Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peggy Orenstein: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

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This book made me realize: I'm an asshole when it comes to liking books. It's possible that in the past I have felt that thb was this way: every book I recommended was just "so-so" or had a million problems with it. But after reading "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" and finding a million problems with an overall pretty good book, I've realized that either a) I am hypercritical/picky about books or b) I'm turning into my father. (Turning into? Both?) In 1995, Peggy Orenstein wrote "Schoolgirls," and, as an impressional teen, I still remember how important that book was to me. The big issue then was self-esteem, and Orenstein nailed it.

The big issue now with girls is, well, actually I have no idea, because I'm a grown up and I don't have kids and don't really pay that much attention. But I do notice how pink is back, and how pink, combined with consumerism, is somehow supposed to be empowering for women (fight cancer, buy something pink!). I also notice how Disney is *the thing- you sort of have to live on a tropical to not see small children in Disney princess outfits. I haven't found a tropical island to live on. And of course there's the hypersexualization of young kids, although that seems to have cooled off as a topic when obesity came around. Now we talk about fat and take it for granted that kids wear bikinis and tight tee shirts and sparkly booty pants. It's not weird that they do- it's weird that we don't talk about it. Remember when we didn't have reality tv? Remember when we didn't have reality tv that involved 5 year olds dressing like beauty queens? It's hard to remember, and I'm not kidding.

So Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is a welcome look into this bizarre land of what it means to raise a girl now. Only... it's either a piece of reporting (Orenstein mentions a couple of times that she's a journalist), or it's a diary of a mom trying to raise her kid right (in Berkeley), or it's a sociological piece, or it's... none of the above. And at 192 short pages, it's none of the above successfully. Not very helpfully, the publishers have given it the BISAC codes of 1. Girls-Psychology, 2. Femininity, 3. Mothers and daughters. I wonder what Orenstein would make of that- a whole section for girls?

"Cinderella" touches on so many things that I want to know more about. Orenstein clearly did a lot of work for this book- or to raise her own daughter after decades of working on this stuff. She says upfront that she was hoping for a boy, and who can blame her? It's a nightmare out there for raising a strong, confident girl: one who wants to achieve without falling into the traps of either rejecting society's norms to to the point of being an outcast but also without accepting them to the point of needing to be beautiful, weak and adored for her external beauty. So did Orenstein write this book because she had learned all of this stuff and had a wealth of knowledge to share (I wouldn't blame her)? Or did she write the book but not quite go deep enough into any of the subjects? We get snippets of each phase of her daughter's age and along with it, snippets of information: why the Disney monopoly is dangerous, what the pink marketing trend is all about, why playing together cross-genders is important, etc. But there is clearly so much more to say. Just when I got involved in a discussion about dolls or Miley Cyrus, time to hear about Orenstein's daughter and then move on.

But I'm not sure this is really a flaw with the book. The book is very readable, Orenstein is very humble and honest about reality: she knows she's a feminist and she knows that society is a tricky place to navigate as a feminist. She doesn't think she has all the answers as a mom, or as an "expert." I just wanted more, and I have a feeling that Orenstein has it, just not in this format. Give me more, dammit! Great topic, poor execution.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Brian Chen: Always On

Got a cell phone? (I know you do. Even THB has one.) Got a smart phone? You probably do, even if THB doesn't have one. Got a tablet? Take it everywhere? Use it all the time? Use one of these things more than a computer? Yes, if you're honest, probably. Brian Chen knows all about it. He's not critical of it, he just knows about it and in his short "Always On," he shares a bit about what the iPhone has done to create the "anything-anytime-anywhere" world we now live in. The book, written in 2010 and published in 2013 is, amazingly but not surprisingly, out of date already, thanks to the very phenomena he writes about. The book is uneven and at times Chen seems giddy about technology, but you can't really blame him- he writes for Wired; it's his job to love this stuff.

"Always On" is iPhone-centric because Steve Jobs (still alive at the time of writing) and Apple were at the forefront of creating anything-anytime-anywhere phenomena with their iPhone and other phones had to hurry to catch up. Also, Chen explains, the vertical integration that Jobs, the control freak, built into the phone was key to its success. Other smartphone companies couldn't initially compete (and now are way behind in market share) due to the fact that they didn't control the whole process. Apple built the whole physical phone and the whole ecosystem including iTunes and the App store. Other companies like Google and Microsoft figured this out later. In the meantime, customers both benefited and suffered from Apple's invention. The App store has a bajillion apps which can do everything and will be able to do more. They've made some people extremely rich and saved people's lives. On the other hand, they're subject to Apple's rigorous screening that borders on censorship: when we depend on one company for so much of our content and assume that that is all that is out there, our world becomes limited by their whims. Further, Apple is very careful about what kinds of coding can go into the apps because the company is terrified that something will get in there and "break" or modify the phone. This means that creativity is stifled; hacking for good is often a way of making new and cool stuff. No hacking allowed on the iPhone.

My main quibble with this book- besides that it's not very well written (it's fine for what it is)- is that Chen can't seem to decide which side he's on and doesn't acknowledge that. The book opens with a heartwarming story about a guy who saves his own life while trapped in a building thanks to his iPhone. He chuckles at the idea of technology making us stupider, and later in the book talks at length (for a short book) about the idea that our brains have been changed by technology. Although he gives both sides on both of these issues, it's clear that he favors the "no, we're not stupider" and "no, we're not changed" arguments. We get a personal anecdote about how he tried to unplug with disastrous results for both him and his people. Then comes the chapter about privacy. Chen pretty clearly is worried that the "always on" culture is dangerous. "We should ask," he writes, "How can we use these technologies so that data can benefit us rather than cause harm?" This is the smartest thing he says in the whole book, but it comes on page 189, 3/4 of the way through the book, and should probably come before all of the other stuff, if it's what Chen believes. Instead, it comes later, and I can't figure out if it's what he thinks, or if it's what he thinks about privacy issues. Bottom line, this is a decent, fast read with some interesting history on our new smartphone appendage.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

East Oakland?

Something I wrote for Oaklandwiki on East Oakland. I hate when people call things "East Oakland" Just Because They Can, or because they don't know any better. Link here, though it may be changed by the time you see it- the good and bad of a wiki!

East Oakland loosely describes a large part of the city of Oakland and includes a number of neighborhoods. "East Oakland" is often synonymous in public language both in- and outside of Oakland as "the ghetto." Our Oakland has a great piece mapping how the media delineated East Oakland over a series of articles.
Complicating the fact is that what is described as "East" Oakland is in fact South Oakland, as directionally, Oakland is much longer North-South than East-West. The widest part of the city is just south of the Bay Bridge, and cuts across straight through Oakland pretty much 1/3 of the way South of the city. 
Many people, perhaps the majority or residents and outsiders, think that anything East of Lake Merritt is East Oakland. This would mean that anything with "Avenue" in the street name or East followed by a number (i.e. East 22nd or East 14th (now called International Blvd)) is East Oakland. This is a huge, diverse swath of territory: literally from 1st avenue on the shore of Lake Merritt to past 109th Ave at San Leandro. Running over 100 blocks North-South (see above) and from the flats to the hills and encompassing the majority of 5 of 7 City Council districts, this hardly seems appropriate. Certain neighborhoods would certainly object if it were portrayed this starkly. Maybe East Oakland would only be described as City Council Districts 56 and 7, and the Southeast portions of Districts 2 and 4. This would eliminate the stigma of "East Oakland" from neighborhoods such as Crocker HighlandsMontclairGlenview and even Eastlake
The linguistic implications of calling something "East Oakland" are huge: many people will not travel to somewhere that is considered "East Oakland" because it's considered dangerous. One might argue that the surge in gentrification in places like Old OaklandUptownand Temescal could not have happened in "East Oakland" because the downtown and North Oakland names did not carry such a stigma. Sure, they were empty and people from Oakland know that West Oakland has it's own share of problems, but there's nothing like the gangster, lost-cause feeling of East Oakland. This, in turn, leads to a vicious cycle: dollars aren't spent in "East Oakland" so businesses stay away from East Oakland. People don't move to East Oakland because there are so many empty houses and so few services. "East Oakland" the geographic area spreads as "East Oakland" the cultural problem self-reinforces.