Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance

I was born into a world of gender scarcity and binary. The doctor saw a penis between my legs and sorted me into male. If I’d had a vagina it would have been female. That was it, apparently. This decision to gender me as male fundamentally changed my life and the expectations people had for me and meant I was sent to all-boys’ schools from the age of eight. Ten years later and I arrived at university with a bunch of unresolved anger issues, an inability to process my feelings, shame around even having feelings and a legacy of bullying/being bullied. Given the nature of my schooling (private in the south of England) I was also encouraged to be racist, sexist, and classist, amongst other things. It wasn’t until my first trip to Embercombe, at the age of 25, that I was asked to express my emotions in a vulnerable and open manner. It was really hard. That was when I realised just how thick the armour of day/boarding school really was. An armour that I put in place to protect me from the system I was being schooled through, which ultimately became a straightjacket and hindered my emotional growth and ability to form functional relationships (both platonic and romantic). It was also during my mid-twenties that queerness, for me, became something embodied as well as intellectual. When I looked beyond my gonads, my assumed Y chromosome and my particular hormonal balance, I didn’t find a man (a Slytherin!), I just found me, Robert. At heart I believe myself to be genderqueer even though I still present as cis-male in most of my day-to-day life. It is only in certain spaces, where I feel safe, do I say I use the pronouns they/them as well as he/him. I am not as vocal about this as I could be and, in part, this is me cashing in on my privilege, it’s also protection from the endless ignorance and prejudice I encounter from people I know (not that they would necessarily consider themselves ignorant or prejudiced). It’s been a long old journey, sometimes heart-crushingly lonely, other times euphorically connected, and it isn’t ending it. I am absolutely committed to building Queertopia, rainbow brick by rainbow brick.

But things would have been so different if I’d gone to Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance…

Here there are not just two houses, male or female, in fact, there aren’t any houses at all, not because identities don’t exist but because we are all united in allowing one another to express our myriad identities. We make space for that, so much space. There’s the whole LGBTQQIAAPP2S community and more besides. There are transgender women, non-binary folx, genderqueer kidz, cisgender men and a whole rainbow panoply of fantastic people. We don’t get sorted into boys-are-blue, girls-are-pink, but if a boy likes blue and a girl likes pink then that’s absolutely wonderful. Meanwhile, all of us get to do DIY and cooking and all of us are shown how to process and share our emotions. Being strong, compassionate, kind, brave, fun, caring and adventurous are traits we all get to enjoy (without being forced to!) because we know that these traits are human traits and not limited to particular genders. We also recognise the fluidity and flux inherent in identity and create space for change and exploration, throughout our lives, yup, right up until the end. At this Hogwarts the repressive binary of a gender scarce world has been transcended as we revel in gender abundance, respecting and encouraging all our myriad identities. There’s so much less bullying here than there was at my private schools because here life’s about collaboration and building something wonderful together. Sure, we compete in the odd Quidditch match but factionalism beyond the pitch is not encouraged and there’s no stupid house cup because everyone wins at Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance. The irony is that at my all-boys’ schools I was trained to win and for so long in my life I feared being a ‘loser’. It was shameful. Until a number of breakdowns and identity crises taught me just how much I had really lost by trying so desperately to win. If anything, my prize was alienation from my own soul (a word I use to refer to the entirety of one’s unique, embodied self). Finding it again transcends the very concept of victory (and it feels fab!).

If you’d like to build Queertopia with me or know anyone that might, please do get in touch, hello@robertholtom.co.uk

Earthsea: Can You Imagine A Woman Wizard?

“The earthsea books as feminist literature are a total, complete bust. From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard. Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”

So said Ursula K. Le Guin at a writing convention during the 1970s and the clip is shown in Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a documentary released shortly after her death in 2018. She was talking of the first three books of Earthsea: A Wizard of Earthsea (published 1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970) and The Farthest Shore (1972). All beautiful books about magic, shadows, dragons and, more often than not, men. However, reading the lines and between them I do not consider this spell-binding trilogy of books to be a total, complete bust as far as feminist literature goes, even though there are no woman wizards (spoilers).

Much can be learned about the three books from the maps at the start of them. The Wizard of Earthsea shows the map of the whole archipelago of Earthsea, much of which the protagonist, a young wizard named Duny/Sparrowhawk/Ged (it’s a long story, go read it!),  gets to explore in his quest to defeat the shadow he conjured from the lands of the dead in an act of youthful hubris. The map in The Farthest Shore zooms in on the west of the archipelago and it is here the young Prince Arren joins a much older Ged as they sail from island to island in search of the great evil that is draining the world of life. As for The Tombs of Atuan, the map shows the enclosure of the Place of the Tombs including a few temples, dormitories and the Small House in which the young Tenar sleeps alone. A second map reveals the labyrinth beneath the Tombs, home to the Nameless Ones for whom Tenar is high priestess. These maps are symbolic of the terrain that male and female protagonists get to come of age within: Ged and Arren get the run of Earthsea, while Tenar is literally walled in. A further irony for Tenar is that even though the walls are crumbling and full of holes, the land beyond is miles and miles of arid desert. Escape is both lethal and unimaginable. She is well and truly trapped, while Ged and Arren begin their stories with a much larger degree of freedom. Yes, Ged’s early life is tough but because of his innate gift for magic his situation swiftly improves, whereas Tenar has no magic to improve her lot, there are no woman wizards in Earthsea after all.

Furthermore, in Book 1 Ged spends most of the time fleeing then tracking a shadow of his own creation and in Book 3 Arren gets to choose to join Ged on a mission to save the world from evil. Whereas Tenar is taken as a young child and forced to learn the arcane (and pointless) rituals of an oppressive faith, in which women used to have power but now have been reduced to tokenism within an increasingly patriarchal system. Tenar does not have the privilege to roam free and certainly doesn’t have the privilege to make a mess then clear it up. It is no surprise, either, that at the triumphant end of Book 3 Arren feels a great sense of “victory”, while in Book 2, Tenar does not have the time to win or lose, instead all she acquires is freedom from the oppression of the Tombs. The price of this freedom is high: she can never return to her family and must leave the land she grew up in, unkind to her in many ways but also one in which she found friendship and care. Her actions may fulfil a prophecy and Ged may escort her safely away from the Kargard Lands but her future is completely uncertain. This isn’t victory and it’s barely freedom, if anything, it is escape.

There is one woman wizard in the first trilogy, in Book 3, but she has lost her skill and only exists for a page or so. Meanwhile, the women who do have magic are looked down on as common witches who know herbs and petty love potions, “weak as a woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic” they say on the Isle of Gont, where Ged was born. Female characters do not fare too well in the first three books of Earthsea and acquire very little page space, save in Book 2. However. Beyond Ged and Arren’s typically heroic character arcs, Tenar shows an amazing resilience and bravery in the face of a patriarchal system that would see her dead. To survive the book she must challenge everything she has been raised to believe, she must reject the belief in her own supreme power as high priestess, she must let crumble the very labyrinths she has sworn to protect and betray the Nameless Ones she has long worshipped. To survive she must change entirely and agree to flee her home with Ged, who she rescues from the darkness of the labyrinths. In the face of all this Tenar survives and she grows in ways young Ged and Arren cannot because their very privileges deny them the ability to learn from what they take for granted. They strive and they suffer and they are admirable heroes (who I’d happily go sailing the high seas with) but in my recent rereading of the trilogy it is young Tenar I find myself caring for most, there is more nuance in her story and thus she is given more scope to be human: petty, selfish, wicked as well as brave, fearless and kind (curiously, when Arren starts to think mutinous thoughts about betraying Ged halfway through Book 3 it is because he is under a spell and not because he is revealing his own nuances of character).

The implication is that Le Guin thinks the first trilogy of Earthsea is a “complete bust” as far as feminist literature is concerned because there is no woman wizard protagonist. But it’s no surprise that the works of a woman living through a time of patriarchy would reflect the values and prejudices of such a system. The universities were full of men, not unlike the School of Magic on the Isle of Roke reserved exclusively for men, and the literary canon was full of men. “From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard.” However, we do get Tenar as a protagonist, a young woman struggling to come of age within a callous and dangerous patriarchal world, and I think she’s brilliant. As for woman wizards, “Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.” And it’s that wish that is both heart breaking and inspiring: the former because it acknowledges all the ways Le Guin’s prejudiced world robbed her of the freedoms and privileges she so deserved and inspiring because it informs the second trilogy of Earthsea. TBC.

Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.

Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).

Wonderful Woman

There’s something about watching demi-goddesses beat the living crap out of each other and not even get a scratch that is really quite exciting (btw, spoilers!). Yup, the first twenty odd minutes of the new Wonder Woman film are dedicated to the all-female clan of Amazon warrioresses created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind. Needless to say humankind swiftly became mankind, which quick got to relentlessly killing itself and so the Amazonians retreated to the hidden island of Themyscria where the eponymous heroine of the film is born. Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, aka Diana (played by Gal Gadot), WW1 blasts its violent way into her peaceful life. She chooses not to take things lying down and teams up with US spy Captain Steve Trevor to go and put an end to the war. Cue trenches, machine guns, mustard gas and a host of nefarious villains.

There are so many things to praise about this film. It passes the Bechdel test without being a film that tries to pass the Bechdel test because it is inherently a film about women (well, one woman to be precise). It also features a Native American smuggler, a marksman with PTSD and a Moroccan spy who are all given enough wiggle room to express characterhood without being reduced to stereotypes. A few hurdles it falls down at are lazily equating facial scars with villainy as Isabel Maru, a chief villain who loves gassing people to death, wears a mask over part of her face and doesn’t get to do much other than be a ‘deformed’ psychopath. It also completely buys into conventional representations of ‘beauty’ with a ‘golden couple’ at the heart of the film. Also, given that lady-on-lady romances would abound on Themyscria why not just come out and say it? And, even if Hollywood is desperate to have a man-on-woman romance, why not make Diana proudly bisexual?

One area in which I think the film excels is in the portrayal of Diana’s relentless optimism. Her chief goal in the film is to find Ares, god of war, and slay him, believing that in killing him the war will end as will mankind’s belligerence. At first she’s a bit naive about this, assuming that human’s are inherently good, but as the plot progresses she comes to realise that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but that they have the ability to choose how to behave and can be encouraged to choose good. I like the nuance and I like the shots of troops from the Allies and Central Powers shaking hands once Ares has been slain (fyi, Ares turns out to be a British politician and not the nasty German general proving that all countries were complicit in the atrocities of WW1). And this links to a fascinating bit of history that during 1918/9 there were an abundance of strikes and revolutions in Europe (including Britain!) as soldiers and civilians alike got so fed up of fighting the establishment’s war. These strikes often failed or ended with another bunch of bastards taking political control but they prove the moral shades of grey at the heart of the ‘war to end all wars’ and that the capitalist elite’s exploitation of workers transcends national borders. Imagine a sequel that goes from here rather than just introduces a new super baddy and rehashes the same plot, maybe in WW2. In summary, there’s so much to like when it comes to Wonder Woman not least its breaking of boundaries and box offices. Of course, what is not to like are Gal Gadot’s seemingly naive views on the Israeli Defence League and the huge number of civilian deaths in Gaza (giving more than enough reason for many people to boycott this film). Diana constantly reminds her fellow characters that war is wrong and not inherent to human nature, now let’s apply that logic to the real world.

The Replacement: Worst Maternity Cover EVER (spoilers)

Women regularly have it tough in the workplace. Sexual harassment, lower pay, the glass ceiling, general misogyny and the tricky fact that many women can get pregnant. Yup, even the miracle of childbirth can be used against women to deny them jobs, get them replaced and ensure they don’t return to work. Naturally, the BBC thought it was high time to sensitively delve into this issue and what we got was The Replacement. Ellie is a successful architect (cue the odd reference to ‘sight lines’ and sky lights) working on a fancy, new library when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Her employees are more or less thrilled and help Ellie find her replacement. Enter Paula. She’s nice. So nice. Like, really nice. All pearly, white smiles and over zealous efficiency. She does work ahead of schedule, makes friends with everyone in the office super quickly and is just so darn friendly. Naturally, everyone thinks Ellie’s a little mad when she suggests that maybe Paula is out to replace her for good. That is until Paula kidnaps Ellie and tries to get her to kill herself so she can take her baby to replace the daughter she tragically lost in a car accident even though she was pretending her daughter was still alive. Who knew maternity leave could be so dangerous!?

Now, don’t get me wrong this was really well acted and it had me compulsively clicking ‘watch next episode’ until it ended (ok, I was recovering from a virus, that’s my excuse) but I couldn’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Two women go head to head in mortal combat to prove who is a better mother and colleague. Sure, they’re being defined by their motherhood and ability to function as a decent capitalist worker but I feel the show knows that. It must be aware of the constant hum of sexism throughout the episodes given that the men in this show are just awful: Ellie’s husband turns on her, tries to take the baby away and nearly ends up with Paula. Ellie’s boss, also wooed by Paula, reveals that on the night his wife, Kay, supposedly committed suicide she’d accused him of having an affair with Ellie which he didn’t deny (even though it wasn’t true) but he did tell Kay that if he’d been with Ellie at least he might have had a child. Good news is that this didn’t actually lead to Kay taking her own life because it turns out Paula killed her because Kay wouldn’t stop going on about the fact that Paula’s daughter wasn’t actually alive anymore.

If this all sounds quite farfetched and just a little silly that’s because it was (and don’t get me started on what the library ended up looking like..there weren’t even that many books in it and it was super kid unfriendly, or the bit with the baby basket being left on a window ledge, or the bit when Paula clearly hasn’t researched her effective poisons etc). Yet this steady patter of sexism was never really commented upon because what we ultimately saw was two women coerced and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism forced to fight each other to the death. It proved entertaining(ish) but I did feel the team behind it may have just thought “Girl On A Train in an office” just like those behind Apple Tree Yard probably thought “middle-aged Gone Girl“. So whilst the programme does showcase some epic acting from Vicky McClure and Morven Christie and passes the Bechdel with flying colours this doesn’t classify it as novel or even offering something verging on feminist critique. It doesn’t need to (I hear the defenders of the status quo cry) but just because Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff and the 9-5 crew got their happy endings doesn’t mean more women can’t take on the patriarchy in style. There was scope here to see something interesting done with the genre and have Ellie actually try to team up with Paula (ok, minus the whole Paula-murdering-Kay bit, which really didn’t make sense given Paula ends up telling loads of people her secret anyway) and have them transcend the patriarchal binds of the work place. But instead they were forced to endure the limited plot devices that their hackneyed characters had to offer. So whilst The Replacement could, at a push, be critiquing our culture’s obsession with defining women by the children they may or may not have I feel it’s just cashing in on this trope and maybe even making matters worse especially as just after Ellie’s shut the door in her dire husband’s face her boss appears in the background implying that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get together because heaven forfend Ellie be a single Mum.

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

The Trouble With The Gilmore Girls

Only a couple more weeks until the Gilmore Girls return in four brand new episodes on Netflix. But who are the Gilmore Girls, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a popular American dramedy (drama-comedy, yup, that’s a thing) that ran from 2000 to 2007 and now they’re coming back. The ‘girls’ themselves are Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Lorelai is a single Mum who was shunned by her rich parents when she became pregnant. Rory is her daughter. They live in the kooky town of Stars Hollow where all manner of daily adventures take place. It sounds like a recipe for success – not one but two female protagonists and a supporting cast of likeable, if kooky, characters. Indeed, it was a success, a huge success, and people all over the world enjoyed watching Lorelai and Rory talk at an incredibly fast pace and remain in great health despite diets of takeaway food.

However, scratch beneath the surface and the kookiness takes on a darker hue. For starters, the supporting cast is one of stereotypes – there’s Manuel (correction, his name is Michel, I was mistaking him for the stereotyped waiter in Fawlty Towers and compounding the stereotype – sorry), the one black and homosexual character who is a smörgåsbord of tokenisms; there’s Sookie, Lorelai’s co-worker and the token ‘larger’ character whilst nearly all other characters are slim and conventionally good-looking (she’s also played by the epic Melissa McCarthy who was tragically underused). There’s Kirk the ‘oddball’ character who is frequently mocked for finding it difficult to socialise. There’s Lane, Rory’s nice Asian friend, but never going to be the star of the show. And there’s Lane’s Mum who is all sorts of offensive cultural generalisations. And don’t forget Paris, the ambitious and intelligent one who regularly gets mocked for being ambitious and intelligent, unlike Rory whose achievements come naturally and without fuss. Meanwhile, if you wish to find other diverse characters, e.g. bisexual, lesbian, transgender, ethnicities besides black and asian, non-Christian, this is not the show for you. But this isn’t new, shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother also fall foul of these tropes.

However, I think the biggest problem is that the Gilmore Girls are presented as normal – Rory and Lorelai are presented as the great bastions of normality around whom all other characters are presented as weird offshoots. Yet these ‘girls’ are not normal. For one Lorelai gets to have her cake and eat it with regards her wealthy background – she simultaneously accepts handouts from her parents whilst decrying said privilege. She hands these views down to Rory who we witness in one episode paying a guy $20 so she can sit under the tree he’s sitting by. There are other trees! Rory also never learns how to do her own laundry, a useful plot device to see her relentlessly driving from Harvard to Stars Hollow to hang out and talk fast with her Mom. The ‘girls’ also enjoy mocking their fellow townspeople, making offhand jokes about genocide and ebola, and generally belittling the lives of others. Yet these ‘girls’ are the moral core of the programme and I think that’s a little problematic.

Other problems include the replacement of plot with endless talking – Rory talks to her current boyfriend, Rory talks to Lorelai about talking to her current boyfriend, Lorelai talks to Sookie about talking with Rory about her talking with her current boyfriend. Of course, what would be interesting if Sookie then talked to the current boyfriend and we discovered they were having an affair together – but that would constitute plot rather than talking. Then there’s the soundtrack, composed of a singer chanting monosyllables like ‘la’ and ‘da’ over and over again as the scenes change. However, the saving grace of the Gilmore Girls is Emily, Lorelai’s mother. She is a rich, snobbish, conservative bigot and regularly complains about other people, who she treats largely  as means to satisfying her various ends. But she is consistent in her views. At least we know where we stand with Emily (ideally, far away), she’ll be rude to her staff and she’ll complain vociferously at restaurants whereas Lorelai and Rory are too busy trying to present as ‘women of the people’ when really they’re more like Emily than they care to acknowledge (I guess Emily would unashamedly vote Trump whilst Rory and Lorelia would vote for Hillary but not necessarily campaign against the structural injustices of neoliberal capitalism).

Now, I realise I might as well stop blogging given that I’ve just criticised one of America’s national treasures but there is something I must admit to – I kinda love the show. I have watched an awful lot of episodes (although not all, which is my disclaimer for this post containing any factual inaccuracise) and seen Rory and Lorelai eat far too many pancakes at Luke’s cafe, go to lots of kooky town events and bicker with various partners. Like erosion, their incessant waves of chatter have gradually worn away at my coastal defenses and for some unknown reason I actually find myself caring about the people of Stars Hollow. So, yeah, I will definitely watch the new episodes and shudder every time a character is tokenised but also cheer when Rory and Lorelai achieve great things. I love those Gilmore Girls…or should that be Gilmore Women?