Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Super Sweet 16: Geri Hormel

I chose Geri Hormel’s episode of My Super Sweet 16 titled, “Rocky Horror Party” because I am interested in many of the issues and ideas associated with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was filled with hope and optimism that there might be hint of queerness and non-normative gender roles in this MTV episode. However, reality (pun intended) hit immediately as I found out that I don’t watch enough television to know that I should not have expected Geri’s party to turn out like I had hoped. Geri’s fortune that enabled her to appear on My Super Sweet 16 comes from her great-grandfather’s company, Hormel foods and her grandfather’s invention; Spam.  As Geri eloquently puts it, “my lifestyle is different from other fifteen year olds because my great-grandfather ‘invented’ the Hormel foods company”, concluding that she is “not spoiled, just pampered.”
I was especially interested in Geri’s episode when I leaned that she was of the Hormel family that based their early operations in Minnesota. Hormel is a massive corporation that demonstrates an imperialist mode of control over workers, animals and the environment, all while greenwashing their promotional campaigns in the interest of profit. And as you can see, I have a lot of things to say about Hormel, so I will try not to unfairly criticize the company and Geri’s family for the rest of the paper…

In the episode, Geri constructs herself and is constructed by editing powers as bizarre and a “geek”, suggesting she is an outlier in white femininity. Reading herself into an extension of this idea, Geri decides to have her party’s theme be centered on the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, since the movie, like her “is so outrageous and crazy”. She wants to have “a bloody leg” and sharks swimming in her pool, and in her exact words, “There’s gonna be little people”. An additional demand she makes is that all of her friends should come to the party dressed in drag. Geri’s reasons for choosing The Rocky Horror Picture Show as her theme elides privileges that allow her to temporarily engage and even temporarily identify herself with certain types of “craziness” embodied by drag queens, little people and others who do not neatly fit into normative body standards.

Up until this point, in addition to problematic instances, we can also recognize the subtle subversion of the dialectic of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity that Leigh H. Edwards recognizes in her article, “What A Girl Wants”, as a location of subversive and potentially productive identifications and experiences. Edwards has an optimistic approach to normativity and power dynamics in reality television and makes a conclusion that, “Reality television explores alterations to conventional ideas of gender and related social structures even as it keeps recurring to traditional ‘norms.’” Although I am less optimistic than Edwards about the future potential of these subtle subversions, I will attempt to understand them partially through her framework.

The onscreen caption at this time reads, “Ain’t life a drag?” just before Geri exclaims, “I hired a drag queen named Trixy” (a woman of color drag queen). Trixy, Geri and a couple of Geri’s friends go on a mission to hand out invitations to Geri’s party. Geri has Trixy walk up to her friends’ houses and knock on their doors while Geri and her friends stay hidden and laugh as their friends are confused, shocked and defensive because of Trixy’s presence at their door.
These scenes were difficult for me to watch because of the dynamics, conflicts and interactions of gender, racial, class and sexuality combined with what I felt was an underlying mode of exploitation through objectification, exoticism and fetishization. These feelings conflicted with my attempts to apply Leigh H. Edwards’ optimistic framework, which might recognize the problematic nature of the scene, yet would still define the experience as subversive because of the inherent personal political impacts.

In the next section titled “What a Drag”, Geri goes cross-country to seek out Jackie Beat, a famous drag queen whom Geri wants to be the master of ceremonies at her party. Geri tells Jackie about the party and what she’s expecting and looking forward to saying, “The theme has to do with like, drag queens and I’m gonna have midgets” and “I’m really excited to see how people react when the first thing they’re seeing is a giant drag queen”. Jackie reacts to this and takes back control within the space by making suggestive jokes about money and sexual favors that Geri doesn’t know how to respond to. As this initial interaction between the two ends, Jackie makes Geri even more uncomfortable by asking if Geri has her checkbook ready to pay her in advance. After an awkward pause, Jackie breaks the tension by sarcastically explaining that she was just “joking”.
The first portion of this scene objectified little people’s lives and their bodies by ignorantly using the term “midget”, which is widely understood to be offensive in aiding a societal (de)construction of little people as mere objects or commodities for consumption. I am hesitant to map feminist or queer critiques onto situations in which it can be offensive to project my white, male understanding of feminism. This is exacerbated by the fact that this interaction between Jackie and Geri, and the whole episode has been modified and filtered through MTV’s editing. However, I felt that this scene was one of the few spaces in the episode in which power dynamics shifted away from Geri’s side. In addition to being a drag queen, Jackie is also veteran comedian and we see some of her developed tactics used in this scene to manipulate and deflect Geri’s objectifying approach while still retaining the value of certain parts of their relationship like monetary compensation. I believe that this can be interpreted as a queer and feminist form of disidentification in which Jackie has employed fluid tactics in asserting her own agency in order to navigate and manipulate the hostility directed at her.

Back at Geri’s house, her and a friend, Nicole are preparing props for the party which include full size mannequins. Within the context of talking about drag and drag queens, they are trying to put a mannequin’s torso on to its hips and Geri says, “Nicole, hold her butt”. I hate to make this type of cynical statement but to me it makes perfect sense that MTV would include the clip of Nicole responding, “Ok…I don’t swing that way”.I believe that the producers consciously include clips like this in order to make informal disclaimers or assertions that this episode and MTV as a whole is not supporting any queerness or feminism that can be extracted from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This figurative disclaimer of heteronormativity serves to hold the attention of MTV’s predominantly white, middle or middle-upper class audience, which translates into higher ratings and more profitable products.

The next section featuring the caption; “Horror show” has Geri bossing her friends around during a practice run through of the party. Declaring, “For my grand entrance, little people are going to escort me into my party”. The (figurative) Hormel heiress points to three of her friends and then to her boyfriend saying, “You three are midgets, and you’re the drag queen”. Her boyfriend reacts with disgust, which is met by a threat from Geri: “if you don’t dress up for me, I’m breaking up with you”. He gives in and is soon dressed in a black cocktail dress, a massive wig and a pink feather boa, opening him up to be the butt of their jokes as they run through Geri’s grand entrance. 
Similar to the previous scene, I believe that some of these clips where non-conforming masculinities and femininities become the subject of jokes are the product of MTV editing in order to maintain an atmosphere of heteronormativity.

Finally…the party!
Geri decides to wear an expensive red dress as well as getting her hair curled and put into a style that seems quite prom-esque. I don’t want to generalize, but Geri and two of her friends present stereotypical MTV “Sweet 16” femininities and are not in drag. Geri asked all of her friends to come in drag because it paralleled how ridiculous and outrageous she is, yet the femininities her and her closest friends perform creates an interesting dynamic.
I thought this was an interesting conflict in the episode, which tried to construct Geri as “geeky”, “outrageous”, “crazy” and generally different from stereotypes of Sweet 16 girls and their femininities. This criticism is coming from my multiply-privileged position, but in addition to contradicting her assertions of bizarreness and implied near-insanity, I feel that by making everyone except her closest friends dress in some variation of drag, Geri became a sort of voyeur/colonizer as she gazed down off the stage upon the crowd. In this situation, although Geri’s ease in wearing a fancy dress is important to recognize as possible fluctuation, Edwards’ framework might have a difficult time recognizing what could be considered Geri’s fluidity as something that is honestly subverting normativity, especially if it is unaware of forces acting simultaneously.
One of Geri’s requests for her guests besides dressing in drag was that they learn to do the “Time Warp” dance from The Rocky Horror Picture Show so that they could all do it together. It is worth noting that during the scene where they attempted the dance as a whole group, the song that was played on the show was definitely not the “Time Warp” from Rocky and I am quite sure it was not even a remake. Although I am not quite sure what I think this may mean, I feel like it could be related to or could literally be another one of MTV’s responses of disassociation regarding discomfort with the possibilities of queer or feminist readings of the episode’s focus on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. By not including the real song, the show erases a radical and important aspect of the film while ascribes a new, normative value upon the “Time Warp” and The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a text.
The party continues and since Geri asked for an exotic animal as a present, her parents present her with a Zorse (half zebra, half horse). I would simply like to point out blatant connections between MTV and Geri’s exoticization/exploitation of drag queens, little people and other non-conforming humans and the colonizing fetishization of “exotic” animals like Alpacas and Zorses. I believe that the objectification, commodification, regulation and imperial-mentality ownership of bodies regardless of shape, size, appearance, location or ability among many other aspects of uniqueness is in direct conflict with the project of intersectional and positionally conscious feminism.Near the end of the episode Geri is walking and holding hands with four of the little people she had hired for her party. Geri’s voiceover declares, “no one throws a bizarre and outrageous party like me”, as she walks through a door without accounting for the chain of people holding hands, putting the people walking with her into a brief moment of discomfort. Immediately following the voiceover, she says, “you’re lagging” indirectly to the people who were caught in an awkward position by her spatial presence.
This scene can be translated as a metaphor that speaks to a dire need for continued positional consciousness, both figuratively and literally.
As I stated before, I was drawn to this episode because of the possibilities of queer and feminist spaces provided by focusing on The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the party theme. However, from the very beginning, Geri articulates thoughts that lead me to believe that her and I do not share a common understanding and relationship to the film and its messages. Geri’s verbal, mental and physical exploitation of drag queens, little people and animals demonstrate a severe need for more positionally conscious and intersectional evaluation and action. Inconsiderate and reckless exploitation, commodification and objectification of all, inter-related non-normative bodies, which flowed throughout the episode including into the final images and departing message illustrates a clear and urgent need to spread feminist and queer forms of positional consciousness and intersectional approaches.

Moorti, Sujata, and Karen Ross. "Reality television." Feminist Media Studies 4.2 (July 2004): 203-231. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. DeWitt Wallace Library, Saint Paul, Minnesota. 1 Dec. 2008.

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