I typically ignore the New York Times‘ “On the Runway” fashion reporting. It’s not that I’m not interested in fashion, both personally and as a cultural phenomenon, but rather that articles about fashion shows and other events in the world of haute couture are so abstruse, they might as well be business section news about “On I.P.O, CDW to Fall Short of Boom-Era Valuation” or “S.E.C. to Vote on Proposal to Overhaul Money Funds.” They might as well be about the N.B.A. draft. Fashion reporters say things like “there was a bilge of chore jackets” and “Wherever Mr. Jones goes, he never loses sight of Vuitton’s sensibility….What Mr. Jones managed to reserve from the distilled American elements was a casual attitude.” While conventional trend pieces strain too hard for relevance, high-fashion trend pieces take place in a rarefied world of tastemakers we’ve never heard of and cultural watersheds that have utterly failed to have any effect on us. But it’s time to get over this aversion. It’s time to learn what an honest-to-God fashion trend looks like, courtesy of Suzy Menkes’s “In London, All Hail the Suit.”
This trend piece comes to us from Teddy Wayne, bestselling novelist and author of one million mildly to somewhat amusing one-sentence articles for McSweeney’s. (For those not familiar with McSweeney’s, it is an online humor site for people who hate dick jokes and love those Yelp reviews that are in the form of an open letter to an abstract entity, but wish they were a little edgier.) But he’s not just a disarmingly quirky observer of modern mores; he’s also a concerned and judgmental observer of modern mores. For instance, one day Wayne was on Amtrak, and overheard four debutantes conversing. He found their discussion to be humorous, so he began typing what they said and posting it on Facebook for his friends to laugh at. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a really cool story. It’s a shame that only Teddy Wayne’s Facebook friends got to see those posts, when they should have been made available for everyone to read. Teddy Wayne is too modest, making fun of teenage girls on Facebook and then trying to get out of taking credit for it.”
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” So claimed T. S. Eliot in his iconic essay “Hamlet and His Problems.” And what’s true of Hamlet is doubly true for the New York Times‘ Modern Love column. This recurring essay feature aspires to represent emotion in the form of art, but with a 2000-word length limit, plus there’s no sex scenes or cussing allowed. To put things into perspective, this it what it sounds like when an essayist describes their love story in literal language: “We went to the beach and swam, held hands at the Fourth of July fireworks, went on roller coasters at Six Flags, ate Thanksgiving dinner with each other’s families, exchanged gifts on Christmas. We cried when I had to leave for long periods of time.” Fascinating. No, this will not do: If you wish to interest the world in your banal tale of romantic disappointment, you must take Eliot’s advice. You need a metaphor. You need a symbol. You need an objective correlative for those ineffable emotions. Like this: Continue reading “Crazy Love III”
The great thinkers of humanity’s past have devised many ethical systems, all purporting to tell conscientious citizens how to do the right thing. From Islamic law and the Ten Commandments to the Golden Rule and the Yamas and Niyamas of yogic philosophy — from Utilitarianism to liberal humanism to the Categorical Imperative and even Objectivism — these codes seek to answer our deepest questions. Is our greatest responsibility to ourselves, or others? Individuals, or the community? What about animals, and the environment? Are corporations people? Is it permissible to bring your own candy into the movie theater? Is straying from the path of virtue the same as pigging out on pizza and fries?
Yes, the world’s tradition of moral reasoning is indeed diverse. Put it all in a blender with some whimsical self-deprecation, add water, and you’ve got the New York Times Ethicist column. Continue reading “Eggs, Bugs and Joseph Conrad: An Anti-Ethicist Manifesto”
It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task: Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society. A woman is liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.
But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with. Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“: “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”
In theory, I should enjoy the New York Times Arts section. Its writers aim to cover all of forms of artistic production, from ballet and jazz to pop music and reality TV, from an approachable yet intellectual perspective. I love all those things! (Except jazz.) I like to stay informed about art and literature; these writers like informing me about art and literature. They’re urbane, culturally literate city dwellers; I’m an urbane, culturally literate city dweller. They have a superficial familiarity with Max Weber, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes; I have a superficial familiarity with Max Weber, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.* What could go wrong?
*Actually, I know all about Roland Barthes. I was just saying that to be nice.
Well, we’ve already seen what can go wrong. The writers are a little too excited about how urbane they are, a little too eager to let you know they know about philosophers and literary critics; most of all, a little too anxious to distinguish themselves from an imagined class of fellow Americans who enjoy pop culture in an uncritical, unironic way. Those buffoons! So the Times critics cluck their tongues at the common people’s affection for Snooki. They scold Real Housewives of New Jersey fans for “abusing [free will].” Et cetera.
Too often, their writing is full of signifiers of Intelligence and Important Ideas — philosopher names, abstract concepts, compound-complex sentences that are hard to read — and lacking in the clarity and precision that might serve to convey actual intelligence and ideas. A fine example of this problem is Manohla Dargis. She seems to mean well, and is often praised as a smart broad with high standards. But every time I read one of her reviews I end up being like “what the hell is she talking about, this is unintelligible, just tell me what the movie is about.”
“‘Bridesmaids,’ an unexpectedly funny new comedy about women in love, if not of the Sapphic variety…”
Why would it be “of the sapphic variety? The phrase “women in love” doesn’t convey “…with each other” to me. Maybe Dargis is trying to allude to the famous novel Women in Love, but mistakenly believes it’s about lesbians? Also, what’s with the euphemism? You sound like Playboy’s Party Jokes circa 1972. “A butch young lady of the sapphic variety entered a men’s haberdashery shop and told the limp-wristed assistant, “I’m looking for something sturdy in a brown tweed trouser.’ The fey young man replied, ‘aren’t we all!'” It’s 2011! Just use normal words!
“…goes where no typical chick flick does: the gutter.”
This is a long sentence, although by no means the longest we’ll encounter. Is it even true that “typical chick flicks” don’t have toilet humor? It seems like these days, every rom-com has a scene where, like, a guy accidentally sits on a huge black dildo… while he’s trying to pull it out, a dog vomits on his crotch… he accidentally presses a button on his cell phone that calls his mother-in-law… she hears the noises, thinks the guy’s wife in in labor, and drives right over… anyway, I guess I wouldn’t know. I’m not a huge connoisseur of fart jokes like Manohla Dargis is. Zing!
“Well, more like the city street that Lillian, a soon-to-be wife played by a wonderful, warm Maya Rudolph, dashes into…”
So it doesn’t descend into the gutter, but into a city street, shots of which appear in almost every movie? You just ruined your own disingenuous rhetorical flourish! Seriously, is this not the clunkiest sentence? I’d rewrite it as “More like a city street. Lillian, a soon-to-be wife, dashes out of an upscale New York salon…” No, that’s clunky too. “The city street onto which Lillian (a warm, wonderful Maya Rudolph) dashes, its ineluctable gutters bespeaking an earthy, Rabelasian symbolism…” Actually, I don’t care. This movie contains a scene where a woman in a wedding gown does something zany. No tortured syntax required.
“…dressed in the kind of foamy white gown that royal weddings and the bridal industrial complex are made of.”
Dargis is attempting satire, but it isn’t really working for me. Saying these things are “made of” wedding dresses is like saying America’s obesity crisis is made of cheeseburgers, or that unprotected sex is made of herpes. Better to have written something like “the kind of foamy white gown that make or break royal weddings (and that keep the bridal industrial complex going strong).” Actually, still annoying. The problem is the phrase “bridal industrial complex.” It’s one of those expressions where the first time someone hears it, they think it sounds so clever that they just have to work it into a conversation right away. Congratulations, you noticed that weddings are big business. How incisive. This is a movie review and a Marxist critique of the patriarchy, in one!
“Suddenly realizing in a salon that she’s been hit with food poisoning, she flees like a runaway bride,except that it isn’t a man who’s making her, uh, run…”
Because a person using terrestrial motion to proceed rapidly on foot is said to be “running,” while a person with digestive difficulties is said to have “the runs.” Funny! How old are you, twelve?
“…but the giddy, liberating humor of the writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.”
How bold: a movie character doing what it says to do in the script. Unless this is one of those self-referential movies where the writer starts appearing as a character in her own work and arguing with the protagonist about what’s going to happen to them and stuff? So you’re saying this film crosses diagetic levels to self-reflexively meditate on its own narrativity, and there’s poop jokes? We’re living in a golden age of cinema.
“That may sound disgusting, perfect for the reigning naughty boys of American screens…”
I get what she’s saying here, but the way she says it’s “perfect for” them, it sounds like she’s planning to give Maya Rudolph’s intestinal distress to Judd Apatow for Rosh Hashanah.
“…and it is, a little.”
Goddammit! If you use a cliché phrase like “this may sound X,” you’re supposed to explain that it is, in fact, not X. That’s the whole point of the phrase. You’re not supposed to limply conclude that the thing is exactly what I may have thought it was. Although, I wish Ross Douthat would start using that strategy. “Beltway insiders think Mike Huckabee is too big a stupid, homophobic, racist, Cracker Barrel-y Jesus freak to be president. They’re right.” Now that’s an editorial I could take seriously!
“Given how most wedding pictures enforce the hoariest clichés about the sexes, the go-for-broke outlandishness of Lillian’s pratfall — nicely handled by the director Paul Feig, holding the shot as she sits in a deflated puff of white — is welcome.” I still don’t know what’s “outlandish” or “nicely handled” about the scene… maybe it would help if you quoted a line of dialogue or described some of the shots, instead of writing down familiar phrases with some of the words changed around?
“In most wedding movies an actress may have the starring part (though not always)…” “Most” and “may” already imply “not always.” What’s with the parentheses?
“…but it’s only because her character’s function is to land a man rather than to be funny. Too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang.”
Goddamn, replacing words in familiar phrases with other words is really Manohla Dargis’s downfall. Altered clichés are to her what meaningless non sequiturs are to Randy Cohen, or outdated pop culture references are to Philip Galanes.
“There is a big dress here, of course…” Why are we still talking about the dress? Get to the bridesmaids!
“…an aggressively foolish Gordian knot of silk and wit that slyly speaks to how women need (and want) to be packaged as brides, dolled up in satin and all but lost in a cloud of tulle and the appreciative din of family and friends.” The dress is shaped like a knot? It “slyly speaks”? It’s made up of “silk and wit”? Great description… very vivid… I can see it in my mind’s eye. All this yoking together of a specific thing and an abstract thing in one phrase (e.g. a “cloud of tulle” and an “appreciative din”) is very headache-inducing. It’s like a more convoluted version of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
“The movie doesn’t push hard in that direction — more than anything, Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo want to make you giggle and snort — but they get at the layers of insanity in weddings as well as the joys. They ask the question facing every modern woman who jumps at the chance to enact the latter-day equivalent of being passed from man to man, father to husband, if without a bushel of dowry corn and 12 goats: How do you survive getting down the aisle?” If a woman has her own job and apartment, how is her wedding the “equivalent” of being passed from man to man? A symbol, maybe, but not an equivalent… also, where did the goats and corn come from? Are we talking about, like, primitive tribes now? Does Manohla Dargis think being given away by your dad is an African thing?
“With a little, or rather a lot, of help from your friends, or so say the filmmakers, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till misunderstanding, jealousy, other people or just life us do part.” I’m surmising that this is the part of the review where Dargis looked at her notes and realized she hadn’t written down any dialogue, plot points or scenes besides the food poisoning one. Her notes from the screening all said things like “woman writers <—– FEMINISM?????” and “doodoo jokes: perfect for naughty boys of Hollywood?!”, and she realized the only way to reach her word count was to start writing down familiar phrases with some of the words replaced. “Till death do us part’ isn’t always true! The Beatles didn’t consider that some people need a lot of help from their friends (because they’re neurotic)! Life’s a beach, and the protagonist of this film just stepped on a discarded heroin needle!” Manohla Dargis, you can use that line if you want. I know it’s gold.
“To that intimate end…” Oh, to that end.
“…Lillian, after announcing her engagement, asks Annie (Ms. Wiig) to be her maid of honor.” Here Dargis describes the plot. John Hamm is seen “playfully riffing on his persona as the thinking woman’s brute,” and “figures into her life with humor and almost too-true pathos,” whatever that means.
“A lanky-limbed blonde who evokes Meg Ryan stretched along Olive Oyl lines, Ms. Wiig keeps her features jumping and sometimes bunching.” I can’t even picture Meg Ryan “stretched” to look like Olive Oyl if I try, let alone spontaneously think about it when I look at at Kristin Wiig. She looks pretty normal to me. However, I hope the filmmakers use “Ms. Wiig keeps her features jumping and sometimes bunching!” as the quote on the movie poster. It’s the must-see face-bunching comedy of the year!
“She’s a funny, pretty woman, but she’s also a comedian, and she’s wonderfully confident about playing not nice.” Funny, but also a comedian? Why doesn’t the New York Times’s chief film critic know what “but” means?
“It would be easy to oversell ‘Bridesmaids,’ though probably easier if also foolish to do the reverse.” In other words, you could make the movie sound better than it is… but you could also make it sound worse than it is. That sentence has a wonderfully Brooksian ring to it. It would be easy to give an inaccurate impression of something if you described it inaccurately. Well, don’t do that! How about you just tell me how good it is? I must warn you, I usually judge a film’s quality based on how successful the actors are at keeping their features jumping and bunching.
“It isn’t a radical movie (even if Ms. McCarthy’s character comes close)…”
A character in the movie comes close to being, herself, a radical movie? I told you this was some metareferential shit. “Tom Stoppard in the house!”
“It’s formally unadventurous; and there isn’t much to look at beyond all these female faces. Yet these are great faces”
“LOOK AT… ALL THESE… GREAT FACES!” — The New York Times. “Hey, wanna go see Bridesmaids? I heard it has great faces, and they know just when to bunch!”
By the way, why does every Times review of a mainstream comedy have to include a token remark about its lack of visual innovativeness? Hall Pass is “stubbornly visually unevolved,” Please Give is “visually unmemorable,” Get Smart is visually painless, Your Highness is not “interested in doing much visually,” I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is “about as visually sophisticated as a parking-garage surveillance video.” Comedies featuring bongs and Saturday Night Live cast members aren’t really aiming to forge a new visual aesthetic and change the way you view the world forever, so you can stop deducting points for that. Actually, all those reviews are by Manohla Dargis. She also always talks about Judd Apatow, even in reviews of movies that don’t involve him. Apparently he “has carved out a niche and inspired something of a subgenre with movies about funny, smutty but sincere man-boys puzzling their way through adult heterosexual relations,” and furthermore is “the king of… sublimated man-on-man affairs.” The woman has a real love-hate relationship with the naughty boy of Hollywood comedy. The only way to make her happy would be for Judd Apatow to make a visually stunning, Kurosawa-esque epic that takes place at a lesbian separatist commune. COMING THIS AUGUST FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES: I Love You, Bitch. Growing up. Growing out of hegemonic gender essentialism. Growing soybeans.
“Contra Christopher Hitchens and his 2007 assertion in Vanity Fair that women are not funny, they offer irrefutable proof that along with producing and starring in a hit TV series (thank you, Tina Fey), women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men.” I dunno, it seems like if Christopher Hitchens wanted to believe women could be funny, he could have noted the existence of Jane Austen, Katherine Hepburn, or Joan Rivers (among many others [hey, I’m using parentheses!]) decades ago. I don’t think he’s even trying to be reasonable. If this review prompts Christopher Hitchens to go see Bridesmaids and admit he was irrefutably wrong, I’ll eat my hat. While he’s at it, maybe he’ll admit he he’s a supercilious, tumor-ridden old warmonger who gets off on feeling superior to people. Don’t hold your breath!
“All they need, beyond talent and timing, a decent director and better lines, is a chance.” Well, if they don’t have any talent, then they’re not in a position to “prove” women can be funny… and if they don’t get good directors or lines, they’re not really being given “a chance”… couldn’t you have just written “all they need is a chance”? Oh fuck it, this is almost over.
“It helps if the director has a clue, and if everyone involved sees women not just as bosoms with legs, but as bosoms with legs and brains.” So in Manohla Dargis’s utopia of the future, people still won’t notice that women have heads? In life as in her work, her standards really are too low.
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 informed — repeatedly — 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.
“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.
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!
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?
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 latest. Randy 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.
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.