So You Think You Can Dance Nudity Parity Watch, Season 11, Episode 9

sytycd logoAs regular readers know, I’m watching the current season of So You Think You Can Dance, the mixed-style dance competition show, and am documenting whether the women are generally expected to show more skin than the men. (I give a more detailed explanation of this project, and why I’m doing it, in my first post in the series.)

Before I get into this particular episode, though, I want to address a question that’s been asked a couple of times about this project — namely, whether a lack of nudity parity, even a consistent lack of nudity parity, necessarily implies sexism.

No, the fact that, in any given situation, women are showing more skin than men does not automatically imply that women are expected to show more skin than men — either in general, or in that particular situation. This trope isn’t even universally true: in Islamist theocracies, for instance, women’s subjugation and objectification is marked by the expectation that they cover up, not the expectation that they show skin. And of course, none of this implies that showing skin is bad or wrong.

But when you see a consistent and repeated pattern of women showing more skin than men, it makes you wonder if this isn’t just random chance or a random cultural quirk. That’s even more true given that there are places and situations where this pressure or expectation is made explicit (fashion magazines, dress codes, mothers — other examples welcome in the comments). It’s even more true given all the other evidence we have of the ways that women are routinely expected to be ornamental and to fit conventional standards of attractiveness, and are primarily or largely valued for our value as ornaments and sex objects. And it’s even more true in a situation like SYTYCD, where the dancers’ costume choices are being made for them and are the product of the producers’ and costumers’ conscious choice (influenced by unconscious cultural stuff, of course).

There’s an interesting Catch-22 about talking about sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc. If you talk about the phenomenon in general, and talk about broad trends and tropes, people will say, “Give me examples! I don’t see what you’re talking about!” But if you point to specific examples, people will say, “That’s just one example! One example doesn’t prove that there’s a pattern! Besides, that example is special, it’s an exception because (reasons)!”

So no. The fact that on SYTYCD, week after week, the female dancers consistently have more skin shown than the male dancers, with very few instances of nudity parity and virtually no examples (none at all so far this season) of male dancers showing more skin than the women — this does not, by itself, prove that women’s bodies are treated as display objects by our culture.

It’s just one small example of it.

So now, to this week’s data.

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 opening group number mandy mooreOpening number, Mandy Moore, jazz (or maybe contemporary — I’m not an expert, and I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between them)
Women are more naked than men (women have bare legs, bare arms, bare midriffs, mostly bare backs, men have either bare arms or short sleeves, some have scoop necklines).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 valerie rickyValerie & Ricky, Bollywood
Woman is more naked than man (woman has bare arms, bare shins, bare midriff, mostly bare back, V-neck, man is completely covered).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 bridget emilioBridget & Emilio, contemporary
Technically, they have rough nudity parity (woman has bare legs, man has bare forearms and open-necked shirt). However, her upper body is covered by a skin-tight, mostly flesh-toned leotard/ bodysuit thing that’s intended to look like she’s largely nude, with non-flesh-tone just on her skirt and bosom.

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 tanisha rudyTanisha & Rudy, hip-hop
Woman is more naked than man (woman has bare back, sheer netting on sides down to sides of calves, midriff, sternum, man is completely covered). Also, her outfit is skin-tight, while his is a regular-fitting suit, maybe somewhat more snug than usual.

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 jessica marcquetJessica & Marcquet, foxtrot
Woman is more naked than man (woman has bare back, bare sides, arms covered on top and bare on bottom, long skirt that twirls up to show legs, man is completely covered).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 carly sergeCarly & Serge, contemporary
Woman is more naked than man (woman has bare legs, bare arms, deep scoop neckline, man has bare forearms (wrists, really) and slightly dipped neckline).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 emily teddyEmily & Teddy, salsa
Woman is more naked than man (woman has bare legs, bare arms, bare midriff, bare sternum, largely bare back, man has bare forearms, shirt open to deep V-neck).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 jacque zackJacque & Zack, jazz
Woman is more naked than man (woman has mostly bare legs decorated with stockings and garters, bare arms, deep scoop neckline, bare back, man has bare arms, V-neck).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 brooklyn caseyBrooklyn & Casey, hip-hop
Woman is more naked than man, but not much (woman has bare arms, slightly bare midriff, slightly open neckline (more open than his), man has bare arms). However, she has skin-tight leggings, while he has skin-tight leggings covered by loose long shorts.

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 group routine 1 sonjaGroup routine 1, contemporary (Sonja)
Women are more naked than men (women have bare legs, bare arms, men have bare arms).

so-you-think-you-can-dance-s11-e9 group routine 2 travisGroup routine 2, contemporary (Travis)
Women are slightly more naked than men (women have wide, deep scoop necklines, men have somewhat deep V-necklines). However, women have skin-tight leggings, while men have looser dance slacks.

Summary:
Just as was the case last week, in all routines but one, the women are more naked than the men. In most cases, that difference is significant. And even in the cases of rough nudity parity or the cases where nudity imbalance is not dramatic, the woman’s body is revealed more than the man’s, with more skin-tight outfits.

So You Think You Can Dance, Nudity Parity Watch: Season 11, Episode 8

sytycd logoAs regular readers know, I’m watching the current season of So You Think You Can Dance, the mixed-style dance competition show, and am documenting whether the women are generally expected to show more skin than the men. (I give a more detailed explanation of this project, and why I’m doing it, in my first post in the series.)

I don’t have much analysis of this episode, except to point this out: There was literally just one routine tonight in which there was nudity parity. Every other routine had women more naked than men. And in all but one of those routines, the nudity imbalance was dramatic, with the women very noticeably more naked than the men.

All but one.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

(Also, apologies for the lateness — I was traveling, and only just saw the episode Sunday night.)

so you think you can dance s11e8 opening group numberOpening routine, all 18 dancers, hip-hop
Women are more naked than men, although not dramatically (some women have low necklines and backs, some women are completely covered, all men are completely covered).

so you think you can dance s11e8 jacque zackJacque & Zack, hip-hop
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs and short sleeves, he has bare forearms).

so you think you can dance s11e8 jordan marquetJordan & Marcquet, contemporary
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, bare arms, deep scoop neckline, he has bare arms, deep scoop neckline).

so you think you can dance s11e8 jessica stanleyJessica & Stanley, jazz
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, bare arms, scoop neckline, deep scoop back, he has bare arms, open back).

so you think you can dance s11e8 Bridget EmilioBridget & Emilio, jive
Woman is more naked than man (she has mostly bare legs, bare arms, somewhat low neckline, mostly bare back, he has bare forearms).

so you think you can dance s11e8 Emily TeddyEmily & Teddy, contemporary
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, short sleeves, deep scoop neckline, deep scoop back, he has short sleeves).

so you think you can dance s11e8 Brookyln CaseyBrooklyn & Casey, jazz
Woman is more naked than man (she has mostly bare legs, bare arms, low neckline, low back, he has bare forearms, shirt open at neck).

so you think you can dance s11e8 valerie rickyValerie & Ricky, Viennese waltz
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare arms, low neckline slightly covered with flowers, low back, long skirt that covers legs but swirls up in twirls to reveal bare legs, he is completely covered).

so you think you can dance s11e8 carly sergeCarly & Serge, hip-hop
Complete nudity parity (both dancers wearing essentially identical skeleton costumes, both completely covered).

so you think you can dance s11e8 tanisha rudyTanisha & Rudy, Broadway
Woman is more naked than man (she has mostly bare legs, bare arms, low neckline, he is completely covered).

Summary:
See above. In all routines but one, the women are more naked than the men, and in almost all of those routines, that difference was significant.

All but one.

I’m just sayin’.

On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Buffy with bloody knifeSpoiler alert, for people who haven’t watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but plan to.

I was recently re-watching ““Becoming, Parts 1 and 2,” those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question.

Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?

Yes, it’s a somewhat difficult spell — although given that Willow could do it when she was a fairly inexperienced witch, it clearly can’t be that difficult. And yes, it’s very likely (although I’m not sure they specify this) that the spell can only be done one vampire at a time, and that you need to know which particular vampire you’re re-ensouling. But given what a scourge vampires are on humanity, wouldn’t it be worth doing, as much as possible? At least from a harm-reduction perspective, even if they could only re-ensoul a couple/few vampires a week, wouldn’t that be worth it?

*****

Thus begins my new piece for io9, On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To read more about this burning issue of the day (well, this burning issue of 2003), read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

So You Think You Can Dance, Nudity Parity Watch: Season 11, Episode 6

Are female bodies displayed and objectified in pop culture more than male bodies? If so, how much?

sytycd logoI’ve been watching So You Think You Can Dance, the mixed-style dance competition show, since about Season 4. I’m a fan: yes, the show is often cheesy and very gender-normative, but it’s fun, and much of the dancing is quite good, and some of it is very good indeed. Plus it’s interesting to watch dancers work in dance styles outside the ones they’re trained in, and to see their dancing grow (or not, as is sometimes the case) as a result.

But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing on the show that bugs me, and I’ve decided to start documenting it — partly just to see if I’m really right or if this is just confirmation bias, and partly because if I am right, I think it’s worth documenting. The trend is this: In choreographed performances, there’s significantly more female skin shown than male skin. Whether the dancers are partnered in male-female couples (as they typically are), or are dancing in group routines, the men and women either show roughly the same amount of skin, or the women show more skin than the men. It is very, very rare for the women to be more covered up than the men.

Here’s why this matters. A big part of sexist culture is the sexual objectification of female bodies. Insert standard rant: Women are routinely expected to be ornamental and to fit conventional standards of attractiveness: we’re often valued only when we fit these standards, and are dismissed when we don’t (while at the same time, in a no-win game, we get slut-shamed and trivialized when we do). Beauty and attractiveness isn’t just more important for women than it is for men — the standards are far more stringent. Women’s bodies are put on display in popular culture more than men’s, and this display is often objectifying, with the bodies being dehumanized (e.g., shown without faces), treated as interchangeable, treated as things to be owned or acquired, treated as tools of other people’s purposes without regard to our own agency, etc. And all of this often shows up in sexual ways: women’s sexuality in particular is often treated as more important than anything else we might have to offer, while at the same time is dehumanized, treated as interchangeable, treated as something to be owned or acquired, treated with disregard to our agency, more carefully watched and judged than men’s, more stringently controlled than men’s, etc. Standard rant over.

sytycd-armen-way-and-marlene-ostergaardBut it can be hard to critique all of this without seeming prudish, anti-nudity, or anti-sex. And it can be especially hard to critique this in dance, which by its nature is all about showcasing bodies and the beautiful, amazing things they can do. The art form is inherently physical, sensual, often sexual. So it’s hard to say, “Look, they’re displaying female bodies in an objectifying way,” without drawing the response, “Um…. they’re displaying everyone’s bodies. That’s sort of the point.”

Which is why I’m focusing here, not on whether women’s bodies are being displayed or even sexualized, but on whether women’s bodies are being displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s. If everyone’s bodies are displayed in much the same way, then I’m wrong, and in this instance my observation is just confirmation bias. But if women’s bodies are displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s, then I have a point.

And yes, I realize SYTYDC is just one small part of both the dance world and the pop culture world: this analysis isn’t intended, by itself, to be proof of the sexual objectification of women. This phenomenon has been amply and thoroughly documented elsewhere. This is just the example of it I happen to be looking at right now. (I also realize that this analysis is very much based on a gender binary: the show itself is super-gender-binary oriented, so that’s unfortunately inevitable, and that’s actually part of what I’m documenting here as well.)

So, with all that being said: Here is my data on nudity parity and the lack thereof in So You Think You Can Dance, Season 11 (the current season). I’m starting with Episode 6, since this is the first episode with most of the choreography and costuming chosen by the Fox network and its employees. (Until now, we’ve just had auditions, with costumes self-selected by the dancers: there are interesting nudity parity issues to be observed there as well, but with self-selection, the issue of whose perspective is being expressed is more complicated, as is the sex-positive feminist question of women choosing to display our own bodies and our own sexuality in a sexist and objectifying world. With routines choreographed and costumed by the network, I think we can fairly see the patterns as reflecting the viewpoint of the corporation, to the degree that a corporation can have a viewpoint.) And I’m doing this several days after this episode first aired because I was away for much of last week visiting family. I’ll try to be more prompt in the future, but I make no promises. [Read more...]

Some Thoughts on Beauty and Ownership

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

jaguar xke in mad menThis is the fictional tagline that Sterling Cooper Draper Price comes up with for the Jaguar ad campaign in “Mad Men.” (It’s in the episode The Other Woman — warning, synopsis has spoilers. Yes, I’m re-watching old episodes, it’s getting me caught up on where we are in the new season.)

And it’s gotten me thinking: What does beauty mean?

So the idea behind this tagline, and the ad campaign, and indeed this entire episode, is that the Jaguar XKE is like a mistress: beautiful, sexy, desirable, impractical, temperamental, unpredictable. And the tagline is, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The implication being that you can’t really own beautiful women, and that many men feel this is a sad sad thing (one of the major themes of this episode) — but you can own a Jaguar XKE. You can get that sense of deep satisfaction from it — and you can keep it, and own it, and have that experience of beauty whenever you like.

But the thing is, as Michael Ginsberg himself says (the copywriter who comes up with the campaign and the tagline): It isn’t just people who you can’t own and keep. It isn’t just people who are elusive and changeable. Possessions are like that, too. Or at least, the experiences of pleasure we get from possession are like that. As Michael says when he’s pitching this idea to Don: Even very rich men, who already own many beautiful things, are still dissatisfied. The beautiful things they have aren’t enough. The Jaguar ad promises that this thing — finally, at long last, unlike all the other things — will satisfy their longing for the unattainable.

It’s a false promise, of course. And I started thinking about why that is.

Beauty is, literally, in the eye of the beholder. And by that, I don’t mean that it’s a matter of taste or opinion (although of course, that’s also true). I don’t mean that different people experience different things as more or less beautiful, or that duck-billed platypuses see each other as beautiful and see us as fugly. Well, what I mean is close to that.

I mean that the experience of beauty is literally in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder.

I mean that beauty is an experience.

And that means that it can’t be owned, or kept, or held onto.

Some objects or people are “more beautiful,” in that they’re more likely than others to evoke that experience in more people. But the beauty doesn’t really reside in the objects or the people. It resides in the mind and the heart and the body of the beholder. And trying to hold and own and keep this experience of beauty is actually what makes it slip through our fingers. Letting transitory experiences be what they are is what lets them sink in deeply and resonate throughout our lives. Struggling to keep them, to make them permanent, is what makes them slip away — and makes us miss the point.

megan-don-draper-mad-menIt’s one of the themes of this episode (and indeed of the entire freaking series). When we try to hold and own and keep the people in our lives who give us pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of beauty, we actually drive them away. And when we take them for granted, when we act as if they’re ours forever and we never have to do anything else to keep them around, we drive them away. It’s only by letting people be who they are, by not taking them for granted and respecting their right to make their own damn decisions, that we deepen our connections with them — and increase the chances that they’ll stick around. If you love something, set it free, and all that. Except that if it comes back, it still isn’t yours. It never was. We don’t own each other. We can’t.

blue suede shoesEven with objects, ownership often doesn’t work. Often, the experience of beauty is one of surprise. We tend to get inured to the beautiful things that are all around us. (I think this is one of the reasons I like buying new clothes and putting together new outfits: I like seeing myself in a new way, so I can more easily see myself as beautiful.) Part of the experience of beauty is the experience of the extraordinary — and when something is in our life every day, it becomes ordinary. We can find the extraordinary in the everyday, but it takes more work.

And you know how, if you’ve had an amazing vacation someplace, you often have this desire to try to re-create it, to go back to the same hotel and eat at the same restaurants and visit the same museums — but if you do, it isn’t the same? And if the place is amazing again, it’s because you did something different, or saw something you weren’t expecting? That.

We can certainly load the dice. We can own beautiful objects. We can make connections with beautiful people (beautiful in all senses of the word, not just physical). We can create beautiful experiences for ourselves — or experiences that are likely to be beautiful. We can work to make a life that is more likely to create the experience of beauty.

We can own beautiful things. But we can’t own beauty.

“Is He Gay or Straight?” Bisexual Eradication in “Modern Family”

modern family posterIn the last few weeks, I’ve started intermittently watching the TV show “Modern Family.” There’s a certain amount that I like about it, as well as a certain amount that I don’t. (Often the case with fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. I want it to divert and distract me, but it often winds up annoying me and tying my brain into knots. Fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment largely exists to reinforce cultural norms — that’s what makes it fluffy and comforting and mainstream — and I generally don’t find cultural norms comforting, they generally annoy me and tie my brain into knots.)

So I was watching the “Yard Sale” episode (I’m watching the show out of order in syndicated re-runs) — and I wanted to throw my drink at the screen. And I’m not even drinking these days. I wanted to mix myself a drink, just so I could throw it at the screen.

The plot line that was making me mad: Teenage daughter Alex has a new boyfriend, Michael, who she brings to the extended family’s yard sale. Her mom Claire is worried that Michael is gay, and she calls in the gay uncles Cam and Mitchell for a consultation on the matter: the three of them observe Michael’s stereotypically gay behavior, and agree that he’s gay. We see a scene in which Michael is alone with Alex, continuing to act stereotypically gay, but getting very defensive when she asks him point-blank if he’s gay or not.

And for the 787,266,456th time in my pop-culture viewing life, I wanted to scream, “Did anyone consider the possibility that he might be bisexual?”

Why are “gay” and “straight” the only options here? When the grownups decided that Michael was probably queer, why did that automatically rule out the possibility that he might be genuinely into their daughter/niece? Why did nobody consider the possibility that he might be a queeny queer guy who likes girls?

I have known some very queeny bisexual men. I have known some very dykey bisexual women. I know some very queeny bisexual men in serious or primary relationships with women, and some very dykey bisexual women in serious or primary relationships with men. (I’ve also known some queeny straight men and some dykey straight women, but that’s a post for a different day.) Why does tagging someone as “probably queer” automatically mean that if they’re dating someone of the opposite gender, they’re deceiving themselves or flat-out lying?

For the record, I do think gaydar is a thing. It’s not a magical thing, it’s not like some psychic connection queers have with each other: it’s more of an unconscious adding-up of lots of personal and cultural signifiers, it’s very culturally determined and it does go wrong. But yes, I think queers probably are, in general, better at figuring out who is and isn’t queer. (Although I’d be very interested to see research testing this theory.)

But queer guys can like girls. Queer girls can like guys. Even very classically queer girls and guys can like girls and guys. And we’re not even getting into people who are gender-queer, gender-fluid, or don’t identify on a gender binary… and who have all sorts of orientations in terms of what genders or lack thereof they’re attracted to. Not to mention people who are traditionally gendered, but who can be attracted to people who aren’t. Queerness comes in lots of different flavors: simple homosexuality is only one of many.

I think this bugged me even more than it might have because “Modern Family” is supposedly all about breaking down standard gender and family expectations. It’s supposedly all about how modern American families aren’t Ozzie and Harriet any more (not that they ever were): they’re commonly blended, multi-racial, mixed-generational, adoptive, and/or same-sex. And yet here it is, reinforcing the tired old notion that everyone is neatly divided into two groups, gay and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Eradicating even the possibility of bisexuality along the way.

One of the things that sucks most about being bisexual is not being recognized by either straight or gay people. It sucks having it assumed that having sex with both women and men means, at best, that you’re confused or experimenting or trying to find yourself. It sucks having it assumed that if you’re in an opposite-sex relationship, you’ve sown your wild oats (and have renounced any right to be part of the queer community; that if you’re in a same-sex relationship, you’ve finally found your true gay self. It sucks having past relationships seen as false, depending on whether they were with the same gender you’re with right now.

It sucks to be treated as invisible. It sucks worse to have even the possibility of who you are be eradicated.

(And yes, I know. This is fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. It’s just replacing an old set of cultural norms with a new one. It still bugged me.)

“Mad Men,” and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

Mad Men DonI want to talk about “Mad Men.” I want to talk about how kinky sex and sadomasochism get used in pop culture as narrative markers to show, either how evil a character is, or how damaged a character is. And I want to beseech the producers of pop culture to please, please, knock it the fuck off.

I’ll get this out of the way first: I love “Mad Men.” I think it’s one of the best programs currently on TV; actually, I think it’s one of the best programs that’s ever been on TV. This isn’t a “Mad Men did this thing, therefore they suck” piece. This is a “”Mad Men did this thing, and I still love the show, but I really wish they wouldn’t do this, especially since it’s such a depressingly common pattern” piece.

So. In last Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Don Draper and Sylvia Rosen take their torrid affair into a hotel room… where things get seriously kinky between them. Don orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes — and although she declines to crawl, she does fetch his shoes…s and gets on her knees in front of him, to put his shoes on his feet. And thus begins a very intense interlude of sexual dominance play between them, in which Don orders Sylvia to undress, get back into bed, and stay there in the hotel room waiting for him, while he comes and goes at his leisure. In which he phones her, instructs her that she’s going to wait for him without knowing when he’s coming back, and then orders her not to pick up the phone again — an order that she obeys. In which he sends her a beautiful and sexy evening dress from Saks Fifth Avenue, and then, instead of taking her out to dinner, orders her to take it off for him, right there in the room. In which he takes her book away from her, controlling even what she thinks about when he’s not there. In which she asks him for instructions, asking, “What do I do now?” — and he tells her, “You fall asleep the minute I close that door. I’m flying upstate — and when I come back, I want you ready for me.” In which he tells her, “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” In which both Don and Sylvia both seem to be getting off, hard, and at great length.

We’ve seen Don’s kinky side come out before. When he and Betty broke up and he was living alone, he hired a prostitute to slap him in the face while having sex with him. And he and Megan have some sort of kink going on in their sex life… kink they only talk about obliquely (when Don suggests that Megan is picking a fight so they can have rough sex, she uncomfortably says, “This isn’t about that.”) But this episode spells it out much more clearly, and at much greater length, than the show ever has before. And I won’t deny it — as a kinky person, I found last Sunday’s sequence incredibly sexy. The fantasy of having a willing human sex toy holed up in a secret room, for you to enjoy at your whim — or the fantasy of being that sex toy — is, for many kinky people, super-duper-hot. Myself included. And it’s a fantasy that could easily be acted out consensually, by any number of sane, ethical, happy sadomasochists.

mad men sylvia and donBut here’s the thing. In this scene — in all of these scenes — Don’s kinkiness is used as a narrative marker for how broken he is. The fact that he wants to dominate and control Sylvia in the bedroom, and keep her secluded and away from the world for his use only… it’s used as a marker for how he wants to isolate and control the women in his life generally. The fact that he and Megan play dominant/ submissive sex games… it’s used as a marker of how screwed-up the power dynamics are between them. The fact that Don hired a woman to slap him in the face… it’s used as a marker of how guilt-ridden Don is, especially when it comes to women and sex, and of what a dark place he is at this moment in his life. It’s not just that Don is kinky, and is also emotionally broken. It’s that Don’s kinkiness is being used specifically as an indicator of how broken he is.

And I am sick, sick, sick of this shit. I am sick to freaking death of kinky sex — or even just a display of the outfits and equipment of kinky sex — routinely getting used as a cheap, easy, quick-and-dirty way to indicate that a character is either evil, or damaged, or both. [Read more...]

Blogathon for SSA Week: “Mad Men,” “Homicide,” and What We Want From TV

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This post continues my leg of the Blogathon for SSA Week! From now until 9pm PDT, I will write one new blog post every hour. Plus, for every $100 raised during that time, I will post one new picture of our cats! And all donations will be matched by SSA Supporters Jeff Hawkins and Janet Strauss — so whatever you donate, it will be doubled!

As of 5:07 pm PDT: 438 Donors, $71,693.02
As of 6:08 pm PDT: 438 Donors, $71,693.02

mad menI got immediately sucked into “Mad Men,” as soon as it came on the air. I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s one of the best things on television. So of course, I tried to get Ingrid sucked into it. She watched a few episodes… and said, “Yes, I agree that it’s brilliant, it’s one of the best things on television — and I just don’t want to watch any more. It’s too depressing.”

I had a sad. I don’t have that many friends who are into the show, so I don’t have that many people to yak about it with and dissect it endlessly. But the thing is… I knew exactly what she meant.

Because I feel the same way about “Homicide.” Ingrid loves that show, she’s running through the DVDs and is totally into it. She thinks it’s brilliant, one of the best things on television. I watched a few episodes, I totally agreed… and I just didn’t want to watch any more. It was too depressing.

So I’m pondering two different questions here. One: What makes a TV show (or movie, or book, or whatever) intolerably depressing for some people and not others? And what are we looking for from television?

For me and Ingrid, what we’re often looking for is reasonably intelligent distraction. We don’t want to be talked down to or patronized… but most of the time, we also just want to relax. We watch TV after long days of work, and we often watch it just to unwind. That’s sometimes true of other forms of entertainment… but for some reason, it’s more true of television. Maybe because we bring it into our home instead of going out to get it… but then, I don’t feel that way about books.

Homicide DVDSo I’m not sure why I feel differently about TV than I do other forms of entertainment. And I’m not sure why I find “Mad Men” to be a near-perfect balance between challenging and entertaining… and why I find “Homicide” unbearably sad and awful. Or why, for Ingrid, it’s the other way around.

Thoughts? What do you turn to TV for? And where do you find the line between “interestingly challenging” and “shoot me now, life sucks enough without voluntarily putting myself through an emotional wringer”?

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Runway Recap: “I’m Not Here to Make Friends”

“I’m not here to make friends.”

If you’ve ever watched any competition reality show, you’ve almost certainly heard this line. There’s even a YouTube video montage of dozens of reality show contestants saying the damn thing. More than one. This week, on Project Runway, it was Richard’s turn to utter these timeless words.

And it is one of the dumbest things anyone on these shows can say.

You know what?

You are here to make friends.

If you are on a reality show centering on competition in your professional field — Project Runway, Top Chef, etc. — you are here to make friends.

The chances that you are actually going to win the big prize — the big cash, the equipment, the profile in the major magazine, etc.? They’re very, very slim. There were, to give just one example, 16 contestants at the start of this season of PR: the chances that any one of them would end up as the winner were 6.25%. Not very high. (And that’s assuming the outcome isn’t rigged.)

But the chances that, if you stay on the show for at least a few rounds, you’re going to have an opportunity to make huge advances in your career? The chances that you’ll meet major opinon makers in your field, from editors to celebrities to established names in the industry, and will be able to make an impression on them? The chances that you’ll meet potential employers in your field, and will be able to make an impression on them? The chances that one of your fellow competitors will do well for themselves in the future, and will be able to give you a leg up? And maybe most importantly: The chances that you’ll be making an impression on hundreds of thousands of potential customers who are watching the show, people who might buy your clothes or buy your records or go to your restaurant or whatever?

Those chances are huge. If you make it onto the show, and you don’t get kicked off in the first couple of weeks, the chances that you’ll be able to do any or all of these things are excellent.

But here’s the thing. The opinion makers and potential employers and future customers aren’t just interested in whether you won the contest. In fact, they’re probably not interested at all in whether you won the contest. They’re interested in whether you have talent. They’re interested in how well you handle pressure. And, very importantly, they’re interested in your interpersonal skills. Fashion is a collaborative art form, and even the most high-strung divas have to have some basic ability to function with other people. They have to be able to work with colleagues, with staffers, with bosses, with suppliers, with service providers, with media, with clients, with clients, with clients.

And if you come across on the show as a self-involved, high-strung diva who schemes and throws fits and talks trash about their clients and makes excuses for their shoddy work and stabs their colleagues in the back? If you make everyone who watches the show hate you and never want to have anything to do with you? You’ve wasted that chance. ([cough] Ven Budhu [cough])

You are, in fact, here to make friends.

Okay. Rant over. There was also some fashion on display in this week’s show, so let’s talk about that. This week was the Lord & Taylor challenge, which translates as “make a pretty dress that could sell in a department store.” Which is kind of ironic, since in pretty much every other challenge, “I could buy that in any department store in the country” is a kiss of death from the judges. And which also makes it kind of sad when the designers fall flat: if you can’t just crank out a pretty dress at this point in the competition, WTF are you doing here?

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Michelle 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Michelle 2

No argument with the win. Michelle was the clear winner. A very nice dress. The back means you probably can’t wear it with a bra, which seriously limits the number of women who can wear it, which is kind of dumb for a “department store” challenge. Still: very nice.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Daniel

Daniel is so fucking lucky he got teamed with Michelle this week. This looks like a waitress’s uniform from the 1980s. It somehow manages to be shapelessly boring and garishly hideous, all at the same time. It was embarassing to see the judges try to find something to praise about it: they clearly wanted to give Michelle the win, and had to give Daniel a pass so they could do that. Also, I don’t buy his Mr. Nice Guy act any more. The veneer snapped this week, and what’s underneath is not pretty. I’m done with him.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Patricia

I liked Patricia’s look more than I expected to. And kudos to her for not just making a dress like everyone else. But she also needs to quit the passive-aggressive number, stat. Stanley saved her bacon this week — he was something of an asshole about it, but his critiques of her work were absolutely on target — and she needed to quit whining about it. Also, if she didn’t agree, she needed to say, “I don’t agree,” instead of just nodding and saying “Yes” and then going ahead with what she was going to do anyway until it was almost too late. Every week she berates herself for screwing up her time management and screwing over her teammates… and every week, she does it again. Go away.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Stanley

A perfectly nice dress, and very well-made, although the length is a bit awkward. But come on, Stanley — a sheath dress? Without anything at all to liven it up? Boring, boring, boring. There is not a single element in this dress that would make it jump off the rack and scream, “You must have me! You cannot live without me!” This dress screams, “I need something tasteful and dressy and on the conservative side to wear to my sister’s wedding.” Snore.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Richard

Richard. Richard, Richard, Richard. If you’re going to throw an “I’m not here to make friends” hissy-fit, do it over something more interesting than a beach cover-up. The same damn beach cover-up you’ve now made three times. And a fugly beach cover-up at that. The swoosh doesn’t look elegant or graceful or exhuberant, it looks awkward, like it’s tugging at the hip and tugging at the boob, a half-assed compromise between curves and angles. Go away.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Samantha 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Samantha 2

Okay. This was hideous. This was vile. Ingrid and I have been arguing over it: I think it makes the model look like a waitress in a really cheap theme restaurant; Ingrid thinks it makes her look like a hot dog stand girl at the state fair. Bad ideas, poorly executed: those layers in the skirt are sloppy and flat and sad, and the heart cut-out in the back would have been tacky and laughable even if it hadn’t been poorly-placed and saggy.

But I also think Samantha got the shaft this week. As a rule, when the PR judges are choosing between “hot mess, but at least they were trying something interesting and had some ideas in there” and “sleeping pill in fabric form that isn’t even made well,” they usually get rid of the sleeping pill and give the hot mess another chance. Especially if the hot mess designer has done interesting and beautiful work in the past, and the sleeping pill designer has done jack. Hard to escape the conclusion that Richard was kept on because he creates drama.

And finally:

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Layana 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Layana 2

I liked Layana’s dress, and didn’t understand why the judges were hating on it. No — strike that. I loved Layana’s dress. I actually thought it gave Michelle’s dress a run for its money. And I don’t get them hating on the print: it didn’t make me swoon with delight and yearning, but I thought it was fine. Again, though: another dress you can’t wear a bra with, which means most of the women in the store are going to pick it off the rack, go “Oo! Pretty!”, realize you can’t wear a bra with it, and reluctantly put it back.

But I love the way the leather detailing frames the bosom. It’s a clever way to be sexy and body-conscious, without showing a lot of skin. And I really like how gracefully it combines both a flowy resort-wear look and a strong, edgy urban look: you could wear it in the city at a party in the summer when it’s way too freaking hot for anything other than something loose and flowy, or you could wear it on a cruise and look way more stylish and awesome than anyone else there. Thumbs-up from me on this one.

Runway Recap: Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love

How do you make men look sexy?

This week’s Project Runway challenge: Make performance wear for the Thunder From Down Under male stripper group. It was a difficult challenge for a lot of reasons: making men’s wear is always hard on designers who mostly make women’s wear, what with the different body shapes and all. Add to that the fact that they had to make, not just men’s wear, but men’s wear that was both stretchy enough and durable enough for vigorous stage performance… while still having enough structure to not look like pajamas. Add to that the fact that the outfits weren’t just dance wear, but stripper wear, and they had to tear away easily and completely at a moment’s notice. Add to that the fact that the men they were making clothes for had giant muscled beefcake bodies, with huge chests and arms: bodies that were far from ordinary, and that are unusually hard to fit.

But then, in addition to all that, add this challenge:

How do you make men look sexy?

Specifically, how do you make men look sexy in a heterosexual context? (As far as I’m aware, Thunder From Down Under aim their performances primarily at women.)

In a sexual culture where women are assumed to be the objects of desire and men are assumed to be the subjects, where women are expected to be looked at and men are expected to do the looking, it’s very difficult to make men look blatantly sexy. In a heterosexual context, anyway. It’s one of the main reasons that men’s wear is so often such a snoozefest. The very act of trying to look sexy, the very act of trying to make one’s body and one’s self look sexually desirable, is seen as a feminine act. (Or a gay act. More on that in a sec.) It’s a weird double bind/ balancing act: straight men are supposed to look good, or not look like slobs anyway, but they’re not supposed to look like they’re trying, or like they care.

There are, as I said in my original piece on men’s wear, some exceptions to this: the historical costuming community, the kink community, some others. And gay men have largely untied this knot and re-woven it into a sexual culture where everyone gets to be both gazer and gazee, mutual objects and subjects, in turn or simultaneously. (A somewhat problematic sexual culture, if my gay male friends are to be believed, in which a high premium is often placed on fitting into one of a handful of ideals of male sexuality and attractiveness, many of which are hyper-masculine in their own way — but still, one in which men can openly express their sexuality and their desire to be desirable, without it being seen as undercutting their masculinity.)

But the very fact that gay male culture has embraced the conscious display of male sexuality and created a space for it makes it harder for men to do in a heterosexual context. Given the homophobia of our culture, anyway. Looking sexy and trying to make your body look sexually desirable is seen as something that either women do or that gay men do — and since our culture is both so sexist and so homophobic, straight men are strongly discouraged from doing anything that would make them seem gay, or feminine, or both. I find it very telling that the usual route for male strippers in a heterosexual context is to go hyper-masculine: super beefcakey, huge muscled chests, huge muscled biceps, often in costumes that represent iconically male roles, from construction workers to cowboys to suits and ties. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this hyper-masculinity is done to offset the automatic feminization that comes in our culture with sexual display. (Not consciously, I don’t think, but still.)

So of all the challenges this season, this should absolutely not have been a one-day challenge. The designers had to make clothing for unfamiliar bodies — unfamiliar because of gender, and unfamiliar because of huge muscled beefcake-ness. They had to make said clothing work as stretchy and durable stagewear. They had to make said clothing with a design spec that they almost certainly had never dealt with before — namely, making the clothes tear away in a second. And apart from all these technical challenges, they had to face a serious conceptual challenge: making men look conventionally sexy in a conventionally heterosexual context, displaying their sexuality without undercutting their masculinity, maintaining their masculinity without being a bore.

In this, of all challenges, the designers should have had an extra day. Nobody — not the judges, not the producers, nobody — should have been surprised that this week was such a universally miserable and laughable fail-fest.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 8 Daniel and Patricia [Read more...]