Monday, July 28, 2014

Is TV Nudity the Wave of the Future?

If you’ve ever been to a nude beach, you probably came to a swift appreciation of what a great idea clothing is. Casual public nudity is rarely if ever sexy, partly because very few bodies are suited to being, well, unsuited, and partly because – trust me on this – nakedness loses its novelty rather quickly. But several TV networks are gambling that this novelty will pay off in an envelope-pushing trend.

Last Thursday for example, nearly coinciding with National Nude Day (hey, I didn’t know there was one either), VH1 premiered the (un)reality series Dating Naked, which is exactly what the title says it is, so I suppose they can’t be accused of false advertising. VH1 describes it loftily as a “new social experiment,” although in this promo stunt in downtown Los Angeles, it is described much less loftily as “romance without pants.”

TLC recently premiered Buying Naked, in which we follow nudists on a search for their ideal homes. Not to be outdone, the Discovery channel presents Naked & Afraid, a series which at least offers a more intriguing title. In it, daring participants are sent to an island to survive with no food, no water and – inexplicably – no clothes.  

What’s behind this? An obvious ratings grab, of course – sex sells, and if not sex, then nudity. Ryan McCormick, former TV producer and media relations specialist, says “I think that the idea of nudity being accepted on a mainstream level… could be a reflection of Americans’ voracious appetite for [sexual content].” After all, he says, “We are the most porn-viewing nation in the entire world.” Of course, nudity and sexiness aren’t necessarily the same thing, as viewers are going to find out, and I don’t think the idea of nudity has been accepted in the mainstream, otherwise such shows wouldn’t be generating the attention they are.

Naturally, the producers behind these series insist that the shows aren’t about just being naked. Executive Producer Mike Kane says that Buying Naked is meant to expose viewers, so to speak, to the nudist lifestyle. “What TLC always does so well, is look at a certain lifestyle that people aren’t as familiar with, and at the end of the day, when you see the [people] that we focus on—we are taking an honest look. We’re not doing it to be salacious,” he said, apparently with a straight face.  

Naked & Afraid producers also pretend that the nudity isn’t supposed to be racy. “We never meant for this to be an exploitative show,” claims executive producer David Garfinkle. “This is a family show.” I’ll pause while you catch your breath from guffawing over that one.

Predictably, VH1 also said there is more to Dating Naked than just the skin. “When you actually watch the show,” said a network representative, “you will get to see that it’s a lot more about connecting with people than it is about the nudity.” No, I’m pretty sure it’s about the nudity.

McCormick actually believes that such fare can have a beneficial social effect: “These shows could make people more comfortable in their own bodies. On TV we are constantly bombarded with advertising showing us how inadequate we are… these types of shows could actually be a welcome refreshment,” he said. “If people watch this and they are more accepting of their bodies, then great.” Nice try, but I think the last thing anyone with body issues needs is for our sex-soaked culture to ratchet up its obsession with naked bodies.

Not that there is much forbidden flesh in these programs. After all, they can’t run with the Full Monty; they still have to meet broadcast standards, so there is more pixilation than titillation. For anything more explicit, people will have to click over to Game of Thrones.

Naked television is spectacle, not entertainment. Spectacle is empty; it momentarily compels your attention, like a wreck on the side of the highway, but lacks any redeeming qualities or effects. Entertainment can deepen your humanity, touch your heart or elevate your intellect, or simply make you laugh, but it brings something of value to the human spirit. Will TV nudity be the wave of the future? Only if we allow spectacle to triumph.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/25)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Where Disney Princesses Live Unhappy Ever After

Last week my wife took our very young daughters to Disneyland, where they were excited to pose with a few of the Disney princesses. The fantasy is a thrilling one for little girls, which I’ve written about before for Acculturated, but the Disney princesses also seem to be fertile ground for adult artists, who wring out all the fun and fantasy from those icons in order to make grim socio-political observations.

The most recent example is the domestic abuse awareness poster campaign from an artist known as Saint Hoax. “When did he stop treating you like a princess?” goes his slogan, emblazoned beneath the bruises, blood, and black eyes of a battered Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, and Sleeping Beauty. “Disney princesses are perceived as ideal females,” Hoax explains. “They belong to a fairytale land where happy ever afters are bound to happen. But what happens after the happy ever after?”

Saint Hoax has a similar poster campaign called “Princest Diaries” depicting Aurora, Ariel and Jasmine as victims of incest; it notes that nearly half of all raped minors are victims of family members, and encourages those minors to report their attackers.

Animation storyboard artist Jeff Hong’s photograph series “Unhappily Ever After” inserts the princesses into “environments they wouldn’t be associated with”: Mulan with a facemask to filter out Beijing’s murky air pollution; an oil-soaked Ariel crawling ashore in the wake of an ocean spill; Tiana in the segregated South; a post-ball Cinderella abandoned in a dirty back alley. “I realized a lot of social issues that are always important to me could be woven in,” Hong says. “I'm glad it has started debates and discussions on the issues of racism, animal abuse, drugs, etc.”

And then there is artist Dina Goldstein’s photographic presentations of “Fallen Princesses,” depicting a barefoot Snow White burdened with a gaggle of babies and a former Prince of a husband who now sits slumped with beer and chips watching TV; a depressed Cinderella nursing a drink in a darkened dive, surrounded by leering men; Rapunzel sitting downcast in a hospital room, having lost her hair to cancer; Belle undergoing a facelift and lip injection to stay beautiful; Pocahontas as a lonely cat lady; and more.

Domestic violence, incest, and the issues Jeff Hong lists are very real problems, no question; who wouldn’t applaud effective efforts to bring attention to them, or to view them in a new light to spark debate? And “happily ever afters” do sometimes end less than happily, as Goldstein and the others suggest.

But not always.

The Disney princesses, as emissaries of the Happiest Place on Earth and enduring symbols of fairy tale endings, are easy targets for the bitter, the angry, the pessimistic. When the princesses are depicted as lonely and broken, as victims of domestic violence, in loveless relationships or dangerous environments, it is a disheartening subversion (even if unintentional) of Disney’s message of dreams, hope, happiness, and romantic love. It tells young women that fairy tale endings are illusory and that happily-ever-afters don’t exist.

Believing that they can exist is not na├»ve optimism; it’s the perspective of a realist, who acknowledges that life serves up bad and good. Sure, relationships go wrong sometimes. Tragedy and misfortune strike. Dreams fall hard. But sometimes they come true. Sometimes a woman gets her prince and her fairy tale ending (though she might have to kiss a lot of frogs first, as the saying goes).

Saint Hoax asks, “What happens after the happy ever after?” I’m going to teach my girls that the answer to that question depends on them and their smart, uncompromising choices. But I’m also going to raise them to believe in dreams, hope, happiness, and romantic love, just like the Disney princesses they look up to now.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/22/14)

Monday, July 21, 2014

If you're in the L.A. area this Tuesday night, I'll be introducing Daniel Hannan, the author of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. Check out the event details here... 

In Defense of Trophy Hunting

I’m not a hunter, but I’m tempted to become one just to stand in solidarity with people – young women especially – who have recently become the targets themselves of vile anti-hunting hysteria.

First, a 19-year-old Texas Tech cheerleader named Kendall Jones roused a firestorm of social media anger after posting on Facebook pics of her posed with her legally acquired big game trophies. After taking heat from accusations of animal cruelty, Jones replied, “The rhino was a green hunt, meaning it was darted and immobilized in order to draw blood for testing, DNA profiling, microchipping the horn and treating a massive leg injury most likely caused by lions.” A lion she brought down with a bow (!) was within a game reserve: “Controlling the male lion population is important within large fenced areas like these in order to make sure the cubs have a high survival rate.”

As for the leopard pic, “this was a free ranging leopard in Zimbabwe on communal land,” Jones wrote. “The money for the permit goes to the communal council and to their village people... Leopard populations have to be controlled in certain areas. So yes, my efforts do go to conservation efforts and are all fair chase, not canned hunts.”

She also explained that meat from some hunts feeds local villagers:

And for all that want to say stuff about hunting is for food all the other animals go to the local villagers that are just trying to get meat! These people only get meat when an animal is shot, they aren’t privileged enough to go to the local grocery store and pay $20 for some steaks! And another thing is that this elephant’s trunk had been caught in a snare put out by poachers!

Nevertheless, predictable internet outrage continued. Facebook removed the pics after tens of thousands of complaints. She was verbally assaulted on social media. One lunatic who fancies himself a future Congressman (I won’t mention his name because he’s a pathetic attention hound) even claimed that “she deserves to be a target” and offered $100,000 for nude photos of Jones or other salacious information. “Does #KendallJones use vegetables as sex toys?” he tweeted. “Does she enjoy being spanked? We want to know.”

Next, a 17-year-old Belgian soccer fan named Axelle Despiegelaere, who actually scored a modeling gig with L’Oreal after becoming the focus of World Cup attention, immediately lost that gig when her hunting photos showed up on Facebook. Again the social media hatred flew, and she was labeled “evil” and a “serial killer.” After the teen appeared in a promo video which has since been removed from the company’s website, L’Oreal claimed that her “contract has now been completed” and she will no longer be representing the company. Then it felt compelled to pacify animal activists further by reminding them that L’Oreal “no longer tests on animals, anywhere in the world.”

I hope Despiegelaere gets picked up for another contract elsewhere. If a modeling company and its customers are so concerned about politically correct objections to the disgusting habits of their representatives, perhaps they should demand that their models stop smoking (insert record scratch). Watch how fast that shuts down the entire fashion industry.

The hysteria reached, well, hysterical proportions when an old photo surfaced on Facebook of a grinning Steven Spielberg posed in front of an apparently freshly killed triceratops – from the set of Jurassic Park. That attracted anti-hunting ire as well.  One Facebooker ranted (language warning):

He’s a disgusting inhumane prick Id love to see these hunters be stopped…I think zoos are the best way to keep these innocent animals safe…assholes like this piece of s**t are going into these beautiful animals HOME and killing them…its no different than someone coming into your home and murdering you … . Steven Spielberg I’m disappointed in you…I’m not watching any of your movies again ANIMAL KILLER

Recently I took my young daughter to Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum, which has an extensive and dramatic collection of dinosaur relics. She isn’t familiar with Spielberg, but she loves triceratops, and even at four years old she knows that they’re long extinct.

I appreciate that many are disgusted by trophy hunting; it’s certainly not my thing. But whatever your stand, the teens mentioned above hunted legally and even socially and environmentally responsibly. They and others don’t deserve to be the “targets” of irrational personal attacks or to lose jobs for which hunting isn’t even relevant.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/14/14)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jewel’s “Personal Growth” Divorce

When Gwyneth Paltrow, the celebrity-everyone-loves-to-hate, announced in March that she and Coldplay front man Chris Martin were making a “conscious uncoupling” – that’s “divorce” to us mere mortals – it seemed to take celebrity pretention to a whole new level. Now singer Jewel has coined another unique euphemism as she and longtime partner Ty Murray announced their own “tender undoing.”

Acculturated’s Ryan Duffy initially applauded Paltrow and Martin for doing “the mature thing,” “recognizing the limitations to lifelong coupling,” and getting out before the “misery kicked in.” Acculturated’s Ashley E. McGuire rebutted with a fierce denunciation of the couple’s “new age ridiculousness,” asserting that “’lifelong coupling’ is not antiquated” and divorce is nothing to take lightly.

It certainly isn’t. It’s tempting to guffaw at the pomposity of celebs who use phrases like “tender undoing,” but divorce by any other name is still emotionally brutal – not to mention financially, physically, and every other way – and it’s sad when it happens to anyone, celebrities or otherwise. Even when you know that it is necessary and the right choice to make, divorce is wrenching and wounding, and can feel like an epic personal failure. If children are involved, that makes it exponentially more damaging and painful, particularly for the kids.

In all fairness, at least Jewel, unlike Paltrow, didn’t shy away from using the “d” word in her statement, correctly describing divorce as an “enormous and heartbreaking step.” She and her professional rodeo star husband had been together sixteen years, almost six of them married. That’s a lot of history together to tenderly undo. And they have a three-year-old son, Kase (Paltrow and Martin have two daughters). Yes, Jewel promised that “our dedication to our son is unwavering and we are both committed to being the best partners in raising our son,” but that simply won’t be the same parenting experience for Kase as having a mommy and daddy together at home in the security of a committed relationship.

The reason for the divorce? As Jewel explains it,

The very thing that Ty and I sought in coming together is the very thing we seek in separating. We both value growth. And growth became tragically and undeniably stifled as a couple, and we believe we can find it again in setting each other free. We truly believe we can find greater happiness apart than together, and this is why we are taking the enormous and heartbreaking step of divorce.

Now, I don’t want to judge her unfairly. We don’t know what may be going on behind the scenes of Jewel’s breakup. We have to take at face value her statement, which may not be entirely truthful (I don’t mean that as a criticism; she can and should be only as open about her marriage difficulties as she chooses; unlike what the paparazzi may argue, the public doesn’t have any right to know those private details).

With the caveat then that I may be misreading Jewel, I must say I have trouble with her explanation. Divorce is an enormous step but so is marriage, so if your number one priority in life is personal “growth,” depending on how you define that, you may need an adjustment of values in order for your marriage to work.

Everyone goes into a marriage expecting it to last forever, even in the entertainment biz, which is notoriously ruthless on relationships. And yet too many people today seem to consider marriage just another phase in their personal evolution, just another life lesson, and if and when they feel their “growth” is being stifled or isn’t sufficiently self-centered, they reach too quickly for the divorce option and move on.

I’m not talking about couples struggling with serious issues like infidelity or domestic violence, which can be insuperable, or situations in which miserable partners can find no way forward; I’m referring to people whose rather New Age-y expectations of self-fulfillment don’t align with the synergistic orientation of marriage.

Marriage is personal growth, but it must occur within the sphere of that union. You have mystically become one, and though you may have different careers, the two of you now must grow together, not as the separate individuals you were before. And once your union produces children, they come first. Don’t worry, though: parenting will provide you with a freakin’ metric ton of personal growth – perhaps not the kind you had planned, but it will surpass anything you ever expected.

I wish the best for Jewel, Paltrow, and their exes. Mostly I hope that their children, who were at the mercy of their parents’ choices, absorb lessons from the breakups that will help them avoid their own conscious uncouplings one day.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/11/14)

Mark Wahlberg, A Model Dad

Last March, Mark Wahlberg was voted the first recipient of Acculturated’s Celebrities Behaving Well Award,” stemming from my earlier article about his decision, at the age of 41, to return to school for his high school diploma. I’ve written also praising Wahlberg for his very vocal appreciation for our military. Now, at the risk of becoming Acculturated’s resident Mark Wahlberg fanboy, here I am again, praising the very busy actor/producer for steering himself out of juvenile delinquency to become one of Hollywood’s most upstanding, prominent role models.

In his working-class youth in Boston, Wahlberg was essentially a petty thug: on drugs at thirteen, constantly in trouble with the law, a high-school dropout, convicted of assault. He makes no excuses for that troubled start: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’ve done bad things,” he once said. “But I never blamed my upbringing for that. I never behaved like a victim so that I would have a convenient reason for victimizing others. Everything I did wrong was my own fault. I was taught the difference between right and wrong at an early age. I take full responsibility.”

His short jail time for assault (45 days of a two-year sentence) was enough to scare him straight: “I said to myself, no matter what I was going to do, I was gonna make an honest living. I was gonna do something that I could be proud of and I could make my parents proud.”

In a recent CBS News interview to promote Wahlberg’s new Transformers flick, the interviewer points out that Esquire described him as having the driven work ethic of “a man with a dark past who was granted a second chance.” Wahlberg responded simply, “This is America”:

Once I got a second chance, I was never gonna do anything to mess it up.  And I feel so fortunate to do what I do. It’s only right that I give it my all and I respect what I do and the people that I work with. I’m gonna deliver for them. People are taking chances on me. I make sure that I deliver.

The Esquire profile to which the interviewer referred is “Mark Wahlberg: The Modern Fatherhood of a Street Kid” in the June/July 2014 issue, which highlights the married, 43-year-old actor’s work ethic and his very hands-on relationship with his two boys and two girls, aged four to ten. Of fatherhood, he says:

I think the most important thing is to always be involved in every aspect of their life. To give them enough trust that they can share things with you. I don’t want them to be terrified of me, you know? But I don’t want them to think they can do whatever they want and get away with it, either, because they can’t.

As a father of daughters, I appreciate his honesty and sense of humor about raising girls. In the CBS interview, the interviewer noted that in Transformers: Age of Extinction, Wahlberg plays a dad trying to save his daughter: “You’re a pretty protective dad in real life –”

“Worse. Far worse. I don’t plan on ever letting my daughters date,” Wahlberg half-joked. “I’m going to try to do everything I can to prevent it. You know, it just terrifies me. It just terrifies me. I know what guys are like – what I was like until I became the father of a daughter.”

Considering his rough beginnings, Wahlberg, who attends Catholic mass every morning and takes the family on Sundays, is now concerned about the impact his massive success will have on his own kids:

The biggest thing for me is, you know, as quickly as I was able to turn it around, to get from there to here, from me having nothing as a kid to me here now, providing everything for my kids, it’s like, I worry that maybe they won’t appreciate things. I worry that maybe they’ll have a sense of entitlement. You don’t wanna give your kids everything without giving them the tools to be great people.

That level-headed, commonsense, old-fashioned parental guidance will help his kids avoid becoming privileged brats, or worse, the kind of punk Mark Wahlberg once was – before he wised up, grew up, and made the most of his second chance.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/10/14)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

In Defense of James Franco

James Franco can’t catch a break. Despite his acting accolades, the would-be Renaissance man is often dismissed as more of a hipster dilettante, stumbling at everything he attempts outside of acting. The New York Times excoriated him for his “excruciatingly sophomoric poems,” “entitled narcissism,” and “confused desperation” in pursuit of the visual arts. Acculturated’s own RJ Moeller skewered him as a morally suspect pseudo-intellectual. But I’m going to stick up for him for another reason.

Franco left college at 18 and launched a successful acting career. But eight years later in 2006, weary of that narrow (for him) focus, he enrolled in the English department at UCLA. “When I went back,” Franco explained in a recent interview with Forbes about the role of education in his life, “I was there strictly to learn, and not just to get skills to find employment. Being there to learn what I wanted to learn made all the difference. I focused solely on classes that interested me.” And he was interested in a great deal; he piled on 62 units of classes (most students take a maximum of 24).

An advisor recalls that Franco’s “was truly just a thirst for knowledge, a sense that ‘I've waited this long, I'm going to take advantage of everything, I don't want to miss anything.’” He studied the philosophy of science, American literature, American Holocaust literature, French and more. “I love school, Franco has said. “I go to school because I love being around people who are interested in what I’m interested in and I’m having a great experience… I’m studying things that I love so it’s not like it’s a chore.”

As reported in The Guardian, Franco continued acting while studying, reading Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer on the set of Spider-Man 3, 16th-century Jacobean drama during the filming of Pineapple Express, and the novels of Thomas Pynchon while filming Milk. Franco points out that there is a lot of down-time on-set, and he prefers to fill that time reading. “He’s a very education-minded person,” says director Judd Apatow, who has worked with him on numerous projects. “We used to laugh because in between takes he'd be reading The Iliad on set... With him, it was always James Joyce or something.”

He received his undergraduate degree in 2008 with a GPA above 3.5. “After that,” Franco told Forbes, “I went on to graduate school in writing, art, filmmaking, and English lit. I’ve had tons of incredible professors along the way. I want to now give some of that knowledge back to others.”

I get this. I understand that thirst for knowledge and the compulsion to share it. I too dove into college late; when I was 18 I wasn’t ready or especially interested, but by the time I did go back to school years later, I was chafing at the bit. It unleashed in me an obsession with a wide range of interests like Franco’s in culture and the arts. I double-majored in English and the Humanities, absorbing as much as I could as fast as I could. And from my very first semester back, I knew I wanted to teach.

Considering the false notes he seems to be hitting while dabbling in the visual arts, maybe Franco should consider being a teacher himself, in between acting gigs. He actually already is one, to some extent: he teaches university screenwriting courses at UCLA, USC and Cal Arts, and acting classes at Studio 4. Perhaps he should focus on that. I suspect he will be more successful at it, and it will be more meaningful to him, than indulging in failed artsy projects.

Whatever complaints his critics may have, and whatever his personal faults may be (like his habit of posting semi-nude Instagram selfies), I admire James Franco’s wide-ranging curiosity, his passion for learning, and his urge to share that intellectual excitement. They’re the qualities of a born teacher. And as a celebrity, he is in an influential position to inspire young fans and steer them toward an appreciation of literature and the arts. Franco said he’d had many “incredible professors” along the way; if he got serious about sharing his love of learning, perhaps one day students could say the same of him.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/3/14)

Van Gogh’s Starry Night Comes to Life

The Hubble Space Telescope captured an incredible image recently, “the most comprehensive picture ever assembled of the evolving Universe — and one of the most colorful,” as the Hubble website puts it. Curiously, the clearer a view science gives us of the night sky, the clearer it seems that our universe resembles a vision in Vincent Van Gogh’s disturbed but visionary head; the Hubble photo is startlingly similar to the painter’s famed “Starry Night,” in which the moon and stars blaze and swirl in colorful energy above a sleepy town. It’s a case of reality imitating art.

The Wide Field Camera of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field project, as it is called, employing a range of colors stretching all the way from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, enabled astronomers to observe and photograph which galaxies are forming stars and where those stars are. “The resulting image, made from 841 orbits of telescope viewing time, contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, extending back to within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang.” This is a photo that takes us out of our microcosm of obsessive selfies and toward infinity. If that doesn’t give one some humble perspective, I’m not sure what will.

I personally find it impossible to look at the photo and not be overwhelmed with awe by this vision of unfathomable beauty and mystery. Some commenters at the Huffington Post article about the photo, however, were disappointingly unappreciative; they simply could see no further than their own negative biases. “Wow, 10,000 galaxies and not one sign of a god anywhere,” wrote one. Seriously? I think it takes a sad and narrow mind to look at this photo of 10,000 galaxies, “apparelled in celestial light,” as Wordsworth put it, and not see God everywhere in it.

Other commenters sneered that the photo only proves that the universe is so vast that no god could possibly manage it all: “He can't micromanage and macromanage the vastness,” said one. This attitude is echoed in pop science icon Carl Sagan’s view that the God of Western theology is “too small,” “a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.” With all due respect to Sagan’s infectious, passionate curiosity, I think that such an attitude says much more about our finite human perspective than about any limitations of divinity.

“Starry, starry night/Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/Swirling clouds in violet haze,” sang Don McLean in “Vincent,” his melancholy 1976 ode to Van Gogh and his most famous work. The painting always reminds me of a mescaline-induced insight recorded in Brave New World writer Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, the title taken from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake, another visionary: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Believing that the drug might expand that narrow chink, Huxley undertook an eight-hour, carefully monitored experiment in which he witnessed “the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” Among his other observations, it occurred to Huxley that “precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.”

Glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary – what a perfect description of “Starry Night.” Now, those same glowing marvels are seen through the far-reaching eye of the scientist. Two doors of perception, one glimpse of the infinite.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/1/14)

David Mamet Shuts Down a Gender-Bending ‘Oleanna’

The representatives of famed playwright David Mamet moved swiftly to shut down a production of his drama Oleanna recently after only one performance. Why? Because the company kept secret, until the curtain rose, its decision to cast a male actor in the lead female role.

The 1992 play Oleanna centers on the violent tension between a professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment, echoing the controversy a year earlier in which Anita Hill charged Supreme Court then-nominee Clarence Thomas with the same. The Alchemist Theatre in Milwaukee acquired the right to produce the play and proceeded to cast actor Ben Parman in the role of Carol, the student. They changed none of Mamet’s words; Parmen played the role as a male but was still referred to as “Carol.”

Mamet’s reps also nixed this, sending a cease-and-desist letter the day reviews of the show appeared. Blogger Ann Althouse points out that the play “is about the relationship between a male and a female. It’s specifically all about the male teacher/female student relationship. If it’s about 2 men, it’s a different story.” Not only that, but Alchemist must have known that the playwright wouldn’t approve – hence its secretiveness. Pundit from Another Planet blogged that concealing the casting choice also hinted at “an attention-seeking stunt,” which is very likely.

The theatre responded with a statement that read, in part, “We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender.” That’s disingenuous; the very fact that they auditioned Parman (and probably other males) for the role of Carol demonstrates that their gender experimentation was intentional. The statement continued:

When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.

We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story.

“Gender elasticity is the preoccupation of our time,” wrote Pundit from Another Planet. This is a sad commentary on a culture gone astray, because gender is “elastic” or “fluid” only in those with a narcissistic obsession with sexual identity.

Mamet is notoriously protective of his work and has dealt with similar casting attempts in his plays before. In 1999, his people shut down an all-female production in New York of his Goldberg Street, explaining that “David Mamet does not permit any gender changes.” In response, Thomas J. Brady objected in the Philadelphia Inquirer that “Gender-bending is nothing new in drama. Plays in ancient Greece were usually staged with men playing female roles. Shakespearean characters of both sexes were traditionally played by men or young boys.”

That’s different from the Alchemist situation. In those eras men were playing female roles costumed as women, and the audiences understood and accepted that those characters were to be viewed as female.

The difference in the Alchemist production is that Ben Parman was a male costumed as a male in a female role, playing either transgendered or no-gendered or any-and-all-gendered, it’s unclear which. The production’s director wrote that “On any given day, in any given act, Carol might identify as female or male or both or neither.” In any given act? So throughout the course of the play “Carol” is exhibiting multiple personalities?

Once a director makes that choice, the audience’s entire focus of the play, act by act, even moment by moment, shifts from the dramatic relationship of the two characters onstage and becomes instead: “Who or what is Carol, and why?” That element doesn’t “add to the impact of the story,” as the Alchemist owners put it; it dominates the story. This confusion may suit the misguided gender-erasing agenda of the production company, but anything that jars the audience out of their suspended disbelief, out of the tale itself, is detrimental to the story, and audiences deserve better than that.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/30/14)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Amy Adams, Class Act

Sandwiched last week between another of Justin Beiber’s car accidents and another of Shia LaBoeuf’s public meltdowns, it’s a pleasure to find a celebrity behaving with class and kindness, serving as a positive role model instead of a cautionary example.

Boarding a flight Friday from Detroit to Los Angeles where she is shooting a new movie, actress Amy Adams noticed an American soldier being seated in coach, and decided to do something that she later told someone she’d always wanted to do.

Jemele Hill, a fellow first class passenger, witnessed Adams quietly requesting of the airline crew to switch seats with the soldier, whom she didn’t know. She moved back to coach, and the pleasantly surprised soldier, who didn’t know who his benefactor was, moved up to first class.

Hill immediately got the word out on Twitter, and upon arrival at the airport Adams was beset by entertainment reporters pressing her about it. “I didn’t do it for attention for myself,” the actress said as she tried to duck away from microphones. “I did it for attention for the troops.”

It’s possible that Adams developed a sensitivity to and respect for military service members as an Army brat herself, born in Italy and then moved from base to base until she was eight or nine years old. The daughter of Mormons, she says of her religious upbringing, “I can’t speak for everybody, but I know it instilled in me a value system I still hold true. The basic ‘Do unto others…’ – that was what was hammered into me. And love.”

It isn’t that Adams’ surrender of her first class seat was an enormous sacrifice, just a simple, thoughtful, respectful gesture that celebrities, accustomed to luxury comforts and special treatment, don’t usually make. “The flight attendant even remarked to me,” said Jemele Hill, “that in all her years of service she has never seen a celebrity do something like that. Regular people, yes. But not a celeb.”

Comedian Louis CK has a routine in which he jokes about having the impulse to do something nice for someone, an impulse he never acts on but nevertheless feels proud of himself simply for having considered it. As an example, he mentions military service members on planes:

They always fly coach. I’ve never seen a soldier in first class in my life… And every time that I see a soldier on a plane I always think, “You know what? I should give him my seat. It would be the right thing to do, it would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him… I never have, let me make that clear. I’ve never done it once… And here’s the worst part: I was actually proud of myself for having thought of this. ‘I am such a sweet man. That is so nice of me, to think of doing that and then totally never do it.’

Amy Adams not only thought about it, but acted on it. Especially in comparison to egomaniac rapper Kanye West, who had the nerve to compare his stage performances to the risks of military service, or tone-deaf Gwyneth Paltrow, who called internet attacks on her the “bloody, dehumanizing” equivalent of war, Adams’ actions revealed humility and gratitude toward our military who sometimes sacrifice life and limb in service to their fellow Americans.

Her gesture was a small one, but hopefully the attention it’s getting will spark greater awareness of our debt to military service members and inspire all of us, celebrities and otherwise, to find ways we can express a similar humility and gratitude.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/30/14)