Tuesday, 31 January 2012

On appreciation

Google has "inferred" that I am a woman. Well done data-mining! Google has also "inferred" that I am over the age of 65. I would laugh, but I accepted long ago that I am in fact an 85 year old woman cursorily disguised as a 25 year old. What is odd, though, is that they've "inferred" this information based on the fact that I like looking at (a) clothes, (b) social issues and advocacy, and (c) stuff to do with.. Ireland? Is Ireland now a nation of pensioners? Are only old people interested in clothes? Are Young People Today not trying to make the world a better place?? Huh.

In related news, it has been observed that if one were to take a stab at my nationality from my writing style, one would probably go for "as American as mom's apple pie". To address this I will be replacing all instances of "you GUYS!" to "I say, what ho chaps", and possibly making repeated reference to croquet.

Things that are awesome about being English: eating pie and mash. Getting annoyed when the bus you've paid almost nothing to travel on is a little slow navigating ancient streets (with names like Cripplegate and Cheapside) built originally to allow three sheep to walk abreast. Making friends with a dude from Senegal while drinking Polish beer in the grounds of a cathedral built by Normans who were themselves French Vikings. Sending a letter 300 miles for 38p, and wondering why it takes a whole two days to get there. Shops set up specifically to raise money to house poorly cats (which will sell you a pair of shoes for 20p). And the NHS.

This is just going to be a love letter from here on out. Dear the NHS, I heart you, love Hannah xxx

Without wanting to sound like a panglossian hippie twat, I do like to take a moment every now and then to appreciate the brilliance of the things we take for granted. Like broadband! While I'm tapping my fingers waiting for a 350MB video file to download and being genuinely put out that it's taking more than 20 minutes, I think back to the days of 56k dial-up: waiting for 6pm to be allowed online, waiting for your mum to get off the phone so you could get back to your very important Yahoo Messenger conversation, waiting for the damn modem to start talking to the rest of the world (and the noise it made! Oh, I miss the noise), waiting an hour and a half for a shitty low bit-rate punk song to download (and then someone would always pick up the phone when it was 99% completed, breaking the connection which would never be made again: Napster was pretty rubbish actually)... waiting, is what I'm saying: there is a reason I got so good at FreeCell.

And we spend a lot of time complaining about the NHS. With good reason: postcode lotteries and lack of compassion and privatisation and dickish doctors and waiting lists are real problems, and we should never shut up about them. But while we're fighting to make it better, we shouldn't forget how incredible it is that it exists at all.

Off the top of my head: I had a tooth pulled out and paid nothing for the privilege. I had a six-week course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for free. I've had five years' worth of antidepressant medication and thirteen years' worth of serious painkillers for a nominal fee (and before I turned 20, for nothing at all). I've had eight years' worth of birth control pills, three morning after pills, and a significant pile of condoms for free, and should this Fort Knox around my cervix fail, I will have the option of having an abortion for free. I've had keyhole surgery for a minor heart condition - a condition that, while unpleasant and initially terrifying, wasn't remotely life-threatening - and not only did I not pay a penny, they didn't even mention that it is one of the most expensive procedures currently carried out by the world-leading cardiac unit in question.

For most of this time, I've been in debt up to my eyeballs and living on scraps at the end of every month. If I'd had to pay market value there is no way in hell I would have managed to maintain this medical regime - and consequently would probably be knocked up, infected, in unbearable pain, physically incapacitated two days out of the month and mentally unable to function six months out of the year, or just plain dead. The fact that I have never had to choose between medication and food is literally the reason I'm still alive.

I was a little wary about phrasing this in terms of gratitude - decent healthcare is surely a human right, and we shouldn't be grateful for that right being acknowledged.

But there are a shitload of other things that I believe are human rights. Marriage equality. The right to have your gender legally recognised without being forced to become sterile (hi, Sweden!). The right to dignity, not poverty, in old age. The right to full NHS healthcare (hi, Northern Ireland!) or a life-saving abortion (I see you, Ireland!). The right to a decent education.

In her amazing column this week, Caitlin Moran refers to the establishment of the Welfare State as "the moral equivalent of the moon landings": the most incredible achievement of the 20th century. And while the benefits system is a fucking nightmare - like the NHS has gigantic problems - I worry that if we don't value what we've got, we'll think it's no big deal when they try to take it away.

Friday, 27 January 2012

A Female on Femail: Bums, Bumps and Lovely Lady Lumps Edition

Today in SCIENCE: the G-Spot might not exist! Which has to be reported as BREAKING NEWS, despite the fact that this (some people say they have one, some don't; some scientists say they've found it, some don't) has been the prevailing view for years! But every few months we have to be AMAZED when SCIENCE proves that it totally does/doesn't exist, usually illustrated with this hilarious stock photo.

Oh, men. Ha ha! Do they know anything about women's anatomy?

Hey, here's a hint, The Daily Mail - don't mockingly accuse dudes of lacking awareness about inner lady-plumbing if you're going to illustrate said mocking with a picture which fails to identify the clitoris and seems to have let the cervix go walkabout.

That is going to be one tricky pregnancy.

So what else is hot in the world of women? Cougars! Bromance! Bumgate! (I do not know what this means.) Pregnancy is clearly the in thing, with various celebrities 'proudly displaying their baby bumps' - why are they always described as proud? Not that making an entire new person isn't an impressive feat, but most of the pictures in this genre seem to show 'woman walking to the park while being pregnant', or 'woman eating a sandwich while being pregnant', not 'woman painting her belly neon pink so that everyone will stop and gawk and congratulate her on having such a fantastic rotundity of embryo-casing'.

Turns out Cameron Diaz isn't "proud" - she is "cheeky". For using the word "rack".

Which brings us on to the next theme of today's Femail: CLEAVAGE WARS!

Oh, silly Vanessa Paradis, with her itty bitty titties: her fashion choice "fell a bit flat", says the Mail (DO YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE), which proceeds to show us a full five close-up shots of her pathetic chest.

Olivia Wilde faced a similar problem, the poor thing, whereas the attendees of the National Television Awards were ticked off for having too much cleavage. It's almost as if there's some kind of double-bind whereby, no matter what you wear, the Daily Mail will cast aspersions on your size, taste, and morals!

 In case you were wondering - no. There is absolutely no way to win. Have a nice day.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Boiling a frog foetus

"The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death."

I think Oklahoma has just nudged the temperature up a touch too fast:

Oklahoma senator introduces bill to outlaw the use of aborted foetuses in food or ingredient research

Despite the fact that this has never, ever happened, and has no prospect of happening in the future.

You've got to hand it to them - it might be a massive waste of time, energy and taxpayer money, but it's a fantastic way of feeding the flames of hatred of "the abortion industry". As if they weren't high enough already in the US right now.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Delusions of Gender: delusions of gonads

I am in quite the quandry.

On leaving my last job, I was presented with a card, a knit-your-own-jewellery kit, and a £50 Amazon voucher. (Seriously, work for charities: people are generous.) I've been keeping this saved up for a January treat and have now purchased a selection of books which I've wanted to read for ages, but couldn't quite justify spending more than 50p on.

So here they are, all shiny and beautiful and full of knowledge, and so giddy was I at finally getting my hands on Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Between Sex Differences that I gobbled it all up in two days flat, gleefully snorting my way though its wry and witty take-downs of various spurious non-science claptrap used to justify sexism by idiots.

Which is where the dilemma comes in: do I now read The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn? Or Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class? Or, perhaps, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire? You guys, my life is so hard.

I've been wanting to read Delusions of Gender since it first came out, but was reluctant to spring for it simply because I assumed it would be mostly stuff I already knew, whether from Bad Science or Myths of Gender or just from reading studies and laughing at them: better, surely, to go for something that would challenge beliefs I hold rather than confirming them, or something that would educate me on areas I know nothing about. But hey! I went for it anyway, because I knew it would cheer me up. What can I say; we all need comfort reading.

Happily, it was more than that: as well as picking apart studies that claim to show that men are from arrgh and women are from lovely - oh, you know, map reading, embroidery, maths ability, mind-reading - it linked this trend to older currents of sexist thought that have changed surprisingly little over centuries. It also introduced some pretty mind-blowing concepts: we assume that if Science identifies differences between male and female brains, this proves that Men And Women Are Different, that these differences are based in biology, and that they are 'hardwired' and unchangeable. But the brain is an infinitely plastic organ: it changes constantly in response to incoming data from its environment, and so women's bigger empathising node in the anterior cerebellum* might 'prove' nothing more than the fact that women respond to the social expectation that they be more empathic.

* There is no such thing.

However.  One of the difficulties in writing this sort of book, if you are a cis person, is avoiding the mines: the topic has been misused in so many directions to the harm of so many people ("women: you are thick!" "Trans people: you don't fit my theory, therefore you don't exist!") that you have to be incredibly careful about who you're treading on.

Fine doesn't make the obvious mistakes, like following the faux-logical path from "gender differences in the brain have been overplayed therefore there is no such thing as a 'male brain' therefore transness is an illusion" - for the most part she doesn't even go down the conjectural route, letting you draw your own conclusions about the implications of the research she dissects. But there were a couple of passages which set my spidey sense a-tingling.

In one passage she discusses how trans men's experiences in the workplace alter post-transition, as a way of highlighting how we value characteristics differently when they are presented by men and women (or people we perceive to be men or women). She devotes a couple of paragraphs to a study done by Kirsten Schilt at Houston's Rice University in which men in this situation reported being taken more seriously, their work being rated more highly, their opinions being sought more often. Which is interesting, and great data to work with - Julia Serano talks about this issue in Whipping Girl - but she just leaves it there. Even one sentence noting that trans men don't simply gain male privilege, but also face the effects of transphobia in ways that are likely to be at least as overt and dangerous as sexism, would have put this into context. But she just skips on to the next study.

In a later chapter, she quotes with approval a couple who are making a concerted effort not to instil gender stereotypes in their children: doctoring picture books to feature more female and/or stereotype-busting characters, for example; splitting housework exactly in half; ensuring the children saw men and women doing a variety of jobs - and "promoting the idea that the difference between males and females lies in their anatomy and reproductive functions" rather than their fondness for dolls or trucks. Fine notes that "your typical pre-schooler enjoys a detailed knowledge of gender roles, but remains a bit hazy regarding the hard, biological fact that males differ from females when it comes to the allocation of such items as penises, testicles and vaginas."

Which is nice. Congratulations, these parents: you have raised two children with a wonderfully free set of beliefs about what men and women can do - and a shockingly narrow set of beliefs about what men and women are.

I'm not dissing the parents, exactly: I don't have a clue about what other values they're instilling; maybe the children's lives are full of healthy representations of non-cis and non-binary people; maybe they or their parents are trans themselves. Plus raising children is an incredibly difficult task at the best of times and non-parents chucking their tuppence-worth in is almost never helpful - and it's not as if the traditional upbringing eliminates transphobia anyway. (Wouldn't that be nice.) But Fine's enthusiastic endorsement of this genitalia = gender definition sends a dangerous message. Surely there must be a way of protecting children from relentless messages about what little girls are and what little boys like - letting them decide for themselves - without hardening this unbreakable link between gender identity and differentiated gonads. I'm sure we can do better than this.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Quoted: Ansgar Gabrielsen, former Norwegian Minister of trade & industry

From "Women never work past 5pm in Norway...", The Times, January 18th 2012

When asked whether Britain should introduce a quota system to increase the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies:

"I have never made a proposal for another country. You are on your island with your conservatives. You have Downton Abbey," he chuckles. "I think Great Britain will be one of the last countries in Europe to have more women on their boards if only to be the last, to make a point. Changing boardrooms is essentially about losing power."

While the last sentence strikes me as somewhat bizarre - power doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, and it's hardly about 'losing power' for women - I kind of love this guy. He's a conservative, not particularly interested in fighting for equality - his legislation to increase female representation on publicly listed companies to a mandatory 40% minimum was prompted by the idea that "there [is] an economical value in having diversity because mixed boardrooms created more business."

And while I get a slightly skeevy feeling whenever someone argues from difference in favour of gender equality ("I've been on a lot of boards. and men and women behave differently ... Women are not afraid of asking questions and men take more risks. It is important to have both.") ... looking out from our island with our conservatives, that sounds like a nice debate to be having.

New Year's Resolutions for crips

Stoke Newington is one of those London peculiarities, an prosperous enclave in the middle of one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. It has its many charms - Clissold Park, Knit With Attitude, a self-proclaimed Porn-Free Newsagent and more tasty tea shops than you can shake a cinnamon stick at - but it is also the kind of place where you can hear a child say, "Mummy, what are baked beans?"

Her response was not, as mine would have been, "They are delicious; central to the staple diet of the English People; a wonderful source of protein and the base of many a quick dinner; also, HOW UNIMAGINABLY POSH DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO LIVE IN A BAKED-BEAN-FREE CULINARY WORLD?". It was... actually, it was so good that it deserves its own paragraph.

Her response was: "They're like gnocchi, darling."

I didn't hear any more because I was laughing so hard, but I'm reasonably sure that the full sentence was "they're like gnocchi, darling; gnocchi for poor people."

Which bears little relation to the real meat of this post (or even the real gnocchi of it), but before we get to the Povvo Potato Dumpling Point, I'm off on another anecdotal digression.

This year, for the first time ever, I actually made New Year's Resolutions - and pretty traditional ones at that. They weren't as blatant as "lose weight you self-hating large person with a stomach, you", but they involved Cooking Real Meals, Eating My Five-A-Day, and Doing Half An Hour's Exercise Three Times A Week. The implied admonishment was pretty clear.

And, as tends to be the way with such things, I did brilliantly for the first week or so: on Day Seven I proudly reported to Straight Best Friend that I had gone swimming, done some yoga, and walked all the way to Stoke Newington. He asked, "Did you go to Stokey to buy a yoga mat?"

Full of indignation, I replied, "DUH, no! I'm not THAT much of a cliché! I went to Stokey to buy... um... a crochet hook. STOP LAUGHING."


The Point
Is that the week after this exercise extravaganza - which basically constitutes the bare minimum of a Healthy, Non-Sedentary Lifestyle, as defined by whoever makes up these rules - I crashed, spectacularly. As in: can't move. Can't speak. Can't eat - not "can't cook", literally "too tired to eat". After a week of dying on my feet, I spent a weekend in bed, and still had to take Monday afternoon off. One of the main symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a disproportionate level of exhaustion following exercise - but this doesn't necessarily happen immediately (ie. the hour or day after exertion).

You'd really think I'd have figured this out by now.

I suppose the problem is that mainstream definitions of Health don't know how to deal with people with disabilities or long-term illnesses. Because while I am pretty unhealthy, and would like to be more active, following the general government guidelines - Exercise! For 30 minutes! Three times a week! - leaves me broken in half.

And yet I am unhealthy. Not in that I have CFS, but in that I can't run for a bus without wheezing like a laboratory beagle. And while I would quite like to be a bit more active - for physical health, mental health, just for the sheer fun of it - I can't really see how to go about it, and mainstream Get Fit! advice has nothing to say to me.

Perhaps it's the result of being the middle-class cash-strapped daughter of working-class parents, but I have the biggest craving right now for gnocchi and baked beans mixed together.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The fight for gay rights in China, and a nice cuppa tea

Three facts you need to know for the following anecdote to enjoy its full comedic potential: 1. My Straight Best Friend is Chinese; 2. We are both history geeks; 3. The First Opium War could be roughly described as Britain militarily enforcing its 'right' to sell opium to, and buy tea from, China.

Many moons ago, SBF had a headache. (Bear with me, this story does get better.) He asked me for some painkillers so I rummaged in my handbag pharmacopoeia, eventually producing some cocodamol. As he returned from the kitchen, he handed me a cup of tea and picked up the tablets, and he said:

"Dude, this is just like the First Opium War."


Actress Lü Liping, winner of last year's Golden Horse award for Best Actress (and born-again evangelical Christian), caused a spectacular shitstorm in the Chinese media for posting homophobic messages to her Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) - referring to gay people as "shameful" and "sinners" and a whole load of other witterings from the blah blah My God Thinks You Are Icky stable. Which is paradoxically awesome: the public outcry has been quite the stir; gay rights groups have called for a boycott of Lu's movies; the Golden Horse Awards have uninvited her from the 2011 ceremony; and - significantly - CCTV, the state television network, mouthpiece of the government, and unfortunately-named from a strictly UK standpoint, has denounced Lu's remarks:
In the report on the programme "24 Hours" on the CCTV News channel, host Qiu Qiming (邱启明) held out unusually harsh words for Lü Liping, urging her to "reconsider her ways". He said, "We respect the faith of individual celebrities, and we allow them to have their own point of view on issues. But, that does not mean that we agree that a person of such influence should have the power to openly discriminate against certain communities in China."
”There is no doubt," Qiu added, "that the sexual orientation of certain people in our midst are different from the rest of us. But they are also diligently contributing to society. Gay people, like us, have the right to exist and develop themselves in society, and this right should not be overtaken by any other concept.“
And in a reference to Voltaire's famous aphorism, Qiu said in closing, "We'd like to say a word to the gay community -- and it's something we've all heard many times over -- I may not agree with the way you live, but I will defend your right to be different from me."

After SBF told me about this, I said, "awesome! Give me some links so I can blog about it!" he warned that writing anything which could be construed as positive about China would be read by many as "authoritarian government is FANTASTIC!". Which is interesting in itself. Other topics of discussion last night included this terrifying article about Texas schools with their own police forces, and the horrific abuses that are going on. SBF pointed out that a similar article set in China would provoke instant condemnation for what is an obvious infringement of these children's rights - but the response to extreme behaviour in the US is more nuanced. Not that such behaviour is condoned, but it is understood as not being representative of the entire country. Part of this is a result of familiarity: we have a number of stereotypes to hang new information about the US on (groovy San Francisco gay man, slack-jawed yokel hillbilly, uptight New York careerist, scary Southern evangelical) - but for China the vast majority of UK readers have just one: Authoritarian Government. And sure, the US stereotypes don't tell the whole story about the country either, but the variety at least means that one fucked-up act by one group of people is not generally used as a stick to beat all 312,842,000 Americans with.

I mean: can we take it as read that I think authoritarian government is bad? Human rights abuses are bad. Imprisoning dissidents is bad. Censorship is bad.

Raiding gay bars, too, is bad: no one is claiming China as a big gay haven.There are different currents in any society, moving in different directions and reacting against each other, so one promising development can be swiftly followed by what looks like a giant step back. That doesn't mean we dismiss the little step forward as worthless.

In general conversation I'd tend to assume that these tenets are accepted by all participants until they demonstrate otherwise. So, to sum up: this is a heartening development in the fight for gay equality in China. The end.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Round-up: today in my brain, and elsewhere

A series of unrelated things that have happened since last I graced these pages...

"Ladies and gentleman, we are gathered here today blah blah... the state of matrimony, which, according to the laws of the land, is the joining together of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others... blah blah blah kiss the bride."

Haha, no, not me; that would be ridiculous. I went to a friend's wedding on New Year's Eve and spent the entire ceremony pondering the peculiar appeal of weddings (a day dedicated to Your Love, maybe? Public recognition of how awesome Your Love is? Party and presents?) and yet the complete lack of desire I have to get married (why? What's it for? What will be different afterwards? And why will no one tell me why?), and grinding my teeth about institutionalised homophobia. Nice to know I have literally no human feelings whatsoever.

In other news, men do have feelings, and many would trade a year of their lives for The Perfect Body. Happy new year y'all! Also, Happy New "Science? Ha! Why bother doing proper research when you can select a group of respondents of whom over 50% are gym members and pretend that the results will be representative of the entire population!" Year", which bears a remarkable resemblance to 2011.

Not that I like many of the artists officially deemed Bad by this post, but the first thing that sprang to mind? Girls on the left, boys on the right; if it's not girls who are being slated, it's boys who make music girls like. Because girls, euwww, I guess.

Feel like getting really downhearted about the future of humanity? Take a moment to contrast the response to Luis Suárez's use of a racial slur ("It's a term of endearment in those Latin American countries because the legacy of slavery apparently makes black Uruguayans totally chuffed about being defined by their racial background! You know, like how all women love being addressed as 'babe' by men they're arguing with") and Diane Abbott's fairly fucking basic observation that creating divisions in an oppressed group is a great way to keep them oppressed ("SHE IS A RACCCCISSSSSSST BOOOO! AS A WHITE PERSON I FEEL SO HURTY FEELINGSED!"). And count the number of times people use the phrase "reverse racism".