Tag Archives: pop culture


Slow posting these last couple of days as a result of plentiful World Cup games to watch, a flurry of important Supreme Court decisions to wade through, and that full-time job I have. I’ll have a review of the WC group stage tomorrow and new knockout stage predictions on Saturday, but in the meantime, a few thoughts on miscellaneous topics from the past few days:

  • It’s been extremely pleasant to watch soccer culture grow stronger in the US by the day, even if a certain shrieking witch thinks otherwise. (I do not link to trolls.) I’m more reserved than the average American about US potential in the short term, but there’s something pleasant about universal joy and pain in a relatively harmless endeavor. I’ve written in this space before that there are plenty of reasons to dislike organized sports, and FIFA is a major reason why, but if I had to choose, I’d prefer the US be united by Fabian Johnson than by bombing campaigns abroad.
  • Relatedly, “guy famous for biting opponents bites an opponent” was a real story this week, so that’s something we all have to live with now.
  • I haven’t commented on the ongoing IRS email scandal (in short, a top IRS official claims her email relevant to the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups was lost in a computer crash days after an investigation into that began) because it’s still early, and because it’s unlikely we can ever definitively know many things I’d need to know before making judgments. Obviously it’s possible that this is an innocent mistake, made possible by the government’s awful IT policies, and it’s also possible that it was staged to avoid some embarrassing emails from emerging. What you believe probably has more to do with whom you voted for in 2012 than the evidence, so I won’t get into it. I do like that the country seems to be noticing the hypocrisy involved – the IRS wouldn’t let anyone get away with a story like that – and perhaps the abuse of the office for political purposes will make more people realize that we shouldn’t entrust a whole lot of power to these agencies.
  • There was a massive downward revision to the first-quarter US GDP estimate, and everyone is revising what it all means. All you need to know is that everyone was right initially and everyone is right now.
  • Can’t forget to congratulate my Vanderbilt Commodores for winning the NCAA baseball championship (which I refuse to call the World Series). Great accomplishment for a great school.

You Are Ordered Not To Call Us Bossy

Several powerful women want to fight the reputation for bossiness that female leaders get:

In an interview with All Things Considered, Sandberg says she is launching a public service campaign aimed at getting rid of the word [bossy].

“This is a very negative experience for girls, if you look at my childhood, if you look at the childhood of most of the leaders we talked to, they lived through being told they were bossy,” Sandberg said. “And it has such a strongly female, and such a strongly negative connotation, that we thought the best way to raise awareness was to say, ‘This isn’t a word we should use. Let’s start encouraging girls to lead.'”

As Sandberg explains on her website, when a boy asserts himself, society calls him a leader. When a girl does it, she is called bossy.

Beyonce has chimed in on this, too, so there may be some staying power to this movement. My first question, however, is whether Sandberg’s allegation that the word is disproportionately used against women is true. A rough Google search shows no: there are ~309,000 results for “he’s so bossy,” and ~379,000 for “she’s so bossy.” Hardly scientific, but probative. I checked because I’ve never considered it to be a particularly gendered term, but I’ll concede that it’s possible that girls are chastised with it for behavior that boys would get away with. (Not much to be done about that, of course. Differential treatment of the sexes will continue in some form or fashion basically forever.) In any case, I doubt women getting together to order people as to what they are allowed to say will stop anyone from thinking they’re bossy.

The other reason this article caught my eye is that it comes on the heels of the NFL’s discussion of possibly penalizing players for using the n-word. These are two of the most recent (and less significant) attempts at censorship in a long line of such efforts, but they have me wondering if I’ve perhaps been wrong on this issue.

I’ve always assumed that banning words was largely meaningless, since you can’t control thought. Banning Christian words in a Muslim country wouldn’t make the Christians there any less devout, just quieter. Same with offensive words in places like schools or workplaces: that dude is still a dick, whether you can say so or not. Banning a word was just the lazy way of covering up a sympton for those unwilling to do the hard work of changing minds so that a ban isn’t necessary. (Many words decline in usage this way, and to prove that point, I won’t list a single one because it would be improper.)

The government in George Orwell’s 1984 featured a policy that functions on the exact opposite assumption: words are thoughts, so Newspeak is a language specifically designed to limit the number of thoughts a person can have. I am starting to wonder if they might be right. What goes unsaid often eventually goes unthought. If that’s the case, censorship is way more dangerous than I previously thought.

TV And The Long Shadow Of The Baby Boomers

The recent 50-year anniversary of JFK’s assassination resulted in a media furor that I didn’t expect (along with some inexplicable articles blaming Dallas’s right-wing politics on a murder committed by a Communist). I am not nearly as intrigued by JFK as many others seem to be; I’m more baffled by the attention that brief and largely ineffectual presidency has garnered decades later. Shortly after this weird interlude, the holiday season began in earnest, although I find that this year it was tamer than usual. These two phenomena are rarely linked, but I think they both stem from the same confluence of two events.
The first event is best captured by XKCD:

An 'American tradition' is anything that happened to a Baby Boomer twice.
An ‘American tradition’ is anything that happened to a Baby Boomer twice.

The Baby Boomers have dominated much of culture because of their superior numbers relative to other generations, and, over time, their higher relative wealth (we get richer as we get older). Their sway is shown by the success of CBS, usually the #1 network in the US and also that with the oldest average audience. Considering the economic troubles of America’s younger cohorts (born between 1975-1995), their relative wealth and large numbers have made them relevant into their late careers and retirement, by which time corporations have usually turned their attention to younger folks. They are also important politically, and are largely to blame for America’s fiscal troubles – reforming entitlements is impossible with such a dedicated, well-funded, and selfish* voting bloc. Ditto for America’s military-based foreign policy (hi, Cold War) and obsession with inflation.

*My distaste for the elderly, in a political sense, is well-documented.

There’s a second factor at play as well. Population bulges have happened before, and none have had the lasting impact of the Boomers. American cultural defaults are based on the lives of the Boomers. It’s not just the Christmas season: the enduring image of the single-family home as the American dream came to us from the 1950s and survives despite rapid urbanization and demographic changes. The legacy of the 1970s as a standard for youth behavior, and the 1980s as the career decade track the lives of the Boomers.

What brought their lives to the forefront? The answer is television. Kennedy was the TV president, and the Boomers were the first to develop a truly national set of cultural norms through TV. They watched the same shows that showed us what’s “normal,” and life imitated art: a country that 50 years earlier was filled with new immigrants into growing cities now defaulted to a house with a father and mother who married out of high school, three children, and a dog. This image is still “the American dream,” simply because a generation returned from war and started the baby boom just when TV was becoming a common thing. It’s not a coincidence that the Boomers’ worldview is cracking only with the rise of the Internet, a largely decentralized system where our experiences aren’t so strongly mediated by large organizations run by the Boomers.

Thus, American modern culture is shaped largely by the elderly, their memories of youth, and their current desires for stability. At one point, that may have been a boon – the rights of minorities, women, and gays probably benefited from the surge of young people in the 1970s – but their risk aversion and political clout are probably hurting more than they’re helping.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

(spoilers galore)

Plot: It’s the plot of the book.

Review: “That’s why nobody tells you what the plan is.” This line, spoken by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) near the end of Catching Fire, captures much of Katniss’s character in the sequel to The Hunger Games (which I reviewed here). Katniss is the nominal protagonist of the piece, and yet this viewer found her a frustrating character. I just wanted to shake her and say “get yourself together, look at the big picture, and take care of business.” She is a reluctant leader at the center of a volatile situation: President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pressuring her to use her fame to calm the rebellious masses, while the rebellious masses (various) want her to be the symbol of the revolution. Katniss, however, just wants this all to go away, and, failing that, let her run away into the woods with the few people she cares about.

It’s a frustrating reaction to the reader, but it rarely rings false. You want Katniss to seize the moment and become the leader everyone wants her to be, but it makes perfect sense that this teenage girl, reeling from the first Hunger Games, is emotionally devastated and wants to withdraw. (In a few scenes, Katniss shows a certain strength that would come in handy in other situations, and you wonder where it goes the rest of the time.) The final shot of this movie tells us that maybe Katniss has finally made the transition we’ve been rooting for her to make. I have a feeling that fierce determination will play to Jennifer Lawrence’s strengths more than the inner tumult of a teenage girl.

The other characters in this movie are (much like the movie itself, which is a long intro to the third part) more tools than individuals, pushing the plot to where it needs to be at the end. Josh Hutcherson is solid in a few key scenes as Peeta, and he sells the pain of unrequited love very well. Harrelson’s character is too one-dimensional to matter, which is a shame, as there are tragic possibilities to a man in his position. Stanley Tucci, such a pleasant surprise in the first movie, is more exaggerated and less fun this time around, and so is Elizabeth Banks until her last scene. I thought for a while that Philip Seymour Hoffman was wasted on a bit part, but that’s largely because I’d forgotten his eventual role. Lenny Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright are notable and good, and special kudos for Jena Malone as Johanna. Liam Hemsworth is, as always, just awful at everything he does. He is also upstaged by the far more handsome Sam Claflin.

The cinematography of the Capitol is very good, and the battle scenes are entertaining without overwhelming. It’s a fun watch, though the buildup is pretty slow, and one of my favorite scenes from the book is omitted (the scene reviewing Haymitch’s Hunger Games win).

Verdict: Very good, and you’ll either see it or you won’t regardless of what I say here.

Jon Stewart’s Continued Decline

I became a fan of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show over ten years ago, and I was a big fan from the start. Like Stewart, I was strongly opposed to much of the Bush administration’s activity – unauthorized war (Iraq), large entitlement expansion (prescription drugs), civil liberties violations (wiretapping, state secrets), and outright lying to the public. On this last point, Stewart solidified his standing when he was the only major outlet to call Defense Secretary Rumsfeld out when the secretary, confronted by someone pointing out his lies, denied lying: Continue reading Jon Stewart’s Continued Decline

Tabarrok And Hard Social Science Fiction

I’ve been pondering at length (see parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight) the nature of good and bad narrative writing (in the broader sense that includes TV and movies) and what an exacting audience member such as myself likes and dislikes in such writing. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution weighs in and offers a useful distinction:

Hard science-fiction is science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary science. By analogy, I deem hard social science fiction* to be science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary social science especially economics but also politics, sociology and other fields. Absent specific technology device such as a worm-hole, hard science fiction rejects faster than light travel as little more than fantasy. I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical. Nothing wrong with fantasy as entertainment, of course, just so long as you don’t try to implement it here on earth.

Tabarrok’s take is more policy-oriented, but since I share many of his econo-political views, I don’t mind. More importantly, he’s offered me excellent terminology in the distinction between hard and soft science and social science fiction. Many of my complaints in the posts link above seem to be complaints about pieces of fiction that are soft social sci-fi but claim to be hard social sci-fi. I’ve previously referenced movies that pretend to extend current trends into an inevitably dystopian future as a warning against continuing such trends – recently, the topic is inevitably wealth inequality. I’ve criticized these movies for their lack of verisimilitude, and I think it’s their pretense of realism that bothered me so. Tabarrok’s terminology captures my issues with such writing.

A Fellow Difficult Viewer

People who know me know I’m a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. My favorite piece of his is The Perimeter of Ignorance, and I recommend both the essay and the presentation. I’ve written quite a bit about good, bad, and enjoyable (either good or bad) writing lately, and I was happy to find Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeting away about the movie Gravity. Tyson, of course, is a space expert, and much of the action takes place somewhere in orbit around earth (I haven’t seen the movie.) Tyson asks a few pointed questions:

Neil deGrasse Tyson voices his thoughts on the movie GravityThese are all things most of us wouldn’t notice, and I would probably consider them acceptable breaks from reality. Tyson admits he likes the movie, and I’m not particularly bothered by the inaccuracies. It wouldn’t be hard to concoct a scenario in which the above “mysteries” aren’t mysteries (“An explosion on a new Chinese space station that is near the Hubble telescope forces a medical doctor to…”) so I forgive the movie makers for not forcing us through those motions. I am definitely glad that someone is noticing the discrepancies. It’s important to keep them honest.

The Rise Of The Difficult Audience

I keep writing posts about writing, and the things that differentiate good writing from bad, with a big nod to writers who keep things realistic in a few key areas. Specifically, I’ve argued that the setting must be realistic, in the sense that it would logically emerge from the premises, and that character decisions must be realistic, in the sense that they are consistent with the mentality of the character and the incentives he faces. So, on the former, I am perfectly fine with space robots, as long they and the humans they interact with don’t act in galactically stupid ways. On the latter, I’m happy to concede that some people are insane and would do irrational things (leave clues for the police or challenge a rival just for the thrill), but their behavior should then be internally consistent. I realize this makes me a far more difficult audience than most people – the Transformers franchise has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide – but I think the world (or at least the West) is becoming a more sophisticated audience.

For example, there is an emerging consensus that we live in a golden age of television. The best shows on TV today are far superior to even those a decade ago (just compare them), and the worst shows get filtered out much faster than they used to be. The system isn’t perfect, of course, but I believe it’s improving (though I have no data to back up the intuition). I also have no real data for my pet theory that the reason for the improving quality of today’s scripted TV* is the rise of feedback and commentary on the internet. With shows rerunning more often, more people writing about TV online, more people discussing TV in forums and message boards, and Facebook and Twitter allowing people to share opinions instantly, it’s becoming more and more important to get things right. There are tons of sites dedicated to dissecting, discussing, analyzing, criticizing, and, in a basic sense, holding accountable the TV shows of our day. There are sites discussing show after show, looking for and cataloging plot holes, and each one comes with message boards and comment sections of people taking apart every scene, line, and character. The rising level of consumer sophistication means improvement in the product. So enjoy the Transformers, if you must, but be grateful to those pickier souls who demand – and get – the top shelf TV we now have.

*I believe that movies are fundamentally different from both writing and TV, because of the limited time and format. Steven Johnson explains the difference in his superb book Everything Bad Is Good For You.

TV and the Boring Modern Times

Megan McArdle wonders about the state of modern TV:

Why does almost everything we watch involve criminals and violence? No, not just involve them, but elevate them to the center of the story?…So what does it say about modern society that it considers shows about meth cookers, crack dealers and gangsters to be the finest mass market entertainment we can produce?

What is the attraction of these sorts of stories? At first I thought that it was sheer novelty; here’s one world we don’t know anything about. But that can’t be right, because there are other types of stories, like historical dramas, that would be quite novel if done well. Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically.

You look at novels of the 19th century and they are filled with terrible, dramatic dilemmas that actually did face ordinary people. People lost everything, and risked starvation; they performed terrible, cruel, dangerous work for years on end in order to make a little money; they died from the risks of their job or the ordinary diseases that used to carry off so many people in their prime. … People in the 19th century, and into the middle of the 20th, faced a lot of dilemmas wherein doing the wrong things could permanently destroy their lives.

I think Megan is right here, and I think it explains much of the changes in popular culture over the last few years and decades. The two primary drivers of human beings are survival and love/sex/reproduction (Robin Hanson has an interesting discussion of how and why this is true.) In the modern day, these two main drivers have lost much of their suspense, at least in the West: even the poorest of the poor are rarely at the edge of starvation, and sexual mores have changed to the extent that lives aren’t defined by one relationship. This makes the stakes for an ordinary person in the present day very low: there’s little drama in whether someone will get promoted to assistant regional manager, or whether THIS relationship of many works out. The latter can still be gripping, but fans will notice how much more consequential a night of sex is on Downton Abbey than on Mad Men or on Breaking Bad.

I’m usually a fan of contemporary fiction, set near the present day in the real world. As such, movies (and to a lesser extent books) have become less interesting to me: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Hunger Games, Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, Superman, Batman, X-Men. The dominant franchises of our time are superhero movies and fantasy books. Add the resurrection of Star Trek and even Star Wars, and we drift even further away from present-day reality. And why? Because (as Megan notes for the past) in those settings, ordinary people have much higher stakes, especially with respect to survival. (There are other reasons for the teenage-boy-ization of movies; see here and here.) It’s much easier to create suspense and tension in such settings than in the present-day West. We’re likely to see a further shift, at least in mass fiction, toward these other settings. That means more movies and books in fantasy worlds, the past, present-day third world that resemble the Western past, and unusual subcultures of the West – like northeastern mobsters, southwestern drug cartels, or women’s prisons.