Some additional real talk on cultural signifiers, the West Memphis Three, and Cameron Todd Willingham from quadmoniker at PostBourgie:
There’s another problem that ties both cases together, and that’s the bigger one. In the Willingham case, a taste in Led Zeppelin marked him as a killer. In the West Memphis case, the conviction that Satan worship was involved in the murder led to an angsty teenager who studied Wicca, Damien Echols. In fairness, we have to admit that we don’t know, and probably never will, whether any of these men — or for that matter, anyone exonerated by new evidence after a conviction — is totally innocent. But we should be suspicious of anyone found guilty for being weird. It might be especially true in small Southern towns, but it’s true everywhere, that being a little odd is enough to raise the suspicions of our peers. But we should hope we can design a system that counteracts that tendency rather than feed into it.
The worst thing that can happen when people make totally bogus assumptions about the influence of culture on behavior, like this, or like blaming the London riots or the Norway shootings on video games isn’t actually that those forms of media might face crackdowns. It’s that people can be imprisoned and executed in part based on those assumptions.
Who knew when I wrote about The Joneses a couple of weeks ago that an adaptation of the movie’s concept for television was coming to ABC. I think this is entirely fascinating, and I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to work.
The Joneses, which is about a fake family who moves into an affluent neighborhood to stimulate their neighbors into a round of aspirational spending, does have wonderful opportunities for product placement. Almost every scene involves a discussion of a particular item that the characters are being told about by their handlers or promoting to their neighbors as the next cool thing. But the overall message of the show is that our cycles of consumption are artificially induced rather than a reflection of our actual desires or any utility those products might add to our lives—and that ramping up that cycle can be destructive to the point of death.
It will be interesting to see if advertisers think that the overall aspirational message will be powerful enough that it’s worth it to have their products associated with the show, even if the vaguer message is that consumption is bad and we should be skeptical of racing to keep up with the Joneses. That was clearly what happened with the movie, which was chock-full of luxury goods. Either that, or the anti-consumptive message will be moderated to some more general assertions about authenticity and happiness, all of which we know are just as purchasable as Birkin bags.
Pursuant to our discussion of the imbalance between sexy images of woman produced for men and sexy images of men produced for women, I think it’s worth considering Steven Soderbergh’s latest project, the male-stripper movie Magic Mike. The flick’s shaping up as a veritable man-candy festival: it’s based on Channing Tatum’s youthful experiences taking his clothes off for money, and he stars in it with physically-if-behaviorally-unattractive rising star Alex Pettyfer, the perpetually shirtless Matthew McConaughey who will play their boss, White Collar hottie Matt Bomer who’s earned much of his female fanbase by keeping his natty suits on, and now True Blood werewolf Joe Manganiello. In other words, it’s being written about as if it’ll hit a certain kind of sweet spot as the kind of thing that women can hit up in groups without actually being in the same space as a stripper, a chance to see as much as we want of an all-star lineup of desirable dudes.
But the question is whether a stripper fantasy is really a universal female fantasy—and as some commenters raised in that initial conversation, whether a universal, or at least common, female fantasy actually exists in a way that can be easily reproduced in popular culture. I’ve never found the prospect of male strippers particularly enticing: the idea of having someone I don’t know put his genitals near me without us having a conversation about it is something that I think for most women is coded as sexual harassment rather than wish fulfillment. If I was ever at a bachelorette party with a male stripper, I think I’d have to constantly be reminding myself that this was meant to be enjoyable and that conceptual step would keep me from actually having fun. But Magic Mike, depending on how Soderbergh sets it up, might remove that problem by making the object of the characters’ performances be women (and men) other than the movie audience, and letting us view them at a comfortable remove, while also seeing the characters as people we can invest in and eroticize as something other than performers.
Either way, Magic Mike illustrates the challenges of finding archetypes of sexy guys meant for women’s consumption. I don’t believe that women want a shirtless dude doing the vacuuming or erotically deploying Pine Sol:
But it’s not as simple as just translating what men find sexy either.
Yesterday, Jon Huntsman suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly diverged from the ideologically idiosyncratic but conventional presentation he’s stuck to throughout his campaign for the Republican nomination and tweeted “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” He followed that up with a cheerful “I wonder if a tweet where I admit how much I like Captain Beefheart will make the followers skyrocket even more!” And then this morning, Huntsman pinged Piers Morgan, who’d made headlines earlier this week for upsetting Christine O’Donnell so much with questions about equal marriage rights that she walked off the show to say “Looking forward to being on Monday’s show. Will try and have as much fun as @ChristineOD did.” Clearly, something is afoot.
Jon Huntsman is not a remotely plausible candidate for president as a Republican in this election cycle. As a rising generation of young evangelicals is less compelled by calls to discriminate against gay people but potentially remains fiscally conservative, Huntsman might be a plausible candidate several cycles down the line. But if he continues in this loose, improvisational vein, Huntsman might be giving up that opportunity in favor of demonstrating the ridiculousness of our political conventions now. As Benjy Sarlin put it: “Full. Bulworth.”
In Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s defenestration from the ranks of respectability comes when he confirms all the negative stereotypes people have about politicians and acts out in a way that’s not necessarily authentic to himself:
Huntsman, it appears, is doing something rather different. Rather than illustrating the evils politics involves, Huntsman’s demonstrating what it won’t accomodate: a guy who left high school early to play in a rock band called Wizard, and who still is passionate about music; who looks at some of the more bizarre ideological conformities of contemporary politics and names them as bizarre; who would sometimes rather be funny than dignified.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe a bunch of stuff that I find objectionable, and it doesn’t mean I’d vote for the guy. I also sort of doubt this will last, or that Huntsman will commit to staying in the race as a means of illustrating its ridiculousness—people who tend to want to be president tend to feel that desire pretty powerfully, and to have trouble giving it up. But if Huntsman does go all the way to the general as a wild Independent, I’ll appreciate it. As theater, our national elections have become pretty calcified. I would’t mind seeing what happens to the form if someone manages to introduce new signifiers and assumptions to it, like the idea that inoffensiveness or blandness isn’t actually valuable. I think it’s a myth that some straight talk would cure all of our ailments when the people who are in our politics are the kind of folks who wouldn’t actually have anything revolutionary to say if they spoke what was on their minds. But that in and of itself is worth illustrating.
The West Memphis 3, Hollywood, and American Justice |
I am, of course, pleased to see that the West Memphis Three, men who were convicted in 1993 of killing three 8-year-old boys as part of a theoretically Satanic ritual on the confession of one of their number who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, a confession which was later clouded by new DNA evidence, are getting out of jail. I’d hesitate to celebrate this as any kind of victory for American justice, however. That it takes three HBO documentaries, a celebrity benefit album organized by Henry Rollins, and the quiet financial support of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to free three wrongfully convicted men is an illustration of how difficult, and how expensive it is to exonerate people who are on death row. As long as we have to rely on campaigns like these, we are extraordinarily unlikely to regularly and promptly recognize grievous errors. And as David Grann’s reporting into the evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham and sent him to his death indicates, sometimes even those heroic efforts won’t come fast enough to give people some of their lives back.
It’s much, much easier to build coalitions around specific, and sympathetic, defendants and specific cases than it is for procedural and cultural reform. But we need the latter, and we need it urgently, and those campaigns could use the kind of money and public influence the West Memphis Three’s supporters have on offer. Hopefully, their campaign doesn’t end with this deal.
The opening sequences was just such a beautiful escalation. Louis, out trick-or-treating with his kids, succumbs to the urge to be a more fun parent than his ex-wife, and lets his daughters keep going even after the sun goes down. But it turns out that they might not actually want what they get next: some grow-up, drunken-jerks scare them. And then something really awful happens: two men in genuinely frightening makeup, who don’t seem to have an appropriate sense of shame or boundaries, start following their little party down the street. Then, they go around a corner to jump out and scare them, and start taunting Louis when he asks them to back down. “What are you gonna do daddy?” one of them mocks him. “He doesn’t want to show it but he’s scared inside.”
Of course he’s frightened: his daughters may not be able to fathom it, but there’s a whole other level of terror you can’t imagine until you’ve protected someone since they were an infant and they’re getting to the age when you can’t protect them as effectively any more. And part of what frightens you is what you’d do to continue protecting them, including tossing a big piece of metal through a plate glass window to get the cops coming and scare off the guys you couldn’t actually fight yourself. When you’re a kid, the worst things in the world are outside you, but as you grow up, they’re inside yourself.
The second half of the episode is about the inverse of that emotion—what happens if your dream comes true, or seems to, and you’re not up to it? When an executive shows up and promises to change Louis’ life, she does the best and worst thing that can happen to any creative person: tells him she’s sure he must have a bunch of movie ideas, declares “Let’s make all of them,” and then her face falls as he launches into what’s clearly a half-assed and really depressing pitch. One of the things about being a grown-up is that while you might be prepared for the worst things that can happen, you’re not necessarily prepared for the best because you’ve stopped believing that they can come to pass at all.
This post contains spoilers through the first 16 chapters of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. If you want to spoil beyond that, feel free, just label your comment as such. For next week, let’s finish the novel.
So, what is it with America? We’ve heard repeatedly that America’s a land without gods of its own. But now that we’ve got an explanation for that, the story of how the first people, and the first God, came to America over the land bridge of the Bering Straight, the Gods we’ve gotten to know over the course of the novel are telling us something else. “This is not a country that tolerates gods for long,” Mr. Nancy tells Shadow at the center of America. And Czernbog explains that America’s infused with a kind of negative religious energy, “places where they can build no temples. Places where people will not come, and will leave as soon as they can. Places where gods can only walk if they are forced to…All of America has it, a little. That is why we are not welcome here. But the center. The center is the worst. Is like a minefield. We all tread too carefully there to dare break the truce.”
There’s some real pathos here, in the accident that led to the forgetting of Nunyununni, the God who first lead humans to America, and who pledged it to her people for seven times seven generations, in Czernbog’s aging. Even Gods don’t see all the truth for all their lives — there are some things that come to them only with age, and in the final moments. “I dreamed a strange dream,” Czernbog tells Shadow. “I dreamed that I am truly Bielbog. That forever the world imagines that there are two of us, the light god and the dark, but now that we are both old, I find it was only me all the time, giving them gifts, taking my gifts away.” And Wednesday’s complaint that “If you move and act in the material world, then the material world acts on you. Pain hurts, just as greed intoxicates and lust burns. We may not die easy and we sure as hell don’t die well, but we can die. If we’re still loved and remembered, something a whole lot like us comes along and takes our place and the whole damn thing starts all over again. And if we’re forgotten, we’re done,” shows how agonizing it can be to be a God.
But even though those moments are rewarding, I’m getting tired of the endless assertions about the way America interacts with the divine. I want to know why America is the way it is, and “humans weren’t here initially” doesn’t really do it: humanity started small and spread out and filled up the world with people and with belief. Gaiman doesn’t appear to have an explanation, which strikes me as a problem for a book that’s ostensibly about American memory, and sacredness, and capacity for belief. I don’t like Sam Black Crow’s statement of principals as much as I like Crash Davis’ in Bull Durham:
But it’s still pretty good:
I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis…I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass…I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste…I believe that the great poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Dom Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe candy really did taste better when I was a kid…I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive.
And if that much capacity for faith and wonder exists in just one American, if people who have lived as humans for their entire lives will sacrifice themselves to honor you without knowing who they are or what they do, it’s hard to see why this is such a terrible land to be a god in, even if you don’t last forever. Shadow’s vigil is the section of the novel that gets closest to a sense of what the divine is, but I also think it’s one that isn’t actually specific to faith and the divine in America. Maybe the point is that faith is universal, trans-American. But then why are we concerned with American Gods? If this is a story about American exceptionalism, we have to have some sense of what’s exceptional about America.
Apparently, the diminutive octogenarian comedienne is the most trusted celebrity in America. There is something nice and anti-cult of youthy about the idea that our favorite famous person is a little old lady. But really, I just want to see the fight over the Betty White endorsement, or a big conservative push to abolish Medicare and Social Security that would give us an excuse to enlist White for a national advertising campaign where she’s selling something other than pet medicine or Snickers:
Nobody better take away America’s Grandma’s Social Security.
This post contains spoilers through the August 18 episode of Burn Notice.
Okay, this may make me a total nerd, but I really dug that tonight’s case had Fiona, Jesse, and Michael going all vigilante on a corporate goon (James Frain, who someday is going to play all sweetness and light and vulnerability and people’s heads will explode) in the name of making generic drugs available to the people—and romantic payback. Burn Notice can be a little random when it comes to picking villains, especially those who end up in Miami—though interestingly, there have been protests about biotechnology developments at the University of Miami—but this felt a little fresher than usual. It’s a big season for evil pharmaceutical companies or executives on television, between this episode and Torchwood, and it’s nice to see the issue of drug access bubbling up in popular culture at the same time that steps like the Obama administration’s regulations on birth control copays are making things a bit better.
Other than that, this episode felt a little frustrating. Old, generic war criminals (I mean, is it that hard to think of a particular war?) with electrocuting metal grates are kind of fun in an eccentric, James Bond kind of way, and Sam’s promise that “Just tell us who you built the bomb for and we’ll share these delicious carrot sticks,” was new and entertaining ground in interrogation. But introducing these people and then killing them off or helping them escape isn’t really making this conspiracy against Michael very entertaining to investigate. Nothing here is adding up to a coherent season-long arc.
And Paulie mentioned in comments last week that he’s frustrated by the way Fiona’s supposed badassness and moral ambiguity are something that we’re told about rather than shown in a sustained way. And I think that’s right. I want nothing more than to see Fiona break with Michael and see what happens, but setting her up as a whiny girlfriend doesn’t really seem like the way to do it. Yes, it’s irritating when you ask a fella “You want me to cancel the reservation?” only to realize “there was no reservation.” But I think Michael needs to do something where he definitively treats her like staff, or really makes a decision that she violently disagrees with. We need a big conflict here, not the squabbling of two people who are at the getting-stale stage of their relationship.
Alyssa Rosenberg is the Features Editor for ThinkProgress.org. She is a columnist for the XX Factor at Slate, and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast,The New Republic, Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, and National Journal. Read more.