Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Got Milk?

This year, as in every other year, the Oscars provided a chance for the film industry to slap itself and its subsidiaries on the back and proclaim a job well done. This job is taken up with the greatest gusto most years by the winner of Best Actor, and in 2009 Sean Penn didn't let us down. He thanked everyone - the Academy, the cast and crew of the film Milk, campaigners for equal rights and social justice, and even the American people for electing Barack Obama - a matter of rather tangential relevance. Glaringly obvious, however, was the omission of his gratitude towards Harvey Milk, the man whose courageous life and death were the basis of the film.

It might be easy to argue that there isn't much sense in thanking a dead person, if it weren't for the fact that other acceptance speeches are rife with nods towards deceased relatives, friends, mentors and "late-greats". Penelope Cruz, accepting the award this year for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, thanked her dear friend "who is no longer with us". And it appears that being alive does not guarantee you thanks from the highly-paid actor or actress that portrayed you in a successful film. Just ask Erin Brockovich, who Julia Roberts failed to acknowledge after winning Best Actress for portraying her in Erin Brockovich. That must have really hurt.

Surely, amidst all the tears and laughter and congratulations thrown around the auditorium, there was something forgotten, when the inspirational figures whose lives were the fodder for Hollywood films are ignored.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sweet Charity

"Outrageous" repeats Clever Lawyer, her wedding-ring flashing in the sun as she flicked her chocolate locks out of her face. "Just outrageous. It was my word of the day."

"So what did they say?"

"They told me that, if that was my attitude, I shouldn't bother coming to the next meeting." Her face hints at the world of frustration she is feeling. At the moment, my friend Clever Lawyer is in a world of shit at her high-end law firm. And it all comes down to the question of charity. HighEnd LawFirm is having a charity gig, and has appointed a committee to allocate the funds to deserving recipients. There are so many of these out there that several long meetings have been neccessary in order to whittle down the list to something manageable. For the most part, the committee agreed on the merits of charities coming their way - until this one.

"It was a charity that organises wheelchair sports", says Clever Lawyer, "and I didn't have a problem until I read what $50 will buy."

Fifty dollars, it turns out, will buy one player, from one team, bottled water for an entire sporting season. This is where Clever Lawyer got her back up. In front of her were brochures from charities that feed the starving, house the homeless, provide basic medical supplies for women giving birth in villages without running water. Here were horrible diseases that needed a cure, here were political prisoners being tortured and disappeared. And here were a bunch of people who needed bottled water in order to play sport ?

In a fatigued aside, Clever Lawyer sarcastically mutters, "And it's not as though bottled water is one of the biggest rorts of our time, is it?" She has a point - we are lucky enough to live in a place where potable water comes out of the tap, with the added bonus that it is cheap and doesn't hamper the world with yet another disposable plastic bottle. Clever Lawyer asks the charity committee if it wouldn't perhaps be reasonable for sports players to refill drink bottles from the tap, rather than drinking $50 worth of charity-funded bottled water in a season.

Deadly silence descends. One committee member, high on her own self-righteousness, asks:

"So - because they're disabled, they don't deserve bottled water?"

Clever Lawyer, a handful of charity fliers in each hand, desperately tries to explain that she thinks they could find a charity with a more pressing need for the money. Maybe it's her use of the word "outrageous" - or maybe not, but she is shot down from every angle. Political correctness reigns supreme, and she leaves the meeting feeling demoralised, her head pounding from the lashings of political correctness which doesn't allow her to admit that feeding a famine victim, providing childhood vaccinations, housing a homeless person or saving an endangered species is more important than supporting sporting endeavours (complete with bottled water) for a group of wheelchair-bound Australians who, despite their disabilites, have homes to go to, food to eat, clean water to drink, and healthcare provided by the state.

Now, neither she, I, or anyone else I know would claim that disabled athletes don't deserve support. Their experiences of marginalisation from society are probably at least as painful as the conditions which rendered them disabled, and any scheme which assists them to participate in a team sport is laudable. But it's a question of priorities. Charity funds are finite, and the fact remains that they are urgently required for more pressing problems both here and overseas. All the politically-correct posturing in the world won't change the fact that spending $50 on bottled water for one player, in one team, during one season, is money that is, quite literally, being pissed away for no actual benefit.

And, in answer to Clever Lawyer's query - $50 constitutes about one-twentieth of the money required to dig a well in a developing country, supplying an entire village with clean water. Stack that up against 20 team-sports players drinking expensive water that they could get for free out of a tap, and the contrast is exactly what Clever Lawyer dubbed it: outrageous.

Are some charities more deserving than others?
Do you think it is in bad-taste to spend charity funds on bottled water for sport?
What is the best/worst use of charitable funds you know of?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Year Of The Bimbo

The Year of the Ox is upon us again, and the women's magazines are once again packed with glossy star-charts depicting our fortunes for the year ahead.

Horoscopes, and other such pseudo-scientific chicanery, have somehow wormed their way into our most respectable newspapers, as well as our most flimsy tabloids and glossy magazines. I don't remember a time when one could pick up a publication and not be faced with shrew-faced con-women with pseudo-mystical names such as Athena Starwoman posturing their "talent" through writing "predictions" so nebulous as to be applicable to virtually everyone. That is, unless one was leafing through a publication which is aimed exclusively at men. It seems to the publishers that the exclusive consumers of this brain-rotting diet must be women.

It doesn't even seem to matter what type of woman you are. Everything from the celebrity rags (e.g. New Idea, Woman's Day, Who) to the fasion-and-sex glossies (Cosmopolitan and Cleo) to the brick-heavy mixes of journalism and haute-couture (Marie-Claire, Madison, Vogue) contain pseudo-scientific content as regular features. Whether women are bored housewives, teenage schoolgirls, high-powered executives, or anything in between, the horoscopes are provided.

Now, I can't really blame the celebrity rags - even their "factual" content is a heady mix of lies, conjecture, and inside information from anonymous "pals", "insiders" and "neighbours". Cosmo and Cleo can't be blamed either - they would be unreadable even without the inclusion of astrology (well - that's unless you want to know about 58 babe-a-licious ways to make him climax using only a feather, an ice cube and your elbow). The real villains are the top-shelf women's mags, that target young professionals, and apparently credit women with independent incomes as well as independent thought. They present dense, well-written articles on important issues - but expect that after you've read about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, or female circumcision in Somalia, signed their tear-off petition and sent it to Amnesty International - well, what else would you desire but to read your horoscope?

Flipping through equivalent men's magazines such as GQ one finds no such equivalent patronisation of their readership (unless it's the pages of advertisements for sex toys - but you'll find those in women's magazines too). And, I can't help but wonder, are millions of young women around the world developing interests (and often expending precious time, money and energy) in pseudo-science just because it continues to be shoved down their throats? In a bizarre twist of usual economic principles, it looks like demand is actually being driven by supply. In effect, we read - and believe - our horoscopes, just because they are there.

Naomi Wolf, in her incredible, seminal work The Beauty Myth, points out that as women have become more independent and gained more rights, new ways have to be found by patriarchal structures in which to keep women subjugated. She argues that the focus upon physical beauty, which requires massive expenditure of time, money, physical effort and psychological energy, effectively allows women to subjugate themselves more effectively than men have done for centuries.

Would it be too much of a stretch to apply this argument to the presentation of pseudo-science in women's magazines? Perhaps horoscopes, moon-calendars, feng-shui charts, numerology and so-called clairvoyants are yet another insidious way of keeping women's minds from the important issues at hand, or misplacing our energies in fixing them. Who cares if you're not earning as much as your male colleagues at work, when moving a pot-plant into your Money Corner will see you rolling in the bucks? Why end a relationship with an abusive or inattentive partner, when Venus is on the rise, bringing with it a mystical new age of love and mutual respect?

At best, the magazines are patronising us with facile explanations for the complexities of our lives.
At worst, they're deliberately dumbing us down.

Do you read your horoscope? Does it annoy you that publications targeted at intelligent women still expect us to be interested?
Or is the Bitch just being a Bitch this week?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What Not To Name Your Kids

I'm getting to that age where my friends are beginning to breed en masse. Fortunately, I like children. I'm happy to babysit, change nappies, visit hospitals with armfuls of flowers, and to smile and nod at the interminable explanations of feeding patterns, sleepless nights and developmental milestones. In fact, the only thing that makes me want to scream and tear my hair out is what my friends are naming their children.

Ridiculous child-naming practices are de rigueur nowadays, apparently in every social sphere from billionaire celebrities to dole-queuing teenage mothers.
Below, I've attempted to list some of the most egregious trends in child nomenclature.

1- The Boy's Name For Girls
Step 1: Find a boy's name that you like, such as James, William, or Charles.
Step 2: Give birth to a girl instead.
Step 3: Call her Jamie, Billie or Charlie and congratulate yourself upon your individuality.

2 - The Surname
Hands up who has recently met a child named "Mackenzie"? What about "Taylor"? If I had ten hands, they would all be up. In celebrity-land, Brooke Shields and Nicole Ritchie have jumped on this bandwagon as well, naming their daughters (respectively) Grier and Harlow.

3- The Name You Spell Yourself
Tay-lah, Tayla, Tailagh, Taylhar... oh, excuse me but I think your bourgeois pretensions might be showing...

4 - The Mis-spelled Foreign Name
A girl I know named her daughter "Channelle". Yes, that's right. Like Chanel, but with some extra letters thrown in so that the child can feel individual despite her obvious namesake. (In fact - this one breaks the surname rule as well - but I guess it's preferable to calling a child Coco. Are you reading this, Courtney Cox and David Arquette?). Another friend of mine, apparently shying away from all the boring normality implied by Chantelle introduced me to her daughter Shontel. I weep for the future.

5 - The Name You Invent Yourself
Mnemonics are bad enough (think "Taome" - The Apple Of My Eye), but the worst of the worst must be the laughable attempt of those bastions of elegance and understatement, Peter Andre and Katie Price (AKA Jordan) to create a name for their daughter. Princess Tiaamii, the poor brat's name, is a merging of the names of Andre's mother (Thea) and Price's mother (Amy), with "Princess" whacked in front for good measure. In the words of Price herself; "we added some extra letters to make it unique, and some accents to make it look interesting". A class act all the way.
Apologies - My computer does not seem to have the functional capacity to include the various accents over vowels in Tiaamii.

6 - The Common Noun
Apart from the names of flowers and jewels, common nouns as names are, thank goodness, largely restricted to celebrities (who could forget baby Apple Martin?). However, we will know that common nouns-as-names have crossed over to the common domain when we eventually meet a child named Wingnut or Ashtray.

7 - The Celebrity Tribute Name
Apart from the aforementioned Harlow, dishonourable mentions go to Geri Halliwell for naming her daughter Bluebell Madonna (extra demerit points for Bluebell), and to the US couple who couldn't get a birthday cake inscribed to their son Adolf Hitler Campbell.

8 - The Celebrity-Offspring Tribute Name
Until Lleyton and Bec Hewitt named their daughter Mia, it wasn't a name you heard very often. Now it's in the top 5 most popular baby names in Australia, and overused to the point of sticking in your throat. Ditto Bindi (Irwin). Ditto Matilda (Ledger). But not, strangely enough, Sunday Rose...

9 - The Reminiscent-of-Conception Name
Whenever my friend Airlie tells someone her name, it's as likely as not that they will make the same joke I did; "What, were you conceived at Airlie Beach?". The answer is yes. The New Zealand registry of Births revealed that in recent years, it has barred parents from naming their newborns such epithets as "Midnight Chardonnay" and "Number 16 Bus Shelter". Please. We don't need to know the details of the conception. The baby's enough proof that you had sex. Ok?

10 - The Joke Name
Those New Zealanders are at it again! A few months ago, a judge allowed 13-year old Tallulah Does The Hula From Hawaii (last name suppressed) to change her given name, ruling that her parents were irresponsible to give it to her in the first place. In France, a court refused to allow Mr and Mrs DeFrance to name their daughter Marie-Antoinette Reine, which would have rendered her (in English) "Marie Antoinette, Queen of France".
I've been assured that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz's baby, Bronx Mowgli, is not a joke. However, I remain to be convinced.

Anything to add to the list? Anything you would remove?
What's the worst name you've heard someone give a child?