Category Archives: Rants

Movies: An Evil Empire

I went to a Literary Circle event last night, even though it did involve passing over the threshold of a (gasp) Public School. I think I managed to get away with it. I don’t know where UCS hide the fags, canes and terrified first years, but they do it quite well.

Melanie Phillips and a chap called Zia something were discussing America, imperialism and the usual suspects (war in Iraq, Israel, yadda yadda). Zia says in his book, and said at the debate, that American imperialism manifests itself differently nowadays. Rather than invading and occupying countries and exploiting them for cash, America colonises via films, TV and music. He gave the example of Malaysia, where TV networks prefer to broadcast The X-Files rather than locally made programmes about local issues. He said this was unfair, because obviously the X-Files has higher production values and more people want to watch it.

But I don’t think you can blame the US for that. It’s not the fault of Americans that they spend a lot of money on making movies and TV. It’s one of their major exports and they make a good profit on them. Would you rather drive an American car or watch The Sopranos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Quite. If ordinary Malaysians would rather watch Mulder and Scully than local TV, they are not alone. Regional programming in the UK usually has tiny viewing figures as well.

Zia is, I think, being unfair to America and is using his own definition of imperialism. If well meaning Malaysian TV makers aren’t going to provide it, then the networks will simply buy stuff in that many people want to watch. Buying The X-Files is far cheaper than making your own version and it’s not America’s fault: people like bread and circuses.

His argument also falls a bit flat when one looks at Bollywood and the newly emerging Nigerian film industry. Using the Hollywood format, films are produced locally (with lower production values stemming from a necessarily limited budget) that are immensely popular. He may claim that this is cultural imperialism by stealth, but this is unfair. People want escapism. They want the fantasy that a Hollywood/Bollywood/Nollywood movie provides and to decry this as imperialism is to deny a basic human need.

For an intellectual, the idea that an ordinary person enjoys all this dancing about and decadence and actively prefers it to a boring programme about local crafts can be upsetting, but this is daft. Yes, an intellectual may be harder to please, but look at it this way: most academics are middle class, whatever country or cultural background they may hail from. By their nature, therefore, they are comfortable. They do not have to strive to put food on the table, keep their families safe and provide them with clean water. So I would argue that they (and I count myself amongst them) have less need for the bright colours, music and the window onto a different and better world offered by the American entertainment industry. When global poverty has been eradicated, and everyone has access to sanitation and education, then we can whine about the X-Files being popular in Malaysia.

In conclusion, I am confused by Zia’s definition of imperialism as producing a product that people want. There’s no Clockwork Orange forced viewing scenario here.

Hunting

I was listening (not intentionally) to Any Questions this evening. One of the panellists made a relatively mild comment about hunting (suggesting that it wasn’t great for foxes). Suddenly all I could hear was a braying, booing, hissing noise mixed in with incomprehensible shouting. The pro-hunt brigade had clearly been waiting for their opportunity.

In between my digital radio’s pops and crackles, I gathered that the poor toffs are very upset and were claiming that they were being discriminated against. Apparently disliking them is just like being homophobic – they are a persecuted minority. Aww. The panellists were either intimidated or had been advised not to aggravate the hecklers: they made some feeble concilatory comments about how the government had better things to do, and were quickly moved on to the next question.

Now, I used to ride. I used to live near a hunt. Despite invitations, I refused to combine the two. I can understand the attraction of a gallop across the countryside but I can’t see the point of killing a fox at the end. I *do* understand “country ways” – rotting tractors, cesspools, a “beware of the bull” sign on the gate one opens to *leave* the field… As well as having lived there myself, my sister works in the “country” for the Environment Agency and so is well aware of the realities of farmers’ lives. I find it impossible to feel sympathy for these bleating fools.

“You don’t understand our country ways”, they claim. Well, I know it’s not tremendously representative but in my and my sister’s experience most country folk don’t really like hunts. They damage farmers’ land and have been known to charge across school playing fields. Ever seen a playing field after 25 horses have galloped across it? You won’t be playing croquet on it for a while. It’s worse than the damage caused by a public school rugby union team.

As for the claim that hunting is effective pest control: I can’t believe they think anyone will fall for that. Humans invented firearms to avoid having to chase things around. Spending the whole day going after one fox with a bunch of toffs, horses and dogs surely can’t be the most efficient way of dealing with foxes. Fox – gun – bang. All over in time for lunch. The Netherlands has had a hunting ban for over 50 years and I have to say, on my last visit I didn’t notice hordes of foxes rampaging across the Dutch countryside.

Pro-hunters will also declare that the government has better things to do than ban hunting. I must admit, I do agree slightly, but I’d also add that if it weren’t for the Lords, the hunt ban wouldn’t have taken much time at all. The Lords’ banning hunting is like chavs voting to ban fags and TV, so I do understand why they’ve been so obstructive. However, the majority of the UK population disagree with fox hunting. I have a colleague whom I use to get the opinion of the man on the Enfield omnibus – I was surprised to hear him attack fox hunting so vehemently. This is a chap who reads the Sun and doesn’t like “them immigrants” (from a second generation Greek Cypriot, this is quite amusing), not a woolly animal rights lefty.

Hunts might contribute a little to local economies, but I’m afraid since we invented cars, we haven’t needed horses and their accompanying paraphenalia so much. One man claimed that he was going to shoot all his dogs on TV if hunting were banned. That someone so clearly psychopathic was allowed to keep animals at all was quite disturbing. I hope he doesn’t have any children.

I’ve also heard the claim that foxes kill for fun. Clearly the implication here is that a fox is a moral agent and therefore should receive punishment for its actions. We have an urban fox who likes to rummage through our rubbish and intimidate our bunnies – sometimes I leave food out for it because it’s cute and fluffy, yet I know what foxes can do and have lost a pet chicken to one. That’s nature for you. Animals were put on trial in Medieval times, so I assume that the people who make this claim aren’t quite with the times and don’t know that this practice ended at least 500 years ago. I’m ignoring the really obvious point here…

When you get down to it, hunting is about abusing an animal for pleasure. Yes, it’s a fun day out galloping round the countryside, but at the end of a successful hunt a wild animal is ripped to shreds and eaten by dogs. It makes me think of the NAMBLA episode of South Park, where an apprehended NAMBLA member protests about the discrimination he suffers. Kyle repeatedly reminds the man of what it is he actually does.

Unlike any ethnic, religious or sexual minority, hunters choose to hunt. They choose to engage in a pastime that most people find repellent. If I spent my weekends torturing puppies to death, I’d end up in court. If I sit on a horse and watch my dogs torture a fox to death, that is currently OK.

Oh, and the claim that the anti-hunting bill is a tool of class warfare? If it is (and I doubt it), so much the better. Hurrah for class warfare. I’m not jealous of the aristocracy: what would be the point? I can never be a part of it, and not just because I didn’t go to public school. I feel entitled to be jealous of someone wealthy who’s earned their money, since I might be able to do that but clearly haven’t – but to be jealous of someone who earned a fabulous fortune simply by being born? It’s not worth the effort.

“The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. Quite.

Keeping up with the Cool Girls

There was a survey in yesterday’s Metro (yes, that’s the Mirror, but I couldn’t find the Metro one) saying that British women spend over 4bn a year trying to look like celebrities. That’s the GDP of an impoverished African country, spent on hair extensions, manicures, fake tans and ridiculous clothes. Apparently women want to look like Sienna Miller. The only things I know about Sienna Miller are that she must be posh, with a name like that, and that she’s shagging Jude Law. Beyond that, I have no idea who she is or what she does. She looks rather boring – I certainly wouldn’t spend 400 on having my hair done like hers.

Back in the mists of time, I remember many short-lived playground fads, started by the cool kids and slavishly followed by everyone else. For a while, everyone was obsessed with Trillions, little tiny sweets that my mother wouldn’t let me have as they were a choking hazard. A few months later, all the cool girls had hideously realistic baby dolls that they would nurse at breaktime. My Little Ponies followed, and we would sit together in little knots, combing their spun plastic hair. Lo-Lo balls, a device consisting of a waisted beach ball with a circular platform on which you stood and bounced, were popular for a while and the cause of many lost teeth. Needless to say, my mother wouldn’t let me have one of those either. When I taught kids myself, Pokemon cards were the thing to have. Genuine distress would be caused if Butterfree went missing.

You may have noticed a proliferation of nail bars and beauty salons in the last couple of years. The grooming business is booming as the celebrity press (OK, Hello, Heat et al) have gradually revealed the secrets of the stars. We discovered that the Hollywood red carpet dresses were held together with double sided sticky tape. We found out that the lustrous golden hair proudly tossed by that singer was in fact someone else’s hair, glued on to her own at vast expense. We realised that the all-year tan that gave that soap star her special glow was in fact fake tan – a chemical sprayed onto the skin that reacts with sweat to make an orangey dye. The cover star of a men’s magazine doesn’t in fact own the fantastically toned thighs she displays. Recently we’ve all learned that Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t spent the weeks since giving birth doing enthusiastic press-ups and in fact simply wore two pairs of highly elasticated control knickers to hold it all in.

I’m sure the initial intention was for us to mock the stars. Could we still admire them as remote goddesses when it was revealed that the proud cleavage displayed in that complicated dress was in fact an artful construction of blusher, silicon pouches and sticky tape? The celebrity press pulled back the curtain and showed the little man operating all the levers and pulleys.

But instead of realising that celebrity women are, in fact, just like everyone else and can be ignored rather than worshipped, it appears that ordinary women used this information to try and be even more like their heroines. Posh Spice gets her nails done twice a week – off they all go to the salon. Christina Aguliera has an airbrush tan – they obediently schelp off and pay 50 to stand in paper knickers whilst a complete stranger sprays them with some weird smelling stuff that makes them orange. The accessibility makes one closer to the celebrity one aspires to be. You may not have their beauty or their talent, but you can use St Tropez too. Pass me the Lo-Lo ball and Pokemon cards.

I first became aware of all this during the Juicy Couture phase about a year ago. It seemed, for a while, that every celebrity woman was papped (having your photo taken by the paparazzi) wearing a sort of velour leisure suit with a hooded jacket and hipster trousers, displaying the obligatory two inches of firm belly. These outfits cost around 100-150 and whilst not cheap, were certainly in reach of anyone with a credit card. Pretty soon I saw them everywhere: on school run mums in their Challenger Tanks, sorry, 4x4s, on the orange women on Mill Hill Broadway, down the pub… For a while I toyed with the idea of getting one myself. I tried one on and fortunately, being one of the Little People, looked utterly ridiculous, lost in folds and swathes of burgundy velour that cascaded over my wrists and feet.

What happened then is quite interesting, if you’re still following all this. Juicy Couture, the tiny American design house that started the trend, was doing very well out of the tracksuits but losing their celebrity clientele. Madonna and Kate Winslet don’t want to look like the woman on the Edgware omnibus. Without their endorsement, Juicy would soon fade, so they extended their range. Most designers start a “diffusion” range, making their brand accessible to normal people. Juicy couldn’t do that – they needed to appeal to the very rich. So they re-made their signature outfit in cashmere and charged 500 for it, and began making very pricy baby clothes. All they then had to do is give a few outfits away, make sure they were seen on the right person, and bingo. Ordinary women would still buy the velour version, still imbued with the celebrity cachet. Juicy turned the designer diffusion concept on its head.

It’s fantastically cheap advertising for manufacturers and retailers – send Sienna Miller your dress, she wears it, your name is mentioned, the cash rolls in. Sometimes Ms Miller will get to keep the stuff – depending on how much it cost – sometimes she’ll have to give it back. There was a green Chloe dress that was on the front cover of a lot of magazines over the summer and worn by Kylie Minogue at a premiere – I can almost guarantee that it was the same one. Tesco produced a copy that sold out in days, and I’m pretty sure Chloe sold out of the real version too.

Now that we have a surfeit of famous people thanks to soap operas and reality TV, a whole industry has sprung up to exploit the resource. PR companies can use ex-Big Brother contestants as mobile billboards, one step up from adorning Formula 1 drivers’ jumpsuits in dozens of company logos. Soap actresses can take time out from drunkenly falling out of cars to claim they use a particular shampoo or lipstick in return for some free stuff. Stylists on photo shoots in need of something to dress their celebrity in can phone a clothing company who’ll courier round some stuff they’re having trouble shifting, in return for a namecheck.

This self-perpetuating industry will only end either when the burden of debt becomes too great for UK women or when they finally realise that what looks good on Madonna probably won’t look good on them. Yes, they exploit a lot of tricks to make themselves look thin, but they can also afford personal trainers and private chefs to make them genuinely thin. Yes, you can buy the dress Catherine Zeta Jones wore, but you still won’t have her money or her lifestyle, nor will you be in the situation where a designer will design a dress specifically for you. You can use Christina Aguliera’s fake tan, but you probably won’t be able to sing like her.

I think modern British women need to consider what it is about famous people they really admire. If it’s simply the products they use and the clothes they wear, then surely the whole thing is pointless. Newly financially independent, they are being milked for their cash and don’t seem any happier for it.