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Elliot Rodger and the Pandemic of Masculinity

3 Jun

I read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto yesterday. It was, without a doubt, the least surprising document I’ve ever read. It wasn’t hard to follow; it wasn’t bizarre; it wasn’t a collection of the meanderings of a mind that had lost touch with reality. Instead, it was boring, trite, obvious, and exactly what I expected it to be: a rant by a spoiled brat with an overweening sense of entitlement. To women, to sex, to wealth, to attention and adoration. Frankly, I suspected at times that it was written by a Marxist feminist satirizing privileged male entitlement in general and MRAs in particular.

Elliot Rodger wasn’t Holden Caulfield, he was a bratty little asshole who assumed he was somehow superior to everyone else and thus deserved rewards simply for existing. The rage that he felt wasn’t caused by the cruelty of others, but by his own unreasonable expectations, expectations shared by the majority of men. He may have been less equipped to deal with frustration than the average person, but his reaction to that frustration shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the directions the culture has been taking over the course of the last decade or so.

About that manifesto. I’d call it a memoir of a cult member rather than a manifesto, since it doesn’t contain an idea of any kind. Rodger spends 141 pages narcissistically recounting every detail of his privileged childhood, describing in excruciatingly boring detail each family trip to some “exotic” locale or other, each luxurious Japanese dinner, each wasteful birthday celebration, each time he and his family attended a media industry event as someone else’s plus-one. Save a few bits of ham-fisted foreshadowing, the story up until Rodger hits puberty reads like the autobiography of every kid I went to elementary school with in Southern California: upper middle class parents who have no interest in raising a child but plenty of money and help doing so raise a kid with a profound sense of both entitlement and abandonment. His family clearly had just enough money and social status to gain entry to the outer circles of extreme privilege, and to afford Rodger a glimpse of what could be his if only he were fabulously, disgustingly wealthy instead of just comfortable in the extreme.

In fact, the story Rodger tells of his life after puberty reads like a tale of the rude awakening to the fact that his parents were not that rich after all. He makes repeated reference to puberty as the mainspring of his disillusionment with life and humanity, as the catalyst to his confrontation with the cruel realities of the world, but he is clearly projecting a concept he has adopted from the Men’s Rights Movement and from the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) scene onto his own adolescent understanding of the world, while his recounting of his own memories illustrates a gradual realization that he was not, after all, a member of the Hollywood gentry.

Is it just me, or are there more cult-ish movements around these days than there were a few years ago? Rodger makes mention of his attempt to follow the advice contained in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book that encourages readers to think they are multi-millionaires to whom life’s rewards flow unremittingly and without effort, which will result in them actually becoming one-per-centers. Though Rodger ultimately dismisses The Secret when putting its methods into practice doesn’t result in his winning the lottery and thus becoming a pussy magnet, the fact that he tried it in the first place, coupled with his wholesale adoption of MRA and PUA theories of how the world works, indicates that he shared something in common with tens of millions of people: the willingness to believe that disappointments and frustrations can be explained by nebulous, ill-fitting, simplistic principles propounded by self-help mountebanks in the pursuit of book and seminar ticket sales.

The culture told Rodger that sex, money, and attention were his birthright. When the system failed to deliver, Rodger flailed around, seeking an explanation. At first, it seemed that he turned his frustration inward and assumed that he was lonely because he was somehow defective. At that point in the narrative, I almost felt sorry for him. We’ve all been bullied, we’ve all questioned our worth as human beings based on the way that others treat us, and we’ve all wondered if life would be better for us if we were somehow constitutionally different than we are. It’s gross. Some of us respond to that kind of fundamental uncertainty about our value by entering into a pattern of self-abuse, some of us begin to question the system of social values that leads to such misery, and some of us fall prey to explanations that place the blame for our unhappiness on the people who reject us. Some of us do all three. But disorder arises when someone like Rodger fails to differentiate between fantasy and reality and never grows out of the expectation that life will turn out like a Bud Light commercial. Or a porn video.

So, what did the culture tell Rodger he could expect from the world? As a privileged child, he was given everything he expressed a desire for, it would appear. Rodger, cared for by a series of nannies, also grew accustomed to being doted on by young women in his childhood years. He grew up on the edges of Hollywood’s elite, a world in which power and wealth command attention and favors from what must look to a child to be an unending parade of young, beautiful women. Once Rodger learned about sex (from porn, naturally), he reached the seemingly obvious conclusion that he was owed sex due to his superior social position.

The culture tells all men that they are owed access to women’s bodies and energy. Sitcoms feature attractive women married to and putting up with mountains of bullshit from blundering schlubs. Movies hammer the idea into boys’ minds that young, hot women, though they may resist at first, will eventually fall into the laps of lazy, misogynistic, overgrown infants like those played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill in Judd Apatow movies (yeah, assholes, that’s right: your movies promote misogyny and male entitlement). Porn tells young boys with no other knowledge of sex that women are filthy pigs who just love being gangbanged and ejaculated on by abusive, sneering monsters.

I don’t know why girls rejected Elliot Rodger when he entered adolescence, or whether they even did. There seemed to have been a window in junior high — before he started consuming porn — when that was not the case. He might have been a little awkward, he may have lacked social skills, but it appears that his obsessive sense of entitlement to what he believed other boys enjoyed (whether that was the case or not) took over, coloring all of his interactions and probably preempting any chance he had at relating to girls. He was consumed by the foolish belief that porn and bullshit adolescent male bragging were reality for everyone but him. Once that set in, his anger and desperation probably became palpable in social situations to the point that women — who learn from a young age how to spot signs of danger in male behavior — steered clear.

Without any real contact with women, for Rodger, they became cartoon characters, aliens, beasts, non-human. They were an enemy to be vanquished, a prize to be collected for the achievement of having been born male, the source of all of his frustrated expectations. He absorbed those messages wholesale from mass media culture. Rodger’s memoir reads like a catalog of his consumption of popular media, from Pokemon through World of Warcraft through Halo 2, from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Game of Thrones, to internet pornography, to MRA discussion forums populated by legions of men railing against women for not fulfilling the fantasies instilled in them by that same media culture.

Several feminist bloggers have made the argument that writing Rodger off as mentally ill takes the focus off of systemic misogyny and allows a worldwide epidemic of woman-hating and gynophobic violence to go unexamined. They aren’t wrong. But Rodger was mentally ill. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.

By that definition, Rodger was certainly mentally ill, and so are most men. What set Rodger apart was his willingness to participate directly in violence against women as women in order to punish them for refusing to provide him with the sex he felt entitled to, rather than simply doing so by proxy via the consumption of violent and degrading porn and other products of a capitalo-misogynistic society. The existence of masculinity requires that men be unable to relate to women, as masculinity and femininity are the institutions upon which male supremacy rests. A man who is capable of relating to women — who does not suffer from the mental illness known as masculinity — is incapable of abusing them, either in person or by proxy.

If women were human, no one would read books about serial killers.

28 Jan

If people were capable of viewing women as human beings, their murders would not evoke prurient fascination and bolster book sales. Big “if,” I know.

After reading an excellent post at The F Word yesterday related to a serial killer whose existence I was theretofore unaware of, I made the foolish decision to google the Robert Pickton case to learn more about it. In the first page of results I came across a collection of salacious accounts of a man raping, killing, and dismembering prostituted women and feeding their body parts to the pigs on his farm (and, possibly, to other humans, as some accounts claim he mixed the dead women’s flesh with pork and served it to those who visited the farm).

The public just loves serial killers, and this case had all of the elements that make for the kind of serial killer story a misogynistic society can really get down with. First — and most telling — the victims were nearly all prostitutes, many of whom are said to have had drug problems. That element is mentioned early in every account of the case in order to assure the reader that he or she may proceed to revel in maximum prurience without any feelings of fear or guilt, because everyone knows that prostituted women with drug problems are about as worthless as anyone can get and deserved to be raped and murdered. With that concern out of the way, the authors of the stories delve into the gory details of what they choose to pretend was a bizarre aberration, treating the salivating reader to the fine points of how Pickton lured, trapped, brutalized, raped, and murdered up to 49 female human beings.

Each account that I read made mention of Pickton’s farm, the Piggy Palace, where he held parties that hundreds of people attended. They also mention Pickton’s 1997 arrest for the attempted murder of  a woman who escaped after Pickton handcuffed and stabbed her, and of the many times police visited Pickford’s farm on the suspicion that he was connected to a growing list of missing women. Despite those visits and several searches of the farm, Pickton managed to murder several more women before being caught in 2002. Each of the stories also mentioned that, though he had only been convicted of killing six women, police were aware that the number of women Pickton had murdered was likely 49. They were aware of that number because Pickton admitted to an undercover cop posing as a cell mate that he had killed 49 women and wished he could have had the chance to kill one more to make it an even 50.

It doesn’t take a philologist to understand the underlying messages glossed over in the reporting on this and other serial killer cases. Pickton felt comfortable enough to admit to a near stranger that he had killed 49 human beings, which means two things. First, he had to have disclosed his activities to several people with whom he had closer relationships prior to having been caught, and none of those people came forward. Second, he was so secure in the knowledge that other men hate women as much as he does that he didn’t expect his new “cell mate” to blink when he admitted to 43 murders he had not yet been charged with. Then there is the fact that scores of bands played and hundreds of men partied at Pickton’s farm, many of whom recalled later having witnessed violent scenes involving prostituted women and deeming the place creepy. One dude who frequented the farm reported to police that there were purses and women’s IDs all over the place, but that information resulted in a search that — either because Pickton was coincidentally slightly less secure and careless in his assumption that everyone would overlook his murdering prostituted women on that day or because the police did a half-assed job (likely both) — turned up nothing that would put a stop to Pickton’s activities. In short, the hundreds of men who had the chance to didn’t care enough about prostituted women to bother putting forth a smidgen of effort to prevent them from being raped and murdered.

There are marathons of biographies of serial killers on television nearly constantly, and books written about serial killers perennially occupy the upper reaches of bestseller lists. People revel in serial killer stories because serial killers generally tend to kill women, and the culture is so desensitized to the murder of women that it can be taken as pure entertainment, especially when those women are prostitutes. Prostitutes, in the fictional account of their existence provided by libertarian, individualistic, boot-strap ideology, became prostitutes out of some moral failing of their own, and thus deserve far less sympathy and police resources than other women (whose murders are still entertaining, though slightly scarier — to women).

Serial killers take revenge on women on behalf of misogynistic society for rejecting men and for straying outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and they scare other women back into line by doing so. Serial killers punish prostitutes for being prostitutes — despite the fact that their being prostituted in the first place is already usually punishment for their having been born poor or having been victims of abuse — and everyone but prostitutes and feminists seems to find that acceptable. Societal obsession with men who compulsively murder women and the fact that no one seems all that interested in the thoughts of men who routinely shoot other men indicate that the fascination comes not from the purportedly bizarre landscape of serial killers’ psyches, but from the fact that they are murdering women. What is interesting about serial killers and the cultural enthrallment with them is not how aberrant their psychology is, but how banal and pedestrian their hatred of women is. An obsession with serial killers might go really well with the general thoughtless consumption of macabre bullshit like Norwegian death metal and horror movies, but it does not indicate anything about the obsessor other than that he has mistakenly come to believe that men who sexualize violence by murdering women are doing anything but reflecting the logical conclusion of mainstream societal misogyny.

An open letter to Creative Loafing Atlanta on the occasion of the inauguration of Are You Shaved

21 Dec

Dear Creative Loafing,

The cover story for your December 15-21 issue, sporting the title, “Melysa Martinez, our new sex columnist, asks, ‘Is Atlanta uptight?‘” has forced me, at last, to write the letter I’ve been meaning to write ever since I read your embarrassment of a “college guide” issue a few months ago (of which I re-purposed fifteen copies to protect my hardwood floors from cat piss while training my cat to use his litter box).

The title led me to a few related assumptions before I had even opened the paper. First, since Creative Loafing had hired a woman to write its sex column, I figured I could look forward to a little less of the doltism – and, often, brazen misogyny — exhibited by the dude who preceded her. But second, I worried, as I am wont to do whenever a faux-progressive media outlet hires a woman to talk about sex, that once again I’d be seeing consumerist, destructive, male-centric ideas about sexuality insidiously smuggled into the minds of the unthoughtful under the guise of being woman-approved. It was worse than I thought. It appears that not only will CL be selling hackneyed rehashings of bro-ish sex fantasies in boxes stamped with the woman-approved seal, but the (empty) “punk rock” imprimatur will also help ensure that no one analyzes or criticizes those fantasies lest they be deemed uncool.

There are things I like about Atlanta, but Atlanta’s take on counter-culture is not one of them. I understand that many of the people who live here have come here to escape reactionary, conformist realities of which most people may never be able to apprehend the depths. Still, I expect that anyone claiming to occupy a socially transgressive role actually do so, and that is simply not the case with many people in this town. It’s 2011. Getting tattoos, advertising one’s love for tits/tacos/booze by means of wacky novelty t-shirts (vintage or not), or involving oneself in the local horror movie lovers’ scene does not make one a revolutionary, but rather a consumer of one or more commercially conceived and marketed lifestyles. The fact that the bulk of the counter-cultural activity in town revolves around Clothing Warehouse and people getting wasted in one of eight or so bars can be blamed in part, I’m sure, on the gentrification of the city in recent years, as well as on the corporate media concentration which began in the late 90s and saw all of the avenues for rebellious expression bought up, repackaged, and sold to kids who would never be the wiser. But Creative Loafing is also complicit in the devolution of the city’s cultural life. There are smaller cities in this country with far more interesting music, art, and political environments. What they all have in common is a thriving, responsible alternative media presence, not a choice between a weekly headed by a Republican asshole and a weekly that exists to advertise the fact that some dude partied with some shitty band, that yet another new junk food chic restaurant is trying to sell $18 burgers with sous-vide dog turds on them while no one knows where to buy dumplings on Buford Highway, and that there is a chick in town with tattoos who drinks whiskey and likes to fuck (you don’t say!). In the text of the article, Martinez makes reference to playing tug-of-war with her “four-legged daughter,” mentions a thwarted desire to move to New York City, and recounts a conversation with a male friend from San Francisco in which she bemoans the fact that men don’t ask her out, concluding that men are intimidated by her. Where have I heard this before?

I don’t expect much from Atlantans anymore when it comes to thoughtfulness, especially when it comes to discussions of human sexuality, but I suppose I’ll scream into the void anyway and voice my grievances with the article itself.

A sex column called Are You Shaved? Really, now. Martinez claims in comments to the online version of the article that she chose the name after hearing the question posed to the title character in the movie Amelie. I’ve (unfortunately) seen the movie, but I forgot that line. So did everyone else. Leaving aside the juvenile asininity of such a title, is there a female human being under thirty (surely, Creative Loafing imagines its audience, roughly, to be 18-30-year-olds) who isn’t? I was under the impression that the porn industry had ensured by this point that there are only nine heterosexual men alive in America who don’t pressure their female partners to remove their pubes regularly, to the point that women, when surveyed on the subject, have come to feel such shame over the natural state of their bodies that they claim to remove their pubes in toto because they think they are “dirty” or “unsanitary.” Martinez says that she likes “to see the question as a metaphor for whether or not we can be stripped of what makes us insecure, leaving us naked and vulnerable.” So, shaving one’s pubes metaphorically equates to shedding decades of social conditioning that has resulted in epidemic proportions of women (and men) feeling ashamed of their bodies because they don’t measure up to an ever-changing – and always impossible – standard created by an industry that exists to make a profit by manipulating and exacerbating human insecurity and sexual shame? War is peace, I guess.

Martinez claims there is no such thing as a pervert. What the fuck are we supposed to do as a society when there is no such thing as a pervert? I’m pretty comfortable with labeling anyone who pursues non-consensual activity a pervert (e.g., rapists, pedophiles, etc.) In fact, I’m cool with labeling anyone who finds the dehumanization of a human being orgasmic a pervert, because that’s what the definition of sexual perversion is: a warping of human sexuality such that one finds something other than sex – such as power – more orgasmic than sex itself.

The term “pervert” has been used as a tool for shaming and dehumanizing sexual minorities, which is unacceptable, but it still has uses. The problem with people like Martinez is that they can only see two options with regard to sexuality: reactionary sexuality and sexual (lower-case L) libertarianism. Reactionaries deploy the concept of the pervert — and other forms of psychological and physical violence — in order to shame women, homosexuals, and anyone else who doesn’t follow the patriarchal sexual script into either getting on board or disappearing themselves from public view. Sexual libertarians have taken things too far in the other direction, beginning from the assumption that any criticism of any form of sexuality ought to be verboten. That would be a great thing, were it not for the fact that we still live in a straight white male supremacist society in which the range of sexual expression for those who are not straight white men is limited by what straight white men can deal with. It would be nice to see some sexual liberationists take things a step further by taking it as a given that people ought to be free to explore their sexuality, but questioning the bases of the social construction of sexual desires and how they might affect our social and political realities. With freedom comes responsibility and shit.

The general thrust of Martinez’s monologue is that she’s devoutly anti-shame, but there’s a decided “get with it” tone present throughout the discussion. She ham-fistedly insinuates that Atlantans are uptight because we don’t all act like rockabilly teenagers and aren’t keen to shout our most private fantasies over the first PBR. She assures us that there’s “nothing wrong with [our] likes and dislikes” but then tells men whose girlfriends “won’t give in” and submit to some “backdoor action” to find someone who will. Shaming people for wanting to do something consensual might not be cool, but shaming people who don’t want to do something – which amounts to pressure, which is a form of social and interpersonal coercion — is downright fucked.

Martinez asks men what kind of porn they watch and what their fetishes are, she writes, quite early in the getting-to-know-you phase. It’s the fear and hostility people feel with regard to sexuality that underlie many of the most destructive forces in human psychology, and thus creating space for frank and realistic sexual discussions is necessary to a healthy sexual existence and to a functioning society. But is the goal really to reduce every potential relationship to whether or not the two people involved like to have the same kinds of props in the room when they fuck? No one ought to be ashamed to engage in a sexual discussion, no matter what the content of that discussion, provided that the time for the conversation is appropriate. But if a dude were to go straight from asking me whether I’m into the Black Lips to asking me whether I do anal, I’d sneak out before he got the chance to stick his dick in my face unannounced. A woman broaching the subject of fetishes with a near stranger doesn’t carry the implicit threat that a man doing so does, but it’s still creepy. Boundaries matter, as any sex columnist who gives a shit about the concept of consent ought to know.

Still, let’s say the context isn’t creepy, and that Martinez is simply bemoaning the fact that men can’t seem to deal appropriately with a woman who discusses sex openly. She writes that, when she does so, men either “retreat into their good-boy shells,” or that they “assume [that her questions about sex mean] they get a straight pass to the bedroom.” Maybe these men aren’t uptight. Maybe the explanation is that the men she hangs out with — as most men do — suffer from a virgin/whore complex and have learned to deal with sexually open women by shunning them as “whores” or attempting to take advantage of them, deeming them good for nothing else. Where is the suggestion that men learn to view women as human beings rather than as caricatures who exist solely as extensions of men’s egos?

It’s fairly disheartening – though by no means surprising — that porn use is a given, and that all that’s left to discuss is which version of commodified sexuality one consumes, how degrading it is, and whether one partner can emotionally withstand knowing what forms of dehumanization the other finds orgasmic. We can simply no longer imagine a sexuality, apparently, that transcends scripts dictated to us by an industry that banks on fulfilling (and manipulating) male desires to the detriment of women’s humanity. But let’s not discuss that and what it might mean for our sex lives and our emotional development as human beings. That shit wouldn’t give anyone a boner.

This might be hard to believe, but one can tire of constant exposure to banal, unreflective, heteronormative/heterosexist discussions of fucking, and there are people in the world – Atlanta included — who might like to read and think about something a little more complex.

Martinez and Creative Loafing have both got it wrong. The problem with Atlanta is not that its people are uptight, but that they’ve somehow gotten the mistaken idea that being pro-porn, pro-microbrew, and pro-Rob Zombie is the opposite of uptight. Probably at least in part from Creative Loafing.

Please try a little harder. This is embarrassing.

Love,

ND

Avatar: Only Slightly Less Imaginative Than a Bruce Springsteen Song

28 Apr

I know, I’m the last person in the industrialized world to see Avatar, but I waited for several reasons. First, I was under the impression that it was based on a video game, rather than the basis for a video game, and if there’s one “artistic” genre I’m less into than films based on comic books, it’s films based on video games. Second, not only do I not go to the movies, but I rarely even watch movies. I don’t go to the movies because I don’t like sitting up for that long, and because somehow I’ve ended up living in America’s hub for people who like to pretend they believe zombies really exist. We all know that people who are into zombies like to make spectacles of themselves in public — hence the existence of the thousand or so “Cons” that take place in this city every year — so going to the movies in my neighborhood often means enduring the presence of unwarrantedly smug drama club dorks who lack senses of humor, analytical skills, and the ability to determine when and where it might be appropriate to make histrionic displays of themselves via affectedly amplified snickering and banal “witty” commentary/audience participation (hint: at screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show only, which would not even transpire were everyone in America to suddenly sprout good — or at least non-embarrassing — taste). I don’t watch movies because I generally disapprove of the direction the movie industry has been heading in since the late 80s (and, really, since the advent of the industry itself) and can only think of about ten movies that I enjoy watching for the reasons the people who made them intended. Even ten’s a stretch. Third, it’s a James Cameron movie. I pride myself on knowing nil about the movie industry and on my inability to name one set designer or screenwriter despite having spent five years living in LA, but even I know James Cameron is to blame for some of the more egregious examples of pointless cinematographic excess; in addition to having been tricked into seeing both Bruno and Joe Dirt in the theater, I also count Titanic among the tortures I’ve endured under conditions of extreme air-conditioning and Gummi Bear-and-fake-butter-induced nausea. Finally, I like to strike while the iron is between zero and forty degrees. I don’t want my movie reviews getting lost among all the timely ones, do I?

But alas, one night during an HBO free trial in December, Davetavius somehow convinced me that Avatar might be funny. It was, albeit in a very dispiriting sense.  Probably most disheartening of Avatar‘s many worrisome features was the loud and omnipresent dearth of vision, creativity, or even the ability to imagine anything more than a third of a derivative degree removed from current reality. That fundamental lack underlies both the hilarious tedium of each of the ideas presented and the deep concern the movie’s commercial and cultural success instilled in me, specifically because almost every word of the critical praise it garnered centered on just how original and inspired it was perceived to be by the blunderers we’ve entrusted to tell us what to think about the products of our culture industry.

For those of you lucky enough to have missed the movie, it takes place on a moon of some planet in the Alpha Centauri system called Pandora. It’s called Pandora because, like, when we go there, we, like, get into more than we bargained for. The unnecessarily complicated and terribly developed story is that Pandora is the reachable universe’s primo source for a mineral called (I swear to god) “unobtanium.” It’s called that because, like, it’s really hard to, like, obtain. We aren’t told what it is, exactly, that unobtanium does (or even is — the term is apparently used by scientists and engineers to refer to materials that are as of yet undiscovered that might make theoretical processes feasible should those materials ever be discovered, but in this movie it’s an actual substance that purportedly has an actual use and an actual monetary value), but we are ham-fistedly informed that it’s a BFD because the US has decided to set up a base on Pandora in order to mine it. The only problem is that the atmosphere on Pandora is poisonous to humans. Luckily, by 2154 , we’ve figured out how to make “avatars,” which are fabricated alien bodies linked to human minds via some voodoo mechanism whereby the human mind enters the alien body while the human is asleep and uses the alien body to putz around on the alien’s home turf until the alien gets sleepy, at which time the human wakes up and the alien goes back to bed. (Lord knows why we’ll be able to create living beings that we can operate like robots but won’t be able to come up with a better mechanism for controlling them; I guess it would have screwed up this ingenious story. And lord knows why they’re called avatars; I suppose because James Cameron rightly surmised that an audience of online gamer geeks would mistakenly think it very clever to name these beings after the graphic images they use to represent themselves in virtual worlds despite the fact that they are supposed to be real creatures living on real planets in other solar systems.)

Sigourney Weaver made the ill-advised decision to play Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the avatar program, who hops into a pod herself every night in order to inhabit the world of the Na’vi, the blue creatures who live on Pandora (creatures that from this point on will be referred to as “blue fuckers”). One of her team dies right before he’s to be shipped out to Pandora. The avatars are expensive to create and are matched by DNA to the humans who they’ll be taking turns with to sleep, but (because shit just works out in the movies) he has a twin brother named Jake Sully, an ex-Marine who has been disabled in combat and displays the kind of machismo, naivete, stupidity, and simplistic morality we dumbasses here in the US seem to think add up to a complex, sympathetic male character. Sully takes his brother’s place, but Dr. Augustine doesn’t think much of him and only takes him out as a bodyguard. His avatar gets lost on an outing away from the base and the real stupid shit begins.

Sully finds himself lost in the forest when a female blue fucker named Neytiri shows up and saves him from some sparkly, terrifying beast. She’s no fan of the avatars who have been hanging around as she and the other blue fuckers see them as warlike dolts who have no understanding of how things work on Pandora, but she decides he’s worth saving when some Pandoran dandelion that floats around in the air and likes to hang around nice people decides it likes him. She takes him back to her parents, who happen to be the blue fuckers’ high chief and priestess, and explains what occurred in the forest. They decide to let her school him in blue fucker bushido despite the fact that every other avatar they’ve ever met has been an asshole, and an extremely ridiculous montage of warrior training among CGI plants and animals ensues. The montage culminates in the viewer gaining an understanding of just how blue fucker society operates, which can best be summed up as, “whoever can rape a pegasus is one of us, but whoever can rape a pterodactyl can lead us!” (I’ll explain.)

After showing him how to hop around on leaves and sleep in the world’s craziest hammock, Neytiri explains to Sully that the blue fuckers can use their hair, which is basically a USB braid, to connect to their planet and control some of its creatures. She then introduces him to the Pa’li, the creatures that the blue fuckers ride around on to fly around and hunt, which look a lot like blue pegasuses. The way one forms a bond with one’s pegasus is to jump on its back and force one’s braid into a receptacle on the pegasus, after which point one can control the pegasus and use it as an aerial ridiculousness vehicle. Sully manages to rape a pegasus, an event that signifies his mastery of blue fucker bushido, and is then accepted by the blue fuckers as one of their own. That is, until the military-industrial complex fucks everything up.

If you rape the pegasus, you'll be one of us, Jake!

Sully, while a waking human back on base, is recruited as an informant on the world of the blue fuckers by Colonel Miles Quatrich, head of an organization called Blackwater. Wait, I mean Sec-Ops. Sec-Ops is a private security firm that works for RDA Corporation, and they ain’t got time for Dr. Augustine’s pussy-footin’ around and “learning” about these commie-ass blue fuckers. They want to head straight into the heart of Pandora and blast Hometree, where the blue fuckers live, right out of the ground in order to get at the giant unobtanium deposits that (naturally) lie beneath it. Quatrich, who looks like a real-life version of Chip Hazard, tells Sully he’ll help him get the operation he needs to walk again if he’ll help him figure out how to best part the blue fuckers and their unobtanium. Sully adheres to the deal until he — SURPRISE — falls in love with Neytiri, the blue fuckers, their rugged communal way of life, and their USB connection to Mother Pandora.

A bunch of action-packed bullshit ensues wherein Sec-Ops attacks Hometree, Sully attempts to thwart them, they succeed anyway, and the blue fuckers find out Sully was on the wrong side to begin with and shun him. I thought that the movie might end once all that transpired, leaving us with some kind of inchoate message about militarism, environmentalism, and rich white people’s fanciful and stupid ideas about “traditional cultures,” but I was wrong. It got even more ridiculous and went on FOR ANOTHER HOUR.

Having been shunned by the woman and the blue fuckers he loves, Sully mopes around for a few minutes before — Eureka! — he figures out how to redeem himself. He seeks out the Toruk, a creature that has only been ridden five times in the history of all the blue fucker tribes, and manages to rape it. He then heads over to the Tree of Souls, where the blue fuckers connect their USB cables to Mother Pandora, to convince them that he’s OK after all, and that an endearingly dumb and reckless American ex-Marine is the right man to lead the blue fuckers to a resounding triumph over corporatism and militarism. They stop praying to the celestial DNS server for a few minutes, allow him back into the fold, and then resume chanting and praying to Mother Pandora to not allow a bunch of GI Joes kill them all. Mother Pandora intervenes and the film ends with Sully (who has somehow been made into a permanent blue fucker and no longer wakes up as a human when he goes to sleep) and a few other blue fuckers overseeing the Americans’ shame-faced retreat from Pandora back to their own planet, where they will presumably ruminate over the error of their ways among the ruins of their own long-since plundered ecosystem.

Only the chosen one can rape the pterodactyl!

I told you it was unnecessarily complicated and poorly developed. And blisteringly stupid.

Avatar is a science fiction movie. It admittedly differs from the specimens of the genre that those stranded aboard the Satellite of Love might consider true sci-fi, but the general public puts it under that rubric. In fact, IGN called it the 22nd best sci-fi movie of all time. That’s a problem for the genre that purports to take us beyond the realm of what we can know and into the realm of what we can imagine.

As I watched Avatar, I for some reason (probably because predicting the next thing that would happen got boring once I realized I would never, ever be wrong) began thinking about the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and asked myself how the genre of science fiction and the movie industry as a pillar of American culture had changed in the time that had elapsed between the two films. What were the general cultural values and concerns being communicated in each of these films? What kinds of stories were being told about the world? How had cinema as a means of artistic communication and social commentary changed since 2001 was released? What do the methods of presentation in both films tell us about the ways in which our society has changed in the era of advanced mass communication? And, of course, how was gender represented?

I came to a few distressing conclusions. Naturally, I’ll get to the feminist criticism first. By the time Avatar came out, we’d traversed 41 years in which women’s status in society had purportedly been progressively improving since 2001 was released, but the change in representations of women in popular media, at least in epic sci-fi movies, doesn’t look all that positive. In 1968, we (or Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) could imagine tourism in space. We could not, however, imagine women occupying any role in space exploration other than as flight attendants. In 2009 we (or James Cameron) could imagine female scientists and helicopter pilots participating in extraterrestrial imperialism, and we could even tolerate warrior-like blue female humanoid aliens as central figures in the plot of an movie, but we still couldn’t imagine a world in which traditional gender roles and current human beauty ideals aren’t upheld, even when that world is literally several light years and 155 years away from our own.

Provided that we accept the absurd and self-important idea that extraterrestrial creatures would resemble humans at all, why would they look like ten-foot-tall, blue fitness models posing for an elf-fetish magazine?

If that reference seems odd, compare Neytiri to this “night elf” (I rue the day I found out about cosplay — thanks again, Japan):

Both the female and the male blue fuckers are tall, thin, ripped, and look like members of one of the bands in Strange Days, and they’re all wearing goddamned loincloths. There’s a reason Fleshlight makes an alien model that is purported to replicate a female blue fucker’s two-clitorised vulva, and that reason is that James Cameron couldn’t imagine a world in which aliens don’t look like people he’d want to fuck. Don’t believe me? Check out this excerpt from a Playboy interview he did about the movie (google it — I’m not linking to Playboy):

PLAYBOY: Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in your film Alien is a powerful sex icon, and you may have created another in Avatar with a barely dressed, blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall warrior who fiercely defends herself and the creatures of her planet. Even without state-of-the-art special effects, Zoe Saldana—who voices and models the character for CG morphing—is hot.
CAMERON: Let’s be clear. There is a classification above hot, which is “smoking hot.” She is smoking hot.

PLAYBOY: Did any of your teenage erotic icons inspire the character Saldana plays?
CAMERON: As a young kid, when I saw Raquel Welch in that skintight white latex suit in Fantastic Voyage—that’s all she wrote. Also, Vampirella was so hot I used to buy every comic I could get my hands on. The fact she didn’t exist didn’t bother me because we have these quintessential female images in our mind, and in the case of the male mind, they’re grossly distorted. When you see something that reflects your id, it works for you.

PLAYBOY: So Saldana’s character was specifically designed to appeal to guys’ ids?
CAMERON: And they won’t be able to control themselves. They will have actual lust for a character that consists of pixels of ones and zeros. You’re never going to meet her, and if you did, she’s 10 feet tall and would snap your spine. The point is, 99.9 percent of people aren’t going to meet any of the movie actresses they fall in love with, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Neytiri or Michelle Pfeiffer.

PLAYBOY: We seem to need fantasy icons like Lara Croft and Wonder Woman, despite knowing they mess with our heads.
CAMERON: Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we’re forced to deal with real women, and there’s a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let’s face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals. I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

PLAYBOY: Are her breasts on view?
CAMERON: I came up with this free—floating, lion’s-mane—like array of feathers, and we strategically lit and angled shots to not draw attention to her breasts, but they’re right there. The animation uses a physics-based sim that takes into consideration gravity, air movement and the momentum of her hair, her top. We had a shot in which Neytiri falls into a specific position, and because she is lit by orange firelight, it lights up the nipples. That was good, except we’re going for a PG-13 rating, so we wound up having to fix it. We’ll have to put it on the special edition DVD; it will be a collector’s item. A Neytiri Playboy Centerfold would have been a good idea.

Sigh. I’ll take flight attendants in place of a sociopathic obsession with disembodied CGI female body parts that men invent in order to avoid confronting the fact that women are human beings. Fuck, I’ll take stewardesses. Neytiri is permitted to talk, to take an active role in training Sully how to rape pegasuses, and to participate as a warrior in the fight against Chip Hazard and his robotic blue-fucker-ass-kicking devices, but she’s not allowed to not be a sex object. That shit is the real final frontier, and something tells me we’ll be imagining visiting other branes by jumping into bags of Doritos before we’ll imagine women being allowed to be human beings. She’s also not allowed to take an active role in choosing a mate, as we discover when she tells Sully that once one has raped a pegasus and become a real blue fucker warrior, the time has arrived for one to choose a mate. Even though she has already raped a pegasus, is adept enough at it to instruct Sully on the subject, and happens to be the daughter of the blue fuckers’ HNIC, the prerogative to choose a mate is left to him as the man — even though he’s only an honorary blue fucker — to choose her as a mate, at which point she must passively acquiesce. How romantical.

It probably isn’t fair to compare Avatar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing as 2001 is one of the few movies I reluctantly label as “art” and Avatar tops Biodome on my list of the dumbest movies ever made, but it seems necessary. They’re both dubbed “epic science fiction” films, they are both purported to reflect the philosophical problems confronting the societies from which they emerged, they’re both considered to be among the greatest science fiction films ever made, and they’ve both inspired the production of thousands of paragraphs of analysis, criticism, and praise. They should be compared, if only on the basis of presentation and approach, in order to get a grip on the ways in which the medium has changed and the ways in which its message-delivery mechanisms have changed. Both of those changes have a lot to tell us about the trajectory our society has been on since the 60s.

Special effects technology has obviously made astronomical leaps since 1968, but that expansion of capabilities seems to have led to a crippling, rather than an enhancement, of the imagination. 2001 won an Oscar for effects. So did Avatar. Yet one second of 2001 holds more visual interest than more than two hours of film in Avatar. We now have the technology to create realistic images of absolutely anything we can dream up, but Pandora just looks like a sparkly jungle with a few gravity-defying mountains. The visual effects display such a drastic lack of creativity that it appears that Cameron paid more attention to making Neytiri “smoking hot” than to creating an alternative world, even when presented with unlimited possibilities for doing so.

Given that it was made in the late 60s, 2001 unsurprisingly explored humanity’s relationship with technology, the meaning of space exploration for human society, and several other philosophical problems that postwar America found itself faced with in the midst of the Cold War and the saturation of the culture with technology obsession. It did so by urging, expecting, and even requiring the viewer to think about the meaning of what they were seeing. 2001 was carefully executed on every level in order to create a visual and auditory experience that would inspire confusion and immediate identification with the idea that we were facing something big that needed to be grappled with. Visual effects, rather than serving as distractions or “eye candy,” operate as intellectual catalysts, and the laconic dialogue allows the audience to experience the film and consider the ideas being presented without the intrusion of a screenwriter who assumes they are too stupid to understand what is occurring. Nothing is spelled out, nothing is obvious, and nothing is trite, because Kubrick had enough confidence in his audience to entrust the interpretation of the meaning of the film to them. That’s a really big deal.

Avatar also (sort of) approaches some of the major issues facing contemporary aughts/teens society, including the immorality of late-stage capitalism, the disastrous reality and potential of militarism and environmental destruction, and humanity’s relationship with nature, but in Avatar, everything is spelled out, everything is obvious, everything is trite.

Cameron can only seem to conceive of an ideal society five light years and nearly two centuries removed from our own if it exactly mirrors an episode of Fantasy Island in which he’s the guest star, but it’s cool. He’s got a revolutionary political message to communicate: if we don’t all buy Priuses and reject militarism and imperialism right quick, we’ll destroy our planet and rudely intrude upon blue fucker utopias everywhere, thus ruining countless enlightened neo-primitive sex parties attended by the universe’s hottest aliens.

Despite the fact that he sets up the blue fuckers as a foil to all he believes is wrong with modern and future American society, Cameron is obviously a paternalistic racist, though he isn’t exactly unique in that respect. Privileged white urbanites hold some pretty hilarious ideas about “traditional cultures,” don’t they? Cameron clearly based the blue fuckers on his own nebulous and ill-informed ideas of various traditional cultures around the world, conceptions no doubt derived from the romanticized image Hollywood liberals seem to have of ways of life they’d like to convince everyone but themselves to embrace. Cameron repeatedly mentions Mayans in interviews about the movie and compares different facets of blue fucker society to Mayan society — which is no surprise since Mayans seem to be the new Cherokees among kombucha drinkers this week — but I wonder exactly how much he knows about what life might have been like for the typical Mayan. He probably doesn’t care any more than does the average LA dipshit who can be overheard extolling the virtues of some “traditional culture” that he has actually culled from his own narcissistic political and dietary allegiances and projected onto a society he knows nothing about. I’m sure that once the blue fuckers defeated the American war machine, they returned to their traditional ways, ways that include recycling, doing yoga, and having sex parties in their bedazzled jungle, where they drink their own handcrafted glitter palm wine and eat free-range pegasus-milk feta and (non-GMO) space maize tacos. (Maybe we’ll get to see that in the sequel.) Unfortunately, “traditional cultures” (and even their sci-fi/fantasy derivatives) tend to be fairly savage by current LA standards, what with all the pegasus rape and hunting and whatnot, but don’t worry. Traditional hunters and fantastical pegasus rapers thank the pegasuses and dead animals for allowing themselves to be oppressed, and they make sure not to let any dead animal parts go to waste, which they certainly did/do out of an au courant, Stuff White People Like sense of moral duty rather than basic necessity. (Just ask any foodie.)

Cameron’s conception of “traditional cultures” is nearly as nonsensical as his idea of what’s wrong with American culture and his suggestions for how we might reach a utopian neo-primitive future. Sec-Ops and RDA Corporation are obvious, although clumsy, stand-ins for the US military-industrial complex and its ties with big oil, and the blue fuckers and their USB network clearly represent “traditional cultures” and their purportedly closer relationship with the biosphere, but what is the point? I suppose it’s not terrible that Cameron is trying to sell an anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, pro-conservation message to people who are too dumb to have arrived at such ideas on their own, but I doubt it will be effective. In the first place, the blue fuckers only end up defeating Sec-Ops by praying to their goddess, Eywa, to intervene on their behalf. What is the take-home message? That we should pray to some hot goddess that the military-industrial complex and rapacious corporations won’t succeed in destroying the Earth? That we should all get together and chant in order to bring about world peace and humanity’s harmony with nature? Is there even one person who wasn’t already convinced that imperialism, war-mongering, and environmental destruction are bad that has been swayed by twinkly special effects? I sincerely doubt that CGI can do a job that hundreds of far greater intellects than James Cameron’s have been working at for decades (if not centuries), and it’s fairly offensive that people are claiming he’s breaking any new ground. It’s also pretty snicker-worthy that Cameron is attempting a criticism of exploitative capitalism when he’s carved out a place for himself as the world’s most commercially successful film producer by exploiting and reflecting (and thus abetting) the stupidity of the public in order to enrich himself.

The effects are unadulterated eye candy and do nothing but distract the viewer from whatever hackneyed message Cameron is attempting to beat us over the head with, and the story line and dialogue are so stupid and insulting that I would have been offended if I could have stopped laughing. Even assuming that the issues Cameron pretends to be asking us to explore still hold some ambiguity and some intellectual ore that hasn’t already been mined (they don’t), Avatar won’t prompt anyone to ponder even these picked-over concepts because it’s just too stupid. Americans might have been dumbed down by five decades of television and commercial pop music to the point that we can’t think about large and potentially revolutionary ideas anymore anyway, but even if we have miraculously retained the ability, if the media asking us to do so are insults like Avatar, forget it. There is no room in a philosophical work of cinematic art for manipulative schmaltz, one-liners, video game graphics, tits, or ridiculous inter-species love stories. In the words of my friend Brian, “Avatar makes sure to include every single commercial emotion you could have,” and thus it manages to communicate nothing and inspire even less.

Fuck politics, women need to be making sitcoms.

19 Apr

I’m serious.

Justin sent me a link to a recent (OK, not that recent) article about Kathryn Bigelow, the first female recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (who also directed one of the greatest movies ever made — provided that you watch movies for the same reasons I do — Point Break). The article, written by Barbara Kellerman of the Harvard Kennedy School, while it did make me snort a few times, made me come to an important realization: it’s more important for women to concentrate on gaining control of the entertainment industry than politics.

But first, let’s get back to what made me snort. Kellerman, apparently a sex discrimination and objectification apologist, claims that it’s:

… not that Hollywood dislikes women. It does not: films and females have gone together since the inception of the movie business. It’s just that even now, a decade into the 21st century, Hollywood wants women in front of the camera rather than behind it.

See? It’s all good, y’all. Hollywood may not value women’s abilities, intelligence, or artistic talent, but it likes looking at conventionally “hot” ones. Why complain that there aren’t enough female Best Boys when women dominate the Interchangeable Sex Object market? Come on, now. How can Kellerman make the claim that Hollywood doesn’t dislike women when “it” only allows them to play the limited roles it assigns them, when it requires that they perpetuate its own warped ideas about womanity (I love coining new words) if they want to participate at all, when it bars them from occupying any positions within the industry hierarchy from which they might gain the power to create entertainment that depicts women as human beings rather than formulaic rehashes of the temptress, girl next door, damsel in distress, or shrew archetypes? Sounds to me like Hollywood dislikes women and wants to make sure the rest of us do, too.

And then there’s this humdinger:

[I]t would be disingenuous not to point out [Bigelow's] decades-long relationship to James Cameron, the guru behind The Hurt Locker’s most obvious competitor, Avatar, and one of Hollywood’s all time heavyweights.

The fact that they were married for a couple of years a couple of decades ago has no apparent bearing on Bigelow’s emergence as a star director in her own right. But the fact that for years Cameron has been her mentor, as well as her apparently unwavering collaborator and champion, does. It’s anyone guess whether Bigelow could have made it so far on her own, notwithstanding her talent and drive.

Oh, SNAP! So, even when a woman finally does wrest a begrudging nod from the 90028 phallocracy, we have to give a dude credit for it, “notwithstanding her talent and drive” (whatever that means)? I wonder whether anyone, when discussing the garbage James Cameron has strewn across the cultural landscape, has ever bothered to pontificate on the various personal relationships that might have propelled Cameron to his current position atop the entertainment shit heap. Probably not, since when men make use of personal connections to get ahead, they’re just savvy, resourceful go-getters. But when a woman (or anyone who isn’t a white dude) does anything other than take some kind of melodramatic Russel Crowe-esque stand against accepting help from anyone in their struggle to measure up to standards set and enforced by these nepotistic networkers (I’m practicing my alliterations in the hopes that TruTV will hire me to narrate some “shit gone awry” clip show), everyone assumes that she — because naturally, being female, she lacks any true talent or skill — must have hosed her way up the ol’ ladder of success.

Not only does Hollywood dislike women, but I suspect that Kellerman, though possibly unbeknownst to herself, might not be that big of a fan either.

Which brings me to the actual point: women need to get control of the entertainment industry (and its controlling boyfriend, the advertising industry) or else, and it ought to be our foremost goal, possibly even taking precedence over political representation. Whether we are pumped about it or not, the entertainment and advertising industries make up the bulk of our culture, and culture, though it is an excuse for nothing, does appear to underlie everything. The entertainment industry, news media included, shapes and directs public opinion on nearly everything, including and especially gender roles. We’re surrounded by the entertainment industry’s influence nearly every second we’re awake, and it probably plays a larger accumulative role in forming our ideas of self, other, and society than any other influence. If women were to gain control over at least half of that industry and its output, and if that control were to result in kinder, more sympathetic, more realistic, or just plain less hateful representations of women, the effect on our culture would be striking.

Equal representation in politics would be great, but the only way that will happen without a massive reduction in societal misogyny would be through the use of a quota system. Whatever your views on affirmative action or our purportedly individualistic and meritocratic political system, that isn’t likely and would probably lead to the kind of social backlash I’m not interested in learning the details of. It may very well be that the only way to ensure women’s interests are represented in politics is to create the kind of culture in which women’s views and political participation are seen as desirable and necessary to the functioning of society, and the only force in the world with the power and reach to propel us toward that reality is the popular media. Blogs ain’t doing the job. The corporate entertainment industry shut down any potential that the independent media efflorescence of the early to mid 90s offered. No one cares what the local booger punk band thinks. A popular entertainment media takeover by women is the only solution.

But then we’d have to rely on the kinds of women who give a shit about getting ahead in Hollywood to represent our interests to the public, you say? Yes, it’s a lesser of two evils situation, to be sure, but at least women can identify with women as human beings like themselves and would be less likely to make yet another horror movie in which young attractive women are tortured to death for the titillation of teenage misogynists or yet another boob comedy. Without looking it up, I can guarantee you a woman didn’t write or direct American Pie. Sure, I’d like to see something a little more radical than a gradual, piecemeal amelioration of women’s systemic oppression, but until I write my treatise on how to create an anarcho-communist utopia in which beer is blue and tastes like flowers and Cadbury Creme Eggs are sold year-round by peaceable means, I’ll have to stick to offering my thoughts on how to change things from within the cruel system in which beer tastes like beer and I ate my last Creme Egg last night. For now, I’ll take what I can get, and this seems possible. Just think, with a popular media that portrayed women as human beings rather than either syrupy, kissy-faced angels or conniving whores, maybe Barbara Kellerman would be able to measure women and men by the same standard and either give women credit for their achievements without disclaimers about the personal advantages they enjoyed, or call attention to the far more numerous social, economic, political, and personal advantages most men enjoy.

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Super Bowl Sunday: American football is worse for you than going to see the Will Smith produced remake of the Karate Kid. (Guest Post #3)

7 Feb

Meet Davetavius, everyone, otherwise known as Mr. Nine Deuce. We talk about football A LOT, and he, as the world’s foremost hater of University of Alabama football and the NFL in general, has some things to say about the subject:

This is a strange blog for me to write as it’s the first blog I’ve written that 1) is a bit redundant (in terms that’ll it’ll invoke past subject matter specifically), 2) isn’t exactly what  I want to write about (as the retardedness of sports-culture has been well documented already here -– and I’d intended to move on towards more actually substantial material), and 3) is influenced by some degree of personal pressure.

My Alabama football blog got a lot of attention.  It got a lot of hits (for an egotistical “Let me tell you what the fuck is going down” blog), spurred some dialogue amongst the non-converted, and also managed to offend large portions of my family who stumbled upon it even though I had no intention of being anything other than an anonymous dick-headed purveyor of social criticism/faux avant-garde arrogance/passe uber-snarkism.

The simple fact is that I’d always wanted to write about University of Alabama college football.  It’d just always been such a striking phenomenon to me.  Here’s this state with so many deep complex problems incurred by the history of its Southern/geographically rural reality, so isolated from mainstream American intellectual dialogue/media exposure, so associatively rich with the quintessentially American traits of independence and rebelliousness, yet so tame, trite, and conformist in what its inhabitants chose to rally around as an expression of solidarity/identity.  The actuality of the phenomenon was spelled out loud and clear in my University of Alabama blog:  Alabamians aren’t so much enthralled with University of Alabama football as much as they want to establish a universal sense of pride amongst themselves in a way every one of its citizens can grasp and identify with.  Living in a nation where your regional history, existence, and substance is generally derided, ignored, or scoffed at generates a desire to establish a presence in which you feel like you can be recognized — and given the reality of the state of Alabama’s circumstances, it’s no real surprise that it chose to flex its collective voice through a medium through which it felt it couldn’t be ignored: nationally competitive popular sports; the political realities/complexities are generally ignored and –in the case of college football– the path to success isn’t limited so much by rules as by a desire to succeed.  My problem with University of Alabama football lies in the over-commitment of the state’s citizenry to such an essentially useless medium of self-identification.  Culture in the state of Alabama has developed around a desire to succeed in something that’s been nationally ordained as a symbol of American success, but that is essentially worthless.  So in a desire to cultivate pride, Alabama has essentially acquired for itself the reputation as being the state that cares the most about meaninglessness, which belies the inherent spirit of its inhabitants.  I could care less about college football (in fact I loathe it), but I’ve always been something of an Auburn fan simply because I know that being a fan of Auburn collegiate football in the state of Alabama is a symbol that you believe there’s more out there. And there is more out there, and while no other component of the  reality we know is as nefarious and misguided as University of Alabama college football (except for the Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men) …  the problem has very little to do with the citizenry of Alabama, and much more to do with American football’s influence and history in America.

The origin of American football was a strange morphing of rugby (a comparatively fluid — albeit equally boring — English game) and jingoistic ideas about America’s status as a violent, dominant, imperialistic power.  The first collegiate football games were essentially rugby games, but gradually became brutal manifestations of violence that Theodore Roosevelt was so mortified by (as any compassionate elephant hunter would be) that he introduced legislation via presidential mandate to illegalize the game entirely due to a garish number of fatalities and injuries in the early 20th century.  Threatened by such a real, governmental attempt to banish its very existence, football enacted certain rules that “cleaned up” the game in terms of violent egregiousness, but that turned the game into a less of an “anything goes fight to move the ball forward” into a more sanitized, stagnant war simulation.  The game inherited  the strange phenomena of “the line of scrimmage” and four “downs” (attempts)  to move the ball forward 10 yards, with each successful movement of the ball 10 yards or more over 4 downs resetting the cycle, with a game-clock from which each increment of “battle” would be subtracted from the total amount of game to be played (confusing and off-putting I know — I’ll get to that).  Thus — instead of a blatantly violent, essentially lawless melee — the sport became more of a strategic equivalent to legal war:  under the rules allowed by the laws of the game, the team which functioned most effectively would be the winner.  This proved to be enough of a deft move to  keep the fans of the original barbaric game engaged, appeal to the growing American nationalism of the day, and win even more fans as it was less obviously unseemly.  It was from here that football established itself as kind of a grassroots manifestation of American conquering pride.  Other countries played games… we played wars.

With the sport of football so lacking in the traditional fluidity, grace, artfulness, and skill associated with most other popular world sports at the time,  the appeal of the sport seemed to be limited to a certain breed of aggressive, dumb men.   But in the 1960′s the NFL capitalized on the sport’s prior appeal of violent, obedient, calculated domination by positioning itself to not only take advantage of the dawn of television as a  juggernaut, but also to shrewdly utilize  its lack of history/malleability as a game to morph its product — by rule change and amendment — into a desirable television/advertising product first and foremost.  With the possible exception of basketball, most popular world sports exist as sports in which television must operate around the parameters of the game:  the construction and tradition of the sport being created as a participatory endeavor first, essentially creates a situation where television has to work around the game to function effectively.  Some examples are: 1) In tennis, the commercials occur at tasteful breaks between games and sets, 2) in baseball, between innings, 3) in soccer, at half-time and within camera view during matches, etc.  American football is perhaps the only game on record to exist as an intentional devolution as sporting phenomenon and evolution as business/marketing idea. People rarely “play” football outside of socially loaded organizational paradigms involving a need to “obey and achieve,” and when they do it turns into a confusing amalgamation of something entirely different: kids don’t play backyard football anymore (because they’re smart enough to know there’re a billion better things to do with their time) , but when I was a kid we did… by improvisationally turning the game into something we could understand.  This was no mean feat:  professional football commentators/coaches/players/referees are frequently at a loss to explain where the game stands during a given competition because the list of rules is such a staggering combination of opacity and abundance that it’s completely acceptable for all of them to have to take breaks during games to confer and figure out what the hell is even going on.  This is a key point:  in other sports the question is about whether an infraction of the rules occurred.  Was the ball out of the play boundaries, was a foul committed by/on a player?  In American professional football, there are usually several instances per contest where no one but the referees are even  remotely confident of the legality of a play.  Are you a football fan?  Quick, what are “too many men in motion,” what is “illegal procedure,” what is an “illegal formation”?  No Wikipedia-ing allowed.  Why is football the national pastime when 99.999% of it’s followers aren’t even sure what’s going on?  Because the interest in football isn’t as a sport, but as a vessel of American consumerism and pride expressing itself through a paradigm of conformity.  The business genius the NFL realized when it began its relationship with television in the 1960′s was that nobody really cared about the sport of American football, they just cared about “rocking ass American style,” and the NFL used TV to give them what they wanted.  The uniforms were sensational — making the game’s players seem less like athletes and more like gaudy, super-heroic, violent astronauts.  The game had become perfectly suited for commercial breaks (and devolved itself into allowing more and more “official opportunities” to take them), with so many breaks in action (the average televised football game lasts 215 minutes with an average of 11 minutes of actual game activity), that a football game wasn’t very identifiable as a sporting event, but was in fact a hodge-podge of television production.  This was the key to football’s explosion in popularity during the mid 60′s and 70′s.  “You don’t like sports?  Well you don’t have to like sports to like football, because it’s not really a sport: It’s a show.”  There’s nothing essentially wrong with this superficially.  Why someone would arbitrarily decide to attach passion and commitment to meaningless games involving balls and rules is rooted in luxurious entertainment at best and willful ignorance at worst, but if there is a value in sport it’s in its ability to showcase pure competitive drama.  Every sports contest isn’t entertaining, but most do have the potential to be captivating: simply because at best, sports are a medium of showcasing human skill and creativity in a dramatic setting that is by rule uncontrived.  American football became the opposite of this.  “Don’t know what’s going on?  It doesn’t matter, here’s a promotion for NBC’s new sit-com.  Still don’t care? Wait until half-time when we’ll have interviews with the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard.  Still don’t care?  Give us a minute and we’ll have dumb beer commercials with nearly-naked, sexually available, mentally vacant women.”  In becoming a vehicle for entertainment rather than sport, American football became wildly successful by combining its appeal to aggressive American nationalism with an ability to become a pure medium for capitalist entertainment.  The effect on America has been dreary.

My Alabama football blog explored the worst case scenario effect of American football on a mostly rural level.  College football  is — by and large –  a game of rural America whose appeal to participants and supporters is to establish for themselves a nationally heard voice for their area.  I grew up mostly in the South.  The first SEC football game I went to was not only spectacular, but also the first time I ever saw national media in the same place I was.  When you think about how many people have experiences like this, it’s easy to see why college football is such a huge deal in rural areas.  When I was a kid, attending my first SEC football game in the most spectacular setting I’d ever been in with television cameras everywhere, my first reaction wasn’t to question the social health of what was going on, but to think: “This is  definitely the raddest shit I’ve ever seen in Starkville, Mississippi.”  College football is most of rural America’s connection to the rest of America, its identity as it were.  And this identity expands outward.  In most rural societies high school football is a big deal.  My little league football team was a waaay bigger deal than it should have been.  Going to football games becomes the family highlight of the week. Little girls want to become cheerleaders.  Little boys want to play football.  A few goth kids hang out at Denny’s and are called faggots.  This is rural America.  I’m not entirely stoked about it, but I understand.

What’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to understand however is the NFL’s stranglehold on America’s collective conscience.  The NFL’s marketing brilliance/shamelessness has been documented here and elsewhere, but what I don’t think I’ve ever read is the effect the NFL’s diet of pure consumerism is currently having/has had on America’s citizenry.  I don’t think there’s another entity that’s as destructive to the intellectual fabric of America.  Think about it: 1)  a sport based upon the fundamental tenets of violent, obedient, legal, physical domination is the sport of the nation even though the nation itself doesn’t entirely understand the rules of “their sport”, 2)  it’s perhaps the leader in American  propagation of misogyny as the only place for women in the sport is to exist as shiny, supportive, sex-objects, 3) it has become America’s dominant television entity by essentially offering 1 part contrived base elements of cliched-machismo with 10 parts stupid advertising.  This is America’s game.  Guess what this creates?

This is a really obvious example, but it’s perfect (it’s not like the NFL does anything that isn’t obvious).  This sums up about 99% of the NFL.  That stupid fucking commercial ran for years, with like, 10 different incarnations.  ESPN played a special updated segment of it once a week with the lyrics changed to coincide with whatever had happened in the NFL that week, the only thing remaining constant being the stupidity and misogyny.  Rural America might be aligning itself a bit unhealthily with a sport in search of community and identity, but the NFL is making the majority of the men everywhere in America completely retarded. And the effects reverberate through society.  My favorite example of this reverberation is on plane rides.  There are three types of people on plane rides: 1) those that want you to leave them the fuck alone, 2) those that want to talk to you about the NFL, and 3) those that wouldn’t mind talking to you but are afraid you’re just going to talk about the NFL.  It goes like this:  businessmen on flights are the loudest, most major airport cities have NFL teams, and the businessmen think the best way they can break the ice with you before they tell you about how responsible they are for their company’s “unit growth” is to talk about the NFL.  It’s real fucking lame.  They all speak in what my wife calls “the NFL accent,” that loud, blowhardedly presumptuous, arrogantly overconfident voice that’s frequently punctuated with self-satisfied fake laughter.  All businessmen on airplanes have the NFL accent — unless they own the plane — but the NFL accent and the NFL are everywhere.  The sweet part is that the rest of us have to deal with it.

I used to work at a bar outside of Atlanta that did 30% of its business on Sundays because all the NFL games were on different televisions and it stayed full from open to close with NFL fans.  They were nearly all the same people.  They had good enough jobs to enjoy themselves on Sunday but weren’t necessarily happy or financially secure.  They’d all moved from somewhere else because they’d heard Atlanta was a good place for jobs.  They’d come to this sports bar to watch their NFL team to support the team they’d grown up with, and be around some other people they might talk to but rarely did.  There were plenty of women there — obviously fulfilling roles as “cool wives/girlfriends” — and they seemed to be just about as into it as the men, which wasn’t much.  There were a few very loud, clownishly obnoxious men, whose ridiculousness was the only consistently entertaining feature of those Sundays.  It was the same all year round.  Every Sunday was exactly the same.  Even the playoffs were the same.  A kind of grimly depressing surrender to what they thought was supposed to be the best thing to do that day, even though it was mostly just a sad spectacle punctuated by various levels of intoxication.

But Super Bowl Sunday was different.  All the TV’s were on one game.  The volume of the game boomed over every inch of the bar.  There was excitement over the game and whatever manufactured drama had been created by the media.  Everybody talked about how they thought the half-time show would go, and discussed their opinions on Bruce Springsteen or Jessica Simpson or whoever the hell was  supposed to go on.  Excitement brimmed over the commercials as the Super Bowl has the most expensive commercials on Earth, and NFL fans are into expensive commercials like Radiohead fans are into fashionable hats.  When the game started, oohs and ahs sounded in unison.  Laughter arose throughout the bar during every dumb gag during every hackneyed commercial.  The loud buffoons were there, but instead of taking the edge off the dreariness, they actually made everyone happy.  The half-time show offered the “cool wives/girlfriends” an opportunity to voice whatever opinions they had on mass popular culture/music as the men got drunker.  I remember that no one wanted half-time to end.  No one would openly admit that they didn’t care about the game, but when the second half started, there was a tangible feeling of decline, kind of like the moment on Christmas day when all the presents are open, and the only thing left to do is play with what you’ve got.  The game winded down as did the mood of the bar.  People were still happy it was Super Bowl Sunday, but knew the end was near.  The game ended and the very drunk stayed and the not so drunk left, much the same as any Sunday, but I remembered how happy everyone in the bar had been.  It struck me that all these people just wanted to connect with something, and that for some reason they’d gotten it in their minds that that thing was supposed to be the NFL.  I didn’t know, nor did they, what they would do until the next football season.  Sure they’d follow the ridiculous things NFL fans keep track of during the off-season like the draft, player-signings, etc., but what they really wanted wasn’t football but a connection to something.  It was truly tragic.  I thought of college football fans’ passion stemming from regional pride and began to see more vividly than I had ever seen before that these people’s devotion to the NFL had instilled in them an emptiness they didn’t understand.  They wanted to be a part of something bigger, but had instead just become voids, trained culturally to accept advertising in the stead of meaningfulness.

The insidiousness of American football really dawned on me.  From the black Americans that associate it with success and an America they have a part in despite the marginalizing effects it has on black America at large,  from the many women that are expected to tolerate its misogyny as a part of standard American culture,  from the homosexuals who find in football’s every manifestation a sentiment of livid homophobia, from the boys and girls that grow up in rural areas thinking football’s their connection to the rest of America,  from the innocent television viewers that think football’s the heart and pride of America, and from the throngs of the slightly askew for which football’s conformist hegemony of homogeneity establishes a de facto existence of ridicule, American football has negatively affected the lives of the overwhelming majority of its citizens.  It’s Super Bowl Sunday today.  Start the rebuilding process and watch the Karate Kid Part III instead.  Let the healing begin.

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Super Bowl Sunday: Quit being a bitch. The game’s on! (Guest Post #1)

7 Feb

Meet my friend LJS, everyone. I might have made it through my entire life without knowing of the existence of the Lingerie Football League were it not for her. I could be mad at her for that, but I’m not because her description of the LFL, along with some conversations I’ve had with others about football over the past few months, led me to the decision to do this whole Super Bowl feature in the first place. And the thousand-mile journey to the amelioration of football’s negative effects on women and society begins with one  football mega-feature on a radical feminist blog. Naturally, I asked LJS to write about the LFL and her view of sports culture:

If you are anything like me, there is nothing more exciting than the thrill of the football season’s first kick-off.  It signals the beginning of 17 weeks of Sundays filled with sweaty men playing a game that I not only have no control over, but didn’t contribute to in any way.  Which doesn’t stop me from yelling like I’ve won the lottery every time “my team” scores and referring to them as “we.”  And of course there is the anticipation of the camera pan to the scantily clad cheerleaders smiling brightly like a shiny row of botched lobotomy victims.  But I sometimes find myself thinking, as I am sure that we all have from time to time, “You know, this game is pretty good, but like I like my beer cold, my pork barbequed, and my chips with dip — I like my women objectified.”  I mean REALLY objectified.  Sure you have your cheerleaders jumping around in bikini tops and micro-minis in between snow flurries, and sure you have your beer commercials that cater to a 15-year-old male fantasy, but that just doesn’t take it far enough for my tastes.  What if we replaced the players with the cheerleaders?  Then we could dress them in bikinis to play a contact sport, because clearly their “safety” isn’t a top priority, and give the teams names like the San Diego Seduction, the Philadelphia Passion, and the Los Angles Temptation.  Blatant and unapologetic degradation of the players would ensue.  I mean, c’mon, you women knew what you were getting into when you were born with vaginas, right?

Fortunately for everyone out there that was nodding their head at the very thought of a football league of cheerleaders, Mitch Mortaza had an idea.  Think of him as Joe Francis, founder of Girls Gone Wild, mixed with that sleazy older uncle that always used to leer at you getting out of the swimming pool.  A winning combo, I know. Ol’ Mitch is the founder of the Lingerie Football League (LFL), which is now ending its 2nd season. And yes, it is exactly as described above.

Mortaza and the LFL make no apologies.  In fact, during a recent try-out session that was chronicled by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Gonzalez, Mortaza eloquently explained what he is looking for in a LFL player:

The women of the LFL need three things… confidence, athleticism and, finally, they have to be gorgeous. We’re not looking for the best athletes. We want our league to have women like Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick and Gabby Reece. They’re not the best at what they do, but they’re the most marketable. We know why men turn out.

A trip to the LFL’s official site backs up Mortaza’s statement.  The site’s content is flanked on either side by black and white pictures of two women dressed in their underwear and covered with dirt.  The woman on the right looks into the camera seductively, while the woman on the left actually has her face cut off by the edge of the webpage.  I think that is a kind of unintentional statement about the league’s overall attitude toward its players and women in general.  A half-hearted effort to “get to know” the players on the official LFL blog, LFL Unlaced (Get it? It’s a pun, right? UN-laced? Haha! The fun never stops), is another thinly veiled chance to show more pictures of the women in their underwear.  And some of it doesn’t even make sense. Okay, a picture of the player in her “uniform” I could see, or maybe even enjoying a day at the beach in her favorite G-string, but the editors at “Unlaced” are hardcore, they don’t give a fuck. A rousing expose on Chicago Bliss’s Danielle Moinet has a lead-in picture of Danielle (presumably) in a lace bra and underwear set with some black lace Madonna gloves, circa 1984, followed by a picture of her in a red bikini standing in front of what I can only assume is the industrial garage door of a commercial loading dock. Scrolling down, I kept expecting a list of her “turn-ons” (long walks on the beach, men who fart in public, and Miller High Life) followed by a pictorial of her favorite sex positions.

So who is Mitch Mortaza? Not surprisingly he started his career of douche-baggery on the low-budget reality show Blind Date.  His segment gets off to a stirring start when he lists toe rings among his turn-ons and refers to himself as a “white shark in captivity” when it comes to his dating style.  I won’t go into too much detail (you can watch it on YouTube if you need to induce vomiting), but he is exactly what you would expect from the founder of the Lingerie Football League, dayglo tan and all. Unfortunately for everyone, except maybe the poor women on Blind Date, Mortaza moved from reality dating shows to founding the yearly Lingerie Bowl that ran during half-time of the Super Bowl for the first time in 2004. Mortaza claims that he was inspired by watching all the people leave their seats during half-time at a Super Bowl game he attended and wondered if he could capture that audience somehow.  However, my bet is that it had more to do with his copy of Chicks with Balls that didn’t leave his DVD player for all of 2001 and the first half of 2002. Either way, the Lingerie Bowl got corporate backing (I’m looking at you Partypoker.com, bodog.com, and Horizon Productions) and became a relatively huge success. The popularity of the Lingerie Bowl was the spark for the woman-hating brushfire that became the LFL.

Okay, so what is the point, right? I mean, anyone with any kind of capacity for introspection, empathy, or sense of humanity can see that Mortaza is a piece of shit and the LFL is a ridiculous mockery of the personhood of women.  When I first heard of it I thought that same thing. However, after some thought, further research, and personal observation my perspective started to change.

The LFL, to me, is the culmination of privilege that surrounds men and their sports. It is not unusual for men to make disgusting and degrading comments about the women on screen while hanging out with their buddies watching their favorite football team, and often it is in front of their wives/partners/children.  But because it is in the arena of “sports” it is somehow protected.  Saying anything about it results in being labeled a “nag” or a “bitch” that is “bringing down their man time.”  Men often feel that they have a “right” to dehumanize and degrade women as long as it is in the confines of their “guy time” and that the women in their lives should have to not only be okay with it, but laugh it off while serving their buddies sammiches.  The only thing missing from the picture is the string of pearls, the 1950s haircut, and a box of Betty Crocker cake mix.  The men I am talking about are those that think they are “enlightened,” who “watch” the kids and “help” around the house (for those that are interested in the split of domestic labor among married couples with children that both work full time please see Coltrane, 2000, “Research on Household Labor: Modeling and Measuring the Social Embeddedness of Routine Family Work” for a good summary.  Yes folks, in some ways we are still living in the 1950s).  These are the same people who tuned into the Lingerie Bowl at half-time.  And I can guarantee you that they make up most of the followers of the Lingerie Football League.  They have turned in their Dallas Cowboy cheerleader calendars for Lingerie Football League trading cards and it falls under the category of “sports” and so is therefore untouchable.

I know that most of the people that read this blog won’t think that this applies to them, believe me I have read the comments sections closely, but that is not the case.  I, as a married woman with a young child, am certainly closer to this world then most of the “regulars” here (not that this describes my husband in any way), but this IS the world that we are living in.  This IS more the norm than not.  I do think that we, as feminists, should be concerned about women whose lives are dramatically different from our own.  This includes those that are in pornography, strippers, LFL players, prostitutes, mothers, and housewives.  Well, either that or we should admit defeat and turn in our feminist cards for a football and a really nice bustier.

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