Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dancing on the Edge & Colourblind Jazz Fans

I greatly admire Stephen Poliakoff.  He's not perfect, although some of his television work - particularly Shooting the Past - is as very nearly.  He has a luxurious way of film-making, instilling his characters with both curiosity and his own passion for story-telling.  His films are always beautifully shot (he has an ability to make every actor look so beautiful) with a great use of music and point of view.  He's done a few I couldn't sit through again, but I can't name many directors who haven't.

Dancing on the Edge is his new BBC series charting an all black Jazz band in 1930s London. It has a few problems. It's been criticised for slow-pacing, but that's cool with me; it's all very beautiful, as usual, and the actors are flawless. There are however four glaring problems. The first two have always been there with Poliokoff but become really obvious in this miniseries, the second two are unique to Dancing on the Edge and the forth really matters:

  1. Rich people spend their money on things ordinary folk can't afford. Thus rich people are treated as eccentric and fascinating, even when those characters are in no way eccentric or fascinating.
  2. When something interesting or notable is happening, characters will say so, in case its not obvious. "Isn't this an amazing party?", "Isn't it fantastic that we should all be here together at this time and place, especially what with us living in a poignant historical context and all?" And perhaps worst of all, one character actually says, "Other people's private lives. One never knows what goes on!" 
  3. The inexplicable compulsion on the part of all characters to say the name Stanley in an emphatic way at least once every two minutes, and every sentence if the character of Stanley is in the room.
  4. Apparently, nice white jazz fans in 1930s London are magically and completely colourblind. 

Here's the deal.  In 2013 UK, there are white people, who are good people and have black friends or even family members, who love music, films and books by black people, but who sometimes say and do the wrong thing around race; they make an assumption based on stereotypes, they use clumsy language or make an unwise joke. Same with straight folk and queer folk, non-disabled and disabled folk, even - perhaps especially - men and women. Most good decent people make awkward slips. We live in a prejudiced world, we grew up here and even if we have no prejudice in our hearts, this stuff is part of our culture, so part of us we all have to keep an eye on.

In 1930s London, there were white people, who were good people who loved jazz and had black friends and lovers, who fairly often said and did the wrong thing around race. They would have been far more conscious of race, living as they did in a very racist mono-cultural world. They would have grown up with racial stereotypes being put forward to them as scientific facts.  We see it in the literature written by groovy, progressive white folk of the time (Waugh, Lawrence et al.), and forgive the language and racist humour because it is of its time. It was a very racist time. It's not like Nazism succeeded in Germany because they were the only racists in Europe - they were just the most desperate and demoralised racists around.

Poliokoff has created a world in which only negative characters ever remark upon or behave clumsily about race. White characters who love jazz are immune from racism. When racism is discussed, all the nice young white people find it utterly incomprehensible.  I have the sense that there will come a breaking point in the narrative, where the white folk may well close ranks to scapegoat their black friend, but while the going is good?  Only sinister characters and money-minded squares give so much as a raised eyebrow when the band leader forms a romantic relationship with a middle class white girl.

This is not an unusual world for television and film, where prejudice is often seen as something individual, rather than cultural, even in narratives which hinge on prejudice being a massive issue in the lives of its victims (this is particularly remarked upon in science fiction and fantasy, where writers often create a sexist or racist world, which they people entirely with egalitarians).

It's perhaps most noticeable in something like Dancing on the Edge because it is a rare British drama with people of colour at the centre of things, it's beautifully made and because it is about a historical period - would it really make the audience uncomfortable to imagine that people in the 1930s had very different, contradictory ideas about race?  If the history of 20th century music teaches us one thing, it is that it is possible for privileged white folk to dance, cry, worship and make love to the music of black folk without eliminating racism by the sixteenth bar - or the sixteenth album.

You know how I feel - art matters dreadfully!  I believe that many people will have overcome some of their own prejudice by listening to beautiful music produced by black people or gay people especially, other marginalised groups as well.  Music demonstrates that we all feel a great deal, and often some of our highest, lowest, deepest and most personal feelings are shared by song-writing strangers.

But for many people, music is a product to be consumed, its production a little like a clever trick, not the expression of something both essentially human and essentially higher than that. Racist ideas around black music were never - are still not - exclusive to people who dislike the music black folk make.

The early years of British jazz provide such a good opportunity to explore these issues, or at least demonstrate the likely reality. So far, no exploration and an . The jazz band live in a racist world with very few racists in it - and so far, no truly powerful racists (even though they met the future King Edward VIII, a vile racist and personal friend of Hitler).

Two episodes to go.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Marriage Became More Meaningful

The Modern Man: Stephen fields calls from his investors whilst
ironing out deconstructed neckties for my wedding dress.
Equal marriage means so much to me.  Given that I'm a woman about to be married to a man, I don't think anyone realises just how much it matters.  It's so I can get married and not feel like a fraud.  It means I can have a wedding which doesn't make me feel closeted, because people like me can only marry if they happen to have partners of a certain gender. Not just yet, but soon enough, I will be able to marry whoever I like.

There's a certain type of social conservative who enthuses about marriage, but worries that it isn't what it used to be, weakened by decades of social change and legal reform.  To me, this is counter to everything I feel and observe about marriage. As an institution, I believe that marriage is getting stronger and stronger.

Things that have made marriage stronger and more meaningful include:

1. The ease of divorce means that folks are less likely to stay together in unhappy, loveless or abusive marriages because they can't get out of it.  Divorce is not easy. In court fees alone, with no legal advice, the least complicated divorce costs a little under £400 and will take about six months - marriage costs a little over £100 and can be carried out within 16 days. Divorce law is complicated, so if you're not on excellent terms, if there's money, property or children involved, the whole thing gets extremely difficult and costly. But it's doable and it's (largely) socially acceptable.

Marriage had to be far less meaningful when it was more commonplace for people who were unhappy together to be married. Where divorce was inaccessible, it wasn't uncommon for people to move on and start new relationships, have new lives and families whilst still being legally married to someone else because of the shame, cost and complication of divorce - the legalisation of divorce in the UK was brought about by a moral panic about people living in sin because they had separated from spouses, started again with new partners, but had no option to remarry.

Marriage could be made stronger by... no fault divorces.  In England and Wales, a couple may divorce on the grounds of separation after two years apart, but to get divorced any quicker, it has to be somebody's fault. I have known amicably splitting couples lie about adultery in order to speed things up. The only bar to no fault divorces is the idea that two adults, in the absence of adultery or ill treatment, might not know their own minds about the end of a relationship.

2. The social acceptability of cohabitation. The option of cohabitation means that most people know what they're getting into before they make a permanent commitment, folks can freely experiment with living arrangements and fewer people rush into marriage just because they're madly in love and need a social licence to spend all their time together for however long the passion is burning - even if it fizzles out within a few months. Meanwhile, couples who feel that marriage is not for them for whatever reason are no longer obliged to choose between biting the bullet of social convention or else meeting with stigma and discrimination.

My mother often described the anti-climax of the first months of my parents' marriage.  During those first few months - a particularly cold winter - they had to discover what it was to live independently from parents and what it was to live with one another, all of which would have been cool except that they'd had to promise forever before they got to experiment, negotiate and learn about themselves and how to get along. So they felt under tremendous pressure.

I reckon the acceptability of cohabitation has made things better even for people who don't cohabit before marriage, usually for religious reasons, because they seem to have learnt so much from the rest of us. In my parents' day, few people lived together before marriage, but there was no discussion about it either, you got married and worked it all out as you went along. These days, folks who want to jump into the deep end on their wedding day are encouraged to have thorough discussions about how they're going to organise themselves in everything from finances to sex.  And that's a good thing.

Marriage could be made stronger by... allowing some legal contract, other than marriage for people to become one another's next of kin.  This would benefit lots of people who are not married, whether they are living with a romantic partner, a friend, a sibling or if they are estranged from their official family (or don't have one) and want to nominate someone else to make decisions for them in an emergency, automatically inherit from them and so forth.

3. The (gradual) demise of the nuclear family as the ideal living arrangement.  So much focus of the resistance to marriage reform comes from the idea that the nuclear family is a great ideal. It's not. It was a short-lived middle class notion; working class people, who have nothing much to pass on and can't necessarily afford to move out of parental home or pay outsiders for childcare and other help, have always had a far more flexible attitude towards family. It's partly to do with blood, but also geography, history, circumstance, as well as love. Your uncles and aunts are not necessarily your parents' siblings. Step families prosper with less emphasis on biological relationships. Of course, poor people have poorer outcomes in education, health, employment and pretty much everything else. But they have tended to have a pragmatic attitude towards family; family are simply the people around you.

The nuclear family places the sole responsibility for children on two parents. It shuffles the rest of the family completely out of the way. If people don't marry or don't have children, they are not part of the club, a club which is isolating for those both within and without it.  It depends on everyone having enough money to live such an isolated life, which of course, fewer and fewer folk do.

I'm not about to celebrate the economic downturn or in particular, an economic shift which falls disproportionately on younger adults, who simply won't have the same opportunities as their parents. But it has forced us to be more flexible. Multi-generational households are suddenly much more common. People live in houseshares which become familial (not all are like that, but some are). Middle class people now speak of their "chosen family", which is what a lot of working class people would simply describe as "family".

All this makes marriage stronger, because it makes marriage supported and supportive to others. Couples do not need to sail out alone in the world and hope to sustain each other. When someone joins a family (formally or not), they become important to several people, not merely a partner for one individual.

I'm not sure I've explained this at all well, but never mind.

Marriage could be made stronger by... a cultural shift away from the idea that happy people come in units of two and single people are fundamentally alone in life. We drastically undervalue other relationships, friendship most of all. Romantic love is a truly wonderful thing, but it isn't radically distinct from other kinds of love, and love is what really matters. Happy people are people who have love in their lives, and that can come in many different forms.

4. Increasing Sexual Equality.

People have argued a lot about the origins of marriage in human society and what marriage is naturally about.  Clearly, nature is not a part of this; marriage is something people invented.  Fundamentally they invented it to organise and celebrate pair bonding and I'm sure in many cases, especially among ruling classes, property or children (principally, which woman bore which man's children) were a priority. But most people in the history of the world didn't have a lot of individual property and childcare tended to get shared out in the most convenient way within a community. Marriage exists because people have always partnered off - not everyone, and it's not our only sexual strategy but it is something humans do.  And since this is a fairly big deal in people's lives - like being born, becoming an adult or losing a loved one - people have tended to celebrate it and use the language of permanent change.

There are some folks who think that marriage is about men and women, because man is one kind of animal and woman is quite another and somehow, despite massive differences in comprehension, ability and desire, they somehow work well together (if they buy the right self-help books and listen to the right kind of religious leaders or relationship gurus - otherwise, the whole thing is hopeless).

But the truth is that private relationships between men and women can be condemned by a society where such expectations exist, where men and women don't have the same freedoms and opportunities. This isn't to say that there's an ideal feminist marriage in which both partners play exactly the same roles in every context which, if only we all subscribed to, we'd be sorted. But the more freedom - legal, financial and social - that both parties have, the more likely they are to negotiate and discover an arrangement that suits them. The less likely they are to believe that they can't really talk to each other about their needs, because people of their partner's gender are incapable of understanding. The less likely there is to be violence or abuse on either side.

Marriage could be made stronger by.... a cultural shift away from the idea of marriage or relationships as a goal and overarching source of fulfillment for women.  As it is, this places tremendous pressure on women to find a partner, exact commitment from them and then, single-handedly, manage the inevitably two-person job of a happy and healthy relationship. Women can stay in miserable relationships because they hold themselves responsible and fear being alone. Women can feel miserable about good relationships because their lives are unsatisfactory and they believed that marriage was supposed to fulfill them. Having a partner in life is not the same as a partner being a life.

Basically, marriage would be so much more meaningful in an egalitarian universe.  On which subject...

5. A growing acceptance of romantic and sexual diversity, Civil Partnerships and soon, coming to a wedding venue near you, Equal Marriage. 

There was time, not all that long ago, perhaps up until the mid-eighties, when it was extremely common for exclusively gay men and women to marry straight people.  Some of those marriages were mutually convenient arrangements between close friends but others, I'm sure, were absolute hell. Straight marriage got a lot more meaningful when being gay no longer necessitated complete secrecy. It got yet more meaningful when gay people began to have some options for becoming parents. These days, it is only those from extremely zealous religious backgrounds who feel the need to use straight marriage as a closet.

Equal marriage will mean that marriage is no longer even slightly about being straight. A marriage certificate will no longer be a certificate to say that your relationship is valid and superior to other relationships between people with the same strength of feeling and commitment towards one another.

If your a woman who finds a man you want to spend the rest of your life with, you climb up to the top of the nearest office block, church spire or silo and cry out "We're in love!". You don't cry, "We're so straight!" or as some Tory MPs seemed to think you might, "It would be typical for two people of our respective genders to have baby-making potential for at least the earlier portion of our adult lives, regardless of whether we're still young enough, each have the necessary equipment and chemical capacity or indeed, the slightest desire to have children! Hooray!" (People on the ground could never comprehend such a long sentence). 

Marriage could be made stronger by... ditching the gender binary in legal language around marriage (Why? Why on Earth is it still there now?) and trans folk who had their marriages dissolved as part of the gender recognition process, getting to have their marriages back (here's the tabled amendment).

My marriage will mean so much more to me because I could marry anyone.  It removes the element of straight privilege that only belongs to me by a double coincidence. It makes me part of something which is now so much more inclusive.  This is not the be all and end all of queer rights (not nearly) and marriage is by no means a perfect institution.  But in the last few weeks, the world has become a slightly better place.