In memory of Michael Jackson, who passed away on June 25, 2009 and the current controversy of HBO’s Leaving Neverland, I’m sharing an essay I wrote for Hazel Carby’s class at Yale about Michael Jackson. The essay was previously published in CRITICAL MASS.
When I first watched Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on a Hong Kong English television channel at thirteen years old, I didn’t think much of Michael Jackson’s blackness. Michael was probably the first black singer I had heard, and “Thriller” was the first music video that caught my attention. I would not have been interested (or even watched) “Thriller” if it hadn’t been for Michael Jackson’s metamorphosis into a werewolf, i.e. if it hadn’t been for the special effects.
It was precisely Michael Jackson the monster who attracted me. I was a horror movie fan, and I grew to be a special effects fan–especially transformation effects such as those in Howling and An American Werewolf in London (whose director John Landis also uncoincidentally directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”).
As a teenager, I would read American monster make-up books, and made myself and my friends up as monsters. Alone, I went trick-or-treating in a werewolf mask on Halloween day when no chinese person in Hong Kong celebrated (or even heard of) Halloween.
I had my first ejaculation after watching Conan the Barbarian on video. In my fantasy, I became the woman who seduced Conan and transformed into a snake witch. And Conan stabbed me with his sword. Before having conceptualized homosexuality, my adolescent sexual fantasy was all about boys in my class who were vampire boys in my fantasy where I became them and imagined a stake driven through “my” heart by an older male vampire hunter.
1.00 michael jackson’s monstrosity
His hair became less ethnic and more European
looking…he slowly began to alter other features.
His broad, unmistakably Negroid nose became narrow,
his rounded chin became square and clefted, and
with each new album release, from Thriller to
Bad, his dark skin seemed to become progressively
paler. In what appeared to be a testament to his
media savvy, Michael emerged from his persona as
the youngest, cutest member of Jackson 5 to the
persona as an internationally recognizable Black
superstar–with long, free-swinging hair, delicate
features, and light skin.
Further buried in the media’s mythologizing gossip (such as that Michael Jackson was trying to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, was sleeping in an oxygen tank, and “has undergone so much plastic surgery that he hardly looks Black anymore” [Russell 135]…etc.), Michael Jackson is an other (both exotified and monstrified) in the eyes of the dominant (african American) community. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Thriller LP (including the video Thriller directed by John Landis) marks Michael Jackson’s metamorphosis–in the eyes of the public–diegetically (in the music video) from Michael Jackson’s character into a werewolf and zombie, and extra-diegetically (in ‘real’ life) from Michael Jackson of Jackson 5 to Michael Jackson “a paragon of sexual and racial ambiguity.” (Mercer 27)
What fascinates me is Michael Jackson’s resistance to dichotomization and categorization between diegesis and extra-diegesis*, between black and White, between male and female, between heterosexual and homosexual, generating a paralysis of perfect identification and dominant codication which is precisely the predicate of popular controversy. Michael Jackson has become a “real-life” cyborg monster (born and caught in a liberal humanist culture and media technology) as he “not only questions dominant stereotypes of black masculinity, but also gracefully steps outside the range of ‘types’ of black men.” (Mercer 43)
1.02 cosmetic idiosyncrasies
Cosmetics and cosmetic surgery were politically problematic (and even taboo) in the politics of people of color, so highly suspicious of technology, which often insist on a certain essential ethics of non-constructive esthetics and naturalism in order to embattle the arbitrary and racist construction of dominant hegemony’s esthetic canon. Haraway writes:
American radical feminists like Susan Griffin,
Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich have profoundly
affected our political imaginations–and perhaps
restricted too much what we allow as a friendly
body and political language. They insist on the
organic, opposing it to the technological. (174)
If black skin is the central political fetish of the african American community, then the slanted Oriental eyes is that of the asian American community which we feel so compulsive to disavow and unwittingly reaffirm. As Michael Jackson was rumored to lighten his skin so that he might appear more “White” and acceptable to his White audience, many asian Americans who had single-fold eye-lids underwent plastic surgery to transform their asian eyes into more “White” ones (or such is the popular intention propagated “the asian American consciousness”). Although products such as skin bleaching cream are physically harmful and thus become a health and ethical/political dilemma in African countries, the eye-lid surgery has a different and non-racial (at least not in the dichotomy between White and asian) context in Asia where it is “common” (especially in Japan where the eye-lid surgery could hardly be termed as a post-colonial complex) and not as politicized.
More problematic with Michael Jackson’s cosmetic surgery or self-transformation is that it is a class/economic issue inseparable from race (skin whitener injection for the privileged, and skin bleaching cream for the lower class). Keeping in mind the economic issue, I would like to explore Michael’s attempt at self-transformation and racial subversion–both biologically and culturally–through his (more than) conscious manipulation of his image both within the American cultural text and outside it.
The Making of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” a docu/promotional video about the filming of Thriller including the music video itself, sold almost half a million copies and through which “the music industry gradually developed a commitment to the production of promotional clips.” (Goodwin 39) The popularity of the video is not simply produced by a diegetic spectacle (as the music video itself) but also the extra-diegetic narrative (which is what goes on behind the spectacle, the making of the spectacle), just as Michael Jackson’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show radically boosted his album Dangerous that “jumped from 26th to 12th on the charts” (Tucker 19) in the week after the interview.
The dichotomy of diegetic/extra-diegetic is phantasmatic because the extra-diegetic–the supposedly non-constructed Michael Jackson (and his “private life”)–is no less constructed (such as the “documentary” form like The Oprah Winfrey Show) than his dramatized/”fictionalized” spectacles. The appeal of the extra-diegetic in popular culture lies in its mythologized opposition to the diegetic, i.e. there is another Michael Jackson behind the fictionalized spectacle. Andrew Goodwin writes:
Pop performance is therefore not only a commodity
in itself but also an essential adjunct to the
business of selling T-shirts, records, tapes, and
compact discs. The emergence of promotional music
videos must be understood in light of this fact:
that pop performance has always had a largely
promotional role. (28)
Marsha Kinder also writes in her book on the intertextuality of popular movies, television, and video games that “What is unique here is the centrality of the product promotion, as if designed to teach young spectators that such commercial intertextuality is the cultural norm.” (94) Commercial intertextuality operates on the simultaneous reinforcement (the diegetic Michael Jackson has something to do with extra-diegetic Michael Jackson) and disavowal (the diegetic Michael Jackson is different from the extra-diegetic) of difference; and it is precisely this simultaneous contradiction that fascinates popular culture consumers, constitutes our subjectivity in a capitalist society, and mocks the contradictory identity of a cultural minority who (like that of Michael Jackson) is the contradiction itself.
Michael Jackson is a cyborg–because he is half text and half human–who demands reading from an intertextuality of multi-media (from Michael Jackson’s recorded voice to his video image to his “real” life image to his character in the Nintendo video game). To read Michael Jackson beyond “face value,” (Harris 19) we need to avoid getting caught in the rigid dichotomies of diegetic/extra-diegetic and fiction/fact, to engage ourselves in a different play, a kind of subversive one which I believe Michael Jackson is conscious of.
1.22 notes from a fan
• Who pays when you and Brooke are on a date?
• Who’s the other woman you’ve loved?
• Are you or have you ever been in psychotherapy?
• Why do you use light skin makeup rather than
dark to even out your skin? And what brand of
make up is it?
• Define gentleman.
• C’mon, are you a virgin or not? (Tucker 18)
In Hong Kong, television images I grew up with were a mix of asian and White people. My teachers encouraged us to watch English television, and I fell in love with American movies. The protagonists were always White, and I learned to identify with them, learned to look at a mirror where my reflection was the other’s.
I had been a fat child.
When I began to slim down, acne haunted me. Sometimes I couldn’t look at my face in the mirror for a month. Sometimes I would stare at my reflection for hours to convince myself that I was not too abnormal looking.
In my fantasy, I am never myself. I always steal another’s image, another’s body that I’m attracted to. In my fantasy, I am in drag, in a camouflage of the other (sometimes even a monster). I long to be a cyborg who could put on somebody’s skin, somebody’s face at will. My inside would only be metal and thoughts.
1.41 narrativity & SPFX
In film, it’s special effects. In real life, it’s plastic surgery, cosmetics and clothing camouflage. They all share a particular function: to reinforce the dichotomy between inside/outside, to construct some sort of naturalistic authenticity (for example, to pass) while at the same time quite self-consciously, secretively celebrating that very act of construction.
In The Making of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” there was an extensive section titled “Metamorphosis” on the making of the special make-up effects which transform Michael Jackson into a werewolf. While showing us the different stages of make-up, the make-up artist says:
He wanted to change into a monster…Michael really
wanted the most in this thriller is to do the
transformation. He wanted to change into a monster.
I actually was trying to talk him out of it. And he
just wants to go through it. I don’t know why…
When the make-up is finished, Michael Jackson (now in the werewolf mask) walks to the front of the mirror with Director John Landis and looks at the reflection. Jackson says:
You put this thing on and you slowly
metamorphosed into this whole another person,
and when you look at yourself from the mirror…
the whole mood and the character come to life. You
can see the way it should walk, the way it should
react, the way it should move.
Certainly it seems that Michael Jackson does want to present himself as somewhat a monster, an other, whether it is merely a ploy to attract attention or that he sincerely is fascinated by monstrification, or perhaps both. Desiring to be a monster often leads to the manufacturing of otherness. The otherness machine is a machine because s/he/it is by definition not natural, not essential since otherness is always constructed, always a spectacle that involves the gaze between a self and another. Identifying with the other is juxtaposed against the centrality of us-ness, a sense of phantasmatic normality that we (me and Michael Jackson) may feel that we can never attain.
In The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz writes:
Thus film is like a mirror. But it differs from
the primordial mirror in one essential point:
although, as in the latter, everything may come
to be projected, there is one thing and one thing
only that is never reflected in it: the spectator’s
own body…The spectator can also identify with the
actor, in more or less ‘a-fictional’ film in which
the latter is represented as an actor, not a
character, but is still offered thereby as a
human being (as a perceived human being) and thus
allows identification. (47)
The paradox of narrative filmic identification is that on one hand the images allow the spectator to escape his/her “self” while at the same time enforcing some kind of an identification. If the other is a construction of the dominant self, then does not the pleasure of narrative film precisely play on this ambiguous boundary between self/other? Is it then only in narrative film that one can get both–being the other and being yourself at the same time?
Not only were “Jackson’s videos for singles from the Thriller LP…the first to penetrate this racial boundary” (Mercer 10) of MTV which had been excluding black artists, Thriller the music video was the first one that “organizes the flow of images by framing it with a powerful story-telling or narrational direction which provides continuity and closure” (Mercer 11). As Mercer argues, “Thriller’s” narrativity is “powerful” because it allows the play of identification (of both Michael Jackson and the diverse spectators) through “a playful parody of stereotypes, codes and conventions of the ‘horror’ genre.” (11) The play of narrativity involves the playful confusion of narratological framing. The video begins with a film-within-a-film. A new narrative begins with Michael walking out of the cinema with his girl friend. Then finally the girl friend wakes up from yet another narrative frame–a dream. The play of filmic narrativity is fused with special effects to shuttle the spectator through a web of identificatory relationships with Michael Jackson who turns and re/turns into a human (“us”) and monster (“other”) throughout the video.
Kobena Mercer writes:
“Thriller’s” rhetoric of parody presupposes a
degree of self-consciousness on the part of the
spectator, giving rise to a supplementary
commentary on the sexuality and sexual identity of
its star, Michael Jackson. Thus, the warning ‘I’m
not like other guys’ can be read by the audience
as a reference to Jackson’s sexuality. Inasmuch
as the video audience is conscious of the gossip
which circulates around the star, the statement of
difference provokes other meanings: is he
homosexual, transsexual or somehow presexual? (20)
Racial and sexual ambiguity are necessitated by a play of identifications, a kind of tease which generates spectatorial interest while simultaneously acting as a defensive opacity and impenetrability. The spectacle of heterosexuality is constantly disrupted by Michael Jackson turning into a monster–by his difference–and reinforced. When Michael Jackson faces his own monstrified reflection in the mirror (outside the music video’s narrative), he once again invokes the play of us/other and human/monster with the spectator.
What is poignant is his desire for otherness, for metamorphosis, which enables him to transcend his othered humanity (his blackness, compulsive heterosexuality) while at the same time reinscribing him in another otherness, another monstrification, though the latter one is self-willed rather than conventionalized.
In “Thriller” the music video, there are two transformations. The first one takes place in a horror film-within-a-film where Michael Jackson’s character transforms into a werewolf after telling the girl (with whom he is on a date) that he was “different from other guys.” The second one takes place after the Michael Jackson character (outside the film-within-a-film) walks out of the cinema into the night where he transforms into a zombie. These two metamorphoses are central to the play of identifications. The first metamorphosis is sexualized. The werewolf plays on the stereotype of the oversexed and animalized black male; at the same time, it disrupts the heterosexual encounter which may serve as a counter-heterosexual identity that allows subaltern reading such as a queer or feminist one. Nevertheless, the werewolf symbolized an anormative other, an other outside of the dominant community.
Quite on the contrary, the second metamorphosis is distinguished from the first in the sense that this time the transformed subject is no longer a lone werewolf but a “converted” zombie among a crowd of other zombies. It is crucial to note that Michael Jackson turns into a zombie after the appearance of a large group of other zombies which signifies a particular movement from individual to collective monstrification–a sort of co-optation (peer pressure?) into a group of lifeless pale corpses that dance and move exactly like one another.
In the essay “White,” Richard Dyer offers an insightful analysis on the representation of “Whiteness” on screen. Particularly in his interpretation of George A. Romero’s living dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead , Dawn of the Dead , Day of the Dead ), Dyer sees the zombies (“living dead”) as a representation of White people and that is why “the hero is a black man, and not just because this makes him ‘different,’ but because it makes it possible to see that whites are the living dead.” (61) He further argues that:
The white characters…lose that control while
alive, and come back in the monstrously
uncontrolled form of zombieness. The hysterical
boundedness of the white body is grotesquely
transgressed as the white/zombies gouge out living
white arms, pull out organs, munch at orifices…
‘The fear of one’s own body, of how one controls
it and relates to it’ and the fear of not being
able to control other bodies, those bodies whose
exploitation is fundamental to capitalist economy,
are both at the heart of whiteness. (64-65)
In Making, it is interesting to note that half of the entire cast of zombies is african American, though in the pale zombie make-up these african American actors are indistinguishable from other White actors because all of them are “zombified,” including Michael Jackson who shuttled in and out of his zombie identity.
Adopting Dyer’s analogy between Whiteness and zombification, I suggest that Michael Jackson’s zombification is a premonition of his skin-whitening dis/ease. It is no coincident that Thriller the music video constantly mimics and refers to other horror films since, as Philip Brothy notes:
It is a genre which mimics itself mercilessly–
because its statement is coded in its very
mimicry… It is not so much that the modern horror
film refutes or ignores the conventions of genre,
but it is involved in a violent awareness of itself
as a saturated genre. (3-5)
The zombies are a group of faceless pale corpses that symbolize the White (heterosexualized) dominant mass. It is through zombification (be it black actors putting on zombie make-up or Michael Jackson turning into a zombie) that one’s ethnicity and skin-color vanishes from visual scopophilia. Similarly, it is through a particular genre discourse (such as horror or science-fiction which allows Samuel Delany to pass as an ethnically and sexually unmarked writer) that a cultural minority may pass and escape the scopophilic fetish of skin color. Of course, Michael Jackson precisely plays on these dichotomies between black & White, monster & human, individual & collective by transgressively shuttling back and forth between them, projecting a sexual-racial ambiguity that continually and sensationally dazzles and puzzles his spectators.
1.50 not BAD enough
From “Thriller” to “Black and White,” Michael Jackson relies heavily on “magic”–cinematic and video special effects that transform Michael Jackson into a glorified/glamorized or grotesque other which may grant him a certain transcendence from being bound to a black/ethnic performer. In the video “Moonwalker,” specifically the adventure narrative starring Michael and three child actors, Michael transforms into a japanese cartoon inspired cyborg through computer graphics animation and blows the bad guys away. In the claymation short before the robot video, Michael Jackson is chased by a group of claymated fans. He puts on a rabbit mask (à la Roger Rabbit?) in a studio prop room and becomes a claymated rabbit character (again blending into the mass) and rides off in a motorbike. In his recent Black and White video, the context of special effects becomes clearer in the sequence where faces of different races (black, asian, White…etc.) morph into each other, signifying a universality and sameness among all races while secretively reinscribing the desire to transform (into White).
Michael Jackson’s popularity in the mainstream may be explained precisely by this transformative universality or otherness that attempts to remove Michael Jackson from the ghettoizing collectivity of blackness and places him on the pedestal as Michael Jackson the star, the ultimate other, the werewolf, the sexually and racially ambiguous, the freak, the cyborg, as the Essex Hemphil writes in his poem “Object Lessons”:
The pedestal was here,
so I climbed up.
I located myself.
I appropriated this context.
It was my fantasy,
my desire to do so
and lie here
on my stomach.
Why are you looking?
What do you wanna
do about it? (69-70)
The paradox of Michael Jackson’s image is that on one hand he tries to pass (as White and heterosexual) but he attempts to do so by asserting an ultimate individualism–an absolute otherness–and by creating another phantasmatic spectacle to displace the racial/sexual spectacle cast upon a cultural minority. However, Michael Jackson’s success lies precisely in the acceptability of his otherness which is all harmless and fantastical already framed within various genres and codes of popular culture. This ambiguity may provide a permanent deferral of categorization and some sort of implicative, subaltern identifications (both for Michael Jackson himself or for some subversive readers like me), yet it undermines any radical political subversion.
2.00 christmas, 1992
It was my fifth Christmas Eve in Montreal. Both of my sisters were home. My divorced mother (who promised to return but didn’t) was in Hong Kong. The snow had stopped that night. My elder younger sister went out with her friends after having been thoroughly irritated by my videotaping at Christmas dinner (fried chicken wings, roast chicken, chinese vermicelli salad, pilipino jelly pudding). My father took my youngest sister Tabitha and I to his friend’s house.
A thirteen-year-old boy named Tuck, my sister and I were sitting in the living room staring at Return to Oz on television. Tuck’s father had quite a temper (as I heard from my father) and he broke Tuck’s Nintendo video game system because Tuck was getting bad grades.
“What do you want to do?” asked Tuck, waking me from my depressed trance (My lover was in Berkeley, and I was watching our fucking footage over and over again in the editing room).
“We can go bowling if you guys want to,” I said.
With the fathers’ permission, I took Tuck and my sister out to a bowling alley. It was ironic since Christmas Eve was supposed to be a “family” occasion yet all the children were shoved out of their home in boredom. I felt depressed for being lonely and queer, and I tried to escape by playing the temporary role of a brotherly/motherly figure by taking the younger kids out.
In the bowling alley, there was a Street Fighter II machine. Tuck played against another White teenager. They both chose the same japanese/asian character Ryu. The two self-same asian characters fought against each other on the computer screen. My solidarity lay with Tuck. Was it because he was my friend or asian?
Tuck lost. He rolled his eyes and shrugged. I wondered if he thought he should win because he was more authentically asian than the White teenager playing an asian character.
3.01 choose a character
The difference between the arcade and the video game version of Street Fighter II is that the player has more characters to choose from beyond the eight world warriors: Ryu (a chinese-trained japanese fighter), Edmond Honda (a japanese Sumo wrestler), Blanka (a “bizarre fighter from the jungles of Brazil…half-man, half-beast” [Instruction Booklet 20]), Guile (American), Ken (a chinese-trained American fighter), Chun Li (the only chinese female), Zangief (USSR), and Dhalsim (asian indian). In the arcade version, the player can choose the Street Fighting Elites: Balrog (a “psychotic” [Nintendo Power 92] african-American), Vega (Spanish) and Sagat (thai).
What fascinates me is that these video games allow the player to choose characters, especially in the context of Street Fighter II where one does choose an ethnic fighter whose special skills are inseparably connected to its ethnic stereotype. Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. writes:
By choosing which character he wants to be, the
player is provided with variability in terms of how
difficult the game will be to play. This the goal
is made more personally meaningful because the
player has some (although limited) choice over
which characters included in the game has different
powers, playing the game the same way with each
character will result in very different outcomes. (44)
Racial solidarity and identification becomes a murky issue as my sister and a chinese-american freshman at Yale both claim that ethnicity does not affect their choice of characters but rather the technical skills that each character can perform. However, one chinese-American junior admits that he does think about the ethnicity of the characters, and he would prefer to choose an asian character if the character plays as well as Ken, the White American chinese-trained fighter. Suggie, a korean American senior, admits that she is the only female player among a crowd of asian men at Yale.
“I think about ethnicity in a kind of joking way,” says Suggie, “like I’d say ‘I’m playing the japanese man (Ryu)’ and I’d call Chun-Li ‘a bitch.’ If they did have a korean character, I’d probably choose the korean character if he’s (presumptuously masculinized) good enough. I’m looking forward to Street Fighter IV because I think they have a korean character.”
Provenzo also notes that:
A fourth grade boy explained, for example, that he
wasn’t sure if the Ninja were Chinese or Japanese,
but that the Chinese and the Japanese were the
enemies because “just because they are from Japan
they might want to do something different from you.
And they are dangerous because they might want to
fight with you.” Thus the enemy is anonymous.
There is no understanding of why things are the way
they are–no history, no context, simply a threat
and a need to act. (126)
Ironically, most of the Nintendo games are produced and designed by japanese manufacturers and their games run the chance of objectifying themselves (and asians) as a race in different cultural contexts (such as the U.S.A.). While asian American activists have been trying to undo the stereotypical martial artist image of asian Americans so popularized by Hollywood, video games such as Street Fighter II or Bruce Lee movies do have a significant appeal to asian Americans. As much as the gay community attempts to disavow the dominant image of homosexual men being promiscuous and over-sexualized, we do indeed suck dicks and are sexualized, though one symbol is interpreted differently in two separate contexts–one ours, and the other of the dominant community.
Does a video game like Street Fighter II reinforce or loosen the stereotypic images of ethnic minorities because it does allow one (for example, a White player) to play, identify and become the other? What kind of cultural/genre/technical constraints are present to deter a more subversive writerly textuality?
Street Fighter II undoubtedly creates its own set of stereotypic characters that fantasize and personify a nation and its ethnic traits. Interestingly, the asian characters are non-stereotypically Eurocentric in the sense that none of the asian characters have “chinky” eyes. They are all relatively muscular with Ryu coming close to the model of a White male with his hazel-nut colored hair and muscular built. Ryu resembles Marguerite Duras’ description of his japanese protagonist in Hiroshima Mon Amour:
His profile might almost seem [American]. A high
forehead. A large mouth. Full, but hard lips.
Nothing affected or fragile about his face. No
angle from which his features might seem vague
(indecisive)…In short, he is an “international”
type. What makes him attractive should be
immediately apparent to everyone as being that
quality found in men…without having resorted to
The particular internationalist esthetics in characterization resembles the creation of the two Mario brothers in Super Mario Brothers, as the game’s designer Shigeru Miyamoto describes a Mario brother as “a short indomitable, mustache man in a red cap…a kind of Everyman who rises to heroism in the face of diversity…[whose] insignificance makes him so appealing.” (“Kid” 66)
At first glance, the Chun Li character seems no more than a gesture of Orientalism, of effeminizing China by binding China with the body of a female. In contrary to the Western stereotype of the submissive Oriental women, Chun Li’s characterization may also be interpreted as an asian feminist gesture as Chun Li claims to be the “strongest woman in the world”.
Marsha Kinder writes of the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles movies and its video games:
Thus the TMNT movie breaks with the traditional
conception of orientalism, where one is defined
strictly in opposition to the alien Other, and
instead adopts a postmodernist form of
intertextuality and accommodation, fluidly consuming
and becoming the Other–a strategy now being used
not only by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but
also by Japanese multinational corporations in
their acquisition of American properties. (152)
Because the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles movies were produced by a Hong Kong producer at Golden Harvest, because Street Fighter II was designed by a japanese, these cultural products do indeed offer a traditional break from the racial stereotypes put out by Eurocentric (White) cultural producers in America. This then may explain the amount of phantasmatic solidarity between asian Americans and cultural products as such. Perhaps it is true that ultimately such subversion is superficial and that it ultimately reinforces similarly totalizing stereotypes (such as Bruce Lee as the martial artist who beats up all White guys), in the discourse of popular culture it may be the only alternative and relatively empowering models we have at the moment. Simultaneously, the kind of role-playing, of becoming and identifying with another may allow more fluidity in dissolving racial boundaries, though it may fall into a kind of shallow racial exoticism (as asian Americans desire to be black, and Madonna appropriates voguing from the black queer culture) that once again erases cultural specificity and diversity.
The relation of Michael Jackson to Street Fighter II lies in a network of technological and pop-cultural intertextuality, as Kinder writes:
A supersystem is a network of intertextuality
constructed around a figure or group of figures
from pop culture who are either fictional (like
TMNT, the characters from Star Wars, the Super
Mario Brothers, the Simpsons, the Muppets, Batman
and Dick Tracy) or “real” (like PeeWee Herman,
Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Michael
Jackson…In order to be a supersystem, the
network must cut across several modes of image
production, must appeal to diverse generations,
classes, and ethnic subcultures, who in turn are
targeted with diverse strategies; must foster
“collectibility” through a proliferation of related
Michael Jackson is disseminated through movies, music videos, comic books and even video games. What does playing Michael Jackson in a video game mean? The iconicity of Michael Jackson must allow a certain degree of play for the imagination of the spectators/players (including “subaltern” ones such as the queer asian others) in order to have a diverse and international appeal. Michael Jackson must forever remain relatively ahistorical and ambiguous in order to allow for some sort of unlimited substitution of cultural contexts which may resemble the kind of “play of differences” Derrida talks of:
The play of differences supposes, in effect,
syntheses and referrals which forbid at any moment,
or in any sense, that a simple element be present
in and of itself, referring only to itself. (26)
However, the play within popular culture has often been limited because of certain interpretative constraints and the totalizing dominant ideology bound to the genres of popular culture. The popular cultural figure of monster and fantastical other (such as Michael Jackson’s werewolf) provides more room for play and identification than a “real” other (such as a black person) in an American context where race is so scopophilically authenticated. It is perhaps why Michael Jackson chooses monstrification as a form of otherness instead of his more authentic black skin.
As much as Michael Jackson is an international icon, Street Fighter II has also achieved much international popularity, and inspired a comic book serial published in Hong Kong. These comic books, titled Gai Tau Ba Wong which roughly translates as “Street Fighter,” imaginatively appropriate characters from Street Fighter II and fuse them with Hong Kong’s cultural context. In issue#75, the character Dhalsim from the game appears in a fight with a character not in the video game called “Benny”. Dhalsim is given an extra name called “The Elephant Demonic Man” (2). The author imaginatively creates new moves for Dhalsim such as Dhalsim conjuring up the soul of an elephant to destroy his enemy. What is interesting is that Dhalsim is portrayed as “demonic” and vilified while in the video game he is relatively neutral. I believe Dhalsim’s vilification is due to the racist context in Hong Kong where asian indians are often portrayed in a negative light.
These popular cultural intertextual networks are almost ahistorical and meaningless in themselves because of their ready accessibility of iconistic and contextual play, and their lack of resistance against diverse cultural appropriation. While on the one hand they may, as traditional critics of popular culture claim, reinforce a dominant ideology, on the other hand they may simultaneously be used as subversion against dominant ideology through political-epistemological reinterpretation. Thus popular culture is an arena where we (as cultural minorities) need to contend, to appropriate these available iconicities through our own interpretative imaginary to create new texts–our texts–that are relevant to our political agendas.
0.01 cyborg resistance
The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it
has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal
symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions
to organic wholeness through a final appropriation
of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.
In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the
Western sense–a ‘final’ irony since cyborgs is
also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’
escalating dominations of abstract individuation,
an ultimate self untied at least from all
dependency, a man in space. (151)
Haraway’s figure of the cyborg seems to describe Michael Jackson and other popular cultural figures fittingly as they–born out of the contradiction between nature and culture, “simultaneously animal and machine…ambiguously natural and crafted” (150)–indeed seem rather ahistorical (“no origin story”) and blasphemize the boundary between the collective and individual through an infinite availability of appropriation and rearticulation.
Our identities are indeed similarly fragmented and contradictory, and we may as well mythologize ourselves as cyborg readers, intellectuals and cultural producers–with our diverse political agendas in mind–as a form of ironic resistance against the totalization of historical linearity and (hetero)sexual originality, and simultaneously as a form of playfully infinite creativity/productivity.
# # #
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