Ah, the American Dream. To be respectable. To be comfortable. To be happy. To have that nuclear family, the multi-bedroom house, the backyard, the white picket fence, the dog, a barbecue, a nice car (or two!) To live in a “nice” and “respectable” neighborhood. One that is “safe.” One that isn’t “poor” or “ghetto.” One full of smiling (White) faces. Two-parent homes. Two children, a (cis)boy and (cis)girl. In the living room, Disney movies line the shelves, featuring “happy endings” where romantic love and marriage are put on pedestals. If you can’t be White, that’s okay. Surround yourself with enough White people, and MAYBE you’ll be seen as less “threatening” and therefore more likely to be “accepted” into these “nice” neighborhoods. Not heterosexual? Make Neil Patrick Harris your role model and God, and people might like you (especially straight women! Let’s go shopping!). Not cisgender? Just don’t LOOK trans, and you might be accepted (as long as you don’t “deceive” anyone, either!). If you somehow make enough money for the nice house and car, despite all the odds, and if you don’t make your oppressors “uncomfortable,” you MIGHT not end up hurt, abused, or even dead. Above all, remember: All of the onus is on you.
At least, that’s what mainstream society implies. Right?
This “dream” isn’t just America’s, though. No, these “ideals” have spread like a virus, keeping the oppressors in power, with which they dictate what is and isn’t “acceptable.” And this “dream” isn’t anything new. No, it’s been around for quite some time.
Enter Thomas “Tommy” Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, featured in the BBC television series aptly named Peaky Blinders. Tommy’s theme, and the theme of the entire series, is Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s 1994 song “Red Right Hand.” The song warns the listener not to follow and join the “tall handsome man” who offers money, comfort, fame, and self-worth. This is because the man isn’t “what he seems,” and will just make the listener “one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan” which is “designed and directed by” violence and oppression, symbolized by “his red right hand.” The plot of “Peaky Blinders” largely reflects the song, especially in its second season. Two covers of the song, one by Arctic Monkeys, and one by PJ Harvey (which was created specifically for the show), are also featured in the series.
One example of how the song is used is in the third episode of season two. PJ Harvey’s eerie and mournful cover of “Red Right Hand” plays at the top of the episode. The scene opens with children watching, as if hypnotized, a shadow puppet play in which a lion wearing a crown (the crown being the focus) establishes a hierarchy of animals, with a wolf as his aid. He has the wolf (representative of law enforcement, especially the character Inspector/Major Campbell who uses a wolf-headed cane) kill or otherwise greatly wound a man, and the man’s home is set on fire. Either the same man or another man rides a horse at a fast pace, trying to escape the fire, turning his back on all that is burning behind him. He acquires more horses with which to escape (note that horses are a sign of wealth), but does not stay to help the people within his community escape on the backs of those horses. He attempts to escape and save himself as his home burns around him, most likely about to take him with it. The children watch, eyes wide and mouths open, hoping that he will escape, just as the viewers at home watching the show hope that Tommy’s story will end well. That Tommy will escape his humble beginnings, will escape violence, will escape the oppression. Meanwhile, in the children’s reality and right behind them as they watch the fantasy unfurl, an Irish man is murdered by another Irish man with a garrote, during the Irish Civil War – one of them pro-England’s (their oppressor’s) treaty, and one against it and pro-liberation. The man murdered was caught off guard, as he too was absorbed in the fantastical shadow play.
The shadow play and the American Dream are one and the same - the dream of escaping oppression via selfish capitalistic gain. And they are largely a distraction, as well as a divisive force. Children are taught this fairy tale of success that stays with them into adulthood, PJ Harvey’s gentle but creepy rendition emphasizing the danger in this tradition. The oppressed are divided and are turned against each other by the ruling classes. In order to get ahead, oppressed people are taught that they have to oppress others. Tommy, who is mainly discriminated against for being Romanichal (a British subgroup of Romani, which in turn is one of the largest groups of Roma), becomes an oppressor himself, taking advantage of poor people, often veterans and widows, in order to make money via illegal betting on horseracing.
Tommy also plays into respectability politics in becoming a capitalistic oppressor, such as by buying houses in “respectable” neighborhoods and wears fancier clothes, and, as the “Red Right Hand” lyrics state, carrying “stacks of green paper” in his metaphorical “red right hand.” All of this does not save him from being discriminated against, however, and he is even almost murdered several times. Playing into what society says is “acceptable” or “respectable” does not end the existence of systemic oppression, for Tommy and for all marginalized and oppressed people even today. Infighting among marginalized groups is both a cause and goal of oppression, so that even the Irish-on-Irish crime/murder in the scene mentioned above is really English-on-Irish crime/systematic oppression. By trying to escape oppression via capitalism and respectability politics, Tommy both inadvertently and otherwise perpetuates systematic oppression, towards others but also towards himself and his family.
Fighting amongst and between oppressed groups is a direct result of oppression. We don’t have to choose to become and join our oppressors in a sorry attempt to be free from their oppression. We need to support fellow oppressed peoples, especially those who are most oppressed. We need to defend and protect each other, raising and bring attention to each other’s voices, especially those most often ignored or silenced. A mother who lost her son to Tommy’s gang, and whose entire community is in poverty largely due to them, says “Someone needs to stop you people.” Do we really want to be the sort of people who need to be stopped?
Jackson Adler is a freelance writer. Some of his blogging can be seen on Bitch Flicks and The Windowsill. He has training in music, theater, and musical theater. Jackson identifies as a white bi/pansexual transman. You can follow him at @JacksonAdler and like him on his Facebook page. .
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