Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Regardless of how soul-savingly wonderful or retina-burstingly abhorrent you find the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series to be, we can all agree on one thing: Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen were probably laughing all the way to the bank in the face of the 140 publishers who initially refused the manuscript. 16 years and 100+ books later, people are eager as ever to lap up every last drop of sentimentality with a spoon. These feel-good heart-tugging tales were meant to induce feelings and inspire, though for some the only feelings inspired was an unrelenting nausea.

The 90s had a surprisingly high market quotient for touchy-feeliness, considering all the angsty cynicism (a la Nirvana) and vapid materialism (a la Clueless) people attribute to 90s culture. Perhaps there was some mysterious point of contact which allowed the angsty to express their wealth of feelings and the superficial to pat themselves on the back for their insincere sentimentalism. Whatever the reason, there was a pretty serious market for all things high-faloutin' and pseudo-spiritual.

This impulse for inspiration manifested itself in several forms: Touched by an Angel, the rise of televangelism, Lurlene McDaniel young adult novels. Perhaps the most lucrative exploitative franchise capitalizing on this trend was The Chicken Soup for the Soul series. The series' name implies that we are somehow naturally sick, and the only soothing remedy is to buy this book. That's a sound marketing strategy if I ever heard one (Get it? Sound? Heard? Okay, think I'm alone on this one). I'm going to come out with a new line of books next year entitled, "Buy this book or you will inevitably get an incurable mutation of swine flu ." It seems pretty straightforward, and I bet I could make a bundle on it.

Sarcasm aside (briefly), the books arguably had some inherent merit beneath their drecky facade. The stories were indeed positive and uplifting and made good on the title's promise of a soothing read. However, it was less about the value of the stories themselves than the ensuing warm fuzzy feeling many of us got from reading this book. See, the book had that sort of incredibly-easy-read-to-make-you-feel-good-about-yourself quality to it. By feeling touched by the stories, we could all personally feel as if we were good, moral, spiritual people who were eager to be inspired and called to action in a quest for positivity. Despite the passivity of our actions (sitting and reading an overrated bestseller) we could all breathe a sigh of relief that we were indeed, as we had always suspected, good people.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul Condolence Sympathy Basket from Yes, this exists.

Before you go on the offensive and defend these books (or would that be the defensive?), let me be the first to admit that I ate these up as a kid. I absolutely could not get enough. For some reason, I was unwaveringly certain that these books possessed the tidbits of timeless wisdom that were the secrets to unlocking a life of happiness. When I turned 12, someone gave me a copy of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul as a gift. I remember earmarking chapters I thought to be particularly poignant, such as "Things Girls Love about Boys" and stories about kids with (insert life obstacle here) overcoming adversity.

After devouring volume after volume, I had that wonderful unearned feeling of being a better person without ever having to leave my room. Why, in the span of two hours, I had been empathetic, altruistic, sympathetic, and accepting. The tears in my eyes were evidence that I was indeed a living, feeling person who cared about others deeply. Right?

Maybe. One of the strongest selling points of these books was that inspiration is an incredibly vague term. I doubt most readers immediately mobilized and began rescuing helpless sick puppies or volunteering at the local soup kitchen (for the stomach, that is, not soul) directly after reading any of these books. The best part was that it allowed you to be completely undeservedly self-congratulatory. Bravo, me. Bravo!

Of course, I'm clearly devilishly advocating the situation. The original book was overwhelmingly well-received by readers and critics. Most people were willing and able to look past the corniness and feel truly touched by these moving (albeit cliched) stories. There was something comforting in the predictable heartwarming-ness of each story. Sure, we knew it was sappy and possibly some of these miracles were a tad on the contrived side, but our willingness to briefly suspend our disbelief could allow us to embrace a story's happy ending.

Hansen and Canfield were brilliantly entrepreneurial in their approach and saw the potential in the not-yet fully tapped market of sappy sentimentalism. Lucky for them, all they had to do was think up countless topics and corresponding subtitles (including but not limited to Chicken Soup for the Chiropractic Soul, Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul, and even Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Cats and the People Who Love Them.) The editors obviously subscribed to a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" ideology. Using basically the same essential formula, they managed to crank out book after book in the style of the original but catered to specifically market to a particular demographic.

Then came the kookier side. Books weren't enough. No, we needed Chicken Soup for the Soul calendars, Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet food, and Chicken Soup for the Soul vitamin supplements. There's nothing quite like manipulating your audience into buying a bunch of worthless crap to send a positive message of spirituality and inspiration.

Chicken Soup for the Soul Trimworks Supplements. Please note the package featuring a woman hugging a scale. It's likely she has OD'ed on the lovey-dovey feel-goodness of CSftS

Over time, the initial bowl of soup has evolved into a fully functional factory churning out can and can of the same product. This model was fitting as this was exactly what Hansen and Canfield were peddling: canned spirituality. Love it or hate it, the Chicken Soup Series was a formidable franchise from 1993 stretching through the better part of this decade. Ultimately, whether you're a firefighter, doctor, or French-African widowed quadriplegic philosopher with a taste for five-alarm chili, there is inevitably a Chicken Soup for the Soul book made just for you. Go forth and be soothed.

Some newer, odder incarnations:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Disturbing, indeed

Two of my favorite bloggers (Al from My Life in a Blog and Nic from PinkNic) alerted me via Twitter (see? I learned how to use it!) of a horrible phenomenon affecting the contemporary cartoon character doll market.

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, it's likely you knew about Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake. Even if you're a guy, you probably at least had a kid sister with a Rainbow Brite doll or Strawberry Shortcake tea party set. These were wholesome, innocent childlike characters.

Completely unlike their new manifestations. That is to say, they took a Bratz doll and a Hannah Montana action figure, stuck it in a blender, and set it to "extra slutty".

Strawberry Shortcake

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This is more than a little disturbing.They took what was essentially some form of Precious Moments figurine and morphed it into a coquettish teen giving come-hither eyes while perched suggestively on a flower. I can understand the desire to update her look (though to be honest, she wasn't exactly a beacon of coolness upon her original inception) but this borders on ridiculous.

Rainbow Brite:

images via

Geez, even her magical horse looks more suggestive. I can understand the color upgrade, but they've pretty much zapped all of the childlike wonder out of her. While she used to be an adorable round-faced donut-sleeved child, the relaunch has pegged her as a slender cheerleader-type with waist-emphasizing belt and rainbow bangles.

Just what sort of messsage are these redesigns aiming to send to children today? People are constantly remarking on how children grow up faster these days, but you have to wonder if marketers are expediating the process a bit. Toy companies have vetoed baby fat and childlike innocence and replaced it with bedroom eyes and a snappy outift.

It's probably no coincidence that Strawberry Shortcake (and Rainbow Brite, until rights were recently sold to Hasbro) is owned by a company called Playmates toys. If that's not suggestive, well, then I'm not sure what is.


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Ah, lumberjacks. Is there any trend you can't start? First you had everyone wielding tree-demolishing axes. Then it was the log rolling. You were such a beacon of trend setting. Thankfully, your fashion forwardness did not disappoint.

Okay, so maybe lumberjacks weren't necessarily in on the whole ironic grunge wave of fashion, but they certainly did provide a wealth of inspiration. The early-to-mid 90s were an interesting era, fashion-wise. Highly influenced by the mainstream rise of grunge music and subsequent subculture, the 90s saw an inexplicable rise in woodsy, outdoorsy styles. As Seattle was the generally-agreed-upon birthplace of grunge, it was no wonder they had the whole fashion world dressing like Pacific Northwesterners. Minus the functionality, that is.

Flannel became a ubiquitous staple of youth culture identity in the 90s, flaunting a sense of moody, brooding anti-authority that so defined young people in the grunge era. Plaid, functionally warm button-down shirts provided the necessary anti-fashion vibe embodied by the irreverent point of contact between Generation X and Generation Y. Before Generation Y grew up and got all civic-minded and mainstream (and probably considerably less cool), they were still riding the crest of unshakable cynicism with their 70s-born hippie-parent-backlash peers of Generation X.

Before the days of hipster chic, the level of irony in one's clothing was not quite as well-selected. While now you can walk down a trendy urban street and see the exhaustively planned outfits of a bunch of American Apparel catalog rejects, ("See, if I pair this pinstriped fedora with these neon yellow 1970s high school gym shorts...") back in the 90s the anti-fashion was not quite so preconceived. Rather, while the 80s had provided us with ridiculous poppy, mainstream, shiny bright-colored trends, the 90s' answer was to spit in the face of these bubblegum trends and say, "Screw it all. We're wearing flannel."

General unkemptness was a popular side effect of the grunge culture. True to the movement's name, grunge followers were, well, grungy. They had dirty, stringy long hair and tended to have that pleasant unwashed look (and we can only assume, corresponding smell.) Lucky for society the actual grunge movement was pretty centralized, meaning the flannel-clad sullen-faced teens you saw in your own hometowns were likely some class of poseur. Sure, they had the flannel shirts and ripped up jeans, but they were buying the shirts 3 for 1 at Kohl's and purchasing their jeans pre-ripped. Their authenticity and intention was at best questionable. It's probably more that they just really, really liked the Smells Like Teen Spirit video than that they subscribed to any particular brand of anti-authority ideology.

Lucky for the flannel industry (there's a whole flannel commercial infrastructure, right? I assume) it it a highly functional fabric that certainly has its share of constructive uses. Though I'm sure the usefulness of flannel is far more wide-ranging, here are some of the basic functionalities of 1990s flannel-wearing:

1. It kept the heroin chic among us warm

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Forget Twiggy, the 90s brought a whole new wave of painfully thin, strung-out-looking models. Kate Moss was an unsmiling, non-eating supposed inspiration for us all. You have to realize, though, that it gets cold being that skinny. These uninsulated waifs were lucky to have a big burly flannel on hand to fight off the 0% body fat woes.

Still true with 100% less pants!

2. The butt-less still reeling from Sir Mix-a-Lot's slurs could use it handily as padding

As seen in Bill and Ted--and yes, I'm aware the original came out in 1989

No one in the 90s would ever wear a flannel shirt on its own. No, it was necessary to pile on as many other cynical concert tees as you could muster in order to fully achieve your 90s grunginess. Sometimes, though, you just needed a break from your heat-producing flannel. Don't have a place to put it down? Use your body as a temporary hanger and tie it around your waist! A foolproof plan. Good for hiding bodily imperfections and stains, too.

3. You are so tired you couldn't possibly wait until you got home and climbed into bed.
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Luckily, your flannel doubled as pajamas. Or better yet, you could simply grab your handy seam-ripper and before you know it, you've got a new pair of winter sheets. Talk about multipurpose!

4. You would make a stellar extra on Nickelodeon's Pete and Pete or ABC's My So-Called Life

Both Petes were famous for their signature flannel looks. You'd be hard-pressed to find an episode of MSCL where neither Angela nor Jordan was wearing some manifestation of flannel somewhere on their person. These fine specimens of 90s television were spreading the good word of flannel, one episode at a time.

5. In a frequently temperature-shifting setting, it offered top-notch ventilation

Perfecting your flannel-based outfit was contingent on layering. Luckily, the open-flannel-over-t-shirt-or-thermal look allowed for intermittent breezes and important underarm and back ventilation.

6. Great for absorbing greasy hair!

How else would the members of Nirvana or Pearl Jam lay down to sleep at night without sliding off the pillow? Chalk it up to the ever-absorbent power of flannel. Go days without washing with full grease-drip protection!

7. You can pose as a Brawny Paper Towels spokesimage model, no problem

Again, that lumberjack image. When paired with your work jeans and some Doc Martens or Timberlands, you were pretty much ready for whatever challenge (or spill) nature threw at you.

To all you former Niravana-wannabes, embrace your once-burgeoning early 90s grunginess. You don't even need too be overly nostalgic to begin this inner hug, as flannel has (for better or worse) made a comeback in a big way. So go out there and wear it proudly. Just please don't tie it around your waist this time around.

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