Monday, May 24, 2010

The Real Circus Sideshow of New York City

Have you ever seen the movie “Freaks?” It’s a horror movie from the 1930s about circus sideshow performers. The movie caused a lot of controversy when it was made; the director cast real people with deformities as the sideshow performers instead of just using makeup on regular actors, and this horrified audiences, evidently. But while the movie was received poorly at the time and even banned for 30 years in the UK, it made a huge comeback in the 1970s and 1980s and has become a cult favorite, so much so that lines from the film appear in TV shows, pop songs, comic books, and other media. Now, people just love watching the conjoined twins and the legless man on screen. I mean, what’s more entertaining than watching someone suffering from “bird-headed dwarfism” dance on a table, right? It’s gross – not the film, but the fact that people love to watch it. You know what else people love to watch? Reality TV.

Before I get into my rant, let me first say that I am not comparing a set of conjoined twins to the cast of “Jersey Shore.” The former was born with a physical disability whereas the latter chose tanning over school and drinking over everything else. While it might warrant discussion that we pay people to flaunt their stupidity, that’s a separate issue. Rather, I am reminded of “Freaks” by the seeming psychotic split Kelly Bensimon suffered on last week’s episode of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” A few columns ago, I suggested that people stop watching “The Housewives.” I won’t get into my reasons again (you can read the column, “When Girls Attack,” in the archives), but in case you read that one, I want you to know that I did stop watching it. I removed all “The Housewives” from my DVR queue. Yeah, yeah, I used to record them. All of them. Orange County, New York, New Jersey, Atlanta: it was coast to coast, beautiful madness, people. But I quit them all, and I was doing just fine living my life without Ramona, Tamra, NeNe, and the rest -- until Friday morning, when I woke to find the internet ablaze with “Did Housewife Kelly Have a Breakdown on TV?!” and “Kelly Bensimon Unravels On ‘The Housewives!’” and “OMG KELLY IS ONE CRAZY B**CH!” I’m not a hypocrite, so I didn’t watch the actual episode. But I watched a few clips on the internet, and my first reaction was, “OMG Kelly is one crazy b**ch!” And I’m not talking crazy as in the mixture of narcissistic personality and diet pill dependence with which all The Housewives seem afflicted. No, no. I’m talking crazy as in mentally ill and needs medical attention. To wit, a number of times during dinner, Kelly accused Bethenny of trying to kill her. She wasn’t being figurative, like, “Oh you’re trying to kill me with your nonsense." She thinks Bethenny is literally trying to kill her. So there we have paranoid delusions. Even more telling was her inability to carry on a conversation in any logical way. When Bethenny responded to Kelly’s accusation with “Nobody knows what you are talking about,” Kelly came back with, “Okay. Satchels of gold.” Satchels. Of. Gold? Right. Later, when Bethenny told Kelly that she was ready to listen, that she was ready to “hear the truth,” Kelly screamed back, “Al Sharpton! Oh my God, Al Sharpton!” Now, look, I love a good Sharpton shout-out as much as the next girl, but, um, WTF? In addition to the paranoid delusions and the cryptic crazy talk, Kelly also cried, screamed, laughed, and skipped – all in a 2 minute period. All I’m trying to say here is, the woman seemed unstable to me, and I really don’t think she’s a good enough actress to fake it.

I realize I’m making fun, and I shouldn’t be, since my point is that it’s not really funny. The woman does seem to be unraveling, and someone – or a whole network of people – has decided the best thing to do is film it. It’s like the old Sam Kinison bit. If you don’t know who Sam Kinison is, he’s a comedian. Well, he was. He’s a dead comedian now. He’s been dead for a while. But when he was alive, on his first appearance on David Letterman, he did a six minute bit in which he made a joke about the TV commercials that ask you to donate money to feed starving children. He said, “I see the same commercials, these little kids out there, hungry. I watch this on TV at home and I go, ‘How sad. How cruel!’ Because I know the film crew could give this kid a sandwich.” Ha ha ha, right?! He has a point. Are the people at Bravo at all concerned about KBen? Because I am. And it isn’t only Kelly whom I worry is being exploited in a “Freaks” sort of way. There are Heidi and Lindsay, too. These women are losing their minds, for real, and people are profiting from it -- without trying to help. It’s one thing to enjoy watching people act like fools (I’m talking about YOU, “Jersey Shore” cast). It’s another thing to televise someone’s descent into mental illness for no reason but fun and profit. No one is getting anything else out of this. The women aren’t getting help, and we aren’t gaining any insight into mental illness. It’s just a freak show. And I’m not even blaming those of you, (okay, fine, of us) who watch the stuff out of curiosity. It’s human nature to be drawn to oddities. But when I see that someone is actually unwell or mutiliating her body or drugging herself to death, I have to wonder why it’s being broadcast. And I have to wonder if I am making it worse by contributing to the profit being made from the exploitation.

Look, maybe Kelly isn’t crazy. Her response to the horror over her behavior was to say that the editing made her look crazy and it makes for good TV. Both of those things are probably true to different extents. But then she also said that she is important to the show because she brings a “stagnant, frenetic energy” to the cast. I’m going to cut her a break on that word jumble, though, and chalk it up to the fact that she skipped a few vocab lessons rather than to the whole crazy thing. And maybe I am underestimating her; maybe she is a talented actress who doesn’t care about her image. I’m skeptical. I think she’s unwell. But regardless of the undetermined diagnosis for Ms. Bensimon, I know that we seem to be growing dangerously desensitized to reality TV’s lack of mercy.

One thing about the film “Freaks,” which is ironic at best and tragic at worst, is that the real moral of its story was pro-freak. In the movie, the “freaks” are portrayed as trusting and honorable people. The villains, who are the only two “normal” members of the circus sideshow business, try to murder one of the “freaks” to steal his inheritance. While the message is lost on most of the people who watch the movie simply to marvel at the cast, it is eerily relevant now. If Kelly isn’t sick, great. I hope she isn’t. But Heidi is. And Lindsay is. And I know someone in the camera crew could give those kids a sandwich.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We Can Fix You; We Have the Technology

Every Monday when I sit down to write this column, I am ready with the opening. I always know how I want to start. But I have to tell you, I have been sitting here for over thirty minutes staring at my screen and for the life of me I have no idea how to introduce the topic. There is just no pithy way for me to ease into this outrageous nonsense; there is no cute little anecdote I can present before smoothly segueing into the subject. So I am just going to throw it right at you. No kisses, no dinner, just the raw deal. Here it is:

Healthy magazine, a British periodical that promotes “health and well-being” radically retouched the cover model for their April issue because she was…wait for it…too thin. Let me just give that to you again: a magazine Photoshopped a model’s entire body to make her look heavier and therefore healthy. And this wasn't a quick retouching. It took thirty pounds of digital weight, according to the editor, Jane Druker, who explained that when the model arrived, “there were plenty of clothes that we couldn’t put on her because her bones stuck out too much. She looked beautiful in the face, but really thin and unwell.” So the editor of a magazine that promotes HEALTH decided to proceed with featuring a model who was so thin that she looked UNHEALTHY by just AIRBRUSHING the HEALTH right onto her. Sorry to yell, but, I mean, come on. Even in our messed up world of Heidi Montag and Real Housewives and Baby Food Diets, this is an all time low. Ms. Druker did a pathetic job of defending her magazine by saying, “Sometimes when you cast a model, they look OK, but then when they turn up on the shoot day, they might not have eaten for two or three days. You’re not in charge of their health.” Um, you are certainly in charge of whom you pay, Druker, and you should have sent that model’s scrawny a*s home with a “no thanks” and a sandwich.

I know Jane Druker is not a singular, sinister force in the world of unrealistic media images. But Druker represents a terrifying trend in these images. It’s gone from Photoshopping out zits and undereye circles to making already thin girls even thinner to hiring models who are so thin they look sick and digitally building the “perfect” body on their skeletons. What is happening? It has to be some sort of exponential equation or inverse algorithm or whatever math phrase means “holy crap, this stuff is out of control.” It’s not only the retouching that is out of control; look at what happens to unretouched images. You know where you see the candid photos of famous women that don’t get airbrushed beyond recognition? They land in Star magazine’s “Worst Beach Bodies” feature, where the editors add yellow arrows to point out cellulite and caption the shots with clever phrases like “thigh anxiety.” No wonder fashion mags have given up on using real photos of women. "THIGH ANXIETY."

Jane Drucker’s preposterous decision at Healthy magazine is unthinkable, but it's instructive. It reinforces the fact that, in general, magazines care more about making money than about promoting health. They want to create the most attractive image, no matter how unrealistic or hypocritical, because they want to sell magazines. So if you think it’s a little scary that editors have decided to just draw women from scratch, don’t buy the mags with obviously Photoshopped covers and avoid issues like last week’s Star. The magazines print what we buy. Let’s stop literally and figuratively buying the idea that a computer generated image of a woman looks better than a real one.

Monday, May 10, 2010

When Girls Attack

Remember when kids bullied each other in person? Ah, those were the days. It was so much simpler when a girl was tripped in the lunchroom or pushed into the lockers, wasn’t it? Now, with all the fabulous new social networking sites out there, the bully has to choose his or her forum. Should I start a Facebook hate page or a name calling thread on Formspring? Twitter rant or MySpace assault? So many social networks to choose from, so much hate, and so little time. It’s hard out there for a mean girl. And it is the girls who seem to be causing all the trouble these days.

It must be the bevy of new sites where it’s easy to intimidate, harass, and talk plain ol’ smack about a person, because girls aren’t content with just an eye roll or the silent treatment at lunch anymore. They’re getting uglier and dirtier. Much has been written lately about the seeming spike in girl bullying, and the connection between this bullying and online social networks is a particularly hot topic. The New York Times published an article last week about Formspring and bullying in which one teenage girl said of the website’s posts, “In seventh grade, especially, it’s a lot of ‘Everyone knows you’re a slut’ or ‘You’re ugly.””  Later in the article, the mother of a teen explained what she saw in her daughter’s Formspring account, saying, “The comments are all gross and sexual.” I don’t know how much blame should be assigned to Formspring and Facebook and how much to parents – I do know that the psychosocial reasons why kids and teens bully each other are many and complicated. So I am not going to get into that whole thing. I would like to ask one question, though: is anyone really surprised? Girls are competing viciously. They’re attacking each other’s appearances and sexual behaviors. Um, of course they are. It’s no wonder that the graphic suggestions, ruthless insults, and angry intimidations are spilling from their fingers like so many OMGs and LOLs.  If they have eyes and ears, our girls are provided endless instruction on how to insult and hate other girls in the ugliest ways possible. There are cruelty classes everywhere they turn.

Print magazines, for one, do a great job of inciting nastiness among girls (see “Who Wore it Best” in Us Weekly or "Worst Bikini Bodies" in Star), but the real tutorial on hazing and slander is reality TV. It’s basically graduate school for bullies. I’m not talking about obvious girlfight spectacles like “The Bad Girls’ Club” or “The Real World.” I’m talking about the ostensibly more civilized shows like “The Bachelor.” Just think about “The Bachelor” for a minute. Twenty-five women compete on film for the affection of one man. On at least every other episode, one of the women pulls the bachelor aside to rat out another girl who is allegedly sleeping with someone else/hiding a secret past/really just a total b**ch. And when the man is not around, the women like to make each other cry. But, actually, “The Bachelor” looks like charm school compared to “The Real Housewives.” That show is 60 minutes a week of women hating each other for a living. Don’t get me wrong; I have enjoyed some episodes of this franchise in my day. There is something frighteningly hypnotic about a bunch of Botox-happy rich chicks competing in the Narcissism Olympics. It shouldn’t be entertaining, though, because these shows are dangerous given what they model for young girls.  Last season on the New Jersey version, Teresa called Danielle a “prostitution wh**e” before flipping over a table in her direction. In Orange County, Tamra forced alcohol on Gretchen at a dinner party to get her “naked drunk” in the hope she would embarrass herself. Oh, and, later, Tamra announced to everyone that there are naked internet photos of Gretchen. Let’s not forget New York, where the other housewives laughed at Ramona as she walked in a fashion show. They later traded snarky comments about how awful she looked. Hmmmm, sound familiar? I can’t imagine where teens are getting “Everyone knows you’re a slut” and “You’re ugly.”

There is definitely a bullying problem on websites like Formspring and Facebook, and it is certainly shocking to hear about such cruelty from young girls. I hope people continue to pay attention and think about better ways to help teens navigate the toxic combination of hormones and insecurity. But in the meantime, let’s take some ownership, grown-ups. I’m not preaching – I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve watched marathons of the housewives. Marathons. But what are we encouraging in the media? What do we model and allow to be modeled for girls? How much cruelty do we laugh at every day? Give it some thought. We can’t expect the kids to change if the adults don’t. And if you are a young girl, please don’t accept the reality on these reality shows. You can be better. Please, please be better. In the name of all that is good and holy, I am begging you. BE BETTER.

Monday, May 3, 2010

From Rorschach to Facebook

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who care about Farmville and people who don’t give a crap about Farmville. If you don’t know what I am talking about, allow me to clarify. Farmville is a Facebook game. If you are not familiar with Facebook, well, I can’t really help you and I’m surprised you have an iPhone. I have mocked Farmville here before, partly because I don’t really get it, and partly because I am sick of seeing the strangely desperate pleas for farm supplies in my News Feed. “Clara needs 3 bricks to finish her nursery in Farmville!” “Tom sold his cow in Farmville!” “Laine’s new Farmville puppy is hungry! Please help!” I don’t know where these people get the bricks or the cows or the food, and I don’t care. I do know that Farmville is a game. I refuse to learn any more. I mean, adults with virtual puppies – hungry virtual puppies? It’s creepy, people. And stop asking me for hay bales. I don’t have any.

It’s a little funny, I admit, that I so disparage the Farmies (that's right, Farmies) given how much time I spend on Facebook. This is the second column about it. It’s that big a part of my life. I am what you might call a "frequent status updater." And I never bother to sign out. And I post photos of everything, from what I cooked for dinner tonight to the length of the security line I’m waiting in at the airport. I’m that Facebook friend. This morning, when I had the archetypal problem of trying desperately to formulate a status update when really I had nothing to say, it occurred to me that my Facebooking is a valid personality test. My posting behaviors reveal important things about me –  things that I embrace and things that I deny. And if you use Facebook (or, as they say, if you “have a Facebook”), this is probably true of you, too.  I’m not going to tell you the things it says about me; I’m horrified enough to discover how clearly I am revealed by my posting. Rather, I would like to tell you a few things I might know about you from your Facebook:

You like sappy movies. If you regularly post links to YouTube videos of animals, babies, or anyone performing an acoustic ballad, then you liked “The Notebook.” Or at least you would.

Your partner or spouse doesn’t pay enough attention to you. If you post gratuitous photos of yourself in formal clothing or take a new profile pic every week with your webcam, it might be time to see other people.

You talk too much when you’re drunk. If your relationship status is “It’s complicated,” you have a lot of stuff you’d like to talk about, but you usually wait until you are drunk to do it. And then you go home and call your ex. While you’re drunk. At 3 a.m. Hence the aforementioned complications.

You are under 25. If you have more than 10 friends whom you’ve never actually met, there are more than 500 “Photos of You,” or your status updates use too manyyyyyyy extra letterssssssss, you were not born before VH-1 was on the air.

You’re hardcore. If your profile information contains the word atheist, republican, or vegan, then you want us to know your position, you’re sticking to it, and you’d love to debate it. It’s not enough simply to be a vegan, atheist, or republican. I know plenty of indecisive, non-confrontational atheists. But they don’t identify as such in their Facebook profile information.

See? It’s no joke. I could go on and on. Now, of course, there are exceptions. I mean, all sorts of anomalies occur in nature, and therefore in Facebook. Sometimes a person likes kitten movies but not chick flicks. Absolutely. But, for the most part, you know I’m right.
Here’s the thing: whether or not there is any validity to my clever little list, the sad truth is that I sometimes think like this, and so do a lot of other people. It’s the new prejudice. Basically, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who treat Facebook like real human contact and people who don’t. I pick on the former group a lot, and in fact I am one of them. I don’t know about you, but I need to repersonalize my interpersonal communication. And I probably should stop drawing conclusions about people I don’t know. Except for the Farmies.