The female breast as cultural icon

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Have you watched any “critically acclaimed” television lately? Whether we‘re talking Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, or even Australia’s very own Underbelly, chances are that your serious drama would have been served up with a handsome dollop of bare flesh. Increasingly, in the U.S. liberal dominated entertainment industry, this is apparently what “cutting-edge” has come to mean; shocking conservative audiences, challenging taboos and going to all the young audience-garnering places where “adult” television programs dare go – always, of course, in humble [cough] service [cough] to the plot. A flash of boobs or a sex sequence has seemingly become the television writer or director’s “filler du jour”, should the creative team’s reservoir of intelligent dialogue and plot be running a little dry. If this modern trend develops toward its logical conclusion, it can’t be too long before the likes of Julianna Marguilies and Sandra Oh are forced to formally compete directly with Christina Hendricks’ or Paz de la Huerta’s breasts for the Outstanding Supporting Actress nomination at the Emmys.

As a society, we are indisputably obsessed with breasts. Men are obsessed with them for well, visceral reasons, aided and abetted by their rampant sexualisation by the mass media. Women, in turn, have been driven to obsess about their own; whether they are too big, too small, whether or not this top flatters them, whether or not they can fit comfortably into that swimsuit. Bigger, women are meant to believe, is always better, regardless of any sense of anatomical proportion or optimal biomechanics. As Florence Williams notes in The Guardian, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas with breast enhancement surgery emerging in the last couple of decades as a multi-billion dollar industry. This is no fetish kicking about the margins of society: this is front-and-centre stuff from which a few people are getting absurdly rich and many women are being made to feel utterly miserable.

Cultural reference points abound. Since November 1970, popular UK tabloid newspaper The Sun has published a photo of a topless model on Page 3, and continues to dismiss its critics as wowsers, puritanical killjoys, or slaves to political correctness. Strangely, it continues to count many women amongst its loyal readers, no doubt for its peerless commitment to cerebral investigative journalism [cough]. The primacy of the music video in modern pop music has proved telling; for women, it is probably more important today to have good hair, a chunky rear and a bounteous and oft-exposed chest than one or two catchy saccharine tunes in your locker. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 might well represent the most iconic cultural moment of the 2000’s, in direct contrast to its actual significance. Madonna revealing a nipple during a recent concert in Istanbul passes for front-page news for some publications and websites. Genres whose traditional target market is the teenage male are particularly afflicted; as Charlie Brooker acerbically observes, basically every female video game character in the history of video games has been a scantily-clad 16DD. Damien Walter’s recent Guardian column dwells in part on the fantasy genre and the popularity of the previously mentioned Game of Thrones, but also on the absurd depictions of women that we have come to expect from comic-books – check out these two brilliant links for some examples.

I am not sure how the needs of young and/or hormonal men came to be the primary force shaping the public conceptualisation of “the woman” in the 21st century (though the answer for some will be “the patriarchy!”). I also don’t know how “the woman” can be re-made to reject superficiality and to reflect the legion of distinctive characteristics and qualities that women so often seem to offer and men so often seem to lack. The plump, jutting breast has been so thoroughly sexualised by the mass media and men that it has been transformed from a humble gland into an aspirational ideal for girls and women of all ages. That’s really very sad for everyone – besides, of course, those teenage boys.

Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

Larvatus Prodeo, which can reasonably claim to have been just about the most popular and most compelling independent blogging community in the Australian blogosphere, has post its last. LP was a trailblazer in the Australian context in its early life; in its later life, much less so, but it always offered a dependably warm and learned whirlpool of debate and opinion. Founded initially as a personal blog by Mark Bahnisch back in 2005, LP swelled in numbers over the years to include contributions from many interesting and different voices, both “above the line” (including my own recent minor contributions) and indeed “below the line”. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected in the blogosphere generally. A certain camaraderie between adversaries was encouraged because the tone of debate was just that crucial bit higher than your average.

LP emerged in an era when newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) organisations were only just starting to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet, and will exit stage left in 2012 with those same organisations having progressed and professionalised their online offerings. Anybody who involved themselves in any way with blogs since 2000 will know that that independent blogs stole a march on the MSM in the early noughties; the tide has now turned. Comment threads on articles and opinion columns have emerged as an MSM standard, supported by often ruthless paid moderators and a growing legion of willing participants. Sites like The Drum and initiatives like the Guardian’s popular if light touch Comment is Free have semi-successfully reached out to new, mainstream news-consuming audiences to an extent that independent blogs have failed to match.

So is the independent political blogosphere as we used to conceive of it dead, or dying? Certainly not everywhere; in the United States, political blogs seem to be enjoying a continuing stretch of success and influence. In the Australian context however, it does seem to be heading down that path, at least in the prevailing political, technological and economic climate. The perfect storm of rage and frustration that built up throughout the broader left in response to the continuing political success of the Howard Government has dissipated, as the fortunes of Federal Labor have waxed and waned, and then waned (and waned) some more. State governments across the country have by and large failed to engage people’s interest, and failed to inspire punters of any political stripe. Political parties by and large have failed to effectively engage with the potential that blogs offer for interaction with voters and likeminded activists.

Economically speaking – running and administering a timely and responsive blog with quality content is a considerable challenge. Just about all bloggers (shock, horror!) have busy lives: partners, friends, families, jobs, study commitments and plain old recreation time tend to impinge on one’s 24×7 content production and news processing time. The “street cred” that independent blogs initially enjoyed has slowly but steadily been overrun, overpowered by the mainstream media’s wilful use of their comparatively massive financial resources. Operating and maintaining a thriving political blog-driven community really does require not just the part-time contributions of many, but the full-time attention of at least a dedicated few.

As an IT consultant, I also find the technological aspect to the equation quite a fascinating topic. Is it possible to conduct deep and meaningful discussions on blogs? Of course it is, but in general, the presentation layer doesn’t always make it easy. As comment threads get longer and longer, on most commonly used blogging platforms, it becomes more and more difficult (and less attractive as a contributor) to maintain a serious, multi-way conversation. It’s not very nice in user experience terms to have to scroll through pages and pages of comments or down an interminably long page of comments to find the ones that interest you. Responses to comments get lost in the mix, particularly when people’s lives get in the way of the conversation, and the discussion changes course (or ebbs away) in the meantime. I do feel as though there could be some rich rewards to be found in hacking away at a WordPress or Drupal base to produce a community political blogging platform that transcends many of the limitations of the bog-standard blog platforms doing the rounds. Some of the underlying concepts that have make Facebook and Twitter such fun applications to use for millions could be brought to bear to encourage interactions between contributors to the site and produce a richer level of conversation. The barrier between posters and commenters could and should be made considerably looser. The forums in which debate occurs could be extended to offer more than the one-dimensional post-comment-comment-comment model. The community could extend beyond a site and more thoroughly into the “real”, social world.

The future for online political debate remains bright, but innovation, collaboration and luck are all going to be required in order to unlock the potential that is out there.

The newspaper is dead, long live the newspaper?

As we all know, newspaper circulation is falling and colossal pressures are being brought to bear on the media industry. Newspapers today need to find ways of doing more with less, to keep advertisers interested enough in their product to turn a dime (and indeed to fund quality journalism), and to make the paradigm shift from static, daily publications to 24×7 constant online content production and curation.

Now take a look at this brilliant ad from The Guardian. It’s a poignant reminder that the opportunities offered by the Internet to journalism far exceed the threats.

Editor Alan Rusbridger talks some more about The Guardian’s “Open Journalism” initiatives here. The newspaper is also holding an “Open Weekend” in late March which I will be attending. I’ll report back to LP readers about the initiative and some of the more interesting topics of discussion.

Will we still have newspapers as we know them in 20 years time? I ask this question as a Kindle convert who likes holding a physical newspaper but am not missing the tactility of the newspaper at all.

Johann Hari’s interview “augmentation”

Most readers at some point will have come across the writings of Johann Hari, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Independent here in the UK. Hari has a distinctive, uncommonly direct writing voice; he is known for his strident left-wing views and for speaking out in the international media on a wide range of issues, from the immorality of some aspects of capitalism through to climate change, gay rights and the war on drugs. He is also known for his compelling interviews with global players.

It is this latter oeuvre that has landed Johann Hari in hot water. In the last twenty-four hours, it has emerged that the methodology he employs in conveying the responses of his interviewees may leave a little to be desired. Blogger Brian Whelan has discovered that some verbatim passages from Hari’s interviews attributed to the interviewees are textually identical to previously published quotes. Co-incidence? Well, no, as Johann bravely and perhaps a little naively decided to clear up himself on his blog:

When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech.

The debate has since exploded on Twitter, (#johannhari, #interviewsbyhari), with many or most contributors seemingly allowing their political views or sparkling Twitter-wit to addle their judgement. Editor of the Indy Simon Kelner has been forced to weigh in but has so far declined to act decisively, somewhat meekly noting that he has not received any complaints about Hari in the decade for which he has written for the paper. CJ Schuler has contributed a blog to the Indy website that also somehow manages to miss the point, neglecting to mention Hari’s confessional blog post.

Is Hari a great writer and iconoclast of the left? Yes. Can his occasional “rewording” (sans explanation) of the responses of his interviewees be justified, whether in the interests of clarity and flow or for any other reason? Not a chance. When I read an interview, I should have the right to assume that what it has been reported that the subject contemporaneously said is what they actually said. It is surely a prime obligation of the interviewer to make clear to the reader where any obfuscation or alteration in their presentation of the remarks of their subjects has taken place. I don’t necessarily need to read the subject’s “ums” and “ahs”, but what is conveyed to the reader needs to align as closely as possible with what they actually said. If it is permissible to substantively diverge from this for stylistic reasons, the whole point of conducting conversational interviews is called into question. What is the point – so that a hyper-edited amalgam of the subject’s best ever quotes can be published together with a bit of journalistic “over lunch”, “he shifted in his chair” wrapping?

It’s not for me to judge what The Independent should do, but I would be very surprised if the paper didn’t move immediately to implement guidelines explicitly banning this sort of practice. Johann’s interesting but ultimately self-destructive mea culpa on his blog surely would probably not have warmed the cockles of his various editors, publishers and professional colleagues. Given how unedifying this episode has been for all these folks and arguably the broader journalistic profession, one would have to think that a firm public reprimand is in order for Hari, together with some further organisational consideration regarding the rights and responsibilities of journos who blog.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Violence, democracy and the mass media

It can hardly be denied that violence has a peculiarly vicarious allure in the modern mass media environment, regardless of whether we are talking ratings, book sales, ticket sales, clicks, or good old-fashioned circulation. Think James Patterson, the “world’s best-selling author”. Consider the amazing proliferation of “acronymy” crime dramas (CSI, NYPD, SVU, …) showing in primetime across the globe, the drooly critical praise for programs like The Sopranos and The Wire, and of course the Underbelly phenomenon in Australia. We might not “like” violence; indeed many or most of us despise it, but it sure does tend to get our attention. As notionally interesting as the latest deliberations of parliamentary sub-committee D31 are, we can’t expect our [yawn] elected representatives to seriously compete for our time and interest with this week’s fictional serial killer, can we?

The supremacy of violence (perhaps rivalled only by sex) as an attention magnet in today’s information-saturated world poses some serious questions of old-fashioned peaceful protest in the democratic tradition. Arundhati Roy, speaking to Stephen Moss in The Guardian about her ties to Maoist guerrillas in India, sums things up quite succinctly:

Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it anymore,” she says, “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

Violence attracts audiences. When up to 500,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of London in opposition to the Conservative Government’s cuts agenda in March this year, most people outside the UK only heard about it because of the violent actions of a tiny minority of self-styled anarchists and thugs. And whilst peaceful protest has underpinned most of the populist movements of the so-called Arab Spring, violence has clearly had a role to play, from Mohamed Bouazizi’s defining act of self-immolation in Tunisia, through to the mortar attack on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s compound which looks likely to prove decisive in Yemen. The magnetism of violence has arguably even created a perverse imperative for protest movements to “bait” governments into responding disproportionately, in order to attract the attention of the “great and the good” and the global mass media. Only escalating violence forced the global community’s clumsy fist to swing in Libya, and sadly it appears that only comparatively violent escalations in places such as Bahrain and Syria are likely to provoke serious, co-ordinated global responses there.

It is a paradox that in the largely peaceful, meticulously ordered societies most of us live in today, individual acts of violence are proving to be as effective a tool for attracting attention as they have ever been. Perhaps in retrospect, following 9/11 and the culmination of a decade-long international obsession with Osama bin Laden, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The ultimate victory of “trashy mag” media

It is difficult to be scientific about such matters, but over the course of the last decade it certainly feels as though the intensity of the tabloid media has increased dramatically. We have progressed seamlessly from the “Golden Age of Television” to the “Pointless Bullshit Epoch”. Its a phenomenon that can undoubtedly be explained through reference to many, varied factors. The emergence of the Internet as the most powerful new medium for communication since TV has certainly had an influence. Okay, perhaps more than an influence. Today, we are all somewhere at the bottom of an information tsunami. Everyone is a producer of content now, thanks to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, blogs like this one. In this environment, media producers are under more pressure than ever before to generate product that has some sort of impact; that makes some discernable splash. Interesting doesn’t cut it more. One must be outrageous!

There is more competition than there ever has been before in human history for the consumer minute, the consumer second, and even smaller units of market time. Clicking quickly through websites online, one is exposed to fistfuls of advertising – a popup opens and closes in milliseconds, a banner scrolls across the screen in the corner of one’s eye. Perhaps you also have the television on while you are reading this, or the radio. In part because we overexpose ourselves to media through technology, and in part because media has become less substantive than it has been in the past, today’s media is arguably both denser and yet intellectually shallower than it has ever been.

Ironically, as technology slowly eats its way through the empire of the so-called “dead tree” publishing houses, the modus operandi of one of the the most ubiquitous, iconic, and ultimately lightweight product lines on offer has emerged as the operating model du jour for tomorrow’s media. Long derided, declining in circulation and relevance but always more intrinsically attractive than the opposition, the “trashy mag” has at long last taken over the asylum. The “trashy mag” may not be at newsagents for too much longer, but that’s okay, because the “trashy mag” is everywhere now. It’s telecast in technicolour on your nightly television news, you can hear it vividly every day on talkback radio, and it has permeated just about every once reputable source of popular information known to humankind. You want current affairs? Oh, sorry, you’ll have to make do with this week’s con man or miracle diet. What about… sport? Well, if we get through all the latest gossip on who is in rehab and who had a few too many drinks at the pub last Friday, then we might get on to the real business of discussing which boofhead put their foot in their mouth this week. Erm, great. Even politics, the cradle of human societal advancement, must today be observed and scrutinised only through the distorted, funhouse lens of the paparazzi. There’s no alternative.

Informed discussion about topics that matter is like- yawn, boring.

ELSEWHERE: David Marr.

All the world’s a tabloid magazine

For the past week, one could be forgiven for thinking that the most pressing issue on the Australian socio-political agenda was not parental leave, the outcomes of the Henry tax review, or climate change. The Michael Clarke/Lara Bingle saga has been blown up by the local media out of all reasonable proportion. It seems that one can not pick up a supposedly serious newspaper, or tune into a supposedly serious news service at the moment without having the latest third-hand gossip about the story thrust in one’s face.

I don’t want to speculate on the status of the relationship between Clarke and Bingle, because, let’s face it, we’ve had enough vacuous speculation already. What is clear, however, is that the two should be given some privacy and some respect, and not treated like two pieces of meat for the milking by the media. So-called journalists are no doubt, even as I type, still parked outside the couple Bondi’s residence, hoping for a glimpse, an angry gesture, or a sign of some kind, like vultures swooping on a bleeding animal. Federal Minister for Sport Kate Ellis probably did not go far enough in her condemnation of the media’s handling of the saga, in my view, but in general I think her comments are on the money:

The minister said she found it ”really interesting” to have watched the public debate about the Test cricketer’s decision because “in any other job in the nation you want people out there when they’re focused, when they’re at their best and when they can deliver, and if they’re not going to be at that point, then it’s probably a responsible thing for them to say, ‘I need to sort myself out. I need to deal with my priority issues at the moment and then get back and give them my all.’ ”

Insisting there had been too much public focus on the relationship, Ms Ellis said she hoped ”we can see Michael Clarke happy, on the cricket field, representing Australia and doing very well, and … frankly, that I can read a little less about their love life.”

Frankly, I would like to hear a lot less about their love life. I suspect I’m not alone.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn – Australian or American?

Its a case of much ado about nationality. According to Andrew Darby in The Age, joint Nobel Prize winner Professor Elizabeth Blackburn is unequivocally Australian. On the flip side of the coin, the Chinese state media have Blackburn down as a bonafide American, as does United Press International, although the latter admits Blackburn holds dual citizenship. Bernard Lane in the The Australian elects to start off on the right foot by noting that Blackburn is an Australian expatriate.

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but let’s celebrate all three of the Nobel winners (including Carol Greider and Jack Szostak) for medicine this year, regardless of nationality. Is there any reason why we can’t all tell it like it is – namely that Professor Blackburn’s recent residential history suggests that while she still might call Australia home, she calls the United States home first?

Stimulus watching

Even by its own arguably compromised standards of impartiality, The Australian has outdone itself with its Stimulus Watch series of articles. Scrolling down, one finds an interminable list of almost single-mindedly negative contributions, many provided by the usual suspects with a conservative bias, such as Imre Salusinszky, David Uren, Pia Akerman (daughter of Piers) and Christian Kerr. Even despite its reputation for going tough on Labor and the broader left, I find it amazing that a publication of the stature of this newspaper can get away with such a one-eyed hatchet-job on the Rudd Government’s response to the GFC. Where is the balance? Where is the measured reporting of successes and failures – or the consideration of alternate points of view? Non-existent. Cut adrift from its ties to power since the demise of the Howard Government, Australia’s only national rag is increasingly looking like a bloated, low-brow version of Quadrant.

The increasingly tedious onslaught continues in today’s edition of the paper, with a rambling column from Malcolm Colless which takes aim at the public sector jobs created by the government’s stimulus spending. Upon reading, it becomes obvious that the premise of the column is driven in large part by the author’s hatred of government bureaucracy, itself likely driven by the author’s hatred of having to pay tax, characteristic of both the average Liberal voter and, utterly coincidentally, the average contributor to The Australian. A few ragged news threads regarding developments on the national broadband network are thrown together with a weary attack on the Rees Government in New South Wales to provide a strange, dove-tailing anti-Labor rant that provides precious little insight into the real state of affairs.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that the only people who could possibly enjoy reading such a relentless stream of one-eyed diatribes are diehard conservative readers, already committed to voting either Liberal, National, or worse. Everyone else, from the traditional Labor or Green voter to the swinging voter, is likely to be turned off in a big way, and I don’t think that is good for either the conservative side of politics, journalistic standards, or indeed the health of democracy in this country.

If people stop respecting an outlet, its content degrades in value and reach, regardless of whether or not some of the content is actually quality journalism. I don’t see how it is possible for any person interested in reading balanced political journalism to respect The Australian anymore.