Over the 19 cycles of “America’s Next Top Model,” the reality modeling competition show has been subject to much-deserved critiques for its depiction of race, gender, and dominant standards of beauty. The best of these critiques have come from Jennifer L. Pozner in her book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About About Guilty Pleasure TV. I’m not disputing that “ANTM” is not guilty as charged for reality TV staples of catfights and mixed messages about body image. But it occurred to me while watching episode two of cycle 19 (in which the women pose as taxidermied animals with their heads mounted on walls — never accuse Banks of not knowing how to be provocative!) that for all its faults, “ANTM” would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. Read more
I suppose I grew up with football as much as, or more than, any other sport. I never played a competitive down — baseball was my game — but football was what we played on the sandlot, and though my hometown is no Dillon, Texas, I started spending Friday nights at my future high school’s games sometime in elementary school. Saturdays were, for as long as I can remember, reserved for college football; Sundays, for the National Football League.
Those are blissful memories, before I knew about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, before thousands of former players sued the NFL over concussions sustained playing the game, before I learned that playing football even at the grade-school level can cause cognitive problems for the rest of a boy’s life.
I realized this weekend, during college football’s opening weekend, that I can’t watch the game the way I used to. Not after a summer filled with reports about the dangers of the game, a suicide perhaps caused by concussion-related depression, and a dispute over player safety. I notice every bone-crushing hit, every whip of the head, every helmet-to-helmet clash in a way I never have before, and I wince not just because my favorite team’s best player might be hurt, but because somewhere, at some level, young men are racking up seemingly routine hits that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
The thing that makes me wince hardest, though, is that I still watch.
Football isn’t our most beautiful game, but it is our most pure. It combines speed, grace, and unadulterated brutality in a way that no other sport does, and there is something uniquely attractive about that. But I’m starting to question whether I should find that attractive, or whether I should even watch at all.
I’ve already made the decision that my hypothetical future son, should I have one, won’t be allowed on a football field. The proven dangers are too risky, the unproven dangers riskier still. I don’t want my child damaged beyond repair by a brutal hit; even more, I don’t want him cognitively mangled by repeated, constant bodily abuse.
And yet, for some reason, I spend hours watching other people’s children do exactly that.
At what point does it become too much? At what point is our game more than just a weekend break from reality, a Friday night under the lights, a Saturday afternoon on campus, a Sunday on the couch? At what point do we — do I — become too conscious of the damage caused by the sheer violence of the game we love? At what point do we see our Junior Seaus and Dave Duersons as modern day gladiators who sacrificed their well-being, and ultimately, their lives for our entertainment? At what point do we realize that our Matt Saracens are jeopardizing their futures by playing a game they hope beyond hope will be their futures?
I don’t have the answers to those questions. I don’t think anyone does. I watched football this Saturday, and I will watch it next Saturday too. When the NFL starts, I’ll be watching, rooting on the players on my fantasy teams and my beloved, if beleaguered, Miami Dolphins.
For the first time, though, I will be troubled by the game, by the injuries, by the endless brutality. I will be worried knowing that across the country, hundreds of thousands of men and boys who won’t ever get a scholarship or a paycheck will be killing themselves to live for one moment of gridiron glory. I will be cognizant of the fact that my entertainment is derived from a sport that is slowly but surely killing its participants. I will be scared that one day, I’m going to watch someone go down and never get up.
And yet, I will still watch.
I will rationalize the game by repeating that football is inherently dangerous, and that no matter how safe we try to make it, it will always be so. But now that we are learning just how inherently dangerous it is — not just to knees, elbows, and shoulders, but to brains and futures — I keep wondering: is there a point where it all becomes too much?
When Dedication 4, the latest volume of carefully marketed vapidity from Li’l Wayne, hit the internet yesterday, I did what I’ve been doing with Wayne projects since about 2007: set phasers to “ignore.” The things I love about hiphop simply do not square with the things that Weezie fans love about his music, and there’s little to gain by turning that subjective reality into objective claims about a culture in which I am forever a guest. Unless somebody smart from the rap internet started to make noise about interesting rhymes or a sonic departure from the norm on Dedication 4, then, I was staying away.
“I’m a Republican, voting for Mitt Romney/You lazy bitches is fucking up the econ’my.”
The line was bound to inspire the worst kind of crossover thinking from political pundits with a stronger understanding of tongue-in-cheek twitter rhythms than of hiphop. But any effort to extrapolate a serious political endorsement from a rich emcee’s calendar-sensitive braggodocio would be foolish, and I assumed only the predictable cheerleaders of the right would bother.
Instead, after that tidy little wave of trolling passed, Google started registering credulous hits from actual news outlets. Buzzfeed, Politico, and DC’s unofficial insider-baseball digest The Hill all got in on the action. The Hill not only ran a “Nicki Minaj Raps Mitt Romney Endorsement” headline, but reported the second bar of the rhyme as “a shot at President Obama on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.” Whereas Buzzfeed submitted without comment and Politico filed the “news” in their celebrity gossip column, that quote is from the “Conventions 2012” vertical on TheHill.com. Even Glenn Beck’s site used qualifiers in writing this up, but The Hill’s piece uses declarative language and naked assertions. (We’ll leave aside The Hill’s stylebook being okay with “bitches” but insisting on a prim “f——-” two words later in their Nicki quote.)
It’s not just The Hill and the right who screw this stuff up, either. Gawker got in on the traffic game last night too, with a brief, tortured bit of semi-serious exegesis. Gawker also asserted Nicki’s verse was a freestyle, which smacks of “hey, I heard that term once!” unfamiliarity with the form. These might be freestyles, but nobody in the track asserts they’re anything but writtens, and it’s a good example of a meaningful term that often gets used as a buzzword by outsiders. In other words, Gawker did the same kind of parachute drop into hiphop culture that The Hill did, only attempting to spin Nicki’s line the other way.
All this reflects a failure to grok what rappers do, what rap is, how songs and verses work. In this specific case, I’d even argue that it reflects a casual disrespect for the level of thought that goes into crafting a verse. Plucking those couple words out of context is an embarrassing reach, and also detracts from the (gulp) artistry of the verse as a whole. As a hiphop fan, I may have little use for Nicki Minaj, Wayne, and the entire YMCMB style of music. But though it pains me to defend these folks as writers, it’s worse that the politics internet is so willing to use pop culture as grist for the mill.
I have no idea what Nicki Minaj’s politics are, and I respect objections to heavy-handed x-means-exactly-y hiphop exegesis. But for The Hill to report that Minaj not only endorsed Romney but labeled the President a ‘lazy bitch’ is absurd. First, the entire verse is get-on-my-level style wealth bragging, about the high-class lifestyle Nicki enjoys and the less luxurious life the imaginary person she’s mocking lives. That’s a strange home for a macroeconomic critique. Second and last, Nicki Minaj’s penchant for waving fake penises around on stage certainly doesn’t preclude her from making political statements, but it ought to prejudice one’s interpretation of a couple bars she probably recorded months ago towards “attention-grabbing joke” and away from “calculated election gambit.”
But the point isn’t to offer my own, superior interpretation of these lines, thus proving The Hill and the right-wing fever swamp incorrect. It’s that the whole business of scooping out two lines from a just-released mixtape to make a political point is gross and misguided. It’s possible to say interesting things about the intersection of hiphop and politics, but this isn’t how it’s done.
Of course, that assumes that our political media is capable of treating hiphop thoughtfully. We learned that’s mostly not the case from the Common flap last year. (Beyond the acres of right-wing internet real estate given over to hilariously misguided outrage about a mistranscribed misinterpretation of his Def Poetry Jam appearance, Kevin Williamson used his National Review Online space to insist that a culture he’s proud to be ignorant of can never rise to the level of art.) There are numerous exceptions, and there will be more of them as the pundit ranks are taken over by a generation capable of taking rap seriously. But for now at least, there are traffic-oriented news organizations whose grasp on what rappers do is nonexistent. These folks are nonetheless willing to make declarative assertions about what Nicki Minaj meant. I’ll wait for her press conference and performance of “Super Bass” at campaign events.
With the Paralympic games on in London, disability is on the world stage, and in a positive framing, for once. Instead of the usual disability-as-tragedy narrative, we’re seeing skilled athletes at the top of their game competing against each other in a range of events, from equestrian (my favourite!) to goalball, a sport designed for blind and low-vision athletes. Inevitably, with increased visibility comes increased discussion and awareness, which is in resulting in some positives, and some negatives, but a conversation that is fascinating overall; the disability community itself is a bit split when it comes to reception of the Paralympics, for example.
The origins of the games lie in the Stoke Mandeville Games of 1948, which ran alongside the Olympic Games. Their organiser, Ludwig Guttmann, was a neurologist who worked with disabled veterans. In the wake of the Second World War, large numbers of men were occupying military hospitals and convalescence centres with spinal cord injuries, amputations, head injuries, and other disabilities acquired in battle. Patients injured in bombings and other events were also changing the landscape of disability in Britain.
Guttman started engaging them in sports as a form of therapy to ‘rescue these men, women and children from the scrapheap.’ His argument, that people with disabilities were often mired in long-term care facilities with little social or medical support, still holds true today. Patients were rotting in their beds then and they still are; so he used sports therapy to get them moving, and he developed the games to showcase the diversity within the disability community, and illustrate that people with disabilities weren’t inherently useless or less capable than the nondisabled community. Read more