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 na├»ve 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.