Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cultural Gag Reflex

When I didn’t know the lyrics and hadn’t seen the video clip, I really loved listening to Blurred Lines. I only heard it on the radio in the office and, due to actually working and sitting some distance from the radio, all I could hear was the bubblegum pop and Pharrell’s hoot. And then came the day that I watched the video clip, read the lyrics and my now robust cultural gag reflex kicked in; who is this Thickehead for whom respect and consent is a blurred line? And why is every sentiment in his song and video achingly retrograde and yet somehow so mainstream?

I love to listen and dance to Rap and Hip Hop. I bought my first CD because of Pony, my second for Ooh La La and for close on fifteen years I have suppressed my cultural gag reflex at the lyrics of the Rap and Hip Hop songs I like, especially when I was singing along. It takes a special kind of socialized Stockholm Syndrome to actually sing along to the kind of dehumanising words that these genres encourage for describing women. It leaves a special aftertaste in one’s brain when you finally ignore the blurred lines and acknowledge the spectacular misogyny in the lyrics and videos of most of the mainstream offerings from the genre.

In rare karaoke moments I usually try to be cool by trying an Eminem song as I am a bit of a rabid fan; I used to posit that Eminem’s rhyming structures were so very impressive he was the Shakespeare of Rap. His misogyny is overwhelming however, and today I viewed the Shakespearean play that could be argued to be the Eminem play of his oeuvre – The Taming of the Shrew. This production from The Globe would have been the highlight of my weekend if the eponymous Katharina Minola had not been on stage at all; there is only so much culturally sanctioned domestic abuse that I can stand from my favourite playwright.

The play is a relentless stream of insults aimed squarely at women, although because of the truly impressive comic delivery of lines by a baker’s dozen of talented male actors, I did laugh quite a bit during the play. But it is pretty hard to laugh when one must watch the universally hysterical and often psychotically directed Katharina being beaten, starved and gaslighted* into submission by Petruchio. Petruchio’s ‘taming’ of Katharina plays itself out on stage as a textbook study in domestic violence and Katharina’s final speech is still the most perversely modern moment of the play. It is a litany of the very worst arguments of the patriarchy project for not affording women respect and removing their ability to control their own lives, an almost perfect converse of the feminist theory I am reading in The Second Sex at the moment.

I continue in my sadomasochistic attendance of productions of The Taming of the Shrew because I long to one day see Katharina played more like Beatrice, with intelligence and no hysteria or violence. I fear I will never see that day as the whole play hinges on justifying Petruchio’s abuse of Katharina as romantic because she is a 'shrew'. If you had Katharina playing the intellectual fire of her lines and not the implausible violence that is inevitably directed into the physicality of the role, Petruchio’s behaviour would be unconscionable. And then maybe The Taming of the Shrew could retire from the stage, residing in the purgatory of Shakespearean plays that do not translate into the modern.

The last scene of The Taming of the Shrew always leaves me feeling intellectually dirty, and while my companion was robustly vocalising her own cultural gag reflex during the endless scene today, I was formulating an idea about this ludicrous play and its incomprehensible popularity. If I embrace the theory that Shakespeare wrote plays that were meant to influence the masses to support his powerful patrons, it occurred to me that the need for The Taming of the Shrew, a play centred solely around arguments for keeping women in a subservient position, was actually an indication of a population of women who were exercising their right to decide things for themselves.

To prompt an entire disciplinary play from Shakespeare there must have been a lot of women who were foul contending rebels and graceless traitors to their loving lords due to exercising independence. And the modern productions, directed with insulting misogyny, are conceivably a reaction to a similarly independent population of women, else the play would be of no interest to anyone because of its relentless misogyny. And while this little theory doesn’t mean I am ever going to be comfortable with The Taming of the Shrew, it does make my cultural gag reflex more a reaction of reluctant amusement than weary disgust, blurring the misogynist lines just a little, just enough to mean I may endure the next staging of the play on the off-chance a really radical Katharina Minola is allowed on stage to warrant an entire play about her behaviour.

A palate cleanser for the brain - The Best Blurred Lines Parodies here and here, and, gloriously quotable when you are really unwilling to mince words, HERE! And while there are many articles about the song, this article was the one that struck me the most.

*Thank you Eva for pointing out the gaslighting in Shrew! Once it is pointed out, it’s hard to unsee it.

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