So, good news! Remember this post I wrote a couple of months ago about creating Muslim cultural archetypes that could be integrated into a wide range of shows and movies? We’re turning it into a SXSW panel. Details about the speakers on the panel, the day and time, etc., are forthcoming. But given how much y’all have helped shape my thinking, I hope some of you will be there. And let me know if you’ll be coming. There will definitely be Austin-based drinking. Locals should advise so we can plan the best cavalcade mee-tup ever.
I was lucky enough to go to a storytelling event run by The Moth and the USA Network’s Characters Unite program last night. It wasn’t just that the stories were excellent, which they were, but it was a nice reminder of the power of an art form that I don’t have access to very often — and why faking memoirs is besides the point when the truth can produce the most amazing details.
Two of the first three storytellers, Jeffery Rudell and Greg Walloch were an almost perfect illustration of that latter point. Rudell told the story of how his mother, after he came out to his parents, gathered every artifact of his life, from his bed to his collection of Interview magazines, put them in the front yard and set them on fire, burning down a maple tree that had been in the family for generations. Walloch told the story of wandering into a evangelical Georgia church where a pastor tried to heal him of his cerebral palsy, and wondering why the minister had chosen that instead of his other problems: “Can you make me less neurotic? Can you get me a better job? Can you find me the perfect boyfriend?” But he was surprised when he found himself unexpectedly struck by the idea that his cynicism might have denied him the opportunity for a miracle cure. You can’t make moments like that up. Not everyone will be as vivid a framer of their own stories, and not everyone will live a life that provides as rich material. But that’s why not everyone should write a memoir.
And the event was also a reminder of why spoilers sometimes don’t matter. I knew almost from the moment that Kevin Jacobsen began telling a story about his son Kameron that the story would end in the revelation of Kameron’s suicide. But that didn’t take anything away from the power of the moment when Jacobsen told us about running upstairs in response to his wife’s scream and finding that “I couldn’t get him down. And then I couldn’t revive him.” Instead, knowing what was coming lent a dreadful anticipation to the telling.
The night may have been less bipartisan than the organizers planned: a combination of stories about gay rights, Texas racism, the importance of anti-bullying legislation, and Meghan McCain laying down a marker declaring that “There is so much hate in Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck’s voices,” isn’t the kind of studied even-handedness that the city’s accustomed to. But that’s kind of a relief. True balance doesn’t mean treating all ideas as if they’re equally compelling. It means giving everyone a chance to make the case and letting the listeners decide.
As income disparity continues to climb, Thinkprogress ventured to Capitol Hill to find
A voice for the middle class and poor, and we happened upon Wisconsin’s Rep. Gwen Moore (D).
Noting how inequality holds the economy back, Moore spoke up against the “class warfare” attack.
If the GOP wants to take every nickel and dime, from the struggling 99
Moore thought she’d call out their crime by offering up her take in rhyme.
With our apologies for terrible poetry, here is the much better “Job Creators: A Poem” by Rep. Gwen Moore:
– with Karl Singer
Because of my aforementioned fondness for inflicting terrible things on myself, I watched a bunch of Outsourced so I could say dreadful things about it with authority in yesterday’s post about The Infidel. The show is, in fact, not good. It doesn’t do nearly enough to undermine the stereotypes it sets up as the basis of its humor. Rajiv is a tremendous creep in a way that totally undermines the fact that he’s right about Todd’s cultural imperialism. Charlie is the worst Ron Swanson knockoff ever, a veritable inverse of the Swanson pyramid of greatness. And Tonya has essentially no personality other than forwardness.
But even though all of those things would send me screaming for the hills or a cleansing dose of Deadwood, they’re not actually the thing that freaks me out most about this justly-canceled show. I’m, perhaps sort of cornily, invested in the idea that American culture can be great; that it can play a critically important role in showcasing the best of the America and exploring what it means when, as all too often happens, we abjectly fail to live up to it; and that there’s an audience for the good stuff (which can range from the conventional, well-executed, to the wildly experimental), even in an age of niche entertainment.
Outsourced is everything I’m pushing back against. It’s not just that the show is set in a call center where the employees sell the lowest of the low-brow artifacts of American culture, and the Americans they encounter on the phone tend to be frat boys and people who are excited by bird-feeders with deliberately stupid misspellings, although that doesn’t help. The bits of culture Todd ends up explaining to his workers are things like Cheesehead-dom. It’s not that rooting for the Packers is not a noble past-time, but there’s something really depressing about the prospect that the collected ephemera of a novelty catalogue is what passes for cultural diplomacy.
Then, there’s the function that Todd and Charlie play outside the office. Charlie’s socially offensive, awkward, and racist in an unintegrated way that suggests the writers just threw together a group of traits rather than trying to produce a coherent worldview. He harasses Indian women, offends his coworkers, and the only effort he makes to interact with Indians is when he plays laser tag with Manmeet and Gupta. When he recites America’s accomplishments, he throws in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. Todd is marginally better at trying to learn about Indian culture, but he’s exporting things like knowledge of Hugh Hefner’s regular wardrobe, and falls for a new hire who drops Slinky references and makes “Smooth Operator” jokes. Jerry, Todd’s boss, gets Todd and Rajiv arrested for cow tipping, a joke that’s impressive in its cheapness and obviousness.
In other words, Outsourced is invested in the idea that we come together over the flimsiest, dopiest things in American popular culture, not the best. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the most popular things America produces are the most ridiculous. Maybe our export of David Hasselhoff to Germany is our legacy. But I kind of believe we do better than that. Even if we do produce a lot of junk along the way.
I tend to agree with Henry Blodget that no matter how painful Netflix’s woes have been this fall, and even if they’re not over yet, the company has a basically solid business model and that the hysteria over the company’s future seems at least a tad overblown. But I am curious as to what’s happened to one of the things that seemed smart about the quickly-ended Qwikster plan: the plan to offer video game rentals. Hastings has said it’s up in the air
If they’d been able to pull it off, it would have been smart and gone some way towards persuading customers not to give up the service or switch to competitors like Blockbuster, which does offer video game rentals. iTunes has become increasingly essential because it’s a one-stop shop. And if you could get most, if not all, of what you want in a bunch of categories, it becomes harder to leave a service that does that for multiple services that give you the equivalent amount of what you want or marginally more for the headache of managing multiple logins, bills, queues, etc. It might bring in new customers for products, too. Given my general level of incompetence at video games, I think I’d be more likely to try certain titles I knew I might be not be able to play all the way through just to get a taste of what they were like, but that I’m deterred from because of their cost.
So what’s the holdup? I imagine negotiating content deals with an industry where consumers are still willing to pay full-price for games is harder than it is with an industry where people are cutting cords, pirating movies, or gravitating towards free, ad-supported options like Hulu. But I assume that it’s still possible. And that even if it required charging users an add-on fee, people would still subscribe. So is Hastings just hedging his bets after a series of disastrously certain pronouncements? Or is he walking away from what could be a smart addition to the business? The former would make a certain amount of sense. The latter would have me worried about the company’s capacity to innovate.
The bridge is yours.
-If you’re in New York this weekend, you really should check out Pageturner, the third annual Asian American Literary Festival on Saturday. I wish I was going. If you do, report back!
-Are we at a tipping point for women in comics?
-Movies like this make me realize how weird it’s going to be to talk to kids who have grown up with the internet.
-Jonathan Demme made a short movie about Occupy Wall Street:
After Holy Terror, this isn’t exactly surprising, but it’s still impressive that Frank Miller still doesn’t seem to have a sense of what he sounds like when he says things like “I can tell you squat about Islam. I don’t know anything about it. But I know a goddamn lot about al Qaeda and I want them all to burn in hell.”
First, Holy Terror suggests that Miller doesn’t actually know very much about al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden may have been Saudi, but that doesn’t mean a huge number of terrorists are hiding out in Saudi-sponsored New York City mosques. Al Qaeda is not actually a more impressive organization than those run by fictional supervillains: it’s a small group who has caused substantial damage, but whose greatest victory is goading us into undermining our own values.
And knowing the difference between Islam and al Qaeda actually does matter. You want to marginalize the latter? Find ways to productively integrate people who practice the former into all kinds of societies. Prove al Qaeda has a pathetic, deluded worldview. Avoid slandering all Muslims as terrorists. Miller’s views are antithetical to his stated goals. And as it turns out, they don’t make for particularly good storytelling. Nuanced clashes of worldviews are much more fascinating than badly-drawn images of indistinct heroes crunching terrorists.
I feel this weird compulsion to apologize for continuing to write about 2 Broke Girls. The show is the kind of thing that drives me absolutely insane: something that’s a massive hit despite the fact that it relies on heavily and genuinely offensive content and that doesn’t necessarily seem to be learning the lessons of its best episodes or best laugh lines. And yet, like Todd VanDerWerff, the good things about it strike me strongly enough at times that I just can’t walk away from it, in part because I believe that if it did get better, it would be a stark rebuke to the show’s early bad impulses, to the idea that terrible racial and ethnic humor and stupid scatology is what sells in 2011.
Which is why I’m glad to hear that Jennifer Coolidge is joining the show as Max and Caroline’s neighbor. Coolidge is spectacularly good at playing roles that are very, very funny precisely because in the hands of another actress, they’d be stupid stereotypes, but that she manages to turn into something far stranger and more specific. In Legally Blonde, her undereducated manicurist could easily be a dumb confidante for Elle, but she imbues the role with a specific rage, and her empowerment feels genuinely triumphant:
In Best in Show, she delivers a vicious parody of gold-digger self-justification—and then, of course, a very funny and unexpected riff on lesbian culture that’s totally unmalicious while still being very much on point:
And it’s not like she’s given a lot to do in the American Pie movies, but even then, the joke is more on people who took up MILFs and cougars as if they were a thing.
That combination of specificity and newness seems to me to be exactly what 2 Broke Girls needs. The problem the show has, across both its endemic racism and its dated hipster references, is a sense that the only way to use stereotypes for comedic effect is to reference. It’s a low order of humorous thinking, and not one that anyone mistakes for sophisticated. But you can riff on stereotypes, and you can puncture the people who rely on them rather than the people who are supposed to exemplify them. 2 Broke Girls could do something clever by having Han end up dating a hipster, for example, simultaneously humanizing them both and dramatically reducing the social capital Max and Caroline get out of demeaning their boss and their neighbors. Having Coolidge as a hard-working neighbor could inject some genuine weirdness into the show’s vision of Brooklyn, while also illustrating the long-term financial struggles Max and Caroline are both facing. I hope it works.
Foster Kamer points out an interesting statistic reported in the New York Times that half of families with incomes over $75,000 have used internet-capable mobile devices to download applications for their children, while just one of 8 families with incomes under $30,000 have. There’s always a tendency to assume when one set of people has or can afford something and other people can’t that the thing is important, and particularly so if it’s something that’s billed as good for childhood development. And I get that impulse — nobody wants their children to be deprived, whether of educational advantages or of pleasure.
But I think it’s pretty early to worry that an app gap is going to cause lasting educational deficiencies for poorer children. The American Academy of Pediatrics is clear about the lack of benefits of screen time for children under 2. And there doesn’t seem to be particularly definitive evidence that apps give children who use them an advantage in literacy or other kinds of learning. According to a white paper from the Arizona State University College of Teacher Education and Leadership:
It is difficult to gauge what is actually happening, because the little that is known about the effects of digital media on emergent literacy skills development comes from educational television and computer studies, as well as from a few studies of other media and surveys…Digital media may be transforming the language and cultural practices that enable the development of emergent literacy skills. A new generation of young children is experiencing a new kind of interconnectedness in the language they see, hear, and use.
It may be that the optimism of folks like GeekDad or app evangelists may be justified. But until it’s proved to be so, it’s probably not worth a panic. That doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing nothing, either — it would, of course, be too bad if it turns out apps are a critical development tool and a lot of kids had been missing out. But I wonder if the best way to go about it is for developers to think beyond the Apple App store. You’re not going to get everyone to come to Apple, nor should you. If we’re worried about a digital gap, we should meet people where they’re at. And more parents should probably be getting the Academy of Pediatrics warnings through their doctors. That only 14 percent of them are getting that information from their doctors may actually be a more worrying suggestion that medicine isn’t adapting to the digital age as well as we might wish.