Monday, January 26, 2015

Page 3, Charlie Hebdo and the bare boobs of Angkor

Last week, The Sun pulled off what was widely regarded — through gritted teeth — as a PR masterstroke, by appearing to retire its venerable Page 3 feature (an attractive young lady with her breasts on display) and then, with all the brouhaha for and against still sounding in the air, bringing it back. But before the other media were forced to retract their obituaries, their coverage seemed to come up against the same sort of dilemmas and paradoxes that were exposed by all the Charlie Hebdo-related comment: essentially, if the key issue is whether it’s appropriate or not to depict something (Mohammed, boobs) you’re forced to take sides when you choose whether or not to depict it. Many of the papers and other news sources attempted to fudge the task by running pictures of former Page 3 stars such as Samantha Fox or Linda Lusardi, but choosing poses where they weren’t airing their areolae. This in turn raises further questions, since these more demure poses were still cheesecake shots for the gratification of the straight male gaze, which is apparently the whole problem with Page 3 — otherwise we’d have to infer that breasts per se were the problem, a profoundly anti-female stance that would probably have found favour with the Kouachi brothers, albeit maybe not with the sort of fervour that might have prompted them to shoot up an editorial meeting of The Sun. Because bare breasts when deployed in the cause of feminism — as in the case of Femen, say, are a good thing. Oh, hang on, maybe not.

In a parallel development, there has been outrage at the appearance of photos of topless women taken in and around the historic temples of Angkor in Cambodia; this is particularly controversial because what clothes they are wearing make them resemble apsara, cloud spirits of Hindu/Buddhist mythology. Apart from the fact that this is far from the first time such a scandal has erupted, observers have been quick to point out that Angkor is absolutely swimming in images of underclad females, in the form of the carvings on the temple walls, but that cuts no ice with Kerya Chau Sun of the Apsara Authority: “When you insult someone’s culture, it’s not art at all,” she says. Which is pretty lame as a code of aesthetics but I suppose it neatly encapsulates the thinking behind the campaigns against both Charlie Hebdo and Page 3. Although it does raise a further question: if it were art, would that make it OK?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ahmed Aboutaleb says “fuck off” (or does he?)

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and associated horrible events, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, has told Muslims who don’t like the city’s chilled pluralism and might consider taking violent offence at the contents of a newspaper to “rot toch op”, which has been translated in the British media — with varying numbers of asterisks — as “fuck off”. I don’t speak Dutch; some contacts have suggested that in reality Aboutaleb’s words might be translated as a rather milder “go to hell” or even just “go away”, but he’s still earned plaudits for his straight-talking approach to the enemies of freedom. Of course, Mr Aboutaleb is of Moroccan extraction, so he can probably use more direct language than some other civic leaders could get away with, without being accused of racism or Islamophobia. (I’m thinking of Boris Johnson, his Turkish ancestry notwithstanding.)

But the discussion did get me thinking about what an odd beast our favourite expletive construction really is. If we accept that “fuck” means to copulate, how exactly does one “fuck off”? It creates images of someone copulating so forcefully that he or she is propelled bodily from the bed or other surface, rather in the manner of Viz’s Johnny Fartpants being sent skywards by the power of his own bottom burps. The American “fuck yourself” is more satisfying as an insult, casting the recipient as a sort of carnal oureboros, pleasuring and consuming himself at once, the ultimate in squalid self-indulgence. But then the “off” does reinforce that your ultimate goal is for the person in question to leave your presence entirely, which I guess was Mr Aboutaleb’s main point. Maybe in celebration of this excellent fellow we should recalibrate our default swear mode to “rot toch op”. And unless we’re telling a Dutch person where to go, only we know how rude we’re being.

PS: This:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

#JeSuisCharlie and David Bowie’s teeth

I realise I’ve been rather slack of late in the attention I’ve been paying to this silly little blog, but really, does it matter what I write or don’t write. I did have a few vague ideas for writing something about the apparent modest upsurge in sales of print books versus e-books, with particular reference to the covetable designs of the past two or three Murakami titles; and I also toyed with being sardonic about the fact that someone made a sculpture based on David Bowie’s teeth. But ultimately, I was thinking, hey, it’s just a blog, who cares?

And then, on the way back from a visit to review a restaurant (it was very good, by the way, thanks for asking) I found out about the Charlie Hebdo attack. And you think you’ve become, immune, numb to such horrors, and in terms of numbers it wasn’t even the worst terrorist attack of the day but something about the scenario in Paris overwhelmed me. Some people drew some silly cartoons, so some other people went round and killed them. All sorts of words came to mind, disproportionate, barbaric, counter-productive but the one that kept banging around my head was “stupid”. This wasn’t really about religion or politics, it was about people who have invested their whole selves in an identity of wilful, blinkered stupidity and when they see anything that challenges it (because even if a cartoon is silly, it can still be clever) their only response is bullets or bombs. Just like the recent school attacks by the Taliban and Boko Haram, this was about not being able to cope with any manifestation of intelligence or curiosity or critical that might threaten one’s own lumpen, black-and-white view of the world. And I started spewing on social media, mainly links to some of the other cartoons that people have been drawing in recent hours in support of their slain colleagues. And ultimately it doesn’t really matter what I say on Twitter, what pictures I put on Facebook or Flickr, or even whether I go back to regular postings on this blog. Except that it does matter, because I can say things and suddenly it’s very important that if I can, I do. And the same applies to all of you. Say it. Write it. Draw it. Because you can. Because the fact that you can matters and it suddenly matters even more.

Sorry, I’m still so sad and angry that this isn’t really going anywhere. In a few days I’ll come back and it’ll be all about Bowie’s teeth again. But for now I’ll just repeat something I wrote on Twitter a few hours ago, that felt like howling into the void but a few people said they appreciated it: If your faith is so fragile that it can be troubled by a silly cartoon, is it worth even being faithful?