The Art vs. the Artist

Standard

images

Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

Advertisements

The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

Standard

Unknown

When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

White Like Me

Standard

Unknown

Dear Black People,

After watching season one of the Netflix series Dear White People, I want to apologize for my ancestors having screwed up your lives for the past 200 hundred plus years and for making race relations so fraught to this day.

Watching Dear White People made me uncomfortable, as it is no doubt meant to do. Episode after episode, I squirmed as well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) white students try to relate to their black counterparts at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester. (The gun comes immediately to mind.) Whether getting called out for partying in blackface or learning that only blacks get to use the N word, the white kids at Winchester are alternately baffled and angered by their black classmates’ refusal to go easy on them.

The premise of Dear White People is that a mixed race student named Samantha White hosts a regular segment on the college radio station that starts “Dear white people” and  gives her a platform to air her exasperation, dismay, or outright disgust at the way people of color are treated at her school. Her show – and indeed the series – force whites to look at their privilege in a sometimes humorous, but always uncompromising, way.

What I love about the show is that each episode is told from the perspective of one student at the school. Even the black students at Winchester are not united in their views of how best to advance black causes at the school. Some are assimilators who want to find diplomatic solutions. Some are activists who wish to be confrontational. All have unique stories, and learning their stories is perhaps the most instructive part of the show for whites who might be tempted to paint all African-Americans with the same broad brush.

A twist in the show is that Sam, the radio personality/activist, is secretly dating a white grad student at the beginning of Episode 1. Once they are outed, Sam’s boyfriend Gabe tries to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic to the black students’ plight without being patronizing. But he learns that, as a white person, he just doesn’t get it, and probably never will. The same can be said for white audiences of Dear White People. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

While the show has deadly serious moments, it’s also very funny. The repartee among the students is topical and witty.  And the characters totally won me over. There’s the shy gay student who has a crush on his roommate, his equally gay newspaper editor who is constantly yelling at him for not doing the story he was assigned, the Buffy-like girl who gets an Emotional Support Animal to handle the stress, the Kenyan who insists that his people are superior because “we did not get captured” in Africa.

Dear White People is a sly, witty, earnest, and well-acted comedy-drama and a must-see for anyone who wants to examine modern race relations in America. I can’t wait for season two!

Back to School Reading

Standard

images

As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

Swift Justice

Standard

images

I love Taylor Swift. Not just because she’s pretty and sings catchy pop tunes. But because in her recent lawsuit against a radio DJ, she stood up for everywoman. Yesterday, a judge awarded Swift the symbolic one dollar she sought from David Mueller, a Denver radio jock, for sexually assaulting her during a backstage meet-and-greet.

After Mueller grabbed her buttocks at the event, Swift and her mother complained to the radio station management. She did not file criminal charges against Mueller or tweet about the incident to get public sympathy or support. But Mueller was fired and decided to sue Swift, her mother, and others for setting out to cost him his job. That’s when Swift decided to countersue.

The judge found that the alleged assault had indeed taken place and dismissed Mueller’s original suit. But not before Mueller’s lawyer tried the time-honored technique of blaming and shaming the victim. First he questioned why she did not do anything at the time of the assault and why no one else noticed it happening. Her answer to the latter question is priceless: “‘The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.'” (“The essential part of Swift’s court case,” Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2017)

Then the lawyer tried to make Swift feel guilty about Mueller’s having lost his radio DJ job. Again, Swift stood up for women everywhere when she replied,

“I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions – not mine.” (Tribune, Aug. 15, 2017)

Taylor Swift has the money, fame, and power to stand up to those who would assault her and to a justice system that allows victims to be publicly shamed for someone else’s abuse of them. In doing so, and in claiming her symbolic award of damages, Swift sent a message to women, courts, and would be sexual predators everywhere that sexual assault will not be tolerated and will never be the victim’s fault.

Thanks, Taylor. I hope you can now “shake it off” and continue doing what you do best: entertaining your fans.

 

 

Class Act

Standard

images

I just finished the hilarious Kevin Kwan trilogy that began with Crazy Rich Asians and ended with Rich People Problems. In the satirical series, all kinds of filthy rich people jockey for social standing and look down their noses at others who might have billions but lack class.

There are the old money Singaporeans who disdain vulgar displays of wealth such as gaudy jewels, Rolls Royces, or opulent ball gowns. This old guard is considered the creme de la creme of society. Then there are the nouveau riche billionaires from mainland China, some of whom don’t care at all what others think of them while others spend billions of dollars searching for acceptance into the upper stratosphere.

Class consciousness has been part of all societies for millennia, even the so-called egalitarian country in which I reside, the United States. Having money is part of that equation, but how one acts in public, one’s manners, and one’s taste in everything from fashion to art to wine often determine one’s social standing.

The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy humorously skewers social climbers whose atrocious behavior belies their desire to be thought well of in society. Their religious and philanthropic activities are not genuine but come from an effort to position themselves among the “right” sorts of people. Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed the comeuppance many of these phony strivers receive by the end of Rich People Problems.

In his novels, though, Kwan shows that real class has no socio-economic boundaries. His main characters, Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, are level-headed, intelligent, warm, and caring people whose views of others and themselves stem not from how much money or possessions someone has, but from how that person treats others. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, has never known great wealth, yet she is rich in family and relationships that sustain her. Nick, born into the utmost wealth and privilege, is mystified when his family turns up their nose at his “common” girlfriend, Rachel. To Nick, Rachel has far more class than most of his well-bred, English-educated family will ever have.

Like other great satires, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels expose the hypocrisy behind people’s efforts to think of themselves as better than others. He proves that true class cannot be bought or bred into us, but that it comes from an intelligent and open-hearted effort to view individuals according to their innermost merits, not their stock portfolio or the family into which they were born.

 

Big Brother: Presidential Edition

Standard

reality_tv_collageBased upon the most recent presidential election, it’s clear to me that the American electorate needs more entertainment value in its politics. Therefore, I propose we run future elections like a reality TV contest.

We could, for instance, model our presidential race on the granddaddy of all reality shows, Survivor. Democrats and Republicans could form two tribes of presidential hopefuls who would be forced to compete on a remote island wearing nothing but loincloth, eating gross food, and completing arduous tasks until the fittest survived.

The refreshing part of a Survivor– style competition would be that all the political machinations and back- stabbing would be in the open for a change.

Or maybe the campaign could be run like The Amazing Race. Here we’d have pairs of candidates running around the country completing challenges such as stomaching the horrible food at various state fairs and pretending to love it. (Actually, this is pretty much what our current candidates do.)

The first pair on The Amazing Presidential Race to get to the winning destination would become our next President  and Vice President.

But I think the most entertaining way to choose a president would be to subject them to a Bachelor/Bachelorette type of contest. Each week we would select random citizens to be wooed in hot tubs by the scantily clad presidential hopefuls. Each week an unlucky candidate would get a rose and be unceremoniously shown the door.

We might not get a smart or capable president, but at least we’d get some eye candy to cheer us up.

So who’s with me? Is it time to give up the idea that a sober, thoughtful, and qualified individual is the best choice to be leader of the free world? Hasn’t the U.S. electorate shown itself to be more interested in a person of the caliber to be seen on The Real World?

At this point I’d settle for a contest resembling the old game show To Tell the Truth.