Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Overclocked Episode 1: Country and Strong Women

Welcome to Overclocked! A new feature for Free Toy Inside, in which I (the author) think too hard about a given subject in an attempt to ruin for myself and everyone else. It’s a bit like Yahtzee’s zero punctuation review, but instead of quick-tongued lambasting and humorous scatological references, I’ll be making earnest philosophical arguments that will hopefully be self parodying enough to keep you entertained.

This week I’d like to discuss the song Before He Cheats, by “country” singer Carrie Underwood.

I hear this song frequently, because it’s played on the radio station that’s piped into the production line and engineering labs at my work. Also, I’m a country fan and this song was unavoidable for a few months back when it first came out. It’s not country, but more on that later. The song is about a supposedly wronged woman who exerts her revenge by destroying her boyfriend/husband’s truck. The description of the damage wrought is described in gleeful, almost pornographic detail. The listener is intended to revel in the destruction and to applaud the singer for being one tough cookie. All of these premises are questionable.

First off, I’d like to address the lack of empirical evidence that the singer provides the listener as justification for her vandalizing rampage. Let’s consider the first line.

Right now, he’s probably slow dancing with some bleached-blonde tramp and she’s probably getting frisky.

I added emphasis over the key words in this line: probably. Right off the bat, the singer is telling us that she doesn’t even know for sure that her husband/boyfriend is actually cheating on her. Every wrong thing that the man allegedly does in the song is prefaced by the word “probably.”

Given the extent of the vandalism that the singer believes is justified based on speculation, one can only wonder what she would have done to the man she were certain of his perfidy. But we don’t know he’s actually cheating. Indeed, we don’t even know if he’s in the bar.

Now, it would of course be ridiculous to expect any significant backstory in a song. But generally wronged-woman songs are more resolute in their assertions of wrongdoing. If the singer is unsure about the activities of her allegedly wayward man, how are we to assume anything she says about him is true? How do we know he didn’t lend his car to a friend to impress the woman she imagines so vividly in the bar? How do we even know there is a woman at all? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that her man is drinking beer and shooting pool with the guys?

The singer doesn’t tell us she saw him doing anything. She tells us what she imagines him doing because she saw his car in a parking lot that it presumably shouldn’t have been in. And even that assertion is tenuous, because we don’t know why he’s not supposed to be there.

As the listener, we honestly don’t even know that he knows they’re in a relationship. Given her unhinged state of mind (in which she destroys a car based on speculation of wrongdoing) it would not be out of bounds to assume that she’s some sort of dangerous stalker.

Next, I’d like to speak to the affront to the tradition of the strong woman/wronged woman theme that has been part of country music since the days of Patsy Cline. “Before He Cheats” does not carry on that tradition. In fact, I would argue that the singer represented in the song is a very weak specimen of womanhood indeed. And here’s why:

First off, when she envisions what kind of woman her wayward man may or may not be seducing, she immediately bypasses the high road and goes straight to cattiness. In the following two lines, we see her creating a straw-woman to be the object of her man’s desire that is an affront to her, presumably more authentic, brand of womanhood:

Right now he’s probably buying her some fruity little drink ‘cause she can’t shoot whiskey

Right now she’s probably up singing some white-trash version of Shania karaoke.

Here we see classism and elitism. The first line quoted above is the female equivalent of saying her competitor has a small penis. It’s ugly, and it doesn’t show the singer as a strong woman. It exposes her, rather, as petty and insecure.

The second line is kind of a one-two punch of sorts. Both calling her alleged opponent white-trash while implying that she’s not even woman enough to like real country music, as if that’s what Ms. Underwood were peddling here. Shania Twain has long been criticized among country fans for being too pop-ish, and her music has many of the same trappings of pseudo-strong grrl power cheerleading that Ms. Underwood’s has. So not only is the singer being classist, but also hypocritical.

This is not to say that the wronged woman (if indeed she be wronged) has no call to criticize the Other Woman. But given the context here, the insults are too petty to be considered anything that would come from a position of strength. This is pure lashing-out. She created this specter of a woman entirely for the purposes of feeling superior to it.

Likewise the singer’s actions against her allegedly cheating man show weakness, not strength. This is petty, “you-hurt-me-so-now-I’m-going-to-hurt-you” stuff, and is a break from the kind of “It’s a Little Too Late” attitude that the likes of Tanya Tucker embody.

Consider the “retribution” that is described in the refrain:

I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped up four wheel drive.
Carved my name into his leather seats.
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights
Slashed a hole in all four tires
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.

These are not the actions of a strong woman. These are the actions of a woman who doesn’t value herself enough to believe that she can hurt her man just by leaving. She lacks confidence in her own worth, and perhaps even fears there is some justification for her man’s alleged actions. When Reba McIntire sings about walking out, you know that she believes that’s the worst possible thing she can do to her man. Not only does she realize that a cheating man isn’t worth her time, but she realizes that depriving him of her very presence is the ultimate insult.

Not so with Carrie Underwood in this song. She doesn’t believe that her absence is stern punishment, so she vandalizes a thing. She believes herself to be worth less than the truck, or at the very least she believes that her man values her less than the truck.

This brings us back to the earlier point: Why does she imagine her man is cheating on her without evidence? Did she not look because she’s afraid to know the truth? Does she secretly fear that her man’s low valuation of her in comparison to the truck is somehow valid?

I would postulate that she’s not mad that he is cheating on her, but rather she’s mad because she thinks it might be her fault.

There are two reasons why she would create this fantasy of adultery based on simply seeing her man’s truck in a bar parking lot. The first is that she doesn’t trust him. The second is that she doesn’t have confidence in herself to keep him from going astray. In either case, she isn’t really mad at him, but at herself.

In the first case, she would be mad because she stayed with him even though she didn’t trust him to not do what she accuses him of. In the second case, she’s mad because she couldn’t keep him at home.

Either one explains everything. The attack on the truck, lauded by the shallow as a victory for the strong woman, is actually very self destructive. She carved her own name into the seat of the car. Did she not expect the law to get involved? Did she expect “He was probably cheating on me in that bar” to be enough justification for a jury to vindicate her? Did she expect the owner of the truck to say “Gosh, you’re right. I was really being a tool,” when faced with the vandalism?

Given her obviously unhinged state, it’s possible. But she would have been arrested, punished, and would become the fabled “psycho ex girlfriend” to the alleged cheater. The truck can be repaired or replaced, but now she has a criminal record to follow her around everywhere. Do you suppose, the next day when the anger and whatever liquor she may have been drinking have worn off and the policeman is showing her a picture of her name carved into a leather seat that she thinks it was worth it?

If she does, that doesn’t make her a strong woman. It makes her a psychopath.

The woman portrayed in “Before He Cheats” is nobody to be celebrated. It is the snarling bluster of a wounded animal, lashing out pathetically at whatever target is easiest in the hopes that other observers will mistake it for strength and leave her alone.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies You’ve Never Heard Of 3: The Man Who Knew Too Little

Welcome to the third installment of an ongoing series that involves me trying to expose you, my reader (Hi Dad!) to movies that have heretofore been only of interest to me. Today we take a look at one of Bill Murray’s lesser known comedies: The Man Who Knew Too Little.

In keeping with the theme of the year, The Man Who Knew Too Little (hereafter TMWKTL because I’m too lazy to copy and paste the title every time it comes up) is on the farcical side of the comedy field. The plot involves a buffoonish, out of work actor (Bill Murray) who has traveled to Great Britain to surprise is expatriate brother on the anniversary of his birth. The problem is that his brother has an important business meeting with some German clients, and can’t celebrate right away.

The brother, feeling bad about the whole thing, buys Bill Murray tickets to a special show called “The Theatre of Life” which takes place in the streets of London, and makes the theatre-goer the main character of the play. He promises to meet up with Bill Murray after the show so they can smoke some celebratory cigars before midnight.

The show is supposed to start when Bill Murray answers a public phone, from which he will get his instructions as to where to go and what the scene will be. All in character. Of course, this particular phone just happens to be located at a dead-drop, and when Bill Murray answers the phone he inadvertently gets instructions intended for an international assassin.

And thus begins a string of miscommunications and misunderstandings that will bring the world to the brink of a new Cold War.

Overall, the theme is similar to those old Popeye shorts in which Popeye chases after Sweet Pea as he crawls through a construction site completely oblivious to the danger he’s in. The ignorance of his situation is what gives Bill Murray’s character the edge that lets him cheat death and remain a step ahead of the ever growing roster of spies, spooks, and assassins that keep coming after him.

The brilliance is in the execution. Bill Murray is one of the best comic actors in Hollywood on his worst day; even the unwatchable Broken Flowers featured an excellent performance by Murray; and this movie represents one of his better days. His timing is flawless, and his deliveries typically spot on. And in case you thought he could only do his wry, snarky schtick, he pulls off some physical comedy as well. Particularly impressive is the Russian folk-dance number at the movie’s climax.

And it’s not just Murray. Alfred Molina, man of a thousand accents, delivers a hilarious performance as a retired KGB assassin know only as The Butcher. The Butcher is called out of retirement to put an end to this rogue operative (is he MI5? CIA? NSA?) who is gumming up the works so thoroughly.

I won’t spoil the plot any further than I already have. Chances are good that you’ll be able to catch this movie on TNT some afternoon, but I recommend renting or buying it. If you like silly, you won’t be disappointed.

Heck, it’s worth it just for the car-chase scene.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Getting to Know Me

I’m really pushing the limits, this time. The accelerator is all the way down. The RPMs are pegged. I couldn’t get any more power out of her if I wanted it.

My palms sweat with the knowledge that my lead isn’t anywhere near big enough. I can see the runner up in my rear view mirror. There’s one more turn before the checkered flag. I ease off the throttle, feather the handbrake and try to slide into the turn without losing too much speed.

My outside wheels leave the pavement, dropping my speed. My quarterpanel barely grazes the guardrail. My opponent zips by me as if he were on a slot-car track. I take the silver.


I fail to stifle the urge to curse a blue streak while I successfully quash the desire to smash the controller, the console, and the developers responsible for the game into a fine powder. This would be the tenth time I lost on that track. Today. I’ll give it a half dozen more tries before shutting the console down in disgust, but I’ll never come closer to winning the race than I did just now.

In a week, I’ll try again and do worse than today’s worst run because my muscles will have forgotten the skills that got me to that race in the first place.

At some point during this cycle of defeat and rage my wife will ask a question for which I have no answer:

Why do you play these again?

It’s not completely rhetorical, but it’s close. As a gamer herself, she knows the answer to why we play games is enjoyment. But it’s clear that I’m not enjoying the experience now, so why am I bothering?

It’s not like I have this much trouble with other genres. I’m not the best FPS player in the world, but I can hold my own in any single player game out there on normal difficulty. I can handle any platformer out there that I take an interest in, and I used to be almost competitive at fighting games. Beat-em-ups and Shoot-em-ups were my mother’s milk as a gamer, and the infinite permutations of Final Fight and Raiden cost me more quarters than I care to admit.

The racing genre, however, is beyond my skill. Oh, I’m fine early on, but later, when the cars become fast and the AI becomes omnipotent, at my best I still lose every race. No matter how many times I drive a given track, no matter how I try to learn the ins and outs of cornering, no matter how good I think I do on a course, I still take second place at best.

As a wiser robot than I will say, second place is just a fancy word for losing.

So why do I bother with racing games. Well, the short answer is that I don’t anymore.

It was not an easy decision to make. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy (that’s the Danny Rhebus way, after all). To admit that I’m not good at a particular kind of game was tantamount to an admission of being a bad gamer in general. I didn’t want to be one of those ghettoized players that play only Madden sequels or Call of Duty games and pretend that makes them “hardcore gamers.” No sir, if I was going to call myself a gamer of any sort, I had to be good at everything.

This is, I think you’ll agree, a perfectly ridiculous way of viewing the world. In the first place, my ability to enjoy Dwarf Fortress in all its ascii goodness already puts the lie to the notion that I would become one of those bizarre Gamestop denizens with the hair products and expensive girlfriends that bought an Xbox 360 to play Halo 3 but wouldn’t know Gordon Freeman if he walked up to them and broke their noses with a crowbar.

(It’s guys like you that are the reason why we have a billion GTA and God of War clones but no sequel to God Hand. Why don’t you go impregnate your girlfriend and stop wrecking up my hobby? Jerk.)

In the second place, it’s not like I hate all racing games. I love the Burnout series, or as I call it “The Racing Game For People Who Hate Racing Games.”

But all this is besides the point, which I actually do have. And that point is this: It’s okay to not like certain genres. [em] It’s even okay to not like them if you’re not good at them.[/em]

This might be a controversial conclusion for some. In a former stage of development, I would have berated myself for chickening out. After all, who wants to be the guy who only plays games he’s good at?

Well, I do. Sort of. It’s not that I don’t want a challenge, or can’t handle one. It’s just that, as a father of two with a new house to worry about, I don’t have a lot of time to invest in any given game. It’s just sensible to say that any game that takes too long to get to the enjoyable stage is off my list. I’m not going to drive that track over and over again until I finally master it to the point where driving it is enjoyable for me. I’d much rather spend that time in a shooter blowing things and bad guys up in a world where the rechargeable health bar or a steady supply of health packs that mean I don’t have to play the game perfectly to progress and have a good time.

So yeah, I’ll stick with genres that I have a proficiency in. Fortunately for me, that means the only ones that are on the outs are racing games and RTS games. And if that makes some people think I’m less of a man, well, I can live with that. I’d rather be happy knowing my limits than angry trying to live up to someone elses.

And that racing game from the intro? That’s long gone. I traded it in on something fun. I’ll admit to feeling a twinge of regret at having let the game beat me. But only a twinge.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

One Hundred Percent Completion!

Like many geeks, I like to collect things. Particularly cool or unique things.

I started small, collecting bottle caps that I found in the street while traversing my neighborhood via bicycle. I put them between the spokes of my wheels because I liked how they spun, and I cared not a whit for the additional drag they contributed.

Like others in my generation, I collected action figures and video games. My He-Man collection was unparalleled, and I had over sixty games for my Atari 2600—including E.T, which I not only played but beat.

Later, when I started to have money of my own, I set into collecting comic books. I have a collection of good-to-mint Sgt. Rock comic books that I’m quite proud of, the crown jewel of which is the first episode ever of Sgt. Rock, after they renamed Our Army At War after the most popular character. I bought it at a comic book convention for $0.50 from a vendor who was too busy with his X-men issues and fifty reboots of The Punisher to check the Overstreet guide, which would have told him to move the decimal to the right by two places.

I also have the complete set of Toxic Avenger comics in mint condition. The series lasted exactly one story arc, and didn’t finish out a full year, maxing out at eleven issues. Issue 10 was a bear to find, let me tell you, but I have them all.

Still later, out on my own with disposable income, I continued to collect video games and other things. Notable among them is a complete set of imported Japanese Evangelion action figures. They’re apparently part of an Anime series, but I bought them because they were cool—each figure boasting over 17 points of articulation, with interchangeable heads and hands to accommodate the different weapon loadouts that come with each figure. They’re the first action figures I’ve ever owned that could be placed into a proper Weaver stance, or configured to fire a sniper rifle while prone.

Most recently I’ve gotten over an obsession with a Hasbro property (now owned by Wizards of the Coast) known as Heroscape. For those not in the know, Heroscape is a light miniatures wargame played out on a fully 3-D map broken up into hexagonal tiles. Like any good miniatures based wargame, the core set can be expanded upon with new units and new tile sets.

For nearly two years I was obsessed with this game. My wife and I would play regular weekly games, and I bought nearly every expansion set I could lay my hands on. At last count, I have four core master sets (2 Rise of the Valkyrie, and one each of the Swarm of the Marro and Marvel Heroes sets) and one copy of each of the supplemental tile sets, including the ice, lava, forest and castle kits.

I also have figures. Boy, howdy, do I have figures. Not only do I have dozens of the basic unit expansion packs, but I also have several Hero unit sets, and I’m pretty sure I have every extra large unit they made for the game before WOTC bought the rights to it.

Recently, WOTC released a special Dungeons and Dragons themed master set. I am having a very difficult time resisting it.

This is typical of the Collector Geek, which I daresay is most geeks. Every geek collects something, be it books, movies, toys, or even just trivia knowledge. I’m sure those who are outside this particular Venn diagram would suggest some Freudian motive pertaining to the lack of lovin’ that geeks are assumed to get. The problem with this straw man is the fact that I continued to be a collector after meeting my wife, and was in fact enabled by her on the Heroscape obsession.

She understands the drive, because she’s something of the collector too. Her latest obsession is Pokemon cards. On Christmas eve we had one Pokemon card. It came in a happy meal. Today we have seven or eight decks of them. We’ve split them up according to which powers we like, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to consistently kick my butt because I opted for electric and fire Pokemon, while she went for plant and water Pokemon. (At the time we were divvying up the cards, neither of us was aware of the dominating nature of trees in the Pokemon universe. She just thought Turtwig was cute.)

The funny thing is that we haven’t played Pokemon but one time since getting the new cards. The only game we have played was with the training deck that I bought my wife for Christmas. Likewise, we haven’t played Heroscape since my daughter was born, but we have continued to accumulate units and terrain for it.

I think with these sorts of games, the game itself is almost secondary. The real appeal is the meta-game. Finding that level 2 pokemon so you have a bridge between a level 1 and a level 3 that are already in your deck but useless. Finding that discontinued expansion set of Heroscape dudes featuring colonial minutemen and werewolves. These are things that drive the collector. It’s not the having, or the using, it’s the acquisition. Marketers know this, and that’s why the collectible card game is so insidious as a product. The comparison with crack has been made and worn out, but it is apt.

I’m not sure why this is, exactly. I could say that it represented a flaw in our psyches that resulted in trying to fill a void in our souls with tiny plastic dudes carrying swords, also known as the “Why Didn’t You Love Me, Daddy?” explanation. Or I could say it was a manifestation of our own fear of growing up into mature adults, so we hide from father time under a mountain of Star Trek action figures. I could even say that we’re victims of a crass and materialistic society, but since we’re geeks and not women we buy fun stuff instead of shoes. (Oooh, I’d be getting some email about that one if I had any readers!)

But I prefer; and remember, I’m speaking for all geeks here; to think of it as a kind of self-improvement regimen. Whatever a person is, they usually want to be better at it. Jocks want to be better jocks, so they work out. Homemakers want to be better homemakers, so they watch Julia Child and Martha Stewart. Pretty people want to be prettier, so they buy makeup and trendy clothing and pay doctors gobs of money to prevent gravity for pulling on their floppy bits.

Well, geeks just want to be better geeks, so we strive to become bigger and better geeks. And what better way to accomplish that than by amassing the biggest collection of fill-in-the-blank ever? Remember, being a geek is all about being passionate about something. The more Star Trek toys, or Pokemon cards, or bootleg episodes of Reboot on DVD you have, the more evidence of your passion you have, and the bigger geek you are.

Even more than the amount of paraphernalia you amass, it’s important to have stories surrounding getting it. This is why midnight releases are so popular with a certain kind of geek. Sure, they could have downloaded it from Steam over night and had it ready to play when they woke up in the morning. But where’s the drama in that? Where’s the narrative? The camaraderie? Anyone can go order the special edition of Bioshock 2 from Amazon and wait for the backorder to be filled. But a true fan will camp out overnight at Best Buy (because pre-orders are fo suckas) and fight some dork in a Big Daddy costume to get the last copy with the useless vinyl LP of the soundtrack and the rolled up posters that they try to pass off as art by calling them lithographs. (Side note: Lithography is a technical term describing a method of applying ink to paper commonly used in the poster industry. Like Giclee—which is a French word that means “inkjet printer”-- Lithograph is a word used by good marketers to convince people that they’re buying something fancier than they are. So the next time someone brags over his special edition lithographs, feel free to marvel over the original artist’s ability to press Control and P simultaneously.)

Because the quality or usefulness of the pack-ins that come with a special edition of a game are immaterial. The point is that you’re a big enough geek to pay twice the cost of the game you want to play just to prove your love of the game to the world.

Granted, this is just one example, and not every geek is into Special Edition games. Though I have yet to meet a geek who didn’t like special editions of DVDs. I, myself, have no fewer than three different versions of Army of Darkness on DVD, and I’ve watched all of them (the theatrical release remains my favorite). And I’ve been coveting the special edition of Serenity since it came out, though I can’t justify buying it now that I have a mortgage and two kids.

Well, I could say more about the topic, but I’ve gone pretty far off the rails and I’m already over 1500 words, and nobody wants to read my blog as it is. Next week, something else.