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Monthly Archives: June 2016

IMG_8388.JPGAnyone more or less attuned to social media and world news will remember the #SochiProblems hashtag from the 2014 Winter Olympics. It can be summed up as “that time a whole bunch of privileged Western people thought it would be funny to mock Russia’s lacking infrastructure”. Despicable, out-of-touch, tone-deaf behavior by the same people who brought you colonialism. In the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, we’re seeing something of a revival of #sochiproblems-esque behavior. This time, however, rather than originating on Twitter as a ‘bottom-up’ group activity of mocking a country different to theirs, we are seeing the news media embrace this in its early stages.

The political circumstances in Brazil have gotten very complicated this year. In 2014, Dilma Rousseff won the presidential elections in Brazil by a very small margin. It was a tough, very divisive election. The legitimate 2013 protests that began around the Confederations Cup were co-opted by a power-thirsty right wing that had failed to win the presidential elections since 2002, when Lula – Dilma’s much beloved predecessor – came into power and began to change the face of my homeland. The building blocks of a welfare state were built, eradicating hunger and extreme poverty. The country’s economy was booming and foreign investment pouring in. The optimism was palpable. BRICS for the win.

Yet Lula’s and Dilma’s stream of center-left government left room for some fundamental mistakes. They are largely accountable for Brazil’s terrible environmental track-record through investment in oil and other extraction activities like mining, manufacturing, and creating tax breaks for the auto industry that made cars more affordable in order to keep labor unions happy and up production. There’s a reason business was booming in Brazil. In terms of progressive policies, too, Brazil has left a lot to be desired. Alliances formed with Christian conservatives and the ultra-rich landowners in these governments made it so that neither legal abortion nor agrarian reform – both with very deadly consequences for my people – ever took off.

Earlier in 2016, in what can only be described as a coup d’état, president Dilma Rousseff – who herself committed no culpable crime beyond the reshuffling of money to be able to cover social welfare programs – went through an impeachment vote both in congress and the senate. There was no absolute majority in the senate, which meant that she’s been more or less put ‘on hold’ while an investigation takes place and that her vice-president, a man fit for a cartoon villain, was put in place. Remember those misguided alliances with conservatives? They’re in power now. A quote often attributed to Bossa Nova king Tom Jobim has, lately, seemed more fitting than ever: “Brazil is not for beginners”.

In the course of this novella-like drama, the world media did a more or less 180 degree turn in terms of coverage. Once regurgitating the same paranoid madness found in the largely oligarchic Brazilian media about how the people were taking to the streets to demand the impeachment of a corrupt government – the largely white, middle-class ‘people’ were out on the streets to ask for things like the return of a blood-drenched military dictatorship and the end of social programs for ‘lazy’ (read: poor) people – the world media seems to have finally caught on to the fact that this was more of a Game of Thrones situation. Yet in many ways the damage was already done. Even satirical news program like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight – usually on point about the ridicule of world politics – was momentarily swept away by the wave of yellow-football-shirt-wearing idiots, covering the ‘protests’ as an en masse uprising against corruption. As these things usually go, the actions that followed Dilma’s period on the reserve bench of presidency – like the all-white, all-male government that was quickly put together and the absurd amount of members of the new government who are entangled in the Petrobras scandal – showed that corruption was not what was being overthrown. A center-left female politician was simply put in her place – outside of the political ring – courtesy of middle class ignorance.

Political turmoil has been growing worldwide. People are frustrated by austerity measures, tired of economic stagnation and slowly downing in debt. It’s a geopolitical reality created by the global forces of capital that opportunistic political movements of the right wing are capitalizing on. From Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and the Brexit voters so clearly divided between class lines in the West to the former middle classes in South America now having to share space, wealth and opportunities with traditionally working class non-whites, the fiscally conservative, solidarity-poor people of the world appear to be winning. It’s crazy to think how close we were to going the other way. The Occupy movement, the optimism of a leftist government in Greece, the ‘Feel the Bern’ campaign… All slowly crushed by the rampant fear-mongering tactics of the status quo.

And when we speak of the circumstances in Rio, it’s important to realize that this is not the context under which Rio made a bid for the Olympics. As previously mentioned, Brazil was booming. Moreover, Rio has long lived in the imaginaries of the world as a paradise-like place. Now, years on, with a fractured presidency, corrupt and inapt ministers, a health crisis of very serious proportions and violent crime on the rise, it’s not hard to understand why the world is alarmed. Nonetheless, the aggressiveness, pessimism and downright bigotry of the media coverage have been absolutely disgusting.

In prepping Rio for the world stage, too, severe mistakes were made. Forceful gentrification bulldozed through existing communities of the city’s illegal settlements to make space for the pretty pictures of Rio you see today. There is a quite literal genocide of young black men going on in Rio’s poorer communities. The police force is violent, underpaid, undertrained and deeply corrupt. These are sufficient reasons, from a human rights perspective, to be very critical of Rio hosting the Olympics. There are economic reasons why hosting massive sporting events is always bad business – remember London?

But let me be clear: these are not, by any means, the mainstream critiques. No, no. It’s only ever the very few that truly care about the people who love, live and die in other countries. What people really care about is having to be exposed to difference. To the substandard truth of global reality.

Using euphemisms and colorful vocabulary, we’re seconds away from seeing the Western media refer to Rio as a ‘shithole’. If there was ever any doubt as to why the Olympics were never before hosted in South America, well, doubt no more.

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girl-690327_1280About a month or two ago, one of my best friends – and fellow formerly miserable teenager – informed me and another friend that Garbage (the band) was going to be in Amsterdam. Garbage is led by the incredible alt-rock chick Shirley Manson, whose lyrics about not belonging and feeling depressed made weird, eccentric teens like us feel understood. I even recorded a cover of ‘I’m only happy when it rains’, their somewhat humorous ode to those who wallow in personal misery, with my sister’s producer friend in São Paulo when I was fifteen. That song was more than an anthem. It was therapy.

I jumped at the chance to see them live, but secretly wondered what the crowd would look like. Would it be primarily middle-aged goths stuck in the 1990s? Would it be mostly people like us, the once gloomy teen girls who survived it all mainly unscathed? After years of listening to their music alone in my bedroom, I couldn’t help but be curious about who my fellow fans would be. When we finally got there, what I saw was hundreds of very different people who clearly felt a deep, individual connection to those songs and explosive lyrics. Women, men, of all ages, singing their hearts out. I wondered if we had all felt that same comfort in the Garbage songs that made me feel normal in a strange world – and not the other way around. It was moving. Really. My friends and I left feeling that what had often felt like a lonely, atypical and imperfect coming of age experience was actually pretty normal.

It got me thinking about what made all of us relate to Manson’s lyrics about being the ‘strangest of the strange’ and ‘getting high upon a deep depression’ so very much. I mean, teens have a pretty bad reputation. And out of all teens, teenage girls in particular. Watch any movie or show that falls under the nauseating ‘family comedy’ category and you’ll see an out-of-control, emotional, potentially mean and superficial teen girl ruining everyone else’s life. We are all guilty of perpetuating the stereotype too. I recall very recently making fun of my sister when her daughter didn’t want to be seen with her. “It’s starting…”, I gleefully insinuated. But is that really fair? Being a teen is hard on anyone, but in the world we live in, being a teen girl is potentially the absolute worst.

As a teenage girl you’re trying to figure out your identity – in itself more of a life-long pursuit, of course, but it’s not like you know that at the time – while being treated like a child by your parents and like an adult by a male population that seems to mushroom out of nowhere in the time that it takes you to blossom into the adult feminine form. The major creep factor of the male gaze aside, it’s confusing to be expected to respect the same rules as always – bedtimes, curfews, general dependency – when you start being treated like a woman outside of your home environment. You’re being told that puberty and all the changes it brings about are normal by the same people telling you to suddenly dress differently because of how your body might affect how you’re perceived in the world. It’s a major mind fuck.

During your teen years, sexuality is both expected and encouraged, and severely punished. Dressing like a child is as disapproved of as dressing like a woman. Being desired by ‘boys’ is a good thing, enjoying it is not. Being good at sports helps to maintain your idealized girl physique, but being too sporty is unattractive. Exercising is encouraged, but no one tells you where to buy a decent sports bra so that you can continue to play sports for fun without the embarrassment. It’s a roller coaster of feelings and a schizophrenic set of expectations. Feeling left out, misunderstood, weird and trying to respond to all the different expectations that exist of you at once is damaging to anyone’s psyche. And, the more I think about it, the resulting mess is far less on teen girls than it is on our messed up society.

After all these years, I feel like I finally get it. But seeing as I can’t go back in time and tell my teenage self to not take it all so seriously – and to realize that the mixed messages from adults come from their own discomfort, not your existence – I hereby vow to be a better aunt to my niece who’ll one day be a teen, a better sister to my baby sister who’ll also grow up to be a teen, and a better friend to the teenage girls – warriors, really – I encounter out there in the world. It’s honestly the least we can do.

We can’t take away all of the pressures and insecurities and inevitable pain of being pulled in so many different directions at once. But we can stop pretending it’s their fault.