‘Fun Home’ and Pride

—Amber Jamilla Musser

MotheralOn June 7th, 2015, the musical Fun Home emerged triumphant. It won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The significance of these wins cannot be overstated. A musical based on a graphic memoir featuring a lesbian, her gay father, and the rest of the family has been thrust into the purview of mainstream America—and really, who can resist having ALL of the feelings when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys?” Moreover, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have made history as the first women to win a Tony for best songwriting team.

It is clear that Fun Home gives people many reasons to be proud, especially in a month when we traditionally celebrate LGBT pride. One of the things that I find most moving about the musical (and the original graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) is the way it actually subverts traditional narratives of pride and shame based on particular understandings of identity and masochism.

One of the conventional understandings of Pride is that it exists to celebrate triumph over homophobia and prejudice against LGBT people. That this narrative privileges a particular form of progress and has been easier for particular segments of the LGBT population is something that has been written about extensively by other queer studies scholars. In this post, I’m more interested in mentioning the ways that this conventional version of identity politics shores up a particular vision of masochism. One of the main arguments in my book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is that the framework that we’ve been using to understand the relationship between individuals and power is masochism. In the book that means various things, but in the context of Pride, it has meant reveling in the wounds that produce LGBT identity—triumph would not be possible if there were no obstacle to overcome and the more wounds that are available, the more visible the triumph and the more celebrated the identity/person.

While I am not the first to describe this relationship between identity, woundedness, and masochism, I argue that this narrative frames our understanding of what it is to be an individual so that those with the privilege of appearing wounded are able to do because they are already part of an assumed arc of redemption and celebration while those whose wounds are less affective and more structural in terms of access to resources cannot access this arc in the same way (see last year’s post on Kara Walker as an example).

On the surface, it would appear as though Fun Home could fall easily into this particular trope, but it smartly sidesteps the arc of progress. In her retrospective gaze at her family life and its relationship to her father’s gayness, Alison (the oldest version of the character that we see) doesn’t pity her father or frame his suicide as the effect of a bygone prejudice that she has been fortunate to avoid. The question is not what would have happened to Bruce Bechdel had he lived in an era when he could live freely as a gay man. Neither is the focus on Alison’s ability to come out as a college student and live as a butch because things are better now. The universe of the musical understands these characters as inhabiting different modes of queerness, but it doesn’t ask us to do a comparison (despite the fact that Bruce commits suicide, which would seem to be the ultimate masochistic act).

Instead, the character whose life we imagine might have been different is Bechdel’s mother, Helen, played achingly by Judy Kuhn, whose song near the end of the show, “Days and Days” is a tearjerker —not because she is self-pitying but because she is resigned. This is structural difference at work. She knows that her suffering does not connect to later progress or triumph, but it does not diminish her work or her pain.

Where does this lacuna of feeling lie in a world structured by suffering or triumph, a world where the individual is a masochist in order to receive redemption through pity? Throughout the musical, we see so many moments when the semi-closeted world that Bruce inhabits that his daughter so desperately wants to remember and connect to, is not uniformly sad; there is fun—a dance with a casket, a furtive sighting of a kindred spirit (the butch that Lucas sings so movingly about). In all, it is not a play about moving through masochism to find identity, but about recognizing the many different notes being played at the same time. The arc of identity need not be neat or masochistic (so as to end in triumph), but it makes one feel, and gives reason for finding different narratives of individuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014).

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.

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The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).

Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

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In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Ferguson, race, and the disability politics of the teen brain

In an article published on Somatosphere this week, author Julie Passanante Elman discusses race, disability, and the volatile teen brain. Read an excerpt from the essay below—and be sure check out more from the website’s series, Inhabitable Worlds. 

In February 2014, University of Missouri students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

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Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice.

Continue reading on Somatosphere.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Why has TV storytelling become so complex?

—Jason Mittell

[This post originally appeared at The Conversation.]

If you watch the season finale of The Walking Dead this Sunday, the story will likely evoke events from previous episodes, while making references to an array of minor and major characters. Such storytelling devices belie the show’s simplistic scenario of zombie survival, but are consistent with a major trend in television narrative.

Prime time television’s storytelling palette is broader than ever before, and today, a serialized show like The Walking Dead is more the norm than the exception. We can see the heavy use of serialization in other dramas (The Good Wife and Fargo) and comedies (Girls and New Girl). And some series have used self-conscious narrative devices like dual time frames (True Detective), voice-over narration (Jane the Virgin) and direct address of the viewer (House of Cards). Meanwhile, shows like Louie blur the line between fantasy and reality.

 

Many have praised contemporary television using cross-media accolades like “novelistic” or “cinematic.” But I believe we should recognize the medium’s aesthetic accomplishments on its own terms. For this reason, the name I’ve given to this shift in television storytelling is “complex TV.”

There are a wealth of facets to explore about such developments (enough to fill a book), but there’s one core question that seems to go unasked: “why has American television suddenly embraced complex storytelling in recent years?”

To answer, we need to consider major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.

A business model transformed

We can quibble about the precise chronology, but programs that were exceptionally innovative in their storytelling in the 1990s (Seinfeld, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appear more in line with narrative norms of the 2000s. And many of their innovations – season-long narrative arcs or single episodes that feature markedly unusual storytelling devices – seem almost formulaic today.

What changed to allow this rapid shift to happen?

As with all facets of American television, the economic goals of the industry is a primary motivation for all programming decisions.

For most of their existence, television networks sought to reach the broadest possible audiences. Typically, this meant pursuing a strategy of mass appeal featuring what some derisively call “least objectionable programming.” To appeal to as many viewers as possible, these shows avoided controversial content or confusing structures.

But with the advent of cable television channels in the 1980s and 1990s, audiences became more diffuse. Suddenly, it was more feasible to craft a successful program by appealing to a smaller, more demographically uniform subset of viewers – a trend that accelerated into the 2000s.

In one telling example, FOX’s 1996 series Profit, which possessed many of contemporary television’s narrative complexities, was quickly canceled after four episodes for weak ratings (roughly 5.3 million households). These numbers placed it 83rd among 87 prime time series.

Yet today, such ratings would likely rank the show in the top 20 most-watched broadcast programs in a given week.

This era of complex television has benefited not only from more niche audiences, but also from the emergence of channels beyond the traditional broadcast networks. Certainly HBO’s growth into an original programming powerhouse is a crucial catalyst, with landmarks such as The Sopranos and The Wire.

But other cable channels have followed suit, crafting original programming that wouldn’t fly on the traditional “Big Four” networks of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.

A well-made, narratively-complex series can be used to rebrand a channel as a more prestigious, desirable destination. The Shield and It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia transformed FX into a channel known for nuanced drama and comedy. Mad Men and Breaking Bad similarly bolstered AMC’s reputation.

The success of these networks has led upstart viewing services like Netflix and Amazon to champion complex, original content of their own – while charging a subscription fee.

The effect of this shift has been to make complex television a desirable business strategy. It’s no longer the risky proposition it was for most of the 20th century.

Miss something? Hit rewind

Technological changes have also played an important role.

Many new series reduce the internal storytelling redundancy typical of traditional television programs (where dialogue was regularly employed to remind viewers what had previously occurred).

Instead, these series subtly refer to previous episodes, insert more characters without worrying about confusing viewers, and present long-simmering mysteries and enigmas that span multiple seasons. Think of examples such as Lost, Arrested Development and Game of Thrones. Such series embrace complexity to an extent that they almost require multiple viewings simply to be understood.

In the 20th century, rewatching a program meant either relying on almost random reruns or being savvy enough to tape the show on your VCR. But viewing technologies such as DVR, on-demand services like HBO GO, and DVD box sets have given producers more leeway to fashion programs that benefit from sequential viewing and planned rewatching.

Serialized novels, like Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, were commonplace in the 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Like 19th century serial literature, 21st century serial television releases its episodes in separate installments. Then, at the end of a season or series, it “binds” them together into larger units via physical boxed sets, or makes them viewable in their entirety through virtual, on-demand streaming. Both encourage binge watching.

Giving viewers the technology to easily watch and rewatch a series at their own pace has freed television storytellers to craft complex narratives that are not dependent on being understood by erratic or distracted viewers. Today’s television assumes that viewers can pay close attention because the technology allows them to easily do so.

Forensic fandom

Shifts in both technology and industry practices point toward the third major factor leading to the rise in complex television: the growth of online communities of fans.

Today there are a number of robust platforms for television viewers to congregate and discuss their favorite series. This could mean partaking in vibrant discussions on general forums on Reddit or contributing to dedicated, program-specific wikis.

As shows craft ongoing mysteries, convoluted chronologies or elaborate webs of references, viewers embrace practices that I’ve termed “forensic fandom.” Working as a virtual team, dedicated fans embrace the complexities of the narrative – where not all answers are explicit – and seek to decode a program’s mysteries, analyze its story arc and make predictions.

The presence of such discussion and documentation allows producers to stretch their storytelling complexity even further. They can assume that confused viewers can always reference the web to bolster their understanding.

Other factors certainly matter. For example, the creative contributions of innovative writer-producers like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams and David Simon have harnessed their unique visions to craft wildly popular shows. But without the contextual shifts that I’ve described, such innovations would have likely been relegated to the trash bin, joining older series like Profit, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life in the “brilliant but canceled” category.

Furthermore, the success of complex television has led to shifts in how the medium conceptualizes characters, embraces melodrama, re-frames authorship and engages with other media. But those are all broader topics for another chapter – or, as television frequently promises, to be continued.

Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), and co-editor of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013).

An interview with Tom Shakespeare: Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, through the lens of disability studies

Sociologist Tom Shakespeare of the University of Norwich Medical School recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3, with the first radio essay in the series focusing on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.

In the interview below, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”

How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?

Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.

I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”

I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.

Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.

[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.

As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?

The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.

What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.

I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collectionsTinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.

I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.

Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.

The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.

It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?

It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.

He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.

I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.

What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.

Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.

If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.

You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.

Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.

He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.

We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.

How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.

Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.

On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?

I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.

If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.

For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.

We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.

I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.

And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.

You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?

“What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.

What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?

I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.

[This interview was originally posted on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.]

Maddening pleasures, subsequent silence

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

March Madness is just kicking off, and ESPN has already predicted that this year’s tournament will see over $9 billion in bets and gambling.

MarchMadness-confettiFrom offices to college campuses, March Madness continues to attract more and more constituencies in ways that other sporting events, even the Super Bowl, cannot. This time in March and April is often marked by explicit displays of collegiate allegiances and intense and passionate rivalries within the institution of higher learning, a kind of ‘madness’ that is unmatched in any collegiate setting across the globe.

Yet, there is something very particularly American about this event. This is very much a United States phenomenon. In many ways, March Madness tells us about ourselves, and the values we interject into collegiate sports, and March Madness, in particular. It is this matter of values—and how sport reflects us, as an American society—that I am interested in. Specifically, I want to focus on student-athletes in two respects: the male basketball collegiate players and the women’s NCAA tournament.

While March Madness is a time to celebrate alma maters, there is a way in which the iconicity of the athletes, the power and recognition of coaches, and the transcendental nature of sport intersect to create quite a venomous concoction. American studies scholar, Nicole Fleetwood, in her elegant and sophisticated analysis of the visual plane of black iconicity in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, asks that we critically evaluate how iconicity and icons fail to address either the messiness of social life or its major contradictions. Likewise, the iconicity of coaches, such as Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, along with number of collegiate players, hides significant problems within the realm of sport. In the midst of sheer athletic movements, creative plays, intense and intimate camaraderie, and shows of sportsmanship, many other questions and points will remain, at best, minimally discussed and, at worst, completely brushed over.

With so much of the focus on the athleticism of the young men in the men’s national basketball tournament, there is little time to reflect on their lives outside of sport and in classes, in the collegiate physical environment, and in the larger social landscape. As I have taught in big and small institutions of higher learning, in Division I and Division III schools, and I have myself played and coached at the collegiate level, I recognize that the student-athlete has become a source of capital in ways that the “student” is extracted from the “athlete.” The hyphen connecting and demanding a peaceful, synchronized, holistic existence does not exist in present-day sport. Rather, our collegiate (as well as other forms of amateur) sports are a mere show in ideals, but the reality is much more troublesome. “Student” is often treated as an adjective to athlete. With that, as the games proceed through March Madness, I ask this first question: What are ways to create a fantastic learning experience for student-athletes? What type of support is there and where is the support for the student-athlete? The athlete has become the pariah within the realm of students, as if his/her natural place is often assumed to be only on the court, the field, the pool, or the mat. My encounters with student-athletes have shown the precarity of their lives and various forms of alienation within institutions of higher learning.

There has been a trend to let out a big sigh of frustration upon hearing of a student-athlete in one’s class, especially if he is a basketball or football player (read as African American). Although instructors might take great joy in the feats of the athletes on the playing field, the same type of energy does not surface in the face-to-face interactions with student-athletes. As a result, some student-athletes that I have met expressed their alienation in the class setting. They felt like disregarded, like scrap metal. Especially for working-class African American student-athletes, as I discuss in my book, there was the everyday experience and dilemma of already being overdetermined as athletes and sporting bodies. Scott Brooks, in Black Men Can’t Shoot, and Rueben May, in Living through the Hoop, attest to the difficulties of poor young black basketball players. This over-determination meant that their excessive bodies were seen as lacking mind and other key elements of the academic experience.

In the place of this crevice within the college experience for athletes are academic counselors, advisors, and tutors. This seems like a good substitute. However, would anyone substitute John Calipari with a non-sport professional who does not have any of the training, experience, and strong basketball pedigree? Why then would it be okay to insert advisors and tutors who do not have the training and expertise as the professors teaching the courses? The providing of such tutors, counselors, and advisors is important, but it is a double-edged sword, cutting deeply on both ends. For one, it fails to manufacture a positive learning experience and relationship with faculty in the classroom. Instead, what we need are fewer classes so that student-athletes can enjoy classes like the rest of the student population. Taking only two courses a semester would free up time for student-athletes to engage the material fully. They would not feel overwhelmed and feel like studying is a losing battle especially with the demands of the sporting field.

The athletic academic counseling structure justifies an entire cottage industry of sport services professionals within higher learning without providing a greater critique of collegiate and amateur sport. Several football players would be so worn out that staying awake in class took greater energy out of an already exhausted body. When I asked them why they were tired, a few of them spoke candidly that their coaches take every bit of energy out of them. Each coach, assistant coach, and trainer is there to take out all that if left in the athletic body. The student-athletes secure jobs and income for a wide assortment of sport professionals yet their lives reveal such insecurity. An injury could derail the entire collegiate experience. Yet, these students are pushed to the limits, and when demands are made for large stipends or paying student-athletes, the response is always, “They are lucky to be here,” “The scholarship is their payment,” or “The scholarship is the greatest gift.” Really? Is it this simple? Or have we become so blinded to the corporate regime of college sports?

The student-athletes barely have time for anything other than sports. Yet, they have to manage their work day (sports training) with their full-time class schedule. How many students, other than student-athletes, have to travel long distances for work, miss classes (and holidays and family events), and train for the entire course of the year? While we watch March Madness and take in all the joys that come with it, we have to ask whether the traditional student would have to put in the same hours and labor without pay as student-athletes. Student-athletes cannot even enjoy other experiences of the college environment, such as partying, studying abroad, holding part-time jobs, and securing important professional internships. With each round that goes by during March Madness, we should be obligated to ask how to equip and provide support for all of our students, including our student-athletes. As jobs increase around sports like coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and even scholars of sport like me, we owe it to fair play in sport that we give our student-athletes a fair play in academia with stipends and an unlimited commitment to fund the scholarship for student-athletes, even many years after their playing days.

While we talk about guaranteeing college futures for male student-athletes, we need to also interrogate why men’s collegiate basketball appears in sports media as just “basketball,” while women’s basketball foregrounds the gender category of woman as an adjective, appendage, and an addition to basketball. Basketball, as my research has shown, was already taken for granted as “masculine”—a sport to be practiced by men. As such, March Madness stands ubiquitously for men’s basketball. While filling out the men’s bracket, there is little engagement in sporting communities for filling out the women’s bracket. Accordingly, the iconicity of men’s basketball reduces sport to a male arena and celebrates male sporting accomplishments. In the process, female athletes, like female basketball players, are relegated to a realm where they are outside the language of everyday basketball talk. There will be little to no discussion of how Title IX does not guarantee equity in the field of play. (See Deborah Brake’s brilliant book, Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sport Revolution.) Rather, one sees equal numbers of men and women playing collegiate sports—but this metric does not translate into equal access to resources, nor does it mean that the voices of women players are heard as loudly as men’s.

This disparity is also prevalent in sponsorship opportunities and the minimal funding for women’s teams. There is frequent talk about the greatest collegiate basketball coaches, but rarely do coaches of the women’s game like Pat Summit, Dawn Staley, and Geno Auriemma enter that conversation. Likewise, there are many men coaching the women’s game, but no women coaching (as a head coach) the men’s game. Furthermore, as the case of transgender athlete Kye Allums shows us, there are few spaces in either the men’s or women’s game for gender-non-conforming or trans athletes. To add, another disturbing fact is the gendered and sexual violence within women’s collegiate sports. None of this, or very little of it, will be the subject of conversation during March Madness. The sexual violence that is normalized on college campuses seeps into and destroys women’s athletics as well. As basketball is rendered as a game for men, the violence against female basketball players is not always fully investigated. This is also because the women’s tournament becomes a side-show, not the main attraction. As a result, the storylines and issues within women’s sports are not legitimated and made visible.

There has to be a national discussion about sexual violence and it must also take place within the confines of collegiate sport. We need that discussion to begin now. In the late 1960s, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards played a critical role in organizing African American student-athletes against racism locally, and within the larger Olympic Games. We know of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. There is a foundation, although we cannot always see it, to use sport as one of the key arenas for creating livable, fair, just, and equitable worlds. Sport, as the great scholar C.L.R. James has argued in Beyond a Boundary, is not apart from the real world but intricately connected to it. Sport provides various forms of reprieve from the outside world but that does not mean that we can forget about how power operates in sporting cultures. Through sport, we can harness new social arrangements and social justice principles that then truly make sport the most utopian social site.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).