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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The trouble with #YOLO

Whether you know it or not, you've been listening the most depressing party jams in history. I was born in 1989. I'm old enough to remember when 90210 was edgy and forbidden, and yet I can still call myself one of the YOLO generation, for which Miley Cyrus has been twerking nine to five.

For anyone not in the know, Grady Smith of Entertainment Weekly wrote this excellent piece about how agressively in-the-moment today's pop music is:

"These days, pop stars don’t just sing about throwing a great party. They sing about throwing a great party because it’s their time to do so. There’s a weirdly reverent sense of duty wrapped up in the whole affair — as if stars must pay homage to the #YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that’s so often cited by young people in moments of indulgence or reckless adventure. This is our moment to claim, say pop stars. This is our moment to be crazy. We’re entitled to it because we’re young. "
The think about #YOLO, or "you only live once" to the older set, is that it ought to be read in the opposite direction--if you only live once, it follows that we should all be extra careful about our decision making, eat healthy and plan for the future, because  you have to live with your decisions for a very long time.

So what happened? How is an entire generation simultaneously missing the point? I think we're scared. To think that "You only live once" means "do whatever you want," you have to have no hope for the future.  Our formative years were clouded by the horror of September 11th, the looming threat of "An Unconvenient Truth" all fed by the twenty four hour news cycle and the ever proliferating internet.

 Of course, our parents had The Bomb to worry about. Maybe the hedonistic pop stars of today are the natural successors to the hippies. I hope not...for two reasons. (1) The 60s counterculture were too stoned to accomplish much--at best they ended up conforming to the man, at worst they overdosed. And (2) \the music was better.

And by "better" I don't necessarily mean "classic" (although, yeah, clearly), I mean hopeful: "We Can Work it Out", "All you need is love", dig the words to revolution:

"Don't you know its gonna be all right?"

Somehow in the last fifty years, that notion has slipped away. Now, "let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young"

From Ke$ha to Miley and on, these are the most depressing party songs in history.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Ali Listens: Unorthodox Jukebox


I love this album. I appreciated “The Lion The Beast theBeat” and “Boys & Girls”. I have mad respect for “The Archandroid.” But I love Unorthodox Jukebox. Like, I can picture myself ten years from now unearthing this CD, putting it in the player (we’ll still have those in ten years, right?) and being transported right back to this moment in time, with total recall of what it felt like to be twenty three and really messed up.


It reminds me of “Little Red Corvette” by Prince. You know the song that starts out sexy, gets dancey, then with one line—“You’re gonna run your body right into the ground!”—injects a hint of melancholy that sticks with us all through the epic play-out.“Unorthodox Jukebox” is a combination of songs that celebrate a good time, and songs that regret what those good times have cost you.  It may take Mars & Co. a whole album to do what Prince accomplished in one track, but still some major credit is due. This interpretation may be a result of my present emotional state—Certainly the years I spent idly doing fuck-all seem less fun now that I’m an (almost) twenty-four year old temp who dearly wishes she never stopped practicing the violin.

Anyway, to business...

1.  Young Girls

The first ten seconds sound like sunrise after a sleepless night. It conjures up the bleary, “oh my god is it really that time?” feeling. Or maybe it's the "sun-is-rising-and-I-have-no-idea-where-I-am" syndrome, which I personally have never experienced, but for whatever reason I am now picturing Mars waking up on a rooftop like that poor bastard in The Hangover .

The producers hit a bull’s-eye on those opening ten seconds,‘cos sure enough when the lyrics start, our hero is at the start of a new day and the end of a long night:
“I spent all my money/ bought a big ole fancy car / for these bright eyed honeys/ Oh yeah you know who you are / Keep me up ‘til the sun is high / ‘til the birds start calling my name / I’m addicted and I don’t know why / Guess I’ve always been this way / All these roads steer me wrong / But I still drive them all night long.”

He can’t control himself. There’s a sense that in a few years he’ll regret all this, but for now he’s at a loss for what to do instead.  There are certain trappings of success that (I’m guessing) it's hard to say no to. After working his whole life to get to this point, this character has trained himself that this is what he wants, so it’s hard to say no to all the sex, drugs, and parties that are supposedly the reward for all that hard work.

There’s a palpable sadness and weariness in every note of this song. It sounds like a Ronettes classic, slowed down for maximum introspection. All four writers deserve gold stars, while Mars’ voice, with its unbearably adorable little-boy-lost quality to it, sells this shit for maximum emotional devastation.  


*If I may veer into the personal one more time, my early life was dominated by endless work that stifled my desire to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to do. Whenever I wasn’t at school or work, I wanted nothing more than to turn up the music and just do nothing. For ten whole years. And while other people went to dances and got boyfriends or jobs or hilarious anecdotes to relate at a later time, I got an uninterrupted evening to myself, which I stupidly believed was all I ever wanted out of life.

There was always a sense that I was missing out on something, but to get it would mean sacrificing the thing that I lived for—a place away from feeling insecure about all the things I was doing wrong, or would do wrong if I tried them. It’s weird, and weirdly comforting to think that someone so far at the other end of the spectrum would grapple with the same feelings—in short, the “what I wanted might not be the best thing for me, but I don’t know how to want anything else,” dilemma.

I would also like to add, that should Bruno Mars die young, we all know this will be released as a single and designated the mass-mourning song. Every artist should have one in their catalogue just in case.


2. Locked out of Heaven

This song has already been (rightly) praised to death. The four-on-the-floor chorus, the beat-box that actually sounds like a musical instrument and not a sound effect, the lyrics...it’s all perfection. But what takes it over the top is how it all builds to that fabulous musical orgasm at the 2:42 mark, followed by the laid back (post-coital?) repeat of the chorus (3:10), which, for whatever reason, makes me think of Fred and Ginger dancing off the screen in one of their classic movies.

There are but a few perfect moments in cinema history, and Fred and Ginger own at least five of them.


3. Gorilla

And now it’s time to check in with those Young Wild Girls and just what they’re doing to our poor, set-upon young lover  who has decided that he would rather be Prince than Sting, thank-you-very-much. This is the one point on the album where Mars’ adorable (I swear I don’t mean to be condescending when I use that word) vocals fail him. He can’t quite sell the “body full of liquor with a cocaine ticker” line, even though we all know he’s been arrested for cocaine possession and some youtube commenter informs me he pissed on a stranger who told him he was too drunk (I didn’t look into it because knowing shit like that about a complete stranger never did anybody any good). But I digress. The production is smooth and decadent so that Gorilla sounds like a great song, even though the image of primates humping is, alas, not as arousing as Bruno Mars seems to think it is.

This song also has a dorky wish-fulfillment vibe, with its, “30 feet tall” and “I bet you never ever felt so good,” lines. It’s embarrassing when a man so obviously wants to be assured that he’s THE BEST EVER, but this song is already so weird it’s kind of endearing.  And if Mars’ vocals don’t quite live up to the lyrics he can take solace in the fact that his “OOoohs”  and “Yeah!”s  in the last  minute and a half are perfection. He sounds more dangerous and alluring than Prince or Michael Jackson...though admittedly, the bar for that one was only set about waist high.


4. Treasure
First off, I love that the official video isn't available in HD, and defaults to 360p. That's comittment.
This song sounds like it was assembled from spare parts of Prince's Shallow as it is on its own, “Treasure” is a necessary palette cleanser between “Gorilla” and “Moonshine”.  The “Baby Squirrel” line is a nice wink at the audience, though it makes me feel like there’s a joke I’m not in on, that may be kind of sexist. But whatever. This one’s forgettable.

ONE MORE THING: What is Bruno Mars’s obsession with insecure women? The heroine of “Just the Way You Are” was some a nervous wreck who couldn’t take a compliment and hated her own laugh. This chick “don’t know it but [she’s] fine so fine.” Is this guy seriously that attracted to insecurity or is he just catering to a hell of a lucrative demographic?


5. Moonshine

Okay, back to the good stuff. How can a song actually sound drugged out? The hazy paranoia of the first twenty seconds of “Moonshine” conjure up the feeling of someone in desperate need of a fix. Twenty seconds! “Evocative” is the word you’re searching for, ladies and gentlemen.

The beat proper doesn’t come in until after our hero has connected with his quarry and they drive off into the night. I don’t know if this is sex as a metaphor for drugs, or drugs as a metaphor for sex. It might be an amalgam of all that hedonistic swill, but boy does it sound great. Evocative.

It might be an even darker track than “Gorilla”, but in this case Mars’ high voice serves him better. He doesn’t have to sound aggressive this time, just equal parts lecherous and lost.


6. When I Was Your Man

Oh look, another #1 hit. I like to think that means I don’t have to write anything about this one. It’s a song so direct that it’s almost pandering: “I should have bought you flowers / And held your hand / Should have gave you all my hours / When I had the chance.” Congratulations Bruno Mars, you just sang what every scorned woman in the history of Planet Earth has ever wanted to hear, and I hope you enjoy the financial windfall it brings your way. 

This single actually sounds better in the context of the whole album. “Moonshine” answers the question of just what he did wrong when he was her man, and it’s dangerous enough to balance out this tracks gooey sincerity.


7. Natalie

Let me begin by saying that this song is everything Madonna’s “Gang Bang” wishes it could be. The antithesis to “Grenade,” it’s nasty and cruel but oddly fun to sing along with.
Misogynistic is a strong word, and I’ll entertain the debate over whether this song deserves to be painted with that brush. After all, he’s “digging a ditch for that gold digging bitch.” This allmusic review has very strong feelings about that one. I prefer to hear thsi song as jokey melodrama, the antithesis to the equally over the top “Grenade”.

The biggest strike against Bruno Mars is that on (almost) every other song this guy’s ideal woman is weak and insecure. Ahem, “You walk around here like you wanna be someone else ...you don’t know it but you’re fine so fine”, “Her laugh she hates but I think it’s so sexy,” “They might say ‘hi’/ I might say ‘hey’ but you shouldn’t worry / about what they say.” It says something that the only assertive female in his repertoire is marked for death (working with Chris Brown in any capacity will not get you in with the feminists either).

Two things save this song: One, Natalie isn’t actually the only assertive female in his repertoire—we can’t forget the “Good strong woman” who dumped his ass for not taking her to enough parties. And two—Bruno Mars does not have the voice of a killer.

That’s one sentence  I never thought I’d have cause to type, but there you have it. I know next to nothing about Bruno the man, but the voice that couldn’t sell the line about a “cocaine ticker” sure as hell can’t make this revenge fantasy sound like anything to get too upset about. I have a feeling that when he catches her they’re’ll be less murder and more Gorilla sex. 


8. Show Me



9.  Money Make Her Smile

Wow, is this post already 2,000 words? I really do love this album, guys. The best part of this song is its opening “All you get back / coming to the stage is a girl who’s new in town”—ah , the corruption of innocence. Beyond that, the song on its own is only so-so, with overreliance on electronic sound effects rather than real instruments. It sounds just as knocked-off as “Treasure” but even more shallow. But the inhuman chant of “Give ‘em what you got” and even the obnoxious electro sound effects build on the atmosphere of excess that the album has built up so well. The smooth elegance of a song like “Gorilla” is replaced by a manic, insane, obnoxious, electro swell. With its inhuman chant of “Give ‘em what you got! Got! Got!” this is the audio equivalent of the moment when all the excess and filth that was alluded to on previous tracks spills over into something ugly and alienating (Speaking of which,  this song was co-written by Chris Brown).  Which brings us to...


10. If I knew

Ouch. The last track is the realization of all the creeping doubts raised in “Young Girls.”  “I was a city (silly?) boy / Riding to dangers where I’d always run / A boy who had his fun/ But I wouldn’t have done / All the things that I have done / If I knew one day you’d come.”

This silly boy is damaged goods. The woman he loves can’t deal with his past and he wants a do-over. I can think of a dozen different reasons why this song is so affecting, but what it all comes down to is that everyone has something in their lives that they regret. That feeling creeps up on us in between the good times until one day it overwhelms them.

“I wish we were seventeen / So I could give you all the innocence / That you gave to me.”

He’s actually slut-shaming himself. That gender reversal alone would make this song interesting even if it wasn’t so emotionally devastating. And of course the last song feeds perfectly into the first if you’re player plays in a loop. It makes for a perfect circle, and a vicious cycle.



I’ve done a bit with my life. I survived a tough high school program, got a scholarship to Canada’s top university, graduated with honours and wrote about four novels. They’ll never be published but on optimistic days I like to think that practise will come in handy when I get my big idea. But at seventeen I felt like I was already old and played out, so I stopped trying at anything that wasn’t school. School was the only thing I was ever praised for as child, so I gave up on (or flat out rejected) any feelings that I was attractive or the idea that my own creativity could lead somewhere better. I dug myself into a deep miserable hole from which I’m only starting to escape, all the while (still) worrying that it’s too late, like I’ve missed something crucial you can only learn once.

There is nothing at all like my life on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” and that’s for the best. Reliving a great party will always be more fun than reliving a long study session. But the hangover is the same. “I wish I was seventeen so I could give you all the innocence that you gave to me”. I never ever looked at anything with even a grain of innocence, or optimism. Fatalism is my middle name and has been since I was a teenager. But how I dearly wish it wasn’t. That’s why I respond to this album so strongly, because in between sexy pop songs, it’s all about getting lost and wanting a do-over.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The lies we choose to believe: Twilight edition

Great literature will teach you something about the human condition. Poor literature can only tell you about the people who read it. This makes the trashy stuff all the more fascinating, for despite all the ways it fails as a narrative, there will be hordes of people willing themselves to believe in it, like unwashed masses scratching their newest lottery ticket.

A great book stands on its own across centuries, a metaphysical pyramid of Egypt, even if time chipw away at certain elements like religion or sexual politics. Poor literature is fragile. The slightest bit of critical thinking topples it like a house of cards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself:

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

You don’t have to recognize that quote*, or know when it was written or by whom for it to resonate. Great literature has meaning and resonance regardless of who is reading it and when.

Pulp fiction, on the other hand, gives its readers the choice to believe or not. I don’t mean this as a compliment. This means that the characters are so inconsistent, the plot twists so contrived, that for a reader to invest in it, they are choosing to believe the unbelievable.

Enough has been said about how god-awful the Twilight books are as works of literature (This is the place to go for anyone who still needs convincing), but not nearly enough has been said about why they are beloved best-sellers. The short answer is that they play into and play up the worst tendencies of insecure teenage girls, and the women they sometimes become.

Much has been made of how romantic lead Edward Cullen (the inspiration for Christian Gray, who we’ll get to in a later post) fits the abusive boyfriend profile perfectly. In Eclipse he even dismantles Bella’s car to keep her from seeing nice-guy Werewolf Jacob Black.

But that’s okay, because it turns out the adorable nice-guy Jacob from the first two books has become asshole attempted-rapist Jacob, so Edward was right to try and protect her. Adorable Jacob returns** in book four, just in time to fall in love with Bella and Edward’s infant daughter, conceived that magical night when Edward covered Bella in bruises. Jacob “imprints” on the newborn baby, meaning they are destined to be together forever. No one asks what the child thinks of this, because of course she is too young to speak. I like to think that when that when the time comes for that conversation, the words “How old in dog years?” will be uttered at least once.   

I have nothing against perverted love stories. I am an unabashed fan of Clive Barker. But Stephenie Meyer plays all this insanity as the most romantic quadrangle ever.

In short, the kid fell out of the tree house.

These characters don’t make any sense on their own terms, or in terms of the world we live in. But they are perfect for their audience. For those of you who never were an adolescent girl, allow me to explain:

In the real world, lived in by Meyers’ readers, young girls’ self esteem plummets when they hit puberty. This is because when a girl becomes a woman her body is no longer something to be celebrated. It is something to be dealt with. I’m not putting the blame on fashion models here. Boys have to deal with ridiculously proportioned role models too. But they don’t get periods. They don’t have to shave unless they want to.

The earlier menarche hits, the more likely a girl is to be insecure through her teen years. It isn’t just annoying. It’s shameful. It’s gross. We double bag our tampons and hide them at the back of the cupboard.

And then there’s the hair. Shave it! Wax it! Pluck It! Defend yourself against onslaught of follicles that will never stop their siege on your body. Strike them down and they will become more in-grown than you can possibly imagine.

A woman’s body is something that needs to be dealt with, not loved...or at least, not loved until it has been dealt with. I like to think most women grow out of this hysteria as they mature, or at least learn to keep it in perspective.

The rest read Twilight.

Stephanie Meyers’ series indulges every single adolescent insecurity. I’m not saying that it creates them. This book is not capable of sending a message. It can only cater to feelings that women already have: anxiety about sex, the need to feel desired, jealousy towards women who are desired, etcc...it’s all here.  That’s all pretty standard for the kind of young adult literature that sells a few copies and is forgotten after two weeks. Twilight plays into more than just conscious adolescent fantasies. It indulges more insidious feelings. For example,

This series is repulsed by the female body.

Bella is introduced as clumsy, pale and unattractive. Those are standard “Mary-Jane” traits that supposedly make her more relatable. But when I say clumsy I mean she is afraid of cutting her fingers off when she uses a kitchen knife.

It isn’t until after she’s married and becomes a vampire that Bella is cured of her clumsy ugliness. Of course, any woman who is attractive without being in a long term relationship is demonized. Literally. The evil Volturi lure tourists into their underground cavern using a sexy vampire in a short skirt: “She wasn’t just the fisherman,” Bella writes, “She was the bait.” Keep in mind, these tourists aren’t mere frat boys on a Europe trip. They are couples, families, and even an elderly woman clutching a rosary, with no qualms about following a scantily clad woman underground in a foreign country, believing her to be some kind of sexy “tour guide”. These ridiculous scenarios are not Meyer’s attempt to send a message. They are simply echoes of the worst feelings that vulnerable women already have: Only a man can redeem your feeble body. People will do anything an attractive woman tells them to do. Attractive women are evil. Or rather, attractive, unattached women are evil.

Even clumsy, pale Bella becomes a looker when she marries Edward. Prior to that Edward’s affection alone is enough to make her an object of envy. So says Rosalie, in Chapter 7 of Eclipse: “You see, at first, I was mostly jealous because he wanted you and not me.... I don't want Edward that way, Bella. I never did--I love him as a brother, but he's irritated me from the first moment I heard him speak. You have to understand, though...I was so used to people wanting me. And Edward wasn't the least bit interested. It frustrated me, even offended me in the beginning. But he never wanted anyone, so it didn't bother me long.”

The thing that sends Twilight over the top into Pulp Heaven is the combination of this wish fulfillment with the abject horror of being a teenage girl. The fantasy of a beautiful, sought-after man who won’t try to pressure you into intercourse is no doubt a popular one. Twilight pairs that fantasy with a healthy dollop of body horror: Edward refuses to make love to mortal Bella because he’s afraid his vampire strength will tear her to pieces.

Then he changes his mind. This is an EXACT QUOTE from page 617 of Eclipse. If you don’t believe me, please look it up:

“‘We're doing this your way. Because my way doesn't work. I call you stubborn, but look at what I've done. I've clung with such idiotic obstinacy to my idea of what's best for you, though it's only hurt you. Hurt you so deeply, time and time again.’” It almost looks like Edward Cullen is about to turn into a rational, relateable character, but then he keeps talking: “‘We're doing it your way, Bella. Tonight. Today. The sooner the better. I'll speak to Carlisle. I was thinking that maybe if we gave you enough morphine, it wouldn't be so bad. It's worth a try.’ He gritted his teeth.”

Morphine. Sex in this world is so painful that it requires morphine. The obvious solution, to anyone who isn’t living with medieval attitudes about gender, is that Edward ought to be tied down. Chain him up. Surely there is some way to restrain him so that Bella can mount his undead manhood without being torn to pieces? This would be practical and entertaining, but the thought never entered our author’s misogynistic little head, wherein the man is always on top and anything else is unthinkable.

It’s all par for the course, because I’m pretty sure Bella doesn’t even have a vagina. When she goes into labour, “Bella vomited a fountain of blood.” Now I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure that, when giving birth, the blood pours out of a different orifice, the same one it comes out of every month to the supreme embarrassment of young girls everywhere. Edward ends up chewing the baby out of her uterus with his teeth. That’s right ladies and gents: cannibalism is sexier than lady parts.

What other warped adolescent fantasies does Twilight cater to?

Well, to begin with, the popular kids are assholes....or rather, the kids that enjoy being popular are assholes. Let’s not beat around the bush. Everyone wants friends. In real life, especially in High School, popularity is a high priority. But of course, not everyone can be popular. Some people are moody, unattractive, passive-aggressive types that no one wants to be around.

Each of those adjectives could be used to describe Bella Swan, yet when Bella arrives in Forks, every boy, and I mean every boy falls for her...except for Edward Cullen, who avoids her for two straight months and even tries to switch classes to get away from her. But in the end, that’s just because he loves her so much.

Every high schooler dreams of being as undeservedly popular as Bella Swan. But that is not the fantasy Meyer is playing into. Because for every person who is as popular as Bella Swan, there are three who wish they were, and one who tells herself that that popular girl is just a shallow slut. Do I need to tell you which one Bella is, or should I just remind you of the sexy, scantily clad woman who lured tourists to their deaths in New Moon?

In that same book, Bella goes to a movie with Jessica, who supposedly is a vapid cheerleader but actually seems like she’d be way more fun to hang around (Maybe because she’s played by Anna Kendrick). At this point, Bella has spent months in bed, shutting out the world and harming herself because her boyfriend broke up with her. I would rather hang out with Jessica any day of the week, but the movie and the book makes it perfectly clear that Bella is way cooler than her. On her date with Jessica, Bella, without a word, decides to take a ride with a complete stranger on his motorbike. When she returns, she rolls her eyes at a frazzled Jessica and gives her an empty apology.

We’re supposed to laugh at vapid, annoying Jessica, because Bella is just so much cooler than her.  She’s so cool that the moment she moves to Forks there are boys asking her to the dance and girls like Jessica wanting to be her friend. She’s so cool that she doesn’t even want people to think she’s cool:

“Mike's puppy dog behavior and Eric's apparent rivalry with him were disconcerting. I wasn't sure if I didn't prefer being ignored.”

I’m not sure if I don’t prefer proper grammar to a double negative. But I’m probably just too shallow to appreciate her pain.

Bella’s disdain for the “popular” kids is the fantasy of every isolated egotist at your local high school—They’re only popular because they’re stupid. And you have no friends ‘cause your just so down to earth, right?

There is an even more disturbing corollary to this that girls with any memory of middle school ought to recognize. In every elementary school, there is (or was, when I was young) a girl who’s really just one of the guys. She plays sports. She rough-houses. And if there’s a guy you have a crush on, you can bet he’s friends with her.

In grade seven, this girl starts getting bullied. Other girls call her a slut, or some variation of that. It never happened to me. But it did happen to two close friends of mine. This mentality underpins a lot of Bella’s haughty self-satisfaction in the novels. It’s troubling enough that social butterfly Jessica is too vapid to deserve Bella’s friendship. How about villainous Victoria who recruits newborn vampires by seducing Riley? Or the aforementioned “fisherman and bait” vampire in Italy?  Indeed, evil-woman-who-uses-sex-to-get-what-she-wants is something of a recurring motif in these books.

This is a transcript from the third movie:

Edward Cullen: Stop trying to take your clothes off.

Bella Swan: You want to do that part?

Edward Cullen: Not tonight.

Bella Swan: You... You mean, you don't...That's fine.

Edward Cullen: Believe me, I want to.

Edward Cullen: I just want to be married to you first.

Bella Swan: You really make me feel like I'm some sort of, like, villain trying to steal your virtue or something.

Edward Cullen: It's not my virtue I'm concerned about.

             I know, it’s all very funny. But the next scene is what really made my jaw drop: In a dark and rainy night,  Victoria surveys the newborn vampires that boy toy Riley has created for her. The contrast between these two scenes is so striking it practically proclaims in all caps: POPULAR GIRLS ARE SLUTS.

             “Now that’s harsh,” you might be thinking, “After all,  you said yourself, Bella is extra super duper popular!”

             But she doesn’t want to be. She’s shy and clumsy and knows her proper place (hint: it’s in the arms of a man). She deserves that popularity. The other female characters, who go shopping and wear short skirts, are, at best, annoying and, at worst, vicious soul sucking harpies who must be stopped.

             Pulp fiction does not proclaim anything. It indulges what’s already there. It’s been established by pretty much every critic on the internet that this series is not well written. So what does it take to enjoy it anyway?

             Disgust with the female body

             Discomfort with premarital sex

             Disdain for people who are friendly

             Disdain for attractive, unattached women

             Disgust with people who, in reality, would be way more popular than you.


I hope we all learned something today.

*It’s Great Expectations

**By “adorable” I mean, “still an asshole but no longer a mouth-rapist”

Monday, 6 May 2013

Don't feed it after midnight!

There are gremlins in my system. I really do apologize. Part I of my Barbie doll study mysteriously vanished when I was trying to link it to Part II.But it's been recovered and all is well again. This leads me to believe that either (1) Stripe and the gang are up to something nasty, or (2) I really need to replace my dinosaur computer. I, for one, would rather face off against a thousand Spielbergian nightmares than enter the Apple Store, so here we are:

Part I: The Public Life of a Private Doll
Part II: The Private Life of a Public Icon

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Barbie Part II: The Private Life of a Public Icon

One day the toy designers at Mattel decide to test a new Barbie Jeep with their target audience. Three lucky girls get to play with the plastic pink automobile at the company headquarters, plus Barbie and Ken and some toy designers looking on. When one little girl puts Barbie in the driver’s seat the other grabs her hand: “No!” she exclaims, “The Daddy drives the car!”
The designers look at each other and shrug. “And they say we’re the problem.”
       This anecdote, related by Sherry A. Inness in The Barbie Chronicles is the perfect qualifier for what I’m about to tell you. Toys have an effect on how people see the world. It was made clear in Part I of this study that Barbie is an integrated, significant part of consumer culture, and yet every individual who plays with her brings some of her own bias and experience into the fold.
       Researchers across disciplines agree that to a certain extent, toys socialize children and help to form their conception of the social world around them. Because of Barbie’s cultural prominence, she has become a feature of social organization. Many scholars argue that Barbie may have negative effects on the self-images of the (mostly) girls playing with her, and that she enforces gender stereotypes. Others note that she was the first adult fashion doll on the market, whose character was from the start oriented towards individual gratification rather than domestic duties.

Toys canfacilitate or complicate the social reactions between the people playing with them. In The Cute and the Cool, Gary Cross explores the conflict which emerged when Barbie and other “new” toys debuted in the 1950s, confounding parents whose own playthings (and play) were drastically different, making it harder for them to relate to their children’s play. Toys have a social function as a way for people to interact with one another, which characterize their users in the eyes of those around them (i.e. the woman who scolded my mother in the waiting room all those years ago). Because of Barbie’s prominence as a commodity, she fulfills both these social functions. Susan Stern was inspired to make the film Barbie Nation when her daughter suggested they play the “jealousy game” with Barbie—Stern was instructed to pretend her doll was jealous of everything about her daughter’s Barbie, and the suggestion provided an eye-opening insight into her daughter’s mind. The film itself features a couple who connected with each other thanks to their shared passion for depicting Barbie and friends in elaborate S&M scenarios, an example which illustrates how Barbie can facilitate social relations among her owners.

More publicly, a variety of testimonials express that the extent of a girl’s Barbie collection in the late 20th century could ascribe or detract from her status among schoolmates. Sociologist Brian Sutton-Smith claims that toys can become “an identity around which a child organizes his or her actions and concepts of the world.” If this is true, Barbie was a way for middle or lower class people to identify vicariously with the upper class. One woman remembers, “Barbie was affordable to the middle class, but seemed to have everything materially – associating her subconsciously with the upper class.” (Rogers, 65)

Outside of North America, Barbie has become a totem of the American consumerist way of life. A woman growing up in Nicaragua during wartime recalls, “Barbie was a symbol of status...What having a Barbie meant was that the lucky owner’s parents had access to ‘the exterior’... some little girls had access to the precious blonde doll; most didn’t” (Rogers, 64). Thus the physical possession of the doll signalled its owner to her neighbourhood as one of the “haves”. The doll also served a similar function for her owner internally. The same Nicaraguan woman remembers: “the more our Barbies had, the more we had.” Barbie allowed her owner to vicariously live a life of glamourous consumption through her doll. These examples illustrate that Barbie’s place in the culture at large gives her an immaterial social and psychological function.

In contrast, Carol Ockerman examined artistic appropriations of Barbie, and found that artists use defaced or unconventional images of her to repudiate the social order. A simple internet search reveals that Barbie has been used as a canvas on which to depict a variety of social and personal problems, from domestic violence to impossible beauty standards. Outside of North America, where Barbie represents the dominance of consumer culture, she has been appropriated to repudiate it. In 2004, “Alyona Pisklova”a fifteen year old Russian girl swept her nations online voting for a Miss Universe contestant on the platform that a vote for her was a vote against the “Barbification” of society which she defined not only as promoting unnatural beauty standards, but other Western imports coming in from faceless corporations. Pisklova was far ahead of all competition when she was disqualified due to her age.

The widespread criticism of Barbie’s influence on beauty standards reveals more about the people doing the arguing than it does about the doll herself. Perhaps I am not qualified to join this argument because I have always been thin, blonde, and leggy. But it seems to me people pick and choose what parts of Barbie’s body they ought to be angry about, and ignore everything that goes against their viewpoint. We all know about the blonde hair, perfect complexion, big boobs and legs-up-to-here. But how about those shoulders? The classic Barbie doll had shoulders twice as broad as her waist. Her ribcage was twice the circumference of her rear end, which meant her breasts were actually pitiably small. These are not attractive features on a human being. The whistleblowers that go to great pains to elaborate on how unrealistic Barbie’s figure is never seemed to recognize that no one wanted that figure to begin with. Broad shoulders and a barrel chest are not something little girls dream of having, whether they played with Barbie or not. The advertisements one sees on every billboard, bus shelter and tv spot are the far more likely culprits in adolescent girls’ lowered self esteem, because we are actually made to believe those women exist in nature. Those women have the legs, the hair, the rail thin bodies. But they don’t have the broad shoulders or the freakishly long neck. If Barbie was such an aspirational figure for little girls, wouldn’t they grow up wanting those things too?

In an ironic turn of events, Mattel responded to criticism by making their doll’s body more realistic in the early twenty first century –not realistic enough to assuage young girls’ fears that they will never be beautiful, but realistic enough that she now looks like an idealized female figure, and not a well made drag queen, as she had for decades.

In the American gay community, Barbie has actually been referred to as “every drag queen’s dream.” With her broad shoulders and lack of hips, the pre-millennial Barbie resembled a transsexual more than anything else. Gay and trans-gendered people have embraced this comparison, dressing as Barbie at pride parades and carrying signs that read, “Barbie loves you” and “Got Barbie?”  Essentially, Barbie helped them situate themselves in a discriminatory culture.

These examples show the many ways in which the Barbie doll has transcended its material status as a commodity. Like most toys, Barbie is an agent of personal socialization and interpersonal relations. However, aggressive marketing and integration into pop culture has expanded her influence from that of a toy, to a form of social organization of gender, and a symbol of American consumer culture. Because she represents a cultural ideal, Barbie has been a focal point around which groups and individuals have organized to alternately reject and co-opt the status quo. This iconic status makes Barbie an atypical commodity, but one which provides insight into the ways consumerism becomes culture. 

Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Forman-Brunel, Miriam, “Barbie in ‘LIFE’: The Life of Barbie.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 2 (2009): 303-311.
Kolmar, Wendy, “Remembering Barbie Nation: An interview with Susan Stern.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: ½ (2002): 189-195.
Kuther, Tara L., and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences With, and Views of, Barbie.”Adolescence 39:153 (2004): 39-51.
M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co., 1994.
NBC. “Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia:15-year-old sweeps online poll for Miss Universe spot in ‘anti-Barbie’protest vote.” Last modified April 15, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4749107/ns/world_news/.
Ockman, Carol,“Barbie Meets Bougereau,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 75-90. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Paris, Leslie,“Teen Idol,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 65-74. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999.
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. DVD, 1998. San Francisco, CA: New Day Films, 2003.

Friday, 26 April 2013

You're never too old.

We turn now from our coverage of the worlds most famous toy to the world's most famous woman (in 1991--not sure how she ranks now, but she's still a hell of a lot higher than me, so let's continue...), who is also a personal hero of mine. So why do I keep hearing this?

"Madonna is too old. She has to retire."

Let me get one thing straight. If there is a dearth of virgins in the world it’s not because of Madonna’s pop culture influence. It’s because she personally drinks their blood and grinds their bones into an age defying skin cream.

There’s no other explanation.

But here’s the thing: It works.  You can go ahead and tell us it’s tacky for a fifty four year old woman to dress up as a majorette and hurl passive aggressive insults at her successors, but first find me someone half that age who can do this for two hours a night:

Of course, it isn’t just that. Madonna insists on acting fit and sexy. Didn’t anyone tell her that women over fifty are meant to shrivel up and disappear?

 Aw, it thinks its people.

And it’s not like she’s exposing herself at the Superbowl where millions of children might be watching. This in a stadium filled with people who paid hundreds of dollars to see Madonna act like Madonna.

You know the one.

Now, you may remember a time before Madonna ruled the world. I, for one, was not yet born, but it seems to me that the concept of a female artist expressing herself sexually is no longer that shocking. In fact, it seems like its basically par for the course these days. Madonna tested the boundaries by exceeding them, so that every artist who comes along now seems like they're just treading the same old path. Its not as risky as it was. In fact, now it's expected.

Well  Mo’s having the same effect on ageism. People first started saying she was past her prime in her late thirties. When she chugged past forty the insults got serious and now they’re just plain ugly. But here’s the thing: Mariah Carey was 38 when she released “Touch My Body”—the same age Madge was at when people started thinking she was too old for pop. Jennifer Lopez is now 43 and the lynch mob has been surprisingly quiet as keeps on being a sex symbol. Gwen Stefani, likewise is 43 and no one question her right to ask whether she’s “Looking Hot”. These ladies owe Madonna a big sloppy wet kiss. As with her sexuality, the public heaps all its abuse on the first one, and then lets everyone else get a free pass.

 And lets not even mention the men. Madonna is younger than Prince, Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and the rest of the legacy acts, but she's the only one with a loud chorus of people telling her to move on. Dare I state the obvious?

It's because she's a woman, plain and simple.

I’m pretty sure Madonna knows this, so she has to go above and beyond to show off how fit she is, to remind everyone that she has as much a right to be here as anyone else.

I blame you, America.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Public Life of a Private Doll

     Have you ever had that experience, when, after years of keeping someone in the rear periphery of your mind, they surprise you by having a personality of their own?  Maybe its someone at the office who you like but hardly ever talk to. Or maybe its someone you grew up with, and keep in touch out of force of habit, even when adult life has moved you so far apart your paths never cross in daily life. 
     Either way, suddenly you are forced to realise that this comfortable window dressing in your life has a personality all its own, and would disagree with you on pretty much any subject you discussed other than the weather. Its heady. 
      I first had this experience at the tender age of 8. My mother and I were in a crowded area waiting for a number to be called (passport office?) so I took out my Barbie doll. A woman sitting next to us looked at my mother and me, sizing us up, and said,
     "I can't believe you actually let her play with those things."
     My first thought upon hearing this was that this waiting room was a serious place, and I was getting us in trouble by bringing a toy.
      My second thought was, What's this person got against Barbie?
      Mom, to her credit, basically ignored the woman, so she kept talking. "Its an awful message to send to girls. Be tall, be skinny, be blonde, have a boyfriend. You're just teaching her to buy lots of clothes and live in a dream house."
      I didn't speak. I'm sure my mother said something, but I was perplexed. It seemed the inanimate objects living in a duffel bag under the stairs were more active politically than I had originally thought. 
         I wish I'd cleared the air: "Ahem, my barbie is a mountain explorer and her name is Cora. She always dresses well, but I cut her hair off last week, and for the sake of my pride I'll keep playing with her until I accept that I was not meant to be a stylist." If I owned a Ken, he might have been her boyfriend. But at the time Barbie was living the Sapphic lifestyle in a tent with Theresa, and they were very happy.
        Now I wasn't stupid enough to think my 12 inch doll was a real friend. But she was the vessel through which I did most of the talking to my real friends, and the notion that there was some kind of secret agenda behind her perfect, unmoving eyes was positively galling. It upended my world in a big way for as long as I was sitting in that waiting room (Forever. We were there forever)
         This essay isn't about determining whether the Barbie doll is a force for good or evil (stay tuned for part II!). I'll get to that later. Right now I'm mystified by how she became a way for people of different social and political backgrounds to relate to each other. Now, if two children talk to each other about prom and boyfriends through their dolls, that much is to be expected. But when a grown-up uses the doll to criticise a complete stranger's parenting, that's something else entirely. 

     So without further ado, I give you part one of my two part series on Barbie: The Public Life of a Private Doll: How Barbie turns consumerism into culture.

When Mattel celebrated the 50th anniversary of its “Barbie” doll in 2009, she was the most successful toy ever to hit the market, and the bestselling doll in history. Other manufacturers have tried to scale the “wall of pink” that Mattel has established in toy stores around the world, but none have come close to equalling Barbie’s impact. In 1999, Mattel claimed that “Barbie” had an unprecedented one hundred percent name recognition among American women with daughters between three and ten years old. Her popularity, backed always by rigorous ad campaigns and licensing deals, has transformed the Barbie doll from a children’s distraction to a symbol of Americana, rife with all the paradoxes and complications that entails. Why would a toy that promotes a life of adventure over domesticity be a target for feminists? How can a doll that represents strict gender stereotypes also be a symbol of hope for the gay community? Her unprecedented popularity makes Barbie a focal point around which people organize to reject or co-opt the status quo, and a shining example of how consumerism has become culture in modern America.
Barbie was born into a world of harsh gender stereotyping, which she cannot be blamed for creating. In fact, when viewed in the cultural context of 1959, Barbie’s original incarnation seems downright revolutionary. Case in point, this copy came from a 1959 advertisement in Vogue:

 “Pink, most feminine of colours; pink, so naive...so disarming. Pure Pink, newest of Elizabeth Arden’s new lighter make-ups. Emphasizing the fragile look.” (Rogers, 69)

Another reads, “The moment a man walks into his home, he should be made to feel that he is lord of all he surveys.”  Compared to these advertisements, Barbie—the single doll living a life of personal satisfaction rather than domestic duties--is certainly a step in the right direction.
However, Mattel’s aggressive marketing of Barbie to girls has made her an indicator, even an enforcer, of gender categories. In their study of young adolescents’ experiences of Barbie, Kuther and McDonald found that often boys were prohibited by their parents from playing with Barbie because she was deemed a gender-inappropriate toy, regardless of the kind of play they wanted to engage in. Others denied having any experience with the doll, though subsequent responses showed they had. Thus, even if Barbie redefined femininity, her omnipresence in popular culture has arguably reinforced “female” as a category: in the post-Barbie world, women don’t have to be reminded that pink is their signature colour.

So how did this happen? None of this would be possible if it weren’t for Mattel’s integration of Barbie into the social world around her. Barbie fully established her cultural omnipresence in the 1980s through licensing. In this decade, Barbie drank Coca-Cola and, until it was deemed racially insensitive, loved Oreo cookies. In doll form, she appeared with or as other pop-culture figures which were licensed to Mattel, including Elvis Presley and various Disney characters. The image of Barbie herself was licensed out to a diverse set of corporations including (but not limited to) Hallmark Cards, Thermos, Franklin Mint, and Simplicity Pattern Company. As a result of these licensing agreements, Barbie was more visible than ever in the real world, while the hallmarks of American consumer society were reproduced in miniature as her accessories. The result is that after 1980, Barbie was sold as an integrated part of American culture. This integration, though, would always present a paradox: The McDonald’s employee who owns a Corvette and spends time with Scarlett O’Hara may incorporate real cultural entities, but always in a surreal, impossible to equal way. Thus the more Barbie was marketed as a part of the culture, the sharper her contrast to its reality.
The feminists’ demonstrations of the 1970s qualify this association slightly, and show that Barbie was used as a vessel through which individuals commented on social order at large, prior to the aggressive licensing and marketing of the 1980s. In the early 1970s, “NOW” – “National Organization for Women” condemned Mattel’s advertisements featuring boys playing with educational toys and girls playing with dolls. Though this ad was not as sexist as the others they pinpointed from the same era, NOW chose to leaflet the Toy Fair in 1972. More interestingly, this protest coincided with the release of “Dramatic Living Barbie”, the first Barbie doll with flat feet, and less restricted movement than her predecessors. “Dramatic Living” was developed largely as a response to criticisms of Barbie’s unrealistic and largely immoveable figure, yet because of the feminist protest against the Barbie brand in general, she was discontinued quickly, and future dolls were made with the old immovable torsos and permanently arched feed. This episode indicates a paradox which seems to permeate most cultural critiques of Barbie. Mattel was far from the worst offender among the advertisements targeted by NOW (one for Chrysler depicted a mother advising her daughter to conceal her knowledge about cars to seem more appealing to boys), and “Dramatic Living” Barbie represented a step in the right direction towards a more useful depiction of women’s bodies. Yet Barbie was targeted to such an extent that to this day none of the high ranking female executives at Mattel (and there are a fair few) self-identify as “feminists”. This may be explained by Barbie’s prominent role as a representative of consumer culture. As a symbol of consumerism and the American way of life, Barbie symbolically contains the broader social climate. Though this episode indicates that the association was made prior to the 1980s, it was intensified by the marketing changes and increased licensing which made Barbie into the icon she is today.
Prior to 1980, Barbie’s popularity fluctuated, leading to near financial ruin for Mattel and her creator Ruth Handler. It’s no coincidence that in this period, Mattel was struggling to dissociate her from the politically charged real world context. In the early sixties, Jackie Kennedy was considered a “risk free” figure which inspired Barbie’s fashions, but this ended when she married Aristotle Onassis. By the late 1960s when the United States was politically and socially polarized, Barbie’s clothes became entirely self-referential. What once may have been called “Goin’ Fishin’” or “Sorority Meeting” were now named for their fabrics: “Snug Fuzz” and “Knit Hit”. It was not until the 1980s that Mattel began consistently and aggressively integrating Barbie into pop culture by associating her with commodities available for the consumer’s own use. This development went hand in hand with a dramatic increase in her sales and prominence.
Between 1959 and 1979, the Reader’s Guide shows only four articles about Barbie. There were that many in 1996 alone, and between 1990 and 1996 there were twenty two. Licensing was certainly not the only mediating factor in this increase. Intensified marketing, the introduction of collectibles such as “Holiday Barbie”, and Mattel’s decision to target three types of play: hairstyling, lifestyling, and collecting, proved very profitable. However, the practise of licensing pervaded all these areas of play, and was the main factor in transforming Barbie from a popular toy to a cultural juggernaut. Though she always embodied the American dream as a conspicuous consumer, she was now frequently consuming things that Americans could as well—Mcdonalds, Oreo cookies, Coca-Cola.
As Barbie functions to connect consumers to the social world around them, she can be appropriated as a symbol for that world, a focal point around which both individuals and groups organize to enact social change. There is a consensus among detractors and supporters alike that Barbie represents a cultural ideal. She is a wealthy, independent woman of leisure (unless she chooses to take up any of a variety of socially accepted careers). In light of this, it may be unsurprising that she has become the vessel through which people criticize or comment on society. Beyond the myriad criticisms and affirmations of the doll itself, individuals and organizations have used Barbie to comment on social order at large.
So when the lady at the DMV criticised my mother for letting me play with my dolls, it really had nothing to do with me. How could it? She didn’t even know us. In her eyes, the Barbie doll connected me to a culture which she already had some very strong views about.
 After some research I know why. In Part II I’ll look at how this makes a difference to the individuals playing. So stay tuned!
Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Forman-Brunel, Miriam, “Barbie in ‘LIFE’: The Life of Barbie.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth  2 (2009): 303-311.
Kolmar, Wendy, “Remembering Barbie Nation: An interview with Susan Stern.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: ½  (2002): 189-195.
Kuther, Tara L., and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences With, and Views of, Barbie.” Adolescence 39:153 (2004): 39-51.
M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co., 1994.
NBC. “Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia:15-year-old sweeps online poll for Miss Universe spot in ‘anti-Barbie’ protest vote.” Last modified April 15, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4749107/ns/world_news/.
Ockman, Carol, “Barbie Meets Bougereau,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 75-90. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Paris, Leslie, “Teen Idol,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 65-74. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999.
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. DVD, 1998. San Francisco, CA: New Day Films, 2003.