Hair: A Political Statement?

By Ashley Johnson

Courtesy of Ashley Johnson

Courtesy of Ashley Johnson

My hair

My crown

My roots

My hair defies gravity

The hair that is atop my head

Has been, for generations, for centuries

Political

The braids on my head show history,

Status, class, culture

My bald head

Holds the bondage, the enslavement

The strength to move forward

My 'fro represents

The never-ending revolution 

Between me and the system

That presses me down

As I fight to get up

My dreads show

My fight, my eternal divinity

My stance on the forces against me

My straight hair

Shows the assimilation

And the transformation of

Adjusting

My hair is art

My hair is religion, faith

It holds so much power

It represents everything and

Nothing at once

Don't tell me that my hair isn't 

Good enough

My hair has withheld 

Generations of

Love, pain, anger

My hair reaches the skies

Carries the message of

My ancestors

I fight the power

With my hair

Injustices and manifestos

Alike

My hair is for me

Miley Cyrus: The Tone Deaf Politique Of Our Generation

By Meg Zulch

Courtesy of  @ELLEMagazine / Twitter

Courtesy of @ELLEMagazine/ Twitter

The Miley Cyrus of yesteryear, fresh out of Disney Channel, wanted nothing more than to revoke her responsibility of keeping a squeaky clean pre-pubescent image that she couldn't identify with. Which is understandable since her experience on Hannah Montana, as well as the image she had to uphold during those years, seemed damaging in many ways. She told Marie Claire that the pressures of being on the show gave her body image issues and even an anxiety disorder.

So it's understandable that she wants to shy away from the image of the thin bleach blonde perfect role model for the legions of manufactured young women that only existed in the minds of Disney and Hollywood, and replace it with an incessant wagging tongue and middle finger. However, she carried this attitude well into her 20s, forfeiting any ounce of responsibility and rebelling against everyone and everything. But the reality is, as long as you're in the public eye, and creating art to be consumed by the public, you have a definitive responsibility of some kind to uphold certain morals, especially as an inherently political person.

Many people in my life and on the Internet have argued (to my despair) that art doesn't have to be political. And when one analyzes or critiques it, it's important to see the art for its aesthetic qualities and components, and not for any political undertone that is subjectively perceived, with or without the intention of the artist. Additionally, getting upset over offensive aspects of the art, like with the themes of rape in Eminem's work for example, is irrational and besides the point.

However, I tend to believe the opposite. All art is inherently tied up with politics and has been for ages. Because, as humans, we all have opinions and experiences, all of which are reflected one way or another by the art we make. So taking art at “face value” is impossible and counterproductive. As a person assigned female at birth, a genderqueer person, and a survivor of sexual assault, I simply do not have the privilege to "choose" not to be affected my offensive or triggering art. Politics in art is important to me, and Cyrus seems to feel similarly (to an extent).

She has aligned herself with multiple political causes for years now. She's decidedly pro-weed, her passion for the environment is made apparent by her veganism and volunteer choices, and her passion for the LGBTQIA+ community is reflected in multiple projects including her very own Happy Hippie Foundation (a charity she founded to benefit homeless queer youth). She consistently makes shocking statements through her appearance and music, preaching body positivity, sex positivity and self love.

And recently, she focused her support on trans youth specifically. She told New York Times Magazine, “I feel very gender-fluid. For a long time I didn’t understand my own sexuality. I would get really frustrated and think I’d never understand what I am, because I can’t even figure out if I’m feeling more like a girl or boy. It took me talking to enough trans people to realize that I didn’t ever have to decide on one.” And that was exciting for any gender non-conforming person to read.

She includes trans people in her performances, supports other trans artists, and demonstrates androgyny to an enormous mainstream pop-loving crowd. I lovingly watched her cover The Replacements’ “Androgyny” and Against Me’s “Trans Soul Rebel” alongside trans musician Laura Jane Grace over and over again on her YouTube channel, starry eyed by her colorful queer aesthetics. The New York Times even called her “a natural avatar for a post-gender generation.”

Cyrus is now embarking on her latest tour (to promote Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz), which is clearly making multiple political statements based on the shows’ shocking and provocative outfit lineup (like her provocative "porni-corn" outfit). But as soon as she's met with criticism, Cyrus abandons her political persona and replaces it with an “I'm just doing me” attitude, which acts as a perfect scapegoat for certain indiscretions, leaving fans and critics alike to wonder if these identities can exist simultaneously. Personally, I'm not sure that they can.

As a white artist myself, art and artists that include all marginalized people are still my top priority. Intersectionality within art is crucial, and though I take comfort in art tailored to my identity, I'm also not afraid to criticize it openly. And that's the problem with Cyrus--intersectionalism and being politically correct doesn't seem to be a concept she's interested in.

She's no stranger to cultural appropriation and certainly doesn't shy away from rocking dreadlocks or grills, despite being heavily criticized for it. Her “I’m just being me” attitude loses its value when it feeds into racist rhetoric. She defends her choices because controlling her narrative is more important to her than being aware of the very oppression that she feeds into everyday. So this summer, I could no longer overlook my gender hero’s racist microaggressions after the ridiculous comments she made about Nicki Minaj, de-elevating her from any hero status I may have misguidedly assigned her.

In an interview with The New York Times, things took a turn for the worst when she started tone policing Minaj’s Twitter reaction to the underrepresentation of women of color in the 2015 VMA nominations (basically suggesting Minaj should have embraced yogic love instead of getting mad about racism). The reporter interviewing her seemed to try to interject for the greater good, and offer more information about the Twitter feud between Minaj and Taylor Swift, which Cyrus admitted to not have actually been following. Interrupting the reporter, the defensive pop star stated, “I know you can make it seem like, Oh I just don’t understand because I’m a white pop star. I know the statistics. I know what’s going on in the world.”

But does she? If she actually knew to the extent which women of color are overlooked or misrepresented in the media, would she have downplayed Minaj’s completely rational anger? And if she actually did have an understanding of racism, microaggressions and our country’s history of silencing people of color (and other oppressed groups), would she be policing the tone in which Minaj used to express this frustration? No, she'd rather twirl her bleach blond locks adorned with a rainbow assortment of beads as she lays down another terrible rap-filled track for her new album. Clearly, this political persona she's embraced as of late is not always convenient when it's catering to someone besides herself.

Cyrus is obviously an inherently political person, and it bleeds forth through her art. But to make up for the areas she's sorely lacking in, like understanding the experiences of people besides white sex-positive queers, she tries to downplay her political persona as much as possible. She goes on and on about political beliefs, but then shuts down when faced with the topic of racism, and even renouncing her politics as a whole. She told NYT, ending a long article about her politically-motivated art with, “This music was not meant to be a rebellion. It was meant to be a gift.”

Her brand is characterized by a complete lack of shame and self consciousness. However, when you're a white person in the public eye running around with dreadlocks and claiming being heard is only determined by the love in your heart, her ignorance seems to suggest a greater issue: that white artists in the public eye who are of this generation and/or politically inspired often revoke their responsibility to do the right thing in what they say, do and represent.

White artists, like myself, have the unique and completely necessary responsibility to get it right, which is hardly a burden compared to the daily oppression that other marginalized groups go through. And we’re absolutely going to mess up at certain points, but if you believe in your art and the greater good, you're going to hold yourself accountable and learn from your mistakes.

Cyrus refuses accountability, and therefore will never be the artist she wants to be. Her art makes a political statement for sure, but it's disjointed from the rest of her, as well as the rest of the world. As I stated earlier, art is inherently political, and what you say in your art or through your persona is a permanent testament to your beliefs, frozen in time with a song or outfit. Picking and choosing what statements are political and what aren't destroys any transparency Cyrus once had, and therefore her credibility as an artist.

Her art (and “politics”) are completely self-absorbed, disgustingly excessive, and involves only reveling in her own edgy nude photos and her drugged out hippie persona she's spent years building. One of her band members and close friends, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, said in an interview with The New York Times, “Her life, to her, is art,” he said. “If she wants to look this way and say these things, she does it.”

This comment certainly speaks volumes of Cyrus, who intentionally revels in her own world of privilege and art while ignoring anyone outside that bubble. She’s a bullshit artist that immaturely swings between political and apolitical depending on whether or not someone called her out on her racist tendencies that day. Cyrus is clearly more concerned with where to get her next tattoo and what creative way she can slip a nip next, rather than the millions of people who actually suffer from oppression and violence everyday. And perhaps, always will be.

Monsters Of War

by Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I grew up with monsters. Before the Disney Princesses, before being shown Back to the Future and Sixteen Candles by friends and babysitters, before sitting in on my mother's marathons of musicals and historical epics, my earliest films were Universal's monster movies. Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and The Mummy were all weekend staples for my father and I, and we often binge-watched them again and again every Saturday from the solidarity of a pillow fort or makeshift blanket tent. As I grew older, some of my fondest memories with my dad involved late night screenings of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and (once I got a little older) movies like Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead. 

 As a child, I would flip through the glossy pages of my dad's books of production stills, old horror movie posters, and glamour shots of actors and actresses in gothic and otherworldly makeup. My school notebooks and binders were plastered with images of The 50 Foot Woman and Cat People. If there was a movie I hadn't seen, my dad probably had seen it, and his memories and summaries of those movies often stood in for more traditional bedtime stories. Each of us would put on a thick European accent and recite "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," the way most parents and children recite goodnight prayers. He told me all about the sci-fi films of his childhood: The Blob, The Thing, The Day of the Trepids, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He vividly recalled sneaking out to see Carrie when it first premiered, and how he had to walk home alone afterwards through the fog of a sleeping neighborhood. As a teenager, he introduced me to the B-movies of Ed Wood. He instilled in me a great love of the scary, the odd, the macabre, and that love is one of the strongest bonds I have with my father. 

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

But I also grew up with war movies. Both my parents are history buffs, and watching documentaries and films about WWII were often Sunday night traditions for both of them. Indeed, the first film that made me want to become a filmmaker, the film that is the reason I ever went to art school, was Life Is Beautiful -- a movie about the Holocaust. Such films were about entirely different, real life horrors, which were all too fresh in the memory of our world’s history. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I began to realize, however, that a war movie can be a horror movie…and in turn, a horror movie can be a war movie. 

Courtesy of Cecchi Gori Group

Courtesy of Cecchi Gori Group

In high school I reread Bram Stoker's Dracula for my AP English class. We talked about the themes to be found within it -- mostly sexual, since it dealt with a time of greatly repressed sexuality in Victorian Britain -- but also how it was a story that greatly dealt with xenophobia. Count Dracula, a foreigner from Transylvania, comes to England with the intent to buy land and reunite with a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his great love. The fear that surrounds him, the fear he instills in others, is a fear of "the other."

Here is a figure from "the old country," largely steeped in traditional folklore unfamiliar to Western Europe, perceived as strange, different. and even terrifying. This fear of "the other" can be found in the other monster films as well.

In The Wolfman, an American tourist undergoes the transformation into a local legend foretold by a Romani woman, after he murders a Romani man he believed to be nothing more than a wolf. In The Mummy, British and American archeologists are terrorized by the undead pharaoh of the civilization they are trying to colonize. In Frankenstein, the monster is not feared because he is violent, but because he is different.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

When we look at the Universal monster films in this light, it's no wonder why they fell out of style in the outbreak of WWII. Fear of immigrants and foreigners was prevalent in day-to-day American life…but compared to the real life atrocities of Stalin and Hitler, no fictional monster could really compare. Monster films all but died out during the war, and the age of romantic comedies and musicals took over to provide something much more lighthearted to fear-weary movie audiences.

After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the reality of nuclear war pervaded everyday life, even in peacetime. As America entered The Cold War, the possibility of atomic bomb strikes seemed more and more likely. Even when my father was attending elementary school in the 60's, he still recalls the sirens warning people to get to their nearest fallout shelter, with regular "duck and cover" drills conducted in class. Monster films returned, but this time they were no longer the monsters of pre-WWII xenophobia. These monsters came from nuclear radiation and scientific experiments gone wrong. Giant insects and reptiles plagued New York City and Japan. Aliens from other planets no longer appeared as "the other," but rather just like us.

The alien in The Day The Earth Stood Still appeared to be an average man, while the aliens in The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers could take on the form of anybody. During the Red Scare, suspicions of Soviet spies and agents implanted in our society ran rampant among the American people. The films of this time reflected those fears, and the fears of science going too far, creating entirely modern monsters.

Courtesy of Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.

Courtesy of Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.

In the 60's, films changed to reflect the civil rights movement and the struggle in Vietnam. Romero's Night of the Living Dead became the poster child for "civil rights horror films" because of his African-American male lead, Duane Jones. While Romero has stated that Jones got the lead role just because "he was the best actor in the auditions," he has also gone on to say that the final image of the film (when Jones was shot through the head by white farmers even though he was not a member of the undead) immediately evoked images of everyday racial violence in America, and that the film has become an "undeniable" reflection of the civil rights movement.

When my father first showed me Carrie, the movie he said scared him the most when he was my age (12), I wasn't afraid of it. Interesting, seeing as even at 12 I recognized it to be a movie about repressed female sexuality -- a theme heavily explored in the feminist horror films of the 70's, from violent and even paranormal female characters, to the evolving rape-and-revenge genre that peaked with I Spit On Your Grave. The difference in these films however was that now the monsters were men, even when their female victims seemed to be more than human.

Courtesy of United Artists

Courtesy of United Artists

Horror films, regardless of their quality or public reception, have always been political films. They play on our fears, they reflect our realities, and they take real life terror and make it digestible by giving us a good guy to root for. Often, in real life, there are not good guys to root for. These films take the fear and paranoia of our history and make them understandable to a modern audience.

As the master of horror, Stephen King, said: "We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones." 


A Living, Breathing Political Statement

by Siobhan Thompson

Courtesy of Siobhan Thompson

Courtesy of Siobhan Thompson

Political statements were riots and protests and demonstrations. I saw riots and chants as incendiary devices for young people to make the government listen.

The Vietnam War protests were political statements. They were an awakening of people, an uprising of youth, a brave and sometimes foolhardy counterculture that refused to accept things the way they were.

The Pride parades were a political statement. They marched through the streets of major cities in America and even through the dirt roads in Uganda, those lines of brave people draped in rainbows and perseverance and community.

It was a long time before I realized that these things felt like art to me—the gathering of people, the mosaic of flushed faces, the music of incessant chants. Art was not limited to museums, and politics were not limited to colossal buildings in Washington.

I was born to a hippie liberal mother who never really left the Sixties, and I learned to be a pseudo anarchist through the music I liked early on. It all sort of bled together. I’ve always been far left. I’m way far left. Radical, even. I gave an impassioned speech advocating the pro-choice movement in eighth grade, and I scoffed at trucks with Bush/Cheney ’04 stickers on their bumpers.

But still, I didn’t think of myself as political until Barack Obama ran for office. On Election Day in 2008, I was in my freshman year of high school. I wore a Barack Obama shirt and at least twenty Barack Obama pins. I couldn’t vote yet and it broke my heart. When he won, I cried, floating on patriotism and the promise of change. I didn’t understand anything about foreign policy, but that didn’t matter to me then.  All I knew was that I wanted things to be better.

I tried to be political beyond my unyielding support for Barack. It was hard when I lived in northern Wisconsin, but it didn’t get easier when I moved to Chicago like I thought it would. I thought I would be able to speak my mind more. This was not the case.

In art school, the question of whether or not our art was going to be political came up often. I’m a fiction writer. I don’t think I could write any manifestos. I don’t think I could write anything academic, or intelligent, or persuasive. I like to write about emotions and feelings and even ghosts and monsters, and none of that felt political.

But, there’s more to me than that. My identity as a fiction writer, as a person who understands emotions far better than foreign policy, intersects with the other parts of me that I have come to realize are inherently political.

I am a Native American. I am a woman. I have mental illnesses. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I am not a thin person. I am many things. What I have lived through—what I have survived—are not things you are supposed to survive. Because of this, my life is a political statement. I did not choose this.

My life is art—I am in love and loved. I surround myself with what I find to be beautiful, and I have a tendency to think most things are beautiful. I see most everything as art. I choose to live this way.

As a result, all the art I create is inherently political. My existence is inherently political.

Some of this I chose and some of this I did not—but I’m embracing it all anyway. Some political statements are quieter than marching on Washington, but I think there’s room for all of us.

The Hum of Winter’s First Snowfall, November 20th, 2015

By Rivka Yeker

Courtesy of  Becky Yeker

Courtesy of Becky Yeker

Cars are being piled with fluff and the speed bump’s arrow-shaped design is being emphasized with a white highlight. The lamplight is reflecting against the snowflakes, showing us how large they actually are. Like they do in films that focus heavy on the scenery, winter evening, Friday night, and the roommates are resting across this small apartment. One bakes cookies, while one lies entranced with her phone, one sits on a chair staring at the first snowfall in Chicago, in November.

The weatherman said 8 inches, and the weatherman should be right since he has no other topic to cover. He doesn’t have to talk about the hostages in Mali, the terrorist attacks in Paris, the desperate refugees in Syria.

I had a dream that I was in an interview and someone had asked me about the war happening all over the world, the tyrants, the maniacs, the murderers, the blood shed, and in my dream I responded with, “It’s much easier to start a fire than to put one out.” Meaning that being angry, uncivil, uncaring, and untamed is much simpler than putting energy into something that could potentially never grow or change, like watching the world explode while sitting with laptops before us, sharing Facebook statuses and trying our best to do something that seems like it can’t be undone.

Courtesy of Becky Yeker

Courtesy of Becky Yeker

Watching people do everyday things while on the 3rd floor of an apartment and a window separating noise seems like watching someone else watch a film; it is easy to romanticize the way a person lives by not hearing the subtle groans pulled from their chest while wiping off snow on their minivan.

There is invisibility in the restlessness of our world today, as people lay on their couches absorbed in Facebook’s constant updates, with trending topics changing by the minute, they hide under blankets separated by windows from reality. The snow is covering up the streets, but it’ll melt by next week.