Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: September, 2012

Carrie’s Apartment

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In a city of famous buildings, the one I wanted to see didn’t actually exist.

Officially, the address of this New York landmark is 245 East 73rd, but this location is as fictional as 123 Sesame Street. (Ernie and Bert’s building being the other make-believe brownstone I still somewhat believe in.) Even though I know deep down ‘Sex and the City’ was a TV show and Sarah Jessica Parker is an actress (and a savvy one at that, parlaying the fashionable series into a series of perfume and clothing endorsement deals), the apartment of the character of Carrie Bradshaw, where she sat by the window, with her lap top, yearning, will always hold a place in my heart. It is the quintessential New York flat; with piles of books but no kitchen table, it is the writer’s dream abode.

I had been to New York three times already but had never made the effort to find Carrie’s street. Partially, this was because those earlier trips were with my father, who could only, due to the potty mouths of the female characters, appreciate ‘Sex and the City’ from afar. But more likely I was not prepared to give into that level of obsessive nerdiness.

Now, going back to New York at the age of 26, I know myself. I may not own a T-shirt that says “I’m a Carrie” (and not just because HBO doesn’t sell them in men’s sizes!) but I can admit I’m a ‘Sex and the City’ obsessive.

Although five different locations were used for the outside of Carrie’s apartment over the run of the series (and the interior was a soundstage), a general consensus emerged among the experts (fans on the internet) that the main, and most picturesque, location was on a little street in Greenwich Village.

I drew a map in my notebook, along with the location of Magnolia Bakery, the shop which, after being featured on the show, did so much for the sugary cupcake-mania we are still immersed in. I got lost on my way there, and not even on the subway.

While I’m on the topic, the New York subway and I are not friends. I like to think of myself as a metropolitan person, one who has successfully navigated the public transportation systems of London, Paris and Barcelona. But in Manhattan, trapped underground, I had to sit with my subway map open on my lap, like a country rube, double-checking where I was at every, single stop. Like I said; not friends.

But no, I got lost in the Village, ending up at a weird, triangular intersection which, despite seeming important, I could not locate on my map. After a couple circles, once I was finally back in chartered territory, I treated myself to a diner lunch which was so massive, so New York City big, that I didn’t eat dinner.

When I found the street, it was more lovely than I imagined. With trees on both sides and turn of the century brownstones, their stone steps elegantly spilling out in front of them, I agreed with Carrie’s own observation that it was like walking in the New York of Edith Wharton.

When I arrived at the house, two young women were there already, snapping pictures. Embarrassed to be seen doing the same thing as them, I kept my distance. (Maybe I’m not as comfortable being a nerd as I thought!) After they moved on, I approached the steps where Carrie had emerged so many times to greet Mr. Big waiting in his limo on the street.

A metal chain prevented one from walking up the steps and attached was a sign. Diplomatically, it read: “Dear people taking pictures: please remember this is a private residence. You are welcome, but be respectful. No sitting on the steps or loud noises. Thank you.”

I was suddenly flushed with an emotion close to shame. This was a real home to real people, probably a family, and because it was used as a pretend home for a fictional character, bus loads of people are going to come by and be invasive until the show slips from syndication. The house means much more to the people who now live in it than it does to us ‘Sex and the City’ fans. Carrie’s Apartment, the idea of Carrie’s Apartment, is a place in our minds, not a location on Google maps.

So I took a picture and walked away. 

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Tattoos, Beards and the Importance of Diversity

As every generation comes into its own (and correspondingly, gets old) the decade that they grew up in returns, recycled for its non-ironic nostalgia. The Gen X characters on 1990’s ‘Friends’ cracked jokes about 1970’s ‘Happy Days’ (itself a tribute to the 1950’s).

Around 2000/2001, everyone started wearing shoulder pads and humming ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as though the 1980’s were an epoch recently uncovered from an archeological dig.

Now, my generation is using online social media outlets that didn’t even exist ten years ago to celebrate the 1990’s, from ‘Romy and Michelle’ on Tumblr to ‘Clueless’ on Youtube. The pace of revivals is becoming so fast, I wonder if we’re not far from a future in which a trend can be appreciated as brand new and retro simultaneously.

One thing I remember from the 1990’s and early 2000’s are my notebook doodles: intricate spirals; flamboyant fleur-de-lis; ladies in hats and outlines of five-pointed stars

I began to think I might like a tattoo of a thick outline of a star, in black or blue, on my arm, or maybe my hand. Clean, simple, a bit of a pun (I had already started to think of myself as a reincarnated Old Hollywood starlet in a modern Canadian boy’s body). My mother had half-jokingly informed my brother and I we weren’t allowed to alter our bodies, so I kept my plan in my back pocket.

But then, part way through university, I realized I had stopped doodling stars and that they were no longer a symbol I particularly embraced. I now associated them with emo culture (this was right before the term ‘hipster’ would begin it’s long-lasting but embattled empire). I was definitely not an emo.

Not only did I not get my star tattoo, but I was scared away from the idea of tattoos in general. If my feelings about a symbol could change over time, how would I know that I wouldn’t get sick of a design I happened to like at a specific moment?

Another thing I remember from the 1990’s: everyone cared about body dysmorphia for about five minutes. The cover of ‘Time’ magazine questioned the skinniness of models, the words anorexia and bulimia entered common parlance, and Callista Flockhart, star of the formerly popular show ‘Ally McBeal’, made an effort to be photographed eating.

But then it seemed to go away. The beautiful Kate Winslett was ridiculed for her weight, but before she slimmed down everyone moved on to worrying about kids finding internet porn. At a pretty young age, I learned a valuable lesson: it’s not enough to point out a problem and complain. Society is not going to change itself. You have to roll up your selves and make it happen.

That is one of the reasons I am so proud to work for WORN Fashion Journal, an independent fashion magazine dedicated to promoting different kinds of beauty. (Please watch this video about WORN and our exciting next step.)

The work is by no means done for changing the definitions of female beauty, despite the current issue of ‘Vogue’ congratulating itself on no longer featuring exclusively “waif” models. I find it depressing when I happen upon a Tumblr, often curated by a young woman, who, given the opportunity to select any image from across the internet without interference of editors or advertisers, reuses the same type of pictures that are not only fictive and damaging, but clichéd and dull: skinny blond white girls, looking bored.

But at least we’ve reached the point where even Anna Wintour has to talk about different kinds of female beauty. What I noticed recently, in magazines, on Tumblr, in the general pop media landscape, is the powerful prevalence of certain kinds of male beauty. In particular, photography that has pretensions of being arty and stylish almost always feature skinny guys with wide eyes and sharp features. Shot in black and white, these boys smoke cigarettes and stare off into the middle distance.

In contrast, musclemen with the same six-pack torso we’ve come to expect when a Hollywood actor lifts up his shirt are portrayed in sports illustrations and Romance novel covers as active, assertive and engaged with the camera. This muscleman-twink dichotomy is especially prevalent in the gay world, in which our free glossy weeklies, while ostensibly celebrating diversity, promote guys who look like young Zack Morris or older, shirtless Zack Morris.

And here’s the really sad, creepy thing: most of us can be rational media observers and realize that not everyone looks like Keira Knightley or Chris Evans. But we internalize these beauty standards, and because they have been so normalized, we treat them as normal.

I did not realize how depressed and ashamed of my body I was until I first opened the (sadly now retired) Butt magazine, and saw erotic photographs of gay guys whose bodies were, using the polite term that our culture promotes, as ‘imperfect’ as my own. Other men have love handles! Other men don’t wax their asses! It was like a weight lifted off me. It felt like, “Thank you! I thought I was going crazy!”

Things are getting better. Gay Bear culture celebrates, indeed, fetishes, older, bigger, hairy guys. And I’ve noticed, even on the covers of those superficial queer weeklies, a ‘browning’ of their models who increasingly have Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/Semitic features. And an outlet like Tumblr is great for things like this. If you’re not getting what you’re interested in from the mainstream media, promote it yourself. Like I said before, don’t complain. Replace!

Indeed, on the gayer than gay Tumblrs I follow, I noticed a new kind of archetype of male beauty: dark features; scruffy beard; tattoos; and thick-framed glasses, implying a certain lack of vanity as well as bookishness. There is even a Tumblr specifically called ‘Tats, Beards and Glasses’. The photographs of these men didn’t exaggerate their Aryan perfection, but rather highlighted individual facial features like full lips, freckles, scars and blemishes.

I was drawn to these pictures, although I didn’t immediately understand why. I also, for the first time since I was 21, began to seriously reconsider getting a tattoo, maybe a retro-inspired sailor design, an anchor or a red rose.

Then two realizations collided in my brain with the impact of a car crash. These glasses-wearing, bearded hunks looked like me! And a lot of them have tattoos! A tattoo would help me look even more like the guys that I see celebrated online, the ones who are presented as sexy, cool and desirable.

Strangers online demonstrated that I could be considered attractive in a way supportive friends and lovers never could. This is why we must keep pushing for diversity of all kinds in media. When people see themselves reflected back to them it can leave a mark as permanent as a tattoo.

Maybe mine will have a heart with the message ‘Sorry, Mom! Blame Tumblr.’