Kitsch is a funny thing. We get to make fun of something (and therefore not be “one of those people”) and at the same time we get to be an inside participator (and, therefore, be “one of those people”). It’s a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of thing. Cool. maybe…
The image of women in the media today is in an unrivaled state of kitsch. Not just Mad Men, not just the subway ads for the silly TV shows such as Eastbound and Down. But it is the hugely grossing Grand Theft Auto 5 – making 1 billion in the first three days of its release this past week – that is the kitsch king. Many voices have lamented the sexism and misogyny in that game but that actually misses the point. It’s the kitsch. It’s the kitsch aspect that serves to permanently and thoroughly sideline women.
These images harken to a world where women, what? are just for sex? That’s not quite it. It’s more than that. And it’s not just that women aren’t in a lead role, or that women don’t exist as individuals (because, I mean, even the three gangster characters are individuals, right?) but that the women are entirely there only to be of service. Yeah, sexual service often -many people have commented on the messed up scenes with the strippers and prostitutes – but leave that aside for a moment. That’s only a smaller instance of the larger problem. The real problem is service. Women are there as add-ons in a Man’s World (hear the James Brown refrain playing? You should.) The women are on the side. And they only exist as tertiary and acted-upon figures. It’s the men’s show.
Ok, the men get run over and beat up, too. It’s equal pay there. But here’s a novel thing to note: if you jack a car and yank the driver out, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, it’s almost always a man who was the driver/jack-ee. You can run over women on the street, but when you jack a car it will probably be a man. (More women drive in the richer neighborhoods in the game, generally alone or with another woman, but they never fight back when they’re jacked.) I know this sounds like a weird complaint, but read on.
The part about that that is wrong isn’t a complain about the game, it’s a complaint about Reality. GTA doesn’t deviate from reality as much as some critics want to claim. Yes, in real life, women drive just about as much as men. Ok, right. But, and this is a big one: usually, when a hetero couple is in a car, it is almost always the man that “does the driving”. Look around, check it out. You’ll see. There’s a metaphor here. Or a symbol. Or a deeper reality. Or all three. GTA just codified that.
So, maybe, James Brown (and GTA) is right after all. Maybe it is a man’s world. I mean, why should women be in the driver’s seat or take center stage? It’s almost never argued for. Honestly. Even when organizations such as UNESCO argue for women’s education, their main argument is because an educated woman is a better mother (read: more service to others) and better economic partner in the household (read: more service to others). It can’t be argued that a woman should be educated because she’ll feel better if she’s not stupid? Is it really just about her being more useful to her family?
This isn’t new. In Jill Lepore’s just published book (Book of Ages) on Jane Franklin Mecom, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, she quotes Mecom in a letter to her brother, “I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could not Recolect it.”[i] Brother Benjamin got to focus on himself, nurture his own ambitions. Instead, his sister, burdened by the care of a dozen children and many grandchildren, had a life that was the usual life of a woman, best described by Mary Wollstonecraft in her lament that women seemed meant to merely “reproduce, rot, and die.” MW forgot the act sexy and be available part. That of course is the necessary preliminary step to being useful to the family. The whore/mother thing isn’t an either/or, it’s a first this then that situation. The two are linked and parasitic.
This is where the kitsch comes in. And where the image of eternally-available-for-sex has its handmaiden role to always-being-of-service and always existing for others. The former is a particular instance of the latter. And both depend upon viewing women as objects on which to act. Women are useful or they don’t really exist. This is where GTA actually hones closer to reality than one might think. GTA is kitsch because it is bringing back into view a world that has been rejected by some people though it is world that used to exist. It pulls that world back from the grave as it were makes it once again a viable and cool reality. Women are really just there for sex and then for the other non-sexual acts of service (in this case, getting run over, etc.)
But no one can directly argue for this. No on can argue that women should be objects. Our society’s has had several decades of theory that argues against that. Pretty much everyone knows this view, in however truncated and over-simplified form. So now, TV shows or video games such as GTA can claim they’re not really doing that – they are only quoting, as it were, that kind of scene. It’s kitsch. “I don’t really like this – I’m just pointing out that someone else likes it.” Yes, yes, that appropriation thing. “I’m not saying it, I’m quoting it.” So we can’t accuse anyone of actually going along with this kind of view; it’s all just an in-joke.
Kitsch is variously defined, but my favorite is Adorno’s: “The one enduring characteristic it has is that it preys on fictitious feelings, thereby neutralizing real ones. Kitsch is a parody of catharsis.”[ii]
Probably derived from the German word verkitschen, which means “to make cheap”, it first came into use the in Munich the middle of the nineteenth century, when art dealers designated part of their lot as “cheap”. But by the middle of the twentieth though the term had international usage for – and here it gets complicated – a class of cheaply manufactured things when those things were experienced not by those who originally bought them but by an upper/intelligentsia class. The lower class people who bought the plastic flowers or the picture of the little girl with a tear running down her face did not call that stuff “kitsch”. It was others – read: better-off others – who experienced and collected the objects as “kitsch”. This important point is often over-looked. Let me reiterate this: the term is used when those objects are re-consumed by a different class of people than for whom the objects were originally manufactured. On this second instance of viewing, the objects are now kitsch. And those objects are now intended to be appreciated with some degree of irony.
In this irony, they supposedly reify the definition of sentimentality as unearned emotion: easily parsed, superficially experienced. But just as importantly, or more so, the kitsch objects moved the viewer toward an experience of life that said, “There are the people who buy pictures of little girls with a tear running down her face; they are not like me.” The appreciation was slightly Warholian: “I’m not really pointing to soup cans as important, I’m just pointing out that other people think it’s important.”
The twenty-first century version of kitsch is slightly altered. With globalization of information, the boundaries between groups/classes has shifted because of a weird kind of cultural equality where everyone has access to the same link and the same products. Of course, the internet has a private hierarchy in its searches, with new and cool sites pulling in a crowd that knows about them before the unwashed masses do, but the information is technically available to everyone. This is very different from the availability of material goods in the mid-twentieth century. Consuming the free-ness of the internet is very different the mid-twentieth century’s economic system that divvied up goods strictly according to expensiveness versus cheapness/kitsch.
And in this world of available information, everyone knows, yeah, well, more or less, that treating women as objects is wrong. Like arguments against racism, the theories have been put out there and very, very few people have never heard it. People know the party line. Marginalizing women so that women are seen as accoutrements to a man’s life is seen as wrong. But (some of us) still want to do it. Mmm, what to do? Voilà, kitsch. The bimbos aren’t really bimbos, they’re just part of the story. “I’m not saying women are just there to fuck. I’m just saying that other people are saying it.” This is the new kitsch. Instead of collecting and displaying the silly Elvis dolls (or other kitsch objects), we can display others’ attitudes. Therefore, this sort of kitsch is not as much a class-driven notion of class as it was in the middle of the twentieth century. Now it is a vaguer group of people that are being pointed at; it’s just other people’s attitude.
And here we confront the psychological, political, and ethical problems. The difficulty isn’t just what Adorno saw in the older version of kitsch; kitsch isn’t a problem because it makes one’s own emotions opaque to oneself. It’s that it makes one’s emotions and attitudes opaque to others.
As I watch others play GTA (perhaps, even as I play GTA, myself) I cannot tell, as they laugh at the misfortunes of the women, whether or not they lack empathy to the degree of the protagonist. And this is why: the lovers of kitsch take others’ motivations and wear them like an exo-skeleton; they adopt, with glad-handing irony, the attitude and motivations of someone else, in this case the game designers.
The downside is that the camouflage of irony leads to a real lack of transparency, to a lack of owning, claiming, and displaying one’s own views. And that deprives the rest of us from reading those people’s deeper moral compass. As they emulate the protagonist and try on that suit of camo I can’t tell what’s real.
That’s the hard part with today’s version of kitsch. It not only traffics in unearned emotion, it makes people un-readable to one another. And we cognitively rely on that, enormously. It is how we know others.
To be fair, there’s a flip side to this that deserves to be recognized. Kitsch is about the counterfeit, and recognizing that something is counterfeit is a pleasurable experience. It’s a “I know this” kind of thing. Gotcha. It’s how we’re made. Partly. It’s partly one of the things that makes us epistemologically flexible. We can entertain ourselves by trying on things we know won’t fit; playing devil’s advocate with ourselves, seeing how far we can push ourselves outside our identity.
But it’s far from clear that that’s what is happening in these situations. For TV shows or video games such as GTA the kitsch is not that complicated; it’s just entertainment. But that doesn’t mean it is without consequences. The kitsch seen in many TV shows and certainly in GTA is a kitsch that results in not just the sexual subordination of women, but more pertinently, in the existential claim that women are simply not as important. Women don’t exist for themselves, for their dreams and ambitions; they are not governed by their need to impact the world or to accomplish something, even something as banal and evil as jacking a car. Instead, they are acted upon. They are tertiary players in someone else’s story. They exist for others and through others. “…to reproduce, rot, and die.”
But we’re all in on this joke, right? Really? The line is that GTA and other shows are only quoting that sexist world. They are holding it up ironically, as it were. Like an upper class hipster wearing a trucker’s hat. That’s the governing aesthetic in kitsch.
But when everyone knows it is only done is jest, is it still something you can pat yourself on the back for and call it an in-joke? Looked at from the other side: if all the truckers knew the hat was kitsch would it still be cool for upper class hipster to wear it? Or does the hipster’s hat depend on the truckers not getting it? If everyone is in the know – if everyone knows that this TV show or this video game is ‘just quoting’ the sexist world – then is that really an in-joke?
This is a question of math. An in-joke is only an in-joke if those getting the joke are a class of people distinct from those not getting it. If everyone gets it, is it still a joke? Is it still kitsch? Or has it now morphed back into being the real thing?
What’s happened is this. The kitsch part of it is the delivery packet that hands over the message: women aren’t as important. It is this that permanently and thoroughly sidelines women. Because the joke becomes real. And kitsch flips into reality.
And the problem isn’t just GTA. Or even more strongly, the problem isn’t GTA at all. There are competitive cultures at work in our society and though part of the larger culture has made some gestures toward gender equality, it is not a view that has been adopted thoroughly or fully. For there are still significant parts of the present culture that see women not as active agents in their own right and for their own purposes but instead as creatures passively acquiescing in servicing others – and therefore not quite human in the way men are. And the appeal of kitsch images like in GTA is that it brings back to viable consideration those kinds of views. Views that still exist for many in the larger culture. And it is that larger culture that’s the much bigger problem.
[i] Dwight Garner, “Poor Richard’s Sister: What Jane Thought”, review of Book of Ages, by Jill Lepore, New York Times, September 26, 2013,
[ii] Theodor Adorno. Aesthetic Theory, (London & NY: Routledge, 1970), p. 340.