December 9th, 2008
The recent news about Wikipedia being blocked in the UK (not totally but mostly) because of album cover art in an article about a 70s band being possibly child pornography got me thinking about censorship and consumption.
Generally, the debates I’ve heard about censorship are polarized. On the one hand, I hear the “decency” folks saying there are some things that cross the line and shouldn’t ever exist. On the other hand, I hear the “freedom” folks saying if you don’t like it, don’t look at it or buy it.
But what if you don’t like it and you still look at it? If I watch Deep Throat in a Women’s Studies class in college for the purposes of dissecting it and analyzing it, is that different from watching it at home for sexual stimulation… or laughs? This goes back to a debate I used to have with some of my fellow department members when I was an English teacher. Some English teachers think the job of an English teacher is to expose students to “great literature.” I disagree completely. I don’t think The Scarlet Letter, for example, is well-written or even interesting any more from a literary perspective. It is, however, historically significant, and it, like any work of fiction, can be analyzed and argued over. The point of teaching English is to get students to think critically about what they consume—not to consume blindly, but to see that every work of art (visual art, comic book art, music, film, novels, poetry) conveys its author’s worldview or agenda, even if the author herself is not conscious of that.
I like to think I can analyze and distance myself from anything I consume, but sometimes I can’t. I’m not a big fan of visual or audio displays of torture, for example. It’s very possible that these could be presented within the framework of a well-crafted artistic work with a good social agenda. Nevertheless, I am human and not an intellectual machine. I still experience human emotions and horror.
This is also why I find it hard to believe politicians (especially male ones) who actively campaign against pornography and even show “exhibits” in hearings on pornography are able to fully distance themselves from the material they’re criticizing, especially since they’re usually criticizing it by arguing that it affects people’s morality (so it affects other people’s morality, but not your morality?)
When confronted with works of art that are controversial, we all should remember that we are both human and intellectual. We can be subject to raw emotion and gut reactions but we can also distance ourselves and analyze what we see. I don’t see enough of that tension in discussions about censorship. I’d like to see it more often.
November 13th, 2008
I confess—I love watching the E! True Hollywood Story. I love seeing the stories behind the stars and watching their rises to fame and fortune.
I am baffled by one thing, though. Why do they (either the stars themselves or their friends, family members, managers and agents) keep trying to make it sound as if the stars got to where they are today through hard work and talent alone? Yes, I understand they had to work hard. Yes, I understand a certain degree of talent is necessary to succeed. Still, do you really want to tell me good looks or connections had nothing to do with the road to success? Being the child of another famous actor didn’t open any doors, really? Having perfect bone structure and facial symmetry didn’t do anything for their careers?
Now, again, I’m not saying that you can just coast on your good looks and family connections or money. You have to do something. The acting won’t come by itself. The gigs won’t fall into your lap. But how many good-looking children of famous people are there who tried to break into Hollywood and couldn’t get an audition? I can’t imagine there are that many. There are, however, tens of thousands of ugly people who have no connections but who have talent and probably cannot get an audition.
I’m not going to lie. I’m a child of privilege. My parents both have advanced degrees. I grew up in a rich suburb with a more-than-adequate education system. I know that I’ve been offered a lot of advantages most other people don’t have. Have I had to work? Certainly. I did all my school work and earned the grades I got. And at all the jobs I’ve had I’ve worked as hard as I could. Still, I know that if I had come from a family of poor uneducated parents who didn’t speak English and who brought me up in a neighborhood with a failing school system, I’d have had a lot more obstacles to overcome.
So, folks—don’t lie about the roles of privilege, connections, and good looks in your career paths, especially you Hollywood folks. Yes, I know you’ve probably had to work hard, probably had to work damn hard. But so do many people. Some people work hard all their lives to make minimum wage with no health benefits. Those folks also have talents. Not to discount your hard work…
August 8th, 2008
If you’ve seen any American sitcoms featuring het couples in the past ten years or so, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s common for the show to portray the husbands as a stupid but endearing oaf who likes beer, barbecues, watching TV, hanging with the guys, and ogling women; and the wife as a smart, attractive, career woman who is also a housewife… and who generally just puts up with the man.
Some people have tried to use this as evidence that feminism has gone too far, but I have seen no indication from feminist writers or bloggers that they approve of this dynamic. Granted, I don’t hear a lot of feminist outcry over it either, but it is worth nothing that feminists do not celebrate the gender dynamic in popular husband-wife sitcoms like King of Queens, The Simpsons, George Lopez, or Rules of Engagement.
I do think the dynamic comes from a combination of sociological factors and political light-stepping, though. First of all, there are several types of humor—slapstick, irony, insult, shock… just to give a few examples. Sitcoms, especially those featuring a family, have decided to go the insult way. Slapstick humor still packs the theaters (think Will Ferell and Ben Stiller), but it cannot sustain a several-seasons-long show for adults. Irony takes too much set-up time, and my feeling is that people are sick of seeing too many Three’s Company and Golden Girls episodes to put up with more of that Shakespearean “smart” humor. Shock humor is better suited for stand-up comedy, and at least on American non-cable television (where swear words are verboten) cannot be utilized to its fullest extent… which generally leaves (with the exception of Seinfeld) insult humor.
Now, as we have seen on Will and Grace, insult humor can go multiple directions (basically come from any character directed at another character), but I think it isn’t feminism per se that’s informing studios’ choices about how that humor takes its form as the studios’ perception of feminism. They know if the woman insults the men that men will take it because they don’t want to be perceived as having thin skins or not being able to take a joke (after all, those would be “unmanly” reactions), and they know if a man insults a woman, women will find it ungentlemanly and feminists will be up in arms about the woman-hating on television.
I do think, to combat this notion that it’s feminism that’s behind this depiction of men as oafs, feminists should speak up in objection to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, I don’t believe feminism is responsible for this dynamic ultimately, for two reasons.
When is it “okay” to make fun of someone? I work in a school. If some students did a skit making fun of the faculty, I’m sure everyone would enjoy it, including the faculty. If some faculty, however, did a skit making fun of the students, no one would find that funny, not even the other faculty. That isn’t right, since the faculty are in authority and would be abusing their power. Likewise, we as citizens of our government can safely make fun of politicians and draw caricatures of them in cartoons. If a politician made fun of a political cartoonist or regular citizen, however, it would be viewed as being in bad taste, since the politician is in a position of power and is abusing that power. It’s the same reason kids can make fun of their parents and parents shouldn’t make fun of their kids. In other words, backwards as it may seem to some who would like to think of the poor husbands as victims, the husband-wife sitcom is about as antifeminist as you can get, since it still shows men to be the “head of the household” that can take a joke.
Also it is a traditional marriage (not one of equality or even of female domination), in which the men fit traditional gender roles (ogling women, drinking beer, sitting on the couch watching TV) and the women fit traditional gender roles as well (putting up with men, cooking dinner, shopping, henpecking). It’s actually the perfect situation for men, for several reasons.
- It reaffirms traditional gender roles.
- It allows for men to identify with the husbands as being henpecked.
- It allows men to complain that feminism has made it so men look stupid.
If studios really wanted to take feminism into account, they wouldn’t make sure to have the woman be attractive (she could be, but she wouldn’t have to be), the marriage would be more evenly divided (the man could take care of the kids or cook dinner), either party could be ogling other people or actually be totally faithful (not just “I work up my appetite elsewhere, but I always come home for dinner” sexuality). Stop blaming the feminists for this one, seriously.
August 3rd, 2008
The other day, we were in the video store, and my wife gave her opinion to two random couples on Lars and the Real Girl (thumbs up) and Batman Begins (thumbs down), and I think their reactions went just a tad beyond mere politeness, especially the Lars couple. They actually seemed to really take her recommendations and opinions seriously. She’s a stranger. Why would they trust her?
For just about every movie I’ve hated, I know at least one person who loved it. When someone recommends a movie to me, I always am a bit cautious about taking her up on her recommendation unless I know what other movies she likes.
I suppose my wife just looks like someone you can trust. Or maybe the Lars couple was just being extra polite and later walked out of the video store and said to each other, “Do you think she’s right?” “I have no idea. This movie probably sucks.” I wish we could follow up with them and find out if they’ll ever trust her again.
July 21st, 2008
I remember when Memento came out and everyone was telling me how amazing a film it was. I was sorely disappointed. I found it trite, and the whole film-in-reverse-chronology gimmick’s novelty wore off quickly.
Then Batman Begins came out. Same deal. Everyone said it was amazing. I thought it was a disgrace to the Batman legacy. The 1989 Batman kicked Begins‘ ass. Begins was just so hokey, in almost a 1960s camp way, except that it took itself too seriously.
The critics didn’t play up The Prestige too much, but it did still get overall positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I found the film engaging, but the plot was silly.
And that was the problem. I always knew way back from Memento that Christopher Nolan had potential, but he never lived up to the hype. Yes, Memento was a stupid movie, but it was engaging. Same deal with The Prestige. Christopher Nolan knows how to create engaging scenes. He can juggle a lot of cinematic elements without dropping the visual ball. But the stories in his movies have always been weak.
Finally, with The Dark Knight, his writing chops are beginning to match up with his directorial flare. If you, like me, hated Batman Begins and thought it made a joke of Batman, you should give The Dark Knight a go. Yes, some parts of it are still cheesy, but those parts are overshadowed by the intensity of the movie’s suspense and chilling nigh-realism amongst insanity. And Heath Ledger’s joker is the best joker I’ve ever seen. If you, too, were a bit skeptical of this latest venture, based on Nolan’s previous work, you should give the guy just one more chance. I have to say I’m now a convert and am looking forward to the third Batman movie of this series. I’m really hoping they adapt Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but we may have to wait until Christian Bale’s 60 years old. Maybe by that time he’ll have figured out the raspy voice bit isn’t working.