MoDo and Mr. Kristof are off today. The Pasty Little Putz has decided to ‘splain some “Ideas From a Manger.” He tells us that in a divided culture, there are three competing views of Christmas. At least he’s not whining about the “war on Christmas.” The Moustache of Wisdom is all excited about an entrepreneur again. He tells us all about “How to Monetize Your Closet,” and that in our collaborative economy, women can have their cake and eat it, too. Gawd above. Apparently the schmuck has never heard of a consignment shop or eBay… Mr. Bruni is “Waiting for Wonder Woman,” and says despite strides in 2013 and the miracle that is Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood still owes us more heroines than we get. Here’s Putzy:
Pause for a moment, in the last leg of your holiday shopping, to glance at one of the manger scenes you pass along the way. Cast your eyes across the shepherds and animals, the infant and the kings. Then try to see the scene this way: not just as a pious set-piece, but as a complete world picture — intimate, miniature and comprehensive.
Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.
It’s easy in our own democratic era to forget how revolutionary the latter idea was. But the biblical narrative, the great critic Erich Auerbach wrote, depicted “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life.”
And because that egalitarian idea is so powerful today, one useful — and seasonally appropriate — way to look at our divided culture’s competing worldviews is to see what each one takes from the crèche in Bethlehem.
Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.
But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.
This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
As these world pictures jostle and compete, their strengths and weaknesses emerge. The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.
The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.
The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.
In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.
So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.
The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.
The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.
But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star.
Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, urging us to sell our clothes if we can’t find a job:
I interviewed Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, in July about the “sharing economy.” While I was researching Chesky’s company, I got a call from an entrepreneur, Tracy DiNunzio. She had heard that I was writing about Chesky and wanted to tell me about her start-up because it was related to Airbnb, the site on which anyone can rent a spare bedroom to anyone else around the world and pick up a little cash.
In DiNunzio’s case, four years ago she was raising capital for her start-up, Tradesy.com. “I started Tradesy with about $12,000, from a combination of credit card debt and loans, and went on to generate an additional $28,000 to fund the company over our first 18 months of operations by renting out my spare room on Airbnb,” she explained. “I used free Internet resources to teach myself web design, marketing and basic coding, and had everything I needed to start a business that now employs 22 people and serves 1.5 million customers every month.”
DiNunzio is one in a wave of entrepreneurs who’ve been buoying our economy from below, at a time when so much national economic policy has been paralyzed. These risk-takers never got the word that China will eat our lunch or Germany will eat our breakfast, so they just go out and start stuff, and build stuff, and invent stuff — and create 20 jobs here and 30 jobs there. Specifically, DiNunzio is part of a budding new economic activity called the “sharing economy” or “collaborative economy,” which offers a new avenue for the middle class to create wealth and savings. These entrepreneurs are not the only answer for our economic woes — they create jobs, destroy jobs and create big efficiency savings all at once — but they are surely part of the answer, and it’s a shame that we don’t spend more time thinking about how to multiply them.
Like all good entrepreneurs, DiNunzio, 35, got her start by paying attention. In her case, it was paying attention to her rapid-fire wedding and then divorce to start a company in 2009, called Recycled Bride, which enabled couples to, as Forbes put it, sell “their wedding finery and excess sundries so they could ride off in the sunset without staggering under the weight of debt.” She expanded that into Tradesy, which enables women to monetize the used or unused clothing and accessories in their closets by creating a peer-to-peer marketplace in which pricing, listing, buying, selling, shipping and returning goods is seamlessly easy — and with Tradesy taking a 9 percent commission. She is not alone in that space, but it’s working.
“We have a section on the site for wedding attire,” she explained. “We have seen three brides wear the same dress.” The first bought a Vera Wang wedding dress for $8,000 and then sold it on Tradesy for $3,000. The second wore it and resold it for $3,000. “So the bride in the middle of that trade wore her $8,000 Vera Wang wedding dress for free.”
“A sharing economy platform can aggregate massive amounts of inventory more quickly and cheaply than retailers because our supply is crowd-sourced from users,” DiNunzio said via email. “Having an abundance of product and content available allows our site to achieve larger and faster distribution across web channels such as search and social media, accessing masses of customers quickly and cheaply. Tradesy has accumulated $97.5 million in inventory, at virtually no cost to our business, in 13 months. If we had to do that with product that we produced or purchased, it would certainly take more time and resources, and expose us to significant inventory risk.”
The sharing economy is producing both new entrepreneurs and a new concept of ownership. “With improved peer-to-peer commerce platforms that remove the friction and risk from multiparty transactions, consumers are being empowered to value and sell their space, their belongings and their time in ways that weren’t previously possible,” said DiNunzio. “For those at the cutting edge of this trend, durable goods are viewed as temporal objects to enjoy and pass on rather than ‘belongings.’ Personally, I no longer feel like I ‘own’ anything. I enjoy my consumer goods for a day, a week or a year, take good care of them because I assume they’ll go on to have another life with someone else, then share or sell whatever I’m tired of. I get access to goods and services that would typically be beyond my means, without accumulating a ton of stuff.”
This “lightweight living,” she added, “goes hand in hand with a reimagined concept of ownership that’s focused on utility rather than possession, and can ultimately result in consumers enjoying more variety for their dollar.” Aren’t retailers hurt? “Tradesy’s early data suggests that our customers actually spend more at retail when they feel confident that there’s a viable resale opportunity on the secondary market.”
The “fashion middle class” is disappearing, added DiNunzio. “We have a whole swath of middle-class consumers who are tired of buying disposable fashion, but don’t have the means to buy the luxury brands.” Through sites like Tradesy, she argued, “women can have their cake and eat it, too, by collaborating to consume the fashion they want.”
Welcome to the collaborative economy. Spring cleaning has never been more profitable.
Yeah. I’m sure there’s an absolutely booming demand for my old work clothes I don’t need any more. Wanna buy some scrubs? Here’s Mr. Bruni:
Maybe because I have seven nieces whose dreams matter to me, maybe because I have so many female friends whose talents dazzle me, or maybe just because I think it’s madness not to encourage and recognize the full potential of half of the human race, I keep looking to the movies for something better. For something more equitable. For women saving the world or saving the president or at the very least saving themselves.
Every so often I get my wish. This year it actually happened several times. The astronaut fighting to survive in “Gravity,” the kind of effects-laden extravaganza that typically drowns in testosterone, was played by Sandra Bullock. And in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Jennifer Lawrence returned as Katniss Everdeen, the stoic, steely archer on whom nothing less than the hope for a livable tomorrow rests. Both movies made buckets of money, proving that audiences had no trouble, none at all, with a woman leading the way.
But around the same time that I savored this happy turn, I read some less happy news: Wonder Woman was finally en route to the silver screen — but not, alas, in a vehicle of her own. She’s slated to be an appendix to Superman and Batman in a sequel to “Man of Steel.” For all I know she’ll be zipping out to Starbucks for their lattes or the dry cleaner’s to fetch their capes. Meantime, producers scrape the bottom of the superhero barrel for male demigods to put in the foreground and the title. Just last week Variety disclosed that Paul Rudd was in talks to play “Ant-Man.” Yes, “Ant-Man.” “The Green Hornet,” “Spider-Man” — maybe Wonder Woman isn’t insect enough for the major leagues. Maybe she needs to make like a mantis.
For decades now a Wonder Woman movie has been chattered about, longed for, plotted, scuttled. The director and writer Joss Whedon took a failed stab at one after he did “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV and before he included Scarlett Johansson in “The Avengers.” At this point it’s not so much an unrealized project as an ongoing taunt: a metaphor for the stubborn gender gap in the sorts of action-oriented blockbusters that rule the box office; proof that the more things change, the more they remain the same, at least in Hollywood, whose superficially progressive politics mask overwhelmingly conservative business instincts.
It doesn’t lead. It trails. Mary Barra reaches the apex of General Motors. Hillary Clinton dominates discussion of the 2016 presidential race. Diana Nyad crosses the shark-infested channel between Cuba and Key West. Wonder Woman’s golden lasso gathers dust as she waits for a movie to call her own.
“It’s been in development since the Pleistocene Era,” the producer Lynda Obst said over a late breakfast last week. You can’t write about women on-screen and not talk with Obst. Several of her movies, including “Contact” and “The Siege,” threw a spotlight on forceful female protagonists. Her recently published book, “Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business,” has some incisive observations about the industry’s sexism. Also, she’s salty as a pretzel. No, saltier.
She quickly noted that yet another huge hit this year, “The Heat,” with Bullock as a prim F.B.I. agent and Melissa McCarthy as a profane cop, used actresses in roles and a genre more often reserved for actors. Still, the industry refuses to believe that it’s not courting enormous risk to do this, and it routinely downplays the feminine factor.
With “The Heat,” Obst said, “The marketing directive was clearly that it was a coincidence that there were vaginas in the movie. Oh, are there vaginas? I didn’t notice!” This, remember, was late breakfast. Happy hour with Obst would be an unimaginable joy.
You also can’t write about women on-screen and not talk with the actress Geena Davis. A little more than five years ago, after noticing a paucity of female characters in the movies that her young daughter was watching, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and began sponsoring research into the images that Hollywood was and wasn’t putting out.
One of the most startling findings was that in group and crowd scenes in the G, PG and PG-13 movies that children watch, only 17 percent of the people are female. “In ratios, we haven’t gotten very far from Snow White and the seven dwarves,” Davis said on the phone. “We’re teaching kids from the very beginning that women take up less space.”
She said that women have only about 28 percent of speaking parts in mainstream movies of all kinds and that the number has inched up less than 1 percent over the last two decades. At this rate, Davis said with a laugh, “We’ll achieve parity in 700 years. I want to be very clear. We are dedicated at my institute to cutting that number in half.”
Lead roles in action movies are even more rare, and lead roles as superheroes rarest of all: “Supergirl” in 1984, “Catwoman” in 2004, “Elektra” the following year. All underperformed at the box office, and Hollywood got spooked, even though the reason was quality, not gender.
On television, which puts movies to shame, female spies, lawyers, detectives, profilers and forensic scientists abound. And a black female superhero runs Washington. The show is called “Scandal.”
Back in 1997 there was “Buffy,” which ran for seven seasons, and in 2001 there was “Alias,” with Jennifer Garner, which ran for five. Its creator, J. J. Abrams, told me: “I kept getting asked, ‘Why did you put a female at the center?’ I thought: It’s a 50-50 proposition. Why not a woman? Would I ever be asked this question if the lead was a man? No.”
“The Bionic Woman” and, yes, “Wonder Woman” were on television even earlier than that, in the 1970s. But their oddity was underscored by how tough it was to find female stunt doubles. Lynda Carter, who played “Wonder Woman,” recently told me that in the show’s pilot, “They used a hairy guy — I’m not kidding you — with a wig and a suit on. I said, ‘Wait a second. This doesn’t work.’ You could see hairy legs and all.” So they pulled the camera way back, she recalled, “and made him a little dot.”
There are more stuntwomen today, along with other signs of progress. A string of prominent animated movies over the last few years — “Brave,” “Tangled,” “Frozen” — have showcased strong female characters, though their marketing, including their titles, sought to obscure how woman-centric they were. Hollywood definitely knows how to hedge.
With “The Hunger Games,” has a corner irrevocably been turned? The franchise is a veritable juggernaut whose star, Lawrence, 23, refuses to play to girlie stereotype, cracking jokes during promotional interviews about her uneven breasts, uncontrollable bladder and episodes of gastrointestinal distress. Like Katniss, she could be transformative — both princess and tomboy, glamorous and earthy, gorgeous and wickedly talented. And she leads with her wit, not her body. I know many wonderful women like her. I just don’t usually get to see them on the covers of fashion magazines or on multiplex marquees. She’s a next-generation Angelina Jolie: all of the wiles, none of the weirdness.
But she’s in an industry where the overwhelming majority of decision makers and directors are men; where the reliance on pre-existing source material — comic books, video games — means that a gender disparity simply perpetuates itself; and where the robust ticket sales for “Aliens,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and even “Zero Dark Thirty” don’t seem to spawn all the take-charge female characters that they should. Studio executives treat such hits as if they’re one-offs. “There’s this collective amnesia,” said Susan Cartsonis, a veteran producer. “Whenever a movie with a female icon at the center is successful, it’s a glorious fluke.”
Neither she nor Obst cares all that much about Wonder Woman per se. But they care hugely, as we all should, about glass ceilings and the inadequate breadth of what Hollywood, which shapes our culture every bit as much as it mirrors it, shows and tells girls (and boys).
“I want them to see women in the lead, women having adventures, women solving crises, women running toward, not away,” Obst said. Amen. Now, about those cocktails….