Monday, March 28, 2011

Exhibit A: Pixar and Studio Ghibli

As someone who enjoys a good heartwarming fantasy adventure story, I've got a special place in my heart for two of the most innovative and artful film studios currently working: Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Both studios have produced some of the most beautiful, challenging, and emotionally relevant films of the past two (and a bit) decades, and both are in part defined by their mission to take family-oriented fare more seriously than the majority of production companies seem to. But, after a month of watching Ghibli films every Thursday night, I noticed something interesting about the main characters in their films.

Pixar films from the top left: Toy Story, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up
Ghibli films: Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,
Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle
Spot the difference yet? If you said "the gender of the main characters", give yourself a pat on the back.

Pixar has been criticized a number of times for not featuring female main characters in their films (The Incredibles and Toy Story 2 come the closest, but even in these films the women & girls play backup to the male characters). Ghibli productions, on the other hand, place girls front and centre -- even Princess Monoke and Howl's Moving Castle, which have male co-leads, feature strong, capable women. Moreover, the girls in Studio Ghibli films break out of the traditional Disney princess model for female characters. Miyazaki populates his films with tomboy-ish young girls, feisty old women, feral warriors, and yes, even a fully-realized princess who saves her people from certain destruction.

Both Pixar and Studio Ghibli have taken the animated family film to new artistic heights; neither studio tells stories that are primarily romances, and both combine terrific adventure and gentle good humor with masterful art design and an emotional maturity often lacking from movies aimed at children (or adults for that matter). But as much as I love Pixar and the films they produce, it would be nice to see them take a page out of Studio Ghibli's book and put a female character front and center. The success of Miyazaki's films in both Japan and North America show that there's a market for these stories. The addition of a heroine to the Pixar roster would be a mark that the studio can be innovative both artistically and socially, inside and outside the studio.

Edit: Not ten hours ago, The Mary Sue posted concept art from Pixar's upcoming original production, Brave. The best part? It's the first of Pixar's films to star a female protagonist. Here's to Pixar entering their third decade by turning over a new leaf on gender.

I would also be remiss if I left out a recommendation for the indie animated flick The Secret of Kells. Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon's beautiful film was nominated for Best Animated Picture at the 2010 Academy awards, and featured two equally well drawn leads -- monk-in-training Brendan and the enchanting wolf-girl, Aisling. Their upcoming Song of the Sea promises to be an equally lovely addition to the animated family film wall of fame:

Song Of The Sea - Conceptual Trailer from Cartoon Saloon on Vimeo.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Paul Fusco's legacy of Chernobyl

[Warning: The link that is central to this post contains disturbing and challenging photographs of children suffering from the fallout of Chernobyl.]

Paul Fusco, 1997. Prypait, Ukraine.

At the always stunning Magnum In Motion, a photo essay (with accompanying narration) by Paul Fusco on the legacy of Chernobyl in Belarus. I saw this photo essay earlier in the week, and I have still can barely find words to describe it. It is terrifying, macabre, and shockingly important. Fusco takes his camera into orphanages, children's cancer wards, and the Novinki Children's Mental Asylum to document the lasting effects of the 1986 disaster. The results are among the most harrowing images I have ever encountered. As the introduction to the essay states: "Fusco's work forces us to remember an important nightmare that we would forget at the peril of our morality and our future."

I have no words beyond that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Internet and 'real life'

This post is meant as a short addendum to my previous post on sociology's problems in dealing with social interaction in virtual settings.

One of the things that often comes up in discussions among sociologists about the internet and online communities is when online events become 'real' events. For some sociologists, this crossover occurs when bullying moves from online to offline, when social movements that are organizing on Twitter make it into the streets, or when people looking for health information online take that information to their doctors' waiting room. For those of us who take the internet seriously as a realm of social interaction, all online events are real events.

About a year ago, Megwrites posted an excellent piece on the internet as real life. One of the many important points she makes is that judging the 'realness' of an action by its location in the physical world, rather than online, has the effect of creating a hierarchy of action that systematically privileges those people with the financial, emotional, social, and physical resources to engage in particular offline activities at particular times and in particular places. The "I didn't see you at the protest" phenomenon is one that assumes that the most valuable contribution to social justice work that any individual can make is to put their specific body in a specific place. If that place is not welcoming or unsafe for the individual for any of a number of reasons, their ability to register 'real' discontent is muted.

This is not to say that everything that goes on in online spaces is momentous or important. I feel just as comfortable acknowledging the existence of slacktivism on Facebook as I do the community-changing conversations that have happened in multiple online communities over the years. But slacktivism exists everywhere, online and off. Moreover, people's daily lives are a mixture of momentous and not-so-momentous events. That some of us kill time looking at LOLcats or watching mashups on YouTube is not phenomenally different than sitting around drinking beer and ranking sci-fi films or recipes or football players with your friends. The thing is, all of these activities -- online and offline, important and frivolous -- are real. People spend time on them, enjoy them, participate in them, and share them with others. The internet is not a separate sphere of the universe that we interact with, outside of the social context of our everyday lives. it is a part of that context. It would be helpful if we could start treating it that way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The public purchase of sociological stories, part II: Internet edition

Back in October, I wrote a piece lamenting the seeming inability of sociology to make its disciplinary perspective compelling to the general public. At the time, I was writing about evolutionary psychology's dominance in popular press stories about gender, but the issue has popped up in another area recently, one that's near and dear to my own research. That's right folks, I'm talking about the Internet.

The number of pop science/business/cultural studies books that have come out on the subject of the Internet in the past few years has been staggering. Off the top of my head, we've got Nick Carr's The Shallows, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation, Evengy Morozov's The Net Delusion, Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, Johnathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet; and How to Stop It, Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital, Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants, and John Palfrey & Urs Gasser's Born Digital. Now, some of these books are better than others, and the perspectives they offer tell valuable stories about the way the Internet is changing human life. But if you look at the authors listed, not a single one of them is a (working) sociologist. There are business consultants, psychologists, veterans of Silicon Valley utopianism, computer scientists, law professors, and journalists. But there's not a single sociologist up there.

This is not to say that there isn't some great internet research out there being done by sociologists. There is. But this hasn't translated into sociologists being asked to give TED talks on the future of social interaction online, and it hasn't led to the social/cultural studies section of your local bookstore being flooded with crossover books by academics who are investing in doing a more public sociology. The last time I saw a sociologist (actually two sociologists) cited in a tech-oriented article in the New Yorker, it was in a Malcolm Gladwell penned piece on social media and revolutions, and they were social movements scholar Doug McAdams, and network theorist Mark Granovetter. Not to begrudge the usefulness of either scholar's work in understanding social change sparked by social media, but I've never seen a sociologist cited when "the Internet is bad for your social life" comes up for the millionth time.

On the subject of online interaction, we're once again dropping the public sociology ball. By evacuating the public forum when it comes to the Internet, we've leaving the field to neuro-psychologists who want to talk about "re-wiring the brain" and business people who want to know how better to promote their brand on Twitter. We've got law professors writing books not only on the response of the legal system to the problems posed by the Internet (of which there are many), but also publishing on the subject of what online communication means for social life. What we don't have is a proliferation of solid, meaningful interpretive research on social life on the Internet. I don't know if this is because, as a discipline, we still prefer to treat text as artifact, rather than action, or because we can't find a way to talk about online activity that doesn't have major offline consequences in a way that makes it seem important.

Whatever the problem is, we should get over it, and quick. The internet has played a defining role in the social lives of millions for almost two decades. I got Facebook when it was first made available to Canadian university students, in 2005; my younger cousins got Facebook when they were eight. And from the time I was thirteen until today, I've watched online communities blossom and wither, morph into offline organizations or maintain their virtual character. I've seen entire communities pick up and switch mediums when the Usenet infrastructure got too outdated. I've seen people get excited about blogs and about Second Life, about Facebook and Twitter, and about forums that allow threaded comments. But I don't see a lot of solid sociological research on any of these things, with perhaps the exception paid to the Internet by network sociologists (and we all know how I feel about the dominance of that particular methodology).

We need new and better sociological concepts to deal with the contexts of virtuality. We need a new approach to text, one that treats it as something other than an inert data resource. We need a new approach to space and place, one that allows us to talk about these things without reference to geographic clustering. We need to rethink our privileging of face-to-face relationships in our research, and of methodologies that embed and perpetuate that privileging. But mostly, we need to stop talking about what people do online as though it isn't real. Human beings spend hours of their lives interacting with cultural artifacts, bureaucratic institutions, entertainment and news media, economic and health information, and yes, even each other online. Just because they do it on a computer instead of in the public square doesn't make it any less real or any less meaningful. The sooner sociology takes that seriously, the better. Because otherwise, we'll be letting slip the opportunity to expand the boundaries of our discipline in a way that is not only relevant to the ASA come conference time, but also to the public at large all the time. To reach for that most common of sociological cliches, C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argues that the task and promise of sociology is to allow us to grasp the relation of history and biography in society. If we relegate online life to the realm of biography alone and thus abandon it to psychologists and business journalists, we are missing out on the opportunity to contribute knowledge in an area where we are uniquely qualified to speak: that of human social interaction and meaning-making. Personally, I'd like to hear what we have to say.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Perfectly good guitar: on growing up acoustic

About a month ago, I took my dad out to see Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt in concert together at the Michigan Theater.  One of the things I'm most happy to share with my dad is a love of music; it's something he instilled in me when I was very young, and something that we've maintained to this day. We share playlists, put albums on for one another, and generally act like the the music nerds we are.

My dad was never a musician. He's fifty-two now, and my brother and I--with my mother's help--just bought him his first guitar this past Christmas. Despite this, I grew up in a musical household. I have very few memories that aren't colored with one tune or another. When we weren't listening to the B-Sides of handmade tapes or newly purchased CDs, we were listening to my dad whistle his way around the house, occasionally breaking into nonsense Italian for a bit of pseudo-opera. It's not that my dad couldn't have been a musician--he has a lovely voice and a good ear for pitch--but music in our house wasn't homemade, at least not until my brother and I started piano lessons. Instead, we cultivated what could be called the art of the mental mixtape, collecting songs here and there and forming them into the soundtrack of our lives.

The CD collection amassed by my father tended to be unconstrained by genre or time period. You're as likely to find yourself listening to the Brandenburg Concertos as you are to Miles Davis, or The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen or the Be Good Tanyas. I grew up listening to a lot of music, some of which has found its way back to me over the years. My taste has dovetailed with my father's since high school -- after I got my very brief punk phase out of my system -- and I've revisited a lot of the music of my youth (which is not to say it's particularly youthful music) since then. These days, my dad's got a lot of alt-country and Americana on rotation, and I picked up on that right quick. We don't argue about what to listen to in the car -- when it's not the CBC, it's a mix on my iPod or his. They're usually pretty similar anyways.

About a year ago I tried to make an autobiographical playlist. I abandoned the project shortly thereafter, but there are three songs from the list that are the heart and soul of my childhood, and I've collected them here for your enjoyment:

If I was going to make one of these, today, it'd have some Blue Rodeo and some Neil Young, some Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams. It would have Melissa McLelland, and Ron Sexsmith, and Sarah Harmer, and Rufus Wainwright. And yes, a little Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt for good measure. We often think of mixtapes as things we share with friends or lovers (and I do that as well), but one of my favourite people to share music, and the pleasures that come with it, is with my Dad. He was the one who taught me that good music comes in many packages, and that the perfect pop song can contain as much enjoyment as the perfect symphony. So consider this a blog post for for him.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Quick Hits

  • Clay Shirky, writing for the always excellent Crooked Timber, on Idealism, Realism and Social Media. The post is particularly interesting to read in light of Malcolm Gladwell's pre-Tunisia, pre-Egypt piece in the New Yorker, The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. From the Shirky post: "The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren’t so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts." This is an important distinction to make, and one that is too often lost in the dystopian/utopian arguments that regularly dominate discussions of the effect of the Internet on politics.
  • In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece about Lisa Nakamura's recent work on racism in gaming. Examining interaction in Lineage II, Nakamura found that female dwarf characters were popular in-game targets. The reason? Female dwarves avatars are popular among Chinese gold farmers, and those players killing them would often type anti-Chinese slurs into the public chat at the same time. "What happened was that female dwarfs become an unplayable race" in the game, Nakamura said. "They basically became a racial minority," she added, "with the same status as immigrant workers—they become a race, which is an interesting thing."
  • Chally has an interesting conversation going on over at Feministe about the ever present "where are you from" question. Starting with an exploration of the idea of 'fromness' (for lack of a better term), she moves into the more critical question of who is mostly likely to be asked where they're from, as well as who's answers are least likely to be taken seriously (hint: it's not white people).
  • S.E. Smith at Bitch Magazine wants you to think about the -isms in your feminism, particularly in relation to feminist icons. Also from Smith: why she's leaving mainstream feminism (but not the fight for women's rights), and an exploration of television before and after Sept 11.
  • From Geekosystem: the Social Science Research Council has released a study that argues digital piracy is better understood as a global pricing problem. It's nice to see a study that takes seriously the connections between economic well-being and access to software, particularly in an international way.

Finally, Textual Relations now has a Facebook page! 'Like' it to get notifications when the blog is updated, as well as other interesting tidbits from around the web.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Young Americans have sex...

...and Planned Parenthood helps them do it safely.

Feminist anxiety and anxious feminism

On International Women's Day, the Globe and Mail published an extraordinarily frustrating and glib piece by Margaret Wente, who claims that "the war for women's rights is over, and we won." While I generally try not to take to take Margaret Wente seriously on any subject at all, and setting aside for a moment the fact that by 'we' she means upper-middle class white educated straight cisgender women living in North America (a vastly small subset of women to be sure), I found the following passage from the article particularly disturbing:
I owe everything to the gutsy women half a step ahead of me who battered down the barriers so that I could have it easy.
People who persist in looking for systemic discrimination against women in (name your field here) seem more and more desperate. They may as well complain about discrimination against male kindergarten teachers. We are finally learning that equality can also mean the freedom to make different choices. 
We're often told that feminists are strong women. Women who stand on their own making choices, without fear. Women who go out and get things done and don't let the world hold them back. Sometimes I feel like that kind of woman. But often I feel like a woman who can't always stand on her own, who needs to ask for help and support, and who spends undue amounts of emotional energy just trying to make it through tasks that other people find trivial. It took me almost an entire week to fortify myself before knocking on my advisor's door to introduce myself. It took me four long years to be able to eat in restaurants without feeling the need to bolt. And it still sometimes takes every effort I can manage to get up in front of a classroom full of students and talk to them about the sociology of sex. And there's a reason for that.

I have General Anxiety Disorder. This isn't an internet diagnosis, although the web did eventually help push me into a psychiatrist's office. I have a real life, no bones about it, certifiable mental illness. And often, before I started taking medication, it sucked.

Sometimes it sucked because struggling with terror over everyday things is frustrating. Anxiety the way I feel it doesn't feel like nervousness. It doesn't go away once something's been successfully completed or after I've had a good day. It just carries forward, transferred to the next thing that my amygdala has decided is deserving of my absolute and utter attention and concern. Depending on the day, I worry about work and school, friendships and relationships, eating in restaurants, the weather, and my health. On bad days, I worry about how much I'm worrying. On really bad days, I have panic attacks that relegate me to the couch or the bed, because doing anything but sitting and thinking my way out of a spiral of unreason is too much to contemplate. Or at least that's how things used to be. Medication, along with the support of family, friends, and a wonderful partner have helped alleviate the day-to-day vagaries of not being able to manage my own brain.

But sometimes my anxiety sucks for other reasons. Sometimes, it makes me feel like a bad feminist and a bad scholar. Neither of these things are true -- I happen to think that my struggles with anxiousness make me a better feminist and a better scholar most of the time. Like any other marginalized standpoint, I often feel as though I have the opportunity to see and empathize with experiences that are overlooked by much of the population. But that doesn't always transfer to how people see me. I know this, and it frustrates me.

The idea that feminism and disability intersect is certainly not a new one. The now defunct, but always excellent, FWD/Foward (Feminists With Disabilities) is an indispensable resource for understanding the various and complex ways that feminism confronts, supports--and sometimes clashes with--the needs and experiences of women with both physical and mental impairments. But we rarely hear these issues discussed in the press.

I was lucky enough to reach the height of my anxiety in an institutional setting where the costs of my seeing a doctor at one of the best anxiety clinics in the United States are covered for me. Moreover, I am fortunate to have parents who have never been anything but supportive of my decisions, and friends who I can turn to in times of need. But that I have these reinforcements available to me is a function of my privilege. This leads me back, once again, to an argument that I have made before: that the contemporary emphasis in public life on feminism as choice, rather than as justice, is harmful to the development of a feminist politics that advances the status of all women. For those women who do not have access to the resources I do, the choice to request and receive the tools necessary to improve their quality of life is not a choice at all. Similar to the difficulties that plague the quest for reproductive justice, the staggering lack of availability of mental health resources, particularly for women in marginalized communities is a roadblock in the ongoing struggle for women's rights. Moreover, the stigma attached to mental illness of in all of its forms, but particularly those illnesses that we tend to associate primarily with women and teenage girls, is a barrier to the idea that we need to take women's experiences seriously. Not only the experiences of those women who are in a position to expend their emotional, mental, and physical energies making leaps forward in the realms of business and politics, but also those women who spend their spoons on less public, more personal struggles.

Margaret Wente's unbelievably privileged assertion that feminism is over, on top of erasing the experiences of women worldwide, also neglects the fact that free choices can only be made in the context of a just society. For those of us who face the day-to-day frustrations and, yes, anxieties, of mental illness, the implication that we should just buck up and be happy because hey, if we could just manage to set foot outside the door we could be a CEO just like anyone else on top of the ongoing conflation of feminism with ballsy choice-making is unbearably aggravating. In order to move the cause of women, as well as other marginalized groups, forward, we need a reinvigorated public discussion that acknowledges that feminism is not just for go-getters. It is for everyone. And throwing the whole thing in the dustbin only makes living in this unjust society that much more anxious for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Most Photographed Barn in America

Corinne Vionnet's St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow; part of Photo Opportunities, a series of images by layering 200-300 tourist of the same landmarks on top of one another.
     Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides--pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some noes in a little book. 
     "No one sees the barn," he said finally.
     A long silence followed.
     "Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
     He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated side, replaced at once by others.
     "We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
     There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
     "Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be a part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
     Another silence ensued.
     "They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
     He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers the advanced the film.
     "What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."
     He seemed immensely pleased by this. 
          -- Don DeLillo, White Noise

I've been away from the blog for the last week or so -- reading week in sunny (har har) Halifax has had me reading Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, marathoning on the third season of Deadwood and drinking copious amounts of Propellor beer. Should be back to my regular (if it can be called that) posting schedule later in the week; upcoming subjects include the byline gender gap, popular press books that take a dystopic view of the effect of the Internet on the human mind, and what it's like to watch The Godfather a million years after everyone else has seen it. Because I just did that. At the age of twenty-four.