Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

This Week in Upgrades: May 23

Alright…so I spent most of the week sick, and unproductive as a result. My usual mid-week post and Friday How to Adult were unfortunate casualties of that. Sorry!

I’m feeling much better today, though, so let’s leave that in the past and get the week started right. Just a handful of days left in May to give it all we’ve got.

Here’s what was good, interesting, and important in the last week:

Who knew that trees sleep?

Will the new food label help people eat smarter?

How can we combat an antibiotic apocalypse?

In encouraging health news, scientists have successfully removed HIV DNA from living tissue–possibly a step closer to a cure.

Is the idea of a biological clock simply a sexist myth?

India hit a shocking record-high temperature this week.

The price of solar energy is becoming more competitive, which bodes well for the environment.

Some scientists want to bring back wooly mammoths. Why?

A brief, but insightful Q&A with Noam Chomsky on current affairs.

The United States now has over a trillion dollars in credit card debt. Hooray! (Not.)

Does power indeed corrupt?

Superdelegates will probably decide the Democratic Party nominee for president. Why do they exist?

What can we learn from the ancient Greeks about technology?

Consumerism and “free trade,” epitomized.

Speaking of consumerism, have you seen Century of the Self? More relevant than ever.

Show this week who’s bossbut don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dumblin'
via GIPHY

What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?

When I was in high school, there was a year that I needed to take a summer gym class to fulfill my physical education requirement. When I missed a couple days because of some other obligations, I had to work with school administration to figure out what could be done to finish out the requirement.

The compromise was to register in a workshop called Bigger, Faster, Stronger: a CrossFit-like boot camp for high school athletes, almost entirely male, preparing for the fall season of their sports. Even though I was a varsity soccer player, I got my butt kicked by the relentless weight training, field exercises, and agility tests. It was probably the most machismo thing I have been part of. Every guy in the room was comparing himself against the apparent strength and ability of the others. I’m sure some of the soreness I felt at home each night came from pushing myself to make sure I wasn’t too far behind other guys in weight and reps, times, and other measurables.

Using comparison to scrutinize our identity has probably been part of being human for as long as we’ve been here. We often look at others and archetypes as a way to figure out our own place in the world. But when it comes to gender, what we’re comparing ourselves against as the standard for “being a man” or “being a woman” are extreme and incomplete ideals.

As a man, I can only fully relate to the experience and norms of masculinity, which is why I was happy to discover that the makers of 2011’s Miss Representation, a documentary exploring hyperfemininity and its consequences, recently released a complementary film regarding hypermasculinity, The Mask You Live In.

Prevalent throughout much of American society (and perhaps elsewhere), what it means to “be a man” amounts to putting on a mask of athletic ability, financial success, and sexual conquest, while hiding and suppressing weakness, emotion, empathy, and intimacy. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…,” opens the film–a quote from George Orwell.

As boys, males are handed this mask early and encouraged to grow into it often. From parents, especially fathers. From coaches. From all kinds of media. From peer groups.

Whichever of these guiding sources it comes from, boys are too often discouraged from crying, talking about their pain and weaknesses, and cultivating open relationships. Such things are perceived to be unmanly, and, therefore, subordinate. It leads to an implicit hierarchy. At the top are men who are fast, strong, steely, powerful, and rich. Everyone and everything else fall below.

This hierarchy perpetuates sexism and homophobia. As a man of the mask, you dehumanize people who are not at the top. A male who doesn’t embody the ideal is shunned as “gay.” Women are categorically inferior and seen to exist primarily for sexual objectification. Any woman who tries to be strong or rich or powerful is breaking rank. She’s a “bitch,” an “annoyance,” or a “lesbian.”

But time after time, when men and boys are given space for self-reflection and to speak freely without potential humiliation, they talk about pain and weaknesses; about a desire for honest closeness with other men and women; and about suppressed empathy. The vulnerability and longing behind the mask are essential to being a man.

They’re essential to being human.

Because, perhaps surprisingly to some, men and women are actually quite similar. As long as people are around, there will probably be endless debates about gender (as social construction) versus sex (as biology) and femininity versus masculinity. We’re good at getting caught up in differences. But women and men are far more the same–far more human–than they are different.

Emotion, empathy, and intimacy are vital whether you’re a woman or a man. These are not “inferior” traits of “inferior” people. They are crucial aspects of humanity that contribute to being a complete person, and, as The Mask You Live In concludes, “everyone deserves to feel whole.”

Men deserve to feel whole–free from the distorted view of masculinity they’re often given. Women deserve to feel whole–free from the sexism of that same skewed version of masculinity.

We are all human. Be human. Reject the mask.

 

This Week in Upgrades: Feb 15

Happy Monday, and a good Presidents Day to you! Are you off of work? I hope you enjoy it, if so. It may be the weirdest holiday, but it gives a lot of people a three-day weekend–so there’s that.

I’m turning 31 this week, which is difficult to believe. Honestly, the numbers stopped making sense around 25. When you’re old like me, you start to get a bit paranoid about anything out of the ordinary with your health. Fortunately, tips like these are a good way to combat the worry. I’m truly grateful to be alive, and I plan to be around for a long time.

It’s been an incredibly historic week. Gravitational waves, proposed by Einstein, were proven. This will begin an exciting new era of science–possibly even leading to time travel!

In other exciting science news, researchers are hailing unprecedented results in clinical trials using the body’s own t-cells for cancer treatment. If these initial findings are any indication, we’re at an important crossroad in outsmarting cancer.

By now, you’ve likely heard that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away. May he rest in peace. His legal legacy is a towering one. As such, the impact his death has on the presidential race and future rulings may be even more significant. Apparently the intensity and importance of this election were just getting started.

Many other interesting human things this week. Here are a few:

In a self-driving car, who is responsible for the driving? Perhaps the most important part to be figured out.

It’s always good to listen first–even when you’re right.

Infrastructure is not a sexy political topic, but it’s essential. Made me think of this, too. John Oliver is awesome.

All countries should make a law like this for its unsold food.

Social media is not very kind to teenage girls. Heartbreaking.

“The most satisfying video in the world” is, indeed, extremely satisfying.