The goal of class preps is to prepare you for class by training you to read for big ideas, identify the key concepts and the main argument, and identify provocative passages relevant to the main argument. Class preps are meant to measure your understanding of the main ideas in a text; therefore, there should be no personal opinion in preps. They should be approximately half a page (double spaced) and no more than 1 page in length. Submit them to the corresponding learning module in Canvas in which your reading appears.
- keywords – look at the keyword listed for the day of class corresponding to your reading; explain its meaning according to the course readings (you may need to draw from the other reading listed for the same day)
- main argument – give a short synopsis (2-3 sentences at most) of the main argument (or main ideas) of the reading
- passage/quote – retype a short quote (be selective!) from the reading that is particularly interesting, provocative, or indicative of the main argument. Explain how it relates to the keyword or helps explain the main argument.
Harmony Bench’s article about Beyonce’s song “All the Single Ladies” and — more importantly — the video performances and adaptations of it — helps us think about how popular culture both reflects and helps shape dominant social norms about gender and sexuality. Remember last week we talked about the idea of the “heteronormative matrix” — a term that communicates how the assumption of a sex binary (the idea that there are only 2 sexes, male and female) often gets aligned with a socially constructed gender binary (the idea that human characteristics are divided up into “feminine” and “masculine” qualities *and* that these qualities “naturally” match up with an assumed/assigned sex, e.g., male-assigned bodies express masculinity and female-assigned bodies express femininity). The heteronormative matrix also accounts for social norms that assume sexual desire to also be binary (e.g., that people are either straight or gay) and that assume heterosexuality to be “natural.”
The word “matrix” in the larger concept “heteronormative matrix” is meant to signal how all of these socially constructed binaries (sex, gender, and sexuality) are built upon one another and depend upon one another. A salient example of this interdependence is the common social assumption that a feminine man is gay (e.g., because this assumption reads “mis-matched” gender expression as an indication of sexuality, which is, in turn, dependent on the underlying belief that “opposite” genders are “naturally” attracted to one another.
Let’s apply some of these ideas by looking at some performances of Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies.”
First, the original video already demonstrates the basic assumptions of the heteronormative matrix: The female dancers express normatively gendered femininity, and they sing a song that reinforces dominant understandings of heteronormativity through upholding key institutions affiliated with it (with the idea that “if he liked it then he shoulda put a ring on it”).
Now let’s dig into questions about queering normative masculinity through performances of “All the Single Ladies.” First, we’ll explore the idea that normative masculinity is a “test” and has to be successfully achieved through constant, everyday actions: “Masculinity theorist Michael S. Kimmel suggests that in U.S. culture masculinity is a test. Men must prove their masculinity; it cannot be taken for granted but must be performed over and over—not for women so much as other men” (Bench 127). One way to explore this idea is to look at an example in which the people involved “fail” the test of masculinity. While watching this Saturday Night Live video skit, ask yourself: what makes this video (supposedly) funny? What social norms and assumptions does it rely on for humor?
As you all astutely observed in your in-class observations about this video, the dancers in the SNL video “fail” at masculinity because they express feminine gender in various ways (through dress, body movement, etc.) Along the way, they also denigrate femininity. We talked about how common insults hurled at boys and men to discipline them into upholding normative masculinity are often actually insults directed at femininity (e.g., “don’t be such a pussy”; “you’re acting like a girl” etc.). Here is how Bench theorizes it, citing masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel: “If, as Kimmel suggests, masculinity is built on a renunciation of femininity, access to attitudes and attributes characterized as ‘feminine’ is constantly mediated by the figure of the homosexual as a failed man” (Bench 128). In other words, the “humor” of the SNL skit also depends on that heteronormative matrix assumption that a man who expresses femininity must be gay.
Now watch the next video, Shane Mercado’s youtube performance of “All the Single Ladies” while asking yourself the question of how Mercado “succeeds” and/or “fails” at gender:
In class, your first reaction to Shane Mercado’s performance was that there is a lot of success in it. Beyond succeeding at replicating the dance performance, this performance also succeeds at femininity. One way it does so is by replicating and performing normative conventions of femininity. “If, as John Berger famously suggested in the 1970s, men act and women appear, to be on display as a dancer is to be visually consumed, which is already to occupy a feminized position in relation to a viewer” (Bench 134). As revealed when looking at the comments on Mercado’s video, the heteronormative matrix ensures that Mercado can only be understood to be able to succeed at femininity if he is simultaneously read as gay. “As I mentioned earlier, the male performers I have observed on YouTube perform not so much in a feminine way as in an effeminate or queer way, as though performing woman remains beyond reach and the only access to femininity available to men (regardless of their sexual orientation) is through the stereotypical figure of the homosexual.” What does it mean if femininity is only to available to men through queer sexuality (i.e., being gay)?
Bench’s ultimate goal is to explore how performances of “All the Single Ladies” can work to open up space for expressions of femininity and masculinity that go beyond the confines of the heteronormative matrix: “I aim to show in this essay how male performances of ‘Single Ladies’ on YouTube illuminate the perceived possibilities and limitations of queer masculinities. I argue that online responses to these performances show the conceptual labor of the homosexual figure, which both holds the place for and mediates the performances of non-normative masculinities. In putting their masculinity on the line en masse, these dancers collectively open a space for masculine expression not predicated on the renunciation of the feminine but existing in productive physical dialogue with it” (Bench 129).
In order to get closer to such a performance, complete Activity 3.4, focused on the version of All the Single Ladies performed by dance troupe Purple Haze.
About them, Bench says: through “dancing the choreography rather than performing Beyoncé” (146), Purple Haze makes space for performing a supremely heteronormative song in a way that makes room for a range of expressions of masculinity and femininity – we see in these examples both expressions of queer masculinity and of male femininity.
About both the Mercado and Purple Haze performances, Harmony Bench argues that: “They collectively refuse the renunciation of femininity as the essential qualification for masculinity, and they do so not tucked away in dance clubs and theaters or even in the character “types” represented on television sitcoms; they do so circulating online in front of an anonymous audience of millions. For that, as one viewer put it, they have ‘balls of steel’” (Bench 147).
A final word on the keyword for this reading: Bench’s analysis of these music videos demonstrates that the keyword queer can refer both to gender and to sexuality. Though it is often used as an identity marker referring to sexuality (as in the binary of being “straight” or “queer”), it is, perhaps more accurately, a term that (in its verb form) means rejecting the rigid social norms associated with gender and sexuality. In other words, to queer gender means to reject the (feminine/masculine) gender binary and to queer sexuality means to reject the assumption of opposite-gender attraction.