Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nipplegate revisited

Update: Justin Timberlake just announced he is forming a new record label--so this is discussion is more timely than I thought...

Okay I'm about 3 years late in commenting on this but can we talk for just a moment about the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at Superbowl 38? Bear with me for a second, I think perhaps there are still some big ideas to explore here.

As you know, a lot of words were spilled over the incident. Over 200,000 people contacted CBS to complain. Viacom was fined $550,000 by the FCC for indecency. The media exploded with commentary.

But the one thing I haven't heard anyone say, and I think it's worth discussing, is that the incident was a powerful artistic and political statement. Here's the infamous moment in one sentence:

A young privileged white man, tears the bodice from an African American woman (who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child), revealing what appears to be a surgically augmented breast, during the entertainment break for the pinnacle contest of "America's Game" which celebrates and glorifies American male violence.

Think about it for a minute. There is so much there. It's like Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake called the question. It's like they said, "This is America too, the part of the story that we don't talk about." White privilege, male privilege, violence, America's original sin, the violence of plastic surgery, objectification of women, abuse. In a contest where huge HGH-enhanced bodies crash into each other (often causing concussions, broken bones and torn ligaments, and shortened life spans) with surgically enhanced women dancing on the sidelines and celebrated in commercials, JJ and JT said, 'look, this is what this is all about, this is the meaning behind the message.'

A couple problems with my thesis: As far as I can tell, neither Janet Jackson nor Justin Timberlake ever defended their actions as an intentional artistic statement. That would have been amazing. Think about the conversations that could have opened up. Instead they said it was an accident. Nevertheless, the power of an artistic statement is often not in the intention of the artist but in the way the art is received by the viewer.

Second, and I think the biggest problem, is that a Jackson was involved. I think people are rightly concerned about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual misconduct with children. So when Michael Jackson's younger sister bears a breast, there's a certain amount of guilt by association, and a feeling that inappropriate sexuality is being forced upon people who never consented to seeing it. But what if it had been Missy Elliot or Mary J. Blige or even Ani Difranco making that same artistic statement--would a different messenger have changed the way the message was received?

As a postcript to this whole thing, it's interesting to note that Janet Jackson's career seems to have suffered as a result of the performance while Justin Timberlake's career has never been hotter. Ironically, that seemed to be one of the points of their performance--that white male privilege in America society means that guys get a free pass when it comes to sexuality and women often get blamed for the sins of others.

Just a thought...

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Progressive Guide to Framing

George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute have done a tremendous job of educating progressives about the importance of framing. But as I troll through the progressive blogosphere, I notice that even some of the best bloggers (who, out of courtesy, will remain nameless here) make basic framing mistakes. So as the risk of repeating what may be obvious to many--here is my Progressive Guide to Framing:

1. LEFT and RIGHT refer to baseball pitchers and driving directions not political ideas or policy choices. It seems to me that the biggest framing mistake progressives make is referring to progressive ideas as "left" or "lefty" and Republican or fundamentalist Christian ideas as "right" or "right wing."

Why is this such a disadvantageous frame?

The word "right" of course, has several meanings. For example, "right" can mean "correct" as well as "politically conservative." Only 8 to 15% of the adult population is left handed. Every time you use the terms right and left to refer to politics you are using a Republican frame that implies that Republicans are correct and progressive only represents 8-15% of the population. See the problem?

2. By the same token, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson are not members of the "religious right", the "right wing," the "radical right," or even "evangelical." Rather, based on their desire to impose the brutality of the Old Testament upon our culture and modern political institutions, they are properly referred to as fundamentalists, extremists, regressive, or fringe.

3. There is nothing "conservative" about modern day Republicans. They don't conserve the environment, they don't conserve energy, they don't even conserve international law or the Geneva Conventions. Contemporary Republicans are thus not properly referred to as "conservative." Proper adjectives to describe Republican policies include regressive, destructive, extremist, fringe, fundamentalist, violent, hateful, and anti-family.

4. Use affirmative declarative sentences to say what we believe rather than always debating what THEY are doing wrong. For example, "Barack Obama has a vision that can heal our nation" or "Hillary Clinton is perhaps the hardest working person in American politics today," is better than, "Bush is a dumb ass." We've got to get in the habit of repeating our frame over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. When we go on offense by making affirmative declarative sentences the other side is often forced to go on defense (and in the process of trying to refute our frame the other side repeats and reinforces our frame).

5. Humor is more viral than anger. Check out this quote from Laura Crawford--the RNC's main viral video editor:
"I try not to make [the videos] political at all," says Crawford, "because anything political gets an automatic negative reaction, even from people with a strong party affiliation. They want humor.... We want these things to be viral, and if they're argumentative instead of clever, they just won't be." (from Time Magazine)
For example, Jon Stewart is more viral (and more effective at moving a message) than Democracy Now! Both are necessary but The Daily Show has more leverage in shaping the debate right now because of the way they package their message.

Okay that's all I got for now. If you've got some additional ideas, feel free to add them to the comments.