Archive for ‘tv’

February 23, 2012

What is it like to be a dragon?

It is probably not news to anyone by now that the new My Little Pony cartoons are quite good. Unfortunately it is probably also not news to anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about it that they have problems, particularly with regard to how they deal with race. Because despite this being a series in which the main character is purple and her friends come in all the shades of the rainbow, ethnicity does exist in Equestria. We see it in an episode where the sole zebra character (not a pony, note) is signalled as being African. We see it again in the episode Over a Barrel, in which the ponies come into conflict with the buffaloes who are obvious Native American/First Nations analogues (in this as well as other episodes of the series the history the ponies are given is of the settler/pioneer variety). I find the show’s apparent comfort with that tradition a little bizarre – presumably at some point someone gave a thought to how the race thing worked within the show’s universe? Besides the obvious offensiveness it seems incredibly naive.

Children’s books/tv with talking animals tend to anthropomorphise unevenly. Pets and food in particular often don’t get a voice – everyone knows pets don’t speak, and food that did so would be creepy.  Goofy can talk, Pluto cannot; Noddy and Miffy are friends with bears, monkeys, and pigs but Bumpy Dog and Snuffy only bark. In the MLP universe, the cows, buffalo, donkeys, griffins and dragons all talk; the animals the ponies keep as pets (an owl, a cat, a tortoise who humiliates himself considerably for Rainbow Dash’s company, a rabbit, etc) do not.

Speech is important here because in a fantasy world with multiple sentient species in it I suspect the ability of a species to communicate becomes at least in part the arbiter of what personhood entails. So the buffalo are people in a way that Owloysius the owl (despite being excellent and an owl) isn’t.

My Little Pony does quite a bit of playing around with language, as is evident from the episode titles, the flood of horse-puns and cities like “Fillydelphia” and “Canterlot”. One of the things the show does is to insert the word “pony” into a number of words and phrases, such as “everypony”. “Pony” is thus used to replace “body” or “person”. I’d been bothered by this for some time, but in the most recent episode (“A Friend in Deed”) I particularly noticed that non-Pony characters, a pair of donkeys, were using “everypony” as well.

And so Spike the dragon, Cranky Doodle Donkey and other characters live in a world and communicate in a language in which personhood is literally defined as something that they are not. The idea that a person and a pony are the same seems to be at the heart of the language. And going by the racial stereotyping I mention above, if the Native Americans are buffalo-not-ponies and the African immigrants are zebras-not-ponies, it seems heavily implied that personhood in Equestria is limited to what in this world would be the white settlers.

March 28, 2011

Shatnerquake and Left of Cool

A couple of weeks ago I started writing a new column. Left of Cool will appear in The Sunday Guardian every Sunday. Aadisht Khanna and I (on alternating weekends) will be talking about books that are mildly odd or completely bizarre or just generally obscure and wonderful. This week (most serendipitously the week of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s 80th birthdays) I chose to focus on Jeff Burk’s Shatnerquake.

The review in the paper can be found here; an edited version is below.

William Shatner fascinates me. Even now, after decades of seeing him in other things and knowing just how far he is from one’s mental picture of what a dashing, heroic space captain ought to look like, it is possible to watch one of the original series episodes of Star Trek and have a crush on Captain Kirk. It makes no sense.

The internet is fond of a certain game. It is called “Who would win in a fight?” Popcultural figures are pitted against each other in imaginary duels, as people conversant with these figures and their skillsets work out what possible strategies and advantages they could possibly deploy against each other. Superman vs Batman? Alien vs Predator? Chacha Chaudhary vs Godzilla? Who would win in a fight between a William Shatner character and another William Shatner character?

Jeff Burk goes a step further in his book Shatnerquake. The question Burk asks is this: who would win in a fight between all the characters Shatner has ever played and Shatner himself?

The story, if you can call it that, is as follows. William Shatner is at a convention for William Shatner fans. Unfortunately, so are a group of Campbellians, fans of Bruce Campbell (who has also had an odd acting career, though not quite as much of one as Shatner). These Campbellians, having infiltrated the convention, set off a “fiction bomb” which brings all the characters Shatner has ever played into this reality, where they cause chaos and destruction.

The result is both less stupid and more awesome (depending on how you the reader feel about very silly books about cultural icons) than it sounds. Every other line is a reference to something or the other that is Shatner related, and it would take a serious connoisseur to unpack the full extent of the book’s allusiveness. As a mere dilettante myself, I suspect I only picked up the most obvious references. So you have Captain Kirk killing innocent fans dressed as Klingons and sexually harassing other innocent fans dressed as Orion slave girls, T.J. Hooker yelling at people, and bewildered bystanders witnessing spoken word performances. When he speaks, Shatner keeps making the random pauses that we know him for. There is a man in a red shirt whose name (it is Stephen) Kirk refuses to know. The plot of Shatnerquake itself might be a reference to the actor’s appearance in a skit on Saturday Night Live, in which he insulted a convention-ful of Star Trek fans. The book even has a two-dimensional animated Shatner, invisible when he turns sideways. And somehow (and I cannot give Burk enough credit for this) it is actually readable.

Perhaps Shatnerquake could not work if it were about almost any other celebrity figure. But as Burk himself points out in a letter to Shatner at the beginning of the book (it ends with the postscript “please don’t sue me”), one is never quite sure whether the actor is acting, when he is parodying himself, when he is serious. Shatner has had quite a bit of success spoofing James T. Kirk, but it’s more than that; as Burk says, “[His] entire life has become an elaborate work of performance art”. The actor has been blurring the lines between actor and character for so long now that it makes perfect sense that they should be completely obscured in this manner; there simply isn’t a Shatner-persona we can take as more ‘real’ than any of the parts he has played. From this perspective the book ties in perfectly with the larger piece of art that is Shatner’s own life.

The first page of the book carries a list of the author’s other works, among them Shatnerquest and Shatnerpocalypse. I suspect that neither of these books exists, but so strange is this actor’s career that I would not be surprised if they did. Or even if he had written them himself.

March 6, 2011

Nicole Polizzi, A Shore Thing

If I have one regret over writing and reviewing A Shore Thing it is that the sunburn scene did not make it into my review due to lack of space. Gia, the protagonist of the story, gets a job at a tanning salon called Tantastic. An attractive but pale young man comes in for a tan and she gives him a light one (out of consideration for his skin). He invites her to a party at his house. Unfortunately he decides in the intervening time that his tan is not sufficient and takes matters into his own hands; as a result, a couple of days later, Gia arrives to find the young man naked, bright red, and in considerable pain from the sunburn all over his body. Amazingly her presence still manages to excite him enough that they can spend a few minutes chatting about whether his engorged penis most resembles a barbershop pole, a candy cane or a Dr Seuss hat before he begs her to leave because the pain is too much to bear.

Between this and the numerous descriptions of people doing shots out of each other’s navels, I found the book a pleasant and instructive experience.
A version of this review at Guardian20, here.


If you consider books important at all, it’s easy to believe that the celebrity novel signals the end of literature. These books are generally terrible, the people they are about have lives that manage to be both expensive and uninteresting, and most of them are ghostwritten, so that they don’t even feel like they have basic integrity. And (to rub it in further) most of them are bestsellers.

By any normal standards, therefore, A Shore Thing by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is an abomination. Snooki is known for her work on MTV’s The Jersey Shore, a reality show that apparently features a group of Italian-American housemates spending their summer at Seaside Heights in New Jersey. Snooki is perhaps the best known of the group – though as someone who does not watch the show I cannot really explain why.

A Shore Thing tells the story of the well-meaning but accident-prone Gia Spumanti (based on Snooki herself) who is spending the summer in Seaside Heights with her cousin Bella (based on fellow Jersey Shore star Jenni “JWoww” Farley). While Gia gets a job at a tanning salon, accidentally becomes a YouTube celebrity and attempts to mend her new employer’s broken marriage, Bella works in a gym and makes a series of terrible romantic choices.
In many ways A Shore Thing feels like a rather awkward young adult novel (which makes sense; though it hasn’t been specifically marketed as one the show’s audience would seem to skew that way) with its story of girls Finding Themselves over the course of one summer. It emphasises such important moral lessons as the fact that date rape is bad, that education is good, that eating disorders should be avoided because it’s perfectly okay to love one’s “badonkadonk”. On the other hand, much of the humour seems like it could have come straight out of American Pie. One long and cringeworthy scene involves laxatives and men’s bathrooms; a romantic date ends with a jellyfish sting and the inevitable urination.

However banal and juvenile this may sound, A Shore Thing is bizarrely entertaining. It’s hard to tell how much of this is due to the work of Valerie Frankel, Snooki’s “collaborator” on the book. In the acknowledgements Frankel is thanked for “help[ing] me translate my ideas onto the page”. Yet frequently the book reads more as a parody of The Jersey Shore and Snooki herself than anything else. For example, we see Gia “dancing on the spot to music that, like dolphins and small dogs, only she could hear”. We learn that “[s]he loved dancing and was talented too. Gia won a contest in high school for shaking it the longest and hardest without spilling a drop of her vodka tonic”. And she’d like to wear orange, but “that was too close to her skin tone to pull off”.
When she overhears an acquaintance saying harsh things about her and kicking over a trash can in her rage, Gia’s outrage is entirely for the harm caused to the community. “Go ahead, call me a fat whore, she thought, but for God’s sake don’t litter!”

Gia is not the only character to be the victim of what seems like constant mockery. Linda, a character who once had a party with a friend where “they each ate three cookies” also comes in for some of it. We learn that one of the things she admires about her boyfriend Rocky is that “he loved to fight. When Rocky pounded down some kid because she asked him to, Linda felt loved and treasured.”

A subplot in which two men compete to manipulate, pick up and sleep with women is another clue that this might all be a really bizarre satire. The competition bears a distinct similarity to another reality TV show, the genuinely disturbing Keys to the VIP. Then there’s a gloriously meta moment where an entire, naked, room of spray-tanned women discuss the “bend and snap” seduction technique from Legally Blonde and unleash it on an innocent delivery man.

If it is a spoof the question remains; does Snooki know?

Then there’s the fact that this book is so quotable. A bridesmaid claims that “Nothing says ‘I, like, love you’ like a spray tan. An incident where Gia accidently trips over a shark and finds herself standing rather too close to it gives rise to the greatest line in the book (and I suspect in literature for 2011): “Don’t eat me, bitch”.

All told, for all its banality and lack of depth it’s hard to hate A Shore Thing. There’s something so innocent and earnest about it – this is a world in which date rape can be avenged through a paintball game, where a house burning down is no big deal, and where the guy who stole your car probably only wanted to refurbish it. It is bizarrely appealing. If this is the death of literature it’s a lumbering, adorable puppy of a death.


March 1, 2010

YfL2: Turnip

I have been very silly. The writers of Blackadder, could they but see this, might possibly arrange for me to be assassinated.

(An edited version appeared today in the New Indian Express education supplement. I’m educational, internet.)


Turnip: (noun) A round root with white or cream flesh which is eaten as a vegetable and also has edible leaves.

Recently a school in California banned a book, removing all copies from its shelves. This would not be particularly unusual (most schools choose not to stock certain books) except that the book in question was hardly something most people would consider racy. It was the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. Apparently a child had discovered the definition of “oral sex” in this dictionary, and the revelation that a book full of word definitions could potentially tell children what particular words mean was enough. Following widespread mockery the school reinstated the dictionary (though students now need written permission to consult it).

But could the revelation that students might look up certain words and phrases in the dictionary really be that much of a revelation to the school authorities? In an episode of Blackadder, Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson) and his turnip-obsessed sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) meet Dr. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary. The following exchange takes place:

Dr. Johnson: Sir! I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

Blackadder: I wouldn’t be too hopeful — that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

Baldrick: Sir, can I look up `turnip’?

Blackadder: `Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

Baldrick: It is if you sit on one.

While it’s notable that Blackadder, the scriptwriters and the audience all take for granted that most dictionaries are going to be used to look up rude words at some point, what is far more interesting is Baldrick’s contribution to the conversation. Of the three, Baldrick evinces the most sophisticated understanding of language. He realises that meaning is to a great extent dependent on context. The dictionary definition of a turnip is functional, but in the right circumstances a turnip can be an object of desire (as it seems to be for Baldrick himself), a lifesaver (if one were starving), or the source of a great deal of pain or the reason for much cursing, if one were to sit on it. Dr. Johnson’s contribution to the English language is to give it rules; words can only mean what the dictionary says they can mean. Baldrick immediately undermines this attempt at regulation by demonstrating that it is completely inadequate.

Of the two sides, I’m inclined towards Baldrick’s, and not just because everything one hears of Dr. Johnson makes him sound like one of the most insufferable men who ever lived. But then again, without setting some rules for the language it would be complete chaos.

If Baldrick is right about language, perhaps that school in California was right to ban the dictionary. After all, in the right context every word is potentially dangerous. But when language is that unstable, maybe we need dictionaries, with their illusion of creating some sort of order. Otherwise we’d all just run away screaming and nothing would ever get said.


November 16, 2009

Wholesome TV for kids

Last week I was sitting around with my grandparents and youngest cousin (who has just started primary school). The cousin was watching TV, which is how I ended up seeing an episode of Chhota Bheem, a cartoon on Pogo.

Here are the main characters of the show:

Three of the people in this picture are villains. I bet you can’t guess which ones. It couldn’t have anything to do with that subtle colour gradation, could it?

This is what Bheem, the main character is like (taken from here):

(all pictures can be embiggened by clicking)

This is Kalia, the bad guy. His name, FFS, is Kalia.

Kalia also has henchpersons of sorts, twins called Dholu and Bholu. They’re not as bad as Kalia. Colourwise, they’re somewhere between Kalia and Bheem.

Incidentally, here’s the show’s main female character; a role model for little girls everywhere.

She is “simple” (always a useful trait in a woman), really likes housework, and is feminine even while being able to play with the boys – which is a relief considering she views the only other young female character in the show as a rival for Bheem’s attention.

This article in Mint quotes parents who applaud these new cartoons (including Chhota Bheem), not only because they’re entertaining and well made but because they apparently inculcate “traditional values”. I don’t believe that literature, television, or any other form of media directed at children is under any particular obligation to impart the right set of values, just because they’re children and impressionable. Nor do I think that Chhota Bheem is such a powerful piece of art that it’s going to singlehandedly convince my young cousin (who does not live in a household where this sort of thing is discussed/debunked on a regular basis) of the validity of traditional gender roles, or of forms of bigotry relating to skin colour and how melanin turns you evil. But that’s just the thing, these are traditional roles. Which means that Chhota Bheem doesn’t have to do anything singlehandedly, because all these ideas are already out there, influencing Young Cousin (and me, and you, and everyone) and all this show has to do is tap into this larger set of narratives about bad, dark-skinned people and fair, docile girls.

And the reason the previous paragraph reads like The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Ideology (assuming such a thing exists) is because I don’t know what level of basic political awareness I can take for granted anymore. Because it’s 2009 and the creators of this show are apparently both clueless and unchallenged.