Don’t Cry for Me, Angelina: An Elitist’s Guide to Hating the Jersey Shore

Jersey Shore had been coming up a lot in my posts lately.  But it’s not just because I’m so interested in the subject (although it is fascinating!).  And it’s certainly not because I went looking for Jersey Shore references in the New York Times.  I don’t have to — I read the paper, and they just come up.  Constantly.  We’re told that it is the worst show on TV, that it resembles “the most unrepentant, obviously guilty serial killer or multimillion-dollar defrauder,” is the “most appalling show of 2009,” and features “eight young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishment,” who are “insufferable” and might not really even be Italian.  We’re informedrepeatedly — that a new SAT question might force unwilling youths to pen essays on The Situation’s abs.  The show is compared unflatteringly to a musical someone saw at the Algonquin Hotel, and inexplicably to Beavis and Butthead.  When Mike comes out with his own vodka brand, we even hear about that.  We’re told in hushed and reverent tones about people who don’t know who Snooki is, but no such fate awaits the regular Times reader, who receives constant updates about their plans, their ratings, their brawls and benders and hookups.

But why?  It’s clearly not because the writers like the show (or at least they’re not admitting it).  One might argue that it’s just because the Shore is popular, and that is doubtless an element of the obsession.  NYT writers love to make guesses about which things imaginary trendy young people care about, then lard their copy with references to those things in hopes that such readers are actually reading it.  Philip Galanes is the master of this tactic.  But the show’s popularity is not enough to explain the references.  Many things are popular — from Larry the Cable Guy to Oprah, from Ugg boots to the Olive Garden, from Shrek to Glenn Beck.  Horrible though these individuals and institutions may be, the outrage directed that them is far surpassed by the vitriol reserved for the antics of the tawny-skinned octet.

Rational explanations have failed.  Is there a way to make sense of this bizarre fixation that’s less rational, and more psychological?  Does the solution lie in the dark corners of the journalistic psyche?  Could it be that the writers are projecting their anxieties about intellectual inadequacy and cultural irrelevance onto the characters, deriding them as foolish and contemptible in order to bolster their own fragile self-image?  Yes.  I’m no Freudian, but this problem calls for one of his theories if anything ever did.  And Freud’s concept “narcissism of small difference” fits the situation state of affairs perfectly.

Narcissism of small differences is all about erecting psychic defenses against people you perceive as threateningly similar to you.  It’s defined by “sensitiveness to… these details of differentiation” that separate groups.  As this book explains, “We compare ourselves carefully with those who are like us–yet in some way different.  According to Freud, small differences are an implied or potential criticism of ourselves.  Therefore we note carefully what the difference is… and evaluate the situation, usually in such a way that it comes out in our favor.”

How does one make a comparison “in such a way that it comes out in [one’s] favor”?  It looks like this:  I drink artisanally infused vodka, you drink Ron-Ron juice.  I go to lounges, you go to clubs.  I buy my clothes at Ann Taylor, you buy your clothes at the Hustler store.   I do pilates, you lift weights at the gym.  I cook free-range turkey meatballs; you cook chicken parm.  I wear self-tanner and bronzer, you wear too much self-tanner and bronzer.  I enjoy looking my best and appreciating the finer things in life, you’re a narcissistic hedonist.

And so it goes.  What makes it worse is, look who we’re talking about.  Lifestyle journalists.  People who write thousand-word essays about “vooks,” do their research on Wikipedia, and don’t know what a “percent” is.   Their own grasp on highbrow intellectualism is tenuous at best.  No wonder their assumed contempt for the Shore gang’s flimsy intellect can seem a little overheated.  No wonder they’re “sensitive,” in Freud’s words, to “details of differentiation.”

Time for some examples.  New York Times Jersey Shore paranoia began after the show’s very first episodes.  In “The Jersey Shore Handbook,” Joshua David Stein shows us that even though he’s writing about reality TV, he’s not an airhead like people who watch reality TV.  Why, just listen to the words and concepts he knows!  He calls MTV “the music-cum-social-anthropology network.”  The what?  I knew Skins was raunchy, but I didn’t think things had gone that far.  I thought I was the only cum-social anthropologist around here.  Just kidding!  Seriously, though, I hate when people use “cum” to mean “with.”  It’s like in old novels, when the writer uses “ejaculated” to mean “exclaimed.”   “Great scott!’, he ejaculated.” Latin fanciers, it’s time to let “cum” go its own way.

He continues, “‘Jersey Shore’ resembles nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that’s a bulwark against normative American youth style.”  Why does being non-normative make it like Kabuki theater?  No time for that now! An intellectual reference has just been made!  If you’ve heard of Kabuki, then congratulations: YOU GOT THE REFERENCE.  You are now part of a rarefied intellectual community.  Those dum-dums on the TV probably think “Kabuki” is a brand of motorcycle.

To construct his piece, Stein uses a popular comedy humor format that you’ve grown to love from old Dave Barry columns, Playboy Magazine‘s “unabashed dictionary,” and your college’s short-lived “satire” publication:  Funny definitions.  A list of wacky fake dictionary entries could absolutely never, ever become tiresome, especially not when Stein is hilariously telling us what “Jacuzzi” and “Guido” mean.  For example, in defining “nickname,” he wittily points out that many of the characters on the show have nicknames.  He illustrates this principle with a quote from Mike: “‘The Situation’ is indescribable. You can’t describe ‘The Situation.’ — Michael, ‘The Situation,’ describing the situation, Episode 1.”

Okay, that was funny… because the character said something funny, and Stein quoted it.  What else has he got?

He shows himself a true social anthropologist (no “cum” necessary) with his observations about the characters.  “During the day, [women’s] hair is usually worn long and straightened, often dyed black or highlighted.”  Imagine! long straight hair with highlights!  Highlights! This world of Jersey Shore is like stepping through the looking glass into a nightmarish dystopian bizarro world… with flat irons!

It is further revealed that the cast members are tan, sometimes go shirtless, enjoy hooking up, and are known to become inebriated by consuming Ron-Ron juice.  The male characters use “lip balm and lip gloss.”  All of this is sure to horrify New York Times readers, who have never removed their shirts, engaged in casual sex or consumed alcohol, and take pride in enduring cracked, dry lips with the stoicism of true American patriots.  But Stein’s most relevant commentary is reserved for the then-raging controversy over the word “Guido.”  “The term has been reappropriated, Judith Butler-style… and now refers to a complex of aesthetic and moral choices made by young Italian-Americans.”  Hey, I know who Judith Butler is!  But you may wonder:  Do any of his readers get the reference?  Well, wonder no more.  You need only read the comments to find out how many of Stein’s readers know who Judith Butler is.  It starts right at comment #4, where reader Emery observes:  “Nice Judith Butler reference.”   After reading that sentence, how can you continue to doubt Emery’s awareness of Judith Butler?  The man knows who Judith Butler is!

In “Surf and Turmoil,” Neil Gantzlinger also has a tried-and-true comedy joke format in which to corral his loathing of the fact that “young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishments” are enjoying a “hormonally charged, alcohol-fueled summer.”   Despite the failure of their accomplishments to impress him,* he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with his “five reasons to love the show.”

*I’m going to assume he didn’t know at the time that Snooki once delivered a freakin’ calf from a cow.  I find this pretty impressive, too.

Actually, the reasons are kind of confusing. He says that the show is making the actual Jersey Shore interesting again, or something (???), and that because its characters are “brash” and “bawdy,” its popularity might cause the Kardashians’ show to be cancelled (????).   Then he starts saying how it will provide a good cautionary example for today’s sheltered young people.  “They have no idea how much ignorance, narcissism, predatory sexism and hair-gel abuse lurk out there in the real world.”  Neil Gantzlinger is really impressing me with his moral gravitas here… he just equated sexism, a millennia-old form of bigotry that has caused incalculable human misery, with bad grammar and a predilection for going to the gym.  And he slipped in a Randy Cohen-esque joke about hair gel.  Bravo!

Because the characters are so bad, he goes on, people will be moved to take decisive action against whoever’s to blame.  “The schools, if any, where they were educated can now be located and shut down…. The gyms and style salons that seduced them with the lie that physical appearance is more important than personality can be picketed and boycotted.”  “Style salons”?  I’m guessing the person who wrote this sentence has been telling himself that personality is way, way, way more important than physical appearance for a very long time.

His final reason is:

“5. UM, LET’S SEE, THERE’S,

well … All right, so maybe ‘five reasons to like “Jersey Shore”‘ was setting the bar too high. In truth it was hard enough coming up with four.”

OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE.  If you’re going to use a hacky, obvious “concept” for your piece, you can at least be an energetic hack and commit to the concept.  Come up with five reasons to like the show, and make the fifth one the funniest one.  “LOL I couldn’t think of any more examples… because I hate the show so much!” doesn’t actually qualify as a joke.    It’s lazy.  That’s like if instead of beating up a beat, you sort of pawed at it gently from a supine position.  Like if instead of going to the gym and doing laundry, you just put on a pair of Shape-Up shoes and sprayed yourself with Febreze.  Like if you pranked somebody by putting, like, one piece of cheese in their bed.  In other words, you’re not entertaining.  You’re the grenade grundle choad of humorous prose.  There’s a reason why you’re not a reality star, Neil Gantzlinger, and it’s not just because your abs look like the underside of a Jacuzzi coated in mozzarella.  YOU SUCK.

The show has even prompted Ross Douthat to dip his a tiny, wizened toe into the hot tub of topical humor.  “Advertising tonight’s address, the White House opted for ‘the situation in Libya,’ which sounds less like a military intervention than a spin-off vehicle for the famous musclehead from MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore.'”  It is funny… because the character calls himself “The Situation.”  These people have nicknames.  Nicknames!

In an article from July of last year, Cathy Horyn starts with a bang.  She begins, “Flake, cow, loser, slut, idiot, airhead, trash, penguin, creep, moron, midget, freak, Oompa-Loompa, nobody.”  This sounds like some sort of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, or the opening of Sapphire’s latest novel, but it’s actually list of epithets that have been applied to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the profile’s subject.  I applaud this writerly decision; debates about a woman’s attractiveness, height, and sexual history are the very lifeblood of intellectual discourse.  But after acknowledging the valuable contributions of internet commenters who think Snooki is an ugly slut, Horyn is frustratingly vague about her own philosophical position on these issues.  It’s almost as if she wanted to remain above the fray, critiquing Snooki’s body, intellect and choices while masking her contempt in a register of highbrow detachment that would set her apart from the vulgar muck of bloggers and Youtube trolls.  See if you agree!

First, an interview with her dad, Andy Polizzi.  (I don’t know why Horyn talked to Snooki’s father before Snooki herself… maybe she thinks it’s more polite?  Is she trying to emulate a nineteenth gentleman caller about to propose marriage?).  Mr. Polizzi ascribes his daughter’s fame to the fact that she’s a “likeable person,” an opinion that Horyn characterizes as a “worn rut of relatedness and just-folks-like-us celebrity bunkum.”  This is why I have nightmares that someday the Times will send a reporter down to Tennessee to interview me.  I might make some offhand remark about how people like ice cream because it tastes good, and be described for all posterity as a “bumpkin cornpone hick with gingham Spanx, a raccoon for a pet, and a car that runs on moonshine.”

Anyway, now that we’ve dismissed the “people like her because she’s likeable” hypothesis as a foolish dream of childlike naivete and prelapsarian optimism, it’s time to discuss the show.  Apparently some people find it uncultured.  “”The adventures of the most irrelevant people on earth,’ as someone wrote recently on a gossip blog. And even viewers who claim to love ‘Jersey Shore’ usually find it hard to say why.” I can only assume this absolutely does not mean Horyn asked a bunch of people why they watch that horrible show, they gave her perfectly lucid answers, and she tossed the answers down the ol’ memory hole right away because they didn’t sound smart enough.  Cathryn Horyn would never do that.  She seems… humble.

“Everything about this show is super-sized — from the over-the-top hair to the over-the-top nature of the comments,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. If you can’t tell, he’s an avid fan.  ‘”Jersey Shore” is brilliantly cast and, of course, Snooki is the star,’ he said.”  This person sounds perfectly capable of explaining why he likes the show.  But he’s a professor, so that’s why.  Don’t try this at home!

For her part, Horyn isn’t burdened by the crippling inarticulateness that afflicts the MTV-addled American masses.  She has many strong opinions — on Snooki’s looks.  “She’s short, drawing our attention like a berserk windup toy.”  “That Snooki is not conventionally attractive — ‘A spray-painted Chihuahua,’ Mike (The Situation) said when he first saw her — has a lot to do with why she is the breakout member of the cast. She is busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip.”  Now, that is high-class journalism.   I wish more people would follow Horyn’s example.  Paul Krugman hardly ever uses his column to poke fun at how funny-looking short people are, and he’s only won one Nobel Prize.  Coincidence?

Next, the discussion turns to styling choices.  “‘With a blank look, [Snooki] shrugged. ‘Me, I like the pouf. I’m still going to rock it.'”  To be fair, she was probably looking “blank” because a someone with a Master’s Degree in journalism just asked her a probing question about a hairstyle.  I don’t know if this “blank look” problem is a common occurrence in Horyn’s life, but here’s a good rule of thumb:  If people respond to your questions by staring at you in horrified incomprehension more often than, say, once a week, it’s not because they’re all really dumb.

“Snooki has a way of putting herself together that while in some ways is atrocious, is completely identifiable to her and consistent with her attention-seeking personality.”  That sentence “while in some ways is atrocious,” too.  Here’s another rule of thumb:  If you’re going to critique someone for being attention-seeking, only do it in a publication with a circulation of less than 30 million.  It’s less ironic that way.

“She wears short, clingy dresses in a pattern or with some metallic trim, huge enameled or bejeweled hoop earrings and glittery high heels.”  The hoop earrings would be bad enough, but a pattern?  Of all forms of trim, metallic trim is known to be the most slatternly, and rightly so.  Who would seek to inflame the vile lusts of man with such gaudy attire?  Don’t women veil themselves in modesty and shamefacedness anymore?  Say, what kind of Quaker meeting house is this?

“Lots of 22-year-old women wear revealing clothes, but they may not have her body shape, and it’s a safe bet they’re not rocking a pouf.”   I’m confused.  Do you mean “may not” as in, it’s theoretically possible to have a different body shape than Snooki, while also wearing clothes?  Or “may not” as in, it’s not permissible for someone so fat to wear those clothes?  This article is like a Perez Hilton blog post written in code.  Whatever the high-class version is of drawing a penis on someone’s face in MS Paint, I fully expect to see it next.

This is my impression of what Perez Hilton gets paid, like, $5 million a year to do.

“Trying to hold a conversation with Snooki is a little like getting down on your hands and knees with a child.  You have to come down to her level, and sometimes you almost think you need to bribe her with a piece of candy to coax her to be more responsive.”  This is like the “blank look” dilemma, part II.  I can’t imagine why Snookki didn’t want to get into an intense philosophical discussion with you, after the insightful ideas you’ve been sharing with her.  It reminds me of a famous quotation by Samuel Johnson.  “Last week, I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much she was shaped like a turnip turned upside down, except with tiny little legs.”  Isn’t there a part in Kant’s Metaphysical Principles of Virtue where he talks about the proper types of attire for apple-, pear,- and turnip-shaped body types?  Or am I thinking of Schopenhauer?

Anyway, Snooki is taken to task for having poor self-control and (again!) wanting attention.  “Not surprisingly, Snooki is an only child, adopted when 6 months old.”  These are some astute psychology diagnoses!  If I do a phone interview with you, will you guess my zodiac sign?  How about Tarot readings?

Then, shocking journalism scoop:  Snooki is spoiled.   “Her parents do everything for her — her laundry, her cooking.”  The show’s producer is saying it’s normal for Italian-Americans to rely on their parents.  “Talking to Ms. Salsano, who is from Farmingdale, on Long Island, made me more sympathetic about the cast.”  Well, I can see how you’d have been unsympathetic at first.  It’s easy to be resentful of all Snooki’s privileges when, like Horyn, you’ve spent years ekeing out a hardscrabble existence as a Barnard college undergrad, Vanity Fair editor, and NY Times fashion reporter.  Hey wait a minute, don’t you like, get into Marc Jacobs shows for free?  And get invites to Diane von Furstenburg’s exclusive parties?  And you’re bitching about someone else getting a free load of laundry?  These critiques are getting weirder and weirder… is this some sort of gonzo journalism?

Another source of complaint is Horyn’s continuing befuddlement about “Snooki’s strange appeal.”  “Part of the problem is that she can’t explain it herself. She simply isn’t capable of serious introspection.”  She’s supposed to explain why other people like watching her on TV?  I don’t think you know what “introspection” means.

“She told me she has read only two books in her life, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Dear John.'”  Well, that’s damning.  Part of being a sophisticated intellectual is that you only can like other sophisticated intellectuals who have lots of degrees and read a lot of books.  I know that from reading George Eliot.  In one of her finest essays, she observes:  “A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and less obtrusive for her knowledge…. She does not make it a pedestal from which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself…. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture — she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.  Just kidding, sympathy is for fatties!”

Meanwhile, Horyn has gotten her token Jersey Shore fan, the professor, to waspishly state that “I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with [Snooki].”    “‘We don’t even know how to define what Snooki is so good at,’ he said.”  These people sure do love to be mystified!  Nicole Polizzi defines definition… I GUESS WE’LL JUST NEVER KNOW why the originator of quotes like “I think I broke my vagina bone,” “I hate the ocean, it’s all whale sperm,” and “I look like a hot drunk baseball player, and I’m loving it!” is considered likeable in the public eye.   In the spirit of the Times, I’ll conclude by saying:  I don’t even know how to define what is so bad about this article.  And I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with Cathryn Horyn.

The Sentences of Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law.  He’s hella old, but instead of retiring to Florida, he did the next best thing:  Got a job writing editorials for the New York Times.  Oh, and took an academic job in Florida.  Before that, he taught at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke and University of Illinois, Chicago.  During his protracted journeyings around this great nation, he’s built an intellectual reputation for advancing anti-foundationalism and extreme relativism.  Not the fake kind of relativism, where it just means you like gay people and disagree with Glenn Beck, but the real kind, where you go around like a dickhead telling everyone that truth doesn’t exist and human nature is just a bunch of historically contingent cultural norms.

Looking at his Wikipedia page, I find that critiques of his philosophical stance are legion.   For instance, Judith Shulevitz reports Fish “rejects wholesale the concepts of ‘fairness, impartiality, reasonableness,'” Terry Eagleton “excoriates Fish’s ‘discreditable epistemology’ as ‘sinister,'” and Martha Nussbaum says he “‘relies on the regulative principle of non-contradiction in order to adjudicate between competing principles,’ thereby relying on normative standards of argumentation even as he argues against them.”  I’m glad someone finally said something!  That’s basically what I was going to point out myself, but I didn’t want to be the first to one bring it up.

Knowing that Fish’s discreditable epistemology and regulative principle of non-contradiction have been duly addressed, we can turn with an easy conscience to this blog’s rightful concern: His writing for the Times.  Specifically, his sentences.  Fish is a master of sentences, having authored the recent volume How to Write a Sentence. So it’s fitting that we look to his methods for guidance and instruction.  What kind of sentences can a world-famous Milton scholar,  teacher to generations of young minds, and distinguished commentator for the Paper of Record turn out?

Continue reading “The Sentences of Stanley Fish”

Crazy Love II

Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle.  Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.”  It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires.  It’s a human universal!  That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.

Are trend pieces the only option?  No.  If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.”  Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers.  Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references.  You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about.  Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.”  Science is great!

Continue reading “Crazy Love II”

Wrong: A Typology

Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse.  The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy.  They write about rich people too much.   They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff.  Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly.  It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is.  Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong.  That is what we’ll be looking at today.  How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?

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Happiness the Sunday Styles Way: A “Hard Look” at the Way We Live Now

The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred.  Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will.  Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed?  What is the true purpose of the Styles section?  What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away?  Well, I’ll tell you why.  The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous.  These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section.  The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century:  How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all?  These sections help us make sense of it.  Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself.  They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.

But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give?  Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday.  I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.

We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latestRandy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions.  His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard.  There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though.  If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.

I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.”  That’s a nice analogy, because think about it.  Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s.  They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators.  If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping!  Thus bringing about an end to racism.  Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work.  Why am I comparing these two things, again?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue.  As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.

This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements.  Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.”  Cohen says they don’t have to:

Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)

Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists.  It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel.  Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist!  I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids!  I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience).  Don’t Tread on Me!  Live free or die tryin’!  You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands!  I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!

Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.

Up next, “Out and About:  Cruising the Caribbean.”  This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.”  “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites….  For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”

Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.

TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?”  Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me?  That’s a very very… intimate topic!  A penetrating question, if you will!  I’ll take the second one.

Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.

Social Q’s.  Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.”  He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?”  Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway.  Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.”  Yes.  There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students.  You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride!  Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask.  Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention.  Let me know how this goes.

As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.”  Nipple “line”?  It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle!  I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman.  “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.”  Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute?  Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes.  Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes.  Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though.  “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots!  Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”

“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.”  “Safe”?  From what, nipple-line frostbite?  Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing.  No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.

Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you.  Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!

What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler.  “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’  Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”

Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle.  Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.

MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins.  “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.  [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.]  And you’d be right.”  Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about?  Oh, never mind.

Carr is in a moral panic about this show.  To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.”  Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss.  Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right?  LOL!  That guy is responsible for so many cold sores.  Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity.  He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.

“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.”  Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert!  The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978.  Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.

“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.”  Or… they could just use condoms?  I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.

Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.

On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures.  “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe.  The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”

Moral: You’re not standing right.  Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.

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Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger.  This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them.  It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live.  Yikes!  But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay.  The Styles section will never die.

Motherhood: The Most Dangerous Trend

First, some links:

The Most E-mailed New York Times Article Ever.  David Parker’s brilliant parody of NYT Trend pieces has been linked all over the internet, and may have even found its way to your computer screen!  Is 2011 the year that hating the New York Times goes viral?  If so, remember that I was here first!  I’ve been doing this since early January!

Accordingly, I have started a page for this blog on Facebook, the popular social networking website.  Please join!

News on the Glamorous High Life:  The business section reports that the bottom has quite simply fallen out of the superyacht market.  The article keeps nattering on about how yachts are “the ultimate status symbol,” but is that really the main reason people buy them?  In my town right now now, it’s 10 degrees, windy, and there’s dirty slush all over the place. I would greatly enjoy being out in the Pacific, in a hot tub on the deck of a yacht, even if it was not considered a high-status thing to do.  Even if yachts were known as “the trailer parks of the sea,” I would still go.  Say what you will about this country’s vastly wealthy ruling class, but they know how to have a good time.  I don’t know why the New York Times keeps running them down so.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the unmerited economic struggles and unpredictable woes of the privileged elite.  But socioeconomic trends do not restrict themselves to the buyers of yachts, designer long johns and $1500 coffee tables.  Trends reach out to touch the heart of every man and woman on this earth.  No one can escape them.  It matters not whether you’re a beleaguered superyacht seller or a bedraggled pregnant teen, someday you will come to recognize that your life is not truly your own — it is part of the vast communal striving after cultural relevance we all share.  Our births, our joys and sorrows, our deaths — all of them bob like organic corks on the great ocean of trends we can Life.  The Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths that “life is trends; the origin of suffering is trends; understanding trends is attainable; there is a Path to the understanding of trends.”  With this knowledge can come great suffering, or great peace.

Or, for readers of Alessandra Stanley’s “And Baby Makes Reality TV,” great confusion.  Alessandra Stanley is a TV writer who has often been criticized for breaking the NY Times record for errors, although I don’t see why anyone should hold that against her; somebody’s got to be the worst.  The article is an omnibus review of reality TV shows about pregnancy (16 and Pregnant, and so on).  While it would have been challenging enough just to evaluate each of the shows and explain why they’re good or bad, Stanley doesn’t stop there (or even start there, really); she presents us with a review, a trend piece and a think piece all in one.  It purports to explain what’s going on in the world of regular women having babies.  Below, I explain the explanation.

“Motherhood, at least the way it is depicted on cable networks like MTV, TLC and even FitTV, is a menacing, grotesque fate that is mostly ill-timed…. Horror makes for easy entertainment, of course, so it’s hardly surprising that the maternity ward would be milked for bloodcurdling thrills in the way of weddings…weather…or travel.”  Yeah but like, I bet you these shows reflect anxiety about pregnancy because women really are anxious about pregnancy.  I’m no expert, but from what I understand about pregnancy, your feet swell up, you barf, your clothes don’t fit, a mean doctor tells you you can’t have any wine, and eventually a tiny little person starts hanging out in your apartment all the time, drinking from your nipples and yelling all the time.  That sort of thing is pretty menacing all by itself, without the networks needing to gin up concern about it.

“But the growing number and lasting appeal of reality shows about fertility and babies reflect a particularly contemporary obsession. Focusing on the darker side of giving birth might seem at odds with the giddy cult of motherhood in popular culture.”  Yes.  Women have never been celebrated for motherhood or fertility before this precise historical moment.  That is why you’ll notice that in the Bible, all the women are sexy secret agents or high-powered attorneys.  Pregnancy and childbirth are kind of like fiber optics, or Yelp.

I do have a theory, though, about the mysterious paradox Stanley is adumbrating.  Perhaps the fact that women are expected to feel relentlessly “giddy” and enthusiastic about motherhood… is the very reason they want to see media depictions of darker outcomes and more ambivalent attitudes.  That is my sociological explanation of this phenomenon.  I have solved the mystery!  But we still have way more of this article to get through.

“Red-carpet reporters and tabloids stalk celebrity breeding as much as divorce or career misconduct; a ‘bump’ in Us Weekly or on TMZ refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a professional roadblock.”  Why would anyone expect it to refer to a “professional roadblock”?  Surely Stanley originally wrote “…refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a line of cocaine,” and her editor made her change it.  So, I’ll give her credit for that one.  That’s funny!

She starts explaining that in vitro fertilization is popular now, and the frightening baby shows somehow reflect that.  “But beneath all those balloons, baby showers and HappyBaby organic food pouches lies a lurking dread, the anxiety that comes with cheating biological destiny.”  Comes with cheating what?  Because they’re trying to treat infertility?*  That’s kind of strange, but I’ll try to make sense of it….  It’s like how people feel nervous before they go to the dentist, because they fear a hideous recompense from the gods for depriving them of their allotted toll of tooth decay and gingivitis.  You’ll never escape destiny!  Stop trying to vie with the immortals, you stupid yuppies!

And so it is with the barren women on TV.  They should take a tip from all those high-powered attorneys I read about in the Bible:  Veil yourself in shamefacedness, and betake yourself back unto your father’s abode so that your husband can find a more fecund helpmeet.  Your husband will probably hook up with the maid… he’ll build a giant superyacht and go on a booze cruise with all your fertile sisters and cousins for 40 days and 40 nights… the joke is on him, though, because he’ll never sell that yacht in this economy, even unto the seventh generation.  (Note to fact-checkersI haven’t actually read the Bible, please correct as necessary.)

*Extra bonus question:  Has Alessandra Stanley been hanging out with Ross Douthat?  Her exciting ideas about how women should stop cheating fate by avoiding “the biological realities of being female” suggests Yes!  Don’t date him girl, he’s a total player!

“Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel ‘Frankenstein’ is often seen as a metaphor for a woman’s fear of childbirth and motherhood. Cable television cuts through the metaphor and channels deeper fears about tampering with nature.”    Here we go again with the cultural references awkwardly shoehorned into an article.  Stanley is “pulling a Heffernan” by making a high-class literary reference instead of a pop culture one, but that doesn’t make it any less random and annoying.  These writers’ compulsion to make “intellectual” references reminds me of a story my parents once told me about some friends they had in the ’70s.  It seems this couple invited my parents over to play the board game Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition.  The couple, though, mistakenly believed the game they had bought was titled Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition, and that their ability to play it successfully was indicative of genius.  Gratuitous literary references work in a similar way.  When you indulge in them, you are playing Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition.  I am christening a new tag in its honor.

Anyway, Frankenstein was 1818.  In the nearly two centuries that have passed since then, there have been a number of fictional works depicting anxieties about  motherhood that Stanley could have referenced.  Here, I’ll do it for her.  “Classic films from Rosemary’s Baby to Alien have play on viewers’ fears about the more bizarre aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.  Now, cable television {something something something}”.   Not bad!  Still not brilliant, but good enough for a passable first draft.

“Multiple pregnancies, along with cosmetic surgery, are arguably among the most visible — and startling — displays of scientific daring, be it artificially enhanced mothers like the 70-year-old Indian woman who in 2008 had twins after in vitro fertilization, or the drastic surgical makeover that turned Heidi Montag of ‘The Hills’ into a horror movie of her own making — ‘The Hills Have Eyelifts.'”  Recent cultural reference alert!  This sentence is a bit difficult to parse.   It seems to suggest that Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeries are a form of “multiple pregnancy,” but that can’t be what was intended.  I think it’s at that “be it” in the middle of the sentence that things start to go wrong.  Maybe it’s a syllogism.  Heidi Montag is a woman who had freakish plastic surgery… in vitro fertilization is a procedure that is also had by women… therefore all men are Socrates in vitro fertilization is freakish.  Never mind, I get it now!

“Modern medicine has achieved more remarkable advances, but procedures like hip replacements or Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart pump aren’t as visible. There’s a pretty direct line in many people’s minds between double and triple strollers clogging the sidewalks of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the Octomom.”  Man, people are dicks!   Guys, here’s a little exercise in compassion:  The next time you see some adorable twins in a stroller, stop thinking about Dick Cheney, Heidi Montag and Frankenstein, and just smile at them.  It’s not their fault their mother cheated destiny.

“It’s hard not to believe in a correlation between the recent decline in teenage pregnancies…and the rise in ratings for reality shows about pregnant teenagers…. No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness.”  Of course, the decline could also be the result of decades of hard work by feminists to make birth control widely accessible and diminish the culture of fear and shame surrounding sexuality that prevents women from taking control of their own fertility.  But a TV critic thinks it’s because of TV, so that’s probably right.  At least it didn’t turn out to be because of Facebook or earbuds or something.

Stanley summarizes some of the problems faced by the characters on Teen Mom 2.  It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, and then the review ends with the following mystical zen koan: “It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. On cable television it takes a child to raise a child and women sometimes give birth to a village.”  What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m just trying to figure out what TV shows to watch, not attain enlightenment, you asshole!  This is ridiculous!  Sigh. There are some things this blog will never be able to explain.

The Magazine, the Medium, the Message: Virginia Heffernan’s Vook Manifesto

“Seriously, though: I will always remember 2008 as the year I finally gave up on the Sunday NY Times Magazine . . . LOL, good magazine, guys . . . it’s really become a “must-read” in my house . . . LOL, lots of great articles about how What I buy says about who I am(?) and how How I watch screens says what I like is really who I am(?)” — David Rees

“I read three paragraphs about absolutely nothing, and the forth paragraph began, ‘Take pilates.’ So I stopped.” — My boyfriend, on this article

When it comes to the content offered by the NYT Sunday Magazine, there is a certain lack of conceptual clarity.  Within its pages, readers encounter a bevy of enthusiastic, articulate writers eager to present us with ideas about media, technology and Our Society; but as the epigraphs above suggest, there’s a thin line between a provocative new concept and a heap of stupefying drivel about nothing whatsoever.  While the “how I watch screens says about who I am” model for constructing think-pieces is nearly ubiquitous–see, for example, this hard-hitting cover story about The Beatles: Rock Band–nowhere is this trend more pronounced then in the electronic virtual pages of Virginia Heffernan’s column “The Medium.”

Heffernan’s intended goal is to provide us with paradigm-shifting interpretations of the electronic digital e-culture we now inhabit.  She would have us consider her an updated version of such revered cultural theorists as Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Stanley Fish (<<— irony alert, no one reveres him), breasting the turbulent waves of internet culture with her titanic intellect.  Auguring positively for this endeavor, she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and once worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker.  On the minus side: She once recommended a climate change denialist blog because she “didn’t know” that’s what it was, once accused feminists of not caring about sex slavery, and once reported that Facebook was almost dead after a “user exodus.”

That was over a year ago, and it still hasn’t come to pass.  So, perhaps her intellect is not all that titanic after all.  But let’s not hold her up to an unreasonably high standard.  Instead of comparing her to the intellectual icons of the twentieth century, let’s just look at her most recent column and ask a more basic question:  Is it about anything at all, and if so, what?

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