Who Gets to Fuck Nancy?
I think this scene captures the appeal of Weeds and its place nestled in a little cluster of genres. We have a joyous vision of the California utopia with no excessive aspirations – just a day at the shopping centre with everyone happy and prosperous and friendly. Then a reminder of the dangers and costs; Mexico/Crime appears – out of another genre, a broader comedy. That killer will have charming but cliché lines rehashing the popular “Sopranos” effect – the thug voicing the ordinary sitcom and talkshow family discourse. His wife will call his mobile and say hurry up and kill Nancy because she has made a dinner that will spoil. He will divulge the secret of his happy marriage in chatter in an elevatyor: the key is he “never brings his work home.”
The show’s generic flexibility, though limited – it gestures toward and taps the resources of less realistic genres though it always retreats to romcom level diegesis – facilitates the delivery of this impeccably liberal normalization of the end of liberal democracy and this impeccably “progressive” articulation of white supremacy.
And through this show we can see how progressive liberalism adjusts itself very smoothly into Nietzschean imperialism. The transvaluation of values is superficial and leaves us with the supreme values of whiteness, beauty, success, will to power – these are the ruling virtues. But the obsolete slave morality hangs on and is evoked for sentimental reassurance.
I think there are three angles from which to approach this programs liberal “surrender on terms.” There is the programme’s relation to Feminism, there is it’s relation to Race, and there is it’s relation to Capital and the State. Of course these all meet.
I’ll start with Feminism.
In Weeds, as in the Terminator films, this adaptation of liberalism to Nietzschean libertarianism, with loving ethno-racial variety rather than bitter racial animosity, proceeds through “gynesis”, the disruption of various masculist patriarchal conventions that have been for a long time obsolete and yet linger somehow as productive foils. The disturbance is staged as a challenge to an order that will emerge strengthened by its defeat of the challenge and absorption of its critique. But in the case of Weeds this gynesis is achieved through the journeyman reworking of women’s fiction, chick lit, and women’s genres…romance, and the romcom grounded in it. It’s mere importation, low key; unambitious genre grafting. Weeds takes its premise from a classic romcom elevation of romance, Saving Grace.
In that film, the adoreable Brenda Blethyn plays a widow who finding herself destitute turns to growing ganja. In the case of Saving Grace she is middle aged, provincial, English, with that stereotyped love of gardening, and a sweet consoling reconciliation of the lost world with the age of insecurity is siphoned from that incongruity.
Weeds transforms this premise for cable tv, which demands all genres be offered in mildly racy sex romp versions. But that’s not the most significant shift.
The original title sequence of Weeds featuring the theme song “Little Boxes” and an Irvine-like suburbscape – that powdered town just add water look, with healthy white people doing healthy shopping and fitness activities – suggested the rip-off would retain the original’s commitment to this productive “incongruity” arising from the provincial housewife with a green thumb going into the naughty urban global narcotics trade. (A version/inversion of the ItaloAmerican Noo Joizy gangster in psychotherapy). But the titles were all that was left of this approach after a few episodes, and eventually they were changed.
The near Weill-Brechtian promo for one of the later seasons confirmed how much the premise had been transformed from this reconciliation of the passing liberal world of law and social democracy and the entrepreneurial exigencies of the 21st century that it initially takes from Saving Grace.
(Moll Flanders. MacHeath. Brer Rabbit. Holly Golightly. Becky Sharpe.)
So the programme: Nancy Botwin is a sexy, open-minded California housewife and mother of two beautiful but ordinary sons, a teenager and a pre-teen. Her upper middle class entrepreneur husband drops dead of a heart attack at 40-something, and she finds herself with few options for maintaining their lifestyle. She becomes a marijuana dealer, is drawn in deeper and deeper into narcotraffic…
I will admit my pleasure in this show was owing a lot to its easy interpretability – its provisions for a viewer who wants to discuss the programme. I think I even especially enjoyed the fact that it produces an odious self-congratulatory liberalism and white supremacy in this blatant way, inextricable from the wealth of “progressive” gestures and its massaging of the same audience longings that were used to seduce masses of Americans to the Obama campaign. It seems truthful on different planes: deliberately, in the ever so gently satirico-comic characterisations and portrait of a California milieu, which often strike as keenly observed, and inadvertently, in the show’s rhetoric and tactics which reveal even more about that milieu’s upper class culture-industry concerns and visions. The program is aware of a viewer who expects television to be conscious of its political and social power and above all its capacity to include or exclude, to normalize and to other. Weeds puts on display its awareness of an audience who wants the programme to act in reasonable, liberal good faith: to entertain with violence without demonizing some perpetrator community, to thrill with rough sex and beauty in jeopardy without excessively debasing women, to console and reassure without denial of real hardships and injustices, to titillate without torment and twisting. The show knows these objectives are ideals, but it ostentatiously displays its efforts toward the impossible goal of exploiting television’s reliable eyeball attracting content without reproducing the obnoxious ideology.
At the centre is a female character who is 100% male fantasy and yet tweeked and deployed in such a way that she is not intolerably offensive to women. There is an expert rhetorical cunning in the way Weeds guarantees a female audience’s allegiance to Nancy and acceptance of her backlash-fantasy aspects by supplying within the programme a nemesis who hates her with a very broadly presented, stereotypical female competitiveness. This repulsive stereotypical grasping social climbing housewife’s hatred is directed at Nancy precisely for all those male-pleasing, male-fantasy qualities that grant her privilege in the world, and this hatred, embodied in this frightful figure of the misogynist imagination, a truly abominable abusive mother, triggers female audience protectiveness of Nancy against that assault and wariness of taking up anything like a posture that could be caricatured as that envious, unsexy, ridiculous, uncool (and eventually raped and tortured) foil.
Men will probably not realize how much Nancy Botwin owes to romance novel heroines in her resourcefulness, vitality, moral flexibility, gleefully whorish heart, and the chemistry between her “lioness” and the Alpha Male. But she also repeats the pulp romance in the way she is embedded in a universe of female foils (with one notable exception, Andy’s Doctor lover) who guarantee that any resentful rivalry the female audience feels toward her is diffused and fantasy identification secured not just by the desire to take up the fantasy place of the winner who is also the object of male desire, but by the even more desperate need to put distance between one’s femininity and the hideous or abject alternative visions of it with which the audience is constantly menaced.
On this question of Weeds’ relation to feminism – and it is in many ways a monument to the achievements of the women’s movement in the US even as it reveals the upper class discomfort with what the feminist perspective reveals about our social order– what strikes is the apparent necessity the creatives felt to escalate almost beyond the boundary of the show’s verisimilitude the degradation and repudiation of the chief female foil (Elizabeth Perkins’ character Celia), making very explicit the demand the audience see Nancy in comparison, as the character Nancy’s (more naturalistically handled) entanglement in iconic feminist dilemmas increased, as did her distance from female fantasy in them (using her pregnancy to manipulate a patriarchal man who spanks her, marrying him, smothering her husband’s grandmother, etc.).
There are a number of things to say about Weeds, firstly, in the context of network and cable franchises. Its always fascinating to look back at a show and see how the first half (usually) of the initial season adjusts to what is figured out about the show by its creators. Some of this comes from the network and from the advertisors, etc. Weeds title sequence was very specific about letting the audience know its intentions. The message was mildly subversive on the surface; a protagonist who was in theory a sort of anti-hero — and this is worth a deeper examination., and that it was going to be ironic and a kind of humorous social commentary. Nancy Botwin was and is a projection of an acceptable counter cultural figure, non-conformist (in opposition to those who dwelled in the ‘little houses’), and ‘feminist’ — at least to an acceptable degree. In fact some of the adjustments of this season were fine tuning just how non-conformist Nancy was going to be.
Here its worth noting that Mary Louise Parker is an exceptionally appealing actress, and that role in other hands would have forced the creators, probably, to make much larger adjustments. I loved the show, let me say, on some primary level, and I confess it was addictive viewing. Now this also had something to do with the half hour format, which echoed the sit com/rom com formula it was going to play against throughout by introducing character developments that screamed ONE HOUR DRAMA, PRIMETIME.. The audience was given cues to accept a condenced half hour narrative (the show exists of course as on-going, an expanded narrative, about which I will say more later) but the condenced narrative was used in a highly effective manner — playing off more complex characters in a truncated sit come thirty minute form.
Jenji Kohan, the creator, head writer, and show runner, is a graduate of Beverly Hills High School whose writing credits include Sex and The City, Will and Grace, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This was a show made on certain assumptions of white privilege and that privilege was always going to be the backdrop. And so it has been. The intelligence of the writing, the freshness of the dialogue, was clear….from the start….but the underlying issues took a bit of time to surface more clearly. I suppose its a credit to the show that while always there, the obscuring of these themes and the consistent pov of white affluent society, were less intrusive than a show like West Wing, for example. There is a degree of titillation at work in Weeds, that plays on the exoctic other. What one notices early on is where the sexual charge comes from — who has the potency. I will say, again, the show manages to at least, often, interrogate itself about just these issues. In fact that on-going self analysis is a bedrock aspect of the show. It is in a sense a version of White America in analysis. The audience plays the silent role of analyst to Nancy’s adventures in the ‘other America’. This is the basic dynamic of the narrative. Nancy is self aware, to a degree anyway, and is forced to address her own hypocricy from time to time, as a struggling single mother suddenly adrift in 21st century America without the safety-net of her successful husband.. The degree of sex-positive story lines is, I suppose, to be commended. Non judgemental, and unbigoted. And this is where the Elizabeth Perkins character enters the discussion. Perkins’ character is the fall back foil for sterotypical sexual and social dynamics in *Agrestic* California. Irivine or Rancho Cucamonga, wherever Agrestic is meant to be, the deeper horror of white suburbia, the lack of community and the cultural wasteland that such places actually are, is treated as material for ironic superiority (the pov of Beverly Hills High School…and much of liberal Hollywood). On the one hand, the writing reflected an awareness of the liberal cliches at work in Aaron Sorkin or the Herskowitz and Zwich franchises, while at the other time indulging in exactly the same thing.
The absence, however, of the cloying sentimentality of those other shows was what made Weeds so immensly enjoyable. But back to Perkins. All of the surplus discomfort the white audience feels is channeled to Celia, and she becomes the brunt of all the aggression the male characters would normally have for Nancy. Nancy is also, indeed, a male fantasy — though to what degree this was conscious on Kohan’s and Parker’s part I don’t know. The bursting of hypocricies is the primary thrust of the narrative. In an early episode…maybe the first one, I forget, a closeted gay teacher and his affair with a student is uncovered by Nancy, who adroitly turns it to her business advantage. Its a telling moment. The hypocricy of the Agrestic establishment is pointed out, the hypocricy of the closeted teacher, all the while allowing Nancy to actually sort of impart motherly wisdom — in an anti-heroine sort of way.
The narrative as it advanced to San Diego County (or south Orange County) and Mexico became a lot murkier in terms of self awareness. It struck me as somewhat contradictory set of plot lines going on — the marriage and manipulation of the drug kingpin from Mexico (also a Mexican politician…for after all, south of the border remains a banana republic in TV short hand) sat uneasily with Nancy’s professed actual feelings for the Mexican politican cum drug dealer. If Celia was the foil doppleganger for feminist sadism, then Guillermo was the racial target of this surplus sadism. The patriarchal Estaban….is allowed a certain access to the central relationships (its made clear he is a graduate of Columbia University) while Guillermo is not….and Guillermo is the repository of the show’s latent racism. He is also the icon for class superiority — for educational privilege, and Guillermo isn’t going to get to fuck Nancy, he didn’t graduate Columbia…..AND he’s a spic. Other working class characters DO get to bed Nancy, so this critique doesn’t entirely hold up, but Guillermo is condescended to, and his lack of resoursefulness lands him, finally, in jail. Nancy even goes to the jail for a *conugal*. alas one never consumated.
Now, there is a point at which I find myself resisting a too exhastive analysis of this kind. And I think the reasons are twofold. One is that I just really enjoy this show, its my fan self wanting to defend the Botwin saga. The other is that I think a narrative of this sort…expanded….which is being taken in through the lens of corporate commodity post modern culture in 2012, requires a pretty nuanced reading of the codes at work in TV culture. De-coding in a sense, means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (or hell, vice versa maybe)…or that one has to look at this artwork…(commodity) in a processural way, that the mimetic re-telling is dialectical and not simply a tallying up of isolated story points…or even of entire season’s plot lines. It is the multi tiered reading of performance, of celebrity, and of the almost post ironic code of meanings that the white hipster viewer brings, but also, increasingly, the entire culture brings. A reader/viewer audience is always processing elaborate codes which are only partly related to the concrete artwork. Thats a given. Today, the commodity form is so pervasive that its not always easy to know at what point Nancy Botwin has escaped the confines of Weeds per se and entered in popular culture mythology much as Lucy and Desi did. Parker is already playing herself playing Nancy. The mirror goes on and on and on.
Its more than that, however. Its also that the meta-narrative, as it were, is about the imparting of a sensibility. The show juggles genre –as you pointed out — and really isnt concerned with story in quite the way Tolstoy was shall we say… (or even Thackery). Its simply defining a code of hip….which as default setting, cannot escape certain reflexive positions on race and class. What consititues narrative = code of hip-….or rather code of hip is what? Its at the bottom rungs, probably mostly consumerist signifiers and as it edges into something like Weeds, it becomes a sort of interesting positing of various coded notions of cultural subversion, and social hypocricy, and even race and gender. Its also creating the opposition between public and private. The problem is that the show still originates, both literally and symbolically, from a rich white people set of assumptions (which, to the show’s credit, they examine — because they deem them worth examining, even if not in great depth).
I think we should dig into all that a bit more. But one other thought, and that has to do with the ivention of Nancy Botwin, the character. She is both a male fantasy, and I suspect a female one, too….but perhaps its more complex than that. The show is uneasy with its own subversions. Kohan is smart enough to instinctively grasp the contradictions of Capital as they manifest themselves in our consumer culture, in the corporate conformity (which is really what Kevin Neelon’s character, Doug, represents) and yet, never really follows this logic to its end. And I think the ambivilance is manifested in Nancy. The recurring “mother” scenes…..(Nancy and one of her sons, or both, and her confessing she is a bad mother, etc). Except Nancy isnt a bad mother (well, I dont think she is….but thats likely more to do with me). But I think Kohan knows Nancy isn’t a bad mother, or at least she is raising the question. I remember thinking Terminator represented more than anything else the idea that an android was a better parent than a human. The question of the maternal is a constant in Weeds. But Nancy is both Lolita AND John Wayne, and her desire reflects this ambiguity. Nancy is always taking both the masculine position and the feminine. In terms of sexual gratification, and of desire.This gets hugely complicated…and no doubt beyond the scope of this dialogue….but maybe it needs at least some elaboration. The disavowel of reality is transferred to fantasy — the Botwin story — where erotic pleasure is contained in this suspended state of waiting ( the expanded narrative, again) and delayed gratification (Nancy and Guillermo I might hypothisize)…the social positioning of masculine/feminine are subverted to a degree, and then laid off on Celia, the respository for masculine domination fantasies. Estaban is the patriarch, the phallus, and Nancy’s ambiguity about Estaban is the source of relational dynamics for almost the rest of the series.
Great you have given a perfect name to the peculiar joint by which the show’s ambivalent feminism/antifeminism and its racial and class politics intersect:
Who gets to fuck Nancy?
Despite all her complexity (and she’s also female ideal fantasy, though not without reservation), Nancy is the white goddess as conquest, as reward, as possession to signify male status, as embodiment of the social order’s morality and substance – the white woman in imperial ideology time out of mind. And another of the show’s fascinating deployments of high liberalism (third wave feminism) in the making of a Nietzschean case is here: that the show’s central problem is there’s no one man enough to subordinate Nancy. The USA and American society/culture are still the Greatest In The World, but its ruling class is no longer worthy of it. Her husband is dead, and he was revealed, after death, to have not had the insurance. This American Male, father who knows best, has not only been eliminated, he has been debunked. The worst fears – that it was only a semblance of wealth, power, and authority – are confirmed, or at least they are to get the ball rolling. We are promised, in hints, from the beginning that we will find American masculinity again. Nancy’s peregrinations will lead her to some restoration. We are allowed to see early on a defective but not negligible version of the absent masculinity in African-Americans (the first staging of the outlaw hero and a lawman hero who check each other’s ascent), and to then be advised to hope we will find the superior white masculinity again, that it will reemerge after subordinating and absorbing Nancy. And how the show does deliver this, reluctantly, with caveats, is very telling.
(The West Wing dramatises and displays the potent dominant American Male so ostentatiously one can smell the cold sweat of anxiety it is trying to cover over, which is even displayed and dismissed in the fact of his multiple sclerosis, a bit of effeminacy and feebleness conjured to be overcome. False alarm. And this drama of acknowledging and dismissing is the occasion for the celebration of his empowerment through subordination and mastery of a powerful feminist woman.)
Nancy could be a trophy wife like Stockard Channing if only there were American males like Jed Bartlett, the liberal superhero. The absence sends Nancy (the society) adrift to shift, to live by her wits, to exhibit that fitty resourcefulness of the pre-imperial Yankee in order to mature, accumulate, and reconquer a lost empire.
It’s at bottom the same worry (an incitement to a consoling narrative) as Bonfire of the Vanities – that the wealth is a shell, a house of cards, and the male a fraud – a work which the programme’s world of tribes resembles in many ways though with the opposite (liberal, loving) affects. Who gets to fuck Nancy – the question which organizes the racial and class hierarchies and pins Nancy in her place in the patriarchal order as principally object despite her charismatic protagonist activity – comes to concentrate on a rivalry between Andy and Esteban that is, beneath plenty of emotional complexity, humour and richness of portraiture, the same Rivers of Blood dilemma troubling Andras Behring Breivik:
a feminized male of Nancy’s favoured and superior culture rivalled by the virile but criminal, culturally inferior, deviant, barbaric other. (Esteban’s tony education and status underlines his figure as a usurper of rightful white American Male domination.)
And the solution Weeds finds for this crisis of American Masculinity is the violent, psychopathic son. Shane, appropriately. The Western outlaw or loner hero, who is the pendant to the lawman hero. As Robert Ray explicated in A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, American mass culture’s mainline offers these pendant heroes (or anti-heroes, or one of each) and finds a resolution to their rivalry and conflict that spares the audience the necessity of choosing. And in this case, of Shane, the roles merge.
Shane, who can’t fuck Nancy (though does recognize her as that which is fucked and ought be fucked), is the masculine white American male figure, with a “south of the border” savage Tarzan-Mohican-Na’Vi education that counteracts the feminizing effects of California liberal civilization, who must emerge to fill the masculinity-deficit of the superior culture, which has been weakened by mingling but is also sustained by (cultural, material) plunder, in order to defend it from the inferior, barbaric but purer and more manly Others.
On the question of the self-awareness of the programme, I think this is self-congratulatory and really all about the programme forgiving itself for what it has to do to succeed, as does Nancy. The confessions are not penitent but publicist. It’s non-judgmental California liberalism is applied above all to itself, and its exhibitionist about its little sins of hedonism which trivialize its pleasurable contemptuous or othering racism and sadistic misogyny by lumping it with perfectly liberatory pro-humanity stances of enjoyment of drugs and sex and illegal immigration.
Yeah, I think Shane (and what a perfect name) is exactly that. But two things; within this structure, Esteban ends up emasculated by the Latina election planner/coordinator….who Shane of course kills. Estaban was not the real phallus. In one sense, Shane was/is.
The second, more important topic, is that as we exhaust the neo-imperialist tropes hidden in plain sight, and all the rest, what is really going on is that we are being consumed somehow by the show…..we are subjects, our language, everything, can only be expressed somehow in relation to this *commodity* — this corporate funded mass marketed product. Yes it’s (Weeds) writing of a high order of intelligence, and it is, and yes it is wildly amusing for sure. And yes, on some level the dissection of these codes and symbols are valuable….for it speaks to just how far the subversive can go in corporate media product.
Race and class and Imperialism are still being expressed vis a vis a commodity vehicle. And that culture industry posited and described almost sixty years ago, has colonized our consciousness– to a frightening degree. This is where I return to my own Notes on Theatre. I think that while I find myself, personally, often imprisoned within the confines of these narratives, which are actually, structurally, pre-fabricated (no matter how good the writing, acting, etc) I recognize the authentic, as Benjamin desired it, the unmediated engagement with art, lives on in a different manner in theatre. The very fact that theatre cannot be commodified to this degree, speaks to its inherent resistence. As one watches Nancy Botwin, or Tony Soprano, or whoever, the engagement remains filtered through a marketing lens…and micro adjustments take place every nano-second to the narrative, to the mimetic interpretive process…where we can see the confines of the experience-. which is very different from the destablizing de-unifying experience of theatre. The off stage (unconscious) does not exist, ever, in TV or film. Hence the *space* of theatre is allegorical and Dionysian and where *character* is NOT general –not a self referential cul de sac of earlier versions of the same. The specificity of theatre, or a good deal of painting and literature, exists in a dialectic with the real — this is the Oedipul drama we glimpse (if we’re Lacanian or Freudian) — all of which is a seperate discussion. But here we have television product substituting for that specificity with a sophisticated commodity seduction — even as the commodity form is being ridiculed (knowing hipsters) and while I think the Nancy narrative does possess compelling material — and where its certainly useful to examine race and class as its expressed or obscured in this show…(and partly its importance lies in the fact that black and poor and latino people CONSUME this show, too). However, the content of Weeds also does the same psychic work that Friends does, or CSI Omaha or whatever. We all feel the interchangable aspect. Its filtered out, automatically, for most of us, but its there.
Now, the surplus *meaning*…..we can use West Wing, the surplus meaning in that show, spilling over out of the unconscious, is clearly more puerile and fatuous and self aggrandizing for the class it targets. Id have been shocked if Sorkin HADNT won a jillions awards, for after all he is court hagiographer. The self love that you describe so perfectly covering the scent of masculine panic, is akin to eating two dozen Crispy Creme donuts and suffering pancreatic shut down/insulin shock, as the super ego’s desperate search for order and predictability gets more frantic— tricked out in nostalgic notions of nobility and the aged well thumbed verities of WHITE MALE EUROPEAN values. They are the mythic virtues of a fantasy Dickens or Samuel Butler even, as well as the nudge nudge wink wink acceptance that Lord Kitchner was actually, dont you agree, a pretty rum fellow.
I mean Weeds is a good deal more accurate barometer of white privilege, simply because it actually does question these same Dickensian bromides. Sorkin and his fucking Latin phrases (caveat canen motherfucker) and his noodely sentimentalizing of warfare, militarism, and phallic infatuation — (my favorite scene was John Spencer asking the Marine guard to come into his office and twirl the rifle in silent drill, while watching in adoration and admiration) are all so much treacle passing itself off as *serious*. It is the point exactly where the ruling class reactionary and ruling class liberal meet. In masculine privileging, the upper class phallic salute to middle brow taste (but believed in as ‘high art’ taste…’serious treacle’). I am reminded of Safron Foer, Franzen, and the rest of the middle mind personalities of the NYTimes book section or the NYRBs or even McSweeny’s. For this is at bottom the white frat boy grown paunchy, ever more anxious those spics and black dudes are stealing their chicks.
Sorkin never misses an opportunity for paternal condescension.
A final thought on American mythology — the gunfighter nation scenario, of Manifest Destiny — has found the revisionist critiques of McCarthy, and Ondattje, and the pale posturing of Rick Moody — the obsessions though remain, and so of course young Shane contains them in a rivalry that found its most perfect expression in the son of Nancy’s former boytoy, the FBI agent, who is in fact murdered. That particular plot point contained its own set of contradictions, but again, with immigrant potency the real driving force. The FBI guy is snatched away by the swarthiest of the swarthiest.
Okay so…we have a programme that puts on display for us legibly the liberal imperial white supremacy that characterises “Hollywood” and its anxieties and limited remorse. The matriarchal (third wave feminist) white family at the centre is composed of the self-fashioning American exceptional individuals on the go and the make in a multicultural world of determined tribes. The relations between the white family and the discreet tribal cliques – African Americans in south central, Mexicans and Chicanos in LA, San Diego, and Mexico, Arab Americans in Michigan – exhibit the superiority of the white family without releasing anger or animosity – indeed their openness to these raced others is among the traits that make them so superior. (The superiority isn’t moral in the traditional sense, but a gauge of their liberty, self-determination and free will.) The narrative mode of production sees the white family accumulating its individuality and richness through its exploitation of the “culture” of the tribal others whom they encounter. Every step of the way the white privilege and opportunism is confessed and then forgiven. But the portrait of the relations of the white family to the others also delineates an imperial apology in the guise of allegorizing imperial relations. Under the suburban mall maternity shop, a tunnel to Mexico is the conduit for drugs, arms and trafficked girls. On the one hand this displays the global division of labour and unmasks the fetishized commodities of the suburban mall; on the other it displaces the power of the order of crime and violence onto the colonized.
Although Weeds’ vision of white misfortune is not the tooth-gnashing resentment of fascist complaint, the framework offers the same basic vision of slave revolt in the neoliberal version: “ordinary” white people struggling for survival in a world where the stability of the patriarchal order has been usurped by raced tribes and the white people have evolved into rootless deterritorialized capital which in human form is expressed as precariousness. The programme like much neoliberal propaganda seeks a way to imagine and express white domination – to secure this quicksilver empire, this digital-derivative stage of capitalism – in this new configuration where the white individuals are globalized and flexible and the inferior others, the bodily ones, retain aspects of the strengths of the outmoded way of life (social democracy, the family, the community, industry).
So this is all laid out for us, enticing us to a discussion – the show invites Deleuzian dissertations: Uprooting the White Family: traffic versus growing in Weeds. It apologies for the stereotypes as it serves them up for delectation. It explains its discomfort with its own exploitativeness (as coyote its emasculated white male want to exploit but not sadistically, just enough for his own needs, not ‘rapey’.) Nancy Botwin says “I’m a drug dealer!” early on in the same way no doubt Jenji Kohan said that to herself working on Sex and the City. Who am I to judge the depraved and violent others? It’s a typical liberal supremacism…we’re no better than the savages!
But as you say then, this is all serving as a kind of trap for our thoughts about all this, an accessory now without which we cannot really think about these things or discuss them. It burdens us with a set of figures and materials, including these discrete raced “communities” and distinctive milieux that we must somehow deploy, thus reproducing the racist mythology. The programme seems like an object we interpret but it has become a prosthesis we have to use to handle feminism, white supremacy, imperialism, capital. Somehow it inserts itself between us and historical reality so that we can only think about and discuss that reality through it. And it is more obstructive than we at first realize. Because there is plenty of art the discussion of which facilitates an understand of history and human affairs. But this does not do that. It is designed to be discussable, to be used in this fashion, and it is built in such a way as to impose an ideology on that discussion. Now it is certainly possible to extricate oneself, and to expose the ideology of this product. But it is very time consuming. A laborious and tedious task. It is much easier just to use the prosthesis and accept how it distorts the discussion, and so we surrender to it. It would be too tiring to unpack all that is encrusted in Who gets to fuck Nancy as a dramatic problem substitution for feminism and the criticism of white supremacy and class relations. It is easier just to accept the paradigm Who gets to fuck Nancy imposes, and try to say something anyway, something approximating one’s thoughts. And so the discussion is controlled and limited and enclosed in property; in this way Weeds is not only a mechanism for the exploitation of our attention labour but simultaneously a discourse regulator, like an air conditioner. One can shut it off but one doesn’t.
But I feel the strain of discussing this content as I feel the powerful seduction of it – it is irresistible, it has offered itself for this kind of consumption, but it is also painfully strenuous and frustrating once one begins. It’s very different from, say, engaging in an examination of George Eliot novels for the same kinds of themes and issues. I cant really say how Weeds is doing this and I am so glad you feel it too, the pulling, the unwieldy nature of the material that is at the same time so inviting of this kind of analysis.
This may have to do with it being constructed as one of these ideologically interactive texts, this new kind of ambiguity – a total evasiveness – that allows text to be personalized for the consumer’s preferences. Its more than a post-modern irony and more than an amoralism. It’s an shifty, cagey, unstable tone, a perpetual duck/rabbit construction. The article on Oprah we both commented on at In The Times was an example – it can’t be interpreted; it is always a and not a, always an ironic comment on its own irony. The text will recede into sarcasm to evade any attempt to seize it. It’s difficult to talk about the very legible content of Weeds that the show invites one to notice and goads one to discuss, because it is also fluctuating like this, although it is finally tethered by sentimentality to the indestructible bonds of the television family as the repository of all value.
At a certain point, I began to feel something false in all I was saying here. Not that it was wrong….I don’t think it is. Its just that you sense nothing is at stake. If Im debating and analysing Eliot I sense that historical vanishing point looming, and if its Bolano, or someone, I feel it. I would feel it with Peter Brook. Its that an engagement took place, a sacrifice of some sort, and with Jenji Kohan one feels its as disposible as a Ikea electric fan, or something. I feel stupid if I write twenty pages on an Ikea fan….though, maybe not , really. The point is that if Brook creates something on stage — I have to exert my own work. Is it just TV? Perhaps….but I think its TV as its evolved in commodity form. Obviously we have had compelling TV, from Jack Ruby to Cracker, perhaps. Where I felt something changed by this viewing — it can be debated and disputed, but the specific event carried some sort of weight. With Weeds I’m not sure that it can ever do that. Its made to be thrown away. Its amusing, and it is, and its smart, and it is, and actually I think NOT sentimental….but its disposible somehow. The narrative commodifies itself, confines itself within a certain range of awareness, and leaves it there. Now this is something I am reminded of when a show will air a special episode…”tonight a very special episode of Who gets to Fuck Nancy”, with guest star Jesus Christ. I mean no matter WHAT is tossed up there, it evaporates, its significance evaporates. Why is that? I start to feel as if I am self commodifying. Thats the confining-defining aspect to all of this.
The disposible doesnt preclude meaning. Astrology Columns can be mined for meaning — and its not, again, that anything we’ve said is wrong…or right for that matter…its that the target keeps moving because its agency in the society, in this electronic field, is somehow like critical teflon. It reproduces a viewer….and is part of this media empire, and I guess somehow the terms of what narrative does has altered. This leads back to the medium again on the one hand. And to commodity form in another. Part of Kohan’s cleverness is to intuit the transitory — the I am here now and now Im not here. You are allowed this pleasure of recognition and then it’s gone. Popular culture is clearly worthy of a close reading and as extensive an analysis as is possible, but the nature of that analysis, I think, more and more demands an understanding of exactly ‘what kind’ of disposible cultural commodity is being looked at. Perhaps most importantly — and this speaks to the role of artists as we move forward– there needs to be a continuing examination of the conatinment, psychically, that mass media performs.
The ideology is a simulcra of ideology. And vice versa.
(I agree its not really sentimental. But it resorts to sentimentality to keep the family interacting.)
I feel, finally, that discussing feminism, race, empire, capital through Weeds will result in something similar to what’s coming out now from the Assange headlines and the “debate” about it. It imposes the same kinds of terms. and there is also the same uncontrollable fluctuation of the point of view. This is the first show that made me see this – perhaps because it’s the first one I’ve watched and enjoyed in a long while. But it has a similar effect to that you get in academic discussions with certain kinds of neologisms or branded concepts…the way the use of “deterritorialization” or “floating signifier” or “Schmitt’s friend/enemy” or “homo sacer” or even “hegemony” works. These terms make certain kinds of discussion easier but one can also deploy them to impose form on discussions that contain one’s interlocutor, who can escape but only laboriously. Television programmes like this, designed to be consumed as these objects of light sociological speculations, mould and constrain discussion, and exercise pulls and pressures on thought as a result, much more powerfully and totally. One can feel the control of the one’s ideas through the control of the language and concepts (the show itself, so vivid, so much more vivid and condensed than language and history); one can feel oneself giving in and adapting one’s ideas to those which can be easily expressed with this show. It’s like academic fashions and barbie together…one becomes whatever one can express through citations of French post-structuralists delivered with Barbie, Ken and their playhouses.
We are encouraged to think “politically” about and through the show but it helps us erase consciousness of the history it usurps even as we discuss it – it helps us erase consciousness of the fact that this loving liberal entertainment flaunting its good will about the adorable Chicano and Mexican criminal killers who menace and threaten the irresistible white family is the mass media for an audience in a country whose reality is this:
And I can almost feel something yanking at my hair when I notice this, pulling me away; I can anticipate hostile, cult-like responses of “fans” to such remarks, the insistence on retreat from this border of the television world to approved, formulaic topics and concerns and the regurgitation of interpretations that are vended as accessories of the show (which is always viewed as some genuine commentary on the genuine state of “America”, in the case of the kwaltieevee cable every-genre-as-sex-romp it tends to be “pre-read” as an investigation of cultural decadence and “imperial decline”).
But I still want to discuss. More and more mass media attracts and absorbs these impulses. I really do wonder what a generation that sees Hunger Games and Avatar at nine and ten will be like if the present generation of adults does not succeed in expropriating the expropriators.
This is something, obviously, I think a good deal about. I continue to believe that culturally, the point at which a society cannot, really CANNOT distinguish difference…..if its Dostoyevsky or Franzen. I mean the engagement with aesthetics does have implications. Hunger Games is not even a narrative, really, its a signifier for a narrative. Its a short hand….and if that generation you posit, reads that the same way they read political debate or Pasolini or whatever, then there is a psychic flat-lining.
I think its not only the control exercised by TV shows, its exercised by TV itself, and the internet, and the volume of image and code and truncated narrative, fragments, and none of these thoughts are new — but the terms in which they operate have, I think, shifted in significant ways.
So you watch Hunger Games and take away this attenuated set of sign codes….refrenced to earlier ones from other shows and films and entertainment (sic). Thats it. But we know this…..and so when we see Weeds, where the narrative is much more substantive and character more complex and the subject of the narrative actually something worth discussing…..that structure set in place, now so absolutley, by the Hunger Games sales and marketing apparatus, tends to channel the discussion of Weeds in certain
directions, or as we keep saying, confine it.
In one sense we’re talking about hegemony. The confinment erases distinctions and difference. Its the collision of discourses. The discourse of the establishment corporate capitalist media empire and my discourse, critical and historical. Lacan says the discourse of the analyst hystericises the analysand. There is something going on here that resembles that.
One other thought, related, but indirectly in a sense. The pov of white privilege, the racism and apologies for authority and all the rest….not just Weeds, but the entire media output….is less the problem. I mean the bigger problem is that the pov of the *other* is not really shown…what IS shown is the domesticated diluted version of that….if even that. This is the place where the sentimentalizing is so pernicious. Nancy Botwin is a fascinating character, and I want to talk about it as well, and continue to. But the absence of the outside –or more, the colonizing of the pov of the outside, is another equally large topic.