Article by: Merri Lisa Johnson, Staff Writer

9/11/99 

The American as Dancing Queen?--American Dreams for Women

(A version of this paper was originally presented at the 1999 American Literature Association Conference on the panel: Nationalism at the Millenium)

 

I always said I would never karoake, but the truth is, I've done it twice, both times to "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. It's a little embarrassing, and I mention it only to underline the enormous power of the Dancing Queen scene to eclipse all rational thoughts of decorum and responsibility with bodily immediacy and pleasure. With the first notes of this song, audiences become all legs, throat, and voice, indulging in the exhilaration of exhibitionism and the expansion of self. We become large; we contain multitudes. For this reason, the dancing queen strikes me as a quintessentially American figure. "You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life." The American is in part defined by a sense of entitlement to having the time of her life. Credit for this connection goes to Lisa Carver, author of the 1996 monograph, Dancing Queen: A Lusty Look at the American Dream, at once a reiteration of traditional American characteristics such as exuberance and individualism and a saucy transgression of American mores. Carver rewrites the American Dream in the form of a woman spinning around a roller rink beneath flashing multi-colored lights. Her introductory chapter on "the American" establishes a playful tone for this serious, or at least important, appropriation. She begins:

I always figured I'd write a book, but I thought it would be just like Anna Karenina-a big, huge book encompassing generations, the different races, country versus city, war, business, love and betrayal and childbirth and scenery-and I wouldn't write it till I was fifty. Then one day I realized I'm not Russian, and I'm not going to suddenly turn Russian when I'm fifty. . . . I'm American. Always have been and I always will be. I'm zesty and smart and cute and sleazy and direct and confrontational. I'll never be elegant and I'll never have a long attention span. I eat Cheerios for breakfast and hot fudge sundaes for dessert. I yell at my TV. I'm enthusiastic, abrupt, self-obsessed, and I love boobs. (xi)

This performance of American identity resonates with one strand of contemporary feminist literary criticism. Among the many strategies of gender revision outlined by such critics as Nancy Walker in The Disobedient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition and Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers, the appropriation of male subjectivity and male desire for female characters and authors most resembles Lisa Carver's embrace of her American-ness. In this sense, Carver's little dance can be considered a form of resistance, the political act of placing a woman's body, desire, and play at the center of the American story. In the language of Patrocinio Schweickart's feminist reader-response theory, Carver recuperates the liberatory kernel of American into her own autobiography as a woman. Taking her position among the Adamic namers of our tradition, Carver recollects:

I imagined how I would have an island where loaves of Wonder bread grew on bushes and I could decide who would live and who would die and what jobs everyone would have. Or how I was going to run away as soon as I turned thirteen and be a prostitute and take drugs. (xii)

Here she takes on the American identity-for better and for worse-with all its creativity, capitalist consumption, inherent imperialism, and, especially, its mobility: "The American is wild and free, and her country is big, so she must roam" (xiii). Iris Marion Young's description in "Throwing Like a Girl" of the social construction of femininity as immobile and physically inadequate suggests Carver's flippant comment gestures towards a deeper urge towards social change. Carver preempts the criticism of her book on the basis of its playful flagrance:

People are so sensitive these days! They think they're French or something. Americans have forgotten what's great about being American. It's not our sensitivity. It's our impatience, our changeability, our excitement, our openness, our cheer, our sexuality, our very crassness. Let other countries be patient. Let other countries be refined. Let other countries think all the time. They do it better anyway. I'd rather have a peanut butter sundae and do a little dance. (xv)

In her self-described book "about liking stuff" (xv), Carver takes all the joy men have felt in being American and directs it towards her own life, even though the original male script categorically precluded women from manifesting the traits of the American-freedom, mobility, self-definition, and economic promise. Her sense of entitlement to these traits is absolute, revealing no fear of reprimand, no feeling of inadequacy or anxiety regarding the historical position of women in America. She straps it on like a natural. And even as she appropriates these typically male characteristics, Carver resists the rigid gender roles in which they are encrypted, regendering the American from the inside. In her ballsy approach to the American identity, she follows Carolyn Heilbrun's advice: "I want to tell women that the male role model for autonomy and achievement is the one they still must follow. . . . Women have denied themselves as examples the only models of achievement history offers us" (31). Carver engages, in this spirit, in what I call the Americanization of the Feminine-revising the social construction of womanhood to include historically "male" traits-strong language, brash attitude, willful presence. Although she claims that "[l]ike most Americans, [she] know[s] very little about what's going on in the world" and that she "can't seem to figure out politics of the masses of anything of that nature," Carver is clearly aware of the political impact of her voice, addressing a variety of social issues in every chapter and speaking out notably in defense of a voracious female libido directed at everything from Russian leaders to Olivia Newton-John.

Indeed, the sexuality of contemporary women marks one very important axis along which the Americanization of the feminine occurs. Lisa Carver indulges her female sexuality in ways that position it as a strength in her interaction with the world-an affront and a pleasure-an attitude that derives directly from her perception of herself as an American. Her revaluation of such female spaces as the gynecologist and the hairdresser demonstrate this willful reconception of female sexuality against the dictates of conventional decorum as she describes the excitement aroused in her by being touched in erotic ways in situations that require the repression of erotic responses. This view is in stark and relieving opposition to the more conventional reading of these spaces as utilarian at best, violation at worst. Although many women would flinch at Carver's assertion "that every woman, despite her own unique personality, is part submissive masochistic exhibitionist" (69), her position is decidedly constructive, as demonstrated in her chapter on "Other Women's Bodies" in which she eroticizes the non-flat stomach, as opposed to "the Jamie Lee Curtis stomach," about which she says: "It looks miserly. Seeing someone fight nature so hard makes me nervous. Nature wants you to have a belly" (77).

Through humor, off-color personal observations, and flagrant admissions of "problem" desires, the exuberance of the American is rewritten in Carver's book as American female jouissance by linking freedom and vulgarity with sexual adventurousness and flexibility in gender roles. In "The Manifest Destiny of Anna Nicole Smith," Carver regrets the increasing timidity of the American people, reflecting on the "born risk takers" by which "[o]ur country was made great" who now "just see[m] to make people mad" (133). As a way of intervening in the dichotomy of today's American "into offended citizens and citizens paralyzed with the fear of offending" (133), Carver introduces, with her typical combination of seriousness and farce, the subject of Anna Nicole Smith's breasts. These surgically-assisted monstrosities emblematize for Carver the place where American and feminist spatial configurations converge:

I admire Anna Nicole because she is living out the American dream: making the most of her God-given talents without a shred of guilt! . . . To be truly American, one must have lots of personality. It doesn't have to be a good personality; there just needs to be a lot of it. Cordelia Teatherly [local legendary figure of long-lasting female anger], Anna Nicole and Jessica Dubrof [died at age seven trying to be the youngest pilot to fly across the country] each embody, in their own way, the quality that made America, for better and for worse, what it is. None of the three were proper. All of them went beyond the boundaries. They had that most American of qualities: excess. (137)

The "space" of Anna Nicole's breasts represent for Carver an American freedom, the freedom to be too much, too visible, the freedom to take up space. The meaning of those breasts can hardly be considered unqualifiably liberatory given their position within the patriarchal structures of desire and capitalism-- a system that depends on women's dissatisfaction with our bodies and the resulting desire to attain a culturally produced and sexist/misogynist ideal. Still, this excess marks a necessary aesthetic and political strategy for women to overcome-to spill over the edges of-our assigned gender roles.

***

The problem side of conceiving the American as Dancing Queen-- the dark side of this playful attitude-- cannot go unaddressed, although I don't intend to dwell on it. Dancing Queen is of the Naomi Wolfian "Nike Feminism" variety of politics ("Just Do It") which elides the problem of social inequality in America, and Carver is what Ruth Sidel calls a "New American Dreamer," a woman who takes the traditionally masculine dream for herself as part of the gender equality movement in the U.S. without attending to the inherent flaws of the dream. My familiarity with postcolonial criticism makes me wary even as I "see that girl, watch that scene, dig it, the dancing queen." It is Carole Boyce Davies' voice that I hear in the background, her critique of playfulness sounding a cautionary note. In response to feminist philosopher Maria Lugones' essay on cross-cultural love relationships, "Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception," Boyce Davies writes:

[E]ven as I understand her arguments, even as I accept the necessity of engaging other cultures, I still find the language 'playful world travelling" troubling. The Caribbean child that I was witnessed many tourists who seemed to be 'playful world travellers' in my Caribbean city. We became the backdrop for their encounters. We were never fully thinking, acting beings. The Caribbean is too easily identified as the place of playful world travelling for us to engage that formulation without caution. (23)

Boyce Davies doubts seriously the presence of "mutual respect" between America and the worlds with which it plays. Recalling a meeting between George Bush and his ally Mitterrand after the Gulf War, she suggests that "[t]he symbolic meeting of these two on Caribbean shores highlighted the implications of tourist ideology in the perception of the Caribbean as 'prostitute,' as a source of pleasure and relaxation, and the link to economic and political domination and exploitation" (25). Her argument for "moving beyond the limited definition of what is American" attends to the way "the term 'American' has become synonymous with the United States imperialistic identity," an indication of the degree to which "the 'other Americas' [are] being colonized (both internally and externally) by the United States of America" (9). Playfulness, white privilege, the dancing queen's exuberant whirling body, quickly turns to a politics of abuse, carelessness, the errant elbow bloodying the lip of one's neighbor.

While I recognize the problem side of conceiving the American as playful, however, I must insist that American women be allowed to linger over the positive effects she experiences as a result of taking this persona for herself. We are so quick to skip over the good that comes from a woman indulging her pleasures and cultivating the sense of entitlement that has historically been the province of men alone. We jump right to the "yeah, but" of postcolonialism, but like bell hooks' reaction to the death of the subject right that occurs when women and people of color begin to insist on their own subjectivity, I react to this "yeah, but" with suspicion, maybe even resentment. There is a kind of cultural criticism that pursues structures of oppression like hits of crack; once you've seen one, you're always looking for the next. What I like about Lisa Carver is that she dwells on her own escap(e)ades, because I believe spending time celebrating one's joy despite structures of oppression all around us is good for feminism and good for humanity. I emphasize the pleasure of her "lusty look at the American dream" in order to consolidate the gains for American women this lust, this dream, brings. Though her assertions at times come across as (probably intentionally) naive-

What being American meant in the pioneer days, and what it still means today for those with a little bravery, is to create one's own world. If you can't vacuum so great, just write a book about all the things you were dreaming of that were distracting you from noticing those specks in the corner. And everything will be wonderful in the end. (xvi)

-her commitment to American ideals and her appropriation of them into the lives of women are acts that play with and reinvigorate the (male) text of America which has come under such vigilant attacks from other feminist corners. She makes the idea of America exciting again, ending on a note of delirium as her pleasure in embracing America mounts: "Long live the fiery, the unguilty, the unhumble, the dazzling, the cheerful and the brave. Even if they don't live long, even if they look obnoxious or even stupid in a certain light, they're still wonderful and magnificent to me, and they're free, free, free" (138). These, the final words to Dancing Queen, reiterate Carver's unrelenting and total acceptance of America-the-idea. While bootstraps and pleasure may not be all we need to make it in this world (even less so for some than others), as Carver's gifts to herself and her readers, they are exciting and valuable booty from the male text of the American Dream. Peace Corps material she is not (then again, neither am I); however, her reading of America is a reading of the dream, not the reality, and there should continue to be space for that in feminist literature.


Works Cited

Boyce Davies, Carole. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London: Routledge, 1994.
Carver, Lisa. Dancing Queen: A Lusty Look at the American Dream. New York: Owl, 1996.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers.
Lugones, Maria. "Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception." Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. Ed. Gloria Anzaldua. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990.
Schweickart, Patrocinio. "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997.
Sidel, Ruth. On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York: ,1991.
Walker, Nancy A. The Disobedient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition. Austin: U of Texas P, 1995.
Young, Iris Marion. "Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality." The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophy. Eds. Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. 51-70

| Home | Fiction | Listserv | Creative Archives | Scholarly Archives |
| Book Review Archives | Critical Essays | Contribute | Search the Site |

Contact Us