Friday, July 31, 2015

Why We Love ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Two weeks ago NBC’s American Ninja Warrior bested The Bachelorette in the coveted 18–49 ratings demo, after the two raced neck-and-neck all summer. Last Monday night the finale episode pushed The Bachelorette to victory again, but ANW has proven to be the summer’s surprising hit. Its popularity has confounded Slate’s television critic, who asked, “What’s the source of the show’s hypnotic appeal?”
Good question, but Slate offered no answer, except the fascination of “watching dozens of men and women fall off obstacles that could only be dreamed up by a borderline sadistic ringmaster very familiar with the interactions of muscle groups.” But that explanation doesn’t do the show justice.
American Ninja Warrior, now in its seventh season, is the big-budget American version of the Japanese original in which contestants run an insanely demanding obstacle course (even the original version has produced only three winners in 31 seasons.) Currently hosted by commentators Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, ANW features amateur (and occasionally professional) athletes taking on a torturous array of physical challenges.
The contestants try to survive increasingly difficult stages of obstacle courses to earn a trip to the finals at “Mount Midoriyama” in Las Vegas where, as Slate pointed out, no competitor has successfully completed even the third of four possible levels.
Some of the extraordinarily demanding challenges require contestants to use only a crossbar to haul themselves up a tall “salmon ladder”; to swing from nunchuks suspended over water; to use only their fingertips to cross a lengthy narrow ledge; to run up a daunting, 14-foot “warped wall”; and to overcome other obstacles that all require superhuman levels of agility, flexibility, grip strength, and most importantly, mental discipline.
But its popularity can be attributed to more than just the expectation of watching people dunked ignominiously in the water underneath each obstacle. First, rather than the staged melodrama and backstabbing of many reality TV competitions, ANW instead emphasizes skill, sportsmanship, and the drive for personal excellence. There are plenty of “guilty pleasure” programs (like The Bachelorette), and an abundance of reality shows that seem to reward bad behavior, but too few that touch viewers in an inspirational, uplifting way. ANW presents mostly ordinary (but extraordinarily disciplined) men and women striving for extraordinary achievements, which compels viewers not only to cheer them on but also to want to give it a go themselves (the number of applicants is up almost ten times from the previous season). Even I was tempted to try out for the show, until I came to my senses.
Second, apart from the astounding physical demands, it features a variety of competitors from all walks of life, from the young (you must be over 21) to the old (the oldest contestant was 72) – whose personal stories and motivations, presented in short profiles, are often very touching. Some, for example, compete in order to serve as good role models for their children, or to honor the memory of a lost loved one. Yes, a one million dollar cash prize awaits the winner, but it is clear that most if not all of the contestants are motivated not primarily by money but by more personal reasons, and by the ambition to earn the Holy Grail title of the first American Ninja Warrior.
Third, the show is devoid of the ugly arrogance evident in too many other reality TV competitions. Instead, the community of ANW athletes exhibits a camaraderie, mutual support, and good sportsmanship that are too often lacking even in professional sports.
Fourth, the show teaches perseverance and how to fail gracefully. Surely it would crush one’s spirit to train hard all year and come so far only to fall short. And yet the contestants rarely react with anything less than momentary disappointment and a smile. They often tell the interviewer immediately afterward that they intend to get back to training and try again next year.
Fifth, ANW is a welcome, family entertainment alternative. I watch the show with my five-year-old and two-year-old daughters; we all find it fun and exciting and even inspirational. Maybe one of them will be the first American Ninja Warrior.
In short, to answer Slate’s question: we love American Ninja Warrior because it ignites in us the desire to be and do our best, to reach higher and achieve more. And that beats a guilty pleasure like The Bachelorette any day.
From Acculturated, 7/30/15

Friday, July 24, 2015

3 Doors Down Singer: Chivalrous Hero or Pathetic ‘White Knight’?

Chivalry may not be dead, but it says quite a bit about the status of its health when a public example of it draws such attention and inspires such polarized responses as one instance did last week.
Alt rock band 3 Doors Down was playing to a full house in Broomfield, Colorado, when something caught frontman Brad Arnold’s eye that incensed him. He abruptly stopped his bandmates in mid-song before addressing someone in the audience near the stage.
“Hey, hey, homie, you don’t hit a woman,” he said angrily as the stunned audience listened. “You just pushed a woman out of the way to get in a fight, you d*ck.” (Arnold later apologized to the crowd for his uncharacteristic profanity.)
When concertgoers realized he was calling out a man for abusing a woman, they erupted in cheers. But Arnold wasn’t done: “Get him the hell out of here,” he ordered security. He then said something else that was lost in the concert noise, before forcefully reminding the man in the audience: “You don't hit a woman, dude.”
The band’s guitarist Chris Henderson shared a video clip of the incident online – it’s been viewed well over 2.5 million times – and later released a statement to E! News, which read,
You see people fight in the crowd all the time. In the past Brad has said for people to calm down and love each other but this was ultra aggressive in our eyes. It was so aggressive that he stopped the show for the first time in 15 years to address it head on with the guy.
The reaction to Brad Arnold’s very public scolding was generally supportive, and rightfully so. After all, he had not only interrupted his own show to come to the defense of a woman who was being roughed up, but he had sent a loud and clear message to everyone in his audience – and to anyone who saw the video clip online or read about it – that it is simply wrong for men, who are generally bigger and stronger, to hit women. “That's why I posted [the video],” Henderson said. “I thought it was chivalry at its best."
But not everyone was impressed by Arnold’s honorable gesture. The commenters beneath online articles about the incident fall into three categories, as they always do when chivalry is the topic: those who cheered the fact that the rumors of chivalry’s death are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain; egalitarians, both male and female, who assert that no one should hit anyone, man or woman; and those who angrily reject the notion that a man should ever come to the defense of a woman.
That final category includes radical feminists but more often a subset of men’s rights activists who call themselves Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW). It’s impossible to know how large a community they are, but the more disturbingly angry and misogynistic members are becoming increasingly vocal on the internet, and their opposition to chivalry is positively rabid.
For example, one such commenter at snarled about Brad Arnold, “What a pathetic white knight. Such woman protectors like him are the feminist filth that turned the country into the misandrist mess it is now.”
(In MGTOW terminology, the formerly heroic symbol of the “white knight” is now a contemptuous label for “beta males” who treat women with deference and respect. MGTOW blame white knights for aiding and abetting the feminism they so despise for ruining their world.)
That same commenter linked to an internet placard called Hurt Feminism by Doing Nothing, which is not an official MGTOW motto but pretty adequately sums up their attitude toward chivalry:
Don’t Help Women
Don’t Fix Things for Women
Don’t Support Women’s Issues
Don’t Come to Women’s Defense
Don’t Speak for Women
Don’t Value Women’s Feelings
Don’t Portray Women as Victims
Don’t Protect Women.
“Without White Knights,” it concludes, “Feminism Would End Today.”
To give you even more explicit evidence of the attitude of such self-proclaimed “alpha males”: on a Reddit thread about the 3 Doors Down incident, one commenter was even more obscenely incensed by Arnold’s actions than Arnold himself was about the guy he scolded:
Does no one realize sometimes a b*tch deserves it? F*ck these white knight pr*cks. I'm going to go [here he inserts a very colorful expression that describes using a woman for selfish sexual gratification and then dumping her] some slut at a bar this weekend just to balance the karma.
It would be easy to dismiss such viciousness as the bitter ravings of a few internet bullies who can’t get a date, except that these (admittedly extreme) examples are indicative of a broader male frustration, confusion, and resentment about what manhood means today and the role men should play in a world radically changed by feminism. The attitude that “chivalry is nothing but male stupidity,” as one MGTOW commenter asserted, has become tragically all-too-common.
In a culture that has bred such an attitude among too many men, the chivalry that Brad Arnold expressed instinctively is in diminishing supply. It is a quality of character that needs not just celebrating, but cultivating.
From Acculturated, 7/23/15

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Danger of a Pop Culture Presidency

Once upon a time in America, it was believed that the President of the United States should have the gravitas and proper sense of priorities to distance himself from the triviality of showbiz. Then along came television, and Nixon poked fun at himself on Laugh-In, Clinton played blues sax on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon. Now anyone who aspires to occupy the White House is expected to show that he or she is just as comfortable hanging with celebs as mingling with heads of state. Welcome to the era of the pop culture presidency.
In his recent book Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom, presidential historian Kenneth T. Walsh argues that celebrity is an indispensable part of the modern presidency, and that presidents who handle celebrity better are more successful. While what constitutes “successful” is arguable, it’s true that a comfortable engagement with pop culture has become an important selling point for presidential candidates.
Walsh’s book was reviewed recently by Tevi Troy, who traced the interaction (or lack thereof) between our presidents and the pop culture of their time in his own book on the topic, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Pop culture is the most influential arena, Troy notes, in which to connect with the American people – especially the politically coveted younger generations – and for capturing their imaginations. For example,
The most astute presidents of the cinematic era, such as Clinton and Reagan, have understood that movies tell stories about themselves and about the country that can reach voters with no interest in political speeches but who hold great interest in what is taking place on the silver screen.
There is an obvious political advantage for the President or candidate who not only has his finger on the pulse of the culture, but who can manipulate it through the gravitational pull of his own charm and charisma.
Troy believes that presidents who distance themselves from pop culture and focus on reading can show a seriousness of purpose that some voters appreciate. But the truth is that Americans have a healthy suspicion of bookish intellectuals as leaders – and rightly so. Leadership is primarily about vision and charisma, not intellect. Through our history it’s been more important to Americans for our presidents to have the common touch than to be well-read or well-educated, and today that means a president who understands pop culture.
And no president understands it like Barack Obama, a man “shaped by popular culture more thoroughly than any other president in our history,” says Troy. Obama has won two elections in no small measure because of his shrewd understanding of, and what Walsh calls “his constant and unusual” engagement with, pop culture. He chats on late night talk shows, hangs with Jay-Z and BeyoncĂ©, and jets out to Hollywood periodically for fundraisers. He has successfully appropriated the hipness of movie stars and rappers, and raised the bar of presidential cool to heights Bill Clinton could only dream of.
Is that a problem, you might ask? What’s wrong with a President who “gets” young people, who is relatable and cool? In an era in which singer Bono is out there doing the work of a world leader himself, why install some boring old fart in the White House who probably doesn’t even listen to U2?
The harm is not in having a President with personality and a sense of humor, and it’s perfectly understandable that he or she would take advantage of the platforms pop culture offers to reach voters, including the vast swath of the American public that might not otherwise pay attention to politics.
The danger is that a President who takes time out to trade comic barbs with Zack Galifianakis on Funny or Die, or be interviewed by a YouTube star best-known for bathing in Fruit Loops, not only diminishes the dignity of the Presidency but unwisely gives both our allies and our enemies the impression that the American people and the Leader of the Free World are fundamentally unserious.
The danger comes when voters are seduced into the orbit of a leader or candidate not because of his or her character and positions on the issues, but because of a shallow aura of cool.
The danger comes when a President becomes a personality more outsized than the office of the Presidency itself, when he or she not only hangs with celebs, but becomes one.
We live in dangerous times. Nothing would make them worse quite like an American President empowered not by the trust and respect of what Jefferson called an informed electorate, but by a corrupting cult of celebrity.
From Acculturated, 7/20/15

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Friday, July 10, 2015

Michael Eisner Isn’t Sexist – Internet Vigilantes Are Just Out of Control

Another day, another internet outrage.
Last Thursday Goldie Hawn and Michael Eisner were in conversation onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival when the former Disney CEO went out on a very precarious limb as he mused about women and comedy:
From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.
Then he proceeded to saw off the limb he had crawled out on. Hawn responded that she owes her sense of humor to having been an “ugly duckling” growing up, and Eisner countered that “You didn’t think you were beautiful”:
I know women who have been told they're beautiful, they win Miss Arkansas, they don't ever have to get attention other than with their looks. So they don't tell a joke. In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.
He was right, at least about the getting-in-trouble part. Internet umbrage predictably ensued. “Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner Tells Goldie Hawn 'Beautiful Women... Aren't Funny' (And The Internet Explodes),” read a misleading Huffington Post headline. He had accidentally reopened the wounds inflicted back in 2007 by Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay, “Why Aren’t Women Funny?” That polemic had inflamed feminist ire at the time, much to the amusement of the gleefully controversial Hitchens, and Eisner had reignited it all over again.
“Whatever possessed Eisner, who is neither funny nor beautiful, to make these inane remarks is unknown,” Vulture sneered. Hypable dismissed Eisner as a desperate dinosaur terrified of change in a “post-patriarchal” world, whose statement “has no place in a civilized, post-invention of fire society.” Slate’s go-to feminist Amanda Marcotte called Eisner a “daft sexist” whose comments were classic “mansplaining” about women. For the final nail in his coffin, she even linked to scientific evidence suggesting that women are just as funny as men.
But Eisner never said they weren’t. There are plenty of examples of real sexism in the entertainment industry that warrant attention without getting lathered up over an imaginary or harmless offense. Eisner wasn’t trying to hold women up to a separate standard. Most comedians – male and female – are not extraordinarily attractive. Certainly there are examples of funny, attractive actresses – maybe even many, depending on how lax your standards are. But extraordinarily attractive and funny? Rare, by definition. Eisner didn’t mention men, because he was talking about women; it was in the context of complimenting Goldie Hawn by elevating her to the level of a Lucille Ball, who is sort of the gold standard of beautiful comediennes. Would it have been more acceptable if Eisner had told Hawn, “There are many, many beautiful comediennes, and you were merely one of them”?
Context is everything when quoting someone, but internet vigilantes often don’t even bother to look past the headline, much less read deeply enough to consider the context. All they needed to get fired up in this instance was Eisner’s comment that in his showbiz experience it is “impossible” to find really beautiful women who are also really funny. Should he have said “impossible”? No, because of course it’s not impossible. But that harmless exaggeration doesn’t warrant hanging him in effigy.
As comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant have complained lately, we as a culture have become boringly prudish and hypersensitive to even the most innocuous violations of politically correct orthodoxy. No public or even private figure can speak casually anymore without risking triggering the tiresome Angry Villagers of the internet, whose torches and pitchforks are always at the ready.
As Jon Ronson notes in So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the internet has engendered “a great renaissance of public shaming… coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” It is “like the democratization of justice.” Except that this “justice” is actually the ruthless condemnation of the insatiable mob, for whom every careless phrasing, every off-color joke, every unintended offense is a felony, and the punishment is always personal destruction. Then the mob moves on to the next outrage and the next target.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Should ‘Gone with the Wind’ be Banned?

This Tuesday marked the anniversary of the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic Gone with the Wind, one of the bestselling novels of all time, which also became one of the most beloved movies of all time. But in light of its nostalgic view of Southern slave-owning society, has this classic become a racist relic that must be shunned in our time?
Gone with the Wind has sold tens of millions of copies. Its author Mitchell won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the David O. Selznick-produced film starring Vivien Leigh as tenacious Atlanta belle Scarlett O’Hara and dashing Clark Gable won eight Oscars (out of 13 nominations) and is still the most successful film in box office history (when adjusted for inflation). It was number six on the American Film Institute’s 10th Anniversary Top 100 American Movies of All Time in 2007. Up until a week or so ago, few people would have denied it that celebrated place in history and in the hearts of movie lovers everywhere.
But that was before the shocking massacre of nine members of an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a white supremacist. In the wake of that atrocity, public revulsion for the Confederate battle flag, with which the murderer had posed in personal photos, led to hysteria about banishing that symbol of American slavery from view – no matter where or in what context it was found.
Not only were there calls to remove it from government building flagpoles across the South, but Amazon, eBay, and retailers from Sears to Walmart banned merchandise with its image. Apple withdrew historical video games and apps featuring the image from circulation. Even more irrationally, TV Land pulled reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard from its lineup, and the replica iconic car from that 1980s show, with a Confederate symbol on its hood, will no longer be sold.
The rush to put a “banned-aid” on America’s re-opened racial wounds didn’t end there. The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick wrote an op-ed last week titled, “‘Gone with the Wind’ should go the way of the Confederate flag,” in which he argued that,
If the Confederate flag is finally going to be consigned to museums as an ugly symbol of racism, what about the beloved film offering the most iconic glimpse of that flag in American culture?
While not “as blatantly and virulently racist as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,’’ Lumenick wrote, Gone with the Wind’s “more subtle racism’’ is even “more insidious,” romanticizing as the movie does the institution of slavery, and painting the Civil War as a noble lost cause.
Lumenick acknowledges the great qualities about GWTW, including “its gorgeous Technicolor photography and its unforgettable performances” not only by Leigh and Gable but by Hattie McDaniel, the first black performer to win an Oscar. But he wonders, “[W]hat does it say about us as a nation if we continue to embrace a movie that, in the final analysis, stands for many of the same things as the Confederate flag..?”
While not calling for an outright ban on the film, he concludes that this “undeniably racist artifact” should be consigned to the dust heap of history along with the Confederate flag. I’m reminded of efforts to do the same with the novels of Mark Twain because they feature characters who casually use the N-word, which was in common use at the time but which virtually everyone but the rap industry and marginalized pockets of white trash finds abhorrent today.
Thankfully, Lumenick’s argument and such extreme examples of excising the Confederate battle flag from history were met largely with cries of disapproval, and even with accusations that they resembled Orwellian-style revisions of history.
History is what it is – or rather, what it was. We cannot change it, obviously, but neither should we deny it, rewrite it, or delete “unacceptable” aspects of it from our cultural consciousness. Even as just a symbolic response, condemning educational Civil War games, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Gone with the Wind in response to the Charleston shooting was a childish and pointless gesture.
This is not to say that each of us shouldn’t be allowed to make our own moral judgments of art, as well as aesthetic ones. But there is a danger in banishing works of art of which ruling elites have capriciously declared that we should no longer approve. We must have the sense and sensibility to recognize that historical novels or movies are born of their time and place.
To expect works of art to conform to politically correct sensibilities, and to remove them from sight when they do not, is a cowardly and even totalitarian act which also exposes a fear and incomprehension of art. To allow shifting socio-political blind spots to obscure our vision leaves us all less enlightened about not only the past, but ourselves.
From Acculturated, 7/2/15