(HOT TAKE) Quarantine Phenomenology: The Curious Case of Daddy Conte, by Denise Bonetti
‘Teenage by design’? SPAM founder and editor-in-chief Denise Bonetti, tapping into her Italian roots, takes us on a whirlwind journey around the lustful theme park that is meme space in the time of quarantine. For many, especially those who aren’t on the frontline as key workers, self-isolation is thrusting us back into a rude adolescence. Having exhausted our usual channels of recursive entertainment, where better to look than to the political (yes, wybi?!) heroes of meatspace to fantasise the intimacies and reassurances we’re otherwise deprived of.
(CW: sexually explicit references)
> Comedian Dan Sebree tweeted that this whole quarantine situation is the closest any of us millennials will get to retirement. The joke is funny because it’s most likely true: the idea of people in my age bracket (mid-20s to mid-30s) ever retiring seems like a fairytale we tell ourselves to keep our boomer parents happy, something we play along to because frankly it’s easier than sharing the extent of our doubts in the future. (Find someone in their 20s who can say ‘when we all retire’ without a shred of irony).
> Sebree is right, most of us are playing retirees now. 80% of your salary to repot your plants, make sourdough, and fend off waves of existential dread here and there: not too shabby – if you used to have a stable job, that is. Things obviously aren’t so chill for quite literally everyone else: NHS workers, shopkeepers, supermarket employees, people on zero-hour contracts (which make up around 9% of all the UK workforce under 25), gig economy workers, freelancers by choice, people whose employers can’t be bothered putting them on payroll, and have therefore decided for them that they’ll have to be freelancers – the list goes on.
> Yet beyond the retirement vibes, there is a stage of life that seems even more appropriate to represent the mood that this pandemic isolation has been creating. We are feeling manic and depressive, anxious and idyllic, bored and obsessive; we have been dying our hair and we’re allowing social media challenges and email chains to make a comeback ( 😩). We’re raging that we’re being told how & when we can go out, and we want to see our friends like our life depended on it. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we’ve all gone back to being teenagers. (For some of us, the transformation is even more literal: everyone who’s had to move back to their parents tag yourselves.)
> In ‘Glitching the Collective Mind’ a three-part essay published on SPAM a few months ago, Dan Power noted how ‘spending too long online (or rather, too long outside of the real world)’ can easily give way to ‘feelings of melancholic or manic absurdity’ by way of ‘saturating the mind’ with the infinite possibilities of content. In the same essay, Power reflects on the nature of the virtual space this content is localised in, what Grafton Tanner has called the ‘virtual plaza’: a non-place through which ‘we drift and consume, lulled by the saccharine tones of muzak’. Power argues that what the ‘non-local’, ‘homogenized’ structure of the virtual plaza takes away is precisely that something around which the occupants can build a sense of identity: ‘When the features which distinguish one place from another are removed, stable sense of belonging and understanding are removed with them’.
> Although Power could not have predicted this current weirdness, I am interested in his linking the internet’s hypertrophic, endless-scroll format, eradicated from any sense of place as we know it, to its capacity both to strip us of our identity, and to reduce us to a melancholic, manic mess – a passive, wide-awake anonymous content-consumer, lying in bed between waves of anxiety. A teenager who is grappling with their identity because they’re not quite sure where their emotions are coming from – literally and metaphorically.
> Critic Amanda Hess has recently written in The New York Times about the comfort of playing childhood video games during the lockdown. ‘It’s not so much that I miss my childhood’, she writes as she becomes re-obsessed with her 11-year-old self’s favourite game, Myst, ‘as that I feel seized by it’. And I, currently taking a break from a 12-hour The Sims 2 Bon Voyage build-mode marathon to write this, can only confirm such claims.
> I’m sure the fact that we gravitate towards this simple kind of pastime has a lot to do with the fact that no one can be arsed engaging with highbrow content during such traumatic times. (Let me take a break from following the dead count on BBC News by watching Battleship Potemkin, said no one ever.) However it’s not only that we’re drawn to accessible content, it’s that we are drawn exactly to the kind of activities that our teenage selves used to be into. (Otherwise, explain why The Sims 2 is having a resurgence – sixteen years after its release [!], and not either of its two successors.)
> If nostalgia is generally understood as originating more in the disappointments of reality than in the draw of the object of nostalgia itself, then the grimness of the pandemic is also to blame for the current millennial vintage trends. As Hess observed elsewhere, the quarantine has forced us into lockdown with the very devices designed to amplify our obsessions, cranking up that very fixative impulse that makes adolescence the curse and blessing that we all know.
> In Italy, where the full lockdown has been going on for over 5 weeks now, the signs of this 30-going-13 epidemic are in full swing. Everybody knows about Italians competing with each other on who can sing the cringiest medley of 00s songs from their balconies. But there’s something even more beautiful that the Italians are doing, and The Answer May Shock You. Platonic love has infiltrated every corner of Italian social media, and the object, I tell you, is no one other the prime minister Giuseppe Conte.
> Just like teenage love, the obsession is platonic socially-distant just as much as it is carnal. ‘Giuseppe Conte’ has reportedly been amongst the most searched terms on Pornhub over the last few weeks. Spurred by sheer investigative rigour I decided to carry out further research on the platform, and can confirm that the PM-themed content abounds. The material itself varies from adorably chaste, SFW picture montages of the prime minister (‘ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER GIUSEPPE CONTE MAKE YOU CUM HARD’, as uploaded by user TheMinisterOfLove), to the literal hour-long speeches that the PM has delivered to the senate, to more visually explicit heart-reacts to the government’s directives (‘HUGE CUMSHOT WHILE LISTENING DADDY GIUSEPPE CONTE’).
> Pornography aside, the memes have taken over the Italian gram and Twitter. It all started when influencer and entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni regrammed to her 19.5m followers a post by the Instagram page @daddy.conte back in March, erroneously crediting it to @lebimbedigiuseppeconte (Giuseppe Conte’s Little Girls) – now two of the most popular hormone city pages dedicated to the PM. The content is genuinely too much and too good for me to present exhaustively, but I need to show you some favourites so you can get with the vibe (all from @daddy.conte):
[‘Italian daddy locks his girls home’]
[’From today, I declare your smile illegal’]
[’There’s a smile underneath that face mask’]
[’hey baby’ / ‘daddy come to me, my parents aren’t home’ / ‘WHAT’]
[’don’t you dare get close to my girls’]
[’who wants a goodnight story?’]
[’Hi gorgeous, if you’re reading this it’s because i’ve been trapped in a wormhole the only way for you to free me is to stay home until 4th April please do it there is no time i know you can save me baby’] [lol at how quickly this has aged]
>The spinoffs quickly proliferated, I’m talking dozens and dozens of pages devoted to the PM’s fatherly aura and classic good looks – most of them with not a huge amount of followers; a sort of decentralised, massively participatory network of adolescent erotic surplus. Some of these pages specialise in things like the PM’s smile or dimples (for the more faint of heart), inscribing the phenomenon in that Renaissance love lyric convention of praising the object of love’s beauty through a catalogue of their body parts.
>A similar sexy/cute type veneration also seems to have developed radially around other Italian political figures such as President Sergio Mattarella, however predicated on a completely different set of desirable traits. Conte’s cult is all about a sort of sub/authoritarian kink power dynamic: ‘Dom daddy tell me what to do’. (Problematic? Potentially. However, wholesome? Absolutely). Mattarella’s cult is inevitably linked to the Italian President’s political function, that of protecting the Constitution, coordinating the three branches of government while heading none. A sort of hands-off grandaddy figure there to break up fights, if you will. Combined with his sweet mannerisms, the result is more of a GILF, sitting-together-on-the-porch kind of desirability, as hinted at by the following meme: (@lebimbedisergiomattarella)
> As a testament to this systematic linkage between quarantine and teenage emotional turmoil, the same dynamic of desire has also developed around political figures in the US. Foremost examples are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (who we now think might have nipple piercings), and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear – a ‘clean-cut sex symbol for the coronavirus age’ according to this Salon article explaining how ‘his calm and empathetic leadership’ (read: wholesome daddy energy) have thousands of thirsty people in self-isolation lust after him (via memes, of course).
> The ethos of memes in general is already teenage by design (hypertrophic, impulsive, obsessive, thriving on a sort of possessed desire towards repetition that I refuse to compare to masturbation). But there’s something special about the dreamy, sublimated, Platonic, cute-aggressive nature of these memes in particular that makes them the epitome not only of #quarantinevibes, but also of the virtual plaza’s mood, more broadly. Quarantine has exposed and legitimised, exacerbated and normalised, the internet’s power to make us regress into horny, anxious blobs. And memes like these are the very crystallisation of that ambivalent process.
> Analysis aside, we love a meme (always already), and we love a femme fandom moment. We stan the birth of a wholesome masculinity mythology for 2020. I can think of worse Internet Utopias. Now back 2 The Sims.
Text: Denise Bonetti
Lead Image credit: @onlyconte (Instagram)