You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2008.
Today’s adventure in marketing is courtesy Facebook’s targeted advertising. When Facebook started including ads on their site, they decided it would be a great idea to target the ads based on the copious amounts of personal information we so conveniently supply them with. As a single woman, I get lovely suggestions of how to end my loneliness with X dating site, how to lose weight with the amazing new açai berry diet, and, of course, various invitations to check out the Facebook groups for retailers such as Victoria’s Secret, and now, oddly enough, Splenda.
Splenda has launched what I can only imagine is a rather experimental marketing campaign through Facebook to create pre-release hype for their latest product, Splenda Mist® (see the group here). Free of those pesky calories, and so portable– it’s just the size of your lipstick (You do own lipstick, right?). The Facebook group defines its mission as such:
To help you get your hands on the latest trend in sweetness. Stick around for a bit and take a look at the photo gallery, become a fan, take a poll, mix yourself a drink, and most importantly, sign up for a free full-sized bottle of SPLENDA® MIST™ and hit “SHARE” to tell your friends about new SPLENDA® MIST™ before we run out.
Welcome! This is a place where women meet up with friends, inspire each other to do more of the things that make us feel great, and help share that good feeling with others! Join our lively community and try the challenges you’ll find here.
Insecurity is a powerful force for marketers to play with, and, according to our culture, women have it in droves (of course, men do too, but we tend not to focus on that). As People magazine has an article gossiping about which celebrities have gained weight next to one about those who are frighteningly thin, as we watch makeover shows that try and tell us that “all women are beautiful” as long as they follow certain rules of fashion (which will guarantee them a date, of course), we are expected to be vulnerable and confused. Marketers take advantage of this by pretending to be on our side, saying that they understand our plight, and suggesting that if we only buy their product we will get to the heart of who we really are, and all our confusion will magically go away. This “real woman” discourse, ultimately, has the exact same subtext it pretends to be liberating us from. I know, no surprise, right? But I keep seeing these campaigns popping up, and I’m sick of the unhealthy lifestyle they promote. Someone needs to point it out.
On a note not precisely related to the campaign, I must at admit that I find the product itself a little strange
in the first place. I know that one of the secrets to advertising new products is, of course, to demonstrate that your product fits a need that the consumer had no idea they even had, to make things that are actually pretty simple suddenly very difficult. Nevertheless, I’m very confused as to the actual purpose of Splenda Mist®, offensive marketing campaign aside. Who goes around sweetening things? Do that many people buy fresh raspberries and then have to make them sweeter (my inner food activist weeps at the thought!)? Is it really going to become the cool thing to bring your own sweetener to a party? I can’t resist the pun– I’m mystified.
One of the main reasons why I moved to Portland is because it is a book-loving city, a literate city. The library is beautiful. Powell’s is a major tourist attraction. And, beyond that, Wordstock exists. Two weekends ago marked the first of what will hopefully be many times that I attended this giant book convention/festival in Portland, frequented by authors, small presses, bookstores, editors, magazines, and book lovers from all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s an entire weekend of everything book and print-media related, which makes it a simultaneously overwhelming and glorious experience for an aspiring writer like myself.
But books and writing, like any other act or object, change with the times. With the flourishing of the net, blogs, and other writing technologies, I think it’s important to consider the role print and digital media play in our society. Going to Wordstock brought up so many questions about art, elitism, and literacy that it’s taken me an entire week to craft this, admittedly, rather wordy post. So here I am, striving, in five short-ish acts, to address some rather interesting questions about books in our culture.
I picked up this little graphic novel of horrors on a whim while browsing at the Hawthorne Powell’s. It was on sale for $8, and the cover had the look of an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series–not to mention I’m always on the lookout for new graphic novels to read. This particular one is a collection of short stories adapted from the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who is apparently well-known in certain circles. The collaboration sounded like an excellent idea, but even just as something atmospheric and spooky for fall, The Nightmare Factory feels somehow hollow and lacking.
Though he did not write the script adaptations, Ligotti himself introduces every story, an editorial choice that I’m still not sure was the best idea. While it is always fascinating to read an author comment on his/her own work, the first time I read a story, I like to experience it for myself. I like to hunt for details in the images and the text, let the story speak for itself. Placing a really authoritative introduction not at the beginning of the collection but at the beginning of each story makes it difficult to allow yourself that first, exploratory reading. As I read the stories in Nightmare, I had Ligotti’s voice in my head, telling me exactly what to look for, what he believed was important. It completely oversimplified the works and sometimes even entirely gave away the plot twists which are supposed to create the sense of horror in the first place. He introduces the opening tale, “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” by explaining how every element of the tale was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. This made it impossible to read the story as anything but a Lovecraft imitation and cheapened a story that otherwise could have stood on its own (it’s one thing to wear your influences on your sleeve and another just to imitate them.).
On the whole, I did not find his commentary insightful enough to merit it coloring my first reading of the stories. In his introduction to “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” he waxes poetic on his decision to write a story about insanity. The choice to write a horror story about an asylum is hardly new, and the justification that the “insane” are somehow closer to the supernatural because of their shoddy grip on reality just doesn’t feel like a fresh take on a horror standard. The story itself is creepy and well-told enough not to feel cliche, but the introduction lends it a heavy, dated feeling.
The artwork, on the other hand, is quite lovely and well-suited to the subject matter. In “Dream of a Mannikin,” Ben Templesmith creates collages of sketchy figures, lushly colored backgrounds, and text, evoking a dream-like world. It reminds me a little of Dave McKean’s Sandman work, which also works to capture a world in which the fine line between fantasy and reality has been blurred. Michael Gaydos’ rich watercolor figures in “Teatro Grottesco” are suitably ominous, and have a strange coldness about them.
I don’t know if I would have appreciated this volume more if I were more familiar with Ligotti’s work. The stories clearly had to be edited to fit their new format, and images, not properly used, can have a difficult time replicating language’s ability to be delightfully ambiguous. Here I found a group of stories that felt conclusive without actually concluding anything. In other words, I think they intended to be more open-ended than they felt. I wanted to feel creeped out, but with Ligotti’s poor analysis of his own work whispering in my ears as I read and the brevity of every story, I just felt underwhelmed. Furthermore, though Ligotti understands that he is working in a great tradition, the tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, etc., I’m not sure he’s doing anything interesting with this tradition. Maybe reading the stories in their original form would reveal an entirely new depth, but it simply didn’t come through in these versions of the stories. Everything felt like standard horror fare: the world as a stage with a cruel director, people being turned into dolls, Gnostic cults. I was left wondering what made Ligotti a cult figure; how is he different from his predecessors his fans so proudly cite?
I did enjoy the collection of stories overall, but it was ultimately pretty forgettable. The art was atmospheric, but not groundbreaking, and the stories felt watered-down and flat, as if the editors had completely gutted them. If the publisher’s intent was to draw new readers into Ligotti’s work, I’m not sure this collection was the best way to do it. But then, as a fan of Gaiman’s work, I love seeing his short stories in graphic novel form, so perhaps Ligotti’s fans are the same.
We’ve all heard the phrases for female indie/alternative musicians: chick rock, a girl and her guitar/piano. Descriptive, yes, but you always get the sense that someone’s saying that they’re oh-so precious, precious being used in that grating way creative writing teachers enjoy springing on you when they think that your story veers dangerously close to resembling a Norman Rockwell illustration. In short, so many female musicians get dismissed as not being serious artists before anyone even hears them, which is a shame because many of them are wonderful (and some aren’t, as with any group of artists.) Rather sad, don’t you think? So let me introduce you to one. By far one of my favorite “indie” folk/rock/alternative singer-songwriters is Noe Venable. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of her; really, no one has heard of her outside of dedicated fans and the San Francisco music scene (although now she’s at school in Massachusetts, so maybe she’s getting some publicity over there.).
Sometimes I think becoming a fan of a musician is a little like falling in love: people hear a song they like, and it decides to follow them home. Next thing you know they are buying every single album by that artist, shelling out money for fan club memberships, and reading a year’s worth of blog entries. For about a month or so, no one can touch that artist’s brilliance, but soon the novelty wears off they get comfortable with him or her and settle down. The insatiable lust tapers off into something more comfortable. My fascination with Noe’s music was never like that. Honestly, the first time I heard her song “Boots” (from the album of the same name), I knew that I was listening to something brilliant but couldn’t enjoy it. I found her voice jarring and fragile. Nevertheless, the song wouldn’t leave me alone. It demanded to be listened to, begged for second chances. Believe me, “Boots” definitely deserved a second chance.
Noe is vibrant, thoughtful, irreverent, and tender. One minute she’ll be singing a mysterious song of personal transformation, the next she’ll be comparing a sunset to cunnilingus. The beautiful, the erotic, the terrifying, the esoteric, and the ugly all have a place in her world, which makes it all the more satisfying and real. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her fourth album, Boots. Noe says of Boots:
In so many of my favorite stories these troubled men dream of finding a woman to save them. You read stories like that and you’re troubled, and you start dreaming of the same thing. Then one day you wake up and say, wait, I am the woman in those stories. But I’m troubled! So now who’s going to save me? I think that’s where Boots begins.
I think most fans prefer “The World is Bound By Secret Knots,” which is also a fantastic album, but “Boots” is my personal favorite. Even the first two songs on the album alone work together to produce a stunning musical portrait of the disparity between projected and personal identity. The first song, and title track of the album, is sung from the point of view of a woman who relies on a pair of boots for strength when dealing with the dangerous realities of her world:
I go to the corner where it all goes down
and I do things I’ll regret but not right now
they say “angel, you been here before”
yeah, I had my boots to carry me
just like Pandora with her box
I let everything out and spin around
and when they come to me, it’s like a river to cross
but I have my boots to ferry me
I’d like to see my eyes in someone else’s face
I’d like to see my face on a magazine
the things I want, the life I need
my boots keep me between
The end of the song fades into an acapella section which soon melds organically into the softer, gentler guitar intro of the second track, “Prettiness.” It is unclear whether the narrators of the two songs are intended to be the same or different, but both women are equally aware that while the personae created by the clothes they wear may be fragile and false, they have everything to do with the way people treat them:
I have never been one for prettiness prettiness
thinking of lace ’bout makes me puke
but the thing I just bought has a little bit little bit
I’m putting it on and I’m thinking of you
when I was a child I followed some holy men
going into woods to do their work
I had an overcoat on just to cover me cover me
listening for anything I might learn
and there were stars up in the heavens
and if they caught me, what could they do?
they did not know I was a woman
at least I didn’t think they knew
It would be, as one of my friends suggests, so easy to dismiss this as another woman singing about cutesy things, using boots and lace as metaphors for what kind of woman she is. But the use of clothing here is both deliberate and clever. After all, no matter your gender, clothing is a major part of the creation of public image. Noe has done a fantastic job capturing the dilemma so many women (and men) face in deciding how to present themselves, the tention between who we are, who we have to be to get the job done, and who we could be.
When I think of these songs, I picture characters like Dana Scully on the X-Files. I see my mother back when she was trying to apply to medical school, and had to deal with interview questions such as, “How do you feel taking a man’s spot?” I remember an article I read about women in academia who faced a nightmare getting dressed in the morning because no matter what they wore they either seemed too frumpy, frigid, or sexy to be taken seriously. All of these women have (or had) to somehow transcend their gender in order to be taken seriously for the work they do. Women who want to “see their face on a magazine” or dream of being able to “follow some holy men,” have to craft their personae very carefully. In both the literal and symbolic senses, we have to know when to wear lace and when combat boots. To be taken seriously as a tough woman, as a smart woman, we have to put on androgynous boots, try to be just asexual enough without losing female identity. Therefore, when we do show a little bit of lace, ask to be seen both as brilliant minds and as potential significant others, we risk losing our boots, our symbols of strength and courage. We risk becoming mere sex objects. And it’s scary. At the end of “Prettiness,” as the instrumentation swells, only to suddenly vanish beneath her voice, Noe asserts, “He does not know I am a woman, | But I think I might want him to know.” The risk, trust, and self-confidence embodied in that statement is at once incredibly powerful and relatable.
Not all of Noe’s songs are about gender identity. In “Strange Companion,” she sings from the point of view of a car who witnesses the brutal murder of its owner. In “Prayer for Beauty,” she daringly asserts that a belief in the potential for beauty is necessary to combat ugliness in the world. In “Juniper,” she sings from the point of view of a child who feels most at home amongst the branches of her favorite tree. Noe treats all of these subjects and characters with thought-provoking insight and fantastic (mostly) acoustic accompaniment. Her music is truly a treat for both the mind and the ear.
Let me tell you a little coming of age story. When I started high school, George W. Bush was elected into office; he was re-elected my Freshman year of college. Those were important years for me. Looking back, it’s strange to think that during the eight years which have shaped my adult self (though what kind of adult that may be is still fluid), we’ve had a president who represented so many things that I despised. My liberal peers (those born around 1986) and I began to form our political consciousnesses under a president we were ashamed of.
Naturally, most of us had political opinions before high school. In eighth grade, we dutifully wasted time in my American history and civics class talking about the Starr Reports. In sixth grade, another teacher tried to explain to the boys in my class, who were high on their new surges of testosterone, why bombing Iraq was not a matter to be taken lightly. But in those years, we still relied on adults to explain the hard things to us. We still saw the world in black and white.
My high school was a conservative oddity in Northern California–a sort of black hole in the midst of all the college professors and Silicon Valley tycoons. Those of us who were liberal were called “pussies” (their term, not mine.) or overly emotional thinkers who didn’t really understand the economy. Even our civics teacher laughed at us when another student and I said that we’d be comfortable going to the principal and asking to start a gay-straight alliance. I spent high school very angry.
I was angrier still when the quirk of my mid-November birthday prevented me from voting in the 2004 election. I think being on a college campus, particularly a very liberal one, made it sting even more. As a college freshman, not only did I feel like an adult (or at least, old enough to have the privileges of one), but I was also surrounded by such political fervor that I felt alienated from. So I took action: I registered voters in Minnesota at an Ani DiFranco concert. I marched in a peaceful rally around town with other students and town residents out of frustration at the two weak candidates and Bush’s triumph. I’ll never forget the day after election 2004: students walked around college in stunned silence. In empathy, my observational drawing professor told his class of moping freshmen of his disappointment following the first election he could vote in, the Nixon/McGovern race.
I’m telling you this so that you understand how I (and others of my age-group) grew politically. We took refuge in “The Daily Show” because laughing was easier than anger. Whenever a friend of mine went on a study abroad program, they would joke in the months before they left about pretending to be Canadian, and one of the questions they would inevitably have to answer upon their return was “How did people react toward you as an American?” I felt completely cynical towards this government whom I did not elect, who did not respect women, who believed many of my closest friends–for reasons of race, religion, or sexuality–were second class citizens, who called the most patriotic people I knew traitors, who made fun of the things that were important to me: literacy, science, education, intellectual pursuits. They did not take us, the “youth vote” who failed to save Kerry in 2004, seriously. I’m not saying we suffered or were marginalized like so many other groups in America; I’m just explaining where some of us came from.
Tonight, my flatmate and I went over to a friend’s house for an election night party. Just as we arrived, McCain began his concession speech. We were shocked. For the first time in eight years, the election was decided by 8PM pacific time. No hanging chads, no staring at Ohio with bated breath. It ended quietly, gracefully. And there in the tv room we were giddy, clapping and screaming along with the crowd on the television.
You see, we realized how much Obama’s election has changed everything we’d come to accept for the past eight years. As we watched a re-run of the Daily Show election special, I was struck by how little I needed John Stewart (though it was still entertaining). I’m not saying Obama’s perfect, but I do believe he’s a president who has the ability to do this country proud. And I genuinely appreciate that he, or his persona if you’d rather, does not talk down to the American people or affect stupidity for the sake of “Joe six-pack.” For the first time in eight years, I feel genuinely hopeful about my country. Truly, it’s a very strange feeling.
But my election post would not be complete without me expressing my utter dismay over Prop. 8. Though I refuse to call it until the very last vote is counted–we knew going into this that it would be a very close race–I cannot believe that so many people would vote for a proposition that should not have even been an issue in the first place. If Prop. 8 passes, it’ll be an ugly blotch on our state and this country. I have no more words for it.
EDIT- I was debating editing that last paragraph there, but I think I’ll keep it. I still had hope then, and I’ll keep this post hopeful. As for now, I’m crushed. I feel so sad for my friends who will no longer be able to marry the people they love; I feel so sad for the people I do not know who will no longer be able to marry the people they love; and I feel ashamed on behalf of other straight people who do not have the sense to feel ashamed of what they have done.
At the beginning, I was merely sick and tired of passing by Icebreaker Merino every time I walk to Powell’s because I have to see this image of Mr. Tall-dark-and-handsome and his sheep bride. Later, I decided to visit Icebreaker’s website, only to discover that this campaign has a lot more crammed into it that merits commentary than first meets the eye. You see, Icebreaker has produced a thoroughly strange (and offensive) advertising campaign that really exemplifies some of the weird ways we think about the relationship between men and women. It also made the mistake of being in my path one too many times (not to mention the mistake of being visible from the window of Powell’s cafe) and so must suffer being run through my imaginary machine which painfully extracts all subtext. It’s a little like a juicer.
Icebreaker is a sportswear company from New Zealand that makes clothing from merino wool (hence, the sheep). In their fall/winter 08 collection, they have created an underwear line for men called “Beast,” and a line for women called “Nature.” I’m actually not sure if the two images in this post were created specifically for the Beast/Nature underwear line or just for the Fall/Winter 08 Collection as a whole, but they certainly are working along the same lines.
Here’s a little background. Conventional wisdom in the women’s movent in anthropology back in the 70’s suggested that across the board, every culture viewed women as being closer to nature and men as being the civilizing force of culture. This is why women had to be protected, hidden, and domesticated by men. Women had the mystery of pregnancy; men governed cities. However, at the same time, counterculture icons like Ken Kesey were writing the opposite analogy. Men, they claimed, want to be free; in an ideal male world, men live like wild animals, running around and having copious amounts of sex, but women, with their desire for consumer products and monogamy, force feminizing suburban culture on them. It’s a really weird contradiction, but culture has always been contradictory.
What’s really interesting about this campaign is that Icebreaker takes versions of the nature/culture analogies into account. Men are at once the Beast (image two), and the beacon of civilization. Women are at once innocent, passive nature (image one), and a civilizing, but feminizing force (image two).
If we look at the image at the top there, we see a family portrait of a man, a sheep woman, and a lamb who is in theory their offspring. The unnaturally pale woman, with wooly hair and sheep’s ears, clings to the strong, rugged, tall-dark-handsome man (My arbitrary decision for the English language today is that tall, dark, and handsome should contract to become one adjective.). Though they are both nude, they are not equally vulnerable. The man, as the tall, upright one in the center, becomes the protector. The woman looks domesticated, passive. She is part of nature, but a nature that is Edenic, innocent, and tameable: one that civilization can really make something with (or at least have little, bleating lambs with. Not even lamb-children. Lambs.).
Now let’s move on to the next image. They say turn about is fair play, but this image of a man-ram simply doesn’t act as the soothing ginger ale to the nausea this campaign stirs in my stomach. In stark contrast to the ethereal domestic bliss of the first ad, here our shepherdess is… shearing?… her ram. The wool-sand, of course, exists in the photo merely to cover up the model’s genitals, and the angle of the scissors suggests that she is about to either violently expose him or castrate him. The violent pose, suggesting a struggle, plays into the idea of women as unwelcome domesticators. She’s feminizing him. (Also, even just looking at it from an advertising perspective, I’m not quite sure how this image helps sell underwear.)
The racial subtext in this ad is equally troubling. In the second image, instead of playing up the tall-dark-handsome ideal, the man’s darker skin is designed to emphasize his wildness, playing off the disturbing trope left over from colonialism that the ethnic other is somehow more primitive and wild. When the woman is portrayed as an animal, her white skin gleams, emphasizing her whiteness. Her race here works to emphasize that she is a peaceful, docile sheep, as opposed to the wild, dark-skinned ram. This is why they have a mixed-race couple on this ad: they are relying on backwards racist currents in Western culture, perpetuating and profiting from them under the guise of running an “artsy” markerting campaign.
If the images don’t speak loudly enough for you, the text of the campaign is equally strange. Take this little gem from the “Beast” section of the website:
“We weren’t designed to live in cities or love one person, but we do. The city brings the beast alive. Your creative energy thrives. The beast in you is caged by frail and fragile bars. This product reconnects you with nature, a harmonious force to balance the beast.”
First, I just have to point out that content aside, the text reads like Engrish. Too bad that Icebreakers is a Kiwi company, and so in theory, English is their first language.
Now let’s dissect this a bit. The city, while unnatural, still has an untamed feel to it, and so it’s harmonious with the manly testosterone beast. It’s sort of wild, “manly” civilization. Of course, the text doesn’t do anything to reconcile the monogamy issue. Also, because “Nature” is the female half of their underwear line, they’ve made the woman/nature connection explicit here. Women are harmonious, they balance the beast within (or castrate it, depending on what image Icebreakers feels like using at the moment.).
What does the pseudo-poetic Engrish-like text on the “Nature” side of things have to say for itself? Well, absolutely nothing. Apparently, the ethereal nature-woman connection is so self-explanatory, or at least so easily elucidated by pictures of women doing naked yoga in the snow, that the advertisers felt no need for written comment (I’d also like to note again that all the women photographed for the “Nature” section are incredibly pale, and the man in the “Beast” section, while of indeterminate race, has been photographed under dark lighting to make his skin appear darker.).
How many times have we heard that men, when it comes to their libidos, are untamable beasts? How many times have we heard that women need to be protected or that female sexuality somehow needs to be covered and tamed? I’m sure Icebreaker thinks they’re being clever, artistic, and edgy, but really they’ve just taken the same nonsense we hear on tv every day, racialized it, and photographed it under fancy lighting. Time and time again, the media portrays men and women as being unable, by their very natures, to have a relationship where they’re both on equal footing. Here, women are either passively domesticated or forcefully domesticating. Men are either wildly aggressive, or the lone shepherd of their families (After all, I doubt that the sheep-woman is really useful for things like, I don’t know, deep conversations.). So much for companionship, friendship, or equality.
And now, I’m going to knit my socks made with merino blend so that I may have merino gear that does not turn me into a sparkly sheep woman.