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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fun with The Google

Okay. So, I know that it's hilariously egotistical to Google myself. (It's like asking the internet to validate your existence, isn't it?) But I also know that I'm not the only one.

Anyway, I Googled my name earlier today, which is something I do, I dunno, about once a month. The first few results have been the same for years - this blog, my LinkedIn page, my Twitter account, my Rate MyProfessors reviews, my Academia.edu page - but something new seems to pop up every time, and it's usually good. Or, at least, kinda cool. ("Cool" might be relative.  It might just be inconsequential and/or nerdy.) Here are some of the more interesting results:

1. A couple of my essays been referenced in some books. Only one really engages with an argument that I've made: Marc Singer's Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. I'm quoted/referenced a bunch of times in the chapter about Grant Morrison's New X-Men. One of my interpretations of a group of villains called the U-Men is referred to as "appallingly literal." (He actually likes the interpretation - though Singer offers a convincing read of his own, and one that I think he and I would find equally appalling - but I thought it would be funnier if I pulled that quote out of context.)

2.  My stuff pops up in some recently defended theses. (The first of those theses includes a reference to my queer-reading of the "gay" sidekick concept. I'm mentioning it because I think it's super-cool and should be referenced more. All the time, even. By you. In whatever you're doing at this exact moment.)

3. My "gay" sidekick paper is required reading in a "Masculinity in American Popular Culture" course at the University of Nevada, Reno. That's pretty cool.

4. I also found a single peer-reviewed essay that references me, again, in a footnote. Which isn't all that surprising, given how notoriously slow the peer-review process can be. (What is surprising, though, is that it misrepresents my X-Men paper, oddly reducing it to an essay about mutants-as-racial-metaphor. Huh.)

5. Google Image Search is pretty boring. There are a bunch of pictures of me - almost all of them pictures that I photoshopped specifically for my social media accounts - and the things I've posted. The weirdest it gets is when the X-Men Micro Heroes that I designed waaay back (10 years ago? 15?) pop up.

6. My Klout score is currently 54. Which is absurdly high, when I look at some of the people that are also in the mid-50s. (It rose more than 10 points in one day, in the last week, probably owing to how many retweets I'm getting for all the Rob Ford crack smoking shenanigans.)

7. A bunch of small things: my letter to the former chair of the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), another to Roger Ebert, one to the Toronto Star, and a reference on Wikipedia to a comic book review that I wrote. The lattermost actually prompted a discussion on the Talk page of the entry, long since closed, of whether I was an "expert" on the subject or just a fan. It was decided that, yes, I'm an expert. (And, yes, I've totally used the line 'Wikipedia says I'm an expert on comics'. And, no, I'm not being entirely ironic when I do so.)

The funniest of this grab-bag of responses to stuff that I wrote is from Fire Joe Morgan, a delightful but defunct website whose mission was to embarrass sports writers and commentators who rely on clichés and myths for their analysis. I wrote a letter to a sports writer at The Toronto Star, who printed it and mocked my use of statistics. FJM took offense, complimented me for my reasoning, and chewed-out the sports writer. The money quote: "Neil probably got a 5 on his AP Physics exam. Then he majored in electrical engineering at McGill, married a nice French-Canadian girl named Ghyslaine, and settled down in Toronto." The weird thing? I was doing a PhD in Social and Political Thought when this column was written; five years later, I'm teaching, among other things, in an Electrical Engineering course at U of T. Huh.

8. A link to my sports blog, which I both opened and shut down last year. It was supposed to be a collective thing, but the other guys who hoped to be involved could never find the time.

9. An email interview with Bryan Lee O'Malley of Scott Pilgrim fame, way back in 2004 when the series was still brand new. He was oddly unpleasant - refused to answer a couple questions without explanation, used an unmistakably snarky tone. Very strange experience.

10. I've been re-tweeted by a few media sources, like Toronto's The Grid, Metro, and the Huffington Post. All of them only came to my attention because someone else saw them and directed me to them, so, for all I know, there could be more out there.

11. Further down the list of Google results is something that I'd never seen before, which is a summary of my X-Men paper in an English grad student's annotated bibliography of X-Men criticism. It's actually a really long, detailed summary, noting that my argument is very atypical but that the "thorough article is supported by an equally thorough bibliography". Keen!

12. One of a few discussions of All-Star Superman where my blog about Lex Luthor and Leo Quintum (ie. they are the same person) is referenced. I'm guessing that they're hard to find because discussion forums don't follow any kind of consistent reference/citation format. Funny story: A friend of mine was teaching this book in an English class at the University of Toronto, and a student told him that he had to check out the authoritative take on the series. Which was, bizarrely, my blog.

13. This is just weird. Waaay down in the search results - we're talking triple-digits - is my old ICQ account, which I'm sure I haven't used since the year 2000. ICQ still exists??

14. What I don't find is interesting, too. There used to be a critique of a comic book review that I wrote, like, 8 years ago - in fact, it was one of the top search results, at least for a little while. I thought it was an unfair critique - I was characterized as a mindless superhero fan - and wrote a response to it, which was never responded to. But that doesn't seem to exist, anymore. Disappointingly, I can't find any record of my old Geocities websites, and I had a whole lot of them in the mid-to-late 90s. They were hideous, but so was the entire internet.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

White male privilege in Star Trek: no single person's responsibility, but everyone's problem

I haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness - I plan to, eventually - but this article about Star Trek's failure to live up to its credo of diversity and tolerance (if not acceptance) makes some broader points that, I suspect, apply equally well to the new film. The money quote:
"The reality is that, at best, Star Trek is like a well-meaning but misguided friend who thinks that they are far more progressive than they actually are. Depending on the topic and franchise, Star Trek’s track record varies from 'mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era' to 'fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV.'"

I wrote a short blog about this a few years ago, when I was commenting on both the remarkable racism - at least, in light of its purported progressive values - of The Next Generation and, yet, its oddly satisfying conclusion, where the producers argue that the progress narrative is deeply hypocritical and masks a root savagery that we'll never fully shake. (Deep Space Nine would pick this idea up and really run with it, positing that the more civilized the exterior appears, the more rotten it is at its core. Which, funny enough, seems to be exactly the argument that George R.R. Martin is putting forward with A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.)

Actual shot from the most embarrassingly racist episode of TNG.

But the part of that article that I wanted to respond to, specifically, is where the author makes reference to the absence of gay characters and the explanations offered by current and former writers/producers Ronald D. Moore and J.J. Abrams. And we can add one from former show-runner Brannon Braga, too:

“The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn’t really something that was strong on anybody’s radar.... Somebody has to decide that it’s important before you do it.” (Moore)

"I think it was, not so much a young man’s [issue], it was a syndicated family show, showing at six o’clock, you know, in Salt Lake City, so you had to deal with each separate affiliate rather than one network. And things like that. It was not a forward thinking decision. Knowing the players involved, knowing the decision makers, knowing it was that they felt reluctant about, you know, we’re not saying 'yes,' we’re not saying 'no,' we’re not just not going to touch that right now." (Braga)

"I just wouldn’t want the agenda to be-- whether it’s a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship, to tell a story that was, that felt distracting from part of the purpose of the story is. ...this was not in the list of my priorities to try to figure out how to make this movie in the best possible way. But it will now be in the hopper. And it’s one of those things I’ll bring up with the writers next time we meet." (Abrams

So, each comment amounts to "we didn't really think about it", though with varying degrees of self-awareness and self-reflexivity. Braga seems to recognize, at least tacitly, that straight male privilege was preventing them from even considering it. Abrams, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realize how problematic it is to situate gay relationships as "distractions" when straight relationships wouldn't be similarly interrogated.

Anyway, this reminded me of the critiques of Girls and Game of Thrones, when each of those shows debuted. People complained (fairly) that Girls manages to almost completely whitewash one of the most racially-diverse cities in the world. People complained (fairly) that Game of Thrones reduces ethnic Others to almost comically barbaric stereotypes. These shows, the critics said, need to be more inclusive.

The defenders of these shows replied (again, fairly) that it is not their responsibility to be inclusive - they're telling a story, and telling it the best way they know how. And this is where I see the overlap with the Star Trek quotes above. Presumably, if someone were to push particularly hard - and I think you can actually see this if you read the full Abrams interview - they would fall into a sort of rhetoric of 'it's not my/our job to be everything to everyone', and making media for straight white dudes is a relatively easy sell. And, again, on an individual basis, they would be right.

The problem is, no one thinks it's their job to make a multicultural Girls, a racially-sensitive Game of Thrones, or a gay Star Trek character. Well, not "no one", but certainly very few people - and certainly not anyone with mainstream prominence. And while it may not be any single person's responsibility, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that real people see their lives reflected in real representations.

And that's the catch-22 - there's a collective obligation and need, here, but you can't force a J.J. Abrams or George R.R. Martin to be more inclusive, individually. (Well, maybe you can argue that Star Trek requires that the guy at the helm prove that it deserves its reputation. Maybe.) Yet, it's obvious that individual action - and accompanying monetary success - is the only thing that can lead to change among the wider entertainment industry. But while something needs to change, no one person is required to be the person who does it. So, no one does.

And that's why we just keep complaining.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

We still need to talk about nudity on Game of Thrones

Like a lot of other Game of Thrones actors, Oona Chaplin, who plays Talisa, the Queen in the North, has appeared naked on the show and, subsequently, been asked her opinion on it. (For the record, she's happy with it, provided that it's "beautiful" and "honours the female form.") But one of her most recent comments has earned some interesting responses. Says Chaplin,

“One of the girls in the show who got her kit off the most in the first couple of seasons now doesn’t at all because she said, ‘I want to be known for my acting not for my breasts.’” 

Now, while there's a lot of nudity in the show, the large majority of nudity is provided by background or very minor characters. So, there aren't a whole lot of options, and most people assume that she's referring to Emelia Clarke, who plays Daenerys. You might remember that she was constantly nude in the first season, and that she made the news more recently for her performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's, where her nude scene was interrupted by a flurry of flash photography. For better or worse, she's become known for her naked body.

But this blog isn't about any of that. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, it's about the unsympathetic fan response to Clarke's purported annoyance/discomfort:

"Didn't the actress read the part before she signed on? There is alot of this stuff in the books.. get a grip and learn what you're doing before you jump in with both feet"

"Exactly what I was thinking, the books are full of references which then would need to be translated into the show in order to maintain the level of authenticity many fans desire. I'm tired of this whole 'nudity is bad and detracts from seriousness' debate."

"Didn't halley [sp] berry win an Oscar for a role she appeared nude in?"

Ugh. Obviously, I'm reproducing these comments because I think they're off-the-mark. Here are a few reasons why:
  • Unfortunately, Clarke - and I'm assuming that the anonymous comments do belong to her - is right, she is known for her breasts. So much so that it's a huge distraction, as it was in her Breakfast at Tiffany's performance, where a significant number of people valued her performance precisely because she would be naked. And probably did a lot to ruin the show for everyone else, too. (Though, as I understand it, it wasn't a particularly good staging to begin with...)

  • Further, GoT is just generally infamous for its excessive female nudity.  This is why SNL was able to make a hilariously on-point parody like this one, which claims that the show owes its success in equal parts to George R.R. Martin, writer of the books, and a 13 year-old named Adam Friedberg, whose only job is to add more boobs:

    I should add that, when I watch the show and breasts make an appearance, I immediately think of Adam Friedberg. So, there's another knock against too much nudity - as entertained and immersed in the story as I might otherwise be, I immediately think of Andy Samberg's impression of a 13 year-old.

  • Some fans seem to think that fidelity to the books is an absolute defense. If Daenerys was often nude in the books, then Clarke should accept that. Never mind that men are also often naked in the books, and yet we've only seen a few asses and no penises. Or that there's no rule stating that any TV adaptation needs to be perfectly faithful. (See: The Walking Dead, which departs in significant ways from the source material. Or don't, because most of those differences are awful ones.)

  • But most problematic, I think, is the implication that an actor can't re-assess the situation, take account of new information, reflect on her experience, and... change her mind. Clearly, she was comfortable with the nudity in the beginning. Now, seeing the unpredictable kind of notoriety that it's earned her, she's decided that she doesn't much like it. That actually strikes me as pretty reasonable.

[Correction: I originally attributed the quote at the top to Natalia Tena, who plays a different character on the show. This is because The Mary Sue made the same mistake, and I didn't bother to double-check the source. My bad.]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The X-Men don't represent what you think they represent

I'm very late to the game with this one, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on paper. (Or on keyboard. On the screen. Online? Whichever.)

The X-Men, we've been told many times, are less a team of superhero than they are a metaphor. Their creator, Stan Lee, wanted a group of heroes that would engender fear for the simple fact that they are different. "People fear things that are different," writes Lee, and it's hard to think that Lee, a Jewish-American, wasn't thinking of Jews and Roma during the Holocaust.

So, I was a bit disturbed when I saw this scene in an issue of Uncanny Avengers. The character speaking in the panels below is Havok, one of the X-Men. He's never been a particularly vocal advocate for mutant rights - he was briefly involved with a mutant terrorist group, but that was revealed to be an undercover job - but that's probably beside the point. Here's the leader of the Avengers' Unity team - a joint X-Men/Avengers effort to improve the standing of the mutant community - effectively telling everyone that he advocates a post-mutant (or, I guess, mutation-blind) society. And it left me cold:

In a subsequent panel, a reporter asks Havok what they should call him if not "mutant". He replies "Alex."

Now, the problem is not that Havok's speech is unrealistic or unconvincing. Havok has never shown himself to be the most dedicated X-Man - he's quit a couple of times, and for the first couple decades of the comic he preferred to be completely uninvolved in mutant politics or superheroics - and it might be compelling to situate him as a conservative voice for a post-mutant America. The rhetoric is certainly familiar: he doesn't want people to see his powers, just as the post-race bunch pretend that they don't see race; he sees himself as the product of his choices, ignoring the systemic realities that restrict those choices, just as many conservatives do.

It might not be an ideology that I value, but it could make for a compelling read. How would mutants with a more progressive take on human-mutant politics react to the choice of Havok for such a prominent role? Would they perceive some agenda on the part of Captain America, who selected him? And what kind of mutant politics erases the "mutant" from its own politics? I imagine that Havok would face a lot of the same criticisms that were lobbed at Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell when the post-race Bush Administration came to power.

Alas, Marvel and writer Rick Remender weren't planning on taking it in that direction. For them, Havok's rhetoric was not political or even controversial. Funny, the sorts of nonsense you can sell yourself when you're able to write about - and enjoy - oppression from a position of privilege.

Mind you, this isn't new. Marvel has always used the X-Men to encourage people of privilege to experience - and derive some enjoyment from - oppression at a distance, vicariously. But I've never seen them do this, at least not so explicitly. Marvel is using the X-Men to violently undermine the relevance and reality of identity politics, to reduce social categories, from which people derive their sense of self and worth, to dirty words and systems of social inequality to "choices".

That kind of thing is going to make people angry, especially the fans who have been told that the X-Men are a minority like they are. As Ladies Making Comics so aptly put it on Twitter, "Telling people whose rights have been trampled for decades 'But we're all people! Let's get along!': guaranteed to piss them off." Yep, them and everyone else who gets it.

But, wait! said Marvel and Remender. That's not happening at all, because the X-Men aren't actually a metaphor. They're just a fictional category of superheroes, and YOU are reading too much into it. Cue Remender's response to Ladies Making Comics: "Mutants come from all races and sexual orientation. It's not an apt analogy you're making." And fellow X-Men writer Jason Aaron: "It's not the story of what it means to be black or gay in today's society."

In a sense, Aaron is right - the X-Men don't tell us what it's like to black or gay, because the people writing the X-Men are almost always straight white guys who can only guess. But that doesn't mean that they don't pretend that they can. To claim otherwise, as Remender and Aaron (and I can only guess who else) do, is disingenuous, if not dishonest. (Indeed, Racialicious has a huge piece on this story, which includes other writers - and Remender himself - contradicting these comments from Remender and Aaron. You should probably read it.)

But don't take my word for it:
  • "What's fascinating about these two characters [Magneto and Professor X] is that they're really the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King of comic mythology." -Bryan Singer, director of X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • “I know, speaking to Marvel Comics, that it’s not just gay people who identify with mutants – it’s other minorities, too, religious minorities, racial minorities” -Ian McKellan, Magneto in the X-Men films
  • "Every time I would hear one of these ideas, I would always ask myself, 'What's the point of being so specific? A gay mutant? An African American mutant? An HIV-positive mutant? Oxymorons, all of them.' To my mind, mutants are all those thing simultaneously. They're every oppressed minority and disenfranchised subculture, all rolled up into one metaphor." -Joe Casey, former Uncanny X-Men writer

When people are gushing about the property and it's inclusivity, they're quick on the draw to brag about how the comic was always meant to accommodate all these identifications and readings. It speaks to the real world, it allegorizes real people and situations.

But when people start to critique it? When they begin to disagree with the message that Marvel is selling, that it's effectively putting into the mouths of disempowered peoples? Then, the creators deny that it was ever supposed to reflect reality, that it was ever intended to be more than escapist fantasy.

And that's probably the most infuriating part of this whole thing. It's not that they simply deny responsibility for or awareness of the metaphorical reading that everyone is familiar with, it's that they forsake it in one breath but accept any and all kudos in the next. Marvel wants to have it both ways, and they shouldn't get away with it. But they do.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

CBC Kids doesn't want white people, and it's not racist or even a big deal

So, Kids' CBC is looking for a new co-host for their morning programming. Presently, the morning show is hosted by Patty, a 40ish white woman, and Mamma Yamma, a yam-shaped puppet. So, I guess that means that Sid Bobb, an Aboriginal man whose on-air role has noticeably declined in the last few months, is moving on to something else.

For the record, I've consistently watched Kids' CBC - sometimes more frequently than other times - with my daughter for more than 3 years, now. Aside from some bizarrely interesting musical guest choices - Billy Bragg singing with a puppet-crab, for instance - it's a remarkably tame show, no different from any other morning show aimed at the kindergarten demographic. So, this shouldn't be big news. But it turns out that it is. (Again, it shouldn't be, but it is.) Because this is what a hiring agency posted for the CBC:

The contentious line is the last one in this screen cap - "any race except Caucasian". (That this is the only contentious line is a hilarious irony that exposes the ridiculousness of the 'controversy', but I'll get to that later.) Twitter erupted with rage over the exclusion of white men, and both the CBC and the casting company they hired apologized. The casting agency also amended the ad so that it no longer mentions race, and you can read more about the agency and CBC's responses here. You can also check the coverage of this story at the Huffington Post, where Marni Soupcoff makes a number of observations that I both agree and disagree with, but all of them are quite thoughtful.

But as for that rage... the ads elicited a predictably conservative reaction, but I think that it's probably fair to look at just one. A friend of mine tweeted that it was an example of "sickly racism" and added the familiar cliché, "how about hiring the BEST host, rather than one with certain skin pigmentation?" He also made a connection between these hiring practices and the spotty record of Affirmative Action in universities, posting this link to a story in The Atlantic.

To that, I say "bullshit". (Well, in the actual interaction I called it a "non sequitur". But, y'know, it's bullshit.) The story in The Atlantic is about admitting students who lack the preparation and skill to compete at top-tier schools; this story is about a children's morning show host. The story in The Atlantic mentions that academic "mismatch"* might be responsible for black students dropping out of engineering programs at more than twice the rate of white students; but this job is literally not rocket science.

Some of the Kids' CBC cast: Sid, Patty, Captain Claw,
Mamma Yamma, and Salmon. Not rocket scientists.

There are two main points that I want to make, one in response to my friends complaints, and another more broadly in support of the CBC's hiring directives.

One, there is no "BEST host" out there. No one is finishing in the top-percentile of the Standardized Hosting Test and being overlooked because he's white. And to the extent that the CBC should be looking for the "BEST host", it's worth considering the actual needs and objectives of the program. Reasonably, I think, Soupcoff points out that "we also have to remember that what we're talking about here is casting an entertainer in a dramatic enterprise, not staffing a position in the bureaucracy."And indeed, a letter from the CBC told the hiring agency that they wanted actors who reflect "Canada and its regions as well as the country's multicultural and multiracial nature", since the show is very much about showcasing various regions and people in the country. In that case, the "BEST host" might very well be one with a particular race or gender that is otherwise under-represented.

And this leads directly into my second point. Regardless of the CBC's responsibility to aspiring hosts, they have a much larger responsibility to the kids that watch Kids' CBC. Canada's multicultural and multiracial nature? It's the audience for this show. Those same non-white kids? They can look forward to years of TV and film programming filled with the faces of white men, with the stereotypes of their own race and ethnicity, or with the exclusion of their race and ethnicity altogether. Representation is power, and for non-white kids watching a morning show that's populated only with white people? Well, it follows that lack of representation is disempowering.

I mentioned, at the top, that there was an irony to all this outrage. And it has to do with the fact that all the anger is directed at the exclusion of white people. The thing is, they're not the only demographic groups that were denied the opportunity to apply. Let me spell it out, in case you missed it. This was the very first requirement listed:
  • Male between the ages of 23-35yrs

So, who else can't apply? Anyone under 23. Anyone over 35. And women. No women can apply. An entire gender has been barred from applying. And where's the outrage? Where are the cries of sexism? Why aren't the people who successfully lobbied CBC to consider white men also asking them to consider women of colour?

Unsurprisingly, those hypocrites are nowhere to be found.

[*According to the article, "mismatch" is the term for situations where the student simply doesn't have the proper educational background for their program. The reasoning is that we don't want mismatches because we're doing those "mismatched" students a disservice - we should, instead, nudge them toward easier programs. What the "mismatch" rhetoric fails to address, of course, is that systemic racism has a lot to do with the lack of preparation - the disservice is done well before they ever set foot in a university classroom.]