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LaFrance%2C+M.+and+Rail%2C+G.+_2000_.+As+Bad+as+He+Says+He+Is

LaFrance%2C+M.+and+Rail%2C+G.+_2000_.+As+Bad+as+He+Says+He+Is

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Unformatted text preview: CRI'fICAL ESSAYS ON POWER AND REPRESENTATION Susan Birrell and Mary G. McDonald Northeastern University Press 33 O S T Q N "As Bed (15 He Says He Is?" strategies, that understanding Rodman’s self—presentations as vitally dis— ruptive elicits serious theoretical and conceptual dilemmas. “This Guy is Something Else!” Mtrlssa LAFRANCE AND GENEVIEVE RAIL foumalistsnssess theRodman Phenomenon Rodman is significant for daring not to be macho in a milieu that has demanded it. “As Bad as He Says He Is?” interrogating Dennis Rodman’s Subversive Potential “Steve Ioh risen Although varying in their degree of support for his public behavior, most journalists andlor consumers seem to construe Rodmau as in some way irreconcilably different from not only the sporting world in particu- lar, but the realm of popuiar culture in general. For the few journalists able to get beyond their simultaneous disgust and fascination with Rodman’s penchant for women’s clothing and his highly publicized visits to gay bars, the level of analysis remains enthusiastically cursory nonetheless. The Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Sports Illustrated provide the most consistent sources of both coverage and commentary. In a lengthy and relatively analytical article, Chicago Tribune critic Steve John— son considers Rodman’s race, persona, gender, and his alliances to multi~ . national corporations. Disapprovingly, Johnson contends that Rodrnan’s _ cross—dressing is “the most calculated androgyny since David Bowie 3' vamped his way through the mid«197os” (1996, 1). Iohnson also concludes that this “calculated androgyny” has resulted in a peculiar celebration of 'Rodman, who has, since his relationship with Madonna, been “remade into a sort of postmodern [Peter} Pan” (i). Questioning the integrity of IRociman’s promotionai strategies, Iohnson stipulates: “The trouble with all of this is that Rodman the persona, a persona, it should be noted, borrowed from the gay nightclub Scene, is more interesting than Rodman "the personality. . . . just as putting him on a team less secure in itself liwouid reveai him to be a disruptive force, putting him on TV reveais him _._to be all action, and little talk” (2). After lamenting Rodman’s overwhelm- ,iug market appeal as well as his swelling television presence, lohnson con— tradicts the articie’s earlier assertion that “Rodman is significant for daring 0 Dennis Rodrnan has been and continues to be the subject of much- consideration in cultural studies {e.g., Barrett i997; Kellner i996“; Lafrance; and Rail 1997; McDonaid and Ailcens 1996). Rodman’s multitudmous pep; sonas and often unpredictable interaction with teievision media have been”: frequently characterized as disruptive, counter-cultural andfor generally. mysterious beyond intelligibility. indeed, according to many observers, Rodman has radically defied normative convention and conspired, mat—I tineg or unwittingly, to redefine representations of gender, race, and tie-- sire within the American cultural imaginary‘ (Barrett 1997; iefferson. 1997i:- lohnson 1996; McDonald and Aikens, 1996). in. this paper, we are inter-1 ested in elucidating the cultural and economic logics both underlying antiE propelling the Rodman sensation. in an attempt to resist binary formulations of the Rodman phenome; non, We will consider those elements of Rodrnan’s subjecuveproductions that may potentially challenge the culturai norms structuring an and” ence’s responses to him. We will argue, however, that Dennis Rodrnans extraordinary spectacular enactments produce and consolidate dominant fantasies of race, gender, and desire, and are therefore only problema’u- cally subversive. We will show, by means of a critical overv1ew of emsung literature as well as an analysis of Rodman’s most important promotion 7’4 75 MtLlsse LAFRANCE AND GENEVIEVE RAIL H As Bocl as He Says He is?" not to be macho” through his critical chronicling of one of the more disturbing Rodman exploits: attributes this particularly harsh treatment of Rodrnan to social prejudices. She keenly observes that Dennis comes out wearing a nurse’s uniform and the crowd hoots and hollers as if it were still novel for Rodman . . . to wear a dress. Dennis tells a self-described sports widow to “after the game is over, jump his bones, dariin.” The crowd whoops as if it had just heard Dorothy Parker reincarnate. Dennis walks around pushing his stethoscope into women’s breasts, he’s a medicai professional check- ing their hearts don‘t you know, and the crowd cheers for what would get one of these women’s coeworlcers a black eye, a pink slip and a visit from flashing blue lights. (3) only since he began talking about bisexuality and dressing up in campy costumes . . . have people been . . . tossing around words like “psychopath.” Would there be so many armchair psychiatrists if Mr. Rodman’s on~court bullying weren’t accompanied by all that off» court crosswdressing and bisexual teasing (those transgressive acts of gender—bending, as academics like to say)? (€13) And indeed, lefferson (1997) notes, Rodman has gone further than just bisexual teasing. He has discussed his homosexual fantasies as Well as the erotic energy that permeates “even the most heteroscxual” ((313) men’s locker rooms. Jefferson does not make Rodman out to havestranscended sexism or machismo, astuter observing instead that Rodman is the “first star athlete to successfully wed heterosrzxual macho to drag queen chutr— pah” (Czo). While not as contradictory as Iohnson’s (i996) evaluation Jefferson appears to havo difficulty reconciling the paradoxical elements oi Rodman’s self-presentation and opts, finally, to celebrate him as America’s . “man of the moment.” The seemingly contradictory nature of both the aforementioned - events and their journalistic assessments highlights the dilemma encoun~ tered by observers attempting to make sense of the Rodman craze In fact, Rodman’s persona appears to be predicated on the exploitation and reproduction of dominant norms and codes, while paradoxically recog— nized as rebellious and intelligently nonconformist. Our essay endeavors I to address this contradiction in an attempt to understand how the appar- ently incongruous constituents of Rodman’s success seem to at once ef— floresce and limit his subversive agency. That is, Rodman’s enactments of marlcetabie difference” (Keilner 1996, 459) may indeed destabilize the American semiotic in positively oppositional ways by, for example, main— streaming superficial aesthetic transgressions such as cross-dressing 2 :liOWever, the white, male supremacist and heterosexist fantasies mobi— lized by Rodinan in order to produce and sustain the popularity of his spectacles reinforce problematic events such as the exoticization of the black sporting body, the commodification of black struggle and the mythi— Even despite Johnson’s sometimes scathing criticism of Rodrnan’s .- antics, he, like almost ail other critics, nevertheless credits Rodman for his progressive politics. )ohnson concludes paradoxically: Off court, he is an important symbol . . . the first male athlete to gain fame for his willingness to break professional sports’ macho code. . . . It is not so much the dress or the nail polish the kids are responding to as the thumb in the eye to convention they represent. . . . The idea that the nation’s cuimde—sacs are populated by prepubes- cent boys who now idolize, for whatever reasons, a sometimes drag queen is both amusing and a relief to those who believe we ought to get going on that testosterone temperance plan. (5} Using a slightly different approach, New York Times critic Margo )ef—_ " ferson (1997) provides an interesting consideration of Rodman’s impact 1' on and engagement with popular culture, calling Rodman a “{feat] of _' stylistic engineering” (C13)..Male athletes, according to Jefferson, have: long been known for their tempers and violent tendencies on and off the: court. However, she states, “few of them {have been} reprimanded quite" as sternly or smugly as Mr. Rodmau” (C13). Not only do both opposing. team members and referees often set out to aggravate Rodman, but Chili: cago Bulls management has actually made psychiatric counseling a prereq uisite for Rodman if he hopes to continue playing basketball. lefferso " 76 77 MELlSSE LAFRANCE AND GENEVEEVE RAiL fication of black physicality (both sensual and sexual). Therefore, our analysis considers Rodman’s selprrornotional strategies, as well as the in- tended and unintended discursive effects they produce. Sex/Gender Reconsidered? Dennis Rodman and the Politics of Identity Drag and the Limits of Subjective Agency When journalists, critics, and consumers proclaim that Dennis Rod- man is “something else” (Barrett 1997, 106), they are often referring, at least in part, to his enactments 0f dominant femininity. McDonald and Aikens’s (1996) work is one of the most comprehensiVe academic analyses of Rodrnan’s persona and the politics of his representation. McDonald and Aikens write: We consider professional basketball player Dennis Rodi-man’s ever- changing mediated persona as a disruptive force to the ethos of het- eronormativity. Specifically, we explore the way Dennis Rodman’s appropriation of queer prairie serves to critique dominant hetero- sexist and gender ideologies by destabilizing binary gender codes. (1996. 97) These authors suggest that popular representations of Rodrnan’s crosswdressing and his homoerotic interests can work to render intelligib the “fluidity” and “artificiality” of sexual and gender categories, while revealing how masculinities and sexualities are “malleable” systems open-I to individual and cultural contestation. The latter implies that genders are theatrically performed: That is, not enact their culturally prescribed genders. in fact, (1994), those who cross-dress are 0 mutability of gender identities and, by extens hauling such identities. standing gender as an instance of theatrical performativity: according to Harper The positing of such an accomplishment is potentially appealing for at least two closely related reasons: (1) it imputes to {drag queens] an 78 subiects have the ability to either enact or; ften seen as bringing into relief the ion, the possibility of over—j} Harper explicates the problematic allure of undeer "As Bod as He Says He is?“ expanded agency whereby they seem to alter apparently fundamental elements of social experience; and it (2) thus recuperates those same personages as active producers not only of political critique but of significant socialwstructural change. (91) For Harper (1994), then, to insist on the subject’s ability to effect voiuntaristic identity OVerhauls is to become polemically implicated in illusory cultural logics of liberalism and individualism. Indeed, this insis— tence is seductive as the imagined presence of such agential possibilities _ signals the success of contemporary liberalism and its corresponding proj- ect of providing the individual—and especially the disenfranchised indi— vidual—with the tools necessary to shape and determine her own destiny Harper points out, however, that the latter is questionable. Indeed to effect a veritable identity overhaul implies that one not only,reconstructs her own identity, albeit using always already contaminated psychic re- sources} but that others attribute the same presumably positive meanings to the overhaul as does she. We would argue, in fact, that rareis the instance wherein agents of mainstream society attribute positive meanings to acts of gender subversion and/or other forms of identity overhaul. More frequently than not, those who “misperforrn” their prescribed gear tiers are confronted by many different and often dangerous manifestations of cultural disapproval (Bartky 1993; Bordo 1993; Butler 1989). For example Jefferson (1997) illustrates that Dennis Rodman has also borne the bruni of cultural disapproval for his gender transgressions. Indeed, to both mon- itor and subdue his apparently undesirable aesthetic tendencies, Rodman has had to undergo mandatory psychiatric consultation at the request of the Chicago Bulls’ management. Thus, that which may be considered by an individual in drag as exposing the malleability of gender could be and often is, simultaneously represented in the popular as symptomatic of :rndrvtdual pathology. In view of such constraints on subjective agency and, contrngeutly, the conditions of its reception, it seems implausible to contend that gender identities are uncomplicatedly plastic or malleable. Harper (1994) also notes that when viewing drag queens as “active P}:0(lllC:rS not only of political critique but of significant social—structural .c ange (91), one must closely inspect the scope of these individuals’ subw jectrve agency. While it may indeed be possible for an individual to subvert 79 MELISSE LAFRANCE AND GENEVIEVE RAIL "As Bod as He Says He Is?" Indeed, Barrett posits that Rodrnan’s cross-dressing “wields an icono» elastic critical remove” (112) and that it “dismisses the relevance of sani- - wry normativity” {106). Barrett bases such a proposition on both Rodman’s public spectacles and statements like the following in his first book, Bad as I Went to Be: norms of gender, sexuality, and desire microcosmicaily (i.e., Within the .- realm of her own everyday life), it does not necessarily follow that this :, agency extends into all {or even most} facets of the public sphere.‘1 We 1 argue that the decidedly “public” nature of the violences5 inflicted upon those who reject and subvert dominant norms of gender, sexuality, am} desire seriously undermine the individuals subjective agency as regards identity overhaul. One’s ability to refashion her identity in her own image ' rarely reaches the point of veritable subversion when such refashioning is frequently policed, interrupted, and/or suppressed by public structures designed to maintain dominant cultural processes. To posit that such sub~ versive performances can lead to unrestricted identity overhauls elides the systematic power of public apparatuses working to maintain and consoli— date dominant discursive regimes. In light of the aforementioned, Rodman’s mandatory psychiatric counSeling and his comparatively stern disciplining by NBA referees might be seen as a particularly apt illustration of how Rodman’s ability to “dis rupt binary gender codes” (McDonald and Aikens 1996, 97) through “drag queenesque” performances is impelled by the meanings others impute to his enactments and the limits of his subjective agency in the public sphere. Nevertheless, Butler {1993a, 1993b} and Harper {1994) both posit that drag does indeed serve a critical function. That critical function, however, is not related to exposing the essential plasticity of gender. Instead, drag’s veritable subversive edge lies in its ability to expose “the mundane psychic and performative practices by which beterosexualizecl genders form them- selves through the renunciation of the possibility of homosexuality. . . . Drag thus allegorizes heterosexual melancholy” (Butier 1993a, 25). i paint my fingernails. i coior my hair. I sometimes Wear women’s clothes. I want to chalienge people’s image of what an athlete is sup— posed to be. I like bringing out the feminine side of Dennis Rodman. . . . To hang out in a gay bar or put on a sequined halter top makes me feei like a total person and not just a onemdimensional man. (Rodman 1996, 208; emphasis added) I While we concur with Butler’s (1993a, 1993b) contention that drag can potentially ailegorize the production of normative identities, we hesitate to embrace Barrett’s enthusiasm regarding the “iconoclastic” and/or dis- ruptive effects of Rodinan’s cross-dressing. Admittedly, Rodrnan’s trans— vestite activities encourage the NBA in particular, and basketball fans in general, to confront a player who neither looks nor acts like the rest of the piayers. This, however, does not necessarily foreordain Rodrnan’s cross— dressing as interrogative of either gender categories or professional sport’s gendered economies. We propose, therefore, that construing Rodrnan as veritably disruptive to dominant gender codes is problematic on three counts: (at) Rodman’s crossmdressing strategies rely on heteronorrnative formulations of gender and thus exploit and confirm male supremacist formulations of femininity; (b) Rodrnan’s comportment, whether in or out of drag, is frequently aggressive, sexist, and/0r sexually violent, and therefore reproduces dominant modalities of masculinity; and (c) Rod— rnan’s cross—dressing does not veritably confuse perceptions of his sex] gender identity and therefore has little implication for the maintenance and resulting privilege of his dominant masculine persona. First, let us consider how Rodrnan’s cross-dressing strategies rely on normative gender binaries and thus exploit and confirm maie supremacist formulations of femininity. McDonald and Aikens {1996} insist that Rod~ man mobilizes “queer praxis” to “critique dominant heterosexist and gen- der ideologies” (97). To understand the implications of the previous Rodman in Drag: Illusions of Disruption / Articulations of Heteronormatiyizy It’s hard for men especialiy to deal with my cross—dressing and my ef~ feminate tendencies, but that’s not my probiern. Guys, here’s a secret: Chicks absolutely love it. Believe me, I know. ~Dennis Rodmcm Much like McDonald and Aikens (1996), Barrett (1997) also views Rodrnan as a disruptive force vis—a—vis regimes of gender and sexuality. 80 ST MfiiISSE LAFRANCE AN?) GENEVIEVE RAEL statement, a working definition of “queerness” might be instructive. Dow (1993) argues that, fundamentally, “queerness should challenge and con- fuse our understanding and uses of sexual and gender categories” (xvii), If one accepts that queerness relates to the agitation of normative identity categories, then it becomes difficult to reconcile Rodman’s behavior with things queer. This difficulty arises, first and foremost, because Rodman’s crossudressing strategies are undergirded by both the “male gaze” and many male supremacist stereotypes associated with ideal femininity. For Rodman, “doing” femininity includes painting his nails, shaving his leg, and wearing short skirts, wedding dresses, lingerie, and excessive jewelry {Jefferson 1997; Kiley 1996; Luscombe 1996; Rodman i996, 1997; Seal 1995), indeed, as revealed in his two books and his numerous spectacles, Rod- man’s appropriations of the feminine appear to rely wholly on aesthetic exaggerations of culturally sanctioned femininity. Contrary to McDonald and Aikens’s stipulation, then, Rodrnan’s behavior does not seem to dis- ._ arm normative gender binaries. We argue that Rodrnan’s behavior is neither culturally dismncerting. nor individually unnerving precisely because it refuses to “challenge and. confuse our understanding and uses of sexual and gender categories.” If. anything, Rodrnan’s performances confirm male supremacist formula-5 tions of femininity while encouraging admittedly conservative audiences to consume banal spectacles of gender transgression. These seemingly an“; expected acts of consumption are permissible, even profitable, in the an drocentric world of professional sports only insofar as Rodman’s “true”: gender identity remains unquestioned. Insofar as Rodman’s masculinity: remains intact, his spectators are encouraged to consume “acceptable” and marketable forms of difference without being asked to rethink and' obscure their own conceptions of gender. Second, let us consider how Rodrnan’s comportment, whether in or: m :3 out of drag, is frequently aggressive, sexist, and/or sexually violent, therefore reproduces dominant modalities of masculinity. Rodman’s base; ketball career to date has resulted in numerous suspensions, most of. which were attributed to head—butting, kneeing, elbowing, and attacking nonplayers such...
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