Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

The Soldiers' "Telephone" Parody: Harmless Fun or Gender Violence?

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | May 03, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Alex Cho, gender identity, I Love Lucy, Lady Gaga, lesbian moms, Milton Berle, Telephone

Chances are you've seen the YouTube parody of Lady Gaga and Beyonce's "Telephone" video made by a group of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The story is that they made the video for fun, posted it to share with family and friends, and then it went viral. And, if the whole production isn't queer enough for you yet, apparently Aaron Melcher, the adorable redhead who stars in the video has two lesbian moms.

The LGBT blogs are eating it up. But Alex Cho, an academic here in Austin, didn't find it funny at all:

I am going to assert that hate crimes are committed against queers--and particularly against transgender people--because of the very same anxiety that makes us want to laugh at straight boys acting like girls. It is a profound, unsettling anxiety, a black-hole moment where our supposedly solid constructions of gender are revealed to be shams, rickety notions, two-dimensional edifices that work well on one façade but collapse and splinter the moment they're pushed from the side. It is the same anxiety. It is the same violence. To be empowered means you can make silly YouTube videos and laugh it off. To be divested of power means you get stabbed.

At first I thought his reaction to the video was way out of proportion. The guys are just having a little fun to alleviate boredom. They don't mean any harm, right? And a man in a dress is just funny, always has been. I looked up some old clips of Milton Berle doing his famous Aunt Mildred act, which comes right out of a vaudeville drag tradition. I used to think he was hilarious. This clip from I Love Lucy still made me laugh, but I felt very uncomfortable this time around, especially watching the reactions of Ricky and Fred, Lucy and Ethel, the horror and revulsion on their faces, which mirror the reaction of the audience. (Aunt Mildred makes her entrance at 3:55.)

After Waymon posted the Telephone video in yesterday's Sunday Funnies, I'm very curious to know what the Bilerico readers think about Alex Cho's take on it. Alex is an acquaintance and a Facebook friend, and we've corresponded a bit in the last couple days regarding his blog post. I also had a couple long conversations with my boyfriend, who is a very smart guy and helped me pinpoint my problems with Alex's essay.

I agree with his basic argument, that the anxiety that makes people laugh at army guys acting like women is the same anxiety that makes someone carve "IT" on the chest of a transgender man. And I feel strongly that it's an important point to make in light of how much the LGBT blogosphere is enjoying the soldiers' video. But my fear is that, if we look at the YouTube parody only through that lens, we're in danger of doing the same kind of symbolic violence to these men (the soldiers who made this video), to their histories, to their ambiguous and complicated relationship to their own sexuality, the same kind of violence that Alex Cho is saying they do to us in this video.

What do y'all think?


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Here's what I think:

1. I didn't watch the video until you posted it here. Meh.

2. I don't really see the gender transgression. yeah, they lipsynched to a song sung by women, but that could be explained away by the fact that there isn't another version of the same song out there sung by men. It's not really over the top, i.e. the soldiers were in dresses in the video, with make-up, walking like Rupaul, etc.

3. I've seen a bunch of these videos before. Not Telephone parodies (although there are quite a few out there now), but videos from boys who are just so bored in the desert that they'll come up with the strangest ways to entertain themselves. Since they usually have the equipment to make and edit videos, this is a popular pastime. The quality of this video is surprisingly good for the genre (if you will), so maybe that's why people actually sent it along to others instead of sending back a happy face after they felt obliged to watch it.

4. I'm wary of criticisms of art and entertainment that end with "This causes people to commit violence." Yeah, and everyone who listens to Marilyn Manson wants to shoot their classmates (speaking of straight, gender-transgressing performers...). I dunno, and maybe there have been great sociological studies linking viewing of certain artistic material to actual violence, but it usually seems like an easy scapegoat for larger problems with more complicated causes that would require a lot more work than pointing to something and saying, "This is bad."

Not that art can't influence people. But the relationship is a lot more complicated than someone popping in a CD or a DVD, watching someone make fun of faggots, and then grabbing a gun and going and committing hate crimes. People just aren't that dumb.

Ultimately, it just seems like an excuse for censorship. Someone doesn't like seeing something, they say it causes violence, and then they feel justified in trying to ban it.

5. It's more than a little frustrating that we're even having this discussion here in the first place, discussing how, in some abstract, "subterranean" sense there's a link between that parody video and gender violence.

Really? That's the connection to violence we're focusing on? We can't think of one that's more obvious?

These are soldiers in Afghanistan. Here's a connection to violence that's a little more direct:

Overly restrictive rules of engagement, intended to protect civilians, have limited the military's ability to fight the Taliban and are reportedly causing frustration among U.S. troops. Yet, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal noted in April, American troops continue to shoot and kill an "amazing number of people" and "none has proven to have been a real threat to the force."

Equally distressing, the so-called civilian surge has not materialized and just this week the United Nations withdrew its staff from Kandahar because of the deteriorating security situation. The Afghan Army and police forces are not close to taking over security in the country's most insurgent-filled regions, and the clock is ticking on Obama's pledge that U.S. troops would begin to withdraw in June 2011.

These challenges are made more acute because operations are predominately occurring in southern and eastern Afghanistan, which is most inhospitable to the American presence. Indeed, military plans to "liberate" the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar from the Taliban have been met with broad opposition. The Army's own public opinion surveys note that upward of 80% of Kandaharis view the Taliban as "Afghan brothers" and 94% oppose U.S. intervention there.

With the Taliban stepping up suicide attacks and assassinating public officials, it's not difficult to see why many Afghans are skeptical of joining forces with the government and why efforts to build confidence among the people are unlikely to bear fruit in the near term.

I'm sure these are nice boys who would never do anything to hurt anyone, except for that violent, decade-long colonial project they work, full-time, to maintain.

Of course, the people dying aren't white or in the US, and killing them without us thinking about it isn't anything new or sexy or intellectual or interesting, but it's still happening.

And I'm not saying that one form of violence is more important or more worth talking about than others; I'm saying that any discussion of violence perpetuated by US soldiers in Afghanistan is incomplete without mentioning the most obvious way their project is violent, especially since the resulting civilian deaths are continuously ignored by Americans in discussions of Afghanistan policy (we should help them make a democracy! But that's too expensive! X number of US troops have been killed or injured there! But we have to bring the evil-doers to justice!). Americans have an uncanny way of ignoring the fact that their government kills quite a few people worldwide, or justifying it with the most glib arguments when confronted with it.

It's about context. These are people who are being paid, as McChrystal put it, to kill an "amazing number of people," people the vast majority of Americans just don't care about. The fact that they make a video in their spare time that has a "subterranean" connection to gender violence in the US seems rather besides the point.

I'm with Alex (Blaze) on this. Especially on:
"I'm sure these are nice boys who would never do anything to hurt anyone, except for that violent, decade-long colonial project they work, full-time, to maintain." and "any discussion of violence perpetuated by US soldiers in Afghanistan is incomplete without mentioning the most obvious way their project is violent..."

I mean, really, Cho takes issue with the video as a possible cause of violence and has nothing to say about the never-ending wars these guys have signed on to? Have we reached such heights of insanity in our "support the troops/end DADT/anything's cool if it's gay/gay-friendly" campaigns that we don't even see the problem with war, an ultimate form of violence?

Anyway, like Alex (Blaze) said.

Gina9223 | May 3, 2010 6:25 PM

A bad paradoy of ‘Telephone’ slanted as ‘Gender Violence’???

Uh, no. I don’t think so.
They were not acting out violence of any kind in the video.
They were not ‘acting’ queer or trans or anything but a some young soilders who were flat out bored to tears and wanting to do anything but play war.
They are trying to mimic a video.
Its just a few minutes (or hours) of harmless fun.
Right?

Ummm…. I’m retired military. I know how boring it can get. (I hate the game ‘Smell My Farts’ only because I could never win and the CO would just about kill us all… :P ) Hours, days, weeks, months of 18 to 20 hour days never ending. No TV, no theaters, no mall, no nothing but work, work, work, abject terror, work, eat, run, work, a bit more terror, sleep for an hour or two and hope for a shower in the next day or two or you wont be able to sleep because of the stench.

I worked with guys like that for 20 years. Yes, they are capable of harming someone. That’s …that’s kind of the job that the military does.

I also know that the US Military’s number of GLB’s is probably higher than you think. Transgender? Way higher than you can imagine. You look at a bunch of young men and think ‘hetrosexual’ or ‘cis-gendered’. I look at them and wonder “are you one of my little ones that I worry about out in the desert?”.

But I could be wrong. I am retired military and trans and I look over those GLBT types that I run across.

Come back and ask me when someone posts a video showing a beating or a blanket party or one of the other wonders that the military has for GLBT types. Then I’ll get up on my soap box and scream.

Gary Hammond | May 3, 2010 6:32 PM

Lighten up folks! Not everyone or every thing is out to denegrate the LGBT community.

I very much think that any perspective that this is anything other than harmless fun to burn off stress in a war zone is completely off.

While it may not be 100% politically correct in Cambridge or Berkeley, I would much rather see a unit having legitimate, decent fun together than becoming too stressed out and, G-d forbid, doing something stupid.

Academics can certainly dissect this in a graduate level Queer Theory seminar to their hearts' content. But please leave our soldiers alone.

Thank you.

v/r,

Karl

OIF 2008-2009

To be bluntly honest, Alex needs to get out into the real world a bit. That's really just stretching the whole idea of queer theory to preposterous limits. He's sounding like those art gallery types who can prattle on and on about the symbolism of the spoon in a still life painting... ah, but then again, what about the fork....

Judas Peckerwood | May 3, 2010 9:10 PM

Alex Cho is absolutely on target, This is EXACTLY how Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot started out.

Now THAT is funny! Drink warning next time please though.

My reaction? Harmless fun. The original had more gender violence than the parody.

And this kind of thing will give DADT proponents a severe conniption, always a good thing in my view.

Kate Ward | May 3, 2010 10:40 PM

I loved this video and felt that surely the people involved were probably gay-friendly, since they're so willing to play like that. I watched Amy Poehler on SNL in her 10th month of pregnancy, dancing in a bar, trying to seduce Josh Hartnett. It was hilarious, because pregnant women will always look funny dancing around like they are looking for action. Certain set-ups are funny and I don't want to tell anyone they don't get to play with boundaries, cuz then maybe I don't get to.
Finally, I think the kind of people who enjoy the video are probably not the same people committing hate crimes.

I don't believe this video is itself provocative of gender violence, although it seemed more that Alex Cho was saying the same impulse that makes people laugh at gender transgression like this is what drives some people to commit transphobic or homophobic hate crimes. I do not think he was saying this video would cause such hate crimes.

I think he has a point there, and that he's not saying the video causes violence or that the soldiers in the video promote violence against LGBT people.

They parodied a video - not a gender. The fun in the video for me at least, had nothing to do with their gender roles, it was their mimic of the crazy video (and the one soldier's gleeful face as he danced).

If the same anxieties that causes people to laugh at straight guys parodying girls are the same anxieties that causes homophobia, then why is it that at least in my culture and in my country (the Philippines) where people generally see straight men parodying gays as mere entertainment that provides loads of laughs, we have almost nil statistics of hate crimes?

Our elections are coming-up and the Supreme Court has just ruled that an LGBT party-list group can run for congressional representation, a decision that was widely welcomed by LGBT and straight communities.

What one person said about Alex Cho needing to be in the real world really hit the target. The real world isn't found in some fancy academic theorizing.

The big point here isn't any (actually non-existent) accusation of the video leading straight to violence. It's the fact that anybody who has a laugh at this video is only doing so because of -- in most bilerico-readers' cases, veiled -- heteronormative views.

It is that the emasculation of the soldiers is seen as degradation. That their acted femininity is seen as and supposed to be seen as a sign of weakness to be mocked by the public.

Richard L | May 4, 2010 11:12 AM

We live in a society that values humor, as a coping mechanism, a means of escape, a way to further understand ourselves, and even as a stress outlet. Unfortunately, for everything that someone finds funny, there's going to be someone else who gets offended. I think it is important to view attempts at humor as they are intended without over-analyzation. Are there some things too serious to joke about? Absolutely. Is this one of them? I really don't think so. There's a big difference between dressing as the opposite gender for humor and being transgender. Besides, haven't we all made fun of at least some of Lady Gaga's fashions?

When I was in the Army stuff like this happened in the field.It wasn't homophobic or meant to denigrate women just entertainment.It's been done in the military probably as long as the military is old.Certain lgbt and heterosexual people just have an axe to grind with the miltary and most likely still wouldn't support the military even if it was 100% lgbt inclusive with zero cases of intolerence.The military has a purpose regardless of what some would see as the occasional misuse of it.

Yes, there are certainly more egregious examples of violence against LBGT people than this video. That's not Alex Cho's point. He is saying that anxiety about gender categories is what makes people want to attack trans people, and that that anxiety is evident in the youtube video and the various responses to it.

Can we cut the academy a little slack here?

I think we all know from experience that anti-gay, anti-trans attitudes are cultivated by a million little signals we get from popular culture every day all day long, from ads, TV shows, books, media of all kinds. Most of these signals are very subtle, but they're real and they damage our psyches and the psyches of those who would attack us.

One of the important things that academics in culture studies fields do is to unearth these signals and expose them to the light of day, examine them, see how they work. We may not always agree with their analyses, but I for one think that the project as a whole is important work.

Steve,

While we may differ somewhat I completely agree with cutting the academy some slack (and would like to remind some people that Chos's work is not, in fact queer theory per se. And for various complicated reasons, I'm not even a big fan of queer theory, which I "grew up" imbibing, so this is not a defense). I also think that the kind of wholesale dismissal of academic work we see too often in the blogsophere is something that speaks to a general anti-intellectualism. That's not to deny that a good portion of such work, especially when addressed to non-specialists, tends to be condescending, overly jargon-filled, and incapable of explaining itself. But dismissing any slightly complicated mode of analysis as simply "queer theory" (and misrecognising it as such) is a refusal to engage.

But a major-minor point that's been bothering me since Reid Uratani's garbled post: I think we're talking about the field of *Cultural* Studies, here are we not? I graduated with an emphasis on the same, and I've never heard the term "culture studies" before - it was used by Uratani as well, who should know better. Unless there's been some new field created in the meantime, in which case I'm glad to stand corrected.

Or, unless, "culture studies" is meant to refer to a more generic form of responding to culture at large. I bring it up because Cultural Studies has a complicated intellectual history and, despite its frequent into "Popular Culture Studies" does carry out a specific set of inquiries.

I didn't realize that my brief post inspired this measure of disciplinarity policing/anxiety. In a brief note for my defense, I would attribute misunderstanding of my statements to their brevity. That blurb wasn't originally written for this medium and frankly, I regret submitting it in the first place. I guess I should know better in presuming the level of transferential investment in non-"traditional" modes of publication.

It's difficult to discern how to identify jargon. I think the term "subject," "object" and "other" are more qualified than most for that label - even more than ontology and the sublime. This admittedly betrays my poststructuralist fealties and my relative distance from what I presume is an invocation of the Birmingham school in the term "cultural studies." I don't dismiss this tradition in any way, even with accusations of socialism-lite in mind.

Rather, I had the methodological application and - in my mind - misappropriation of cultural studies' analyses as my target for the note about "political vapidness." I believe attention to intersectional/rhizomatic/whatever analyses are important, they just aren't always productively connected to larger political narratives (and I don't have in mind a distinction of politics from society and economy as thinkers like Badiou offer).

Regarding the original post, it seems that previous commenters are focusing on whether or not the video in and of itself contains a specific meaning. Having avowed my analytic fealties, I would say that it's intrinsically vapid. But within the economy of statements swaddling its movement through blogs and media hosting sites, it can be damaging at a variety of levels. Cho makes a good point that those ruminating the dynamics of discourse and the unconscious often forget - people get killed.

This actually (perhaps sadly) brings me to Glee. I was surprised at the measure of blatant violence the Gay Boy (capitalized to denote stereotype) was threatened with in last night's episode. What made me really concerned was violence's quick absorption into a sort of multicultural position of "we're all freaks." Not that that statement may not ring true to an extent. But within the context of the Gay Boy's embodiment and dress, the threats against him by the football players resonated with sadly typical news headlines. In an episode about hyperbole, it felt spot on.

While the particularities of the figures in the cover video may color the situation to degrees, the dominant culture in which it is received reflects (I wager) the views of the Glee episode's football players rather than the Gaga fashionistas or even the good natured glee instructor. In this sense, the video reproduces the narratives it's recruited to. Alternatively, we may forcefully say that its true message is norm-subversion and the cultivation of alternative modes of masculinity. Or even methods of coping with the traumatic environment of war (through the denigration of certain subcultures). To politicize it in a direction away from narratives which produce violence to queers, queer voices need to produce a sense of solidarity and argue for our own version of its truth (here I'm back in line with Badiou).

I am going to betray my level of intelligence here and admit I have absolutely no clue what you are saying in that post.

Thanks, Yasmin, for the clarification. I didn't realize the expression "cultural studies" meant something so specific, and I was sloppily using it and "culture studies" interchangeably to mean any scholarly analytical writing about culture. I love how much I learn here!

They were "acting like girls"? The girls I know don't act that way. I thought it was funny because they were acting like goofballs. Most of them dance terribly except the one big burly guy, who you probably wouldn't expect to be able to dance because he's so muscle-bound. I do appreciate and to some degree agree w/the point but they just seemed ridiculous to me, not feminized.

"And a man in a dress is just funny, always has been."

Unless you're a closeted trans woman. Then the fact that everybody else laughs at "men in dresses" can leave you paralyzed with fear, make you second-guess transitioning, and push you to suicide. It's not so funny then, is it?

Exactly, Jamie. That's sort of the point. The anxiety about gender transgression that provokes laughter at a man in a dress in a vaudeville show might be the same anxiety that provokes people to attack trans people, which I'm guessing is part of what leaves you "paralyzed with fear" about transitioning.

I'm not talking about myself here Steven, I'm talking about closeted trans women who haven't transitioned yet. For me it's all been-there-done-that. But when you haven't yet run the gauntlet, it's absolutely terrifying. Because there is no real guarantee that you'll come out the other end alive.

Though I am still stung by it all. It's like the successful adult who reverts to feeling like "the nerd who got bullied" when she shows up at the high school reunion. Sometimes when a "guy in a dress" joke pops up, it's like I'm sucked back in time to when I felt completely powerless, alone, and silenced.

What seems like a harmless joke to others, to someone in my position is the majority reminding us that we are unwelcome, unwanted, and will not be treated as human. And that is serious emotional violence, that is used to justify physical violence. In most cases the physical violence isn't even necessary, because the emotional damage done is severe enough on its own. The threat of potential physical harm is enough to keep so many gender-variant males silent.

If that doesn't qualify as violence, then what does?

In other words, what I'm saying is, I don't think there is a reciprocal violence going on at all by calling them out on it. At the end of the day, these guys can go back to their lives that fit in society's boxes. Whether they are conscious of the damage they are doing is irrelevant, it still does harm.