Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thoughts that I Think : Breaking Bad

*spoilers a-plenty!

Creator Vince Gilligan always described the show as taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface. At first it was hard to imagine him pulling it off, especially with the mild-mannered Walter White played by Bryan Cranston who was best known for the bumbling dad on Malcolm in the Middle.

Yet here we are, five episodes into the final season and the Scarface persona looms large in Walter. The season even opens with him acquiring a large gun, not unlike the one that Tony Montana wields in his final moments.

Could we actually get an epic shootout like in the movie? Did Gilligan actually really mean it when he referenced Scarface?

If so, who will be the one to assume the role of the assassin to shoot White in the back? At this point, it could be any one of the supporting cast and it would be perfectly apt. Will it be Pinkman, his manipulated partner? Or Skyler, the estranged wife? Or Hank, the DEA agent and brother-in-law? Hell, I even see Walter Jr pulling the trigger and feeling that it would make sense.

What everyone seems to be eagerly anticipating is what ultimately happens to Walter White by the finale.

But what happens to Jesse Pinkman?

Jesse's evolution in the series has been quite remarkable. We first view him as the bad guy who allows Walt into this horrible world. But over the seasons, our sympathies have shifted away from Walt and towards Jesse who really is a compassionate, innocent guy. He's had to do horrible things, but he's also suffered greatly because of them, which is something that Walt doesn't seem to feel.

This season's premiere had Jesse come up with the Magnet Plan to solve their momentary problem. Then came the great train heist which was also Jesse's idea. At this point, he's still trying to do things without hurting or killing anyone. But in the end, someone... an innocent boy, gets killed.

The scene of him coming up with the train idea reminded me of the scene in The Godfather when the brothers are arguing what to do about the rival mobster and crooked cop. Michael is mocked at first but then the camera pulls in closer as he describes his plan. I saw the same effect in Breaking Bad.

The creators have been transparent about White becoming Scarface. But are they also setting up Pinkman to be Michael Corleone? A good natured man who inevitably gets pulled into a dirty business.  Will he end up losing everything and everyone he loves and wind up doing horrible things? It would be a tragic turn for a good person, which is what made The Godfather so compelling.

This season's promotions show Walt and the line "All Hail the King." I wouldn't be surprised if somehow Walt gets offed Sonny or Scarface style and the king turns out to be Jesse, the reluctant Godfather. However it turns out, I can't wait to see what happens.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

You're Standing on My Neck: An Analysis of Daria (Part 2)

I covered some stuff in Part 1, now here's some more stuff.

One of the main draws of the show, even today, is it's mantra that nothing and no one is perfect. The world is not black and white but shades of grey, and Daria tackled that head on.


An instance of the show's pioneering is its handling of African Americans. Mack was on the football team, but he was nowhere as idiotic as Kevin. In fact, he barely tolerated Kevin's presence and knew when the jokes were on Kevin. Jodie was just as smart as Daria but also popular and driven. Eventual valedictorian and prom queen, Jodi may have been the ultimate idealized person of the show, even more so than Daria. Jodie's parents were also shown as dedicated, successful adults to the envy of Daria's father, Jake.

In Jodie, the writers masterfully created a depth to a show about a smart kid in a modern setting. Daria was always the show's heroine, but Jodie was proof that being smart didn't exclusively mean that one was an outcast. Jodie was an intellectual equal, but was also much more pragmatic. She knew how to play nice with others, while Daria was morally unbending.

In the Season 2 premiere, Arts N Crass, Daria and Jane found themselves in a situation where their views were compromised by the teachers. As a result, they resorted to an extreme solution of sabotaging their own work. It's easy to wonder how Jodie would've handled the dilemma and predict that it would've been much less confrontational.

The Season 4 premiere, Partner's Complaint took the Jodie and Daria's relationship head-on. A class assignment resulted in a moral problem and forced them to confront their stylistic differences. Intellect was not the issue, but rather how to handle themselves in a nuanced situation. It was a great example that the show realized that the world isn't full of absolutes; that no one way is ever perfect.

So the series had a very enlightened view of African Americans, but as an Asian American, I took particular enjoyment out of its unconventionally wry take on my culture. Tiffany was undoubtedly the dumbest member of the Fashion Club, to the point of barely literate. And the principle, Ms Li was unfailingly morally bankrupt, usually invoking activities that were ultimately for her own glorification and self-benefit.


What was most impressive to me about the series was that it never shied away from the idea that nothing is perfect. Daria might have mainly been about how high school was a torturous experience, but nothing was immune from being placed under the show's microscope.

The parents, while usually well-meaning, were usually clueless. The teachers usually came under the harshest criticism. Mr O'Neill embodied a modern educator who tried to be sensitive to his students' feelings but usually ended up wildly mis-interpreting them and making matters worse than before. Mr DeMartino was a more straight-laced portrait of a teacher but was so ground down by the inept students that his only coping mechanism to his misery was anger. Ms Li was already touched upon earlier. Mrs DeFoe, the art teacher was closest to a competent, encouraging figure for Jane but usually lacked enough insight to read into what Jane was thinking. Ms Barch was the hyperbolized feminist and was used to mostly comedic effects.

Even the cool kids were not ideal. Take the quintessentially hip, Trent. Even his worshipper, Daria saw the shortcomings of a guy without any ambition and the inability to be responsible. Despite that, I wished I was more like Trent. Probably because I was more like Upchuck in high school, though less creepily lecherous and more cluelessly shy.

It's easy to see that the basic premise of the series was that Daria was an outsider and thus "imperfect" in the eyes of normal society. Further, it's interesting to realize that even through the lens of the show which was always on Daria's side, that we could see her faults. Yes, she was a brain which casts her out from others, but in more cases her moral code caused more of the conflict than straight-up intelligence.

Of course there's also the instance of her stealing Tom away from Jane, which was a bold move to put the show's heroine in that position. Again, I initially saw this as a distraction from what the show was about, but now I think it was a perfect and natural path that Daria went on. With this upheaval, Jane and Daria's friendship was no longer out of convenience or adolescent playing. It suddenly became very adult and very real. They had to face this issue and purposefully decide to stay friends. It showed that no friendship, even true pairings of kindredness, is immune to scarring. And that a lasting friendship isn't automatic.

Aunt Amy made a few appearances throughout the series, usually to provide adult support to Daria in times of distress. Thus, we were set up to see her as a perfected, future version of Daria. Amy had overcome whatever obstacles were in her adolescent youth to become a confident, successful adult which is what we want for Daria. Yet even Amy felt the sting of imperfection in Aunt Nauseam when instead of coming to the rescue, she fell into sibling squabbling like everyone else.

Flaws weren't confined to individuals but entire groups and institutions. Almost every business, from the Mall of the Millennium to the local banks, showed signs of corruption. College students were portrayed as the same slackers as in high school, showing that graduating from Lawndale wasn't going to be the end of anyone's problems. In Is It Fall Yet? Jane attends an art camp which should've been a haven for her. Yet she quickly discovers that even artists are not immune to social flaws.


Failure permeated the show on a variety of levels: the failure of parents to effectively connect to their kids, the failure of high school teachers in just about every way, Jake's professional floundering.

Most importantly, the show embraced the idea of making Daria fail on more than one occasion. In The Story of D, Daria is encouraged to submit a short story to a literary magazine and faces rejection. The result crushes Daria's sense of self, since writing was one of the few pillars of strength that she had always clung to. Further, as graduation loomed in the finale, Daria found out she wasn't accepted into the prestigious Bromwell, hinting it was due not lack of grades but a less than engaging personality.

There's the saying that you learn more by failing than by succeeding. And certainly no one, no matter how talented or intelligent can win everything. Daria certainly wavered when she failed but it was important to showed that she survived.

I remember their portrayal of Daria as imperfect being very significant to me. Here was a character we were supposed to relate to and cheer for. And here the show writers were saying that it was okay to fail and to be wrong.


I'm sure I could keep going but I think I'll let that sink in for now.

You're Standing on My Neck: An Analysis of Daria (Part 1)

Recently, I've rediscovered a show from my youth, Daria. I'm still amazed at the wealth the show had to offer and have been thinking about its impact. A marathon viewing of every episode reminded me why I always admired the series while also unearthing a few new observations that I missed before.


Looking back, it still seems revolutionary and unique in its handling of high school life. Though I was surprised at a some things that I incorrectly remembered. For one, I thought the show debuted in the heyday of the Alternative uprising; as MTV's voice which spoke out against the hollow offerings of shows like Beverly Hills 90210. However, the show actually aired in the tail-end of the 90s and into the early 2000s when MTV had already steered head-first into the squealing mainstream of TRL and Britney Spears. Then again, maybe that helps prove that the show was so special. The Alternative movement was already dying from the inside out from corporate corruption and Teeny Pop was already surging into all facets of media. In effect, Daria was the last of the breed, and MTV's final gesture of authenticity.

As an outsider, I definitely grew an instant attachment to the show.

What made the show truly original was that it spoke to and about a group of kids that usually wasn't given much focus in media. If they were portrayed, usually it was in the form of a background weirdo or misfit side-character. In Daria, the spotlight wasn't on the typical kids who were well-adjusted, popular, and sporty. In fact, the show was a shot across the bow to the "normal" types. They were still the popular ones in class. But now they were the butt of the jokes.

Daria proved that there was an audience that had been untapped. Thus paving the way for future misfit shows like Freaks and Geeks, and the basic acceptance (and celebration) of nerd culture so prevalent today.

Seeing the series again as an older person also highlighted some aspects that may have been more about adults writing for teens. Why were they so into pizza? They were teenagers, not ninja turtles. Yeah I remember liking pizza and it was a treat to eat a slice or two, but it was never the singular dietary obsession.

And the series tended to overlook the sillier aspects of teenage life. It's a period where we transition out of childhood and there are still remnants of goofiness that permeate in everyday life. Teen viewers probably aspire to how adult the characters were all the time, but I think an occasional sprinkling of pure joyousness once in a while would've done the show some good.

Those are minor quibbles though to a show that was supremely adept at getting into the mindset of a person in their teens.


The show probably provided a strong voice for young women, but I think it also spoke well to any teen who felt like an outsider. What helped is that the show handled itself maturely and never pandered or talked down to its audience.

On the surface, Daria seemed to just be about archetypes and jokes about all those archetypes. Quinn was the pretty and popular child, Brittany was the well-endowed, vapid cheerleader, Kevin was the moronic jock, Jane was the artsy alt-girl, and Daria was the isolated brainiac.

While those characters were a fertile playground of jokes, the show was not afraid to tackle serious issues. The Season 1 finale, Misery Chick dealt with the aftermath of a death. The range of confusion and guilt experienced by various characters showed a depth of subtlety that is rarely found in a TV show, let alone a cartoon.

The last two seasons of the show introduced Tom as a romantic element to Jane and eventually Daria. At the time, I decried his addition as a misstep, turning an atypical show into just more trite teeny bopper pandering of girls fighting over boys. But upon a recent viewing of the entire series, it made much more sense. And the Tom story was less pervasive through the show than I recall. There were still plenty of episodes that didn't deal with him at all.

Storywise, Tom was another way for the show to deal with a heavy issue in the lives of teens and portray the complexity of what happens between friends when love gets in the way. Daria and Jane's friendship was the bedrock of the series and it was a bold move for the creators to shake that up. It demonstrated that the show was willing to grow along with its audience. Whereas other cartoons and shows are content with the infinite loop of high school life in their universes, Daria evolved past "Hey our classmates are so dumb" and into issues like relationships and what to do with your life as college and adulthood loom on the horizon.

Examples of growth also occurred with Quinn in the movie between seasons 4 and 5. After years of treating boys as disposable playthings, Quinn feels the pangs of infatuation… to a boy with a brain. His eventual rejection makes her take stock of her position and see value her own intelligence.

Stacy was an unlikely instance of growth in the end of the series span. Arguably the most fragile member of the Fashion Club, she eventually rebelled against the group's ideals by being Upchuck's magic assistant, and in the movie finale, she was the death knell for the club by standing up to Sandi's list of demands.

Lest the show be seen as too morally heavy, there were for sure, moments of mockery that the series never strayed from. Kevin was always a buffoon, Sandi was an ice queen, and Jane was always a cool customer.


What's interesting is that within minutes of the first episode, Daria found a kindred spirit in another student, Jane. I'm sure logistically, the show needed a companion to Daria otherwise there wouldn't be a whole lot of dialogue for the show. That aside, it was a good sign to us all that even the most alienated person could find someone to relate to.

The amazing thing is that the creators didn't set out to find an intellectual equal to Daria (that would come later with Jodie) but someone who had a similar personality yet qualities that set her apart. Artsy and cool, Jane was even allowed to venture into un-Daria-esque territory like enjoying a physical activity like jogging. It's easy to imagine that before Daria transferred to Lawndale, Jane coped quite well on her own.

In Jane, the writers were allowed to play with insecurities that probably wouldn't be applicable to Daria. Jane in a period of self-doubt actually tried out for the cheerleading squad. In an effort to make money, she momentarily sold-out and flailed creatively.


One of the most important aspects of the show was the family environment. Interestingly, the show kept Daria in a relatively stable household. While certainly dysfunctional, the parents were still together and accessible to their kids.

Jake, the father, was without question a neurotic, hapless dad who had his own father issues. But he never purposely veered away from wanting the best for his wife and kids.

Helen, the workaholic mother would always begin a scene as distracted and disengaged, though eventually had keen insight on what was going on with the girls and usually gave Daria poignant advice on her problems.

Quinn (clever play on "Queen") was predominantly used as a foil for Daria a majority of the time. Though whenever a drastic upheaval would occur that would shake up her orderly world (ie. the threat of divorce between the parents or the rejection of a boy she actually liked), Quinn would show that she was a loyal and loving sister.

In this light, the show actually portrays a pretty healthy and optimistic view of a modern family. More-so than viewers would expect.

Despite the underlying normality of the family, the series utilized a wealth of humor and story out of the roles of the shallow sister and the out of touch parents. This is where the show's Anti-Adult policy usually rears its head. The parents, and the teachers, were adults, and Daria was very clear about marking them as The Enemy.

Maybe viewing the episodes as a much older person is giving me a slanted view, but I never recall being a teen and observing grown ups as such opposition. Sure teens go through angst and rebelliousness, but I never recoiled at my parents or any adult who showed genuine care and desire to help me. This was one of the few hard-lined stances in Daria, which is surprising given the amazing sensitivity and insight the show normally had on key issues of youth. Even the few instances when Daria would recognize that her parents were helpful, her gratitude would be uttered in reluctant mumbling. And her parents would react in shocked disbelief.

Perhaps not totally unaware of their maintaining the nuclear family status, the show creators placed Jane's family in direct opposition to Daria's. The parents were unresponsive, if they were around at all. Here, the show seemed to take a stance of Nature over Nurture. After all, Jane is just as well-developed as Daria as far as personality and sense of self worth, even without a family like Daria's. However the show rarely dove into Jane's family life other than as a joke. I honestly didn't recall ever seeing her parents' faces, making them spiritual successors to Charlie Brown's teachers and parents. But in the 3rd season episode, Lane Miserables, we get a view of the Lane family coming back to the house, and Jane and Trent's reaction is that they just want them to go away again.

By the way, how amazing is it that one of the Lanes is named Penny?


In Part 2, I hope to focus more on themes of imperfection.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fueling our future

I've always followed our world's energy needs with great interest. It started out less about the cost issues associated with our oil dependency and more about ecological impact. But as I learned more, I realized that we have a lot of reasons as a country to move away from our current energy policy. Also, the fact that oil is practically our sole provider for so many crucial aspects of our civilization seems like a setup for a future disaster. Since I was young, we've been hammered with the fact that fossil fuels are a limited resource. So why isn't this addressed with the upmost urgency? This is a problem we cannot simply buy our way out of. Within the next two generations, the world's oil reserves would almost surely be depleted. What then?

We cannot avoid this problem and think that it will simply resolve itself. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has only reinforced the suspicion that we can't rely on big business to work this problem out for us. The opposite in fact. They will continue to feed our oil addiction for as long as possible and maximize their profits. As supply diminishes and demand skyrockets, companies only look to gain more. Why would they bother introducing any ideas or technology to undercut their dominance?

We as a whole need to take the lead to drive policies, push technology and alter our habits. This is my attempt to galvanize my own thoughts on the situation and what can be done.

A daunting task considering the development of China and other nations who's energy needs will surely increase as time goes on. In the United States though, we have established infrastructures that can allow us to, at least individually, keep us from using more fuel than needed. Simple things such as turning off lights and appliances when not in use, commuting to work or using mass transit would drastically undercut our energy consumption.

Suburbanization has pushed people further away from their places of work, increasing commute times and thus fuel usage. Advancement of communications technology such as teleconferencing, and company policies allowing for working offsite could help reduce the need to commute to the office everyday.

Car mileage per gallon is the first thought that comes to mind. In the 1970s during the Mideast Oil Embargo on the U.S., gasoline was in scarce supply and for the first time created awareness of the fragility of our country's dependency on oil. President Carter responded by introducing radical policies that included investigating alternative fuels and increasing standards on fuel efficiency in vehicles.

Unfortunately most of the proposals he set in motion were systematically shut down by the next administration. Had his policies been followed to fruition, automakers would've been pushed to continually increase the fuel efficiency at a rate of 2% per year! Instead, the car industry has been allowed to sit on technology for the past 40 years at a nearly constant rate of 15 - 25 mpg.

This is when I become frustrated with policies driven by the pocketbooks of corporations. I'm not a anti-big business zealot or a conspiracy theorist, but it's hard to ignore the meddling hands of corporate self-interest in these situations. There's a reason why so much of this information has been difficult to uncover on the internet and why policies are so impossible to push through in government. Keeping the public in the dark and feeding us their side of the story allows them to keep doing what they're doing.

Dramatic change will only come from the public. Even researching these issues has been tough since it's hard to determine if the sources are unbiased (towards either side). The only thing to do is to keep reading as much as possible and decide for oneself.

Another way to address fuel efficiency is to rethink our country's electrical grid. Our aging grid creates uneven distribution, haphazard architecture and electrical waste. Remapped systems and better conductive materials could increase efficiency of output without drastic rethinking of the power sources.

However we proceed, whichever source of power we draw from, the only clear thing is that we cannot rely on fossil fuels anymore. Renewable and sustainable should be key credos of any future policy. Surprisingly, many of the technological innovations necessary may already be out there.

The diesel engine was originally meant to run on biofuel. Convoluted agriculture policies put forth by the government, while not directed at stunting the biofuel diesel engine, effectively caused the makers to switch to petrol fuel. Amazingly unbeknownst to most people, the modern diesel engine will run on biofuel gasoline without ANY modification. The result is higher fuel efficiency than a normal gas engine and none of the polluting emissions. And no direct reliance on fossil fuels.

Biofuel is an attractive solution because it can come from used material. Grease from fast food fryers can be utilized into biofuel. Weed crops such as switchgrass can also be a source, which is beneficial for not competing with the needs of usage such as other crops like corn. Also, weed crops grow in less than ideal environments that are usually considered unfarmable, again avoiding any competition for valuable farming land.

Another source of biofuel that is being developed is algae. The benefits include eating up large amounts of carbon dioxide from our air, requiring less space to grow, the ability to grow from our own waste and sewage, and not emitting carbon dioxide when burned.

Megaflora is also a new alternative that is being studied. These are engineered trees that grow to full size within three years, and when cut down can regrow from the cut stump back into a full tree again.

Before proclaiming biofuel as the savior to our problems, I want to do further research to see what possible offsetting issues come along with them. The methods are definitely new but promising as well. Virgin Airlines has been one of the many proponents of the emerging technology, even flying over the Atlantic on biodiesel to prove it's viability.

Ethanol has been the subject of many debates as a possible alternative to oil. Enough has been written and can be easily found on the web so I won't repeat it all here. But I know that one of the complaints is that corn is a food crop that could be problematic if we also being to rely on it for fuel consumption.

My thinking here is that this could be an opportunity to move America away from its corn addiction (food-wise anyway). Much has been made of how our food industry is creating many unhealthy and fat people with so many additives, primarily corn. There are enough books and documentary films out there to start convincing people to not eat so much food with corn additives so the movement already has traction.

I know why America supports corn as much as it does. After all, it's still a vital way to make a living for many farmers. Our government heavily subsidizes corn so that it becomes integral to much of our food. But the fact is that our corn growers actually overproduce the crop and sell it to other countries. We don't grow so much corn out of dietary need, but to keep the influential farm states in business.

Take a look at another food staple: salt, which has been the crux of more than one civilization. Salt was virtually the only way to preserve meat historically and thus was of vital importance to living. The Salt Industry in America had a tight grip on governmental policy, much like oil and corn do today. It was only after the development of the electrical grid and refrigeration technology that we needn't rely on salt as we did, which resulted in its loss of influence on our politicians.

Similarly, the corn industry is a powerful lobbying influencer that could be tough to circumvent. However, our energy needs could provide an elegant solution that solves our food industry problem with corn without having to fight the corn industry or try to strip it of its power.

An indirect solution, such as a technological innovation, may be the only way to effectively fight against such powerful opponents. I just have no idea what that innovation would be for our oil addiction. What is clear to me is that our technological creativity is not the problem. It's the restriction of policy and the greed that drives it. (See General Motors and the EV1.)

Again, it is upon us (the public and the consumer) to force the change. Only after hearing the outcry of the public will politicians make the necessary changes. In Germany, biofuel is subsidized to be cheaper than gasoline, thus making it easier for consumers to move towards alternative fuels. In Sweden, renewable fuel sources are untaxed in an effort to move towards complete petroleum freedom.

Other energy alternatives that have always been on the table are wind and solar. These are possibly the most ideal solutions, in theory. Completely natural and renewable, they require virtually no effort on our part to generate. The only problem, which has always been the problem, is that we are unable to get high yields of energy from these sources. Until we revolutionize the method of capturing this energy, they will always be relegated as marginal sources. One other problem with the current setup is that each requires rather large equipment to collect wind or sunlight. Any future technology needs to be space efficient as well. Imagine if we had a car with one small solar panel instead of having every inch of its surface covered. Or if we had a personal windmill the size of our satellite tv dishes on our roof instead of the giant field monoliths.

As ingenius as we humans have been with how we get our energy (the grease biofuel still impresses me), it's amazing to me that everything still boils down to us burning something to turn generators to produce energy. It seems to rudimentary and antiquated that I'm surprised that we haven't found another way to get electricity. Isn't there any other way than to create steam to push turbines to create static electricity??

Even our modern cars use gasoline because it creates an explosion when lit which causes air pressure to push a piston in the engine.

I criticize our collective inability to create other methods but I don't really have any substantial solutions either. I'm not that smart. I can throw out wild ideas but have no idea how they work or how to repurpose them for our energy needs.

What about plant photosynthesis? Plants are able to capture sunlight and use it as energy. They definitely aren't using steam turbines. Can we somehow synthesize or replicate how they do it? Or is there a way to use plants directly and tap into their energy generating ability?

The human body uses electricity to carry signals. How are our bodies generating those sparks? Can we copy that somehow? I'm not suggesting we get all Matrix-y and insert tubes into people or anything. I'm just saying we always get our inspiration from nature and it seems to me that we haven't really felt the need to push our energy creation solutions beyond what they already are.


So those are my thoughts. No fool-proof or total solutions. I suspect the real answer lies in an amalgamation of methods rather than one magic answer. I still have faith in our current President to push for energy independence and technological innovation. But I also know that he is mired in our current polarized political system and can't do it alone. He's been focused on a lot of issues, like universal health care, but with the BP disaster and the resulting public dissatisfaction with oil companies, it'd be a wasted opportunity if he didn't channel some of the public attention into innovative policy.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Role Call : Fractured Man

Related Posts
Part 3 : Modern Man
Part 4 : Post-Modern Man

The current shift in social gender behavior further proves that we are an unpredictable species. I would've never fathomed such formulations as possibilities. I also think that we're still in the middle of this era which also makes it harder to examine with an unskewed perspective.

The scales began tipping from male dominated to equal and then to female dominated. In this brave new world, men resisted and reacted in various ways. Some fought to hold onto what they could, others embraced the new system. Demands on men to be more sensitive and sympathetic also made it okay to be not so macho. Historically, it was unpopular to be wimpy and non-athletic. But in today's era, it was not only accepted but fashionable. The rise of the metrosexual gave empowerment to those who saw the typical jocks and hunks as brutish and unsophisticated.

Not every guy embraced this new persona. My trips back to Texas would result in a lot of scoffing about "sissy metrosexuals". The reaction was to get bigger SUVs and buy fishing boats. Yet like in any war of escalation, overt signs of hetero-manliness was seen as a sign of repressed homosexuality. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only way to go along unscathed was to remain neutral.

Post-Modernism created a battlefield for sexual dominance. Coming out of that period, men took an interesting stance: they embraced the role of the lesser. As mentioned previously, women fought for more respectable representation in society. Thus in media, the women grew more intelligent and ambitious. Yet possibly due to our base human values, they had to stay beautiful. The most transparent (and ridiculous) case had to be the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in the James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. I don't want to promote the idea that beauty and brains are incompatible in a woman, but Richards as an actor lacked the skill and gravitas to pull of a cerebral heavyweight.

Possibly to emphasize the ascension of females, the guys in the shows became more buffoonish. Early pioneers included Home Improvement and Malcolm in the Middle. Even Homer Simpson began to evolve (or devolve) as time progressed, to reflect this change in social attitudes. The show creators laughingly admit that Homer's IQ dropped as the seasons went on. Gone were the days of The Cosby Show when both adults could be competent equals. One had to be the butt of the jokes.

Though creator Matt Groening has said that he believes that audiences love an idiot, which means Homer's stupidity isn't exactly rooted in gender role upheavals. His theory has merit. Throughout television history, bumbling males have proven popular with watchers, even up to today with characters like David Brent from The Office. The psychology behind this approach reasons that people don't want to feel inferior to the characters they watch, so enjoy watching morons as long as they're basically good-hearted in the end.

True to this, virtually every character on The Simpsons takes a dip in intelligence. But why then do Marge and Lisa remain intact for the most part throughout the show's span? Are we less inclined as a society to find it comfortable to laugh at an idiotic Lisa as opposed to an idiotic Bart?

So women were smarter, savvier and still sexy. But men grew fatter, uglier and dumber. A pair that became comedy gold in recent history. So predominate, it became the default set-up for any show. You couldn't land on a channel and not see a fit starlet sitting on the couch next to a beer-bellied oaf.

My initial reaction was to wonder, "Is this what we're expected to be as guys?" But my second thought was to ask, "Is this what women are expecting to get from guys?" Are women being conditioned to have low expectations towards men?

It's almost as if the men, losing the tide of battle, turned around and said "Women want to be superior? They think we're not as good as them? Fine, we can do that."

Somehow men were promoted to think that they can envision themselves with brainiac supermodels while not having the same expectations of themselves. And women, fighting so hard to gain respect somehow got the tables turned on them.

It became acceptable for men to revel in their nerdiness. Video games and comic books would instantly sink one's social standing when I was in high school. Yet today, it's cool. A guy can embrace his geekdom and the hot girls will still come running. The video game channel G4 punctuates this with the former-model turned host, Olivia Munn. Moral of the story? Hot chicks gravitate towards guys, no matter how geeky.

The theme of a nerdy, emotionally-stunted manchild was crafted to perfection in Will Ferrell, and virtually every Judd Apatow movie. The guys were immature and awkward but women loved them anyway. I'm not discounting the attractive power of humor in a man, but is it the same when the sides are flipped? Are men as conditioned to accept less than perfection in women?

Mel in Flight of the Conchords is nerdy and passionate about her likes, but is also portrayed as a little insane. In practically every teen movie, the nerdy girl is just a suppressed princess waiting for a guy to help her discover her true nature. In American Pie, Alyson Hannigan's sweet yet dull band nerd is actually a sexual deviant in disguise. In She's All That, Rachel Leigh Cook plays an antisocial misfit who just needs the right guy and a makeover. Take note, girls: remove your glasses and you can be prom queen.

And guys? That prom queen will ultimately see you for your inner beauty. No need to quit the chess club.

I'll admit that media's portrayal of men isn't so rigid. Rock stars will always be wild, bad boys, despite the occasional Weezer or Vampire Weekend saying it's okay to rock out in glasses and sweater-vests. And Hollywood will always find a pretty boy for girls to fawn over (current iteration: Edward Pattinson).

But is that enough? Yeah, handsome men are still portrayed in media but they're virtually never paired off with anyone less radiant than a Julia Roberts or a Catherine Zeta Jones. Is Brad Pitt ever in a tryst with a fat, unattractive girl?

Where is the equality? Guys are conditioned to think "Well, I can't look like George Clooney. But it's also okay if I look like Kevin James because I'll still get the hot girl."

I'm sure there's evidence counter to this theory. I like to think that Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a great role model for impressionable girls. Here's someone who doesn't fit our society's guidelines of beauty. But she is 100% comfortable in her own skin and has such high sense of self that she doesn't find it necessary to conform to a more accepted public opinion. She has an unusual fashion sense but flaunts it with such genuine joy that one can't help but respect her and find her sexy because of it. Still, she's a rock star and isn't that sexy to begin with?

Dove recently put out an ad campaign to promote real women with real curves as beautiful, bucking the trend of Victoria's Secret waif yet buxom idols. An admirable effort, yet it was still rife with controversy. Apparently, the "real women" weren't as real as they were touted to be.

Despite these efforts, the overall trend is for women to have high expectations of themselves, yet low qualifications of the men they should seek. And men are told to think the same.

The Apatow movie, Knocked Up took this awareness and attempted to subvert it. "Hey you look like Katherine Heigl. Why wouldn't you be disgusted to be with someone who looks like Seth Rogen?" Yet the story ended up conforming by having her fall in love with the guy anyway. Stereotypical behavior is acknowledged but preserved.

What this film indicates that we as a society are becoming increasingly self-aware. We know what's happening.

There are occasional references back to the Post-Modernism resistance, yet in a more subversive way. Old Spice's recent campaign, "Smell Like a Real Man" carries the same message as some of the older ads. But the effect is purely for over-the-top, humorous effect.

Another example of this awareness is the AMC show, MadMen. Harkening back to the 60's, social trends are accentuated by the stark contrast of today's standards. But that show is so rich with material that I'll refrain from delving into it to possibly save it for a more in-depth examination in the future.

Where do we go from here? Judging from the twists and turns that I've already observed, it won't be easily predicted. One certainty is that we won't be able to go back to the clearly defined roles of the past. Our gender boundaries continue to fracture and blur. We constantly have to reassess what we consider to be manly or womanly. As information continues to proliferate our lives and our ability to project ourselves becomes more ubiquitous, we more frequently re-assimilate ourselves and our self-perceptions.

In Freudian terminology, we could apply my proposed categorizations as elements of an overall social psyche. Modern was the Superego, aiming for perfection and harmony. Post-Modern was the Id, reacting as brutal instinctual force trying to preserve the primal roles. And the Current era is the Ego, trying to reconcile a balance between the two.

Personally, I don't mind subverting the old values of what a man is, but I also don't want to lose a sense of manliness. In a woman, I want an intelligent, confident person who still wants to feel sexy. What's so hard about that, right?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Role Call : Post-Modern Man

An interesting phenomenon began to occur out of the Modern era: women became the experts. At least in the form of media and advertising. Whether it was to appeal to feminism or to appear politically correct or for other reasons, Father Knows Best gave way to Mother Knows Best. Countless commercials featuring comparative products would feature a man who chose the subpar product and was suffering in result, and a woman who picked the featured product and was continuing blissfully on with her life. Cough medicine, food products, household cleaners, the scenario was always the same. Women were savvy and men were clueless.

A shift in power was clearly occurring.

I'm still debating if the emergence of the Spice Girls adds to any validity to this trend. The constant "Girl Power" shouting probably had some effect but it's hard to look past the shameless corporate manipulation. Although in conjunction with the explosion of boy bands such as N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys, the entertainment industry obviously regarded young women as a powerful new demographic that demonstrated surprising purchasing power.

Then again, boy bands were nothing new. New Kids on the Block and arguably The Jackson 5 proved that teenage girls were a worthy target market.

What effect did this have on young guys? If my experience during the New Kids phenomenon revealed anything, it's that every boy hated these bands. How was a pre-pubescent dork ever going to compare to Donnie Wahlberg or Justin Timberlake? One couldn't even fake an interest in the bands to gain some commonality with a girl, since it would be a traitorous gesture towards fellow guy classmates. Or worse one would be perceived as kind of girly by the actual girls one was trying to be near.

Friends was in many ways the seminal 90's show. Three women, three men living modern lifestyles in a modern New York City. Women would talk openly about sex, even among the men. The women were beautiful and liberated. One was a free spirit, one left her fiance to pursue her own path, one would start her own business.

Yet the men were not as progressively portrayed. One was a three-time divorcee who got strangely creepy over the years, one was completely incompetent towards women, one was good looking but a total idiot. All three were relatively emasculated, safe men who posed no threat or excitement towards women at all. Even Joey, the "womanizer", was at the core a sensitive, teddy bearish softie. Here, men were stripped of all edge and power. Bad boys were not accepted in this world vision, just the boy scouts. The women could be adventurous and promiscuous, and come back to relay their stories to non-threatening boys who would comfort and accept them for who they were.

Sex and the City took the attitude further by turning men into fetishized objects. Now, women were the sexual conquerors, and men were just a by-product of the story. The ultimate male trophy for the show's heroine was Mr. Big, a true object that wasn't even graced with a proper name until the end of the series when he had succumbed.

Imagine the outrage if the show were about four men and their sexual exploits.

Men, losing their throne of power for the first time, did the only thing they could do: revolt and fight back. Cue The Man Show.

I'd already touched on the films Fight Club and American Beauty which played roles in highlighting the reaction towards men's plight. What is poignant for me is that both films resisted the urge to cleanly resolve the conflict. As if to say that even the men who were fighting back already understood that things would never go back to the way they were.

Tyler Durden's fight clubs and their attempts at throwing off the shackles of modern materialism resulted in nothing but more chaos and even more restraints. It sought to prove that maybe another woman wasn't the answer, but neither was just another man.

Interestingly, Fight Club, like SATC, utilized the lack of a name for its main male protagonist, possibly alluding to a similar loss of humanity. But I believe the purpose was more about the conflict of the id and ego, where the ego was so marginalized in the psychological battle that he ceased to exist as an equal identity.

Similarly, American Beauty began with the main character externalizing all of his troubles. His job was oppressive, his wife hated him, his daughter was a mystery. It wasn't until he realized that he still had the ability to control his own destiny. The final moment of solace came when he accepted the fact that he could reconnect with his daughter by simply trying to reach out to her. Then he died.

I won't rehash The Man Show perspective, but the trend of reasserted manliness prevailed in many areas, including advertising. Miller Lite's Manlaws campaign featured guys being guys and providing guidance on how to be a real man, implying that the male gender had forgotten what it was like to be masculine.

The reemergence of the sexist behavior and overt machoism was initially surprising to me. We had seemingly come a long way towards enlightenment and were almost regressing. But it's also understandable behavior to observe one group that was traditionally in a seat of power, see that authority wrestled away and be resistant with the change.

In the end, there would be no drastic revolutions, just more evolution. And as Post-Modernism gave way to a new dynamic, which I have yet to be able to adequately classify, there are some very shocking and surprising after-effects.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Role Call : Modern Man

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Part 4 : Post-Modern Man

The Modern era of gender roles could mostly likely be traced back to the feminist movement in the U.S. in the 1950s. The first instance of feminist activism was much longer ago and focused the basic rights of women such as suffrage and seem to be indisputable today, whereas the more recent battles focus on cultural issues that are still defining who we are as a society, which is what I want to explore.

Women carved out a level playing field (at least in theory) which in turn shifted our value system in several ways. Although I grew up in areas in the South where sexism (as well as racism) was not shy about showing its face still, I think the groundwork was established. My generation was raised thinking that sexual equality was a natural law.

A balance of power also resulted in an altered family paradigm, which overthrew the idea of a single, unquestioned decision maker in the house. Divorce became more socially acceptable, especially since women were able to go out and support themselves in the workforce. Dysfunction and the fracturing of parental role modeling ensued. (I'm not wanting to give the impression that I'm blaming the breakdown of the nuclear family on feminists. While not the only element, I think it's a strong factor and I'm only devoting these explorations to limited topics. Political upheavals, the aftermath of the war, technological advancement, the discovering or creation of psychological issues were all contributors but won't be touched on in depth here.)

Nonetheless, men had met their match. Just as smart and just as capable. Logic and rational thinking prevailed. No one was inherently better than another, sexually or racially. A true utopia.

Probably the purest form of this was depicted in The Cosby Show. A family unit without any hint of dysfunction. The parents were happily married without any serious power struggles. Each had equal footing in familial authority. Also important was the fact that the wife, Claire, was professionally successful. Cliff was a doctor, but Claire was a lawyer: an occupation that was just as highly regarded. There's no way she'd be caught housecleaning and waiting obediently for her husband to come home and fix him a drink. If anything, a case could be made for Cliff to be more closely associated with the child-rearing role, as his job was a maternity doctor.

I was raised watching this show and it had a vital impact on the shaping of my values. It was also influential to see role models of my formative years siding with women on issues that society was still struggling with. Kurt Cobain sang about rape from the point of view of the victim in Polly. Eddie Vedder feverishly scrawling "PRO-CHOICE" on his arm during a televised performance. I can't tell you what an effect this had on me and hopefully many young people.

My father was the most important element in what kind of man I wanted to become. An attentive dad and a loving husband. He never yelled at or hit my mom. He would joke that she was the boss in the family, but he never showed any genuine signs of inadequacy towards shared leadership in the family environment. A follower of sports and a lover of cars and tools, yet never felt threatened when discussing gardening or accompanying my mom shopping. A truly balanced man in my opinion.

As usual, nothing ever goes one way for too long and we'll see how the pendulum swings as Modernism gives way to Post-Modernism.

I also want to touch on the fact that there are of course always countercultures and underlying constants that exist. I'm talking about sexism that men will probably always exert, probably in the form of beer commercials, until the end of civilization. Whether its Playboy magazine (or to a lesser extent Maxim) or AXE Commercials, their steadfast hold to their value systems will always mask the changes and upheavals that occur elsewhere.