The new curriculum is neo-imperialist bullshit, well done Anna for showing how.
[Non-explicit discussion of rape to follow]
Why are we always talking about rape? By we, I mean feminists. It’s a question that has been floating around in my mind for a while now, and when a friend aired the same question to me yesterday, I felt kind of relieved. Obviously rape is something we should talk about and the fight against rape culture is incredibly important. But why is it that by far the majority of feminist talks, discussions and articles I come across are about rape? My friend was commenting on this in relation to the emails we receive from our student union’s Women’s Officer. She does a fantastic job, and I’m not saying this is a fault on her part, but all these emails have something about rape in them. This is something I’ve noticed elsewhere – at the end of last summer, when I’d been working on this blog a lot and reading a lot of feminist blogs as research, I felt kind of weary. It got a bit much, reading article after article about rape and sexual violence all the time. Leaving aside the fact that some people are surprisingly slapdash about trigger warnings, aren’t there are other things we might discuss?
Once again, I don’t want to suggest that there are ‘more important’ things to be discussing, nor am I suggesting we should shy away from these things just because they make us uncomfortable. However, I see so many people getting ground down by the constant discussion of the same topics. There’s no getting away from it: as a woman, talking about rape all the time makes you feel pretty fucking helpless. If you are only ever talking about women who are victims, then it becomes hard to see the light.
There is also the fact that it becomes very easy to be drawn into the same arguments over and over again. I’ve written before about how I think SlutWalk doesn’t challenge the discourse surrounding women’s clothing and the way we think of rape and sexual violence enough. I feel like something similar can happen with other discussions of rape: when that’s what you talk about constantly, and you are coming up against the same attitudes constantly, it can be difficult to examine your own assumptions.
It can also be difficult to see how you can make any difference. Rape culture is endemic, and every woman comes up against it at some point. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when so much discourse is focused on this. But rape, like everything else, is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a product of a culture that doesn’t respect women. And we can all do something about that. Geek Feminism is one of my favourite feminist blogs, because it addresses prejudice in a subculture that is often very misogynistic in a very proactive way. Sample post: How do you look for jobs in an industry known for its bias against women? that does not just point out that bias against women, but offers some practical tips for dealing with it. At the risk of repeating myself, again, I don’t want to suggest that discussion of rape isn’t helpful, or can’t be proactive. It’s just that too much of it has the (entirely inadvertent) effect of making women feel they don’t have agency.
I’d really like to know what you all think about this. I haven’t thought this through particularly well – it’s just an impression I’ve had of late. If anyone’s got anything to say to it, leave your comments below.
I realise no one’s particularly going to give a shit about this, but I do have some followers, so you know. Basically, I realise I’ve been incredibly slapdash about updating of late. Given that I’m doing my finals, which involves a shit-ton of essay-writing, I usually can’t face doing more writing in what little spare time I have. But I also haven’t abandoned this blog. For the next little while, updates will probably be more like once a month, as that’s the pattern I seem to have fallen into. Don’t worry folks – I’m sure my looming unemployment once I’ve graduated will allow for plenty of angry blogging. xoxo
One of my early blog posts was about gendered marketing of books for adults. It makes me despair. But not nearly as much as gendered marketing of books for children. I work in a bookshop during my holidays from uni, and it’s a lovely job. But every year when I go back, there will be some incident in the kids section which makes me a bit depressed. This is (roughly) a conversation I had with a customer the other day. Variations on this happen all the time:
Me: Hi, can I help you there at all?
Customer: I’m looking for a present for a little girl, she’s about ten, but she’s very good at reading. Is there anything you’d suggest?
Me: Well there’s the Artemis Fowl series - it’s about a 12 year-old millionaire who discovers that fairies are real, but they’re not friendly and sparkly, it’s very exciting, there’s lots of action. I loved them at that age. Or there’s Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. A girl finds out that characters can come out of books… again, quite exciting.
Customer: Hm, well the thing is, she’s a very girly girl, I’m not sure she’d like those… [picks up a book about horses by Cornelia Funke] – this might be more the sort of thing, that looks perfect, thank you for your help.
Some people wouldn’t see a problem here. If this little girl is into pink and fluffy, then buy her pink and fluffy things. But why assume, just because she’s “girly” that she wouldn’t also be interested in adventure? I never even said adventure – I said the books were exciting. But girls don’t like excitement, apparently.
This is something I think has changed even since I was a child – so, in the past ten to fifteen years. If I look at the books I had at that age, none of them seem particularly aimed at one gender or the other. Even the Jacqueline Wilson books, which are very female-oriented, have brightly-coloured cartoon covers. Books “for girls” published now are very heavy on pink glitter and shiny bits. There are more and more storybooks “for girls” or “for boys“. Even sticker books are strictly divided on gender lines.
I’m not looking to deny that girls and boys are drawn to different things, whatever the cause. I’ve heard the same stories as everyone about parents who have sworn they’ll only buy gender-neutral toys, and end up caving into their boys’ demands for guns. However, I am sceptical about how biologically ingrained people insist these preferences are. I know about that study with the monkeys and the dolls, but boys asking for guns will have seen them on TV, and seen boys playing with them. And more adults buy into these distinctions more than they realise. When I worked in a shoe shop, I would see parents shouting at their toddling sons for picking up the girls’ shoes. These children were too young to understand, and almost certainly picked up the shoes because they were covered in shiny sequins. And they were told that this was bad. I wonder if their parents will insist that those boys’ preference for “boys things” is something they were born with? And what about girls and boys who don’t like these typical things? It is near impossible to buy clothing for girls that doesn’t have pink on it somewhere. I hated the colour pink when I was a child, but that didn’t mean I wanted to wear boys’ clothes.
This gender stereotyping is everywhere, but I find it particularly depressing when it extends to books. Books shape a child’s imagination, show them what’s possible or tell them about something fabulously impossible, teach them about what people are like. If that bright girl who’s very good at reading is only given books which don’t have any real excitement or adventure in them, how exciting and adventurous will she be when she grows up?
Thankfully, there is some hope. The old adage that girls will read books with male protagonists, but boys won’t read books with female protagonists, has been challenged by perhaps the two most successful series for teenagers to emerge in the past few years. The first, surprisingly, is Twilight. Much as I am not a fan of the Twilight model for gender relations, these novels designed to appeal to specifically female fantasies are actually read by a lot of boys. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but when I worked weekends at the bookshop during my A-Levels, it wasn’t uncommon for furtive teenage boys to come to the counter with Twilight books. The second is the Hunger Games. When these first started appearing on the shelves, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the main character was female, because you wouldn’t know it from the cover. No pink or glitter to be seen – these look like any other young adult action series. Even better, Katniss Everdeen is a much more active and resourceful role model than Bella Swan.
I’ll leave the final word to a little girl named Riley. She’s not talking about books, but I reckon she’s got it down.
Anyone got any more examples of super-gendered marketing? Stories about the way kids have reacted to it? Am I right in thinking this level of division is a recent thing?
- Gendered books in children’s literature (didyoueverstoptothink.wordpress.com) – this is fantastic, really good look at how book covers shape our preconceptions
- Swedish toy catalogue goes gender neutral (The Telegraph) <3 Sweden
- Holiday Gift Guide for Girls (blog-aauw.org) – I want a child just so I can buy them Sometimes the Spoon Runs away with Another Spoon
- Presents of mind (beamagazine.wordpress.com) – another gender neutral Christmas gift guide
Last week I went to see some student theatre. For the first time in a very long time, it actually made me think. I saw For Colored Girls (who have considered suicide when the rainbow is Enuf) in Queens’ College. This is a piece of experimental theatre made up of 20 poems which together form a “choreopoem”. It has a cast of seven women of colour, identified by the colours they wear – yellow, blue, red and so on. It was a fantastic production – this review says everything I’d want to on that front – and that’s all I usually look for in a play. But this had a lot more behind it. It’s rare enough that you see an all-black and/or all-female cast on any stage in this country, and this was the first time it has happened in the history of Cambridge University. I think a lot about the aspects of my identity that mean that I am discriminated against: my gender and my sexual orientation. Although I try to be aware of aspects of my identity that make me privileged – my ethnicity and class – rarely are those considerations brought home to me as powerfully as they were by this production. And I think that’s important.
I go to the theatre a lot in Cambridge, and I’m pretty familiar with the scene here. Like every other scene in Cambridge, it’s fairly insular, and you see the same people over and over again. So when I heard about this play, quite frankly I was surprised that the director, Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan, even managed to find a cast. Oxbridge is not exactly great regarding representation of ethnic minorities, and from what I’ve seen, the visibility of Cambridge’s BME students is even less within those cliquey groups that assume the kind of social and cultural capital that comes from a white middle-class upbringing. Theatre is one of the best examples.
A lot of people who are very talented and creative are simply too intimidated by the ADC (the student-run theatre that puts on most of the high-profile student productions in Cambridge) to ever try to get involved. Credit goes to Robyn Taylor, who kindly looked over this article for me before publication, for pointing out that it’s not just a question of intimidation either. If no one’s providing the right opportunities – plays that might speak to people outside that middle-class London bubble – then people from different backgrounds just won’t be interested. Given that Oxbridge graduates still dominate professional theatre in the UK, that people don’t want or don’t feel able to take part has a real impact on the cultural life of this country as a whole. I can think of two black actors who I might see regularly at the ADC, and no directors or producers. I may be missing some people out, and I’d be happy to be corrected, but from the point of view of this regular theatre-goer, Cambridge student drama is pretty damn white.
I am also reminded of something someone said to me a couple of weeks ago when we were talking about the general problem of exclusivity at the ADC. He pointed out that the directors who put on most of the productions there like to cast women in the lead roles who are pretty in a certain way (read: thin, white) and who are good, but don’t detract from the male leads. I don’t want to denigrate the talent of any female actors in Cambridge, but I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched this cast who were all explosive and funny and riveting and not pretty in that “certain way” that they were not the kind of women who are favoured by those directors. They were also incredible to watch, and performed with a kind of confidence and tenacity that I would like to see more of.
I had two very strong, contradictory feelings when watching this play. The first was surprise at how much more I identified with this than theatre which comes from a male point of view. It showed me how little the ways I think and feel as a women are represented onstage. For Colored Girls presents the way women experience the world – love, friendship, violence, hate. To see something that made me think yes, I know exactly what she means – that was kind of glorious.
The second feeling was, rightly, a sense of unfamiliarity that was almost disconcerting. Coming from my middle-class, liberal, arty Home Counties background, I am comfortable with the theatre. I know that I can talk about it and engage with it in a way that is exclusive, dependent on people having the same cultural reference points as me. This play does not pander to those cultural reference points. Both in the material and the form, it shook me out of my comfortable expectations of what I will see when I go to the theatre. It made me think about my white privilege – about how the mainstream of this specific artform usually caters to me, and about how, more broadly, society supports me because of the colour of my skin. This is, as I said, something I’ve thought about, but not something I’ve felt in such a fundamental way before.
The arts are supposed to challenge and innovate – you can only be really creative if you’re working with and against what went before. Seeing this production made me realise how so much of what I consume doesn’t challenge anything, but perpetuates the same, boring cultural attitudes. All I can say is well done to everyone involved – and I can only hope that it shook some other people in the audience as it shook me.
UPDATE: Justina has written an article for Varsity about why she decided to stage the production. Interestingly, she originally pitched the idea to the ADC and they turned it down. Bet they must be kicking themselves, as it was one of the most talked-about productions this term.
P.S. Very annoyed at myself for being so shit at updating recently – hopefully there won’t be such a lapse before the next post.
Don’t have the energy to write a proper post this week (first world problems), so thought I’d just give a rundown of a few things I’ve noticed recently, and you can imagine for yourselves the wonderful, insightful articles I could have written about any of them.
- A man at a party who said he’d always wanted to go out with a girl like me “with big black glasses and a brain.” Was curious as to who these women without brains are that man usually dates, and wondered if they need medical attention for lacking a major organ.
- Lovely bit of casual ‘uni lad’ sexism over at student paper The Tab, as in this video one man asked what two luxuries he would take to a desert island says “Porn and fanny” (perhaps the women who function without a brain also have the ability to detach their vaginas), and another says “A condom and a knife” so he could get a girl pregnant.
- More from The Tab, in the comments on this article about sexism. Includes the gems “What a whiner” from ‘Gender Realist’, “Melodramatic quasi-feminists” and my favourite, as it is oh-so straight to the point “Nag nag nag go away wench.”
- When a counsellor this week asked me about my family, starting with my mother who, in the counsellor’s notes “is a circle because she’s a woman”, men being squares.
- Getting the balance right between being self-critical about a movement you are part of, and fostering infighting, in relation to Caitlin Moran’s “I don’t give a shit” comment about representation of women of colour in Lena Dunham’s Girls, and a bit of hoo-ha about allies over at an LGBT blog I read.
- Sexism in academia and higher education, as I find out that in my college, most of the new philosophy students are women, while in my year they are all men. The philosophy students I have spoken to think is down to the fact that interviewing used to be done by a man who asked very confrontational questions and laughed in the faces of prospective students, whereas it is now done by a female director of studies.
So there you go. And because this is the internet, as a bonus here is a picture of a guinea pig pretending to be a baked potato. Unsuccessfully. They are really stupid creatures. Bye for now, and I promise something better next week.
Eye-opening, especially as regards the way the system is set up in this country to make things more difficult to get an abortion.
I am taking a week off from being serious. I thought about what I wanted to write – thought about awful misogynistic Freshers’ Week trends in the news today, Julia Gillard’s incredible lambasting of the leader of the opposition in Australia*, David Cameron thoughtlessly reminding me of his continued existence with more fatuous rubbish at his party conference – and I thought, do you know what? for once I’d like to write about something fun. So I’m going to talk about my two favourite TV shows at the moment: The Great British Bake Off and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
These shows don’t seem to have much in common, apart from the fact they’re both competitions. The Great British Bake Off is a quest to find Britain’s best amateur baker. The contestants go through a series of increasingly elaborate and stressful challenges in order to win… a trophy knocked up out of whisks and wooden spoons by the BBC’s prop department. This is one of my favourite aspects of the show. Twelve people working fantastically hard, subjecting their creations to the steely glare of judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, all for the sheer love of it. Can’t get more British than working hard for crap prizes – a bit like a school sports day.
At stake in RuPaul’s Drag Race, on the other hand, alongside the chance to be crowned America’s next drag superstar, is a cash prize of $100,000 and a lifetime’s supply of make up. Fabulous creations and a shit ton of hard work are on display here too, but while there’s a sense of gentle camaraderie in the Bake Off tent, every bitch is out for herself on Drag Race. Both have a gloriously over the top aesthetic, but the Cath Kidston-esque Bake Off tent surrounded by squirrels and rabbits is a world away from the Barbie pink plastic of the Workroom. However, I think they share a few fundamental features that make them infinitely more watchable than most TV talent-reality bullshit.
Firstly, there’s none of the emotional blackmail sob stories that make X Factor et al so distasteful sometimes. In the first few weeks of Bake Off, we’d get little snippets about what the contestants do apart from baking, but these were all fairly mundane and non-intrusive – semi-retired Brendan enjoys playing the cello, that sort of thing. On Drag Race, the contestants will talk about their lives a bit and why they’re on the show, but charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent always come first. There’s plenty of bitching, but what can you expect when you put 13 drag queens in a room together? When contestants do reveal something about their background it means something. It was genuinely moving when stone-cold catwalk queen Raja broke down in tears talking about her wish to let all the little boys out there who feel different know it’s OK. You can’t say that for every confession clearly wangled out of someone by a bullying producer.
One of the reasons that life-story stuff is unnecessary is because neither show is dependent on audience votes. It is not a popularity contest, as the competitors are judged by people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. With Bake Off, that’s kind of how it has to be, as you can’t judge cooking remotely. But they don’t engage in the kind of artificial tension-building that the judges on Masterchef do, for example. They can be tough – Paul Hollywood especially – but they also give good advice, and don’t make people feel bad for spurious reasons. Danny thought she was definitely going out when she dropped her chocolate fondants, but instead of castigating her for it, Paul and Mary acknowledged that accidents happen in a kitchen and judged her on the ones that were intact. Entirely sensible, and non-sensationalist.
Drag Race could be done by audience votes with a tweak of format, but then I think the show would become all about the big personalities rather than the skill that’s clearly on display. Much as I loved Shangela, it was entirely right that she went home given that she can’t sew. I suspect that her lovability might have taken her further than she deserved if it hadn’t always been down to Ru to decide. Shows that encourage interaction in that way can also produce some fairly poisonous responses I can do without – just look at the disgusting homophobic remarks directed at Rylan Clark on the X Factor.
Bake Off and Drag Race are both hugely entertaining and dramatic without ever resorting to the cheap tricks that make so much TV such a bore. The programme-makers have faith that getting talented people to show what they can do in interesting ways will make people want to watch. And it does.
*By the way, if you liked that, you’ll love this video of Penny Wong, another Australian politician who knows how to put sexist arseholes in their place.
- Great British Bake Off takes the cake (guardian.co.uk)