Thursday, December 9, 2010


A few stray observations about apparently unrelated topics:

1. I've just completed my semester at North Georgia College and State University, teaching Freshman Composition I and British Literature II. It's been a good semester on the whole, and most of my students have performed quite well. Were I asked what I love most about my teaching job, my first answer would be that it gives me the opportunity to talk at length about the two things I love most in the world: reading and writing. Yet were I asked what the work does for me, I would have to respond that it keeps me connected to the real world, when the temptation to daydream and lose myself in fictional worlds is always so strong. It forces me to look outward.

Yet when I grade a set of essays, I run across innumerable mistakes in grammar and usage, many of which make me cringe, and I thought I'd devote a portion of my blog today to talking about one of my biggest grammatical pet peeves: the misuse of apostrophes. Apostrophes have exactly two purposes in English: 1) to make a contraction (to turn "do not" into "don't," "have not" into "haven't," etc.), and 2) to show possession ("George's car" or "Emma's book"). If you're not making a contraction or showing possession, you do not need an apostrophe. Entirely too many of my students -- and not just my students -- think that an apostrophe is needed to make a noun plural. I can't really blame my students too much for this mistake when all around them they see apostrophes being used to pluralize nouns, especially proper nouns, on everything from billboards to mailboxes. Once and for all, friends: a group of individuals from the same family, with the same last name, is "the Marshalls" or "the Stewarts", not "the Marshall's" or "the Stewart's"! Billboards and mailboxes, stop setting these bad examples for young people earnestly trying to perform well in Freshman Composition I!

2. Actress Helen Mirren was honored recently with a Career Achievement Award at the Power 100 Women in Entertainment Breakfast. When she mounted the podium, she seized the opportunity to blast Hollywood for "[worshiping] at the altar of the 18 to 25 year old male and his penis." What she means, of course, is that too many films are made about, and for, young men, with female characters being relegated to the sidelines, reduced to mere lust objects, or written out altogether.

She has a point. I've made this observation myself, quite frequently. If we look at the movies that target male audiences -- comedies like The Hangover, Due Date, and Hot Tub Time Machine, or action pictures like the Transformers films -- we find the characterization of females is paper-thin at best. These movies offer little or nothing for female audiences. Yet they are cranked out by the dozens each year, and no one seems to mind.

Yet here's the key: these movies make money. Virtually every critic in America hated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, yet people flooded theaters to see it. Such movies are critic-proof. The Hangover was a hit with both critics and audiences, its misogyny notwithstanding. As much as it pains me to say it, we can hardly fault the movie industry for doing what industries always do: following the money. So if we want someone to blame for the dearth of compelling female characters and female-centered stories in Hollywood, maybe we should start by looking in the mirror.

Good female-centered movies are out there, but they will remain scarce until we show with our box-office dollars that we actually want to see them. Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right garnered some of the best reviews of the year, but audiences didn't seek them out, and Hollywood cares much, much more about opening weekend numbers than it does about DVD rentals and sales. Never Let Me Go has also been reviewed well, but it's not pulling the big numbers. Black Swan has gotten strong pre-release buzz and even talk of an Oscar nomination for its star, Natalie Portman. But we, the potential audience, have to take an interest. Few if any filmmakers make movies for the critics.

The responsibility rests with us, the movie-going public. We'll get good movies about girls and women, but only if we're willing to pony up. Hollywood won't wake up until we wake them up. In the meantime, we should take our good news where we can find it: Hermione Granger is kicking butt and taking names (Harry Potter is a wonderful example of a popular success that transcends gender), and Tangled is doing much better business than even its studio (which announced it was jettisoning future fairy-tale related projects) expected.

3. Chaos was created on an airplane recently when an elderly passenger let her dog out of its carrier, despite clearly-stated airline rules to the contrary, and the little terrier, doubtless terrified, proceeded to bite a passenger and a flight attendant. No one was seriously hurt, but the plane had to land well before schedule to make sure, causing major inconvenience for everyone involved. Charges will not be filed against the dog's owner -- but a good many people are still mad as all h-e-double-hockey-sticks at her, and with darn good reason. The dog can't be blamed for doing what dogs do when they're frightened, but that woman deserves a good thrashing; one CNN commentator suggested a re-enactment of the scene in Airplane in which passengers line up for their turn to strike one of their number who's creating a disturbance. Not a bad idea.

This woman earns our wrath as the latest carrier of the Entitlement Virus, the attitude that "I'm too good/smart/cool for rules; rules are for 'the little people;' they don't apply to someone as special as I am." She is Leona Helmsley writ small. She's eighty-nine years old, but there's no conclusive proof that this is the source of her sense of entitlement. We'll probably never find out for sure. But her actions tell us what we really need to know.

I'm not normally an advocate of lawsuits, but people whose Entitlement Virus causes inconvenience and/or injury to others should become Lawyer Food.

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