Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On the only way to answer the crazazy (and also, Barack Obama causes the rain)

Okay, so conservative reactions at town hall meetings over the past couple of weeks have ranged from misled through disturbed to WTFOGMCNNBBQ?!!!1!!11! (occasionally sprinkled, like bursts of blue sky peeking through storm clouds or the last size-medium cashmere cardigan erroneously crammed among the maternity tops on the clearance rack, with reasonable and sincerely felt concerns). No surprise there. What is surprising, although not nearly surprising enough, is the number of speakers who actually respond to it, who take seriously inflammatory and/or misinformed and/or just plain crazy questions as if they aren't purely someone's opportunity to get on the teevee and spew some crazy.

Well, finally someone delivered the response that such questions should get, and that someone is Barney Frank.

For those of you who are audio-challenged and reading along at work:
Wackaloon: Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy, as Obama has expressly supported this policy? Why are you supporting it?
Frank: When you ask me that question, I am going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question. On what planet do you spend most of your time? ... Do you want me to answer the question? Yes. As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

(Also note the shout of "Hitler didn't start with the Jews" somewhere in the background.)

Let future town hall speakers take that as a lesson: This is the way to deal with those people. Don't waste your time trying to reason with someone who's beyond reason. These people aren't trying to engage you in debate; they don't want their questions answered. They want to stand up and shout, be disruptive, propagate a myth, show off for their fellow wackaloons, maybe get on TV. And when you try to seriously address their questions, you only lend validity to an inflammatory statement that has none--and allow them to monopolize time that could go to someone with a realistic concern.

This is something that has pissed me off about the media for years now. In the interest of "fair and balanced" reporting, they think they're obliged to always give equal time to both sides of the story. Is this a good practice most of the time? Sure. But when one side is presenting a reasoned, reasonable argument and the other is coming from a place of fantasy and nonsense, giving time to that other side is a waste of time and makes something seem valid that clearly is not. If one side is saying, "We're 37th in the world for health care, nearly 47 million Americans are uninsured, and we see universal health care as the best way to address that problem for reasons A and B and C" and the other is saying, for instance, that Obama wants to send government agents into your home to brainwash your children, no. That other side does not deserve equal time. Nor does "Obama wants to kill your grandmother." Or "Obama is another Hitler."

By all means, if someone comes to you with a rational argument, talk with them. Engage in conversation. Give them a platform to make their point. Maybe you'll convince them. Hey, maybe they'll convince you. But when someone comes to you with "Obama is Hitler" or "Obama keeps an enemies list of anyone who logs on to a government Web site, and by the way, he's from Kenya," do not give them a sense of respectability by engaging. The only way to respond to them is the way Barney Frank did--that their baseless, inflammatory comment isn't worth your time or energy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On rebranding (not the kind that involves actual fire, although sometimes it feels like it does)

Okay, so I am, of course, just a little bit of an advertising nut, and branding fascinates me. That's why I loved this link from @BirminghamWorks, where Fortune magazine looks back over a dozen old branding efforts and their updated looks. It follows Apple from its Isaac Newton logo through the rainbow-striped disco fruit to the current, sleek chrome apple and Starbucks from its naked siren to its more stylized, less-naked siren.

The piece also looks at questionable brand renovations. The new Kraft logo, note the writers, is kind of nebulous and devoid of real meaning and also resembles the Yoplait logo, which is a General Mills product. The new "smiley" Pepsi swoosh could be a loser, and the Tropicana glass of orange juice was such a loser that they changed everything back just two months after its debut. The biggest stinker, they seem to feel, is the new Blackwater logo--they say it looks kind of sinister and spy-ish. I guess I can see that a little, particularly if you know what Blackwater (now "Xe," pronounced "zee," which everyone's definitely going to figure out on the first try) does, but to me, it looks more like a computer company. My first instinct is to wonder if they offer netbooks. Blackwater has a lot of bad press to overcome, but I don't really know where they're trying to take the company now, and this logo certainly doesn't give any clue.

Mentioned not in that article but in one from the beginning of July is Sci Fi's rebranding effort into... ugh, "Syfy." When I first read the press release that announced the change, I thought it was a clever prank designed to horrify viewers and marketing professionals alike before coming clean and giving everyone a relieved chuckle (and maybe an affectionate, "Oh, you're so bad."). And yet no. Now known as "seefee" around my household, the network hasn't really changed its programming--just its name, really. It's still, for the most part, a mix of Science and Fiction. They've added shows like "Warehouse 13," which is "a human story--about relationships, about isolation" that is also about... a warehouse full of supernatural relics. And shows like "Caprica," which is... a futuristic other-planet prequel to space-wars show "Battlestar Galactica." "It isn't about abandoning our dedicated fanbase," says Chris Czarkowsi, ad and sales rep for Seefee. "It's about including all those people who don't realize Syfy has anything to offer them. The point at which we change identity is when people don't see us so narrowly."

And the answer is a new, weird-looking brand that still doesn't tell people what the network has to offer?

I'm not promising that the new brand won't work out; the article reports that Seefee has drawn 12 new advertisers in the first quarter and that the rebrand did well with focus groups. But the question remains: How well will the brand do at attracting the new viewers, the ones who don't self-identify as sci-fi fans, to their programming? My biggest concern is that "Syfy" doesn't mean anything. It doesn't tell me anything about the shows they offer, the fact that sci-fi has been going mainstream for quite some time (Transformers, The Matrix, etc.), the fact that many of its shows are just as character- and plot-driven as they are techy or fantastical. It's just... seefee.

My instinct would have been not to convince potential viewers that seefee is the kind of TV that they want to watch but to convince potential viewers that sci-fi is what they've been watching all along anyway. A marketing campaign could easily push the more human tilt of some of its more human-tilted shows (the kissy bits from "Battlestar Galactica," the teary bits from "Primeval," the bits from "Sanctuary" that--wait, no, best to leave out "Sanctuary") to demonstrate the more human tilt of the network without having to rebrand it entirely. But maybe my instinct is wrong. The answer will be borne out in future viewership and advertising figures. But I hate waiting.

In the meantime, I'm sticking to my guns: A good brand needs to give some indication of the nature of the product or service you're offering, because you won't always be around in person to decipher your new logo for confused customers. The UK's "Consignia" lasted all of 14 months before switching back to a far clearer "Royal Mail." Where did Cingular go? Back to AT&T Wireless. And what the hell is an Altria?

Hint: It may or may not be Phillip Morris's attempt to escape Congressional-hearing notoriety; it's almost certainly not a beaver-looking critter with the tail of a rat.

On contagious confidence and joie de vivre: still not enough to get you into magazines

Okay, so doesn't Kelly Clarkson look awesome? She's standing there, right over a headline about body confidence, and does she ever look confident. Of course, it's easy to be confident when you look a good as she does. And although she's been known for her curviness in the past, it looks like she's slimmed down a ton; maybe she used those tips for slimming down and losing eight pounds and being hot by Saturday. Whatever she did, she looks fantastic, and I'm sure her skinny-mininess has contributed to her looking so happy and--wait. Hold on.

Do what, now?

But I thought--

Who's that girl in the cover photo, then?

There's been a nasty rumor going around that Self magazine airbrushed the hell out of Clarkson to put her on the cover. Obviously, it's just that--a rumor--because what self-aware magazine would Photoshop off about 20 pounds before putting her next to a headline about "staying true to" herself? Thank goodness Self EIC Lucy Danzinger took to her blog to set things straight.
Last Friday, the Internet was abuzz with the fact that I answered the question, did you Photoshop the September issue cover photo of Kelly Clarkson? with the answer: Yes.

See? It was noth--wait a minute.
Kelly has this amazing spirit, the kind of joie de vivre that certain people possess that makes you want to stand closer to them, hoping that you can learn what they know. In this case, you get the feeling Kelly has not let fame spoil her, but also that she was just born confident, with a generosity of spirit that is all about others and rarely about herself. She is, like her music, giving and strong and confident and full of gusto. Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best.

Her personal best? But--but that's not even her. Kelly Clarkson's chin isn't that pointed. Her arms aren't that skinny. If you watch the behind-the-scenes video Danzinger includes in her post, you can see exactly how much Clarkson isn't that waifish figure on the magazine cover. Not that she's not pretty--I think she's pretty and cute and looks really energetic and happy, and while I wish her usual stylist would help her pick costumes for her performances that don't look unflattering and uncomfortable and pinchy, her body is good and she's got so much personality. So you'd think that her personal best would be the best shot of her person. Not... well, some other person.

Danzinger first dismisses the claims by bringing up her own proclivity for throwing out any candid photos that aren't completely flattering and having the art department slim her down a bit before her picture goes into the magazine at any point. Then she dilutes her argument by adding that, also, too, retouching is a common practice with magazines to remove "any awkward wrinkles in the blouse, flyaway hair and other things that might detract from the beauty of the shot." Like, apparently, that stray 20 pounds. It's not until the very end of her blog post that Danzinger finally lets slip, probably inadvertently, that unaltered fatty-fat-fatties like the real Kelly Clarkson just don't sell magazines.
A cover's job is to sell the magazine[...]

Which fat chicks apparently don't.

What gets me is that it's right there. It's right next to a quote about staying true to yourself and covering an article where Clarkson talks about accepting and loving herself exactly as she is. "When people talk about my weight, I'm like, 'You seem to have a problem with it; I don't. I'm fine!'," she says. Fine, and alone, probably, within the editorial staff of Self, because they definitely aren't fine with you.

"Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best." Apparently, we're missing the personal from personal best, because, per the article, Clarkson already thinks she's at her best. Making her look her personal best would mean publishing a cover photo that was actually her. Danzinger & Co. made the choice to show her at their idea of her best, carving off 20 pounds of flyaway hairs and awkward wrinkles and covering her ass with a big yellow dot offering prizes-prizes-prizes.

And no, Luce, it's not the same as 'shopping out your own saddlebags or throwing away unflattering vacation pictures (although that seems like a great way to lose a lot of good vacation memories to me; sometimes the best memories also involve crappy hair or a sunburn). Those are things that you did voluntarily to emphasize your personal best. What you did was decide for Kelly what her personal best should look like, whether she's happy with her body as it is or not.

Danzinger closes:

Your job: Think about your photographs and what you want them to convey. And go ahead and be confident in every shot, in every moment.

But don't stop there, because confidence doesn't cover up the fact that you're an big old lardass who couldn't possibly sell a magazine as you are.

Because the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within.

And by "within," of course she means "but still close enough to the surface that it shows on the outside, too, because inner beauty doesn't make cover photos."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On good girls (talkin' bout the sad girls--wait, no, hold on)

Okay, so a friend hooked me up with a link to a recent Daily Beast article trumpeting the return of the "good girl." (Her comment: "I was a good girl before it was cool!" Being the Catholic daughter of an Italian-American cop in small-town Massachusetts will do that.) The article starts by mentioning some signs of the raunchification of modern society--cardio-striptease (ugh, so trendy), Heidi Pratt (ugh, so desperate), and Brazilian waxes (ugh--wait, no, ow, but I don't really see the harm with this one. Outside of the pain). And I will say that I've noticed an increase in raunchiness; very young girls are being exposed to blatant sexuality early on, and they're not getting the guidance they need to process it and understand it in the context of their own lives.

The much-welcomed antidote to the pole-spinning, nekkid-self-portrait-snapping Miley Cyruses of the world is, obviously, a young role model who is cool and fashionable and popular without acting sexual beyond her ken. And I'm all for that--not for keeping young girls young, but for allowing them to remain young. I think that Abigail Breslin is cool, Demi Lovato is cute as a two-week-old puppy, and Emma Watson is the kind of girl I'd like to hang out with myself, never mind handing them off to The Boy's nieces as a positive influence.

The thing is, these girls aren't just presented as good influences--they're presented as good girls, or, more specifically, "good girls." In practical terms, "good girls" are girls who live up to societal standards for "good"--they're virgins and they don't drink and they don't do drugs and they go to church. They don't smoke, they don't wear short skirts or a lot of makeup, they don't kiss with tongue--they don't do anything to rebel or threaten or even question the status quo. And maybe that makes them happy, and if it does, yay! It's good to be happy.

But what if that doesn't make them happy? I mean, there was a time in my life when I more or less did all of that, mostly for lack of opportunity more than anything else. I was miserable. It wasn't that any of the trappings of "good girl" directly made me unhappy; it was just that I wasn't happy doing it--none of it was really me. I was also unhappy being a 13-year-old; it's how it works. And now, as a drinking, makeup-wearing, tattooed, body-pierced, er... non-virgin (albeit still a churchgoing non-smoker), I'm ridiculously happy--correlation, sure, not causation, but it's there.

Goodness gracious

The question also arises as to whether one can be a good person without being a "good girl." If you spend your money on body art but make sure to save enough to pay your rent and your taxes? If you wear a lot of makeup but also read to your kids and help them with their homework and watch movies with them and explain the parts they don't understand? If you're a 16-year-old who sneaks cigarettes behind the gym and also gets good grades, acts in school plays, and volunteers at the animal shelter? Hell, if you spend your nights spinning around a pole and your days teaching illiterate adults how to read? The concept of a "good girl" creates a dichotomy where there might otherwise be a continuum.

I'm also kind of bothered by the fact that we tend to look at the "good girl" with an emphasis on girl. Of the 13 girls (women?) noted in the article's photo gallery, only one--Emma Watson--has followed the traditional transition to non-girlhood by going to college. And this is not to say that college is the only way to become an adult, but there has been a debate as to whether the professionally handled, fairly surreal life of a child star brings on adulthood early or actually prolongs childhood. Regardless, most of the others listed aren't old enough to vote, much less engage in any of the drinking and whoring around that generally characterizes a "bad girl"--they're still pretty much sheltered, parent-supervised, sometimes homeschooled, and it's easy to be a "good girl" when you're still a girl.

The article also presents to us Bella Swan, who is, above all, pretend, and it's easy to withstand the pressures of society when you're written that way. (That she's an example of a "good girl" who's also a "total asshole" goes unmentioned in the article.) But of course, we know how I feel about her.

Sweet Jesus

In writer Melissa Meltzer's favor, she acknowledges and even explores the effect "good girl" pressure can have on a girl who may be good but isn't, well, "good." She mentions Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, who points out that the archetypical "good girl" doesn't realistically exist in real life and that trying and failing to reach that particular star can drown a girl in a sense of failure and constant self-criticism. And then there's the legend that's graced many a t-shirt, bumper sticker, and embroidered throw pillow: "Well-behaved women seldom make history." As with many cliches, it carries a grain of truth; women who stick to the societally approved standard behavior and stifle any urge to step out and do what they feel needs doing generally reinforce, not challenge, the status quo.

The part of the article that really reached me, however, was the brief mention of Carlene Bauer's memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Bauer chronicles her journey from small-town fundamentalist evangelical Christian to New York pseudointellectual hipster to a self-possessed, self-aware, satisfied middle ground. The thing that complicates her journey--and makes it memoir-worthy--is that fact that, as a real person, she found it impossible to be comfortable shoehorned into any of the traditional archetypes. As a fundamentalist Christian, she still couldn't accept their vision of a touchy-feely Jesus over her own concept of a somewhat radical, shit-kicking Messiah. As a hipster Sylvia Plathodist, she felt the odd woman out trying to hang on to that relationship with God in that trendily agnostic environment. It was only when she became confident enough to break through the stereotypes and carve out her own personal niche--faithful if not religious, fun if not wild, rebellious within a reason of her own definition--that she found a comfortable place to land.

Of the book, Meltzer writes:
Her weekends as an undergrad might include hanging out at Tower Records (“Stone cold sober. Fully dressed”), attending a pro-choice march, and still making it to church on Sunday morning. Bauer was able to become the kind of girl who was both rebellious and pious, good and little bit bad. It’s the kind of life you can’t easily label, but hopefully one more girls will consider adopting.


Good grief.

Incidentally, the article defines modesty as the "antithesis of the thong." Not necessarily true. One can be perfectly modest on the outside whilst rocking lacy naughtiness underneath. The antithesis of the thong is bodily comfort in the buttular region.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

On ACG, Devourer of Words

Okay, so I haven't posted in quite some time because a) work has been surprisingly worky, requiring me to do work during my valuable slacking-off time, and b) I've got another post in the chute that will rock. This. City. To its foundations. (Okay, not so much; as much effort as I've put into it, it'll probably end up being a royal disappointment. I've gotten used to such.)

But I didn't want to make the potentially okay the enemy of the mediocre, and Amanda at Pandagon (to whom I may start referring as "Amandagon," just to save space. And seeing it in print, it looks pretty cool) has a post up about her voracious reading habits as a tween and a new book, Shelf Discovery, that calls them to mind.
I’m sure that many of you out there reading shared my fate---nerdy, overimaginative children who read everything in sight, without the constraints of taste or discernment.

Cereal boxes. Yes.
The habit of devouring books is one that I’ve actually put to great use as an adult, and I owe YA authors a debt of gratitude for that. And while I opened this post with allusions to the trashiest of the milestone books of youth, Skurnick actually covers a diversity of books that mark up one’s preteen and early teen years as a undiscerning reader. And so it’s a real trip down nostalgia lane, and impossible to put down. Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L’engle, Judy Blume, Katherine Paterson, Paul Zindel---books that proliferated in the 50s through the 80s because of the popularity of cheap paperbacks. Some are genuinely great books, and others are unrepentant trash. Skurnick is determined to find redeeming values in all, though she’s hard-pressed to do so with the oeuvre of V.C. Andrews, she actually makes a case for Jean Auel. If you’ve read every single thing that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote or had a habit of nicking books that had kserious-looking teenagers on the cover, you’ll love this. The only thing she missed was the Anne of Green Gables series, and so I’ll be forced to comb through the blog to see if she’s ever covered it.

It can sometimes be painful, or embarrassing, or painfully embarrassing to look back on those stories that occupied our time in those early-teen years of self-discovery (in the non-uberpersonal sense of the term). I've done it a couple of times here, revisiting the Sweet Valley High series in some detail and The Baby-sitters Club in more; I'd say I read those consistently up through about #54 and then sporadically up through #70. I also hit up the first seventy-some-odd Saddle Club books, up until I started riding more myself and discovering exactly how much Bonnie Bryant (and her ghostwriting crew) didn't know. Disappointing, that, too a 14-year-old. One of the commenters at Pandagon mentioned Lurleen McDaniel and her One Last Wish series, where tragic young girls find first love for just a moment before dying beautifully of cancer or diabetes or whatever, and I picked through a few of those before leaving off in search of something a little less depressing.

But my young-young-adult reading list wasn't entirely tween pulp. I mean, plenty of it was, but I read a lot. I was the only kid I knew whose parents had to tell her to stop reading. And it wasn't any attempt to censor my reading choices, just to guarantee my bedtime - my parents would have to do bed checks to make sure I wasn't reading under the covers with a flashlight until early hours. But I blame them completely; they were the ones who started reading to/with us every night. Favorites included The Berenstein Bears, which poor Mom was always begged to "read funny," requiring a nightly improv routine that would have made Eddie Izzard bow and step back. My first chapter book (that I remember) was Anne of Green Gables, followed by Anne of Avonlea and part of Anne of the Island before I started to really get kind of sick of Anne and her e and her neuroses. As soon as we were able to appreciate it (well, Doug was; I think I was a bit young yet), we had weekly reading nights where Dad would read to us aloud from books of Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes. Books were pretty much the environment when I was growing up. Which is good, because I was kind of an obnoxious kid and needed distracting.

Other high points: all of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, The Secret Garden, Little Women, a little bit of Judy Blume (there wasn't much she could teach me that my parents hadn't already given me the benefit of the doubt and discussed with me), Piers Anthony (I read about two books into his Mode series; yeah, the cover had a horse on it), The Black Stallion (and successors), a little bit of Nancy Drew, The Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia. Never really a fan of V.C Andrews (ew, creepy) or Christopher Pike (pretty much pr0n for teens + supernatural thrill). That was also the time I started stretching a bit, trying at 1,001 Arabian Nights and some Poe and not really understanding it at the time but doing better on later reads.

Amanda mentions being a re-reader as a kid, but not now. I hate to admit that I'm hardly a reader at all at the moment; by the time I get home from the office, I hardly make it a priority to read still more words, although it's something I intend to work at. But as a tween, I was definitely a re-reader. Some books I read and put down - some I even read and gave away (although I was almost as much of a book-hoarder as I was a book-reader, a habit I haven't been able to kick) - but some just called out for a second (and third, and seventh) visit. Among them:

- The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. Fantastic escapist fun for a kid who was as frankly pedantic as I was. Puns! Grammar! Math! Oh, the geekish joy.
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (and A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, although Wrinkle was the one I hit up over and over). Again, lovely escapism, this time starring a brilliant, antisocial girl who saves the world through brainpower. No idea why that would appeal.
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. A wonderful puzzle book.
- The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Another wonderful puzzle book. Never saw the movie; couldn't bear to.
- Matilda, by Roald Dahl. A clever, bookish girl is underappreciated by the world around her. Detecting a pattern? Incidentally, my mom loved this one, too. (I also loved The Witches and The BFG. The man knew his stuff.)

What I love about a lot of those books is how many of them I've re-read as an adult. The plots still hold up, the suspense is still suspenseful, and the mysteries still seem mysterious. And looking back, they tell me a little about me as a child. Namely, that I was a pitiful little geek who never felt that she fit in after someone dragged her away from all of her friends at a difficult age, Mom and Dad. But I had Milo, and Meg, and Claudia, and Turtle, and Matilda. And that was... not nearly enough to grow as a well-rounded and balanced young adult. But that came later.

What books kept you up with a flashlight all night as a kid? Any I should look for now?