Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reasons to Be Pretty

I went into Reasons to Be Pretty, the new Neil LaBute show on Broadway, expecting to hate it. The show is about what happens when Greg, our protagonist, offhandedly tells his douchey friend that his girlfriend's face is "regular" (instead of beautiful) -- and she finds out. It has all the ingredients of a LaBute sexist cocktail, in the vein of In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. The surprise here is that in dealing with the beauty myth, one of the most enduring facets of sexism in America, he managed to create a work that wasn't sexist.

Part of me wants to know what Reasons to Be Pretty would be like if written by a woman -- someone who lived with the beauty standard inside and out, every day. But part of LaBute's point is that men, because they are outside of the beauty standard, cannot understand; instead, they have to try to grasp the significance to the women in their lives of something as potent and volatile as beauty. Women may have to deal with it in a harsher, more daily light, but because of that we intrinsically understand it, even if we're left inarticulate of anything but academic-critique language to describe its effects. Men are left to watch. (Or exploit. Which LaBute, true to form, shows with Greg's buddy Kent, who will surely be played by Aaron Eckhart in the movie.)

It's rare to see tales of the beauty myth from a personal perspective in anything other than a story about overcoming self-hatred. That tack is important, but it doesn't come close to belying the acute pain that the beauty standard brings; we know our own worst moments, but we don't know those of others. Reasons to Be Pretty would be absurd if Steph were freaking out over a female friend saying she had a "regular" face. The play works because the beauty myth creeps into intimate relationships, preying on the very uncertainty that often accompanies romance. Instead of verging on cries of "reverse sexism," as The Shape of Things did, LaBute manages to show why he, as a man, is uniquely qualified to tell this story about the beauty standard.

When, in the play's climax, Greg tells Steph that he was ambivalent about his feelings for her -- it comes off as a stroke of love, believe it or not -- we're left wondering if he's lying in order to sever their tie so that she might be able to embark on a new relationship where the word regular will never cut like a knife. In his author's note, LaBute writes that Greg "just might be one of the few adults I've ever tackled." I can only hope that LaBute himself is growing up and that he can continue to add to the growing number of men in the public eye who are examining gender and sexism with openness and concern for both themselves and the women around them -- not defensiveness.

Monday, March 16, 2009

McCain Wins

I just want to give props to my favorite McCain, Meghan, who wrote this straightforward response to Laura Ingraham's commentary on McCain's weight. (McCain criticized Ann Coulter for her, well, Ann Coulterness; Ingraham then criticized McCain on her radio show for her attack on Coulter -- and, in doing so, made a total non-sequitur reference to her weight. Which is, for the record, a healthy one.)

One thing I'd like to note, though, is that this is widely being seen as a critique of McCain's weight -- which Ingraham undoubtedly intended it to be. But what she actually said was that McCain was too heavy to be a contestant on The Real World. Putting aside the general ridiculousness of using anybody's supposed unsuitability for The Real World as an insult, this isn't a critique of McCain's weight; it's a vocalization of the sheer facts. McCain, simply by being a normal-sized adult woman (at a self-proclaimed size 8, she's still smaller than the average), probably is too heavy to be in contention for the "hot chick" role on those sort of shows, in the same way that most plus-size models are actually too slender to gracefully wear plus-size clothing. (Industry standard for plus-size models is size 12; Lane Bryant sizes begin at 14.)

I'm sure that Ingraham had zero intention of semi-critiquing size standards in the media, but in a way that's what she did. The insult wasn't "You're fat," it was "You're too heavy to be on reality TV." (It could also be read as a notation on why one's suitability for television is the beauty standard, or the ridiculousness that anybody's real body could be considered too big for "reality" TV.) No credit goes to her, though; I'm saving that for McCain. I love how she consistently kept the focus on Ingraham and the ridiculousness of her comments, instead of falling for the bait and wailing about how she's not really fat at all. She also took the opportunity to note that even though she wasn't overweight, that didn't matter; it's the critique that's wrongheaded, no matter the size of the target body.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Did the Feminist Cross the Road?

I'm sort of left speechless by this Germaine Greer piece about how women aren't as funny as men. Well, she says that's not what she's really saying, but she penned the piece to clarify what she meant when she said exactly that, in those words, on television.

What's interesting about this piece is that, as Kate Harding points out at Salon, "Greer keeps offering great setups for an analysis of why women are culturally discouraged from developing and displaying robust senses of humor, then following them up with conclusions that amount to, 'We're from Venus -- whaddaya gonna do?'" If this were someone who hadn't made a living via feminist writing, it would be forgivable--I'd think that the author simply hadn't immersed herself enough in basic feminist tenets to recognize how close she was to articulating why women are funny instead of why they aren't. But this is Germaine Greer we're talking here. I'm puzzled. (I'm doubly puzzled by her bizarre claim that female comics marry themselves off, and maybe that's why they don't thrive in the comedy world. When the female Muslim comic she referenced, Shazia Mirza, commented that she'd be able to afford getting off the comedy circuit tomorrow if only she could marry a rich man, Mirza was making a joke -- one Greer clearly missed.)

Specifically, she writes:

Women are at least as intelligent as men, and they have as vivid and ready a perception of the absurd; but they have not developed the arts of fooling, clowning, badinage, repartee, burlesque and innuendo into a semi-continuous performance as so many men have

Let's say for the sake of argument that she's right (which she's not), and that women can't do a good pratfall, because our vaginas get in the way. This allows zero room for a cultural feminist analysis of humor; she just assumes that what's traditionally been seen as funny is what's funny, period. Not only does this imply that "droll"ness, which she readily admits at the end of the piece is where women thrive, is humor, not a sidecar to it, but it's a wholly outdated view of humor on the whole. Alternative comedy has been thriving for more than a decade, and while the male-female ration is still far from 50/50 within it, it's also no accident that female comics like Janeane Garofalo, Beth Lapides, and Margaret Cho sprang from alt-comedy. Are they making Jim Carrey goggly-eyes or Denis Leary-style rants? No. They're still funny as hell.

Funnier, in fact, than jokes. When was the last time you genuinely laughed at a joke with a punchline, the type one learns and repeats? There are some amusing ones out there, but none will inspire the kind of laughter that is bound to happen when I get together with my friends and we riff on each others' words, or simply alight on a moment of lunacy and find ourselves doubled over in laughter. This sort of leaves Greer's claim that women aren't that funny because we "famously cannot learn jokes" flatter than a Polack joke. (Yes, let's not forget that an enormous subset of jokes play on power structures. Women aren't immune from telling racist jokes -- or sexist ones -- but it makes sense that we'd have a natural aversion to jokes in which our disenfranchised group could easily be subbed in. See also: dumb blonde jokes.)

Greer states that men develop humor as a survival tool for acceptance within his peer group: "...the other roles in the group are not accessible to him, perhaps because he is weaker or poorer or less imposing than his peers." That's the closest she has to a solid argument here: Women have a small but clearly defined arsenal we've been told to turn to in discomfiting peer groups, and humor isn't in that toolkit. But more than that, she's illuminating that humor is a weapon of competition for men. Women have largely been removed from competing for role of "funniest" (instead, we're encouraged to race for the booby prize of "prettiest"). But what that means in real life is that instead of one-upping each other with one-liner zingers, my female friends tend to be funny in a more collective way. They bring up an incident from the past and exaggerate its ludicrous details; we get "the giggles" together; we hopscotch from one person's joke to another, building a central "inside joke" that we created together. (Well, "inside jokes" are a well-known tool of competition amongst preteen girls--it's unbearable to a seventh-grader when your two friends have a joke they repeat that excludes you. Luckily it circles around to being a cooperative event in adulthood.)

I might be so defensive of female humor because my best friend is a stand-up comic. The first time I saw her perform, I was struck with awe -- not just at the pride I felt at seeing my best friend handle the crowd with ease, but at hearing what it was like to hear stand-up performed by a feminist: as if women mattered, which is basically all feminism asks of the world. It wasn't exclusive humor -- the men in the crowd were laughing just as hard as I was at the way she lampooned health-care policy that covers Viagra but not the Pill. But it's not just her. I've laughed too hard with so many women -- and inspired the same of them -- to think Greer's view is anything but a joke.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

taste tested

I've never really understood acquired tastes. I have them, of course--beer tastes a lot better now than it did 15 years ago, when I first swilled it. And while beer has the benefit of getting one tipsy, it's not like there aren't other beverages that do the same, so there's something else that makes beer worth going back to frequently enough that I worked through the grimaces and began to genuinely enjoy it. Part of that was drinking better stuff (I developed my beer taste buds in Oregon, aka Beervana, so this wasn't hard), but even that took a while. I kept trying beer because it brought me a certain social cachet.

I thought of this when I read this Science article about a dog food tasting. The experimenter, as a lark, conducted a blind pâté tasting with his friends. He included two expensive pâtés, two cheap imitations, and one dog food (the testers knew there was a dog food in the mix). The taste ratings perfectly correlated with the price -- the priciest spread averaged the highest ratings; the cheapest (the dog food) rated the lowest. That's semi-surprising, given that wine prices have little to no correlation to quality--it's tempting to lump all connoisseur fetish items into one category and feel smug for just shopping at K-Mart.

But what's really surprising -- and what made me think of acquired tastes -- is that even though most tasters rated the dog food the lowest, none of them were willing to guess which pâté was actually dog food. The tasters didn't trust their own preferences enough to assert the logical conclusion -- that dog food must taste worse than chicken pâté. Obviously there's no social cachet in professing to like dog food, but there is negative social cachet in admitting to preferring dog food to chicken pâté. Blind taste tests are usually meant to discourage tasters from being influenced by the loaded message a brand may carry -- the quintessential taste test experience is that the unknown brand surpasses the Cadillac of cola, or brownies, or whatever. That's not what happened here: The tasters knew unilaterally that the inferior brand sucked, but they wouldn't make the proclamation. (You could argue that they just didn't know what dog food tasted like, but it's hardly a stretch to think that it probably tastes like, well, dog food.)

So both the dog-food tasters and people who develop acquired tastes aren't sticking to their initial impressions about food, at least in part to maintain or improve their social stance. It makes me wonder about all of my preferences: Do I love my Oregon beers because they're made by superior brewers, or because I want to maintain my claim to the Oregon psyche? Do I actually love Big Macs and have merely convinced myself that they're chalky and gross because it's fashionable in my Fast Food Nation-revering crowd to think so? Inversely, do I actually like foie gras, or do I eat it when I want to shirk my mantle of liberal-ecoconscious-friend-to-all-creatures political correctness, and just eat a fatted liver already?