Thursday, 20 February 2014

Gove is a feminist issue

The comedian and actor Robert Webb recently wrote an article for the New Statesman, which asked if readers could picture Ed Miliband doing something so normal as eating a pear. He concluded he couldn’t.

But if Miliband can’t come across as ‘normal’, what does this say about Michael Gove?

Let alone a pear, it is scarcely imaginable to conceive of him even eating human food. More fittingly, I can instead imagine him fulfilling his nutritious needs by munching on musty rugger shorts, old Latin textbooks and pieces of chalk late at night – his personalised King James Bible lying open beside his plate.

Politically, Michael Gove’s agenda seems to be to try to replicate across the country the kind of education he himself received. In doing so, he is surrounding himself by a team of what critics have recently labelled ‘yes men’. To me, the ‘men’ in that statement is as pivotal as what they’re saying ‘yes’ to, the politics of which I will put aside for one moment.

Michael Gove did not himself have a ‘standard’ education. He, like many of his Cabinet colleagues and advisors, attended an elite boarding school. Clearly this is about class too, but though Gove’s wasn’t, what is also true is that many of those most prominent British public schools are male only. And so almost by default in his ideological pursuit, Gove is making education and its governance an elite, male only affair. The recent and unceremonious sacking of Sally Morgan is for some a case in point.

This means the British education system, intended to serve all children in the UK, is being governed almost uniquely by representatives of less than half of the population – and that is a problem.

This is not to say that men don’t know about education, but simply that women do too. In fact, given that women still make up three-quarters of all registered teachers, it might even be fair to say that women know a bit more.

Clearly, this distinct lack of female representation is true of politics in general. Recently in Prime Minister’s Questions Ed Miliband raised the fact that women’s representation in the Conservative party is dramatically declining, not that it ever reached much of a peak.  There were no women on the frontbench to defend the Prime Minister.

Picture courtesy of @fawcettsociety

Incredibly, Miliband pointed out that there are more former pupils of Eton in David Cameron’s Cabinet than women. What this says about the wealth, gender and ultimately the world view of the current government is undeniable.

In the current political climate, not only are fewer women gaining access to the top table to make decisions about the schools they as teachers are over-represented in, but arguably this is already having a knock-on effect on what is decided  – policies that could explicitly address discrimination against women and girls, like introducing compulsory Sex and Relationships Education into schools, are being denied.

No party is perfect when it comes to the representation of women; but to claim any semblance of equality, clearly the biggest decisions affecting our country should not be made solely by member’s of an old boy’s club.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Sexism in the media! Who knew?

(Disclaimer: Ramblings of an out of practice mind, distracting self from otherwise more pressing matters. But what else is the internet for?)

Without retelling the stories of the already well covered events that happened this week in the daily grind that is, well, sexism, I’d like to make some comments away from initial thoughts that simply deplore the views ‘exposed’.

In fact, to be honest, I fail to be massively roused by these events, not because the views are not bad in and of themselves, but because the views expressed are so common place as to only elicit an exasperated sigh. There’s sexism in the media (/sport/politics)?! Really? Okay, to be honest, yes I had noticed.

In many ways, although the comments of those two Sky Sports correspondents, and that Tory MP are pretty appalling in their own individual way, at least the relatively unified outcry against these comments should in some small way offer reassurance that the general groundswell of public opinion is against sexism, right?

I guess I’m not so convinced.

I’ll focus more on the Sky Sports case to illustrate my point. This is a clear cut case of good old-fashioned sexism. Man challenges woman on her general competence at a, b, or c simply because she is a woman, which means she must by default be less good than man at a, b, or c. Being a woman is grounds enough to undermine said woman.

So far, so bad. But so, so bloody obvious.

Notwithstanding the fact that many people can't seem to decide if it's 'just banter' or not, now we’ve all (mostly) had a good hearty condemn of these blatantly wrong opinions lets just all put it to bed now. Goodbye sexism, you can fuck off back to the 1970s with racism and trade union rights.

Nah, not so fast. If we-the-nation are going to get all public-angst on sexism on television, might it be worth pointing out some examples of less clean-cut, good old-fashioned blatant sexism. You know, the boring mundane kind, you know, those old chestnuts that still happen every day, all the fucking time.

To use one obvious – and yawn, ubiquitous – example of sexism on television: the fact that women’s physical (we’ll leave metaphysical for another day) appearance is deemed to matter to such a great extent, foreshadowing and indeed precluding the value of other aspects of their humanity.

(Note: Yes, I fully appreciate that the impulses of modern capitalism and other sociological forces place narcissistic pressures on all of us, men too, but anyone who thinks women and men are treated the same in this respect need to lie down on a bed of hot waxing strips and be slapped in the face with a burst and oozing silicone breast implant, while an eight year old girl makes serious interface with the eardrum and wails that she feels fat, and Cheryl Cole stuffs glue-heavy hair extensions down your throat, and someone rolls that weird roller you can now get to daub your face - yes an actual roller for your actual face, a paint roller FOR THE FACE – all over your ticklish zones.) Stop now.

(Note: Wish I was Charlie Brooker so I could come up with some actually funny threats not just loosely veiled feminist points...)

All back on the bus. And here’s some illustrations: the fact that make-over programmes like ‘How to Look Good Naked’*, ’10 Years Younger’ exist; the fact that make-under programmes like ‘Snog Marry Avoid’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ exist; the way programmes like 'Take Me Out' encourage you to evaluate others (and yeah I'm as bad as the rest at this, I really am); the fact that female journalists have complained that they are more or less likely to get picked for on-screen reporting roles based on their appearance; ageism and double standards, not just on BBC’s Countryfile, but across the board (Brucie: making leering whimsical fun for all the family!); the statistical under-representation of women on television; the statistical under-representation of women behind the scenes of television. I could go on.

On those final two points listed, here are some statistics from the Fawcett Society just to prove I'm not bullshitting y'all:

  • Editors of news TV and radio programmes: 94% male and 6% female.
  • Presenters of news TV and radio programmes: 56% male and 44% female.
  • Editors of political TV and radio programmes: 78% male and 22% female.
  • Presenters of political TV and radio programmes: 62.5% male and 37.5% female.

    Because women are a pretty small ethnic minority, you know. (And if our great British moral arbiter the Daily Mail has taught us one thing, it's that we definitely don't listen to those). And that's before we get onto the studies that have been done on female roles in dramas and relative absence from other television formats (panel shows anyone?).

    It does not need me to say that it says something about our culture in a broader sense that there is often a correlate between the kinds of men who hold these beliefs and those that hold relative positions of power; those that have a ‘public voice’, and those that hold a monopoly on the public voice. (Do have a read of R.W Connell’s work on ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and it's relationship with power).

    To quote my own essay (yeah, I know..):
    “It is clear that who is chosen to generate and transmit popular culture, is representative of, and mediated by our wider culture. The fact that the majority of popular culture personalities afforded such a voice are men is indicative of women’s wider social value.”

    And if we’re really going to get all national outrage and challenge sexism, my god, why stop at what’s on telly? Revolution!

    * I was laughing the other day with friends because sometimes I wake up in the night with a feminist brainwave, and here was one I have no recollection of writing, what a GEM: "While Gok seeks to define your figure, we seek a day when your figure need not define you". Yes!
  • Monday, 1 November 2010

    Dear Stephen Fry

    Dear Stephen Fry,

    I appreciate you feel you have been misquoted, however, there is a point at which we must conclude the sentiments conveyed were there on some level.

    I put to you this. Might women not have sex on the same terms as men precisely because the terms are not the same?

    When women can have sex with who they want and how they want, without being shamed by labels such as 'slut', 'slag', and haunted by the inevitable whore stigma, then we might just be able to begin discussion about whether women are truly less sexual than men.

    But Stephen, I’m afraid this would mean the erasure of millenia of societal mores, codes and discourse. You’re an intelligent man, I’m sure you’ve read a bit of Foucault.

    Additionally Stephen, might one conclude that similar prohibitive social codes are precisely the reason why non-heterosexual sexuality has been effectively relegated to designated social spaces? Some might even use the word ‘segregated’. Might we not dare to dream that in a freer less heteronormative society - freedom to enjoy the sex one wants might not be confined to a park (you reference Hampstead Heath). Or is that what untrammelled sexuality looks like?

    Some of the homophobic newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph are using this as a reason to attack to you for your sexuality – what does he know about heterosexual relations, he’s gay? Indeed, even the Guardian will say, what does he know about women, he’s a man?

    For me, this side-steps another more important point: I don’t believe anyone is in any great position to make generalisations about human sexuality, whether male or female, whether L or G or B or T or Q or I. We are all quite different. In the same way it might rightfully be considered offensive to make broad statements that infer all women either don’t like sex as much as men, or indeed dislike it and use it as a bartering tool* it is as presumptious and ill-fitting to generalise that all gay men will enjoy the kind of casual sex synonymous with ‘cruising’.

    I, as a woman, would not deign to say I can therefore speak for all other women’s sexual proclivities. How could I? So how can you?

    Lots of Love, Helen

    * More analyses to follow.

    Tuesday, 7 September 2010

    Musings on Big Brother

    So Vanessa Feltz went into the house on Friday, and it got me thinking: isn't there a reason why we're meant to dislike her? I'm sure there is. Isn't there a reason for all the sniping about her? In particular about her appearance? According to her Wikipedia page she was once voted Britain's 93rd worst subject after all. What did she do? But all I can really gather is that she's a woman in the public eye who's dared to have more than one marriage, have a slightly gregarious personality and be overweight. God forbid! While I realise Feltz's relationship with her weight has been very public, I can only imagine this scrutiny would (and did) arrive at her doorstep whether or not she courted it. As such - if she is forthright about her weight "battle" - who can blame her for capitalising on it? She has little choice anyway, since it is well known that women's bodies are public property (see Ffion Hague's womb). And if making low rent TV appearances or writing low-brow columns is reason enough to be mauled by the press, then half of the 'TV personality' stock is fair game. Which middle range media personality truly has an unblemished CV? As it is, she seems like a competent presenter and interviewer, with a popular and credible BBC London show. Please fill me in if I've missed something. But to me it just looks like the usual misogynist backbiting, for which unmitigated commentary on physical appearance is the most effective power tool.

    Since Nadia left the house, reports have abounded about her being suicidal; she claims she has been unfairly edited and feels like Big Brother producers have systematically set out to discredit her personality. First of all, I don't doubt that BB producers do indeed cleverly edit the reams of footage they amass to produce something 'exciting' for the daily one hour show (which frankly, for me, hasn't been all that "ultimate" or exciting at all) - of course they do. And of course particular individuals can be made to look more or less argumentative, moody or what have you. That said, unless the producers have edited at the level of the sentence - word by word - then I don't think it's fair to deny that Nadia is a volatile person prone to antagonistic behaviour and bizarre outbursts.

    That aside, what's far more serious is the claims made by many that a lot of the discussion of Nadia, and her personal treatment, has been transphobic. I do think this is the case. From Davina's joke that she has "boyish good looks", to (resident imbecile, halfwit, overgrown child playing caricature 'pimp', of one hit fame) Coolio repeatedly asking her personal questions about her surgery, to commentators and fellow contestants generally going "urggh" at the prospect of getting physically intimate with her. When she won the show first time round, it seemed like BB audiences were doing what they actually do quite well when choosing a winner: embracing people from all kinds of backgrounds and with different histories, providing they are a 'genuine' and likeable enough character. That Nadia was transsexual was just part of the package, and people accepted her for it. On the contrary, now it seems to be used as another reason why she is labelled 'weird' and relegated as just another reality TV show freak. This is sad and disappointing and really changes the dynamic for me as a viewer, in a way that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. But perhaps the dynamic was always wrong?

    In all honesty, we do know that producers of reality TV shows like Big Brother and X Factor do toy with the kind of people commentators have argued are exploited and emotionally damaged by the process. Audiences are not without culpability though; this kind of thing is readily soaked up as just a bit of a laugh. I guess it's much the same logic as throwing tomatoes at the village idiot. I don't doubt the whole Big Brother experience does 'mess people up' - it must do, not least for those with what verge on delusions of grandeur. Whose fault is it? Well, it's partly mine, because I watch all this shit.

    Monday, 30 August 2010

    Eminem Feat. Rihanna - 'Love The Way You Lie'

    I've been meaning to write this since I saw the video for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but I suppose I haven't been confident enough to really articulate well enough what I feel about this song. So I guess I caught the boat pretty late and then floated around for a bit. What follows is in no way going to take the form of a full review – I'm not up to that. Rather, I'm going to offer some thoughts and feelings on this song/video as it appears to me.

    It's fair to say, we all know Eminem isn't a great fan of women, period. Most people know that, right? My feelings on this song are not so much that I feel shocked about the vitriol that is able to emanate from his sour little poor-me-millionaire mouth, but rather that the reception (in the UK at least, of which I am aware) has been so, well... unflinching.

    For starters, let's not mess around. This is a song about domestic violence. (In my view, it's also potentially a song about homicide, but we'll go there later). Many of the reviews I've read, even from the Guardian (which has, of late, been covering a few more stories along the lines of 'new feminism', OBJECT, etc.), were very lacklustre in their analysis of the song. There were smatterings of contentions raised that the song "glamourises violence" and so on.

    In my view this a) doesn't go nearly far enough, and b) tells us what we already know. Of course it effing glamourises violence, isn't that what it's all about?

    Some of the commentary I've read pussyfoots around whether in the video we see Megan Fox's character being hit, or whether she is 'giving as good as she gets'. Since it appears that this video unleashes a strange form of periodic blindness on it's (re)viewers, this is what I saw: she gets hit, punched, pushed, grabbed and strangled, and towards the end of the video, appears to be punched to the ground. Whether or not she offers a slap or two back, the fact remains that this video depicts violence. It just does.

    If the video didn't show it, perhaps the lyrics might have given a clue. No?

    Some have commented that Eminem's lyrics attempt to offer some elucidation of why one might commit violence against a partner. OK, sure. But it also seems to be proposed that this therefore offers some kind of mitigation, makes it OK, makes it understandable. For me, it certainly doesn't. I don't agree that any violence can be condoned, however volatile the relationship. But most of all I disagree with the idea that Eminem's lyrics condemn the act, or offer some form of apology.

    Err... If it does, towards the beginning, or in the middle, well it ends like this:

    I apologise / Even though I know it's lies / I'm tired of the games / I just want her back / I know I'm a liar / If she ever tries to fucking leave again / I'mma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.

    I'm pretty sure incitement to murder comes pretty far down the list in the relationship guide top 10 ways to apologise?

    What scares me the most is not that Eninem personally has it within him to hate women with such gusto. Whilst it's reprehensible that he has personally harmed anybody in this way, what he represents is not just one angry little man, but one angry man in a sea of millions and billions of angry men. Furthermore, he is one angry man with the ability to generate almost 70 million (as I write) hits on YouTube for a song about domestic violence, which as mentioned, proposes homocide as the "final solution to the woman question" (Dworkin, on the concept of gynocide – I apologise if this is too strident a reference).

    Furthermore, burning someone alive is surely one of the most horrendously tortuous ways to murder someone – a method used primarily against women, designed to elicit maximum suffering and show ultimate disregard for human life – a fate we know too many women do indeed suffer (for example - see Mala Sen's 'Death by Fire').

    What scares me, primarily as a woman, but also just as a human being, is that this song can be recieved so... well, that it is recieved at all.

    In the UK 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domesic violence in their lifetime, and on average 2 women per week are killed by a male partner or ex-partner. As it is, domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crime (and that is only what gets reported, it is well known that many women will not and cannot report abuse – on average a woman will be assaulted 35 times by her partner before she reports him to the police).

    I strongly believe that if any other group of people (and in this instance I refer to women as a specific group) were attacked and murdered at such a rate, there would be a national uproar, an outcry. As Refuge are quoted as saying on their website: "The cost to society – both financially and in terms of human suffering – is immeasurable".

    I'm not even going to get started, on this occasion, on the incidence of sexual violence.

    Yet, I don't hear the outcry. Don't get me wrong, I know that groups like Refuge, Women's Aid, Fawcett and many many more groups and individual women campaign tirelessly for this situation to change.

    But my point is that given what we know about violence against women in the UK, we still live in a society where a song and music video like this one can triumphantly leap to the head of the charts relatively unscathed by bad press or condemnation. To me, it feels like no-one even sees what's wrong with it, and if they do, they aren't all that bothered – which, frankly, terrifies me.

    I guess hate perpetuates hate, and I shouldn't be surprised. This is the society we live in.

    Additionally, one of the main things that worries me about this song/video is the sexuality embodied within all of it. More specifically, the message it projects about female sexuality. While the obvious thing to point out would be the sexual activity portrayed on the screen (though numerous women may attest to the known fact that women often initiate sexual engagement to placate a violent partner – I doubt this consideration would be one of Eminem's), I'm rather more interested in Rihanna's role in all of this.

    I think we all know what her lyrics are in this song. (And in my opinion, yes it does suggest that she 'asked for it' or somehow enjoys being abused).

    But getting straight to the point: what is Rihanna doing with her face? We kind of see similar things in a few music videos, but I'd say given the context this is a case in point. Vacant eyes + rubbing face, particularly faffing around suggestively with mouth = the new sexy face of mental distress.

    There's just this weird thing linking women, sex, violence and mental health. In that women in videos project a look that reads something like "I want you to have sex with me", (not, crucially, I might add, I want to have sex with you) but this is projected in such a way - that I can't really pin down - that seems to imply that this shows us something deviant, perverse, or plain ill, about the woman depicted*.

    And, although I'm hesitant to use words like "pornification" and "sexualisation" – as I hope I have more nuanced feelings on women, culture, capitalism and sex, which I can only adequately convey when I (hopefully) get to do my PhD – I think it is fair to say there are various recent trends in popular music culture that do involve a lot of sexual suggestion, flesh and, well, women.

    But that music video trend + domestic violence makes for a heady combination, I'd say.

    Particularly when we add to the mix a woman who has genuinely been a survivor of domestic abuse, playing that strange sexy victim role. While I don't want to get all 'backlash' on Rihanna (see Susan Faludi) – that is not my point – it does seem like a sad day when, for the PR-music-industry-machine-that-goes-by-the-name-of-Rihanna, her 'victimhood' is seen as something that needs to be capitalised upon. That is, something that can be packaged as sexy.

    There are so many ideas that could contribute towards understanding this mixture of women, sex and violence (isn't that the basic recipe for misogyny anyway?). There is a vast repertoire of feminist theory and a raft of feminist concepts that could explain this in more detail, but for now, I just wanted to say...

    What all this says about our society makes me feel pretty uneasy at best, terrified at worst.

    However, I'm going to go out on a slightly terrible note. The annoying thing is, this song has a bloody great beat and it's really well put together. Musically, it's pretty great. I guess it's another case of "I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one". Hating women is so damn catchy.

    * Of course, this link between women's sexuality and their mental health is age old. Just ask good old uncle Freud.

    P.S. Can I just add: "Now you get to watch her leave out the window / Guess that's why they call it window pane" is truly one of the shittest lyrics I've ever heard.

    Oh and I'm also aware that Megan Fox donated her fee to a women's refuge/charity. Good on her, but that doesn't change anything for me.

    Thursday, 26 August 2010

    An introduction

    Why did I call this blog 'tales of a bad feminist'?

    I don't, as it happens, really believe that there is such a thing as a good or bad feminist. We all have our contribution to make. There are no top trumps. Rather, this is a tongue-in-cheek response to the conversational clichés one encounters as an "out" feminist. And you know, most of the time we disguise ourselves as ordinary people.

    Typical expectations run from something like a devout nun, to the classic "not being able to have a laugh", to that old chestnut – hating men, and so on and so on (repeat to fade..). Even disavowing these clichés is itself a bloody great cliché. I've said cliché so many times it's starting to not make sense as a conglomeration of letters.

    Anyway, I'm not a cliché. At least not a fully formed one. Nor is anyone I know – apart from the feminist book groups, the knitting, and the houmous... oh wait.

    I like stand-up comedy: the naughtiest, the most offensive, and oh yes, Russell Brand. I read magazines. I have been known to watch Britain's Next Top Model, X Factor and Big Brother (too middle class to vote though). I like Beyoncé. I like 'The Time Traveller's Wife' (the book, obviously) and Cheryl Cole's face*.

    I also believe that women live in objectification like fish live in water (thanks Catherine McKinnon) and that all women are controlled by the eponymous 'whore stigma'**. I believe that the abuse of women is sanctioned by most, if not all, states in the world. I believe that the extent of violence against women is tantamount to genocide, and it's attendant misogyny tantamount to a global epidemic.

    I read some excellent feminist media analysis that said, in sum, you must know your enemy. You must know what it is that hurts you if you are to confront it. I need not feel bad for consuming misogynist media and popular culture (and by jove, such a lot of it is misogynist, this much I know), so long as I keep a critical eye***. At least that's my excuse.

    So I think it's OK to mix a bit of low-brow with your high-brow, and incidentally, to pluck your eyebrows. I enjoy many of the things I am, by definition, not meant to enjoy. I embrace being a "bad feminist".

    And, I as yet, am not lucky enough to have the privelege of living in a feminist vacuum (although my year of studying a Masters in Women's Studies came pretty close). I can only live within the confines into which I was born. As it is, I only have my false consciousness to get me to sleep at night (that's an academic joke by the way).

    *I think they call it Stockholm Syndrome.
    **More on that later!
    **And so will follow those glorious insights, hopefully. (This will most likely look like the feminist alternative to the TV Times).

    Why am I starting this now?

    Because I'm unemployed and started thinking watching Dinner Date on ITV is a good idea. But, really, not until now because I've never really thought that I had much to give the world; why would anyone give a toss about what I have to say? Well, they probably don't. But this doesn't seem to stop millions of other people giving it a go.

    That said, I will probably cry if I get a hate-comment.