It’s Not Racist To Call You White

If you missed it, racism has been a hot topic recently in British politics. It should have been hotter for longer but at least it’s here, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. The debate should have started with the Windrush Scandal, still notoriously underreported despite being a monumental f*** up by the Conservative government, but it didn’t.

It could even have started with the Grenfell Tower fire, where most of the residents were black and brown in an otherwise affluent, white constituency. But it didn’t.

Instead, this recent debate began with accusations of anti- Semitism in the Labour party and then followed to the opposite side of that political pond, to accusations of Islamophobia aimed at Boris Johnson, who this week deemed that Muslim women who wear a burka look like “bank-robbers” and “letterboxes”.[1]

In a move that is no doubt calculated, the former Foreign Secretary, notorious for his previous slew of racist remarks, has refused to budge or apologise for the comments he made in his article, citing his classic “free speech”, the bastion of all racist remarks. See: my previous article.

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But, in amongst this debate of whether or not Boris was racist (he was, and I will get into that later if you need convincing), there was one Twitter exchange that particularly caught my eye.

Never one to be quiet on such issues, Tottenham MP David Lammy, tweeted the following, in response to Michael Heaver claiming that essentially, Brits are with Boris on this one:

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This was the tweet that launched a thousand tweets (literally), mostly angry tweets attacking Lammy for “being racist” by pointing out that Mr. Heaver is white and therefore not the best placed to define racism.

Now, in the world of the internet, it should not be surprising that Lammy elicited so much hate. Inevitably on Twitter, when you express a strong view that isn’t something like, “Puppies are amazing, don’t @ me”, you’re almost certain to be meet with an equal and opposite force of negativity. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Twitter.

But while I was not surprised, I was deeply saddened and disenchanted by the false, uninformed or simply disingenuous arguments people used to try and invalidate what David Lammy has said. And while I personally wouldn’t have phrased the tweet quite as inflammatorily as he did (after all, you’re never going to convince someone talking like that), I do believe the sentiment of what he said stands to reason. And, I’m going to try and explain why.

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You see, these tweets are not just random tweets by individuals (even though they are). They’re a microcosm of every conversation about race in England and anywhere else in the western world. Like tiles in a bathroom, they all follow a certain path and pattern that once you see, you know will repeat. They are the conditioned and often parroted responses we get from (oh, no, I’m going to say it) white men when they’re told that they don’t understand racism. It’s only by pointing out the cracks in these tiles, or just their sheer garish ugliness, that we can try and work towards replacing them.

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And no, it wasn’t racist to say “white men”.

That issue right there is probably the best and only place to start. Because if you disagree with Lammy, it’s likely because you believe the following: “Why is it racist for me to call someone a black man, but it’s not racist for a non-white person to say a white man is ___. They are both equally racist.”

Now, while I loathe to go to the dictionary to back up an argument, it is once again the only way we can begin to unpack why the above statement is not correct.

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The key of what defines racism is not the pointing out of one’s skin colour. This is a common misconception people seem to have and that is why often you will hear people say, “I don’t see race.” While I have no doubt that the intentions of people who say this are good and that they do not want racism to exist, this statement does not help.

Unless you are literally blind, you do see race. There is nothing wrong in seeing race. Our difference should be celebrated. Racism is not about that. Racism is about power dynamics. It is about the belief that one set of people are subhuman – i.e. less deserving of being treated as humans than others. In a different world, this could easily have manifested in black people colonising the world with the explicit philosophy that white people are dumb and savage and incapable of self-governance and thus deserve to be ruled over and brutalised because they have not earned the privileges of humanity that come with blackness. But that is not what happened. And while countries of predominantly coloured people have invaded and conquered countries of predominantly white people, it is only in our current version of history that white people, mostly Europeans, have colonised and enslaved millions upon millions of coloured people explicitly because of the colour of their skin. Explicitly because they deserved it. It is this doctrine that formed the basis of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

Therefore, any conversation about racism must exist in this context. It is in this specific world we live in that white people – as a collective, I don’t mean you, the person reading this – have power. The wealthiest, healthiest and most powerful countries in the world are all mostly white and it is not as an accident or a coincidence but a direct consequence of the above. That doesn’t discredit any achievements these countries made, it is simply an acknowledgement of reality. And when you understand this context, you understand that this international power dynamic manifests itself on an individual scale, particularly within these predominantly white countries. However much we may want to will ourselves into being a “post-racial” society, we still live in the aftermath of the relationship between the colonised and the colonisers. The slaves and the masters. Remember that it is within living memory that the British Empire, Apartheid and segregation all existed.

It is why the President of the most powerful country in the world can brand a bunch of brown countries as “shithole countries” without any actual understanding of where these places are, let alone what their current socio-political status is.[2] He then stated that America would be better having more immigrants from Norway, for some mysterious reason… Because the idea that white is good, and brown is bad does not need fact – it it’s “just a feeling”.

“Just a feeling” that Africa is a “shithole” continent that wouldn’t survive without Western aid, even though 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are from Africa (and none from Europe). [3]

Just a feeling that Asians are benefit scroungers, even though 3 of the top 5 entries for richest people in the UK, according to the Sunday Times, were born in India (and none in the UK).[4]

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This feeling is also what justifies a lot of explicitly racist rhetoric, such as a different Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, claiming that burkas are a tool to hide “bruises”, insinuating that all Muslim women are the subject of domestic abuse. This, of course, conveniently forgetting that 1 in 4 women in the UK are the subject of domestic abuse at some point in their lives and, last I checked, 1 in 4 women in the UK were not Muslim. That is when we know that people like Johnson and Dorries do not care for about the ease of life Muslim women or indeed how “liberal and progressive” we are, having repeatedly voted against gay rights. No, the issue is about taking any chance to attack anything “foreign” under the guise of liberalness.

That is why Boris’ remarks are racist. Because they are nothing to do with equality and everything to do with race. It is why he seems to have no problem with nuns, Jehovah’s witnesses or Amish people – who all have similarly “oppressive” practices – but can’t seem to tolerate brown women covering their bodies for whatever reason. There is such irony in Boris claiming that Muslim women are not given actual free will to wear or not wear burkas, so, to fight for their free will he is going to… force them to not wear it.

Going back to the issue with Lammy, then, it is all this context that we must remember when looking at our original premise: “Why is it not the same for you to point out that I am white”. Because whiteness is not the subject of fear. It is not the subject of inferiority and it is not the subject of oppression. Blackness is. Someone’s whiteness has never been used to treat them as subhuman so calling someone white, even pejoratively, does not invoke the same context as using someone’s blackness as an insult, which has historically been a means of reminding someone that they are less deserving of humanity.

The best comparison – and one that is a lot less contentious – is with wealth. In stark contrast to racial privilege (or most other forms of privilege), class privilege is something that most people understand. So, think about the following exchange: Two panelists are arguing in a live TV debate, let’s say Question Time. One says to the other, “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a rich, private school kid and don’t know what life is like for poor people and the struggles we face. Your opinion on this is invalid.” Nothing said here would be particularly out of line or hasn’t been said before against, say, politicians. Now think about how this would go down: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a poor, public school kid. You don’t know what it’s like to have money so how would you know what to do with it? Your opinion on this is invalid”. It’s clear there that there is a difference here. Their line of argument is the same, but the situation and our response would not be the same. That is because we recognise that wealth is a privilege and a lack of wealth is a hindrance to success. If you’re poor, you can still become powerful and successful, there’s just more barriers in your way. And if you’re rich, you will still face struggles and hurdles in your way to success, which is never guaranteed, but you have a distinct head-start. Yet, when it comes to race, we do not apply the same rules. Probably because most people in the Western world don’t believe racism exists anymore in any way beyond the potential to name-call. That’s also where we’re wrong.

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I particularly love this (not-fully-screenshotted but you get the gist) cartoon that was tweeted at Lammy (and by love, I mean find so moronic I have to laugh) because it so perfectly encapsulates the opposite of what it’s meant to. It’s obviously meant to show how racism can affect white people too, yet what it demonstrates again is the fundamental lack of understanding of racism that many (not all) white people have. Pointing out that someone is not in the best position to understand racism by virtue of being white (a cultural phenomenon that does not make a comment on the biological or historical capability of white people) is not the same as being the victim of racism (being treated as subhuman because of biological beliefs based around the colour of your skin) or institutional racism (the subtle remnants of the above thinking which still affect perceptions, opportunities and treatment of non-white people). Apparently, to be subjected to hundreds of years of brutalisation, genocide, abuse, slavery, exploitation, dehumanisation and then all its present day aftermaths and incarnations is now the same as the injured feelings of being told, “You’re white, you wouldn’t get it.” That is peak obliviousness and peak irony.

So many commenters seemed so quick to point out that actually they have a great understanding of racism… while simultaneously displaying their ignorance of what racism is. If they knew it (and indeed if they knew their history), they wouldn’t be making the points they were.

Again, to compare (though no comparison is quite adequate in this case), imagine a woman saying to a man: “You don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman” and the man replying, “How do you know that? You’re being sexist by assuming I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman”.

Now, it is perfectly possible for men to understand sexism just as well as a woman can. Similarly, it is possible for a white person to understand racism just as well as a black or brown person. But, whiteness is a barrier to understanding racism in the same way that being male is a barrier to understanding sexism. By default, whiteness removes you from the experiences of coloured people, thus making it a lot harder to understand what they mean when they point to certain things you simply have never experienced.

When you are the beneficiary of a particular system, you are actively a part of it until you are not. To be white and not actively acknowledge racism is to actively work to perpetuate it, however passively you may do it. Because to either deny or be oblivious to racism is to posit that it doesn’t exist and that you do not benefit from any sort of privilege… both of which are untrue. It is only when you understand and acknowledge that racism exists and that, as a consequence, white privilege exists, and adapt your behaviour accordingly, can you actually claim to be against racism.

Again, a metaphor: One house in a neighbourhood is burning. You don’t call the fire department and have them spray every house with water because all houses are of equal importance. You get them to turn the water on the one house that needs it the most because you recognise that this house is in trouble, compared to the others. Your mere passive, non-discriminating existence is not going to fix any particular problem if it already exists. Homelessness will not be solved by saying “Well I don’t mistreat homeless people so it’s all good”. If you’re not actively trying to help the vulnerable, you’re not helping the vulnerable.

Of course, you will want fact, so let’s talk fact. Racism manifests itself at all points of a black person’s life. In school, they are likely to be expelled more, marked down by their teachers for the same answers as their white counterparts, less frequently accepted into Russel Group universities (despite a greater proportion of them being at sixth form/college), and more likely to be given a grade less than 2:2 (by university lecturers who are 70% white male – remember, a default barrier to understanding racism). Along the way, they’re also more likely to be stopped and searched, twice as likely to be charged with drug possession (despite all studies showing drug use to be similar across race lines or slightly higher amongst white people), up to 5 times more likely to be charged with an offence rather than cautioned or warned (like their white counterparts would) and more likely to be put on the National DNA database. In the job sphere, they’re more likely to have their application rejected simply for having a ‘non-white’ name, despite having an identical CV to a successful white applicant. And, if they should make it to old age after of lifetime of being treated like an idiot and a criminal, they are more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital under the compulsory powers of the Mental Health Act (i.e. against their will), more likely to be seen as ‘an aggressive’ patient, more likely to receive a higher dose of anti-psychotic medicine than their white counterparts and yet less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. These are just some of the many ways in which a dark complexion can make your life harder in England (and yes, this is all in England, something people seem reluctant to believe since racism is an American thing, obviously, and never takes place in these shores). And these are all findings from studies conducted by the government, not some leftie-liberal, pro-black, white-hating think tank, though the government itself seems set on not doing anything with these findings.[5]

And yet, even when you point these things out, there are some people who still will play the whataboutery game.

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The above is another argument I’ve seen used recently to try and deny the existence of racism. The “actually, poor white kids have it bad too.” Except, there’s fundamental flaw of logic in this argument that Twitter user JimmyMelt so nicely serves up for us, that racism somehow can’t exist if underprivileged white people exist. But Jimmy makes two mistakes in his (or her – perhaps the thumbnail and male-sounding-name are attempts to throw us off) assertion. The first incorrect assumption is that racism and class inequality can’t exist simultaneously, when in fact they most certainly do and any analysis of racism cannot be done without understanding how closely it ties in with class-dynamics. Why would people being racist stop people from also mistreating poor people? Is there only a finite amount of mistreatment to go around?

The second is that, for the group they stated – that is “poor white kids” – somehow whiteness is the source of disadvantage. What Jimmy was so close to figuring out is that the key word is actually the previous one, “poor”. It is the economic status of these children that is disadvantaging them, not their race. And of course it would, that is what wealth was designed for – to privilege you over other people. You see, if you have this thing called money you can live in a neighbourhood which is nicer than the other neighbourhoods and everything is better there – including the schools. And, in fact, you can even use this money as a sort of trading good to put your children in what are called ‘private schools’, which are usually staffed by better paid teachers (again, given more of that paper money) with lesser workloads and are generally better resourced and managed, especially when a government chronically under-funds its public schools.

Class, like race, can act as a barrier to success. If Jimmy had simply followed their own logic all the way through, they would have realised the following: “White kids are the norm. Poor kids have comparatively bad results. A disproportionate number of poor kids are non-white. Non-white kids have comparatively bad results. But non-white kids with money are performing as well as, if not better than, the white kids. I wonder if race and class are somehow having an effect on the education of our children and if that manifests itself in society as a whole? Hmm….”

The inability to see this, probably has something to do with the phenomenon called, “The working class of the mind”, which is where a recent survey found that 60% of Brits regard themselves as working class, despite only 25% actually working in ‘working class’ jobs.[6] Britain as a country seems to pride itself on being ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type people who all face struggles and work hard for every penny they earn, when in reality, they are generally in a much more privileged position than they realise. And while undoubtedly almost everyone works hard for what they do and what they earn, there is a clear, systematic and cultural refusal on the part of Brits to acknowledge this privilege.

It seems everyone wants to claim to be persecuted and to be at the bottom of the barrel, even if that’s not even slightly true. In reality, acknowledging your privilege is not an acknowledgement that your life is easy or that things were handed to you on a plate, but that there are certain advantages you face over someone else for a reason that isn’t fair. And this is a fluid system – you can privileged in some ways and underprivileged in others and being on either side of that equation doesn’t make you lesser in any way. You might be the subject of sexism but the beneficiary of racism. You might be the beneficiary of a homophobic society but disadvantaged by your economic status. And in all of those scenarios, you can still be a strong, capable, brilliant individual, regardless.

The truth is, everyone struggles in their own way, and empathising with, understanding or acknowledging someone else’s struggle which you don’t face does not make you weak, but rather shows a bravery of character. And while I’ve taken a lot of time to slate the people in Lammy’s replies, I also want to take the time to give kudos to user JJHoppard who, to put it succinctly, “gets it”.

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I salute you, Joe. Yours is an attitude we should all aspire to have – acknowledge where we are privileged and shut up and listen when someone on the negative end of that privilege is trying to explain their experiences to you.

Because if there’s one thing that this whole issue has demonstrated, it’s that people like Boris couldn’t give a flying toss about the actual liberties of Muslim women (who the government refuses to let into this country when they’re fleeing from actual war and persecution because they’re all from shithole countries and want to steal our welfare, of course). But, instead, that people like him just want to start cultural wars and accentuate divides in order to gain cheap popularity. And he’s doing it because he’s a rich, privileged white man who has absolutely no clue or concern about what Muslim people’s lives are like, or anyone who isn’t Boris Johnson, for that matter. And that’s not racist to say. So let’s all be a little less like Boris and try understand our privilege and the many ways in which they manifest and start by trying to understand what it really means to be racist.

 

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-45130532

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/11/politics/immigrants-shithole-countries-trump/index.html

[3] https://www.theatlas.com/charts/BJOKD67VG

[4] https://inews.co.uk/news/these-are-the-10-richest-people-in-the-uk/

[5] pp. 66-71, Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ (2017)

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/29/most-brits-regard-themselves-as-working-class-survey-finds

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Jonathan Pie and the myth of ‘absolute’ freedom of speech

In a recent interview with Channel 4, Tom Walker – better known as Jonathan Pie, the fictional news reporter who explodes with a fit of rage when the camera turns off and blurts out his true feelings to the thing he was reporting on – argues a case he’s argued before. That we should have should have ‘more’ freedom of speech. Here’s the relevant extract from said interview:

Freedom of speech is an immovable right for horrible people as well as nice people. If you’re a horrible person, if you’re a racist for example – I want to hear it. As long as you’re not inciting hatred, as long as you’re not inciting violence. If your opinion is that the colour of your skin makes you superior to me because of the colour of my skin, you should be able to say because then I can argue against you. If it’s illegal for you to say it, it just bubbles up. So that’s just the general level of what surely freedom of speech should be.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the Jonathan Pie videos but I can see why they’re popular and why some people find them amusing. And on the face of it, Walker is a nice guy with seemingly good intentions too. He postures himself as a very fair and unbiased political commentator (in the same interview, he cites that he follows Breitbart and BBC, Rees-Mogg and Corbyn all the same. He doesn’t want to fall into the trap of the echo-chamber, which is good). But the extract above demonstrates what I would say is Walker’s biggest blind-spot and something I’ve seen crop up in a fair few of his videos: that he is too concerned with raw “fact” and theorising and is either unaware or non-cognisant of what marginalised people go through in their everyday lives. He oversimplifies complex issues and ignores their practical consequences. There’s so much I disagree with in the thought he expresses above but I want to try and unpick each part, bit by bit.

Theorising and practicality should inform each other. But most of the times, in philosophical discussions like this, the two become separate and that’s when context is lost. Context is key. It sounds great to say, “freedom of speech is for everyone”, and it’s a ‘hot take’ I’ve seen given very commonly these days to defend horrible statements, but the idea that it should be the same for “nice” and “horrible” people is… irrelevant. How nice or ‘mean’ someone is has nothing to do with how their statements should be treated. What’s more important is the consequences of that statement. It’s great to say that racists should have a platform to air their bigotry but what that statement ignores is the actual effects of spreading racism.

It’s no coincidence that the biggest proponents of ‘absolute’ fair speech are usually the ones completely unaffected by the consequences of bigotry. While Walker might say, “Hey, if you’re a racist, I want to hear from you”, that’s very easy for him to say, because racists aren’t out to deride, deport or dehumanise him. And that is the context in which we’re living. Walker’s interview comes right in the middle of what should be one of the political scandals of the decade – the fact that an unknown number of British citizens – thought to be over 50,000 – have had their lives ruined by our government. If they haven’t been flat out deported, they’ve lost their citizenship status and have been denied healthcare, welfare and social services in their own country and are struggling to survive, simply for the crime of being from the Caribbean, i.e. being black. So while Walker may speak of the need for racists to have a better platform, he ignores the fact that it’s the rise of racism that has caused issues like these to become far too common  an occurrence in Britain, with hate crime on the rise post-Brexit.

The only reason things like the Windrush scandal can happen is because politicians like Theresa May and Amber Rudd feel comfortable creating a ‘hostile environment’ (as they have so proudly claimed) for people who are not native white-British. The fact that even people who have been in the country for 60 or 70 years are not immune from it, shows how deeply this attitude has pervaded into the psyche of the country, or at least how much politicians think this is something people will be fine with. And while The Sun and The Daily Mail might disingenuously claim to be outraged by the scandal, it is a hostile environment they have helped to create by consistently and persistently spreading the message that immigrants and coloured people are not welcome in the UK.

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But since Walker, in his interview, asks that rather than just invalidate his opinion because he is a “straight white man,” critics should point out how he is wrong, allow me to point out how he is wrong.

If a certain type of liberal left disagree with my argument, the reason will be because I’m a straight white man. Because of the colour of my skin, my gender and my sexuality.

I find it regressive that… tell me that my argument is wrong because of something that I said rather than “the colour of your skin is why you’re wrong”. And even if the colour of my skin is the reason why I’m wrong, how am I wrong? Tell me how.

Putting aside the moral question of giving racists greater freedoms and platforms to speak, there is a logical fallacy in Walker’s argument.

If your opinion is that the colour of your skin makes you superior to me because of the colour of my skin, you should be able to say because then I can argue against you.

The idea that you can debate someone out of being racist is naïve at best and downright stupid at worst. If that were the case then racism and other bigotry would have already been eradicated by now. It’s as if to suggest that in 2018 we still need to sit grown adults down and tell them that racism is bad.

Racism cannot be logic-ed out of someone because racism is not a logical ideology. There is no reasonable evidence behind the philosophy that any one race is superior to the others. So how can you “fact” your way through racism? And for the same reason you cannot logic someone out of racism, you cannot logic them into it. No one becomes a racist overnight. No one becomes a racist after hearing one speech. And no one is snapped out of it by one either. Racism spreads through emotional appeals, misinformation and rhetoric that scapegoats minorities for problems that have systemic and governmental roots. It’s a process that takes years and seeps into someone slowly, over time, till they’re invested deeper and deeper into the ’cause’. And the reason it spreads is because media outlets like the Daily Mail and the Sun and people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson spew their bile consistently and persistently without challenge. We, as a society, have helped facilitate a scenario where lies about immigration, refugees and religion have been spread daily without enough people standing up to say, “Hey, that’s wrong.” Yes, in a society with free speech they should all be allowed to say whatever they want without legal recourse, but freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence.

Even Walker understands this idea, which is why he caveats his statement with the following, “As long as you’re not inciting hatred, as long as you’re not inciting violence…” Well where does the line begin and end, Tom? Because it’s very easy to draw an arbitrary line on physical violence but where does the spread of hatred begin? Is it when Katie Hopkins brands refugees as “cockroaches… built to survive a nuclear bomb”? Or when the Prime Minister of Britain refers to humans as a “swarm of migrants”? Because if there’s anything that history has taught us, it’s that the first step to facilitate the abuse and slaughter of a group of people is to dehumanise them. To make them lesser – to make them into insects and not people.

If you say racist things, you should be called a racist. That is the consequence of your free speech. Free speech does not mean that we should accept what anyone says without challenge and without question. And the idea that the feelings of racists should be protected over the lives of the people they are trying to hurt is preposterous. If ever you wanted an example of white privilege, there it is.

I’ve now heard Walker defending racists more often than I’ve seen him “debate” racists out of their racism. That is where the “colour of his skin” seems to influence why he is wrong. Because he is immune to ever being threatened with deportation or second-class citizenship or criminalisation for who he is. That’s not to say that white men are incapable of holding a fair stance on such issues, because there are millions of straight white men who are aware of their privilege and of the marginalisation that minority groups face and how all of it interplays in society. But when, like Walker, you feign ignorance to your privilege and your power and ask for the empowerment of bigots over those they would seek to harm, then you’re guilty of being in the wrong precisely because you’re a “straight white man”.

The final part of Walker’s quote is perhaps the most misguided.

If it’s illegal for you to say it, it just bubbles up. So that’s just the general level of what surely freedom of speech should be.

The idea that racism actually arises and “bubbles up” because certain things are made illegal is yet another gross logical fallacy. Following on from Walker’s lead, perhaps tomorrow we should make theft and rape legal because if you make it illegal, it bubbles up, right?? Let’s give murderers more freedom to murder so that, when they do it, we can explain to them why it’s wrong. If we keep calling them murderers they’ll just bubble up till they can’t contain their urge to murder anymore.

Walker cites this same idea later in the interview to explain why he thinks Trump and Brexit happened. And while the symptoms he identifies are correct, his diagnosis isn’t.

People want explanations of how they got Brexit so wrong. How everyone got it so wrong. Well you’re not engaging with people. With Brexit people were so scared that they were going to vote leave: “Bigot”. No argument. No, “Why?”, no persuasion. “You’re a bigot. You’re like Nigel Farage then”. That’s how you lose. That’s how Trump got in. “If you’re thinking of voting for Trump you’re a sexist. You’re a misogynist. You want to feel women up because he does”. Not going, “What is it about him you’re thinking of voting for?” You just get, “You’re a bigot”.

Yes, just brazenly calling people bigots is bad. No one was ever convinced by being insulted. That shouldn’t need to be said. And yes, the reason that the media and political establishment and ‘left-wingers’ were so wrong about Brexit and then Trump is because they didn’t engage with people and they were out of touch. But what they were actually out of touch with was just how much bigotry has become acceptable in society. What they were really out of touch with was how openly racist you can be – in the case of Brexit, with Nigel Farage standing in front of a billboard with refugees fleeing war titled ‘BREAKING POINT’ – and get away with it. What has really surprised everyone, or should have, is just how much society is/was willing to tolerate bigotry if they felt they were gaining something from it. That people were happy to blame and hate migrants for their own economic disenfranchisement or perceived lack of autonomy. How much hateful rhetoric targeting immigrants trumped any attempted dialogue of logic and sense about the benefits that immigrants bring.

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And it is all a consequence of a culture which media outlets and politicians alike have helped facilitate over many years by blaming foreigners when all else fails. By citing increased migration as the problem instead of decreased funding. By linking rising crime with rising diversity, instead of reduced policing. If ‘the establishment’ was shocked, it was by how far the monster they created had gone without them.

It was the same in the case of Trump where the reason “everyone got it so wrong” was because they underestimated just how much bigotry American people would tolerate and even condone and approve of, if it meant that they might ‘Make America Great Again’. They underestimated just how pervasive misogyny and particularly racism is in White America – even amongst white women who, despite Trump’s many gender-specific crimes, voted for him in a majority.

So yes, if political ‘experts’ were wrong in their predictions for both votes, it was because the pervasive bigotry in both countries was largely closeted. But the votes were won because that bigotry was so pervasive. If it was less closeted, it wouldn’t have changed the bigotry, only made it more commonly known and made the result of the elections less of a shock. The pundits might have gotten it right… but the result would have been the same. What we should be focusing on is how to turn back years of encouraged bigotry, not how to justify it.

In a sense, Walker is right. Now that the votes have happened, we have a better idea that these issues exist so freely. We have a better sense of the scale of the task of eradicating bigotry. But the battle will not be won by allowing hatred to be spread more easily and with less repercussions, but by challenging xenophobic, racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic rhetoric and any other form of dialogue that seeks to make one group of people sub-human or lesser and with less rights. We must call out bigotry for what it is – bigotry. That does not mean, as Walker seems to suggest, that we must run around calling everyone a bigot. There is a difference.

Not everyone who holds a false belief is a bigot – I myself have held countless stupid ideas in my head in the past – about feminism and transgender issues for example – and probably hold plenty still that I haven’t realised. A dialogue is absolutely necessary to engage with issues. But that’s exactly why it’s important to speak up when someone is actively advocating regressive views that can damage the lives of the people it targets. We shouldn’t be afraid of hurting the feelings of people whose intent is to hurt the lives of others. And we definitely shouldn’t aid in the facilitation of people like Farage, Hopkins or Robinson in posturing themselves as victims when they, in reality, are the perpetrators.

If it wasn’t already obvious that Walker doesn’t understand the controversy around free speech, he explicitly states it himself in the interview.

And I just think it amazes me that the left aren’t really scared that the right seem to have claimed freedom of speech as their thing. The idea that Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson are the only people that are shouting about freedom of speech doesn’t prove that freedom of speech is a right-wing idea. It proves that the right have gone, “We’ll have that”. And the left are running scared. The left are scared to say that they are pro-freedom of speech because they don’t want to be branded right-wing. It’s a very, very bizarre state of affairs and it’s something I’ve learned since doing Pie that freedom of speech is a controversial topic. I find it very bizarre to me.

But what he neglects to mention, as he champions Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson as advocates of free speech, is that people like that are not interested in the free speech of society at all. They’re only interested in their own free speech. Does Katie Hopkins care about the free speech of Syrian refugees? Not in the slightest. And, I cannot emphasise this point enough but, neither of them are actually ‘fighting’ for free speech. There is absolutely nothing infringing upon their free speech in this country.  There’s no Gestapo knocking on their door. They’ve been freely speaking their minds for years and, in the case of Hopkins, have been getting actively paid by ‘news’ outlets to give these opinions. How can someone claim they don’t have free speech in that scenario!?

What they’re really after is freedom from consequence. They want to be able to call for the use of gunships against refugee boats without being called out for what they are – bigots. They don’t want people harassing them in the street or on the internet for their views, even though they themselves want to be free to harass and attack Muslim people, for example, for their beliefs. And yet, people like Walker, convincing themselves that they are champions of free speech, seem quicker to defend their right to say these things – which no one reasonable person would challenge – without ever actually condemning them. Or without sitting down to “debate” them as claims he wants to do.

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The Left are not paragons of virtue and are not always right on this or any other issue (Walker is, after all, himself a ‘leftist’) but if Walker is sensing a reluctance from the Left to cry “free speech!” every time an abhorrent commentary is made or someone like Hopkins calls for a “final solution” to the ‘Muslim problem’, it’s probably because there are some people who understand the dangers of allowing xenophobic propaganda – which is what this is – to be proliferated unchecked. I won’t resort to comparisons that lead me into Godwin’s Law territory but hopefully the parallels are already there to be seen. We shouldn’t need reminders of the dangers of consistently prejudiced propaganda.

I can only hope that Walker, as he tries to understand why it is people are so angry about this hate-rhetoric malarkey, takes the time to look at things from the perspective of the victims of racism and bigotry instead of always from the perspective of racists and bigots. He should ask the victims of the Windrush scandal what the rhetoric around migration has done for them. And if people tell Walker that it’s the colour of his skin that’s misguiding him, perhaps he will not consider it as “regressive” as he currently does. As things stand, he seems to be blind to the privilege he holds as a “straight white man” who will never be the target of attacks such as these that would make his life significantly harder. But if he needs help understanding it, then the comparison is this: Think of how egregious it feels when rich people eagerly call for the cutting of welfare and public funding, knowing it will not hurt them in the slightest (something that Jonathan Pie has stood against). That is what it feels like when people like Walker call for things to be done that affect minority groups far more than they affect him.

So, hopefully he will remember – next time he thinks of calling for ‘absolute’ freedom of speech – that he is not the one who is going to feel the repercussions of it.  And that, in reality, what the people who ask for it are after is not freedom of speech at all, but freedom from consequence. And, if we actually want to stem the tide of bigotry, we can’t let them have it.

The Uniqueness of T’Challa

The King of Wakanda represents a completely new alternative to Marvel’s usual Superhero protagonist, and I’m not talking about the colour of his skin.

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Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER. T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Matt Kennedy ©. Marvel Studios 2018

Warning: Contains some spoilers for ‘Black Panther’ and a few minor spoilers for other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

Let me get straight down to it: Marvel only really have one archetype for a protagonist. If we look at the characters who have been given solo films (or films centred primarily around them) in the MCU, they all enjoy one thing in common. Tony Stark, Dr Strange, Starlord, Thor, Spiderman and Captain America (and Ant Man but who cares about Ant Man?) are all white men, yes, but what’s more surprising is that they’re all characters who behave in a remarkably similar way. When push comes to shove, they’re all fundamentally this: cocky, slightly immature smart-allecks who, because of their brash nature, eventually mess things up and have to fix them in order to save the day. Apart from Spiderman (and Captain America pre-injection), they’re all supremely confident in themselves and their abilities and make sure to remind everyone of it at every possible opportunity. They like to taunt and mock their opponents as they defeat them – not as a ploy to try to unsettle them or throw them off their stride – but simply for the visceral thrill of humiliating them. They all make snarky quips and exhibit plenty of male bravado, never really admitting their flaws unless absolutely forced to. The only real exception to all of this is Tom Holland’s Spiderman but when he dons the suit, he assumes many of these qualities too – something I will elaborate on later.

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What makes T’Challa different to all these characters, beyond the fact that he’s black, is that he exhibits none of these traits. For once, he represents a form of masculinity that we have not seen in the MCU.

T’Challa is quietly confident, yes, but never arrogant. Never does he rub his powers or his status in anyone’s face. Even in heated ritual combat – to the death – he does not mock, toy with or belittle his opponents. Instead, he urges them to “yield” in order to spare their lives in two separate instances, showing a level of maturity and consideration that Marvel’s other protagonists simply do not. His advice to M’Baku – “your people need you” – shows an ability to look beyond the individual and think of the larger picture, even towards someone who has up until this point been contemptible. The fatal mistake that most of Marvel’s superheroes make is that they tunnel in on their own selfish goals and end up hurting others as a consequence. T’Challa’s act of kindness ends up reaping rewards for him at the climax of the film – a sort of good karma.

Although I never like when films correlate ‘noble birth’ with ‘being a better person’, in the case of T’Challa it is completely understandable. T’Challa has been raised as a leader from birth – not just as the supreme warrior but as a political representative. He is acutely aware of his position and constantly has the interests of his people at the forefront of his mind. He conducts himself as a diplomat, even when he might be forgiven for losing his composure. The scene where he spares Klaue after Okoye reminds him: “My king, the world watches,” demonstrates this perfectly. He puts the reputation of his people above any personal satisfaction.

Unlike many of Marvel’s other heroes, his privilege has not spoiled him but instead matured him. He is not a pampered, reluctant prince like Thor who, either not interested or possibly intimidated by the prospect of being a ruler, instead chooses to gallivant around the galaxy in search of adventures and thrills. T’Challa assumes his responsibility with dignity when the time comes. Nor is he like Tony Stark who, ignorant to the extent his privilege, chooses to behave like an entitled teenager and demands that the world excuse his obnoxiousness simply because he is who he is.

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This is a bit of a theme amongst Marvel’s protagonists. They all demand that their behaviour, however irksome, however obnoxious, should be excused, if not celebrated because they’re brilliant, if in no one else’s mind but their own. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange exhibits this behaviour most prominently – extrapolating his role as Sherlock to be a character who’s ‘a bit of a d*ck to everyone but it’s okay because he’s a genius’. He treats everyone he knows with contempt – colleagues, strangers, even the woman he loves/used to love – largely because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Although over the course of the film he learns that there are things beyond his understanding, he still retains more than a semblance of that arrogance, generally behaving like someone who feels no need to display social courtesy because he ‘is above it’. In his cameo encounters with other MCU characters he never makes any attempt to make them feel comfortable, despite the jarring experiences he puts them through. His only interest in them is to get what he wants as quickly as he can, then he whisks them away.

T’Challa, a binary opposite, is a diplomat through and through, as I have mentioned, and shows everyone respect and courtesy, even when they have not earned it. He treats people kindly by default where other MCU heroes would demand that you earn the right to not be dismissed by them. Fellow ‘Sherlock’ actor Martin Freeman’s character, CIA Agent Everett Ross, remarks on this ability for diplomacy during the interrogation of Klaue and derides Okoye for not showing the same respect (although unbeknownst to him he’s being bugged by T’Challa).

As I’ve said, most of Marvel’s protagonists display this lack of respect and it stems from an attitude of entitlement. They feel superior to everyone they speak to, so why bother showing them courtesy? T’Challa is shown on multiple occasions walking through the city in amongst the ordinary population. He is in touch with his people. He is humble, grounded. By contrast, characters in the MCU themselves have remarked on the inaccessibility of Tony’s decadent Stark Tower, which the Avengers call their base.

Yet while ordinary people might find themselves distanced from The Avengers, they will recognise their behaviour all too well. Despite all being well into their 30s and 40s (at least, the actors sure are), the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor behave like they’re still a bunch of teenagers. They’re brash, reckless, prone to flashy displays and bravado, they’re often chauvinistic and have ego clashes with other men in an attempt to assert their alpha-dominance. I mean, that last part is pretty much the core plot of any Avenger’s film. And in a different way, Starlord conducts himself like a child with a blaster, needing to stick his proverbial tongue out at anyone he disagrees with and constantly bickering with his fellow Guardians like schoolchildren. Yet both people in the films and us as audiences still laud and applaud them for being great role models and ‘good guys’. None of them are anti-heroes – they’re meant to represent the best that we have to offer.

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I don’t think it’s a stretch to state that somewhere, this is a reflection of our cultural norms. White men, particularly abnormally privileged white men as 4/6 of them are (I include Cap’ because in the modern world, he is privileged by virtue of being Captain America), are generally excused for behaviour that they should have grown out of. Society constantly makes apologies for their reprehensible actions by branding them “harmless” or “locker room talk” or saying “boys will be boys” or “he didn’t realise he was being a d*ck”. The same apologies very rarely extend to women or coloured men, who are chastised for every small misstep. It is perhaps in this context that T’Challa arises – the black man who, because he is black, has to learn to be twice as good, twice as sensible, twice as restrained as his white counterparts, less he be the subject of scorn. He is the Barack Obama of superheroes, where previously we’ve been given better versions of Trump. (I apologise to those guys because they don’t deserve to be compared to Trump, nor is their behaviour anywhere near that level, but the analogy is apt).

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Let’s sail calmer waters for a moment and move away from the social aspects of these characterisations. There is also an interesting pattern to be noted in regards to the ever-present conundrum of the superhero: The suit vs the suit wearer. There is almost no superhero who avoids this classic debate – are they an ordinary person who wears a suit to be a hero? Or are they always a hero who has to pretend to be a normal person during the day? Yet, in the MCU, we’ve seen an increasing shift towards the superhero and the alter ego becoming one. Thor is always Thor. Captain America is always Captain America. Dr. Strange is always Dr. Strange. Starlord is always Starlord. These four do not maintain an ‘alter ego’ as such. Particularly moving around Earth, as the former two do, they are not afraid of the celebrity status they hold and even embrace it. Thor certainly does in ‘Ragnarok’, gleefully indulging in selfies that strangers ask for. Tony Stark can also be added to this list since he publicly reveals his identity and largely ceases to be ‘Tony Stark the businessman’ as the films have gone on. Both mentally and physically, he has assimilated himself into Iron Man, to the point of building a suit that automatically latches on to him when needed. He’s Tony only by name. He also revels in his status as the ‘celebrity hero of the people’.

The only exception to this pattern is the new Spiderman who shows a very definitive break between Peter Parker the high school student and Spiderman the web-slinging hero. In a return to a more classic approach, ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ is a movie that focuses on the protagonist’s fight between being a person and being a symbol. But, going back to the theme of this article, what this allows Tom Holland’s character to do is essentially be two different people. As Peter Parker he is meek, he is shy, he’s your classic picked-upon debate team science nerd. But as Spiderman, he is a return to the ‘traditional’ (non-Toby Maguire) Spiderman, though in a fledgling form: He’s cocky, he likes to throw snide jokes and witty remarks at his opponents while he fights them and he’s complacent to the point of causing trouble for himself – like when he nearly allows a boatful of people to drown because he toys with the bad guys and decides to go in solo. As I said in the beginning of the article, when he dons the suit he often reverts to ‘type’ for Marvel. He exhibits the macho, testosterone-fueled-teen-male qualities that he absolutely does not during the rest of the film as Peter. But the difference between his and the behaviour of the previous Marvel superheroes is that he is actually a teenager. His behaviour can actually be excused for being immature because that’s what he understandably is.

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An interesting aside – Peter displays many moments of vulnerability throughout the film, none better than the brilliant scene where he is held to gunpoint by The Vulture on his way to his homecoming prom. He is not afraid to cry (as he does to his aunt) and admit when he is out of his depth, something that is not seen in the other hulking (no pun intended) male superheroes of the MCU. It’s a shame that the only way that putting it in a film is seen as justifiable, from a production standpoint, is for him to be essentially a child, as if grown men cannot be allowed vulnerability.

T’Challa, however, is also open about his weaknesses, admitting on several occasions when he feels overwhelmed. Usually, and particularly in superhero/Marvel movies, male heroes only admit their wrongs at the ‘All Is Lost’ moment in the climax – when they’re literally or figuratively on their knees and in need of some deep inspiration to give them strength. At their lowest moment, when they have no choice but to admit defeat, they find a way to carry on, stronger than before. T’Challa on the other hand, even when being crowned king, has the emotional strength to admit to the spirit of his father that he is not ready to live life without him. He similarly expresses his doubts to Nakia that he cannot be as good a king as his father well before things start to go wrong. And when he does reach his ‘All Is Lost’ moment, he does not feel ashamed to shed tears while yelling, “You were wrong!” at his predecessors, lamenting the lives that were ruined because of their mistakes.

But, returning to the issue of ‘The Suit Conundrum’, T’Challa represents an interesting halfway-house between the two formulas. He is not two different people, but he does have an alter ego… let me explain. He is not ‘The Black Panther’ all of the time, at least not in the superhero sense of it. As leader of Wakanda he is The Black Panther, yes, but in this context I would argue that that doesn’t refer to a guy running around in a black suit chasing bad guys. The Wakandan title of ‘Black Panther’ refers more to an idea – he is the chosen one. He is the God ordained leader, the drinker of the heart-shaped herb. The foremost Wakandan. The Black Panther suit, which is where the ‘superhero’ interest lies, is a different matter. That is a device for executing justice largely outside Wakanda. It is necessary as a weapon for the fight against Killmonger in Wakanda, yes, but it’s primary purpose is for international missions – like the ones in California, Busan and Nigeria. Like the classic superhero costume, it is a means of hiding your true identity because Wakanda’s true wealth cannot be known to the rest of the world. What’s interesting though is that while T’Challa and ‘The Black Panther’ are separate entities, T’Challa does not use the suit as a literal and metaphorical mask to let out a more cocky or obnoxious side of himself. He’s still the same guy. He’s still a diplomat (demonstrated by the sparing of Klaue as I mentioned), he still does not taunt anyone or generally behave like a smart-ass just because he can. He’s mostly silent and dignified. He does what he needs to and then the suit is off.

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I could make another point about how this again speaks to larger society, although I’m hesitant because I might lose the already small number of you who’ve made it this far. The point could be made that all of this reflects how white men use anonymity (in the case of the real world: the internet) as a means to let out a repressed, unpleasant side of themselves, mostly to abuse groups of people they consider their ‘enemies’ before seamlessly going back to their normal lives as ‘good guys’. But, as I said, I won’t make that point 😊.

Overall, I’m really happy to see ‘Black Panther’ exist – not only because of the immeasurable leaps and bounds it has made for diversity and representation, not only because it’s an objectively great movie and not only because it’s a superhero movie that doesn’t obsess over fights in favour of character – but also because it demonstrates an actually new type of Marvel hero. A new personality; one that shows a side of masculinity not often explored in blockbuster movies. I could write an entirely separate essay on the female characters in ‘Black Panther’ and the space they are given to be strong and meaningful and also how they interact with T’Challa, but for now, I’ll just settle for saying that I hope Marvel takes a hint from the immense success of ‘Black Panther’ to make more films that actually deliver a diversity of faces and personalities that go beyond ‘cocky, white man-boy’. Perhaps they can learn from this and what’s happened over at DC where, sandwiched between a relentless slew of trash films, one shining beacon has stood out: Wonder Woman. (And hopefully DC will learn to stop making trash too).  Not just because diversity is good, but because having writers who are deeply invested in their characters and care about what they stand for will inevitably write good films. So, will we see a Marvel-ous response in the coming years to the successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther? Here’s hoping. For now, I’m just glad they exist.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

Luke

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

 

We Don’t Always Move Forwards

darwin

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.