You said it, Natalie Dee.

December 3, 2007

I think this comic (by Natalie Dee) speaks for itself.


Class Issues in Prison Break.

November 26, 2007

NOTE: I am watching the first season of Prison Break on Netflix. Please consider any comments carefully to AVOID SPOILERS.

The television drama Prison Break is set up on the premise of a successful engineer (Michael Scofield) who commits a crime to end up in prison and assist his death-row inmate brother (Lincoln Burrows) (1) escape. I was hesitant to watch this show as my thoughts tend to run along the lines of “So, then what’s going to happen when they actually escape? Is that going to be the end of the show? And if they don’t escape? What’s the point of that?” But then again, I am a big fan of Lost, which also can not go on forever, so I stepped up to the plate and swallowed my disbelief. (2)

One issue that comes up over and over again in the first season is the disbelief of the secondary characters that someone like Michael would end up in prison in the first place. What would trigger an engineer with a clean record to commit a violent crime? (3) In the world where crimes are not committed to aid in getting one’s brother out of jail and one does not get blueprints of state penitentiaries tattooed all over one’s torso to aid in this scheme, engineers with clean criminal records and no history of mental illness are not at all likely to commit violent crime, and what’s more is that if they do, they are not likely to serve hard time in prison.

Howard Zinn writes a concise summary of the American prison system in A People’s History of the United States (4):

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.

Not only did Michael Scofield not fit the class profile of someone who committed a violent crime, but he certainly did not fit the profile of someone who ended up in prison for said crime. He certainly had a “clever lawyer” in Veronica Donovan, he could afford whatever fines were placed on him, and certainly, a judge would be predisposed by his previous clean record to offer him lighter sentencing than that which is advised. He wasn’t only the type of person who wouldn’t normally end up in prison, but as Michel Foucault (5) argues, he isn’t the type of person for whom prisons are designed in the first place. As he puts it, prisons are built by the bourgeoisie to separate the lower class “other” in incrementally more isolating mechanisms depending on the severity of the infraction: mere displacement from society for minor offenses, solitary confinement for more serious crimes, and the ultimate punishment – destruction of the individual for those offenses that are totally egregious.

So called “White collar” criminals don’t end up in prison merely because their crimes are non-violent, but because the prison system was designed to keep the rich, white elements on the outside and the poor, non-white elements on the inside. Scofield, as a rich white man, had no business being in prison and in a non-television drama, his place in society would have probably kept him from serving any time for a failed bank robbery in which no one was injured. He would have faced probation and some serious fines, but those elaborate tattoos would likely have been for naught.


1) It is explained somewhere mid-season that the two characters who are biologically full-brothers have different last names because their father left while Michael was still in utero and in light of this, their mother chose to give him her maiden name, thus conveniently setting up a scenario in which the criminal justice system would neglect to realize that these two inmates were of relation.

2) Actually, I started watching it because my boyfriend got it on Netflix. But that’s not really as impressive sounding.

3) He robbed a bank and discharged a gun. No one was hurt, but the firing of the weapon classified the crime as “violent” on which basis the judge – an older African-American woman, just to continue the world of statistically unlikely occupations – made the ruling that she felt “incumbent that [he] see the inside of a prison cell,” which is a pretty awesome sentence. Not often do you find “incumbent” cropping up in an sentence.

4) My current bed-time reading. See what college does to you? Beware kids, you too will be reading serious social criticism for fun.

5) Yes, I’ve read Foucault. In my spare time. In French. This is what college does to you! I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!

Black Friday.

November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving is this week, which means that we are also rapidly coming up on Black Friday. I don’t know which I hate more, the meaningless holiday based on genocide and lying to children about how g-ddamn friendly the Pilgrims and the Indians were to each other(I actually have more beef with Thanksgiving than with Columbus Day on this front because no little kids are acting out plays in which Columbus and some Indians with feathers on their heads sit down and enjoy a turkey), or the day after – the biggest holiday in retail.

Black Friday may not be the biggest day in the shopping year in terms of sales, but it is the day with the greatest amount of foot traffic. And it’s certainly the day that retail stores put the most attention to. Opening as early as 4 in the morning, advertising one-day-only sales, or in some cases, sales that end by noon. This year, Wal-Mart (the US’s greatest retailer of gifts) has gone so far as to suppress any advance information regarding their sales. Not only are the sales themselves all about the hype, but to go so far as to say that your sales are so awesome that you can’t possibly allow competitors to gain advance knowledge of them creates meta-hype. This is really pretty great PR for Wal-Mart.

Which is what the whole thing is about anyway, it’s all PR. It’s all hype. Sure, you might save $20 on a DVD player. You feel like you’re getting such a good deal, like you’re beating the system and hey! You’re being rewarded for it. So, what do you do? You buy a sweater.

This is how sales work, people. It’s all pyschological. It’s all for effect! Yes, you may save an amount of money. That is, if you go into a store looking for one specific item that you know in advance will be on sale and walk out with that item and that item alone. Yes, then you have saved money. But, having worked in retail, and having watched the American consumer in its natural habitat, I can tell you that this is not usually how it works. Usually, you browse. You find the thing that you were looking for. Let’s use the example of a book, since I worked in a bookstore. What’dya know? Who Moved My Cheese? is on the 3 for 2 table! So, you figure, if you buy Tuesdays With Morrie then you can get The DaVinci Code “free!” WHAT A DEAL!

Do you see the fallacy here? If you went in to buy Who Moved My Cheese? and walked out of the store paying for two books instead of one, it doesn’t matter how many books you got for “free” on top of that – you just spent more money. You did not save a dime. Now, if you really needed all three of these tomes, then yes, you have found yourself a sweet deal. But how many of us really actually need another shirt from the “Buy one get one half off” rack? If you go into a store to buy one item and go out paying for more than one item, you have been suckered by the magic of retail. It’s a powerful, powerful force. Until I really realized how it worked – from the business end of things, going through meetings that detailed selling strategies such as the placement of sales stickers to draw maximum attention – I was suckered by it many a time myself, I’ll admit.

This is why you won’t find me lining up in front of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. I want my gifts to be about what inspires me about my loved ones. I don’t want my Christmas shopping to be all about trying to save $5 on a toaster. I’m also really, really broke. I’m also buying handmade this year because I’m a hippie like that and prefer to support the counter-culture rather than the mainstream soul-sucking retail giants. Five AM, day after Thanksgiving, I will be blissfully asleep.

In last night’s episode of the children’s show Hannah Montana (1), aimed at the demographic of girls between the ages of 8 and 12, the main characters – Miley and her best friend Lily – dealt with the issue of gender identity in adolescent girls. The situation set-up is one in which Miley feels that Lily, in order to lead a “normal” social life, needs to embrace a more stereotypical female mode of behavior.

It should be noted that while Lily’s “tomboyish” antics are put forth to the audience as her interest in sports and her disregard for table manners, she is very feminine in appearance. She wears her blonde hair long, and her clothes – while not “girly” in appearance – are of the norm for females her age. Indeed, the character of Lily looks much like most of the show’s target audience: cargo shorts, t-shirts of the “girly-fit” variety, skateboarding sneakers, and the occasional colorful knit cap. There is nothing in Lily’s appearance that would immediately suggest any masculine undertones, except maybe to the Amish (2) who believe that women should not wear pants.

Still, Miley feels that Lily needs to “learn how to be a girl.” The implications that a) there is one specific way to be a girl and b) that it is something that can be “learned” are troubling at best. Gender expression is unique to every individual and there is no right or wrong way to express being male, female, anything in between, or completely different. I am personally acquainted with individuals who express zir gender identity as “giraffe,” but that is neither here nor there. Lily’s personal expression of what it means to her to be female are every bit as valid as Miley’s more “mainstream” expressions of femininity. One might go so far as to assert that by having a successful musical career and living a secret double life รก la Clark Kent (3) that Miley herself is challenging gender conventions, in addition of the conventions of what it means to be a “normal” teen.

As an aside, this episode of the show is every bit as wrong-headed about its ideas of traditional male adolescent gender identity as it is about its female counterpart. Boys on this show are depicted as burping, grunting, food-fighting, sports-obsessed, inarticulate slobs. While this is certainly true of a great number of adolescent boys that I have encountered, they are certainly forgetting about the sensitive souls that lurk somewhere beneath all of those layers of fart jokes. What about the boys who break the norms by dying their hair black and sulking in the corners? Where are the nerds, the outcasts, the band geeks? Where are the baby-queers, meticulously ironing their Calvin Klein jeans and salmon polo shirts, drooling over the insert to the latest Justin Timberlake release? Why is my cat drinking from my water glass?

Despite the alleged drawback of being a tomboy, Lily is able to get the object of her affection – a skater boy named Matt – to take her to the big dance on Friday night. This gives Miley a brief window in which to give Lily a crash course in being “a girl.” As a brief aside: in this episode, the examples of what it means to be “a girl” are given as the girls’ nemeses, Amber and Ashley. These girls are incapable of correctly pronouncing words such as “virile,” (4) which is seen of secondary importance to being “pretty” and flirting with boys who are seen of worthy of their affection, the standards of which are dubious.

The message asserted here in regards to female gender conventions is the same message that society at large surreptitiously sends to young girls on a day-to-day basis. It is more important to be attractive than to be smart. The right clothes are more important than having fun. It is never ok to watch football, because in cheering for the team of your choice, you might break your expensively manicured nails.

Lily is given a make-over in which she dresses and, uncomfortably, tries to carry herself as a more stereotypically normative version of an adolescent girl. Miley believes this to be a stunning success when Lily is practically unrecognizable to her horde of male friends, who lose their collective mind over the “hot chick” and literally fall over themselves trying to carry her books for her. This only serves to perpetuate the myth that teenage boys will act in a considerate manner to you, a young girl, if only you are pretty enough. The sad truth of the matter is that you could be wearing all of the eyeshadow in the free world, and a boy who found you attractive would still insult you or snap your bra. Perhaps by college you might be able to find one who would carry a heavy piece of furniture for you, but chances are you are still going to be hauling your own geometry textbooks (5).

Predictably, in the realm of the half-hour format sitcom, the makeover backfires. Lily is stood up at the dance as Matt feels like she changed as a person and that the Shiny New Lily is not the one in whom he had expressed interest. He prefered Lily as her authentic self, and not as some cookie-cutter version of what she was told it meant to be feminine. Predictably, they end up gazing meaningfully into each other’s eyes as this is the Disney Channel and this is as deep a statement as they can make about adolescent sexuality.

Also predictably, Miley ends up getting covered in spaghetti and meatballs in “Teen Court” for her efforts to intervene in Lily’s life. If only this were true of all of the people who collectively try to falsely impose their own ideas of gender on others. The world would be a spaghetti-filled mess, but it would be fair, and it would be delicious.

1) Everybody, et al. Hannah Montana. Wikipedia, 2007.
2) The Internet. Plainly Dressed. What the hell, you can buy Amish clothes on the internet? That doesn’t even make any fucking sense, 2007.
3) Chris Buchner This Looks Like A Job For… Clark Kent? Holy Shit, some people over analyze things as much – if not more – than I do, 2007.
4) “Virile” is pronounced as “viral.” Not exactly the same thing. Merriam-Webster, in association with The English Language at large, 2007.
5) Geometry Textbooks. All of these are fairly heavy, 2007.