Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Intersection of Race and Scandal

The Masters golf tournament begins in Augusta next week and Tiger Woods will make his much-anticipated return to the golf course for competitive play for the first time since revelations of marital infidelity surfaced in November of last year. Since then, at least a dozen women have come forward to say they had had some kind of sexual relationship with Woods. The scandal has set off a media firestorm with many denouncing Woods as a fallen idol. The four-time Masters champion has also lost endorsement deals with various image-sensitive corporations. Woods, himself, went into hiding surfacing only last week to give interviews to ESPN and The Golf Channel.

In those interviews, Woods was contrite, but guarded. He said he understood that he had let people down, but he remained tight-lipped about details of the incident that broke this scandal open - a Thanksgiving night car crash outside of his Florida home. Woods certainly has the right to reveal only the information he wants the public to hear. In fact, upon examining other celebrity sex scandals of the past couple of decades, one might think that Woods is being subjected to unfair treatment by the media and the public.

Babe Ruth, the icon of baseball, was shielded by the press in terms of his sexual escapades. A famous though perhaps apocryphal story has Ruth being chased naked through a chain by a jealous lover in view of a group of reporters. As the narrative of Ruth and his time go, those reporters felt it would be too damaging to the country to air such personal matters. Members of the press are purported to have known about John F. Kennedy and his affair with Marilyn Monroe in the White House. Again, the good of the nation was supposedly cited for not making these matters public.

But, times change and in a super-competitive media environment, the sexual lives of celebrities attract attention and make money. However, the degree of scrutiny to which Tiger Woods has been subjected still seems disproportional to other scandals.

Wade Boggs, former Red Sox star, admitted to sexual addiction sometime in the early '90s and underwent treatment, but he was not compelled to apologize to anyone. Warren Beatty was well-known for having relationships with many, many women through the 1960s, ‘70s, & ‘80s, but is still a revered actor and was even courted by the Democratic Party for a potential White House run. Bill Clinton survived the impeachment and removal process of 1998-99 thanks to his gift of charisma and a robust economy. Today, people acknowledge that he is (or was) a philanderer, but not with quite the disdain that is reserved for Mr. Woods.

It is interesting that figures like Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson are made to endure scorn for engaging in similar behavior (although Magic Johnson received a great deal of support as well). Is the color of their skin what makes their cases so special? Why does Tiger Woods lose endorsement deals (he is still the best golfer in the world) while Warren Beatty gets a wink, a nod, and a high five?

Monday, March 22, 2010

A leftover thought from the Oscars

Personal update: Ava Catherine Watson was born last Tuesday at 8:22 in the evening at Kennestone. She is very healthy and Mommy is doing very well. Big sister Caroline loves her little sister. With baby's arrival, I have had little time for keeping up with current events (although I did watch last night's "historic" House vote on healthcare) or our assigned readings for class. So, I thought I would write the other thing about the Academy Awards from two weeks ago that piqued my interest.

Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for her role as a southern woman with a heavy southern drawl who adopts an adolescent black child. She sees something in this young man that no one else does and she pushes him to become a star on the football field. I have not seen this film, but I feel like I can be pretty sure that this movie and the hype that has surrounded it exemplify the surviving strands of American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States of America, its people, and its leaders have been endowed with a special purpose: to bring freedom and democracy to everyone in the world. The idea generally relates to the actions of the U.S. military abroad, but in this case, I think it fits here as well. Bullock’s character stands up for what she thinks is right even when everyone around her thinks she is crazy (including her own husband). She is sassy and isn’t afraid to tell people what she thinks (including “scary inner-city black people”). She embodies the American ideals of kindness, toughness when necessary, and color-blindness. If only everyone was like her, surely this would be a better world.

How insulting can a movie be? Millions of people adopt children. Sometimes, those kids are not infants or toddlers. Increasingly, people are adopting children from different ethnic backgrounds than their own. How is this woman that Bullock portrays exceptional?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Babies in America: A Special Report

My wife is scheduled to be induced into labor on Tuesday the 16th. It will be our second child and we are very excited to welcome our second bundle of joy into the world. But, my aim is not to use this space to waste everyone's time with my personal life. Instead, this upcoming event got me thinking about how we view childbirth, babies, and motherhood and how those views may or may not have changed through American history. This particular post is about questions more than answers.

How did the dangers of childbirth color the experience of delivery before modern medicine? How much did consumerism change the experience of welcoming a new child into the world? How many fathers were detached from this experience before feminism?

I’m sure there are books on this subject. This post is written in haste and ignorance, but I think it would be an interesting area to study. New parents are inundated with all kinds of information and products. There must have been some kind of progression that led us to where we are today. Quick Frozen Foods and the coalition of companies that made TV dinners informed the public on how to use their products and created advertising that convinced consumers that their products were beneficial for their families.

Therefore, a trail-blazing entrepreneur in concert with a league of similarly-interested corporations would have had to work to create an environment where their products were viable. Was there a publication similar to Quick Frozen Foods in the baby industry? Did television play the same role in educating consumers about the role their products would play in their lives? Were the inherent issues of conflict and inequality present in race, class, and gender in the marketing of baby food, formula, toys, car seats, cribs, books (for babies and their parents), television shows, and so on??

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The Hurt Locker" and war in American films or The Superfluous Blog

The Academy Awards from Sunday night got me thinking about how films can be a snapshot of prevailing moods and attitudes of the era in which they are made (not merely of which they are made - an important difference). I think there are three different American films centering on war and the military from different periods that are highly illustrative of their respective times: White Christmas, Apocalypse Now, and The Hurt Locker. Each of these films says something different about its filmmaker and the audience that received it.

White Christmas was released in 1954 and starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. The film follows two army buddies after World War II who decide to throw a gala event for their old Major. Though most of the action in the film takes place in the U.S. during peacetime, war and the military have an undeniable presence in the story. Featuring Kaye’s signature slapstick antics and Crosby’s crooning, the film could almost be described as a love letter to “the Good War.” Danny Kaye’s character suffers an injury during an artillery battle in which his arm is affected for the rest of his life. This injury is used as a comic device throughout the remainder of the film (completely unthinkable in the current political environment). I would be willing to bet that the main reason the film is remembered at all today is because of its theme song heard ad infinitum every Christmas season. Otherwise, this is pretty challenging fare for those who grew up during more cynical times and is exactly the kind of movie that the Baby-Boom generation rebelled against. Simple, soft, and unquestioningly patriotic, White Christmas is indicative of the prevailing American mood of the post-war period. It is the complete opposite of the storytelling that Francis Ford Coppola would attempt 25 years later.

Apocalypse Now is undeniably an anti-war movie. The psychological trauma that Martin Sheen’s character, Benjamin Willard, suffers, the callousness of Robert Duvall’s now-infamous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like, I dunno, victory,” and the insanity of Marlon Brando’s Walter Kurtz all confront the audience to re-evaluate its thinking about war and its effects not only on the perceived enemy but also on ourselves. The film’s soundtrack, which features such eclectic pieces as “Ride of the Walkyrie” and “The End” by The Doors, creates a portrait that reflects the mood of America in 1979. A nation crippled by guilt over the loss of morality and sanity asked, “How can we keep history from repeating itself?” Such a film would probably not even be made today, but for different reasons than White Christmas. Soldiers are not treated as saints. Military objectives are not viewed as just and necessary. War is not glorified. It is condemned.

While there are those who condemn the War on Terror, many more people have chosen to remain neutral on the subject for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or in league with terrorists. It is this mood of neutrality that colors the film The Hurt Locker. No stance is taken on the U.S. intervention in Iraq. These characters are not depicted as the kind of care-free grunts seen in White Christmas nor are they depicted as insane, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs like the ones in Apocalypse Now. I wish not to present a false dilemma in this space nor would I insinuate that members of the military are anything less than human. What I do insinuate is that the interests that are primarily served by the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan hide behind the troops to escape impunity of their motives. Kathryn Bigelow cannot criticize the War on Terror, the U.S. government, or any of the corporate contractors that have benefited from the Overseas Contingency Operations because she would be smeared in a media onslaught by every outlet from The New York Times to FOX News to those in the government from both parties as someone possessing the aforementioned undesirable traits. The Hurt Locker is a good film and I do not dispute its winning of Best Picture at the Academy Awards (worse films have received that honor). Still, the film left me feeling cold because of its neutrality. However, upon examining the period in which it was made, it only makes sense that The Hurt Locker would be what it is.