Category Archives: Pop Culture

The Impact and Importance of AIDS Activism

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to interview David France, a journalist and filmmaker who most recently wrote and directed the movie How to Survive a Plague, which has been nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. The film details the work of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an activist organization that started in NYC’s Greenwich Village in 1987 in response to the rapidly growing and lethal AIDS epidemic among the gay population. Through political action like protests, public funeral ceremonies, and storming the buildings of the National Institutes of Health, ACT UP initiated ‘treatment activism,’ accelerating the development and distribution of AIDS treatment drugs and changing the pharmaceutical industry’s closed door research and development process to one that incorporated the insight and research of activists themselves. I wanted to learn more about what compelled him to create a film focused on this specific strain of activism, and how he saw the work of ACT UP being relevant to movements today.

My favorite of his responses was when I asked him if there were things that he wished had made it into the film but had to be cut because of the evolving narrative, and what those omissions were. I thought his answer was particularly moving:

“You know what? What broke my heart was leaving out people. People that did amazing things. Even in this very small line of inquiry that I brought to it, which is treatment activism. Other people were working on housing and prevention and pediatric issues, IV drug use issues. Even in just treatment activism I left out a huge number of players, many of whom died, whose lives in the last years were dedicated to this altruistic struggle to change the world of science and medicine. And they ultimately succeeded.”

The full transcript of the interview was published this morning over at The 2×2 Project, so head on over to read everything he had to say. Also check out Mr. France’s website, which has the archives of his incredible journalistic career, which he spent covering HIV and AIDS for years. And of course, I encourage everyone to see the film to witness just how far these grassroots activists got in advocating for and ensuring access to life-saving treatments and the disbursement of research that literally helped save millions of lives.

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Filed under Activism, Epidemiology and Population Health, Media, Pop Culture

Is Media Use Slowing Kids Down Intellectually?

A couple interesting studies recently came out that I thought were clearly linked with implications for the development of our younger generations. I recently wrote a post for The 2×2 Project that discusses the impact of media use on the mental health of teens, so I thought this was fairly pertinent.

The first study showed how much the U.S. economy loses to social media use every year. Take a guess at what that amount is.

10 billion bucks? Nope.

100 billion? Not even close.

500 billion? Still no.

According to Mashable’s summary via LearnStuff, social media costs the U.S. economy $650 billion. Check out the infographic they put together:

I’m someone who is generally really torn about social media. I have a blog and am active on Twitter, though along with my Facebook profile I use these all primarily for semi-professional purposes. ‘Semi’ in the sense that they aren’t part of my job, but I use them to promote interesting finds or essays related to my field of public health; I’ve found the sites to be remarkably helpful in communicating important points and connecting with wider audiences compared to different – usually more traditional – media channels. I use social media heavily to promote work being done in my fellowship – my own and other fellows’ – and it unquestionably has helped us reach researchers and organizations it would have been otherwise very difficult to do.

That being said, I am also fairly hesitant about social media given that I don’t particularly like my personal life broadcast across channels, so I have to be pretty meticulous about what and how I use the mediums. I think it can be enormously helpful for children who have difficulty communicating and making connections; I also find that it can feel almost more isolating than no communication at all since it emphasizes and underscores that real interpersonal interaction isn’t exactly happening. So, I’m clearly torn.

The second study, by the great group Common Sense Media, addresses the concerns of teachers and educators that the various kinds and amount of time kids are using media at home is impacting the quality of their classroom work and engagement. 71% of teachers said that they think media use is hurting kids’ attention spans in school, 59% said that it’s impacting the students’ ability to communicate face to face, and 58% have said that the media use is impacting kids’ writing skills – and not in a good way.

Given that the LearnStuff infographic shows that 97% of college students are daily Facebook users, it seems that these symptoms have the potential to get worse at increasingly younger ages, and that by the time kids who grew up in this media-rich environment are in college…well, who knows. And 60% of people visit social media sites at work (something I found most interesting? that more people are on LinkedIn than Twitter), which are obviously impacting work in the sense that they are taking away from productivity or activities related to the job – unless the job is one that incorporates social media, as many jobs increasingly are. Not to be a doomsday reporter, but I do think the implications for these studies are very real.

Thoughts? Come chat on Twitter.


Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Media, Pop Culture, Technology

Think Domestic Violence is Funny?

A whole slew of people who aren’t afraid to admit that they think domestic violence is a total joke made it clear last night when the Twitterverse erupted during Chris Brown’s performance. Other writers have well articulated the reasons why I was upset to see him perform, much less have him so vocally supported – a standing ovation? Really?  Frankly, I was surprised that there was restraint in showing Rihanna’s reaction to his numbers.

Despite the outpouring of affection for this man, I was still shocked to see the responses of women watching around the country. Trigger warning for abuse – here are some responses to his performance via Twitter:

“I’d let Chris Brown beat me up anytime ;) #womanbeater”

“Like I’ve said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants…I’d do anything to have him oh my”

“chris brown can beat me all he wants, he is flawless”

“Chris brown.. please beat me😉.”

“I’d let chris brown beat me any day😉.”

“I’d let chris brown punch me in the face”

“I don’t know why Rihanna complained. Chris Brown could beat me up anytime he wanted to.”

What do we gather from these tweets? (Full list here, again, trigger warning.) These go beyond the lack-of-filter in-the-moment tweets that often get people in trouble because they show that these people have a clear understanding of his actions – no one here is pleading ignorance to his abusive history or denouncing it while commenting on his performance. They are doing just the opposite, celebrating and glorifying his violence. Taking it further, they sexualize it as they coyingly ask him – instruct him – to beat them whenever he wants as an acceptable, warranted, and defensible act for being lucky enough to be his partner. The winky smiley faces, the promotion of his supposed flawlessness, the admission that they would suffer innumerable beatings just to be with him, capped off with the dismissal of Rihanna’s rightful decision to report him as a mere “complaint” – we have a major problem here. Combined with a collective short-term memory problem (all those rallying screams at the Grammy’s last night), these messages serve to tell domestic violence victims that they are overreacting, that they should not “complain” if their assailant is considered talented and desired by so many women, that abuse is entirely excusable when perpetrated by a superstar with mass appeal, and very disturbingly, that violence is, of all things, so so sexy (“i wish chris brown would punch me!” begged one tweet). The claim that they would “let” a man punch them in the face does nothing but support the dangerous stereotype that women want to be beaten, that it turns them on.

What a way to let Chris Brown forget about what he’s done. Not only does he get to say that he supposedly regrets his actions, but if he ever felt a creeping of guilt or was actually on some path to understanding what he’s done and why it’s so disturbing and utterly unacceptable – you know, the tough mental work that is required to be rehabilitated – all he’d need to do is head over to Twitter and type his own name into a search. He’d be greeted by plenty of women and men not only excusing his actions, but praising them, supporting them, begging him to repeat them. We’ve got a really long way to go, here.

Update: Charmingly, Chris Brown responded to his critics on his on Twitter page, before it seems his handlers thought it best he stay silent on the issue.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Violence, Violence Against Women

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

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Filed under Defining Gender, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Pop Culture

JC Penney Doesn’t Think You’ll be Very Smart. But you ARE Pretty!

I’m sure some of you have come across a picture of the t-shirt that JC Penney recently pulled from their website and for which they received a healthy dose of criticism and bewilderment. In case you missed it, take a gander below:

A picture of the unraveling of years of work, courtesy of JC Penney

On sale for girls between the ages of 7 and 16, we have a (100% cotton!) long-sleeve that says “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

While I generally believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, I find the trail of despair leading up to this travesty of childhood romping wear to be filled with too many witnesses to feel that this was done in error. Which, in turn, means that a lot of people at JC Penney thought this was funny.

This offense hits a lot of home runs – making ‘pretty’ and ‘intelligent’ mutually exclusive descriptions; saying that apparently being pretty is so exhausting and life-encompassing that homework just can’t be attended to (this particularly just doesn’t seem like a smart pic for a 6 year-old – if pretty is this exhausting, she’ll be burned out by 10); not-so-subtly prioritizing those batted eyes over brain activity; and, for the grand finale, adding that since being pretty is a lady’s job, the man has to pick up the slack in the smarts department. That’s a lot of manipulation for one t-shirt. You can be pretty but not also smart, being pretty takes a lot of work (doesn’t come naturally), pretty is prioritized and therefore takes precedence over being smart anyway, the boys can be the brains.

Taking a cursory glance over JC Penney’s other shirts, while the one above remains in a league of its own there are others that transgress the principles of healthy development. T-shirts that say “I’m a nerd” or “I love nerds” are the only ones in which the models are wearing  square-framed glasses; shirts that insert unnecessary interjections that should probably not be emphasized in written form, that say “Love is, like, forever”; and a shirt that shows a heart with a jagged line through it saying “if you break it, you buy it.” I didn’t know that a 10 year-old’s affection was for sale, much less that there was an insistence of ownership by the 10 year-old herself after she’d been emotionally trampled on.

Major retailers’ primary goal is profit – which means that while I’m not surprised that they aren’t particularly concerned with the social impact of their clothing, I do find it interesting that JCP thought these kind of dated gender messages would bring in the cash.


Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, Pop Culture, Sexism

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

Wanna answer that question on Twitter? Follow me here!

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

A Bunny’s Return

“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.

One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.

Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”

There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control – which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism