This shaker set is not necessarily ambiguously gay–more like ambiguously gendered.
Its two baseball players (who each look a little like stereotyped angry codgers wearing too much eyeliner), might be either both male or both female or a combination of one male and one female.
The shaker on the left wears a pink hat, which might be a sign of femaleness, and similarly, the blue hat of the shaker on the right might signify maleness. But then, the pink hat goes with a blue collar, the blue hat with pink stripes on the player’s outfit–so both figure’s clothing contain bits of pink and bits of blue–albeit more pink for the batter, more blue for the catcher. And while the catcher wears long pants and what look like blue stockings, the batter seems to have shorts on–or maybe even a skirt? And a closer look suggests that the catcher appears to be wearing less eyeliner that the batter, or even none at all (although on the other hand, the catcher appears to be wearing lipstick, unlike the batter. Unless that’s just a big sore on the middle of his/her lips.) So they might then represent a male and a female–a grumpy male and a grumpy female, but a male and a female nevertheless.
Or maybe they’re just two guys (or two girls) dressed up in the colours of their opposing teams, which happen to be primarily pink and primarily blue.
So what are we to make of a pair of ambiguously gendered ball players? And if the batter’s a woman and the catcher a man, are there gender implications in relation to their batting and their catching? And if so, what are they? Why do women specifically bat and men specifically catch? And why is the one in the pink hat the one wielding the phallic symbol? Where are the balls (well, actually, that’s sort of what this entire post is about)? And for that matter, what do we then make of the invisible pitcher they are both implying an awareness of and a response to? And why does the set consist of a batter and a catcher rather than the surely more conventionally binary batter and pitcher or catcher and pitcher? And why would anyone ever want these menacingly grimacing and hardly cute or adorable folks on their dining table? Who ever thought a set like this would sell, and who ever bought it? (I mean, of course, before someone with a sense of irony bought it second-hand as a gift for me.)
Another mysterious shaker set, then, that raises more questions than it answers.
Looking for some ways of thinking about collections of objects of which one takes a less than purely sympathetic view–the one being me and the objects being my salt and pepper shakers–I came across “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” an insightful article by Tavia Nyong’o (Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 [Fall 2002]: 371-3910. The “racial kitsch” Nyong’o focuses on includes stereotypical representations of African Americans like the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose shakers I discussed in my last post.
Speaking of negative responses to such objects, she says, “Racist kitsch is pretty disgusting. … Through disgust, we reassert our dignity and attain distance from the pleasure that the stereotype urges upon us. . . .Our disgust tells us that we are not the audience solicited by the object.” So far so good; I can see how my negative responses to these ugly stereotypes allows me to excuse myself from the intended audience–but then, still, why do I collect them and keep them around me?
Some theorists Nyong’o refers to probably would think I shouldn’t; she reports that Robin Chandler identifies racist kitsch as simply “visual terrorism,” and that Michael Harris suggests that, because such kitsch “is linked to, and a product of, white imagination,” the “attempt to invert and reconstruct another’s dreams inevitably keeps one tied to and preoccupied with that other rather than the self.” As the kind of person who would most likely be identified as being “white,” I can’t easily claim to actually be separate from the white imagination that has so othered those of a different complexion; and yet I do feel–and do very much want to feel– other than that specific sort of racist white imagination. Even so, if these theorists are right, my collection, which I like to proclaim represents my ironic response to the ugly stereotypes it contains–my preservation of them in the context of a deep awareness of how they represents values I don’t share–fails to ironize successfully. In what Nyong’o might call my “oppositional curating” of the collection, I am confirming the power of the stereotypes even while and by means of the act of viewing them through my lens of critique and irony. They win just by continuing to be what they are and therefore even and especially in my insistence on attacking what they are and continue to be because they continue to have the power to attract my ire and thus need to be attacked.
Nyong’o herself builds on that idea by offering an even more extreme version of it:
What would be the consequence if an examination of such strategies of oppositional curating and ownership unexpectedly revealed that one key characteristic of the racist figure was its ability to retain, even under the powerfully revisionary gaze of disgust, the capacity to act as a scapegoat or effigy? Could it be the case that our oppositional gaze and attendant practices depend upon the effigy’s characteristic talent for absorbing blame, and thus, that they perpetuate our dependence upon scapegoating and its attendant cruelties?
In other words: responding to the African American stereotyping of my Aunt Jemima shakers by blaming them for the racism they express is merely confirming the conventional assumption that what is African American is that which can be safely blamed and attacked. The object continues to successfully represent the racist stereotype even in my act of using it in an attempt to attack such stereotypes–indeed, does so as as a result my presumption in choosing to so act against it. As Nyong’o says, then, “oppositional spectatorship to the figure of racist kitsch cannot overcome its ability to reproduce scapegoating, because these practices of opposition inevitably reinscribe the object as a target for hatred and scorn, and in doing so, draw other people into the suffering orbit of the ceramic doll.” Hating the figure is just another version, and thus a recapitulation, of hating the people the figure purports to represent and invites derisive, hateful responses to.
But Nyong’o also suggests another possibility. She says,
At bottom, the shame of racist kitsch resides in the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human.’ And yet, the very shame that floods through at that thought, a shame that, were we not human, we would have no capacity to feel, is our best internal evidence that the thought is wrong and vulgar: I feel (shame), therefore I am (human).
She argues, then, for “acknowledging the permanence of our shame, and its usefulness . . .to locate, within the transformations of our shame, a way out of scapegoating.” In a weird way, then, she invites an identification with objects of racial kitsch as that which, by claiming to represent people like her, evokes in her a sense of shame for being so represented that itself marks her difference from what shames her–for it itself, a hard ceramic object, can feel no shame.
It can feel no shame in part because it is a hard object, its material hardness successfully evoking or inventing the hardness of what it represents: a kind of semi-human that is too little actually human to suffer, to feel pain, that is hard enough to withstand the ill treatment necessary at first for these enslaved and then for those who have been and still are all too often viewed as racially inferior: “The shiny, hard, and brittle surfaces of racist ceramic figurines reflect back upon the psychology of scapegoating black children. . . . blackness as a hardened form of subjectivity.” As understood in terms of “this racial simile, a black skin is as hard as stone; not skin at all, but a mask, with perhaps nothing behind it. This in- vulnerability provides an alibi for racist violence.”
I have a lot more to say doubt this symbolic hardness, and how it might apply to novelty salt and pepper shakers more generally. Continued in my next post.
Let us consider now this set: I’ve chosen it to discuss here because, all things considered, I think it is absolutely the ugliest set in my collection. It’s the flamboyantly lurid orange colour of the shakers that does it, and also the touches of glittery gold paint here and there. Why would a western-type wagon be orange? Why this awful orange? All it does is draw attention to the proportional wrongness of the wagons being depicted, for surely wagons of this height would normally be much longer than these are when joined? And what’s the point of each shaker representing half a wagon and needing to be placed together to create a whole one? For that matter, they’re wobbly and unstable enough when they stand on their own apart from each other that, in order to prevent breakage, they clearly need to stand firmly against each other at all times? And how about the strange collection of symbols of cowboyhood emblazoned on them: a hat, sure, and a gun; but just one boot, and just one horseshoe? And are these objects merely symbolic, or are they supposed to be real things hanging on the canvas of the wagon? And if the latter, do the large horseshoe and relatively small boot imply a cowboy with very small feet and a horse with large ones? I know that taste is personal, of course; but I have to admit that I find it hard to imagine how anyone could honestly like these lurid objects.
And yet, I know that there must have been once, and there might still well be, people who’d like these shakers exactly on their own terms, as nostalgic reminders of something that matters to their owner, perhaps, or as the perfect thing to put on the table when company’s coming and you’re putting out your special lurid orange company dinnerware. It’s easy to understand how someone with a lurid orange dinnerware set might be happy to own these things. What might be less easy to understand is why I have them. Why, if I fell so much disdain for them, do I have them?
The answer to that question has something to do with irony. I think these shakers are ugly, and yet I still like them. I like them ironically, in quotes, sort of. The same goes for just about all of the shakers in my collections. I enjoy having them at least in part because I think they’re so ugly, so silly, so just plain wrong. I like them for being awful, in ways that make me laugh or, sometimes, give me insight into the culture that chose to make them and sell them and buy them and declare them cute.
And yet I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about that. Not much, but enough to worry about it a little. Isn’t it just a tad arrogant of me to enjoy these objects for what I perceive as their inherent awfulness, just a teeny bit supercilious and condescending? It certainly seems to imply that, in my malicious pleasure, I’m revealing how much I might look down on people whose response to shakers like these was less tainted by irony.
I know such people exist. For a year or so, as a result of a gift subscription, I was a member of an organization called the Novelty Salt & Pepper Shakers Club. According to its website, this is “a collectors club comprised of members from around the world with various backgrounds who have one thing in common – the love of collecting novelty and figural salt and pepper shakers. . . . Our purpose is to provide services and education to people interested in the history and the collection of novelty and figural salt and pepper shakers.” As well as publishing a newsletter, the Club also hosts an annual convention where members mingle and, among other things, enter a display contest in which they arrange their shakers into groups in a miniature landscape and a costume contest in which they themselves dress as their favourite shaker sets. Now I suppose it’s possible that some of these Club members wear their costumes with irony–as a sort of camp masquerade revealing their actual distance from and disdain for and dislike of the role they purport to take on. But I suspect that’s rarely the case; mostly, I guess from the descriptions of these contests in newsletters, they’re just having good fun and a good time.
I admire them for their ability to do that. I really do. But I also know that their enthusiastic adoption of good fun and good times have little to do with my own reasons for having my shaker collection and adding to it and writing snide things about it here. I have to face it: the members of the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club are nicer people than I am.