Magical Thinking

A year or two back I came across Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and was blown away by the theory underlying it.  I have to admit that I haven’t read much more of it yet than the first couple of chapters, but the rest, from what I can tell, is details about particular beliefs.  What fascinated me most was Frazer’s division of beliefs into four categories, based on what is being related to and how.  He makes a distinction between science and magic, as follows: “The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence.”  Science and magic are both rule-governed, but magic misunderstands the rules.  Religion, by contrast, is personal:

But if religion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour, it clearly assumes that the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable, and that we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control it to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they would otherwise flow. Now this implied elasticity or variability of nature is directly opposed to the principles of magic as well as of science, both of which assume that the processes of nature are rigid and invariable in their operation, and that they can as little be turned from their course by persuasion and entreaty as by threats and intimidation. The distinction between the two conflicting views of the universe turns on their answer to the crucial question, Are the forces which govern the world conscious and personal, or unconscious and impersonal?

Things (rule-governed) People (relationships, prayer)
Empirical Science Society
Faith-based Magic Religion

Frazer does not really discuss the fourth quadrant of the chart, dealing with non-supernatural beings on a personal level, but it’s not very relevant to the main point, which is situating magic with respect to science and religion.

Glamor, Horror and the Trans Fatale

A couple of years ago I recommended to you Virginia Postrel for her insightful discussions of glamour, and argued that they’re relevant to transgenderism and transvestism.  Now Postrel has started a new blog focusing on glamour, as part of a new book she’s writing on the subject.  This is definitely good stuff.

Growing out of a discussion of whether a McCain presidential campaign ad aims to present Obama as the Antichrist, Postrel has a great post about the relationship between glamour and horror.  She writes:

While horror comes in different forms, some decidedly unglamorous (e.g., Alien, Saw), a lot of horror, including vampire tales, depends on glamour: What starts out as beautiful and alluring is revealed to be terrible and life-destroying–and by then it’s too late. Witness not only the vampire but the femme fatale, especially in her 19th-century form. Glamour promises escape and transformation; horror replaces escape with entrapment.

(With regard to gross-out “horror” movies like Saw and Friday the 13th, I’d say that they’re more appropriately called “terror movies.”  Sadly, that term has now been appropriated by the terrorism frame, but before that there were some insightful discussions of the contrast between terror and horror.)

This explanation of horror helps me to understand some of the various “trans fatale” movies (Dressed to Kill, Homicidal, M Butterfly): if the idea of the femme fatale plays off of men’s fears of unexpectedly strong women, then the trans fatale has the glamour of being beautiful and alluring, but are even more threatening because they can be imagined to possess the physical strength and aggression (and ability to rape) of men.

Going further, it seems connected to the “trans panic” that some men have claimed: they believed they were kissing a vulnerable woman, and on discovering that the person was male they were overwhelmed with the fear that they had been seduced and would be raped or killed.  This is often, horribly, used to justify beating and even killing the trans person.  Of course, a male who is small or slim enough to pass as a vulnerable woman usually has no more strength than a woman that size, and any trans woman on hormones probably doesn’t have much ability or desire to penetrate a man, but reality plays very little role in any of this.

Deconstructing glamour with reality is actually an effective comedy technique, and this can explain why so many people find cross-dressing funny.  Since men have many of the traits that are considered unattractive in women (hairy, sweaty, big bellies), but more commonly and to a greater degree, a cross-dressed man can produce just enough cues to project the image of a glamorous woman (long wig, long legs, short skirt) before shattering that image with a hairy belly.  The humor is a bit broad for my taste, but it clearly works for many people, as shown by the enduring popularity of Benny Hill and Martin Lawrence.

Don’t you bring me down today

This recent article from Virginia Postrel helped me put my finger on what bothered me about Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful.” Or rather, the biggest thing that bothered me; Aguilera’s show-offy vocal stylings grated on me from the beginning, but it was really the lyrics that annoyed me. I just found out, from the Wikipedia article, that the music and lyrics were written by 1 of the former 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry.

I’ve only just watched the video that I linked, since I figured I should watch something before I show it to you. Up to now, my exposure to the song has been involuntary; it’s been forced into my brain by our local Clear Channel pod. Aguilera does get props for including a drag queen in her video, but that idea isn’t new; in the liner notes for a Go-Go’s compilation I have, one of the members writes about how their (much more insightful) song “Beautiful” was inspired by a scene from a John Waters movie featuring Divine.

So what really rubs me the wrong way about this song is the assertion that “I/We/You are beautiful, in every single way.” In other words, everyone is beautiful. I’d kinda agree that everyone has something beautiful about them, but is everyone beautiful in every single way? Well, no. Adjectives serve to distinguish people, and when there is no distinction, the adjective becomes meaningless. If everyone were really beautiful in every single way, then no one would be beautiful, and beauty would cease to exist. But beauty clearly does exist in people’s minds, and very few people really think that everyone is beautiful in every single way.

Continue reading “Don’t you bring me down today”

NY Times: P&G will open “Charmin” holiday bathrooms in Times Square

Curbed is linking to a New York Times article about how Charmin toilet paper is planning to sponsor a twenty-stall bathroom in Times Square for the holiday shopping season. The article is vague, but as far as I can tell it will all be individual stalls.

There’s no mention of transgender people in the article, and ideally, it should be taken for granted that we’ll be welcome. The PR possibilities are intriguing. If a TG person were denied use of the bathroom, would that be good press, or would people be sympathetic to Proctor and Gamble? On the other hand, would it be possible to get a positive photo-op, say with some glamorous drag queens? Would P&G be too afraid of freaking out the square tourists?

Postrel on Glamour

I’ve got a new candidate for my list of twenty-first century geniuses. Joining Malcolm Gladwell and Jonti Picking is Virginia Postrel, who I just discovered from an article in the October Atlantic Monthly, Superhero Worship.

I did a little research to find out more about Postrel, which isn’t very hard since she’s all over the Web. It’s not like I’m uncovering some hidden gem. She’s a well-known, well-published writer, editor and blogger on politics and economics. And honestly, I disagree with most of what I’ve seen from her on those topics. Hey, I linked to Mike Huben’s Critiques of Libertarianism back in 1995!

What I find valuable from Postrel is the clarity that she brings to the idea of glamour. One fascinating point is the fact that the word “glamor” used to mean a magic spell. The OED says that it came through the Scots language from the same root as “grammar,” so the meaning pathway was, roughly, grammar > learning in general > magical skill > magical spell > charming someone with looks and style. Continue reading “Postrel on Glamour”