From Benny Hill to Sam Bee

 

When I was a growing up in Iran, a favourite past-time was watching boot-legged Betamax video cassettes of Hollywood films, Turkish soap operas, and British comedy shows. I distinctly remember The Benny Hill Show as a recurring features. Benny Hill played the character of an old jolly slap-sticky comic whose act largely revolved around chasing very young, very attractive women and accidentally undressing them or otherwise engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviour bordering what we call assault these days. I don’t mean to judge poor Mr. Hill based on our modern sensibilities and standards. Yet you can’t note that The Benny Hill Show was an international hit in the 80’s! An international hit! The average person found the show not offensive but hilarious. Just in my lifetime alone, we’ve come far in the West. Back then few families even contemplated how this type of comedy might impact their children’s perception of gender roles or acceptable behaviour.  Even in the nineties when I was a teenager in Canada spending idle hours watching The Comedy Network, fat chick jokes were the standard stock of most stand-up comedians.

Growing up, there was an undeniable dearth of women comedians in the English speaking world. Women were not deemed funny. In the past decade however, there has been an explosion of female comedians on the scene. The likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Schumer have created their own shows, penned best-selling memoirs, and made films. In short they have created a space for a female perspective on big issues like rape culture, body dysmorphia, violent pornography, equal representation, and the tiring over-obsession with “having it all”. Among these disruptive pioneers, I personally have a special soft spot for Samatha Bee, not least because she is an alumnus of the Daily Show and a mentee of Jon Stewart, the father of all political satirists on TV. Sam Bee has created an interesting format for late night TV (thankfully available on her YouTube channel for us expats but also international audiences). Devoid of guests, stiff suits, and big desks as a permanent fixture in the middle of the stage, the show has a fast-paced high-action feel to it. She goes on long monologues, often tirades on one or two specific topics per show. Sam Bee is the best kind of comedian! The angry type. Her segments are a mix of righteous indignation, razer-sharp analysis, and investigative journalism. She has been critiqued for her “empty vitriol”.  But her millions of viewers seem to disagree week after week. Given that her topics are often lady-relevant ones, I think I am not the only women out there who gets strong satisfaction from seeing her express our frustrations so well and so passionately. It is her passion and anger that make her segments all the more authentic. When covering the Orlando shooting Sam said “Is it okay if, instead of making jokes, I just scream for seven minutes until we cut to commercial?” showing that her primary objective is not telling jokes but doing satire.  I’ve never been a fan of aloof dead-pan comedy. That why I never fully got into the new the Daily Show with Trevor Noah or the Late Night with Seth Meyers. So for me and over 2 million other viewers, having Sam Bee on TV to vent our frustrations is a gift.

 

It is amazing that in my lifetime alone we have TV comedy shows have transformed beyond recognition. That is not to say that sexism or even violence cloaked as humour doesn’t exist, but at least it doesn’t go unchecked. Now I am only awaiting Jessica Williams to have her own show to be truly content with the cadre of female comics we have on our airways.

Parks and Recreation – More of ‘em

As a child, I took my first steps in an apartment in Tehran. It was a big apartment – over 180 square metres – but an apartment nonetheless. We lived in that apartment until we left Tehran, initially for London, and eventually settling in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, Canada. I remember quite clearly that as a child I felt deprived of green space, of not being able to climb trees or to run around without being scolded that I might break something. Even in the schoolyard, which was almost entirely covered by concrete slabs, save for a few trees, we were reprimanded for running or chasing each other due to the risk of falling and injuring ourselves. I was quite lucky because my best friend in primary school, Mandana, lived in a two-story house with terraces overlooking a beautiful garden. We’d spend many afternoons both during the school year and in the summer, playing in the yard or the attic or the storage room in the basement of this house. It was a great outlet for an apartment-dwelling kid especially since the closest public green space, the Melat Park, was a good two miles (3.5 kilometres) away and we seldom went to it. That garden was a treasure in a concrete jungle of several million residents.

Now that I have my own little girl, we too live in an apartment and although she’s too small to run around and play hide and seek or climb trees, I think about things like raising children in big cities, green space, and human-nature interaction. Arguably London with its several million residents is one of the original mega-cities. Yet amazingly it doesn’t feel like a concrete jungle. For one thing, the prevalence of low-rise buildings even in the very centre of the city allows one to always catch a glimpse of the sky. More importantly, the UK capital is exceptionally green. We live in Chiswick in the West of London and within a 20-minute walking radius, we’ve got an impressive array of parks to choose from. From the stately Chiswick House and Garden (a mere five-minute walk) and magnificent Kew to the more modest Grove Park, Turnham Green, Chiswick Common, and Acton Green Common, there is no shortage of greenery in this area. If I were more active and motivated I could easily reach Osterley or Richmond Park by public transit, bicycle, or car. In fact 47% of London is composed of green space. This is a figure one should not take for granted. I know I certainly don’t.

When I lived in Canada too, I was grateful for the conscious integration of public parks and nature trails in urban areas, which I assumed was somehow linked to the legacy of Anglo-Canadian pioneers and their city planning efforts. In Richmond Hill, where I grew up as the township began to increase in size and turn from farmlands to subdivisions in the early 1970s, an impressive 166 parks were planned for. A few of these are undeveloped natural areas similar to the valley around the Don River in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) but most are urban parks, small in size and usually containing playgrounds, ice arenas, and baseball pitches. Their purpose is to provide recreation and activity space, not so much conserving nature. Since the early nineties, Richmond Hill’s population has more than tripled from 60,000 to over 185,000 as development has increased at an explosive rate. In fact, all over the GTA and surrounding suburbs in an increasingly competitive and capitalist climate, every bit of land is being turned into private property. Among this sea of new homes, the public sphere, is sadly becoming a string of spaces of consumption. Shopping malls, plazas, plazas, and more plazas. Even public washrooms exist only in the realm of shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants and can no longer be called “public” since they serve the consumer rather than the ordinary citizen.

In 2008, when the last remaining wooded area surrounding the David Dunlap Observatory was sold by the University of Toronto to developers, Richmond Hillians took a stand. The story is chronicled in detail in the university’s student paper. In short, the observatory and 76 hectares of land around it, was endowed according to the wishes of David Dunlap by his family to the university in the 1920s. The deed indicated, however, that – should the university ever “use the land for purposes other than research” – it should revert to Dunlap’s heirs. So when the university decided to sell the land in 2008 as light pollution in Richmond Hill rendered research in the observatory impossible, it spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a war of attrition to get the three descendants of David Dunlap to capitulate to an alteration in the deed. Eventually in 2007 the university sold the land to the highest bidder, the housing developer Corsico, for 70 million dollars. The Town of Richmond Hill, together with David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD), a lobby group, and another group of advocates, the Richmond Hill Naturalists fought for complete conservation but finally settled with Corsica in 2010 to turn 40 out of the 76 hectares to parkland. The media hailed this as a victory for all parties.

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When I went back to Richmond Hill this past spring, seeing the sight of the clear-cut site, an area that used to home to coyotes, foxes, and numerous birds was painful. Looking at the Richmond Hill Parks and Trails map where the rectangle representing the 76 hectares of land around David Dunlap Observatory encompasses a bigger area than Richmond Green Park and Mill Pond Park combined, the top two biggest parks in Richmond Hill, is even more painful. What a lost opportunity. And to think that half of this land, the last naturally green area with a diverse wildlife is being turned to not a museum, not a public library, not even a public secondary school, but townhomes, banal suburban cheaply made townhomes, is painful. I applaud the efforts of the Richmond Hill council, DDOD, and Richmond Hill Naturalists for saving even half of this estate. Yet I still cannot get over what a lost opportunity this was. I have nothing against home ownership. It’s the first step toward wealth creation for ordinary families on top of providing decent homes. Yet this level of suburban sprawl devoid of public green space – public anything – will turn places like Richmond Hill into an asphalt and concrete hell. We need communities. A sea of subdivisions interspersed with shopping malls and plazas with the occasional denominational or ethnocentric places of worship won’t do. In an increasingly multi-cultural secular society they have to take shape around all-inclusive public spaces like parks that are open to all citizens independent of their shopping habits, home ownership, religion or lack thereof.

As a laywoman interested in urban planning, I won’t pretend to know the master plan of the town of Richmond Hill or its by-laws. I am just hoping aloud that as city-dwellers in whichever city we dwell, we can shift focus from building homes to building communities. I hope we can do this for our next generation. Whenever I think about moving back to Toronto or surrounding suburbs, one of the main considerations aside from employment is the availability of public green space, right up there with public transit and public education. Things that make a community, not just a home.

Jian Ghomeshi and the Court of Public Opinion

I have been following the trial of Jian Ghomeshi in the online editions of Toronto newspapers as well as on social media. For the uninitiated, Jian Ghomeshi used to be the famous host of CBC Radio One’s Q, a show he co-created and co-wrote. Ghomeshi’s confidence and charm, his smooth interviewing style, and his radio essays delivered as a soliloquy at the beginning of Q made him and his show very popular. So much so that Q became one of the highest-rated shows in the history of CBC. But in 2014, Ghomeshi, who is Iranian-Canadian, was abruptly fired by CBC and a series of articles printed by the Toronto Star revealed him to be the subject of multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Ghomeshi is now on trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance through chocking and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although to date 23 women have come forward – for the most part anonymously – only three are testifying under oath.

Reading about the trial is painful as legal experts and commentators believe Ghomeshi will be acquitted. His lawyer, Marie Henein has employed an effective strategy of discrediting and undermining key witnesses by scrutinising their behaviour and actions in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the assaults. She has revealed evidence that at least in two cases the victims pursued a relationship with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults. What is even more painful than reading about these developments is reading the commentary of a handful of Iranian Facebook “friends” rejoicing at this turn of events and lamenting Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal from CBC.

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Jian Ghomeshi, defence co-counsel Danielle Robitaille, defence lawyer Marie Henein, Justice William Horkins, and a witness. Source: Canadian Press.

 

Firstly, whether or not these women pursued Ghomeshi after the assaults is irrelevant. Let’s not even enter into the psychological complexities with which victims of sexual assault often grapple or how common it is for victims to try and normalise their experience post-trauma. In a society that has laws against marital rape and requires spouses to obtain consent for every sexual encounter one expects that consent must also be obtained before chocking women or breaking their ribs. There is documented proof for the latter offence by the way, which apparently was the very instigator of Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal by the CBC.

Secondly, for some individual Iranians to rush to Ghomeshi’s defence simply because he identifies as Iranian is nothing but irrational tribalism. Although these individuals make up a minority (the majority of voices have either condemned his actions or remained neutral) I am disappointed to see even a single person defend a sexual predator over a sexual assault victim motivated by something as base and irrelevant in the twenty-first century as nationalism. Sadly, over the past week I’ve encountered not one but several individuals, women no less, who have expressed such views – despite being progressive enough to frequent pro-democracy protests and being active in lofty cultural and literary affairs in the community.

Our legal system has been designed to err on the side of extreme caution. And yes, every man is innocent unless proven otherwise in a court of law. But when a system fails women, specifically victims of assault, time and time again there is cause for outrage. Cases like this one expose a criminal justice system that continues to fail women by judging the victims more harshly for their actions before and after an attack than the perpetrator. It’s quite tragic that in 2016, consistent and highly overlapping testimony of four women among other evidence might not be good enough to get a conviction. Ghomeshi, his defence attorney, the judge, and the public most probably know full well that he is not being framed by 23 women. Yet he will most probably walk unscathed while the victims are depicted as star-stricken fans and “jilted ex-girlfriends” – to quote Ghomeshi himself. They will be and probably are already trolled online, subjected to character assassination, and harmed professionally.

So let us not kid ourselves! Given the overwhelming number of victims who have come forward with very similar stories and given the fact that, statistically speaking, false accusations of sexual assault are exceedingly rare, let us at the very least not exonerate Ghomeshi in the court of public opinion. And most crucially let us not do it in the name of something as stupid as tribalism!

 

Is it me or is it her?

Several weeks after the new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took office, the New York Times did a profile on him. The article itself was not momentous or even memorable (it faithfully chronicled Trudeau’s life and rise to power) but what stayed with me was one reader’s comment at the bottom of the article in which Trudeau was described as a privileged member of the elite who had spent his youth snowboarding and smoking pot and his adulthood changing careers. The commentator stated that Trudeau had only gotten elected because of his father’s legacy and his own charisma and went on to say that for most North Americans elections are very much a personality contest. At the time I remember thinking that although cynical, these remarks hold a lot of truth. In both the US and Canadian elections the candidates’ charisma, sense of humour, and ability to inspire are given as much weight – if not more – as their track record, their vision for running the country, and their platforms. This made me think of Hillary Clinton’s second attempt at winning the democratic nomination and my indifference towards it. Is it that I am opposed to her proclaimed convictions or proposed policies? Or is it in fact due to her lacking the ability to inspire?

Hillary Clinton has achieved more in her lifetime than I would ever dream of in three lifetimes. Graduate of the top-ranking women’s college, a Yale-trained lawyer, and the first female senator for New York, Hillary Clinton has spent her life in public service. At the beginning of her career she worked at the Children’s Defence Fund defending adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons. She advocated equal education opportunities for disabled children in the same organisation and continued to champion the rights of families and children after her move from Massachusetts to Arkansas to start a family with Bill Clinton. Back in 1993, long before Obamacare, it was Hillary Clinton who headed a task force to oversee health care reform during the presidency of her husband. When that effort failed due to vociferous opposition from insurance companies and special interests groups, she worked bilaterally with Republicans to provide health care to millions of children. After losing the democratic nomination to Barak Obama in 2008, she set aside a hard-fought campaign and answered his call to service as Secretary of State with utmost loyalty.

One cannot doubt Hillary Clinton’s deep democratic convictions or undermine her life-long dedication to public service. Yet when watching her speak it is hard to get past the composed façade and grasp her passion for social justice or the ideals that have driven her for over forty years. After she released her second memoir in 2013, I watched an interview of hers with Peter Mansbridge on CBC and I remember being incredibly impressed by her answers to questions pertaining to policy and her experiences as Secretary of State. But despite her keen mind, her impressive record, and her detailed platform, she does not resonate with many young people, a significant portion of whom are women. Although there are no polls to quantify it, even in her traditional base of feminist baby-boomers, there is anecdotal evidence of ambivalence. The negative adjectives that I have often come across in articles and opinion pieces are “not authentic” and “robotic”.

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The Daily Show play on a critical question from a young audience member in the last Democratic debate.

Hillary Clinton far from being charismatic is an over cautious politician who relies on hundreds of advisors to inform her every word, every move, and every facial expression. In 2008, during her campaign to win the democratic nomination, after the polls indicated that the public found her soulless she unleashed the famous Hillary cackle. Her politics too are cautious and smack in the centre. She did not get on-board with gay marriage until 2013 after polls showed the majority of Americans support it. Some have argued that this was a calculated change of positions although Clinton herself has claimed it was a personal evolution. Her speeches too are very carefully crafted. She is experienced enough to know that going head-to-head with powerful lobby and special interest groups is an up-hill battle. But next to Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric, this type of pragmatism is uninspiring.

But the power to inspire, charisma, and promise of radical change all seem to be the ideals that evoke interest in the younger generations. Charismatic leaders have the ability to mobilise public opinion, to instil in people the aspiration to tackle grand goals. Goals so grand they seem unachievable in one lifetime. Human history is peppered with examples of men and women who have changed its course with their passion and charisma, sometimes delivered in a single momentous speech. Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Keir Hardie, and Martin Luther King Junior all managed to unify a vast number of people under a single banner and to march them toward a common good. Justin Trudeau may be inexperienced for his position but there is nothing he cannot learn from dozens of advisers and experts who surround him. His value lies in having led the Canadian Liberals to victory through his charismatic rhetoric and fresh vision for the country.

In an ideal world we should only have to worry about a candidate’s character, convictions, and proposed platform. However, we do not live in an ideal world and charisma matters in the context of a competitive political landscape. Hillary Clinton is the first woman in history to have a real shot at becoming the leader of the free world. But that in itself is not inspiring if she does not find a way to counter the elation surrounding Bernie Sanders’ call for revolutionary change and the frenzy surrounding Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.

Until then, I have to admit, I too am ambivalent.