The stellar AJ McKenna is Guest Editor of Clarissa for the month of December, & we couldn’t be more excited about it! At this time of political turmoil, she’s asking which pieces of pop culture are helping you to survive the fallout? If you want to submit your list to AJ, email firstname.lastname@example.org!
So: it happened. The last hope for peace failed. The Fellowship is breaking. The Hosnian System was burned in the rays of a starkilling sun. Superman died, Captain America turned out to be a Nazi, and we discovered that cinema’s most well-remunerated stopped clock turned out to be right about one thing in the Star Wars prequels: when liberty dies, it really does expire to the sound of thunderous applause. So: what now?
What can something like Clarissa do now? What use is pop culture, what use is culture FULL-STOP at a time when drums thought long-silenced now sound once again in the deep? Maybe nothing. Maybe not very much at all. But maybe this: that the art we make, and the art we turn to, might have value in helping us deal with the times we encounter. With that in mind, for my turn as Guest Editor of Clarissa, I asked all our writers a question: what pop culture have you turned to in the weeks and months since Brexit and the Machtergreifung of Donald J Trump? And how – if at all – has it helped you?
The morning of the U.S. election result, on my way to work, I decided to take my iPod off shuffle and listen to a whole album. That album was Busta Rhymes’ 1999 classic Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front. The news coming in via Twitter that morning, the reports of cities already erupting in protest, seemed like a callback to Rhymes’ electrifying opener “Everybody Rise”, and tracks like Mystikal collaboration “Iz They Wildin Wit Us & Gettin’ Rowdy Wit Us?” and the perfect one-two combo of “What the Fuck You Want!!” followed immediately by the Ozzy-sampling “This Means War!!” seemed, that morning, like expressions of the rage we needed.
Fierce, black, finely tuned, and unrelenting. It still seems that way three weeks later. Oakland. Detroit. Manhattan. Wisconsin. North Carolina. Standing Rock. Chicago. Everybody Rise.
Another filter through which I’m viewing the Trump supremacy is the film I chose for my Halloween viewing this year, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. In this reading Trump is the Thief, Albert Spica, a low-rent thug who pretends to sophistication while displaying the garish bad taste which seems bizarrely common among dictators; contemptuous of literature and the life of the mind; and possessed of a grotesque, at once childlike, and violent sexuality.
If you want to understand how Trump will behave in government and just how to goad him and break him, watch Gambon’s performance as Spica, and pay particular attention to the scenes which deal with Spica’s sexuality. There are lessons here about what happens when fragile masculinity is rewarded with absolute power, and what happens when that fragile power comes up against a band of lovers and a woman bent on fierce revenge.
Because it seems crucial to me, in understanding the President-Elect, for us to face up to one key fact, which is hard to condense into one pithy clause, but let’s try this: Donald Trump is not a sexually mature human being. I’m not talking about physical maturity. One imagines the Omnibankrupt One must be sexually functional, if for no other reason than that he shares a family resemblance with his creepy-looking sons. But the emotional and psychological maturity that constitutes most people’s sexual awakening just never happened for Trump. Cosseted by his father’s wealth, spoiled rotten by his privilege, Donald Trump grew to full sexual maturity with all the emotional life of South Park‘s Eric Cartman.
Speaking of which, the final text to which I find myself returning as we contemplate the dawning Age of the Donald is Brighton Rock. Graham Greene’s novel (filmed in 1947 and 2010 – the original version, featuring Richard Attenborough in a role a world away from Jurassic Park‘s John Hammond, is the better of the two), lets us peer into the inner life of another low-rent mobster, another proto-Trump. Pinkie Brown is the classic fascist: highly-strung, apocalyptic in thinking, obsessed with Manichean totalities of good and evil, and pretending to intellectual sophistication while in fact being utterly shallow and venal.
His nemesis Ida Arnold is the exemplar of a kind of working class femininity which is one of the greatest unsung achievements of the liberal democracies. Apparently vulgar, her ability to rub along with the varied people she meets reflects an instinctual cosmopolitanism, and her understanding of right and wrong as simply what is or is not nice, prompted by a deeply felt, almost erotic empathy, allows for nuance while also providing her with the moral courage to pursue Pinky relentlessly and bring about his undoing. It seems to me that in these times when militant, malignant ignorance is metastasizing through the body politic, we could all use a little of Ida Arnold’s simple strength.
Now it’s your turn: AJ is asking readers and contributors to share their own survival guide pop culture items. Email AJ yours at email@example.com!
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.