Category Archives: political correctness

Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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What Does It Mean For A Woman To “Own” Her Sexuality?

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In a perfect world, human sexuality wouldn’t be so political. From  a biological and societal standpoint, the fundamentals are simple.

Two people meet.

They gauge one another’s interest.

They decide to engage in an intimate relationship.

Together, they make a mutual effort to enjoy the fruits of that relationship.

Ideally, an expression of sexuality is a mutual exchange between two people seeking an intimate connection. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, or something more elaborate. So long as those involved are willing, considerate, and open, everyone shares in the benefits.

Sadly, we don’t live in that perfect world. Like it or not, human sexuality is one of the most politically charged topics anyone can discuss. It’s connected to hot button issues like abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, child welfare, poverty, crime, human trafficking, and even religion. Considering its role in propagating our species, it’s understandable why discussions about about it get heated.

That said, some of those discussions are political for all the wrong reasons. A few are even built on a foundation of absurdities that only serve to distort our perspectives on human sexuality and not in a good way. One of those discussions involve the idea of a woman “owning her sexuality.”

This idea isn’t new, but it has become a more common refrain in recent years, often in conjunction with media depictions of female sexuality. It’s become a slogan, of sorts, for whenever a female celebrity or fictional character does something that’s sexually empowering. Depending on where someone is on the political spectrum, they’ll either cheer or scorn their actions.

However, what constitutes “sexual empowerment” is poorly defined and exceedingly inconsistent. In some cases, empowerment involves a woman being more sexual than society at large deems appropriate. In other cases, empowerment involves a woman being less sexual or less feminine. Here are just a few examples.

When Miley Cyrus was nude in one of her music videos, some saw this as empowering.

When Lara Croft was redesigned to be less sexy in her 2014 reboot, some saw this as empowering.

When Muslim women justify restrictive Islamic dress codes, some saw this as empowering.

When some women decided to stop shaving their body hair, some saw this as empowering.

Regardless of what form it takes, the empowerment is framed as women either reclaiming or owning their sexual selves. What it means is often vague, but it usually carries a particular set of connotations.

To own one’s sexuality is to break a set of unspoken rules, give the finger to an unjust system, and forge your own sexual path. It’s like that moment in every great sports movie where the underdog beats the odds and triumphs over their evil opponents. In that triumph, their notion of what constitutes a fair and just expression of human sexuality is vindicated. All others are somehow flawed.

I concede that this is a gross generalization, but it’s the most common narrative I see whenever there’s a story about a woman owning her sexuality. It’s built around the assumption that female sexuality is always the underdog and to own it, a woman needs to somehow seize it from the clutches of repressive, misogynistic men.

Now, I don’t deny that there are many injustices in the current social landscape. Historically, female sexuality has been subject to seriously repressive taboos. Even today, there are still various taboos about female sexual pleasure. Many women genuinely suffer because of it. The idea of women enjoying sex as much as men is still jarring to some people. Some even find it threatening.

In that sense, I don’t blame women for wanting to embrace their sexual selves in an environment that treats their sexuality as tool for political issues or marketing. Like men, they have feelings and desires. They have every right to pursue them with the same passion as anyone else. When it comes to “owning” it, though, the terminology tends to obscure that pursuit.

The fact that “owning” your sexuality can mean so many different things ensures it ultimately means very little. It has become one of those vague, catch-all terms that’s supposed to mark something as meaningful, progressive, or enlightened. In many cases, it comes down to people using sexuality to provoke a reaction, garner attention, or protest an injustice.

While I’m in favor of protesting sexual injustices, the fact that “owning your sexuality” is such an ambiguous act makes it a poor form of protest. All it does is assert that you can make choices about how you express your sexuality and you’re willing to endure the criticism. That doesn’t say anything about the injustice itself.

If anything, the very concept of owning your sexuality raises more questions than answers. To own something implies possession. The fact that a woman owning her sexuality is so celebrated implies that the woman didn’t possess it in the first place. If that’s the case, then when was it taken from her? At what point did she not own it? What did she have to overcome in order to get it back?

To some extent, for a woman to own her sexuality, she and others like her must buy into the idea that someone else governs it to some extent. In some cases, it’s the media with their depictions of idealized feminine beauty. In others, it’s repressive religious dogma that seeks to control female sexuality.

While there are real instances of women having to escape repressive environments, there’s a big difference between a female celebrity posing nude for a magazine and a woman being brutally punished for committing adultery. One involves someone escaping a coercive force that causes them real physical harm. The other involves them doing something that will only subject them to harsh scrutiny, at worst.

In that context, a woman owning her sexuality is no different than willingly enduring extra criticism and aggressive slut shaming. Can it be excessive? It certainly can be. Is it the same as someone putting their life and their body at risk in order to express their sexuality? I would argue that it isn’t.

I know my opinion may not count for much on this issue since I’m a heterosexual man. I concede that there’s only so much I can understand about the female experience. At the same time, I feel inclined to point out that men are human too. Men are also burdened by various taboos and double standards. As such, a man “owning his sexuality” is subject to entirely different standards.

The fact that those standards are so different implies that there’s little substance behind the concept. If a woman can act overtly sexual in one instance and exercise extreme modesty, yet claim to own her sexuality in both cases, then where does the ownership come in? At what point is it any different than just making choices and living with them?

If there is no difference, then the concept is ultimately pointless.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, gender issues, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

Mia Kalifa, The Porn Industry, And Why Her (Lack Of) Earnings Matter

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Imagine that you’re young, low on money, and in need of a quick buck. You do a few side-gigs, like drive a taxi or do some yard work. You make some money up front. You’re grateful for it. You wish you didn’t have to do it, but you still did and you’re ready to move forward with your life.

Now, imagine that same work you did ended up making someone else a boatload of money that continues to flow in, even though you’ve long since finished your part. Maybe while mowing the lawn, you discovered a priceless artifact under a tree stump. Maybe while driving a taxi, your car became the site of an infamous crime. Anyone with a white 1993 Ford Bronco SUV can attest to that.

With those ideas in mind, let’s talk about Mia Kalifa. If you don’t know who that is, just ask any straight man with an internet connection and a suspiciously large supply of tissue boxes. You might not get an honest answer, but rest assured, she’s a known public figure and not just because she has over 15 million followers on Instagram.

One of the reasons why she has so many.

She’s worth talking about, but not because she’s a former porn star who still garners a great deal of popularity, despite having not worked in the industry for years. Recently, she made the news after revealing that, even though she was one of the most popular porn stars in the world for a time, she made a total of $12,000 for her entire career.

For someone who was that successful in an industry that’s already exceedingly crowded by an abundance of content, that just doesn’t seem to add up. Most working people make more than $12,000 in a year, even if they’re paid minimum wage. They even get to keep their clothes on. What’s going on here?

There is a context to that story. By her own admission, she was in the industry for about three months. She only got paid a flat rate of about $1,000 for each scene she did and, given how few she ended up doing, it’s still more than minimum wage. She basically made $12,000 for approximately two weeks of work. Ignoring, for the moment, that the work involved making porn, it’s not a terrible rate.

However, what stands out most about her story is that she continues to generate money for the companies that initially paid her. To this day, those scenes she shot still generate traffic for popular sites like PornHub and that traffic still makes its parent company, MindGeek, some additional profit.

Most people don’t know, or want to know for that matter, that the most popular porn sites and studios are owned by MindGeek. Think of any site your significant other won’t admit to visiting. Chances are, they own it. They’re basically the Amazon of porn. They’re so big that there really isn’t a close second.

It’s because they’re so big that Ms. Kalifa’s story isn’t unique. Most people who enter the porn industry, be they male or female, have to go through MindGeek in some form or another. They’re basically a monopoly and because of that, they can get away with shady practices, such as underpaying workers or short-changing them with fine print.

Listed above are sites few will admit to knowing.

Most porn performers, including Ms. Kalifa, only get paid a flat rate per scene. They basically function as independent contractors, which means they’re not salaried employees who get benefits. They’re basically Uber drivers, but with sex. Unlike Uber drivers, though, the top performers can actually make a lot more, but they’re the exception and not the norm. Most performers are in Ms. Kalifa’s situation.

It’s not a situation unique to porn. Other elements of the entertainment industry have used similar practices for years. The music industry has plenty of examples of successful artists who sell millions of albums, but still go bankrupt because most of that money went to the companies they worked for rather than the artists themselves.

It even happens in the comic book industry. Few individuals have created and drawn more iconic character than Jack Kirby, but because he was a work-for-hire, he didn’t technically own his creations. The companies he worked for, both Marvel and DC Comics, owned them. As a result of this, there were some lengthy legal battles with Kirby’s estate. Not surprisingly, the companies won.

Think of any industry that involves performing or creating some kind of art. There’s a good chance that there are cases where someone creates something that becomes successful, but the creators themselves don’t profit from it. Only the companies profit.

Again, there’s a context to that. In industries like music, the top one percent of performers earn over three-quarters of the revenue. Most creative endeavors fail to turn a profit. As someone trying hard to break into the publishing industry, I can attest to how common failure and rejection are. These industries, as shady as their practices might be, need to make a profit and that often requires enduring many losses.

That’s exactly why Mia Kalifa’s story matters. It doesn’t just shed light on the less glamorous aspects of the porn industry. It highlights how the actual people behind popular media don’t reap as much of the benefits as we think. For porn stars, current and former, that’s made even harder by the stigma and taboos surrounding the industry. Ms. Kalifa endured those unpleasant elements more than most.

It’s a system that’s only getting worse. There was a time when porn stars could make considerably more money and even earn some residual income from the booming DVD market. Thanks to the advent of streaming media and excessive piracy, that’s no longer the case. It’s why many porn stars are turning to escorting or licensing products.

Given the dirty nature of the business, few politicians or advocates will loudly proclaim they want to help the people in the porn industry. The last few years have been very difficult for anyone in the sex industry. Laws are making sex work more restrictive and more dangerous to everyone involved. Performers will end up with the stigma, but the companies will get most of the profits.

To some extent, what happened to Mia Kalifa’s career is a microcosm of what’s happening to entertainment in general. We’re currently in an era where big companies are acquiring as much intellectual property as possible. Companies, be they major movie studios or porn producers, have a vested interest in controlling the content at the cost of the performers.

Since so few entertainment products turn a profit, these companies have too much incentive to short-change performers and creators. There’s no law that requires companies to give performers a small percentage of future earnings. There’s no law that stops them from exploiting the content created by performers, even if those same performers don’t want to be associated with the work anymore.

Given the money and influence of these companies, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, Mia Kalifa did us all a service by making people aware of this very flawed system. The fact that she did this while fully clothed and being brutally honest in a world that lives in alternative facts might be her best performance to date.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, human nature, media issues, outrage culture, political correctness, prostitution, sex in media, sex in society, women's issues

When Is It Okay To Tell Someone To Grow Thicker Skin?

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When I was a kid, I played little league baseball. My father also volunteered, being a lover of baseball and an all-around awesome guy. It was fun. I enjoyed it, even though I wasn’t that good. However, I still thought I was better than the majority of the kids on my team. I’d been playing baseball with my dad in the backyard for years. I had developed those skills more than most.

Then, one year, my skills started to slip. In my defense, that was also around the time I developed asthma. I still thought I was good, but there’s only so much you can do with those skills when you’re coughing and wheezing half the time. As a result, my coach had me bat next to last and made me play outfield, which I took as a personal affront.

I know he wasn’t trying to insult me, but I took it very personally. Being a kid, I gave him and everyone around me a bad attitude. When I told my father about this, I thought he would be on my side. Instead, he wasn’t having it. My dad was not the kind of guy who rewarded bad attitudes. No matter how much I told him the coach’s decision upset me, he had the same response.

“Can’t hack it? Get your jacket.”

That became a mantra of his. At the time, I hated it. As I got older, I came to appreciate it. On the surface, it may seem harsh, especially when it’s directed a kid in the context of a little league game. However, it conveys and important lesson while indirectly raising an important question.

When is it okay to tell someone they need to grow thicker skin?

I believe this question is more important now than it ever was when I was a kid playing little league baseball. With the rise of outrage culture and numerous controversies on issues that rarely warrant controversy, I feel as though my father’s wise advice is more relevant than ever.

That said, answering this question isn’t simple. I know it’s tempting for anyone annoyed by political correctness to just brush off outrage as coming from thin-skinned, over-coddled snowflakes. That is, after all, a popular perception among the most vocal critics of outrage culture. However, that recourse ignores some important caveats.

It’s one thing to tell an over-privileged college student majoring in underwater basket weaving that they need to grow thicker skin. It’s quite another to say the same thing to a wounded veteran or a rape survivor. Make no mistake. Those over-privileged professional whiners exist and they deserve both criticism and scorn. They’re still the extreme cases. Most people operate in that vast area between extremes.

To illustrate, consider the following example. You’re on a stage telling a story in front of a large group of people. The story isn’t political, nor is it an attempt to convince someone of a particular worldview. The story contains some difficult themes, including references to graphic violence, sexual abuse, and racism. It doesn’t have to be based on real events. Those themes just have to be sufficiently graphic.

After you’re done telling the story, a small segment of the audience comes up to you and tells you they found your story to be deeply offensive. They claim that the simple act of you telling a story caused them real psychological harm. How do you respond to them?

For some people, their first inclination will be to apologize to them and everyone else who felt offended. This is often the first recourse for any celebrity who tends to make a public gaff, of sorts. It’s an easy option and, at the very least, will mitigate some of the outrage, but it has the added effect of derailing serious discussions.

For others, the first inclination will be to brush off those who are offended and tell them to grow thicker skin. There are certain individuals who make this their primary response. They tend to be less concerned about hurting peoples’ feelings and often criticize those who are easily offended. While that may be warranted in some instances, it can often come off as callous. In some cases, it devolves into outright trolling.

Whatever the recourse, both responses have the same flaw. They ignore the actual substance behind those who took offense to the story. It generalizes the nature of the harm they claim to have endured. It essentially lumps the offense that some thin-skinned college kid feels with that of someone who has legitimate issues.

Without those insights, any apology or lack of apology will make light of any genuine offense someone endures. Those details are necessary in determining who needs to grow thicker skin and who deserves a sincere apology. In essence, the right response is determined on a case-by-case basis and that can get both tricky and cumbersome.

Say one of the audience members took offense because they felt the story glorified the current and historical oppression of women by way of patriarchal traditions. Someone harmed by anything that vague definitely needs to grow thicker skin.

Say one of the audience members took offense because they’re struggling with a legitimate mental illness and parts of the story caused them significant distress that required medical intervention. In that case, telling them to grow thicker skin isn’t just insensitive. It’s downright malicious. People with legitimate medical issues can only do so much to manage their reactions.

It can get a lot more complicated. One of the audience members may have endured a real trauma in their lives and while they’re not on medications, they’re still struggling and hearing the story opened some unhealed wounds. In this instance, an apology is warranted, but only in the context of acknowledging someone’s real-world issues. You can’t tell them to grow thicker skin, but you can encourage them to heal.

Maybe there’s another audience member who just says the story was patently offensive and is too heavy on outdated stereotypes. They’ll angrily rant at how certain elements denigrated their heritage, their culture, and their race. It’s not just that the story was offensive. They believe anyone who tells it is as bad as those who made it. This person may be sincere, but they could also benefit from growing thicker skin.

There are any number of ways someone can claim offense. Some are legitimate, but most are contrived. As a general rule, any offense that requires someone to be offended on behalf of other people is questionable at best and insincere at worst. It tends to happen whenever people try to make broad claims about cultural appropriation or stereotypes.

Even if certain generalizations about cultures are legitimate and certain stereotypes have a basis in fact, the offense is still taken personally. The very fact that it exists is an affront. That’s usually another sign that thicker skin is at least part of the solution. It’s one thing to abhor racist acts. It’s quite another to abhor that it exists at all.

Everyone is wired differently. Some are just more easily-offended than others. That’s an inescapable fact of life in world that’s diverse and has the technology to over-react to anything that anyone may say. Even with those caveats, it certainly helps to discern those who suffer real harm from certain rhetoric and those who really need to grow thicker skin.

There are some criteria that can help us make that determination. It may not help in every case, but here are just a few.

If someone is offended by the fact that something exists, then they need to grow thicker skin.

If someone is offended by mere opinions of other people, then they need to grow thicker skin.

If someone is offended on behalf of an entire group, then they need to grow thicker skin.

If someone is offended because other people can’t know the specifics of what offends them without reading their mind, then they need to grow thicker skin.

If someone is offended by something that was not intended to offend or harm, then they need to grow thicker skin.

Again, these are just general guidelines and there are certainly exceptions to many. However, if we apply these standards to my story as an upset little leaguer who took offense to his coach’s decisions, then my father’s reaction would be appropriate. In that situation, someone is right to tell me that I should grow thicker skin. Moreover, I became stronger and more mature as a result.

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Why “The Boys” Is The Ultimate Superhero Satire

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In the history of superhero media, 2019 will likely go down as one of the greatest years of all time. This year included three superhero movies that grossed over a billion dollars, including the first female-led superhero movie to gross a billion dollars and one that became the highest grossing movie of all time. Whatever the future holds for the genre, there’s no doubt that 2019 will go down as a banner year.

Regardless of what the James Camerons of the world think, superheroes have made their mark on the pop culture landscape. They’ll likely keep making their mark for years to come, especially after Marvel’s latest announcements for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, in the same year that superhero media achieved some of its greatest success, something comes along to utterly deconstruct it.

Whereas a movie like “Avengers Endgame” showed us just how great superheroes can be, a TV show like “The Boys” shows us just how depraved they can be. Being a comic book fan long before this golden age of superheroes, I already knew that. I followed the original comics when they came out in the mid-2000s. Now, thanks to a new TV show, everyone can experience the story that gave superheroes the ultimate gut punch.

Literally.

I’m not going to lie. I was genuinely surprised when I heard Amazon Prime was going to make this show. This is not the kind of story that you can turn into a Disney-approved, PG-13 spectacle for mass consumption. In anything, “The Boys” goes out of its way to explore the kinds of things that would make the censors at Disney and the MPAA throw up.

This is a story that does not hide the brutal violence, intense trauma, and unchecked hedonism that often seems unavoidable in the context of the narrative. Writer and co-creator, Garth Ennis, has a long history of embracing those darker elements of the genre. He did it with “Preacher” and his run on “The Punisher.” With “The Boys,” he took it to another level and beyond.

The world of “The Boys” is not unlike the early days of the MCU. The over-arching story tries to incorporate the fanciful ideals of superheroes into a real-world context. It doesn’t use fictional cities like Metropolis or Gotham. It doesn’t ignore how superheroes would affect society, government, or the economy. The many flaws of the real world are just as relevant in this world.

As are the sentiments about reality, in general.

From here, “The Boys” doesn’t necessarily portray a worst-case scenario for superheroes, but it comes pretty damn close. The “heroes” of this world are the Seven. They include the likes of Homelander, Black Noir, Queen Maeve, A-Train, and the Deep. They’re basically derivations of the Justice League, but in terms of heroic ideals, these characters have none of that.

The Seven conduct themselves as superheroes for the masses. They’re admired, respected, and idolized by many, just like their counterparts in the MCU. However, that heroic zeal is both a lie and a scam. Their entire image is built around a marketing ploy, courtesy of Vought American Consolidated, a defense contractor who incorporates superheroes into their arsenal.

Trust me. It’s even more corrupt than it sounds.

With that corruption comes greed, treachery, violence, and depravity the likes of which Batman would find too grim. These heroes basically get to smile for the cameras, enjoy the benefits of celebrity, and still conduct themselves as self-serving narcissist behind the scene. They can do whatever they want, get away with it, and still be beloved. It’s a recipe for all sorts of disasters.

On top of that, some of these characters are outright psychopaths. Homelander is a mentally unstable sadist who commits many vile acts throughout the comics, including rape. The TV show captures only a fraction of his depravity, but it’s more than enough to highlight the underlying message of “The Boys” and why it’s such a powerful story.

In essence, “The Boys” is the ultimate satire of the superhero genre. It’s entire narrative is built around exploring, exposing, and denigrating the ideals on which all superhero media is built upon. It’s not done for humor or comedic effect, either. The theme of “The Boys” is dead serious in showing how a world with superheroes becomes so depraved.

This is where the Boys themselves come in. They include Billy Butcher, Frenchie, Mother’s Milk, the Female, and Hughie. They both witness and directly experience the breadth of the Seven’s corruption. They take it upon themselves to expose these heroes for who they are.

However, their motivations aren’t entirely heroic. These characters often come off every bit as damaged, petty, and vindictive as the heroes they actively oppose. They don’t stick to high ideals, either. The Boys are brutal, albeit in a more focused and pragmatic sense.

It gets ugly.

It gets violent.

It gets downright traumatic.

It also gets the damn point across.

If “The Boys” has a unifying message that unites both the comics and the TV shows, it’s that superheroes can only ever make things worse in the long run. That ideal of a perfectly altruistic savior in the mold of Superman just doesn’t exist and wanting it to exist can be downright dangerous.

The people behind the scenes with the Seven feed into that. The government, big corporations, and the media glorify these heroes because the people latch onto them. They want these heroes to be the idealized figures that they read about in comics and see in blockbuster movies. They buy into it and both the Seven and the organizations that manage them keep selling it.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that only amplifies the corruption. The Boys dare to battle that corruption, but with the understanding they’re fighting a losing battle. They can attack, expose, and frustrate these superpowered sociopaths all they want. They’re never going to destroy those rosy ideals on which the entire genre is build upon. At most, they can just make them pay a price for their egregious misdeeds.

It’s hardly proportional to the many atrocities the Seven commits, but that’s kind of the point. These are superpowered beings who can only be hurt so much, even by other superheroes. The Boys can never punish them in a way that feels equitable, compared to the injustices the Seven inflict. That doesn’t stop them from making an effort and making it better than most would expect.

The right tool for the right job.

How they go about this and how the Seven reacts is a long, tortured story that has many shocking moments that are not for kids or the faint of heart. The trailer for the TV show offers a hint of that, but there are scenes from the comics that even the lenient censors of Amazon Prime wouldn’t dare put on film. I won’t spoil the bloody details, but if you have the stomach, I highly recommend you check out the comics.

More than anything else, the “The Boys” is a brutal reminder that the ideals behind superheroes are probably the most fanciful part of the genre. In a real world full of corruption and collateral damage, superheroes can be far more dangerous than the threats they confront. It’s almost impossible to be a superhero without becoming a self-absorbed asshole to some extent.

Even the Boys, who actively battle the superheroes that fuel this fantasy, never come off as entirely altruistic. They’re simply more respectable and less narcissistic. In that dynamic, nobody can ever come off as truly heroic. There’s just too much room for corruption and ego.

While “The Boys” wasn’t the first comic to satirize superheroes, it’s definitely the most complete. “Watchmen” may get more praise and respect, but even in that story, the heroes still try to act like heroes in their own perverse way. What characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach do is framed as something heroic, even if it gets violent and brutal. There’s none of that with “The Boys.”

In an ideal world, even assholes will find a way to be heroic under the right circumstances. Tony Stark proved that in “Avengers Endgame.” However, in the world of “The Boys,” there’s no such thing as right circumstances. If anything, the entire superhero genre has it ass-backwards. Heroes will inevitably find a way to become assholes and if nobody stops them, then they’ll just push their assholery to new heights.

The Boys” is a unique comic in its own right, but the TV adaptation is coming along at just the right time. I would even argue that this kind of satire is necessary in the current cultural landscape. We need something like this to remind us that the ideals of superheroes are still ideals. Like most things in the real world, ideals tend to crumble when subjected to scrutiny.

At a time when people are consuming the ideals of superheroes at an unprecedented level, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective about the genre. A satire like “The Boys” may never have the same impact as anything from the MCU, but it’s still a story worth telling, if only to remind us that great power can also breed greater assholes.

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How Smiling Became A Feminist Issue (For Terrible Reasons)

smilingispowerful

What would you think of someone who randomly walked up to you, sensed you looked sad, and suggested something that is scientifically proven to make you feel better? The person doesn’t force it on you. They don’t offer their advice to be smug or facetious. They just see a fellow human in distress and offer to help. By nearly every measure, the person is being a compassionate, decent human being.

Now, having contemplated that scenario, what would you think of a man who walked up to a woman and asked her to smile? While some might not see that as too big a deal, it has become a serious issue in recent years. It may not be the most absurd since it doesn’t involve Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, but it’s still up there.

The scenario I just described is something that, from a purely superficial level, may not seem controversial. Telling someone to smile, regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman, is not just an empty platitude. There is real, legitimate science behind it.

Research has shown that the mere act of smiling has many health benefits, such as improving mood, relieving stress, and strengthening immune function. To some extent, it helps rewire our brain in a way that directly combats depression, anxiety, and all sorts of ailments. It might be the easiest thing anyone can do to feel better. If it were a drug, it would be hailed as a medical breakthrough.

Why then has smiling become such a point of contention? While linking it to sexism is full of many absurdities, there are legitimate grievances that helped make this an issue. I know I’m going to upset people when I talk about this, but I believe it’s worth talking discussing, if only to preserve the benefits of smiling.

From the perspective of those protesting being told to smile, many of which identify as feminists or left-leaning, the issue isn’t about those aforementioned benefits. It’s about people telling them to be happy in a world where they don’t feel like equals. Considering how unequal things were for women throughout history, that’s an understandable sentiment.

Plenty of inequality lingers.

The situation for these women didn’t involve kind strangers walking up to them when they were sad and telling them to smile. It likely involved bosses, spouses, teachers, and various authority figures telling them to smile because frowning wasn’t lady-like. Even if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, it’s easy to see why that would seem condescending.

In some situations, it was even worse. In service jobs, which are often dominated by women, telling them to smile is like asking them to act as a billboard for an organization. They’re treated as a pretty face rather than a person. It’s the male equivalent of being treated as a cog in an assembly line.

That sort of treatment is dehumanizing and people, regardless of gender, resent that and for good reason. In that context, telling a woman to smile is no different than telling her to just shut up and accept everything the way it is, no matter how much she resents it. While that’s rarely the intent, that’s the interpretation.

Most reasonable people can and do acknowledge the sentiments that women feel in those situations. Nobody likes being told to just smile and accept your misery. However, the issue descends into absurdity when telling someone to smile is famed as a byproduct of sexism. It effectively politicizes the very concept of smiling.

As a result, it fosters this idea that a woman cannot smile and be feminist. It’s an idea that has become more mainstream in recent years. To see how, just Google “modern feminist” and look at the images that come up. Very few of the faces that come up are smiling. There’s no Rosie the Riveter. There’s only angry, outraged women yelling to the point where it’s a common meme.

This isn’t just an issue with respect to the popular perception of feminists. When it comes to faces, there’s a great deal of intrinsic biology and neuroscience at work. Seeing an angry face triggers a very different reaction compared to seeing a smiling face. Some of that reaction transcends even extends to other species.

There are also significant differences in how people react to smiling men compared to smiling women. The extent to which that difference is biological is not clear, but unlike many other behavioral traits, smiling is directly tied to many psychological and physiological forces. Tying smiling to ongoing debates about gender is one nobody can win. Like it or not, you can’t debate around biology.

Then, there’s the other side of the gender equation, specifically the one regarding the male perspective. While this perspective is less obvious, it does add some other complexities that often fall through the cracks during these arguments. This is where I can offer some perspective, as a man, because I can attest to this impact.

Whatever you think about the nature of masculinity, it’s a well-documented fact that male brains are wired differently compared to female brains. One of those differences stems from how we react to women in distress. Whether they’re angry or sad, seeing it can trigger that protective instinct that men often feel around women.

I can attest that this instinct is real. A few years back, I was walking down the boardwalk at a beach. It was a loud, rowdy place in the middle of summer so there was plenty of noise. Then, out of nowhere, I heard this woman scream. Almost immediately, I turned towards it and I wasn’t the only one. Several other men, as well as a few women, took notice as well.

The woman had badly hurt herself on her bicycle. I’d rather not describe the injury so I’ll just say she couldn’t stand on her left leg. Thankfully, she was with a couple of friends and they immediately aided her. However, her cries caught the attention of plenty of men, most of them total strangers.

While some with more cynical attitudes may think of that reaction as white knighting, I can assure you it’s a real phenomenon. Men sensing a woman in distress evokes a reaction that stems directly from our natural inclination to form social bonds and protect others. Since women are the ones who bear the babies, we tend to give them extra scrutiny.

That’s not to say that a man telling a woman to smile is always an altruistic act. It doesn’t overlook the situations in which someone uses that rhetoric to denigrate women and make light of the issues they face. However, if the simple act of smiling becomes part of the line that divides feminists from misogynists, then the entire debate surrounding gender becomes obscure.

Telling a woman to smile is not the same as telling her to get back in the kitchen. In addition, making outrage the face of female empowerment won’t help in addressing legitimate issues. It’ll just frame every discussion as something hostile and unreasonable. No matter how legitimate the issues are, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion in that situation.

Objectively speaking, smiling is good for you, regardless of gender. It’s something I encourage everyone to do when they’re feeling upset, depressed, or angry. It’s a small gesture and one that doesn’t solve problem, in and of itself.

However, it can help your in many ways, especially if you’re hoping to connect with others in a way that ensures they’ll listen. There are many issues surrounding men, women, and gender that are worth discussing. Making the act of smiling a rallying cry for gender conflicts will only ensure that nobody succeeds in the long run.

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Why Obesity Will Never Be Attractive

obesity

There are a lot of complexities, oddities, and eccentricities that go into what makes someone attractive. Betty White might not have the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, but she has a wide range of talents and quirks that make her attractive in her own unique way. Being physically beautiful is nice, but that will only get someone so far in terms of being attractive.

Certain people find weird things beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with that. Human beings have diverse and eclectic tastes in many things, especially when it comes to beauty standards. That said, there are some attributes to being attractive that are difficult to circumvent. That’s not to say one particular feature is always unattractive. There are simply some logistical issues that go beyond taste.

One feature that tends to become an issue every summer is that of fat acceptance. In recent years, ads using beautiful female models to promote beach body readiness have become controversial for reasons that are only half-legitimate. The complaints are fairly standard. Using beautiful models promotes unhealthy body images. While the veracity of those concerns may have some merit, that’s rarely where the complaining stops.

The outrage.

It’s not enough to protest products that use beautiful people in their advertising or movies that only ever cast attractive, relatively fit actors. For some, the entire concept of finding someone fit and thin as beautiful is detrimental. It doesn’t just foster unrealistic beauty standards. It perverts the entire concept of beauty. It sends the message that fat cannot be attractive.

At a time when obesity rates all over the world are increasing, it seems like a problem that’s bound to get worse, especially if the media insists on using thin, fit models. It has given those in the fat acceptance movements, as well as those on extreme ends of the political spectrum, ample material with which to voice their outrage.

Now, in the spirit of sifting through the firestorm that is outrage culture, I want to make clear that there are certain traits that don’t warrant shame and stigma. Someone’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender aren’t things they can control. Attacking someone or judging their attractiveness by those standards isn’t just unreasonable. It’s just a dick move.

When it comes to fat, however, the line gets somewhat obscure. It’s true that some people are genetically predisposed to being obese. There’s nothing they can do to change that. Losing weight or staying thin is just much harder for them than most people. I know this because I have relatives who are thin as a rail, but eat like pigs and never gain an ounce.

To that extent, I don’t support shaming or stigmatizing individuals who just got dealt a bad genetic hand. Having the body of a Victoria’s Secret model isn’t something that anyone can gain with sufficient exercise and diet. That kind of beauty is akin to winning a genetic lottery.

The sexiest lotto winners.

Where the fat acceptance movement loses credibility, though, is when it attempts to place fat as something that warrants a level of attractiveness on par with those who are thin. Some frame it as healthy at any size or basic body positivity, but the intended results are the same. The idea is to make those not blessed with supermodel genes feel and be accepted as attractive.

While I can understand and even appreciate the intentions, idealistic they might be, I can’t overlook one glaring problem with that effort. It’s not so much a matter of attitudes as it is an issue of logistics. Simply put, fat will never be as attractive as thin or otherwise toned bodies. It’s not because of culture, the media, or some nefarious conspiracy by the patriarchy, either. It’s just simple logistics.

To understand, you need only look at what it takes to be fat and compare it to what it takes to be thin. Being fat is relatively easy. You eat lots of sugary, unhealthy food and you don’t get enough exercise to burn off the calories. While genetics will add numerous variations, this process is part of basic human biology.

To be thin and fit like the models in the beach body ads, you need to put in real, strenuous effort. As someone who has made that effort, I can attest to how difficult it is. You have to exercise discipline in changing your eating habits. You have to push yourself to exercise regularly and that exercise is rarely pleasant. At times, it’ll feel downright uncomfortable. However, in time, you will see results.

Those intractable difference also sends other, less obvious messages that influence how attractive someone is. When people see someone who is thin and fit, they don’t just see their body. They see someone who is willing to put in the work to look they way they do. They also see someone who will endure physical and mental strain in order to achieve a goal. Those are all things we want in a potential partner.

Conversely, seeing someone who is fat or unfit sends the message that someone doesn’t care about their health. They either don’t want to put in the effort to look better or don’t care to look better. Then, they expect other people to find them attractive without them doing anything to earn it. Beyond the physical attributes of fat, it’s an attitude that’s hard to make attractive in any context.

On top of that, obesity does lead to a host of legitimate medical issues that go beyond beauty standards. Unlike other physical traits, it is possible to lose weight and body fat. There is a biological process for it and there’s no need for fad diets, either. There are plenty of success stories about people who put in the work and lost considerable weight.

Again, such efforts are very difficult for certain people due to genetic factors that they cannot control. I know people who work out regularly, but can only seem to lose so much weight. It’s frustrating, but the fact they put in the effort still shows in other ways. They’re healthier, they have more energy, and they feel better about themselves. That makes them more attractive than anyone protesting beach body ads.

To some extent, there needs to be some stigma against activities that are objectively unhealthy. It’s how many societies have managed to reduce smoking rates. Like it or not, being too fat is unhealthy. No matter how many ads someone protests or how many plus-sized models get hired for underwear ads, that’s not going to change.

Beauty standards are subject to all sorts of trends and quirks. They always have been and fat has been part of that for much of human history. No matter how much or how little fat is considered attractive, unhealthy traits that denote unhealthy characteristics will never reflect ideals of beauty.

In the same way being attractive takes effort, being healthy, fit, and desirable to others requires hard work and a measure of discipline. Someone’s ability to achieve that often says more about who they are, as a person, than what they look like in a bikini.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, women's issues