Friday, June 29, 2012

Another image: What are they selling?

Hey guys, do you want to know what makes girls think you're stupid and ridiculous? It's because you keep saying things like what Robbie Collins of The Telegraph says in his review of Brave:
Its heroine Merida – a gutsy young royal whose sheepy tangle of tousled red curls is as untamable as her spirit – is no typical Disney princess either. 
Sheepy tangle? Untamable? Gentleman, this is as carefully managed and tamed as hair gets:

Yes, I'm sure the promotional material for the movie presents that hair as "untamable" too but every girl in the audience knows that to get that look, a girl would have to do a lot of work, add serious "product", and get professional help—spending huge amounts of her parent's money in the process. Not to mention making significant sacrifice in terms of lifestyle and activity. Forget about sports, horseback riding, archery. You couldn't do any of that stuff with hair like that. That hair also means that every time you got out of the shower or bed you would have devote serious maintenance to your hair before you could go anywhere. If Merida really were any kind of tomboy, she'd take the scissors to that high maintenance pile in a flash.

And there you can see the contradictions girls live with. She is supposed to seem natural and display effortless grace but she is also supposed to have a look that can only be achieved with a lot of artificial assistance and a lot of boring hard work. Boring not to the girl who does it or, more likely, has it done but to a people looking at her who want the payoff without having to think about what it took to get it. And the more enthusiastically some adult praises a look as natural and untamed, the more artifice it will actually take to get that look.

"If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?"
That's the question Merida asks us in the preview. It's a good question. It's a question girls understand in terms of sexual status. No mater how hard adults try to make them think differently, every girl immediately grasps that her sexual status is a big part of her fate. She knows that if she had skin, hair and a body like Merida she'd be a princess whom everyone treated as special. A male movie critic may look at the image above and see "untamed" and "natural" but every girl in the audience sees hair colouring, a permanent, make up, starting with foundation and then blush to give her skin that perfect smoothness and hint of pink, and a bra. She'd also need some make up to make her eyes look big and dilated like Merida's above.

For bonus points try explaining this: Given that Merida is supposed to be trying to make a very difficult shot in an archery contest in the image above, why is she shown not with a focused concentration that actual archers have but with dilated pupils and the slightly unfocused look that goes with being sexually aroused? That tells you what our culture thinks girls are really supposed to be good at.

That's why it shouldn't surprise us that the answer the movie gives us to Merida's question is, "It's dangerous to try to change your fate." That's because, as Robbie Collins correctly notes, it is a folk tale but also because, as he seems to have forgotten, folk tales are always about how dangerous it is to try to change your fate. We can pretend otherwise but note that much of the plot is devoted to getting things back to normal after Merida screws everything up by trying to change her fate.

It's also important that the person who pays the price for Merida's attempts to change fate is not Merida herself but her mother. Which is reassuring to the girls in the audience because the only thing they have in common with Merida is that they also have a conflict with their mother about who and what they can and should be and they know that they make their mother suffer but don't plan on stopping. Given that, it's kind of reassuring to see the perfect princess hurt and then save her mother.

In the end, the sexual threat defused, the family are reunited. But Merida is still a super-hot babe with incredible hair whom everyone treats as special. Only now she is a super-hot babe with incredible hair whom everyone treats as special who doesn't have to think about growing up and becoming an adult. She can be a woman-child, independent but protected in the bosom of her family forever; as they used to say, she can have her cake and eat it too.

(By the way, the whole "feminist" subtext that so many people want to hang on the movie revolves around girl children being allowed to get married when they want. Think about that a while. Because that's the big feminist issue of our age. Right? Mothers and fathers are forcing girls to get married younger than they want to be? And, seriously, how many girls do you think there are who suffer because they are oh so much better at sports than all the boys competing for their attention? Think of how utterly disconnected from reality you have to be to not fall of your chair laughing at crap like that.)

For some critics, the fate a girl might change is not her sexual status but her sexual orientation. Here is Entertainment Weekly's Adam Markovitz:
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Merida could be interpreted as gay. What’s most exciting is that she brings a new free-thinking attitude to the slightly staid club of Disney princesses, one that’s sure to appeal not just to gays, but to anyone who ever challenged an identity that was pre-assigned to them. Her strength in the face of opposition and her urge to forge her own identity (or, as she puts it in the film, “to change my fate”) both have the potential to ring true for moviegoers of all stripes, rainbow or otherwise. And regardless of whether or not Disney/Pixar intended it, those same traits are bound to make Merida an unofficial gay icon — even if she never comes near a Pride parade. If she did, though, she’d certainly be welcome.
If you buy the prevailing wisdom as expressed in Lady Gaga's "Born this way" then your sexual identity is pre-assigned. By your genes. And you can't argue with your genes so there is nothing you can do about it.

But that directly contradicts an even more popular notion that says you have, or should have, the freedom to be whatever you want to be. So we need a sort of double game where you are "born this way" but still get to be brave because you also re-invent yourself. That's the movie Markowitz wants to see so it's the movie he writes about even though he admits, at the same time, that it's not even remotely like the actual movie. In other words, he isn't writing about anything but himself.

Markovitz knows he is a poseur, by the way.  He gives the game away by talking about what Merida "could be interpreted as"; he reads the film as he wants it to be not as what it actually says. They taught him that bullshit at college. But no one believes it for a second. We all know that what really matters is what you really are and how well you play the roles that you are dealt in life.

What a girl wants and what a girl knows
Check out the image above again. Do you seriously imagine we are supposed to think that total princess is a tomboy???

The first thing to know is that when selling stuff to girls (as opposed to selling stuff to adult women), you sell her an image of herself a few years in the future. In images and movies aimed at girls the heroine is always a few years older than the intended audience. But, while the heroine may be in her later teens, her hopes, dreams and emotions are those of a girl in her younger teens. The audience is made up of girls who feel like her inside but don't look like her outside. They dream of having what she has, not as a means to get sex and certainly not to get married, but in order to be noticed and have status, sexual status. But they want that sexual status while clearly remaining girls and therefore not having to think about becoming an adult and making adult choices. And, at their age, the sexual status they seek vis a vis other girls probably means more to them than any attention they will get from boys.

Notice how Merida's body is sexual in a very controlled way. This is a Disney movie after all (and the fact that Pixar made it doesn't change that). She's wearing a bra for Pete's sake. Where she got such a thing is anyone's guess but she clearly has one. She pretty much has to because the shape that the breasts of a girl her age would take in that dress without a bra would cause all sorts of distraction. And we might also wonder where they got stretch fabric to make that dress in the first place (even after Merida bursts the stays  that made her dress tight it still clings to her skin)

And this is where the nasty truth protrudes into our discussion. Over at The Atlantic Chris Heller takes up the "lesbian" question:
While Markovitz's appeal to lesbian stereotypes is outrageous, his underlying question isn't. Merida really could be gay. She could be straight. She could be asexual. We just don't know. Over the course of the film, she shows romantic interest in neither boys nor girls; it's only by assumption that her parents—and, presumably, most viewers—think she's heterosexual.
Lesbian stereotypes? Here's a rude question: How many lesbians have you seen who look like Merida? There may be some but there aren't many and when young teens think "lesbian" they aren't thinking "woman with lots of sexual status". But it doesn't matter in this case because Merida is about being sexual not about having sex. If she's a "lesbian" at all, and no one who really wants to see this movie would ask in the first place, but if she's a lesbian she's an Anne Heche sort of lesbian. Which is to say, not really.

If she actually lived in the vaguely medieval-Celtic culture she is supposed to be in, Merida would have been packed off into a marriage that would have been consummated in a way we would consider rape but that would have then been seen as absolutely normal at any other time in history.

But she doesn't have to worry about that sort of thing because she's not an historical figure but a modern fantasy, so she, like her fans, wants to keep on being a girl. In any case, it's not so much that she doesn't need Prince Charming to wake her up as that she doesn't want him to. Not for another few years anyway. She's a girl and she wants to keep being a girl. And who can blame her in a society like ours.

Sometimes the kids are smarter than the adults. Girls watching this movie don't care about the philosophical contradictions. They know that looking "natural" is an artificial project. And they know that their sexuality is pre-assigned: they know they are girls, they know they are defined from outside by the way others look at them and they know that how well they do in life will depend on how well they do within the range of roles that life has given them to choose from. And that is why you'll never see the movie they actually see honestly reviewed.

Note: This post has been combined with a previous one and the text was amplified and, I hope clarified a bit by changes made on June 30.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Roadside attractions: Signs

Think about your decision-making as you hurtle down the highway. You're tired or hungry and you're looking for a place to either sleep or eat. And you see a sign. If the sign says "Best Western" or "Burger King" you already have a whole lot of criteria for your assessment. You either like and trust those brands or you don't. Either way, you can make a decision quickly.

And it's important to make a decision quickly because you'll be past the place in seconds and you probably won't turn around. Turning around is a lot more effort than stopping.

But what is the sign is not for a chain but for an individual motel or restaurant? Then the sign has to convey everything.

This sign got me thinking about signs:

Cozy Cabins, Woodstock, New Brunswick
I love that and that isn't surprising because I was looking for nostalgia. That sign is a thing of beauty and it must have cost somebody plenty once upon a time. It must have been magnificent at night. It may still be, I only saw it during the day so I don't know if the neon still works.

But what is it selling? Right now the thing that stands out once you get past nostalgia is the blank piece of unfinished plywood on the bottom. That's where the features once were: "TV", "air conditioning", "magic fingers" whatever. All you have now is that they have cabins. You can't even say with any certainty that they are "cozy" in a good way. That's just the name of the place not a feature. Right now, the owners don't seem to have anything special to offer.

There are only two reasons to stop here now: either, like me, 1) you are attracting to old motels and want to visit as many of the vanishing breed as possible before they are gone forever, or 2) you are looking for the minimum footprint for the duration of a job you got in town.

Cozy Cabins is no longer on the main highway so you can't blame the owners. No one is going to see the sign anymore except for nostalgia hunters like me.

Town & Country, Fredericton, New Brunswick

Another beautiful sign. Neither this nor the previous sign is original or, rather, both are heavily indebted to the famous Holiday Inn sign. But who cares? If you are going to be influenced, you may as well be influenced by the best.

The "town and country" also has a certain cachet from the name. It speaks of a time when words like "regency" and "brougham" and "coupé" and "estate" all carried a sense of being part of the gentry and everyone aspired to that. Did the hotel itself ever have it? When I was a kid it did. There was something about this stretch of road down near the river that smacked of country gentry. Not anymore though.

Knight's Inn, Fredericton, New Brunswick

Knight's Inn is a cute pun. Too cute? Not for motels where cuteness such as "Dew Drop Inn" is long established as acceptable practice. Knight's Inn is also a chain but you get the feeling that they don't think their brand carries much value as the sign says it is much more important to them that you know it's a motel than which particular type.

No name motel somewhere in Gaspé, Québec

I forgot to make a  note of where I got this one. It carries the philosophy of the previous sign even further as the motel here has no name at all. For those of you who can't read French, the sign says that it's motel, that it's a truck stop, that there is a restaurant named Pastali and that there is Diesel. And that's all they give you to make up your mind.

Blue Moon, Saint Andrew's, New Brunswick

Looking at the Blue Moon it's hard to tell if it is still in business. OTOH, it has looked like this for years and years now. It actually looked a lot better this year than it did last time I saw it.

But that sure is a mighty pretty sign. The name was dreamed up in an era when everyone knew the song and that would have added something in its favour as you drove into town wondering where to stop. Like the Cozy Cabins above, the owners apparently don't think they have any features to pitch besides it's being a motel and having a nice name. And that may be all they need; I suspect there is always some business in Saint Andrew's.

Greenside, Saint Andrew's, New Brunswick

There is a famous hotel in Saint Andrew's that has a beautiful golf course. This isn't it. The Greenside doesn't have a golf course and doesn't claim to have one. It is actually beside the green? Not as far as I could see but you may want to stay here while in town to golf anyway. In any case, perhaps enough of the cachet that goes with golf will rub off to pull you in even if you're not a golfer.

Picket Fence Motel, Saint Andrew's, New Brunswick

Hey, truth in advertising! Why you can see the picket fence right there under the sign. And there are real flowers, a well-maintained cottage-style garden in fact, to back up any implicit claim made by the tulips (or daffodils perhaps) on the sign. And you'd want to stay here why? There may be lots of good reasons but none are noted on the sign. But, as I have already noted, that may not matter in a perennially popular destination such as Saint Andrew's.

In any case, love your sign.

Winsome Inn Motel, Saint Stephen, New Brunswick

"Winsome" means attractive or appealing and it's a word that used to be used to describe the kind of girl a boy could imagine falling in love with, as opposed to a beauty he could want but would never meet. But the telling thing here is that the owners are actually selling you features. They have a pool, queen beds, deluxe continental breakfast ( a concept that makes no sense as a "continental" breakfast means simple and unadorned), microwaves and fridges. Perhaps the most important details are the CAA approved and "newly renovated" which tell you that they have been putting money into the place. They don't have as much money as Best Western so you aren't going to get a giant bed with two bazillion count sheets and all sorts of other luxury but the place has been kept up and we can beat Best Western's price and you won't regret it.

In other words, this the only sign in the collection that is actually effectively selling you something.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Roadside attractions: The Appalachians

"This morning he told me that he'd been dreaming about the mountains of Nebraska," said Mrs. Davidson.

"That`s curious," said Dr. Macphail.

He remembered seeing them from the windows of the train when he crossed America. They were like huge mole-hills, rounded and smooth, an they rose from the plain abruptly. Dr. Macphail remembered how it struck him that they were like a woman`s breasts.
 From "Rain" by Somerset Maugham
 That bit from Maugham resonated with me as a teenager because every time my family drove through the Appalachians  I would sit in the backseat with something on my lap because the rounded mountains made me think of women's breasts. Nowadays not so much. That I once thought that way was more testimony to the power of hormones than anything else. I don't know what Somerset Maugham's excuse was.

But the Appalachians sure are beautiful.

I was driving through them from ten this morning until five this evening. It was breathtaking.

Sometimes westerners or Europeans will come by and say, "those aren't mountains, they're hills." Usually, we answer that they are much older than the Rockies or the alps, and they are, but it's not really the point to make. They are mountains just very different mountains. Spend some time around them and on them and you'll see and you'll learn to love them.

I did see one that was reminiscent of a woman's breast, by the way. It helped that I was looking up at it from the side and trees didn't make it look lumpy. I decided in the end not to try and get the shot out of a moving car. It wasn't the mountain I was willing to die for.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Roadside attractions: Megan's

 When a government decides to move a road it alters a whole way of life. This isn't really new in human existence. Rivers have moved, although not often, and shorelines have eroded or silted up forcing people to close up shop and move. But we have never seen anything like the way governments can alter entire regional economies simply by building a new road, a bigger, better road, a quarter mile west of the old road.

Things like this happen:

The sign on the awning on the left says, "Megan's". That was the restaurant. The right side was a gas station with a small store. Between them, they probably provided a couple dozen jobs in a rural economy where jobs are scarce. They also represented individual investment. The gas station would have said "Esso", or "Gulf" or ""Shell" or some other big name but if you got closer you would have seen the sign that said it was "Bob's Esso" or some such thing. It was a franchise. Bob put his own money into it and he kept adding to his capital investment over the years.

In the last few decades Bob would have had increasing competition from huge new places built by large corporations with very large capital reserves and his place would have started to look shoddy by comparison.

But he still had the location and that enabled him to hold on.

Then the government moved the road and he no longer had a location of any worth. Then Bob and Megan and many others who had put their lives' work into building up and maintaining businesses along these roads folded up.

If you think I'm being sentimental, you're right. I don't want to make some pity plea here. Service industries have to offer service and if their competitors can offer better that's that. But no one cares much about what happens in some rural area like this. And governments are huge artificial factors here and when they do something like build a new road, they speed up the upheaval.

Maybe even for the good. Sometimes some real creep has cornered some local market by getting the only prime location early and has long used his financial and political power to dominate locals in unpleasant ways. Even if the existing owner was a good person, they may not have put much capital into the business and quality and service may have lagged. Mind you, the price of that is that Megan's gets replaced by Subway or Burger King or some other larger company. That brings gains but you also lose something. The new road may as well be pretty much anywhere because it looks just like a divided highway pretty much anywhere.

But, whatever happens, a new road really stirs things up. And it always reduces the number of local jobs. The new highway is bigger and people drive faster and stop less often.

And we just float by someone's hard work in ruins and we don't even think about it much. You can't and shouldn't stop these things but there is something to regret hear.

And there is something to get nostalgic about.

Sorta political: A hell of a way to reduce crime

Are you ready for this:
Religions are thought to serve as bulwarks against unethical behaviors. However, when it comes to predicting criminal behavior, the specific religious beliefs one holds is the determining factor, says a University of Oregon psychologist.
What, you mean that all religions aren't equal? That some might be superior to others?
"Religious belief generally has been viewed as "a monolithic construct," Shariff said. "Once you split religion into different constructs, you begin to see different relationships. In this study, we found two differences that go in opposite directions. If you look at overall religious belief, these separate directions are washed out and you don't see anything. There's no hint of a relationship."
Did you catch the passive voice there? "Religious belief generally has been viewed as 'a monolithic construct'." Has it now? By whom? What Shariff really means is that scientists have tended to treat all religions as if they were more or less the same. And he doesn't want to dwell on why that might be. It wouldn't do, for example, to explore the possibility that the scientific community is biased against religion.

And, at least when scientists start really doing it as opposed to milking their prejudices,  science is amazing. I mean the way it keeps coming up with things you never would have guessed. Such as, for example, that people whose religious belief includes a punitive component are less likely to be criminals:
A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.

"The key finding is that, controlling for each other, a nation's rate of belief in hell predicts lower crime rates, but the nation's rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates, and these are strong effects," said Azim F. Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the UO.
Now think of how much of liberal Christianity is devoted to promoting a benevolent God who gives himself to all rather than, to pick a random example, is just willing to accept many if they accept him and follow his commandments. Think of how many of the "seekers" so beloved of Sally Quinn are rejecting traditional religion to make "a connection to the divine" without all that stultifying morality that goes with traditional religion.

Not surprisingly, Shariff wants us to use this data with caution, and rightly so.
He added, however, that these are correlational data, and so caution should be taken with the conclusions. Though Shariff and study co-author Mijke Rhemtulla of the Center for Research Methods and Data Analysis at the University of Kansas tried to account for obvious alternative explanations, more research is needed to explore other interpretations for the findings.
Good idea. Might I suggest a possibility for further research. How about he next compares different religions with strong punitive components for their performance?  Let's suppose, for example, there was a religion that has a strong punitive component that led the charge against slavery in western society. That would be interesting to compare with, to be hypothetical, a religion with a  strong component that has become more brutally oppressive of women, Jews in gays in recent decades.

I mean, wouldn't it be crazy if it turned out that western civilization with all its rights and freedoms, all its inquiring nature, all its hard work and industry, owed that to a particular religion? I know, you can already see people's heads exploding because of the cognitive dissonance.

Monday, June 25, 2012


This photo turns out to be the key to my whole trip. It was kind of like Blow Up because I took it for one purpose and then discovered another in it. Unlike that old movie, the more I looked, the more I saw. Here is the photo, you can click on it to see it larger:

I took the picture casually, uncaringly and  initially because of the rock cut you can see in the background. That rock cut is progress. They are making that cut to put in a new divided highway some distance to the west of the present one. It's further away than the photo makes it seem. They have to do this because people have bought up property along both sides of the present two lane highway, which has been in place (with straightening an other improvements) since my mother was a girl. Ironically, many of the property owners who were too expensive to expropriate will be driven out of business when the road moves. The old road will still be in place but the traffic on it will largely disappear and so will a lot of gas stations, restaurants and motels.

The rest stop where I took the photo, and I place I always stop at, will also disappear. These things are going anyway, mostly because our politicians are too spineless to stop out-of-control litigation but that is a subject for another day.

Look at aesthetics here. That building in the foreground is the original and it is built in a style that derives from old Adirondack camps. Here is a side view:

It's probably because of Teddy Roosevelt that this style spread to park facilities, summer camps, campgrounds, cottages and camps all over in North America.

The first thing to catch my eye, though, was the camper:

That's a vintage thing, there were campers like that when I first came to this rest stop with my family as a little boy. (Nowadays the only people who still seem to have them are fishermen.) The camper made a bigger impression on me than the building because it moves. That it was there was more powerful than a building that could be, and soon will be, locked up and left over because it's too much trouble to tear down. The camper represents a way of living that someone is still pushing, like a failing Christian denomination that still has a few older members.

What is the dividing line between traditions like stopping at this old rest stop and religious experience? I feel compelled to stop, like I would wandering off the way like a failed follower of Tao if I didn't stop. At the same time, I can see all this stuff melting away like so much superstition, like a false religion (as I too am melting away like grass that springs up at dawn and withers by the afternoon sun. But then there was that camper like a sign. And that became the theme. The past is hiding in clear view in the present. And I looked for it everywhere I went.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


That's where I am tonight. It's a mill town in the very northernmost reaches of the Appalachians. It has a vaguely Twin Peaks feel about and I'm in room 13! I hope they have pie.

I've been on the road for nine hours and I have to do the same tomorrow so I won't be posting much. But I did want to share this:

That's from a Greyhound station where I used the men's room. The men's room! I don't know what NL, the author of the above, was thinking. Perhaps he imagines that Stella is likely to come by and notice?

I'm inclined to forgive his saying "your" when he means "you're". But the rest of it is pure narcissism. But what graffiti isn't narcissism?

PS: There was a VC recipient from Cabano. Wow!

Manly Thor's Day Special: She can't believe she did that

The Last Psychiatrist has written what may be the longest blog post ever.

I'll get to that in a moment. First I want to tell you about a walk the Serpentine One and I took the other night. We were headed along the side of the parkway and we saw a man and a woman kissing and I noticed that the woman looked a whole lot like a woman I know and the man looked a whole lot unlike her husband. After that it's a complicated story, suffice to say I ended up confirming, without wanting to, that it was her.

And it shook me. It shook me for all sorts of reasons: I expected better of her, I know and like her husband, they have children.

The Serpentine One and I discussed it a fair bit afterwards.

I've known this woman since we were children. My parents were friends of her parents and we later ended up at the same university together and now we live in the same neighbourhood. I know her really well. At one point, I thought, "This is so out of character for her." But no sooner did I have that thought did I suddenly realize that it's not out of character at all. I knew her at university and I drifted back into her ambit a few years later when she was working in a  trendy restaurant downtown. During those years she would semi-regularly do stuff like this.

Anyway, The Last Psychiatrist has this very long but interesting piece inspired by Amy Schumer, who decided to share with the entire world that she'd once gotten into a cab and, after seeing the cab driver (whom she was not attracted to) leer at her, she took his hand and put it up her skirt and ... .
The cab driver was "gross, like the cab driver on MTV."  "This was back when I used to do dangerous things, sexually," and littered throughout the story were exasperated sighs, like, "I can't believe I did those things." 
Later The Last Psychiatrist (He'll be "TLP" from here on in) comments:
I'm not judging Amy, at all, but her story is so representative of what countless women go through, the "I can't believe I did that" repeated 1000 times,  so I hope she won't mind my using her story to make a point about how we frame our experiences for the very specific purpose of NOT changing.
And I have mixed feelings because he is talking about changing or, at least, pretending to want to change and I'm not sure I want women to change. Actually, scratch that, I'm quite sure that I don't want women who have I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this experiences to ever change.

I know, I write all this after writing about how shocked after finding out that my friend is cheating on her husband. I guess that is the mixed part of the feelings.

TLP acknowledges this. He makes the point rather crudely so  you'll have to go over there to read it. I might put it the same way myself but I won't. In any case, I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this experiences (ICBIDT experiences from here on in) vary from woman to woman. One woman might feel that way after going out without her panties on and a another may need to do that and then pull then cab drivers hand up her skirt to get the same effect.

TLP talks ICBIDT experiences as something women want to stop and then moves onto addiction and there is something to that. But there is a flip side: you wouldn't want to be the woman who lived her entire life and never had a ICBIDT experience. Which is why, as a man, you'd never want to date or marry a woman who isn't capable of it given the right opportunity.

This is just one of those things about women you need to accommodate yourself to if you don't want to be miserable.

In the video below, you can see Madonna acting the I-can't-believe-I-did-that expression. Madonna is a lousy actor but she can do this. And it's erotic; in fact it's much more erotic than the more blatant attempts to be erotic before that moment. The crucial moment starts at 4:43. Watch it and see if you don't agree. Now imagine you are downtown and you see the woman in your life coming out of an apartment building with that I-can't-believe-I-did-that expression on her face. If you are normal you will feel a sharp pain and get an erection at the thought. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why is there more X despite Y

We see this formulation over and over again. You get a false correlation that is so strong in people's minds they just will not see that the evidence contradicts it. A perennial favourite of mine is the "X is getting more pronounced despite feminism". Thus an op-ed that appeared in the local paper a few years ago wondering why, "after having fought long and hard for equality", were women "happily displaying themselves as sex objects". The obvious hypothesis ought to be that perhaps this is happening because of and not despite feminism but no one wants to go there. So they don't.

This ideological blindness reached a finely distilled form in a piece by Mark Regnerus I was picking on last month:
If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we'd be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. Instead, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which collects data well into adulthood), none of these things is occurring.  
What Regnerus can't see, and he is hardly alone, is that these things are happening precisely because women are more fully in charge of how their relationships transpire. In other words, it is happening because of feminism. Why can't people see this? Well the short answer is because they want to believe that women are morally superior beings, especially when it comes to sex. When the facts directly contradict their fond beliefs they make stuff up to try and sustain their beliefs.

But Regnerus pales next to Satoshi Kanazawa. I was picking on him yesterday but I left one of his claims for today because it is so fantastical it deserves special consideration. The question he was asked was "So intelligent people do not behave better than less intelligent people?"
No, sometimes they do stupid things. What intelligent people prefer is not good or bad, right or wrong, but it is always evolutionarily novel.  More intelligent boys (but not more intelligent girls) are more likely to grow up to value sexual exclusivity. This is because humans are naturally polygynous. Sexual exclusivity is evolutionarily novel for men but not for women, so more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men. There is also some evidence that intelligent people are more likely to be vegetarians, because humans are evolutionarily designed to be omnivorous.  
Human beings probably are naturally polygynous. But even if you dispute that follow the logic, or try to for it is just crazy. Here is the first step:
More intelligent boys (but not more intelligent girls) are more likely to grow up to value sexual exclusivity. This is because humans are naturally polygynous.
Kanazawa's claim is that more intelligent people will do the evolutionarily novel thing and will therefore tend towards exclusivity in contradiction to evolution which led to polygyny. But here is a question, in whom do men value sexual exclusivity?

I ask because there is nothing novel in men valuing sexual exclusivity in women. To the contrary, it is the obvious evolutionary move. What would be unusual, if Kanazawa is right, would be for more intelligent men to value sexual exclusivity in themselves.

Men, keen to pass on their genes, have always preferred women who did not have other sexual partners. And it's not only to pass on their genes but also to avoid the possibility of expending resources to raise children that are not his. When a new male takes over a pride of lions his first act is to kill all the cubs that are not his.

Why would men have begun experimenting with just one partner? If we trust Kanazawa it is sheer perversity that comes with being more intelligent and seeking novelty. Is that likely? No it isn't. A far more likely explanation would be that limited availability of partners led some low-status males to settle for just one partner. The practice began to stick because these men were able to devote more time to raising their children of this one woman and this produced stronger, more adaptive children. Their children, in turn, carried on the practice.

And it is worth lingering on this a moment because it is important to note that evolution is not a predictive science. A lot of things that seem to us like they shouldn't happen do happen. The race does not always go to the swiftest et cetera. There are weird animals that look to us like they shouldn't be adaptive that are. My favourite is the sloth an animal that is weak, slow and stupid but adaptive in its natural environment precisely because it is slow and stupid (if it moved quicker or was more intelligently curious, it would be far easier prey for hawks). Similarly, someone around 400 million years in the past probably would not have picked the horseshoe crab as more adaptive than most of the other animals around at that time. But it was.

People do what they desire. They don't do what makes evolutionary sense. And it doesn't matter what you do, evolution doesn't care. The survivors will survive and pass on their genes and that is all that matters in evolution. In the long run even that doesn't matter as life on earth will certainly come to an end some day. In the short run, certain trends become manifest and we, in our arrogance, call this massive fluke "evolution".

Okay, but let's get back to women's"odd" behaviour "despite feminism" for Kanazawa has the answer right in his hands but lets it slip through his fingers.
More intelligent boys (but not more intelligent girls) are more likely to grow up to value sexual exclusivity.
Why wouldn't women value sexual exclusivity? Because their genes will get passed on regardless of whom impregnates them. They have incentive to pick a high-status partner to do so (although what they see as high status may not actually be adaptive, witness groupies). They also have a powerful incentive to find a partner to help them raise their child. But it doesn't have to be the same man!

That last bit rubs us men the wrong way and thus all of us, regardless of intelligence and contrary to what Kanazawa imagines, value sexual exclusivity.

Traditional marriage and traditional sex roles constitute a working compromise between men and women. Men have a strong interest in sexual exclusivity from women and women have a strong interest in having a man form a partnership with them for as long as it takes to raise her children. If she can make him feel comfortable that her children are also their children everything works.

Of course, this compromise doesn't remove the tensions between men and women.  A man with his far more consistent and persistent sex drive will always feel the temptation of multiple partners. A woman left alone with a desirable man who is not her partner will often feel tempted to have sex with him but maintain her current commitment. Keeping these powerful temptations restrained is a full time job requiring both individuals and society and large to play along.

Take that away and all hell breaks lose. Convince women that men have no right to expect sexual standards from them while telling women to implicitly trust and honour their own desires and you get what we have today.

No one saw this coming* of course. The thing about unintended consequences is that they are unintended; you can be pretty certain there will be some but you don't know what they will be or else you would have done something about them. Take a video of the way young women dress now and take it back to 1970 in a time machine and both feminists and male porn fans would be equally incredulous. No one would believe that such a thing was possible. But it makes perfect sense in retrospect.

*Actually there was one person. I can't remember who wrote but I read an essay back in the eighties where the author predicted that the combined effects of feminism and AIDS would produce widespread exhibitionism in women. I remember I told all my friends about it because I thought it was funny that anyone could be so wrong. I lost my only copy years ago so I can' apologize to the author now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sorta political: Is intelligence stupid?

Some more on yesterday's theme because late yesterday afternoon I found a credentialed intelligent person writing that intelligence wasn't very smart. Atoshi Kanazawa's latest book is called “The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One”. He made an appearance in an interview at The Economist yesterday and said some juicily counter-intuitive stuff like this:
Actually, less intelligent people are better at doing most things. In the ancestral environment general intelligence was helpful only for solving a handful of evolutionarily novel problems.
That, by the way, is not as creative as you might think. Although humans, particularly in modern western culture, praise intelligence it has proven impossible so far to establish that intelligence is an adaptive trait.

But it opens a fascinating line of inquiry don't you think? It suggests that the bullies who picked on the geeks back in the schoolyard might have  been, how do we put this, smarter than we would think. At the very least, the bully wanted to know what the hell made the geek so important. The teachers kept telling him that this guy was important but he wasn't good at anything that mattered in high school: he wasn't good at sports, he wasn't good with girls and he wasn't good at making friends. Why, the geek wasn't even smart because when he came up against the bully in an insult match, the geek lost that too.

The temptation is to say that the teachers had a better grasp on what would really matter in the long run; to say that mathematics and literature matter more than being really good at playground putdowns and at fighting. The reason we think the geek is right and the bully is wrong is authority. We accept the authority of the teachers.

The further temptation is to say, it's not just "authority" because this authority is based on fact. Well, maybe. But all authority is corruptible and the teachers are not always right. On top of which, the world could change abruptly. If central authority suddenly crumbled and we found ourselves struggling to survive the bully might well be a more useful guy to have around than the geek.

There are also different kinds of geek. These days math geeks are much more valuable than literature or art geeks. This wasn't always the case.

Okay, let's get back to our buddy Kanazawa. He is, or claims to be, an authority. The Economist tells us that he is,
Reader in Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written over 80 articles across the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, economics, anthropology and biology.
Well, let's just concede everything right away shall we? 

Here is another way to approach his stuff. Think of Kanazawa not as infallible authority but rather as an unconscious defender of the current elite.

Here is his explanation of why the modern west considers intelligence important (with added emphasis):
General intelligence is very important in modern life because our environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel. Most of the problems that we have to solve today—how to excel in school, how to find jobs, how to do virtually everything on a computer—are evolutionarily novel. So intelligent people do well in almost every sphere of modern life, except for the most important things, like how to find a mate, how to raise a child, how to make friends. Intelligence does not confer any advantage for solving all the evolutionarily familiar problems that our ancestors encountered. More intelligent people do not have any advantage in finding mates and often have disadvantages.
In other words, the bully was right. Okay, so how is this a defence of the elite? Well, the big question is who gets to be the final authority? We all have different skills and strengths so we will all occasionally be useless. As long as the ship is running smoothly, good mechanics are less important than good pilots but who gets to decide how many mechanics and pilots we keep on board? And how much are we paying mechanics and pilots and who gets the most social status?

And now we can see a potential conflict of interest. Suppose there was a special class of credentialed managers on our ship who got to decide the salaries and status of the other people. Okay, now suppose they also got to decide who got to be a member of their credentialed management class and how many such managers would be hired. It's not hard to imagine that people in such a class might start to skew things in their favour.

Imagine now that the proles get uppity and start demanding that the elite justify their special privileges. Worse, the elite aren't having many children or producing wealth. Even worse than that, the economy isn't doing so well. Well, what are you going to do?

One possibility is to claim authority, which is what Kanazawa does. His first move is to claim that there is such a thing as "general" intelligence. That is as opposed to specific intelligence. Specific intelligence would mean to actually be good at stuff. Stuff that matters. General intelligence may not actually be good at doing the important stuff but is it good when unusual circumstances arise.

So shut up and stop complaining.

You buy that? Me neither. There is a whole host of problems here.

The first question we might as is how does Kanazawa know that the stuff he cites as general intelligence really is general? How does he know we aren't trading one kind of specific intelligence for another? Let's have another look at his claim above:
General intelligence is very important in modern life because our environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel. Most of the problems that we have to solve today—how to excel in school, how to find jobs, how to do virtually everything on a computer—are evolutionarily novel.
Okay, but what makes those things "general". Maybe it's just an odd fluke that having the skills necessary to operate primitive computers was temporarily very important until such a time as easier-to-operate computers were developed. And if that sounds crazy, remember that there was a time when a guy who knew enough about internal combustion engines to fix early cars had a lot more status than mechanic does today. In fact, the status of car mechanics has steadily declined over the last century.

We might ask similar questions about school and teachers. The status of people who could do well at school did steadily rise in the twentieth century but there is no reason that trend should continue forever. With computers and the internet, students who can gain the approval of school authorities will probably be replaced by self learners. And we can see that teachers might have an interest in exaggerating the importance of school.

And are these evolutionarily novel problems really "most of the problems we have to solve today"? If you are about to move then it can seem for a little while like most of the problems you have to solve are related to organizing and packing but you eventually move and get all your stuff unpacked and then the ordinary problems become important again. Kanazawa's "general" intelligence could simply be a set of specific skills that became terribly useful for a brief stretch of time.

If that were true, one of the temptations that the temporary elite (and all elites are temporary) would be susceptible to would be to try and play their specific skills up as general. "Even if these skills don't seem useful, they are in ways you could never fully grasp you foolish proles." And we have seen that Kanazawa makes just that argument:
Intelligence does not confer any advantage for solving all the evolutionarily familiar problems that our ancestors encountered. More intelligent people do not have any advantage in finding mates and often have disadvantages.
The problem here is that a negative quality is being used as a qualifier—this argument contains it's own reductio ad absurdum. How do we know that someone has general intelligence? We know because they tend to be useless at the skills that matter the most.  How do I prove I'm more intelligent than you? Because you keep winning.

But here is a question, if someone is so intelligent that they can solve novel problems, then why can't they solve ordinary problems too? There are, after all, theoretical physicists who can do a fine job at cleaning a house, driving a car and also know how to make small talk, kiss, dance and make love. Where does Kanazawa get the notion that being good at solving evolutionarily novel problems excludes the ability to solve familiar problems?

That is where the whole argument doesn't seem just vulnerable but actually begins to stink of rot and corruption. Particularly as Kanazawa goes on to say that people with greater intelligence tend not to believe in God but don't show any moral superiority for all their intelligence. Here is the first step:
General intelligence evolved to solve evolutionarily novel problems, so intelligent people are more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values. They are more likely to recognise and develop tastes for things that our ancestors did not have 100,000 years ago. For example, more intelligent people are more likely to be left-wing liberals because our ancestors were “conservative” by the contemporary American definition—they only cared about the well-being of their friends and family. They are more likely to be atheist because the preferred theory in evolutionary psychology is that humans are designed to believe in God.
But notice that all Kanazawa is really saying here is that people who espouse novel preferences and values are more likely to adopt novel preferences and values into their belief systems. And, going around this circle, he cannot claim any superiority or truth as support for these values.

Which is why his very next move is to acknowledge that these people aren't very good at moral behaviour.
No, sometimes they do stupid things. What intelligent people prefer is not good or bad, right or wrong, but it is always evolutionarily novel.
Hmm, beyond good and evil, where have I heard that before?

The cliché says that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We might also say that if your continued status as an elite class depends on novelty then you'll be inclined to try to convince others that  the most important task humanity has is to change.

Hey, that sounds familiar. Wasn't there some politician who based his whole campaign on "change"?

Monday, June 18, 2012

BDSM Religion?

Do you ever wonder if the people we're told are the best and brightest are actually kind of stupid? I don't mean unintelligent, they are obviously intelligent, and yet they manage to be stupid. Sally Quinn for example.

Quinn thinks Fifty Shades of Grey is a religious phenomenon. No, really. Her argument for this is stupid.
I think the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon is about religion.

Not religion in the conventional sense of the word, but in how we are redefining faith practices today as more and more people--especially women--shun man-made traditions yet continue to yearn for religious experiences. 
I wonder what kind of traditions there might be besides "man-made" ones? Woman-made tradition? Perhaps God-made tradition? Or does she just mean more and more people are shunning traditional religions in favour of shit they make up? I'm guessing the latter.

Here is a bit more of the argument with some added emphasis:
Never before have there been more “seekers” who are not satisfied with the religion they grew up practicing, those who are possibly secular but want more, those who have never really made a connection to the divine but are looking for a way. Sexual relationships are a major part of religion, with some traditions seeing it merely as a means of procreation, not to be enjoyed while others celebrate sex as a gift from God.
Sexual relationships are a major part of religion? Sex is definitely part of some religions, for example, some aspects of Hindu religion,  but, no, neither sex nor sexual relationships need be a major part of religion. It would be true to say that most religions deal with sexual relationships but it is far from true to say that sexual relationships are a major part of religion. Perhaps Quinn is thinking of some Catholic liturgical sex we have never heard of? Or Anglican circle jerks?

This is more than sloppy language on her part. It's a major distortion and if we take it away and restate the matter in more correct terms her argument simply vaporizes. Look at the very next paragraph after the one I quote above:
So what is it about Christian Grey and his dominant yet ultimately loving, even worshipful relationship with Anastasia Steele that has touched so many women’s souls? What is it about being a submissive woman, as is the expectation for so many women in so many religions, that has such appeal?
Huh? Quinn has established nothing at this point she is just assuming it because "Sexual relationships are a major part of religion" and you can use words like "love", "worshipful", "relationship" and "soul"  to talk about both religion and loving sex.

And don't you get the feeling that there is a far simpler explanation that it's not women's souls but some other part that is getting touched as as consequence of their reading this book.

Okay, so why is this stupid argument important? It's important because Quinn, like so many others, can't face the fact that a lot of women enjoy being or even just reading about being submissive in bed and is desperately looking for another explanation—pretty much any other explanation so long as it is "other".

It's also important because of the bizarre blindness displayed. Take this fascinating "insight" from Quinn:
Grey starts out in the books intending to dominate (beat and cause pain to) Anastasia in his famous playroom dubbed “The Red Room of Pain,” and ends up loving and not wanting (or rather willing) to hurt her. One could compare him to the God of some peoples’ imagination. 
Which God and which peoples Sally? I think she is projecting something far more disturbing than submissive sex onto the novel and onto religion.

 Here is why:
Just when Anastasia has had it and is about to give up on Christian for doing something absolutely appalling, just when she no longer believes in him, he redeems himself by doing something so outrageously wonderful that she cannot abandon him and is pulled back into the fold. Just when he is withholding his love from her and she is weeping and can no longer bear it, he embraces her with an overwhelming totality. Just when she is doubting herself for her submission, he turns the tables and offers himself to her. 
Don't you think of something other than religion when you read that? You should for that is a classic description of the dynamic at play in an abusive relationship.

And I suspect, without reading the thing, that it is not only a classic description of the behaviour of the abusive man but also of the woman who sticks with an abusive man. From what I can learn of the book without reading it, one theme of it is that poor Christian is a morally damaged man who is trying to get over something. The dominance and submission is therapeutic I guess. The crazy thing is the belief that a woman can fix a badly twisted man by loving him. Quinn, rather disturbingly, is not troubled by that.

By the way, did you notice what is completely missing in Quinn's account of religion? There is absolutely no notion of any moral accountability to God or ourselves on our part. To read Quinn, you'd think that God is the one who has something to prove to people who are desperately seeking religious experiences. Our sole responsibility seems to be to make sure that the experiences are good enough and sought entirely on our own terms.

There is also something missing from her account of Fifty Shades of Grey and that is that Anastasia is terribly turned on by the sex she gets from Christian. And that just might have something to do with its appeal.

Funnily enough, a friend of mine and I had a conversation with a young woman who works as a bartender at the local pub. She overheard us discussing Brett Easton Ellis wanting to write the screenplay. She came over to talk about it. She'd never heard of Brett Easton Ellis, although she'd seen the movie version of American Psycho. She wanted us to know itw as a great book in her estimation. "Really badly written but exciting." Which if you think about it, is a welcome change from really well written but boring. In any case, the bartender's insights were more interesting than Sally Quinn's.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A little light culture: Nostalgia

The golden forty year rule of nostalgia was proposed by Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker article about Mad Men, written this past April. It's one of those things that is so obviously wrong and trite and yet there is a little something about it that is right and I want to try and tease that out. Here is the rule he proposes:
 The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)
And he goes on to cite examples of how the 1940s had nostalgia for the aughts, the 1950s had nostalgia or the First World War, the 1960s had nostalgia for the 1920s, the 1970s had nostalgia for the 1930s and the 1980s had nostalgia for the 1940s.

Well, there is a huge problem here and it's the 1950s and early 1960s. The 1980s was my decade and we had a huge nostalgia going for the 1950s and early 1960s only thirty years earlier. The massive sales of The Official Preppy Handbook were driven by nostalgia for the values of that era. And it wasn't just us:
  • One of the huge successes at Woodstock was a lame 1950s revival band called Sha Na Na.
  • American Graffiti, released in 1973, was set in the 1950s. 
  • The hugely popular Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was set only twenty years earlier in the 1950s.
  • Grease, released in 1978, was set in the 1950s.
  • Animal House, also released in 1978, was set in 1962.
  • Diner, released in 1982 was set only 23 years earlier in 1959.
  • In Back to the Future, released in 1985, had its hero travel back to 1955.
And I could go on and on.

Gopnik notes in his piece that the even the Beatles were a nostalgia act and he correctly notes they did a lot of 1920s nostalgia but they started with 1950s nostalgia because that was the kind of rock and roll they played on their first records. 1950s nostalgia sprang up in the 1960s and, like bird crap that the sun has baked onto a shiny chrome bumper, it's very hard to get rid of.

We've had lots of nostalgia for other eras too. Music and fashion in recent decades seems to be nostalgically drawn to the 1970s the way a lonely man stuck in his apartment with nothing else to do is drawn to on-line porn. And there have been bits of nostalgia for the 19th century and the earlier decades of the twentieth century. But it is that 1950s and early 1960s nostalgia that rules the roost.

Why? I think to get at that we have to see that the really big mistake that Gopnik makes is actually the reason he gives for nostalgia:
And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.
This is the same lame reason that the credentialed elite have always given for nostalgia. They think that nostalgia appeals to people who want to turn back the clock. That is exactly backwards: nostalgia's appeal is precisely because you cannot turn back the clock. Nostalgia is driven by loss.

Loss is inevitable so there will always be some people who are nostalgic for any era. But there are also some eras for which lots of people are nostalgic. These are eras of great loss. We had something in the 1950s and early 1960s that we don't have anymore. As Vincent Kartheiser, the actor who plays Pete Campbell put it:
“There is a large portion of America that doesn’t feel about America the way we did in 1960, and I think we want to know why we don’t,” said Mr. Kartheiser, 29. “We want to know what went wrong.”
Note the "we" in that sentence. Kartheiser, like most of the people who watch Mad Men, has no memories of the 1960s because he wasn't born yet. The loss he and people like him have is for something they feel was taken from them before they were born. That is true even of Matt Weiner who was born in 1965. In fact, anyone born from the late 1950s on would have no real memories of this era beyond the usual childhood ones but would have lived their entire lives with the sense that something happened in the late 1960s that changed everything forever.

Note also the resentment in what Kartheiser says: "We want to now what went wrong". And here we can see a different forty year rule that makes more sense than Gopnik's. Forty years after the fact the people who have set and controlled the narrative about an era begin to lose their grip on it. (If they were real people, Megan, Peggy and Don would respectively be in their seventies, eighties and nineties now.) If you studied the late 1950s and early 1960s in university any time in the past few decades, you would have been told that this was an era when mindless conformity and complacency were set aside in the name of real progress. This is still the narrative that a lot of people want to tell. They are the people who want the show to "deal with race" because that is their trump card against the late 1950s and early 1960s; that whatever good you might say about that era it was racist.

But a lot of us don't buy that reductionist view. And we shouldn't have to. A more accurate history would tell the story of how getting the civil rights acts passed and enforced was the work of men of the same generations and not unlike Roger Sterling and Don Draper. For it certainly wasn't the baby boomers who passed civil rights, most of them couldn't even vote at the time. And if you sweep that bit of self-serving twaddle aside, a very different picture emerges. Take that away and we can see an era that was full of confidence and an era that had real style that is about to be swept aside by a new era that has neither. We want to know what went wrong and we aren't going to listen to the bullshit anymore.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Ballerina

I'm still on that last episode of Mad Men. Looking around the web, I think I'm the only person who thought it was brilliant. Some others thought it good, some thought it terrible and most thought it underwhelming.

Well, the last is to be expected. That's the Mad Men motif: a big penultimate show full of drama followed by a quiet, philosophical wind up. The only exception so far has been Season 3.

I'm going to arrogantly suggest that the reason people haven't appreciated it fully is because there was so much to digest in the show. I know that I find more in it every time I rewatch this episode. To take just one example, think of the word "ballerina". Lots of people have quoted a remark that Megan's mother Marie makes but I think they then fail to grasp the full significance of it.

First, the remark. Finding Megan moping in bed about her lack of success in her acting career, Marie tells her that the problem is that she is running after a phantom. Megan childishly whines that she is supposed be encouraging. That is when Marie gives her both barrels of twelve gauge realism:
Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.
Megan doesn't take that well. She makes a snide comment and her mother calls her an ungrateful little bitch.

An aside: Am I the only one to care that Marie is absolutely right on this one? And this is about more than just this one episode of the show. I find it very troubling that no one else latches on to this because it makes me wonder about our attitudes towards women in this post-feminist era. As a man, do you want a woman like Megan or a woman like Peggy? Both are variations on Margaret meaning a pearl, perhaps even a pearl of great value.

That goes right to the heart of not only this season's Mad Men but to the very nature of sin. Is sin in the devil who tempts us or is it in our desires.

But let's get back to "ballerina". Marie, after all, could have said that the world can only support so  many princesses but she chose, or, rather, the scriptwriters chose for her, "ballerina". We've had two notable ballerina appearances in the show before. We've had a character who has shared the name of a ballerina: Suzanne Farrell.  We've also had Peggy whom Freddy Rumsen calls "Ballerina".

So here is the question again: Do you thing Megan is Peggy's equal? Peggy didn't go looking to be a copywriter but she worked at it when she was given the chance. Megan didn't value the dream given to her but instead reverted to her childhood, and childish, dream of being an actress.

As I've said before, I don't think there is anything wrong with the image of the ballerina and the princess and I don't think there is anything wrong with little girls seizing on these archetypes. The problem comes when people feel entitled to it. And we tend to do that don't we? We look at some impossible dream and we know we can't earn it but we also think it will be magically handed to us.

To shift sexes for a moment, that is surely what was wrong with Lane Pryce's dreams. His wife thinks Don filled him with ambition he ought not to have but Lane didn't have ambitions, he had silly little fantasies as revealed by his still having the photograph of the sexy young woman that he found in a  wallet in an earlier episode. This is that crazy dream that most of us men have that some absolute goddess will come along and just give herself to us; not because we have won her love but just 'cause you know. Just 'cause we live in a narcissistic age and we're all prone to those sorts of dreams.

By the way, the "666" is beginning to make some sense now. Needful things: it's all about our desires and how they make us sin. Remember how Lane comes into Joan's office and she asks him what he thinks of her two possible vacation choices and he says neither seemed appropriate for celebrating the death and Resurrection of our Lord? And then he immediately makes a sexual suggestion that angers Joan. And then he, like Judas, hangs himself.

In the last episode, Joan wonders of Lane would not have committed suicide if she had given him sex. But why would that make any difference?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On the subject of being seduced ...

UPDATE: Rereading this one, I am not very happy with it. I have added a couple of sentences to make some logical connections I left out. I still think it needs more work but there you go—what's a blog for if not a place to put down half-baked thoughts.

Brett Easton Ellis wants to write the screen play for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey.
“I’m putting myself out there to write the movie adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” he wrote. “Hope EL James doesn’t think I’m being a prankster. I really want to adapt her novels for the screen. Christian Grey is a writer's dream …”
The ellipsis is in the original by the way. He doesn't say why Grey is a writer's dream and he feels he shouldn't have to because he has been seduced. Ellis feels about Christian Grey the way the millions of women who have gotten their rocks off while thinking about him do.

What I mean by that is Grey is a character Ellis wants to know intimately. He wants to get inside the guy the way writers do with characters, which is different from imagining you are him. And that is also a key part of wanting to be seduced: you don't just want to be conquered, you want to be able to imagine what the person conquering you is feeling. You don't want to be the conqueror, that would rob it off all the magic, but you need to see that look in his eyes just before he wins and, well.

But will it work? One of the keys to writing good porn is that it is incomplete. It leaves lots of room for the person who wants to lose to manœuver themselves into a position where they can lose. If Ellis gives us too much of what seduces him about Christian Grey, we'll be stuck with someone who can't seduce other people nearly so well.

Noir Extrême

That's the name of a kind of cookie that has shown up on the shelves of grocery stores. The cookies are pretty good but that name is perfect. And it got me thinking about the willing suspension of disbelief.

That's the  willing suspension of disbelief. Well, not really, no one watching a play about a murder suspends disbelief or else we'd all rush onto the stage to try and prevent it. But there is a kind of enthusiasm, a loss of control required. The Serpentine One once said to me that "seduction is a game you can only play if the thought of losing excites you as much as the thought of winning". A similar approach is required to really get art. You sit down and think, "Okay guys, impress me", but you have to really want to be impressed.

Actually, you need to be prepared to do more than that. You need to be ready to lose control and lose yourself. That's one of the things I love about film noir. There is a moment at the start of even a mediocre noir when I feel it creeping over me like a drug. And I think, "This is what I came for."

This is what people mean when they say something they really like is "like sex". They don't mean it is literally like sex.* But it is like being seduced. This is something like what it feels like for a girl to realize that she has been seduced. And that is a very different feeling from the woman who says to herself, ""I'll go through it because [whatever reason applies today]."  Even going through with it to have pleasure and an orgasm isn't the same as allowing yourself to be seduced.

James Lileks, the first blog I ever read and still one of the best things on the Internet, was not seduced by the last episode of Mad Men. He watched it and liked it and his review shows considerable knowledge of the show but he wasn't seduced. He can be seduced as he shows us when he writes about the music. Here, for example, is the way he talked about the John Barry theme from You Only Live Once that was used in the Mad Men episode:
The bloom of that first chord, the way it settles into the second - wary, resigned, uneasy, but also majestic and remote - is the blueprint for just about everything John Barry would ever do, and when you add the strings playing at the top of their register before it settles into a beat, well.
It's the word "well" that is doing the work here. It doesn't have any actual content. It means something if you know what it feels like but you couldn't explain it to anyone anymore than you could describe turquoise to someone who'd been born blind. That is the way a young woman might say,
He pulled my the panties part way down so the elastic was sitting across my bum and then left me there thinking about it for what seemed like forever and then, instead of taking them off, he pulled them back and came up and kissed me some more and, well.
If you say, "Well what?" in response to either of those you're just telling everyone you don't "get it". Ever! And the choice is up to you. You could respond to either John Barry or the man undressing the girl by saying, "That old trick" and, factually speaking, you'd be right but you'd still be missing something.

Now, here is where it gets really interesting because the next step is to inject morality into the equation. Here it is:
I sat up straight when the opening notes of “You Only Live Twice” started crawling up the scale ...  I thought: they haven’t earned this.
They haven't earned it? It feels absurd but I know the feeling. As I type this, Nat King Cole's version of "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" came on and Nat does earn it. He finds something new in that song that isn't in Crosby's version. His version is wistful and, as the Serpentine One just chimed in, "You think maybe it didn't work out in the long run".

By way of comparison, listen to Nat's version of "When I fall in Love" and I defy you to find another version that finds anything new in it.

At the same time, you can spoil everything by letting morality always trump the seduction. There is a sort of moralistic attitude that comes with wanting to be very much in the world but not of it. You see this in a lot of writing about art, the guy who has acquired an immense amount of knowledge and depth of culture and can write about it but you can tell he just doesn't tingle. His inner girl is long moved into cynical middle age, she can still get wet but she can't, well.

It's telling, and appropriate, that none of these three songs are so incredibly good that they should be sacred. As Lileks correctly says of "You Only Live Twice" a "better singer than Nancy Sinatra might have spoiled it". It's not great art, it's a worthy seduction. If you think you can only be seduced by some guy truly worthy of seducing you, then you can't be seduced at all. You need to be able to sit in the darkness with only the light of the screen and feel a sort of tunnel vision as you get completely absorbed until, well ...

* Great line from the fly-fishing writer John Gierach, "If fly fishing  is really like sex then I am doing one of them wrong."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men: That ending

I wish I could post a video of just that ending. I buy the episodes through iTunes and I can go back and rewatch the really good bits and the ending of this season's finale is worth watching and rewatching.

We start on in black and white. We're watching Megan's "screen test". The camera pulls back and we watch Don watching. There is no sound at first so the sense of unreality created by the film is heightened. Then the music starts with a vague sort of French impressionist feel about it. At first it might be Satie, then it might be Debussy and then it sounds just like classic Hollywood.

What's Don thinking? We see him smile so his thoughts are affectionate but they are paternal. This is a change. I've rained some criticism on John Swansburg so let me give him full credit for spotting this first. His relationship with Megan has changed. She is no longer his equal but just another child with childish dreams she is seeking to satisfy.

Keep that thought in mind.

The next shot is the five partners walking out into the now available space one floor above. Except it isn't really. It's just the set where their current offices are emptied out. Our sense of unreality is heightened. There is a lovely joke on this in Pete saying he will have the same view as Don now. Literally the same. This must have been better for the actors because they, of course, are merely looking at a  blue screen where the "view" out the windows will later be dropped in.

And they all line up. The instant cliché has been to say they line up like super heroes. That's true enough but there is a prior source. They all line like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and the gang about to fight the gunfight at the OK coral. This is a profoundly unrealistic shot created by Hollywood.

And then we are in a fantasy set, only we don't know it's a set yet. And Megan, dressed up like a child's dream, comes out to Don and says, "I can't believe this is happening." Then she says, "You know I love you," and kisses him. But she only loves him because he can make her dreams come true. Megan has come way down this episode. She has become a child just like Betty.

This is reflected in her clothing. (And who do we blame? It was her choices that got her here.)

And then Don turns and walks off the set. Again, the scene is so cinematic. The hero walks away at the end of his triumph. Because that is what heroes do. Like the lover in a sexual fantasy, he walks away and doesn't stay around to clutter things up. Shane would always be a source of tension so he has to leave and the mystery lover would kinda clash with the husband. And so does Don here. He has to leave because that is what heroes do.

And then the music kicks in. We don't know that it's a James Bond theme yet. We only know that it's very cinematic and it perfectly matches the lone hero walking away. And he walks and walks and the camera tracks him. It's like he is walking through the universe.

And then the best part. This is sooo perfect. If you can go rewatch it, do it now.

The camera stops tracking Don and he goes by us into the dark and then walks out of the dark right into a bar. He walks out of the last scene going from left to right and he walks into the next one from left to right. There are no establishing shots in between. It's like one continuous act before our eyes. He just walks out of one set and into another set.

Because that is what heroes do. They walk out of one adventure this week into a brand new one next week.

The music has been continuous and now the vocal starts. We know the tune of course. It is one of the pieces of common currency of our era but we haven't pinned it quite yet until the vocal starts and when it does, we are in a Bond movie.

And a woman approaches him and asks him to light her cigarette. This is a perfect opening for a  film noir. And she asks him if he is alone. again, there has been an instant cliché about this: that the answer is that "everyone is alone". True enough but it's not at all inappropriate or unusual for Don to be alone. He is the hero and he is always the hero and the hero is always alone at the start and end of each adventure. This is the start of something new.

The only unfortunate thing is that they didn't have  the courage to end it right there. I mean to end everything right there; not just the season but the series.

Mad Men quickie

There was so much in this episode that I keep coming back to it. I haven't seen anyone else comment on this yet so I will. When Don accidentally meets Peggy at the theatre to watch Casino Royale, she makes it clear that she learned this trick of going to the movie to clear the brain from him. That's not all she has learned.

Appropriately, it's the mirror image of the original:

Sorta Political: Girls defend their right to dess sluttily. Again!

There is a fair amount of chatter going on about the students of the upscale Stuyvesant High School who protested against their school's dress code by dressing sluttily. Some are calling it "Slutty Wednesday" and perhaps that will catch on the way Slutwalk did (the students themselves went with the more prosaic "Redress the Dress Code").

But I think there is something far more important happening here; something we might miss because it is right on the surface. For whatever reason, we have a generation of girls who have a strong need to dress (which often means "undress") sexually. And, as I said in response to Slutwalk, they are terrified that some mean old busybodies are going to come along and stop them:
But let me suggest that there is one thing that really drives this: girls and young women in their teens and early twenties really, really, really love dressing like sluts. They love the feeling of sexual power it gives them and they love it a whole lot. And they look around and see nothing but what appear to them to be scolds and busybodies trying to stop them. There is a huge amount of defensive anger out there in girlie-land and that defensive anger has been like a dirigible full of hydrogen looking for a spark for a long time now.
And it's not just that young women protest against anyone who tries to take away their right to dress sexually. They also turn any protest at all into a chance to present themselves sexually by getting naked or nearly naked as happened at the Occupy and Quebec protests.

Here is why I think it's happening. We live in an era that has denied women and men their identity as women and men. We have done this quite openly and cheerfully in the name of liberation. We tell them that they can be whatever they want and that they don't have to accept their sexual role as given by biology or fate or the culture. We thought we were going to make girls lives easier by removing these things from their lives. This freedom to be what they were "inside" instead of accepting what  things "outside" told them they had to be was supposed to be comforting and reassuring to them. To our surprise, they have fought back with a vengeance. Young women see their public sexuality not as an imposition but as a comfort and they see sexual attention not as something to be avoided but as something to be pursued.

These young women aren't arriving at this view through analysis. Nobody does that. When I want honey, I don't think, "What nutritional needs do I have and which food best satisfies those needs". No, I just have a craving for honey. Likewise, young women today aren't carefully thinking through their emotional needs as women. They just have a craving to assert their sexual identity and so they are doing so.

And I'd also point out that there is no evidence—despite a lot of wishful thinking from the intellectual elite—that young women are have a whole lot more sex or having sex much more casually than used to be the case. (If anything, they have been less promiscuous than the 1980s generation were.) Girls may be dressing like sluts but they don't want to be sluts; they want to be pursued and loved by boys just like every other generation of girls in history.

It is especially interesting that young women are doing the exact opposite of what was expected of them. The expectation was that the sexual revolution would lead women to present themselves less sexually but actually be more sexual by treating sex as a recreational activity. If it were up to the intellectual elite, girls would act like the characters on Girls even though that show presents girls as unhappy failures in their sexuality. Real girls, meanwhile,  are reverting to something else.

Reverting is very much a part of it by the way. For all the brazen quality that slutwear has, it is also very nostalgia driven. It's not driven by any particular era; we have touches of 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s, 20s and even the 19th century driving this clothing. But whatever it is, nostalgia has a lot to do with it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mad Men: The Phantom

They could end it right there. In fact, it's hard to see why they bother going on. Well, expect that ratings are way up and there is apparently a deal for two more seasons.

You caught the clever joke of course. They never name the brand because it hasn't got a name yet. Virginia Slims would be introduced in 1968:

You've come a long way, baby
To get where you've got to today
You've got your own cigarette now, baby
You've come a long, long way
You've come a long way baby. Except they haven't At the end of it all, Don walks into a bar and orders an old fashioned which, of course, is where we see him in the opening scene of the pilot. Peggy is literally trying to get a  cigarette of her own for her new employer. And then she checks into her motel room in Virginia (we know it's "motel" because she is on the ground floor) and she looks out the window and sees two dogs having sex.

Here is the problem, the show itself uses women in ways that are just as unenlightened. I'm not sure that is a problem for the show or for us. You decide.

Consider this bit of dialogue from last night's show:
Megan: I need you right now.
Don: Megan.
Megan: Please. It's the only thing I'm good for.
Don: What the hell happened today?
Megan: This is what you want isn't it? For me to be waiting for you. So you won't give me a chance.
Don: That's not true.
Megan: I know, I know. Because it's either that or I'm terrible.
Okay, nascent feminist theme perhaps? I don't know but stop and consider what the visuals tell us as opposed to the words. For as soon as that dialogue ends, Megan rolls over and we see this:

I know, I know, how very crass of me. But Megan's words from 1967 tell us that she is worried that her only value as a woman is sexual and then the camera immediately tells us that the creators and audience think her only value is sexual.

But Don gives her a  chance. Or appears to. He leaves the ad that is about to be filmed with Megan and walks out of a set and the camera pulls back so we can see that there is no fourth wall. And then he walks right into another set. Luckily this is not some stupid post-modernist wink but a lovely existential moment ebcause the very next scene he walks into is a bar.

Where he orders an old fashioned.

I love the show. That's why I write so much about it. But is this going anywhere? Or does it all end with some bit of cheap cynicism about how people can't change.

There were all sorts of fourth wall moments this season by the way.  Did you catch the shot where the partners all walk into the floor above to look at the empty office. That, of course, is nothing but the empty set of the existing office. Here is a gem. Here is the moment in episode "5G" from season one when Adam comes to Don for help and Don refuses:

Okay, here is the scene from "The Christmas Waltz" this season when Paul asks Harry for help and Harry gives him help:

Yes, it's the same booth. (Click on each image if you need to see it larger.)

And now consider this dialogue from "5G" in season one. Midge has called Don at the office and he nips over for a quickie. It's a sort of feminist moment" the woman makes the booty call. Sort of. Anyway, after the sex is over he following dialogue ensues:
Midge: That was it. That was what I called for. You can go.
Don: You can't call me at work.
Midge: You're scared I might get lonely all the time. Start having conversations with you and ring you all the time and say, 'When are you going to come over?'
Don: This is working right now.
Midge: And it worked today. Look, I'm sorry your life is in a million pieces. Be easier for you to have one less.
There is heavy dramatic irony there because Adam is about to take one piece out by committing suicide. Just as Lane takes apiece out this season and, lo and behold, Adam starts appearing in Don's dreams.

Now consider Marie's advice to Don this season:
"I know, it's hard to watch. But this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist. Take my advice, Nurse her through this defeat and you shall have the life you desire."
Which is exactly what Midge offered Don and that Megan fears is all she has to offer.  Only Don ignores Marie's advice and tries to make Megan's dreams come true. Don spends a lot of time making women's dreams come true, which is perhaps not surprising  given that most of the show's writers are women.

Back to season one. Rachel has just expained to Don why there has to be an Israel even if she doesn't go there. She says it is more of an idea than a place.
Don: Utopia.
Rachel: Maybe, They taught us at Barnard about that word. Utopia. The Greeks had two meanings for it eu-topos, meaning the good place and u-topos, meaning the place that cannot be. 
That's pretty much where we are stuck again isn't it? (as I've said before, one of the show's weaknesses is when characters start to talk like writers. This isn't the only time we see a character start unrealistically going off about Greek definitions.)

What would it take to redeem this? What would it take to raise the show above some trite bit of cleverness wherein people can't change?

Here is my thesis. The usual criticism of the dream merchants: as Midge's new boyfriend Roy says in Season one, "You make the lie. You invent want". But suppose we are like Megan, desperate to believe the problem is with Don rather than face that the problem is with us in the first place ('cause it's either that or we're terrible).

Well, what if we are terrible and our desires keep getting us to the same nowhere? If that is true then Don is just a MacGuffin. And we keep trading one false religion for another, episode after episode.