Camille Reyes

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

There is No Wage Gap? Think Again, Ms. Summers.

In Culture, Policy on February 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm
My friend Deirdre Dougherty wrote a wicked (side note: when did I move to Boston?) response to a shameful article in the Daily Beast.  In fact, it was such a skilled (and sarcastic) take down of the author’s argument that I asked if she would like to guest post it here at gorditamedia.  She said no.  Kidding.  Feel free to comment; I’m sure Dee will appreciate any engagement on the subject.


(Guest Post by Deirdre Dougherty)

I have many things to say about this piece of shit article and apologize in advance to my family for swearing. I rarely ever post comments this long or this political.


1. While I can buy that the “77 cents” rhetoric might be an exaggerated way of simplifying and drawing attention the issue of pay inequity, there is a wage gap. Apparently, people believe that this is the result of a choice, or of a difference in hard wiring. The post says: “There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women… make it difficult to make simple comparisons.” Choices? Really? Interesting. At first glance, “choice” seems like it’s a great leveler and strikingly allows us to avoid a discussion of more complex structural issues. Choices are tricky things though; depending on the different kinds of privilege one might happen to have, choices have different effects and are made within different constraints. Way to individualize responsibility and thus leave sexism unquestioned. Thanks.


2. The author’s conversation about the “10 most remunerative majors” as a basis for her argument is sickening. Instead of looking at college majors and seeing which majors attract women and which attract men and linking that to a larger bullshit idea of women “choosing” to pick majors that result in lower-paying jobs, why don’t we question why certain professions are accorded respect and compensation in the first place? Isn’t it interesting that the professions that men tend to be drawn to are the most well-paid? Could this not be symptomatic of a larger, historically constituted structural inequality where occupations are gendered and historically “feminine” occupations are undervalued in a world that has (arbitrarily) accepted western ideas of science and progress and empiricism above all else?


3. “Have these groups noticed that American women are now among the most educated, autonomous, opportunity-rich women in history?” Interesting. “American” women, you say? While the author wanted to disaggregate the fuck out of the statistics about “77 cents,” claiming that the wage gap statistics were unfair because they compared women’s and men’s salaries across all occupations, it’s super interesting that “American” women emerge as a monolithic category. Do poor women enjoy the same “autonomous, opportunity-rich” experience as the author does?


4. “To say that these women remain helplessly in thrall to sexist stereotypes, and manipulated into life choices by forces beyond their control, is divorced from reality—and demeaning to boot. If a woman wants to be a teacher rather than a miner, or a veterinarian rather than a petroleum engineer, more power to her.” Clearly, you’ve not read anything about the k-12 education system and how tracking, microgressions, and other subtle systemic phenomena direct women in certain ways. Again, I guess it’s all about “choice.” I guess this is “America” and we can do anything we really “choose” to do.


5. But wait: “The White House should stop using women’s choices to construct a false claim about social inequality that is poisoning our gender debates.” Yes. Choices are totally made outside of structures of inequality. Thanks, author. I forgot that.


So this French Guy Writes a Book…

In Culture, Film, media, Music on December 28, 2012 at 9:53 am

Les Misérables (2012), the musical, in a movie theater—I was skeptical.  The signs of hope were there, however.  For one, I’d seen that the director made the actors wear earpieces, piping in live music for each take from an accompanist just off camera.  As a singer, and a one-time (terrible) actor, I instantly recognized the treasure of this method; Hugh Jackman did not need to explain it.  Basically, you get the benefits of two media in one.  You get the enormous temporal flexibility of film—doing shots in any order, taking bits from here and there, multiple takes, etc. without losing as much of the improvisation of live performance, of feeling the song.

Although the movie is far from perfect (paging Russell Crowe, please stop singing, yesterday), it moved me repeatedly.  The “Heart Full of Love” trio with Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks was so beautiful musically that the movie aspect—the editing in particular—diminished the romance.  (Wait, I take that back, a little.  I could look at Amanda Seyfried without diminishing anything, especially my pulse.)  I dare say that these three actors were classically trained in voice.  It’s no accident this was my favorite moment in the film.  My ears might be biased.

Amanda Seyfried

Speaking of these biased ears, I had forgotten that the musical was sung-through, meaning there is little-to-no spoken dialogue.  The film preserves this, another wonderful choice from director Tom Hooper.  Les Mis, more than any other piece of musical theater, always makes me wonder about the medium.  Why is Les Mis widely considered musical theater and not opera?  It seems to me that the location for its original exhibition, the Broadway/West End-equivalent stage, is the source of the puzzling definition.  Of course, from a marketing perspective, musical theater is an easier sell.  If by easier, one means making the world’s most risky media investment (a Broadway show), a little more bankable.  This movie will do much good for the art form, and for this reason, I really do not care what we call it.

I do care about the experience of media though, what it means to change the form of something in myriad ways.  In the packed little Western PA movie theater where we watched Les Mis, my mother and I were jarred by the people clapping after the big numbers.  It took me out of the moment so I was annoyed.  At the same time, I liked that people were preserving a little slice of the original medium—the live-stage.  One could argue that the clapping added to more of a shared experience.  I’m usually all about those, unless, it turns out, I’m watching a blasted movie.  Shut up!  I don’t have to suspend my disbelief here, unless you clap, you rube.

How odd that I’m the first to yell, “Bravisima!” at the opera.  Corny, I confess.  I even prefer my opera singers to be better actors than singers.  Witness my devotion to Domingo over Pavarotti.  While the latter might be technically superior, the former wrenches more emotion per note than anyone.  When Domingo sings Puccini’s ballad about the stars as he longs for his lover Tosca in prison, I weep at the exact. same. bar. every. time.  Keep in mind I’m speaking of a recording; I’ve never seen him do it live, and I guess I never will now that his voice has aged out of the range.  Again, I’m back to the medium.  The recording does not diminish my experience, although I’m certain the live version would’ve found me bawling from the Met chandelier, straining through tears for a better view of my tenor hero.

So yeah, Les Mis.  It’s an opera, dressed as musical theater, trying to convince big sister to take it to the movies.  I highly recommend the experience, whatever yours might be, but if you’re not down with people singing non-stop for over two hours, don’t—wait, go anyway, what am I saying?  You might enjoy making fun of the nerds in the audience, the sniveling weenies who sing every part in the shower, especially when the tigers come at night.

Culture Police?

In Culture, media on September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am

A few years ago I attended a panel on gay rights issues hosted by NYU Law. The President of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was among the panelists. He was most intrigued by a question I asked about the social arc of gays in the media. I used portrayals of blacks as an analogy. In television, we went from the offensive Amos ‘n’ Andy (on radio first) to The Jeffersons to The Cosby Show to Bernie Mac.

I’m oversimplifying, ruling out Roots and Julia, for example, but basically one could interpret the representation of blacks as lead characters on American television (sitcoms) as racist, then a sort of separate but equal, then white-washed (white-normative?) with Cos, then perhaps more authentic. I say ‘perhaps’ because I’m not black; but Bernie seemed more real to me, more reflective of the middle class black people I knew then. My point of tracing this interpretive arc was to ask if it was analogous to representations of gays; does society, and therefore media as social constructs, follow this sort of path from prejudice/fear of the other to normativity to authenticity?  (This is not a linear process.  See Reality Television.)

Of course, these terms are terribly tricky. Take authenticity.  For example, The L Word is enjoyable, but laughable in terms of realism. One could argue all those straight women playing lesbians on the show are analogous to black face/ minstrelsy. I would not go that far, especially since gender and sexuality construction is qualitatively different from racial identity formation. But I would take The L Word over Will and Grace (funny show) if I had to choose which one better represents “my people.”  Lesbian drama, anyone?  And there’s another problem with my question about media representation and social arcs: defining an entire group of people is a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a television show.

This gets to why I respectfully declined when the GLAAD Pres basically offered me a job after the talk. I do not agree with the element of control or attempts to control media on the part of GLAAD and organizations like the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC). I’d rather celebrate those media that do offer fair representations and discourse on marginalized communities (Let’s hear it for Bitch magazine, for starters!) Don’t get me wrong, GLAAD knows how to fete great media (e.g. their annual awards). But when I think about studies like the one recently announced by the NHMC, I get a little angry.  The study found:

Media contribute to negative stereotypes. (I am SHOCKED, shocked.)

What a fucking waste of research money. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said. Let’s spend more money on solutions and more complex understandings of social problems. I am even more disturbed by the underlying goal in these studies, the subtext of suppression seeping through the data points. Censorship is seldom the answer. (I’m only persuaded by arguments involving children). Create media, people. Speak, knit, roll on the floor, occupy, code, dance, turn nouns into verbs, semaphore until your heart explodes. Do it because you have to do it; do it because you have the freedom to do it. Culture is what we make it, not how we break it.

Karaoke Ninjas and Radioheads

In Culture, Music on December 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I am a karaoke ninja. Well, maybe the ninja who knocks off several roof tiles as she jumps Crouching Tiger style from doll house to doll house. Karaoke is hard, and I love it. What makes it most difficult are my years of vocal training. You’d think this would be a plus, but it is a completely different genre of singing, almost a different category altogether. Think of Mariah Carey (damn fine voice-forget the terrible material) trying to act. Guh.

So yes, sometimes I have Glitter moments on the tiny stage with the ten cent mic and a crowd full of talkers. So what if I chose a weepy ballad! Song choice is half the battle though. I like songs with string sections, piano, and introspective lyrics like some awesome love child between Samuel Barber, Tori Amos, and Ani Difranco. These don’t tend to go over well in a bar. Case of You. Silent All These Years. Breathe Me.

I need to study the karaoke stylings of my best friend. She has no training, and a Big Gulp heart. She always picks crowd pleasers like 4NonBlondes’ What’s Going On? or Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl? Her voice cracks ever so perfectly on the latter. Everyone wants to go home with her. She owns the stage.

The best friend and Gordita singing a crowd pleaser.

But no, I keep choosing my obscure little ditties, wondering what key I’m going to get, hoping I forget anyone is watching. Even though I always have my birthday party at a karaoke bar, it is almost too performative for me. Singing for me is in many respects a solitary pursuit. This made my old stage and professional gigs a bit problematic. I still remember people lining up to thank me for my brief run as Annie in my high school musical. Although I would have never said this out loud, my interior monologue was: You’re welcome, but I didn’t do it for you.

One exception to this was my brief stint as a strolling opera singer and hostess at a Tampa Macaroni Grill. I sang arias for tips in a white button down shirt, black apron that was too long for me, and a pink tie I borrowed from my dad (and never gave back). I also had trouble carrying all the silverware and menus to the table. Aside from the Puccini, it was one big mess. I needed the money. I digress.

I inhabit songs, and they inhabit me. Occasionally I surface from this special communion to acknowledge the crowd, get them involved. This might seem theatrical, and it is, but it is also selfless. I’d rather be alone, but I enjoy watching other people so much, it seems unfair to hide completely. My favorite song at karaoke as of late oddly speaks to this strange tension–the tension between adoring, wanting to be adored, and being alone. It’s Radiohead’s Creep. Now those of you who know me are probably already laughing because I look like a cute leprechaun–creepy in a horror movie, but not when you are a petite ginger. The juxtaposition of my physical appearance with the lyrics is comedic at first. But, like the use of a girls’ choir on the same song to promote The Social Network (the trailer is genius, and better than the movie), once you get past the oddity, a strange empathy emerges–at least, that’s my hope when I sing the song, for you and for me.  Here’s the chorus:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

With apologies to Tom Robbins, “even cowgirls get the blues.” Clearly, I need more therapy. But I hope that when someone experiences my version of this song, they think, well, if she feels that way, then maybe I’m not alone.

The first verse of the song sums up the near universal feeling of not measuring up to someone you’ve placed on a pedestal. (This lyric would be the micro-blogging leitmotif of my love life with one exception, not to be discussed.)

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

I like to really stick the word “fucking” when I sing it–again for the jarring juxtaposition (nice girls don’t say “fuck”), and because the near repeat of the line immediately before is not lazy lyricism. The subtlety is important. I read the line as a 1 part jealousy, 2 parts fatigue and 1 part kernel of motivation to move the fuck on. I try to capture this interpretation in song–not easy to do. I am almost to the best part of the song though, the bridge and the climax:

She’s running out the door
She’s running out
She runs runs runs

This is heartache in three lines. The first time I sang it (on acoustic night at the best karaoke bar in the universe, Baby Grand in SoHo), I achieved near transcendence. Playing with a live guitarist gave me the freedom to stretch it out even more than Thom Yorke does. The audience felt my anguish, knew I was somewhere else, and went nuts. Their cheering brought me back to earth, and for once, I was grateful to them.

Lyrics: Radiohead, Creep (1992)

Bonus: the girls’ choir version without the trailer.

My (first) Brush with Occupy Wall Street

In Culture, Protest on November 18, 2011 at 12:37 am

I woke up early this morning with my head on a pillow located in the East Village of Manhattan. I had made the short trek from Jersey the night before to assure an early start, not for a protest of the state of affairs in this country, but rather a celebration.

I was to witness the marriage of two friends at city hall. The experience was wonderful, and when the officiant emphasized the power given him by the great state of New York, we truly felt proud, proud of the system of governance that recognizes the responsibilities and benefits of a beautiful union. My civic pride would take a turn in the afternoon, however.

My participation in the Occupy Wall Street day of action was severely limited due to the wedding, a business meeting and most of all, the fact that I was heavy laden with luggage for my trip back to Jersey. Undaunted, I decided to attempt to join the Student-Faculty centered protest in Union Square as this meshed best with my location and one of my specific interests in the movement. As a first-time union member (Rutgers- AAUP), I was also pumped to represent the power of Labor.  However, my meeting at NYU ran late. My phone was acting up. I wasn’t sure if the protest was still in progress. I began to cut through Washington Square Park when my question was answered from above. Four helicopters were hovering around what I reasoned must be the Union Square protest.

The sound and look of the choppers was eerie. Strange how one technology can save lives, kill in combat, and engage in a softer kind of menace: watching. I began to play an easy game in my head I call, “Guess the media coverage.” With several blocks ahead of me, I’d won my game with a blandly partisan-spiced narrative that essentially said the protests were disruptive of commerce, and therefore bad. Never mind that the most famous protest in our history involved the literal dumping of commodities into a bay, a moment itself now twisted and co-opted by a corrupt cause. (My proof of hollow victory would come later after watching news reports, but this is for another post.)

About three blocks away, walking up 5th Avenue, I could feel the mood shift. This kind of “feeling the city” has always been one of my favorite, if bewildering, facets of New York City in particular. The electricity of the place is the stuff of cliché, however the urbanity here achieves a kind of language. I sensed the tension from the people coming toward me. I felt the excitement of fellow travelers uptown. I could see police cars in the distance blocking the street. The old stone buildings had a different presence this day.

And that hum, the sound of the totalizing media eye hovering above, whispered that I might be heading into trouble.

As I got a block away, a kind woman, likely concerned about me and all my literal baggage, shouted to me, “Be careful going up there.” “Maybe I should rethink this,” I thought to myself. In addition to logistical issues, I am a novice when it comes to civil disobedience. I have participated in protests in Portland and Salem, Oregon, but not without a blanket permit. The injustices of the police raid on Zuccotti park three days prior however, spurred me forward. I wanted solidarity. I wanted a collective voice.

I met a wall of onlookers (or participants? The line between the two was blurry-another groovy aspect of NYC) at 5th and 13th. I could not physically move forward, nor could I turn my gaze any other direction, but to my right. There behind a construction zone, facing uptown, was a formation of maybe 100 police officers in riot gear. I immediately began to take pictures, as did many around me. I felt compelled to capture this omen. I was afraid.  Keep in mind they were just standing there waiting for orders, but they had their shields on and batons ready. I had never seen anything like it without mediation. There, unfiltered and without any action on their part, I was spooked by the police. People like to remind us that the police are part of the 99%, yet watching them was a nauseating feeling of “us versus them.”  The picture shown here is terrible in terms of composition—I was too short to capture the breadth of the assembled force and my camera phone was not up to the task. Yet, this is not my point. Taking pictures allowed me some sense of control, and strength in numbers pushed back what might have been a greater fear of calling attention to myself.

Concern for my wellbeing was momentarily interrupted by the recollection of a friend who was almost certainly in the thick of the protest. I texted her a picture of the ominous force, the location and a nudge to take care. In hindsight, the text was a bit naïve, as she has no doubt seen much worse in person, and again, they weren’t doing anything. But I was genuinely freaked out. Were the police scared? How did they feel lined up there with hundreds of people photographing them in a sea of palpable fear?

I stood at the edge of the protest, still unable to move to the Square, and began to look around. There were students in an academic building above W 14th street holding signs in the windows, one urging all students to occupy their classrooms. A small band of protesters, disconnected from the main body I suppose, began to chant below the windows.  A passer-by said to a friend, “Good for them. Bloomberg made it worse by kicking them out of the park.” This was indeed a delicious truth.

I felt like I was observing one suction cup on one tentacle of a giant 1%, mainstream media,Corporate-State eating squid, one of hundreds unleashed across the country. Fear began to yield to excitement and hope.

Sadly (or maybe fortunately based on my luggage-laden state), I had to make my way West to honor commitments in Jersey (and avoid a nasty parking ticket). I still feel energized though, sitting here in my cozy college town apartment, and determined to fully participate next time when I am better prepared for the risks.

Falling for It

In Culture, Education, PR on April 3, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I am exceptionally good at what I do.  I know you won’t click away now.  My arrogance has grabbed you.  I work in public relations.  They should do those Leno-style “man-on-the-street” interviews to ask people what PR people actually do.  That would be entertaining; although I’m going to tell you what we do right now.

We persuade.  We influence.  We whisper.  Like so many wizards behind curtains, we change narratives. The hidden quality is not accidental.  I’m probably pissing off a few colleagues right now by giving this away.  Many would prefer to be called “storytellers.”  Like Mr. Rogers, only not.  It is true, I have told stories in my career.  I’ve committed acts of journalism.  I’ve perpetrated information sharing that you later read in the New York Times under someone else’s by-line.  I’m not suggesting I actually write the stories you read (well, most of them at any rate).  I would, but I get paid more behind the curtain.  In this neighborhood, perception is reality, and perception-changers are kings¹.

Some may wonder how I can do what I do with any sort of conscience.  I’ve wondered the same.  I will tell you that I’ve never willingly promoted big oil or pharmaceuticals or God-forbid Monsanto.

I’m a PR person, not the Anti-Christ.

The more astute among you may have noticed I used the word “willingly” to modify the past-tense verb “promoted.”  That’s the tough part of living in the global society, of kicking it new school in America circa 2011.  You can never be exactly sure what you’re promoting, or buying, expelling or ingesting.  Everything is interconnected.  For example, you may have read about the astounding ways that General Electric legally gets away with not paying taxes.  This missing tax revenue might have been put to good use.

Just try not using a GE product sometime though.  You’d probably have to throw out an appliance or two, forget turning on a light bulb, hell, the energy itself is probably connected in some way to a GE subsidiary.  Just look at the astounding array of product groups (that’s groups, not individual products) for which they account.  GE is just the best at tax evasion.  All the other multi-nationals do it, too.  I know for a fact I’ve committed a lot of public relations for at least one of those corporations.  I won’t name them here.  I like to eat.

Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men told a group of NYU students at a workshop on Friday that there are 19,000 corporations registered in a single office building in the Cayman Islands.  There is not enough physical space on one of the islands to house that many operations, let alone one building.  It is a giant scam, a ruse, and they sip blended cocktails at our expense.  Or maybe just your expense, because I inadvertently promoted one of those 19k, and I will intentionally do it again soon because I like eating, and remember, I am exceptionally good at what I do.  This is bad news for you.

icarus|henri matisse|1947|1983.1009(8)

Image: Icarus by Henri Matisse from

Since I feel pity for you, I will share my secret, and it is, as I recently discovered, similar to the philosophy of Dave Bernbach, a titan of the advertising business.  I learn all the rules so that I can strategically break them.  I became an expert in “client expectations” and product marketing.  Then, I did the opposite of the norm.  I deliberately bent “best practices.”  I crushed the playbook.  I occasionally wrote decent messaging (that’s PR-speak for words that persuade you to buy stuff or ideas) by not reading my email every five minutes (I was literally marked down for the latter by clients).  As a result, I had the best relationships with “the influentials.”  My words were in the background of more “news.”  My special projects were more often approved to go “direct-to-consumers.”  In the end, I did and do these things not for personal glory (remember, what we do is hidden).  I did it to sell more <product>.  And you all fell for it.  I fell for it, too.  There is perhaps nothing more post-modern than defying convention in a way that reinforces conformity.

I’m trying to get out, and I say that with the twitch of an addict.  I’m slowly climbing the credentialed steps of academia.  I want to become a professor someday, and yes, I plan to teach public relations among other subjects.  The first thing I will say to my PR class is that public relations is quite possibly the worst subject in which a student could major… if the point of a college education is to develop critical thinking skills².  Of course, this is no longer the point.  The university is a corporation, too. College is vocational school.  There is nothing wrong with that except false advertising, and really poor placement rates.  Humanities programs are getting violently cut from institutions across the country.  This outcome is many years in the making.  Even <muffled noises so you can’t hear> years ago, my undergraduate major, English, prompted responses like, “That’s nice, but what are you going to do with it?”  (Btw, that do was dripping with upper-crust derision like Thurston Howell.)  Thankfully, I found my first job the old-fashioned way: nepotism.  Ah, from the depths of exploitation rise great capitalists.  Well, I’m actually an Icarus capitalist.  Hopefully, I won’t go splat on you.  I got the wings on sale.

I am, at thirtysomething, an anachronism for subscribing to a life of the mind, for genuinely believing that a single course might be worth $5,000.  Perhaps I’m a chump.

Perhaps I am the victim of some professorial cabal, working behind a clump of trees, conjuring ways to persuade me into massive debt.

All I can say is, the government can’t repossess my education… at least not until they come up with the technology for this purpose.  (One could argue advertising is one such technology, and I would listen.)

I choose this path not because of some higher moral ground.  The fact is I’m only good at writing and singing—communicating, if you will³.  Since Disney didn’t hire me out of college to play Ariel at a theme park, I figured the QWERTY was mightier than my vocal cords.  I tread here to someday make a difference, to write something or say something inspirational.  I chose higher education because, pound-for-pound, professors are my intellectual heroes (including my mother-an adjunct in, wait for it, Communication!) I’ve managed to find individuals within the university system who buck the corporatization effect, sometimes even without tenure, and the latter chumps deserve extra admiration because they are truly breaking the rules†.

¹For those of you who know me personally, this is a terrible pun on my last name.  My sincere apologies.

²Don’t get your knickers in a twist, PR grads.  I’m trying to make a larger point.  I know some PR majors capable of critically thinking my ass into next year.  Besides, do you think I’d want to teach PR if I didn’t respect it on some level? <pfft>

³My ex would add “schmoozing” to my short-list of skills.  As in, “Wow, babe, you really worked that room.”  This has a vaguely prostitution-y ring to it.  Thus the omission.

†Additional applause is also due to the PR people who continue to hire me for freelance work.  Despite my ornery views, I think there is such a thing as good propaganda.  My mentors and financiers will find it first.

Nuclear Energy Propaganda-Now in Three New Flavors!

In Advertising, Culture, PR on March 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm

A friend sent me a link to three pro-nuclear energy propaganda shorts featured on and Mother Jones.  The first was created, it would seem, in Japan as a response to the current disaster at Fukushima.  They equate potentially lethal levels of radiation from the reactor leak there to a cartoon character named Nuclear Boy, who has diarrhea.  The video is bizarre, perhaps owning to my Western sensibilities, or maybe because it is wrong in any language.  Even the team behind South Park might think twice about turning a nuclear disaster into one giant fart joke (emphasis on might).

Most disturbing is the treatment of the brave plant workers hailed by other media as the Fukushima 50.  Their sacrifice, with death almost certain and likely painful, is reduced to a group of anonymous doctors who are trying to help cure the sickness of the plant.  The narration cops to the dangerous nature of this healing work, and solicits gratitude, but it remains sanitized in the telling, free from the toxic poo and the stench of real death.  Of course, to deliver a frank treatment might cause panic, and the point of the short is to ease the fear of the public.  Yet this very motive is dangerous when it holds no connection to reality.  Cultural differences or no, glossing over a real threat with ill-timed humor is unacceptable.

In 1952, General Electric produced the second short featured on the link.  It is ostensibly about nuclear energy production, and its benefits.  I admit to a certain culturally specific seduction with the beautiful (to my eyes) hand-drawn and now nostalgia laden animation, the soothing, authoritative, and familiar voice of the narrator, and the easily digestible science.  In fact, the explanations about the way atoms and nuclear fission work seemed more effective than my high school Chemistry textbook¹.  Yet the propaganda has some insidious work at play:

  1. Like the Japanese video, it tries to infantilize an extremely complex subject, rendering it meek, without fangs.  Radiation is characterized by a dancing fool with an atom for a head, not a dragon, a bulldog, or even a boy with the runs.
  2. For essentially the same purpose, it uses ancient myths, but with a modern twist that dispenses with pesky hubris, i.e. the main point of Greek tragedy.  No, in this animated adventure atomic energy is personified by various muscular giants (read Gods): the warrior, the healer, etc.  All represent the wonderful potential of nuclear energy, and as the narration makes clear, all these giants are under the thumb of mankind.  The only reference to the dangers of nuclear energy come around minute 11:00, and pass quickly to an exciting array of applications to make our lives easier.
  3. This brings us to the wonder of bringing good things to life!  The old GE advertising tagline is apt here.  The short makes no mention of the company’s role in making all sorts of products from bombs to electric juicers to propaganda films.  It strikes me as a super stealthy way to promote a new Cold War rhetoric.  We use nuclear energy to power the stuff you want to buy, and conveniently keep the Russians subordinate to the power of some specific men.

The third short (linked above) is more overtly branded, a clear sign that we are dealing with another contemporary project.  The Simpsons and Fox Television lend their talents to create Smilin’ Joe Fission, a wild-west alien character on a mission to tame jumping bars of radiation.  The considerable educational merit of the GE short is lost, replaced with a bunch of yuks, including Joe’s attempt to hide that pesky nuclear waste under a carpet.  My assumption, given many hours of Simpson watching, is that this moment is satiric, a wink to the audience that the gremlins of nuclear energy are persistent.  However, the overall effect invites the viewer to buy another Bart toy, and allow the nuclear gun slingin’ to continue unabated, albeit with a yellow hue.


¹Of course, back in high school I was too busy singing musical numbers and writing radio commercials about scented tampons for my English class to really pay attention to the periodic table. The spot ended with the sound of a maxi-pad ripping off underwear.  My teachers had a love/hate relationship with me.  I like to push the envelope (what does that even mean?), but my chuckles end at nuclear radiation.

Big Bird Wants You

In Culture, Policy on February 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Alan Mutter is a veteran media executive, and runs a blog called Newsosaur.  He recently wrote a blog post arguing that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) should lose all federal funding because: a. there are more important things to fund, and b. NPR and PBS are rich enough already.


First, let’s challenge the notion that all the other media outlets do not receive federal subsidies.  This is, admittedly, outside of the scope of his argument, but since he (and the Republicans) only wants to defund CPB, I think it is relevant.  Those public airwaves are actually sold by our government on our behalf.  “Since 1993, the government has given to private interests as much as $480 billion in spectrum usage rights without public compensation” (Snider 1).  Mutter, as a veteran media executive, probably knows at least the rough value of spectrum, but he doesn’t bother telling you.  That would make his unfair argument a little fairer.  Remember that figure, $480 bbbb-billion to private interests.  (I stutter when I’m being robbed.) Funny, that money might have helped a few unemployed people.


Second, call me silly, but I think a roughly $420 million subsidy that helps deliver high quality, relatively independent (relative to those other commercial guys swimming in a sea of “fair” market values) information to the nation free of charge sounds better than silos of excess corn.  Mutter says,

“At a time when health, welfare and education programs are being slashed and burned at the federal, state and local levels, it is illogical, if not to say offensive, to argue that the large and well-heeled public broadcasting infrastructure needs government help more than hungry children, ailing seniors and unemployed people freezing in their homes.”

Public information is not a widget.  It should not be subjected to the same eyeball lusting demands of commercial media.  Is that unfair?  Yes.  Is it morally correct?  Yes.  Is CPB free from criticism?  No.  (In fact, Mutter gives a great synopsis of its detractors both right and left.) But the work they do should, in fact, be placed in the same bucket of stuff he says is more important to fund, like food and healthcare.  And I agree with him there, those things are very important.  So why not take that paltry $420 million for CPB from a new jet engine in the defense budget, or the elimination of a tax cut for the uber-wealthy?  Or maybe those spectrum subsidies?  That way those unemployed people freezing in their homes can get some cold comfort from their radios because, newsflash, they can’t afford cable television and they deserve quality journalism.

VIEWERS LIKE YOU (Not really, Alan)

Ah, but Freezing Joe will still get his CPB content because the CPB doesn’t need the federal money, plus, the CPB will actually gain something according to Mutter…

“But it would be worth it [to defund], because public broadcasters would gain the independence they – and viewers and listeners like us – deserve. Once and for all, the broadcasters could concentrate on broadcasting, instead of worrying about the next budgetary challenge from Capitol Hill or the White House.”

Here Mutter tries to have it both ways.  He praises the quality of the CPB repeatedly, but then says the “independence” from federal funds would free them up to focus on broadcasting.  Seems like they’ve been pretty focused.  It is laughable to suggest that worrying about the next public fund drive (now more frequent by his own admission) would divert any less attention than federal lobbying.


As for the “well-heeled” Gucci toting brass of CPB, Mutter’s criticism is misplaced.  Those top executives could make vastly more money working for the bastion of high quality journalism that is Fox News, yet they choose not to do so.  I wonder why?  Perhaps they think the CPB is more independent from gross ideology and shameless pandering for ratings, you know, the kinds of problems CPB faces less, thanks in part, to that federal funding.

I want to emphasize how disingenuous it is for Mutter to frame his argument in this way, in particular the characterization of the salaries of CPB executives.  He cites that the President of PBS made more than $632k in 2008.  This is offered as damning evidence of the excess of the CPB.  Take a guess how much Roger Ailes, the Chairman of Fox News, made in 2005?  Ready?  Try $7.1 million on for size (New York Magazine).  That’s $7.1 mmmm-million.  That is more than 10x more gold in the foot than the well-heeled exec at PBS.  Ah, but this is justifiable because Fox is a for-profit company?  Remember, Fox operates on loads of broadcast licenses throughout the U.S.  And those licenses are called what?  Federal subsidies.  But this is only fair.


Finally, Mutter pulls a surprise in the end.  It turns out he’s not against funding for ALL public media, just the CPB.  This is an argument actually worth exploring because the CPB should not enjoy a monopoly. However, rather than encouraging a discussion on the purpose of public media and those communities which are being more or less served by it, Mutter takes the easy road trying to cast CPB as the rich socialite who no longer needs Uncle Sam.  This is a less surprising move when you read about Mutter…

“Mutter now is a consultant specializing in corporate initiatives and new media ventures involving journalism and technology. He ordinarily does not write about clients or subjects that will affect their interests. In the rare event he does, this will be fully disclosed.”

That’s fff-funny; I missed the disclosure on this post.  I guess getting rid of federal funding for the CPB would not further “corporate initiatives and new media ventures involving journalism and technology.”


Snider, J.H., THE ART OF SPECTRUM LOBBYING: America’s $480 Billion Spectrum Giveaway, How it Happened, and How to Prevent it From Recurring. New America Foundation. 2007

New York Magazine.  Who Makes How Much: New York’s Salary Guide.  2005

Butchering Kubrick and Nietzsche

In Culture, Film, Philosophy on February 7, 2011 at 10:45 am

The first time I watched 2001 Space Odyssey, I ran out of the room at two points: the apes and the galactic fetus.  Both were too scary for ten-year-old me.  Upon viewing the film again, in its entirety multiple times for class, the post-30 me was still a little freaked out by the apes and the fetus.  Something tells me they are supposed to be scary.  It is unnerving to be confronted by both inherent savagery and alien re-birth.  That said, I still was not sure what Kubrick was trying to say, or what media he was critiquing, so I started with the music, as is my custom where applicable.

The Richard Strauss piece, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, indelibly linked to contemporary American pop culture through 2001, is itself a criticism of the Nietzsche poem of a similar title.  This fact alone makes 2001 a three-layered candy bar of media criticism, but it still doesn’t answer the why. Why caramel, why peanuts?  According to my music textbook¹, Strauss chose the Nietzsche poem in an effort to garner the best publicity, since the idea of the superman was blowing up around the turn of the century.  2001 also represents a turn of the century, albeit told from the perspective of 1968.  Interesting.  A clue, perhaps.  I hope we hear more about the history of the space program and other relevant bits from our professor on Monday night.

Still puzzled, I went to the Nietzsche poem and read the prologue.  Essentially a dude named Zarathustra (we’ll call him Z.) comes down a mountain to share his enlightenment with the peeps.  “What is the ape to man?”  He asks almost rhetorically, although I think the answer is not so simple, and from the looks of it Kubrick agrees.  Z. says the ape is an object of ridicule² and goes on about man’s super quest for “something beyond themselves.”  Was HAL supposed to be that something?  Is the bone famously tossed into the air by the ape only to match-cut to a glorious spaceship also that something?

In the poem, “superearthly hopes” are bad news.  God is dead.  The earth replaces God, reminiscent of the earth-hating machine that basically worms out terra firma until it becomes God in the E. M. Forster story, The Machine Stops.  Going off-planet in the film 2001 certainly seems like a bad idea, too.  We see a murderous super computer, a cabal of military men following the orders of a PR man–refusing to share vital information with the galactic community, and of course, a giant monolith capable of some mind-altering cosmic voodoo.  The monolith shows up at the dawn of man, too.  It is no coincidence that the alien form appears BEFORE the ape gets the idea to use the bone, first as a play thing, and then as a instrument of murder.  We dreamt of space travel before we came up with ICBMs.

Juxtapose the playful ape with the infant HAL in 1992 singing a song like a child, only to grow up and wipe out Dave’s crewmates when he somehow becomes sentient.  Was the monolith behind this, too?  We are given no explanation, only the collective wisdom that HAL’s model had never made a mistake.  This too connects to the machine in the Forster story, as does humanity’s over-dependence on technology.  In The Machine Stops, Kuno’s mother can’t answer the door without being carted to it, despite no actual physical handicap.  Similarly, Dave can’t open the pod bay doors without HAL.  Of course, this isn’t pure fiction.  We already rely on too much technology.  Forget fixing your own car.  Don’t try to watch a movie in the Bobst grad lounge (THAT computer has a mind of its own).  Also, you are perfectly safe going through the new airport security whizamagigs because they’ve never made a mistake (under optimal conditions).

But Dave fares better than Kuno.  He surely exercised enough for it—all that fancy special gravity running and punching.  Z. speaks of the “dangerous crossing from man to superman.”  The journey of man and of Dave, the hero, is certainly perilous.  Kuno dies enlightened, along with his more dim-witted society mates, in Forster’s technological dystopia.  By contrast, the Kubrick film is more hopeful.  Although he is extremely critical of the condition of society—of our innate violence, our over-reliance on machines, our sterile lifestyles (need some white to go with your white?), our fake food (liquid broccoli anyone?), he lets Dave not only live, but contact new life and be reborn in planetary scale.

Does Dave meet himself having dinner near the end of the film?  Since the superman is something beyond the self, as we know it, I do not interpret the final scenes so literally.  I think astronaut Dave sees himself in another dimension, made possible by the monolith.  Both Daves are alone, and I found this element rather sad, yet he lives.  Time, by my reading, speeds up in this other Dave dimension, and at his passing the alien mother visits once more delivering a new dawn of man.

¹Grout, Donald Jay; Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY. 1988

²I chatted with my dad, the philosopher king, about 2001. He said that he and his best friend (now a professor at CUNY) went to see it in the theater during its original release.  They apparently laughed so hard during the ape scenes that the usher almost kicked them out.  See, even in my dad’s likely substance-enhanced state, he understood the apes were funny.  Dad, for the win.

The Decemberists Warm January

In Culture, Uncategorized on January 26, 2011 at 12:10 am

A monument to build beneath the arbors

Upon a plinth that towers t’wards the trees

Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard

Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees

-Don’t Carry It All, The Decemberists

How many “pop” songs are this eloquent and evocative?  This is just one verse, but it sums up the gorgeous lyrics typical of any Decemberists song.  I saw the band, five members strong, play the first night of many sold out shows at the Beacon in New York last night.

I’d seen them previously three times in Portland, Oregon, where the band lives.  The day their instruments were stolen out of a van, it made local headlines.  No one fucks with the Decemberists, especially in Portland.  Even Mayor Sam Adams recorded the band’s intro for the current tour supporting the wonderful album, The King is Dead.  The mayoral salute was bizarre, but fitting for a quirky band (celebrating ten years together) madly attached to their Northwest roots.

Their tuneful terroir was especially evident this go around.  Bespectacled lead singer Colin Meloy was clad in a red flannel shirt, and the backdrop was a forest of evergreens (like the album cover—where is Carson Ellis?).  They are all gifted musicians, switching from fiddle, to guitar to upright bass.  Keyboardist Jenny Conlee frequently played the keys with one hand, and a xylophone with the other, throwing a harmonica in every now and then to really rub it in.  She’s almost as entertaining as Tori Amos, and she doesn’t even make mad love to her piano bench.

The new album has a roots or bluegrass flavor, but I hear a lot of REM from Document days and old New Order in the hooks.  In a potent encore of The Island, they also channeled a prog rock frenzy worthy of Yes.  This is not to say they are derivative.  In fact, they treat each new record as a unique experience.  I enjoy the ride every time, although I must confess I still miss the horn section smuggling my heart throughout Picaresque (2005).

They played my favorite song, Engine Driver, a painful ballad about unrequited love.  They eschewed the crowd favorite Mariner’s Song.  Since my neighbor was drunk and rude, I was relieved to miss her pitching back and forth with the faux boat on that one.  My only unsatisfied, secret request was to hear I Was Meant for the Stage.  Is there any performer who does not adore that song?

They transported me back to Portland for a spell, spinning a sonic valentine to my adopted hometown.  I could almost imagine the bouncy spring board floor at the Crystal.

I was meant for the stage,

I was meant for the curtain.

I was meant to tread these boards,

Of this much I am certain.

Oh, Colin.