Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday Frivolity: At the Movies

There are things that should be known, like history and literature and Einstein’s formula for the relationship between energy and mass. I have learned a thing that should be known so I am putting it here, in hopes that all of the Intrawebz will read and see.

Best Scene in a Movie Ever

I don’t say this lightly. The movie is called Immortal.


New York 2095; a good old sci-fi dystopic, with grunge and grey everywhere. Strange blimps float in the air advertising an organ sales company, where poor people can go to sell their livers, arms, teeth, ears (or other bits) for quick cash. And not only people. Aliens have arrived of all sorts from all over and the Big Company (a very nasty pharmaceutical-like entity doing secret research in collusion with the government) will harvest their parts too.

There is a resistance to this dehumanization of humans (interestingly, relying on notions of species-purity, which seems rather outdated) but they are small and threatened, as all good resistances should be.

Suddenly, a giant pyramid appears in the sky. People knock on the door or try to enter it and are zapped. Inside the pyramid are the slumbering ancient gods of Egypt, with their two god guardians, Bast and Annubis. Bast is a cat-headed goddess, a sort of wild mother protectress figure, who is also in some myths responsible for overseeing the immortality of the other gods. Apparently, their immortality is in question; hers is not. Annubis is the jackal-headed god of the dead. He guides spirits to the afterlife.

The pyramid is visiting New York because Horus, the hawk-headed god associated with the sun who created human beings, has been very naughty and is to have his immortality taken away. He has five days to find a human body to inhabit so he can find a special sort of woman to impregnate with his god-seed. He departs the pyramid.

Many things happen. One scene that I thought was the best scene until I saw the best scene shows Horus laying next to the man he has possessed (a member of the resistance, of course, without any icky alien parts) on a hotel bed, the two of them smoking cigarettes after having sex with the special woman who will eventually have a little hawk god baby. The man is arguing with Horus because he has taken advantage of the woman. Horus is not moved. He is a god, after all.

(Horus and the man appear separately when they need to talk or argue, which is frequently. Horus is a little surprised that no one really cares about gods any more.)

Meanwhile, back at the pyramid…

Bast and Annubis wait. They wait and wait and wait. What do two such powerful gods do when they are bored? In this Best Scene Ever, they play Monopoly.

Imagine it! Bast and Annubis sit cross-legged in the air, with the Monopoly board, money and cards floating in front of them. The shot begins over Annubis’ left shoulder. We see Bast looking annoyed. The camera swings around so both the gods’ faces are visible. Bast and Annubis look up from the board at each other. The actors (and, later, CGI folks) make slight but perfect movements—a raised eyebrow, the angle of a head—so that in about five seconds, we see these two gods thinking, “WTF? Stupid game. Humans suck. I hate New York.”

Just awesome. I love movies and have watched many scenes. I have laughed, cried, thrown things, reveled in beautiful palettes, odd angles and jump cuts. Nothing beats two Egyptian gods trying to play Monopoly in a giant floating pyramid over the New York of the future. Nothing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Does anyone know what women want? Women are Tramps...Part 2

When some people eat asparagus, their pee smells funny afterwards. When other people eat asparagus, their pee does not smell funny afterwards. There are two main hypotheses for this fascinating fact of human existence:

1. Some people have an enzyme in their bodies that breaks down molecules in the asparagus that makes their pee smell funny and other people do not; or

2. All people have the enzyme that makes their pee smell funny but only a certain percentage of people are able to perceive it.

(Grants for basic research of this type being severely limited, humanity may never know the answer.).

Now, my budding sexologists, we can develop homologous hypotheses for Chivers’ experimental results concerning the inaccuracy of her female subjects’ reporting of their level of arousal as compared to what the plesythmograph said:

1. Women are not aware of what their genitals are doing; or

2. Women are aware of what their genitals are doing, but they experience desire as a phenomenon distinct from (if related to) increased genital blood flow and swelling.

Given the complications of cultural myths about what is appropriate for women to want, the majority of women’s negative or fearful beliefs about their bodies in general and their hoo-hoo’s in particular, and a discourse of sexuality that centers around heterosexual complementarity and the penis, we’ll not likely figure anything dramatic out on this front either.

Chivers’ gives it a try. She cites a study that suggests men are more aware of physiological changes associated with emotion (e.g. increased heart rate) than are women and that men use those cues to assess and label their emotional states. The same study suggests that women are more likely to use situational cues to determine emotional response instead of being guided by interior phenomena. In the vernacular, women don’t know what they want until someone tells them or until they have time to sort out exterior stimuli and respond appropriately. Perhaps this is the origin of women’s polymorphous perversities—a general and flexible state of arousal which narrows to specific responses based on additional external cues.

This dovetails with yet another study I read but have forgotten where or by whom to the effect that little girls are more aware of subtle changes in the tone or the body language of their teachers than are little boys, creating a positive feedback loop with said teacher, which was suggested as yet another reason little girls consistently outperform little boys in school (even though little boys get called on more in class).

It makes sense to Chivers that there would be a “go-getter” sex and a “wait and see and figure stuff out” sex. If everyone were go-getting all the time, no one would be gotten and no genes get passed along, etc. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of this data recapitulates the nearly universal cultural myth of women as passive, intuitive, and receptive and men as aggressive, logical and grabby.

Our second hypothesis is then buttressed by our first, rather than being challenged by it. Women habitually formulate, cognitively, a thing called “desire” or “want,” that exists apart from, if related to, the swelling of their Gateways to Paradise. Chivers’ cites reports from rape victims who experienced genital arousal or in some cases orgasm during rapes. I think we can dismiss the possibility that women want to be raped, if only because rape is, by definition, unwanted. Add to that the trauma experienced by most rape victims well after the event and we can assume that, at least in this instance, genital arousal and the subjective experience of desire or want are two separate things. The body is smart; a woman whose genitals swell and dampen even under attack will likely suffer less physical injury than a woman whose genitals do not. Maybe that’s the reason for it.

Anyway, it’s time for a bit of Dr. Freud. According to Freudian theories, women are incapable of formulating desire because they lack phalluses (both the physical structure and the symbolic meaning attached to it). Women can “only” desire to be desired. Somehow desiring to be desired is less, uh, desirable than desiring a warm, wet place in which to place one’s phallus.

I prefer the Ruby Reformulation which is: because of their superior awareness of external stimuli and subtle gradations thereof, women are more capable than men of experiencing sexual desire (and even pleasure) associated with a dizzying array of activities, none of which require penetration, a penis or even genital stimulation. One of these is the pleasurable experience of being desired. Sometimes being watched is creepy (on a dark street); sometimes it is hot (across a crowded bar). In other words, maybe women don’t go and get because they’ve already gotten and their getting is different than men’s getting. Or they have gotten enough from that particular situation and easily move on to the next.

It is likely all animal societies, including human societies, have their bases in biological processes. However, the corollary to REPPFMIGFG is that human beings have been remarkably uncreative in organizing said societies and accompanying moralities. People don’t think or imagine enough; they let their bodies do the thinking for them. Massive doses of culture likely derived from biological propensities have hardened the dumb functions of the body into an organized, well-oiled social machine that everyone mistakes for truth.

In other words, please don’t mistake my fascination with science as biological determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To paraphrase Camille Paglia, whose thinking is hit or miss, but who can sure as hell turn a phrase, to be truly human, we must always fight against the fascism of Nature. Onward!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Women are tramps, but they won't admit it: Part 1

From Canada, of all places, comes the research of Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queens University in Ontario. As reported in Daniel Bergner’s article in the New York Times, Chivers’ research suggests that women are aroused by more and different visual stimuli than are men. But when asked to self-report their level of arousal, the women in her experiments consistently get it wrong. Their heads and their vaginas don’t agree. The men, both gay and straight, seem much more aware of what their penises are telling them (or are less embarrassed about what’s being said).

Chivers hooked up a bunch of straight men, gay men, lesbian women and straight women to plethysmographs, devices that measure genital swelling and blood flow and which, under other circumstances, might make amusing sex toys. She showed her subjects film clips of same-sex couples having sex, opposite-sex couples having sex, a naked woman exercising vigorously and a flaccid, yet buff, guy walking down the beach. For reasons known only to her, she also showed each group a film of a male and a female bonobo chimpanzee having sex, with screeching and hooting dubbed in from the other chimp species. Apparently, the bonobos are quiet lovers.

Each set of men responded “categorically,” as Chivers calls it. Straight men were turned on any time they saw a woman. Gay men were turned on any time they saw a man. Neither group was turned on by the chimps. And, as stated, the men’s reports of their various levels of arousal matched, for experimental purposes, the data compiled by the plethysmograph.

The women, those tramps, got turned on by everything. Bergers reports Chivers’ report of “strong and swift” genital arousal at every pairing of humans and, to a lesser degree but still noticeable, to the chimp pornography. The women did not care for the naked buff guy, whose member flapped gently in the breeze as he strolled down the beach.

The most fascinating part: on the whole, the straight women’s reports of their levels of desire were completely wrong, as compared to the plethysmograph measurements. They reported “much more” arousal than their vaginas did while watching the opposite-sex couple do it and “much less” while watching two men do it. And, natch, while watching two chimps do it. Lesbians were better in tune with their hoo-hoo’s (or more honest); however, they too underreported arousal with respect to the chimps, as well as the two men and the heterosexual human coupling.

The rest of the Chivers section of Bergers’ article describes her blue-skying theories as to why these data might be true. She’s an intelligent woman and knows that at her experimental subjects’ ages (I assume they’re all at least 18 years old), the influences of genetics and culture are impossible to separate (if, indeed, they ever are). Working with what she has, though, she cites a study by a colleague at UC Davis finding that men with “higher sex drives” (it is not clear how or if this is measured or whether it is self-reporting) have more strongly polarized desire (i.e. men or women only) than other men, whereas women with strong libidos report less polarization than other women (i.e. men, women, chimpanzees, shoes(?)).

Chivers’ data support the cultural discourse of the fluid and still-mysterious female sexual desire, as well as ancient myths about goddesses devouring everything with their vaginas. Yummy! By extreme extrapolation, Chivers’ data can also lend some credence to the common evolutionary psychological assertion that men are “hunters”—their brains adapted to scan the visual field, pinpoint a precise stimulus and kill it or screw it—and that women are “gatherers”—brains adapted to scan the visual field with “softer” eyes and observe and respond to a wide range of subtler stimuli (e.g. this green plant is OK but this green plant, which looks a lot like the other one but it slightly different, will kill you).

If we posit the existence of Ruby’s Evolutionary Psych Pleasure Feedback Mechanism (Is Good, Feels Good) (REPPFMIGFG) in some form, we might safely assume that the wise human organism experiences pleasure in connection with those behaviors that are evolutionarily beneficial. I have read only one study (inevitably, I have forgotten where or when) that addressed the possibility of this pleasure mechanism. The researcher in question noted that, for example, not only are women more capable than men of distinguishing among 20 different shades of white, but that they enjoy sitting around with paint chips and discussing with their friends whether Winter White, Ecru, Antique Ivory, Modern Ivory, Butter Cream or Polar White would look best in the living room.

Anecdotal data from my life suggests that men do not derive any pleasure from this sort of activity. “They’re all white,” a male person was heard to say impatiently in my presence, “what’s the fuss?”

On the other side, the Great Lost Demographic for gaming is the demographic that buys the most other stuff: women from 18-45 or so. Game publishers and retailers dream of making video games women will buy in the quantities they buy everything else. I suspect this project is doomed through the operation of REPPFMIGFG. Males, as “hunters,” enjoy perceiving, focusing on and killing or otherwise interacting quickly with objects flying across the visual field. They will always be the most likely to buy games that mimic this behavior. Of interest here: women play massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games (MMORPGs) at about the same rate as men do; such games do involve shooting and killing and acting quickly in three-dimensional space, but they also require the establishment of relationships and, of greater interest to this subject—buying, selling and haggling.

Of course, it is difficult to know with any certainty what is actually happening when women get turned on by men, women and chimpanzees and impossible to answer “why.” Perhaps the REPPFMIGFG is operating underneath the surface, rewarding women for being able to respond and take pleasure from so responding to a wide range of stimuli, perhaps women are just big ole’ tramps.

Next up: Why They Won’t Admit It

Bonus Ruby Blue-Sky Hypothesis About Why Women Dig Musicians: It is possible that men who are musicians, poets, painters, possibly architects and other artsy types have more feminine brains. That is, these men presumably enjoy the relative valuation of and the practice of distinguishing among subtle differences among thousands of stimuli: the right word, the right shade of red, the right instrumentation, the right rhythm. These girlie men attend to the minutest pieces of information to achieve their masterpieces and, given that none of these are particularly certain or financially rewarding careers, we must assume they dig doing it. A woman’s mind in a man’s body. Perfect.