Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Good Hair"

-written and produced by chris rock
2009
It would be hard to overstate how much hope i had for this film. A documentary about the things black women do to their hair, prompted by chris' young daughter coming up to him and asking "daddy, why don't i have good hair?" In the world of straightening (and now weaves), black women have been horribly torturing themselves inside and out for many generations, striving to live up to a barbie doll world...but the time has long since passed when this problem can be blamed solely on the mass media images we're sold every day. Malcolm x was railing against this problem in the sixties, correctly identifying it as nothing less than racial self-hatred. It's about trying to be white, and every intelligent person in the world has long been waiting for black women to love themselves as much as we do. But if anything, the problem only gets worse. Black girls learn at an early age to devalue themselves. Many mothers start straightening their daughters' hair at the age of five, or younger.
So my hopes were sky-high. This film had enormous potential as a trigger for sanity...something hip, funny, and scathing from one of the world's most beloved comedians. And the movie is occasionally brilliant. Chris shows the health risks and searing pain involved in exposing a human being to sodium hydroxide, the chemical in "relaxers". He serves up the staggering impracticality - how straightened women must avoid water, and weaved women may NOT BE TOUCHED, even in the most intimate circumstances. He exposes the conflicted attitudes in the black community, plus the staggering economic burden black women choose for themselves (and the fact that most of that money goes right into white or asian hands). He provides a global view of black women's willful servitude, and indian women's compulsory servitude. But ultimately, chris backs off from taking any strong stand. He could have made a film that changed people's lives, but it's like his HBO bosses told him not to offend anyone - especially housewives in Iowa. He interviews maya angelou, and DOESN'T ask the hard, obvious question - WHY would she start straightening at the age of seventy, when she had seemingly spent a lifetime making the racially proud choice? He similarly soft-serves al sharpton. I love that he interviews a black actress who keeps it natural, but an untouched afro would have been a better choice than coils. There's a brilliant group talk in a barbershop in which chris gets one man to admit that some black men prefer white women because they can have more intense physical intimacy. He finishes the film with a half-hour segment covering the most famous annual black hair show, but it's wasted time. A far better (and funnier) choice would have been to stage a mock game show, in which four black women (one straightened, one weave, one afro, and one bald) would be seated on the stage, facing away, in booths where they cannot see or hear each other. The contestants then have to choose which head they want to run their fingers through. Any contestant who picks the weave triggers alarm bells and a klaxon shouting "DON'T TOUCH, DON'T TOUCH, DON'T TOUCH", and is expelled from the show immediately.
"Good Hair" - a good movie that should have been great.
Postscript: A friend tells me that there may finally be a growing movement of young black women rejecting the straightened/weave world. Is it possible i was too hard on this film? In either case, hallelujah brothers and sisters.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"If Someone Says 'You Complete Me', RUN!"

(WHOOPI'S BIG BOOK OF RELATIONSHIPS)
-by whoopi goldberg
2015
A by-product of listening to ten years of relationship idiocy as co-host of The View, this is whoopi's big "this is how i REALLY feel" moment. Or perhaps not so big, perhaps she's been trying to inject some sanity into the proceedings all along. Either way, she lets loose on how stunned she is that forty years after the feminist revolution, the average woman is still lost in media-fed, dysfunctional Disney dreams when it comes to romance, generally unable to manifest even the smallest traces of common sense. And men seem to be just as dumb, so she wrote a book for us all. She brings plenty of funny, as she starts off by exploring the ways that movies and pop songs give lovers entirely unrealistic dreams and expectations. She injects just enough science to let us know that humans are not monogamous, and we only invite trouble if we pretend we are. From there, she takes the attitude of "you may not want to hear this, and probably will only be able to pull your head out of your ass so far, but let's at least give you SOME ways to try to be healthy in your pursuit of sickness". She stops short of suggesting that the only sensible way of enjoying romance is the one it's taken her decades to come to in her own life - she lives alone, and takes a lover only when it's free of baggage. One-night stands or something more regular, the point is that she is her own person, and anyone who tries to define their life by their lover is only inviting a world of hurt.
Does she intentionally dumb down the book, in order to reach a wider audience? Probably. The scientist/social revolutionary in me has no time for such niceties, but i respect her effort. If she's a little bit behind the cutting edge in scientific sexual self-awareness, it's a minor sin; she's figured out a sensible way to play the game. She still sometimes talks about infidelity as though it's a character flaw, and not human nature. But as a manifesto of self-empowerment in the face of cultural norms that do nobody any good, the book is a delight.
And it's whoopi. If any of you ever secretly wondered how she could go from the hip smartness of Star Trek and trading clit jokes with robin and billy to a "ladies" chat show (admit it, you never even watched, did you?), this book is the answer.
Whoopi's still whoopi.
Let the healing begin.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Good People leftover leftovers

(a follow-up to http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2015/03/good-people-leftovers.html)

All that paranoia and persecution for...nothing? Shattering, health-imperiling levels of stress that were ultimately...well, not a delusion, as there was indeed a vortex of negativity directed at me during the run of "Good People", but the message i got was entirely different from the one that was intended. When i was faced with all that indirect evidence of loathing, i dredged up some artifact of my past that could have been interpreted, given enough levels of remove, as the actions of a monster.
It was the only way to make sense of what was happening.
I now know it had nothing to do with that at all...and it only took me a year to find out.
I now know that a human whom i respected and admired shook my hand in friendship, while inside he was so offended by me that he couldn't even tell me he was offended.
What caused such a cataclysmic shunning?
You're reading it right now.
It was this website, this naked meadow. I put a link to it in my bio in the play's program, and someone found something so offensive that shunning seemed the only appropriate response. And yes, a year ago someone suggested that this might be the reason - good old mom, i pooh-poohed her and i meant it. It seemed inconceivable that theater people could be so reactionary. Theater people are generally more literate and progressive than the average jane.
Is this website provocative? Revolutionary? I hope so.
My writings can be polarizing. I get that. As a creator, i try to put it out of my mind, but i get it. Someone once described the honesty i employ as beyond what people reveal even in their own diaries. Combine with that my condemnations of this barbaric society and an uninhibited progressivism which is perhaps a century ahead of its time, and the result will be...polarizing.
Yesterday i got a note from someone from whom i'd not heard in a long, long time. Someone who acted with me in a couple plays when she was an adolescent, and developed a deep crush on me. I felt profoundly caring and nurturing toward her. More than a decade later, she finds on this site a memoir of that show, in which i write openly about her crush. She wrote to tell me i'm grotesque.
I get that too. I don't blame her. It can be jarring to be confronted with the kind of honesty i employ, even when it's NOT about you. Beyond that, she's a fundamentalist christian, so a website memoir in which i happen to mention that religion is a sham, next to a picture of two naked men, was NOT going to endear me to her even before she had her life opened up.
I get it.
This website isn't just polarizing between people, but within people. Some people are ready for certain kinds of progressivism, but not others. We all have blind spots. There are people who neither love nor hate my work, but both. Take that picture of the two naked men. I love that photo. It captures so brilliantly the spirit of this site. Colorblind humans reconnecting with nature (the one outside, and the one within), nakedly walking toward a better future. Not that the picture's perfect. I don't love that it's two men - i didn't want to reinforce the notion that this is a man's world. Of course, two women would have been wrong too - female nudity is far too tinged with objectification. The perfect photo would have three or four people, of different colors and sexes.
But this photo is great enough that progressive people get the symbolism.
Others, however...sometimes i have to remind myself how damaged we all are when it comes to nakedness. I know smart people who think the photo is too naked - or too gay. I don't mind daring someone to react homophobically, though. There has always been a part of me that doesn't mind being misunderstood...the provocateur in me almost courts it.
Total honesty, total nakedness. If we can't figure out how to manifest those qualities, we'll never lift ourselves out of our abyss.
How did i finally find out what happened in "Good People"? Through a friend who wasn't connected to the show, but has connections with the theater. And i'm perhaps not entirely blameless...i didn't realize until after the programs were made that Theatre Conspiracy doesn't own its own home. The artistic director has a landlord he must answer to, and thus probably finds himself occasionally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, in terms of the material he can present. If I'd known that beforehand, i might have gone to the director or the A.D. to ask whether a website that combines the sensibilities of twain, thoreau, and lenny bruce would be too much for the program.
A new friend of mine is a new age christian. She came to love my words and understand the larger context of my work, before she'd read any posts that pertain to god or faith...and she hasn't changed her assessment of me. She calls me a bringer of light. I honestly don't think she calls me anything else under her breath.
Polarizing, though.
I get it.
Is it fun to be reviled? No. Especially when it comes from someone you cared for deeply. But that's a million times easier than being shunned by your new adopted family, in silence and mystery. Do i feel a bit betrayed that no one came to me to say, "this might be a problem"? Of course.
Polarizing. I get it.
But we can't stop. There's a world to save.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"Missoula"

(Rape and the Justice System in a College Town)
-by jon krakauer
2015
In this investigation of the rape epidemic that swamped the University of Montana in the early part of this century, krakauer discovers that the real scandal is that UM rapes are statistically in line with the national average. The aspect that sensationalized these convictions and allegations was that so many of them involved the football team - leading to uncomfortable questions about the culture of entitlement that grows up around athletes who are put on a pedestal, receive abundant social and sexual perks, and become accustomed to having coaches and administrators make their problems disappear. The deeper issue that krakauer doesn't touch upon is why men rape at all - the horrific cocktail of alcohol and a sexually repressed culture of violence. And to a certain extent giving attention to glamour scandals like this distracts from the larger story - rape is a staggering epidemic which has been with us for many thousands of years, and which we've only begun to uncover and understand. What krakauer does very well however, is explore what happens to victims who come forward. Our adversarial justice system is exposed as being not about justice, but simply winning (or not) - a zero-sum mentality that humanity direly needs to leave behind. Psychology experts tell us that to expose a woman to a rape kit exam, then make her relive the assault over and over in the judicial process, be shunned or vilified by disbelievers, undergo "professional" character assassination, all for the slim likelihood of winning one of the few cases that actually make it to court, is similar to the trauma of rape itself. We learn why rape victim behavior and testimony are often counter-intuitive or contradictory. The book follows the cases of several brave women who endured all this, on top of losing their very personhood. The phenomenon of rape is on a level with one other reality - soldiers who survive war. At best, it takes decades to undo the damage.
"Missoula" is powerful, but not krakauer's best. He's written brilliant books about human frailty pitted against nature, modern war, and the appalling barbarity of the mormon religion, but with this one you get the sense that he was so outraged (and humbled by his own previous ignorance), that he subsumed his normally wonderful prose to become little more than a court stenographer. He gives you the public details, as they unfold. He touches upon the personal damage endured by the victims. The result is informative and damning, just don't pick up this one expecting the comforting familiarity of the author's own voice.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Everybody is Wrong about God"

-by james a. lindsay
2015
Is a great book defined by whether it changes the reader? By that standard, this one joins a fairly short list in my life. A minor change to be sure, for the book presents few perspectives that are unfamiliar to anyone who takes seriously the threat that religion proposes to the uplift of humanity (and indeed, the author himself is quick to point out the recent books on which his work resolutely stands). But linsday assembles these perspectives into a compelling argument that the debate between faith and reason is already over, and the worst thing nonbelievers can do is add any fuel to the theist/atheist debate. He calls atheism self-defeating, as it legitimizes its opposite and it's inherently confused, because believers and non-believers aren't arguing about the same thing. Most believers aren't earnestly defending ancient mythology - if you were to concoct a well-concealed fiction about an invisible creature who impregnates a teenager, who then gives birth to a wizard who makes people immortal, most believers would realize that it belongs on a bookshelf next to harry potter. When a believer invokes "god", all they're giving is a reflection of their social/psychological needs. So believers perceive atheism as an attack on their values, not their dogma. James says that the rationalist perspective has already defeated belief - a quick glance at any street will reveal that most believers have complete faith in the fruits of science, and when it comes to their wallets and their sex lives (which, when it comes to marriage, are one and the same), believers almost unilaterally reject the more idealistic outbursts of their bibles. To make a point james might have made but didn't - who do you think has more resonance today, santa and the easter bunny or jesus and gabriel? Studies show that people tend to embrace naturalist explanations, up to the point where science cannot address their needs for meaning, control, and esteem. Studies show that the more one understands the wonders of science, the less one embraces supernatural explanations. Studies show that as a society grows in comfort and security, their religiosity shrinks - and the opposite too (so in these global warming, terroristic times it's only to be expected that religion will have a revival).
If you find the middle chapters dry or redundant, skip to the last three, which give prescriptions for ways to hasten the coming post-theistic world. Lindsay offers methods to foster secularism, and ways of asking questions that won't put a believer on the defensive. He suggests making classes on comparative religious studies and secularism a regular part of public education, something that can be easily done without compromising the first amendment. He talks about how to fill in the gaps, in terms of the social needs currently met by religion.
How did the book change me? It's softened my anti-religious zeal. I've taken a couple contentious readings out of the list of those i perform publicly. Mind you, i already had one foot down that road...one of my own quotes is "when two people engage in religious debate, there is always one guaranteed loser - the human race". In defense of my occasional hell-raising intolerance, these are times when involuntary human planetary destruction seems almost a given, so it can be hard to be patient with irrationalist views. But james' points are both salient and well-made.