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.

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.

I Call Bullshit Again: Bored Of Being Polite To Bigots

A few posts ago I was encouraging people to take an empathetic stance towards Trump voters, trying to understand the lives they live, the difficulties they face and why they might vote for someone like Donald Trump. That was, however, before the election result and now that Trump is in the White House I think things have changed. Someone who promoted racism, sexism, disablism, Islamaphobia and a whole host of other prejudices is now not just the surprise candidate he is the surprise president (and don’t forget that he called for bombing civilians, waterboarding and stealing Iraq’s oil). He might be backtracking on his wall and offering a fence instead and he might be telling people to ‘stop, just stop’ committing violence towards minorities but it is precisely those things that helped get him into the White House. So, once again, I call bullshit to bigotry.

I’ve heard a few people, Barack Obama included, say we should accept the situation and just move on (y’know, that keep calm and carry on bullshit), accepting that Trump has been voted president and hoping he makes good of it. Well, as he welcomes people with even more extreme views into his team, denies climate change and courts demagogues I can’t see this ending well. This guy has profited from capitalism, flaunted the rules and grabbed pussy to boot. There is nothing progressive about this man and just because he called bullshit to the political status quo does not make him a trump card (yup, that word is marred forever). He’s a supercharged Nigel Farage who wants to use inequality, social dissatisfaction and age-old rivalries to promote his political success. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process so please, please can we carry on calling bullshit to Donald Trump.

And back to that post about empathy. I think it’s pretty easy for someone in my privileged position – white, male, financially secure, not in America, rarely on the receiving end of prejudice – to make simplistic statements about striving to understand people different to myself but if said people have just voted in someone who will make your life incredibly difficult and add fuel to the fires of hatred in your country then the last thing I imagine you want to do is get empathetic (getting a gun probably seems like a safer bet). Rebecca Solnit, Bernie Sanders, Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky are just some of the few calling bullshit and I reckon we should join them. And more than just calling bullshit we need to get organised. For those of us who can, we need to offer support to those facing prejudice because history has not been made by people turning their backs. We also need to ensure that Trump and his equivalents elsewhere do not have it easy – the Republicans made Obama’s presidency tough, so let’s make sure the Democrats do the same rather than just passively endorse the rise of hate. And, yes, empathy and compassion are important too and so is not stereotyping an entire group but Trump is in the White House and the many wars that the ‘West’ has always waged against itself (e.g. black people v. white people in the US, ‘nationals’ v. immigrants in most countries, rich v. poor, rural v. urban) are getting worse and worse. And sure, as the privileged person I am, I am yet to be at the receiving of said prejudices but I’m not going to wait until I get punched in the face before I do something about it. Trump is in the White Horse. This is not OK. And may I remind you that this has led to the return of Sarah Palin and we all know who she is. She says Trump’s presidency is “going to be so much fun” and that just sounds like a threat. So, game on folks, it’s time to wing a whole load of bullshit at those bigots (and here’s a link to the SNL parody of Palin’s speech but I couldn’t decide which was more funny/depressing/scary).

I’m Voting For Trump Because…

I’m voting for Trump because over the last few decades I have seen my local community decimated. After the factory closed down there weren’t that many jobs going around and more and more folk got into money troubles. People got in debt, people got depressed and some people started taking drugs. I was told America was the land of the great but I ain’t seeing much greatness around. I voted for Obama because he promised change but there’s been jack all change over the past few years. If anything, things are getting worse and I don’t trust Hillary Clinton, she’s part of the elite just like all the others. America needs to sort things out again and I just want a decent job.

I’m voting for Trump because I’ve been a proud Republican my whole life and I believe in the free market. It worked for me. I set up my own business back in the 80s and now I’m a millionaire. Ronald Reagan was a godsend, freeing the market and letting business take the stage. I’ve put my kids through top college educations and now one is an actress, another is a banker and one’s run off to join a hippy circus (we tend not to invite her over for Christmas, she doesn’t eat Turkey). Trump’s controversial, of course, but he’s a Republican and that’s where my heart lies. God bless America. I’m voting for Trump because I don’t like blacks and Jews. I’ve never had much respect for women and I hate those Femi-nazis who get all angry and red in the face. Women need to know when to speak and when to shut up. I mean, a black president is bad enough but now they want a woman president. I do not condone this and nor does Trump, that’s why he’s my man and he’s got my vote. I’m voting for Trump because I was going to vote for Bernie and I do not trust Hillary Clinton. I’m voting for Trump because it’s high time America had a revolution. I’m voting for Trump because Muslims should be banned. I’m voting for Trump because I’m a passionate Muslim businessman and I quite like the guy.

These may or may not be some of the reasons why people are voting for Donald Trump but having watched this Jeremy Paxman film and read this article I know not all of the above sentiments are too far off the mark. And the point I’m trying to make is just as there’s no such thing as an ‘average Brexit voter’ so there is no such thing as an ‘average Trump voter’. There are so many different reasons for why people are voting Trump and whilst some may be contradictory, confused or misguided and others just are bigoted, racist and sexist there are many that are concerned, earnest and hopeful. However, one thing I thing I think might be true across the spectrum of Trump voters is that they don’t want to be patronised. It’s all well and good for Paxman to call Trump voters “mad” to their face and to emphasise just how much of a loon Trump is but for every cutting and sarky ‘Trump voters are morons’ type comment there is someone getting insulted on the receiving end. This sarcastic and condescending tone just adds fuel to an anti-establishment fire that is already burning strong. Of course, many would want to contest that Trump is actually a genuine leader of such an anti-establishment movement (just as Farage clearly wasn’t) but that requires a more nuanced conversation not just labelling someone moronic. It’s not that all Trump voters are deplorable it’s that the system that routinely ignores and scapegoats them is deplorable.

And, yes, I am well aware of the sort of person Trump is – he’s bigoted, he condones and trivialises sexual assault and he’s an arch hypocrite. And, of course, I am not voting for him because I’m not a US citizen but I did think that title was more attention grabbing than ‘The Bourgeoise Left-Wing Metropolitan Elite Need To Brush Up On Their Empathy Skills’. But there’s far more to the American election than a single vote happening tomorrow. The divisions we see boiling to the surface are symptomatic of a vicious and unfair class war that has been waging for decades, which many of us benefit from without thinking much of those who miss out. This will continue to be the case regardless of who becomes the next president. Until we get to the bottom of this mess and learn how to listen to each other we’re going to keep seeing the same feuds play themselves out over and over again.  To be continued…

It’s Called X-Men For A Reason

Can’t wait for X-Men Apocalypse? I can. And the reason’s in the name. Sure, X-People or X-Humans might not have the same ring to it but we’d get used to it after a while. So, in anticipation of the next Latif and Bechdel test failing reboot of this endless franchise I thought I’d re-cap why the previous two films were such let downs.

X-Men: First Class pretty much starts as it means to go on with Rose Byrne’s character, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, stripping off to some black lingerie to join a throng of female strippers as they ululate for various men in suits. Was this film made by teenage boy stereotypes? January Jones plays Emma Frost who can turn into diamond, a fairly typical result of minor DNA mutation and also a great excuse to have her in underwear and virtually naked most of the time. And if that wasn’t enough female semi-nudity Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique, who spends most of her time being naked and blue. So, yup, this is one of those superhero movies for the “lads” – the sort of lads who choke if they eat their popcorn too quickly and fantasise about being Magneto. Talking of whom, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy seem to enjoy getting all the best lines but also playing two right twerps – seriously, young Xavier is such a sleezeball who seems to fail to understand when ‘no means no’ even though he can read minds (a skill he uses to hit on women with, which is just wrong).

The younger mutants don’t fare too well either. There’s a whole bunch of them but they’re mainly white and hetero. The one black mutant, Darwin, played by Edi Gathegi, has a life span of around five minutes before Kevin Bacon’s villian fills him with strange, red energy causing him to implode and shatter into many pieces as his mate Havoc watches through white crocodile tears. Of course, this happens after the only other mutant of colour, Angel, decides to defect and join the baddies’ team (she survives this film but dies off-screen before the next one). So what’s the moral here? That the goodies are white and heteronormative and if you deviate from this trope you’ll end up dead one way or the other.

It’s a similar story for Days of Future Past – McAvoy and Fassender hog all the screen time as they fight over Mystique whose DNA, it turns out, was used to build giant, mutant-killing robots called Sentinels. Yup, a woman is to blame for why all the mutants face extinction. Ellen Page appears but spends most of her time holding onto Wolverine’s head as he gets to do all the fighting. Although you do see his bum for a few seconds in a half-hearted attempt to get some objectification of the male body in the film. It doesn’t last long because all those “lads” are probably too busy snorting on their fizzy drinks and trying desperately to affirm their heterosexuality. The only good thing this film does is to eradicate X-Men: The Last Stand – yup, history literally gets rewritten and one of the worst X-Men movies vanishes. And this means the brilliant Jean Grey is back and no doubt she’ll leave Xavier’s ridiculous school for mutant brats to join a team of awesome queer, female and diversely coloured mutants. So maybe things are looking up for Apocalypse especially with Mystique asking us to “forget everything you think you know.” Does this include the white, cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy?

The Night Manager: A Slower James Bond

The Night Manager, it’s the new John Le Carré adaptation on BBC1, a typical story of intrigue, spying and nefarious businessmen screwing the rest of the world over. If you’ve ever seen a James Bond film then it’s like that (sorry, spoiler alert) – big baddy selling weapons, objectified women who get killed by baddies and some dull, semi-sociopath spy caught in the middle of it. Except this time M is played by Olivia Coleman and she’s got a northern accent and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts you’ll be able to predict my complaints: it fails the Latif and Bechdel tests so far (I’m on episode 3 and still asking myself why I didn’t stop at 1), there’s plenty of sexualised, female nudity and zilch sexualised male nudity (not even some side penis to compensate for all the side boob we get) and the protagonist has no charisma, genuinely zero, he doesn’t even register on the personality scale. To summarise, this is a boring yet glamorous waste of time. If you really want your fill of slightly-more-intelligent-than-James-Bond spy thriller (but still disappointingly chauvinistic) watch The Constant Gardener.

So, need this blog go on? Well, one thing I do find quite interesting about this series is it’s depiction of rich people. And we’re not just talking millionaires we’re talking the billionaire businessmen who sell arms and pull strings in national governments to get away with it. Yup, it’s the elite of the elite, those at the top of the capitalist military industrial complex. And the one in The Night Manager is called Richard Roper and is played by Hugh Laurie. And, curiously, he’s not very scary. He tells crass jokes, he flops around his villa eating brioche, he quaffs champagne, he does the odd deal, he dances with his much younger girlfriend (who is often to be seen naked unlike Hugh Laurie of course). Meanwhile, his rich friends have drinking problems, are insecure about how they look, cheat on their wives with their French au pairs, have complexes about their masculinity (and penis size no doubt), and genuinely do what insecure, entitled men do. Meanwhile, the wives look on as they try to ignore their husbands dodgy dealings whilst packing off bratty Tamara and Tim to boarding school.

And these so-called elites, the 1%, are the ones we’re encouraged to aspire to be like!? The only difference between these people and any other group of malfunctioning humans (which is most groups) is that when they negotiate over a contract that contract tends to be about weapons that may well be used in a war. When I fall out with my friends it’s usually over a round and the repercussions might be a split pint or two. For the 1% it’s whether British arms will be used to trash the next Middle Eastern country. So The Night Manger, whilst being a well-worn cliché of exotic locales and exoticised women has done me the favour of putting me off my dream to become a billionaire. The rich come across as pretty boring and Hugh Laurie’s attempt at justifying his lifestyle is also quite boring. After having said how great it is to be able to eat brioche whenever he likes and go skiing a lot he then says: “Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom.” I mean, seriously, what a half-hearted attempt at justifying egoistic nihilism. The whole point of nihilism is that you don’t need to justify it, it’s just an excuse to be a complete wanker and not care about anyone else. Sure, Roper fits the bill but is a villa in Mallorca really the best he can do? Personally, I’d prefer some nice friends and not facilitating World War 3.

What About An International Men’s Day?

Today is International Women’s Day. Now, I get it, women are half the world’s population and they give birth to the whole of it. And sure, they’ve done some important things. Apparently they’ve contributed to science (something about X-Rays and DNA), a couple of them run businesses, some female poets are OK, I think there are some female playwrights, some of them save rain forests, some led armies, there have been a few alright Queens I suppose, others got into politics whilst others didn’t get into politics but still stood up for social justice, I think there was even a woman who is famous for taking a seat on a bus (is that really newsworthy?), some are quite good at sports and there’s the odd, alright female singer. One even got famous for writing about wizards.  So, sure, a day to celebrate women is alright I suppose but…what about men?

Men do important things too. They’ve mastered the art of whistling at women in the streets, whistling is actually really hard. They send dick pics, lots of ’em, and photography is an art form. They get jobs their Dad’s used to do which they then pass on to their sons, men know how to look out for each other. Men are confident and independent whilst women are just bossy and high-maintenance. They’re full of great sartorial and dietary advice for women, yeah, you could do with losing a few pounds. And most of us are really nice guys, we’re so nice, we behave like gentlemen – opening doors for hot birds, only looking briefly at cleavages. Chivalry is not dead and all we ask in return is that women return the favour and act more ladylike. And, unlike, feminists who all hate men we have a lot of time for the opposite sex, we really like women, especially when they’re fit and do what we tell them to.

So, I think guys are pretty great, which is why I’m starting an Avaaz petition to establish an International Men’s Day to remind the world of the glory of man. I mean a patriarchal system designed by and for men predicated on the abuse and denigration of half the world’s population isn’t enough. Nor is the ability to ride on the wave of centuries of unquestioned privilege whilst assuming we are entitled to the power that is arbitrarily given to us. Nor is the systematic undermining of female advancement in professions across the sectors. Nor is a culture that glorifies the objectification of women and trivialises rape and abuse. This isn’t enough, we’ve still got a long way to go. So guys you know what to do. Man up.

Tiny Violins For White People

Countless tiny violins are playing for offended white people all over the world. First, there was Charlotte Rampling saying that “it is racist to whites” to suggest that decades of institutionalised racism have yet again resulted in no people of colour being nominated for Oscars. Then there was Michael Caine reminding us that it took him “years to get an Oscar, years” so it’s only right that people of colour should “be patient” and wait their turn. And, finally, there are the many white people outraged that Beyoncé should use her latest music video to highlight the racism and abuse that black people continue to face in today’s society. I’m getting a bit bored of trying to encourage fellow white people to see things differently (cue my own tiny violin) but here goes.

Charlotte Rampling: As a female actor who rose to fame during the sixties she no doubt encountered an awful lot of sexism. An industry that is still predicated on the objectification and demeaning of women was surely worse back then. So kudos to Rampling for pushing through. However, even if my speculations are right and she did face discrimination this is no excuse to ignore the struggles of others as she willfully ignores the prejudice facing people of colour. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final [Oscars] list,” said Rampling whilst discussing the boycott of the current Academy Awards. If the consequences of ignorance weren’t so grave this would be laughable – to actually think the Academy Awards are based on an objective judgement of acting talent carried out by unbiased judges behind closed doors is ridiculous. No, the predominantly white people who form the panel are just as likely to suffer from the prejudices and bigotry that run through all sectors of society resulting in biased behaviour. Sorry Rampling, you may be a good actor but you’re not that good and actors of colour aren’t that bad either.

Fortunately, Rampling issued a statement in which she clarified her position. Whilst not explicitly apologising she did say she regrets what she said. “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” Yes, but come on Rampling, we don’t live in an ideal society and crass comments about how talentless actors of colour are for which you don’t apologise form part of what doesn’t make it ideal.

Michael Caine: When it comes to winning awards, to suggest that people of colour need to “be patient” and hold tight until the Academy deigns them worthy is a right slap in the face. Caine is an individual actor of arguable talent whilst people of colour represent an absolutely vast talent pool. For Caine, as a privileged white male who will never have had to experience the sort of racism that people of colour have faced and do face in the film industry, to compare his situation with that of people of colour is ludicrous. Why doesn’t he hand over his awards to some of the many overlooked and discriminated against yet hugely talented actors of colour? Come on Caine, it’s time to step up by stepping down.

Formation by Beyoncé: Centuries of slavery and oppression meant black people were treated abysmally in the States and all over the world. Whilst slavery might have been abolished in the US its legacies of violence, prejudice and ignorance live on. It’s time white people acknowledged this history and recognised that we still benefit from huge amounts of white privilege (what’s white privilege? Check out this cartoon). Questioning this privilege means redistributing it in such a way that we can all be empowered – so it works out better for all of us, yes, even white people. Sure, it’s going to be tough for us whites to accept that an awful lot of violence has been and is still perpetrated in our name, often by us, but this will never be as tough as actually experiencing that violence. I could go on but Beyoncé’s latest video speaks for itself.

You Don’t Own Me

Grace, the Australian singer, recently covered Lesley Gore’s ace 1963 single You Don’t Own Me and it sure gets the feminist feet stomping. Each inspiring verse is interspersed with some sexist thoughts from rapper G-Eazy (Sl-Eazy more like it) as he tries to assert his male dominance over the woman he “would love to flaunt” as she’s not one of your average “basic bitches”. Indeed, she’s the “baddest ever…Never borrow, she ain’t ever loan, That’s when she told me she ain’t ever ever ever gonna be owned.” Then Grace blasts back with a booming chorus and puts Mr Misogynist back in his place. But all this singing of possession makes me wonder exactly what ownership actually is?

Why is it that Grace needs to assert that someone else does not own her? How could the scenario even have arisen in which people come to think that they actually own others? Part of the answer (and I reckon quite a big part) is, unsurprisingly, to do with money. As a brief scan of anthropologist David Graeber’s 500+ page book called Debt reveals, money has played an integral part of human society for hundreds of years. Economists tend to tell us that money came into being when barter systems got too confusing – if I give you ten oranges, three pigeons and a mug in return for a pair of shoes, two bananas and a kitten…but instead of all that faffing about with oranges and bananas a different system of exchange was introduced whereby something came to act as a store of value. It could be a coin, a rod of iron or a piece of paper, as long as everyone agreed that the values remained consistent and commensurate over time.

But, argues Graeber, that fictional land of peaceful and friendly barter didn’t exist, as least not on a large-scale. Instead, he argues that money grew out of debt. Take the Roman Empire for example – when they invaded a new territory they would often turn their captives into slaves. Slavery is the ultimate form of ownership as it rips someone from their social context and ties them to someone else. The alternative to being enslaved was basically death or slowly, slowly buying back one’s freedom by working long and hard enough. A slave owed their life to their master but only because the master had the power. Money itself is also debt. On a £10 note it says: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the some of ten pounds.” The actual piece of paper is worthless but it’s what it stands for – i.e. that these items or services are all worth £10. Money is one giant system of IOUs. However, it’s clearly not an arbitrary system because there’s a whole system of banking, policing and law-making  to ensure that people pay their debts.

So, concludes Graeber, behind money is debt and behind debt is power, and the history accords with this – the economic power of the Roman Empire depended on its military strength because it had to have a way of enforcing its debts, having a giant army helped with this. And something similar is true today, only those with power can call in their debts and this power usually involves violence or the threat of it. G-Eazy says that Grace is an independent woman “All because she got her own dough, Boss bossed if you don’t know, She could never ever be a broke ho”. And that certainly is one way of getting out of slavery, by making lots of money, but humans existed long before money and whilst we do put a price on freedom and maintain that price with force it’s still just a system of belief, albeit a very powerful and tragic one. But maybe there’s a different way. More ideas to come, in the meantime here’s the original, without G-Eazy offering us his sexist thoughts in between the good bits.

Star Wars Episode 8: Rey Retires Early (Spoilers)

The beginning of Star Wars Episode 8 is going to surprise quite a few fans. It goes like this: having arrived at the secret island where Luke Skywalker has been hiding, Rey, the hero of Episode 7, will give Luke his lightsaber back. After that they’ll have tea, chat about Midi-Chlorians for a bit and then Rey will say her goodbyes and leave. Yup, she will exit the plot and go off with Chewie to fly around the galaxy in a cool spaceship. But why do something as drastic as this, just when Star Wars was slowly catching up with the 21st century by casting a woman as one of the heroes of the film? Because Rey knows nothing could be more boring than having to go through the motions of becoming a hero – we all saw Luke Skywalker do it and given that Episode 7 was basically Episode 4, they might as well not bother making 8 & 9 and just copy/paste the new characters on top of the old ones in 5 & 6. It’ll save us all the cinema ticket price.

In Episodes 4 – 6 we saw Luke Skywalker go through the motions/plot devices of the Hero’s Quest, a supposedly “archetypal” story structure that 20th century mythologist Jospeh Campbell came up with. Campbell argued that this “fundamental” story has existed in cultures around the world for millenia. He thought it was the story of all time. In brief it is the story of a character who is called to do something great – drop a magic ring in a volcano, kill Voldemort, kill Darth Vader etc. Firstly they get some mentoring so they can learn the tricks of the trade (often killing), then they’re given a talisman to help them on their quest (often a weapon), then they leave the safety of their home and trek off into the unknown. There they will be tested by a range of foes and challenges (usually fights) until eventually they have to face the big baddy in order to triumph (usually an even bigger fight). Meanwhile, they’ll rescue a damsel in distress, resolve their father issues, and return home victorious. Luke Skywalker went through this exact process because George Lucas was good mates with Joseph Campbell and so based Episodes 4 – 6 off of Campbell’s research.

A few other hallmarks of the Hero’s Quest include the fact that heroes are basically always men – women are either trophies to be won or seductresses to be conquered (or a bit of both). However, with the introduction of Rey in Episode 7 the masculinist/sexist bent of the Hero’s Quest has been challenged (as it has in other films such as Mad Max). This is progress: Rey has been given the chance to play a role that was previously reserved for men. She’ll now get to fight with giant lasers and move things without touching them. This is awesome and as Laurie Penny makes clear it’s ace that new, diverse characters are finally being invited to the hero’s table – this represents a big cultural change in the stories of our times.

But the Hero’s Quest is still the Hero’s Quest – an overly-simplistic, totalising monomyth concocted by Campbell and retroactively applied to hundreds of older stories. It’s easy to claim something conforms to the Hero’s Quest as the structure is so broad and vague – someone gets asked to do something, they’re challenged, things happen and then more things happen (these things usually always involve violence). But it’s blind to cultural sensitivities and nuances, and up until only recently it was reserved for cis, white men. And Rey knows this. Rey knows she hasn’t spent years living by herself on a desert planet just so she can endure an unimaginative, oft-repeated plot structure – one where she finds a mentor, gets trained, fights foes, resolves her mother issues, and returns home the hero (yawn). She doesn’t want  a story that’s so historically mired in sexism, patriarchy, appropriation and the values of capitalism (especially ruthless individualism). “Sod that for a packet of biscuits” thinks Rey, she wants a story that transcends these tired clichés and prejudices. So you can have your lightsaber back Luke, Rey’s got a different narrative to live.

The Hero’s Quest in brief!