Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Alias nothing

Weird things that happen when you rewatch Alias for the first time in five years:




1. OH GOOD GOD THE CULTURAL DRAG IS FUCKING UNBEARABLE. Nope, dressing up as a geisha or an Indian lady is really, really not the same as doing your sneaky spy biz disguised as a maid or a soldier or a hot girl. Other people's cultures: not your fancy dress.

2. Speaking of Hot Girl, good grief there is a whole lot of pandering to the male gaze going on. Are you aware that Jennifer Garner has breasts? She does! Two of them, right there on her upper chest! Barely covered with a filmy layer of nothing! Let's take a long, slow, camera-trawl over them, taking in some stomach and butt and legs for good measure.

"The key to doing this well," Sydney informs Marshall, is to "be inconspicuous". And what's more inconspicuous than a skin tight rubber mini dress?


I mean, I get that there is more than one way to be inconspicuous, and that dulling evil doers' suspicions by hypnotising them with your tits before kicking them in the head and stealing their microwave bomb laser could be construed as a quasi-feminist girl power kind of dynamic, but the entirely gratuitous "HEY LOOK BOOBS!" shots that are apparently obligatory every time she changes outfit (ie. six or seven times per episode) take the shine off this message of empowerment somewhat.

3. Thinking about it, the scenes where she's at home, having discarded all aliases and disguise, she's usually dressed in jeans, no apparent make up, no "FOLLOW THE BOOBS" camera work: the implication being that this is Sydney in her natural state. This posits femininity as performance, inherently artificial, and used to deceive and befuddle men - which is troublesome enough. But it also implies that the other cultures she plunders for her dressing up box are equally artificial, whereas early 21st century urban middle class life is neutral, default humanity.

4. At the same time that I was coasting through season three, I was reading up about MKUltra and Project Artichoke, and the roads that led to Guantanamo. The cognitive dissonance between "the CIA are wackily, bizarrely, and yet grindingly prosaically evil" and "the CIA are our only defence against cartoon villains with nukes designed by a 15th century prophet, go team USA!" is kind of odd.

5. The phones look so quaint.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Chastity: the new rape defence

And the award for Today's Most Hilarious Troll goes to...


THIS GUY!

I'm glad he's called Larry. I've never met a Larry I didn't want to avoid the heck out of.

So, a quick recap: a 17 year old girl became pregnant as a result of rape. When she discovered this, she became suicidal, and requested an abortion. Too bad for her, she was in Ireland, and didn't have a visa to travel to England, so her only option was to become an unwilling guinea pig for the shiny new Protection of Life During Pregnancy, If Two Psychiatrists And An Obstetrician Agree That You're Going To Be Really Very Dead If You Carry On Being Pregnant, Maybe, Maybe, We'll Let You Make A Decision Regarding Your Own Uterus Act.

So the psychiatrists supported her claim, while the obstetrician - you know, the one whose job isn't assessing people's psychological health - ruled against.

In utter desperation, she went on hunger strike.
[She] believes that the government deliberately delayed her case – both through the state’s decision to ignore psychiatric experts and via her inability to travel because of her legal status – so that she would have to carry the pregnancy at least through the fetus’s viability. After going on a hunger strike, she was forced to undergo a caesarean section at just 25 weeks into her pregnancy. 
That’s 17 full weeks after she first sought help.

She first requested an abortion at eight weeks, by the way.

You know what, that is unbelievably fucking depressing. And infuriating. And heart breaking. We need a break: let's generate an artist's representation of what "Larry" looks like.


Eurgh, Larry.

So in response to this case, Larry thinks we should focus less on the desirability of killing babies, and more on the virtues of chastity.

Chastity does not actually mean never having sex. That would be celibacy. Chastity means having the appropriate amount of sex for your circumstances, as defined by the baby Jesus: it includes nuns and single people saying no to nookie, but also honeymooners fucking like bunnies. So presumably Larry isn't aware of the hundreds of married women who contact ASN each year.

But bringing up the "don't have sex unless you're prepared to have a baby!" argument - which is gross at the best of times - in a case where the woman is pregnant as a result of rape, is just mind-blowingly cruel.

"Sorry love - you played by The Chastity Rules, but your rapist didn't, and you know who should pay the price for that? Yes! It's you! When life gives you lemons, the Irish government gives you major surgery against your will!"

Thursday, 14 August 2014

An arm through a doorway

That thing men do when they insist on holding the door open for you, even when you both got there at the exact same time, and the door is opening towards you, so it would be much easier for you to hold it for them to go through.

Firstly, it's annoying, in a basic "what, my spindly lady arms will snap if I open a door for myself?" kind of way.

Secondly, it's annoying on a more complex, "I am being chivalrous and demand that you accept my chivalry, or I will castigate you as ungrateful, unfeminine, and out to symbolically castrate me" level.

Thirdly, it's actually kind of invasive: unless it's a very wide doorway, you're basically forced to slide your body incredibly close to his, hoping that he won't take advantage of the configuration of your two corporeal forms to grope you or grapple you or press his wang into your hip on your way past.

It's one of those moments where you see so clearly that this system of social relations that makes life so difficult for women is not perpetrated exclusively by moustache-twirling patriarchal villains, but, sometimes, by individual men who think they're doing a nice thing. Who can't step out of their own experience for thirty seconds to understand what an interaction looks like from someone else's point of view. Who don't deal with the daily encounter with Schrödinger’s Rapist, and don't realise that women do.

This is one of bell hooks' many vital concepts: that those on the margins must understand the rules of those in the centre, but those in the centre can live in total ignorance of what life is like on the margins. I understand that every guy who's ever held a door for me is not trying to piss me off or violate my personal space, either to enjoy the exercise of his tiny little power, or to remind me of my subordinate place in The Grand Pecking Order Of Oppression. But he doesn't know that this is exactly the impact it has on me.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Feral Youth: bootstrapping for beginners

I've just finished Feral Youth - and loved it, mostly - but while the story was engaging, its overall message troubles me.

The protagonist is Alesha, a 15 year old mixed race girl living on an estate in Peckham. She's lost touch with her mum (and has never met her dad), and is living in her friend's great-grandma's flat. In the first chapter, she gets permanently excluded from school for assaulting a girl who's affiliated with a rival gang. The book follows her attempts to hold on to family, money, a floor to sleep on.

Luckily she has a saviour in the form of her lovely white middle class ex piano teacher. It was these passages  that struck an uncomfortable note, for me: Miss Merfield is basically always right, always knows best, and will always save Alesha from whatever scrape she's got into this time. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Miss Merfield will also save Alesha from her entire life.

The message of the book seems to be: learn to work within the system; negotiate bureaucracy at the housing office and the job centre; get a minimum wage job and hope it will lead to something better; all with the help of your white lady-knight in piano-playing armour. Relying on gangs - or even your friends - for support, employment, protection, a place to stay might be the easier option, but it is morally wrong and will lead to deserved disaster in the end. Don't, whatever you do, try to change anything, it's too big and it will crush you.

Basically, don't try to change the system, don't operate outside the system, definitely don't take a fucking big hammer to the system: just learn to work within the system. That's the only way to succeed.

It's the Tory model of aspiration that revolves around trying to escape from the working class - rather than trying to improve the lot of the working class as a whole. A lucky few are allowed to do so against the odds, and held up as examples of industry and bootstrapping. If they can do it, you can too; you just have to try harder. Believe in yourself. Failure to escape into the well-heeled tree-lined life of East Dulwich is proof of your lack of ambition, drive, self-belief. A psychological failing, not the almost inevitable result of trying to work a system which is designed to keep you down.

It is a good book. I loved the character of Alesha, I loved the window the book opened onto a world we white middle-class people so often ignore, steadfastly avoiding eye contact on buses or scurrying home to close the curtains over our barred windows in sold-off council flats. I loved that this young scarred woman of colour, living precariously on London's margins, got a voice - got to tell her story without whitewashing or intermediary. That hoods and knives and muggings and riots got put into context, not just explained away by Moral Decline or Absent Male Role Models or plain old Badness.

But going through all of this to have Alesha come to the blinding realisation that the middle class lifestyle is what I should aspire to! and if I don't succeed in life, it's because I haven't tried hard enough! seems, to me, to be doing her a disservice. The world genuinely is fucked, and the odds really are stacked against people who are poor and not white and not "well-spoken". There really are more people than there are jobs, and all the positive thinking in the world won't find decent work for all of them. Even if Alesha herself manages to claw her way out of poverty by Self-Belief and Hard Work and having a posh white saviour who will teach her how to trim her personality and voice and behaviour to fit this new world - that doesn't make the system any less awful. It changes Alesha's life, which is no small thing, but it leaves hundreds of thousands of other Aleshas languishing behind her. Feral Youth's philosophy offers scant hope to them.

Man Trousers.

Weird places I have celebrated my birthday over the years:

1994, age 8: Netley Marsh Steam Fair
2002, age 16: Stay Beautiful (in retrospect, my 21 year old not-boyfriend getting 'Barely Legal' dedicated to me was maybe a bit creepy)
2007, age 21: Tottenham Job Centre (aka The Day I Memorised My National Insurance Number, due to having to write it out no fewer than 23 times in a two hour appointment)
2014, age 28: Wood Green.

You may laugh, but I stand by my choice of birthday activities. I have been trying to steal Straight Best Friend's trousers for years now, ever since I hemmed them, tried them on to check whether they were hanging right, and discovered that man trousers are the most comfortable trousers in trouser town, make me look like Katherine Hepburn, and also have pockets as deep as the ocean. Seriously, you could fit a fucking marrow in those things. Sadly, it turns out that they are in fact his only pair of trousers, so their theft is unlikely to go unnoticed.

And my birthday was the day I realised that I could sidestep this whole apparel-appropriation attempt and just... go to a man shop to buy me some man trousers.

Now: due to having hippie parents (and old ones at that), a 'unique' dress sense, a big mouth and a big brain, my childhood was basically a crash course in People Are Going To Look At You Funny, It's Really Not Worth Getting Embarrassed.

Furthermore, I never stop banging on about restrictive gender roles and the irrational separation of clothing, behaviours, toiletries, jobs, emotions (I could go on! If you'd like!) into MALE and FEMALE piles.

And yet, wandering through the gentleman's department of Next, holding pairs of trousers up against myself to try to gauge what size I might be, and striding up to the changing rooms with several pairs slung over my arm: I got some weird looks. And I felt them.

It's not like they were enough to halt my quest for the perfect man trouser. Or enough to make me lie and say I was shopping for my boyfriend/brother/whatever. But it's interesting: this is how culture gets transmitted, norms and values and what we as a collective deem it okay to do. Thou Shalt Not Kill is inscribed in statute; Thou Shalt Wear Gender-Appropriate Clothing is inscribed in sidelong looks and half-hidden sniggers.

It's worth noting that I got off incredibly lightly, relatively speaking - a lady doing man stuff is always more acceptable than vice versa (because man stuff is obviously better, why wouldn't you want to move up the ladder? Whereas lady stuff is inherently inferior and a man choosing to move down the universal pecking order makes everyone nervous.). A femme-enough lady wearing dudely clothing is vaguely eccentric, but a stone butch in the same trousers is more often the subject of ridicule, disgust, and scorn. I'm thinking of Eddie Izzard shoplifting make up, not because he didn't have the money, but because he didn't fancy being outed as a transvestite at 15 in a town where the girl behind the till in the chemist knows everyone you know.

So I'm not telling this story to elicit pity - wahh! It is so hard to be me, shop assistants looked askance when I bought man trousers! - but to build a bridge, I suppose. To notice those little moments in your own life which are a flickering shadow of bigger oppressions that blight other people's.

I got the trousers. They are epic.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

special and unique snowflake, level 8

You've probably seen this beautiful letter sent by a headmaster to his pupils after taking their Key Stage 2 SATs. It's flipping heartbreaking, the fact that this guy can see through the league table box-ticking bollocks that pervades English schools, and the fact that he cared enough to send letters reminding everyone of that.


The endless grind of academic pressure was one of the things that sent me mad in the first place: SATs, mocks, coursework, GCSEs, A levels; there wasn't a single moment from 1999 to 2007 that I didn't have a constant, low-level anxiety running alongside whatever else was going on: have you revised enough maybe you should get started on the reading coursework needs to be handed in next week why haven't you written that fucking essay you are going to fail everything and if you don't get top marks you are a worthless human being learn facts remember facts spew facts get marks repeat forever.

(That and the fact that five sixths of my A-level History course was about fascism, which is just ridiculously depressing.)

Sadly, my headteacher was not quite as lovely as the chap at Barrowford Primary School. Instead, she sent a letter saying:
I understand that Hannah has been feeling the pressure somewhat.
Which is a nice way of saying "Hannah is mad as a bag of mad things, had to be artfully arranged in the school photo to cover up her gaping wounds, and was given detention for writing 'I hate myself and want to die' in her Biology workbook". I mean, detention, for fuck's sake. If it had been detention for the deeply embarrassing decision to quote that Nirvana song with no ironic distance, I'd applaud their decision, but you'd think at least one of them would have thought, "Gee, if she tops herself, we're gonna get sued - let's  send her to counselling or something".
However, wouldn't it be wonderful if she could be the first person at Heartless Bastards Secondary School to achieve all A*s in her GCSEs!
My point - and yes, I do have one, this isn't just a Prozac Nation pity party - is that this league table box-ticking soul-sucking individual-ignoring education culture isn't just annoying. It doesn't just churn out students who have only been taught how to absorb facts rather than think for themselves. It has the potential to kill people really, really dead.

So. More Barrowfords, please.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Piper Chapman: a walking lesson in privilege navigation

Once again, Piper Chapman gives us all an object lesson in how not to navigate your own privilege.

"MY FEELINGS"
When I finally succeeded in getting my Gentleman Admirer to watch Orange is the New Black, I explained that you just have to suffer through the scenes with awful Piper and her awful pie-fucking boyfriend, via the Trojan Horse principle, in order to get to the good stuff.

Quite often, on my first view of an episode, I'll drift off a little during Piper and/or Larry scenes: they're a good opportunity to deal with the dropped stitch, put the kettle on, check my phone. I'll keep half an ear open so I get what's going on, but neither Piper or Larry are what I'm watching for.

There are times, though, when Piper's incessant, inexorable Piperness is used to tell an actually interesting story: a story that isn't "rich white girl goes to prison, meets people who aren't rich or white, Hilarity Ensues", but more like "rich white girl meets people whose lives break through her nigh-impenetrable self-obsession to bring a tiny glimmer of awareness of just how privileged she is in every way". Life throws you these little tests every now and again. And Piper fails them, every time.

So. Spoilers! Piper's grandmother is ill, possibly dying. She applies for furlough - a temporary leave of absence from prison, granted so rarely as to be basically mythical - explaining to her counsellor that she has no real hope of getting it, but wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't try.

She gets it. Sister Ingalls describes this as "a miracle".

So here is how Piper deals with this boon she has been granted, in no small part, because of her unearned privilege as a well-off white lady:

1. She tries to give it back. After hearing other inmates' stories of being denied furlough - for the deaths of their mothers, children, husbands; for the birth of grandchildren; Sophia has a particularly heartbreaking story about her father hoping to reconcile with her before he died - Piper realises that she does not deserve this good fortune. (In the words of Aleida, "Tell me how it's dark at night and cold in the snow.") So the most humane thing to do is, obviously, to give the grand prize back.

Except that this solves exactly fucking nothing. Piper giving up her prize doesn't mean anyone else gets to have it. It doesn't let Anita DeMarco hold her first grandchild. It doesn't give Poussey the chance to "say the things you're supposed to say to your moms before she pass". It doesn't give Sophia the chance to hear her father say he's sorry for being a dick when she transitioned. All it would achieve is making Piper feel better about herself, which is, ultimately, the only thing Piper cares about.

2. She tells everyone to stop being mean to her. Tiring of her fellow inmates muttering about her everywhere she goes, suggesting she only got furlough because she's white and middle class, or because she sucked off her counsellor, she flips out. Stands up in the dining hall and shouts that even if she's getting special treatment because of her white privilege, SHE LOVES HER GRANDMOTHER AND EVERYONE SHOULD LEAVE HER ALONE.

I mean, jesus fuck.

"My feelings! This is all about my feelings! Your feelings about entrenched, systemic racism, about the innumerable ways, from the microscopic to the life-defining, that life is made easier for white middle class people, are completely irrelevant, because you expressing your feelings about that is hurting MY FEELINGS, which, lest we ever forget this for a second, is THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN THE WORLD EVER. PS you can't call me a racist because I know the phrase 'white privilege'."

Thank you, Piper Chapman, for giving us all a shining example, in every situation you find yourself in, of what not to do.