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Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job.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!

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.

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).

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?

The Chemsex Monologues

Chemsex kinda does what it says on the tin, mixes chemicals and sex. The drugs used can include mephedrone, crystal meth, cocaine and ketamine. Naturally, a whole load of stereotypes get flung at the people and groups who engage in these activities which is why The Chemsex Monologues are so important because they reveal the all too human side behind the prejudiced slurs and sensationalised stories. But before you read my review go book your tickets, it’s on tonight until Saturday at 9.45pm at the King’s Head Theatre in London.

Directed by Luke Davies, written by Patrick Cash and designed by Richard Desmond this was an intense hour-and-a-bit. Through a series of monologues we were introduced to various characters: the narrator, played by Richard Watkins, who falls for that hot boy on the scene with the great abs and the endless energy. Then Denholm Spurr brings that boy to life as Nameless, who gets to live his dream and meet a porn star. Meanwhile, Charly Flyte plays Cath, the ever faithful fag hag who’s getting a little fed up of her so-called fag. And Daniel, the wonderfully upbeat sexual health worker who loves handing out condoms and lube at saunas and brings red wine to a chemsex party rather than chems. All the cast were fantastic, they found the nuances of character and the expressive range to ensure each monologue was delivered as the multi-layered story it was written as. It wasn’t just someone stood up and talking for fifteen minutes instead we were drawn into worlds of sweaty bodies, M&S ready meals and chemically fuelled orgies. That all the monologues wove together to tell a larger, interlinked story and showed the same characters from different angles proved very satisfying but I shan’t spoil anything (but what I will say is that I’m very glad how things turned out with Swallows).

What also worked so well in this production as in Queers (also produced by Dragonflies Theatre), was that thread of emotion that meant the stories told were more than just anecdotes but had real heart. That Cath was so much more than a fag hag but also a loyal friend, a hardworking single mum and an amazing source of positivity. That Nameless was more than the boy in short shorts (and nothing else) but had so much love to give and poetry to share. That both the narrator and Daniel could see the cracks in the facade of this seemingly glamorous world and still be there to offer a hand. I’d also like to add that I sincerely hope Matthew Hodson is as nice in person as the characters he plays are – Daniel was a legend as was the character Hodson played in Queers (no pressure Matthew). However, the niceness of these characters just exacerbates the tragedy that runs throughout the play. There’s a moment when Daniel’s wondering to himself why so many people do mix chems and sex. He thinks back to a GCSE classics class and remembers that the word ecstasy comes from the Greek extasis: a displacement or removal from the proper place. “Why do so many gay men want to be outside themselves?” he wonders and I thought that was a very good question. Is it just for fun or is it that this so-called real world can be so endlessly hostile and unwelcoming, so shaming of minorities yet so quick to tokenise and ridicule them whilst remaining indifferent to their suffering. If this is one of the messages woven into The Chemsex Monologues then it’s a wake up call for so many of us to stop being so indifferent and unfriendly because people like Nameless, Daniel, Cath and whatever-the-narrator’s-actually-called are priceless and should be made to feel at home. Anyways, enough of that, go book your ticket.

ChemSexMs
Denholm Spurr as Nameless in The Chemsex Monologues