Random Rants

Literal Wordplay for the Literary Wordwise

Once upon a time, literal meant actual. But why stick to those guns when figurative speech is the spice of life? Metaphors paint a picture, and similes are as clear as a calm blue sea. As clear as a bell, as clear as a crystal, as clear as the tears of a clown.

Idioms add color for those in the know. Slang separates the white bread from those who are hip AF.

For reals, when you speak—or write—from the heart, cut and dried meanings take a backseat to the magic spell of a rhetoric that murmurs and sings, ebbs and flows, with the rhythm of life.

A wordsmith with mad skills deserves the shout-outs, the props, and the major league swagger. What does meaning matter when words are getting fatter? It’s all shifting sands in the land of make-believe where we make our own truth, and we speak like the youth.

The grammar police gets hot under the collar? Psssh. It don’t matter in the vernacular.

The figurative literal may make the skin crawl, like nails on a chalkboard or climbing a wall, but is it literally ignorance… or literary evolution? Different strokes for different folks? Shorthand to understand, or a catch-22 that sends us back to square one?

Who could care less what words really mean? At the end of the day, when the whole nine yards become smoke and mirrors, the literal meaning is anyone’s call.

And when those chickens come home to roost, does it literally matter?

Classic Disney Movies, Terrible Lessons

Note: I originally wrote this piece years ago for a contest writing site. I didn’t pick the title but had an easy time coming up with examples of terrible lessons in Disney movies. Particularly in the classics. I reshared it on my blog years ago and have kept it around because I still think it’s true. Though Disney films have gotten much better!

Colorful characters and catchy songs capture the imagination, but there are some terrible lessons in classic Disney movies. I’m not suggesting we toss out the classics. Though… maybe make sure kids are getting a bigger serving of Disney’s more recent films. Or skip the nostalgia until they’re old enough to have a chat about why these messages are terrible.

5. Mothers are Expendable, Stepmothers are Evil

Mothers in Disney movies are a means to an end. If they don’t die on-screen, there’s a good chance they’re already dead or just won’t be mentioned at all. If a stepmother is introduced, she will be the jealous villain of the movie.

Missing mothers may gain sympathy for main characters, but, time and again, Disney movies paint an absent mother as an easily surmountable obstacle. (If she is mentioned at all.) Fathers are sometimes missing as well (because orphans are even more lovable?), yet when they do appear, we get memorable single dads who are doing their best like Geppetto, Maurice the inventor, and The Sultan of Agrabah.

In Disney’s worlds, both mothers and stepmothers need to get out of the way for the hero to live happily ever after.

4. A Woman’s Life Purpose is to Find Her Prince Charming

Every Disney princess is matched to her ideal prince. The quest for true love is a common theme for many films. Even more so for classic Disney stories where the prince has to rescue the princess, too.

The earliest Disney princesses–Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora–were classic damsels in distress. They were in danger until their princes came along. Later princesses–Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine–had definite ideas who they would or would not marry. Yet, in the end: Prince Eric defeated Ursula, the Beast defeated Gaston, and Aladdin defeated Jafaar. The princesses may have helped, but it was the princes who saved the day.

While Disney’s latest heroines have been stronger, they still are not complete without the prince of their dreams.

3. Deals with the Devil Pay Off in the End

If you can’t get what you want on your own, make a bargain with an evil sea-witch. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel dreams of leaving her underwater world to live on land with the humans. Particularly with Prince Eric.

Instead of understanding the inherent problems of a mermaid/human union, Ariel make her fateful pact. She trades her own voice for a chance to become human for three days and win Eric’s “kiss of true love.” It all leads to an epic battle, with both King Triton and Prince Eric stepping in to save our little princess.

Did she learn anything? (Like in the truly twisted Hans Christian Anderson original story.) Nope. King Triton uses his own magic to make her human. Apparently, if you want something bad enough to make a deal with the devil, you must deserve to have it.

2. Physical Beauty Equals Good; Unattractiveness Equals Bad

Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston may be the villain but his attractiveness has gained him the respect of the village. Unlike his bumbling, short, fat sidekick. Cinderella is beautiful, while her evil stepsisters are awkward and unattractive. Even in The Lion King, Simba’s evil uncle is named for the scar on his face.

Disney princesses are all drawn to the impossible standards of tiny waists, attractive figures, and beautiful faces. Their princely companions all have trim, muscular physiques and striking good looks. In keeping with this tradition, villains are typically old, ugly fat, scarred or otherwise unattractive. The Queen in Snow White is initially beautiful but she becomes an ugly old crone when she decides to kill the princess.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one might argue that the unattractive Quasimodo is the hero, but does he get the girl in the end? (Actually, I’ve never seen that one because a Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an absurd idea. Um, did anyone actually read that novel before deciding to Disney it up with some singing gargoyles?)

And, finally…

1. An Abusive Man Just Needs a Good Woman to Tame Him

The message in the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is that you should not judge someone by their appearance. Yet, the Disney version makes an important change that shifts the entire meaning of the story.

In the fairy tale, the Beast is kind to his captive, despite his monstrous appearance. In the Disney movie, the Beast treats Belle (and everyone else) horribly. He roars at her and intimidates her with a clear threat of physical violence. When he attempts to restrain his violent temper it is only as a self-serving means to seduce Belle into breaking the curse.

The message is clear in the Disney narrative: It is the woman’s role to look past a man’s abuse and bring out the prince within. And that is the same message that traps women in abusive relationships.

The Reviewer Has No Clothes

I admit it. It’s a bit of a sickness. When I absolutely adore a movie or book, I’m compelled to read its one-star reviews.

I tell myself it’s curiosity. Why would someone else strongly dislike something that I found so moving? It may actually be some twisted form of masochism. By now, I should know better than to expect to find meaning in most one-star reviews. Yet its an obsession.

After reading so many bad reviews, there’s one particular theme that jumps out at me. I call it the Emperor Argument. It can apply to any nonlinear, surreal, sexually deviant, or generally non-mainstream story. And here’s how the argument goes:

  1. Completely ignore the movie or book itself
  2. Rant that it was only popular for being “different” or “trendy”
  3. Assert that you see through its trickery
  4. (Optional:) Work in the phrase “the Emperor has no clothes”

Now, there certainly are some stories that use unconventional techniques in lieu of an actual plot or strong characters. Just as there are many movies that cover up their shortcomings with CGI, explosions, chase scenes, lush sets, historic costuming and so forth. But what bothers me is that the Emperor Argument often trashes the technique without addressing the story itself.

In fact, a good portion of the reviewers who employ the Emperor Argument will admit that they didn’t watch the whole movie or finish reading the book. This seems especially true for nonlinear or surreal stories, such as: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Slaughterhouse Five, Memento, Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The argument quickly dissolves into:

“I didn’t get it, therefore this movie cannot possibly make sense to anyone else. Anyone who says they did like it are only saying that because not understanding it makes them think it must be good. The Emperor has no clothes!”

Of course, for the handful of people claiming that “this movie cannot makes sense to anyone,” there are hundreds of reviews that say the exact opposite. Glowing reviews with detailed analyses of the depth of characters and the layers of meaning found within the plot. Details that they must be making up because there’s no way they understood the story.

A variation on the Emperor Argument occurs when the reviewer “didn’t get it” because the story didn’t meet his or her expectations about what it was going to be about.

Secretary is a good example of a movie whose unconventional sexual themes spun some reviewers in many directions. Many complaints came down to the fact that the story did not meet their expectation of it being either: soft-core porn; a BDSM how-to movie; or an after-school special about cutters. Therefore, the movie was pointless and the Emperor has no clothes.

With the Emperor Argument, the reviewer is typically looking at the means and not the meaning. What they miss in these stories, is that the how doesn’t matter as much as the why.

In Stranger than Fiction, the chicken-or-egg debate surrounding Harold’s life and Karen’s narration is unimportant. It just is. Same with the existence of the door in Being John Malkovich.

Not every storyline needs to be about getting from point A to point C, after overcoming point B.

At the end of the day, storytelling is subjective and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Yet after reading too many one-star reviews and seeing the Emperor Argument trotted out entirely too often, I have just one question for these reviewers: Is the Emperor truly naked or do you just not get his fashion sense?

Humpty Dumpty and the Affectionate Beotch

Some people can pull off any kind of urban slang without a trace of irony or self-deprecating awkwardness. I cannot. You won’t hear me saying fer shizzle and I’ve never been able to pull off a “You go, girl!”

You’ll also never hear me call a friend “dawg” or “beotch.” At least not unless it’s wrapped in 20 layers of sarcastic mocking and followed with the kind of expression that prompts moms around the world to warn about faces freezing like that.

One expression that always jumps out at me is the affectionate “beotch” among friends. Mispronounce an insult, and bam! affectionate term for a good friend. Like magic, the word becomes its opposite. (Well, not that beotch means male dog, but lets stick to the slang here.)

Of course, depending on the context and tone, beotch can still be an insult. Confused yet? That’s the thing about conversing in slang. Words are slippery. You need context, tone or emoticons to tell you whether you’ve been insulted or called a term of endearment.

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that he makes words mean whatever he wants them to mean. When he makes a word have a complicated meaning, he pays it extra. Think of the multiple meanings we assign to our swear words. If Humpty Dumpty’s word payment philosophy were true in our society, only celebrities and televangelists would be able to swear. 

How do swear words get such complicated usage rules? From the earliest playground days, kids are taught which words are “bad words”. This, of course, makes them want to use them all the more. Most of these bad words are okay to use in certain situations, but not in others. And then there are the words that are so bad they get reduced to just a letter: the F word, the N word, etc.

Which gives a word more power: forbidding it to the point of calling it the F word, or just using it and getting on with life?

Clearly people want words to have power. You aren’t allowed to call just anyone “beotch”, no matter how you pronounce it. Say it to a good friend and it’s affectionate. Randomly calling everyone at work a beotch just might end with a trip to unemployment.

We may say we want world peace, but our language says otherwise. Affectionate insults and complicated rules for swearing etiquette give entirely too many opportunities for conflict. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will get you ostracized. And to make it even crazier, we bleep bad words out of songs and movies, as if that somehow changes the overall meaning.

Take a movie like Fight Club: Brilliant film with dark themes that are clearly inappropriate for children (due to their lack of experience and maturity). Basic cable channels are allowed to show the movie with nearly all its violence and sex, as long as they edit out the swear words. How does that make sense?

But getting back to the affectionate beotch. I’m not knocking the term. Use it. Don’t use it. Whatever. People just need to do their best to navigate the shifting waters and try to not take it all too seriously. Words are just words, and people are more like Humpty Dumpty than they realize.

The Turn Signal

Car makers are coming up with new options all the time — built-in mp3 players with voice recognition, camera systems that let a car park itself, in-dash microwave ovens — but they’ve managed to keep some room in there for a handy little feature known as the turn signal.

Unfortunately, some drivers seem to have forgotten just how helpful this little baby can be. Perhaps it’s time for a little Turn Signal 101 (American Edition).

Lesson 1: Where Is the Turn Signal?

Generally, the turn signal is a lever (stick-thingy) on the left side of the steering wheel. It might do double duty as the windshield wiper or cruise control stick-thingy, but it’s still a turn signal. If you can’t find the turn signal, don’t drive.

Lesson 2: How Does the Turn Signal Work?

The lever moves up and down like a super-long light switch. Down for a left turn, Up for a right. A flashing arrow on the dashboard shows you when it’s on. Funny enough that down/left, up/right thing lines up with how the steering wheel moves during a turn. Spooky.

Lesson 3: How Does the Turn Signal Stop?

Now this gets a little tricky. The turn signal usually turns off when you finish a turn. Sometimes it does not. If there’s a little clicky-clicky sound in the car, and the little arrow is flashing on your dashboard, your turn signal is still on. Don’t wait for the next turn- you are allowed (and expected) to turn it off manually. If you do not, you deserve the scorn of nearby drivers.

Congratulations! You now know how to physically use a turn signal. Let’s move on to where it gets interesting…

Lesson 4: Why Does My Car Have a Turn Signal?

Believe it or not, other drivers cannot hear you talking to them from inside your car. They cannot read your mind, and they do not magically know your route, even if you have a super-fancy GPS. Luckily, the turn signal comes to the rescue by giving you a way to show other drivers what you plan to do.

Lesson 5: How Does it Help to Signal While I’m Turning?

It doesn’t. The turn signal is there to show what you are going to do, not what you are already doing. If you wait and take a half-ass stab at flipping on the turn signal while you are already in the process of making a turn, you are an idiot. You should not be driving a car.

Lesson 6: Okay, When Do I Use the Turn Signal?

There are actual laws about that. If you don’t plan to learn the rules, at least use common sense. The idea is to show the cars around you what you plan to do. In a city setting, signal about half a block before your turn. It doesn’t help anyone to put your turn signal on two or more blocks before your turn. Is the driver behind you supposed to guess when you’re actually going to get around to turning?

Lesson 7: What About Changing Lanes?

Yep, that’s another time to use a turn signal. You might know what you are doing, the drivers around you do not. Use the turn signal to show when you are planning to change lanes. Remember, it’s about giving notice so other drivers have a chance to make room for you. Flip on your turn signal, check to be sure the lane is clear, switch lanes, and then turn off the turn signal — it often stays on after switching lanes, which confuses other drivers and makes you look like an idiot.

Lesson 8: So, What Do I Do When Someone Else Signals?

I’ll give you a hint: you are NOT being challenged to a fight. When someone puts on their turn signal, either slow down to let them turn or change lanes! Someone’s turn signal on a crowded highway is NOT your cue to laugh maniacally and gun it so they can’t move in front of you. Your manhood (driverhood?) is not at stake if you let someone into the lane ahead of you. You don’t own the road. Get over it.

Food and Sex and Dinner Guests

Watch any nature show and you’ll see how life boils down to food and sex. As humans, a superior genus, we marvel at the simplicity of these animals’ lives. Yet, when it comes to human interactions, what do we want most? Food and sex.

In some ways, these twin desires may even be linked. Now I’m not talking about George Costanza, his unsuspecting girlfriend, and a pastrami on rye hidden in the nightstand. Well, not just about that… The food-sex connection I’m considering is more subtle and much more pervasive.

What’s on the Menu?

Where do we go on dates? Out to dinner. What do we hope for at the end of a dinner date? Sex. Even our language describing food and sex overlaps. “Mmmm….” Is that a murmur of pleasure uttered after sampling a tasty dish or after sampling a tasty dish? Food warms us, food pleases us, food sustains us. And so does sex.

Furthermore, food is a well-known, acceptable stand-in for sex. Lonely? Grab a pint of double-chocolate chunk ice cream. Not dating? Bake up a better-than-sex cake (yes, that’s a real recipe). Even when you socialize, what’s the most common activity you do with friends? You eat. You go to dinner, you get dessert.

Eating fills the void when sex isn’t on the menu and, by society’s standards, that’s preferable to actually meeting your sexual needs on your own or with an “inappropriate” partner.

But is this tasty sublimation actually healthier than having sex with anyone who strikes your fancy? As our obesity epidemic should be showing us, eating too much food carries just as many health risks as sleeping around. Sure, you won’t get an STD by eating a triple bacon cheeseburger topped with onion rings (hold the tomato and lettuce, please), but a heart attack will leave you just as dead.

Just one bite?

Of course, you don’t have to be sex-deprived or lonely to have an obsession with sharing sweet or savory treats. People are constantly pushing food on the people they like. For some, it’s the most acceptable way they know of showing their affection.

If only I had a bitcoin for every time I’ve heard, “You have to try this!” while someone waved a forkful of something decadent my way! Food is big in our society. Turn down an offered delicacy and you risk serious offense.

This giving of food is so emotional for some people that I have to wonder what’s behind the overt gesture. Is offering food a subconscious way of saying, “I like you. I can’t have sex with you, but this banana nut muffin is the next best thing.”?

That would explain why feelings are hurt when the offer is rejected. Or why friends eat to such excess when they get together. The dessert menu comes out and the pressure is on to share in high-calorie gratification. Perhaps it’s the most visceral satisfaction friends can share without venturing into the realm of sex?

Think back to our last Presidential election and the news coverage surrounding what hometown food the candidates ate at each stop along the campaign trail. Woe to the candidate that didn’t at least nibble at a proffered foodstuff. Just how many votes were bought with greasy bites of indigestion? And doesn’t that seem just a little bit… well, odd?

There’s also a pretty big ick-factor when you consider that mothers and grandmothers are some of the biggest food pushers around. Always wanting to fill your belly and indulge your sweet tooth. Always worried if it looks like you aren’t getting enough food on your own.

Check, please!

Clearly, our society does try to make a distinction between feeding our appetites for food and our appetites for sex. (Except for some fetishists and people like me who are prone to imaginative over-analysis.)

But I have to wonder about where the lines are drawn. Also, what other social needs are overshadowed by the drive for food and sex? After all, our genetics may be urging us to eat and reproduce, but there are so many other interesting things in the world.

Personally, I’d be happy if food and sex were both toned down a bit in our society. If our subconscious brains would meet new people and say, “I like you. Let’s play a board game and enjoy a witty exchange of ideas.”

That would be neat.