Friday, 27 July 2012

Objectification: ask me ask me ask me

You know when you're having your common or garden conversation about objectification and some dude wades in to demand an explanation of the difference between objectification and appreciation? As if he's beset with horrible visions of his imaginary feminist totalitarian state where everyone wears unisex boiler suits and fancying someone is a crime punishable by death and reproduction takes place in test tubes and all male babies are aborted just for the fun of it because we fucking love abortion so much.

I don't believe him, to be honest. I think he knows damn well what the difference between objectification and appreciation is. But in case anyone is unclear, I have put together this handy guide for you.

Objectification: what it ain't
"Oh good grief, that is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her eyes and her face and hair like Medusa and holy mother of god she has tits like heaven. Okay don't stare, you don't want to be creepy. She's smiling! She's smiling at me! Thank you, life, the universe and everything, for granting me this hallowed day."

Objectification: what it is

For further reading, this is a good primer.

For further watching, you might also like to have a gander at that Batman film that everyone's been talking about. While dissecting it with my Young Man and his housemate, I reenacted my first beef with the movie, being the difference between how Batman rides his trike:

and how Catwoman rides his trike:

Young Man said that Batman was an equally unrealistic representation of the male ideal, but I only got the chance to shout "NOT THE SAME THING" before getting side-tracked by my other beef with the movie - namely the idea that you could just chuck a nuclear bomb a couple of miles out to sea and it would explode harmlessly, close enough that you could see the mushroom cloud but without anyone's face getting melted. (Sorry, there are some argumentative parts of my brain that just don't have an off switch.)

So to expand upon NOT THE SAME THING:
At best, one might argue that male superheroes are drawn to be what straight men think women want to see. More realistically, male superheroes are drawn to be what straight men want to be, showing them as powerful and competent without making them sexually provocative, since a display of sexual availability might make the "target market" of those comics uncomfortable. ~ "Where's the beef?"

Being a feminist and a lady who likes ladies, I know that it is possible to appreciate the female form without objectifying individual women. But I also know that it's actually not as clear cut as we'd like to think. Objectifying women is, as the comic says, "the background radiation" of our lives: you can be as awesomely feminist as you like, but you can't escape it anymore than you can escape breathing. I don't get turned on by random disembodied man parts in the same way that a delightful pair of lady legs will set my heart a-fluttering. This might be a quirk of my own particular sexuality, but it seems more likely to be related to the fact that women's bodies - arse, tits, creamy thighs - are endlessly presented on their own as embodying sex in a way that male bodies just aren't. Some gents will describe themselves as "a legs man", "a bum man", as if these parts alone are all they're actually after.

This is, we're told, to do with the difference between male and female sexuality: men get aroused by visuals, women by being in love and marriage and babies and pinnies and whatever. But it seems more likely that it is to do with what we are told is attractive. Attraction, desire, sexuality aren't sealed off from the patriarchy; they're influenced by it every bit as much as unfair parental leave laws and rape conviction rates.

There's a definite strand of thought that wants politics to stay out of sexuality. It's the fear that The Party Line will brand your particular brand of happy consensual fucktimes Double Plus Ungood and you'll either have to stop having the sex you like or be castigated as a traitor to the cause. (See: Feminist Sex Wars, 1980s, So Much Fun.) Which isn't really the point: I'm hardly going to chop off my own libido to spite my sex face.

There are times when marginalised populations - populations which are marginalised even within world-changey feminism - are actually the experts on particular topics. If you want to spout off about The Innate Differences Between Men And Women (or indeed The Entirely Socially-Constructed Nature of Gender), talk to some trans folks first. Wanna talk impossible beauty standards? Talk to a woman who isn't white. And if the intricacies of objectification, sexism and desire are your bag, bisexual ladies might just be your oracle.


As ever, I don't really have an action plan other than Talk About It. It's just that the conversation needs to be bigger than "men like to look at boobs".

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Batman, Agatha Christie, and The 1%

Today's post is a good lesson in googling your intended topic before beginning: turns out 'Batman + the 1%' garners significant returns, not least this delightful video:

"There's already a superhero for that. It's called the Invisible Hand of the free market."

When I first saw the trailer for the latest Batman outing, the line "you’re all gonna wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us” jumped out at me: 'allo 'allo 'allo, I said, in my best Hollywood British Accent, what's all this then? Is the franchise taking on the Occupy Movement? Is it with it? Against it?  Or actually nothing to do with it at all?

Having seen the film, I'm not much the wiser. As this great Daily Beast article notes, the message isn't really that simple.

(Spoilers. Obviously.)

The big villains - Bane and the angry mob he wields - can be seen as a logical end point of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo. By freeing prisoners and arming the homeless Bane taps into the most disenfranchised populations of Gotham; the police - noble stalwarts against the forces of darkness - are driven literally underground and attacked if they're seen in uniform.

Is this what the 1% - or those opposed to popular movements generally - expect from an uprising? Giving guns to the most nefarious-looking dudes in town, stomping round with some ill-defined speechifying about giving the city back to The People, and then threatening to blow it up?

(An aside: The Mob would never blow up the city. The 1% would: for them, one city's much the same as the next, just a different place to be rich in; the main drags of London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, are pretty much the same, smears of local colour notwithstanding. It's the outskirts, the back streets, the nooks and crannies where the 1% never go, that form a city's true character. If someone had a gun to my head and made me choose between Oxford Street and Seven Sisters Road getting blown up, I would not deliberate for long.)

Bane's mob is oddly positioned as both a popular uprising - and as antithetical to the true will, and good, of The People. (Which it is: my revolution will not feature wanton violence or the threat of nuclear holocaust.) It's the nightmare scenario, the worst aspects of the downtrodden en masse, whipped up by an unhinged demagogue with some boring back-story axe to grind. More specifically it's the nightmare of the 1%: that a few unsavoury characters will blind the innately good, humble, simple peasants to the safety and justice of the ancien regime, and incite them to go French/Russian/Haitian/Kafkatian Revolution Apeshit.

I was reminded of Agatha Christie's much-maligned thrillers more than anything: in each of them, unionists,  Bolsheviks, and the Labour Party are being used as puppets by sinister forces behind the scenes. Because people can't possibly have come to the idea that (a) they are oppressed and (b) this is bad and (c) maybe they can do something about it, all on their own - and good heavens, they surely couldn't organise themselves. They're only proles, after all. No, someone else must be pulling the strings, and their purposes must be deeply sinister.

Because while a face-mutilated pig man with the voice of Sean Connery makes for a good villain, the idea of oppressed people organising themselves to do something about it is truly scary.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Know when to fold 'em. Know when to run.

Strolling arm-in-arm through Soho on an almost-warm June night, a woman selling roses exhorted my Straight Best Friend to "buy flowers for your beautiful woman!". His response was, "She's not that fit."


We went for dinner at Koya, which I would highly recommend if you're after trendy-yet-cheap Japanese food. After a quick glance at the menu I chucked it across the table at him and asked him to order for me. There was one dish which I liked the sound of (noodle soup with tofu and spring onion) and he okayed that, ordering a couple of sides (veg tempura and pickled cucumber and aubergine salad) for us to share.

And it's just occurred to me that anyone watching could well have thought that this dynamic was borderline abusive. Asking permission to order a meal? Both of us assuming that he knew better than me what I wanted for tea? Red flags, and not the good kind.

But it isn't, in the least. I tend to leave culinary decisions to him for a variety of reasons: the guy is obsessed with food, and is very knowledgeable about it, so when picking from a cuisine I'm unfamiliar with he's got a better idea of my options than I do. He knows what I like, takes my non-negotiable food hates into account, and knows what I would love but wouldn't order for myself - and he knows that I need prodding to leave my food comfort zone. Short version: I trust him.

He's also the only person with whom I have proper flaming shout-out-loud rows. Which is partly because I'm neither very confrontational nor very articulate (SURPRISE, unlike every other person who started a blog to talk about the things which piss them off!), partly because we disagree a lot, but mostly? It's because I trust him. By virtue of the fact that he's been around for a decade and has been the recipient of the worst things I have ever done, I genuinely believe that if I shout at him, he will not leave.

So again, the aspects of our relationship which probably look quite fucked up to the outside world are exactly the signs that it's working really well. We'll sometimes reminisce about Our First (Shouty) Fight - "Aww, remember that time I shouted at you for being a dick and you shouted back and then admitted you were being a dick? That was the BEST" - because, ye gods, our relationship hasn't always been this healthy, and that fight was a major breakthrough.

So! My dining habits and personal insecurities aside, The Point: only the people inside a relationship know whether it's working. Whether it's happy. Healthy. Or abusive. To the untrained eye, our friendship might look fucked up, but it's great, it works for us, and no one's getting screwed over.

But conversely, relationships which look lovely from the outside? Might not be. Relationships which don't contain x/y/z Hallmarks of Abuse - might still be abusive. If it feels gross or uncomfortable or controlling sometimes, even if it doesn't fall neatly into a set of tick boxes, it's okay to trust those instincts. In fact, it's essential.

Contrary to anti-feminist belief, people don't skip around feeling completely happy about that relationship with some guy who was kind of controlling until feminism comes along and calls it abuse. You don't cherish fond memories about that time you had the sex that you didn't actually want to have until feminism rolls into town with its definition of rape. It felt awful all the time; social justice just gave us the words to describe it and the confidence to call it what it is.

Because unless you have a gigantic, unarguable example of why this person is making you feel uncomfortable it can be almost impossible to make other people accept that a relationship is abusive. (And usually not even then: "He hit me." "Why?") Which comes back to the idea that relationships are something which women want and which men tolerate to get sex, so just put up with it, you should be grateful. We're taught not to trust our instincts, not to set boundaries, not to complain. So the most important thing - the indispensable first step - is trusting our own instincts. If it feels gross, it feels gross for a reason, and you're allowed to do whatever you need to get out of that situation.

Which doesn't change a lifetime's worth of conditioning that it isn't okay to do this. But putting out a different message - drops in the ocean - is the only way I know how.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The mainstreaming of the British festival: allow me to beat you round the head with your Hunter welly boot

Please note this post has no redeeming social value whatsoever. I am just irrationally furious.

There is a nasty, snobbish part of me that is endlessly annoyed by the mainstreaming of festivals over the last decade or so. Festivals used to be weird. They were the places you went to be as weird as you were normally, but without normal people laughing at you for it. Now they've become an integral part of the British summer, a standard holiday treat, front page fucking news.

People go "glamping". People expect showers. (To clean themselves. Not from the sky.) People see the tiniest puddle of mud and gleefully jump in it, smearing it over the faces and shining naked thighs because that's what you do at a festival! You wear hot pants and designer wellies and one of those stupid pissing plastic flower garlands in your hair, you get a henna tattoo on your hand and drink your £5 Tuborg and go ker-ay-zee, because that's what you do at a festival! It said so in The Guardian.

That nasty, snobbish part of me wants to say to these people: you didn't earn this.

You didn't spend every birthday from your first to your twelfth at dodgy folk festivals learning to unicycle. You didn't learn to swim in the weir behind the beer tent. (Swimming was mildly discouraged in later years because agricultural run-off was turning the kids' skin an interesting shade of purple.) Your childhood games did not include Jump The Cowpat or Guy-Rope-Skipping. Your formative moments did not involve doughnuts with your dad, spliffs with your sister and face-painting sessions with your mum. Your tentative first kisses were not enjoyed in stolen moments at the back of the marquee while folk-reggae-punk bands shouted about the poll tax. You weren't taught to juggle by a closeted queer who allowed himself one day a year to dress up in a full drag (with welly boots).

You didn't go straight from picking up your GCSE results to hop on a train to the Reading Festival. You didn't survive four days in a tent full of mentally ill sixteen year olds with nothing to eat but chocolate brownies and the nearest portaloo half an hour's walk away. YOU HAVE NEVER WAZZED IN A TWO LITRE COKE BOTTLE WITH THE TOP CUT OFF.

All of this is summed up by the unimaginable stupidity that is designer fucking wellies. Nothing in this life makes me more furious than the idea that people will spend the best part of £100 - ONE HUNDRED POUNDS - on an item of rubber footwear that is to all intents and purposes identical to a pair they could get down the local pound shop.* Yeah, this is the conundrum of all designer clothing, but the preposterous nature of it is thrown into sharp relief when we're talking wellies: I mean, wellies, they're the least attractive and most functional item of apparel imaginable. They provide a barrier between your feet and the wet ground. It is impossible to make a wellington boot flattering or attractive, nor is it desirable, and sticking a Hunter logo and a laughable price tag on them does not change this fact.

* Actually, two things annoy me more: Cristiano Ronaldo and the patriarchy.

Which is completely irrational, of course: demanding some kind of entrance criteria based on how peculiar your parents were would be somewhat counter-productive to this vague festival spirit I'm trying to conjure up. (Headline in The Independent today: "My parents had no idea of the damage their hippie values did to me." Oh, honey, you and me both.)

What vexes me is more that festivals used to be a safe haven for people like me. You spend all year being the outsider, with everyone thinking you're peculiar for your music and your food and your politics and the fact that you can't go on the school trip because your parents are taking you to a protest against a motorway being built over Twyford Down, and for one glorious weekend in a year, you're not the outsider. The outsiders create their own inside. You wear your funny little tie-dyed frock and spray-paint your hair green and dance to the music that's been playing since you were born. For four precious days, no one is giving you the side-eye for being weird, because everyone around you is far, far weirder.

So, I suppose, now that everyone else has got in on the act, it feels like everyone who ever picked on me in schoool (waaaaahh, MUMMY) has invaded my safe place. But it might just be that I had to get the tube home on Saturday night with a load of mud bespattered, hot panted, Hunter wellied dickheads who were under the impression that any event held in Hyde Park can be dignified by the holy name of Festival.

Monday, 9 July 2012

A tale of two films / a tale of two wars: Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Continuing with the history theme, I thought I'd leave sticky subjects alone for a bit and turn to a nice, uncontentious area, which will definitely not piss anyone off: the Irish Civil War. Yeah, that'll do it.

Please note I have tried to make this as accessible as possible to people who are not as geekily fascinated with this period as I am. Unfortunately I'm really bad at judging where the line between 'giving enough background information' and 'just being really patronising' is, so forgive me if I've gone too far either way. Feedback super-welcome!

Michael Collins gives us the story of the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War from the point of view of its eponymous hero. It's centred on Dublin, the Dáil, the centres of power. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in an unnamed Cork town and tells the same story from a different side: Damien and Teddy, two brothers in the IRA, who split over whether to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which established the Irish Free State, partitioned the country - leaving Northern Ireland part of the UK - and required the Irish government to swear allegiance to the British crown), and over what kind of society should follow independence: over collectivisation of industry and agriculture, redistribution of wealth, "all that radical shit" as Teddy, the more conservative brother, so succinctly puts it.

Michael Collins isn't ideologically simplistic as much as its vision is limited, dealing only with the nationalist aspect of the struggle. TWTSTB has a wider scope, analysing not only the question of 1. How to get the British out, but also 2. What kind of society do we build then? Not forgetting 3. How do we achieve 1. without compromising 2. This is encapsulated in a scene in a Dáil Court, arbitrating a dispute between an elderly woman and a wealthy businessman to whom she owes money. The court decrees that he is charging an extortionate amount of interest and orders him to pay her compensation. But the money he gives to the IRA is essential to financing the war effort, and so Teddy reaches a handshake agreement with him in the pub. He's undermined the authority of the fledgling court, sided with the rich over the destitute - but without the landowners' money, how can they get the chance to establish this free, socialist Ireland? The film doesn't answer these questions, but it does show you the scope of the problem. "It's one thing to know what you are against," Dan The Union Man says, "quite another to know what you are fighting for."

Michael Collins espouses the Great Man theory of history: it resolves all the complex political and military and philosophical debates of the period into three men, and suggests that history can turn on their whims; a well-timed action, a polished speech. There are some wonderful lines in TWTSTB too ("If we accept this treaty, all that will change is the accents of the powerful and the colour of the flag"), but the characters choke on them, stumble over the words. Collins was one of the greatest orators of modern times: these are just ordinary people, unused to rhetoric and speechifying but trying desperately to express ideas that are vitally important to them.

Being a biopic, and so almost contractually obliged to stray a little into hagiography, Michael Collins pitches its hero as an open, honest man, thwarted only by tricksy De Valera and his canny political conniving. De Valera is all about grand gestures, propaganda, "the great heroic ethic of failure"; Collins is just into getting stuff done. Collins is played by big handsome swashbuckling Liam Neeson; De Valera is played by Severus Snape, evilly stroking a sinister cat spinning bicycle wheels while outlining his latest dastardly plan. (Skip to 1.34. Seriously. EVIL.) It's shorthand, a quick way of telling the audience that Collins is Good and De Valera is Sinister. Because a ten minute scene discussing The Issues At Stake would be boring, and lose the audience? Except that TWTSTB is the second-highest grossing independent Irish film ever made, so I guess I'm not the only one into films-as-history-lessons.

After Damien executes Chris Reilly for giving information to the British, he breaks the news to Reilly's mother. She tells him that she never wants to see him again. This is echoed in the last scene: after his brother's execution Teddy brings Damien's last letter and his St Christopher's medal to Sinéad, who pummels him helplessly with her fists, orders him off her land, and says that she never wants to see him again. This is not a film which patronises women: it shows Sinéad and other members of the Cumann na mBa (the women's auxiliary group) actively participating in the wars, delivering messages and weapons, presiding over the Dáil Court. But this repeated line, and Sinéad's furious, desolate wails, demonstrate the powerlessness of women whose lives are battered by men's wars.

By the end, our two heroes have both undergone transformations, turned by the times into men they never expected to become. Collins is weary, sickened by the violence and losing hope of ever getting to marry his fiancée and enjoy the Ireland he's fought so hard for. Damien is calm on his last night before execution, almost exultant; in a letter to his lover he says that he now knows what he is fighting for and draws strength from this knowledge. His face is blank, an emotionless mask of complete ideological certainty. Rewatching the film last night I realised its message is not as straightforward as it first seems: although politically it comes down on the anti-Treaty side, and in favour of the social revolution proposed by Damien and Sinéad, it doesn't shrink from showing us what such unbending conviction does to a person. Damien looks barely human that night, a Lucifer demanding a new heaven and a new earth. It's only the morning after that he falls back to earth, fighting back tears as his brother gives the order for his execution.

They are both spectacularly good films. It's only because I've watched them back to back that what I see as the deficiencies of Michael Collins are at the forefront of my mind - and not everyone would agree that a fictionalised lecture on class politics makes for good entertainment. But I admire TWTSTB for being a film that doesn't give you easy answers, that combines complex political questions with lush visions of a bleak landscape, that makes you root for both the hero and his antagonist even after they've both become exactly what they most despise. And both of them leaving you bubbling over with questions, not satisfied that you now know all the answers, which is exactly what a historical film should do.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Fuck you, Abraham Lincoln: the American Civil War and political storytelling

Name me one war in history that was fought for entirely moral reasons.

Coming up short? I'm not surprised. They don't exist. Call me a Marxist throwback if you will, but I'll bet you good money that for any conflict you can name, once you peel away the layers of ideology and religion and moral crusadery, you'll find the hard kernel of money and power. Which isn't as depressing as it sounds: people, as individuals or communities, can do unambiguously good things, even go to war for good reasons (the International Brigades being a lovely example - go on, treat yourself to this song); states exist solely to propagate themselves, and so can't.

None of which is particularly ground-breaking news. Except when you're talking about the American Civil War.

Even bright, well-informed, historically-literate people, when asked what that war was about, will answer, "freeing the slaves?".

Luckily, I am rereading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, so I have a whole load of facts to lay on you:

"Me? Give a shit about slaves? You're so funny"
1. The South had been clashing with the North over various economic policy issues - the North was pushing for laissez-faire economics internally, high tarriffs internationally, and a federal bank - for a good long while before Lincoln was elected. Lincoln being the poster boy for these initiatives, they took his inauguration as a sign that the end of their days was nigh, and so seven states seceded from the Union.

2. At this time, Lincoln was saying fun stuff like "I have no purpose ... to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Woah: stirring abolutionist words, am I right? Another choice quote: "I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white man".

3. The federal government's opening of hostilities was not, therefore, anything to do with slavery: it was to do with keeping its power; indeed, with maintaining its own existence.

4. White people in the North weren't less racist than their Southern counterparts: they found a million and one ways to oppress, exploit, and generally fuck over black people. It's just that enslaving black people wasn't profitable to them: while an agricultural economy thrives on forcible free labour, the burgeoning industry in the North needed a flexible workforce which could be hired and fired at will, and which you weren't obliged to feed even if you had no use for them this week. It wasn't that the majority of people, or their elites, found slavery abhorrent; they just had no use for it.

I mean, come on: the idea of a state going to war out of the goodness of its heart to right an injustice? Seriously? We're not that naive.

I think why this argument is so contentious is because of its hijacking by big old racists, nostalgic for the days of mint juleps and cotton plantations and owning people as commodities. They argue that the South went to war not to maintain slavery, but to defend states' rights. Which they did: they were defending states' right to maintain slavery.

My argument is not about the motives of the South: I think that one's been pretty comprehensively settled. (One word: slavery.) It's about the motives of the North. Just because one party in a conflict is fighting for one thing, it doesn't automatically follow that the other party is fighting against it: they can be fighting for a dozen other reasons, many of which I outlined above, and none of which are as laudable as 'ending a 350 year crime against humanity'.

It's easy to see why this narrative became dominant. It's no less true for being a truism that history is written by the victors: and what victor doesn't want to imagine herself as a moral crusader, on the side of all that is good and pure and marching with the beat of progress? It makes for a better story than 'we wanted to establish a federal bank and some people got a bit pissed off about that'. (Similarly, Britain fucking loves celebrating the fact that it OUTLAWED THE SLAVE TRADE!!1, neatly sidestepping the fact that this only had such a major impact because Britain had dominated the slave trade for several decades beforehand.)

History is about telling stories. Which part your emphasise, who's story you tell, depends on your ideological position. The left loves a good martyr-strewn story of failure - the Spanish Civil War will always be more romantic than World War II - and sometimes it seems that our victories are so scarce that we'll grasp at any straw, however tenuous. And so Lincoln is beatified as a slave-freeing, anti-racist hero, with his pragmatic motives and really quite racist beliefs glossed over because they don't fit the narrative.

But there's no point in telling that story. It's not true, and it doesn't help us. Seek out the real story, and tell it: the stories of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, the Underground Railroad and the countless people who campaigned to reveal the true horrors of slavery to the nation, and who truly brought it to its end. The real story might be messier, but its morals, and its truth, shine clear.