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.

Why Do We Keep Talking About Akin and Not About Other Stuff?

I’ve noticed that every time a high-profile conservative says or does something stupid and it blows up in the media, some rank-and-file conservatives–in my Facebook newsfeed, elsewhere on the internet–have a very interesting response. They say something to the effect of this:

“Why are people talking about [insert stupid conservative here] so much more than about [insert Terrible Thing that also happened recently, such as a mass shooting]?”

They will ask if the former is “more important” than the latter, and wonder why people seem more willing to condemn a stupid politician than the perpetrator of a terrible act of violence. They will lament that the media seems to care more about bashing Republicans than about reporting “real news.” I saw this apples-and-oranges comparison being made between the Chick-Fil-A controversy and the Sikh temple shooting, and between Todd Akin and the FRC shooting.

This smacks to me of defensiveness and a certain type of persecution complex. What these people seem to be saying is this: “Yes, [high-profile conservative] said something stupid. But do you really have to talk about it so much? Why can’t you talk about this other important thing instead? Why can’t you just forget how stupid [high-profile conservative] is?”

There are a number of problems with this response:

1. Unless you’ve really done your research, you can’t really claim that the media is covering one subject more than another. Because how do you know? Many conservatives, I’ve noticed, seem to have a paranoid conviction that they are constantly being persecuted, denied their rights, and “attacked” by The Liberal Media (if you don’t believe me, go to the current affairs section of a bookstore and look at the titles of books written by prominent conservatives about the media). This means that their belief that certain subjects are being covered “more” in the media could simply be confirmation bias: you take note of all the news stories that deal with that subject and forget all the ones that deal with other subjects.

Now, I don’t mean to accuse conservatives of stupidity or of purposefully misrepresenting things. Confirmation bias is something we are all sometimes guilty of. But in this case, it might explain what’s going on.

2. “The Media” is not a monolith. What you see covered in it depends entirely on what media sources you’re consuming. For example, my Google Reader has a section called “News” and a section called “Social Justice.” (It also has many others, such as “Tech/Business,” “Science,” “Literature,” etc.) The “News” section is going to have more stories about mass shootings than about stupid things conservatives say about the female reproductive system. The “Social Justice” section will be the other way around–although it, too, will have many stories about mass shootings as they relate to societal inequality, the justice system, mental health, and so on.

Also, I have trouble believing that Fox News inadequately covered the FRC shooting and lent too much airtime to Todd Akin’s comments. I really, really have trouble believing that.

But in any case, I get a bit annoyed whenever I see anyone complaining about the mainstream media not covering adequately the issues that are important to them. If that’s the case, stop consuming mainstream media. Find the websites, blogs, magazines, and radio shows that provide the news you’re looking for and support them with your money. The “mainstream media” (whatever that even is these days) will gradually lose its clout.

That said, it could very well be that the media covers stuff like Todd Akin and Chick-Fil-A more than it covers mass shootings, and that’s not necessarily because of The Liberal Media.

Here are some reasons why that might be the case:

1. When there’s more disagreement on an issue, it gets talked about more. I think we can all agree that shootings are Bad, that shooters are violent criminals who should be brought to justice, that shootings should be prevented if possible, and so on. When people agree, there’s less to discuss.

(One caveat: people disagree very strongly on how to prevent shootings. If you somehow managed to miss all the recent discourse on mental health and violence, and on gun control, you’re living under a rock.)

But with something like the Chick-Fil-A controversy or Todd Akin’s comments, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Half of this country believes that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry, and nearly half believe that women should be denied the right to an abortion. Although not everyone in the latter group agrees with Akin’s ridiculous misunderstanding of human anatomy, many do. We have a lot to discuss, so the media jumps on board.

2. It is, after all, an election season. The Sikh temple shooter and the FRC shooter are not running for political office; Akin is. (Trust me, if Akin had a history of shooting up people he disagrees with, we’d be discussing him even more.) People want to know who to vote for, so media outlets cover candidates in detail.

3. Stories like Akin and Chick-Fil-A often contain much more nuance and relevant backstory than stories about mass shootings. When a mass shooting occurs, there are usually only three types of stories that you’ll see. There will be stories about what happened, what might have led the shooter to do what he did (usually membership in certain groups, mental health problems, etc.), and how to prevent future shootings (usually better mental healthcare and/or gun control). There may also be some stories about the victims of the shooting and how they’re coping.

With stories like Todd Akin, however, there’s just so much interesting and important material to dredge up. There were stories about the medieval origins of Akin’s beliefs, ways in which other politicians fail at science, reactions from other Republicans, about Akin’s “apology,” what happens if Akin drops outidiots who defended him (pretty sure nobody defended the FRC shooter, by the way), other relevant crap that Akin has done, reactions from doctors, and, of course, what “legitimate rape” actually is (watch that video, it’s funny).

See? Lots to talk about.

In general, I consider the “but why aren’t we talking about this instead” response to be a bit dishonest. People are talking about the other thing, first of all. And second, no, we will not brush these “gaffes” under the rug. Political gaffes are generally those rare moments when a politician says what he/she really thinks, and as such, they’re extremely important.

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

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

Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

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.

Sex, Morals, and Academic Freedom

A fucksaw.[First, some backstory–this post concerns a controversial event at Northwestern in which the professor for a class called Human Sexuality held an optional live demonstration that showed a man penetrating a woman with a sex toy. The story, which was first reported by our campus newspaper (the Daily Northwestern), quickly blew up and was featured in media outlets all over the world, including the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Here are the NYT and CNN articles on it.

Second, I wrote this piece for the blog of Northwestern Sex Week, an annual event that I’m on the planning committee of. Here’s the original post.]

Much has already been written about the infamous Professor Bailey and the optional sex-toy demonstration he held for his Human Sexuality class. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, I’m not in the class and did not witness the demonstration. From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure that it would’ve had educational value for me, personally. That said, I am a member of SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) and the Sex Week committee, and therefore, I already know quite a bit about sex. And yes, I know that women have g-spots and can potentially ejaculate. I also know that the range of human sexualities and sexual proclivities is virtually limitless, and that each individual views and experiences sex differently.

However, not everybody realizes this. For much of my adolescence, I didn’t either. Like some of the people I’ve met here at Northwestern, I freely labeled others’ sexual behaviors as disgusting, weird, abnormal, pathological. I didn’t realize how wrong this perspective was. The impression I get of Professor Bailey’s class and this demonstration is that they aim to eradicate this perspective. To that end, I can only endorse them both with complete confidence.

Second, even supposing that this demonstration had no educational value for anyone–which I highly doubt–we enter dangerous territory when we advocate banning something simply because we, as individuals, do not see its value. This is especially true in the academic realm. The concept of intellectual freedom does not exist to protect someone’s right to claim that the sky is blue; it exists to protect someone’s right to challenge existing norms and assumptions. It does not exist just to protect my English professor’s right to interpret a Dickens novel in a particular way; it exists to protect a human sexuality professor’s right to teach controversial material to his students. Even if Professor Bailey’s demonstration ultimately taught nothing, he should have the right to try unorthodox teaching styles, just like he has the right to conduct unorthodox research. Even if he failed, he has learned. That’s what academic life is all about.

I am also disappointed to read the numerous online comments from Northwestern alumni claiming that, because they disagree with this demonstration, they will no longer be donating money to Northwestern. This is, to put it bluntly, incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. In my opinion, one donates to an institution to support its overall mission, not because one agrees with every policy, every professor, every class, and every lecture. I, for instance, do not agree with some of the things that Northwestern faculty and administrators do–quite a lot of things, actually. Yet you can be sure that after I graduate, I will be donating money to this amazing school, probably for the rest of my life.

Third, this entire controversy, in my opinion, was started by a campus media given to sensationalism. With the media firestorm that has ensued, you would think that there had been some high-profile complaint from a student or parent, some allegation that the demonstration deeply disturbed a student–something. To my knowledge, there was not. In the article that broke the story, the Daily Northwestern failed to quote even a single person, student or otherwise, who had been offended or displeased by the presentation. Yet the article’s headline referred to this event as a “controversy.”

Finally, I would like to challenge all those who oppose this demonstration on moral grounds. Professor Bailey himself said it perfectly in his statement of apology:

Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.

Students were warned multiple times of the graphic nature of the presentation, and told that they were free to leave at any time. The individuals who staged and participated in the demonstration were all consenting adults. The course itself involves watching videos of people having sex, and no controversy has arisen because of that. The course, and this demonstration, involves an act that is as normal and natural as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Like Professor Bailey, I have yet to find a convincing argument for why this should not have happened that does not hinge on personal values, and that does not seek to impose one’s personal values on others.

In short, the fact that Professor Bailey was forced to apologize for the world’s closed-mindedness is tragic. And it means that we, the Sex Week committee, have our work cut out for us this year.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on television. There was a time when discussing sexuality in a classroom setting would’ve been impermissible. There was a time when a play like the Vagina Monologues could never have been staged in public, and there was a time when Sex Week could never have happened on a university campus.

Apparently, there is also a time when demonstrating the use of a sex toy on a consenting woman in front of a hundred consenting adults is unacceptable, too. That time is now. But we should remember how strange–how silly–yesterday’s taboos seem to us today.

Middle Class Sexuality

I saw this interesting op-ed at the New York Times’ website today. It talks about the “Viagra for women” (flibanserin) that was recently rejected by the FDA and how the sexual problem for American women isn’t medical but societal, because the “white upper middle class” has essentially become uptight and frigid.

I agree with the op-ed in some ways, because it’s true that American culture is actually extremely Puritan despite the gratuitous amount of sex present in its media (including advertising and entertainment, of course). Once when my grandma came from Israel for a visit, she was shocked that at the swimming pool, men wear huge, baggy trunks rather than the tight little briefs they wear in Israel. That’s a rather trivial example, but it showcases one of the many strange contradictions in American culture. Nearly-naked men abound in the movies and in advertising, but they’re unacceptable at the pool (which, one would think, is a place where people go to be nearly naked).

In any case, there are probably better examples of this, like the fact that the government spends millions of dollars on teaching junior high students that one should never have sex before marriage, and high schools will make students call their parents and ask them to bring a different shirt if they wear one that bares–gasp–their shoulders. (The fact that schools try to send such a strict message when kids are bombarded with highly sexualized media every day is nothing short of ludicrous. It’s media literacy they should be teaching, not abstinence till marriage.)

The fact that all of this eventually leads to a complete lack of sexuality is unsurprising. When you spend your entire life being told that sex is sinful and shameful, I can see how you’re not going to get terribly enthusiastic in the bedroom. However, where I take issue with Paglia (the writer of the op-ed) is her suggestion that this is all attributable to “white” culture. Christian culture, maybe. But white culture? The op-ed uses the example of female celebrities to argue that since Latinos and African Americans seem to be more sexualized, the overall sexual deficiencies of American women can be attributed to white women:

Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.

I’m just not sure about this generalization. After all, Beyoncé may be African American, but plenty of white people love her, too, and it’s pretty much universally agreed that she’s gorgeous. Does the fact that black women tend to be curvier than white women make black women more sexual? And aren’t there plenty of thin black women and curvy white women?

I suppose I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that women of color are somehow more sexual than white women. I think Paglia takes it too far there. However, white culture has been the dominant culture in America since its inception (due to demographics and discrimination), so I guess you can blame most of our societal quirks on it.

Aside from that, though, the op-ed made many great points. This paragraph struck me as very insightful:

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

I can’t say I could offer up a solution to that, but it’s a keen observation all the same. Yes, in terms of sexuality, American culture is downright boring, and no pill can fix that. Or rather, I’m sure they’ll find a pill to fix that eventually, just like they find pills to fix everything else, but it’d be nice if we didn’t need pills.

Paglia ends the op-ed by writing, “Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.” No one would suggest that we return to all being poor and leaving 99% of the nation’s wealth to a few elites, but clearly, a culture mostly controlled by the middle class has some unfortunate drawbacks.

Exhibitionist Journalism

So, yesterday this little gem was posted on Salon.com, an online news magazine that I generally like a lot but that, unfortunately, frequently falls into the trap of sensationalism. The piece, by Holly Kretschmar, describes the author’s experience with cooking and eating her placenta after giving birth to her first baby–a course of action recommended by her doula, which I understand is some sort of earthy midwife whose services Kretschmar was inspired to engage after she miraculously conceived despite fertility problems and a doctor’s estimate that her chances of conceiving naturally were .0001 percent. Apparently, this arbitrary, albeit fortuitous, glitch is reason enough to throw out the concept of science entirely and resort to all manner of cuckoo rituals.

Anyway, the doula recommended a placenta recipe and Kretschmar enthusiastically tried it, chronicling her experience in this article that Salon for some unknowable reason decided to publish. The piece went into terrific detail about how the placenta tasted and what texture it had, and Kretschmar, a vegetarian, pontificated on the joys of eating of oneself: “It occurred to me that this meat of mine was truly sustainable, a renewable resource created without killing. In a way, our culinary experiment was the ultimate act of consumption: eating life without taking life.”

I’m not even going to go into the numerous reasons this entire enterprise is repulsive (for instance, that silly little taboo called cannibalism), because, when it comes down to it, Kretschmar made a personal choice to eat her own placenta. Okay. It’s a free country. But the more important question (at least to me) is this: why the hell write and publish an article about it?

The fact that she finds it interesting is not (or should not) be enough. Plenty of people find their bowel movements interesting, but I’ve yet to see a published article about that. Websites like Salon generally have standards for publication, the standards we all learn in journalism school–newsworthiness, timeliness, and impact, for instance. Articles about personal experiences that ought to be kept private, like bowel movements and, yes, placenta eating, just don’t make the cut. Usually.

To me, it seems that this article served a dual purpose for Kretschmar and for Salon. The author gets to exhibit herself to the world as some sort of new-age open-minded hippie and satisfy her own need for attention, and Salon gets to drive up pageviews by disgusting and angering its readership. (A quick peek at the comment thread of the article confirms this result.) The only party that doesn’t win in this scenario? The readers.

This is exactly what’s wrong with journalism nowadays. It used to be that publication was reserved for the best of the best–articles that could inform or inspire. Then blogs and other social tools appeared on the scene to fill the niche of personal media. And then, respectable publications like Salon decided to steal blogs’ audience by publishing just the sort of self-serving drivel they’d previously (and rightfully) ignored.

I’m not saying blogs don’t serve a purpose. They do. Perhaps Kretschmar’s friends would’ve loved to read about her foray into placentophagy. But the rest of us don’t need to know, and most people who read websites like Salon are intelligent enough to know a blatant publicity stunt when they see one. Give us more respect, Salon.