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Curing the “Hangover”: Psy, Snoop, and the Potential for Cultural Exchange in Hip-hop



Most conversations about non-black performers in hip-hop involve discussions of “cultural appropriation,” with the language of “cultural exchange” reserved for only the most sunny-eyed racial apologists. Given the music industry’s dark history with whitewashing, many have been quick to point out the problematic politics of artists like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea as high risers in the rap genre. Despite the upsettingly true narrative of constant exploitation, Korean rapper Psy presents a compelling case as a non-black artist breaking the trend.

When Psy’s “Gangnam Style” flooded airwaves and Facebook walls in 2012, I was hesitantly optimistic about the introduction of Korean music to mainstream America. It was about time the garishness and flash of Korean pop culture traveled west, despite the possibility of audiences “Columbusing” it. “Gangnam Style” was the perfect vehicle for such an introduction; it had the wacky dance moves, an ounce of sheer absurdity, and numerous cameos by prominent Korean actors and actresses. However, the flair and memetic qualities of the music video eventually wore off, relegating the hit to the annals of future bar trivia questions. As a coup de grâce to any hopes of an authentically Korean presence in the American consciousness, Scooter Braun signed Psy. Who? Well, the guy who has traditionally signed acts that are anything but subversive: pop one-hit wonder Carly Rae Jepsen, boy band The Wanted, frat anthem rap-star Asher Roth, and Justin “The Biebs” Bieber.

Psy still kept it real, though. After attempting to replicate the success of “Gangnam Style” with a similarly themed video in 2013’s “Gentleman,” Psy went a different direction in 2014. “Hangover” and its respective music video featured Psy parading through Seoul on a drunken escapade with American rap icon Snoop Dogg. However, this appearance by Snoop was not a mere cameo, but rather, a rapping repartee that mixed both languages and styles.

Throughout the video, both rappers adopted personas more typical of the other’s culture. Psy, renowned for a hyper-campy presentation style, added several moments of gangsta posturing throughout “Hangover” one would expect in a run-of-the-mill American rap music video. As an illustration, here is a shot of Psy mean mugging the camera next to a shot of A$AP Rocky pulling a similar power move in the video for F*@%$n’ Problems.


Conversely, Snoop Dogg, who’s usually “rollin’ down the street, smokin’ indo, and sippin’ on gin n’ juice,” instead opts for many Korean vices in “Hangover.” Aside from mirroring many of Psy’s goofy dance moves, Snoop hits the spa, binge drinks soju (Korean rice liquor), and indulges in some late night karaoke. Sing it, Snoop.

While some buzzkills might describe “Hangover” as nothing more than a mindless exaltation of drunken debauchery, it actually represents a landmark moment in hip-hop: a collaboration in which the content is cross-racial and transnational, and the form genuine. Psy and Snoop not only adopt each other’s cultural markers, but also develop an equitable rapping relationship over the course of the video. This dynamic sharply contrasts with other prominent non-Black rappers, many of whom tokenize Black artists on their productions. For example, Macklemore, a suburban rapper who rose to prominence primarily on indie/pop charts, features the occasional Black rapper or singer, most notably Wanz and Schoolboy Q. However, such appearances are usually nothing more than cameos, background performances, and an opportunity for Macklemore to showcase a false commitment to diversity.

Psy, on the other hand, has made legitimate attempts to build cultural bridges beyond just the production and physical content of “Hangover.” He and Snoop notably appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, on which the two performed karaoke with Kimmel at Boardwalk 11 (a renowned Los Angeles karaoke joint). Psy began with a broken rendition of “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?”, and Snoop followed with an attempt at “Gangnam Style” that came nowhere near a language anyone could call Korean. Nevertheless, the two showcased a willingness to engage each other across the Pacific in a method holistic and genuine. Cultural appropriation remains an ever-present threat in hip-hop, but Psy and Snoop Dogg have shown that the potential for redress and exchange lies in karaoke bars, not thrift shops.

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The Trial of Oscar Pistorius

After a summer hiatus, Rhetorically Speaking has returned! Check back weekly for more great posts like this one. 


In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, February 14, 2013, South African olympian Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius did admit to killing Steenkamp, but claimed that it was the result of a tragic accident, that he believed their home in Pretoria South Africa had been broken in to and he was instead shooting at an intruder. The bail hearing began on February 19, 2013, and Pistorius was formally indicted on two charges of murder and the illegal possession of ammunition. The indictment noted that even if Pistorius mistook the identity of the person he shot, his intention was to kill. The official trial began on March 3, 2014, in the High Court in Pretoria. On September 11, 2014, Pistorius was found not guilty of murdering Steenkamp, though he was found guilty of culpable homicide, defined as “the unlawful negligent killing of a human being,” and could face up to 15 years in prison.

What is particularly interesting about this case is the unprecedented media attention the trial has received, in South Africa, and abroad. Time magazine published a cover story entitled “Pistorius and South Africa’s Culture of Violence” in their March 11, 2013 issue. The magazine’s cover featured a bare-chested Pistorius with his running blades on and the words “Man, Superman, Gunman” superimposed over him. In an article for The Guardian, journalism professor Roy Greenslade described the cover image as “one of those striking cover images that bears all the hallmarks of being one that will live on for years to come.” Other media sources from Vanity Fair to Business Day have all published pieces about the trial. An e-book by Laurianne Claase was also released and subsequently made into print, and 48 Hours, BBC Three, and ESPN have all aired documentaries on the case. Social media was an integral factor in the case as well, with a live stream analysis of Pistorius’ bail hearing, thousands of Tweets concerning the trial, a Twitter account created by Pistorius’ PR team called @OscarHardTruth, numerous blog postings, and multiple Buzzfeed articles.


There can be no doubt this was a story that caught the attention of much of the western world. But why? What was it about this particular act of violence that was so intriguing to people when it occurred so far away? It could be that Oscar Pistorius himself was an international figure. Known for his exceptional athletic skill, he was a figure people knew enough about that they could become easily invested. Known as the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius was the first amputee to compete in the Olympics in 2012. His quest to run in the Olympics as an amputee portrayed him as a fighter overcoming the odds—an underdog story if there ever was one, and a mainstay of American media. So perhaps people were drawn to this drama by the rise and fall of what could be considered a hero—Pistorius went from a crippling childhood amputation to become “the fastest man on Earth with no legs.”

The drama of fallen athletes is also a common staple in western media. Lately the airwaves and the Internet have been consumed by the video of Ray Rice assaulting his wife and dragging her unconscious body from the elevator and the consequent indefinite suspension of Rice from the NHL. Adrian Peterson has also made headlines with charges of child-abuse and his dismissal from the Minnesota Vikings. In the past there have been drug issues, the Minnesota Vikings Love Boat scandal, dog fighting, etc. Yes, the story of the fallen athlete is a common one that still seems to surprise us and grab our attention every time.

More savvy consumers of this trial have ventured to guess that Pistorius was just the headline that grabbed attention, but what kept the story going was perhaps issues of race or gender. On September 12, 2014 The New York Times compared the South African public’s interest in the trial to that of Americans in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, reflecting that it this moment showcased “South Africa’s complicated obsession with race, crime and celebrity,” though it could be argued that really the trial showcased a western obsession with race, crime, and celebrity. Others argued that the trial was so captivating because it encouraged public debates about the legal technicalities of the trial and verdict, perhaps best argued by a cartoon published by The Times on September 16, 2014, entitled “Legal Reasoning Behind Oscar Pistorius Verdict.”

While these are reasonable arguments for a national audience, they don’t quite cover the fascination of international viewers. I would argue instead that the trial was a test of democracy for South Africa, one in which the west is very much invested. The story of democratic post-apartheid South Africa is seen by many to be an example to emerging democracies throughout the world, and its Constitution is considered to be the epitome of western liberal ideals, perhaps even more so than the Constitution of the United States of America. South Africa stands as a unique success story in the west’s quest to bring democracy to the world, and a cornerstone of any democracy is the ability of its courts to function in such a way that the people see it as wise and just. The Pistorius case was just such a test, to see if the courts would be ruled by the hate and racism that is one legacy of apartheid, or would the judge be able to make an objective and fair verdict that the people would abide by.

While I am sure many South Africans are as concerned about the outcome of this trial, should South Africa fail this test, there are unique implications for western nations, who have invested so much into the narrative of South Africa as the shining triumph in our vision for world democracy. Under Woodrow Wilson the United States adopted a policy of liberal internationalism, which, among other things, is dedicated to encouraging the global emergence of democracy. This call for global democracy was taken up once again at the end of World War II, when President Truman stated, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” Since then the United States and other western nations have embarked on a campaign to bring democracy to the world, a project that has been largely unsuccessful, particularly in Africa (though I could easily cite our most recent failed efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq). In light of these democratic failures, South Africa is a desperately needed victory, one that allows us to continue our push for democracy. It is this critical need for South Africa to succeed and support our narrative that has created a level of investment that I believe draws our collective attention at critical junctures in South Africa’s democracy.

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Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part II

This is a co-authored post by our Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.

This is a continuation of a two-part entry. See Part I  for context. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Of the major superhero franchises, perhaps none has been more celebrated as social commentary than  X-Men. The X-Men books and films tell the story of genetic “mutants” who are born with fantastic superhuman powers, shunned by greater society on account of their difference. The X-Men, led by the paraplegic telepath Charles Xavier, are “sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them,” often against the militant mutant known as Magneto, who holds ordinary humans at fault for their prejudice.

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Since 1963, the X-Men have often been touted as an allegory for civil rights and the internal struggles faced in movements to counter prejudices against ethnic minorities, differently-abled individuals, and, more broadly, anyone who feels “different.” The comic books themselves were especially notable for the team’s diverse roster and celebrated storylines like writer Chris Claremont’s “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past” that focused especially on the universal dangers of xenophobic hatred.

Rhetorician William Earnest is one of many to trace how the X-Men films have stressed a particular attention to the stories as LGBTQ allegory. He cites the scapegoating dialogue of McCarthy-esque antagonists, conversations between characters about “passing” for normal, and a conversion-therapy mutant “cure” storyline that dominates much of the series’ third film. He also highlights a cleverly worded scene in which a mutant character “comes out” to his parents, to their dismay. The 2011 film, X-Men: First Class, includes not-so-subtle dialogue about mutant “pride” and a joking reference to “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. Beyond the screen, gay activist and actor Ian McKellan, who plays Magneto in the films, has repeatedly said he was drawn to the role by director Bryan Singer’s explanation that “Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason,” while First Class screenwriter Zack Stentz has also stressed that the allegory is intentional.

With this in mind, audiences are primed to see the films as social commentary and advocacy. The series’ most recent installment, Days of Future Past, however, gives only slight nods to the LGBTQ theme. The plot mirrors the Claremont story, in which one hero travels back in time from a post-apocalyptic future brought on by the assassination of an anti-mutant demagogue to warn the X-Men of the past of the need to overcome differences without murderous violence. In a broad sense, this narrative is still in place. Yet overall there are many other elements in the film that overshadow this theme and, ultimately, there is very little argument or activism to speak of.

Set primarily in the 1970s, the film makes no reference to the very real civil rights campaigns and complications of the era. Beyond this oversight, however, the film really doesn’t forward broader civil rights interests in practice either. DoFP features an overwhelmingly white, male cast, and all are at least implicitly heterosexual. The one lead female role belongs to the shapeshifter Mystique who represents difference well when in her blue-skinned form but who spends much of the movie with conventionally attractive blond hair and blue eyes. Women and ethnic minority characters—crucial to the original Claremont telling of the tale—appear in supporting roles with very little dialogue, and are mostly killed off in the film’s climactic scenes.

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The central characters of the film are the archetypical action hero Wolverine and Xavier himself, though Xavier’s handicap is removed for the better part of the story. The central allegory seems no longer to be one of social activism and civil rights, but of a single white man’s struggle with his own lost sense of masculinity and self confidence.

These changes are subtle, but for all the celebration of X-Men as minority allegory, the film is still very much about the concerns and actions of white, straight men. Would it have been difficult to write a script or cast roles that included a greater spectrum of ethnicity, gender, and physical abilities? No—though it might have worried studio executives. That is, for all the talk about social commentary and hidden rhetorics, these films are still designed to make money and to avoid alienating audiences by pushing partisan issues.


So are these films rhetorical? Well, yes, but not nearly as “revolutionary” as they might be. Imagine an X-Men movie with a young female minority traveling back in time instead of a middle-aged white man. Imagine an X-Men movie in which the team is made entirely of women, or one that features gay marriage as its central plot point. The comics have done all of these things. And even they haven’t changed the world but, rather, echoed the public sentiments already at play in American society.

The same might be said of Captain America, who of course sticks up for American ideals by rejecting overreaching government surveillance, but does so by fighting against Nazi infiltration and allying with morally ambiguous super-spies. The social commentary is perhaps palpable, but it’s also fairly elementary and ultimately secondary in purpose.

Superhero movies give audiences a chance to cheer for an idealized protagonist who pushes for a better world. In this way, superhero movies both present a constitutive ideal and contribute to larger social movements with their “hidden” rhetorical elements. Yet, as a recent article on Crave noted, studios like Marvel and Fox “don’t make complex motion pictures full of rich allegories; they make broad, universally relatable fables in which fun characters with superpowers overcome all odds.”

As lifelong comic book readers, we’re glad to see some of our favorite characters being embraced by world audiences and we’re glad to see their stories told in fun and creative ways, but we caution against celebrating Captain America and Wolverine as real champions of social change. The actual heroes are out in the streets, stomping the pavement, and making more regular, explicit challenges to the status quo on a day-to-day basis. Your mild-mannered social activist doesn’t even need a cape.

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Thai Protesters’ Use of the Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute as a Form of Resistance and Critique

On May 22, 2014, the Thai military took over control of the Thai government in a coup. Since then, martial law has been announced, information has been restricted, agitators, protesters, and members of the old government have been detained, and political elections have been postponed until the second half of 2015. In response, protests have broken out. While coups and protests are not unusual in Thailand (the last coup was in 2006), the form some of the protests are taking this time around is different.

On June 2, 2014, reports began coming in that Thai protesters have been holding three fingers in the air, making the 3-finger salute depicted in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. The Hunger Games has circulated widely around the world in both book and movie form. It sold more books globally than even Harry Potter and has more than 50 million copies currently in circulation. While the Thai protesters are not the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute (see Senator Santiago and the Harry Potter Alliance), the Thai protesters have achieved widespread media attention and have brought up questions about how we are to understand the use of a symbol from a fictional book in a real world protest. I answer some of those questions here by arguing that Thai protesters using the 3-finger salute perform resistance that critiques the Thai government, even in an environment highly controlled by the state.

Set in a dystopian future, The Hunger Games tells the story of sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen. She lives in a nation called Panem in which most of the twelve districts are mired in poverty for the benefit of the Capitol, where citizens live in comfort. During the annual Hunger Games, the Capitol requires each district to offer up one boy and one girl between 12 and 18 to fight to the death. The Capitol requires this as retribution for the districts’ rebellion decades ago and uses this as a way to maintain control. Televised across Panem, the Hunger Games are designed to maximize entertainment value for residents in the Capitol while also reminding residents in the districts that they are utterly powerless. In Book 1, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place when her sister’s name is drawn for the Hunger Games. When Katniss and Peeta, the male tribute for Katniss’ district, manage to survive the games together and defy the rule that only one person may survive, they spark a kind of revolution across Panem. Books 2 and 3 follow the development of that revolution from quiet resistance to full war. The 3-finger salute serves as one of the central symbols of the revolution.


Katniss giving the salute in the arena after Rue’s death in the first movie.

Katniss giving the salute in the arena after Rue’s death in the first movie.

In the trilogy, the 3-finger salute begins as a local tradition but quickly becomes a symbol of resistance. Katniss describes the 3-finger salute as “an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love” (The Hunger Games, Book 1, pg. 24). When Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, the crowd refuses to clap and gives her a 3-finger salute instead. Later, Katniss uses the 3-finger salute as a form of resistance when her friend, Rue, dies in the games. Katniss yearns to show that she is “not just a pawn in their [the Capitol’s] games” but she has little power. So Katniss raises a 3-finger salute to the cameras broadcasting the games live across Panem, showing respect for Rue, while also resisting the Capitol’s devaluing of human life. The people watching the live broadcast in District 11, Rue’s home district, return the 3-finger salute to Katniss and then riot against the Capitol’s police force.

Rue’s district giving Katniss the 3-finger salute during the press tour in the second movie.

Rue’s district giving Katniss the 3-finger salute during the press tour in the second movie.

In Book 2, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a publicity tour across Panem, held up as the victors of the Hunger Games. When they arrive in Rue’s district, Katniss goes off script and speaks of Rue as brace and selfless. The people of Rue’s district respond with the 3-finger salute. The audience member who first held the 3-finger salute was publicly shot in front of the crowd as a warning against further resistance. The 3-finger salute in The Hunger Games signals respect for fellow protesters and resistance to a brutal regime.

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The 3-finger salute used in Thai protests functions as a form of resistance when the state-controlled environment makes that resistance particularly difficult. Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, explains that in Thailand information is controlled, media is censored, and public gatherings are banned. While posters can be confiscated and lead to arrests, the 3-finger salute is both safer and perhaps more effective. This is part of what makes the 3-finger salute in the Hunger Games narrative so effective. People across the poorest districts lack the power to protest, revolt, or circulate messages of their own, but the 3-finger salute functions as a symbol or resistance even in these difficult conditions. Indeed, the Thai military and police, like the government in the Hunger Games, seem to recognize the symbolic power of the 3-finger salute. In Thailand, one person wielding the peaceful salute in public has been detained, though the military is currently determining what further course of action to take. As a symbol rich in resistance, critique, and solidarity, the 3-finger salute may pose a significant threat to the Thai military government.

The 3-finger salute not only performs resistance, but also critiques the Thai military and government officials. When protesters hold their 3-finger salute in the air, they assume the role of Katniss and put the Thai military government in the role of Panem’s government. In this way, they frame the Thai military as corrupt, self-serving, and brutal, willing to go to any lengths to put down resistance and maintain the status quo. As Thai protesters hold up their 3-finger salutes, we are invited to see the Thai military actions as unjustified and undemocratic. Thai protesters further imbue the 3-finger salute with democratic meaning by combining it with the French slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The symbol of resistance also becomes the symbol of democracy.

The 3-finger salute seems to be emerging as an increasingly important aspect of the Thai protests. The New York Post reports that Sombat Boonngam-anong, a “Red Shirt” and social activist leader in Thailand, called for protesters to continue holding their 3-finger salutes in the air. He said, “Raising three fingers has become a symbol calling for fundamental political rights.” By raising the 3-finger salute, 3 times a day in public places, he says, Thai citizens can “escalate the anti-coup movement three times a day together.”

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Between the images and tweets emerging online and the reports from journalists on the ground, we have some sense of how the 3-finger salute is currently being used. But that understanding is of course limited. There may be much more going on among protesters that we cannot see. It’s also important to remember that political and social action changes quickly, and the symbolic meaning of the 3-finger salute may change as the context shifts or new participants are brought in. The last caveat I want to offer is that I am not an expert in Thai politics or culture. I am an expert in popular culture and politics. I hope readers and journalists combine the analysis I have offered here with analysis from experts in Thai politics. With reports and editorials like this, we desperately need analysis that brings us closer to a fairer and more complex understanding of what is going on in the Thai protests. This blog post is the first step in that direction.



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Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part I

This post is a two-part, co-authored post by our own Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.


Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a complex allegory for modern American social conditions! Or, maybe, it’s just some dude in a cape.

For years now, with an increasing popular audience for superhero stories, films, and merchandise, audiences have sought to trace literary meanings and social commentary in the content of comic-book escapades. Iron Man is, for many, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the military-industrial complex. Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic, The Dark Knight, is widely viewed as a defense of the Bush administration‘s post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. In Barry Brummett’s 2008 collection on “social issues in disguise,” William Earnest traces the “hidden rhetorics” of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise as subtle yet potent commentary on LGBTQ rights and activism. When film reviews for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier circulated earlier this year, the film was framed through a political lens, being lauded as a smart and “scathing critique of 21st-century surveillance” by left-leaning outlets and lambasted as “shallow” and “lefty” by right-leaning sources. One favorable reviewer even wrote, “Edward Snowden could be on Winter Soldier‘s marketing payroll. It’s that revolutionary.”

As fans of some of these films and their characters, we found this emphatic turn in public conceptions of the superhero intriguing. Certainly these stories have political overtones and allusions. Even if unintentionally, as mere products of their place and time they might comment on dominant social concerns and conditions.  Yet we wondered how prevalent these elements of social commentary actually were in the films. That is, while these so-called “hidden rhetorics” may have critical social qualities, are the films themselves actually as “revolutionary” as some reviewers have claimed? A quick glance at two recent blockbusters provides some perspective.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is tangentially a sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, part of what Marvel calls Marvel Phase 1, the set of films that led up to the release of Avengers in 2012 and went on to break a number of box office records. Winter Soldier follows the super-heroic Captain America and Black Widow as they discover the intelligence organization they work for—known as S.H.I.E.L.D.—has been compromised by Hydra, a Nazi offshoot originally founded by the fist film’s  villainous Red Skull.

Captain America comics have long commented on social issues—in fact, the original stories were published in part to encourage U.S. entry into World War II—and, while their “hidden rhetoric” critiques have not always been nuanced or successful, Winter Soldier follows suit by engaging a number of contemporary political topics, most notably personal agency and privacy.

In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed a system called Project Insight, which allows the organization to predict and eliminate potential threats to national security. The system is meant to be a preemptive strike against domestic, international, and extraterrestrial attacks. However, Hydra’s leaders are using their control over the United States’ intelligence apparatus to mine the electronic records of everyone living in the U.S., giving them the ability to predict whether or not the individual will be a threat to the organization. This system identifies such potential threats to Hydra and eliminates them, a preventative measure to keep the control over society that Hydra spent the previous fifty years cultivating. Once the film’s protagonists discover this threat, they formulate a plan to thwart it by triggering the weapons system to target itself instead

Within the film’s narrative structure, the implications of this kind of power in the hands of an “evil” organization like Hydra are obvious. The film’s protagonists understand just how dangerous that ability is and must take down the system before Hydra can activate it. The story, for many viewers, echoed public concerns about NSA surveillance, drone strikes, and the potential for U.S. government agencies to infringe on citizen privacy in the name of security, law, and order.

The more subtle commentary of the film concerns the choices an individual makes, and the film engages with these issues on multiple levels with multiple characters. While Winter Soldier isn’t the first film to engage with issues of surveillance and “big brother,” or even the first superhero film to use surveillance as a plot point, it takes a particular stance against using surveillance on an unsuspecting population. The crux of the film’s plot is the threat to the U.S. population and the fact that an individual’s electronic records were what made them targets for assassination. The individual choice to commit or not to commit a threatening act was circumvented by the potential threat they represented.

The choice to act or not and the absence of choice is what makes the film’s “villain” and eponymous character—the brainwashed assassin known as Winter Solider—ultimately sympathetic. Hydra and its scientists remove his sense of identity and his agency. He is prevented from making any choices of his own and is actively turned into a threat to others. In contrast, in the film’s climax, the Black Widow character actively chooses to give up her privacy and the secrecy of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files by uploading them to the Internet, a la Wikileaks. However, in releasing her secrets, she also releases sensitive government information to the wider public, potentially compromising national security. She’s allowed that choice, but she takes the choice away from those others who are potentially impacted by her actions.

In a film like Winter Soldier, thus, superhero exploits seem to mimic popular sentiments and champion a social cause, but in sometimes muddy, inexact terms. In part two of this post, we consider another superhero film to demonstrate that the social activism of the superhero movie is not always as potent as it may at first seem.

See Part II for conclusion.


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Why Rhetoricians Need to Pay Attention to Fan Culture

Ashley and TardisFor the last five years, I’ve been making the argument that fan culture is rhetorically significant because of its potential to create fan-based civic engagement. Fan culture is the community, practices, and histories that are developed by fans of popular culture, like sports, TV, movies, and comics. While fan culture is obviously central to disciplines like media studies, I argue that fan culture is important for rhetoricians when fans participate in fan-based civic engagement. In these instances, rhetors invite fans to volunteer, protest, and vote because of their fan identifications: they vote for Obama because that’s what Harry Potter would do. But this weekend,two groups of fan bloggers pushed me to see the ways in which fan culture is relevant for all rhetoricians—not just rhetoricians like me who study fan-specific rhetoric.

On Saturday, May 24, 2014, Kate Lansky, Jennifer Cross, Renee Ismail, Lauren Jankowski, Jessamyn, and Isabel Schechter led a panel at WisCon (a feminist science-fiction conference) titled “The Problem of Women and Perceived Authenticity.” The panelists discussed the ways in which they have their authenticity questioned in professional, personal, and fan settings and how they respond to or combat those accusations (you can find a storify of their twitter feed here). The “fake geek girl” discourse is central to this discussion. Widely circulated, this discourse asserts that women are not real gamers because they don’t play the right games, women are not real fans because they dress up as characters only for male attention, and women are not real fans because they haven’t read every comic book. For a brief introduction to the fake geek girl discourse, see the idiot nerd girl meme here, John Scalzi’s well-known blog response here, and a great video from feminist fan-leaders here. This panel asked us to see fake geek girl discourse as related and interlocking with other discourses that question women’s authenticity as a way to discipline and restrict power.

According to the panel abstract, women routinely face attacks like: “Women don’t write ‘real scifi.’ Women who say they’re gamers but don’t play ‘the right games’ are posers. Women exaggerate or lie about rape and harassment. Women can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. Women wear clothes and make-up to ‘trick’ men into thinking they’re pretty. Men don’t listen to women as the authorities on their own experiences but listen to other men if they say the same thing.”

This panel asked us to see how discourses that frame women as inauthentic, fake, and untrustworthy extend across many contexts. That means that the “fake geek girl” discourse strengthens and maintains other discourses about women in science, law, and tech culture. Accepting the discourse that women fans are “fake geek girls” strengthens the discourse that women are inauthentic decision makers who, for example, need doctors and politicians to make decisions about their abortions for them. In other words, the fake geek girl discourse isn’t only relevant to fan scholars: it’s relevant to rhetoricians studying topics like abortion discourses, feminist social movements, and more.

On May 25, 2014, Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast published a blog post titled “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.” Although Elliot Rodgers, the man who shot and killed eight women at UCSB, did not seem to identify as a geek or fan, Chu argues that Rodger’s manifestos sounded a lot like the “standard frustrated angry geeky guy manifesto, except for the part about mass murder.” Chu argues that male nerds are taught that women reject you, but if you try hard enough someday you’ll get the attractive, non-nerd woman to date you. Chu points largely to media depictions of nerds, but I think many feminist fan bloggers would argue that it is embedded in the social practices and community values of fan culture as well. The point here for rhetoricians isn’t whether Chu (or others) are right or wrong about Rodgers. The point is that Chu articulates the ways in which fan culture contributes to, strengthens, and maintains discourses of misogyny and male entitlement. If we want to critique and disrupt discourses of male entitlement, we need to also disrupt discourses of misogyny in fan cultures.

Part of the lesson here is that fan culture does not perfectly reflect our US larger society nor does it set up impervious boundaries. If it did, rhetoricians could safely ignore it in most instances. But we cannot assume that discourses circulating broadly are circulated and articulated in the same way in fan cultures, nor can we assume that discourses circulating in fan cultures do not strengthen, maintain, shift, or contest larger discourses.

What does this mean for rhetoric scholars? It means that we simply cannot ignore fan cultures and the discourses they circulate. Fan cultures are relevant to the rhetorical research questions we pose. As a result, we must seek out fan texts that constitute the discourses we are studying and we must theorize fan identities, fan cultures, and fan discourses. Doing so will make our analysis richer and our theorizing more complex.


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The Conservative Logics of Gay Marriage

As I read a local paper, the Oregonian on an early morning flight from Portland to Madison in early March 2014, I came across an op-ed that reflects an increasingly common position that I have to admit still strikes even me (a snarky radical queer) as surprising when publicly stated. A representative from the Young Conservatives of Oregon, Xander Almeida, lamented a recent decision by one of Oregon’s leading gay and lesbian organizations to take the case of gay marriage through the courts instead of letting Oregonians vote on a measure in a popular referendum. While Almeida notes that Oregon approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004, and further suggests his worry about popular votes on civil rights matters, he believes that this time it is the right thing to do. He makes this claim based on two reasons. First, Oregonians, in line with the current trend around the United States, will vote for equality. Second, in choosing to take the more expedient route through the courts instead of the slower path of allowing the voice of the people to speak, gay and lesbian activists are adding more fodder to conservative fires against “activist judges” who legislate from their benches.

Almeida clearly notes a strong gesture of alliance that would be possible for gay marriage advocates to offer to conservatives if they followed the methods of democracy and not the courts. What is additionally interesting here is the very boldness of a conservative activist offering advice to a supposedly liberal cause, not in the spirit of sarcasm or snark, but in genuine sincerity. This article is just one example in a current rhetorical explosion of conservatives coming out on the side of gay marriage, in support of military integration of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and in recognition of violence done to LGBT youth. Why the turn, or is it a turn at all?

In the realm of public discourse, conservative support of LGBT rights has historically been minimal. In fact, usually, the surest way to gain conservative enemies would have been to express support for LGBT rights. Only when pressed due to hypocrisy as in the case of someone like Dick Cheney who has a lesbian daughter, would conservatives admit their moderate support of LGBT people, and perhaps their rights. But, publicly this has changed. Republicans including Utah’s Jon Huntsman, Rob Portman from Ohio, and others have gone on the record affirming gay and lesbian rights. The public shift in rhetoric can, on the one hand, be attributed to the success of the calculated and strategic campaign of the national gay and lesbian rights movement, especially its argument for “marriage equality.”

This public shift could also reflect what queer activists and scholars, including my friend and collaborator Yasmin Nair have long contended: Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause.  As Nair argues in her essay of that name, “Nothing that the left, progressives, or liberals have stated in support of gay marriage has ever been anything but a profoundly conservative argument.  Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry for healthcare?  That simply shores up the power of the neoliberal state, compelling people to marry and take on the burden for their own care, instead of creating, for instance, a system that grants life-saving benefits to everyone, regardless of marital status.  This is a matter of ‘simple equality?’  How is a system that systematically denies those same benefits to single people ever anything but fundamentally unequal?” Nair’s laments highlight the dangers of what Lisa Duggan has called “homonormativity” which describes how many relatively privileged (usually white, middle class, cisgender, US citizen, monogamously-coupled) gays and lesbians exist in a depoliticized realm as consumer citizens who simply want the same rights as straight people with whom they share all those other privileges. This is, in fact, what the infamous gay conservative Andrew Sullivan has argued for since the 1990s: marriage equality is a sure way to domesticate all those unruly queers.

If gay marriage is a conservative cause already, what makes this turn of interest to rhetoric scholars such as myself is that it is an interesting case to highlight the deeply conservative logics that undergird seemingly progressive movements in the United States, the limits of their strategies, and the plethora of questions they are not asking. Instead of registering as a victory, does conservative support of liberal causes like gay marriage suggest entrenched flaws with the approach of the mainstream movement? How will conservative support lead liberals to make even further conservative compromises in order to solidify such support? Who will be further abjected and made vulnerable by this domestication?

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Stephen Versus the Twitterverse: #CancelColbert and the Rhetoric of Bad Satire

This guest post was authored by Matthew Meier, a Ph.D. candidate in Media and Communication Studies at Bowling Green State University.

I have a sneaking suspicion that on Friday March 28, 2014, Comedy Central fired an intern. The day immediately prior, the following message was posted to twitter by the Comedy Central operated @ColbertReport twitter handle:


The tweet, which references the March 26 episode of The Colbert Report in which Colbert satirically criticizes Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his dismissal of cries to rename the team something a little less racist, drew the ire of Asian American social media activist and freelance writer Suey Park.  In response to the @ColbertReport tweet, Park used her considerable network to get a new hashtag trending: #CancelColbert.


Her efforts created an avalanche of criticism of the show, its host, and its audience.  Amidst the cries of racism and white-liberal privilege, even Colbert decided to chime in from his personal handle.


As Colbert’s own admission suggests, the initial tweet from @ColbertReport was decidedly racist and, therefore, Park’s outrage is warranted.  What is interesting about this twitter storm (twitternado?) against The Report is that it started, I think, not because the tweet uses racial stereotypes, but because it does not clearly identify a target and, quite frankly, it isn’t funny.  Colbert’s character regularly makes bombastic, outrageous jokes that are intended to be understood ironically—that is, as the opposite of what they appear to be—and satirically critical.  When those jokes get laughs and make their targets clear, they are powerful tools for social and cultural criticism.  When they fail on either account, they can be equally powerful in reinforcing the stereotypes of the status quo.

In this case, the tweet fails in both respects.  This is partially the result of attempting to convert a complicated parodic performance into 140 characters, but that explanation seems overly simplistic.  A careful examination of the bit from which the tweet was extracted offers more nuance and, arguably, indicated that the tweet was doomed from the start.  The bit presents a satirical critique by analogy wherein Colbert’s character attempts to play the foil to Dan Snyder by sending up his half-hearted attempts to atone for the racism he perpetuates by refusing to even consider changing his football team’s logo.  In context, it’s reasonably clear that Colbert’s aim is to underscore the racist absurdity of Snyder’s actions by offering “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” as an equally absurd parodic analogy to the Redskins mascot that Snyder so ardently defends.  Thus, the bit swings on Colbert’s attempt to equate his “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation” to Snyder’s “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” highlighting the latent racism in the football magnate’s charity by comparing it to an overtly racist, though perhaps in some ways silly, parody.  What’s more, because Colbert always performs under a veil of irony, his critique of Snyder’s organization also stands as a critique of his own.  That is, by ironically advocating for the use of Asian stereotypes instead of Native American stereotypes, his comparison reveals the ways in which each should be troubling for his audience.

In referencing the bit in context, it is clear(ish) that the joke’s intended target was Dan Snyder.  The tweet, divorced from its larger context, implies no such connection to Snyder and therefore any audience unfamiliar with the original context is left to attempt to identify a target from the text of tweet itself in order to make sense of the joke.  Arguably, the blue highlighted text of the “#Asian community” hyperlink offers the strongest indication of the tweeted joke’s target.  In this way, reducing the satire to a tweet shifts the target from a wealthy, white racist to a marginalized community and drastically alters its critical potential.  As many a satirist and scholar suggest, laughter directed at the powerful can be subversive, but laughter directed at the powerless tends to be oppressive.[1]  Twitterizing Colbert’s extended bit into a one-liner transforms the joke’s critique of white privilege into an actual example of the racism that such privilege perpetuates in action.

The misrepresentation of the joke’s target, however, tells only half of the story.  Even before it was presented in twitter-friendly format, the joke wasn’t funny.  The bit contains a few satirical gems such as a doctored image of Native Americans wearing Washington Redskins coats donated by the charity and a jab at Snyder for only providing a portion of funds to purchase equipment because paying the full amount would require selling “a beer and a soft pretzel.”  However, the bit also relies heavily on stereotypical caricatures to generate much of the laughter.  This latter strategy not only directs the audience’s laughter at the wrong target, but it also overshadows the satirical critique because it earns a much bigger laugh.  In fact, by the time Colbert actually delivers the soon to be infamous joke, his studio audience’s laughter has been replaced by bursts of applause.  This response, known to comics as “clapture,” suggests that the audience “gets” the joke, but that it isn’t that funny.  In this way, even in a larger context the joke doesn’t work because the laugh happens before the stereotypical caricature is revealed to be satirical critique.  Given that the joke didn’t actually work in context, its out of context failure is unsurprising.

In sum, Colbert’s twitter debacle reveals two key requirements of rhetorically successful satire—a powerful target and well timed laughter.  When satire lacks either of these qualities, as the tweet most certainly did, it turns its subversive potential into oppressive reinforcement of the status quo.  Park’s cry to #CancelColbert is an important reminder that when satire fails, it hurts and, from a rhetorical standpoint, that the things that we laugh about are just as important as the things that we talk about.

[1] See, Alison Dagnes, A Conservative Walks into a Bar or Paul Provensa, iSatiristas! for more.

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Making ‘Em Squeal: Joni Ernst’s “Dangerous” Political Femininity

With November’s midterm congressional elections approaching, most states are currently in the midst of primary campaigns. While these local-level contests usually don’t attract much attention beyond state borders, the possibilities of viral video circulation occasionally introduce a particularly memorable candidate to the rest of the nation. While her five-way senatorial primary is still a close race, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst recently caught the attention of the national media with a new video ad. The Republican candidate makes a lasting impression – one that could propel her to political meme fame akin to that of former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell – by opening the TV spot with a sensational statement: “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Given the backlash amongst Iowa voters to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s recent statement that current Senator Charles Grassley is just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” Ernst’s appeal to the state’s agricultural base could spell out success, at least in the short-term. The ad’s playful tone demonstrates that the campaign embraces Ernst’s experiences on a hog farm, projecting them as the quintessential characteristics of Iowan life that make the state’s voters and political climate unique. Indeed, it’s unlikely that candidates from other states would include their own blend of Pork Rub in their online campaign store.

Far from the Hawkeye state, however, national media outlets have picked up Ernst’s ad. Notably, it has received play on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fallon reacts with visible disbelief and disgust, stammering that “I don’t know what she’s running for but let’s just give her the job” and parodying her with, “Hi I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up throwing battery acid in people’s faces.” Colbert, never breaking character, gives Ernst the kind of treatment that his program spares no guest, topic, or controversy. Running with a theme of castration jokes, he imagines Ernst’s girlhood as uniquely shaped by her involvement with the family hog farm, suggesting that she never read Charlotte’s Web and only failed to operate on Ken dolls because of the toys’ pre-existing lack of genitalia. Further, he addresses male anxieties surrounding castration, noting that “Ernst already got Mitt Romney’s endorsement, and she can have mine too if she comes nowhere near me.”

While Fallon and Colbert are, of course, primarily concerned with landing a joke that will resonate with their audiences, I think that the responses of these male TV personalities offer a point of entry into an important discussion of gender and electoral politics. Ernst’s ad is undeniably quirky, and has successfully garnered attention for her campaign, but will likely be grouped alongside both ads and gaffes from other Republican women like O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. While these candidates cannot be called feminists, the prevailing expectation of their incompetency is indicative of masculinist views on political strength, capability, and subjectivity. What separates Ernst from some of her fellow Republican women is that she has not yet failed; in fact, a campaign that focuses its energy and resources on appealing to the agricultural base in Iowa could be successful. Thus, while the ad is undeniably sensationalist, it takes the work of male comedians to equate Ernst’s statements about castrating hogs with a sense that she threatens masculinity.

Fallon’s comparison of the common farm practice Ernst references to throwing acid at people not only signals the disconnect that has long existed between urban and rural or agricultural voters, but also betrays a sense that women who are willing to participate in such agricultural work do not fit within comfortable, safe gender boundaries. Likewise, the Des Moines Register reported that one political operative has joked that Ernst’s Secret Service codename would be “Lorena Bobbit,” further demonstrating the discomfort that Ernst has caused. And while it may be unlikely that a male candidate would make such a joke in campaign materials, Ernst’s womanhood and willingness to cross boundaries are proving threatening to some parts of established political authority.

While Colbert’s jokes hint at similar responses, they might also leave space for a critique of ‘proper’ girlhood activities even while parodying the ad’s shock-value. In satirically suggesting that Ernst’s childhood involvement in farm work was not a part of ‘normal’ girlhood, Colbert gestures to the need for a re-evaluation of traditional femininity in politics. For Ernst’s agricultural background to suggest that she is not fit for office exposes the thin line that female candidates must walk, maintaining a desirable feminine appearance and demeanor while demonstrating that she possesses the competence, rationality, and focus that are required to participate in what is still very much an old boys’ club.

Constraints on female politicians are frequently up for discussion in the contemporary United States, amongst voters, analysts, pundits, and policy makers alike. Many voters on both sides of the aisle can agree that female candidates as ideologically distinct as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have faced extra obstacles to elected office by virtue of their gender and expectations of femininity and skepticism of a woman’s qualifications, even before she has the chance to demonstrate them. Ernst’s platform is inconsistent with contemporary feminisms, but her ad offers an intervention into particular dominant, masculinist logics operating in Congress, providing a critique that might leave space for much more radical interpretation and citation than Ernst could have ever intended. While I won’t join Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in giving my endorsement to Ernst, I do applaud her willingness to run this ad – she shows that women in politics don’t need to be ‘ballsy’ to be brave.

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Rushing to Judgment: Rush Limbaugh, Bullying, and the Appropriation of Victimhood

This guest post was authored by Antonio Golan, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University.

Earlier this month Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that “would have allowed business owners to claim their religious beliefs as legal justification for refusing to serve same-sex couples or any other prospective customer.” Opposition to the bill came not only from the LGBT community and its supporters, but also from a seemingly unlikely source: corporate America. Behind this opposition is the public-relations nightmare that would potentially come along with doing high-profile business in a state with sexuality/gender-based Jim Crow laws. The National Football League, for example, felt compelled to come out against the law, and it has been speculated that they might move the 2014 Super Bowl out of Arizona if it were to pass (this threat is given certain weight by the fact that the NFL already did this back when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday). The potential economic fallout from a corporate boycott of Arizona generated widespread rejection for all corners of the political spectrum, including some of the Republicans who actually voted for the bill (and then turned around and asked Brewer to veto it).

But where some conservatives saw a law that was impractical and economically detrimental (at best), Rush Limbaugh had a different take:

The governor of Arizona is being bullied. She is being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona, and elsewhere. She is being bullied by the nationwide drive-by media. She is being bullied by certain elements of corporate America… in order to advance the gay agenda. I guess in that circumstance, bullying is admirable. In fact this kind of bullying is honorable.

It should be noted that Limbaugh, and many on the right (I’m looking at you Brit Hume), have a history of decrying America’s feminization and portraying manliness as something of an endangered species. Within this context, many have labeled anti-bullying activists as overprotective and accused them of making children soft, while claiming that being teased and picked on is simply a part of growing up. Note for example, the somewhat less-sensitive attitude toward bullying that Limbaugh took when Mitt Romney was accused of bullying a high school classmate who “could’ve been gay”:

You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles.  If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.

In labeling Brewer a bullying victim, Limbaugh is pointing to the supposed hypocrisy of those who label masculine experiences as “bullying,” while never acknowledging their own aggressive and coercive behavior. He is not only denying the victimization of the LGBT community, but actually appropriating its victimhood. For Limbaugh, the real victims aren’t the LGBT community, but rather those who are forced to treat them as equals.

The reason we should take notice of this (other than obvious), is that it is an example of a rhetorical maneuver often employed by those seeking to bring social change to a halt. We see it in accusations of reverse racism, in lamentations over the death of masculinity, in claims that it is no longer okay to speak English in the United States… (the list goes on). It isn’t enough to deny the victimhood of the oppressed, but rather the perpetrators must themselves take on the role of victims.

It should also be noted that this type of rhetoric has a rich history: Jews were a threat to Germany; black men were sexual threats to white women; Indians were a threat to civilization… (once again, the list goes on). Taking on the role of victim serves to justify the violence (broadly understood) that the oppressor enacts on the oppressed. Through the appropriation of victimhood, normally unacceptable treatment of certain people becomes, not only defensible, but the natural response to a threat.

What Limbaugh fails to acknowledge, however, is that when citizens put pressure on elected officials, it isn’t bullying, just democracy. More importantly, elected officials have more power than citizens, whereas bullying is predicated on the perpetrator having more power than his/her victim(s)—something that establishes an important link between bullying and more recognizable forms of social injustice.

While people like Limbaugh would have us reduce forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia to mere feelings of dislike, in reality, much like bullying, they are deeply rooted in power imbalances. Indeed, what are racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia if not forms of bullying (sometimes on a grand scale)? As the Jonathan Martin scandal reveals, bullying is often intertwined with these social injustices (in his case class and race). Further, we can see some parallels between Richie Incognito’s (the man who bullied Jonathan Martin) response to the accusations of bullying and those who, like Limbaugh, seek to appropriate the victimhood of those that suffer racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. In a slew of Twitter rants, Incognito not only denied that his behavior constituted bullying, but actually began to portray himself as the victim in the whole ordeal. These responses often took an aggressive tone that revealed them to be an extension of the bullying Martin had already endured.

Admittedly, Rush Limbaugh is on the fringe of the political spectrum (note that even Bill O’Reilly has distanced himself from Limbaugh). Yet he often employs rhetorical moves that are found elsewhere in society. Thinking about social injustices through the lens of bullying might allow us to see old problems in a new light, and maybe even reveal new and more effective ways to deal them. If we were to do this, a good first step would be recognizing the appropriation of victimhood as a rhetorical maneuver employed by bullies as part of their bullying.


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