Sunday, October 05, 2014

"Anita Sarkeesian Was Right"

Amazingly, I don't think I've ever blogged about video games and sexism. I suppose that I don't say much about video games, because I really don't play many of them. But it's still a bit odd, isn't it? Anyway.

You've probably heard about Anita Sarkeesian, or are at least familiar with her Tropes Vs. Women series of videos. (And if not that, you've probably noticed that the heroes and villains in most video games are men, and that women are often reduced to the role of victim, prize, or simply eye candy. Right? Right.) For her effort, Sarkeesian has been threatened with rape and murder by dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of male video game fans, who perceive the criticism of their games as personal attacks. There have been apps that simulate beating her up, attempted hacks of her Twitter and Google accounts, threats against her family, and bomb threats preceding her speaking engagements. She's had to call the police, had a case referred to the FBI for further investigation, and briefly went into hiding, recently.

Let me spell out the irony, if it isn't already painfully obvious: Sarkeesian points out that video games are dominated by narratives of masculine violence and feminine submission; her critics, who deny the veracity of her claims, demand her submission and threaten her with violence. No, really. You can't make this shit up.

Anyway, a month ago, my brothers and I attended Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. It's a geek convention - comic books, anime, and video games, mostly - and one of my brothers wore this:

A lot of people are confused by the use of the past tense.
In true geek culture mash-up fashion, the shirt is simultaneously
an homage to Magneto, whose teenaged supporters have been
known to wear "Magneto was right" t-shirts.
So, it's a thing, not a mistake.

Needless to say, I think, this shirt is about as controversial as it gets at a geek convention. A lot of people feel strongly that Sarkeesian is right or that she's wrong. And when these people who strongly feel she's right speak up and say so? They're also sometimes threatened with rape and death.

Well, some of them are threatened, at least. When an activist named Stephanie Guthrie spoke out against the 'Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian' game, she was also threatened, repeatedly and by multiple people. And so, as my brother walked around this convention with a shirt that practically begged people to threaten him with rape and death - and almost immediately posted pictures of it to Twitter and Facebook, increasing the likelihood that the right/wrong people would see it - I wondered... would this muscular, tattooed white dude get even a fraction of the same response?

So, I gave it a month. Five weeks to see whether anyone would bat an eye, whether the guys claiming that Sarkeesian was the real sexist would prove themselves equal opportunity harassers. And our friends were curious, too. Here are the first two responses to the picture on Facebook:



The finally tally on Twitter? 419 Retweets, 1264 Favorites. Two jokes that he should ask for a refund. (Though these responses were made in response to me, not him.) And one threat. And one accusation that he was being a "white knight". (That threat, by the way, hardly even qualifies. The owner of the handle bowed out after only a brief exchange - I mocked and belittled him, so he also threatened me - and the tweet has since disappeared, near as I can tell.)

My brother also told people that he received nothing but compliments - most notably from Sex Criminals artist Chip Zdarsky, aka Steve Murray - but this isn't entirely true. Sure, everyone who spoke to him complimented the shirt. What he didn't see, though, were the sideways glares and glowers, which usually only happened after he had passed by, and which I only noticed because I was sometimes walking behind him. I only saw a half-dozen or so of these, but I wasn't paying exceptionally close attention. It was clear that the shirt surprised, annoyed, and/or upset some people. It just didn't surprise, annoy, or upset them enough to say or do anything to the guy who was wearing it. (I won't explicitly speculate as to why that is. I'll leave that part up entirely up to you.)

So, the negative reactions were there. They just weren't particularly loud or threatening or... anything, really. Just deafening silence.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2: Yes, You Can Reasonably Make an Electric Boogaloo Joke


But TL;DR? ASM2 wasn't very good. Looked pretty, though.


And that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so good on screen together? They should hook up in real life, or something. And that's all the good, right there.


Seriously, this is an unerringly dank and depressingly film. And in the moments where it's not? It's just wrong. Having Peter bound up to the stage, with all this attitude and swagger, and then kiss Gwen in front of everyone? You can call that guy Peter Parker, but that's not Peter Parker.


I mean, it's also about responsibility and doing the right thing because you're screwed either way. Or, at least, that's what it's about when Peter Parker is recognizably Peter Parker. Which he wasn't. So it really wasn't about those things. It was about "hope". Except, like I said in that tweet, it wasn't really about that, either. Even though it claimed to be.


Arrgh. Sooooo miserable. Who did they make this for? People who thought that The Dark Knight was too much fun? Who wished that Spider-Man's battles should probably be as needlessly destructive as Superman's in Man of Steel?



Electro is up there with Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face for Absolute Worst Super-Villain in a Film. Remember this?:


Electro is a clownish, unbelievable character (is he some kind of thinly veiled shot at Spider-man fanboys? could it actually be any more mean-spirited?) with an equally unlikely transformation into Spider-man's biggest enemy.

And Harry? The less said, the better. There's just nothing there. He gets an intro, a meeting, a conversation with Peter, a conversation with Spider-man, and then he turns evil. And that sounds like a lot, but it's pretty much 5 minutes in total. And do we even have the chance to care? No, no we don't. Because the Peter and Harry relationship is built on their memories of stuff that we never saw and comes as a complete surprise. But we're still supposed to feel something when Peter refuses to help him and Harry gets really, really, unreasonably angry?


Who's the real star of this franchise? Sally Field. I mean, Garfield and Stone are good when they're given very little to work with - the story is awful, and Peter is just awful, so it works best when they aren't trying to advance the story - but Sally Field is great and Aunt May is great.


Sigh.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Why Rob Ford's rehab - if it's even occurring - will fail

I've recently decided to embrace the uncommonly-used genre of the tweet-essay. Here's an effort from earlier today. It may work as something that I can translate to the blog, it may not. (The latter would be unfortunate, though, since I otherwise can't find time to work on my blog.)

Anyway, the context here is that Rob Ford took leave from his job as Mayor of Toronto and hopped on a plane, ostensibly to report to rehab. But then he was turned back at the border. His lawyer and brother claim that he's in rehab, somewhere, but we really don't know. And have no reason to believe them, frankly.

Where's Rob Ford? Find him!










Friday, March 28, 2014

Daryl Dixon and the phantom menace of his turn to the dark side

Eventually, I'll stop beating up on AMC's The Walking Dead. Eventually. Probably when it's over.

In the meantime, I want to use the last episode to pick out one of the things that show routinely does wrong. And my example is Daryl's most recent character arc. (arrrr! thar be spoilers ahead.)


So, in the season's penultimate episode, we see Daryl slowly (though unintentionally) ingratiating himself to "the marauders" and warming up to their leader, Joe. For the majority of the story, he struggles against their medieval philosophy of discipline and punishment, refuses to participate in their ethic of "claiming" ownership of property, and tells them that he's only traveling with them temporarily. That is, until Joe kills Len, the marauder who had been giving Daryl a hard time. Daryl resists the urge to cover Len's body with a tarp (oh, he's so cold!) and, later, symbolically joins the marauders by claiming a strawberry bush. The ostensible pay-off for this story is that, simultaneous Daryl's act of assimilation, we realize that the marauders are tracking a man who killed their friend. Dramatic irony alert: that man is Rick.

Now, I'm not going to complain at length about how clichéd the marauders are. Because, of course: grizzled, bearded murderers who exist in a state of nature, looking like the stock end-of-the-world bad guys that populate every narrative in this genre. (see: WaterworldThe RoadChildren of Men, etc.) And Jeff Kober, as Joe, has been type-cast with hilarious predictability. So, I'll complain that it's unimaginative, but, yes, not at length.

What I want to complain about is how hilariously unconvincing I find this ham-fisted attempt to create drama and tension. We're supposed to believe that Daryl is already falling-in with this new group, both socially and, I guess, emotionally. That's he's reverting to type. That he might not be loyal to his previous group. That the way he cared for Beth (as well as the rest) is, I suppose, easily forgotten. And, most importantly for the season finale, that he might turn on Rick.


Ugh. Really?

No, really? This is how you elevate the stakes for the end of the season, by having us wonder whether one of the most fiercely loyal characters in the series will turn? Remember, this was the guy who defended his asshole brother in spite of his asshole-ishness, who diverted a horde of zombies from Beth's direction by pinning himself in the basement with almost no weapons, and who has made a habit of saving pretty much everyone with little regard for his own safety. This was a guy who, at the beginning of the season, found purpose as the community's provider and protector. And this is a guy who is, at this point, so unquestioningly one of the good guys that we ask questions like 'will he hook up with Carol or Beth?', not 'will he turn out like his brother?'

Sure, he's also surly and reactionary, but he's also one of those rogues with a heart of gold. (Which the series has seen fit to establish again and again. And again. And again.) And we're supposed to believe, even for a second, that he'd forget all of that so easily?

The only tension here is whether the show's own bad writing might turn an otherwise implausible (or nigh-impossible?) storyline into a groan-inducing reality.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

AMC's The Walking Dead and the many ways in which it *ahem* bites

With the return of AMC's The Walking Dead, this week, here are my much-delayed but eagerly-awaited (or not!) reflections on why the show is terrible, and how it manages to screw up everything that the the comic does right. (Be warned! I will probably end up spoiling stuff.)

[A quick note: This is not to suggest that the comic is perfect, by any means. The prison arc drags and, more recently, characters have a habit of monologue-ing in such a way that I have to think Robert Kirkman is hoping to make some sort of serious social commentary that's well beyond his ability. But still, it's much better]

1) The Walking Dead are supposed to be the people, not the zombies



The show's biggest failing is that it thinks the zombies are the stars. It can't go an episode without a zombie sneak-attack, and it makes a zombie encounter part of every story. To pull some examples from this season:
  • The story about the flu, while ostensibly serving as some sort of banal contrast and reminder of the dangers of the everyday, devolved into just another surprise zombie rampage.
  • The visit to the grocery store was interrupted by bunches of zombies falling inexplicably from the ceiling. (I say 'inexplicably' not because it doesn't make sense that the roof is sagging, but because it appears they had been there for months, and somehow none of them had previously managed to fall through the roof)
  • Though it was understated, even Rick and Carol's half-decent foraging episode was interrupted by  zombies who carried away and ate the new people. (But even I'll admit that this was done with impressive restraint.)
  • In the latest episode, Carl is nearly bitten not just once but twice by zombies who either snuck up or sprang out from behind a door, both of which are lazy tropes that the show relies on with alarming regularity.
In the comic, the zombies have been largely reduced to background pieces that do little to move the plot forward. When they gather en masse, it's to serve some sort of symbolic purpose.
  • The zombies flood the prison as an after-effect of the battle with The Governor, not because he deploys them as a weapon. 
  • When a zombie herd pushes through the walls that surround Alexandria, it follows a gun-fight with outside bandits and parallels an internal struggle for the right to lead the town. When Rick is finally installed as leader, the town finally learns how to keep the zombies out.

It's not that the zombies disappear or are rendered harmless, but nor are they aggressors or malevolent. Rather, the zombies of the comic appear as a consequence of human folly - the wrath of god, a force of nature, a critique of social relations given undead form, or however you choose to explain it. And so there's a subtle moral element to it, too, at least in the past few years. Not that any particularly person deserves to be attacked by a zombie, mind you, but that we, more generally, have brought this upon our selves - and we're running out of chances.

2) Pacing

A friend of mine defended the story arc in the first half of this season by way of claiming that it was about the difficulty of re-establishing society. Which, if it were true, would've been great. Instead, having only just established the prison community in the previous year's season finale, this year's season premiere immediately introduced a mystery illness to destroy it. Number of full episodes spent showing that it's not all about the zombie attacks: 0


By contrast, the comic book spent dozens of issues in the prison and plenty of time showing that inter-personal conflict and power struggles were far more deadly than anything outside the walls. What my friend claimed/hoped the show was doing? That's what the comic book actually did. If you're going to make a show about humanity after the apocalypse, it probably behooves you to slow down and establish that they can still interact with other human beings.

3) Choreography that would make a pro wrestler blush

Again, the lazy tropes. There's a difference between the effective use of horror conventions and the poor use of them. While I expect the disorienting close-up or extreme that shields our view from a surprise, I expect what follows to be an actual surprise. When Hershel stepped slowly past a body in a dark prison corridor, I knew it would bite him. When, in the second season, Lori went after Rick in a car, I was reasonably sure that she would crash. When she held up a map and took her eyes off the road, I knew there would be a zombie in the way when she looked up. And that she would swerve. And that she would crash.

And when, earlier this season, Rick was outside the prison and got pinned against the fence, the camera angle suggested that someone was going to sneak up, unseen, from behind to save him. So, Daryl did just that:


It's one thing to anticipate a surprise, but to know exactly what that surprise will be? That's not a surprise at all. It reduces the anticipation to an expectation, and robs the scene of tension or excitement entirely.

4) The physics of sound

When they're off-screen, the zombies are remarkably quiet. Like, sooo quiet. But when they're on screen, they're incredibly noisy - gnashing and moaning and gurgling and growling.

But, you're saying, it's just that they're quiet when there are no humans around - obviously, they get noisy when there's meat in their presence.

Except, that's not what I'm saying at all. I literally mean that it's a matter of whether the camera can see them or not.
  • When, in the season premiere, the group arrives at a grocery store, the scene is totally silent. But, as the camera pans up, we see and hear dozens of zombies on the roof. (Which puts that whole 'the zombies are normally quiet' theory to bed.) Now, I'm not at all certain whether the humans would've heard the zombies, but it's pretty silly that the zombies fail to hear the humans approach - especially since their hearing is acute enough to hear a crash from within the building.
  • When Meghan is attacked in the Governor's RV camp, it is doubly ridiculous. Not only is it shot from directly in front, which immediately gives away the eventual zombie attack, but the zombie that she finds is standing totally stationary behind a bed sheet, of all things. A bed sheet that could, ostensibly, block both the sound of the zombie from ours and Meghan's ears, as well as the sound of the community from the zombie, who was turned in the wrong direction and thus oblivious to their presence. Dumb.
  • And the most egregious example, from the end of the second season, is when Dale is standing in an empty field - which we know to be empty because the establishing shot was from a distance. Yet, somehow, a zombie swiftly and totally silently sneaks up from behind him. Which is even more impressive because the field is, itself, totally silent. Until, of course, Dale turns around and the zombie appears on camera, its mouth all frothy and gurgling. Because, of course.

5) Rick

In AMC's version, everyone hates Rick. He's a reluctant leader who's largely incapable of making decisions, wracked by self-doubt and guilt. This might be a fine archetype to employ in literary fiction, but in the hands of lesser writers, Rick is simply annoying.


The problem is, the TV version of Rick is only a small fraction of a full character. Like AMC's Rick, the comic book version of Rick also has a period of self-doubt where he's paralyzed by guilt. But that's not how he begins, and that's not where he's been for a long time.

In the first few years of stories, Rick is instead characterized by a survive-at-all-costs ethos, an angry-at-the-world recklessness, and is intensely protective of his family. Just like TV's Shane. (The comic's Shane died after only a few issues - killed by Carl, rather than Rick.) And, in the comic, he finds some solace in rejecting his responsibility to others and disappearing for days at a time, setting out alone on his motorcycle like some sort of post-apocalyptic cowboy. Like TV's Daryl. (The comic has no Daryl.)

6) Didn't we see all this before? This is what passes for character development?

When the previous season ended, The Governor wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down. When The Governor returned at the midpoint of his season, he wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down.

Ugh.



In between, we were given two episodes that demonstrated how a shattered Governor rebuilt himself in order to become the exact same person he had been before, with a more or less identical purpose - he replaced his old community with a new one, regained his leadership role, even managed to find a new daughter. And this all served what point, exactly?

7) How gender influences your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse

I haven't fully developed this point in my head, and it deserves a longer, fuller discussion. But regardless, it's something that needs to be covered. (That I've put it number last on my list isn't an indication of priority. Instead, it's an indication that it's the least rigorously formulated.)

One of the interesting tropes in The Walking Dead comic is the clash of male egos and its catastrophic consequences. Shane nearly kills Rick before the first story arc is complete; Rick and Tyreese nearly kill each other; Rick and The Governor destroy one another's homes; a group of cannibals become a particularly unsubtle metaphor for the direction that this is all heading in. The group's most brazen and direct actions also tend toward disaster: Shane pulls a gun on Rick and Carl shoots Shane in the neck; Rick's first confrontation with the Governor is memorable for Rick getting his hand chopped off; Tyreese's pre-emptive strike against Woodbury results in his capture and execution; Rick's first encounter with Negan ends with Glenn's murder.

Consciously or not, there is a clear and obvious indictment of hegemonic masculine aggression, ambition, and hubris. But this is also a violent story with characteristically violent consequences, so all of this might seem rather unconvincing and lazy - characters die all time, most of those characters are men, and it's easy to link any one death to any one man's reckless actions.

So, let's try this, instead: apart from the characters who were introduced in the current storyline of the comic, only one man who claimed any kind of leadership role is still alive: Rick.
  • Shane, who led the RV group before Rick arrived, is dead.
  • So is Tyreese, Rick's other early competition for leadership of the original group. 
  • And Hershel, who stepped up when Rick and Tyreese were trying to kill each other.
  • Glenn was also among the group that tried to replace Rick. Also dead.
  • Douglas, who preceded Rick as leader of Alexandria. 
  • Spencer, Douglas' son who plotted to replace Rick, is murdered by Negan. 
  • Gregory, who leads The Hilltop, is also killed by Negan.
  • And the bad guys, too, like The Governor and whoever led The Hunters. It's only a matter of time until Negan dies.

Now, it's not like women don't take risks or don't die. The comic book version of Carol kills herself. (Carol is the one major exception to the general rule that the comic does everything better. But even though it seems inevitable that she'll return to the show, the way they wrote her out was awful. And just reinforces the fact that Rick is a dick.) Lori and Judith are killed in the Governor's attack, which ultimately reduces them to a story function - the cost of Rick's pride.

[Quick aside, though. The female characters on the TV show? Some great steps have been taken to build them up into strong, independent people. But there's a reason that half of the early TWD memes relished in point out how annoying they were.]

But Andrea and Michonne have survived capture and physical abuse, and have grown into leadership roles rather than having taken them by force. Necessity plays a role, too: when Gregory gives his allegiance to Negan, a disgusted Maggie effectively takes command of The Hilltop.

And this is hardly an argument for some wildly different form of feminine leadership. Michonne is no less hot-headed and independent in the comic than she is on the TV show, and Andrea is remarkable for her level-headedness and killer instinct. Maggie probably most closely resembles a recognizable feminine trope, having become something of a mother bear to Carol's daughter.

Rather, it seems to be an argument for leaders who don't aspire to hold power but earn it and will take it when they must; fighters who don't seek fights but will fight when they're backed into a corner. As it happens, these sorts of characters are all women.


Women who, I should again add, have taken very different paths and achieved very different outcomes. It's not as if the book recommends one particular way of surviving the zombie apocalypse, even if it seems to suggest that, yes, that one other particular way leads unavoidably to death.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Michael Sam and the talk about draft value

Yesterday, Michael Sam, a college football player who intends to enter the NFL draft in May, told Sports Illustrated that he's gay. It's being described as "outing", but Sam's sexuality was no surprise to his college team, whom he informed in August, and apparently "only two or three [NFL teams] didn't know" beforehand.
 

Now, the fact that this is news - that Sam would be the first out player in the history of the NFL - is obviously indicative of heterosexism. That all of the coaches, scouts, and such interviewed by Sports Illustrated confirmed that this would be a problem, that it would be a distraction to the team and hurt his own prospects is also unsurprising, and also an explicit admission of widespread homophobia. But these are not surprising findings in North American sports, even if they're still upsetting.

As recently as a year ago, baseball's Torii Hunter was saying that having a gay teammate would be "difficult and uncomfortable", and the comment - while widely criticized by media-types - was basically a non-issue among people who are actively involved in the sport. Or in all of North America's big four sports, for that matter. The NBA's Jason Collins, a mediocre player nearing the end of his career, came out in spring 2013 and has been unable to find any more work. The NFL's Chris Kluwe, considered more-or-less average among punters, became an outspoken advocate of gay marriage and critic of its enemies and he, too, has been unable to find a job.

That the NBA's only out gay player and pro sports' most vocal straight ally find themselves unemployed is not evidence of a conspiracy, but it's reflective of this fact, at the very least - homophobia is deeply entrenched in the culture of sport.


What makes things more interesting for Sam, though, is that he's not on the verge of retirement, (like Collins) nor does he play a relatively marginal position that's rather easy to replace (like Kluwe). Rather, Sam is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year - not just the best at his own position, but judged the very best among all players on defense among the 14 team, Division I Southeastern Conference.

So, if Sam is going to be punished for his admission, it might be useful to look at how former Defensive Players of the Year have been treated by the NFL draft:

2012 - Round 1, Pick 17 - Jarvis Jones, Linebacker
2011 - Round 1, Pick 6 - Morris Claiborne, Cornerback
2010 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Patrick Peterson, CB
2009 - Round 1, Pick 8 - Rolando McClain, LB
2008 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Eric Berry, Safety
2007 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Glenn Dorsey, Nose Tackle
2006 - Round 1, Pick 11 - Patrick Willis, LB
2005 - Round 2, Pick 33 - Demeco Ryans, LB
2004 - Round 1, Pick 17 - David Pollack, LB
2003 - Round 5, Pick 142 - Chad Lavalais, Defensive Tackle
(previous to 2003, a single Player of the Year was named, which included offense and special teams)

Even with the inclusion of 2003's outlier, that's an average of 25th pick. And Sam? The various sources I've looked at were guessing, even before the public announcement, he could go anywhere from 3rd to 7th round - the vicinity of Lavalais, the outlier, rather than the norm. Following the announcement, the consensus seems to be that he'll go even lower. That is, if he's drafted at all.

Now, Sam is considered small for his position, (he's 6'2", while DEs tend to fall in the 6'3"-7" range) which is a criticism that unavoidably, and reasonably, damages his draft value. Doug Flutie, notably, won the Heisman Trophy and was named the best player in college football, only to be drafted in the 11 round and 285th overall. So, these things matter, and it's entirely possible that he'd fall outside the first round, controversy or no. But now we're suggesting that he would likely be the lowest-drafted SEC Defensive Player of the Year, ever? That he could, conceivably, go undrafted unless a team with "a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach" can "make [it] work"? (We could spend hours peeling back the layers of the language that executives have used to describe Sam. Likewise, in discussing how cowardly it is that they've all hidden behind anonymity.)

This makes it sound like we're talking about someone who is intentionally divisive, who makes his sexuality central to his public persona. You'd think we were talking about someone who wears political messages on the field, who makes controversial remarks to media, who very openly and often talks about his sexuality, and whose media profile creates a conscious "distraction." Someone like, say, Tim Tebow.

And for what it's worth? Even with that baggage and similar concerns that his game wouldn't translate to the NFL, Tebow was picked 25th.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brief thoughts on a Conservative anti-drug radio spot

From a Conservative Party of Canada radio ad:
"There's so much I worry about as a mom. Justin Trudeau's plan to make marijuana legal certainly doesn't help. Imagine, making it available just like alcohol and cigarettes. He's sending the message that recreational drug use is okay."

Simply put, this is a terrible ad. Not just because it's cheesy and melodramatic (there's a minimalist piano backing track) but because it strikes me as both internally contradictory and totally wrong about its facts. To wit:

1) There's an implication, here, that we can/should send the message to kids that alcohol and cigarette use "is okay". I don't know if that was the intention, but it's the effect. Grouping these three "recreational drugs" together only really makes sense if you're suggesting that they should all be treated in the same way. If you aren't, it all looks a bit arbitrary.

2) If pot were available in the same way that booze and smokes are available, it would actually be harder for kids to buy. One of the things that makes pot so readily available - or, at least, made it really accessible when I was a teenager - is that the market is entirely underground. Thus, the only barrier for buyers is knowing someone who's selling. And when you're 18, finding another teenager at your school who's selling is a lot easier than finding someone who can buy stuff at a store.




Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dangerously early guesses and questions about The Triple Package

Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom author, is back with a new book, co-written by her husband. And it looks like it will be unintentionally racist and blissfully unaware of social theory.

The Triple Package comes out next month, but it's easy enough to get a sense of its argument. Some "cultural groups" are more successful than other cultural groups, and this has to do with three values - a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control - that those successful cultures share. The specific groups, they revealed in an interview with Yahoo, are Mormons, Cuban exiles, Nigerian Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, American Jews, Iranian Americans and Lebanese Americans.


Now, since it isn't out until February, I obviously haven't read it. And I don't know that I will ever read it. Because it sounds plain dumb. But, rather than claim to know what it's done wrong, I'll ask some questions that are prompted by what I have seen:
  1. Who came up with the eight "cultural groups", and how? The categories they've defined throw up some red flags. Some of her "cultural groups" are defined by religion, others by political status or country of origin, but categorical ambiguity isn't, itself, necessarily problematic - it's realistic, because that's how we self-identify. But I wonder whether the members of the groups would identify first as "Mormon" or "Lebanese", or about the particular contexts within which they'd do so. And with this kind of work, it is hilariously easy to create a homogenous group where none exists, to group people together based on your perception of their similarity, rather than on their own perception. Neither of the authors are trained sociologists, so it'd be interesting to see whether their methodology accounts for those sorts or risks.
  2. What role in their success do you attribute to American society? I don't see any indication that they're accounting for American society as a whole, much less the dominant ideologies that define success. Even if we concede, for argument's sake, that the American socio-economic system rewards these three values, the orientation feels wrong - why look at who is successful, rather than those systemic features that enable their success?
  3. That is, what about capitalism and racism? Or, put another way, you can't do this analysis without explicitly addressing the roles that capital and race (that is, whiteness) play. I don't see any mention of either of those things in the blurb on the site. For instance, your proximity to whiteness matters - there's a reason that the two white groups (alright, "Jewish Americans" are a bit more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be concise) aren't defined by their geography or nationality - it's because race matters, and the white groups aren't marked by visual difference from the American norm. Which is to say, I think it's difficult to argue that the same thing is happening to and within these groups.
  4. How is this disproving the existence of the model minority? The blurb on the site says that successful immigrant groups become less successful over time, and this disproves the model minority theory. But this looks like a misunderstanding of what a model minority is and does. The model minority is not a person or people so much as a function within in a society. It describes minority figures or groups whose success legitimates the system ("If a schlub like me can make it, anyone can...") and its unequal treatment of populations within that society ("...which means you just didn't try hard enough, you leech."). And it actually makes sense that a given group would lose their model minority status and another gain it - because that function doesn't belong on any one minority, and it'll shift. Chinese Americans have existed for 200 years; they've only been model minorities for the past few decades.
  5. When looking at immigrant communities, how did you avoid selection bias? I think there's probably a pretty simple explanation for why some of these groups are, on the whole, disproportionately successful. The blurb notes that Nigerian immigrants have a lot of PhDs, which strikes me as pretty common sense, given how immigration works. There's a selection bias at work: only the best are allowed to come to the country, so we'd expect them to do well. (And we'd expect their kids to regress to the mean.)


Ironically, I get the sense that this book, while claiming to disprove the model minority, is actually telling us what a model minority is, and who fits that definition, right now. Which would make it kind of useful, right?

Again, haven't read the book, and probably won't unless someone gives it to me and I'm struck by a mood. But, then, everything I've seen has me thinking that it probably isn't worth my time. Or yours.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

If you're gonna name your team after real people, at least do it right

We live in a world with NFL teams like the Washingtons* and MLB teams like the Clevelands*, that celebrate a tradition of white settler racism. A world where most sports fans lie somewhere on a spectrum from oblivious to indignant, mascots are unrepentantly racist, and owners have dug in their heels in defense of horribly offensive "traditions".

[* That's right. I refuse to use their chosen names. More on that below.]

That being the case, it seems important to celebrate the teams that do it right. Teams like the Spokane Indians. From Rodney Harwood of the Indian Country Today Media Network:
"In 2006, the baseball team’s front office and the tribe collaborated to come up with a team logo not only saying Spokane Indians in English, but developed a team logo printed in the Salish language, which was depicted on the sleeve of its uniforms.

"The Spokane Indians baseball team will take that collaboration one step further, making the logo in the Salish language the main logo on the front of its home uniforms for the 2014 season."

A Salish-language logo? And it's also their primary logo? That's pretty damn cool. It also addresses the obvious concern that this is a team called "the Indians". This is a word that was applied to the Aboriginal people of North America by white settlers, who misidentified them as Asian - and then didn't bother to correct themselves. It's inherently racist.

Impressively, the team is aware of this and shares those concerns - they don't use mascots, they don't have chants, none of that cartoonish crap that the Washingtons or Clevelands use. Says team co-owner Andy Billig, “We have a very positive relationship with the local tribes. We would talk with them from time-to-time to check in and say, ‘How are we doing?’ Even if we weren’t using any imagery, the name of the team was still the Spokane Indians and we knew that could potentially be sensitive. We believe that we are still the only professional sports team to collaborate with local tribes in this way.” 

The difference, with this Spokane team, is all in the collaboration and the new/old language. In making the Salish name the one that goes on their logo, with the help of the Spokane Nation, the name is effectively reclaimed - "Indians" becomes, at best, an English translation of the actual name. And an officially sanctioned nickname for the specific people that they represent. And it will surely decline in use as people familiarize themselves with the pronunciation of the Salish name.

This, by the way, is what that logo looks like:


In the past, I've always come down squarely against every iteration of the people-as-team-mascot kind of sports team. But this one, one that Spokane elders themselves say shows them respect and bring them pride? This is one that I feel pretty good about.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fluffy sports post for the end of the year

One of the reasons that I love sports is that I also love a good story. Unfortunately, sports commentary and writing is filled with awful storytelling. And rather than say anything substantive about sports writing, I'll use this as an excuse to post my two favorite jokes about it. Happy new year!

From xkcd.com



Monday, November 11, 2013

What would happen if baseball writers voted the way they claimed to vote?


This is a comment from a reader of Joe Posnanski's blog, though it could come from any number of sports writers and "traditionalist" fans: 
While a player on a losing team certainly can be MVP, that is a black mark on that player’s record. The point is to win games. While the Angels certainly won more games this year because they had Mike Trout, that value is diminished because the Angels were so bad. A lot of that is beyond Trout’s control, and certainly the play of the rest of the team does not diminish his contribution, it does diminish that contribution’s value. If Trout plays for the Astros is he MVP? If Miguel Cabrera’s performance is slightly below Trout’s, but he helps push the Tigers into the playoffs, isn’t that more valuable?

So, now that you've considered the situation as a hypothetical, I can fill-in the specifics that were probably obvious to everyone who's a baseball fan. Excellent Player and Mediocre Team are Mike Trout and the Angels, while Incredible Player and Good Team are Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers.

Now, I'm copy-and-pasting this not to rehash the same discussion that happens every year, among everyone who writes about baseball. Because that would be really, really tedious. Instead, I want to a somewhat different approach.

The logic expressed in that quote goes something like this: you can't be MVP unless your team made the playoffs. Rather than argue the point, I'm going to accept it. Because, hey, your criteria is your own. You want to constraint the meaning of "value" such that it can only refer to players on playoff teams? Sure.



Here's the thing, though. Whatever definition you use, you have to be totally consistent in its application. Display some integrity. Establish your criteria, and then follow it.

That doesn't sound all that hard, does it? The thing is, in practice, the folks who add this playoff stipulation are rarely consistent. Writes baseball blogger Murray Chass,
When I voted for m.v.p., I didn’t look for any definitions because there aren’t any. Each voter has the freedom to decide for himself what “most valuable” means. To me, it means the player without whom his team couldn’t have done what it did. I always felt that the greater number of outstanding players a team had the less valuable each of those players was.
If I were voting this year, I’d find it hard to ignore Cabrera. He led the league in batting, on-base and slugging percentages, the combination of the two and batting with runners in scoring position. He was second in home runs, total bases and runs batted in, tied for second in runs scored and third in hits and walks. And don’t forget, he led his team to a division title. Would the Tigers have won it without him? No.

Chass' first criteria is that the "team couldn't have done what it did" without that player. It's badly expressed, but I take that to mean "a player without whom the team wouldn't have made the playoffs". That seems more or less confirmed by his subsequent argument in favor of Miguel Cabrera. And, sure, his selection of Cabrera for American League MVP totally fits with that logic. The Tigers won the division by a single game, and Cabrera was inarguably the best player on the team. Good job.

But there's a problem, and it arises when Chass starts talking about the other league's MVP:
In this instance, I think I would be tempted to vote for Goldschmidt, but the only race his team, Arizona, was involved in after June was a race for .500. With McCutchen providing the spark, Pittsburgh was in the division race to the end and maintained its wild-card lead.

Say, what? Inexplicably, right after explaining his criteria, Chass does the exact opposite of what he said he would do. Yowza. (Unless he sincerely meant that he could define "did what they did" in totally arbitrary ways, like "finish around .500". Which I can't believe he actually meant.)

Now, obviously, human beings often don't make sense. They set one standard, then vote according to another. This probably shouldn't be surprising, but it'd be nice if these voters - who are paid to do work like this, even if only indirectly, because a) they get to vote because they're sports writers, and b) they subsequently get to write about this news, which they themselves have made - were consistent in some way, right? And if they were, what would actually happen? Well, let's play pretend.

First, any NL MVP discussion would have to immediately exclude players from non-playoff teams. Legitimate MVP contenders from non-playoff teams, guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Gomez, or Troy Tulowitzki? Sorry, Chass, they're all out.



Second, and maybe more controversially, you also have to exclude every player who comes from a team that would have won their division/wildcard without that player. Atlanta and LA, for example, both won their divisions by ten or more games - no single player comes close to making an individual contribution that could account for that gap, so Clayton Kershaw and Freddie Freeman (among others) are also out. Kershaw's a favorite for MVP, so that one especially hurts.

Following this logic, then, an AL MVP ballot looks something like this: Cabrera, Donaldson, Scherzer, Sanchez, Longoria, Ellsbury, Victorino, Zobrist, Beltre, Verlander. (The arrangement might vary, but the players should be largely the same.) 

You might notice a few auspicious absences. Dustin Pedroia, like Kershaw, is excluded not because he's not one of the ten best, but because the Sox probably make the playoffs without him. So, not an MVP candidate. Trout, Robinson Cano, Chris Davis, and Felix Hernandez are all disqualified because their teams miss the playoffs with or without him. No one actually wants to see a ballot like that - you're excluding way too many of the league's best player - but that's the price of being consistent, right? Right. Good work, everyone.

The odds that we'll ever see a ballot like that, though? Well, it's not zero. But it's somewhere close to it.

Because here's the thing. The guys like Chass, who say that you should need to be on a playoff team? Mike Trout is probably their second or third choice. Davis is somewhere in their top five, too. And Cano isn't far behind. I don't even have to ask Chass and company if I'm right about this - I know I am. And these guys should be up for consideration, because they deserve it.
 

TL;DR: No one who espouses that whole valuable=playoffs thing actually adheres to it, because it would produce terrible results. And from that I can only conclude that they don't actually believe it, either.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

This is Canada, according to the folks that you/we elected

I want to write about two very recent developments in Canadian politics, two things that seem largely separate and unconcerned with one another but strike me as very much related. Intentionally or not, both say a whole lot about what and who counts as "Canadian" and why - even when that's not what they think they're saying at all.

So, this is the first. It comes courtesy of Quebec's provincial government, which has drafted a "Charter of Values" that would ban public servants from wearing "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols. In the picture below, the bottom two rows show what constitutes "overt and conspicuous", while the top row shows, I dunno, examples that are presumably covert and inconspicuous. Or something. Some of the differences are obviously arbitrary, others are entirely too ambiguous, while the rest are just demonstrably racist.

Seriously, what's the difference between the first and second crucifix? One's small and one's bigger, sure, but what's the dividing line? At what point does a crucifix stop being small enough? Is there a particular length, mass, or volume? And, because there must be some standard that pertains to one or all three of these aspects, what is it and how did you determine that it achieved the necessary level of "conspicuousness"? And will the religious symbol police carry rulers and/or scales?

So, yes, this is obviously not actually about banning conspicuous symbols or defending Quebecois values so much as it is about putting the Other in their place and demonstrating who belongs and who does not. It really couldn't be any plainer.

And not just who belongs in Quebec. Because there's something very similar happening at a totally different level of government, in a totally different portfolio. Just check out some of these images from our new passports:


I think I spotted at least one person of colour, in an RCMP image. And Heather Mallick with the Toronto Star says that, across all the images, men outnumber women by a ratio of 16-to-1. These are terrible oversights. But they're also clear indications of hegemonic Canadian "values" - just as much as that poster is - and, in particular, of who and what counts as Canadian. That is, of who can comfortably call themselves Canadian. And it gets worse.

You might be wondering why I started with that Samuel de Champlain image. It's because the passport images are effectively placed in a chronology, with Champlain serving as the beginning of Canada. 'But it says page six, so surely there are other pages!', you say. 'And what about Aboriginal people?', you ask? Well, they do earn a token appearance on the previous page:


But that doesn't make them the origin of Canada in the narrative that the passport is advocating, oh no. This isn't presented as history, but as prehistory. In the logic of the feds, these aren't people or meaningful events, but symbols, artifacts best kept in a museum, representing some long-extinct community. There are no names or places or dates, here, and the symbols themselves are stripped of all context and specificity, reducing them to something generalized, depersonalized, and thusly unimportant. (Is that a particular inuksuk? Is it someone's approximation of one? Is it clip-art? Apparently, the answer doesn't matter.)

To add insult to the injury, of course, these are important symbols. They just aren't accorded any importance in the passport - at least, not enough importance to bother naming them or placing them within the narrative of the nation. And so appropriately, and depressingly, Aboriginal people are also absent from the rest of the passport images.

And so the Quebec that the "Charter of Values" from the Province of Quebec imagines? It excludes the same people that the Government of Canada does with the new passport. Hilariously - because Quebecois separatists and Conservative federalists imagine themselves ideologically opposed - they appear to be describing the exact same place.

And it's a place that requires a certain degree of hypocrisy and willful blindness. Because the Conservative Government of Canada actually opposes the "Charter of Values", which is motivated at least partly (and cynically) by the need to keep their lead among "New" Canadians. Because English Canadians get to respond with smug moral superiority, even as polls suggest that nearly half of us think the ban is a good idea. Because, ironically, Quebec's government fails to notice and condemn the conspicuous religious symbols contained in their own flag.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

More signs that I've lost touch with the rhetoric of academia

Again, I'm not gonna name names and I'm not trying to point out specific journals or researchers. (Though I suppose you could Google it, if you really wanted to.) The problem of academia's hilariously inaccessible and nigh-unreadable rhetoric is endemic to the field, so I wouldn't want to make it seem like this is somehow exceptional. It's not. It just is.

So, that said, here's a call for papers on the topic of "ruins". See if you can tell what the hell they're actually talking about:

"Ruins are everywhere, yet can we be certain of exactly what they might be? Do they constitute figure or ground? How is the ruin given its figuration and from where does it garner a sense, if any, of grounding? Can we regard them as ever-changing archives? Are figure, ground, style, substance, taste, and form even significant markers when attempting to tie the study of the ruin (and ruination) to aesthetic practice?"
Now, I should add that this is for a journal on "theory and praxis". Which means, basically, that there's no particular thing that's required to ground the discussion, and you can just talk about the idea of ruins. If it sounds hilariously abstract and philosophical, that's because they're mostly looking for abstracted philosophies of ruin and ruination.

No need, then, to talk about specific ruins and the specific role that they play in, say, a particular form of national building (for example, the WTC and American exceptionalism). Or maybe how a ruin validates only a certain version of cultural memory (for example, the way the Alamo situates the white Texans as both the good guys and the victims). Nah, we'll encourage people to generalize in a way that leaves most other people wondering what it all means. Which is why successful academic journal articles are ones that get to be read by 50 other people.

Clear enough? No, probably not. Anyway...

"The ruin can, as well, be a situated, sited, and cited entity in the visual field, given an affective value or measure – historical, cultural, socio-political – structured upon the very tentative gesture of how one looks on such spatial decay. It is as much about looking and seeing – both in regards to the presence of unruly fragments and to the absence of what does not remain after, or in the aftermath of, loss – as it is about sense and perception, and remembrance and forgetting. What remains, might be a central question to consider when thinking about how the ruin addresses both loss and subsequent redemption from within the scene of this loss."
To offer a translation by way of the Insane Clown Posse: Fucking ruins, how do they work?


"Alternate to a sense of loss that the ruin might signify is this sense of the redemptive that it promises – a looking forward, as such, from the moment of the present and from within a sense of immanent presence, on to what might be materially viable and spatially ephemeral or livable. Speaking on terms that are redemptive, how, then, would the ruin be situated within conversations that concern urban and social planning, and within discussions about how architecture and architectural theory might respond to decay and it aesthetic representation? As such, urban decay, ecology, environmental reconstitution, and technological ruination add to the broader dialogue regarding how the ruin might be configured and experienced as sites of both livability and abandonment."
 Fucking ruins, how are they used?

"Furthermore, can the ruin become metaphor, especially within the scene of aesthetic practice? In a sense, spatial and architectural imaginaries might limit the capacity of the ruin to be thought differently. Can we think of it otherwise – as ruined time, as in the case of the photograph and photographic time? Or a ruin further localized to address the corporeal body and embodiment itself? Consequentially, in aesthetic practice, is it possible to resist the urge, always already existent, to convert it into fetish object?"
And now we get to the playful part, where the definitional boundary of ruin is stretched in such a way that the word is unrecognizable. That is, if it wasn't already unrecognizable. Seriously, "a ruin further localized to address the corporeal body or embodiment itself"? Why not just pose an absurdist thought-experiment and ask whether anything can be called a ruin? Ugh.

I have to admit that I like the last sentence, mostly. The deconstructionist "always already" flourish is a bit much, but I actually like 'do we have to fetishize ruins?' as a question. (My answer: Yeah, debris becomes a ruin in the first place because we fetishize the site of the debris, attach all this added historical and cultural significance to it, and turn it into something more than its parts. Without all that added meaning, it's just a pile of junk.)

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A note on academic writing, something about humor, and Poe's Law

This, from an essay about the use of humor in social work:
"Individual and particular ontological, epistemic perspectives and interpretations of the immediate and broader social world invariably have an impact on and culminate in the humour moment."

Now, I'm not saying that you have be funny in order to write about humour. (I think you should probably slip in some jokes, though, because you can totally get away with it.) But I am saying that using 20 big words when 5 little ones will do the job is the most egregiously stupid thing that you'll ever take away from a university education. Because what does that sentence say? It says 'funny is relative'.

Far be it from me to mock someone who's trying so hard to sound smart, if only because we're all trained and expected to write in this way. (And I've left out the author's name for that reason. He or she could be anyone; he or she is anyone.) But, holy shit, this is a text book example of Poe's Law - just pluck the sentence out of context and you can't tell whether this is actual academic writing or something that's intended to mock academic writing. And this is a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.



Friday, August 02, 2013

Jem and the Holograms: some songs that won't make your ears bleed!

Because we all like fluffy blogs, at least once in a while, here are my five favorite songs from Jem and the Holograms. (You might remember that I did something like this for The Muppet Show, last year.) That's right, it's a "best of" list. And it's about Jem.


Why Jem? We have all three seasons on DVD and my daughter has been consistently obsessed with it. So, I've seen every episode at least once - and some 5 or more times - and heard every song. Also, as hilariously unnecessary as it may be, Victoria and I have actually argued about which Jem songs are the best/worst/creepiest. Because that's something worth (gently) arguing about, right? Right.

Why five? I dunno, it just feels like a good, and manageable, number. I've also arbitrarily decided that I'll include at least one video from each of the three groups in the series: The Holograms, The Misfits, and The Stingers. I'm not sure that any of The Misfits' songs actually deserve to be in a 'best of' list, but it feels somehow wrong to exclude them.

One last note on the actual songs that I chose before I actually get to posting them. If you watch these and think 'hey, that's not bad', don't start thinking that the other 150+ songs aren't bad. Because they mostly are. On the whole, the music is, at best, awfully cheesy and repetitive. The songs that I'm including here are notable precisely because they're exceptional in some way - they're unlike a typical song from the series. So, it's actually a very misleading list. Anyway...

*     *     *

The Misfits - "Lovesick" (3x02)


Like I said, The Misfits aren't given much to work with. Most of their songs are generic mid-tempo rockers with fairly monotone melodies and uninspired lyrics about being infantile bad girls. The only thing interesting about them is Pizzazz's vocal delivery, which features a pretty delightful snarl. But that gets old quickly when she employs it on pretty much every song.

Anyway, I'm a bit ambivalent about including "Lovesick". On the one hand, the vocals and the lyrics are a huge departure from the usual. It's also got some really slick production and an atypically fancy video. But that novelty comes at the expense of Pizzazz's character, who is never worse than when she's shown fawning over Riot. Ugh. I might've just as easily gone with "I Like Your Style", I guess.

Jem and the Holograms - "I've Got My Eye on You" (1x03 & 2x01)


Jem songs are often bathed in romantic clichés, but rarely are they actually hot. This is one of the rare exceptions, which means that it's worthy of inclusion here. (It's relative, of course. "Hot" on a kids' cartoon can only be so hot.)

This is, by the way, the second version of this song, from the second season of the show. It also appear early in the first season, where the video made the song a bit unsettling, if not creepy. In that version, Jem sings the song to a visibly discomforted Rio, who is developing a crush on her. Which would actually be okay, because Jem is the alter-ego of his girlfriend, Jerrica. Except that she hasn't told him that. (And she never does!) So, in the video Jem is hitting on a guy who is dating someone else... though that someone else also happens to be her. Weird and unnecessary.

The Stingers - "Take It or Leave It" (3x02 & 3x11)



Every group has some duds, but The Stingers have a higher proportion of good songs to bad than either of the other two groups. The Stingers were also around for only the final, half-length season and had something like 10 songs, so that might have something to do with it. They also had the only male vocalist, so that novelty could also explain why so many of the songs aren't terrible. Maybe.

Anyway, this is the second Stingers song we hear, but it effectively serves as their introduction - they're unrepentant assholes who treat everyone like garbage and they like it that way. This song is a bit of an exception to the rule that these songs are, themselves, exceptions: it's entirely indicative of The Stingers' sound and content, and it just happens to be the best of their 'we're better than everyone' songs.

Jem and the Holograms - "It Depends on the Mood I'm In"  (1x12 & 3x09)


For whatever reason, the songs about fashion are usually better than average - the next song on this list is also about fashion.

The Holograms' songs are usually overly serious - emo music for pre-punk, pop-listening tweens, basically. But when they decide to just have fun with a song, it usually turns out okay. Or, as with this song, better than okay. "It Depends on the Mood I'm In" also benefits from being somewhat meta, and being a bit playful with the whole hologram/dual-personality conceit that, when it's addressed, is usually discussed in a really tedious manner. And it includes the trademark "truly outrageous" line, which appears in a couple other songs, too. (And is a strange slogan for a group that is neither "true" in the sense that Jem is holographic, nor "outrageous" in the sense that they're really boring. Discuss.)

The Stingers "All in the Style" (3x09)


Like I said before, The Stingers are kind of bad ass. Well, bad ass for an 80s Saturday morning cartoon, anyway. They're telling you to "catch them [people] unaware" and "make them stop and stare".  And they want you to "set the world aglow" and "radiate heat". I might have said that "I've Got My Eye on You" was hot, but this song is saying that you are hot.

It doesn't matter that, within the plot of the episode, Riot is being disingenuous - he's complimenting a designer because he wants to convince her to work for him instead of Jem. This is a genuinely smart and even empowering song, if also a somewhat cynical one about how your power is connected to your ability to capture people's attention. Still, a Jem version of this song would be full of empty platitudes while this Stingers version, at least, addresses your agency.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Andrew Garfield on Spider-man, me on Garfield's portrayal of Spider-man

This is what Andrew Garfield recently said about Spider-man and how he needs to be updated in order to remain relevant. Good points, all of them:
"...what I believe about Spider-Man is that he does stand for everybody: black, white, Chinese, Malaysian, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. He will put himself in harm’s way for anyone. He is colorblind. He’s blind to sexual orientation, and that is what he has always represented to me. He represents the everyman, but he represents the underdog and those marginalized who come up against great prejudice which I, as a middle-class straight, white man, don’t really understand so much. And when Stan Lee first wrote and created this character, the outcast was the computer nerd, was the science nerd, was the guy that couldn’t get the girl. Those guys now run the world. So how much of an outcast is that version of Peter Parker anymore? That’s my question."
 
If you've read my blog at any length, you'll know that I'm in complete agreement with a lot of this. The superhero-as-outsider metaphor has always been a bit of a stretch, given that most of the heroes are themselves white men, and that the outsider who identifies with Spider-man or the X-Men is often still white, male, middle-class. But it's become additionally problematic recently, what with the mainstreaming of super-hero culture and the generally increasing economic and political clout of geeks.


In short, Spider-man's ability to represent the underdog or the marginalized, while always a bit suspect, has become pretty much an impossibility.

The irony in these comments, of course, is that Garfield's Spider-man is probably cooler and less marginalized than any other version we've seen in the comics or movies. This is a Spider-man who skateboards, who is snarky rather than awkward, and who just oozes hipster cool. If he's an outsider, it seems like he's an outsider by choice. So even if Garfield's words ring true, his performance seems to be moving in the total opposite direction.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A quick blog about Trayvon Martin and racist non-sequiturs

So, I get a lot of emails from PR folks. Like, a whole lot. I was tempted, if I was stuck with nothing to do this summer, to actually attempt to respond to all of them, as a sort of absurdist writing project. Why absurdist? Because, for whatever reason, the PR folks who get my name are employed disproportionately by writers and politicians on the right-wing. This would not have been a sincere project at good journalism.

But why am I telling you this? Because this is arrived in my inbox a couple days ago, courtesy of the folks who rep Carol M. Swain, a Professor of politics and law at Vanderbilt:
"The people who are complaining about the Trayvon Martin verdict should turn their attention to the unacceptable levels of black-on-black violence that cripples urban communities. We should not be second guessing the jury. The jury examined the evidence and decided not to convict, despite the presence of a judge that seemed biased towards the prosecution. Folks, its time to move on to the real problems facing black communities. It's what we [black people] do to ourselves. It is imperative for the police to police in situations where disgruntled people are threatening violence over the not guilty verdict."

Wow. This is just... gross. Now, I'm not just using this blog to pick on Professor Swain. (Though I may want to use it to challenge the fact that the PR firm is representing her as a "race relations expert." Because no.) Because this is not the only time I've seen the black-on-black violence card played - I've seen it on Facebook, I've seen it in letters to the editor. But this blurb does make for an easy target, so there you have it. Carol Swain, you're guilty of deploying racist rhetoric, sure, but you're also guilty of being a convenient target, delivered straight to my inbox by the people who you're presumably paying.

I said this would be quick, so I'll try to keep it that way. This is why Carol Swain's little paragraph is, in a nutshell, emblematic of everything that's wrong with the response to the verdict in the Zimmerman case:

  • We should second guess juries. Of course we should. We should second-guess every decision that's made at every level of government, even those made by people who are effectively conscripted. It's how a responsible citizenry accords itself. It's why we're empowered as citizens in the first place. Because mistakes are made by everyone, at every level of government, all the time.
  • There's the implication that this case was a distraction - black people "should turn their attention", as if Trayvon Martin and raising awareness about racism wasn't worthy of it - from something more important. It's an insulting gesture, and it's in poor taste.
  • The "real problems facing black communities" bit is a complete non-sequitur. The Zimmerman case had nothing to do with black-on-black violence. At best, this illogical jump is opportunistic sleight-of-hand; at worst, it's purposely deceitful. She might as well have said that the real problem isn't men hurting men, but men hurting women. It would've made just as much sense.
  • Lastly, while Carol Swain is a black woman and this might strike some as unintuitive, I'd like to suggest that the argument she's making in that paragraph is also racist:
    • The first obvious implications is that black-on-black violence has nothing to do with white-on-black racism. Without going on at length, it does - the criminalblackman is a white supremacist myth that has, to some extent, created what it had first imagined. You can't solve that problem without first addressing the root cause, which is the internalization of hundreds of years of racial hate and white-on-black violence of all kinds.
    • The second second implication is less obvious, but still fairly clear. Swain's logic suggests that so long as black Americans don't value their own lives - after all, they can't be bothered with addressing the "real problems", right? - we shouldn't be surprised (or be outraged) when white Americans don't value them either. In essence, non-black folks get a free pass because she thinks the black community is worse. It's an idiotic line of thought. It's also surprisingly prevalent.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Star Trek, old and new

I saw Into Darkness a few weeks ago and just never got around to writing about it. Just before, I re-watched Wrath of Khan. Just after, I watched First Contact. So, having finally found the time to write something, I want to write about it it relation to the second iteration of each of the other two Star Trek movie franchises.

I liked Into Darkness, and I liked it for largely the same reason that I liked Abrams' first Star Trek: it was a really good Star Wars movie. Lots of stuff blew up, it was really exciting, and Cumberbatch's voice boomed with deep, sexy authority. I left wanting to jump from flying car to flying car like some genetically-modified superman. And that's just about all the response that it inspired.

This is actually from Star Trek: Insurrection, but I thought it looked hilarious.

Now, you might be thinking that my Wars/Trek distinction is splitting-hairs. And, sure, there's a lot of overlap between the franchises, especially the pre-1987 versions of each that seem to be the most resonant versions. Both imagine outer space as a basically lawless Wild West frontier, and imagine that cowboys and Zen masters are probably the archetypes best-suited to wrangle it.

But there's still a difference, and I'll go to Star Trek itself to help put a name to it. When, in The Next Generation, Jean Luc Picard locates an AWOL Ambassador Spock behind enemy lines, he refers to his actions (and, implicitly, that of the original Star Trek crew) as "cowboy diplomacy [that] will not easily be tolerated anymore". In Star Wars, cowboy stuff is the subject of the series - though, admittedly, it does cowboy stuff really well. But in the original Star Trek (TOS), "cowboy" is just an adjective, dressing for the deeper political and philosophical questions that it's trying to raise. It often asked the wrong questions or raised them in cheesy ways, sure, but the cowboy stuff was largely a vehicle to sell that higher purpose.

Anyway, and TL;DR: Star Trek Into Darkness is not really a Star Trek movie.

And not only is it not a Star Trek movie, but, contrary to the buzz on the internets, it's not even the best Khan movie. And among the Into Darkness, Wrath of Khan, and First Contact trifecta of Star Trek sequels, it's not even the second-best of the bunch.

In no particular order, then, here are the things about Into Darkness that give me pause. I'll elaborate more afterward.
  1. Like Wrath of Khan, it tries to build its emotional center on the Kirk-Spock friendship. It doesn't work.
  2. There's paying homage, and then there's just straight-up repetition...
  3. ...and when it does something that a previous Trek also did, it does it worse.
  4. When it acknowledges the post-TOS franchises, it misunderstands and mangles them.
  5. When it tries to show us growth and change, it fails.
  6. Khan is white.  Khan should not be white.

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1. "You are my friend"

Kirk and Spock weren't friends in the first film. They don't seem to particularly like one another in this one, either. And where the friendship is forced to work... well, it's forced and doesn't work.

Take the scene where Spock looks shocked that Kirk has requested that the former be re-assigned as first officer under the latter. He should be. The movie has given us absolutely no reason to think Kirk should trust Spock, much less like him. The motivating force for their friendship seems to be destiny - they should be good friends because they were best friends in the original series, and Kirk knows this. That's weak. The movie wants that emotional pay-off when Kirk dies, but it hasn't done the work and doesn't earn the right.

2. Homage/repetition

I've been involved in a lot of arguments about the usefulness of homage and repetition in serial storytelling. I don't think I'm alone in suggesting that there's something lazy about reboots, though that doesn't necessarily mean that they're boring. The same rule applies to remakes, though I think these edge closer to being boring by default and need to work hard to prove they're not a waste of time. Because I think that either - the reboot or the remake - can be perfectly enjoyable things. They can be fun, even if they don't cover any new ground and, so, aren't anything more than that. But fun could be enough.


But while Star Trek seemed to pay homage, to wink at the old stuff, while establishing some new story, this film simply repeats a lot of their plot points. The most egregious moment is probably the reversed death scene, where Kirk fixes the warp engine and dies of radiation poisoning while Spock watches, and Spock gets to yell the "KHAAAAAAAN!" line. It a do-over, really, but with the roles reversed, and it doesn't add to or improve the original scene.





3. The same, but worse

In fact, I'd argue that the new radiation death scene is the weaker version. There are a couple of reasons I'm claiming this, so I'll do a simple bullet-list:
  •  In Khan, the death scene follows Khan's defeat. It is the sole occupant of our attention, and its placement in the story is a textbook demonstration of how you tell the story of a pyrrhic victory - the dizzying high, the devastating low. But Kirk's "death" in Into Darkness lacks the emotional weight because we know he isn't actually dead. It also has to be timed to happen before Khan's defeat, so we can't even linger on the moment.
  • In Khan, Spock calmly enters a clean, white, and eerily 2001-esque engine core room and seals himself behind a glass door while the engineering team watches in horror. It's a slow, banal exercise that grows slower and visibly painful as he starts to die. And it's almost totally silent. By comparison, Into Darkness's version shows that less is, indeed, more. The engine room is hilariously monstrous and inaccessible, and Kirk's attempts to climb the tubes/pipes to reach the engine is the real source of drama, here. Kirk's subsequent efforts to re-align the engine by hurling himself against it thusly becomes an apt metaphor for what his movie is trying to do with the source material - hit it really hard and hope everything falls into place.

4. Misreading and mangling

I'll keep this one short. I though it was really cool when the Admiral made a reference to Section 31, the cloak-and-dagger department we were introduced to in Deep Space Nine. Existing outside the official command structure of Starfleet, 31 was so secret that only top-level admirals seemed to know that it was a real thing - and even Admiral Ross would only confirm this when it was a) absolutely clear that Captain Sisko knew 31 was real, b) he had no choice.

Anyway, the novelty of the reference is lost almost immediately, when you realize that Admiral Marcus a) shouldn't know why 31 was using Khan, b) shouldn't be involved in the command structure of 31, c) 31, itself, shouldn't have a command structure, and d) he sure as hell wouldn't be talking about any of this with Kirk.

So, basically, they wanted to drop the name that would earn them cred with the hardcore fans, but without actually making any effort to represent the organization accurately. Super. And par for the course, really.

5. When character growth isn't actually character growth

I'm losing patience as I write, so I'll try to be even shorter. In the supposed climax, where Spock should be demonstrating what he's learned in order to out-fox Khan, the screenwriters take the easy way out instead. He just asks Old Spock what he should do. And then, presumably, does it. Weak.

6. White Khan

I'm not the first to say this, but I'll say it anyway. Khan isn't white, he shouldn't be white, and this constitutes an epic failure on the part of the people who wrote, cast, and produced the film.  (It's telling that no one seemed to think it mattered until the casting decision started to get criticized. Star Trek, it seems, engenders post-racial delusions in the mind of people who don't experience racism.)


Ricardo Montalban played the original Khan. Montalban, it should be said, was a white Mexican - though he passes convincingly as a person of color, so much so that John Cho (Sulu) referred to him as such - and his Khan was styled so as to appear at least somewhat Aboriginal. But we're also told that he was a benevolent dictator who conquered Asia and the Middle East, so it may just be that the producers thought he was close enough to South Asian to pass. (That is, they assumed that 'not white' was good enough.)

Also, his name is Khan Singh. Let's not pretend otherwise: the dude was obviously supposed to be Indian. And for this film, they cast a white, blue-eyed, English guy. And never bothered to explain why. Um, no.


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I just realized that I promised a discussion of First Contact - because I claimed it was a better Star Trek film - and that never happened. Next time...