Kipper the Hipster Dog

If you’re a parent, you might spend ridiculous amounts of time watching bad children’s shows. Caillou is my daughter’s current favorite (but check this out for a cathartic rant). And then there’s Barney. If you’ve seen even one episode of this dire show starring an insipid purple dinosaur, you will understand why I’d rather work than have to suffer through yet another hour of cloying actors who lie to little children about some perfect world.

Some weeks I work 60 hours, 100 including parenting. That’s how bad the show is.

Barney and his many unfortunate analogues make it all the more pleasing when the rare quality program comes along. Kipper is one of these programs. Kipper is an English dog who doesn’t teach annoying lessons about being nice, picking up toys, or maintaining good hygiene. He and his pals Tiger and Pig just do fun kid stuff, and that’s it. They don’t sing asinine songs or promote plastic tolerance. They just go on walks and picnics, get lost, try to find each other, and paddle in boats at the beach.

So what’s so great about Kipper, besides the cool jazz theme that opens the videos? Partly it’s just refreshing to watch something low-key enough to show kids doing fun stuff and solving practical problems in a relaxed way. No hand wringing about values, courage, blah blah blah…

But there’s two things that I especially love about Kipper. The first is that he and Tiger and Pig somehow seem both old and young at the same time. They’re kids but they talk sort of like old men, like grandpa fuddy duddies having fun making sandcastles. To me, they capture that sweet way that the very old and very young are so compatible, moving a little slower than everyone else and finding great and simple joy in their sandwiches and lemonade.

At the same time, Kipper is a learned show but wears it lightly. Instead of unbearable moral lessons, the writers throw in classic plot devices, like when Kipper and Tiger go to a park to meet Pig, who has promised them cake. After searching everywhere, Kipper and Tiger hear Pig snoring on the other side of a hedge and mistake the sound for a growling lion. Finally brave enough to peer around the hedge to the other side, they see that Pig has gone but has dropped his scarf, which looks like a lion’s tale. Without investigating further, Kipper and Tiger mistakenly conclude that Pig has been eaten by the lion, and the plot unfolds until the friends are finally reunited.

The writers seem to have paid attention in mythology class because this scenario comes from the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story of star-crossed young lovers whose parents insist on keeping them apart. The teenagers run away to meet in the country but tragically commit suicide when Pyramus finds Thisbe’s lost veil, which has been bloodied by a lion hunting, and concludes that the girl herself has died. Sixteen centuries later, Shakespeare adapted this basic plot (through other sources) for Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Happily, the writers of Kipper skip the suicides and simply change Thisbe’s bloody veil to a scarf that looks like a lion’s tale, and all ends well as it should when the friends find each other. But what is so unusual is that the story is both interesting and age appropriate, which is rare because in the current obsession with teaching morality to children, most writers have forgotten (or never even learned) how to come up with an engaging story.

Kipper doesn’t grapple with big ethical problems, but the show is far more honest than most of what’s out there because it doesn’t lie about the nature of life’s challenges. And beyond misleading children about how people live, these fake and fatuous other shows instill a kind of bad taste that encourages stupidity, the cultural equivalent of eating Pez for breakfast three days a week.

There’s no need for too much vigilance here. I like my occasional corn syrup entertainment just like everyone else. But it’s more than just refreshing to watch this unassuming show that proves someone can still imagine smart and simple stories for kids.

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“I Can’t Believe I Have to Say This”

This phrase is becoming something of a necessary cliché in enlightened speech about women. Last summer it surfaced in shocked responses to the Todd Akin “legitimate rape” mess. In September, Elizabeth Warren used it in her Democratic Convention speech to praise Obama for believing in “- and I can’t believe I have to say this in 2012 – a country where women get equal pay for equal work.”

It came up again last week in the fury over the media’s sympathy for the Steubenville rapists, when the blogger at The Belle Jar wrote a great piece reminding us that the young victim deserves justice not because she is some man’s daughter, sister, or wife but because “women are people. I seriously cannot believe that I have to say this in 2013.”

And why isn’t it obvious that women are people who deserve all due rights and respect? Because, as blogger Darlena Cunha writes, society still assumes that girls and women are simply worth less than men, and these assumptions go unquestioned “because [society] thinks we’ve overcome them. And if you’re above something, you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s not you. It’s not what you are doing or what you think. Only it is. The problem is we think we’ve solved a problem when we haven’t.”

So when something like the Akin embarrassment or the media “coverage” of Steubenville happens and reminds us that there are still lots of folks who don’t actually believe girls and women are inherently worthy human beings, it feels pretty crazy. And we cannot freaking believe that we have to keep saying that the earth really is not flat. Disbelief is a logical reaction.

But at some collective level, the disbelief also seems real, which is important to notice because I think it reveals an interesting assumption about progress, like social progress does or should march along at a steady pace, that it is somehow neat and linear and permanent. That all we have to do is pass a few good laws and everything will be fine. And when something happens to contradict this belief, we are shocked at the failure of progress to keep up its obedient pace. We Americans love our progress, and we want it discounted online with free shipping.

But progress is more like a great and rocky friendship than a decent computer that surprises you when it crashes every so often.

I was reminded of this some months back when I stumbled across an early 20th century article about single motherhood, another topic the right loves to attack (more blogs on that coming up). The piece was written by Elsie Clews Parsons, an anthropologist, folklorist, professor at Columbia University, and the wife of senator Herbert Parsons. Parsons was also a feminist, and the paper she published is called “When Mating and Parenthood Are Theoretically Distinguished.” The year was 1916, the same year that Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S.

Like Sanger, Parsons sought practical solutions to the curses of forced marriage, unwanted pregnancies, and the shaming of “illegitimate” children. In her paper, she coolly tosses aside the notion of women and children as property and even proposes insurance for mothers. It is truly stunning (for more details, read the article here).

Now, it would be easy to explain this away. We could dismiss Parsons as an elite outlier who obviously did not represent society. We could say that Parsons could dare to propose mothers’ insurance only because women didn’t have the economic opportunities available now. We could say that many more women today are choosing to be single parents, which makes the whole picture more complex.

But the fact is that Parsons, who as a senator’s wife had a public rep to worry about, had no qualms about refuting the outdated notions of women and children as men’s property and single motherhood as shameful. And she had no problem arguing that society should support (not shame) children born to unmarried parents. In 1916.

This is light years ahead of the latest conservative blather about how marriage is the solution for poor families (see data by Center for American Progress for an intelligent response). And it is eons away from the media’s treatment of the Steubenville crime.

Women obviously have more equality now than in 1916, but Parsons wrote in a time when women’s rights were steadily on the rise. The past two decades have seen many women’s rights under sustained attack, which is hard to believe when more women than ever go to college and have careers, and Sheryl Sandberg can write a book credibly advising women on how to be corporate bosses. And yet no one can deny that women’s reproductive rights have been seriously compromised. And now the latest report from Think Progress that the gender wage gap actually widened between 2011 and 2012.

This inconsistency is part of what makes the whole progress thing so hard to comprehend. We’ve got Sheryl Sandberg and we’ve got CNN on Steubenville.

But I think the psychological aspect of believing reality is actually harder. The idea that we really must believe that certain congressmen don’t understand the facts of pregnancy, that women have lost ground on equal pay, that entire news networks believe that rapists are worthier than victims – it is all exhausting.

If we want sustained progress, if we want to do more than just drive back the hooligans when they really get out of line, we are going to have to believe the scary truths no matter how much they embarrass our self-perception of living in an advanced democracy where equal opportunity reigns. And we will have to believe them for longer than the most dire news cycles and elections.

It’s not that we shouldn’t express outrage – we should and many do. The Belle Jar piece broke through the bedeviling fatigue in part because of its outrage. And what is amazing is that aside from the specifics about the Steubenville case and President Obama, the message of the piece is straight out of the 1970s. It does the work we need right now because, like it or not, we are dealing with some of the same basic problems (and a few worse) as 40 years ago.

But there’s a potentially happy ending here: if facing the scary truth means more furious blogs, pissed-off phone calls, and sleet-filled rallies, it also invites us to celebrate being female. Not in the velveeta navel-gazing way, because we don’t have that luxury any more than we can afford to get depressed and just go watch Downton Abbey. I mean celebrating being female by showing that we know what’s at stake. This is something I am trying to do with my young daughter to counteract the anti-female messages she encounters, some of which she has already started to mimic.

Paying real attention to women’s realities demands vigilance and a certain tolerance for pain, but it also implies joy because it invites us to remember people like Elsie Clews Parsons from nearly a century ago, and people like Elizabeth Warren today. It reminds us to notice the best of ourselves and to imagine how we can do things better with our kids and in our communities, right now.

Forget CNN: Emily Dickinson on Steubenville

The Steubenville rapists have been convicted, and that’s something to celebrate. But the whole sad case reminds us that the U.S. is no model for ending violence against women, and CNN’s decision to lionize the rapists makes that point painfully clear.

So, if twenty-first century reporters still don’t think straight about women, we’ll just have to go back to Emily Dickinson. My fav description of Dickinson is by the fabulous Jeanette Winterson, who calls her a “reclusive volcano.” That’s a pretty accurate characterization of Dickinson’s life and poetry: compressed yet with voracious energy barely contained. She is one of our most difficult poets but so worth the effort.

Look at how Dickinson mocks the shame attached to premarital sex in this poem:

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

To the lover Bee

Would the Bee the Harebell hallow

Much as formerly?

Did the “Paradise” – persuaded

Yield her moat of pearl –

Would the Eden be an Eden,

Or the Earl – an Earl?

She is saying that just as it would be ludicrous for a bee to question the Harebell’s worth after fertilizing it, so the shame attached to sex is bogus. But Dickinson makes the point wickedly by asking not just whether the woman (called “paradise”) who gives up her “moat of pearl” would still be an “eden” but whether the earl would still be an earl. Her point is clear: nobody should be shamed over sex, but if a woman loses her rep, well, a man should too. Even an earl.

It’s nice to know that at least Dickinson knew what was up with the whole sexual double standard thing. Maybe the news will catch up. Especially since the Steubenville case is about rape, not consensual sex.

Let’s celebrate this hard-won justice and support the victim to lead a good life after this traumatic event. And let’s consider how we might change things for women now and in the future.

Sisters Got 99 Problems: Will Pope Francis Be One?

Quick, what do Jay-Z and American nuns have in common?

Answer: More than you might think.

Jay-Z’s classic 99 Problems tells of how not women but the police are the biggest threat against him (okay he doesn’t say “women” but let us overlook for the moment his precise term). For progressive nuns, it is not a world full of sin but the Vatican and its witch-hunting posse that has seemed to pose the gravest danger. In both cases, those entrusted with protecting the vulnerable instead hunt them down.

We all know the sickening tale of children abused by Catholic priests and how the Vatican looked the other way and even protected the pedophiles. You might think this was more than enough shock and scandal for the church, but evidently earning their very own Wikipedia page documenting the sex abuse cases was not enough.

Instead of dealing with the festering crisis, the Holy See launched a loony inquisition of U.S. nuns, allegedly to investigate and correct the women’s doctrinal deviance and “radical feminist” agenda. These women include some of the most socially progressive sisters, like the rad nuns on the bus who traveled around the country largely to expose the Catholic Paul Ryan as a sham, a devotee of Ayn Rand and little else.

To put it gently, the inquisition did not go well for the men of the cloth. The outcry was fierce and did great damage, weakening public faith in a church that already stands on shaky ground.

How did the nuns in question respond to this medieval madness? They initially rejected the Vatican’s claims with some force, but late last summer, Sister Pat Farrell of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious called more meekly for “open and honest dialogue” with top church officials.

I know, I know, it’s disappointing. If you’re like me, you were hoping the sisters would throw down an old-fashioned knuckle-wrapping gauntlet. It’s long been time for someone to call out the holy boys and their rotten club; the latest crackdown against the nuns was the last straw.

Alas, wrath is a capital vice. Instead of slamming the pope and his minions with the righteous anger they so deserve, the sisters went all Pollyanna with their tepid offer of dialogue.

Or did they? Are the sisters saving face all’italiana or might they be giving the Vatican a run for its money after all?

Actually, the nuns have offered both war and peace. If we understand what their call for dialogue really means in the context of Catholic authority, it’s clear the sisters have indeed thrown down a gauntlet. And yet they have no intention of giving up the habit and (nearly) all it stands for. What might this challenge in the face of conformity mean?

If you’re a secularist like me, you might ask who cares. It’s easy to write off nuns because it seems so utterly insane for any women to accept much of what the Church prescribes – from the stone-age views of birth control to the patriarchal hierarchy that drives away the flocks with discrimination and abuse. If nuns want to play, shouldn’t they expect to pay?

Maybe, but that’s the easy way out. The harder and more interesting task is to imagine how the sisters can obey the Church’s rigid authority enough to remain Catholics in good standing while pushing the boundaries of wildly outdated thinking.

But why should we care if we don’t share their religious beliefs? Because progressive nuns are one of the few groups who are serious about battling poverty and the economic injustice driving it. And for those who do share their Catholic faith, the fact of the matter is that if the Church is to survive, it will have to change in major ways, like accepting birth control and making the priesthood a vocation to which half of humanity might aspire. For the sake of love and justice, we should care about the nuns’ right to be recognized and respected as equals.

The New Testament explicitly forbids women to teach, let alone lead. But by definition, a call for dialogue presumes a certain measure of equality and becomes an implicit claim of leadership – leadership that brushes aside St. Paul’s call for female obedience. And the nuns are already leading on the issue of poverty, or rather leaving their bosses in the dust. The nuns’ call for dialogue demands recognition for their work and implies a call to reform the New Testament’s antiquated restraints.

It is no accident that American nuns should be the ones to raise the Vatican’s proverbial hackles. Whether the women want to admit it or not, their resistance arises partly from the spirited history of American democracy and feminism. On the other hand, the sisters know full well that they act in a long tradition of powerful female precedents in Catholic history who also challenged Paul’s injunction against teaching and leading. Women mystics like the charismatic Catherine of Siena, whose influence allowed her alone to convince Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome in 1377.

Enter Pope Francis in 2013. Will anything change under his leadership? As a Jesuit, he has not just worked but lived among the poor. His humility in his first speech seemed genuine, with his simple white cassock and sweetly gentle humor, a far cry from Benedict’s icy learning. Francis has evidently taken library breaks. And naming himself after Francis of Assisi is cool; according to legend, St. Francis literally divested himself of his father’s wealth in public so that he could marry “Lady Poverty” and spend his life serving the poor.

But let’s not allow the new pope’s paternal humility to mask the fact that he has walked among the people as a conservative theologian, one who has already condemned abortion, birth control, same-sex parents, and female ordination. So. It remains to be seen whether Francis will continue the nasty harassment that Benedict began against the sisters. But even if he backs off, the nuns will likely remain second-class religious citizens. At least for now.

So far, the Vatican has shown itself to be the sinners in this messy story. And so, hounded by the clerical cops, the nuns face a situation sort of like the one in Jay-Z’s song. Except that Jay-Z sings about police who systematically imprison and murder black men. For the nuns, the Vatican can still bring spiritual banishment through excommunication, but these days the Holy See has mostly become a sad accomplice to the world’s crushing spiritual and material poverty. And poverty is the sisters’ real challenge. They have ninety-nine problems and more. With its crumbling social power, the Vatican is not the biggest one.

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Rihanna, Just Another Great Tormented Pop Artist

The public obsession with mega-pop star Rihanna’s turbulent love life has meant that despite her success, critics have largely glossed over her considerable gifts as an artist. The facts of the Bajan singer’s rise to fame and her romantic ordeal are by now household topics, but for those out of the know, Rihanna has made a hit record each of the past four years and has sold more digital copies of her work than any other artist. Last year alone she reportedly grossed 53 million. She also has a thug boyfriend, the rapper Chris Brown, who brutally beat her in 2009 and was subsequently convicted of a felony for the crime. Alas, when the happy couple reconciled sometime last year, a tsunami of public horror and outrage followed their blissful détente.

But domestic violence is not a tsunami, or a meteor slamming into Siberia. Sad to say, it is a daily disaster, a fact of life that is also an extreme form of the misogyny that women around the world live with every single day. So on the one hand, yes, outrage is warranted, especially when too many men still think the right to hurt women is an entitlement as natural as the sun’s right to rise. The more outrage the better, I say.

Yet I often notice that what seem like outrage and concern are really a collective tsk tsk-ing that stands in for true consideration and empathy. Even worse, this sham outrage too often gets channeled toward the women themselves. How could any woman ever tolerate that? Sure, many women are forced by poverty to endure their abusers. But those who choose to stay? People assume they must be stupid, or ignorant, or both.

It is much easier to write off such women than to really face how widespread the violence is, and the ever-present but less blatant injustices like economic inequality, which virtually all women suffer and that actually underlies so much of the violence. But hey, if we can’t do anything about the endless bummer of the wage gap, at least we can take cheap comfort in condemning a no brainer like domestic abuse  – along with any woman who would choose to put up with it. This is outrage as Muzak, fake and awful but supposed to make our days somehow more pleasant.

When news broke of Rihanna’s reconciliation with Brown, it didn’t take long for the indignation to curdle into disrespect. According to the February 14 issue of Rolling Stone, Joan Rivers tweeted “Idiot! Now it’s my turn to slap her!” And in his Oscar-night frat fest of misogyny, Seth MacFarlane’s mockery did not neglect Rihanna and, as New Yorker blogger Amy Davidson writes, effectively encourages more violence. Yes, it is true that Oprah and many others have shown real concern. But because outrage is now the defining ingredient of everyone’s judgment about Rihanna, the critics have pretty universally downgraded both her and her art.

In December, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote off Rihanna as having little self-regard, as a half-assed person and singer whose stunning success owes to her good taste and the fact that her fans apparently love how she hypes her bad-girl persona. February’s Rolling Stone features a story equally patronizing but with a tad less contempt, as the interviewer gallantly schools the singer on the fact that she is not a prisoner of love, telling her “you don’t have to be the one” to offer Brown the support he needs. Happily, Rihanna offers a bit of her own schooling in return. But this is the high point of the story, which otherwise offers a bland report on how Rihanna has made her ordeal the subject of a few songs.

Along comes Camille Paglia’s kooky comparison of Rihanna to the late Princess Diana in a Sunday Times piece in February. This story finds common ground between the singer and the princess in their broken-home childhoods, their roles as spurned women in love triangles, and most important, in their brilliant but dangerous talent for manipulating their charismatic personas. As many have already pointed out, lots of female stars fit the first two criteria, so it is not clear why the third should render Rihanna the new Diana, especially since the women’s lives are in fact totally different.

Even if Paglia rightly notes Rihanna’s “magnetic intensity” and her status as a “rebel star,” she nonetheless concludes that the singer’s “brilliant eye is helpless against the tyranny of the heart.” This odd finale cancels out her claim that Rihanna is a “serious and gifted artist to reckon with,” which she only concedes because Rihanna’s latest album “also contains songs of searing suffering and passionate self-questioning.” So, when the lady suffers and questions herself, she’s a serious artist; but when she dares to exalt her flawed humanity in service of her public image, she’s out of control and headed to compare fashion notes with Lady Di in that vast double-X netherworld where all such ambitious souls presumably must end. Ultimately, Paglia only seems to oppose Frere-Jones because both cast Rihanna as essentially a manipulator; Frere-Jones is underwhelmed, while Paglia finds her brilliant but finally defeated.

There is no doubt that some of Rihanna’s behavior invites us to view her as a cipher or a deviant brand at best. Her tweets embracing submissiveness are obviously designed to shock and to sell. The ethics are questionable, to put it mildly, and we can and should question such choices. But talented male artists (like Eminem) who deliberately exploit their private struggles for showmanship – whether it’s addiction, violence – often against women, drug busts, or whatever –  do not meet the same type of disrespect and dismissal that Rihanna has. Overall, critics judge men’s work on its own terms. For the truly gifted, they fawn over the tortured genius mastering his life into art.

The video for Rihanna’s recent hit “Diamonds” compellingly dramatizes the tension between love and danger, but Frere-Jones trashes it handily as “a collection of free-floating bummers” accompanied by a disengaged singer. Actually, it’s an intelligent contrast between lyrics celebrating shining lovers and images that convey not just danger but loneliness and more than a hint of self-awareness. Claiming devotion to a lover who is a “vision of ecstasy,” the singer repeats, “we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky” and declares, “I choose to be happy.” But this triumph is belied by destructive scenes, a burning rose and what looks like a burning man amidst a riot. Rihanna appears mostly alone, running from a car at night, floating in the sea, or unmoored with wild horses in the desert dawn. In the context of these images, the song implies that the resplendent lovers are an unfulfilled fantasy, and the repeated line “shine bright like a diamond” becomes more of a self-conscious, desperate plea than a vaunt. The cinematography is moody and gorgeous, and clearly marks the influence of Rihanna’s mentor Jay-Z.

The video for the ballad “Stay,” a duet with Mikky Ekko about holding onto troubled love, is a stunning piece that evokes emotion through lack of motion. Here, the camera follows the command of the refrain “I want you to stay” by dwelling alternately on Rihanna’s face as she sits alone in a bath and on Ekko as he sits or stands alone in a similar darkened room. This technique reveals that Rihanna is indeed skilled at looking blank and disengaged but cannot sustain it; her restless energy and vulnerability escape through her very attempts to avoid the camera’s patient gaze.

There is no need to interpret these songs literally as running commentary on Rihanna’s relationship with Brown. It is enough to say that her art brilliantly negotiates whatever inner demons she harbors. But it is worth remembering that Rihanna’s history with Brown has been one of betrayal, which is also something of a larger cultural obsession these days. Perhaps this story resonates so powerfully not primarily for the details of her saga but its theme, as so many people now struggle following the stunning betrayals of the banking crisis and its aftermath. It just might be that this 25-year-old Bajan transplant resonates as an unexpected cultural symbol of betrayed dreams. But however we interpret her romantic life, one thing is clear about Rihanna’s art: the rare mix of her refreshingly unsweet voice, her strange volcanic magnetism, which simmers mostly from within, and her intense psychic struggles translate into a raw pop icon far more interesting than many of her more technically gifted rivals.

Let’s do more than just hope that Rihanna and her unusual talent flourish. Let’s condemn violence against women and offer the victims our genuine support and, yes, respectful disagreement when necessary. It is not easy to battle a problem this mundane and terrible, but we can start by getting serious about crushing the double standard that still lurks in both life and art, a standard that Rihanna’s art is already challenging.