A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Engagement Ring


I can't wait to get my engagement ring back from the jeweler where it's getting resized. That's right, I said my engagement ring. I'm part of the five percent of men who wear an engagement ring (and I refuse to use the ridiculous portmanteau by which that Atlantic article refers to these rings).

I got engaged a little over a month ago, and in the lead up to that event, I noticed a surprising amount of verbiage being expended on the material and symbolic meanings of this little metal circle that betrothed women wear. Amanda Marcotte believes, "It's high time to end the tradition of the engagement ring, along with other wedding rituals that are built on the assumption that a bride is dependent and virginal." And Shannon Rupp writes, "I’ve always thought giving engagement rings was a slightly unsavoury custom, given that it began in an era when women were chattel, more or less." Kay Steiger says, “Honestly, I’d rather have an iPad.”

I get their points, but to be fair, all of their arguments about the negative historical connotations of the engagement ring apply just as much to the institution of marriage itself. Just as the social and legal institution of marriage has changed in meaning from a proprietary exchange to a partnership, so too can we change the meaning of the engagement, and with it, the engagement ring. The arguments put forth in Slate, Salon, and XOJane are built on a false dichotomy--either we do away with the engagement ring, or we hold onto it as an ironic vestige of the patriarchy.

Of course, it IS an ironic vestige of the patriarchy, but that doesn't mean it can't also have a new meaning, a new meaning conferred on it in no small part by the fact that it was a mutually exchanged gift. I don't currently live with my fiancée, and while we see each other almost every day and message each other throughout the day, I like wearing the ring as a reminder of our partnership. If I'm, say, bored or stressed out at work, it's comforting to know that I can always depend on her and she can always depend on me. And it's fun to think about how a little over a year from now, we'll have all of our close friends and family together for a big party where we'll stand up and declare our intention to jointly file our tax returns for the rest of our lives. And I know that she feels the same way.

She's my constant.
Side note: Remember how great Desmond and Penny were on LOST?

I'm not the only one who feels this way, and particularly given the shift in views towards same sex marriage in recent years, the idea of keeping the engagement ring around as a gendered institution is becoming increasingly silly. (Though as my fiancée noted when she was shopping for my ring, it's hard to find a men's engagement ring that does not look like it was designed to be given to a man by a man. Many of those ones look nice, but I'm just not that flashy. Clearly, this is an untapped market for the jewelry industry.)

But the thing that I most like about mutual engagement rings is the way it changes the proposal. I don't know how the rest of the five percent of guys came by their rings, but I came by mine through a mutual exchange. We got engaged in February, but we knew it was coming for about three months before that. It was a decision we had arrived at through ongoing discussions about our goals and our plans, and once we both knew that we wanted to get engaged, we spent the next couple of months buying rings for each other and making plans. Then in February we both took three days off work, went to Traverse City, ate good food and drank good beer, sat down at a nice restaurant, told each other why we loved one another, exchanged rings, and asked each other to marry us (wow, English pronouns do not make it easy to construct that sentence in an elegant way).

By comparison, "traditional" engagements seem tremendously stressful. As I understand it, you have to arrive at a point in your relationship where you're ready to commit to one another, which might be different for each party. Then, you either don't talk about marriage or only talk about it somewhat surreptitiously. Then the guy is obligated to plan a surprise proposal on his own that accords with his girlfriend's romantic sensibilities, while she has to wait on pins and needles for this life-altering surprise, possibly for maybe many months. The whole thing sounds crazy-making for everyone. Remember Charlotte and Harry in the sixth season of Sex and the City?

Our "proposal," on the other hand, was essentially a very romantic vacation. Weddings are a public event, a communal affirmation of your commitment for friends and family to share in. Getting engaged in this way made it into a personal event--not a surprise, but an affirmation in its own right, only one that was just for us. There's no reason why any ring would have to be a part of that affirmation, but I nonetheless feel good wearing my little metal circle.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brooding White Dudes on TV

A few weeks ago I posted this status to Facebook:
Attention TV: if your show stars a pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit and he's not fighting aliens or robots or something, I just can't bring myself to care.
The status was a response to the chatter that week about the second season of House of Cards, a show that I've tried and failed to get into several times now. I made it most of the way through the first season. It consistently struck me as a caricature of what "serious" TV is supposed to look like. It's dark and atmospheric, with a cast full of powerful characters who speak deceptively to one another, hiding agendas and double-crossing one another. I can't decide what I find more ridiculous about it--the fact that it's a show about political power that cares very little about how American politics actually works, or Kevin Spacey's self-important soliloquies. Actually, that's not true. Of course it's the soliloquies that I find more ridiculous. But the misunderstanding of politics is what bugs me. The mechanics of the characters' political machinations seem consistently off in one way or another. That's almost forgivable given that the Washington, D.C. setting seems more like an excuse for the creators to make a big existential point about...something or other. What's less forgivable is the fact that, for a show ostensibly set in the present, Frank Underwood's version of the Democratic party sure boasts a lot of white southerners.

But this isn't a post about House of Cards, nor is it a post about the politics of representation (not entirely, at least). Countless essays have been written about the overrepresentation of white men in media and the ways in which it contributes to a general cultural perception that white men's stories are more deserving to be told or occupy more space in the cultural landscape. I have little to add to that point specifically, though I consider it extremely important. I'm more interested in the question from a creative dimension. Because, politics aside, I'm genuinely bored by the "brooding white dude" model of "serious" television represented by House of Cards. And Mad Men. And Boardwalk Empire. And Justified. And Dexter. And The Sopranos. And 24. And most procedurals (House, Sherlock, all of the CSIs). And, admittedly, Breaking Bad, which I nonetheless love.

I often like to think about culture in quantitative terms. So much about humanistic analysis is subjective, and that's a good thing--culture is complex and ambiguous and deserving of multiple debatable interpretations--but I still like to start from a relatively objective place when I can. So, with that in mind, I'm going to return to my initial complaining Facebook status and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. In that status, I identified six variables with which a TV show is constructed. Let's look at each of them in turn:
  1. Affect ("pensive-looking"). This is what I mean by "brooding"--the tone of the show, as dictated by its lead's primary emotional state. When you poke at it, it's striking how often TV shows rely on their lead's brooding affect to convey the Importance of its subject matter. I don't care how many cigarettes you smoke while staring out of a window, Dick Whitman, your identity theft still isn't that big of a deal.
    • There are a lot of ways to categorize emotions, but let's go with Love, Joy, Surprise, Anger, Sadness, and Fear as our basic six. It seems pretty clear that we tend to associate Anger and Sadness in our fiction with Serious and Smart storytelling, while undervaluing Love and Joy (more closely associated with comedy than drama), as well as Surprise and Fear (more closely associated with "genre fiction").
  2. Age ("40+ year old"). Maybe I'm just too old for them to be on my radar anymore, but it seems like there is no equivalent to My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even Friday Night Lights on TV right now. Again, Serious and Smart storytelling seems to be associated narrowly with one life stage--adult with kids who has attained some degree of professional status, but isn't yet retired. In other words, someone in their 40s or 50s.
    • A "generation" is roughly 20 years, so let's break age demographics into four generations: Under 20 years old, 20-40 years old, 40-60 years old, and over 60 years old.
  3. Race ("white"). Pretty straightforward.
    • It's notoriously difficult to come up with a list of categories for this field. For the sake of our back-of-the envelope calculation, let's use the five categories used by the US Census Bureau--White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander--and simply add Multiracial and Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish to make seven (I know, I know, I'm grossly oversimplifying, but bear with me for just a minute).
  4. Gender ("dude"). Also pretty straightforward.
    • Let's go with three--male, female, and third gender/genderqueer.
  5. Number of protagonists ("dude" singular). People tend not to notice this, but these serious "antihero" shows tend to feature a single protagonist, even those with strong ensembles.
    • In addition to the "single protagonist" model, plenty of shows employ the "duo" model, with two leads who are either romantic or professional partners, or both. Plenty of other shows employ the "ensemble" model, where anywhere from four to a dozen main characters are sufficiently well established as to serve as the protagonist for a plot line. Remarkably, I can't think of any trios, perhaps because in any show with three leads, one is likely to stand out as the primary protagonist. So let's say there are three models.
  6. Class ("in a suit"). Just as serious TV tends to be associated with a certain life stage, it's also associated with professional success, featuring a hefty dose of middle- and upper-class white collar professionals.
    • Let's keep it simple and go with a white collar vs. blue collar dichotomy.
6 x 4 x 7 x 3 x 3 x 2 = 3,024

There are myriad other variables one consciously or unconsciously considers when crafting the premise for a narrative, be that a television show or anything else. I didn't even touch on the genre question implied by my "fight aliens or robots" comment. But just using these six variables, and my very rough estimates for the different categories falling under each variable, yields over three thousand possible permutations. So why the prevalence of the archetypal pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit?

But, you may say, the categories aren't evenly distributed in real life, so of course you can't expect every permutation to appear as if they were randomly distributed.

Of course not, but (a) it's still pretty obvious that the pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit is overrepresented, and (b) as I said at the start, I'm not talking about the politics of representation; I'm talking about creativity. People whose experiences are less common can be, for that very reason, more creatively interesting. The guy who goes broke paying for his cancer treatment is far more common than the guy who becomes a drug kingpin to pay for his cancer treatment, but I'm not interested in his TV show. Tell me you wouldn't be curious to watch a show about two 70-year-old underemployed genderqueer Hawaiians living in a haunted house.

Now, I don't want to fall into the "Why are there no _______?" fallacy. There are PLENTY of shows featuring more creative permutations of these variables (American Horror Story and Orange is the New Black come to mind, and of course, the reason so many people are still obsessed with The Wire is because it subverts the "pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit" model so well). But when you think about the shows that (a) get made, (b) get made well, and (c) attain enough critical and popular attention to become part of the zeitgeist, it's surprising there isn't more diversity.

One reason why I decided to write this post was to illustrate the usefulness of some simple quantitative methods. If I had the time and the resources to survey the TV landscape, it would be easy enough to pin down this lack of diversity in less impressionistic language. I wish people with more time and resources would do that.

The other reason I decided to write this post was to make a confession: A couple days after posting that status I started watching True Detective, a show about two pensive-looking 40+ year old white dudes in suits (Hey, a duo! That's a different permutation!). And I. Love. That. Show. I justify my bit of hypocrisy largely because I'm invested in pulp fiction tropes, and the show provides a very smart spin on both the detective fiction and weird fiction genres. Its use of weird fiction tropes is particularly interesting--I'm not convinced that tomorrow's finale won't end with Marty and Rust fighting aliens or robots or demons or something.

But more importantly, I don't think there's anything inherently "wrong" with True Detective simply because it's another iteration of an overly represented permutation of variables, nor do I think there is anything wrong with the other shows I listed earlier (except for House of Cards, which I still think is simply ridiculous). Approaching this issue from a more quantitative perspective helps to distinguish between a problematic trend and an individual instance of that trend. I'm disinclined to hold the former against the latter.

Circling back around to the politics of representation, this is a problem that often comes up in feminist pop culture criticism, particularly around discussions of the Bechdel test. But I tend to think that the Bechdel test is most useful for looking at a problem that exists in culture macroscopically. That so few films pass the Bechdel test (while, simultaneously, so few fail the reverse Bechdel test by focusing on female homosocial spaces) illustrates an inequality in the pop culture landscape, but I'm not necessarily going to use the Bechdel test to evaluate the feminist sensibilities of an individual film.

(Side note: One way in which I think about the usefulness of the Bechdel test in evaluating individual films is by asking, could the movie have passed the test without affecting the story? In a movie like The Shawshank Redemption, for example, the fact that the movie takes place almost entirely in the homosocial environment of a men's prison is pretty central to the story, and I'm not inclined to call its lack of women unfeminist. On the other hand, a film like Pacific Rim, Mako Mori test aside, probably could have flipped the gender of one or two characters and passed without changing the story, and that seems like a missed opportunity in an otherwise strong film. This isn't the only thing to consider, but it's a place to start.)

I have plenty of feminist friends who rail against this cultural imbalance while loving Hannibal or Supernatural or Sherlock. We all have our preferred brooding white dudes, and that's okay. So, on the one hand, I'm not going to say that anyone should watch True Detective. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as "must watch" TV, just like there are no "must read" books. And if your only reason for not watching it is you can't bring yourself to care about pensive-looking 40+ year old white dudes in suits, more power to you. But I still can't wait to find out who the Yellow King is.

I hope it's an alien or robot or something.