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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:

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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.”

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!

Weekly Writing Challenge: A Pinch of You

28 Jul

Makes 1 Fagelmouse

Serves everyone (unintentionally)

You will need an electric whisk, a spatula and round, loose-bottomed cake tin.

The Fagelmouse is a sweetbitter dish, great for entertaining or to have all to yourself with a movie. Though suitable for any season, it tends to work best in early summer, when you could serve it alongside strawberries and raspberries to really bring out its flavours.

 Ingredients:

For the base:

1 pair ripe Converse, preferably green

Animal or cake – patterned socks

50g butter, melted

For the filling:

4 eggs, separated

400g cream cheese

100ml full-fat milk

Vanilla essence

Naivete

1 Woolly jumper (stripy)

1 -2 shelf-fuls of classic literature, shredded

2 generous tbsp. each of Latin and Greek

Pinch each French, Russian

For the insecure centre:

200g self-doubt

100g very dark chocolate

Dash of liqueur (of your choice)

For the topping:

100g Blanched hazelnuts

25g sugar

Feminism, to taste

Cocoa powder for dusting

(chocolate) curls

Preheat your oven to 130C (any hotter and the Fagelmouse will burn, no matter how much suncream you put on). Grease and base-line your cake tin.

To make the base, crumble the Converse and socks together (size 5 pieces) and pour over the melted butter. Stir to combine, then press firmly into the cake tin. Don’t worry if the bottom looks a bit uneven. Genes, eh? Set aside to chill as much as possible.

For the filling, beat together the egg yolks, cream cheese, milk, vanilla, naivete and woolly jumper. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until holding stiff peaks. Then, a spoonful at a time, whisk in the classic literature (Edwardian and Victorian are best for this, although you could use anything you have to hand) and the languages, until you have a reasonably firm meringue. Remember the attributes of a good meringue – pale, sweet and soft in the middle. Overcooking them can turn them bitter.

Next, beat 1/3 of the meringue mixture into the cream-cheese mixture to loosen it slightly. Fold in the remaining 2/3 with your trusty spatula.

Place a cup in the centre of your biscuit-base and distribute the cream cheese mixture in a ring around it.

To make the insecure, dark, verging on bitter filling, break the chocolate into a bowl, then heat the self-doubt in a small pan until just boiling. Pour the self-doubt over the chocolate and add the liqueur. Leave to stand for at least 2 minutes and then stir together until fully combined.

With the self-doubt mix ready, lift the cup out of the centre of the sweet cheese mix and quickly pour the filling in its place. Use a palette knife to distribute some of the cheese mix over the self-doubt, but don’t panic if you can’t cover it all up – this will create an interesting visual effect.

Bake the Fagelmouse for 45 minutes. It won’t go brown.

While the Fagelmouse is cooking, make the topping. Toss the hazelnuts, sugar and feminism together on a baking tray and roast for ten minutes until crunchy. Some bits may be slightly unpalatable, though they’re good for you so don’t complain!

You can tell when the Fagelmouse is cooked as it will have that lovely inner-thigh wobble that all good cheesecakes and – er – inner thighs – have. Set aside to cool before removing from the tin.

Sprinkle the feminism/hazelnut topping over the Fagelmouse and dust with cocoa powder. Strew the top liberally with curls. Let them do their own thing – messiness is part of the look.

Serve with lots and lots of tea and a healthy dollop of wit on the side – unless you’d rather wallow in the chocolatey centre, in which case, omit the wit and take your tea with tears.

For what inspired this: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/weekly-writing-challenge-recipe/

Gender and authorship

21 Jul

ALL: this is a revised, edited version of the blog post I wrote on holiday about gender and authorship. It’s a bit more coherent now. And it’s got some Virginia Woolf references in it. Don’t say I never give you anything. X

Hey kids. How’s it going? I’m writing this on my iPad while on the family holiday so you’ll have to forgive me if the typing goes a bit crazy at points; one cannae trust these machines to accurately convey all the words one would like them to.

Anyhoo. I am writing due to a conglomeration of events. The first is the fairly well-known (by now) revelation that the crime writer Robert Galbraith is actually celebrated Harry Potter author JK Rowling. The second is that I have not long finished Jeanette Winterson’s book Written on the Body. How are these related, I hear you cry? Well, allow me to explain.

A lot of the news articles written in the wake of the JK story were about the ‘tell-tale’ signs that Galbraith wasn’t actually a man. That the women were meticulously described; that the main (male) character noticed the pungent smell of some urinals; that a famous Galbraith also uses the initials JK. How did we not see it? How could we be blind? One can’t help but feel there is some clutching at straws going on here. Robert Galbraith’s book did receive excellent reviews and various people expressed incredulity that it was indeed his first novel.

No-one, however, questioned the gender verity of either protagonist or author when it was originally published. Why search for them now? Some people actively avoid reading literature by female authors (you may scoff, but this was a genuine comment on a Guardian article). If the cheeky buggers will use pseudonyms, we obviously have to identify the ‘female’ features that prove when something’s been written by a woman. Right? *shakes head sadly*. Imagine how great it would be (such people must think) if one could identify ‘female language features’ that always occurred in books written by women, no matter what gender their assumed identity had. There have been plenty of studies of speech which look for the same thing. Last I heard, they decided it was not so much a feature of gender as a feature of power, which has traditionally been divided along gender lines. This doesn’t seem to have got round to some of the literary critics and wannabes yet, though, who still cling on to this belief like the last half-barrel of rum from a shipwreck.

‘Female language features’, if these chimaeras exist, will surely depend on the author’s voice. Virginia Woolf writes about finding one’s own voice in literature, and about how many female novelists have struggled to achieve critical acclaim in A Room of One’s Own. She notes this is partly due to the male-dominated literary sphere – both in writing and in criticism. Perhaps this is something you’d think we would have addressed by now, but no – while there are many more female critics than there used to be, the ‘serious’ novels are still almost unanimously reviewed by men. Heard of the recent furore over the TLS’ inability to find female authors? Yep, 21st century, home of progress. Not. Obviously, fewer writers and fewer critics who are women mean that there are fewer books and fewer reviews produced that are of high merit. That’s just statistics, amirite? Anyway, she also suggests there’s another reason for the scarcity of works of female genius, and that is the difficulty for women of freely and confidently writing in their own voice.

At first, perhaps, you will scoff. ‘Own voice? Surely everyone’s got their own voice. How hard can it be?’, etc. Well, yes and no. Woolf points out that even Charlotte Bronte – someone she explicitly points out as a great female writer – didn’t quite nail her own voice in Jane Eyre. There are times when her dissatisfaction with her straitened existence and the limitations imposed on her by the era’s social mores comes through over and above the narrator’s voice. Austen gets it – her sinuous irony and light touch are so delicately placed they are often misunderstood or overlooked altogether (witness basically any complaint ever that she only writes about money or about romantic love or – well, any one thing, really). One’s voice is a unified sentiment which can ride the waves of the story as well as direct them. It’s the manager and captain of the football team, responsible for tactics on and off the pitch and covering the game as well as the season. It’s a tough one to pull off. And it’s especially tough if – as very many women were, and nearly as many women still are – one is sufficiently under the oppression of society to be denied a voice in one’s day to day life, let alone in one’s written existence.

So many writers take a long time to find their voice, their style, their modus operandi. Hilary Mantel’s voice is very different to Caitlin Moran’s. Jack Kerouac’s voice is very different to Allen Ginsberg’s – contemporaries and friends and members of the same literary movement though they were. Betty Friedan’s voice is not the same as Germaine Greer’s. Etc. It’s a personal journey of development and growth. In a world where there are so many ‘voices’ shouting to be heard (online especially), the development of one’s own literary voice is what makes one person publishable instead of another. JK Rowling’s voice is not the voice of the narrator of Harry Potter, or the voice of the narrator of The Casual Vacancy or of The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s the voice which allows her to write all three. It’s an undercurrent. It’s probably discernible only to her, or only if one knows exactly what one is looking for. It’s not a ‘woman’s voice’.

On to my next point. Written on the Body is a book about a love affair, written in the first person by a narrator who is never named and is also never explicitly gendered. The narrator describes their previous girlfriends and boyfriends. If there is ever a reference to their clothes, they are gender neutral. The narrrator’s profession is fairly ambiguous, although it becomes clearer as the book progresses that it involves translations, mostly in and out of Russian. So words and physical nature are (as you can guess from the title) fairly central to the book. The constructed neutrality of the narrator adds an interesting edge.

However. The author – Jeanette Winterson – makes no attempt to hide her authorship. I read the main character as a woman, but that’s all part of the beauty of reception. You bring your own understanding to the table and you take away something new. Fine. I looked up a review of the book when it came out – the Independent have clearly digitised their back catalogue of book reviews for just such a purpose – and I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.

The reviewer didn’t approve of the gender-ambiguous narrator. Not at all. He said it was contrived and required serious ducking and diving around words to keep up the illusion. I thought this was unfair – I hadn’t noticed it. I was aware of the ambivalence towards the explicit, but it hadn’t seemed as pronounced as that.

No, what was ridiculous to me was that the principal beef the reviewer had with this was that translators of the book who were working with gendered languages wouldn’t know what to do about it. Erm, sorry, what? For a start, if you’re writing a novel so that translators can translate it, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Secondly, as a translator herself, I reckon JW knew what she was doing. Thirdly, translation theory! Reception! The translator will make what they will of it. In a way, the more ambiguous you are, the more opportunity you give to the translator to find their own voice in your work. That’s not really the done thing in Anglo-American literature (see Laurence Venuti on this) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ezra Pound didn’t speak a word of Chinese but his Cathay poems are revered. Yeats was no Gaelic scholar but his translations are not criticised as such. And it is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, to judge an original on the basis of its future translation. I mean, really. Come on.

For what it’s worth, I reckon this review betrays a sense of unease in the difficulty of the reviewer to identify gendered language. I think the reviewer feels off-kilter because the ambiguity means he has to dance on the edge of a precipice of understanding, constantly questioning the gender and therefore also the sexuality of the narrator. The explicit(ly) romantic plot means this question is fairly difficult to avoid. It’s meant to be. That’s the point. When we ask ‘is this book about a woman who falls in love with another woman?’ we are supposed to catch ourselves doing so and wonder why it matters.

It seems as though the gender of the author and the gender of the narrator are intrinsically bound up in how we approach books. Yet it also seems to be the case (I was going to write ‘increasingly’ but then I remembered all the novelists who have published as men) that we’re not very good at definitively saying what a book written by a man looks like compared to a book written by a woman. And for some reason, although I can name at least five women who have published as men off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single example of the other way around. We think we know what women write about and how they write it, and yet, barring atrocious chick-lit suitable only for the beach and for giving away free with trashy magazines, women resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. Men have always been grudgingly allowed to be daring, movement-founding, ground-breaking. Women don’t seem to have that unquestionable right to freedom of expression. That’s why women assume pseudonyms, or write out gender altogether. Because a woman’s voice is still hampered by the fact it’s come out of a human being with a vagina. No other reason.

Maybe instead of telling people not to judge a book by its cover, we should say not to judge a book by its author. We make much more interesting analyses when this point of non-contention is allowed to lie undisturbed.

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

The Lucretia Paradigm

20 Jun

If you’ve not been living in a cave, you may have come across the recent furore over some supremely ill-judged comments by Serena Williams about the Steubenville rape case. It’s the classic victim-blaming trap that so many fall into (like Joanna Lumley, or basically every police force ever). It’s saying ‘don’t get raped’ rather than ‘don’t rape’. It’s suggesting the victim is somehow responsible for being physically attacked by another person.

Now, while I’m a thoroughly modern Millie, I’m also a Classical Camilla. And this whole scenario got me thinking about Lucretia.

If you’re familiar with the Roman historian Livy and his work ‘Ab Urbe Condita’ – the immense history chronicling the entire story of the city and Empire of Rome – you’ll know who I’m talking about.

For those of you who want filling in, or reminding – Lucretia appears in Book 1, chs 57-58. She is the wife of one Collatinus, back in the age when Rome still had kings (ie a very long time ago). Lucretia is the ultimate wife. She’s pretty and smart and honourable and she loves her husband. She fulfils her civic and religious duties zealously and all that jazz. She’s a great Roman lady. Romans used to call married ladies ‘matronae’, carrying all the respectability and weight that used to be associated, until all the Carry On films, with the English word ‘matron’.

Unfortunately for Lucretia, her existence is simply too much for this one guy. He’s called Sextus, as it happens. Sextus Tarquinius. Anyway, he decides he wants Lucretia and no social mores like ‘she’s totally already married to someone else, dude’ are going to get in his way. So he breaks into her bedroom where she’s sleeping (her hubby’s away) and threatens to kill her if she calls for help. Then he pleads with her to let him into bed. She refuses even though he’s got a dagger. He’s well miffed, so he tells her he’ll kill her and a slave and that he’ll leave his naked corpse outside the bedroom, so it looks like the two of them have been murdered in revenge for adultery. Lucretia is so horrified at the potentially enormous affront to her honour (no thought for the slave, but I’m afraid that’s ancient Rome for you) that Sextus Tarquinius gets his way and scarpers.

Lucretia calls her husband and her father back from their travels to tell them what has happened. She vows to commit suicide because it is the only honourable course of action, and she begs that her relatives will exact vengeance on Tarquinius.

Her father + husband are horrified. Not with the vengeance bit – they’re pretty down with that. Romans are basically always up for some killing and maiming. No, they’re horrified at Lucretia’s insistence that the victim should assume the punishment for the perpetrator’s crimes. Livy says: ‘they tried to console the distracted woman, by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt’ (1.58.9). But Lucretia insists that though she acquits herself of the sin, she does not free herself of the penalty. She declares that no unchaste woman shall live and plead Lucretia’s example, takes out a hitherto-concealed knife and dies.

Heavy stuff. And extremely interesting, too.

Note, for instance, the attitude of the Roman men to the so-called guilt of the victim. You’ll notice they attach no guilt to her. None at all. It’s the mind that sins, not the body. Maybe this can be construed as them trying to say anything that will save this woman’s life, but even so, would we see that these days? Lucretia was in bed, sleeping – hardly behaving provocatively – but according to this logic, even if (for example) she’d had her tits out at dinner because of the heat – if she had no intention of sleeping with someone, she’s not guilty. You hear that? Unless a woman is actually asking for it, she’s not asking for it. Bear in mind this is the opinion expressed by two men well over 2000 years ago and recorded by a third man nearly that long ago. The victim bears no blame. Kay? Good. So, like, an unconscious young woman is not responsible for the behaviour of a rapist. Can you see where I’m going with this?

This fairly crucial bit often gets neglected in favour of Lucretia’s subsequent behaviour. You know, the bit where she decides to take the blame anyway, in order to set a ‘good example’ to future Roman women. She’s (totally inadvertently and blamelessly) committed adultery, so she determines that all adulterous women deserve the death penalty. This is the Lucretia Paradigm, and it’s invoked time and again throughout literature and history.

It’s based on the Roman sense of honour. If you do anything a bit rubbish in Rome, the best way to extricate yourself is by suicide – witness Mark Antony who, you guessed it, committed suicide after losing a battle to the future emperor Augustus (Cleopatra also committed suicide, but not because she lost – she didn’t want to be a famous captive in Rome and be paraded through the streets in chains). Whatever sort of shit goes down, you can always salvage something by dying honourably.

This goes back further, to Greece as well – in the famous play Hippolytus, by Euripides, Phaedra (Hippolytus’ stepmother, who has been made to fall in love with him as a punishment – on Hippolytus! – from the goddess Aphrodite) commits suicide after her passion is revealed by her old nurse. She leaves a note saying she did it because Hippolytus tried to molest her and she felt so violated she decided to kill herself to protect her and her family’s honour. This is a big fat lie, but the point is, she believes it’s the only way. Like Lucretia, it doesn’t matter that she’s not to blame; she still suffers the penalty.

The Lucretia Paradigm is, unbelievably, still being applied today. So many women are made to feel like they are somehow responsible for sexual assault and that they have to take on the chin whatever punishment society deems is appropriate. And yet, incredibly, we can’t even seem to agree on something that a violent, patriarchal and generally fairly rape-y society took for granted – that the guilt is not on the victim. No, we’re prepared to say ‘she must have been asking for it’. We express sorrow for the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the victim is expected – and probably, resignedly, expects – to take a portion of the blame, too. We apply one half of the paradigm and forget the other.

Seriously, kids, next time someone asks you ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ please counter with “they told us that ‘where there has been no consent, there is no guilt’. And also that society encourages women to take responsibility for actions of which they are the victim, and that this is not necessarily a good thing”. It’s a bit of a mouthful, I grant you, but worth saying.