Of Handmaidens and Cheerleaders

After Texas handed down their new draconian restrictions on abortion and the Supreme Court upheld the law (for now), the image above started making the rounds on social media. It’s funny and striking at the same time. A state that loves its symbols is having one of its most famous shrouded in a play on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Women without control over their body or their means of reproduction, their bodies hidden from all but those with high enough rank to have access. They have no agency, something the Texas law chips away at.

Yet, the problem with the meme is that Texas, America, the Western world isn’t like this. Shrouding the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders makes no statement because, even in the march toward Gilead, we would never allow that symbol of good, old-fashioned football and sex to be hidden behind a visual metaphor as clunky as this one.

See, we need women to be beautiful and visual, sexually available and on display. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders represent a free spirit of healthy masculine fun, the red-blooded man’s fantasy. The new law changes none of that. The new law does not restrict men’s access to women, nor give women more agency over their bodies. The new law isn’t a step toward the type of totalitarianism in The Handmaiden’s Tale, for the female body will never be forced to be covered under true capitalism. To shroud the female form is to eliminate one of the most lucrative commodities the Western world has ever seen. Sex sells in the West, but only while you can see it.

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are athletes; probably underpaid performers; and one of the most enduring symbols of Texas. While the meme is worth of at least a smirk, the cynic in me understands that control over the female form already has a multitude of wardrobes, engineered for endless visual consumption.

“If you know what’s good…”: Justin Timberlake’s warning in “Filthy”

I’ve been wanting to do close readings of things other than books and film for a while and when I spied Justin Timberlake’s video for his new single, “Filthy,” I thought, “yes, let’s do this.” The song itself is catchy and, while there are only about six or seven different lines in the whole song, the video packs a whole lot of meaning into those lyrics. Let’s try to unpack it.

“Haters gonna say it’s fake…so real.”

Timberlake appears in a Steve-Jobs-like fashion on stage at a technology conference ten years in the future. He seems to be premiering his latest creation. The robot walks down the stairs in a stilted fashion, non-threatening and mechanical. It is easily pushed around by the female dancers, but shows it is willing to do manual labor and service to its human masters. It can even bend it like Beckham. “What you gonna do with all that meat…” The robot is skeletal, determinedly not meat-like. “What are you going to do with all that meat” is a good question for the human audience because even removing the phallic nature of the statement, here is a robot who can do everything we can do, without all that meat.

The robot is literally tied to the creators mainframe and supposedly receiving orders from the original program. It is a creation, an animate object but one without what, sentience? Free will? A soul? What part of the animated being moving and thrusting about on stage is signaling that it can be handled, fondled, manipulated, molested without impunity? The fact that it is a machine, not an organic being? Can it express its own desire to be handled or is that desire merely programmed into it? The robot moves human-like (well, Timberlake-like) across the stage for the audience’s pleasure and amusement while Timberlake grunts “put your filthy hands all over me.” The creator is giving consent; does the robot have a say?

“No questions…”

The puppet’s strings detach during this line, symbolizing the disconnect between the robot and the mainframe. Now, appearing autonomous, the robot has to heed its last orders, “no questions” as it proceeds. Without the visual representation of guidance by the mainframe cables, the robot may delude itself with the notion of free will. Yet, Timberlake is the puppet master in the beginning of the video, the robot mimicking all his moves as the creator dances from the sideline. This is the hands-on creator idea, all the moves and machinations guided by a superior being. However, is Timberlake the benevolent creator, or the stage-mom on the sidelines motivating her performer. Is this how Timberlake wants us to see god? The more difficult moves, spinning and tumbling, are taken up by the robot itself, breaking away from the direction of Timberlake backstage, while everyone, even the stage crew become slowly entranced by Timberlake’s sick beats. (Note: I genuinely like most of Timberlake’s music).

The breakdown moves into strange territory. The robot lights up, red turning the white lights pulse from its chest (heart) area and flow in a pattern across its body. Is it the heat of simulated desire that is represented or merely an illuminated choreography of that desire that is being induced in the audience? The swell of music, the breakdown and insistent chord-mashing of this section, along with the dimming house lights, all point to a moment of becoming. The robot at this moment, is leveling up, infused with Timberlake’s funkiness, the glowing display of LEDs not unlike the Quickening in Highlander. Or, for a more [hysical analogy: foreplay. The crowd cheers and the cordless puppetmastery of Timberlake ceases as the robot appears to achieve a new sentience.

“Come on, break it down”

After the breakdown, the robot spins and then, in the most obvious evidence of a new sentience, mimics breathing, heavy breathing. The house lights are still low, the female dancers are returning, losing their fetishized, young-girl dresses, preferring a black, strappy, bondage look. Timberlake still sings, but his dancing has stopped and he gives the robot what can only be described as “the side-eye.”

The robot, arms and legs glowing orange, now proceeds to dance more sexually, interacting more physically with the female dancers, becoming more suggestive with each cut. The music skips in the background, similar to a scratched CD or a well-worn cassette tape that has been recorded over time and again. There are two transformations taking place at this point in the video: 1) the severing of the robot from the mainframe, controlling its (should we start calling him “he” now, as he presents, even basically as hetero-male), and 2) the disturbing of the audience as it tries to tie together its obvious arousal by the display. Flickering lights and music, scantily clad women strapped in black and glowing skeletal robot thrusting all create a cacophony of stimuli representative of our current and future relationships with technology. One can only Google “flesh light” to see we are closer to this than we want to admit.

The end result of our aforementioned foreplay appears at the 4:25 mark, when the robot, fulfilled with its/his simulated sexual encounter, stands center stage, arms splayed like the Vitruvian Man and releases laser light from its/his hands and chest. Not from its/his head, no sex ray emanates from the robot’s head. Why? Is it perhaps that this robot’s becoming (or cumming) is related to its emergence as a physical being and not an intellectual one? Like Data’s Emotion Chip, has this robot traded logarithms for libido?

Even Timberlake has to wipe off the metaphysical semen off his nice sweater.

This is also the time when we start to see the video artifacts surrounding Timberlake, as if he is the older version about to be replaced. Of course, this is the upper level narrative of the video, as the artifacts become more apparent and Timberlake ultimately disappears while the crowd cheers the light-spraying robot. The connection between creator and creation goes both ways.

Technology and humanity are no longer closed systems; in fact, they never were. As we became more reliant upon the processing power of computers and the transmission of data through those connections, we have created a vast neural network that exists outside of each individual person. While Timberlake’s video suggests his robot could ultimately replace him, it begs the question of why would we want it to? Do we each desire our own personal Timberlake to move boxes, serve tea, and gyrate around the house? (I refuse to answer this question publicly.) Or is the video suggesting that we have yet to come to terms with our actual technological wants, poised somewhere between needing technology and desiring it. Our desires have always been the drivers of technology. When 2028 actually rolls around, the world will be a direct reflection of our desires of 2018. What does that world look like?

At least it’ll still be a bit funky.