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Today my dad handed me an article he had torn out of Newsweek in September and said, “This made me think of you, so I saved it.” As I read the title, I groaned. The article was written by a professor of history at Harvard (and yes, I deign to disagree with a Harvard professor), entitled “Texting Makes U Stupid.”

From the title alone, I had the article outlined in my head, point by point, before I read the rest of his words. Bring in stats about how much teenagers tweet. Make snide quips about the inanity of the text message (because nothing important or beautiful or poetic or smart could possibly fit into the format of a text message). Queue stats, mourning the loss of literacy in the United States. Boldly state at the end of the article that we should read more! Of course the author states this to an audience currently reading Newsweek, patting themselves on the back for dodging the scourge of the text message, understanding the value of reading, and being from a generation who understands the elusive “good ol’ days.”

It’s disconcerting that a professor from Harvard would write an article falling into post hoc fallacies and blaming something as complex as our illiteracy epidemic on the invention of the text message. When the novel itself first came to be (yes, it’s a fairly new invention that didn’t emerge until the Victorian period), people thought the same thing. A novel was thought to be a waste of time, an unintelligent hobby. And later, with the widespread popularity of television, people worried that the novel would die. And yet we have a professor of history crying that the sky is falling when teens are texting.

I do not think that falling literacy rates are great. What I do think is great: teens write more now every day than they ever have in the past. Kids write emails, text messages, tweets, and facebook statuses. Are they always spelled correctly? No, but it means that several times a day, they’re thinking about writing. They’re stringing words and sentences together and thinking about how to express ideas. They’re thinking about concision, clarity, and audience. They’re thinking about communication and its value. I don’t think any of these things are bad, and I don’t think that’s what’s to blame for a falling interest in reading. I think it’s an easy answer and a scapegoat.

It’s silly, unfair, and archaic to define reading a novel as the only kind of reading that merits worth. Teens and college students now have information, news, and updates at their fingertips, which adds up to quite a bit of reading. Is all of it good? No, but neither are all novels. Yes, teach our kids to be smart. Teach our kids to appreciate art and words and nuances of meaning. But don’t sit around telling kids that texting is bad or leading them to a disinterest of the world around them, because that just validates the phrase they’ll spout back at you, which is “you just don’t get it.”

P.S. I teach Writing and Rhetoric to college freshmen. I’m very much concerned about the reading and writing habits of our youth. I just don’t agree with the leaps of cause and effect in this article.

As I walked into the packed room, I couldn’t help but notice all the girls around me were wearing enough makeup to frost a cake and all the women were wearing jeans with intricately Be-Dazzled™ designs on their butts. “Where the hell am I?” I thought to myself as the raunchy lyrics of Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera pumped through the speakers and girls in various cuts of neon spandex took to the stage and started shimmying, gyrating, and thrusting. No, this was not a strip club. This wasn’t even an underground dance club. This was a horror show. Scantily clad elementary-school-aged children awkwardly keeping in step with choreographed pelvic thrusts set to the THUMP, THUMP, THUMP of deep bass-driven, sexually-charged pop music. God help me, this was my little nieces’ dance recital in the local high school auditorium, and the ages of said girls on stage ranged from six to twelve years old.
Let me get one thing clear: I’m not one of those crazy people who thinks women should only wear dresses buttoned up to their chin and girls shouldn’t be allowed to fraternize with boys. I’m not saying girls shouldn’t dance. In fact, there were two dance routines (out of 25) that proved that these girls could be taught graceful dance moves requiring talent and precision without the need for costumes made out of underwear or the sexualized movements. One was a hip-hop routine where the girls (and even a few boys) wore pants and t-shirts, and OMG, somehow they managed to move just fine in such restrictive clothing. Another dance showcased the miniature girls in a shirt and a skirt with longer shorts underneath while the girls leapt, twirled, and twisted in some impressive moves.
The other 23 dance numbers featured sexually suggestive convulsions from the tiny bodies that were repulsive and infuriating replications of oversexualized pop stars. The display was so hard to look at, I ended up spending a good amount of time looking into the faces of the parents in the audience and silently condemning them (and wondering if their butts hurt from sitting on all those faux jewels). How could a parent bear to see their little girls represented in such a way, especially at such a young, impressionable age? Didn’t they see that they were encouraging their children to find approval in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong places? Shame on these women, these mothers who perpetuate this cycle of abuse by condoning such a horrible practice. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in what is considered to be a civilized society in the United States of America and that all those present were willingly participating in such an event. How can we demand equality for women and an end to sexual abuse when we willingly contribute to the perpetuation of the problem?
Am I saying all girls’ dance troupes are evil? Of course not. But I’m saying I’m astounded that there are dance teachers that think this is “cute” or appropriate in any way. I’m saying I’m frustrated with parents who don’t seem to understand the psychological damage that they’re inflicting upon their children. Damage that can’t be undone. I’m saying good-freaking-grief, we should not be putting up with this crap. We should not be watching 6-year-olds shaking their hips to songs about being a super model or getting drunk at a club and thinking this is okay. And I’m beyond horrified that all this has to be said and isn’t just taken as a given.
*Note: Neither of my nieces participated in the worst of the dances, and my brother and sister-in-law were just as surprised/upset with the program as I was.

RIP Hollywood

Ashley Walton —  March 29, 2010 — 8 Comments

Hollywood Video is slowly dropping off the face of the earth. When I stepped in to rent my weekly dose of TV shows and movies, I was shocked to see that their entire inventory was for sale. Of course, this elicited mixed emotions—I bought some awesome DVDs at killer prices (The Hangover, Away We Go, The Invention of Lying, Zombieland, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Roger & Me*), but my beloved video rental store was going out of business (and some of the movies I bought, though cheap, were the crappy rental versions that never include supplementary material).

Not only is my neighborhood branch closing, but also the branch a couple towns over and several other branches all over the state and the rest of the country. This leaves me with only one other local video rental store: Blockbuster. When I was younger, I had fuzzy feelings toward Blockbuster for their cutesy sing-songy liners like, “Blockbuster Video! Wow, what a difference!” and “Please be kind, rewind.” But with age and wisdom, I’ve come to abhor it. The dreaded place doesn’t even carry Tales from the Darkside or Let the Right One In. Not to mention, they only recently added Dollhouse Season 1 to their repertoire (their selection is abysmal). What’s more, Blockbuster also censors some of their DVDs without any sort of warning that they’ve been edited for content.

But enough of the Blockbuster bashing. One of the movies I had wanted to pick up from Hollywood Video was Up in the Air, but I was told they weren’t getting it in, as they stopped bringing in new inventory. Dazed and confused, I wandered to a tawdry Red Box down the street, and using it made me feel cheap and dirty. When Up in the Air popped out of the cold machine, it didn’t even have a proper case. I couldn’t look at the cover design or critique the summary on the back or make fun of the quotes from critics. The naked DVD just stared out from a sad, sterile clear case. That’s when I started to panic. I’d been so concerned with bookstores dying out that I’d neglected to worry about video stores dying out, and I like both these stores for the same reason: tangibility.

I’m going to miss my regular chums at Hollywood. I’ll miss the geek shop talk with one clerk, who stares out behind his black horn-rimmed glasses that match mine. And I’ll miss bashing chick flicks with that other clerk, who was surprisingly cool, despite her Bridget Jones t-shirt. I’ll even miss the sociopathic blonde kid who consistently ruined various plot points for countless movies that I rented. More than anything, I’ll miss walking down the black-tiled rows past the unbeatable horror collection, a really respectable TV collection, and a great documentary section. I’ll miss meandering around the store several times and getting lost in the details and memories before making my final selection. I’ll miss the feeling of being in a place and knowing that I’m surrounded by people who love movies as much as I do.

*Note: I also bought 500 Days of Summer, but I’m still coming to terms with my embarrassment and whether I should openly admit this.