Tags: feminism

Goth marquise

Thought for the day: on public representation and the female body

I'm not a huge fan of sport, apart from tennis, and I'm more than capable of ignoring major sporting events while they're on. I'm also not at all a fan of competitions based on nationality, because to me, it seems they encourage all the worst forms of nationalism, jingoism and stupidity. In some cases, they fan conflict and hatred. There was a discussion of the skills and physical talents needed by sprinters last night on the BBC that I found disturbing, creepy and offensive, because it bordered on racial stereotyping, this time with 'genetics' as an excuse. I am going to write to them about this.

However, my mother came to stay with us last weekend, and she does like to watch the Olympics. So, while she was here, we spent a fair amount of time doing so, particularly track and field, which are her favourites. And I noticed something.

I'm feeling better than I have in years about my body. I'm not particularly fit, I'm not fashionably thin, I'm not pretty. But for the last week or so, I've felt at home in this too-tall, not-thing-enough, not-toned enough, not-young enough (all my usual mantras) body. It *works*. My legs can run -- not fast, but they do it happily. I can bend and reach, twist, turn and shape, I can pick up things and move them and make them, and it's all good. I feel normal.

It's down to all those fantastic women who I see using their talented bodies on the television, all those runners and shot-putters, tennis players, rowers, weight lifters, swimmers, riders, boxers, discus and hammer throwers. They are tall and short, they have broad shoulders or wide hips, they are large and small, they have long legs and short legs, square faces, round ones, oval ones. They're all different. Most of them are un-made up, they show me their everyday faces. The ones who are made-up (with the exception of the gymnasts, who are the sole ones who worry me) are clearly doing so for their own reasons and amusements. They have long hair and short. They are of all races. But what they have in common is that they live openly, unashamedly (as far as I can tell) in their bodies. They aren't airbrushed or photo-shopped, dressed to 'hide figure faults' or posed for specific angles. They just are. And I'm loving it. I love all these bold, brave, talented, *real* women. They make me proud of them, of their skill and talent and courage. They make me happy to have a female body, even though mine is nowhere near as fit, as young. They make me feel that I'm normal, because variety is normal.

I want them on my screen every day, because I love this feeling. I know that in a few weeks it will be back to ideals and horrors -- perfect women and 'failed' ones who are too big, too plain, too old, not good enough. That depresses me. I want younger women than me to see the variety of other women, to see women who love who they are, women who are clearly talented and gifted and wonderful without the trailing back-stories that tv drama demands. I want us all to feel that it's all right to be us, in all our sizes and races, ages and shapes. Thank you, Ye Shiwen, Tirunesh DiBaba, Shelly-Ann Fraser Price, Jessica Ennis, Shara Proctor, Nicola Adams, Gabrielle Douglas, Sanya Richards-Ross, Nadzeya Ostapchuk, Joanna Rowsell, Zhou Lulu, and all your sister athletes. You are making the world a happier place for other women.
And I'm really looking forward to the paralympics and even more awesome women.

Skirt of the day: green silk wrap.

The "Best People": a rant

So, there's a phrase I keep hearing lately -- 'the best people'. It nearly always crops up in circumstances in which someone is defending the status quo. "We have to pay huge salaries or we won't attract the best people"; "We have to do it the way we're always done it or we'll miss out on the best people"; "If we give support to that group, we risk not supporting the best people" and so on.
The assumption underlying all of these statements is that the speaker -- usually a highly privileged man, let's be honest -- knows who these "best people" are, and others don't. The assumption is that "best people" can be quantified in terms that everyone is expected to know, but which are seldom, if ever, actually laid out anywhere. The assumption is that the system we already have is the best one, because changes to it risk losing those precious "best people".

Fair enough, you may say. It takes an expert financier, say, to recognise another expert financier. The rules and regulations and habits that have created the system have been in place for a long time, and the people who operate them have doubtless refined and reformed them, and are competent and reliable. They know what they're doing. It works, don't fix it.

Except, of course, that much of the tine, these systems *don't* work, or don't work well, or only work for some people. Except that, of course, there are many, many systems that have been in place for a long time that are demonstrably damaging and uneven and unjust. Systems like patriarchy, privilege based on race, privilege based on class, privilege based on sexuality. Except that we *don't* necessarily know who these "best people" may be, and nor do those who appoint or laud them. What we know is what the system likes us to know. What we know are the mechanisms that prop up the system and the interests -- racial, gendered, class-based, ableist and so on -- that that system upholds.

When I look around me at the "best people", this is what I see. They tend to be male. They tend to be white. They tend to come from the upper social classes. They tend to have a particular educational profile. They tend to have money and to come from families with money. They tend to be friends with a lot of other "best people". They are, in short, the very people that modern free-market capitalism, sexism and racism are all designed to privilege most. They are the oligarchs. (Yes, there are exceptions: there always are. But I'm speaking of the general here.) And every time a banker, say, or a government official speaks of the "best people" I know what they mean -- and so do they.

But the thing is, I don't know if these people really are best. I have no way of judging: I don't have material against which to compare them, by and large. What I do know is that when they are performing well in their jobs, the lives of ordinary people don't seem to benefit very much -- but when they perform badly, they get to keep their privilege, by and large, while ordinary people pay the penalties. Bankers who fail leave their positions with huge bonuses. Public sector workers who are reduced to break-down by overwork and aggressive management are forced out of work, offered pensions that average well below a living income, demonised in the press, and threatened with having those small pensions cut. And they pay tax at the normal rate. Famously, up until 1918, men who were mad, who were murderers, who were alcoholic, incapable, could vote and women, however intelligent and able, could not, here in the UK. But the law of the land held that men were the "best people" as far as the franchise was concerned. Our default images of power and ability remain male: the male politician, the male scientist, the male explorer. This week, the women's football (soccer) world champions (Japan) travelled economy class to the Olympics, while the male team from the same country, who are not considered to be particularly good, travelled first class. The reason? The men were "professionals": they were the best people, even though, in fact, they are not. In job after job, I've watched as women -- gifted, competent, brilliant women -- cluster in middle grades while men are promoted past them. As a culture, we assume that men are better: why else the annual breast-beating over school exam results and the current Tory re-working (yet again) of the exam system? Boys, we are told every year, are being beaten by girls. And this, it still seems, is not acceptable. Because culturally we are told that boys are to be the best people. The same series of lies, assumptions and obstructions underpin issues of race; block the access of people from non-white backgrounds to education and employment, to justice and opportunity. The system of "best people" has little to do with real merit. It's simply one of the many many weapons our culture uses to uphold and retain privilege for those who are already at the top, and to deter, prevent and hamper those below them from "infringing" on what is seen as their rights.

So: next time that phrase comes up, stop and think. Ask what we mean by "best". And ask why we think that.

Howard isn't funny: a rant.

So, the marquis and I have finally got around to watching The Big Bang Theory. (Yes, I know. But we have a Hong Kong film mountain to watch, you know.) On the whole, we like it. It's reasonably sharp, most of the time, and it's funny and it's pretty kind to the tribe of the fan. And on the whole, the characters are believable and appealing and engaging. I buy that Penny would go for Leonard: he's a nice guy. I get why everyone puts up with Sheldon, despite, well, Sheldon. And Raj is adorable.
But then there's Howard. Howard isn't funny. Not to me. I've met Howard too often, and, like Penny, I don't like him close to me one bit. Howard makes my skin crawl. I've been on the receiving end of that and it's vile.
It's a fine piece of writing by the script team and a wonderful piece of acting by Simon Helberg. I believe in Howard 100%. Like I said, I've met him.
The writers get that he's creepy. I get that. His friends get it, too. And yet, and yet...
There's an episode in season two -- no. 12, 'The Killer Robot Instability' -- that crystallised for me how and why I'm uncomfortable with the character. Collapse )
In the extras on the dvd for that season, the writers talk about that episode, and how important it is, because we get to see that Howard is vulnerable, that he has feelings. In principle, I have no problem with that. I understand. I know that the creepy behaviour is a cover for deep insecurity and loneliness and anxiety. I really do understand all that. I even sympathise.
The thing is, this isn't news. I don't need to see the softer side of Howard. I knew it was there already and so, I'm willing to bet, did the majority of other women out there, especially women in fandom. Because we have all -- or almost all -- been on the receiving end of that desperate persistent creepy harassment. We have all snapped. We have all been told off, because Howard has feelings, you know, you mean girl. All the writers of that episode have done is reaffirm a daily fact of female life and female socialisation. It's our job to keep the menfolk happy by tending to their feelings. It's our job not to hurt them. It's our job to put up with all kinds of behaviour, because they only do it because they're sad/lonely/misunderstood. Penny doesn't need to learn about Howard's feelings, whatever the writers think. She knows. Of course she knows. She was brought up to know. But the writers -- who are male, and who on the whole do a fine job with the show -- have let Penny and the female audience down badly here. Because this episode is back-to-front. It's not Penny who needs to learn, it's Howard and his friends.
Howard manifests a common belief amongst some men -- that they are somehow owed access to women, that they have a right to it and that they can express this by pestering and harassing and bullying until some woman some day just has enough and gives in. It's clear that some people find watching this behaviour in a sitcom funny. I don't. It makes me cringe. When Penny finally snapped, I cheered, because I hoped that the writers were going to come through for me, and have Howard learn that women are people, not objects. I wanted him to look at himself and really think about it -- and apologise to Penny. And I wanted his friends (well, Leonard and Raj, anyway, Sheldon doesn't do people) to back her up in discouraging his standard behaviour. But the episode let me down, because it was all about man-angst.
It's not just that I'm mean and man-hating. I really do feel sorry for Howard in a lot of ways. But I'm not responsible for him and men like him. And I'm tired of living in a world in which I and other women have to be. I'm tired of having to endure harassment because I might hurt a man's feelings if I object. And I'm tired of the media reinforcing that attitude.
There's been an ongoing debate in UK fandom over sexual harassment and one of the issues that has come up a number of times is the perceived unwillingness of some parts of male fandom to police itself. This episode of TBBT is one of the best examples I can think of of the ways in which men can collude -- even unwittingly -- in maintaining the status quo of harassment. No-one stands up to Howard and says, 'She was right, and you need to apologise and stop doing it.' Oh, they sigh and roll their eyes at how he acts, but they don't intervene, they don't try and stop it, they don't police it in any way. They think, 'Oh, that's just Howard' and don't go beyond that. In s.2, ep.12, they go so far as to think 'We need him happy: make her say sorry,' which is just plain wrong. And it could have been a great episode, it could have been a genuinely important episode, because it could have reinforced something else, which is that men can support women against harassment and that harassers can start to learn.

Update on Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani

The authorities in Iran have now arrested both Sakineh's son and her lawyer for speaking to journalist as part of their campaign to defend her and call for her release. Details are here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/19/iran-sajad-ghaderzadeh-journalists-arrests
It seems likely this is a response to the coverage given to Sakineh's case and to her son's statements about human rights in Iraq. There is a new petition here, calling for Western leaders to press for his release: http://www.gopetition.com/petition/39733/sign.html

Please at least take time to read this and, if you can, sign and/or boost the signal.

Say what?

A male commentator on Woman's Hour has just come out with a statement to the effect that the pressure on men nowadays to get fit and looks nicer -- use moisturiser etc -- is imposed by women.
Nothing to do with marketing and the saturation of the market for imposing beauty standards on women, oh no. Nothing to do with big business looking for new outlets and new sources of profit, oh no.
Just Teh Women.
I am gobsmacked. And furious. And upset.