Friday, June 22, 2007

Culture? What Culture?

SF Chron Yoostabee columnist Cinnamon Stillwell finds some culturally troubling symptoms in a rather unusual spot.

Those who mistakenly thought television shows geared toward families, such as "American Idol" and its dance version "So You Think You Can Dance," were a safe bet, might want to think again. Last week's "So You Think You Can Dance" featured first-year winner Benji Schwimmer doing his signature ballroom dance-meets-pop culture number accompanied by the 1950s hit "Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano."

Benji was his usual charming self all the way through -- until the end, that is, when he decided to whip his pants off and treat the audience to a view of his red-white-and-blue Speedos. Coming on the heels of his sweet, goofy dance number, it just seemed shockingly out of place, not to mention in bad taste.

Apparently inspired by Benji, Dominic, one of the male contestants, decided to tear his shirt off at the end of his number. Between those two and Faina, the Russian girl doing the striptease-inspired routine in skimpy lingerie, there was more flashing going on than at a peep show. Those watching the show with their kids were likely none too thrilled at all the unexpected raciness.

She's got a point, I guess -- who wants their kids seeing some idiot prancing around in a banana hammock, much less one apparently patterned after the American flag? But it occurs to me that there are other, perhaps more subversive modes of cultural pollution going on here.

I haven't (and won't) see the actual shows, but judging from the incessant commercials for these sorts of shows, part of the entertainment value is derived from watching people make fools of themselves, and then watching other people lard heaps of smackdown on them, for being too fat, too hairy, too clumsy, poorly attired, whatever. I don't really care, but I would think that the moral guardians of the teevee screen might not be wanting to inculcate their impressionable chilluns with such values. It just seems at odds with the virtuous mission so many of them proclaim.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the cultural value limned from the existence of the show itself. Who the hell watches complete strangers audition for a dance competition? I mean, really. I'm not even giving my child the option of considering something like that to be a valid way of spending her time. Not that she needs to be playing Mozart concertos on the violin and speaking multiple languages by the time she's ten or whatever, but you either recognize the artifacts of a debauched culture for what they are, or you swim in the shit and then wonder why everything stinks. You can't take part in these retarded prime-time national rituals, and then wonder why everything seems to be getting stupider. It is all part of the cultural ecosystem.

Television ads have been providing particularly sordid fare. A new commercial for Eclipse Fusion Gum starts out with a young, attractive woman putting a piece of gum in her mouth. Apparently driven mad with lust by the sensual qualities of spearmint, the woman proceeds to lock lips with the nearest male in the vicinity. She then turns to the comely young woman sitting next to him, their eyes meet and the two exchange lascivious smiles. The commercial ends there, thankfully, but the hint at porno-style "girl-on-girl" action remains.

Yes, and? She's saying it like it's a bad thing. Come on. I'm getting wood just reading that.

Seriously, I agree with her that sexualization of young teens and tweens and such is a disturbing trend. It requires awareness of the situation, and the ability to tell your kid "no" and mean it, and steer them in another direction, one without slut clothes with "Juicy" rhinestoned across the ass in some marketed spasm of post-ironic stupidity. Don't buy those clothes; don't watch those shows.

And I agree that there have to be more enlightening subjects to make documentaries about than horse-fucking weirdos who add nothing of value to any coherent debate. But Zoo, however vile and repellent its subject, will never be anything more than a little-viewed cult doc, really. What Stillwell really ought to wonder about is more mainstream fare. Why are torture-porn extravaganzas like Hostel and its sequel making money in every theater? And let's not blame the decadence of big bad Hollyweird here, either -- they are simply giving people what they want.

And that's where I ultimately part company with the culture vultures, no matter how well-meaning. It's the same syndrome as one finds in politics, or drugs, or whatever one's vice is -- instead of concentrating their fury on the producers (who are, after all, capitalists) of "undesirable" commodities, they would serve their cultural mission much more constructively by trying to get to the nut of the demand. What makes someone want to pay money to watch a man sever another man's achilles tendons with a bolt-cutter (or, for that matter, watch Deal Or No Deal)? Popular culture, just like politics, seems to thrive on violence and/or abject stupidity.

The culture is hopelessly debased because people are content to self-medicate instead of reflect. And whether their choice of soma is mainlined snuff films, senseless consumption of status toys, watching rednecks drive in circles all afternoon, alcohol, harder drugs, or any of the legal drugs helpfully (and expensively) provided by Big Pharma to Enhance Your Life, the disease is the same. Banana hammocks on cheesy dance shows is just another symptom.


Culture of TrÜth said...

Hey that's pretty good.

I think it's not just about finding an appropriate amount of exposure to cra, and level of violences, porn, etc. but also putting it into context. I read once that Japan is "drowning in a culture of cute," with even businessmen buying little stuffed animals and whatnot.

Whether or not that's right, but if it is, it's almost as it they are channeling the need to self-medicate into something relatively harmless, and also employing a certain ironic self-distancing from the whole thing.

Heywood J. said...

I agree, I think context is (or at least should be) important. But it seems that the torrent of mainline torture-porn films over the past few years are essentially decontextualized. Many of them became well-known solely for their willingness to push the envelope, with what could generously be described as a bare-bones approach to narrative and character development.

And obviously, there are rather (let's say) vivid narratives of sex and violence in Japanese anime and hentai and all that. It's strange that it would be juxtaposed with, as you say, businessmen buying Hello Kitty gear or some such.

But that may be the heart of it, whatever the specific culture -- the drive to utilize artistic and cultural metaphors to compartmentalize the distilled versions of these impressions and emotions. It's market-driven, but no one seems willing or able to really dig into the cultural implications of the very existence of such markets.