Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Saginaw Chippewa and People-as-Mascots: there's a Santayana joke in here, somewhere

A while back, this interview showed up on my Twitter feed, about the stance of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe with respect to sports teams that use Aboriginal names and likenesses as logos and mascots. In short, they're supportive of these symbols provided that they aren't used mockingly and serve to educate, and teams like the Western Warriors (a high school basketball team) and Central Michigan Chippewas (a College team) have their full support.

Just in case you're a TL;DR kind of reader: folks on Twitter claimed that the above interview might lead some to re-think their position on such mascots. But it shouldn't. And that's what this particular blog is about.

I have some strong feelings on this topic - which I've shared before - but I'm not entirely opposed to the sentiment that's expressed in the article. Education is certainly a good thing, and if a mascot can actually increase historical awareness, that would be pretty awesome.

The problem is, I don't think it can, or at least it hardly ever does. And for an argument that's premised on historical awareness, there's at lease this one little bit of unfortunate irony, offered by Frank Cloutier, public relations director for the Saginaw Chippewa:
Our position is that if it's not derogatory and it's being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it's fine. There's nothing derogatory about "Warriors" or "Braves." There's nothing derogatory about "Indian." But terms like "Redskin" or "Half-Breed," those are derogatory terms to us. 

Now, I could take the easy path, here, and argue that "Brave" and "Indian" certainly can be derogatory but I won't. That's less an irony than it is a disagreement. Instead, I'm going to take a closer look at the "Redskin" team that he's referring to. (It's oblique, in this instance, but he later says that it would be "most appropriate" if the Washington Redskins changed their name.)
The irony, instead, that the football team's logo and mascot might exist, and have persisted, precisely because an earlier Aboriginal leader advocated for it. From a 2002 Washington Post article that's since gone offline:
“I said, ‘I’d like to see an Indian on your helmets,’ “ which then sported a big “R” as the team logo, remembers [former chairman of the Blackfoot tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians Walter] Wetzel, now 86 and retired in Montana. Within weeks, the Redskins had a new logo, a composite Indian taken from the features in Wetzel’s pictures. “It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team. . . . It’s only a small group of radicals who oppose those names. Indians are proud of Indians.”

For all that emphasis on history and education, Cloutier has ignored the very history of racist logos - and how that Redskins name and logo that he finds distasteful is, itself, a product of compromise and collaboration between white owners and a Native-American leader. Clearly, what's worth celebrating, and the value or meaning of educating, is highly relative. What strikes Cloutier as offensive is perfectly acceptable to Wetzel. And, presumably, Wetzel had his own line-in-the-sand, marking the division between the Redskins and the space where unacceptable mascots and logos lay.

For what it's worth, I'm in agreement with Cloutier with respect to the Redskins - the mascot should go, the logo should go, the name should go. But I'm not on-board with his argument that the names and logos are okay provided they're well-intentioned and have some educational component. Intentions don't speak all that well to the large contingent of fans who don't respect the culture, and education doesn't mesh particularly well with the ethos of organized sports. (If sport and critical thought tended to accompany one another, we wouldn't have to have conversations like 'is this racist?' all the time.)

And if history has taught us anything, it's that, eventually, another Frank Cloutier will come along and suggest that the Western Warriors and Central Michigan Chippewas are just bad as the Washington Redskins.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some depressing notes on cultural representation: Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius

If you're paying any attention at all to the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, you've probably seen these tabloid covers before. They're everywhere. (As is the still-developing story and trial, which I won't get into here... I assume that you have the Google.) But I wanted to a) have a copy of them where I could easily find them, because they'll certainly be worth talking about even years from now, and b) add a couple of my own comments.

If you haven't seen the covers, but you're familiar with the story more generally, I should probably warn you - the images are almost unbelievably tasteless:

Ugh. Here are some observations:
  • It's depressing, if unsurprising, that both papers chose to focus so totally on Steenkamp's mostly naked body, her name appearing in tiny print that's easily missed.
  • The Daily News one-ups the New York Post with their picture. While the Post's pose is a bit generic and Steenkamp's smile looks largely indifferent, the News uses a picture that's clearly been designed to, well, arouse. Most notably, Steenkamp is holding a melting ice cream cone, which is a hideously unsubtle allusion to ejaculation. It would be cheesy, if it weren't so sleazy.
  • One cover identifies her simply as "blonde" and the other as a "model", which, while true, also marginalizes the work - more important work, arguably - that she had been doing most recently as an aspiring lawyer and activist who spoke about violence against women. Reducing someone to their profession is hardly new, especially in headlines, but there's something particularly disrespectful about it - especially "blonde" - in this case. Both identify her as Pistorius' "gal pal", which seems unnecessarily cheeky and seems to minimize the seriousness of their relationship. (That is, it feels like very subtle slut-shaming.)
  • Equally interesting, both covers identify Oscar Pistorius by name only in the small print. One calls him "Blade" (as in Blade Runner, his nickname) and the other "Blade Gunner" (a play on the nickname), and both also refer to him as the "Legless Olympian". Again, not new or surprising, though there's something additionally awful about these identifiers, too. The "Blade" references seem designed to hint at violence - it feels aggressive and menacing - which is not at all how the name is intended to be interpreted, since the blades are literally his prostheses. The legless Olympian bit is also exaggerated, if not quite so twisted: Pistorius has legs, after all, though they are partially flesh-and-bone and partially prosthetic. That is, he's not actually legless.
  • The need to vilify Pistorius by way of his disability - and I'm not saying he shouldn't be vilified, just commenting on how I see it being done - is also telling. Disability scholars have commented on how Pistorius has been built-up, to this point, as some sort of "super-crip" or as "inspiration porn". As a disabled man who was able to compete against able-bodied runners in the Olympics, he inadvertently serves a couple of normative cultural functions. For instance, he confirms that everyone should aspire to a particular standard of able-bodiedness, while also appearing to demonstrate that this standard is available to everyone if they try hard enough. (It may not go without saying: these attitudes are dangerous and simply wrong, both of them.) But since he's now an accused-murderer, the media have to distance him from that inspiration function - and how better to do that than be recasting his unrelenting push against the social and physical boundaries of disability as, in fact, a nefarious character-flaw that somehow contributed to his need to murder a blonde model and gal pal? This is where that slippage between the blades of his legs and the blades of some implied murder weapon (the cricket bat that he used to break open the bathroom door?) seems particularly meaningful and not simply clever.
  • And this logic of equating disability with violence is hardly unique to the tabloids. The Toronto Star's never-classy Rosie DiManno makes an even more explicit connection, describing Pistorius in terms of "the musky whiff of danger, a risk-flirt, testosterone-propelled dash and flash, as if constantly defying the limitations imposed by a body with limbs missing because limitations were what Pistorius adamantly rejected." DiManno suggests, somehow, that the "restless and recklessness" with which Pistorius approached his disability and sport somehow makes it unsurprising that he could kill someone. If that's true, then we should probably begin to suspect that every non-normative body contains a homicidal maniac, and every ambitious person is capable of murder. Or maybe DiManno thinks this is only true of people who are both ambitious and non-normative, who won't simply accept definitions of normal that exclude them. Maniacs, clearly, all of them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Spoiler etiquette on Twitter?

(Quick note: I'm actually pretty indifferent to spoilers, on Twitter or otherwise. If a story is worth following, a spoiler won't ruin it. In fact, it might make me even more interested. I remember having no interest in seeing The Usual Suspects until after I learned that  - spoiler alert! - Kevin Spacey was Keyser Soze. So, the interest is almost purely academic. But I digress...)

(Quick note, the second: I say "almost purely" because I live with someone who despises spoilers. She doesn't appreciate the way I sometimes spoil things; she doesn't even like it when I vaguely hint that something noteworthy is going to happen. Thus, where spoilers are concerned, I am also interested in self-preservation.)

Two days ago, a Twitter exchange sent me wandering the internets for some sort of standard for spoiler warnings on Twitter. Since my sense of intarweb etiquette is grounded in those halcyon days* of the mid-to-late 90s - wherein every discussion forum and chat room had, at a minimum, a Gentleman's Code to handle spoilers, and more often a numbered list of spoiler rules - I often find myself frightened and confused by the behavior of people on the Facebook and Twitter machine.

(*No, these were not actually halcyon days. Actually, it was kind of like reddit, but if reddit was everywhere. Which is probably the opposite. People sure knew their spoiler rules, though. And the responsibility to avoid spoilage was placed wholly on the person doing the spoiling. That doesn't seem to be the case so much, anymore.)

In this decade, though, there is no standard for what constitutes a spoiler, which means that when the term is used, you can't assume that it means what you think it means. (Unless, of course, you ignore the warning and spoil yourself.) But just as often, spoilers aren't marked with any warning. To add to the confusion, sometimes people will announce that plot details from Season One of The Wire constitute spoilers.

On the other hand, people will decide that the spoiler tag doesn't count after a largely arbitrary x number of days have passed. Also, there are live-tweets** that effectively spoil something as it happens for everyone who isn't following it as it happens. And then, there are people who are offended by the spoiler warning and/or discussions themselves, for fear, I guess, that they're incapable of exercising self-control and will be powerless to look away. Anyway...

(**Fun fact: In France, it's illegal to display Twitter or Facebook names or hashtags in a TV broadcast. Live-tweeting is permitted, but effectively discouraged and considered a form of unregulated advertising. Which it is, really.)

When I went looking for discussion of spoiler etiquette in the age of Twitter, what I found basically amounted to this:
  1. Spoilers are totally unavoidable, thus
  2. Unfollow the person who is providing spoilers,
  3. Stop checking your account for the several hours that the TV show is being broadcast across the continent (assuming it's a TV show - otherwise, all hope is lost), or
  4. Just stop using Twitter.

Wow. That's... terrible. Just a terrible set of options. I realize that Twitter has this simplicity ethos - in contrast to Facebook's uber-surveillance, app-saturation, and hilariously confusing security settings, I guess? - whereby it's effectively impossible to discuss something with a particular group unless you're also being heard by everyone who follows you, but that's still an awful choice. Remove the perceived offender, remove yourself, or put-up-and-shut-up. Yikes.

I'm struggling to find an appropriate analogy to capture the problem, but it seems like they're all really weak. Twitter is a bit like a party where there's a loud talker and you can't not hear them. Actually, this is the very first example that sprang to mind:

Except that, on Twitter, everyone is Homer Simpson - you and me included. And it's actually worse than that. If it were a party, you could at least cover your ears - once the offending comment has been made, it's gone. (You could also leave the party - that strategy is similar to the one above. But it's a strategy-of-last-resort, and I'm more interested in first-resort. If that's something.)  You also wouldn't be significantly put-out by having to cover your ears, since it lasts a few seconds at most; skipping the entire broadcast (and alternate time-zone broadcasts, possibly) of a show, on the other hand, necessitates that you also miss everything else that's happening at the same time. See? Terrible analogy. But anyway...

On Twitter, you can never escape Homer Simpson. The words endure, as tangible now as when they were first spoken. For someone like me - I follow about 125 people, half of whom are on Twitter mostly to follow others - who can review about the past 12 hours worth of tweets in about 5 minutes, that could present a problem. Since my daily Twitter feed is only a few hundred tweets, 75% of which is about baseball or local politics, this isn't particularly difficult. I also happen to want to read it all, a task that would be made considerably more difficult if I had to start avoiding particular people or times of the day.

And this is probably the biggest obstacle to a coherent etiquette - there's no single way that social media is used. In the Twitter exchange that started me thinking about all this, my friend Nathan wrote that that live-tweets - which often contain spoilers - are the only way of experiencing "the moment of simultaneity" that characterizes collective TV watching. This is true, and certainly a good argument in favor of using Twitter as a way of heightening your experience of some sort of perpetual-present.*** The whole Twitter dealie is, in many respects, an extension or evolution of the chat room. But many people - more people, I think, not that this should really matter - use it to follow and facilitate past and/or non-continuous communication, much like a message board. Neither is better or a more authentic use of the technology, but it seems that privileging one experience unavoidably damages the integrity of the other, to some extent.

(***Though I think it's a better argument in favor of watching sports than it is a serial. Fairly or not, there's always been an expectation that sports should be consumed in real-time, as well as an expectation that it's entirely your own responsibility to avoid spoilers. Sports are also much more about the end result than are TV shows. I've watched many a spoiled episode of something scripted, but I'm not sure that I've watched a spoiled game outside of the Olympics. I usually don't even bother watching episodes of Survivor after they've already aired.)

But they're also more than that, because that moment also registers an indelible mark. It's preserved on your page and in the feed of everyone who follows you - your words outlive your present, extend beyond your use and escape your control. And, like a sort of Failbook drama landmine, your spoiler lies in wait for someone who wasn't expecting to be spoiled - not here, not like this.

Completely appropos of nothing. It's just that I found it hilarious.

To wit, it remains there for people to discover, whether that's because they don't pay attention to broadcast times*** or because they easily scroll several hours into the past. Or simply because they're not looking for it or drop their guard. And if we all consume our entertainment media differently and we all use social media differently, comporting yourself in ways that are sure to create conflict with those different uses is probably a bad practice.

(****Lest you think this is simply irresponsible behavior, I can recall a survey of 300+ first-year University students where it was determined that only one show was watched by more than half of them - The Big Bang Theory - and that virtually none of them watched it at 8pm on Thursdays. More to the point, most of them didn't even know that new episodes aired at 8pm on Thursdays. I want to say that Bart Beaty wrote this anecdote, but I can't actually find evidence of that. Regardless, the results are more or less confirmed by conversations with my own students, many of whom say that they don't own TVs and/or don't watch anything on them. They also find some confirmation in me: I don't watch any premium cable TV shows on the TV itself. I watch Game of Thrones, but can't recall what channel it's on - HBO, maybe? - or what time. Though I'm pretty sure it airs on Sundays, if only because every one of these shows airs on a Sunday.)

Now, that's not to say that I think live-tweeting is an inherently poor idea. I live-tweet myself, the rare time that I watch something during its broadcast time. (And sometimes while watching a DVD. Because it amuses me.) Granted, these are usually hate-tweets. (See: every tweet I've made about the NBC's Revolution.) But, learned as I am in the ways of mid-to-late-90s message boards, I try to avoid ruining a potential surprise by supplying unnecessary detail. (If you're following/participating in a live-tweet, you should get the reference even if it's oblique, right?) Instead, I prefer to ruin the show for you through a performance of indirect commentary infused with disdain and mockery. That's just how I roll.

So, where did I start this, and how did I get to this point? To summarize and conclude:
  • There is no agreement about how spoilers should be handled on Twitter, except, perhaps, an agreement that the only way to avoid them is to avoid Twitter altogether. Surely, there's a compromise to be found.
  • Because, unfortunately, that privileges only one kind of person - one who experiences and uses Twitter only in the perpetual-present - and marginalizes everyone who uses it elsewise. In short, it denies the reality that we don't all use Twitter in the same way, or at least positions the perpetual-present usage as the  correct one. That isn't terribly fair.
  • For better or worse, my opinions on spoilers and spoiler etiquette are grounded in the 15 year-old conventions of message/bulletin boards, a format that placed all the responsibility for observing spoiler etiquette on the shoulders of the spoiler. The present-day expectation, though, seems to have reversed this dynamic, and the responsibility has been shifted to the spoilee to protect themselves against the possibility of exposure to spoilers. But I think it's pretty clear that the former is a lot easier to accomplish than the latter.
  • Is vagueness, as an absolute minimum requirement, a reasonable compromise? If we're watching the same thing, simultaneously, I probably don't need to supply the kind of detail that would ruin it for someone who isn't doing that, right? (Or am I committing some sort of classic fallacy, whereby I've simply arrived at the answer that I wanted to reach when I started?)
  • Of course, this opens the door to a never-ending discussion of what constitutes an appropriate level of ambiguity. But that's probably a discussion worth having.

All that said, I'm sure I missed something. What did I miss?