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I tend to go to Powell’s when I need a mental pick-up. The one on Hawthorne is a long, but comfortable walk from my apartment, and the walk through residential neighborhoods decked with twisting, moss-covered trees clears my head. And then there are the books themselves–I don’t know what it is about books that makes them such a fetish object for so many others and me, but they are. There’s the Book Lust book series (and the related Book Crush), various accessories scattered all through Etsy, and, well, the whole concept of the sexy librarian.
I’m particularly guilty of this conflation of reading and sex. My flatmate (another former English major) and I used to joke back in college that we were librosexual. We had jokes about phone sex with Spenser (who probably wouldn’t have appreciated them and would have banished us to the Bower of Bliss, which is actually fairly disease-ful, despite its name) and our own imaginary harem of poets. Once we made a makeshift fort in one of the library study rooms, placing a blanket over a table, to create just the right atmosphere for reading Middle English poetry–we soon realized that the odd looks we got when we emerged for a water fountain break were because people thought we were having sex. I think part of it comes from the same place that inspires math majors to crack “show me your derivatives” jokes: we all want to prove that what we’re passionate about is interesting–so interesting, in fact, that it’s sexy. But with literature it’s only partially the discipline–it’s the books themselves that are supposed turn us on.
“Sex sells” is perhaps the most oft-quoted advertising truism. It motivates the homogenization of female musicians to a specific standard of beauty; people used it as an excuse for Sarah Palin’s appeal. People smugly quote it to dismiss complaints about degrading ad campaigns. But it’s not just mainstream publishers, massive chain bookstores, or even county-run public libraries (though I feel terribly guilty for including them in with massive money-making marketing machines) who are perpetuating librosexuality; it’s diy folks on Etsy and indie presses. It’s my friends who made their own copy of the “First I get naked. Then I read banned books.” button. So this makes me wonder: Is the sexualization of books just a means for book marketers to deal with an increasingly digital world? Has it always been around? Just why do books make me want to stroke their spines?
And no, it’s not because the kids these days have to associate everything with sex. The kids these days did not invent sex, though we like to pretend we did.
I think a lot of us forget that books have always been valued for their physical form. I’ve summarized in an earlier post the development of books as an object, but here’s a brief repeat. In the Western World (I’m not as familiar with trends in literacy in other parts of the world. The book history/binding course I took was rather Euro-centric), codices (books with bound spines, as we think of them today. They replaced scrolls around the 5th century CE, according to this site, which I checked to refresh my memory. I have a terrible head for dates.) were either sacred or luxury items, valued both for their beauty and the knowledge they contained. The invention of the printing press and the rise of literacy led to books falling into merchant-class hands, and, eventually, even farther. Zap forward to the 19th century, and you’ll find William Morris, disgusted with the mass production of books (and industrialization in general), writing entire treatises on the most aesthetically pleasing margins for laying out text, and publishing artistic printings of such classics as The Canterbury Tales through the Kelmscott Press.
In the later half of the 20th century, books became even cheaper. My copy of 1oo Years of Solitude was my dad’s back in college- he bought it for 75 cents. It’s falling appart already, and its heavily acidic paper is brittle and discolored. But elegance is coming back, even in mainstream presses–aside from genre fiction, which often gets the cheap paperback treatment, I’ve noticed books with bi color printing, uneven edges meant to lend a handmade vibe, blurbs justifying the choice of font, and better paper. Many of my fellow English majors couldn’t bring themselves to buy used copies of their course books because highlighting and pen marks made them cringe. Illustrated editions of everything from the classic writing reference The Elements of Style by Strunk and White to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have hit the shelves. We’re bringing “sexy,” or, at least, aesthetics back to items printed for the upper-middle and middle class (and those who can’t afford to buy a copy can theoretically imitate the thrill of a beautiful edition by taking it out from their local library, assuming their local library is well-funded. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.). We can easily make the conclusion that books are just like any other consumer product. The spine of a book, the curve of a car, the sensuality of chocolate: it’s all part and partial of sex in consumer culture. Sex sells, after all.
But books have always had a a forbidden fruit aspect to them–Eve’s apple didn’t just shine; it was sweet to the taste. As long as books have been made, they have been vessels for subversive, dangerous knowledge. I’m not just talking about pornography either. From Galileo’s blasphemous astronomy to Blake’s unorthodox mythologies, we can count on any revolutionary work to bring censorship upon its head. It’s little surprise that perhaps the most famous censorship trial in the US centered around the sexually explicit content of Joyce’s Ulysses. The banning of books has inspired entire movements, weeks of celebration, and other novels. In Western culture, at least, we tend to fetishize danger–I’m pretty sure Freud did some writing on this, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head, so I could be lying to you there. Though not the whole story, I certainly think part of the drive behind sexy book marketing is the sense of rebelliousness and subversion.
While we’re doing some digging around in our culture’s psychoses, I can’t resist bringing up a related explanation, even though all my sources for it are either buried at home with my college books or have long since been recycled (I can’t save all my handouts). Certain branches of literary criticism, particularly those with a psychoanalytic bent, have seen books and text as being like a female body for men to dissect and interpret. Books are mysterious (and sometimes, as I mentioned about 50 times in the previous paragraph, subversive,) which early feminist thinkers would label as culturally feminine. And boom: sex. This goes along quite nicely with the whole forbidden fruit theory (perhaps a little too nicely. I’m sure there’s a complication in there somewhere). Am I seriously saying that we subconsciously view books as feminine? I’m not sure. Still, it again points to the many ways our culture intertwines women, the forbidden, and sex.
And there’s yet another way to look at it (yes! another!). Aside from the Etsy men’s tote bag, most of the lusty book products I’ve seen have been marketed either towards women or with women (using pinup girls with books, for example). Now, on the one hand, women have long been targeted by marketers as the ultimate consumer group. But I think the indie producers of the stereotype are working with a different cultural current entirely. Ever heard of the smart/sexy dichotomy (as in you’re either one or the other)? We’ve been fighting back. As the media constantly bombards us with images of the sexy bimbo on TV, is it any wonder that we want to respond with witty quips, images of reading pinup girls, and the classic Portland glasses-clad “Reading is Sexy” girl? Our book fetish is an Emma Peel Kung-Fu kick to anti-intellectualism.
So are books becoming sexier as they return to being objects for the privileged? Or is it their promise of knowledge (with its ties to both sex and power?) that makes us hot? I’m going with both: not even our beloved books can escape consumer culture, but reading has never been an asexual act (I’m sure Victorian children’s authors would be horrified.). So next time you feel coy curling up in bed with a book, remember that, historically, you’re not alone.
It’s that day again, Thursday. Snazz day. The 7-year-old (I’m guessing) girl sitting next to me at this café is reading a Clique novel entitled Revenge of the Wannabes. It makes me sad, so let’s talk snazzy media instead:
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m finally finished with it! Though Rushdie writes extremely well, he gave me sensory overload with this novel. I just wanted to edit it. (I’m keeping this short because I’ve been talking about it for the past two weeks)
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon- A tasty snack of a novel, with an afterward that’s almost as rewarding to read as the novel itself. I couldn’t launch right into another huge novel after MC, so I took a slight detour here. Though Chabon’s more known for his literary work, I love the fact that he is unashamed to dabble in what essentially is genre fiction every once in awhile. Gentlemen tells the story of two Jewish vagabonds on the Silk Road during the 10th century with great wit and lovely prose (though some of his sentences were ridiculously long and easy to get lost in.) Also depicts a close male friendship without any sort of gay panic. But the best gender surprises would spoil too much of the plot.
Bitch: The Buzz Issue- I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Bitch at Jennifer Pozner’s lecture on Tuesday. So far I’ve thrilled to tales of subversive bug sex (and learned that one of my favorite books back in high school, Dr. Tatiana Gives Sex Advice to All Creation, has an accompanying miniseries, complete with musical numbers and cheesy costumes, that has been deemed too risqué for the US. Makes me sad– it’s a fascinating and enlightening book on evolution), read about masculinity in trouble (I feel so up on the trends!), and looked at a terrifying marketing campaign from Ecko Jeans.
Pornstitution: Sexual Capitalism in the 21st Century by Samantha Berg- A free lecture at In Other Words, the nation’s last non-profit feminist bookstore. I’m excited to see what’s promised to be a nuanced discussion of the sex industry that goes beyond the typical “porn is evil because sex is evil;” “all porn is by definition exploitative;” “porn is the best thing ever and completely harmless” responses, none of which are feel accurate.
Also, let me take this opportunity to plug my friend Buzzy’s new etsy shop, B.Bodkins. She makes wonderful plush toys: from the cutest ghosts you’ll ever meet, to (coming soon) angel and devil-shaped pocket warmers (you heat them up in the microwave and they’ll keep your hands toasty). You all know that I’m a big supporter of indie crafters on Etsy and the Etsy community in general, and, having been around while Buzz was making these lovelies, I can assure you that they are irresistibly huggable.
So what sort of media are you reading/watching/seeing/playing/listening to this week?
Last night, I headed up to PSU to to see Jennifer Pozner, founder of the Women in Media and News organization, speak as part of Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture lecture series. The title of her talk was “Project Brainwash: Why Reality TV is Bad For Women.” In a show of what some would call heroism and others masochism, Pozner has been watching reality TV shows over the past few years in order to record and expose their dark subtext.
Pozner’s talk focused on exposing reality shows as the marketing machines that they are and revealing how they work to perpetuate incredibly damaging stereotypes of, well, everyone. Considering that I don’t even watch “American Idol,” much less “The Bachelor” (frankly, I didn’t even realize it was still running.), most of the clips Pozner showed merely confirmed my worst fears instead of forcing me to look more deeply at something heretofore dismissed, which is how her talk was set up. I learned more about why networks continue to make reality shows, but the actual analysis of show content was the same sad story that anyone dealing with media literacy can recite by wrote: Women are unintelligent, shallow gold diggers. Money is the key to happiness. Being single makes you worthless. It was actually impressive how shows like “The Bachelor” so perfectly walked the tightrope between a straight male harem fantasy and a straight female fairytale romance. But it was nothing I hadn’t seen before.
And yet, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The story may be tired, but media outlets are still using it. Also, while most every feminist knows that reality shows are potentially terribly damaging, I don’t think many of us actually watch reality shows because we know them to be damaging. But anyone with a good journalistic instinct understands to actually make these claims, we have to be able to show they exist. To the very media literate, Pozner’s talk might have sounded like old news, but from a journalistic standpoint, it was very important work. I’ll be interested to read her book on the subject, Reality Bites Back: How Guilty Pleasure TV is Making Us Sexist, Shallow, and Socially Irresponsible, which comes out this October. As a friend said of the article Pozner wrote in the latest Bitch issue which covered many similar points as the talk, the lecture had the sense of trying to summarize a very complex longer work in an hour or so. I have nothing but sympathy for her on this point–it’s a near-impossible task.
I’ve never become immune to the energy that comes from being in a room of people who are, at least for the most part, passionate about a cause. I just love the sense of community it fosters. As we watched Pozner’s horrifying clips we gasped and groaned. It was cathartic to know I wasn’t the only one disgusted. Nevertheless, as much fun as I have being in a room full of like-minded people, understanding how dangerous and damaging these images are, I often wish there was a way to reach people who don’t understand. The fact is, probably no one who needed to hear this talk came to it. Why would they? There are still people, even commenters on feminist blogs, who don’t understand that the media we absorb affects us, even if our logical brains know to dismiss it. Until we can teach people media literacy, there will be those dismissing reality TV as “just a show.” I don’t have a good solution to this, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
On a personal level, I found Pozner’s talk to be rather inspiring. I’ve been reading obscene amounts of terrible fanfiction over the past few months in preparation for an article about the dumbing down and weakening of feminist-leaning female characters in fanfiction (It’s what privileged, unemployed feminist bloggers do when they’re not job hunting, volunteering, or blogging.).
There were some technical difficulties (the perils of new lecture series and using unfamiliar computers,) but overall I think it was a well-worthwhile night. I wish I could have stayed longer to talk to some other people about it–if any of you were there, please let me know your take on it. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to savor my spontaneous free cappuccino.
Welcome to The Snazz! For those of you who weren’t here last week (or just didn’t read about The Snazz,) The Snazz is my new Thursday tradition (it’s lasted for two whole weeks now. That makes it a tradition) where we gush/complain/etc. about the media we’ve been interacting with all week. There’s too much bad media out there, so let’s chat about what’s good, or what’s bad and you wouldn’t recommend anyone touching with a thrity-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. Print or digital, new or ancient–it’s all good.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- Still. I’m finding Rushdie to be a very slow read, partially because I just can’t connect with his intensely-symbolic characters.
I’m debating what novel/non-fiction book to read next: Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man, Margret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, or something entirely different, like the biography of Percy Shelley I’ve got lying around. hmmm…
If the my library hold had come through this week, I’d be reading Rose, which is the prequal to the graphic novel, Bone. I love Bone, it’s pure imagination with a sense of humor. Plus, Rose is the back story of Grandma Ben, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s an old woman who races cows (as in, she runs with them.) and kicks ass.
Candy Matson, Yukon 28209 (downloadable here)- Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s, San Francisco had its own female hardboiled PI, Candy Matson, and it’s super fun to listen to. Yes, it’s very much a product of its time (She’s only a PI so that she can afford a penthouse appartment, is a former model, and relies on her male friends for help), but Candy herself is pretty smart most of the time. Her friend (who is implied to be gay), Rembrant, is a little more obnoxious of a stereotype though.
M.I.A.- Arular (careful, her website might cause seizures/give headaches)- I finally borrowed my friend’s copy of M.I.A.’s first album, and I’m dancing all over the kitchen to it.
Also, for those of you who’ve seen Coraline, any thoughts? What do you think of the addition of Wyborn? It’s been too long since I’ve read the book to compare, but I must admit that I was a little miffed by the old “let’s give a boy a larger role to make sure this movie will appeal to boys too (because we can’t have boys identifying with girls)” and I don’t remember Coraline’s mother being quite so obnoxious/fun-killing/lame. But maybe that’s just my memory.
So, what are your media crushes this week?
Nearly a week later, and I’m still recovering from Valentine’s Day, which apparently is also known as “the day when complete strangers can insinuate that you and whichever male friend you happen to be spending time with are a couple and then insult that male friend for not buying you a rose. ” I was unaware of this second name–this strange custom didn’t appear in college, where I’d usually either spend my Valentine’s Days buying student group fundraiser chocolates for boys that I had crushes on, so that I could make life awkward for the both of us or sneaking paper cranes into friends’ mailboxes. But one thing that’s a constant about Valentine’s Day whether in or out of the ivory tower is the way it tends to make single people feel guilty,bitter or inadequate. And then we run to dating sites (link to Sara Haskin’s “Target Women” video on the subject, which is hilarious).
Okay, I’ll stop with the snark (maybe). For one thing, the real reason why I waited nearly a week for this post is that I just figured out how to do screen captures yesterday (and wasted copious amounts of time saving all the internet ads I hate for future subtext juicing). For another, the point of this post is not the cultural phenomenon of dating sites, but the uncomfortable subtext lurking in one rather popular dating site: OK Cupid. Most people I know within my age group use OK Cupid to some capacity, myself included. As far as dating sites go, it’s generally thought to be the most “with it.” I’ve even seen it praised by commenters on Feministing for not marginalizing poly relationships and allowing for homosexuality and bisexuality (because apparently other sites have not gotten the message).
But behind its trendy facade, OK Cupid makes plenty of really uncomfortable statements and insinuations. You know, the sort of assertion that people like to pretend is edgy, but in closer examination is revealed to be the same sort of cultural messages we’ve been receiving for years. In many ways, OK Cupid is not nearly so friendly and savvy a site as it makes itself out to be.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Deciding to join a dating site is full of implications that make people feel uncomfortable and question themselves that have nothing to do with the site itself. Also, there are plenty of things about the site that make me feel uncomfortable, from features that “punish” you (aka- mark you with a red light, meaning that you rarely reply to other messages) for not replying to each and every message you get (ignoring the fact that most people receive some pretty invasive messages that they may not feel comfortable replying to) to the fact that it calls you a “dirty dog” if you turn off the automatic censor. Their “about us” page only includes one woman, which would bother me less if her photo was not of a pair of disembodied legs in fishnets and her label wasn’t “office chick,” whose primary duties were “making sure Sam doesn’t go insane, writing surveys, busting spammers and never, ever letting the programmers run out of Diet Pepsi.” But then, I have a sense that many dating sites probably think they can create a dating site for both men and women with only the input of one gender (Apparently, they’ve all read/seen He’s Just Not That Into You and therefore know that women have relationship IQs of 5.). The fact is, if I just systematically pointed out everything I’ve seen on the site with disturbing subtext, I’d get a headache; and this post would become a mere rant. So, as always, I’m going to focus on a few bits and pieces that I think illustrate larger issues.
(I <3 alliteration)
OK Cupid, like pretty much anything on the net or in print, has to choose images to represent a news bite. To avoid bombarding people with giant walls of text, they try and reduce people to images as much as possible. For example, every user, as they use the site, is awarded a series of personality trait images. For example, if someone is “more compassionate” than most users, their profile has a cartoon image of a cheerful female nurse (more ambitious, by the by, is a man in a business suit with a laptop). But what’s really irked me this week is their image for their weekly quiz contest, drama. The programmers at OK Cupid decided that they could best represent this contest with an image crying, screaming woman, playing into the stereotype that women just love making big deals out of nothing and causing excess drama. You’ve never heard of a drama king, right? They must not exist. The fact that the image isn’t even commented upon and is simply plastered up there beside the word drama without explanation only makes it worse: it turns the image into a symbol.
This is a particularly insidious use of semiotics, the science of signs. Basically, semiotics looks at how we make a connection between image and meaning. For example, the little image (or the little emoticon that I used above) that we tend to think of as a “heart,” does not look anything like a human heart. Yet, in our cultural imagination, the image is inextricably intertwined with this meaning. In this example, the OK Cupid design time created an arbitrary symbolic correlation between the crying woman and drama. This plays into the at least old as Greeks (if not time) idea that women are hysteric (a word which actually comes from the Greek word for womb.), irrational creatures and tend to make ludicrous complaints. It plays into the idea that we’re always looking for drama where there isn’t any, making mountains out of molehills. Do I think it’s going to brainwash anyone who didn’t already believe this to some degree? No. But it’s obnoxious, and propagates an image of women that we constantly have to fight against and discourages women from speaking up even when it matters.
The lifeblood of OK Cupid’s matching system is a series of multiple choice questions that you answer both for yourself and for your ideal match. The site’s matching algorithm then uses this information to stick you with a bunch of labels and calculate how well you will get along with other people.
Now, of course, everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, and relationship status has to answer the same questions, which, initially seems like a good idea. But, in my experience, this tends to lead to what can, if we use only diplomatic terms, be described as awkward situations.
My queer friends (especially those who live in neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut, and were not in California before the 2008 election) have a lot of fun answering questions about whether they wish to get married some day, and whether they believe homosexuality is a sin or not. My trans friends have dealt with similar questions. I suppose you could argue it’s not the duty of a dating site to condemn anyone’s moral judgment, no matter how bigoted, but I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the site normalizing homophobia and transphobia like that. Pretty much, instead of alienating a socially conservative audience, the site has decided that they’d rather pretend that homosexuality and transgenderism are things that we can debate normally and dispassionately, like marijuana usage or gun control, as if it didn’t involve debating the legitimacy of actual people. The site acts as if it is simply taking itself out of the debate by allowing “both sides” on their site. Is this really okay? Is this behavior really conducive to a safe, fun website?
Another “fun” example is the question that I posted in the image above, an image which I have entitled “questionnotaboutbisexuality.gif” because I still don’t know what bisexuality has to do with anything. The question reads, “A bisexual person wants to date a man and a woman at the same time. In your opinion, is this person out of line? A) Yes, being bisexual does not excuse infidelity. B) No, dating both sexes best fulfills their needs. C) It depends on the situation.” The question may have an “out,” a none of the above, but I’m still bamboozled as to why a question which is essentially about open relationships has to become tied up in sexual orientation. I declined to answer this question because, to me, “it depends on the situation” does not translate to, “As long as everyone is open, honest, and consenting.” Gender has nothing to do with it. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. Bringing bisexuals into the mix just plays into the bisexuals are more likely to cheat stereotype.
And I’m not even going to start on the “slavery vs. holocaust” oppression Olympics question.
In a sense, by staying out of moral debates, OK Cupid has made itself a less safe place to be.
Oh, Baby, That’s Just the Way It Is
And last, and least, the text blurb that inspired this post in the first place:
You’re choosy, not wanting to get mixed up with just anyone. Girls can get away with this kind of selectiveness for some reason. Most guys have to take whatever’s lying around, passed out.
After taking their (heteronormative) “dating persona” personality test, I decided to check out some of the other possible personas a person can have. This one comes from the female persona “The Intern,” a woman who wants casual sex, but is inordinately picky. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rape culture. (Oh yes, and stereotypes about how straight men just want sex and will take anything with boobs. Can’t forget those. The stereotypes, I mean, not the boobs. Though one should remember boobs too.)
This, combined with such questions in their matching algorithm which ask if no really means no are not innocent comments nor funny depictions of college party life. By including them so flippantly on their site, OK Cupid is normalizing this kind of behavior. How is this okay?
And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Dating sites may not be designed to be moral regulators or political forces, but they are both a product of and a regulator of our culture. OK Cupid may be pretending to stay out of debates, but it’s really saying that it’s okay in our culture to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation; it’s okay to have sex with someone without consent; it’s okay to be a person who ignores the word “no.” It’s saying that in our culture, it’s okay to chalk these things up to personal preference.
Sometimes I think I’m a bad feminist blogger because my gut reaction to any sort of rhetorical question like that is, “I don’t know.” I don’t claim to have all the answers. So I’m going to cheat and say, “I’m here to make you think,” because I feel like a hypocrite every time I declare moral superiority because I criticize conservatives for the same thing. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this is okay or even desirable in our culture.
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to conclude that OK Cupid is not a safe dating site, not that I think there’s one out there that currently does any better. It’s pretty clear to me that no dating site, and certainly not OK Cupid is going to make me feel like a desirable straight woman for my feminist beliefs or make me feel particularly welcomed on their corner of the internet except as a sex object. But that’s all part and parcel of internet culture, which is, of course, tied up in our own culture. I think sometimes we separate the two too readily.
What’s more fun than Valentine’s chocolate? Femme fatales! Clearly.
I have a Noir-loving streak. Can’t help it–ever since I took a class in college on American Film Noir, I couldn’t help but gain a soft spot for the overly-gender-conscious, campy genre. And, of course, I love the concept of the femme fatale.
I suppose I could do a long, in-depth post about the femme fatale in the American cultural imagination and how she represents the anxieties (and dark fantasies) surrounding the sexually assertive woman. Maybe I will someday. But it’s Sunday, not someday, and I’m tired, so instead I’m going to leave you with some awesome videos to celebrate the archetype.
Rita Hayworth- Put the Blame on Mame (from Gilda)
People consider Gilda to be the quintessential femme fatale, which is kind of odd because she’s not actually a femme fatale at all. She gets blamed for promiscuity because of her overt sexuality, and in this number she intentionally plays on these fears. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, she’s not supposed to be singing at the nightclub at all, much less removing any articles of clothing. Also, I love the song to bits. Quinn Lemley also does a nice version of it. Just remember that most people can’t get away with referring to San Francisco as “Frisco.”
This next clip, though not a Noir video by any means, really gets to the heart of what a femme fatale is (at least, to me). The femme fatale can hold power over men precisely because of her sexual promiscuity.
I think this awesome Eartha Kitt video really sums it up. Note the direct link between promiscuity and other sorts of “evil.”
Eartha Kitt- I Want To Be Evil
So, remember that little section I used to have called “The Snazz?” It was a place where I used to post the snazzy media that I was reading/watching/listening to/ seeing/etc.. In any case, you might notice that it’s gone. Vanished, for good and for better. I decided that the format just wasn’t working–the page wasn’t serving any purpose whatsoever. But, because a cultural critic should be steeped in media, and blogs are meant for sharing, I’m revising The Snazz.
So here we have the new and improved Snazz: Every Thursday I will do a post about the media that I’m indulging in this week, and you can share your
recommendations, rants, comments, concerns, musings, etc. Links may include anything: blogs, comics, games, YouTube videos, magazines, etc. Because with so much frustrating media out there, we need some snazzy stuff. (All book links go to the Powell’s website because I’m a snob like that.)
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m very torn about this one so far. Rushdie gets a little too symbolic for his own good. Also, New York Times, it’s very problematic of you to label a single novel as “A continent finding its voice.” Just saying.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore- This book does insane things with genre, and I love it for it. Also, the ending makes me profoundly uncomfortable, in a very good thought-provoking way. I’ll stop there to save space.
- The Feb/March issue of Bust (my subscription finally arrived!)- Still delving in.
- Zaïna @ The Cascade African Film Festival– A Moroccan film about a very awesome 11-year-old girl! Includes nomadic life, horse racing, and the impersonation of ghost queens.
- Coraline (tonight or tomorrow! So excited!)- Yes, I’m a Gaiman fan like everyone else. This Bitch blog post makes me a little bit sad about the production though. I’m still going to see it and probably love it. I hope the puppet-sculpting crew members end up getting A) jobs and B) the respect they deserve.
- the “X-Files” (though there’s nothing really new and exciting about that)-because I find watching Scully in all her geeky genius to be a very cathartic activity.
Also, I’m going to try and make it to the Portland International Film Fest at some point, if I can. I’m thinking of adding “Mad Men” to my tv watching line-up. Anyone seen it?
- Wir Sind Helden– Die Reklamation- Totally danceable German rock. (Link goes to their official page, which is in German. Don’t feel bad–I can’t read it either. For all I know, their songs could about killing puppies, but my flatmate assures me otherwise.)
Mandy Greer Dare alla Luce @ The Museum of Contemporary Craft – (okay, so I saw this last week. I’m stretching my rules.) An incredible installation of textile art at my favorite free museum in Portland. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful (and about a Roman myth in which breast milk created the Milky Way). Snazz indeed.
So, everyone, what are you reading/watching/listening to?
Nostalgia™ (by Veidt)
(Don’t mind me. I’ve just been re-reading Watchmen to prep for the movie. Now on to the actual post.)
Back in August, Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic or “that guy with the glasses,” announced a contest to find the Nostalgia Chick. I was not watching the site at the time, so I have to admit I cannot quite gauge the actual fan reaction, but judging by the comments left behind, I think that, aside from a few, soundly mocked protestations that women were neither funny nor on the internet, it was met with enthusiasm.
For about a year, Doug had been producing videos of himself mocking the nostalgic movies and tv shows of the 80’s and early 90’s–Power Rangers, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, He-Man, etc.–launching himself to at least minor internet celebrity. He’d moved from Youtube to his own page, gained fans, added other reviewers to his site, and even ended up with his own Wikipedia page. But he realized that his approach to nostalgic media was missing all the trashy franchises that were marketed towards the women of his generation. There needed to be a “Nostalgia Chick” to go with the critic*.
Enter Lindsay Ellis, film student. She’s actually a friend of mine from a study abroad program a few years back, and so I’m afraid I can’t claim complete neutrality when writing this post (not to mention it was really easy to get her permission to write it. yay!). (On a side note, I’d feel like a really bad cultural critic if I were reporting an actual conflict instead of making a general observation.)
With her witty and sarcastic video (link goes to the TGWtG website. Video is also available on Youtube) making fun of Disney’s Pocahontas, Lindsay won over the fans and administrators of the “That Guy With the Glasses” site**. But even before accepting the position, she found herself embroiled in the dramatic, troll-filled wasteland that is the realm of internet comments. Believe it or not, the results were surprising.
Now, of course, if you put anything on the internet, you’re bound to get criticism, often very stupid criticism. It’s inevitable. Every reviewer (nay! every review!) on the TGWtG site receives its share of flames. I’m not here to debate whether that should happen or not. Really, what was surprising was not that Lindsay’s appearance on the internet scene had its detractors as well as fans; what’s interesting is the nature of the complaints surrounding Lindsay’s videos. From the very beginning, before she even won the contest, people called her out for the way she talked and the way she dressed. According to one particularly memorable (and frightening) commenter:
I have watched all the nostalgia critic’s videos, so yes, I understand he curses and makes sexual references, but, for every single one of the women applying, when they say the F-word, not only does it not seem fitting for them to cuss in that way, it seemed strained. Maybe it’s my personal preference, but I don’t think it sounds natural.
I know [the Nostalgia Critic] has said he would like to make love to himself, but that’s not selling sexuality, that is humor. He asked if the Disney execs wanted to f*** bunnies, yes, that’s also humor, but he sounds normal when he says it. Again, for all the women, it sounded strained. And yes, Speed Racer dresses up like a sperm, that’s again, humor. For every sexual reference in Lindsay’s video, I just didn’t understand why. It did not make sense to me why you would put that there, it was amusing, but she forced it to be, it really didn’t have much to do with a review of any kind.
In his call out for the Nostalgia Chick, yes he states he has testicles, and yes, part of my problem with Lindsay’s review is that her shirt is cut too low. The Nostalgia Critic can never, in any way, because he has testicles, use them as a tool to get anything for free in life. (Source)
(I’m going to let you make the bitter comments that last sentence merits because if I were to do so, it’d cramp my calm, rational tone. I’m sure you can do a good job with that.)
Unsurprisingly, no one ever really discusses how the Nostalgia Critic dresses. No one seems concerned that he swears or uses sexual humor. But, according to this commenter, by discussing sex, Lindsay automatically draws attention to herself sexually, and not to any of the sexual implications of the Disney movie. Essentially, per this logic, a woman saying, “sex,” is sexual. The Nostalgia Critic, on the other hand, can talk about not wanting to have sex with an anthropomorphized rabbit (see his Space Jam review) without people considering him to bringing his sexuality into the forefront.
The use of swearing, which is pretty much accepted as normal coming from the critic, is criticized as “not fitting” and “strained.” when coming from Lindsay and the other Nostalgia Chick finalists. I somehow find it difficult to believe that all five of the entries chosen happened to be by women who felt uncomfortable cussing and yet decided to swear anyhow. I’m inclined to believe the commenter just was uncomfortable with women saying, “fuck.” <–(Shiver in your boots, why don’t you–I typed it! Oh, and I’m a woman on the internet. Double the horror.) Judgmental of me? Perhaps, but less judgmental, I should think, than his assumption that a woman wearing a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage decided to do so in order to get a free ride.
This comment was a minority opinion (though comment battles raged well into the voting period)–I don’t want to give a misrepresentation of Nostalgia Critic fans. But I think this kind of exaggerated response helps explain the bizarre way many fans have received the Nostalgia Chick. Even though she has the same modus operandi as the critic, fans treat her very differently. Why? Because the same logic that triggered that extremist outrage is still embedded in our culture. Though people do have a genuine appreciation for her comedic talent, fans treat the Nostalgia Chick as a woman before considering her as an entertainer. That is to say that no matter what she says, no matter if the clips of her to clips of the film ratio were to be 1:25 (not an accurate ratio by any means,) by merely being a woman making a video of herself, people consider her to be drawing attention to her physical appearance. Fans have debates within the comment section about whether she’s hotter with or without glasses. They jokingly proposition her. You can argue that this is inevitable, and, for the most part, it’s pretty harmless. I’m not even suggesting finding someone hot is a sign of shallowness or moral weakness. But all the while there is something off about this kind of treatment: Lindsay is not making videos about herself. Her comedy takes center stage in all her videos, and yet many people treat her as if her purpose was to stand there and look pretty. Because, you know, that’s the most important priority in every woman’s life.
As Lindsay continued her reviews, fans began to speculate on the second-most important thing in every woman’s life: her relationship with men.*** When she asked a male friend of hers to appear in her “Top 10 Most Disturbing and Inescapable Christmas Songs,” fans asked her, “was that your brother or your boyfriend?” (source). Apparently straight women can’t have guy friends. More speculation as to Lindsay’s relationship status arose when she did a joint review of the movie Ferngully with the Nostalgia Critic. Although before commenters wondered if “That Guy With the Glasses [aka: Doug] is banging this chick,” using phrasing that makes me wonder if they meant to imply that Lindsay’s (non-existent) connection to Doug was involved in getting her a slot on the site (source,) rumors now reached a boiling point, with people suggesting that they were siblings, married, or dating. Included in this slew were people who were joking that they’d look cute together, and I feel a little uncomfortable accusing those particular comments as being signs of anything other than a tendency to match-make. On the other hand, many of the comments assumed that Lindsay had to have some connection with Doug (other than winning the contest) to have her role. It’d be enough to drive anyone insane.
Nevertheless, Lindsay continues to make videos and make people laugh. Yes, those people who don’t seem to understand that women are both on the internet and in comedy still make sickening comments such as “She’d be hot if she didn’t talk.” And, yes, fans still take the “you’re hot” commentary to disturbing levels and draw pictures of her in swimsuits. She’s learned to ignore it. But as a cultural critic, I can’t resist pointing out how weird this all is, especially in contrast to the kinds of comments that her male counterpart gets. What does it say about our culture that male audiences feel entitled to make this kind of commentary? What does it say about our culture that one of the first concerns voiced by fans when the contest was announced was “since the site is male dominated, any woman is going to be subject to a whole manner of abusive and sexual comments” (source)?
The internet’s a scary place for anyone creative. Add in gender bias, and things get scarier. I’m glad Lindsay’s risen to the challenge.
*I know that some people might object to the “critic/chick” dichotomy, but I’m going to give the website the benefit of the doubt and assume that it ended up this way because the Nostalgia Critic originally was just a solo deal.
**On a side note, the two runners-up ended up with their own segments on the site. I’m not familiar with them, so I’m afraid I can’t include them in this post. But if you have anything to add about them, feel free to share.
***At the risk of being a terrible writer by unnecessarily pointing out my own gag, that was sarcasm.
Whew, that took me longer than I thought it would. Now it’s time to dance around the kitchen do very important, diligent things. Until next time!
You might wonder why I’m deciding to talk about Vadim Glowna’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, a film which you probably haven’t heard of (I hadn’t until last night,) you probably will not see, and has very little effect on our pop culture. Critics, on the whole, despised it. My friends nearly fell asleep during it. I must admit that it succeeds so well in being utterly unlikeable without analysis that it doesn’t need a cultural critic to tackle it further.
Nevertheless, I cannot resist. Glowna, in making this movie, seems to think it’s okay to have women suffer humiliation and sexual abuse all in the name of being a symbol of youth. He thinks that he can dodge moral questions about the way women are being used in his film in the name of “high art.” And I just have to call Glowna out on it.
The House of the Sleeping Beauties tells the story of a man in his mid-60’s named Edmund, who has seen his life as a pit of emptiness and despair ever since the death (suicide?) of his wife and young daughter. His friend Kogi, recommends that he visits a strange not-brothel in which old men can sleep next to beautiful young women. The women have been put to sleep with a drug so potent that nothing can wake them until the drug has run its course, and they will remember nothing of the night.
Of course, the clients are not supposed to do anything besides sleep next to the women, cuddled up to them. But that whole “won’t remember anything bit” proves to be too tempting, at least for Edmund (who has the audacity to insist that he is different from the other old men who frequent the establishment.) He spanks them. He shakes them. He suckles their breasts (“You smell like milk…”). He fondles their vaginae, justifying it with the ridiculous excuse that their apparent arousal is equivalent to consent. And, at one point, when one of the women rolls over to face him, he calls it “an invitation,” and takes her virginity. All the while, the women lie there, prone, naked, and very asleep.
Glowna does not seem to have a problem with this. If he does, he does not see it as being important enough for the film to even address. As Edmund waxes philosophical about his past, his approaching death, and his Oedipal Complex, he never ever wonders if what he’s doing might be sexual harassment. The film itself never judges him for it. I sat there, waiting for the film to even reference its most obvious issue. And it never does. Somehow this film thinks the fact that the women won’t remember a thing justifies sexual abuse and rape.
Instead, Glowna seems to think that a pretense of art and poetry can transform the ugliness of the situation into something beautiful and erotic.
When an old man touches a woman like this, it is a lamentation, nothing more.
This line sums up the fundamental flaw in the film’s logic: Just because the caress may have transcended beyond the sexual to Edmund does not actually mean that it has actually transcended beyond the sexual. I feel absolutely ridiculous having to write this next sentence, but: Just because a woman is asleep does not suddenly relieve her of her personhood. I don’t care if it’s a movie. I don’t care if Glowna symbolically plastered the film with paintings of naked women (The models were awake while being painted, and consented to be painted. A painting, on the other hand, is not a real women.) as if to try and move the sleeping beauties from the realm of mortality and into the realm of art. He’s done them no favors. No one can use a real, breathing person as a symbol or as a work of art and expect the audience to forget that s/he is human. Yet, for some reason I cannot fathom, Glowna thinks he can. Rape, by any other name, is still rape.