November 27, 2003

Same-sex Mrs. Santa: "the semantics are confusing"

Yesterday, the actor Harvey Fierstein announced in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that he would be riding in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade dressed as Mrs. Santa Claus. The theme of the piece was same-sex marriage, and he wrote that "[i]f I really was Santa's life partner, you can believe that he would ask and I would tell about who has been naughty or nice on this issue." He closed by inviting readers to "remember to wave to me on my float. I'll be the man in the big red dress."

This apparently caused some controversy. After all, as Fierstein stressed in his opening, "Macy's Santa is the real deal." So I'm sure he expected to create some buzz by announcing that that "tomorrow, to the delight of millions of little children (not to mention the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court), the Santa in New York's great parade will be half of a same-sex couple."

According to an article in this morning's paper, Macy's (the store that sponsors the parade) quickly intervened to announce that "Santa Claus would be on the final sleigh float, accompanied by Mrs. Claus, a woman. Mr. Fierstein would be on a separate float." Macy's statement also 'emphasized that Mr. Fierstein would be dressed not as Mrs. Claus but as "his beloved character Mrs. Edna Turnblad of the Broadway hit musical `Hairspray.' " '

But then, the NYT says, "the actor's costume designer said that Mrs. Edna Turnblad, as portrayed by Mr. Fierstein, would be dressed as Mrs. Claus."

The costume designer, William Ivey Long, did however specify that the interpretation should only go two layers deep, not three. In the words of the Times article "those viewing Mr. Fierstein's costume would be expected to suspend their disbelief and see only Mrs. Turnblad dressed as Mrs. Claus, not Mr. Fierstein dressed as Mrs. Turnblad dressed as Mrs. Claus."

Mr. Long achieved this remarkable precision of interpretation by means of "a Balenciaga swing coat worn over a floor-length pencil skirt with a stamped red velvet jacket with fake fur collar and cuffs topped with a white fake fur French beret," adding that "those are just words. The effect is, of course, insane."

Macy's then issued a second statement, agreeing that Fierstein would be appearing "in Edna's interpretation of Mrs. Claus ... As for Mrs. Claus herself, she will be appearing with Santa on Santa's sleigh ..."

As Mr. Long is quoted as saying, "the semantics are confusing."

Long is clearly using semantics in the ordinary language sense of "what things mean," and I've got no problem with that (not that it would matter if I did). I was taught that semantics is about meaning as something that sentences have, whereas pragmatics is about meaning as something that people do. However, the field seem to be increasingly divided about where to draw the line, and even whether there is a line worth drawing; and meanwhile the world at large has long since decided that the fancy word for "(analysis of) meaning" is "semantics". So be it.

But I did wonder about the metaphor underlying Mr. Long's comment. I guess that it's "clothes are words" or "outfits are sentences" or something like that. And in this case, everyone is pretty clearly focusing on "wearer meaning" rather than "outfit meaning" -- along with an interesting political mix-in, somehow cancelling the most basic level of interpretation.

Anyhow, the point that interests me is that such metaphors usually work in the direction of understanding something more abstract in terms of something more concrete, but this is the opposite. At least, it's the opposite if you think that signifiers are more abstract than clothes. I guess that means it's a theory, not a metaphor. Though maybe it's neither one, but just a piece of terminology that Mr. Long once learned in a class on the semiotics of culture ...

Another thing that seems upside down here is the partial explicit cancellation of an expected meaning. In the familiar cases, it's always the superimposed layers of interpretation that are explicitly cancelled: "I have some aces; in fact I have all of them." But here, what is explicitly cancelled is what seems most basic: we're told to see Edna as Mrs. Claus, not Harvey as Edna as Mrs. Claus. Clearly confusing, even if not clearly semantics.

There is probably a whole literature about the Gricean implicatures of clothing, cancelled or otherwise. No doubt I could find it via google, but I'll wait for some reader to tell me. I've read Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits, but its semiotic analysis is merely implicit, and Grice is not in the index.

[Note: Geoff Pullum will not be pleased to see that Mr. Long interpreted semantics as a plural count noun. At least I think Geoff won't be: maybe he'll charitably construe Mr. Long's comment as involving one of the usage patterns in which mass nouns can be pluralized: "the semantics of Harvey Fierstein's Mrs. Santa outfit" like "the wines of France". As Stephen Maturin would have put it, "let us not be pedantic, for all love."]

[Another note: contemplating this whole story, I have to ask "is this a great country or what?" And now, back to Thanksgiving preparations!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 27, 2003 08:33 AM