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.

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Semi-Recent Docs That’ll Rock your Socks

July 13, 2009

So the top search engine term people use to find my blog?  You guessed it: “Tracy Chapman.”  Far and away.  You’d think tagging “Fergie” in every single post would account for at least 1/10 of my hits but that poor excuse for a feminine role model is out, Tracy’s apparently in, and I couldn’t be more confused.

In the past month or so I’ve been watching some great documentaries, many of which have been released in the past 5-10 years and are therefore still pretty relevant.  I’ve decided to share a handful of my more impressionable discoveries:

Lake of Fire (2006)

Director: Tony Kaye

An evenly weighed black and white documentary on the highly provocative topic of abortion in the US.  Director Tony Kaye (American History X) is phenomenal at complicating the issue rather than simplifying it – a skill the masters of pathos Michael Moore and Bill Maher would benefit in imitating.  The film also provides some disturbing imagery and uncomfortably personal accounts of patients undergoing the procedure.  It is refreshingly informative and rivetting without ever really feeling manipulative.

The Business of Being Born (2007)

Director: Abby Epstein

Here in America, anything outside of a hospital birth is not only rare, it is often unthinkable.  This film explores the alternative most women don’t seem to consider – childbirth through a midwife.  It delves into the often questionable historical practices of hospital births, including the use of untested drugs resulting in infant deformities and the favoring of doctor over the maternal patient.

C-sections, for example, are often unnecessary, but quick and convenient, and the standard position in which a mother lays in front of the doctor delivering the baby actually inhibits her ability to birth comfortably.  At home births tend to mean more bodily control on the mother’s part.  Contrast the documentary’s footage of a series of home births with the terrifying Hollywood standard of screaming women in labor experiencing the worst pain of their lives and you’ve got two completely different worlds.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman

Waltz with Bashir?  But that’s just a cartoon!  Cartoons aren’t real!

First off – shut up.  This from what I can tell, is a first of its kind.  It takes real interviews with former soldiers of the Lebanese war in the 1980’s and re-enacts their stories with animation.  The style?  Something vaguely reminiscent of rotoscoping that is actually a mix of Adobe Flash and classic (hand drawn) animation.  The visuals are lovely, but above all, the stories are confounding.  Great commentary here about the nature of memory and the bizarre concept of young, unprepared human beings trying aimlessly to engage in war.  There are many reasons I can justifiably call this one of the best movies of the past decade.

So throw away your scratched and unloved Cars DVD and see something that will stimulate rather than numb your brain.

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Life and Death of Michael Jackson – A Personal Reflection

June 26, 2009

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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.


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/


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.