Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mocking the London Olympics' Opening Ceremonies

The Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics made all sorts of references to the children's literature that's been produced by British authors: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Harry Potter were all rather prominent. But the book - or series of books, rather - that seemed to dominate the show was never actually referred to by name.

Take the landscape that opens the show, which looks something like this. The center of the stadium is filled with green, rolling fields, featuring a giant hill in the background. Idyllic, pastoral. It's Shire-like, even:

But then, after a bit of a show and speech, (by Kenneth Branagh!) the green burns away, smoking towers rise from the ground, and weary, dirty laborers replace the cheerful farmers-in-repose. It's supposed to dramatize the "progress" of the industrial revolution...

...instead, it looks ominous, even somewhat apocalyptic. I'm thinking less of industry and more of the orcs plundering Isengard. And though you can't really see it in this image, (you'll see it in the one immediately below) they're forging a ring in the center of the pillars.

Do I need to say it? We're looking at the heart of Mount Doom. (You've probably caught on by now, too - the English classic that goes unnamed, probably not even consciously invoked, but nonetheless haunts the ceremony is The Lord of the Rings. Apt, too, when you think about how needlessly expensive and exploitative these kinds of events tend to be!)

But we're not done yet! Because the Olympic flame is eventually raised, and it looks a little something like this.

"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

Oh, yes. I went there.

Seriously, though, there was something vaguely terrifying about the entire process. How anyone could read the transformation of that adorable countryside into so much machinery-scarred Earth and smoke as anything other than a horror story... yeah, that's just confusing.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More backlash politics: fanboys and the "triumph" of Superheroes

I can't believe I missed the whole backlash against AO Scott in The New York Times, because he deigned to criticize The Avengers film, but it seems additionally relevant now - because of the controversy with hardcore gamers that I wrote about last week, but probably also because of what happened in Colorado.

Hawkeye, Captain American, and the Black Widow in Joss Whedon's Avengers.
Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Pictures.

Actually, Scott's snarky review was probably meaner to the film's fans that it was to the movie itself. Writes Scott,

this movie revels in the individuality of its mighty, mythical characters, pinpointing insecurities that are amplified by superhuman power and catching sparks that fly when big, rough-edged egos (and alter egos) collide. The best scenes are not the overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences — which add remarkably little that will be fresh or surprising to devotees of the Transformers franchise — but the moments in between, when the assembled heroes have the opportunity to brag, banter, flirt and bicker. 

So, there is a not-flattering comparison to Transformers, though this isn't as nasty as it might first seem - if Transformers did anything competently, if not creatively, it was show things exploding. But there is a certain nastiness in the review, and it's aimed squarely at the fans. For instance:

the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and “The Avengers,” which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.

Yikes. It's not terribly surprising, then, that Scott was flamed over Twitter by fanboys with demands that he be fired. (Having not read them, I can't be certain whether these were people who were responding to ostensible insult of the film or the more real insult to themselves. If it's the former, that's an unfortunate irony, because it proves that Scott's joke, above, isn't just a joke.)

Anyway, I bring this up now, and call it newly relevant, because the insecurity that those fans appear to be speaking from is a lot like the insecurity of hardcore gamers. There's a reason, after all, that fans of Marvel comics, in particular, are called Marvel Zombies. (I doubt that Scott knew this. And, yet, he clearly knew it.)

Painting for the Marvel Zombies comic book, by Arthur Suydam.
Yes, the title is a joke. But everyone loves zombies, so it's win-win.

In the blog about hardcore gamers, I wrote that

every man is made to feel like they're lacking in some way. But not every man is conscious of that lack. Geeks aren't only conscious of it, but they're often reminded of it. And this is a problem for them because [the game] may be the only access that they have to a sense of masculine adequacy. To take that away, then, is to threaten their very sense of themselves as men.

To attack the Avengers film or Avengers fanboys, then, produces a similar effect. But it is also similarly problematic. Because, like most hardcore gamers, fanboys tend to be straight, middle-class white men who enjoy an incredible amount of privilege.

There's an additional layer to the comic book issue, though, one that was recently raised by Freddie deBoer. To pick from the very first line in deBoer's blog, over the past decade fanboys have learned that "our particular geeky obsessions no longer seemed special. Everyone knew about them." That's still not entirely true of gamer culture, I think. I'd wager that few people outside of the gaming community would recognize the N7 insignia that Commander Shepard wears if you slapped it on your coat (in fact, I'm not sure that they would know it has any significance at all); I'm fairly certain that a large minority or small majority of people under 40 would be familiar with Captain American's shield or the X-Men's X.

Because I'm filling this blog with quotes, I'll add another one, this time from Andrew O'Heir at Salon:

at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? Those one-time comic-book pariahs are now the dominant force in pop-culture entertainment, and their works are deemed to be not just big but also relevant and important.

The hardcore gamers may feel as if they're under assault by hostile forces, but they remain the gatekeepers of their own online kingdom and firmly in control of their own culture. Not so, for the fanboys, who lost whatever control they once had (if they ever had it) long ago to interests in Hollywood and boardrooms, filled with people who want to diversify and grow the audience, not cater to the base. It's like the fans of the Avengers used to speak a secret language that only they understood, and now everyone and their dad uses it in casual conversation. You might call it "triumph"; one could also plausibly call it "devastating".

O'Heir concludes with the remark that "I think these fans are looking to the stars, for some sort of recognition or respect that simply doesn’t exist, for any of us." But I think that the critical misunderstanding is this - these fans aren't happy with success because they were never looking for and never wanted success. (Kurt Cobain, anyone?) They're defined by the things they appreciate that others never will, and so, in a sense, they're looking for a new defeat to rally around. (As evinced by the response to Scott.) Triumph will never be sufficient, and will never be particularly desirable, because it's difficult to feel special - and it's always been about feeling special, unique, and even superior - when everyone else loves and appreciates the same thing that you do.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When 'giving it your all' is giving too much

In an all too predictable scene from last night's Blue Jays game, Brett Lawrie leaped over a guard-rail, Superman-like, to catch a fly ball in Yankee stadium, banging his leg on a smaller railing as he came crashing back to the Earth. (Not that it really matters, but he didn't make the catch.) It doesn't look particularly ugly at first. And then it does with the benefit of a slowed replay and a better angle:


To quote the YES network commentators, Lawrie is one of those guys who "gives it their all". And according to Kevin Kaduk with Yahoo Sports, Lawrie "came away with...the respect of those who happened to be watching". But from all the comments I've read, Dirk Hayhurst comes closest to hitting the nail on the head...:

Let's make sure that this is perfectly clear: it isn't a coincidence that Lawrie is both a guy who 'gives it his all' and that he hurt himself, nor should we bemoan how unfortunate it is that such an accident and injury would befall someone who plays so recklessly. (Much less pay him respect for doing so.) It is, in fact, entirely foreseeable, and the injury is the direct result of his overly-intense style of play. And it shouldn't be encouraged.

Because it was also entirely avoidable. What's lacking from the discourse surrounding the injury is any discussion of, frankly, Lawrie's stupidity. Jumping into a concrete camera bay - a concrete camera pit, no less, because it looks like it's recessed from field-level by about 2 feet - is an undeniably stupid thing to do. And we shouldn't lament his accident, praise his vigour, or give him our "respect" when he does things that are unnecessarily dangerous. Instead, we need to hold him accountable, because in hurting himself he also hurts his teammates.

I'll admit that this looks cool, but, seriously,
it's also just completely unnecessary. Photo by the AP.

It's customary, when players are accused of the opposite problem - of playing too lackadaisically, of not running-out a ground ball, not playing hard when the game isn't close - to bench them. (Sometimes, this strategy is misused - like when a player fails to run on a play that's an automatic-out 99% of the time in an 8-0 game. But, sometimes, it makes a lot of sense.) And Lawrie, as a result of his own carelessness, is very likely to miss a game or two. That's maybe something, a de facto suspension, if you will.

But I'm not sure that's good enough. Players get benched for hurting the team because they don't try hard enough - why not bench Lawrie because he hurt the team by trying too hard? (No, seriously.) For his own good, even. Because if someone isn't able to convince him that, occasionally, it's just fine to ease up, he's not going to be long for this sport. And that's bad news for anyone and everyone who's associated with or simply likes the Toronto Blue Jays

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Irreverant sports blogging at its best

Over on Tom Tango's The Book blog, he recently posted a couple of links to the mid-season report cards at Lookout Landing, a Seattle Mariners blog. And he did this not because mid-season report cards are particularly informative or interesting - most of them are boring, unnecessary, and usually both - but because these specific report cards are. fucking. hilarious. Tango describes his writing thusly: "His takedowns are done in a good-natured way, not in a mean way.  He’s the baseball equivalent of Larry David.  And that’s a compliment to Larry David."

And he's right - this is amazing sports writing. So amazing, in fact, that I think even a non-fan can appreciate that this stuff is comic gold. Any of us who write about sports and are even occasionally clever or ironic - or just aspire to appearing to be clever - should probably take notes:

"The grades are also subjective, and I came up with them in two minutes, and if you disagree with any of them, you might consider paying less attention to these grades and more attention to your personal relationships which I can only imagine are actively deteriorating."

"[Franklin] Gutierrez came back from a long time off and was pretty good and then he got hit in the head by a pickoff throw that got by one of the most sure-handed first basemen in baseball. I'm not a believer in luck. Not at all, to the point where it actually irritates me when people act as if luck exists, and they either do or don't have it. It's nonsense and I can't stand ever setting foot within a casino. But if I had tickets to watch an archery competition, and I got to my seat, and I noticed Franklin Gutierrez was sitting one seat over, I would probably go home." [Neil: I actually laughed out loud at this one, which is always just a little bit embarrassing.]

"Strictly from a performance perspective, 71 pitchers have batted at least 20 times so far this year, and 20 of them have posted a higher slugging percentage than Munenori Kawasaki. Remember that extra-base hit that he lined? That was the one."

"Iwakuma's nickname is 'Kuma', or 'bear', and like a bear, he spent much of the previous few months hibernating. On the rare occasion he was awoken, he pitched like he was groggy and irritated. It's like the Mariners don't have the first idea how to handle a bear. They learned how to handle a moose."

"When healthy, [Shawn] Kelley's a guy who posts dominant ratios without ever feeling like a dominant pitcher, and for that reason he's probably doomed to a life of being under-appreciated. And a reliever in the major leagues bringing home piles and piles of money. I mean I guess he won't have the worst life."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Why I boo

At the risk of sounding totally miserable, I wanted to write a few notes about why I choose to boo some teams and athletes. I'm not sure that they're all good reasons, but I'm also not sure that they need to be.

Obnoxious Fans

Yankee fans! I have no idea where this picture is originally from...

For good or ill, this might actually be the number one factor that determines whether I come to hate a sports team. For instance, I can't stand the Yankees largely because of the fans they attract - people who think the team is entitled to a spot in the playoffs, to the best player available at the trade deadline, to the best free agents. And who pretend that the Yankees' ability to do these things with regularity is totally disconnected from political economy, and that it isn't a result of the team's absurd financial privilege. Similarly, I can't stand the teams that tend to attract fair-weather fans, even if it's really through no fault of their own. During the Euro Cup in Toronto, Italy and Portugal attracted droves of obnoxious, drunken jerks for no other reason than the 5 million bars and clubs that have moved into Little Italy and Little Portugal. But do I hold that behaviour against the teams? I sure do.


Sad Tiger. Photo from Getty Images.

When I don't particularly care about a sport, I may actually have an interest in seeing the favourite play - if I'm going to watch something that I don't follow, it makes sense to see it played at the highest-level possible. But in most cases, I like to see favourite get bounced in favour of someone that's totally unheralded and/or unexpected. (Okay, so this has just as much to do with my love for the underdog. It still holds, though.) Also? I'm a big fan of watching hubris play out on the faces of professional athletes. (See: Woods, Tiger.)

Bad Owners/Stakeholders

Marlins' owner Jeffrey Loria, perhaps the most reviled man
in Montreal Expos' history. Photo by the Miami Marlins.

It's tough to like the Blue Jays when they're owned by the richest owners in baseball. And it's easy to hate teams when their owners, say, defend the use of Chief Wahoo (The Cleveland "Indians"), blame the fans for the team's lack of success (The Tampa Bay Rays), or manipulate the system and the local government in order to extract the most profit possible, with absolutely no intention of building a good team (The formerly Florida Marlins). Look: it's impossible to enjoy professional sport unless you're willing to accept that a bunch of old guys are becoming absurdly wealthy as a result. But the least we can ask is that they be honest and non-exploitative (well, less exploitative) about it, right?

Religious Right-wingers

Screen shot from C-SPAN, via Esquire.

A lot of people felt sorry for Albert Pujols when he got off to a terrible start this season. Not me. After learning that Pujols and Tony LaRussa attended a rally organized by Glenn Beck in 2010, I actually found myself hoping that his career would meet a swift end. (Of course, Pujols subsequently "explained" that he didn't know anything about the politics that were involved. Right.) Similarly, I instantly dislike anyone who insists that their performance has something to do with God's will, and isn't mostly random. (Because it is mostly random - that's why the L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup.) And I dislike these sorts of athletes especially because they apply the standard so inconsistently - if, when they win, God wanted them to win, why is it that, when they lose, God never wanted them to lose? If winning is somehow proof that God approves of them, why is it that losing isn't taken to be proof of the opposite - that if God chose to make them losers, then he just doesn't like them very much?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Feminist Frequency backlash: Explaining, not excusing or defending

If you're a part of nerd culture, if you play video games, or if you're remotely interested in gender issues, I don't need to bother summarizing what's happened, recently, with Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency fame - we were also, briefly, in the same department at York University, though our paths never crossed) and her campaign to raise money for her 'Tropes vs. Women in Video Games' web series. But I'll summarize it, ever so briefly, anyway: she plans to talk about how misogynistic video games are, a bunch of game-playing misogynists call her names, and the rest of the internet notes that this is somewhat ironic. In more extreme cases, those misogynist gamers create games where they (and you) can vent some of your misogynist rage on Sarkeesian's likeness. Classy.

(I can't help but point out the similarities between what's happened to Sarkeesian and the misogynist video game writer who mocked Felicia Day and her nerd-credentials on Twitter. Also, this. I don't think it's a coincidence that they faced these attacks almost simultaneously. Something has snapped in that particular corner of the interwebs. And I don't think it's over yet, either.)

Now, I've been plenty critical of geek-culture myself - in spite of my claims to be a part of it - because there is plenty to criticize. But I think that we're doing ourselves a disservice if we chalk up the response to women like Sarkeesian and Day as just another instance of boilerplate misogyny. There's something else going on, here.

That something else, I think, has to do with a shared (to some extent) experience of oppression. Because, and I don't think this is going to shock anyone, men who actively identify as gamers and geeks tend to be grown-up - or growing-up - versions of kids who have been socially ostracized and victimized by their more normatively masculine (and, I should add, feminine) peers. Now, this is absolutely not the same thing as being a victim of sexism or misogyny - geeky men still, for the most part, will pass as men and be able to access varying degrees of masculine and heteronormative privilege, and many of them enjoy class and race privilege, too - but it goes a long way in explaining why the reaction to Sarkeesian has been so rabid.

Put simply, Sarkeesian is poking at a raw wound and, not unlike cornered animals, the male gamers are lashing out instinctively. Gamers, if I can generalize, participate in a performative culture of excessive masculinity precisely because they can't access that masculinity in "real" life. And, for the most part, they - unlike the purveyors of equally excessive and performative "real" masculinity - realize that it's a performance, that it's a novel and entertaining way of addressing some lack. (To be clear: every man is made to feel like they're lacking in some way. But not every man is conscious of that lack. Geeks aren't only conscious of it, but they're often reminded of it.) And this is a problem for them because it may be the only access that they have to a sense of masculine adequacy. To take that away, then, is to threaten their very sense of themselves as men.

That "sense of themselves as men", of course, is a hugely probematic one. Again, this is an explanation, not a defense - I'm not going to defend a practice of identity-building that's predicated on hyper-aggression and the objectification of women. But I do want to suggest that the where men who feel "manly" in other aspects of their lives can survive the attack on sexism in videogames, it might not be so easy for men who don't - and how have been made to feel all the more inadequate by that first category of men.

And for that reason, the existence of this misogyny and the defense of it isn't surprising - the history of the world's oppressed people is full of these seeming contradictions, where the once oppressed respond to their empowerment by turning on and oppressing the people immediately below or beside them on the totem pole: think of how political franchise movements in the USA pitted black men against black women or white women against black women, rather than all three against white men; the reputation that communities of gay men have for misogyny; or even how the little kids who get bullied by big kids will bully the little kids when they themselves get bigger. (An even more direct comparison? The similar way that criticism of sexism in superhero comics has been received.) You might suspect that oppression would breed empathy, and it does to some extent and in some cases, but it's equally likely to teach people that power (male power, in this case) is most easily achieved and maintained by adopting the same tactics that were used against you.

Being bullied doesn't grant you a license to bully, though it does provide an explanation for why bullying might strike you as a reasonable response to a threat. Clearly, though, the fact that Sarkeesian's work is perceived as threatening to an entire subculture would seem to suggest that we've missed something - that it's not enough to point out that geek culture is misogynist, and expect that change will come quickly and easily. Because that misogyny? It's part of the core around which geek identity has been built, and removing it would be like removing sexism from patriarchy - a totally unrecognizable system, the end of geeks and men as we know them. And that, not surprisingly, might be too terrifying for them to consider.