For many years I shunned the superhero genre. I was, and still am, a huge fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films but, after the astonishing disappointment that was Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013, I ignored the glut of superhero films that followed. I still haven’t really forgiven DC for wasting so appallingly the talent and excellence of Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Dry, vacuous, thin writing. Atrocious. Superhero films subsequently defined blockbuster filmmaking in these early decades of the 21st century, and I wanted nothing to do with them.
Enter: Lockdown 2020.
Amongst the numerous personal epiphanies, rediscoveries, explorations and denunciations that this period elicited, one of the most joyful things we did was watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film in order, from Iron Man to Spiderman: Far From Home (disclaimer: The Hulk films aren’t on Disney Plus; we will watch them at some point but I have a hunch that we haven’t missed anything too drastic).
In many ways, I conflated Marvel’s films with the shoddiness of the DC output, and, pre-emptively diagnosed Marvel’s films alongside Nerdwriter’s analysis of the ‘Epidemic of Passable Movies’. Big-budget films that rely so heavily on tropes and cliché that they are tonally unconvincing and annoyingly poor. This isn’t to say that some of Marvel’s films aren’t ‘passable’: Iron Man 2 is crap, Avengers: Age of Ultron is weak and Dr Strange is bland and famously appropriated Eastern traditions and spiritualities for yet another egotistical white man to ‘find himself’. Marvel is also hugely reliant on mythologies of nationhood and capitalism, which underscore every single film. However, there is much to love in this epic serial of films that provided relief from pandemic anxiety. With a plot template that is consistent and hardly deviates from a standard exposition – conflict – climax – resolution structure, these twenty two films and their stories were comforting, relatively thrilling, slightly mindless, and everything that were needed to survive months of quarantine. Like a 21st century reincarnation of Borachio’s Decameron, which, coincidentally, I attempted in Lockdown. I got to the end of the Second Day then promptly gave up: there was only so much wife-stealing, ambiguity around sexual consent and general frustrating buffoonery I could take for one pandemic. I think I’ll just stick to the Pasolini film.
Below are some of my thoughts, opinions, loves and obsessions about the twenty-two films we watched:
My favourite Avenger is Black Panther and I am devastated about the loss of Chadwick Boseman
It goes without saying that the tragedy of Boseman’s untimely death far eclipses the sadness we might feel as fans of Black Panther who will not see him in the role again. However, we can also acknowledge that Boseman’s performance is nigh-on legendary as T’Challa, and is a gift to cinema. As a character, Black Panther is one of the most powerful, endearing and incandescent Avengers to watch. Thanks to his vibranium suit and his ability to metaphysically connect with his ancestors and forebears, he is formidable and riveting, whilst also demonstrating deep dedication to his family, ancestral traditions in his advocacy and loyalty for Wakanda. Of course, as Emma Dabiri argues in Don’t Touch My Hair, the Marvel vision of African affluence and abundance is problematically neoliberal; however, the significance of seeing an African country and its peoples thriving technologically and financially is a rebuttal to white supremacist stereotypes and depictions of that continent. Boseman helped to forge a path in the representation and celebration of black life, the importance of which cannot be downplayed. The huge emotional and spiritual void his death leaves in this franchise undoubtedly echoes as a modicum of the one he has left in the lives of his loved ones.
2. My other favourite Avenger is Captain America
I was once unceremoniously dubbed ‘vanilla’ for holding this opinion. I truly don’t care. Whilst Thor and Tony Stark embarked on their redemption arcs, Steve Rodgers was earnest, honest and dignified from Day One. I love to see this in my lead male protagonists once in a while (see my Love Note on Alyosha Karamazov for more). The scene in the lift in Winter Soldier is dramatically excellent and I don’t think any moment in a film has made me so disproportionately excited than when he was able to pick up Thor’s hammer in Endgame. Be in no doubt that I was shrieking ‘I knew it!’ along with Thor. What I love about Captain America is that he is always the first one into a fight and the last to give up on a fight: standing alone, battered and bruised, in front of Thanos in Endgame as the last line of defence for life itself, unwilling to give up, is the perfect encapsulation of who this man is. He never moves from a place of rage, anger or lack: there is no hubris here. Instead, he’s slightly melancholic all the way through, thanks to the loss of love-of-his-life Peggy and his existence as a living anachronism. As a result, he has Frank Ocean sad boy vibes in bucketloads, which I love. Of course, he is by no means perfect: the character’s relationship with American nationalism and militarism is, at times, nauseating. But he is a character who, in spite of this, is endlessly optimistic, never gives in and always tries to do the right thing for as many people as possible. There’s a lot to like there.
3. One of my future dogs will be called Groot
My favourite tree-esque character since Treebeard (not a tree of course, but an Ent) Groot is everything. I wept bittersweet tears at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, when he protectively encased his friends in his branches to protect them, whilst suffering fatal damage to himself. Thankfully, his Jesus moment encompasses full resurrection, and we see Groot re-born as a precious and hilarious sapling and an uncannily familiar angsty teen. Always helpful, loving, resolute, and with a particular penchant for aggression when necessary, Groot is a shining star of the supporting cast and I love him, and will name a future puppy dog in his honour. The self-sacrifice ‘We are Groot’ scene at the end of the first Guardians film crystallised for me that this group of characters in this corner of the MCU are in one of my favourite films of the franchise. From the opening strains of Redbone’s ‘Come And Get Your Love’, to when the future Guardians are described as ‘bunch of assholes’, it was obvious that this superhero film was the scrappy, fun, genre-dying franchise sibling that would pave the way for the more experimental likes of Thor: Ragnorok and Tom Holland’s Spiderman.
4. I am conflicted by the up-coming release of Black Widow
It’s taken Marvel far too long to commission films based around the women of the MCU. Captain Marvel is excellent and was a real breath of fresh air after so much machismo and seemingly endless male soul searching throughout these films. There is the indefinitely postponed Black Widow film to watch in some post-pandemic future, but I feel more begrudged by it than completely psyched. Throughout the franchise, Black Widow seems to serve more as a distraction to movie fanboys than to exist as a fully realised character. This isn’t to discredit Black Widow as an idea or Scarlett Johansson’s representation of her: I think she is a poorly written throughout and has not been taken care of properly by the makers of the films. I am frustrated that we will only now get an origins story when we’ve had to witness her endlessly supporting others, her lukewarm love affair with Bruce Banner and the mediocre handling of her death.
5. We need more Nebula and Gamora
Oh, the joy of seeing sisters on screen. These two characters present the highs and lows of sisterhood unlike few I have seen before. Fighting one another to the death when necessary? Relatable. Becoming the ultimate force to be reckoned with when united for the same cause? Absolutely. These two convey the ridiculous, hilarious and fierce love that can exist between sisters, and we need more of it in film. I hope that the producers and financiers at Marvel will give us more of Nebula and Gamora, who are, in my opinion, two of the most important and essential characters of the whole franchise.
My tolerance and, indeed, indulgence of, what I deem to be, divine trash has its roots in the halcyon days of 2009. Drunk on a popular culture concoction of Gossip Girl and Look Magazine, and living with the unshakable desire to replicate Sienna Miller’s boho aesthetic (it never went well), I was taken in by perhaps the worst possible trash television. In January of that year, I promptly started watching and became hooked onto a show called Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.
The premise was simple and utterly laughable: contestants lived in a fancy house and all competed to become socialite and heiress Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend. The show was a hot mess. The contestants all wore necklaces bearing Paris’s name, one contestant’s eligibility came into question because he was too young to get wasted in Las Vegas, and challenges included buying Paris presents, designing her a dress and enduring a twenty four hour clubbing crawl through Chelsea.
Paris Hilton was everywhere at the time. As one of the original reality TV stars, thanks to her show ‘The Simple Life’ which first aired in 2003, she was constantly photographed and gossiped about, and effectively paved the way for a new generation of people who became famous for being famous. I had five channels until about 2008, and so was unable to watch any American shows that were prevalent at the time. I read about all of Paris’s antics in trashy magazines and, even though I didn’t particularly care about her or her life, I felt like for some reason it was imperative that I had an opinion about it. I remember having in-depth knowledge, as did many people at the time, of extraordinarily specific details about her life: from her catchphrases, the names of her dogs and what her house looked like, to how much she weighed. I also remember absorbing hideously toxic stories of her relationships, break-ups, the sex tape her ex-boyfriend released without her consent and her friendship issues. Looking back, it is mad to think how much of her life was served up on a platter for public consumption, partially as part of her own doing, but also because the tabloid press were obsessed with her. Some of the specifics may have been fabricated or completely blown out of proportion; regardless, I had huge opinions about who she was and what she was like, even though I had never seen her in a television show until 2009.
In spite of all the candy-soaked ridiculousness and extravagance of the silly TV show Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, something started to stand out to me about Paris herself. When on her own or with a small number of other people, her voice completely changed. Instead of the high-pitched baby voice for which she was famous, used to deliver her litany of catchphrases and vacant platitudes, her voice would become low, becoming a quintessentially deep Californian drawl. I recognised, even back then when I was still trying to navigate my own personae of public and private selves, that Paris Hilton had created an enormous Barbie façade. She knew the effect she had on people, she knew how to play a character and that underneath it all, possibly, was something else.
Since 2009 until today, I hadn’t given much thought or attention to Paris Hilton. Whilst still working successfully as a businesswoman and building her brand, her light was somewhat dimmed during the ascension of the Kardashians who went on to embrace the reality television medium and almost completely redefined it in their own image. Instagram came into my life in 2013 and, like many others, I began to walk in the footsteps of Paris et al. as I built and shared my own public narrative of my life. With the release of Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring in 2013, I reflected on the role of figures like Paris Hilton, the obsession they inspire and, ultimately, suffer from. The film is such a captivating sojourn through the pitfalls and pandemonium of celebrity culture, at once capturing the perverse sublimity of materialism whilst also observing, with withering distance, the ugliness of ruthless greed. Hilton famously appeared in the film and allowed Coppola to film in her house, which had been burgled by the real ‘Bling Ring’ gang between 2008 and 2009.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the YouTube documentary ‘This Is Paris’. Fatigued by my job, by Covid-19, by 2020 in general, I geared myself up to watch some divine trash. It turned out to be anything but. Everything I had recognised about Hilton in 2009 came rushing back: the voice, the façade, the platitudes. What was interesting about the documentary, however, was that it became the means through which Paris reckoned with this construction of herself. She has evidently been aware of this character her entire life, but this seemed to be the first time she was confronting this part, this projection of herself, that we have all become so familiar with.
Significantly, the modulations of her tone of voice became increasingly stark. We see her squealing and cooing her way through the first half an hour of the documentary, posing for cameras, taking selfies and slinking around her house. This changes during a business trip to South Korea, where she divulges her long-term suffering with acute insomnia and nightmares. Immediately, this brings around her deeper, richer vocality that lasts for most of the rest of the film. Her mother, Kathy Hilton, pinpoints the adoption of ‘the voice’ forty five minutes in, as she describes her daughter as a ‘Disney child’, constantly decked out in rhinestones, faux-fur, glitter and pink and adopting a high-pitched voice to match. Kathy’s implication here is that Paris is dawdling through her adult life, very rich and successful of course, but clinging to childish totems and self-presentation whilst nearing forty years old. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but an observable and critical fact.
What unfolds next is a deeply existential and moving piece of self-inquiry. This is a woman who appears to be trapped within a prolonged state of adolescence, who is afraid of taking steps into womanhood. Paris admits herself at around an hour in that ‘when you get married, you have to grow up’, before reflecting on her relationships and how they have never culminated in a marriage or children. Of course, the key to a happy, healthy life is not necessarily getting married or having children: this seems like an antique and regressive expectation for women, and it is perfectly fine if she doesn’t want those things. Indeed, an interesting part of the film comes when she discusses family and relationships with sister Nicky Hilton-Rothschild, who dissects whether or not Paris is living under a societal expectation or under her own volition when she ventures that she would like a family. This had echoes of Tinsley Mortimer, another famous blonde, curiously childish socialite, who had the exact same inner tussle whilst starring in the Real Housewives of New York City. Both Hilton and Mortimer have had their eggs frozen, and both are unsure as to whether their dreams of getting married and having children are ones that they inherently feel or are compulsions of patriarchy. Mortimer summed it up well when she drunkenly quipped, ‘maybe I’m just happy with chihuahuas?’ Confusion abounds for them both, especially as both have built brands and images that revolve around their own archetypal adolescence.
This adolescence is expressed, and in none more clearly than in Paris Hilton, through the voice. Jungian analytic psychologist Marion Woodman writes that the voice is deeply connected to the depths of womanhood, conveying a radical acceptance of the Feminine, the yin, that exists in all humans and not related to societal constructions of gender. The voice of the adolescent is girlish and high-pitched, whereas the woman’s voice is deep, slow and resonant. The voice of archetypal womanhood reflects an earthly connection to the body, that physical bridge between the material and the divine, honouring and loving its rhythms, needs and functions. The voice is the harbinger of someone who is present, receptive, in love with life, who embraces process over product and glories in connection, be it with friends, family, the glory of the dawn, poetry or just really, really good food. The body, in particular the female body, has been repeatedly controlled, judged, denied and shamed throughout history, and is the main battleground of patriarchy; has been viewed and gazed upon through the eyes of denigration, sin and doom, when it should be hailed and revered in awe.
In the adoption of a high-pitched voice, therefore, Paris shows that she clings to the familiar simplicity and rootlessness of the adolescent. She travels constantly, never allows herself to take a break and longs for the day when she has finally made a billion dollars. And yet, something tells her she cannot go on like this. She is perennially exhausted, cannot sleep and feels increasingly dissociated and detached from her life and her sense of self. She admits that, yes, the high-pitched happy vision of ‘perfection’ is a character, that she knows few people who aren’t disingenuous, has huge trust issues and repeatedly finds herself in relationships were her boyfriends attempt to control her. The adolescent has run its course: it’s clear in this documentary that the part of her that wants to transition into womanhood and an authentic, connected life, leaving behind the dregs and frivolities of the adolescent, is trying to come to life.
However, transformation is rarely free from pain. Crucially, Woodman suggests, the body holds and records trauma, and needs to be consciously met with compassion and healing. We see this unfold in the last part of the documentary, where Paris reveals that as a teenager, she attended Provo Canyon School, a pseudo-correctional facility for wayward children masking as a school in Utah. She was forcibly taken there, mentally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement and repeatedly threatened and shamed. Her insomnia and nightmares are rooted in her experience at the school, and her whole career is built upon her desire to escape from and not process her trauma. As a result, her trauma has lived on in her symptoms which now, through this documentary, have been brought out into the daylight. The teenager who suffered so much erected walls, hid behind a façade, pursued material wealth and notoriety and became the Paris Hilton character that we know today. It’s almost as though the hurt and pained teenager is still trapped in the body, revealing itself through a makeshift high-pitched voice, unable to transition to adulthood. Until, perhaps, now.
After speaking with a group of fellow survivors from the school, Paris is captured in her enormous walk-in wardrobe, surrounded by lines and legions of handbags, shoes and jewellery. She looks uncomfortable and openly questions why she has so much stuff that she never wears and never uses. It is a classic moment of a crystal castle shattering around the heroine, the one she built to protect herself from her pain and her trauma. It is eerie how these markers of success, affluence and perfection almost visibly turn into empty voids around her. It’s a tale as old as time: capitalism sells us a story that accumulating wealth and lots of expensive things is the key to our salvation and the happiness we yearn for in our lives, when in fact our endless ‘stuff’ serves to barricade us within ourselves, preventing us from any semblance of connection.
Paris Hilton was one of a number of architects that used capitalism, materialism and white privilege as a bedrock to elevate themselves financially and socially and literally influence the way in which Western society conceives of itself and presents itself. Even if we don’t care about Paris Hilton, we have to acknowledge that the way in which entertainment and social media work has everything to do with the impact she has had. It’s like when people say they don’t care about fashion and I almost instinctively now rattle off Miranda Priestly’s monologue about the blue belts in The Devil Wears Prada, a scene that remarkably and deftly captures the entwining of capitalism, fashion and supposed ‘free choice’. It is because of this that I think Hilton’s documentary is important: yes, she represents and models a dysfunctional relationship with work, materialism and privacy; however, she is also a blueprint for how as a society we all live with traumas, and that our traumas manifest in how we present ourselves, what we buy and how we live our lives. No one is free from their own personal reckoning, that day where we wake up, or are forced to wake up, and realise that we cannot carry on the way we have been living. Of course, the extent to which Paris Hilton barricaded herself from her own trauma is truly epic, but we all have our symptoms, we all have our addictions that make us crave more and more, preventing us from meeting ourselves exactly where we are meant to be (more often than not with our pain). If a more embodied, grounded and authentic version of Paris Hilton is left in its wake, which I am sure she will be, then this documentary and its subject, are wonderful teachers.
Beginning on the 21st May 2020, my phone blew up for a few consecutive days with incredulity, anger and disbelief at Lana Del Rey’s numerous statements directed at ‘the culture’. I still don’t really know what she is trying to define by that term. After the first statement, in which she namechecks numerous black female artists who have allegedly been allowed to sing about ‘being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc.’ when she has not, I declared to one group chat that I would get our thoughts and analyses, which were extensive, down here. I held off writing straight away and I’m glad I did: what followed were even more spurious statements and rebuttals from Del Rey about how people criticising her had begun a ‘race war’, and that people who ‘misunderstood’ her should ‘fuck off’. We saw her Instagram fill with images of white Hollywood movie stars, including that classic chauvinist James Bond no less, a GIF of her pole dancing in the ‘Gods and Monsters’ music video, and declarations that ‘no one gets to tell your story’. Del Rey claims that she embodies a ‘delicate’ form of femininity that is currently rejected by feminism, bizarrely claiming that it will be the forefront of a ‘new/3rd wave of feminism that is rapidly approaching’. We are, of course, already in the fourth wave and have been since the early 2010s. I aim to discuss Del Rey in relation to feminism at greater length in another essay.
With regards to race, Del Rey has, unfortunately, proven herself painfully unaware of how much privilege her whiteness affords her, and thereby has been unable to show how race and her question of feminism intersect. I can see why Del Rey believes that she is, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, ‘anti-racist’: she cast A$AP Rocky as her JFK in the ‘National Anthem’ video and wrote songs with him for ‘Lust For Life’; she has collaborated numerous times with The Weeknd; some of her best friends are black women who have featured prominently in her music videos and on tour from ‘Lust For Life’ through to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’; and she is giving all of the profits from her poetry collections as reparations to the indigenous Navajo community. She has proven, however, that she is not necessarily anti-racist, with each new comment she released digging her heels into her first problematic statement even further until a defence of her is rendered almost impossible.
Lana’s original namecheck of predominantly black and Hispanic women, Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, was used to highlight how these women have been celebrated and rewarded by ‘the culture’ for being sexual, provocative and complex whilst she has been maligned. In doing this, she demonstrated a lack of awareness about the more significant barriers that Women of Colour (WOC) face in getting to a prominent position in the music industry in the first place, as well as equating these women, who are already exposed to latent racist exoticisation stereotypes, purely with sexuality and sexual mores. This is deeply ironic coming from someone who has both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s names tattooed onto her clavicle and has regularly referenced Holiday in her music, for example in the music video for ‘Summer Wine’ and on the song ‘The Blackest Day’ from the album ‘Honeymoon’.
Simone and Holiday both famously used their art to fight racism and empower black youth throughout their careers, for example in the songs ‘Young Gifted and Black’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ and in numerous other contexts. This video of Simone talking about the artist’s duty to reflect the times, particularly with regards to fighting racism, is one that Del Rey has shared herself on her Instagram:
It is bizarre, then, that Del Rey, who so idolises these black women who spent their careers and lives fighting racism, is unable to acknowledge and concede that bringing WOC into a conversation about how she has been hard done by the music industry is problematic. It does not matter how may times you tell people that you are not racist: if you are making racially coded comments and comparisons, even and especially unconsciously, then refusing to accept the fact that your white ignorance and privilege have been exposed by those very comments, you are being racist. For white people, our racism is often unconscious and unthought of: our work is to bring our assumptions and everything we take for granted as white people into consciousness, to learn, listen and ultimately become allies in the fight against racism, racial inequality and injustice. Not to dig our heels in, take offence and accuse others of starting ‘a race war’.
This need for clarity and consciousness has become even more sickeningly potent in the days after Del Rey’s flurry of racially coded and unapologetic statements. The video went viral on 25th May 2020 of Amy Cooper threatening Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, that she would call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life when he had asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park’s protected nature reserve ‘The Ramble’. Amy Cooper chillingly showed how America’s law enforcement system, well known for its extensive brutality of black people, was geared in her white favour, and that she was more than willing to use it to get her own way at whatever genuinely life-threatening cost to Christian Cooper. Within days, we saw what the outcome could have been: George Floyd, an unarmed black man, suffocated to death by police officers in Minneapolis. In recent weeks, we have already seen how the American justice system values the life of Ahmed Aubrey, who was lynched by a white father and son in Georgia. It seemed serendipitous that we had this public genealogy of white supremacy and racism unfold so compactly this week: from Lana Del Rey accusing people of starting a ‘race war’ when what she had articulated was racially coded and, yes, racist; to a white woman using her whiteness as a weapon to threaten a black man who left the altercation, thankfully, safe; and yet another terrible and all too familiar example of police officers murdering an unarmed black man. Even though what happened with Del Rey can be interpreted as a celebrity scandal, it does not exist in a vacuum. Every single part of the events of this week are connected, and are expressions of what is normalised and still accepted in a white supremacist society.
This is not, of course, a problem that only exists in the USA. As writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge argues in her amazing book ‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by focusing on race as something that happens on the other side of the Atlantic, Black British history is ‘starved of oxygen’ and not given the attention it needs. Racism and white supremacy are alive and well in the UK, and we cannot fall into complacency, believing that it is only in the USA that racism exists. I have spent the past few weeks writing an inquiry project for my teacher training qualification (PGCE) about race and curriculum in the UK and there is no doubt in my mind that the National Curriculum devised by Michael Gove, particularly in Key Stage Four English, serves to perpetuate white cultural hegemony, erasing, denying and ignoring the communities and cultural identities of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils and anyone else who identifies as non-white British. White people are profoundly ignorant of the way in which we accept whiteness in all parts of our lives as standard and normal, as though our entire country’s history was not built off the back of slave labour and colonial oppression of BAME people. Now more than ever, white people need to be doing the work to make our unconscious privileges and ignorance, conscious. This is a battle, in part, because ideological vehicles like The National Curriculum hit us when we are young; but as responsible, conscious adults, we must actively educate ourselves. Too many people continue to suffer and we must do our part to fight and stop that.
This essay has been fuelled by anger, to be sure. But I also offer it in the spirit of generosity. I have been critical of Lana Del Rey because I think it is important for white people to call each other out and educate one another about the way our unconscious privilege and ignorance is a form of racial violence. As such, I want to provide a list of materials that have helped and continue to help me, as a white person, to recognise and check my own privilege and ignorance, which, I hope, help me to be an ally to all BAME people and actively fight racism. I recommend the following to all white people: