Tag Archives: gender

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.

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.