Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Happy Endings

The phrase "a happy ending" can mean very different things to women and men. For many women I know, a story has a happy ending if a guy and a girl end up together in a seemingly permanent relationship. And men, well, they call a "happy ending" a sexual favor given by a female masseuse after the massage-proper has been completed.

One could argue this is yet another example of how men and women's brains are dissilimar, or perhaps even how little girls and little boys are raised to conceptualize relationships and their world to different ends.

Everyone knows little girls are tucked in at night to stories of princes and princesses, of danger, and rescue, and maybe, if they're lucky, a little Dora the Explorer for good measure.

Peggy Ornstein wrote a fabulous article last year on the dilemma many parents of little girls face when confronted with the tsunamical princess culture in toy stores and children's media. Should perfectly confident, successful business women and feminist homemakers willingly expose their children to fairy tales written in the midst of a culture that considered women their husband's property?

True enough, the very same concept that tucks little girls in at night is an addiction practiced by adult women reading romance novels and watching their worn copies of Sleepless in Seattle--We are calmed, placated even, by the thought that all pretty ladies one day will have someone to take care of them.

Women needed happy endings, because for so many hundreds of years, to be tied to a man who cared about you and was able to provide for you was all that could be hoped for. And now, though a woman has a recognized right to express herself sexually however she chooses--though she has a right to a good education and a chance in the professional world--though she has a right to be completely financially and emotionally independent...chick lit is a major force in popular fiction.

And our daughters, perhaps better positioned than any Western women before them, to find a new happy ending for themselves, are felled by cartoons and cheap rayon dresses. It's possible all our efforts have been misdirected. Perhaps, we should be spending more time convincing our sons that a happy ending is being whisked away by a princess....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I have to go Now; Let Me Alone

The Highly Sensitive Person.

Isn't the artist moody?
Isn't he a walking contradiction?
Embracing luscious colors and lights of the banquet hall
then reprimanding the renovators for all the racket.

What's wrong with that child?
Don't stand too close or she'll wail
and not other words would she speak
only cries when she's not well.

Perhaps they are "highly sensitive people" as Dr. Elaine Aaron would have call it.

I came across the title of her book The Highly Sensitive Person while I was making the rounds at my binary haunts.

Amazon.com summarizes the book as follows:

Are you an HSP? Are you easily overwhelmed by stimuli? Affected by other people's moods? Easily startled? Do you need to withdraw during busy times to a private, quiet place? Do you get nervous or shaky if someone is observing you or competing with you? HSP, shorthand for "highly sensitive person," describes 15 to 20 percent of the population. Being sensitive is a normal trait--nothing defective about it. But you may not realize that, because society rewards the outgoing personality and treats shyness and sensitivity as something to be overcome. According to author Elaine Aron (herself an HSP), sensitive people have the unusual ability to sense subtleties, spot or avoid errors, concentrate deeply, and delve deeply. This book helps HSPs to understand themselves and their sensitive trait and its impact on personal history, career, relationships, and inner life. The book offers advice for typical problems. For example, you learn strategies for coping with overarousal, overcoming social discomfort, being in love relationships, managing job challenges, and much more. The author covers a lot of material clearly, in an approachable style, using case studies, self-tests, and exercises to bring the information home. The book is essential for you if you are an HSP--you'll learn a lot about yourself. It's also useful for people in a relationship with an HSP. --Joan Price

It's somewhat ironic that so many people are opposed to the idea of labels and don't subscribe to the practice of categorizing human behavior or tendencies because they want to be themselves without putting a name to it. And yet, scholars from all disciplines make their careers by analyzing chaos, honing in on patterns, and coming up with ways to manage an enormous amount of information--by creating labels. A lot of students might not understand why they have to learn about things that are so "common sense" or "I know all this....." they don't always realize that the learning process involves the internalization of terminology that helps them organize all the things they "already knew." Once something has a name, it suddenly becomes easier to manage.

Could the "highly sensitive person" be a way of allowing the rest of society engage more sympathetically with people who might otherwise simply be called moody, eccentric, weird, or temperamental?

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Edward Hopper's 1939 painting New York Movie

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Belinda Luscombe on (romantic) comedies

I picked up the August 20, 2007 issue (Vol. 170 No. 8) of Time Magazine and read an educational and somewhat disheartening article about the future of the American romantic comedy.

Belinda Luscombe writes:

Love stories are old. They're universal. Nearly everyone has one. Which makes them nearly impossible to write well. This summer has brought us License to Wed, in which a couple is nearly driven apart by their wacky priest's marriage-prep course; I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, in which Adam Sandler pretends to marry his firefighter buddy for health-insurance reasons; No Reservations, in which two competitive chefs fall in love; and Becoming Jane, in which Jane Austen has to choose between love and proper behavior. Coming in September is Good Luck Chuck, in which every girl Chuck sleeps with goes on to marry the next guy she meets. All of them, except the Austen, are what's known in the romance-novel business as HEAs (happily-ever-afters), and none of them are remotely stirring, although Good Luck Chuck is spectacularly off-putting. "Romantic comedies are backbreaking to write because they have to be fresh," says Mike Newell, director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and the upcoming Love in the Time of Cholera. "I've yet to find another one which was surprising enough to do."

But it's not just familiarity that breeds contempt for love stories. It may be actually getting harder to get people to believe in them, acknowledges Richard Curtis, writer of such indelible romances as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, because our expectations have changed. "If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind," he notes. "Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."

Luscombe mentions cultural and social changes over the last half century that may have affected the standard perception of romance and human interaction, which in turn likely makes romantic comedies harder to market. She also brings up the film Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and remarks that it "is the purest iteration of the so-called bromance form yet. Two best friends, Seth and Evan, on the verge of graduating from high school, have to get booze, get over the fact that they're about to go their separate ways and get girls before the night is out."

At first, I thought, "Wow. Perhaps the (romantic) comedy formula is changing--no longer is it about heterosexual sexual love; maybe the next move is platonic love." But then, that kind of story could simply be a comedy or a drama. I also thought "bromance" was a pretty clever term....that is until I realized that Luscombe might be using a synonym for the "buddy film."

Luscombe briefly addresses the profit-driven facet of Hollywood that almost demands quality be sacrificed for novelty or an ingenious marketing campaign so that opening weekend draws the biggest crowds. She incorporates a reception studies point-of-view when pointing out that young men flock to the cinema in slightly higher numbers--and probably more frequently--than women. I know this article isn't (and isn't supposed to be) scientific in approach, but if there was an undertaking to investigate further whether or not the romantic comedy as a genre is truly dying or adapting to a new collective consciousness or if there simply hasn't been a really good script in a long while, more variables would have to be considered and controlled.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the public's cinema-going habits, I doubt that there could be a study scientific enough. We're talking about people's preferences in aesthetics, narrative, and ideology. However consistent some individuals' or demographics' behavior may be, there are too many "but's" in the question. Furthermore, to be more thorough, DVD rentals, purchases, and library lending patterns and tendencies would have to be examined too.

To read Belinda Luscombe's article in its entirety, please click here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Mean Gene

Recently I was attending the wedding of two very close friends. After the joyful, and for me, slightly tearful ceremony, I joined the rest of the guests outside and was excitedly chatting the typical talk that comes with a marriage ceremony: how beautiful the bride looked, how happy the groom was, whether or not there would be food before dinner. I was wearing what my friends had deemed a “fairy dress—“ a sort of pink tulle dress that was light, airy and gave me a great deal of happiness. In other words, everything up to that point was perfect.

I then ran into an ex-colleague from my days in medical school, and after I gave him my obligatory hug—a half hug for the half-hearted since I already sensed a poor encounter—he asked me what I was doing with my life. I told him that I was beginning law school in the fall, and he said, “Oh, so you changed your mind again?” And he added behind it what the casual observer would call a snide little laugh, as if to make his comment appear as some fantastic joke.

That hit me with a jolt. “What do you mean?”
“Well, isn’t that why you left first year?”
“Yes, and then I came back…”
“And then you left again.”

At that point, I left the conversation. I felt his rudeness was extraordinary, and he deserved second class status. It was particularly striking that he—a student who had left his PhD program, worked as a lab technician for a number of years, and then returned to medical school at the age of 30—could be so judgmental of someone else’s choices. At twenty-five, I’m not exactly out with today’s trash. Now, of course he cannot be faulted for his ignorance of the circumstances surrounding my years in medical education. But he can be faulted as being someone who felt perfectly fine acting as an asshole.

Later on, I began to think about meanness. I like to think that I make an effort to be kind to everyone I meet. But I’m not perfect, and I know that I’ve been less than pleasant on more than one occasion. I began to wonder, is there some evolutionary explanation for cruelty?

It turns out there’s been some research on the issue by scientists as prominent as Frans de Waal. But there is very little that is black and white in terms of cruelty, or for that matter, in terms of any emotion. A seemingly unalterable social hierarchy can change with new developments in a community--one such example is when a non-dominant male chimp obtains meat, a highly valued commodity, leading to the normally dominant males to beg him for a share in the prize.

Many scientists also believe that cruelty requires a theory of mind—that is, an ability to empathize. A behavior cannot be cruel, or kind for that matter, if one is not aware of the implications of said behavior. This perhaps explains the release of endorphins, the hormones responsible for "highs," that so often accompanies a cruel act. After a hunt, for example, the smell of blood and the sight of suffering often triggers such a release. Frans De Waal describes a couple of examples that demonstrate the cruelty/empathy foil well: chimpanzees luring chickens with bread, only to poke and harm them with wire as compared to a bonobo’s attempt to help a fallen bird to fly by emulating the creature’s behavior. Cruelty and compassion, then, are yin and yang to each other.

So what about humans specifically? Humans are social creatures and have lived in groups for the entirety of their existence. While intra-group cruelty exists, it is perhaps more common to think of it as a survival tactic to be used by one group against another. Its place can still be seen worldwide, from the horrific— genocide, wars, and gang battles—to the seemingly banal—the playground, women’s society luncheons, and gangs in musicals. Pitting one group against another, picking on another’s vulnerabilities—these are all staples of both ancient and modern society.

I eventually related this information to my life by deciding that the person I described at the beginning of this essay must have felt that he had some highly prized commodity to wave over me—namely, his medical school education. This would throw off the typical social hierarchy of my innate superiority, though only temporarily, and he was able to behave cruelly and assume I wanted what he had. He could then deem himself as having an advantage over me and experience the pleasure that comes from the release of endorphins in the brain.

Of course, as humans, the trick is that we all have differing views of what’s valuable and what’s not, so the justification for his cruelty, as seen by me, was unfounded and made him look like a bit of a doofus. I think that for a person who only has a B.S. in biological anthropology, that’s a pretty good explanation. But then, if someone wants to pit their dominance over me at me, by all means, go ahead.

Editor's Note: To read more about Frans De Waal, please visit the following sites.

Emory University Bio

Frans De Waal at Amazon

Audio Interview

Short Time Magazine piece

Short piece from New Scientist