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

Related Posts
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.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Role Call : The Evolution of Man(liness)

Recently, I went on a trip with several friends to a house on the edge of Chesapeake Bay. We barbecued, drank, swam and generally lounged around. Two friends (female) observed that I was reading a book and asked what I was reading. I replied that it was a Virginia Woolf novel and the responses were raised eyebrows and "Wow... a very feminist author."

I was left wondering why there is a stigma for a guy to read a feminist novel, especially if it's not thrust upon him by a girlfriend or a college class. Can I not read a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath and not get crooked glances from people in passing? Can I not admit to being interested in fashion? What if I counter-balance it by saying I'm just as interested in sports? Is it wrong if I have more female friends than guy friends?

Why do we seem to have predisposed notions of what it means to be a man or a woman? And what are those boundaries? How are they formulated and do they have any logical merit?

When I say I used to live in an apartment with three other guys, I get "Oooooooh". But when I expound with the fact that we were all very clean and enjoyed cooking, I get a "Whoa!"

I know there's been countless studies and focus on women, feminism, their roles in society, and justifiably so. I, personally, believe in total gender equality and that women deserve the same respect and rights as men. But I also get that underneath that generality, there are infinite nuances and contradictory values (some self-inflicted) that compose each gender. I don't discount the plight of women, but am just also equally interested in the roles of men and how they've evolved. We may not have had the same sizable obstacles as women, but I feel that men today struggle just as much to discern their identity in society as the "fairer" sex.

That interest was sparked in a college class years ago. Strangely enough in an Introduction to Graphic Design class.

The Man Show had just recently debuted on Comedy Central and was creating plenty of controversy with it's overt sexist subject matter, beer guzzling audience, and costume-wearing female dancers.

I understand the use of satire and that the show's creators probably had their tongues in their cheeks most of the time. But let's not forget that the effect can be lost on much of the public. I don't think many guys were viewing Girls Jumping on Trampolines and appreciating the irony. Some of the time (or most of the time), people will take things at face value. Hell, even today there are people who see Stephen Colbert as the Champion of the Conservative Class.

So my professor kicked off a debate by asking all the guys in the class if they thought today's men were too overt in celebrating their masculinity, citing The Man Show as evidence.

During the discussion, my contention was that the opposite view could be made: that today's men were feeling as if they'd lost their manhood. I referenced the movie, Fight Club which had also just recently been released. In this story, men had lost a sense of empowerment in the world of Martha Stewart and IKEA and were desperately trying to regain something, anything.

Brad Pitt's character stated "We're a generation of men raised by women", meaning that we as a gender have lost our identity.

I also think that the movie (and the book) Fight Club is about much more than men being men, addressing issues such as nihilism or group-think behavior, but in the context of our debate, I still thought it had a valid counterpoint.

Another film at the time, American Beauty also played with the theme of lost masculinity in today's concept of family. Kevin Spacey's character started off thoroughly drained of any vitality and strength. Throughout the film, he begins to reawaken to his potential and break through the restraints that society had gradually imposed upon him.

I also find it interesting that both films focus on fighting back for masculinity and do not resolve in a completely happy note. Unless you count being shot in the head a suitable solution. (Um... spoiler alert by the way.)

I don't recall the debate ending with any seismic revelations. Mostly the girls in the class held on to their denouncement of The Man Show as "disgusting" and "offensive". But something stuck with me from that discussion. I became more conscious of gender roles, especially those subtly imposed on us by media.

My most basic breakdown of the male evolution could be this:
  • Primal: man's role as the hunter/gather, providing for himself and his family
  • Tradition: social relationships become more complex, though the family unit still operates with the male as the main provider, thus endowing him with the role of the main authority. Otherwise known as the Father Knows Best scenario.
  • Modern: social paradigms continue to gain intricacies and complexity. Most notably, women become more empowered and accepted as equals. Male is no longer necessarily the sole or main breadwinner in the family.
  • Post-Modern: reactionary response to the Modern state, wherein the male attempts to reclaim the sense of manliness and seat of power. Unapologetic towards overtly male values manifest (i.e. The Man Show, Maxim Magazine, etc.)
  • Current: media saturation causes social fragmentation and blurring of defining roles. Men embrace roles that were once deemed negative, such as the manchild (i.e. Will Ferrell in every one of his movies) or the metrosexual.
I realize that I'm shoehorning a lot of human history into some categories, particularly the first two. Thousands of years of human interaction probably deserve more nuanced defining than "Traditional". But again, this is an examination from my own limited perceptions which will be why I devote much more focus on the last few categories.

I believe the evolution of these roles can be rooted in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I think that when you take into account how each individual person strives to achieve the stages (at different times and varied success) as well as family units combining their pyramids of needs, stages become blurred, demonstrating how complexities formulate.

The proliferation of media, to me, has been a huge factor in the determination of gender roles. Especially in the U.S., where celebrities are worshipped. Right or wrong, we as a society depend largely on them to help us determine our own self-perceptions.

That's not to discount other factors, such as regional influence. How different is someone's perception growing up in West Texas than another's from New York City? Or the family as a guide to who a person could be? How does a child raised by a single mother develop a sense of masculinity?

I believe that all these factors influence each other. I grew up in a two income household, so my baby sitter was usually the television. Thus media was a major way I shaped my self-perception. Yet my mother as a working professional also led me to establish very strong values in treating women as capable equals. Then again, for either cultural or regional reason, she as the woman was expected to cook and clean the dishes every night; a very antiquated notion of the female role. Family impacts Media impacts Region and back again.

It's easy to see how one's definition of gender roles can become convoluted and confusing.

I definitely want to spend more time in the latter categories: Modern, Post Modern, and Current, but will hold off and let this overly long post conclude.

Role Call : Primer

Related Posts

I'm reviving this blog at bit and hijacking it for a new purpose. More of an experiment, really. In an effort to better understand myself and my thinking, I want to explore one's role in modern society by focusing on different aspects, whether it's gender, race, religion, socio-economic, etc. As this isn't a meticulously researched study, I won't tout this as anything but my own observations and contemplations, some of which will be formulated or evolved as I write.

Since this won't be objective, it may help to know where my perspective will generally be coming from. I'm in my thirties, somewhat liberal, college educated. A male, a minority, raised in a relatively non-dysfunctional household.

I consider myself fairly progressive and open-minded on issues such as gender equality, homosexuality, race and politics.

I don't pretend to be an expert in issues beyond my own experience so while I'll try to cover topics such as feminism, poverty, etc., I will probably just stick mostly to what I know.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

MoMA: "Tim Burton"

I'd been eagerly anticipating this exhibit the second I heard the announcement. Yet I'd been too busy with work and moving to get to the museum before today.

Anyone who figures that Wednesday is a less crowded day would be completely wrong. I guess it's a testament to Tim Burton that he can bring in the masses on a weekday afternoon. Unfortunately, it made it difficult to focus on the actual exhibit. Getting swept along by the crowd with security guards constantly yelling "NO CAMERAS!!! TURN OFF PHONES!!!!" sort of diminished the effect.

Despite all the annoyances, it's an astounding collection that doubtlessly proves that Tim Burton is a unique visionary. Each generation has its defining artist, like Warhol of the 60s, and I'd be proud to think that Burton would be of mine. Along with a few others such as Michele Gondry, he manages to stand out and have a distinctive aura to his work. Especially in our media saturated culture where seemingly everyone can make their voice heard, Burton's uniqueness is all the more impressive.

Having seen his efforts throughout my life, it's easy to take for granted that Burton keeps producing. The fact that some of his later, more recent work hasn't been as good further dilutes his impact. Hopefully the upcoming Alice in Wonderland will have Burton's mojo back in force, which is probably why the MoMA timed this exhibition when they did.

Still, if Burton never created anything after The Nightmare Before Christmas, I would have still listed him as one of my most favorite and influential filmmakers. That film, along with Edward Scissorhands had a big impact on me. I could also count Batman, Batman Returns and Beetlejuice as lifelong favorites, but those first two had a particular strong grip on me.

I think it's because those seemed to realize Burton's vision in its most pure form. Looking at his sketches throughout the exhibit made me realize how much of my own style was mirrored in what I saw in Burton's movies, which is probably why I took to him so intensely. Odd quirks and tendencies that I had in my doodles and drawings such as tall, skinny, elongated figures or scribbly texturing or warped perspectives were all common in Burton's work as well. He definitely had a more twisted mind and was able to more fully realize his art. Thus he's the celebrated genius and I'm... a blogger.

The exhibit is also a great looking glass for his body of work. Rather than experiencing it all in real time like we have, we're now able to compress the work and observe the flow and let his trademarks emerge.

Black and white are obviously crucial elements, as well as his melding of the protagonist and antagonist. Jack from Nightmare and Edward Scissorhands embody a monster who is the story's hero, while Beetlejuice centers around a hero who is actually a monster. You can see why he was attracted to doing Batman. It also dawned on me that Sally from Nightmare could've been a close relative of Burton's Catwoman. His Penguin could've also been born from the sketches that led to Nightmare.

While the original was panned, I think Batman Returns stands up much better to the passage of time. Much of that has to do with the Burton stylization that was infused into the movie. The city of Gotham looks nothing like in the first film, but is definitely of Burton's world. The latex Catwoman costume also helps the repeated viewings.

The chance to see some of his work up close is a true gift. Peering inches away from Jack Skellington heads or getting to see the pen marks in Burton's sketchbooks or stare up at the actual sandworm jaws is something that any fan of his should get to experience.

I just hope the crowds die down so I can go back and savor the exhibit more fully.

And a last word of advice: MoMA membership. You'll spend more money, but you'll save about an hour of your life from standing in line into the exhibit.