Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blaming the media

Last night I went to meeting of a feminist group on campus. We watched this documentary called Mickey Mouse Monopoly. The film is very critical of Disney and the messages it puts out in its products, whether those messages are intentional or unintentional.

For some, this is not news. Those who are old enough to remember Aladdin may also remember the outcry from Arab-Americans who believed the lyrics of the opening song portrayed Arabs as barbaric. In The Lion King, several people pointed out that the villains were not only voiced by minority actors, but also seemed to emulate street thug behavior.

One problem I had with Mickey Mouse Monopoly is that the speakers seemed to imply that gender and ethnic stereotypes were the sole fault of Disney. Toward the end, they quoted an internal Disney memo from then-CEO Michael Eisner about how their sole responsibility was to make money. The film made it seem like the memo was this sinister thing, but it shouldn't surprise anyone who follows financial news. The speakers in the film talked about how they believe Disney (and, I suppose, all entertainers by extension) has a responsibility to promote less stereotypical behavior, I guess.

So far I've been pretty critical of the film, but I do want to clarify that I believe many of their concerns are legitimate. Disney movies clearly promote stereotypical behavior, and I wish they wouldn't. Anybody who gets most of their ideas about gender and ethnicity from Disney is going to have some seriously skewed ideas. But a lot of those skewed ideas are also in the source material that Disney uses. Anyone care to tell me about the bad-ass, independent heroines in the original versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, for instance (although Ever After was an awesome retelling)?

I also want to address the idea that Disney or any other entertainers have a responsibility to the public. I have a really hard time with this because I'm not sure how you would achieve the desired outcome without some kind of censorship. And that's just not how we settle things in a free society. Also, I think that ultimate responsibility lies with the parents. If you keep feeding your kids junk food, whose fault is it when they have health problems? Actually, that's a pretty good analogy. And Mickey Mouse Monopoly can be useful for revealing Disney movies to be the cinematic junk food that they are. Just don't overdo the junk food and be sure to balance it with healthier things. It also might be helpful to talk to kids about the messages in those movies.

Ultimately, I think the best solution is to install critical thinking skills in your kids. Don't just uncritically accept everything people tell you, whether those people are Disney employees or your relatives. It's never too early or too late to work on your bullshit detectors.

Also, for examples of other sources with shady gender portrayals, check out this article from the fine folks at Feministing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

School update

To get a master's degree in computer science at my school, you have to choose a concentration area, like networks or artificial intelligence. I had some interest in the systems concentration, partly because it would give me a course background that would be very helpful if I decide to pursue a Ph.D.

As part of our orientation for new grad students, one of the professors talked to us about the possibility of doing a directed study with him on compilers (don't worry if you don't know what compilers are; just trust that they're an important topic in computer science, especially in the systems area). This professor also mentioned that this would probably be our best chance to study compilers early on, since the formal class on compilers is typically cancelled due to low enrollment. So, as soon as orientation was over, I naturally high-tailed it over to this professor's office. Paperwork was filled out, and I was signed up for this directed study.

Fast-forward a little over a month. Compiler stuff is hard. Another course that I'm taking in my concentration has proved similarly head-spinning. It was starting to look like my choice of concentration was a bad idea.

So I went to our weekly meeting for my directed study feeling down. I hate to fail at anything. I wondered if this would be total gibberish to me like some of the reading had been. Surprisingly, I was able to follow enough to hang on, and I had an epiphany: if I quit on this, I'd just be taking the easy way out and selling myself short again, which I totally have a tendency to do.

Not this time. If I have any hope of proving myself worthy to run with the big dogs, I need to challenge myself. During my first degree, I made the mistake of taking the easy way as much as possible, and I paid for it for a very long time.

So, approximately a month into my grad school career, I've had my first serious gut check. I have responded by kicking it in the pants and officially declaring a systems concentration (my directed study prof is happy to serve as my official advisor). That way it knows I mean business. I will do whatever it takes to succeed.