by Julianne Hussman | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018
4:01 PM on a Saturday and a music application plays “Everytime” by Britney Spears. “Why carry on without me?” I mouth weakly in my bed, “Every time I try to fly I fall.” My cat meows in the hallway. I open Instagram, the online theatre of reputation. I evaluate my power quantified through big data. I compare, self-objectify. I closely examine myself through the eyes of the imaginary ultimate Spectator, whose judging eye is an abusive assemblage of internalized gender, class, and capitalist cosmetic expectations. I look in the mirror. I am cute and pretty, yes? I am lovable, yes?
Sickly white fragile beauty, will I be loved the nearer my proximity to death? Is feminine shrinkage a corpse meditation for those who gaze at her? Some Buddhist monks would watch women’s beauty decay—their attrition a reminder of impermanence, loosening the grip of desire. In the Victorian romantic vision of tuberculosis, the consumptive woman’s frailty is accompanied by a heightened, spiritualized consciousness as her guilty flesh burns up. Her appearance was and is emulated in makeup styles, corsetry, high fashion, and diet culture.
Is she a reminder that even the duplicitous power and beauty of femininity will, in fact, die, and perhaps our self-sovereign spirits may outlive the mother’s leaky body? The gendered body is associated with leakiness and penetrability, inferior to the male citizen-subject who is self-sovereign and contained. I imagine I will be rewarded for tightly regimented bodily choreographies: shrinking and contorting according to ideals of passive beauty. I seek thinness, an implanted desire. My unconscious, uninterrogated reflex is to think that my security––my “belonging,” or protection and privilege––lies there, in the amorphous endless striving where the trauma of self-neglect won’t follow me. The more I curl into and against myself, contorting into a cute commodity, the less dangerous I become, the less dangerous we become.
Approval of my body and face has come to stand in for being “seen” in my wholeness, my consciousness, emotions, experiences, and the ancestral line which flows back to beginningless time that has produced this body. I try to forget, for a moment, my digital spectacles of identity, the ways I have come to love and desire my own subjection in spite of intellectual critique. I close my eyes and begin some mirrorless, spectatorless dancing. Okay, the living body is here, still.
My kitten continues to meow outside. Yasmin is a ragdoll cat. The breed acquired this name due to the cats’ tendency to collapse limp in the arms of children, follow closely, cuddle affectionately. Yasmin is charged with mischief energy, tiptoeing across the hangers in the closet. She follows me, chirping, into the bathroom, snuggles my face, kicks lighters under the couch (we found seven under there once), “shakes paw” for treats, sleeps on my second pillow. I read on Wikipedia that, “Some breeders in Britain have tried to breed away from the limpness owing to concerns that extreme docility ‘might not be in the best interests of the cat.’” In a neoliberal, post-industrial context, domestication can be seen as a history of producing pliable, dependent subjects—private sphere companions to make life more livable.
Yasmin says, no I am not only an object because my dances of beauty and affection and kittenness are appeals, strategic performances––as much as any other being’s bids for love, safety, and warmth are––though some beings have been dissected and molded and refashioned by others who ingrain dependence in us so our whole existence becomes an appeal. My smallness fragility and hobbling forever-baby forever-acted-upon forever-chosen-for soft face whisker-kiss love me so much you could eat me up take me into you––relationships of love are also relationships of power.
Hello Kitty has no mouth so we can project whatever feeling we want onto her. She has no mouth, a Sanrio spokesperson once said, “so we can be happy and sad together with Hello Kitty.”
At ten years old, I’m a browed, queer, lonely girl, wearing my hair like a tangled, black, proto-emo veil with ill-placed bobby pins. A boy on the bus says I look like the girl from The Ring and tries to force me to show my face. I spend the majority of my time in my basement with internet friends on Neopets and designing websites for my guinea pig Marshi (Marshmallow Maro Jr.), my only friend allowed at the house. I named her after Mashimaro—a cop-hating, brilliantly perverse and vulgar South Korean cartoon rabbit introduced to me in third grade, before my mom transferred me to conservative Catholic middle school. A boy in my new class says, “You know, Julianne is obsessed with her guinea pig. And she kind of looks like one…”
I would draw my guinea pig Marshi, write her diary entries, photoshop her in dozens of settings, and give and receive pet website awards from quirky middle-aged ladies online. These digital worlds were escapes from the sadistic hierarchies of middle school, where we expelled the pus of our enculturation, trauma, shame, and insecurity onto one another in crude, early games of power and privilege. Embodying my idea of Marshi was a passage to connection with other women––ones who loved the cute, who wanted to learn how to love better, who knew how to nurture life, who lived and made kin with a particular kind of being, deriving a sense of self in relation.
My activities with her idealized anthropomorphic character online were balanced by play, affection, care, leafy greens, and hay, but I wonder if I sometimes neglected time with Marshi for her dream image. My babysitter forgot to feed her when we went on vacation and baby’s breath grows in the spot where she’s buried.
The trouble with living relations is the possibility of rejection and loss. The squirming of a kitten from your arms, a crying baby. A sharp shock of shame, personalization, and perhaps, a turn to the mouthless, pliable benevolence of plushies. My child-self loved who she was in relation to cute objects. They did the quiet, invisible labors of constructing my subjectivity as the one-who-loves. The one who recognizes what is lovable: I am soft-hearted, nurturer, “good female.”
A matted block of synthetic fur became a medium to play-act these femininities. I thought American Girl dolls were too creepy to be so expensive, but I loved their doll-sized pets. I had the Westie named Coconut. Coconut had a solid but hollow body with plush white fur and black beads for eyes. I would keep drawings of her in random manila folders, make her outfits, play her online games, bring her everywhere; she turned gray, and a little piece broke off inside her and would jingle if I shook her—I called it her heart. She was a haunted and enchanted object, an idol and an outlet for private child dreams and secrets. A lonely child in a consumer culture may have a host of object love affairs.
Have you ever felt the gut-punch of the news that your mother gave away a stuffed animal you haven’t seen, touched, much less thought of, in years? We become subjects by fashioning the self within networks of relations. How have I been so shaped and impressed upon by bonds with cotton and yarn manufactured in the shape of a friend? How have object intimacies become major forces in the construction of my narrativized self? In my isolation as a tween basement-dweller, I encountered the cruel relief of intimate commodities. I was endowed with both a sense of power and connection, although I lacked access to a living collective.
As the concept of a living dog compressed and abstracted into an accessory, Coconut became a symbol for my identity constitution as feminine caretaker. A purchase can be an apparatus for exploring the “self,” often a gendered self, offering a temporary cohesion of an internally regulated consumer identity. I experience the purchase as a socially-sanctioned, oft-repeated sacrament to appease capital, that feels as if it were really my idea all along. The desire to acquire is written into my ways of seeing, visually accumulating and claiming images and objects as a means of self-branding, self-understanding. Somehow, this becomes the way I experience myself as a social being. I buy back glimpses of sociality in the form of cute commodities.
The Sanrio franchise has a character duo called Sugarbunnies. They are soft white and brown rabbit plushies named Shirousa and Kurousa. Sanrio released a video of the Sugarbunnies baking a cake for the loneliest French child pianist. She spends her day at the piano bench. In time, the girl’s productivity is shot; she’s demoralized, frustrated and uninspired by the keys in front of her. She is alone in her charming little house, no parents, no pets, two plushies. She tucks herself into bed.
The Sugarbunnies wake in the night, “Il faut l’aider,” we must help. They work until morning to create le gâteau piano, embellished with pink roses. The little girl takes a bite, consuming their love, her worth, her inspiration, and plays smilingly. I would watch and rewatch this video and felt relieved, held, however superficially. The video’s golden-rose tint made it feel like a memory, an early impression, a nebulous imprint on my sense of self.
In a culture where she must train herself to meet productivity norms, the little girl stumbles into inertia, despair, and loneliness. The Sugarbunnies are her rescuers, revivers: They are angels of the home. They crack the eggs, ice the cake, cut the strawberries. The cute, caring agents––Shirousa and Kurousa––hold the social duty of pleasuring and reviving the worker during her retreat to the private sphere, preparing her for the exploitative arrangement that awaits the next morning. This mental, emotional, physical, self-perfecting pleasure––and affection––producing labor must never appear to be labor, but a fountain of instinct flooding from the feminine heart. The Sugarbunnies represent the mystery of making feminized domestic labor invisible and thus creating a saccharine specter of devotional magic that appears intrinsic to their being.
The plushie is not the only intimate, pacifying commodity I live with: I’ve grown entangled with my phone and PC. I become aware of the bleeding of the lines between us, as my phone comes to be a technology of the self. I sit inert and simply listen as my cell phone calls to my restlessness. My phone marks one entry point into the corporate matrix of social data, holding the promise of visibility and acceptance, as well as a source of busyness to disconnect me from the agitated disquiet of having to be with my body for too long. The discomfort and ever-shifting sensations in my guts, the forced presence with my thoughts: fluctuating and in play—like weather. In better times I may be able to sit with them like a compassionate observer. It is not always that time.
Sometimes, I’ll start to grasp, reach for grass to pull, nails to bite, something to smoke. Often, I grab my phone for some unlimited access into some of my most unmindful impulses. (Have you ever gone into a plastic surgery Instagram hole and emerged thinking that your whole face is a pathology? Or the shape of your labia or jaw or ears or tits or dick is a disease?)
Burrowing into certain digital enclaves under a spell of lonely unrest, I came across the women who mime love on a screen. The women layer a complex of hand motions and sounds that, for some viewers, trigger a sensuous and tingling warmth in the scalp, neck, and spine called ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. Developed primarily for relaxation and relief from anxiety, loneliness, and insomnia, ASMR video artists create intimate role-play simulations. Opening an ASMR video can be discomfiting, as the performer crosses personal boundaries and touches vulnerabilities; or she can appear creepy, with her unnaturally over-mediated, sterile, and truncated intimacy. To consume requires a surrender, a sinking in, a suspension of the reflex to recoil at her virtual touch: To consume her love is to naturalize the melding between myself and my hardware.
Many of the most popular ASMRtists are thin, white or East Asian with long, silky hair, and perfectly manicured nails. (The ways in which individual women strategically navigate sexist-Orientalist viewership on YouTube, as well as the implications of this viewership are knotted and vast, and deserve an entire piece all their own). They whisper unintelligibly, tap and manipulate household objects, gently affirming and attending to the viewer. Their videos are consumed by millions of others, but this is just for me.
Once I have sunken into her curated soundscape, her performance is disarming… she punctures the film of my cynical disbelief, my technophobia, my desires for more radical tactile, embodied relations. She offers an irresistible commodity. I can find care, be warmly held with no demands placed on me. I can take a break from agency, accountability, and mutuality to be unconditionally soothed. ASMRtists are maidservants, sound-makers, relational specialists––arms of feminized intimacy, servitude, and occasionally, quietly coded or not, eroticism. She dresses me, she loves me, and there’s nothing she adores more than my relaxation. Brushed hair, facial treatments, words of love, thousands of crackling, tingling objects in hundreds of tiny silk pouches. From her I find a short, twenty minute break from my work to be consoled and revived, to have my wounds licked.
Away from her, I am so often cut off from others, isolated and self-monitoring. To produce, achieve, and consume, there is no time for the rat’s nest messiness of interdependence… With her, I can feel a flimsy but graspable emergence of tenderness and care without the heart-draining uncertainties, losses, and pains. She lives as long as I have internet connection.
She can be your caretaker, your ideal mother, your inner child’s imaginary love, whatever you need. Look at her—do you want to fuck her or return to weightlessness in her womb? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
There is a recurring debate within the ASMR community about whether or not the videos are “sexual,” as they often include erotic vocalizations, mouth sounds, girlfriend roleplays, and other forms of sensuous, tactile, feminized labor. Many creators and viewers staunchly maintain boundaries between this intimate labor and that done by cam-girls, porn performers, or other sex workers. ASMRtists often aim to maintain their distance from other erotic laborers to ensure the respectability and “legitimacy” of their practices.
The prevalence and popularity of white, bourgeois bodies also disguises the reality that caring labor (domestic work, child and elder care in the U.S.) is most frequently extracted from the Global South. Her view count grows, while migrant and lower class women of color do much of the work in the global economy of emotions: labor that capital ensures is exploited and made invisible.
Under neoliberal capitalism, reliable structures of public life and social relating have broken down in favor of privatized, market-based alternatives. It is challenging, for me at least, to find forms of nurturance besides those precariously secured in romantic or sexual intimacies. I occupy and shift between the subjectivity of the cute, caring agent like the Sugarbunny or the ASMRtist, with her life-giving flourishes, and the worker-consumer she attends to. At times I embody both at once; I consume beautiful sedatives as I am trained to become one.
I smear on some pink lipstick and black winged eyeliner. I open a new tab, observing my digital cam-girl profile. I am immediately wedged into a distinct subjectivity, a new performative role: the doll dominatrix. Over the past year, I have developed this online dominatrix persona. I feature very demure, cute, “innocently” sensuous photos of myself, often holding my kitten. While the combination of cuteness and domination may appear paradoxical, I decided to play on cuteness’ (pejorative) associations with duplicity and feminine entrapment. The client is drawn to and disarmed by the cute object, and giving in to the cute object’s appeal for affection is an indicator of their leaky weakness and penetrability, a threat to their self-sovereignty. The expectation may be that the cute being will submit to you, allow you to mold and shape her in your image, consume her.
I add some tags to elicit interest in clients:
#cutie #sweet #angel #sensitive #compassionate #caring
While my performance is still largely shaped by the gaze of the consumer, I play a very willful cute object, questioning and prodding my submissives to interrogate their own desires, their own subjectivity, their own power. Femdom, or “female domination,” is more like psychological play, a liminal ritual of reversal in which the traditionally subjugated party adopts a domination ethos.
#goddess #hypnosis #merciless #financialdomination
Some of my clients are middle-managers, tech bros, and PhD students. A few of them are rather dominant in their work sphere and may, to some extent, be seeking a surrender of that self-sovereignty and dominating subjectivity by taking orders from a dominatrix. In this ritual of reversal, the submissive man may not “lose” agency, but rather is turned on by the idea of temporarily undergoing a disciplined self-fashioning in a submissive role.
#wisdom #advice #authentic #GFE
Some clients live in cities with flexible, tech-oriented work cultures. They can be socially atomized, with no time to date. They don’t want the engagement involved in relationship, but still want the “girlfriend experience.” They want psychological, emotional, and sexual needs met without any expectation on them in a mutual relationship. It is easier to consume a cute, lovely, “authentic” commodity to efficiently meet those needs in an optimized way, than to endure the grind of living-with. Digital interfaces like this one can provide a platform for nonnormative relational modes and new types of connectivity. But, of course, they largely cater to male entitlement, as sexual and emotional experiences are offerings in a buffet under late capitalism.
#princess #feet #420 #humiliation
Not only high income or high-power men are interested in submission. I’ve worked with men of different races and classes who are also interested in “sissification,” “feminization,” and humiliation. I try not to pop-psychologize them too much, but I have considered that certain humiliating sexual practices can be attractive to some men who carry shame or want to turn painful experiences of masculine non-belonging into pleasurable ones. I also can’t help but think that to them, to be a feminized subject is deeply humiliating and taboo. But these practices aren’t just rooted in shame, personal pathology, and patriarchy. The sexual imagination is polymorphously perverse, fluid, yet shaped by institutions, individualized, and biomedicalized. It can attach to all kinds of things; for example, a client who has a fetish for women wearing their seatbelts.
A necessary thing to mention about being a dominatrix online is that, from my positionality, I can expose as little of my body as I want to maintain my personal security on the internet. I occupy an exceptionally non-precarious space on the spectrum of sexual-caring-intimate labor. Moral hierarchies and stigmas abound within and outside communities of sex workers based on their class and racial positions, their levels of exposure, the cultural and educational capital they hold, and whether they work indoors or outdoors—factors that affect who faces heightened criminalization and violence. A lot of my boundaries are rooted in my economic and social class, whiteness, conventional beauty, and availability of other income options. Creating a commodity based to a large extent in educational, emotional, and cultural capital is not superior or more of a body of skilled knowledge than more explicitly “sexual” uses of body capital. I can have conversations and transactions safely on my terms, although I am still operating under a neoliberal individual-entrepreneurial model within an interface that takes nearly 40 percent of my earnings, then gives me the opportunity to earn single percentages back, over time, the more I make.
Embodying the cute dominatrix is a form of deep acting, of switching into a quasi-performative space. It’s sometimes difficult to switch on the goddess-act of the doll dominatrix because she is a hyper-realized version of myself: no insecurity, unable to be manipulated, fierce boundaries, unshakeable sense of self, but still “authentic” and vulnerable in a bounded way. Authenticity as commodity has its own set of scripts: Yes, I am ‘me,’ quite risky and spontaneous, I can be intimately vulnerable, this is all from the pure wellspring within, yes, is it not? Do you feel connection, release? I am an angel of the home computer, of the digital marketplace. I rejuvenate the worker, conjuring and selling just enough semblances of life back to him to get him to return to work.
Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.José Esteban Muñoz
Cuteness can be an embodied strategy to ensure one’s own care, with its penetrating, disarming appeals for nurturance. Yasmin’s affectionate appeals for care, her purrs, her tricks, and her cuddles, are “cute” bodily technologies. I have also lived into and subconsciously attuned myself to “cute” bodily choreographies in my own relationships, transactional or not. In this sense cuteness is done to subjects, but they can also “do” cuteness. While it often seems like an external imposition or false consciousness, cute subjects are also creators of “cute” discourse. An attraction and desire for the cute recruits us into its regime, where we challenge, reappropriate, and reformulate imposed categories.
Cuteness can shape interspecies relations, as we impose ideas of cuteness onto other animals and deepen power imbalances. Donna Haraway writes that companion species are “not here just to think with. Neither are they just an alibi for other themes; dogs [cats, guinea pigs] are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience. They are here to live with.” Yasmin often defies the over-determinations of her breed, refusing docility and containment. She has taught me a lot about boundaries, reading cat body language and signals, and interspecies communication. We practice the slow blink, through which we express our trust in one another. I learned how to approach, with an outstretched hand and limited direct eye contact. Cats rarely preemptively attack, we just haven’t been listening to them and the language of their bodies.
Cuteness can be produced within consumer objects and technologies to ameliorate social deficits. I am not a technophobe for thinking that embodied intimacy with self-compassionate, protective boundaries makes life livable. Capital will keep us at the edge of the bearable, to make our lives work, to give us just enough love, or simulations of it, to let us go on reproducing this life-world. As valuable as digital connectivity and object intimacies can be for those of us decentered in the public sphere, they cannot be a replacement for collectively transforming social relations. Embodied relationships will have to be the interstices in which we can imagine and live into possibilities of, in Lauren Berlant’s words, a “radically resensualized post-neoliberal subject.”
Cuteness can be used as a discourse to subordinate docile dependents, then scapegoat populations in the name of their protection. Some sensitivities and fragilities disguise violence, when my avoidance of pain or discomfort is predicated on the disproportionate burden of pain on others. Consider the white fragile woman, made more and more fragile—embodying, to use bell hooks’s term, a “patriarchal femininity”—in order to become the beloved object that justifies racial violence against Others. This form of masculinist protectionism is based in white supremacist national security, sexual pathologization and criminalization of Black, Arab, and other people of color as threats to cute, docile white women-and-children, as their “inherently dangerous” counterparts.
Some of the most apolitically framed identities are often not so innocuous; they disguise violence, and are mobilized and constructed for oppressive ends. The feminized caretaker, the “cute” dependent, and the racialized Others whose labor and resources are exploited and whose bodies and life-ways are “cleansed” from the social body in the former’s name, are all subordinated positions to the self-sovereign, autonomous, masculine, white subject. Their oppressions are interlocking, opening an opportunity for solidarity-building, mutual presence, and interdependent bonds across axes of oppression, in which we are also accountable and co-responsible for the ways we reproduce and enable each other’s oppressions. Our conceptualizations of solidarity, care, and love must not elide the workings of power within such relationships.
NOTE: My own healing, thought processes, and analysis are so indebted to world- and heart-opening, transformational work by Sara Ahmed (on the affective politics of fear, the concept of willful subjects, and so much other wisdom), bell hooks (on patriarchal femininities), Saba Mahmood (on docile agents), Donna Haraway (on companion species), Rob Horning (on the acquisitive gaze), Lauren Berlant (on cruel optimism), Elizabeth Bernstein (term and thinking around ‘bounded authenticity’ in sex work), Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (on intimate labors), Patricia Hill Collins (on interlocking oppression), Iris Marion Young (on masculinist protection), Kathi Weeks (on ideologies of work), Silvia Federici (on domestic labor and capitalist social reproduction), Jean Baudrillard (on consumer society), for inspiration and the term ‘cruel relief,’ the book: The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness by Joshua Dale, et al., the article, “Love’s Labours Lost? Feminism, the Disabled People’s Movement and an Ethic of Care” by Bill Hughes, et al., and many more influences, including support + understanding from my professors (especially Crystal Biruk, Meiver De la Cruz, Emilia Bachrach, Rian Brown-Orso), friends, and multispecies kin.