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.