Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Living Off the Avails of Honey Boo Boo

Lauren "Boo Boo" Lexton
This isn't going be a rant about how awful a show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is, or how icky Boo Boo and her clan are. My sermon today is about the real stars of the show: Lauren Lexton, Tom Rogan and David M. Zaslav. The first two are the co-founders of Authentic Entertainment, the production company that shoots the show. Zaslav is President and CEO of Discovery Communications, the parent company of TLC, the network that broadcasts Honey Boo Boo. One thing all three of these people have in common is that they're highly educated members of the American upper-classes. Lexton graduated cum laude from NYU; Rogan got his degree at Emerson College in Boston; and Zaslav graduated with honors from Boston University's law school. The most important thing the trio share is that they make their coin by exploiting and demonizing America's working classes. In this regard they are part of a larger broadcasting trend that sees networks and production companies owned or controlled by the upper-classes producing what amounts to propaganda designed to portray the American proletariat as venal, coarse, stupid and ugly.

David "The Situation" Zaslav
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Southie Rules, Jersey Shore, Buckwild,  any show with the word "Gypsy" in the title, and a dozen similar shows all share the same basic format: find a group of people who can be easily identified as "redneck" or "white trash" and encourage them to act badly, or at least in a manner that will make middle-class audiences cringe. But why the appetite for this kind of show? For the bourgeoisie it provides a chance to feel fortunate and superior. And for both the upper-classes making the shows, and the middle-classes watching them, this kind of show is a documentary argument against any type of social welfare program. If your view of the working classes has been formed by the antics of Snooki and Co., it's a fair bet that you'll squeal with rage at the idea of any portion of your tax money helping people at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder. So as a tool of social control, a way of ensuring that the "lower classes" are seen as nothing but feckless and feral, these shows have a definite political utility: they work as a Greek chorus to the arguments of right-wing politicians and commentators that social welfare programs are wasteful, immoral and counter-productive.

It's not going too far to call these class-based reality shows a kind of hate literature in video form. The litmus test for this is that if one of these programs revolved around a group of African Americans it would justifiably be called racist. In fact, it's interesting that there are no blacks being featured in any programs of this type. By any and all economic and educational indicators African Americans are at the bottom of the heap in the US, so it would seem they would be the first choice for any producer looking to find the next group of loud, grotesque losers to follow around with a camera. But producers aren't dumb. If they were to present a black family as egregious as the Boo Boo clan, what's passed off now as silly fun or a guilty pleasure would be described, accurately, as an attack on a particular group. Look at it this way; if the Ku Klux Klan was in the TV business they'd be falling all over themselves to produce a black version of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Further proof of the class propaganda being fed to TV audiences is that the only show on which plutocrats make an appearance is Undercover Boss, a program in which the upper classes take the role of fairy godfathers/mothers, showering benefits on employees who've shown their worth by working like faithful and uncomplaining dogs. My piece on that odious show is here. So on one end of the spectrum we get shows about squalling, uneducated, witless white people, and at the other end we're presented with CEOs seen as beneficent guardian angels. And people still think there's no class system in America? Lexton, Rogan, Zaslav and the others who peddle this muck are certainly eager to profit from the class system, but it's equally certain that they wouldn't want the Boo Boo family as neighbors.

Owen Jones wrote a superb book on this topic from a British perspective called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. I've got a review of it here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Florida Keys

Key West rooster.
Just got back from a week's vacation in the Florida Keys; Islamorada, to be exact. The weather was fabulous, which is 9/10s of the reason for going south from Canada at this time of year. Here's some random observations on the other tenth of the trip.

Southwest Airlines. We flew Southwest from Buffalo, and the airline should really rebrand itself as the standup comedy airline, and I mean that in a good way. The cabin staff on both flights turned all of the standard in-flight announcements into a series of gags. It was usually pretty funny and took some of the sting out of the fact that everything else about the airline is strictly no-frills: it's essentially a bus service with complimentary peanuts.

Route 1. This highway is the backbone and main street of the Keys, but what you don't know if you've never been there is that it's pretty damn busy. The vast majority of hotels and condos in the Keys are within throwing distance of this road, which means traffic noise is a constant companion on your vacation.

Pelicans. I love pelicans, they're almost worth the trip to Florida just by themselves. They look completely ridiculous but picturesque at the same time. Stand near one on a dock and you'll notice they always appear to be looking down their nose at you.

Americans. How can people who are so friendly and open with strangers also be so wildly intolerant? Everyone we met is was friendliness personified, but then on Duval Street in Key West we saw the other side of the coin: a middle-aged couple had set up a card table stand decorated with posters calling for the impeachment of Obama. The stand featured a large picture of Obama dressed as a Roman emperor. It would be funny if it wasn't representative of a lot of other Americans.

Key West. This is the star attraction of the Keys, and its charm hasn't been completely obliterated by the tourist trade. Duval Street is the main drag and it's a wasteland of tourist trap shops and bars. Move off the main street and the town's quirkiness becomes more apparent: chickens and roosters roaming free; quaint, but not opulent, homes; pedestrian-friendly streets; and some decent and underused beaches. Key West is also famous for its gayness, but that aspect of the town seemed pretty subdued. The place was mostly full of middle-aged straight couples getting wild and crazy after two drinks.

National Parks. There are several in the Keys and they're all worth visiting. As usual, I'm always left annoyed by how well-maintained and designed state and national parks are in the U.S. compared to their equivalents in Ontario. Wasaga Beach Provincial Park in Ontario features one of the great beaches in the world, so why does it have such crappy facilities?

Ocean Drive. On our last day we drove up to Miami and walked along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach. Yuck. It's one of those places where rich people, and those who try to pass themselves off as rich, go to be seen; it's like a nature preserve for the noxiously affluent.

It's Still The Deep South. In restaurants and hotels all the front of house staff are white, all the cleaners, bus boys, and kitchen staff are black or Hispanic. I can't say for sure but it certainly looks like businesses in the Keys work hard to present a white face to their customers. Not surprisingly, black tourists are a rare sight.

The Zane Grey Lounge. This might be one of the best restaurants in the Keys. Not because of the food, which is OK, but thanks to the view, which is spectacular. The lounge is on the second floor of a deluxe fishing supply store called World Wide Sportsmen, which is part of the BassPro chain. From the second floor balcony you get an uninterrupted view of the ocean, fishing boats skimming back and forth, and a chain of tiny islands. The fact that the restaurant is attached to a store might be why it seems to be relatively unknown.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: 7 Ways to Kill a Cat (2009) by Matias Nespolo

Here's a crime fiction novel that redefines "noir." A lot of contemporary crime fiction is described as noir, and as dark as these stories often are, they almost always take place in milieus that their middle-class readership is familiar with: North American and European cities in which the characters, no matter how gritty or "street", have cars and homes, and generally have a consumer lifestyle most people would recognize. This is far from the case in Matias Nespolo's novel. It's set in the barrios of Buenos Aires and its protagonist and his peers live in tin shacks and own nothing but the clothes they wear.

Gringo, the main character, and his pal Chueco are in their late teens(?), have no real family, and make their living from petty crime. They spend most of their time either taking drugs or trying to find drugs. The two decide to rob a local bar owner at closing time, and, not surprisingly, things go pear-shaped and the pair come to the attention of El Jetita, the local crimelord. From that point on things spiral downhill for all the characters as a rival gangster from a neighboring barrio moves against El Jetita. Outside the barrrio the city is being gripped by protests and strikes by teachers, labourers and others.

One of the smartest parts of this novel is that it doesn't come to a conclusion: one crisis simply bleeds into another. Gringo slips away from the gang warfare in the barrio to run headlong into political violence in the larger city. The last we see of him he's preparing to throw rocks at riot police. The author does a great job of showing that life in the barrio is simply a constant scramble to find refuge and comfort between various crises and disasters. Gringo finds an unusual source of comfort in a copy of Moby Dick that he picks up on a whim. He reads Melville's novel at odd moments, and seems drawn to Ishmael's restlessness, the madness of Ahab, and the idea of the ship's men, like people in the barrio, being battered by forces beyond their control.

Nespolo has a political message in his novel, one that might not be readily apparent to non-Argentinians like me, but there's nothing didactic or preachy going on here. Nespolo is sympathetic to the savage life of the barrio, but he certainly doesn't sugarcoat the motives or actions of his characters, most of whom are as vicious as feral cats. The message seems to be that the barrio creates these people, not the other way around. As grim as much of the novel is, this is an exhilarating, even fun, story. The dialogue and action is crisp, nasty and the story's twists and turns are never predictable.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Spring Torrents (1871) by Ivan Turgenev

The first thing you notice about a Turgenev novel is that it's a lot leaner than those of his Russian contemporaries. Turgenev didn't write sprawling Tolstoyan epics; his specialty was short stories and perfectly formed novels that have a very modern feel, especially in their treatment of women. Most 19th century novels, even those by women, tend to describe female characters in the simplest terms: good women are pure and saintly, bad girls are wicked and slatternly right to the bone. Turgenev, who had problematical (to say the least) relationships with all the women in his life, created female characters that are strikingly real. Spring Torrents highlights Turgenev's skill in this area, as well as his ability to describe the pains and pleasures of love.

The plot is deceptively simple. It begins in  St. Petersburg where Dmitry Sanin, a wealthy, bachelor landowner is looking gloomily at his empty life. Cue the flashback. Sanin recalls a trip he made to Frankfurt thirty years ago when he was twenty-two and taking a tour of Europe. Sanin wanders into a pastry shop run by an Italian family and almost immediately falls in love with Gemma, the 19-year-old daughter of the shop's owner, a widow named Lenore. Gemma is, however, engaged to a pompous German shopkeeper. In short order Sanin fights a duel to defend Gemma's honour, and she breaks off her engagement in favour of Sanin. Everything's looking good until Sanin meets an acquaintance from school now married to Maria, a brauty who says she's willing to purchase Sanin's estate so that he'll immediately have the money to marry Gemma and begin his new life in Germany. It turns out that Maria is mostly interested in seducing Sanin, which she accomplishes in fairly short order. Sanin is left consumed with shame and writes a letter to Gemma to tell her that he's not worthy of her love. He returns to Russia to live with his regret, but in the final pages of the novel he tracks down Gemma, who is now living in New York with her husband and family. The last we see of Sanin he's heading to New York.

Gemma and Maria are the twin stars of the novel. Most 19th century novelists (Dickens being the most obvious example) would have made Gemma a vapid paragon of virtue. Turgenev makes her funny, a touch eccentric, and not given to attacks of the vapours or any other kinds of behavior common to literary heroines of the time. The love affair Gemma becomes involved is implausible, but she is very real. Maria is even more the star of the show. She's trouble and it's spelled f-e-m-m-e f-a-t-a-l-e. What's unique about her character is that Turgenev makes her so damn charming. She seduces Sanin just to win a bet with her husband (it's very clear he's gay), and it's something she's done before. As bad as this behavior is, it's almost impossible not  to still like Maria, she's that charming.

Turgenev is also at the top of his game in his analysis of the psychology of love, a subject that he was a master of. Here he is describing first love:

First love is exactly like a revolution: the regular and established order of life is in an instant smashed to fragments; youth stands at the barricade, its bright banner raised high in the air, and sends its ecstatic greetings to the future whatever it may hold -- death or a new life, no matter.

It's that kind of writing that knocks the edges off this novel's melodramatic plot and makes it feel, in parts, very modern. Turgenev's sense of humour also helps in that regard. He can't resist mocking all things German, including having Gemma's pompous fiance read from a German book called Merry Quips or You Must and Will Laugh. That book actually existed, and Turgenev was clearly in on the joke that Germans have a difficult relationship with humour. The more things change...

If your view of Russian literature has been formed by dour literary giants like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, give Turgenev a try. He's no less a genius than the other two, but his prose style is a lot more agreeable to 21st century readers.