When Is A Shirt Not A Cigar?

When is a shirt more than a fashion statement?

Sigmund Freud – that lovable psychoanalyst who denied that his female patients’ close relatives (fathers, brothers, uncles) were sexually abusing them in the early 20th century, thus setting their sanity and the health and well-being of millions of women back about a hundred years –said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. An object to put in one’s mouth in order to inhale pre-vape fumes.

Maybe. Maybe not. But what if that cigar were wrapped in demeaning illustrations of women? What would it be then?

No longer just a cigar, I bet.

Matt Taylor, a British scientist who is, I’m sure, perfectly competent at his work at the European Space Agency, was less than competent to decide what to wear – and say – during a televised interview about the camera probe he and his colleagues managed to land on a comet (the  mission was named Rosetta). I mean, hey, the guy only has a PhD in space physics.

He wore the above shirt, one which displayed what a source termed “provocatively dressed women”. Translation: women wearing very little clothing. And then Taylor said of the Rosetta mission, “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy”.

Amazingly (caution: sarcasm at play), people grew rather angry at him.

To his credit, when Taylor was apprised of what rapidly became known as “Shirtstorm”, he issued a rapid and apparently genuine apology.

Then the trolls emerged from their solitary holes under lonely basements – er, bridges – and proceeded to sneer at and threaten the mostly female people who had the temerity to be appalled that an educated (PhD, remember?) man would parade such lurid and derisive images, such casual sexism. Even BoJo (Boris Johnson, London’s wild-haired mayor and no stranger to hyperbole) weighed in to declare that objections to Taylor’s choice of shirt and words resembled “a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution”.

Which is why I love the title of this male-authored article on Slate: “Shirtstorm: Casual Sexism and the Inevitable Horrid Backlash When It’s Called Out”.

Called out and, let’s add, correctly identified, named and shamed.

From the article: “To be clear, I don’t think Taylor is a raging misogynist or anything like that; I think he was just clueless about how his words might sound and his shirt might be interpreted. We all live in an atmosphere steeped in sexism, and we hardly notice it; a fish doesn’t notice the water in which it swims. I’ve lived in that environment my whole life, and I was well into adulthood before I started becoming aware of it and figuring out how to counter it. I’m still learning.”

The author, Phil Plait, goes on to say, “If you think [the shirt and words] isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum.” He also mentions that it wasn’t only women who complained to and about Taylor’s choices, it was male scientists, as well.

Phil Plait sounds like the antidote to BoJo. The calm after the storm. The reasonable, informed voice. Really, Boris, Mao’s cultural revolution? – the ten-year one in which educated people were denounced as traitors, had their property stolen by the Chinese goverment, and then were banished to the countryside for “re-education” and/or murder? You’re comparing Shirtstorm to that?

I like best, though, Plait’s ending. It takes up space but is not long. Rather like the comet itself, its tail streaking across the sky:

So yeah, it’s just a shirt.

And it’s just an ad.

It’s just a saying.

It’s just a TV show.

It’s just the Internet.

Yes, but you almost make as much as a man does.

It’s just a catcall.

It’s a compliment!

It’s just that boys will be boys.

It’s just that she’s a slut.

It’s just that your dress is too short.

It’s just that we want to know what you were wearing at the time, ma’am.

It’s just it’s just it’s just.

It’s just a death by a thousand cuts. No one cut does the deed. In the end, they all do.

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The Chinese Dragon Smokes – A Lot

President Barack Obama recently got a lot of flak from people in China for chewing gum while at the APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit there. The Chinese feel his behavior was immature and undignified at best – at worst, insulting.

If only more Chinese did it.

What Obama was chewing was nicotine gum that prevents his cravings for cigarettes. The Chinese definitely need that. Due to hard-sell maneuvers over the past decades – a sort of new onset of what began the Opium Wars – American tobacco firms, in search of fresh customers, founded a habit in China that due to its population size, far outstrips any former, wishy-washy, hooked demographic.

China is the world’s most tobacco-using nation. It will lose over a million citizens to tobacco use each year. In terms of its population, not a large percentage, but in terms of human pain and loss, and economic cost, enormous. “This isn’t a health problem. It’s a huge economic problem. There’s all these things ranging from medical and health care costs, the costs to the families and there’s the cost of secondhand smoke.”

Over 30 impatient Chinese cities have passed their own anti-smoking laws.

Known as “the smoking dragon”, the nation has the potential, as this report indicates, to turn smoking on its head through massive campaigns and education. Whether it can do so fast enough to avert young Chinese taking up the expensive habit remains unknown.

If not, Chinese shops ought to put in massive orders now – for gum.

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Acknowledge Your Dumb Luck

I rarely watch Rachael Ray’s television show, but I did catch a few minutes of it the other day, when Tom Selleck (the actor who stars on “Blue Bloods” on CBS) appeared for a short time. During which he mentioned his father used to say that “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”. It’s the kind of folksy, humorous adage that draws agreement, particularly in America.

I agree that work is important. What is also true is that plenty of people who work hard do not achieve – even in the fifty states, and now less than thirty years ago, frankly – what the US would term “success”. Granted, we have higher standards than, say, Bolivia. But working hard as a prescriptive means little if we don’t also acknowledge the role that pure, dumb luck plays in our lives.

As an example – hey, he put himself out there – Tom Selleck.

Here’s how he got lucky from the very start:

In 1945, he was born white and male in a society that rewards white males. He had the genes to be tall – tall is good for actors. Also the genes for handsome. Ditto. Luck, pure luck.

His parents – both of whom had English ancestry, another US bonus – had built and subsequently maintained a stable family unit. Stability enhances children’s growth. But the child cannot control for it. Lucky, again.

Children do not do well in poverty. The Sellecks were not wealthy, but his father sold real estate in Southern California. More than peanuts, then. More luck.

Young Tom was born healthy. (In fact, he was later athletically gifted enough to be awarded a basketball scholarship to USC.) His neonatal health was down to nothing he did personally, but luck.

So right from the start, aspects of his life were very, very blessed.

He continued to be lucky. He survived – thanks to vaccines – common childhood diseases. He was never randomly shot at, as children are in poor neighborhoods. He reached adulthood free of debilitating conditions, many congenital, that wiped out the health of other people born in 1945. He lived in a country that was never at war on its own soil. Because he was a college student, and then a member of the California Army National Guard, he was never called to risk his life in Vietnam as others did.

Did he have to work and wait many years for stardom? Yes. But stardom is hyper-success. As an actor, success comes with working steadily. The English actor Keira Knightley has said her parents attempted to discourage her from acting because they knew the odds against steady work. Any actor who has work is, yes, fortunate. An actor who turns down Raiders of the Lost Ark because he’s taken “Magnum, P.I.” (at one time, the two schedules conflicted) is looking at potential stardom and major money . . . and is exceedingly rare.

Had even one of those lucky breaks in his earlier life failed to show up – if Tom had been born female, or a different race, or with a congenital condition; had his parents lacked skills or mental acuity or devotion to their children’s well-being – he would never have been offered his roles.

So, yes, hard work often precedes success, but success does not inevitably follow hard work.

And the word “luck” precedes both, in the dictionary and in life.

Let’s acknowledge that.

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Outlander’s Schedule Reminds Me of Bollywood

Outlander’s Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan)

 

If you’re a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s mega-hit novel Outlander, you’ve undoubtedly tuned in to watch the series on Starz, which gave the book a whopping 16 hour-long episodes in its first season. That’s six episodes more than HBO’s  initial “Game of Thrones” season.

 

The catch is that there are only eight “Outlander” episodes this fall. The next eight won’t screen until early April, even though Starz originally set them to begin for January. The episodes have already been shot and need only post-production work.

 

Breaking from their frustrated moans, viewers have brought up dire predictions: New fans won’t return in April. Old fans will turn aside, too. The earth will stop spinning.

 

Starz may have wanted to whet the appetite of viewers and then leave them high and dry (note: that is abusive and controlling behavior). Perhaps they examined football and hoops and holiday schedules, shuddered, and said no thanks.

 

To me, though, the bizarre scheduling smacks of traditional Bollywood.

 

Classic Bollywood films are three hours long with an intermission, and what happens in the first half is quite distinct from the events of the second. Same actors, same relationships, but while the first half tends to be lighter and more humorous, the second half turns darker. There’s more threat if not outright violence, and themes that might be termed “mature”, even wretched, are introduced.

 

The reason for this is that classic Hindi-language films (Bollywood is named after Bombay, now called Mumbai, on India’s west coast – Mumbai is India’s movie and financial center, like a combo New York City/Los Angeles plate) are based on ancient Sanskrit plays. Traveling troupes would roll in wagons from one rural village to the next and begin Act I just after dinner. The intermission was timed for when children were seen to bed. After younger viewers were out of the way, the production’s raw meat could begin.

 

When plays became films, producers adopted the same division. In part this was a bow to tradition. Partly, though, it acknowledged that traveling projectionists faced the same conditions: project the movie against a white barn wall, and you’ll still have small children sitting on parents’ laps for the show’s first half.

 

This first-half-light, second-half-fraught practice holds for in-India movies and until quite recently even for films designed for overseas audiences. Take Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, for example (2000), the blockbuster film that launched the career of Hrithik Roshan, or 2001’s popular-outside-India Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, with six major stars including the king of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan.

 

A shift away from this light-dark dichotomy has been very recent, as some India movies take on a mantle of Western film values. Luck By Chance (2009) and The Lunchbox (2013) come to mind.

 

The first half of “Outlander” (the first eight episodes) are not devoid of mature themes. There is pain and suffering, though we see much of it in flashback. Humor, though, and lightness, and the burgeoning of affection, we see those, too.

 

The second half, though, that’s where the real substance begins. Love and passion, betrayal and torture. The book readers know this, and producers and actors have hinted that the last half, especially the final two episodes, were very tough to film and will be hard to stomach.

 

People involved in “Outlander” may have never watched Bollywood films. Interesting, then, that they’ve unconsciously followed their pattern. Let’s hope that during this six-month-long intermission, they lose only younger viewers for whom second halves are too awful to bear.

 

 

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The Freudian Slip of “It”

 

The English language is a fascinating one. It changes, morphs, takes in words from everywhere on earth, adapts, discards, plows on. Its spelling is challenging, because words’ spellings reflect their origins and the journeys they’ve made to reach modern English. Sites like World Wide Words offer a plethora of information and odd facts (and free weekly e-newsletter).

 

What haven’t changed for many centuries, however, are the pronouns English speakers use to describe human beings in the singular: she and he. We don’t vary that. In Sweden, there’s a small movement to popularize a gender-neutral pronoun that still indicates humanity (“hen” in addition to hon which applies to females, and han for males), but in English-speaking countries, we’re a long way from that. She, he, that’s it.

 

Not it, that is. We don’t use “it” to refer to humans.

 

Which makes the use of “it” perplexing in pro-life, anti-choice writings. If you really believe that a fertilized egg is a human being from the moment of conception, then why are you using “it” to describe said zygote? She, or he, or s/he, or even he or she. If you really believe.

 

Anti-choice text writers struggle with this. They tend to repeat “fertilized egg” or “zygote” or “embryo” in order to avoid the use of “it”, but so far – I’ve searched online – they have yet to use the correct personal pronouns. Once the embryo reaches the fetal stage, then it’s “baby” and “he” or “she”, but rarely – never? – before then.

 

Look, I don’t believe that life begins at conception. Potential human life, yes, but only potential; especially since 15% of known human zygotes do not make it to birth. Many more zygotes fail to implant in the uterine wall before a woman even knows a fertilized egg exists, which raises the rate of miscarriage to at least 33% and perhaps much higher. (Medically speaking, miscarriage is called spontaneous abortion and is usually caused by a genetic flaw in the fertilized egg.)

 

So I have no trouble using “it” to describe a zygote, embryo or fetus.

 

But if you do believe that human life – not potential, but life – is created when the head of a sperm cell penetrates an egg cell, then you ought to align your language with your belief. Shake off the shackles of “it” and use the English pronouns she and he.

 

Unless, of course, your use of “it” is a Freudian slip.

 

 

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Cris Carter Rocks

NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter

 

Of all the responses to the news that Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson (6-foot-1, 217 pounds) hit his little 4-year-old son with a wooden switch/branch, raising welts on his inner thighs, breaking the skin, and even hitting his genitals, the most powerful so far has been that of former Minnesota Vikings Cris Carter, football Hall of Famer, who is now an analyst on televised sports shows.

 

Here’s the video of what he said on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown”.

 

Here’s some paraphrased text of his passionate words:

 

“This goes across all racial lines, ethnicity… People believe in disciplining their children. People with any kind of Christian background, they really believe in disciplining their children. My mom did the best that she could do with seven kids … But there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong. This is the 21st century; my mom was wrong… And I promise my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what you want them to do. The only thing I’m proud about, is the team that I played for, they did the right thing [in suspending Peterson].”

 

Unfortunately, after Carter’s statement, Adrian Peterson was reinstated by the Minnesota Vikings and would have played this coming weekend – except that today, the news is that citizen activists have taken their protests to the entities that apparently matter: the advertisers. As of today, Peterson has been advised not to even approach the Vikings playing field.

 

Money talks.

 

As to NBA player Charles Barkley’s allegation that “all” black parents inflict corporal punishment on their children – disproved, obviously, by Cris Carter’s emotion-filled video – Slate repeats what most of us are thinking: “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t make it right and healthy.

 

“Normal” just depends on what the group is doing. (In concentration camps, “normal” was seeing people go up in smoke.) That’s a terrible standard. What we seem to be turning to, where I hope we’re going, especially in the discussion of violence against children, is a higher standard:

 

Healthy.

 

 

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Conflict-Free Divorce Is Just As Damaging To Children As Conflictual Divorce? Really? And Is It More Damaging Than Living In A Home With Both Parents But Filled With Conflict, Rape, Abuse . . .?

A child’s brain

 

A recent article suggests that what used to be called “European divorces” – where the parents act civilized and put their children’s needs first and foremost – is just as damaging to kids as conflict-driven divorce.

 

Ha. Ha. Ha.

 

When my eldest daughter was a college first-year, early on in the fall semester she and her hallmates engaged in a meet-up moment in the dorm, trading histories in a circle with coffee. Many of them had divorced parents. Lots of those parents had handled the circumstances badly, despite their educations (high) and wealth (ditto). The girls spilled tales of nastiness, verbal abuse, can’t-be-in-the-same-auditorium-together and vengeful holidays.

 

When my daughter’s turn came, she hesitated, then told of her parents: how they not only attended her sports events but actually sat together; how holidays were conflict-free; how they worked hard to make sure the children whose lives they had disturbed experienced as little pain as possible.

 

Wow, said her listeners. We would give anything if our parents would act like that.

 

In my work as a mediator, I’ve seen too many divorcing parents who are at each other’s throats, with – as we examine the effect – surprise that their children are hurt by their immaturity. Sometimes one ends up murdering the other – and/or the children, too.

 

I’ve also seen collaborative parents whose older children actually tell them how pleased they are to be living with less furor than their peers.

 

Case closed.

 

Yet there’s another aspect of this: Even if conflict-free divorce were hard on children, would it be harder or more dangerous than life for children where both parents stay married to each other, but where the family home is rife with conflict, abuse, assault and rape?

 

That cannot be. Because living in those homes is terrible for kids. Sir Patrick Stewart, now age 74, still recoils from memories of his father’s physical rages against his mother, beatings that local police did nothing to help, for which local ambulance staff even blamed the victim.

 

Because Ray Rice is in the news, let’s think for a moment of his little daughter’s experience of life. So far, her parents have been in conflict. There’s been verbal abuse. There’s also been horrifying physical violence perpetrated by her father. Since it was clear from Rice’s behavior on that dreadful video that it was not the first time he had punched the mother of his child, chances are that their toddler, Rayven, has already witnessed violence.

 

Every act of violence, every word of conflict, acts on children’s minds just like a drug does. Agitation and fear wash through them, setting up a cascade of neurochemicals that have the power to change circuitry. It alters their brains.

 

If the abuse is directed at them – physical abuse like that suffered by Adrian Peterson’s little four-year-old son, whom the football player (6-foot-1 and 217 pounds) assaulted with a whip-like branch; rape and sexual assault; the daily slaps common in some cultures – children’s brains receive an even greater neurochemical flood. Now the brain itself is under attack. The changes in it may never recede. It may be primed to run, to attack, to freeze, rather than rationally approach life. It is no longer a healthy brain. It is the damaged brain of a survivor. Just as a scar tells of a wound to the skin, a child’s behavior can reveal what she endured at the hands of people bigger than she.

 

So, is conflict-free divorce worse than that?

 

I don’t think so.

 

 

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