Sherlock Holmes and the Man of Reason

10 Oct

I was on my way back from the library the other day when I realised something pretty crazy about everyone’s favourite detective-in-a-deerstalker and our social conception of knowledge.

So if you’re sitting comfortably, I will attempt to explain, according to my recently acquired and somewhat hazy understanding of alternative feminist epistemologies.

Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle’s and especially the current BBC incarnation of same – is the quintessential Man of Reason. He eschews emotions because emotions cloud reason. He seeks objectivity; truth; understanding. He believes he can arrive at knowledge through deduction and intuition. He has a method, and the method will always produce results providing he can adhere to it. Knowledge is of things, and these things are clear and discrete objects which exist on a plane separate from sensation and emotion. He is, also, as it happens, a man.

Sherlock sounds a lot like the kind of guy Descartes was thinking of when he outlined his philosophy exactly as I’ve just described above.

All well and good, you may be thinking. Sherlock is actually a reincarnated 17th century French philosopher. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, Benedict Cumberbatch. But here’s the thing. Descartes was one of the first – certainly not the only one, but certainly a big deal – in the reformulation of ‘reason’ as a non-feminine trait.

Wait, what? I hear you cry. Maybe you’re saying ‘but women ARE emotional and less good at reason’ (in which case, allow me to disagree wholeheartedly; go and do some hardcore reading). Maybe you’re saying ‘we can’t pin all that on poor old Descartes’ (in which case, you’re not wrong. I’m using him because his critique looks so eerily familiar). Maybe you’re saying ‘OK. Explain.’. In which case, I will.

The 17th century was a bit of a scientific turning point for the West. Up until this stage, ‘science’ wasn’t really delineated by gender, except in women’s access to learning it. If anything, it was pretty effeminate in that its biggest audience was women and many of its major funders were women (the salons of France in particular gave rise to a lot of scientific texts and were very much written for this audience). Science wasn’t really carried out in a particularly empirical or rigorous way; it just sort of happened based on what people already knew and what they were interested in. Science wasn’t connected with a style of thought. Science is from the Latin ‘scientia’, which is the noun formed from the verb ‘scio’, ‘I know’. Science is just stuff we know.

For a long time prior to this (again in the West), woman had been generally considered man’s ‘helpmate’, thanks to the dualisms of Aristotle (cheers, Aristotle) and subsequent interpretations of him by Christian scholars like St Thomas Aquinas, etc. Woman is definitely not the equal of man at this point in history; whenever she becomes threateningly close to some modicum of fair treatment, a backlash is instigated which confines her once again to the field, the drawing room, the non-male environment, etc.

So, the stage is set for the arrival of Descartes, and then, not long after, Sir Francis Bacon (not the modern sculptor; the founder of the Royal Society). Descartes identifies what he believes is the way one should acquire knowledge. At the very root of this is the ability to shuck off the emotions like some great big emotionless snake (my simile, in case you hadn’t realised) and reach mental and therefore metaphysical transcendence through reason and the acquisition of knowledge. Bacon does something similar – empirical research, conducted according to methodology and rigorous attention to detail – is prioritised over superstition, belief and the substantiation of knowledge only on the basis of what we wish to see or think to be true.

On the face of it, this all sounds pretty damn good. Right? Objectivity, empiricism and correlation with subsequent studies are all features of what these days we could conceivably call good scientific research.

Well. Let’s go back to the status of women. And let’s go back, too, to Aristotle and his dualisms. Man, for Aristotle, has reason. What does woman have? Emotion; passion. And what does Aristotle (and basically everyone since) think about women? Well, they’re inferior to men, aren’t they. So as soon as a doctrine of knowledge is created which says that ultimate knowledge of the universe and the nature of things can be arrived at by abstracting oneself from the emotions and employing reason, women are in a bit of a fix. Christianity (and, let’s face it, most religions) holds that women can’t ‘not be’ emotional. And now philosophy is sort of claiming that one can’t reach a metaphysical eternity unless one recognises and rejects emotion. Either way, women can’t obtain transcendence. They’re just too weepy. Fuck. Oh, and women can’t do science, either, because science is knowing stuff, and women can’t know anything when those pesky emotions keep getting in the way.

It’s at this point in history that Man as scientist and Woman as non-scientist is articulated. It is of course ingrained over the course of many years and many further theorists, scientists, writers and philosophers. And it’s self-fulfilling, too, because if you keep telling women that we can’t do science, we lose interest in trying. And it works in the other direction, of course – keep telling men that emotions are ‘girly’ and they lose interest in connecting with them. How successful we’ve been about turning around this trend is not really what I’m writing about here, so let’s get back to Sherlock.

As described, Sherlock is pretty Cartesian in his approach to knowledge. He thinks he can deduce and intuit everything. One of his favourite mantras (in the TV series at least) is ‘people lie’. He has no time for emotion. And we as viewers accept this. Sherlock can deduce everything. His extreme objectivity is genuinely capable of ultimate knowledge.

Watson, on the other hand, frequently doesn’t have a clue what is going on. And he is definitely emotional. He’s not unintelligent – far from it; he’s a doctor, after all – but he can’t deconstruct and reconstruct in the way Sherlock can. And we accept that, too. The Man of Reason is an ideal, but he’s pretty unattainable for most people.

So, Sherlock, the Man of Reason, is the ultimate knower. He makes no secret of his complete disdain for all other opinions or theories of knowledge. He can know everything, because the books and TV shows require that he gets there eventually (although his excuse that he doesn’t know about the solar system because it’s ‘not important’ in an episode in S1 is pretty incredible). But here’s the thing, and I’m sure even hardcore fans won’t mind me saying this (I know this because I am one myself): Sherlock is a bit of a cock. He *cannot* use his emotions. And yet – he can still seemingly know everything.

This makes it all the more frustrating that he has to ‘win’ against (or on behalf of, I suppose) Irene Adler in the S2E1 A Scandal in Belgravia. Oops! The screenwriters just totally reconfirmed everyone’s bias that only knowledge derived through reason is good enough to win the day. Knowledge that has any connection to emotions is just not going to cut it. Watson, I’m looking at you here.

The Man of Reason knows. He knows everything. But he doesn’t know emotion.

What does that say about what we – 21st century, multicultural, lovely Britain, think of as ‘knowledge’? And if knowledge is power – what does that say about who is powerful?

I’ll leave that one with you. 

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(Burying) bodies

30 Sep

I’ve done some hardcore reading this week. Novels, articles, textbooks, a little bit of poetry thrown in to lighten the mood. It’s been intense. I won’t go into the marxist/feminist discourse and the consideration of the stationary self vs the moving others (although I will some other day, if you fancy) but I am going to talk about the novels I read. Not in a ‘reviewing’ way, as per usual, but in a personal, relational way.  

These novels – Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and Landscape for a Good Woman, by Carolyn Steedman, were recommended reading for my module on feminist cultural theory. I was all prepared for them to be – well, frankly – difficult. While neither of them could be described as ‘light’, however, they were certainly fascinating, and all the more so for being read one after the other. 

Both books are explicitly about women and, marginally less obviously, their relationships with their daughters. Beloved is the story of an escaped slave; Landscape a semi-autobiographical account of two eras of womanhood. Both are fundamentally about female ownership of the body and the extent to which a child is of that body. Landscape enunciates this with scholarly precision: relationships require giving and taking. Frequently, women have nothing to give but themselves and the possibility of a future. In a society that continues to disempower women, a woman’s only bargaining chip is herself and her potential for children. Beloved repeatedly suggests this through more subtle means; the main character, Sethe, ‘pays’ to have a word inscribed on a headstone for her dead child with her body; her body is the only thing she can give when she is ‘married’. Bodies are commodities and bodies can be given away dearly or cheaply – bodies are everything. 

While we may like to kid ourselves that we live in a free and equal society these days, it’s impossible to deny the force that a body can still have. In the interests of research (naturally) I was sat in front of some terrible daytime television with my housemates this afternoon. Before we found the cookery programs, we were watching dating shows. It’s incredible how many people respond to the physical nature of a person before they consider anything else about them. ‘He’s well buff, I’d definitely go on a date with him’, etc. But the thing is – what does a body tell you about someone, these days?

Bodies are so subject to change. Of course, you can work on your personality, too, and you can certainly be selective in how you choose to behave around certain people (consciously and unconsciously) but I don’t think it’s quite the same here. The sculpting and presentation of one’s body is a particular privilege we enjoy (or not). Invariably, the way we choose to present our bodies say something about the value we place on them. Of course, everyone has their own value systems; having a lot of piercings might evoke squeals of disgust from some middle class yummy mummies, for example, but that may be your way of expressing your own identity and self-worth. The way you present your body may indicate your desire to stand out, or it may be a camouflage you use to blend in. The thing is, we think we can control the value of our bodies by the way we present them and the way we use them. In most instances, I believe, that’s true. 

But. What these books suggested to me is that a body is not just how it looks, but how it is used. We can make our bodies into portraits of how we’d like to be seen, but if we don’t use them in keeping with those images, what then? What counts more, intention or act? And if creating the body as we’d like it to be seen is an act of authorship, can we apply the premise that meaning is created at the point of reception? Are we scripting our bodies for a multiplicity of readers, or are we doing so for the ideal one? Is our ideal reader, in fact, ourselves? 

Maybe this is all getting a bit weird now. I think the point I’m trying to make is this: ultimately, you are in charge of what your body does and this is far more important than what it looks like. Use it wisely, grasshopper. It can still be a powerful thing. 

 

 

(3) New Beginnings

23 Sep

September’s a funny old month, isn’t it? The leaves catch up with what everyone else has spent the summer enduring and go red and crispy. The nights roll in earlier and faster and then hang around, refusing to get out of bed in the mornings. Scarves and coats and boots come out in temperatures which, were they encountered in May, would precipitate Shorts O’Clock. The onset of autumn, tied as it is with the onset of school terms and harvest festivals and so on, has much more of a feeling of novelty to it than January ever does. 

It’s fitting, then, that this month for me has seen not one, not two but three new beginnings. Let me break it down for you. 

1. I started a new job (briefly) as a maintenance assistant (!) at Addenbrookes Hospital, also known as Cambridge University Hospitals. I was only there for three weeks (bank staff, woo!) and it was fascinating. I’ve been places no-one else would get to go in that hospital now. And I know how to rewire a light fitting and fix a socket. Oh, and I got very good at soldering. My proudest moment? It’s a toss up between taking the back off a broken device that I hadn’t been shown how to fix and working out how to fix it, and a colleague telling me that she had been looking up what we had talked about the previous day (Pompeii + Herculaneum) and thought it was awesome. I was sad to hand the uniform back in at the end and I have come away considerably socially enlightened. 

2. Jewish New Year. Goes without saying really, but every year is a new year. 5774 is hopefully going to be a damn sight more interesting than 5773, although the latter did get me to where I am now, so I can’t complain too much. Every experience contributes to the next one n’all that jazz. As with last year, there was a significant lack of time for thinking about what I’ve done wrong and what I’m going to do better. On the plus side, there were far more apples for baking with this time around. 

3. New university. This is it. I’m here. What I said I would do – I’ve made it. Now I have to actually, y’know, *do* it. I’ve got a lot of reading to get done. But I’m here, in my new house, making (I hope) friends and doing stuff. It’s all terribly exciting and a little bit terrifying. Leeds is a much, much bigger city than I’ve ever lived in before but I am determined that this year is going to be a good one. 

Well. That’s it for now. Three new things. In a pleasingly ironic turn of events, I’m off out now to a ‘school disco’. I think the last time I went clubbing (and accidentally at that) was in May. Wish me luck. X

August: Book County

14 Sep

Shockingly late, I know, but I did actually read some books in August and I’ve only just got round to writing down what I thought about them. In part this is because my internet is currently refusing to play ball, so I can’t fanny around on Buzzfeed and the Vagenda, but it is also because I have started a new job and I’m not sat in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. (Not that I ever used said time in front of a computer at work to do anything *but* work, naturally).

Well. You already had 1 book review that got its own blog post devoted to it (Laurie Penny’s Cybersexism) but I did read some other things. The first: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy. This book, published in 2003, explores the rise of ‘raunch culture’ and the effect this has had on (particularly Western, mostly American) society. Essentially, Levy contests the idea that female liberation seems only to be sought in accordance with the male-endorsed ideal of femininity. In the light of Twerkgate (or whatever it is being called these days – y’know, that thing, with Miley Cyrus and the VMAs), this is particularly relevant. On the one hand, women should be free to express themselves as sexual beings. On the other – female sexuality is rarely portrayed as anything other than an accessory to or facilitator of male sexuality and male power. And this is the point Levy makes, wisely, wittily and with great passion. And notably – she does not by any means restrict her criticism to men. Oh no! Women too can be relied upon to endorse this model. Why? Because it’s sold to them as ‘empowerment’. Because it’s explained as ‘confidence’, and as ‘liberation’. “Get your tits out for the lads” is a rallying cry for the raunch-culture generation.

There were times when I thought whilst reading – hold on a moment, maybe this is going too far. The danger of carrying the argument forward so heatedly is that some smart arse will turn around and say ‘I suppose you want everyone back in corsets then, huh?’. Perhaps such an aggressive attack on raunch culture will instigate a backlash that is even more unpalatable. But, then again, perhaps not. And these are all problems with which, ten years later, we are still facing. So. Ariel Levy. I highly recommend her.

Next – The Cuckoo’s Calling, by [Robert Galbraith]. Actually by JK Rowling. To read a novel for no other reason than that I wanted to – a novel that had no bearing on any of my current interests or academic intentions – a novel that was wholly and utterly a self-indulgent literary experience, where I wasn’t analysing as I went along – was delightful. And it was a relief, too, to read it and find that it was really rather good. Of course I read it in the light of a previous post on gender and authorship. I came to this conclusion: if you know who it’s by, you can see the similarities – if you don’t, you’d struggle to pick them out.

Rowling loves to use floods of adjectives; to make her places (especially, in this case, London) absolutely vivid and often quite grimy; to come up with some weird names and to talk about the weight of expectation carried down from parents to children. I wouldn’t say any of those are especially gendered traits, but they are very Rowling-y. And combined with her subject and her storytelling, the result was a very neat tale with some compelling characters and fascinating snippets of celebrity life. Refreshingly, there is no romantic frisson between the detective and his sidekick. Or rather, they are both very clear to demonstrate that there is no such thing. It’s really very good. I look forward to future evenings in Galbraith’s company.

After being told many a time that I must read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, I finally did. As I had been assured, it was funny (I laughed out loud on a bus more than once and earned myself some odd looks), combining some of Woolf’s excellent Victorian Gothic parodic skills with her typical light wit. You almost don’t notice it at first – and then you spot it, you breathe it in, you carry it about for a long time and eventually it kills you. Her wit is devastating. ‘Nobody minds a woman thinking, so long as she thinks of a man’ – what a line. What a genius. What a novel, to turn a life-and-love story into a meditation on art, on time, on gender, on value, on spirituality. What a treat. But don’t take my word for it. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

One of my favourite things in the world is ‘popping in to the library’. I read Matilda as a child and her enthusiasm for books matched my own. I love the library. Cambridge recently (-ish) had a library upgrade, too, so going to the library in town is now an even more pleasant experience than ever it was. Well, when I last ‘popped to the library’ (en-route somewhere, I think), I acquired three books. One of these books was Backlash by Susan Faludi. I started reading it, but I’ll be absolutely honest, it’s hard going. Not because it’s not well-written, or compelling or anything like that – it is – but because it’s so anger-inducing. You read a chapter and you have to put it down and fume for a little bit. Sometimes you have to go for a walk and be a bit rage-y. The worst of it is that it was published in the early 1990s – yet so much is still so relevant! It’s truly incredible.

Anyway, in despair (with fortune and men’s eyes), I turned back to Angela Carter for a break. I read American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, another short-story collection in the manner of The Bloody Chamber but less explicitly figured as ‘fairytale’. It was wonderful. Carter is so deft, allusive and manipulative with language – much like Woolf, but in a subtly different way. She also has a great touch of wit. When I read her description of a martini as ‘gin at which a lemon had briefly sneered’, I sniggered audibly and I had to immediately message the excellent E to suggest an Angela Carter themed cocktail-party. Well, all the stories are self-contained, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to give you a plotline (although I tend to avoid that anyway, because I know I for one can’t un-see spoilers), but they are very much individually worth reading. I particularly liked the story containing the gin-line (about a young film student going to visit the wife of a deceased great of the profession)  and the story about the puppets.

OK. That’s your lot, for this month. I’m still battling through Backlash, so I’ll hopefully be able to say something more coherent about it soon. I’ve also read The Uncommon Reader, which was fun. Hopefully I’ll get through The Common Reader too, although as I’ve only got a week before I start uni for the second time, I don’t know how much reading for my own pleasure I’m going to get done. You have been warned! 

Cybersexism: an essay that started life as a review

28 Aug

The internet can be a terrible and a wonderful place. Example: the other day, Laurie Penny, top journo and blogger (www.penny-red.com) tweeted to say that her new book was available from Bloomsbury for the stonkingly excellent online price of £1.50 BUT – if that was a stretch – we could email her and get it for free as long as we wrote a review.

And because the internet is delicious and exciting and facilitative of communication, I did. I emailed Laurie Penny and said ooh yes please me please and to my great delight and joy she emailed back in a perfectly friendly manner that made me feel she hadn’t sent more than about 3 such emails (even though I’m reasonably sure she sent hundreds) with a link. And so I read the book, and now, reader, I’m reviewing it. It’s about how the internet can be a terrible and a wonderful place.

Cybersexism starts out with the internet’s bold mission statement of inclusivity and goes on to explain, first, what that meant to the author, especially as a young woman, and second, how that trust in it can turn out to be wildly misplaced as soon as some users want to assert a hierarchy that they came there in the first place to escape.

Penny (I can’t call her Penny; it sounds too Enid Blyton. I’m going to refer to her as Laurie and hope she doesn’t mind) writes fluently and with a light touch about her discovery of the internet at what sounds like a time of extended personal crisis. As a girl who also wrote – compulsively, in ridiculous notebooks that I can never show to anyone but can also never throw away – I do understand to some extent (although obviously not the whole extent, *checks privilege* etc). And so I also understand how brilliant and beautiful the internet can be, providing a place where you can put all these words out there, or even just imbibe other peoples’ words.  You could close your laptop at 1am after you’d spent hours reading fanfic or looking at beautiful character renderings on DeviantArt and you would feel (what you would later call) tipsy on all those shared emotional connections with people you would never meet IRL.

I’m only three years younger than Laurie, so a lot of our experiences of this are very similar (more similar, than, say, my experiences compared with my brother’s, who is three years younger than me). Facebook hit us at around the same age. When she goes on to talk about the excitement and subsequent  drama of the photo/detag and the horror of the morning-after-the-night-before pictures, it’s all too familiar. Luckily I’ve never been accosted by someone in a professional context based on my social media profile, but I’m reasonably sure there are pictures out there that could be used against me. Even though the one time I dressed as a rabbit, I was actually Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. Anyway, the point is, I get it. I get the newness and the excitement because it was new and exciting for me, too, in a way that my younger siblings don’t really get. And I get the horror and the woe and the finding out what you did last night via someone else’s camera and the learning where the lines are, too.

It’s around this point that Laurie makes it incredibly plain that there are people in positions of power who actively go out of their way to find and abuse women on the internet, and that this in turn creates a culture where standards of ‘internet safety’ for girls are much higher than they are for boys. And this feeds into and is generated by the vicious cycle which assumes that girls need protecting, and while they wait to be protected, while the men figure out how they are going to do this with their immensely superior ‘thinking’-oriented brains, they should just sit quietly and keep their mouths shut meanwhile. As she says, it’s the rhetoric of shame.

“Although the technology is new, the language of shame and sin around women’s use of the Internet is very, very old. The answer seems to be the same as it always has been whenever there’s a moral panic about women in public space: just stay away. Don’t go into those new, exciting worlds; wait for the men to get there first and make it safe for you, and if that doesn’t happen, stay home and read a book.”

 

It’s a salient point, and one that Laurie has real experience of. She mentions it later in the book, but you can read her blog post on it here, too: http://www.penny-red.com/post/57613813151/on-bomb-threats-and-boredom.

Women are routinely chased out of public spaces and told to shut up. I know this. Friends know this. Women are watched. Women, suggests Penny, and I’m not 100% sure I agree with this but I certainly agree with the sentiment behind it, have been the voice of calm and reason in talk about spy networks and data leaking, because women have always assumed that they are being monitored.

Women self-censor constantly in order to be acceptable, to other women and to men. Women are encouraged to make themselves as small as possible in order not to get in the way of male egos. Not all men! You will probably cry. Well, no. But studies have shown (and I’m scraping the barrel of my memory a bit here so you’ll have to forgive me if this isn’t quite right) that it only takes a women to men participation ratio of about 1:3 to make men feel that women are dominating conversation via computers. Zimmerman and West, 1975. I think we’d all like to think that has changed, now, but as anyone who has heard of Caroline Criado-Perez and/or Mary Beard knows, there are still a lot of men out there who resent any speech by women at all.

I’m skipping around a bit here but you’ll have to forgive me for that. I want to talk about Laurie’s discussion of the (false) distinction between IRL and the internet. I watched a TED talk recently that made this same distinction: http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html. Thankfully, I had also just read this article, which gave me some hope: http://www.newstatesman.com/martin-robbins/2012/09/trouble-ted-talks. When Turkle made the claim that the internet and real life are separate and occupy different levels of reality, I was immediately suspicious. And Laurie picks up on this. The internet is not separate, not any more. What is said or done on the internet can really affect you. This is what the abusers subjecting women on Twitter to a barrage of insults and threats do not seem to realise and what some – those who have been charged by the Met Police’s cyber crime unit – have been made to find out the hard way. But not just the horrible stuff – the internet is also a place where people meet and love and have sex, break up and show their heartbreak and have fifty people ask them what’s wrong. It can genuinely make you laugh out loud and it can make you cry, too. I dated a boy because of the deep chats we had over instant messaging, and I broke up with him because he changed his facebook profile to ‘looking for a relationship’. This shit, positive and negative, is real.

My favourite bit is undoubtedly the section about geeks and the misogyny of the geekspace. This is insightful, well-written and tremendously reassuring. I work in the tech industry and I see exactly what Laurie is describing – not (thankfully) to the same extent in most cases, but certainly in many. I also know I’m the biggest nerd in the office, if such things are quantifiable. And yet – the technology doesn’t belong to me. It’s not for me. It’s something I’ve fallen into by accident after a lifetime of being told that I’m a humanities girl. (I am, but not because I’m a girl. And that doesn’t mean I’m any less of a nerd). I suggested I could learn to code in my spare time and my boss said he didn’t think it was a good idea. Coding’s not for girls. So to see such a vibrant defence of what ‘geek’ means without having to identify geekery by gender is lovely and wonderful. I hope that many people read this. I think it should be immortalised in some sort of nerd manifesto.

Ultimately, Laurie has, I think, several hopeful messages. That the internet is as real as real life is all too true – and just like real life, it’s as real and meaningful as you make it. It’s also an opportunity for people to come together and seek support and encouragement when in the past they would have been silent.  Witness the Everyday Sexism project, Misogyny Online, Everyday Victim Blaming, etc. Freedom of speech means allowing all the voices to chatter at once and being able to respond as you see fit, and it is not the inalienable and overwhelming right of white, straight men to speak before all others. And finally, and mostly pleasingly for me, that geeks may be (a part of) the problem, but they are also the solution.

Well. That was a long one. Thanks for sticking with it. I think Cybersexism is a great little piece of writing and you should definitely buy it. You can do that here, as it happens: http://t.co/uk3eCIKstB

Aristotle in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’

25 Aug

Classical feminist detective work is a tricky beast. People have been writing derogatory things about women for so long and in so many different languages that it becomes terribly difficult to hone in on the original misogyny. In the spirit of fair play and not misquoting people, it’s handy to have direct references, even if only for the disappointingly simple reason that a misquote may get used against you by someone who has the time/energy/lack of social life to go hunting for the original.

I went on a trail this afternoon after Caroline Criado-Perez posted this:

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De Beauvoir writes in the introduction – (Vintage Classics edition, pp15-16):

‘”the female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”, said Aristotle; “we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”‘.

Unhelpfully, De Beauvoir does not give a reference for this Aristotle quote. Moreover, it’s written in such a way as to suggest that Aristotle said these two things one after the other.

Aristotle has a number of famous works, notably, the Politics, Nicomachaean Ethics, Physics, etc. He’s not particularly pro-women in any of them [read: he hates us], and searching for ‘women’ and ‘female’ in online versions of texts yields a pretty stark display of it. No easy answers there.

My first clue was a Google search for ‘Aristotle women defective by nature’. I found this article: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/003-what-aquinas-never-said-about-women-38

I didn’t stop to read it in depth as such (it came across as a bit try-hard apologetic, but I’ll probably go back and read it again more critically some day) but I did note the points about Aquinas and the Latin translation.

Aristotle didn’t write in Latin. Aquinas probably read Aristotle’s works in Latin after they were translated by a keen set of scribes. Aquinas therefore came across ‘femina est mas occasionatus’ and went from there. I put this phrase into Google and got Aquinas’ attempt to explain it. This makes sense in the context of the De Beauvoir quote as she goes on to say “St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being”.

I found the full Aquinas quote (in Latin) and it helpfully told me whereabouts in Aristotle he had derived this theory: de generatione animalium iv.2 766b 33.

Interlude: a significant amount of hunting. It’s extremely difficult to get hold of large amounts of Greek text online if they are not housed on the go-to site for all Classicists, Perseus. Eventually, however, I got lucky and found the full works of Aristotle in Greek in a pdf. Those who are curious – it’s here: http://ia700500.us.archive.org/7/items/aristotelisopera01arisrich/aristotelisopera01arisrich.pdf.

I then spent a long time trying to apply what little Greek I can still remember (Finals were over a year ago now, after all) attempting to match it up with an English translation I had found (one here: http://www.greektexts.com/library/Aristotle/On_The_Generation_Of_Animals/eng/1011.html). This task became significantly easier when I used my old JSTOR membership to let me in to an article which (at last!) made sense of the page numbers I was using. Turns out it was much simpler than I had thought and I quickly tracked down the text that I thought I was looking for.

Here it is:

Image

The 2nd and 3rd lines are the ones that contain the quote we’re looking for. I’m pretty sure those *are* the right lines thanks to the (frankly torturous) route I took to get to them. Now, my Greek isn’t good enough to render those lines in a way that would satisfy a scholar, so you’ll have to pitch in here and help me out, but I reckon that the man is emphatically qualified as being ‘able’ or ’empowered to’ while the woman is explicitly ‘unable’. Not so much ‘defective’ as ‘incapable’.

In the wider context, Aristotle is talking about human reproduction. It seems that Aristotle’s imperfect understanding of biology is one of the founding blocks of the theory that biology is destiny, and female biology is worse than male biology. Of course, it wasn’t just Aristotle. Ancient theory was pretty convinced that the man had the baby-making capacity contained within his sperm, while the woman was the vessel that nourished it. You’ll spot that this went on for a lot longer than the 5th century BC. Now that we know it’s wrong, we can obviously jettison all the beliefs and cultural hang-ups we’ve accumulated as a result. Wouldn’t that be ace?

As for the second half of the quote (“we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”) – I’m still working on it. At the moment, I don’t know what de Beauvoir wrote in French, because it seems to be impossible to get hold of a French copy on the internet (for free, anyway). And I don’t know what the French translation of Aristotle may have said. It’s quite possible that the translation expands on the Greek original to the extent that the whole of SdB’s quote spins out of that short Greek phrase – or she has found it from another part of Aristotle altogether. There are plenty of bits to choose from. As I said, he didn’t like women very much.

Right. That’s as far as I can trace this particular thread, I think. I’m going back to my book now (Backlash, Susan Faludi). G’night, team. X

It’s not you, it’s twee

23 Aug

Baking and sewing were long considered good wifely attributes. At a professional, high end level, of course, they were ‘man’ jobs – chefs and tailors, rather than bakers and seamstresses. Well, that was then. Gender equality and the drive towards teaching more skills to more people mean that many men are now much handier with a spatula and a thimble than a) used to be the case and b) many women. This is a GREAT thing. (One of my longest-standing crushes was for a guy who dedicated a large amount of his spare time to amateur bakery). My brother’s quite a good cook, these days. He’s never shown an interest in sewing and he’s a dyspraxic leftie, so my mum would have had a hard time teaching him anyway, but if he’d wanted to learn, she’d have had a go. One of my male friends was terribly excited when I mentioned I might bring my sewing machine to uni. Equality = on this reading, not that far away.

HOWEVER. What with the rise in sharing sites like Pinterest and Instagram, and the growing urge among posters to professionalise their food, their style and all that jazz, the increase in food blogging (I’m a culprit) and the nostalgia of postwar Britain for DIY homemaking, I’ve noticed that something weird is beginning to happen.

A section of the media has jumped on ‘Austerity Britain’ and the revived interest in self-sufficiency. This section is using tough economic conditions, a mental turnaround to better days, monarchical fanaticism/interest, etc, etc, call it what you will, to burrow into the hearts and minds of the nation like the cordyceps fungus spores lodge in stink ants (see here for simile explanation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDtMXrAjZkY ). Examples of this include but are by no means limited to: running articles about people who have set up small businesses in lost arts of basket weaving et al; making television programmes which revolve solely around food (I love the Great British Bake Off and I can’t help it); advocating a make-your-own/grow-your-own lifestyle; picking up on fashion trends that specifically hark back to ‘English Heritage’ and/or 50s styles. You get the picture. The clouds of nostalgia have rolled over this sacred plot and the sun (of York, perhaps?) does not look like it’s going to be coming out any time soon. I mean, we had Victorians reading Shakespeare in the goddamn Olympic Opening Ceremony.

There’s something that’s kind of cute about this and there’s also something unspeakably twee. Why do people suddenly want to make, or even just to eat, cupcakes? Why are crocheting your own tablemats and knitting your own bunting for your Prince George-themed street party things that are happening? Why have we slunk back with our tails between our legs towards all the glossy bits of mid 20th century culture? What is going on here? These are big sociological questions and I’m not qualified to answer them, not least because I would be speaking on behalf of a lot of people about whom I don’t actually know a thing. But. This is the situation.

There has of course been a response to this. The war against twee won its first battle when hipsters became mainstream objects of derision (sorry, hipsters). The cupcake is next. I don’t think The Hummingbird Bakery is going to go out of business any time soon, but changing foodie fads are becoming more knowing, more niche and more unattainable. Meringues (according to The Times, the next food fad) aren’t twee. They’re posh. The rising tide of the DIY gourmets has been redirected, forming a large oxbow lake which allows all the ‘righteous’ bourgeoisie to float along unencumbered. Articles have criticised this year’s two (female) Apprentice finalists for their intended business plans. A bakery?! This is a betrayal of all the feminists have fought for! AND it’s twee! Etc.

On the one hand, tweeness and archaism abound, frequently without nuance, often (though not exclusively) celebrating some ideal of femininity and heteronormativity[1]. On the other, the self-righteous nay-sayers who see no redeeming features at all in expressing a desire for home-made home comforts aren’t 100% guiltless, either.

The twee brigade and the anti-twee alliance have followers of all genders, sexualities, sexes and colours. Each army revels in its diversity. Rightly and fairly, and all to the good. Yet – and maybe this is just in my experience, and I’d love to be proved wrong – it seems that the people coming in for the most stick, on both sides, are invariably women, at the hands/voices/keyboards of women.

Aha! The anti-feminists cry. Further proof of the intrinsically back-stabby, bitchy nature of ALL WOMEN and thus further, further proof that we can treat them like this too.

Well, er, no.

Modern feminism – what’s beginning to be called the fourth wave – is, as far as I understand it, about respecting the (informed) choices of others, debating openly, disagreeing politely and coming to cordial conclusions. So it’s time we looked objectively at people who really enjoy being in the kitchen, and try and avoid the twin pitfalls of a) praising them for knowing their place or b) telling them off for surrendering to the patriarchy. Maybe some of them haven’t stopped to think about patriarchal oppression. Maybe they have, and they just like baking. Given that two of the last three GBBO winners have been gay men, I think it would be a bit unfair to say that all people in the kitchen fit a 50s-approved mould. Why don’t we extend the courtesy of believing this to be the case to more of the people it affects?

Similarly, we really ought not to harangue those who dare to challenge team twee and the damage that may be done by the mass commercialisation of items designed to remind women how ‘girly’ they are. There are two sides to every argument and it’s good to be reminded that you do not need to eat a cupcake with a butterfly on it in order to enjoy a cupcake. Accusing them of being kill joys, feminazis and all the other delightful insults the internet has to offer does no-one any good. It’s not you, it’s twee! They may be crying. We’re trying to help! Again, it would be excellent if we could assume that those who say this are trying to help – to help all women, and therefore, also, all men, too, because men don’t actually benefit from the subjugation of women (no, really).

It would be nice if there were less animosity on both sides. The choice of another does not invalidate your own choice, so you don’t have to get all defensive or attackety about it. Srsly. You should be able to have your cake and eat it, too. Or not, as the case may be. I like making Chelsea buns, but I can’t knit to save my life. My brother can make brownies but he can’t thread a needle. Somehow, I know who would come under more fire for opening a bakery, and I don’t think that’s right. Do you?


[1] I hope there’s at least one lesbian knitting society who pooled their resources to get a coach to St Paul’s for the Royal Wedding, but somehow, I doubt there are more.

Strong Female Characters

20 Aug

The New Statesman ran an article this week about Strong Female Characters, and how actually, they are really quite odious. Not in an ‘urgh, laydeez!’ way, you understand, but in a ‘this is a lazy way of satisfying our need for interesting women on screen’.  I read it because I was mildly outraged by the headline and came away agreeing with it quite vehemently. (you can read it too, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters)

A while ago I wrote something rather similar, at least based on its starting point. I too bemoaned the lazy attempts to make female characters ‘strong’ by not giving them obvious romantic motivations, equipping them with guns, etc. That stuff still stands, I reckon, so I’m going to reproduce it here.

“The film world is choc-full of sensitively portrayed, emotionally interesting, intelligent and personable men. It’s also got its fair share of sappy romantics, gun-toting action heroes, maverick cops, family men faced with difficult choices, cuddly pet-owners and lads about town. Film has all these characters and many more, and actors seem to be able to play any of these they like, in just about any sequence. This is why Daniel Radcliffe can play a boy wizard, a disturbed Victorian gentleman and a Beat poet all before he hits 25. And we love a bit of variety, so let’s not grudge them that.

What about the women? Think of the last two films you saw. I can pretty much guarantee that even if one of them contained a sympathetic and interesting view of women, or at the very least, passed the Bechdel test (that’s the one about a film having female characters who talk to each other about something other than men), the other one didn’t. Unless you make a special point of only watching feminist-friendly movies, in which case, props to you, but I bet you don’t get to the cinema much.

For a bit of light relief I here refer you to the excellent Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, who did a great series of drawings of some lady superheroes called Strong Female Characters.  For your perusement and amusement: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311.

Such violent bare-chested women are not everyone’s idea of a strong female character. That’s ok. That’s the point. As I said earlier, variety = good. But – they do seem to be the prevalent ones that appear in the movies. Giving a girl a gun is apparently sufficient for many directors to feel they have secured the goodwill of the lady demographic who are interested in something other than a romance. And ideally, said girl will also be hot, which will get the men onside who might otherwise be worried about dangerous levels of over-empowerment.”

So. That’s what I identified to be the situation when I wrote that, some time in the spring.

I return now to the New Statesman article. The hatred of ‘Strong Female Characters’ can be summarised thus:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

The author, Sophia McDougall, goes on to explain that ‘strength’ is the standard recourse for making a female character more than just an object, a shadow on the narrative. Strength is the substitute for any other characteristic. Strength becomes the only adjectival defining feature of the character. Strength is frequently portrayed as anomalous, ‘not like the other girls’. And strength is limiting, and also boring. We want characters with personalities! Characters that swing between being a bit dippy and useless and inspired and woebegone! Characters like people in real life!

McDougall absolutely rightly and sensibly says – it doesn’t make sense to ask if our favourite male characters are ‘strong’. All of them have different, unusual traits and ways of handling themselves in situations that may or may not be deemed strong. Some of them are unbelievably self-destructive. Some are crushingly indecisive. Some are arrogant dickheads. Tony Stark says he’s a ‘genius, millionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ and that’s a summary. He says that to Thor, a Norse demi-god whose biceps are bigger than Stark’s thighs, but even Thor couldn’t be solely categorised as ‘strong’. Thor (in his own, titular movie, at least) is headstrong. Among other thngs. That’s why these guys are fun to watch, and why we root for them. To shamelessly pilfer yet more of this excellent article, they expand across more than one axis of characterisation.

It’s also assiduously noted by McDougall that an apologist for the SFC phrasing suggests that ‘strong’ actually means ‘well written’. Well. That’s nice. As she goes on to point out, however, a) that doesn’t stop it being misinterpreted by writeres to make their jobs a bit easier, and b) it’s pretty rubbish that it’s considered a perk when female characters are well written, rather than just, y’know, something we should expect to see. ‘The Strong Female Character has something to prove’ she says. She has to be a character in herself but she also has to represent her whole gender, because frequently, she’s the only example of it you’re going to see for the next ninety minutes.

We know that there are three men on screen to every woman. We know that only a tiny proportion of directors are female. There are disporportionate numbers of male to female screenwriters, which is odd when you consider that the gender disparity in other types of writing is not nearly so great. We also, presumably, know lots of women. I mean, half the world is female. Even without the women behind or in front of the camera, there’s no excuse for not knowing what women can be like. Women are as flawed and unpredictable and wonderful and stupid and impassioned as men. But in order to see all these facets, there has to be more than one woman per film to demonstrate them.

McDougall concludes with this:

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or netiher, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martials artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men; as female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.”

It’s a big change but it’s not an unreasonable one. Right?

Anyway. I’ve added my thoughts. McDougall’s article is really very good and I recommend it to you all once again.

The last thing she writes is a paraphrase of a performance poet. I like to think that in her titular statement, there’s more than a touch of Dorothy Parker’s Hymns of Hate. Maybe someone should write that and take this to the next level.

“I hate Strong Female Characters. They suppress my individuality.”

Blackberry picking

17 Aug

We went blackberry picking, you and I

The summer after that winter

Where we had been glad to be together

Because the gas bills were so high

 

We went blackberry picking and saw

More butterflies than ever before

Or since, and there were more fruits

Than men in the city wearing suits

 

We went blackberry picking, earlier than most

But the weather had been so good and we

Could already see the apples swelling on the tree

So we took our chances, got lucky

 

We went blackberry picking, with no other aim

Than to fill our boxes and come home again

I took that absurd wicker basket

And you brought the Sonnets

 

We went blackberry picking, at season’s close

After the Fourth Ice Age and the Great Heatwave

In a temperate August, when the rough winds ceased

And our toes had just about unfreezed.

 

We went blackberry picking in the local woods

Where the weather first brought us together.

I swore later that I saw you first,

But you said it was you that saw me.

 

We went blackberry picking, that autumn, too

But there wasn’t much fruit to be had

We made apple pie from Waitrose instead

Which overall, wasn’t too bad.

 

We went blackberry picking this summer as one

And came home again apart

And the wine-blue berries were nearly as merry

As the hole in my heart was dark

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!