Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who has principles these days anyway?

“I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements…. Last movie I was able to see was Alien.”

-- Dykes to Watch Out For

“I used to love Tarantino movies, but now I’m a Christian I don’t watch them anymore.”

-- My friend Louis

My dad hates Rupert Murdoch. He doesn’t know him personally; he just thinks that – dubious business practices; admiration of Thatcher; The Sun – Murdoch is an odious human being. And so he doesn’t take a Murdoch-owned paper, and he doesn’t subscribe to Sky. The latter is tough for him, because he absolutely adores cricket; but he denies himself it, to avoid giving money to Murdoch.

Not many of us would make that kind of sacrifice. We say, It’s only a small thing so it’s not worth it; I’m only one person so I wouldn’t make a difference; I’ll just indulge myself. We believe stealing is wrong, but we get all of our music from Megaupload. We hurry past people on the street collecting for sick children, and spend £10 a week on comic books. We believe in feminist values, but we watch horribly misogynistic movies and TV.

I admire my dad a lot. Some people might think that it’s only cricket, a trifling entertainment, but that makes me admire him all the more because, when it comes to entertainment, I do not act on my principles.

For example: The Bechdel Test. I love the Bechdel Test. All feminists love the Bechdel Test. Every time I see a movie, I keep a watch out for female characters and conversations they may have. But one thing we never really talk about is that, in the original comic strip, the character refuses to see movies that don’t pass the test. Granted, in 1985 this might not have been very practicable, but nowadays there are ways of finding out in advance whether a movie passes. It would be perfectly possible to never see the many films that fail.

And yet I keep going to see them. Movies that ignore women, made by studios whose policy is to ignore women: if I was serious about the Bechdel Test, wouldn’t I just stay at home?

It’s a sticky question, because I don’t know where to draw the line. When I was about 15, I bought a book by Orson Scott Card. Then I found out the man has some loathsome beliefs, and he does put his royalties where his mouth is. If you buy an Orson Scott Card book, you are contributing to the Mormon Church, and so you are funding things like the Yes on Prop 8 campaign. Does that make it wrong to read OSC books? I hope not; if someone had put a copy of Ender’s Game into my tragic 10-year-old mitts, I might have become a little less tragic, and it still resonated with me last year when I finally read it. My compromise here is to buy all my OSC second-hand, so he doesn’t actually get any of my flaming pink dollars.

But that doesn’t address the matter of content and subtext. One of the reasons we feminists rage so hard at things like the lack of minority representation in Hollywood is because we believe that people’s exposure to the undercurrents of popular culture affects them subconsciously from a very early age (“the ‘fat is bad’ stereotype…is evident in children as young as three”). And, if you’re not engaged in the exhausting work of constantly battling the messages of a messed-up culture – that you’re not complete unless you have a romantic partner, that you’ll be happy if you’re skinny and conventionally pretty, that if you’re not a straight white cis male you are Other and hence inferior – if you’re not fighting against these messages all the time, you’re implicitly accepting them.

That’s where my friend Louis comes in. Louis is a pretty cool guy. He’s another gay Christian with an enthusiasm for pop culture, and although we disagree on some major issues (such as whether a gay Christian should be celibate) I have a lot of respect for him. So it’s worth my while to think about why Louis believes that, as a Christian, he shouldn’t be watching Tarantino films.

Only the most narrow-minded people think they should never engage with anything that doesn’t jive 100% with their beliefs. Having your beliefs challenged is a vital way of ensuring you know why you hold those beliefs, and whether you even should be holding them. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Christians watching Tarantino films or feminists listening to Eminem, but you have to be intellectually honest about it. That involves admitting upfront that this material is problematic, and engaging with it critically throughout: analyzing what about it is problematic for you and why.

Of course, this means I have to admit – perhaps I’m deceiving myself; perhaps I’m simply justifying my own unpleasant, if not downright immoral, enthusiasm for violent movies and misogynistic rap music.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Twilight and the tale of a one-woman quest for pop-culture omniscience

I have a terrible addiction, and it is called Twilight.

It’s not the content of the books themselves that interests me – I’ve read all four, and they really are dreadful – but it’s the phenomenon I find so fascinating. I don’t always know what to do with pop-culture crazes that seem to sweep the world along. When the Harry Potter craze started, I embraced it; as it continued and I passed into my teens, I turned my back on it entirely.

Nowadays, I can look at the fads sweeping our nation’s youth with a more disinterested eye, and consider the question why? Why is this particular series capturing young people’s imagination?

I have read many, many, many, many, many webpages that analyze, spork, recap, parody, or edit the Twilight series. I have put way more thought into the subject than most fans, and probably more than the author herself. Now the craze is on the wane, with only two movies remaining, but I haven’t really figured it out, and I am not bored yet.

It’s probably because the whole environment of pop culture is still relatively new to me. I grew up in the third world, and as a child I took active pleasure in remaining ignorant of popular culture. I had never heard of Pop Idol or Jerry Springer; I couldn’t hum you a single Destiny’s Child song; I thought “the matrix” was a super-awesome topic in my math class (actually, I still prefer the mathematical matrix to the overrated movie).

Only in 2004/5ish did I start to realize that pop culture is both interesting and valuable. It’s the window into our society’s mores. “Television is America's cultural campfire, where we tell stories about ourselves” says Sarah Warn in this After Ellen article, but that’s also true of movies, the Internet, and popular YA book series. Without the creators of the material necessarily knowing it, they reveal a lot about the messages our society sends to individuals and the things we collectively believe. Wolfgang Iser believed that the blanks and negations in a text are at least as important as the things that are present, because they show us what an author (reader, society) takes for granted and because they allow for an interplay between the author and the reader.

That’s definitely a huge part of Twilight’s appeal. I’ve heard it described as a “first-person shooter” of a book: Bella’s life is deliberately left empty of hobbies and suchlike so that the reader can easily insert herself, filling in the blanks as it suits her.

Similarly, we expend so much virtual ink analyzing a book that was written as slight, thoughtless escapism because we want to find the values and messages that subconsciously pervade it, be they Mormon, misogynistic, or moral. If I study all pop culture, perhaps I can come to a thorough and complete understanding of not only my particular society, but also human nature itself.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"How can you attract women if you don't look *pretty*?"

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of straight male friends. Straight males, lord love ‘em – especially white, (upper-)middle-class straight males – don’t always have the greatest grasp of identity politics. Some of my friends apparently live on a different planet than I do: where de jure equality in most areas equates to de facto equality in all areas; where the k-word and the h-word don’t exist; where there is a strict gender binary and patriarchal norms are just natural.

Natural: the last defense of those who have no defense for their views. Most of the time, when people say something is natural (“Monogamy/heterosexuality/men being breadwinners while women clean the house is just natural”), the word they should be using is traditional. In Western culture, it’s what we’re socialized to expect. Man and woman marry, have children, grow old together: as rarely as it plays out in reality (what with 40% of marriages in the US ending in divorce), we’re still taught that this is the paradigm, the way it should happen. Why? Because that’s the paradigm our parents were taught.

I understand that, if you’re pretty much on top of the kyriarchy, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy it. But the truth is: these structures are lies. They are harming all of us.

Take the gender binary. I have been asked by genuinely puzzled straight boys why I have short hair and usually wear jeans and a flannel shirt; why I find Rachel Maddow attractive*; why, if I like girls, I am not more concerned with femininity. To some people, the existence of gay people actually reinforces their conception of the gender binary: if you’re attracted to men, you like “masculinity”; if you’re attracted to women, you like “femininity”. It’s common sense!

A lot of people have a surprising amount of trouble accepting the idea that “masculinity” and “femininity” are social constructs. (Try showing up to a wedding in a pantsuit or convincing parents that there’s nothing wrong with having shorter hair than your brother.) At its best, the queer community deconstructs these concepts, allowing people to express their identity fully and not have to fit in predetermined boxes labeled M and F.

I think that’s part of what we find sexy about it. Butches, bois, Shane – there’s real sexiness in throwing off the shackles of a society that wants all women to wear their hair long and their heels high. Over a century of feminism has given women an awareness of the restrictions placed on us by the patriarchy, and maybe that’s why so many more women than men seem to be heteroflexible.

Yep, it’s the OKCupid study: 51% of straight women either have had a same-sex hookup or want to, compared with 18% of men. I can’t help correlating this statistic with the fact that women have more obvious reasons to question the status quo of our society, and in some ways are more able to do so. Look and learn, boys.

*Because I am a gay woman with a pulse. Duh.

Monday, October 11, 2010

5 reasons Community is the best sitcom currently on television

It's fresh

Obvious when you compare it to the other sitcoms currently on TV (well, the other ones that I watch):

· Modern Family won all the Emmys, but it’s pretty old-fashioned in form – doing that non-committed, sometimes-video-diary/documentary-except-when-it’s-not thing that’s going around – and its jokes won’t light the world on fire.

· The Big Bang Theory has always been hoary, clichéd, and never more than half a good show; and it’s rapidly squandering my reserves of goodwill.

· How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia all started out doing something a bit different with sitcom tropes, but they’ve all been running so long that they’re foundering somewhat.

· Parks & Recreation has been displaced by a show full of racism and poop jokes.

Community has the advantage of youth, of course, but it also caters to a post-Arrested Development audience without going the copycat route. It’s very hard to be zeitgeisty without being cutesy, obnoxious, and quickly irrelevant, but Community does it, in part because...

It gets pop culture references just right

A plethora of pointless references to flash-in-the-pan pop culture phenomena can be a source of spleen-rupturing rage for all sapient beings. A smart reference should provide an additional note of humor or emotion for those in the know, but without being smug, condescending, or incomprehensible to viewers unfamiliar with it. Community is produced by film-and-TV-literate people, for film-and-TV-literate people, and its metafictional humor skirts the line of smugness without actually touching it, thanks in part to an excellent sense of when to dial the snark way down. In fact…

It has a heart without being schmaltzy

Scrubs could be a funny show. My favorite episode was the one where the janitor stuck Zach Braff inside a septic tank in the cold open and the entire episode proceeded without him. But Scrubs always lost me in the last few minutes, when Braff would rhapsodize in voiceover about the lessons he’d learned from the last 22 minutes of zany goings-on, while a saccharine pop ballad caterwauled a cheesy montage into existence. Community won’t have any of that. Its teachable moments are always undercut in a way that resonates from real life: sure, you and your friends all love each other, but if anyone actually talks about it you have to kill the sincerity with a good joke. That doesn’t mean the sincerity isn’t still there, underneath everything, but we don’t talk about it. The bonds between characters shine through without the show needing group hugs and anvilicious Aesops – or they do if, like Community

It utilizes its diverse cast to the fullest

On paper, the ensemble cast for Community almost out-Glees Glee in the “fulfilling minority quotas” game: young white man; young white woman; young Indian man; middle-aged black woman; young Jewish woman; young black man; old white man – each with different religious beliefs, political beliefs, and backgrounds. But, whereas Glee tends to focus on the fan-favorite characters to the exclusion of others (has Tina said anything so far this season?), every member of Community’s main cast is a well-rounded character. The show takes great pleasure in showing us how each character interacts with the others, and consequently has managed to make them feel like people, rather than just types whose personalities change as the plot requires it. Are you taking notes, Glee? Well, you completely ignored Community’s David-and-Goliath attempt to start a feud last season, so I’ll just assume you’re not.

And the final reason why Community is the best sitcom on TV right now is…

It's hilarious

I could prove this entirely in stingers, but really, just watch it. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Derrida, Christ, and the meaning of the text

Derrida hurts my brain. Luckily, Yahoo Answers is there to help. Sally H asks:

When I think of the word 'dog' and have a concept of a dog in my mind - say a dog I saw yesterday, why is this not a correlation between signifier and signified for Derrida? Why is meaning deferred from signifier to signifier and where does this leave the signified? After all I still have the concept in my mind? No Derrida haters please, just a simple explanation. Thankyou x

I find this quite amusing, because my experience with Yahoo Answers until now was limited to mockery on the Never SFW Something Awful, where the questions (and indeed all SA content ever) tended less toward complex philosophy and more toward racism and comprehensive misunderstandings of how sex works.

My favorite answer to Sally H’s query begins “well, i am a ‘hater’” and ends “this guy has always confused the crap out of me.” However, if you want a decent explanation of some of Derrida’s thought, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere on the web.

How about Theoretical Semiotics on the Web? Semiotics for Beginners? There’s really no way to summarize Derrida’s ideas on semiotics. You have to get into Saussure, Plato, Lévi-Strauss; logocentrism, structuralism, deconstructionism; a whole host of complicated concepts and even more complicated chains of thought.

Like most of philosophy and literary criticism, Derrida’s theories focused on the relationship between language and thought. It’s a good place to start if you’re going to study anything in depth. Perhaps it’s just scholars making everything complicated as usual, but there’s an astounding wealth of theories about what the relationship is between language and thought, and how it works. I don’t begin to have an understanding of all these theories, but I do know that it often seems to come down to a fundamental, yet curiously modern, opposition: that of universalism vs. relativism.

Of course, I’m simplifying everything hugely, because going into detail would tax my brain beyond its limits this late at night, but it seems that the Christian is often a moral universalist, while the feminist is a moral relativist. As a Christian, one is supposed to subscribe to the notion of absolute truth; but it doesn’t take much critical thinking to reveal how many of our absolute notions are in fact the product of our culture and upbringing. Two thousand years ago, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), and people have been asking him the same question ever since. He never answered.

I’m still figuring out my personal beliefs on the issue of universalism vs. relativism. My first two years as a Christian were spent at a conservative evangelical church, and I knew going in that I was neither conservative nor evangelical. Sometimes it feels as though life would be a lot easier if I were. Conservative evangelical Christians study the Bible a lot, but they do it from a perspective of comfortable universalism. To them, the text comes straight from God, and it is the highest authority.

To me, this viewpoint fails to take into account all the complexities of textual interpretation. To claim that the text is the highest authority implicitly assumes that the text has meaning independent of any reader’s interpretation – that there is a single correct reading of the text – and moreover that this meaning can be discovered.

I suppose I want to believe that. As things stand, I certainly don’t believe it of any text other than the Bible. As for the Bible itself, well, I’m not sure.

Christ is the text. He is the logos (John 1:1, 14). Perhaps his divinity – God’s divinity – lies in his being the one text that does have meaning independent of any reader. Perhaps that’s one definition of what God is.