Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Popular culture and populist pedagogy: The re-making of Ed Balls

Image: 'Strictly Come Dancing Judges. In Cake', by RachelIH_,       3 December 2008 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

‘Edxit’ does not mean ‘Edxit’
Let’s say many of us will miss Ed Balls’ idiosyncratic dancing in Strictly Come Dancing every Saturday evening. Still, I cannot but be amazed at the rising popularity of an ex politician, whose career ended on a very low note. Is it that the same voters who turned their back on him less than two years ago are plagued by amnesia? Is popular culture turning, on the back of a lingering recession, once again, into the maiden of populist propaganda? Ed Balls himself did not validate the speculations of Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two presenter, Zoe Ball that he might return to politics after his tear-induced ‘Edxit’ from the show on Saturday 27 November.  So, is there anything left to discuss here?

Perhaps we approach the ‘Ed Balls phenomenon’ from the wrong perspective. Guardian journalist Zoe Williams’ suggestion that we live in an era of renewed interest in retro nostalgia that reinforces social conservatism from the back door is certainly intriguing. The whole Strictly craze certainly thrives in stylistic reproductions, now complete with ‘short journeys’ back in time through various dance genres, costumes, music and songs. Yet, if not careful, one may ‘ditch’ the fun/leisure element of such trends out of the door together with any suspect political propagandism: art and its political uses do not always coincide because of the former’s ubiquitous (digital and televised) mediation. Still, let us keep popular retrospectivism in sight for a while, as a way into the hearts of national and international audiences. If retro does something well every time is that it speaks to the hearts of the people. Right: the people. Strictly Judge Len Goodman called Balls a ‘champion of the people’ a couple of times during the ex-politician’s ten-week appearance on the show. There is depth in such a nomination: the public voted Balls several times over more able fellow celebrity dancers, sending them out before him. As his appeal rose to ‘mini star’ levels, video clips of his dancing began to accumulate on You Tube more and journalistic analyses began to populate both the mainstream and tabloid press. Perhaps we should begin then from there: why would damning, frivolous and speculative political commentary produce novel discourses on a post- New Labour persona? Above all, how?

Hero to zero, to hero (Gangnam style)
It may be wrong to consider Balls’ Strictly participation as a one-purpose strategy: for a super-active public figure that shaped national politics for a long while, to be demoted ‘from hero to zero’ is not fun. Ed Balls himself stressed the fun and endearing elements of his involvement in what might have commenced more as a risky activity or a chore, but had turned into a community-building project, however fleeting and shrinking, every week. But have a careful look at Ed’s dance routines, cleverly choreographed by his professional partner Katya Jones; examine the audience of the live show, the reactions and comments of the Strictly Judges or Balls’ very own life partner, Yvette Cooper, in the auditorium’s ‘back benches’. Week after week, the widely anticipated ‘Balls event’ was staged (dance moves, camera angles and even the dance couple’s facial expressions) as a sort of comedy, subversive of social mores (Ed riding Katya Gangnam-style) but faithful to audience entertainment. Watch carefully and take notes.

After closer inspection of all these details we are getting somewhere: for decades, Balls built his public persona around an ennobled, yet clearly discernible habitus involving soft machismo (Balls would notoriously take seriously his play in the annual journalists v. MPs football competition), confrontational performance in the House of Commons and carefully orchestrated movement and intervention in the country’s commons spaces (notably we hardly read anything about his party-going habits or intimate social skills until his Strictly ascendance). His Strictly biographical record acted like an onion-peeling process: it stripped the first and very thick layer of alleged masculine decency off his being, leaving Ed completely naked in front of a national audience alternating between tears of elation and sadness (for his departure). The ‘Strictly Balls’ constructs by default a surgical gaze, willing to cut more slices off the ex-political ‘object’s’ public (in)decency, ever hungrier for more of this ‘object’s’ slapstick, theatrical-like dance-acting. Couple this now with the persistence of retro routines in the show and the ex-politician’s pronounced, carefully crafted, if natural, ‘campness’ (fish-mouth faces, wide eyes staring at cameras, waving hands and attempted hip action) and what you get is the emergence a deliberately feminised public actor. I stress the term ‘camp’ rather than ‘kitsch’ here, for reasons pointing to the inglorious passage of ‘retro’ from style to populist propaganda befit for the lower, less literate social orders: ‘campness’ is befit for conscious display as a sort of symbolic capital by the ‘knowing’ middle classes, whereas ‘kitsch’ is cheap unreflexively reproduced ‘high culture’ by the working classes (see on this Holliday and Potts 2012). The cute and camp Ed is not an idiot but a playful public persona emerging out of the ruins of a glorious political career. It may be true that Ed Balls has no plans to return to politics, but his political past will always haunt public discourse about him at least at a symbolic level. Anne Widdecombe’s Strictly appearance in 2010 (with  Anton du Beke) is a different but comparable case in point. Widdecombe was not queer however, nor was she camp and her presence faded away within weeks after her early exodus from the show. Balls’ long reign was marked by the fact that his campness is also queer through and through, but his queerness is not a trait based exclusively or primarily on gender or age.

Forerunners of queer theory such as Teresa de Lauretis (1987) were concerned with how Western social orders deploy rigid standards of gender and sexual intelligibility as a method of social regulation: we all have to comply with them (nay, visually display them), or we are socially criticized and/or excluded. But these days, much like ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality function as mobile goods in regional, national and global markets. To appear to be ‘somehow’ (Asian, black, sexy, hyper-feminine, gay or macho) successfully and with a difference guarantees one a glamorous place in the market – a perfect neoliberal ‘exit route’ from economic deadlocks espoused by New Labour in the 1990s, when Balls was at his professional apex. To be queer a-la Ed is to be everything and nothing, confusing enough to ‘pass’ as a novelty but replete with emotional depth and breadth for which we can easily vote in a post-democratic fashion. This does sound a bit like politics beyond politics, an apolitical stance that celebrity politicians cannot afford but fallen political stars can use. In 2016, just after the release of his ‘crafted’ intimate voice, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics, Balls’ queer Strictly appearance advertised his new meta-political persona and (deliberately or not) confused former angry voters: he was not a fierce bull in the Commons’ china shop, after all, but a home-maker, a father, a loving spouse, a sensitive writer and now an aspiring, if adorably clumsy, dancer.

Retro: the return of the popular (or populist?) repressed
This is Ed Balls’ new queer identity: indecisive towards the past, experimental about the future, uncompromising about his commitment to his family, openly emotional in discussions about the Strictly camaraderie – above all, pliably vulnerable. Proof of its success is an astute but equally inconclusive analysis of Ed’s optional future careers (ranging from Great British Bake Off host to Pantomime Dame and Political pundit for Hire, amongst other things) on the BBC News.  It is as if, in the ‘New Ed’ we discover a version of the new ‘Public Man’, who is not afraid of emotional exposure.  And yet, one wonders whether this is a Man comparable to Sennett’s (1977, 2011) gloomy human portrait of impartial indifference to democracy in favour of self-gain on the global neoliberal stage. One also wonders whether Ed Balls the real human has anything to do with his expanding fame at all, which is managed by media networks. Perhaps the guy just wanted to have some fun – don’t we all?

De Lauretis, T. (1987), Technologies of Gender, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Holliday, R. and Potts, T. (2012), Kitsch! Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: CUP.
Sennett, R. (2011). The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York, WW Norton & Company.

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