Our technology is turning us all into objects. And it doesn’t matter how you treat objects, does it?


I have been responsible for more selfies than most people.

I didn’t take them. They’re not of me. But I launched an app which allows users to easily create mirrored images. So the leap from this:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

To this:

Was almost instant.

In the year since our app launched, our users have created over 5 million images. By now you’ve seen this mirrored selfie trend all over Instagram, not to mention throughout the greater popular culture.

To be fair, mirrored selfie-grams are far from the only way people engage with the app. They also use it to create stunningly beautiful, painstakingly crafted, kaleidoscopic works of abstract art:


But it’s the selfies — mirrored or otherwise — that have been on my mind a lot lately.



Right now, there are 50 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie, and nearly 140 million tagged #me.

“Selfies,” Elizabeth Day reports in the Guardian, “Have become a global phenomenon. Images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the introduction of smartphones – most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera – that made the selfie go viral.”

A recent survey of more than 800 American teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91% posted photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006.

But the selfie isn’t just a self-portrait, it is a self-object.

“Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption,” Day writes. “Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose.”

“The selfie is about continuously rewriting yourself,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.”

But what is it we are constructing our selves into?



Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: unless you are a teenager right now, you do not understand what it means to grow up in a world where porn and Facebook are equidistant — in case you don’t know, that proximity is one click away, and apart. If you’re curious to understand what, in fact, this experience is like — in teenagers’ own words — you should read Nancy Jo Sales’ recent Vanity Fair article, “Friends Without Benefits.” But not until after you’ve finished reading this one because I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit.

If you are, at this moment, older than at least your mid-20s, whatever it is that you think you can draw on to relate to 2013 from an analog adolescence frame of reference, just put that away, because it is not a parallel to what is happening right now. What is, according to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, is “a massive social experiment.” Here are some results from that experiment so far:

According to a 2008 CyberPsychology & Behavior study:

  • 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn
  • 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
  • 18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence

But that was five iPhone versions ago at this point, so, you do the math.

“In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us,” writes Peggy Drexler on TheDailyBeast, but that we are in it, and that it is pervasive, is undeniable.

“What does this do to teenagers,” Sales asks in Vanity Fair. “And to children? How does it affect boys’ attitudes toward girls? How does it affect girls’ self-esteem and feeling of well-being? And how is this affecting the way that children and teenagers are communicating on these new technologies?”

In the the Guardian, Day describes one typical answer to that last question: “The pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity — a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise).”

“Because of porn culture,” says Dines, “Women have internalised that image of themselves. They self-objectify.”

“The girls I interviewed,” says Sales, “Even if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s in their faces: their friends posting really provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and Instagram, sending nude pictures on Snapchat. Why are they doing this? Is this sexual liberation? Is it good for them? Girls know the issues, and yet some of them still can’t resist objectifying themselves, as they even talk about [themselves]. As the girl I call ‘Greta’ says, ‘more provocative equals more likes.’ To be popular, which is what high school is all about, you have to get ‘likes’ on your social-media pics.”




Harmony Korine’s, Spring Breakers, originally released in March, 2013, “Horrifies and entices in equal measure,” wrote NPR music critic, Ann Powers:

Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers… embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.

“Pretend you’re in a videogame,” says one of the film’s female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That’s what Miley Cyrus does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona. It’s also how the vulnerable models that Robin Thicke ogles [in the music video for his song, Blurred Lines] make it through the gauntlet that the video’s scene creates.

The childlike goofiness Katy Perry expressed with California Gurlz in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash of last year, Call Me Maybehave intensified into something more unsettling. In this strange summer of too much heat, so many precariously excessive songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos.



The summer would get stranger still. Punctuated in its final days by what may just be the most controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance of all time, featuring a duet by Cyrus and Thicke.

I would write about it:


From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The  Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that.

What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture.


A burner had been left blindly on. Something invisible and pervasive had accumulated. Watching the VMAs, a giant fireball exploded in our faces.

We were unprepared.

This, ultimately, would be why everyone freaked out. Cyrus became a highly visible target for embodying this shift on a mainstream stage, and exploiting it to increase her fame and drive her record to #1, but all she was doing was deftly surfing the cultural current.

By the end of August, she was exposing us to the new normal.



“In news that’s not at all surprising, yet another tech event was disrupted by a sexist joke,” Lauren Orsini wrote on ReadWriteWeb, within days of the VMAs:

“Titstare” was the first presentation of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 hackathon. Created by Australians Jethro Batts and David Boulton, the joke app is based on the “science” of how sneaking a peek at cleavage helps men live healthier lives.

The opening salvo cast an ugly shadow over the event, reminding attendees that, just like at PyCon and other technology conferences, “brogrammer” culture is still the norm.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Batts and Boulton presented immediately before Adria Richards, a programmer who rose to the national spotlight after she witnessed sexist jokes at PyCon 2013. Her gall to disapprove of the offensive jokes earned her death threats.


In the wake of the VMA article, I kept tweeting over and over, “Everything is changing….but into whatttttt?” By the early days of Fall, the culture had undeniably shifted. I kept kept seeing an escalating, atavistic gender warfare. Why is this happening, I thought.

Why is this happening?



Why is THIS happening?


Why is THIS happening??


That all happened in one day.

That week I was approached to speak at a women’s startup conference and felt, reflexively, offended. The idea that there should be segregated events seemed insulting and damaging — to everyone. I began to feel self-conscious that I had an app startup with a male business partner. I texted him, “What is happening???” and “Can’t we all just get along?” We laughed, but we began to feel like an anomaly.


Pretend you’re in a videogame.

“When we listeners find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression,” Powers writes, “Echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in Blurred Lines, or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus’s arrestingly sad party anthem, We Can’t Stop, are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it’s just pretend?”

And when the technology that I, you, and everyone we know use on a daily basis gets developed to the sound of this same, blurry, pop culture soundtrack (figuratively or literally), what happens then? How are the creators of objectifying technology supposed to know it isn’t cool — if all of our technology is used for objectification?

In Vanity Fair, Sales talks to Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus co-directors of Sexy Baby, a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. “We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We were skeptical. But it was such a broad concept. We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology. Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star. They’re objectifying themselves. The thinking is: ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”

In October, Sinead O’Connor — whose video for Nothing Compares 2 U inspired Cyrus’s look in her video for Wrecking Ball — wrote an “open letter” to Cyrus, beautifully capturing, “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” the generational disconnect at the heart of the cultural shift. “The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley. Don’t let the music business make a prostitute out of you,” O’Connor wrote, not getting it.

The familiar, analog, 20th century relationship in between objectification and commercialization has eroded. In its place, a new, post-Empire dynamic has arrived, built on a natively digital experience that O’Connor and an entire population still able to remember and relate to a world before the internet and mobile technology, can’t wrap their heads around.

“The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before,” Powers writes.

In the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. We are all objects. We are all products. We are all selfies.

And we can’t stop.

“Social media is destroying our lives,” Sales quotes a girl in Vanity Fair.

“So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asks.

“Because then we would have no life.”

The ubiquitousness of digital cameras and social media platforms to share their instant output has not only turned  the idea that objectification is violation into an anachronism, but self-objectification is now, as Powers, writes “part of today’s ritual of romance.”  Nearly one in three teenagers is sending nude photos, after all.

Like the girls in Sales’ article, who tell her that “presenting themselves in this way is making them anxious and depressed,” but continue to do it anyway, we do not self-objectify because we’re in control. We self-objectify because it is the norm.

We self-objectify to rationalize, to placebo-ize that we had control in the first place.


We Can’t Stop.

“Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” says, Donna Freitas, a former professor at Hofstra and Boston Universities, who studies hook-up culture on college campuses in her new book, The End of Sex  (which Sales suggests, “might as well be called The End of Love.”)

Sales writes:

Much has been written about hook-up culture lately, notably Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and a July New York Times article, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” both of which attributed the trend to feminism and ambitious young women’s desire not to be tied down by relationships.

But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story.

She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Mad Men sex, boring and ambivalent. Sex is something you’re not to care about. They drink to drown out what is really going on with them. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture.”

College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.

And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.”


Or as ThoughtCatalog writer, Ryan O’Connell, (oh, hey, sup, a dude), put it, “This is how we have sex now:”

Porn has killed our imaginations. We sit and try to fantasize. We shut our eyes tight and think, ‘Wait, what did I used to masturbate about before porn? What image is going to turn me on right now?” But your brain gets tired and your genitalia isn’t used to working this hard so you open your reliable go-to porno and get off in two minutes. Later, you have trouble maintaing an erection during actual sex because your partner doesn’t look like a blow up doll from the Valley.

Our sex lives are having less and less to do with actual sex. Intimacy has morphed into something entirely more narcissistic. What used to be about making each other feel good and connecting is now about validation.

When sex does happen, when we finally make it through the endless hoops of text messaging, planning a date and actually sticking to it and you discover that you like this person (or could like them for an evening), it feels like an old faded photograph that’s been sitting in a shoebox at the bottom of your closet. “This orgasm feels like a vintage ball gown! Is this how people used to do it in the olden days?!” It’s terrifying!

In 2013, our phones are getting to have all the fun. They’re getting laid constantly while we lay naked in the dark, rubbing our skin, trying pathetically to get turned on by the feel of our own touch. We scroll through our camera and see a buffet of anonymous naked photos we’ve collected over the last few months for us to jack off to. Somehow, this has become enough for us. Getting off has become like fast food. It’s accessible, cheap, and most likely going to make us feel like shit after.

We are actively participating in the things that keep us from what we want. Feel good now, feel bad forever later. Stomachache stomachache, junk food junk food.


In a pervasively mediated culture, where porn primes our perception of ourselves and others, and our technology reduces us to selfies, objectification is inevitable.

And the trouble is — it doesn’t matter how you treat objects…. It’s not like they’re people.

What people want today is “to hurt one another” and “get back at the people that hurt them,” Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, told Rolling Stone last October.

In a September article on The Verge titled, The End of KindnessGreg Sandoval writes:

And Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize.

While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. The US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60% of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5% were female, 22.5% were male and 5% unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.

Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women. At Myex.com over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, “Manipulative Bitch,” “Cheater,” “Has genital warts,” “Drunk,” “Meth User,” “This girl slept with so many other guys,” and “Filthy Pig.”

The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including Myex.com. While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.

If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name).

In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled “Rape Me and My Daughters” and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, “Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women.” Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.



While people, trapped as we are by our digital avatars, are increasingly being reduced to objects, our technology seems to be benefitting from a transference of humanity.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, due out in December, is being called “science fiction,” but the “future” depicted in the trailer looks essentially indistinguishable from the reality we all find ourselves in today. In it, a melancholy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a Turing test-approved virtual assistant program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, fall in love.

“Unlike the science fiction of yesteryear,” writes David Plumb on Salon.com, “Her is not about the evolving relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Instead, Samantha appears to be essentially a human being trapped in a computer. Her thus appears to be about programming the perfect woman who fits in your pocket, manages your life, doesn’t have a body (and thus free will), and has an off switch.”


Pretend you’re in a videogame.



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The Last Exit To The Millennium

“Those of us who watched Kids as adolescents,” writes Caroline Rothstein, in her Narrative.ly piece Legends Never Die, “Growing up in an era before iPhones, Facebook, and Tiger Moms, had our minds blown from wherever we were watching–whether it was the Angelika Film Center on the Lower East Side or our parents’ Midwestern basements. We were captivated by the entirely unsupervised teens smoking blunts, drinking forties, hooking up, running amok and reckless through the New York City streets…. Two decades after [the] film turned Washington Square skaters into international celebrities, the kids from ‘Kids’ struggle with lost lives, distant friendships, and the fine art of growing up.”

If you came up in the 90’s, you remember Kids. But I’d hardly given it a backward glance in ages. Had it really been two decades? It seemed somehow inconceivable. The cast, none of them professional actors, all plucked from the very streets they skated on, had become fixed in my mind as eternal teenagers, immortalizing a hyperbolized — and yet, not entirely foreign — experience. Kids was grotesque and dirty and self-indulgent and unignorable, and so was high school. Which is where I, and my friends, were at the time. The movie had become internalized. I had entirely forgotten that this was where Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson had come from. Like a rite of passage, it seemed to carry a kind of continuity, like it was something everyone goes through. It seemed disconnected from any kind of evolving timeline.

And yet time had passed. Revisiting the lives of the cast 20 years later, Rothstein writes, “Justin Pierce, who played Casper, took his life in July 2000, the first of several tragedies for the kids. Harold, who played himself in the film and is best remembered for swinging his dick around in the pool scene—he was that kid who wasn’t afraid, who radiated a magnetic and infectious energy both on and off screen—is gone too. He died in February 2006 from a drug-induced heart attack.” Sevigny and Dawson have become successful actors. Others tied to the crew have gone on to lead the skate brand Zoo York, and start a foundation that aims to “use skateboarding as a vehicle to provide inner-city youth with valuable life experiences that nurture individual creativity, resourcefulness and the development of life skills.” But the most striking story for me, however, was of what happened over the past 20 years to the movie’s most profoundly central character:

“I think that Kids is probably the last time you see New York City for what it was on film,” [says, Jon “Jonny Boy” Abrahams.] “That is to me a seminal moment in New York history because right after that came the complete gentrification of Manhattan.”

Kids immortalizes a moment in New York City when worlds collided–“the end of lawless New York,” Eli [Morgan, co-founder of Zoo York] says–before skateboarding was hip, before Giuliani cleaned up, suited up, and wealthy-ed up Manhattan.

“I don’t think anyone else could have ever made that movie,” says Leo [Fitzpatrick, who played the main character, Telly]. “If you made that movie a year before or after it was made, it wouldn’t be the same movie.”

Kids‘ low-budget grit and amateur acting gave it a strange ambivalence. It was neither fully fictional nor fully real. It blurred the line between the two in a way that it itself did not quite fully understand — it was the very, very beginning of “post-Empire,” when such ambiguities would become common — and neither did we. Detached from  the confines of the real and the fictional, it had a sense of also being out of time. But it turns out it was in fact the opposite. Kids was a time capsule. As Jessica [Forsyth] says in the article: “It’s almost like Kids was the dying breath of the old New York.”

It’s a strange thing. One day you wake up and discover that culture has become history. In the end it wasn’t a dramatic disaster or radical new technology that changed the narrative in an instant. It was a transition that happened gradually. The place stands still, and time revolves around it; changes it the way wind changes the topography of dunes.

Just a few days after Rothstein’s piece, I read these truly chilling words in The New York Times:

“The mean streets of the borough that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. crowed about are now hipster havens, where cupcakes and organic kale rule.”

For current real estate purposes, the block where the Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, once sold crack is now well within the boundaries of swiftly gentrifying Clinton Hill, though it was at the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant when he was growing up. Biggie, who was killed under still-mysterious circumstances in 1997, was just one of the many rappers to emerge from Brooklyn’s streets in the ’80s and ’90s. Including successful hardcore rappers, alternative hip-hop M.C.s, respected but obscure underground groups and some — like KRS-One and Gang Starr — who were arguably all of the above, the then-mean streets gave birth to an explosion of hip hop. Among the artists who lived in or hung out in this now gentrified corner of the borough: Not only Jay-Z, but also the Beastie Boys, Foxy Brown, Talib Kweli, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def and L’il Kim.

For many, the word “Brooklyn” now evokes artisanal cheese rather than rap artists. The disconnect between brownstone Brooklyn’s past and present is jarring in the places where rappers grew up and boasted about surviving shootouts, but where cupcakes now reign. If you look hard enough, the rougher past might still be visible under the more recently applied gloss. And if you want to buy a piece of the action, Biggie’s childhood apartment, a three-bedroom walk-up, was recently listed by a division of Sotheby’s International Realty. Asking price: $725,000.

When we imagine the world of the future, it is invariably a world of science fiction. It’s always, “Here’s what Los Angeles might look like in seven years: swamped by a four-foot rise in sea level, California’s megalopolis of the future will be crisscrossed with a thousand miles of rail transportation. Abandoned freeways will function as waterslides while train passengers watch movies whiz by in a succession of horizontally synchronized digital screens. Foodies will imbibe 3-D-printed protein sculptures extruded by science-minded chefs.”

It’s always impersonal. The future,  even one just seven years away, seems always inhabited entirely by future-people. It’s not a place where we actually imagine….ourselves. Who will we be when the music that speaks to us now becomes “Classic” (Attention deficit break: “Elders react to Skrillex“); when the movies or TV shows or — lets be real, it’s most likely going to be — web content that captures the spirit of  this moment becomes a time capsule instead of a reflection? When once counter-cultural expressions — like skating, or hip hop — become mainstream? Who will we be when there is no longer a mainstream, or a counter-culture, for that matter? And who will the teenagers of this future be when the culture of their youth ages?

The past isn’t a foreign country. It’s our hometown. It’s the place we left, that has become immortalized in our memory the way it was back then. We return one day to discover new buildings have sprung up in empty lots, new people have moved in and displaced the original residents. Some from the old neighborhood didn’t made it out alive. The past has moved while we weren’t looking. It’s no longer where it was at all.

“In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability,” William Gibson, the once science-fiction writer who popularized the word “cyberspace,” and turned natural realist novelist in the 21st-century, said in a 2007 interview. “Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.”

Yet this week, it seems to me the more mysterious our future, the more the past becomes a moving target.

Then again, perhaps it always was.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

Map of New York City showing the remnants of the 6ft high water line from Hurricane Sandy.
Crom Martial Training, Rockaway Beach. (Source)



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The Search For Stark

First of all, do yourself a favor and watch this 2 minutes and 44 seconds of utter awesomeness above.

Then recall the ending of Iron Man 3. In fact, recall the entire 130 minutes of its insulting, technology guilt-laden self-hatred.

Or better yet, don’t do that.

If you’ve been here since 2010, you know that I have had a special place in my heart for the character I called “The First 21st Century Superhero.” Tony Stark — as  reimagined by Jon Favreau, and reincarnated by Robert Downey Jr. — and I have had an unexpectedly personal relationship these past 3 years. Ever since Favreau retweeted my post and it took on a life of its own and  became the most popular thing I’d ever written. From the intimacy of Tony Stark’s relationship with his gadgets, to his eschew of a secret identity in favor of that uniquely post-digital virtue of radical transparency, to his narcissism, Favreau’s Iron Man reflected a radical departure from the tropes that defined the 20th century superhero.

I could tell you about how Shane Black, who directed this third installment in the Iron Man franchise tried his best to undo all that. How deliberately he went after the things that not only made Tony Stark so brilliantly modern, but also lay at the very heart of his character. I could tell you about the relentless “techno fear” that ran like an electromagnetic current through the entire movie from start — on New Year’s Eve 1999, ground zero of the Y2k paranoia — to finish — with Stark throwing his arc reactor heart into the ocean like the he’s an old lady, letting go of a luminescent, blue burden at the end of fucking Titanic. Or some shit.

I could tell you how this conflicted, 20th century relationship to technology, wielded with all the subtlety of Catholic guilt, bashed all of us over the head like a blunt instrument the first time we saw Pepper and Tony on screen together — but wait! That’s not actually Tony. It’s a Siri-powered autonomous-driving Iron Man suit, and it’s just asked Pepper to, quote, “Kiss me on my mouth slit.”

(I seriously feel like I need to go wash my hands with soap now after typing those words.)

And yet, under Favreau’s direction, Pepper kissing Tony’s helmet in Iron Man 2 was most likely one of the sexiest moments Gwyneth Paltrow has ever had on film:




I could tell you how Black drove Tony Stark into hiding (while Favreau celebrated his coming out) and stripped him of his suit and access to his technology, making him fight his battles in the flesh for most of the film. We’re to believe Stark built a more advanced suit while a POW in a cave in fucking Afghanistan than he could on his credit limit in Tennessee??




I could tell you how the thing I was thinking about the most as I walked out of the theater — even more than that Black got thisclose to turning Pepper into a legitimate superhero in her own right, which would have been practically the only 21st-century compliant move he’d have made in the whole movie, but then, of course Tony had to “fix” her back to normal — was:


Do you remember the love that the first Iron Man movie, and the Tony Stark in it, had for his first suit? The one he made in captivity. The painstaking, terrifying labor that birthed this child of necessity? The metal manifestation of the power of ingenuity and creativity and talent that won him his freedom? Remember his second suit? The one he built once he got back home. The hotter, cooler, younger sibling of the scrap heap he’d left in the desert. The first real Iron Man suit. How much fun he had making it, tweaking it, perfecting it, and how much fun we had going along on the joyride? Tony Stark fought a custody battle against the American government for the suit in Iron Man 2. He said no one else could have it. He said the suit he created was a part of him, that he and it were one. And we all intimately understood exactly what he meant. Because  even if the rest of us don’t actually literally plug our gadgets into our chest cavities, 80% of us go t0 sleep with our phone by our bedside.

I could tell you how Shane Black changed all that for Tony, replaced his passion for innovation with a 20th century irreconcilability. His suits, once so precious the greatest military superpower in the world couldn’t force him to part with just one, have been rendered as meaningless as disposable cups. For Black’s Iron Man, technology still has friction. He can “disconnect,” can “unplug.” This feels like a “real” thing to do. As if there is still a world that isn’t part of the digital world. It’s not just an anachronistic, Gen X misunderstanding of the Millennial reality, it kills what makes Tony Stark, Tony Stark.

“We create our own demons” are the first words we hear as the movie begins. Stark is speaking in voiceover, and this becomes his ongoing refrain throughout the movie. We create our own demons. We create our own demons. By the end, when Stark destroys all of his dozens of indistinguishable suits — because they are “distractions” (the actual word he uses, twice), because we create our own demons and these are his creations, because (and this is the most fucked up part of all) he thinks this is what will make Pepper happy — it is the moment that Black destroys the soul of this character.

proof that tony stark has a heart

Imagine Steve Jobs throwing the iPhone prototype into the ocean and walking away.

Imagine Elon Musk, who Favreau modeled his interpretation of the modern-day tech genius inventor after, driving a fleet of Teslas off a cliff.

I could tell you how Shane Black imagined it.

Speaking to an audience at Standford in the wake of the Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg said, “The framing [of the movie] is that the whole reason for making Facebook is because I wanted to get girls, or wanted to get into clubs…. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”

This is why Tony Stark builds things. Because he likes building things. Technology is not a “distraction” from something realer, it is a part of what IS real.  The digital and the analog worlds aren’t binary. They are inextricably intertwined. Technology is as much a part of us now as it has always been for Tony Stark — corporeally and philosophically. And there is no going back. Texting is not a distraction from the “realness” of the telephone — itself, a completely unnatural, manufactured, awkward medium that we all learned to take communication through for granted. Electricity is not a distraction from the “realness” of candle-light. Driving a car is not a distraction from the “realness” of riding a horse.

Which brings us back to this impeccably clever Audi commercial.

Featuring the two actors who’ve played Spock, himself an embodiment of hybridity, in a battle that starts out via iPad chess, doubles down over the phone, escalates by car, and culminates with the finishing touch of  a Vulcan nerve pinch. It makes the depiction of the permeable membrane between the digital and the analog, of the seamless absorption of a “fictional” personality into the “real” self, and of unapologetic techno-joy look effortlessly cool.

This is the Audi ad Iron Man USED TO BE!

In 2010, I wrote:

The first 21st century superhero is a hedonistic, narcissistic, even nihilistic, adrenaline junkie, billionaire entrepreneur do-gooder. If Peter Parker’s life lesson is that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Tony Stark’s is that with great power comes a shit-ton of fun.

You can’t get any more Gen Y than that.

Three Mays later, Tony Stark has changed. He’s entirely forgotten how to have fun. He doesn’t even get joy out of building things anymore — hell, he was having a better time when he had a terminal illness, back when Favreau was at the helm. Under Black’s direction, Stark doesn’t seem excited about anything. He’s on Xanax for his panic attacks — I’m assuming. Since there isn’t a single thing that fills him with anywhere near the kind of fascination Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto express as they watch  a self-driving Audi pull out of a golf club driveway. As Black sees it, to embrace the technological innovation that is in Tony Stark’s blood — both figuratively and literally — to create something that isn’t a demon, to want to build things because he likes building things, all of that would somehow make Stark less human.

But as the mixed-race Spock always knew — what makes us human can’t be measured in degrees.

Oh well.

thanks for keeping the seat warm gen x we'll take it from here sincerely gen y


After all….. It’s only logical.


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The Next 21st Century Superhero Will Be a Chick

A musician friend of mine was once seeing the best friend of a famous heiress and he told me this story: “I had been dating her for a month and one night she invited me out to go meet her whole crew for the first time. I was SUPER nervous. Meeting the group of friends of someone you’re dating for the first time can be nerve-racking anyway, but especially if they are like…. that. I drove there and I was standing outside like, ‘OK… I need to get my shit straight and go in there and own this place.’ All of a sudden it hit me: ‘Channel your inner Tony Stark!'” It worked, he said, “Game over.”

Hearing this story, I wondered, who was my inner spirit superheroine? What clever badass would I conjure for existential ammo in a situation like this? I started searching my mental pop culture database for an acceptable candidate and this is when I realized I could barely think of a single one. The only two vaguely applicable options coming to mind were both from a decade ago: Buffy foremost, and, more hazily, Trinity. But Buffy’s final episode had aired, and Trinity had devolved from enigma to boring love interest saved by her boyfriend at the end of the Matrix trilogy, both back in 2003. As far as contemporary, mainstream, pop culture was concerned, there was a giant void.

I turned to the Internet for help, and found a list of the 100 Greatest Female Characters, compiled by Total Film. While not exactly rigorous in its methodology (fully 6% of the list’s alleged 100 greatest female characters are not actually human; 3 — Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors, Lady from Lady and the Tramp, and Dory from Finding Nemo — aren’t even humanoid), the audit is, at the very least… directional. Narrowing the list down to just those heroines who’ve graced the big screen within the past 10 years (minus the non-human entries) the chronological order looks like this:

Among these 15 possible spirit superhoreine candidates there are 6 victims of sexual abuse, 3 are dealing with some form of depression, 4 haven’t hit puberty, 2 are addicts — including one vampire — and, most notably, a full third who would sooner slaughter a party than charm it. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis observed this trend last year, writing:

It’s no longer enough to be a mean girl, to destroy the enemy with sneers and gossip: you now have to be a murderous one. That, at any rate, seems to be what movies like Hanna, Sucker Punch, Super, Let Me In, Kick-Ass and those flicks with that inked Swedish psycho-chick seem to be saying. One of the first of these tiny terrors was played by the 12-year-old Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s neo-exploitation flick The Professional (1994). Her character, a cigarette-smoking, wife-beater-wearing Lolita, schooled by a hit man, was a pint-size version of the waif turned assassin in Mr. Besson’s Femme Nikita (1990), which spawned various imitators. Mr. Besson likes little ladies with big weapons. As does Quentin Tarantino and more than a few Japanese directors, including Kinji Fukasaku, whose 2000 freakout, Battle Royale, provided the giggling schoolgirl who fights Uma Thurman’s warrior in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Mr. Tarantino and his celebrated love of the ladies of exploitation has something to do with what’s happening on screens. Yet something else is going on…. The question is why are so many violent girls and women running through movies now.

That question is particularly pointed since this genre is not exactly blockbuster material. Hanna was only slightly profitable. Sucker Punch flopped, as did Haywire and the Besson-produced, Colombiana; both Kick-Ass and Let Me In were “gore-athons that movieplexers don’t want to see,” and, in spite of all its hype, the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a “huge box office disappointment.” And that’s all just in the past two years.

In an April, 2011, New Yorker article titled, “Funny Like A Guy, Anna Faris and Hollywood’s Women Problem,” Tad Friend wrote:

Female-driven comedies such as Juno, Mean Girls, The House Bunny, Julie & Julia, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, and Easy A have all done well at the box office. So why haven’t more of them been made? “Studio executives think these movies’ success is a one-off every time,” Nancy Meyers, who wrote and directed Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, observes. “They’ll say, ‘One of the big reasons that worked was because Jack was in it,’ or ‘We hadn’t had a comedy for older women in forever.”

Amy Pascal, who as Sony’s cochairman put four of the above films into production, points out, “You’re talking about a dozen or so female-driven comedies that got made over a dozen years, a period when hundreds of male-driven comedies got made. And every one of those female-driven comedies was written or directed or produced by a woman. Studio executives believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view. “Let’s be honest,” one top studio executive said. “The decision to make movies is mostly made by men, and if men don’t have to make movies about women, they won’t.”

Except, it seems, if those women happen to be traumatized, ultra-violent vigilantes of some sort. Perhaps these movies keep getting made because their failure is seen as a one-off every time, too.

“Men just don’t understand the nuance of female dynamics,” Friend quotes an anonymous, prominent producer. Although the conversation is about comedy (why men can’t relate to Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones, for example), it could explain why all these vengeful heroines seem to inevitably wind up defective. This violent femmes sub-genre — which expands the traditional Rape/Revenge archetype to also encompass psychologically violated prepubescents — by default demands female protagonists. But since their creators don’t understand how to make them, they stick to what they know. Consider that the title role in Salt was originally named Edwin, and intended for Tom Cruise before she became Evelyn and went to Angelina Jolie. The emotionally stunted, socially inept, tech savant protagonists of David Fincher’s two latest films — male in The Social Network, female in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — are equally as interchangeable. From Hannah to Hit Girl, all the way back to Matilda in The Professional, it’s always been a father, or father figure who’s trained them. A woman, this narrative suggests, would have nothing to offer in raising a powerful daughter. When a film needs a Violent Femme the solution has become to simply write a man, and then cast a girl. (Failing that, just mix up a cocktail of disorders — Asperger’s, attachment disorder, PTSD; a splash of Stockholm Syndrome — where a character needs to be.) No understanding of female dynamics required.

“What if the person you expect to be the predator is not who you expect it to be? What if it’s the other person,” asks producer, David W. Higgins, on the DVD featurette for his 2005 film, Hard Candy, about a 14-year-old girl, played by Ellen Paige, who blithely brutalizes a child molester. Whereas for 20th century heroines like Princess Leia (#5 on Total Film’s 100 Greatest Female Characters), Sarah Connor (#3), or Ellen Ripley (#1 — of course), not to mention their brethren, overcoming trauma is what made them become heroes, for this new crop, trauma is what excuses them from seeming like villains in their own right. We love to see the underdog triumph, but do we really want to watch a victim become the predator, and a predator become the hero? The ongoing failures of films fetishizing this scenario suggest we’re just not that into this cognitive dissonance.

So much for movies no one wants to see, but what about those those every girl has? On the one hand there’s Twilight, whose Bella Swan is a dishrag of a damsel in distress so useless her massive popularity is a disturbing, cultural atavism. On the other, there’s the Harry Potter series, whose Hermione Granger (#7) might be “The Heroine Women Have Been Waiting For,” according to Laura Hibbard in the Huffington Post. “The early books were full of her eagerly answering question after question in class, much to the annoyance of the other characters. In the later books, that unapologetic intelligence very obviously saves Harry Potter’s life on more than one occasion. Essentially, without Hermione, Harry wouldn’t have been ‘the boy who lived.'” Meanwhile, here’s how Total Film describes Leia: “Royalty turned revolutionary, a capital-L Lady with a laser gun in her hand. Cool, even before you know she also has Jedi blood.”

And that is the one, simple, yet infinitely complex element that is consistently missing across the entire spectrum of stiff, 21st century downers: Cool. “Of all the comic books we published at Marvel,” said Stan Lee, the creator of Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and more, “we got more fan mail for Iron Man from women than any other title.” Cool is the platonic ideal Tony Stark represents. It’s what makes him such an effective spirit superhero for the ordeal of party. But while Stark may be special he’s not an anomaly. From James Bond to Tyler Durden, male characters Bogart the cool. And it’s not because they’re somehow uniquely suited for it (see: the femme fatale). It’s because their contemporary female counterparts are consistently forced to be lame.

“You have to defeat her at the beginning,” Tad Friend quotes a successful female screenwriter describing her technique. “It’s a conscious thing I do — abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It’s as simple as making the girl cry fifteen minutes into the movie.” That could just as easily describe Bridesmaids as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Which is totally fucked, first of all. And secondly, it’s boring. You’d think there’d be more narrative to go around — though I suppose I did just see the once female-driven Carrie, and The Craft remade as an all-male superhero origin flick called, Chronicle. Perhaps we really have reached Peak Plot. In which case now would really be the time to be R&Ding some alternatives.

“I love to take reality and change one little aspect of it, and see how reality then shifts.” said director, Jon Favreau. “That was what was fun about Iron Man, you [change] one little thing, and how does that affect the real world?” Favreau’s experiment has yielded a superhero archetype that reflects a slew of Millennial mores, from the intimacy of his relationship with his gadgets, to his eschew of a secret identity in favor of that uniquely post-digital virtue of radical transparency, to his narcissism. “If Peter Parker’s life lesson is that ‘with great power comes great responsibility,'” I wrote in a post titled, Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero, “Tony Stark’s is that with great power comes a shit-ton of fun. Unlike the prior century’s superhero, this new version saves the world not out of any overwhelming sense of obligation or indentured servitude to duty, but because he can do what he wants, when he wants, because he wants to. Being Iron Man isn’t a burden, it’s an epic thrill-ride.” Breaking with the established conventions of the genre to create a uniquely modern superhero has made Iron Man a success, to the tune of a billion dollar box office between the two movies, and launched Marvel Studios and ensuing Avengers’ franchises in its wake. But there’s one 21st century shift Tony Stark will never be able to embody. And it’s kind of a big one.

From The Atlantic Magazine:

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed.

In the wreckage of the Great Recession, three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood.

To see the future—of the workforce, the economy, and the culture—you need to spend some time at America’s colleges and professional schools, where a quiet revolution is under way. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.

American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.

Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.

That view makes even comedian (and father of two daughters) Louis C.K.’s pronouncement in a recent Fast Company article that “The next Steve Jobs will  be a chick” not unimaginable. And when she is, who will be her inner superheroine? Any of the girls brandishing medieval weaponry headed, like crusaders, for movie theaters this year?

Considering the cruel, dystopian premise of The Hunger Games, Katniss will likely get to have as fun as an overachiever prepping for the SATs. And while Kristen Stewart as persecuted maiden turned, apparently, warrior in Snow White and the Huntsman (whose producer previously suited up Alice for battle in Wonderland) couldn’t possibly be more joyless and blank than as Bella (….right??), my money’s on Brave‘s Merida to win in the the flat out cool department, here:

Either way, while Tony Stark is an archetype boys grow into, the above are all manifestations of one girls grow out of, and when they do, they will expect their own spirit superheroine to aspire to. Someone who doesn’t have to be brutalized to be a badass, or a predator to be a hero. Someone clever and charming and cool as fuck, whom you’d just as soon want to party with as have saving the world; who’s faced the dark forces that don’t understand her and threaten to break her and strip her of her dignity, and, like the century of superheroes before her, has overcome. The next 21st century superhero will be a chick. The girls coming for the 21st century won’t be satisfied with anything less.


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(The Craft + Carrie) * ♂ = Chronicle

I’ll start by stating for the record that I LOVED Josh Trank’s Chronicle. I’d been excited to see it ever since I first saw the the trailer, below, which is basically structured unlike any other I’d ever seen. And the movie was, indeed, awesome. I wholly agree with assessments like Entertainment Weekly’s that “the movie makes special effects special again,” and that the film’s inventive use of the “found-footage” cinematic convention “allows Trank to stage scenes that aren’t powered by a dramatic arc, scenes that consist almost entirely of the characters just hanging out, making up what they’re doing as they go along” — which, I’ve always contended is the best part of superhero movies, anyway (Wolverine just having a beer at X-Mansion, Iron Man getting trashed at his birthday party, etc.)

“It’s not until late in the game that Chronicle reveals it has tricked us into watching a superhero origin story without our quite knowing it,” EW, adds. And it wasn’t until I left the theater, still totally enthralled with the movie, and already wanting a sequel, that I realized…. I’d seen it before, years ago, as two separate films… starring chicks.

Here are some plot points remixed in Chronicle:

1. A group of high school friends are drawn together through shared possession of uncanny powers. Together they grow stronger, until one of them takes it too far, becoming drunk with power — and mental instability — inevitably having to be stopped by the saner of the group. I just summarized 1996’s The Craft:

2. A shy, friendless teenager, abused by an unstable parent, suddenly becomes the most popular kid in school, only to be brought down that same night by a moment of humiliation, unleashing a wave of rage-fueled telekinetic carnage on said parent, bullies, and innocent bystanders alike. Which is, pretty much, the plot of 1976’s Carrie.

According to Trank, despite the fact that two thirds of the movie’s superpowered protagonists don’t survive to the end, “if it feels like the demand is there and the desire to see how this story can continue is there, we definitely have ideas. It can definitely be expanded.” The sequel better have a chick with powers. Considering the plotline’s on loan from some, it’s only fair.


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