Tag Archives: feminism

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. 

 

 

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! 

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!

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!

Link

Changing the World – IWD

8 Mar

It’s International Women’s Day today (and World Book Day yesterday, but you already hear quite a lot from me about books so I thought I’d spare you on this occasion). This year is also the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at Epsom in order to make a point.

There was an article on the BBC yesterday about the graduate pay gap (see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21698522) and an article on HuffPo about the need for women’s education (see here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gordon-brown/the-future-is-hers_b_2819909.html?utm_hp_ref=uk ). Add that to the ongoing debate occasioned by Lord Rennard and his creeping hands, the continued fallout from the Savile situation, the recently-remarked-upon fall of female MPs and the general interest amongst journalists in talking about feminism, women and equality – and the utterly ridiculous crap that some people come out with in response – and you might wonder just how much we’ve actually achieved in that time.

It seems to me (from my well educated, employed and thus really rather privileged position) that one of the big problems we face in the fight against inequality is that there is almost always something that seems more important. The website www.everydaysexism.com lists incidents submitted by women – mostly Western, not unprivileged, literate women – of harassment and abuse that range from the sad and pathetic attempts of drunken boys at parties to the truly depraved actions of rapists. It lists inappropriate marketing, assumptions by university professors, leery behaviour of colleagues and lewd suggestions on public transport. It covers the whole gamut. Awful as it all is, and devastating as some of them truly are, the problems could be said to pale in comparison to what women in the rest of the world face on a daily basis.

No education, no rights, no freedom. FGM, rape, sex-trafficking, forced marriages. We Westerners can barely complain in the face of all this, surely? Should our priorities lie at home, dealing with the evils we know and face every day, or should we be working to improve the situation of women on a global scale, and quit whining about the occasional cheeky feel? Maybe we should just be grateful we ‘only’ have to deal with salaries on average 2k lower than our male compatriots. After all, we got into university, right? Only one in seven hundred Nigerian girls could say that!

I don’t know how we begin to answer these questions. On the one hand, it is absurd that cards like this are being sold in the supposedly-advanced West:

http://www.vagendamag.blogspot.co.uk/#!http://vagendamag.blogspot.com/2012/12/worst-birthday-ever.html

On the other, it is absurd that this is something people have to spend so much time getting angry about when there is some serious shit going down in places like Somalia, the Yemen and even right here in the UK (see here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/22/female-genital-mutilation-help-girls). What seems clear is that there is a long, long way to go, and that even if we can bring the less-developed world in line with what we in the more-developed world enjoy, we’re still not going to be all the way there.

I suppose the battle has to be fought on two fronts, because if we only fight it on one, then what are we really fighting for? Concentrate on our Western society and we abandon those least capable of helping themselves. Ignore our sisters at home and we risk the situation festering. If we can’t fix what’s not working here, how can we solve all the problems of others? Of course, men honking their car horns as they drive past innocuously dressed girls hasn’t prevented the UN resolution banning FGM, nor should such backwards attitudes in our own communities prevent a single North African girl from going to school for at least five years. But if we can’t put our own houses in order, how on earth are we going to clean up the mess in the others?

Part of the deal with the fourth wave of feminism, as it seems to have become, is that one does not judge other women for their choices; having the choice is the feminist bit. As this excellent article by Hadley Freeman points out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/05/milf-diet-put-you-off-lunch . This is an enormously popular subject for skewing and wilfully misunderstanding with many commentators (and commenters), usually (but not exclusively) male, who use this ‘thou shalt not judge’ rule (which it is scarily easy to break) to show that ALL women are catty, bitchy crazyladies who have no ‘solidarity’ and therefore cannot be trusted to do anything at all, ever. *takes deep breath*.

Witness the Hilary Mantel/Duchess of Cambridge row. You see what I mean? Yeah. Imagine if Will Self had said that piece about William. There would probably have been nothing more than a sage nodding-of-heads. Maybe someone would have remarked that it contained a fair bit of possibly undue criticism, alongside the very interesting analysis of the way we perceive royalty. Self wouldn’t have been jeopardising the notion that a man can be trusted to think and act sensibly. But one bitchy comment about one girl from another and the klaxons go off.

Unfortunately, laying ourselves open to criticism about our lack of solidarity as a gender in these sorts of ways can make it easier for others to criticise us about our lack of solidarity with those in worse situations than we are.

Why is this relevant? Well, partly it’s because feminism is relevant basically all of the time, but mostly it’s relevant because we need to bring to the attention of those who would seek to undermine us that chipping away at our rights to express ourselves as women of all shapes, sizes, colours and opinions also damages the already-crippled rights of others less fortunate. If you’ll just let us get on with being equal citizens of the free world, as we supposedly are, then maybe we can concentrate on helping other people who are still fighting to have those rights recognised.

Basically, what I’m saying is, maybe you guys need to just back off and stop jumping down our throats when we have a slip-up. We’re never going to achieve anything useful, otherwise. And maybe, just maybe, once we realise that we’re not going to be criticised for saying we want careers before kids, or that we want to be stay-at-home mums forever, or that we want to be the next big thing in the Cabinet or the West End or the MoD, we’ll actually get somewhere in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Southern America.

I am lucky to have had a great education at a series of excellent establishments. I am lucky to have a job, a roof over my head, a car. I am lucky because there’s never been a better time to be a woman. But – just because things have never been so good, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be better. Did women stop campaigning after achieving the vote in 1918? Of course they didn’t. And we shouldn’t stop fighting for our rights here just because there is further to go, somewhere else.

I suppose I could be criticised for apparently doing nothing more than justifying my right to feel angry or awkward or embarrassed when I encounter behaviour that belongs to a bygone era. Well, I do have that right. As do you. Exercise it! If we do it globally, we can change the world.

Marketing and the death of social progress

18 Feb

Marketing floats over everything these days, like the midge-filled cloud over a swamp. It is simultaneously a high-profile, highly-sought-after job, and a totally reviled occupation. I was at a Ross Noble show recently where he made a series of jibes against marketing people (and he’s certainly not the only one). Marketing is a dubious business.

 

But – and, as Hamlet might say, here’s the rub – is it dangerous? Well, I think so. And I think there are two reasons for this.

 

First of all, it’s pervasive. Secondly, it’s exploitative. And this combination is a killer one, because it generates, justifies and prolongs social and cultural apathy. (There. I used the ‘apathy’ word. You are morally obliged to read on, now, if you don’t wish to be called guilty of same. Ha!)

 

Allow me to explicate.

 

Marketing is all over the place. Whether it’s pushing Coca Cola at you from billboards, suggesting wedding photographers in your facebook sidebar or the University of Liverpool offering their online degrees (seriously?) via popup ads, you are never free of it. Turn on the radio and its there. You can choose to stay at home or leave the house, you will encounter it whatever you do. Most of it barely registers anymore. We expect to be sold stuff. Our eyes are used to it. Some are more susceptible than others, true, but the same person who gets hungry when he sees a McDonalds advert is not necessarily the same person who rushes out to Tiffany’s to buy that ring he saw in his girlfriend’s magazine (to her great disappointment, no doubt. Or possibly not. Who knows). So yes. Marketing. It’s EVERYWHERE.

 

All right, I hear you say. What’s so very dreadful about that? Didn’t you just say we’re basically immune to it these days? Well. Here’s the thing. People who work in marketing (and against my will and my better judgement, I am one of those people, although I doubt you’ll come into contact with anything I’m pushing unless you’re an embedded electronics engineer) are a sneaky lot. They/we are also weirdly constricted. Yes, we must find new and innovative ways to sell our products! They cry, mewlingly, to their bosses. Yes, we are original and creative thinkers! They exclaim, proudly, on their CVs. But, the bosses say in reply. You must not do anything to alienate current consumers. Don’t go crazy, folks. Work with the market, not outside it. Do your research. Make good use of what you find. *Then* pump them for everything they’ve got. Yeah. Boom.

 

So. This creates a slight conundrum. On the one hand, marketers are always being pushed to come up with new stuff to farm out to the public/their specific product target. On the other, they can’t do anything to challenge that public/target too much, because they’ll get bored and wander into the next field, following their fleecy friends who have found a simpler option elsewhere. In short (or rather, at some length), marketing relies on stagnation. So long as the world stays the same, marketing won’t change.

 

Well, now, hold on just a minute, you are saying. Nobody expects marketing to change the world. That’s not what it’s for. Surely society isn’t quite as doomed as you are making out?

 

That’s true, to a point. People can still come up with world-changing ideas. Society can progress, if it puts its mind to it. But – and here’s the problem – marketing makes people lazy, because it plays on what is already the case. Constantly reinforcing public opinion – whether it’s good or bad – stunts creativity and imagination. And what’s worse, it continues to embed some seriously problematic issues.

 

I’ll give you an example that has been driving me crazy.

 

In the electronics industry – consumer electronics, mostly, although the rot has spread far and wide – massive trade shows happen every year. Think CES, where the big guns get together to show off their new tablets, or 3D printers, or sustainable LED microwave hats or whatever. That sort of shebang. Now. How do these companies get people interested in loitering on their stands? How do they get them over to their stands in the first place? I’ll tell you. Girls. Girls in tiny skirts and low cut tops. Girls in nurse uniforms. Girls on rollerblades. These are all genuine tactics (the BBC even made a video article about the complaints that arose from CES this year). And they are pretty deplorable. But apparently, they are a must-have, because, like it or lump it, there *are* more men in the electronics industry, and they *are* always attracted to ladies in lycra. Sure, you’re going to offend a few people. But mostly they’ll be women, so they don’t count. Right?

 

WRONG. Obviously. I have argued this point until blue in the face, but I just can’t seem to get through to anyone. Not only is this sort of technique degrading to the women parading around in beachwear in order to sell mobiles, it’s also degrading to the poor men who are subject to it and expected to react on the basis of their primal urges. The girls don’t mind, you say? Well, presumably they’re being paid. And they’ve grown up in a society which says that if you flaunt your tits at someone, you’re likely to make an impact. Whatever reason the girls are doing it for, it’s shameless and underhand to suggest it’s necessary in this sort of environment. I mean, seriously, guys. And, as the few female electronics people will tell you, it makes them feel uncomfortable, objectified and concerned they’ll be subject to the same sort of leering and lech-y photography visited on these women by their colleagues. Only one guy in a company needs to say to a fellow female employee ‘why don’t you ever dress like that, hey?’ as a joke, and she will mentally count off the number of steps backwards just taken by Humanity.

 

That’s a little personal crusade of mine. I won’t bore you with (more) details. But there is a point here, though you may have missed it in the midst of my rantings. These companies are slowing social progress by utilising – and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim, reinforcing – the gender inequality already present in the industry. Women who have made it are probably pretty resilient in taking shit from their peers, family, friends etc (you’re an engineer? Oh. That’s not very – girly – is it?). But those just starting out may be put off. If you sign up for industry magazines when you’re a student and you notice that a lot of them feature ladies dressed as Marilyn Monroe talking about circuit boards, you are perhaps going to wonder what your place is in this world, and question whether you actually want to be in it.

 

That’s not really the sort of shit that most men have to put up with, is it? Not from marketing alone, anyway. Yeah, men feel like they are still facing social stigma when it comes to careers like nursing and preschool work – but I can’t think of any equivalent scenarios where they are so insidiously and perpetually undercut in this way. Maybe I’m not thinking hard enough. You tell me! I am happy to be disproved. I fear, however, that I won’t be.

 

So. Marketing. Sometimes, it’s ok. I’m kind of fine with (and in some cases, all for) Comic Relief and the Samaritans and the Army and the V&A and even Apple and Sony and Asda marketing. That has kind of become life. But what I really, really object to is the way marketing contributes to a complete apathy, disinterest, wilful blindness, even, to look at and engage with social issues.

 

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t think there’s an awful lot we can do about marketing on our own. I suspect that the answer lies in promoting other ways to reengage culturally, politically, socially. We have to counteract sluggish movement by pushing forward in other areas. We need more women represented on stage, on tv, in management, in government. We need to understand that only we can change the world – one step at a time, in a flood, on our own, in a team.

 

I think it was Gandhi who said ‘you must be the change you wish to see in the world’. Maybe it’s dangerous to wish all these changes into existence.

 

But then again, maybe it’ll be that much more exciting.