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.