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Tag: American Dream

Star Trek Boldy Goes Into the Obama Era

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by Mark Simpson

(The London Times, April 16, 2009)

It died a death during the Bush years in 2005, but it’s back. I’m talking of course, about the American Dream. Rebooted. In kinky boots.

The first teasing trailer for the new Star Trek movie in January last year showed glimpses of a shiny new USS Enterprise “under construction”. In the background President Kennedy was famously speechifying about space and Neil Armstrong’s crackly “One small step for Man” was heard. And then came the voice of a much more famous figure: Mr Spock, speaking the immortal, still spine-tingling line: “Space, the final frontier . . .”.

Star Trek 2009 Trailer HD 1080p

As things turned out, a year or so later it wasn’t just the Enterprise that was “under construction”. It wasn’t just the most successful TV and film franchise to date being rebooted – it was also the USA that was hitting the “reset” button. And what is the default setting? That Sixties optimism. They believed in the future back then.

There was always a very close relationship between the American Dream – not to mention American imperialism – and Star Trek, with its liberal, secular, multiracial, technophiliac vision of the future. But the two seem almost to have mind-melded with the election of an optimistic, liberal, iPod and Blackberry-loving multiracial President with a Kenyan father and a white American mother (Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on US television, sparking protests at the time) – and, who is himself something of a 1960s tribute act, with his JFK and Martin Luther King cadences. Suddenly, with Barack Obama ‘taking the con’, America looks like a brand that people can believe in again. Or at least root for at the movies.

Obama has admitted that he was a big fan of the original series. Others have already pointed out that “No Drama Obama” bears some facial, voice-pattern and character similarities with Tuvok, the black Vulcan chief of security in Voyager, the third Trek spin-off TV series, a character who learnt how to master his emotions.

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It’s entirely apt then that the Star Trek franchise went into suspended animation in the middle of the Bush presidency – along with the American Dream itself – after the critical and commercial failure of the Next Generation movie Nemesis, the TV prequel series Enterprise – and the blockbuster Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush, who probably saw himself as something of a Captain Kirk figure, was certainly at least as inclined to ignore the “prime directive” (of non-interference in alien worlds) as James Tiberius, not to mention the United Nations/Federation. But instead of the loveable, roguish Kirk, the world, and eventually much of America itself, just saw a cowboy.

What’s remarkable about the Star Trek franchise is how closely each series corresponds to Republican or Democrat presidencies. The original series (1966-69), with its radical optimism and Cold War ethos (the Klingons are clearly the Russkies), maps the Lyndon Johnson Democrat presidency and the “Great Society” (1963-69). The rather more corporate and hygienic Next Generation (1987-94) covers the Reagan-Bush Republican era (1981-93), while the deeply dull but industrious Deep Space Nine (1993-99) and the feminist vehicle Voyager (1995-2001), featuring a female captain (Hillary played by Catherine Hepburn), falls into the Clinton Democrat years (1993-2001).

The ill-fated Enterprise series began the same year as the ill-fated Bush presidency, in 2001. It starred Scott Bakula looking eerily like Bush in a flight-suit and even, opportunistically, included an evil-doing adversary called the ‘Suliban’. Now, of course, we have a movie series reboot that corresponds to the beginning of the Obama presidency – however long either franchise lasts, we can probably expect their fates to be closely related.

There is perhaps another reason why Star Trek has gone back to the original Sixties series: to get back in touch with Kirk’s massive, tight-trousered mojo. Although disliked by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek’s creator, for hijacking his rather sexless, sweatless vision of the future and for taking his shirt off and wrestling with rubber aliens too much, William Shatner, stressing words and syllables that mere mortals might think had no importance, pausing painfully . . . in the middle… of… sentences . . . while-rushing-over-their-conclusions, somehow conveyed something credibly human. Even Shatner’s immense soft-focus vanity is sympathetic. Real people are faintly preposterous after all.

Above all the original Star Trek was very . . . pointy. As well as Shatner’s urgent libido, there were the fabulous pointy boots (low-risers for the men, knee-length ones for the mini-skirted ladies), pointy sideburns, pointy breasts, pointy ears, pointy engine nacelles, pointy Federation logos, pointy lettering in the credits, and also the pointedly pointy mission statement: “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” which of course was bluntly desexed/corrected in The Next Generation to “where no one has been before”.

The new movie though is gratifyingly pointy. The kinky boots are back, as are the form-hugging uniforms and miniskirts – though now they look like fashionable sportswear. The cast is pretty, male and female, and now, forty years on, the men also have bodies and pointy-chests (the two stars, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, reportedly work out at the same gym in LA – and share the same trainer). It looks like there’s enough (metro)sexual tension to power the warp drive. Back too are the brightly Utopian colours of the original series’ sets and costume design. The Enterprise herself handles like one of those pointy Sixties sports cars.

Kirk himself, of course, is back. But not Shatner, who, unlike Nimoy isn’t allowed on board, even for a cameo, perhaps because the director, J. J. Abrams, wants to make sure that his Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is not going to be overshadowed by Shatner’s intergalactic manhood/ego. Whatever the reason, Pine’s Kirk is a Daniel Craig moment, a reminder of the startling sexiness of a franchise that had become lifeless and effete.

Back also, and very much in the foreground, is what Abrams has quite rightly suggested is the relationship without which Star Trek really makes no sense: Kirk and Spock. Here Spock is played by an androgynously fringed Quinto (apparently channelling early 80s Marc Almond), and we finally learn how they met at Starfleet Academy and overcame fierce rivalry to become the most famous male “marriage” in pop culture.

Despite Spock’s pointy ears, there doesn’t appear to be however, anything terribly pointy-headed in this reboot: no cerebrals, no reflecting on where the American Dream might have gone wrong – just the enhanced, sexed-up aesthetics of hope. But while great effects, pecs and kinky boots might not be enough to rescue the American Dream, they’re probably enough to be getting on with.

The frattish American Wet Dream conquering the World

By Mark Simpson

(Arena Homme Plus, Spring 2007)

The American Dream has turned into a nightmare. Count the shudders and the sweats in reel time: Bush. Iraq. Guantanamo Bay. Global Warming. Iran. Tom Cruise. Pop a Nytol or three with a glass of warm milk and put on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and regress to a happier, more Technicolor dreamtime.

Once the lean, shining beacon of freedom and aspiration, as innocent and happy-go-lucky as Dorothy’s freckles, now lumbering, flak-jacketed, trigger-happy, and yet terrifyingly impotent, America is deeply unpopular. After the twister of the War on Terror the Statue of Liberty has been replaced by an effigy of the Wicked Witch of the West.

America’s triumph in the Cold War and the rapid globalisation-Americanisation that followed has, with irresistible hubris, undone the American Imperium. Everyone is American now so no one needs America any more – so Yankee Go Home. Russian President Putin’s widely-reported recent speech attacking the US’s arrogance encapsulated this sentiment: ‘the United States ,’ he said, ‘has overstepped its borders in every way.’

All this is as obvious and objectionable as America ‘s obesity problem. Except for one small detail: It isn’t true.

Or at least, it’s only half the story. For all its troubles, the American Dream is anything but dead. Much of the world may say it hates America now, but really its heart still belongs to Uncle Sam – it will still pay top dollar to dress up in the lineaments/linenments of the American Dream – as the global triumph of classy Yankee dream-merchants Ralph Lauren shows, this Spring opening up not one but two major new stores in Moscow itself (and perhaps providing the real reason for Putin’s outburst).

Meanwhile, as part of the Yankee rag-trade pincer-movement on the global psyche, Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyors of the frattish American Wet Dream is building its own overseas Empire, opening its first international flagship store in Europe – on Saville Row, London, home of the bespoke tailor, the place where the British Establishment has gone for hundreds of years to have its inside leg measured. To rub our noses in it, A&F have erected huge billboards of towering god-like Yankee models flaunting their abs and pecs at dumpy London pedestrians shuffling past at crotch level.

At a couple of fashionable strokes, American cultural imperialism has knocked down the Berlin Wall again and humiliated the British Empire Suez-style. Not bad for something as dead as a Norwegian Blue. Hollywood may be in terminal decline, and this year’s Oscar Ceremony a glorified AA meeting, but American men’s fashion brands are still exporting the American way of life, liberty and snappiness.

Perhaps that’s because Ralph Lauren is effectively High Hollywood’s merchandising wing. Born Ralph Lifshitz in 1939 in the Bronx this Jewish boy modelled his clothes on the black and WASP grainy High Summer Hollywood of his childhood: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper. And as is often the case in the world of images, his faux moneyed Yankee style supplanted the ‘real’ thing. Transformed from privilege into a polo shirt or a cable-knit jumper it was more democratic, more ‘American’. More saleable.

Memorably described by one fashion critic as ‘a white elephant covered in cricket bats’, Ralph Lauren wore the 1980s tied over its shoulders like a cashmere tennis sweater. RL’s cool, leisured classiness symbolised aspiration in the most sweatily ambitious and nakedly American decade. Ralph Lauren rapidly became the world’s first and most successful lifestyle fashion brand, a total, wraparound vision that everyone wanted to share. The Polo logo became the more tasteful, more international version of a Stars and Stripes lapel pin (in 1999 RL formalised its status by donating $13M to preserve the Star Spangled Banner). Today RL have sales of nearly $4B, making it a behemoth covered in cricket bats. RL’s flagship store in Moscow ‘s Tretyakovsky Passage, one of world’s most expensive shopping areas, will paint 8000 square feet of Mother Russia a Yankee shade of red white and blue. No wonder Putin is pissed off.

Mind, the Russians don’t seem to be as upset as the Brits, whose outraged protests forced A&F to reduce slightly the size of the body parts terrorising Saville Row. But this all seems to be part of the naughty A&F gameplan. ‘We’re shaking up the neighbourhood,’ a chirpy spokesperson explained to the press. ‘It’s going to be an extension of the irreverence of the brand into London. It’s going to be fun and we’re thrilled.’ What’s more, the store will be ‘just like our one’s in the US ‘ and the staff will be British ‘but look A&F.’

In fact, A&F are re-enacting in England itself a battle against dusty ‘Englishness’ that they have already won Stateside. Ironically, A&F was once almost the brand that RL sold itself as. Founded in 1892 as an excursion outfitter their clients included Katherine Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway. Elephant-bagging American Empire builder Teddy Roosevelt was one of their regulars.

After the 60s A&F went into decline – it was seen as ‘too square’ and ‘too English’ – and in 1988 were bought by The Limited Inc. who sexed it up, moved its target age down, and wrapped it n a mythical, all-American, 1950s, tanned, athletic boyishness as toothily innocent as it was knowingly tarty; in other words: ‘Weberist’ (Bruce Weber is A&F’s signature photographer). If RL is timeless High Summer Hollywood, A&F is endless Summer on Campus – plus MTV and webcams. RL is the America the world wants to go on safari with: A&F is the America that the world wants to party with.

With sales over $2B a year the A&F lifestyle has sustained unrivalled year-on-year levels of growth. A&F is catching up with RL. As if acknowledging this, RL recently opened a slightly A&F flavoured ‘Rugby’ chain of stores in the US . What’s more, the move into Europe is part of the transformation of A&F into an international luxury brand – once again threatening to tread on RL’s loafers.

For now though there’s plenty of room for both brands on the yellowbrick road of the Global High Street. Whatever they may think of America ‘s actions, dowdy Anti-Americanism isn’t, in the final reel, something that the world’s huddled masses actually want to wear. London will no doubt be a great, chest shaving, success for new Yankee imperialists A&F.

But one that will be dwarfed, I’m sure, by the shrieking, fainting, hair-pulling success of any store they open in that supposed capital of America-hating – Paris.

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: a 21st  century self-love story’