Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rob Lowe: Playboy or Family Man?

Barely a week goes by without some new Hollywood scandal breaking in the lascivious news media – most recently, rape allegations against X-Men director Bryan Singer and other showbiz power players. Far less often does one hear about a Hollywood name who has left scandal behind and carved out a life of stability and maturity.

By his early 20s, Rob Lowe already had a drinking problem and career-damaging sex tape   under his belt, so to speak (this was before sex tapes were career-building). But rehab and marriage set him on the right track. “When I changed my life, when I sobered up, when I saw that show business couldn’t fill that place that was empty, those buried feelings rose, and having found the love of the right woman, I started a family of my own. The best chapter of my life began,” he writes in his autobiography, the double entendre-titled Love Life.

As celebrity authors often do, he has been making the media rounds promoting that new book. But as celebrity authors usually don’t, Lowe has been taking some traditionalist positions that set him apart from the go-along-to-get-along Hollywood crowd, and that mark him as a man of more character than the ridiculously handsome actor is usually given credit for.

In an interview with Fox411, for example, Lowe, now 50, took pride in his marriage of 23 years, which is “like the equivalent of dog years” in divorce-littered Hollywood. He said that “nobody thought it would last,” not least because of his prior reputation, but he and his wife Sheryl were committed to making it work:

I think when your relationship starts to become imperfect there's a tendency to go, “Oh my relationship is imperfect. I need to start looking for the exits.” It's about how do you live and work through the shortcomings because anyone can be together when it's great.

The interviewer continued, “You sort of have an old-fashioned view of marriage.” Lowe agreed: “I do, I guess. I believe in ceremony. I think ceremony is important, pomp and circumstance, tradition. I’m into those things.” Admitting to holding a traditional view of marriage might not seem controversial, but look at the bombs of contempt lobbed at actress Kirsten Dunst for saying something similarly politically incorrect recently. Lowe has avoided such condemnation only because the PC police are less tolerant of a woman like Dunst “betraying” feminism.

As for the importance of fatherhood (he has two sons, now 18 and 20), “It's been the work of my life, and I think it should be the work of any parent’s life. My favorite times are times spent with them.” Lowe made the decision early on to distance his boys from the entertainment capital and paparazzi. “I moved my kids out of Los Angeles, immediately. I’ve lived in Santa Barbara for 20 years, almost. I’ve had my picture taken there three times.”

While coaching one son’s championship basketball team, he ran into opposition for his competitiveness, which oddly rubbed some the wrong way: “The parents didn’t like my coaching style,” Lowe told the Fox411 interviewer. “[T]he kids and I loved each other. But it was pushups if you messed up, laps if you weren’t paying attention, subbed out of a game immediately if you weren’t living up to your potential. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was my proclivity for keeping score.”

The interviewer asked, “Does it drive you nuts, the whole ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality?” “Absolutely,” answered Lowe. “Equality” is a buzzword these days, but Lowe is no fan of the equality of results, of downplaying exceptionalism and reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator:

I said, “It'd be nice to have a little awards ceremony for the kids.” The school said “No, then we’d have to do that for everybody.” I bought trophies for the kids myself. The school found out about it and said, “You have to buy trophies for the losing teams as well.” I think it’s all emblematic of the same thing. Winners are bad. People shouldn't keep score. It’s wrong to strive to be exceptional. I don’t get it.”

Lowe goes his own independent way even when he votes. Once a Democrat activist, now “I’m about the individual, not the party.”

He did spark a little controversy in a New York Times interview when he was asked, “Do you feel as if you had to wait out your good looks to get good roles?” Lowe responded,

There’s this unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people, that they can’t be in pain or they can’t have rough lives or be deep or interesting. They can’t be any of the things that you long to play as an actor. I’m getting to play those parts now and loving it.

This provoked commenters to come down hard on Lowe for his supposed lack of perspective. But he didn’t say that his looks made life difficult, or that prejudice against the gorgeous is a serious problem; only that, as an actor or actress, being strikingly attractive can limit you to playing less interesting characters:

[A]ll I was getting offered was good-looking guys who take their shirts off on page 27 of every script. I’ve been told, as I’m sure others have been countless times, that the way I look precludes me from playing a cop or a doctor or a regular guy. “A PTA father would never look like that!” Meanwhile I am a PTA father…

And that family man is the role that Lowe, once Hollywood’s poster boy for scandal, seems to have settled into most happily and successfully.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/23/14)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dark Side of the Manosphere

If you’re unfamiliar with “the manosphere,” it is a burgeoning internet subculture dedicated to men hashing out all things masculine. It’s a fascinating, diverse virtual world born of the damaging excesses of feminism, which have left many men sorting through the wreckage of gender relations and questioning what it means to be a man in this grave new world. Much of it – the Dalrock and Art of Manliness websites come to mind – is valuable in terms of shared advice, self-examination, healthy debate, and supportive fellowship in a culture that is often openly hostile to traditional notions of masculinity. But there is an ugly subset of the manosphere that gives the rest of it a bad name.

A prime example is the website Return of Kings, created and run by a controversial American PUA (that’s “pick-up artist” in manosphere acronyms) who goes by “Roosh V.” Considering that Roosh has more than a dozen books under his belt about “banging” women abroad, the site is popular for its advice on “game,” or getting laid.

I debated giving RoK any attention, but when its bluntly-titled article “How to Convince a Girl to Get an Abortion” from last year was brought to my attention, I decided to address it as an example of the depths to which RoK and its ilk in the manosphere can sink. Written not by Roosh but by the pseudonymous contributor “bacon,” it offers up three techniques that have gotten bacon off the hook in his personal experience impregnating sex partners.

“Let’s face it,” he begins, “sexually active people have accidents. Shit happens.” And when it does, “if you are not ready to be a father, the following arguments may help you convince a girl to get an abortion.” Actually, if you’re not ready to be a father, don’t put yourself in a position to have “an accident.” Take responsibility for the fact that even protected sex is no guarantee against pregnancy.

But if you’re not willing to do that, and “shit happens,” bacon can help. The first method is best, he says, “for a girl who believes there is an emotional element to your sexual relationship” – in other words, a young woman who has been misled into thinking that her boyfriend sees her as more than a sexual receptacle. When she discovers that she has conceived a child with this lying user, and hopes to take the relationship to the next level, here is bacon’s solution:

You should sound as sincere as possible and tell her that you want her to be the mother of your children one day, but that now is not the right time to start a family. Explain you want to wait until you are further along in your career/life goals and you can afford to give your future family all the comforts of life you cannot deliver today. Finally, explain if she has the abortion now, you will be able to plan your lives together so that everything is perfect. Then, after she agrees and has the abortion, dump her.

Problem solved! And in its wake are a dead child and a devastated young woman burdened with guilt over her complicity. Bravo, bacon.

“The second method,” he continues, “is best used on girls where minimal emotions were involved in the sexual relationship… I call it the asshole method.” Actually, that seems more like an apt description of the first method, but here is number two:

Make it clear that if she keeps the baby you will be opting out of fatherhood. Explain that while she may end up collecting the minimum in child support that the state can take from you, in no way will you participate in raising this kid or being a father to it...
Once you have laid out your position, get your car keys and tell her you will drive her to the abortion clinic, pay for it, and have her take care of it today so you both can move on with your lives.

Again, problem solved. Again, dead child and devastated young woman.

I can’t decide whether the third method is sick or just ridiculous. The gist of it is, tell the girl that you would love to have children but a rare genetic disease runs in your family: “Ideally use one which causes an early death and/or horrible lifestyle conditions while alive… Bring up a nonexistent sibling and tell her that you are still recovering from their painful passing a few years ago.”

To help convince her, “spend an afternoon volunteering at a hospital or center for developmentally disabled people. Take a picture of someone who could pass as a relative… Do whatever you think is necessary to sell the seriousness of this genetic disease to her.”

Is this manliness? Is it manly to lie to, manipulate, and emotionally brutalize women? This is not to say that many women aren’t also guilty of such behavior, but two wrongs don’t make a right, as the old saw goes, and the question here is, is this manly behavior? Is it manly to force the death of a baby born of your shared irresponsibility?

Some commenters, to their credit, expressed revulsion at the article. Others around the internet wondered whether it, and RoK itself, might be satire – no such luck, although the site does enjoy generating outrage. The sad fact is that Return of Kings and a few like it are disturbingly popular with angry, bitter guys who lament that all women today are whores and yet obsess over how to score with them – and trick them into abortions, if necessary.

Guys like Roosh and his acolytes have been around since the beginning of time, of course, but the internet enables such like-minded predators worldwide to find each other, create a community to share information like “8 Essential Rules for Banging a Single Mom” (it’s even worse than it sounds), and bond over their palpable hatred of women. But for all their posturing as “alphas” – and there is a lot of it – such creeps don’t qualify as real men, who understand that manhood is about character and values, not notches on a bedpost.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/17/14)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Before Lorde, There Was Kate Bush

Ask anyone to name a teenage pop music sensation with a wild mane of dark hair and an offbeat artistic vision, and these days the answer you most likely will hear is “Lorde,” the 17-year-old New Zealander of “Royals” fame. But decades before Lorde, there was English singer-songwriter Kate Bush, whose rather reclusive nature and infrequent recording output eventually took her largely out of the public eye – until recently, when she announced her first series of live performances in 35 years.

The quiet, contemplative Lorde, whom Acculturated has discussed before, seems wise beyond her years and more serious about lyrically elevating pop music than are some of her well-known, corporately-packaged peers. With only one album under her belt – Pure Heroine – she’s already made her transformative mark with her whole career ahead of her.

She hasn’t publicly counted Kate Bush among her influences, which interestingly seem as literary (American short story writer Raymond Carver, for example) as they are musical (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours). But pretty much every artsy female recording artist since Bush has been influenced by or compared to her: Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Bjork, Sinead O’Connor, Alanis Morissette, all the way up to Florence and the Machine, Lady Gaga, and even Shakira. Kate Bush is the spiritual and artistic mother of them all and countless more.

By the time she was in her early teens in the 1970s, the musically self-trained Kate Bush had written a boatload of songs and caught the attention of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who helped her fashion a professional demo to take to record company EMI. With an eye toward cultivating a long-term career, and fearing she was too young to handle either success or failure, EMI kept her under wraps for two years while she honed her songwriting and performing skills – much like Lorde’s record company Universal, which signed the promising songwriter at 13, and gave her time to develop her material and try out different producers.

Bush’s first single, “Wuthering Heights,” went to number one in England in early 1978, and the wildly and uniquely talented Bush shot to fame. She subsequently had top 10 singles in her homeland with “Man with the Child in His Eyes,” “Running Up That Hill,” and others including a moving 1986 collaboration with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up.” She had less success in the States, partly due to the lack of touring (more on that below), but largely because, as a record exec put it, her music wasn’t easily categorized for American radio.

Her fey beauty, eclectic and experimental music, ballet-and-mime-trained dance performances, video spectacles like the Grammy-nominated The Sensual World, and historical and literary lyrical content made her a uniquely fascinating and creative figure. Whereas Lorde’s music (so far) is focused on capturing the essence of teenage experience, Bush’s surreal and melodramatic songs ran a bizarre gamut of topics that often stemmed from outside herself and her personal experience. As one critic put it, “As a songwriter, she has the ability to take intriguing subject-matter – yes, Wuthering Heights, Houdini, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, aspects of war, anything from aborigines getting mowed down by trucks to soft-porn – and condensing it into song.

Kate Bush’s last round of shows was 1979’s Tour of Life, a stunning fusion of music, dance and theater which finished up when she was only 20. Though she continued to release albums (10 in total, but only 2 of new material in the last 20 years), she never toured again, reportedly due to a combination of the fear of flying, her perfectionism about the live performances of her carefully crafted studio recordings, and the traumatizing accidental death of her lighting director at one of her concerts.

But now she’s back. Bush will present a concert series at London’s Hammersmith Apollo called “Before the Dawn” that will run from the end of August to the beginning of October. Tickets to all 22 dates – some of which went for upwards of $1,600 – sold out in less than 15 minutes. Kate Bush may have disappeared from the public eye, but apparently not from the public’s hearts and minds.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/11/14)

‘Surviving Jack’: A New Kind of Sitcom Dad

The typical family sitcom dad for decades now has been a subversion of the Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, or My Three Sons standard of the 1950s and ‘60s. Instead of a stable, mature, moral role model, he became a lovable but doughy, bumbling doofus who is barely adequate at life and parenting, who needs more patient mothering from his exasperated and usually more attractive wife than even his kids do. See The King of Queens, The Simpsons, and Everybody Loves Raymond, for example.

Enter man’s man Christopher Meloni, from Law & Order: SVU, in the new Fox series Surviving Jack.

Set in the 1990s, Surviving Jack is aptly described as “a family comedy about a man becoming a dad, as his son is becoming a man.” Based on the book I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern, author of the hugely successful, semi-autobiographical Sh*t My Dad Says, it stars Meloni as Old School doctor Jack Dunlevy. His wife Joanne has decided to make a late-life go at law school, leaving Jack to guide their teenage children Franky and Rachel precisely at the time when both kids are stumbling their way into adulthood.

Jack’s blunt, heavy-handed parenting style is reflected in his response to Joanne’s suggestion that they try reasoning with their children: “Kids don’t listen,” he says, “unless you rub their noses in their own feces – which unfortunately we can’t legally do.” In that respect, he’s even tougher than Modern Family’s gruff patriarch Jay and vaguely reminiscent of another dad named Jack in a similar sitcom from an earlier generation, The Wonder Years. In the process of steering his shy, awkward son toward manhood, Jack Dunlevy doesn’t bother sugar-coating life’s hard lessons.

In the second episode, for example, Franky and his two closest friends George and Mikey all want to make the high school varsity baseball team. They’ve been together since the second grade, and they envision carrying that inseparable bond forward forever. Franky tells his dad that his great friends would take a bullet for him. “People say that until it’s bullet time,” Jack counters.

Drill sergeant Jack puts them through the paces to prep them for the tryouts. Franky has pitching talent. Mikey becomes a home-run slugger when Jack urges him to tap into his anger toward his deadbeat dad. But diminutive George simply doesn’t have what it takes. Jack tells Franky to give up on the dream of all three amigos making the team: “This is survival of the fittest, not survival of the fittest and his little friend.” But Franky is determined to prove him wrong and keep the trio intact.

During the tryouts, Franky finds himself pitching to George at bat. He holds back in order not to make George look bad – which accomplishes nothing except to make them both seem like weak players. Jack pulls his son aside and advises him, “How do you think George is going to feel when he finds out you both didn’t make the team because you were going easy on him? Use your gift,” he adds. “Don’t waste it.”

Life’s not fair, in other words. Not everyone has the goods to make the team, and those that do shouldn’t squander their talent out of a misguided sense of equality that can only drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Franky takes the lesson to heart and hurls some impressive fastballs past his outclassed friend.

He and Mikey make the team, but Franky is “bummed that George won’t be there.” Jack tells him “Life has a way of dragging people apart. But if they’re worth it to you, you’ll make the effort to keep ‘em in your life.” The episode ends with Franky heading over to George’s to hang out and keep their friendship strong.

Jack is by no means perfect – he seems like the kind of father who loves his children but didn’t know how to relate to them until they started to become adults, and I imagine he has a terrible bedside manner as a doctor – but it’s refreshing to see a sitcom dad who is dispensing wisdom instead of being schooled, a good-looking athlete instead of a balding couch potato, and more mature than his children. He’s no Andy Griffith, but he’s a step in the right direction of the kind of sitcom dad audiences need to see more of.

And perhaps they will. The New York Times noted a few months ago that “most new network sitcoms are created and written by men, about men, and in particular, about the bond between fathers and sons.” Hopefully Jack Dunlevy is part of a long-overdue sea change in the way men and fathers are depicted on television.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/9/14)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

‘Vikings’: Christians and Crucifixion

A year ago on Acculturated I wrote about the excellent new History channel series Vikings and its potentially interesting conflict between pagan and Christian values, as embodied by protagonist Ragnar and his captive monk Athelstan, respectively. That clash of civilizations quickly moved to the storyline’s backburner, but now that we are well into Season Two (with a third having just been green-lit), it seems to be rearing its head again – in a disappointing way, unfortunately.

Initially repulsed by the bloodlust of the Northmen, Athelstan developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the course of his captivity, apparently backsliding from his Christian faith and gradually assimilating into pagan culture. In the recent episode “An Eye for an Eye,” he is taken prisoner yet again, this time by the Christian, Anglo-Saxon enemy of Ragnar and his seafaring raiders. A bishop condemns Athelstan for his apostasy, and he is tortured and nailed to a cross.

At this point, I did a mental double-take. Crucifixion? Certainly other cultures – most notably, of course, the ancient Romans – have carried out this monstrous punishment on Christians (and others). But, student of the Middle Ages that I once was, I never heard of Christians perpetrating it themselves, even in the heart of the aptly-named Dark Ages, a particularly savage time in European history (not that human savagery has abated that much). Considering that Christ’s torturous death on the cross is at the very heart of the religion, it doesn’t even make theological sense that believers would turn around and inflict it themselves. That’s not to say that the Church throughout history hasn’t been guilty of other cruelties. But crucifixion?

Researching this online, I stumbled across A.J. Delgado’s take on this same Vikings episode. She had exactly the same response as mine, and even reached out to a world-renowned medieval history professor about it. His response? “I know of no instance in the history of Christianity in which any Christians crucified others, even apostates.”

Of course, we’re talking about television drama and not a history lecture. Hollywood always plays fast and loose with historical fact, sometimes out of storytelling necessity and sometimes for political reasons. But this was a fairly eyebrow-raising deviation from historical truth, partly because it was so unnecessary. The bishop and his soldiers could have punished Athelstan in any number of bloody ways that would have been more historically correct, and the storyline wouldn’t have suffered for it.

So why choose crucifixion? And why hammer home the point (if you’ll pardon the pun) by depicting Athelstan as a Christ figure himself – flayed, crowned with thorns, and clad only in the familiar white cloth around his loins? Throw in a stereotypically fat, corrupt bishop, and it seems that Athelstan’s crucifixion was simply designed to paint Christians as cruel hypocrites, merciless crucifiers themselves.

This is disappointing but predictable treatment of Christians onscreen. In a recent article (written prior to the crucifixion episode) entitled “Vikings: A TV Series – and World? – Without Real Christians,” my friend Steve Pauwels urged the filmmakers to move beyond anti-Christian clich├ęs. If they “really wanted to take the innovative route,” Pauwels wrote, “they’d feature an occasional Christian character who modeled strength of spirit and integrity.”

It doesn’t look like Athelstan, who was ultimately rescued from the cross, will be that character. In an interview, George Blagden, the actor who portrays the monk, suggests that Athelstan will continue to struggle with his faith: “As Season 2 progresses, there's a fantastic scene where Athelstan explains his conflicted mind… how Athelstan survived in this purgatory-type world between two religions.”

Fair enough, but the show is missing an opportunity to do more with this, to add some depth to its lead Ragnar, a compelling antihero driven by greed and a lust for power, unable to commit to one wife. How much more interesting his character might be if Ragnar occasionally wrestled with his own pagan faith as Athelstan wrestles with his; if something of the monk’s Christian theology sowed a seed of doubt in Ragnar’s own; if it caused him to change the way he looked at his wives, his slaughter of innocents, the direction of his leadership.

Vikings is one of my very favorite current shows. But as long as the only character who wrestles with his belief system is the Christian, the series will lack a dimension that could elevate it above the mere carnal entertainment of swordplay and sex.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/1/14)