Sunday, 29 June 2014

Young England and Wales Programme 2014

A couple of weeks ago I hopped on a train to Lancaster to participate in an intense 4-day residential course/competition called the Young England and Wales Programme.

I, along with 50 other delegates from across the public sector, convened at the Lancaster House Hotel, excited but apprehensive, and unsure of what exactly to expect.

We had been told that the programme was devised to "encourage the research, writing and presentational abilities of delegates, helping to build confidence where it is fragile as well as enhancing the talents of more experienced participants."

The best way I can describe it is a bit like a public sector TED, but with prizes. 

The main competitive element of the programme was the "Argument Paper". All delegates had to research and write a 900 word paper, in advance, on a topic of their choice - "of interest or controversy". We were then expected to deliver this paper to the rest of the group, within approximately 6 minutes, with a time penalty for going under 5 minutes 30 seconds or over 6 minutes 30 seconds. Each paper would then be followed by a short discussion session, with the Chair asking some questions and then opening it out to the floor. This Argument Paper accounted for 80% of the total mark. The other 20% was awarded for the "On the Spot" - a session in which we were challenged to ask ourselves a question (could be anything - serious, political, humorous, philosophical) and answer it, without notes, in two minutes.

For my "On the Spot", I opted for the ridiculous, posing the question: "Was Twin Twin's 'Moustache' the most criminally overlooked song of the Eurovision song contest?" - coming to the conclusion that oui, it most certainly was. (If you haven't seen it yet, please, I implore you, watch it right now.)

For my Argument Paper, I decided to go for a topic I feel passionately about and which I can (un)happily rant about all day long: sexism and misogyny. 

I had so many different ideas, so many angles, for how to approach this topic, but in the end I chose to focus on a small but significant incident which happened to me one balmy evening in Hong Kong.

For anyone who would like to read it in full, here it is:

I’m going to tell you a story about a man, a woman, and a bobble.  
Picture the scene. A small, dimly lit bar. Two young women, chatting animatedly. And a man, sat on his own, watching. 
Fast forward half an hour. The man has somehow inveigled his way into the female circle of trust. The women wear strained expressions, cracks appearing in their polite façade. They clearly want to be left alone, to be free of this unwanted intrusion into their evening, but the man lingers, either unaware of their discomfort or uncaring.
One of those women is me. The man: his name is Raj. And the bobble? Well. Allow me to explain. 
At one point, as I was dancing with my friend, trying desperately hard to pretend that Raj didn’t exist, I decided to tie back my hair.
Raj stared at me, agog. “Why are you doing that?” he asked me, gesturing to my hair. “Your hair is so beautiful. I mean, you look beautiful with it up, but well,” he said emphatically, pausing for effect. “With it down, you are more beautiful!”
By this stage of the evening, however, the compliments were wearing a little thin, as was my patience.
“Thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth, “but I am feeling very hot and uncomfortable and it’s getting in the way.”
He merely continued to gape at me in disbelief, as if my refusal was the last thing he expected.
He asked me to take it down. I refused. He asked again. I refused, again, this tine feeling rage bubbling up inside me. Why wasn’t he listening to me?
Two minutes later, I was surprised to find my hair tumbling messily down around my face. Raj held my bobble aloft with a smile of victory, as if to say, “There. That’s better.”
I wish I could explain how angry I felt in this moment. It wasn’t just that I had expressly asked him not to do something but he had gone ahead and done it anyway. It was that this one small, seemingly inconsequential gesture, summed up everything that was wrong with our exchange that night.
It was an act of entitlement, pure and simple. It was an act of power. And this is what it said to me. I’m a man and I like you. I want you. And I want you to look a certain way because it pleases me. And nothing that you say or do is going to change that. Whatever you think, whatever you feel: doesn’t matter. It’s what I want that matters.
And so, this one small but significant act felt like a violation. Of my personal space, of my own personal wishes, of the nice evening I had planned with my friend. And it felt like an invalidation. Because even the strongest of “no”s was being interpreted as a “yes, please continue”. And when even a red light is seen to be green, what can there be except blind chaos?
I was lucky, really. Another man might have grown angry at my refusal. Shouted at me. Called me a slut. He might have tried to follow me home. Or he might have tried to force himself upon me in other ways which I would rather not think about.
But Raj was not the first, and he will surely not be the last. I can laugh about it now, but it’s a sad truth that I do not know one female friend, relative or colleague who does not have at least one story of harassment or abuse, both large and small.
The Everyday Sexism project was founded by Laura Bates for this very reason – to give voice to countless instances of sexism and misogyny that normal women experience in their everyday lives: on the street; in the workplace; in bars and clubs; on public transport; on holiday.
Because the fact is that misogyny doesn’t just come in one obvious guise. It’s not just the one crazed gunman who unleashes retribution on the “sluts” who reject him and the “brutes” who thwart him. It’s not just the couple of police officers who are complicit in the brutal gang rape and murder of two young teenage girls.
These crimes are real and yes, they are horrific, but they spring from a common well. Entitlement is an ugly force in our society, whatever form it takes, and it poisons that well. It is the means by which the strong oppress the weak, and take by force what is not theirs to take, without fear of reprisal.
We can try and pretend that it only happens out there, in other places, but the truth is that it exists right here, right now, and everyone you know is affected.
In the UK, the figures paint their own picture. A woman has around a one-in-five chance of being the victim of a sexual offence, and a one-in-four chance of being the victim of domestic violence. And in England and Wales alone, seven women per week are killed, on average, by current or former partners.
So what can we do? I believe that the only way to fight back is to speak up and take action – together. It’s not enough for women to speak up about their experiences, as I have done, although it’s a start. We need men on side too. Men who are not afraid to speak out when they see or hear harmful or offensive attitudes or behaviours playing out – whether it’s on the street or on the pitch, in the locker room or in the boardroom.
I am not ashamed to call myself a feminist because I believe that men and women, both, deserve to be treated with mutual respect – and sexism and misogyny hurt us all.

In the question and answer session which followed, I mentioned that I had written a second version of this paper which was framed in a more controversial manner. This paper opened with the question: "What do Raj the IT Consultant from Delhi and British-born mass murderer Elliot Rodger have in common?"

I made it clear that I, in no means, meant to belittle the tragedy of the shooting in Santa Barbara, California, by comparing it to bobble-stealing, but the point that I wanted to make was that there was something in common between these two incidents, and that was the underlying prevailing attitude of the two men: one of entitlement and objectification.

The Chair expressed an opinion that perhaps I was making too great a leap by drawing such a comparison, and in the end, I wonder whether I may have lost some marks for this, but I absolutely do not regret saying what I did; and, in fact, I was really pleased when one of the male delegates jumped in to my defence. He agreed with my position and felt that it wasn't too great a leap to make, because as long as these underlying sexist and misogynistic attitudes remain unchallenged and unchecked in our society, then unfortunately it just creates a climate where more serious incidents of violence against women will continue to happen.


On the final night, the winners were announced, and I was awarded "Highly Commended" for my paper, which was one of 6 that were shortlisted.


All in all it was a great week: intense, jam-packed and mentally exhausting, but I thoroughly enjoyed meeting some lovely people and listening to each and every argument paper. 

Equally enjoyable was staying up drinking multiple G&T's in the hotel bar and playing Giant Jenga whilst talking absolute shit (like would you rather: have anal sex with scorpions or a blow job from a shark... :P). 

But it was awesome and humbling to be in the company of so many intelligent, inspiring, passionate people. I'd definitely do it again.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Jamie Shovlin: Hiker Meat at Cornerhouse Manchester

Imagine standing in a hall of mirrors: you look around you and all you can see are images of your own face - familiar but fragmented - a dozen or so contortions and iterations that are similar but different, except there's just one thing… you don't exist.

Let me put it another way. You know that bit in The Matrix where a slack-jawed Keanu Reeves utters, with deadpan profundity, "There is no spoon."? Yeah. That.

Confused? You will be. But then that is one of the biggest draws of Jamie Shovlin's mind-mashing exhibition "Hiker Meat" which puts forward the question: "How do you re-make a film that never existed?"

The three floors of this exhibition are, in effect, Shovlin's hall of mirrors - and at the centre is a film by legendary Italian exploitation film maker Jesus Rinzoli - Hiker Meat: the slashery kernel at the heart of it all.

Except Hiker Meat is not a real film, and Rinzoli never existed.

Step into the first floor of the exhibition, though, and you may well be convinced otherwise. Detailed panels on the wall trace the story of Hiker Meat's colourful and troubled journey from inception to conclusion, full of juicy morsels relating to the highs and lows of collaborative film-making - from clashes of egos to disagreements and spats over plot-points and casting.

Equally convincing are the props (my favourite being the model of the giant worm, which provides the film's supernatural, teen-feasting terror, though the severed head comes a close second), posters and other ephemera that add to the credible narrative of this film that never existed.

Work your way up through the next two floors and the audio-visual installations deconstruct phase two: the remake of this fictional horror flick.

In the end, it was never Shovlin's intent to remake the whole film - budget constraints and personal inclination just two of the main reasons for not undertaking such a colossal venture.

However, in collaboration with writer Mike Harte (whose name, via the power of the anagram, provides the film's title) and composer Euan Rodger, a full screenplay was drafted, a soundtrack composed, and a prototype constructed using a collage of over 1500 vintage film clips that roughly matched each sequence.

The culmination of this real-life collaborative effort was the filming of the beginning and end sections of this prototype and a trailer for the film in the Lake District in June 2013 - all of which feature in Shovlin's feature-length debut Rough Cut.

Rough Cut is the bow on the beautifully-wrapped polystyrene-filled shop-display present, the cherry on the meta-cake: a documentary which showcases these sequences whilst also charting the behind-the-scenes of the gruelling seven day shoot and providing an insight into the group effort behind the wider Hiker Meat project.

Jamie Shovlin's Hiker Meat is many things, depending on where you're standing. It's a parody of and homage to a much-maligned but popular cult genre. It's a truly multimedia exhibition, bringing together sketches, painting, sculpture, video and film. It's a playful exercise in story-telling and an experiment in creative collaboration. It's an artist's game of Chinese Whispers and Russian Dolls, where truth and fiction collide and coalesce: where the line between reality and fiction is as solid as its watery reflection.

Ultimately though, it's not really important what is "real" and what is not. As Shovlin himself expressed to an initially befuddled yet captive audience, when he reads a novel he's not interested in whether or not it's real - he is more concerned with whether the narrative and the world contained within its pages is compelling enough to captivate the imagination.

But perhaps Morpheus said it best. No-one can tell you what Hiker Meat is. You have to see it for yourself.

Jamie Shovlin: Hiker Meat continues in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 until Monday 21 April 2014. 

Catch Rough Cut before the exhibition closes on Sunday 20 April. Watch the trailer and book tickets here. Rough Cut is a Cornerhouse Artist Film. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

La Pizzeria Ristorante - Northern Quarter

Last Thursday, I attended an event like no other I'd ever been to.

My prior knowledge was limited. What I did know was the following. It was a restaurant opening. It was a pop-up. It was in the Northern Quarter, on High Street, in the space above The Market Restaurant, most recently occupied by the Kahlua Coffee House. There would be free drinks and free pizza.

Great, I thought. Who doesn't like free drinks and free pizza?

Once I ascended the steps to the pleasant leafy interior, I was offered a glass of prosecco and informed that the pizzas would be coming round shortly. The guests and I were also told, with a wry smile by our hosts, that there was a twist. We raised a polite eyebrow, trying to dredge up the requisite amount of curiosity, wondering what it could possibly be.

Turns out I didn't have to wait long. I accidentally happened upon a menu and a press release which had been carelessly left on the bar, spilling its secrets to all sundry. Oops. I now knew the grand surprise.

I was surprised, alright.

Armed with this new, terrible knowledge, I made my way back over to my friend and partner in pizza crime, but I couldn't bring myself to divulge the secret.

"So what do you think?" I asked, my face impassive.

She took a bite, tearing into a too-even square topped with pepperoni and salami.

"Yeah. It's ok. Kind of tastes like a supermarket pizza? Dunno, something about the base. It's very uniform."

I nearly spat out my prosecco. "Oh right!" I said, as my stifled snort swiftly turned into a choking cough.

I hadn't even said anything but the Great Mystery was already disintegrating. I looked around. I could see it in everyone's eyes. They were thinking the same thing.

And then, several more greasy pizza boards later, it was formally announced. La Ristorante Pizzeria is brought to you by ... Dr Oetker!

I chewed on another slice, agog. Spinace, I think. It wasn't half bad, to be honest. It pleased my palate with its garlickiness. But now that this unholy truth was out, it only seemed to gain more WTF momentum.

Here we were, Manchester's media elite (well... ish :P), bundled into a room, being fed squares of oven pizza.


If this is the new model for the Northern Quarter pop-up, then I dread to think what will pop up next. Perhaps the next logical iteration is a cocktail bar called, ooh I dunno, "The Bar", decked out in red and white, where the "cocktails" consist of some fizzy brown liquid poured into a martini glass and served with a swizzle stick, at a fiver a pop. But guess what! There's a twist. It's actually just Coke, served in a fancy glass! Isn't that just swell? Go buy some Coke! At the supermarket! Where it's much cheaper!


La Ristorante's predecessor, Kahlua Coffee House, succeeded because it trod the delicate tightrope between old-fashioned, out-there brand peddling and doing something a little different. Its cocktails were both good value and high quality (best espresso martinis I've had in a while), with many concoctions on the menu unique, and the food similar.

Meanwhile the cocktail masterclasses, led by local booze experts/legends The Liquorists, and weekly movie nights (showcasing a good mixture of indie, arthouse and comedy with films like The Big Lebowski, Frida and Nacho Libre) not only lent an air of credibility to the bar as an events space, but also seemed to gel well with the laidback yet discerning NQ vibe. In short, it fit in, and it added value.

I don't know how the NQ crowd are going to react to this latest pop-up but I imagine the majority of responses will range from hilarity, to apathy, right through to ill-concealed disdain. I have this image of Largarita-fuelled punters flinging burrito javelins through the window across the road over at Luck Lust Liquor and Burn.

But what am I saying, that's madness and, quite frankly, a waste of a perfectly good burrito - which, incidentally, usually consists of under a tenner's worth of massive, dirty, oozing deliciousness I would struggle to replicate at home.

And that's exactly what I'm finding so hard to get my head round here. They want to raise brand awareness, that's fine, I get that. But why would anyone pay, to go out to a restaurant, to have cheap frozen oven pizza served to them, when they know that (a) that's what it is and (b) there's a Tesco's down the road selling the exact same ones 3 for £6? Unless it's 2am and the "restaurant" is actually a van outside a club. It just. It just MAKES NO SENSE.

The irony is, I honestly quite liked Dr Oetker pizzas before this event. But now, I'm so incensed by the nonsensical and ludicrous nature of this half-baked PR pizza disaster that I'm in half a mind to visit my nearest Asda and tear down the frozen pizza aisle shouting "NO! Just no!" at the top of my voice, all the while pelting the nearest unsuspecting customer in the face with boxes of Ristorante.

Perhaps I'm being too unkind. The venue is still lovely, and no malice is meant towards the lovely staff who served us, who proved apt at keeping our disbelief at bay with each successive glass of free prosecco and wine until a jolly haze made everything seem at once whimsical and amusing.

But sorry, Dr Oetker. Wine or no wine, my conclusion remains the same: No. Just no.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Cannibals at The Royal Exchange

Manchester playwright Rory Mullarkey’s first full-length play Cannibals defies definition.

I went into the theatre knowing very little about the production. All I had to go on was the title, which suggests taboo-smashing content of the, almost certainly, disturbing variety; the poster – enigmatic, stark but possibly a bit pretentious in that sort of minimalist arty way; and the tagline – “Death, Love and Consumerism in the 21st Century.”

One hour and 50 minutes later, after a tense, interval-less, sensory, emotional and intellectual assault, I left the Royal Exchange feeling a little dazed and shell-shocked, not quite sure where I was or how I felt about what I had just seen.

So, how to describe Cannibals? Well, the tagline is actually a good starting point. Yes, people love and yes, people die. In the very first scene, for example, a man tells his wife the many reasons why he loves her, only to be shot dead minutes later. 

But of the three themes laid out in the tagline, consumerism is the most integral.

In the developed Western world, consumerism refers almost exclusively to the buying of things – our endless need to populate our homes and lives with Stuff. It’s why we have supermarkets: those great bastions of modern society that seem to stock twenty different types of everything, from shampoo, to cigarettes, to tinned beans, to loo roll. In short, choice is king... but I often find myself wondering just how luxurious or unique tissue paper needs to be to fulfil its primary bum-wiping function.

Consumerism in the remote post-Soviet region in which the play opens, however, is a much simpler and more visceral affair. The consumers in this society are peasants, and their main want and need in life is simply having enough to eat, to survive the long and cold winter. It’s a place where desperation turns people against one other – a brutal, bleak, dog-eat-dog, human-eat-dog/horse/badger/even human world.

Mullarkey’s play roots us in the latter, ostensibly alien world of peasant farmers and war and economic hardship, of remote villages and old crones and holy fools and one-eyed icon painters.

Our way in to this world, our human conduit, is Lizaveta, a young woman whose husband is murdered, victim to a nameless war.

Lizaveta, played with great energy and passion by Ony Lihiara, must run for her life. She finds temporary refuge with a cantankerous, gun-wielding old woman (the brilliantly deadpan Tricia Kelly) who puts her to work in the fields. Here, she befriends Josef, a simple but good-hearted fool (Ricky Champ) and a painter, Vitalik (Simon Armstrong).

But soon, war and opportunism intrude once again on Lizaveta’s life, and through forces beyond her control, she finds herself transported across Europe to a strange, grotesque, bewildering place – Manchester, our world, which, through Lizaveta’s eyes, no longer looks as comfortingly familiar.

I’m not sure if it’s possible for me to say you will enjoy this show, in the same way you may not enjoy watching a dissection. It’s original and compelling, certainly, but also provocative, brutal, bleak and disturbing.

“Appreciate” is perhaps a better word, but whether you appreciate Cannibals will probably depend on what you feel theatre is meant to do.

If you think theatre’s prime purpose is only to entertain, to provide two hours of respite from the daily grind, to envelop the audience in a gentle web of feel-good escapism – then this production is not for you.

But if you believe theatre has the power to explore and interrogate difficult ideas and concepts, to take you on a discomfiting but powerful emotional journey, to make you reconsider your beliefs and your worldview, or to shake you out of a complacency you may not have even realised you had, then Cannibals is definitely worth seeing.

You may not necessarily enjoy it, but if you find that you see things a little differently when you leave the theatre than you did when you first arrived – as I did – then Mullarkey should feel proud to have done his job.

Cannibals continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester until Saturday 27 April 2013

Get £10 tickets through Manchester Confidential here.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Gender and equality: Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph messes with the program

Last month, I went to see Disney’s latest animated feature Wreck-It Ralph. I was, on the whole, impressed and entertained. In a review which I wrote for STYLEetc I described it as “a wildly inventive, innovative thrill-ride – a love letter to retro-gaming that sees Disney return to the top of its own game”.

But when the final credits rolled, I reflected that it was more than this. For me, one of the most compelling and praiseworthy aspects of the film was its positive and progressive portrayal of gender.

Gender inequality in cinema is well documented, both behind the camera and in front of it. Still, too often in the narratives which flood our screens, the masculine is considered universal and general, the feminine specific and other. Harmful stereotypes survive and flourish, and there is a significant gap between the number, variety and depth of roles available to men and those available to women.

It is an issue which is even more apparent in the narratives which are aimed at children. Concerned by the media her own daughter was consuming, actress Geena Davis decided to tackle the issue head on, founding the “Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media” and her own programming arm “See Jane”.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she explained the kind of issues that her research revealed:

“What we found was that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female.

Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?”

Interesting and, quite frankly, a little depressing. So it’s really refreshing to see a film – and a Disney film at that – make some pretty decent inroads into redressing the balance of gender bias and gender stereotyping.
Let’s look at how it does this in a little more detail.

[WARNING: spoilers contained within.]

The main narrative
The film’s title suggests that the main character is a man called Ralph. But really, the film is about two characters whose shared battle is against their programming.

Wreck-It Ralph, as his moniker suggests, is programmed to destroy things – to be the bad guy. But even when the game’s over and everyone clocks off for the day, his notoriety clings to him like a bad smell.

Unfortunately for Ralph, his reputation precedes him. Blinds go down as he walks past, gazes are averted. No-one ever invites him inside for cocktails and cake. His only friends are the fellow baddies he sees at his weekly “Bad-Anon” Bad Guys Anonymous meetings.

As Zangief tells him: “Ralph, you are Bad Guy… but this does not mean you are... bad guy?”

After 30 years of punching through walls and terrorising the town, he finally decides he’s had enough.

Elsewhere, in the candy-coated racing-game “Sugar Rush”, Vanellope von Schweetz is a young girl who is victim to faulty programming – she’s a bit of a misfit, a “glitch”, and because of her occasional tendency to malfunction, she is shunned by the other girls (who are uniformly pink and bitchy) and not allowed to take part in the race (note neat “race is life” metaphor).

Both characters operate on the fringes of their respective societies. They are not well-liked. They are different. Their otherness isolates them and they are both forced to live alone; cast-offs, surrounded by garbage.

Ralph just wants a chance to win a medal – be the hero. Vanellope just wants a chance to race – be the winner. Both characters want recognition and acceptance from their peers.

Ultimately, both Ralph and Vanellope express a universally relatable and understandable motivation that crosses both gender and generational boundaries.

I gotta say, I thought that was pretty awesome.

But wait, that’s not all…

The relationship between the two main characters

Ralph and Vanellope do not get off to the best start – their first meeting (the “meet cute” minus the romance) is combative, antagonistic – but when they realise their similarities, and that, actually, they might be able to help each other (and in so doing, help themselves) they eventually become friends.

Admittedly this, in itself, is not hugely surprising. One might say that if there’s one type of programming Ralph and Vanellope cannot battle against it’s the narrative programming of the movie-makers – their eventual friendship-through-hardship and consequent personal growth is as inevitable as the happy ending.

But the great thing is that their friendship, like their motivations, also crosses gender and generational boundaries.

I don’t think the significance of this should be underestimated or underplayed. For one, Disney is most renowned for its traditional fairy tale romances of princes and princesses of the boy-meets-girl, boy-or-girl-encounters-obstacle, boy-marries-girl variety.

There have been notable variations on this theme with the more recent Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, but on the whole, romantic heterosexual love ending in marriage is the most common narrative thread: pretty conventional and, ultimately, not very interesting. (I wonder if this is part of the reason why The Lion King is my favourite Disney film.)

Now, Disney’s cooler, more critically-acclaimed subsidiary Pixar has plenty of examples of solid friendships or other non-romantic love relationships taking centre stage in its films, but these are mostly male-centric: e.g. the central relationship in Toy Story is arguably between Buzz and Woody and/or Woody and Andy; Finding Nemo is about a father and son; Ratatouille crosses species but the central relationship is between Remy (male rat) and Linguini (young man), running alongside Remy’s conflicted relationship with his brother and father and Linguini’s romantic relationship with Colette.

Up is more unconventional in that the central friendship is cross-generational but it’s still between a young boy and an old man. Most recently, Brave sought to redress the balance by making the central relationship between mother and daughter, but not one of the films mentioned above had a platonic male-female friendship at the front and centre of the film.

I also remember thinking in the cinema that if Wreck-It Ralph were a live-action film, then Vanellope would almost certainly be the “manic pixie dream girl” character whose primary purpose, other than being a bit kooky and lovable, is to help the hero realise his own destiny and complete his journey – win the medal (metaphorical or otherwise), grow as a person, then return home a changed man with renewed optimism and purpose in life.

But guess what? She’s not. What I found wonderfully refreshing is that, when Ralph tumbles into “Sugar Rush” and meets Vanellope, she isn’t immediately doomed to the fate of being sidekick. The fact is, she has her own agenda, her own hopes and desires, her own backstory and her own plotline. Because “Sugar Rush” is her game. That’s why she fights Ralph for his medal – because she needs it just as much as he does.

And so, once their lives become entangled, they continue the film as equals, helping each other to achieve their own respective goals, and learning the vital lesson that working together is better than fighting one another and going it alone. In so doing, they grow to love one another – as friends. No romance (though that would be icky and wrong given the age gap). It’s also played with just the right amount of sentiment – sweet and believable, but not cloying.   

I am all for more of this kind of representation in films which are primarily targeted to children. Too often, these same children are marketed to in other areas in an aggressively binary way: blue vs. pink; guns vs. dolls; fighting vs. talking. [For more on this, the two-part Feminist Frequency video on LEGO & Gender makes for fascinating and infuriating viewing.]

The fact is, toy companies benefit from emphasising and exaggerating gender differences because their margins profit a lot more from being able to market toys specifically to boys and girls separately than marketing to them together. It’s classic divide and conquer. And as an aside, can you think of a toy that simultaneously advertises to boys and girls whose promotional material features boys and girls playing together?

Stop the harmful gender enclaves, I say. More platonic boy-girl friendships on screen, please.

Our link to the human world outside the game

Another area in which the film succeeds in its positive, progressive portrayal of gender is in our link to the human world.

The action of the film takes place mainly within the arcade, inside the individual game machines – this is the “game world” which the main characters inhabit.

Occasionally, however, we cross over into the “real world”, where Out of Order signs are absently slapped onto screens – these signify little more than a minor inconvenience in our world, but constitute a looming, terrifying death-knell in the game world.

Our link between the two worlds is a child – a regular arcade-goer who switches between the three main games that feature in the film.

But, to steal a Shakespearean phrase, here’s the rub. This child just happens to be a girl. Yep. A glasses-wearing girl who is just as happy playing action-heavy, bombastic, sci-fi First Person Shooter “Hero’s Duty” as she is old-school “Fix-It Felix”.

At one point she wants to play “Sugar Rush” (a girl-populated, saccharine, manga-inspired candy land) but is edged out by a pair of surly teenage boys (HA!) who have monopolised the game with their stack of quarters.

This is, quite simply, awesome. The filmmakers could have easily made the gamer a boy, but they didn’t. They chose to make her a girl. And a girl who not only likes playing games, but games that span a range of different styles and genres.

Given the already complex relationship between women and video games, this is an excellent and savvy creative choice which, though small, feels very significant. I very much doubt it was accidental.

The ending

The final gender-related masterstroke comes in the film’s closing scenes.

Needless to say, both the main characters have a happy ending. Ralph returns to his game a hero. He may still be the “Bad Guy” during office house, but the inhabitants of Nice Land have a newfound appreciation and respect for him, and he is no longer on the outside looking in. Vanellope, meanwhile, is restored to her rightful place as Princess of Sugar Rush. So far, so conventional, right?

Well, not quite.

The first interesting thing to note is the nature of Vanellope’s usurpation. The film’s baddie, the dastardly King Candy, had basically infiltrated a female-only society/gamescape, usurped its ruler, wiped everyone’s memories and set himself up as King. You could say he imposed an insidious patriarchy on the land of Sugar Rush, only to be ousted at the end. You may think I’m reading too much into it, but it’s still worth mulling over.

Secondly, Vanellope may be revealed to be a princess but she is very quick to reject the trappings of her role. For one thing, she’s hardly joyful at the pink meringue monstrosity she’s suddenly forced to wear. It’s just not very her. So she takes it off. (Gasp.)

Then, once she’s back in her familiar green hoodie, skirt, stripey tights and black boots, she says: “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a constitutional democracy.” Turns out she prefers the title President to Princess – and why shouldn’t she? I know I do.

Sly, Disney. You had to have your Princess in there somewhere but it’s nice to see you put a little (political!) twist on it.


I could go on. The film’s secondary storyline with the romance between the more conventionally attractive, leather-clad, ass-kicking Sergeant Calhoun (voiced with gleeful, gruff badassery by Jane Lynch) and all-round nice guy Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) bucks convention in its own ways, but I’ve tried to outline above the major ways in which Wreck-It Ralph “messes with the program” of its narrative ancestry and the more traditional gender roles which have preceded it.

If this marks Disney striking out in a new direction then I am genuinely excited for what other feminist-friendly stories they have up their sleeves – stories where the female characters have just as much prominence, importance and agency as the male characters and where they are not limited to romantic interest, eye-candy or sidekick. I join Vanellope in ditching the foo-foo pink dress of conformity. Bring on the revolution.


On a final note, I only hope that the new live-action feature Oz the Great and Powerful can rise above and beyond its gag-reflex inducing trailer. As far as I can tell, it tells the story of a vain, shallow, feckless man thrust into the midst of a bunch of spirited, intelligent, yet ultimately helpless women who just need a Really Great Man to save them. Ugh. It’s basically Chicken Run with witches.

Seriously, just watch this trailer and count how many times a female character says something along the lines of “You’re the chosen one” and “We’ve waited for you to come save us” and tell me you don’t want to reach for the nearest bucket:

Monday, 31 December 2012

Lessons from a two year old: Christmas edition

Christmas is a time when families come together. Sometimes things explode, unwanted and unexpected, like an insidious grenade of a cracker that no-one pulled; or, if you’re really unlucky, like an Eastenders Christmas special.

But sometimes, Christmas is lovely. There's the tree, twinkling in the corner; the presents, frantically acquired and hastily wrapped, often the night before; the gently steaming mulled wine simmering on the stove; the alluring aromas of the roast dinner; the catch-ups on the sofa over a nice hot cup of tea and Sky Plus.

This Christmas was one of those Christmases. Not showy, or dramatic (beyond the Eastenders Christmas special); just family, reunited, under one roof, enjoying each other's company.

One person, above all, has loved the full house and the attention of doting family members. Rohan. He has been spoiled rotten. Not just with the presents (so many presents), or the newly acquired and exciting knowledge of Santa Claus, but by the constant stream of playmates and companions, the steady outpourings of love and affection, with him at the centre of it all.

But, as in life, sometimes people come, and then, after a stretch, they have to go. Sometimes you see them again, and sometimes you don’t. And the more you love them, the harder it is to accept it when they leave.

So it was today. After a seemingly endless morning of packing and unpacking the car – what appeared to be a mammoth task of Super Tetris proportions – it was finally time for Rohan's beloved Ajima (grandma) and Azoba (granddad) and Bua (auntie) to head back home to Shrivenham.

Moments earlier, my nephew was in high spirits, running around the hall and affectionately head-butting us all like a new-born lamb as his dad shuffled past out the door with yet another suitcase or bag of Boxing Day sales shopping to try and tessellate in the back seat of the car.

“Ro,” my sister explained, “Ajima, Azoba and Bua have to go back to Shrivenham now. That's why they're packing the car. Are you going to say goodbye to them?”

He looked up at her with a slight frown, not quite comprehending the full meaning of his mum’s words.

“Are we going to Shrivenham too?” he asked.

“No, baba,” my sister said gently. “Not today. There’s no room in the car! Look, there are too many bags! There’s hardly any room for poor Ajima in the back!”

He looked from my sister to me, as if for affirmation. I could see the cogs whirring: realisation, slowly starting to dawn.

“But we can go visit Shrivenham soon,” I piped in. “And it'll be your birthday soon, too, so we'll see them again then!”

My jaunty, optimistic C-Beebies tone, however, didn't seem to be having the desired effect. He was beginning to look increasingly bewildered by this unexpected turn of events.

My sister and I shared a quick, knowing glance, very much aware of what was coming. 

He was temporarily distracted by the onslaught of goodbye hugs and kisses, but there, in the doorway, the tears started to pool in his eyes.

“But I want to come!” he said. “I want to go in the car.”

“Let’s go into the lounge and you can stand on the sofa and look out the window and wave at them,” my sister suggested, deploying a tried and tested distraction technique.

We huddled him into the lounge and he clambered onto the sofa. “But,” he said again, bottom lip wobbling, “I want to go! I want to go in the car!”

“I know, sweetheart,” my sister said, cuddling him, “but look, there's no room for your car seat and we can't go in the car without your seat, can we? And look! Daddy's not going in the car, either. He’s coming back inside.”

“Daddy's not going?”

“No. Look, there he is. Wave!”

Outside, my brother-in-law hugged his family a final time and then came back into the house. As he entered the lounge, Rohan turned to him and said, sniffling, “I want my seat.”

At that moment, as I looked at my nephew and his adorably pitiful little face, I felt a tugging sensation deep in my chest – I knew that he would probably forget all about it in a few minutes time (ah, the joys of being a child), but nevertheless, it was recognition of a feeling most of us have felt many times before and will continue to feel, from now until the end of time. The sadness of saying goodbye to people that you love.

Lesson #4: Goodbyes never get any easier.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Gender and sexuality in Skyfall


First off, let me say how much I love a good Bond film. I reckon my inner teenage boy/geek derives just as much satisfaction from all the car chases, guns, gadgets and hot women that typifies the franchise as the next bloke.

Bond is a British institution, the epitome of a particular fantasy shared by men and women alike: the globe-trotting suave spy, living life dangerously, fighting for his country, defeating various madcap villains and saving the world, whilst still finding time to slake his thirst with a vodka martini, satisfy his libido with beautiful women in luxurious locations, and drive really fast, really expensive cars.

The appeal is not hard to see, really. He’s the hero men want to be and women want the chance to be with, even if only for one night (though it must be said one of the risks of this is almost-certain death… Bond girls tend to have about as much luck on the life expectancy front as the poor red shirts in Star Trek – more on that later).

Casino Royale
, Daniel Craig’s first outing as the new Bond, is probably one of my favourite films to be released in the last ten years; on the whole, critics and fans alike seem to agree that it really did breathe new life into the series, saving it from the camp ridicule of Pierce Brosnan’s last few efforts and somehow making Bond feel current and relevant again (reflected by the film’s high score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes). Reboots are always a risky business but, beyond all expectations, it just... worked.

For me, Royale is that rare beast of a thrilling action movie (Parkour! Fist fights on top of a crane! Jumbo jets!) that also manages to pack an emotional punch (That shower scene! Bond in love! Betrayal!). It’s also a film that remains agreeably satisfying on repeat viewings.

Quantum of Solace, blighted by the writer’s strike, was a far less satisfying entry in the canon, a lean and brutal slice of instantly forgettable nothinginess: all blunt vengeance and hard to follow shaky-cam action sequences.

So I approached Skyfall with a degree of caution, keen to see if it would live up to the hype and the high standard set by Casino Royale.

I came away from the cinema feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I felt as though I had enjoyed myself. It had certainly hit all the right notes: the sexy femme fatale (a beguiling Bérénice Marlohe); the memorably unhinged villain (Javier Bardem, though with distracting blond bouffant hairdo); thrilling action sequences (biking over the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar, a derailed Tube train, explosions); fantastic locations (Istanbul, Shanghai, London and the Scottish Highlands); snappy dialogue and witty one-liners (playful exchanges between Bond and Naomie Harris’ Eve and a brilliant turn by Ben Whishaw as the new Q); vintage cars (the Aston Martin DB5, first driven fifty years ago by Sean Connery’s Bond in Goldfinger). It even had the prescribed dose of emotional wallop (M’s demise and Bond’s subsequent breakdown).

Despite all of this, I still felt unsatisfied, as though something were missing. It felt a bit like I’d just consumed an Easter Egg – beautifully packaged and full of chocolatey goodness, but ultimately hollow.

Why had I not wholly embraced this latest Bond film as I had Casino Royale? Why the reservations? Why was I not as moved by M’s death as I had been Vesper’s? Even though I love Judi Dench and think she’s made of awesome?

I’m still trying to figure it all out. But one thing I do know for sure is that there are two specific things about this film that really bothered me.

#1 The Portrayal of Women

Now, I know that taking issue with Bond for exhibiting any kind of misogyny or chauvinism is about as pointless as expecting to open up a copy of The Sun at page 3 and not be visually assaulted by a pair of giant boobs.

The incontrovertible truth is thus: Bond girls are almost always disposable eye candy, there to provide a bit of glamour and a means for 007 to get his end away before dashing off to fell the next baddie. Character development is not usually a massive consideration (which is perhaps why Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd was such a pleasant surprise).

Normally, I can just about consciously decide to take my feminist hat off and get stuck in, with the same gusto (and slight after-the-act guilt) with which I attack a McDonalds double cheeseburger, i.e. I know it’s a bit wrong but I can still enjoy it.

But I found the fate of all three female characters in this film deeply troubling.

M (Judi Dench)

“What about M?” you may cry. “She doesn’t parade around in skimpy clothing, she’s not a love interest, and she’s the boss of MI6!”

Yes, she is, and once again I would like to express how much I love Judi Dench. She pulls off haughty, matriarchal and no nonsense unlike any other, hence her perfect fit for Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, a cameo which, despite the shortness in length (not much more than 8 minutes’ worth of screen time) earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

I love M. She’s a badass. She’s James Bond’s boss. She effortlessly commands the respect of her peers, and that of the hero most of all. Admittedly, there is the danger of her fitting the stereotypical profile of the ball-breaking, ruthless battle-axe devoid of compassion, a sort of Deborah Meaden meets Lady Macbeth, unsexed and duly divorced from the milk of kindness.

But there are soft edges to the otherwise steely M – her fondness for Bond, for instance, as noted by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, or the mentions of her late husband, which hint at a homely domesticity and affection at odds with her professional persona.

It seems Bond, too, feels perhaps a little more for her than just a cool deference and professional regard – cradling her lifeless body at the end, tears streaming down his rugged manly face, he looks very much as though he has regressed to boyhood, reliving the trauma of losing his parents so many years ago.

To use another Shakespeare reference, here’s the rub: badass though she may have been across the last three films, M is, in effect, refrigerated. First, reduced to vulnerable damsel in distress, then killed off and replaced by a man. (Sigh.)

Eve (Naomie Harris)

What’s this? A woman “of colour”? Holding a gun? Out in the field on a mission with Bond? As equals? Blimey! So far, so good, eh?

The presence of Naomie Harris as Eve in this film is most welcome; she’s a sort of anti-Halle Berry – no gratuitous emerging from the sea in an orange bikini for this lady.

Nope, instead, she’s the woman who kills Bond, though thankfully he harbours no hard feelings.

Here’s what was different about this Bond girl: playful flirting with Bond, yes, but throwaway one-night-stand sex, no; beautiful and competent, yes, but skimpy outfits or aggressive femme-fatale sexuality, no.

In fact, one of her exchanges with Bond very early on in the film knowingly riffs on gender stereotypes, as she snaps off one of her wing mirrors, to Bond’s arched-eyebrowed bemusement.

Not willing to be taken for a token bad woman driver, however, she purposely ploughs into oncoming traffic, proclaiming, as the second mirror snaps off, “I wasn’t using that one, either.”

Wisely, Bond does not utter a single word.

So what becomes of our smart, sassy, gun-toting, field agent heroine?

Well, she’s not refrigerated, which is a relief, and survives to see another day, but not before deciding that being out in the field is just too much for her to handle. Her surname is finally revealed (Moneypenny) and she takes up her new desk job as secretary. (Sigh.)

I do not mean to undervalue secretaries, but really?

Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe)

Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine is such a textbook vampy seductress she’s borderline caricature. As she slinks around in her sheer, backless, evening gown, complete with obligatory plunging neckline and see-through panels, all dark lipstick and smoky eyes, you feel she might as well be walking round with a big fat sign on her head with WARNING: FEMME FATALE written on it in chunky black marker pen. Even more so once she takes a lazy drag from her cigarette in between breathy, cryptic exhortations about fear in her delightful French accent (it had to be French, n’est-ce pas?).

But then the writers introduce an element of complexity to her character, laying it on like a thin film of Nutella on a slice of bread (Tiger loaf, probs, seeded, a classy bread for a classy girl).

Bond spies a tattoo on her wrist – shock, horror! – from which he deduces that she is almost certainly the victim of exploitation, sold into prostitution from an early age and now chained to a madman.

The fear she talks about in her French accent makes it clear that her current employer/pimp is a bit of a nut job, and a scary one at that. Now, she is less femme fatale, more damsel in distress (yawn), the invisible placard on her forehead changed to read: “ABUSE VICTIM. PLEASE HELP.”

Ever the gentleman, Bond obliges, but not before creeping up on her in the shower first (er…) and indulging in a spot of sexy time.

All does not end well for Sévérine, unfortunately, like so many of her predecessors. Instead, she is tied up, beaten, gagged and set up as target practice for the men, William Tell style.

If you were in any doubt of her disposability before, you are disabused now, as Bond takes his aim at the shot glass propped unceremoniously on top of her head and misses, and baddie Silva’s bullet finds its final resting place in her head.

“What do you make of that, Mr Bond?” he says, or something to that effect, to which Bond quips, “That’s a waste of good scotch.”

I think we were supposed to laugh at that witty aside. I didn’t. Abuse victim shot in the head by her abuser, followed by tasteless joke at her expense? Ick.

#2 The Portrayal of the Villain

Ah, Silva. He’s a bit like The Joker crossed with Moriarty crossed with Boris Johnson (seriously, look at his HAIR, what is going on with that??). Mad as a box of frogs (or perhaps rats), Silva is Bond gone wrong – star agent turned rogue, consumed by his desire to visit vengeance upon his former employer, M, who left him to suffer and die at the hands of some very nasty people.

But, as with most antagonists in this type of adventure story, his similarities to the hero must be offset by some noticeable differences, just so we’re all clear how evil he is.

The fact that he’s as loopy as Thorpe Park’s Colossus is one.

And the introduction of sexual ambiguity is another. Silva clearly enjoys having the one and only James Bond tied to a chair, and not just for the satisfaction of having captured M’s new favourite.

As he caresses his nemesis’ shirt lapels, slowly loosening each button with the tenderness of a lover, caressing his bullet wound (no that’s not a euphemism) and stroking his thighs, it would appear that Silva’s tastes extend further than vampy French seductresses.

But this is also a man who repeatedly calls M “Mommy”. He has serious issues.

So the whole thigh stroking, undressing malarkey, what is that? Is it just a calculated piece of theatrics, intended to psyche out his opponent? Is it genuine physical attraction? Or plain, random loopiness?

My issue with this Nutella layer of complexity, however, is quite simple: when it comes to setting up your hero and your villain, there is a fine line between ambiguity and implicit moral judgment. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Silva’s queerness is wrapped up in a package of anarchy, deviance and villainy, and it feels as though the writers have thrown this in to his character to help distinguish him from the virile, masculine, heterosexual hero, on the side of the good and the right, who prefers his love interests to be foxy and female, thank you very much, whatever he might say (“What makes you think this is my first time?” he tells Silva).

I really dislike this kind of shorthand (e.g. nonconformity and queerness = evil). It’s lazy and it’s dangerous, because the more of it there is, the more it helps to reinforce harmful stereotypes.


In conclusion, I wanted to love Skyfall, I really did. But these two things, which, I dunno, may seem minor to some, niggled at me persistently like a blasted bedbug bite. 

It’s a bit like meeting someone at a party – a really good-looking, smart, sophisticated, funny, charming person who makes you think, “Eh up, you’re a bit of alright!” – and then they go and ruin it all by doing something deeply unattractive like telling a Jimmy Saville joke or eating their canapés with their mouth wide open. 

And then, all you can see, all you can hear for the rest of the night, is the incessant grinding of their teeth and the grim wet smack of their tongue.