Green Eyed Monsters

So, as I was perusing Yahoo just to see what fluff was on the reel and came across yet another body-image controversy- this time over Disney’s promo poster for Cinderella. Lily James, who launched her career on Downton Abbey, looks very much like the Cinderella we all remember from our childhoods with the voluminous blue gown and iconic glass slipper in full view. She’s been updated a bit, with a digital color palette lending to the fantastical atmosphere of the story, her bouncy blonde curls floating behind her in contrast to the animated version’s composed chignon. While I initially had my reservations about the changes to the story and wondered how well Lily James would look in a ball gown instead of the Chanel-inspired fashions of Downton Abbey, I’m excited to see it in theaters.

Now, how is all this related to fluff on the Yahoo news reel and a body image controversy: apparently, Lily James’s waist is too slim and somehow setting a bad example. Folks, this body-image war is both ridiculous and disturbing on a number of levels. The profound hypocrisy in and of itself is troubling. We are being sent simultaneous conflicting messages about which part of our vanity to embrace and what to do about it. There are words like “acceptance, inner beauty and self-confidence” being tossed into articles decrying a girl for having a slim figure, as if being thin is somehow not as natural as being fat. At the same time, “fat shaming” still exists. In February, British commentator (for lack of a better term) Katie Hopkins took to Twitter to mock Kelly Clarkson for her weight, saying she must have eaten her backup singers and ranting about how society has too many cute names for obesity. Both Kelly Clarkson and Lily James have handled the situations with aplomb, but it is ridiculous that they should have to handle them at all.

It’s bullying to end bullying. We’re told obesity is both an epidemic and the new normal in the same breath. Abercrombie & Fitch refuses to carry women’s clothes larger than size 10. Women in particular are targeted as sexual objects in advertising based on our bodies, and young people are taught to value sex over intimacy. How can anyone say “we must be more accepting and teach the youth of this country to value people for themselves” when the daily bombardment is that people have no value beyond their bodies?

It has become a game of one-upmanship between those that somehow believe they are elevating normal (which can variously be read as plain, healthy/unhealthy, boring, natural, average or realistic) and those that celebrate beauty (can be read unrealistic, healthy/unhealthy, unnatural, beautiful, artistic, or attractive). The “Average Barbie” receives rave reviews as a step forward for positive self-image promotion as those who are or wish to be above-average are demonized. It is hypocritical and says less that we truly desire positive self-image projection and more that we are vain and jealous. If we cannot be a cut above the rest, we shall lay the rest low. It evokes Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergereon“- which is perhaps the only thing I’ve ever found palatable from Vonnegut- even if it sends a chill down my spine.

A quick summary for those who haven’t read it, America is now a forcibly equal society. Over two hundred amendments to the Constitution limit how wealthy, successful, intelligent, talented, attractive or physically fit a person can be. Everyone is reduced to a common denominator. Harrison Bergereon, the titular and tragic hero of the story, was born more. He’s smart, strong, fit, handsome and clearly a threat to society, so he’s simply locked up. One day, he escapes, casts off his mask and restraints, pulls out the implants and goes on a rampage. He comes to a dance studio, where the ballerinas are practicing. He chooses the ballerina wearing the heaviest weights and the ugliest mask and frees her and they dance. The ending is they both are shot by the sheriff and neither of their families realize or are allowed to care what happened. It seems, with our obsession with vanity and body image and how this picture or that picture is too pretty or not pretty enough is leading us down this road. If we truly cared about positivity, we would stop trying to force people to conform to an average and let them be. Some are thin, some are tall, or have better curves or clearer skin: we are all built differently. Self-image is a very personal struggle yet, like many other things in society at this time, we are insisting some institution fix it for us, as if we have a God-given right to never feel inferior, offended or ashamed.

There is a reason Envy was listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The energy we put into obsessing over how we feel about how we look, how attractive we are compared to others is destructive. I know it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to never have a worry about how they look ever again and I’m not saying we should necessarily since presentation does count. What I am saying is that there is trying to look your best and there is this unhealthy level of commentary on how this, that, or the other somehow influences someone else and continuing to foster a society that fixates on comparing ourselves to others. I hold the media culpable for this, but not in the way a lot of the commentators have. Others are saying the media needs to talk more about how appealing average is (whatever that means) and preemptively attacking people who might, through no fault of their own, make someone else feel bad. I’m saying they need to back off a bit and stop feeding the green eyed monster. The shaming of Lily James and other slim/thin girls in the spotlight is no more helpful than mocking Kelly Clarkson and heavyset women. Ultimately, no one really feels better about making someone feel worse and that is an attitude we should not be fostering. Either raise yourself above the rest through hard work be it in health, beauty, intelligence or accomplishment for your own sake or accept and make peace with your limitations and move on. You are not a victim of someone else by their simple existence.

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Bread and Circuses: The Beast Within

the-incredible-hulk-2

So continuing my Phase I series, spent the weekend watching The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen The Incredible Hulk, having skipped in the theaters while in the middle of major move and then forgetting about it later. Once past the solid hour or so of exposition and into the plot, the movie was actually pretty enjoyable, but not for younger kids, since Abomination is ugly and the fight scenes are brutal. If not for the intervention of Betty Ross, Banner’s love interest, I’m pretty sure Hulk would have yanked Abomination’s head clean off his shoulders with a chain.

The gist of his origin story is part staying out of government hands, part trying to find a cure and part learning to control his emotions to control the Hulk. He spends a lot of time doing breathing exercises, martial arts and trying not to get too excited. He has to have a firm leash on his baser nature or risk his own life and the lives of those around him. He cannot just let fly whenever something irritates him, or when he’s in the mood pour l’amour (yes, that’s right folks, Bruce Banner is celibate) or even when he is afraid. So what does it boil down to? Self-control and discipline. Banner, for all the strength and indestructibility of the Hulk, can’t just let it all go when he feels like it. For his climatic battle against Abomination, he chooses to stand up to him, however it is not a perfect fight, seeing as the Hulk does almost as much damage as Abomination and comes very close to killing him savagely in front of witnesses. He admits he’s not controlling the Hulk, just aiming him in the right direction. The end of the movie shows Banner in a secluded cabin somewhere in the Canadian wilderness, “hulking out” at will, controlling the transformation.

Needless to say that cure thing didn’t work nearly as well as they all thought it would. Banner couldn’t just medicate the beast or chemically suppress it, just like none of us truly can, despite all societal attempts to the contrary. Actually, the attempt to create a cure for the Hulk caused more trouble than it solved and the blood samples used created Abomination. It created a monster, much like over-medicating, self-indulging and cultural-numbing has created a monster out of society. There is no shortcut for Banner- he has to control himself or face devastating consequences, which is the truth for all of us.

The Hulk is a strong counterpoint to the usual media message of “if it feels good, do it.” I work in customer service and not a day goes by that there isn’t at least one person I want to “hulk out” on. It would feel beyond awesome to unleash the beast and hurl some of the abuse I take as part of day to day interactions with people back at them. Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences to that, starting with the loss of my job and going from there. The average person may not turn into a giant green rage monster, but they hurt people around them, they hurt themselves and damage their chances to contribute meaningfully to society when they choose to overindulge their emotional and selfish desires to the detriment of reason and self-control. We see the consequences of it daily: an obesity epidemic, high rates of STD’s and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a high divorce rate, a prevalent drug culture and an increasing preference that government somehow subsidize and/or fix these bad habits, depending on the habit. The notion that a person should restrain himself in his passions, whatever they be, has become downright old-fashioned. That has grave consequences for civilization and more specifically, the American way of life.

Many of the Founding Fathers, as they began to shape the government of the fledgling United States, commented that the American way was a way for a moral and responsible people, for only moral and responsible people could be counted on to decide the fate of their country, either as voters or as leaders. It is rapidly becoming that our lack of discipline will result in the total loss of our freedom, as morality and responsibility require discipline and self-control. Our politicians are easily corrupted by power and we the people, too interested in food, sex, drugs and other people’s money (Panem et Circenses, anyone?) let them erode our liberty and our power. It has become that “liberty” is mistaken for “license” and we assume that the world is suddenly without consequences simply because we cry freedom. The consequences haven’t gone away, just our courage to accept them.

Now, some of you may ask: isn’t the Hulk a hero? Isn’t the point of Bruce Banner to unleash the Hulk to fight the bad guys? The answer is more nuanced than just yes or no, since while the Hulk is the brute strength, Banner is the heart and mind; both of them together are what make the hero. The Hulk, uncontrolled, is without conscience and no more a hero than a wild animal. It is Banner who chooses to fight Abomination: he consciously decides to use the Hulk to stop Abomination, knowing and accepting the consequences, which ultimately send him on the run again. This is a defining moment, since up until then, his episodes were largely out of his control and he a victim of his own emotions. The beauty of heroes is they are truly ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and those extraordinary circumstances are merely the expansion of the ordinary. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he gets angry, something from which he will never be free. The average Joe doesn’t turn into a literal beast, but he still faces the same choices and challenges as Bruce Banner: controlling the beast and using it for the good of his fellows. There is a difference between wanton destruction, lust or greed and the rational choice to release the more primal parts of our natures and accept the consequences to come. Ideally, when the moment of choice arrives, we will choose to exercise those parts of us for the betterment of others, to let our passions fuel our convictions to create and protect, rather than destroy.