Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Fractured politics in a fragmented nation: on the Italian general election

In 1976, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky released a film called Network.

Ten years later, as the tendrils of corruption spread through the Italian political system and the rot began to show through in the media, Federico Fellini released a film called Ginger e Fred. Berlusconi was already a public figure then - not yet a politician, but a media magnate.

Now, as the battle for hearts and minds in Italy rages between Beppe Grillo, economist turned political satirist turned politician, and Silvio Berlusconi, whose media empire Fellini had already begun to critique nearly thirty years ago, it is hard not to think of both of these films as prophecies.

Having thought of Berlusconi as a harmless buffoon for most of the last twenty years, the rest of Europe seems to have finally woken up to the chaos he has caused. The most obvious parallel would be if an English-speaking country were to elect Rupert Murdoch as its prime minister, and all mainstream and publicly-owned TV channels came under his control. That’s missing a couple of puzzle pieces, though. Before Berlusconi was a media tycoon, he was a property tycoon. His alleged ties with the mafia are well documented in the international press.

I probably don’t need to talk about the prostitutes, about the women linked to him sexually who then rose to posts in local government and even his cabinet, about the orgies, the casual racism and homophobia. You’ll have heard that already. People had taken an interest by then - people besides writers at The Economist, who have been among his most prominent critics for the last five years.

This time yesterday, I was ready to write a lengthy diatribe about how Silvio Berlusconi is a  symbol of everything that is wrong with Italy. Now, these things are still true, but we’re not looking at him any more. He’s being usurped by a man who occupies the other side of his same coin; a man who - like Howard Beale in Network - has made his fame by urging the voting public to stick their heads out of the window and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” A man who, like Howard Beale in Network, has been completely consumed by his own Messiah complex, and is now as dangerous as the people he is seeking to oust.

In a turn of events no-one would have predicted a year ago, his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) holds 25% of the vote, and is the largest single party in either house. There is no majority - the Democratic Party (PD) is the winning coalition by a single percentage point in the Senate - and, to complicate matters further, Grillo himself never ran for election. Like Berlusconi, who had hinted that he was angling for the post of Minister of Economics in the event of a win for his party, he is simply a figurehead for mass public discontent.

No-one is quite sure who will lead the version of M5S that has won so many parliamentary seats, or whether they will be willing to ally with anyone to form a government. Perhaps the quickest way to turn this shambles into a viable government would be for M5S to ally with PD, but it’s uncertain whether this will happen. Disturbingly, Berlusconi’s Popolo della LibertĂ  (PdL) has made overtures to forming an alliance with PD. PD and M5S could, conceivably, make a positive difference to Italy’s fortunes. Any government where Berlusconi pulls the strings guarantees more of the same for a nation in trouble.

Grillo claims that he’s struck a blow against the political establishment, and for M5S to unite with an established party would be playing into their hands. And he’s right, but only up to a point. The thing is, he is very much a symbol of the only establishment that can really exist when Berlusconi has been in politics for over twenty years. In an era where all politicians are on some kind of stage, he’s a showman. Unlike PD leader Bersani, who had previously been considered Berlusconi’s main opponent, he has the charisma to attract a young and disenfranchised audience. He’s a personality, a talking head. A talking head who happens to know something about economics, granted, but when questioned on his policies, his habit has long been to fall silent or change the subject.

But to focus exclusively on party figureheads is reductive. With most discussions of Italian politics, the elephant in the room is the bloated, overcomplicated system for electing representatives to the Senate. I have frequently struggled (and failed) to explain the Italian electoral system to non-Italians, but this BBC article offers a simple summary. The reforms were cooked up in 2006, when Berlusconi’s government realised they might lose the next election, to make it as difficult as possible for any party to achieve a majority in the Senate, and boy howdy has it worked a treat.

And as the struggle for power goes on, ordinary Italians continue with their day-to-day struggles: the over 36% rate of unemployment among people aged 15-24; the continuing lack of representation and opportunities for women; the lack of rights for LGBT, disabled, black and minority ethnic citizens; the endemic corruption and organised crime that thwarts local government and judicial procedure; the festering north-south divide; a healthcare system that declines in quality as it rises in price. We can only hope that, at some point in the next few days, someone remembers what this election was all about.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Not the only good thing: Clouds reviews My So-Called Secret Identity

A lot of great things are happening in the world of comics lately.

A lot of dismal things are happening as well. Ask a feminist (or, often enough, female) comic fan what they think of DC’s redesigns of characters like Starfire or Harley Quinn in the New 52 franchise reboot and they will probably shake their head sadly and roll their eyes skywards. So far, we’ve seen artists conform disappointingly to a tired set of cliches - I could point to Catwoman having sex with Batman on a rooftop, for example, as a low point, as well as recent portraits of Power Girl.

But even the sphere of comics - populated though it is by white nerdy men, a group notoriously insistent in both its sexism and its denial of its own privilege - isn’t immune to a spirit of inclusion, and with that in mind we have a gay Green Lantern and a mixed-race Spiderman. We have a flowering of queer characters across the genre. We have a series of one of Marvel’s most popular titles, X-Men, devoted entirely to a female task force. The often regressive artistic style is, slowly but surely, starting to change, with no small thanks to the endless source of parody found online.

And in the midst of all this, we have a new title spearheaded by Dr. Will Brooker, a leading academic in the study of comics who has set out to create a woman whose superpower is her intelligence. The resulting comic, entitled My So-Called Secret Identity, stars Catherine Abigail Daniels, an Irish-American PhD scholar in the fictional city of Gloria. Its first issue appeared online this week, and is currently free to view.

It’s certainly started well. In addition to a believable and engaging main character, Brooker and his team have given us some intriguing side characters, a fistful of ‘90s nostalgia (the title’s resemblance to popular TV series My So-Called Life doesn’t seem to be an accident), and some sharp observations on the status of women in academia: at one point, Cat walks into a meeting where she represents the student body only to be told that the meeting already has a secretary.

Almost as prominent a character is the city of Gloria herself. As befits a connoisseur of the Batman comics, Gloria has as much of a presence and personality as Gotham City in the DC Universe, to the point of being run by superheroes. It’s early in the story to analyse this bit much more, but I am really looking forward to seeing where it takes us next.

The only thing I query about the narrative is the rather hasty introduction of a love interest, which I found oddly reminiscent of the playground practice of grabbing a boy’s hand and declaring “you’re my boyfriend now”. And, yes, Cat is white, slim, cis, abled, and ostensibly straight. We’ll come back to that in a moment. On the other hand, the writing team seem in firm agreement that Cat shouldn’t be a sex object, and so far they are doing a sterling job of sticking to the brief.

So, if I liked it, why is this article so long? Well, readers, that is mostly to do with what Dr. Brooker had to say to the press on the day of the comic’s release. Talking to Alison Flood in The Guardian, he made the following statements:

“I walked in[to a comic shop] and I just felt so unwelcome. All the comics on the shelves were featuring women as pin-ups – women with their boobs out, or their clothes falling off … If someone like me feels uncomfortable walking into a comic shop, it's no wonder most teenage girls and adult women wouldn't set foot inside one...” 


“I looked around at the [class] room full of young women – so smart, determined, keen and committed – and remembered that in the original comic, Batgirl was meant to be a PhD student. Why do we never see women like this in comics – women who are normal, likeable and just really, really clever?" 

I want to say to Dr. Brooker (and to Ms. Flood, who seems to have been happy to take him at his word), that whilst we appreciate the sentiment, you never see “women who are normal, likeable and just really, really clever” in comic books because you’re not looking hard enough. Because you’re quite possibly only reading a limited selection of titles.

Gail Simone, who is an activist as well as a writer, has written fan-favourite runs of (amongst others) Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and my personal favourite, Birds of Prey. She also founded Women in Refrigerators, coining the term used for violence and violations against women in comics added for no reason other than to enhance a male character’s story. All of Simone’s women are intelligent, believable, well-realised; no small number are also queer, people of colour, disabled - things that Brooker’s hero, for all her excellent qualities, manifestly is not. 

Simone is only one of a growing body of women creators across sequential art. I’ve singled her out here because of her ties to DC Comics: Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl are all DC titles that frequently guest star Brooker’s beloved Batman. And, yes, because I’m a massive fanboi. Full disclosure and all that.

I am delighted that Brooker has noticed the problems inherent in comics’ relationship with gender, and that he has chosen to do something about it. But in making these statements, I feel he’s acting like that guy who identifies as a feminist and participates in feminist discussions, but mansplains over women when they’re contributing their lived experience. What he’s doing is great, but it’s not unique. Judging by the article, he’s either chosen not to talk about the excellent existing body of work by female creators in favour of promoting his own series, or he’s not searched hard enough in his own back yard to find it there.

I want to say that whilst comic shops very frequently are populated by the assorted cast of Kevin Smith’s films, many of us still go in there and even more of us - gasp! - shop online. There’s a big old Internet out there, and a lot of people are more than happy to give us non-male-identified types our fix.

I want to say that we are thankfully moving out of a period where women have no voice in the world of comic books, but it seems that we have a way to go before anyone’s prepared to hear them when they talk.

What are your favourite inclusive comics?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Where I have been

I haven’t been writing much recently. The more astute of you - those who follow me on social media - will have noticed that I haven’t really been on the Internet much recently. I’ve not been posting on Twitter or Facebook, or making videos (not that I ever made that many to begin with), or commenting on things.

In an ideal world, this would be because of pressing commitments in meatspace which directed my attention elsewhere, and to some extent that is what happened. I got three months of full time temporary work. But more than that, I was in a particularly low period of depression.

Depression has fingers of ice and a voice of honey, and when it knows you’re listening it likes to tell you that your experience of it is irrelevant. It strokes your hair - you flinch from its cold touch, but it’s the only one you know - and it tells you no-one cares. The voices outside are so cacophonous and so discordant that it feels easiest to listen, and to keep your silence.

But more and more people are speaking out, now. Discussion about depression is starting to open up, partly thanks to groups like Rethink and partly because the Internet has made it easier, suddenly, for isolated people to find each other. Depression, with its sweet voice and its smothering weight - a huge blanket, too itchy and too hot to lie under, but tremendously hard to throw aside - likes to tell us we’re alone. We’re dragging our laptops under the covers with us and finding out it’s not true. It’s a revelation.

The story of my depression has a fuzzy, indistinct beginning, but I tend to tell the nice doctors that it started around 11 years ago, when I was a teenager. It’s not exactly a lie. Those were certainly the years when my diaries (now destroyed) took a turn for the dark. I don’t really remember being not-depressed, but perhaps, when things are better, I will recover some happy memories. The few people who knew me back then assure me that I was not a perpetually miserable child.

Depression hasn’t always been at the forefront of things. It makes itself known at flashpoints in my life - when I was about to take my GCSEs, for instance, or when I was about to start university, or when I was completing my Masters dissertation - but much of the time it has been a background rumble. A nagging feeling at the back of my skull, as if I’ve forgotten something. When I explore it, a faint honeyed voice says I have forgotten something: that I’m a failure, that I drive people away. In the past it’s been clutching a bauble to itself - most memorably, my queer identity - but, over the years, I’ve been able to take some of its toys away.

This particular episode began some time in 2010, when I moved away from London to study musical performance, and peaked towards the end of 2011, when the life I’d carefully constructed around this course fell away so easily and elegantly that it was as if someone had pulled the plug out of a sink full of water. I was forced to return to my parents’ home and start again. It wasn’t easy. Often I’d reach for a piece of the old life, hoping to build with it, only to find that it had a jagged edge that jabbed me as I reached for it, and wouldn’t sit flush if I tried to use it for anything else.

These metaphors are, of course, a way of obscuring details of what happened. Maybe, some day, I’ll be able to share the specifics with the world, but that day is not today. It’s still too close to everything for me to do that.

Around October of last year, things came to a head again. I was working in a job I wasn’t enjoying, for employers who didn’t seem prepared to cater to the reasonably simple requirements of my physical disability. I had reached a crisis point in my musical efforts, and wasn’t sure I wanted to do it any more.

People around me were telling me I should be happy. For a while, I had been - having a routine and a steady income for that period did boost my self-confidence. But it quickly became clear that I was expendable, and that this job was doing nothing to further any semblance of a career, and that uneasy sense of transition to an unknown place trickled back down and coloured everything else I was doing. I saw my friends, largely satisfied with their lot, making posts on social media, and I was happy for them and wistful for myself. I wanted to talk about how things were difficult for me, in the hope that it might help someone else who was hiding their disappointment about how their own life was going.

And that was when depression raised its cold hands and put that huge, heavy blanket over me, and it reminded me that no-one wanted to know.

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t benefit from a social media break - in fact, I’d recommend that everyone take a hiatus from social media once in a while. Not only does it make you infinitely more productive; it also gives a heightened sense of perspective about things that concern you specifically. It helps you get your priorities straight. And it’s beautifully, refreshingly quiet, particularly if you move in activist circles.

Working with a therapist, however, has helped me to realise that there is nothing shameful or reprehensible about talking about your own experiences. This applies even more when what you’re experiencing needs more exposure than it’s currently getting.

So here I am. I have depression. I’m doing better now than I have been for a while, so I am posting this to let people know that they’re not alone. Things don’t magically get better. Over a year after that flashpoint where an entire version of my future evaporated almost overnight, I am still unemployed, still living with my parents, and still looking for that indistinct, nebulous Thing that will give me the momentum to go forward.

But I do still have my words, and I am through with letting depression take those away.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

How to Wait

Let's talk about teleportation.

I don't mean scientifically. I'm not a particle physicist. I wouldn't know where to start. I read somewhere, a while ago, that if teleportation ever became a reality you'd be essentially disintegrated at one end and reconstructed at your destination. To me, that sounds messy. What if you get put back together wrong, like being splinched in the Harry Potter books? What if the signals get scrambled and you end up in the middle of the Amazon or the Gobi desert?

That said, if Star Trek-style teleporters existed, would I want to use one? Hell yes! I get wicked anxiety on long journeys on public transport, and knowing that I could literally nip back home for a couple of seconds if I forgot something important would take the worry out of just about everything. Wrong teleporter? No problem! Wrong train? Long, expensive ride back to where you meant to be.

Of course, I'd still rather have a portal gun, but I digress.

The thing is, as humans, we're keenly aware at some atavistic level that our days are numbered. With the advent of things like ATMs, home delivery, and the Internet, I think we've forgotten how to wait for things. Hence the teleportation fantasy.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because I've found myself having to apply for a new job. This isn't an easy thing for anyone to have to do at the moment and, as if that wasn't enough of a challenge in itself, I'm also looking for a career change.

If changing career was a slow process before the recession hit, it's moving at a glacial pace now. Everything I've done in my life that might once have counted in my favour – the personal projects, the blogging, the university clubs – is now not a lot of help. Believe me, I've rarely wanted a teleporter more than I want one right now: a teleporter that would take me from where I am to where I think I should be. I've got a long journey ahead, and I'm scared.

But the time's not right, and the technology isn't finished, and a teleporter would reduce me to a jumbled mess of molecules and dump me somewhere unfamiliar. And, if it's not programmed just so, it'll leave me with my guts on the outside in front of something with big pointy teeth whose favourite food is liver flambĂ©ed in brandy.

So I have to take the slow train. That means internships and working for free. It means scraping together the money for your ticket and praying you're on the right platform when it leaves. It means remembering how to wait.

But if I'm clever – if I work hard and put all my capital in all the right places; if I make my reservation with plenty of time and am polite to the people at the ticket office – I can get a window seat and make the most of the view.