Friday, May 4, 2007

Power and Empowerment: Charm School

The topic of power and empowerment is one that gets thrown around a lot when analyzing a patriarchal society. The lesser eminent threat to the empowerment of women is the woman who embraces oppression, who encourages other women to conform to the accepted norms of society. Women in this context would be Ann Coulter, Condoleeza Rice, and Phyllis Schlafly. As a member of the TCNJ community, the College Republicans graced us all with the honor of getting to meet Mrs. Schlafly. Schlafly has made a name for herself through quotes such as “sexual harassment is not a problem virtuous women,” and “ERA means abortion funding, means homosexual privileges, means whatever else.” She started her lecture at the College by commending the students for the rally at the State House the next day to demand lower tuition and giving her own advice “to lower costs, I’d suggest first cutting the Women and Genders Studies Program.” She also implied that the Virginia Tech shootings were a result of Cho’s requirement to take a Gender studies course.

In an attempt to show utter disregard for Schlafly’s hateful politics, over 65 students who attended the event decided against attempting to debate Schlafly through the question and answer period. Instead, and especially after her hateful comments to start the program, the mass group of students all dressed in black and wearing pink “ERA” bands around their arms (“they must be in mourning for their failed ERA”) stood, and silently filed outside of the room. Later, students used the popular networking site Facebook as a battleground to discuss the actions. One student wrote of the walkout, “The problem with asking Schlafly questions is that her belief in what she's preaching is absolute. The activists knew she would respond to any questions asked with answers founded on sexist, racist, and anti-gay sentiments. By filing out, the activists demonstrated Schlafly's irrelevance, not their own. Would you tell the BSU [Black Student Union] to ask a Klansman questions?” To this, another student replied, “Well, I think a more apt analogy would be with a black Klansmen…” Believe it or not, this is where the line can be drawn to the Flavor of Love spin-off “Charm School.” Why is it that in the case of women’s rights, more women seem to be embracing the patriarchy and debasing feminist ideals? Why are women like Schlafly using ideals of homemaker mothers to propel themselves into positions of power that are completely the opposite of the lifestyle they commend?

The show “Charm School is the latest in Flavor Flav’s attempt to conquer VH1, and almost immediately after it finishes, the network will launch “I Love New York 2.” The basis of the show is that comedian and Mo’Nique, who also hosted “Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance” a beauty pageant for plus size women, watched the seasons of Flavor of Love and was simply so embarrassed at the completely unfeminine actions of the women that she wants to teach them the art of etiquette. The first action held by Mo’Nique was to rid the girls of the “ridiculous names” that Flav had assigned them with, a seemingly counter-hegemonic move to shed the women of the power Flav held over them in the show. However, soon into the show, one can see that the goal of the show is quite the opposite. The women are told that they are too loud, too boisterous, outspoken, and unfeminine. The women are given “Ten Commandments:”
1. Check thyself before thou wreck thyself
2. Thou shalt goeth, girl
3. Thou shalt show some class
4. Thou shalt work what thou art working with
5. Thou shalt spit mad game with style
6. Thou shalt mind thy money
7. Thou shalt payeth it back
8. Thou shat represent
9. Unless thou can play, thou wilt be played
10. Thou shall be fully fabulous
The girls who had proved themselves to be embarrassing enough to be worthy to compete to win $50,000 for exhibiting the most change were chosen for reasons holding mostly to fighting with other girls, emotional outbursts, “crazy behavior” (“Hottie” whom insulted Flav’s mother by not presenting her with an acceptable meal), “hating on” the other contestants, slovenly table manners, and one contestant, Becky “Buckwild” for being the “blackest white girl.”

The first episode was a test in “sisterhood and teamwork” that resulted in the girls working together to complete an obstacle course, in which the losing team was to face the elimination of one member at a ceremony that required them all to be dressed as schoolgirls. The basis for judgment however, went to the fastest team, not the team that worked together to help their one member Darra (formerly “Like Dat”) who was not as physically capable of the challenge as the other girls. For her physical “shortcomings,” Darra was threatened with elimination. Being a full-bodied woman herself and writing a book called “Skinny Women are Evil,” Mo’Nique blatantly seems to attack Darra, at this point in the show, and in the third episode for representing her team as a model to showcase their ability to stylize effectively. Mo’Nique felt that Darra thought that she would gain points simply for being a bigger woman, a continuing theme of alienating Darra from the other girls based solely on her weight.

The second episode put the former Bachelor Andrew Firestone in power over the women. In his task of choosing women to bring to dinner, and an ultimate winner to accompany him to an event, he eliminated women based on being “bad dressers,” or “too talkative.” It seems that rather than to shed the hegemonic attitudes shoved down these women’s throats in Flavor of Love, the point of the show is actually to provide a variety of individuals into the seat of power that Flav formerly held to tell the women what is wrong with their looks, dress, actions, etc and what they must conform to in order to win.

Notably in the stream of men and women in control of the contestants is former contestant New York, now the star of a second season of the spin-off I Love New York. Many of the women have been brought to Charm School simply because of their interactions with New York that involved screaming matches, physical fights, and in one instance, saliva emissions. New York has made a name for herself in her unapologetic actions, her willingness to use any means necessary to destroy her competitors, and her bawdy language and attitude. However, New York is not a contestant on the show. It is her job to coach the women on their femininity (or lack thereof), a job she has been given before in the second season of Flavor of Love. Why is New York, who holds more things in common than not with the contestants, given the ability to degrade the women for actions that she herself emits? Through her outrageous actions on seasons one and two of Flavor of Love, New York was given D-List celebrity status and handed her own TV show… twice.

To analyze the hegemonic norms of gender and those who are given power or left powerless, one must look at those “exceptions to the rule” and wonder what brings them such success. Perhaps the patriarchal society will blindly accept with open arms those who will so vehemently champion gender norms. Phyllis Schlafly’s absolute disgust for the idea of an Equal Rights Amendment, though more political than popular culture can easily be compared to New York’s disdain for outspoken women. If only Schlafly knew she was a sister in spirit with twice runner-up Flavor of Love contestant, New York; I’m sure she’d find new appreciation for Women and Genders Studies.