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?!?