Friday, May 4, 2012

A Respite from Selfless Altruism

Himself is back in the classroom and Spuds has rehearsals so I've had a bit of unsupervised time to bottom feed. My nadir perhaps is Toddlers and Tiaras. I have actually trained myself to look away from car accidents and I even reach over and cover the eyes of my passenger at the slightest possibility of mangled steel. Yet, I am almost giddy when no one is home and I can sit with a bowl of popcorn and watch this camp fulfillment of The Drama of the Gifted Child. Alice Miller's seminal study is not about brainy kids or prodigies. It examines parental expectations and the adult consequences borne by children who were raised to act out their parent's dreams. Toddlers and Tiaras really takes this to the max as even infants are gussied up and sexualized. The pageant circuit requires an enormous outlay of cash although pageant prizes are meager excepting great big crowns and trophies. Kids are professionally coiffed, made up, spray tanned, coached and many parents report being financially bust after spending thousands of dollars for a single costume or an elaborate prop. It's way over the top but also eerily anachronistic and maybe I wouldn't want to step into the time machine to check out the future and how these girls fare as adults.

Actually, I can watch RuPaul's Drag Race out of the closet and Himself even confesses that he finds some of the contestants sexy. It's another glitzy beauty pageant show but has a much more affirming subliminal message than Toddlers and Tiaras. The show is funny and raunchy but also fascinating. A successful drag queen has to spend a lot of time deconstructing things feminine and these perceptions, from the outside looking in, can be riveting and somewhat unnerving. The show captures the fine nuance required of great drag and gives talented performers exposure beyond the fringe. There is of course requisite kitsch and bawdiness, for example, the competitors are judged based on Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. Anagram anyone? Nevertheless, the message of self acceptance rings through all the silliness and it is gratifying to see a group that's historically been so marginalized hit the mainstream with such a splendid sashay.

The casts of Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom are often kindred spirits to the Toddlers and Tiaras crowd. The shows are completely formulaic and obviously more than a little staged but they certainly improve the karma of Jersey Shore broadcaster MTV. The point that teenagers are ill-equipped to raise children is hammered home heavily. The participants are apparently well remunerated, so while we see them wrangling with a newborn in a squalid setting, both Mom and Dad generally drive nice cars. The little white lies of the show don't bother me because it is propaganda at its most brilliant and is crafted to paint a pretty accurate picture of the fate of teen parents.

MTV makes another stab at social responsibility with the wonderful Savage U. Dan Savage has written the syndicated column “Savage Love” for years and frequently appears on This American Life and Real Time with Bill Maher. For the MTV show, Savage visits college campuses and answers student's questions about sex. Savage is so easy going and matter of fact that Himself notes that the show, while very fun, is almost bland. I love the comfortableness that Savage models with regard to sex as well as his emphasis on respect and responsibility in addition to gratification and pleasure.

Weirdly, Savage is at odds this week with another of my heroes, writer Jay Michaelson. In addition to being an elegant writer, Jay holds a JD from Yale Law School, an MA in Religious Studies from Hebrew University, an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence, and a BA Magna Cum Laude from Columbia, and he's currently completing a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought at Hebrew University. His mom must way out kvell all the other ladies at the beauty shop. Savage and Michaelson are both gay but each consistently deliver, eloquently, messages rich in universal appeal.

At a high-school journalism convention two weeks ago, Savage said, “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people … the same way we learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery...” When a few presumably religious kids walked out, Savage called them “pansy-assed.” Savage, the mastermind of the wonderful “It Get's Better” anti-bullying campaign, does so much good it saddens me to think that this might undermine it.

Jay Michaelson points out that Savage suggests that the only alternative for homosexuals of faith is to separate themselves from religious communities. Savage apparently does not see the irony of encouraging further marginalization nor does he seem to be up on his bible studies. I note that Savage professes atheism but declares himself “cultural Catholic.” He attended, in Chicago, one of the last high school seminaries. I don't know the details but perhaps the environment fomented in Savage some negative feelings about religion. I will add too that unlike most Protestant and Jewish religious training, Catholic education is much more focused on the doctrinal than on the scriptural.

Michaelson clarifies, “We do not need to “ignore” what the Bible says about gay people, because the Bible says nothing about gay people at all. “Gay” is our construction of sexuality, not the Bible’s. What the Bible does discuss, in six verses out of 31,005 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, is a set of specific sexual acts, in the context of drawing boundaries between the faithful and the Canaanites, "pagans," and so on. With no more textual acrobatics than we apply to basic moral norms like “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—which despite its seeming clarity is universally understood as not applying in cases of capital punishment, war, or self-defense—these extremely limited verses can be understood literally, narrowly, and with virtually no application to loving, same-sex relationships.”

I presume that Dan Savage's personal experiences have colored his opinion about faith and the bible but I hope it dawns on him that quest for inclusion should not pertain only to institutions that he can relate to. Still, I've saved every episode of Savage U on the VCR and told the kids it's mandatory viewing. When I'm out of the room.

Spuds reports that the third episode of the HBO series GIRLS is hilarious but just like Savage U, we don't watch it together. The series has been panned for portraying 20 something girls engaging in sex that is joyless and demeaning. Based on my own recollections it is however so dead-on that it gives me heebie jeebies. It also makes me sad, as having been raised to believe that sex was essentially a commodity to be exchanged for material stuff and feelings of self worth, I thought maybe things would better for our daughters. Even though modern girls usually aren't out for a meal ticket, self acceptance seems far too equated with sexual desirability. The anchorless Hannah, the character 25 year old series creator and writer Lena Dunham plays herself, returns again and again for ungratifying sex.

Lena Dunham is astoundingly talented. I hesitate to use a term that's way over bandied but the girl's a genius. While when I was in my twenties I would have insisted on being called a “woman” and not a “girl” I was also at sea and searching for mooring in all the wrong places. The character of Hannah is, as confessed by the creator herself quite autobiographical but Dunham is absolutely ruthless and unsparing. And extraordinarily human, loathsome and then loveable in the blink of an eye.

Spuds won't have rehearsal next week so he'll probably watch GIRLS downstairs while I watch it in the living room. Maybe he'll get through all those Savage U's I've been saving for him too. I am optimistic about the increase in openness there's been since my own coming of age. I hope my kids don't have the same hang ups and misconceptions about sex that I did. I hope they are able to discuss sexual issues freely and without self consciousness. Just not with me.


FionnchĂș said...

Quite an array of topics, all paraded on the big-screen, or for some, the smartphone app or laptop website. I recall how the radio in early-70s days would bleep the edgy singer-songwriters' damns and such, and how I would as a devout altar boy do the same for a while, putting my fingers in my ears if not fast enough to shut out the harmful words transmitted, at least on 93-KHJ. I suppose some of the FM stations were more free-form.

I think Savage and Michaelson might agree not on parsing Torah (Dan's way out of his league as a lapsed Catholic and even a Jesuit might quail to take on Jay in yeshiva-bocher swaying, debating mode), but they seem to join in explicating more tolerance. I liked how Savage counseled a Christian student away from his girlfriend on campus not to make a mistake and lose his virginity to an alcohol-fueled hookup, but to be careful just in case. He doesn't mock those who don't put out, just as he doesn't chide those who do. He encourages each inquirer to be true to one's own needs and one's own morality, even if that's impossible for a rigid, text-based, literalist to comprehend as less than spiritually or morally relativistic.

A term I was called on my own blog after a review where I took a book by a prisoner on its own terms, ignorant of what one commenter often in CAPS derided me for doing, as I did not look up on the Net allegations of said author's infractions. Like I try to do in reviewing, so Jay and Dan do in advising: they take the subject on its own terms, and deal with it grounded in their own critical insight and learned confidence.

I hope those emerging as said sons into whatever millennial or post-Gen-whatever demographic dogs or defines them have a similar balance. You and I grew up so dramatically divergent, and my own coming of age however delayed feels as if from a chronicle of times far longer past than the calendar charts. But, we connect, I trust, in that we try to find for ourselves and our family a similar belief that beliefs that one can build relationships of trust and love can only come from insight, and not from imposition. xxx me

Rosemary said...

Love this Layne! And also John's comments too.

Unknown said...

I saw the Savage and Michaelson exchange as much ado about nothing. They were not talking about the same thing. Savage encourages the resistance to the invocation of biblical authority by ministers, preachers, rabbis, imans, evangelists... and the plumbers, clerks, and investment bankers who follow them. That "authority" confirms that same sex attachments are contrary to God's will... as evidenced by scripture. In my lifetime such invocation of scriptural authority was also pointed to as evidence of the natural inferiority of people of color ("the children of Shem"). That invocation of spiritual authority is "real" to the majority of conservative religious. Conservative religious has predicated ideas of unholy same sex attraction in the public sphere for.... oh, like many centuries? Michaelson presents exegesis that further develops exactly what scripture says. It is a hopeful, though unlikely assumption that such scholarly study can influence the cultural norms that been founded by "scripture." It is the bull shit of "scripture" that Savage attacts; very different from the study of scripture. As a person of faith I have no problem, and welcome, this distinction.