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I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.

I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.

Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.

My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)

This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.

Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.

What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.

And a moving story?

In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.

This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.

Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.

Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.

I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.

Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”

At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.

Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.

(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)

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Hey everyone!

Sorry for the silence; I’ve been largely occupied this month with some freelance jobs, and so I haven’t been able to get any posts past the mental brainstorm stage. Stay tuned for some thoughts about Emma Peel and gendered spaces, a look at what I mean when I talk about subtext, and possibly some thoughts over some female artists who get overlooked like Vienna Teng or Terami Hirsch.

But the title of this post is “Big News,” and so I’ll move on to that: I’ve been invited to be a summer guest blogger at Feministe! I haven’t decided what I’ll be blogging about yet (ideas and requests are more than welcomed,) but, as you can imagine, I’m incredibly honored and excited. I’ll be posting the week of July 27th, and so be sure to tune in!

In the mean time, even if Feministe isn’t in your daily reads, take a gander at the other awesome guest bloggers they’ve got lined up this summer.

(I apologize in advance for any incoherence this article may contain thanks to my throbbing sinuses.)

“So this is what a real writer looks like,” was, I’m embarrassed to say, my first thought as I approached the Writer’s Dojo, a Portland writer’s resource center tucked away in north of the city. The woman who had caught my eye was wore an overcoat and carried a large Queen Bee Creations bag. I smiled, thinking of the Queen Bee bag slung over my own shoulder and feeling that perhaps I wouldn’t look entirely out of place despite the fact that I had gotten caught in a rainstorm on the way to the Dojo.

I’d like to excuse myself for these silly thoughts with such generalizations as “no one is immune to shallowness,” but that would be ignoring the truth of the matter, which is that I still feel as if I’m intruding on the Portland writer’s world instead of being a part of it. I pay attention to the way I dress because I feel as if maybe I can make myself look the part people won’t realize that I’m still an amateur. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my own mental transition from academic to writer.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have the mental energy these days to devote much time to fiction, which I would love to eventually have time to do (it just feels irresponsible to dream about the lives of others while I, myself, am mostly unemployed.) But I think the most likely reason of all is that I am not yet published (though this will change in a small capacity shortly. I’ve landed a small freelance gig, but I’ve hesitated to post about it here so that I don’t jinx anything.).

This muddle of thoughts is actually central to a lot of what I got out of attending the Writer’s Dojo panel discussion on publishing, community and social media. Featuring writers, small-press publishers, and the owners of literary social networking sites, the discussion panel answered questions and posed new ones about the future of publishing: What does it mean that with technologies such as Twitter and blogs, anyone can be their own publisher? Does blogging about your day smother the seeds of stories by forcing them out into the open air prematurely? Do people still read books? And what about the fact that a lot of people need solitude to write and don’t want to constantly be able to communicate?

Despite my nerves, the atmosphere was genial and open, becoming more of a giant conversation than a lecture, and I’m sorry to simplify what was an all-together fascinating panel into this small write-up, but this was what stuck with me. This is the second panel I’ve attended on this subject, and I’m more than a little surprised about the one commonality between this one and the one I attended at Wordstock: The panelists at both were very concerned about what “the kids” think about print media, and yet, “the kids,” for the most part, didn’t attend these discussions. I don’t know what to make of the latter point, but I’d like to speak a bit to the former. Being on the younger end of my twenties, I’m more or less on the upper edge of the age group in question and felt a little awkward hearing such joking comments as “Yeah, you want a 20-year-old to do your marketing!” It’s akin to hearing relatives discuss your life at a family function, referring to you in the third person while you stand right next to them, staring at your shoes.

As the conversation moved in fascinating directions such as the usefulness of paper media for annotation, and the fact that children still grow up with books (and children books are amongst the most beautiful printed), I often wanted to raise my hand and offer a recent college graduate’s perspective. (Unfortunately, I’m short, shy, and was sitting behind tall people, so by the time I got called on, the conversation had moved in such a direction that I mumbled something about the kinds of interactive fiction I’ve seen on Livejournal, primarily in fandom, where people are supposed to respond to journal entries as if the characters were real people, and came off as a not particularly serious sci-fi dork, but that sorry tale is neither here nor there).  What I had wanted to say though, is that the person who brought up children’s books hit the nail on the head: I don’t know anyone my age who sees books as obsolete. I heard of a  few people who hate reading, but not even my constantly plugged-in little brother is ready to give up books yet (granted, he doesn’t hate reading.).

This brings me back to the issue of publishing and the question of what makes a “real” writer: yes, anyone can be published these days through blogs or twitter. There are sites designed to help you archive web comics and sites which which you can use to print small runs of your work for family and friends. Before all this, zinesters were self-publishing their work armed only with a copier and a stapler. But even amongst people younger than me, I don’t know if anyone considers these self-publishing tools to be “real” yet. From what I can tell, and I admit that I’ve never truly been in an online writing scene (there’s more than one), writing on the net is still seen as a prelude to a book deal. Getting recognized by a publisher still has a kind of mystique. When a fanfic author such as Cassandra Clare, both infamous and famous in the Harry Potter fandom, gets a book deal, people see it as having moved on to the big leagues. At this point, I think it’s both the seal of quality publishers assure for readers and the affirmation they provide writers that keep self-publishing in this manner less mainstream. If these attitudes change, well, the sky’s the limit.

I write a lot of articles on this blog. People have commented both positively and negatively, and it’s a lot of fun. I feel like my voice is being heard. Nevertheless, I don’t think of it as publishing my thoughts. I don’t consider myself a journalist or a published writer at this point, which is why I still feel like I’m performing something I’m not when I go to events like this panel. I still list myself in the “aspiring” category, someone who’s still striving make her output match her ideas, and then, with a little luck, her output match her dreams of publication. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind. Maybe I’ll be published before I have to change my mind. Or maybe I’ll opt out of all of worry of when I can truly call myself a writer and join the publishing world (or try and make my way in both.) Until then, I’ll still worry that I’m out of place at writing events, checking out the aura of the authentic writers and wondering when I can walk among them with confidence. Even if our publishing media has democratized, I’m not sure our attitudes have. At least mine sure haven’t.

Would you believe anything this person says?

Would you believe anything this person says?

When we talk about the possibility of blogs replacing newspapers, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the anxieties surrounding the anonymity of bloggers. They just don’t seem to have the credentials that someone being backed by the New York Times has. There’s a lot to discuss in this issue, but I want to draw attention to one point that I don’t often see brought up (though I’m sure someone’s talking about it.). The thing that worries me almost more about the transition from print to digital media is the ability for people to comment on whatever they read. Though blogs have long been considered a dialogue, newspapers and magazines have started attaching comments feeds to their articles, allowing for instant discussion. But comment feeds rarely actually encourage discussion that does not degenerate into flame wars, name-calling, and the other weapons called upon in net drama.

As any net veteran will tell you, you cannot win an argument on the internet. But can you even have a discussion on the internet?

In her article “Lowest Comment Denominator,” freelance writer Laura Nathan encouraged feminists to abandon using the comments feeds on blog and news article as discussion forums in favor of email or even in person discussion of the articles with friends. This seemingly Luddite response comes from her rather astute observation that “commenting has been around for a decade now, and it still hasn’t advanced the conversation about feminism—or anything else for that matter” (pg. 45, Bitch Magazine: Fall 2008: “Loud”). As much as I hate to say it, she has an excellent point. I really love getting comments here on FtCM, and I love reading other blogs, but, for the most part, reading comments pages gives me headaches of epic proportions.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I do feel a little guilty for making commenters who do think carefully about the comments they write out of this post for the most part.  Don’t worry–I know they exist.

If you’re at all interested in the discussion of the future of journalism, I would recommend checking out Nathan’s article, which addresses, albeit briefly, some of the common ways comment feeds degrade journalism, such as the way internet culture thrives on provoking others and the ability of commenters or even the bloggers themselves to create sock puppet accounts (fake accounts) in an attempt to make it seem like more people agree with them. But I’ve got another reason why comment feeds, particularly on news articles, don’t seem to help discussion any: comment feeds completely eliminate context.

One of the first things any writer considers before beginning a piece is their audience (and if they will accept the fact that I like using 3rd-person plural pronouns as a gender-neutral 3rd-person singular). I know this sounds banal and obvious, but it’s so taken-for-granted that we almost forget about it. Thinking about whom you write for means that you consider your audience’s context: their education (Is it specialized? Do they expect you to use certain jargon?), their background, their concerns. It shows consideration and respect for them, not to metion that having a sense of what your audience expects changes everything about how you write from your tone to what you discuss. It’s essential.

But you can’t do this properly on the internet. Its vastness erases context. Even though I do have some sense of which sorts of people read my blog, I constantly find out that websites like Stumbleupon, or random Google searches for such random terms as “castration” or “what happened to the Nostalgia chick?” bring people outside of my predicted audience to my site. I’m not complaining (I mean, thinking hard enough about it, I realize that the writers of centuries past didn’t consider us as their audience either,) but it does mean that people read me out of the context I’ve created on FtCM, and sometimes without me predicting them as part of my audience.

In the end, this does not really affect the way I blog; like any other writer, I eventually just have to pick an audience and stick with it. Published writers go through a similar context-erasing ordeal (they can’t predict who will pick up their books!), unless they’ve been published by a specialty press. I do still consider audience when I write and make an effort to account for the fact that not everyone reading this blog comes from the same background that I do. I like to think that most bloggers do this, and I know that a good journalist does too, whether their article goes in a paper or on the net.

Though we tend to think of commenting as being intimately tied up with blogging, it actually works in a different way. A quality blog or a news blog worth reading will have articles that are written with care, or at least some effort. Comments, on the other hand,  are often gut reactions, written without fully realizing the implications of their words nor with thought given to the types of people who may be reading the comment. When I comment on a feminist blog, I expect people to be familiar with certain concepts. If I go to a slightly larger blog, even one that considers itself progressive, I don’t know if its readers come from the same feminist context. I cannot expect them to be familiar with terms such as “rape culture” that are well-defined and easily understood within the context of the feminist community. If I write with the expectation that people already know the lingo or already accept certain precepts as true, I run the risk of alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic to my ideas and causing others to make terrible assumptions about what I’m actually trying to say. Ignoring who my audience only serves to undermine my point and hinders discussion.

The other danger lies in the ability of commenters to erase their own context. This is less of an issue for bloggers because even if they are fairly tight-lipped with personal details, they create a context for themselves with their blogging history. Eventually, if a commenter comments at a blog long enough, they will gain a context of sorts, but in a vast sea of comments it’s difficult to keep track of an individual, unless they’re on a small blog that has created a community of regular commenters.

Writing outside of a context might mean that whatever you say can’t get traced back to you (which has been oft blamed for viciousness on the internet,) but it also means that readers do not have a context within which to judge your claims. Again, this is a simple point, but it can have a huge effect on the direction of discussion. For example, if I’m reading a book on physics, and the book tells me that its author works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC,) I know that, at least in the realm of particle physics, she has some authority to speak on the subject. Therefore, if I am looking at the comments feed for a Scientific American blog article, and see a person make a claim that contradicts what I read in the book, I’m probably going to ignore the comment. It doesn’t matter if the comment I read was written by a physicist working within the same field who has found actual evidence to bring the theories of the author of the book into question. I don’t know that from a comments thread. And, beyond that, I have no reason to trust that information coming from a comments thread, even if the commenter were to reveal my identity.

Ultimately, everyone who writes on the internet now, bloggers and commenters alike, faces the obstacle of having internet culture as their context. Internet culture, as it stands, has an attitude rather similar to such characters as The Joker (ala The Dark Knight): Why so serious? (sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it!)  Anyone who has ever gotten upset over a comment made on the internet will probably have received a slew of responses to the effect of, “Why are you taking this so seriously! It’s just the internet!” or “Why do you care what people you don’t even know think?” (If you play with the logic of that third statement long enough, you start to wonder why anyone has a conversation on the internet ever, if it’s just a bunch of people they don’t know spouting opinions.) The internet has gained the reputation of being a land of informational anarchy, of communication via macro, and of people venting their anger. It is a land of verbal vigilantes who thrive on “educating” people that they consider to be stupid of their own stupidity. If this is the base-line context we write in on the internet, then I do not blame anyone dubious of its usefulness as an informational or, almost more importantly, discussion forum.

I’m not sure I want to pronounce a death sentence on the internet’s possibilities for discussion on issues. The internet is a useful organizing tool, an equalizing tool, and often offers a public stage for people whose voices are often ignored by mainstream publications for reasons of gender, race, class, and sexuality.  And, again, I don’t want to forget the fact that there are people who comment thoughtfully, or at least make an effort to. I always hesitate to portray the internet as a wasteland, even if it sometimes feels that way. Nothing’s that simple.

But the fact remains that whenever we read, and particularly whenever we read anything on the internet, we cannot stop questioning. We cannot stop thinking critically about people’s motivations, backgrounds, and contexts for commenting.

And now, in a fit of paradoxical glee, I invite you to comment on this article. ;)

This post is neither about the Myth of Cupid and Psyche nor about the artist Pascal.

This post is neither about the Myth of Cupid and Psyche nor about the artist Pascal.

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.

drama

Semiotic Stereotyping

(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.

Awkward Questions

This Question is...  A) Useful to choosing a date B) Not actually about bisexuality C) I Wish I Were Emma Peel D) Oh, Look, A Book of Chaucer

This Question is... A) Useful to choosing a date B) Not actually about bisexuality C) I Wish I Were Emma Peel. D) Oh, Look! A Book of Chaucer

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.

Is it?

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.

Oddly enough, you're not helping.

Oddly enough, OK Cupid, you're not helping.

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.)

Lindsay, as the Nostalgia Chick, rolls her eyes at our childhood "favorites"

Lindsay, as the Nostalgia Chick, rolls her eyes at our childhood "favorites"

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.

You can check out the Nostalgia Chick’s videos here or on her Youtube channel.

*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!

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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