Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Makeup Your Mind: Reflections On Cosmetics And Sport Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue

A level playing field may apply in sports, but not in gender relations.

Sports Illustrated's annual paean to impossible feminine perfection celebrates an arbitrary nature/culture distinction between men and women that reflects a deep-seated cultural misogyny and perpetuates an uneven playing field in the battle of the sexes. Until our society matures to the point where women don't have to wear makeup to be considered equal to men, they will continued to be objectified and treated as less than human.

Commenting on the February swimsuit issue, the Huffington Post’s Verena Von Pfetten notes that "The SI Swimsuit Edition is like the Holy Grail of men's magazines: little to no articles, and pages upon pages of absurdly beautiful women in little to no clothing.”

While acknowledging that super model Marisa Miller looks older with all the makeup they pile on for her photo shoots, Von Pfetten doesn’t suggest that women abstain from makeup entirely: “And I know that we all have our limits. I, for one, cannot leave the house without mascara or blush. I've got flimsy mousy-colored lashes, and while tans may be tacky, my paleness always needs that little added flush. But all I'm asking is that we just lighten up. Pick your products, and use them wisely.”

That women still want to wear makeup reflects a failure of the feminist movement in particular and the immaturity of our culture in general. Makeup is a mask that allows women to tap into corporate power. I don't mean corporate as in business, but rather corporate as in the power of the group vs. the individual. Men achieve this power by actually belonging to corporations, whether they are lodge brothers or corporate raiders. Women counter by painting their faces. Hiding physical imperfections or accentuating certain features makes sense only if the result is more power for the individual, whether sexual, social or corporate.

But why makeup? The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once asked a native informant why his people tattooed their bodies. "Because we are not animals," was the reply. That women still use makeup is a reflection of their continuing status as not-quite-human, or to put it in a more Lévi-Straussian mode, women without makeup are still seen as "natural" while men without makeup are seen as "cultural." By acceding to cosmetic industry standards of beauty, women who wear makeup promote a status quo that says that women are not equal to men. Men can be "cultural" just by showing up. Women, to participate in the culture, must put on a corporate mask.

And while a woman who uses makeup is considered "cultural," a man who uses makeup is considered absurd. Mass media meditations on masculine makeup like “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” are always comedies.

Madison Avenue-driven cosmetic companies have made some inroads into the use of body fragrance by men, but they have not yet found the right inducement for men to paint their faces, highlight their eyes and gloss their lips. My suggestion is that advertisers market tattoos as acceptable body paint for men. Invent a tattoo "makeup" that needs regular renewal but involves some pain to apply, and your fortune is made.

In sports, the play of the game depends on who makes up the rules. In gender relations, the play of game depends on who rules the makeup.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

I am happy to see my 2007 article about Ray Bradbury and his novel, Fahrenheit 451, cited as part a bibilography connected with the National Endowment for the Arts "Big Read". I reproduce it here, or you can go to Blogcritics where it was originally published here.

Rock, Paper, Video: Ray Bradbury Interprets Fahrenheit 451
An author is not always the best interpreter of his own work.

In a recent interview in the LA Weekly News, speculative fiction master Ray Bradbury claimed that most people have misinterpreted his seminal classic Fahrenheit 451. According to Bradbury, F451 was not about censorship and the threat of a tyrannous government. It was about the way television will make us into a nation of non-readers, which means being non-reflective, hedonistic and conformist.

Bradbury now asserts that Montag and other readers in his future dystopia were pursued because they refused to conform to the television-induced stupor of the general population, not because they subverted book burning. Books were burned, not as an act of suppression, but because they were irrelevant.

As books are burned and reading becomes a crime, what do the literate rebels in Fahrenheit 451 do? They each memorize a book, and on their deathbeds they pass that work on orally to a descendant. Bradbury rightly intuited that as electronic media superseded print, the values and concerns of our culture would change. But, being literate himself, Bradbury couldn't imagine that a society without literature could be anything but childish and shallow.

Borrowing from Northrop Frye, I would like to suggest that often the author of a work doesn't always fully comprehend its significance, but I would like to go one step further. Sometimes, authors are more intuitive than they themselves realize. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a book about government censorship, but the more important idea that Bradbury offered way back in 1953 was that electronic media would return us to an oral culture, or as Walter J.Ong later termed it, a condition of secondary orality.

Media Ecologists identify three major eras in the development of human cultures: orality, literacy and secondary orality. Pure oral cultures existed before writing was invented and had to devise various tricks and mnemonic devices to pass hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Rhymes, rhythms, parables and puns helped preserve oral culture. Personal skills that were valued included memory, voice and the ability to weave an encyclopedian epic from standard poetic pieces. "Rhapsodist" was Classical Greek for "weaver."

When writing was invented, information could be preserved outside of human memory, and essential cultural activities of orality like story telling and singing became pastimes. Reading, writing and 'rithmetic became the tools to educate our children. It then became of concern which medium was used to preserve the writing. Durable media like stone were long lasting, but hard to carry around. Portable media like papyrus and later, paper were easy to transport, but didn't last nearly as long. Writing not only allowed the preservation of culture, but also the distribution of that information far beyond its source of origination.

In secondary orality, the major institutions and beliefs of a culture are once again driven by modes of thought and practices based on oral communication, not literacy. Linear thinking gives way to gestalt thinking, logic is replace by intuition, and we begin to think with our "guts" rather than our heads. Computer hardware takes the place of human brain cells for information storage, but oral activities like singing return to center stage. The tools of cultural transmission may be the same as those of primary orality, but the arts are informed by a legacy of writing.

So, is Ray Bradbury an early Media Ecologist? One could say that all writers of speculative fiction are practicing speculative Media Ecology. In Bradbury's case, he could predict the outcome of adopting a new media environment without fully grasping the influence of electronic media. It is significant that by the end of Fahrenheit 451, the TV-addicted culture has destroyed itself in war and the secondary orality rebels move to rebuild society. Their ultimate supremacy signifies the ascendancy of secondary orality, not its defeat.