Monthly Archives: June 2011

Equal Society

I have just been to a ridiculous talk and discussion on this, based around a book by two British epidemiologists. I will not name them or the venue out of respect for the latter, and because I don’t wish to be personal.

I went because I care passionately about equality, and like most in the room, are sympathetic to the book’s premise that equality is beneficial to all.

What was ridiculous about this event was the arguments used for this premise and the way it was carried out. The authors of the book were not present, leaving a relation of one of them to flog the book and – in his own words – speak at a ‘glacial speed’ over badly presented slides in a physically uncomfortable setting.

The open debate was not facilitated, with some dominating and others being excluded for long periods. Whenever the tenets of the presenters were queried, the presenters talked over the challenger.

It is fundamentally wrong to use science to prove these kinds of ideas. Had I known the discipline of the authors, I would not have attended. We need to get away from narrow foci into interdisciplinary discourses. We need to get away from being obsessed by facts as quantifiable data that can be shown in graphs.

What is shocking and ironic is that some of the stats were gained by injecting humans and animals with diseases. Even though these may not have been used by the researchers, the supposed results are heavily drawn on in their thesis. No-one at the meeting challenged this shockingly unethical methodology.

Since starting sociology at school, I could never understand how something like suicide could be measured and predictions made about likely groups who might resort to it. It wasn’t factors such as financial difficulty, loneliness, disease, unemployment, or deep and sensitive personality types: things that might reasonably have a bearing. It was social class, location and gender.

I have always hated the concept of social class and refuse to speak of people in those terms. I follow my mother’s friend: I am in a class of my own. And so are each of you. This presentation was full of class related comments assertions. The researchers admit they had to reclassify Swedish jobs to fit the British system to be able to make a comparative graph – isn’t that rather stupid? And why is class measured by occupation? Class is outdated and much more complicated that that anyway.

Nothing in these statistics – quotable facts that are easily manipulated and discredited – was backed up or explained, and questions often couldn’t be answered due to lack of the authors’ presence. The thesis was not convincing or even interesting from the start.

What I want to say is: is equality desirable? What is equality in society? I am for justice and fairness and for a good living standard for all, and for opportunities for all. I am not a socialist or communist, wanting everyone to earn and own the same. I am not for increasing taxes and taking the vast majority of the rich’s income.

There was the assertion from the floor that what we mind is perceived lack of deserts of the richer, not that some have more than us. I think we need to be better at not comparing with or resenting those differences. I agree that I mind not if someone’s richer than me, but if what they have seems disproportionate to what they actually do. If I love the arts, I don’t mind that those in the movie industry or successful writers earn millions, especially if they use that money and profile to wider benefit. Terry Pratchet donates some of his income to supporting orang utans and Angelina Jolie is a peace ambassador. The arts also have great value in themselves, and if used well, are more than entertainment; they can be social critiques and purveyors of spiritual values. If I enjoyed sport, I would argue that watching games gives great pleasure to millions, that spectator sport puts money into our cities and countries, and that related charitable work is done with clubs’ money – eg youth football teams in deprived areas, and it promotes exercise.

Big businesses provide jobs and bolster the economy.

Rich people can use their money well. Being wealthy and philanthropic often go together – it was very much so in Victorian times. I don’t believe in super taxes because wealthy people can choose to give their money to causes that the government may not and may be able to do so with far less red tape.

Rich people can be generous on a personal level.

What many of us mind is people like senior bankers – fat cats who are rich for riches’ sake and whose activities harm others, and do not give widespread and accessible benefit. I add lawyers to my list of those who command so much for their services and I ask – why is theirs worth so much more? To get justice, we have to go into debt. It’s an inaccessible system. And democracy is built on law which is run by people the public do not choose.

I am not against expensive things. People’s talents have a price – it just has to be a reasonable one, balancing the cost of providing it and valuing yourself with avoiding a puffed up sense of what you’re worth and what you do to your customers if you ask too much. Without these pricey things which some call trappings of excess, others would have no work and their skills would be not utilised and they would lose the satisfaction from providing it.

I accept economic differentiation and the possibility to go higher which is rewarded financially. That isn’t materialism, it’s ambition, and it is not unspiritual and unethical. Not all of us want to live in a commune.

The discussion today was often on status, which I really don’t think is so important, and such discussions perpetuate it. It spoke of feelings, but that was only in relation to status, not rich inner life.

The introduction spoke of a community where sacred and secular are not distinct; but sacred is not the same as spiritual; in today’s talk, values and ideas focussed on the material.

It used teenage pregnancies as an indicator of inequality and bad things in society. This is another topic itself – but I want to question that negative value against differing cultures, sexual morality, the legal notion of adulthood. I want to query whether the much toted idea of education (which is often another word for being told about birth control) is really such an important factor in improved lives.

Education is sadly not the system of enquiry and exploration it ought to be, but one of conformity and limitation. Education is another form of status, and I felt it implicit in the book that people presenting and writing have attained academic qualifications, believing that they are better equipped to argue than those without at least three degrees. They also let on that the research is long and expensive. So this methodologically and philosophically dubious dry argument is costing money but not offering any solutions – they said they hadn’t money for that.

What I wanted to know was: how do we improve our clearly unbalanced world?

That will be a subject for another time.

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Woman of the Hour?

No, about 46 minutes per episode – 36 of them so far…

I have already shared my thoughts from the first series of the 1970s TV show and a little research into the comics – my first and very pleasing forray into the world of  Wonder Woman. Now I have completed watching season 2 and my feelings are different.

Wonder Woman has changed TV network and also time period. The season premiere begins by being incredibly similar to the original pilot – the crashed plane, the women on Paradise Island, the bullets and bracelets competition to win the mission of returning with the craft to America. Steve junior’s in a suit, no longer a uniform, and has grown up to look just like his Dad from the first season. Etta Candy and Colonel Blankenship are gone, and in their place at the office are a talking computer and robot, a short lived boss called Joe, an unseen voice, and later, Eve, one of the series’ several black characters (there were none in Season 1). Steve spends more time on the end of a phone and less joining Diana on escapades. Paradise Island soon ceases to feature.

Diana is now a star in her own right; she becomes a famous agent of the Inter-Agency Defense Command. In the first season, Diana wasn’t considered pretty enough to enter a beauty competition and she is picked as Yeoman due to her lack of glamour. Early in the second season, Joe isn’t sure she’s got the right wardrobe to go undercover as a ‘swinger’. Now, in every episode, her looks are commented on admiringly. Like the series itself, Diana undergoes a change halfway through. Diana’s style becomes what she’d call ‘slinky’ in the first season. Her hair and make up change and she doesn’t seem as beautiful and appealing. Comic book artist Phil Jimenez states he admires Lynda Carter’s portrayal for its grace, regality, femininity, dignity and style. Diana was naive, but never dippy. Some of that has gone by the close of this season and that has a huge bearing on my appreciation of the show.

The Wonder Woman costume has a subtle make over, making the PE pants highlegged, and the cleavage more prominent. The stunts are bigger and it seems a little more violent. There’s also greater sexism. Wonder Woman’s first girl fight left her and the other woman with ripped clothing. Later, Diana happens to rip her pants (in the US sense) in a parachute jump, at the knee; so she cuts her trousers off at the groin to make them hotpants. (Steve also falls with her but doesn’t suffer any rents to his clothes). Yet, even in a swimming costume, Ms Carter never shows her actual legs – the satin tights remain.

That line in the lyrics does, but much of the theme tune’s other words are changed and an irritating sound that like a kid who can’t play the recorder is added. The Nazis are phased out, and now Wonder Woman fights ‘on the side of right’ rather than for hers. No more stopping wars with love, no more metamorphosing doves… she’s woman of the hour and her chance to fight evil is not denied… almost as if she wants to kick ass. One comic artist on the DVD extra said that Wonder Woman wants to spread her message of love – she’s not looking for fights. Yet these lyrics suggest the reverse.

Early on in the season, there were links with the first series and the opportunity for some thoughtful questions posed. But by the end of the first disc, there’s no more just war discussion, no critiquing or even assertion of what makes America good. The side of right and America’s government are unquestionably synonymous – and Wonder Woman fights for us  – even against her own people on Paradise Island. That episode, “Trouble in the Bermuda Triangle”, speaks of aiding the American arms supremacy. The writer has misunderstood all that Wonder Woman stands for – she is for peace and justice, and would hate nuclear weaponry. I wonder if Wonder Woman had stayed in the US till the end of the war, whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have happened.

Episode 3 attempts to deal with how Japanese people were treated by America during the war, although the above atrocities are not talked about. Was this episode on relocation camps to abate bad feeling from Japan or to encourage fellow Americans to lose their old prejudices? It ends with the shocking line: ‘That’s why pencils have erasers’ regarding the mistakes made by America to Japan. I would be interested to know how that episode was received by Japanese viewers, as it can come across as clumsy and even propagandist; but the storyline seems at least like an attempt to deal with issues. These essays peter out shortly after.

The Nazis were appropriate adversaries with far more potential than those of the seasons set in the 1970s. Sometimes these new villains have special powers – the Japanese psychokinetic, the boy with psychic gifts – but these are appropriated by military intelligence. Villains rarely have much of a reason for being evil now. The overlooked country’s royalty trying to use the olympics to win recognition was an interesting idea – but it got lost in camp evil laughs and silent massaging twins. The writer of the Outer Space episodes with Andros returns – but this feature length episode was far poorer than the one in the first season. The aliens are now after minds, not moral judgments; and apart from a swipe at all bureaucracy, there’s little food for thought this time.

The laughs are less; since the comic books titles go, there’s no more invisible planes or voice mimicry; and only the yogic travel into outer space amused me.

It felt by the end that I was watching a different show, far different from the one I had found so inspiring and surprisingly thoughtful as well as entertaining.

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Faceless firms

It seems that companies want your custom, but not to talk to you. Someone has devised FAQs to fob off repeated questions. How can they anticipate what our needs are? They have set up automatic no-reply emails to give a standard response that clogs up our inbox, not theirs. Where other businesses are focusing on bespoke services to woo customers, online companies seem bent on making theirs as impersonal and standardised as possible.

It wastes a long time trying to find the answer you want, and often you know you just need to get in touch about your specific issue and have a customised reply. By the time you’ve found a way to contact directly, you’re already frustrated. The niggle has grown into a gnark. And then you find you can’t email – you have to fill in a form that forces details you didn’t want to give and drop down mandatory boxes to be filled in. If you fit the boxes, they’ll dissuade you from emailing. You’ll only have a few characters to explain your problem. I was given 200 – that’s two sentences – to explain why I was leaving a site. It makes it hard to write a polite, coherent email in that kind of space.

They’ll salute you with ‘hi’ – even when you’re complaining, which seems inappropriate. Replies are full of cut and paste waffle that’s irrelevant and American style greeting of have a nice day – regardless of country and whether they’ve done anything to make your day pleasant. They often don’t sign their emails coming from a generic ‘team’ – but want to ask all sorts of questions of you, including verification and endless CAPTCHA letters – hard for those with issues around numbers and letters.

Have companies not understood that personal service is at the heart of good businesses, and that communication is at the heart of all human interaction?

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Get us out from under, Wonder Woman

When I switched my viewing and research from the British Royals to Wonder Woman, I was expecting a complete change. But Wonder Woman is also a Princess Diana, and I’ve found quite a few parallels, as I’ll explain in a future post…

The Wonder Woman Lynda Carter TV show might have cult status, but it isn’t something most people would expect to quote from literature and philosophy, or discourse on ethics and society, or teach us how to live.

Yet it does all those.

In season 1 (on which this is based), there are quotes from Socrates in ancient Greek; the behavioural psychologist, Pavlov; Dr Johnson on patriotism; economics, and scientific equations. It makes witty social critiques of bureaucracy whilst trying to address international relations. But most of all, it is a vehicle for feminism.

Wonder Woman was a war baby, created in 1941 by a controversial psychologist. William Moulton Marston (pen named Charles Moulton) wanted to right the gender balance amongst superheroes. He believed that women are the future and are natural leaders. He believed – like proponents of single sex schooling – that women thrive when away from the influence of men, and are capable of equal or better physical and mental feats. He set his heroine as being part of a Greco-Roman myth, the mighty all female race, the Amazons, living in highly civilised peace. As he wrote, women’s roles and perceptions were altering, paving the way for feminism.

By 1975 when the TV pilot was aired, feminism had happened and was on its second wave. Theologian Mary Daly had publicly left the Catholic church because of its oppressive patriarchy to live on an all women island, and allegedly communicated with men only through an interpreter. The TV show seeks to sympathise with the sentiment but to step back from that extreme and show both men and women as good and bad, capable of living together harmoniously.

The slave-like bullet proof bracelets that Wonder Woman wears were created by Moulton to remind that if women let them, they are in servitude to men. The bracelets’ secret substance gave rise to the episode title The Feminum Mystique, refracting the famous Betty Friedan text. Hindus too have seen a feminine mystique, a force called Shakti. For Moulton, this is symbolised in Wonder Woman’s lasso which compels its captive to tell the truth. Much is made of the connection between this device and that Moulton partly invented the lie detector test, but this immoral and inaccurate contraption actually does an inverse task: it spots lies, not finds out truth. Moulton claims that all women have this power to disarm and bring out honesty through charm.

It seems, like Indian women, that there is a dichotomy and contradiction between the venerable female ultimate force and a sexualised submissive domesticity. Moulton said that women’s qualities are wrongly seen as weak, but he sees their attributes as including meekness and submission. In the 1970s TV series, women’s qualities are cited as strength and compassion. Wonder Woman is the first superhero to fight with love, not for just truth and justice. The theme tune lyrics reflect this, but also the ambivalence of the show: Wonder Woman fights for democracy, love and honesty; the world is ready for her peace and women’s lib message. But she does it in satin tights. She’s conventionally attractive and slim – beauty queen Lynda Carter dieted for the role. She wears very little, despite the dress conventions and climate of her adopted home. Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, managed to scale a ladder in heels and a floaty dress in Rear Window, but Princess Diana of the Amazons must swap her native diaphanous groin skimming dress for a cross between a circus costume and a gym suit to assume her role in the ultimate example of democracy.

But as both lead actress and male commentators in the Season 1 DVD extras say, actually Wonder Woman in the TV show doesn’t feel titillating or objectified. All superheroes have outlandish, skin tight and sometimes revealing costumes – the Hulk, Hawkman and He Man all basically just wear underpants. Lynda Carter’s tights are a step up from having the bare legs of the comic book. Her outfit becomes simply a uniform; and although beautiful, she is never ogled over by the men around her, but accepted as their equal, if not superior. There’s a purity around her that commands awe and adulation, but not objectification.

Lynda Carter often says that it’s sad that Wonder Woman never, like her, has love or children; and that therefore most of us have more than the Amazonian Ambassador. But but I like that an ultimate heroine is complete without these. It makes Wonder Woman an even better feminist icon because it says that reproduction and marriage are not defining aspects of womanhood – indeed, personhood. It is undermining for single non parents to believe they are lesser and missing something; but it is also unhealthy for anyone to think that we need these others to be whole, or that we are defined by our relationships. And Wonder Woman does find love, on many levels: each episode, she finds a new friend, animal and human, of all ages – and is clearly close to her mother and sister. (You’ll never see Shadowlands in the same light after seeing Debra Winger’s debut here!) Carter’s insistence on repeating this idea regarding motherhood and romance is disappointing, and if it is meant how it is taken here, undermines what she brings to the role.

I at first felt the weekly girl fights were also part of degrading Wonder Woman to arousing entertainment. That might be a by-product, but as the first season’s extras imply, it’s more about giving other women key active parts that show their importance in the story. It helps the gender portrayal balance of having female villains as well as a protagonist; and a show down fight between these is normal in the action genre. Often, Wonder Woman is able to reach out to wayward sisters, particularly in Episode 3 of season 1. An unappreciated, endangered Nazi leader is recruited for the Allied forces, ending in a touching moment of bonding.

Wonder Woman also ribs beauty contests (ironically played by a Miss America) and the shallowness that makes Major Steve Trevor unable to see beyond another kind of uniform past the disguise of his bespectacled efficient secretary, Yeoman Diana Prince. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana does not act particularly different to her vigilante counterpart, so the ruse of her secret identity is more about playing to expectations and prejudices.

There’s explicit statements on gender, just war causes, and animal rights. As outsider, Wonder Woman can comment as so many sci-fis do on the fallacies of Earth people. Passionately pro-American, she still opens her adopted country to critique. She delivers a Nazi war criminal alive for a fair trial, unlike recent events in the Middle East.

The show’s makers claim their groundbreaking series opened the way for other strong women roles in television, and that fans wrote in to tell how Wonder Woman had inspired them to try new careers that they thought impossible (though admittedly these were often government and military related).

The Wonder Woman television series  remains brilliantly entertaining, and its old special effects make it all the funnier – I especially love that invisible plane. It – and she – have rightly become an icon for many, regardless of sexuality, gender or country. My hope is that in all the fun, the serious messages and discourses are not lost on viewers, and like the lyrics, it will change our minds and change the world.

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