Monday, July 26, 2010

Acceptable Breaks from Reality

As often happens, I recently ran across yet another chorus of comments decrying the unrealistic nature of Barbie dolls (this time it was in the comments of a Basic Instructions comic, but it really does happen with suprising regularity. I have no idea if this is reflective of Barbie's social significance in the regular world, or if I just hang out with people who think waaaaay too much about the implications of children's toys. I realize the existence of this blog argues the latter.) and the effect this portrayal has on young girl's ideas of womanhood.
(For those who haven't come across this discussion weekly since age 10: Barbie has an unrealistic body, and apparently at some point a large number of people agreed that this makes little girls think this is the way they should look and so eventually leads to anorexia and depression and fad diets and, presumably, Nutrisystem ads with that disturbing squirrel-cheeked woman who inexplicably wants me to look at her butt. So, you know, atrocities.)
I'm not going to contradict the idea that the art and artifacts of our culture shape our expectations. I mean, that's part of the point of a culture, to train its members to look for certain patterns. But I do wonder why Barbie (and lately, Bratz) gets all the warping-our-daughters'-minds flak. A small sampling of my own dolls, from wee girlhood, would include:
A pillow with a face and yarn-loop hair
A green plastic Gremlin- yes, the monster- that was bigger than me when I first got it
A fuzzy pre-wetting Gremlin plush, also from the movie
Fisher Price Peg People
A couple "fashion dolls", because I was way too broke to have actual Barbies
A little red plastic farm woman bravely continuing her career without a head
aaaand a porcelain milkmaid with a candle in her skirt, who I was inexplicably allowed to use as a toy.

What I'm saying is, my dolls represented an exciting range of utterly unrealistic and often inhuman body portrayals. I've seen the same thing in children's toys over the years. I'm sure the constant stylization in toys has to do with both the Uncanny Valley and McCloud's observation that identification is easier with less realistic "people", plus 5 year olds gnawing on lifelike minipeople would be very upsetting.

But why are fashion dolls the only ones held up as a bad example? If little girls are having their body image set by playthings, why aren't they growing up expecting to be peg-shaped, or eternally baby-like, or possibly ponies?* Why are pillow-dolls safe, and Barbies Eeeeevil? I suspect Fashion Dolls get the blame because their deformations are seen by some adults as being sexy, or maybe they're seen as more realistic? And frankly I find the whole thing a bit disturbing- images do have some power, but ascribing them high levels of soul-destroying control leads to iconoclast madness.

Do you remember considering any toys as a Future You?** Which ones were they? And what do you think about the whole Barbie thing, anyway?

*I confess to still being somewhat disappointed that I am not in fact a green reptilian monster. That would be SO cool.

**I would also have accepted Giant Robot T. Rex! Alas, puberty failed me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MMPAG: Massive Multiplayer Art Generation

A while back, Roger Ebert wrote an unfortunate post claiming that video games couldn't be art. Of course the automatic reaction of the game playing and general culture geek community was "Roger Ebert is an idiot" along with a chorus of "Not mad, just very disappointed" from many people who had assumed Ebert was too smart a guy to go around attacking genres he didn't personally follow.

To Ebert's credit, he did later admit his own ignorance on the subject of video games, which is a lot like my own ignorance of Cricket. * The furor died down, and the whole thing is quick moving into the realm of shared geekculture memory, like the concept of slashfic or the memory of Wertham's anticomic crusade.

I was right there with everyone else rolling my eyes at the idea that video games can't be art-- they present ideas! They involve the audience emotionally and conceptually! By my foma, they change the very patterns of society!** What else does art require?

But Alexis, over at Failbetter Games' Betterblog, brings up an elaboration that I hadn't been able to articulate to myself before- that video games (all games, really) don't become art until they're played. *** It's an interesting point. I think it's accurate.

I also think it's the reason so many critics can't see games as art, and the reason so many players and producers have trouble defending the medium. People are used to the idea of art as a complete preexisting thing, an entity to itself. A painting reflects the same light wavelengths when no one's looking. A novel doesn't gain or lose chapters based on who reads it. Ebert's original unfortunate post explored this a little with his discussion of "authorial intent", the idea that a work of art is the vision of a creator, complete as it stands.

He didn't explore it much, though, and given his usual field of criticism it's a weird omission. Because while a script (or a piece of scenery, or a given costume) may be a work of art on its own, a play or a movie simply does not exist until a group of people come together and contribute their own individual arts- plural, as a discipline- to make a work thereof. Symphonies and architecture, musical performances- none of these are really complete without a collaboration. Are things less art for involving multiple people? Does art not exist until it's finished?

I wish these were just semantic questions. Why they aren't is for another post, because, well, I'm lazy. But what do you think? When does art happen, for you? And have you ever played a particular video game you honestly felt was art?

* Not my thing, not interested in making it my thing, way too busy to bother learning about it beyond its sheer existence, which baffles and amuses me enough. But this ignorance does not make me a better person.

**Ask an old geek-- say, 40 or 50 years old-- about the effect of the original Star Trek computer game on workplace productivity and personal computer use.

*** But since Alexis is a professional game developer, and I'm an amateur comic artist. I'm not particularly abashed that he's more eloquent on the subject. Bet I've got all kinds of deeper thoughts on the subject of gutters.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Off to Outer Space! Engines to full!

Since I'm about to restart this blog up proper (really, I have posts lined up and everything!) I thought it would probably be a good idea to say what exactly the point is, here.

And the point is, that there are people who put way too much effort into defining the point. People who say not "I like Wicked, but I actually think the play was better than the book" or even "I hate that Idina Menzel had to share the stage with that scene- stealing Kristin Chenoweth " but "Given that Oz was originally a progressive idealist fantasy version of America, I find the modern attempts to revision it as dystopia disturbingly reflective of the growing trend towards regressivism and, indeed, outright superstition in American culture."*

People who would never admit "Oooh, Twilight's my guilty pleasure! Ok, it's for teenagers, but it's still so romantic!" but who would argue "Twilight's clearly written with juvenile intent, but I think it provides a fascinating, if unwitting, deconstruction of the standard love-as-salvation storyline. Edward's constant apparently motiveless "love" of Bella, despite the insistence of the narrative on her essential weakness, parallels medieval Christian morality plays about the unconditional love of Christ for flawed humanity, while the vampiric curse of sterility suggests that such love is in fact ultimately corrupting."**

People whose main dispute about chili is not whether or not it should contain beans, but whether it represents the organic synthesis of cultures that regularly occur at the borders of dominant cultures, or reflects the cultural imperialism of mainstream American culture at the turn of the nineteenth century.***

People who, in short, overthink things to a staggering degree.

This blog is for those people,their overthinking, the arguments, and, of course, the discussions about Nathan Fillion's pants.

See you Tuesday!javascript:void(0)

*Yes, this actually is a part of my opinion on Wicked. But that's a whole post in itself.

**No, I don't actually think this. I'm firmly in the Twilight-is-teenage-girl-porn camp. But I bet I could get an A on the paper!

***The answer, of course, is that beans in chili are the devil's work. Chili is what you eat on the trail to get the heck away from beans for a night. It's based on German beef stew for crying out loud! What is wrong with you bean-adding lunatics?!?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Which I Would Cheerfully Feather The Princess, or, The Problem with Cinderella

There's a deep unfairness in a certain fairy tale which struck me even as a wee thing, and has only grown more obnoxious since. It's a fairy tale with a lot of names, and a lot of variations, but it basically follows this line:

Once there was a beautiful girl, naturally of high or highish station, whose horrible awful mother/stepmother/sisters/father treated wrong. She was made to do chores, and dressed worse than the rest of the family, even though she was pretty and sweet and they were generally big mean poopy heads. But some supernatural and usually dead version of a mothering force stuck up for her, and the mean poopy heads had their eyes picked out or their feet turned to lead or they were rolled down a hill in a nail studded barrel, you know, like that scene in 10,000 Maniacs. And the pretty girl married a prince, and he didn't have any serious inbreeding deformities or anything, yay. *

Now I don't object to the rather obvious wish fulfillment there. I believe there are times we all feel like innocent lovely blameless people in sea of poopy heads, and a little harmless fantasy revenge is far better than reporting their cars stolen. Some of those stories even feature seriously heinous parents- baby eating in laws and incestuous fathers, or caretakers who mutilate and eat parts of the abused child. Nasty vengeance would indeed seem to be called for, there. And no matter what the level of material comfort, being treated as less-than in any group, by any means, is terrible and even dangerous for humans and other social animals. And for children who are currently in emotionally or physically abusive situations, the power of reading about others in such situations winning through can be massively sustaining, I know.

What chaps my hide is that so many of the Cinderella stories are about the unfairness of, essentially, a rich and privileged person being treated like everybody else. Oh no, look! Our fair heroine is being forced to do chores and physical labor, in an era before machines! She's not allowed to go out partying with her much older sisters! She's supposed to stay home and keep out of the way of people with established households, like every other young unmarried person of her era! How awful! Can't her abusers see she's pretty? And probably innately ritzier than them, by virtue of having a less dramatically branching family tree or something?

The absolute friggin' worst is The Goose Girl, in which a princess, by virtue of being both stupid and a coward, manages to let her intended husband marry her maid, while she, poor thing, is forced to-horrors!- live like a peasant! Doing work, and all! And being scolded by a decapitated horse head, which, admittedly, is creepy. So of course, when this is found out, the maid, who's been able to pass at court the whole time, is tortured to death in a grand public spectacle, and Princess Sissypants is given her oblivious prince, and all's right with the world. That'll teach people born to the serving classes to attempt to ease their situation in any way! Take that, intelligent non-nobles who dare threaten the concept of inborn superiority! If life is hard, just sell your worthless peasant children to the nearest cannibal witch! Geez, there are rules for these things.

I like to think that a few months later, this unspecified little nation-state was utterly overrun by Viking raiders, who took the ruling couple back to serve as house-slaves to their assertive, outspoken wives, where they quickly began to reek of fish and were regarded as utterly ordinary all the long days of their lives.

Rock on, scheming servants. My sympathies go with you.

*Heroines whose stories come close, but dodge this, for various reasons: Snow White (when she's a princess, not Rose Red's peasant sister), the fair maid in Mother Holle, Deerskin (because dude, horrific!), Bearskin (what's with the daughter-rape, fairy tale dads?!?), Two Eyes, the girl of The Cherry Tree, and Vasilisa The Brave, who gets an absolutely awful deal which I should totally write up as its own story someday.