Category Archives: pop culture

“certainly no bimbo”

Did you know the current president of the University of Missouri — Michael Middleton, the man they chose to replace Tim Wolfe — testified about pubic hair and Coke?

This is relevant, I promise. Let’s back up a bit.

Last night, the film Confirmation aired on HBO. Kerry Washington played Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked under Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education. Clarence Thomas. You know, the Supreme Court justice who asked a question in court in February for the first time in ten years. 

When Thomas was going through his confirmation hearings to be on the Supreme Court, Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss.

anita hill.jpg

Well, you know the ending to this story. He was confirmed anyway. And he’s not spoken much since.

I’m not going to write about the film, because I haven’t seen it. I am going to talk about the hearings, though.

I don’t remember the hearings. They were in 1991, the year I was born. In fact, the first time I’d heard of those hearings was two years ago on an episode of This American Life.  And then, back in December 2015, I found myself reading about the hearings again.

I was backgrounding the University of Missouri Pres. Middleton for a story when I found something that struck me.

Middleton was an aide to Thomas during the time when Hill and Thomas worked together. So, he was called to testify.

This is from a Wall Street Journal article:

One of the oddest of Ms. Hill’s allegations was that one day when she and Mr. Thomas were working in his office, he got up from the table where he had been sitting with her, went over to his desk to retrieve a can of Coca-Cola and, after staring at it, demanded to know, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

Thomas aide Michael Middleton also says that he heard the pubic hair story associated with Mr. Thomas before 1985, when he too left the EEOC. “I have this vision of Clarence at the EEOC picking up a Coke and saying, ` Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?”‘ says Mr. Middleton, now a professor of law at Missouri North Central University. Mr. Middleton adds that he told his wife about it at the time and that years later, during the confirmation hearings, he turned to her and asked if she remembered the story, and she did.

But the memory, Mr. Middleton says, is quite hazy. He says he isn’t sure whether he heard Mr. Thomas say it or just had it described to him back then. “It could have been a joke I heard him tell in the office,” Mr. Middleton says. “It’s vague. I just know that pubic hair in a Coke can was not new to me {during the hearings} with Clarence Thomas.”

anita hill 2

And this is from a Time Magazine story: 

“She was a real straight arrow,” says Michael Middleton, who worked with both Hill and Thomas at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Very proper and straitlaced. She was certainly no bimbo.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Now, back to work.

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kanye vs. kant

Today I’m going to write about Kanye West.

No, I’m not going to review his new album The Life of Pablo; I won’t talk about his problematic, sometimes misogynistic lyrics (something that I struggle to reconcile with enjoying his music); and I’m not gonna discuss that horrible “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT” tweet. Again, problematic, and something that others can do a much better job expounding on than I can.

Instead, I’m going to write about Kanye West and taste.

Kanye’s return to Twitter has been one hell of a ride. He’s no longer going on about being responsible for empty water bottles left on planes, nor bemoaning the lack of cherub imagery on his Persian rugs, nor getting emotional over fonts.

But now he tweets about his music, clothing line and debt; creativity and inspiration; his reverence of Will Ferrell; and critiquing his critics.

At first glance, particularly for someone who doesn’t follow the man on Twitter, Kanye’s tweets about the Grammys seem to be the rants of a self-obsessed man with such a pathetic take on losing that he downs too much Hennessy and then, once properly hammered, takes to Twitter to enact a clumsy revenge.

But peek between the lines, Dear Reader, and you’ll see something else.

“Everybody with any form of taste.” The implication? Taste is something objectively good. You and I don’t get to decide what is tasteful on with our personal opinions.

And that’s when I thought, “Well, shit. Am I reading Kanye or Kant? It’s KANTYE.” (Please clap.)

See, the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the 1700s, has more in common with the Twitter account of Kanye West than one might expect. In his Critique of Judgment, he talks about something called sensus communis, or a common understanding of what constitutes “good” art.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Kant says we determine what is good art by using reason, the highest human faculty. Kanye … well, that’s not exactly his perspective. Or it doesn’t seem to be.

Again, taste. But this time Kanye implies something else: “cultural relevance.” Part of the reason the Grammys are not a valid awards show, Kanye insinuates, is because Grammy voters are out of touch with culture.

So here we wade into more complicated territory. Taste is something both objectively good and culturally relevant. That’s where Kanye and Kant diverge (feel free to argue; I haven’t studied Kant in depth for three years).

But if something that is Good is determined by a common consensus exclusively from those who are in touch with pop culture, then doesn’t that exclude or devalue the opinions of people who aren’t in touch? Why does Kanye assign different standards of taste depending on who listens to March Madness? And if only those people who are culturally relevant can have taste, then can taste truly be objective?

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe Kanye’s understanding of art falls into what Kant would label the tier of art below the Good, which is the beautiful, or that which pleases. “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion,” wrote Kant.

But I get the feeling that Kanye thinks that art occupies more of a transcendental plane than merely a pleasurable one.

Hell, maybe Kanye’s tweets have more to do with class, race and power instead of art and taste. I’ll get to that too (probably). But for now, I’m thinking out loud here (and trying to remember how to blog instead of write journalistically), which means that I’m going to leave this post open-ended. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

(Here’s the A$AP Rocky music video, by the way. I’d say “You decide whether it’s any good,” but, you know, we just discussed that.)

kansas city fashion week (and why i write about fashion)

What have I been up to this month?

Good question. As with any response that could easily be said in a few words, I think I’ll start with a quote from the one and only bell hooks:

 “When we’re talking about race or class or gender, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is…it has power in everyday life.”

My writing dips into several different areas in culture; one of those areas is fashion.  Fashion is fascinating because it actually does dictate a part of everyone’s life, even if that part is merely throwing on a work uniform as part of a morning routine.  Essentially, fashion is a conflict between “high culture” (think Prada, Chanel) that considers itself art and the “lower” culture, aka the cheap designs that make it to the Misses section in Walmart. Historical movements are marked by fashion trends—the shapeless flapper dresses of the 1920s, indicating a rebellion from traditional femininity, for example. Fashion is class, race, gender, and cultural differences (or similarities) seamed together and torn apart in material form.

Plus, styling outfits can be pretty fun, you know, on a non-theoretical level. Go figure.

I’m not totally embracing or even endorsing the fashion industry; manufacturing is cruel (outsourcing, exploitation, factory collapses), as are the body expectations for women (you’re either tall, thin, and white, or the exotic Other). But connections between these material and economic relations and cultural representation—or, probably more appropriate, the disconnect between them—are all the more reason to check yourself if you roll your eyes at the word fashion.

So what have I been up to? I’ve been covering Kansas City Fashion Week, in my newest project as a contributor for the New York-based website, The Style Line. KCFW was held March 13-16 in KC’s own historic Union Station, and it featured designers from across the country.  Some collections erred on the side of boring, but most runway shows were legitimately a ball to watch. 

Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri

On Saturday’s shows, I sat next to a designer from New York. She asked my permission to editorialize out loud, and I happily let her. “Oh that is good. See that patterned skirt? That’s so tough, to match the pattern where the skirt is seamed, and the designer totally pulled it off… Is that a pin holding that dress together? Hello, have a fitting before the show… Ohmygod, yes, from now on every runway show needs to start with capoeira,” she said at the beginning of L.O.D.’s Brazilian-inspired showcase of yellows and greens. I didn’t bother to correct her use of capoeira; I was drawn in by her commentary, and even added my own knowledgable remarks. “Well… her hair looks good, so…”

My favorite collection was designed by Andrea Marie Long, partly because of my obsession with checkered patterns, and partly because the Cossack headbands made me imagine that I was watching Fiddler on the Roof circa 2014 (a very, very good thing). Plus, her capes were stunning. I can only imagine the skill it takes to design and craft them.

The best part about Kansas City Fashion Week, though, was the impressive community effort that it took to produce the event. The models, hair stylists, makeup artists, media, sponsors, and general public were all local. I saw people in the audience dressed as though they expected Anna Wintour to show up, and I saw others who seemed to think that Kohl’s is haute couture. Again: I saw fashion as represented by different cultures and classes, but all from the Kansas City community.

It’s a long time since I’ve experienced such a strong sense of creativity and community in one place, and I was thrilled. Well done, Kansas City Fashion Week.

For more of my KCFW coverage, visit The Style Line’s Tumblr.

r.i.p. philip seymour hoffman

This wasn’t the post I was going to publish today, but life happens and apparently so does death. Philip Seymour Hoffman was allegedly found dead in his home after a drug overdose. He was 46 years old. He left behind three children. Celebrity deaths don’t usually shake me, but Hoffman was magic in everything he touched. So it goes.

So here’s a scene from one of his arguably lesser-known films, Charlie Wilson’s War, but one of my favorites.

ten men’s fashion trends women hate

Thank goodness for the Internet’s latest slew of articles on fashion, which are titled some variation of X  Fashion Trends Men Hate. Talk about useful information! Skinny jeans may be the most commonly worn type of jeans amongst young women, but evidently, “men want to leave something to the imagination” and skinny jeans put “your entire body” on display. Gosh, I had no idea that my skinny jeans made me appear naked! What a blessing to have the man’s perspective spelled out for me, so that I can finally start dressing for the male gaze.

I’ve since burned all of my leggings, oversized sweaters, wedges, and red lipsticks in a ceremonial bonfire. Now I’d like to return the favor to men by offering my list of Ten Men’s Fashion Trends That Women Hate:

1. Anything Camo

Listen, like all women, I like my men completely unafraid of danger, so I can totally appreciate a man who can handle a gun. But out of the world’s diverse selection of brown and green splotches, camo is the absolute ugliest combination of brown and green splotches. If you’re going to wear camo, wear it in the woods while you’re out killing bears and wrestling with alligators. Casual camo reminds me of that time Dick Cheney shot his friend in the face. Horrifying.

2. Luxury Crewneck Sweaters

You paid $165 for a sweatshirt? So bourgeois. And bourgeois is so passé. And real fashion inherently hates passé. Pass up the crewneck, boys.

3. High-Designer Athletic Gear

Kanye West in neon sneakers and his infamous leather jogging pangs. from The Shadow League

Kanye West in neon sneakers and his infamous leather jogging pants. from The Shadow League

You should be going to the gym, that much should be ob-vee-ous. No woman wants a man who isn’t buff. But wearing this athletic stuff–varsity jackets, sweatpants–outside of the gym means either that you’re trying to relive your glory days as the star jock in high school or attempting to copy Miley Cyrus’ look in her music video for ’23.’ Either way, trying way too hard.

4. Black and White

I think I’ll let these photos speak for themselves.

5. Colors

Red kitsch, blue kitsch, bright kitsch, dull kitsch. If the color is too bold, it’s too intimidating. If the color is too soft, it’s  too feminine. Do gender roles mean anything anymore? I guess what I’m saying is, avoid wearing Candyland on your body at all costs.

6. Polka Dots, Plaid, Patterns Beginning with ‘P’

You know what else begins with ‘P’? Penis. Yeah, you wish you could work that Freudian trickery on me.

7. Fedoras

Well, look at that! A one-way ticket to the friend zone. Don’t worry, you’ll always have My Little Pony fan fiction to keep you company.

8.  Outerwear with Textures-Denim, Leather, etc.

What, do you think you’re some sort of rebel without a cause? The reign of the leather jacket is the 1950s, and jean jackets need to stay in the 1980s (as does literally anything else from the 1980s). Marcel Proust once wrote, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” This can be roughly translated to, “Don’t dress up in jean or leather jackets, ya nincompoop. Don’t wear jackets at all. You’re a man. Be tough. You can handle the cold.”

9. Skinny Jeans

Gentlemen, you said that women’s skinny jeans leave nothing to the imagination. Did you know it works both ways? Please, spare me from seeing your Battle of the Bulge.

10. Baggy Pants/Cargo Pants/Pants

People Style Watch

People Style Watch

Yeah, I know I just said skinny jeans were out of the question, but hear me out. 1. Baggy pants are awful. Justin Bieber wears them, and he’s the sort of dude who eggs his neighbors and lets his friends take the fall for his cocaine possession. 2. And cargo pants? Well, if you’re a nine-year-old boy who’s running away from home and you need to fill your pockets with provisions like granola and Snickers, go right ahead. Otherwise you should be imposing an embargo on that cargo. In fact, you should probably avoid pants altogether, just to be safe.

What does this leave you with? Bow ties and man buns, but only if you have the face and body to pull them off. And so far only Jared Leto has that privilege.

LA Confidential

A beautiful specimen. LA Confidential

So ultimately what I’m saying is, figure out how to look exactly like Jared Leto. How? It’s not my problem. Maybe you should have thought about that before you were born with the y in your sex chromosome.

don’t call america’s next top model a guilty pleasure (it’s a self esteem machine)

Note: This is a guest post written by my little sister Julia, a first-year student at Missouri State University. She doesn’t know what she wants to study, but we accept her as a member of our family anyway. Go visit her Twitter @yooliakovach.

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This is a photo of us from a wedding back in June. It is an incredibly strange photo because (1) both of us are bordering on tan and (2) we’re not making idiotic faces or trying to make the other one look awful. Très sophistiquées.

I am obsessed with America’s Next Top Model. I also received top scores on my International Baccalureate diploma, a high ACT score, and an I.Q. that my parents never officially told me because as a child I had a tendency to brag. This last sentence was not written with the intention of bragging, but of proving a point: I am an academic who eats up shallow reality television.

I also openly admit to loving pop music and being materialistic to an embarrassing extent. Although I understand the social implications and problems of a show like America’s Next Top Model, I still cannot get enough of Tyra Banks, the show’s host. Perhaps it is because I completely separate myself from the girls on the show because I could never live with myself if I chose to be a model, but perhaps I just love the show. I love seeing high fashion designers and model coaches like Mr. and Miss Jay interact with the girls. The show makes me laugh and cry, and it appeals to all of what some academics call “shallow emotions.”

Cycle 16 models. Proof that models look like delicate dolls, always.

Cycle 16 models. Proof that models look like delicate dolls, always.

Intellectuals have surrounded me the last four years of my life. My high school was something of a private school within a public school. There were a few people who rolled their eyes at the academic value of the International Baccalureate program, but most people in the program took education very seriously. Even though I do read the classics and am a strong academic, I admit to loving media that my high school classmates would look at twice. Many classmates felt the pressure to impress one another with bits of knowledge or their reading lists, and this attitude persists among academic social circles.

Perhaps this is from where the term “guilty pleasure” emerges. I used to believe that I had to impress people with my intelligence, so I called many things that I truly liked my “guilty pleasures.” My guilty pleasure list was so long that it could wrap around the Earth twice. It wasn’t until I realized that it was okay to like “shallow” things that I learned to be more comfortable with myself. I dance to Ke$ha at parties and I have the most fun out of anyone there, because I’m not pretending to hate the music. I watch America’s Next Top Model, and I am able to simply be a girl and embrace what makes girls amazing. I do, however, still feel the need to defend my love of the show because of some of issues that arise around it.

I am a feminist, because if those who are living, breathing humans are not feminists, then they are also a living, breathing problem. Some might say it is not very empowering of me to watch ANTM, but I disagree. The women on the show are thin, but many of them choose to be this way because they yearn to be in the modeling industry, where they know this is how they must look. The show addresses eating disorders, with Tyra constantly making sure the girls’ eating habits are healthy. Tyra is very defensive of the “plus size” models that are, in actuality, perfectly healthy sized girls. Some judges are too engulfed by the modeling industry to accept the larger girls by constantly claiming that “they’re not high fashion,” but Tyra always retaliates aggressively.

This show may be saying to girls who are healthy sizes that they are “plus size,” but that is also what the media constantly bombards girls with in the first place. The viewer must separate herself from the show and say, “these girls are not reality, the modeling industry is not reality, and they are choosing the modeling industry.” I also love that Tyra promotes women of color on the show–by the third cycle the top two contestants were both African American women. There are Indian, Hispanic, and Asian women represented as well. I do not view the show as harmful to women, but actually more empowering to them, as long as they separate themselves from the women who are driving themselves for the prize. This is not to mention that the show is not just for girls, because this is another stereotype set by society: only girls can like shows about modeling, fashion, and makeup. My boyfriend watches the show with me and cannot get enough. He thinks the girls are hilarious and loves Tyra to pieces.

Tyra looking fierce on her Instagram selfie game.

Tyra looking fierce on her Instagram selfie game.

Perhaps my bias for the show comes from the confidence it has given me. I know I could never be a part of the modeling industry even if I lost weight, because I am 5’2” (although rumor has it that in upcoming cycles there are petite models – I’m only on cycle four) but the show has truly made me feel beautiful. Tyra picks girls with unique features, with faces in which you might not expect to see a top model. However, she teaches them to love the way they look. I learned from this show that beauty is not just high cheekbones and a cute button nose. In fact, the girls who are more stereotypically beautiful often get eliminated first. Living in the Midwest, I find this important to remember. I have a very unique face, and because of ANTM, I know it is beautiful. I stand out, and girls who stand out, who are unique, must realize that they truly are as beautiful as the supposedly “picture perfect” girls who the common public love. Unique girls have something to them, even beyond their faces–perhaps their past insecurities have helped them build character.

There is still a lot of criticism about ANTM (who just recently introduced male models to the running – I am dying of excitement) and the modeling industry in general. I do believe that the modeling industry should change completely; that girls of a healthy size should be used to represent females, and that many of the photos that are taken are extremely misogynistic. ANTM does not represent this side of the world of modeling, and is simply there for our entertainment. I also believe that Tyra teaches the girls on the show how to be strong and healthy women and to respect themselves. The moment I see a hint of misogyny on the show, I will stop watching. I have not yet and at this point I do not feel guilty for enjoying it.

a real phony

I planned to wait until warmer weather to drive to a bookstore and buy Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but as it happens, I had already dusted the snow off of my car at 7:30 a.m. in -27 degree windchill (in Fahrenheit) and then survived a whole day at work on what is surely the most bitter Monday of 2014, so I thought “who’s afraid of the cold, anyway?” and bought Breakfast at Tiffany’s straight after work.

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It was published in 1958, three years before the Hollywood film was released, and takes place in 1943, during World War II. It’s 87 pages long, a fairly quick read. I enjoyed it, I think, more than the film in very particular ways. Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese landlord, hardly had a role, and given the historical context, I’m surprised that Capote included a Japanese person at all (you know, because of the whole at-war-with-each-other thing). Of course, Capote isn’t the type of author who would avoid characters of difference. He was openly gay in the 1950s, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s includes more overt conversations about homosexuality than it does about Holly’s identity as a call girl. Holly shares her thoughts with the narrator on living with her old lesbian roommate:

Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what That never discouraged a man yet, in fact it seems to goad them on.

Despite any forward thinking in terms of sexuality, though, the book also resorts to the occasional but casual ableist or racial slur, such as “retarded” or “nigger.” It’s the sort of thing that makes me cringe, but, as I discussed in my last post, art should be considered as a product of its time, and I still struggle to conceptualize what this means for literature.

There’s no grand speech at the end, no embrace between Holly and the narrator representing eternal love or happily ever after. Holly continues to search in manner that some today would dismiss as “gold-digging.” I’d rather avoid the phrase, which is absolutely packed with moral conviction. I’m not Good enough to bestow such judgment, and besides, although the many men are means to money, the money is more of a means to an end. I’m not sure what that end is, and it’s just as nebulous to Holly, I think. Before she disappears in the taxi cab, some of her last words are, “I’m very scared, Buster. Yes, at last. Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away.”

Before, in the novel, she tells the narrator where she feels most at peace:

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into the taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, the lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Perhaps for Holly, there is no real place like Tiffany’s, and there’s the rub: it’s an out-of-reach place, perhaps real for people born into money, but perpetually a fantasy for her. Admittedly, I don’t have a solid conclusion on this. When I’ve got the case of the mean reds, I drive to the Kansas City International Airport and watch the planes. My life is a glaringly obvious metaphor, it seems, but assigning meaning to it (adventure, escape, travel, wanderlust) is just too easy, too self-evident. I want nuance. I bet Holly does too.

Another point of comparison: Holly speaks exactly how I think. If you were to listen to my inner monologue it would be full of run-on sentences and italics and “ands” and parentheses and the most common phrase is “goddamn” with random insertions of French words (“quel rat” and “merde,” especially), but I’ve been taught to avoid writing like this throughout my entire education. So I suppose I’ll try to avoid it on this blog too, but as you can tell, I haven’t quite been succeeding.

A real phony, you know?