Category Archives: Media review

Rajnikanth and Politics – A Few Words

Everyone has an opinion about whether Rajnikanth should enter politics, and as a self-proclaimed fan of the actor, I have one too. SPOILER: I think he should enter politics, but not in the way everyone thinks. Before I explain my point of view, let me explain the context in which this debate takes place.

A (Very) Simplified Recap of Tamil Nadu’s Politics

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu’s politics effectively rejected national parties in favor of regional parties that emerged from the Dravidian movement. CN Annadurai’s call for strengthening the state around linguistic lines as opposed to a disconnected central government swept through generations of people who would identify themselves as either of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which means the party for advancement of the Dravidians, or its alternate, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was a breakaway formed in 1972 and named for former Chief Minister CN Annadurai. The two parties have produced seven Chief Ministers over half a century and their tug-o-war moves between phases of development and welfare schemes. The passage of time has bred discontent cynicism in the people as allegations of corruption, nepotism and neglect of long-term state-development took root.

Former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu

Rajnikanth and the 1996 Elections

At the peak of anti-Dravida party sentiment, Indian National Congress leader GK Moopanar broke away from the national party to form a Tamil Manila Congress (TMC), a state-centric party. His clean image and popularity received a boost from support by Tamil cinema’s leading man, Superstar Rajnikanth. An alliance between the TMC and the DMK came to power in 1996 and many credited the actor for turning the tide decisively against the incumbent government. This may not have been an overstatement considering the longstanding ties between the cinema industry and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both chief ministers from DMK, CN Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were successful writers who had written many socially motivated plays and cinema that shaped the discourse of the Dravidian movement. AIADMK’s founder MGR, arguably the most influential politician in the state, was an actor who cultivated his image through the resounding message of hope and revolution, written for the most part by his former colleagues, the aforementioned chief-ministers. His successor J. Jayalalitha was the leading lady in many of his films. Many of the minor parties that have developed in the state are often led by actors. So, Rajnikanth’s value to a political party or his potential impact is not insignificant.

Pros and Cons – Perceptions of Political Life

Which brings us to the question of his entry into the political fray. First of all, there are those who claim that the actor’s background as a Marathi native born and raised in Karnataka disqualifies him from entering Tamil politics – to them, I have nothing to say except point out that as an Indian national, he has every right to run for public office anywhere in the country. Cynical critics look at his recent comments about politics as an attempt to capitalize the political vacuum created by the passing of then incumbent chief minister J. Jayalalitha. A few critique his perceived ideological proximity to the right-leaning national party BJP and the national premier Narendra Modi. However, it is important to note that Rajnikanth has maintained cordial relationships with all political leaders from either side of the aisle. Quite a few cite the 67-year old actor’s age as being past the prime to enter politics. Former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha was actively involved in politics until her last year and she was of the same age as Rajnikanth. Opposition leader M. Karunanidhi is 92 years old, and he is still projected as the party’s incumbent leader. Outside of the state, current US President Donald Trump entered his office at the ripe old age of 70. Age cannot be the only consideration to exclude someone from public office. Others look at the years as well; not exactly his age, but his years of relevance. The Superstar has not shone as brightly in 2017 as he did in 1996. Although his films are still received with an enthusiasm reserved for a festival, they have become few and far between. People are far more critical of the extravagant flourishes of the Superstar, than they were in the 90s. In his years of absence, he has ironically been overexposed by the many younger actors imitating him in tribute and inevitable parody. This may not be a bad thing, because it shows that the people discern between the actor’s on-screen persona and his potential political life. His laconic and enigmatic mode of speaking, which enthralled his fans in an earlier time is not welcome by a people clamoring for clarity and actionable ideas. His gentlemanly image simply feels outmoded in this contemporary period of unrest.

The Actor’s Image as Myth

Should He Enter Politics?

I am firmly of the belief that anyone who holds considerable sway among the public should actively engage in political work contributing to progress. As long as we keep claiming that only career politicians can enter politics, we are skewing the conversation about national growth in the direction of nepotism and protectionism. Public figures from all walks of life should engage in a political life, doing their best to advance the cause of the common folk. However, I also believe that entry into politics is simplified into a false choice of either joining an existing party with its corrupt machinery or launching his own party, haphazardly converting fan-clubs into political offices. Established parties are already making overtures to the actor asking him to join them. Instead, I would like Rajnikanth’s entry to politics to take a third way – for him to effect actual change at the grassroots, he must run for a clearly defined political office for as an independent candidate. By this, I mean, he could contest to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly and set an example of what good leadership could bring to a single constituency. If his ambitions are grander than that, then he could contest as a mayoral candidate for a city and work for its welfare. The problem with the reaction to his entry to politics seems to be located with the notion that if he enters politics, he must be a Chief Ministerial candidate. Only when we recognize the importance of leadership at all levels will we see the exodus of the crony culture. Socially minded public figures are not new in Tamil Nadu, just as anywhere else in the world. The usually reclusive actor Kamal Hassan has recently expressed his thoughts on political and social problems openly. Radio Jockey Balaji became a cult figure due to his public works during the Chennai floods two years ago. Only when public figures of non-political background volunteer in their own spheres of influence, do we have a chance of challenging or at least destabilizing the status quo of dominant parties and encouraging a legitimate democracy. Rajnikanth’s entry to politics would be a success if he can add to that critical force that listens to the people and works for their progress. However, we can only wonder if the larger than life image of the actor would allow him to enter politics at the humble, day-to-day level of community service.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Jallikattu – Looking Back at a Protest

Nearly three months ago, Tamil Nadu saw a huge wave of protests against a controversial ban of a traditional sport – Jallikattu. At its peak, the protest wave transcended its local purposes and became a social, political and cultural movement that provoked institutional reversal, albeit momentarily. However, underlying the overwhelming mass-appeal of the protests, there are some problematic strains that undercut the protest narrative that need to be addressed. The importance of refining protest language and rhetoric amidst a political struggle is very high, because it is not only representative but also formative in shaping popular dispositions and argumentative structure.

Jallikattu

To offer a little background, Jallikattu or Aer Thazhuvuthal (literally Bull Hugging) is a kind of bull-fighting where an agitated bull is released amidst a sea of participants who try to subdue it. There are clear rules about how many people are supposed to engage with the bull at any given time, as well as which part of the bull can be held during the event. However, the actual numbers of bull to man ratio is not clear on any of the sources. This sport has been a point of contention, as many see a move to forbid such events as a challenge to or dilution of their culture. And many who are outside the culture do not see the point of something that is visibly cruel towards an animal.

The debate over Jallikattu has raged sporadically for a few years around this season but an uneasy compromise often was offered instead of a clear solution. This year, the issue reached a head when the Supreme court ordered to ban the event. Compounded with a general anger against unilateral government policies that lost touch with ground reality, the issue of Jallikattu became a flashpoint of public action. Supporters of the sport took to social media and the streets to protest peacefully in remarkable numbers. The critical mass of the movement was so monumental that it changed the popular discourse about the event, and it gained national and even international attention, leading to a change in the laws themselves. In a nation where the idea of political change is often dealt with skepticism, if not cynicism, the results were beyond the most optimistic expectations. Jallikattu events happened around the state and it was seen as a victory for the untapped political power of youth movement and social media networking.

Protesters at Marina Beach, Chennai

However, the language in which much of the protest was carried out was anticlimactic and weak, because it called for hostility towards one organization (PETA) and ignored the core issue at hand. Ignored were the other Indian Animal Welfare organizations that also had called for a ban on the sport. Instead of engaging with the politics and more importantly, the ethics of the criticism – the resistance focused on the origin of the opponent. By attacking PETA’s American origin, the protests slipped away from the legitimacy of their position, creating greater ambiguity of message. Ironically, PETA was not called out for its many inconsistencies or hypocritical reaction to animal welfare. Instead, it was challenged simply because it was not an ‘Indian’ organization. Other Indian organizations were dismissed equally nonchalantly, because they were not ‘Tamil’. And what happens to those who happen to be Tamil, and against the sport? They are traitors and outcasts who are no longer connected to the roots of the culture.

I am also aware that my own opposing views would be seen as at best, contrarian or at worst – treacherous. It does not help that I am writing this piece in English – I am already a sellout. I can already hear the accusation that, “Of course he lives abroad, disconnected from the realpolitik of day-to-day Tamil Nadu and the aspirations of the Tamil people. What else can you expect?” And I ask the same question – what else can you expect, when the quality of your resistance lacks moral direction? The rhetoric was constructed on a fervent Tamil nationalism and a rhetoric of anger that discredited any view that was opposed to theirs. This is a dangerous and totalitarian discourse that resists dialogue in favor of a populist will. Sensitive issues are inherently polarizing and a misguided rhetoric that prevents communication does not improve the situation – it simply turns into a political tug-o-war.

And perhaps the most disheartening part of this fervent discourse was the ad hominem attacks which took the easy routes of sexism and xenophobia. The overwhelming misogyny directed towards actress Trisha when she expressed an opinion contrary to the public groundswell was downright shameful. She was addressed with the most unimaginative epithets and was called out for drinking and hanging out with people from outside the state. The shutting down of a film production which featured her was celebrated as an achievement. Similar moral outrage over drinking and threats of physical violence were directed at the head of PETA’s Indian administration. Of course, she was a woman as well. None of the social media bravos expressed their displeasure with the usage of such language, regardless of their own drinking or smoking habits. The populist imagination was so opposed to contradiction that it fiercely challenges any form of dissent. Beyond a question of doubt, such language was mainly directed towards women, chastising them for the impunity of trying to curb something that is masculine. This attitude of cultivated ignorance and rage against the other that has insinuated itself into the culture of protest so deeply, that it achieved little more than simply changing a decision about an event – while utterly wasting its potential that once seemed to become a point of legitimate dialogue between opposing ideals.

Equally worrisome was the demand for banning things. There is a petulance that could easily take a fascist turn if not checked with a desire to engage with opposition in a responsible and co-operative manner. To call for a ban on something is to reject a conversation in favor of fascist political control. Why not test the validity of the idea in the open market? Why not boycott PETA or any organization whose principles you are against? Why not simply stop using the products of the multi-billion dollar companies who are seen as an anti-national enemy? Nothing cuts a business more than the absence of growth and profit. A ban does not express the will of the people – it only reveals the insecurity of those who want to remove anything that is challenges their power and authority. The call for a ban is a reactionary and rage-fueled response that unironically affirms the same authority which had banned Jallikattu unilaterally in the first place.

There were many voices that presented a well-argued position that stemmed from pragmatism (protection of native species) and rationalism (a call to closely regulate the events instead of banning it) – which were very clearly visible throughout the protests. However, they were never invested with the responsibility to be the most important part of the protests. Instead, show of strength and populist slogans took over the narrative. There are agriculturalists and historians who watch helplessly as their nuanced arguments have been steamrolled over by simplistic jingoism.

Ultimately, the sport was conducted, but the results were anti-climactic in their mundanity. Despite the many advocacy groups which flagrantly declared their guarantee of better treatment of the animals – the sport was conducted in the same way as it always had been – with abuse, death and irregularities. Nobody was interested in talking about reform of the problem after the fact. That would be a conversation for next year, three days before the event. Questioning the brutality of the sport which left two dead this year also quickly became taboo – you cannot choose the extent to which you support the event. There can be no discussion on the evolution of the sport to offer greater protection for the participants and the bulls. You are either with the protest or against Tamil Culture. We need a better quality of protestors, those who engage with the problem and not the people. Those who believe that ideas can be debated without disrespect. Those who know that just because something was a certain way in the past, it does not mean that it ought to continue in the same way.

That is why, despite my own personal support of Jallikattu – I am not comfortable with the “I Support Jallikattu” movement. It is important to remember that a movement which loses its moral direction becomes irrelevant, regardless of its cause. When the dust settles, the issue of Jallikattu has not yet been resolved, it has been summarily and perpetually postponed by the overwhelming will of the majority. A truly ethical decision would focus on developing a much more nuanced way of conducting the sport which includes incorporation of safety elements for both the animals as well as the participants. The current reactionary move to reinstate the sport does little than revert to an older form of status quo. Instead of addressing any of the questions (such as these raised in an opinion piece featured in The Hindu) that should haunt the self-proclaimed lovers of animals and those who call upon the greater good of preserving native species of cattle, all we got was a day with a few agitated bulls rushed through roaring crowds.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

TN Politics and a Better Quality of Dissent

Despite the lingering tension about the Speaker’s conduct during the government’s floor test, it seems like we have reached the end of the struggle between former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, O. Paneerselvam, and the AIADMK party establishment that has rallied around V. N. Sasikala. Perhaps many are disappointed that a remarkable political drama ended without much of a sizzle, as the party establishment secured its majority and the control of the state assembly. As entertaining as this drama was, it also brought to surface some usual ugliness in TN politics that has become so tiring and dated, that we need to rethink its acceptability. There are many real problems and instances of misconduct that could have been used to attack the opposition, but the argument quickly reached name-calling and personal attacks. While I am no fan of either faction, it was disheartening to see that quality of rage against the machine was without decency. Of course, this was not an isolated event in TN’s political history.

Former CM O. Panneerselvam and AIADMK General Secretary V. N. Sasikala

To set the stage, let me briefly introduce to the players in this modern day Game of Thrones – the AIADMK is one of the two Dravidian parties that have alternately ruled TN since 1990s, resisting nationalist political parties and supporting their charismatic leaders. In 2016, after winning a historical second consecutive term, J. Jayalalitha was hospitalized before she passed away. At the wake of her passing, Sasikala, the CM’s close aide, with her extended family, took over as the party’s general secretary and seemed to bide her time before making a claim for the Chief Ministership. A surprising voice of dissent arose from the party when incumbent and 3-time CM, O. Paneerselvam spoke against Sasikala’s aspirations, alleging that he was insulted repeatedly to secure power for Sasikala and her family members. He staked his own claim to retaining his position by explaining that he was coerced into resigning from the post.

That moment became a flashpoint in TN politics, as he received wide-spread popular support, most noticeably on social-media. The overwhelming support that OPS received is not so much a testament to his ability as a leader, but a reflection of the public’s aversion towards Sasikala and her family’s control over the party. Sasikala’s influence was seen as an unsavory influence on the charismatic Jayalalitha, whom the masses adored. Some would go as far as to say that the disproportionate assets case that would later tarnish Jayalalitha’s legacy took shape due to the excesses of Sasikala and her family members. OPS was seen as an alternative to the nepotistic rise of Sasikala, who had not previously held any official positions in the party. There were also many reasons to favor OPS against Sasikala, chief among them being his hitherto untarnished image as a CM, compared to the Mafiosi image cultivated by Sasikala’s family.

Given how clearly the lines of resistance could be drawn, the web-culture did not hesitate to destroy any decorum. The tone in which she has been criticized has been apolitical – and very personal. Most attack ads challenge her legitimacy by simply accusing Sasikala of being a ‘maid’ to the former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha. Her self-appointed moniker of “Chinnamma” (meaning the second-mother, or the mother’s sister) to claim Jayalalitha’s legacy as the “Amma” (mother) was mocked to no end. The language does not engage with the legitimacy of her aspirations or the many accusations of corruption that she has faced. Instead, there is critique of her appearance and her name.

We need a better quality of resistance that discusses the issues and the problem of nepotism and cult of personality – we should be challenging her politically naïve and openly coercive actions against her own party members – instead, the troves of social media news generators are content sharing misogynistic rubbish in the name of protest and popular opinion. If that is the quality of popular dissent we are capable of, then we should be ashamed of our own gross immaturity.

It also felt like OPS was getting a much gentler sentence for his sudden rebellion, which was preceded by a very long period of subservience to the AIADMK party leadership, including Sasikala. Instead of holding OPS to close scrutiny and examining his candidacy on his merit and works, we are happy to give him a pass for simply being an alternative. Those who mocked him for being deferential to Jayalalitha at every turn, now praised his ability to usher in her style of governance. The same people who attacked the present caretaker CM for being ineffective during the Jallikattu protests project him as a heroic figure who stood for the cause of the people.

While it is easy to imagine that OPS’s political aspirations came to an end today, we must also note that ever since the verdict of the disproportionate assets case was declared by the Supreme court, the OPS movement cooled down quite a bit. When it became clear that Sasikala was going to jail for four years and could not contest in elections for another six, effectively ending her CM aspirations, it ironically slowed down the enthusiasm for OPS as well. No longer were the people fighting the image of a wicked woman. The one who has replaced her, Edappadi Palanisamy – another Jayalalitha loyalist, is interchangeable with OPS, unremarkable in the same way.

Which brings us to a question – was the anger towards Sasikala mainly because she was a woman(like she claims)? Or is it more insidious, that misogyny is so deeply entrenched in Tamil language and culture, that when we want to critique a woman, the attack veers in that direction?

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

50 Days of Chaos – Demonitisation and How Not To Fight Corruption

The debate around the Indian government’s decision to demonitise high-value currency has all the subtlety of a Zack Snyder film – there are those who condemn it as an ill-conceived populist stunt and those who defend it as a passionate project albeit with flaws in the execution. The Prime Minister of India sought 50 days to smooth out the implementation process of one of the most ambitious projects without announcing the stages in which such a project would be executed. The logic is simple, if people want their cash to be valid, they need to turn it into the bank, and possibly answer questions about the source of the cash – rooting out the problem of unaccounted black money. But is the strategy as simple, or effective as it sounds?

Many voices on social media were supportive of this idea, as a matter of ‘bearing with the difficulties for a few days.’ While more and more have become irate at the systemic failure of allowing people to access their own money, there is outrage on both sides of the debate – shocked at either people’s unwillingness to ‘suffer a little to fight corruption’ or inability to think about people whose lives are entirely cash-dependent. However, those critical of the move are again conflating the action of demonitisation with that of a digitised, cashless environment. These lines of thinking are fundamentally flawed as they suppose either that suffering is inevitable/necessary to fight corruption, or believe that people’s dependency on a cash-based economy makes a cashless environment impossible. If the project is conceived with a clear idea of achieving digitisation of transactions before (or instead of) demonitisation, there needs to be no suffering. In a way, digitised, cashless environment is its own deterrent of illegal money circulation.

Demonitisation ≠ Cashless Environment

The root of this problem lies in in the rhetoric that uses demonitisation as a proxy to prod people along toward a digital, cashless economy. Such an interpretation of the move ignores the fact that the policy preempts infrastructure, technology and practices of a cashless economy. Also, the replacement of existing notes with new ones is not really a move towards a cashless environment – it is exactly what it sounds like – it is a move to a new currency. The majority of the population does not have access, or familiarity with cashless transactions – a condition exacerbated by the lack of cashless transaction facilities in many stores and service providers. Enforcing a demonitisation creates an unnecessary urgency for the people to learn something that they are not familiar with. Contrarily, a move towards digitising the economy would have served as its own demonitisation, as the dependency on a cashless mode of transaction would bring the money into the banking system – something which demonitisation claims as one of its aims. While the demonitisation effort is bound to be contingent upon a specific deadline, a drive towards a cashless-digital economy is not time-bound.

What does a cashless economy look like?

I live in a city where cashless payments are ubiquitous to the point that it is common for institutions that do not accept credit cards to display that information very clearly. It is not that people do not use cash here, but the familiarity with card-based or mobile/internet banking is so high that you do not even have to visit a bank unless it is for opening or closing your  account. Besides the use of third-party services like Visa and Mastercard, there also exists a Network for Electronic Transfer (NETS) at Point-Of-Sale, co-owned by the major banks in Singapore, which enables instant direct-debit usage from the internet. Also, with the rising popularity of mobile payment gateways like Android Pay and Apple Pay, people have more options of cashless payments.

However, the implementation of these methods have not become popular overnight. On the contrary, this transition has been happening over thirty years, having reached a point where the absence of electronic payment options seem unusual across most services and goods that we may purchase. And Singapore still has high value currency to the tune of 100 and 1000 dollar notes. And while it is true that Singapore stopped issuing new $10,000 notes in 2014 to combat money-laundering; the notes in circulation continue to be legal tender indefinitely. And most importantly, an official from the Monetary Association of Singapore explained the move by addressing that it would not inconvenience the people due to the “development of advanced and secured electronic payment systems”. Again, people’s convenience is not presented as a privilege that could be suspended for a short while – it is seen as a part of the daily fabric. For India to successfully implement any policy regarding monetary instruments, not only do we need the technological infrastructure has to be present – not just in the cities and the major shopping districts – but across all points-of-sale transactions; but more importantly, the attitude towards the plight of everyday living has to change at every level. Before the Indian government insists on electronic money transfers, the shops and service providers should be updated to have a cashless payment system.

Instead, after the 50 days have come to pass, the Prime Minister of India has made an announcement for a new digital payment app. If this announcement had come a year earlier preparing the people for a transition to a digital economy, that would have demonstrated remarkable foresight. The finance minister Arun Jaitley blithely points to the numerous IT raids as proof that the demonitisation has worked. Such a comment reinforces the shortsightedness of the move, as the search and seizure by the IT department is not contingent on the shape, color or validity of the notes in possession; the raids could have been carried out at any time, regardless of whether or not the demonitisation is in effect. But his words also resonate with the tunnel-vision in implementing a very visible strategy that does little to actually transform the way people think about money.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

10 Thoughts on the American Presidential Election

It is already November 8th, Tuesday in Singapore. So here are some random thoughts on the so-called ‘Greatest Reality TV Show’ ever.

  1. Considering the amount of money that has been spent and generated for TV channels, it behooves that they want to extend the run up to the presidential election from the current two years to a full four years. How about a game show – So You Think You Can Be President? – featuring aspirants from all walks of life. We could have politicians and other public figures compete for a chance to represent a major political party. A lot of drama could be generated with D list celebrities. Just imagine the crazy TV ratings when Snooki beats Chris Christie in a fistfight.
  2. The American System has nailed democracy by reducing matters of policy and relationships into a popularity contest – a reality TV show that has heroes and villains, with problematic and quirky side characters and twists so unexpected, that you expect them. Voting on principle is for suckers; while this is true in many countries in the world – it is not as transparent as it is in the USA.
  3. If this is the most televised and commented upon election, then all credit goes to social media.
  4. How long into the hypothetical Trump presidency is it going to take before people on either side of the aisle realize that things are not going to change that much?
  5. Very interesting to note that people like me, who do not live in America or do not have anything to do directly with the election even by one vote, are so excited for this election. Of course, it is great entertainment. It is also a way of engaging with politics without really taking responsibility for the consequences. It hurts too much to think about things that are much closer to home – because once you see the details, you can’t see the devil.140-american-election
  6. Was I the only one shocked when I found out that voting day is not a holiday?
  7. To sustain the reality TV theme of this election, I hope that the election is called in favor of Trump triggering either Obama, Clinton or Biden to go ballistic on the nation on live TV (most likely Biden), only to be interrupted mid-sentence to be told that there was an error in the count. So bizarre that it could actually happen.
  8. Can you imagine the number of PPV buys Trump could bring to WWE for the next WrestleMania where he challenges Vince McMahon in a Hillary wig and a pantsuit?
  9. My one line summary of this election coverage: “You have no choice, so choose.”
  10. I wonder if Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers and Trevor Noah are secretly praying that Donald Trump wins this election. As big a fan as I am of these three, I am the first to admit that they have gained most from Trump’s campaign among the talk show hosts, and I wonder if they will perform blood magic to keep the gift that keeps giving.

Here’s a bonus, from the funny people at Epic Rap Battles:

What are your thoughts on the US Presidential election? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

The Annoying Thing About Donald Trump

There is not much about the 2016 American Presidential elections that has not been already said. Featuring two of the least popular candidates ever, this race has become further maligned due to the presence of a racist, misogynist ignoramus – Donald Trump. However, the democratic process means that the voice of the people must be honored regardless of the quality of the outcome. In that sense, Donald Trump’s bid for the highest office in America, for better or for worse, is a testament to the American system. While his carefully orchestrated campaign of pandering and fear mongering is something that invites an examination of screen ethics – it is perhaps the most boring and unoriginal thing to discuss Trump as a news item. And yet, here I am – sharing my thoughts on Donald Trump. In the way of apologizing for jumping on the bandwagon – here is a very good analysis of Trump’s screen presence during his presidential campaign.

Thanks to Film Theory for that interesting analysis. Now, let us talk about the that annoys me the most about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—the presumption of his fame and celebrity status. Many have chipped away at his business success and poked holes in his proposed policies – or the lack of. However, very few have actually examined the credibility of his celebrity. While it is obvious that he will never be important in the same way that a Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk is, he does not have the same universal celebrity appeal as Oprah or Madonna. Despite his numerous talk show appearances over the years, he was not a big deal until he decided to run for presidency. At best, he was a C-list celebrity whose TV show and business empire fed off each other like a perverse Ouroboros – a snake that eats its own tail – only stupider. At worst, he is Donald Trump. Let us take a closer look at the construction of his celebrity.

The Apprentice

The show he hosted, The Apprentice, was an average reality TV show that did not cracked the top ten ratings since its first season. The show has no credibility with its outcomes, as the winners of the show get very little real business experience. Over the years, it has consistently lost its audience from an average of 20 million in its first season to a paltry 4.7 million in its most recent. To put that in perspective, Survivor draws twice the viewers as The Apprentice during its weakest season. Even those numbers ought to be credited to producer and show creator Mark Burnett, who has a hand in some of the top reality programs including Survivor and The Voice. The winners of the show have criticized the hollow rewards that the show brings, compared to say, the million dollars that Survivor or Amazing Race brings in.

The Apprentice
The Apprentice

The WWE Hall of Famer

Trump has also achieved success in the field of professional wrestling. As a hall of fame member in the celebrity wing of WWE, Trump has participated in storylines This was a guy who was fighting Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania in a hair vs. hair match. Of course, he had the sense of humor to put his hair on the line, albeit with the assurance that he would not lose it. During the build-up to the feud, he embarrassed himself by demonstrating that he cannot throw convincing a fake slap even with Vince McMahon selling like a champ.

On the other side, it is not as if his presence had little impact on the show. Wrestlemania 23 is the second most successful PPV WWE’s history. With each buy costing over $50, the show was an unmitigated success for the company. And yet, it is a fringe phenomenon that brings in less than 3 million viewers on a weekly basis (even at its peak with the Attitude Era, WWE’s highest rated segment drew just over 8 million viewers). This is not to undermine the effect that the mainstream attention he brought to WWE, but to position it as what it is – a narrow field. The resultant match, between representatives Umaga and Bobby Lashley, itself was rather entertaining, but its significance remains to date at Trump’s capacity as a carnival act.

Having said that, Trump has become important by becoming the Republican nominee and defeating someone named Bush. While it is easy to ridicule his rise to importance, the underlying implications of the world turning to a new wave of hyper-nationalist rhetoric is worrying. But the presence of a polarizing figure has successfully hijacked the narrative from policies and potential for important landmark decisions by becoming the biggest celebrity showdown.

How do you feel about Trump’s campaign? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Corporal Punishment: Understanding Discipline and Punishment

What is the line of difference between child discipline and child abuse? There are many important related issues of self-image, social confidence, understanding of rules and justice with this first question of disciplining a child; but more often than not, there are some deeply disturbing prevalent notions of ‘common sense’ when it comes to child-rearing and corporal punishment. Recently, I saw a video that reveal some of these most worrying assumptions about what a child can and cannot do when she/he feels threatened. Take a look at the clip for yourself:

This clip was extracted from the episode “The Winds” (season 3 episode 5) of the police drama Southland, and it shows officers John Cooper and his trainee Ben Sherman attending a call about child abuse from a house. When a young child complains that his mother struck him with a belt for lying about cutting school, the police officer Cooper first enquires after the kind of punishment rendered, checking if she struck the child in any other manner than the belting – if she hits him often, or if she uses her fists or other objects tells. Then he takes the belt from the child and returns it to the parent and then threatens the child that he himself would come back and hit the child if he complained against his mother again. A viewing of this clip should make the audience question the normalizing attitude towards physical violence conveyed by the cop. However, considering that this is the internet, the clip is received by the audience as if it is a heroic point for the cop.

Clip Out of Context

Southland (NBC, TNT, 2009-2013)
Southland (NBC, TNT, 2009-2013)

What is truly disturbing is the way in which this scene is decontextualized and used in social media with calls for this to be used as a PSA, and people claiming that the video is just right in defending a parent’s right to hit a child. There were numerous anecdotes that testified to their being ‘perfectly normal’ despite having been hit as a child. I have phrased that wrongly. The common claim is not that their normalcy is in spite of the beating; but because of it. This casual coupling into a causal relationship is a reminder of how easily personal experience can be used as a dangerous substitute for careful examination of facts.

Of course, this is a moment of deep characterization for Cooper who is battling with drug addiction and this scene is part of his downward spiral as his trainee watches him crumble. But it is also a problematic depiction where the scene itself does not contribute to the overall narrative development in a substantial way. It makes me wonder if the show does not after all authorize such behavior even when the police officer is shown as behaving in an erratic manner. Despite the apparent censure from the trainee officer, Sherman, the implied message of the show seems to be that, yes he [Cooper] is erratic – but he is calling it ‘as it is’. This ‘back in the day’ attitude is troublingly present in the audience response to this moment in the show, where there is an unironic association of the recognition that this behavior is ‘not politically correct’ and an admiration for the same, because it somehow answers to a higher and ‘purer’ code of child rearing.

Justice Denied

Even if we are willing to exclude the debate about a parent’s authority to administer corporal punishment, there are some deeply problematic positions that this video takes about a police interaction with a child:

  1. It develops in the child a mistrust for the police. The natural reaction of turning to the police for a perceived injustice done is punished, leading to the child’s question of the efficacy of the law and law enforcement.
  2. It allows the police to have an arbitrary authority over determining which actions are abusive and which actions are not. The sovereignty of the police allows them to act as agents of justice, but precludes them from also acting as judges of criminal behavior. The collapse between the two authorities in the real world creates an exceptional and totalitarian power that goes against the grain of justice that the police are expected to protect in the first place.
  3. It equates discipline with punishment.
  4. It privileges explanation of the alleged abuser over the narrative of the abused. This to me is the most significant of the problems, where the parent is able to ‘explain away’ the legitimacy of the child’s narrative. The same explanation could be used to cover-up other aspects of abuse as well.

In a disturbing manner, this clip breaks down the structures that are in place to protect a child. If the striking of the child is not abuse, then certainly the subsequent removal of the child’s position within a framework of legal rights is. Nor is there a challenge to the parent’s child-rearing which led to the child’s dishonesty. Ultimately, by deactivating its power to hold private citizens accountable for their behavior, state authority further tightens its grip over familial cooperation to its own paternalistic tendencies.

A Lighter Note?

A few years ago, stand-up comic Russell Peters delivered a different kind of take on the same issue of child disciplining. He is more uproariously offensive when he calls for more corporal punishment in the fear of ‘white kids feeling left out’. However, his deployment of comedy challenges the validity of the trope rather than affirm it. At the end of the clip, the viewers do not emerge exactly empowered to now start striking their children, but to critically examine their own affective responses to the humor.

Of course, while the uncertainty of the implied meaning only provokes further debate over the intention of this bit, it does not in any way explain the underlying assumptions about corporal punishment in general.

What do you think about the portrayal of law enforcement in this clip? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Fantasy of Ability – Superhuman Ability and ‘Regular’ Disability

Recently, a friend shared this article about Channel 4’s Paralympics advert by Lucy Catchpole. Catchpole’s carefully worded argument raises concern about ‘supercrip’ expectations and offers a delicate and complex perspective about the layers of disability narratives as she encounters conflicting feelings of joy in the representation of heroic and inspiring narratives as well as her fears at the social implications of witnessing such a video which portrays the disability as a sign of superability. This conflicting emotions of joy and dread come are encouraged by an unquestioned and unchecked fantasy of ability that persists in all narratives about ability.

Catchpole’s fears are well founded in a world where mainstream popular culture characters with disability are often either villains (especially with invisible disabilities – take your pick from the Batman rogues gallery where villains are routinely incarcerated in a mental health facility, Arkham Asylum) or pitiable victims. Even disabled superheroes often have abilities that override their specific disability, like Daredevil’s hyper-alert senses that allow him to ‘see’ even without his sight. And the Oracle (Barbara Gordon) from Gotham, one of the most important figures of disabled people in popular culture, has a terrifyingly dark and exploitative back story. I guess what I am trying to say here is, superhuman disability is an entirely separate post that I should write. In such a context, it is very reasonable for Catchpole to be apprehensive of the heroic narrative. If you want to watch the offending video, here it is:

The video is a remarkable collage of the many different ‘superhumans’ that perform acts beyond their physical limitations. From a brass-band that features disabled artists, to a line of showgirls gracefully appearing in their amputated state – the screen is full of disabled bodies for the four minutes. The optimism of the video goes beyond the image of achievement when at the end it offers links to stories of individual paralympians (so different from a regular ‘lympain that spell check doesn’t recognize ‘paralympian’). However, the way that this particular video was used in the marketing strategy is worrisome to Catchpole as she notes that:

I really like that the trailer doesn’t stop at sports people but includes musicians, dancers, cereal-eaters and baby-lifters. However, the hashtag used to promote this film is #yesican – the lyrics to the song used. That in itself seems harmless enough. But it’s a small lurch from “yes I can” to “there’s no such thing as can’t”, and sure enough Channel 4 jumped right in on this. On their Twitter account, a pinned tweet reads: “There’s no such thing as can’t. Introducing our #superhumans trailer. Proud to be the UK Paralympic broadcaster.”

The ‘yes I can’ is read in the fear of being interpreted as ‘there is no such thing as can’t’; a statement that denies the state of disability itself. While it is likely that the tweet was an overenthusiastic comment by a social media intern, Catchpole’s concerns reveal a deeply problematic burden of expectation that disabled people carry. This problem of representation is all very true for disabled people who have been portrayed from one extreme to another in popular culture as as angelic or demonic in many narratives. The narrative does not change so much, except it is now framed as a question of ability – a superhuman achievement or incapable of anything.

Paralympics 2012
Paralympics 2012

But here is my problem with the conditions in which Catchpole is required to write this justifying piece:  Why is that you never see a ‘norm’-abled person write an apology after any ‘regular’ (so regular that it doesn’t need a prefix) Olympics advert, justifying their own position about how these super bodies of athletes are not representative of them, and most of them are ‘dis’abled from performing many of those fantastic feats?

No able-bodied person is expected to measure themselves against Usain Bolt’s 9.58 second record, or the compare their batting skills against the powerful striking ability of tennis players and cricketers. And yet, such inability is safely exempt from self-conscious justification and admittance; it is as if that ‘dis’ability will never really be called by its true name simply because they have full control over the same limbs that the sporting superheroes also possess. If that is the case, isn’t that a greater yet disability, this lack of prowess and ‘ability’, despite possessing the same gifts?

The narrative about disability is never really about the ability, but about the ‘dis’ (the impossibility) – the term indistinguishable for all intents and purposes from the ‘un/in’ (the negation), even when they indicate the same thing. The distinction between unease and disease renders one pathologically quarantined. The restrictive power of the ‘dis’ creates a fantasy of possibility for those who fall outside that field. Even Catchpole’s complex argument arises from this state of forgotten disparity – that the disability of the ‘disabled’ are in some way worse and more permanently pathological than the disabilities of the others. The defense exists because of the social compulsion to selectively make invisible the general incapability to do certain things, while precisely highlighting some narratives for that same inability.

A striking fantasy of ability grips the ‘normal’ people, as the capacity of super-ability is always presented as within the realm of possibility for able bodied persons, and all they have to do is try to be able to achieve it. The hours of effort and training required besides the healthy dose of good fortune is not seen as significant to the narrative of the able-bodied superhuman. And most of all, the microscopic number of people who are able to achieve these super-abilities are not seen as too few to be representative of the larger body – while somehow the visibility of superhuman disabled people carries with it, as Catchpole rightly identifies, a threat of evoking impatience and intolerance in able/disabled interactions.

This fantasy is a most potent spell caused by both the privilege of entitlement as well as the meek submission to a logic that seems like common-sense: that a person who is physically disabled is practically more disabled than those who are fully able-bodied. And this strange obsession about preemptively excusing the ‘rest of us who can not’ occupies an important space in many disability narratives. But this fantasy of ability also achieves a secret purpose of creating a group that is designated as disabled, and helps the rest forget the obvious irony of ability.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Artis Thompson III – Overcoming the Odds of Representation

What is the word for when you feel a mix of happiness and disappointment simultaneously?

AT3
AT3

Last week, Artis Thompson III put in a strong performance in the American Ninja Warrior. For those who have not seen the video, take a look:

That is a beautiful performance by a strong person; an admirable feat for any body of any level of ability. Personally, I was thrilled with every determined and measured step that Artis Thompson III took throughout the course. Sure, we have seen smoother runs on the Ninja Warrior course, but Artis’ performance is not about making things seem effortless. They are about revealing the effort that it takes to be counted as equal in a disabling world. Especially his moments on the rolling beams were stunning, as I waited with bated breath as he carefully advanced, balancing on the beam, one step at a time. And at the fateful moment when he was wiped out, there was none of the usual jeering as the entire crowd felt for him. They wanted him to succeed because he did not define his aim by the body he is housed in. In his defiance, he was able to do things that most cannot; irrespective of their ability.

But this viewing pleasure was also marked by a disappointment. Not by his failure to complete the course. That was part of the game. But by the lingering camera shots that focused on his prosthetic leg as he dangled from the rafters. Even when he was demonstrating remarkable strength, the camera eye chose to focus on something that marks his exception from the norm. At that moment, the recording of his feat did not feel like a celebration of his achievement. It felt like a grotesque carnival; a show that fetishized his ‘freakish’ strength.

News coverage of this event was also equally dominated by his ‘story’ of the prosthetic rather than his story of strength. Media stories that covered the show ran titles including: “One Legged Man Shows Insane Grit on American Ninja Warrior” (MRCTV) and “American Ninja Warrior Contestant Competes with Prosthetic Leg like a Damn Boss” (HuffPo). While both pieces wax eloquent about Artis’ ability, they frame their stories through his disability. And I just find that oddly disappointing.

Maybe I am overreacting. But I wonder if there is a different way of talking about exception without marking the person as outside of the community.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Performing Disability: Self-representation as Ability

Disabled characters are not rare in mainstream cinema and television, but very rarely are they portrayed by actors with a corresponding disability. Performing disability, in this context, has become a very special ability that actors covet as a pinnacle of their acting versatility. Recently, I read that Shah Rukh Khan will be playing a ‘dwarf’ in an upcoming film directed by Anand L Rai. Khan’s turn towards altering his appearance and body adds him to a long list of actors who have received critical acclaim, such as Kamal Hassan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Sam Worthington, to name a few. While many of them advocate a political message by calling for awareness about the condition they are representing, few question the ethics of their representation.

Let us, consider the language used in this news item announcing Shah Rukh Khan’s film:

The director says, “Shah Rukh plays a dwarf and it is going to be a lot of hard work and patience.” The director furthers adds that the film is a love story, “The film is a full-fledged love story or a family entertainer with lots of romance.”

The director beams about the effort that Shah Rukh needs to invest to play that role, before unhesitatingly moving on to talk about other aspects of the film as ‘a family entertainer’ and ‘romance’. The interval between the first and the second sentences quoted in this paragraph are shockingly uncritical for an information outlet that purports itself to be a news agency. News is evaluation and verification, and here neither task is carried out. I do not expect them to editorialize in what is essentially a fluff piece that doubles up as an announcement for an upcoming film. But throughout the entire post, there is not a single question about the awkwardness of an able-bodied actor portraying a disabled character. This is the deepest cut of them all, that the question does not present itself in the horizon of critical evaluation.

For a disabled person reading this news report, it is no news at all. The elision of the disabled narrative from the common space of media and the arts is an everyday occurrence for them. While their disability makes for a great subject for art, their participation is conveniently kept to a minimum. The disabled actor is a soft taboo because ‘real’ disability is perceived to be grotesque. When Peter Dinklage became the starring cast member in Game of Thrones, it was a moment of great excitement as well as trepidation for many disabled people; it felt like a personal achievement, which came with the threat of being snatched away at any moment. Even though an unattractive character was replaced by the handsomest dwarf in Hollywood, a prince among men, it was still a victory. In other words, Dinklage is our Obama.

Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion Lannister

Scott Jordan Harris does not mince any words when he calls this practice “disability as drag”. He looks at the portrayal of disability in the context of boys in drag in the age of Elizabethan theatre and the now-reviled acts of ‘black face’ and ‘yellow face’ casting from the recent past. Nor will this trend stop anytime soon. He says,

“Women were once prohibited from performing onstage…[Actors like Brando, Olivier, Guinness] used make-up and prosthetics to imitate their physical characteristics, and took roles that would have been better played by black or Asian actors, two groups for which opportunities were already disproportionately limited. Today, just the idea of this is distasteful to us.

But able-bodied actors do all these things in efforts to imitate disabled people, and we do not protest. We are conditioned to be outraged when we see race being exploited onscreen. When we see disability being exploited onscreen, we are conditioned to applaud.”

Disabled Casting

To add to Harris’ argument, not only are we conditioned to applaud, but we are programmed to celebrate them as the highest achievements in acting and performance. Here is a list of able-bodied actors from Dustin Hoffman to Eddie Redmayne who have played disabled characters, and here is a cynical and disillusioned article from The Washington Post about this phenomenon. This is not restricted to the biggest avenues that depend on mass consumption and the mainstream. A decade ago, a respected theatre director in Madras told me that she would not cast me because my crutches and the shuffle would be a distraction. And yet, a perfectly able gentleman played a part in that production with an even gait, an improbable leg-brace and a cool looking walking stick. And this, was in a progressive theatre company.

The question of representation within the field of disability is even more complicated when we take into account that there is no single form to it. Some disabilities that are invisible (such as effects of critical illness, or mental disabilities) and there are others that are debilitating where the actor’s disability prevents them from performing it. In some cases, like Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal, the transformation plays a big part in the character’s narrative. Clearly this is not just a question of representation, but of a false authenticity that the cinema seeks. The reality hinted by the image is a delicately constructed fantasy that would be dispelled when confronted with a fragment of reality itself, such as the presence of a wheelchair using character, who really is a wheelchair user. To further complicate this, is the added layer of commercialism, where the issue of a disabled actor’s ability to draw money at the box office is presented as a challenge to casting them.

Let us go back to Harris’ article to reflect on how ridiculous these justifications truly are:

“Not only are there too few roles for disabled people but also, when those rare roles become available, they are generally taken by people who are not disabled at all. It’s like casting the parts played by Meryl Streep not with Streep, or an actress like her, but with Harrison Ford in drag.

I know that last image seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because women have a right to be represented onscreen by women. Just as people of color have a right to represented onscreen by people of color. And just as people with disabilities have a right to be represented onscreen by people with disabilities.”

However, by clumping together all these varied problems as one complex, unsolvable issue, we are diverting from the main issue, that disabled actors are not cast even when they are adequately capable actors (and I am aware of the irony of my language use). Besides, nobody expects Henry Cavill or Chris Hemsworth to be able to fly and perform incredible feats of strength to play Superman or Thor. And yet, questions of access, strain on production and distraction of the audience is always brought up in the discussion of a disabled actor. The greatest challenge against casting of disabled actors however, remains the normalizing of these practices. I can only hope that this goes in the same direction of gender and racial inequality in cinema-even if it is not resolved, it at least gains relevance as a problem that needs to be addressed.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.