Monday, 24 May 2010

Immediate reaction to Lost series finale.

Um, spoiler alert. Obviously.

So it's been a little less than an hour since I finished watching the End of Lost and I've had a little time to mull over it. Did I like it? Was it a satisfying conclusion? What did it all mean? Well, since I want to work through my thoughts on these weighty matters a bit, I thought I might as well share them with you.

First off. Can people stop saying "they were dead all along"? There is absolutely no reason to believe this. They were dead all along in what we've been calling the 'sideways universe'. We were led to believe this alternate universe split off from the original one when Juliet detonated the bomb, and it was an alt-verse in which the incident never happened, the hatch was never built, the plane never crashed, etc. That was revealed not to be the case, and the sideways universe was in fact simply an afterlife for all the Losties to catch up with each other before they headed off into Heaven or whatever.

Anyone who watched it in hopes of a grand unifying theory explaining what the island was and why it was so mystical, and anyone who tries to extrapolate such a theory from this finale, is fundamentally misguided. The show's creators previously said that the only question they felt they had a responsibility to answer was the one posed in the final season - i.e., the sideways universe. That's what they did. Of course there's still a lot of mystery surrounding Lost, but I think that's for the best. When the questions are directly answered it can be clumsy and unsatisfying. "Oh hey Michael. Are the whispers the ghosts of dead people?" "Yeah." "Oh. Sweet." No one can claim that was a satisfying scene, and if all our questions had been answered in the finale it would have looked like that scene extended by two hours.

So, what happened? To paraphrase Daniel Faraday, everything that happened, happened. Knowing that the original universe is the only true one makes things a lot simpler. Sawyer, Kate, Claire, Miles and co. flew off the island. Jack stayed and died. Hurley stayed and became the island's protector. Ben stayed as his second-in-command; the new Richard to Hurley's new Jacob. Desmond, presumably, took Locke's boat (though wasn't it Penny's boat all along?) and went back to his constant. At some point, everyone died. And even though they all died at different times and in different ways, they were still all together at the same time in the afterlife. That's just how it works. It's an afterlife, it doesn't really need to make sense.

Now onto some problems. There were notable absences from the church at the end: Michael and Walt. What could this be about? It seems unlikely that the actors' relationship with the show made it impossible for them to return - remember we only saw Michael a handful of episodes ago as a ghost. I have a more complex theory about why Michael wasn't there that would take too long to go into, so for now, let's just remember that Hurley and Desmond came across Ana Lucia in the episode before, and when Hurley asked why she wasn't coming with, Desmond said she wasn't ready. Clearly, there are Losties who weren't supposed - for one reason or another - to be at the church with the rest of them. It's not a very satisfying explanation, especially since the producers obviously pulled the stops out to get characters like Shannon and Boone back, but it can tide us over.

Speaking of Shannon. Is anyone else bothered by the way her post-death reunion with Sayid was portrayed like their one true love when the show has consistently been pushing Sayid and Nadia as the epic love story? No? I saw some commenters wonder if Sayid saying "the only thing I ever wanted died in my arms" as referring to Shannon and I thought they were being stupid, but now it seems like they might have been right, and that kind of negates Nadia's existence, which bothers me.

There are things about the alt-verse which sit uncomfortably with it being an afterlife. Like the fact that Jack and Juliet had a child together and yet never had any of those flashing "OMG I REMEMBER YOU" moments... or the fact that they were even a couple in an afterlife which primarily involved distorted or inverted versions of real-life events and relationships. And as an explanation in itself, I found it a little disappointing. I was hoping that the two universes were going to merge in some way that left everyone better off, and that still made sense. But I guess having one "real" universe that still involves extensive time travel is probably enough for us to be dealing with.

I'll round off with a few things I loved. The glorious return of Vincent! Kate saving the day in the end after 6 seasons of being a generally disappointing lead female character. The line "Christian Shepherd? Seriously?". Benjamin Linus in general. Sawyer and Juliet's reunion, even though it did turn out to be post-death.

All in all, I think it was satisfactory as a finale. Of course there are still loose ends, and it's those that we fans will have plenty of fun trying to get to grips with when we obsessively rewatch our dvd box sets over and over again, but it did enough. It felt like a proper goodbye - not least, of course, because for the characters it really was. I understand frustration that the finale didn't live up to the general epic awesomeness of what Lost has been over the last six years, but really, no single episode could have done. We just have to take what we got and be able to, finally, let it go.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Boys save the world, girls get a manicure: naming and shaming David Lloyd York

Here's something I came across at my gym (David Lloyd York) earlier.
I had to shrink it down to fit it on the page, so here's a clearer version:

Now, I have issues with my gym in the first place. It sends out an unbelievable amount of messages enforcing the idea that thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, thin = morally good. But I tell myself that this should come as no surprise, this should be nothing more than we expect from a gym. After all, they directly profit from their customers' self-loathing and self-recrimination about their weight and appearance. Here, however, David Lloyd are actively pushing the most outdated and face-palmingly stereotypical ascriptive gender roles possible, and worse, they are pushing them on children - and as far as I can tell they are doing it for no particular reason.

Now, hopefully I don't need to explain why this is problematic. But I am going to spend a little time deconstructing how it is, by pulling out the different threads that feed into this offensive poster and examining them each more closely.

Value of the activity

Let's look again at how the invitation is extended to the boys. "We need you to save the world!" Now, any adult reading this poster knows that the two activities offered to the kids on the basis of their gender have no major difference in value. They're both means of keeping the children occupied for a while so that their parents can relax. David Lloyd doesn't really need little boys to save the world. But the activity they undertake is loaded with value by the advertisement. The boys are told, and are encouraged to pretend, that their playtime will save mankind. Pretty empowering stuff! Fed ideas like that, they might just grow up and go into the world believing not only that they can make a difference, they'll know that they're the right people to be making a difference.

Let's try and find some value assigned to the activities for the girls.


In contrast to the boys' section, there is nothing here to suggest that there's any reason, value or purpose in undertaking the task of being a princess. All we're told is that girls will love it! You hear that, girls? You. Will. Love. It. Now sit down and enjoy your pedicure, goddammit.

Focus on attractiveness

I'll just comment on this quickly, since it's so obvious. The activities appropriate to being a girl involve prettying oneself up - not for any particular reason, just because it's what girls do and it's what makes girls happy. Going back to the assessment of value, in so far as they are permitted to achieve something valuable (becoming a princess), the only way of achieving it is by heightening their physical attractiveness. Again, awesome message being sent out here to young children.

The boys, meanwhile, have no reason to believe their physical attractiveness will make a jot of difference as to whether they can become superheroes and save the world. Woah, it's just like being a grown up!

Nature of the activity

Here that classic old gender dichotomy of passive/active rears its head. Sexists throughout history have employed the idea that men carry the vitalising force of life, while women are mere vessels, to justify and underpin their ideas. So it should be no surprise that what boys are given to do involves actually doing something - flying leaps! karate chops! round house kicks! - and probably making a lot of noise and a lot of mess while doing it (which will of course all be forgiven, because, you know, boys will be boys). Meanwhile, as alluded to before, the girls are required to sit still and be demure and have things done to them. There shall be no running around: that might mess up your hair and make up.

Along similar lines, the boys are encouraged to exercise their skills of creativity by designing their own super hero outfits. At the end of the day, there will be something they can take home and keep, knowing that they made it and put something of themselves into it. The girls will each be presented with "their very own crown". Except it's only their own in so far as someone else is deigning to give it to them. Yay?

A final note here: traditional male gender roles are just as damaging to equality as female ones, primarily in the way they promote violence and aggression. Fittingly, these are endorsed equally here alongside the equality-damaging female gender norms - what the boys are actually doing is being taught to fight.

Approach to food

This point might seem petty, but anyone who has had a troubled relationship with food (which I expect will be the vast majority of women reading this, and relatively few men) ought to be able to appreciate why I bring it up. We're told "obviously saving the world is hard work, so the boys will have fresh fruit, crisps and drinks to sustain them." The high level of physical exertion the boys will have undertaken in their extremely valuable task demands that they be fed; they'll need food to replenish their energy after all that saving the world. This treats food as exactly what it is: a form of nourishment that we need to balance out the energy we expend.

Girls, on the other hand, will have "fresh fruit and crisps to nibble on". Not only does their form of activity not require any energy replenishment, they are only permitted to eat in a particular manner: in very small amounts, in a ladylike fashion. They're not to devour their crisps or wolf down their fresh fruit. They may nibble, and then they may collectively shame themselves about the calorie content of what they've just eaten - oh, sorry, passed into grown up world there for a second.

The gender complement

Has anyone else noticed how the two roles assigned to boys and girls here fit together perfectly? The boys will be super heroes, and the girls will be princesses - and we all know that the main ambition of a princess is to be rescued by a man. It's not just gender roles that are being taught here, but overtly heterosexual gender roles. The kids have to be reminded that the proper behaviour of boys and girls fits together perfectly and naturally! How else would they learn that the only right kind of partnership is that between a man and a woman? You know, other than from all the messages they receive every day from the media and society in general.

Now, you might think, perhaps I'm coming down too hard on David Lloyd. After all, what they aim to achieve is giving parents a break from the toils of childcare, and since that's primarily undertaken by mothers, this is kind of good for gender equality, right? And besides, there's always that gender-neutral option of a movie night at the bottom! If parents don't want their kids to grow up fitting strictly into the received notion of what men and women are supposed to be, or if their children are a little resistant to being superheroes or princesses, they can watch a movie. So there's really no need for all this fretting. Right?

I thought that at first too, but then I figured I should pay the gender-neutral option as much attention as I paid the other two, and having done so I'm not so sure whether it's a positive alternative. It's the option "for the kids who just want to chill out". In the boys' case, I assume, this means the kids who are too lazy to want to do flying leaps and round house kicks, or too apathetic or cynical to be duped into thinking these things will save the world. For girls, it's the only alternative to spending the evening primping yourself to achieve maximum physical beauty. So, if you're a girl who doesn't feel so great about the way she looks, maybe you'd rather "chill out" at the movie night.

I don't think it's a coincidence that "lazy" and "physically unattractive" both correlate to "fat" in our culture (and even more so in the culture of David Lloyd, as I mentioned at the very start). After all, look at how food is presented here - very different to both the sustenance model of boys' eating and the nibbling model of girls', what's on offer here is gorging oneself. "Endless amounts of popcorn and soft drinks" is rather different to the balanced combination of fruit and crisps offered elsewhere, and the fact that it's endless is presumably intended to appeal to the crowd of childhood overeaters. This isn't so much a gender-neutral alternative as it is an alternative for the boys who are too lazy or fat to be super heroes and the girls who are too ugly or fat to be princesses. What's implied is that you can't choose to opt out of ascriptive gender roles, you can only fail at living up to them. (Again, we recognise this in grown up life - remember how all feminists are ugly, hairy, alone and bitter?)

A final note - I mentioned at the outset that David Lloyd are pushing gender roles on children for no apparent reason; they don't have an obvious profit motive here, as they do when they try to convince their adult customers they are too fat. But it occurs to me that not only is it for no reason, it's also counterproductive to their own line of business. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least half of David Lloyd York's clientèle are female. Telling a little girl that physical activity is only for boys, and what she ought to do is sit quietly and have her nails done, is hardly going to encourage her to grow up to be the kind of person who pays an extortionate amount of money to use a gym (which involves physical exertion, and getting sweaty, ew, and messing up her hair, omg!). Western society spent a lot of time thinking that women were too frail and delicate to participate in physical activity; I'd like to leave that in the past, and it would be in David Lloyd's best interests to do the same.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Maybe Do It Nick: Why a Lib-Cons coalition might not be as terrible as we imagine.

As I write, the top trending topic on Twitter in the UK is #dontdoitnick. It seems most Lib Dem supporters, and doubtless all Labour supporters, oppose the idea of Nick Clegg selling his soul to the Tories for a slice of the government pie. Most are actively supporting the alternative of a Lib-Lab coalition. There are good reasons for feeling this way; the ideological chasm between the Lib Dems and the Tories is just cause for doubt over whether there can be a coherent platform for the two parties to stand on; the Tories and the ideas they represent are generally reviled by Lib Dem voters; the two parties clash on major issues, and the concern is that the only "concessions" Cameron would make to the Lib Dems are policies he is already on board with, like scrapping ID cards. But I don't think Clegg should be warned off this coalition quite so quickly, and for several reasons.

1) Electoral reform

So, we know Cameron & co. are against PR and against electoral reform in general. In his "big, open and comprehensive" offer to the Lib Dems he did not bring to the table the one thing they really want - his offer of an all-party committee of inquiry amounts to nothing (Jenkins, anyone?). But I think it'd be premature to assume that this is non-negotiable. If Clegg makes a referendum on electoral reform the single necessary condition of an alliance, Cameron might have to reconsider, given that Labour have offered this on a silver platter. And if electoral reform was achieved, the face of British politics would be changed forever - and in the Liberal Democrats' favour. Yes, we would have to put up with playing second fiddle to an unpleasant government for a few years, but beyond 2015 there would be real representation for Lib Dems, not the systemic unfairness that means 23% of the vote gets us 8.7% of the seats.

"But," the Twitterverse cries out, "the Lib Dems will never trust Clegg again if he betrays us all and coalesces with Cameron! PR will do nothing to help them when their supporters all abandon them!" Well, if they do, they'd be foolish to. Our electoral system as it stands prevents the Lib Dems from ever being anything more than a third wheel in the Labour-Conservative relationship - they have no power and relatively little influence. Being part of a government coalition would mean recognition and would make it possible for some of their policies to actually be implemented. As a small third party, the Lib Dems have approximately zero chance of getting electoral reform through, or any of their other policies. Why are Lib Dem supporters so quick to turn their back on something that would ultimately benefit them?

2) Cameron's proposed compromises

This brings me to my second point. Let's assume Cameron gets his way and a Lib-Cons coalition is entirely on his terms - that means no electoral reform, no budging on Europe, immigration or Trident. What he has suggested he's willing to compromise on is the tax system. Remember that the Lib Dems would raise the threshold of the lowest band of income tax to £10,000. If Cameron caved to this, not only would it mean one of the most important and fairness-centric Lib Dem policies getting through, it might also give us a reason to hate the Tories slightly less in the first place. Isn't the reason we're all so opposed to them at least partly because they represent the vested interest of the richest in society? Bringing in left-wing tax policies ought to counteract at least some of that revulsion.

3) What is the alternative?

A Lib-Lab coalition undoubtedly makes more sense ideologically. Both parties sit on the centre-left of the spectrum and share core values, and there would be much more room for agreement. Plus, Labour sorts are quick to point out, more people voted against the Tories than for them - it's simply unfortunate that the centre-left vote was split between two parties, and to get a true representation of the electorate's feelings, those two ought to bind together. This is, however, problematic. There's something counterintuitive about suggesting that the people who have the right to govern are those who came second and third in the contest, and Clegg's ostensible reasons for trying to negotiate with the Tories - that it is the right thing to do in terms of democracy, and that he alone ought not to be the kingmaker - are on my view very good ones.

However, there are tactical reasons as well as reasons of principle to favour a Lib-Cons coalition over a Lib-Lab one. Let's assume a Lib-Lab coalition results from the hung parliament. Based on current election results (with only one seat left to declare, which will not do so until 28th May) it would comprise 315 seats out of 650 - not even a majority. They would have to bring MPs from at least two other small parties on side in order to create a working majority. This is probably doable, so let's say they get to the requisite 325 seats. That majority would be so tentative, and met with such a large Conservative opposition, that getting anything through - let alone radical Lib Dem policies - would be very difficult. Any small back bench rebellion would throw it off kilter. Someone who wants to see Lib Dem policies implemented would probably not end up preferring this state of events, even though the coalition itself makes more sense.

Plus, Labour isn't all happy fuzzy rainbows and puppies. One of the few policy areas that the Lib Dems and the Tories share ground on is also one of the most important for the Lib Dems - civil liberties. A Lib-Cons coalition would emphasise this and we might see some real steps to counteract Labour's appalling record. There would also be something dispiriting about voting for change in the form of the Lib Dems and getting it in the form of a coalition which gives primacy to the party that's been in power for 13 years. Labour have a lot to answer for, not least in the Middle East, and for some Lib Dem supporters (though probably a minority) propping up a Labour government would taste almost as sour as bolstering a Conservative one.

Let's also remember that if Clegg does not side with Cameron, Cameron might look to form a temporary minority government and then re-call the election in hopes of getting an outright majority, which he would have a pretty good chance of achieving. Then we would be much worse off - electoral reform has a snowball's chance in hell of getting past a Conservative majority, and the Lib Dems would be relegated once more to the position of insignificant minority third party, their policies once more dismissed as implausible, unworkable and just plain mad.

I am no Conservative, and I don't mean to assert that a Lib-Cons coalition is definitely the best option for the country. I know there are good reasons why it may not be. I've simply tried to identify some reasons why it is a genuine option that should not be dismissed out of hand, and one that might end up benefitting the Lib Dems in a real way - and why the alternative might not be so rosy. Undoubtedly there's more to be said on the issue, but I think I've rambled on sufficiently for now. Commence commenting, trolling, flame wars etc.