Read Watch Listen: Recs from a Slacker

It’s been an odd couple of months for me, and I’ve broken my regular cadence of book-reading and movie-watching in favor of more easily digestible podcasts and TV shows. Work has been just enough crazier than usual that I haven’t really been in the mood for anything requiring too much emotional investment. On top of that, I’ve been setting aside most of my spare time to relax in the kitchen or work on a personal project.

I do, however, have a couple of things I’ve been able to invest in that I highly recommend. In addition, I’ve got a read, a listen and a watch at the top of my “Get To It Immediately” list. 

Newly Consumed: Pick it Up

onthemedia

I’m always looking for new, palatable ways to digest the news that doesn’t make me cringe and hurl my phone across the room, and I’m only about 20 years late on this one. What I love about On The Media, hosted by Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, is that it considers current events, as well as older stories and interesting media artifacts, through the lens of media coverage.

Rather than telling you another depressing spin on the news, it considers how stories are being presented by the media and what is or isn’t being coverage. A recent episode included everything from narratives around the Greek financial crisis to the vitality of the famous “A dingo got my baby” line.

Can you tell this podcast reaches to the deepest trenches of my media and communication nerd soul?

grove

Pick up this book and read it, because it is distressingly relevant to the current state of race relations in this country. This took me an embarrassingly long time to finish, in part because I would read a few chapters and then get depressed at how familiar the cycles of racial violence and police misconduct felt.

Gilbert King tells the story of the Groveland Boys case and Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the three men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Lake County, FL. It’s an engrossing narrative that serves to highlight our country’s horrifying (recent) past and our history of racial police brutality. As my brother pointed out, it’s hard to imagine a time in the 60 years since the Groveland Boys case that this story wouldn’t feel at once familiar and relevant. 

On My List

between

I need to give myself a short respite from nonfiction since Devil in the Grove took me far too long to finish, but as soon as I’m ready this is at the top of my list. It is one of several books from the last year, including Ghettoside and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, that deals with what it is to be black in America. I’ve heard mixed responses about the format-Between is written as a letter to Coates’s son, and something of a follow-up to his 2008 memoir-but everyone seems to agree it’s an important and poignant read. 

misssimone

I tried to make it to see this documentary about Nina Simone at the San Francisco International Film Festival when I was volunteering there, but the timing never worked out. Luckily, it’s now on Netflix so I can watch it without leaving my house. Many thanks to Glen Weldon of Pop Culture Happy Hour (an NPR podcast of which I am a devotee) for his glowing review, and for reminding me of the incomparable Simone song “Four Women.”  

anotherround

Buzzfeed and I have a complicated relationship, but I’m totally excited about one of their podcasts, “Another Round” with Heben Nigatur and Tracy Clayton. I follow Clayton on Twitter and think she’s tremendous (follow her!), and am always looking for new podcasts to add into my rotation since I have the attention span of an easily bored 9-year-old. Plus, how can you not be excited about a podcast with a segment called Drunken Debates? 

She Runs The World: Beyonce and Feminism

Recently I had a long-delayed bus ride and a longer-delayed train ride during which I had to keep myself amused, so naturally I listened to a lot of Beyonce. Now normally when I have a long Beyonce jam-sesh I’m in the car and I’m belting out the lyrics in my worst Beyonce voice. You better believe I do a mean rendition of “I Was Here,” although my “Halo” could use some work. As I was sitting on the bus, and at Penn station, and on the train, I started thinking about Beyonce as a cultural producer rather than as the person who I most want to be in this world. And I started thinking about what it means to listen to Beyonce as a woman and, beyond that, a feminist. After all, Beyonce sings primarily about being a woman in a heterosexual relationship, with the occasional power ballad or club anthem thrown in. However she is also widely acknowledged as a badass diva extraordinaire, and one not to be trifled with. So as I sat listening to her belting that she’d rather die young than live her life without me (yes, I believe it was directed towards me specifically), I couldn’t help but think about what Beyonce means to women. Is she a feminist?

Destiny’s Child Roots

I’ll try not to linger too long on the Destiny’s Child days, because I think it’s hard to judge Beyonce on what she did 11+ years ago when she was still young enough to sing a song called Bootylicious. However it’s fairly undeniable that Destiny’s Child did something pretty important when they were around. Though they were not the first to do so (they continue a legacy somewhere between the Supremes and TLC), they were a group of strong, unapologetic women who were talented and confident enough to keep the limelight on them. No doubt when the group released Survivor the world was aware they were not girls to be trifled with.

Other songs of theirs, however, seemed decidedly simpering and hollow. Cater 2 U might be one of my least favorite songs ever, and not because I hate on love songs or the idea of giving selflessly in a relationship (I’m not a heartless freak). I just think that the group that took such pride in female independence and forcing men to own their actions could do better than, “Let me run your bathwater” and “I’ll keep my figure right, I’ll keep my hair fixed, keep rocking the hottest outfits.” Come on, Kelly drips herself against a car and sings “I know whatever I’m not fulfilling another woman is willing.” If my man ever told me to step it up because another woman would run his bathwater and keep her hair fixed he’d find himself free to pursue that other woman far far away from me.

Fast forward to 2011 and the album 4. The album may not have been as widely praised or critically successful as her previous releases, but it was undeniable that Beyonce now knew she was a badass woman that any man would be lucky to have, bathwater or not. In some songs she seemed to trumpet her love of her husband, but there was always a hint or more of undeniable female swag. On “Countdown” in between the touting of her love and the praise she heaps on her man, she sings, “Don’t ever let me go, say it real loud if you’re fly, If you leave me you’re out of your mind.” It’s clear she knows that she brings as much to the table as her man, and in my mind that’s a far cry from Cater 2 U.

Sasha Fierce & Ego

With the release of her third solo album, Beyonce introduced the world to her alter-ego, Sasha Fierce. Accompanied by a duo of backing dancers, she strutted and swagged her way to the top of the charts. For those of us who read gossip magazines, there was a disconnect between her “Single Ladies” anthem and the fact that she was a recently married woman, but none of us were willing to deny that she was indeed fierce.

In my mind, one of the undeniably “fierce” songs on the album was “Ego.” At first I was hesitant. A woman singing about her man’s big ego and how sexy it is? Seemed like the kind of song that could serve as kindling for a big ass ego fire. But the more I listened the more I grew to love the song, not for any grand musical genius, but because it touched on that same “Countdown” vibe: my husband is awesome, I’m awesome, and we just work. Who can argue with that? I think that if I had been in the spotlight since I was 17 I’d be curled up in a ball somewhere right now, but instead Beyonce sounds more sure than ever on “Ego” that she’s a catch (And let’s face it, she is. I’d date her). With sex appeal just a touch of attitude she sings, “I talk like this cause I can back it up. I got a big ego, such a huge ego. But he love my big ego.” On someone else it might sound arrogant (like, for example, the Kanye verse on the remix), but she pulls it off by reminding us that “he” loves her big ego, oh and don’t forget she’s got the goods to back it up.

You may not worship at the temple of Beyonce the way I do, but I think there’s something to be said for that kind of message being out there. Too often female empowerment in popular culture takes the form of man-bashing or pure sexuality. Beyonce, instead, tells girls that they can love who they are, that they can know how incredible they are, and that the man worth writing love songs about will appreciate that strength and knowledge. How’s that for a sexy message?

Demanding Respect

Beyond just knowing that she is worth something, Beyonce tends to demand respect in her music. ‘Irreplaceable’ is a prime example of that, although certainly not the only one. Any girl I know who has been cheated on or wronged gets immense satisfaction out of singing along to “I could have another you by tomorrow, so don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” What’s interesting about her confidence is that not unlike J. Lo in “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” much of Beyonce’s confidence and self-assurance comes from her monetary power. She, like many other women of power, derives much of that power from her money and her sexuality; it’s easier to demand respect and kick a man to the curb when you have the resources, and when you know the power of your own sexuality. However, the same could be said for many men who derive power from money or good looks, so it’s hardly easy to fault her for falling into that trap.

In addition to “Irreplaceable” songs like “If I Were A Boy”, “Best Thing I Never Had”, and “Single Ladies” are all brimming with Beyonce’s swagtastic demands for respect. “If I Were A Boy”, despite all its shortcomings and the strange way in which she switches between the things she could get away with and the things she knows a man should do, tells the men of the world exactly what it looks like to respect a woman: “I’d listen to her ’cause I know how it hurts when you lose the one you wanted ’cause he’s taking you for granted.”

On “Best Thing I Never Had” she lets her betrayer know “I’m gonna always be the best thing you never had. I bet it sucks to be you right now.” She knows she’s the best, and doesn’t stick around to hear anything else. And seriously, you cheated on Beyonce, it probably does suck to be you right now. Even her slightly scary growl on “Ring the Alarm” warns that you best not be the man who wrongs Beyonce, because she’s not putting up with anything less than the utmost respect and love.

And then there’s “Single Ladies.” Oh, “Single Ladies”, how you call to me. I know that a lot of the discussions of feminism and Beyonce have arisen around “Girls” but for me this was the song where I first thought “Wow, she really is not messing around with the whole I am woman hear me roar thing.” Sure, it’s a club song. Sure, it’s got a silly and fabulous music video. Sure, a million scorned women have probably sung along badly to this song. But when it comes right down to it, it’s the ultimate in demanding respect.

Before you interrupt, I know that “putting a ring on it” is not everyone’s goal, and doesn’t mean respect, and maybe there’s something to be said about Beyonce playing into gender and relationship expectations (Hey B, you could buy him a ring). But there’s also something intensely satisfying about hearing her tell her man, “You can’t be mad at me, ’cause if you like it then you should’ve put a ring on it. Don’t be mad when you see that he want it.” Not ready to deliver Beyonce to infinity and beyond? “If you don’t, you’ll be alone, and like a ghost I’ll be gone.” That’s a woman who knows what she wants and, better yet, what she deserves. Respect, and a shiny ring.

Love Ballads

So this may be where people are thinking, “But hey isn’t this the same woman who sings ‘Halo’ and ‘1+1’? Those are so not chick-anthems.” Okay, so maybe not. But I don’t think to be a feminist you have to sing chick anthems and only sing better off alone songs (although “Me, Myself and I” is a fabulous better on my own song). What Beyonce does is sing the (heterosexual) female experience, from staggering heartbreak and soaring love, to moments of introspection and relationship musings. Sometimes you feel like you’ve found someone perfect and they’re your “saving grace,” as Beyonce belts on Halo. Empowering women doesn’t mean pretending you’ve always done everything on your own, forsaking relationships and man-bashing. It does mean being honest, and if nothing else many of her love songs are the epitome of stark honesty. Admitting you need someone doesn’t make you un-feminist, and it certainly doesn’t make you less of a badass. In fact, on 4‘s “I Miss You” Beyonce sings “It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel, but I still need to. Why is that?” What it says to me, in tandem with her other music, is that she is willing to sing about real relationships good and bad, doubts and confidence.

Girls

I’ve saved the most-discussed for last, and “Run the World (Girls)” was nothing if not a point of discussion. Was it feminist? Did it promote the idea of a female-driven world that doesn’t exist? Globally, what is her responsibility? Is it problematic that her video made use of African dancers without explicitly acknowledging their role in the choreography?

For example, one article discussed the idea that her sexual dance moves negated her girl power message:

Does the ultimate message of female empowerment resonate with audiences, or are they too distracted by Beyoncé’s obvious pandering to the male gaze to take it seriously, or even notice it at all? After all, men joke all the time about how hard it is to think when all their blood has rushed south. And it’s hard to project a powerful persona when one is so subservient to the ideals patriarchy has set out for women: perfect hair, a perfect face and a “bootylicious” figure.

The article seemed to argue that Beyonce was pandering to a male ideal of beauty and only subverting norms when it served her. There may be some truth to that. But it ignores the idea that Beyonce may be one of those woman who is trying to own her sexuality. Aha, but is “owning your sexuality” just a post-feminist ploy to make you feel like you’re making a choice? I hope not, because I like to think I am a woman who genuinely owns my sexuality, from the clothing choices I make right down to my uterus. You can tell me heels and a “bootylicious” figure aren’t feminist and I can tell you to shove it.

Additionally, people were highly critical of the idea that girls don’t run the world, finding it problematic to suggest that they do without highlighting the problems faced by women around the world.

People were quick to discuss the song, in part, I think, because by the time Beyonce released the song people had come to recognize her as a powerful woman in a position to influence hoards of girls. There is an expectation around Beyonce in her post-Bootylicious days that she will be something of a role model to girls. Because there is no such expectation around Britney Spears or Katy Perry, both are free to say whatever they want about girls. But when Beyonce says that girls run the world, people listen and question whether that’s true, or whether it’s aspirational.

I’m not dumb, and I don’t actually think Beyonce is either. We both know that neither girls nor women run the world. But does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to? There are a hell of a lot more women helping run the world today than there were 30 years ago, and more then than 30 years before that. Should we only sing songs called “Run the World (Boys)” just because the majority of the politicians and bankers that we see are men? Not a song I’m trying to listen to, call me crazy.

So is she a feminist?

In the end, I don’t have any grand conclusions about Beyonce. She sings about relationships from a female standpoint, and she does it well. She continually expresses the fact that she knows her worth, and continues to demand mutual respect in relationships. I think, in the context of her subject matter, that’s not too shabby. True, she still plays into the male gaze and uses her money and sexuality as forms of power. But there are also messages of confidence and female strength throughout her music, and even her videos tend to be more varied and less blatantly sexualized that one might expect. And furthermore, she is an important female voice (a black female voice at that) and perhaps it’s better if we listen to her as an important but flawed female figure we can learn something.

I’m not willing to say for Beyonce whether or not she’s a feminist, and she herself has declined to call herself feminist. But I’d be more than happy to go on a road trip with my future daughters and listen to nothing but Beyonce. In fact, I intend to. And they’ll be getting an earful about feminism and pop culture, you’re welcome.

(Image Source: 1)

Musings and a TED Talk: “If I should have a daughter..”

It’s yet another Friday at the end of another summer week and I realized I’m running out of summer. I need to get away, run to somewhere that’s not here so I have space to breathe and think and question. So New York City here I come. In the past few days I’ve gotten my travel plans lined up, with buses and trains and planes to catch for the next few weeks. But all those travel plans have given me the chance to realize what I’ll leave behind if I leave here. I want so badly to start a life, but I’ve been so eager to start it that I haven’t left myself time to be scared. Let the fear commence..

In the spirit of breathing and thinking and questioning (and being scared to live so far from my Mom), I thought I’d share one of my favorite TED talks. I was reminded of it today when someone linked to the video on facebook, and I had to go back and watch it again. The talk is from Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet who packs a punch. I absolutely love the pieces she performs in this, “B” and “Hiroshima.” “B”, the piece that starts “If I should have a daughter,” has always stuck with me, and I sometimes hope to myself that I’ll be able to find words half as wonderful as these to guide a daughter someday.

Remember your mama is a worrier and your papa is a warrior and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more. Remember that good things come in threes.. and so do bad things. And always apologize when you’ve done something wrong but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining. Your voice is small but don’t ever stop singing.

And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.

 

Sometimes We’re Not Happy and Hey That’s Okay

Someone told me recently, regarding the job search, that all I needed to do was keep looking and stay positive. (This isn’t a job related post, I swear). People really truly want to believe that things will work out for the best, that keeping a positive mindset will help, and that in the end optimism will prevail. But guess what? That’s bullshit.

Pardon my particularly strong reaction, but I’ve had some experience with the push towards positive thinking. From a personal perspective, I struggle with anxiety, a problem that often leads people to give advice like “Don’t worry” or “Think positively.” Well, no, actually, my body has a physiological reaction to certain situations and it’s actually the physical component (breathing, talking, contact) that helps the most. If I could tell my brain “Oh no, there’s no danger in this situation, you’re overreacting,” don’t you think I would have tried that?

Additionally, a large portion of my thesis revolved around the question of positive psychology and the extent to which popular media promote relentless positivity and punish negative feelings. For my research I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which looks at the problems associated with the positivity push. And it wasn’t until I read her book that I started thinking about all the ways in which we’re constantly bombarded with messages of optimism, from the “remove negative people from your life” advice to the idea that cancer will “win” if you aren’t positive enough.

As Ehrenreich points out, the glorification of positive emotions leaves no room for expressions of real pain, doubt or sorrow, and no room for realism. When you are constantly being told that you need to look on the bright side, you can forget to consider the real world consequences.

Which brings me to this week’s opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Power of Negative Thinking.”  In the piece Oliver Burkeman talks about those very issues (even mentioning Ehrenreich), making the important point that sometimes a positive mind-set isn’t everything. Sometimes, there are real reasons for why something goes well or doesn’t, and pretending that everything is going to go well because you can somehow magically will it to is irresponsible.

Oliver Burkeman writes:

A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

He writes in such a “duh” way that you begin to wonder why the strange positivity push (and the self-help craze associated with it) still exists. It totally makes sense that people want to think they can do better, smarter, braver things all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself to be that way (hey, look at Olympic athletes). Until a certain point of course. Because at some point forced-positivity makes you blind to your own failures and unwilling to try a new solution, to ask for help, or to succumb to real emotion.

None of this is to say that you should stick with negativity all the time or that there isn’t a place for positive thinking in life. But as Burkeman points out in the article, even some of the practices we think of as positive, like Buddhism, are more balanced than we think. There is a focus in Buddhism and in meditation on a nonjudgmental consideration of sensations and emotions. The constant refrain you hear while meditating is to consider how you feel in that moment, and not try to judge or change anything, but just to be aware. Unwavering optimism leaves no room for that awareness. (Nor does, I should add, unwavering pessimism. Balance, people.)

To see an article in the mainstream media that says, “Hey, everyone, let’s consider the consequences of squashing the negative all the time” gave me a little bit of hope. What I found in my thesis was that celebrity journalism punishes sadness (particularly in women), even when such feelings might be justified, as in the case of divorce, depression or legal troubles. This article potentially represents just a miniature shift, showing that at least one more guy out there is willing to call bullshit on that idea. And while the attitudes and ideologies that show up in journalism may not change anytime soon, little shifts here and there may be able to shed some light on the strangeness of rejecting reality.

As for my job search? Yeah, maybe there is some truth to the need to stay positive. But there is also a need for me to consider the very real option that September rolls around and I still don’t have a job. I’ve begun to look at my options, considering things like becoming a nanny or taking time to travel. Because should September roll around, I’m not going to be the sucker so caught up in my own optimism that I didn’t take time to consider the What Ifs.

(Image Source: http://optimisticjourney.com/2010/01/17/there-is-power-in-positive-thinking/)

Jack Osbourne, or, I Swear Celebrity Journalism Matters

Jack Osbourne and his fiance

Jack Osbourne has been diagnosed with MS

Today I’m deviating from my scheduled programming (although I know you’re all dying to know what’s on my summer reading list) to get my communication and media nerd on. I suppose this is the part where I pull my “lifestyle blog” card as a way of writing about, well, whatever I want.

An article I read yesterday included the following quote:

“MS is a disease that affects the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord. It can cause problems with muscle control and strength, vision, balance, feeling, and thinking. It’s different for each person. Some may go through life with only minor problems, while others can become seriously disabled. Most people are somewhere in between.”

The article in question came from JustJared.com, a celebrity gossip blog that was reporting on Jack Osbourne’s recent MS diagnosis. Similar explanations of the disease could be found on websites ranging from Rolling Stone to ABC News .

So What?

There is nothing surprising about the explosion of MS coverage that occurred following Osbourne’s diagnosis; people care about celebrities and what happens to them. It does, however, lend credence to the mantra I repeated while writing my senior thesis: Celebrity Journalism Matters.

Skeptics can laugh all they want, but yes that was the basis of my most important paper in college. My thesis worked off of the idea that research on celebrity journalism matters because the tone, language and substance of gossip articles can tell us very real things about societal norms and expectations. The recent burst of MS related coverage points to a different way in which celebrity journalism matters: it can allow people to learn where they might otherwise not.

Celebrity Health in the Media

I know, I know, the gossip blog followers of the world don’t seem like an audience eager to learn and absorb. But that’s exactly why moments like this are so important. Coverage of celebrity health offers an opportunity for open discussions of health issues. For example, Katie Couric’s on-air colonoscopy brought the topic into the public arena. She created a public conversation around her colonoscopy in hopes of raising awareness and preventing others from dying of colon cancer as her husband did.

Such public conversations may have a measurable effect on the public’s health behaviors. Following Couric’s procedure, there was a 20% spike in colonoscopies. Additionally, a 2005 study found that there was an unprecedented increase in mammogram appointments following Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. There is something powerful about celebrity health narratives that can help to mobilize people.

Use the Opportunity

This most recent round of health-related celebrity news offers an opportunity for public health education. Some organizations have used the news as an opportunity to offer up information on Twitter or Facebook to those who don’t understand the disease or want to learn more.

WorldMSDay tweet

Tweeting for a cause

It would be interesting to see whether coverage of Osbourne’s diagnosis coincides with increased awareness and knowledge about MS. What it certainly highlights is the need to remember that occasionally celebrity journalism allows us to reach new audiences with important messages. You may not agree that celebrity journalism is important, worth studying, or even tolerable, but while it exists we may as well make the most of it.

…And thus concludes an installment of “Watch me meagerly defend my field of study.”