Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Seinfeld is a self-conscious reinforcement of the capitalist patriarchy: Not that there's anything wrong with that

On Thursday morning I presented this paper at the 34th annual Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College (where I went to school)—Material Conditions: Gender, Sexuality, Capitalism. This represented the culmination of my third phase of scholarship on Seinfeld, which amounted to watching whatever was available on crackle.com for the last couple of months, reading late '70s to early '90s feminist applications to ''70s-era theories of deconstruction, and, of course, thinking really hard about Seinfeld. The first era (watching every episode at least twice between 1995 and 2001) amounted to a book report on The Entire Domain

the second (watching every episode at least once between 2008 and 2010) led to this blog and its companion book Structure, Seinfeld, and Play, the early timeframe of which may be summed up here. It may by now be apparent that I made a powerpoint, and here include the highlights of its slides.

Out of curiosity, and the need to communicate effectively with the audience, I asked how many had never seen an episode of the show—AND HALF OF THE AUDIENCE RAISED THEIR HANDS! As this is the internet, anyone reading this who has never seen the show does not need me to explain it here in this space—I release you to discover it through your own devices! Be free!

Additionally, much of the preamble for the paper I was presenting is on this very blog—I have been writing about Seinfeld's self-parodic modes of production for years, and I invite you to explore how it conceivably could work that a show makes fun of itself making fun of itself and still retains a hint of verisimilitude. But back to the paper at hand, as I summed up early Thursday morning: I am here to discuss why these catch phrases and tropes persist within present-day American culture, while their subversive power passes largely unperceived and unacknowledged, and why this represents a powerful means of subverting static binary conceptions of identity and representation.
Seinfeld simultaneously deconstructs the production of a situation comedy and the day-to-day performance of identity, most poignantly that of gender. By doing so it allows the viewer to see the generic rules of a sitcom as a metaphor for larger societal rules about behavior, and how one is expected to perform a given identity within that framework. The show follows the structure of this fifty-year-old genre that reinforces traditional gender roles, originating in 1950s suburban family narratives, and constantly parodies this context. In this sense the show exists both as critique and expression of the modes of sitcom production, and thereby functions as an institutional reinforcement of capitalist, patriarchal expectations of identity and behavior. Seinfeld is not celebrated as a subversion of gender/capitalist norms because of a complicated paradox: its star received unprecedented economic validation and a huge position of power precisely by subverting those norms.
Ultimately the show’s contribution to making television more representative of life unmediated by commerce and sexism can be summed up in one word: nothing—its purpose was not activist, but satiric, to show how heartless, anti-social, and vapid a protagonist can be and still remain more or less likable, granted of course that he is white, male, earning a comfortable living, and explicitly heterosexual. Network television isn't designed to instigate deep intellectual thought about levels of representation, the slipperiness of identity, the relationship between lived experience and the creation of fiction, whether any experience is really real or if any fiction is really false. But Seinfeld does ask this of its viewers—though it let them get away with utter satisfaction in the storylines, the dialogue and the catch phrases that came out of it—like a high school English teacher satisfied that their students read the book and could reproduce a few passages, without delving too deep into rhetorical analysis. The episodes are fast-paced, intelligent and original, and it's easy to flatter yourself for following along and getting it, even if you don't appreciate the larger commentaries on itself, sitcoms in general, and consumer culture as a whole. The complicated mechanisms behind the show’s creation slip by unperceived, yet still somehow carried by the viewer.
Perhaps I am simply a slightly more paranoid viewer than the average Seinfeld fan that I think the show is constantly making fun of the fact that I am watching it, as opposed to giving me the pure and simple pleasure of laughter as lovers of the Seinfeld universe enjoy, which they celebrate by memorizing its minutiae, and reciting its catch phrases, but the passage of time has only made it increasingly obvious, at least to me, that the show is in fact doing this, that its creator is ashamed to be producing mainstream television and is therefore making fun of the charade, using Jerry Seinfeld as the affable front for an avant-garde project to bridge the gap between high and low culture, the way Kurt Vonnegut convinced the ‘60s literati that literary merit could exist in genre fiction, or the way Woody Allen made space for stand-up comedy in critically acclaimed cinema—there is high art in a sitcom if it is not made for strictly commercial purposes, if instead the joke comes first and the convention is recast to fit the joke. The way that Mad Men for example is able to describe the influence of capitalism, marketing, creativity, and gender upon each other is at play in Seinfeld, except in the sitcom's case the way that creativity has been co-opted by the market is not the historic context of Madison Avenue in the '60s—it is the way that Hollywood turns comics into sitcom stars. In other words, Seinfeld is an extended commentary on itself.
Creativity and comedy involve play and fluidity, transgression and subversion, while capitalism requires stratification and opposition, the reinforcement of the system and the policing of its norms. Becoming successful in a creative field therefore becomes a kind of paradox: a successful comic may be judged by his (there are no female comedian characters in Seinfeld, only comic actresses playing non-comedian characters) economic success, but that success necessitates a compromise, such as that with the heteronormative, white supremacist, anti-cosmopolitan tool of post-World War II America's social power structure: the situation comedy.

The show in this viewing—as a self-aware commentary on itself—is conceived in order to draw attention to the conventions of commercial TV and thereby subvert them. It must be filmed in Los Angeles, for example, so a breakthrough episode revolves around a main character leaving Manhattan for LA to live a more authentic life, which both ironically and appropriately consists of acting, and the other characters follow him. 

Verisimilitude is replaced with a tongue-in-cheek re-presentation of the show’s production because its ultimate purpose is to allow this group of comedians and writers the opportunity to turn their performances and material into money, everything else is superfluous, and therefore every effort was made to avoid doing precisely what they were doing—producing a marketable, accessible sitcom. In 1989, this was the choice for comics and comic writers and actors, and through the production of 9 seasons, the first seven executively produced by David, this team of comics, writers, and actors turned Jerry’s jokes about airports into ridiculous amounts of money, and allowed Larry to win an Emmy for writing an episode about a contest he once participated in whose purpose was to see which participant could refrain from masturbating the longest.
The writing of this paper has been complicated in the last week by the debut of Larry David’s debut broadway play, which he claims he was coerced into being the star of. It made 14 million dollars in advanced sales, a record, and he has been talking about his career in detail for the first time, recording a Fresh Air interview last week, and, quite surreally, doing a one hour Charlie Rose appearance on Monday, in which David turns into his onscreen persona when Charlie Rose tries to get him to open up about his relationship issues and proclaims, “that’s why I didn’t want to do this interview in the first place… I had to be talked into doing 60 minutes. Do you think I wanted to do this? I didn’t want to do it because I knew you’d be asking me questions like this.” They also visit the Brooklyn apartment he grew up in, dropping in on its current residents, and ignoring them as David dismisses questions about feelings he might be feeling visiting what should be a sentimental location. It’s uncomfortable and bizarre to say the least.
David turned Seinfeld into a means of escaping despair, obscurity, and poverty to starring in a Broadway hit he wrote, conceiving, producing, writing, and starring in an acclaimed HBO series for 8 seasons, starring in a Woody Allen movie, in addition to, of course, being responsible for the most successful TV show of all time, as popular as it was critically acclaimed. He has essentially become the high art genius in the vein of Neil Simon that he always imagined himself to be, and he used a mainstream, commercial mode to accomplish that.
Seinfeld on the other hand has produced and starred in a children’s cartoon, made occasional American Express commercials, along with a 2002 documentary that is essentially a not funny version of a fake documentary that David made in 2000, which became David’s successful HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. It has become clear that Seinfeld’s apathetic material about nothing only functions to satisfy individuals entirely uninterested in the way the real world functions given that they enjoy silently benefiting from privilege, or are children. A year ago he dismissed that his newest show almost exclusively features white men because he is only interested in what is funny—social context has nothing to do with it—it’s essentially a coincidence in his mind that they all happen to be white men. Seinfeld always dismissed issues of representation and diversity in his work by citing Bill Cosby as his comic hero a tactic he will now inevitably shy away from.
Seinfeld, the show, has reemerged in the popular consciousness in the present moment on twitter as an account called Modern Seinfeld takes the face-value interpretation of the show, and imagines Seinfeld-esque scenarios in which the internet exists. 
A parody account called Seinfeld Current Day in turn makes fun of it, providing the David-influenced iconoclastic version: not readily comprehensible, reducible, or commodifiable, and generally absurd. 

As our mutual understanding of the show developed and changed, the Puffy Shirt has remained in the Smithsonian, and, like the shirt, the means of a complicated understanding of the show has been here all along, and the fact that the its tropes remain institutionalized in mainstream culture represents a great opportunity to use them in the discussion of the fluidity of gender, identity, and representation in popular culture. 

Everything regressive, anti-social, sexist, derogatory, and commercial about the show represents what has allowed its satire to endure. In the example of “the Outing,” Elaine makes a joke for the benefit of an eavesdropper that Jerry and (Larry David’s stand-in character) George are a closeted gay couple. To George this is a fun premise for conversational play, but, to Jerry, an uncomfortable idea even to entertain. This is the episode’s set-up—the eavesdropper is a reporter—and now Jerry, a public figure, has to eliminate the existence of this joke, pleading to her, “there's been a big misunderstanding here! We did that whole thing for your benefit. We knew you were eavesdropping. That's why my friend said all that. It was on purpose! We're not gay! Not that there's anything wrong with that... I mean that's fine if that's who you are...” Jerry is thereby sufficiently progressive for ‘90s America, yet also sufficiently homophobic to be popularly embraced. His heterosexuality, in the words of Judith Butler, is “compulsory.” By the end of the episode Jerry has successfully convinced the reporter of his heterosexuality and seduced her—an NYU undergraduate, by the way, he is in his mid-thirties—George bursts in with a woman he is trying to break up with and performs love and affection for Jerry for the benefit of convincing his girlfriend of the lie, sending the NYU reporter from the scene convinced that Jerry was performing false heterosexual desire for her. 

Seinfeld constantly presents gender as an uncomfortable performance. Men—almost exclusively white—dominate the cast in a way that may be considered both an essential flaw and inevitable concession to the genre, making masculinity the most frequently scrutinized subject for analysis. The viewer constantly sees the two main characters, Jerry and George, being emasculated (at least in their minds), worrying about being emasculated, or avoiding being emasculated. In “the Outing” Jerry talks about constantly being mistaken for gay because he is “thin, single, and neat.” Masculinity is constantly reduced to such comic proportions—men are married by their thirties, either overweight or overly muscular, messy, and unable to relate to women.

I ended with this series of images:
In the first, the cover image of Gender Trouble, a boy wears and dress and looks directly at the camera, aware that the viewer lives in a world in which this is unnatural, as though there were a natural, inevitable way for a human to dress. In the second is Jerry in the puffy shirt. He looks uncomfortable. He has been tricked into wearing this shirt because a woman, a “low talker” asked him to for his appearance on the Today Show, he couldn’t hear her, and nodded out of politeness. He is aware that the viewer will judge him, he will judge himself, and his performance will be askew—and indeed Bryant Gumbel, the host, cannot get past the shirt, though he does not address its androgynous characteristics, instead calling it a pirate shirt, as it is referred to by the other characters as well, creating the further absurdity that a comic expression of masculinity—being a pirate—in our present milieu resembles a comic expression of femininity. Of course, Prince, in the third image also makes eye contact, also looks comfortable, but unlike the boy, he knows what straight culture thinks and he could give a fuck, and that’s where his power comes from.

Paradoxically, Jerry also draws his power by wearing the shirt, albeit uncomfortably, just as he does by parodying the way a woman wears a purse, or complains in “the Boyfriend” that a man he went on a friend date hasn’t called him again. When he does his stand up routine he wears a blazer and tie in his performance of masculinity, in the way that a bio queen—a woman performing as a drag queen—is performing an exaggeration of her assumed gender, which happens to be wildly different than who “she” “is,” or rather the gender she does. The puffy shirt remains in the Smithsonian, its up to us, however, to decide what it means.