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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, movies, psychology, television, Villains Journey

John Oliver, Sex Dolls, And The (Unwarranted) Shaming Of Lonely Men

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There’s a general rule in comedy with respect to insults. If you’re going to demean, denigrate, or make fun of a particular person or group, you don’t want to punch down. Granted, you can do it. You can even get a few laughs out of it if you do it well and are exceptionally funny. However, in the grand scheme of things, you’re still an asshole.

It’s the main reason why comedians, be they stand-up comics or talk show hosts, generally direct their insults at the rich, powerful, and privileged. There’s a general understanding that if you’re doing well in this chaotic game of life, either through luck or talent, you can afford to take a few insults. At the end of the day, you can still go home and cry into a pile of money, fame, and affluence.

When you insult a group that has none of those things in any abundance, it’s usually not something people respect, even if they laugh. It’s why even great comedians like George Carlin had to be very careful and exceptionally skilled when he joked about rape.

We miss you, George. We miss you SO much.

Unfortunately, not everyone can be as funny or talented as George Carlin. Sometimes, insult comedy hits an undeserving target. It tends to reveal something about the comedian delivering the insult and where society is, in terms of sympathies. It’s often subtle, but the subtext is there and it has larger implications.

That brings me to John Oliver, the nerdy smart-ass British comedian who owes 95 percent of his fame to John Stewart. His show, “Last Week Tonight,” has won multiple Emmy awards and has garnered substantial praise for its colorful approach to tackling major issues, from the abortion debate to annoying robocalls to the flaws in standardized testing.

While I don’t agree with Mr. Oliver’s politics all the time or his approach to tackling certain issues, I consider myself a fan of his show. Compared to other satirical comedy shows, he tends to strike just the right balance between quality comedy and tackling serious issues.

However, he recently took a comedic jab that deviated from his usual style and not in a good way. It occurred during his episode that focused on China’s controversial One Child Policy. It’s an issue that has been subject to plenty of controversy for years and I think Mr. Oliver was right to talk about it.

One of the major consequences of this policy, which Mr. Oliver rightly pointed out, was how it led to a massive gender population imbalance. Due to a historic preference for sons, there are millions more men than women in China. The disparity is so great that it has caused major social upheavals.

While discussing some of those upheavals, the issue of sex dolls came up. In a country where there are so many lonely men, it makes sense that they would seek some form of outlet and it helps that the market of sex dolls is growing. This is where Mr. Oliver did a little punching down and, unlike his jabs at New Zealand, this didn’t have the same impact. See for yourself in this clip.

Take a moment to consider what he’s joking about here. There are millions of men in China who, through no fault of their own, are likely doomed to a life of loneliness. It’s not because they’re bad men. They’re not creepy, cruel, or misogynistic. They’re just at the mercy of math and demographics. There simply aren’t enough women in their country.

For these men, the old saying that there’s plenty of fish in the sea is an outright lie. Their options are limited and Mr. Oliver is making light of that. He essentially claims that men who use sex dolls are somehow even more pathetic and destined for more loneliness. He makes that claim as someone who is married, has a child, and doesn’t have to deal with those prospects.

It’s not just bad comedy. It’s hypocritical. Earlier in that same clip, he showed sympathy and understanding to a Chinese woman who was forced to have an abortion against her will. He’s shown similar sympathy to people in other situations, from women dealing with restrictive abortion laws to prisoners who had been screwed over by an unfair justice system.

Why would he show no sympathy for these lonely men?

Moreover, why would he make a joke about it?

To some extent, it’s not all on him. There is an egregious double standard when it comes to men who use sex toys. A woman can walk into a sex shop, buy a vibrator, and talk about using it without too much stigma. Sure, there will be a few repressive, sex-negative religious zealots who will complain about anything that gives anyone unsanctioned pleasure, but most people don’t take them seriously.

For men, however, there’s a taboo surrounding the use of sex toys in any capacity. Some of that comes from men more than women. There’s this not-so-subtle assumption that a man who needs a sex toy is somehow less manly. Any man who has to resort to one must be somehow deficient. It can’t just be that he’s lonely or wants to use new tools to please his lover. That would make too much sense.

For the men in China, and other areas where there’s a huge gender disparity, the situation is even worse. These are men who are facing both loneliness and sexual frustration. There’s more than a little evidence that this is not healthy for them on any level. That’s not to say that sex dolls or sex toys will help fill that void, but it will give them an outlet, just as a vibrator gives a lonely woman an outlet.

Unlike a lonely woman, though, these men can’t expect much sympathy. As Mr. Oliver demonstrates, they can expect plenty of shame and stigma. It doesn’t matter that they can’t do anything about their situation. They’re victims of circumstance, demographics, and basic math. Adding stigma and taboo to the mix is akin to kicking them in the balls on the worst day of their lives.

I won’t say that Mr. Oliver should apologize for his remark. He’s a comedian. He’s a citizen in a free country. He can say what he wants. However, the fact that he can joke about lonely men and still get a laugh says a lot about the current attitudes towards lonely men, in general.

We know they’re suffering. We know there’s not much they can do about it, especially in places like China. While we’ll give plenty of sympathy to the lonely women who resort to using sex toys, we’ll stick to shaming and stigmatizing the men who dare to do the same. Then, we’ll pretend to be surprised when they get angry and resentful.

Is that fair? No, it isn’t.

Is that funny? No, I argue that it’s not, especially with the way Mr. Oliver went about it.

He’s no George Carlin. He’s no John Stewart, either. In this particular case, he’s just an asshole.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, psychology, sex in society, sex robots, sexuality, women's issues

Feminism, Men’s Issues, And How Legalizing Prostitution Could Affect Both

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Politics, in general, are contentious enough. Gender politics, and the identity politics they invite, often escalate in ways that bring out the ugliest side in people. Every time I’ve talked about these sensitive issues, be they the sources of slut shaming or the implications of double standards, I’ve tried to be fair and understanding to all sides.

In addition, I’ve tried to focus on the bigger picture. That’s often necessary because debating gender politics can get frustratingly personal. I can make a perfectly reasonable argument on an issue like abortion, but that argument will get overshadowed by the fact that I’m a straight male. When it comes to something so divisive, the big picture is often the only one you can scrutinize.

I’m going to try talk about gender politics again and I’m going to get into a few specifics. I understand that’s risky. I also expect more than one person to disagree with my point, if not outright resent it. I’ll take that chance because I feel like this is a point worth making within the current political climate.

On top of gender politics, which covers a great many areas from media depictions to social issues, I’m going to explore it in the context of prostitution. It’s another issue I’ve scrutinized on both a legal and societal level. In this case, they’re intertwined in certain aspects that have major implications.

Even before gender politics entered its current state of contention, there was somewhat of a divide within feminism over prostitution and sex work. I’ve discussed it before, citing the different approaches of sex positive and sex negative ideologies. One sees it as inherently exploitative towards women. The other sees it as an exercise of agency and freedom.

For those concerned with men’s issues, the issue rarely comes up. When I’ve asked about it on places like Reddit, most adopt the libertarian stance. It shouldn’t be illegal and it’s not the business of the government to prosecute consensual sexual behavior. There are a few who oppose it for other reasons, but there isn’t the same divide as there is in other men’s issues.

That could change very soon and, unlike other recent controversies involving gender, it could have serious legal implications. That’s because for the first time in generations, the legality of prostitution is a serious issue during a major election cycle. More than four presidential candidates have gone on record as saying they favor decriminalization of sex work. For such a taboo issue, that’s pretty remarkable.

Some have likened it to the recent successes surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana. Others contend that recent crackdowns on sex workers have added greater urgency to confront this issue. Whatever the source, prostitution is finally becoming a relevant issue and gender politics is sure to be part of it. Unfortunately, that may not be a good thing.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand what happens when lawyers and the law enter a debate. This isn’t like the anti-harassment movement that seeks to help victims of exploitation in the entertainment industry. This deals in real-world legal issues that have decades of complicated precedent. Changing the law is going to have impacts that go far beyond any trending hashtags.

Gender politics is sure to affect these issues. It already has, to some extent. In recent years, prostitution has become intertwined with transgender rights because it’s not uncommon for transgender women resort to sex work for survival. Keeping prostitution illegal puts an already-vulnerable population at even greater risk of exploitation.

It was also a certain subset of feminists, which includes the likes of Gloria Steinem, who favored the recent laws that cracked down against prostitution online. This is already an issue that strikes many chords within gender politics and it could certainly escalate as more legal challenges come to the forefront.

Just this past year, several states have proposed legislation that would decriminalize sex work. In addition, efforts to close the small number of legal brothels operating in Nevada failed in 2018. While there hasn’t been much tangible change in the courts yet, there is some momentum for this issue. It will only take one state to take the leap and, like marijuana before it, that could start a trend.

This is where the gender politics surrounding prostitution could either get slightly better or significantly worse. In a perfect exchange, the dynamics are simple. Two consenting adults agree on an exchange of money for sex. They carry out the act, exchange the money, and that’s the end of it. Both are satisfied, relatively speaking. There’s no further need for conflict.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Even in a world where prostitution laws are as equitable as possible, there are plenty of complications. Say, for instance, the two consenting adults agree to the exchange, but one fails or refuses to deliver on their part. Maybe a prostitute could suddenly change her mind about a client. Maybe a client feels the service did not warrant the payment.

How is this resolved?

What happens when someone tries to take a sex worker to court or vice versa?

How does the court or the police go about handling these issues in a way that protects the privacy and welfare of both parties? Is it even possible?

These are all relevant questions and gender politics can only complicate the answer. At the moment, most sex workers cannot go to the police or seek legal recourse when a client becomes abusive or uncooperative. If prostitution is decriminalized, then not only do they have recourse. They have leverage. To appreciate that leverage, consider the following scenario.

A married man with a steady job and several children is going through some serious issues with his wife. As a result, he seeks the intimate comfort with a female sex worker. They engage in multiple exchanges and, by the letter of the law, their actions are legal.

Then, one day, the sex worker incurs an unexpected debt she can’t pay. As a result, she finds out the married man is wealthy and asks for help. When he refuses, she threatens to go the police and claim that he was violent with her during one of their encounters. It’s not true, but filing a report will expose his activities to his family and likely ruin his life.

Very little in this scenario is outright illegal. The sex worker could get into a lot of trouble for filing a false report, but even if she cannot prove her case, the law allows her to pursue a recourse for a client who wrongs her and even if she doesn’t prevail, the client could still suffer incur significant damages.

It’s not just men who are vulnerable, either. Even if sex work is completely decriminalized and those who participate are safe from prosecution, it can still be used against them in entirely legal ways. To illustrate, consider this scenario.

A young woman gets accepted into a prestigious university, but is unable to pay all her expenses, despite having taken out multiple loans. She decides to get into sex work to make extra money, which helps her pay her way through college. She ultimately graduates with honors, gets a great job at a good company, and leaves sex work altogether.

Years later, someone she knew from college joins the company. They knew she did sex work on the side, but don’t bring it up. Then, they’re both up for a promotion and to get an edge, her associate reveals to the whole office that she did sex work. To prove it, this person provides an ad she used that they just happened to have saved.

The woman is humiliated and outraged. On top of that, she doesn’t get the promotion. She is so angry that she tries to sue the company and the person who revealed her past for damages. She also threatens to quit, but knowledge of her past is already public and even though her work was completely legal, it dissuades others from hiring her.

This issue isn’t entirely fictitious. In 2013, a California woman was fired from her teaching job after it was discovered that she’d worked in porn years ago. Even though what she did was perfectly legal, she lost her job and the appeal to get it back. With decriminalized sex work, this could become even more common.

In a world of decriminalized prostitution, those who seek the services of prostitutes are suddenly vulnerable in entirely new ways. A sex worker who need not fear arrest for their activities has a greater ability to expose their activities and use it against them. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of desperation or spite. The leverage is there.

The same applies to those who participate in sex work. Like it or not, there is still a heavy stigma for anyone who works in the sex industry. Even if prostitution is decriminalized, the stigma may still linger. If clients no longer fear arrest, then what’s to stop them from using that stigma against sex workers?

Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, these are major complications that have significant implications for everyone. They could ultimately widen the many divides within gender politics. Sex workers and clients alike could face significant, unwanted scrutiny that could trigger a whole host of new debates that nobody is ready for.

These issues aside, I’m still of the opinion that decriminalizing prostitution is preferable to prohibition. History shows time and again that prohibition does more harm than good. We cannot completely remove the harm, but at the very least, we can mitigate it.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, men's issues, prostitution, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

The Flaw In Happy Endings According To “Bojack Horseman”

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The world can be a harsh, unforgiving place. The extent of that harshness often depends on circumstances, attitude, and even blind luck. Most people, no matter how rich or successful they are, learn that lesson at some point in their lives. It’s rarely pleasant and often leaves scars that don’t heal.

Even with those scars, many cling to a hopeful, wide-eyed idealism about how much better the world could be. Moreover, that world is worth pursuing at every turn. TV shows, movies, music, and literature convinces us that it can be done and still have plenty of room for commercials, ads, and movie trailers. Nearly every great narrative tries to sell us on some unique kind of world-healing happy ending.

Then, there’s the strange and exceedingly depressing world of “Bojack Horseman.” If ever there was a show that went out of its way to kill happy endings with the force of a billion gut punches, it’s this one. Think of all our most cherished ideals from popular media, social movements, and ideology, in general. “Bojack Horseman” finds a way to crush it all while still being funny, albeit in its own dark way.

I promise it’s funnier than you think.

I say that as someone who has watched “Bojack Horseman” since the first season, but I find myself appreciating its dark themes more and more lately. However, it’s not just because the harshness of the real world is a lot harder to hide in the era of the internet and social media.

Recently, I had a chance to re-watch the past couple seasons. In doing so, I noticed just how much our collective worldview is built around our hope for a happy ending. Almost every character on the show, from Bojack Horseman to Diane Nguyen to Princess Caroline to Mr. Peanutbutter, is driven to achieve some idealized ending for themselves.

For Diane, she seeks to become a successful writer who exacts meaningful change through her work.

For Princess Caroline, she seeks to be an accomplished, independent woman who has it all, both in terms of career and family.

For Mr. Peanutbutter, he seeks to make everyone around him happy and pursue every new project with wide-eyed passion.

For the titular character, Bojack Horseman, pursuing that ending is more complicated. Through him, the harshness of reality seems to hit everyone and everything he comes across. It’s not always through his actions, which are often selfish, reckless, and downright deplorable. His story, which helps drive the show from the beginning, reveals how pursuing idealism can leave us vulnerable at best and destroyed at worst.

To understand how the show does this, it’s necessary to understand what makes this show both unique and appealing. If you only watch the first few episodes, then “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t come off as all that deep. It just seems like a story about a narcissistic washed-up actor who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse in a world full of various human/animal hybrids.

After a while, though, you start to appreciate how Bojack reflects the ugly reality of self-centered celebrities. Whether they’re at the height of their popularity or have been out of work for years, they live in a world that basically requires them to be utterly self-absorbed and completely detached from reality. Living in that world tends to obscure what reality is and provides one too many mechanisms for escaping it.

In the show that made him famous, “Horsin’ Around,” everything was skewed. Every problem was solved within a half-hour. Everyone was happy by the end of the episode. Bojack seems at his happiest and most fulfilled when the cameras are rolling and the show is on. Behind the scenes, which is where most of the show takes place, the ugliness of his reality takes hold.

Without the show, that ugliness consumes him. Over time, it wears on him, causing him to seek that idealized ending that his show often espoused. Throughout multiple seasons, it leads him down many paths. At the same time, others like Diane, Princess Carolyn, and Todd Chavez attempt paths of their own.

From this foundation, any number of ideals can take hold. In Hollywood, or “Hollywoo” as it comes to be called in the show for hilarious reasons, an entire industry is built around telling stories or crafting media that either champion those ideals or distract people from reality. For someone like Bojack, who gets crushed by reality harder than most, it’s the worst place for him to be.

Bojack, and his colorful cast of supporting characters, either embrace or get sucked into this fanciful world. Throughout the show, they get put into positions where they can pursue their dreams, achieve what they think will make them happy, and even are allowed to succeed in some instance. If this were any other show, then that would be the happy ending that both the characters and the audience expect.

Bojack Horseman” is different in that it goes out of its way to expose the flaws in those idealized endings. The creator of the show, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, has even gone on record as saying that he doesn’t believe in “endings,” at least in the way that TV, movies, and popular media present it. In a 2015 interview, he said this about endings.

Well, I don’t believe in endings. I think you can fall in love and get married and you can have a wonderful wedding, but then you still have to wake up the next morning and you’re still you. Like, you can have the worst day of your life, but then the next day won’t be the worst day of your life. And I think it works in a positive and a negative, that all these things that happen are moments in time. And that because of the narrative we’ve experienced, we’ve kind of internalized this idea that we’re working toward some great ending, and that if we put all our ducks in a row we’ll be rewarded, and everything will finally make sense. But the answer is that everything doesn’t make sense, at least as far as I’ve found. Maybe you’ll interview someone else today who’s like “I’ve figured it out, here’s the answer!” But I don’t know the answer, and so I think it would be disingenuous to tell our audience “Here’s the answer!” It’s a struggle, and we’re all trying to figure it out, and these characters are trying to figure it out for themselves.

This sentiment plays out time and again over the course of the show. On more than one occasion, Bojack seems like he’s on the verge of achieving that happy ending and turning those ideals into reality.

He thinks getting cast in his dream role as Secretariat will give him that ending, but it doesn’t.

He thinks being nominated for an Oscar will give him that ending, but it doesn’t.

He thinks being cast in a new TV show will give him that ending, but that only makes things much worse.

At every turn, reality catches up to him. Whether it’s his many vices, his habitual selfishness, or his terrible choices, it always comes back to haunt him. Even when that happy ending seems achievable, it always becomes mired in complications that Bojack can’t always control. The same complications often impact other characters seeking their own happy endings, as well. For some, it ends up being downright tragic.

At times, the show paints a grim picture about even attempting to pursue a happy ending. Even when Bojack has insights into the process, it’s never as easy as his old TV show makes it out to be. However, the fact he and others around him keep pursuing that ending says a lot about everyone’s need to achieve something greater.

Even in a world without talking horsemen, that’s something a lot of people can relate to. Most of us build our lives around hopes and aspirations that we’ll forge our own happy ending. There may even be moments when we feel like we achieve it, whether it’s graduating high school, getting married, having children, or finally beating level 147 in Candy Crush.

However, even after those moments, the credits don’t roll. Things don’t end. The things that led you to that moment only work to the extent that they led you to that one singular moment. Life still continues and the happiness fades. Bojack experiences this at greater extremes, some of which are downright absurd, but people in the real world experience it too throughout their lives.

I can personally attest to this. When I finally finished high school, I thought that was like slaying the final boss in an impossibly hard video game. I felt the same way after graduating college, getting my first girlfriend, or publishing my first book. If the credits started rolling at that moment, it would’ve made for a great ending.

Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work like that. “Bojack Horseman” belabors that every chance it gets while still managing to inject some meaningful comedy along the way. It’s a lesson worth learning, especially for Bojack. It’s one he’ll probably keep learning in future seasons. Chances are, we’ll all learn with him along the way.

In many respects, the one who best summed up this sentiment isn’t Bojack himself. In Season 3, it’s Diane who lays out the harsh reality that everyone in the real and fictional world struggles to accept.

“It’s not about being happy, that is the thing. I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know If I believe in it, real lasting happiness. All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows? I don’t think they exist.”

It sounds depressing, but that’s par for the course with “Bojack Horseman.” Reality is often depressing, but it’s not utterly untenable because happy endings are impossible. There are many points in the show that try to make that case. Even Bojack himself tries to make that case, albeit in his own twisted way.

I would even argue that the show’s brutal attack on the very concept of idealized happy endings is uplifting, in and of itself. By making the case that all the happy endings we see in the idealized versions of fiction are flawed, it shows how futile and counterproductive it is to pursue them. The real world is harsh and brutal, but you can find moments of happiness along the way. They’re not endings. They’re just part of life.

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Filed under Bojack Horseman, Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, human nature, nihilism, philosophy, psychology, television

How Smiling Became A Feminist Issue (For Terrible Reasons)

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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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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

How Religion (Indirectly) Re-enforces Inequality

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I once knew a guy who worked a job he hated for an overpaid boss he’d once described as a cross between Patrick Bateman and Darth Vader. I can’t put into words how much he resented that man. To make matters worse, he was one of those bosses whose family had connections. He couldn’t get fired, let alone disciplined. Even if he did, he had a trust fund that ensured he’d never work a day in his life.

My friend shared all sorts of horror stories with me, but I often found myself asking why he stayed at that job for so long. I also asked why he didn’t try to do something about it. I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly confident that he could’ve sued his boss and won. He never did and gave plenty of reasons, some more understandable than others.

However, one particular reason stood out to me. While I don’t remember his exact words, this is what he told me.

“I’m not concerned. I know that one day, that asshole will die and when he gets to the gates of Heaven, he won’t be able to hide anymore. He’ll go to Hell. I’ll go to Heaven. I believe God is just. No matter how bad things get in this life, the scales always balance in the next.”

Now, I wasn’t surprised by this sentiment. This particular friend of mine was very religious. He’d gone to church every Sunday. He and his pastor were on a first-name basis. He could quote bible verses the same way I could quote X-Men comics. He knew his theology and I don’t doubt it helped him endure that awful job that he somehow endured for several years.

While I respect my friend and his faith, I find the notion of taking comfort in someone’s afterlife punishment more than a little unsettling. It’s not just due to the schadenfreude inherent in that sentiment. What I find most troubling is how this common theological concept perpetuates imbalances, injustices, and inequalities, albeit indirectly.

The very notion of an afterlife, especially with respect to concepts of Hell, has plenty of troubling issues. From both a theological and non-theological standpoint, it frames everything that occurs in the current life we’re living as a prelude for the much grander life to come. Even if a view of the afterlife has no concept of Hell, it still devalues our current lives to some extent.

However, when divine justice enters the equation, as it often did for my friend, there’s a less obvious impact that has real consequences in the non-religious lives of many. I would even argue that those consequences influenced society on multiple levels at many points throughout history. The extent of those consequences are hard to gauge, but the implications are unavoidable.

To illustrate, think back to the terrible boss my friend described. Think of him as a placeholder for any rich, entitled, over-privileged class of people in history. He could be a king, a warlord, a cleric, an emperor, or just some powerful tribal leader. By any measure, this individual has more power and wealth than almost everyone else.

While that earns them many benefits, from having all the nice stuff to attracting all the best sexual partners, it also makes them a target. What exactly entitles them to have all that power and wealth? Did they earn it? Did they fight for it and win it? What do they have to do to maintain it?

The answers vary, depending on circumstance and context. Some are more responsible with wealth and power than others. However, if we’re going to grasp the bigger picture here, we have to acknowledge the general guidelines of human nature and, chief among them, is the inclination to take the path of least resistance.

Like it or not, human beings are wired to take the easiest possible path to resolve an issue. That’s especially true of difficult tasks, such as maintaining an objectively unequal status within a society. Seeing as how humans, and even other primates, have an innate sense of justice, this is an issue that the rich, wealthy, and powerful cannot avoid.

That’s where religion enters the picture. Logistically speaking, it offers some convenient justifications for an objectively unequal situation. It’s not just that the boss, cleric, king, warlord, or rich asshole inherited their status. It was divinely granted to them.

That helps solve several major problems for the rich and powerful off the back. It means those who consider themselves pious and devout can’t just rebel against those of greater wealth. Doing so would mean protesting the will of the divine. For anyone concerned about facing divine wrath, that’s a major incentive to accept the current situation. In some cases, they even celebrate it.

That kind of divine excuse has another benefit, as well. For people like my friend, who have to toil under wealthy, entitled bosses, it gives them comfort about their current lot in life. While they could go through the trouble of fighting back, that’s both laborious and risky. Historically, powerful people don’t react kindly to being challenged and they don’t always fight back with lawyers.

Religion provides them another, less exhaustive option. Instead of going through all that trouble and taking all those risks, they need only keep living their current lives. They need not worry about contesting people like my friend’s tyrannical boss. He’ll face justice after he dies. That’s not just comforting. It plays directly into our natural inclination to resist change.

The only change these people believe in.

On a larger scale, this has minor personal benefits to the devout, but major benefits to the wealthy and powerful. If the vast majority of people are convinced that oppressors will get theirs in the afterlife, they’re not going to be as inclined to protest the status quo or, in the worst-case scenario, demand change that requires a loss of wealth and power.

This is especially important for religious leaders who, unlike governments or business elites, have to keep justifying why people devote their time, labor, and money to the institution. That’s tough when religious organizations don’t pay taxes, enrich top officials, and wield significant authority on geopolitical level.

It’s considerably easy, though, if the theology in question convinces adherents that the wealth and power of the institution is divinely granted. As a result, the inequality between the average believer and the top official is justified. That’s how the deity wants it. Even if some are corrupt, and there have been many, they’ll eventually face justice in the afterlife.

It gets even easier when adherents and believers are uneducated and uninformed. My friend wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t get much of an education, which was why he got stuck in a lot of bad jobs. His story is not uncommon. In general, the less educated you are, the more religious you tend to be. On top of that, less education often means a higher chance of living and staying in poverty.

In that context, it makes sense for religion to discourage critical thinking and higher education that isn’t specifically sanctioned by their institutions. If people aren’t educated, then they’re not just ill-equipped to question authority. They’ll remain in poverty and so too will their children, who are more likely to adopt their parents’ piety.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. People are born into their current lot. They either appreciate or resent it. Religion helps provide justification for it, however good or bad it might be. It gives them an excuse to accept it and pass it onto the next generation. Any inequality or injustice within that system remains in place and can even widen under the right circumstances.

Now, this is the point where I try to temper my rhetoric because I know the mechanisms I just described seem cynical. It gives the impression that every religious figure throughout history was just some greedy schemer who knew they were lying to gullible people and taking advantage of their faith to benefit themselves. I want to make clear that this is not the message I’m trying to send.

Are there religious and non-religious people who are that corrupt? There most certainly are. Some are more egregious than others. Some are historically egregious. I believe that most people, even those at the top of the hierarchy, are sincere in their piety. They don’t see their religion as a mechanism for propagating inequality and injustice. That’s why I see this impact as indirect.

Even if all organized religion disappeared tomorrow, I don’t doubt for a second that the wealthy and the powerful would find some other way to protect their status. For now, and for a good chunk of history, religion has been a powerful tool to justify and maintain this immense disparity.

Relying on the afterlife is convenient, but it requires assumptions that no human being can know for certain. Nobody truly knows what happens, if anything, after we die. We only know that no matter how rich or wealthy you are in life, death still affects you all the same. It is, in many respects, the ultimate equalizer.

In many respects, that’s the most valuable asset that the religious and the wealthy have going for them. The fact that nobody truly knows means that nobody can prove them wrong when they say their power is divinely protected. It also means that people like my friend can’t be proven wrong when they take comfort in the idea of his boss getting divine justice at some point. The result is still the same.

People on both ends of the inequality spectrum have an excuse to not change the situation. While there are some circumstance that are unalterable due to forces beyond anyone’s control, there are certainly some that can and should be confronted. As long as people find excuses in divine forces that cannot be confirmed, the inequality will only continue.

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How “The Society” Humanizes Teenagers In A Refreshing (And Overdue) Way

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As someone who hasn’t been a teenager for many years, I admit I have some unflattering perceptions of that demographic. Ask anyone over the age of 30 what they think of teenagers today and chances are you’ll hear more than a few complaints.

They’re too obsessed with their phones.

They’re too emotionally fragile and prone to outrage.

They’re too entitled, coddled, and sheltered from the real world.

You’ve probably heard those rants before and not just from Fox News. With those stereotypes in mind, imagine what would happen if a large collection of teenagers were left unsupervised and isolated in a large area for long stretches of time. What do you think would happen? How do you see that playing out?

Something like this, probably.

I don’t deny that I’d make some unflattering assumptions such a scenario. I would fully expect that they act erratically and irresponsibly. I would also expect for them to falter emotionally if left alone for too long. Having lived their whole lives within some system of authority and supervision, I wouldn’t expect them to function for very long on their own.

It’s those very assumptions that that “The Society,” a very binge-worthy Netflix show, dares to challenge. This thriller/mystery/drama is one of those shows that has all the right ingredients to play up every tired trope that teen-centered television show has explored for years. That was certainly what I expected when I discovered the show. I freely admit that those expectations were wrong.

The premise of “The Society” is built around a strange mystery that “Lost” fans should appreciate. One day, a large contingent of high school students get on a bus and leave the affluent New England town of West Ham for a 10-day camping trip. For reasons not yet revealed, the buses turn around and drop them off exactly where they picked them up.

Upon returning, these teenagers find out that all the adults in their town are gone. Near as they can tell, everyone just picked up and left. To further compound the mystery, they find out that all the paths leading out of the town have become dead ends. There are no neighboring towns to visit. As far as they know, there’s nothing but endless forests in every direction.

It’s genuine mystery with distressing implications. While the specifics are only partially explored in the first season, the mystery is only part of what makes the “The Society” such a compelling show. It doesn’t just put a bunch of hormonal, irrational teenagers in an enclosed area and let the drama tell the story. The show dares to humanize teenagers in a way that is exceedingly rare in a TV show.

By that, I’m not just referring to a handful of character that are well-developed and fleshed out. While there are certainly plenty of those in this show, it approaches how teenagers conduct themselves with more balance and nuance. It even makes the case that, in dire situations, they can come together and cooperate as well as full-fledged adults.

In the beginning, that’s not immediately apparent. When they all return to West Ham and find out the adults are gone, they react the way most would expect of decadent, hormonal teenagers if they were left unsupervised all night. However, the extent of their decadence never goes beyond a certain point.

To a point, being the key term.

Sure, many drink, they dance, and they hook up. A few just go home and turn in for the night, thinking nothing is amiss. They don’t do anything too outrageous, though. In essence, they conduct themselves the same way most single adults would if they knew there were no police or authority figures to stop them.

After that first night, though, things start getting serious. These teenagers, who still come off as kids in the first few episodes, realizes that something has gone very wrong. Their parents are gone. The adults are gone. Their entire town is completely cut off. They have no connection to the world beyond their town. They have a finite supply of food and little experience in terms of governing themselves.

It’s a scary situation. Some handle it better than others, but a few start to crack under the pressure. For some, especially Campbell Eliot and Lexie, the situation reveals sides of their personality that probably wouldn’t have otherwise emerged. That tends to happen with most people in extreme circumstances, but being a teenager tends to raise the stakes even more.

The fun and games quickly end. People start getting hurt. There are even a few deaths, which has a significant impact on everyone in the town. It sends a clear, unambiguous message. This isn’t just about hanging in there until their parents find them. They have to survive and they can’t do that unless they work together.

On paper, it sounds like it can only end in disaster and it certainly comes close, especially towards the end of the first season. Again, these are teenagers. Most people don’t expect them to function beyond a certain point. While “The Society” doesn’t strip away everything in the mold of “Lord of the Flies,” it removes enough to make the situation dire.

They still have electricity, running water, and shelter. However, their food supply is finite and there’s a distressing lack of expertise in everything from basic medical care to fixing a car. In order to survive, they must create a system of governance to keep the peace. If they don’t, then everybody suffers.

This is where “The Society” really shines, both as a story and as a concept. It’s also where it explores how teenagers, despite their maturity and lack of experience, can come together when they have to. They’re not perfect, but neither are experienced adults. They do find themselves in painful, heart-wrenching situations that include murder, illness, and despair. However, things never totally fall apart.

To anyone who has ever tried to explain student loan debt to a teenager, it almost seems absurd. The idea that a bunch of unsupervised teenagers can somehow form a functioning society just doesn’t fit with the common narrative surrounding teenagers.

In that narrative, things always tend to devolve until the adults return to impart the proper amount of discipline. Look at any movie, sitcom, or rowdy music video and the themes often come back to teenagers being out of control and needing the discipline of responsible adults. “The Society” makes the case that teenagers can become responsible on their own, albeit after some setbacks.

There are still many factors working against them. We’ve yet to see what happens to the citizens of New Ham, as they dubbed it, when the food runs out and they have to start farming the land. We also haven’t seen them endure a harsh New England winter. However, “The Society” never gives the impression that these young people are incapable of overcoming these challenges.

By the end of the first season, it’s easy to root for them. The emotional toll is palpable and so are the difficult decisions that many end up facing. Over the course of the show, however, it’s easy to see the progression that they all experience. It’s hard to even see them as teenagers anymore. Some conduct themselves as true, full-fledged adults.

While the mystery surrounding “The Society” is still unfolding, complete with fan theories and potential clues, the show’s approach to depicting teenagers is its greatest accomplishment in my opinion. If there is a second season, I’m definitely interested in seeing how these characters and their over-arching story progresses.

I doubt “The Society” will change anyone’s current attitudes of teenagers. There will surely be other shows and movies that double down on the many stereotypes surrounding them. If nothing else, “The Society” shows that teenagers are capable of carrying a story without adults complaining about them.

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