le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, October 06, 2013

kids these days, with the sexting and the selfies and the changing modes of communication

I'm basically reposting this here (I wrote it on tumblr), but cleaning it up a little. It's a result of listening to a fairly recent episode of Roderick on the Line (podcast), and of showing "Blurred Lines" to my freshman comp class as an introduction to close reading 'text.'
I got Way Behind with my Roderick on the Line, because I am a terrible person who doesn’t deserve nice things like RotL. Anyway, washing dishes, listening to ep 78 (“Driving Lesson Costume”), I was intrigued by two things pretty quickly.
The discussion Merlin & John have about their respective daughters, and those daughters growing up, and their unease about certain aspects of that, was touching and adorable and hilarious. Really, I think the best advice to give them (as a daughter who grew up mostly successfully) is, to paraphrase Merlin, Just don’t be weird about it. Don’t make it weird. Young Lady Roderick and Young Lady Mann will be A-ok. they’ve got good parents.
Next: selfies taken in the bathroom mirror and sexting and what’s the point? Merlin says “If I was the kind of person who still read Roland Barthes, I would write about that” (or something similar. Quote marks here indicate speech, not accuracy in quotation).
A moment of conversation ensues, then John decides to behave precisely like a person who reads Roland Barthes and says something like: those naked mirror-selfies are more a form of communication than pornography. It’s about the real-time communication that a person is getting naked *for you*. If you look back, out of context, at the photo you’re like “eurgh, not the most flattering image.” But the context - the communication of “I’m naked RIGHT NOW for YOU” - is the only thing that really matters. That really has significance, in the “signs and signifiers and signification” sense of the word.
My mind, blown. Suddenly: all those out-of-context nakedy pictures one hears/sees about are stripped of their sexual content. They’re like reading a transcript of one side of a phone call, but not even the complete call. It’s almost meaningless.
So then I think about these naked selfies - the Kids These Days, teenagers sending around Naked Selfies to their teenage boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever - as not sexual. And….it kind of makes a really fucked-up sense.
One of the things I’ve noticed, teaching the Youth of America, is that they’re really weird about sex, or at least talking about it in class in the context of a specific novel or film. Now, I spent my college years being thoroughly repressed, except I went to a college that was basically one giant hippie orgy. It wasn’t just that there were groups of people who liked to walk around naked - outside, in public areas - or that everyone seemed to be having sex constantly, with someone, or that femynysts performed dance routines featuring smacking their ovaries, or that there were actual orgies. nope: there was also plenty of talk in classrooms, in academic, scholarly ways, about sex. This only got worse in grad school (where “worse” = “more frequent”). For a repressed person, I had to get unrepressed real fast, or be chronically uncomfortable and silent.

I’m used to everyone having a gutter mind. Everyone around me always did, it seems, from at least middle school on. *I* have a gutter mind. But the Kids These Days, in my classes, they don’t seem to. They are a weird mix of nonchalant “oh yes, pansexual multi-partner orgies involving unusual fetishes are totally the norm in high school” and red-faced, giggling, inability to say “have sex” in the context of a discussion of a novel in which characters, in fact, have…. you know.
As a kind of early practice in close reading, I had my freshmen watch the rather revolting video (unrated - topless girls) of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And discussing it afterwards was shocking and revealing. Many of them were confused - openly, raising-their-hands-to-ask-questions confused - about various innuendo in the video. Like….what’s with him licking the ice cream? what’s going on with the feet? that’s really random….what was she doing with that stuffed animal?
I was shocked. Like seriously, actually shocked. “Blurred Lines” isn’t exactly a subtle video. And the sexual content just seemed to pass many of them by, or flat-out confuse them. This class meets too early in the morning for them to be actively trying to fool me, either - I think those were their honest reactions.
So: circling back to RotL: what if, somehow, the pornographic signification of sexting and such is  - if not totally absent, at least really watered down, for Kids Today? I don’t get the sense that THAT many of them are THAT much more sophisticated about sex and sex-adjacent stuff than repressed-me was in college. Some are, sure, but it doesn’t take much to exceed that low bar.
I guest-lectured in a friend’s class once, ages ago, probably my second year of teaching. And one of the boys in the class - one who was simultaneously too cool for school and sincerely smart and engaged - said something like “Nakedness doesn’t always mean sex.”
He was and is right, of course, but I wonder if - somehow, in these weird modern times of ours, with kids who grew up during the very conservative reign of GW Bush (remember John Ashcroft having the exposed bosoms of statues covered up in the Justice department building?) - I wonder if somehow nudity and sex - like actual sexuality - have been split apart in some odd way. So that they KNOW what is “sexy,” and that is “naked bathroom selfies” but it doesn’t register for many of them in a truly sexual way? That, again, it’s a way of communicating something - for straight girls, I imagine, it’s something like “I love you boyfriend so much i’m willing to do whatever will make you happy and sending you this naked picture of me in my bathroom mirror will let you know that i really care about you.” Or maybe "I'm cute and confident because I'm 16 and hot!"  But it has about as much sexual content to it, for them anyway, as would bringing the boyfriend chicken soup when he was sick.
If sexuality has become split in some way from nakedness, even from the idea of “sexy,” which basically means nothing very different from “pretty”, both of which just signify "attractive to the gender/sex i want to attract" that would explain an awful lot about the weird reticence of my students, and their inability to lie in the gutter and think about Robin Thicke's gross explicit video.