Archive for the 'The media' Category

Jane Austen and (eek!) modern moral instruction

December 4, 2009

The WSJ has a wonderful article by James Collins on Jane Austen, which contends that “to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”

E-gad! Moral instruction? I thought she was all about romance! How perfectly embarrassing to the modern reader who, according to Collins, “sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But this seems absurd: Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.”

Certainly, the morality of some of her characters is their most maddening — and endearing — aspect. I want to throttle Anne Eliot in “Persuasion” as she loyally listens to that dreadful Lady Russell’s disparagements of the lowly Captain Wentworth while the couple burns with love and longing. I find that Elinor’s tightly held “Sense” in denying herself the company of the already-promised Edward compared to Marianne’s reckless “Sensibility” over the faithless Willoughby makes Elinor look all buttoned up and frustrated — the classical spinster, like her creator.

But, as Collins says, Anne and Elinor can best be understood in the context of their — and their author’s — time, which enforced heavy constraints on women. Men like Wickham and Willoughby could be complete cads and still have a place in society, but their female victims couldn’t. Can’t argue with that.

As for life in the 21st century, I admit that, after a day on the Internet checking in on major media outlets (which is actually part of my job), I crawl home into my book nook and find in Austen and her world a happy retreat. Social-climbing couples crash White House galas, serial adultery has become the rule among the glitterati, snark is the hot new form of discourse, continuing corruption on an almost laughable scale plagues business and government, and tales of encroaching poverty and personal collapse rival anything Dickens ever wrote. ‘Twas ever thus, I know, but elements of modern society seem hell-bent on finding new acts of escalating outrageousness, mostly for purposes of self-promotion. (Don’t get me started on Adam Lambert…)

Collins, in the WSJ article, seems to agree:

Perhaps Austen’s strictness is very old-fashioned, but anyone can find merit in the concepts of honor, duty, and obedience. Those strings have gone so slack that there’s nothing wrong in their being tightened by a sympathetic reading of this aspect of Austen; they will loosen again soon enough.

I would argue that it is this very morality that has kept readers across the centuries so deeply attached to Austen’s works — along with her sharply drawn characters, who are so often defined by their morality, or lack of it.

My surest proof of that would be the Bennet sisters, whose personal responses to the moral challenges of their time form an almost-perfect scale, from the meek, long-suffering Jane on down to the reckless libertine Lydia, with the savvy Elizabeth in the middle. We resonate to all those tones. The extremes are equally irritating, and we look for some sort of resolution. In short, we want to be Elizabeth — at least I do, unless I could be Darcy, with his 50,000 a year that gives him the leisure and the means to set everything right.

So which is it? Moral instruction, or great characters and romance? Can you separate them? Does it even matter? I just know I’m going to keep on reading — and savoring — Jane Austen.


New site alert:

May 12, 2009

Salon Slate, one of my long-time favorite Web conglomerates, is beta-testing a new site,, for us double exes. (No, not dress size. Us women. Any url with a capital X in it is probably a porn site, eh?) It has a rather thought-provoking, not entirely positive essay on Elizabeth Edwards’ public humiliation and her reaction to it, as well as another essay on why the snarky is bad for women. Worth looking at.

Thanks for the correction, Jane. I can’t keep up with myself sometimes.

I’ve regained my will to live

April 1, 2009

The Brothers Weinstein — those uber-schlumpy fatshionistas — have finally settled their lawsuit with NBC/Bravo, clearing the way for Project Runway to sashay on over to Lifetime, a move that some fans think will be the death of the series. (Bravo = cool, Lifetime = not so much…)

Actually, I’m more concerned about the status of Tim “Make It Work!” Gunn. His genuine concern for the designers is one of the most heartfelt aspects of the show, and his insights are terrific. Heidi is just frakkin’ annoying.

Anyway, I can now exhale. This bit of good news comes just as I’m trying to come to terms with life without Battlestar Galactica. (My tastes, it appears, are catholic.)

Global recession

March 19, 2009

This photo essay from the Boston Globe, courtesy of the always-interesting Nancy Nall, cries out louder than most news stories I’ve read about the recession and its global impact. I was particularly pained by the empty Rocky Mountain News offices and a technicolor wasteland of newspaper vending machines. Having spent a lot of my life in newsrooms, which are rarely quiet or empty, those were particularly poignant for me. (It would appear I’m already deadened to the sight of entire families living out of hotel rooms…)

Are we really just a few up days on the Dow from reversing the downturn? If we are, will we have learned anything?

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Great understatements of our time

February 4, 2009

This was the summary of a NYTimes story posted on my Google Reader site today:

Allegations that the former C.I.A. station chief in Algiers may have filmed himself having sex with women he drugged and raped could impair efforts to improve relations between the United States and the Islamic world.

NO KIDDING? WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE? I’m so glad we have the Times to sort these things out for us…

Project Runway 6: Is it in — or out?

February 2, 2009

imagesOkay, true confessions: I am a Project Runway junkie. No apologies, even though I’m probably WAY outside its target demographic. Although I didn’t discover this little Bravo Channel gem until its fourth season, I’ve been a loyal convert, and I managed to keep up my enthusiasm even though last season was about as blah as Leanne’s color palette. The Spouse even watched it with me, and he’s better at picking who’s “out” than I am.

I particularly like seeing how the designers overcome the weekly challenges and manage to create fashion out of spit and baling wire, but I secretly revel in all the snarky moments. (There’s a shallow, lip-curling DIVA locked somewhere inside me who really would like to cut loose sometimes…)

It now appears, if I can trust The LATimes, that Season 6 will likely not be appearing on TVs near me or you anytime soon, due to that famous legal battle between the fabulous Weinstein Brothers (who own the series and want to move it to Lifetime) and Bravo (which is owned by NBC), which isn’t letting go of this cash cow without a fight. (Oh, and they want to move it from NYC to LA, which I think is a mistake, but perhaps I underestimate the Angeleno fashion scene.)

While taping of the series appears to be continuing and may have even concluded, we may just have to wait until the lawyers get paid before we get to see it:

In September, a New York state Supreme Court judge issued a preliminary injunction to keep Lifetime from airing or promoting “Runway.” Lifetime then filed its own complaint in October, trying to get the case moved to federal court. A federal judge rejected that move in December, sending the matter back to the state Supreme Court. No trial date had been set as of press time.

This standoff somehow reminds me of the great “New Coke” debacle back in the ’80s, when Coca-Cola, jumpy over the inroads Pepsi was making into its market, announced it would scrap its 100-year-old recipe in favor of a new taste. Oh, BIG mistake, the kind that gets turned into a business-school abstract on what-not-to-do. Sales plummeted, critics crowed, and Old-Coke fans rose up in indignation. (I remember because I was one of them.)

I recall attending a professional association event around that time where a Coke regional VP addressed the situation, and he summed it up thusly: Before the New Coke fiasco, Coca-Cola believed that it owned Coke. WRONG. Coke belongs to the people who love it and buy it. Coca-Cola just gets to collect all the money. If the formula works, people, don’t fu-ss with it.

Wake up, Weinsteins, or your golden goose may go the way of New Coke. Project Runway’s legion of fans could run out of patience, particularly if another show turns up that will slake their thirst. (I personally couldn’t get into Rachel Zoe or Stylista, but I’m certainly open to other possibilities.)

In the meantime, news of any Christian Siriano sightings would be FIERCE-ly welcomed.

Barack is now friends with Rahm Emanuel

December 22, 2008

Candidates Religion Obama 2008Meghan Daum, one of my favorite writers, has a little fun with Facebook — and the President-Elect — in her latest Op-Ed piece for the LATimes.

Michelle and Hillary: Salt in the wound?

November 11, 2008

imagesI remember hearing a story once when I attended a women’s conference from a woman who had been working in the secretarial pool at one of the local law enforcement agencies. She had always been handy with electronics — one of those hardy types who could fix her own toasters and TVs — and when a job came up in the motor pool working on the police radios, one of the patrolmen who knew of her talents recommended her for the job.

She left her desk in the office and spent a heavenly week in the garage, up to her elbows in electrical wiring and enjoying the challenges of a new task — and then abruptly found herself back at her desk and her typewriter. Seems the other women in the secretarial pool were so angry that she had been singled out and protested her advancement so vociferously that the chief had rewritten the job description to include a certificate in electronics, which our heroine did not have.

As she sat, bewildered, at her desk, the woman who had complained the longest and loudest sidled up to her and sweetly asked if she’d be willing to share some recipes for the office cookbook. They’d clearly pulled her back in her place, like crabs in a bucket.

I thought of this sad tale when I read about Michelle Obama’s overtures to Hillary Clinton regarding how to be First Lady. I’m not the world’s biggest Hillary fan, believe me, but, after waging a hard-fought and very nearly successful campaign to become President herself, it must have been GALLING for HC to be asked by the victor’s wife about daycare and private schools. What happened to foreign policy and economic renewal? I appreciate the fact that Michelle is more concerned about her daughters’ transition to the public eye than she is about politics, but show a little sensitivity, okay?

I’m also peeved with all the whiny Republicans and McCain operatives who are trashing Sarah Palin. Please. I agree with Nancy Nall that, all the wardrobe nonsense aside, Sarah probably knows that Africa is a continent, not a country, and that a lot of the gossipy stories are likely taken out of context in a feeble attempt to cover some well-exposed red arses. If the Straight Talk Express broke down, folks, it wasn’t because Sarah tinkered with the wiring.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, with all the gains that Americans are cheering about with this election, did the cause of women move forward at all?

The Biggest Loser or Queen for a Day?

August 25, 2008

When I was a kid back before the Dawn of Time, Mother and I used to watch an afternoon show called “Queen for a Day.” Every weekday, a series of sad, doughy, exhausted women in worn-out shoes and faded house dresses vied for that coveted title by exposing to the American public the full contents of their grim, dreary lives.

Too many children, too many bills, major illnesses, absent husbands, broken cars, personal disasters — each story brought new gasps from the studio audience. These poor creatures were then judged, I recall, by some sort of applause-o-meter, and each day a new winner was crowned with a tiara and a velvet cape and given an assortment of new appliances and other trinkets to try to make up for their sad circumstances.

It was absolutely ghastly. The only thing worse than being a loser on “Queen for a Day” was being the winner. It was social voyeurism on a national scale, and I now recognize that the main emotion that I felt while watching that show was guilt. Their suffering was my entertainment. Whatever became of those poor souls and their grubby, underfed children?

I have the same uneasy-between-the-shoulder-blades feeling about The Biggest Loser. NBC — and a lot of networks with similar reality programs — have made millions of dollars exploiting the misery and longing for normalcy of the more-than-just-obese. These truly brave people put their egos, health and sometimes their personal safety on the line to satisfy the demands of producers who are after just a few more percentage points in the ratings.

I wince listening to them berate themselves and their former lives, and I’ve wondered how successful the winners have been at keeping off the weight once outside that hermetically sealed POW camp that masquerades as a health club.

The NYTimes over the weekend had a great article summing up the allure of TBL and its sister shows:

Before-and-after television needs a deep reserve of misery, and particularly on weight-loss shows the “before” returns in rhythmic waves of humiliation and self-loathing… The lows drop ever more excruciatingly downward before rising up in a frenzy of exertion, deprivation, extensive weight loss and a new life…

These fat-reduction spectacles are embedded in a mixed message that mirrors a broader cultural clash of appearance and appetite — and our obsession with both. Against a loop of talk shows and made-for-TV dramas about eating disorders, Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection on prime time, while their path is mined with Double Croissan’wich specials at Burger King and Olive Garden “Tour of Italy” triptychs (lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo)…

These plus-size transformations are spellbinding, admirable and even enviable, but they are also teases, making impossible transformations seem just a commitment away. The lonely, self-hating journey of weight loss is turned into an exhilarating and emotionally fulfilling team sport. These programs also dismay advocates from [fat advocacy] groups … who complain that they frame obesity as a character issue or a public-health menace and further stigmatize those who do not conform.

As the Times puts it, TBL “selects alarmingly overweight people and puts them through a Herculean diet and exercise regimen” that few of us out here in the real world would be able — or even want — to duplicate. That some of them who are bounced from the show actually do continue to lose at that unhealthy rate and return to the show is proof of their desperation.

I even object to the ambiguity of the title. Are the biggest losers the winners, or the ones who get voted off? Who really wins in this kind of scenario?

NBC, I suppose. I just hope that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back at this kind of epic, high-definition voyeurism and cringe at the inhumanity of it.

The Olympics: After the cheering stops, what?

August 12, 2008

I remember a few years back reading an article about ultramarathoners, those demented souls who live to run grueling races of 100 miles or longer. Many of them can only manage to hold part-time jobs that barely support them, as they spend nearly all of their time training, conditioning, eating, hydrating and plotting their next races. It is an utterly obsessive and largely solitary pursuit. As the author pointed out, these athletes are spending vast amounts of time and energy on a pursuit that doesn’t advance, improve or enlighten the condition of their fellow human beings. It’s a wholly narcissistic endeavor.

I thought of this article when I watch a bewildered Brendan Hansen try to explain his not even medaling in his supposed premier event, the 100m breaststroke. Despite the media’s reports of his demise, he insisted he wasn’t done yet and wasn’t going to be ending his career on such a disappointing note. “Well, good luck with that, pal,” I thought. “I hope your legs hold up.”

I sometimes wonder about the endgame for our modern Olympic athletes. At some point in their lives, age or injury or mental fatigue will catch up and outstrip them, and they will be left to create their futures. But so many of these athletes have spent some of their most formative years at the center of their own universe — cared for, watched over, reported on, interviewed, handled, managed, coached, groomed, massaged and over-scheduled by a entourage of handlers— that I question their abilities to find any kind of normalcy.

One young female athlete (I forget the sport, NBC is so flighty) last night admitted that she had missed high school to pursue the Olympics, but that, despite not having had much of a teen-age experience, figured she had the rest of her life to make up for it. Really? I think she may have missed more than just the prom. You develop a lot of interpersonal skills in adolescence, as well as a healthy respect of the world and its wonders/horrors/realities.

I seem to remember the great Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner having a major personal-life meltdown at the end of his Olympic career, and he’s had a bit of a checkered life since. (Reality TV? Please.) How do you go from front-page headlines to being an average Joe or Jill? Of course, some of them do just fine, the Mary Lou Rettons and others who continue to advance their sport and inspire other young athletes.

But cushy jobs as sports broadcasters and elite coaches are not in the cards for all athletes. Since sports psychology is such a booming business, I would hope there is some sub-specialty there that might help athletes transition from the medals stand to every-day life.

Update: Apparently the NYTimes has been pondering this very issue as well.