Tag Archives: TEDTalks

Bringing the superhero girls – and the princess girls

This morning, I watched Dr. Christopher Bell, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, ask an important question: why are the superhero girls in the movie theaters not present in stores?

It’s not like I didn’t know that superhero merchandising skews heavily towards males, but when you see it on display, when you hear the facts and figures, it’s honestly shocking. As Dr. Bell points out, not only are female superheros not represented, they are actually removed and replaced with male characters.

The video is a little old (it’s from a TEDx talk held in October 2015), so I decided to do a little research and see if this was still the case. After all, the gendering of toys has been a topic of much debate for a while now, and I figured maybe things have changed. So I went ahead and googled “childrens superhero toys.”

This is what I got:

These are the first results that are not ads. As you can see, the very first thing that comes up is a post from “Joys for Boys.” And look, I am all about boys having joy. Boys deserve joy. But the fact that is the first result, before stores that actually sell superhero toys, goes to show just how heavily gendered the media has made superheros. As you may well know, Google ranks results by popularity and by how well they connect with similar content, so this is pretty telling.

But just to be fair, I checked out the top two toy stores that came up to see what they were selling.

Amazon:

Of all the results on the first page (you can only see a small part here), only one of the toys featured a female character as prominently as it did the males.

Here’s Toys R Us’ Marvel section:

Hey, the very first toy is a girl! She’s being promoted by the site, sure, but hey! GwenPool is a great character too – because not only is she an awesome female hero holding her own in the Marvel Universe, but her outer appearance reflects a pink girly vibe that is often looked down upon in comic book culture (and let’s face it, the world in general). Sadly though, dear Gwen is alone – the rest of the page is dominated by male characters.

So yeah, not much of a difference in the last year and a half. Although in fairness, Disney specifically has introduced female superhero toys from its Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Hooray for progress!

For me personally, though, the problem is not with the representation of female characters in merchandising as much as it is with the notion that the qualities and interests we associate with girls are inherently beneath the qualities and interests we associate with boys. This is something that Dr. Bell addresses in the video, but there’s a link here that he doesn’t really expand on; namely, that part of the push for female superheros (in my view) is a result of that subconscious preference we as a society have for “boy things.”

We have gendered qualities like smart, strong, and just, and made it so that the women we see embodying those qualities most are women functioning in a male-dominated environment doing activities that have been long associated with males (all while remaining conventionally attractive). In many ways, that is a reflection of society at large, where many women often find themselves in male-dominated environments doing “guy stuff.” And in those situations, they have to prove that are just as smart and strong as men.

The thing though, is that yes. Yes absolutely, let women be superheros, kicking ass and taking names. Let them wear black on black on black, leather jackets, and high-thigh boots. Let them wear torn jeans and no makeup while they punch people through walls. Yes! I’m all about that stuff.

But I’m also about “girl stuff.” Let them wear dresses and cute shoes and makeup. Let them delegate the dirty work because they don’t want to break a nail. (It takes time to get your nails done properly! You wouldn’t want to ruin all that hard work either. And no, it’s not superficial to care about how you look – it’s human nature, as evidenced by the long aisles of male hair care and skincare products). And don’t roll your eyes at them or make fun of them. They’re kicking ass and taking names their own way, and they are just as smart and just as strong as men. They’re just as smart and just as strong as YOU.

This is what we should be teaching children, all children. You can like superheros and be cool, and you can like be princesses and be cool, too. You can like both! Because the qualities that make you a good person have no gender.

Frustrated? Embrace the potential for creativity

Are you familiar with the “group project” memes that have germinated all over the Internet?

Does this one resonate particularly strongly with you?

Via Tumblr

Via Tumblr

If you answered yes to these two questions, boy do I have good news for you!

In a TEDTalk, “Financial Times” columnist and author Tim Harford put forth the idea that frustration actually improves creativity and problem-solving skills.

Using examples from social psychology, rock n’ roll, and the German opera, Harford shows how disrupting factors – the things that trip you up, ruin your work, and complicate your process – are actually helping you think outside the box and do better.

According to Harford, strategic, predictable step-by-step processes can lead you to a dead end. You can only see what’s already there, and if there’s something wrong with your process, you can end up making the same mistakes over and over again. When you introduce an element of randomness, you’re forced to approach things differently, which makes for an end result that is new and different from what you’ve done before.

This isn’t just a theory. In practice, it’s called “oblique strategies” – a group of index cards list disruptive (and frankly annoying) things you can do to create obstacles in the creative process, and you pick one at random and implement it.

Because this whole idea is so counter-intuitive (making things harder makes them better? What?), our natural instinct is to shy away from it. What kind of masochist wants to make the difficult and often emotionally and physically draining task of making something even more complicated?

This is why, Harford says, when life doesn’t supply the randomness, you have to force yourself to find way to throw a wrench into your own plans.

So the next time you get an A+++ on a group project, you’ll know who to thank:

these-guys

You can find Tim Harford’s books on economics and creativity at the Creative Quibble bookstore.

Oscar Schwartz demonstrates why poetry is weird

I feel like this post needs a disclaimer: I don’t like poetry.

The dislike has been a long-standing one, reaching back to middle school days when poetry, reading and writing, was a significant part of my class’s English assignments. I always stumbled on these assignments, because a) directed to find and put together words that rhyme in a way that makes sense, my brain would immediately begin to malfunction, and b) I didn’t understand why I had create a poem when it would be so much easier to just write what I wanted to say in a nice, solid paragraph.

So when the TEDTalks YouTube channel suggested this video to me, “Can a computer write poetry?”, my immediate concern was how this would be applicable to middle school English assignments.

Let me tell you now that this is not what the video is about.

In the video, writer Oscar Schwartz brings poetry into the world of sci-fi, using a computer algorithm that takes words from a selected source and then uses those words to create a “poem.” Interestingly enough, this was one of the first ways software engineers, as early as the 1950s, attempted to test a computer’s capacity for original thought.

The results, which are extremely varied, are really part of a wider philosophical discussion on what constitutes humanity, as Schwartz rightly points. Within that discussion, many questions are raised: What constitutes original thought? What factors lead us to perceive certain things as being innately human, while others are easily mistaken for the work of an artificial being? What does that say about the human who created the latter work? How does our perception of a work of self-expression affect our belief in its value?

More importantly, does this mean we can now eliminate poetry modules from English curricula?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!
By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/73/6b/1b0b57f1eae055d4fa81dd3e7f59.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0013843.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35966438

Watch the “cultural big bang” courtesy of Google Culture Institute

There are times, after three hours have dissipated into thin air with nothing to mark their existence except a few retweets, when I wish the internet was never invented. One imagines what one could have accomplished in that time, what wonders could have been created, what knowledge gained.

And then, there are other times. Times when the internet is the reason for wonders and knowledge. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

THIS!

Okay, perhaps an explanation is in order. In this video, the director of Google’s Arts and Culture Project, Amit Sood, talks about how the project is in essence making art galleries and museums accessible to people all over the world.

The amazing thing about this, as the video demonstrates, is that when you bring art from all over the world together like this, it gives you the opportunity not only to discover arts from different cultures, but to see the connections between those different cultures. You can see how different styles and formats traveled and influenced developing cultures. It’s a “cultural big bang,” as Amit says, but it’s more than that, it’s a cultural Pangea too.

You can see where a thing starts, how it travels, and where it ends up.

What’s particularly great about this is that not only can you see art from all over the world, you can experience it in a way that isn’t usually possible in real life. The zoom feature, for example, lets you see a level detail that’s usually denied to the average museum visitor. Check out this close-up screenshot I took of “The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish,” by Manohar Das circa 1595:

"The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish" Manohar Das, 1595, Cincinnati Art Museum, via Google Cultural Institute.

“The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish” Manohar Das, 1595, Cincinnati Art Museum, via Google Cultural Institute.

Even on this screen, you can see so much detail: the strokes of the brush, the way the colors are blended together to create different shades, the overlay of different textures on top of one another. It’s amazing! As wonderful as it is to visit actual museums in person and see these things in real life, the fact is that such institutions you often cannot touch the artifacts or see them up close. This project, which is still in beta, is an opportunity not just for those for whom museums and art galleries are not easily accessible, but for anyone with fascinated by how art is created and maintained.

There are probably some pertinent questions to be raised at the idea of Google storing all this cultural heritage, given its already in-depth access to so much of our personal information and, of course, purchasing habits. But I have to say, if this is what Google is planning to use its world dominion for, I’m for one am on board. All hail the mighty Google and its artistic database!

Link Bank: June 2016

This month’s Link Bank explores issues of diversity, representation,  and more…

Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories? – NY Times

“There are times when such efforts can appear profoundly self-serving; when bearing witness or showing compassion feels more like public performance than real acknowledgement or understanding of another.”

Asian-American Actors Are Fighting For Their Visibility – NY Times

“It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.”

X-Men: Apocalypse Needs To Be The End For Bryan Singer – Film School Rejects

“This is a cast that is easily likable, but the creative teams behind it aren’t giving us anything that feels fresh. No matter how many new visual tricks, or beloved characters and moments it adapts from comics, it seems like more of the same. And even though Oscar Isaac is a great actor, Apocalypse is an indistinct big bad whose stakes are so high that it has a numbing effect on the audience. The fact that he looks like Ivan Ooze the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show just feels like a twisting of the knife. ”

A Cup of Tea With Oliver Sacks – TEDTalks

“Out popped Oliver Sacks, peering at me uncertainly. His prosopagnosia, or face blindness, made him unable to recognize me from my author photo. When I told him who I was, he engulfed me in a great big bear hug.”

How Do Artists Make a Living? – TEDTalks

“After all, artists innovate — it’s what we do, no matter what our medium is. We imagine ways forward that no one else has imagined before, in literature, music, theater, dance, art, performance. There’s no reason we can’t do it with economics as well.”

How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students? – The Creativity Post

“It was support from teachers that helped students feel connected to school. Further, rigor without attention to social-emotional and talent development proved to be a deal-breaker, especially for adolescents at this critical period of identity development. We came to understand how proactive schools needed to be in building collaboration with families.”

Learning to draw with Graham Shaw

I’ve always wanted to have some kind of artistic talent. When I was 15, I enrolled in art classes run by an extremely talented and patient man, who taught me sketching and oil painting. There was only so much he could do for me, though, and the end result was that I dropped the art classes at the end of the summer to focus on schoolwork.

Some dreams never die, though, and so I was really excited when I saw this video on the TEDTalks YouTube channel. It’s called “Why People Think They Can’t Draw” by Graham Shaw. In it, he advances an interesting premise: that anyone can learn to draw in a few easy steps.

When I watched the video I was a little skeptical, but I went ahead and gave it a shot. The style Shaw demonstrates here is very caricature-ish, but the technique does work. I made the whole gang, including the unnamed bald guy.  Exhibit A:

Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.

Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.

So can anyone draw this way? Well, given my utter lack of talent, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. The downside is that it’s a bit limiting in terms of style – if this kind of design isn’t really your thing, you might not be very interested in pursuing it. Also, you’re only getting profiles of the characters you’re drawing. But the video did inspire me in one way: Shaw’s whole technique is based on making small elements that build on each other. That can’t be too hard, right?

That process produced Exhibit B:

I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.

I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.

This was a really fun experiment to do and I think it’s a great way to approach the creative process, whether you’re using that process to produce art or anything else where you’re not sure where to start or how to get the result you want. You’re not going to be producing Mona Lisa-style portraits, but you can create simple cartoons to use in your business or for your own personal amusement. With a little practice, I think Lizzy and I could become very good friends.

Like this post? Come back on Tuesday for more cool stuff!

It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it

Someone once told me I talk like I’m reading a story. They did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one.

I like stories and, if you have the right mindset, everything is a story. But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are created particularly unequal in that they are repetitive, obvious, relying on overused tropes and stifling stereotypes. They bore us. Am I really going to suffer through 200 pages of a love triangle so that the heroine can come to a revelatory realization about what true love means and what she was really looking for this whole time?

Well, I might.

As irritating as I often find love triangles to be (is there no other way to introduce conflict into a narrative? Any other way at all? I’ll take literally anything else), there are times when a well-written story can supersede the actual plot. As Ursula Guin writes,

“Romeo and Juliet is a story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals with those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?”

Let’s take Romeo and Juliet for a moment (and I’ll admit now that many long years have passed since I read the story or saw that absolutely awful film rendition, which made the bizarre choice to take the most off-putting part of historical fiction…but that’s a post for another time. Back to the topic at hand.). It’s not a great plot, and especially after a few hundred years of work on the English novel it comes off as rather over-dramatic. The language is nice – for about the first five pages, and then you just want someone to tell you what in the world is going on. This is why we have Cliff Notes.

Teenage angst, 90s band-boy haircuts, and really flowery language. You gotta love it – NOT!

But as much as one might roll their eyes at Romeo and Juliet, there is still an aspect that endears itself to the reader. The intensity, the pace, the desperation of it all, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this tale of doomed love, even if the whole thing was kind of silly to start with and could have been avoided if the two teens in question had been good kids who listened to their parents. Maybe that’s a part of it, too. The truth is that there are those times in your life where you believe so strongly that you’re right, where you’re so determined to prove that you’re right, you’ll do anything, no matter how unreasonable or extreme or downright insane it may be. And a lot of those times happen when you’re young and/or in love.

The multi-form approach

The medium can help too. Most songs, with the exception of those designed with twerking primarily in mind, are really just stories in lyric form. How many stories have I heard of doomed love in song form? A lot, and I love them. When Abdelhalim sings “Ana lak ‘ala tool, khaleek leya,” I sing along, even though I can’t sing to save my life, and my heart breaks for him, the poor desperate guy. I root for him so hard, and I’m so happy when it works out at the end of the approximately seven minutes.

Yes, I have very old-fashioned tastes.

The song, whose first line translates to, “I am yours forever, be mine,” is essentially the story of man whose love will not give him the time of day. He goes through life with a burdened heart, longing for a soft look, a kind smile, anything to demonstrate that she returns one iota of his feelings for her.

If this were a book, I would not have gotten past the blurb. If someone were telling me this story, my eyes would roll in their sockets so hard they would get stuck back there. Yet in song, somehow, I am so moved I feel an actual pain in my chest. It’s a combination of Abdelhalim’s beautiful voice and the elegant choice of words, I think, that causes this reaction, more so than if it had been just one or the other.

Emojis killed the writing star

For a more positive and amusing example of this phenomenon, check out the TEDTalk below. It tells a very simple, very obvious story, but it works because of the medium, which in this case happens to be emoticons. Watch and enjoy! But please keep in mind that most publishing houses do not accept novels in emoji form.

Like this post? Share your thoughts and come back on Tuesday for more!