Bad Villains Make For Bad Heroes

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“A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” – Robert McKee in ‘Story’.

If you’re someone who generally enjoys superhero TV shows and movies, like me, then chances are you were at least mildly excited to watch Marvel’s latest superhero series, ‘The Defenders’. But, if you’ve seen it then it’s also likely that you, like me, are deeply underwhelmed by it. Or, at least, feel like it could have been a lot better.  It seems to follow in the time-honoured tradition of Marvel outings that are good enough to watch but never good enough to seriously leave a mark. Visual spectacles that promise something profound and settle for passable instead.

But rather than just brand ‘Defenders’ as “bad” or “average”, I’d like to try and figure out why it’s not as good as it definitely could be. And while there are many things about it that I think could be improved upon, in this piece, I’m going to argue that they all stem from one central flaw: bad villains. Not bad as in evil, but bad as in… why do you even exist? And I’m going to compare these flaws to what is generally considered the best superhero work on-screen in the modern era: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, as a means of highlighting why I think ‘The Defenders’ falls short.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Before I get into what makes a poor villain, I first want to talk about what makes a good one.

“Create an opponent… who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.” – John Truby.

The above is a piece of screenwriting advice from John Truby in his work, ‘The Anatomy of Story’. The idea being put forward is that well-crafted villain is one that is good in opposition to their particular hero… and by extension vice versa. ‘The Dark Knight’ is not your perfect movie – no such thing exists – but whether you love it or loathe it, there is one thing it gets spectacularly right: the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. The Joker is a great villain but he is, more importantly, a great villain for Batman to face. He’d be terrible as the villain in ‘Moana’. A facetious example, I know, but it illustrates my point. Similarly, the character of the Joker isn’t going to fit in every superhero movie – Evidence A: The disaster that is Suicide Squad. You have to characterise him right. So why is the Joker a good villain in ‘The Dark Knight’?

Many reasons. Of course, Heath Ledger’s career-defining performance is one of them. But mostly, it comes back to one recurring idea: The Joker is great at pushing Batman into doing things he doesn’t want to do.

Batman has one rule, and anyone could tell you it: He doesn’t kill. What the Joker is great at in the film, is trying to make Batman break his rule.

For starters, unlike every other villain Batman ever faces, The Joker is not afraid of death. In fact, he constantly begs Batman to kill him.

“I want you to do it, I want you to do it, come on, hit me”, he mutters into the camera as Batman hurtles towards him on his high-powered Batcycle. Anyone else might run or hide but he stands defiantly… which forces Batman to swerve to avoid him and crash as a consequence.

He exploits the biggest weakness that Batman has – his morality – and uses it to make himself stronger while making Batman look weak and incapable of doing what he needs to do to protect the city.

The Joker causes increasing amounts of chaos and death (he’s robbing banks, killing people, blowing up buildings, taking over TV streams) and no matter what Batman does, he can’t seem to stop him. He arrests The Joker then beats him mercilessly. He threatens him, tries to force information out of him… none of it has any effect. Why? Because these are things that don’t bother The Joker. The Joker can’t be intimidated – he can’t be controlled with fear. He doesn’t care about being arrested because he’s already planned for that eventuality (and as we know, in any and every Batman story, he always escapes) and we’ve just established he’s not bothered about his life.

“You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength…” he says, laughing in the face of Batman during the interrogation scene.

Joker

Gotham is a place governed by fear – a theme that the entirety of ‘Batman Begins’, the previous film in the trilogy, dedicates itself to establishing. Batman’s greatest strength is his ability to use that fear against his enemies. Batman is powerful, not just because of his physical prowess, but because he is a terrifying symbol for the villains of Gotham. Just the Batsignal in the sky is enough to stop a drug deal in a scene early on in the film.

The Joker takes all this away.

He presents him with seemingly only one option, one choice to make.

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choices to the character’s essential nature” – Robert Mckee

It is Batman’s insistence on finding a non-lethal solution as well as his faith in the people of Gotham that ultimately tell us who he is. It is what distinguishes him from The Joker or some ordinary vigilante. No one could really blame him for killing The Joker in the circumstances of the movie but he knows and we know that it would set a dangerous precedent and it’s a line he’s not willing to cross. It is this difficulty of choice that make us sympathise with him and his refusal to take the easy way out which makes us respect him more. We like Batman because no matter how hard he’s pushed, he still remains a good guy who’s true to his principals. Thus, the threat of The Joker enhances the character of Batman.

The Joker also helps Batman come to realisations about himself.  He shows him more about his own nature and his own limits.

Batman

“Today I’ve found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this”, he says to Alfred as they discuss the Joker’s threat that he will kill people every day until Batman reveals his true identity. Bruce decides to turn himself in and in doing so, realises that he’s not as infallible as he thought he was – he has weaknesses that he now sees clearly. We the viewer, in turn, are shown that, fundamentally, Batman is selfess and will sacrifice himself for Gotham (a theme that pays off again at the end of the film).

Finally, the characters of both The Joker and The Batman are dependent on each other.

Batman creates the Joker, albeit inadvertently. It is Batman’s oppressive form of justice – terrorising the villains of Gotham – that drives all the crime bosses to band together to try and find a solution…and it is during this underground meeting that The Joker arrives and gains their support. He claims that he can kill The Batman for them. They don’t trust him, but they feel they have no other option left to deal with Batman, so they give agree to his plan.

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In turn, The Joker’s existence makes Batman question himself and his resolve. By the end of the film, this resolve is strengthened because of The Joker and Batman is stronger for it. He has renewed hope for Gotham. Most importantly, it is the Joker’s actions that make Batman ‘The Dark Knight’ when he decides to take responsibility for Harvey Dent’s actions. He becomes, “Whatever Gotham needs [him] to be”. The Batman creates the Joker, who in turn moulds him into The Dark Knight – the anti-hero. Their relationship is symbiotic.

So, in quick summary: The Joker pushes the Batman to make tough choices, he’s good at exploiting his weaknesses, he helps him understand himself better and their relationship is symbiotic. This is why their battle feel so powerful.

Now remember these idea while we return to the original scope of the piece and compare this to ‘The Defenders’.

First of all, who is/are the villains of ‘The Defenders’? There’s two inter-related ones: The mysterious organisation known as ‘The Hand’ and the woman they have recently revived: Elektra Natchios.

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How does The Hand relate to each of the four heroes of ‘The Defenders’? Well, Danny is fighting an eternal battle against The Hand. Matt was raised by Stick to specifically become a member of the Chaste (an army to fight The Hand). Luke is concerned about the missing young men in Harlem (who are being manipulated by one of the Five Fingers of the Hand) and Jessica is pursuing a case that directly involves The Hand.

At the outset, we have plausible reasons for each of the four characters to be in opposition to The Hand. This is a good foundation. But, what does The Hand do beyond this point? The answer is… not a lot.

Once the four protagonists meet up and join forces (immediately and for quite tenuous reasons), they begin aimlessly battling The Hand in various interchangeable locations. What we’re never really told is this: What is the specific threat that The Hand brings? What is it that makes them a terrifying opposition for The Defenders to face?

If we go back to the quotes from Truby and McKee, The Hand should theoretically be good at exploiting the weaknesses of The Defenders. Well what are these weaknesses?

Luke’s is easy – he doesn’t like to use his strength. His moral compass is also too strong.

Matt – He’s conflicted on whether or not to continue being The Daredevil. He’s worried about the darkness that it brings out in him. His faith is also in opposition to his vigilantism.

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Jessica – She’s an alcoholic mess and doesn’t want to be involved in anything. She doesn’t trust anyone.

Danny – He’s… headstrong? Naïve? In need of family? I haven’t seen ‘The Iron Fist’ so perhaps it would be more apparent if I had.

But we have areas in which to attack each of the heroes and things to pressure them into exploring. Do we get any of it? Not really.

Is Jessica ever made to deeply mistrust the others? No. Are Luke and Matt ever shown the terrifying potential of their powers and how they might negatively impact those they care about? No. Is Danny ever exploited for being so innocent and bereft of nuance? A little bit.

The four of them are never really pushed to exploring the depths of their soul – either as a consequence of The Hand or in opposition to each other. They’re never really brought to a moral epiphany or personal insight, in the way that Batman is.

In a show with four completely different characters working together, you would think there would be moments when their relationship would be put to strain, particularly by an organisation as devious and insidious as the Hand is supposed to be.

Are the characters ever truly pushed apart? Are they ever really at odds? Does the Hand ever try to make them think that they have different goals, or even better, opposing goals?

Nope.

There are brief moments when conflicts bubble – Danny vs Luke over the boys in Harlem, Matt vs everyone because of lies about Elektra, Danny vs everyone when they want to keep him hidden. But none of these result in a serious conflict of any sort. Ultimately, they’re still on the same team, still continuing their norm. Their conflicts never affect the path of the story. What could be sticking points get passed over as temporary affairs.

L v D

What we get in ‘The Defenders’ is something that is true of almost every ensemble superhero movie of recent times – a melding of individuality amongst the characters. It is as if coming together in the same room makes these four vastly different people all behave exactly alike. Or, more accurately, for everyone except Danny to behave exactly alike. The responses of Jessica, Luke and Matt to the threat of The Hand are all remarkably similar – initial shock/disbelief, followed by quick acceptance and then generic contempt throughout the rest of the show.

Though ‘The Immortal Iron Fist’ is, by most people’s account, the weakest of the four shows, it is Danny who shines most in ‘The Defenders’ because he actually retains his individuality. It is his naïve, oblivious refrain of “I’m the Immortal Iron Fist! Don’t ya know?” that makes him endearing, while the other three merely act as an interchangeable “Sure, pal”. You could argue that the events in the show are largely hinged on him but the other characters are given more than enough time and importance to show their complexity and individuality.

A moment which epitomises what I mean comes during episode 8 and carries over to episode 9, when Matt suggests that they blow up Midland Circle – the HQ of The Hand. This is a scene where the characters are given a tough choice to make and is a great chance to have some conflict and debate.

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Except, it’s a complete non-debate… there is no issue here. Luke is the only one who seriously objects to the idea and his objection is incredibly vague. I’ve watched the scene back and I still can’t find an actual reason he gives for not wanting to blow up the building. Eventually he accepts, saying the only way he’ll do it is if:

“No one but those hand monsters get hurt. Okay? Not one single innocent person. Can we all agree to that?”

But this was a given all along. Matt tells us from the offset that the building is empty and the only people who will be hurt are The Hand. Luke’s delay in accepting makes no sense to us, or at least to me. Where is the intrigue in this scene? Where is the ideological debate? The dividing of our support? What even is the point of this debate? We don’t learn anything new by the end of it that we didn’t know at the start.

A much better scene, or a scene I would have much more liked to see, is one with an actual moral decision to make. What if there were people in the building? What then? You can see Matt arguing that they should do it anyway – for the greater good. Jessica might even agree. But would Luke? Never. There you have real conflict, real choices to make. And if it leads to Luke delivering an ultimatum, “I’m not going to let you do that, Matt *raises fists*” Then that’s great! That’s what we want to see! We want to see four superheroes working towards the same end, not one amalgamous form nodding their way to victory (something that ‘The Defenders’ constantly claims itself as not being). Their disagreements should be inevitable and sometimes inconsolable. I mean, even One Direction have more disputes and motives than these guys. How do The Defenders work so harmoniously (and boringly) together despite having completely different approaches and world views?

Moreover, when does the existence of The Hand really ever ask the heroes any serious moral questions? Or to make tough decisions? How do they push The Defenders the way Joker pushes The Batman? The only time it could have been the case is when we discover that Elektra has been revived as a mindless husk. Here, we have the chance for Matt to make some difficult choices and to have to ask himself some hard questions.

But, rather than build his character, the existence of Elektra actually serves to melt Matt’s character into a shallow puddle. Gone is the morally grey, edgelord lawyer-turned-vigilante that we know and love. What we get instead is a hapless Romeo, hellbent on getting one more kiss from the woman he used to love.

DD + E

What’s doubly infuriating is that his stupidity doesn’t even have any consequences. At no point do his feelings towards Elektra actually land the group in the dump. At no point does it make him do something that acts against the interest of The Defenders or jeopardize their mission. All we get is a final ‘I’ll die in your arms’ moment which, lo and behold, is again inconsequential because he survives. There are no repercussions for Matt being in love with Elektra. In fact, we can remove her character and the show would largely still be the exact same. If we replace Elektra with a ‘generic thug’ with no prior connection to the gang, this is how the story would go:

Generic Thug is revived/summoned. GT (as they shall hence be known) sets off to fight The Defenders. The Defenders get their asses beat, run away and worry about this new threat. The Hand doubt Alexandra on her decision to spend all their resources on GT while GT questions why they exist. GT, realising what they want is power, stabs Alexandra and stages a coup, becoming the new leader. The Defenders arrive and fight GT, along with the rest of The Hand. In a battle that destroys Midland Circle and ends the threat of The Hand, one of The Defenders heroically sacrifices themselves. GT is killed… and the heroic Defender actually comes out alive. All is well.

The events of the series would be remarkably unchanged.

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Compare the relationship The Joker and Batman to this and we get a better love story than Twilight… or Daredvil. This is something even Lego understood when they made the ‘Lego Batman’ movie and gave the two a homoerotic, forlorn-lovers dynamic.

Elektra’s character only obscures Matt’s and makes him a less likeable superhero. And she adds absolutely nothing to the other three Defenders, for whom she’s just another boss battle to fight.

From top to bottom, The Hand are inadequate at doing what they’re supposed to in the show: test our heroes. None of them are ever really backed into a corner, asked to grow or find something in them that they didn’t think they had. As I’ve pointed out, the actions of The Hand are flawed. The philosophy of the hand is also flawed – can anyone tell me from watching ‘The Defenders’ alone what they actually do? And what they want, more specifically than ‘immortality’?

What does The Hand hope to achieve, other than destroy New York for inexplicable reasons? This explains why ‘the stakes’ of The Hand are flawed.

What is at stake in each film/show? In ‘The Dark Knight’, there is a lot on the line for Batman. The Joker spends the movie making threats and actually following through on them. He could kill Rachel (he does). He could corrupt Harvey Dent (he does). So at the end when he threatens to blow up the boats with the hostages, it’s very possible that he does. These things make us, the viewer, worry for the protagonist because we don’t know what they’ll lose next. But, when the stakes are the destruction of the entire city, as it is in ‘The Defenders’, we know the heroes can’t lose. Not even ‘Game of Thrones’, famed for its masochistic twists, would ever destroy the primary location where the story takes place. Therefore, the stakes in ‘The Defenders’ are flawed. We feel no tension when viewing the show, no genuine concern for our characters – because we know what’s threatened by the villains will never happen.

This all adds up to one simple conclusion: The Hand are sucky villains.

There are many reasons I feel disappointed with Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’. For one, I was excited to finally get the chance to explore ensemble cast superheroes in live action form for the first time in recent television (excluding your token Arrow/Flash crossovers) because I felt it was a chance to address one of the fundamental flaws of the Marvel Movies – that we don’t get to explore the mentality and character of the individual heroes. There isn’t enough time in a feature film. They usually get lost in the ‘team’ and thus any payoffs or emotional moments feel weak because we’re not properly invested in the characters. Yet, sadly, the same problem still plagues ‘The Defenders’, even with 8 hours to fix it.  As stated, I think these issues stem from of a lack of a good antagonist(s) in the show, though the writing in general is poor too.

As the Robert McKee stated in the opening quote, “A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them”. Unfortunately for ‘The Defenders’, some very poor, vague and confused forces of antagonism make for some largely uninteresting protagonists and it is ultimately why it falls short of the expectations we were perhaps naïve to put upon it.

 

References:

Shout out to a great video by the YouTube channel ‘Lessons From the Screenplay’, who’s video on ‘The Dark Knight’ provided a lot of inspiration as well as the critical quotes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFUKeD3FJm8&t

Another good video on ‘The Philosophy of The Joker’ : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPvI2rLCIFc

 

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We Don’t Always Move Forwards

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Siddh: When Charles Darwin proposed, or more accurately popularised, the theory of evolution in 1859, he probably didn’t anticipate it would be so widely accepted. What he absolutely would not have anticipated, is how widely misunderstood his ideas would be.

When one thinks of the theory of evolution, the above image, in all its iterations, is the first thing that comes to mind and vice versa. And what this image puts forward is simple: teleology; the idea that everything in nature operates with a purpose. That we’re always moving towards something. And the general understanding of Darwin and this image is that we always progress. We move forwards, never backwards. Always get better, always get smarter. Even looking at this image, it’s clear that man is ultimate – the final stage of evolution. The goal that everything before it was striving to reach. Everyone in the image is looking in one direction, as if progress is on the horizon just outside the frame; a new super level to be achieved. It’s all encapsulated in the simple phrase “survival of the fittest”. Only the strongest survive in nature’s intrinsic battleground of selection, and therefore we always create a more elite generation than before.

But this is not the theory of evolution. “Survival of the fittest” was not a phrase ever used by Charles Darwin. If you put these ideas to him, he would probably wonder if you’d even been listening to a word he’d said. Darwin’s theory did not claim that animals would always evolve for the better – in reality, they just evolved to be different. Animals mutate randomly and pass these mutations on to their offspring – some of these mutations help that particular animal better survive in their environment. For instance,  a particularly harsh winter sets in that kills a large number of wolves, but the ones with a mutation that lead to thicker fur survive in greater numbers. Their genes therefore become the most common ones for future generations of wolves. Does thicker fur make those wolves any better than other wolves? Not at anything other than dealing with cold. They’re not smarter or more cunning, and they may even be weaker physically. But they survive and future generations of wolves in that region all share this trait. That is evolution.

This fundamental misunderstanding of evolution permeates society on a deep level and is the cause for so much complacency and so many falsely held beliefs. Society, and when I say society I refer mostly to Western society, has been comfortable in the knowledge that it is always on the up, always moving forwards, and the events of the last eighty-odd years have allowed this way of thinking to be ingrained in the public consciousness. For most of the ‘advanced’ Western world, there have been no major conflicts since the Second World War, certainly none that threaten the safety of their own countries, despite what governments may say. For most of the Western World, standards of living have been on the rise, wages and social mobility have been on the up and, most visibly, social freedom has been ever expanding. Contraception, Abortion, Gay Rights, Racial Equality – all issues that have come very far in the last century.

But all this progress has made people forget that everything that has been gained can also be lost. Society is always one movement, one mutation away from drastic change, and that change is not always good. The ‘shocking’ and ‘sudden’ realisation of this has, in fact, been slowly building for the last few decades. Wealth disparity has been exponentially rising since the Reagan-Thatcher era and, as would logically follow, class divisions have been proportionately entrenched. Couple this with an increasingly hysterical media and growing resentment towards the social movements of feminism, racial equality and LGBTQ rights, and we reach the apparent explosion of hatred we’ve seen in the last few years.

We should have seen it coming. The derisive way in which people spoke of ‘Feminazis’ and Trans bathroom rights, while citing that ‘All Lives Matter’ are all symptoms of a disease which had already permeated the Western Consciousness. A disease that needed only a simple spark to burst into life and consume its host. Those sparks have been provided in this past year. I’m of course speaking of two very specific events, neither of which I’ve had to mention yet for you to know that I’m writing about them. Events that, another eighty years from now, children will read in textbooks which cite very clearly 2016 as the year in which compassion died. The year in which social progress stopped and jumped back like the clocks returning from Daylight Savings Time. Of course, it’s a gradual process, but it always takes visceral, fractural events to mark the start of change, to point to and say, “This is when it began”. It’s Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963 that marks the beginning of change for racial relations in America and it’s the 1928 voting act that shows the same for women’s rights. It is Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America, both in 2016, that will mark the period of social regression in Western Society.

If I sound like a Doomsayer, I assure you I am not. The world will not end and our houses will not collapse. But if you believe that lives will not be affected for the worse then you are in stark denial. Setting aside the value of the British pound, there’s already been a massive rise in hate crimes in the UK since the referendum… and this is before any policy changes have been implemented and, dare I stress, before we’ve even left the European Union.[1] One can only imagine what will happen in America where millions of people now have the justification to attack anyone, including women, Muslims, Mexicans, LGBTQ people, disabled people, women seeking abortions, people against gun rights, people who believe in global warming… the list goes on. Why, you ask? Because the President-Elect, soon to be President, has himself advocated, in one way or the other, hurting or removing these people. The leader of that country, the primary role model, the foremost policy-maker, the commander in chief, the most powerful man in the world – has said it’s okay.

To pretend that either of these events is removed from the context of social backlash is another wilful denial. One might argue that Brexit was an economic and political decision and the same can be said for Donald Trump; that they were both a rejection of the elite, a cry for something new. While those things are true, they are not why they happened. To pretend that Brexit was about controlling British law-making is either disingenuous, intentionally naïve or both. Who are we taking our country back from? What are these laws that people so desperately want to not obey anymore? Please name me some of these laws so I can understand these tyrannical EU policies that I’m shackled by every day. The truth is that all of this is a very, very thinly veiled rhetoric for xenophobia. It’s all about a language of ‘them’ and ‘us’. “Them over there in Brussels are telling us what to do… we can’t be having that!” The reason so many people are so mortified that Brexit is happening is not because they think that the EU is perfect or that its operations and policy making are the pinnacle of excellence, it is because they understand what a vote for Brexit really meant. The Brexit vote was a simple choice and the ballot paper may as well have said so: Do you like people from other countries or do you think Britain should be ‘British’?

52% of the country do not understand the complete intricacies of European Law and the economic potentials. 48% of the country do not either. I do not, and if you do, then kudos to you; I hazard that you are maybe part of 2% of the country who do, if that. People did not understand the issues they were voting on. What swayed people’s choice was a natural inclination; a general perception. Many of those who voted leave, voted so because of a resentment of ‘the other’. Either a dislike for a foreign institution having any say in British governance or a resentment for people of a different nationality or people who don’t speak English or don’t “share our values” or, in some cases, a completely misunderstood vote for just getting rid of foreigners in this country.  This is not condescending, it is not patronising, it is fact. [2] Ask the people who voted to leave for a clear, political/economic line of argument and maybe 2% of them will be able to provide an answer that isn’t rhetoric or meaningless, regurgitated phrases. Ask the 48% who voted Remain to weigh up the economic benefits the EU gives versus the potential we can achieve outside of it and they will be equally clueless. People who have dedicated their lives to understand politics and European Law are equally confused and divided, why would the public know any better?

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Which is exactly why Brexit was not a vote of governance. Brexit was a vote for hatred. It was a vote for a gut instinct – a dislike for anything foreign. Even if you voted for Brexit believing that the European Union is a fundamentally flawed institution that Britain needed to leave, your vote for Leaving had nothing to do with that and to tell yourself so is to delude yourself. If you vote for a candidate with sound economic policies, but who vows to exterminate everyone with poor eyesight in your country, can you really wash your hands off the blame when they’re elected and deliver on that promise? To vote for Brexit was to facilitate the sentiment that foreign is bad and native-white British is good. And it is absolutely ‘native-white British’, because I’ve heard a lot of talk ‘a vote for the working class’, as if brown taxi-drivers and Polish plumbers are not working class? The result is a scramble for politicians to be as anti-foreign and ‘pro-British’ as they can be. This is what the Prime Minister meant when she said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”[3] Out there bad, in here good. What has Brexit told the world about Britain? That it’s an economically astute country that’s constantly looking for ways to gain better advantages in a capitalistic market? Or that it’s a nation of people who resent anyone not born there? I’ll let you decide.

Similarly, to pretend that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for anything other than ignorance and hatred, is another wilful delusion. Is Hillary Clinton an inspiring candidate? Hell, no! She has no clear political targets, has no principles and only believes in an issue as long as it serves her. She has contradicted herself on issues multiple times, represents the political elite she vows to contain and, most famously, did some shady things with her emails. But you know what is another term for all that? A politician. Hillary Clinton is no different from the vast majority of politicians who have come before her or will come after her, other than probably being more qualified and high profile than most of them. But Donald Trump is an insidious maniac. He is the worst candidate in any political election in a first world country since Hitler. And Hitler actually lost. The public disenchantment with the political process and interchangeable candidates like Hillary Clinton is one I completely understand and often feel myself. But just because progress is slow, doesn’t mean you should jump off a cliff in hopes of a promised land at the bottom. Trump may bring change, but not all change is good. The only saving grace is that there are too many political checks in place for Donald Trump to start a Third World War but again, the details of the outcome are secondary to the sentiment of the outcome. You might be unconvinced by Hillary Clinton or even loathe her but to vote for Donald Trump is to vote for the KKK’s candidate of choice. It is a vote for ignorance and hatred. A vote for Donald Trump encapsulates the waves of sentiment that has been rising for decades, and it can only be best termed as a ‘whitelash’.

The election of Donald Trump is a fundamental rejection from white people – men as you’d expect, but over half of the white women of America too – of the other.[4] Of Mexicans, of black people, of gay people and of women like Hillary who want the choice of social, economic and sexual freedom and to not be grabbed by the *****. The outcry for economic change and a political upheaval are there and they are necessary, but in this case, they are secondary. This was a vote against progress. A vote against equal rights for minority groups – against feminism, Black Lives Matter and against gay/trans rights. It’s obvious that the bathroom law will be repealed very quickly if Trump has his way, but that will just be the beginning. When the President supports ‘punishing’ women for abortion, opposes gay marriage, wants to increase ‘stop and frisk’ laws in black neighbourhoods and when his running mate believes in ‘conversion therapy’ for homosexuality, what damage could be caused to the lives of normal people?

How far back will society slide? Not just through legislation, but more importantly, through attitude. How easily will the years of telling people that they should accept each other – regardless of race, gender, sexuality – be erased? There was a time when sharing your hateful, ignorant views – that women should be second class citizens, coloured people should be subjugated and gays outlawed – was out of the question. We had brought society to a point where you just couldn’t say those things. But years of being forced to repress those feelings has resulted in a powerful attack against equality. An anti-movement that is proud of being hateful, proud of being ignorant. That’s the sentiment that Michael Gove tapped in to when he said that people “were sick of listening to experts”. Suddenly, being ill-informed is not a stigma, but a badge of honour. It doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is completely incorrect, as long as you said it proudly and vehemently enough. And now, the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world holds all those horrible views. Let that sink in. That is how far we have regressed.

And this is merely the beginning – he has only been elected on those beliefs. Now he has the chance to act upon them with a clear mandate. Across the pond, we have a Prime Minister who believes that we should reject empathy with those from other countries and instead focus on serving ‘Britain’, in a time where the world faces its greatest migration crisis since the Second World War. A Prime Minster who voted against gay marriage and whose Home Secretary proposes that companies should be forced to disclose and be ‘shamed’ for the foreign workers they employ… all without a mandate. Within months, Brexit has created a country where mainstream newspapers are allowed to brandish independent judges as “enemies of the state” and who cite being “openly gay” as a reason to discredit someone. If this is within months, what might the world look like in ten years’ time?

daily-mail

If there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that society does not always move forward. We do not always move up in the evolutionary scale and in fact, there is no scale, only a chart to map our movement by. Complacency had brought us to the state of believing that, no matter what, things would always generally happen for the good. That humans would continue to walk down that straight path ahead of the monkeys, moving towards the horizon of wonderful possibilities. In reality, we move – up and down, left and right. We gain things and we lose things. One mutation may serve us well for the time being but another might bring about our downfall. It is a reminder to take nothing for granted and that the fight for progress will always be as brutal a battle as any in nature. Today, openness and empathy have died a slow, lingering death while hate and hostility have finally usurped the dominant modes of political thought. The calendar has been marked for a paradigm shift and I’d be damned if I believed it was so that society could make a step forward. In the end, Darwin is proven true yet again: progress is not always guaranteed. The monkey does not always evolve for the better.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crimes-racism-eu-referendum-vote-attacks-increase-police-figures-official-a7358866.html

[2] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/trump-and-brexit-why-its-again-not-the-economy-stupid/

[3] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/theresa-may-sparks-twitter-backlash-over-citizen-of-the-world-remark-in-conservative-party-a3361701.html

[4] https://twitter.com/leicesterliz/status/796245393034117120 ; https://twitter.com/leicesterliz/status/796243889065754624

The Death of Hollywood PART ONE: ‘The Soulless Reboot’ and exploring the modern Action Genre

Siddh: I’m fresh from the cinema, having watched The Magnificent Seven, the latest in a long line of mediocre ‘Summer Blockbusters’ and Hollywood’s answer to tokenism. Throw in a character from most of the large racial groups in America, add one – count it – one feisty, brooding woman and an evil, moustached land-baron and let them duke it out in an epic, Wild West showdown.

And for the third time in the last few months, I leave the theatre feeling entirely… meh. The Magnificent Seven is the third reboot I’ve seen in 2016, after watching Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond (twice). And for the third consecutive time I find myself underwhelmed, disappointed and lamenting “how much better the original was”.

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I’m not even one of those people who believes originals are always the best, far from it – retelling stories with different emphases is how storytelling evolves. But I don’t think there’s many who could argue that any of the above films are better than their predecessors. Why is this becoming so frequent an occurrence?

There are a few external factors that are always going to be at play when you reboot a film, nostalgia being perhaps the most prominent. No matter what you do, there’s almost certainly going to be a legion of fans who are disappointed with the outcome. The second problem is concept. Because you’re rehashing an old idea, you’re already making it difficult for people to be wowed and impressed by what you put out. They’re already familiar with the story and the world – and any innovations that the original might have put forward will no longer maintain their charm. For example, in the case of Star Trek, a modern audience is not going to be amazed by spaceships and sliding doors in the way that audiences in the 60s were.

But these are small problems that even the slightest bit of creative thinking can conquer.  Just look at some successful retellings in recent memory – The Chirstopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar (though it’s not a direct reboot). These films all brought something new to the franchise. Nolan brought grit and realism to Batman (something that has since become vastly overused, but that’s the topic of an entirely different article) and made the ridiculous, endearingly-camp superheroes/villains of Gotham into believable, visceral characters. It’s not the only way to represent Batman, but it’s one, innovative way. Where Avatar shines is in its aesthetic grandeur and revolutionary visuals – the film that started the 3D craze.  The Force Awakens also benefits from jaw-dropping cinematography, as well as a fresh new cast for a world we’re all very familiar with and a general feel-good factor. Of course, financial gain is usually the motivation behind any Hollywood film being made, but at least these films did something new and did it well.

So what’s going wrong in The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters and Star Trek?

The Soulless Reboot

The problem is that these three films, and a host of others, are soulless reboots. There is no creative drive or inspiration behind remaking the films. There’s no particular reason for them to exist. What do they add to their respective worlds or, for that matter, to our world?

They are, instead, the product of suit-driven-filmmaking; studios dusting off old franchises and throwing them back out to capitalise on brand value and a dormant fan base in order to make easy profit. Ghostbusters is the only film you could argue has something to bring to the table: an all-female cast. But it’s still soulless. It’s characteristic of bad comedy films where we’re told to laugh more often than we’re made to laugh. It’s the same jokes and clichés we’ve heard before, so we should find them funny, right? … Wrong! Here’s a film where we’re supposed to find humour in: a fat woman yelling about food, a black woman who’s ‘simple’ nature is supposed to be endearing and a kooky, crazy blonde scientist. I’m sorry, was this meant to be a progressive, feminist film? I’m not even going to get into the sexual harassment of Chris Hemsworth’s character (and no, just reversing sexual harassment doesn’t make it okay).

But not only is there a lack of heart in these films, there’s a lack of pretty much anything. They’re underwhelming in general – not particularly funny, not particularly thrilling, not particularly emotive. They feel soulless because it’s as though they’ve been made by machines and, perhaps more accurately, by formula. They’re a product of Three Act Structure droneism where just following the textbook method for writing films is what matters and the actual content of the film is secondary. “Insert joke here; insert meta-reference here; insert mild peril, followed by cocky remark here.”

Similarly, the characters are just plastic dummies stitched together from tropes of existing characters. There’s no attempt at building them into something unique; the studio is happy enough for you to recognise that X character is the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside type while X character is the lovable screw up who learns to do something of note by the end of the film. There is zero engagement with who these people really are, what drives them or what makes them unique. Can you think of any character from any of these movies that sticks with you? That you would turn to your friend and say, “You know, you’re a lot like _ character.”

The problem is that less and less time is being devoted to character building and more resources are being diverted to other aspects of the film, namely action.  Action is now, or perhaps it’s long been, the dominant genre. It’s hardly surprising when everything is made to suit the tastes of men. But increasingly, action is becoming an individual genre of its own without necessarily meaning to be. Films are less and less fitting the tag of ‘Action-Adventure’ or ‘Action-Comedy’ and just becoming ‘Action’.

The Separation of Genres

If you don’t make the audience care for your characters and their journey how can you call your film an adventure? And if you can’t make your audience laugh how can you call your film a Comedy?

The idea of having a multi-genre film is that you get a film with depth – not just a film that’s doing the same thing over and over. And the idea of having an action-comedy or an action-adventure is that the violence, however trivial, is meant to supplement the other elements of the film. The violence is what our protagonist(s) are forced into, either by a tragic turn of events or a comical one. Yet, more and more, violence is becoming the key focus. Action has ceased to become a means to an end, but the end itself – it is no longer a last resort a character must take in order to overcome certain obstacles and fulfil their goals. Instead, action has become the main focus in the creative process and ‘stories’ are contrived to facilitate that action. Let’s talk about it in more literal terms.

The Magnificent Seven

What was The Magnificent Seven about? If I asked someone that question after they came out of the movie they would have said it was about “7 awesome gunmen who fight an unending horde of bandits in order to save a village.” And you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? Sounds like a good plot for a movie.’ But read that sentence again; the entire purpose of the movie is to facilitate a gigantic blaze of bullets for the final 30 minutes. The rest of the movie is non-descript. It could be any gang of shooters fighting anybody for any reason. Now, how many people answered that question with “The Magnificent Seven is about a small village of farmers whose way of life is on the brink of extinction. Desperate, they set out to find an army to defend themselves, finding only seven noble warriors to help them in their fight for survival.” So okay, I made the second one wordier.

It’s been too long since I saw the original Magnificent Seven to comment, but I have seen Seven Samurai in recent memory (the Japanese original on which both films are based), and that is one of my favourite movies of all time. I dare you to watch that film and not give the second answer when I ask you “What was the film about?”

Seven Samurai is called Seven Samurai but it’s not ONLY about the Seven Samurai (was that 21 samurai?). Really, the film is about seven warriors teaching a group of peasants to fend for themselves. The film is three and a half hours long – an absolute sin in current Hollywood climate. Yes, it’s slow, but it’s mostly necessary to tell the story that needs to be told. There’s three acts – each just over an hour long and when you see what the film achieves by the end, you understand why it’s as lengthy as it is. You need an hour to properly grasp just how desperate the villagers are, offering the samurai their last morsels of rice as payment and you need to understand each individual samurai’s motivation for helping them. In The Magnificent Seven, we get flashy two-minute sequences with a smart quip at the end that doesn’t give you any insight into the mentality of each person – they’re just fighting because. You need that second hour to see the samurai build a relationship with the villagers, to learn to care for them and to see the village learn to believe in itself. You need that final hour to see the ‘action’ unfold – not to see a flurry of swords, but to see the painful resolution of struggle. The fight takes place over three days, I don’t think the fight in The Magnificent Seven takes even three hours.  But you need to see the villagers at night – you need to see them plagued with self-doubt, fearful for their lives, deliberating if it’s best to just give up. You need to see them turn on each other, only to come together stronger in the end. Seeing the struggle and being told about the struggle are two entirely different things. Yes, it’s nice to see some cool action sequences, I want to see those in films too. But can they not be involving characters we are emotionally invested in?

The final scene of the Seven Samurai aptly sums up the difference I’m talking about. The main samurai – a war-weary veteran –  who at the start of the film warns that he is, “Always on the losing side” is watching the villagers sing and dance to celebrate their victory. He turns to the samurai next to him, also an old war-veteran, and proclaims “In the end, we lost this battle too.” Huh? He gets in response. “I mean,” he continues, “the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” Then he turns and stares at the graves of the four samurai who fell in the climactic fight. It is this final, bittersweet shot of the film that encapsulates what the story is about: the complex nature of struggle, loss and hope. Is The Magnificent Seven really about anything, other than Denzel Washington being a badass? I’m not convinced.

Hollywood’s obsession with pace and bass-pumping-thrill makes for shorter, snappier films, yes. But it definitely doesn’t make for better films.

Star Trek Beyond

What we see in Magnificent Seven is a preference for action over story. In Star Trek beyond we get a preference for action over character building and theme. What is the central, underlying theme of Star Trek Beyond? The villain and the battle for the space station are (or should be) secondary – what characters need in a movie, especially characters we’re already familiar with from previous movies, is internal conflict. In a good movie, characters will be grappling with themselves and the villain is ultimately just a physical manifestation of one side of that dilemma. Go back and watch a good ‘Action’ movie and you will see that the villain’s actions and philosophical perspective help the hero come to a realisation of their own, usually what they don’t want to become. Star Trek tries this… but not very hard.

Early in the movie, Kirk tells Bones that he feels he has no reason for doing what he does. His father joined Starfleet “because he believed in it”, he “joined Starfleet on a dare”. That line was thrown in on seemingly every trailer, everywhere I went, so I assumed, when I sat down to see the movie, that we would see a deeper exploration of this idea… but no. If you watched the trailer, you got as much insight as to Kirk’s ‘dilemma’ as anyone who sat through the entire movie. He never delves deeper into this thought, never really figures out what drives him, nor explores his relationship with his deceased father. Spock, similarly, gets the news that Ambassador Spock (his future self in the timeline of this story) is dead. Though it’s a fitting tribute to Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in peace), it is barely delved deeper into. We’re supposed to content ourselves with a few throwaway lines where Bones and Kirk tell Spock that he’s needed on the ship… So? Of course you’re needed on the ship, you’re frigging second in command. Is that all you’ve got? Why not an emotional realisation that his bond with Kirk is deeper than captain and subordinate, that the Enterprise is closer to being his family than anyone on Vulcan ever was? Why not an argument, internally or externally, where he tells us why he’s so desperate to go back and help the repopulation effort, other than ‘it’s what he’s supposed to do’. You broke up with the woman you love for this, let’s see how torn you are – how much it means to you and how much the weight of the expectation is bearing down on you.

Let’s say you’re in the creative room, planning out the movie. You have 20 minutes in the middle of the movie free to use. What would make the film better, make it stick with the audience after they left the cinema? A 20-minute action sequence involving a gun-battle on the shipwrecked Enterprise, ending with the whole vessel flipping over? OR two 10 minute sequences where Kirk and Spock each talk us through their emotional conflict, how they’re both feeling lost and debilitated by the individual pressures and stresses they’re under; something they can overcome together later in the film.  All too often, the decision is being made to go with the former. Maybe you disagree with me, but I really want to see more of the latter.

Especially when the theme Star Trek attempts to put forward is togetherness. That is what the main baddy, Krall, played by Idris Elba tells us… or starts off telling us then drifts off into some random tangent. When he meets Uhura, he tells her that humanity’s unity is what makes them weak and she defiantly argues to the contrary.  So why not show this in effect? Yes, at the end of the film everyone is on team Enterprise again but are they at any point actually torn apart? Are they actually divided at any point? Is their togetherness tested or exhibited in this movie? There’s murmurs of it in Spock and Kirk’s mind but it never actually comes to the surface. To make matters worse, Krall then contradicts himself when the ‘big reveal’ happens and it turns out he was a former commander in Starfleet… shock, gasp! And Starfleet abandoned him… meaning they didn’t have unity? So he goes on a warpath to destroy a space station because he wasn’t given unity, the thing he’s been claiming makes humanity weak all along…. Okay?

Whatever the flaws of the original Star Trek, it was always very cerebral. Any fights that took place were usually thirty-second long punch-ups in the dirt where William Shatner just KOs some scumbag. The main focus of the episodes were always some sort of philosophical theme. Each new planet would represent a new race, a new way of thinking, a bizarre way of life… and when Spock, Bones and Kirk came into contact with the problems of these worlds they each had a unique response to the situation, influenced by their perspective and the type of thinking they represented. Spock was logical, Bones was impulsive and emotional and Kirk was the in-between: The Superego, the Id and the Ego. I can’t help but feel like the rebooted Star Trek characters are just superficial parodies of themselves.

Sigh. I’m not going to go into why the new Ghostbusters is bad because it’s hard for me to empirically explain why it’s not funny, other than that it’s just the same shit it pretends to be better than. Sufficed to say, my strong feelings for its mediocrity are probably evident.

Instead, I’m going to take a pause for now, because I’ve ranted plenty and you’ve read more than enough words already. However, if you’re somehow still interested, I want to explore this idea further and talk about where I believe this trend started and how it’s become what it is today. So look out for Part Two in the near future.

The White Man’s Burden

Siddh: There’s a lot of things I felt like talking about today, with a couple of videos having gotten me all riled up. I felt like talking about institutional racism, cultural xenophobia, the issue of reparations etc. But I’m gonna keep it (relatively) short and simple (praise the Lord) and just talk about… white guys.

I feel for white guys, in a way. It seems like nowadays “white male” is almost a slur. Example sentence: “Of course you wouldn’t get it; you’re just a white male”. Replace ‘white male’ with, say, the n word and you get what I mean.

And it also seems like everybody hates white guys. Just about every oppressed group/minority has reason to hate white males, particularly those pesky middle-aged ones. But if you’re a white guy, minding your own business, going about your daily life I can understand why you’d feel…annoyed.

If you’re a straight, cisgender, white man you’re probably thinking “I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not my fault some people in the past were dickheads and screwed other people over. Why does everyone hate me? Why am I being punished for it?”

And that’s fair – I can understand that sentiment. I’d almost pity it if it didn’t come with all the perks of being a white guy (sorry couldn’t resist taking that shot).

But here’s what I feel about that: I’m not sorry that you are made to feel aware of your skin colour or your gender or your sexuality in a negative way. Everybody else is too.

If you belong to an oppressed group/minority you are reminded every single day of who/what you are.

If you’re a white guy and you wanna walk down the street to the local Tesco in your busy, urban, student area, you do that no worries. Doesn’t matter if you just woke up and you’re in your trackies. Doesn’t matter if you look like a slob. You could probably even have your top off and no one is gonna say boo to you.

But if you’re a woman, for example, you have 20 considerations on your mind. “How should I look? Is this outfit ‘arousing’? Who should I not make eye contact with? Which road presents the least danger for me?” Because you’re aware that at any given moment someone across the street can deem your outfit or your face or anything about you an excuse to degrade you publicly: verbally or physically. “Nice tits love, come give us a look” – not really what you wanna hear first thing in the morning from some dude with food stains on his t-shirt and his asscrack poking out his sweatpants (or anyone for that matter). And you’re praying he doesn’t touch you or follow you home.

If you’re a person of colour, walking down the street presents the same conundrum. “I better not wear a hoodie. Maybe I shouldn’t wear this religious garb. I better watch what I say. I better not ‘look suspicious’. I better keep my head down and say ‘yes, sir’, ‘thank you, sir’ a lot and be polite”. Because you’re also aware that at any given moment anyone can brand you a thug or a threat because you’re big and intimidating to them or a terrorist because you might say something they deem ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ or you ‘look like one’…or hell, you just look shifty cus you’re dark and you’re obviously trying to steal something.

If you’re gay or transgender or anything non-white-straight-cisgender-male-looking you’re hoping your appearance doesn’t trigger some ignorant person’s violent urges or their burning desire to call you a “freak” or a “weirdo” or any other hateful term.

These examples are obviously hella basic and are only a few of hundreds and thousands of ways in which people who belong to a minority group are reminded every day that society will treat them badly. Eventually it leads to self-policing. You start preventively doing things and changing your appearance, your behaviour etc. to try and make sure you don’t get treated like the examples above. You look in the mirror and you hate yourself when you’re expressing yourself, because you know it’ll bring you hassle and society keeps saying it’s bad, but you hate yourself when you’re not expressing yourself because you’re not being true to who you are.

Of course if you’re a white guy you’ve probably heard this story before, right? You get it, other people have it tough. But why’s that your fault? Well…it’s not but that’s kinda my point.

Everybody is made to feel aware of who they are every day. And it’s never their fault. We live in a messed up society where expressing yourself or sometimes just existing as who you are makes OTHER people upset and confrontational and abusive and they build systems so that you can’t be yourself without facing enormous pressure and difficulties.

So it’s all well and good saying “I don’t see colour, I don’t see gender, I don’t see sexuality” etc. etc. You may not be ignorant, but society en masse is. None of us should or can say they live in a world where nobody judges each other until we actually live in that world. You can’t close your eyes and say because I – the individual – don’t judge or oppress people, or because I’ve never faced these issues, that others don’t and therefore there is no issue.

The point I’m making for straight, male, cisgender white folks is that it is your societal burden is guilt. In the way oppressed groups and minority groups have their own burdens of fear, shame and self-loathing, your burden is the constant awareness of privilege. And rather than running from it, burying your head in the sand or pretending it doesn’t exist – the most socially responsible thing you can do is accept it.

I myself have privilege. I’m a guy for starters. So all those worries about being sexually harassed on the street aren’t really an issue for me (though that threat does exist for men too). I’m also heterosexual so I can do something as simple as hold hands with my partner in the street without fear of being attacked (I mean…if I had a partner *sobs*). I also associate with the gender I was born into and can express it without fear of, again, being attacked (trend here) or called something deeply hurtful. I also am lucky enough that my family is financially okay so I don’t have to count pennies or worry that the government is gonna screw me over and send me into poverty any given day because they deem me a ‘leech’ on society while they facilitate more profits for people and companies that already make literally millions everyday (shout out David Cameron). But back to the point…

Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person; though it took me lot of time to learn to not beat myself up about my privilege. What does make you a bad person is ignorance to your privilege or, more accurately, an active pretence that your privilege doesn’t exist. It does. It really does. You don’t have to apologise for it, just (a) be aware of it (b) do things to highlight that unfair disparity because your voice will be heard more than theirs and (c) don’t rub your privilege in the faces of people who don’t have it. Of course, I slip up many times too – I’m sure of it… but I hope that my intentions are always good and that I’ll always be open to hearing the perspective of someone else who’s telling me I’m wrong.

People who belong to minority groups are constantly aware of who they are and what consequences that has for them. As a white guy your consequence is that everybody hates you because you’re immune to those everyday struggles. But that in itself is an everyday struggle; the guilt and hatred that comes with NOT being oppressed… ironic, isn’t it?

I understand that there are a lot of different kinds of privilege. Straight, cisgender, white women, for example, don’t have to deal with the same issues homosexual men do or coloured women do or transgender people do and vice versa. White guys aren’t the only benefactors of privilege. But don’t complain that you are constantly reminded of who you are and are being punished or mistreated for it. Everyone else is too.

Contradictions and Guilt: Everyday Activism

Siddh: So our discussion starts with this video https://youtu.be/zYhgy5ouYLM. It’s a TED talk by Ash Beckham about contradictions and duality. I highly recommend you watch it, but if you haven’t got the time for that then this is the relevant part to our discussion: Ash describes an anecdote about the time she took her niece to this store which had a ‘Frozen’ meet and greet. Her niece was crazy excited to see Anna and Elsa, but when they get to the front of the (2 hour long) line a store clerk approaches them and refers to Ash as her nieces’ “dad”. Because Ash does not dress or style herself in a stereotypically female manner the store clerk made a snap decision and assumed she was a man. This left Ash with a moment of conflict: should she be an advocate or should she be an aunt? As she says in the video, she had to decide whether to explain to the clerk the harmful nature of judging people’s gender based on their haircut and their clothes, at the risk of ruining her niece’s special day, or whether to let it slide and thus relinquish the chance to educate someone and to be an advocate for a cause she believes in, causing herself guilt and self-hatred when she gets home. Ash’s point is that though often it seems we are presented with a binary choice like this one; an either/or situation: aunt or advocate, in reality we can all own our contradictions and find a middle ground, because at the end of the day we all have contradictions within us. We can be Christian and for gay marriage, feminist and wear a hijab or a veteran who is anti-war. What’s important is knowing how to unite those contradictions in a way that doesn’t compromise your beliefs.

Louise: And that’s what we want to talk about today: the dilemma we all face pretty regularly. When should we be activists for causes we believe in and when should we be individuals who want to fit into society? I’ve already touched on this in my post about make-up, but as a woman I regularly experience conflict as to my appearance and what I believe. Sometimes it’s easier to conform and wear make-up than to not wear it and be a ‘political message’. No one is expecting you to go out and set Superdrug on fire in an anti-cosmetics protest, but can you justify ever conforming to something so damaging and against your personal beliefs?

Siddh: Well you had a very real example of this dilemma the other day that you were telling me about Louise.

Louise: Yeah, Siddh and I graduated last week. For the ceremony I had to decide how much make-up to wear and whether to shave my legs and everything like that – it was a source of personal conflict, but as I do conform pretty regularly to these grooming habits, it wasn’t that hard for me to go along with them for a day. However, for my mum, it was a very different matter.

Now my mum and I for weeks before were trying to decide on the right outfit for her. We boiled it down to two essentially – a knee-length dress or trousers and a top. If she had worn the dress, though, she would have had to shave her legs. Now, my mum hasn’t shaved her legs for like… well I’ve never known her to shave her legs. Recently coming into awareness of topics like body hair and gender conformity, we both knew what this would mean – she would have to conform to something she had rarely, if ever, done just for one day, so that she would fit in with the other mums. It seemed a pretty uncomfortable decision for her personal sense of gender politics, as well as for her sense of self. She has told me it was never a ‘thing’ when she was growing up, never a social pressure she encountered in her immediate or wider society. She never felt like she needed to remove body hair to conform – this was who she was, and doing otherwise would be far more foreign than the act of leg shaving would be for me.

Eventually, she went for the trouser option. Part of that decision was comfort and the fact that the trouser outfit did look better, but it would be naïve to think there wasn’t some relief for her in not having to shave after all. The decision was made for her. But for a moment she was suddenly wondering if she should shave, because the event involved being a mum among other mums and fitting in with them. If she wore a dress with her legs out, it would be more invisible for her to act and shave her legs than to not act and leave them natural. She WOULD have shaved her legs because she realised the event was about fitting in for her daughter (which caused me no amount of guilt). But she justified having to make that decision to conform because she knows when to ‘play their game’.

Her argument is that she is aware of the social expectations of a woman/mum and most of the time she doesn’t ascribe to them. But when it’s expected, she can step up and say ‘Right, I’ll play your game now, and I can look good doing it’.

Siddh: Yeah, it’s interesting – it’s not even an internal pressure to look ‘good’ that made her not want to have her legs out, it was a perception of what other people would think looks good and how other mums would look. That she had to match that and not stand out and not draw attention – or unwanted attention – to her daughter.

Louise: I mean, she doesn’t believe shaved legs look better. She thinks it’s a load of shit, because she’s never grown up with that pressure. For her, shaved legs or plucked eyebrows don’t associate to ‘looking good’, and her lifestyle now rarely puts her in a position to have that challenged. But she knows it’s the norm and was willing to fit that description for the day.

Siddh: Yeah for a lot of people, they think shaving/waxing makes them look better, even if they recognise the bullshit societal pressures that cause them to think like that. For your mum though it was nothing like that. It was just about being generic mum that day.

Louise: If she had worn her unshaved legs out anyway, it wouldn’t be her ‘taking a stand’ or being an activist, it would be her being herself.

Siddh: Which inadvertently takes a stance because it defies the norm, even if it simply comes out of a desire to be yourself, rather than an active desire to defy the norm.

Louise: The point here is choosing your moments to get across a certain appearance or meaning. We are all always projecting something in the way we behave and dress and if we want to be intelligent and engage in a discussion about anything we have to choose the moments and the message wisely. For instance, we can’t all be bra-burning activists – it’s simply not practical. If every woman in our Western society simultaneously decided to rebel and not shave, like an organised union, then sure, but we can’t change everyone’s minds all at once.

So for the everyday woman who is a mum and a worker and all these other roles, and HAS to conform to certain things for the everyday maintenance of her life, she can’t always rebel so obviously. It would be cruel to ask her to. Because maybe it would jeopardise her career, or her children’s lives in the school playground, and sometimes knowing when to fight your battles is better. Sometimes you have to set aside – not discard! – your beliefs.

Siddh: Yeah it’s like you’ve gotta protect yourself. You can’t be asked to or expected to let your political stance significantly damage your life. Discretion is the better part of valour!

You also want to stay within the system to change the system. If you’re always outside it you can get ignored and people can just dismiss you like “oh that’s the crazy feminist lady, she’s always going on about it, so let’s ignore her”.

Louise: That’s what people tend to do.

Siddh: But if sometimes, for example, you’ve got shaved legs and then another time you don’t people might be like “hey how come you’ve not shaved your legs?” and you can tell them why. It may not even happen as directly as that. People might notice and think; “Hmm interesting. I’ve seen her with shaved legs rocking it, looking cool and now she’s here chilling with unshaved legs, rocking it, looking cool like it’s nothing… maybe it is nothing… maybe I should try?” I mean that’s a hyper-simplified, idealised version of it but…

Louise: That’s why I like the way my mum thinks about things – you’re better off changing the world as an insider. Whenever you step outside your own door you’re a spy constantly in enemy territory and you have to decide when to reveal who you really are or what you really believe and when to go along with everyone else.

Siddh: The idea of being an activist or not seems like sometimes you can’t embody both, like you can’t have progressive beliefs and make a stand while also trying to fit into the system. You spoke about it in your post about make-up, Louise. If you conform you’re made to hate yourself for conforming to patriarchal expectations of yourself. If you don’t conform then you risk being ostracised, mocked and shunned from the system; marginalised. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Giving the examples of your mum at your graduation and even of you wearing make-up – it might actually be more about picking your battles.

You’re human so you shouldn’t feel bad about not becoming a monk and sacrificing your life and social happiness in order to make a social change. You’re allowed to try and stay within the social boundaries and still change them, in fact it may well be more effective, as we said. You don’t have to be outside the system and break it, you can be inside the system and influence it.

Louise: The argument against that would be, when should you know when to stand up and when not? How can you tell when it really is a crucial matter and when to fight for your beliefs, or those of others, in the face of any harm that might come to you because of it? When should you conform, and when does conforming lead or contribute to widespread inequality and oppression? How can we live with the fact that every moment we’re not actively fighting against some inequality or for some progressive belief, we’re not only allowing the oppressive norm, we’re also directly contributing to it by performing those values we despise?

Siddh: Well I mean this is the point – it’s your discretion what you wanna do. There’s no universal point where you need to step in and only your moral compass can tell you what is right and what is wrong.

It’s about assessing the harm you’d receive, social or otherwise, from making the stand and weighing it up with what you’re willing to do for the cause. So in the example of shaving your legs; if you are willing to take the stand permanently, no matter how much society might shun you for it, then that’s great. But that’s not what everybody can do nor should they be expected to, or made to feel guilty for not doing. You can’t be a front-line activist for everything, for every cause you believe in or for every injustice you see, especially if you’re not as moved by a cause as other people are.

So with your mum – she realised that her non-shaved legs might not just affect her but also her daughter, so in order to avoid that she simply wore trousers (as well as for other reasons of comfort etc.). So if it affects someone else as well as you, you may well not wanna take a stand in order not to damage that person too. Don’t feel guilty about it, and other people don’t have the right to make you feel guilty for that.

But in a case where maybe it’s just you and you are moved enough to make a stand then do it, keep pushing yourself to do as much as you feel comfortable doing.

Louise: So, with Ash’s example in the video, she knew that jumping to say something would possibly ruin her niece’s experience. Weighing the possible outcomes – although with only a split second to do so – she chose to be the aunt first AND then more quietly be the activist.

Siddh: Yeah, because being an activist there would be very damaging for her social relations – her niece would have been undoubtedly upset and may have resented her aunt for ruining her special day, the people in the store would be hostile or awkward, plus it would have caused general embarrassment for the family because there may have been people they knew there thinking, “Uh-oh they’re creating a scene”.

Luckily for Ash, the clerk realised their mistake and apologised, which sorted it out for her. And let me clarify with this: we’re not saying people should take shit just to save face in society. But it IS about finding the right way and the right time to get your message across and not feeling guilty on the occasions you do choose to save face. Alienating yourself from your society, your friends etc. is not the purpose of activism – it’s to unite everyone.

Sometimes you need to obviously, when the moment justifies it and when the stakes are high, but everyday activism is about picking your battles. And only you can decide when those stakes are too high.

Louise: It’s so hard to make that decision in a real-time, real-life moment, to either voice your belief , or keep quiet. As usual, there isn’t one concrete answer. The hard thing to accept is that if you want to be a responsible and active person in social discussion but not completely isolate yourself from family and life, you have to decide on a case-by-case when to speak and when to be quiet. It would be an easier life to be ignorant and never have to worry about anything, but it wouldn’t be a better life.

Siddh: And I mean, having said all this we are both far from perfect on this issue as well.

Louise: FAR…We’ve both passed up on chances to speak out when we should have. But in a way this blog is one way of speaking out and drawing attention to things we feel are important. And what’s key is not to blame ourselves when we do occasionally take the easy option out, as long as we’re willing next time to try and make amends…or maybe the time after that.

Put on a happy face: Thoughts on make-up and validation

Siddh: A quick note: since this post is an exploration of experiences only Louise has had I’m gonna take step back for this one. Over to you Lulu.

Louise: I’d like to say that I can step out the house wearing no makeup whenever I want, but that isn’t true. Some days I manage it, but it’s not effortless. There’s always a conscious pang – couldn’t I just put on a small bit of mascara? Or maybe concealer? What about more? I might as well go the whole hog. Honestly I feel glad when it’s sunny enough to wear sunglasses because it will cover my eye area.

This mentality scares me, because I consider myself sensible and strong, and these thoughts are very, very hard to shake off. They didn’t come from my upbringing, as with some women. My mum never wore make up, and neither do my sisters – only a very small amount for special occasions, and never for work (their opinion is, who is there to impress?). I think my make-up habits came about through school and my exposure to film and magazines; being told I was ‘sort of pretty, but not as much as some of the other girls’. I don’t believe it was or is true – I’m very confident in my looks – but I do believe it influenced my choice to start applying make-up, as much as the teen girl mags I started craving when I was 13. In my first year of university I went make-up mad. I bought more, I learnt more about it, I applied it daily and with more creativity. I consumed hours of my life watching Youtube beauty tutorials because I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed creating different looks on my face.

Only in my final year, cooped up in my house revising for my exams, did I start to shift my perception back again. I spent days at a stretch not going anywhere, so I would have no need or pressure to apply make-up. I started to look at my clean face and think how perfect it was, that adding make-up would look cheap, or obvious. It didn’t take very long for my view to switch, but it also didn’t take much for it to switch back, and the habit was always there in the back of my mind – if I went somewhere, I would have to apply make-up again.

At the same time I was reading Emer O’Toole’s ‘Girls Will Be Girls’, a book I highly recommend. O’Toole suggests that we treat make-up as a facet of ‘playing dress-up’ that feeds into our gender performance, and that each individual should be the one to dictate when and why they wear it. She also describes the difference between wearing make-up as a choice and as a Hobson’s choice – something made up to look like a choice, but actually isn’t. This lack of choice develops when make-up becomes a habit, something unshakeable that affects your daily life, like wearing make-up to work or study every day. As O’Toole says, ‘if we think that we’ll make our colleagues regurgitate their breakfasts if we turn up to work without make-up, then there’s clearly a problem.’[1] The more often you go out with a full face of make-up and make it your norm, the more you are sure to experience certain reactions to a non made-up face that make this kind of habit-transition even harder. ‘You don’t look very well today.’ ‘Are you alright?’ ‘She should put more effort in.’ Even if we don’t hear these said aloud, we feel people are thinking them. It doesn’t matter if they really are – it’s enough that we worry they might be.

Why do I wear make-up? Is it for my partner? Not really, otherwise I’d wear make up 24/7. It’s hard to look polished when you wake up next to someone. Am I doing it for myself? That at least would have some validity in terms of argument – whose opinion on my body is more important than my own? Is it for the men of society? Am I chained to a patriarchal habit by which I seek male approval through my appearance rather than my value to society as an intelligent, productive individual? I’d rather believe this wasn’t true. Is it for the women? Do I want to make them all jealous and get approving glances from their boyfriends? If that were true, wouldn’t it make me a massive bitch? I suspect rather unhelpfully all or some of these reasons are part of why I wear make-up, depending on the day. I want people to look at me and see someone attractive, but I don’t necessarily want them to tell me. I don’t want someone to walk up to me in the street and tell me how good I look, because I already know (or think) I look good. Wearing make-up lets me imagine that people I’ve met or passed by go home and think ‘gosh she was pretty’. This lets me pretend I’ve made an impact on someone’s life in a very effortless way. This is a form of validation, which is very much NOT self-determined.

Self-validation is an important part of an individual’s confidence. To feel that you are happy with yourself and that this has come from yourself is a powerful force in being a strong individual. But, somewhat depressingly, I sometimes doubt whether it actually exists. Humans are social creatures by nature, and we need to live in groups. Humans who live outside of any group are unhappy because we need to feel connected to others, and this comes from physical contact, intellectual exchange and validation. Seeking validation has become easier in the age of the internet. For instance, if your immediate friends and family can’t accept your sexuality, you are certain to find encouragement and support from millions of people around the world online. We always search for validation, because no matter how strong our self-confidence, without some scrap of validation from the people around us we begin to question ourselves. You would be deluded not to. Insecurity is our natural state, and validation in the right form can be healthy and positive. But I don’t believe it’s given enough scrutiny.

I came across this example from one of the Youtubers I follow. A self-described ‘beauty-loving blogger’, Loey Lane is a very inspiring young woman. I have a great deal of respect and love for her videos and I would recommend checking her out for her opinions on body image and other topics. In this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQuX6eRW3AY – which I recommend watching first, she high-lights what she believes is the nature of a selfie. I don’t disagree with the main angle of the video, in fact, I intensely agree. It is her description of the ‘selfie’ which I disagree slightly with. She describes selfies as ‘self-appreciating photos’, and that ‘if you like the way you look in a photo, it is your photo, and you shouldn’t take it for anyone else’. She goes on to say that she would never consider that a person taking a selfie wants to look hot to the viewer; ‘they want to look hot to themselves’. This suggests that the selfie, a photograph of yourself, is only for yourself, for your self-gratification only. Yet if this were true, no one would ever post a selfie online, whether it be on Facebook, Instagram, or any site. No one would want friends and strangers to post compliments on their selfies because they were satisfied in themselves that they knew they looked attractive. I don’t claim to speak for Loey’s perspective on this matter, and as a Youtuber she makes a living out of sharing her appearance (very bravely and confidently) with the world. But I can speak for myself when I say I am guilty of this. I have posted pictures of myself and waited for the satisfaction of a large number of likes or a comment on my appearance, to validate what I already thought and hoped was true.

This is not to criticise the selfie or the search for online validation. This is to make all of us aware that it’s a huge part of ourselves, myself included. Validation from others is important, because getting along with any part of society is conducive to our greater happiness. It’s when validation starts targeting appearance to such double-standards that I start to worry.

When I ask other women about the make-up issue, they say they have thought about it, but that you should do whatever makes you happy – whether that means wearing make-up or not. Isn’t your own happiness the most important in the long run? If you want to wear make-up, then you should. But I question where the motivation to wear make-up comes from. Is it really coming from me? Often wearing make-up isn’t a choice – it becomes a habit, where people can’t bear to go out without putting at least a streak of mascara on. Wearing make-up when I go out does make me feel secure and more attractive than if I wasn’t wearing any, yes – but that’s not really happiness, is it? That’s fitting into a society which validates a made-up woman over a non-made-up one. Being truly happy would involve not spending time or money on products to modify my appearance beyond the basic level of hygiene and neatness.
You think you are in control of what makes you happy? Or you think you know where your markers for happiness came from? Happiness only can come from validation, whether it has originated from family or friends or wider society. The markers of that validation are not set by you – and besides, they are so multiple and constantly changing.

Validation for a woman used to be that if you kept your doorstep swept and clean, you were a good woman and human being. Now that doesn’t determine your value anymore (thank goodness), but damaging simplicity has been replaced by confusing multiplicity. You can be a stay-at-home mum and people will criticize you for not going to work and being a modern, equal woman. You can go to work and people will criticize you for not spending enough time with your kids. Value is determined through a far more complex social structure and today multiple opposing opinions can all be valid. So how do you position yourself within this system? Either you stay in the system and perpetuate it or you remove yourself from the system and take a stand. But you can’t remove yourself from the system, because the system can provide certain things you need, like money and friends and relationships, respect and enjoyment and work satisfaction. You could go and live on a desert island, but as long as you weren’t entirely alone you are still operating in some system of values. So either you stay in the system; a hypocrite whose very existence is a reinforcer of the attitudes you hate, or you suffer outside the system; ignored, voiceless, marginalised.

I don’t have an answer, yet. I like the idea of O’Toole’s theory that appearance and all its trappings is a performance and we are actors, changing the minds of society’s audience the more we play around outside our set gender definitions. That we should experiment with our appearance and consequently shift our and others’ assumptions about gendered appearance. But make-up has a long way to go before it will begin to function as a fairly chosen costume rather than a solution to insecurities which are instilled into us by the make-up companies themselves. I find myself struggling daily with the implications of more and more questions I don’t have answers to. I want to look beautiful, but I want to know what type of beauty I should favour – natural beauty, because it is ‘the real’ me, and I am perfect just the way I am? What if I enjoy changing my appearance once in a while?  Should I value make-up altered beauty because it ‘perfects’ my appearance and gets me closer to being society’s (current) accepted model of beauty? Which model of societal validation should I subscribe to? Which is really true and healthy and which is false and damaging? When and how should I decide to change validation models? Must I be constantly engaged in internal gender debate to make the choice to wear make-up each day truly self-determined? Can I get along in life by completely disregarding any external validation? Is it possible? And while make-up is easy to play around with because it is temporary, would I condone surgery-enhanced beauty if it meant feeling comfortable in my own skin? If someone wants botox or a nose reduction, are they wrong to be happy for how it makes them feel? Where is their validation coming from, and is it wrong to want to change how you look? Which of these forms of beauty, if any, is the most valid? Which will really make me most happy in our unequal society? And am I really the one making the decisions?

[1] Emer O’Toole, Girls Will Be Girls (London: Orion, 2015)

The curious case of Rachel Dolezal: Is being transracial principally the same as being transgender?

Our topic today is Rachel Dolezal and the controversy over ‘transraciality’. There’s been a huge backlash over Dolezal’s actions and lot of people find what she’s doing to be unacceptable. Some of her defenders have cited Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, as an example, claiming that both their cases are the same. It’s got us thinking about whether this is valid argument. Is being ‘transsexual’ principally the same as being ‘transracial’? Should we accept changing race in the same way we accept changing gender? Siddh showed me this Youtube video as a starting point: https://youtube/gZEsCWWskbY, and if you’re interested, go and watch that first.

Siddh: Well first of all, lemme explain what I understand of Rachel Dolezal’s case so far. She is (or was, she’s resigned as of June 15th) the President of the NAACP branch in Spokane, Washington. The controversy around her, and the reason she has resigned, is that for about the last decide she’s been pretending to be of black heritage but it came out recently that she’s, in fact, not. She’s almost entirely of white heritage (German and Czech largely, with, as her parents describe it, “faint traces” of Native American ancestry) and certainly not ‘black’ as she claims to be. The case itself is very sketchy, and the more you look into her life the worse she sounds. For starters, she’s been preaching and lecturing about the experiences of the black woman without being one. And it seems that for the majority of this period, Dolezal has largely let tags be put upon her and not denied them when they suited her, such as letting Howard University think she was black to get a scholarship there.[1] Another tag that was put on her was the term ‘transracial’, one that she did not correct initially, but now states is not how she sees herself, despite still maintaining that she would “consider herself to be black”.[2] This identification with a race different to the one she was born into has lead people to compare her case to that of Caitlyn Jenner’s (whom if you don’t know about you’ve been living under a rock, go google it). The comparison kind of troubles me, but it also kind of makes sense, so I’m curious what you think about it Lulu.

Louise: Well, in the Youtube video you send me, Kat Blaque’s point about the use of the term ‘transracial’ is very interesting. She defines how its meaning today is used in conjunction with parents adopting children of a different race to their own. If you think about the word literally, and in the context of how we use similar terms, you’d assume it means ‘crossing racial boundaries’, but it doesn’t, because the concept of someone doing that is just not common. I mean, we don’t have a term to describe the idea of someone changing race in the same way that we do someone changing gender. Yet the term ‘transgender’ means someone whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex.

Siddh: Well right off the bat, the problem is that I think the case study of Rachel Dolezal is deplorable. What she did was just plain wrong and sketchy as hell, but I don’t think her case can be applied as a principal.

Louise: Well I agree that the particulars of her story were pretty outrageous, but putting aside what our opinion is of her, it’s interesting to compare the ideas of transgender and transracial – are they the same? If not, why not? In the video we both watched the speaker uses the argument that Rachel “decided” to be black, but trans people don’t decide to be trans. They just are trans and need to be true to themselves. I’m not convinced by that argument. Who are we to judge whether or not Dolezal actually feels black or whether she’s just using it to achieve something disingenuous? Do we really have the right to question the authenticity of that? How do we know she doesn’t genuinely feel she was born into the wrong race in the way someone is born into the wrong sex? And what is it that we don’t “believe” about her when she claims she’s a black woman in a white woman’s body but we believe Caitlyn Jenner when she says she was a woman born in a man’s body?

Siddh: Well if someone is transgender they are born, say, male and told for their early life that they are male. But they realise as they grow older that that’s just not who they are, that the gender society has assigned them is not correct, and that they need to be true to themselves. So why can’t in the same way Rachel be born white, grow up white, but then realise that that’s just not who she is and that she feels more affinity with “black” culture?

Louise: Yeah, exactly.

Siddh: I guess at the bottom of it we’ve gotta ask “What is culture?” I’d say culture is the accumulation of social things you’ve inherited. It’s the traditions and behaviours that have been passed down to you. We’ve reached a point where society (non-ignorant society) know that ‘race’, when referring to skin colour, doesn’t make people different in their capabilities, so ultimately what ‘race’ means now is interchangeable with a certain base level of experience and perception – both of your own and of others’ of you.

So for example – for me, I’m Indian because I was born in India, raised Hindu, taught Hindi, made to believe, for however long, in the same base values that Indians share and have certain behavioural traits. I was raised in the culture of Bollywood, Indian music, Indian sports (exclusively cricket) and taught Indian history. That’s my ancestry. I can be British by nationality, as I am now, but I can never be of British heritage. I’ll never be raised with the same experiences of Christmas, pubs and pudding…

Louise: *Laughs*

Siddh: …and though my values are now more aligned with ‘British’ or western values, I was still raised with Indian values and that’s my experience of race on an internal level. On an external level, part of my race is that people see my skin colour and attribute things to it, in the same way of course I do to others subconsciously. In an equal world that wouldn’t matter. But since we’re not in that world that means that I suffer from certain harmful systems that work against people who share my skin colour. So everybody of my skin colour can relate to that experience and that’s part of our external culture.

In Rachel Dolezal’s case she can (and successfully did, for several years) change her appearance to make it seem like she was of a “black” internal and external experience. The reality is obviously that she just got a tan and a ‘righteous’ hairdo. But if we lived in a world where changing your skin colour was as possible and easy as it is to change your gender then maybe someone like Rachel could claim to share the same external culture as a black person. But at the end of the day, even if she learns as much as she can about the culture, she still can’t have the same inherited aspect of culture, the internal experience – which at the bottom level is an indoctrination of certain values that we are given at birth.

Louise: All very true, but can we follow through the same idea with gender? If we did, then trans people wouldn’t have cultural childhood experiences of the gender they seek to be, only the gender they were born as. For instance, if you grow up as a girl, are taught how to function as a girl and imbued with the associations that gender holds, and you become a man because you felt that was your true gender, you can never have the ‘indoctrination of certain values’ that children are given at birth depending on what genitals they have. But does it matter? Don’t we just believe they were born in the wrong body and accept that?

Siddh: But there is still nothing ‘inherited’ about being a woman; there is with culture. When you’re born a woman you’re not passed down the experiences of your female relatives exclusively, you’re given the collective beliefs of your ancestors: and that’s what culture is. Culture is larger, gender is individual. Obviously people of the same gender share many of the same experiences but…

Louise: But many (including me) would argue that gender is also larger.

Siddh: But your gender isn’t passed down, therefore it’s changeable. Your culture isn’t changeable because it’s passed down.

Louise: But certain elements of gender are passed down – biological elements, such as hormone cycles, fertility, physical size of gender-specific body parts.

Siddh: But that’s not exclusive to gender – that’s inheritance. No matter who my child is they will have an Indian culture (at least half). Their gender, however, is entirely decided by them.

Louise: But why can’t you shake off your inherited racial traits and not the inherited traits of your random gender?

Siddh: I don’t know – I’m trying to counter what you’re saying but I’m not 100% convinced by the phrasing of it myself. I feel like there’s something there at the base level that differentiates race and gender it but I haven’t pinned a definitive definition of it. I’m not sold by my own words *laughs*. At the end of the day, this is me talking as someone who isn’t born into the wrong culture.

Louise: I’m still finding it hard to pinpoint too. Why isn’t race as changeable as gender, even if it’s based on generations of inheritance and gender is randomly-generated? How does that make race somehow sacred, and the gender you are assigned not sacred?

Siddh: Part of the reason everybody is so angry at Rachel Dolezal is because she’s a living embodiment of privilege. That an affluent white lady felt that “she was black” and decided to preach about the struggles of the black woman while continuing to gain the privilege of being white.

Louise: That’s true. Whatever motivation she felt, she acted in a way which was not to be properly aware of the cultural appropriations. But, I mean, no one is saying to Caitlyn Jenner, ‘You appropriated our gender and you think just with some physical changes you can say you are a woman and claim our suffering and our problems’. But Caitlyn Jenner isn’t claiming to stand for women or women’s issues, and isn’t going to lecture on women’s issues. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal had stood up for racial appropriation and made THAT the focus of her career, and said ‘I feel black, even though I wasn’t born black. This is why, and what is wrong with that?’ people would have been more okay with it.

Siddh: Part of the black experience is the discrimination that comes with looking a certain way, and the constant cultural pressure of being told your appearance and your skin colour is evil. So she appropriated the nice cultural bits without having to face the bad discriminatory parts.

Louise: You’ve said the same before about Iggy Azalea. If you want part of a culture, you have to acknowledge it all, good and bad.

Siddh: Yeah, correct. But you also have to give back, and not just take. And I think that’s why people don’t have a problem with Caitlyn, because she has actually gone through a lot of struggle and hate just to become a woman. So there’s a sense that her persecution acts as proof of her more than appropriating.

Louise: I suppose so – but just because someone’s journey was harder doesn’t make it inherently better.

Siddh: Well it’s vindication that what they were doing came from a desire to be authentic and not just a desire to benefit. But you’re right, it doesn’t hold up as the thing which makes Rachel’s actions unacceptable and Caitlyn’s fine.

Louise: It obviously has nothing to do with conservatism, because people can see to allow gender swapping.

Siddh: Principally the argument that transracial and transgender are the same seems to hold up. But personally I feel uncomfortable with that idea.

Louise: Same.

Siddh: Basically what we’re saying is your race and culture is not something you can change, but your gender is – why is that? It’s weird because someone’s race/culture is so closely connected to their individual identity. But so is gender. So how is it that we can say that genders are swappable, but race isn’t?

Louise: But in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, do I feel offended that a white male, in a position of privilege, wants to become a woman, a group who historically have had a lot of social restrictions and unpleasant associations? No. Probably most women think if you want to join us, go ahead. It takes nothing away from us, a man wanting to become a woman. But becoming black offends, because it can be perceived as threatening blackness, as taking away something of what it is to be black. Let’s assume that for Rachel, inside, she felt black. But from the outside people see a white girl trying to be black and don’t see the desire to swap race as genuine, maybe because they don’t believe it’s possible? For Caitlyn, we see a woman who was trapped in a man’s body. We don’t blame her for wanting to be a woman, we believe nature messed up and gave her the wrong hormones which told her she was a man, and has finally managed to become who she felt she was all along, and we don’t challenge it. We accept that she genuinely wanted to be a woman, and wasn’t doing it to ‘benefit’ somehow. This is her truth. The whole of history has had transgender people, we know it’s biologically possible for people to be born with hormonal imbalances or to have some traits of one gender whilst being another. But we don’t have compassion for someone wanting to be another race because we don’t believe biologically you could be born into the wrong race, as somehow a misalignment of your race identity and your physical race characteristics. Everyone is born with the potential to be a man OR a woman. Not everyone is born with the potential to be black.

Siddh: I guess it’s a new concept, so it’s something that will take time to adapt to. Ages ago you would have barely known other races existed, and when they did you certainly didn’t want to be them because you believed they were evil or savage or generally inferior. So I guess now that cultures so regularly amalgamate with each other we’re going to start seeing people who feel they’re born into the wrong one. I think also, though, it seems like we see the mixing of genders as a good thing, largely. We’re rapidly, as a society, trying to promote guys doing girl things and vice versa, or anyone being able to have whatever gender traits they like and feel best represent them. Whereas we don’t like the idea of cultures taking stuff from one another because it somehow deteriorates them. That’s cultural appropriation.

Louise: Gender doesn’t have much to do with reproductive organs either, actually – a man with a penis can be asked to be called a woman, and we’ll accept his right to define himself as herself. But a white woman can’t asked to be called black because being black has EVERYTHING to do with skin colour.

Siddh: Well in an ideal world becoming black would only mean a change in skin colour, but in reality it means inheriting lots of things. Your influences, your preferences, your beliefs. Being black, or in my case being Indian, is a mindset and a certain experience. A lot comes from your racial heritage. But yes, maybe now gender isn’t being as strongly linked to physicality, but race still is? So is part of our apprehension simply because we don’t have the medical ability to change race like that?

Louise: Mm, I think people would still feel offence if the technology existed. I think somewhere we’re getting close to the crucial difference between race and gender, and it’s to do with how the physical is linked to the conceptual in society’s view. Race: “any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity, and sometimes (more controversially) considered to encompass common biological or genetic characteristics”.[3] Gender: “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex”.[4] Can we see something in these definitions? Race is about the physical or genetic, whereas gender is about supposed characteristics, despite our biologically binary genitals. Is gender then more fluid and conceptual? Gender is somehow easier to play with, where race isn’t, because it depends entirely on physical differentiation at all times – if the physical barrier of skin colour or inherited traits are ignored, race breaks down, and unique (good or bad) racial experiences are somehow threatened.

Siddh: Yeah I think that’s close, but I’m not sure about that final bit – on a couple of points. For one, I don’t think race is all entirely physical, there is definitely something cultural there too. Like, white Britons can be racist to Polish immigrants and they have the same skin colour.

Louise: True. In that case it’s to do with language or cultural background and perceived economic or cultural threat I suppose.

Siddh: It’s something to do with (a) the tribalism or race still inherent within us which maintains a ‘me vs. you’ mind set, and (b) people’s perceptions of other races. And for another thing, surely we would embrace transracial-ness if the only thing stopping us was appearance? You said “if the physical barrier is ignored, race breaks down, and unique (good or bad) racial experiences are somehow threatened”. That’s true, but isn’t that something you think we would encourage?

Louise: Of course. But cultural heritage is important to people. Racial difference may be the root of many forms of discrimination, but racial difference is also something people want to celebrate. People see becoming the same, even if that means becoming equal, as potentially losing unique cultural identities.

Siddh: So, the thing people are constantly worried about nowadays is a cultural clash – with a globalised world, cultures are having to live together and accommodate more and more with each other. Part of that accommodation means compromising their core values to fit another culture. In Britain the likes of UKIP are constantly trying to fear monger over how we’re losing what it means to be ‘English’. Combining one culture with another means taking things away from both of them and meeting in the middle, and that’s scary for people, because it means letting go of their heritages and their traditions. People value the uniqueness and individuality of their respective cultures.

Whereas with gender, no matter what happens, we’re secure in the knowledge that there will always be biological men and biological women. So we’re happy to allow experimentation and swapping because it doesn’t threaten the basic concept of gender and sex. Thus we are happy to allow people to be transgender because it doesn’t threaten the core concepts of gender, but being ‘transracial’ in the Rachel Dolezal sense sits uneasy with us because it threatens the core concept of cultures, threatening to make them accessible and appropriatable by everyone, thus destroying their uniqueness and individuality. If everyone can be black then being black becomes like a lifestyle choice and not a culture.

Louise: So it’s about threat – or perceived threat to your racial identity. Whereas transgender doesn’t pose a threat to your gender identity? Though lots of people feel it does – you only have to do a quick Google search to find out how much people hate the idea of being transgender or transsexual.

Siddh: True but I still think that’s probably the core of it. I think this is as close as we’re gonna get to an answer.

We both agree, then, that the Rachel Dolezal case is obviously deplorable but the concept of someone being born into the wrong race or culture is not?

Louise: I’m not sure where my thoughts lie, really. I’m not sure I do agree that being transracial (in the sense of feeling like you’re born into the wrong race) is, in terms of basic principle, the same as being transgender even though a lot of the same arguments can be applied for both. I disagree that we can dictate how someone else wants to frame their identity, whether that be in terms of gender, sex, or race, but I can still see how gender and race can’t be treated as the same.

Siddh: Yeah, this is a tough one to pin down. I agree; I share your unease with putting race and gender in the same bracket and at a base level it feels weird to me. But I also feel like transracialilty is something we will see more often and we’ll probably come to accept it.

Anyways, we’ve ruminated on this topic long enough. As a blog we try not to offer concrete opinions that we can present as fact, especially when we can’t pin one down ourselves. Complex issues don’t have simple answers. We found this topic fascinating and wanted to explore the whys and hows of it. But that also means we’re always curious to hear new perspectives. This is how we feel, but how do you feel? Is there something we’ve missed, or a conclusion we’ve made that doesn’t convince you? What IS the difference between being transracial and being transgender and should they be treated the same? Comment or email us and let us know.

*EDIT*

Siddh: After some more thinking about this topic and some very helpful responses to the blog (shout out to Shay Bacon, Robbie Venus-Evans and China Dethcrash) this is the final conclusion we’ve come to. The difference between being transgender and being transracial is that there is a biological basis to your gendered behaviour. Gender is so blanket that in most cultures certain tropes constantly pop up about how men are expected to behave and how women are expected to behave. Obviously these are then reinforced by society that tries to make them uniform and punish anyone who doesn’t fit those stereotypes, but somewhere there is a biological basis for certain ‘female’ behaviour and certain ‘male’ behaviour. Whereas with race, what’s maybe been making us uncomfortable with putting it in the same bracket as gender, is that biologically there’s no ‘white’ or ‘black’ way to act. However there is a culturally ‘black’ or ‘white’ way to act and it becomes hard to seperate the two because as a society we still stick to those rigid impressions of each other largely. So for example, when I was president of the hip hop society at my uni one of the most frequent conversations I had with people who didn’t listen to hip hop was “I’m too white to listen to hip hop”. It was clear that society had told those people that their skin colour meant that they shouldn’t listen to a certain type of music and thus dress or behave or talk in ways associated with that music. But that was cultural, not biological. So it’s important to draw a distinction between race and culture in the same way we differentiate between sex and gender. Your race, i.e. your biological skin and facial structure doesn’t change your behaviour, but the hormonal and chemical parts of gender (i.e. sex) can and does influence your behaviour. Thus we recognise the need to allow people who feel of the wrong gender to be able to change their sex because we recognise that it allows them to fully express themselves. Whereas with race we feel that there is no biological need to change race because it doesn’t affect your behaviour. You may be ‘transracial’ in the sense that you associate yourself with, say, ‘black culture’ but you’re associating yourself with the culture and not the race and that’s something you can do without changing your appearance. Therefore you’re not really transracial, you’re transcultural and that just means you feel an affinity with a culture that’s different to yours and there’s nothing stopping you from behaving appropriate to that culture other than the rigid pressure of society telling you you shouldn’t behave like that.

Louise: Hopefully that provides a more solid reasoning for why we feel being transracial and being transgender are not the same thing. Still, feel free to comment etc. if you have more to enlighten us with!

[1] http://rollingout.com/news/rachel-dolezals-brother-blames-howard-university-to-blame/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-race-ethnicity-black-naacp-spokane-washington

[3] “race, n.6.” OED Online.

[4] “gender, n.” OED Online.