Friday, 3 October 2008

Manly Musings 2

The Bra-Burning issue - Teen Pregnancy

I think this topic was a bit near the knuckle for one of my male specimens...or he just forgot to get back to me...either way, I hope you'll agree that Male Specimen 1's answers more than tackle this most topical of topics.

Why do you think teenage pregnancy is more prevalent among lower socio-economic groups than with the middle classes?

First and foremost, the term “lower socioeconomic groups” is a fairly pointless way of writing “financially poorer”! By saying someone is poorer, you aren’t implying they are in anyway a lesser person than a richer person but just to be sure, pop the word financially in front and - tah dah - you’ve got yourself a less pretentious way of writing it!

On to the meat (or otherwise if you are averse to the idea of meat) of the question sandwich: why are more poor teenage girls pregnant than rich teenage girls? That’s quite a complex question that I think you could write a 100,000 word essay on so to attempt to explain those issues in a short answer would be silly but…

I think more of them are pregnant because they buy cheaper condoms, sometimes they just use old plastic carriers tightly wrapped round the genitals and also there is a rumour on many estates that Tic-Tacs are the same as the pill so they think that eating Tic-Tacs is a good form of protection!

When you hear about a girl having one or more children who is between the ages of 12 and 17, what do you think? Be honest.

For me, this question raises a few points. Firstly, grammatically I believe you meant to write "...children who ARE between the ages..."

Secondly, there is nothing wrong with having children close together for example when I was 12, my sister was 13 and my brothers were 14 and 17. That worked out fine for us and my mother didn’t have any problems, she said it was hard work but manageable!

If the mother were the young-un, I think it would be Paed-O’clock! That’s a bad time for all involved!

Do you think the way the media presents motherhood and parenting in general (particularly in tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines a la Heat, OK, Now etc) is misleading girls about the realities of having children? Is this irresponsible?

Mother of the Year awards were once won by Kerry Katona. This year the winner was Suzanne Shaw. That’s fine but the other nominees were Jordan and Heather Mills! The problem with the tabloid media is all of the crack they clearly smoke, no sensible sober person would let the filth that is Jordan, Kerry Katona or Heather Mills anywhere near their children.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Mini-Skirts cause car crashes. And in other news, the Pope's a Muslim

Mental news from Uganda - the country's ethics and integrity minister is concerned about the detrimental effects of the mini-skirt on traffic safety, so much so he's seeking a ban on the item of clothing.

My favourite quote: "If you find a naked person you begin to concentrate on the make-up of that person and yet you are driving."


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Hypocrisy Alert!

How sick is this online game created by the online degredation device Monkey Mag? Paedogeddon (see what they've done there?) players are invited to rid the world of those pesky "kiddy fiddlers". Afterwards they can "GAWP" at women in their "skimpies". Why not go the whole hog and put the women in "sexy schoolgirl" get-ups? Where do men stop being "Jack the lads" and start being perves...and does that line need a bit of reassertion? I think so. Wrong.

Regular Feature #1!

I’m sure we’re all in agreement that one of the most commonly held opinions about feminists is that we’re a miserable bunch of moaning singletons with one or more cats. As ill-informed as this undoubtedly is, I concede that I find it a bit too easy sometimes to allow the injustices of the world get me down and I don't want my blog to turn into a negative diatribe. So, I have decided to introduce a bit of light relief to the blog in the form of (drum roll please)…Manly Musing which will appear weekly.

The idea for this was borne of an impromptu mini-interview with two of my male work colleagues which I reported on the blog a while back. As well as a very interesting insight (ahem) into the consensus of feminism through a man’s eyes, their answers were undeniably humorous and elicited quite a response (proving indeed that humour and an interest in feminist issues aren’t mutually exclusive – wowzers!).

So, Male Specimens # 1 & 2 are back and will be answering my questions on something that I feel is a suitable current affairsy topic.

Please note that the views expressed are not my own but those of two men in their mid-twenties – proceed with caution and tongue firmly in cheek!

Manly Musings, Wednesday 17th September

The Bra-Burning Issue – Sarah Palin

Male Specimen # 1

Do you think that Sarah Palin, the Republican running mate of John McCain and potential Vice President of USA is a good role model for the modern woman?
I think that the work that Palin did with Monty Python was brilliant and changed
the face of comedy. Also, I loved the series Around the World in 80 Days, although I do think the BBC are milking it by still showing it on BBC World! He made the series in 1989, so I don’t think you can take his views or comments made in that programme as good for modern women as they are nearly 20-years-old. The fact that he talks about the USSR should not be taken as a slight against his knowledge on current affairs, he is very much modern and taking his 1980’s comments out of context would make him look much worse in terms of being a role model for modern women!

What do you think of her being pro-life but also pro death penalty? Is this a c
Pro life and pro death penalty? She sounds like the kind of woman that likes to give
things a try, you can’t say she’s backwards in coming forwards! I like to think she’s the kind of woman who likes a nice buffet. Would you like some chicken? Yes please. Would you like some pork? Yes please. Would you like some salad? Yes please! Give life a chance? Yep. Give death a chance? Deffo!

Realistically, she obviously is a Christian and thinks babies deserve to live and killers deserve to go to hell for some Devil-prodding, obviously mis-trial is not an option to her! I guess I can understand her point of view but I’m afraid nothing’s as straightforward as she might like to believe. Forcing a rape victim to give birth to the child is absurd, killing someone who turns out to be innocent is also disgusting!

That seems like a pretty good way of doing things to me, always up for it, whatever the

If you were American who would you vote for and why?
I would vote for Obama because I’m not an idiot! Invasion of Iraq – wrong! Creationism – wrong! Give everyone as many guns as their chubby little hands can carry – wrong!

As a sensible, logical human being, you surely can’t vote for the Republicans. But, enough being sensible, if I were American I would vote for the Republicans
because Arnie is a member and I loved Conan the Barbarian and Twins, and Kindergarten Cop is my favourite film ever!

Male Specimen # 2

Do you think that Sarah Palin, the Republican running mate of John McCain and potential

Vice President of USA is a good role model for the modern woman?
She’s a tasty piece of ass and she has a kid called Trig. You have to love her and you
definitely would!

What do you think of her being pro-life but also pro death penalty? Is this a c
They are extreme life values but if you do good you deserve good. If you do bad then
you deserve bad. She feels the ultimate crime deserves the ultimate punishment. A woman should do what they see as fit when it comes to making the choice about their future babies' lives.

If you were American who would you vote for and why?
I am so, so glad I’m not American. I would probably go with the majority and go for
Obama but I couldn’t tell you why!

The Verdict: Heads seem to be screwed on...just.

Teen Mums - from Celebrity to Reality

An interesting piece in the Observer this Sunday used the Bristol Palin pregnancy debate as an inroad to a discussion about media glorification of teen pregnancy and how this is juxtaposed by the simultaneous demonising of lower class teenage mothers. The small sea-port city of Gloucester, Massachusetts was recently subject to some unwarranted media attention when news emerged of a pregnancy pact that saw 150 teenagers receive tests in the same month. Residents of the town had complained that their girls were being labelled as red necks, their babies a “shameful consequence of a regrettable mistake”, while Bristol Palin – in the public eye, supported by a middle class family - is being heralded as a brave and responsible role model for upstanding Christian teenagers (slightly tenuous considering that whole no sex before marriage thing, but that’s another can of worms). Something doesn’t sound quite right here does it?

The furore surrounding teenage girls and their likeliness to have children early is almost always linked to their position in society and the debate inevitably becomes one of class. The anthropological (and the less so) theories as to why young girls end up having babies range from the simplistic to the tenous. Is this an evolutionary tactic of certain socio-economic groups to ensure survival/upward mobility? Is it more to do with education; or religion; or the media’s treatment of these girls and their own resignation in the face of it? Of course there can be no finite reason for the incline in teenage pregnancies in communities like Gloucester and all contributing factors should be looked at most carefully.

There is definitely a palpable absence of objective sexual education and advice in the US. George Bush’s fondness for promoting abstinence as birth control and the increasingly evangelistic religious climate have impeded on the progress of sexual health initiatives in the US to the point where teenagers are unable to obtain contraception without parental consent – undoubtedly a factor in 41% of those teenagers interviewed in Gloucester admitting to having had unprotected sex at least once in their lives.

And what of the other factor at play here? In a society dominated by media consumption and our easy access to it, what role models do teenage girls have? Increasingly, pop stars and actresses (getting younger by the minute thanks to Hollywood’s unabated thirst for nubile cash cows) represent what teenage girls think of success. Girls like Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears (sister of Britney, who isn’t exactly a beacon of hope for young mothes everywhere), Ashlee Simpson, Charlotte Church are worshipped by their fans and elevated by the media and they have all had (or are expecting) children at very young ages. Yet they have not been admonished, and instead are lauded for their achievements, paid to pose with their babies for all to see on the covers of the magazines that peddle gossip to the exact demographic most likely to fit the “teenage mum” mould – if there is such a thing.

The cult of celebrity asserts that the rich and famous can do no wrong, so having a child in pre-formative years and out of wedlock is portrayed as a blissful and welcome life choice. In the glossy world of the media (on both sides of the pond) parenting appears deceptively easy – a veritable carnival of designer baby-gros and celebrity god-parents. Sometimes you don’t even have to go to the trouble of pushing – just head for the nearest disadvantaged country and bring one home in your Louis Vuitton hand luggage. Exaggeration aside, the obvious concern is that babies are being conceived as the next designer accessory. Remember the absurdity of the famous Harry Enfield and Chums episode wherein Waynetta Slob bemoans her lack of “one of those black babies.” Not so funny when positioned alongside Madonna and her Malawian escapades. How long before Paris Hilton trades in Tinkerbell for a cuter and somewhat more Homosapien model?

As much as I enjoy American-bashing, it is intrinsically wrong (or so I’m told) and although I am loathe to admit this, the situation is little better in the UK – as this terrifying article on the Daily Mail website inadvertently illustrates. Nothing outlines the hypocrisy that’s going on here better than this piece of crap brandishing teenage mums as “silly girls” after a council house and a way out of school exams placed alongside a link to a positively glowing report of the happy stateside Spears family (complete with 17-year-old Jamie Lynn and her 3 month old daughter).

Fay Weldon, in the same vein as Carole Malone and other middle class halfwits using the tabloids as misguided moral soapboxes, dismisses sex education as a solution to this teenage pregnancy “epidemic” because she thinks it will encourage children as young as eleven to want to turn theory into practice. Hopefully this is an attitude towards teaching that won’t make it mainstream – because what’s next? Stop teaching kids about World War II in case they all join the Nazi Youth? Outlaw French to prevent mass child emigration?

Besides the fact that sterilising teenagers against their will – which is what this article seems to be seriously considering - would be a massive infringement on human rights (this point should be too obvious to warrant labouring) Weldon seems to think it’s a simple solution to this unsavoury condition; one which she says makes Britain a “disgrace among [other] nations”. Far simpler than say, providing the proper resources for children to make their own minds up armed with all the facts. To know that they had the support they needed might also be nice, but sadly what’s in store for teenage mothers in this country is a lifetime of being reminded about their mistake by hypocrites like Weldon, who think it’s acceptable to describe them as the producers of low “quality” children who are – more likely than not – destined to end up the recipient of an ASBO (if male) and another teen mum (if female).

Had Weldon bothered to do any research, she might have been surprised to find that while the propensity to have children younger is more prevalent in lower socio-economic groups (in both the US and the UK), those that do often end up achieving more than their childless counterparts. Subtext magazine published a fantastic expose of this media aggression towards teen pregnancy in which Heather Kennedy dispelled some of the myths about young mums. That teenage mothers are embarking on a downward spiral by having a child so young is a misconception (mainly of the middle classes who identify teen pregnancy with stigma and social deprivation far more than the working class do) – in actual fact many of these girls see the birth of their children as “an impetus to sort their lives out and focus on the future”.

A documentary last year following Kizzy Neal, mother at 14 years old did an excellent job of portraying a teenage girl who was struggling with motherhood, but enjoying it and getting on with her life. If only it wasn't tucked away, post-watershed on BBC3, the controversial idea that teenagers are capable of making the right decisions wouldn't be so absent from social conscience.

Similarly Elizabeth Day notes that according to Dr Mike Males, a sociologist and senior researcher at the Centre on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, teenage motherhood is seen by many as a viable social strategy. In fact, in a 2005 study, Males found that “former teenage mothers who are freed from child-raising duties by their late twenties or early thirties have, by the age of 35, 'earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their twenties to have babies'”

So Weldon’s theory of these girls being a drain on the tax-payer is slightly skewed, and who she might think is more deserving of housing and benefits than our own citizens (however old they are) remains a mystery. Seemingly giving these teens and their offspring the best start in family life is not a priority for Weldon, as apparently these children are doomed from their conception…ridiculous. Aside from being a terrible written argument (who publishes this woman’s books?) this utter tripe is exactly what’s wrong with the whole situation.

To make generalizations that paint a picture of a young mother slapping her children in supermarkets and rubbing her hands together in glee when the two of them are shipped to a grotty bedsit to scrimp on government hand outs is seriously damaging the work that groups like the YWCA is doing to a) prevent young girls having children too young and b) help those that do. Its also damaging the self esteem of the girls that end up in this predicament – its time people realised that Vicky Pollard is a very cleverly put together character spawned of a stereotype and nothing more. Headlines that draw upon this reference to justify dehumanizing vulnerable children are to be deplored.

Of course class is the major deciding factor in whether a teenage mother is celebrated for her pro-life abiding, responsible family values or taunted for her sexual promiscuity and social inferiority – this has always been the way. The fact is – an easy one to overlook – that the mothers up for debate here are children themselves, surely that’s why this is such a mess?

So, what do we do – teach our children the facts? Encourage them to aspire to great things but support them when those aspirations are interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy, and stand by them if those aspirations simply are to be a mother, as controversial as this may be? No, surely a better way of controlling the situation is to bombard teenage girls with images of their celebrity idols as the glamourous poster-children for modern motherhood, give them little information about the true facts, and – of course – carry on attacking them when they end up pregnant. But only if they’re not rich and famous – that would just be wrong.

Friday, 12 September 2008

After my own heart...

Finally I have found the online manifestation of my own internal feelings on the simpering drivel that is the Observer Woman Monthly supplement in what is an otherwise excellent newspaper.

Observer Woman Monthly Makes Me Spit (or OWMMS) is wickedly devoted to dissecting each horrendous issue of OWM with endless wit and bile.

I have long harboured hatred for this ghastly excuse for a magazine so am positively thrilled there is an outlet for my spite – good work!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

One small step for Palin, One giant step backwards for Womankind

Interest seemed to have waned of late in the impending American election. After the initial hysteria that surrounded the Clinton/Obama battle, there was a brief intermission – but it seems the issue is at the forefront of the news again and in my opinion quite rightly. Who gets put in charge of the most powerful nation on earth is a bit of a big deal, isn’t it? At times I’m not quite sure that the citizens of America (most of them having never set foot outside of the ‘Land of the Free’) understand this as well as the rest of the world, particularly those most unlucky recipients of one of their ill-advised missions of liberation/protection. I still find it difficult to fathom that an intelligent western country could appoint George W as their figurehead even once, let alone twice. This is the same incredulousness I reserve for several political topics; the lack of interest America has taken in the Zimbabwe situation considering their “humanitarian” actions in removing other tyrannical dictators; the recent Beijing Olympics effectively smoke-screening the status-quo in Tibet; Russia and Georgia…the list could go on.
As much as I’d like to believe that it couldn’t happen, there is a very real possibility that the votes could go John McCain’s way. Which is a chilling thought, even for those of us who try to wriggle out of being tarred with the Guardian-reading, left-winger, women-libber brush. A right wing, anti-fundamental human rights septuagenarian – is this the free world or the Catholic church? Fnar. Forgive me for that, but the parallels that modern day America and its disjointed population are drawing with religious tyranny in order to control the masses can’t be ignored…can they? Apparently not. Worryingly though, the American public seem to identify with this kind of mentality and furthermore, favour it. The rigid religious views of the Bible Belt (where Bush could always rely on support) are unfortunately an incorrigible influence on the tally of votes that end up swaying towards the Christian right in the US. We’re told frequently by those Americans that are desperately aware of the political landscape that “not all” Americans feel this way, that there are Bush dissenters across the pond in equal number to those over here. The media circus engulfing their supposedly democratic political system of late must have them gawping disbelievingly at their Fox News bearing TV screens then. Because let’s face it, to the outsider, these American elections are structured mainly around the frenzied propaganda facilitated by the non-objective media institutions and the dialogue of false promises. Of course, we’re talking politics and the borderline between truth and lies will always be heavily marred, but America takes this to another level. While us “civilised” Europeans like to think that we’re aware of the corruption that goes on in modern politics, the average American (or so many of us are led to believe, due to a distinct lack of evidence to the contrary) believes these exaggerations of character and intent and their voting decision is influenced by the farcical nature of the preceding chaos. So, it’s into this confusing fray that Sarah Palin – running mate to the decrepit John McCain – is thrust.

The first question I have (and there are many) is why her? There is a theory that she’s been leveraged as a paradoxical anti-Hillary, in that her gender is being used as a tactic to ensnare those voters who were voting for Clinton based only (or mainly) on her gender. There are worrying reports that a number of angered Clinton supporters have allegedly vowed not to vote for Barack Obama on principal, and indeed 1 in 5 Clinton supporters are now backing McCain. That these formerly Democratic citizens are now either intending to vote for the opposition or not vote at all (which will effectively help the opposition) is a disturbing revelation, but indeed the demographic that John McCain has his sights set on converting is suburban white women, or “soccer moms” as they are being colloquially referred to. These women were an easy pull for Clinton, but McCain has now secured a 44% (to Obama’s 38%) majority stronghold among them. Worrying stuff. Palin certainly appears your typical middle American woman – mother to five ridiculously named children; former beauty queen turned self-confessed “hockey mom” - at first glance Palin seems positively wholesome and really rather harmless. Which makes it unfortunate that this is the closest many American’s will actually look. Look a little bit further though, and some of her interests and actions are verging on reprehensible. Of course there is no doubt a Spitting Image style assassination of Sarah Palin’s past and private life going on in UK and international press (and her interesting range of hobbies and eating habits help construct an excellent charicature) so it all must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the emerging picture of Sarah “The Barracuda” Palin is inescapable when imagining what sort of an influence she may have on the political future of America.

The integrity of McCain’s vetting procedure has been thrown into question at her appointment and has already lost him a decent number of followers, although not as many as he stands to gain. For all her popularity her post as Governor of Alaska was relatively small-time in terms of political kudos and she had only met McCain once before he appointed her as running mate. Add to that the fact that she allegedly orchestrated the dismissal of Walter Monegan, Public Safety Commissoner, who had refused to sack her sister’s soon to be ex-husband and the cookie-baking housewife image is shot to…well, suffice it to say the average mother doesn’t normally find shooting Moose in the head a relaxing hobby. Then there’s the unsavoury revelations that have emerged since Palin became a very public contender to be Vice President of the United States, and the first woman to have a hope of doing so. That her daughter Bristol, seventeen and unmarried, is five months pregnant; and that her husband is a convicted drink driver are stories that have been newsreel fodder in the past week and some would say unfairly used as evidence that she’s unfit for her position. Personally I feel that politicians are as entitled to a personal life as the rest of us (no one really begrudged Bill Clinton’s did they?)but when there’s a clear discrepancy between what a potentially very powerful human being advocates in private and the image being sold to the public, things start to get a bit murky. The old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” springs uncomfortably to mind.

As a feminist, it’s difficult to stomach Palin. We should be rejoicing at the fact that for the first time in American history, a woman is in with a chance of being a Vice President. Palin’s gung-ho career woman persona should also stand in her favour, but in my opinion its already damaging to women that this particular one is in the running. Should she end up as VP of the most powerful country in the world, the implications for women are nothing less than catastrophic. Yes, she is a woman – but as Gloria Steinhem has publically stated, she is the “wrong woman” with the “wrong message”. For a start, her political agenda is absurdly outdated. Seemingly not interested in progression of any kind, Palin – in her eagerly anticipated speech at the Republican party convention – mocked Obama for his “elitism” while positioning herself as the champion of small town USA (only 20% of which have ever travelled outside the US and have any idea about what goes on there). A news item on the BBC yesterday interviewed a few of her supporters, one of whom cited her “normality” as her most appealing quality. This “normality” has to be looked at in context – if “normal” means evangelical, pro-life, pro-hunting, rifle-toting, politically inexperienced and inept – then that’s certainly what Palin appears to be – clearly the ideal choice for the American public. Of course Palin is also a member of the National Rifle Association, and her biggest political achievement thus far has been to do with that all important American currency unit…oil. Fair enough, she was only the chair of the Alaskan Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – but still, I wonder how long this interest in gas will remain a domestic concern should she become more influential? Palin has already voiced her belief that the deployment of troops to Iraq was a “task set by God.” Rather paradoxically, she also said quite recently: "individual freedom and independence is extremely important to me and that's why I'm a Republican.”

I wonder how free and independent her teenage daughter, Bristol is feeling at the moment, having been dragged into her mother’s quest for votes and paraded around as proof of her doting parent’s pro-life leanings? According to Palin, Bristol and her hockey player boyfriend had always intended to marry regardless of the pregnancy and they still intend to do so, but I can’t help wondering if Bristol’s decision would have been the same were her mother’s beliefs not being touted by the Republicans as the best thing to hit America since fried chicken. I don’t know the circumstances any further than the news reports, but if Sarah Palin – or her political manifesto – is forcing her daughter into a marriage of convenience, we have a situation that is basically defecating all over years of feminist progress – progress that has rather ironically afforded Palin the professional position she is now able and allowed to be in. Interestingly enough, Palin’s opposition to increased spend on sex education back in 2006 seems to have shifted – although technically she conveniently refuses to talk about it these days. Ultimately we’re not just talking about Pro-Choice in terms of abortion laws when the running of a country is at stake – we’re talking about the basic human right of the American people to choose what goes on in their country, in personal circumstance and public sphere. What concerns me most about the whole thing is the enduring inability of American governments to trust their citizens in making the right choice. Like Bush before her, Palin appeals to the most basic ideals of the small town citizens she claims to be one of, mollycoddling them into believing that intrinsic faults in the last administration were actually OK, or worse - some sort of religious destiny. John McCain’s election to President and the consequent appointment of Palin as his deputy – if it happens – can’t be looked at as anything other than at best misguided and at worst abhorrent.

This is a topic that I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface of and as the unfortunate occupier of a day-job, not much research has been done. What I have read has all been fascinating, so I would advise you to learn more – from far more learned folk – here:

Guardian Online

Menstrual Poetry

The Boston Herald

Associated Press

Times Online

The F Word

Thursday, 21 August 2008

All aboard the 19 bus to chaos!

Whilst on my solitary bus journey home the other day I witnessed what was perhaps the single most funny event of my whole five years in London. Catching buses to and from the west end where I work gives me about two hours reading time, so I am usually to be found as near as I can get to the back, head down and shoulders hunched (hence my posture is more Quasimodo than Darcy Bussell). At the moment, my text of choice is Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony of Survival which isn’t exactly a walk in the park for the brain cells, so on this particular day I was planning on reaching states of concentration that would render me oblivious to the other goings on of the rush hour. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be.

Around Piccadilly Circus a pair of friends sat down on the seats opposite me. Now, I’m no Nosy Parker and I truly do try to remain objective to strangers I come across in daily life but these two made it extremely difficult. I’m not the biggest fan of loud personal conversations on public transport, and I’m sure I’m not alone there. I find them intrusive and irritating, not to mention indecently difficult to tune out of. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve heard some such gossip exchange about Mel and Ed’s impending divorce or Harry and Gary’s drunken argument and as much as it shouldn’t, oftentimes this makes for a welcome alternative to the iPod or book. However, the conversation going on this time was a little too unsavoury for my liking. My travelling companions were a woman, perhaps in her late twenties and an extremely camp middle aged gentleman who was somewhat flamboyantly dressed. Before I get complaints – recognising someone is gay is not discrimination. This guy was wearing an eye-poppingly tight T Shirt, had the same haircut as Luke Goss in the 80s and obviously favoured jewellery with a sado-masochistic inspiration. It’s safe enough to assume that the man was homosexual – and I only make mention of the fact so as to inform the debate that I’ve had with myself and will have later in this post. All will become clear. Anyway, I digress. In between Piccadilly - where this vocally insalubrious couple caught the bus - and Green Park I had already heard about the man’s struggle with BO – which he insisted was “unavoidable” in the heat (not sure whether or not he’d been informed of the merits of anti-perspirant), about a friend of his whose boyfriend had just left her – “serves her f*cking right for being a fat bitch” (seriously) and about his love of Dina Carroll’s work in the early 1990s (which he was listening to on a Walkman, tape style). There was a collective weariness among the other passengers on board – including myself – at the cacophony of cheesey 90s music and bitchy ranting that was by this points reaching unbearable levels of loud. If I was praying for something to interrupt the atmosphere, what followed was not exactly what I had in mind.

At the front of the bus a rather large woman was struggling to make tracks towards the back. She was carrying some shopping and a small backpack. She finally reached where I was sitting and looked like she was heading for the back seat where there were few people. As she did so, she accidentally brushed the latterly discussed gay man's head with her rucksack and that was that - all hell broke loose. The man started hurling abuse at the her almost immediately, swearing and blinding: “she didn’t even f*cking say sorry, did you see that?”, “watch where you’re going you fat b*tch” (at this point the man’s hatred for the overweight had become a running theme, which was strange as his own body left much to be desired). Anyway, the barrage of rage continued until the last stop where the man’s friend had long ago alighted (presumably mortified) and myself, large lady and gay man shuffled off to our respective homes, or at least that was what I was intending to do. Inwardly fuming at the audacity and rudeness of the guy, my heart silently went out to the woman who, admirably, had remained completely silent and full of composure throughout. Apparently though, she was also harbouring a slight amount of rage because she suddenly lunged at the man (who was happily oblivious amongst his thoughts and Dina Carroll mixtape), pushed him with what I can only describe as superhuman strength, and said “YOU F*CKING C*NT”. Now, this is a word that shouldn’t be bandied about in civilized circles I’m sure, but by the looks of all witnesses, this was indeed the time and definitely the place. Not being a shrinking violet as I’m guessing you know is obvious by now, the man recollected himself from the force of the lunge and started up another ode to this woman’s weight and gender – to spell it out: “FAT WHORE” and “FAT C*NT” weren't two of many defamations present.

Everything eventually died down and in disbelief and minor hysterics I hurried home to regale everyone I know with this torrid tale (this was, let’s face it, the most exciting piece of action the number 19 bus route has ever been the host to). Once I’d calmed down, and reduced my boyfriend to tears with my very witty (at least in my head) dramatic re-enactment of the scene I started thinking about it seriously. I suddenly wondered if the story would have been as funny had the man in question not been gay – it almost definitely would not, and I’m sure (in an optimism about London solidarity that I’m trying to keep hold of) that someone would have intervened. This led me to question why this man’s attack on a woman was any less offensive because of his sexual orientation, because of course it shouldn’t be. Gay men and feminists have always had an uneasy bond, one which is subject to tension and debate among both communities.

In the most simplistic of senses, both gay men and women are representatives of oppressed groups in society – it is due to women’s perceived inferiority that effeminate characteristics in gay men are fixated upon and form the basis of homophobia; perceived sexual submission, sensitivity and general victim-status. “Fairy”, “Queen”, “Bitch”, “Mary” – all of these words are feminine in insinuation and are used to negatively imply homosexuality in men. Both women and gay men are positioned as a challenge the patriarchal norm so where’s the solidarity? Maybe the similar subculture status inspires a cart blanche mentality in some gay men – I am going to hazard a guess that had the perpetrator of the heinous crime (!) against this man had been a heterosexual male, the scenario would have been a lot less vicious.

This all said, we need to be careful of sweeping generalizations: this is no easy issue to tie down – there is little narrative about how gay men and feminists interact, at least online. I wonder why this is. Are we to assume that the two groups see no need for each other? Someone once told me that some gay men are indifferent to women as they have no sexual use for them. Similarly as a group not immediately involved in feminist issues, gay men are perhaps on the periphery where we are concerned. I’m not sure. Surely as co-existing groups whose end goal is the same thing – liberation – feminists and gay men should be helping each other out. I can’t help feeling that the scene I witnessed was just another day in the life of that man who may or may not use his homosexuality as an excuse to perpetrate attacks on other people. I could stake my life on the fact that this man is no stranger to the taunts of others himself, and I guess that’s what makes it so hard to fathom – no one oppression is more or less wrong than another. The oppression of women will sustain the oppression of gay men as long as ideas about homosexuality and femininity are held on to – surely this is cause for collaboration, not in-fighting?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Dangerous Jobs...Full Stop

I do feel that I am becoming more cynical the more media I consume (or perhaps the older I get) and I must admit I would like to start a post without the pre-emptive “I was concerned to find…” or “News has reached me…” but alas it’s as difficult as ever to find material in the mainstream that doesn’t facilitate stereotypical representations of women, and so I felt a certain sense of trepidation when I sat down to watch Channel 4’s Dangerous Jobs for Girls. Patronising/degrading title aside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this programme is about the empowerment of the 21st century woman; about women being just as capable as men of doing “dangerous jobs” (although I still don’t feel entirely sure that one’s ability to undergo risk should be the measure of gender equality). This is the insinuation that the makers of Dangerous Jobs.. seem to want to make. However, one would be – sadly – wrong.

The premis of the show is not unlike a myriad that have gone before it, Faking It being the one that springs most aggressively to mind. A group of women who are considered “strong” – either in the emotional, academic, or physical sense – are set the task of mastering a “dangerous” (this normally means highly physically taxing) job, which apparently is so challenging, only men folk have previously been able to handle it, or have dared to try. So far the female participants have included (among others) a champion kite surfer, an kick-boxing engineering lecturer, and a self-confessed feminist (boo, hiss), and they have been tasked with some pretty heavy workloads: running a ranch as part of a troupe of cowboys, hitting the decks of a deep sea trawler and cutting it as lumberjacks partaking in the most dangerous job of all – felling a 60 foot pine tree. This is where the purpose of the show becomes a bit unclear. Anyone with nouse can see that these are “dangerous jobs” for anyone, regardless of their gender. This TV listing on the Guardian website says it all I think:

“Technically, they're dangerous jobs for anyone without the proper training, since logging, the profession in question here, can be fatal irrespective of whether you're in possession or not of a penis. Of course, such an admission would render this thoroughly dumb programme even more redundant than it actually is, so roll your eyes, shake your head and sigh with irritation as businesswoman Tracy, soldier Anna and student Helen see if they've Got What It Takes to become lumberjills, while coping with the Canadian weather, killer trees - and sharing toilets with 30 men.”

So, we’ve established quite early on that the point the show is trying to make is null and void – so why make the distinction here that the participants are women – or “girls” to use the preferred and presumably less (insert sarcasm here) offensive terminology? Surely to throw a group of “normal” men into the same fray would produce a similar result, correct? Of course the answer has to be no, if we are discussing entertainment television. Most of the show’s content (and what I presume is considered the real entertainment value) is actually made up of the cowboys/loggers/fishermen’s chauvinist asides and the predictable assumption that if a woman can’t fulfil the role she’s been challenged to do, it’s because of her gender and not because she’s been given a mere few hours in which to master it. The editing of the show has come under fire from one of the women participants, who comments on a debate about the programme on the F Word. It confirms what I suspected to be the case – the programme isn’t about gender issues at all. In fact Laura, whose marital status was as noteworthy to the producers as her successful career which should say it all, states that while she actively spoke to women in the area in Mexico where filming took place about relevant gender topics these were wiped from the eventual broadcast.

She makes another interesting point when she says that as well as succeeding in many of the tasks set, the women worked together to achieve them. Depressingly when the programme aired however, these successes had been left on the cutting room floor and the women seemed to be pitted against each other. The element of feminine competition in the show is one that I also noticed pretty quickly. The contestants chosen fit rather neatly into two clear ilks – those that are strong and up to the challenge, or those that are weak and aren’t. It doesn’t stop there though, because god forbid we allow an audience to accept the view that a woman is entirely capable and independent. Anna, an army captain who featured in the logging episode grabbed onto the challenge with both hands and refused to let go. She was positively fearless and couldn’t understand why there was so much uncertainty about her capability to learn and perform the tasks set. Anna is also rather pretty and blonde – which no doubt presented her logger co-workers with a bit of a dilemma as irrelevant as it may seem to myself and hopefully those reading this post. Anyway, surely this is the kind of woman the show’s makers were looking for when they came up with this enlightening idea for a reality TV show? Apparently not! Clearly we’re not yet quite enlightened enough to accept a woman can a) be in the army b) learn logging and c) be attractive all without the help of a man and so – painfully – her gumption was repackaged as hot-headedness, her fervour repackaged as haste and so instead of a woman unwilling to accept the possibility of her not being up to the challenge emerged an obnoxious, ignorant and silly “girl” trying to do a “real man”’s job whilst they tutted and scolded in the background. Rather insulting for a someone who is also training for the winter olympics, no doubt. Thankfully Anna did eventually fell a tree in triumph – although I have no doubt it was only included as something that was perhaps an edit too far for the makers to get away with.

On the other hand you have participants like Laura who I mentioned earlier, and a young business woman called Tracey who appeared alongside Anna. These women seemingly embody more feminine traits – physical weakness and apparently inextricably linked emotional frailty. Clips of these women in tears couldn’t possibly attributed to the harshness of their surroundings and the mental exhaustion that must come with the intense training they are undergoing, could they? Are we to seriously believe that placed under the same strain, men would behave differently? Doesn’t matter, this possibility isn’t even imagined. Throughout, we are told that what makes these women women are the exact qualities that make them unsuitable for the particular jobs they are attempting to master, when in actual fact the socio-historical nature of the industries involved are what has made them male-dominated just as nursing and secretarial roles are associated entirely with women. I’m not sure anyone would get away with saying that a man couldn’t do these jobs without severely offending, we just accept that women have always done them (mainly because they are meagrely paid and subservient in nature).

This raises a question that I have oft been asked by feminist dissenters – do I recognise the inevitable discrepancies between male and female physicality? Do I accept that men are physically stronger than women? Yes, I do. But I’m not conceding anything by doing so and that is not what this programme proclaims to contest. We are supposed to be discussing occupational “danger”, not physical limitation. Head to head lifting weights, a man at his physical peak could surpass a woman at hers – but the jobs concerned are about more than just lifting weights, and what makes a man more suited to withstanding “danger” than a woman? In the constraints of this particular documentary series of course, this argument is as redundant as its artificial premise because we aren’t supposed to seriously believe that these women would or would want to do these jobs for a living, which begs the question “what’s the bloody point?”! Entertainment is the inescapable point – so as much as I would like to suggest that a more equal basis of debate would be to follow the proper apprenticeship of people of both genders in “dangerous jobs” that they actually wanted to pursue as a career – I won’t. The resulting experience for a man would probably be no different to that of their female colleagues – but, who would watch it and more to the point, would we accept it?

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Olympics

I haven’t posted for a while, and while I would like to say I’ve been doing something productive like, say, keeping up with current affairs, I have sadly been snowed under with the “day job”, and so the furore surrounding what’s currently occurring in Beijing has gone completely unnoticed. Until a few days ago, when a British cyclist called Nicole Cooke started making headlines. Followed shortly by swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Joanne Jackson, Cooke was the first British sportsperson to win a medal in the 2008 summer games, and a gold to boot. Adlington’s admittedly awe-inspiring victory - made all the more heart-warming by her teammate scooping the bronze - added to the media frenzy that seems to have reached fever pitch already this year, and the athletics are still weeks away. These three previously unknown women have been catapulted from the obscure ranks of female sport and into the media fray – apparently. An interesting article by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian on Tuesday hoped this was a potential new dawn of sporting journalism. The headline read “Making a splash: Sportswomen finally getting the attention [note "attention" not "recognition" being the word of choice here] they deserve.” The sentiment is nice, but the suggestion that these women are winning medals in a jovial ‘girls showing the boys how it’s done’ way is something that doesn’t sit right. Yes, it’s true that these three are the only medal winners so far and so they are the only figureheads “Team GB” have right now. I can’t help thinking that had a male swimmer swiped a gold or 14-year-old Tom Daley had performed better in his synchronised diving event, these women’s successes would have been less lauded. That’s not to say that I don’t think Britain would have recognised their achievements, I still think that they would have been elevated from podium to pedestal had men achieved something alongside them. But I think we’d be naïve to think that this has that much to do with people recognising sportswomen as the equals of their male counterparts. As Cochrane makes heavy work of, women’s sports account for a dismal percentage of coverage in almost all sports events (the Olympics is actually unique in its almost equal devotion to men and women’s events) and by all but specialist media channels. One only has to look at the sports pages of our most widely read internet sites to discover the extent of our perceived disinterest in women’s sporting events and those who participate in them. She makes mention also of the disparate tennis coverage (“leg shots” for the women, panoramic court action for the men) and pitches this enduring and somewhat subconscious misogyny against the idealistic notion of the Olympic games as an arena for equality. This is dangerous ground because while there are equal amounts of events for men and women, and they are generally covered in the same way by the media/press - the glory associated with a man's medal is still elevated above the woman's. I’m not convinced we’re looking at TV coverage that is actively attempting to make a point about sportswomen. There is a bigger societal force at work here, that of the international competition. In precisely the same way as a Liverpool supporter will cheer on a Manchester United striker if it means winning the World Cup and socking one to the Germans, these three women have been shoved onto the world stage as they are the only ones who have – as yet – got what they came for, medals. Let’s not forget that the Olympics are really about politics and international power, and with this entails a hefty measure of fakery. Its emerged that a little girl who sang for the opening ceremony was considered “not pretty enough” by the organisers and replaced with a more attractive child who mimed along instead and there’ve been other reports of people being paid to fill up any sparse looking stands. All this so China can feel better about their image whilst completely brushing the Tibet situation under the beautifully embroidered rug. Are we seriously expecting any serious feminist progress within constraints such as these? Let’s face it, international sporting events – at least those that are widely followed – inevitably perpetuate an atmosphere at best patriotic and at worst nationalistic. It’s a romantic notion to think that we are all unified under a common cause: to represent our country and be proud of its achievements but I’m not sure that’s what motivates us. Perhaps it’s the legacy of our empirical history in this country that we just care so much about beating other countries that all other more minor disputes are set aside in the pursuit of this realisation. All internal battles are temporarily pacified because there’s nothing more important than our country beating another country. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I do feel that the only time the media is (or at least attempts to be) uncharacteristically inclusive of all genders, races and religions is when we need to appear as a solidified, peaceful and above all powerful nation. This isn’t a case of survival of the fittest sportspeople – who incidentally, if the Olympic medal tally is anything to go by, are women – this is a contest between two co-existing desires to control. The desire to control women takes a backseat on this occasion, as it always will when the men are fighting it out on the global battlefield.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

I should have known better

I've had a couple of conversations with men recently that have been partly sparked by their finding out about this blog, and partly my none-so-subtle probes for material to add to said blog. What I've generally de-duced is that men in their twenties are ignorant of the relevance of most feminist issues and think feminists are in varying degrees: full of hot air, lesbians, killjoys. Men are lateral thinkers - we are told - and so is it very surprising that most of the ones I have consulted find it hard to grasp the links between various treatments of women in various arenas and subject areas? Perhaps not. Against my better judgement, I decided to send a quick interview round my office (6 women, 19 men - and I don't even work in banking) to see if I was selling them short. Hoping to be pleasantly surprised by some enlightened answers I asked three questions. 1) What do you think feminism is? 2) Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst? 3) Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
Maybe this was too much reality for a Wednesday afternoon marketing agency environment, or maybe I can't rely on my co-workers (who I sadly also consider friends) to give honest/serious answers. Despite this the responses I got were - aside from being rather creative and humourous - the best examples I could have asked for on males' perceptions of feminism and its champions. The transcripts below are the only two responses I received...perhaps their navigation away from the topic is proof of their ignorance of it? Or maybe they're just Neanderthals. Answers on a postcard.

Male Specimen 1

Q: What do you think feminism is?
A: Some sort of contraption, game or sex toy
Q: Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst?
A: As in personality or someone I know? Beckham is one. Stringfellow another. Me!
Q: Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
A: Some, yes. I have three sisters and a mother, and you so I don't have any other choice, do I?

Male Specimen 2

Q: What do you think feminism is?
A: Feminism is the belief that Cats are our all encompassing gods and they created man, then woman as an after thought! This was the belief system of the ancient Egyptians.
Q: Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst?
A: I have 2 cats but I don’t think they’re to be worshipped. Saying that, if one of my cats comes into the lounge, I let them have it and go up to my room, so I guess they are above me in social standing.
Q: Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
A: Like I said, I look up to cats, but that’s where I draw the line. The sphinx is amongst my favourite 5 ancient statues!

Words fail me.

Download a Woman: The Sun's latest bright idea

Until now I have suppressed the urge to discuss what I consider to be one of the biggest issues facing young feminists today, for fear of not being able to fully express without waffling what my problem is with it. This entity is all around us, omnipresent and all-encompassing in its reach and influence, which is why limiting myself to a few succinct paragraphs was never going to happen. It is of course...(drumroll please)...the media. Press, TV, film, music, advertising, marketing, PR – these are all components of this huge and monstrous being, one that didn't even exist not so long ago, and which is now an inextricable part of our lives, however subconsciously that may be. People I speak to about this issue are often offended at the suggestion that they are in any way controlled or influenced by the media – as if this is implying some sort of weakness or lack of intelligence on their part. This is not the case, the media is a powerful being - far be it from me to deny that. It's far more influential than any world leader: one only has to look back on George Bush’s election to the United States presidency and Fox News’ involvement in/orchestration of it to agree with me there. Similarly, when Bush wanted to whip up support for his war on Iraq, he didn’t take it upon himself to appeal to his people – the propaganda campaign incited by the media did a far more efficient job. It stands to reason therefore that if the media has enough clout to facilitate wars and elect presidents, it is capable of making mincemeat of ‘little’ issues like…oh I don’t know…body image or gender politics.

The current and enduring media obsession with female celebrities’ (delete as applicable) weight/age/dress sense/relationship status/professional validity are symptoms of and perpetuating factors in the objectification of women. Simple as that. Of course we all buy into it, this constant cycle of adulation, titillation and criticism and we’ve reached the stage where its considered acceptable for men to pick up a newspaper and look at a naked female body, and for a woman to launch a scathing attack on another woman for gaining a couple of pounds. A male friend of mine, having being on the receiving end of a rant of this nature, said to me: “I thought you were more intelligent than that.” He simply couldn’t see that a Page 3 girl is more than just a pair of tits for a man to look at. His argument was this: its harmless, it’s not hurting anyone, the girl’s making good money, it’s only a pair of tits. So who’s the dummy here? Forgive me for being concerned about the wider implications for women when a naked female is not only plastered across a national newspaper as ‘entertainment’ for men, but is ridiculed to boot with the inclusion of News in Briefs a snippet of the model's thoughts on a serious news matter, which clearly she is meant to know nothing about. Apparently this is all too subtle for men to detect. The media represents women in various ways, but this tabloid representation is the one that worries me most as its strutting around under our noses every day, and people don’t seem to realise the seriousness of the message it promotes. Regardless of a woman’s choice in what she does for a living – I’m sure most Page 3 Girls aren’t forced into the job – this stereotype of buxom, promiscuous woman with no brain, subservient to men’s whims and fantasies is very dangerous, as well articulated on The F Word. It is the infant in a family of ideas that includes more serious manifestations of female subjugation. Now it’s just a pair of tits, but its consumption nonetheless – it’s still suggesting women’s bodies are there for the consuming, available to buy (now in a paper, maybe later on a street corner) and available to consume (look at for now, but how long before men start helping themselves). Naomi Wolf's amazing The Beauty Myth best exposes this flagrant equation of women's looks with commercial worth - a woman's beauty is currency. The woman is therefore a commodity, the subject of ownership that could only be male. The natural bi-product of this kind of representation is for crimes like rape, prostitution/solicitation and general violence towards women to be perceived as less crimes because they involve women, who may be considered ‘fair game’ or ‘up for it’. I’m not sure anyone with a brain could dispute this much.

So what’s sparked this latest rant? Well, its not often I make visits to The Sun newspaper website, but something I read about yesterday compelled me. Not content with publishing images of women day after day in print, The Sun are rolling with the punches of the digital age and have come up with something that truly disturbs me: The Desktop Keeley. Apparently Keeley Hazell is the paper’s most popular “Page 3 Stunna” and as such is now the basis for a web tool so utterly degrading it makes Page 3 look like the Yellow Pages. Instead of just gawping at Keeley’s nubile form in the paper every day (which I guess is a bit impractical if you have a job to do) those who download this application can now order her about and are actually invited to “Play with [her] whenever you want”. I feel sick. The misogyny on display here is blatant and unashamed and what’s more – its already proven extremely popular. Great.This excerpt from the The Sun’s articulate sales pitch says it all really, in more than one sense of the phrase:

“Dressed [or should that be undressed?] in a stunning range of lingerie, Keeley will be at your beck and call 24/7 and comes armed with all the information you need, whether it’s celeb’s drunken antics, the latest football transfer news or the Page 3 girl of the day.”

Excellent range of interests you’ve got there, boys. I can only assume that the intended audience for this product are young to middle aged professionals who have constant access to a computer (i.e. work for a living). This is also a damning indictment on them surely? Is this really what we’re interested in as a nation? I’m sure it’s not…and I do actually have some faith in mankind. I’m not saying that men are in on this on an individual level – what I’m saying is that these attitudes are so richly embedded in every aspect of society and paraded around as if they are an acceptable norm that people start to believe what they are told. This sort of thing is NOT harmless and for those that refuse to see the damage that it could cause, let’s put it another way: whatever way you look at it, having a half naked avatar running around on your computer screen spouting out unimportant titbits (excuse the pun) about other naked/drunken women is hardly conducive to a productive working day is it? Packaging this up as a cool gadget and tailoring it to the digital market is a clever ploy –passing it off as a bit of fun for the modern man is distracting from the point and lulling the public into thinking this is OK. Like women don’t already have enough trouble in the 21st century workplace.

'Marital Coercion' - A Likely Defence?

The verdict is in for Anne Darwin, who I posted about last week. Unsurprisingly she’s been found guilty of deception, and her part in the scam to net £250,000 through fraudulent insurance claims is apparently as serious as the actual perpetrator of the crime, her husband John Darwin. While Mrs Darwin’s involvement is clear, the extent to which her defence of ‘martial coercion’ stands up is not as clear. In any case, this defence doesn’t seem to have been given any serious consideration anyway. Reports of Mr Darwin’s controlling behaviour and manipulation of his wife (despite accounts from people who know her that she is an unassuming woman of meek character) have been largely ignored as if they are the inevitable accusations of a desperate woman. For me, the jury is still out on Ann’s alleged submission to a crime which was of her husband’s design but I think we have been too quick to overlook the claims that she might have been pressured into it. Common attitudes towards marital control and domestic violence (mental and emotional as well as physical) seem to dictate that Anne would have found it easy to refuse to take part in the scam, that she would have handed her husband in. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. If, as she claims, Anne Darwin was a victim of her husband’s manipulation (the ‘marital coercion’ defence has only been used 5 times in the last 75 years so there is little in the way of precedent to draw upon) she would have found it very difficult to refuse him and would have believed herself to have no choice but to partake in the scheme. The irony for me is that the defence is not oft used because it is considered anachronistic, or ‘not appropriate to modern conditions’ (according to a request to abolish it is 1977!). People need to open their eyes. Martial coercion – in short the ability of one spouse (not necessarily the husband) to control another and influence their decision to participate in unlawful activity – exists in more ways we’d like to admit, and because its taboo and something we don’t like to admit still exists, laws that are designed to provide protection from it are being ignored, or worse destroyed. Worrying stuff.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Gok Wan - the lesser of 2 evils?

The original ugly sisters of the TV makeover Trinny and Susannah recently strayed from their What Not to Wear template and presented a program called Great British Body. The premis of the show was admirable enough – encouraging members of the public to bear all in a quest to re-educate people about body image – but I can’t help thinking it was all rather insincere, just like the show that brought them notoriety. What Not to Wear pretended to be an exercise in restoring women’s self-esteem, but I always found the tactics they employed quite odd, and their methodology misguided. It’s important for women to feel good about themselves, but forgive me if I’m wrong: having your wobbly bits groped and cinched in by two virtual strangers might not be the best way to achieve the end goal. There’s no denying the pair’s brashness and after a while, hearing them tell women they’ve got ‘great tits’ and ‘fabulous arses’ is more creepy than revolutionary. The general processes of the show was so formulaic it was always difficult to identify any individuality by the time Trinny and Susannah were finished with them. Invariably it went a little something like this: friends and family shop unwitting subject to Trinny and Susannah for crimes against fashion; Trinny and Susannah throw away/set fire to said subject’s entire wardrobe, express disgust at the state of things, force them into a multi-angled Auschwitz of a mirror to address their cellulite/post-baby bulge/love handles; subject is educated about how to dress – basically wear a belt and don’t mix black with brights; Trinny and Susannah send protégée into bustling high street to fend for themselves; protégée traipses round shops, red in the face, terrified of picking up something that might be ‘hideous’; they inevitably pick up something ‘hideous’ and Def Con One and Two in high heels sprint into the fitting rooms to wrench anything without a V neck out of the naughty pupil’s arms; crisis averted, ugly duckling emerges a swan and thank god! They are virtually unrecognisable, mission accomplished. It’s true that most of the women that go through this process do come away with a happier demeanour, but who’s to say that this couldn’t have been solved in another way? How is trussing women up in ‘miracle underwear’ and strapping a belts round their waist any different to lacing them into a corset, of which the right to not wear was ardently fought for? As with all prime time entertainment shows of this ilk, there is a strict formula to follow which I believe makes them unsuitable vehicles to truly be able to make any significant, non-insipid comment about body image and self worth.

That said, I do feel there is a scale against which the worth/harm of these shows can be measured because we have to be realistic – they’re always going to be part of TV schedules. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge women dressing up and I admit I can get a boost from making the effort with my appearance and a rather unsavoury attachment to Chanel lippy). What worries me about the increasing amount of self-improvement going on within the realms of light entertainment is the very fact it is being condensed and packaged up as just that: entertainment. These shows last at most for an hour, and you get the feeling that even if the issues they appear to dissect aren’t resolved by the closing titles, we would still be told that they were. Feelings of low self esteem and deeply rooted insecurities are not actually easily ‘fixed’ and their underlying causes, being myriad, are very difficult to correctly identify. Serious afflictions such as Body Dismorphic Disorder can’t be cured with a designer handbag or an empire line frock, and its irresponsible to package up these programs as solutions to emotional issues. It’s all fine and well to suggest we make the best of ourselves, but why is only one way to do this ever presented in the media? Advertisers have also been quick to cotton on to this – Dove promotes being happy with the body you’ve got…unless that entails having dry skin which would presumably be one step too far; Loreal reasserts that we’re ‘worth it’ – but worth what? Worth not letting our hair and make-up go to the dogs apparently. Happiness is now inextricably linked to outer perfection, and a very prescribed idea of what that is. It was only a matter of time before some producer got the bright idea of introducing cosmetic surgery to the mix. Shows like 10 Years Younger and Extreme Makeover are – in my humble opinion – at the far end (the bad end) of the aforementioned scale. The configurement of ‘beauty’ they promote is completely skewed and result in the absolute absence of any notion of individuality. At the end of these shows the (primarily middle aged) women are physically unrecognisable. Not even taking into account the effect this must have on their children, what is this telling viewers? That mutiliation of one’s body is OK, because the pursuit of perfect features, hair, teeth and nails is more important? Losing your identity is a small price to pay to look ‘good’, conforming to the established model of physical superiority is what’s important – who cares if your body mass is 80% silicon and acrylic? I despair at shows like this that brush over invasive surgery and gruelling physical strain, not to mention the jaw-dropping costs involved, in order package up the end result as a fairytale solution to the trials of getting older.

This brings me to man of the hour, androgynous former stylist and presenter a la mode: Gok Wan. If Extreme Makeover is at one end of the scale, his show would surely be at the other (with Trinny and Susannah loitering somewhere in the middle). How to Look Good Naked drew up the blueprint I think T & S were trying to replicate with Great British Body, promoting the same idea of inner happiness coming from taking pride in one’s appearance. I have to admit, Wan is a difficult one for me as he’s an intrinsically likeable character which immediately differentiates his offering from What Not to Wear. From the off, his tactics are ‘how to’ as opposed to their more fascist ‘how NOT to’, and his more gentle approach has won him fans the nation over. But is Gok Wan a co-conspirator in the plan to sell aesthetics as psychological DIY or is he doing something different? I genuinely believe that Wan takes more care than most with the raw materials he’s given – only a small proportion of the show is attributed to dressing ‘well' (whatever that means) and he does seem to genuinely believe in what he’s doing. His well publicised past weight problems as well as his homosexual status seem to lend him an air of ‘I’ve been there’ – he’s accessible and unthreatening to women and men alike…and – unusually for a TV personality – he actually seems quite, well, nice (it took a lot to write that). One feature of Wan’s show is to organise a sort of naked ‘line up’ of women against who Gok’s guest has to pit herself depending on what hang up she suffers. Where would she put herself in the order of ‘biggest thighs’, or ‘largest bum’? What could come off quite badly as judging one woman’s body against another actually serves to illuminate the woman on their unfounded insecurities as she is more often than not wildly over exaggerating her flaws.

That’s not to say I don’t have my gripes with How To Look Good Naked. At the end of the day, Wan still sends his ‘normal’ girls down a catwalk otherwise flanked with gazelle like models, and he does to a certain extent buy into cosmetic enhancement (though via the counter and not the scalpel). Let’s face it, if Wan advocated the idea that we don’t have to change ANY aesthetic, there wouldn’t be much potential for an hour long show, but ultimately I think he really does mean well. That this programme is handled sensitively is its main virtue. TV still has a way to go until the link between outer appearance and inner identity is dismantled (or at least afforded less impetus) but Gok Wan is at least heading in the right direction.

Science Bit

A study in The Independent today claims that men’s and women’s brains are more significantly different from one another than previously thought. There are now thought to be substantial differences in size in parts of the brain that control things such as spacial awareness, pain suppression, mental health and emotional memory. Scientists are claiming that this is proof that men and women behave in different ways for physiological reasons alone and that these differences have nothing to do with external social factors.
A C Grayling, professor of Philosophy says “this discovery does not affect just the difference between the sexes, but also different populations, and different ethnicities which have different propensities to illness and disease. For instance, we treat children differently from adults, so it's not surprising that we might treat Europeans differently from Asians, men differently from women.” Hmmm. Interestingly, he is the only “expert” quoted in the article who appears to not question what the study means for gender relations. The general consensus among those interviewed is that it would be short-sighted to lend too much weight to what is essentially a small study. Making conclusions about studies such as this can only serve to reinforce stereotypes, and there is no evidence to show that parts of the brain aren’t changed and manipulated through life and so may be reflect social experience. Psychologist Oliver James says: “It is pure speculation. The size of different parts of the brain can be affected by childhood experiences. For example, a woman who was sexually abused as a child has, on average, 5 per cent less mass in her hippocrampal region than a woman who was not sexually abused.” Phillip Hodson makes a good comment too: “I do not believe that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ We are all from Earth.” The age old argument of ‘Nature versus Nurture’ is again in full flow. Does social experience affect the way the brain has evolved, or are our societal codes governed by the fact that women have different physiological capabilities to men? I think this could turn into a chicken and egg debate. It would be naïve to claim that men and women do not differ in their physical make-up – they do (and interestingly enough, Spare Rib founder Rosie Boycott backs this up in the article) – but when studies like these appear to be backing up the way men and women are perceived and treated it is slightly worrying. We need to be aware that there are discrepancies between the physical make up of males and females but we should also remember that we are talking about the brain, an extremely complex organ about which we actually know next to nothing. As human beings advance and evolve more, we become better equipped to start questioning norms about why men and women behave and aren’t treated equally - ironically perhaps our brains will allow us to overlook their differences from one and other - confusing! Judi James says: “I think instead of trying to categorise differences we should celebrate diversity and people's individuality and their quirks, rather than looking at whether they are male or female. I find evidence like this tends to create stereotypes.” There can be no ‘justification’ for the inequality that has and still is being faced by women. It’s a question of opportunity not capability. Interestingly enough, and something that will no doubt fuel further scepticism

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Anne takes flack for husband's plot - why is her crime worse than his?

The story of John Darwin, who faked his own death by canoe accident only to reappear five years later is back in the news this week. Or, more precisely, his wife is. Anne Darwin, who was in on the plot to defraud several insurance providers all along, has been front page news for the past week owing to her court appearances in which she claims she was coerced into the idea by her husband. Headlines like 'Anne 'conned' sons' (The Daily Mirror, 15.07.08), 'Anne Darwin used 'guts and nerve' to fake husband's death' (The Sun, 15.07.08) have villainised her involvement. I'm not sure I really buy her defence - the fact that she upped sticks to meet him in Panama where they planned to remain after cashing in £250,000 worth of insurance policies would suggest that this isn’t as clear cut as all that. Who knows? What I do know is that the media coverage of this case – since Anne’s involvement was revealed – has largely ignored John Darwin, who it must be recognised is the main perpetrator of this crime. Somehow it is more acceptable to the public that a man would commit a fraudulent act such as this – fake his own death, put his family through misery – than it is for a woman. Anne’s status as wife and mother ensure that her crime is inexplicably more abominable than her husband’s, even though she was allegedly manipulated into going along with his scheme.

The press did the same – albeit in very different circumstances to Kate McCann after her daughter Madeleine disappeared while on holiday in July 2007. Despite both herself and her husband Gerry being officially recognised by Portuguese police as suspects in the case, it was Kate alone who bore the brunt of the media criticism. She was condemned for her ‘cold’ and ‘unemotional’ demeanour and vilified for leaving her children alone in the villa. Regardless of each of these women’s acts, the point is they were accompanied in them by their husbands, who largely escaped scrutiny (or at least the amount of scrutiny their wives were subjected to). Why is it that when a man and a woman commit the same crime, the woman’s committing of it is deemed less socially acceptable, more shocking and despicable? Yes, the woman’s status as mother is an important factor – and much has been made of Anne’s betrayal of her sons, who for almost six years were fooled into thinking their father was dead – but what about the father? The truth is, there still exists that ideal blueprint of ‘woman’ in the social consciousness: soft, gentle, motherly and ultimately weak and overly emotional. That a woman could be capable of an act that entails violence, deceit, malice or any other trait that is considered more ‘male’ is shocking and looked upon as unnatural. When a man and a woman stand accused of something side by side, they should be judged equally. Being a woman shouldn’t make you more guilty and being a man should not afford you leniency. It seems that women criminals provoke more of a reaction and sell more papers…but the bottom line is: the crimes we are talking about (those that harm a human being) are intrinsically unnatural. Someone’s gender makes this no more or no less true.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Playing with Fire

News reached me this morning of the unveiling of a new Barbie doll – S & M Barbie. OK, so that’s not the official name for her – this doll is apparently based on the DC Comics superhero, the Black Canary – but the connotations are obvious. Christian groups have already lambasted the toy – aimed at the “tween” market of girls aged 6 to 12 years old – for the message it could be sending impressionable youngsters. This doll has naturally inherited her predecessor's pneumatic figure and golden locks, but she seems to have developed a more racy sense of style, donning leathers and fishnets. The sexual allusions to sado-masochistic sub-culture are not difficult to identify. Instead of being an honest and faithful tribute doll to the Black Canary character, this is clearly Mattel’s attempt to "sex Barbie up" using any means necessary. It’s pretty low, but what should we expect from Mattel, who have been peddling this skewed representation of womankind to young girls for almost 50 years? I’m sure we’re all aware of the fact that were Barbie a real homosapien, she would be forced to move around on all fours. I guess that’s the bugger about having the perfect measurements – you have to sacrifice something, and if it’s a choice between big gazungas and mobility, pass Barbs the zimmer frame! It seems slightly ridiculous to dress a Barbie up as a superhero in light of her unfortunate handicap, especially when compared with the original DC version of the Black Canary doll, who looks like she could pack more than a serious punch and would probably beat Ken at an arm wrestle, never mind Barbie.

In all seriousness, the emergence of this new doll sadly doesn’t shock and is just the latest example of how the girls’ toy market is becoming progressively more seedy. Mattel is currently at loggerheads with rival toy manufacturer MGA whose hugely popular Bratz franchise has been outselling Barbie for some years now: the ‘Black Canary Barbie’ is clearly a retaliation. In a very amusing article in The New Yorker, entitled “Little Hotties”, Margaret Talbot notes that Barbie is now well into middle age and pitches her against the new uprising: the glamourous, youthful Bratz. It sounds like child’s play, but the implications of it are cause for concern. These new dolls are part a growing consumer culture whereby children are increasingly being sold to and their parents bypassed. Its worrying enough that this could happen in the first place but when you delve into the question of what they’re being sold, the waters are murky indeed.

Unlike Barbie, at least the Bratz dolls are actually upwardly mobile. Unfortunately that’s where any reference to reality ends. They have distinctly large heads (echoing the ‘lollipop’ trend that is currently sweeping the celebrity circuit), and over exaggerated cartoon-like features daubed in garish make-up (even Bratz Babies are heavily made up and wear their dummies as jewelled adornments - scary). They claim to be a ‘fashion doll’ like Barbie, and the dolls do come in a vast array of different manifestations: goth, ghetto-fabulous, evening formal. You name it – the Bratz have worn it. The common thread that links each of the ‘collections’ is the sexualized nature of these toys. Skirts are short, tops are cropped, heels are platformed. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in the American media. TV psychologist Dr Phil said they “look like hookers”, while the American Psychological Association (APA) established the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007), stating: “Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualisation of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4-8 year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.”

I'm not for one second suggesting that the little girls that play with these dolls are fully aware of the comment they are making about female sexuality and body image, I think selling this image of womanhood to young girls in any form is extremely irresponsible. While kids might be oblivious to the ‘sassiness’ of these play-things (as Talbot rightly points out this is simply a euphemism for ‘sexiness’), adults aren’t. I found it distinctly odd (and somewhat disturbing) when a male friend of mine joked that he was planning to see Bratz: The Movie for a bit of eye candy (however much he insisted he was joking). And this is the problem – marketing adult notions of sexuality and gender to children is plain wrong. They may not understand it, but they will grow up accepting these representations as normal. Passing the buck by reasoning that they are too young to understand these notions is downright cowardly.