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Wednesday 02 March 2005

Pain Was Too Good For Him?

Last night, I was killing some time in Barnes & Noble; specifically, I was browsing through the ever-growing section of the store dedicated to things that are not really what I would call books.

Barnes & Noble now has a substantial section of their floor given over to desk accessories, greeting cards, fancy paper clips, and all kinds of other stuff that’s really better purchased from Levenger. The nucleus of this — and the connection to books in the first place — is the amazing selection of blank books, address books, diary books, and notepads, each of them with very little or no ‘content’ and most of them with ISBNs.

Anyway, among the things that caught my eye were a number of notepads, address books, etc. that are part of the ‘They Hated To Spread Gossip’ line, illustrated with collages by Anne Taintor. I took some pictures there with my cameraphone, but cameraphones being what they are, I looked for, and found, better images of a couple of the collages on the Anne Taintor website. Clicking on these images will pop up bigger versions:


‘Pain was too good for him’ (detail via phonecam)


‘And then I ripped his lungs out’


‘It would, of course, have to look like an accident’: the general theme of women vs. men suggests what she’s thinking of.


‘At last they had found the perfect hiding place’: also potentially innocent unless you look at it in the context of the less-ambiguous messages it was bound with.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the same art was produced, but with the genders reversed: a group of men standing around smiling, with the caption indicating that one of the people in the picture was saying ‘and then I ripped her lungs out’. It would be denounced not just as being in bad taste, but of being grossly offensive, of being a hate crime even.

There are some vaguely similar things, to be sure, with women as the butt of the joke. At the moment, Google lists 5,720 results if you search for reasons why a beer is better than a woman (‘A beer doesn’t get jealous when you grab another beer’ huh-huh-huh-huh-huh). I am sure that, in many truck stops across this land, you can buy ‘clever’ caps with wisdom about the nature of women printed on the front in puffy letters. And Ms. Taintor’s own work also includes a lot of things that reflect badly on women, playing on their alleged sensitivities about their age and on their stereotypical propensity for shopping.

However, I can’t remember the last time I saw something in a middle-class, suburban, cultural-mainstream environment — like Barnes & Noble or the shopping mall — that actually advocated or in any case drew mirth from the idea of violence against women. (See also this.)

But these images are themselves a kind of violence against women. Not only couldn’t you sell ‘smack my bitch up’ postcards at Barnes & Noble, you couldn’t sell a whole class of similar products featuring other Victim Groups instead of women.

‘And then I ripped honkey’s lungs out’, with a picture of smiling black people: you’d have the NAACP on your ass in about five minutes.

‘Pain was too good for the gringo’, with a picture of a smiling Mexican: the National Council of La Raza would organize a boycott.

If you published an image of a Jew with text indicating that he’d like to do some violence to Nazis, the B’nai Brith would make noise about how awful you were.

But ordinary women ripping out lungs, making things look like ‘accidents’, etc.: ha ha ha ha ha. How droll. Presumably Ms. Taintor thinks she’s subverting the image of middle-class femininity, but she’s really just perpetuating the stereotype of woman as vindictive hussy (when she’s not perpetuating the stereotype of woman as shallow consumer or bitter hag).

Posted by tino at 14:14 2.03.05
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...and then i ripped his lungs out.
Excerpt: this postcard is stuck to my (yes, my, we've worked that much out) fridge. it has greeted me every morning for a couple weeks, as i get breakfast for the kids. three comments about it: lupine (person who sent...
Weblog: bengt-erik norum
Tracked: March 15, 2005 02:32 PM

C’mon. You know that white, middle-class, suburban, Republican, Christian men are the only class of people that are allowed to have ‘fun’ made of them. Because we’re the oppressors.

Or maybe because we’re the only ones with a sense of humor, and don’t take ourselves so damn seriously.

I agree that the double-standard is appalling.

Posted by: Twonk at March 2, 2005 04:17 PM

It’s not so much a ‘double standard’ that annoys me, but that these kinds of things perpetuate the whole BS victim-group-identity politics that makes everything so tiresome.

People like the Klan and that ‘God hates fags’ pimple in Kansas obviously do harm to society: but I would say that while there’s less direct danger from these anti-male things — I don’t think too many women are going to kill their husbands because their notepads told them to — I think they’re just as harmful to the social fabric, if not more so.

Posted by: Tino at March 2, 2005 04:35 PM

I’m actually a bit surprised by your stance on this issue. While I can understand taking offense at a perceived double standard between the genders when it comes to advocating violence, I’m surprised that your solution would be remove the offending Anne Taintor materials from Barnes & Noble. Isn’t this a slippery slope? For example, I know B&N sells books that, if not advocating death for lawyers, at the very least, suggesting (in a humorous way, of course) that we don’t deserve to live. I would never think of demanding that they remove lawyer joke books, even though a beneficial by-product would be I would receive less lawyer joke books as gifts. I just think that if every group demands the removal of offensive materials from a store, we’re eventually left with a very whitewashed, very politically correct establishment. We’re almost there already – is possible to look at the Anne Taintor materials and lawyer joke books as the last vestiges of subversiveness? Or, is the idea to give the left a taste of its own medicine – if it is going to demand society tip-toe around its taboos, then it should follow-through with it for all “victim groups”? I just think there is always a better solution than complete censorship (maybe a dark and creepy adults-only room with coffee mugs that humorously advocate violence toward everybody, as well as mugs shaped like boobs, like they had at Spencers?).

Posted by: Shaye at March 3, 2005 12:28 PM

My solution isn’t to ‘remove’ offending items from Barnes & Noble; I though I’d made that clear, but I cut a few paragraphs for length and rambling, and that clarity may have been a casualty of bad editing.

In Tinotopia (meaning the theoretical Tino Paradise, as opposed to the website), there would be no demand for these things and B&N wouldn’t stock them because there’d be no money in it. As long as there’s demand for these things, I have no problem at all with Ms. Taintor making them and with B&N stocking and selling them. What puzzles and annoys me is that there is demand for them.

The difference between the boob mugs at Spencers — and for that matter just about all of the merchandise at Spencers — and this stuff is that this stuff is not sold next to the fake dog business and the surprisingly large assortment of devices that can be used to produce farting noises, but next to actual books.

I have written about such products before, and I think I understand the appeal of these things: the people who buy them are idiots. There’s room on the fringe of anyone’s intellect for fart jokes, professional wrestling, Blue Collar TV, etc., etc.; but these are idiotic entertainments, and any adult who gets much of their amusement from these things is an idiot.

Our culture recognizes that these people are idiots. Even in the midst of subcultures that appreciate fart jokes more than I would think is tasteful, these people are seen as idiots: it’s just that they revel in their idiocy and don’t see this as a problem. I don’t see it as a problem, either: if farting toys, boob mugs, saucy T-shirts, etc. make these people happy, more power to them.

The Taintor collage items I wrote about, though, aren’t (presumably) targeted at what I’d normally think of as redneck idiots; they’re being sold in bookstores in middle-class neighborhoods (if one can call Tyson’s Corner a neighborhood) to people with enough disposable income to spend $7.95 on a small notepad.

They are sold, that is, to people living in the midst of a culture that preaches, often and loudly, respect for all things and people.

Or so it would seem. It occurs to me that there are two possible explanations for this:

First, the one you suggested: that this is one of a very few outlets for subversiveness that are left in our culture. There’s a lot going for this one; certainly there are a number of comedians whose entire schtick consists of making fun of white people and men.

Second, it’s possible that I’m wrong about where the ‘idiot line’ is. By ‘idiot’ I really mean ‘uneducated hick’, the kind of person who feels that the ball caps on sale at Spencers express Deep Truths about the world as it is. I assume that these people are largely what would be called in St. Louis ‘hoosiers’ — that’s really a concept that needs to be in use nationally, as ‘redneck’ doesn’t mean precisely the same thing — but I may be wrong. I may be giving Tyson’s Corner and Barnes & Noble more socio-economic credit than they really deserve.

And of course the truth may involve a combination of the two, or it may be something else all together.

Most of my distress at these products has to do with what they say about our culture, that it’s one where good taste seems to have completely disappeared: but you suggest a political angle, and I think that’s interesting too.

(An aside: Maybe I’m overly sensitive to such things because I don’t identify myself as ‘left’ or ‘right’. I describe my politics as ‘knee-jerk libertarian’ with a healthy dose of purely pragmatic social conservatism. Human society is a vast, complex, and interconnected system, and our cultural taboos and mores all developed for a reason. Undoubtedly a lot of these taboos are now obsolete, just as are ordinances forbidding the driving of mules down Main Street on Sunday. Identifying which cultural laws are obsolete, though, is tricky because it’s difficult if not impossible to understand the whole system. Thus the pragmatic conservatism. Throwing off ages-old cultural taboos should be done with care.)

I wouldn’t call this kind of thing ‘hypocrisy’, as hypocrisy seems like an accusation particularly suited to the schoolyard. Just because someone is inconsistent doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. I won’t tend to have a lot of respect for someone who’s habitually hypocritical, but I don’t think it’s fair to require 100% consistency of anyone who’s not a professional philosopher. Some people are consistent, just with rules that they can’t properly articulate. Others just think that one set of restrictions should apply to you, and another to them. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s favoritism.

Anyway, the political angle here would seem to be that the Left — I assume that Ms. Taintor is at least mildly on the left side of the political spectrum, based on her Radcliffe degree in Visual and Environmental Studies, the amount of stuff on her website about hers being a ‘woman-owned’ company, and some of the items on her links page — preaches diversity and tolerance for all, but then shows incredible intolerance toward some.

This is hypocritical, to be sure, but that’s not the problem. The civil-rights movement has had good and bad results. The bad includes things like the fact that we can’t really talk about the causes of poverty any more, because suggesting that bad lifestyle choices have anything to do with it would be ‘racist’. At the same time, though, we have moved much further toward a society where someone’s abilities and characteristics don’t have anything to do with their skin color or sex. Plenty of people don’t like Condoleezza Rice, but nobody really says that the problem with her is that she’s black, or a woman, or gay (though see this).

But, for a lot of people, it’s not the case that a person’s characteristics don’t have anything to do with ‘race’ or sex; some of these people believe that women and blacks are inferior to men and whites, and the mainstream culture utterly rejects their arguments. If you make the argument that men or whites are sexist or racist (or greedy, or stupid, or anything else negative), though, that’s perfectly okay. We clearly see that the one argument is dangerous to our social fabric, but we silently accept the other one.

The majority, and men, face fewer actual physical risks from minorities and women than the other way around: it’s unlikely that women are going to start stalking and raping men in parking garages, for instance, and it’s unlikely that a white man assaulted by a black man will find that the police don’t care (though I wouldn’t really care to test this in DC, where the police don’t seem to care about much of anything). We should not take this to mean that our society isn’t harmed by racism and sexism when those things are aimed other than their usual targets.

Posted by: Tino at March 3, 2005 03:18 PM

I think you are kidding yourself by saying you’re not upset at the double standard and are really concerned about the effect of collages on society. Otherwise, I have difficulty understanding how your position is not a form of cultural cleansing (and maybe, as an admitted social conservative, it is). I can’t help viewing those that complain, for instance, about misogyny on the left or Darwinism on the right, as being a bunch of whiners wanting to set artificial controls on society. Isn’t it better to let the marketplace decide whether Anne Traintor can make a go at her collages (rather than at, hell, I don’t know what you do with a degree is visual and environmental studies-I’m personally happy she’s not making signs for the Sierra Club - the less professional enviros the better) than some sort of arbiter of right and wrong? I also guess my problem is that I don’t know if anything she is doing is dangerous to society. Her products just seem like an old, overly educated woman’s attempt to be relevant.

Posted by: Shaye at March 4, 2005 03:11 PM

The double-standard aspect does bother me, in that we have a culture where it’s considered to be in very bad taste — when it’s not terrible offensive or actually criminal — to even acknowledge people’s membership in any group that’s unified by ‘immutable characteristics’ unless, of course, you are acknowledging membership in that group in order to ‘celebrate & discover’ it.

You can take the piss out of people for being white or male, though, all you like; even if you yourself are white and male. This is a large part of Michael Moore’s schtick, and it seems to resonate with a lot of people. Men are pigs. Never trust whitey.

You might see unkind things said about women and, say, blacks here and there, but negative things about those groups are lowbrow. Cracks about ‘white males’ are considered sophisticated, an indication that, as the Nation of Islam puts it, the speaker ‘knows what time it is’.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is really anything like the anti-minority, anti-female bias that our culture used to have; but as the culture works hard at rooting out any tiny hint of bias against women, ethnic minorities, and most other identifiable groups, this relatively minor BS becomes more significant by contrast.

I suppose what I want is ‘cultural cleansing’, though not by edict. I wish that this kind of garbage was considered as lowbrow as the vulgar mudflaps favored by so many of our nation’s truckers. Nobody proposes banning sexist mudflaps; we just all know that people with sexist mudflaps are (almost certainly) jackasses.

In any case, I do want the marketplace and not, say, the U.S. Department of Tino to decide whether this stuff is acceptable. I’m just disappointed and a bit puzzled that the market has apparently decided, at least for the time being, that this stuff isn’t awful. Quite a bit of this website is dedicated to chronicling people’s ‘idiocy’, so I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised.

Posted by: Tino at March 5, 2005 11:40 AM

I love the sarcasm, in a world full of murderers, haters and people with Florida plates who drive in front of me going 35 in a 45, I need the laugh.

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 09:31 PM