My friend, New York Magazine television critic Matt Zoller Seitz has a novel solution to the complaint that Game of Thrones makes gratuitous use of female nudity: get the guys naked more often. He argues:
Since its 2011 debut, Thrones has been attacked for “gratuitous” nudity and labeled sexist for stripping its women more often than its men. These are two different complaints, though; intertwining them muddies each. The first concerns the appropriateness of graphic sex and/or nudity; the second is about the show’s “gaze,” which is undeniably heterosexual and male. But it’s possible to enjoy sex and nudity without guilt or bluenosed justifications while simultaneously pointing out that the scales of spectatorship are out of whack. I’d like Game of Thrones to enlarge the scope of its fantasy — to show more same-sex couplings and male nudity — as Starz’s Spartacus series has done with such panache. For all its tough, complicated women characters, Thrones is rightly perceived as too much of a sausagefest. The producers could change that perception by adding more sausage.
I think he’s on the right track, but has arrived at the wrong destination. What Game of Thrones needs isn’t more anatomy of any variety—and, as I’ll discuss at greater length in my full review of the season, which will be up on Friday, I think the show has actually absorbed that criticism in a productive way and is stronger for it. Instead, it needs more consensual sex, preferably in situations where one partner isn’t paying the other. At its best, Game of Thrones can be a terrific story about sexual violence in wartime. But for the full weight of that argument to be felt, and for sexual violence to register with the horror it’s meant to elicit—particularly given the troubling use of rape as a way to generate drama on prestige television without thought to larger context—we need to see the alternative, to see some of the happiness and normality that gets destroyed by war. It may be harder to depict good sex than the embarrassment of bad sex or the numbing fear of sexual violence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, in part to remind those of us watching at home what kind of good world our friends in Westeros and beyond are fighting for.
I’m actually kind of impressed by the chutzpah it takes to roll out the trailer for White House Down, Roland Emmerich’s latest bit of disaster porn, with this particular quotation attributed—though not actually accurately—to Abraham Lincoln, a United States president who was actually repeatedly in danger, and whose assassins were tried in a military tribunal stacked to require fewer votes: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
What’s grimly hilarious about this, of course, is given what happened when the Pentagon and two commercial buildings were attacked, America would probably go under martial law if the White House and the Capitol were both successfully destroyed. And Emmerich’s movies valorize extraordinary measures in the face of disaster and expansive use of executive power in the same way that would be used to justify major crackdowns after a more significant terrorist act than September 11.
Of course, there’s the whole separate issue that Channing Tatum’s character is an off-duty cop on a White House tour with his daughter when everything starts going down and he mysteriously becomes the only person available to protect the President of the United States, a scenario that probably gives White House Down the distinction of being the only movie to have its plot invalidated by the sequester. But I’m a lot more willing to forgive Channing Tatum-related ludicrousness than civil liberties chutzpah these days. If you’re going to quote Abraham Lincoln, you need to have more to offer up than a lot of helicopters and CGI flames to justify it.
The Wall Street Journal’s Dennis K. Berman wrote a piece this week comparing the basketball programs at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. Kentucky coach John Calipari, as Berman notes, built his program on the backs of players who spend one mandated year in college before jumping to the NBA. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, by contrast, built his with players who are more likely to stick around for the full four years. The implication from Berman is that Kentucky’s program is “hollow” like the Death Star, while Louisville’s is built in the manner that most fans and basketball observers would consider the “right way.”
My observation is quite different: to me, there is no college basketball program in America that epitomizes the problems with college sports better than the Louisville Cardinals.
Louisville’s basketball program is by far the richest in the nation. Thanks in large part to a beautiful new publicly-financed arena that has sent its revenues through the roof, the program hauled in more than $40 million in revenue last year. It made anywhere between $23 million to $28 million in profits, far more than any other school. The young men who helped generate those profits, who 21,000 fans pack the KFC Yum! Center to see play? They were paid nothing, even though a 2011 study calculated the market value of a Louisville basketball player at just short of $1 million.
It’s not that Louisville doesn’t have the money to compensate athletes. Pitino made $4.8 million this year; with bonuses, he made $7.5 million in 2011. The athletic department, bolstered in part by basketball revenue and in part by its successful football program, is expanding athletic facilities at rapid rates. In 2008, it relied on a $10 million donation and state financing to make a $72 million upgrade to its football stadium.
Louisville has perfected college basketball’s revenue-maximizing system, raking in millions of dollars in profits from advertisers, ticket and merchandise sales, and television deals, then paying out millions to coaches and administrators and pretending that what it is doing is somehow not a business but an educational mission. This isn’t just a Louisville problem: it’s what schools across the country are doing. Revenues are rising rapidly, and they are going to pay skyrocketing salaries for coaches and to build new facilities or upgrade those that already exist. At none of these schools is the athlete sharing in the system.
Kentucky (which is my alma mater) is no exception. Its $19.9 million in projected basketball profits tied it with Kansas and North Carolina as college basketball’s second-richest programs, and at $4.5 million a year, Calipari’s salary is roughly equal to Pitino’s. It has a sparkling $30 million practice facility and recently spent $6 million to upgrade the scoreboard and sound system in its football stadium. The market value of Kentucky players is more than $645,000. It, like Louisville and every other NCAA program, doesn’t pay its players either.
But here’s the thing about Kentucky: intentionally or not, it has blown a hole in the idea that college basketball is a virtuous educational endeavor pursued solely by amateurs who love the game. Calipari’s program more than any other takes advantage of the fact that college basketball is a minor league business for the NBA by understanding that the most talented basketball players are using college to get to the pros as fast as possible. If Kentucky’s players can’t share in the riches they generate for Kentucky, they’ll at least be getting paid for their work soon enough. That’s far from an ideal setup and hardly excuses Kentucky from scrutiny, but it at least halfway acknowledges and exploits the flaws in the argument that the top levels of college basketball are anything other than a business. Because it does that, the program is a slap in the face to purists, right way-ers, and the “amateurism and education crowd” that hasn’t updated its views to fit reality.
Major college sports operate in a perverse system that generates billions of dollars a year off the backs of free labor, and both Kentucky and Louisville are willing participants. But if no basketball program does a better job of making the system look ridiculous than Kentucky, perhaps no basketball program is right now doing a better job of epitomizing the lies on which that system is built than Louisville.
The meme that Superman, having arrived as a child from Krypton through the machinations of his parents, is in fact an undocumented immigrant has percolated a bit during this round of the immigration reform debate. But it took novelist Junot Diaz, who appeared on The Colbert Report earlier in the week, to take that idea and turn it into the perfect question for people who treat immigration reform as an abstraction:
What do you do with the isolated child in the fire engine red cape with nowhere else to go? What are in his best interests? Do you proceed under the most optimistic assumptions about what he might be able to bring to his new country? The worst? The point is not that Superman deserves an H-1B visa. It’s that immigrants deserve a chance to make contributions to the country they want to adopt, not simply to be treated as a drag on it.
Buzz Bissinger’s long, strange chronicle of his shopping addiction, particularly to Gucci, which was published yesterday in GQ makes the case for many things, including higher taxes on anyone who can afford to blow $638,412.97 on luxury clothes, mostly from Gucci, over a period of three years, and gag orders to keep parents from hopelessly embarrassing their children. But in between Bissinger’s tossed-off mentions of the medication he’s taking to treat bipolar disorder, his meandering and inconclusive discussions of his evolving sexuality (some of which seems shockingly at the expense of his wife), and his cluelessness about the extent to which his Gucci personal shopper must be having a high old time taking him for a very expensive ride, there’s a kernel of an interesting idea, particularly appearing in a magazine that does a lot to set the standards for men’s fashion.
Some of the clothing is men’s. Some is women’s. I make no distinction. Men’s fashion is catching up, with high-end retailers such as Gucci and Burberry and Versace finally honoring us. But women’s fashion is still infinitely more interesting and has an unfair monopoly on feeling sexy, and if the clothing you wear makes you feel the way you want to feel, liberated and alive, then fucking wear it. The opposite, to repress yourself as I did for the first fifty-five years of my life, is the worst price of all to pay. The United States is a country that has raged against enlightenment since 1776; puritanism, the guiding lantern, has cast its withering judgment on anything outside the narrow societal mainstream. Think it’s easy to be different in America? Try something as benign as wearing stretch leather leggings or knee-high boots if you are a man.
Whether stretch leather leggings look good on Bissinger is one question. But the other, more relevant one, is how does men’s fashion relate to men’s bodies and men’s sense of their own sexual self-presentation? And how will men’s fashion and male body image issues change, particularly as men start to have an experience that’s been most squarely the provenance of women: being objectified?
There’s something fitting about the fact that Bissinger’s screed dropped the same day as these new Gillette spots which, in the interest of getting men to buy new shaving products, is encouraging men to start acting rather like women. Specifically, the company wants men to start worrying about how much of their body hair they can retain and still be sexually attractive to women like Kate Upton, who apparently doesn’t like back hair, New Girl’s Hannah Simone, who likes a smooth stomach, and a third lady who wants her gentleman friends to go completely bare:
This is a natural expansion of Gillette’s business, of course. Once you’ve got women removing as much hair as is humanely possible from their bodies, you’ve got to start targeting other people, and other body parts if you want to crete new markets.
These business interests have real consequences, of course. Hair removal is one thing—razor knicks and skin irritation aside, it’s not as if there are long-term health consequences to shaving your legs or chest, or a lot of Olympic swimmers would be in a fair bit of trouble. But what about steroids, or heavy lifting regimens among teenage boys who are still growing? Men’s sizing for things like suits is more nuanced than sizing for say, women’s dresses, but how will more off-the-rack sizing, and popular cuts of clothing, shift to accomodate new expectations of male body size?
Body image expectations and grooming requirements have long been more stringent for women than for men, but women and women’s fashion have responded with a great deal of innovation, and flair, and fun. Men seem to be at an earlier point in this cycle, when the standards are rising, but fashion norms haven’t yet broadened as dramatically as they are for women. Someone other than Buzz Bissinger will come up with something more insightful to say about what it means for men to get pulled more aggressively into an alternately enamored and antagonistic relationship with fashion and their bodies—and what it means for that relationship to expand to include men who aren’t worried about trying to fit into tight-fitting made-to-measure Italian suiting. But Bissinger is not wrong to argue that there’s powerful, unexplored territory out there when it comes to men, fashion, and the presentation of their sexuality. He’s just missing the fact that it’s not just his personal style, but powerful business interests, that are going to push that discussion forward—and in ways that he and other men might find as difficult and uncomfortable as women have for years.
With the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the case against California’s Proposition 8 yesterday, the consensus seems to be that deadline for politicians to come out in support of equal marriage rights and to get some sort of credit for it has passed. But beyond the field on which legal equality is adjudicated, stands for equality can still be interesting. And there’s something particularly telling about this Interview magazine conversation between rapper A$AP Rocky and Alexander Wang in which Rocky both speaks up for gay rights and outlines an important tipping point. He believes it’s now worse for hip-hop’s overall brand to appear homophobic than it once was for rappers to be perceived as gay-friendly:
So now that I’m here and I’ve got a microphone in my hand and about 6,000 people watching me, I need to tell them how I feel. For instance, one big issue in hip-hop is the gay thing. It’s 2013, and it’s a shame that, to this day, that topic still gets people all excited. It’s crazy. And it makes me upset that this topic even matters when it comes to hip-hop, because it makes it seem like everybody in hip-hop is small-minded or stupid—and that’s not the case. We’ve got people like Jay-Z. We’ve got people like Kanye. We’ve got people like me. We’re all prime examples of people who don’t think like that. I treat everybody equal, and so I want to be sure that my listeners and my followers do the same if they’re gonna represent me. And if I’m gonna represent them, then I also want to do it in a good way.
It’s preferable for people to be affirmatively welcoming because they truly want their lives to be full of different kinds of people and want the communities around them to be the same way. But even if they’re not, it’s one of the great victories of the gay rights movement to make an embrace of gay rights better for business than the alternative, both by articulating the size of the gay market itself, and by expanding that figure by adding in the market of straight allies, such that that combined buying power dwarfs that of anti-gay boycotters.
The full recognition of gay humanity and gay purchasing power for a wide range of products go hand-in-hand. Once you recognize that gay people are people who deserve rights, you will probably realize that gay folks are also not a monolithic block who listen only to house music, live only in New York and San Francisco, vacation only on Fire Island, and amuse themselves only with faaaabulous clothes. Like heterosexual people, it turns out that gay people live everywhere. They buy tickets to sporting events—and at those sporting events, buy beer, and hot dogs, and jerseys. They take out mortgages in places other than Chelsea, often for homes that require things like drywall, and gardening prodcuts. And they buy hip-hop records and hip-hop singles and tickets to hip-hop shows. There’s a more attractive order in which to recognize these things, and it’s the one that recognizes the diversity of the gay community first and its purchasing power second. But you can’t recognize one without being confronted with the other. Hip-hop may be slower than Home Depot to shift its brand. But it will be a relief when no homo, a phrase as lyrically lazy as it is intellectually cowardly, becomes an anachronism.