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Homemade Shrink Rays: A Cultural Do-It-Yourself Manual

If you haven’t guessed by now, I love animated kids movies.  Although Disney does have a sizable monopoly on my cartoon screen time, the occasional non-Mickeyfied gem will find its way onto my TV now and again, including my most recent favorite, Universal Studio’s Despicable Me.  From lovable villain Gru to the cheese puff minions (I want one or ten for myself), Despicable Me has everything I could possibly want from ninety-ish minutes of computer generated hilarity.  Much of the movie centers around (SPOILER) a shrink ray and the various evil plots that can be accomplished using its miniaturizing capabilities, like this one that provides a perfect example for today’s post.

Cute, huh?  Those cheese puffs get me every time.  So, what does that have to do with culture (the shrink ray, not the cheese puffs)?  Well, it’s pretty simple:  cultural critics are using their incredible talent for blowing things out of proportion to try using that sci-fi shrink ray effect on a controversial comment that aired on HBO’s Real Sports Tuesday night.  The comment came from Olympian track runner Lori “Lolo” Jones, who, on her way to gold during the 2008 Olympics, tragically bungled a hurdle and finished far behind the coveted medalists.  For the past four

years, she’s been training even harder, and is determined to nab a gold medal in this year’s London games.  However, it’s unlikely her dedication is what everyone will be talking about during the games; instead, a far more touchy subject has launched Jones into the cultural spotlight: she is a virgin.

The Christian 29-year-old openly, and with a touch of pride, I might add, discussed her Twitter-based revelation on the HBO sports show, saying such unbelievable things as, “I just don’t believe in it [premarital sex],” “It’s a gift I want to give to my husband,” and, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done; harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating college has been staying a virgin until marriage.”  (If you don’t believe me, here’s a clip from the interview.)

Cue Evil Scientist, Dr. Cultural Critic: Igor, unleash the Shrink Ray! *cackling laugh*

Ok, ok, all joking aside, Jones’ comments have rocked the Internet and the cultural world as critics try to take in this unexpected and difficult to believe revelation.  I say try on purpose, because few definitive stances have yet to be taken on the claim.  After a good deal of research, the most prevalent view I could find was that this big deal really isn’t a big deal.  Oh yes, the culture that has a nasty habit for magnifying and dramatizing is now trying to downplay Jones’ comments as unimportant in light of the upcoming Olympic games.  Surprised?  Yeah, neither was I.

I heard about the controversy listening to the radio earlier today as the hosts of a morning show on one of the local Christian stations extolled Jones’ courage and honesty.  I was pleased to hear the news that someone in the public eye was standing for Christian morals, but I was less pleased to hear the hosts’ discussion of a CNN show’s response to Jones.  According to the radio show, the CNN broadcast mocked Jones’ status as a virgin and derided her morals.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the actual CNN broadcast, but that’s not the important part of the radio hosts’ discussion.  One of them touched on how important it is to discuss virginity openly with teens and older children, and to impress on them just how important and admirable staying a virgin is.  “Tell them that it is a big deal, that it is really important,” one said.  I was this close to cheering.

The radio hosts are absolutely right: this is a big deal.  Not just a big deal for families trying to keep their kids on God’s track, but also for our culture.  It is so rare for celebrities, in any business, to be open, honest, and proud of their high morals, and a fuss needs to be made.  The problem is, our sex-soaked culture shudders at the notion that someone worthy of admiration admires the “old-fashioned” idea that sex is God’s gift for marriage.  It makes our culture uncomfortable to be defied, and no one likes to be uncomfortable.  The solution?  Shrink ray.  Make it so small and insignificant compared to the mighty Olympics that this blip won’t register on anyone’s “people should know about this” radar.

Therein lies the irony: Jones is a blip that is registering on a lot of radars because her beliefs are so surprising.  Even if the cultural critics may want to minimize those beliefs’ importance, people are still discussing this claim and its implications widely.  They realize that this is a big deal because it’s so out of the ordinary, and that is the first step to getting them to ask why it is out of the ordinary, and why it’s a big deal to Jones.

I have nothing but admiration and pride for Lolo Jones.  She came out of a rough childhood, has faced hurdles, both literally and otherwise, in her Olympic career, and, like anyone in the cultural spotlight, deals with criticism and pressure from many sources.  To have stuck to her beliefs and maintained something so important to her is an incredible feat.  Jones understands that she has a gift more valuable than any gold medal, and it means so much more to her.  She’s letting our culture know that, loud and clear, and I have only one suggestion to those of my readers who are also proud of her strength of character:

Down with the shrink ray!

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The Edge Of The Earth and A Series Of Saviors: Two Posts In One

Oh yes: it’s a double-header of posts.  You see, due to my egregious lack of attention to this blog over the past month or so, I feel the need to make up for lost time.  To be a good blogger, I should put up one post about why I haven’t been posting to satisfy what few readers I may have left.  However, there is a far more pressing issue that has been gnawing away at me and those around me for some time that I have to resolve.  The solution?  Combine  both in a bargain two-for-one package.  How’s that for marketing?

Ok, First Title:  I did not fall off it.  I simply fell into a massive amount of college scholarship homework that robbed me of the energy to do anything with my free time beyond melting my brain in a vat of Once Upon A Time and Star Trek marathons.  (Believe it or not, marathons help tremendously.  So do large amounts of coffee.)  Anyway, the end result was better than I ever hoped it would be.  My parents and I had an amazing weekend at The King’s College in NYC.  My scholarship presentation went well, and dare I say I had fun doing it? I met so many incredible students, most of whom I am blessed beyond measure to have as my future classmates. The faculty and current students at King’s were just as wonderful, patiently answering my constant barrage of questions and putting aside any doubts I had about the school.  God is calling me there, and I couldn’t be more excited to go!

So that’s where I was.  Now that I’m back, on to the Second Title: I’m talking about The Hunger Games.  Don’t cover your ears and run away just yet!  I know there’s been an overload of hype about it lately, and you may be sick of hearing about it, but I’ve got stuff eating away at my recovering brain that I have to get out.  Plus, my Mom specifically asked for a post on it after she finished a whirlwind reading of the trilogy, and, well, you just can’t say no to Mom.

(Note: I’m inserting this here to avoid breaking Rule Of Life #15 (Don’t spoil the plot): there are LOTS of SPOILERS in this post, so if you haven’t read all three books, don’t read this.  If you read this anyway, it’s your fault, not mine, so don’t come after me for not breaking ROL#15. End Note.)

I first read THG almost a year and a half ago, just before the final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, was published.  I read it on Christmas Day in 5 hours, and when I put it down I felt like my world had shifted off its axis.  Not enough to completely throw me, but enough that I couldn’t just move on without dealing with it first.  I did not like the book.  It was dark, violent, cleverly seditious, and downright ugly, unlike anything I’d read before.  I was deeply unsettled.  Why?  After all, it’s not real.  Panem is a fictional land, Katniss doesn’t exist, and the Capitol is not an actual threat.  What, then, unsettled me?  It didn’t take me long to figure out: THG is a book about what our world could be.  

Suzanne Collins, the trilogy’s author, said she got the idea for the series while switching stations between a reality TV show about young adults and a news station covering the invasion of Iraq.  The two contexts merged into a story about teens fighting gladiator-style in a government controlled arena on a TV show broadcast to the entire nation.  Social commentary, anybody?  At its core, THG is a cautionary tale against what the media’s obsession with reality TV and the culture’s obsession with violence could turn in to.  Granted, the result is extreme.  I’d like to think our culture wouldn’t advocate televised murders as entertainment…oh, wait.  Ever heard of CSI? Psych?  Dexter?  NCIS? I have.  In fact, I’m a huge fan of the last one, and I know huge fans of the others.  These shows, and other crime dramas, vividly portray humans killing humans and we soak it up eagerly.  The only difference between those shows and Panem’s Games is that our shows are fictional.  

Fortunately, not everyone in Panem loves the Games.  Most of the 12 districts that are forced to provide the kids for the spectacle despise the annual slaughter.  Districts 1 and 2 and the Capitol, however, adore the Games.  The tributes from 1 and 2 go so far as to volunteer to fight in order to have the glory that comes with victory.  Of course, that’s not the only reason tributes volunteer.  Katniss sacrifices herself to save her 12-year-old sister, Prim, from having to fight.  It’s the first spark of defiance against the Games and the first attempt in the series at redemption.

Panem is a world in desperate need of redemption.  Their culture is twisted, their government is tyrannical, and their only solutions are violent ones.  Katniss herself is not the ideal heroine: she’s sarcastic, mean, desperate, and distrustful.  As a character, Katniss has few redeeming qualities beyond her devotion to her sister.  She is as desperate for a savior as Panem is, and this desperation is, under the many thematic layers, the real theme of the story.  The whole series is about a search for a savior.  

None of the consistent characters (that is, the characters who live through all three books) on the “good-guy” side is truly good.  Haymitch is an alcoholic, Gale is angry, and Peeta is deceptive.   Yet these characters and others are experimental saviors throughout the series: Haymitch “saves” Katniss from her sullen self as she preps for the 74th Games.  The popular love triangle between Gale, Peeta, and Katniss attempts to rescue both Katniss and the story by, as Haymitch convinces Seneca Crane in the movie, giving the audience “young love” to root for.  By the end of the series, the rebellious District 13 is portrayed as not just the potential savior of Panem by fighting for freedom, but also of Katniss by making her the Mockingjay.  Anybody else seeing a trend?  Haymich, Peeta, Gale, 13…all of them and the themes they portray are focused on turning Katniss into the perfect savior.  Yup.  That sarcastic, mean, desperate, distrustful girl from above?  She’s supposed to be the ultimate savior.

Why her?  Why not another, more moral character, like Cinna, Finnick, Boggs, or Prim?  Well, besides the fact that all those truly good guys end up dead, the answer is simple: Collins didn’t want any of them to be the savior.  If she had, she would have made one of them the main character.  Instead, Collins attempted to make a literary miracle happen and redeem three things at once: the main character, the story world, and the book itself.  And this could only be accomplished through Katniss. 

Think about it: Katniss starts out as a bit of a failure when it comes to main characters.  Collins did this on purpose so she could redeem Katniss and make a point: if this girl can find love and success in the midst of something so dark and terrible, so can we (loving Peeta/Gale in the arena/District 12).  By making that point, Collins could make another: if we can find love and success in a dark place, then we can help the world conquer all darkness(the rebellion against the Capitol).  Put all that together, and despite all the blood and gore and violence and hate of THG, the series becomes a story of redemption.  Bibbity boppity boo! Happy ending.

Only, it doesn’t exactly work out like that.  Yeah, Katniss and Peeta marry and live happily ever after, and Katniss never has to see Gale again, and the Capitol falls, and the Games end, and everything seems to end wonderfully, it doesn’t.  I’ve talked with a lot of THG fans, and not a single one was satisfied with the ending.  Not one.  Something was missing to wrap the story up completely, to give that ultimate sense of denouement to the story.  Denouement is French, loosely translated as, “untied knot.” (Thanks, Dictionary.com.)  In literature, it’s used to describe the sense of completion in a story, the feeling of, “Ah, it’s over, and all the loose ends are wrapped up nicely.”  Plot-wise, Collins wrapped up her ends.  There wasn’t anything unresolved to leave the reader pondering.  Theme-wise, however, she wrapped up all but the most important one: her savior.  Here’s where THG’s shocking reality is a problem.  Because the books feel so real, and our current world feels so close to the world of Panem, we need a savior that is equally as real as the world to redeem it.  However, in the real world, nobody is perfect enough to be a real savior.  We can put people on pedestals as high as we want, but none of them can truly correct the sin of the world because they are sinful themselves.  That’s why there is Christ.  In THG, real world problems need a real world savior, and Katniss, no matter what she does, no matter what happens to her, no matter how her story ends, is no Christ. 

“Of course not!” the fans say.  “She’s imperfect so we can relate to her, it wouldn’t be the same if she was perfect, there’d be no story…” and so on and so forth.  My answer is Yes!  That’s the point.  And that’s the same problem with all literary saviors who are not based on Christ’s example: they just can’t do it.  The problems are too big for them to handle, and so at the end, the reader is left wanting.  Collins failed to do what writers have been trying to do forever and that few have accomplished: create the perfect savior.  It’s just not possible.  Humans are sinful, and so we can’t come up with a human savior who can actually pull it off.  Some authors, most of them Christian, have written characters who end up being pretty good saviors by following the age-old model of unconditional love and ultimate self-sacrifice that Collins ignored, likely for the sake of avoiding cliche.  Unfortunately, because Katniss is seemingly incapable of unconditional love (see Gale/Peeta love triangle and you’ll get my point), and never once considers ultimate self-sacrifice (sacrifice without any benefit for yourself…the nightlock berries don’t count, since they were for revenge, not sacrifice), she does not fill the role of savior.  The odds are not in her favor, and the audience is unsatisfied.

So, all told, I’m not a fan of how THG ends, but I am a fan of THG.  Haymitch is my favorite character, I want to make Hob stew someday, I own a Mockingjay necklace, when I braid my hair I act like I’m Katniss, and I wish I could grow a beard just so I could shave it like Seneca Crane.  At Easter brunch, my parents took advantage of my obsession, knowing I would react enthusiastically: Mom: “Hey Jess, did you see that pig with the apple in its mouth?” Dad: “Oh yeah, the one with the arrow through it?” Me: “WHERE????”  You can imagine their hilarity.  Anyway, I love THG mostly because of how I see it affecting my generation.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything on the Teen Lit shelves in Barnes & Noble that wasn’t fluff about romance, boys, drama, and “finding yourself.”  Teens can breeze through those books without a second thought, and are worse for wear by the end.  THG is impossible to read without a second thought.  Teens read it, and immediately ask themselves, “What would I do?  How would I react?”  They have to take into account the sin in the world and in themselves to answer that question in any way, and that alone is enough redemption for me.  Books should make you think, ask questions, doubt yourself, doubt the world.  Books should be a journey, not a joyride.  Books should not be just an escape, but also an investigation, a process of digging and learning.  Books are doing this for teens for the first time in a long time.  Thanks to Collins and Katniss, the odds are finally back in our favor.

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The Bare Necessities

Looking over my recent posts, I noticed that most of them are pretty negative.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.  Cultural analysis does involve critiquing culture now and again, but today I decided I’d like to write about (what I believe is) a positive thing in our culture: Disney.

I’d like to think I’m a child of the Disney generation, growing up in the years of such greats as The Lion King, Toy Story, Aladdin, and Mulan.  I was raised on a steady diet of colorful characters and sing-along songs, perhaps to the point of excess.  When I was just barely two years old, I’d already picked a favorite movie: Mary Poppins.  My first trip to the child’s paradise of Disney World was one of the best I’ve ever had, considering I was three and I still remember most of it.  I knew every word of  “Under the Sea,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” and “Trashin’ the Camp,” if you can call “Shoo-bop-shee-doo” a word.  Yup, I was Disney-fied to the extreme as a kid, but as I got older I realized that I wasn’t the only one.  A good portion of kids my age and older knew Disney well, even better than I sometimes.  Now, this in and of itself is not so strange.  What kid doesn’t like to dance along in the middle of the living room with a big, blue, cloud-like Genie?  The thing that surprises me is the number of those kids that are now 16, 17, 18 years old and still love Disney.

Cover of

My First Theatrical Experience

Here’s an example: two years ago, Toy Story 3 premiered in theaters.  My little sister was excited, but not excessively worked up.  I, however, was ecstatic, and apparently, I was not the only teen who felt that way.  When my family arrived at the theater and got in line for tickets, I saw more teens more excited, and I’m not joking about this, about requesting tickets for Toy Story 3 than for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.  No joke.  Teens came in packs, in pairs, pulling little siblings along with enthusiasm, they even came *gasp* with their whole family to see this movie.  The generation that first fell in love with Buzz and Woody was the most pleased to see them on the silver screen again.  It was heartwarming in a weird, unexpected way.  As I thought about it, I realized I didn’t even really understand why I was so excited for the film.  Why was I?  Why am I and so many other teens and adults still in love with the classic, Disney fairytale formula?  They’re supposed to be kids’ movies, right?

Well, right and wrong, actually.  Fairytales, by definition, are watered-down stories designed to be told to children to entertain them.  Courtesy of Dictionary.com, “fairy tale” is defined as: “a story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures…a story about fairies or other mythical or magical beings, especially one of traditional origin told to children.”

Walt Disney took this formula and transferred it to the realm of animation.  Classic fairytales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were some of the first to be brought to life.  Disney knew that animation in and of itself was a modern curiosity that would bring fans to theaters, but too much newness might keep some at bay.  Instead of creating new, animated movies, with new, never-before-seen plots, Disney chose to re-invent stories American culture already knew by heart.  These tales were already treasured and loved, and what fan wouldn’t want to see a new rendition of their favorite story?  At its core, then, Disney is most famous and most popular for recreating old stories, mostly fairytales.  So, it has to be something about the original fairytales themselves that draws people to them, and then to Disney.

Over the summer, I attended a writing conference hosted by the Institute for Excellence in Writing that covered this very phenomenon.  I’d heard complex, pompous-sounding renditions of, “Why We Love Fairytales And Why They Are So Important,” before, but the speaker, Andrew Pudewa, presented the presumably impossible psychology of imagination so simply, and it made so much sense.  Stories, he described, can be categorized into four groups: Whole, Healing, Broken, and Twisted.  Each group is best served to a certain audience, teaches certain lessons, and reflects certain aspects of the world depending on the themes in them:

Whole Stories: where good is good, bad is bad, and good wins.  These are most young children’s stories, and most young children should have only these on their bookshelves.  Whole stories present the world as it will ultimately be: it has good in it, it has bad in it, but no matter what the bad does, good always wins in the end because it is good.  Most fairytales fit into this category perfectly.  Think of Cinderella, Aladdin, Tangled, Mulan, and Sleeping Beauty for only a few Disney examples.

Healing Stories:  where good is good, bad is bad, good does not win but there is redemption for the bad guys.  This is a whole story grown up a little, since it presents the world as children growing up see it: there is good in the world, and there is bad in the world, and although sometimes bad stuff happens, there’s still always something good in the end.  Disney is not very good at this type of story,  but there are a few of their plots that can fit the mold.  The Lion King is one, I think.  Yes, good conquers evil, the guy gets the girl, et cetera et cetera, but Simba had to lose his dad before any of that could happen.  And despite the victory, Mufasa does not come back.  He’s gone for good, and that leaves a sad mark on the story.  It’s a story that kids appreciate more as they get older because it portrays death in real life: when someone you love dies, they don’t come back, but there can still be happiness in the end.

Broken Stories: where good is good, bad is bad, and bad wins.  Period.  This is the story all grown up, an adult story, since it portrays the world as it very often is: one full of evil.  I cannot think of a single Disney film where the bad guy actually gets away with it.  Broken stories are not very popular in the fairy tale genre, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still exist.  Most classic adult fiction is broken: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and many of Shakespeare’s works.  Grown-ups like broken stories because they portray the world as adults see it, but kids should be careful with such stories, to be explained a little later on.

Twisted Stories: where good is bad and bad is good and the victory is anybody’s call.  Typical twisted stories are so subtle, it’s tough to even tell the difference.  In these stories, gray is the predominant color.  The reader cannot tell who to cheer for, if they should be cheering at all.  The first best example that comes to mind is Twilight, with its conflicting, equally dangerous love interests.  The second best example is the final installment of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, by the end of which I wasn’t really sure whose side I was on.  Children, if they read twisted stories, will very likely only be confused, since it takes the jaded mind of an adult to catch on to the themes twisted stories contain.  As it is, only those adults who have a firm grasp on what they believe good and bad to be should broach twisted stories, and even then, tread carefully, because these stories are designed to deceive.

And that’s it.  It is rather mind-numbing-ly simple, but it does make a lot of sense.  Andrew Pudewa, IEW’s speaker for this conference, after outlining the categories, described what kind of readers should read each type of story:

Twisted stories should only be read by adults who can battle against moral deception, since twisted stories try to present the world as it is not.  Such stories can be depressing to read as it’s easy to start believing the world is as gray as the stories portray.  I mentioned The Hunger Games above, and I’ll say now that it is my current literary/cinematic obsession.  I love those books, mostly because they make me think, a rare thing in teen literature today.  But, they are not happy stories: according to the categories above, the first two are broken and the last solidly twisted.  Despite these setbacks, I read the books and other twisted stories for two reasons: first, they remind me that the world is black and white, and second, through twisted stories, I learn to recognize other, more subtle forms of moral twisting in the world.  These are the reasons adults should read twisted stories, but if you do decide to pick one up, always, always, always read with care.  Read to learn, not to get lost.

Broken and healing stories are a little less relegated between adult and youth literature, since they can be read and appreciated on both ends of the spectrum.  I want to focus on whole stories in contrast to twisted ones, since this comparison will make clear my possibly annoying Disney references above.  Whole stories, according to the categories, are stories that present the world in the truest possible light: bad can fight, but good always wins.  As a Christian, I know this to be true.  Although the world is full of sin, Christ will return someday and conquer all of it.  Children need these stories to establish the real, good, and beautiful truth of the world before they encounter the evil in it.  That way, they won’t be led astray.  Whole stories are always happy, always hopeful, always promising, and always stay with the truth.  No wonder kids love them so much.  And, to finally reach the meat of the matter, no wonder grown-ups love them too.

Adults go back to whole stories to escape from the twisted stories that surround them in the world.  Whole stories are comfort food for the troubled mind.  They remind us what’s really going on.  The have the “bare necessities” of moral truth that we need in the world.  We can read/watch/listen to a whole story and let all our guards down, because there’s no subtle lies coming at us to trip us up.  We re-build our moral armor through whole stories so we’re ready to face all the deceptive bombardment of daily culture.  For a lot of people, it’s a sub-conscious act to hole up when the lies start falling, and it’s an equally sub-conscious urge to find and enjoy a true story to balance the fight.  Disney, with its never-ending plethora of whole stories and fairytales, is an ideal haven for the resting imaginations of adults.  It’s just a perk that we can take the kids too.

My Favorite Disney Musical Artists: Timon and Pumbaa

So, the next time you have the opportunity to pull out an old Disney VHS or a classic re-born on DVD, take it.  Don’t dismiss Baloo and Genie and Tinker Bell as children’s fantasy, but welcome the chance to take a break and enjoy their company.  And don’t ever, ever forget to sing along.  Hakuna Matata!

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