Monthly Archives: April 2010

Bias

Francis Bacon (1561-1626):

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. [Source]

This is not news to anyone. We all see it daily. I am certain we all practice it to some degree. What bothers me is that we individually do not need to do this anymore. The news media does it for it us. Before we get the opportunity to separate the facts from the opinions we support, we have the facts separated from the opinions we are told to support. The results leave us very narrow.

Are there any objective news sources left? Are we supposed to sit back and let the media set our opinions and objectives for us? Is being aware enough to combat this? What can the common person do?

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Kick-Ass thoughts (Spoilers)

Kick-Ass was an incredibly enjoyable movie. There is no hesitation in my reporting that. A story about an individual with no super powers and no drive for vengeance becoming a hero anyway should involve some requisite trope play, and that was definitely there. Unfortunately, it looks like the script was written to pander to the general audience instead of keeping to the general crap sack tone of the original comic. The movie could have been great; it’s only incredibly enjoyable. Not a huge failing by any means.

What bothers me, aside from the altered plot point about who Big Daddy really is, is the dehumanization of the characters in the face of their grim reality. People may contest that the movie is about its refuge in audacious ridiculousness and I should not gripe about these things, but I feel these points kill the depth of the characters:

  • Up until the climax, Kick-Ass had never killed a person. At that point there should be some reservation or difficulty in pelting people with machine guns or blasting someone with a bazooka. In the case that is accounted for by an adrenaline rush, there should be some emotional fallout for having caused death.
  • Hit Girl did not mourn her father. I can understand her being hardened to the face of death due to her intensive training, but this was her own father. One of my favorite moments in the comic was her turning to Kick-Ass with tears in her eyes after all the bloodshed and asking for a hug because her daddy died.

And she never had to learn that her dad was just a comic book reading accountant who hated his life so ran off with her to start a new, more exciting one. Oh, did I spoil the comic, too?

  • I absolutely love the fact that Kick-Ass and Red Mist had a relationship of sorts together, to the point where Red Mist screamed for his goons to leave his friend alone. But after that he completely waffles and is willing to have a showdown for no good reason. It struck me as pretty weak.

A movie is at its strongest when the characters themselves are strong. Flaws are fine so long as there is consistency and realism. The characters were well realized but lacking. Someone might suggest that I am being a little hard on the movie despite my admitted enjoyment. Someone will likely say that the movie is supposed to be ridiculous and I should not take the characters seriously at all. I am missing the point, which is centered on the events and the violence, because of my focus on character.

I can’t help it. I have seen so much media violence that I can be wowed by new scenes of action and gore but never entranced by them. An upbringing very much inclusive of horror films and a healthy dose of Takashi Miike has pretty much killed my sensitivity to screen violence. But I will never be desensitized to character. No one should be.

[ADDENDUM] You are what you read/watch/etc.

What is it about social networking games that focus on growth and maintenance (e.g. Farmville, that aquarium game, etc.) that you find so appealing? What do you get out of it?

You are what you read/watch/etc.

For the past several days I have been engaging in a conversation with a friend of mine (over Facebook…) about women in science fiction/fantasy/comic books that has served to spark my interest in why we, the readers, choose the stories and characters we do. Her longtime fixation has and always will be Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its titular character. Why? There was something inherently relatable about that character I describe as narcissistic, selfish, and written in a boring manner (she never fails and is always right). My friend is not alone in finding Buffy Summers such an enjoyable fiction character. The reasons others have might mirror hers or be something totally out of left field. But it got me thinking about my favorite characters and stories. What do these preferences say about me?

My favorite stories are rarely about specific characters but rather communities in which everyone plays a nigh equally important role as the next person. Some stories have a certain spiritual aspect about them, but the spirituality is something other than the mainstream faiths. It usually discusses the duality of mind and soul (and the balance between following our logical brains or our gut instincts) and the transcendent nature of who we are. Special note on Caprica: Our entire beings are more than what simply exists on this plane of existence in these skins. But I also have a special affinity for Spider-Man stories, mainly because he is completely relatable – especially after the One Day More storyline from a couple years back. I guess it says a lot about me to appreciate a loveable loser who is constantly down on his luck but is able to move forward because he sees that there is more to life than what he is personally getting out of it.

Zeta Gundam, my favorite anime, seems to combine all these requirements. Kamille Bidan, the eventual pilot of the Zeta Gundam, is a down on his luck mech-building nerd who watches both of his parents die right before his eyes. However, he grows into a strong man thanks to the surrogate family he becomes part of in a rebellious military organization. He, not unlike many others, is able to connect with people on a spiritual level - and that gives him strength. Those who have died still live on in spirit, and in the scene pictured they grant him their strength to overcome the villain.

My friend and I are academics, though. Her studies in English are cross-compatible with my own in psychology, especially since both fields involve interpretation and looking for inner truths. We are both trained to be self aware. Other people do not take the time to think about it, nor would they necessarily know where to begin. As such, I can only look at mass American culture and what it might mean on a broad scale.

Which brings me to another thing I have been thinking about quite a bit lately – Lady Gaga. To be honest, I appreciate her music. It does not earn its own playlist on my MP3 player, but it finds a place on certain playlists. For me the reason why is simple: She or her producers have successfully captured the elusive earworm and planted some of its eggs directly into her tracks. That and sometimes I like music that does not require much thought.

Simple aesthetic is what people tend to fall back on when discussing music. “I like it because it sounds good,” is a completely acceptable answer, although it does not get deep enough for understanding. Asking why generally yields little, and even someone who studies music would be hard pressed to really describe what makes it sound good aside from mentioning musical terminology. “Why does it sound good to you?” I want to know what people are personally getting out of the music. Aesthetics are makeup. They add to the overall presentation, but that does not explain what differentiates certain songs from their sound alike contemporaries.

It gets easier to understand when looking back at the top ten singles for the past few years and noticing certain trends in song content and performers. Yes, I know it is a no-brainer to mention the overwhelming trend of sexuality in music. The easy, and valid, assumption is that people like sex. That does not solve the mystery for me. If people did not like sex, procreation would predominantly be practiced by intellectuals instead of the reality of the situation. My thought is that people enjoy the freedom of sexuality advertised by these artists. Despite our being a considerably free country, we are still very much sexually repressed. Discussion of sex is taboo, and even certain acts are instilled in us as taboo in the privacy of our own bedrooms.

That helps to explain some of the interest in Lady Gaga’s music. I think the rest is how weird and therefore mysterious she is.

If all promotional images of Lady Gaga were like this one, would she still have the same appeal? Look up "vintage lady gaga" on YouTube and find a performance of hers from NYU before she was famous. She was quite talented, but you have to ask if she would be remotely as famous if she had decided not to pursue sexual wish fulfillment music and an accompanying more-free-than-you image.

But what about everyone else? What about Taylor Swift? Considering her single, I would say that girls who think they are a good girls find it completely relatable – and guys want to think that they will always eventually end up with the good girl. What about a good majority of rap music? Essentially they are popular due to male power fantasies. Guys are fulfilling their desires to be objects in pure control – hence the common “bitches and money” theme.

When it comes to movies, we find a number of romantic comedies in existence. Like I have previously mentioned, romcoms exist and persist because they imbue in some viewers the notion that real and true love does exist. (The other side of it is to set the mood for sex, which is why so many people put up with these generally poor films.) Then we look at the action films, which are usually more male power fantasies.

What it tells me is that people in my culture generally feel powerless and alone, with men generally more concerned about power and women more concerned about companionship. Definitely did not take a psychologist to point out these things, but I thought examples would be nice. I have also only scratched the surface. Television, video game (“Why do you spend more time playing Warcraft than you do experiencing your own life?”), and literary trends (“Why are you reading Harry Potter for the seventh time?”, “What do you get out of Twilight?”) were not touched. That would require watching Glee and Lost, which sounds painful (like sugar-rotting-teeth painful) on one end and time consuming on the other. I would also probably have to watch more reality television, but my guess is that reality simply is not real enough for people anymore. Probably due to a lack of truly living by the audience.

In the end, though, this is a fun exercise for those of us who like to think about the meaning behind our own choices. Our entertainment choices generally do say something about us. What do your choices say about you? How do you relate to the characters? What is being fulfilled?

It’s all about control

OK, so this discussion is going to go in an odd direction before it gets steered toward its point. Bear with me, alright?

CNN recently conjured up a story based on a 4 year old computer game about raping women. The game, Rapelay, is old news; so is its controversy. I do not have to explain the game play or specific details about the game. I will actually spare myself from trying the game myself. Anyway, someone at CNN dug up this game and wanted to spark a discussion about how Japan needs to control its game designers. Some were displeased due to the negativistic attitude for Japan, and some were displeased because this sounds like censorship.

Nogami Takeshi, a manga creator, decided to respond to CNN with an open letter. The highlight of the letter, for reporters in the blogosphere as well as myself, were these statements:

Those products are developed for rational adults. You surely don’t believe that a rational adult would be influenced by such a game into committing rape, do you?

and

I assume that you are capable of distinguishing fiction from reality like we do. Are you not?

Those are very salient statements, compelling the reader to rationalize and say, “Well, I doubt I would be compelled to perform heinous acts after playing a game. I suppose the man has a point.” Heck, I was convinced for a while.

Then it dawned on me that he is wrong. He may not be wrong for the Japanese culture, about which I can say only a little as a non-citizen, but he is wrong about American culture. It pains me to say this because I loathe the studies about the negative influence the media has, but from the American perspective a game like that should be able to compel the average person into performing heinous acts. The media is supposed to influence the public.

Wow, we really haven't learned anything since the 80's, have we?

I sound like a paranoid theorist whenever I discuss social control with people, especially when I am unable to discern its source. However, the most basic example to cite is in the advertising of trends, which comes in waves. There are things that the masses are simply supposed to like and will like, and the media is there to constantly deliver the content and tell you to like it. That is basic social control. The media is influencing it. It tells you what music is good. It tells you the most popular movies. It tells you that you are an outsider if you do not participate. (In a sad reversal, you are still being controlled if you make it a point to avoid them because you are told to do so, and you are still under their thumb if you are the type who strongly advertises that you are standing on the outside. Honest apathy is the sign of someone existing beyond the influence.) But like I said, that is social control at its most basic.

It gets more complicated when you discuss politics and the obvious party lines of the media conglomerates. The reporting is thus made poor because it shows bias in either direction, but the overall debate between both parties is healthy and keeps the citizens within boundaries. What boundaries? Two parties, two extremes on the political spectrum, set core beliefs, and a rejection of new notions.

No culture is without indoctrination for its citizens, but there is certainly a reliance on the media influence in America. When people are taught to be Americans by the TV they watch the websites they read, I can no longer be upset that a researcher thinks Mortal Kombat might put it in my mind to harpoon someone and uppercut him off a bridge. Of course I will not do it, though. I am rational enough to differentiate the fiction of the game from reality. Other people might not be able to do so. Not to mention the fact that the media is making it confusing: Reality television is rarely real these days, and biased news outlets should make one question if the news is true or false based on the angle taken. How are we to know anything?

I guess I will have to stay tuned until they tell me.