4/19 lecture, Martin Manalansan; A Response
Siobhan Somerville, “I also feel like I’m free”: Disaffection, Alienation and Sexual Politics

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[Below is the text from Siobhan Somerville's response to Martin Manalansan's April 19 lecture, "Travels of Disaffection: Labor, Affect and Migration"]

“I also feel like I’m free”: Disaffection, Alienation, and Sexual Politics
A Response to Martin Manalansan’s “Travels of Disaffection”

Written by Siobhan Somerville (English and Gender & Women's Studies)

I’d like to thank Martin Manalansan for this wonderful paper and Lauren Goodlad and the Unit for Criticism for the invitation to comment on it.

In this incisive paper, Martin persuasively combines his reading of the film Paper Dolls (Bubot Niyar, dir. Tomer Heymann, 2006) with research among the film’s audiences in order to make a broader critique of the assumptions underlying much scholarship on gender, labor, and transnational migration. As Martin so astutely points out, much of the “chain of care” scholarship implicitly renders caregiving and domestic labor as (heterosexual) women’s work and relies on unexamined assumptions about the presumed affect of those caregiving subjects. His emphasis on the ways in which the strategic performance of “disaffection” might be understood within these economies of gender and labor opens up compelling new ways to understand, in his words, the “messy micropolitics” of survival.

Keeping my focus on the film Paper Dolls, I’d like to approach this set of issues briefly from another angle, one that I hope complements the work that Martin has done here. I want to consider how we might situate these questions about gender, labor, and affect in relation to debates about transnational migration and the production of lesbian, gay and transgender identity and culture within neoliberal economies.

In many reviews of the film Paper Dolls, critics repeatedly remark on the ways in which Israel’s apparent tolerance for lesbian/gay culture seems to compensate for the workers’ precarious job security and the drudgery of their actual workdays. A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, for instance, remarks that “the transsexuals enjoy a more liberal atmosphere in Israel in contrast with that of their native country,” an interpretation echoed by reviewers for The New York Times, The Denver Post, and Film Journal International, to name just a few that I found in a relatively quick search. This is by now a familiar, if problematic, story, one that posits transnational migration as an escape from traditional, repressive models of gender and sexuality and as an opportunity to experience the sexual and gendered freedoms afforded by the presumed modernity of economically privileged nations.

We should, of course, be skeptical of this narrative. Yet this very story is spoken by some of the film’s subjects themselves, such as Jan, who says, “I only got a taste of this kind of life in Israel. I couldn’t dress like this in the Philippines. Earrings, dyed hair, makeup, lipstick. It’s forbidden. My father wouldn’t let me. He’d beat me. . . He doesn’t like homosexuals. Neither does my mother.” Sally, who, as Martin notes, becomes the emotional anchor of the film, offers a slightly different take, emphasizing that she expected Israel to be more, not less, repressive than the Philippines and that she has been pleasantly surprised at Israeli attitudes toward gender and sexuality.Attending an Israeli gay pride parade, where she is surrounded by rainbow flags and fellow revelers, Sally says: “We thought Israel was a sacred place, that everything is closed, people are religious, primitive. It’s very surprising that there is a Gay Pride Parade. I also feel like I’m free. I can do whatever I want.”

Sally’s sense that in Israel she is “free” is, of course, a fantasy, perhaps a necessary one, given the restrictive terms of her employment and immigration status, but also the ways in which gendered norms are policed within Israeli culture, including Israeli gay and lesbian culture (which itself cites transnational gay and lesbian culture). The filmmaker, Tomer Heymann, confronts his own anxieties about gender as he engages with and eventually befriends members of the Paper Dolls. He admits openly that he associates femininity with shame and, at one point, invites members of the Paper Dolls to perform a makeover on him, complete with make-up, wig, and dress, so that he can experience femininity firsthand. While he attempts to confront his own gender anxieties, Heymann also includes an extended conversation with a racist and transphobic cab driver, who spouts a string of hateful and violent opinions about his experiences with Filipinos both in Israel and the Philippines. Such scenes disrupt any easy celebration of gay, lesbian, or transgender “freedom” in Israel.

As the filmmaker himself begins to grow fond of the Paper Dolls and defend them against such hostility, he attempts to facilitate their dream of performing at one of Tel Aviv’s biggest and most happening nightclubs, TLV, setting up an audition for the troupe at his own mother’s house. While the promoter agrees to book the Paper Dolls, he does so on terms that undermine the group members’ relationship to each other and to their performances, terms that also reveal the limited possibilities for participating in what passes as gay and lesbian culture in the clubs. First, he eliminates certain performers, like Jan, whom he does not consider “professional.” Second, he insists that the Paper Dolls perform in costumes of his choosing, not in their own makeup and costumes (which sometimes feature the exuberant use of materials such as beanie babies). What he chooses, without explanation, is that the Paper Dolls perform as Japanese geishas. Here, I’m interested in how we might link this scene with the disaffection that characterizes Jan’s workplace performance, which Martin intriguingly sees as a potential basis for a new mode of activism and politics. How might we understand the politics of affect – or lack of it -- that the Paper Dolls perform as they are literally alienated in the process of becoming racialized and feminized commodities within the Tel Aviv club scene? The imposition of the figure of the Japanese geisha serves to discipline the Paper Doll’s more ambiguous gender and cultural references, which are on display in their own performances. (It’s worth noting that their earlier audition for the promoter had featured a performance of the Hava Nagila, a performance that toys not only with gender authenticity but also Israeli cultural authenticity.) Indeed, the filmmaker uses parallel editing in the club scene to contrast, on the one hand, the Paper Dolls’ enforced feminization and orientalization and, on the other hand, the unclothed muscular masculinism of the other dancers that night.

Whatever the promoter’s intentions and whatever the Paper Dolls’ affective response, the nightclub episode ends up successfully policing the material boundaries between immigrant and Israeli. As one of the Paper Dolls explains, “After our performance at TLV we realized that we should stay within our own community. We should give up the dream of performing in those big places. It’s not for us.” In this refusal, I’m left wondering how the politics of gender and race in the club end up echoing the state’s attempt to control the movement and potential integration of the immigrant workers into Israeli life. How does gay and lesbian culture – in its own modes of commodification – draw on the language of “professionalism” as a way to reinscribe normative gender differences and to exclude those who cannot or will not inhabit those norms?

As a coda to this response, I want to briefly refer to the film’s own coda, in which we learn that three of the Paper Dolls have subsequently moved to London, where they continue to work as caregivers for elderly Jewish patients. They also continue to perform, now as “Paper Dolls from Israel.” What do we make of the fact that they bill their act this way and not as “Paper Dolls from the Philippines”? To what extent do they perform or reject origin narratives as a way to mark their own relationship to transnational migration, histories of labor, and belonging? And, finally, if these workers function as an “affective wall” between Israelis and Palestinians, how does that function itself migrate transnationally, either through their embodied labor or through the film itself?


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