Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Deadpool and Fury Road

I came out of the cinema after Deadpool with a similar feeling to watching Fury Road. It was odd, the films were pretty damn different in everything from plot to cinematography, yet here I was with a felling of “that was just like Fury Road”.
Then I realised, it wasn’t because the films themselves were alike, it was because I had for once (or more accurately, for the second time), come out a a film not disappointed in how they had treated the female characters.
Female characters who were real characters, with personality, agency, characterisation and who didn’t exist to satisfy male gaze.

(minor spoilers ahead)

Vanessa, a quick witted, complex personality, who doesn’t take shit but isn’t the all powerful bad ass trope. A sex worker who is allowed to be a sex worker, who isn’t “saved” who calls the shots on how and when her relationships happen, who has genuine feelings and motivation. Who can be pretty and sexy and practical, who despite literally being a stripper, is allowed to have a costume that is relatively covering when she is being kidnapped and even puts on a nice warm coat. Who is allowed the ingenuity and skill to partially free herself but (due to being a normal human surrounded by superhero) still accepts help from others.

Angel, a super strong woman who looks super strong, who has a solid tough looking body, who wears clothes that are flattering yet highly practical and suitable for her role and activity. Who is a partner in the evil genius game and is respected by her boss, and treated as an equal, not a subordinate or arm candy. Who takes part in the delicious self aware gag about gratuitously ripped costumes. Who has opinions and emotions, who respects her opponents and loves the fight but doesn’t succumb to the trope of falling for her adversary.
(I have a major crush on Angel)

Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a teenage girl who acts like a teenager. Who has oodles of personality and isn’t made in to a bimbo. Who has a seriously realistic teenage body - slim, a little curvy but not hyped up and no teeny tiny measurements. Who is powerful and confident but who listens to her superiors. Who is bad ass, and dangerous and still knows when things are too much for her. Who isn’t expected to be in a love triangle with anybody.

Al, the smack talking older blind woman, who can put Deadpool in his place but still show care. Who has fun and lives a life she chooses whether that’s seen as respectable or not. Who is a sweet old lady that carries a pistol in her slipper socks. Who has opinions about Crocs. Who is there for you when you need it and knows when to ask qustions and when to keep silent. Who will disapprove about your sex life but only because your noisy about it. Who isn’t a stereotype of the disabled person who is actually super amazing despite/because of their disability and has overcome challenges to be inspiring, and instead sometimes is awesome and sometimes fails and that’s ok because that’s how life it.

Just like in Fury Road, here are a bunch of women who are real characters who exist in a film without it being a “girls film”, who have just as much thought put in to their writing as the male characters (if not more), who are exciting and fun to watch, not because they are women, but because they are good characters.
And it shows that if they want to writers and directors can have perfectly good female characters in any film they want of any genre and people will enjoy it. These two awesome films have managed it. These two films are all the more awesome because every character regardless of gender is a good character.

[disclaimer: I know Deadpool wasn’t without problems: it was very white, some of the jokes where dubious at best and could have been done without, but as far as female representation goes, it done good]

Sunday, 21 February 2016

US elections - how do they work?

If like me you are a UK citizen (or from elsewhere in the world) who has an interest in US politics and their current election cycle, or maybe a US citizen who has forgotten some of the details since high school, you may be getting a bit confused about how it all works.
What is a primary? What are the candidates fighting for if this isn't the general election? Just what is a delegate anyway? Don't worry, it's not you. It really is that confusing.

So here is my simplified basic guide to how a US election works and what some of the terms mean. I'll be comparing to UK elections throughout as that is where I am from and the underpinnings of my political knowledge.

So let's start out with who is being elected and why.
In the UK we elect local MPs who sit in the House of Commons. The party with the most MPs in the house of commons is declared winner and is asked to form a government. The leader of that party (assuming it is an MP who has been elected) will become our Prime Minister.

In the US things are a little different. The President is elected in their own ballot - that is to say, that people can vote specifically for who they want to be in the position of President. People also vote for their local representatives, Senators and Representative (who together form Congress). This is a separate vote for their vote for President. Unlike in the UK, in the US it is entirely possible for the President to be from a party that does not hold a majority in Congress, in fact we have been in that situation in recent years.

So if the Presidential Candidates aren't Senators or Representatives (the US equivalent of MPs) and they aren't given the position just because they are head of the party with most seats, then where do they come from? Well, that's what the Primaries are all about.

What is a Primary and how does it work?

The Primaries are all about choosing which person each party will put forward as a Presidential Candidate in the general election.

In the UK the party leader (and therefore potential Prime Minister) is chosen by party members and affiliates in a vote. This happened with the Labour Party in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was selected.

In the US the Presidential Nominee for each party is chosen through Primaries.
Each state will hold a primary for each party. The parties (Democrats and Republicans, though there are technically independents and other parties) will have already had a few candidates put their names forward and will have been campaigning to gain public support. This year we have seen Clinton and Sanders campaigning for the Democrats and the likes of Rubio, Cruz and Trump campaigning for the Republicans. During the primaries, people will vote for their preferred candidate.
There will be a primary in each state for each party, e.g. the New Hampshire Democrats Primary and a separate New Hampshire Republican Primary

Each state can differ a little in their rules. Some states allow an "open vote" that is anybody can vote in any parties primary. You could vote for Republican or Democrat candidates even if you aren't a member of that party.
Other states say that you can only vote in a party's primary if you are registered as a supporter of that party or are officially recognised as "unaffiliated" or not a member of either party.

So you have gone to your primary and cast a vote, and your preferred candidate comes out on top. But that's not the end of it.
Firstly this process has to happen in every state.
Secondly, the candidate isn't just decided by the results of each state's primary. You are voting to tell a Delegate what to do.

Who or what is a delegate?

Each state has a number of delegates for each party. These delegates represent the people of that state at the National Convention for their party. At the National Convention, the delegates will place their votes for which person they want to be the presidential nominee.
When you cast a vote at a primary, you are telling your delegate how you want them to vote at the convention. This is because the government decided that all people should have a say in who the candidates are but recognises that not all people can attend the party's convention. This allows people to express their opinion and have it represented.
Each state varies a little in how they "instruct" their delegates. Some states operate a "winner takes all" system in which, whichever candidate gets the most votes over all, across their counties, they claim all the delegates. Even if the runner up won in some counties, they would still have no delegates for that state.
Other states operate more proportional representation systems i.e. each candidate gets a number of delegates equal to their share of the vote or counties won.
A recent example of this is in the Nevada Democratic Caucus that happened on Saturday the 20th of February.
In this, Hilary Clinton got majority if votes (52%) and won in 19 counties. She therefore got 19 delegates. Bernie Sanders got 47% and won in 15 counties. He therefore got 15 delegates. Clinton is still declared the winner as she got most votes and delegates however Sanders will still have those delegates representing him at the National Convention.

Super Delegates (or Superdelegates)

As well as the delegates who get told how to vote by the primaries, there are other Superdelegates who will have a vote in the National Convention. These are often elected officials who will be attending the Convention and are "un-pledged". They are free to decide who to give their support to at the Convention. Candidates will seek to gain the support of these Superdelegates ahead of the Convention.
A superdelegate may then publicly support (or pledge) a candidate. This gives the candidates (potentially) extra votes at the convention and can also sway the decisions of the general public if they see elected officials choosing one candidate over another. This is why the pledges of superdelegates can be big news and are something that candidates are eager to secure early on. Technically superdelegates are not locked in to this pledge and they could change their mind and vote differently at the Convention, though this rarely happens.

Caucus or Primary?

Above, I talked about the Nevada Caucus. You may have heard this word a few times in conjunction with the primaries, but it's not always clear what they are and if or how they differ from a Primary.
A primary is usually a vote by ballot. A process many of us will be familiar with - got to a voting station, tick a box on s voting slip, and then post it in a ballot box anonymously.
A caucus works slightly differently. These are more informal selection processes and will often be decided by public vote (as opposed to a private ballot) in a meeting style. For example a caucus may be people in the county attending a public meeting in a town hall and the vote being decided by a raise of hands, people calling "aye" or "nay" or coming to a consensus via discussion.
For ease, we use the term Primaries to cover all selection of delegates (during Primary Season), though technically, some states choose via Caucus.

The word Caucus has another meaning in US politics too. There are official Congressional Caucuses, which are interest groups made of of members of Congress to promote and support their specific cause. Examples of these are the Black Caucus (black members of Congress, with interest in issues affecting black people) and the Sikh Caucus (representing the interests of the American Sikh community). Though they can be influential in Congress and their communities or interest groups, they have no direct action in the Primaries.

What do the Delegates do, and the National Conventions

Following the Primaries, each party holds their National Convention. During the Convention, The delegates formally make their vote for the preferred Presidential Candidate. Because most of the delegates either pledge early on , or are bound by the results of the Primaries, the actual outcome of this is usually known in advance. However, the vote is still carried out, as technically, some delegates are permitted to change their vote so in theory, the result may be a surprise.
Votes are also cast for a Vice Presidential candidate. The Vice President is an indirect nomination, as they are chosen alongside the President - candidates will usually have declared preferences for their Vice President during their campaign, but it will be finalised at the Convention.
In some ways this is similar to how the UK Prime Minister appoints the Deputy Prime Minister independent of the election.
The Convention is also the place where they agree on certain platforms and policies that they will campaign for as a united party.

A summary of Primaries and Candidate selection

  • Various politicians will state their desire to be a Presidential Candidate. 
  • They will begin campaigning to be chosen as Candidate and eventually as President.
  • "Primary Season" begins, and over a number of months each state holds a caucus or primary.
  • In the Primaries, people vote for their preferred candidate. 
    • Each Party holds their own Primary
    • Different states have different rules about who can vote in which primary. 
    • The result of the primaries are used to tell Delegates how to vote.
  • Each state has a number of Delegates for each party. 
    • The Delegates vote for the preferred candidate at the party's National Convention
    • The Delegates are told how to vote by the result of the Primaries. 
    • They will vote for the overall winner in the state or for the winner in each county
  • There are Superdelegates, who are not tied to state primary results and can vote as they wish.
  • At their National Conventions, delegates will vote in accordance with the results of the primaries to select the party's Presidential Candidate.
    • The result is usually known ahead of time due to the results of the primaries.
    • The Vice Presidential Candidate is also chosen at the Convention but is not elected. 

As clear as mud, right? It is designed this way because every state (and territory, such as Puerto Rico) has it's own governance and is given the opportunity to vote in their own way. It also bridges the gap between the candidate being chosen by only those who can attend the Convention and the general public (or at least those members of the general public who are allowed to vote in each state). Over the decades, as the US has grown the system has become more complex; as things which made sense originally are still used but new systems have been added to accommodate contemporary needs.

This post took us as far as each party choosing their Presidential Candidate. There will be a future post explaining how the General Election itself works.

Friday, 12 February 2016

An Open Letter to Lord Freud

Dear Lord Freud

I write to you with regards to your recent comments on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, specifically the proposed cuts to payments to those in the ESA WRAG category.

You are quoted as saying that the reform is needed as only 1% of people in that category moved off the benefit each month. You also said,

“As a government, we want to ensure that we spend money responsibly in a way that improves individuals life chances and helps them achieve their ambitions, rather than paying for a lifetime wasted on benefits, “

I find this statement somewhat at odds with your support to the welfare cut.
It is well documented and observed that those people looking for work under WRAG are often still in poor health, following long periods of illness or injury. Additionally some of them may have been out of work for some time or may not be able to return to their previous profession.
Responsible spending and support for people in this group would be the provission of support to allow them to re-enter employment in a suitable manner. People with chronic illness and disability may not be able to work full time or in a usual Monday to Friday routine. However, part time and flexible work is often lower paid and would not guarantee enough salary to cover bills. There is currently a gap in government support that means that people who are physically unable to work full time, can not afford to work full time. Additional support for people in this situation would help people into jobs and and aid stimulation of the economy.

Additionally, some people may not be able to work regular working hours, needing neither work from home options or freelance arrangements. Freelance work is often the only work people with chronic illness are able to undertake, however this is not a guaranteed wage and may not equal a full time wage. There is currently little support for people who work on contract or freelance and that help that is available is restricted and difficult to apply for. Providing additional support for people in this situation would help people find their own work and aid stimulation of the economy.

Many people who had to leave work due to health issues find that their health limitations restrict them from going back in to the same type of work, for example physically taxing jobs; jobs requiring a degree of mobility; high intensity jobs and so on. Furthermore, as employees are generally in favour of recent experience those who have been out of work for some time are at a disadvantage. Currently there is very little provision for retraining, higher education, skill development or apprenticeships, all of which would help to bridge that gap. Most of the available services only relate to basic skills and “CV writing” which are of little actual benefit in the job market and for the majority of people on ESA. Providing additional funding for training and education would give people a better chance at finding a job. Providing additional support for people in this situation would increase employability and stimulate the economy.

Another challenge faced is that many people who have reached the point of being deemed fit to work have done so through implementing various regimen to support their health and recovery. This can include long term regular physiotherapy not available through the limited NHS provisions; regular massage therapy for pain management; the use of specialist facilities like hydrotherapy pools; the use of specialist equipment like TENS machines or mobility aids; even the use of a cleaning or meal service so that they can focus on work. All of these things cost money which a cut in payments would heavily restrict. Without those services people may not be able to afford to stay “work fit”. They also need to be confident that any new job will pay enough to cover these services and that it fits around the schedule needed to maintain their health (for example the local hydrotherapy pool is only open during common working hours). Support should be maintained and improved so that people in this situation can be confident they are fit for work and are employable and can thus contribute to the economy.

A reduction in benefits is not offering support to people on ESA, but is in fact taking support away.
It is a fallacy to believe that people who are placed in to the WRAG category are 100% fit and able to find employment the very next day. The Work Related Activity Group explicitly states that people in this category are working toward being fit and healthy for work. Finding a job, for anybody, takes time and a particular set of circumstances. The additional difficulties faced by those who are disabled, chronically ill or who have been out of work for some time makes this task even more difficult. A reduced income adds to these difficulties rather than takes them away. A reduction in support will not fix barrier to employment, make freelance, contract or part time work suddenly cost effective. It will into make jobs with flexible working more abundant nor will it refresh and renew people's skills or make the right job matches suddenly appear.
Taking any old job due to desperation or poverty regardless of their skills or health status is simply not sustainable and does not benefit the workforce in any meaningful long term, or even mid-term, manner. If a person takes on an unsuitable job due to desperation they are likely to find themselves unable to work in the future as their health deteriorates once more. This may cut the number on benefits temporarily but it is not actually a solution to unemployment, or job shortages.

Responsible spending of money to improve a persons life and chances of employability should involve actual spending. It should also recognise that a persons inability to work full time or return to their area of training makes them invaluable to the workforce, economy and our country. A thriving economy recognises the differing capabilities of its population and works with that to maximise people's potential. A thriving economy recognises that one size does not fit all when it comes to employment.

One final and crucial point. I want to address the final part of your statement:
“ rather than paying for a lifetime wasted on benefits, “.
This implies that you believe that a life not in work is a life wasted. Do you truly believe, can you stand proud in front of a nation of people and honestly and without shame or doubt say that a person who is not working is a waste of a person?
A person who can not work and who most live on the goodness of the state should never be considered a waste. They provide love, friendship and care to their friends and family. They engage in media and entertainment sharing ideas, opinions and preferences which help to shape everything from TV listings to politics. They may volunteer on a casual basis, providing support and help to those organisations that could not exist without them. They may have hobbies, that fit around their disabilities that contribute to the art and culture of this country. A person who does not work is not without value. A persons employment status is only one of the many and varied ways we can judge our own self worth and value to others and to society.
A life is not wasted on benefits, it is lived as best as it can be, just like any other individual who may be employed or not. That they may be limited due to their health and disability does not mean that they are limited in value. To state otherwise is a callous dismissal of a vast part of the population.

I, and many other like me, would very much like to know why your statement is so at odds with your support of a cut to benefits. I would very much like to know why you support a policy that keeps people from working rather than helping people back in to work. I want to know that you, and our government values its citizens, all of of it's citizens, regardless of their ability to work and that you will not punish those you deem as a waste.

You do have a responsibility to improve the benefits and welfare system in this country, but that responsibility is not to government accountants and bean counters but to the citizens themselves who need the support of their government in order to live a healthy and valued life.

Your Sincerely

Sophie Tynan