"This Performance Art Is for the Birds:" Jackass, 'Extreme' Sports, and the De(con)struction of Gender

By Sweeny, Robert W. | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

"This Performance Art Is for the Birds:" Jackass, 'Extreme' Sports, and the De(con)struction of Gender


Sweeny, Robert W., Studies in Art Education


Many challenges currently face art educators who aim to address aspects of popular visual culture in the art classroom. This article analyzes the relationship between performance art and the MTV program Jackass, one example of problematic popular visual culture. Issues of gender representation and violence within the context of Reality TV and 'extreme' sports will be analyzed, with the intent of questioning the pedagogical limitations and possibilities of such topics within the field of art education, in order to provide art educators with related critical pedagogical strategies.

This isn't a movie: it's a symptom.

-Brian Webster (2005)

With the release of Jackass Number Two in 2006 (Tremaine, 2005), the entertainment world was once again confronted with a peculiar challenge: How to respond to a motion picture released by a major studio made up of short clips featuring gross-out gags and life-threatening stunts, with no script, no actors, a minimal budget, and enough images of excrement to justify the double entendre of the title?

Simple. Either applaud the film for its lowbrow insolence and potential for cathartic release, or pan it for the same reasons. As film critic Brian Webster (2005) states, the popular television show and film series might be best thought of as a representation of a larger problem, of all things wrong with the entertainment world in the 21st century, an infectious meme that, upon viewing, spreads beyond the sealed confines of the cathode ray tube into the living room, the backyard, and the quiet suburban street.1

It is this infectious potential of Jackass, the television show and its filmic offshoots, and the larger confluence of reality TV, 'extreme' sports, and accessible media that it represents, that requires a thoughtful, critical response from art educators living within a visual culture. Does Jackass, an example of popular, problematic visual culture, represent the limits of that which can be discussed in the art classroom: the unteachable? Or, might an analysis of Jackass, as it relates to contemporary performance art theory and practice, allow for constructive responses that address issues of media violence and gender representation, where art educators and students might develop critical, creative responses that resist infection?

"This Performance Art is for the Birds"

The television program Jackass debuted on MTV in 2000. It was quickly reviled for featuring stunts and gags performed by a variety of individuals, the most popular of which were Steve-O (Steven Glover), Chris Pontius, Bam Margera, and Johnny Knoxville (Philip John Clapp). The show was developed from two sources: Big Brother skateboarding magazine and the skateboarding video Landspeed: CAT(Margera, 1999). It is important to note that both of these inspirations are derived from the world of skateboarding; the marketing of skateboarding as an 'extreme' sport points to the larger interrelationship between shows such as Jackass and media representations of gender identity, with provocative links to recent examples from performance art practices, which will be discussed following an exploration of the Jackass phenomenon.

Jackass continued a tradition of inane, risqué, and blatantly lowbrow programming on MTV established by shows like Beavis and Butthead and The Tom Green Show. It also tapped into the Reality TV market, extending the voyeurism ofBig Brother, which debuted in the Netherlands in the summer of 1999, and anticipating gross-out shows such as Fear Factor (2000). It became infamous when young people started to mimic stunts from the show, such as in the case of 13-year-old Connecticut native Jason Lind, who tried to re-create the infamous 'meat suit' performance from season one.

This segment involved the character Johnny Knoxville lying atop a large barbeque grill, wearing a flame retardant suit covered with steaks. Awkwardly rising from the grill, Knoxville samples a piece of barbequed meat, and states, wearily: "This performance art is for the birds.

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