Thursday, 15 December 2011

Ha ha ha gender essentialism ha ha pink

I know, I know, pointing out that segregating presents by gender is annoying, ridiculous, reductive and pretty insulting to everyone in the world (men: you are idiots! Women: you are fluffy! Everyone else: you don't exist!) but sometimes these things just need to be repeated, if only for my own sanity.

The Men! They are constantly being hen-pecked by their avian wives, because they are all straight and all married and all hate women, especially when they talk - so what could be funnier than a 'Sat Nag'? ("In 100 meters I'm going to talk to you in that special voice, which should let you know you've upset me in some way that is bound to be your fault". HA HA!) They like the football! They like the beer! They are actually incapable of folding their own clothing without written instructions! Whereas women like rosé (PINK), men are manly like Ron Swanson, and they like whisky.

And women... oh, for fuck's sake, I can't even: women just like pink. Pink. Chocolate. Bagpuss. Chocolate. Pink. Bubble bath. Chocolate. Pink. Chocolate. Pink.

One of the best presents my gentleman friend ever gave me, on Our First Valentine's Day, when I got really freaked out by the whole YOU MUST BE ROMANTIC ON THIS DAY OR BE DOOMED TO SINGLENESS AND FAILURE thing, was a bottle of pink wine, a box of Milk Tray, and a smirk. Because: ridiculous.

In times like these, I find it helpful to go back to Buffy: "Yes, men like sports. They watch the action movie. They like to eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms. Seriously, eleven hundred years and that's all you've learned?"

Monday, 12 December 2011

Intersectionality: The Novel (Property by Valerie Martin review)

The classic example for introducing someone to kyriarchy and intersectionality is that of a white slave-owning woman. Yes, she is oppressed by the patriarchy as a system, and by individual men in particular - but it is patently ridiculous to speak of her as being oppressed by an enslaved black man given that she literally owns him.

Property by Valerie Martin is basically a novel-length exploration of these tensions, which makes for horrendous, uncomfortable reading, and teaches the reader a hell of a lot along the way.

The protagonist, Manon Gaudet, doesn't immediately come across as a villain: we first meet her observing her husband torturing a group of slaves in a bizarre sexualised ritual of his own devising. It is much later, halfway through the book, that she herself carries out a similar assault; in one of the most uncomfortable and haunting scenes I've ever read, it is made abundantly clear that she has learned nothing: her sufferings haven't made her a noble martyr. They have made her act out the abuse she's witnessed, and the abuse she's experienced, on the only person lower than her in the pecking order.

It's the slowness of the book - impressive in a not particularly hefty tome - that draws you in, allowing you to get attached to characters, to care about their sufferings, before realising, little by little, that they are ghastly people. Manon is far from the innocent victim she thinks herself to be.

The opposite is true of her antagonist, Sarah, a slave who has borne two children by Manon's husband. Viewing the world through Manon's eyes, the reader sees Sarah initially as a villain: truculent, sullen, insufficiently compliant. Rather than recognising Sarah as a fellow victim of her husband, Manon rationalises her own pain by casting Sarah as a romantic rival: a husband-stealer rather than a victim of repeated rapes. However noble we might like to think ourselves, in all honesty, this is how people tend to deal with feelings that make them uncomfortable: if there's any possible way we can go from I think I've done something wrong to THAT person, the person suffering at my hand, has done something wrong therefore I am innocent - we'll grab at it without a moment's delay.

You may have gathered that it's not the funnest book in the world. It's rare that I'll struggle through a book in which almost every character is as hideous as the cast of Property, but in this case, their faults were pretty much the point: the slow, languid reveal was compelling to the last page; the fact that I was, despite my revulsion, rooting for Manon - not to 'win' over Sarah, but to somehow build a life for herself - kept me emotionally engaged as the story rolled on to its final rotten denouement.

The major achievement of this book is that it manages to let a morally abhorrent character tell her story without endorsing it - using it as a vessel to tell the story of the slave-owning South. It notes the very real oppressions she experiences (having her inheritance pass immediately into the hands of her husband, for example) without allowing them to justify her own cruelty.

The ever-present threat of slave rebellions was fascinating from a historical perspective - the usual narrative is "black people kidnapped and enslaved, suffered voicelessly until liberated by saintly white abolitionists", so highlighting black resistance as an ongoing feature of the South was an excellent choice. It did make me want more, more of Sarah's story, more of the underground railroad. However, there is value in hearing the stories of those near the top of society - if they are told in this way. Rather than suggesting that the stories of the privileged are the only stories worth telling, novels like this point out that understanding the stories of the privileged - how they use their power, how they justify it to themselves - is vital to understanding the society they have built.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

My first feminism

A memory came back to me today, seemingly at random, of PE in year five. Bearded Mr Swift the Games teacher herded us all outside for a game of rounders (the trick was to endure your turn batting, and then 'field' as far away as you could possibly manage: half a mile away, where the trees began, usually ensured that your catching abilities would never be tested). We were divided into teams - mine was first up to bat. Nasty Sam was first in line. Quiet Julie bowled. Nasty Sam swung his bat, sent the ball a whole ten yards, and charged to first base. (This was long before 'bases' had any naughty connotations.) I retrieved the bat from where he'd flung it on the ground, trudged up to the spot, and prepared to flail madly for ten minutes before being put out of my misery. But wait! Bearded Mr Swift was walking towards Quiet Julie - what was he going to say? "You're bowling it wrong", perhaps? "Let me throw it, just to embarrass Unsporty Hannah even more"? Maybe even, please let it be so, "Don't bother - let's not make Hannah do PE ever again"?

Nope. He was giving her a different ball. A smaller ball. A foam ball.

Now, the preceding paragraph may have hinted at the fact that PE was not my favourite thing in the world. I was active enough - this was before puberty hit and made the idea of any movement in front of anyone while not wearing clothes the size of a rotund peasant's burlap sack unspeakably humiliating - but still, organised games with a class full of hellions was not my idea of a fun way to spend a hot summer's afternoon.

But my nascent feminist consciousness sure as shit wasn't letting that one past.

"Why are you giving her a different ball, Beardy Mr Smith?" I asked.

"This one is for the girls."

Yup. He didn't even try to pretend. There may have been some faintly logical reasons he could have trotted out - "You, personally, could not hit the proverbial cow's bum with a banjo, so a lighter ball might give you a slightly better chance of wheezing to first base before it's retrieved, giving you less excuse to get 'out' as quickly as possible and spend the rest of this class making daisy chains in the shade" would at least have been accurate. But no: he went the Yorkie bar route. THIS BALL IS NOT FOR GIRLS.

In later years, sexism would get dressed up in all kinds of guises. Unequal treatment would be justified by custom ("girls never use that ball"), by religion ("God says girls aren't allowed to use that ball") or by science ("girls just can't use that ball"). But the basic message behind it remained the same.

People never seem to tire of ascribing any kind of gendered behaviour, from lactation to embroidery, to Females' Lower Muscle-to-Fat Ratio. While this is pretty ridiculous when referring to grown adults - ignoring as it does that human beings exist on a continuum, there being far more variation within 'male' and 'female' than between the two; defining gender by genitalia; denying the role of conscious thought; and failing to acknowledge that it's impossible to do anything useful with this information anyway given that there will always be exceptions to your hard and fast rules - but, for fuck's sake, when you're talking about prepubescent children? It's just laughable.

If you were wondering, I organised all the girls in the class to protest this insulting division of PE equipment, and won a settlement where everyone was allowed to choose which ball they would like to use.

I was bowled out before I reached second base.

Friday, 2 December 2011

"IMPREGNATE ME": A post title which may surprise my boyfriend

I am getting ridiculously broody, you guys. My gentleman friend's niece has just turned two, a dear friend gave birth and then left this hemisphere over the summer, and my new boss keeps showing me pictures of her delectable children: baby fever! I have it! (Sample conversation with gentleman friend: "Babies! Let's have some! They're only, like, this big, we could easily fit one in your kitchen, for example." "Uh... huh. You do remember you're unemployed? What would we feed it with?" "BREAST MILK IS FREE!")

Preposterous "IMPREGNATE ME" conversations aside, I am, on a more sensible level, aware that I am not quite stable enough - financially or mentally - to make with the babies quite yet. Sharing this observation in two separate conversations with my Dear Old Mum on the one hand, and Gay Best Friend on the other, led to some interesting responses.

D.O.M. said, essentially, you will never be rich enough to have kids: there is no level where you can buy absolutely everything they could possibly want or need. But if you and your partner both have a steady income, money isn't a reason not to have kids, if you want to have them.

G.B.F. said that my moderate depression shouldn't have to be a reason not to have children: with the right combination of medication, talky talky therapy and support, The Dreaded Mind-Doom in no way disqualifies someone from raising children if they want to.

For reference, D.O.M. has been poor for most of her life, but has never been mad. G.B.F. is long-term-mad, but has never been poor.

I know! Had I ever thought about it before, I would have predicted it the other way around: that people who have actually experienced particular forms of hardship, disability or oppression would be more likely to see them as a stumbling block in life, and have less understanding of how difficulties that they've never experienced could make strenuous lifestyle choices like GROWING AND RAISING AN ENTIRE NEW PERSON slightly less easy.

But on reflection, it makes perfect sense. If an undepressed person reads a definition of the condition, they probably think, "anhedonia. Exhaustion. Feelings of worthlessness. HOW DO THESE PEOPLE MAKE IT OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING?" And a rich person, looking at my life, would quite likely think, "How is it even possible to feed YOURSELF in London on but £18,000 a year, let alone you and mini-you?"

And, not to say that life as a depressed person on a lowish wage living in one of the most expensive cities in the world is a total doddle full of daisies and mental rainbows, but hey: it's possible. It's even fun, most of the time. Because I live with these things every day, I know that they're not insurmountable, the way they might look to the uninitiated.

This isn't something I come across very often: because my disabilities are invisible, it's usually the flip-side; the desperate quest to convince doubters that no, seriously, I know I look Fit And Healthy but I feel like I'm dying right now. This particular brand of barrier - convincing others that dude, I'm disabled, I'm not incapable is just as insidious, especially when it's in your own head.

If I'd decided to postpone all major decisions and life landmarks until some distant future when I'm "Fine" (and, honestly, I have no idea what that would even look like) I wouldn't even have finished school, let alone the rest of my education; still less some of the best things that have happened in the last five years - work, boyfriend, volunteering. All of which have been unimaginably important in getting better. Not in getting fixed - I don't think my disabilities are ultimately fixable - but in learning to manage them, learning to live a full and happy life with them.

In conclusion: babygrows.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Money and memory

My goodness, where have I been? Having a Real Life is where, and it has not been pretty. Since we last spoke I have lost my job, fallen into an unemployment coma, and got a new job, within the space of about a week and a half: well, they do say modern life is speeding up. But then they also say that modern life is rubbish.

I was only actually out of work for ten days, but it's amazing how quickly you begin to Think Poor: all the things that you pay for without a second thought when you're secure in the loving arms of a steady paycheque suddenly begin to loom large when funds become finite. I could get the tube - but it would be 60p cheaper, and only take an hour longer, to get the bus. I am feeling a bit dizzy - but if I just wait til I get home, I won't have to spend £1 on a sandwich.

Years ago, I was waiting for a train with my dad, and insisted on standing outside in the rain to have a cigarette, rather than under cover on the platform. He was bemused - smoking on station platforms is illegal these days, but "no one's going to see, and anyway, the fine's only fifty quid." Fifty quid was, to him, pretty negligible: I was on the dole. Paying a £50 fine would involve not eating for a week. So he could take risks that were unthinkable to me. It's not just what you can buy that makes rich people different, it's how you think about spending, how you weigh your options, having the luxury to think about something other than moneymoneymoney every waking minute.

And now I'm gainfully employed, and I will forget, again.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Horrible Bosses, unmurderously

Last night, my sister told me the story of her last office job. For three years, she drove herself into the ground, working ten hour days, unable even to have a normal “how’s it going?” conversation because no time too much work no time. Her boss systematically broke down her self-esteem, made her feel inadequate for not being able to do three people’s work. Every time my sister made an attempt to find another job, her boss would lock onto it and redouble her efforts to belittle her, make sure that she knew that no one else would hire her and better the devil you know, might as well stay, just for another month or so. She isolated her from other colleagues, made sure she had no one else higher up to discuss the matter with.

My sister said that even now, years later, the effects of this are still with her: she was terrified of starting in a new office job because she was sure she was incapable, a failure, an idiot. Talking about it last night, we suddenly realised that this sounded more than anything like an abusive relationship. Constantly thinking, it’s me, I’m not good enough, if I just tried harder. If I just wait until after this report’s due, she’ll be less stressed, it’s my fault, I should stay later, work harder, be better.

The dominant conversation about abuse is about intimate relationships, and about women as victims and men as abusers. Which, y’know, is because that’s how domestic violence generally works: usually in heterosexual partnerships; men are usually the abusers; women are generally the recipients. But this has lead to a blanket assumption that this is the only context in which abuse happens.

I’ve been reading an analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and thinking a lot about women in positions of power: how they get power, keep power, maintain authority. How, to borrow a phrase, they have to be twice as tough to be accorded half the authority. In a male-dominated environment, any woman is at a disadvantage; a young, short, blonde woman has to go to extraordinary lengths to be taken seriously.

Which does not bode well for her underlings.

Which is not to say that women are inherently bad bosses, despite what Jennifer Anniston’s oeuvre may suggest. It is not to say even that the patriarchy requires women in positions of power to be abusive. People of all genders have the capacity to abuse what power they’re given. Perhaps it’s to do with how we place greater value on something that’s more difficult to obtain: it is, all else being equal, harder for women to  gain power in the workplace than men, harder for them to maintain that power, harder to command respect from colleagues, superiors and employees; so maybe there’s a greater fear of losing it, maybe some women will go to extremes to protect that power, to repel potential or imagined challenges. Wendy Webster talks about how Thatcher was portrayed not merely as beating her opponents, but as obliterating them; if they weren’t humiliated, punished, rendered powerless, she had lost.

Part of the miracle of Obama’s election was the fact that he was ‘allowed’ to be from a marginalised group and to run on a progressive platform: almost every female premier I can think of has won by being tougher than the men; tougher on the poor, on immigrants, on unions (Cristina Fernandez being an interesting exception).

One of my favourite things about social justice theorising is that it (famously) makes the personal political. It takes the sting out of what would otherwise be another thing to beat yourself up about: it doesn’t stop you arguing with your boyfriend about leg-shaving, but instead of thinking I am ugly and you are mean, you can put it in the context of we are both operating under the hegemonic patriarchal ideals of ‘beauty’ and need to find a way to navigate them. Instead of thinking I am a failure why can’t I just work harder I’ll never be able to leave this job and I’m not good enough for anything else, you can recognise the abusive dynamics at play and acknowledge that it is not, in fact, All Your Fault. Because to my mind, writing an essay about power and its misuse is a lot more fun than sobbing dejectedly in a toilet cubicle because you used the wrong font on a spreadsheet.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


In the absence of anything meaningful or constructive to say, I would just like to share this ace post by Seaneen Molloy with you fine people.

This picture, also by Seaneen, made me cry frustrated, helpless, not-dead-due-to-NHS-intervention tears (triggering as all hell for self-harm, just so you're aware):

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Abortion: it will break everything

Me, October 3rd 2011: Could Sons of Anarchy be the first show to portray a character having an abortion, and not have that decision wreck her or her family's life? How awesome would that be? How brave, in the deafening anti-choice roar currently engulfing the US? What a positive message it would send to unhappily-pregnant people everywhere, that abortion might not give you misery death cancer! Can they do it? Will they do it? Can it be true?

Sons of Anarchy, October 18th 2011: No.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Anti-capitalist lesbian nurses who eat children while disrespecting the elderly

What has feminism done for us? It may have given you "legal equality" in some countries, "the right to vote", and all that jazz, but it also gave us divorce, single-parent families, and Loose Women. It "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians". (My Gay Best Friend has that quote written on her bedroom wall.) According to James Naughtie, the voice of my alarm clock as Radio 4's breakfast show host, it has also led to the death of politeness.

Basically, it makes us uppity. Uppity child-murdering lesbian witches, who are rude while they're destroying capitalism.

But you knew all this already.

In other news, the Quality and Care Commission has reported that half of all elderly patients in NHS hospitals are receiving substandard treatment, speaking of a lack of "kindness and compassion". The details are horrific - there are stories of plates of food left in front of people who cannot eat without assistance; incontinent patients left unwashed for hours; people being given the wrong medications. They evoke a widespread lack of respect for patients' dignity and wellbeing.

Various explanations have been put forward for how such a toxic culture can have evolved. Too great a focus on targets; excessive paperwork leaving little time for patient care; budget cuts and short-staffing, among many others.

But we all know what the real reason is.

You do know, right?

If you didn't guess "feminism", lose ten points and hand in your Misogyny Bingo Card.

Damn you, feminism! You have made nurses "too grand to care"! You have made them believe that a traditionally female occupation is in fact a highly skilled job, requiring years of academic study as well as intense practical training - so now they think they're too fancy to "skivvy"! Whereas in fact they should be well aware that "nursing is not a job, but a vocation", best exemplified by the great Florence Nightingale, and performed through a "sense of duty ... rather than any self-interest". So, rich girls should do it for the goodness of it, I guess, not because they need to do anything as worldly as earn a living. Only in the 80s, says the delightful Ms Philips, did dirty feminists start trouble-making, suggesting to nurses that "caring was demeaning".

In Deathmatch CQC: Feminist Nurses vs The Elderly, you will notice that there are only two groups of people in the whole world. You will notice that The Elderly are never feminists; that feminists are never caring; and that disrespect for elderly people in no way draws on wider narratives about the low importance placed on vulnerable and disabled people, which is definitely not critically analysed by the social justice movement which encompasses feminism... you will notice, basically, that Melanie Philips is totally right and that feminism is to blame for literally every single thing that has ever happened in the world. Ever. The end.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A funny word: BOOBS!

Scientific progress is a wonderful thing. It has given us radiotherapy, solar power, flatscreen TVs, and a weekly excuse for the Daily Mail to tell you that it's okay to eat chocolate - it'll probably cure cancer!

And now, brand spanking new research, straight out of a white-coaty laboratory, has brought a shocking revelation down from the mountain: contrary to overwhelming popular belief, women are not in fact genetically incapable of humour.


Not only can women be funny - not only can they be paid for being funny, in a job so damn manly that they had to make up a special word for it when women got in on the game - but they can be physically attractive at the same time. Go read for yourself; I couldn't believe it either.
Anna Faris, Mila Kunis,  and Olivia Munn all combine funny bones with bangin’ bodies.
And the world stood in awe, standing in mute amazement with open jaws as this unthinkable truth was handed down to them.
Joining the lineup is Carrie Keagan, [who said an in interview] “At the end of the day, funny is funny, and the antiquated boys’ club mentality is sooo last year’s Prada. People are realizing that you don’t have to have a penis to tell a joke about one. The mentality that funny and sexy can’t go together is on its way out, because trying to be sexy is pretty damn funny!"
1. Fact. Also, handbags! Which girls like!
2. Fact. Also, penises! Which bad girls like!
3. Fact. I hope this will lead to lots of jokes about the inherent ridiculousness of performative gender.

But Keagan et al didn't come out of nowhere. Some of our favorite “old-skool” sitcom stars like Jennifer Aniston, Jane Krakowski and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have transformed themselves in recent years from somewhat awkward to stylish sex symbols.
Of course I had The Rachel Cut. Like you didn't.
Because we all remember what a minger Jennifer Aniston was on Friends, right? She didn't spawn a million haircuts or a trillion wank fantasies? Comedy Central's rerunning of the entire series (Friends: will it ever end?) will give you ample opportunity to recall how Rachel was always portrayed as the shrewish unsexy one. Bleurgh, we said, whenever she came onscreen, wearing her trademark boiler suit and scowly demeanour.
 “For women, frump isn’t funny any longer. The new female comedian has to be the sexual aggressor, sexually provocative, dominant and successful," says entertainment expert Patrick Wanis.
Oh good. That definitely sounds like progress.
Wanis also says funny women who aren't all that sexy may struggle in the new comedy landscape.
As opposed to in ever other landscape in showbusiness, or indeed the world, where being sexy has never been a requirement for women.
“Rosie O’Donnell and Janeane Garofalo will be relegated to playing the female versions of Chris Farley. Hollywood doesn’t want a woman that is not sexually enticing like Rosie; it wants the sexual alpha female."
What does this mean, though, for the future of 30 Rock? After all, it's been trading for a full five seasons on the fuglitude of its lead character, Liz Lemon - it's so funny how icky she is! Which is why she will die sad and alone! Because of the ugly!

Similarly, let's just pause for a moment to appreciate the unbearable grotesquitude that is Janeane Garofalo's hideous, man-repelling, un-sexually-enticing face.


While all stereotypes are irritating, damaging, and often dangerous, there are some that completely flummox me with their sheer preposterousness: like, I don't believe that women are inherently more 'nurturing' than men, but I can sort of see the link between 'cis women can bear children' and 'cis women are therefore good at looking after people'. But humour? How does that work? Women, with their slightly higher proportion of body fat - that known laughter-killer! - maybe it surrounds the funny muscle and inhibits its growth? As opposed to gentlemen, with their abundance of testosterone: the 'haha' hormone!

All this brings to mind that line about women's greatest fear being that men will kill them, while men's greatest fear is that women will laugh at them: if you can convince the ladies that they're just not funny anyway, maybe they won't try.

Call me contrary, but I'd say that women - and anyone else outside the richwhitecisabledhet mainstream - have a lot more to laugh about. Humour is often based on the ridiculous, and there's nothing more ridiculous than systemic oppression. It's a pretty standard 'gotta laugh or you'll cry' situation, so go make yourself look pretty while you watch last week's Parks & Recreation. Remember, with comedy, as with everything else, if you're not hot, you're not doing it right.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Sean Paul and the homogeneity of the British high street

On the way to the tube this morning, I saw a man drinking from a Cafe Nero cup. It took me a second to twig why this surprised me so much: because where in hell would you find a Cafe Nero round here? Or a Starbucks/Costa/Pret/blahblahrubbishcoffeeblah? Nowhere, is where.

After work, I walked for half an hour down a busy, bustling, vibrant high street, and the only national chain represented was William Hill. No Boots - two independent chemists, though. No Tesco - but one butcher, two bakers, six greengrocers (though sadly no candlestick makers). No Supercuts, but four hair salons, one of which I have never seen closed at any time of the day or night in six years. (I'm trying to decide if it's a cover for gun-running, because who really needs a haircut at 4am?)

A colleague of mine is very concerned about The Increasing Homogeneity of the British High Street, and with good reason; it's always depressing visiting a new city to find it's full of exactly the same boring national chains as the place you just came from. Everywhere might look the same as everywhere else, with any individuality or local quirks stamped out, but at least you know you can always get the same tasteless sandwich from John O'Groats to Lands End. Thing is, though, she is also greatly exercised about The Perils of Immigration and the Politically Correct Multicultural Fantasy. (Her words.) Homogeneity, it is bad! Diversity, it is.. err.. bad, but for a different reason!

This contradiction is all part of the bizarre conservative love of the imagined golden past, where the butcher knew your name and hadn't heard of this 'halal' fad; where the grocer bagged you up half a pound of pears and would probably have you drowned as a witch if you asked him for a mango. Where the hairdresser was a dab hand at a blue rinse but wouldn't know what to do with African hair if her life depended on it.

You don't fix problems by going backwards. Love your country, and let it breathe.

As Sean Paul would say.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Obvious truth is obvious

Within ten minutes today, two things happened:
1. I found out that today is World Mental Health Day.
2. A man uttered the immortal words, "Well, I can see you're not disabled."

Well gee, mister, want to see my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Want to see me having a nap every lunch time, and collapsing every day after work, unable to move or think or speak for an hour or more? Want to see how much every little movement hurts, how I feel like I'm wading through an endless viscous hangover, how my brain is so full of exhaustion and frustration and uselessness that I forget how to form sentences?

Or, more topically, let's take a photo of my depression! The bright pink bulbous lack of motivation, the disconnect between "want to do x" and "doing x". The polka-dot lack of self-worth and fluffy green anhedonia. Say cheese, guys!

It is ridiculously easy to make snap judgements about people's lives from a swift glance over them. Thinking my god, how lazy are you when you see the women take the lift one floor - only to feel like a shit when you notice she's using a crutch. And if she didn't have a crutch? If she was suffering from CFS or fibromyalgia and couldn't face the idea of those steps, all fourteen of them looming in her mind like insurmountable mountains made of hell? (Or, god forbid, if she just didn't fancy walking today and had the temerity to take it easy.)

Invisible disabilities: they are a thing! Thus ends today's inspirational message.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Heart Tottenham

There seems to be a new project in town, exhorting local residents to Love Tottenham and Support Local Traders. Which I do! I love the crap out of Tottenham, and I support local traders so much that they reach for my preferred brand of cigarettes as soon as I walk in the shop. I'm not sure, however, that Carpet Right qualifies as a local trader. I'm not looking to set fire to it or anything, but just because a gigantic multinational corporation has a branch in one's endz, it does not get to demand the same level of loyalty as the radical Turkish cafe-bookshop or the chirpy Polish deli.

I'm told Haringey tops the national league tables for fly-tipping. Apparently some people think this is a bad thing? As opposed to Freecycle, which is a noble endeavour? In six years here, we've gained one sofa (currently occupied by our pet foxes), a lovely dinner service, and one small television. In return, we've donated four mattresses, a different sofa, and a computer. None of which stayed on the street for more than two hours.

Call it fly-tipping, freecycling, or occasional impromptu street furniture.

Love Tottenham.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Freudian shoes, I mean slip

The Daily Mail would like you to know that women are, in fact, being harder hit by the recession than their dudely counterparts. Which is nice: thanks, The Daily Mail, for recognising that poverty and oppression tend to go hand in hand! (That's not exactly the spin they put on it.)

The headline for this piece, though, gets my vote for Best Typo of the Year:

What 'mancession'? Study shoes women recovering from recession significantly slower than the opposite sex

Study shoes?

Think women, think shoes. It's the Femail way.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Accidental feminism? Sons of Anarchy and the platonic White Guy

Things that have happened since last we spoke:

1. A dude at least three pay-grades above me literally talked to my chest instead of my face. It's been a long time since that happened. It was a bit like being in Mad Men, with sadly less smoking.

2. A dude thought I was pregnant. I'm not: I am, apparently, fat. Over the years I have, due to depression and being a lady under the patriarchy, hated literally every part of my body and everything about my personality, but the classic "does my bum look big in this?" body weight worry has, happily, passed me by. But no more! I am now ridiculously self-conscious but also very aware that full-fat dairy products are one of my chief pleasures in life. (Which is not to imply that all fatty obese epidemicoid fatsos are fat because they just can't stop with the doughnuts and calories in calories out JUST DO SOME EXERCISE, because COME ON; this isn't about "how do I lose weight!!" but about "do I want to become the kind of person who denies herself pleasure because she thinks it makes her ugly", or "am I big and strong enough to accept myself as-is in the face of overwhelming disdain". Or something.) Resolution has yet to arrive - until then I have named my food baby Cherry. Short for Cherry Pie.

3. I have watched Sons of Anarchy in its entirety. Near the beginning of this marathon, I heard that it was written solely for white guys.

What, then, do white guys like? White guys like your basic escapist (and sexist) fantasies: they want to imagine what it would be like to be bad, to be fearless, to live in a hyper-masculine world where Men Are Men who Take Care Of Their Women and also have sexy ladies on tap; where you run around looking mad cool with guns and leather jackets and beating people up if they get between you and your way. They like hilariously unnecessary shots of Unnamed Stripper's Bottom that really define the word "gratuitous".

White guys identify with characters who are pretty sexist, but not "raping people and pummelling sex workers" sexist. White guys are okay with casual racism, but not "neo-Nazi Aryan supremacist swastika tattoos" racism. White guys can take a bit of critique of characters' bigotry, and maybe even notice that there is a difference between portraying misogyny and perpetuating it.

White guys also like women, apparently, even women with faces and personalities: as Thomas details on Yes Means Yes, the female characters are fucking awesome; strongly written, believable, rounded characters; protagonists in their own right rather than adjuncts to the dudes. And, refreshingly, not just vehicles for misogynist stereotypes. (Except maybe the "menopausal woman breaks her husband's floozy's nose with skateboard" plot. Which actually isn't as bad as it sounds.)

White guys can be interested in a woman who is sexy, maternal, ass-kicking, menopausal and vulnerable, all at the same time; a woman who wears reading glasses to hotwire a car, who deals with the aftermath of being raped in the most believable, nuanced and in-character way I've ever seen - rather than going straight for the broken victim / castrating fury stereotype.

White guys even believe that women who work in porn are actual people, with personalities and storylines worth exploring. They seem to understand that sex work can be just a job, not the sole defining feature of an entire person; they even see that if one's partner has issues with one's porn career (as opposed to his own eminently respectable employment as an arms smuggler), maybe one's partner is being kind of a dick.

White guys apparently haven't had enough of the age-old "I'm having an abortion! Although actually I'm not, SURPRISE!" storyline. I, a White Not-Guy, have, but Tara's decision to continue her pregnancy rang true, as did her initial desire to end it. And while I love that Lyla went through with her abortion, I love that she gave her name as Sarah Palin ten times more. It's also interesting that - so far at least - there's been zero fall-out from her decision: Friday Night Lights was rightly feted (by us. Not by The Moral Majority.) for showing a character terminating a pregnancy, but that act began a catastrophic chain of events including the whole town finding out, protestors staking out the school, and the principal losing her job. Which does a nice job of showing the virulent opposition to choice US women have to face - but also makes abortion out to be a bigger deal than it inherently has to be. If SoA manages to show a woman making a decision not to continue a pregnancy without that decision destroying her (or someone else's) relationship/career/life, I will be one happy little camper. But my opinion doesn't matter: WHAT WILL THE WHITE GUYS MAKE OF THIS?

There are a lot of signposts in SoA that are there to let you, the not-white not-straight not-disabled not-guy, that This Is Not For You. You're allowed to watch, sure, but you're not allowed to complain, because It's Not For You: it's for the advertiser's beloved white guys, and if they're happy, everyone's happy. (Everyone who matters, anyway.) But I manage to zone them out - because if I took that hint every time, what would be left for me to watch? Sex and the bollocking City? We live on the margins. We know that nothing, really, is meant for us. Mainstream culture is designed with someone else in mind, even if only Kurt Sutter's willing to say so. And as much as finding something that is, actually, designed for someone a bit more like me is a huge relief... there's also a pleasure in turning the white guys' show to fit my own needs. Taking the boys' toys for our own game. Hammering swords into ploughs, turning neck massagers into vibrators, that sort of thing.

I might not be welcome, but I'm still here. Either I'm more like Sutter's platonic white guy than I thought, or that white guy is more savvy than we're giving him credit for.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Non social justice interlude: time to talk teeth

"Come on, guys," I say, whenever my impacted wisdom teeth make their biannual surge for freedom. "I don't mean to be rude, but I've got more teeth than I know what to do with already, and I've definitely got enough damn wisdom, so be a pal and just keep your heads down, eh?"

But do they listen? Do they balls.

I have no idea if this little nugget of wisdom will ever come in handy, but for the record, keyhole heart surgery is a freaking doddle compared to getting a tooth pulled out. The morning after the former, I was back at work. The day after the latter, I was sobbing with pain when my BFF phoned up: "Uhwuuh huh huh wuuuuuuuh," I said. "Aww, don't worry, we're only one-nil down, and Stoke away is always a hard game," he replied, incorrectly diagnosing the source of my woe.

When you freak out because there are magic science wires wiggling around in your right ventricle, they give you diamorphine. When you freak out because some dude is sawing your molar in half, they trill "nearly done!" and turn up the bizarre 90s pop compilation. Seriously, Savage Garden? An odd choice for drowning out screams from the dentist chair. I wanna stand with you on a mountain! I wanna bathe with you in the sea! I wanna stay like this forever! Until you stop STABBING ME IN THE DAMN GUM AND PULLING OUT IMPORTANT BITS OF MY SKULL!

Whatever noxious oozes your heart may produce during the healing process, at least you don't have to see them. Or smell them. Or taste them, 24/7, making an already texturally-monotonous diet flavourishly-monotonous too: mmm, soup. Tastes like bloody eggs. Mmm, porridge: tastes like bloody eggs. Mmm, Shreddies, popped in the microwave so they turn to mush, sipped gingerly from a teaspoon because my mouth no longer opens beyond 1.5cm: tastes remarkably like... bloody eggs.

And as if having a face so puffy that I look like JFK wasn't humiliating enough, the perma-clenched jaw has also given me the voice of Sean Connery. "Ashk not what Mish Moneypenny can do for you, but what you can do for Mish Moneypenny..."

So if you were wondering, that's why things have been quiet round these parts. Bear with me, normal service will be resumed as soon as my skull stops screaming at me.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The master's tools appear to be leading you to my house

Yes, it's that time again: time for a fun game of "the weirdest search terms bringing people to give the feminist a cigarette... EVER!"

In ascending order, we have:

3. "explaining the offside rule to women": I'm giving this one the benefit of the doubt, because it led the seeker to my post on one of my favourite misogynist moments of the year to date.
2. "knitting is not feminist", which I disagree with, if memory serves.

And the best? The very besty best? The one which I may frame and hang on my wall, or perhaps knit onto a large multi-faceted object of my own design?

Drumroll please!

1. "Women cannot mentally rotate 3D objects."

Altogether now: "Knit that, motherfucker."

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A short story about what "independent counselling" could mean

A true story:
At the end of July, we heard from a woman who only discovered that she was pregnant at 20 weeks. After trying to raise money for flights and travel in every way possible, she found out about ASN. A few phone calls and days later, we were able to arrange for a reduction in the cost of the procedure, a grant, and a host for two nights in London. Unfortunately, when she was scanned at the clinic, she was ONE DAY past the legal limit. Our hearts break for this woman – who, if she’d had the financial means to travel and book immediately, would not now have to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
But Nadine Dorries' mandatory "independent" counselling wouldn't hurt, right? Wouldn't add to the delays at all? Wouldn't lead to more women having to go for surgical abortion rather than medical, or push them over the 15 week limit? Well, thank the stars that Dorries isn't also campaigning for a reduction in the time limit to 20 weeks, or one might suspect that this self-proclaimed "pro-choice" MP was trying to use every trick she can muster to eat away at the edges of the abortion settlement; a few weeks less time here, a few weeks extra waiting there, and presto! a few thousand women are forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy everywhere.

This is shit, this is unutterably shit, for everyone in the UK, but it is honestly terrifying for women in Ireland and Northern Ireland. For them, time is already too short: along with obstructive doctors, crisis pregnancy centre workers, secrecy, childcare/time off work/coming up with an excuse to go to England for a couple of days, they also have to find THE MONEY, and the longer it takes to get it together, the more they need to find. You need money for the procedure itself (£350 to £1500), money for last-minute plane fares, money for a bus to the airport and money for the tube to the clinic and money for somewhere to stay the night before your early morning appointment.

A could-be-true-soon story:
So, imagine you find out you're pregnant early enough to be eligible for a medical abortion. You're living on benefits, say, and you've been struggling to provide for the two children you already have since your husband got made redundant. You both agree that you're not able to care for another child right now and decide on terminating the pregnancy. Of course, it'd be a lot more convenient if you could just get the bus into town and go to a clinic there, but that's illegal, and the only 'clinic' is run by way-too-keen fundamentalists who will scare, lie, and shame you into keeping the baby. It's okay though - it's not talked about, but you've heard whispers from a friend of her sister's journey 'across the water', so you do a bit of research on the internet at the library, make a couple of calls, and you've got your appointment at Bpas in Streatham.

You're lucky. Compared to many other women who make this journey, you are lucky as hell: you've got the last of your husband's redundancy payment, and you get a fairly good deal on a Ryanair flight, maxing out the credit card you applied for in happier days to pay for it. Your husband can take care of the kids while you're away, and you don't even have to lie to him about where you're going. Your passport's up to date and you don't need a visa. Even the weather's co-operating - no volcanic ash-cloud or heavy snow to stop your plane taking off.

So far, so good: you get up in the middle of the night to get to the airport, travel into London as dawn is breaking on a train full of bleary-eyed commuters, somehow manage to navigate the ridiculously complicated combination of buses, tubes and trains to arrive at the clinic. You have your consultation with a trained counsellor who explains what the procedure will entail, makes sure you're comfortable with your decision, and lets you know that you can change your mind at any time. If everything goes to plan, you should be able to take one pill this morning, return a few hours later for the second, and after a lie-down in the recovery room you'll be able to catch your flight back this evening. It's a huge relief: you've only talked about this in whispers after the kids are in bed, and now you're in a space where you're free to talk for as long as you want about your fears - will abortion give you cancer? What if you want to have kids in the future? Are you going to Hell for this? - and receive reassuring, unbiased support. You talk about what contraception you're going to use in the future - you weren't aware that the antibiotics you were taking for an infected wisdom tooth would stop the pill working. You laugh a little at the idea of making the same mistake again; after all the hassle it's taken to get here, you're going to make sure your cervix is more heavily guarded than Fort Knox.

For all your worries, you're happy with your decision. It's the only thing that's right for you and your family right now.

Haha, not so fast! You might be alright with your decision - the doctors might be alright with your decision - but are any of you really qualified to make this decision? The doctors work for Bpas: Bpas gets money from the government for performing abortions. Alright, they're a charity, but still, they must have some kind of profit motive to abort as many babies as possible, despite being a non-profit organisation. Yeah, this all sounds like bollocks, but it's the law: Bpas aren't legally allowed to perform your procedure until you've sat through a mandatory counselling session with someone from an "independent" body.

The "independent" body which has the NHS contract in this area is run by Life - an anti-abortion campaigning organisation. The idea that they are somehow less biased than the caring professionals you've met at Bpas seems ridiculous - they're the same people harrassing women outside the NIFPA offices in Belfast - but there you go. It's not like you've got a choice in the matter. You wait while the receptionist gives Life a call, asking when they can fit you in.

Funnily enough, it turns out that this completely impartial and independent body doesn't have a vested interest in making this process as quick and easy as possible: they don't have any appointments today, and the only one they can offer you tomorrow is late in the afternoon. You'll miss your flight back, and you're going to have to find the money for a B&B for at least two more nights. You call your husband in tears, explaining the ridiculous situation through your frustrated sobs. All you want to do is get this over and get home. He tells you not to worry, that you'll figure it out somehow; he'll try to come up with a story to tell his mother so he can borrow a little money without her asking too many awkward questions.

So you wait. You stay the night in a grotty guesthouse, you eat as little as possible because your money's draining away much more quickly than you'd hoped, and you wait. You've nothing to do until your appointment, late in the afternoon, at the crisis pregnancy centre.

When you finally get there, you're instantly on edge: the atmosphere is very different to Bpas. There are pictures of smiling babies everywhere, a suspiciously Madonna-esque mother and child on the wall opposite you. The woman who talks to you claims to offer "non-directive counselling", but she works for an organisation which explicitly believes that life begins at conception: and oh boy, does it show. She doesn't tell you what to do. She just asks questions. "Wouldn't you rather have your baby? You know, he has tiny fingernails by now. I know things are tough financially, but surely love is the most important thing?" You know she's wrong - you know you've made up your mind - but it still hurts. Maybe she passes you some leaflets about the link between abortion and breast cancer (didn't the Bpas counsellor say this wasn't true? It looks really convincing, though); maybe she warns you about "post-abortive syndrome".

She lets you go after an hour or so, looking sorrowful when you say you haven't changed your mind. You blink in the late afternoon sunlight, reeling: "Away and pray yourself to death, you old hag", you mutter, but you still feel like you've been blindsided. What was the point of that? You knew what you wanted to do - your husband agreed, your doctors agreed, why this totally unnecessary step before you can get this medical procedure that's supposed to be legal over here? And now it's another day before you can get back to Bpas, have another talk with the actual counsellor to get over all the horrible guilt and fear this interview has churned up.

Surprise! This pointless delay? Has taken you over the nine-week limit, and you're no longer eligible for a medical abortion! Luckily, Bpas can fit you in today, but you're going to have to stay yet another fucking night - you'll be physically able to leave, but you can't get a plane ticket at this short notice. The surgical procedure - under local anaesthetic - also costs a lot more, so there's another anxious phone call to your husband, and another mad scramble for cash back home.

Miraculously, you manage to scrape the money together. You have your procedure, you get home, several days later than planned and several hundred pounds out of pocket. But, finally, it's over.


This dystopic short story was brought to you by I AM REALLY PISSED OFF ABOUT THIS. Also by WAHEY ASN can make this a bit easier, by giving funds, information and non-judgemental support to women seeking abortion, but guess what? We have but £400 left this month, which will pay for precisely ONE abortion before 14 weeks.

So, if you can, I am literally begging you to make your MP aware of how Dorries' amendment to the Health & Social Care Bill will affect Irish and Northern Irish women before they vote. And if you have any money whatsoever to spare, ASN is a mega-awesome cause.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lego incubators, and seven fluid ounces of pain

Oh goody, everyone's talking about abortion! Cheers, Nadine Dorries; you've poked and prodded at the issue so much that every idiot has pulled their opinion out of the cellar and dusted it off.

Today: Lovely Andrew Brown argues that women carrying unwanted pregnancies should continue gestating For The Good Of The Nation. He claims that the current abortion settlement is based on a faux-utilitarianist argument - that allowing abortion provides "the greatest good for the greatest number" - but in fact serves  "the greatest happiness of the greatest person, ie. me". (Please note he doesn't mean himself. He means someone with an unwanted occupant in his/her uterus.)

This is totally irrelevant to the matter at hand, but I would just like to pause for a moment to observe that Jeremy Bentham, who famously proposed that "the greatest good for the greatest number is the only proper business of government" is currently sitting embalmed in a hallway in my old university and once had his head stolen and sent to Glasgow.

Brown argues, therefore, that the "greatest good" could in fact be achieved by... all unwanted pregnancies being carried to term, and the resulting progeny given to childless couples who want to raise a baby! He doesn't specify whether the uterine-enabled would have any choice in the matter, but hopes that "her suffering might be mitigated by the reflection that it does some good". Isn't it nice that he cares?
So if we are interested in maximising happiness, or diminishing suffering, then unwanted pregnancies should be continued, and the babies given out to adoption. This is, of course, liable to be horrible for the natural mother. I know women who had to do this, and it was dreadful for them. But her suffering must be measured against the joy of the adoptive mother. That seems at least as great and goes on for a great deal longer. And of course the baby, if it had a vote, would presumably cast it in favour of being alive.
Wow, he really does care! So much! It's almost as if he's experienced the blind terror of a pregnancy scare himself! OR NOT. It sounds, actually, as if he imagines all of humanity as little Lego men in his own personal Lego fiefdom which he built himself in his attic. 'How can I make my Legotopia more efficient?', LegoLeader Brown asks? Not, actually, 'how can I make as many as possible people happy'. He sees one group of LegoLadies without LegoBabies who want LegoBabies, and another group of LegoLadies who have LegoFoetuses but don't want LegoBabies, and instead of seeing a multitude of deeply personal and individual situations - he sees a basic supply and demand scenario. Why let those LegoBabies go to waste? Reduce, reuse, recycle; don't you know there's a war on?

I've been pro-choice for as long as I knew there was such a thing, but I only really got it - not intellectually, but on a visceral (indeed uterine) level - during My First Pregnancy Scare. Lying in a too-small bed in a grotty flat somewhere in South London, awake all night with visions of sperm swimming like salmon towards the giant target of an egg just a few centimetres beneath to skin of my belly... the thought of getting pregnant was terrifying, but what really scared the crap out of me was the idea of someone else - anyone else, anyone who wasn't me - having any say whatsoever on whether or not I grew a whole new person inside me.

LegoLadies face no such night terrors, because LegoLadies aren't people: they're just interchangeable units who have something that other LegoLadies want.

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number" sounds so innocuous, doesn't it? Who could possibly be against that? But it's not a zero-sum game. The "joy" of the adoptive parent doesn't instantly cancel out the "suffering" of the birth parent. I'm not going to make a value judgement on whether not having a kid when you want one is more traumatic than being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy to term, because the point is that you can't put them on the bathroom scales and decide that seven and a half metric tons of joy justifies two cubic hectares of misery.

Maybe some people would be completely fine with continuing with an unwanted pregnancy in order to produce a baby for someone else. And sure, there would be a demand, because there are lots of kids out there who need a home, but surprise! Most of them aren't white infants.

But really? There's nothing stopping people from doing this now. It's a choice that's readily available to anyone who's pregnant. And for those who feel that they are not able to cope with the stress and pain and inconvenience and health risks and emotional repercussions of continuing their pregnancy - there is the option of abortion. That's why it's called pro-choice: the point isn't to come up with The Best Way To Deal With Every Single Unwanted Pregnancy Ever, but to work towards a situation where everyone has the right, information, and resources to deal with their situation in the way that works for them.

No one has the right to have children. Everyone should have the right to try to have children - to pursue whatever options are available, from artificial insemination to fostering or adoption to ye olde shagging with a penis - but no one has the right to a bouncing baby infant to call their own just because goddamnit they want one. Your right to pursue your reproductive potential ends where my right not to be enlisted as an incubator begins.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

I never thought I'd be using my history degree to defend The Other Boleyn Girl

Slumping on my boyfriend's sofa in a Bank Holiday Monday food coma, University Challenge came on the telly. Everyone loves University Challenge, for that moment when you correctly answer one question and crown yourself Super Clever Queen of Ace Town. This was a particularly fruitful episode: I managed to get a full three answers (Super Clever Queen of Thrice Town?).

(a) From the Greek blah blah blah, what is the name given to a rapid heartbeat of above 70bpm? (TACHYCARDIA!); (b) Name this woman and the man she married after Henry VIII (KATHERINE PARR AND THOMAS SEYMOUR!); (c) Which is the only bone in the human body which is not articulated with any other bone? (HYOID!) I got these answers from (a) my medical history, (b) the works of Philippa Gregory, and (c) having watched five series of Bones in the last month. And they say Low Culture doesn't teach you anything.

So, Philippa Gregory! Are you going to lose all respect for me if I admit to a strange obsession with her Tudor series? That is a risk I will have to take, but before you denounce me to the proper authorities, I do have some sort of a defence.

Low Culture can actually be immensely informative, as demonstrated above. (Obviously it often takes some entertaining liberties with the facts, and I guess not everyone goes straight to Wikipedia to verify whether Anne Boleyn totally did it with her brother, so you do have to take lots of it with a fulsome pinch of salt.) But more importantly, it generates genuine enthusiasm for fairly arcane topics: I always thought the Tudors were kind of boring (my historical interests lie more in the twentieth century, which resulted in me coining a shorthand for human rights violations: HRVs! Fun!), but my Amazon wishlist is now chock full of Proper Scholarly Works on the period - and I'm waiting with baited breath for delivery of a book subtitled A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII.

One of the trickiest things in studying history is really believing that people lived hundreds of years ago who loved and hoped and dreamed and shat just like you. You can learn the statistic that up to 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas died from European diseases brought by colonizers - but you can't understand what that means, what it was like to live through, until you bring it down to an individual human level. I know what it's like to lose a family member. From there, I can project how it might feel to lose everyone in my family. I can try to extend that to imagine losing every single person I've ever loved, liked, or even had a vague nodding acquaintance with, and begin to have a glimmer of the actual scale of the tragedy: of what "95%" actually means.

And fiction is perfectly placed to do this. Barbara Kingsolver observes that "a history book can educate you, but oddly, a novel is much more likely to move you to tears, because it creates empathy". The human brain just doesn't have the capacity to care deeply about millions of individuals, but through one 'case study', you can truly comprehend how it felt to one of those millions: "Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.  It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction".

So, the schoolbook story of Big Henry's Quest For A Son never struck me as particularly compelling, because it was always told from his perspective. What Gregory does is bring the women of the period to life. She imagines them as astute political actors, navigating a world where their power was extremely curtailed, and puts their experience at centre stage. By so grimly detailing how these women's only chance of improving their own situation was by making a good marriage, she makes you feel the patriarchal norms of late medieval court society, not just learn them.

She is kind of a sexist, though.

For a start, anyone who puts the phrase "beneath the good name, we (Boleyns) are all just bitches on heat" into the mouth of her protagonist has gained some major misogyny points. Then there's her rendering of major historical figures: Elizabeth I, for example; slutty and sex-crazed and manipulative and power-mad. Partly this is just for shock value - "aha! You all love Elizabeth, but maybe she was MEAN!" - but the specific framing is packed full of deeply misogynistic tropes. Anne Boleyn is painted in a similar light. I'm ambivalent about this character: presenting Boleyn as a calculating political figure, rather than a doll who sat around until Big Henry picked her as this year's incubator, is great - but it's shown as a bad thing, a pathological lust for power, rather than a perfectly reasonable ambition.

The Good Women protagonists, in contrast, always retreat to their proper sphere. They settle down with a good man and find enormous amounts of fulfilment in making bread and babies rather than laws.

It's no secret that these books aren't great art. They're repetitive, formulaic, and as cheesy as all hell: basically Hollyoaks with swords. And yet! I kind of love them. The lady-hating chafes more than a little, but the paradoxical centring of female experiences  brings them back from irredeemability, for me at least. I don't just want to know what happened in the days of yore, I want to know how it felt: warts, corsets, leaking ulcers and all.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

On learning not to be awful

Things I have achieved in the last few years:
  1. Going from being virtually incapable of conducting a phone conversation with anyone other than my mum, to being commended on my telephone manner, "striking the perfect balance between friendly approachability and professionalism".
  2. Learning some basic knitting facts the hard way (50g of DK cotton is going to go a lot further than 50g of wool/silk blend, and that cheap'n'chic cardie is going to be a lot more expensive if you forget this fact: YARDAGE, Hannah, yardage!).
  3. Learning, however slowly and imperfectly, not to be a transphobic dickhead.
Number 3. is clearly not something to be proud of: congratulating myself on treating people with respect as human beings would be pretty grotesquely insulting.

Neither is this some kind of self-flagellating intellectual delousing exercise, where I confess my sins and hope that you'll all welcome me back to the fold as a penitent sheep.

It is, rather, a message of hope.

In A Mind Of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine presents evidence that, whether or not you subscribe to prejudices against marginalised groups, simply being aware of stereotypes allows them to be a factor in your thinking:
You may not personally think that women are nurturing, that black men are aggressive, or that Jews keep a tight grip on their wallets, but you can't pretend not to know that these are stereotypical traits of women, blacks and Jews ...
All the information about a certain group ... is closely intertwined in the brain. This means that if you use one bit of the schema - even just to be able to say 'Ah, an Asian' - then all the other parts of the Asian schema get restless. As a result, information in the Asian stereotype is more likely to be used by the brain.
Which is disheartening: WOE IS ME, I am cis and living in a transphobic society, and so have a brain full of negative prejudices regarding trans people! How ever am I to become good and clean and not a judgey bigot!

Through hard fucking work, says Fine:
Our unconscious will eventually help out if we consistently make the conscious effort to act in a certain way in particular types of situation ... The first step is to acknowledge your brain's unwelcome bigotry.
Researchers have found that people who form egalitarian implementation intentions of this sort are happily impervious to the usual unconscious effects of stereotype priming.
In short, I've made a deliberate attempt not to let myself off the hook: when that sneaky little voice is muttering "well, what do you expect of a ... ", I tell it to shut the fuck up. I've acknowledged that I'm not perfect - identified which prejudices I subscribe to most heavily - read everything I can find so I can quickly quash any bastardish thoughts with the body slam of logic and compassion. And after a while, not-being-a-total-dickwit becomes second nature, so I'm free to cringe in mute horror at the Bones episode "The He in the She"!

Can I just say again that I'm not setting myself up as some sort of paragon here? The use of the first person in that last paragraph is not meant to convey "wahey, check ME and my egalitarian implementation intentions out", it's to avoid this becoming some sort of "I am telling you what to do, because I am perfect, uh huh". I'm not. That's kind of my point. My natural inclination is actually to be fairly misanthropic, and it is really easy to allow myself to attach shitty horrible prejudices to that.

I doubt I'll ever completely abandon all the nasty assumptions buried deep within my wacky brain: that's how the brain works. But I can try. And the most important thing I got from Fine's book is that the willingness to try is the key to overcoming one's reliance on stereotypes. I'm far from perfect, but I am willing.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Is your Porsche big enough for the world's tiniest violin?

My boss's boss's boss's boss (there might not be enough bosses in there, but he's the Lord God King of this organisation, anyway) has a bad back. This means that he can no longer drive his Porsche to work as the seat is too low - so he has to drive the Bentley instead.

I am aware that laughing at his sufferings because he is rich is irrational, leaves me open to people saying "well, you're white and thin and cis, what have you got to worry about?", and also is a bit mean, but it still took every ounce of professionalism, tact, and self-control I have in me not to snort so loud with laughter that my brain fell right out of my nose.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Shag, shag for apples, and also social capital

Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and human capital. As Chairman Mao advised—walk on two legs.
~ Catherine Hakim, "Have you got erotic capital?", Prospect Magazine
 Or, to put it another way: "Women! You have always used sex to get what you want - just admit it, do it better, and while you're at it, put more lipstick on."

One of the many wonderful things about going to visit my dear old mum for the weekend is that we get two Saturday papers. Twice the puzzles, twice the property porn, and a breathtaking three articles on Hakim's new book, Honey Money. (Zoe Williams' interview was by far the best, managing to be both hilarious and thoroughly smacking down some of the more ill-thought-out logic gaps in Hakim's thesis.) So I spent the train ride back reading the lot, underlining everything which pissed me off (my pen ran out. Seriously.) and scribbling furiously in the margins. It was a bit like being back at uni, but with more swearing.

Full disclosure: I've not read the book, and I'm not planning to pay £20 to do so; you can read the abstract of Hakim's original article here, which asserts:
1. Erotic capital is a fourth "personal asset", comparable to economic, cultural and social capital.
2. Erotic capital is increasingly useful, both in the "mating and marriage markets" and in one's working and social life.
3.There is a "large imbalance between men and women in sexual interest over the life course", meaning that women "are well placed to exploit their erotic capital".
4. Both patriarchy and feminism see the use of this asset as morally wrong.

And just to clarify what "erotic capital" actually is:
(a) Beauty; (b) Sexual attrractiveness; (c) Social skills; (d) Liveliness (physical fitness, social energy, good humour); (e) Social presentation (including self-adornment); (f) Sexual competence, energy and imagination.

Good gracious, she likes energy, doesn't she? Me and my chronic fatigue are knackered just reading that.

So starting at number one. Whatever you want to call it, being pretty smoothes your path in life: there are a number of stats in that Prospect article, and anywhere else you care to look, that bear this out. (I used to be a walking example of this: on days when I wore contacts, people were noticeably nicer to me than on speccy days.) Being personable, sociable (and having the energy to be sociable) and presentable are fairly obviously advantages, though I'm not sure why they're grouped under the "erotic" heading. And being good at sex... probably just means you'll have good sex.

Going back to the "beauty" and "sexually attractive" components, which most of the media fuss is focusing on (not least because it means they get to illustrate the articles with pictures of Indonesian sex workers and/or Angelina Jolie): yeah, these are deemed important for everyone, but especially for women: we're caught in the double-bind of (a) being expected to be pretty, and (b) being devalued for it. Everyone is treated better if they're good-looking - but women are only valuable if they're good-looking, regardless of their other qualities. Being that inconsequential, infinitely powerful creature: a pretty girl might give you a fleeting importance, but it enables people to dismiss you as nothing but just as quickly.

As far as I can tell, everyone seems to be white in this theory. White, and able-bodied: there's no acknowledgement of how "erotic capital" works very differently for, say, black women (seen as hypersexual) or women with visible disabilities (seen as sexless). Imagine you use a wheelchair: how to "exploit" men using your six-point scale of fuckability when he deems any hint of your sexuality as grotesque and unseemly?

The assertion in number 3. depresses me so much I almost can't bring myself to write about it. I know we're dealing in broad-brush strokes here, because without that you can't really come up with any grand theory about society, but - as I think I may have mentioned - any pronouncement on How Men Differ From Women always raises my hackles. Especially when it conforms to a widely-held but rarely-proven stereotype, while claiming to be some iconoclastic revelation. (FACT: for centuries, men were supposed to be all enlightened and rational - which meant that they were less sexual than women, less susceptible to their crotchy urges, and had fewer such urges in the first place. Women, driven by their wildly starving vaginas, were thought to be all "shag the crap out of me, I have no morals at all!") For more detail on the paucity of the statistical evidence Hakim offers on this point, check out the Williams interview.

Apart from being on scientifically shaky ground, this is also a particularly bleak look at the human race: women probably don't want to have sex, but they should act, look, and dress like they do to "exploit" men. Brilliant. Hakim asks, "Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?" Shit, I don't know, maybe because we're actually hoping for equality and don't see men as The Enemy?

And in case you thought she just despises women: fear not, she also thinks gay dudes have no personalities and that gay ladies and asexual folks are exhibiting "a flight response to male domination, and are defeatist"! The "gay community" (she means dudes) are, apparently, "not interested in talk, not interested in getting to know you". Which is why no gay men ever have relationships, or friends, or interact in any way with other human beings except via the penis.

I don't know. I think Hakim's argument has some good points, formulising things that are fairly self-evident; she also throws in some horrendous bigotry and comes up with an immensely disspiritng conclusion. Speaking on burlesque, Laurie Penny observed that "the power to titillate, to excite, to look beautiful" is ultimately kind of empty on its own, concluding that "I prefer real power, power that involves my brain, that doesn't rely on tawdry male attention, and that will stay with me throughout my life." Using sex to get on can only make us feel "a little bit better about the hand we've been dealt".

In a way, it's similar to the power behind the throne theory that I spoke about last week: fetishising a very small, limited way of negotiating your way through an oppressive society, and deluding yourself into thinking that this in some way smashes some great blow to the heart of the oppression itself.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Angel in the kitchen, whore in the parlour, chef in the bedroom

I was quite looking forward to writing something that wasn't about riots for a change. I was considering a thorough analysis of the conflicting feminist/misogynist messages of the works of Philippa Gregory (stay tuned!). I was ruminating on the ways in which a depressive personality can be an advantage in life, and will probably remain with me however well I manage actual depressive episodes. And then Bryony Gordon's god-awful piece on Kirstie Allsopp's contention that it's okay to be nice to men turned up. Bingo! I thought. It's fisk o'clock.

Okay, first things first: Allsopp's comments aren't actually that bad. The quote pulled out of her Hello! interview simply said:
“If I want to talk to Ben about something difficult, I shouldn’t do it when he walks through the door after work. That is the best way to have a flaming row… if you want to talk about feelings, make sure they have a full stomach when you do it.
Which isn't really to do with gender in the slightest, it's just simple common sense. I don't know what else she said, because the interview isn't available online and holy fucksticks I am not buying a copy of that rag, but it is being reported as "high-flying successful businesswoman PUTS HER MAN FIRST!" I trust that the misogynist message implicit in such reporting is not lost on you clever people.

The rest of the article is predictable crap, characterising feminism as forbidding women from Looking After Their Man ("It's okay to be nice to men." BOMBSHELL.) and thinking that all men are "horrible little tosspots". Do I have to drag out my favourite people again to demonstrate how much I love the dudes? Do I have to point out, AGAIN, that it is misogynists, not feminists, who think men are rubbish, with their inability to put socks in laundry baskets or resist the endless tyranny of their penises' demands? Or are we all on board here?
In short, we need men, and they need us, and it’s about time that we all stopped pretending otherwise. After all, the world will not survive through turkey basters alone.
Haha, because all feminists advocate lesbian separatism, all women are straight, and also actual lesbians are nothing but a punchline, am I right?

She then goes on to advocate using your "feminine wiles" to sneakily control Your Man while letting him think he's the boss - the dolt.
This might seem submissive and housewifey – but in actual fact it is very clever. When you smile sweetly and humour a man in the home, you gain the upper hand. You render him docile and put yourself in control.
Aha, you might think you're living a life of oppressive drudgery, but let me tell you: this is LIBERATION! A very special kind of liberation which only works in a world where relationships are a battleground - remember, you don't actually like your husband.

I can't add anything to Emily Hauser's comments at Feministe (in relation to Beyonce's Run The World (Girls)):
you’re not talking about running things. You’re talking about slotting yourself expressly into a male-dominated structure and at the very most, subverting it by using that structure for your own purposes.
That’s not running things. That’s making the best of a bad lot. That’s being — if you happen to be one of the few women anywhere near the throne — the power behind the throne, and singing the praises of being stuck back there.
The article's comments quickly descend into in-depth discussions of the philosophical import of dirty socks: where they go once abandoned by sweaty feet, and how - and by who's agency - they end up in the laundry basket. The discussion seems predicated on the idea that Men leave them on the floor, and Women pick them up. With this in mind, may I give you a snapshot of my bedroom floor this morning:

Just so we're all clear on quite how much time I spend picking up my own socks.

Alright, I'm being facetious. Housework is obviously a matter of importance: we all know that, in heterosexual partnerships where the couple live together, women do the vast majority of housework, and men generally do the more fun, creative tasks: cooking a flamboyant meal rather than washing up afterwards, say. Which sucks! And should change! And should be seen as a collective problem, resulting from societal messages about what work is important and what tasks are the 'proper' domain of men and women, so that every single woman living with a dude doesn't have to fight this battle alone! (Yeah, okay, when you're cleaning the bath for the thirteen thousandth time, "it's a result of societal conditioning" is probably not much of a consolation, but it's a good place to start. When gendered crap leads to disagreements with my own gentleman friend, having the structured knowledge of feminism and gender expectations to hand is invaluable: not necessarily in winning the argument, but in making me not hate myself or him.)

In short: this stuff matters. But smiling sweetly while you capitulate, and congratulating yourself while you do it, isn't a solution. It isn't "grown up". And it sure isn't power.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Saturday night and Sunday morning

Even odder than seeing police officers out in force: seeing television reporters' vans on the streets of N15. News just doesn't happen here. The last time we had a media presence so large must have been 1985 - the last time there was a riot. I guess "thousands of people of hundreds of different races, nationalities, and religions living together in Peace'n'Harmony" isn't great headline fodder, and that's the reality of life round here. Although I'm sure there are racial elements to the anger - the black community in particular has a history of being singled out for harassment and violence by the police - this is not a "race riot". People didn't go out yesterday afternoon and say, "You know what, guys, I really hate white people. Let's smash Argos!"

Everyone's out on the streets today; some are looking for friends or relatives, some just rubbernecking, like me; everyone is utterly bewildered, just trying to work out how we got here.

Night of the 80s Undead: riots on the streets of Tottenham

You never see police officers in Tottenham. My dear Socialist Worker housemate attributes this to the fact that police exist to protect property, and everyone here's broke. So on the rare occasion when you do see someone in uniform, your gut response is not "hurrah, our noble protectors are here, nothing to worry about" but "holy fuck, what's going on?"

Turns out we're having a riot!

Two days ago, a local man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police officers. A peaceful protest gathered at Tottenham Police Station this evening to press for answers. Surprisingly, none were forthcoming, and someone chucked a brick through a panda car window. And off it went. Two cars, a few shops, and a bus are on fire; at least 200 people are confined in the area around the station, hemmed in by riot police, mounted police, and police dogs. I can hear the helicopters through my window, echoed a few seconds later on rolling news.

A BBC interviewer asked former Met Commander John O'Connor whether the violence could have been avoided if a police spokesperson had come outside early on to give a statement and calm the crowd.

"You can't have dialogue with people bent on violence," he replied. "Do you really think we can have dialogue with people like that? These people are hell-bent on causing something which I suspect is something to do with revenge. It's a tad hopeful to expect that you can talk people out of this."

Not now, no. But before?

He spoke of "the nature of the area, the history of that part of London, the smouldering antipathy towards the police, [which means that] this kind of thing is likely to happen. And if you get the catalyst of a police shooting, you can anticipate that things could kick off."

'Catalyst' is an interesting choice of word. It sounds uncomfortably close to 'excuse'.

He says that officers should "protect life and property, and we can talk about the niceties afterwards."

I spent eight hours in that police station once, queueing for six of those hours to report being mugged. Aforementioned Socialist Worker Housemate and I took it in turns to nip out for fag breaks, battling raging hangovers and striplight-induced nausea. We're both nice white middle class people, 'well-spoken' and frightfully respectable, and they treated us like fraudulent criminals wasting valuable police time. So I can only imagine how they treat people of colour, working class people, who make up the vast majority of this area. I can only imagine what my attitude towards the police would be had I grown up here, faced with that kind of dismissive antipathy every time I came into contact with our glorious forces of law and order.

Clearly I'm not saying "woohoo, let's riot!" - I'm nervously peering out of the window, checking that the front door's bolted and hoping to fuck that the riot doesn't spread any closer. I'm saying that if this area is indeed characterised by a "smouldering antipathy" towards the police that Mr O'Connor speaks of, it's not because we're all violent crims intent on bashing coppers. People are angry, people have questions, and even I can see why.

Friday, 29 July 2011

I am too tired to send CFS researchers death threats

It's an odd experience, having Radio 4 as your alarm clock. You wake up gently, with James Naughtie's mellifluous tones creeping into your ears, the news of the day quietly infiltrating your dreams. Which means that I'm never entirely sure whether the odder stories are entirely true or just the product of my crazed dream state. Super-antibody fights off flu: probably true. Queen Mother in fact a Time Lord and regenerated as Kate Middleton: probably not true.

People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sending death threats to researchers working in the field? Weirdly, true.

As far as I can tell (I have checked this while actually awake), the people in question are angry at any suggestion that the syndrome might be caused by psychological or psychiatric factors. Which I understand, up to a point: having fought with a series of doctors who dismissed me as a malingering hypochondriac (Dr Dickface McBullyo being the worst of a rubbish bunch), who took one look at my medical history and chalked every ailment down to Depression'n'Anxiety, I get the frustration of trying to make people understand that this is a real physical problem that is really limiting your options in life.

I guess the problem is that people think that "psychological" equals "all in your head" equals "not a real thing". Which says a lot about how seriously we take mental illness.

Everything is interconnected. Stress can exacerbate heart disease. Exercise can make you happier. Imagining The Mind as an ethereal entity which floats around without interacting with the physical body at all is, from a medical point of view, bollocks: how else could taking a pill change your mood?

The people protesting are concerned that all government funding is going into researching possible psychological causes of CFS/ME, rather than searching for a virus. (Some of the claims are just bizarre: Professor Myra McClure was accused of having a vested interest in not finding this virus, which, given that she's a virologist, is... yeah.) Which is a valid point: given that there's no hard evidence pointing either to a purely physical or purely psychological cause, it would make sense for funding to be split equally between the two.

I'm not fussed, personally - and I doubt many people with CFS are. Whether psychological, biological, or some mix of the two, any and all research is welcome because the more we know about it the better the prospects of alleviation or cure. If the One True Cause does turn out to be psychological, at least I can then get to work on tackling it.

I suppose the insistence on a purely physical cause could be seen as pragmatic, in a way: not the death threats, which never really improve one's public image, but the attempt to distance CFS from mental illness. Purely because our society really doesn't take mental illness seriously, so the headline CHRONIC FATIGUE CAUSED BY CRAZINESS would be read by many as CHRONIC FATIGUE NOT ACTUALLY REAL - JUST HYPOCHONDRIA. Pragmatic, maybe, but not helpful; it's just joining in the pile-on. "We're ill, we're not crazy, not like those people over there."

Or, in the immortal (and probably misquoted) words of Dumbledore: "Of course it's inside your head, but why should that mean it's not real?"