Thursday, 6 November 2014

Meet my new husband

I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. [Damn, that is a pretty big nutshell. ~ Ed.] Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?
American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.
This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.
BOYCOTT AMERICAN WOMEN!

Such was the strident call to arms left by An American Man disgusted by American Women, on a blog post predominantly about the bacterial inhabitants of my vagina.

I'm curious: does he think I'm an American Woman (GET AWAY FROM MEE-HEE, as Lenny Kravitz would say, before he became a fashion designer in the Hunger Games and approximately 900% more cool) and is therefore coming to tell me what an immature, selfish, arrogant, self-centred, mentally unstable, irresponsible and highly unchaste woman I am, by virtue of the bacterial inhabitants of my vagina?

ARTIST'S IMPRESSION: why would any intelligent man want to get involved with this cheaty divorcing fatty half money stealing uncooker or cleaner? WHY, GOD, WHY?

Is he aware that I am an English woman, and therefore within his Foreign Women Group, and therefore asking me to join his valiant crusade against American Women? (This would be difficult: boycotts rarely work unless you tell the people you're boycotting a) that you're boycotting them, and b) why. I am friends with around ten American Women on Facebook, so could inform them by a handy group email that I am Boycotting them because of their immaturity, selfishness, etc, but there are several million other American Women who wouldn't know that I was deliberately choosing not to date them. Perhaps some sort of nationwide poster campaign? Or, hey, I know! I could trawl the internet for blogs that are probably written by American Women, and post my manifesto in their comments section, for no real reason! YES!)

Or... given that I am, by his rules, a Foreign Woman, could this possibly be a marriage proposal?

I'll be over here, in Foreign, pulling petals off daisies and hoping that he faxes me a big fat blood diamond.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The capitalist-patriarchal anti-vagina complex: on feminine freshness sprays

Once, years ago, a guy drunkenly asked me about the relationship between sexism and capitalism. (My reputation for being fun at parties, clearly, precedes me!) I'd just finished Lindsay German's Sex, Class and Socialism, so briefly outlined concepts like middle class women as a reserve army of labour (who can be encouraged into factories when lots of workers are needed, like during WW2, before everyone suddenly remembers that actually biology dictates that they should be in the kitchen hoovering up spilt fake-baby-milk-powder, like in the 1950s).

What I really should have said, though, was: Femfresh. That one product is the best example of how capitalism and sexism work together in perfect harmony to make money out of exploiting female insecurities created by sexism.

Femfresh's argument is: "Your vagina smells GROSS! Everyone around you is secretly thinking, my GOD, that vagina smells SO MUCH LIKE A VAGINA, because your vagina smell is SO STRONG that it can penetrate three layers of clothing, and possibly walls too - which is why your neighbours hate you! You'd better spray our fabulous vagina deodorant all over your vagina to stop passing strangers passing out from the toxic vagina fumes."

As a marketing strategy, it's fucking genius: firstly, harness the widespread cultural belief that vaginas smell bad. Second, convince the vagina-enabled that the only possible solution to this infernal stench is to use your product. Thirdly, cackle madly with evil-genius glee at the fact that your product will in fact make the normal smell into a bad smell, ensuring that your customers are locked in to a never-ending arms race of vagina fumigation, for the rest of time.

...

Nine years ago, I came home one day to find that the entire house stank to high heaven. My housemates and I ransacked the place, trying to figure out where it was coming from - was it the mouldy yoghurt in the fridge? The sanitary towels in the bathroom bin? Had Mrs Next Door turned her house into a pop-up slaughterhouse and forgotten to tell us?

Turns out it was a dead rat decomposing under my floorboards. Over the next few weeks I had the chance to get intimately familiar with the smell, as the estate agents outdid their usual uselessness by dealing with the problem by sending us an air freshener. Super: now my bedroom smells of sickly-sweet vomitous pink chemicals, as well as rotting flesh! What joy!

So when I got a similar whiff the other week, there was no mistaking it. Somewhere, something had died, and the odour of its decomposing cadaver was permeating the flat. I hunted high and I hunted low; I sniffed into cupboards and behind appliances; I considered training the cat as a corpse-hunter. It took a couple of hours of this incredibly gross Easter egg hunt for me to realise that the smell seemed to be following me around.

And that, my friends, is the story of my first encounter with the exciting condition known as bacterial vaginosis.

Too much information, you say? Well: I say this is just enough information to make it entirely clear why using "feminine freshness sprays" is a ridiculously bad idea.

As we learned from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. That's what its usual clear discharge is for. If you mess with its very precise internal balance of microbes (penicillin was my downfall) or increase its pH by using soap or feminine fucking freshness sprays, things go wrong. Good bacteria get crowded out by bad bacteria. And bad bacteria? In this instance, they smell like something has crawled up your cunt and died.

The point is that if you think your snatch smells bad, go to a damn doctor. Go to your local sexual health clinic to reassure yourself that you don't have AIDS, or syphilis, and to load up on free condoms. (I'm told the Soho clinic is very groovy.) If it does smell bad, that's a sign there's something wrong, and the correct course of action is to ask a vag-specialist: not to smother it in glorified air freshener.

...

I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that I'm better now. My lady garden does not smell of lemon thyme and rainbows, nor does it smell like a rat turning itself back into its constituent parts: it smells like a vagina.

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.