by Michael Londrigan, Dean of Academic Affairs
This July I have had the distinct pleasure of representing LIM College as a visiting professor at the American University of Rome (AUR). My Global Fashion Marketing class has 10 students. They are from various parts of the globe, which gives the class a real global feeling. The students hail from countries ranging from Panama to Bangladesh, along with a contingent from several states in the U.S., including one of our very own LIM College students.
Rome has been fantastic, but it has taken a few days to get used to the bus and tram systems. Our AUR-assigned apartment (aka student housing) is about a 20-minute bus ride from campus. The directions we received were just to walk out of the apartment and get on the 44 bus. Well, they neglected to say you’ll walk about 7 blocks, making various turns, before coming to the bus stop. But we (my wife and I) are not complaining, as it is the adventure of it all that makes it worthwhile.
AUR has a lovely little campus overlooking the city with simple classrooms well-equipped with all the necessary technology. Our apartment, like most in Italy, does not have air conditioning and you are expected to leave the window guards down to keep out the heat. This seems to be working - with a few fans to supplement the process.
One thing I can say about Rome is that you better be prepared to walk, especially if you want to fully experience what the city has to offer. Food shopping has proved to be a learning experience, as you must weigh and get a price sticker for all your fruits and vegetables (while wearing disposable plastic gloves), something we did not know on our first trip to the market. We held up the line and got some looks from the local patrons! Speaking of food, the restaurants are to die for and we are looking forward to our weekend trips to Naples, Florence and Monterosso.
For about an hour at the airport in Bangkok, it looked as if we might not get to Laos—a country long on my bucket list. Though my wife and I had lived in Asia for many years, Laos had slipped under our radar. I had long desired to visit the five remaining Communist countries, and had been to all of them except Laos. But I confess that my visit to North Korea consisted of a walk around the north side of the giant negotiating table at Panmunjom, which straddles the border between North and South Korea, and is where the 1953 armistice was signed.
But after straightening out a technicality about processing a passport, we were on our way. Our hotel, the Vila Maly, just 15 minutes from the airport, proved a perfect choice. LP is a small, laid-back, informal, low-rise and somewhat sleepy city. The city center is nestled between two rivers—the fabled Mekong and the smaller Nam Kahan, which meet at the north end of town. There is still a significant French influence from colonial days on the food and architecture. Two large quiet streets hug the rivers parallel to Sisavangvong Road, the main commercial avenue. At night, half the street is quickly converted to a vibrant market with hundreds of stalls selling local crafts, textiles and accessories, street foods, tourist items and locally grown coffee, tea and spices.
The most poignant items for sale are jewelry and kitchen implements crafted from the casings of bombs left from the intensive US bombing when Laos was used by the Chinese as a staging area for their assistance to the North in the Vietnamese War. These ordinances still occasionally kill or maim farmers tilling the fields and sometimes children who collect metal bomb fragment scraps to sell. The U.S. dropped some 200 tons of explosives on Laos, and it is estimated that more than thirty percent did not explode but remain dangerous.
After twenty years of civil war and subsequent isolation, Laos has reemerged as a tourist-friendly country. Its strong Buddhist tradition has also reappeared. “Wats” (temples with giant Buddhas) dot the landscape and LP has dozens, many of which have been or are being restored. Some of the more noteworthy include: Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest (1560 AD) and largest of Luang Prabang style temple architecture, featuring a giant seated Buddha; Wat Visoun with its giant gold monkey Buddha; and Wat Visonulat, featuring a watermelon stupa. A 300 step steep climb will take you to the top of Mount Phu Si in the city center, where you will find a golden stupa and great views of the city and its rivers. If you don’t mind rising before 6am, you can view the parade of barefoot saffron-robed monks file down Sisavangvong Road to collect food from kneeling locals and alms from early-rising tourists.
The National Museum is a must. Housed in the former King’s Palace built by the French in 1904, it houses a large collection of royal and religious art and artifacts including statues, furniture, stone tablets, the King’s throne, weapons and a collection of gifts from foreign dignitaries including Presidents Nixon and Kennedy. Highlights for me included the Royal Car exhibit which features a 1957 Edsel, a gift of the US Government (one must wonder just what President Eisenhower must have thought of the Laotians to give them an Edsel) and the gold Royal Barge.
Most tourists visit Laos for hiking, Mekong River cruises, elephant-watching and riding, biking, rafting and touring the native Katu villages. While we went to relax, walk, visit a few of the temples and sample the local fare, I very much wanted to take a day trip up the legendary Mekong. Unlike many Asian rivers, the Mekong in this part of Laos is quite bare of traffic. I doubt if in our five hour trip we saw more than twenty boats. We stopped at Xiang Hai Village, known for its hand-woven textiles, and then to the famous Tam Ting caves, carved into a mountain and filled with more than 4,000 Buddha images of every shape and size left by thankful worshipers over the years. We chose the luncheon cruise on the Nava Mekong, a traditional covered river long-tail boat, preferring it to the dinner cruises which do not stop at the caves. At $25, it was a great bargain.
I particularly enjoyed a “Fish Spa” where you sit and dip into a foot bath containing hundreds of tiny minnow-like fish that feast on your foot callouses. It provides a pleasant tingling sensation and you emerge after 10 minutes with clean feet and the fish having enjoyed a good meal.
After four restful days filled with interesting sights and friendly people, it was sadly time to take leave of Laos and fly back home via an overnight stay in Bangkok. But Laos has not truly dropped from my bucket list. It has simply moved to the “B” List of places I need to visit again.
After bingeing on House of Cards, then the original British series, The House of Cards, I wrote a post in this space six months ago noting that the American version of the show was more sexist, and less concerned with conflicts between social classes, than was the British series. Now that the long wait for the second season is finally over, my thoroughly predictable if not downright obvious comments call out for revision.
For those of you who do not know the series, the core story is of the rise to the Presidency of a corrupt and power-mad politician, Frances Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Underwood engineers drug and sex scandals, uses and then betrays a newspaper reporter, and contrives the failure of legislation simply to manipulate or destroy his rivals. Underwood sees murder as just one among other acts he must commit to further his career, and he prefers to kill with his own hands. As anti-politician as the current cultural climate has become, most ordinary citizens probably still do not imagine that senators and the vice-president have killed anyone at close range. Such elements make House of Cards more melodramatic as well as much more fun than a series like the more realistic The West Wing. House of Cards does not shrink from portraying vicious evil, whereas the characters of The West Wing were flawed, but ultimately on the side of the angels.
Constant text messaging, video surveillance, invasion of privacy, the sins of the media, and competition with China make House of Cards a distinctly modern study of blind ambition and power. But if you were compelled to read Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth or Richard III in high school, House of Cards includes all of the treachery, violence, and adultery of those plays (as well as many plot points and character traits stolen from Shakespeare, as Michael Dobbs, the writer of the best-selling novels on which the show is based happily admits.) The series neatly fuses timeless battles--pragmatists versus idealists--with contemporary challenges and in a Shakespearean way. No one is purely monstrous or purely heroic. What distinguishes the second season is that the female characters truly come into their own.
Robin Wright may be the best thing about House of Cards. She demonstrate all the ferocity of Lady Macbeth, and is also a far more complex and central character than her counterpart in the original British series. I stand by my earlier view that the American show is more sexist and less incisive in social criticism than was the British original. But Wright's performance is something rare in U.S. television, a woman with sexual allure, independent power, and little to no regret. It is almost as if the rewriters of The House of Cards were determined to return us to the strong women characters of 1940s films, the likes of which we seldom see today.
Robert Clark is the Director of The Writing Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Arts and Sciences.
Watching The Oscars is always a chore. Everyone in fashion has to watch the ceremony for the clothes, and those of us who teach have a special obligation to observe the show carefully. The Academy Awards are a gift to class discussions, not only in terms of the dresses, but in terms of the broader issues the event suggests. As strange as it may sound to those who watch The Oscars for fun, the ceremony is a pretty good barometer of what our culture as a whole is feeling.
That understood, I came away from The 86th Academy Awards feeling sort of good. Host Ellen DeGeneres teased the A-List stars, but her banter was playful and good-natured. The acceptance speeches were eloquent and genuine, quite a change from Anne Hathaway’s overly rehearsed and faux-emotional acceptance speech last year. Although the ceremony’s theme (Celebrating Heroes) didn’t come across, the fact that heroes, both real and fictional, were applauded at all was a pleasant and positive departure.
As for the fashion, nobody dressed to shock, with both ladies and gentlemen looking elegant, grown-up, and respectful of the ceremony.
Were there missteps? Well, of course. The producers should have seen that Kim Novak, at 81, wasn’t truly up to the task of presenting. John Travolta’s mispronunciation of singer Idina Menzel’s name was so completely off that one wonders if the wrong name had been written on his autocue. Still, these were minor moments in a ceremony that was good humored, warm, focused on family (heartening to see how many nominees came with their moms!), and succeeded in humanizing the galaxy of stars whom we usually see airbrushed to perfection on the cover of a magazine...and all it took was a slice of pizza.
Amanda Hallay is a full-time professor at LIM College where she teaches courses that explore the relationship – both past and present – with fashion and the world that wears it.
The collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, include more than 45,000 examples of textile and fashion arts. Once Lou and Lisa of the Adrian G. Marcuse Library made me aware of an exhibition there, I just had to go. It was amazing!
Ostensibly my reason for going was to take photographs for my online menswear course, and I was not disappointed.
Hippies are primarily associated with the United States, but versions of what might be described as the hippie phenomenon appeared in the U.K, Europe and as far afield as Australia.
The exhibition itself was broken down into five ‘Hippie Sections,” Trippy, Fantasy, Retro, Ethnic and Craft. Funnily enough, most of the clothing being exhibited came from the U.K. But what represented the U.S was incredible, for example the caftan shown below, by Rudi Gernreich, and the Swanbone suede-fringed jacket made by East West Musical Instruments Company depicted above and below. The garments were infamous for “stash” pockets sewn into the neckbands, which offered a convenient hiding place for illegal substances.
Lauren D. Whitley did an amazing job of curating this exhibition, and my only criticism concerns the choice of background music. What did “Bang a Gong,” by T. Rex, which was a “glam-rock” group, have to do with the 1960s? Where was Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, or Quicksilver Messenger Service? In reply to that question, Lauren emailed me: “I agree about the music. I did not have the final call on that. Apparently the problem was with the rights and licensing of songs. We could only afford to pay one licensing agency, and the other, BMI, would have charged a fortune to the rights to play Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, or the Grateful Dead.” Apart from that, the exhibition was perfection.
Professor Derek W. Cockle M.A.(RCA)
Fashion can be as serious or simply delicious as one pleases. Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes, a new book about how fashion has shaped the law in the U.S., and how laws have shaped fashion, is insightful as well as delightful.
The author, Ruthann Robson, a senior professor at CUNY School of Law, is an expert on the conflicts that have arisen over fashion, civil rights, and sexuality throughout the history of the U.S. Although her book focuses on the present, it makes clear that fashion has always been a battleground where religion, class, and the struggle for equality have been contested.
Apparel and business issues are Robson’s springboard to more basic questions of self expression, political protest, and identity that clothing provokes. She looks into whether strip searches by the authorities—taking away the privacy clothes may provide, as may be the case in New York City’s debatable Stop and Frisk policy—should be legal. But she also explores when and where the law should allow strip teases. What laws are appropriate to apply to religious expression, from the hat that the Quaker William Penn wore to express his religion, to modern day conflicts over the wearing of veils, beards, turbans and other features of appearance that are part of religious devotion?
More and more law schools are developing courses, and even whole programs, that specialize in the legal and social issues that fashion raises. For young aspiring fashion leaders, Robson’s book is a fascinating exploration of a frequent conflict between generations. In a recent interview she mentioned that very often, laws about “public decency,” or expression through clothing, have been about “the old trying to police the young.”
When a hit British show is copied in the U.S., differences between the original and the copy are a window into the contrasting dreams and values of the two nations. The adaptation of the British show The House of Cards for American consumers is especially interesting for anyone who cares about industries that market style, such as fashion, home-design, video and film. In particular, the shows contrast how the British and Americans fantasize about beauty, women and thrilling political crimes.
There are no universal rules about cross-Atlantic adaptation, but it seems that whatever the genre of the show, Americans can expect that the copy will be more personal and less socially-oriented than the original. The British workplace comedy The Office, for example, focused on the stupidity of companies and bureaucracies. The American version highlights obnoxious and quirky individual characters instead. A similar shift took place when the British drama Shameless, a fairly bleak exploration of class-conflict, working-class culture and urban poverty moved to America. The emphasis became family dysfunction, wild personal behavior, and outrageously bad parenting, not the broad social issues of the original. Also, criticism of corporations—in the U.S. the financial sponsors of broadcast shows and producers of cable shows—is softer here than in Britain. The U.S. market prefers individual heroes and villains and intimate stories, and to go easy on companies and social analysis.
That is not to say that Britain does not produce fluff that captivates both countries, or that the British cannot create alluring surfaces. Downton Abbey, the British costume soap-opera, more rebroadcast than reshaped for American consumers, is not just excellent fluff, but illustrates a general trend in how women characters and issues are seen in the U.S. and U.K. The popularity of Downton Abbey in the U.S. seems to stem mostly from the audience’s love of romantic melodrama.
But perhaps even more, American viewers have been entranced by the show’s evening gowns, graciously appointed rooms, and the formality of manners and customs on the estate. Downton Abbey is an excellent rebuke to U.S. reality shows that visit the homes of the rich and famous only to prove that celebrities cannot buy taste, class, cultivation or refinement no matter how much money they spend. Nonetheless, Downton Abbey, for Americans, is about what’s “classy” (a good thing in relaxed American parlance). Yet in the context of the show, class is reduced to elaborate apparel and traditional interior design.
To make visuals so important to the conception of social class in the show, of course, restricts the female characters. The women of Downton Abbey, whether domestics or the daughters of the Earl, all want to break free of fashions in apparel, relationships, and careers. But betrayal of their loyalties, failure and even death are often the result. Partly that is because romance plots tend to be about marrying rich; truly independent women are spoilers. Beyond that, costume dramas on TV rely on the sexism of popular culture. Downton Abbey’s women are literally and figuratively laced up. American audiences apparently view that bondage with nostalgia--a fantasy about an imaginary gracious and orderly British past. British audiences, however, see the fetish for surfaces in Downton Abbey as a prettified vision of a retrograde era, when, disastrously, some people with titles and congenital wealth had actual social and political significance. Viewers of every nation love the gowns and furniture.
The American House of Cards wins, however, in a different realm of surface beauty. Its imagery and visual tone are far more effective than those of the original. That is partly due to the invention of high-resolution lightweight digital cameras made by the Red and Zeuss companies that did not exist in the 1990s when the British show was shot. Also, the new show, as Robin Wright’s dresses testify, has a much more stylish fashion closet than did the original. But most of the credit for the better look of the American show must go to filmmaker David Fincher. He can claim such perverse triumphs as having made the picture-postcard quads of Harvard look scary in The Social Network. Equal credit goes to Sidney Wolinsky, whose editing of House of Cards is much like his editing of The Sopranos, and cinematographer Eigil Bryld, who has also worked with The Sopranos creator and writer David Chase. House of Cards has the look of “neo-Noir,” a reprise of the dark and menacing atmosphere of Hollywood b-movie thrillers of the 1940's.
But let’s return to the crucial question of how the look, and relative value on visual excellence, affects the roles of women on the shows. In each version, an extremely attractive young journalist seeks to use the main male character, a diabolical politician, to advance her own journalistic career. Susannah Harker plays Mattie Storin, a rising reporter—highly educated, extremely bright, and rebellious beyond control in the British original. Her wardrobe is reporter-appropriate and therefore a bit frumpy.
But her mind is primarily focused on her work, which she sees as finding out the truth and writing articles that bring down crooked politicians. In the American remake, Kate Mara plays Zoe Barnes, an amoral, seductive and easily duped young reporter, who, although talented, is more thrill-chaser and fame-seeker than professional journalist. Mattie is a vulnerable grown-up with a tough facade. Zoe is a power-bedazzled child, possibly styled to see if American cable TV is ready for a mild version of the situations so lucrative for the nearly illiterate narrative Shades of Grey.
Are these female characters only mere tools (more in the American show than the original) because they are young and callow? No. The wives of Francis/Frank are both under the illusion that they, like their husbands, are powerful. But only in the British version (details would be a spoiler) does the wife actually have more power than it first seems. In both series, the wives accept that for Francis and Frank, sex is just one of many methods to manipulate people into advancing their evil schemes. Each wife gives permission for the affair with the young reporter and more serious exploitation of a subsequent lover. Wives and husbands do not have it much better in one series than the other. Both marriages recall that of Lord and Lady Macbeth. Viewers only have a choice of nastiness. The British show gives the affair a creepy incestuous element and makes the marriage codepedent. In the American version the affair has a sadistic side, and the marriage becomes a contest of wills and betrayals.
Perhaps it is no surprise that an American TV remake is glossier, more attuned to surface beauty, consigns women to sexier and less powerful roles, and is less concerned with social issues than the British original. But the most significant contrast between the two shows may be in the lead character and what motivates his crimes and megalomania.
The late Scottish actor Ian Richardson (a favorite in Royal Shakespeare Company productions), played Francis Urquhart in the original. He dispatches his political enemies (and lovers) with icy calm. In one of my favorite scenes, he wakes up the British King. Urquhart, as Prime Minister, has forced the king to abdicate the throne. But the king has still not grasped that his role in the world is to be a decorative artifact. The king thinks he can succeed in politics without his title, handlers, and staff. Urquhart says to him, “Haven’t you been listening at all? Do you still not understand? You come from a family with no talents, and you have no constituency.” Although Urquhart is a monster, it is hard not to appreciate his disgust with pretenders.
Urquhart wields such justified insights into the undeserving members of elites because he comes himself from a family of ancient wealth, privilege and prominence. He is also cultivated enough to quote poetry (which none of his political cronies recognize) from time to time and to acknowledge, aloud, that his cruelty has precedent in Machiavelli’s The Prince and Shakespeare’s Richard III. Urquhart’s clubby sense of his own place in the elite is accompanied by general misanthropy. He detests anyone he sees as weak, stupid, or unsophisticated enough to exclude from his own class.
Frank Underwood, Urquhart’s American counterpart, is also his social and class opposite. Underwood was a poor boy from a poor district in South Carolina. His fortunes were launched when he graduated from a military college transparently modeled on The Citadel. There is even a sort of flashback episode in which Frank pines a bit about a gay affair he had with another cadet. (Is the viewer to think that episode has something to do with Frank's coldness and evil? Apparently so.) Whereas Francis Urquhart was enraged by the failure of people to live up the qualities he imagines justify rule by an elite, Frank’s rage is fueled by contempt for fellow poor people who lack his ruthlessness and ambition. The American remake is a dark and dirty Horatio Alger story. It is suppposed to be poignant that social climbing succeeded for an individual but made him a thug. The American story is not much more democratic than the British one concerning social mobility. It simply makes the fruit of social climbing self-hatred instead of self-destructive snobbery.
Both versions of House of Cards are nasty--and great TV. To see more interesting female stars, the American shows The Good Wife or even the comedy Parks and Recreation are better choices. A more genuine take on politics, evil politicians, and policy-making can be found in the trilogy of novels by Michael Dobbs from which the British show derives. Dobbs has had quite a career. He came from a working-class family, graduated from Oxford, financed his years earning a Ph.D. in international affairs at The Fletcher School by working as a reporter and columnist for The Boston Globe, returned to England to serve in high posts in the Thatcher government, held a top job at advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi, wrote the bestsellers on which House of Cards in based, and was made a Baron. The novels are far more realistic than the show, and, as one would expect, careful about the details of contemporary policy and government, weaving in historical events and thinly disguised portraits of actual politicians. Dobbs has an insider's perspective on the horrible Thatcher years, which recently have been made over, at least in film and pop culture, into something like...Downton Abbey.
Beauty in the American remake resides in lighting, camera work, lovely and clueless young women, and tricking and destroying everyone in sight. Women have less power and intelligence than in the British show, but are sexier. Committing political crime in The House of Cards is to kill weaklings, hypocrites, snobs and incompetents, perhaps understandable in itself, while maintaining a tranquility about barbarous acts that was definitive of the ruling class when fuedal titles mattered. In the U.S. remake, political crime is an exagerrated version of all that is necessary and, implicitly, normal, to get ahead. The sexism in each show is native to pop culture overall, but even more striking since these shows explore the power that is denied to all but few women. Are they realistic depictions of misogyny in the service of promoting fairness and equality? Are they more typical pop exploitation of violence against women and sex that rarely fails to bring in a popular audience, standard marketing practices, ad revenue, and excitement?
Whether to prefer the British or American show may depend on one’s taste as well as cultural predispositions. We are in the happy situation of being able to let the more socially aware British series and more personal American one complement one another. Both could explore gender, relationships and social class with better insight, if that mattered to the producers. Each show is wicked fun, and, more convincing in the rawness of its story about power battles than, let's say, another 1990's original, The West Wing.
Suppose you went to see The Bling Ring because the idea of teenagers ripping off designer goodies from celebrities promised the satisfaction of seeing your private fantasies fulfilled in glorious color on the big screen. There were grounds for that hope. Sophia Coppola’s earlier Marie Antoinette featured brilliant costume design by Milena Canonero. Manolo Blahnik and Pompei created spectacular shoes specifically for that film, and the pastry and hair-styling of the movie have also gone down in legend. The cinematographer for The Bling Ring, Harry Savides, normally gives his movies a rich mood and memorable imagery. The visual tone, attire and accessories alone in The Bling Ring might be worth the price of a ticket.
Yet The Bling Ring may not satisfy those who want to see it for the quality of the imagery and apparel. Much more disturbing, however, is that Coppola’s movie has been taken by members of the general public, as well as observers of the media’s influence on American culture, as an accurate portrait of what young American girls are like today. Coppola’s film has been compared often to the much more melodramatic, violent and sexually-oriented film Spring Breakers. The two movies are taken for a trend, and evidence that young American girls have gone completely wild.
Sophia Coppola, in many interviews, has consistently expressed that concern, and said that she wrote and directed The Bling Ring in part to point out the dangers of celebrity culture. She told a reporter at The Daily Beast that “…I just think reality TV has become such a big thing and this idea that anyone can be famous and tabloid culture is growing and growing. Our culture has a big appetite for it. It think it’s fun and pleasurable once in a while, but the fact that it’s so dominant and growing...I think we need to look at where it is going.”
No one can deny that there are troubled, adrift and not-very-talented teens who are unhealthily obsessed with the lowest rung of celebrity life, especially since, as the publicity and title-sequence for The Bling Ring trumpets, the film was based on “actual events.” More accurately, the film was inspired by a Vanity Fair article about a group of teenagers who broke into and robbed the houses of Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Orlando Bloom and other well-publicized persons. The teens then posted pictures of themselves with the goods they stole on Facebook.
Two movies, however, do not make a trend, and pop culture is not a mirror of reality or a representation of how the world has changed. As one of the founders of the field of media analysis, Raymond Williams noted, pop culture often depicts exactly the opposite of what is happening in the world. So, let’s go back to the opening paragraph of this post. The Bling Ring is about wish fulfillment and fantasy, but it never manages realism or accuracy about young people’s dreams or ideas of fulfillment—at least not the deeper aspirations of young women who live some distance from Hollywood.
Instead of the disaffected and drug-addled consumer-culture brainwashed characters in both films, without morals or intelligence, young people today may be more concerned with their spiritual lives than they have been for decades. Researchers at UCLA in 2003 found that among first year students, nearly 80% “believe in God.” As for their respect for moral rules, nearly 70% said that religious beliefs “provide strength, support and guidance.” A follow-up study in 2007 with the same students suggests that their faith and adherence to religious values wanes to an extent, but remains powerful throughout college. About ten percent of American college students describe themselves as “born again.”
The relationship of college students to religion in the films, on the other hand, is comical or nerdy. One of the Disney Princesses of Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez, is on the periphery of a not very appealing circle of evangelical Christians. The film is packed with sleazy as well as orthodox religious imagery of baptism, spiritual renewals sacred and profane at the poolside, and even ritual dance to the music of the “angel” Britney Spears. The overall plot depicts young women empowered by violence, but it is also clear that the young girls wish to return to the well-behaved world of their parents, bound by traditional religious ideals about being good and working hard to save their souls.
In The Bling Ring, the burglaries are really worship-rituals at the pharaonic temples of conspicuous consumption owned by celebrities. The holy of holies is the dozen-tier racks of the imaginary Paris Hilton house shoe-closet, or the supposed reliquary in which Orlando Bloom stores his innumerable Rolex watches. One droll part of The Bling Ring is to see Leslie Mann play a well-meaning but ditzy mother who homeschools her daughters in what she thinks is the profound religion of the motivational clichés of the book The Secret.
Have American teenage girls really gone wild? Perhaps instead, Hollywood has always been bad at depicting any religion but its own media-driven cults of consumerism and celebrity. Yet Hollywood has done a much better job of depicting celebrity culture in the many versions of A Star is Born than in Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring. Even so, films of this year and the recent past, such as The East or Mary Martha May Marlene, or the star-writer-director Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground, have done a good job of exploring the dynamics, demons and moral zeal of religion, and the desire for values, community and justice (The East) as those impulses play out for young people right now.
Secular and persuasive social analysis of the moral, spiritual and cognitive development of college-age students is also easy to find. Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist and expert on education, who has performed large studies of young Americans and their ambitions, is one source. See his Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st Century. Gardner has conducted well-documented discussions and large surveys of high-achieving U.S. youth that do reveal a worrisome preoccupation in young people with fame and getting rich. But his work, unlike that of movies, does not chase fame or money itself. He takes no advantage of young people and pokes no fun at them. Gardner also offers impressive accounts of young people who have values and get things done to combat poverty, reduce environmental threats, nurture corporate responsibility and waste little time on gossip sites.
That Seventies Show is not a documentary about my own generation. (Hollywood film neglected us, fortunately) Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club do not truly illuminate the life of 1980s teenagers. Slacker, Dazed and Confused and other artifacts tell me little more about high school students in the 1990s than would a parody TV show. Instead of wild, could it be that real-world teens have gone conservative?
That bears exploration. The constant contact that college students today have with their parents, the much more strict rules we have today at colleges than in the past in dorms, classrooms, and exam rooms for that matter, and the harmony about morals and spirituality that often holds between parents and teens are much more revealing than films that capitalize on the thrills and dangers of fame, drugs and violence. Those movies are really about an understandable quest for fame on the part of the filmmakers themselves. The movies offer good old unclean fun, and thank goodness for that. We need those fanatasies as escapes, but not for insight.
Although a scientific poll would probably locate several, I have not found a single incoming college student who knows that in the year 2000, when today's first-year students were in primary school, Google formally adopted the sentence “Don’t be evil” as its company motto.
Social media is a great source of jobs, includes socially responsible corporations, and can help to change the world for the better. But let's look, for a minute, at a darker side of the industry so that our choices can be wiser.
Equally unfamiliar to most students are organizations like the Electronic Freedom Frontier, which includes some founders of the world wide web, and had a utopian dream, now grown quaint, of a digital world of free-of-charge information, authority-challenging insights, and the free exchange of ideas, feelings, exciting games, and ordinary people speaking truth to power.
Cash-strapped students do, however, know about Coursera, Iversity, and moocs. They recognize that online courses from traditional schools, free courses from private companies, and face to face courses are in a market competition in which brand and price can often be at least as important as course content and quality.
Nor do students expect Facebook, Google or social media companies to work against their primary reason for existence—to sell search, demographic, consumer preference, affiliation, and personal information to other companies.
Nonetheless, seeing social media companies in bed with anti-science and anti-fact political allies may be somewhat surprising. Google recently hosted a lunch—$2,500 a plate—fundraiser for Senator Jim Inhofe, (Rep.) of Oklahoma. Inhofe believes that the Bible disproves global warming. He also approves of the smear campaign based on the falsehood that President Obama was not born in the U.S.
Contrary to Inhofe, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, has said on record that global climate change is a fact. But Google runs a large data center in Pryor, Oklahoma. Quibbles about science, and the Bible as the bedrock of public policy, are less important than the need for Google to have friends in the Senate.
Do such alliances betray the dreams of liberal-minded young entrepreneurs? It’s worth asking whether many social media entrepreneurs are liberal, even in the sense of the “liberal arts.” Does having nerf-ball, free massages, or dogs in the workplace make one young, anti-authoritarian and free?
Silicon Valley corporations, Facebook the most visible among them, have lead a campaign to lessen U.S. restrictions on the immigration of highly skilled workers to the U.S. Liberal politicians who are supported by labor unions, and conservative politicians who want to protect U.S. workers as their first priority, have both attacked such Silicon Valley efforts to open immigration to more engineers, mathematicians and credentialed talent.
As in the fashion industry, one view is that outsourcing to the cheapest labor possible in poor nations, sweatshop or round-the-clock factory, is essential to compete with rival companies. Moreover low-wage sweatshops and factorues are among the best that a poor country can offer. Yet in the U.S., we eventually, though relatively briefly, paid fair wages, increased worker safety, and most of all, pursued the greater profits that high-skill factory labor provided. Tech industry profits are a huge avalanche. Is out-sourcing and finding the cheapest and unprotected poor-nation labor really necessary? Does tech only really need highly paid engineers and marketing specialists?
Not surprisingly, such news rarely appears in social media itself. One has to look to dinosaurs like The New York Times and Time magazine to learn about the political buying power, and often business-allows-any-evil, strategies of social media companies. The link below is to an excellent piece in Time that is the source for this post.
When is the “right time” to have children? What challenges will children bring to balancing career and life? Will the rewards of being a mother outweigh the sacrifices? If your habit is to give 150 percent to your job, where, realistically, will energy and time for family come from? What does it mean to “have it all”?
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, answered such questions by offering women advice about how to climb the corporate ladder and raise children: exude confidence, get noticed, do not be afraid to negotiate, and make oneself be perceived as being as fully present and motivated as male peers, even when one is planning a family. Sandberg made those points and others in a video-lecture on the TED website, which led to a bestselling book (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead). She then founded an organization for women to promote her ideas. The TED talk has had 2,533,238 views as of June 5th, 2013. Sandberg’s all-available-channels strategy reached a huge audience.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, an expert on international policy and law, has a different perspective. An article she wrote for The Atlantic magazine cited Sandberg, explained where they disagreed, and quickly went viral. Instead of focusing on individuals, Slaughter—a former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department—pointed out that despite lip service to “family values” and the empowerment of women, practical changes to corporate practices were essential if women were truly, and in large numbers, to lead them. She stressed that if more women were leaders, it would be a profitable outcome for companies and talent-enriching one for nations. Her article is entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Garden-variety journalists reported this discussion under the cliché headline “The Mommy Wars,” using what editors call the “conflict formula” to enliven articles. Supposedly at war were: rich women vs. working moms, older vs. younger feminists, professions like law and university teaching vs. social media entrepreneurs, or Conservative vs. Liberal values.
Craftier writers at Salon, The Huffington Post, and Slate attacked the media instead. They pointed out that the media (that is, the rest of the media) were simply churning up a dispute to gain attention. Most articles misrepresented women, work and careers, and oversimplified a complex subject. All true. The clever writers often ended by noting the vile dilemma that whatever choice women made, someone would criticize them for it. But what were mothers, or those who want to be mothers, to do?
Let’s look to common prejudices and business for one answer. I am male and have no children and therefore disqualified from more definite suggestions.
Consider financial rewards and bedrock cultural values. Do Americans ever want to hear that any person is not the lone master of his or her own soul? How popular is the message that someone cannot rise to any height that their hard work and other virtues will take them? Let’s compare the sales of self-help books and serious books about social policy for our answer. But the ideals of radically individualistic success of Ben Franklin, Emerson, Fitzgerald and Hemingway (with severe caveats) and, perhaps especially, Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan who coined the phrase “having it all,” could all be brought into evidence.
Then tally the lucrative rewards for projects with dubious social worth. Self-help books always have one, or even two, helpful hints. But, since Samuel Smiles wrote one of the first ones, (Self Help, 1845) guides to self-improvement rarely contain enough wisdom to truly change the reader. They also seldom provide insight into the larger forces that help to shape the reader’s life. That is why the genre is a goldmine: readers buy one after another self-help book after feeling a brief lift from each.
Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a policy-maker, scholar, professor of law and writer for popular audiences—four strikes against her for those who think those occupations must mean that she is impractical. Sheryl Sandberg, as successful as she has been in business, and as sexy and new as social media may be, wrote a tweaked but predictable self-help guide. Slaughter delivered less appealing news: corporations and academia are still sexist, they undervalue family life, and schedules and work rules and even the notion of success really do have to change. Picking the right life-partner, or a strategic sequence-plan to raise children, does not solve the problems. That remains true no matter how committed to work, how talented they are, or what kind and level of occupation women choose.
Listen to Sandberg as well as Slaughter. There is far more overlap in their arguments than the conflict model of journalism suggests. For young women realistic about succeeding, the more ideas that go beyond the individual, the less they think the choice is only about their own situation and values, the greater the chance that they will actually lead.
Sheryl Sanberg’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html\
Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic