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A Belated Note on the Color Pink, and Related Musings

When I was very young, maybe four years old, my mother owned and operated a fabric store. This was convenient for a number of reasons, but it came in especially handy when I decided that I wanted a rag doll. My mother allowed me to choose whatever fabrics I wanted from the remnants, and there were plenty of choices. An off-white for the face, an orange and yellow stripe for the body, green for the legs, and an alternating medium- and dark-brown herringbone fabric that I cut into strips for the hair. It was a pretty ugly doll, but I loved her.

And there wasn’t a stitch of pink.

Later, after I’d been exposed to more advertising aimed at little girls, I decided that I wanted my room painted pink. Pepto Bismol pink, but a little more garish, if you can imagine. After my father and brother had put in the time and effort of coating my walls like an esophagus and nearly had their vision permanently altered, I pretended to like the result. Later, when I was able to change the paint myself, I painted it a light blue. I still wasn’t happy, but it was a significant improvement.

I remember being enamored of the pink on pink on white on pink rooms for girls that I saw in advertisements, but now I wonder if that “preference” wasn’t just distaste for the boys’ rooms that were being advertised. I don’t think I’ll ever know with any certainty. Regardless, I now look back with regret on the ease with which I allowed advertisements to affect my taste.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the pink phenomenon and the little girl (Riley Maida) whose complaints about the uniformity of pinkness in girls’ toys got so much attention on YouTube and on the news. I’ve also been thinking about Benjamin Radford’s response that girls are supposedly biologically predisposed to like pink because dolls are pink, or some nonsense like that. I’m not going to extrapolate from my experience with my rag doll onto every other girl, because that would be stupid, but if I were to do that, it would at least be an extrapolation from a real experience, whereas Radford’s conjectures are based on… nothing.

After considering my ugly ragdoll and the fondness I still have for her, I realized that it was my involvement in making her that made her special to me. And I felt sorry for my friends who didn’t have a mother or sister or aunt who could make them ragdolls of their own. They didn’t get to exercise their imaginations with the creation and design of their dolls. Even Build-A-Bear doesn’t fully address the problem, as everything still has to fit a standard template.

The inhibition of children’s imaginations isn’t limited to girls. Target had an ad this past Christmas that featured a boy giving growling voice to a destructive monster that turned out to be a stuffed reindeer. Cut to the father, watching with dismay, as his son has to settle for using his imagination. Cut to toy dinosaur, the solution to Dad’s problem. And it was Dad’s problem, because the kid looked like he was having fun.

There’s a reason children like to play in cardboard boxes: They can be anything. You want a fort? Here’s a cardboard box. You want a tank? Here’s a cardboard box. You want a cave? A dollhouse? A car? An airplane? A haunted house? Here’s a cardboard box, and it can be all of those things and more.

The inhibition of imagination doesn’t stop at childhood. Look at menswear in any department store. The color palette is pretty limited, and it takes a daring man to wear anything but the most conservative of colors to an office job.

Or consider romance. Valentine’s Day is next month, and the ads will reflect advertisers’ own limited imaginations. Men should buy the women in their lives jewelry, flowers, and/or chocolate. You might see some ads pushing cars or travel, and there might be ads by small businesses trying to push their wares.

Madison Avenue has been so successful at pushing the Big Three of “romantic” presents for women that when Howard Dean ran for President of the United States, Diane Sawyer took him to task for buying his wife a rhododendron for her birthday. I don’t remember his answer, but I hope it was something along the lines of “You’re not my wife.” Dean is a true romantic: He ignored all the advertisers, he listened to his wife, and then he bought her something that she said she wanted. What could be more romantic?

So, why do advertisers try to condition people, starting in early childhood, to limit their imaginations? If I’m going to speculate on the basis of nothing, I’ll have to say that it’s either because the advertisers themselves lack imagination, or they think that our lack of imagination will make their jobs easier. I could be wrong. If there’s a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.

In the meantime, I’m going to use my imagination.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2012 in gender/sex issues, marketing, media

 

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Imagine No Religion

Last night, Cee Lo Green sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but he changed the words to a single line and incurred the virtual wrath of people who respect the song as it was written. The line he changed was “and no religion too.” Accounts vary on exactly what he changed the lyrics to, but it was something along the lines of “and all religion is true” or “and all religions too.”

I’m biased. I think John Lennon was one of the best songwriters and lyricists in the English language in the 20th Century, and possibly of the history of the English language. You can see growth in his lyrics from the early Beatle days when he played with the multiple meanings of words (“Please Please Me”) in simple—or sometimes not so simple—love songs, to the later Beatle era, when drugs and war and the FBI keeping tabs on him made life not so sweet. You could see a bit of cynicism creep in (“Sexy Sadie”) as well as political activism (“Revolution”). After the Beatles broke up, his lyrics for the most part became more thoughtful and as a result, more powerful.

He wrote “Imagine” early in his solo career. In my opinion, this is about as close to perfect as a pop or rock song can get. Its message of simple peace (or peaceful simplicity?) is set to a simple, clean melody with a simple, sparse arrangement. The lyrics don’t challenge the listener’s vocabulary, but as with the melody and arrangement, that’s where its power lies. Using simple words, he challenges beliefs, and more importantly, acceptance of the status quo. If we can imagine a different world, we can build a different world.

Lennon’s lyrics display an elegant sensibility of positive and negative. There’s also a parallel construction to the lyrics that cannot be accidental. The only significant variation in the structure of the verses occurs in the third and final verse, when instead of imagining the absence of heaven in the sky or of religion, he imagines a “brotherhood of man.” It’s difficult to imagine that Lennon’s choice of words was anything but careful and deliberate.

Which brings us back to Cee Lo Green.

If Lennon’s lyrics had no connection from line to line, that would be one thing, but if one considers the words just prior to altered line, “nothing to kill or die for,” or even the entire second verse, Green’s change renders the song nonsensical. People kill and die for their countries, and they kill and die for religion. As far as I know, no one has killed or died for Scientology, but a) I could be wrong and b) there’s still time.

Green has attempted to explain the change as expressing support for everyone being able to think or believe what they want. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that religion does not allow its adherents to think whatever they want; religion tries to convert people of other religions, so it isn’t conducive to the freedom of thought that Green says he wanted to convey. I don’t know if Lennon made a distinction between religion and faith, but it seems clear that Green does not. Also, if his altered line was “all religion’s true,” then he’s specifically discouraging non-belief.

The second problem with Green’s explanation is that it reads false. The only reasons to change a line by one of the world’s most (deservedly) respected lyricists is if you don’t believe what the line conveys or if the line offends you. Green obviously does not believe the line, and I think it’s more likely than not that he is also offended by it. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. And it’s my prerogative to be offended by the unintentional irony he injected into one of my favorite songs.

John Lennon invited us on a journey of imagination, and Cee Lo Green was willing to go on this journey, but not all the way. He’s willing to imagine no heaven, no hell, no countries, no possessions (as he wears a fur coat and what appears to be a half ton of gold), no need for greed or hunger, nothing to kill or die for—but religion? No, Green won’t even imagine no religion. So, how can he imagine nothing to kill or die for? How can he imagine no heaven or hell? And if he imagines that all religion’s true, then how can he imagine no countries?

Green says he meant no disrespect by changing the lyrics. I think he probably thought the largely religious American public would appreciate his pro-religion lyric and the denouncing of his lyric change surprised him. Not that he cares about my opinion, but any respect I had for him, even as an influence on other musicians, has taken a nose-dive, not only for the thoughtlessness of his lyrical alteration, but for the poor reason he gave as an excuse for it.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Leonard Bernstein changed the lyrics of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony from “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) to “An die Freiheit” (Ode to Freedom). It was controversial at the time, but he had a good reason for it, and never suggested that there was any problem with the original lyrics. I mention this because Beethoven’s 9th is my favorite Symphony. I’m not completely adverse to changing the lyrics to my favorite music, but I do have to understand the reason and believe that there’s nothing else to it. Bernstein gave a reason I understood, and I believe there was never anything else to it.

I don’t understand Green’s stated reason, and I’m unconvinced that there isn’t more to it.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in atheism, media, music

 

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You choose from what you’ve got

There’s been a political kerfuffle about the photograph of Michele Bachmann on the cover of Newsweek. Perhaps you’ve heard. There have been complaints of sexism because the photograph seems unflattering. It’s the eyes. And the hed on the cover: “Queen of Rage.”

The Daily beast has a collection of the photographs from the article. I don’t think they were all used (I could be wrong about that), but they show she has a habit of holding her eyelids a little too high. Many of the images look candid and not posed. If the cover is from a candid shot, it may have been the only cover-worthy image of her from those photographs.

The posed photographs do not look much better. In fact, some of them, while possibly more flattering, are more frightening. The photograph with her hands pressed together like she’s about to pray tells me she isn’t interested in representing me or other atheists/unbelievers, even though that is part of the description of the job she supposedly wants. I get that her faith is important to her; my right to my beliefs is important to me. I respect her right to her beliefs, but I doubt that she would return the favor. To me, that’s more frightening than any silly photograph.

I wish I could attribute the photo selection to sexism. I sometimes enjoy arguing about sexism. I just don’t think it applies in this case, at least not to Newsweek. I have seen some sexist comments about Bachmann in internet comments (no, I’m not going to link to them), but those people would have made sexist comments about her regardless of how the photograph looked. And given how she looks in the other photographs, I have to conclude that that’s just how she looks. Newsweek can’t be sexist for showing her the way she looks.

I also don’t buy the argument (if one can call it that) that the same kind of photograph would not have been used if it were a man. I seem to recall some magazine photos of George W. Bush that looked like they played up the blankness in his eyes. I also remember quite a lot of fun was had at the expense of Michael Dukakis, Howard Dean and John Kerry when they ran for President, so it isn’t even all partisan.

After re-reading the text accompanying the photographs, one question I have about this piece is, why the hell aren’t Lutherans pissed off about her? Read the text accompanying photo 4 (the prayer shot):

Raised a Lutheran, Bachmann says she converted to a “living faith” at the age of 16 after attending a prayer meeting with a friend. “All I can say is that, you know, the Holy Spirit knocked on my heart’s door,” Bachmann recalls. “I literally got on my knees with some of my friends and then confessed my sins… I gave my heart to Jesus Christ.”

Is she implying there that Lutheranism is not a “living faith”? If it isn’t, what the hell is it? Is she implying that any faith other than hers is not a “living faith”? What’s the difference between a “living faith” and whatever she thinks her lost Lutheranism is?

My First Amendment Threat Alarms go off when I see or read anything about Michele Bachmann, and that has absolutely fuck-all to do with her eyes.

 
 

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