1 + 1 = 2: Why I’m Not Looking for My “Other Half”

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.

The Case Against Celebrity Gossip

Credit: jezebel.com

Celebrity gossip bothers me.

I think it’s both interesting and sad how we assume that accomplished, well-known people exist for our consumption. That is, we not only consume the work they produce; we consume their lives themselves.

We expect them to be perfect and demand apologies when they fail, but we also gleefully feed on the news of their failures, perhaps encouraging them to fail if they want to be noticed.

When celebrities fight back against the culture of gossip and paparazzi, as they often do, we claim that by being so famous and “putting themselves out there,” they “deserve” the stalking, the intrusion of privacy, the destructive rumors and exposés, all of it.

It is, if you think about it, a victim-blaming sort of mindset.

And so, things that are absolutely unacceptable and legally punishable when done to an “ordinary” private citizen are just a day in the life of a celebrity.

I understand and uneasily accept that as long as there’s a market for celebrity gossip, tabloids will continue to exist. I think the onus is more on the public to learn that violating people’s privacy is wrong than on tabloids to willingly shut themselves down. However, I do reserve a harsher judgment for media outlets that trade in celebrity gossip while simultaneously branding themselves as progressive–or, worse, feminist.

Jezebel is a blog that I read loyally because it often (not always) features great writing and brings things to my attention that I may not have learned about otherwise. I read it with the understanding that the writing is often unnecessarily snarky and dismissive (the pot calling the kettle black, I know), and that some of the posts are best fact-checked elsewhere.

I know this about Jezebel, and I accept it. What I have more difficulty accepting, though, is that the same site that provides women with vital information about terrible politicians, interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and summaries of important research…also publishes things like this. And this, and this, and even more disgustingly, this.

It’s fashionable these days to consume things “ironically”–pop music, bad television drama, Twilight and Fifty Shades. Celebrity gossip, too, falls into that category of things people like “ironically.” This, I think, is why you often see it on blogs like Jezebel. Perhaps people think that reading it alongside articles about institutionalized sexism somehow makes it better.

Some might disagree with this criticism of Jezebel because it does not explicitly label itself as a feminist blog. Perhaps that’s a fair point. However, whether or not it labels itself as such, it unquestionably has a feminist perspective, and more importantly, it’s ironic that some of the issues Jezebel criticizes in its more serious pieces–body snarking, fashion policing, slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and editors to cover celebrity gossip without feeling guilty.

But is it possible to consume celebrity gossip ethically? According to an article in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine, yes. The article, called “Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?”, was written by media scholar Anne Helen Petersen (and is, unfortunately, not available online). Petersen acknowledges the issues with celebrity gossip, such as the fact that it’s a form of social policing and prescribes the ways in which people (especially women) are allowed to be. She writes, “In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.”

But the question Petersen ultimately answers in her piece is not the one that is posed in the title. Celebrity gossip itself is not feminist. In fact, as Petersen points out, is it explicitly antifeminist. But the act of consuming celebrity gossip is a different matter entirely.

According to Petersen, we should consume celebrity gossip while acknowledging the problems with it, examining our own reactions to it, and keeping its historical context in mind. She provides a personal anecdote about learning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively were dating and feeling irrationally annoyed by it. However, instead of taking her reaction at face value, she examined it:

I don’t like that someone who “means” what DiCaprio means to me (the first heartthrob of my teenage years, Romeo + Juliet forever) is linked with someone who “means” what Lively does (inexperienced, inarticulate, lacking in talent). I can look at my reaction even more closely, understanding my frustration when handsome, talented, seemingly intelligent men my age persist in courting women far their junior who don’t seem to be their equals. Is my reaction necessarily fair? No. But unpacking my reaction to a romance between two celebrities helps me understand my own issues with men dating younger (beautiful, lovely-breasted) women. In short, mindfully consuming celebrity gossip helped me make sense of my own biases.

What I took away from this article is that there are ways to consume celebrity gossip intelligently and mindfully, while learning about ourselves and our society in the process.

However, merely reporting the gossip (and I use the term “reporting” loosely) is not the same thing at all.

I know the mental contortions that people who love celebrity gossip sometimes use to justify it. It’s just for fun. Not everything has to be all serious and political. I don’t support it financially, anyway. It would still exist even if I stopped consuming it. The celebs deserve it.

Not everything has to be all serious and political, but many of our choices do have serious and/or political ramifications. And I know it’s never pleasant to be confronted with the fact that something you love is problematic. I also know that most people who like celebrity gossip have little interest in consuming it the way that Petersen describes.

But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment. Sorry, but I do.

Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn't Really Care About Eating Disorders

Nope, no Photoshopping. Nothing to see here, move along now.

Confession: sometimes I read women’s magazines. They’re fun to make critique and laugh at.

This time, though, I didn’t even get past the magazine’s front matter before finding something objectionable. In her opening letter for Elle magazine’s August issue, Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers discusses the recent legislation in the U.K. that would require digitally altered photographs of models to be labeled as such. You can practically feel the derision and dismissal dripping off the page:

So now the National Academy of Sciences is getting into the act, trying to define what ‘impossibly beautiful’ means. In response to legislation pending in the UK to require digitally altered photos to be labeled out of concern for public health, as well as the American Medical Association’s campaign against changing pictures ‘in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,’ two Dartmouth computer scientists proposed a ‘metric’ at a recent NAS meeting designed to rate how much retouched photos have ‘strayed from reality.’ The authors noted that ‘highly idealized’ images have been associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia.

Scare quotes aside, I have the feeling that Myers knows exactly what “impossibly beautiful” means, even if the idea of defining it operationally seems a bit silly. I do think that regulatory measures like these should be approached with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, because government regulation should not be undertaken lightly and without good evidence. But Myers isn’t critiquing it skeptically. She’s sticking her head in the sand and denying that a problem exists.

Furthermore, the regulations don’t even propose to ban severely Photoshopped images, but merely to place labels on them. Is putting an extra little bit of text on the bottom of an image really such a burden for Myers? I think not. Note that some countries are going even further–Israel, for instance, banned the use of underweight models in advertising entirely.

Myers continues:

Yet according to David Scott Rosen, MD…eating disorders are as old as the Bible. They cropped up in popular literature 200 years ago–long before Photoshop but right around the time when John Singer Sargent painted his famous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), a most flattering oil-on-canvas portrait that left out many a “flaw.”

I couldn’t find a citation for this, but it’s probably true. However, nobody’s claiming that eating disorders exist solely because of unrealistic beauty standards in the media. It’s not like a perfectly healthy young woman (or man, but that’s a slightly different conversation) opens up Elle magazine, sees a picture of a thin model, and immediately starts starving herself. Eating disorders arise from a complicated interaction of genetics, family life, and the surrounding culture. They involve complex cognitive processes, such as the ones described in this study. As another example, research shows that people determine attractiveness based on what they have seen the most. So if you’ve been looking at images of impossibly thin women for your entire life, that may be what you’re going to find attractive–and that’s what you may aspire to be.

We can’t prevent genes that predispose one to eating disorders from being passed down, and we can’t make it illegal for parents to teach their daughters that their appearance is the most important thing and that one should use unhealthy means to maintain it (though, with more education, we might be able to prevent that). We can, however, place restrictions on the images that permeate our media.

Furthermore, Myers conveniently ignores the fact that eating disorders have been growing more and more prevalent over the past century, especially among young women. Studies have also shown possible links between media that promotes thinness and eating disorders. It is impossible to establish a causative link with certainty, but that’s because 1) nothing is ever certain in science, and 2) we live within a culture that promotes and glorifies thinness. You can’t really evaluate phenomena like this accurately when you exist within the system that you’re trying to evaluate.

But luckily, studies done with non-Western cultures are very revealing. One extremely compelling study showed that girls in Fiji, who previously had little exposure to Western media, became much more likely to show signs of disordered eating after watching Western television shows for the first time.

Several Google searches brought up countless studies like these. Myers seems to consider them irrelevant here. She continues:

My point is that trying to define “impossible beauty,” and then regulate its dissemination by putting warning labels on retouched images, seems rather preposterous. You know, my chocolate bar never looks quite as creamy as it does in the ads; cars are never quite that sexy and sleek; and the milk in my cereal bowl never looks quite that white. Oh, wait! It’s not milk at all! It’s some gelatinous concoction meant to look like milk while it stays sturdy under hours of hot lights. Shall we label those photos, too?

This passage is as laughable as it is offensive. First of all, cool slippery slope fallacy, bro. Second, while one may argue over the sleekness of a car or the whiteness of a bowl of milk, it is completely unmistakable when magazines alter photos of models such that they appear to thin to actually be alive.

Third, and most importantly, the comparisons Myers makes are flippant to the point of inanity. The worst thing that can happen in her examples is that one’s chocolate bar isn’t creamy enough. The worst thing that can happen when magazines use Photoshop to excess is that, you know, someone develops anorexia and dies.

As I mentioned, the link between digitally altered images and eating disorders probably isn’t simple. But research is increasingly showing that it is there. It is worth noting that Myers never makes any comments about her own magazine’s use of Photoshop, which tells me that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and is just willfully playing dumb. She knows. And she’s threatened by it, because things are starting to change.

But she’s not done. She goes on to cite an article in this month’s issue:

I wonder what the National Academy would have to say about the photograph we ran in this issue of novelist and essayist Ann Bauer, who writes so eloquently about growing up “ugly”–bearing a steady stream of abuse about her looks from classmates, strangers, and even lovers.

This bit confirms for me what I already suspected–that magazines like Elle print articles like this solely from the purpose of distracting people from the role they play in upholding our society’s beauty standards. These magazines can trot these articles out as examples of their commitment to portraying “women of all shapes and sizes,” when, in fact, they use these women as tokens.

The article in question is indeed a beautiful article. But what’s ironic is that Myers doesn’t even realize how magazines like her own have contributed to the bullying and abuse that women like Bauer face. Of course, people have always valued beauty and mistreated those who are deemed “ugly.” But lately, the box into which women must fit in order to be considered beautiful has been shrinking, whereas the “ugly” box has been growing. Magazines like Elle may not be the only (or even the main) causes of this trend, but it would be naive not to implicate them in it.

Furthermore, that photo of Bauer that Myers is so proud to have featured? It takes up one corner of a page and measures about two by three inches. Compare this to the dozens of full-page Photoshopped models in the magazine.

The most telling (and touching) part of Bauer’s piece, to me, is the end, in which she describes visiting Hungary with her husband and going to the opera in Budapest:

I turned and found myself looking into a full-length mirror. And I saw something I’d never seen before: myself, in a sea of women who looked just like me.

[...]Everywhere I looked in that lighted glass, there were women with large features, deep-set eyes, rounded cheeks, riotous hair, and delicate-yet-meaty little bodies. We were, in other words, an army of ugly people.

Only, for the first time in my memory, we weren’t. I wasn’t. I was normal, even conventionally attractive. Stylish. Interesting. Sexy. Simply that.

I stood in front of that mirror in the Hungarian State Opera House, watching couples mill. Men holding the arms and hands of dozens of women who could’ve been my sisters, mother, and daughters, tipping their heads back, kissing them lightly, gazing with naked admiration at faces like mine.

Bauer shows, ultimately, that she is not ugly. It is American culture that makes her out to be so. In Hungary, women who look like her are not bullied. They are not sent anonymous emails about how ugly they are. They are not denied jobs or pressured to lose weight and get plastic surgery.

This makes Myers’ stubborn refusal to examine the potential effects of her magazine even more ironic (and upsetting). Magazine editors seem to feel that they are being solely blamed for the devastating experiences of many women (and, increasingly, men), but no informed researcher or critic would say that magazines directly cause eating disorders. We have to examine this phenomenon as a system of interacting elements–the mass media, politics, families, and individual brains and bodies–in order to begin to understand how to prevent unhealthy beauty standards, poor body image, and eating disorders.

We can’t start without making sure that everyone knows that the images they see around them every day of their lives are not realistic. They’re not something to aspire to, because they cannot be obtained–except perhaps at a very high cost.

The editorial this photo belongs to is totally unironically called “The Surreal World.” Photo credit: Elle August 2012

I Hope They Serve Beer in the Abortion Clinic: Tucker Max vs. Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood's newest supporter

I feel bad for Planned Parenthood. Not only have they been facing attacks from conservative politicians and cancer charities, defunding threats, and–I kid you not–firebombs, but now they have to deal with the odious filth that is Tucker Max and his publicity machine.

First, an aside–I’m not going to waste space here discussing who Tucker Max is and why he’s one of my least favorite people in the world, though I may do so in a future post. For now, Google is your friend. I will, however, say this–if you think Tucker is funny, please just take five minutes and ask yourself why. Why does he make you laugh?

Anyway, our favorite misogynist (and racist, etc.) Tucker Max has a little problem. An image problem. Thing is, people seem to think that poor Tucker is a Bad Guy. But he’s not, I swear! He’s actually a Nice Guy. He just needs to find a way to show it.

Tucker also has another problem: he makes so much money from his narcissistic writings that he has to pay really high taxes. There must be a way around this!

Luckily, Tucker happens to have an excellent media consultant, Ryan Holiday, to whom he wrote the following email:

Ryan, I have a huge tax burden this year. I can reduce it with a large donation to charity, but I want to promote my new book at the same time. Can you come up with something cool that does both?

To this, Holiday responded with a Brilliant Idea:

What if you gave a bunch of money to Planned Parenthood and they named a clinic after you? They need donors, it’d be awesome and you’d get a ton of positive press out of it for a change.

Tucker agreed and offered $500,000 to Planned Parenthood of Texas, which soon declined the donation. In a stunning demonstration of his and Tucker’s selfless altruism, Holiday immediately wrote a diatribe in Forbes about how this is “one of the stupidest and most depressing things” he’s ever seen, and how PP has “acted like a fool.”

(As another aside, I’m really starting to hate Forbes magazine.)

At first glance, rejecting a $500,000 donation may indeed seem pretty stupid. But here are some things Holiday declined to mention in his whiny rant:

1. This isn’t the first time Tucker has attempted to donate to PP. Three other affiliates have already turned down his money, not merely because he’s a sexist douchebag, but because his demands in exchange for the donation–such as building naming rights–violate PP’s gifts policy. I respect an organization that has the integrity to turn down money that would violate its own policies.

2. We all know how Tucker really feels about PP, thanks to his Twitter account. In a miraculous burst of intelligence, he removed this tweet when Holiday’s Forbes piece went up, but the internet is forever:

You’ll notice that this is from just a few weeks ago–presumably long after Tucker had already began his campaign to rehabilitate his image using Planned Parenthood.

3. Despite Holiday’s claim that this was a poor business decision for PP, it actually wasn’t–if you look at the big picture. While it’d be great to have $500,000 right now, yoking one’s public image to that of Tucker Max would be a terrible business decision. What will PP’s other donors think when it names a clinic after a notorious sexist who belittles and shames women of different shapes, sizes, and colors? How many press releases will PP have to issue every time Tucker winds up in the news for being an awful person? How would PP answer the (accurate) claims that it has violated its own gifts policy just to get some more cash?

4. Finally, the unavoidable point–the respective missions of Tucker Max and Planned Parenthood are not only disparate; they are mutually exclusive. Tucker Max’s mission is to attain fame and money by treating women like dirt and writing about it in a way that some consider funny. Planned Parenthood’s mission is to help women of all kinds stay healthy, happy, and safe. A partnership between these two entities simply doesn’t make sense. “Tucker Max Women’s Clinic” has the same ironic ring to it as, say, Santorum University or Romney Animal Shelter.

Incidentally, although Holiday tries to make the point in his piece that Tucker is really such an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood and has been pro-choice his whole life, a comment on the Jezebel piece clarifies this:

Well, he is all for women’s rights to choose… upon knocking up a girlfriend of mine, the chivalrous Master of Equality himself instructed her to “take care of it”, but made it clear he would not help support her financially or emotionally through the ordeal.

Granted, there’s no proof, so take this with a grain of salt. But judging by Tucker’s attitude towards women, I’d believe it.

Could PP have used Tucker’s money? Of course it could’ve. What it couldn’t have used is a business deal with someone who maintains a persona that is simply antithetical to PP’s mission.

For what it’s worth, knowing that Planned Parenthood is willing to take a financial fall in order to stay true to both its mission and its actual policies makes me only more likely to support it in the future. I hope other PP donors feel the same way.

To close, I’ll leave you with some of Tucker Max’s quotes about women.

Your gender is hardwired for whoredom.

Fat girls aren’t real people.

Cum dumpsters.

I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.

Look, I know everything is shitty right now, but if you don’t stop acting like such a bitch, someone’s gonna fuck that pussy on your face.

She may be a vacuous slut with no taste, but at least she’s not a stripper.

Except for one thing…she was not attractive. On a scale of 1 to 10, she should have hung herself. The pear-shape of her body was so pronounced she looked like a nesting doll made of owl pellets.

Even though I’d slept with one, part of me still believed that midgets were mythical creatures, like unicorns and educated guidos.

You show me a truly funny girl who doesn’t have emotional issues, and I’ll introduce you to my stable of unicorn thoroughbreds ridden by leprechaun jockeys.

Look, I’m not trying to judge you about it. I’m slutty sometimes too. And personally, I like sluts; they’re the most fun. But if you act like a slut, you should be ready for some guys to call you a slut.

I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up.’

You know that saying, ‘no matter how hot she is, someone somewhere is sick of her shit?’ This was the type of girl that had a lot of someones in a lot of somewheres.

Your back fat could have its own bra! Look at yourself—you look like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup!

Contrary to what some assholes think, Fat Tuesday is NOT Adele’s birthday. Shame on all of us who thought that.

Any hot black girls free today? Looking to knock out Valentines Day and Black History Month all at once.

There is a girl lying next to me on the bed, shaking me, saying something. She is not happy. She is also not skinny. Or attractive. She may not even be human.

Not even human.

Edit 4/6/12: I cannot bring myself to link to Tucker Max’s blog from my own, but here is a brilliant analysis of his blog post about the issue, over at Feministe.

Why I Don't Like "How I Met Your Mother"

Everybody seems to be obsessed with the CBS show How I Met Your Mother, so I decided to give it a try. I watched a few episodes, which I enjoyed to some extent. However, I soon found myself completely unwilling to keep going.

The reason for my premature abandonment of the show is one of the main characters, Barney Stinson. Widely considered the star of the show and the reason for its popularity, Barney is the consummate womanizer (or douchebag, for those who prefer the vernacular). His entire raison d’être seems to be to sleep with as many attractive women as possible, forgetting their names afterward.

Despite his superficiality, Barney isn’t a flat character, and he does have many other traits–many of which I can appreciate much more than the womanizing. But there’s a huge part of me that simply cannot be amused by a guy who treats women like shit. It’s just not funny to me.

Maybe in another century or two, the idea of a man who tricks women into sleeping with them only to discard them at the earliest opportunity will truly be hilarious, because our cultural scripts for dating and sex will have evolved. People who only want casual sex will be able to openly pursue it without being labeled “sluts” or “players,” and people who want serious relationships will be able to simply avoid getting involved with those who don’t.

In such a society, Barney’s ludicrous schemes to get women into bed with him might seem like a charming relic of another time. But today, I don’t see what’s so funny. People who lie, deceit, or otherwise pressure others for sex are all too common, and my own life has been affected by them, as have the lives of virtually all of my female friends. Barney’s stories might be several orders of magnitude more ridiculous than anything you’d hear in real life (see this for examples), but they’re still based on the idea that lying for sex is okay.

Barney’s character has been so successful that he’s even “authored” two books, The Bro Code and The Playbook, that regurgitate the same type of humor that the show does. Of course, I don’t believe that anybody would actually take these books seriously (although I might be wrong). The problem isn’t that people take this seriously; it’s that they find tired stereotypes about men and women so funny.

Indeed, Barney’s victims/partners are usually portrayed as helpless, dumb girls who are so mesmerized by an attractive, well-off man in a suit that they buy all of his bullshit. But in the real world, of which HIMYM‘s creators are certainly aware, women are rarely so one-dimensional.

Now, I’m sure that there are nevertheless many great things about HIMYM, so I’m not going to condemn the show in general. There’s a reason I titled this post “Why I Don’t Like HIMYM,” and not why you shouldn’t either. But I do think that the question of why we think it’s so fucking hilarious when men manipulate and exploit women* is one that you should ask yourself if you enjoy the show.

I don’t necessarily think that any womanizing male character ruins a television show. For instance, Community‘s Jeff Winger is also known for manipulating women (and people in general). However, Jeff is a much more complex character than Barney is, and he starts to change from the very first few episodes. Barney, on the other hand, seems to remain essentially the same throughout the show’s seven-and-counting seasons, despite a few attempts at actual relationships. Notably, even when he wants something serious with a woman, he still sees no problem with tricking her in order to get it.

No matter how unrealistic and ridiculous these situations are, I just can’t laugh at them. Maybe someday when I’m happily married, I’ll be able to. But not while I’m still surrounded by metaphorical Barneys.

*I am quite aware that women are most certainly capable of and often do exploit men as well. However, since this show is about a (male) womanizer, I’m confining this discussion to that.

"Shit Girls Say" Isn't Funny

Or, perhaps, it’s only funny if you don’t consider the context.

Check it out:

This is the first episode of the wildly popular web series Shit Girls Say, which draws its humor from portraying stereotypical (white) (middle-/upper class) women in quick bursts of cliched speech. And I can definitely see how many people, even many women, would find it funny.

But let’s deconstruct it a bit.

Why do women talk like this and men don’t? No, seriously, try to answer that question. Is it because they have two X chromosomes? Is it because they have more estrogen? Is it because they have tits? Is it because their bodies produce eggs?*

Or is it something cultural?

Except for those of us who had the most progressive of parents, most of us were raised in a viscous sludge of “boys do this/girls do this/boys don’t do this/girls don’t do this” remarks. As my gender studies professor recently remarked, hang out near a parent with a toddler at a store sometime and you’ll hear a barrage of comments to the tune of “You’re not getting that, that’s for girls!” and “Don’t you want to wear something prettier?”

Right, so. Part of the education that most of us receive is how to properly relate to both same-sex friends and to members of the opposite sex. The basic lesson is, of course, “Boys don’t cry,” which can be extrapolated to mean that girls can cry, if they want to. From this basis, the entire structure of normative ways of interacting develops–women can be very emotional with each other; men cannot.

Eventually, girls who don’t display this “relational” style of behavior come to realize that they’re acting wrong somehow. I would know, because I was once such a girl. From early childhood onward, it was always “You’re so insensitive. Why can’t be you be more considerate? Why can’t you think about someone besides yourself? Why can’t you realize that I need your help? That wasn’t very nice of you to say that to your friend. Have you thought about what present to get her for her birthday? You really think she’d like that? Don’t say things like that, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings.”

I don’t think many little boys are told such things.

What the women in the Shit Girls Say videos are saying are more evolved forms of the things I was expected to say as a little girl. They relate to each other. They ask each others’ opinion. They want to share the details of their lives with each other. They want to commiserate, open up, engage. I could analyze the language of the videos in detail if anyone were interested in hearing it, but I think it will suffice to say that the stereotypical ways in which women behave–the gossiping, the complaining, the requests for help–are all designed to help them connect with each other.

(As for one of the girls’ constant need for help with the computer, I would hope I don’t need to explain how women’s supposed lack of technological expertise is not only a huge overgeneralization, but also entirely attributable to a culture that still values girls who play with dolls over those who tinker with electronics.)

Recently I noted that in our society, women are considered ugly if they don’t maintain their appearance, and vain if they do–unless, of course, they manage to wind up in that magical sweet spot where they always look flawless but make it seem like they haven’t expended any effort to look that way.

Well, this is similar. Our culture trains women to be relational, and then pokes fun at and belittles them for being so. Shit Girls Say succeeds in its comedic endeavors by noting and exaggerating stereotypes about how women behave, but women don’t behave that way because they’re women. They behave that way because they’re taught to behave that way.

You can’t really win as a woman. If you don’t act in a relational way, you’ll be a loner, like I was for many years before I learned how to wear a mask of friendliness and approachability. But if you do act in a relational way, you’ll find yourself the target of jokes about how frivolous women’s conversations supposedly are, how overexcited they are when they see each other, and how they apparently ask their boyfriends to do everything for them (don’t even get me started on the fact that many men still buy into antiquated ideas about how they’re supposed to be the “providers” and whatnot).

So I don’t think Shit Girls Say is funny. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sexist or misogynistic. But I would say that it’s ignorant in that it ignores the cultural origins and meanings of women’s behavior, and it’s insensitive in that it disregards the burden placed on women to act in those ways.

Cheap-shot comedy like this favors easy caricatures over meaningful critiques and analysis of our culture. (Try this for a still-funny but socially conscious parody of Shit Girls Say.) Go ahead and laugh–it’s funny in a way–but educate yourself, too.

*I’m defining “men” and “women” very generally here for the purposes of making a point. Needless to say, I don’t believe that any of the traits I listed are necessary for being a man or a woman.

Mental Illness as a Spectator Sport

Step right up, ladies and gents, see the amazing inhuman hoarders here!

Our culture seems to have three ways of relating to people with mental illnesses–either they’re pathetic losers who need to “snap out of it”, or they’re crazies who need to be locked away (think schizophrenia in popular culture), or they’re here for our pleasure and entertainment. That last one is a relative newcomer, and that’s the one I want to write about here.

Just look at our celebrities–specifically, the ones with substance abuse problems. When it comes to them, it’s all fun and games till someone dies. While the late Amy Winehouse was still alive, blogs and magazines loved to publish photos of her visibly drunk, putting her up for public ridicule. Sure, everyone knew she could use some rehab–she sang about it herself–but there was never an ounce of compassion in how we, as a society, related to her.

And take Charlie Sheen, clearly a troubled individual. I don’t even remember how many days went by that articles making fun of him littered my Google Reader feed. With him, there isn’t even any ambiguity regarding the diagnosis, but he was still treated like a circus animal, and everyone sat back in their seats, made some popcorn, and watched.

Take TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Intervention, and Obsessed. These shows literally turn mental illness–and the treatment thereof–into entertainment. You can laugh as the poor OCD sufferer cries when forced to touch a gas pump nozzle with her bare hands, or gag as that creepy hoarder guy reveals his apartment full of old snack wrappers and rotting food.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to inform people about the lives of those with mental disorders. What I’m saying is that this informing should be done in a compassionate, humanizing way, and reality TV isn’t always the best format for that. For instance, the show In Treatment, which describes a (fictional) therapist and his clients, is a far cry from the carnival sideshow-like feel of the reality shows. I’m not exactly a big fan of reality TV in general, but as a medium for educating the public about mental illness, it’s even worse than usual, because it creates an environment in which people view their fellow human beings as freaks to be gawked at, not as peers to be sympathized with. (A counselor quoted on Everyday Health calls it “exploitanment.”) This happens on virtually every reality show–think how much the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol get made fun of. The difference is that the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol (arguably) do not have a serious mental illness.

Ultimately, all media companies want to provide stuff that sells, and in the case of magazines that publish photos of drunken celebrities (with witty commentary, of course) and TV networks that produce shows putting people with mental disorders up for display, the money’s definitely talking–people love it. But the quality of mental healthcare in the U.S. will never improve while our culture continues to treat people with mental disorders as amusing distractions and not as people.

An Indictment of Party Pop

Just when you thought I was finally done writing about alcohol and partying, here I go with yet another post about it!

Before I start talking about party pop, though, I need to clarify what exactly I’m talking about, because apparently some people still don’t get it. Every once in a while someone who doesn’t know me too well says something like “OMG I READ YOUR BLOG AND I GUESS YOU HATE FUN HAHA.” Um no.

So let me explain. I do not hate alcohol. I do not hate parties. I do not hate fun. I do not hate people who drink and party, except when they’re infringing on my personal space. What I hate is something I call “party culture,” which, by my definition, contains the following components:

  • the belief, prevalent among people of all ages, that partying is the one and only acceptable way for young people to spend their free time and socialize
  • the glorification and normalization of binge drinking (formally defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row, but I also use it generally to refer to drinking in a way that jeopardizes one’s health and safety)
  • the use of alcohol as a means to coerce women and excuse sexual assault
  • the idea that people who choose not to party are deficient in some way
  • pressuring people to drink and party (This is truly unique in college. I was never pressured to join clubs, go to football games, explore Chicago, attend dorm events, or do any other social activity quite like I was pressured to party.)
  • the belief that alcohol is something people “need” in order to relax, talk to people, hook up, have fun, etc.
So there’s party culture for you. As for party pop, I read a piece about it in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine. The piece was actually a really interesting analysis of the changes that this sort of music has gone through; whereas drunk girls in pop culture used to exist basically as a spectacle for men’s benefit, more recently they seem to be partying for themselves (the article mentions Ke$ha and Katy Perry as examples). Anyway, you’d really have to read the whole article to see all of the points it makes, but that’s the gist of it, and the author sees this as a positive development–female empowerment and blahblah.
However, where the article falls short is that it still seems to present party pop as a symbol of rebellion:
Today’s party-girl pop continues down the avenue of non-explicitly politicized, pleasure-focused rebellion against gender norms carved out by flappers and disco divas.
And:
[Party-girl pop] is valuable in its large-scale reflection of changing the meaning of pleasure and autonomy among young women, both to create a culture for girls themselves and to give older people a peek into these changing mores.
Here’s the thing, though. Whereas the music from which party pop presumably draws inspiration, such as the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” was actually made a time when partying was considered a subversive thing for people (especially women) to do, we’ve come quite a ways since then. Party culture has become normative. It’s not partying, rather than partying, that now draws judgment and scorn. Trust me, I’d know.

The truth is, even my socially conservative parents and their white middle-class friends think that partying is just what the kids do these days. For some reason, though, the party lifestyle continues to hold this impenetrable veneer of revolutionary coolness.

When I listen to music that glorifies party culture and hear people ranting about how rebellious and groundbreaking and cool it is, I imagine someone making music about how awesome it is not to live on a farm or to be able to live past age 50. Like, okay, cool, but I thought we were over that by now.

Maybe what we should be talking about instead is the fact that party pop contributes to a culture in which alcohol is viewed as the one and only means to having a worthwhile and enjoyable life, and partying is seen as something “everyone” does. And I’m not even making random unbased claims here: studies have shown that college students overestimate how much their peers drink, and that the more they think others drink, the more they drink themselves. That’s why, when I went through training to be an RA at Northwestern, we were told to provide our residents with the results of surveys done at NU that showed how much students actually drink. Because when you think that everybody is just constantly going out and knocking back six vodkas in a night, you’re more likely to try to do that, too.

Furthermore, I disagree with the Bitch article’s assertion that party pop is helping to redefine gender roles for women. The line of argument here is that because these women party for their own pleasure, they are paving the way for our culture to accept women as autonomous and equal to men. I don’t think it really works that way, though. I think that now, rather than having one function–pleasing men–women have two functions–pleasing men and getting shitfaced. I don’t see how this helps society recognize the right of women to hold positions of power, contribute to scientific research, control their own reproductive health, or generally do much of anything that doesn’t involve getting intimate with a toilet bowl at the end of the night. (As for the shitshow that consists of male-created party pop, I’m not even going to get into that now.)

The very artists that the author of the article considers pioneers in this regard have other songs (which the author conveniently ignored) that completely contradict the supposedly revolutionary message. For instance, here are some lyrics from a recent song by Katy Perry:

Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me
Infect me with your love and
Fill me with your poison
Take me, ta-ta-take me
Wanna be a victim
Ready for abduction
That’s empowering, alright. As for Ke$ha:
I don’t care what people say
The rush is worth the price I pay
I get so high when you’re with me
But crash and crave you when you are away
Pardon my skepticism, but I really fail to see how this music is promoting women’s autonomy. What I do see, though, is that it promotes the dangerous party culture that has infected basically every college campus–and JUST A REMINDER, by “party culture” I mean the stuff listed with bullet points above. I’m not saying this music is inherently “bad” or that we shouldn’t listen to it (that would not only be a specious argument, but it would also be a hypocritical one since I listen to a lot of this stuff myself). I do think, though, that we should make a big-ass pause before we start painting it with Beastie Boys-esque shades of rebelliousness.
Pop music, and pop culture in general, is the pulse of our society and its values. I think that if we listen closely to it, we can discern the pressures and expectations that people face from the world around them. And right now, pop music is saying that partying is the epitome of what young people should do with their lives. I think that’s an unfortunately narrow-minded view.
So if you’re too school for cool,
And you’re treated like a fool,
You can choose to let it go
We can always, we can always
Party on our own
–P!nk, “Raise Your Glass”

On Apathy and Being Cool

[TMI Warning]

I saw this on one of my favorite blogs, Thought Catalog, today. Sara David, the author of this post, uses American Apparel models (and models in general) to make a point about the aesthetics of indifference:

Like, I get it. You want to represent the “cool you” on your blog. The you that’s into pictures of topless, deadpan boys in the forest or a haunted house. But seriously? You don’t look jaded. You look ignorant. The world is shitty enough without your personal, tragic narrative of indifference.

Apathy isn’t something one should be proud of, and it isn’t something one should be striving for. Apathy is death. When I was at the lowest point of my depression, my apathy was all-consuming. Here’s the truth: it was terrifying. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “What if this is it? What if one day, I wake up, and realize that I never felt a thing?”

Playing pretend with your indifference is foolish and dangerous.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m saddened to see that what’s considered fashionable and “cool” is a way of living that, as Sara points out, those of us with depression have to work for years to avoid. How crazy is that? Think about it.

I encounter this on a much less serious level on a daily basis. Showing emotion is unacceptable. My classmates at Northwestern, all of whom are under as much stress as I am, work their asses off to avoid showing it. Because that wouldn’t be cool.

I have so much trouble making friends because I find apathetic, troublefree people boring. I find people who aren’t open about their passions, who don’t let me see their personalities, who act like nothing bothers them, boring.

For instance, here’s what some of my closest friends are like.

My best friend is a biology major. Basically every day he posts articles related to biology and the environment on his Facebook. He’s constantly sending me Wikipedia articles about some interesting species of octopus or squirrel or whatever. He gets so fucking excited about this stuff that I really don’t care much about, but have to admire anyway because of how much he loves it. He is half Japanese, and when the earthquake struck Japan recently, his Facebook page became a constantly-updating news feed of what was going on. He had no problem making it pretty damn clear how much he cared.

The first real friend I made at Northwestern is a tiny, adorable, painfully polite Korean American. And yet, when she’s stressed about something, she’ll come out with something like “MY JOURNALISM PROJECT CAN GO SUCK A DICK.” Anyone else would say, “Yeah, my journalism project is kinda hard, but it’ll work out!” I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear that you want your project to go suck a dick.

Another close friend of mine claims to hate humanity. He is a quintessential misanthrope–tall with unnecessarily long dark hair and glasses, usually unshaven, big Marx fan, always carrying around a copy of the New Yorker to read at dinner rather than talking to people,  and never hesitant to accuse you of behaving like a child or of being an idiot. He says that many people think he’s an asshole, but if that’s true, it’s better than being boring.

My newest friend lives in my suite. She is half Black and half Jewish and hilariously politically incorrect. When my previously-mentioned friend rants about Marx, she has no problem telling him to shut the fuck up. Unlike most people I’ve met here, she actually tells me about her life, even the parts that she’s not so happy with. She’s also one of the few people who tells me freely that she cares.

So these are the people I love. These people are interesting to me. Apathy, on the other hand, is not interesting. It’s fucking boring. It’s a testament to the fact that culture and fashion are so screwed up that being boring is supposedly synonymous with being cool.

I guess I’m the last person who should be giving advice on how to live, but if there’s one thing I know beyond a doubt, it’s that you should love your passions, nurture them, and share them with the world. Bring something new into the lives of the people around you. Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t be boring. Don’t stop caring. If you don’t care, you’re not really living.