Guilty Pleasures

May 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm (celebrities, politics, theory, web 2.0)

Guilty pleasures abound in the recent news that Paris Hilton will be having some quality time to herself. In the cult of celebrity we have created for ourselves, it is not simply enough to bask in the stars twinkling light, as the previously well-planned publicity machine of Hollywood would have us do. Now, when celebrity can be as simple as a YouTube video, we take pleasure in the judgment and even hatred we feel toward no-so-deserved ‘stars’. We have created a commodity in stardom, and the media take advantage of that—we read stories about Paris Hilton because we hate her, not because we admire her; and they profit from fueling that hatred. Though at this point, I’m not sure which behavior is worse—reading the juicy details of her ignorance or the fact that her behavior lends itself to such publicity. I guess that’s where the “guilty” part comes in.

Scandal sells nowadays, but, as opposed to the way it used to be treated, (one may recall Ingrid Bergman’s messy affair and her actual exile from the U.S.) we relish in it—waiting for our young starlets to tumble into rehab once again, wondering who will be next to drive drunk, vomit on themselves, or sell a sex tape. I think that more than the scandal, we value our moral superiority over these people.

Mine started simply enough—every so often I’d find a slideshow of terribly dressed celebrities and revel in the fact that though their outfits cost more than my car, and also despite the fact that they had armies of stylists, they still managed to leave the house and be photographed looking like they’d had a nasty tumble down Everest before they reached the red carpet. However, my obsession began to grow—and I now find myself overly concerned with what Nicole Richie is (or rather, isn’t) eating. We like to think we have better sense than them—we value this feeling—so, in a way, Paris Hilton is our fault. She has made herself a caricature for our amusement, and we sit back and think to ourselves, ‘dance, monkey, dance!’

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Barbie 2.0

May 1, 2007 at 6:26 pm (politics, theory, web 2.0)

Mattel announced recently that they will be launching a new product that will allow young girls to connect to a web portal, BarbieGirls.com, a site that will combine a myspace-type community where (according to an article on MSN) girls can “create a character they can name, dress and customize by skin tone, hairstyle and expression [and] shop for clothes and furniture in a virtual mall, using “B-bucks” earned by playing games and watching product promotion videos” It’s Barbie 2.0.

The goal, Mattel says, is to capture girls 6-11 years old, who tend to think that the dolls are too childish for them. This seems to conflict with the space that Barbie has occupied for so long: marketing the idea of being ‘grown up’ to young girls. When girls are young, it generally seems that we are being trained for the future, rather than our current existence. We have an instinct to play with baby dolls and be mothers, and we emulate the fashionable (and recently, career-oriented) Barbie.

However, Barbie is often criticized for creating a false ideal that no young girl can live up to—it’s cited that were she a real person, she would need to be “7 feet 2 inches tall, weigh 115-130 pounds, have 30 to 36 inch hips, an 18 to 23 inch waist and a 38 to 48 inch bust”. But lately, we have to ask ourselves whether Barbie is really that bad compared to other franchises, such as the Bratz dolls, who at their best seem to be either gold diggers or prostitutes. Ah, the joys of post-feminism.

The Barbie doll brings up the age-old nature vs. nurture argument—do we play with Barbie because it’s in our nature as women to desire beauty and fashion, or is it because of Barbie that we are stereotyped this way? I take refuge in a book I once read, called Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession that captures what many young girls do with Barbie: annihilate her. My Barbies were painted, decapitated, mutilated, burned and buried. I don’t know if this was a reaction against Barbie, or what she seems to now represent, but it still comforts me to think of her tufts of golden plastic hair scattered on the brown shag carpet.

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Sinbad is not dead either.

March 16, 2007 at 10:11 pm (celebrities, theory, web 2.0)

The web allows for some remarkable meta-experiences—today, several people experienced a happy bout of ‘hey-remember-that-guy-now-he’s-dead!’ forwarding when they discovered that comedian Sinbad had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, Sinbad was not dead—he, or rather, his biography, was the victim of a prank on wikipedia.

The wording used to describe this act (by wikipedia spokesperson Sandra Ordonez) was “vandalized”—which got me thinking—can you really vandalize that which is truly not there? In proper Web 2.0 fashion, wikipedia is one part of a constantly shifting database, growing, changing, inhabited by a variety of people; the web is a society, complete with criminals. And like it or not, we entered into a social contract with the web, giving it assumed power.

But is our Rousseau-like democratization of media helping or harming us? In this case, it spurred the spread of misinformation—after all, are we more likely to trust a news article from cnn.com or from wikipedia? As I’ve said before, this democratization can be helpful—you can communicate with people you would have never had the opportunity meet before, enabling an impossible-to-measure exchange of ideas. But this exchange requires trust, and faith that those who are doing as you do (contributing) will follow the Golden Rule.

Just a reflection on how those very old systems of power still remain—but somehow I don’t think that overthrowing the web is an option. Like most systems, it requires a certain amount of blind faith and skepticism.

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Disney’s Latest Princess

March 15, 2007 at 11:31 pm (movies, theory)

Today Disney announced that it is introducing its first black princess, Maddy. Maddy will star in The Frog Princess, based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “The Frog Prince”—this story will be set in New Orleans. Maddy is already being touted as a “strong princess character,” by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. But I have to wonder how this character will play out in the film, loaded already as she is with gender-bias and racial implications.

As Peggy Orenstein discusses in her article “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” the Disney princess empire is booming. Disney Consumer Products has sales in the range of $3 billion. Most disturbing about this trend is the message these characters send to girls. I argued with my husband about this just the other day—being a student of the media, I started to insist that any children we have not watch Disney films. He claimed they are harmless, that we all watched them when we were kids…until I argued that these films would convince our fictitious future daughters that their goal in life was to be pretty and rescued (being an engineer, he of course desires that they should be the same—and engineers fix problems themselves!).

One has to wonder what kind of expectations the princess creates for women—they not only have to be smart, but also kind and beautiful. I still wonder how much I succumb to this in life—do I dress or act certain way because I choose to, or because it is expected of me? Do I find it difficult to openly show my anger because it is a part of my personality, or because as a girl I am supposed to be kind and courteous?

So, does Maddy provide a strong role model for young black girls where there was none before, or does she serve to assimilate an untapped demographic into the princess empire? I suppose we’ll find out in 2009…

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Viacom alienating its citizen marketers

March 13, 2007 at 10:23 pm (politics, theory)

So it looks like Viacom has decided to sue YouTube for showing clips of Comedy Central shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. What’s interesting, however, is that another Viacom property, CBS, has been using YouTube to show clips and drum up interest in its shows. CBS would seem to be ahead of the curve.

Honestly, there’s no stopping the influx of content onto the web now that the tools are in the hands of the people (not to sound Marxist or anything…it’s really a more democratic process). Bottom line, Viacom is waging a costly battle—should they win, they could be loosing out on millions of free advertising revenue—should they loose, they’ve lost close to a million marketers.

I’ve just gotten a hold of the book Citizen Marketers, by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, the minds behind creatingcustomerevangelists.com, the bible on citizen-created content and the 1% rule. Their theory, which I happen to adhere to, is that there’s no such thing as controlling the content that users will put out there—they will do it whether you want them to or not—and the content that they create will influence other potential users/customers.

It’s now become standard practice for me to see what other users are saying about a product before I buy it—and I find these reviews to be more trustworthy in most cases. If 100 people say that a product is worth buying, it influences me more than a possibly biased mainstream media review. With more and more media conglomeration, it’s becoming too difficult to tell where your information is coming from—and citizen marketers are bringing more certainty to the process.

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Jean Baudrillard is not dead

March 10, 2007 at 10:27 pm (places, theory, web 2.0)

In my attempt to bring you the latest and greatest of this new technology, I bring you Sidestep–a search engine that allows you to search search engines (how Web 2.0 is that?). My husband and I are trying to go to Vegas in the summer (Fremont Street and $1 blackjack, here I come!) and Sidestep actually searches all of the other travel sites to find the best deal. Very cool.

We’re thinking of staying at the Luxor–what better example of Vegas opulence is there? Once of the seven wonders of the world, shrunk down and lit up. The ancient Egyptians would have done it if they’d had the electricity.

The Luxor--the hyperreal

Which brings me of course to Jean Baudrillard, who died just recently. Baudrillard was big on hyperreality, a concept that at its very basic core was about the overwhelming existence of communication channels–we have so much contact that we can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. So, the pyramid to us may represent prosperity, the glory of man over nature, eternal life–but in reality it’s just a stack of bricks. It’s the meaning that we place with these symbols that becomes reality for us, despite the fact that the meaning is not real. The creators of the Luxor are trying to invoke these thoughts of grandeur, and draw us to its beacon.

The simulacrum of the pyramid would have pleased Baudrillard, I think, should he have believed that pleasure was pleasure. I don’t know if he ever went to Vegas, but he probably would have liked it.

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