Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Are There Babes In A Feminist Utopia?

Short answer:  I hope so.

I took a flight on Porter Airlines yesterday.  Maybe you know, Porter is all about the style.  They got the elegant and comfy waiting area.  They got the free espresso, snacks, and bottled water.  They got the cute raccoon character in their ads:

And they have the most amazing flight attendants:

I love this sort of thing.  Elegance and beauty transforms my mood and the whole way I feel about human existence.

Actually I was reflecting on this the other day when I read the New Yorker story about Steve Jobs, and how he was kind of an asshole.  One of the items described how he obsessed over the fonts in the headings area of the Mac user experience, making his staff redo them like 17 times. 

This really resonated with me, because when I'm using my Mac I often look at things like fonts and think to myself, "Ah, now isn't that lovely."  I'm like the perfect consumer for this kind of mania.  Just the other day the latest OS update radically improved the way the Times New Roman font looks in the "Pages" software.  The update gave me a couple of glitches, but did I mind?  No.  I'm like, "People, would you look at that font?"  

So yesterday I was there, sipping my espresso out of a lovely ceramic cup and I started reflecting on those flight attendants.  Because these women -- they look amazing.  And I have to say, it's a real pleasure to me to see them.

Philosophers are trained and socialized to ask annoying questions, even of themselves, and so found myself wondering, So, is that a guilty pleasure?

Because obviously there's a certain connection between these elegant uniforms and anti-feminism.  These women are on display, being valued for their physical attributes and ability to wear certain kinds of clothes, even while they're doing the ultra serious work of keeping passengers safe.  Isn't that just what feminism tries to eliminate? 

Just so, yes.  But there's a difference between being valued only, or primarily, for your appearance and being valued for your appearance along with lots of other things.  And there's a difference between being able to decide, for real, to participate in something like this in a way that makes it fun, and having it forced down your throat.  And there's a difference between a world that values only women's appearances and not men's.

So let me float this idea -- an idea that sometimes comes up in feminist scholarship.  There's nothing inherently wrong with the female beauty on display thing, even when it's being used, like this, in a commercial setting.  What makes it wrong, when it is, is that it plays into certain extremely common stereotypes, forms of discrimination and control, and occasions for inequality. 

If this is right, the male version of babes on display wouldn't raise many difficulties -- assuming, of course, the men aren't being exploited because of race or class or whatever.  And you know, I think this is right.  I live in a gay neighborhood, and the men who live around me seem to love to go out looking good, to love to look great while they're on the job, to love being a kind of a babe. 

If you could have a world free of sexism, of all the -isms -- a feminist utopia, indeed -- we could all be free to enjoy beauty, style, and spectacle without having to feel like we're letting down the side.  So, yeah, there would be babes in a feminist utopia.  Female, male, intersex, trans ... babes of all kinds.

After I thought all this, I was checked in for my flight by a Porter airlines guy.  And you know, he was just as elegant and beautiful as the women.

The only thing that gives me pause about this is, Does it suck to have to dress up for work in this particular way?  I hope not.  But you'd have to get that information from the horse's mouth.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Hedonic Stairmaster

The "second most expensive watch in the world," at least according to these people.
A couple of weeks ago my watch broke, and I decided to buy a new one.  I knew -- at least, I thought I knew -- what I wanted:  something rugged, large-faced, aggressively styled, water-resistant, and not to expensive.

At the store I found it -- it-who-will-remain-nameless.  It was large-faced, and water-resistant up to 30 feet.  It had a simple face, without one of those little "date windows" that I've come to feel are so annoying.  It was 35 dollars.  Canadian.  I bought it.

But two days later, it was broken.  I brought it back, and I was back in the market.

That's when I started climbing.  I wanted "something nicer," maybe something a bit more expensive.  First, I wanted a cheap diving watch, maybe 100 dollars.  But then I thought, well if you're going to get a diving watch, get a nice one.  You could spend, what, 300 dollars.  But then I was at these websites where 300 dollars is the "clearance" section and I caught sight of some real beauties, and I thought wow, a person could really enjoy that watch.  And it's, what, only 1,000 dollars.

Then I was listening to that song "Hot" by Missy Eliot which is such a hilarious send up of wanna-bes and con artists, where she calls out a guy who tries to rent a Bentley and pretend he's rich.  "Yeah boo you know you a joke, wear a fake Rolex, call it a Ro."  I like hip hop music, and though I know this shocks some people, I kind of love the crazy materialism of it, the lux brands obsessions.

And so I thought, Yeah. A Rolex.  Turns out there are even Rolex diving watches.  I can't tell you the price because the site I looked at took a distinctly If-you-have-to-ask-it's-too-expensive approach.

Then I remembered an old friend who was kind of into watches and how he told me about these antique self-winding watches with super craftsmanship and I thought "Yeah, wow, that's what I want."  And then I though of all the even cooler really old beautiful watches and how spectacular it would be to own something like that.

Before I knew what hit me, I had decided that only the Nicest, Most Expensive Watch in the World could possibly be really satisfying.

In a way I'm not surprised, because much as I love it, that's what consumer culture is like.  As long as N+1 object is nicer than N object, how can you be satisfied with any N?  You always know there's something better.

I call this The Hedonic Stairmaster.

Maybe you've heard of the Hedonic Treadmill?  This refers to the fact that people constantly adjust to the current status quo.  So that to feel the same happiness or pleasure, you can't just continue with the same state of affairs, you need that state of affairs to get better and better.

The Hedonic Stairmaster is different; it's a distinctly consumerist problem.  The Hedonic Stairmaster means you have to keep climbing.  It's never enough to have a mid-range thing, it's never enough to have a really-quite-nice thing; it's never even though to have a really nice thing.  Whatever it is, it'll seem shabby next to the even nicer thing, which you know is out there.

There is only one way I know off the Hedonic Stairmaster, and that's to have a sense of cool that does not track expense.  Real rebels do this, as do punk rockers, hippies, and goths.  Wonderful if you can manage it.  But like other ways of being Against The World, it gets harder as you get older.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sex In The House Of Holes: Cute Or Sad?

I just finished reading Nicholson Baker's House of Holes.  Maybe you know, it's a novel about a sexual theme park.  Not just dildos and 360 porn movies, but rather a place you can go and exchange genitalia in a "crotchal transfer," or trade your arm for a larger dick, or have sex with just the arm the guy forfeited in the exchange. 

I like Nicholson Baker's work a lot.  He wrote the highly amusing U and I, which chronicles his obsession with John Updike; Vox, which is the transcript of a very long phone sex conversation between a nice guy and a nice girl; and The Fermata, which is about a guy who learns how to stop time for everyone else but do as he pleases while no one knows.

Many images from The Fermata have stuck with me for years.  Especially vivid is a scene in which Our Hero talks to a taxi driver, who says that if he could stop time, he would force a woman down, lubricate her with black grease from NAPA auto parts, and have his way with her.  Our Hero is appalled.  In addition to being appalled, though, he's disappointed by the fact of how little he and the taxi driver have in common.  We want, he says, to think other people are like us.  I think that is true.

In The Fermata and Vox, the characters have a distinctly Bakerian style.  The guys are Good Guys with Large Libidos and a Wholesome Attitude Toward Life.  They want to have a good time; they want their partners to have a good time, too; and even when they have kinks and obsessions they are good-natured and cheerful about them.  The Bakerian women are GGG for sure, but they're also not shy about saying No, Sorry, That's Not For Me.

So that's  . . .  nice

To some extent the same nice atmosphere pervades House of Holes.  But when you think "sexual theme park" -- well, when I think "sexual theme park" -- you tend to think not just adventure but also something utopian.  Like, if it's a theme park, you can get right to the really good things without any anxieties, fears, or whatever getting in the way.

And it is like that, in some ways.  There's lots of funny, good-natured sex.  The woman who has sex with the forfeited arm is very satisfied, and eventually gets to meet the owner and return the arm.  That's cute.  There are lots of funny puns and names, like when a guy calls his dick his "Malcolm Gladwell."  Also, cute.

But for a theme park, there are some surprises.  Most surprising to me was the the fact that it's expensive.  Men have to pay.  A lot.  And if they can't cough up the cash, they have to perform some service.  Like the man with a nice body and ugly face: he has to do time as a headless man -- desired, of course, by the women who want to have hot sex with a guy without being sized up, criticized, found to be too fat, whatever.  With no head, the guy can't even see you.

Expensive? A theme park?  What is up with that?

I was also surprised by the rules and punishments.  One man isn't supposed to put his finger  -- well, never mind.  But he does.  And I don't remember, but I think he gets his dick taken away or something.  This, mind you, not because the woman in question didn't want, but somehow just because it was some rule about how his involvement was supposed to be structured.

Maybe there is some deep point lurking here about sex, cost, and inevitable sacrifice.  I'm not sure.  In any case, it's a little sad. 

Also, surprisingly heterosexual, the House of Holes.  This is also a little sad.

My favorite thing in the book is the "Deprivos," who haven't been allowed to see nude breasts for three full weeks.  After doing their time, they line up in the places that naked women are likely to be, dying for a glimpse.  After a ride on the "pussyboard" on the White Lake -- known for its magic rejuvenating powers of clitoral healing -- some women feels so good they want sex immediately. Fortunately, there's a line of Deprivos, at the edge of the lake, just waiting.

A group of people, in a highly appreciative and uncritical mood, eagerly awaiting your appearance, anticipating your arrival, and really happy to see you.  It's a pleasant thought.