Tag Archives: popular culture

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

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Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

Image

Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

Enrichment Online: The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at UNCG

By Tyler Steelman (BLS Class of 2012)

Facing the completion of my Associates in Arts in English, I was quite undecided on how I would continue my college career after leaving the community college I entered after high school.  Thanks to her wisdom and insight into my interests and character, my college adviser there introduced me to the BLS program at UNCG.

I have always had a deep interest in the fields described as humanities: literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion.  Thus, the BLS program was a great way to formally study subjects I have always loved.  The online learning environment was also a major factor in my choosing the BLS program.  Having completed my associate’s degree online, I had grown comfortable with the freedom and flexibility of online courses, so I knew I would be successful in the BLS program.  Furthermore, UNCG’s low tuition rates make it quite an affordable way to further your education.

While my focus in the program was on literature, to my delight I have been able to delve into the other branches of the humanities as well.  One of my favorite courses during my time in the program was Magic, Media, and Popular Imagination with Dr. Emily Edwards.  In this course we examined the effect the supernatural has had on popular media.  We watched several films with supernatural themes which we discussed in discussion forums.  For the final project we created a visual narrative blog, where we used photographs and narration to create a documentary or creative piece.  It was interesting to learn how profound an influence the occult has had on popular media, and the visual narrative project was an enjoyable experience.  To view my visual narrative project, click here.

In my time in the BLS program, I have been fortunate to also take three courses with Dr. Carrie Levesque.  In American Motherhood, I studied how the role of motherhood is perceived by our society and the different ethnicities and sub-cultures that it contains.  For that course I created a blog examining how motherhood is represented in popular media.  I also took Religious Resistance to Political Power, where I examined how various religions responded to oppressive measures by governments.  In Women, War, and Terror, we read three memoirs written by women during times of war, violence, and social upheaval.  Dr. Levesque is a very insightful instructor who provides a warm and informal atmosphere to discuss these often challenging and distressing issues.

Finally, I have also been able to explore the world of drama and theater with Professor Marc Williams.  In Big Plays, Big Ideas, I read numerous plays, analyzing how they portrayed various issues pertaining to society and the human condition.  In Eye Appeal, I learned how spectacle (costuming, lighting, set design, music, etc.) adds to or affects dramatic productions.  I wrote a review of a theatrical performance I attended, detailing how spectacle was utilized.  Professor Williams offers wonderful critiques on assignments that not only advise you on how to be a better student in that course, but also on how to be a better writer.

I am not the typical BLS student, as the program is geared to working adults and I am a full-time student who just graduated high school four years ago.  Thus, I do not have as much life experience as most students in the program.  However, the BLS program has in a sense opened up the world for me.  I have learned more about the various cultures, beliefs, conflicts, and arts that characterize humanity in the two years I have been in the BLS program than I believe most people my age or perhaps any age have.  I am confident that the insights about the human condition I have acquired in the BLS program will be invaluable in whatever direction life takes me.  I will be graduating with honors in May, and I am hoping to continue my liberal arts education at UNCG next fall with the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  If you want a quality liberal arts education that not only gives you freedom and flexibility but also enriches the way you see humanity and the world, I highly recommend looking into the BLS program at UNCG.

Just Squeeze

By Matt McKinnon

I have a secret:

I love the accordion.

It gets worse:

I play the accordion.

Years ago, this would not have been an issue.  There would have been no need for secrecy.  The accordion was one of the most popular instruments for kids all over the country to learn.  From the end of World War Two until the late fifties and early sixties, the accordion was king.

And then came Elvis Presley, Rock and Roll, and the electric guitar, which moved from being a percussion instrument playing rhythm accompaniment to the lead guitar of contemporary pop music.  (And the reason that “Guitar Hero” is a billion-dollar franchise and “Accordion Hero” a practical joke gone viral.)

It turns out, once your typical American kid got one look at the now iconic Elvis with his guitar, accordion sales plummeted, as did the instrument’s standing in popular music culture.

But the accordion didn’t just lose its popularity.  That would have been fine.  I rather enjoy having interests and hobbies that are not popular.  But the accordion is not just “not popular,” or even unpopular: it has taken on the persona of nerdiness, the epitome of square and boring, old fashioned, and lame.
It has spawned a minor industry of jokes:

What’s a gentleman?  Somebody who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.

What’s the range of an accordion?  Twenty yards if you’ve got a good arm!

What’s the difference between an accordion player and a terrorist?  Terrorists have sympathizers.

What’s the difference between an onion and an accordion?   No one cries when you chop up an accordion.

What’s the difference between an accordion and a concertina?  The accordion takes longer to burn.

What do you call ten accordions at the bottom of the ocean?  A good start.

What’s the difference between a chainsaw and an accordion?  A chainsaw can be tuned.

What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead accordion player in the road?  There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

You get the picture.

Or maybe you don’t.  So here’s a couple of pictures of “famous” accordion players from popular culture to help.

Not exactly an instrument that exudes “cool.”  Or anything other than disdain.

Or is it?

It turns out, the accordion is one of the most popular instruments in the world, and is well represented in musical styles as diverse as classical, traditional or folk, and even pop and rock.  Predominantly used in the traditional music of everyday people, the accordion is central not only to the polka-dominated styles of Central and Eastern Europe, French Bal-musette, various Italian folk styles, and traditional English (Morris), Scottish, and Irish music, but also to the  Klezmer sound of Ashkanazi Jews, French-derived Quebecois music, the Cajun music and blues-derived Zydeco of Louisiana and the Gulf coast, the conjunto sound of the Tejaň̃o and Norteno music of south and west Texas and northern Mexico, the Forró music of Brazil, Cumbia and Vallenato from Columbia, the Cueca of Chile, the Argentinean tango, the Merengue of the Dominican Republic, and even the Trot music of South Korea.

In fact, the country that not only produces the most accordions but also has the largest number of accordion players in the world is China.  Yes, China.

So I’ll see your Steve Urkel and raise you a Clifton Chenier.  You be the judge of if he’s cool or not.

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

That’s Entertainment!?

By Ann Millett-Gallant

I will admit, I like to watch TV. I study and teach about mass media representations, for example in my BLS course, Representing Women, so it is partially a professional interest, but also, I enjoy the entertainment. I have been watching all the new shows this Fall and can say I like “Two Broke Girls” and “Pan Am” the best so far. I have also appreciated the new episodes of “The Closer” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” I am a little confused by “Once Upon a Time.” It is a fairy tale show, but somehow, the plot seems more fitting to a movie.

But perhaps this is the direction television is taking – towards fantasy, or overly dramatic crime dramas. Shows based on mid 20th century are also popular, such as “Pan Am” or “Mad Men.” Basically, viewers desire to be transported to another time or place. Or perhaps fictional television is trying to distinguish itself from “Reality” TV. This morning, I was disgusted to hear about Kim Kardashian’s upcoming divorce, after a huge, media spectacle wedding and 72 days of marriage. I was not surprised and would not have taken such offense, except the story was profiled on NBC’s “Today Show” as important national news. They then featured a panel of legal “experts” to analyze whether it was legitimate or rather a huge media ploy. One of these “experts” was Star Jones, who after her scandalous exit from “The View,” dramatic weight loss, and own short marriage, redeemed her media status by appearing on “The Apprentice.” But I am getting off topic. Apparently, the Kardashian wedding cost $10 million and the couple has accrued up to $20 million since for appearances and publicity projects. And THIS is “reality” TV? The obvious irony is that all the “reality” TV on today is the farthest thing from the reality of the viewers. We are in an economic depression and unemployment is higher than it’s ever been. Reality TV seems less realistic and much more voyeuristic. Viewers watch so they can ridicule the “cast” of “Jersey Shore” (I use the term “cast” cautiously) or revel in the gluttony and triviality of the wealthy Kardashians, Hiltons, or the bevy of Playboy bunnies. On the other hand, many “reality” shows are about competitions, specifically ones in which the struggling artist has a chance at stardom (“The X Factor,” “American Idol,” and even “Project Runway”).

Other competition shows, like the aforementioned “Apprentice” and “Dancing with the Stars” seem like platforms for so-called “stars” to rehabilitate their reputations. It should then seem no coincidence that Dancing with the “Stars” is actually dancing with the cast offs of other “reality” TV shows. As television fiction, reality, and competition overlap, so does “news” and “entertainment.” Let’s be honest, real “reality” is depressing. The other news stories on “Today” were about the war, political debates, the failing economy, and random horror stories like medical mistakes. Maybe the news is just responding to their target audiences, everyday people who feel powerless and economically, and perhaps personally depressed. Maybe we prefer the “Reality” of TV to our own realities.

Recalculating

By Marc Williams

Anyone in a car with a GPS knows the phrase “recalculating.” Once you program your destination and begin your journey, the GPS expects you to follow the path with unwavering trust. The slightest turn from the designated route—a pit stop, a scenic detour, a bite to eat—will cause the GPS to recalculate the route. If I miss a turn and get frustrated, the Garmin’s voice is steady and confident, never losing sight of the path. It’s oddly comforting to know that someone in the car can keep their cool. Interestingly, on my Garmin system, and on all of the GPS devices I’ve encountered in other cars, the voice that calmly says, “recalculating” is always female. Is that merely a coincidence?

CNN.com’s Brandon Griggs recently wrote about the new iPhone 4S feature, Siri,

and its distinctly female voice. Griggs notes that female voices are far more common in talking devices than male voices, and provides some interesting theories on the various reasons why talking computers tend to be female. For instance, Griggs cites Clifford Nass of Stanford University:

iPhone's Siri

“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

HAL 9000 (From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Another theory suggests that Hollywood uses male computer voices in suspense and thriller movies to create a sound of “menace,” so perhaps we find the idea of female computers to be more less menacing.

Or the historical theory is that WWII aviators relied on females for navigation, since their voices were easily distinguished from the male voices of the other pilots.

In many BLS courses, including my arts courses, gender roles and gender identity are discussed and debated at length. In fact, last week, my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class was discussing gender attitudes on war in our examination of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

So what does the trend of female computers say about gender attitudes on technology today?

Siri in action:

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

– John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

Adults Say the Damnedest Things

By Ann Millett-Gallant

Ann at UNCG

I am scholar who studies and teaches about representations of the body in visual culture.  I am the designer and instructor for 3 BLS courses: Art of Life, Photography: Context and Illusions, and Representing Women.  These classes include examples from fine art, film, television, advertisements, medical images, and so on, and in my own writing, I focus specifically on these representations of the visibly disabled body.  I also consider everyday social interaction as a form of visual culture.  As a woman with very noticeable physical disabilities, I know a lot about the stare.  And often for me, daily life can become a theater for performance.  At the Kroger near my house, I have been stared at, mainly by children; asked how long I have been disabled or what “happened” to me; told various stories about other disabled people; and told I am admired, because if the person speaking were “like” me, they wouldn’t want to leave the house.  Now, it’s always good to be called amazing, but it’s not so great when that term is based on low expectations for what I can and should so.   I always have to consider whether to use the moment as a teaching tool or whether to blow it off and not waste my time.  I like to respond to children, for example, by telling them I was “born this way,” or that I don’t have legs because I don’t need them.  I didn’t know how to respond when the cashier at CVS asked me how long I had been doing things for myself, as if implying the question “how long have you been out of the hospital?”  I wish I had had a better come back, but I just declared, “Since birth!”  Sometimes these moments amuse me, but sometimes they make me angry and sad.  Not so much sad about myself, but sad that disability has such a bad rap.

The other day, after I left the doctor’s office, I scooted across the parking lot to Rose’s discount department store.  I was happy to find 2 pairs of cute, inexpensive sunglasses, since recently it seemed that all my other cheap sunglasses had been breaking.  I thought I should call my husband to come to pick me up, but then I realized I had forgotten my cell phone.  I asked the woman at the checkout line if there was a phone nearby I could use, and I explained my predicament.  She responded that I better get a hold of him soon, because what if I were to get abducted.  I found this to be an odd response, because we were in a public space in a nice neighborhood.  I scowled and said in a joking tone that I wasn’t worried about that, but I just wanted to get home.  She then told me I should worry about that (being abducted), because “they go after all kinds of women.”  I scowled again, in more anger.  Was that supposed to be some sort of twisted compliment, that even though I was disabled, that I was still attractive to abductors?!  And in the first place, the fact that she was talking about me as being abducted meant she was classifying me as helpless, dependent, childlike, or somehow already vulnerable.  I don’t think all that people think before they speak, and certainly don’t realize the assumptions and stereotypes that are communicated through their utterances.  And, I realize their comments have much more to say about their own ignorance and insecurities than mine.

And all these interactions aren’t negative.  In some ways, I feel like a celebrity.  I stand out in a crowd, and I attract attention.  I do exchange many smiles and hellos with people around my usual haunts.  In some restaurants where my husband and I eat often, the wait staff may even remember what I want to order.  Sometimes the comradery is nice, yet at times, I wish I could remain incognito.  I’d love to hear from others who have these experiences.

A Thousand Faces

By Marc Williams

I teach a number of courses involving dramatic literature, including Big Plays, Big Ideas in the BLS program at UNCG.  In most of these classes, I discuss dramatic structure—the way that incidents are arranged into a plot.  Whenever I teach dramatic structure, I always turn to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to serve as an example.  Aristotle believed this play to be tragedy “in its ideal state,” partially because the incidents are arranged in a clear cause-and-effect manner.  One incident logically follows the next and although there are some surprises, none of the events are random, accidental, or tangential.

The story of Oedipus is an ancient myth.  20th century mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote about Oedipus frequently, including in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this book, Campbell outlines the “monomyth,” a dramatic structure that many, if not most, stories seem to adhere in one manner or another.  The monomyth consists of several stages of the hero’s journey: a call to adventure, a refusal of that call, followed by aid from a supernatural entity, crossing a threshold into unfamiliar territory, entering/escaping the belly of the whale, traveling a road of trials, and so on, all the way through the hero’s return.  Oedipus’ journey follows Cambell’s pattern almost perfectly. The pattern applies not only to Ancient Greek myths but to stories from virtually every culture across the globe.

Campbell describes the stages of the hero’s journey at length in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also diagrams the hero’s journey thus:

I was instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell and his diagram today when I came across this:

1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
2.  But they want something
3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
4.  Adapt to it
5.  Get what they wanted
6.  Pay a heavy price for it
7.  Then return to their familiar situation
8.  Having changed

This diagram was developed by Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and according to this article on Wired.com, is apparently the inspiration for every episode of the show:

Dan Harmon

[Harmon] began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process— to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

Harmon calls his circles embryos— they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story— and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

The eight-step Harmon embryo model is simpler than Cambell’s monomyth, which contains seventeen structural units. Harmon’s embryo model, because it is simpler than Campell’s, is probably also more universal.  And indeed, Harmon uses this embryo as a litmus test to determine if an episode of Community is structurally sound. It is, after all, a tried and true formula for great storytelling.  So where else can this structure be seen?

The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars come to mind.   Have you encountered a monomyth on television or in a movie theatre recently?  Or a story that follows Harmon’s embryo model?