Friday, April 29, 2005

Not-So-Brave Old World: Pseudo-feminism for the semi-intelligent

Disappointment du jour:
This morning I caught a minute or so of "Good Morning America" while I was putting on my shoes. Why only a minute? Because it doesn't take me that long to tie my shoes. (I'll take a moment out to thank my parents for giving me that handy skill so many years ago. Still use it to this day.) The fact that I came from the bedroom to the living room fully dressed save for footwear, with a pressing need to get out of the house so I wouldn't miss my train, and turned on the TV for just that brief period while I slid the shoes on and tied the laces no doubt indicates an unhealthy relationship on my part with that device. However, for a quaint change of pace, we're not going to explore my neurotic quirks but those of (as best I can tell) roughly half the population of the Westernized world.

The TV came on tuned to ABC and I merely didn't change the channel. The segment already in progress was one of those puff pieces where they get a bunch of models to showcase the upcoming swimwear fashions. As best I can tell this is commonplace for the morning shows; I'm sure it's not difficult to get designers and/or retailers to agree to what is essentially free advertising pretending to be journalism. (Okay, to be fair, all fashion and entertainment journalism is free advertising, not just these pieces. I'm not complaining; just identifying a shovel-like suit in a deck of cards as a shovel-like suit in a deck of cards.) The "twist" in this one, as far as I could tell, was that rather than recommending swimsuits that complement with a woman's body shape they were suggesting particular fashions worked with a woman's astrological sign (apparently as an indication of her personality and therefore willingness to show a greater or lesser amount of skin). And while that is ripe for comment, that's not where I'm going with this.

The piece was hosted by Diane Sawyer (not sure whether she normally does GMA) and some woman who was introducing the models (not by name but by which sign they represented) and explaining how the fashions related to the theme. (I know—you're wondering how I was able to continue with my shoe business with this sort of fascinating spectacle on screen.) The models were all, of course, young and thin. That's what the models who do a morning talk program have going for them; they may not be stunningly gorgeous, but they're young and thin. With the last one featured, the model was in a bikini (I don't recall which sign was spotlighted—I must have been tying the laces at that point), and the announcing woman threw in a remark about the model's flat stomach (presumably as a helpful body attribute to pull off wearing such a suit, whatever one's sign). With the segment coming to a close, Diane Sawyer thanked the announcer woman and all the models for coming. However, just before segueing to commercial, she muttered a comment about wishing she had a flat stomach like the last model, and she sounded completely sincere.

Well, of course being an accomplished journalist who appears regularly on national (international) television programs is clearly less worthy of coveting than is having shapely abs when you're not even old enough to get in to bars.

Disappointment level 1: I suspect women reading this reacted to the above first with an identification with Diane's stated desire for the lithe figure, and then with a sense of defensiveness, feeling that casting on TV journalism is unfairly skewed toward the young and pretty, and that the only way for women to stay viable is to continue to look young and pretty.

They undoubtedly would argue that Diane wasn't serious, and I fully concede she was not contemplating trading in her career to acquire such a physical attribute. I am not removing all context from the situation. She is an intelligent, successful woman, and the model is some nameless flat stomach who appeared on screen mere seconds. While that's all true, and I agree completely, she still felt compelled to utter that envious thought aloud while they were on the air. I can't help but think the motivation for that, if only on an unconscious level, stemmed from the belief that it was what a lot of the female viewers were thinking.

Disappointment level 2: I guess I would hope that a woman who will turn 60 this year and still looks fantastic and who has led a life much more enviable (in my opinion) than anyone who makes a living from lucky genetics would have gotten over the shallow standards women have been brainwashed to believe they should maintain. I don't know; perhaps the show of vulnerability makes her more appealing to the women, as some indication that she suffers the same way they do.

Disappointment level 3: The women reading this will dismiss everything I said complimenting Ms. Sawyer's accomplishments and mental prowess because I'm a guy, and therefore the only reason I could possibly have been watching the segment for the aforementioned minute would be prurient interest in the semi-clothed bodies of the models. I must be rabidly attracted to young flesh. That's all I could possibly desire in a woman: nubile naiveté. That's the only aspect of a female that could hold my attention: looks.

Disappointment level 4: This is directed toward myself. I pushed it a bit too far with the sarcasm in the last paragraph. I should have been able to make the point without being so obvious.

Disappointment level 5: For some reason, I hadn't lowered my expectations for this society where there's people out there who are putting the airhead bimbos in front of the teleprompters (perpetuating the whole cycle), and where the public seems to think that's how it should be.

I've stopped flipping through channels plenty of times because a pretty face was on the screen, but I've only left it there if there was smarts and personality to go along with it. Or, I suppose, if I were occupied with tying my shoes.

(And now you're disappointed this didn't have the typical self-deprecating twist at the end.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The end of lunch as we know it

In the restaurant where I had lunch today there was music playing. This is fairly common practice in eateries, presumably aimed to provide some semblance of ambiance, to provide the patrons with a pleasant environment, escaping for a brief period the firestorm of hectic modern living. And because when it's too quiet people expect there to be books on shelves, and that doesn't make people want fries with that.

It sounded like one of those commercial-free satellite stations, with the focus on pop hits from the 80s, a decade I remember alarmingly well, and one apparently popular with the restaurant’s demographics. Or just the one the manager left it on by mistake. As I waited to place my order, the song playing through the speakers was "Electric Avenue" but the singer was not Eddie Grant. It sounded pretty much the same in tempo, arrangement, etc., but the song clearly had been re-recorded by someone who sounded about as reggae as Pat Boone. It wasn't muzak, but still it made Pat Boone's version of "Tutti Fruitti" seem as raucous as Little Richard's.

(I don't remember the 50s firsthand, but have listened to a reasonable amount of oldies radio. For you youngsters, there was a time when to make rock n' roll—which some called "devil music"—palatable to a conservative audience, the hits of black artists were redone by popular white singers of the day, with all the soul pretty much sucked out. Oh wait. I forgot we still have "American Idol", so you know about that. Anyway, let's get back to our story.)

I found myself wondering who would bother with such a watered-down remake (and, moreover, why any radio station would play it). Then I was enlightened: The next song was "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"—well, a version of that track that featured a vocalist who resembled Cyndi Lauper inasmuch as she too was female. By the time I got my food I'd gleaned the station's whole format revolved around pale imitations of songs that were popular during the Reagan Administration. Again befuddlement struck me: Why did these songs need to be redone in a manner that was neither muzak nor music? And why wouldn't the station just play the original versions? I suspect the royalties being charged for Eddie and Cyndi were well within the range of anyone with at least a paper route.

Part way through my meal, after I'd tuned out the sound, I was brought back into the fold when I noticed "California Girls" playing. Not the Beach Boys, of course, but in the same paltry style as the other songs. I revised my surmise of the format to be lame (as in limping) covers of pop songs from multiple decades (because why should only one ten year period be insulted?).

And then in the hollow harmony of the chorus, between the overlapping "I wish they all could be California Girls," I discerned the lead singer interject, mildly: "I love them girls… whoa." (Exclamation mark withheld on purpose.)

I took petty solace in having been right in the first place. This was a cover of the David Lee Roth cover of the Beach Boys, lacking in the sunny flavor of the original or the cheesy schmaltz of the remake. And with that I was not so much wondering why it was being played but merely curious why they couldn't get Diamond Dave himself to re-sing it. (I bet he'd work for scale.)

While it's easy to criticize an establishment that would actively use that in their attempt at ambiance, both for health concerns (that it can't be a good environment for food preparation) and out of simple respect for rock music in its myriad non-watered-down forms, I think I understand the higher purpose of the crap.

It came to me when later I saw an ad for a new a series NBC is to begin airing called "Revelations" (based roughly, I imagine, on the Biblical prophecy of the end of the world, where I'm pretty sure Satan comes to rule over the earth or something like that). Whatever your religious proclivities, I think you would have to agree: there's no way any lord of the underworld would spring forth and want to take dominion over a world with an entire station devoted to taking songs that were not that great in the first place and making them worse, with an abject lack of irony.

Rest easy, people: Surely the Devil wants no part of this "devil music".

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Raging Walter Mitty (a modest impulse)

When I’m walking down a well-lit, semi-populated street, striding purposefully and as unthreateningly as one can without crawling, and someone I pass eyes me warily and gives me an unnecessarily wide berth, sometimes I feel like going up to that person and thrusting my elbow straight into his face. You know, a back-sweeping blow, with absolute and inexplicable malice, trying to break the nose or something.

I never do it, of course, continuing to walk purposefully and giving no outward indication of the impulse. I may even feel somewhat guilty about the unwarranted animosity as I continue on my way before the thought completely passes and my mind moves on to contemplate something that’s probably equally unfit for admitting to people on a website.

I suppose the motivation, on some unconscious, testosterone-inspired level, stems from the sense that this person’s paranoia is practically begging for something threatening to occur; animals can smell fear and apparently so can I. The world has so conditioned my unwitting pseudo-prey to operate as though everything is out to get him that it’s almost as though doing nothing is letting him down. I mean, if the Bush administration’s insistence that “America is safer” has not put him at ease, I am sure that making eye contact and smiling innocently wouldn’t have much effect on his outlook. However, I bet justifying his distrust of strangers would, on some level, provide a sort of satisfaction; it wasn’t all for nothing that he comported himself as he did.

Undoubtedly the irritation I feel also springs from the impression that, despite all of my subtle efforts to seem at least not untrustworthy, I have been lumped in with those scoundrels who flaunt their machismo in their gait, presumably wishing to instill such fear. I suppose I could revel in such glowing success in the absence of any effort whatsoever, but really, as this essay reveals, I’m plenty capable of being off-putting when you get to know me; I don’t need the uninformed paranoia of strangers helping me there.

The irony (let’s overuse that term), of course, comes from the fact I’ve never been in a real fistfight my entire life, and anyone who has even so much as seen an episode of a sitcom where the protagonist attends a beginning self-defense class could almost certainly take me down without wrinkling his clothes. Perhaps that sub-conscious realization on my part, when combined with the perception of being threatening, elicits in me a reaction that’s akin to one dog sensing submission in another. (Hmm. On second thought, anyone who knows dogs knows what one dog tries to do to another dog in that scenario, and that would not only get me arrested but force me to hire Michael Jackson’s lawyers, so please try to appreciate the metaphor without dwelling on the practical application thereof.)

I am civilized enough that it never manifests in action; I am intelligent enough to grasp that unlike the thugs who have forethought and get away with their violence, I would be not only be arrested but, not being a celebrity, would get the maximum sentence; I am considerate enough that I wouldn’t do that just on principle; I am lazy enough that it’s simply too much trouble to bother; I am pusillanimous enough to worry the person has seen that sitcom episode.

“Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant. …Violence arises not out of superfluity of power but out of powerlessness.”
– Rollo May (identified by the editor of The Great Thoughts as an “existential therapist”), 1972

"Elbow?" I know enough about my fighting prowess not to attempt to use a fist, and that the elbow can both deliver and withstand more punishment.

"Him?" Go with it. Admittedly, more of the incidents of this scenario involve women I pass, but I’m not so stupid as to be oblivious about the fact the pronoun “her” would give the whole thing a connotation I don’t intend, and would pretty much destroy what little humor there might be.

Unrelated quote:
“I’ve only this morning learned of blogs, and my first reaction was, ‘Why would anyone care?’”
– Rosario Dawson, in a public diary feature for Black Book magazine, Feb/Mar 2005 issue.