Dead Rabbit Hopes: reconsidering body image and suffering with purpose

The Shoe - I'm Okay
The Shoe – I’m Okay

I don’t normally make a fuss over music videos (the only one that comes to mind is that Xiu Xiu video from a few years ago). And I was going to leave Stereogum to do the heavy lifting on the premiere of the “Dead Rabbit Hopes” video by The Shoe (you might remember the song from an older post), but ultimately, I decided to dedicate a fair bit of space to it anyway. My reason is two-fold: 1) we’ve been fans of The Shoe for a long time, and I’m not going to shut up about them just because someone else is willing to talk about it now; and, more importantly 2) it confronts much the same issue addressed in that Xiu Xiu video, but from a completely different angle.

First The Shoe (and, yes, I promise to do everything I can to avoid the all too tempting Xiu Xiu/Shoe puns). I’m not going to say a whole lot about the song itself since we already covered the premiere back in November. At the time, I said that “Dead Rabbit Hopes” felt indicative of a new direction for the band, not so much stylistically (it shares many characteristics with the band’s earlier work), but there is an intentionality about it now that was not as prevalent earlier on when The Shoe were more focused on improvisation. And I stand by that. This is music with a purpose. The video for “Dead Rabbit Hopes” lends credence to that argument.

Stereogum’s post debuting the video earlier this month came with an NSFW warning. Fair enough. The vast majority of the video features lead singer Jena Malone in a stylized state of edenic nudity. The key here, however, is that word “edenic”. In Jena’s own, recently oft-quoted words:

“I wanted to talk about a woman’s beauty and sexuality in a way that felt very different from our highly manipulated and sexualized world. I actually wanted to desexualize my own naked body while upholding its own perfect eternal grace. I didn’t want it to be about lingerie or booty shorts. I wanted it to be about the work of art that you are born with.”

And in that sense, I think “Dead Rabbit Hopes” is a success. You don’t need me to preach to you about the ubiquity of hyper-sexualized popular culture. If you’ve ever turned on a television or perused a magazine stand in most parts of Europe or North America, you’ve seen it for yourself. But the video is self-possessed and in control. It’s easy to look at a video like “Dead Rabbit Hopes” with the same kind of aesthetic eye one would classical nudes hanging in an art gallery. And the public reaction seems to reflect that. The overwhelming majority of comments (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) have been positive.

Which brings me back to that Xiu Xiu video. My original post was instigated when, shortly after its premiere, YouTube removed the video for “Dear God I Hate Myself” for a terms of use violation. And, while I managed to find the video hosted on another website, that version too has since disappeared. Of course, since the internet is magic, a few more versions have popped up and I’ve embedded one below because I think now is a good time to revisit it. But it is also important that you read the next paragraph before you watch.

YouTube was quick to ban “Dear God I Hate Myself”. For three agonizing minutes, band member Angela Seo forces herself to vomit multiple times while frontman Jamie Stewart stands, mostly out of shot, dancing and munching on a chocolate bar. The pain and disgust in her eyes is very real. It is relentless. Four years later, and this is still one of the most difficult videos I’ve ever had to watch.

The grounds for the video’s removal were only later described as “shocking and disgusting content”. The extant comment threads from the Stereogum premiere post are nearly devoid of positive reactions. Many reduce the video to pretentious art school shock tactics. Others insist that the video is an elaborate hazing ritual devised by Jamie Stewart to torture the new girl. To their credit, Xiu Xiu were quick to respond to the criticism. In a blog post (the link for which now appears to be dead) Angela Seo explains “I grew up around a lot of people who were bulimic…perhaps because bulimia was the most visible, prevalent, and even normalized form of self-destruction at a very impressionable age, I will always think of it as a major form of self-hatred”. And yet, despite her insistence that “the video was my idea. Jamie didn’t exploit me or coerce me or anything like that”, audiences continued to see only coercion.

What I find troubling about it, however, is not the video. Yes, it is difficult, even painful to watch. But, what bothers me to this day—perhaps even more in the past few weeks than it has the last few years—is the swiftness of our collective condemnation of a valid and valuable artistic and philosophical statement. And now, in light of the most recent offering from The Shoe, I am hoping that we might be better prepared to reconsider Xiu Xiu.

The question we have to consider is not a simple one and will, in all likelihood, require us to confront certain questions about ourselves in the process. Why is one video more offensive than the other? In both videos, women have taken it upon themselves—uncoerced—to address issues pertaining to body image by portraying themselves on film in a manner of their choosing. But it is in our reactions to the two that we stand to learn the most about the issue in question and where we stand in relation to a solution.

With “Dead Rabbit Hopes”, The Shoe aim to address the issue of body image in a positive light, to emphasize the importance of prizing the individual body as a work of art. (I would be inclined to extend the metaphor to encapsulate the whole of the person—body and mind, joy and suffering, etc.—but that is a philosophical and aesthetic argument no one wants to hear from me.) There is no discounting the degree of vulnerability inherent in most forms of public nudity, film or otherwise. And presented in a purely aesthetic, almost funereal manner more reminiscent of Vera Kholodnaya’s  final performance than Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, it is an important point well made.

Vera Kholodnaya, silent film star, February 1919
Vera Kholodnaya, Ukrainian film star, February 1919

But the ironically harsh reality that we, as an audience, have to accept is that Jena Malone is still a beautiful woman. And I don’t say that to discount the band or their message, both of which I fully support. The only person whose sincerity I am calling into question here is myself. We can shout our support at the tops of our voices, but how can I know I believe it—and I want to believe it—until I’ve been challenged by someone or something that isn’t so easy to look at.

And Xiu Xiu’s video for “Dear God I Hate Myself” is not easy to look at. Four years on, and it is still difficult for me to watch without averting my eyes at several key points during those three long minutes. All throughout this post I have been asking, albeit rhetorically, why this is the more offensive of the two videos. It is easy enough to identify what it is that people find offensive—in American culture, vomiting, as a rule, is considered a largely private affair. But then, so is nudity, and yet we have little difficulty extolling the virtues of a woman who is so comfortable in her own skin that she will take her clothes off in public (film is, after all, a public medium).

Where Xiu Xiu differs is in the suffering of it’s protagonist, suffering which is then transmitted to the viewer through an unflinchingly tight shot. For her part, Angela Seo is the first to admit that her participation in the video was voluntary. It is when we factor in the element of the will that the video oversteps the bounds of the believable (or at least what we conceive as believable). Though her pain may well be real, her willing participation is an aberration in a society that actively prioritizes its own comfort (physical, emotional, ethical, or otherwise). It is the gastrointestinal equivalent of self-mutilation. She reasons, “perhaps some people don’t understand that one can voluntarily choose to hurt themselves physically. Maybe some think it’s just so stupid and dumb that one had to have been forced to do it?” Of course it is grotesque and disturbing—the fact that we see it that way is a boon to our humanity—but writing it off as a shock tactic and sweeping it aside helps no one.

Yes, it is an act of violence against oneself. There’s a reason Seo, in her post about the video, called it an obvious act of self hatred. But censoring it, pretending the video never happened, solves nothing. The central action is still real, still a problem. It’s clear the band have no intention of condoning or supporting the act. But to the same end, there is no reason for them to use the video to explicitly condemn such behavior, at least not in so many words. It’s a participatory critique. There is no need for them to say “this is a horrible thing” because we, the audience, are perfectly capable of seeing that for ourselves.

And we should be glad that we are shocked by this. Our revulsion is a sign of life from our ever-dwindling sense of humanity. No, the ability to watch someone vomit without flinching is not a badge of honor or a mark of sophistication. No one is saying that, at least I hope not. When we watch Angela Seo willfully inflict pain on herself, we are forced to confront the reality that there are people, most of them young women, who do the same to themselves daily. But they do not do so in service to a greater good or even in the name of art, but in the pursuit of a false ideal—sacrificing themselves to a golden idol of fictional perfection.

Our disgust is a benchmark of our humanity. Xiu Xiu have been good enough to remind us of that. Rather than simply add their voices to a lock-step cacophony of condemnation, they have aroused in us pity and sympathy. We should not be able to watch a video like “Dear God I Hate Myself” and maintain our myth of self-superiority. Our visceral reaction is not to the images portrayed, but to seeing our own collective brokenness laid bare. It’s uncomfortable, of course it is, but more importantly, it is a starting point.

If we are ever to view our bodies as works of art “in [their] own perfect eternal grace” as The Shoe have urged us to do with “Dead Rabbit Hopes”, we must first identify and embrace the part of each of us that already feels that way.

The Shoe’s LP I’m Okay will be released by Community Music on 3 June 2014. Xiu Xiu’s LP Dear God I Hate Myself has been out for a long time. It is on Kill Rock Stars.


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