Critics And Criticism

In the mid-1990’s, my parents bought our family’s first Internet-ready computer.  It was a PC–I don’t remember what kind–and it came with two CD-ROMs: Encarta and Cinemania.  I spent hours using both discs.  In a pre-YouTube era, watching minute-long videos or listening to sound clips on CD-ROM seemed like the height of technology, even if the quality was not great.

Cinemania was so much more than a disk version of IMDB.  Movies had reviews from three different critics: Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael.  In the mid-1990’s, everyone knew Roger Ebert because of his television show with his fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel.  Leonard Maltin I knew from his cameo in Gremlins 2.  Pauline Kael was a new to me.  At the time, I thought she was also the least of the three.  Cinemania only excerpted a paragraph from Kael’s reviews (unlike Ebert or Maltin, both of which were in full) and cited which of her books the review came from.  Her reviews made me angry, and I felt certain I would never read her books.

My next experience with Kael came from a joke on the short-lived cartoon series The Critic.  In retrospect it was rather mean joke at her expense (the sequence starts at about the 2:00 mark), but at the time I thought it was hilarious.  Still I had no idea who Kael was other than just another film critic.  It was not until after she died, and I read her obituary (there were many, and they all very long) that I got a sense of who she was and how important she was.  Eventually I did read one of her books, a compilation of her essays and reviews, and I developed an appreciation of her.  Certainly I had never read a film critic like her before.

This year, 10 years after her death, Kael is back in the public eye.  A new biography has sparked critical interest and reassessment.  Movie critics in particular are eager to talk about Kael and her legacy.  However, the larger cultural world too has taken notice.  While it is true that Kael wrote about the movies, to call Kael a movie critic is to miss the point.  She was a cultural critic, or perhaps more accurately, a cultural warrior.  I use the term “cultural warrior” however, not as we use it today, i.e. one involved in the American political struggle surrounding divisive social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, etc.)  Rather Kael, pugnacious by nature, wrote about and fought for her vision of American culture via her movie reviews and other writings.  To say that her legacy towers above all other movie critics misses the point.  Her successors, whether acolyte (a Paulette), opponent, or neither, remained movie critics.  Kael was so much more; she was a public intellectual.

Outside of literary criticism I cannot think of another critic in any genre who transcended his or her realm to become a fixture in the public debate.*  In today’s world, the person who comes closest to Kael is Camille Paglia, which is a truly depressing thought.**  Like Kael, Paglia loves her trash culture and defends, although Paglia does not have the coherence to match Kael.  In contrast, a public intellectual like Susan Sontag, who was in some ways, a mirror opposite of Kael, tended to write about culture from a lofty intellectual perch.

In the annals of film criticism, Kael was a unique figure.  In many ways, she was more like the founder of a school of thought.  And like any other such founder, she gathered an inner circle of proteges around her.  In some ways, this was an act of generosity as she nurtured the careers of many young writers (among them her successor at The New Yorker David Denby.)  On the other hand, Kael’s relationship to her Paulettes were no different from (for example) Freud to his inner circle or Ayn Rand to hers.  Kael, like Freud and Rand, demanded an ideological loyalty and cast out those who questioned the basic tenets.  As a result, the Paulettes were always inferior to Kael.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Criticism is more than just critics.  That is fortunate because in the years since Kael’s death, the importance of the critic has waned to almost nothing.  Can you name a famous literary critic?  As for film, there are no critics who, like Kael did, champion young directors anymore.  Perhaps this is not an entirely bad development (it was a source of much criticism against Kael).  In large part this is because culture has changed.  It is fragmented and corporatized–even more so than before.  High culture has all but disappeared, and trash culture monopolizes.  Only the lowest common denominator is catered to.

The public intellectual has largely been replaced by the know-it-all television pundit.  One can fairly debate what a public intellectual is now.  They were those who debated ideas in public outside the realm of academia.  People read what they wrote, which is why magazines that allowed for such debate, such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic, were so valuable.  In the age of television, reading is simply not so important anymore, and reasoned debate does not make good television.  Screaming and shouting is the preferred method.  The more ridiculous the story, the better (which is how you get this gem). Television does not want its audience to think, and there is no long form debate.

The Internet has diluted the debate even further.  Any fool with a blog can be aspire to be the next great public intellectual or social critic.  All he needs is an opinion and basic literacy, but that does not make him the next Lionel Trilling.  I think therefore I blog; I blog therefore I publish; I publish therefore I matter.  The problem is that separating the wheat from the chaff is nigh impossible on the Internet (to those still reading this post, thanks for thinking I have something worthwhile to say, although I do consider myself one of the fools.)

Ironically, the print media has made the Internet even worse.  Go to the website of any major newspaper and you will find it packed full of blogs.  Most of them, aspire to report rather than opine, although there are some that do not pretend to the print media’s nominal adherence to non-partisanship.***  Even worse than the online print news outlets are those online news sites that are only online.  I am thinking of Slate and Salon in particular, but there are many others.  The quality of Salon and Slate has been particularly damaged by giving their writers blogs.  Salon is the far more egregious of the two, but one expects that from a publication that gives platforms to hacks such as Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota (among others).  Salon has given up on the legitimacy in favor of preaching to its choir.†  Slate is headed in that direction.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A relative of mine wants to be a comedian.  I’ve never seen him perform, although in person he is quite trenchant and funny.  I fear however, that he has a view of comedians that is just unrealistic.  My relative’s hero is George Carlin, and in said relative’s mind, a great comedian should be like Carlin, social critics or speakers of truth to power.  In other words, a modern-day version of the fool from King Lear.

When Tracy Morgan made his now-infamous attempt at a comedy routine, and was thrown out in the cold by, among others, his boss Tina Fey, my relative was furious.  He thought that comedians should have the freedom to say whatever they want and the only thing they should be criticized for is not being funny (which by all accounts, save for one rapper, Morgan was not). My relative was especially angry at Tina Fey, and called her a hypocrite for speaking out against Morgan so forcefully.

The truth is that my relative is wrong, and not just in his deluded belief about the importance of comedians.  No one should be immune to criticism because of their occupation.  A comedian need not say the “right” (i.e. socially correct) things, but he should not be excused from potential backlash than a non-comedian for upsetting his audience.  Having the freedom to say whatever you want means have to accept that others have that same freedom.  Words have power, and those who take that power lightly do so to their own peril.

What my relative does not understand is that criticism is a two-way street.  Critics can (and do) become the criticized, and any public figure opens him or herself up to attack.  I have read many critics who complained about receiving hate mail after panning a blockbuster film.  Pauline Kael herself was always the focus of often vitriolic criticism (including her long-running feud with the film critic Andrew Sarris), and that was the way she liked it.  She dished it out, she took it, and she dished it out again.  That is why she alone among all film critics is still being discussed years after her death.

Footnotes:

* Both Frank Rich and Frank Bruni were critics at The New York Times (theater and food respectively), and not doubt both would claim they are now public intellectuals because they now engage in the larger sociopolitical debate.  I am not sure I would agree, that is besides the point.  Both left their positions as critics of culture to be social critics.

** Is there anyone, excluding politicians, who has a higher opinion of herself with less reason to than Camille Paglia?  Lazy thinking, a complete inability to self-reflect, and an iceberg-sized chip on the shoulder make for poor writing.  There is a reason why Molly Ivins’s brilliant take-down of Paglia has become legendary.  (This one is pretty good too.)

*** The illusion that the media should have no bias is not only misguided, it is pernicious.  When one side of the debate spouts off lies, then that just destroys the debate.  The media has the responsibility to report the truth not simply what both sides say and call it a day.

  Salon has basically given up on the idea of journalism.  There are no investigative pieces.  Even their book reviews come directly from the Barnes & Noble website, which makes Salon a shill.  Salon has also published an excerpt from the latest book by conservative gadfly and infamous homophobe Joseph Epstein, which proves that despite its claims to liberalism, the only orthodox views that Salon truly holds to are its staunch anti-Israel and its pro-Occupy Wall Street positions.

  It is very rare for a comedian to truly make a difference, and when they do it is usually because there is a court case involved (George Carlin, Lenny Bruce).  Otherwise, even the greatest and edgiest are no more than the boys (and girls, but mostly boys) in the back of the room who throw spit balls.  Most comedians cannot even rise up to that level, and mediocrity is rewarded, which is how Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have become corporate empires unto themselves.

Advertisements

Competitive Shopping: Why I Hate The Holiday Season

This week my boyfriend and I were talking about Black Friday.  He wanted to do some shopping, and I told him that I would not leave the house.  Black Friday is too crazy, and it is best to stay indoors.  I am not sure when this day after-Thanksgiving shopping mania started (the tradition of Black Friday predates me–at least locally if not nationally), but it seems like in the past few years Black Friday has taken on a life of its own.  Black Friday has completely subsumed Thanksgiving–the actual holiday is now mere prelude to the Christmas shopping that commences the next day.

My boyfriend and I were talking about how awful it was that Target forced employees to end their Thanksgiving early so that the retail giant could open at midnight.  I said to my boyfriend that I had an idea for a television advertisement: a bunch of people are sitting at a dinner table screaming at one another save for one poor person huddled in her chair.  Then we hear a narrator who says, “Need to get away from your family?  Wal-Mart is now open on Thanksgiving.”

Wal-Mart did open on Thanksgiving.  And so did other major retailers.  The truth though is that Black Friday has not just subsumed Thanksgiving, it has taken over the week before and the month after.  But there is something about Black Friday that makes people grow crazy, and every year there are problems that make the headlines.  This year it was some crazy woman in a California who pepper-sprayed other shoppers at a Wal-Mart.  It has been called “competitive shopping,” which is apparently a new euphemism for assault and battery.  That was only the most infamous incident though; there were others.

Look, I understand that this is not the Black Friday norm.  The vast majority of people don’t pepper spray their fellow shoppers no matter how good the deals might be.  But regardless of whether there is a violent incident or not, the collective cultural materialism from which this springs is out of control.

Don’t get me wrong; I like buying stuff too, and I understand the need to save money on good deals.  But there is nothing that I want enough and no deal sweet enough for me to pitch a tent outside a store just so that I could enter a store at 5 am.  And certainly not to attack another shopper with pepper spray.  These actions speak to an almost Ayn Randian level of selfishness that is apparently acceptable in our culture now (although one particular woman will probably be using the money she saved for legal fees) even though it is not outright approved.

The America that I grew up is has always been selfish to some extent.  I grew up in the 80’s, the “Me Decade,” and the self-involvement has only gotten worse since then.  In the last decade or so though materialism has reached an astounding level.  Not just in terms of shopping but also in terms of our politics.  It’s why a significant faction of one of the two major parties is calling for the end of our social welfare programs.  We don’t care about each other anymore, only ourselves.  Who cares if the elderly suffer because they have no money or the poor (working or otherwise) die because they have no healthcare so long as I can buy a high-definition television?  This is the United States 2011, and it’s a scary place.  The holiday season is a visible symptom of that selfishness because that is when the retailers work hardest to convince us that greed is good.*

Recently there has been a push back against this self-centered mindset, but it’s unfocused and headed by deeply controversial (and frankly confused) people.  Occupy Wall Street people occupied, well I’m not exactly sure what or what their goals were, but they started Occupy Black Friday.  Supposedly it has something to do with hurting the 1%, although I am not sure that holding signs outside of Wal-Mart and shopping at Mom and Pop stores one day out of the year is meaningful action (even from a symbolic point of view.)

I would make a suggestion.  Rather than buy stuff, why not go out to do some actual good for the community.  Or perhaps donate to a charity in a loved one’s name.  (I recommend the Ali Forney Center.  They do important work, and they need support.)

Although there has been some reaction against the Black Friday mentality in the media, for the most part it has been muted.  I saw one essay in Salon that echoes my concerns.  But mostly, the negativity this year seems to me to be in articles about how turkey is actually not all that good, is too dry, cannot be cooked right, and makes for bad leftovers.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising given how the media is largely owned by corporations.  They are no less consumer-driven than retailers.

This is only going to get worse.  Maybe there will not be competitive shopping next year, but over-abundant greed and selfishness do not just go away once the new year arrives.  The holiday season is turning a mirror on American society, and I for one fear and dislike what I see.

Footnotes: 

* And my God, do they have to only play Christmas music both in the stores and on the radio stations for a full month?  Does anyone actually like that?  I find it completely unbearable.

Random Thought Of The Day

This week’s football action was preempted by an international break.  While there are Euro, African Cup of Nations, and World Cup qualifiers, there were also completely meaningless matches, like those between Spain and Chile and the United States and Costa Rica.  In both of those meaningless matches, fights broke out at the end.

Is it same to say that the concept of an international friendly is dead?

In Praise Of The Journeyman

This weekend La Liga finally begins.  It should have started last week, but those fixtures did not take place because the players from the top two Spanish leagues went on strike.  Sid Lowe explains the reasons and demands much better than I can, so I recommend his column for the background.  At its heart, the strike was about wages, specifically player protections when their clubs have spent too much (which happens all too frequently in La Liga) and cannot pay the players’ wages.  This is an issue very important to players across the spectrum of Spanish football, and it is very telling that players such as Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, David Villa, and Xabi Alonso–players who will never be in that situation–have given their visible and ardent support.  When it seems like the players of Barcelona and Real Madrid fight over everything else, they united for this.

Coincidentally, Italy’s Serie A is not beginning this week because of, you guessed it, a players’ strike.

A lot of people who might read about or hear about this issue may scoff at players demanding wages.  Certainly some of the more disingenuous club owners have done so.  I suspect that the average fan’s reaction was to scoff, thinking this has to do with inflated wages, contracts, and transfer fees.  I also suspect that the visible presence of famous players from Barcelona and Real Madrid did not engender much sympathy to the cause.

I fully supported the players’ actions.  Casillas, Puyol, Villa, Alonso, and the rest are came together not for themselves, but in solidarity with players from those clubs without hope of playing in Europe and without a Spanish (or other nation’s) National Team presence.  These players do not get paid exorbitant wages and do not receive millions in endorsements.  They are journeymen, and are treated as such.  If the journeyman suffers a career-ending injury, he does not have millions to fall back on.  Instead he has to find a different career, either within his sport (which in many cases is all he knows) or without.  One of the trapped Chilean miners is a former footballer.

When we think about football or any sport, we think about the stars both in the past and the present.  Messi, Beckham, Pele, Jordan, Gretzky, Rodriguez, Ruth, Manning, Montana, Tendulkar, Laver, Federer, Graf, Williams, Navratilova, and so on.  We do not however, think of the thousands of journeyman around the world who cannot win over and over again at the highest level, but are still good enough to compete.  You know of them; they are the athletes whose names we don’t know.  Like their famous counterparts, they have a very limited shelf-life, a small window of opportunity to ply their trade before age (around 30) catches up with them, and they fall into total obscurity.  Athleticism is a gift, but it is a fleeting one.

Greatness is subjective, and that is why the Pele/Maradona debate will rage on throughout the generations.  Yet there is also some kind of objectivity to identifying greatness.  There is only one Messi, and to deny that something sets him apart from his peers is to dwell in churlishness. Yet without the journeymen, a Messi could not show how special he actually is.  To prove his greatness, he needs foils, those mere mortals who cannot match his greatness.  Although in the case of Messi, even his most talented peers look average, the majority of his foils are players who are good enough to be professional, but not good enough to be stars.  Some of these lesser players can be the top dogs in mediocre leagues, but they choose to stay where the best game is.  Some of these players would be lesser no matter which league they play in.  This is not unique to La Liga.  Ever league around the world needs journeymen so that the true talents can distinguish themselves.  It seems like a cruel fate.

I have tremendous respect for journeyman players.  They have spent their lives dedicated to something they love, despite the fact that they are putting their bodies and health at risk, despite the fact that they will never get paid like their more famous counterparts, and despite the fact that some of them are only semi-professional and need outside jobs to pay the bills.  Journeymen continue to play, not for the wealth, but so that they can do what they love.  There is honor in that.  I am glad that they players got some measure of victory, because most of them are not making millions.  Like us, they have mortgages and families, and a lifetime of responsibility.  They only have a little bit of time to earn money from the game before they have to move on into an unknown future.

Sexuality And The Female Athlete

One of the great things about keeping a blog is you get to see what search results lead people to your writing.  The biggest search term to this blog is “Bob Bradley must go,” which if you are a follower of this blog you will know why.  A big search topic (perhaps the biggest search to lead people to this blog) is about Bruna’s handball at the World Cup.

In the past few weeks I have noticed a bunch of people have come to my blog asking if certain female footballers are gay.  I fear that I have done an injustice to those people who have come to my blog looking for a definitive answer only to find that I do not even address the question.

Honestly, I don’t know.  Unless the person in question publicly comes out, I tend not to care.

I am not trying to be glib, nor am I casting aspersions on those who ask.  What fascinates me is the question itself.  I am hesitant to name whose sexuality has been searched, but I will say none of them were either Alex Morgan or Hope Solo.  I believe that is telling, and I have a theory about why that is.  Here is my caveat, the number of searches to my blog is not a particularly large sample size.  Take from that what you will.

So why not Hope Solo and Alex Morgan?  Because they are two conventionally beautiful, classically feminine women.  Alex Morgan in particular makes femininity something of a calling card, so much so that her trademark color is pink (her headband and matching sports bra, which was quite visible under her white US Women’s jersey.  I suspect that there was some awareness of that when she chose the color.)  Beautiful women get attention, specifically male attention.  On World Football Daily, I heard all about the producer’s Alex Morgan lust or Kenny Hassan’s crush on France’s Louisa Necib.  Hope Solo feminized her image over the last few years.  Compare this World Cup to 2007, and there is no question.  This new feminine Solo (complete with meek, coquettish voice) was highlighted by the soft-light, taped interviews she did with ESPN.  The truth though is that Solo’s demure image masks the fact that she is all kinds of crazy.

It should come as no surprise that Solo and Morgan have gotten more post-World Cup exposure than any other of their teammates except maybe Abby Wambach, the unofficial team leader, the most recognizable US name of the past five to eight years, and a World Cup hero.

In contrast, the women whose names have popped up in these search engine searches defy the girly-girl image.  Some have short, boyish hair.  Some, when they sweat, look rather fierce, or have visible tattoos.  And two have been the epitome of fiery competitors; they are two of the game’s all time greats.

Sexuality in sports is a very complicated subject.  If a man plays a team sport he is automatically assumed to be straight, but when a woman plays a sport (excluding those like gymnastics and figure skating which fetishize the feminine) her sexuality is–not exactly suspect–but is more subject to scrutiny.  Around the world, society is fairly rigid in terms of gender conformity.  The United States is no exception although the rigidity has eased in the past few decades.  Nevertheless, definite lines still exist on some level.  Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.  Girls plays with dolls, boys with trucks.  Girls dance, boys play sports.  Girls do play sports though, and in greater numbers than ever.  I think there may be more girls registered for football in the United States than boys.  Thanks to Title IX, women’s sports are widespread both at college and high school level.  As a result, we have seen powerhouse dynasties like the North Carolina women’s soccer team and rivalries like the Connecticut/Tennessee in women’s basketball.*

Even though women in sports is acceptable now, the specter of gender nonconformity (and the undercurrent of lesbianism) has not truly gone away.  It is more acceptable in the United States to play football than softball because softball is a “lesbian sport.”  Although there are lesbian softball players, the sport is no more a “lesbian sport” than any other.  This is not a judgment of right or wrong, it’s a media-induced perception (a media that generally ignores softball.)  Stereotypes have a germ of truth in them somewhere, which is why they are stereotypes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It used to be that women’s tennis was a lesbian sport.  And again there was a grain of truth to it in that some of the all-time great players in history were lesbians, including arguably the game’s finest player, and one of the most significant athletes in all of sports history.

Because of the prominence of lesbian players in women’s tennis though, the sport is a far more tolerant place, and homophobia is far less acceptable.  When Margaret Court said that Martina Navratilova was not a role model, and spewed her Anita Bryant-esque filth, tennis essentially rejected her.  Court gets the occasional honor, such as the Australian Open court that bears her name, but no on in tennis is clamoring to preserve her legacy even though she won the Grand Slam in 1970 and has more major titles, both in singles and overall, than any other person in history.  To the non-ardent tennis fan, probably the most famous fact about Court is that she choked and lost to Bobby Riggs in the first Battle of the Sexes.

One incident in particular shows how much tennis has progressed.  In the semifinals of the 1999 Australian Open, Lindsay Davenport, then the world’s top player faced an unseeded Frenchwoman named Amélie Mauresmo.  Mauresmo, with her powerful ground strokes, shocked the establishment by beating Davenport, no slouch in the power department herself.  After the match Davenport said she felt like she was playing a man.  Although this was meant to be a compliment to Mauresmo’s power, Mauresmo is a lesbian, and publicly came out.  Davenport, mortified at the implications of what she said, apologized profusely to Mauresmo.  Mauresmo lost the final to Martina Hingis, the defending champion and former top ranked player in the world.  After the match, Hingis referred to Mauresmo as “half a man.”  Hingis’s comment set off a firestorm of criticism that she could not understand,** as world fandom generally sided with Mauresmo.  More importantly, Mauresmo’s sponsors openly supported her after she came out (loss of sponsors is a primary fear for the gay athlete, or so we are told.)  The world had completely changed since Navratilova and Billie Jean King were snubbed by sponsors for being gay.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

1999, the year that Mauresmo announced herself to the world on both a professional and personal level, was a significant year for women’s sports because of the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.  A milestone for women’s sports, the World Cup was also fascinating from a media and marketing perspective.

If women’s football has one superstar, it is Mia Hamm.  Even the football-haters know her name.  Hamm is so utterly intertwined with women’s football, that she has achieved that ambassadorial status that only Pele occupies only she does it with honor rather than embarrassing herself.  This is no exaggeration, she’s a global ambassador for Barcelona, a club that she is in no other way associated.  Hamm was never the best player out there, which she herself would be the first to tell you, but since the 1996 Olympics Hamm has been the face of women’s football.  Literally,  The WPS logo is her silhouette.  I don’t begrudge Hamm any of this, even if I seem critical.  She’s worked hard, suffered for sport and team, and earned her legacy.  She’s given back tenfold what she got from the sport.

Yet Hamm is a reticent personality, and is not particularly media-savvy; even now she seems a bit uncomfortable on camera.  Yet of all the women’s football players in the world, Hamm is by far the most renowned.  She was signed endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade (for whom she featured in a very famous commercial with a very famous costar) but she was also a spokeswoman for Pert Plus and promoted a Soccer Barbie.  There is nothing wrong with that, but one wonders if Hamm, a very beautiful heterosexual woman, would have gotten those avenues opened to her were she either not conventionally attractive or an open lesbian.

Women’s football is aided by the fact that it is uncontroversial for young girls to play.  It is not stereotyped as a “lesbian sport.”  There have always been openly lesbian players, including the current coach of the US Women’s National Team.  The first great female footballer in history was a lesbian.  But by and large the most prominent American personalities in women’s football are heterosexual, and usually conventionally attractive.***

In 1999, there was a tendency to harp on (1) the “babe” factor of the USWNT, and (2) the fact that certain members of the USWNT were mothers.  Not much has changed in women’s football with regard to the motherhood aspect; it’s emphasized a lot.  This year it was all about Christie Rampone, team captain and mother of two.   On one hand, one understands where this comes from.  Emphasizing the motherhood aspect shows how dedicated these women are, both to their families and their sport.  It’s noble.  On the other hand, it also plays up the heterosexuality of these players.  They are mothers, therefore the implication is that they have husbands.

Mercifully, the lead-up to this World Cup did not include the sex-sells marketing of 1999 (for the American team, for the French and Germans it was more explicit.)  The American women were promoted as athletes and, surprise!, there were a ratings success.  On the other hand, because there was not such in-your-face heterosexuality being trumpeted from the rooftops, I suspect that is why I see so may searches asking if certain players are gay.

The question is not whether the personal lives of athletes should go unmentioned.  The issue is whether a lesbian player with or without a wife (and children) would be treated with the same reverence, or would the story be ignored and the media excuses itself for that squeamishness by saying that it is that player’s personal business.  The media repeatedly commits this sin of omission.  Watching the movie A League of Their Own, one would think that all the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were avowedly heterosexual, which was untrue.†

I suspect an openly gay, professional female athlete would have an easier time being herself than her male counterpart.‡  Despite the preponderance of baseball teams recording “It Gets Better” videos (do gay people even make them anymore, or is it just companies marketing their brands to an audience with a huge disposable income?), I am far from convinced that an openly gay male player would be welcomed by either the club hierarchies or the fans.  In contrast, I do believe that lesbian athletes would be with minimal difficulty from clubs, fans, and teammates.  Navratilova, once the villain of women’s tennis, is now a universally beloved icon. I wonder if deep down, the gender definitions still rule, and people just expect it.

Footnotes: 

* Women’s college sports, though mainstream, still brings out controversy.  Title IX is constantly challenged both in court and in public opinion.  When women’s teams do something spectacular, they are always degraded as “a women’s team.”  To wit: when UConn broke the record this season for most consecutive wins, the dinosaurs in the sports media acted as guardians of someone else’s legacy, and howled that UConn was only able to accomplish this because it was in women’s basketball and therefore the disparity was much greater.  This ignoring the obvious rejoinder, which is when UCLA set the record, John Wooden’s Bruins also benefited from a similar disparity.

** Tact, alas, was never one of Martina Hingis’s strong suits.  Success probably came too early for her, and at that time she saw herself as the tennis diva and often acted as such.  Yet in an age where sports figures try never to say anything controversial, her honesty was both refreshing and  infuriating.  Although she did not know it at the time, the 1999 Australian Open final would be her final major singles title.  In the 1999 French Open final, Hingis met Steffi Graf and imploded both on the court and afterwards in now-legendary fashion that, along with her comments about Mauresmo, earned her the ire of the French fans, who for the next several years mercilessly taunted her whenever she played at Roland Garros.  Hingis’s career is perhaps the perfect subject for a critical and literary reevaluation; her peak era came as the intelligent, creative, and artistic game that she specialized in waned due to the pressure of the power game best exemplified by her challengers-turned-archrivals-turned-tormentors, the Williams Sisters.

*** At this point, I feel like I have to say “not that there’s anything wrong about that” after every sentence.  Please just assume it’s there so that my writing will be less clunky.  I’m not judging anything, just observing.

† I liked the movie a lot, particularly the scene that subtly acknowledged the racism of the league and of segregation.  However, Penny Marshall did a great disservice by not including any mention, subtle or otherwise, of the fact that the league expelled open lesbians and forced a code of strict heterosexuality over all the players.

‡  This is for the United States.  A gay female footballer in Nigeria would still have a hard time.

Bat and Ball Games

For the past two days, I have been listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the England/India cricket matches in England.  I have no idea what is going on, although I gather that England is winning.  There is something very soothing about this commentary; it is not excitable like some football commentary (no GOOOOOL! calls.)  It is definitely not for the beginner, yet I could listen to it all day; it is so soothing.

I have written about my fascination for cricket, and I continue to be fascinated by cricket because it is so inscrutable, aided by a lingo that verges on the ridiculous to the outsider.  Cricket is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, which is why the prominent nations are England and former British colonies (including Australia, New Zealand, a conglomerate of Caribbean countries, nations of the South Asian subcontinent, and former British holdings in Africa.)  Unlike football, which spread beyond the official and unofficial British Empire and continues to grow, cricket seems content to be beloved by the few (granted “few” is well over a billion and a half.)  Cricket deliberately limits outsiders, which smacks of elitism and Empire.  Is there any question why cricket has not spread?

Learning another sport is like learning a language.  You have to get the vocabulary, but you also have to learn the grammar, the nuances, and at least be able to distinguish regional dialects.  For an American (me), football is like Spanish.  It’s something I’ve been aware of since I was a child and learned the odd word.  Like Spanish, football is generally easy to learn.  Baseball in contrast, the prototypical “American” sport, is like English.  Whether you like or dislike baseball, if you are American, you are surrounded by it from birth.  Baseball is part of American national heritage, and its slang has infiltrated American English.  I am no fan of baseball (I always raise an eyebrow when a baseball fan complains that football is boring), yet I can follow a baseball game, which I often have to do when I visit my family.  In contrast, cricket (for an American) is like Latin or ancient Greek, or perhaps Sanskrit.  Every once in a blue moon, you come across a cricket term in American English, but those terms are few, far between, and their origin has been completely obscured.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Baseball and cricket are very similar, almost cousins.  Both have their origins in English bat and ball folk games, much like football, both rugby codes, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic football, and American football and its derivatives all descend from their own ur-sport.  The similarities between baseball and cricket go well beyond origin though.  Both are slavishly obsessed with statistics and quantification.  Both have a mythic development site; cricket has the Marylebone Cricket Club which established the rules of the game, and baseball has Cooperstown, New York, where according to discredited legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cow pasture (regardless of the veracity of the Doubleday legend, baseball firmly affixed its imprimatur on the story by housing its Hall of Fame in the town.)

Another similarity between baseball and cricket is literature.  Yesterday while I was listening to the BBC’s cricket coverage, one of the commentators mentioned that cricket is a game that spawned wide body of literature, while football has not.  At least in English–I cannot speak to other languages–there is some truth to this; cricket lends itself to literature (of variable quality) whereas football literature is not quite of the same breadth.  Some of England’s greatest writers have written about cricket.  Baseball, like cricket, lends itself to a literary culture although for different reasons.  There is some remarkably literary fiction and non-fiction written about baseball or using baseball as a theme, metaphor, or launching pad for a larger idea.  One of the great essays that I have read is Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio “The Silent Season of a Hero.” (Talese also wrote an essay about women’s football, specifically about Liu Ying, the Chinese player whose penalty kick was saved in the 1999 World Cup final.)

Despite what BBC cricket commentator believe, it is not true that football lacks a body of literature, but one cannot deny that a football’s literary culture is not of the same caliber as either cricket or baseball–at least in English; I cannot speak to other languages.  Much of the great football literature is either memoir, history, journalistic, or originated in fan culture or on the Internet.  There are some famous standouts, Eduardo Galeano’s romantic history Football in Sun and Shadow (in Spanish), and Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch are two of the most famous.  (In fiction, football is woefully lacking.  I have not read The Damned United, which seems to be the only work of football fiction in English, but I did see the movie.)  Football literature probably does not have the same influence and import that cricket and baseball-related literature do.

(This paragraph is all theory, I have no research to back it up, so please feel free to agree, disagree, and present alternative theories.)  If I had to wager a guess, the reason for baseball’s popularity among the literati is because, unlike in Britain, there is not a strong social class distinction in American society.  I would also guess that the reason there is more literature about cricket than football is because the elite of British society, which preferred cricket, tended to be the educated class, and Britain’s literary output came from that educated class.  Football, being the game of the masses, was until recent times left out in the cold.  In contrast,  baseball was enjoyed across the American social and geographic spectra while sport associated with either the British Empire and/or the elite fell into a niche or petered out (today’s American national cricket team has but one actual American player.)  Because baseball was seen as so quintessentially American, immigrants and their children became fanatically devoted to the sport.  Some of those children became writers (Bernard Malamud, Talese, etc.) and baseball inspired them in some way.

Because literary culture is not what it used to be,* there may never be the great literary football fiction.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; football has gotten along fine without it, and the history and development of the game is just as fascinating.  The sport which boasts the finest literary (and cinematic and artistic) body or work is boxing, which proves that just because the artistic output is great it does not mean the sport is.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

This weekend I briefly watched the World Cup of Softball on ESPN.  If you are like me, you didn’t know there was a World Cup of Softball.  There is also apparently a Softball World Championship.  Apparently these are run by different organizations.  I must admit I am not all that interested in the intricacies of world softball governance.

Softball is an odd sport.  Taken at face value, softball is like baseball for people who aren’t good enough to play baseball, and do not have the necessary training.  It also requires much less space.  This explains why softball is a more popular sport to play.  From 1996-2008 softball was an Olympic sport, but then I never realized it existed.  In that time, softball was dominated by the US team, which is one of the reasons it is no longer an Olympic sport.  Today, only a handful of nations play softball seriously (it’s The Onion, you can laugh.)  Ironically (bitterly so), at the last softball match in the Olympics, the US lost its title to Japan.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy baseball, I do understand it, which is why I can say that watching even a little bit of the World Cup of Softball was like watching a train wreck; it was excruciating to see but impossible to turn away from.

Although both men and women play softball across the country, the sport is inextricable from gender politics.  Baseball is for men and softball is for women.  When the Olympics eliminated softball, baseball too was eliminated.  There was not a big push to keep baseball, but softball became something of a cause célèbre.  Baseball does not need the Olympics to sustain itself and increase its audience (or marketing potential), but softball has no other major venue despite having two world championships.  Thanks to the Olympics, softball was in the vision (peripheral perhaps but vision nonetheless) of the American public.  Softball even produced a legitimate media star in Jennie Finch, although she was noted as much for her beauty as for her copious athletic ability.**

I want to support softball, at least in theory.  Under this theory I support women’s basketball and I know the names of some players even though I find basketball to be almost as painful to watch as baseball.  The difference though is that unlike women’s football and women’s basketball, softball is not women’s baseball, it’s a watered-down version of a sport that women once played, and still do.  Softball was basically forced onto women because baseball was a closed shop.  Title IX, which usually made things better for women, only added to the problem.  Baseball and softball were deemed to be equivalent, and if the school offered softball, it could keep women out of baseball (women’s baseball has a long and tortured history.)  As a result, generations of women were forced into an ersatz baseball.

I don’t want to come down too hard on softball, because I don’t want to belittle the players.  They are great athletes who train very hard.  Furthermore, the national softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) is not exactly setting the nation aflame.  There are fewer teams there than in the WPS.  On the other hand, according to NPR, women who play for the National Baseball Team get even less respect.  Did you know there was a World Cup for Women’s Baseball or before that a Women’s World Series (both of which having teams from countries other than just the US and Canada)?  Me neither.

I have not seen a women’s baseball match, so I cannot speak to the skill level involved.  I am not sure what kind of market, if any, there is for women’s baseball or softball, but I imagine that the divide hurts both, particularly women’s baseball.  Women’s baseball is decades behind in growth and I imagine that, like me, most people do not realize it exists.  In the NPR article that I linked to, I found this very poignant quote:

“Despite what they achieved, they never got the recognition they deserved,” says Nicholas A. Lopardo, general manager of the 2004 USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “We’re still scratching our heads to figure out why.”

This phenomenon is not unique to women’s baseball.  Just ask any member of the 1991 USWNT who won the first football World Cup in China.  The good news is that it can get better if the stars align.  Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that softball is a legitimate alternative and that women can and should play baseball.  Just like the men.

Footnotes:

* I cannot say for sure why literary culture has basically vanished from the US, but I suspect there is blame on all sides.  We have a television-driven media that shuns any indication that the lowest common denominator is neither low nor common.  In other words, the media believes that we are all imbeciles and treats as us such.  There are exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between.  The literati are also to blame for this.  Tolstoy and Dickens serialized their novels in literary and popular magazines.  Today, the universities have monopolized and gentrified high culture.  To be a “great” writer (as opposed to a popular one), one needs to (1)  get an MFA from a prestigious program; (2) craft sentences like Nabokov or Joyce only more incomprehensible; (3) ensure that only a select few (mainly university professors) will read, care about, and understand your fiction; (4) write about topics that the plebs (the general reading populace) cannot relate to; (5) focus heavily on the inner lives of “flawed” (i.e. shallow) central characters; (6) win prestigious awards that a publisher can put on a dust jacket; and (7) shun and belittle all attempts to attract a larger public.  Also, you need to degrade both anything the larger reading public likes and that public itself for liking it.

** Finch also had the advantage of being a beautiful heterosexual player in a sport that, unfairly, has been stereotyped as a lesbian sport in the same way that men’s figure skating has been unfairly stereotyped as a gay men’s sport.  While both softball and figure skating are perhaps more welcoming to gay and lesbian competitors and fans, it does a great disservice to both those sports and their competitors.  It also harms their numbers.  Coincidentally, neither women’s football nor women’s basketball are perceived as lesbian sports in the United States, and are therefore okay.  Nigeria is a different situation.

On The Muppets

It’s time to get things started. 

Recently I started reading Live From New York, a behind-the-scenes history of Saturday Night Live.  In the first season of SNL,  there was a recurring sketch called “The Land of Gorch,” which featured a cast of what could be called Muppets-for-adults.  Although Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and company were the puppeteers, the sketches were written by the SNL writers who absolutely loathed writing for puppets.  The Muppets (adult or no) were a bad fit for SNL, and they were eventually dropped, but one line in Live From New York stands out for me.  Writer Alan Zweibel complained that:

There was one character named Skred [sic], and I remember we’re reading the sketch, Jim Henson’s reading the pages, and he gets to a line and says, “Oh, Skred wouldn’t say this.” And I look, and on a table over there is this cloth thing that is folded over like laundry, and it’s Skred. “Oh, but he wouldn’t say this.”

This, I think illustrates two important points.  The first is that the original SNL writers (who were admittedly wrapped up in their own self-importance) never understood the magic of the Muppets and refused to buy into it.  The second is that Jim Henson understood exactly what he created.

Over the past few months I have been rewatching all of The Muppet Show episodes that have been released on DVD (including an episode with SNL legend Gilda Radner), and it strikes me that even though I had not actually watched a full episode since I was young, I feel exactly the same about the Muppets now as I did back when I was but a child.  In fact, I would say I appreciate the Muppets more now than I ever did back then.  Now I understand broad comedy, and vaudeville, and the brilliance of one-liners.  I know exactly who the guest stars are, and I appreciate their contributions to the show.  A child may not know who Ethel Merman is and still enjoy her appearance, but an adult can fully appreciate seeing her sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with the cast of The Muppet Show. Perhaps not surprisingly, I cannot remember watching any specific sketches as a child, but now so many of them are indelibly etched in my memory.

One thing that has not changed for me though is the most fundamental truism that I learned as a child.  The Muppets are real.  Yes, I understand that they are all made of fabric, that they are controlled and voiced by puppeteers, and that their lines are written by writers.  Nevertheless, the Muppets are real, far more real than any other television or movie character.  They have their personalities, their own voices, and their own outlooks on life.  The Muppets are quite simply alive.  Jim Henson understood this, and that is why he knew what Scred would and would not say.  What Zweibel appears not to understand is that what makes the best fictional characters so memorable is how shaped their personalities are.  Just as Alyosha Karamazov would never take a gun and start shooting everyone around him, Lucy Ricardo would not decide she just wants to be another housewife, and SNL’s own Lisa Loopner would never suddenly be cool, we could never expect the Muppets to act out of character.  When I watch the Muppets (or Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, etc.), I do not see puppets.  I see fully realized characters interacting with the world around them.

No Muppet illustrates this more than Miss Piggy, perhaps the most fully realized Muppet of all.  Kermit is the put-upon leader of the group, who at heart is completely innocent, Fozzie Bear is a deeply insecure soul who just wants to be liked and uses his perception of humor as the means of winning approval, Rowlf the Dog is a world-weary show-biz veteran who expresses his inner self through music, and Gonzo is an attention-seeker who goes to greater and greater lengths to be noticed.  But Miss Piggy is different; she is larger than life (no doubt she would try to karate chop me for saying this, but I swear, it’s not a fat joke, it’s a comment on her personality.)  Every action she makes is informed by a surprisingly rich inner life, an inner life that the audience neither knows nor needs to know anything about.

Miss Piggy, like Fozzie is deeply insecure.  Unlike Fozzie, she does not just want to be liked; she wants to be adulated.  She is someone who both knows at her core that she is a star and fears that she is not.  In the first season, Richard Hunt and Frank Oz switched off playing Miss Piggy, but her personality formed as she became the sole possession of Frank Oz, so much so that she is undoubtedly the character most identified with him (out of a cast that includes, among others, Fozzie, Cookie Monster, and Yoda.)  Oz saw Miss Piggy as a truck driver, and that is the key to her personality.

The truest way to understand Miss Piggy is to realize that she is a drag queen.  Miss Piggy is an exaggerated version of the diva just as a drag queen is an exaggerated homage of glamorous women.  A woman cannot play her; it has to be a man.  Despite her attempts at ultra-femininity–the faux-French, the “kissy kissy” mannerisms, the all-around glamor–Miss Piggy is the most testosterone-laden Muppet out there, and every karate chop (followed by the feminine smoothing of her hair) is testament to that.  The femininity is a (poor) disguise for how masculine Miss Piggy really is.

But that is what makes Miss Piggy both so memorable and so lovable.  Although a human being with her personality would be diagnosed as a narcissist and would be intolerable to be around, Miss Piggy’s foibles are what make her both beloved and real.  At their core, the Muppets, no matter how violent and crazy they may seem, are innocents.  If there is a complaint against their verisimilitude, it is that they are too innocent and too pure to be real.  But that is why they are so lovable.  They are like the Velveteen Rabbit; because of all the love and affection that I had and have for them, they do not just seem real, they are real.  With every episode I have rewatched, I am struck by how the guest stars too seem to believe that.  Whether it is Bernadette Peters singing Just One Person to Robin, Julie Andrews serenading Kermit, or Elton John doing a duet with Miss Piggy (Eat your heart out, Kiki), the guests too seem to buy into the illusion of reality.

I have not been able to get excited about the new movie coming out.  I know some other fans of my generation are thrilled by it.  But just as one does not simply get a new voice, I cannot reconcile myself to the Muppets following Jim Henson’s death (and the deaths and retirements of other Muppeteers.)  I think this is not necessarily a bad thing.  I cannot accept these changes because, despite the fact that the Muppets are completely improbable, they are too real to be simply interchangeable.