Friday, April 22, 2016

a survey of riffs on Hamilton as a reflection of competing ideals on the social purpose of art, shared aspirational ideals? or vicarious living that represents who we are? Two threads of tension in Western ideologies about the aim of the arts as politics or art-as-religion

From "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" author Mr. Jarrell ...

“Taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself—and, sometimes, doing so—is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art.”
Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism”

To piggyback on discussions from the past about A. O. Scott's film criticism, perhaps we live in an era in which criticism is felt to be in decline because critics may not want to look like total fools for supporting an artist or a cause.  Clement Greenberg backed Pollack and could look like a doofus for having done so if you're not into that style (I'm not, personally) but Greenberg took a stand.  Mencken backed Joseph Conrad (hooray!). 

So ... we have critics here and there who are talking a bit about this musical called Hamilton, which I might bother to get around to listening to in spite of my history of ambivalence about the genre.  I own Fiddler on the Roof and Singing in the Rain and South Park (yes) and I enjoy all those musicals. But generally the idiom hasn't been my first preference.  But whether Miranda and company's experiments in fusion can work intrigues me and it's been interesting that so much of the critical back and forth about the musical has been about race and politics and power.  That's what I'd expect ... although discussions of how well (or if) the musical works as a genre fusion and what that may suggest to us about fusion as an experimental process in contemporary music doesn't seem to be quite as high up the ladder of things to talk about. 

It's been about race, basically, and politics. 

From Noah Berlatsky, on the unsurprising question from the progressive side as to whether Hamilton is racist.

Historian Lyra Monteiro makes the case for thinking so. She argues that casting back actors in the role of the white founding fathers is a way to erase said founding fathers racism, as well as the narratives of actual black people who lived at the time.  ...

I don’t know if the musical talks about this, and Monteiro doesn’t, but Hamilton was racialized himself, at least sometimes. We don’t really know who his father was, and given his childhood in the Caribbean, there’s a non-negligible chance that he was part black. His enemies certainly made much of the fact that he might be part black; he was referred to as a Creole on more than one occasion, and attacked as a foreigner, which I think then (as now) had some racial overtones.

So you could see Hamilton’s story as being about the possibility of black assimilation, which is in part what it sounds like the musical’s about too—black people claiming the Founding Father’s story as their own. The problem is that of course black people haven’t been allowed to assimilate, really, and that Hamilton’s assimilation is contingent on him not having been black (he certainly didn’t live as a black man in America.) And similarly the assimilation of the cast to the Hamilton story means losing blackness as a historical phenomenon, at least to some great degree.

So…the politics of it sort of depend on the politics of assimilation, which seem like they’re fairly complicated. On the one hand, racism in the US is in large part about black people not being allowed to assimilate. On the other hand, assimilating to whiteness means identifying with the oppressor, which is arguably also racist. The alternative would be telling a story about the oppressed—but of course many black commenters have talked about how sick they are of seeing black people only in the role of the oppressed, because it’s dreary and disempowering to constantly be portrayed as dreary and disempowered.

To me, overall, it seems like Hamilton the musical offers a kind of representation that isn’t often seen in the media—that is, black performers explicitly playing white people, rather than playing roles in which their blackness isn’t supposed to be recognized or acknowledged (which happens quite often.) Monteiro makes a good case that this representation isn’t perfect, but no one representation is going to be perfect, and more representations, more kinds of representations, and more jobs for black actors all seem like good things. -

Then over at Slate ...
...What’s remarkable about the criticism of Hamilton—and basically unique in the history of American theater—is that even the most vocal critics of Hamilton share with its fans a love for the show. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote that “[t]he genius of black music and black performance styles is used [by Hamilton] to sell a picture of the founding era that has been largely rejected in history books,” also told the Times she listens to the soundtrack every day. Loving a work of art involves advocacy and championship, but it also demands of us that we question it, interrogate it, work to see it for what it is honestly and with clear eyes. Dismissing this line of inquiry entirely and demanding that Hamilton be uncritically celebrated is against what Hamilton itself is doing and what it asks of all of us. Hamilton is a great play. It’s time to treat it like one.

 As a hip-hop/Broadway fusion it might be unavoidable that any attempt at a fusion of two styles that could seem as different as hip hop and Broadway would be pre-emptively doomed to failure in satisfying purists from either category.  It could end up seeming a hopeless compromise to purists for hip hop or purists for Broadway. That there are debates about the history and politics of the stage work might not be assurance that it's "a great play".  Bad art can inspire great discussions ... but I don't want to assume the worst about Hamilton at this point.

So we get to Terry Teachout commenting on progressive critiques of Hamilton.
Terry Teachout
April 20, 2016 6:27 p.m. ET

Everybody loves “Hamilton.” It’s the hottest hit on Broadway, sold out so far into the future that forged tickets have reportedly been going for as much as $300 a pop on Craigslist. (No, they won’t get you into the show. Don’t even try.) Now that it’s been anointed with a Pulitzer Prize for drama, none can doubt its greatness. Right?

Way wrong.

The New York Times recently published a piece by Jennifer Schuessler called “‘Hamilton’ and History: Are They in Sync?” in which a gaggle of academic historians declared Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multiethnic hip-hop musical about the man on the $10 bill to be politically incorrect. While some of them claimed to like the music, they bristled at the rest of the show, and one dismissed it as “Founders Chic.”

Mr. Miranda, it seems, is too easy on Alexander Hamilton to suit progressive tastes. The Hamilton of “Hamilton” is a flawed but nonetheless incontestably heroic figure, an illegitimate Caribbean-born immigrant whose greatness is insufficiently acknowledged: “Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom / His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him.” But to left-wing scholars, the real Hamilton was an elitist who, in the words of Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, was “more a man for the 1% than the 99%,” and for Mr. Miranda to have portrayed him as “an up-from-under hero. . . seems dissonant amidst the politics of 2016.”

I’ve been waiting for just such a reaction to “Hamilton” ever since it opened last year. Why? Because, as I wrote in my review of the original off-Broadway production, the show “is at bottom as optimistic about America as ‘1776.’ American exceptionalism meets hip-hop: That’s ‘Hamilton.’” Whether Mr. Miranda knew it or not—and he surely knows by now—such a point of view is by definition anathema to those who see America as a country so tainted with the original sin of class privilege as to be irredeemable. To such folk, the fact that the founders were rich white men is reason enough to sneer at the underlying optimism of “Hamilton.”

Although Ms. Schuessler doesn’t say so in her piece, it’s no less noteworthy that “Hamilton” received near-universal praise from right-of-center critics who responded wholeheartedly to its thumbs-up perspective on the founding. Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, John Podhoretz: All found the show to be, in Mr. Podhoretz’s words, “nothing less than the most stirring patriotic pageant of our time or any time.” That alone should have triggered a left-wing backlash.

Responses to Ms. Schuessler’s piece have ranged widely. The fanboys and fangirls of Broadway were outraged that anybody would dare to say anything bad about their favorite show. Isaac Butler, by contrast, offered a far more reasoned perspective in Slate, writing as a progressive theater critic who likes and admires “Hamilton” but doesn’t swallow it whole: “Loving a work of art involves advocacy and championship, but it also demands of us that we question it, interrogate it, work to see it for what it is honestly and with clear eyes. . . . ‘Hamilton’ is a great play. It’s time to treat it like one.”

I’m with Mr. Butler, albeit for somewhat different reasons. To criticize “Hamilton” because it simplifies and fictionalizes Alexander Hamilton’s life and achievements is to miss the point of the show—something that literal-minded historians too often do when grappling with historical fiction. Not that “Hamilton” gets anything really important wrong. “It is surprising, and heartening, how detailed and generally accurate ‘Hamilton’ is,” says Mr. Brookhiser, whose own biographies include “Alexander Hamilton: American.” But it is fiction nonetheless, as much a work of the imagination as Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” or Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” and to
treat it otherwise is to fail to grasp what Mr. Miranda is trying to do.

For my part, I think “Hamilton” is best understood as an exercise in historical mythmaking, the same kind of thing that John Ford was doing when he made such films as “My Darling Clementine,” “They Were Expendable” and “Young Mr. Lincoln.” Ford’s purpose was to pass American history through the prism of popular art, in the process creating semi-fictional American heroes whose stirring lives would inspire young viewers to do great deeds of their own. Of course he knew perfectly well that his cinematic tales of historical derring-do were far from literally true, but he also understood the pivotal role played by idealism in the formation of character. That’s what the newspaper editor in Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” meant when he told Jimmy Stewart’s character, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s what Mr. Miranda has done in “Hamilton”: He’s created a modern-day legend of his very own, a rainbow-colored Hamilton who might just inspire a new generation of hip-hop-loving youngsters to emulate the greatness of the men who made America. Long may he wave.

That arts critics left, right and center mostly seem to enjoy the work might suggest that it's worth giving at least some kind of shot.  Might get around to listening to the whole thing. 

The idea that Hamilton shouldn't be mythologized seems a bit too pat.  Let's turn this idea around and ask why Martin Luther King Jr. should be mythologized.  Did he deserve it more than Alexander Hamilton?  King's earlier plagiarism is not exactly up for debate, is it?  But people left, right and center seek to co-opt King into their respective political mythologies.  David Bowie getting praise from Jacobin seems to prove the point in another way, if an artist or a public figure is popular enough Americans of any political stripe will find some way, even a desperate way, to assimilate them into identity politics.  We haven't stopped living in an age where Cold War era political binaries about whether something is even art or not based on the publicly observable political alliances of artists is a way to decide whether "it" is even art or not. 

It can seem like there are two categorical ideals about the nature of art that are in conflict with reactions to Hamilton among critics.  The first could be said to be the camp that considers the aim of art to articulate a vision of shared ideals, whatever those ideals might be.  If Hamilton is in this first category then to find it wanting from the second category doesn't mean it hasn't faltered in measuring up to the ideals of the second category.  But neither does it mean that it should be considered a failure for not setting out to do what someone else thinks art should do.  To recall an old debate on Batman Begins, local writer Charles Mudede asserted that it's ridiculous to compare Nolan's Batman film from 2005 to something by Godard.  If you set out to assess whether a movie works on the basis of the goals set out for itself, Nolan's film worked. 

To put it another way, in the history of the arts an artist can be loathed and loved for the same set of traits.  The reasons some people love Hemmingway are the reasons I can't stand him, just as the reasons I love Jane Austen are the reasons some people can't stand her work.  Berlioz found J. S. Bach tedious.  People who did like Bach may have found Berlioz' approach to counterpoint incompetent.  You probably get the idea here.  So, on to that second category, a category of thought about the arts that seems to be more and more dominant in our era, perhaps in reaction to fallacious claims of the universal appeal of the arts from earlier eras.

The second category of thought about the aim of the arts  could be called the impulse to recognize within the arts vicarious living.  It's not about the lives some of us think we SHOULD live but ruminations about the lives we DO live. Those for whom the aim of the arts is vicarious living and representation may have more of a voice in arts criticism and commentary now not for what they do see but for what they don't see.  Whether we're talking about OscarsSoWhite or concerns about Scarlett Johansson playing the Major from Ghost in the Shell, this concern crops up in an impulse to regard the arts as a form of vicarious living--when certain lives seem curiously or even systematically under-represented in the realm of vicarious living (i.e. the arts) people get concerned.  When appeals are made by those in category 1 to people in category 2 that the shared ideals might be enough, the folks in category 2 might disagree. 

Regarding these categories for art it would seem that it is good to hold on to one thing without letting go of the other and as Ecclesiastes advised, the one who fears God will come forth with both of them.

Louis Menand on Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg and the dawn of polemics against the middle-brow
...Movies were always an interest of Macdonald’s. His father, a lawyer, had served on the boards of several film companies, and had once lectured at Yale on the movie business. In the nineteen-twenties, some of the most innovative films in the world came out of the Soviet Union. “One went to the ‘little’ movie houses which showed Russian films as one might visit a celebrated cathedral or museum,” as Macdonald described it. “In the darkened auditorium of the theatre, one came into a deep and dynamic contact with twentieth century life.” By the late nineteen-thirties, though, the cinema avant-garde in Russia had been killed off by official demands for a doctrinaire product and official hostility to experimentation. Soviet film under Stalin, Macdonald wrote, had become “something that more and more closely approaches the output of Hollywood,” which he thought was similarly committed to uncritical, generic entertainment, and his articles analyzed the causes of this decline. In response, the magazine received a letter to the editor from a thirty-year-old aspiring poet and literary critic, Clement Greenberg.
Macdonald had been introduced to Greenberg in 1938 by two Partisan Review contributors, Harold Rosenberg and Lionel Abel. Greenberg’s letter took issue with a few of Macdonald’s points, and Macdonald, delighted to have stimulated an antagonist, encouraged him to expand it into an essay, which he edited. The essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” was to some extent a collaboration. (Macdonald later claimed that he “invented” Clement Greenberg.) It appeared in the Fall, 1939, issue of Partisan Review, and became one of the most influential essays of the century. It was only the second piece of criticism Greenberg had published.
Except for an important twist, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is an orthodox Marxist analysis. Greenberg explained that both avant-garde art and kitsch (that is, popular, or commercial, culture) were by-products of the industrial revolution. Art became avant-garde when serious artists turned inward, away from a society they felt alienated from. In the case of painting, artists moved from representation to abstraction, from attention to the world to attention to the paint. Kitsch—the word means trash, or, as Greenberg put it in his letter to Macdonald, crap—was a consequence of the fact that the industrial revolution had made universal literacy possible, and the new technology of mechanical reproduction permitted an ersatz culture to be manufactured cheaply for an audience looking for entertainment and diversion. This manufactured culture killed off folk art, which was a genuine popular culture.
A Marxist ordinarily went on to condemn both avant-garde art (solipsistic and escapist) and kitsch (a mass opiate), but this is where Greenberg introduced his twist. He didn’t denounce abstract painting and modernist poetry; he justified and defended them. They were what genuine culture had to become under the conditions of capitalism. [emphasis added] “By no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order,” Greenberg claimed. The people at Partisan loved “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” and no wonder: it elegantly squared the magazine’s apparently asymmetrical allegiances to Marxism and modernism
But, of course, last century's avant garde could be and was easily assimilated into the mainstream in a variety of ways.
Menand went on to write that Macdonald's argument was that there wasn't any point in condemning the masses liking pulp fiction or mass art.  If they like it and you don't, fine.  What Macdonald objected to was what he called masscult and midcult and what Woolf called middlebrow. Think pulp with pretense and the pedestrian as profound.  So a solid Marxist/leftist would say that both Terrance Malick and Christopher Nolan would utterly fit into this category.
From the old line of thought, anyway.  But by the 1960s pop music had become sufficiently sophisticated that the New Left and Old Left couldn't see eye to eye about the illegitimacy of popular culture.  How many people tonight are more bothered by the recent death of Prince than by Pierre Boulez? Some may have found both deaths equally sad with respect to the wealth of musical culture available in our era ... but it might be that number of people equally appreciative of Boulez and Prince is something less than a sea of people .... ?

some musical links for the weekend, some concerti by Atanas Ourkouzonov

Easily one of my favorite living guitarist composers, I hope one day Atanas is able to come and perform in the Seattle area!  Here are links to videos of performances of two of his concertos for guitar and chamber ensembles.

Ourkouzonov Concerto Infini for guitar and orchestra, I. Prologue
II. Monologue
III. Epilogue

Ourkouzounov - Concerto da camera (2002) - I. Scherzando
Ourkouzounov - Concerto da camera (2002) - II.Parlando
Ourkouzounov - Concerto da camera (2002) - III.Cadenza
Ourkouzounov - Concerto da camera (2002) - IV.Toccata

some links for the weekend with a theme, UC Davis scrubbing the internet of its pepper spraying moment

One of the things that comes up in the age of the internet is how institutions and brands find it in their interest to scrub away the things that could be on the internet that make them look terrible.  It won't take huge imaginative leaps to wonder why this might seem like a pertinent topic to mention here.  It's not as though in the course of 2014 we didn't see mountains of material that was formerly available for all and sundry to hear from Mark Driscoll abrupt taken down.  As Mark Driscoll Ministries starts bringing back the hits from a decade ago ...
You get to compare how a sermon you can stream at Driscoll's site today is about half the length it was ten years ago. 
Or take UC Davis ... Moving along and pretending that something you said or did that was embarrassing never happened and taking some kind of measure to keep the internet from remembering it is not merely the domain of formerly megachurch-leading celebrities.
UC Davis contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings following the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students and to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, newly released documents show.
April 20, 2016 
Google “University of California, Davis.” What do you see? Who controls what you see?
Until last week, here’s what you wouldn’t see: images of a police officer, back in 2011, pepper spraying a group of student protesters. The students are assembled peacefully, sitting in a line on the ground, heads ducked.
Nobody can change Google’s search results -- not directly -- but anyone can try to game the algorithm. In its proposal, Nevins & Associates, one of the companies UC Davis hired, promised to create a “surge of content with positive sentiment and off-topic subject matter.”

The goal was to flood the Internet: as more content about a particular subject appears online, any negative content will -- hopefully -- get lost in the mix.

“Communicating the value of UC Davis is an essential element of our campus’s education, research and larger public service mission,” the university wrote in a statement after The Sacramento Bee’s investigation broke. “Increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect.” In
a video message Monday, Katehi said that the contracts’ language misrepresented her intentions, and that she had never wanted to erase the pepper spray incident from the university’s history.

For its supporters, UC Davis was just engaging in another kind of PR. After a crisis, they argue, doesn’t it make sense to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative?

Elizabeth Johnson, CEO of market research firm Simpson Scarborough, says the Internet is the primary way people get information about UC Davis -- and if the university’s marketing department wasn’t working on its search engine results, it wouldn’t be following best practices.

“When people search on ‘General Motors,’ General Motors does not want them to land on a page about recalls,” she said. “And when people search ‘UC Davis,’ UC Davis does not want them to land on a page about pepper spray.”

excerpt from Henry Threadgill in conversation with Ethan Iverson, a salty surmise on how the teaching of music should be like medicine, general first, specialize later at your own inspiration

Henry Threadgill on music education:
I think they should invest in really teaching people music, just like the way medicine is done.  You learn generally.  You have to be a general practitioner, then you specialize.  You want to be a podiatrist, you want to be an ear doctor, you want to be a neurologist, but first you've got to be a general practitioner.  I sit up in front of some kids at a jazz school and start talking about music, and I say, "So how much Bach did you have to play and what other instruments did you have to study?"  I was a viola player, you know.  I said, "You know you're supposed to learn about music. You want to play rock and roll or whatever the fuck you want to do, but you're supposed to know the general."  As much general Western and now, world music.
Among the, well, many complaints Hindemith had about American educational culture it was that there was this notion that you could teach every kid he or she could be the next Beethoven or the next Heifitz when that was not possible.  The American exceptionalist attitude was something that, it seems, grated on Hindemith's nerves.  The idea was to have a broad musical understanding and not just be a specialist at one instrument and focusing on its solo literature.
Now you can obviously specialize as much as you like.  But my experience has been things are more fun if you don't box yourself into a genre or style even if you find yourself continually drawn to certain things. 
Iverson's written about jazz not being taught at Yale as part of the Western canon and it seems there's mixed feelings about that among those of us who think that's a mistake.  On the one hand, it seems obscene to not regard the music of brilliant black American musicians as part of the Western canon.  Blues is a hundred years old by now.  Jazz is an essential part of vernacular music in the United States.  And yet, as Threadgill pointed out elsewhere in the interview quoted above, when everyone has the same diet of an institutionally prescribed set of jazz staple food everyone craps out the same crap.  This problem of pabulum was anticipated by the old lefty Dwight Macdonald half a century ago ... but we can get to him in another post.  There are endless battles that could be fought about whether jazz can/should be/is assimilate(d) in current culture.  Threadgill's advice might be more that you don't call it by some genre so much.  We need to think of the musical canon of the human race as an entirety, not as a series of delineated bunkers and subcultures that somehow can't have interaction.
If so I basically agree.  The boundaries between styles are more permeable than a lot of people want to believe and there's more continuity possible between ostensibly contrasting styles than some people would like to concede.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

some more riffs on Roberts at Mere Orthodoxy on "strong female characters", there are plenty of progressive arguments against the SFC as an embodiement of Hollywood's tentpole fetish for solutions via violence

One of the ironies of Alastair Roberts' case against the "strong female character" is resident in reactions, objections to his case against the "strong female character" as plausible in terms of the use of force.  The biological differences are one thing to discuss, but what hasn't been suggested (yet) in the comments over there is something Noah Berlatsky recently mentioned and it can be seen as a progressive mirror to Roberts' comments on the use of violence to solve a conflict.  
In his review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Roger Ebert complained that the film ended with a pointless action sequence. “Time after time I complain when a film develops an intriguing story and then dissolves it in routine and boring action,” he says wearily. “We’ve seen every conceivable battle sequence, every duel, all carnage, countless showdowns and all-too-long fights to the finish.” Can’t anyone think of an end other than violence? Ebert didn’t live to see the 2015 Cinderella live action reboot, but if he did, he would have at least been pleased on one count: it doesn’t end with a fight.
Roger Ebert asked why films have to end with violence; Cinderella, inadvertently, explains. Films have to end with violence because violence is the only way that these big-budget Hollywood films can express strength, agency, or even really action. Either you’re swinging a sword and decapitating the Jabberwock, like Alice in Burton’s film, or else you’re letting you’re step mother put her boot on your face because you just don’t have the gumption to do anything about it. You’re empowered and awesome or disempowered and pure. There doesn’t seem to be any middle-ground.

the middle-ground is, of course the place where most people live most of their lives. In most conflicts, in most lives, you aren’t fully empowered to beat the crap out of your enemy and have them cringe at your feet. Neither are you completely bereft of agency, waiting for a prince to save you. Instead, you’re somewhere in a difficult, grey middle, with some ability to make some choices, and push back against some power, if you’re cunning, and lucky,and don’t misjudge. Heroism comes not in using superpowers to blast all before you, nor in staying pure souled and above the fray, but in figuring out how to make the best of difficult situations, using what power you have, and what kindness you can muster.
This is the kind of overstatement Berlatsky traffics in from time to time, like arguing that Marston's origin for Wonder Woman is perfect. But the point is worth noting because when progressives and conservatives alike raise objections to the basic plausibility of the "strong female character" what we might want to resist doing is a reflexive defense of the trope by saying "should women characters be weak?"  Well, if we want to grant that there need to be more unstoppable killing machine female characters in mainstream cinema who get two-dimensional objectified trophies ... well, we could say so. But as someone put it at Overthinking It, that's not necessarily what some feminists had in mind asking for strong female characters. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

a few riffs considering Alastair Roberts' belated plea to drop the "strong female character", revisiting Shan Mlawski's plea for weak female characters
Popular culture is the focus of some of the most determined attempts to shift attitudes on a host of issues within society at large, and such forms of representation are an important dimension of this. While popular media and the various ‘messages’ within it may often appear innocuous, they are frequently anything but. Behind them lie concerted efforts to change the public’s thinking and perception on key matters and some carefully calculated agendas. The supposed shallowness of pop culture is deceptive: It is a realm where brilliant and talented people go to try to shape minds at their most unguarded and impressionable. It is on the ground of entertainment media that the so-called culture wars have largely been lost.

There's quite a bit more that could be said about the subject of the "strong female character" and whether she is as "strong" or even a "character" as is sometimes debated.  One of the more memorable pleas to get rid of "strong female characters" came from an author at Overthinking It.

For those who fall for Roberts' title as being an argument that women need to be weak,  that's a failure of imagination. Shana Mlawski made a more cogent and elegant argument against "strong female characters" a few years ago and argued explicitly for "weak" female characters with an important clarifying point:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

So feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.” We should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.” “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws. Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout. Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless. And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw. Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice. So that doesn’t count.

So what flaws can female characters have?  How about the same flaws a male character would have? This is especially important in comedies, because many male writers are so clueless about writing funny women that female characters in sitcoms, sitcomish-movies, and comics tend to be the Smart, Gorgeous Snarky Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world. In other words, Not Flawed and Not Funny.
I’m sick of it. Let’s see more female characters
  • who fall down hilariously (like Lucille Ball)
  • who are arrogant (like Zhang Yiyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
  • who are realistic or exuberant villains (like Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton or Atia from Rome)
  • who are neurotic (like Elliott from Scrubs)
  • who are just mean (like Elaine from Seinfeld)
  • who are vengeful (like The Bride from Kill Bill)
  • who are forgetful (like Dory from Finding Nemo)
  • who say the wrong things (like C.J. in The West Wing, or, again, Elliott from Scrubs)
  • who are emotionally repressed (like Marge from The Simpsons)
  • who are nerdy and awkward (like Belle from Beauty and the Beast)
  • who are just messed up (like everyone, male or female, from Neon Genesis Evangelion)
  • who are insufferable know-it-alls (like Hermione or Lisa Simpson)
  • who are depressed (I can’t think of one, which is interesting, since women are more likely to be depressed in real life. Who’s the female equivalent of Hamlet? Is there one?)
For that last one Sadness may well have gotten us there in Inside Out.

Something I would suggest more mature writers will grasp is that the flaw a character may have will often be an extension of their virtues.  I'll use an example from a cartoon series I love, The Last Airbender. Let's take Katara, the fantastic character whose story frames the entire series.  She is unfailingly loyal and loving toward her friends but that is mirrored by her capacity to hold very bitter, irrational grudges.  She goes much of the series loathing Prince Zuko to a degree comparable to her love for her brother Sokka and her friend Aang.  Why?  Well, we could get into that some other time but I'm proposing here that a character's strength can frequently be a weakness. 

Let's take Marge Simpson. She's repressed a lot of her failings out of a realization that the males in her life will probably, on the whole, never become especially more reasonable and avoid the kinds of actions that cause trouble for the family.  Repression isn't a healthy reaction to us and yet within Marge's world it makes a certain amount of sense.  It takes a lot for her to stop repressing her feelings and share how she feels.  The other people in her life can then take it that when she stops repressing and starts expressing it's because she feels something is too important to not share, such as when she tells Lisa that while her mother has repressed she would urge Lisa to not make the same mistake herself. 

Arrogance is a trait that's given to Wonder Woman in the animated series Justice League and it's what made her a great character.  Wonder Woman is regarded as stuck up by other characters in the series, particularly Hawkgirl, and it's because Wonder Woman IS better than most of the other people who show up in the series.  She's elitist and arrogant but this in itself doesn't make her a villain.  What it means is that in a boy's club like the Justice League often is Wonder Woman gets along better with Batman who, also being an elitist, is able to relate to her a bit.  And she likes Wally because basically everybody likes Wally because his first concern is whether everyone is okay.  Heroes will disagree on a lot, but not on that.  Over time Wonder Woman learns to overcome her arrogance, which makes her a fun character. 

The trouble is that for some Wonder Woman fans she has to e perfect and come from a perfect society.  That's another topic for another time, but there's a way in which the problems of making Wonder Woman "work" in the 21st century get at a problem that applies not only to "strong female characters" but to action heroes more generally.

For instance, in light of the recent Batman vs Superman one of the basic mistakes that keeps getting made is thinking that Superman can only be challenged by either throwing brute force/Kryptonite at him or "emotionally hurting him".  Superman's invulnerability has been so given that too few storytellers (save in Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's version) have arrived at the insight that the best way to challenge such a character is not to invent some villain so powerful as to be able to kill him (since the world's doomed in that scenario) but to test Superman's moral compass.  This is why the great villain for Superman isn't really Darkseid or Metallo or even Brainiac but Lex Luthor.  Because Superman isn't a Christ type at all, he's a depiction of what we want America to be while Lex Luthor is a depiction of what America unfortunately all too often is.  That Lois can believe in the idea (i.e. loves Superman) but is cavalier about Clark suggests that Lois represents another element here, another America-as-it-is: the tension between her regard for Superman and disregard for Clark is absent in Snyder's franchise and the films hurt a bit for it. Lois is, in a sense, blind to power that doesn't make itself overtly known.

A shortcoming in the "strong female character" is that she can reveal how bland her male counterpoint is by being as bland.  Frankly Optimus Prime has never been a particularly interesting character to me compared to, say, Starscream. 

But getting back to the quoted segment of Roberts' piece, what's interesting to consider as someone who's been a lifelong fan of animation as an art form is that many subtle but profound shifts have happened in an art form that many "grown ups" can't even regard as really art.  It's possible that some of the subtle yet revolutionary shifts in pop culture happened at the level of kids' shows, the kind of thing that wasn't on the radar of anyone paying attention to officially "adult" arts.

Something Roberts didn't touch on that seems worth mentioning is that the reboot of the Powerpuff Girls has gotten some gentle pushback from authors at Slate.  When contributors to Double X feel something has been lost in transforming the girl power theme of PPG from subtext to text it might be that we don't have to make this about complementarianism/egalitarianism in the echo chambers of the Christian blogosphere.  I love the original Powerpuff Girls series and own every episode.  McCracken has said many times that he wanted to make sure that the first thing he did was make a show "everyone" could have fun watching and that the thematic stuff could and should be secondary.  At best a strong female character gambit can be a form of tokenism and at worst, per Mlawski's arguments, it turns out the "strong female character" isn't a character so much as a fetish for males. 

I thought Roberts could have done more to discuss Miyazaki's heroines and antagonists.  The badass warrior woman has some representation in Lady Eboshi and Princess Kushana and neither is presented as uniformly evil.  They make fine antagonists because what they want is understandable, even admirable, but that how they aim to get what they want causes more long-term harm than they recognize.  Even here it could be argued that the effective badass warriors, whether male or female, become memorable and effective because at some level we're able to believe this is not what they want their default mode to be.  Take Fury Road, whether it's Mad Max or Imperator Furiosa, we get enough clues in the narrative that being the badass warrior was not what either of these wanted for themselves that makes their taking up of arms sympathetic.  They can be coaxed into fighting for others but would like to be left alone.  It's George Miller so it's not exactly delving depths but it's a point worth noting.

If there's a trouble or a risk with Rey moving forward it's that she's such an obvious audience surrogate.  That's not necessarily bad.  She gets to be the Skywalker character. But audience surrogate characters can risk being blank slates.  It's possible for an actor or an actress to play audience surrogate characters for decades.  Jimmy Stewart had this kind of role down.  Women tend to be written as, well, trophies so an everywoman role is harder to find.  Perhaps we could play with the idea that Meg Ryan was an audience surrogate for women ... it could explain, possibly, why men tend to only seem to watch Ryan films on account of women they know in my observation.  If it's a choice between watching a film with Dench or Blanchett on the one hand and Meg Ryan on the other, Meg Ryan's always going to lose that contest for me.  if it's a choice between films with Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey and, I dunno, Fassbender, I'll gamble on the Fassbender film.  Sandler and carrey have milked a sort of entitled everydude role for decades that I've found annoying. 

If the "strong female character" can spark a discussion about how audience surrogate characters male and female can slip into the lazy storytelling of unexamined privilege and entitlement then so much the better. 

taking notes longhand helps retention

It would appear that taking notes longhand aids in long-term recollection. This seemed like a no-brainer to me in high school decades ago but there weren't exactly easily available laptops for high school and college students back in the Clinton years, were there? I got in the habit of taking long-hand notes in class that I would then transcribe and elaborate on when I got back from class to my room with my personal computer.  For essays and related projects I found long-hand writing a valuable form of "pre-writing" so that by the time I'd start typing stuff at a computer it would be formulating the preferred phrasing and language for a set of arguments I'd worked out in long-hand writing earlier or in free-writing at the computer ... toggling back and forth as I went before arriving at a final draft.

Anyway, the idea that any students would have forsaken longhand note-taking is kind of impossible for me to imagine really being a thing.  When I was a teenager I got used to taking notes during sermons.  Yes, I was that sort of teen, taking notes on the sermons and considering whether what the pastor said lined up with what seemed to be a reasonable interpretation of the relevant text.

Atlantic--what does a John Oliver "evisceration" achieve? Well, you feel superior and nothing changes, basically
You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is a violent man. In the last year, he’s destroyed a “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot.” He’s eviscerated Congress over the issue of America’s infrastructure. Apparently desiring more viscera—this time from ideas rather than people—he went on to eviscerate voter-ID laws. If you take these headlines—and the articles they advertise—at face value, Oliver’s brand of late-night satire is a force to be reckoned with, and a potent political weapon.

Yet, Oliver’s victims remain surprisingly whole. The aforementioned “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot” is now the governor of Kentucky. Congress—approval ratings notwithstanding—continues to function with the same set of people Oliver reportedly eviscerated a few months ago. And, as many people participating in the current Presidential primaries can tell you, voter-ID laws haven’t gone away. Which probably explains why Donald Trump (despite being destroyed, taken down, demolished, systematically picked apart, annihilated, and...murderslayed?) remains the GOP’s presidential frontrunner. Simply put, the bombastic headlines used to describe Oliver’s late-night antics overstate the real-life impact such takedowns can have. At best, such headlines are exaggerations, but at worst, they perpetuate the myth that late-night comedy is an effective tool for broad political change.
the hosts of these shows seem more than aware of their limitations. “My years of evisceration have embettered nothing,” the former Daily Show host Jon Stewart laments at the end in a clip highlighting that virtually every problem The Daily Show covered in his 16 years as host remains just as bad—if not worse—than ever before.
Similarly self-gratifying rants can be had on talk radio for the other side of the spectrum.  Nobody gets tired of shooting fish in a barrel, do they? :)

So if these things don't achieve anything in the long run why are we so drawn to them?  What's the temptation to keep doing this left, right and center if by now the people who are famous for it know how little it achieves?  I suppose Ellul would say it has value as propaganda but he warned that when you're a partisan you never see your team as dedicated to generating propaganda.  No, your team is just sharing "the facts".  It's the other side that traffics in propaganda.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

in light of the Darrin Patrick news, let's recall that Mark Driscoll once said of him "he's my pastor, you know?"
By Acts 29
April 14, 2016

It is with deep sadness that we have accepted the resignation of Darrin Patrick from the Board of Acts 29, and removed him as Vice-President and a member. We have taken these steps to respect, honour and affirm the decision and process of the elders at The Journey. ...
Darrin Patrick, vice president of the Acts 29 church planting network and founding pastor of The Journey megachurch in St. Louis, has been fired for violating his duties as a pastor.
The Journey cited a range of ongoing sinful behaviors over the past few years including manipulation, domineering, lack of biblical community, and “a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms.”
In a letter announcing its lead pastor’s removal after 14 years of leadership, the church clarified that adultery was not a factor, though elders looked into inappropriate interactions with two women.

A years-long pattern of sin led to the dismissal this week of Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey, a St. Louis, Mo., megachurch. While the reconciliation process is underway, an expert in pastoral crisis management who was called in to work with the church said Patrick’s restoration could take as long as his undoing. He does not expect Patrick to return to ministry anytime soon.
After confirming “substantive allegations of pastoral misconduct … combined with deep historical patterns of sin,” the elders of The Journey this week called for Patrick’s removal. He also resigned as vice president of the board of Acts 29, a church-planting network of congregations, which includes The Journey. 

T. S. Eliot famously wrote "April is the cruelest month" in his poetic masterpiece The Wasteland.  April seems to be a cruel month for Acts 29 as Darrin Patrick has been relieved of personal pastoral duties at the Journey and is removed from Acts 29 leadership.

We've already discussed the riddle of Acts 29 board member Eric Mason being scheduled to speak at a conference in 2017 alongside Mark Driscoll today.  There's time for Mason to clear the air, and perhaps it's just as simple as the host decided to contact Mason and Driscoll without knowing the last three year's worth of news.  Stranger things have happened. 

But since Darrin Patrick signed off on that announcement about kicking Driscoll out of Acts 29 along with Mars Hill back in 2014 and there was talk about how there were issues that the Acts 29 board members knew about ... it might be worth revisiting Mark Driscoll's own statements from the past that suggested that Darrin Patrick was Mark Driscoll's personal pastor:

However, because we live in an era in which Acts 29 has scrubbed away most of the stuff we quoted here on the subject of Driscoll, sometimes you've got no choice to quote from your earlier documentation.
 (starts at 00:31:52)
Q. How do you lead staff who are your best friends?Do you want the honest answer or should I punt? 
... You can't. ... you can't.
I hate to tell you that. ... Deep down in your gut you know if you're best friends and someone works for you that changes the relationship. Right? Because you can fire them. Of course you want to be friends with your elders and the people you work with. I mean, we're a church. I mean you wanna, you NEED to love the people you work with. But one of the hardest things, and only the lead guy gets this. Nobody else on staff even understands what I'm talking about. When you're the lead guy you wear multiple hats. Say it's someone who works with you and they're a good friend. You wear the "Hey, we're buddies" hat. We're friends. We go on vacation. We hang out. We do 
dinner. We're friends.

But you also wear the "I'm your boss" hat "You need to do your job or I might have to fire you" hat, and you also wear the "I'm your pastor. I love you, care for you, and I'm looking out for your well-being" hat. Those three hats are in absolute collision. Because how do you fire your friend and then pastor them through it? Right? I mean that is very complicated. I love you, you're fired, can I pray for you? That is a very .. what are we doing? I think if you're going to have your best friends working with you they need to be somewhere else on the team but not under you or the friendship really needs to change.

And what happens is when people are your friend ... I don't think that many do this intentionally but they want you to wear whatever hat is at their best interest at the time. So they didn't do their job, they're falling down on their responsibility, and you talk to them and say, "Look, you're not getting this done." They put on the "hey buddy. Yeah, I've been kinda sick lately and my wife and I are going through a hard time." and they want the friend hat on. And as a friend you're like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, dude." But then you put your boss hat back on and you're like "Yeah, but we pay you and we need you to get the job done." 

And then they want you to put the friend hat back on and keep sympathizing. 
And you're totally conflicted. ...

I have very good friends in this church. I have elders that are very dear friends, but when you have to do their performance review, when you have to decide what their wage is, when you have to decide whether they get promoted, demoted or terminated it's impossible to do that because you can't wear all three hats at the same time.

First guy I fired, he was a dear friend. A godly man, no moral or doctrinal sin whatsoever, he just wasn't keeping up with what we needed him to do. And it wasn't `cause he didn't try and wasn't working hard. And he had a wonderful wife and a great family and to this day I think the world of this guy.  And if my sons grew up to be like him, I'd be proud. And I'm not critical of this man at all. 

But I remember sitting down at that first termination. First I put on the friend hat. I said, "I love you, I appreciate you. I value you." Then I put on the boss hat, "I'm gonna have to let you go. Here's why." And then I put on the pastor hat, "How are you feeling? How are you doing?" And he was really gracious with me and he said, "This is just the weirdest conversation I've ever had." And I said, "Me too, `cause I'm not sure what hat I'm supposed to wear." 

Does that make any sense? The best thing is if you have a best friend maybe the best thing to do is not have them work with you.  Or if they do have them work under someone else. And to also pursue good friendships with people outside of your church. Some of my dearest friends today are not at Mars Hill, they're also pastors of other churches. Darrin Patrick is here, Vice-President of Acts 29. I love him. He's a brother. He's the guy I call. ... He's a pastor to me, you know?  Matt Chandler is here. I count as a friend. By God's Grace, C. J. Mahaney, I count as a friend. [emphasis added]...

Okay, so Matt Chandler and Darrin Patrick both signed off on the announcement that Mark Driscoll was out of Acts 29 and Mars Hill was shown the door.  Darrin Patrick was a pastor to Mark Driscoll, according to a talk Driscoll gave in 2008.  Sometimes it seems that what Driscoll may mean saying "he's a pastor to me, you know?" is that some guy is well-known enough that Driscoll found it useful, for a time, to name-drop him in his networking endeavors.

You would think that if board members of Acts 29 like Eric Mason don't have a problem with speaking at a conference alongside the Mark Driscoll whom they booted from Acts 29 in 2014 that at least Mark Driscoll might have a problem with speaking at a conference with Eric Mason ... but then maybe not.  And maybe it doesn't matter which guy of whom Mark Driscoll has said "he's a pastor to me, you know?" because in the end Driscoll can say "God told me to do X", then say it wasn't what he wanted while he does it.  If the Acts 29 board members who aren't out because of historical patterns of sin want to stick to what they once said, it may help if board members don't end up at the same conferences as the guy they kicked out of Acts 29.  And unfortunately if Darrin (Mark Driscoll said of him "he's my pastor, you know?") Patrick is out then this doesn't just raise questions about Patrick's fitness for ministry, it boomerangs back on "I see things" Mark Driscoll. 

As for the third name in the name-dropping moment ... can anyone even remember the last time Mark Driscoll talked about his friend C. J. Mahaney?

Mark Driscoll to be a guest speaker at Stronger Men conference April 28-29 2017, plenty of time to ask Eric Mason how he's set to speak at a conference alongside Driscoll after signing off on booting MH and MD from A29

in November 2015 we looked at how Mark Driscoll's been okay with talking about his role in co-founding Acts 29 but not necessarily how Acts 29 kicked out Mars Hill and asked him to step down. It seems in the end even Acts 29 became reticent to keep up for the public's consideration that this was the case.  Four years ago Matt Chandler was talking about how much he wanted Mark Driscoll on the Acts 29 Board.
By Alex Murashko
April 11, 2012

Mars Hill Church Pastor Mark Driscoll announced that he was stepping down from the reins of Acts 29 late last month to make room for Chandler, the lead pastor at The Village Church in Highland Village in Texas. Driscoll remains on the organization's current three-member board which also includes The Journey's (St. Louis, Mo.) lead pastor, Darrin Patrick. The group's headquarters will move from Seattle to Dallas.
"I want him on the board. He's a great advantage to the men, the movement, and the network as a whole," Chandler told CP when asked about Driscoll. "I think culturally and theologically he has some spectacular gifts. Driscoll will absolutely remain on the board. He would gladly step off if he thought that was best for the network. I don't think anybody believes that's best for the network." ...

Of course that was in 2012, before controversies surrounding topics like plagiarism and Result Source emerged.  Now back when I wrote this:

One concern I had was that it seemed as if by April 2012 the trajectory of Acts 29's executive board was that it was increasingly dominated by Mars Hill leadership.  Since that time a different concern has emerged, which is the question of the extent to which Acts 29 leadership claimed to know there were character issues with Mark Driscoll but didn't do or say anything observable about it until about 2014.  "If" Acts 29 leadership was aware of problems with Mark Driscoll why wasn't something done prior to 2014?   We can grant there may not be an answer for that.

But it's worth asking, after all this historical review, why people with Acts 29 connections would invite Mark Driscoll to speak now and for future engagements.

Acts 29 affiliated North Valley Church advertises upcoming Jan 3, 2016 Mark Driscoll speaking engagement, Acts 29 public statements calling for Driscoll resignation

Now it could be said individual members/associates of Acts 29 in its member churches could have the luxury of deciding to book Driscoll or not.

But take this conference coming up next year:
Conference Details
April 28th-29th, 2017
This year we will be moving to JQH Arena
... Dr. Mason serves on the Executive Board of the Acts 29 Network [emphasis added] as well as the board of Reach Life Ministries and has been graced by God to preach and teach at churches and conferences locally, nationally, and internationally. Dr. Mason holds earned degrees in Psychology from Bowie State University (B.S. 1995), a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM 2000), and a Doctor of Ministry Degree form Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (D.Min 2007).

A Message from the Board of Acts 29 concerning Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church

It is with deep sorrow that the Acts 29 Network announces its decision to remove Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church from membership in the network. Mark and the Elders of Mars Hill have been informed of the decision, along with the reasons for removal. It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network. [emphasis added] In taking this action, our prayer is that it will encourage the leadership of Mars Hill to respond in a distinctive and godly manner so that the name of Christ will not continue to be dishonored.

The Board of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network

Matt Chandler
Darrin Patrick
Steve Timmis
Eric Mason
John Bryson
Bruce Wesley
Leonce Crump


As the Board of Acts 29, we are grateful to God for the leadership, courage, and generosity of both you and Mars Hill in not only founding the network but also sustaining it through the transition to this board three years ago. The very act of giving away your authority over the network was one of humility and grace, and for that we are grateful.

Over the past three years, our board and network have been the recipients of countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you and what we consider ungodly and disqualifying behavior. We have both publicly and internally tried to support and give you the benefit of the doubt, even when multiple pastors in our network confirmed this behavior. In response, we leaned on the Mars Hill Board of Advisors & Accountability to take the lead in dealing with this matter. But we no longer believe the BoAA is able to execute the plan of reconciliation originally laid out. Ample time has been given for repentance, change, and restitution, with none forthcoming. [emphasis added]

We now have to take another course of action. Based on the totality of the circumstances, we are now asking you to please step down from ministry for an extended time and seek help. Consequently, we also feel that we have no alternative but to remove you and Mars Hill from membership in Acts 29. Because you are the founder of Acts 29 and a member, we are naturally associated with you and feel that this association discredits the network and is a major distraction.

We tell you this out of love for you, Mars Hill, Acts 29, and most significantly, the cause of Christ, and we would be irresponsible and deeply unloving not to do so in a clear and unequivocal manner. Again, we want you to know that we are eternally thankful for what you as a man and Mars Hill as a church have meant to our network. However, that cannot dissuade us from action. Instead, it gives added significance and importance to our decision.

We hope and pray that you see this decision as the action of men who love you deeply and want you to walk in the light—for your good, the good of your family, and the honor of your Savior. Shortly after sending this, we will be informing the members of Acts 29, your Board of Advisors and Accountability, and your elders, as well as putting out a public statement on the Acts 29 website. It brings us no joy to move forward in this direction, and we trust that the Lord will be at work in all of this. [emphasis added]

In sorrow and with hope,

The Board of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network

Matt Chandler
Darrin Patrick
Steve Timmis
Eric Mason
John Bryson
Bruce Wesley
Leonce Crump

So, question, ,even if we grant that the host of the conference has every right to schedule guest speakers as he will, how might Eric Mason feel things are going for living out his words in deeds if he's scheduled to speak as one of the keynote speakers at a conference in 2017 alongside the Mark Driscoll who, with Mason speaking as an Acts 29 board member, said needed to step down from ministry and get help?  Was this Eric Mason not one of the men who decided it was best to kick Mars Hill out of Acts 29 on account of Mark Driscoll's problematic words and deeds?

Perhaps Eric Mason could field questions about this stuff, and why Acts 29 took down its announcements regarding Driscoll and what that might mean.  It could make him a, you know, stronger man.