My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Merry Capitalismas, or, What if They Sold Christmas Decorations All Year Long?

It's Christmas at Kohl's!

It’s Christmas at Kohl’s!

Ho ho ho! It’s Christmas at Kohl’s! Never mind that I took this picture on September 14. Merry Christmas to all, or at least, Merry Capitalismas!

As a culture, pretty much everyone complains that ever year, Christmas decorations appear earlier and earlier in stores. All are in agreement, from the religious Christian to the Christmas-avoiding atheist to the hardcore Black Friday enthusiast to the last-minute shopper. September 14 is too early for a Santa Claus display. If we’re still wearing shorts, and we’re in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s not time for Christmas!

But this makes me think. Maybe it’s a lost cause. In the hypercapitalistic U.S.A., nothing sells better than Christmas. Maybe we have no choice but to embrace a day when Kohl’s has Christmas on display 365 days per year. I mean, hey, nobody knows for sure when Jesus was really born, right? In fact, to save merchandisers’ time, I’d like to offer some suggestions for year-round Christmas ideas.

Christmas on Halloween

Think of all the costume possibilities. Santa, reindeer, wise men, elves, Mrs. Claus. (Of course, there would have to be Sexy Elves and sexy Mrs. Claus, although probably not sexy Wise Men.) Also, the Halloween candy possibilities would multiply. Wouldn’t it be fun to hand out candy canes to trick or treaters?

Christmas on the 4th of July

Santa is already wearing red. He could just as easily wear red, white, and blue, and hand out patriotic candy canes. Let freedom ring—and jingle!

Christmas on Easter

Kind of confusing from a spiritual point of view. But genius from a candy point of view. Christmas Peeps! Christmas jelly beans!

Christmas on Valentine’s Day

It would be easy to add green to red heart-shaped boxes of candy. And mistletoe sales would go through the roof.  Also, couples could have fun playing “naughty or nice” and “sit on Santa’s lap.”

Christmas on Groundhog Day

Who needs a silly groundhog when you have beloved Rudolph? If Rudolph sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. On second thought, maybe we should choose one of the reindeer without a light-up nose for this task.

Christmas on New Year’s

Now that Dick Clark has passed away, who better to host the Times Square ball drop than Santa? And on New Year’s Day, what better way to start off the New Year than with sales for next Christmas?

Christmas on Leap Day

What’s better than Christmas 365 days of the year? Christmas 366 days of the year!

Christmas on Passover

Even more confusing from a spiritual point of view. But they have Kosher-for-Passover everything these days, so why not a Kosher-for-Passover candy cane?  Why not four glasses of egg nog instead of four glasses of wine? And while children leave a cup out for Elijah, they could also leave Kosher macaroons for Santa.

Christmas on Christmas

What better day to start selling next year’s Christmas merchandise than on this year’s Christmas? In fact, the stores could do one better and start selling stuff for Christmas three years from now on Christmas. Or five years from now. Heck, you could finish your Christmas 2023 shopping by December 28 of this year.

Please feel free to add your merchandising ideas below!

Thanks to Kathryn Shanahan for inspiring this blog post!

Is Pinterest the New Backlash Against Women?


Don't have a back-to-school ruler wreath? You must be one of those moms with "other priorities."

Don’t have a back-to-school ruler wreath? You must be one of those moms with “other priorities.”

Ah, Pinterest. It’s the popular social media site where you can “pin” links to whatever it is that interests you. For many people, that means crafts. And for some people out there—primarily moms —Pinterest is the place to pin your ideas for Competitive Mom Crafting.

And what is Competitive Mom Crafting? It’s sending your daughter to Girl Scouts with (organic, gluten-free) cupcakes that are perfectly stylized into ladybugs when it’s your turn for snacks—even though the other moms just send Oreos. It’s creating a back-to-school ruler wreath for your front door, or better yet, making a personalized one as a back-to-school gift for your child’s teacher—even though nobody else gives the teacher a back-to-school gift. It’s spending weeks wrapping your holiday present so that your coordinating bows and wrapping paper are all at perfect right angles—even though the people who give you presents just throw everything into 99-cent gift bags. And it’s about scrapbooking. Scrapbooking everything.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being crafty. Far from it. We all need a creative outlet, and making nifty cupcakes and scrapbooks is creative. Craft projects are a source of fun and relaxation for many people, and a way of spending time with kids. It’s the equivalent of me writing blog entries as a creative outlet.

The problem with craftiness is when it becomes competitive—and especially when this competitiveness is tied up in motherhood. Because for some moms, decking your children’s lives out with fabulous DYI stuff is the way to show that you are a Good Mom. Look how much time you put into making a beautiful life for your family! And those other moms, who don’t scrapbook and send their kids to lunch with ordinary, gluten-laden sandwiches? Well, those moms must just have other priorities, huh?

So these days, moms have a whole new category of ways to feel inadequate. These days, Pinterest and the new world of Competitive Mom Crafting is the new backlash against women, and especially mothers.

Backlash refers to cultural trends that function as a way to reduce the empowerment of women in an era when women have increased power. Things are by no means perfect for women in 2014. However, compared to half a century ago, women have far more power in the working world, in government, under the law, and under the dictates of social norms.

A backlash is a trend that functions to counterbalance women’s power and tells them to “get back!” Susan Faludi coined the term in 1991 in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. The backlash Faludi wrote about largely was the frenzy of media reports at the time about women who were allegedly failing miserably at “having it all.” According to the media, these women were dealing with a fertility crisis, a man-shortage, and a general sense of malaise—all as a result of trying to be successful in a man’s world.

Similarly, in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (1992), Naomi Wolf argued that the pressure on women to conform to increasingly unrealistic beauty images also serves as a backlash. While women have always felt pressure to be beautiful, the standards of beauty and thinness have increased exponentially—at the same time that women have gained other kinds of power in society.

The current pressure to be a fabulous crafter is yet another backlash against women’s power. Because now it’s not enough to have a career and a family and a home. Now you have to do it all, and have everything beautified with your fabulous craft projects. If you don’t have the time, or the money, or the talent to make a back-to-school wreath, well, just look at all those moms on Pinterest who do!

And that’s the thing about the backlash. It’s all about upping the ante on the long list of things that women are expected to do well. Years ago, women felt enormous pressure to be excellent homemakers. But the ante was relatively low. Sure, they felt pressure for everything to be so clean that you could eat off the carpet. But they didn’t feel pressure to make an array of fabulous back-to-school decorations and other time-consuming craft projects. Now that women have far less time to keep their houses clean—which we’re still expected to do—we have more pressure to spend our valuable time filling our meticulously clean homes with lovely crafts.

It’s the same with food too. Although I’m grateful that we’re more health-conscious than we were half a century ago, the downside is that the pressure on women to create beautiful, healthy meals has skyrocketed. Back in the 1950s, there was lots of pressure on women to be great cooks. But what it meant to be a “great cook” was a whole lot easier than it is today. It’s not that hard to make a pot roast, and it’s not hard to slap together tasty meals out of the processed ingredients that we scorn today. But now, we’re expected to come home and make meals made with ingredients we’ve so carefully shopped for that are “clean” and “whole” and organic and unprocessed and gluten-free and GMO-free and so on. We don’t send our kids to school with bologna and cheese on Wonder Bread anymore. We send them with elaborate Bento boxes.

We can’t possibly be fabulous at everything. Career, family, beauty, housekeeping, cooking, crafting—who can possibly be the master of all of this? As women gain power in society, this list keeps growing, and it becomes harder to meet the standards of any one of these things. As a result, some women feel insecure about themselves, and other women pit themselves against each other to be the single most fabulous superwoman on the block. Both of those trends take away from the power of women to be confident, successful allies—and therefore, it’s a backlash.

My thanks to Julie from Perfect Whole and the other awesome moms who inspired this post through their discussion on Facebook!



Ice Bucket Activism: Reflections on Why People Obey the Facebook and Dump Ice Water on their Heads

ice bucket

So if Facebook told you to dump a bucket of HOT water over your head, would you do it?

Probably not. And yet, over the month of August 2014, thousands upon thousands of people dumped buckets of ice water over their head to participate in a Facebook challenge.

This is the result of an extremely clever marketing campaign by the ALS Association, which has gone viral to an astounding degree. My Facebook feed, and everybody else’s, is filled with people dumping buckets of water over their head to raise money for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that most people know little about.

Now, in a futile attempt to keep my Comments section devoid of hateful comments, let me assure you all that of course, I support raising money to fight horrible diseases. If you are one of the many people who dumped water over your head to raise money for ALS, you indeed did some good in the world.

Any yet, there’s something about Ice Bucket Activism that, well, brings me a chill.

It seems that people are really attached to the Ice Bucket Challenge. And we’re not just talking about people with a connection to ALS. Ice Bucket Activism is really resonating with a large portion of the population. So why is that?

Well, take a look at everything else that’s been going on in the summer of 2014. This has probably been the worst summer of news that I can remember in my lifetime, and it almost reads like a Greatest Hits of Awful Things.  A passenger jet got shot down over war-torn Ukraine. A journalist was beheaded. ISIS is committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq. Israel and Hamas are at war again. The most serious racial crisis we’ve seen in years is underway in Ferguson, Missouri. And don’t forget about ebola. Yes, even ebola is back!

And on top of all this, the most beloved comedian in the world was so depressed that he killed himself. RIP Robin Williams. Life sucks.

It seems like no coincidence to me that this is the month when the Ice Bucket Challenge caught on. People feel helpless. I mean, how can you not?

So, to mitigate the feelings of helplessness, we engage in collective action. We dump buckets of ice water over our heads. We collectively raise millions of dollars to fight a terrible disease. We might not be able to do anything about the poor suffering Yazidis in Iraq. But at least we can raise money for ALS.

So as a culture, we’ve engaged in collective action. We’ve done this before. During the Vietnam War, millions of young people responded to the feelings of helplessness by creating a massive anti-war movement. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions responded to the systematic discrimination of African Americans with boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and organized actions that in some cases cost people their lives. And during August 2014, collective action happened again!

We rose up and dumped water over our heads.

Part of what’s fascinating to me about Ice Bucket Activism is how angry people get at people like me who challenge it.  Just look at this Slate article imploring people to “stop dumping ice on your head and just give money.” Some of the anger directed at the author in the Comments section is outright vitriolic. It’s the kind of anger that seems more appropriate for someone who advocates, I don’t know, dumping buckets of ice water over kittens?

So why are people so angry at Ice Bucket Activism Dissenters? I think this goes back to the Greatest Hits of Awful Things we’ve been treated to in the summer of 2014. So many of these Awful Things are extremely polarizing. Israel-Hamas conflict? Polarizing! The shooting of Michael Brown? Even more polarizing! Try having a conversation in mixed company of one of these two issues and someone is bound to get very angry very quickly.

And that’s part of what’s so appealing about Ice Bucket Activism. There’s no Two Sides of the Issue when it comes to ALS. Horrible diseases are universally hated by all, regardless of their race or religion or political leanings. If you post your opinion about Michael Brown on your Facebook page, you will inevitably piss some people off. But go right ahead and post a video of yourself dumping water over your head. The “likes” will mount up immediately!

Like I said, Ice Bucket Activism isn’t wrong. It’s raised millions of dollars to fight a terrible disease. It’s also a reasonable response to feeling hopeless in light of recent world and national events. People want to do something, and Ice Bucket Activism is something.

But the thing about Ice Bucket Activism is that it’s easy. It diverts people away from the kind of activism that has the capacity to make a real difference. And the powers that be are more than happy to have people channel their energy into Ice Bucket Activism than demanding other kinds of change. If there was a viral campaign to end the vast socioeconomic and racial disparities that exist in the United States, then the powerful people would get nervous.

But Ice Bucket Activism? The powers that be are happy to see our need for change placated.


Socioeconomic Pong: A Game about Inequality

Do all Americans have an equal chance to be economically successful? Or is the playing field inherently unequal?

To illustrate the concept of socioeconomic inequality, we created Socioeconomic Pong. Play Socioeconomic Pong and let us know what you think! (The game works best in Firefox, Chrome, or IE9.) Select the image below:


Our version of Pong is modelled after Atari’s traditional arcade game. In traditional Pong, players are each given equally-sized paddles, and therefore neither has an advantage. In Socioeconomic Pong, the size of a player’s paddle is determined by socioeconomic factors. The purpose of this game is to demonstrate that the socioeconomic advantages and obstacles faced by an individual at birth have a strong impact on the likelihood of that individual’s success.

I created this game with my colleagues Matt Taylor and Estelle Domingos at Capella University. We are in the Course Media department, and we design media pieces for online courses. We presented Pong at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference and received the Judges’ Choice award at the poster session.

Jill Duggar and the #YesAllWomen Hashtag: Why Christian Patriarchs Don’t Own Women’s Bodies Either


This week, two seemingly unrelated incidents happened in the world of female sexuality and the media.

On May 23, 2014, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. According to his autobiographic manifesto, Rodger’s killing spree was motivated by the fact that women had been rejecting him sexually. It seems that he literally felt entitled to access to the bodies of these women, a belief that was reinforced by the”men’s rights activism” rhetoric he was reading.

In response to Rodger’s killing, women all over the world started tweeting their own experiences under the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Their point: Rodger’s killing wasn’t the case of an isolated nut job. Women everywhere encounter men who think that they are entitled to access to women’s bodies. Here are just a few examples of the many, many tweets:



Meanwhile, on 19 Kids and Counting, a small act of rebellion was committed by Jill Duggar, the 22-year-old daughter in this very public right-wing Christian family. You see, at the time of filming, Jill Duggar was courting a young man named Derick Dillard.  (They are now engaged.) In the Duggar family, daughters are not “allowed” any physical contact with their suitors other than a brief side hug.  Frontal hugs are off limits. Couples are “allowed” to hold hands after their engagement, and are “allowed” to kiss for the first time at their wedding ceremony.

And yet, on 19 Kids and Counting, there was a small, but perhaps not entirely insignificant, act of rebellion. Derick returned from a long trip abroad, and Jill was there to greet him at the airport with her entire family. Derick and Jill eagerly approached each other from opposite sides of the security barrier. Jill ran a little too far into the security zone, and the alarm went off.  This turned out to be a unusual moment of spontaneous reality TV gold, because as the buzzers went off, Derick and Jill dove in for an actual frontal contact hug. Her parents were none too happy.

Now, please let me get this straight. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to abstain from sex, kissing, or anything else before marriage.  The #YesAllWomen tweeters would most certainly agree.  A man is not entitled to any physical contact with a woman that she does not want to share, whether those reasons have to do with her religious beliefs or something else.  A woman’s body belongs to no one but her own self.

But that’s what’s so disturbing about 19 Kids and Counting (and about the Quiverfull movement they belong to and other similar movement) is that the message is not that women own their own bodies and control their own sexualities. The message is that their fathers control their daughters’ sexuality until these daughters are “given away” to their husbands, who then take control.

Think I’m exaggerating? The degree to which the Duggars, and especially Jim Bob, exercise control over their daughters’ dating experiences is comprehensive. Jim Bob must approve all “courtship” partners for his adult daughters. No, we’re not talking about a dad setting limits on who his 15-year-old daughter can date. We’re talking about 22-year-old daughters needing permission. Once a daughter is dating, or even engaged, Duggar girls are never allowed to be alone with their boyfriends. Ever. They always have to have a parent or another sibling along as a “chaperone” to make sure that no physical contact outside of a side hug ever occurs.  These girls are not even allowed to have private phone conversations or texts with their boyfriends. To promote “accountability,” the entire Duggar family has access to the texts exchanged between Jill and Derick.

Now, you might ask, isn’t this a choice that Jill is making actively?  She is indeed an adult, and if she wants to kiss a boy before marriage or send private texts, what’s stopping her from doing so?

This is absolutely correct, technically. However, the cost of a Duggar child going against the teachings of their parents, and against the entire community to which they’ve been exposed, is enormous. The Duggars have gone through great pains to make sure their children have limited exposure to any ideas outside their own — including to the more mainstream Christian lifestyle choices that the majority of American Christians make.  They are all homeschooled.  None of the adult children have left the house to go to college or to get a job, except for the oldest boy, who’s married.  The family only socializes with other families with very similar values. The Internet is censored to about 70 websites for the younger children and for the adult children, which means no access to “subversive” ideas. So yes, Jill Duggar could leave the house and go to college and kiss boys and even wear pants (which the Duggar girls do not), but the Duggars have gone through great pains to make this level of free will enormously painful and unlikely.

And the children — including the adult children — rarely leave the house alone. There’s no, “Mom, I’m going to the mall with Katie.” The Duggars always bring a sibling along to make sure they act in accordance with their parents’ wishes. A few years ago, oldest daughter Jana left alone to speak at a retreat for young Christian women, and her parents made a big deal about how proud they were to send their daughter off alone into the world for the first time.  Jana was 22.

I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with parents teaching their daughters about sexual morality, and that there is nothing wrong with teaching the belief that sex (or even kissing) should be reserved for marriage. Every parent teaches their children about morality, myself included, and we all hope these lessons will stick. And when our children are growing up, we can indeed impose rules about things like dating.  I’ve already had a conversation with my eight-year-old involving a skimpy purple bikini. She was none to happy with me when I refused to buy her the bikini.

But when our daughters grow up, they can wear whatever purple bikinis they want, and they can make their own decisions about sexual morality because they are the owners of their own bodies.  And yet this is exactly what Jim Bob Duggar, and others in the Christian patriarchy movement, are trying to prevent. Just look at the recent popularity of the Purity Ball, a ceremony in which an adolescent girl literally “entrusts her purity” to her father, who is tasked with protecting it until she is married.

Attempting to control women’s bodies and women’s sexuality is wrong — whether we’re talking about a rapist at a frat party or a father who goes through great length to control his adult daughters’ sexual choices. In this way, Jim Bob Duggar isn’t all that different from Elliot Rodger. Eliot believed that he was entitled to make decisions about how women expressed their sexuality. Jim Bob feels the same way about his daughters.

Musings on My 25th Year High School Reunion, or, Miss Lynch is the Real Badass

Me, as Miss Lynch in Grease, at Pennsauken High School in 1986.

Me, as Miss Lynch in Grease, at Pennsauken High School in 1986.

My 25th year high school reunion is coming up soon. I am not going to the reunion. Mostly this is because the reunion is in New Jersey, and I no longer have family there. It’s not worth the trouble and expense. But I’ve been reading about the reunion on Facebook, and all kinds of memories are surfacing.

Let me start out by saying I intend this to be as non-whiny a blog post as humanly possible. I want this to be an empowering post. I’m tired of thinking of myself as a kid who was lonely and unpopular in high school. I’m tired of feeling sad that I skipped out on our senior trip to Disney World because I was afraid no one would hang out with me. I want to start thinking about myself as someone who rocked the shit out of high school.

PHS. The middle school, Pennsauken Middle School, is most unfortunately PMS.

PHS. The middle school, Pennsauken Middle School, is unfortunately PMS.

Here’s the part of the blog post where I risk being whiny and I summarize my middle school and high school years. I was the stereotypically bright child who severely lacked social skills and coordination. You know, the kid with the straight A’s who was always the last one picked in elementary school kickball? That was me.  After my parents’ divorce, I started middle school in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Being the new kid in seventh grade would pretty much suck for anyone, but if you’re painfully shy, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. To top it off, the largely working-class, conservative town of Pennsauken was just not a good fit for me.  I was a liberal professor’s kid, and one of only a few Jewish kids in the school. From the beginning, there was a pretty good chance that This Would Not Go Well.

Whining done. I have a mental library of painful stories I could tell you about my socially awkward attempts to fit in that ended badly. You don’t need to hear these stories, but more importantly, I don’t need to keep telling them to myself.

My sophomore year at PHS, I auditioned for Grease. I really wanted to play the part of Rizzo, the sexy bad girl. But then I read for the part of Miss Lynch, the curmudgeonly old lady teacher.  I was hysterically funny and got the part.

For years, I told this story and emphasized how emblematic it was of my high school years that I had to play an old lady school teacher instead of a sexy bad girl. But these days, I’ve come to realize that Miss Lynch is the real badass. Because, you know, there are a lot of high school girls in the world who could play Rizzo. But I may be the only high school girl in history who could make the old lady school teacher the most memorable character in that whole play.

And when you think about, there’s no better musical to play the outsider than GreaseGrease is horrible play for high schoolers. The message is terrible. If you’ve never seen Grease, it’s all about Sandy, the sweet new girl who doesn’t fit into the bad girl culture at her new school. She had a summer romance with Danny, the king of the high school bad boys, but he won’t have anything to do with Sandy at school because she doesn’t fit in.

So, is Grease like High School Musical, where everyone learns that the most important thing is to be yourself?  NO!!  Sandy decides to change her looks and her personality, becomes a bad girl, and gets the boy.  At the end of the play, the kids all sing “We Go Together,” and Sandy’s a part of the “together” now, just like I wanted to be. But she’s only part of “together” because she’s squeezed herself into black Spandex pants. Three cheers for conformity!

Miss Lynch, however, doesn’t give a crap what these self-righteous, conformist little greasers think of her.

A girl whose name I can’t remember came up to me after the play was done and said, “You know, I used to think you were weird. But now I think you’re cool!” So there you have it. Fuck Rizzo. Miss Lynch was the real badass.

On Facebook, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about some of the people from my high school.  It’s been stunning for me to learn how many other students felt more like Miss Lynch than they felt like Rizzo. If I lived closer, I would love to sit down and have a beer with these people at my reunion and hear about what they really thought about PHS.  I used to think I would never want to go to a reunion, but now I think I might try to go to the next one. And why not? I was Miss Lynch. I rocked the shit out of high school.

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