When Nature Fails Us

August 7, 2009

So there’s a new Spanish doll called Bebé Glotón – or Baby Glutton in English – that is designed to simulate breastfeeding for young girls with blossoming maternal instincts.  Here’s how it works: the child puts on a vest with two quaint little flowers where the nipples should be, holds the doll’s mouth to their chest and, in an expression of approval, the hunk of plastic produces “nursing sounds.”

Here’s a demo:

Now, I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with this, but a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle, my information source for this thing, made a curious and thought-provoking claim:  that the doll is “meant to impress upon kids that nursing is natural.”

There may be truth to this statement, but I find it problematic that an artificial object exist as an example of the inherent nature behind a thing or act.  Breast-feeding should feel natural, but alternative methods are slowly becoming “the normal way” to do it.

My last post briefly mentioned the documentary film The Business of Being Born, which centered around the distance between the modern woman and natural birth.  In both the cases of breastfeeding and childbirth, artificial methods have all but eliminated natural means, at least in this part of the world.  That our solution for the former seems to be recreating the act with a toy to socialize our kids into acceptance is telling of how dependent we are on witnessing a simulation to make sense  our own lives.

If our perceptions of the world depend on vicarious observation, consider what the youth is being exposed to today.  TV and the internet are quite literally raising children at this point – they offer moral codes, dating advice, and family outlines, in addition to maternal nursing.

Then of course there are popular role models.  With the sensationalism of celebrity vices, it is virtually unheard of to follow behind a hyped actor or musician without a trail of scandal at their heals.  Of course, no one is perfect, but some of our biggest stars that get the most media attention are the most fucked up (not coincidentally of course).  Young girls have especially unstable pop stars to look up to.

Three come to mind immediately:

1. Amy Winehouse, who, at 25, has overdosed at least twice since becoming an overnight sensation,

2. Rihanna, whose dangerously abusive relationship with celebrity boyfriend Chris Brown has manifested itself publicly in bruises and the desperate attempts from family and fans to elicit a break up, and

3.  Britney Spears, whose public meltdown is monumental in its media coverage.

All of these girls are young enough (25, 21, and 27) to not recall a life outside of television, and more specifically, MTV, which is largely responsible for their respective levels of fame.  Madonna, with music videos, created the blueprint for what a young starlet should be and these girls have all followed that outline with little deviation.  Before Madonna, there was Marilyn Monroe.  The cycle continues, only now the lives of young pop stars are so publicized its difficult to distinguish the personal from the professional anymore.  They don’t play characters, they are the characters, and viewing them as such, in some way, alleviates the guilt while at once continuing to inspire our sympathy.

But what does this all mean?  Why is it worth talking about?  When we rely too much on artificiality, such as dolls and television, we move further away from ourselves.  I think Joanna Newsom summed it up nicely when she said “never get so attached to a poem/ you’ll forget truth that lacks lyricism” (10 points to whomever can spot the irony there).

In the same way that Faye Dunaway’s character in the almost prophetic mid 70’s film Network was the first studio exec to have grown up with TV, so have young’ns today (including myself).  And the effects, perhaps, are a removal from the things that make us human (things like intuition, passion, fear, and sadness).

These observations are not designed as anti-technological, but as simple reminders that we should be more in command of who we are, and that begins with a little less focus on assimilating ourselves to pop culture and a little more focus on creating our own.


Life and Death of Michael Jackson – A Personal Reflection

June 26, 2009


June 25, 2009 – The day Michael Jackson died.  Reflecting on this is an odd experience for me.  This man is a huge personal hero, one whose passion and innate ability to entertain is accentuated by his irrepressible eccentricities.  Most of the world loved him for his magnificent voice and groundbreaking body-talk – the “weird stuff” was something they had to look past to appreciate the pop royalty.  But myself, and many others I’m sure, reveled in how strange he was -we loved him largely BECAUSE he was  totally isolated and misunderstood by the rest of humankind.

This misfit mystique permeated in the countless montages reflecting on his career, often alongside similar dedications to former Angel Farrah Fawcett, 62, who also succumbed to death today following a long and very public battle with cancer.  Her life in 5 minute video eulogies was characterized by a loving and committed romantic relationship with partner Ryan O’Neal, her persevering spirit, and a likable public persona.  She seemed like a genuinely sweet human being.

This was quite a contrast to Jackson, whose personal life was often harshly indicted by a probing public (including the crippling allegations of child molestation, speculation of his cosmetic surgeries, and a questionable parenting style).  He became known also for his lavish spending, which had resulted in incredible debts  – a perplexing feat considering he is responsible for the highest selling musical album worldwide.  On top of all this, the poor guy’s privacy was a thing of the past at age 5.  He knew nothing of a life outside of international fame.

His life was most unfortunate – He had the innate talents and workmanship that meant he was destined for fame, but he showed signs of this so early on it tended to undermine basic childhood development.  Even at 50, he retained a widely misunderstood man-child persona.  For a culture so obsessed with youth, it was puzzlingly unkind to a full-grown man whose life was characterized by his desire to retreat to something simpler, who had romanticized the notion of childhood more than anyone else.

I will always hesitate in making the bold claim that a person is in a better place once they’ve died, even if, as I believe, that place is no where.  But in Jackson’s case, I’m not sure where I stand.  His debts were growing.  His health was, apparently, and according to his own family, not very good.  It seems the world was too much for him.  I want to believe that, for someone who had such a hard time fitting into this life, there is an eventual promise of peace.  He spent a good portion of his adult life building and hiding away in Neverland Ranch.  His desire to escape, to uncover this idealized eternity of youth to him must have sounded like something close to heaven.  The glorified “childhood experience” must have eluded Jackson.  Indeed, being the King of Pop inevitably complicates things.  But I’ll be damned if anyother pop star had so thoroughly earned such a title.

Here’s to hoping he’s found his Neverland.

The New Golden Age of Animation

June 10, 2009


The lovely big wigs at Disney, who’ve almost entirely homogenized animated film for the past 50 years, can once again reap the benefits of what is undoubtedly the industry’s smartest partnership of the past few decades.  Pixar’s Up, Disney’s saving grace in terms of commercial success and artistic innovation, proved to be a huge financial success, earning $68.1 million in the box office its opening weekend.  As of June 9, its domestic gross is a commendable $141.9 million.

The film continues Pixar’s tradition of exploring new narrative and thematic territory.  Between its devastating opening scenes and its jarring action sequences, it is undoubtedly the most poignant and emotionally exhaustive in the studio’s repertoire.

Since Toy Story, the first feature length composed using entirely Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was released theatrically in 1995, Pixar have dominated in what some are professing is the new golden age of animation.



Last year, Wall-E set the standard with its daring script and painstaking attention to detail.  The remains of an unsustainable Earth are portrayed with arresting realism.  Everything, down to the dirt and rust on our wide-eyed artificial hero, appears tangible.

With Up, the rendering of the real-life has improved.  We see the intricate stitches and wrinkles of fabrics, the unkempt stubble on an old man’s face, and the incredible subtlety of shadows and lighting.  Never before has a computer animated film felt so full of life.

In terms of integrity, few commercially successful filmmakers present themselves as worthy contemporaries to Pixar’s animation team.

The most talked about is probably Hayao Miyazaki and his film company, Studio Ghibli (whose American distribution rights are controlled by none other than Disney).  Miyazaki’s introduction to the American mainstream, the wonderfully imaginative Spirited Away, was met with awe and enthusiasm in 2001.  In many ways he improved with 2004’s film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle.  Miyazaki’s latest, and purportedly his last, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is scheduled for American theatrical release this August.

While Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most celebrated of Japan’s animated filmmakers, U.S. audiences have been notably entranced by the genre as a whole.  Mad House studios is another buzzworthy contributor, specificially the work of Satoshi Kon.  In 2001, he unleashed an animated drama of epic proportions, the brilliantly concieved Millennium Actress.  As good as anything Miyazaki has ever made, it tells the story of a woman whose life in the “golden era” film industry is characterized by an unclear distinction between reality and fiction.  While arguably Kon’s masterwork, it was his follow-up, the offbeat Tokyo Godfathers, that really got American audiences talking.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Other parts of the world are contributing their unique visions.  In 2003, French traditional animator Sylvain Chomet achieved minor international success with The Triplets of Belleville.  He also has an anticipated new feature length in the works, The Illusionist, which features an unfinished script from legendary french mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The realized feature is scheduled for release this year.

Fellow French animator/director Marjane Satrapi offered another unique, and markedly more adult perspective in the medium with the autobiographical and critically lauded Persepolis in 2007.

There’s also been a market for animation of the stop motion variety, largely driven by the work of UK-based Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and reaching a whole new level with Henry Selick’s magical Coraline, released in 3D this past February.

Despite high acclaim in film and animation circles, Pixar dwarfs these filmmakers in terms of monetary draw.  Dreamworks is the studio’s top commercial competitor.  Their Shrek series dominates the top 5 of the highest domestic grossing animated features of the past 30 years.  But when it comes to critical reception, the studio has mixed success.

That said, the influence of Pixar can not be understated.  And if their last 3 films are any indication, the mainstream moviegoer appears to be accepting a more grown up approach in animation – where things like death and personal loss are just as palpable as life and self actualization.  The possibilities in the field have not seemed so limitless since 1937.  Dare I say, things are looking up.

Louis Theroux Goes to Prison

April 3, 2008

In January the BBC debuted Louis Theroux‘s latest documentary, Behind Bars, in which he investigates “a strange world within a world” – the infamous San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.

The hour long program observes the relationships between prisoners and guards, the self imposed racial segregation between inmates, and the social implications of romantic relationships within the penitentiary.

One inmate, Deborah, explains her position and social value as a transgendered woman within this self-contained place: “[the men] get to have a relationship and have a little house and go to work everyday and come home everyday.” It seems, then, that the transgendered woman becomes a part of the illusion that makes life behind bars livable. She makes it possible to simulate the familiar companionship and heteronormativity outside of San Quentin.

Relationships between the CO’s and inmates are portrayed as surprisingly warm.   The prisoners also seem more than willing to talk to Theroux, an obvious outsider.   Some prisoners, such as David Silva – who is serving 520 years and 11 life sentences – is in lockup 23 hours a day, virtually cutting him off from all human interaction. 

The special originally aired January 18, 2008 on BBC2.  A segment of the program can be viewed here

Photograph: Rex Features, http://www.bmivoyager.com/2007/10/27/weird-wonderful/

Women in the Media

March 7, 2008

This week Emmanuel College hosted a documentary viewing and short discussion about women in the media.  The event, featuring guest speaker and Emmanuel psychology professor Dr. Kimberly Smirles, was held on Tuesday, March 4, in the Modular Unit outside of the campus library. 

The documentary, entitled “Dreamworlds 3:  Desire, Sex, and Power in Music Video”, explores how cultural ideas of masculinity and feminity are influenced by the normalizing images we see in popular music videos.  It further observes the social implications these images may have in terms of male homosexuality and racism.

The film was written and narrated by Sut Jhally, a Communication professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He is also the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), through which the film is produced.

The DVD is available for viewing in the Emmanuel Media Office, located in the library.  For a preview, click here.

The Third Gender

January 13, 2008

A few days ago, my friend and I had happened upon a television series on National Geographic called Taboo. This particular episode explored a few culturally based perceptions of death, including beliefs of the afterlife and appropriate funeral practices to honor the life and death of the deceased. It was interesting, so I decided to explore some other topics the series has covered. The one that immediately caught my eye was Sexual Identity (go figure). Unfortunately, not having the National Geographic channel myself, I settled with a 3 minute clip online (posted, fittingly, through the NationalGeographic youtube channel) that talked about a group of Samoans called fa’afafine.

Fa’afafine are generally involved in sexual relationships with other males who are socially identified as heterosexual. Without the possibility of a child, however, these relationships are considered much more casual than those between one male and one female. Rarely do two fa’afafine become romantically involved, and relationships between a fa’afafine and a female are virtually unheard of.

While the National Geographic program, or rather a small piece of that program, had originally sparked my interest in what is often recognized as the “third gender” of Samoan culture, I found a minimal amount of information regarding the topic elsewhere. After some digging I happened upon an essay written a few years ago about the fa’afafine and how Western influence has come to redefine what exactly that word means.

Western notions of gay and transgendered are not interchangeable with the social role of the fa’afafine (there is, apparently, no specific Samoan term for “homosexual”). Gender in Samoa is defined by certain roles. Domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning, for example, are generally assigned to women. Your labour is what defines you, both at home and in your community.

Interestingly, the overt sexuality and physical emphasis we see in modern fa’afafine, the essay argues, is largely the result of Western influence. Images of femininity through film provided a gender-specific physical ideal that many fa’afafine, and biological females, could use to advertise their sexuality. But also injected into the culture were Western concepts of homosexuality. Distinction between gay and straight were not an issue until recent years for Samoans, and in a nation with a resoundingly conservative Christian populace, ‘deviance’ in sexuality can be particularly frightening. So while the identity of the fa’afafine was once multifaceted, under the outsider lens it became almost exclusively sexually-based.

Does this strike anybody else as a little bit sad? These new terms threaten to marginalize the fa’afafine, who consider themselves firmly rooted in their community. Furthermore, filing fa’afafine under the same category as transvestites or transgendered persons because it is the closest our culture can get to “understanding” what they are is an unfortunate and misleading oversimplification.

It is strange, but necessary, to think about the ways in which language falls short. After all, our understanding of the world goes only as far as words can take us.

Out of the Loop – An Introduction

January 7, 2008

Out of the Loop is a series that considers the roles of the socially outcast.  This will include, but is not limited to, outsider/folk artists, famed celebrities who exhibit culturally unacceptable behaviors, and surviving victims of extraordinary circumstance.  It is my goal not only to tell stories that I myself consider wonderful or fascinating, but to understand how and why it is we are able to look at these figures with such awe.  I hope you will enjoy me in my quest to not only learn about the strange world around us, but also, in understanding our own response, to learn about ourselves.  Remember this, if you will, that we are all people united by a common uncertainty.

Thank you, and enjoy.