Tag Archives: popular culture

Fifty Shades of Grey, and Eroticism in Film and Literature

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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Over Winter break, I had a lot of free time to read. I decided to try Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James, 2012), because I was curious about it, and because the movie version was coming out on Valentine’s Day weekend. I remember the fervor the book caused when it was released. Many television shows and magazine articles discussed what a sensation the book was, particularly for many passionate and eager female fans. It was considered shocking, not just because of its content, but also because it seemed to have the power to release women from any chastity belts they might be forced to wear by their own shame or society’s standards for “appropriate” behavior and desires. While reading the book, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed. I was more than just not excited, I was somewhat repulsed by it, and not because it was graphic or shocking, but because it seemed so cliché. In early January, I posted the following Facebook status update in response:

I just finished reading 50 Shades of Grey, and it was ridiculous. A 22 year old, white bread virgin is attracted to a dashing, powerful billionaire, who was starving and abused as a child and, as an adult, only participates in short term, S&M relationships. She allows him to deflower and dominate her, and he releases his inner demons, falls in love with her, and calls her his girlfriend. It’s such horse shit!

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This was my off the cuff response. I was not turned on by the veiled violence, nor by scenes in which Christian forces his virginal concubine to eat in order to “keep up her strength,” despite what might have turned on many women. Was this the portrayal of a passionate relationship for women? And if so, who are these wanton “women” who love the book?

I was not alone in my reaction. In a “Frank and open discussion” by Laci Green, whose YouTube broadcast series “Naked Nation” is supported in part by Planned Parenthood, Green purports BDSM (a form of S&M, which she says is popular today, in part, because of book, Fifty Shades), as a new, liberating, and pleasurable form of sexual play:

However, in a later broadcast devoted to her analysis of the book Fifty Shades, Green says it does a “poor job of portraying BDSM,” and is indeed not only clichéd, but also abusive. She raises the notions of sexual consent and sexual violence, considering that Christian makes Ana, an inexperienced virgin, sign a contract about their liaison before she evens sees his “Red Room” of bondage equipment:

Green’s accusation that Fifty Shades glorifies sexual abuse places the book, and the film, in a dark context. Even if the book wasn’t exactly sinister, it’s poorly written, and bondage and dominance just don’t turn me on. I began to think about other novels or movies that have created comparable reactions among their audiences, and their points of comparison to Fifty Shades.

the-awakening-smFirst, I picked up The Awakening, an 1899 novel by the trailblazing feminist, Kate Chopin, which was considered quite scandalous in its day. I loved it! The writing style has been compared to Impressionism, and the novel is very visual and sensual in its detail. The title captured my immediate attention. I had the idea that it might be a sexual awakening, and it was, but it was more. The heroine, Edna, escapes her family, domestic life, and responsibilities. She has a few extra-marital affairs, but does not end up in a new relationship. Instead, she begins making art and discovers her own subjectivity and embodied perspective. In the end of the novel, she dramatically dives into the ocean and swims away, a conclusion that has been read as a suicide, but I read it more abstractly. In her dive, as in her adventures in the book, she discovers true freedom. There are a many scenes with water running throughout the book, including themes of swimming. As a child, Edna loved and then feared swimming, because she associated it with an unwantednot to mention criminalsexual advance by one of her father’s peers. In the book, part of her awakening involves her relearning and re-enjoying swimming again, as an adult. Water entails, and in the book symbolizes, diverse acts such as floating, drowning, and swimming. When Edna swims, she also floats, as she experiences a freedom in and an escape from the socialized world; she doesn’t see, hear, or feel the world above the water. She is figuratively and literally immersed in her own senses. Swimming causes a feeling of weightlessness, but when swimming, Edna propels herselfa physical act, a form of exercise, and also a forceful movement. I don’t think she drowns at all, but rather, she escapes. Immersing one’s self in water, wherein one is subsumed in one’s own sensory environment, specifically free from external stimuli, could also be a metaphor for masturbationperhaps the ultimate act for of self stimulation and self gratification.

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Stimulated by my interpretations (pun intended), I then wanted to explore other literary and film examples that were considered shocking for their time periods. I remember, as a young girl, the sensation that arose surrounding the film Nine and a Half Weeks (1986, dir. Adrian Lyne). Watching it as an adult, I was blown away by the beauty of the film. It had striking visual detail and was rich in color, texture, and atmosphere. In one of my favorite scenes, the male lead, John (Mickey Rourke) “feeds” the female protagonist, Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), by blindfolding her and offering samples of foods that vary in texture and flavorcherries, jalapeño pepper, milk. The camera creates a multi-sensual encounter, as Elizabeth experiences the food and the sensuality of the offerings. To commence the scene, John squirts sweet, sticky honey in her mouth (suggestive, perhaps, of semen) and then on her body, as he lays her down, kisses, and embraces her. Light floods the darkened set design, as the viewer experiences their own senses being overwhelmed. Another scene features Elizabeth, who works in an art gallery, masturbating as slides of provocative art works flash on the screen. She moves in harmony to the changing of the slides, which becomes more rapid as she sits on the remote and eventually climaxes. Throughout the film, visual art interacts with erotic life. “Nine and a Half Weeks” was released in 1986, when I was 11 years old. I didn’t see the film at the time, because of my age, and I was happy to rediscover what I now consider a classic.

9-and-a-half-weeks-a-memoir-of-a-love-affairThe film is based on Australian writer Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair (1978). The book is a diary, with first person narration, incomplete sentences, visual and narrative impressions, and a chain of consciousness writing style. This memoir is more graphically violent than its film version. In one entry, McNeill writes: “The nights were palpable and fierce, razors, outlines so clearly as to be luminous. A different country, its landscape and currency plain: heat, fear, cold, pleasure, hunger, glut, pain, desire, overwhelming consciousness” (42). This quote demonstrates the erotic and violent actions in the book, as well as writing style I described above. Upon reading this passage, I felt simultaneous intrigue and revulsion to the brutality. During moments of the violence inflicted upon her, Elizabeth, the real woman, conflictingly feels simultaneous pain and desire. She ultimately writes of feeling disembodied, as if she experiences her sensations virtually. The 1986 film is indeed almost a watered-down version of the explicit diary. The memoir is beautifully, indeed poetically written and much more philosophical and psychological than the film.

I then turned to what was one of my favorite movies of my hormone-infused teenage years, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, dir. Philip Kaufman). Based on the novel by Milan Kundera (1984), the film centers on the relationship between a heterosexual couple, as well as the man’s many sexual conquests, and is set during the 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic (wiki).

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The narrative follows an attractive, introverted, and womanizing (not unlike Christian Grey) surgeon named Tomáš (Daniel Day Lewis), and his conflicted relations with the woman who becomes his wife and proves to be his “true love,” Tereza (Juliette Binoche), as well as his many lovers, most prominently, the self-possessed artist, Sabina (Lena Olin). The novel and film are set in an artistic and intellectual class in Prague, which in 1968 was invaded by the Soviet Union. With her rosy cheeks and pageboy haircut, Tereza is childlike in the film, as she is in the novel. She matures through her relationship with Tomas and her discovery of her own perspective, similarly to The Awakening, yet, in this film, it is behind the camera lens. The film includes scenes (shot in black and white) that capture the confusion and violence of the 1986 invasion of Prague on the streets, with dramatic movements and angles.

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Compared with the book, the film is not as detailed about the results of the invasion and following Soviet occupation; for example, on p. 67 of the book, Kundera graphically describes specific murders and deportations. In both the book and the film, Tereza photographs the atrocities on the streets, commencing her photography passion and career with street photography, which is similar to the work we discuss in the Documentary unit of BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions. Street photography crosses the boundaries or genres of photography as art and as historical document. Tereza’s street photographs get published and lead to work in commercial photography, although she is seduced more by the idea of art photography and explores the genre by photographing Tomas’s lover, Sabina. In a Communist era of Social Realism, Sabina does defiant abstract art, or “drip painting” like Jackson Polluck (63). I do especially appreciate the images of Sabina’s artwork in the film, consisting of erotic photographs and body images cut from mirrors.

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Although the book and the film are both artistic, the book is decidedly more psychological and philosophical, similarly to the book Nine and a Half Weeks. Kundera’s novel is also more political. On pages 213-214, Kundera narrates Tomas’ political acts, such as writing leftist editorials for papers, which leads him to be asked to sign a document protesting the treatment of Czech political prisoners. The novel is not in first person narration like Nine and a Half Weeks, but the narrative point of view is not completely omniscient either. Rather, Kundera’s narrator is poetic and like a storyteller, telling the narrative as if he or she know the characters personally and can see literally into their lives, as well as their consciousnesses. Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that Kundera disliked the film so much that he has resolved never again to have one of his novels made into a film. Reading the book encouraged me to check some more of Kundera’s books from the library.

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The final example I was overjoyed to discover was another film with a literally graphic basis, the 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche),which is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. In both the film and the book, a somewhat naïve and self-abdicating young woman, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), searches for her sexuality and subjectivity in a world she finds repressive, specifically to young, heterosexual women. One day, she spots and subsequently seeks out a striking, young, somewhat tomboyish and seemingly lesbian woman, Emma, (Léa Seydoux) with dashing blue hair. The graphic novel composes mostly black and white images with striking hints of bluein the forms of Emma’s hair, as well as the protagonists’ diary. Again, a diary communicates the embodied perspective of its narrator. The two women become zealous lovers, and lengthy, strikingly dynamic scenes depict their passion-filled lovemaking, in both the film and the book. The graphic novel was inspired by The Life of Marianne, an eighteenth-century, French, erotic graphic novel.

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In contemplating the symbolic significances of blue, I thought about its association with masculinity, or at least the gender of a male baby, similarly to how pink represents femininity. One of the readings in my course BLS 345: The Art of Life, Rebecca Solnit’s  poetic and philosophical A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) came to mind. In this manuscript, every other chapter is titled “The Blue of Distance,” and blue, throughout the text, is the color of desire. Solnit meditates on how blue is more intense in the distance, in art (with the examples of landscape paintings, Yves Klein’s artwork, and many more) and in life (with the examples, among others, of road trips). For Solnit, distance increases desirability, reiterating how unrequited love may be most fervent and how absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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Throughout the book and the film Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma’s hair gets less and less blue. It finally transforms back to its natural color, the pair split up, and Adela must find herself outside her role as Emma’s muse. In the graphic novel, the main character dies. Again, death! In The Awakening, Edna supposedly drowns, and in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas and Tereza have a suspicious “car accident,” which the book relates to their political leanings. Going back to my analysis of Edna’s “death” as an orgasm, in literary theory, an orgasm is referred to as “the little death.” For a more detailed analysis of this metaphor, see the Wikipedia entry “La petite mort.

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More broadly than in its many literary associations, the notion of an orgasm as a “little death” can refer to a spiritual release, a short period of melancholy or transcendence, and a natural “high” in the anatomical release of the feel good hormone oxytocin that occurs after orgasm. The not so “little” deaths in these films may then be over-signified, or over-stimulating with their multiple meanings and associations.

This blog has itself become overwhelmed with stimulating references! Now, back to Fifty Shades

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On Feb 6, NBC’s The Today Show broadcast live from the New York City premiere of the film at Ziegfeld Theater. As the camera scanned the screaming and cheering crowd, I searched for even one man amidst the group. All I saw were enthusiastic and, indeed, excited women. Newscaster Carson Daly said there were 98 women in attendance; Daly and the star of the film, Jamie Dornin, were the only men. The episode also featured an interview with Dornin and his co-star, Dakota Johnson, by newscasters Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, in which Johnson said she strategically played Anastasia as a woman of strength and self-worth.

On Feb. 12, Ellen Degeneres aired a clever spoof of the interviewa clip that her crew had edited and that featured anchor Matt Lauer bearing a harness and whip:

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Ellen’s spoof was the beginning of the themes of satire that were raised in news sources about the film. The website Rotten Tomatoes says the film is too tame in comparison with the book. In agreement, Time asks “Where’s the whiplash?” Durham’s Independent newspaper expresses disappointment in the film’s “bad erotica.”

In a video posted on the website of the Pulitzer Prize-winning British journal, The Guardian, film critics discuss the absurdity, and even satirical humor of the, what one critic calls “soft core porn,” that he says seems like “the S&M had been directed by Martha Stewart.” These highbrow, somewhat stuffy critics state that the film never had a chance and they “couldn’t take it seriously” because it was based on a poorly written, trashy novel.

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Reading through this summary of diverse reviews on this CNN.com, some of which are positive, made me want to see the film more. Further, similarly to how she discussed her role as Ana in her appearance on the Today show, Johnson has affirmed in numerous interviews that she chose the role specifically because it intimidated her and because she believes that women who own and direct their own self-crafted sexual experiences and sexual identities are definitively empowered. But I wondered, is Ana empowered in book? I would say, no. How will she be different in the film?

Fifty Shades of Grey opened where I live in Durham the Friday before Valentine’s Day, and I could not see it then because my husband and I had big plans: we had to take our 20 pound orange tabby cat, Sunny (aka “The orange beast”), to the vet and my husband’s new Fiat needed additional computer programming at its dealership in Cary. I thought I had missed the perfect opportunity to see the film and witness its already ardent fans, but after reading reviews, I thought perhaps the optimal time to see it would be on April Fool’s Day. Many others did see it the opening weekend; the film broke records for Valentine’s Day and President’s Day releases.

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I finally saw it two weeks after it opened. In general, it was not a good movie. The sets, costumes, and dialogue were nothing special and even silly. The character of Ana is girlish and mousy; her big blue eyes, which first capture Christian’s attention, are framed by unevenly cut bangs and hair that escapes from a messy ponytail. She does talk back to Christian in a Lolita-like manner, but I would hardly call her an empowered character. In the first meeting with Christian, she wears an old fashioned, flowered blouse and a matching cardigan and skirt set. Throughout the film, she dons dresses and outfits that are too short and too young for her, as if she shops in the junior’s department at the stores. She is somewhat childlike, similar to the immature Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ana’s adolescent body, with a sprinkling of fair pubic hair, is often on display in the film, while Christian’s body is strategically concealed; in one scene, he unbuttons his fly, and the viewer sees a hint of blond pubic hair, but otherwise, only his unclothed backside is shown. In contrast to Ana, Christian wears signature, stone colored suits and one of his fifty ties, all of which, of course, are shades of grey. Christian is good-looking, with a strong face and muscles, but he is hardly suave or debonair. Rather than looking like a millionaire entrepreneur and Casanova, he resembles an attractive college athlete. Christian lives in an austere apartment, similar to his clothing and to the steely residence of John in Nine and a Half Weeks. In one scene, Christian tempts Ana with an ice cube down her naked torso, an act like that of John and Elizabeth, but the former is much less sensual than the latter, for the viewer, and seemingly, for the female subjugate.

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Forty-five minutes into Fifty Shades, Christian and Ana “consummate” their agreement, and Ana is “de-virginized” (or deflowered, as I strategically called it above), in an intimate scene that involves kissing, touching, and, assumedly, at least two orgasms. I am hardly an expert, but I would say that when a woman loses her virginity, the experience is usually more awkward and potentially painful, rather than sexy and pleasurable; however I have never heard of a woman having had her first time with anyone experienced. Let’s just say, the scene is, at best, idealized. Unlike in the book Fifty Shades, the couple in the film are paired intimately quite often, embracing and even bathing together, and Ana has met many members of the Grey family before Christian even introduces the contract and the red room to her (the only room in his apartment that displays any color). The first scene in which the couple performs in the red room is almost one and a half hours into the two hour film and shows Christian “whipping” (or should I say, “tapping”) Ana with a tassel-like “whip.” This action causes a light snapping sound and leaves no wounds on Ana’s skin. It is hardly terrifying. At the end of the film, when Ana challenges Christian to give her the full treatment, or to do the most brutal thing he would ever do to her, he again whips her, this time with a fashionable leather belt. The sounds are more convincing and remind me of the whipping scenes of Twelve Years a Slave, (2013, dir. Steve McQueen), but again, they leave no marks on Ana’s perfectly white, pristine back. The couple parts in the end, and as Ana exits his apartment by elevator, there is an emphasized lack of closure, or a cliffhanger, enticing viewers to seek out the sequel.

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Again, I was amused, but underwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll bother to read either of the other Fifty Shades books in the trilogy, nor will I waste my time following the film series. I am, however, very much looking forward this summer’s release of Magic Mike XXL (the satirically titled Magic Mike 2), which will feature more antics of an ostentatious, performing, and chiseled brigade of leading men, performing for and in service to clowning and lascivious female fans. This film will be much more my speed.

magic-mike

R.I.P. Joan Rivers

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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There were many tragic celebrity deaths in 2014, and I feel the most personally sad about the death of Joan Rivers. My husband and I loved watching her host the show Fashion Police. In response to her witty and often naughty comments, we would exclaim “Oh, Joan!” On Fashion Police, she critiqued stars’ outfits with bawdy and sometimes dirty humor.

Many considered Joan a nuisance, or a foul-mouthed “bitch,” names Joan would have reveled in. She was an unapologetic trailblazer; similarly to anti-conventional comediennes such as Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, she was decidedly not self-deprecating. Because she defied stereotypes and social mores for female comics, female performers of any genre, and women in general, Joan could be called a nonconformist feminist. She relates to many examples we study and critique in my course BLS 348: Representing Women.

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Contrary to other female comics of the past and of today, she didn’t put herself down, but also didn’t quite put others down either. She “made fun” of others, always in the spirit of humor. Her critiques were never harsh, although some of her comments, especially on Fashion Police, quite literally hit below the belt. Following her death, the E! Channel showed a marathon of Joan’s greatest Fashion Police episodes, culminating in a tribute episode of the show in which her co-hosts, Giuliana Rancic, George Kotsiopoulos, and Kelly Osborn as well as the executive producer of the show, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, shared their memories of Joan and of the show, with laughter and tears. There was a series of clips from over the years of Joan’s characteristically vulgar pussy jokes. Another humorous montage was of clips in which Joan struggles to get her jokes out, as she cracks herself up. She made herself and others laugh. She also laughed at herself, making unashamed jokes about the effects of aging and her many cosmetic surgery procedures.

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Throughout the footage about Joan’s death on TV, countless celebrities have said she not only made them smile, but that she was generous with her time, resources, and advice; many likened her to a mother, grandmother, or confidant. Fashion designers also called Joan a friend and an advocate. She coined the red carpet question “Who are you wearing?,” sharing the attention given to the dolled up celebrity with the designer of their garb.

I had seen the fascinating documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), a few years ago and was compelled to watch it again when I heard she had died.

The film underscores that Joan was a pioneer for female comics. In 1983, she became the first comedienne on The Tonight Show. She left in 1986 because she was offered the chance to host her own show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers. The show only lasted for 1 season, due to poor ratings and lack of sponsorship. Her husband, Edgar Rosenburg, served as a producer, and according to the documentary, other executives working on the show blamed him for the problems and told her to get rid of him. She refused, the show was cancelled, and the couple eventually separated. A few months later, Rosenburg committed suicide. The film doesn’t suggest that Joan or her failed show was the direct cause of this, and his Wikipedia page states that he suffered from clinical depression.

Following the end of her show and the loss of her estranged husband, Joan’s career tanked. She continued to do any stand up she could and eventually made a huge television comeback by winning on the show Celebrity Apprentice. She proved herself a shrewd business woman, who took charge of her career and later created a line of fashion, jewelry, and beauty items for QVC.

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At the time of her death at 81, she lived with her daughter and grandson in New York City, where she filmed a reality show and made appearances on QVC to market her line, traveled all over the country for stand up performances and appearances, and flew to Los Angles each week to film Fashion Police. Giuliana Rancic said Joan got to the set at 3 AM (they filmed at 8 AM) and would routinely have her special beverage during filming – a paper coffee cup with a straw, filled with white wine.

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In September of 2014, Joan had had a routine, outpatient procedure, an endoscopy, which involved the insertion of a tiny camera to look down her throat into her digestive system. During the procedure, she went into cardiac arrest, was taken to the hospital, and was put into a medically-induced coma to allow her brain to repair itself. She never came out of the coma. Considering the high level of activity in her life, it seemed like a tragedy, similar to the recent and untimely deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. She hadn’t been slowing down, and her death was sudden. It made me sad. Then I realized that maybe this was the best way for her to go. She was at the top of her game, and her death was painless, without suffering or the knowledge of her impending demise.

I will miss seeing Joan on Fashion Police and red carpets. In her honor, I just purchased a Fashion Police t-shirt with the name for her team of fans, “Joan Rangers,” on the back. I will wear it proudly.

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Not Exactly World Cup Fever: Why Soccer Isn’t More Popular in the U.S.

by Matt McKinnon

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World Cup action.

I confess: I love soccer, or fútbol, or football, or whatever you want to call it. I have three sons who play it year-round, both indoors (including the house) and out. And we watch it all the time, more so than any other professional sport. Now don’t get me wrong, I love and watch American football and watch a fair amount of baseball, basketball, and hockey. It’s just that soccer has become our main sport—both to play and to watch. So, I admit: I am not an objective observer here.

Ann Coulter

Of course, then again, neither is Ann Coulter, who recently blasted the sport in her own blog post.

Coulter lists nine reasons that “Americans” hate soccer—from the ridiculous (no.5 You can’t use your hands) to the uninformed (no.1 Individual achievement is not a big factor—tell that to the US Team whom Portugal put out with one brilliant pass from perhaps the world’s current best player; no.2 Athletic talent is not a large factor; and no.4 No threat of humiliation or major injury—again, tell that to the Brazilian Neymar who fractured his vertebrae in the match against Columbia).

But despite her overall offensiveness and ignorance about the game, Coulter does manage to raise a couple of possible reasons: it is “foreign” and often ends in a tie (her other reasons basically boiling down to the fact that soccer, or more specifically, watching soccer, just hasn’t caught on). Even here, of course, her ignorance outpaces her insight, since soccer as a sport that people actually play (both youth and adults) is just as popular in the US (if not moreso) than football or baseball, and is arguably more popular as an organized sport than basketball (though the latter is played more informally).

Neymar on field with fractured vertebra.

Neymar on the field with fractured vertebra.

Her point about soccer often ending in a tie has some merit—even though it is also more a reflection of current US interests than historical ones. After all, both American football and hockey could end in ties until rather recently: the NHL instituted a shootout system in 2005 and the NFL only instituted overtime in 1974, though if no one scores, games can still end in ties even now.

I would argue there are five main reasons why watching soccer has been slow to catch on in the US.

1: Some, like Coulter and others, do indeed see it as a “foreign” game, despite its close relation to American football (where the now popular “forward pass” was once illegal). But even this is problematic, since the US watches many “foreign” sports at venues like the Olympics (more on this below).

2: Closely related to the foreign origins of soccer is the fact that soccer is representative of the current changing demographics of the US. To be blunt, soccer tends to be popular among the growing Mexican and Latin American community, as well as various African and Asian populations as well. Now I’m not saying that someone is racist or xenophobic if they don’t like soccer, only that if you are already racist and xenophobic then you are more likely not to like soccer. After all, soccer reminds us that a majority of the world is not white, and neither is the US for much longer.

Mexico beats US, 5-0

Mexico beats US, 5-0.

3: We are just not as good at it as other countries. This one is more substantial, I think, as well as more complicated. Our women’s team, after all, is one of the best—if not the best—in the world. But then again, most countries around the globe do not support female athletics the way we do with women’s soccer. It’s also one of the hardest reasons to admit: but the fact of the matter is that we watch the Olympics, both summer and winter, even though some of the games and most of the people involved are “foreign”—because, well, the US athletes are usually better or just as good as their competition. This is just not the case with the US Men’s Team: not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Sure, the US goalie Tim Howard had an incredible game against Portugal, and he is arguably the best position player the team has. But he features on an English Premier League team (Everton) that perennially finishes in fifth place or lower. He couldn’t cut it at the powerhouse Manchester United (despite flourishes that suggested he might) and would not even feature as one of the top ten goal keepers at the 2014 World Cup, much less in the world today. This fact is disturbing to be sure, but US players are just not anywhere near as technically good as the players at the highest level of world soccer. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that player development in US soccer remains very much an upper middle-class pastime, and rules like those imposed by the NCAA actually prevent further development compared to soccer in other countries. (World-class players like Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, and Ibrahimavich tend to sign professional contracts before they’re fifteen and are not bound by rules maintaining amateur status.) The best soccer players in the world are not US citizens, and neither do they play for teams in the US.

US vs Canada, 2012 Olympics

US women’s team vs Canada, 2012 Olympics.

4: Soccer can seem boring to the uninitiated. Closely related to the above discussion of the tie, however, this reason is complicated. After all, where boring sports are concerned, it’s hard to argue that soccer is any more boring than golf, or car racing without the wrecks, or the majority of time in football games spent in huddles or timeouts, or most baseball games. Of course, to the initiated, none of these are actually boring, though the truth is that most sports that have a sizable market-share on TV have gone through changes over the past few decades to make them more exciting to a US viewer whose attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter. The problem with soccer is not that it is boring, or that it can and often does end in a tie. The problem is the way that the game is played.

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Super Bowl commercials: Verisimilitude at its finest.

5: Yes, the biggest reason that soccer has not grown more in popularity in the US is the complete absence of the commercial break. Those of us who love watching American football and basketball and baseball and hockey do so with the assurance that there will be breaks in the “action” (even if most of this action is watching players in the huddle, or keeping a runner at first, or standing around the free throw line). The point is that the typical US viewer wants to know when, more or less, the action is going to come—in that rather short moment between huddles, or when the bases are loaded, or at the end of the half when there are only seconds remaining. We like to go to the kitchen for snacks, or to the bathroom to relieve ourselves, or to check out what’s on the other channels. But with soccer, you have to watch the game continuously, for 45 minutes at a time, with only the occasional injury or goal celebration to break up the ebb and flow of the game. A score can come at almost any time during the total 90 minutes of the game, making soccer, for many in the US, more akin to waiting for the cable guy than watching a sporting event.

So, in my humble opinion, unless and until the marketing masterminds come up with a way to institute commercial breaks and tv timeouts into a game that lacks timeouts altogether, soccer is doomed to be less popular than its rivals—at least in the US.

Until, of course, the sheer force of our demographic shift ultimately has its way.

After all, what interests the “Average Joe” of today may not necessarily interest the “Average José” of tomorrow.

Mexico fan

This man just might be rooting for Mexico.

Editor’s note: Matt’s post was a little more timely when he submitted it, but I got busy and sat on it for too long. Bad editor! -JP

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change Our Lives in Unexpected Ways

by Chris Metivier

Who's there?!

Who’s there?!

A couple of weeks ago an unusual thing happened to me. One of my neighbors knocked on my door. I haven’t lived in my current house long, and he just wanted to tell me that his lawn mowing had blown some grass clippings in my driveway and to assure me that he intended to clean it up. I certainly wasn’t worried about grass clippings in my driveway, but it was a polite way for my neighbor to introduce himself, and I was glad that he did. He’s a nice guy.

Afterward, my housemate remarked that it was strange for someone to just knock on the door. Typically when that happens it’s some sort of solicitor, and I’d just as soon pretend I’m not home as answer it. He said that he’s actually annoyed when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly. If it had been a friend, he said, we’d have known they were coming.

We considered how we came to have this attitude of preferring to avoid unannounced visitors. It occurred to us that this is the same way we feel about receiving calls from unrecognized phone numbers. I don’t know about you, but I usually ignore those calls, because again, it’s typically a solicitor. The unexpectedness of a visit or phone call implies that it’s likely to be unwanted. That small bit of information is what we’re acting on when we decide to ignore a knock on the door or a ringing phone.

Just Dropping By

Just dropping by. Remember when that used to happen?

He mentioned that when he was young, it was common for family friends to drop by unannounced. It was a normal social practice. But it doesn’t happen any more. We concluded that the ubiquity of cell phones is at the root of this change. We know now when someone is on their way over because they—knowing that I always have my phone with me and they theirs—will call (or more typically text) to let me know they’re coming. I usually don’t even need to answer my door. If I’m expecting someone, I just make sure the door is unlocked so they can just walk in.

This change in attitude toward visiting someone’s home is sort of an unexpected side-effect of cell phone technology. I wouldn’t have guessed that the portability of telephones would lead to a shift in attitude toward something that isn’t obviously related to telephones. It made me think: what other technologies might have unexpected effects on our attitudes toward common social practices?

Google Self-Driving Car

Google Self-Driving Car.

Some days later I was driving on the highway. There was some traffic and I got to thinking, if only everyone would drive exactly the same speed, there would be no traffic. Then I thought, those Google self-driving cars could do that. In fact, those Google self-driving cars could probably do it much more safely and efficiently, with smaller gaps between cars even at high speeds. I suspect they could merge in and out of traffic with flawless precision. There would be no traffic bottlenecks at major junctions. Maybe I’m expressing more confidence than the technology merits, or maybe anyone who doesn’t is a technophobe. (There. I said it.)

Then I got to thinking about how different traveling by road would be if every car on the road was self-driving. Not only would you probably get where you’re going faster, because of the elimination of most traffic problems (like some idiot doing 55 in the fast lane), you’d also know exactly and reliably when you would arrive at your destination. No longer would “traffic” be an excuse for showing up late. And you couldn’t fudge it. If you left behind schedule, there would be no making up the time by driving extra fast. The self-driving cars would always move at the same speed. Robot cars have no sense of urgency.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan Autonomous Drive Vehicle.

Furthermore, since there would be no driving extra fast, there would be no breaking the speed limit. Maybe the notion of a speed limit would become nonsensical, since the self-driving cars wouldn’t travel at some range of speeds with an upper limit, they would travel (except while merging) at exactly one speed. Probably other kinds of traffic laws would become obsolete as well.

Think about how common it is to exceed the speed limit, and think about how you feel when you suddenly notice a police cruiser on the road behind you, or on the side of the highway. Maybe you don’t do this, but I immediately feel tense, nervous, guilty. Maybe your stomach lurches a little. Maybe you reflexively take your foot off the gas. I do all those things, even if I’m driving below the posted speed limit. I feel like a criminal, who will suffer or avoid punishment, only on a whim of some guy in a uniform. (Who does he think he is?! Ugh! Cops!)

Well ... rats.

Well … rats.

Now think about how you react to seeing a police officer while you’re both on foot. You don’t feel guilty. You don’t feel nervous. You probably feel safe. You might even smile or nod. You don’t have to avert your eyes for fear he’ll memorize your shifty face so as to apprehend you later. When you’re on foot, police are there to protect you, not to persecute you. The only trouble is that this doesn’t happen all that much. The bulk of a typical (non-criminal) person’s experience with police is on the road, where we’re suspicious of them, the threat of punishment implicit in their mere presence.

It's a beautiful evening to be on a foot beat at the park!

It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?

I suspect this is a common attitude toward police. When you’re on foot, they’re your allies. When you’re behind the wheel, they are symbols of authority who are only out to enforce laws against you. My prediction is that if self-driving cars were common, people’s attitude toward law enforcement would change dramatically. Most people’s negative experience with the police are over speeding tickets. Since self-driving cars would make the very concept obsolete, the negative experiences (including anxiety) about contact with police would be eliminated (except maybe for parking tickets).

Sure, there are other reasons people might have negative attitudes toward law enforcement. But I’m willing to bet that most folks are like me. If I didn’t think that all cops were out to give me speeding tickets (because of some insidious quota program that the state will obviously deny, but I know better), I’d be likely to have a much more positive attitude toward them.

I know this isn’t really a big deal. It’s not going to change our lives in any really significant way (more than self-driving cars would already). I know attitudes toward police aren’t a serious societal problem that many people give much thought to. And I know that self-driving cars are technologically possible now, but economically a long way off. This is just an exercise in thinking about the ways technology might change our lives in ways we don’t expect at first. It’s an exercise about excitement for the ways in which our lives might be different, and better, due to minor, indirect effects of new technologies. Sure, I’m being optimistic, and sure, you can be be a future-dreading techno-pessimist if you want. But the future will arrive in spite of pessimists, and there will be myriad benefits for those of us who embrace it.

Who's Driving this thing?!

Wait … who’s Driving this thing?!

Jumping the Shark

By Marc Williams

The Fonz

In 1977, the television sit-com Happy Days began its fifth season with an audacious episode that was different in tone from its first four years of episodes, it took the viewers by surprise. Happy Days’ appeal had always been its nostalgic attitude toward the 1950’s and the likable, down-to-earth characters around whom each episode focused. The motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing heartthrob, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli–played by Henry Winkler–was the epitome of cool and remains an icon of coolness today.

Unexpectedly, in the fifth season’s premiere episode, the Fonz decided to prove his bravery by jumping over a shark while water skiing. It was a baffling moment in television history. The first four years of the show had nothing to do with water skiing and the Fonz had never been the kind of character who needed to “prove himself” to anyone. More superficially, viewers weren’t accustomed to seeing the Fonz in swimming trunks. It was an odd episode after which the series could never be the same–a point of no return. This moment gave birth to the phrase “jumping the shark,” a term coined by John Hein to describe the moment when a television show betrays its origins–perhaps suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas. Often, shows are thought to have jumped the shark when a key character leaves the show, or if an important new character is introduced. Hein started a website dedicated to the phenomenon, where readers can debate the moment in which their favorite television shows jumped the shark. Hein sold the website in 2006 but the site is still active.

Here’s a clip (via YouTube) of Fonzie’s famous shark jump:

The website argues that virtually any creative endeavor can jump the shark: musical groups, movies, advertising and political campaigns, and so on. But can an educational television program jump the shark? Some have argued that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has done so.

For years, Shark Week has provided viewers fascinating documentaries about recent shark research and has captured some truly eye-popping footage. For example, the images captured in a 2001 Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws” captured some of the most stunning nature film I’ve ever seen–images of enormous great white sharks leaping completely out of the water, attacking seals and seal decoys. Like nearly everything one expects to see on The Discovery Channel, Shark Week is usually both entertaining and educational.

Clip from Air Jaws

Click to view a clip from “Air Jaws”

When watching that spectacular 2001 episode, I wondered to myself–”how will Discovery Channel ever top this?” What shark footage could possibly compete with these amazing images? How will they possibly attract viewers next year? Not surprisingly, Discovery Channel dedicated many of its subsequent Shark Week shows over the past twelve years to more footage of jumping great whites–and not much else. Perhaps the producers acknowledged that indeed, they simply couldn’t surpass the spectacle of “Air Jaws.” Until the 2013 installment of Shark Week, that is.

“Megalodon” was the centerpiece of Shark Week 2013, a documentary about the prehistoric shark that paleontologists believe grew to lengths of 60 feet or more. I’ve always been fascinated by megalodon; my older brother was a shark enthusiast when we were young and I vividly recall him showing me a photo of fossilized megalodon jaws he found in a book–I couldn’t believe that such an enormous creature ever lived. I was awed by the thought of it. Naturally, when I read that Discovery Channel was featuring Megalodon in its 2013 Shark Week series, I set my DVR.

The episode begins with some amateur video footage from a fishing party aboard a boat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The amateur footage ends with some fearsome crashes and the viewer then learns that the footage was recovered from the boat’s wreckage–and that none of the young passengers survived. When my wife and I watched the episode, we both thought the footage looked a little too polished to be amateur footage. My wife said she didn’t remember hearing anything on the news of a horrible boating accident and I didn’t remember such a story either.

Viewers were then introduced to a self-proclaimed expert in mysterious oceanic events: a dubious specialty, held by a man who was perhaps a bit too comfortable in front of the documentarian’s camera.

As the program continues, viewers learn that megalodon may not be extinct after all! And of course, in true Shark Week fashion, there was some stunning footage that offered tantalizing glances of what might be a live megalodon in the ocean. The ocean is a huge place, we’re reminded, and new species are discovered every year. The coelacanth, for instance, was thought to be extinct for over 60 million years until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Even very large animals like giant squid and megamouth sharks have only been recently captured on film, so the evidence supporting a modern-day megalodon simply can’t be dismissed.

Clip from Megalodon

Click to view a clip from “Megalodon”

The program was extremely entertaining and was easily the most exciting Shark Week show I’ve seen since “Air Jaws.” And not surprisingly, “Megalodon” received the highest ratings in the history of Shark Week. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it was all a hoax. Like Animal Planet’s 2012 documentary on mermaids, all of the nature footage and expert testimonies were fabrications. My wife and I hadn’t heard about the vanished boating party on the news because, of course, there never was a boating party. There was virtually nothing true about Discovery Channel’s “Megalodon.” But many viewers were fooled, and subsequently criticized the network for misleading and humiliating the audience.

What do you think? By airing a work of fiction–and presenting it as truth–did Shark Week jump the shark? Have the producers run out of ideas? Have they abandoned Shark Week’s reputation? Or were Shark Week viewers naive all along for seeking education through commercial television?

“So, You Pastor a Church?”

by Matt McKinnon

I'm no pastor and I don't play one on TV.

I’m no pastor, and I don’t play one on TV.

It’s a question I used to get all the time, mostly from me and my wife’s family members.  Good, God-fearing folks (for the most part) who simply assumed that devoting one’s professional life to the study of religion must mean being a pastor—since “religion” must be synonymous with “church.”  Why else would someone spend upwards of eight years in school (after undergrad?!) studying various religions and even languages few people on earth still use?

And while one of my three degrees in religious studies is from a non-denominational “divinity” school (Yale) and my doctorate from a Roman Catholic university (Marquette), my degrees themselves are academic, preparations for scholarship in the academy and not the pulpit.  But that still hasn’t stopped folks from asking the above question, and has also led to invitations to offer prayer at family gatherings, read scripture at special events, and even give short homilies when the situation arises.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a pastor, or priest, or imam, or rabbi.  Plenty of good folks are in these lines of work, many of whom I have studied alongside of in pursuing my education.  My wife’s cousin, in fact, is a Baptist preacher—a wonderful man who is much more qualified to pray and preach and—God forbid—counsel folks than me.  So the problem is not my disdain for this profession: the problem is that it is not my profession.

But the real issue here is not what I do but rather the underlying problem that most folks have in understanding exactly what “religious studies” does—and how it is different from “theology” and the practice of religion.

This was never as clear as in the recent Fox News interview of religious studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book on Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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Lauren Green

Lauren Green

Never mind that Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green gives a horrible interview, spending much more time on what critics have to say about Aslan’s book than on the book itself.  For while this may be bad, even worse is that it becomes painfully clear that she probably has not read the book—and may have not even perused even the first two pages.  But what is most troubling here is that the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network is working with the same misunderstandings and ignorance of what exactly religious studies is and what religious studies scholars do as regular folks who are not RELIGION CORRESPONDENTS.

Zealot

Aslan’s Zealot

Her assumption is that the story here, the big scoop, the underlying issue with Aslan’s book about Jesus is that…the author is a Muslim.  And not just a Muslim, but one who used to be a Christian.  Despite Aslan’s continued attempts to point out that he has a PhD in religious studies, has been studying religions for over twenty years, and has written many books dealing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, Ms. Green cannot get past what she—and many of his critics—see as the real issue: he is a Muslim writing a “controversial” book about Jesus—the “founder” of Christianity as she calls him.

Now I put “controversial” in quotations because, as anyone even remotely aware of scholarship on Christianity knows, the most “controversial” of his claims are nothing new: scholars since the 19th century have been coming to many of the same conclusions that Aslan has come to.  And I put “founder” in quotations as well, since these same folks even tangentially aware of New Testament scholarship know that Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, and never “founded” a new religion.

Dr. Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan

Not being aware of any of this is not really the problem, but rather a symptom of the bigger issue: Ms. Green, like many folks, simply does not understand what the discipline of religious studies is, or what religious studies scholars do.  So why would she be aware of information that is common knowledge for any undergrad who has sat through a survey course on the introduction to religion at a mainstream college or university?

Except that, uh, she is the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network, and would thus benefit from knowing not just about the practice of religion, but about the way it is studied as well.

Now, my own mother has been guilty of this (though she’s no RELIGION CORRESPONDENT), one time explaining to me why she would rather have a class on Buddhism, for example, taught by a practicing Buddhist, or on Islam by a practicing Muslim.  And here we have the crux of the problem: for the role of a scholar is not simply to explain what folks believe or what a religion teaches, though that is part of it.  The role of a scholar is also to research and discover if what a religion says about something has any historical veracity or is problematic or even inconsistent.  Our role is to apply critical analysis to our subjects, the same way a scholar of English Literature or Russian History or Quantum Physics would.

Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, have argued that there are two competing and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, that the book of Isaiah was composed by at least three authors, that the genealogical narratives in Matthew and Luke disagree, and that Paul only actually composed about half of the letters in the New Testament that bear his name.  And you will find all of these ideas routinely taught in secular state schools like UNCG as well as mainstream seminaries like Princeton and Wake Forest.

It just doesn’t matter what one’s religion is, or even if they have one.  Some of the best and most reliable books on New Testament subjects have been written by Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Women, and yes, even Muslims.  One’s personal religion simply has no place in scholarship, anymore than being a Christian or Jew or Muslim would affect the way that a biologist studies cells or an astronomer studies space.

Scholarly Books about Jesus

Scholarly Books about Jesus

One’s religion, or lack thereof, may point someone in certain directions and may inform what interests him or her—and may even make what they do a vocation or calling.  It may inform their training and influence their methodologies.  Or it may not.  But it doesn’t make them qualified to study one religion or prevent them from studying another.  One’s training—including those degrees that Dr. Aslan pointed out—is what does that.

As my first religion professor Henry Levinson (a Festive-Naturalist Jew who didn’t hold the traditional concept of God adhered to by his religion) often put it: “It doesn’t take one to know one; it takes one to be one.”

Dr. Henry Levinson

Dr. Henry Levinson

Religious studies scholars are trying to “know” religions and religious people, not “be” them, for that is something tangential at best to our roles as scholars.

So this should be the official motto of all religious studies scholarship, where what one’s religion “is” has no bearing on the quality of the scholarship they do.

Anything less is not scholarship.

It’s simply propaganda.