An Unexpected Journey: Re-watching ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy

“I don’t think I know your name.’

‘Yes, yes my dear sir and I do know your name Mr. Bilbo Baggins. And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”

Whilst J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was famously written, in the first instance, for said writer’s children, it has been famously described as being ‘a children’s book’, a coded criticism in many respects, meaning that because it has been marketed for primarily children, it is devoid of substance, nuance and meaning that more intelligent and world-wise adults are able to discern.[1] It is for that reason that my first opinion of Peter Jackson’s three films of the same name, released in 2012, 2013 and 2014, was low and, as I discovered recently, severely limited. I remember vividly, going to the cinema to see ‘An Unexpected Journey’ at the ripe age of 20, immediately welling up at the ‘Concerning Hobbits’ refrain that accompanied the film’s opening titles, before launching into an internal criticism of everything I perceived to by divergent from the original text. ‘How could a short book, for children, be strung out into three long films’, was my main point of contention. Oh the irony, when I had spent the past couple of years challenging the sanctity of texts so voraciously, unable to witness the way in which I was clinging so unconsciously to this one! This essay is in part a mea culpa but also a celebration of what I now regard to be a film that bridged The Hobbit to the rest of Tolkein’s legendarium with, perhaps, more consciousness and success than by Tolkien himself.

This is not to say that The Hobbit films were and are perfect. Even after my most recent re-watch, there are still some significant issues that have persisted over time: the films have the visual aspect of a video game, thanks to the choice to film using 3D Red Epic Cameras at 48 frames per second. Where so much of the deeply immersive storytelling in The Lord of The Rings films was borne from the physical prosthetic, make-up, costuming and set-design work, so successful in that they enabled audiences to feel as though the characters, races and cultures of Middle Earth were in some way real, the reliance on technology and digital design in The Hobbit creates more of a visual and, hence, emotional distance from the characters and the world they inhabit. This is not to say that video games are not deeply immersive, they evidently are and this is because we are able to take action and actively inhabit those worlds.[2] In the medium of film, however, where we are able to become engrossed in the worlds of films, we are, whilst observers and critics too, experientially more passive and in a position of surrender to the camera. No amount of good acting or writing in The Hobbit films allows them to land with as much impact as Jackson’s predecessors as a result of this overemphasis of a frame ratio and visual effects that take from the story more than they give. This was and still is, with all the merit I would give Jackson for experimenting with this cinematic technology, disappointing.

Equally disappointing are the ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ moments of shoehorned nostalgia, for example when the One Ring falls onto Bilbo’s finger in the exact same way it falls on Frodo’s in The Fellowship of the Ring. Furthermore, I think the relationship between Tauriel and Kili is hopelessly contrived and whilst I am appreciative of the filmmakers’ efforts to include a female character, where there are a grand total of zero in the book, it is somewhat frustrating that her only narrative significance revolves around an ill-fated and yet remarkably lacklustre romance plot.    

Yet, from this re-watch, I was able to discern that Jackson put in more work than I previously was even aware of to expand The Hobbit story into its rightful context within Tolkien’s mythology, in particular in its temporal position as a precursor to The Lord of The Rings. It is in this where I think The Hobbit films showcase some narrative brilliance on the part of its director. My opinion of this was enabled by my reading of The Silmarillion last year, a dense and remarkably realised mythology of the First Age of Middle Earth that Tolkien wrote prior to and, perhaps according to Christopher Tolkien, concurrently with The Hobbit in the 1930s. In a letter, Tolkien wrote that ‘The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with [The Silmarillion] […] It has no necessary connexion with the ‘mythology’, but naturally became attracted towards this dominant construction in my mind, causing the tale to become larger and more heroic as it proceeded’.[3]He suggests here that the progressive adventurous sensibility of The Hobbit came about in its tangential relationship with The Silmarillion: almost that The Hobbit couldn’t help but become more epic as a result of its exposure, in his imagination and writing, to the truly sweeping and awesome aspect of The Silmarillion. However, he is clear that there was no over-lap between the two: however much The Hobbit was influenced by The Silmarillion in terms of narrative grandiosity, the narratives themselves were quite separate. Only in Tolkien’s own retrospect and re-jigging post-Hobbit and aided by The Lord of The Rings do we see an intersection begin to merge between what were previously disparate texts.[4] It is here where I argue Jackson, with the benefit of Tolkien’s retrospect and the extensive appendices that accompany the legendarium, was able to successfully bridge some of the gaps left behind by Tolkien’s source texts. In short, Jackson and his team did their research, it shows, and The Hobbit films deserve much more credit than I believe they have received for this.

Fittingly, it would seem that the main mechanisms that Jackson uses to help bridge these narrative gaps are the wizards Gandalf the Grey and Radagast. In saying this, I do not aim to reduce their roles to mere plot devices: on the contrary, in some way I see it as nigh on poetic that these characters, who are so well-loved and revered by both characters in the stories and by readers and audiences too, who have so much power, wisdom and benevolence, should be the ones to ensure the successful metaphysical narrative weaving across the media of novel and film between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. Whilst Radagast is elusive throughout Tolkien’s texts, Gandalf is presented as a character whose wizardry extends beyond telekinesis and otherworldly intuition to his ability to construct and affirm meaning for the characters around him. Indeed, when we first meet him in the very first chapter of The Hobbit, he engages an unwitting Bilbo into something of a verbal sparring match, after the latter has wished him a ‘Good morning!’. Looking at Bilbo ‘from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat’, Gandalf asks him:

‘“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”’[5]

In his interrogation of the exclamation ‘Good morning!’ is a playfulness with which Gandalf employs and perceives language, pointing to the number of different ways in which Bilbo’s deceptively simplistic phrase could be used and interpreted. Gandalf’s questions expose the realms of meaning that underlie even the most apparently obvious of statements and, as such, successfully and wittily deconstructs both the phrase Bilbo has used and, importantly, the complacency with which he used it. As a result, along with the play, is an assertion of dominance, expressed through the performed uncertainty around what Bilbo means: in his questioning he demonstrates his own command of and ability to wield language, and therefore his ability to construct meaning. By questioning Bilbo in this way and subtly asserting his own dominance over language and its multiplicity of meanings, Gandalf’s introduction is none too reminiscent of ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, yet perhaps with more of a knowing wink and a glint in the eye from underneath those bushy eyebrows. Although Saruman is described as ‘subtle in speech’, I would argue that it is Gandalf’s playfulness with language that marks him out as more flexible in his thinking and the more compelling to those around him.[6] This linguistic dominance is developed later on in the novel where Gandalf uses narrative to convince the shape-shifter Beorn to allow Thorin’s Company of dwarves and Bilbo to stay in his hall having been pursued by goblins through and from the Misty Mountains. Aware of Beorn’s reticence for opening his home to strangers, and with a particular dislike for dwarves, Gandalf weaves the tale of the Company’s adventures with hints at their number and regular interruptions by the arriving dwarves at such a pace as to not offend Beorn.[7] We are told towards the episode’s end that,

‘Bilbo saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept his from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars […] “A very good tale!” said [Beorn]. “The best I have heard for a long while. If all beggars could tell such a good one, they might find me kinder.”’[8]

Gandalf successfully uses language and, slightly differently to his first encounter with Bilbo, the delay and deferral of meaning to ensure he is able to get what he wants and needs. Even though he and the Company are in a vulnerable enough position so as to rely on Beorn’s hospitality, Gandalf is able to use his, again, playful and ‘clever’ control of language and meaning to endear himself and the others. In particular, Tolkien emphasises that it is ‘the story’ and the means by which it is told that secures safety and, therefore, it is clear that the ability to use language in this way is as powerful a weapon for Gandalf as any of the other magic he may be able to perform. This is confirmed through the echo of the description of the dwarves as ‘beggars’: the story does not prevent Beorn from seeing the dwarves as ‘beggars’, yet the power of the narrative seems to enable Beorn to move past his preconceived distrust and disdain for the dwarves, even conceding that he might be more open in general if each story he met was ‘good’ enough. By ‘good’ we don’t necessarily mean that plot points of the narrative, although they help, but the way in which Gandalf has adeptly guided Beorn through what is essentially a carefully constructed unfolding of the truth. The irony of which is that perhaps Beorn’s distrust is not entirely misplaced, given Gandalf’s masterful yet creatively tentative handling of what actually happened and how many they are. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Gandalf the Grey occupies an important role in Tolkien’s work as a conduit and creator of meaning, which makes it all the more appropriate that his character is one of two wizards used by Jackson, in this same vein, to bridge the narrative gaps between The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These narrative bridges revolve around the shadowy figure of The Necromancer. 

The Necromancer is only named four times in The Hobbit text, and the gift that Jackson gives a film audience is a cinematic expansion of these short hints given, of course, by Gandalf both about him and his fortress at Dol Guldur, thereby building something of a narrative bridge from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. One hint appears in the very first chapter of the novel, where Gandalf describes his adventure to retrieve Thror’s map: ‘I was finding things out, as usual; and a nasty business it was. Even I, Gandalf, only just escaped’; and one, satisfyingly cyclical, in the final chapter, ‘Gandalf had been to a great council of white wizards […] they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.[9] Furthermore, the episode is given reference to, again with little expansion in The Silmarillion: ‘Mithrandir [the Elvish name for Gandalf] at great peril went again to Dol Guldur and the pits of the Sorcerer, and he discovered the truth of his fears [that the Necromancer was ‘the first shadow of Sauron returning’], and escaped’.[10] Moreover, Jackson, I would argue, successfully interleaves the council meeting and Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur mentioned here into The Hobbit narrative, with the council, attended by Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White, taking place during the Company’s sojourn at Rivendell early on in the first film of the trilogy, and then the investigation of Dol Guldur after the Company enter Mirkwood in the second film. This latter interleaving is particularly poignant narratively because as the Company encounters the corruption of the old Greenwood forest, we see Gandalf explore the root of that corruption, which I think works seamlessly. The expansion of these moments in the films serve to build important narrative connections that Tolkien either hints at or simply misses. The revelation that The Necromancer is the spirit of Sauron beginning to re-take form in the final film in The Hobbit trilogy is an important set-up for what happens sixty years later in The Lord of the Rings, plus is an excellent opportunity to see Galadriel in all her power. What was, perhaps, a missed opportunity was Jackson’s lack of emphasis as to why the council does nothing to organise against Sauron once it is revealed that he has returned. Saruman clearly underestimates Sauron’s ability to fully amass power, as described very late on in the appendices of The Silmarillion, but I think, what should be, an extremely pertinent moment becomes slightly lost within the narrative of the Company.[11] In truth, there is a lot of action in this film: it begins with Smaug’s destruction of Lake Town and his killing at the hands of Bard, then the confrontation at Dol Guldur, Thorin’s antagonism and obsession with the Arkenstone, followed by the Battle of the Five Armies. There is a lot of action and huge visuals to be swept along with. The decision to not challenge Sauron comes thirty minutes into the film and, most unfortunately, is not particularly circled back to. Gandalf’s last lines in the film seem like a particular waste, even though they replicate those in the novel: ‘You’re a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I’m very fond of you; but you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all’. In the novel, these words are delivered as Balin, Bilbo and Gandalf discuss the prosperity of the Men of the Lake after the Battle of the Five Armies and Bilbo’s hand in helping to ensure that peace. [12] Jackson’s use of them almost sentimentally, however, as almost a parting caution to Bilbo about the power of his magic ring is slightly too cryptic to ensure the sort of foreshadowing that could have been used to more explicitly weave the end of The Hobbit films to the larger narrative of The Lord of the Rings. However, as I said at the beginning of this essay, whilst true merits of these films have emerged with time and further investigation, they are by no means perfect.

Something that cements Jackson’s attempt at narrative restructuring with, I argue, some great degree of success comes courtesy of the elusive and reclusive wizard Radagast. Whilst having scant mention anywhere in Tolkien’s books, his inclusion in these films was a brilliant, heartful choice which I think shows true warmth for the text on the part of the filmmakers. Not only does Jackson use Radagast to root The Hobbit films more securely into Tolkien’s context of Middle Earth, but he uses the wizard to bridge The Hobbit to some of the earliest events in the Elder days of the High Elves in The Silmarillion. In the first Hobbit film, when describing the corruption of Greenwood, Radagast describes the giant spiders in the forest as ‘some kind of spawn of Ungoliant’. In doing so, the filmmakers reference one of the most destructive and shocking moments in the early history of the Elves, where the first Dark Lord Morgoth, Sauron’s original master, uses a great, ravenous, corrupted spider called Ungoliant to destroy the sacred trees of light in Valinor, where she ‘belched forth black vapours as she drank, and swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor [precursor to the nomenclature Morgoth] was afraid’.[13]  Whilst the film only makes a small reference to this early and haunting moment of the mythology, so grotesque that even a character as epically vengeful and envious in the history of literature as Morgoth is rendered frightened, this connection built by Jackson through Radagast between the current condition of the Greenwood and the originators of decay and destruction at the very beginning of Tolkien’s world, shows how much thought has gone into what these Hobbit films could serve. They are not mere adaptations of one novel, but offer an explicit narrative bridge across the legendarium. These films are then, perhaps, more faithful adaptations of the legendarium than audiences claiming The Hobbit to be a children’s book are even aware of. We can see that the two wizards help to create this greater sense of meaning across the texts: Gandalf is used to enable The Hobbit to look forward to the later The Lord of the Rings, whilst Radagast is used to root The Hobbit in the legendarium, looking back to the past as he does to The Silmarillion, where previously The Hobbit was almost adrift between the bigger epic narratives.

All this to say: perhaps making The Hobbit into a film was never going to be as simple as the reductive mindset of ‘it’s a children’s book’ would allow. I may have been dismissive of these films when they first came out, arguing that so short a book could hardly require a three-film adaptation; but I am convinced as a result of this recent re-watch that, in making these films, Jackson undertook a bigger project, enfolding The Hobbit into the rest of the legendarium, enlarging its prospects rather than keeping it a stand-alone novel, whilst simultaneously paying homage to the warmth and good humour that has made it such a beloved narrative since 1937. With all of the richness embedded in the text, even and especially unconsciously done, The Hobbit appears, like its namesake protagonist, to have more to it than what meets the eye. There are faults with the films, it cannot be denied; but I do not think that this cinematic trilogy should be so easily discarded either. It makes sense that the novel, surprisingly dense as it is with the range and length of adventures contained within it and, as we have seen, extending beyond it, could not fit an average feature-length running time. My lasting thought upon writing this is that perhaps it would have been more suited to a television series format so that the barrage of episodic action could have been more evenly placed alongside the intricate narrative weaving that, it has become evident, is also required.


[1] The Hobbit, J.R.R Tolkien (London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2011), p.vii.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2010/aug/10/games-science-of-immersion

[3] Ibid, p.vii.

[4] Ibid, p.xiii.

[5] Ibid, p.6.

[6] The Silmarillion, J.R.R Tolkien (London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2013), p.360.

[7] Ibid, pp.114-119.

[8] Ibid, pp. 119-120.

[9] Ibid, p.26; p.277.

[10] Ibid, p.360-1.

[11] Ibid, p.361.

[12] Ibid, p.282.

[13] Ibid, p.80.

What is the future of fame?

My 2021 began hideously hungover. I wept at a BBC Four documentary about the cultural history of the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, wolfed down serving after serving of tomato pasta (the only thing I can stomach in such a condition) and winced at empty bottles of Corona lying around all over the place, the playful irony of twelve hours previous now seeming exceedingly gauche. In between the dollops of pesto and wailing, I stumbled upon a four-part documentary series on BBC iPlayer called ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’. I watched the series compulsively and found that it immediately forced me to re-assess and reflect upon my own relationship with celebrity culture, particularly as a member of the ‘tween’ market targeted during those unchartered rampant days of celebrity consumerism in the Noughties.

What began as a New Year’s essay in response to that single series has turned into a year-long retrospective project: in the past twelve months I have found myself constantly musing upon and internally pickling the issues of fame, celebrity and the power structures and dynamics that shaped the beginning of this millennium, as well as my relationship with them. My grappling with personal feelings and thoughts about this aspect of popular culture has been both mirrored in and fuelled by what became a wider societal re-appraisal of the Noughties that only gathered momentum throughout the year. From the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney Spears’ in February and her unprecedented address of the court in June regarding her experience living under a conservatorship; to Mischa Barton’s compelling interview with the Guardian also in June; to the article in British Vogue’s July 2021 issue about the resurgence in ‘vintage’ Noughties trends like Blink 182 T-shirts, Fendi ‘bag-ettes’ and low-rise jeans and more; to Beyoncé and Adele speaking to their experiences with fame in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue respectively; and the climactic ending of Spears’ conservatorship in November, the stories of the women harassed and demonised during the Noughties are, rightly, coming centre stage. What was confined and repressed is finally being given air to breathe.  

Absorbing and horrifying in equal measure, ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’ charted the Western obsession with fame and celebrity culture from Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ to Instagram, through the cultural intersections of gender, class and politics. The documentary is nigh-on academic in its scope, covering reality television, print media, the treatment of young women like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, the ‘WAGs’, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, the Kardashians, Perez Hilton, TOWIE, the casts of Love Island and, of course, Britney Spears (in, I would argue, an even more gut-wrenching way than the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney’ documentary, simply because her story is told within a four-hour wider context of misogyny and exploitation), and more.  

Kerry Katona interviewed for Celebrity: A 21st Century Story

Amidst the laying bare of the gross misogyny that many, particularly young women of my generation, consumed on a weekly basis in magazines like ‘Heat’, the documentary gave a platform for the likes of Kerry Katona, Charlotte Church and many others to speak about the hell that their lives were, so preyed upon they became by paparazzi and photographers. Who, however, to blame for this nauseating mess is ambiguous. Figures in the media industry pointed to an insatiable public appetite for such coverage, whilst the case is also made that the public’s desire for more was (and is) constructed and manufactured by those who claim they are just giving people ‘what they want’. Do we level the blame for aggressive, intrusive celebrity-baiting at the armies of paparazzi trying to earn a living, or the people who employed them? The magazine editors, the media conglomerates who published the images? The celebrities for making a choice to live a life that in the glare of public judgment? It is very unclear and maybe there doesn’t need to be a definitive answer: the point is, and well-articulated by YouTuber Broey Deschanel in her video essay ‘The Systemic Abuse of Celebrities’, is that a life lived in the spotlight as a ‘celebrity’, whether as an A-List actress or as a YouTube vlogger and influencer, becomes, perhaps inevitably, a form of abuse.

The opening notes of the 21st century are undoubtedly sour and sobering. In light of how amazing human beings can be, I couldn’t help asking: what the hell were we thinking? The opening of a new century, a new millennium, has been completely marred and defined by cruelty, excess, mass produced objectification and vilification as sport. The Faustian exchange that celebrity life encapsulates undoubtedly causes a huge amount of suffering for the human beings at the centre, which we may have always known deep-down but has all too frequently, perhaps, been forgotten in the mass-produced heady dopamine rush of alighting upon the latest mishap or scandal. These human beings, in their nuance and multiplicities, have been dehumanised and objectified, rendered symbols and screens for the shadow of the collective unconscious- everything we cannot accept and embrace within ourselves- and held to impossible standards of perfection in a game they can never win. For me personally, one of the most sobering moments was listening to footage of Keira Knightley on the BBC Radio 4 podcast series ‘Pieces of Britney’, another longform exploration of the treatment of young female celebrities during the Noughties. The clip, taken from an interview with Jonathon Ross in 2007, shows Knightley at the tender age of 22 beginning to shake as she describes relentless paparazzi intrusion into her life. It’s hard to believe that such a candid admission on national television was never taken seriously enough beyond Ross’ platitudes, and that no cultural conversation emerged around the terror facing young women on a regular basis. I cannot believe we were all, myself included, blind to it.

And, of course, it goes even deeper than this. What I think is important to analyse, along with the gender and class undertones of the abuse suffered by Spears, Lohan, Barton, Winehouse and Knightley etc., are the very obvious racial dynamics at play: there is a lot to learn about the inner psychology of white supremacy from looking at the ways in which these women were treated. Primarily, as brilliantly critiqued by Simran Hans in ‘Pieces of Britney’, the ‘white trash’ criticism levelled at Spears in particular was a deeply racially coded term, employed to shame her for her behaviour’s perceived proximity to blackness. Young white women were effectively punished by media outlets, acting as bastions for white supremacy, for acting in a way that was indicative of a betrayal of their race. As a result, this systemic punishing of white young women, bears all the classic hallmarks of breathtaking misogyny, with their bodies and whiteness being fetishized and objectified to the extent that their humanity is purposefully forgotten. It also demonstrates the sicknesses of self-loathing and self-hatred embedded within white supremacy. Ibram X Kendi describes white supremacy as a rain that we are all drenched in: white people believe they are safe from it because they are holding an umbrella, but that umbrella too is a structure of white supremacy. There is no escaping it. Similarly, writer and activist Rachel Cargle argues that white supremacy and racism are sicknesses that poison each generation: not just black people who are brutalised with it, but for white people who enact and espouse this violence, consciously and unconsciously. Perhaps the predatory behaviour of a culture that created a trap for preying on this group of white women is an example of this self-inflicted sickness. The seeming pleasure taken at torturing and brutalising these women, through paparazzi-hounding and endless abuse in print and internet media, is an offshoot of white supremacy, symptomatic of its paranoia in maintaining and perpetuating itself, punishing those who did not conform to its standards.

Of course, this coded abuse of white women walks in tandem with both the coded and overt abuse of BIPOC stars by the media. Whilst there was a predatory paparazzi focus on Spears, Hilton and Lohan in the Noughties, black artists and celebrities, then and now, have seen their lives, bodies and work unduly criticised, eradicated, appropriated and underappreciated by a white supremacist media culture. BIPOC stars face systemic racism that prevents them from being in the spotlight in the first place and then, once there, targeted with gaslighting, abuse and criticism from mainstream media as well as armies of social media trolls. As such, what I have observed is how boundaried some black muscians have been and become over this period of time, both preventatively and as a result of white supremacy’s toxic double standards and hypocrisies. Whilst none of these people have been strangers to racially coded criticism, it is clear that the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino/Donald Glover, Tyler The Creator and others have combined vigilance and artistic ambiguity to stave off unhealthy media attention, working hard to keep themselves at arm’s length from the media woodchipper. Perhaps this is a self-protective proactive response in light of the ways in which black women like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday were torturously celebrated and reviled with equal measure. Be it through surprise album drops, hints and easter eggs on social media posts or downright disorientation- Frank Ocean’s green baby at the Met Gala in 2021 was genius- these black stars have refused to play the media game and, in so doing, have carved out truly experimental and industry redefining modes of work, art and being. Of course, the secrecy and vigilance is an additional, expensive layer of work and comes at many costs. Beyoncé talked about this explicitly in her rare interview with Harper’s Bazaar:

‘I’ve been intentional about setting boundaries between my stage persona and my personal life […] I’ve fought to protect my sanity and my privacy because the quality of my life depended on it’.

In a world of media gaslighting and wars over whose narrative succeeds, Beyoncé has painstakingly prioritised her cognitive and emotional clarity, setting down multiple lines that cannot be crossed in order to keep her and her family safe. She is emphatic about the importance for her boundaries, stating that:

‘those who don’t know me and have never met me might interpret that as being closed off. Trust – the reason those folks don’t see certain things about me is because my Virgo ass does not want them to see it… it’s not because it doesn’t exist!’

Beyoncé’s attention to detail in her art is legendary; the fact that this is also required to an astronomical extent to maintain her privacy and safety is an additional layer of work and effort that, whilst seemingly non-negotiable, requires a huge amount of energy and resources. But that emphatic, imperative ‘trust-’ is unequivocal: white supremacy may condemn her actions as ‘closed off’ but, ultimately, she is protecting herself. It’s a power move.

Frank Ocean building a staircase on a live stream

Whilst these high-profile black artists have been able to establish and assert boundaries through a consciously constructed ambiguity artistically and through heavily controlled and managed PR, white supremacy, of course, still manages to openly violate famous black people in the media. Whilst it may have become more difficult to smear the likes of Beyonce et al., who have become increasingly adept at wielding their own narrativizing power, there are groups of famous black people who are still incredibly vulnerable to targeted attacks. In recent years, racists and trolls have openly abused Leslie Jones and Lizzo: both powerful women in the own rights but, upon entering mainstream awareness, perhaps did not yet have enough cultural ubiquity or capital to secure their boundaries and safety. Concurrently, black successful sportswomen are hideously exposed to the forces of white supremacy to police and abuse them: Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have all faced systemic and spectatorial abuse online. Unlike the musicians, who are, perhaps, more able to obscure themselves behind veils of artistic expression, sport is, by its very nature, unfiltered and exposing. White supremacy is almost granted more access to these women, and, therefore, they are perhaps more vulnerable to its violence. The derision that white supremacy levels at these women, with a whole host of stereotypes, criticism and condescension thrown in, is particularly potent and widespread. Visibility seems to walk hand-in-hand with media abuse, so it would be impossible to critique the targeting of BIPOC women without mentioning Meghan Markle in the same breath. As a royal, one of her jobs was to be professionally watched and looked it, open to constant judgment, evaluation and criticism, much like the sportswomen. This made her vulnerable to intrusive levels of scrutiny and abuse, perhaps most pervasively when she was pregnant and undergoing a hugely significant physical transformation. This is not a coincidence.

*

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that, now, so many famous people are not only asserting their boundaries but also reclaiming their lives and narratives. Noticeably, over the past couple of years, there has been something of an uptick in the number of celebrity-produced documentaries that aim to offer a form of insight into the personal, private lives of celebrities. It may be easy to be dismissive when embarking upon a viewing of these documentaries about how constructed and constrained these forms of storytelling are, but there is no denying the chillingly dead looks in the eyes of young people, in particular, who are exhausted and have been nigh-on tortured by the circumstances their fame has brought them. To date, I have watched self-produced documentaries of and by Taylor Swift (Miss Americana, Netflix, 2020); Paris Hilton (This Is Paris, YouTube,2020); Billie Eilish (The World’s A Little Blurry, Apple TV,2021); Demi Lovato (Dancing With The Devil, YouTube,2021); and Justin Bieber (Seasons, YouTube, 2020). With Mischa Barton also stating this year in The Guardian that she wanted to produce a documentary about her life and experiences during the Noughties, perhaps we cannot blame these people from wanting to reclaim some of the agency, self-worth and power that seems to have be routinely and, often, catastrophically denied them.  A lengthy comparison could be made of the aforementioned docs: some opt for a fly-on-the-wall format; some give lengthy insight into the artistic process of song writing and music production; some form a personal and musical retrospective. Even if the claims to candidness, authenticity and ‘truth’ telling are awkwardly performative, and require a healthy pinch of salt for the cynical, there is no doubting the catharsis on show when these figures are in control of their own narrative and it is oddly relieving and emotional to watch. Of course, however, they are not all unproblematic.

Scooter Braun and Demi Lovato

Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, in particular, have centred Scooter Braun in their recovery narratives, as much a friend and a mentor as he is their manager. Yet, this nurturing sage-like presence on their documentaries simultaneously functions as a redemption platform for Braun who has, seemingly and allegedly, gone out of his way to undermine the authority and self-determination of Taylor Swift. Famously, Braun sold the rights and master recordings of her first six albums to an investment fund for $300 million, without her consent, playing the game of music’s industrial capitalism to reap huge financial rewards for himself and leaving an artist with little sense of control or ownership over her own songs. His presence on Lovato’s documentary in particular, whilst important to Lovato’s recovery from addiction, feels uncomfortable when he is an active part in a system that has undermined the personal and professional wellbeing of another talented young woman.

It would be grossly naïve to think that as a result of this cultural moment of reflection that there will be an overnight rejection of celebrity culture. Fame may still be an enticing prospect for many, but I think it is increasingly clear that it is a double-edged sword. As with many areas of our lives, for example with regards to our relationship with the climate crisis, there is, I would argue, an increasing onus on personal responsibility and accountability to ensure the safety of the collective. We need to be conscious and honest with ourselves when we get dragged into having startlingly impassioned opinions and conversations about people we do not know anything about. Why do I care about looking at Jennifer Lawrence with a baby bump? What am I being distracted from? Where does our desire to stew in negativity and delight in other people’s pain come from? How is the language we use causing harm? Even if we never take the steps to actually target celebrities with viciousness, the dehumanising and objectifying language we use to talk about them infects the way we see and speak to ourselves, as well as everyone around us. As a public, we have to acknowledge how infantile it is to obsess over other people and their lives when we could so better serve ourselves by training that spotlight back onto our own shit.

What I think is different, however, now compared to twenty years ago is that a culture of activism has flourished through social media. Whilst the abuse of celebrities will shapeshift and morph into a new means of expression, there are legions of people online ready to resist.  We are all better off in a world with Jameela Jamil in it, for example, whose modelling of honesty and criticality on social media is exemplary. She cuts through bullshit like no one else, and is able to use her influence to affect change and empower others to do so, whether its advocating for Britney Spears and vulnerable demographics like trans and disabled people, or taking the fight for eating disorder prevention right to politicians and lawmakers in the US. The key is to remind people of the power they do have: it may not be overt embodied power that they feel on a daily basis, thanks to capitalism, but we all have the power to observe and challenge our own patterns and behaviours in this. Ironically, for many people this may mean abandoning social media all together: whilst there is much to gain from social media’s potential for connecting people and causes, it is also an aggressive, manipulative place that actively causes harm.

 And for the already famous? I think we are going to see increasingly controlled and boundaried behaviour. Stars have always reflected on whether the bargains made for fame have been worth it and I think we will see more and more reflections on this in the years to come, including retreats from visibility: symbolic of this, for example, is that Pamela Anderson left social media behind in January 2021, before this year’s reappraisal of celebrity culture even began. Whilst I don’t think we’ll see a mass exodus in her wake, because personal photos posted to social media will always be more valuable than paparazzi shots and the power this enables celebrities to retain is significant, celebrities will undoubtedly assert new means and methods of control to undermine and undercut the role of traditional media in abusing them. They have every right to do so and I believe we will all benefit as a result.

We keep changing all the time

The best ones lost their minds

So I’m not gonna change

I’ll stay the same

No rose left on the vines

Don’t even want what’s mine

Much less the fame

It’s dark, but just a game

It’s dark, but just a game

‘Dark But Just A Game’, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, Lana Del Rey

‘Élite’: The ‘Gossip Girl’ alternative

This article is dedicated to Charlotte Bender, Francesca Bender and Hanan Isse: my fellow obsessees

Video essayist Broey Deschanel recently posed the question: ‘Have We Grown Out of Gossip Girl?’ By looking at the class, gender and racial politics of the show, and the wider politics and issues with re-makes, her answer is an unequivocal and undeniable: yes. Whilst aesthetic nostalgia for Gossip Girl is high (because who wouldn’t want to eat lunch on the steps of the Met or venture an embellished headband?) it is a show that does not need resurrecting or an attempt at correction. Her analysis that Gossip Girl sided with elites, demonising working class characters, catching principled characters into a tangled web of deceit and selfishness whilst glorifying toxic chauvinism (Chuck sells Blair for a hotel), demonstrates that Gossip Girl is a show too riddled with the white supremacist hyper-wealth orthodoxy of its time to be worth redeeming.

The show is almost a historical artefact of capitalism’s anaemic attempt at self-criticism, eventually reinforcing itself and seducing everyone in its wake, characters and viewers alike, when arguments for capitalism were becoming increasingly tenuous in the context of recession, economic suffering and burgeoning inequality. This would go on to lay the groundwork for a subsequent decade, and counting, of austerity in the West. No amounts of references to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Serena Van Der Woodsen’s favourite novel, could distract us from class-bashing snobbery, rampant aspirationalism and full-bodied immersion and defence of white privilege and supremacy.

Ironically, we are living in a time of studios hyperactively re-making, sequelling and prequelling everything: capitalism is so desperate to reinforce itself to itself and ensure a buck, that it cannot stomach the risk of making something new. I wrote about this in 2014 and there are signs that things are beginning to change. With the emergences of more experimental forms of television storytelling such as Master of None, Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Pose, The Politician and The Good Place against the backdrop of a larger appetite for non-white heteronormative stories centring around race, sexualities, genders and philosophies that have been previously untold in a popular way, we are seeing progressive shifts that render the prospect of shows like Gossip Girl more and more redundant. It has been particularly promising this year to see the number of films and TV shows exploring stories of race and class being feted and nominated for awards, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Malcolm and Marie forming two of my favourite films so far, even if the jangling of white supremacy still echoes and reverberates throughout the creative industries (no Golden Globe nomination for I May Destroy You?)     

So, where can we go for an aesthetically-fuelled glossy teen melodrama? Is there place for such a thing in the twenty first century?

My answer: yes. Do I want to see well-dressed people getting into romantic dilemmas, going on coming-of-age adventures, disappointing people around them, ripping up expectations, finding their voices, breaking up and making up and all set to a fabulous soundtrack? Yes. Whole-heartedly. But it goes deeper than that. This need for stories about teenagehood reminds me of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a late nineteenth century German play that sought to express and plug the gap in stories for and about teenagers to navigate the upheaval of adolescence. The play, scandalous at its first performance, covers sexual repression and expression, abuse, suicidal depression, homosexuality and the relentless pressure of morality and achievement in arbitrary school exams: issues that still feel relevant and familiar to teenagers now, with a quintessentially new iteration of perfectionism that entails a life lived through the filters of social media. This rite of passage has been maligned throughout much of Western history, with teenagers demonised and ridiculed for the seismic shifts they experience in their bodies and identities, without any kind of holistic guideposts to nurture and respect them through it. Our experiences as teenagers lay the groundwork for our future relationships with ourselves (and our therapists) and, as explored so well in the documentary Beyond Clueless, secondary school is a charged space to explore a heady mixture of emergent and predominant ideas, with the teenage body a soil, in its perpetual state of flux, expansion and contraction, to do this. I don’t spend my time watching back-to-back teen shows or teen films because the chaos of melodrama and angst no longer feels like an outward projection of my own internal tumult. But I continue to hold the genre in high regard, in much the same vein as Mark Kermode in his advocacy for the Twilight franchise. If we are to live in a society where teenagers are not honoured, then why should we damn genres that appeal and speak to this dramatic, archetypal experience that they are going through? Whether we have anonymous whistleblowers and gossip mongers, vampires or quixotic righteous dudes, teen films and shows are crucibles and allegories for bigger shifts, both personally and societally that are, whether they mean to be or not, both vitally hyperbolic and fascinating. In the case of Gossip Girl, it turns out, we should have been paying more attention.     

As such, we don’t need a new Gossip Girl or, god-forbid, the re-make of Clueless that we keep getting threatened with (the original should remain an untouched gem and deserves respect and adulation not an irrelevant, fatigued re-make). We already have a show that is compelling, compulsive, aesthetically pleasing and playing whack-a-mole with big teenage issues in a critical and entertaining way. Crucially, it also grapples with many of the issues that a new Gossip Girl may want to rectify and reconcile with to itself, which Broey Deschanel predicts will be watered down and disastrous. Issues like race, religion, sexualities and deconstructions of class power structures. My friends, I give you, Netflix original series, Élite.

Élite’s premise seems standard fare: told in flashback, three working class students are given scholarships to shiny, international, private school, Las Encinas, located in an ambiguous area of Spain, but most likely near Madrid. The scholarships are a form of compensation from the rich owner of a building company, who built a structurally inadequate state school that collapsed. The son of the owner of the building company also goes to Las Encinas with his extremely wealthy and aristocratic friends: immediately, as a result, there is discord, resentment and rivalry between the two groups. The backdrop of all of this is a murder investigation, as one of the students is found dead next to the swimming pool at Las Encinas. A heady mixture of Big Little Lies, Skins, Cruel Intentions and, yes, Gossip Girl, it is immediately aesthetically pleasing and riveting. At the very least, along with the rollercoaster ride of dramas and chaos, viewers have the additional pleasure of having learned a variety of Spanish swearwords. And the background reggaetón is always on point.

Without spoiling anything, the show deals with a plethora of teen issues: the standard first sexual experiences, family fall outs, teen pregnancy, ambition and inter-class/clique warfare. Additionally, there are higher stakes of HIV diagnoses, cancer diagnoses, threesomes, throuples, incest, blackmail, revenge porn and drugs thrown into the mix. In short: a whole lot of loco. Across the seasons, however, Élite goes on to explore the intersections of many of these issues in greater depth, most powerfully, the immigrant-working class experience and, in particular, the cultural tensions of growing up Muslim in the West. This includes relationships between faiths, homosexual relationships (the cutest gay couple ever has to be Ander and Omar), the politics of feminism and the hijab, and both subtle and overt forms of anti-Muslim hatred. We have rarely seen a character like Nadia presented on television and it is joyful to watch her unfolding across the seasons.

Even the intersections and illusions of wealth are explored: the differences between no money, new money and old money, with most of the judgment and consternation reserved for the aristocrats. Unlike Gossip Girl, the most despicable characters in Élite are the privileged who lie, cheat and betray others to maintain their social position, closing ranks and perverting justice through their family names and wealth. Self-preservation is constantly at work in Élite: this manifests as working class characters attempting to reject and resist the trappings of wealth and privilege to preserve their sense of dignity and self-respect; whereas, the wealthy pull up their drawbridges and manipulate the power structures to get their own way. They become unredeemable in the process. Yet there are some who do change, and there are some divine redemption arcs at work, the best I’ve seen since Steve Harrington in Stranger Things.

As such, where Broey Deschanel’s criticism of Gossip Girl focuses on the fact that everything, including the viewers, is subsumed by the inordinate toxic influence of power and privilege, in Élite, a form of equilibrium and, dare I say, comradeship between the classes eventually emerges. Of course, we are still based in a powerful, private school only accessible to the privileged few; but it feels like the upper classes are the ones who have had to adapt and give up something, in the form of their power and privilege, in order to survive and not the other way round. The only question that remains, as Season 4 approaches, is whether this will be maintained. My main criticism is that even with the introductions of Yeray and Malik in Season 3, there is plenty more space for black characters in the show, and I think the show has great potential in posing more questions on race. Needless to say: we don’t need a re-make of Gossip Girl. Élite is the show Gossip Girl should have been ten years ago, and I for one think we all need more of it.

Full disclaimer: I watched all three seasons of Élite during Lockdown 1.0 and it definitely became an emotional crutch when many of us, myself included, seemed to regress into a state of teenagehood, confined as we were to our rooms for months on end (explored so well in this article). If there is anything I need to add or qualify, let me know.

Paris Hilton and us

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.

Lana Del Rey and whiteness

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’.

Blackest Day Higher QUality

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:

Nina Simone

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:

‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘About Race’ podcast by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Dr. Maya Angelou

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry

‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon

‘Orientalism’ by Edward W. Said

‘OJ: Made in America’ by Ezra Edelman

‘Black Panther’ by Ryan Coogler

‘Straight Outta Compton’ by F. Gary Gray

‘Get Out’ by Jordan Peele

‘Mississippi Burning’ by Alan Parker

‘Lemonade’ by Beyoncé

‘Homecoming’ by Beyoncé

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar

‘Kiwanuka’ by Michael Kiwanuka

Gal-dem

The Runnymede Trust resources

‘Let Them Drown: the violence of othering in a warming world’ chapter in ‘On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’ by Naomi Klein

‘Episode 102: Empire State of Mind: overhauling the history we teach’ by ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ podcast

‘Episode 59: Black Revolution and Whiteness Psychosis with Kehinde Andrews’ by ‘Under the Skin’ podcast

The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

 

Here are some works that I am yet to start:

‘How to be Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi

‘Brit(ish)’ by Afua Hirsch

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Davis

‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black women and feminism’ by bell hooks

‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

‘Hamilton’ by Lin Manuel Miranda

 

I am absolutely in need of more recommendations, particularly films, so please do send me anything that you are aware of that will help me in my learning.

Love Note – Corona-party

On Tuesday 17th March 2020, I was told at 15:20, after a full day of teaching, that my placement was to be suspended with immediate effect. At this point, I am aware that my course will continue with online learning and seminars, that I have up-coming assignments that I will need to prepare and I have a stack of journal articles to read, but that I will be housebound for the foreseeable future. This has presented me with something of a paradox: being at home is both unnerving and reassuring; liberating from the busy-ness of normal life but may also create a void of emptiness that will leave me climbing the walls. As such, I am doing my best to come up with a daily routine of interesting things to do that will keep me calm. I think that, in spite of all the chaos, this is a really pertinent opportunity for me to dig into some of my interests and hobbies, learn some new things and keep staying curious. At this point, and it is still early days,  I have three books on the go, which I can barely believe myself, I am filling my days with interesting tasks and activities that prevent me from binging on television, and I am keeping positive and cheerful in light of a perfect storm of governmental confusion, media confusion and general upheaval.

‘What Would Boudicca Do?’ by E. Foley and B. Coates

Boudicca

This was a New Year’s gift from a dear friend and is a fun whistle-stop tour of remarkable women from history. I have decided to read a chapter a day over the course of whatever it is that is happening (am I self-isolating, in quarantine, living out a course suspension? Who knows). So far, I have read condensed histories of Boudicca and Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomorrow, Mae West. The book is fun, digestible, full of nuggets of important intersectional feminist history and reading just a chapter a day gives me something to look forward to for tomorrow.

Duolingo

Duolingo

I downloaded and started learning through Duolingo before the corona-party started, and I am now even more committed to keeping at it. Currently, I am refreshing and building up my French and I have started learning Welsh from scratch. I was inspired to start by a friend who is on a 200-day streak and I loved his commitment to the cause. Additionally, I was stunned by the fact that whilst I’ve been chugging away nonchalantly speaking, reading and writing in English alone, over half the world’s population is bilingual. Language learning is going to become more and more essential for Britons, especially in light of our new (sob) relationship with the EU, so I think it’s important that learning new languages and, by proxy, understanding the cultural contexts of different countries and their peoples, becomes more of a priority. French has always been of interest to me (I have delusions of grandeur about moving to Paris) and Welsh is an important part of my own personal heritage. My mum is a native speaker, as is my Grandma on my Dad’s side. Hilariously, they speak different dialects so can’t communicate with one another. Nevertheless, learning Welsh has been an absolute joy. I can just about tell people that I am a vegetarian from memory (dw’in ddim yn bwyta cig) and it is just delightful learning how to speak and write a language that so liberally uses the letters ‘w’ and ‘y’. Duolingo isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need it to be right now: good for my brain, good for my cultural awareness and a diversion from binge-watching TV. Speaking of which…

The Good Place, Netflix *slight spoilers*

The Good Place

Of course a bit of Netflix was going to feature. MW and I are on the final series of this hilarious sitcom that incorporates trashbagism with the central tenets of moral philosophy. The writing is sharp, effortlessly condenses complex philosophical ideas into twenty minutes segments, has truly mind-blowing twists and a range of characters that I absolutely adore. Up there for me is Jason Mendoza, a hapless dimwit from Jacksonville, Florida, who has a heart of gold. Jason is one of the most stupid and naive characters I have ever encounterd but is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent. Whilst head haunch Michael has to scam and manipulate everyone else to get them to do the right thing, Jason is receptive, honest and the most in touch with what he needs. Our time with the show is coming to an end and I am going to miss it enormously.

Going for a walk

The Park Nottingham

MW and I went for a half an hour walk around the Park Estate in Nottingham today. We saw the first of the cherry blossoms coming out; a cute dog with a bandage on its paw who was still tugging its owner along; beautiful Lady-and-the-Tramp Fothergill architecture; my favourite cedar tree; and we talked about everything and nothing. It started trying to rain at one point and we both arrived home with rosy cheeks. Going for a walk was such a nice break from the work of the morning. We felt refreshed by it, we’d had some good exercise, and it helped us to disengage from our screens.

Staying connected

Meme FINAL

I don’t mean this in a mindless, compulsive way: more like checking in with friends and family members on a regular basis, if you can. I have had hilarious and lovely chats with my mum and Grandma today, as well as touching base with a variety of WhatsApp groups where the memes, bad jokes and cute pet photos are flowing. I think it would be quite easy to become very insular and isolated at this time. As much as it is nice to hole up for a while, we need to stay connected and active in a healthy way. Additionally, we need to be mindful of the isolation others may be feeling, particularly older people who are having to self-isolate. Age UK run a befriending service that I volunteered for last year, and I am sure they would appreciate more people signing up at this time. I wrote more about the importance of building relationships with older people here

 Yoga with Adriene, YouTube

Yoga With Adriene

As many of you know from my incessant ramblings, I have sworn by Adriene Mishler’s YouTube channel for years. It is free, full of warmth, wisdom and fantastic yoga practices, and is a go-to for grounding and exercise. Life is always uncertain, but we are experiencing that all the more keenly at this point: yoga is an amazing way to breathe into the uncomfortable feelings, emotions and sensations that may arise, especially if you are prone to anxiety. Her 30 day yoga journey, released in January and prophetically entitled ‘Home’ (where I am spending an awful lot of time at the moment), is one I will be gravitating towards. She also announced today a new yoga playlist that contains videos of practices that pertain to uncertainty and crisis. Just twenty minutes of tuning into my breath and dropping down into my body makes such an incredible difference to my day.

Pema Chodron

Pema

I couple my practice with reading a chapter of Pema Chodron’s ‘The Places That Scare You: a guide to fearlessness’. Chodron is a cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom and guidance, encouraging us to see our fears, anxieties and stuck points as opportunities for growth, self-knowledge and integration. Instead of pushing away or resisting old patterns that no longer serve us, we can get to know them, allow them to pass through, and grow our compassion for ourselves and, as a result, all human beings. We all struggle. We all have our edges that push us to our limits. In this time of collective uncertainty, chaos and fear, we have a real chance to see our lives clearly: we may not like what we see, but that’s OK. It’s better to be conscious of our choices than to live in ignorance or stuck in cycles of self-abandonment.

Music

Music

Over the past couple of days, I have revisited a lot of my musical favourites. I was partially inspired by Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ which was an absolutely delight. Since then, I have been listening to Father John Misty, Bob Dylan, Sade and Agnes Obel, with a little bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber thrown in (he did a Twitter poll for a song to perform and ‘All I Ask Of You’ from The Phantom of the Opera cam out on top. The whole thing is lovely: check it out). Normally at this time of the year I have my annual Stravinsky Rite of Spring binge due to the impending seasonal transition: it definitely still freaks me out even after all these years, but I wouldn’t be without it. I have started reading Tolstoy’s description of the Russian spring in Anna Karenina as a companion to Stravinsky. The violence and the vibrance of spring, with its renewal and rebirth, is both excruciating and profoundly beautiful.

 

N.B

I genuinely believe that coronavirus is forcing us to re-assess our social structures and our places within them. At no other time has such a compelling case been made for Universal Basic Income; the free childcare labour of grandparents has been shown to be so underappreciated; the undervaluing of the NHS, teaching, and ‘low skill’ jobs such as cleaning and delivery work has been exposed and challenged; rates of pollution dropped in China because of lockdown etc. This is a confusing and uncertain time, but it can be a fascinating time. I think it is giving us the chance to evaluate what most certainly is not working for us and what we can change in the most positive way. Business as usual wasn’t working before coronavirus, it certainly isn’t working now, and we would be fools to let this opportunity to enact progressive, socially aware and compassionate policies post-coronavirus to just slip away. I am not completely fluent in politics, I don’t know what the right answers are; but it is clear that we are in a unique situation where we can move to build a fairer, more just world where everyone is taken care of. I wish that people would stop worrying about market volatility as though it were something that wasn’t invented and perpetuated by humans in the first place. Let’s build something else.

Love Note – Yves Saint Laurent photo reel

This week has been, in a word, intense.

I went on the hen weekend to end all hen weekends last week (6 hours sleep in 48 hours); in a related move, I am now hideously ill and was confined to my sickbed all day yesterday sneezing, coughing and croaking my way through seminal teen film ‘Clueless’ and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell; and I started my PGCE in English on Monday. There are emotions, curricula and pathogens flying all over the place in this house.

As such, and whilst still in the thick of my pity party, I am going to post the photos from my trip to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Paris. We’re in the thick of Fashion Month, with Paris just round the corner, so it feels pretty time-appropriate; plus there is nothing like pretty clothing to raise your spirits when you’re spluttering your way through multiple life transitions.

So here we have it, Yves Saint Laurent, with his epoch-changing Mondrian dresses, elegant evening wear and exquisite accessories. I also managed to get a snap of his reconstructed studio and design notes, which made the whole experience even more magical and intimate. If this doesn’t pick your spirits up on a rainy day, I don’t know what will.

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Love Note – Avocado Carbonara

This recipe is Shrek-green, super tasty, quick and easy to make. It is also ridiculously healthy but doesn’t taste like it should be, which feels like winning.

Enjoy!

Ingredients (enough for 2 servings)

¾ of a packet of wholewheat spaghetti (you can work it out)

Two avocadoes

One big clove of garlic (two clovers if smaller)

2 tbsps of olive oil

2 tbsps of lemon juice

1 tsps of basil

2 tsps of parsley

A generous amount of soy/nut milk

Pinch of salt

Pinch of pepper

4 salad tomatoes

Sundry sunflower and pumpkin seeds

Method

  1. Cook spaghetti. I like it slightly al dente. At the very least, make sure it sticks to your wall.
  2. Plop the garlic, olive oil and lemon juice into a food processor/ Nutribullet
  3. Whizz them up until the liquid is creamy
  4. Add the avocados, basil, parsley, salt and non-dairy milk and whizz until the mixture is creamy
  5. Once the pasta is cooked, drain the water and pour in your green carbonara mixture
  6. Stir and combine so that no pasta is left dry
  7. Dice the tomatoes into tiny pieces and stir into the pasta. Include the tomato juices from cutting: it tastes very fresh and we don’t want waste!
  8. Sprinkle seeds
  9. Serve up
  10. Top with pepper
  11. Eat

Avocado Carbonara

 

Masculinity in crisis: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Trigger warning: this essay has mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

From the cultural grapevine, I came to be aware of The Catcher in the Rye as both a young man’s coming-of-age-story and, through fraught and bitchy Twitter threads, that liking this novel, in particular men liking this novel, was a hallmark of being a ‘nice guy’ or possessing generally bad literary taste. I don’t take my cues from what my fellow literature graduates lounging about on Twitter say is good or worth reading, but I can honestly say that I did avoid The Catcher in the Rye until recently. I am a big fan of American Literature and writers: Maya Angelou, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Maggie Nelson, Nathaniel Hawthorne are big favourites,  and the length of Salinger’s novel is hardly anything to get stressed about. Yet, the novel does carry somewhat of a baggy reputation for centring on a privileged young man getting into scrapes in New York and being generally ‘rebellious’. Like Jessie Thompson, in an essay for Penguin, it didn’t necessarily feel like a priority for me to read it.[1] That was, until, my boyfriend told me it was one of his favourite books. In fact, the first time I had a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye was with a friend at university; he said that it was the sort of writing that made him want to write. How could it be that two men I knew well, trusted their opinions, could like a novel that was elsewhere reviled and pointed to poor cultural taste?

At the beginning of the summer, I read the novel for the first time. What I found was sardonically funny, obviously full of angst, but also a profoundly moving piece of writing. I read the story of a young man who feels at odds with the world around him, who sees education as pointless in a world of privilege and bullshit; who suffers from intense self-hatred, and finds his only solace in the company of his sister and some nuns. Although Salinger has Holden Caulfield compare himself, through negation, to David Copperfield, the nineteenth century figure he reads most as an iteration of, I would argue, is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, the plots of these novels are very different, but the same disillusionment seeps through both. Where, however, Raskolnikov fashions his antipathy, anger and resentment into murder, Caulfield directs his inward; as much as he hates the world and the people in it, famously using the moniker ‘phonies’ to describe people throughout the novel, he struggles with himself the most. So much so, he tends towards self-harm: having obsessive thoughts about being shot (‘what I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors- holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place’), purposefully winding people up so that they’ll hurt him (the fight with Stradlater on p.39 sees Caulfield provoke a violent response for two pages), and wandering around Central Park in the freezing cold having wet his head, thinking about his dead brother Allie, ‘pneumonia and dying’.[2]

Not only did this novel move me, but it became obvious that reading it was vital. I have long joked about ‘masculinity in crisis’ when I see or experience sexist behaviour, and I think it is as important to laugh at the likes of Donald Trump as much as to resist and protest him, his disgusting ideologies and all that he represents, with anger and derision. However, it is important that we do have serious, constructive conversations about masculinity and what it means to be an emotionally healthy man. In The Catcher in the Rye Caulfield is explicit about his depression, stating that ‘what I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window’. It could not be clearer that Caulfield does not see his life as worth living. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, after hastily leaving his old teacher Mr Antolini’s apartment after an incident verging on sexual harassment, Caulfield reveals that ‘when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it’.[3] It is heavily suggested here that he has suffered sexual abuse and harassment as a child which, along with the trauma of losing his brother and seeing a fellow student kill himself, serves as an understandable and very deep root for his depression and disaffection. This novel is not the ramblings and larking about of a ‘rebellious’ teenager, even though it is at points dry and funny; it is about a young man struggling to cope with a plethora of horrifying events. It surprises me that the novel has been, by certain factions, culturally maligned; almost in tandem with the way in which men’s mental health has been diverted from and underplayed since time immemorial.

And yet, what is so beautiful about The Catcher in the Rye is that in spite of Caulfield’s trauma and his anger with his peers and the adults in his life, he evidently cares a great deal about his sister, Phoebe, and children in general. Phoebe is integral to Caulfield’s happiness, and he finds support and comfort in her: ‘Old Phoebe didn’t say anything, but she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something’.[4] Phoebe is presented as an old soul in spite of her youth, who will give him the space and time to talk and be heard. He refers to her repeatedly throughout the novel, even buying a record for her pre-emptively, before accidentally breaking it. He tells her that the only thing he ‘wants to be’ in life, is stood at the edge of a cliff:

‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day’.[5]

Caulfield effectively tells Phoebe that he wants to act as some kind of protector or safety net, preventing children from falling to their deaths whilst they are running around and having fun. In spite of all of the pain he carries around with him, Caulfield is ultimately someone who wants to help, who wants to be of service to others, in particular those who are young, innocent and temporarily free from the trappings and traumas of adulthood. It is a really noble aspiration. This cements the idea, for me, that this is a novel about a young man having serious difficulties orientating himself in a world that has made him suffer, full of people who do not acknowledge his and, most likely, their own pain.

*

When I first planned to write about The Catcher in the Rye, I thought a worthwhile comparison could be made with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel with a challenging and dark insight into depression, trauma and recovery in a young woman. This novel shook me, scared me and deeply connected with me when I first read it in 2014. I think it is important that if we take the representation of mental illness seriously in The Bell Jar, the same gravity should be extended to The Catcher in the Rye; it should not be undermined because it focuses on the suffering a young, white man. When we are living in the middle of an epidemic of young men taking their lives, understanding the root cause of such terrible pain is essential.[6] As such, I am reluctant to draw the two into such a completely direct conversation here, because I do not think it is wise to compare and contrast the experiences of mental illness between men and women in the space of a blog post. The roots of both, I believe, lie, to an extent, in the way in which patriarchy and capitalism prioritise a rampant toxic hyper-masculinity that leaves no place for the more traditionally feminine realm of feelings and emotions. Compounded with trauma, loss and the myriads of emotional pain that a human being is able to experience, depression and anxiety abound. Of course, men and women experience all of this in different ways, and it is important to remember and honour that distinction. Luckily, something else came along only this week that offers a much keener opportunity for comparison of masculinity, whilst also, clearly acknowledging Plath and the experience of women.

NFR

On 30th August 2019, Lana Del Rey released her sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! It is brilliant in so many ways and whilst I’ve loved all of her work, her interplay of satire and authenticity in this album is at its most sophisticated. Upon listening to it, I noticed that the people and relationships she discussed were separated and mingling between several positions. We had Del Rey’s typical ‘golden bad boy’ and ‘a sad girl in a mess in a party dress’ dynamic; we also have a withering partner who half-lovingly mocks her ‘man-child’ partner who indulges and wallows in his own misery, blaming his bad poetry ‘on the news’.  But we also saw something more obviously serious. We have repeated references to a man struggling with his wellbeing and sense of self in ‘California’, a man who pretends to be stronger than he is, who wishes he was ‘doing better’. In the same breath Del Rey presents a woman who is a fixed point of strength and comfort, telling him ‘And honey, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should / You’re brighter than the brightest stars’. She acknowledges the pressure that this man is under to appear and conduct himself in a certain way in the world, in particular as a strong, cool man who has no insecurities or worries. She is there to tell him, from a position of acceptance, that he is OK, just as he is.

Del Rey expands on this further, and gloriously, in ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’. She tells her partner ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / Don’t look too far, just where you are, that’s where I am / I’m your man’. This is such an important, playful line because she holds the position of a healthy, anchored woman in this relationship, and yet refers to herself as ‘your man’. It harks to the Leonard Cohen song ‘I’m Your Man’, where Cohen unpicks what it means to be a man in a romantic relationship, by effectively declaring to his partner that he’ll be anything she wants him to be: ‘If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man’. Of course, in a healthy relationship, such a degree of self-effacement is problematic, but Cohen’s play with what it means to be a man is nevertheless important. What both singers suggest is that what it means to be a healthy man is a lot more fluid, and maybe, perhaps, feminine, than a dominant patriarchal culture suggests. By feminine, I don’t mean necessarily a defined gender category, but something more archetypal: that which is nurturing, loving and spacious; as opposed to the masculine that is determined by boundaries, order and discipline. All of which, I might add, are absolutely fine and necessary. However, when what is masculine is privileged and prioritised culturally and societally, these morph into authoritarianism, perfectionism and aggression and their offsets: disdain for emotion of any kind, depression, isolation and alienation. In Norman Fucking Rockwell! Del Rey suggests that the conception of hyper-masculinity that her lovers struggle with can be deconstructed; similarly, she presents herself, in these songs at least, as an embodiment of both masculine and feminine, yin and yang; a grounded, integrated woman in a position to offer support, understanding, protection, love and hope. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a limiting conception of what it means to be a woman or a man, but are archetypal facets that exist in and embody all human beings, no matter which gender you identify with.

As such, we can see that it is, perhaps, not an accident that Holden Caulfield turns to the comfort of his sister and some nuns during his deepening existential break down. As esteemed Jungian psychotherapist Marion Woodman suggests, over centuries we have culturally disavowed, repressed and persecuted the feminine; and yet, the feminine is what we need and yearn for to bring balance to the patriarchal shit show that continues to cause such violence and misery. It was so in the 1940s of The Catcher in the Rye as it is today, as explored in Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After meeting the nuns and giving them money, Caulfield says:

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about those two nuns. I kept thinking about that beat-up old straw basket they went around with when they weren’t teaching at school […] that’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway’.[7]

He compares the nuns with other women he knows, his mother and his friend’s mother, who would not get involved with any charity work akin to the nuns’ collecting, if it meant standing out in the cold, being bored or not getting any recognition for giving up their time (or, as Caulfield describes it, ‘the only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass’). I would argue that Caulfield feels sad because the nuns, their charity, their kindness to him and their interest in literature (all displayed in the previous chapter) are marginalised and excluded from ‘swankiness’; the trappings of patriarchal capitalist society, with its expensive restaurants, and its hierarchies predicated on wealth and social class. Furthermore, on a deeper level here, I think he mourns the superficial incarnation of femininity in women that props up the hyper-masculine status quo that being ‘swanky’ represents. He feels sad that the simplicity, honesty and good faith of the nuns is not rewarded or as valuable as status.

Of course, Del Rey’s conversation about masculinity and femininity does not end with ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’: she pertinently turns her attention to the specific suffering and demons that women carry with them. In the album’s last searing and deceptively simple waltz ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, she references The Bell Jar writer by name, as she has been ‘ tearing around in my fucking night gown /  24/7 Sylvia Plath’. Like The Bell Jar, which is full of the vague promises offered by fashion magazines, internships, graduate school and ski trips (the ‘swanky’ mentioned in The Catch in the Rye), in this song Del Rey references the vacuous but toxic draw of superficial perfection: the world of debutantes, pink dresses, bright smiles, yachts and all. She does not find belonging in that world, instead finding home on the stage. And yet, she softly sings that she is ‘A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got / Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off /A gatekeeper carelessly dropping the keys on my nights off’. This suggests that in spite of the work she has done to represent everything that a modern woman should- success, renown, independence, sexual freedom and financial stability- she is still plagued late at night or when she feels emotionally and spiritually weak by the monsters under her bed. The insecurities, fears, shadows and darknesses of psyche that, to an extent, we can never fully get rid of. The song is a defiant ode to the womanhood that is so rejected in patriarchal culture, but also a tentative and terrified look into the malevolent eyes of the difficulties, restrictions and fears women live with and have learnt to internalise.

I believe that The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Fucking Rockwell! speak to each other well on this important issue of masculinity and male pain. I consider the two to be allies in this regard. I think it is important that both texts highlight the potential of the feminine to relieve suffering: if men and women are going to be free from both subtle and overtly blatant violence and injustices of patriarchy, a re-examination of what it is to be a man is essential, which involves re-integration of the much maligned feminine (think about every single time a boy has been told not do x ‘like a girl’). I think a cultural re-reading of The Catcher in the Rye would be extremely useful, so that we can collectively learn not to minimise men’s pain, reducing it to ‘rebelliousness’ or simply angst. Furthermore, I think it is important that Del Rey has made the effort to distinguish clearly between the different types of male and female pain, whilst presenting so many positions and perspectives on her album. She has been careful to not pit men and women against one another, weighing one type of pain or suffering as more important, which I think is a very mature and brilliantly-handled.

 

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/jun/i-thought-catcher-in-the-rye-was-just-for-obnoxious-teenage-boys.html

[2]The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, (London: Penguin, (1958) p.93; p.140

[3] Ibid., p.174.

[4] Ibid., p.151.

[5] Ibid., p.156.

[6] ‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male’ https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/suicide/ [accessed 4th September 2019].

[7] Ibid, p.103.

Rodin and the politics of sculpture

I didn’t start deeply caring about sculpture until I saw Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.[1] Prior to that visit, I had a vague admiration for Barbara Hepworth, but found more enjoyment in her abstract painting Winter Solstice:

BARBMy dad had also instilled in me an appreciation for Anish Kapoor, whose Sky Mirror is pride of place outside the Nottingham Playhouse theatre, and who created a rusty horn bursting out of the immaculate gardens of Versailles in 2015:

 

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On a very basic level, I just didn’t understand sculpture. A childhood filled with questionable pottery lessons chiselled down my interest in the form, even though I have long thought of all art as important. Just because I did not feel able to understand sculpture did not mean that there was nothing to it. For a long time, sculpture did not have the appeal to me that painting, film and other art forms have.

However, it was seeing two figures entwined and necking that really captured my imagination and re-framed what I thought sculpture was all about. I am sure there are many wonderful sculptors that I am overlooking in this capacity, that Rodin is an unimaginative choice to fawn over and that I am probably incapable of conveying academically why I think Rodin’s work is so brilliant, and yet here I am. A critic of art and art history I am not, but I am an enormous fan and advocate for both, and I am inspired enough to write a little something about some works that I have really connected with, starting with The Kiss.

Whilst in Paris earlier this month, we visited the Rodin museum on the Left Bank and it was perhaps the best museum we went to all holiday. The sculpture garden is endlessly dreamy and the chateau, Rodin’s home for a time, was charming and delightfully  littered with Rodin’s sketches, plaster casts, practice sculptures and works he’d collected himself, including pots and fragments from antiquity, as well as a couple of Monet , Munch and Van Gough paintings dotted about. The Kiss was here too:

The Kiss

We can see, as with many of Rodin’s marble sculptures, that he was influenced by Classical figures from Ancient Greece. And yet, in his portraiture of people through sculpture, Rodin does not merely recreate or appropriate Classical styles. He uses Classicism as a base note, but goes on to mold his ideas through the language of limbs, faces, the fluidity of bodies in a way that is nothing other than modern. It is hard to comprehend just how challenging the blatant sexuality and passion of this sculpture would have been to receive at the turn of the century when it was produced. Additionally, the sculpture seems to have been carved with a nod to what Charles Baudelaire described as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ that defines modernity:  as with many of his sculptures, Rodin employs here the technique of juxtaposing the smooth carvings with marble left rough and rugged, not just at the base, but rising up and between the intricately rippling bodies. It appears the exquisite smoothness of the marble is reflected in the unbridled intimacy of the figures kissing, a flicker of bright, divine and transcending light bursting out of the obscurity of what is rough and earthly. And yet, the figures could so easily return to rubble. By maintaining the rough marble and bringing it into the structure of the figures kissing, Rodin has created a piece of work that recognises the transitory moment of modernity: the Classical-style bodies occupying the eternal and the marble left rough indicating the flighty present, nigh-on impossible to pin down.

This is an idea that is seen everywhere in his sculptures: in the marble with what is jagged and uneven left propping up or invading the figures represented, or in bronze where forms rise out of the molten into something vaguely less fluid. What I loved about Rodin’s bronze work was how these majestic figures rise from the oneness of liquid bronze embodying the impulse and awkwardness of individuation and self-determination. To show this, Rodin ensured that he injected quirks and oddities in his work to create a sense of visual discomfort. In one sculpture, the head- the centre of Cartesian rational thought and the Jungian ego-mind- is heavy, too heavy, as though burdened with the constant, revolving noise of the mind, dangling awkwardly to the side and creating one long awkward line from the neck across to the shoulder.

Awkward Rodin

Elsewhere, a sculpture leans over slightly too far; it looks uncomfortable, like the sculpture is in danger of falling: the arms are flung out as though for balance; emergent from what is whole and one, bursting forth but still reliant on the whole to provide it with strength and structure. In these sculptures in particular, I would argue that Rodin could be making a criticism of the modern world, defined as it is by commodity capitalism, where the drive and inevitable fallout of being an individual, separated and alienated from the collective, is mired in suffering, contortion and pain.

Leaning Rodin

The final sculptures that really stood out for me were a series of bronze sculptures called The Monument to the Burghers of Calais, made in 1887. These six sculptures commemorate six dignitaries who surrendered themselves and the key to the city of Calais to the King of England during the One Hundred Years War. I was neither familiar with these works nor the story surrounding them until our visit to the Rodin museum. On display were the six grouped together, as well as the six individual sculptures dotted around elsewhere.

Burghers Six.jpg

There are lots of ideas and emotions conveyed in these sculptures, the predominant being incredulity, despair, sadness, dignity and acceptance. Some of the sculptures are fully clothed, regal in their gait; others are naked and exposed. The Burgher that stood out to me the most was naked, arms outstretched, enquiring and admonishing, barely believing the cruelty of his own fate and asking on-lookers, at the time and of tourists traipsing around the Rodin sculpture garden whether we are going to settle for the injustice that attempts to quell and control us.

Burgher naked

They felt pertinent to me at the time for a number of different reasons: because I have such a limited knowledge of the One Hundreds Year War; that they are a reminder of the suffering that has occurred throughout history that I feel barely able to comprehend or quantify; and of the vulnerability of being a human being, tossed around and seemingly inconsequential in the rough seas of man-made war, devastation and chaos. Here, again, we can see why art is so important. The attempt to capture these seemingly obscure men from a time long since past is both an act of remembrance and an act of resistance. What fools we are if we believe that the turmoil we face today has not been passed down, like a chain of trauma, throughout the generations. Art offers us the insight and the ability to cut through the churned up homogenous events that we might call ‘history’; to give us the mirror and the platform to reflect and re-think our assumptions and orthodoxies. It is and always will be vital; no wonder the Tories don’t want people studying it.

On a day like today, where the British government, helmed by Boris Johnson, has decided to prorogue Parliament, I think about the Burgher of Calais sculptures: I think about the Burgher standing with his arms outstretched imploring his viewers to think about who they are and what they are doing; I think about the frosty-faced Burgher, handing of the keys to the city, a metaphor for freedom, both personal and societal, a moment where freedom is now longer a gift or a right, but something that has been forfeited. Maybe it is no coincidence that I am more attracted to sculpture at this present cultural moment. We are living in a time where our freedoms feel so much more restricted, that large societal forces, whether it’s Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, the Government, fossil fuel companies and others, are hell-bent on controlling us, harvesting our data, relentlessly trying to sell us things and destroy our planet. In sculpture, we see space being claimed and occupied. Much like Rei Kawakubo’s iconic fashion house Comme des Garcons, whose pieces verge on the sculptural in every single collection, there is power in sculpture’s ability to take up space, be large, voluminous, making it impossible to ignore. Maybe the Kapoor sculpture at Versailles was my biggest clue before my full on awakening with Rodin. Kapoor’s disruption of the sanctity, historical and otherwise, at the clipped and coiffed Palace of Versailles, appealed to me and began to broaden my understanding of what sculpture does. Our ability, as tourists, to take photographs of the pristine lawns and fountains was disrupted by this rusty looking horn, which had erupted out of the ground, churning up the grass. The stronghold of France’s ancien regime and absolutist monarchy was ripped up, long after the first flickers of revolution in the 18th century. I enjoyed the frustration.

The radicalism of sculpture lies in its ability to take up space and to morph and manipulate visual reality. What I love specifically about Rodin’s work is that it revolves around people and their bodies, making his work deeply vulnerable, personal as well as political. I was greatly impressed by his work, highly recommend the museum in Paris, that is completely self-funded, and relish future opportunities to explore and learn about sculpture. In these times where the world becomes scarier and where democracy and freedom do not feel or look like absolute givens, sculpture is an art form that offers challenge and defiance.

Le Penseur

[1] Two sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, together amassed an enormous collection of Impressionist and 20th century art, 260 works in total, which they then bequeathed to the public. The collection is on display and free to access in the Welsh capital. I can’t recommend it enough.