Sunday, November 24, 2013

Media Musings

Recently, I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark and realized how dated and silly it is. Many flaws that I had never noticed before jumped out at me; as I watched the movie I kept thinking things like "I have personally filmed a better fight scene than this" and "Wait, they did not have rocket propelled grenades in 1936."

But the main thing that annoyed me was the sexist portrayal of Indy's friend Marion. She spends most of the movie whining and being useless, and the way that the story was written so she is always wearing cocktail dresses was nothing more than pointless fan service.

I was thinking "our society has definitely come a long way in the past 30 years". But then I watched Stardust, a 2007 movie of the same genre, and realized that it is even more sexist than the Indy movie.

All of the women in Stardust are either evil witches or easy fantasy girlfriends. None of them have any character at all; they are just cardboard villains for the hero to fight or they fall in love with men for no reason at all while being completely useless. At least Marion managed to machine-gun some Nazis while Indy was getting beaten up by the mechanic, and almost tricked her way out of captivity, but the star girl in Stardust does absolutely nothing interesting or heroic.

Compared to an Indy movie, Stardust and many modern movies like it are a reversion to simplistic and childish fairy tales, complete with the mindless wish-fulfillment and casual sexism of Medieval stories.

I realized that about 60% of all of the TV and movie time I have watched over the past two years was a Joss Whedon production. All of the characters in his works are interesting and real, especially the women. They are real people doing real or heroic things. The women in Stargate SG:1 and Farscape are portrayed almost as well. Those shows plus Whedon works are almost all the TV and movies I have watched in the past two years. This has distorted my perceptions of modern media. I was assuming that most stuff nowadays was similar, but it is not.

There is a media analysis tool known as the Bechdel Test. To pass the test:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
Shockingly few movies can pass this test, and the percentage has not really gone up over time. Learning about it and thinking about it was one of the main things that made me realize how the media and stories that shape our culture seem to systematically exclude women.

It is not hard to pass the Bechdel Test and/or to have strong and competent female characters, as many of my favorite shows demonstrate. You don't have to be a media genius like Whedon to pull it off. Even if you are making a show that is a mindless heroic fantasy adventure, you can just randomly make some of the characters women. This is the approach taken by the Avengers cartoon. All of its female characters are basically just men with a different shape, but at least they are competent and heroic and are not defined by their romantic relationships with the male characters.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Confusing Social Norms

Last week, Tyler Cowen posted a link to the following article, and gave the link the title "Markets in Everything: educate your nanny". It describes people hiring professional chefs to teach their nannies how to cook better food for their children:

> Founded by two veterans of the private-chef world ..., marc&mark teaches nannies of affluent parents how to prepare healthful, organic meals that don't come frozen or under plastic wrap. "Some of these nannies already do the cooking in the family, but they're throwing chicken fingers in the oven, or worse, the microwave — they're doing the bare minimum," Mr. Leandro said.

The article did not really surprise me or cause much reaction in me. My thoughts were a mix of "This is interesting.", "I am glad that more people are learning how to cook good food.", and "It is kind of sad that the average person in our culture is so bad at cooking that this is necessary."

But apparently a lot of people got offended by the article:

"Pundits across the spectrum were enraged this week by a consulting firm that teaches nannies to cook quinoa"

I would never have predicted that people would be upset about this, and I still do not really understand the reaction. A rich couple spends a good chunk of money to teach useful skills to their nanny, and people are reacting as if they had done something morally wrong.

This does not appear to be a case of envy. People do not seem to react as badly to other forms of conspicuous consumption, like living in big fancy houses in the best neighborhoods. I suppose that people are upset about the rich people ordering the nanny around and making her change. They seem to resent the 'abuse of power'.

But this makes no sense to me. The nanny was putting their child's health at risk by feeding the kid junk food. If people clearly do not know what they are doing, then you should teach them how to do things better. The only other alternative is to fire the unskilled person and try to hire someone better, which would be a lot worse for the people who do not know what they are doing.

The articles discussing the reaction to this news seem to assume that it is natural to be upset, and then go on to explain why people should not be upset. I need someone to explain to me exactly why people would get upset about this in the first place.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lego in Asia

I have read two articles recently about the growing success of Lego in Asia. The Lego company is learning that they can make massive amounts of money by convincing Asian tiger moms that Legos will be good for their childrens' intellectual development:

Short overview from The Economist

Longer New Yorker article

I wish them great success in their venture; it will improve the world in many ways if millions of Asian children are allowed to play with Legos rather than being forced into piano lessons.

Learning about this development has had a surprisingly powerful effect on me, and it is interesting to analyze why. First, it is a reminder of how fascinating and interconnected the world is. Who would have guessed 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago, that a Danish toy company would be exporting its expensive and high-end products to millions of Chinese families?

But more importantly, it is a very powerful reminder of how rich and modern Asia has become. When I was growing up and learning about the world, about 20 years ago, I learned that Asia was a vast hive of farms and sweatshops full of people who lived in grinding poverty and an existence that was little better than medieval standards of living. This was mostly accurate.

I knew from an early age that Japan was a relatively rich and modern country, but I also knew that their culture was very different from that of American and European countries. Despite their wealth and prosperity, they were 'not like us' in a lot of important ways. And as other Asian countries got richer, they seemed to jump straight from medieval subsistence farming to Japanese-style computer-obsessed hyper-urbanization, skipping completely the comfortable semi-rural middle-class existence I grew up in. This was mostly accurate.

In short, the idea that any Asian child could have a childhood anything like mine never entered my mind. They all seemed to be either stuck in a miserable farming or sweatshop existence, or they were single children being pushed through a hyper-competitive educational system fanatically intent on memorization and conformity, and spending their free time plugged into electronic devices.

But now they are playing with Legos.

As a result of reading these articles, I am suddenly confronted with the fact that millions of children in former third-world countries will have a childhood a lot like mine: school, after-school academic activities, fun creative playtime, and parents who want them to be successful and well-rounded people. Because we now share a tangible and emotionally salient experience, these children have suddenly become much more real to me.

The amazing advancement of the standard of living in their countries has also become more real to me. A childhood once only available to the richest of the rich will now be the birthright of a substantial fraction of the world.