these categories, usually seen (falsely) as binaries (black/white, male/female, etc.)—are instead socially constructed, has been proposed as a much-needed corrective to the “essentialist” view.
For example: we know for a fact that there are MORE than two biological sexes. As a fraction of any population, *intersexed* individuals are born; that is, babies whose primary sex characteristics are BOTH male and female, in various configurations along an entire SPECTRUM.
(Intersex Society of North America):
Intersex identity doesn’t even BEGIN to take into account the numerous trans* identities that exist in the world. So, indeed there are MORE than two sexes, MORE than two genders—-and certainly MORE than two “races” (I think we can all agree on this, depending upon how we define “race”). This proliferation is available to our understanding and contemplation, were we only to expand the boundaries of the “fixed” categories to which we now seem (conveniently) cognitively wedded. So viewed from this perspective, while you may be “nauseated” by the prospect of being “delivered from race and sex” (as per Baudrillard), the notion actually accords quite well with your overall wish to promote diversity!
In short: it’s not about *reduction* to one, but proliferation—-to a multitude. Surely there’s a distinction here.
And you’re right: to talk about cross-pollination presupposes that difference and diversity exist in nature and in society. (I think we can agree that’s as it should be.) So what I believe Baudrillard and others are proposing involves a realignment in our thinking about how our presumed “natural” categories SIGNIFY—–the kind of (bloody, brutal, violent) work we have often made them do, and how we might reconfigure our UNDERSTANDINGS of these categories to achieve, in the end, a more just and humane society.
I believe our very survival depends on this. And if some people see this utopian promise in Michael Jackson’s performances, then I think it’s all to the good. They are HONORING his “difference” on multiple levels, rather than trying to bury it.
“I believe our very survival depends on this. And if some people see this utopian promise in Michael Jackson’s performances, then I think it’s all to the good. They are HONORING his “difference” on multiple levels, rather than trying to bury it.”
Hi Nina, We certainly need a more just and humane world. And, Michael Jackson was all about helping us achieve it.
It may be that language is failing us, since, although our words seem to indicate that we diametrically opposed, we may believe in the same thing. But, I don’t think so. I don’t want to take the postmodern position as far as you do or as Harriet does. And, I don’t, because I fear its tyranny, the tyranny that results when, in our desire for justice, we say man and woman are one (and that one is the man) or all cultures are one (and that culture is white).
And, yes, I am “aware that biologically-based arguments for perpetuating the existence of categories like race, gender, sexuality, etc., have come under criticism in recent years. The idea that these categories, usually seen (falsely) as binaries (black/white, male/female, etc.)—are instead socially constructed, has been proposed as a much-needed corrective to the “essentialist” view.
But, if you will, I am a “hybrid” where this argument is concerned. In terms of sexual identity, I am consciously and deliberately essentialist where it comes to physical bodies and actual, physical reproductive duties, bodies and duties that are facts, not concepts. Primarily because, as a single mother, I had to deal with the “successful” implementation of feminist theory in the workplace that claimed that women and men were the same (a concept not a fact). Employers (primarily male) gleefully bought into the legal fictiion, or concept, that women and men are equal and should be held to the same (male) standard, because it meant that they were free to ignore the very real reproductive differences and burden carried by women: they could basically punish women for being women — getting pregnant, having children. And they did and they continue to. And government has also really let women down, based on this theory. Early feminism’s not very well thought out attempt to gain equality for women has backfired all over the place resulting in a disproportionate number of women and children being in poverty. A situation that is neither just nor humane. The US has a terrible record where women and children are concerned. And I don’t see many current postmodern feminists doing anything to rectify the situation, because to get involved with trying to make things better for women means acknowledging differences.
I also understand that —
“Foremost among the “justifications” of for forms of bigotry that continue to dog us, are the arguments that are (presumably) based in biology, often presented as “natural facts.” So we’ve continually hear the argument (for example) that blacks are “naturally” inferior to whites, at least in certain areas; that women are “naturally” weaker than men; that homosexuals are living in defiance of the “natural” tendency to procreate; and so forth.”
And I do applaud any movement whose goal is to bring to consciousness etc. the role of cultural construction in maintaining these bigotries. For me, it is not about erasing the differences, but changing how we view and value and accommodate them.
If we let facts affect our views, we would know that many homosexuals, both male and female, do not live “in defiance of the “natural” tendency to procreate…” but do procreate through artificial insemination. I have a granddaughter who has two moms, two dads, three sets of grandparents, and a full sibling on the way. And I love my new extended family. I value them as highly as I value my heterosexual son and his family. I do not deny the fact of homosexuality on the one hand and heterosexuality on the other, but I honor and respect them both.
However, I also think we should re-evaluate the “natural tendency” to procreate given the dangers of ever increasing populations, and begin to place high cultural value on those who choose not to procreate.
Hi Eleanor. I do not in any way think Michael Jackson was advocating a world where we are all the same. Just the opposite. I see him as the patron saint of Difference, and a voice for all those who have been outcast because they are perceived as different.
I don’t think Harriet or Nina or postmodernism in general is advocating a homogeneous world either. In fact, Harriet and I talked about this a little bit in the post in terms of the duck-rabbit doodle:
My understanding of what Harriet and Nina are describing (and they can correct me if I’m oversimplifying or misrepresenting their positions) isn’t the erasure of difference, but complicating the way difference itself becomes normalized. This is something Joie and I talked about in a post with Susan Fast also.
What I mean is that, for example, there is a cultural construct of the “proper” heterosexual man: what he looks like, what he acts like, how he displays or represses certain emotions, how he modulates his voice – every aspect of his life is prescribed in certain ways. Seemingly in resistance to that, we now have a cultural construct of the “proper” homosexual man – and ironically, it’s just as rigid as our ideas about the “proper” straight man. Not only that, but it reifies the construct of both, setting up a dichotomy where the outlines of each reinforce one another.
The same process is at work in notions of masculine/feminine, or black/white, or any of the other categories we use to define identify.
The problem is how to break out of these rigid dichotomies (of race, gender, sexuality, family, nationality, religion, and on and on) in a way that doesn’t deny difference – that is not the point at all – but that opens up a multiplicity of identities. As Nina summarized so well, “In short: it’s not about ‘reduction’ to one, but proliferation – to a multitude.”
Hi Willa —
I guess we are just going to have to agree to disagree on the benefits/liabilities of categories.
If there had been no category “woman,” there would have been no suffragettes.
If there had been no category black, there would have been no civil rights movement.
There can be great variety within categories, but to deny that categories exist seems counterproductive.
You raise an interesting point here, Eleanor.
Indeed: If there had been no category “woman,” there would have been no “suffragettes,” nor any “feminists” in the contemporary sense of the term. If there had been no category “black,” there would have been no civil rights movement.
Might this be because there wouldn’t have been any *need* for these movements?
Unimaginable as it may seem from our perspective today, I wonder if this would have been entirely a bad thing.
As one colleague of mine has pointed out: without racism, there would have been no “race.”
“The problem is how to break out of these rigid dichotomies (of race, gender, sexuality, family, nationality, religion, and on and on) in a way that doesn’t deny difference – that is not the point at all – but that opens up a multiplicity of identities.”
The problem, in my opinion, is that you are lumping together categories that are not at all similar in their supposed rigidity. For example religion – Catholics and Hindus have vastly different belief systems. There is no way to break down their religious differences and still adhere to Catholicism or Hinduism. It doesn’t mean they have to kill each other, but those differences are unyielding in their rigidity. (In the case of Northern Ireland, you have people who are of the same race, same culture, same ethnicity, and same religious designation, Christianity, who did kill each other over mere denomination.)
Gender and sexuality, by all evidence, are not as amenable to ‘elasticity’ as it is fashionable to maintain among some psychologists and academics, just because a tiny percentage of the population exhibits characteristics of both maleness and femaleness. A female-identifying transgender ‘woman’ is not ever going to give birth, a male-identifying transgender ‘man’ is not going to produce sperm.
While all this discussion is interesting, it has nothing whatever to do with Michael Jackson, a self-identified straight black man – not a “pure child” of indeterminate sexuality.
VC, I agree, wholeheartedly.
“While all this discussion is interesting, it has nothing whatever to do with Michael Jackson, a self-identified straight black man …”
Hi VC. I respectfully disagree. I think this discussion has everything to do with Michael Jackson. I think it’s why the police (and the press and the public) believed Evan Chandler in 1993, despite all the evidence. I think it’s the real reason he was put on trial in 2003. And I think it’s why he was hounded and ridiculed for the last two decades of his life.
You are right – Michael Jackson was “a self-identified straight black man,” and that’s how I see him. But he also challenged how we define “straight” and “black” and “male,” and he did it in a way that was extremely threatening to the dominant majority.
Here’s a small example – he liked to wear women’s perfume. Men aren’t supposed to do that (supposedly). Men are supposed to smell like Brut, or Old Spice, or Aqua Velva. They aren’t supposed to smell like Bal a Versaille, which by many accounts (including Karen Faye) was his favorite perfume. And when it became clear the police were about to raid Neverland in 1993, Michael Jackson’s people felt it was necessary to hide that fact. Here’s how Taraborrelli describes it:
I think “they” were right. I think that based on a lot of irrelevant details like this – that he wore women’s perfume, that he wasn’t married, that he complicated our ideas about what it means to be a man – the police decided he wasn’t a “proper” male, and that he was in fact a pedophile.
That’s ridiculous, of course. There is absolutely no connection between wearing perfume and molesting children – or being single and molesting children, for that matter. Statistically speaking, the average pedophile is a married white man. Yet the police said Michael Jackson “fit the profile” of a pedophile.
I think a lot of that was based on stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a “proper” man. And to their minds, Michael Jackson was not a “proper” man.
I am truly shocked that, as a dedicated fan of Michael Jackson’s, you are unaware that Adrian McManus is a liar, a vile thief who stole from her orphaned niece and nephew, who stole items from Michael, and one of the group of Neverland employees that Michael sued and won a judgment against, which she has yet to pay. There was no advance warning of the raid on Neverland; employees may have used the raid as a cover for even more stealing, but no one hid perfume or makeup. Everyone knew Michael wore makeup. What would be the point in hiding it? And McManus was not Michael’s personal maid. Blanca Francia, another liar and tabloid source was. That story is completely false.
Taste in perfume is not a reliable marker of sexuality. I personally prefer men’s fragrances because they smell ‘cleaner’ and women’s fragrances tend to give me headaches. If you saw Jermaine Jackson on Celebrity Wife Swap, you would have seen that he also prefers women’s perfume and has dozens and dozens of bottles of it on his dressing table. As far as I know, no one has ever questioned Jermaine’s straight black male identity. From that show and what we’ve seen of the habits of other family members, most of Michael’s supposed eccentricities seem to be Jackson family traits.
I am sure you are sincere in your belief that Michael challenged what it means to be straight, black, and male. I believe that “straight” is a fairly rigid classification, while you apparently disagree. But no matter how light his skin color became, Michael definitely got treated as a black male – Woody Allen and Roman Polanski were never stripped naked and photographed. Suspected serial killers have been shown more respect.
VC: I will make one last attempt to speak to your concerns, as this quickly IS becoming a “Tower of Babble,” as I predicted, with everyone getting their dander up. (And perhaps with good reason.)
Here’s what I honestly think:
Nobody can say what it is to stand in another’s shoes, to experience in one’s very body, bones, and viscera, what it means to hear words like “neither male nor female,” “androgynous” “trans*” etc.—– resounding in the horrific echo chambers of history and memory.
Nobody who hasn’t been there—as a descendant of an enslaved people, where the traumas of the past are conjured by these words (especially the trauma of black men lynched, castrated, and disempowered during slavery and beyond)—-can presume to know what that feels like. So I don’t have much hope that inquiry in philosophical terms, using nature, culture, “man,” “woman,” and the rest as a place to hang our hats, can necessarily help any of us to untangle this particular knot, or bring enough consideration to ANY of our lived, embodied experiences, with our varying degrees of oppression and privilege.
But having said that, I have to follow up with these observations.
When you (dismissively) remark that a group of people who have CLEARLY devoted a lot of time, thought, and care into the study of a wide range of social and historical contexts that surround Michael Jackson’s life and work, and who are earnestly going about the task of expressing ideas in ways that go FAR beyond the usual round of mind-deadening cliché and received opinion—-when you dismiss these efforts as simply FOLLOWING THE LEAD of the tabloids—-then you are putting forward about as stunning a piece of bad-faith reasoning as I’ve ever encountered.
(It’s not just you, by the way. I’ve seen this exact same argument—-about academic writers mimicking tabloids and such, on other sites, where “true, devoted MJ fans” are determined to divide the entire world, in all its complex histories, into yet another binary: Michael Jackson Fans vs. Michael Jackson Haters.)
Nina Fonoroff, like others here, I express my opinions, not my concerns. But I will attempt to address your points.
“When you (dismissively) remark that a group of people who have CLEARLY devoted a lot of time, thought, and care into the study of a wide range of social and historical contexts that surround Michael Jackson’s life and work, and who are earnestly going about the task of expressing ideas in ways that go FAR beyond the usual round of mind-deadening cliché and received opinion—-when you dismiss these efforts as simply FOLLOWING THE LEAD of the tabloids—-then you are putting forward about as stunning a piece of bad-faith reasoning as I’ve ever encountered.”
I’m sorry, but I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t call this a “fan” site as the participants aspire to a higher level of discussion, and it’s logical to assume a higher level of familiarity with the details of Michael Jackson’s life. But even casual fans know that Adrian McManus is a liar and a thief. She wasn’t Michael Jackson’s personal maid, and she wasn’t even at work the day of the raid. (Michael wasn’t there either, so who does she claim ordered her to hide his makeup? She doesn’t say, because it didn’t happen.) She simply monetized her connection to Neverland, as a thief (she had an entire room at her home filled with items she had stolen from Michael), and as a source for tabloids and Randy Taraborrelli. It’s likely that Taraborrelli didn’t know about her illegal activities when he quoted her, but it’s public knowledge now. I did indeed find it shocking that Willa cited McManus to bolster her theories about Michael Jackson.
As regards Marjorie Garber, I most certainly did not “out” her as a bisexual. She does not hide her sexual orientation, nor should she. But the name of her book under discussion is Vested Interests, which is a play on words. She doesn’t equivocate – she states, “There can be no culture without the transvestite,” then writes several hundred pages to try to convince the reader. That is the somewhat eccentric “agenda” I referred to, her “vested interest”. She writes well if not persuasively – not to me anyway – and while the book is now dated, unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find her consciously racist.
But it is infuriating to African Americans when white people declare themselves ‘experts’ on black life, with no apparent experience or study to back it up. For example, she devotes a number of pages to the “Mirth and Girth” affair, where a white student of the Art Institute in Chicago cartoonishly depicted Chicago’s recently deceased first black mayor in panties and a bra, which nearly caused a riot. She believes it was because he was shown in women’s clothing, which was offensively emasculating on its face, but does not appear to understand the deeply-held African American prohibition against disrespecting the dead. How could she? Her life, going from Swarthmore to Yale to Harvard, has been as ghettoized as any hoodrat’s. I did find her academic “catfight” with Camille Paglia amusing. I think it’s sleazy for professors to have affairs with their students, no matter what the sexual orientation. But it is interesting.
(It’s a little late to point it out, but Marjorie Garber erroneously describes Elton John as a “guitarist called Reggie Wright” opening for Little Richard. He was actually a pianist named Reggie Dwight, playing for Patti LaBelle. I know that and I’m not even a dedicated Elton John fan. If one of her students made that error, would they get an A?)
To continue, VC:
Harriet recommended reading Marjorie Garber’s book “Vested Interests.” You responded, by “outing” Garber as bisexual (sniffing that “she herself is more interesting than her thesis”). In this, you are offering an ad-hominem attack that doubly misfires.
First of all, it misfires since it assumes that Garber’s sexual orientation will somehow “bias” her research and conclusions, because of her need to “put forth a specific agenda,” as you put it. And what of straight people’s research? Is it similarly prone to “putting forth a specific agenda”? Or are these findings to be regarded as “neutral” and without bias, by virtue of the researchers’ heterosexuality? Come on.
Secondly, your assumption misfires if you suppose that others here are bound to share your evident distaste for gay/queer discourses—–and possibly even LGBT-identified people themselves.
If you have no use for Garber or Baudrillard (whether or not you ever intend to read them), I’d like to point out that it is BY NO MEANS only white writers who have expressed the view that Michael did, in many ways, “push the boundaries” of race, class, gender, and age. Literally DOZENS of black social critics, too, have persuasively argued that in doing these things—-whether or not it was a part of his artistic intent—Michael popularized many modes of creative expression that were previously unavailable to black performers, especially mainstream ones.
They have also written about his difficulties. Here is an example by James Baldwin, which remains one of the most prescient and often-quoted pieces of writing on Michael Jackson that I’ve encountered yet:
“The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; and blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair—to all of which may now be added the bitter need to find a head on which to place the crown of Miss America.
“Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.
But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.”
——- “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”
Sorry to drone on, VC, but I think it’s important to address these issues in all their complexity.
Even if you never look up work by the authors I mentioned on another post (and even if you never read my last post), I’m finding it important to register some information on African American and other black writers, thinkers, and artists who have worked through some of the complex imbrications of race, gender, and sexuality—-with a queer lens, so to speak. (Some of these thinkers—like Mark Anthony Neal—-are themselves even straight black men. Imagine that.)
Here are a few of *many* discussions that have occurred along these lines. I hope someone will find them useful:
1. On June 5, 2010, a Symposium was held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. The event was called After the Dance: Conversations on Michael Jackson’s Black America.
There were four sessions in all. The second event, a panel discussion, featuring four black panelists and a black moderator, was called “Keep it in the Closet: The Historic Speculation Around Michael Jackson’s Gender Bending Persona:
Moderator: Steven Fullwood, Schomburg Center
Panelists: Mark Anthony Neal, Associate Professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and Author; Asadullah Muhammad, Educator, Father, Poet, Writer; and DJ Reborn, Music Consultant and Teaching Artist; and DJ Selly
2. Mark Anthony Neal has a weekly program called “Left of Black,” where he interviews various black cultural workers and commentators. Here’s a link to one program, where he speaks with Francesca Royster, a DePaul University professor who recently published a book called “Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era.” (The book contains a chapter on Michael Jackson, titled “Michael Jackson, Queer World Making, and the Trans Erotics of Voice, Gender, and Age.”
3. In Fall 2012, Neal also offered a course at Duke University (through the Department of African and African American Studies) called “Michael Jackson and the Black Performance Tradition.” You can find the syllabus here:
Many, many readings throughout the syllabus explore the intersections between race, gender, class, and performance style. Neal designated the final class session as “Man in the Mirror: Michael Jackson Queered,” with Baldwin’s article (which I quoted from above) and Susan Fast’s piece “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings” among the texts for that week.
I think (I hope) I’m finished. These are only a FEW examples of literally dozens of black writers who are engaged with this topic right now. If anyone is interested, I can provide a complete list of references and links.
Listen, I’m sorry if I’ve appeared to take up an inordinate amount of time and space in this matter (which I’ve delved into fairly thoroughly). But I do believe it’s important to be able to talk about this, as well as many other compelling issues, in as open and above-board manner as we can possibly muster here, without obfuscation.
Anyone, of course, can persuasively argue that there’s nothing of value to be had in talking about Michael Jackson’s (“alleged”) gender-queerness, his “alleged” gender performativity, or his “gay/queer belongings,” or the lack of them. But I can see NO legitimate reason for the kinds of disingenuous statements I’ve encountered, across this fan community, as to WHO is undertaking these explorations, and WHY they may be doing so.
It may be “none of my business,” in the end: if so, I offer my apologies. But I feel very strongly that constructing any argument that implicitly ERASES the presence of LGBT people from the wider black community—-as VC’s argument veers on doing—is a rhetorical move whose wider implications are not only homo- and transphobic, but deeply racist as well.
Hi VC. I have no idea who Adrian McManus is, have only read her name in Taraborrelli’s book. However, I did a little Google searching and you’re right. I was shocked. She is not a credible witness at all.
And I agree that “Taste in perfume is not a reliable marker of sexuality.” Of course.
I also agree that “But no matter how light his skin color became, Michael definitely got treated as a black male – Woody Allen and Roman Polanski were never stripped naked and photographed.” In fact, Joie and I did a two-part post about that. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.
And actually, though we are continually butting heads about gender and sexuality, I think we agree far more than we disagree. I think we both agree that aspects of Michael Jackson’s public persona (his voice, his costumes, his makeup, his hairstyles, his marital status) were unfairly attacked in the media as outside the range of masculinity as it is typically expressed, and that – perhaps because of his race – he was unfairly targeted for that. I think we both agree about that – correct me if I’m wrong.
Where we disagree is in our perceptions of how aware he was of public perceptions of himself, and how much he participated in it. As I understand it, you believe he was not really aware of cultural norms, and was victimized by the press. (Is that an accurate way of stating your position?) Whereas I think he had a pretty good idea of cultural norms (after all, he has five brothers and three sisters who have negotiated those norms pretty easily) and that he enjoyed tweaking people’s expectations.
That’s a fairly big difference, though perhaps not as big as it might seem at first. What I mean is that, regardless of his intent, the effect is the same: he forced us as a culture to rethink our assumptions, and that’s really important.
“And actually, though we are continually butting heads about gender and sexuality, I think we agree far more than we disagree. I think we both agree that aspects of Michael Jackson’s public persona (his voice, his costumes, his makeup, his hairstyles, his marital status) were unfairly attacked in the media as outside the range of masculinity as it is typically expressed, and that – perhaps because of his race – he was unfairly targeted for that. I think we both agree about that – correct me if I’m wrong.”
I definitely agree that Michael Jackson was targeted. Where we perhaps disagree is the idea that there was anything all that unusual about his voice (other than his superiority as a vocal artist), his costumes, his marriages and child-rearing – even his adultery was run-of-the-mill. They were out to get him because he was black, rich, and powerful, and America can’t tolerate that in a young good-looking man.
The real disagreement I have with you and others of like mind is the notion that he was “both man and woman”, specifically because I believe it’s an insult, and generally because I don’t believe that any physically normal person should be described that way. It’s even incorrect and hurtful to refer to a transgender person with such language. When people say that about Michael, I am convinced that they are expressing contempt for him, certainly not admiration.
I also disagree about Michael being the first black teen idol. I think Frankie Lymon was. Frankie Lymon was a little guy with a baby face who sang in a high adolescent voice his entire career. When he died, of a heroin overdose, he still looked like a teenager. Nobody ever called him “both man and woman”, particularly not the three women who all claimed to be his legal wife in a fight for his estate. His story is told in the film Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the title of his biggest hit.
(In the previous articles you posted, I was fascinated to see that you referenced the great Teddy Pendergrass and his tragic accident, but given your interest in gender and sexuality, you left out a few relevant details – he was with a male-to-female transgender person who was reportedly providing him oral gratification when he wrecked the car. It was quite a scandal in the African American community at the time, although his black fans continued to love and support him when he was largely abandoned by the mainstream. Despite the stereotype, most black people are not virulently homophobic religious nuts.)
Hi VC. I’ve heard “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” but know nothing about Frankie Lymon – didn’t even recognize his name when you mentioned it. I should learn more about him.
I also hadn’t heard that story about Teddy Pendergrass, but that isn’t really what I’m talking about when I say Michael Jackson challenged notions of gender and sexuality. A closeted gay senator who praises traditional family values isn’t challenging anything, while a straight politician who questions the fairness of normative ideas about gender and sexuality is.
As far as I know, Michael Jackson was much more of a straight arrow in his private life than Teddy Pendergrass or Eddie Murphy or the current sex scandal of the week. Yet Teddy Pendergrass promoted very conventional ideas of romance and sexuality in his stage performances, and Eddie Murphy has said Michael Jackson was “strange” and repeatedly ridiculed him as effeminate. Based on my limited knowledge of their work (and admittedly I know very little), Teddy Pendergrass and Eddie Murphy never forced us to question our perceptions or beliefs in any way.
But Michael Jackson did. He repeatedly questioned what it means to “be a man” – not biologically but culturally – and more than that, he questioned the implications of those rigid definitions of “man” and “woman.” For example, in “Beat It” and “Bad” he suggests that gang violence is directly related to (false) ideas about what it means to “be a man.” Here are some lyrics from “Beat It”:
And from “Bad”:
And there are many more examples as well. That’s what’s interesting to me – how he questions normative ideas about what it means to “be a man,” and then draws a connection between altering those mistaken notions of masculinity to his strong commitment to social change.
Thanks for the reminder about Frankie Lymon, VC. I think it’s accurate, as you say, that as a black “teen idol” he predated Michael Jackson by quite a few years (in fact, I read somewhere that Michael was being eyed to *play* Frankie Lymon in a biopic at one time).
Willa, I essentially agree with you. How intentional these “interventions” were on Michael’s part is perhaps less important than the ways he demonstrably shook things up for a lot of people—and the press capitalized on these “transgressions,” playing to the pre-existing fears and anxieties of the public around a very complex *network* of issues and identities. In addition to the ones Baldwin identifies (buried American guilt, sex, sexual roles, sexual panic, money, success, despair), a number of other elements were in play as well.
I agree with Susan Fast’s assessment here (in her article “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson (1958-2009)”:
“He was unknowable. He was impossible to “figure out.” While some of this difference was demonstrated through what was viewed in the mass media as “eccentric” behavior (the presence of his companion, Bubbles the chimp, the black surgical masks, the rumor that he wanted to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, some of this surely calculated to attract attention), it was really his more substantive, underlying differences that were most troubling— racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously. Jackson tested the boundaries of subjectivity, not with the ironic distance of his contemporaries, Madonna and Prince, but with his heart on his sleeve, and he eventually lost. On those rare occasions when he tried to explain himself he seemed instead to dig a deeper hole. Many remained skeptical; too many normative social codes were in flux, and none were ever neatly put back in the container (again, unlike Madonna and Prince, who were both eventually domesticated—in “normal” ways).”
I think Fast is right here: “Too many normative social codes were in flux.”
Hi Willa, Nina, and Harriet —
First, a couple of things – I think the use of the term hybrid is misleading, at least it misled me, calling up an image of two things merged into one. And using Michael Jackson as a pre-cursor of hybridization also, seems to indicate that your ideal is someone who is both black and white, male and female, young and old. Which is quite different from a world populated by a multiplicity of separate and discrete entities. Additionally, in nature, hybrids are usually sterile, like a mule, with no sex at all – not a term I would use for Michael Jackson who had creativity spilling out from every pore.
Also, I don’t want to do away with the category “man.” I want to redefine what it means to be a man, not physically or reproductively, but the cultural meaning of man, and I believe that MJ was doing just that. Because our current meaning of manhood now links it to dominance and violence, resulting in young men killing each other and abusing women. Additionally, the way our culture defines manhood is very important because, in our culture, it also defines what it means to be fully human, resulting in violence and death at the geopolitical level, and the abuse of nature.
I get that you want to break out of categories, such as the “cultural construct of the “proper” heterosexual man:” But I don’t think it is realistic to believe that any philosophy that does away with the basic categories of human existence is ever going to work. And, if your goal is to break down categories, where are you going to stop? Would you do away with the label oak, and use tree? Would you do away with the label tree and use plant? I think you need to deal with the logical consequences of this theory.
As you might imagine, I have been arguing against the postmodern elimination of embodied categories for many years. When I went to college, postmodernism was unheard of and so most of the people in my age group have never heard of it. But my interest in feminism and my critique of a feminism that seemed to unconsciously accept the male standard and argue for women to become ersatz males, plus going back to grad school late in life have brought it to my attention. And, although I find it deeply disturbing in its denial of categories which are embodied, I have appreciated the fact that it draws attention to the importance of perception. However, it only seems to focus on individual perceptions of reality, when in fact our perception of reality is first organized by culture.
If your goal is to break down categories, then it would make no sense to describe MJ as man and woman, black and white, old and young. Those categories would be non-existent. In fact, the only label left in your world of infinite multiplicity, of infinite subjective realities, would be his name. And a world of infinite multiplicity would construct a reality where everything is on some sort of blurry continuum: we would be living in a seething mass of instantiations of animate and inanimate matter — each of us would be a single instantiation, we would have nothing in common, each of us would be inhabiting such a separate reality, that there would be nothing to give us a sense of community. It would not only make communication impossible, but thinking impossible. Basically, it would render us unconscious, because consciousness is about making sense of the world and without labels, you can’t make sense of anything, you can’t function.
However, I think my disagreement with postmodernism also stems from the fact that it wants to distance us from nature. For postmodernism to even entertain the notion that the categories of basic human existence could be done away with would mean that it is based in a belief that the human exists outside of nature, that we, and our brains did not evolve like all other species with the goal of survival in mind, that we are a special and separate creation (of a god? of some alien species that visited earth once long long ago from a galaxy far away?).
In this belief, postmodernism is not in the least radical, but squarely within the western tradition that understands humanity as separate from, superior to, and in control of nature. And, it is very much a creature of western philosophy in its promotion of individualism and its belief in the limitless freedom of the human mind, and its belief in mind over matter — that mind is separate from body. It is Descartes 2.0. Ironically, in your attempt to escape cultural construction, you have revealed the power of western culture to continue to construct your consciousness. But what we need to survive is radical change.
So, I would like to offer an alternative view: That, humanity, like all life on earth, is part and parcel of nature. That we are bodies, and being natural and embodied beings we are plugged into and filled with the energy of life — the “life song of ages.” I want to celebrate our connections to, rather than our separation from, each other and the rest of life on earth, which does not mean that I believe that we can do away with the basic categories, but we can redefine them and realign them so that they are more in synch with our latest and greatest version of reality, i.e., what we think we know about ourselves and the world we live in. We have distanced ourselves from our bodies far enough, denying that what we put into the air and water will poison us, in addition to the devastating consequences of climate change. We need to mentally climb back in our bodies, not flee from them.
As an informal student of evolutionary biology, I find myself much more in tune with E.O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology, rather than Richard Dawkins’ extremely individualistic position reflected in his theory of “The Selfish Gene.” As a student of the sociology of religion, I am in complete agreement with Clifford Geertz that without culture, the human species would be an “unworkable monstrosity.”
Our brains need to be programmed in order to make sense of what William James called the “buzzing, blooming confusion” of sense data that streams into our brains every second of our existence. And culture programs them through the use of symbols by giving meaning to the basic categories of human existence — humanity, nature, male and female. How we define these categories — and how these categories define us — determines our relationship to nature and the relationship of males and females. These two relationships ensure our collective survival — from day to day and from one generation to the next. So getting it right is crucial. Today we are getting it very wrong. If we are going to survive, “gotta make a change.”
And now, I have probably exhausted everyone’s patience.
Eleanor, well said, and no, you are not exhausting my patience–I find this discussion stimulating and thanks to all who are participating.
Harriet brought up the response MJ made re the furor over the lyrics to TDCAU:
“The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
Here he does say “I am the voice of everyone” but a sentence or 2 later he says, “I am the voice of the accused and attacked,” and “I am not the one who was attacking.” So right there there is a qualification on ‘everyone.’ The issue of being misinterpreted is important IMO.
I think we can agree that MJ was a man who broke the stereotypes for typical ‘macho’ behavior–the perfume, as Willa says, and much more. The fact he wept easily, that he had such compassion for others and for other beings, that he enjoyed being with children, etc. There are many ways he did not fit the stereotyped ‘macho’ image, even today, let alone 20-30 years ago.
I am thinking of St. Paul’s statement re “when I was a child I spoke as a child but when I became a man I put away childish things.” This is a kind of ‘grown-up’ idea, that there is a division between child and adult, which many now see as a destructive concept. There is now an Institute of Play that argues that play is as much a human need as sleep or food. And there is an interspecies language of play such that a human can play with a dolphin (for example) or a dog with a polar bear. And if as adults we turn our lives away from play we suffer as individuals and as society. Similarly, if we divide up certain characteristics as ‘male’ and others a ‘female’ so as to create taboos of behavior, then we get upset when young boys (for example) love My Little Pony ( a ‘girls’ show’) and start to try and mold them away from that via bullying or other pressures to be more ‘manly.’
These are concepts that MJ was introducing/promoting and we are still way behind but trying to catch up. When he said he wanted to Heal the World, I think he meant to see the world and ourselves with new eyes and to ‘be God’s glow.’ “Why do they keep teaching us such hate and cruelty? We should give over and over again.” These are some of his messages. I think he was trying to bring us to sanity and balance. As he said during an Ebony interview, he saw his art as a way to connect.
“I really believe that God chooses people to do certain things, the way Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart or Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King is chosen. And that is their mission to do that thing. And I think that I haven’t scratched the surface yet of what my real purpose is for being here. I’m committed to my art. I believe that all art has as its ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. And I believe that that is the very reason for the existence of art and what I do. And I feel fortunate in being that instrument through which music flows….
Deep inside I feel that this world we live in is really a big, huge, monumental symphonic orchestra. I believe that in its primordial form all of creation is sound and that it’s not just random sound, that it’s music. You’ve heard the expression, music of the spheres? Well, that’s a very literal phrase. In the Gospels, we read, “And the Lord God made man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” That breath of life to me is the music of life and it permeates every fiber of creation.
In one of the pieces of the Dangerous album, I say: “Life songs of ages, throbbing in my blood, have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood.” This is a very literal statement, because the same new miracle intervals and biological rhythms that sound out the architecture of my DNA also governs the movement of the stars. The same music governs the rhythm of the seasons, the pulse of our heartbeats, the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the cycles of growth, evolution and dissolution. It’s music, it’s rhythm. And my goal in life is to give to the world what I was lucky to receive: the ecstasy of divine union through my music and my dance. It’s like, my purpose, it’s what I’m here for.”
From MJ’s Oxford Union speech, 2001:
“From this day forward, may a new song be heard.
Let that new song be the sound of children laughing.
Let that new song be the sound of children playing.
Let that new song be the sound of children singing.
And let that new song be the sound of parents listening.
Together, let us create a symphony of hearts, marvelling at the miracle of our children and basking in the beauty of love.
Let us heal the world and blight its pain.
And may we all make beautiful music together.”
And the sound of adults laughing, playing, singing, listening would be nice too!
Thanks, Stephenson for bringing us back to the reality that was Michael Jackson and the reality of his vision.
Hi Nina —
I have been thinking a lot about your response to my comment —
“Indeed: If there had been no category “woman,” there would have been no “suffragettes,” nor any “feminists” in the contemporary sense of the term. If there had been no category “black,” there would have been no civil rights movement.
Might this be because there wouldn’t have been any *need* for these movements?
Unimaginable as it may seem from our perspective today, I wonder if this would have been entirely a bad thing.
As one colleague of mine has pointed out: without racism, there would have been no “race.”
The thing is, that as long as humans have sexual intercourse and in some cases it is sexual intercourse between those humans who have testicles, and a penis and produce sperm with those humans who have ovaries, a uterus, a vagina and produce eggs, the human beings with the ovaries, etc. are going to become pregnant. Pregnancy is a physical state. Childbirth is a physical act. Lactating is a physical happening. Babies are real physical entities. These things happen to humans with ovaries. And, if they didn’t, the human species would die out.
The majority of humans who have ovaries, etc. experience the reproductive cycle as part of the life cycle, experience life in very similar, physical, ways. In addition, these humans experience life in very similar, psychological ways, depending on how much their society values their reproductive duties — i.e, how societies deal with these humans in their reproductive mode. So, even if you do away with the category “woman,” the group exists. And, in our society, injustice towards this group still exists — specifically towards women in their reproductive mode.
It seems to me that there is a direct relationship between postmodernism as it has been articulated in women’s studies, etc., and our society’s abandonment of women and women’s issues. Academic women are privileged women and educated women and usually have access to birth control and also often choose to further their academic careers rather than have children. Once they achieved some measure of professional or economic success, academic and other professional women forgot their sisters and decided the category “woman” did not exist. How convenient!
Doing away with the category “woman” does nothing to lessen the reproductive duties placed by nature on women, duties that can be a joy or a burden depending on how a society treats women in their reproductive mode. However, if you no longer believe this class exists, it is no longer your problem.
What I don’t get is, if there is no category “woman,” how can there be the categories lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered?
It seems to me that the academy has completely abandoned women when women increasingly, as a class, are sinking into poverty — precisely because they get pregnant and have children, precisely because they are women.
Race is completely different. As far as I know, race, unlike sex, does not impact one’s bodily experience of life. That is, difference in skin color, eye shape, etc.. are not going to alter one’s actual, physical experience of life the way one’s sex does. However, the attributes a dominant society associates with skin color — positive and negative — can materially and dramatically alter one’s experience of life. So, social justice lies in not ignoring various skin colors, etc., they exist, and are beautiful. Instead it lies in decoupling both positive and negative attributes from skin color.
Hi Eleanor. Does postmodernism say the category of “woman” doesn’t exist? I don’t think that’s true. My understanding is that, while modernism was in many ways a search for the essence of a thing (the bare essence of a structure in architecture, the bare essence of color and form in painting) postmodernism says we can never get there.
For example, in terms of gender differences, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Rather, postmodernism says we can never escape our acculturation to discover the essence of gender without the mediating influence of culture. We are always already immersed in culture and can never escape it, so when thinking about gender, we always have to be aware that our thoughts and perceptions are shaped by the culture in which we were raised. That’s very different than saying gender doesn’t exist. (And I have to say, the academics I know are VERY concerned about women and children, in large part because many of them are women raising children.)
Like you I have some reservations about postmodernism, though in other ways I find it really enlightening. And one aspect of postmodernism that I truly love is its spirit of playfulness. (That’s very Michael Jackson!) For example, while modernism can be a little grim sometimes in its rejection of the past, postmodernism says we’re always already immersed in our cultural traditions and can’t escape their influence, so let’s play with it.
So, for example, in terms of gender again, Judith Butler talks about gender in terms of performance – that we perform our gender, and there are a multitude of ways open to us for doing that. I don’t know her work very well, unfortunately – I’d like to learn more – but as I understand it, she’s saying that the way we interpret and represent gender is a performance that we are free to improvise on. I find that fascinating – and liberating. (And that in no way means that sex organs or other gender differences don’t exist, of course. Just that we can never think about gender in ways that escape the mediating influence of culture.)
I think this is very relevant to Michael Jackson. The way he performed his gender (and race and spirituality and sexuality and … ) has captured the public imagination for decades. We’re having a heated debate about it right now. I would say that’s one sign of the power of his “performance.”
Hi Willa —
I had the impression that postmodernism, or some postmodernists, rejected categories in general. And doesn’t the Baudrillard quote say something about being delivered from race and sex?
I agree that the heated debate we are engaged in is a very positive sign, exactly because it confirms, as you say, “the power of his performance.”
No hard feelings, I hope. This type of discussion helps me clarify my own positions.
Hi Eleanor. I am not an expert on postmodernism by any means. In fact, I feel kind of like an imposter talking about all this because I know so little about it. It’s a pretty complex movement that is interpreted and expressed in rather different ways in different fields (architecture, art, philosophy, critical theory, and on and on) and in different countries, and by different theorists. And how it’s perceived has evolved over time as well.
However, as I understand it, one aspect of postmodernism is the idea that we can never see the real world in a way that is not thoroughly “conditioned” (to use Michael Jackson’s word) by culture – and of course, that would include the way we perceive and categorize difference. That doesn’t mean those differences don’t exist – just that we must always be mindful of the fact that, however we slice or dice knowledge to make the natural world more understandable, those frameworks are a human construct and they shape what we see to a profound degree.
This discussion always reminds me of a poem – “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
So to perceive nature in a way that was not shaped by culture, we would have to be like a snowman who, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” And we can never get there. We can never unformat our brains from the cultural influences that have shaped us.
And would we want to if we could? That’s part of postmodernism too. We can’t escape our cultural “conditioning,” so let’s play with that – test it limits, juxtapose different traditions, flip them inside-out, and see what we can discover.
p.s. Of course, the snowman would have been shaped by human hands in the image of a human, so it’s reasonable to say that even the snowman would not be outside human culture. But you get Steven’s point, I hope: that you would have to have “a mind of winter” to witness the ice and cold all around you and “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind” – in other words, not impose any human thoughts or emotions or other cultural filters onto the scene in front of you.
But that’s just the thing, Willa, we can unformat our brains from the cultural influences that have shaped us. At least I truly hope so, because, if not, we will die. That’s what my book is all about. The difficulty and necessity and mechanics of cultural change. And I believe this because I, myself, have experienced a cultural transformation. And the result was that one day it was if I had been born again (to use a Christian expression) and I saw the world with new eyes and felt it with new emotions. We need a new morality that will define as evil those things that threaten collective survival, like pumping carbon dioxide into the air, polluting water, etc.
Our culture developed in a social and physical environment that no longer exists, primarily because of the changes we have brought about. When a culture is out of synch with its environment, then the culture has to change or the society dies. Just like a species that can’t adapt to radical changes in its physical environment.
Michael Jackson was and is a cultural change agent. He seemed to intuit exactly what kind of cultural changes we need to make if we are going to survive and through his ability to arouse powerful emotions, he started rewiring our psyches. He was and is mythic.
Thanks for the Stevens poem. It is beautiful.
“But that’s just the thing, Willa, we can unformat our brains from the cultural influences that have shaped us. At least I truly hope so, because, if not, we will die. That’s what my book is all about. The difficulty and necessity and mechanics of cultural change.”
Hi Eleanor. We can certainly change our perceptions and beliefs, even our way of life – sometimes even radically – both at a personal level and in a more far-reaching way. However, my point is that, while we can shift from one perspective to another, we can never perceive the world or each other in a way that is outside or separate from culture. We can never even know what such a perspective would be like.
For example, if I go for a walk and see an aspen tree in a grove of aspen trees, my brain is going to think “tree” (or “baum” or “árbol” or “mti” or “pokok,” depending on my background) because my brain has been formatted by language to see an object with certain traits (leaves, bark, large spreading branches) and label it a “tree.”
More than that, I tend to break what I see up into discrete entities and see the world as a collection of entities because human culture has taught me to do that. Research suggests that isn’t true. Genetically and structurally, a grove of aspen trees is one organism, but it takes a bit of effort for me to see them (it?) that way because that’s not how I tend to think about a grove of trees. There is even an avenue of thought that suggests the entire world is one organism (sometimes called Gaia).
If I happen to go for a walk in the fall and see the aspen tree with yellow leaves, it might make me sad because I “know” the leaves are dying, and that may lead me to think about death and the impermanence of life. Or maybe I’ll see bright yellow leaves against a brilliant blue sky and feel happy because it’s so beautiful – because it corresponds to my culturally produced aesthetic sense of what’s beautiful and what isn’t. Maybe there is one tree that’s kind of misshapen, and I dislike it because it doesn’t accord with my ideas about balance and form. And maybe there’s another that fits my aesthetic ideas perfectly, and I think it wonderfully fulfills the ideal of “tree” – of what a tree should be.
Or maybe I’m walking on a windy day and all the leaves are waving at me like hundreds of waving hands (which aspen are prone to do). I love that – it always makes me laugh – but I also recognize that humans are notorious at anthropomorphizing nature – at seeing nature in our own image – and this is an example of that. We see human faces in clouds and tree bark. We project human emotions onto animals, especially mammals, but even catfish and ladybugs and one-celled organisms. We imbue the natural world with our thoughts and emotions.
My point is that we can never step outside of human culture and see the world “objectively” – and maybe we don’t want to. But we do need to question how culture shapes our perceptions and beliefs – maybe in destructive ways – and consider how we might conceptualize things in different ways.
Hi Willa —
First, I want to thank you for providing this forum for a fascinating discussion that has allowed us to really shake out the various philosophical stances lurking behind various “readings” of Michael Jackson. And, I hope neither you, nor Nina, nor Harriet are offended by my strong opinions. But, I really think it is important to get these issues right, and, I respectfully believe that you are getting them wrong.
But, I do want to say that I was really offended by the Baudrillard quote. Clearly a case of someone looking at a few photographs and leaping to unwarranted conclusions. I doubt he ever listened to his music. He clearly didn’t get Michael Jackson, just wanted to use him, like so many others have, without taking time to respectfully “interrogate” who this man really was by reading his words, seeing his short films, attending his performances. In that one quote, he completely discredits the whole postmodernist movement. And, with friends like him, MJ doesn’t need any enemies. Now, not only do we have to contend with pedophile being linked to MJ’s name, but hybrid and mutant! This stuff is not helpful.
Secondly, I want to try again to explain my (and, partially VC’s?) difference of opinion from that expressed by you and Nina and Harriet.
In your response to VC, you said, “You are right – Michael Jackson was “a self-identified straight black man,” and that’s how I see him. But he also challenged how we define “straight” and “black” and “male,” and he did it in a way that was extremely threatening to the dominant majority.”
I agree with you. But I see a very different challenge. And how his self-identification as a straight, black, man translates into believing that he saw himself as male and female, etc. confounds me. Michael Jackson was redefining what it means to be male, but not by incorporating a female identity. That is oxymoronic. As a man who had no doubts about his own heterosexual masculinity, a masculinity that was perceived and recognized and affirmed by a female audience numbering millions who also had no doubts about his masculinity, who sexually responded to his essential masculinity, he was completely redefining what it culturally means to be a man by REDEFINING THE EROTIC. And taking control of and redefining what it means to be male as well as redefining the erotic was terrifically radical and threatening, especially to men who had invested so much time and energy in creating a macho image.
It is very important that we get this right because in our culture, the standard for being human is male, so redefining maleness also redefines humanity, and redefining the erotic not only affects how women sexually respond to men and how men treat women (dominate? cherish?), but the character of the energy that drives a society’s way of life, that determines how we as a society treat nature and each other.
Philosophers who want to believe that MJ was both man and woman are really watering down and misunderstanding his impact. At the risk of being politically incorrect by being factually accurate, the androgyne or hermaphrodite does not symbolize sexual power. Sexual power in nature, where we are, is all about the unconscious knowledge that links one’s sexuality to the ability to create life — this is real power — the power underlying all other power. Reading Michael Jackson as both man and woman has the effect of emasculating him and depotentiating his cultural message — a message which can heal the world.
I also strongly disagree that he was portraying himself as both black and white. And I do think this misreading is as damaging as the misreading that he was both man and woman. But, I am too tired to go into this right now, and it is perhaps better addressed by someone who is black.
“Michael Jackson was redefining what it means to be male, but not by incorporating a female identity.”
Actually, I would say this a little differently. I would say that he’s redefining what it means to be male by incorporating human traits that have traditionally (and falsely, in my opinion) been labeled as feminine.
Nina Fonoroff, my replies to your posts are somewhat out of order, so I will try to summarize my points here. But first, I must say that I am offended by your characterization of me as displaying “evident distaste” for gay/queer discourse. You are, as lawyers say, assuming facts not in evidence, and throwing in a bit of gratuitous insult to boot. You appear to think of Michael Jackson as a gay or “queer” icon. I don’t. I’m not dismissing the contributions of black gay writers, but you appear to believe they’re the only black writers who count. ( With the exception of Mark Anthony Neal, whom you describe as straight. In one of the pieces he wrote after Michael’s death, he talked about his boyhood “crush” on Michael – maybe he’s not as straight as you think.)
Of course there are many black academics who see gayness, queerness, gender fluidity in Michael Jackson. It’s their primary field of interest. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail (or another hammer). That’s their right. But it’s also my right to disagree, even vehemently, without being labeled a bigot. What I do find distasteful, and dishonest, is the number of writers, both white and black, who have no background or expertise in music who glom onto Michael to sell their theories. As Eleanor pointed out, Jean Baudrillard is a prime example. (I’ve read enough of his work to know that he called Michael “an android”. I feel no desire to waste any more of my time on him.)
That piece by James Baldwin gets quoted a lot. In their zeal to embrace Michael as the “freak” in the title, I think the most important point Baldwin makes gets lost : “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is NOT ABOUT JACKSON AT ALL…All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; and blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair”. This is an apt description of the Don Sterling, LA Clippers, V Stiviano brouha dominating the airwaves right now. The more things change…
Thanks for your response, VC. And especially, thanks for reminding me of a succinct way to summarize a lot of what I often struggle to express: “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (!)
I think this returns us full circle to the original theme of this post! It’s about how we see things, and how our different experiences have formed each of us to apply a different *optic* to the same phenomenon.
That’s what I think you’re talking about here, in connection with all the ways we respond to the writers you mention. Since we were discussing something called “issues of gender and sexuality,” I *did* reference black writers whose work happens to focus on those issues, and not others—not because I believe they are the only black writers who “count.”
As far as Mark Anthony Neal and his “boy crush” on Michael Jackson are concerned, I’m assuming he, like *many* children, had crushes on people of the same sex at one time in their youth (maybe NONE of us are as straight as we think, eh?)
People have “glommed” onto Michael Jackson for a variety of reasons. Even those writers who have no particular expertise in music surely cannot be insensible to the fact that he as the first black teen idol, the first black artist to have their videos played on MTV, the *auteur* of the best-selling album in history, and SO MUCH more.
As we know, his influence on the world extended far beyond the fields of music and dance. That, and the fact that so many music, literary, and film critics (in the academy and outside of it) are now taking decidedly *interdisciplinary* approaches to their writing, makes it unsurprising that a whole lot of such “glomming” is going on. It would be difficult indeed, these days, to pinpoint exactly what kind of disciplinary background would best *qualify* a writer to undertake a full panoply of ways to regard Michael Jackson’s staggering contribution to world culture.
At times I’ve considered offering a course at my university, where we’d look at the music and short films of MJ. I thought that each week, I’d have guest speakers from other departments, each of whom had expertise in a particular subject area that might illuminate the multiple facets of his life and work. The Music department would be there, of course—-but oftentimes nowadays, popular music gets discussed by cultural theorists, so I’d have to invite people from Cultural Studies and American Studies. For a more technical/aesthetic approach to dance, of course I’d get someone from Theater and Dance.
And… how could I possibly leave out Africana Studies? Hugely important. Why, for that matter, what about English, or Philosophy? Anyone with expertise in those areas, who had even a passing interest in Michael Jackson, could bring a lot to the table. Then there’s sociology, and history—-we’d need a background in African American life and culture in the postwar US, say. Like Willa (who spoke here with Dr. Sylvia J. Martin), I’d like to invite an anthropologist—maybe Sylvia Martin herself, who could discuss the concept of an “icon,” and what we might mean when we say Michael is an “icon.”
On the more pragmatic consideration of his life, we could definitely use a legal perspective—-so I’d invite someone from the School of Law, to discus some of the ins and outs of the 1993 and 2005 cases. Then there’s Family Studies; some consideration of both Michael’s family or origin, and his own family with his children would be in order. Of course, someone from the School of Medicine could tell us a great deal about lupus, vitiligo…..
And on and on and on…. you see where this is going. Of COURSE people are going to “glom.” They’re going to have theories, too, of course—whether they’re trying to “sell” them is another matter (there’s not too much percentage in abstract intellectual labor.)
Re James Baldwin, and the oft-quoted text from his essay “Freaks and the Ideal of American Manhood” (later republished as “Here Be Dragons”): most people who cite this piece will only include the first part of it, about the “cacophony,” and about America as ” the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth.” Strange as it may seem, that part of it seems relatively uncontroversial—-from an antiracist perspective.
But when he gets to the part about androgyny, we see the connection he’s drawing with the overarching theme of the essay on the whole, since much of it actually dealt with an early part of his youth when he had sexual relationships with both men and women. (That’s why the concept of the “ideal of manhood” is in the title.)
Again, thanks for your answer to my post, VC. I’m glad you’re participating.
Nina Fonoroff, you say that you would like to create a course with guest speakers from many different disciplines turning their expertise to the subject of Michael Jackson. May I make a modest suggestion? Start from the other end – try to find knowledgeable, even obsessed, fans of Michael’s who are also experts in those fields. Otherwise the learning curve is too steep – for example, a legal expert whose view of the Arvizo case is based only on reports from the mainstream media will have little of value to offer. Learning the in and outs of the case would take a tremendous amount of time unless you’ve been following it closely from the beginning, as many fans have done.
To this day, many people, from various disciplines, refuse to believe the medical examiner’s report that confirmed his vitiligo, and are convinced that Michael was a self-hating black man who deliberately bleached his skin. (Perhaps she’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the impression that Harriet Manning is in this camp.) So many lies have been promulgated about Michael, from so-called reliable sources, there are likely many ‘experts’ who actually believe he didn’t have a nose, or even functioning testicles.
I have a confession to make, VC: I am an “obsessed fan.” And so, I believe, (though I don’t want to put words in their mouth), are Willa Stillwater and Joie Collins (or else they would not have this blog, no?), Lisha McDuff, and Harriet Manning—whose book I have read from cover to cover.
There’s actually a serious error that frequently find among MJ fans who post on online forums (I’d even call it an error of “bad faith”). And it’s one reason why, much as I like the idea of giving fans and their knowledge a voice, I would distinctly NOT wish to rely on their “expertise.”
Time and again, my jaw has dropped as I’ve read posts by fans—-seemingly astute, articulate, knowledgeable people—-who have somehow, in some way (I’m not quite sure how) allowed their emotions to completely DOMINATE their readings of the texts that have been written by academic and cultural critics and others. By bringing the full force of their prior assumptions to their experience of reading, they set up an impermeable membrane where no new knowledge (at least, no knowledge that doesn’t corroborate their existing frameworks of “truth” about Michael) can penetrate. Nothing in…. nothing out. I don’t think I exaggerate here; what I say has come out of four solid years of participation in an online forum where just about everything has been discussed and debated.
My own frustration grows out of the sense that these fans often cannot, or will not, approach a text with the kind of generosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to bear with an author (as a gesture of good faith) that would be really necessary for anyone who’s interested in exploring multiple dimensions of a situation or argument, and learning anothers’ perspective.
I don’t believe human beings can ever attain “objectivity.” We stand grounded on this earth as embodied subjects, not transcendental or omniscient intelligences; therefore, we all have a point of view, quite literally, a STANDPOINT that guides our assumptions, and from which aspect we view the world. One thing that many academically-inclined people have learned to do, however, is to interrogate themselves and their standpoints, first and foremost: to leave no stone unturned in the process of making sure that their theories are sound, and will withstand pressure from multiple, opposing points of view.
This is the kind of legwork people on this blog, and elsewhere, have been doing. It’s the kind of exacting process that goes into researching and writing an article, or a book on any subject. It can be rigorous and painful, as one discovers that the evidence doesn’t bear out much of what thought at first; or that others’ claims to authority and “truth” might matter just as much as your own.
Hi Nina –
You wrote —
“Time and again, my jaw has dropped as I’ve read posts by fans—-seemingly astute, articulate, knowledgeable people—-who have somehow, in some way (I’m not quite sure how) allowed their emotions to completely DOMINATE their readings of the texts that have been written by academic and cultural critics and others…. fans whose emotional investment in “vindicating” Michael Jackson won’t allow them to actually READ texts in a reasonably engaged way…”
But, Nina, what texts can anyone trust about Michael Jackson, given the amount of garbage written about him, even by such great public intellectuals as Bernard-Henri Levy who wrote the following piece, entitled “Three Stations of the Cross,” shortly after Michael Jackson’s death, which was published in the Huffington Post.
“First station of the cross: things. The holy horror of things. An entire apparatus of masks, breastplates, umbrellas, nomadic objects, an entire bubble at once suffocating and over-oxygenated, cloistered and overexposed, operating like a greenhouse and preserving him from the great contamination of things. Not only, as has been said, was it viruses, germs, and bacteria. But life itself as a germ. The living as a bacterium. Matter, objects, and the very air he breathed as soon as he ventured beyond his dear Neverland became a source of infection, pestilence, a macabre obsession — a school for cadavers. The dandies were like that. I mean the great dandies. The founders of the tradition. Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. Beau Brummel. Wilde and his Dorian Gray. Red heels to dance on top of a world of vapors and humors. Makeup and artifices to escape the De Profudis of a definitively parasitic abyss. Not to mention Baudelaire who based the principle of his aesthetic, his ethics, and his politics on his disgust with nature and its monstrous proliferations. Michael Jackson was their heir. Michael Jackson, with his vinyl, latex, his mausoleum of a house, his prophylactic terrors and also of course his entrechats of a dance genius, besieged by light on every side, was the last of these great dandies. Add the morbid care that he apparently gave to his body. The hyperbaric chamber where he tirelessly prepared himself for some kind of funereal ritual. He didn’t die from a drug overdose; he died because of his desire not only to invent a vaccine against life, but also to want to inoculate himself with it.
“Second station: others. Others, truly. No longer things, but humans. Their contact. Their malignant and repugnant proximity. The very presence of others, of their odor, their instantly searching gaze, experienced as an offense, a threat, the source and cause of all violence — and from which he was only protected by the smoked lenses of his glasses. Hell? Yes, hell. A Sartrean Jackson this time. Or even a Cathar. A Jackson not the least of whose paradoxes was the moment he wrote “We Are the World,” the moment where, in other words, he popularizes what must be called the contemporary humanitarian while viewing humanity as a fiasco, men as cankers and their company as a necessary evil, an obligatory compromise, a degrading accommodation that an artist can only begrudgingly make. This reincarnation of Peter Pan sincerely thought, for example, that children were made without anyone touching. This incomplete adult feeds the mad dream — and, in a certain way, fulfilled it — of having his own sons without contact, and almost without a mother. This misanthrope, this mutant, was one of the last modern humans to believe — and to live — the ancient theorems of the inconvenience of being born. Generation, corruption… Desire without concupiscence… Which, at the very least, shows the absurdity of the witch trials conducted against him the last ten years of his life which were like an endless persecution. Michael Jackson did not want to be a child; he wanted to be a saint. Or an angel. And angels, as we know, don’t have a sex. Or only have one in the imagination of the perverted who project onto them their own fantasies.
“And finally: himself. His own body and his own face, seen as even greater threats, sites of every danger, the intimate yet merciless enemy that would take a lifetime to subdue or annihilate. There again the singular adventure of Michael Jackson is misread; the mad metamorphosis that he impressed on his face and the repeated plastic surgeries that he inflicted on himself over the course of his life are utterly misunderstood if reduced to a matter of pigmentology — race, anti-race, self-hate, malaise, unease in his own skin, this reason or that. Look at his photos. Look at this epidermis essentially becoming whiter and whiter, almost like living limestone. Notice this nose reduced to almost nothing, these lips eaten away from the inside, these narrowed cheekbones like those of a Jivaro mask or a Giacometti rendering. Look closely at these dwindled features, this shrinking skin, these eyes that only seem to sit in his skull like a ring on a skeleton’s finger. Consider this reduction — a philosopher would say this epochè — of a face reduced to its simplest inexpression, having become its own double. Isn’t the face the very signature of the human? Its truth? The way that it exhibits and expresses itself? The sign of everyone’s singularity, of their priceless uniqueness? Of course. It is always that, a face. And that’s why this third chapter, this way of torturing, mortifying, profaning, and ultimately of erasing his own face should be read as the last station of a long and terrible Calvary. Because, having reached that stage, when you have decided to escape the reign of things, and to leave the ranks of humans, and then to become a human without a face, you don’t really have too many choices left. Either you reinvent what is considered human, become truly trans-human, and create a genetically modified organism, a GMO. Or you die.
I rest my case.
“I rest my case.” But if you are basing your criticism of an entire body of writing on this one article, Eleanor, I don’t think you’ve made much of a case at all.
I read this article by Bernard Henri-Levy awhile ago, probably when it first appeared. Of course there’s a lot in it that’s problematic, given what we know about Michael Jackson’s general character, demeanor, and taste. And sure, it’s fanciful (though perhaps no more so than the notion—which I’ve heard expressed by a number of devotees—-that Michael was sent from on high to set into motion a spiritual transformation that will save the world….)
Anyway, there were a few aspects of Henri-Levy’s speculative piece that I appreciated. For many years, I’d been doing research on dandyism; and I still enjoy thinking of Michael as, indeed, as part of the lineage of the great dandies—as described by Barbey d’Aureyvilly and Oscar Wilde (through his famous fictional character, Dorian Gray). True, Michael lacks the specific qualities of misanthropy and extreme self-innoculation that Henry-Levy, functioning as mythographer, describes here. Still, I find a few things that resonate in his piece: Michael’s love of artifice, for example (a major characteristic of the dandy), and even a vision of himself as saintly.
I’ve collected and read (probably) the better part of what has ever been published in English about Michael Jackson. I consider all of this material a part of an enormous panorama, almost like a gigantic mural, or scroll, depicting a specific moment in history. The full panoply of what has been written—the garbage as well as the gems—-becomes, on this scale of viewing, part of a longer work-in-progress in the shaping of Michael’s afterlife.
I know there’s a felt need to debunk Myth # 6,357, and to combat Lie # 86,492 that have circulated around Michael (a need I don’t happen to share). But more to the point: I wonder, why must it always fall to women to clean up the sh*t others have left behind? Wouldn’t our critical and creative energies be put to more effective use if we were to combat existing myths by superseding them? So: let’s invent and disseminate another myth!
In my opinion, we need more poetry, testimonials, personal essays, speculative fiction, philosophical digressions, picaresque stories, fables, allegorical tales that draw vibrant connections between Michael and characters from literature, history, and the visual arts. And we need, especially, analysis that speaks to his music, his dance, and his massive contribution to the global culture in the late 20th century and beyond.
So in view of this, just who is Adrian McManus is to us? Why would we be drawn to care that much about her? Or about Jordie Chandler, or Gavin Arvizo, and the whole abject cast of characters, for that matter? Why would we want to enshrine these people in memory?
VC, many fans’, and yours, reasoning appears to go like so, regarding this issue about Michael’s changing appearance, according to whether you perceive someone as a “friend” or “enemy”:
1. He had vitiligo and lupus, and these conditions, which he could not help, are ENTIRELY responsible for his changed appearance.
2. He was a “self-hating black man” who “bleached” his skin and had elective cosmetic surgery.
I mean, are these really the ONLY two possible readings of the situation? Haven’t Willa, Harriet, and the other contributors here stressed more nuanced and complex views of many of the factors that may have contributed to the public perception? If some writers have put forward the idea that at least some of his surgeries may have been elective, done for the purpose of artistic expression (say), or in an attempt to maintain a youthful appearance, does it NECESSARILY follow that they’re calling Michael a “self-hating black man”? I mean, REALLY? If this is what you automatically assume, might it be the result of your own anxieties?
Just what kind of arms-folded-over-chest posture does it take, VC, to imagine, based on this blog entry alone (if even that)—that Harriet Manning believes that Michael Jackson was a “self-hating black man”? What kind of dogged defensiveness produces this kind of reduced, flattened reading?
Do you believe that Harriet, Willa, or Joie, or Lisha have assented to this this canard about the “self-hating black man”? Are you so determined to find “haters” under the bed (so to speak), that you can’t be bothered reading a blog entry in its entirety, for its relevant content?
I wonder whether you have read the arguments in this very post, or simply skimmed them, looking for (and finding!) evidence of malingering anti-Michael sentiment, punishable by—-what? A long spell of exile in the Gulag?
Pardon me for sounding cantankerous here; but I’ve about had it, had it up to my eyebrows—and beyond!!—-with all the policing and censoriousness that has all too often surrounded many LEGITIMATE (and LOVING!!) inquiries about the many fascinating dimensions of Michael Jackson’s creative life. I find it stifling and counterproductive.
When those fans whose emotional investment in “vindicating” Michael Jackson won’t allow them to actually READ texts in a reasonably engaged way; when it suffices for them to merely SKIM articles in search of a few superficial cues as to where the author is coming from (“hater!” “fan!”); and when they then conclude, once and for all, that a writer’s motives must be corrupt and damaging to his legacy—indeed, “marching in lockstep with the tabloids,” as more than one person has put it!!—then it’s no wonder that, in my judgment, these are not the most relilable people to consult when serious research is called for.
Your reaction to my suggestion reflects such a misunderstanding of my post, I must assume that I have failed utterly in making my point. In reading and re-reading your post, I think I’ve discovered the crux of our disagreement: You write, “Anyone with expertise in those areas, who had even a passing interest in Michael Jackson, could bring a lot to the table.” I believe that a mere “passing interest” does not qualify anyone to render an opinion, and that the proliferation of material by those who are not familiar with his music or his life actually does harm.
For me, the question is not whether it was illness or the desire to reshape his looks as a work of art that led to his nose jobs. It’s whether Michael Jackson had a nose at all. A scholar from another discipline, with a passing interest but no real knowledge, could plausibly believe that he didn’t, because an acclaimed, experienced journalist recently published a book stating just that, despite the medical examiner’s report to the contrary.
Mark Anthony Neal includes Taraborrelli’s book in the reading list for his course on Michael, even though it has a lot of questionable material. But again, someone with a mere passing interest could be forgiven for relying upon it – Willa did, and she has an devoted interest in Michael.
There are “obsessed” fans who possess the knowledge, and the intellectual objectivity, to lecture on aspects of Michael’s life. By your own word, you are one such person. Surely there are others. Speaking of fandom, I’m sure she can speak for herself, but while Ms. Manning may like Michael Jackson’s music, I would not call her a fan. Her book, not her posts here, in MY opinion, gives the impression that she finds him weird, rather distasteful, and possibly guilty of the accusations against him.
Nina, Michael loved his fans and made many statement to that effect. Sure, some fans say things that can be disagreed with but to lambast the majority of MJ fans seems contrary to what MJ said. For example: “The fans know me and they know my heart. They have giant pictures of babies and bring big cutouts of children holding hands and they bring kids and they know I love them. And they have given me awards and things, acknowledging me as a person other than a celebrity and how they care about issues with kids and stuff like that. Oh boy. One day people will get it. They’ll understand. I think it is the way God wants us to be.”
Fans have done a great deal to further MJ’s stated humanitarian goals, so it would be nice to acknowledge that.
Thanks to everyone for this discussion.
I think we are all far more in agreement than disagreement and it is a privilege and a joy to participate in these discussions. I hope they help us all grow in our understanding and appreciation of Michael Jackson and the greatness of his work. I know they have helped me.
Yes many thanks everyone. I am afraid that it got far too academic for me but I enjoyed everyone’s comments and points of view, even if I didn’t always understand them, or knew who the heck you were talking about not being an American myself.
I am always amazed by the discussions, and the depths of them, that Michael can stir up on this blog. Personally I am much more interested in his spiritual/humanitarian side, but am always ready to learn more, and this blog certainly is an education!!
Thank you all once again
Eleanor, thank you for reminding me that Levy is, to use a French term, the pretentious douche who vigorously defended Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “Public intellectual”? Hardly. Just an apologist for white male privilege.
Right, VC. A real hero. The tradition of privileged egotistical white male intellectuals lives on. I have a book I picked up many years ago called “The Priapic Quest” by James Wyly. It is about the god Priapus and contains a number of photographs of Roman statues and pictures of the god with a hugely inflated penis, which he is truly having trouble carting around. That’s how I envision these old white male intellectuals (mostly dead white males) — with their tremendously inflated egos. Michael Jackson punctured the balloon of white male phallic inflation — intellectual and sexual — and they can never forgive him for it. A la Baldwin, their critique has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the challenge he and his art and its global appeal represented to their worldview and value system.
Their whole perspective is tainted by their elevated view of (a male) humanity in relationship to nature (they exist outside of it, but want to control it; what a shock death must be!) and maleness in relationship to femaleness (men are mind; women are body — bodies they came out of and are spending the rest of their lives trying to both separate themselves from and get back into.) Ugh.
Correction. I checked the book title and it is “The Phallic Quest.” Anyway, fascinating book.
Yes, Nina, I have also “heard expressed by a number of devotees—-that Michael was sent from on high to set into motion a spiritual transformation that will save the world….”
Well, this opinion is at least grounded in Michael’s own stated concerns for the world — nature and its inhabitants. He wanted to heal he world, he saw the necessity of change, and he saw himself as an agent of change.
I, myself, believe that through his embodied performances he is inviting us to climb back in our bodies and mentally reposition ourselves within nature. As long as we continue to identify ourselves with mind rather than body and image ourselves as outside of nature, when we obviously inhabit it, as long as we continue to deny the destructive impact we have on nature and on ourselves, as long as we continue to delude ourselves, there is little hope of change.
As I believe stephenson noted in an earlier comment, the plight of the natural world and of humans within it was on Michael’s mind the last day of his life. Although I respect the time and effort you have put into gathering information on and images of Michael Jackson (and thank you so much for sharing, I have really enjoyed the images especially), I think the most informative text we have is Michael himself, his music, his art, and his own words.
“I think the most informative text we have is Michael himself, his music, his art, and his own words.” Amen to that, Eleanor!
I have previously mentioned Oren Lyons, an indigenous elder, a number of times, so I would like to share his words that reflect on human arrogance vis a vis nature and our relationship with nature and that IMO are closely connected to MJ’s messages. He points out our responsibilities to nature and so did Michael, esp. in Earth Song. (for ex, “What about nature’s worth? It’s our planet’s womb”). One of Oren’s key messages is “Value Change for Survival” and that was Michael’s view too (Make that change). (MJ’s use of indigenous dancers in Black or White is an example of his friendship and support for indigenous peoples.) I was fortunate to hear Oren speak last summer.
Willa, I am going to reply here b/c it doesn’t seem to work if I try and reply directly to your post re never escaping culture. I should probably think about this more before replying but it seems to me that this is essentially the same as saying we will never know what it’s like to live without breathing oxygen. In other words, to say that we can never get outside of ‘culture” (and this term needs to be defined IMO) doesn’t take us anywhere. Of course, our perceptions mediate our understanding (our sensory impressions and how we interpret them). But to say we can’t therefore understand the world in some ways that are better or more true than others, doesn’t follow. Some explanations are simply more accurate than others in terms of the data or information.
The other problem here is that this view is not falsifiable, meaning it can’t be falsified, or proven wrong, and therefore it is not scientific. It has become fact (like breathing oxygen) and is no longer an interpretation.
“My point is that we can never step outside of human culture and see the world “objectively” – and maybe we don’t want to. But we do need to question how culture shapes our perceptions and beliefs – maybe in destructive ways – and consider how we might conceptualize things in different ways.”
I agree that we can’t step outside of culture, that is, I don’t believe a human can function without a culture of one kind or another. And, I think it is essential that we become conscious of how our culture shapes our views and values. And, if these views and values seem false to us, then we must step out of the culture we were born into, by constructing an alternative set of views and values. If its constructions of reality are so out of synch with reality as we are experiencing it that it is sending our society to its doom, we must try to construct a new culture based on a new set of views and values which serves the interests of survival.
E.g., a large segment of our society, based on the cultural construction that humans exist outside of nature, continue to deny human-caused climate change. But, other members of society, experiencing the ravages of climate change first hand, and understanding the principle of cause and effect, can no longer let the construction that we exist outside of nature blind them to the reality of the fact that we exist squarely within nature. So, they are reconstructing their perception of reality to reflect their experience.
“We project human emotions onto animals, especially mammals, but even catfish and ladybugs and one-celled organisms. We imbue the natural world with our thoughts and emotions.”
Well, there is another way of looking at this. We can view ourselves as just another animal species and accept the fact that both human and non-human animals share certain emotions, like love, grief, shame, loyalty, loneliness, etc. Based on my own experience with non-human animals and watching a lot of Nature programs on PBS, this is how I think about non-human animals. Believing that non-human animals don’t have emotions, don’t feel love or grief or emotional pain, we feel no empathy. it allows us to industrialize the production of meat, etc.
Which is not to say that we don’t live in different worlds. Although the chickens, the geese, the horses, the dogs, the cats, and I all occupy the same farm, each species lives in its own world, each species senses that same physical reality differently. And, my world is only one among many.
Nina Fonoroff, I don’t think that Eleanor was criticizing “an entire body of writing” when she cited Bernard Henri-Levy as an example of intellectual twaddle. She was illustrating that, when it comes to Michael Jackson, apparently even great “public intellectuals” get their ‘facts’ from the gossip rags, and are no more erudite than Wal-Mart shoppers perusing the National Enquirer at the checkout stand. But the Wal-Mart shopper doesn’t get to disseminate his or her ‘deep thoughts’ in the media. The real story here is the complete collapse of journalism as an ethical profession. Some believe it started when the New York Times quoted the NE in its coverage of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. Now all major media outlets run stories that are “according to TMZ”, and fail to do even cursory fact checking. Breaking the news of Michael’s death put TMZ on the map. TMZ operates with a modicum of responsibility, but the Sunday Mirror and similar UK rags do not, and now they get quoted, too.
Who or what is Adrian McManus, and why should anyone care? Ms. McManus is one of dozens of people who benefited directly from Michael Jackson, but had no hesitation in stealing from him and telling horrific lies about him for money. (There are so many it almost seems amusing – what on earth did Michael Jackson do to these people to cause them to hate him so? By all accounts, he was a very kind and generous man.)
McManus’ lies were memorialized in a widely-read book. She’s “enshrined” whether we like it or not. While you may feel that her lies and those of others ultimately do not matter, they shape the narrative on Michael Jackson – unless someone makes it a priority to fight them. For years, because of lies, Michael’s music was not played. The concerted effort to grind him into the dust continues relentlessly, five years after his death. Most of those involved appear to have mental health issues, and there are also racists among them. But they never rest.
I don’t know that the clean-up effort is left just to women. Joe Vogel has worked tirelessly to remind the public that Michael Jackson was actually a gifted musician and not the official butt of an unfunny joke. But if women take on this burden willingly, why does it matter?
VC, The cleanup job—the task of cleaning toilets—is done by those who see dirt everywhere, no matter how many other narratives may be unfolding simultaneously.
For one thing, I don’t agree that there is *currently* a concerted effort underway to “grind him into the dust, relentlessly,” because this is not what I see taking place. If anything, it seems to me his image has been in the process of swift rehabilitation, only five years after his death.
Sure, McManus and other unscrupulous characters shape ONE part of the narrative; but as far as I can make out, it’s the part that’s receiving less and less attention as the months and years go by. From what I can tell, it’s mostly fans who comment online, and the people who author dedicated MJ-related sites, who devote an inordinate amount of attention to clearing Michael’s name of…. a multitude of “sins.”
But when I view mainstream news sources, like CBS television (the iHeart Music Awards show) and other major media outlets, Michael Jackson is mainly treated as a revered figure, with nary a mention of all those past difficulties—-which are likely in the process of being set aside and forgotten by most viewers and the general audience.
As for Joe Vogel, he emphatically did NOT take on the task of cleaning toilets. In fact, with his book “Man in the Music,” he said his intention was to *get back to the music.* (As far as I know, he didn’t mention Adrian McManus in his text.) In his “Bad 25” documentary, Spike Lee took the same approach: “Let’s get back to the music, and leave all that other stuff behind.”
Spike Lee’s documentary was aired on ABC television at primetime on Thanksgiving night (not too shabby), and Joe Vogel’s book “Man in the Music” was one of only *three* books that were being sold in the special Michael Jackson gift shop, right off of the theater lobby where Cirque de Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE” show—-one of two currently-running MJ Cirque creations—-was playing. (The other two books were the “Opus” and “Moonwalk.”)
Michael Jackson is currently the highest-earning dead celebrity; a matter that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be of any great moment—-if it didn’t demonstrate that Michael’s name isn’t *thoroughly* tainted in the popular mind. His new song, “Love Never Felt So Good,” is being released in three versions, and was premiered to great fanfare on the “iHeart Radio Music Awards” a couple of nights ago, on CBS TV. Michael is the “toast of the town” once again.
The tabloids have moved on to fresher kill. If we want to put an end to this sort of yellow journalism *in toto*, there are actions we may collectively take that might address these issue. But it would have to extend beyond the story of Michael Jackson himself to address the deep structures of our corporate media system; who profits, who benefits, and who loses by it.
And any account of the decline of ethical practices in journalism must take into account the history of that profession. Lack of ethics in reporting goes way back before the Edward Kennedy Smith trial!! If you are serious about the reasons why the press covered Michael Jackson as they did (and are restless and curious enough to continue the inquiry past your immediate assumptions), then it would behoove you—all of us, really—to learn more about the history of tabloid journalism, scandal sheets, broadsides, penny dreadfuls, and so forth—-even going back to the town crier.
We may single out Michael Jackson as an especially vulnerable target, because he is a person we know from recent memory; but we should remember that there have been many, many public figures who, for one reason and another, were treated infamously by the media in their day. Perhaps we should look into those histories, and see if we can discover a pattern.
Nina, you are just plain wrong about the general public and MJ, and also that the tabloids have moved on. No. You have to read the comments sections, horrible as it is, to find out how many people still claim MJ was indeed guilty of child molestation, and said in crude ways, of course. Any article written that allows comments will invariably see remarks by many who are convinced MJ was guilty.
The tabs within the last year or so wrote headliners announcing that MJ ‘paid off’ 24 different boys and that this was all verified by the FBI!!! All totally false. Even more reputable publications published an article arguing that Thriller did not in fact sell 100 million. Randall Sullivan’s book, written in the last year or so, claimed that MJ was asexual, did not have sex with anyone ever, although Sullivan claimed that MJ might have molested Jordan (yes, it’s a contradiction but he had “doubts” about MJ’s innocence re Chandler claims). He also said MJ did not have a nose and other disparaging things like that on his many talk show appearance. Wade Robeson’s claims of being molested still are on th table fueling this, of course. There was a recent ITV show in the UK on the autopsy repeating the drug addict, no nose claims. Conrad Murray on his release went on Australian TV and refused to deny MJ was a child molester when asked. This has not died done and evaporated, although it may be lessening in force it is still very much part of MJ’s reputation. The degree to which it has lessened IMO is attributable mainly to the work of exoneration fans have done in blogs, books, writing letters, etc. Joe Vogel’s book/work is great and welcome, but not widely read by the general public.
You have to watch Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Story, an excellent PBS documentary (Frontline) about the way the tabs ‘got on’ this story–splashed it on the front pages–and dangled huge sums in front of ‘insiders’–in 1993. This was a feeding frenzy unknown before, although you are right that others had their reputation shredded (Charlie Chaplin for ex) but in 93 they went for the kill in ways unimaginable. It is a tribute to MJ’s popularity and strength that he was able to keep going, but the 2nd round and trial (Adrian was there testifying for the prosecution) was too much.
Finally, the fact that he is the best selling artist is good and due to the reaction of grief at his unexpected and devastating death, but the record/music industry figures are not what they were in the heyday of Thriller. Sales are generally down. The album Michael and Bad 25 did not do well in terms of sales. I don’t think it’s a relaible indicator that the allegations are behind us in their impact.
Good sources of info are the vindicatemj websites listed on this blog and a new site http://www.michaeljacksonallegations.com.
Stephenson, I’ll concede may be “just plain wrong” about a lot of things. So might you be; I don’t know.
But I do know one thing: you may bring forward a list of demeaning things that have been said fairly recently; and I might present a litany of “positive” news that, in my opinion, overrides the the general slant items you mention, and makes them pale by comparison. Our differing perceptions come out of a combination of our own wishes, hopes, and fears, and obviously reflect the ways we each turn our attention to a different set of phenomena.
In fact, even when we turn our gaze on the same “evidence,” we may come up with very different conclusions. I actually read Randall Sullivan’s book “Untouchable” from beginning to end (unlike, I gather, many fans who skewered the book and Sullivan himself based on hearsay, in an infantile flame war that appears in the amazon.com reviews):
I tend to share the view Michiko Kakutani’s wrote in a New York Times review: it’s a “bloated, thoroughly dispensable book.” Nonetheless, I don’t know how horrible it would be to contemplate Michael Jackson as “presexual” (the word Sullivan used), or having a prosthetic nose.
Nowhere does Sullivan say that Michael probably molested Jordan Chandler or anyone else; indeed, he exonerates him of all those charges (with that fraction of a percent of doubt many harbor). He declares that Michael probably “died a virgin.” By no means, though, are any of these “allegations” by Sullivan universally distasteful, or distasteful to the same degree. What I enjoyed about Sullivan’s book was his description of a rather halcyon period of time Michael and his kids spent in Ireland, and the testimonies of those who spent time with him there.
In any case, I can speak only for myself here: I’m really *not* concerned with what the “general public” thinks of Michael Jackson. I know what *I* think; and, given my reasons for being interested in him, that has to be enough for me. I’m not in this to proselytize or to convince the world of Michael’s innocence (and certainly not his “normalcy”!) I’m here to explore the myriad ways that Michael Jackson’s brief time on earth affected the lives of so many people, and to discover the seemingly infinite number of his points of contact with the wider world—the worlds of the past, the present, and….possibly—the future.
There was no “flame war” over the Randall Sullivan book on Amazon until one of Sullivan’s personal friends used the bully pulpit of the New York Times to start one. There were fans who read the entire book and posted their objections and corrections on a page by page basis, with no hysteria whatsoever. Those thoughtful reviews were pushed down by witless Times readers who hadn’t read the book, and had no interest in Michael Jackson, but were duped into thinking they were striking a blow for free speech by giving the book five stars.
But your post makes me wonder, when it comes to Michael Jackson, or any historical figure, does the truth, the nearest we can come to it, matter at all? While it may be Sullivan’s eccentric notion that Michael was “pre-sexual”, whether or not he actually had a nose is not an opinion – he either had one or he didn’t. This is not a trivial matter; a singer’s career would be greatly impacted by not having a nose. One would expect a biographer to devote considerable attention to such a disability, just as writers have examined the impact deafness had on Beethoven. As it happened, Michael had health and appearance issues that caused him great pain and impacted his career, but he did have a nose. (He also had fully-functioning genitalia, but the mostly white, mostly male obsession with trying to ‘prove’ that he didn’t is worth a book all by itself.)
Recently the remains of King Richard were found in England. One would expect that such a momentous discovery would have been met with great interest and joy. Instead, except for a dedicated few, the English seemed to care very little about it, probably because Shakespeare’s play had done such a brilliant hatchet job on Richard’s reputation. Sullivan is no Shakespeare, but even hack writers can have an effect on the commonly agreed upon lie we call history – look at all those kids over the years who believed that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree but confessed because “he could not tell a lie”?
Here is a good example of what Sullivan had to say in his many interviews. At the end of this clip he talks about the child molestation charges and how he has doubts. I read the book too.
I refer of course to Richard III. I inadvertently deleted his full title.
“As far as I know, Michael Jackson was much more of a straight arrow in his private life than Teddy Pendergrass or Eddie Murphy or the current sex scandal of the week. Yet Teddy Pendergrass promoted very conventional ideas of romance and sexuality in his stage performances, and Eddie Murphy has said Michael Jackson was “strange” and repeatedly ridiculed him as effeminate.”
In spite of his jokes, Eddie Murphy and Michel were good friends. EM stars in the short film for Remember the Time, and Michael is featured in the video for Eddie’s ill-starred attempt at pop music stardom. But like so many others, EM projects his issues onto Michael – the “scandal of the week” is the lawsuit filed against EM by a transgender woman who claims to have been his lover for eight years, since she was seventeen. This is not the first time EM has been involved with transgender sex workers, so of course he has to take swipes against Michael’s masculinity to deflect attention from his own issues.
John Landis seems to be genuinely grief stricken in that video. But he only worked with Michael on a couple of short term projects. He, like others, appears to be making remarks based on what he’s read or heard about from the biased media. Maybe he really did think of Michael as a gifted child, but that “child” hired him. That “child” was his boss. Landis’ career has not flourished in the last few years. He may have been trying to bolster his own ego by belittling Michael. At any rate, he must live with the reality that whatever Michael’s “issues”, he didn’t kill anyone. Landis was responsible for the deaths of Vic Morrow and two small children during the making of the Twilight Zone movie. So, by all means, let’s throw stones at Michael Jackson.
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