Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Back to Brideshead

My morning started off great with two great comments on one of my Brideshead posts. I love it when someone reads my stuff and posts intelligent remarks in response. But when I went to the post to thank him or her for their remarks, I found that they had deleted them. Sigh.

Fortunately, nothing on the internet is really gone. Here is the second comment (this is about Julia's dramatic speech at the fountain):
Oh, and, also, the Alice-in-Wonderland-ish, nursery sense of Faith and religion, is quite Chestertonian, wouldn't you agree? And, hence, legitimated within the present novel. 
That's a very astute observation. But where does it lead us?

That Chestertonian view is associated primarily with Lady Marchmain. The bitter outpouring we see from Julia at the fountain is Lady Marchmain coming back to haunt her as she also haunts Sebastian, only Cordelia seems to grow above her mother. To ask the question bluntly: Does Waugh admire Chesterton's viewpoint? He is certainly willing to allow it a place but I'm not sure he admires it. And, never mind Waugh, should we admire it?

This is particularly relevant today because Chesterton's view was thoroughly Franciscan. That is not unusual in an Englishman. Centuries of anti-Dominican propaganda combined with the bright romanticism of Wordsworth primed Englishmen of that era to be receptive to Saint Francis. If you have 50 minutes to spare, you will find many themes in this video that overlap with Brideshead Revisisted:

But what did Waugh think of all this? He is willing to see just about everything as faintly ridiculous including some of the most revered and influential forms of Catholic spirituality. We are meant to laugh at Bridey's Jesuitical attitudes but we are not meant to think that Bridey gets Jesuitical spirituality wrong. It is even more problematic in the case of Lady Marchmain for she is more sinister than just faintly ridiculous and, again, I don't think this is because we are supposed to think she gets Franciscan spirituality wrong.

Stick around 'til the end of the above video and you will get Clark's account of Giotto. There, I think, you get a view that is closer to Charles Ryder's spirituality. But we shouldn't assume that Charles veiw is necessarily that of Waugh himself.

I don't have an answer to my own questions. Not yet anyway. Like Benedict XVI, I've always inclined to a more Augustinian view and I am resistant to Franciscan spirituality but I can't say I've reached any final conclusions.

This summer I am going to reread and edit all my Brideshead posts and put them together on one page to make them easier to find and read.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More sexual display and polite fictions

It was a hot weekend with all sorts of festivals and thousands of tourists in town. And everywhere I looked tonight I saw the cultural influence of Kate Upton. Not every woman was doing it for the simple reason that not every woman is willing and not every woman can. Doing what you ask? Jiggling!

Bouncing racks are in in a big way. I don't mention this to be crude. What I want you to do is consider the social facts behind this. First you get a super model whose gimmick is her bouncing breasts. Upton is attractive and all but she wouldn't stand out in super model circles without a gimmick. At some point she noticed that people writing about her were talking about how her breasts moved more than the other models and she consciously decided to play this up. It became her gimmick.

Now, you get a particular kind of motion with the push up bras that dominated the market for the last two decades. Breasts tend to bounce up and then come down with a crash kind of like jello hitting a hard bowl. You even get a sort of ripple along the top surface of the breasts if the woman really pounds her heels down onto the pavement. To play up her advantage, Upton has to ditch the standard hard push-up up in favour of a softer cup that is going to let her breasts move more naturally.

Next, millions of young women have to start coveting the look. Now, there are lots of magazines and web sites that run articles about how to get certain looks but you don't see them providing advice about how to make the most of bouncing breasts. No, the women have to figure this out for themselves. Meanwhile, lingerie companies have to get product into stores that will allow more motion but they probably can't advertise the effect directly.

As was the case in the 1980s, when bras had a thinner weave in the fabric around the nipple area such they would show through, the connection has been made. No one advertises it, besides Kate Upton, and no one admits that women are making adjustments to help their breasts move more freely so men will look at them, but it has travelled through the culture like some sort of secret signal and has done so with an effectiveness that advertising executives can only dream of. I walked up Bank street tonight and the new look was very much in evidence. The polite fiction is maintained whereby we pretend that the women doing this aren't intentional when they have, in fact, planned every detail.

It's fascinating. Even now, in an era that claims to have no sexual inhibition, all of this goes on underground with no one admitting that it's going on. Even now, we can't be honest with ourselves about how actively, and consciously, women seek sexual attention. 

When she's right, she's right

“Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.” Heloise

I haven't held back in my criticisms of Amanda Marcotte in the past so it gives me some pleasure to be able to praise her now. She recently took aim at,
... a widespread conservative belief that men cannot really love women and that women find sex degrading and repulsive (but desperately want men to marry us). The idea is that men will try to get away with having as much sex as they can without committing to a woman, and women have to try to game the system by withholding sex to extract a promise of a loveless but legal marriage. Romantic, no? 
Reproductive rights screw the whole system up, according to this theory, because men know a woman doesn’t have to be pregnant and therefore cannot be guilt-tripped into a shotgun marriage. Women, always assumed to be too stupid to act in their own interest, are therefore assumed to be having all this sex they don’t like, foolishly thinking it will get them married. But, as the conservative theory goes, men don’t marry unless they have to, so women are left bereft, with no leverage to extract wedding rings from the unwilling.
And she's right. This view is widespread among social conservatives. (Not just them, of course; Sex and the City, to pick just one example, while acknowledging that women really do love sex, was built entirely on the assumptions about men being unable to love unless gamed into it that Marcotte outlines above.) What is more, it comes straight from Catholic moralists. 

Some have counter-attacked by saying that many feminists have been less than positive about the way men and women relate to one another sexually and that is true. But so what? The truth is that lots of social conservatives do argue in just the way that Marcotte says they do and I'm not sure what they think they are going to accomplish with this line of argument. Reduce love and marriage to the prisoner's dilemma? 

I put the Heloise quote at the top because this game, and it is a game, has a long history. Abelard, in his history of their affair, takes all the blame on himself. He does so for gentlemanly reasons. The polite thing, if you were the man, was to pretend that you were the lustful one and she was fooled into going along with your planes because she wanted love or something. Anyone who cares to read Heloise's letters, however, will readily see that she wanted it much more than he did.

As polite fictions go, putting the blame on women is far from the worst thing in the history of human sexual politics  but it is just a polite fiction. Most women really, really, really like sex and it's foolish to pretend otherwise, especially when making arguments about whose interests are really served by contraception.

Monday, June 16, 2014

True Detective: This could get pretty silly, but somehow it didn't seem to matter.

I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated. — Raymond Chandler

Yeah! I finally saw True Detective after spending months having to stick my fingers in my ears and sing every time other people brought it up. I had to wait until it came out on iTunes. I loved it. Some other people who brought it up have taste I admire, including a guy I'll call "a cousin of mine" as that has an appropriately back in the Bayou sound about it, especially as we aren't actually cousins but both love Bourbon so you might say we have a spiritual relationship.

I knew I was going to like it as soon as I saw that Emily Nussbaum did not. Nothing against Nussbaum, I rather like some of her stuff. She's anti-male to be sure, but so is everybody these days and it's too much to expect a writer like Nussbaum to rise above her culture. And that is why I knew I'd like it—because it runs against the culture. Perhaps you'd like to be able to like it too? Let me show you how.

The key to liking this series is in, as it is in most things in life, expectations management. Luckily art comes equipped with a built-in expectations management tool called genre. Once you know what the genre is, you know what to expect. 

Here is the genre of True Detective as explained by its greatest masters:
They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get. There was always plenty of it lying around. There still is. Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, not to so closeknit a group of people, nor within so narrow frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. This could get pretty silly, but somehow it didn't seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
Raymond Chandler

Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element

Do you remember all the repressed memory bullshit from the 1980s? I have this memory that one of many false accusations involved a day care centre where the kids and the false experts who interrogated them constructed fantastic tales about sex abuse combined with satanism. I'm scared actually Google that out of fear that 14 government agencies will instantly open files on me. I'm pretty sure it happened though. Not the crimes, they were invented, but the accusations (and the lives ruined by these false accusations).

But the point you have to grasp is that crimes themselves are not meant to be realistic. They made this shit up. Here's the clue you need: True Detective was a magazine that specialized in taking real stories and retelling them in a lurid fashion such that they ended up resembling urban mythology. The magazine went out of business in 1995! Guess what year the action for the TV show begins? Really. Think that is significant? If you do, that makes you smarter than Emily Nussbaum.

This is a fantastic story. When you are watching a fantastic story, you aren't troubled by questions such as: "Can you really get super powers by being bit by a radioactive spider?" "Could a nuclear explosion really free a giant monster capable of destroying Tokyo?" or "I get that someone might suddenly burst into song like that but where did the orchestral accompanying her come from?"

Santa Monica

Even today, municipal politics are apt to be corrupt but they are nothing like they once were. Exactly how corrupt city governments used to be is an open question, and I believe contemporary historians have deflated most of the legends somewhat. That said, there were cities where racketeers controlled politics, unions, illegal drugs, booze, prostitution and gambling. Montreal was like, Havana was like that, Chicago is still like that. With the exception of Chicago, that era is over now.

The realities of these cities quickly got swept aside by hard-boiled writers in favour of a romantic landscape in which five kinds of people operated:

  • Immensely corrupt political leaders
  • Organized crime bosses
  • Respectable people who knew things were bad but resisted rocking the boat to protect their interests
  • Ugly monsters who had nasty habits ranging from ice picking people in the base of the skull to molesting children who got away with it because of the combined apathy of the above three groups.  
  • Deeply flawed but romantic male detectives who couldn't let go of a case until some sort of justice was achieved.

For Raymond Chandler, the corrupt city was Santa Monica, which he called Bay City (which is a little like "disguising" New York City by calling it "the big apple"; Chandler didn't intend to fool anybody). For the first True Detective, the jurisdiction is Louisiana. The really obvious place to have set the story would have been New Orleans but that would have meant facing certain inescapable facts about actual corrupt Louisiana politics that no one in the entertainment business wants to countenance, so it got moved out into the bayous.

If you go looking for this Louisiana, you aren't going to find it. To make my point, let me point out another fantastic element of the story that, so far as I have been able to ascertain, didn't bother any of the critics. I know serious intellectuals who write for the New Yorker aren't long on religious literacy but how many Evangelical schools have you seen called "Queen of Angels"? The Queen of the Angels is Mary, as in The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of the Rosary, the woman who has nine million Catholic schools named after her and very few Evangelical ones.

For purposes of fiction this doesn't matter. This is a fantastic world and with fantasy comes certain moral allowances that would be repugnant in real life. It seems perfectly reasonable that the classic western should end with two guys having a gun duel. If you saw that in real life you'd be screaming for someone to stop it. This is part of the contract that writers in the genre makes with their audience.

Phillip Marlowe teams up with Moose Malloy

This is male fiction and male fiction trades in misfits who are called, for purposes of romanticizing them, loners. Men spend a lot of time conforming and resenting that. When we think of rebelling, we think about embracing certain kinds of misfits. Every guy imagines being the one who was fired for insubordination like Phillip Marlowe was as opposed to being the guy who went along to get along, which is what we actually are.

Keep that in mind as you see our two protagonists characters develop. One of them is going to be the Marlowe guy, a man with a ridiculously narrow life focus and a ridiculously narrow set of life skills to go with that. Further, those skills will be developed to a ridiculous degree, in real life, a man who grew up alone in Alaska with nothing to do but look at the stars would be a little slow. Because the genre is what it is, we accept that he has a brain that works on certain sorts of problems the way Wyatt Earp's brain and body worked on pulling a gun.

This man, as indicated by the quote at the top, is always lonely, always single. Despite being a loner and rather odd, he is highly attractive to women; again, this is not the way things work out for odd loners in real life.

The other is going to be the Moose Malloy type who is capable of being a good man only he is just too damned unfocused to get around to it so he maybe drinks, maybe screws around, maybe goofs of, maybe does all the above while time passes him by. He does, however, have a strong attachment to one woman whom he inevitably loses.

And they team up temporarily. It has to be temporarily because that's what male friendships are like; they are temporary bonds formed as men work through the big transitions of their lives.

A closeknit group of hard men within a narrow frame of logic

Chandler is right: the thing that makes all true fiction fantastic is that too many things have to happen in a time frame that is too tight and to a group that is too small. It's extremely unlikely that a single robbery, rape, murder or jewel heist  is going to end up tying together corrupt politicians, crime bosses, religious leaders, respectable middle class people along with unsolved cases that went unsolved because no one ever cared but that is pretty much what always happens to the Continental OP, Phillip Marlowe and, in True Detective, Rust and Marty.

And then there is sex. If you have a man and a woman meet professionally, then you have to have a sexual thing between them according to the rules of the genre. It can be resolved by them having sex, not having sex, getting very close and either having or deciding it would be better not but, either way, then regretting it for the rest of their lives. These things, as Chandler says, really do happen sometimes in real life; the problem with true fiction is that they have to happen every time.

The second Phillip Marlowe meets the Sternwood sisters, you know he has to have some sort of sexual conflict with both of them. But the encounter, whether it is actual sex or something else, will not and cannot be satisfactory. The genre also demands that.

As a consequence, as soon as some sort of emotional connection begins to develop between Rust (as played by Matthew McConaughey meets his partner's wife Maggie, as played by Michelle Monaghan, we expect one of the above-listed scenarios. There doesn't to be an emotional connection. They could never meet. They could meet and hate each other. But if they meet and there is some sort of emotional connection then there has to be a sexual thing between them. The genre demands it.

They were apt to be hard men

Yes, it's a story about men and relationships between men. I'm not sure why that is such an obstacle for Emily Nussbaum. I can see it not having any appeal for her. I rarely watch professional lacrosse myself. That said, I don't feel the need to morally condemn professional lacrosse the way Emily needs to tear into True Detective. Especially when I see the kind of thing she does like:
“The Fall” (which is available on Netflix) has even more conventional nudity than “True Detective.” It, too, tells a story about a team of detectives hunting for a rapist-murderer obsessed with symbolism. It features pervy stalker shots, along with sick-making imagery of female corpses, in bondage, photographed as keepsakes. Some critics called the show “misogynistic torture porn”: by turning viewers on, they point out, it takes a rapist’s-eye view. But this imagery has a sharp purpose. The show reveals the murderer immediately, forcing us to see the world through his eyes. Then, episode by episode, it tears that identification apart. Just like Rust Cohle, “The Fall”’s rapist has an elaborate pseudo-intellectual lingo, full of Nietzsche quotes and talk of primal impulses. But an icy female cop, played by Gillian Anderson, sees through him—and, in the finale, she shreds his pretensions with one smart speech.
Of course that would be completely different because ... well, because it ends with a woman cutting down the man. Go ahead. Just try to imagine Emily Nussbaum praising a movie with the same plot line only with the male and female characters reversed. More importantly, though, try to imagine anyone, male or female, enjoying a movie like that.

The genre is about men just as Thelma and Louise is about women. Remember all those good men in that movie? Remember the man who shreds Louise's pretensions in one smart speech? Me neither for the simple reason that they belong in another movie. Nussbaum is doing something like the hockey fan who hates lacrosse because the players use those sticks with baskets to pass a ball instead of hockey sticks and puck.

(By the way, I love the hypocrisy of Nussbaum saying, "Some critics called the show “misogynistic torture porn”: by turning viewers on, they point out, it takes a rapist’s-eye view. But this imagery has a sharp purpose. The show reveals the murderer immediately, forcing us to see the world through his eyes." That must explain why TV shows and movies that do this are so incredibly popular with women! The imagery has a sharp purpose alright and attaching a genital plethysmograph would only tell us something we already know.)

The demand was for constant action

This point is obvious enough that I don't have to explain most of it but I should say something about talking. Homer's greatest innovation was to treat speech as action. That is to say, what matters is not what a person says but how he says it. This is hugely different from most much modern fiction where what is said is the most important thing as this tells us what sort of character they are. If one of Jeffrey Eugenides characters starts to talk, you can be sure that they will spill out the content of their psyche. Those contents may come out as a tumbled mess because their psyche is a tumbled mess but it still is the contents of their brain.

In noir, a character talks as a kind of action. They are always, always, always performing a role. And the point of the role is to get the other person to respond. If you're a woman, you might not like this much. Take, for example, the scene where Maggie confronts Marty about his long absences from the home and Marty goes through this soliloquy about being like the Coyote who has run off the cliff and he thinks he'll be fine so long as he doesn't look down and Maggie responds by giving him sex.  You might think he is describing a man barely in control of himself but that is really the role he is playing. Likewise, when Rust talks about the mind being like "a locked room", you might thing he is trying to tell us how understand the human psyche but, again, he is just setting forth the rules that govern his role.

(Within two episodes, I found myself copying Rust's way of phrasing sentences.)

To think otherwise is to imagine you are making a deep and important point when you observe that court jesters state blunt truths but protect themselves by making everything seem a joke. That's not a description of the psychology of the jester but of his role. A jester who didn't do that would cease to be a jester.


Transgressive behaviour is boring

This is especially true of criminals. They are slow, irrational and damaged people who act the way you'd expect such people to act. Their stories don't have arc. They tend to be, man arrested for sexual indecency gets out of jail and is free for two months before he is arrested for indecency again. It takes two months because most acts of indecency go unreported; he was probably back at it within two days. Take your crime: break and enter, prostitution, use and sale of illegal drugs, criminals fall right back into the old patterns. It's not what they want to do but it's the only thing they know how to do.

To make the story interesting, you need interesting non-criminal characters to mix up with them. And here we return to the top because the interesting character is going to be a man who is a misfit. Misfits aren't transgressive. They don't want to tear the system down; they just want to find a place a little outside of it for themselves.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pope Francis update

What does desperation look like? It looks like this:
In some ways, the "Pope Francis effect" doesn't seem very effective at all. 
Despite the immense popularity the aged Argentine has won since his election last year, not a jot of doctrine has changed, nor has the Catholic Church swelled with American converts. 
But there's more than one way to measure a pontiff's influence on his far-flung flock.
Start asking around -- here in Boston and beyond, Catholics and atheists alike -- and it's easy to find people eager to share how one man, in just one year, has changed their lives.
Short version: "There is no data so I'm going to rely on anecdotes!" And does he ever. He is Daniel Burke and he has written a long, long piece on CNN and it is full of a faith of surpassing sincerity; by which I mean Burke has a touchingly sincere faith that the plural of "anecdote" is "data".

The great liberal hope in Pope Francis will ultimately come down to one issue: Can he put liberal Catholic bums back on pews? As time has gone on, liberal Catholics have tended to go to church less and less often and, consequently, to donate less and less money. This has happened in the Catholic church even though the hierarchy of the church is dominated by people who support most forms of liberalism; the Catholic church hierarchy leans left on economic issues, left on immigration, left on crime, left on health care, left on the environment and right on sexual morality.

If you're a member of the liberal establishment that dominates the management of the church, this puts an entire way of life at risk, not to mention a steady source of paycheques and retirement benefits. Their hope is that Francis can turn things around by making the pews a welcoming for liberals. In practice this has meant, amping up the anti-poverty PR and turning down the volume on sexual morality. It's important to grasp that both moves are purely PR gestures.  The Catholic church already does more than any non-governmental agency on the planet to help the poor and it does considerably more than many governments. Changing the Pope's expensive red shoes for cheaper ones of a more restrained colour is just a gesture. On sexual morality, the church cannot make major changes to its doctrine. It just can't. There will be no same sex unions and no women priests. The only option available to Francis is a change of tone and even that has been far less significant than his friends in the press would have you believe.

And that is why the desperation creeps in. If you're a liberal Catholic, more welcoming can't mean simply improving the PR; more welcoming has to mean getting more liberal Catholics to go back to church and put enough money in the collections to support the liberal institution that keeps all those liberal Catholics collecting paycheques and looking forward to retirement benefits. The blunt but unspoken fact in Burke's article is that, so far, Francis has not done this. Expect the cries of desperation to get louder as time goes on. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How not to write a review

Keith Pille reviews Tom Robbins' memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, at Slate. You can tell it isn't going to be good right from the subhead:
What happens when a 20-year-old constructs his personality completely out of reading Tom Robbins novels?
Yes, the review is not of the memoir, about which we learn almost nothing, but about the reviewer.

And it get's worse.
Build a personality out of these bricks, then, and you’ll get a very specific kind of guy. In my case, my Robbins phase left me very passionate about making and appreciating art. It left me suspicious of consumer society, skeptical of authority (particularly governmental authority), and completely uninterested in participating in any organized religion. Other Robbins fans I’ve known through the years fell very much along the same lines.
Now, take a good look at those traits; they are not exactly rare in a young man in his twenties. They are pretty clichéd set of values and suggest a young man who did not spend a lot of time thinking for himself.

As to Robbins himself, I couldn't say. I tried reading Even Cowgirls Get the Blues twice. I really liked it for fifty pages or so both times but ended up putting it down and never picking it up again. The writing was often brilliant but I didn't care what happened to any of the characters enough to find out. That may be Robbins fault or it may be mine.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Yet another female celebrity says she's not interested in feminism

It's Lana Del Rey this time. And the usual suspects are upset.

According to the above same website, the list of female celebrities who want to distance themselves from feminism is long and growing: Bjork, Taylor, Swift, Lady Gaga, Geri Haliwell, Juliette Binoche, Melissa Leo, Carrie Underwood, Sandra Day O'Connor, Dita Von Teese, Marissa Mayer, Beyoncé, PJ Harvey, Carla Bruni, Madonna, Demi Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kelly Clarkson.

Now, imagine you are pro-feminist and a journalist. Looking at the above, don't you think it might occur to you that asking famous women to declare themselves on the subject is not helping the cause? Why would anyone hoping to help feminism keep doing this? Every time another famous woman says she isn't a feminist, it makes it that much easier for other women to distance themselves from feminism.

Not that they are having a hard time as it is. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the polling data will know that the vast majority of women don't think of themselves as feminists. Even in the glory days of feminism, most women held back. In recent years the number of women willing to declare themselves feminist has been steadily declining: in 1992 only 33% of women said they were feminist; by 1999 the number was down to 26%; the last poll I saw said 22%. There is no good reason to suspect that famous women are going to respond any different from a random sample of women. If anything, they are even more likely to distance themselves because they like being famous and are quickly going to realize that they will alienate more women by saying they are feminist than they will by saying they are not.

Here is related issue. The writers at Jezebel, and they are far from alone on this, claim that the source of the problem is that these women fail to understand feminism. They say that feminism is simply about women being equal to men and if you're for that you, as most of us are, should call yourself a feminist. They are dismayed that so many women think that feminism is about hating men or about being angry. Okay, let's take it as read that feminism isn't about these things, wouldn't you, if you were a feminist, begin to wonder if the problem might not be with these women misunderstanding your message so much as the message being poorly expressed in the first place? If a only few people misunderstand your message, you can credibly argue that they are at fault; if lots of people people misunderstand your message, then you are at fault.

I think the ultimate problem here is that many feminists are no longer interested in dialogue. Real dialogue requires that you be open to learn from others; it requires that you be willing to modify your position in response to the interaction. These feminists aren't interested in that. They want agreement and nothing but agreement. That's why feminism-supporting journalists keep asking female celebrities if they are feminist; they see the question as a sort of litmus test and further imagine that celebrities will pay a price for failing to give the "right" answer; the list above shows that no such consequence follows.

Final thought: I wonder why it never seems to occur to feminists that some of their allies are not helping. Alexander Kerensky infamously, and suicidally, said, "No enemies to the left." What he meant by this was that a good moderate never criticizes other leftists for being too extreme; all he ammunition was saved for attacking the right, even moderates on the right. It didn't work out well. Feminists too often make the same mistake. If you really don't want people accusing you of hating men, then you should admit that some feminists do hate men, some feminists are boring and some feminists trade in statistics that are pure nonsense and distance yourself from them. Of course, to do that you'd have to be open to dialogue with people who think feminism should change and ...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Mad Men: The wrap up

1. Larry Kryszinski

I have a feeling he'll be back. He's the old Army buddy who recognizes Don as Dick Whitman on the train in the third episode of Season one (The Marriage of Figaro). When he hands his business card to Don, it is backlit so that we can read IBM through it.

I know I said that having Don's military desertion come back to haunt him wouldn't work dramatically and I stand by that. What I meant by that is that it wouldn't work if it came in all by itself. It would work if it came in driven by something else. Looking back on the first seven shows, it seems to me that everything is nicely set up to have just that happen. IBM is in the office, Don has dissed the IBM comparing him to Satan and Lou has been set up as the defender of military honour. All we need is for Kryszinski to see Don, tell his buddies and this information to get to Lou, perhaps via Duck somehow, and we have a denouement.

In season one, Don is compared to Moses several times. As I said when covering that season, Moses leads his people to the promised land but doesn't get to enter it himself.

The ending I'd love to see is one in which Don bows out for the sake of others and slips down the road to assume another identity somewhere else, stopping only long enough to carve the Hobo code for "a dishonest man lives here" on Jim and Lou's doors, before leaving.

2. Harry and Betty revisited

In the comments to a previous post, Laura Carney said that Betty looks like she should be the perfect homemaker and yet constantly has childlike motives. Thus people hate her. That's right and I think Harry is a subtler example of the same phenomenon. He tries to be a good husband and yet always reveals himself to be weak in the face of temptation. We cut other, more obvious failures, such as Pete and Don and Peggy some slack because they aren't really trying to fit the role models as an end in themselves. Don and Pete may play at being good husbands and Peggy may seem like she is hoping to get married but they all do this because it is expected of them and not because they really want these things. And they fail because they don't really want it. Harry and Betty start off really wanting to be what they are.

The price they pay for this is going through an identity crisis because the roles they want to play no longer fit into the larger culture.

3. Sexual display

Continuing on the theme, there is a moment in Season one when Betty tells Francine that she caught Dr. Arnold Wayne trying to see down her top. She then goes on, in typical Betty fashion, to say that she had always felt that if she could do that she was "doing my job". The implication is very clear that she learned this from her mother. At the time I said that sounds more like someone in this decade might project back into the past that anything a woman of that generation might have said.

I mention it here because there is a complementary attitude expressed by Harry to Pete when he talks about the pleasure a married man can legitimately take in the company of women.

It all makes narrative sense but it doesn't make historical sense.

4. Roger!

No one remembers now but he wasn't a permanent cast member in Season one. He is the perfect example of a character who surprises his creator by having more depth than expected. Every time he made an appearance the screen came alive. Jon Hamm, quite rightly, gets credit for his acting skills but he is even better when he has John Slattery to play against; we haven't scene this kind of interplay since Lester Young and Herschel Evans. There has been a lot of talk about the moving reconciliation between Sally and Don but the most moving moment for me was Roger and Don last episode.

Friendships between men are a beautiful thing.

5. Emotions

One of the recurring themes of the show is that emotional intelligence is more important than being perceptive. Pete, Harry and Cutler all are more perceptive than the other members of the agency. They see both complex realities (the African-American market, the importance of television and the importance of Harry to the agency) and simple truths (that Joan is doing two jobs) long before anyone else and yet that always matters less than growing emotionally, which is how Don, Roger, Joan and Peggy advance.

6. Loyalty

On the same theme, having the right driving emotion matters. Don speaks admiringly of Harry's loyalty and well he should. Harry saves his butt. In the end, though, Harry fails to want enough. His fear of giving his wife an advantage in divorce proceedings is what makes him delay signing the partnership agreement and that leads to his downfall. Loyalty is a fine thing but it isn't enough in and of itself. You have to have a fire in the belly driving you.

And that's a problem for Don. He has been driven up until now, if he starts talking about just wanting to work, he is no different from Harry.

Harry is too much like the sort of pathetic boy-men we see about nowadays. He could be on the staff at Salon. Which leads me to:

7. The 1960s are still a cultural tragedy

As I have said many times before, the decade from 1960 to 1970 begins with style and ends with none. At which point, everyone who has been through indoctrination college splutters, "But, but racism! and Sexism!" Sure, but as Joni says, somethings lost and somethings gained. We lost a lot and Mad Men has performed a huge service to us all by reminding us of some of what was lost. The show is mind-blowingly stupid about somethings (military culture for example) but brilliant about many others.

This has been achieved to a large extent by simply being honest about the 1960s. Hippies were foolish, impractical and dirty people. The music scene was chaotic. The real work of changing the world was done by adults who worked in offices. In the process, something was lost that would be worth trying to get back again.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sexual display and polite fictions

Sexual display fascinates me and it fascinates me for exactly the reasons you would guess. But I don't want to talk about that here. I want to talk in as serious, non-titilating way as is possible about the subject.

Let's start with Janeane Garofalo. This video I link below is pitched as a defence of pubic hair. It isn't. It was also pitched as funny. It isn't. I know, so why am I making you watch it? Because this is one of those cases where we will find, if we step back and forget what we've been told to see, that what actually happens is really quite revealing. The embed function isn't working so you'll have to go elsewhere to watch it.

First, let me say that while I approve of grooming generally, it strikes me as crazy to have your pubic hair waxed away. Nothing is worth that sort of pain. Second, while repeating the above point about the desirability of some grooming, I find pubic hair aesthetically pleasing and it's absence not so much. If it were up to me, the 80 percent of women under the age of 30 that Garofalo says do this would not do this. But I don't think it is up to me and that, as it turns out, is a key difference between me and Janeane Garofalo; she thinks it should be up to her to dictate.

I mention that because the key point that you'll notice if you ignore what you are told to see and pay attention to what actually happens in the video is that Garofalo isn't defending pubic hair but attacking women who have it removed. And she is attacking them in a vicious way.
For anyone who does [pause] pander, and I'm sorry but it is pandering.
"Pander" is an interesting word. It means to gratify or indulge another person's immoral or distasteful desire. That is to say, the assumption is that you take no pleasure in this desire yourself but do it in order to influence or manipulate others. The point here is that Garofalo is slandering these women in a big way.

She gets a shot at men in too but it's a throwaway line at the end of the video. It's only there to try and hide the extent to which this is an attack on women.

A point I've often made before here is that some "feminists" aren't interested in advancing women's rights so much as they are interested in controlling other women. What Garofalo is trying to do here is called social policing and she does it with as much determination as Lady Augusta Bracknell, and probably for the same reasons.

And one of the most fascinating things about sexual display in women, speaking from a sociological perspective, is that it is subject to social controls driven by women. Garofalo is unlikely to succeed in her mission to convince 80 percent of women under thirty to change but other kinds of control do work.

Some examples may help. Right now, it is also socially accepted that young women will display a lot of their breasts by wearing low-cut tops. Just a decade ago, that was considered a little over the top and women were expected to be much more restrained. On the other hand, pants and skirts of a decade ago had waists cut so low that they created extravagant displays of other parts of women's bodies when they bent over. A woman who dressed like that today would be seen as desperate in her need for attention.

Okay, that is pretty obvious. But there is another kind of display that involves a polite fiction. That polite fiction might be expressed this way: "She doesn't realize ...". What makes these kinds of display interesting is that they represent an attempt to get around the social controls by making it appear as if the thing just happened rather than the calculated effect it actually is; no one can claim a plunging neckline just happened but you might get away with pretending you didn't realize how much your otherwise not-revealing, loose-fitting  top gaped open when you bent over.

Let me give you an example of this. Back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, there was much talk about erect nipples showing through the fabric of women's clothing. Crass remarks along the lines of, "She has her high beams on," or "Are you cold or just happy to see me," were common currency. Sometime women would show pity for other women this happened to by saying, "The poor thing."

But here is the thing, how often do you see that happen today? The reason it doesn't happen seems obvious: bras are made of much thicker material now. But let me tell you about a little secret that I discovered by accident. I friend of mine, whom I'll call Sophie because that isn't her real name, worked at a lingerie store called Lila's Lingerie here in Ottawa in the mid 1980s. I used to go meet her after work and take her out sometimes and she would leave me to wander around the store while she cashed out. It gave me a rare opportunity to examine and comment on the wares for sale there, a habit Sophie encouraged me in as it provided opportunities for flirting. Anyway, after a number of visits I realized something what was, for me at that age, a shocking discovery. About one quarter of the bras on sale were made such that the weave on the material was intentionally thin (and it wasn't a subtle thing) where the nipple would sit; these bras were manufactured to intentionally produce what every one took to be an accidental effect.

I got two significant payoffs from this discovery. The first was that Sophie, when I said something about it, blushed deeply. The second was a fascinating sociological fact: this obviously intentional effect was not advertised. And it couldn't be could it? If it were advertised, the whole polite fiction of "she doesn't realize" would be lost.

On the other hand, there have to be people who are quite openly and ruthlessly exploiting this in order for the game to work. Those bras didn't get that way by accident.

Now it helps to consider the history. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a lot of young women did not wear bras. Originally, comfort and feminism were advanced as the reasons for doing this. Inevitably, however, women noticed the attention they got because of the extra motion and erect nipples that were frequent side effects of going braless. Also inevitably, some women felt more comfortable wearing bras and so a compromise option was created. The most famous of these was a Wonderbra product called Dici that was marketed with the slogan, "Dici or nothing".

And somewhere along the line, companies started to make products that offered support but also allowed erect nipples to show through a woman's shirt as if she were not wearing a bra. Things got to where they ended up in little baby steps not unlike flirting: "What would you do if I ...?" followed by, "And what would you do if I ... just a little bit further?" Except that the whole game was played out in secret between women and the companies that make clothing for women.

Actually, that's not quite right. The whole thing was played out in secret between some women and some companies that made clothing for them. Most other women, especially, as Janeane Garofalo inadvertently calls our attention to, women over the age of thirty, have to be just as unaware of this as most men if the subset of younger women were to achieve their desired result of circumventing the social policing efforts of other women.

Another example. When I was in high school there was a particular brands of women's pants wherein the centre seam through the crotch was gathered in such that it produced a rather spectacular effect when women put them on. Very tight pants were popular at the time and the effect was often produced accidentally just as happens with leggings today. The secret of these pants was that they were designed to do it on purpose. Again, they never advertised this aspect of what they did but the women who wanted the effect knew.

And others didn't. My mother and her friends used to bemoan the fact that so many girls loved these pants and she'd say not only words to the effect of , "She doesn't realize ...", but also suggest that the problem was that the companies responsible for had also created this effect by accident, that they didn't know how to make the pants properly. She believed, and this is a point I will return to, that this intentional effect was a quality defect.

What fascinates me about all this is the amount of coded messaging and complicity required for this trick to be pulled.

I'll wrap this up with a limited defence of Lululemon. Anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years will know that the dominant "she doesn't realize" polite fiction has been the fact that black stretch fabric tends to become see-through under certain conditions. In many ways, black stretch fabric is the perfect choice because we don't think of black clothing as being prone to being see through even thought it carries a much greater risk of this than white clothing. Perhaps inevitably, clothing manufacturers started playing along with the hypocrisy leading to the Luon yoga pant which, as any male could have told you, becomes see through when the wearer bends over causing the fabric to stretch thinner.

Now the founder of Lululemon got into huge trouble because he suggested that the pants weren't right for all types of bodies. It's odd, in retrospect, that that was considered controversial. That is indisputably true as is also true of a lot of other clothing. It's not diplomatic to actually point this out to women and, although the anger directed at Chip Wilson was way over the top, he should have known better than to make the mistake he did.

What I'd like to suggest, however, is that the reason Wilson said what he did is that he was actually speaking in code in order to honour the polite fiction of "she doesn't realize". He knew that while the majority of women don't want their clothes to become see through when they bend over or step into bright sunshine, a significant minority will pay good money to play the game of "she doesn't realize". This significant minority, when spread across North America, is probably worth billions of dollars a year in sales but the whole phenomenon doesn't have a name for the simple reason that no one could speak it even if they it did.

At the same time, the women who play this game tend to be very good at it. They get attention and other women want to emulate them. They are unlikely to succeed for the exact reasons that Chip Wilson impolitically drew everyone's attention to but, and this is the important thing, he never would have felt he had to do so if he hadn't been playing along with the polite fiction of "She doesn't realize" to begin with. For if these women who complained had merely been wearing clothes that made them look ridiculous, as lots of other women and men do, it would clearly have been no fault but their own and no one would have had sympathy for them. Assuming I am right and the effect was no accident, they could hardly say so because that would not only not have appeased the customers who were complaining but also, and more importantly, it would have betrayed the trust of the millions of women who wanted the effect without acknowledging it. And this would have alienated not only the ones who specifically sought the see through effect but the ones who bought the clothes because they wanted to "do Yoga" or 'because they are comfortable", which is the female equivalent of the old male line of reading Playboy for the articles. This group was Lululemon's core customer base.

Not to worry, however, even as we speak, young women very interested in sexual display are working out the codes for the next "she doesn't realize" polite fiction soon to be seen in my town and yours. As soon as they figure out what this polite fiction is, some clothing manufacturers will start producing products that increase the likelihood of the desired result happening and everyone will be happy again.

(I'd wrap up by saying, "everyone but modern Lady Bracknells such as Janeane Garofalo", if I didn't suspect she enjoys being angry.)