Month: October 2010

The night of the id

I don’t really “do” Halloween, so I have no costume  to share with you – though if I did, it would probably be something  easily predictable and Mad Men-related. Instead, I went back to my blogging vault for something a little bit different. I wrote this piece exactly five years ago, on a now defunct blog (my very first), and seeing as how it’s about Halloween (though only very tangentially about Halloween “fashion”) I thought it might be an appropriate diversion for this time of year. Enjoy!
My first semester of university I heard the following anecdote from a classics professor (in an Intro to Greek Civilization class). It says something for the story that I still remember it so many years later, my memory for details of my undergraduate education being spotty to say the least. [At this point, I feel obliged to add a little caveat … I am a terrible anecdote-teller. But it goes something like this …] Many, many years from now, when the earth has been destroyed and all that’s left are rubble and ruins, an advanced alien race comes across the remains and decides to study its extinct civilization. The aliens study the ruins, many of them, of course, dwelling homes and buildings. At the end of an exhaustive period of study, the alien researchers publish their results. In their paper, they discuss the religious practices of the natives of earth. They note the ubiquitous presence of a certain artifact in nearly every type of dwelling place they encountered, which they conclude must have been a temple of the most significant deity on earth – a white, one-legged, oval-shaped, porcelain receptacle.

The point of the story, I believe, had something to do with the difficulty of studying ancient civilizations and the dangers of imposing a contemporary rationalization on what are, at best, ambiguous traces of an inscrutable past. This brings up an interesting point (and I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the verisimilitude of history, and the way narratives shape the reality of the past), and it leads me – tangentially as always – to some timely observations.

Halloween is a strange time of the year. A time of year when a lot of people pretend to be someone else – adopt an alter-ego, a mask, a persona. Every year, the process seems more and more divorced from its purported origin (which is in itself a fascinating example of the evolution of customs and rituals – the same themes running through 2000 years’ worth of history, by way of Celtic rituals, Roman festivals, Christian appropriation, All Hallows Eve and all the rest of it). The twin principles of modern (pop) culture are prominently on display – sex having the edge over violence, most of the time anyway. Vampires and motley ghouls (now sexed-up and pleather-clad) are still the old stand-bys, but more and more, costumes reflect the Zeitgeist – the retro-mad, media-addicted, disaffected, desensitized jeunesse doré of this brave new world.

Halloween is a mine of research possibilities. I can only imagine what a latter-day cultural anthropologist might make of the seemingly bacchanalian festivities at any of the several dozen bars and night clubs in my little metropolis, if the city suddenly became the site of a Pompeian catastrophe on the Halloween weekend – pirates consorting with mermaids, angels fraternizing with their fallen counterparts, a whole microcosm of improbable encounters frozen in an everlasting contortion fueled by cheap drink specials and the pedestrian rhythms of Top 40 hits. What is interesting is the need to have a night like Halloween, a moment when inhibitions are communally loosened (if ever so slightly) under the shielding guise of an adopted persona. I suppose it might be said there are other examples of this; the various Carnivales around the world for one. Yet Halloween seems different, a reflection perhaps of the culture in which it exists. That it is crassly commercial is a given … there are few public celebrations that aren’t. But it also has a split personality – a strange juxtaposition of children’s diversion and adult entertainment, where the violent undercurrent is not entirely absent in the former. This might be nothing more than a ploy to expand the consumer base. It might also be an illustration of the indistinct boundary between childhood and adulthood, and the nature of the collective unconscious; children and adults alike choosing, on some subconscious level, to personify the same universal archetypes – hero, villain, trickster, warrior. At the simplest, pop psychology level, it is a moment in which rigidly-enforced roles are set aside, when sights that would normally cause a stir – hairy men bursting out of nurses’ uniforms, walking toilet-humour jokes, bikini-clad girls on the street in reinforced-thermal-mittens weather – don’t raise an eyebrow, a moment of reciprocal fantasy, when I pretend that you’re a dashing Jedi, and you can call me Alice.

Of course, nothing can explain the baffling popularity of 80s-Madonna-inspired outfits, which missed “frightening” by a (teased) hair and by-passed “ironic” entirely on the way to “laughable”. But some mysteries remain forever veiled in spandex.

Halloween: sex and candy. Enjoy!

Friday wrap up

As much as I hate to admit it, winter is practically here. It’s not so much around the corner as right across the street and about to jaywalk your way. It’s strange how every year Edmontonians go through the same adjustment process at the first sign of snow – disbelief, indignation, resignation, defeat. You’d think we would be prepared given our accumulated experience, but it seems that we all suffer from collective short-term memory loss. 
You know how I know that it’s time for snow? Halloween. Forget costumes; it’s time to bring out the big puffy jacket. I’ve tried holding off on that as long as possible this year, but I fear I’m not going long into November. However, I’m not ready to fully concede just yet; I’m going to wear a dress, flu season be damned!
Dress, Banana Republic Monogram; belt, Club Monaco;
scarf, Winners; shoes, Stuart Weitzman.

OK, so a few small concessions to the climate are necessary, hence the long sleeves and tights. The dress has something of a ‘Victorian spinster’ feel to it – which I  actually kind of love – so, to mitigate, some colour is required. And what’s “sunnier” than yellow? Just what this vitamin D-deprived Edmontonian needs.

On a serious note

I’ve thought a lot about whether to post about the Marie Claire blogging controversy that blew up a few days ago, and finally decided that it was something I could not not address after all.

For those who haven’t read about it, a blogger named Maura Kelly wrote a post, published on the Marie Claire website, entitled “Should Fatties Get a Room? (Even on TV?)”. It purported to be a review of a TV show called Mike & Molly, about a couple who meets at Overeaters Anonymous. I say “purported” because the author admitted that she never watched a single episode. She did have plenty to say about it though, including thoughtful gems like “Yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room.” I’m not going to link here to the original post, because I would hate to think that it might get even one additional hit, but if you want to read more about the situation then check out the coverage over at Jezebel or the excellent response over at the Huffington Post.

Here is the thing. I don’t believe that a discussion of weight issues really has a place on this blog, because the whole point of the message I am trying to get across is that style has nothing to do with weight, size, shape, age or any other physical attribute for that matter. I am not naive in thinking that these things are not real, difficult issues that people deal with on a daily basis; I just don’t want this to be a place where they get re-hashed or, worse, somehow amplified. Maybe I am naive in thinking that it is possible to talk about fashion and clothes in a completely positive way, without making anyone feel excluded or unwelcome. Regardless, I found that I simply had something to say about Ms. Kelly’s blog post. First of all, because it gives bloggers everywhere a bad name, including those of us who work hard at this without any financial compensation but with no less dedication and care than “real” journalists. Second, because it’s absolutely disgusting and needs to be addressed as such. Third, and most importantly, because it managed to find a (inter)national platform through a fashion magazine.
I’m going to start my rant by saying that this is not about whether or not Ms. Kelly was properly P.C. about how she approached her subject. Her entire viewpoint is inherently bigoted, flawed and hateful. There is no excuse for anything she had to say, and it is encouraging that so many people in the media have recognized that and condemned it. The reason I am angry enough to write about this whole thing is the fact that Ms. Kelly is not some lone kook, spewing her awful propaganda somewhere out in the internet wilds to the sound of crickets. She is writing for, and is now being defended by, a large and respected multinational publication – one that markets itself as a progressive magazine sensitive to “women’s issues”. The fact that an editor of Marie Claire approved this post, and still appears to stand by it, is appalling. And unacceptable. And it is a troubling glimpse into the “psyche” of the magazine, no matter how loudly it might trumpet its progressiveness. 
It is bad enough that magazines rely on unrealistic images to peddle the wares they are being paid to sell to women. The harm resulting from that is insidious and sometimes irreversible, but it can at least be called a lesser evil – an evil of omission. They simply don’t show anything but bodies that fit certain criteria; the message is implicit, sure, but they can hide behind so many justifications about the fashion industry, societal expectations and the like. That does not excuse (and I hope no one is fooled into thinking that it does) but it allows them to deflect scrutiny (and pay lip service to the concept of acceptance while still publishing hypocritical pieces about weight loss, plastic surgery and the like). And yet, it is a far cry from that to outright and explicitly stating that anyone who doesn’t fit some narrow, arbitrary and ultimately meaningless parameters is “gross”. It is unbelievable and disheartening to realize that, in 2010, there are still people in the magazine industry who don’t realize that this is a repugnant concept, and one that is anathema to the philosophy that should inspire their very existence. Isn’t the point of a women’s magazine to create a sense of solidarity, acceptance and support? I mean, somehow even men’s magazine (hardly a bastion of sensitivity) seem to have figured out that insulting, demeaning and alienating your audience is not the way to stay relevant or, indeed, keep your audience engaged. 

I’m going to conclude my rant (before it runs away on me) by saying this: if you read this and are outraged by the irresponsible, cavalier and wholly inappropriate way in which Marie Claire has chosen to act in this matter, then I hope that you will do something about it. Don’t excuse it next time you’re at a gas station or supermarket and are looking for something to read. Send a message with your dollars. Tell Marie Claire to suck it!!