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The Agenda On Our Heads: Lice, Satire, A Female Interviewer

On the television and the many social media feeds I am chained to, I see a woman ask a man if the pyramids were built from the top down or vice versa. This is Diana Morgan, the person behind the persona Philomena Cunk, star of BBC’s Cunk on Earth, mocking the documentary format or the history of the world or the people she interviews or all of the above. An idea starts to form. I think of Nathan Fielder’s Nathan For You and the more recent TV release of The Rehearsal, both series wherein Fielder tricks people into ludicrous business or relational schemes he promotes as genius (picture a poker-faced man with no facial hair, convincing an electronic store owner that pricing his products at 1 USD will necessitate Best Buy matching his rates). Unsurprisingly, he prompted a cultural discussion about ethics and humor in July of 2022. Since then, a bunch of female interviewers have gained notoriety and established themselves in visual media with such unconventional approaches. Why do people go along with it? Must it be on television? Can I do it?

Evidence suggests I am an attractive enough woman, young, often on the hunt for love or respect. I’m a Libra rising and this means I’m good at getting people to go along with me. 

I scratch my head.

“It can’t be a good day if you’re calling me,” Matt from the Montreal Lice Crew says. That’s a lie. He opens with a generic customer service voice and a “How can I help you?” I tell him it’s been a good day, and I ask about his. This seems to take him aback, and from henceforth Matt’s voice, although already cheerful beforehand, takes on a genuine and youthful quality. You may wonder what he looks like. Keep doing so. This is a phone interview.

I let Matt know that I do not, in fact, have lice. I have questions. I sit on a chair I picked up on the street last September, when all of Montreal was reshuffling itself. The downtown buildings are visible through layers of dirt on my windows (my fault). Even closer in front of me is the list of questions, handwritten onto pink Dollarama paper. It concerns lice. There was a time I did have lice, and my mother would place a dollop of lavender oil in my hair. Sometimes I pass those combs with the incredibly thin teeth through my hair, out of habit, sheer boredom, or the need to feel something.

Matt is one of three technicians of the Lice Crew in Montreal (514-710-5120). He explains there are such crews all over Canada, working exclusively with head lice. I ask if he likes working at the clinic and he says he doesn’t know how to answer that question. Then he says that the clinic, as in the physical building, doesn’t operate anymore. Not since the pandemic.

“Social distancing is a louse’s worst enemy,” Matt says, half solemn and half not.

Who would have thought the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 affected lice and lice technicians so harshly? Nowadays, technicians get dispatched towards the lice, like that mountain Muhammad saying. The regular rate is C$80/per hour, with an hour minimum, billed in fifteen minute increments. At a school, they charge C$1.50 per child. There’s a complicated price chart about it on their website, along with a “Lice 101” FAQ. Here’s a sample:

No. Lice do not hop, skip or jump; they do not have back legs to jump nor do they have wings to fly. They just crawl.

The Lice Crew does not use pesticides. Matt supposes the methods could be called “all-natural.”

“So you don’t use that electric comb?” I ask. Talk about feeling something. Imagine your mother’s old fine-toothed comb fused with an electric fence, or those racquets people use to swing at mosquitoes like tennis balls. Available at any pharmacy. It could be worse – I know a woman who puts fabric softener on her daughter’s hair. “When I heard about the electric combs it sounded like the electric chair for lice.”

“Yeah,” Matt replies with a nervous sort of chuckle, which I don’t know whether to punctuate with an exclamation point. The eternal dilemma of not knowing whether a Canadian agrees with an idea mentioned in conversation, or if they wish for it to pass by quickly. 

The electric chair brings us to the government’s role. In 2018, measures were taken to ban harmful chemicals such as permethrin from at-home lice remedies. This move comes during a successful epoch for Quebecois lice (one may wonder, is it because of the ban?). In fact, part of the Lice Crew’s existence can be attributed to pharmacy products no longer working. The Lice Crew’s website acknowledges that the “[m]ajority (98%) of all head lice cases found today are the mutant strain of lice, termed ‘super lice,’ which are resistant to pharmacy treatment products.” Be it due to the inefficacy of pesticides or the banning of them (in other words, regardless of one’s belief in the practice of science), the lice removal industry is now a market that has been privatized to the extent of an hourly price. 

The government also imposes other kinds of regulations. Children are asked to stay home if they are hosts to lice. However, swimming caps are not demanded at school.

“It is confusing, yeah,” Matt agrees. About the policies. Questioning nonsensical measures such as this and the government’s role in the face of the super lice epidemic in Montreal leads us to question its very stance. Is the government of Quebec pushing a pro-lice agenda? Why is lice removal left up to a privatized industry, technicians like Matt, one of three in a city of 1.7 million? One super-powered vampiric insect at a time, Montreal is left to bleed out.

“There is a preferred blood type,” Matt discloses, without adding which one it is. A little mystery is healthy, and keeps the relationship interesting. Upon request, he specifies that the preference is not due to the palate or any particularity of French Canadian lice. They are regular lice, like anybody else.

Lice do not discriminate against gingers or any hair color, for that matter. The constant is long hair, worn down, so lice tend to afflict females more than males. Although no one asks, Matt adds that ethnicity is a factor. Not because of anything inherent, but because of cultural backgrounds and tolerance for lice. Conflict occurs when parents metaphorically shrug off lice as an everyday thing, and the children don’t know what a metaphor is or why they get made fun of at school. Curiously, I remember that whether or not it was cool to have lice and skip swimming lessons had a lot to do with who it was on those benches. In their defense, lice can impart valuable life lessons about society. In their not-defense, Matt does not think Canada is one of the places where lice coexist peacefully with humans. Of course, that is why his job exists in the first place. 

When asked if lice ever get itchy, Matt laughs for a long time. When asked about the qualifications to be a lice technician, he says, “Who are you writing this for, again?”

My rendition of a louse. Oil on Word 2007. 

Dr. Rassim Khelifa’s specialty is dragonflies. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia. I am in his office. It is located farther away at the nicer Concordia campus to my downtown eyes, covered with snow for the first time. The building layout gives me a headache and I’m almost late to our meeting. Luckily, I find him at the end of a maze of a corridor. His colleague has an office door wide open, right next to us, and our conversation on pesticides must float into his tenure-track space. Dr. Rassim Khelifa has a witness.

The white blinds in his office are halfway down, the snow visible through the lower half is whiter. He often licks his lips when he talks. I watch him define “synergetic,” his hands gesturing at an invisible equation that starts with A + B and ends with percentages.

“Like the plus two card in UNO,” I say. He blinks. He’s never played, but he sees the connection.

He is talking about population dynamics, all the new species we have in Montreal that have come from the south now that it is not too cold for them. I seize the chance to ask why we see spikes in head lice cases during the winter. Don’t the lice suffocate under the beanies and tuques of it all?

“Okay. Two things,” he starts, either ordering his thoughts or mine. He says more than two things about it. We pivot to what I’m really here for. 

“A decade ago we used to put in lotions the things we find in those chemical compounds that you spray your crops with, right? And so you don’t want that. The more you put, the more resistant the insect you get.”

Even though they are the size of sesame seeds, the chemical route leads to “super babies.” The egg hatches in a week or so, the larva grows pretty fast, and in a few weeks there is a stronger louse than its parent. This is what Matt’s Lice Crew was formed in response to (allegedly).

Yet these anti-pesticide laws are taking about three years to phase out. This could be run-of-the-mill bureaucracy, it could be indicative of the government’s support of pesticides, or it could be indicative of the government’s support of lice. Dr. Rassim Khelifa says that some drugs are regulated, and some aren’t. This is why there are still products with substances like permethrin at your local Jean Coutu, which is banned. It’s all very logical.

I think of Montreal when I first arrived, last August. A city buzzing with fat bees over trash cans, full of leases with clauses about bedbugs. The bees were explained to me as a result of “strict pesticide laws” and the bedbugs as being in need of “immediate extermination.” Why is it like this? Where do lice fit in this city?

“We cannot live without bees. You know that, right?”

Would we want to? 

The doctor’s body is reclined back on his chair, his legs out long, like if someone grabbed a marker and traced in the air the pivoting journey of a ping pong ball, and then turned it 180 degrees to the left. 

“Lice are not my specialty,” he says, thrice in total. 

Lice have short life cycles, yet collectively they’ve been with us from the beginning. The Egyptians of old shaving their heads is apparently due to lice. However, head lice are not a cause for concern. It is body lice that carry some “nasty” bacteria, and that were on Napoleon’s ten thousand troops when he wanted to invade Russia.

Larvae, like teenagers, are greedy. If they spend two or three hours without eating blood they die. According to Dr. Rassim Khelifa, it has to be human blood. Canine would not do; that’s flea territory. It’s species-specific.  When asked about lice cannibalizing each other, Dr. Rassim Khalifa answers: “I have not read that. I would have read that.”

There’s a picture of a louse he has pulled up, blinking on the computer screen in front of us. What must have made this man clutch for a visual aid? For an image that could be on a sixth grader’s PowerPoint or, God forbid, Prezi? I make it a point to consider it. 

“Do lice have eyelashes?”

“Eyelashes? No.”

“So they don’t blink?”

“No. Insects don’t blink.”

I can sense Dr. Rassim Khelifa is reaching his breaking point. It’s been twenty five minutes.

He tells me about lice being eusocial organisms. Basically, it’s every louse for itself out there. 

“That’s eusocial,” he spells out, really very slowly.

A pesticide. Any similarity to any product in the market is coincidental unless they’re desperate for advertisement.

Strange to begin an interview without a hidden knife I’ll be digging in slowly, smiling. The past week has been fun and slightly sadistic. My conversation with Danielle Bobker is confession at Sunday Mass, alongside an academic plea for justification or meaning.

Professor Danielle Bobker’s hair is graying and curling in a delightful fashion. She wears burgundy glasses. She talks with me at length over Zoom, in a relaxed manner. Bobker is an English professor at Concordia, and was one of the organizers for a 2019 Working Group titled Feminism and Controversial Humor. Currently, she is working on a conference proposal aligned with the exercise of this feature. She is more interested in why people watch this sort of interview, rather than how.

“I think that has to do with just how it dramatizes our concerns over what is expertise and whose knowledge is important. When you have a kind of so-called dumb interviewer and then a learned interviewee, from all different perspectives, you could find the awkwardness amusing.”

I share my surprise that Matt from the Lice Crew did not hang up on me.

“Why do you think that is?” she asks, in the voice my psychiatrist sometimes uses. It certainly disproves the obvious assumption of simply being trapped inside four walls with someone. Could it be social convention trapping him instead? He can’t see me, so my looks don’t play into either my assumed stupidity or his impulse to indulge me. 

Professor Danielle Bobker offers pedagogy as a reason. It’s true that both she and Dr. Rassim Khelifa teach, but there is something about Bobker in particular that screams “Socratic method.” She offers two other theories about why he and Matt put up with the lice questioning: the flatness of most conversations being overridden, or their desire to be compliant, polite, acceptable. 

I hum.

“You scratched your head when you said lice,” she points out. 

The film Borat (2006) is easy to identify as a pioneer and icon of this genre of “dumbing down” satire, with Sacha Baron Cohen as a Kazakhstani journalist loose and wreaking havoc in the United States. As discussed, Diana Morgana has endeared herself to viewers as Philomena Cunk, a fake journalist constructed for the BBC. There seem to be other unconventional approaches, too. The late night talk show ZIWE puts guests under a metaphorical gunpoint, and pressures them to trip and say something controversial. The journalist Amelia Dimoldenberg created Chicken Shop Date, where she goes on mediocre dates with celebrities. While some of these shows have been around for years, these women are gaining cultural capital for their approaches. Female interviewers have embraced unusual strategies: playing dumb for comedic effect, making the power dynamic of an interview extremely palpable, or turning the interview into a mock disappointing date, respectively. 

Why does it matter that it’s women? Bobker’s hypothesis is that it’s more appealing across the political spectrum, especially considering the post-2019 use of irony as a writing tactic for the alt-right. It also renders null the myth of female moral superiority or purity. Neither of us thinks it’s being done in the name of feminism. We do, however, land on something. Men, historically and societally, are rewarded for explaining things, to the point that the term “mansplaining” is now part of our lexicon.

“We've identified it and now these interviewers are working on deconstructing it, parodying that dynamic that's very well known as an authoritative performance,” Bobker muses.

The thing about parody is that finding who the butt of the joke is can be murky. Was I lowering myself with these lice interviews? Or could this process be thought of as more demeaning for the person sitting across from me, being questioned?

“Oh, I do think so. Yeah.”

Bobker once again asks me to deepen my thinking, and once again I’m not sure where she stands. Imagine someone who perpetually has their fingers laced together under the table.

“I was curious about a lot of these things,” I admit. I would have Googled them in the privacy of my Firefox browser. That’s how I landed on that Lice 101 thing in the first place. Like FAQs, satire is a “wild imaginative space of play where facts are made malleable and you can be not ashamed of not knowing,” as Professor Danielle Bobker puts it.

One gets the sense Bobker has laughed, or thought about laughing, a lot over her life. There is a certain seriousness to her person. I’m asked about the ethics of this experiment, if I would ever perform it in class, to provide a draft of any quote of hers that makes it into the feature. I’m asked what I know about child development and I tell her I went to Catholic school. A laugh, then the point.

“There's an age in the cognitive development of a child where they can't actually distinguish between fantasy and reality very clearly. So they'll say things like ‘I don't believe in Santa Claus’ and then ‘Did he come and eat the cookies?’ Both of those things are true for them at the same time... So I think that that's another reason that it appeals both to the interviewers and the interviewees as they're going back to the space. You had fun doing it.”

It must be obvious. Apparently there is a twinkle in my eyes. My theory is they had fun too, talking to me. But can I infuse sentences with a twinkle to soften it all?

Bobker leaves me with a book recommendation, or at least its thesis. The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson. There is no rule for satire. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s a “horrific, sensationalist, gratuitous waste of time.” 

Date submitted: October 3, 2023

Date accepted: December 5, 2023

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