Projecting modern prejudices onto an ancient African culture

I don’t normally blog about this kind of thing, but today I found an article on the Internet citing ancient Egyptian history to promote an agenda that seems feminist on the surface but actually appears rather sexist when you think about it. I thought it worthy of a response.

The author of the article is Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney, and the article is “Should women rule the world? The Queens of Egypt say yes.”

Her argument is that, even though most Pharaohs of the ancient Egyptian civilization were male, in times of crisis they would choose a female ruler instead. Among the female Pharaohs she names are Merneith of the 1st dynasty, Nebrusobek (or Sobekneferu) of the 12th, Hatshepsut of the 18th, and Tawosret of the 19th. And these are all interesting personalities in their own right, do not mistake me. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Hatshepsut is among my personal favorite Pharaohs throughout Egyptian history, male or female. There is a good case to be made for studying and giving more exposure to the ruling women of ancient Egypt, even if they weren’t the cultural norm for that society.

The problem comes in when she explains this trend by invoking modern Western prejudices about gender (emphases mine).

History shows that the Egyptians knew that women ruled differently from men. And so they used them to protect the patriarchy, to only act as stopgaps, placeholders, until the next man could fill the top spot on the social pyramid. But no matter how much power they held, even though many of them were called nothing less than King, these formidable women of ancient Egypt were not able to transcend the patriarchal agenda and change the system itself. When their reigns ended, the Egyptian power structure remained intact.

Cognitive scientists know that the female brain is different from the male. Social scientists have found that men are most responsible for violent crime, including rape and murder. On the whole, women are less likely to commit mass murder, less inclined to start a war, more likely to be in touch with and express their emotions, and more interested in nuance, rather than decisiveness. Perhaps these qualities were what ancient Egypt sought out in times of crisis.

These queens call out from the past, challenging us to place women into political power, not as representatives of a patriarchal dynasty, but as women who serve their own, different agendas of social connection and emotional cohesion, instead of serving the aggression of their fathers, brothers, and sons. If a long time ago, women really did rule the world, they were able to do so without a sisterhood, without their own agenda, without their own long term hold on power.

It’s time to look to history, to the powerful women of ancient Egypt who were the salvation of their people again and again. What if today they were allowed to rule with the full force of their emotions–using their emotions—that trait most demonized about women–their ups and downs, their sadness and joy, their mercurial natures? Could this trait be harnessed to connect with others, to find compromise, to take the finger off the trigger, to look to a nuanced solution? It is this element of emotionality that could lead humanity through the trials and tribulations of the 21st century. We should let ancient history be our guide and let women be our salvation once more, this time with their own interests front and center.

Anyone with a critical mind should be able spot the sexist over-generalizations here, even if it is cloaked in the rhetoric of feminism. And it’s not only sexist against men, mind you. The very assumption that women are naturally gentler and more nurturing than men (or, in other words, “sugar and spice” versus “snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails”) is an old prejudice that probably came about to rationalize regulating women to the role of homemaker and child-bearer while men were away doing all the “important” stuff. It really isn’t a trope that a presumed feminist like Dr. Cooney should indulge in.

The second problematic theme I see here is that she is projecting modern Euro-American notions about gender differences onto an ancient African culture. Does she know for sure that the ancient Egyptians had the same ideas about men and women’s “natural” differences that we do? Beliefs about gender vary from culture to culture and from time period to time period, as anthropologists have recognized for decades. You would think a scholar studying a civilization fundamentally far removed from our own would recognize this instead of forcing her own modern Western biases onto it.

This is a textbook example of Eurocentric sexism masquerading as feminism if I ever saw one.


Science reporting fails on roaring dinosaurs

If you follow the news on things paleontological, you may have seen reports like this coming out in the press within the past few days:

Dinosaurs Probably Didn’t Roar, But Some Definitely Quacked

And I’m going to tell you why this is most probably bullshit.

The finding they reference (paper here) is a fossilized syrinx (avian vocal organ) found in a late Cretaceous bird. Since this structure apparently can fossilize yet hasn’t been found in non-avian dinosaurs yet, the researchers conclude that non-avian dinosaurs didn’t have a syrinx like modern birds do. Fair enough, it might go to show that dinosaurs couldn’t make sounds exactly like those of birds.

However, what the reporters concluding from this that “dinosaurs couldn’t roar” don’t know enough to tell you is that syrinxes aren’t the only way animals make noise. In fact, most other tetrapods vocalize through a different organ called a larynx. That’s what we use, and that’s what crocodilians (the dinosaurs’ second-closest living relatives) use too. And presumably it’s also what every animal that can actually roar uses too. So as long as dinosaurs vocalized using a larynx rather than the avian syrinx, then yes, roaring would well remain within possibility for them. We may not know whether they did, since I don’t think a larynx is tissue that would fossilize easily, but since the larynx is found in all other reptiles excluding birds, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose dinosaurs had that feature too.

So don’t worry, the new finding doesn’t say non-avian dinosaurs couldn’t roar. It only means they couldn’t tweet like birds.

Humor is Hard

There is a stereotype that people diagnosed with autism don’t have a sense of humor. I can’t speak for everyone across the spectrum, but as one guy on the Asperger’s side, I can vouch that this stereotype doesn’t completely apply to me. Whether or not my sense of humor is on the same level as the typical non-autistic, I’m confident that I have at least some ability to tell and laugh at jokes. But on the other hand, I do believe that being funny can be a challenging skill to develop whether or not you’re on the spectrum.

For myself, the problem often isn’t thinking of jokes so much as it is picking ones my audience will appreciate. This is especially the case if my punchline requires familiarity with the subject at hand. For example, a joke about anthropology, history, or paleontology would go over most laypeople’s heads, because they’d have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. A lot of jokes work through linking separate pieces of knowledge or conventional wisdom that most wouldn’t associate together, so they’re bound to flop before an uninformed audience.

Maybe this explains the stereotype of the humorously challenged autistic. We could joke all day about our pet obsessions, but anticipating what everyone else knows about them is not our strong area.

The other big challenge is that, personally, I have a soft spot for jokes poking at society’s idea of polite decorum or good taste. Or in other words, so-called “dirty” or “vulgar” humor. I’m not talking about the pointless raunchiness of certain teen comedies, or the vicious bigotry that trolls post on blogs or message boards because they can’t think of a punchline. Vulgarity by itself is not funny, but it can be a delicious spice to a joke if you use it properly.

Like, I thought it was hilarious when Borat wrestled his producer naked in that hotel, and both of those hairy unattractive guys rolled out into that nice hotel lobby in front of all those people. And then there was that flashback from Superbad when Seth Rogen’s character admitted to drawing all those penises when he was a little kid. There’s a brazen, taboo-busting audacity to those scenes that I have a special admiration for.

Another example of “dirty” jokes that I like are the ones that prod at so-called “touchy” subjects, the ones usually considered “politically incorrect”. Stephen Colbert’s comparing the Washington Redskins to a hypothetical “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” from a couple of years back is one example, and I thought it was genius. It was clear to me that Colbert was mocking the team’s racist name by showing how similar it was to slurs most of us would recognize as offensive. It distressed me to see all those dumb kids on Twitter crying #CancelColbert, as if they thought Colbert was being serious (I can only presume they were starved for pseudo-radical brownie points).

Unfortunately it’s precisely those kinds of jokes which I’m sometimes afraid of telling even though I like them so much. I don’t want to alienate certain friends of mine who might take my humor the wrong way, or take offense to its punchline. One time I suggested, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that the dinosaurs might have died off because the Jews poisoned their water. I meant it as a mockery of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and scapegoating, but a few people took it the wrong way and accused me of anti-Jewish bigotry or Nazism. Others said it was just tasteless.

Personally, I believe jokes are only as tasteless or offensive as their premises. It’s not the topic of the joke that matters, but what you say about that topic. That’s why genuinely racist (or sexist, or whatever) jokes aren’t my cup of tea; they require the acceptance of racist premises in order to work. Jokes that mock racism on the other hand can be very funny, because even if they prod a sensitive subject in an unorthodox way, in the end their premise is progressive. The best jokes are those with heart no matter their veneer.

On Fan Art as a Strategy for Artistic Popularity

Cross-posted from my DeviantArt journal on April 18th, 2015, with some minor editing.

I prompted myself to type this post up after a brief conversation I had with certain Twitter friends, who share my involvement in the online art community, on the topic of amateur artists who specialize in fan art. The position we agreed on was that while there’s nothing wrong with drawing fan art by itself (since so many of us have done it ourselves from time to time), specializing in it is overrated as a strategy for amateur artists to reach a large audience. Unfortunately Twitter isn’t the most conducive medium to thoughtful in-depth discussions, so I’m expanding on this thesis here on my blog.

Truthfully I’m not even sold on the conventional wisdom that fan art is guaranteed attracts more attention from the online community is invariably true. It appears to hinge on the premise that people connect better to widely recognizable characters from popular culture than what individual artists create from their own imaginations. That has a kernel of accuracy insofar as some characters and stories receive more public exposure than others, but the problem is this doesn’t always mean people genuinely like those intellectual properties more than their less broadcasted brethren.

The sad truth of modern pop culture is that it’s far from ideally meritocratic. If anything, inducing public irritation or outrage reaps as much profit and cultural exposure as producing quality work; you’re just as likely to see infamously bad books and movies sell for mountains of money as you are books and movies that everyone likes. Notoriety has practically become the currency of the 21st century. What this means for the amateur art community is that the characters who attract the most attention won’t always be the solid, multidimensional ones that everyone would earnestly like, but simply the “trendy” ones supported by today’s most aggressive advertising campaign. Lots of quality characters from quality stories get shoved away from the spotlight, so even the most heartfelt fan art celebrating them is at a disadvantage compared to art featuring whatever gets promoted the most at the time.

In conclusion, drawing fan art as a specialty probably has less power to attract a broad online audience than many in the amateur art community claim. The strategy would only work if fan artists just drew what was currently the most visible (but not necessarily the most well-received) than what they truly enjoyed themselves, but what amateur artist really wants to do that?

On Jurassic World’s Diabolus/Indominus Rex

Remember that “hybrid dinosaur” Indominus rex (formerly Diabolus rex) that’s going to play the main antagonist in Jurassic World? Those of you following the hype, or dinosaur news in general, might have already known this, but just in case you don’t, apparently it’s been revealed almost in whole on some future Jurassic World merchandise.

Of course it’s still possible that this is either a hoax or something that will get revised before June 12, but I’ll assume for the sake of argument that it’s official. The thing is, eager as I am to take another walk in the Park, I’m not all that thrilled about the Indominus’s design.

I remember that it was supposed to represent a hybrid between the JP raptors, the T. Rex, a snake, and a cuttlefish, but almost none of those elements are apparent in this design. Especially not the first two components, since neither of them were ever portrayed with rows of spikes on the back, longer spines on the neck, prominent brow horns, or an alligator-like mouth without lips. It does have very primitive protofeathers along the arms, but since we’ve already established that Jurassic World‘s raptors are staying featherless, it’s doubtful the Indominus’s arm-plumage was carried over from them. More than anything else, it looks just like an albino Allosaurus, with maybe a dash of the King Kong V. Rexes’ oral anatomy.

To be fair, I expect the cuttlefish element will be represented by a color-changing ability, and possibly the snake element comes into play with a venomous bite (or spit, if drawn from a spitting cobra). However, if your hybrid’s appearance is derivative of two species already on display in the park, you would think it would actually incorporate characteristics of both species instead of resembling yet another dinosaur. I get the director’s comment that he didn’t want the Indominus to look like a freakish mishmash of raptor and T. Rex parts, but if that was the case, why make it a hybrid at all?

Also, I don’t care for the “rex” species name as applied to the Indominus. T. Rex is the only dinosaur most people casually address with both the species and genus name, and when you have both the T. Rex and Indominus juxtaposed together in the same park, it’ll only make the characters’ dialogue harder to follow. The only real difference between “T. Rex” and “I. Rex” is their first syllables, and they don’t even look all that different in written form either (“T” and “I” are both kinda tall and skinny). Just call it plain ol’ Indominus, or maybe Indom for the merchandising.

To end with a less negative note, I’d love to see the T. Rex take on this guy regardless of its design. Most of all if it doesn’t channel JPIII all over again.

Halloween is coming

If any of America’s major commercialized holidays gets a “Bah, humbug!” out of me, without a shred of doubt it’s Halloween.

For one, spiders creep the hell of me out. Anything with eight legs and eight eyes is irrefutable evidence that the forces of evolution don’t get two shits about human aesthetics. Thankfully most (but not all) of the beasties are too tiny to notice in real life, but Halloween season sure loves to force over-sized spiders onto everyone who dares go shopping.

And while we’re at it, I don’t care much for vampires or zombies either. For some reason the mere thought of vampires have always made me literally nauseous, and zombies are gross to look at. That’s not even factoring in how contemporary pop culture, from Young Adult literature to video games to TV, has milked the whole undead cash cow to the point of exhaustion.

In addition, Halloween has a special way of bringing out the worst in people. Take costume design for instance. This year there are guys out there who are smearing themselves with blackface and dragging dolls around in “honor” of Ray Rice. As much as every decent human being should condemn Rice’s violently abusive behavior towards his wife, it should be self-evident from one glance at these costumes that they weren’t put together with the intention of highlighting the issue of domestic violence.

It’s true that most Halloween costumes are designed to be simplified and stereotyped caricatures regardless of whatever time period or culture they’re representing. Costumes based on classical Greco-Roman, Viking, or medieval European characters aren’t necessarily more historically accurate or authentic than those representing Africans, Asians, or Native Americans, even if the latter three groups are considered less “privileged” and needing more protection in a modern American context. Even so, I still believe there are way too many douchebags out there who treat Halloween as an opportunity to mock whatever segments of society they perceive as weaker and beneath their contempt. They are bullies, plain and simple.

No one lasts forever

I’ve had many stumbles in interpersonal interaction throughout my life, but one trend I have observed among the people I’ve met is that they seldom stay the same. Their behavior, opinions, and interests are always susceptible to change over the passage of time. You may think you’ve gotten to know someone, but the longer you know them, the less you recognize them as whom they used to be.

There was one artist I once followed on DeviantArt (no names will be said) who drew a lot of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. His main project was a webcomic with a futuristic setting and a rich bestiary of fantasy creatures he’d made up himself, but it was his paleo-art that appealed to me the most. In fact some of his created species’ designs resembled prehistoric creatures which I also thought was really cool. However, as the years went by this artist not only stopped drawing paleo-art and shifted attention to his webcomic, he even told me that he’d grown bored of dinosaurs since he couldn’t take as many creative liberties as he could with wholly fictional animals. He then started excising the more dinosaur-like creature designs from his gallery, or alternately reducing their dinosaur elements. All that is within his right as an artist, and it’s not my place to tell him what he can or can’t draw. It’s just that his interests and my own have grown way out of sync since I first watched him.

And he is not the only example I’ve seen of an individual evolving into someone very different from the one I first met. If anything, it’s probably the most painless one I can cite off the top of my head.

This has to be an inevitable consequence of humanity’s dynamic thought processes. Of course people are going to change once they acquire new experiences and insights, or grow weary of the old patterns. I myself am like this. I probably wouldn’t recognize the guy I was ten years ago, or even six years ago. On the other hand, this same human propensity for change has been difficult for me to deal with since it makes the people I trust less predictable than I’d like. Especially when that change has drifted in a more toxic direction. Honestly, there are few experiences more traumatic than a close friend who turns into an enemy.

Human nature can be so uncooperative.

Hollywood’s attitude towards race and casting is totally wacked

So the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings has come out. Like de Mille’s Ten Commandments before it, it racially misrepresents the ancient Egyptian and Hebrew peoples as resembling Northern Europeans instead of the African and Semitic people they actually were. That’s been standard fare throughout Hollywood history, but I’m still damn sick of it. And I am not alone in these sentiments.

But then, Idris Elba will be playing a medieval British warrior in a King Arthur adaptation by Warner Brothers. This is what he looks like:

So let me get this straight: Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale will portray a Northeast African king and a Semitic prophet respectively, while Idris Elba plays a Briton in early medieval times? What kind of madness is this?

Hollywood deserves all the flack it receives for whitewashing non-European characters and historical figures, but paradoxically it also has a habit of throwing non-Europeans into settings where they would have been relatively rare. I wouldn’t go so far as to completely discount the presence of any African people in medieval Britain (there apparently were some there in Roman times at least), but it is bizarrely hypocritical for Hollywood casting agents to emphasize racial diversity in that setting while downplaying the African and Semitic heritages of the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews.

Ironically I would have sooner cast Idris Elba as Ramses in Exodus than as anyone in a King Arthur movie. He may be of West rather than Northeast African heritage, but that’s still better in my book than lily-white Joel Edgerton.