Monday, April 2, 2012

Becoming Crustacean: South Park and Posthumanism?

In his essay in Posthuman Bodies, Eric White argues that crabs within the film Attack of the Crab Monsters, "threaten the intelligibility of gender," since the crabs are as "indifferent to the gender of their victims as becoming they are unperturbed to find, after having feasted on numerous bodies, that they will henceforth be creatures endowed with multiple personalities instead of a unitary self" (248). Thus,  'becoming crustacean' is an incorporation of the human mind into the crab where it lives on in a different embodiment; the minds incorporated and assimilated into the crab are able to live in a different way and one of them is particularly exhilarated to find himself in an embodiment that, according to White, "lifts the censorship of the body habitually imposed by the repressive superego" (249). There are benefits, in other words, to becoming-crab.

Such a reading of a 'human' embodiment of crabs immediately called to my mind the South Park episode, "South Park is Gay," which is a bit of an ironic title, considering that all of south park does not turn gay (only the men and boys; in fact, it is interesting to note that barely any young girls are featured in the episode, if at all) and, furthermore, they do not turn 'gay' but metrosexual because of the popularization of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." While we may simply dismiss the criticism of Queer Eye as Trey and Matt's person despising of the show (and we may end up there by the end of the analysis), it could also be argued that the problem is the way the town reacts to the show, imitating its essentialist, stereotypical gay behavior.

Indeed, it could be argued that Matt and Trey are not bashing gay people by any means, but the appropriation of a particular strain of gay culture-- male gay culture, lesbians are not mentioned whatsoever in this episode, or, I believe, in the show -- in order to promote a kind of consumerist ethic and a stereotypical image of the gay male as addicted consumer. One could argue that metrosexuality, when taken to its extreme, is the image of innocent, joyful, consumerism without having to deal with marginalization for 'deviant' sexual acts. Both the adults and children perform their metrosexual identity by shopping at malls, using skin products, 'makeovers', flambyoant clothes (of which they constantly comment on), gestures, slight lisps, and pet names, such as "dollface."

In addition to the representations of the men as rampant consumers, they also embody the competitive attitude of capitalism. Rather than competing for who is the most "masculine," the kids now compete to determine who is more 'gay'; rather than discriminate and beat up 'gays' (or people who 'act' or 'perform' a particular constructed homosexual identity), they beat up non-gays. Thus, aside from their performance of identity through their appearance and some minor behavior changes, they remain associated with competition generally associated with male identity (although this is not necessarily true). When Kyle decides that he does not want to go along with the new 'fad' of metrosexualism, saying that he didn't feel "comfortable," his friends abandon him, kids tell him to take is "non-flaming ass" elsewhere, and proceed to beat the hell out of him. Arriving home, Kyle is confronted with this father, who, initially confused at his friends' behaviors, conforms to it just as we expect him to be furious at Kyle's beating. Instead of focusing on the problem that his son has been beaten for being 'different' (which used to be the 'norm'), Gerald focuses on the horror of his external appearance, declaring that he can use all sorts of beauty products to hide his beaten, marked state as an outsider to the dominant 'gayness' (metro-ness) of south park's males.

I keep wavering between the terms 'gay' and 'metro' because the episode constantly puts into question the issue of performance of gender. At school, the men have all began to perform the stereotypical 'queer' identity. Mr. Garrison, the boys' teacher and a gay man -- a very gay man, as he is frequently seen with "Mr. Slave," his sex slave -- recognizes that all the boys are "acting gay." At first, he chastises the children for claiming an identity they couldn't possibly understand, to which one student says he's a "catamite" and Eric, attempting to counter this even though he clearly has no idea what a catamine is (a young boy kept for sex by an older man), he responds "I'm half bi," a designation that makes no sense.  When Mr. Garrison says "Eric, you're not half bi," Eric proves the point of Mr. Garrison, who understands (at least we assume) gay at this point as constituting homosexual acts, by saying "I"m a quarter bi--my grandfather was half-bi so that makes me a quarter bi." Not only does this little tidbit reveal Cartman's ignorance, but it also refers to the attempt of biologists to root gayness in a "gay gene" that people might inherit gayness from parents.

But although in the above scene we assume that Mr. Garrison implies that the children couldn't possibly be having gay sex, and thus making them 'gay', he reveals his own reliance on performance/appearance when he arrives at a bar filled with the newly metrosexual men, saying to Mr. Slave, "Look at that! Our cup runneth over." However, he does test the waters by asking about the men's clothes. When the answer in a typically "gay" fashion, Garrison asks quite directly if they want to "come back to his place and pound Mr. Slave's ass." The men say no, claiming they are "straight" Garrison is confused, and finally yells "Why won't anyone pound Mr. Slaves ass!" First, we should note that Garrison assumes that any gay person will immediately have sex with a sex slave. But perhaps more importantly, we find that Garrison too associates gayness with outward and visible performance rather than sexual acts -- or at least, that the performance implies the desire for homosexual acts: "Those pants and those shoes say you pound butt" -- and "your shoes say you take in the butt."

On the one hand, we can critique Garrison for his assumptions about performance and sexual preference, but on the other hand, the only reason the men are performing gay identity is because they realize that its 'totally cool'; it is only 'totally cool' because of the popularization of Queer Eye, which puts forth a particular gay identity that serves to perpetuate the gay as consumer (and again, only male gays). One of the men say that Garrison is merely "one of us now," indicating that queer is the new square. Garrison is furious and says "We've spent our whole lives trying not to be one of you, you can't do that to us!"

Mr. Garrison, despondent, and mimicking the boys' usual behavior, confides in chef, asking him what black people did when white people appropriated their culture. Chef says that black people just tried to remain one step ahead via the modification of language. Chef recites the transformation of "in the house" all the way to "flippity floppity floop" because white people started saying it. Is this comparison appropriate? Either way, Garrison (perhaps unintentionally) shows his unawareness of other appropriations of culture when, as he leaves, he says to Mr. Slave they have to get back to their "flippity floppity floop."

Both Mr. Garrison and Kyle have been so deeply affected by this transformation of culture and their subsequent ostracization (Kyle) or assumed assimilation (Mr. Garrison) that they decide the only way to solve the problem is to go to its source: the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy people. Its ultimately the entertainment industry's fault that these men have taken on this identity and by 'legitimizing it' robbed it of all its meaning outside of a surface representation of 'gayness'. Furthermore, by legitimizing it,  instead of deconstructing the opposition, they have re-inscribed a binary opposition, simply privileging the other term.

Interestingly enough, competition remains between Garrison and Kyle as much as the gay men who face off at the mall. While Stan maintains that Randy is "better dressed" than Clyde's father and they begin to argue about "who is better dressed," Garrison and Kyle argue over who came up with the idea of killing the Queer Eye people first and thus who has been "oppressed" more. Tre and Matt are great at taking these arguments to their extreme to show their ridiculousness, but unfortunately, rather than following the advice of Mr. Slave who suggests to them, "Don't you see how ridiculous this all is!", both Garrison and Kyle take this to indicate that they can simply kill them together. Similarly, back at the mall, when the wives all the men are sick and tired of their obsession with their looks (rather than with them), they tell the men they don't like them acting gay. In typical south park fashion, rather than acknowledging how ridiculous such arguments are and how much pragmatic sense it would make to return to their former relations with their wives, they call their wives "metrophobes" and declare that they need a Metro Pride parade to raise awareness of their discrimination (mostly coming from their wives). Thus, south park parodies our tendency to resolve conflicts between groups by finding a common enemy (Queer Eye, Metrophobes) rather than recognizing the entire situation as absurd and ridiculous. The Metro pride parade has such appropriated chants as "we're here, we're not queer, but we're close, get used to it,"  and "out of the malls and into the streets" which have lost any power from their appropriation of privileged white males. It's not "out of the closet" and into the street--but the malls.  Its not the fact that they won't declare some sort of fixed identity that is the problem with "metrosexualism", but maintaining their privilege as the dominant, normative, and "non-queer" group ('we're close' -- but still MEN--we would never fuck other men. . .), reinforced by violence and stigmatism. Their 'metro pride parade' is a bunch of white men and boys confirming that they can be whoever they want for however long they want (so long as the fad lasts) and that you need to accept us because we are white male and dominant.

Mr. Garrison marvel at how the "Queer Eye" people could do this "to their own kind," their own "people," marking himself as part of a community. Garrison says, "You're selling out your own kind. Us gays have created a culture that is uniquely ours. If we keep trying to make straight people into us, we're going to have no identity left." To his surprise, the Queer Eye cast don't buy it, and Garrison concludes that they must not be 'gay at all'. The cast's voices lose the lisp, drop an octave, and they lock Garrison and Kyle in the room. Its not just that they aren't gay -- but -- they are

CRAB PEOPLE, who have been banished by men to the earth's crust.

At this point, most of the audience is reveling in the absurdity and, at least on first viewing, I remember distinctly laughing through repetitions of the phrase "what. . .the. . .fuck. . ." Crab people are "small and weak" and so they decide that if you can't beat man change man. And it is here that we get to the moment where performance of queerness, posthumanism, and Attack of the Crab Monsters meet.

The episode in some sense is a reverse of the crab incorporating/assimilating/differently-embodying the human personality; rather, in the episode, the crab becomes-human by donning skin-suits of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." But rather than called a 'monster,' as in the film discussed by White, the crabs in the episode are deliberately referred to as "crab people" and, indeed, repeat this mantra to the sound of a tympani ad nauseum.

 In a sense then, the crab people are not drastically other than man; in the one deviation from the relentless repetition of "crab people," the voiceover singing the song says "tastes like crab, talk like people." Does the taste of the crab make it distinctly other than human and what does it say about the crab's otherness that they can put on a skin-suit and transform themselves into "gay men"? Is South park suggesting that all gay men are really crab people?

To the last question, the answer is an emphatic no, since we know that the Queer Eye guys are not 'gay' at all. Indeed, given their plan to overthrow the world by "changing" man, they also seem to all be male crabs. In this sense, the crab people do not challenge gender identity at all -- it is a mere appearance of becoming-crustacean.

The appearance of becoming-crustacean is literalized when Kyle asks what if they refuse to go along with the plan? The crab people, rather than saying they will kill him (which, they can't do, since they are so weak), say they will turn them into CRAB PEOPLE.

Paralleling the form of the gay montage of the first "makeover" the other boys give Kyle, the crab people do the exact same thing to Kyle again, except that he is given  a "crabpeople" suit rather than designer clothes, antennas instead of hats or hairdos, and red paint (?) instead of facials. The song that plays during the initial montage is interwoven with the "crabpeople" mantra.  Thus, the crab people believe that by changing the outward appearance of Kyle and Garrison, they can make them into crabpeople just as they 'changed' man by turning them 'metrosexual'.

But whereas we can perform a socially recognizable identity (like 'gay' or 'straight') we are less able to perform, merely by the transformation of our outward appearance, the identity of crabpeople; or, if we are, then crabpeople are not very different from the human males they seek to change. They aren't crabs, they aren't people, but they are more like "people" than crabs, at least as portrayed in the south park episode.

Furthermore, the crab people, in their (male?) assumption that the race will become helpless without men, forget that there are still millions of pissed off women. In the end, the women burst in, claiming that they turned their husbands to "whiny little wussies' and proceed to beat the shit out of them, killing them. They claim "we didn't have a choice" because they couldn't stand their men. They realize that it is their husbands "manliness" that they were attracted to in the first place and conclude, incidentally like Garrison and Kyle, that the only way to get them back was to "kill the queer eye guys." On the one hand, this act re-inscribes a normative hetro-sexuality, where men don't want to act gay or 'feminine' because then their wives would cease to be attracted to them. This is a problematic resolution from the perspective of a 'queer' reading of South Park. On the other hand, we could read the act of killing the queer eye guys as reversing the role of men and women, where women take up the responsibility to act on their own behalf. But tt is hard to not read this murder (is it murder? Are crab people 'people'? Are they killable? are they sacrificable? Are they representative of capitalism's appropriation of gay culture for profit?) as a return to the norm and a somewhat conservative response to some of the important questions raised by the satire in this episode. Violence against those who perpetuate a difference, an ambiguous space that straddles the line between gay and straight, the wussy, the dandy, the metrosexual, is the only way to stop the world from being taken over by crab people. In essence, men need to be men because that's what women are attracted to.

Yet it is worthwhile to note that the episode, nor does the series in general, argue that we should destroy gay people in order to protect the world and reinscribe hetero-normative order. As I hope I showed in my earlier analysis, violence against someone 'different' (even if, in the case of Kyle, he is basically heterosexual) is critiqued through a satirical lens. The most charitable reading would be that the show reveals that to be 'metrosexual' is an attempt at "normalizing" and "legitimating" gay culture and that this essentially deprives it of any meaning or difference. Furthermore, it allows for white, males to pretend they occupy a minority and subversive position. As Randy says, to the typical sad-sap music, "Crazy, different, outcasts, call us what you want, but us metros are real people just like you." This is when they decide to have a "metrosexual pride parade," -- as if their really needed to be a "metrosexual" awareness, as if 'metrosexuality' actually constituted an oppressed and disenfranchised position. But this is clearly not the case; this particular form of metrosexualism is, as I have already pointed out above, characterized by shopping and beauty products. This is not a minority position.

South Park ultimately affirms that identity is quite malleable and that appearance changes behavior, which in turn, changes the relations among people. In this sense, we're always already posthuman because identity becomes an outward performance of signifiers that we recognize as being constitutive of that identity.  I think South Park is critiquing the ease in which white, heterosexual males are able to appropriate and 'own' any identity they want as if they were playing dress up like a bunch of kids. The ease of moving from one stereotypical minority to the next (while maintaining their autonomy as white males) is exemplified in the last few moments of the episode.

Again, in typical south park fashion, rather than concluding that perpetuating fads of 'minority groups' to be appropriated and assumed by rich, white, males is deeply problematic, the studio execs decide to "bring back the Latin fad." We as viewers are then treated to a hilarious image of Randy saying to Jimbo et. al. standing on their front porch with a  "hey esse" surrounded by beer and a BBQ grill.

Like fathers, like sons. The boys approach Kyle with a "hey esse, you wanna play catch with us?" When Kyle expresses bewilderment at their sudden change in behavior he asks why all of a sudden they want to hang out with him. Stan says its "cool homes" and Kyle gives a speech about how shitty they have been to him. The language is already catching on in the school, even if they haven't nailed the clothing and 'behaviors' yet. When Kyle finishes his speech, we see that now that the 'gay' cause no longer is 'in', 'cool', and thus applies to their lives, 'gay' returns to its pejorative connotation: "Ah jesus kyle, don't be such a whiny little gay wad" "Yeah don't be such a fag dude."

The appropriation of identity by characters in South Park is always short lived and the identity is promptly forgotten and erased (including lessons that may have been learned from them) once it is no longer "useful" to the person appropriating them. For instance, in the "Ginger" episode, Cartman begins the episode claiming gingers have no soul, but when the other boys trick him into thinking he has become ginger, he takes his rightful place as the leader of the gingers, advocating for their cause and convincing them that everyone but gingers must die. When he almost murders Kyle, the "daywalker" (i.e. a Jew -- a ginger at heart -- or (not)soul according to Cartman), Kyle whispers in his ear that his identity is not even skin deep. Immediately, Cartman has a sudden realization that he was going about it all wrong (since he would then be killed should he wipe of the gunk put on his face) and convinces the gingers that they shouldn't kill each other with a lame song: "Hand in hand we can live together ginger or whatever we're all the same/we shouldn't kill each other cuz that is lame."

South Park, then, shows the danger of a kind of "postmodern" identity, where identity is skin deep and thus can be appropriated and performed by anyone and changed at will. Such a notion of identity does not take into account how much easier it is for the privileged class  to take on whatever identity they please in order to to commodify and exploit that identity to serve their own, selfish purposes.

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