Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gaming and its Discontents

I never seem to have enough time or inclination to do any online gaming; I have enough distractions as it is. But when I was about 13, everyone seemed to have an account on Runescape, one of the biggest multi-player online games out there, and possibly the easiest to play. There are no skills required, or commitment - it's free (unless you choose to become a member, for lots of extra perks) and you can log out and in anytime you want.

Over the course of many years, I fiddled around on Runescape whenever I was bored and, perhaps, the TV pickings were slim, dipping in and out whenever the fancy took me. Occasionally I'd stay up late (on a school night!) to finish a particular task, or to gain an extra level. It's a game that basically goes on indefinitely; you can go up to level 99 on about 12 different skills, do hundreds of quests and tasks, and explore the Runescape landscape. And, as I said, requires nothing more than some free time, and clicking on things. 

So I am utterly perplexed and slightly worried by people who dedicate their lives - yes, their lives - to Runescape. Presumably other online games have their own die-hard fans. Runescape is popular enough that there are whole online communities outside of the game where you can swap advice, talk about the finer points of the game, get help for quests (this is why I stumbled upon these communities - I am notoriously impatient and couldn't figure out the quest fast enough...and I really wanted the reward, dammit!) There, Runescape celebrities are revered and their names followed on the hi-score tables. 

One such 'celebrity' is SUOMI. He is determined to reach the maximum experience ceiling (gaining experience = improving a skill), at any cost. Here's some snippets of an interview from this site. By his own admission, this guy is a perfectionist, and says:

I would probably train same skill for the rest of my life if there was no xp [experience] limit. Of course that might sound sad but I just like boring and repetitive things, always did.
But he reassures us that his gaming is not unhealthy, even though he has no job or other occupations, and spends LITERALLY EVERY DAY playing online:

Money isn't a problem because I used to work a lot before I started going for 200 million xp in all skills. I invested my money and I don't spend much. But, I need to be careful that I don't burn myself out and take good care of my health. Of course playing as much as I do isn't healthy no matter how you look at it but I have lots of time for exercising and sleeping even though some people might think otherwise. Slept 12 hours today for example, what a huge xp waste that was, but I love sleeping
Despite his claims to the contrary, anyone who, without joking, considers sleeping a waste of gaming time needs to reassess their life. 
Some people usually think I eat fast food or stuff like that. I promised myself I would at least eat healthy if were to spend so much time playing this game. I haven't eaten pizza, hambugers, kebabs, chips or food like that at all in the last 3 years. [...]
Sometimes people ask me if I use drugs or something to play so much. I have never had alcohol or smoked. I've never used any drugs either. Never drank any coffee or energy drinks either. For some reason people tend to think I am forcing myself to stay up somehow but I just go to sleep when I feel tired.
 He finishes by urging readers not to 'feel bad' if they don't dedicate to the game like he does, and that it's better not to have a 'no-life'.

I am utterly, utterly confused and a bit worried. It seems there are people out there, supported by their online communities, who have given up their jobs, relationships and dedication to a real skill in order to gain fame within those communities. But I wish someone would shake these people and say 'BUT THERE IS LITERALLY NO SKILL INVOLVED IN THIS PURSUIT AT ALL!' You give up your life to click a computer screen all day...and people LOVE you for it. They actually respect you. And the relationships you develop on these games become real for you, as SUOMI demonstrates:

Jebrim - I see so much good in you too, some people will probably never see it. I still miss the times when I was going for 200M Agility. Doing perfect laps all day and sometimes all night was something I really enjoyed especially when I knew I had your support. And that 100M donation, didn't see it coming at all. You have been such a great friend to me.
Mi Thrill & Fire Dancer0 - Here is a picture of me mining my favorite gold rock with my friends Mi Thrill and Fire Dancer0.

I have no understanding of this mindset whatsoever. I suppose this post is just a massive WTF - and maybe this is why I was never much of a gamer.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Since entering the feminist blogosphere and (real-o-sphere), I've developed a privilege-checking mechanism that works most of the time. Dealing with ideas about power and oppression inevitably means placing yourself on the various scales of privilege that determine our lives (gender, class, ethnicity etc.). And once you do, there are times when you recognise that, instead of talking, it's time to listen. Perhaps also instances when you didn't notice it was one of those times (hence my privilege-checking working most of the time). 

I was a big fan of the Slutwalk protests (I explained why in this post). When someone mentioned that the marches might be alienating for black feminists, I couldn't conceive a reason why, and lamented that there was a lack of ethnic diversity in the walks. 

Then I read an article. Then another. The women writing about their alienation from the Slutwalk movement showed me how problematic reclaiming the word 'slut' was for black women, who have been historically seen as lascivious and hypersexual. As this open letter put it:

For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood. It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens.

Reading this letter, it all clicked into place.

There are certain experiences I, as a white woman, will never share with a black woman. Sometimes, no matter how much I think I know about the female experience, or the feminist experience, there are times when I have to sit back, listen, and understand. As feminists, we must always recognise the various voices which make up our movement, and recognise our own individual privileges. Sometimes, our own individual ignorances. 

This is one of the most important lessons I've learnt so far, especially because it applies far beyond the feminist movement. I encountered someone recently who was utterly perplexed by a conversation over the terms 'black,' 'non-white' and 'person of colour.' Different contexts, and different individuals, inform the language people employ when it comes to their identities. "But," snorted this white man, "I wouldn't care if someone called me white, or caucasian. It simply isn't an issue for me!"

I don't need to point out the ignorance in this comment. But it reminded me that privilege is a concept not everyone is comfortable, or unblinkered, enough to recognise (and I wondered how many times I have missed my own privilege, and blundered without being called out on it). 

I want to be called out on it. There's nothing like a bit of embarrassment when it comes to changing your behaviour.

Friday, 1 July 2011

'A Game of Thrones' - where are the kick-ass androgynous queers? (Or, why the fantasy genre and feminism don't always get along)

I was a massive fantasy fan as a youngster; my tenth and eleventh year were more or less spent entirely in the pages of the Deltora Quest books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel trilogy, and the obsession continued to The Edge Chronicles and Catherine Webb’s novels until I ended up reading every single one of beloved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Having not picked up a fantasy book since, I thought I’d give George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones a whirl. Since being made into a hit TV show, people have been raving about it. I have to say, as a re-entry into the fantasy world after a long hiatus, it disappoints.

The book does some things well. Martin exposes the reader to a vast world with a rich history without overwhelming, whilst paying enough attention to detail to allow complete absorption. Certain characters (Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister) are intriguing and well-drawn, and the novel certainly had pace. However, I couldn’t help being annoyed by certain aspects of Martin's world. This is because since following Sabriel and Lirael on their kick-ass journies through Garth Nix’s world, I have become what some might term a raging feminist. So here are the problems I have with A Game of Thrones:

Who uses the word ‘wenches?’
  I know that if you set your fantasy novel in a vaguely medieval-Britain-esque era, there will be certain linguistic quirks your characters might display. Doesn’t mean you, the author, have to do. There’s a reason why the fantasy genre is so often parodied – saying things like ‘on the morrow’ sets you up like a prick. So, yeah, one of your Winterfell knights might call women ‘wenches,’ but I’ll get pretty pissed off if you keep calling them that.

Why is it always medieval-Britain-esque?
  It’s a given that most fantasy novels of A Game’s type are set in a time without electricity, but with lots of castles, swords and battles. But…well, I’d like something new. Thanks.

The old gender problem
  So, here’s the thing. If I were to create my own new, fantastically detailed world in which anything could happen, I would GET RID OF OUR GENDER STEREOTYPES. I mean, JESUS, it’s not actually medieval Britain. You could have done anything with your world, Mr. Martin, you could have had kick-ass warrior princesses and relationships in which people respected one another; hell, you could have created androgynous super-queers who fight each other then fuck each others’ brains out afterwards.
   My point is, it’s so boring to just revert to gender roles like the ones evident in A Game. Despite the fact that there are some decent female characters, and they don't conform to gender roles so restrictively that they just cook, clean and fuck, the pickings aren't great. The existence of brothels and prostitutes is far too often remarked on, and even the loyal Eddard is unfaithful to his wife. As for the sex, I actually yelled out “Oh come ON” when Dany fucked the guy who had just essentially bought her, and repeatedly had sex with her until she was in pain. Oh and she’s THIRTEEN. Christ. And the only girl who displays any sort of kick-ass attitude is Arya, who spends half the novel being told she needs to do needlework instead of learning to defend herself. Yes, she eventually gets her way. But it's hardly a gender revolution. And don’t get me STARTED on the stupid harpist guy who is so weak and unmasculine because he carries a harp rather than a sword. Gimme a break.

The concept of the Other
  Again, a massive missed opportunity to transcend prejudice here. The Dothrakis are the Other to the Seven Kingdom-dwellers’ Self, the barbarian cousins of the civilised west (sound familiar?) Yes, Martins allows us an insight into their culture through Dany, a culture she embraces. But why make them so barbarious? Eating horse-meat (gasp!), selling each others’ women, raping each others’ women…they are not presented in the same empathetic way as the (let’s name it) white folks are. And that pisses me off.

  I guess these are all minor annoyances in an otherwise decent fantasy novel. At the same time, they ruined my reading experience. Why can’t fantasy novels like this engage in a more experimental way with the ‘otherworld’ challenge of creating a new world that is familiar yet utterly foreign to its readers? Good fantasy not only does that, but comments on our own world in a subtle, thought-provoking way. Unfortunately, A Game of Thrones falls into the trap of all material marketed at straight white men – it’s too straight, too white, and just doesn’t appease the feminist inside me.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

'Pies for Guys': Is meat a gendered issue?

It was like a scripted miracle. Perusing the shelves, I said to my boyfriend, “wouldn’t it be crazy if I could find a feminist vegan text in Waterstones? It would be as good as that time I found a Milton text with an introduction by Philip Pullman.” (For reference, that was a moment of almost transcendental joy).

And there it was: The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams. As soon as I had found it, however, I wondered how on earth one might pull off a text linking feminism and veganism; I expected some tenuous connections and perhaps even some dangerous stereotypes (women are better vegans because they care more!)

Honestly, it’s not a bad attempt. There was one statistic that stood out to me: 80% of animal rights activists were women at the time of writing (1999). Adams puts this down to a spurious affinity between animals and women – one oppressed group liberating another oppressed group – which is interesting but ultimately unprovable.

Instead, it prompted me to think about vegetarianism and veganism; specifically male vegetarians and vegans (I’ll just use the word ‘vegan’ to include both terms). There is no doubt in my mind that meat-eating is invariably linked to masculinity in our culture; male vegans I know or whose experiences I have read about seem to encounter the accusation of effeminancy or over-sensitivity regularly. Meat-eating is a man thing.

Today is fathers’ day. Browsing the BBC website this morning, I came across their ‘Fathers’ Day Recipes’ feature called ‘Pies for Guys.’ Clicking on the link confronts you with a huge picture of a meaty pie (the picture slide offers a huge meat steak next, and finally a nice picture of some fairy cakes). Suggestions for the main course for daddy? Lamb burgers, pizza, shepherd’s pie, steak pie, or rump steak and chips.
Mothers’ day? By a strange twist of fate, the huge image on this recipe page is of the lovely fairy cakes which were relegated to last place on the Fathers’ Day page. Mummy likes baking (so why not bake for her?) Also on offer: some champagne, salmon and a tiny breakfast egg on a muffin. Also, when mummy eats meat, she doesn’t want shepherd’s pie, or rump and chips. She wants ‘Pork tenderloin with rosemary, prosciutto and apple cider sauce’, or ‘Lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and sticky port sauce.’ A simple steak pie just doesn’t scream ‘mummy’ quite as much.
I anticipate accusations of over-analysis. However, fathers’ day and mothers’ day provide an interesting study for anyone interested in gender. And for someone interested in gender and meat, there is a wealth of opportunity for garnering some evidence for our society’s mental link between meat and masculinity. It worries me that a man might be considered somehow deficient if he chooses not to eat meat, as does the fact that some defend their meat-eating by saying ‘but I’m a man!’ (I’ve heard it done, folks.)
So, there you are. Just a little thought for those of you perusing any fathers’ day menus today.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

London-centricity and the Northern lass

I have never really lived close to London. In fact, I have never really lived in the South (the West Midlands doesn’t count, as southerners are very keen to affirm). Reading the broadsheets and perusing the BBC news website, however, I sometimes feel like I should be.

There is a common syndrome that affects Londoners, and quickly infects anyone who moves there: the Everything Happens in London Syndrome. For EHLS sufferers, London is the limit of their imagination; beyond the Home Counties, there are some vague grey shapes, and something called The North, but apparently it’s all a bit grim there.

Unfortunately, if you work for a major broadsheet or for the BBC, the chances are you’ll live near London (although the BBC are trying to set up camp in Manchester – let’s see how much grumbling we’ll hear about that).  Therefore, news stories have a tangible London-centricity, with events affecting anywhere else labelled as ‘regional.’
I notice this occasionally, but it has riled me recently because of the reporting of the Slutwalks which hit British shores last week. I attended both Newcastle and Manchester’s Slutwalks, both of which attracted large crowds, especially the latter. The Newcastle event was not reported on the BBC website; Manchester’s received one paragraph. But guess what? London’s Slutwalk yesterday merited a long analysis and feature report.

It’s the same story on the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph websites (let’s take it as read that the Page -3-toting tabloids aren’t going to add to the Slutwalk debate meaningfully…) In some ways I understand – the event in London is the biggest. But most reports only briefly mentioned the widespread nature of the marches, or failed to do so at all.

But one of the most fantastic things about Slutwalks are their grassroots nature. They have sprung up across the UK independent of one another; wherever you live, there WILL be a Slutwalk nearby over the next month or so. It would be great to see the media emphasising this, instead of reinforcing the tired old view that Everything Happens in London.

It’s even more pertinent, in my view, for local feminist and women’s groups to support local Slutwalks rather than just flocking to London. Building bridges and showing solidarity with your nearest groups is always immensely useful and a reminder you’re not alone – Slutwalks are the perfect chance to do this. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The stand I didn't know I was making

  It is generally considered unacceptably rude to tell a stranger that you find their appearance disgusting. Even the most tolerant among us find certain people and certain characteristics unattractive; it takes a great deal of determination and broad-mindedness to prevent appearance from affecting your judgment of someone. However, most of us are sympathetic enough to refrain from airing our personal gripes about each others’ externals – one person’s ugly is another’s beautiful.

This, apparently, goes out the window when it comes to body hair. Female body hair, more specifically.

I realise I am in the minority when I say I do not find unshaven women unattractive. Body hair does not have that trigger effect for me  - ‘Ew! Hair!’ – and genitals that I can see the goosebumps on just don’t do it for me.

Too much info? Yeah, it is; no-one should give a shit about what I think of body hair, apart from the person I’m sleeping with. This doesn’t stop the widespread and abhorrent tendency of the tabloid press to scrupulously pick over pictures of female celebrities, and triumphantly crow ‘LOOK! WE’VE FOUND ONE WHO FORGOT TO SHAVE THE STUBBLE OFF HER ARMPITS!’ According to them, the public desperately care whether or not Sandra Bullock shaves her armpits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the press.

I recently had a hostile and (to me) entirely unexpected experience relating to my body hair. As of a few months ago, I stopped shaving/waxing my armpits. There were numerous reasons – shaving produced stubble that needed removal every few days, but waxing was painful and expensive; I was ruining the delicate skin under my arms; and, genuinely, I hated how my skin looked shaved. I also had a think about why I ever removed the hair in the first place – every other woman I have ever known does it; people might find the hair disgusting; and … that was it. So I opted out. As far as I am concerned, deciding not to remove one’s body hair is an entirely personal decision; it makes me feel much better than fretting over the stubble on my legs or the decision whether to wax or shave.

However, it seems the personal cannot be entirely divorced from the political. In the student publication I write for, someone wrote a light-hearted, uplifting article giving the opinion that this summer, we should all stop striving for a ‘perfect’ beach body, and not be afraid to enjoy the sun whether or not we carry a spare tyre, or have stubble on our legs. The website has a comment facility; I wrote that I was in full-hearted agreement – we should feel free to do that, because I have, and I have never encountered disgusted looks or comments from strangers. To imagine one would would be to have a very poor view of humanity.

The original can be found here. But let me give you an abbreviated run-down of the ensuing comment thread:

Anonymous: Nothing wrong with being pale and a bit fat but dear god no-one wants to see unshaven bits, there's no excuse for that! I like to cheat the world with decent nude tights in summer. Even skin tone, slight tan, and stubbly leg cover up! What more could you want!

I was slightly put out by this person's judgement. So, being the person I am, replied:

Gillian Love: ...Why thank you. I shall indeed take your advice and tear all of the hair out of my skin so that everyone can rest easy. Or, indeed, go out in the sun in tights and get a super-sweaty groin. Mmm.
P.S. Wanna get rid of that stubble? Don't shave!

From personal experience, going out with stubbly legs is highly preferable to going out in the blazing sun with nylon tubes strapped to your legs and groin. Seriously. But, on with the responses:

Anonymous: Gillian Love: confirming stereotypes of feminists everywhere since 2011.

Anonymous: That is truly disgusting...and sweaty groin? Er, gross?...

Anonymous: Girls, please don't get hung up about how you look in the sun, it's true that too much is made of perfection. But for the love of God, please continue to shave and if you get a 'super-sweaty groin' should you don tights, please please don't share this info :)

After protesting, and addressing the author of the article by saying it is entirely her decision whether she shave or not, I was miraculously backed up:

Justin: I'm astonished by the force of commentor's reactions here to what is clearly a completely personal decision...what makes you think your personal taste is anyone's business but your own?...How bewilderingly arrogant to angrily denounce somebody merely for not, in your eyes, being attractive enough!

Justin, I salute you. But you know what all of those anonymous commenters said in their defence?

Anonymous: Pretty much all of the comments here were directed at Gillian, not the original article, which is an admirable and good piece.

It's bewilderingly OK to attack my body hair, but not the author's. Because apparently I was being provocative. Because I agreed that not shaving can be OK. And, according to one woefully illiterate guy:

David Spelling: ...chastising people who object to *celebration* of female obesity and hairiness, or oddly enthusiatic descriptions of sweaty groins, is childish...

Pretty sure I've never celebrated a sweaty groin. But there you go.

The point of this long post is to show that a decision that I believed was personal, and one someone else wrote about and I agreed with, was attacked on entirely personal terms but as a political decision. I was disgusting, I was wrong, because I don't shave and prefer not to wear tights in the sun. I was also making a feminist statement, according to these strangers (the fact the decision ties in with some of my feminst beliefs is not important - remember, these guys don't know me). The only other person expressing the same view as me, who was not attacked personally? A guy.

Before I am accused of misandry, I want to make clear that there is as much, if not more, pressure from women to remove body hair as there is from men (remember the tabloid hacks above). However, I have an acute problem with receiving the opinion that body hair is disgusting from a person who has never felt the pressure to remove his own. He has never stayed indoors instead of going out because he'd run out of wax strips; he has never felt like crying because he looked in the mirror and realised he's forgotten to shave his armpits; and he has never been told by strangers that the unavoidable growth of bodily hair is repugnant (but only on arbitrary parts of the body). Which makes it all the more relieving to find men (and women) who actually don't give a fuck about your hair follicles.

So, by having hairy armpits and legs I am actually making a loud statement without intending (or initially wanting) to. But, you know what? Bring it on. If people take it as such, I'll treat it as such, because since taking the decision to let my body hair grow, I have felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. If anyone, especially strangers, are disgusted or offended by my body, the onus is entirely on them to change. Because now that I've encountered my first hostile body-hair-haterz, my personal has become political.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Inside the Slutwalk Movement

   It was a cold day in Newcastle. That didn’t deter any of the women clustered around Grey’s Monument in the city centre; from bras and mini-skirts to hoodies (and one wedding dress), hundreds had turned out for Newcastle’s Slutwalk. The message was clear and resounding: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!”

  The unity of the message surprised me. Having avidly followed the swift rise of the Slutwalk movement from its reactionary beginnings (you all know the story – policeman says “don’t dress like a slut if you don’t want to be raped,” thousands of women across Canada say “fuck you”), I had been aware of how divisive it had amongst feminists in the UK. The message of the Slutwalks was contested – how can we ever reclaim a word so derogatory and negative? Why on earth should we pander to a stereotype of female sexuality by dressing ‘sluttishly’ and parading through the streets? And if no one can decide the answers to these questions, how can the movement move forward with a unified objective?

  On the march on Saturday, there was no deliberation about whether the word ‘slut’ can be reclaimed (I believe any word can – the history of ‘queer’ is a fantastic example). People simply emblazoned these four powerful letters across their backs, their faces and their chests, because they were not ashamed by what the word represents. They refused to accept that ‘slut’ implies a lack of morals, or a desperation to engage in sexual acivity, and certainly not that the label justifies sexual violence. Instead, they appeared to confront the term head-on by embracing some or all of these meanings: I enjoy sex; I enjoy my body; I am sexually promiscuous; I have my own style of dress - so why should it be a word of shame?

  As for the moral panic which has recently scoured the airwaves about young women roaming the streets in their underwear, objectors need to remember that this is a protest. By marching through the streets and proclaiming that even though we’re in our bras and hotpants, we don’t deserve to be raped, we aren’t saying that this is it – the time has come for women to throw off their clothes and pop down the shops in their undies, and damn you if you try to stop us! It means simply that no matter what you wear, you shouldn’t be raped. Radical, I know.

  So the message of Newclastle’s Slutwalk was not muddled, nor was there fierce infighting about what the movement should represent. It was certainly visually confrontational (especially to some bemused shoppers faced with a crowd of variously-dressed protestors), but not in any other way (a few had issues with a Christian preacher at the march’s beginning, but they were a minority and were separate from the march’s aims). Many onlookers politely enquired what the walk was about, and came away with firm answers: we don’t like slut-shaming, we don’t like victim-blaming, and we want to wear what we want.

  There are many more Slutwalks planned across the UK, and I am excited to see what Manchester’s has to offer on 10th June. All of my doubts about the movement’s message and its implications were utterly dispelled by Slutwalk Newcastle; its message was worthy and powerfully executed. And when I do go to Manchester, I think this time I’ll go in my bra. Because I can.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Pippa Middleton and her Royal Arse

She was educated at one of the best universities in Britain, she works in a highly successful party planning business, and she is an accomplished skier. Three things I guarantee you will not have known about Philippa Middleton.

Pippa – as her friends and the media dub her – is probably known to you for two rather different reasons. She is sister to, and was bridesmaid to, Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. She also has a Facebook fan page dedicated to her arse.

Once a woman such as Pippa Middleton becomes embroiled in the media circus that surrounds a family such as hers, certain things become the subject of intense public attention. Pippa may wish for the media to scrutinise her outfits, from the cut of her bridesmaid’s dress to the way she does her mascara; but if she doesn’t, there’s not much she can do about it. She may revel gloriously in the lustful attention her backside has garnered from the British population; or she may be offended by it. We have no idea; it did not stop the media from circulating photographs of her in her underwear, sold to American photographic agencies by unscrupulous friends.

To put the tarnished cherry on the proverbial cake, Pippa has been singled out for a potential career in the pornography industry. Co-Chairman of Vivid Entertainment Steve  Hirsch has reportedly sent a letter to Ms Middleton saying:

"As far as I was concerned, you were the star of the recent Royal Wedding. As I watched a broadcast of the event I couldn't help but think that with your beauty and attitude you could be an enormously successful adult star. For just one explicit scene I would be pleased to offer you $5 million USD and, of course, you would have a choice of partners. If you would like to bring your brother James along, he could appear in a separate scene for $1 million USD.”

Without uttering a word, and merely by appearing in a flattering outfit on her sister’s wedding day, Pippa Middleton has solicited a job offer from a porn king and the leering attention of the nation. A quick perusal of comments on the aforementioned Facebook fan page of ‘Pippa Middleton’s Arse’ include:

 I'd love to have a go on that! Sweet momma I'd eat it for hours!”
 “id defo smash her back door in.”
“Nice arse... shame about the face! Lolz.”

This is not coy affection for a nation’s sweetheart, but a masturbatory, undignified and humiliating appropriation of a woman’s body which bypasses any moral objections because she happens to be in the public eye.

This outrageous objectification is not confined to Pippa, of course; we all remember Huw Edwards’ comment on what a ‘splendid view’ we all had of Kate Middleton’s breasts as she climbed into her car on the day of the Royal Wedding. Nor is it confined to those who find these women merely sexually attractive; the endless speculation and affirmation of opinion of ‘fashion experts’ around the wedding seemed to ignore the individuals walking down the aisle, instead imbuing their clothing and make-up with the most value. Yes, it was a beautiful dress. But it says nothing about the woman who wore it.

I am not Pippa Middleton, and I would never presume to speak for her. However, no-one has any clue as to how she feels about her arse being idolatrised as an almost separate entity to the rest of her body; all we know is that ‘the Middleton family’ were very angry that the press circulated pictures of her in her bra. Pippa herself has no voice. I suggest that until she has one, we should end the public displays of lustful desire her body is at the centre of, and recall that in that body is a woman who may not feel flattered but saddened by her objectification. Shame on those who forget that.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Lady Gaga - was she really Born This Way?

I have a love-hate relationship with the First Lady of Pop. Stefani Germanotta – Gaga to her friends – is at once a model of empowerment and individualism, and a self-generating publicity machine feeding on the same old clich├ęs we Little Monsters should be accustomed to by now.

In her video to ‘Born This Way,’ Gaga cavorts, wriggles, gyrates and quite convincingly simulates masturbation in nothing but her fetching undies. She gleefully trips around the set, crying out that she was born this way, God made her perfectly, and you can feel that too even if you are Lebanese (her words). You can’t fault her consistency – never afraid to flash the flesh, Gaga has been celebrating her innate bodily perfection since she burst into our lives and the media’s ever-hungry lens.

It doesn’t take a particularly keen eye to spot something odd, however. It’s hard to hide anything when you’re dancing around in (almost) your birthday suit, especially a pair of skeletal ‘horns’ which made their debut appearance sticking out of Gaga’s shoulders and cheekbones in the video (which is full of much weirder and more wonderful sights, I admit). “They’re not prosthetics. They're my bones.They come out when I'm inspired,” she explained to Bazaar magazine recently, revealing that she may be many things, but checked into reality she ain’t.

What Gaga does well is challenge our aesthetics. Her fashion is about controversy, and challenging us to expect the unexpected, even if it makes us uncomfortable (her new horns give her an uncanny alien look). It becomes problematic, however, for a prominent artist to base much of their appeal on stage-craft and artificiality, and to simultaneously encourage her fans to love themselves as they are.

Watching her video, I couldn’t work out what I was being sold. It took me a while, but eventually I had to turn off in disappointment when the veneer of originality wore off and I realised Gaga doesn’t even know, herself. Like so many vapid pop songs, Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ whirled me round, left a happy little trail in my mind, then quickly faded. Because I really don’t care what she says, I will never hold Stefani Germanotta up as a champion of true individuality until she drops the moniker, rips out her horns and ditches the theatre that is her ‘look.’ Until then, she is nothing more than a bearer of a false, if popular and catchy, message.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mr Blackwell, Misandry and Loose Women

     Following the dishonourable dismissals of Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys, it was inevitable that discussion of sexism and inequality would follow in the national media. And, equally predictably, the old myth was let loose that women are turning the tables on men, and subjecting them to sexism which goes unnoticed or ridiculed in daily life. Cue a flood of dubious statistics and tenuous conclusions which serve only to hinder the progress to equality in the workplace.

   In fact, I have a perfect example. Those of you who picked up the Independent’s daily digest, ‘i’, on 28th January may have encountered Luke Blackwell’s article. ‘Women still often get the raw end of the deal – but is it more acceptable for them to be sexist nowadays?’ he asks in an article which not only fails to answer that very question, but opens with some schoolboy logic. Let’s hear him out first, though:
A 2006 study carried out by the Institute for the Study of Labour think tank discovered that while women suffered sex discrimination when applying for engineering jobs, men were victims of sex discrimination when it came to applying for fields such as accountancy, computer programming and secretarial work.
It seems women are not the only victims in the sexually unequal workplace; this is an important point. He continues:
And 18 months ago, US employment law firm Peninsula carried out a survey which suggested that four out of five men had encountered female ‘sex pests’ at work and that employers tended to take sexual harassment cases from men less seriously than from women.
Damning evidence, I’m sure you’ll agree. Women should be ashamed of themselves!

   Except, of course, we shouldn’t, because Mr Blackwell has failed to draw the real conclusion from his statistics. If men are being discriminated against when they apply for certain jobs, who is doing the discriminating? The interviewer. A person of, we can assume, fairly high rank. If men are making complaints of sexual harassment, who are they complaining to? Their bosses. Who, again, are obviously high up the office pecking order.

    In the very opening of this article, Mr Blackwell reminds us: ‘Women still…face glass ceilings in the workplace and are woefully under-represented in Parliament and in boardrooms across the country.’

   So, in these accounting firms where men are failing to be hired over their female peers, and in these workplaces where men are failing to have their complaints of sexual harassment heard, who are the people more likely to be the architects of this? The ones in the boardrooms. The ones interviewing applicants for their businesses. The ones, therefore, more likely to be men than women.

    To suggest that men are being discriminated against, therefore it must be women doing the discriminating, is illogical. Sexism does indeed go both ways, and both genders participate in it, as can be demonstrated by switching on programmes like Loose Women which is mind-dribble of the lowest order, and receives regular complaints accordingly. This does not indicate, as Mr Blackwell would have it, that the world has turned upside down and women can now spew inane, sexist drivel on TV with no rebuttal. Instead, it reminds us that we still hold expectations about gender, whether conscious or unconscious; women just aren’t engineers, and men just don’t do secretarial work. And women enjoy watching other women screech and cackle about meaningless crap on daytime TV.

    No one advocates gender inequality. No one wants to be subject to sexual discrimination. Most men don’t think women are inferior; most women don’t think men are Neanderthals. The struggle for equality is not confined to one gender; don’t insult the intelligence of either with tales of ‘reverse sexism.’It isn’t OK, and it will change. Just don’t get sucked in by misinformed arguments to the contrary.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Loving the Arts

Writing is an outlet, a cleansing, a compulsion, a joy and a burden; studying and exploring literature only scratches the surface of its myriad forms. The more you read, the more you become aware of how much is left to read, in a way that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And I would defend the study of literature – or any art – to an extreme.

I marched on 20th November 2010. Not only because the prospect of future generations bankrupting themselves for the privilege of Higher Education weighed on me like it was my own burden; not only because I was utterly disheartened by the dearth in passion and love of learning in many of my fellow students; not only to celebrate my dearly held right to free speech and self-expression. I also marched because my government, with no mandate, was telling me that the arts didn’t matter, weren’t a priority, cost too much, and were no longer a luxury the country could support. I was angry then, and I am angry still.

The Browne Review suggested that the government should tear the floor from under the arts and humanities, stripping their funding and feeding ‘priority’ subjects – science, engineering, medicine, languages – to bring HE institutions in line with the age of austerity. Lovers of the arts are no strangers to accountants pointing the finger when funding is short, dismissing thousands of years of human ingenuity with the cry, “But what is it for?” To apply the model of utilitarianism to art, literature, drama or any other ‘non-priority’ subject rejects the very reason for their existence.

   I said I would defend the arts to an extreme, and this is because I believe they are indispensable. Medicine, engineering and the sciences serve an essential, and easily identifiable, purpose; without them we would have nothing to base our civilization on. The arts, however, build on and embellish that base, make it beautiful, add value to it, and make us question everything from the nature of love to the nature of reality. Human beings do not just need to survive; we need a reason to survive, and a way of expressing our joy at being here at all. I cannot enumerate the instances of clarity and delight I have had in reading great writers’ work, hearing the perfect chord, discovering new forms of art I didn’t know existed. These moments are not unique to me. I study literature because I have a desire, a hunger, to learn why words on a page can inflame, how they can change the world, and to join the greatest among us in questioning everything.

   The beauty of the arts is that you do not need a single qualification to be scintillated by what they have to offer. At the same time, they attract brilliant minds who dedicate their lives to illuminating and expanding the horizons of their study. Times ahead are hard, but the arts will survive in universities, because we love and need them. Eventually, even Lord Browne might realise it.