Saturday, 13 February 2016

101 Day Nation

It’s official. As of yesterday, Justin Trudeau made it past his first hundred days as Prime Minister.

CBC ran an in-depth analysis and opened a public forum to get public feedback on the overall impact of the changes since Trudeau’s nouveau majority took over from Harper’s long-reigning Conservative government. Granted, the forum was little more than an open-ended comments section but apparently Trudeau’s 100-day anniversary warrants a fancy title that empowers Canadian readers. It is 2016, afterall.

Those who bought into Harper’s “Just Not Ready” election campaign are probably surprised Trudeau made it this far at all, as if they expected him to step down from office in favour of a snowboarding trip to Nelson, BC. The guy is in his mid-40s, has a wife and three kids, and is a six-year veteran of parliament. Yet, throughout the election and even into these first hundred days, his critics still try to paint him as some young, artsy hipster; a laissez-faire Prime Minister who’s soft and terrorism and thinks legalized marijuana is ‘groovy’.

“Question period is such a drag! Come on, Soph’, let’s pack up the kids and blow this popsicle stand,” he implores, snowboard in one hand, Mountain Dew Code Red in the other.

Critics want you to think Trudeau’s first hundred days, much like his political career, are defined by his relatively young age, his flawless hair, the legacy of his name, or his natural, effortless charm. Certainly, those things all help in developing the much-needed cult of personality. To that end, he’s thriving in Canada’s pallid political landscape for two simple reasons: 1) He acts human; and 2) He treats Canadians like people. He offers both scripted and non-scripted responses to reporters. He shows excitement over geeky stuff, like when his family was treated to an early screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He interacts with members of the general public using what I’m sure Harper would describe as ‘an alarming level of natural human emotion’. These aren’t radical concepts, but Canadians have been so conditioned by a decade of Harper’s robotic speeches, pre-loaded media statements, and metallic blue gaze, that Trudeau’s warm smile is a welcome reprieve. Compared to the former --- I love typing that --- the former Conservative Prime Minister, yes, Trudeau is the young, hip, artsy Prime Minister: Harper was a Blackberry 8700 with a sliding keyboard, the phone of the business class; Trudeau is an iPhone 6S with a handcrafted, sustainably-sourced, bamboo case. Canadians opted for the upgrade.

Depending on how you measure successful social and foreign policies, yes, you might see Trudeau as a big softy. Do you think military force is the only reasonable approach to dealing with strained foreign relations? Do you consider every dead terrorist a moral victory for democracy? Is Reefer Madness your favourite documentary about the scourge of marijuana on society? If you answered “Yes” to all of the above, you’re probably not particularly happy with Trudeau’s first hundred days in office --- I’ve never claimed to be psychic or anything, but you’re probably not going to be thrilled about his next hundred days… or the several hundred after that.

As far as old school politics goes, Trudeau’s campaign and political outlook have already ruffled a lot of feathers: he’s advocating for transparency within government, he’s giving government-funded scientists the right to publish and promote their findings, and he’s taking a pro-active approach to social issues such as gender equality and decriminalizing marijuana.  No, I’m not here to give Trudeau a reach-around; I’ll leave that to the international media, who seem to court him like Canada’s Next Top Debutante --- swooning as he enters the ballroom, showered in soft light, an innocent glimmer in his eye. I’m simply pointing out that he ran on a platform of changing how things were done politically, and he seems to be following through, despite what will certainly be a monumental level of resistance from the old guard.

In the three-plus months since the November election, Conservatives have finished licking their wounds and attempted to regain their footing by pointing out imperfections in the Liberals’ armour. Interim-Conservative leader Rona Ambrose certainly deserves credit for her sustained and multi-faceted opposition tactics in parliament, but it’s hard to take her seriously when most of her criticisms can be directly attributed to ten years of federal Conservative mismanagement. Meanwhile, Canadians --- both supporters and detractors --- seem to think Trudeau’s stance on various social and political issues, from gender equality to the plight of Aboriginal communities and Canada’s military role in international conflict, is little more than far-left idealism. In reality, these policies are only game-changing relative to the rules established by the Conservatives during their time in power: deny wrongdoing, be divisive, maintain the status quo.

For a lot of political pundits and conservative critics, Trudeau is becoming somewhat of a political iconoclast.  In the face of the Conservative’s “Just Not Ready” election campaigns and jealous jabs at his undeniable boyish good looks, he was unflappable. Since being elected, it’s been more of the same. When his political opponents get past the ageist and superficial criticisms, the new Liberal style of governance is still causing a significant ideological rift. He’s making promises that, on the surface, seem to be geared towards improving all Canadians’ lives, rather than bowing to corporate interests and towing the line of historically oppressive social structures. His message has been fairly clear and consistent: “The Conservatives were in charge for ten years; we don’t like what they’ve done with the place and neither do a majority of Canadians. You’ve given us this chance, and we’re trying to do things differently.”

As a testament to that, his first real decision as Prime Minister was to establish gender parity in parliament. For better or worse --- yes, there’s room for debate over the merits & experience of specific cabinet appointees --- Trudeau promised equal representation among men and women in the Liberal government, and he delivered. He also cobbled together a decent level of diversity, including members from aboriginal/First Nations heritage, Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent, and those with physical disabilities. When asked why he made a point of doing this, his simple, mic-dropping response was, “because it’s 2015,” to which Canadians overwhelmingly responded, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” and snapped their fingers sassily.

Similarly, where the Conservative government played up the complexity of the Syrian refugee crisis by politicizing its tenuous --- nearly non-existent --- connection to national security and domestic terrorism, Trudeau approached the issue in simple, matter of fact terms: A) Syrian refugees are being murdered and displaced by ISIS and the Syrian government; B) If we use our money and resources to bring them here, they won’t be murdered; C) We should bring them here. It’s the Canadian thing to do.

And maybe that “agent of positive change” attitude is indicative of where we stand after the first hundred days under the fresh-faced Liberal majority. They remain undeterred by the closed-door politics and isolationist sentiments still lingering in the wake of Harper’s time in office. Although they’ve already fallen short on a couple of promises --- even the most optimistic, pro-immigration supporters saw the “25 000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2015” as an unrealistic projection --- it seems their overall goals are bigger than any individual policy. Rather than governing Canada in a traditional sense, they seem legitimately dedicated to using their leadership status to, well, lead Canada towards a brighter, equitable, and more inclusive future.

Whether or not Trudeau will succeed in reaching those lofty goals remains to be seen.  Has he surrounded himself with the right people to ensure they stay on message with mounting public scrutiny? Can he leverage what’s left of the tar sands money to pull the economy out of its tail spin? How will he react to the added pressure once the Conservatives finish the rebuilding process? (Not to diminish the role of the NDP, but I’m pretty sure the first time I’ve seen Mulcair since the election was when he popped his head out his burrow, saw his shadow, and declared six more weeks of winter).

Realistically, the first hundred days of any government are more of a test drive than a significant measure of success --- if we’re being honest, it’s been barely enough time for the Liberals to roll down the windows and steam clean the old Harper stank out of the seats.  It’s hard to say what will happen in the coming months, once the alluring new car smell slowly fades from Trudeau’s luscious locks. But I figure, we gave Harper nearly 3600 days before we sent him to the shop for his regular oil change, we may as well give the Liberals another hundred or so.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Pro-Wrestling, Politics, and Playing Donald Trump

“Well, I’m done.” 

The words slip out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to properly process what my eyes are absorbing. 

For the first half of my life, I thought Donald Trump was a character specifically designed to fill the loud, rich New Yorker stereotype.  Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, he made cameos in everything from “The Mickey Mouse Club” to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. At that time, my still developing brain recognized all the defining attributes of “Donald Trump” the character - the suit, the hair, the attitude - but failed to understand that Donald Trump the human being existed outside of his interactions with Kevin McCallister and Will Smith.  

Now, I’m watching three young girls --- maybe 8, 9, 10 years old --- wearing glittery, American flag-inspired skirts and halter tops, dancing and singing on stage at a Donald Trump political rally. Luckily, I’m not attending the rally in person. I’m sitting at my computer watching the video on YouTube. Had I been there live, I would have promptly been asked to leave when the no-doubt uber-conservative attendees heard my initial reaction. 

“Wwwwhat… the… ac-tu-al… fffuck?” I say aloud as I type the words in the comments section.  With the words immortalized on my friend’s Facebook wall, I can go on with my day, knowing that my perfectly concise opinion will be available to all future viewers in perpetuity. “Thank Christ,” I sigh, as the video comes to a merciful end. 

Immediately, I click ‘play again’.

By the time I finished high school early in the new millennium, Donald Trump had developed an object permanence within the collective pop-culture psyche.  His dystopian caricature of American entrepreneurship became a staple of reality TV via “The Apprentice”, where he berated up-and-coming professionals while ignoring the fact that his own record as an investor and entrepreneur is one of the worst of any “successful” businessman in modern history.  Around the same time “The Apprentice” was hitting its peak viewership, Trump diversified his media image by developing a scripted feud with the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Vince McMahon, another rich businessman with iconic hair and a big mouth.  Throughout the 90s and 00s McMahon had created a reality-blurring TV persona and developed an antagonistic on-screen relationship with WWE wrestlers and fans.  In January 2007, McMahon was giving a self-indulgent “Fan Appreciation Night” speech on Monday Night Raw --- the WWE’s weekly, primetime event --- that was eliciting wave after wave of jeering and booing from the live audience. Out of nowhere, Trump’s spray-tanned visage appeared on the big arena’s big screen.  Trump berated the WWE President, claiming that he was out of touch, and that there was one thing the fans wanted but which McMahon would never give them: his money. With that, thousands of dollars --- yes, actual American currency --- dropped from the rafters of the arena into the audience, which erupted in cheers and whoops.  The hook was that Trump had stolen McMahon’s money, but in re-distributing it to the WWE fans, he had stolen something much more valuable: McMahon’s spotlight. It wasn’t that Trump was playing a ‘face’ --- wrestling shorthand for ‘good guys’ --- so much as he was trying to out-do McMahon’s megalomaniacal self-indulgence. Having been sucked in by McMahon’s ‘heel’ persona, the ensuing Trump-McMahon feud was the first and only time I would ever campaign in Trump’s favor.  

As I hit play on the YouTube video for the third time, I can’t help but wonder how many child labour laws have been bent, broken, or ignored in the process of creating USA Freedom Kids, the collective name of the three child performers on stage. I think back to old VH1 music documentaries and A&E biographies describing the tyrannical Joe Jackson, manager and patriarch of The Jackson 5. The stories of his strict rehearsal sessions include forcing his children (most famously, Michael and Janet) to practice for hours without breaks, depriving them of sleep, and administering physical and emotional abuse at the slightest misstep or forgotten line. I have no immediate evidence to assume the Freedom Kids are subject to this type of exploitation, but my mind is already playing through hypothetical interview clips of their “tell all” Netflix documentary, tentatively set for release in 2030. Then again, it’s appropriate that Trump would hire these pint-sized performers to open his rally. He is promising to create American jobs, after all.

When Trump announced that he was running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US elections, I was actually excited. The on-screen and in-ring conflict between him and McMahon --- dubbed the "Battle of the Billionaires" --- culminated in a “Loser Shaves His Head” bet at “Wrestlemania 23”, the WWE’s premiere pay-per-view, in April 2007. Trump bet on the winning wrestler that night and famously shaved McMahon’s head in the middle of the ring, much to all WWE fans’ delight. Now, after years of watching various self-promoting cameos on the big and small screen, I’d finally get to see the real Trump, America’s favorite tomato-in-a-five-dollar-wig, make a proper ass of himself on a national stage. Throughout his public career, he’d already exhibited a trademark pig-headedness by pushing the “Obama Birth Certificate” issue long after it had been put to rest by right wing media and even the most stubborn Republican supporters. I hoped that giving him a headlining slot in the US political circus would be equivalent to witnessing a fireworks factory burning to the ground: chaotic, explosive, and wholly self-destructive.  And, if we were really lucky, maybe Trump and Ted Cruz would have a similar, WWE-style ‘Loser Disappears from Public View Forever’ bet. 

By the fourth viewing of the YouTube video, I’m swaying my head back and forth to the droning beat of the song. It’s categorically generic and inoffensive, yet catchy in a nursery rhyme sort of way. I imagine Trump’s campaign manager asking a focus group to decide which key they feel is ‘most patriotic’ and which time signatures appeal most to uninformed white Americans: “Mr. Trump, constituents in your key demos seem to have the strongest connection to A Major… Yes, sir. I’ll inform the Freedom Girls.”

Trump’s persona - and, by extension, the foundation of his political platform - is a genetically mutated abomination consisting of American imperialist ideals, Cold War-era patriotism, and a wild west mentality. He promotes himself as a successful, independent businessman, despite the fact that he’s filed for bankruptcy, received government bailouts, and invested in a professional football organization with the intent to compete head to head with the National Football League. (Spoiler alert: It failed miserably.) His supporters applaud his ‘tell it like it is’ attitude, even when his version of telling it like it is involves flagrant misinformation and thinly veiled racism bookended by phrases like “Make America great again!” 

At viewing number five, I catch myself singing along and start laughing uncontrollably at the horrible propaganda being spewed by these smiling, pre-adolescent children. As you’d expect from a troupe called USA Freedom Kids, about 50% of the song’s lyrical content is comprised of the words “Freedom” and “USA”.  What you might not expect are lines that demonize “cowardice” and calls on “our boys” to “take down… enemies of freedom” while promising to stand up for “Ameritude” - which, according to Trump, is totally a word.  As the song goes on, the whole situation - the flag-themed outfits, the sing-song melody, the vague pro-America lyrics - reveal a canvas that’s alarmingly reminiscent of World War 2-era USO tours, where the flashy outfits and dance numbers distracted troops from the fact that many of them would never see their cherished homeland again. Fortunately, this is also the point where I convince myself that the girls are lip-syncing the song, and I take some solace in the idea that maybe they never actually had to learn the pro-Trump lyrics.

The WWE and other professional wrestling organizations brand themselves as “Sports Entertainment”, because they blend the physical endurance of legitimate sports with the long-form dramatic narratives of classic soap operas. The storylines and outcomes of the matches are predetermined far in advance of the actual ‘fight’, but the choreography of each match is generally left up to the individual wrestlers. Yes, the moves are mostly fake, but one of the key contributors to a wrestler’s success is his or her ability to ‘sell’ these loosely choreographed moves in the moment.  “Selling” a phantom punch to a live audience of 20 000 rambunctious fans requires the perfect balance of physical impact (stomping your foot on the mat to make a crashing sound as you throw the punch) and emotional melodrama (dropping to the ground while groaning in exaggerated agony). I can’t help but wonder how many hours the USA Freedom Kids spent practicing each arm-wave, hip-shake, and twirl, in much the same way professional wrestlers spend hours practicing to ‘sell’ dropkicks, clotheslines, and finishing maneuvers. Whether these Freedom girls are aware of it or not, they’re selling something much more dangerous: Donald Trump, the phantom candidate, and “America”, the phantom dream. 

I watch the video for what must be the tenth consecutive time and begin to envision a world where Trump wrangles enough fear-based votes from misguided patriots to win the election, becoming the supreme tomato-faced overlord of our neighbours to the south. The USA Freedom Girls become the top-selling artists of all time, putting Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles to shame. “The Trump” hairstyle sweeps across the nation, becoming 2016’s answer to the “man bun”. 

I close the YouTube video before these thoughts spiral out of control.

“Okay, now I’m definitely done.”

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Removing the Star from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Considering a lot of the serious global issues out there, it might seem trivial to bitch about a fictional movie character being left out of cash-grabbing merchandise. But, the pervasive influence of toys and games (as an extension of the greater influence of pop culture) in childhood development is hard to deny.

The Force Awakens is a great, fun movie. Rey, played perfectly by Daisy Ridley, is a strong lead who, despite her intentionally mysterious and vague backstory, will clearly be a lynchpin in the new Star Wars mythos. Moreover, she's a multidimensional, nuanced character who breaks a number of female stereotypes over the course of the movie.

Knowing this, it's an absolute travesty that Rey, a key character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is being left out of a number of game and toy lines tied to the movie, namely a set of Target action figures, and now the newest incarnation of Star Wars Monopoly.

Under normal circumstances, even the most incompetent toy/game manufacturers would still include the top 3-4 characters in any line of merchandise so fans can have a chance to collect, own, and play using their favourite characters. As io9 points out, it seems like manufacturers are intentionally leaving out primary female characters, which would be laughable if the same was suggested for a male character of similar stature. Think of not including a Chris Pratt figure in a Jurassic World playset.

Okay, yes, I'd bet that there are still more boys playing with male action figures than girls playing with female action figures. So, without getting into the gendered toy/gendered play side of things too much (that's a debate for another day), I'll admit the case for representation can quickly become a chicken-or-egg debate.

BUT, if we're really supposed to believe that The Force Awakens is a step in the right direction for relevant female representation in sci-fi/action and blockbuster movies, that representation has to translate to merchandise as well. Sure, there are lots of better ways to empower little girls that are less focused on consumerism, but as long as we’re playing the consumerism game, they should at least have the opportunity to play the game with strong female characters as well.

Update: After the internet lost its collective mind at the absurdity of leaving out the protagonist of a movie, Nerdist is reporting that Hasbro has announced that Rey will now be included in the game. While Nerdist tactfully states "Unless there are any other changes, she will be the only female character token," I think Hasbro would prefer to say, "Things will not change and she will be the only token female character."