Tuesday, 17 February 2009
O tempora and all that
Early last week, when I was in Athens, I met an old friend for an overpriced beer and a long-overdue catch-up. As we were chatting, he got to berating the phenomenon that is Petroula. Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about. But I could guess. Partly because he’s eloquent and partly because I know what Greek TV is like. Leggy, busty blondes is what prime time private Greek TV is made of. But still, I was curious, so I checked it out the next day and discovered that this particular specimen of television genius tells the weather in fur-trimmed lingerie. Feminist activists turned in their graves and my mum tutted in disapproval, as I explained that I absolutely had to watch this: it is a social phenomenon and I am a social scientist. Yes. That’s right.
So the phenomenon that is Petroula is half-naked, a gentle breeze ensuring the little she wears sways suggestively, and her language is loaded with innuendo. She meows the names of towns and islands, sighs the temperatures and mouths the wind directions. I am female and I am straight yet I still found it mesmerising for about two minutes, because it is so openly sexual that, surely, I thought, it has to be a double-whammy: a critique of the voyeuristic tendencies of Greek TV and the thinly disguised sexualisation of TV presenters and a simultaneous ‘tapping into’ the phenomenon they criticise. A bit like the black-eyed peas singing ‘my humps’ and having the people they were mocking buy their singles while the rest of us sniggered conspiratorially. Market smarts or artistic sell-out, you decide.
Only with Petroula there is no dilemma. There is no critique. The whole thing is a full-throttle indulgence in soft-porn aesthetics. So I watched – by way of sociological research, you understand – and it appears I was in luck: it was the prodigy’s birthday and she did a dance and everything. As she progressed to the pièce de résistance , her catch phrase, ‘I am Petroula and I just finished’, which in Greek carries the innuendo of sexual climax, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.
I wanted to laugh because it’s funny. It is so bad, it’s funny.
But it is mindless and despite the fact that the girl has great legs, I failed to see why she has become a sensation in Greece ahead of others.
But I also felt a rising sense of despair.
I was not prepared for this. I expected to have a giggle and a shake of the head. But I was confronted with a summary version of Greece’s deadlock in a frilly nighty: Petroula, I discovered, started off on 50 euros for a 3-minute slot. Now she’s famous and her 'show' is longer, that figure must have risen. But 50 euros for 3 minutes of shaking your boobs and moaning in front of a camera is a lot of money, especially in a country where other people her age would be making about 500 euros per month. If they were lucky.
So rather than laughing, I found myself doing the maths.
People in their early 20s who are not Petroula, make a salary that is hardly a living. Most young people can’t leave home – and it’s not because of family values any more, it’s because they simply can’t afford it. So they live with their parents and their salary becomes their pocket money while mum and dad still pay the rent, electricity and grocery bills.
And then these 20-somethings spend the little they have on over-priced commodities in a country that is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive in Europe, with a cup of coffee costing as much as 8 euros in fashionable haunts.
And as I watched Petroula celebrate her 20th birthday on television, I got angry. Because all the people who should be engaging in politics, trying to change their fate and fighting for the future, were at home watching her too. People her age, who can’t afford to not live with their mum and dad. People her age who don’t realise that by living with their mum and dad they don’t just compromise their coming of age, they also create a long-term effect on the Greek economy, as their parents cannot retire and their savings are depleted while their offspring fail to become financially independent through no failure of their own.
O tempora. Yes. But morality? This has nothing to do with morality.
I had thought I’d have a laugh and I found myself immersed in gloomy socio-economic analysis. Because I looked at Petroula and I saw a generation that is stuck, truly stuck, in a financial black hole and doesn’t seem to realise that this way is not the only way. And they stay at home on their mum’s sofa and find Petroula hilarious.
Maybe I am reading too much into things. I often do. But Petroula, for all our scorn, is doing well for herself. And her peers, who find her condescendingly hilarious, choose to talk about her rather than their own predicament.
So she serves her purpose and the world carries on like before. And it’s only a matter of time before things get too dire and Petroula’s becomes a coveted career, a way to ensure a better life.
O tempora indeed. I fear we’ll be saying that a lot in the years to come.