Superbowl Superstition

An article written by Eric Russell that ran in Maine’s Portland Press Herald begins with the following:

“If the New England Patriots lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1, the fault may not lie with coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady or with how much air pressure is in the football.
The fault may be Gretchen Faulkner’s.”

Why do I care? Well, two reasons. I’m a recent (but dedicated!) Patriots fan. But more importantly I know Gretchen Faulkner. I know her really well. She’s my boyfriend’s mother. 

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The Seattle Seahawks’ logo is, as Russell describes, based on “a transformation mask originating from the Native American Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.” It has been part of the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum collection for decades. It is now on loan to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum largely due to Gretchen’s initiative.

Since the mask has been displayed in Seattle, the Seahawks have remained undefeated. Gretchen, James, and I are all glad Seattle got to spend time with the mask. But frankly, we hope its luck runs out on Sunday.

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Update [February 2nd]: Even a lucky mask could not prevail over the likes of Tom Brady, Gronk Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler et al. Maybe it switched allegiance at the last moment and bewitched Pete Carroll. How else do you explain his decision to go for the pass at the 1 yard line? Either way we’ve got ourselves a Superbowl victory and Gretchen’s reputation as a Pats fan remains solidly intact.

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Call him a crybaby now, I dare you.

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My Problem With The Body Positive Movement

There’s a new kid on the Body Positive block. This Girl Can is a UK national campaign aimed at encouraging women of all shapes to get physically active. The blurb below their YouTube video (which has been viewed by over 5 million people since it came online two weeks ago) states: “This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”

It’s not a perfect campaign. The Guardian has some valid concerns, one being why are women being referred to as girls? And The Telegraph notes that middle-aged and senior women are non-existent in the ads. Its message also doesn’t feature any people with physical disabilities. Still, the campaign’s most redeeming quality is its focus on fitness. I’m on board with the idea it’s sending: that women of all shapes and sizes can and should learn to embrace fitness and the fact that their bodies allow them to. Plus they make it look like a lot of fun.

As a Body Positive message it’s a pretty good one because I’ll be honest, I have one big problem with the broader Body Positive movement: its focus on bodies at all.

Whether it’s buying into the “healthy at any size” mantra or spending a lot of time pinning “thinspiration” to a Pinterest board, the common thread is an obsession with women’s bodies and how they should look. As women, and even as feminists, we spend an awful lot of time telling each other what is right and wrong about how we view each other’s bodies. Placing such a high value on body image risks minimizing other characteristics – like intelligence, humour, compassion, courage – that frankly are more important.*

Interestingly, one of my favourite things that has ever been written on our cultural obsession with bodies was a post author J.K. Rowling made to her website several years ago. She has since revamped her website and the post is no longer there but I loved it so much at the time that I wrote it down. This anecdote is really illustrative of my problem with how we talk about each other’s bodies (a problem that I’m not sure the Body Positive movement effectively subverts):

“I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!”

She goes on to point out that:

“‘Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her… is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?”

When we care deeply about fat vs. thin we are by definition loading these terms with power and meaning. We are responding to insults about our bodies by trying to reclaim that insult and while the intention is good, the discussion still inevitably circles back to weight and how we should feel about it. It’s hard for me to see this as progress.

Take for example the recent Internet kerfuffle surrounding Tess Munster, a plus-size model who was recently signed to a major modeling agency. Her message is “eff your beauty standards” and predictably people are debating whether or not she is a positive role model for women or if she is promoting obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s the same old, tired debate that never reaches any meaningful conclusion or changes anybody’s mind. For the record, when I first read about Tess Munster my first thought was “Good for her.” My second thought was “Wow, she’s pretty. How does she do her eyeliner like that? How do I get my hair that shiny and bouncy?” I was still focused on what she looked like. Whether we view her positively or negatively we are all still obsessed with Ms. Munster’s physical appearance. We know very little about her as a person. This isn’t necessarily problematic as she is a model after all. Models make their living and become known to the world through their bodies. I just wish we knew more about the person we want to hold up as an example for women.

Similarly, the song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor was released this summer and hailed by some (though not all) as a Body Positive message. But the message of self-love still relied on the cliché that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” and “You know, I won’t be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll.” Once again we saw the conversation circling the same drain: “Real women have curves!” “You’re body shaming thin women!” “She’s promoting an unhealthy lifestyle!” “You don’t have to be skinny to be healthy!”

I’m not trying to skewer Meghan Trainor any more than Tess Munster. They are both women making their own choices about their careers and their bodies and all the more power to them. What I’m trying to do is examine our reaction to them and note that maybe we could empower women in a way that doesn’t focus on bodies.

I would love for us to teach young girls that not only should they love their bodies but that there are also more important things to worry about. I know this is idealistic and the valid counterargument is that since we don’t live in such a utopian society we should embrace body positivity. I acknowledge that point but question if we’re effectively counteracting all the nastiness related to the judgment of women’s bodies. I also wonder why we devote so much time to the subject when women still have to conquer major issues like reproductive rights and political under-representation. Sure, we are complex individuals capable of caring about multiple issues at once. But I wish the online debate about the best way to get women into political office (as an example) was even half as vigorous as the online debate about body image.

If we keep digging our heels into the superficial issues related women’s bodies (i.e. what they look like) will we be able to get out? Will we still be able to entrench within society an alternative idea – that bodies shouldn’t matter as much as character? These are not just rhetorical questions. I’m open-minded on this issue and keen to be educated. But every time I see something online – whether it’s body shaming or body positivity – I scream inside “Who cares?! We have more important things to worry about as women and as people!” So instead of screaming on the inside, I thought I’d work through my thought process here.

To respond to the question put forth by J.K. Rowling – yes, I think there are tons of things more important than one’s size. And I think most women and feminists would agree. Hence my issue with the Body Positive movement. It tries to re-shape the conversation about women’s bodies but why not actively work to shift the conversation away from bodies? That’s what I like about the Ask Her More campaign. It encourages the media to ask women on the red carpet about more than their appearance. It’s great that viewers can ooh and ahh over the pretty dresses (absolutely nothing wrong with that) and also learn more about the actress and her film/show/music. I wish this line of thinking would become more pervasive. Wouldn’t it be great if a little girl beamed with more pride when we tell her she’s smart than when we tell her she’s pretty? Wouldn’t that be the most positive kind of empowerment?

*Note: I know my “let’s just not focus on bodies” stance is not helpful for those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other body-related issues. But I have to ask, does the Body Positive movement help them? I’m not an expert so that is a genuine question. I am inclined however to think that such individuals would benefit most from treatment and care by a mental health professional, not an ad campaign.
Also, thanks to my super smart sister Christine Handrahan for her comments as I was writing this entry. All opinions remain my own.

The Interview: Not The Satire We Were Looking For

I saw The Interview over the weekend because it became available to stream via Netflix. It was… exactly as bad as I thought it would be. Basically Tina and Amy had it right at The Golden Globes.

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NBC / Dick Clark Productions

Easily the most interesting thing about The Interview is all the hoopla surrounding its release namely Sony’s decision to not release the film in theatres after receiving threats from the North Korea government and having its computer systems hacked by a group alleged to have ties to the latter.

The film itself was actually pretty disappointing. And I had super low expectations. What’s disappointing about the film isn’t necessarily the humour; I was expecting low-brow butt jokes and misogyny. It’s that at times the film veers close to interesting satire only to immediately revert back to its low standard of vaguely racist, boring gimmicks that weren’t funny the first time but are nevertheless beaten to death.

I don’t require that humour be sophisticated, complex, or any other quality that might make it “high-brow.” I enjoy silliness whether or not it makes a salient point. The problem with the low-brow humour of The Interview is that it committed comedy’s fatal flaw: it didn’t make me laugh.

State of the Union Wrap Up

My bingo card might have been a little too easy. I got bingo a little less than halfway through the speech.

A lot of people point out that watching the State of the Union is a waste of time because substantive policies rarely emerge from the rhetoric of this particular political theatre. They’re right of course but…

Plus there were brief moments that made it worth watching live. Getting trolled by The White House with #YesWeTan for instance.

Spoiler alert: much to my disappointment Obama did not wear a tan suit.

Other disappointments: Biden maintained a pretty high sense of decorum (more so than last year), many in attendance apparently forgot to silence their phones (really? Have you never been to a movie theatre?), and not enough people appreciated the fact that the First Lady was wearing the EXACT same outfit Alicia Florrick wore in The Good Wife. 

On a more serious note, Obama also didn’t really mention the state of race relations in the country. This was as close as he got:

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”

Many are saying that these comments were insufficient and I agree. It’s disappointing that Obama isn’t taking a harder stance on racism. I’m still holding on to hope that that’s an area he’ll make more of an impact on during his remaining time in office.

The GOP response was also really boring and really awkward. Respect for Senator Joni Ernst’s background and awesome shoes (and noting that delivering the rebuttal is rarely rewarding) but wow she sounded like the voice on the other end of a 1-800 number automated menu. She also said some things about Iowa and rain which was confusing and weird. I think we’re supposed to pull ourselves up by our bread bags but I can’t be sure.

Other high points included the fact that Obama referenced bisexual and transgender people and the need to condemn persecution against them. It marked the first time members of the bisexual and transgender community were acknowledged in a State of the Union address.

He also took a strong stand on climate change while poking fun at obnoxious climate change deniers:

“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.”

And of course, there was this at 0.44:

A mic drop moment if there ever was one. Empty rhetoric or not last night’s State of the Union was a chance to see President Obama at his best. And he delivered.

State of the Union Bingo

My State of the Union bingo card is all set.

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It’s my best guess of what the President will cover during his address with a few wild cards thrown in – will he explicitly mention Ferguson? Will he outline any plan for ISIS/IS? Any mention of negotiations with Iran?

We’ll find out tonight!

Selma and Civil Resistance

I went to see Selma over the weekend and my first thought as I walked out of the theatre was that Selma lives up to the hype. So often when I expect a movie to be great I can’t help but feel disappointed if the movie ends up being merely good. Not the case with Selma. It was a fantastic experience that exceeded my high expectations. Some may claim this is confirmation bias in action but I don’t think so as I tend to experience the reverse when I have high expectations for a film.

I also walked out there pretty indignant that David Oyelowo didn’t receive a Best Actor nomination. To be fair, I haven’t seen the other performances nominated but they each have to be pretty damn spectacular to warrant Oyelowo’s exclusion (and based on some reviews I’ve read, I’m skeptical that this is the case). His Martin Luther King, Jr. is a precise mix of humanity and gravitas. His King is both the familiar, inspirational leader that we celebrate today and a fallible man balancing the leadership of one of the most important civil rights movements of the 20th century with family life and his own occasional doubts. It must have been a hugely challenging role and Oyelowo didn’t miss a single beat.

It is equally bizarre that Ava DuVernay didn’t receive a Best Director nomination. Selma is full of powerful moments that in the hands of a less skilled director could have been overwrought or corny. From the way the Bloody Sunday scenes were shot to the intimate moment between MLK and Coretta Scott King (where according to IMDB DuVernay achieved such realistic tension by having Oyelowo pause for an uncomfortably long time before saying his line) lots of small but important decisions were made that really helped elevate this film. It’s a shame that DuVernay didn’t receive a nomination in a year so lacking in racial and gender diversity. More importantly it’s a shame because she deserves the recognition.

After watching Selma I also left with a slightly more uncommon opinion. I think President Lyndon Johnson comes off well in this film. The divide in this debate seems to be the “it’s historically inaccurate – LBJ was very supportive of the Civil Rights Movement” camp versus the “that’s missing the point because the film is about the movement and its perspective” camp. Though they disagree with whether or not the portrayal of LBJ is an acceptable or unacceptable twisting of history, both camps basically acknowledge that the President is portrayed as more antagonist to the movement than he was in real life. Coming from a place of relative ignorance (I’m catching up on my American history being a new resident to the country) I was actually left with a positive impression of LBJ in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. I sympathized with the President when he said to King “you’ve got one big issue, I’ve got a hundred and one.” I understood the difficult position he was in by wanting to support the movement but needing, but virtue of his status as a politician, to take politics into consideration. And I was glad in the end when the President rebuked the racist Governor Wallace and did the right thing by signing the Voting Rights Act. Historically precise or not, I didn’t think LBJ was an unsympathetic character in this account of a key moment in the fight for racial equality.

Also, the interactions between MLK and LBJ throughout Selma served an important purpose. It underscored why there was a need for a Civil Rights Movement in the first place and why it adopted the strategy and tactics that it did. Because the American political system (like so many others) is structured such that even someone as sympathetic to the cause as LBJ needed to have his hand forced from the outside. It reminded us that activism is inextricable from politics.

Which brings me to the thing I loved most about Selma: its attention to civil resistance as a strategic choice. MLK and the Civil Rights Movement is famous for its strict adherence to the principle of non-violent resistance. Selma does a fantastic job demonstrating the underappreciated fact that practicing non-violence was not just a moral decision but also a strategic calculation. There is a great scene where King meets with student leaders and explains that the personality of the local sheriff will be key to determining the movement’s next steps. When King learns that Sheriff Jim Clark is a racist prone to overreaction, King knows he can use that to his movement’s advantage. He knows how the optics will play out if his movement remains peaceful in the face of police brutality. He knows this behaviour will make headlines and place much needed pressure on the administration.

I learned about civil resistance from the very best: Dr. Erica Chenoweth.* I was in the first class at the University of Denver that she taught on the subject and I’ve been fascinated  by the subject ever since. I loved that Selma highlighted many of the things we learned about in class, like Civil Rights Movement participants role-playing non-violent resistance in preparation for an event. As civil resistance movements continue to be an important part of political and social change in our world, it was gratifying to see Selma offer such an on-point portrayal.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend 10 weeks learning about civil resistance and its remarkable efficacy in the Civil Rights Movement and elsewhere. If you don’t have quite that much time to commit, allow me to offer the next best thing: Dr. Chenoweth’s Tedx Talk in Boulder a couple of years ago. There’s a lot of details, case studies, and fascinating data where this came from but the video is a great overview of the basics.

My weekend was well spent watching Selma and looking back to my civil resistance class. I can’t think of a better way to mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

*Full disclosure: In addition to being a former student of Dr. Chenoweth, I am one of her many RAs (though I do not work on her civil resistance projects). Any time I promote her stuff it is a personal choice I’ve made because I think her work is important.

Thinking Out Loud: Oscar Nominations Edition

They’re here. The 2015 Academy Awards nominations. The full list can be found here.

Remember how I said in the last couple of posts that award shows like the Oscars (perhaps especially the Oscars) are oddly political, potentially meaningless, outdated, and woefully undiverse? Well, that certainly seems to be as true as ever. Especially the last point. Now, I have to admit that I haven’t seen many of the films in the major categories (Best Picture, Directing, Acting) but something is still painfully obvious: the Oscars are SUPER white.

Of course this fact should shock nobody but that doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed by it. There’s more I can and should say on this topic but any commentary on the nominations should probably happen after I’ve seen a few more of the films. So for now, here’s me thinking out loud on the nominations.

  • Selma is nominated for Best Picture but nothing else (except for Best Song). Doesn’t that seem weird? Serious question: how often has it happened that a film is nominated for Best Picture but none of the other major categories? Because right now, I’m thinking what Patton Oswalt is thinking:

  • Update:  I found an answer to my question! A quick Google search led me to The Official Academy Awards Database. Wow, this is truly a film and data lover’s dream come true. Please excuse me while I descend down the rabbit hole. My search also yielded a list of films nominated for Best Picture but not nominated for Best Director. What’s useful about this list is that it also provides the number of total categories in which the film earned a nomination. It doesn’t say what those categories are (and I have neither the time nor patience to go check each of them) but there’s enough information there to conclude that what happened to Selma is pretty rare at least in recent history. Since 1951, only 5 films have received a Best Picture nomination while receiving only one other nomination (including failing to win a Directing nomination). These were Decisions Before Dawn (1951), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Blind Side (2009), A Serious Man (2009), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). So it’s certainly not unprecedented but it doesn’t strike me as common either.
  • There is not a single person of colour nominated in an acting category this year. Sure, it could be that there wasn’t a single non-white actor who gave a worthy performance this year. Or it could be related to this:

  • Should I go see American Sniper? Just the trailer makes me uncomfortable and I’ve read some interesting articles recently that criticize its factual inaccuracy (apparently the film depicts him as a stand-up guy when he is actually a huge jerk). But I can’t be critical of it if I don’t actually see it. Plus, I’m open to having my mind changed. Then again I probably won’t be able to see all the nominated films before February 22nd so do I want to spend my time and money going to see American Sniper over some of the other films I have been wanting to see regardless of their recent Oscar nomination? Ugh, I still can’t decide.
  • I loved Birdman so I’m excited to see it have so many nominations. And Emma Stone, my spirit animal, has been nominated which I think is really cool! (See? I’m not a complete grouch.)
  • Birdman is also nominated for Cinematography which is a bit funny to me because I actually didn’t like the cinematography in the film at all. I felt very reminiscent of the cinematography in The Wrestler which I also hated. Just one of those things that I can appreciate but just isn’t my thing. (Aw man, I’m back to being a grouch.)
  • This made me giggle:

  • Everyone is really upset about The Lego Movie not being nominated. I want to share their outrage out of loyalty to Chris Pratt but I have to admit I still haven’t seen the movie. (I know, I know. I watch a lot of Netflix instead.)
  • I feel like Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will probably win Best Actor (and deservedly so) but is it wrong to root for Steve Carell? The thought of the former Michael Scott winning an Oscar just fills me with such inexplicable joy.
  • Gone Girl was also shafted in my humble opinion. No director nomination for David Fincher (the Twitterverse was chatting that Fincher doesn’t play ball with the Academy and so he is routinely snubbed) and no adapted screenplay either. Bums me out because I really enjoyed Gone Girl. I think it’s one of the most successful adaptations of a popular novel that I’ve ever seen.
  • I’m definitely going to see Selma this weekend.
  • TL;DR:

[Updated: January 15, 2015. Added some thoughts.]