Mario Balotelli and his race against the racists

July 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Super Mario meme.

If Mario Balotelli had scored in the final of Euro 2012, Italy might still have lost. But he didn’t score and even if he had, I don’t think it would have rewritten history. It was Spain’s night and rightly so. The Spanish are in a class of their own, having won two back to back European championships and a world cup.

But I have taken heart that the young Italian striker has done enough to show his growing class and increasing maturity as a player. Given his chequered and petulant past, Italians must also be encouraged that this wayward son is fast becoming the kind of destroyer of other teams that many of us hope he can be.

Super Mario’s scrapes with officials and managers are well documented and I won’t go into them here but you can find it on his Wikipedia page. Of all the players at Euro 2012, he is the one player I perhaps invested most of my hopes in – and not just because I have loved Italian football since Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillaci thrilled us during Italia 90.

The goals – especially the two that broke German hearts – Balotelli scored during this tournament in Poland and Ukraine are three of the best I’ve ever seen and I have my fingers crossed he brings with him the threat and promise of similar goals when the world cup is played in Brazil in 2014.

But football is only part of the argument as to why many of us will him on to succeed and to make the Italian football team great again (although it would take some doing to get close to the success enjoyed by this current Spanish team with its celestial line-up that includes Andreas Iniesta, Ilker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez).

The rest of the case is about  race. Mario Balotelli has everything that a 21 year old man could possibly wish for – tremendous talent, enormous wealth and global celebrity. He also has a supportive family. The surprise is that it isn’t his birth family we are talking about. Balotelli was born in Italy to a migrant couple from Ghana who had him adopted out. His adoptive mother, Silvia Balotelli, was pictured being embraced by Mario after the game against Germany and he dedicated those goals to her.

But here’s the thing. Balotelli is black. He sticks out of the Italian squad like a Chinese All Black might. Italy is not like Britain or France or Portugal or the Netherlands. There is no big history of empire building (Libya and Ethiopia excluded) that led to the kinds of inward migration flows that created those modern multicultural societies.

Italy has been a predominantly homogenous country for a long time until relatively recently where it is now home to thousands of Eastern European, African, and Asian migrants. As the son of Ghanaian migrants to Italy who was fostered out to a white Jewish Italian family from the age of three, Balotelli is a very visible sign of how Italy’s ethnography is changing.

In terms of the football and race, and within the context of the Italian game, Mario Balotelli has been a divisive figure to many. Before Euro 2012, a minority of Italians made their views felt that a black man should not be playing for the national team. Italy has had many fine and distinguished black footballers play there as professionals with Italian clubs but never has the country chosen a black player who qualified by citizenship. Balotelli’s appearances in the Azzurri shirt is unprecedented.

So during the final, when a commentator said Balotelli had been born in Ghana, I tweeted this.

I don’t think the broadcaster was intentionally denying the player’s Italian-ness but he may have thought he was explaining why a black man could be playing for Italy. But it irritated me that he was wrong. Balotelli was born in Italy and afterwards, by tweeting that retort, I realised that I’d fallen into the same kind of trap that literally colours the lenses of white supremacist thinking and the mechanism that neo Nazis and other racists use to exclude those they feel do not belong to their culture and country – no matter how long they have lived there.

Even if Balotelli had been born in Ghana, he could still be as Italian as spaghetti. He grew up there, has an Italian passport, adoptive Italian parents and speaks Italian as well as you would imagine other members of the Italian national team.

To deny Balotelli’s Italian-ness is to apply the same kind of smear that has been attempted by the extremist Tea Party movement in the United States to marginalise Barack Obama’s birth right to be president.

It is for this reason that Mario Balotelli is, for me, more than a footballer. He is instead someone who defies the stereotype of an Italian that a minority of football fans subscribe to. Have a look at this cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong, as it was published by Italy’s leading sports newspaper, the Gazetta della Sport.

Mario Balotelli as King Kong.

While the cartoonist’s intention is to pay tribute to Balotelli’s performances at the tournament, it is undeniably racist. No white player would ever be depicted in that way and the link between black people and apes is only made by those with a racist world view. Encouragingly, the cartoon kicked up a storm, prompting an ersatz and not very genuine apology from the newspaper.

Mario Balotelli, like many black footballers, has had to suffer the indignities of having bananas thrown at him, monkey chants and the unfurling of racist banners. We saw some of this at Euro 2012, and European football’s governing body, UEFA, has even penalised some of national football associations for the racist behaviour of their fans.

This is why many of us celebrate Super Mario as a modern day hero. Just by being on the football pitch in the national shirt of Italy, he is a poke in the eye for those Europeans who think a black man can never be a European, and one in the occhi for those Italians who think a black man should never play for Italy. For this reason alone, I hope Super Mario keeps on scoring amazing goals.

Post script: If you like memes, check out these Mario memes on Tumblr.


A surplus of fan fiction, cosplay, memes and other obsessions

April 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Television in its current shape, like newspapers, is crumbling and it is the kids who are chipping away at it. It is as Clay Shirky predicted and the evidence can be found studying The Hunger Games, in the multitude of online forums, cosplay videos and images, parody videos, photo-shopped memes and web pages of user generated fan fiction.

Shirky’s big idea is that the Internet is a ubiquitous, participatory medium that is having an unprecedented impact on human society and behaviour. One of its side effects is to usher in the end of television as we have known it. Everyone over the age of 25 grew up watching television as the dominant entertainment and information medium. It was our default time suck of choice – or no choice because the Internet had yet to exist.

By contrast, the world depicted in The Hunger Games is one without an Internet and where information is controlled and flows from a central point. There’s one government television channel that everyone is compelled to watch. It could be a metaphor for our pre-Internet world where television was the king of media.

In the post war era, when people had more hours of leisure to burn, incredibly, we spent more and more of it watching television. We passively consumed televised broadcast content because it was entertainment, a surrogate friend, a way to feel connected to everyone else by being able to join the water cooler conversations at work and also because, as Shirky describes in his book Cognitive Surplus, the threshold for doing it was very low. It took no effort to turn on a television and collapse on a couch.

Apparently, Americans cumulatively watch up to 200 billion hours of television every year. But that’s changing. Those hours are increasingly going online. The shift wrought by the Internet, mobile communications and faster broadband speeds means that young people under 25 are not satisfied with passively consuming media. They expect to be active and contributory participants. They expect the immediacy and interactivity of the World Wide Web because that is what they’ve grown up with. This burgeoning participatory ethos is what Shirky calls the cognitive surplus – the hours spent tuning out have become about turning on.

“Several population studies – of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users – have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same; young populations with fast interactive media are shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analogue to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate or rank it, and of course to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

Shirky says the cumulative effect is revolutionary.

“The choices leading to reduced TV consumption are at once tiny and enormous. The tiny choices are individual; someone simply decides to spend the next hour talking to friends or playing a game or creating something instead of just watching. The enormous choices are collective ones, an accumulation of those tiny choices by the millions; the cumulative shift toward participation across a whole population enables the creation of a Wikipedia.”

Armed with the theory, I went looking for the cognitive surplus as it might apply to The Hunger Games. Others had observed that the all this extra brain cell activity not wasted on watching TV, had been disappearing into a morass of Angry Birds but we can guess that it flows on to what ever the next big Internet thing is. Right now, the next big thing to millions of kids is The Hunger Games. Warning: if you haven’t seen the film or read the book there are spoilers ahead.

Take for example, fan fiction, a sub culture where fans are so into a story, series or book, that they make up their own plots, subplots and parallel narratives. They fill in where they see gaps in the authorised narrative or characters. The Hunger Games fans who write fan fiction (called fanfic for short) are extremely dedicated and motivated. They have gone beyond consuming the books and the film and they’ve ‘occupied’ The Hunger Games world, bringing with them their own spin.

Many have run with the romantic intrigue between the main character Katniss Everdeen and the other two points of her love triangle – Peeta and Gale. They’ve been extrapolated by fans in love with the book but dissatisfied with its chasteness. Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale for Katniss?

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Fans also love Katniss’ mysterious redheaded rival, Foxface. She’s even become the focal point of a fascinating controversy. Did Foxface commit suicide by deliberately eating nightlock berries or was her death accidental? This is hotly debated online by fans who feel passionate one way or the other. As much as I like the idea that Foxface decided to subvert the game, I am on the side of the ‘accidentalists’.

Check out also the Hunger Games wiki where fans write and edit a definitive resource on the books (and the film) according to the principles of Wikipedia.

There are also cosplay videos and images of fans dressing and acting out their favourite character roles. These kids script, video, edit and publish their own tributes to the books. The results are not always pretty but it’s kind of touching that fans do this out of love for the story.

Some recreate scenes from the book. And others make parodies, like this one of The Hipster Games. Some get the braids, bows, arrows and a flinty stare.

Needless to say, there are also photoshopped memes!

This explosion of fan love creativity is what the cognitive surplus looks like. There was a debate about race because some fans were outraged two of the game candidates, Thresh and Rue, are played by black actors in the film. The racist fans were quickly shot down – one, for making it an issue of having black actors and two, for their poor reading comprehension. The book clearly says:

“And most hauntingly, a twelve year old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanour.”

Someone appalled at the racism displayed towards the idea of having black characters started a Tumblr that aggregated the racist tweets and reactions to them. It became a rallying point for the anti-racist backlash.

Truth be told, I felt like objecting a little because the two Asian kids didn’t get much screen time. One dies in a highlights reel of an earlier games and the other kid doesn’t even get going, just one of those immediately slaughtered at the Cornucopia. But hey, at least Asians got represented, even if they were arrow and spear fodder.

I am just scratching the surplus here. This obsessive mania over The Hunger Games may seem frivolous and trivial but to me, it represents something much bigger – a rowdy, clamouring, gorgeous din of voices, all busy creating, sharing, debating, trolling and celebrating with a zeal that goes with being a true fan. That noise you hear is the sound of an accumulation of surplus creativity finding its outlet on the World Wide Web. That has got to be more interesting than watching people watch television.

What’s your cognitive surplus doing?

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