Cultural analysis essays from my 2017-2018 (senior year) English class.

"Asking out” and Promposals: The Last Vestiges of an Outdated Dating Culture

March 2018

A candle promposal. A remark I often hear from my peers is “It’s 2018! Why is x still a thing? / Why can’t we do x?”. Most of the time, ‘x’ is some old fashioned social norm with sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted roots, or it is an action that the aforementioned social norms restrict. While I generally applaud pointing out and cleaning up the hypocrisy or absurdity that has been woven into our social fabric by previous generations, I struggle to comprehend how my peers can participate in traditions just as oppressive as those they decry.

​What traditions am I alluding to? The general gender norm of men making the first move, from asking for a woman’s phone number, to initiating Tinder talk with a punchy opening line, to the extravagant Promposals that have consumed this crop of high schoolers. In the real world, this pattern extends to men proposing courtship or marriage. This norm is reinforced by virtually all cultural productions, in which it is one of the most common tropes. The demure lady acts through backchannels of gossip and weak acts of fliration to coax a proposition while the male is encouraged by his friends to be brave and approach. It is expected that the male be the dominant, outgoing, and initiating force in romantic and sexual relationships.

This patriarchal expectation has a long history, as most sexist social standards do. Cross gender relationships have been a way of creating more tightly knit communities; marriage creates relatives from strangers. Until around the eighteenth century, marriage was solely focused on creating a better life thanks to the efficiency of two people living and working together. Then, starting in the nineteenth century, the motives behind marriage became more romantic, which led to the problematic situation of men choosing the women that they were attracted to without any regard for the woman. This decision was male dominated because of the patriarchal social structure that had been built up over centuries. What’s more, men were able to freely choose brides because women were considered to be a form of property. Fathers traded their daughters for dowries, often either wedding or promising them to suitors before their teenage years. Although the standard of male initiative has recently shed much of its overtly sexist characteristics, its patriarchal foundation remains.

A Sadie Hawkins Day Cartoon. Luckily, starting in 1937, a new phenomenon took hold: the Sadie Hawkins Dance. This type of dance format, where gender roles are supposedly flipped and women ask the men, is a step in the right direction. This sort of temporary switching was nothing new; in many cultures women were able to propose to men only during leap years, for example. In all of these cases, however, it is problematic to imply that it is only during these special times that women are permitted to exercise their right to choose a mate. At all other times, they must sit and passively wait for a suitor.

Besides these incremental and questionably advancements, progress in the interpersonal sphere of gender equality has stalled. There are countless articles for men giving advice on the optimal way to ask out a woman, and women are advised on how best to subtly attract a man’s attention. While these same sources claim to be ardent champions of gender equality, they turn a blind eye to the subtle oppression of the female waiting game.

Now before you dismiss this piece as a lazy excuse to avoid Promposing or to get some date requests (not that I’d complain; ladies, I’m single), it’s important to note the consequences of fostering the expectation that women wait for men to make a first move. The most obvious consequence is the lack of choice that women have in the dating sphere. As an oppressed group, women have lacked agency in many areas of their life since the Agricultural Revolution. While recent movements seek to change that, a key area that has been omitted is the dating sphere. Women are taught to expect men to make the first move, leaving them the option to only accept or reject a suitor. Men, on the other hand, may freely choose who they accost with date requests or Promposals. In other words, men have all of the power when it comes to establishing relationships. This expectation of waiting as opposed to initiative may affect women’s choices in the economy as well. Some studies find that women tend to ask for raises less often than men, especially when the ability to negotiate wages is ambiguous. That is, men are more likely to ask about increasing compensation when this negotiability is undefined. Although this is not a sufficient explanation for the large disparity between male and female compensation, it is a potential factor.

A romantic proposal. Of course, men are affected by these outdated social customs too. The expectations placed on men to craft a sufficiently elaborate Promposal mirror the pressures many men feel to be the primary breadwinner later in life. The expectation of a dominant male enforced by the patriarchy can be seen as forming during adolescence, when the individual is developing. Men are more likely to see themselves as a failure after losing a job or failing to provide for one’s family, and this expectation begins with Promposals and asking out. In the West, men die by suicide an average of four times more often than women, due in no small part to the mental health impacts of conforming to toxic masculine stereotypes. One study found that “poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes towards seeking psychological help” comes as a result of falling into traditional masculine stereotypes. The patriarchal norm of promposing encourages men to conform to the stereotypes of dominance and strength, among others.

Some may propose as a counterargument that women actually prefer to be asked out, while men are naturally predisposed to making the first move, and some studies actually support this conclusion. When assuming such a position, however, it is important to note the subtle yet profound shaping effects of cultural conditioning. We are at all times products of the ideological environments in which we have been raised, and it can be difficult to take on an outside perspective. Instinctively, we assume that what occurs in our society is what is natural and right, since that is how we have been ideologically conditioned. Thus, these gender roles may seem natural to us because they are the only ones we have ever been taught to know.

It is paradoxical that although we are approaching an equal society along gender, racial, and ethnic lines, we cling onto this archaic custom of men usually making the first move. And while this piece has no doubt only scratched the surface of an incredibly complex issue with biological, psychological, historical, and cultural underpinnings, I hope that by recognizing just how ingrained patriarchal ideologies are (even when “it’s 2018!!!”) in our daily lives we can come that much closer to combating them.

A Marxist Look at The Breakfast Club

January 2018

Theatrical release poster for The Breakfast Club The Breakfast Club is often considered a quintessential 1980s movie and one of the best portrayals of the identity struggles of the American teenager. Set in nameless and timeless Smalltown, USA, it follows five teenagers through an eight hour long Saturday detention. While the main focus of the movie is on the development of identity and morality in teenagers when placed under social and parental pressure, it also offers a seemingly Marxist critique of adult society. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the idealized image of inter-class understanding that the film projects is consistently contradicted by the film itself and the real world.

​The film’s economic undertones may stem from the period in which it was created. The early 1980s was a period of global financial recession. Economic voting is a well-established phenomenon, and it is clear that economic well-being is closely tied to happiness and perception of the ruling class. During periods of hardship, people’s fear directs them towards either anger or hope. The film capitalizes (no pun intended) on the latter, painting an idealized image of youth overcoming class differences and banding together against “The Man”. Furthermore, the popularity of such a hopeful film allows us to infer that as a whole, Americans were more optimistic during the economic downturn of the early Reagan years than in the recent Great Recession, during which negative media productions flourished (and the linked polls confirm this inference).

​The film offers a few examples of inter-class cooperation and the benefits of breaking down barriers. It first establishes the initial conditions and social class that each student represents. Claire, the bourgeoisie, arrives in a BMW. Andrew, the upper class, is popular in school because of his athletics, can afford a big lunch, and arrives in a car. Brian, the middle class, lacks athleticism or wealth and instead relies on his mental labor and the approval of the aforementioned upper classes. Allison and John Bender, both lower class, wear cheap clothing and arrive in a cheap car and on foot, respectively.

After smoking marijuana and talking out their issues, the characters seem to reach a deeper understanding of each other, vowing to never be like their parents and maintaining the ties that they have formed with each other. The film also shows all of the aforementioned social classes singing, dancing, and telling all in a ‘therapy circle’. By bringing the kids together in this way, the film portrays an ideal Marxist world, one where class distinctions and their effects all but evaporate. In fact, the message seems to be that when a group looks past the facade of economic differences, its members are more similar than they first realized. Before talking it out, each teenager had a preconceived notion of what the other teens were like that was based on the (economically driven) factors that they could observe. However, once these glasses of ideology were lifted by the (apparently) enlightening smoke of cannabis, the kids saw that they were far more similar than they originally thought.

The film continues breaking down class barriers up until the very end, when the previously upper and lower classes ‘link up’. John Bender and Claire get involved in a relationship, ignoring the social pressure to stay within one’s class. Andrew and Allison get hitched as well. Thus, the film continues the motif of judging individuals not by the sign-exchange value of their brands, but by the content of their character.

While the film certainly projects an image of inter-class cooperation on the surface, it is simultaneously oblivious to the classist values it promotes. The scene above in particular prompted me to reevaluate everything that I had watched up to that point. After the teenagers appear to reach an understanding of each other, Claire decides to share her mastery of the makeup arts with Allison. Her approach is kind and engaging, in stark contrast to the cold and aloof character she had been throughout the movie. The audience is invited to view Claire not as a regular girl sharing her knowledge with another, but as a divine individual showing mercy and humility on a lesser. Allison, it seems, ought to be grateful that an upper class citizen like Claire would even dare speak to her, much less touch her and put makeup on her. The film’s lack of self awareness doesn’t end there, however. After finishing the cosmetic treatment, Allison enters the main library area and is met with the shocked faces of Brian and Andrew. Before her intimate encounter with the upper class, Allison was portrayed as neither pretty nor sexually appealing. However, after applying some bourgeoisie brand makeup, she is suddenly viewed as desirable and is offered male validation via Brian and Andrew’s stares.

The power of the bourgeoisie Claire is showcased in another scene, in which she convinces Brian to write one essay for the entire group. Brian, of course, is humbled and honored to put his intelligence towards the good of the whole (a Marxist ideal). However, because it is Claire charming Brian into servitude, the scene serves as a metaphor for the exploitation of labor that occurs in a capitalist system. The middle class laborer (Brian) has seemingly no other choice but to obey the guidance of upper class management. Although the students have consoled each other and attempted to break free from the molds society has imposed on them, Claire actually contributes to Brian’s one-dimensional self perception. From a Marxist perspective, Claire assigns value to Brian based solely on his productive capacity; he is but an essay writing tool.

​The Breakfast Club is also rather tone-deaf when it comes to discussing the causes and effects of income inequality, as illustrated by the ‘Lunch Scene’ above. When it is time to eat, the lower class John Bender observes and comments on Claire’s expensive sushi, Andrew’s many sandwiches and snacks, and Brian’s simple lunch. It is important to note that John himself does not have any food. The film ought to be commended for drawing attention to the issue of inequality, as it is integral to Marxist theory. Unfortunately, that is where the praise ends. While the issue of inequality due to class is introduced, the explanation for it is shallow and (assuming a Marxist viewpoint) wrong. John, through his mockery of Brian, seems to think that the quality of one’s home environment is the primary factor in determining the quality of one’s lunch. Brian’s parents are portrayed as subdued, caring, and simple, resulting in Brian’s uninspired but complete lunch. John, on the other hand, demonstrates a violent, abusive, and callous home life, presumably with an alcoholic and domineering father and an oppressed mother. This lack of concern, the film seems to conclude, is the cause for the disparity in lunches. The viewer is led to believe that had John’s parents cared more for him, he would have had a lunch. What is far more likely, however, is that John’s family cannot afford to buy the necessary ingredients for a nutritious school lunch. While Claire, Andrew, and (to a lesser extent) Brian are the ‘haves’, John is a ‘have-not’. The film falls short in this regard by not addressing this fact head-on, leaving the viewer to put the blame on the parents’ apparent laziness or general lack of concern. Although it does not outright support the capitalist ideology of (lunch) inequality, it promotes an equally damaging view by misattributing its causes. A better approach would be a discussion of parental occupations, which may have revealed fundamental differences in income source. If Claire and Andrew’s parents are successful entrepreneurs while Bender’s parents are laborers, for example, then they are on completely different levels of income and wealth acquisition and are actually diverging from each other (as hypothesized in Thomas Picketty’s seminal work Capital in the 21st Century with the r > g inequality).

While The Breakfast Club can be seen as a critique on the classist nature of the capitalist American system, it inadvertently supports the ideology it attacks. What I discovered while watching the movie and writing this essay is how monumental of a task it is to remove the ideological glasses imposed on an individual by the culture one has been born into. Although the director may have been genuine in his attempts to unite the social classes on screen, he still ended up promoting the capitalist virtues that divide us. The film gives hope to the lower and middle class individuals watching it, as they may see the future of human society (the teenagers) looking past artificial class distinctions and sitting around a fire holding hands and singing “Kumbaya”. However, The Breakfast Club was released in 1985; since then, wealth and income inequality has never slowed its steady rise and American society is more divided than ever along class lines.

Too much of a good thing? What more “A’s” might mean for America’s next generation

October 2017

Grade inflation clip art. As a high school senior, I know all too well of the desire to be a straight-A student. As college acceptance rates fall to record lows, especially at elite universities, students feel increasing pressure from their parents, fellow peers, and their schools to keep up and get ahead. Teenagers pile on the extracurricular activities, write resumes and craft LinkedIns, and take challenging courses earlier. The families who can afford the time and money meet with teachers and hire tutors, while students (from my personal observation) study harder, collaborate more frequently, and very often challenge teachers’ ‘correct’ answers on tests.

Amidst this hysteria, the number of ‘A’ students in the United States has quietly risen over the last 20 years, from 39% in 1998 to 47% in 2016. The development of the Internet and evolution of ever-connected personal electronics like phones and laptops has clearly played no small role in the learning and performing capacity of students. With a virtually infinite breadth of knowledge available at their fingertips, learners can immerse themselves in subjects fully or tangentially related to their studies at school, forming connections and deepening learning. Moreover, 20 years of education research has no doubt increased the efficiency and productivity of a school-hour. Students are freer than ever in selecting courses that truly interest them, arguably leading to better performance, while educators increasingly target different learning styles.

However, the supposed increase in high-achieving students may be smoke and mirrors. While grades have indeed risen, the Class of 2015’s average SAT scores were actually the lowest of the past decade: 1490 out of 2400. If we assume that the SAT measures raw knowledge and intelligence, it appears that more students and parents have become proficient at ‘playing school’ — meeting with teachers and participating in class — rather than actually becoming ‘smarter’.

Upon closer analysis, it becomes apparent that there are causes aplenty for this trend. The economic implication of high grades undoubtedly plays into the grade frenzy. After all, starting salaries for graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology averaged $110,000 in 2016, while Syracuse University graduates averaged $48,000. Parents, learning from their mistakes in the postmodern capitalist economy, seek to instill their path to success in their children. As a high school senior choosing my major, I’ve experienced this pressure firsthand; my dad constantly urges me to choose a high paying concentration like finance, pharmacy, engineering, or economics, regardless of personal inclination. My parents (both immigrants from Poland) do not want my sister or myself to relive their tribulations as blue collar workers working extremely hard to achieve what are, in their view, mediocre white collar corporate positions. This attitude among parents leads to measures that were less common decades ago: tutoring after the first ‘B’ on a test or intervention with the teacher or principal following a bad semester mark. School systems eventually yield to the pressures of the taxpayers, causing an increase in leniency and average grades.

However, the problem of grade inflation may be deeper than basic economics. With the increase in social media use and globalization, the adolescents of the past two decades are exposed more than ever to the ‘exceptional’ members of their generation, while also exposing themselves on the internet. This leads to internal pressure to conform to a falsely extraordinary standard: when everyone showcases the best version of themselves for all to see, others may feel a drive to meet or exceed the distorted image. With the increased publicity surrounding exceptional youth, many students may feel a need to be exceptional in their own way, including achieving high grades. Using the ancient social yardstick of “Straight ‘A’s” as a benchmark, students push themselves harder than ever to meet the standard, almost to the point of entitlement. I have heard fellow students say many times: “I just want an ‘A’,” as if it is a deal to be made with themselves or the greater school institution. They will not be happy being a mediocre ‘B’ student; instead, they must meet their personal standard of an ‘A’. When this attitude is generalized to most of a school population and allowed to grow, the results can be astounding. At my high school, for example, about 60% of students reported having “mostly ‘A’s” on a wellness survey, while 37% reported “mostly ‘B’s” . The sense of entitlement will likely grow exponentially; as more non-A students realize that the majority of their peers have ‘A’s, they will likely work harder and ‘play school’ better in an attempt to fit in and meet the new standard. This behavior speaks to a Generation Z individual’s desire to be the optimal version of themselves, while also meeting a status quo. To give credit where credit is due, it seems that students may be getting smarter in some regard: they are learning that sometimes persistent talking, debating, conferencing, and sympathy building may be more important than hard work.

​Although the implications of this pattern of rising grades are yet unknown, it seems unlikely that they can be beneficial. The most uncomfortable implication is the systemic favoring of suburban students over urban students when dealing with increasing grades. From 1998 to 2016, grade point averages in private high schools rose from 3.25 to 3.51, while in suburban high schools they rose from 3.25 to 3.36. In urban areas, they rose from 3.26 to 3.28. This unequal grade inflation adds yet another obstacle for the (usually economically underprivileged minority) students in cities trying to get to college. Beyond that, besides the aforementioned attitude of entitlement diffusing through a generation, artificially high grades perpetuate a false sense of reality among tomorrow’s adults, one that is easily shattered by the real world. Why can’t I get into an elite institution with straight ‘A’s? Why does my evaluation state “needs improvement in quality” at my first corporate job? Why did I, a victim of the bureaucracy, receive a traffic ticket when I was only going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit? Why won’t the bank be more lenient with missed payments? With the devaluation of high grades and recognition of high achievement comes an expectation of praise. Instead of preparing students for long term real world success with short term pain in school, the education system in America seems to prefer the opposite: short term gratification in the ‘safe’ environment of school in return for long term suffering and stunted maturity in the real world.