Monday, 5 March 2012

I read books, and sometimes even like them!

1. Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Colour Complex by Marita Golden, a beautifully-written series of vignettes on the topic of hueism, drawing strongly on the author's own experiences: being told by her mother not to play in the sun, because "you'll have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is". Absorbing negative portrayals of dark-skinned women (as Mammy, or Sapphire, a hands-on-hips finger-snapper with Attitude) and positive, but hyper-sexualised, archetypes of paler Black women. Gazing at her afro as a young revolutionary and honestly believing herself beautiful for the first time. It's a wonderful, languid, impassioned read, which gently draws out subtleties that so often get glossed over; and it's wonderfully refreshing to read a book about racism which is absolutely not about White people: by which I don't mean "wahey, we're off the hook!", but that it is 100% about Black opinions and Black feelings and Black experiences. I love how when you finish even the worst book, you have a whole new life inside your head; Don't Play in the Sun has populated my Mind Palace with a cast of thousands, all saying things that had never even occurred to me before.

2. Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones. I picked this up because the title alone made me realise: we do not talk about this enough. It gets lip service when social justice bloggers are presenting The List (I am a white cis bisexual woman of lower-middle-class background in a  menial job and a lot of debt and have physical and mental disabilities! If you were wondering), but it undoubtedly gets less airtime than many other axes of oppression. This review outlines the book's many shortcomings well - a little more theory would not have gone amiss - but I am enjoying its unapologetic stridency on such an unfashionable topic. I also had a great laughing-at-myself moment yesterday, when I cracked it open in a frightfully chi-chi cafe in Chiswick over my latte and pain au chocolat. (Matched only by the time I was reading bell hooks while waiting for a friend outside a Mos Def gig. I am fucking cool.)

3. How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. On which I have... opinions.

First up: it is hilarious beyond the telling of it. Belly-laughing, snorting and hooting at every page, making embarrassing noises on public transport funny. It is delightfully crude in a deeply British way, talking about nipple hair and using the word 'minge' and generally being very honest about all the things it is considered unladylike to talk about in public.

All of this is for a reason, too: its mission statement is to take on the problems of The Modern (white, western, straight, cis, professional, TAB...) Woman with humour and theory. (That list of attributes isn't meant as a criticism, by the way - the book is a memoir as much as anything else, and you can only write about what you know - but what Moran has learnt about How To Be A Woman is clearly not universally applicable.) Not super hardcore Buterly theory, but an acknowledgement that many of the problems she has faced are not individual, but systemic: "we need a bit of analysis-y, argumenty-y, 'this needs to change-y' stuff. You know. Feminism."

However. My first beef was with the contention that modern feminism has "shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read" and that "no one is tackling OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights or Katie Price". (It's true: only feminist academics read the Telegraph.) I mean, come on: feminism that is funny and focused on pop culture? That is the raison pissing d'etre of the feminist blogosphere! This is what we DO! This is what we've been doing for a decade now! You're not vanguarding your way up some never-scaled-before cliff face of hilarity, you're joining a team, and Team Funny Feminism would like to be acknowledged.

Beef The Second was with the repeated worship of Germaine Greer: if you know that this woman, whose name is pretty much synonymous with feminism for the general public, is "crackers on the subject of transgender issues", it might be best not to hold her as your "heroine". (Or use words like "tranny".)

Then there's the line in which she describes herself as having "all the joyful ebullience of a retard". Which has, rightly, caught some flak. It's been changed to "idiot" in my edition (hmm) but the refusal to engage with people pointing out that it's a fucking slur - to the point of blocking them on Twitter - is worrying. We all screw up. It's what you do next that matters.

The passages where she presents Her Opinions on the burqa and on stripping (bad, and bad, respectively) are just kind of sad, to me; heart-in-the-right-place but ultimately misguided. One of the most blinding moments of revelation I've ever had since getting in on this blogging lark was: it's okay not to have an opinion. I know! I registered my own little part of the internet specifically to share my opinions with the world, and yet: sometimes, or even most of the time, my opinion is NOT THE DAMN POINT. I might find the veil disturbing or stripping demeaning, but it is, shockingly, none of my fucking business. The world can live without my searing analysis of these issues. Maybe Muslim women, and strippers, actually have more interesting things to say on matters which concern their actual lives.

I almost feel bad for lambasting the book, for listing its flaws rather than wooping its virtues. I did enjoy the crap out of it: but then I am not a sex worker, or trans, or developmentally disabled, so the bumps in the road outlined above were occasions of "dude, that is uncool" rather than the literary equivalent of being kicked in the face.

I think its problem is that it falls between two stools. Too political to be solely a memoir, not theoretically grounded enough to be a feminist treatise, it's bound to irritate those of us who probably spend a lot more time thinking about this social justice malarkey. For the general reader, I can imagine it would be a great entry-point into considering these unremarkable facts of life - OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights and Katie Price - in a wider context, and hopefully deciding that "feminism" isn't such a dirty word after all.

Really, I just wish she'd spent a bit of time around these parts: a day wandering through Shakesville and Tiger Beatdown and The F Word and the virtual homes of a thousand other no-name bloggers like me would have demonstrated vividly that feminism - fast and loud and angry and hilarious and as concerned with 30 Rock as with rape conviction rates - is alive and shouting, and trying, however imperfectly, not to step on other people's heads on our way up.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Racist squirrels

"Who, me?"
I love those friends with whom it is almost impossible to have a boring conversation. Those people who reply to "how are you?" with "good, thanks, so I've been reading this book about Gandhi..." or "I have this amazing recipe for cheesecake" or "from a neuroscientific perspective, Jung's idea of the collective unconscious is both fascinating and completely unnecessary." So much more fun than "finethankshowareyou".

A lady I work with is a prime example. Being the two newbies and the two smokers in the office gave us ample opportunity to discover that we are both intelligent and interested people and so we never really waste time talking about the weather: typical lunchtime conversations will cover everything from theories of autism spectrum disorders based on how brains classify incoming data, with reference to Jung, Plato, and apples; systemic prejudice against people with natural Afro hair; the intricacies of incorporating waist shaping into a complex lace pattern repeat; and the peculiar simultaneous push and pull of weddings as bisexual ladies living in a patriarchal society. It is awesome.

So when she came over this morning talking about squirrels, my hopes were high.

You know when puberty begins its relentless assault, the pituitary grand starts sparking and you're more aware of your crotch than you've ever been before in your life - and suddenly everything reminds you of sex? Hayfever (trees spunking on your face!), crossing your legs a little too tightly, the pronunciation of the German word for 'six'. I remember actually getting aroused by an educational film we watched in Textiles class about cotton production. (Something about the motion of the mechanised looms was just really... thrusty.) Months pass in this bizarre la-la-land of giddy, glazed, hormonal lust.

Remember? Yeah? Well: getting interested in social justice is nothing like that.

But! I think this is what people who accuse us of Political Correctness think it is like. As if "trying not to be a dick" were this cool new fad, a perky obsession that inevitably fades with time; a pair of racism-coloured spectacles which make you see the entire world as Problematic. This version of events places the blame for oppression, micro-aggressions (or to use my preferred technical term, "fucked up shit") on the observer: if we wouldn't spend so much time looking for problems, everything would be fine! Because post-racial! Or something!

Which is obviously bollocks. This stuff happens all the time; social justice just gives you the theory to understand it and the language to describe it accurately

The squirrels, if you were wondering, had been accused of Coming Over Here And Taking Our Jobs/Women/Nuts. (There are also black squirrels, which come from Africa, and are more violent than delicate indigenous English Rose squirrels, who do not hold with foreign food or rambunctious behaviour. With the exception of the last clause, I AM NOT MAKING THIS SHIT UP.) Basically, this is the fauna-based equivalent of my current favourite Daily Mail article, the absolute culmination of 116 years of insular, frothing hatred: "IS THE PILL TO BLAME FOR IMMIGRATION?"