Tag Archives: women

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:


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:


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


The Inaudibility of the Translator – originally submitted to the BFI Women in Film Reporting Competition.

9 May

Aren’t you a lucky bunch! This is an article I wrote for a reporting competition run by the BFI. Unfortunately, it didn’t cut the mustard (boo) because it’s an ‘essay’ rather than a piece of investigative journalism. Never mind. I’ll know for next time. Anyway, I put quite a lot of thought in to it so I figured I’d rather put it somewhere than let it go to waste.. so here it is, for your delectation and delight.

(Here we go)

There’s no doubt amongst critics, audiences and creators that film is art; a celluloid tapestry of complex interwoven threads. There’s no less doubt that film is also invariably a commercial product, and a covetable one at that. To the varying chagrin of some, worth is measured not only by artistic merit but also by revenue.

Given that films are often produced to be successful on a global scale, they must be relevant – or at least available – to a global audience. Just as a book or poetry collection would be translated were it to venture beyond its home borders, the same is true of films.

However, just as literature has been subjected to a maelstrom of debate about what constitutes a ‘good translation’, it seems only fair to ask if cinema has been spared this, and why, and whether this is justified.

Considerable scholarship has been produced in about the last 40 years when it comes to translated literature. Translation theory argues, these days – though not all critics agree – that translation is ‘generative’ – it creates an entirely new work, in and of itself – and that the process of translation ought to make the translator ‘visible’. The author of the translation should be just as eligible for stylistic accolades as the author of the source text. The rest of the world is only slowly getting to grips with this.

When a film script is translated, what is it the translator must keep? What can they lose? How do they balance a fixed visual setting with a fluid linguistic one? Are some films written with subtitles in mind, or do they jar uncomfortably with the viewing experience?

Consider the two versions of the adaptation to film of Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller, known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Some were mightily dismayed by Hollywood obtaining the film rights for what they considered an already excellently-made movie. The original won awards and praise on a global scale for its Swedish-with-subtitles presentation of the book. Why oh why, then, did it need remaking? There’s a short (and cynical) answer here: Hollywood wanted a film that they owned and they wanted it to appeal to a big audience. That meant a) casting Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomqvist and b) producing it in English. Subtitles, clearly, do not cut the mustard.

Subtitles create a certain atmosphere to a film that it isn’t easy to disregard. That said, they can be an incredibly effective and clever manipulation of generic conventions. The 2010 Norwegian film Trollhunter, shot in a documentary style, is prefaced at the start with a screen declaring the footage to have been anonymously sent to the Norwegian authorities. The subtitling of the film adds to the sensation that the material may be incendiary; that it is important that every word is caught and understood for reasons of national and possibly international security. Documentaries frequently subtitle speech uttered too low to be easily heard, even if spoken in the language intended for transmission. Subtitles make sense; they don’t just render this film intelligible, they add another level to it.

So in this context, dubbing the film into English seems somewhat unnecessary. Why would three English-speaking, Norwegian college students be tracking trolls in Norway and submitting their material to Norwegian authorities?

One may similarly ask why a Swedish journalist would suddenly find himself investigating a case where everyone involved, including the people who aren’t supposed to be, speaks English.

Asking these questions can help us understand what exactly translating a film does. What we want from film is an integration of the audible and visual experiences, so closely interwoven that they speak to a level beyond what can be conveyed simply by ‘language’.

If you can create a world on film which is realistic, it doesn’t matter, in the end, what language the characters speak. Nobody really quibbles about Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy not speaking in Homeric Greek, after all. It’s as if the directors have slipped a Babel fish in your ear. You can understand because the visual experience is so seamless that you can’t not understand. Location-specific films, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be tackled in this way – again, you’re not supposed to notice that they’re not speaking Swedish. They’re just speaking, and you’re understanding. Trollhunter could have been done in this way – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – but, as described, why waste such a great opportunity to play on some generic conventions? It’s a lot cheaper and deliciously effective.

If there’s such a covetable prize for the audible experience, we ought still to ask why there isn’t more credit given for the translated script. Is a script-translator expected to assume the same ‘invisibility’ as a translator of literature? They may not have come up with the concept, but that doesn’t make them any less creatively important.

On the continent, there is far more recognition for the voice actors who help turn English-language films into French or Italian or German critical successes. Surely it should not stop there? No translator’s name appears on the credits for the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet somebody must have written the subtitles. Were they so wholly divorced from the film creation process that they deserve no acknowledgement at all? And even if they were – what they have done is still part of the viewer’s experience. We should at least be offered their name. We have Steven Zaillian’s.

It’s a small point, perhaps, but it applies more widely, too – not just to translation, but to totally reworking a film, or a book or play or symphony or poem. Every reinterpretation has value in and of itself. Instead of bemoaning ‘another’ adaptation or version, take a step back and think about it from the point of view of the translator. Since every film is an exercise in adaptation, maybe it’s time to give some more credit to the ones most obviously engaged in it.

Brainy is the new sexy: would Victorians have fancied Sherlock?

30 Nov

You don’t have to love every current incarnation of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate that considerable numbers of others do. If Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t float your boat, Robert Downey Jr might just, and if neither of them do it for you then maybe you like Jonny Lee Miller (although frankly, if that’s the case, you should perhaps consider having your head examined). Or, slightly further out, there’s Gregory House, the medical equivalent, working in a hospital in New Jersey. The variety of Sherlocks currently available to the consumer is such that it’s difficult to put it down to ‘man in a cravat’ syndrome, or ‘man in a suit’ desire. There’s something about the character that makes the way he is (currently) being played – whether in the UK, the States, the past, the present – incredibly compelling, and incredibly sexy.


What do they all have in common? Well, we know that from the books. All these Sherlocks are based on a sallow, languorous, stick-like figure whose hobbies include playing the violin (possibly not as well as he thinks he does) and smoking. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has an addictive personality and, probably, a mild form of autism. He likes things to be just so; problems to be solved, eggs to be served thus, a pipe to be packed in such-and-such a way. He is brilliant, but he is socially a little difficult. He is an observer of humans but he maintains an aloof distance from them, making a scientific study of his inquiries. He does not embark on personal crusades of justice, although he does have a moral compass. He takes on cases that interest him – and so invariably he appears bored when a problem that appears impenetrable to its proposer comes to him. He is, however, rarely rude (to peoples’ faces, at least) and behaves rather chivalrously in a way that we might find ourselves a little uncomfortable with nowadays, especially in his oversolicitousness for the women who come to him with cases. Imagine if you were his teacher when he was around nine. You just know he’d be the kid in the class who insisted on asking difficult questions and making your life harder. Precocious, obnoxious, fiendishly intelligent and dedicated to applying his considerable breadth of understanding and ability for lateral thinking to every problem he encounters. Bloody irritating, in short.


So what on earth makes this character so endlessly interpretable and generally delicious to womenfolk ? [1] And is this a recent trend?


It’s clear that in the last twenty years or so, there has been a move away from brawn and towards brain. You only have to look at statistics about couples meeting at university (I believe the figure stands at 1 in 5 couples beginning in HE) and the current obsession with the new Q in the recent Bond film, Skyfall. Moreover, those who acquire a reputation for intelligence are revered by all because, it seems, many people are just as happy to be shielded by a towering intellect as they are by enormous biceps. Granted, a brain isn’t going to keep your other half warm at night, although maybe we can hope that what the brain comes out with will keep them warm on the inside. There simply isn’t a requirement for a male to defend himself with his body any more, and now that the battlefield is one of minds, the war is open to women, too. And gosh, who’d have thought? It seems that, these days, the man who can wow us with his wit, his knowledge and his thick-rimmed specs is the one we’d rather go home with at the end of the evening. Take Avengers. Tony Stark, or Captain America? I know who I’d choose. And so ‘brainy is the new sexy’, the endlessly quotable quote from A Scandal in Belgravia, becomes the motto for a generation of nerd-lovers.  


If we look at Regency and Victorian literature – classic examples being Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, North and South and the like – we can see that maybe our fascination with this sort of guy isn’t that new. Fitzwilliam Darcy is clearly a well-educated, intelligent young man; he’s just misunderstood. Heathcliff is apparently ferociously unlikeable but that doesn’t stop him being incredibly attractive. Rochester is explicitly described as not exactly being a looker, but he’s clearly got wit and a dry sense of humour and has some great chat. The buffoonish Rawdon Crawley is nowhere near as loveable as George Osbourne, who in turn can’t beat the quiet devotion of Will Dobbin. Thornton is a self-made man intent on acquiring an education, as task which becomes entangled with his mission to make himself worthy of his lady. In all these novels, the self-aware, intelligent man is the one we want the heroine to end up with at the end; the self-interested, the buffoons, the braggarts are the ones we cringe to read about. I don’t think there is a woman in history who has found herself harbouring a secret crush on Mr Collins or Jos Sedley.


So clearly, our 18th and 19th – century forebears dreamed the same dreams as we do now when we imagine the kind of guy we’d like to propose awkwardly to us in the rain or send us an incredibly rude but heartfelt and intelligent letter by mistake. It’s no wonder that our Sherlocks are all different shapes and sizes and cheekbone-structures – it’s their minds, not their bodies, after which we’re principally lusting (well, mostly).


I do think there’s a disjunct, though, between the character Conan Doyle wrote and the other literary characters we all secretly fancy. Darcy and Thornton and their ilk are intelligent, yes, but they are physical and legal protectors as well as intellectual equals in a way that society made the norm in that era. The written Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, just isn’t the marrying type. He barely seems capable of taking proper care of himself, let alone anyone else. He’s not a guardian, except perhaps of public order. We don’t expect him to look after us; we don’t want him look after us. We just want to engage with him. Perhaps his standoffish-ness is part of his charm for us. He reminds us so much of all those slightly awkward young gentlemen with unkempt hair and big glasses who lurk behind dictionaries, textbooks, computers and lab equipment. We want brainboxes and geeks, these days, not just men with £10,000 a year and a disinclination to dance. Intelligence is valuable, and it’s taken a considerable shift of attitudes in men as well as women to come to this conclusion. That’s why our Sherlocks are experiencing new life. They draw so much on the original character because, thank goodness, the original character now plays both to our intellectual and to our emotional needs.  


I suspect that Sherlock was not the Victorian pin-up of choice. I think it’s a good sign of our times, though, that he is now.

[1] I don’t doubt there are gay men out there who subscribe to similar views, but I haven’t got one around to ask about it right now



14 Nov
Yo dawgs. This is all about to get meta because I am about to (shamelessly) blog about a blog. Although – is it really meta if I’m not blogging about this blog? If this were a play, and it had a play in it, that would be metatheatre, so I suppose the act of referring to the writing of a blog within a blog is metablogging. But then, blogging is not quite as immersive an experience as theatre and usually more self-conscious by its very nature. So maybe one cannot apply the same critical parameters to the two media.
That was just to prove to myself I haven’t forgotten how to speak (or write, if you’re going to be fussy about it). The truth is that while it takes a clever and creative bean to market stuff effectively (and I’m not saying I’m one of those people, just that I’m working in that field and this strikes me as being the case), said marketing bean often has to communicate at the level of the lowest common denominator. Pretty soon a marketing bean of any calibre who has realised this starts to notice that their ability to string complex sentences together is waning.
I can feel mine slipping away from me and I am fighting to hold on to it.
Which is where blogging comes in, because on t’internet I can free the kite of my writing to the winds of my imagination and let them both soar where they will (while hopefully remaining tethered to the String of Sense, and keeping far from the Hedgerow of Twisted Logic). I can witter and twitter and blather and rant, and run circles around words and stretch meanings like bread dough when it has got to the pleasingly-elastic stage and has stopped sticking to every surface with which it comes into contact.
That’s what I like doing on this blog, ohoh yes. I like picking a theme and waxing lyrical for a bit, pootling around the edges of words and getting sidetracked on things I find interesting. This blog has always been a ‘writing’ blog, far more than it is a ‘pictures’ blog. It’s more like a journal than a photo album. So that’s why I’ve started a second blog for all my foodie-experiments. Here it is: cakesbyalfred.wordpress.com
That’s it. It’s that simple. On this blog, I will write stuff about my life (which I don’t have very much of in any case) and on that blog, I will post pictures and talk about recipes. That’s not to say that there won’t be any crossover, of course – perish the thought! But certainly, if you prefer salivating over cake to salivating over my prose style, you’d be better signing up to email updates at wordpress, and you can, forthwith, ignore me on here. If you like both, well then you are a lovely person and I love you muchly.
Ok. Metablog over.
One final aside, not to do with this topic, but to which I will surely return: if you haven’t read Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’, do so immediately. Even if you are not a woman (perhaps especially so, in that case). Not only will it make you cry with laughter, it will also make you weep with delight at her writing and surely too, it will make you think.
Right. That really is it.
For now.