Category Archives: Feminism

More thoughts on The Hobbit and the Bechdel test

Things I can recall having talked about with other women during the past few weeks:

Our plans for the day. The cost of public transport. The quality of food in local restaurants. What policies we would pass immediately if we were Prime Minister. Our relationships with other members of our family. The weather. Which pair of shoes go best with my new dress. Climate change. Travel plans. Money worries. Whether it’s better to rent or buy your first property. What time we’ll be going for lunch. The rising cost of food. Boyfriends. The fantasy series we liked most as children. Austerity politics. The difference between British and American comedy. What time the shopping centre will be closing. The places we’d most like to visit in India.  Depression. Why the Inbetweeners USA was so crushingly unfunny. How to get from Putney to Harrow on the tube. The economy. Why the London Underground is so inaccessible for wheelchair users. Whether puppies or kittens are cuter. Electronic cigarettes. Whether Karl Marx was just “too downbeat” (thanks, Bethany!) Whether there should be a maximum wage. The logistics of fitting pieces of mirrored glass into a clear plastic raincoat. How to correctly pronounce someone’s name. Poetry.

The number of times I have seen women in popular media discussing anything over the past few weeks: 2.

It is strange to think that an experience which happens daily, if not hourly, in my life, is something I witness so infrequently in popular culture. With the exception of Newsnight, for me to see two or more women discussing anything at length on film or television is so rare that I always notice it.

I wonder what effect this has on men. I wonder if it has anything to do with the number of men who say they “can’t talk to women”, as if the kind of things women talk about are limited to a) fashion and b) babies. I wonder if it is really beyond the imagination of male scriptwriters to write female interaction not limited to discussing the actions of a male character.

I wonder if it would change how I thought about the men around me, if every time I watched a film or a TV show, they were presented almost entirely in relation to the women around them. If the sight of two men discussing anything on TV or film – from how to destroy the Pale Orc to the failure of austerity politics – was so rare that I always noticed it.

I loved The Hobbit, but the male-centredness of it should be an anomaly for a film produced in 2012, not just an extreme example of the sexist status quo.


“Bitch, please” – Julia Gillard and the background noise of sexism

“Calm down dear”. Iron My Shirt! You’re likeable enough. This, and countless other examples, are the background noise of sexism that all female politicians have to put up with, caught in a bind where drawing attention to sexist attacks is usually far more trouble than it’s worth. Julia Gillard, the Labour Prime Minster of Australia, and first woman to hold that office, yesterday launched a blindside against the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, for his history of sexist and misogynist remarks, and the video is a masterclass of a political takedown. If you only watch five minutes, watch the first four and the last one. It will have you cheering your computer screen.

The speech is so caustic that Abbott appears to be visibly diminishing in size throughout the fifteen minute video; by the end he looks about two inches tall. The background story is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, had been caught sending some graphic and sexist text messages to an aide; the opposition called for his resignation (he has now resigned) and Abbott said that the Government’s “support” of Slipper “was another day of shame for a Government that should have already died of shame”. The Government wanted to wait until the results of the investigation came through, and Gillard in particular was “not about to be lectured about sexism and misogyny by [Abbott]”, especially considering he is close friends with Slipper himself.

In a brilliant political move, Gillard defended her decision not to call for Slipper’s resignation until the court investigation had terminated while at the same time turning the tables back on Tony Abbott for “the sexism he brings to public life”. She turned a situation that could have been a defence of her failing to call for Slipper’s resignation into an attack on her opponent for his sexism and misogyny. It was the first time I have seen charges of sexism used seriously as a political attack. It was extremely effective, due to Gillard’s delivery and, hopefully, the political climate having progressed enough for accusations of sexism against a high-level politician to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

She runs through his “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”. The rhetoric is excellent – (“this is something he said not when he was a student, not when he was at high school, but when he was a Minister”) and the delivery is spot on. Gillard is absolutely on the attack – passionate, offended and contemptuous. At 3.22. Gillard brings up a boorish comment from Abbott about women “doing the ironing”, to which she replies with “thankyou for that painting of womens’ roles in modern Australia”. A comment as inane as Abbott’s doesn’t require a brilliant comeback, but the way she delivers her riposte is absolutely withering. The next two minutes are the most devastating – she recounts Abbott’s comments that Gillard “make an honest woman of herself” and the fact he stood next to a sign saying Ditch the Witch.

The brilliance of the attack is in weaving together the sexism he has displayed against women generally throughout his life, with the specifically sexist nature of the attacks against Julia Gillard. All women in public life put up with this draining and offensive sexist shit. Specific remarks about women’s inability to lead are less common than the insidious, belittling, supposedly “funny” comments that Gillard drew attention to – factually empty references to ironing and high heels and hormones that could be better described as sexist dogwhistling. The sexist atmosphere that Abbott feeds off is one where the youtube comments on the first page of videos featuring Gillard regularly say things like “bitch please” and “get back in the kitchen” and “silly bimbo slut” and “lying bitch”. The mixture of accusations of malevolence, manipulativeness and incompetency contained in those phrases would have no equivalent in insults for male politicians. I’m not saying female politicians aren’t sometimes callous, manipulative and incompetent. But the gendered language used against them links those insults with the very concept of women having power. How many times has Hillary Clinton been described as “ambitious”? Anyone wanting to lead a country is ambitious. It’s only when women want to that the word is used with suspicion.

Gillard’s luck was in finding a situation where she could make the workaday political charge of hypocrisy against an opponent but use it to passionately, articulately and contemptuously denounce his record of sexism. Not just the Victorian-era statements about men being “more adapted to exercise authority”, but the tiring, offensive, vile shit that includes calling her a “bitch” and suggesting her father “died of shame” because of her “lies”. I imagine every female politician on the planet could make a similar speech without too much difficulty, but the political impact of “playing the gender card” would usually outweigh the benefits. In mixing righteous anger, contempt and humour, Gillard has achieved what I previously thought was impossible – political capital from calling out sexism. What usually happens is that individual sexist comments, from fellow politicians or the media, are brushed aside by a majority who can never see it as structural oppression, and the woman left trying to highlight the insidious sexism of the public sphere is painted as victimizing herself. She also draws attention to the original attack, which can often backfire, seeing as the goal of this sexism is to draw attention to a woman’s femininity, amping up the patriarchal mood music which reminds us that women having power is unnatural and terrifying. It’s also the case that it’s just plain horrible and upsetting to be called a bitch or a nag, and women in public life don’t want to spend their limited time and energy on dealing with that immature shit. They do, after all, have countries to run.

When Gillard quoted some of Abbott’s worst statement back at him, the House filed with audible groans. But it was her treatment of his contribution to the background noise of undermining sexism that she puts up with  which was particularly brilliant. These jibes are treated mostly by an uncritical media and public as  incidences of the kind of political sniping that all politicians face, making it very hard for any woman in public life to draw attention to the sexism they often contain. While the comments are usually about as funny as accidentally treading on an upturned plug, the veneer of humour to them leave anyone who calls it out open to being called humourless or in favour of censorship. Gillard’s speech was much funnier than anything Abbott has ever said, and its humour was in its contemptuous delivery.

Not only did Gillard destroy her political opponent over his previous sexism, ensuring that he’ll never say anything along those lines in public life again, she also managed to make very clear that the sexism she faces is a facet of the sexism faced by all Australian women. Weaving together his comments on abortion (“the easy way out”, apparently) with his sexist attacks on her brilliantly made the case for the enduring structural injustice of sexism while pinning a fair share of the blame for it on Tony Abbott himself. Her delivery is as contemptuous as his comments deserve.

We’ve got a long way to go in addressing both everyday sexism and female underrepresentation in politics, but Gillard’s blistering, occasionally funny and always deadly serious attack on an opponent for his sexism and misogyny feels like a huge step forward. Sexism in politics, as in daily life, is not funny, not ironic and not trivial, and I hope this is the first of many attacks on the countless male politicians who still think sexism is a legitimate way to undermine their opponents.

Thank you Julia Gillard, for using your position to call out the sexism that pervades public life. What a woman.

Louise Michel, anarcho-feminist of the 1870s

Written for the (mainly) Welsh-language anarchist fanzine Ffwff 

If you go to Paris and spend the day in Montmartre, you’ll see the Sacré Coeur, and a small square nearby named after Louise Michel, both of which are intimately connected to the events of the Paris Commune. Louise Michel, described by Emma Goldman as “sublime in her love for humanity”, was one of the most inspirational women in the history of anarchism.

Nineteenth-century Paris was a hotbed of anarchism, socialism and other left-wing ideas. Anarchist theatre, anarchist communes and anarchist terrorism all flourished. The communes on the outskirts of Paris planned full programmes of concerts, country walks and communal meals for working-class families, asking that people gave what they could, and took only what they needed. Anarchist, Marxist and socialist literature abounded to give those who wanted it a political education, but the aim was to embody the ethos of anarchism – Mutual Aid, comradeship and joie de vivre – in the here and now. In the city itself, forms of direct action ranged from releasing rats into bourgeois theatre audience to attempts to bomb the Chamber of Deputies. Everything I assumed started in the 1960s at the earliest turns out to have been in evidence in Belle Epoque Paris.

And in the March of 1870, the citizens of Paris, beginning in Montmartre, rose up against the State. The immediate catalyst was the events of the Prussian siege of Paris, but poverty was widespread and extreme, and anarchist ideas had been gaining traction. The Revolution of 1848 was in living memory for most people. An attempt by the military general Adolphe Thiers to seize the cannons that had been stored in Montmartre to fight the Prussians quickly turned into a revolutionary situation, as the soldiers joined the side of local residents and local militias. The government fled and the Commune was established on March 28th, with a Central Committee democratically elected to run the city of two million.

Louise Michel fought on the barricades and then was one of several anarchist women who threw themselves into the running of the Commune. The Commune gave women the vote, had directly elected representatives subject to immediate recall, set up secular schools and nurseries, and put businesses under the control of workers. Louise Michel wrote of it as the happiest time of her life.

On May 24th, the Communards organised a popular concert in the Tuileries garden, in what used to be the gardens to the Louvre palace, in the district of Paris that we might now call the home of the city’s 1%. But Paris was singing its requiem. That night, Thiers’ troops entered the city and thus began one of the most shameful episodes in European history. They slaughtered not only Communards but anyone suspected of supporting them, killing 40,000 people in one week, with the battle ending in Pere Lachaise cemetery, with the last of the Communards shot again what is now known as the Mur des Féderés (the Federalists’ Wall, in reference to the Communard belief in a federation of communities rather than nation states).

Marx argued that this meant the Communards should have spent less time organising elections, and more time organising a revolutionary vanguard to finish off Thiers’ troops, an opinion whose implications reached their conclusion in the Russian Revolution 50 years later. Louise herself had offered to go to Versailles to assassinate Thiers. When she was captured by his soldiers and lined up against a wall she is rumoured to have told them “Since every heart that yearns for freedom must expect its measure of lead, go ahead and shoot me! For if you don’t I shall spend every moment of the rest of my life seeking my vengeance on you”. They didn’t shoot.

She was instead exiled to New Caledonia for seven years. Thousands greeted her return to Paris, and she spent the rest of her life between London and Paris, educating and agitating, including lengthy spells in jail. “If the equality between the sexes were properly recognised”, she wrote, “it would be a noteworthy exception to the history of human stupidity”.

When offered release, she refused without “amnesty for all”. Anarchism was the guiding principle of her whole life, and even friends criticised her habit of taking in anyone from the street, feeding and clothing them even when she had nothing. “La Bonne Louise” lives on in popular memory as France’s schoolteacher, the stubborn, headstrong woman caught between a burgeoning bourgeois feminist movement, and the internalized misogyny of her anarchist-socialist comrades. As the French say, plus ça change…

So next time you go to Paris, ignore the military victories commemorated by the vainglorious Arc de Triomphe and instead take a walk in Père Lachaise cemetery. In 1870 the gunshots that raged among the Baroque headstones were testament to a battle between two views of what human society is for – co-operation or competition? Human flourishing or the pursuit of profit? The people who believed in the latter won in that round, and went on to lead the country into the butchery of the First World War, and the attendant horrors of the twentieth century. But under the Mur des Féderés you’ll doubtless see a basket of red flowers, not too wilted, placed in memory of the thousands who lost their lives to a belief in a fairer society, and the need to fight for it. Their ideas did not die. La lutte continue.

Unilad comment piece

Humour piece originally published in The Boar as “Two pints of lager and a couple of dicks” (the most read article published in that period!), then republished in the Vagenda as “Why Lad Bantz won’t get me out of my pants”.

So, Unilad. I’d heard a lot about it, and following a Facebook acquaintance’s repeated posting of ‘hilarious’ pictures from the site, a mixture of curiosity, masochism and having loads of free time now exams are over drove me to actually sit and read it in an attempt to understand ‘lad culture’. The site is basically an instruction manual for LADS (it’s always capitalised) on how to conform to a view of masculinity so archaic it doesn’t so much pre-date the Second Wave as pre-date the invention of the wheel. Yes, the site is a festering pool of misogyny, classism and homophobia, but the more I read, the less I felt outraged and the more I felt simply contemptuous, even pitying. Let me explain.

The actual TOP 5 DO NOTS OF BEING A LAD (and nothing says being secure in your gender identity like capitalised prohibitions on certain behaviours!) is as follows: LADS must not listen to music, ever turn down sex, alcohol or the chance to play Fifa or um, use tumblr. These instructions clearly have nothing to do with impressing women, seeing it’s fairly common knowledge that being a borderline-alcoholic sex pest with no interest in anything but football isn’t exactly a foolproof way to get laid. In fact, what slowly dawned on me was that the constant quest for ‘gash’ has less to do with sex for its own sake, and more to do with reporting back to the LADpack (yes, really) afterwards. It’s almost as if without meaningless sexual encounters with women they have zero respect for or even interest in, the LADS would have nothing to BANTER about; banter being, as we all know, what people who can’t hold CONVERSATIONS do to pass the time while getting horrendously drunk. What amazes me about unilad is how it manages to turn the popular pursuits of sex and drinking into a tiresome point-scoring contest of proving one’s masculinity to the rest of one’s equally insecure male peers. This is done namely by seeing who can drink the most and score the most, even if that means ending the night in bed with a girl you find repulsive, or possibly throwing up in a taxi. One of the tales starts by happily recounting a night of ‘projectile vomiting into club toilets’. Woah guys, talk about living the dream!

The obsessive focus on ingesting fluids in the form of beer (or possibly spirits, to really daringly push at the boundaries of heteronormativity) and expelling them in the form of meaningless, drunken sex as the only worthwhile leisure activity while at university is so repetitive, mindless and one-dimensional I actually got bored reading it. What is perhaps even more ironic than the constant use of the word WENCH is the way that the sexual liberation the LADS enjoy has everything to do with a movement called feminism, and nothing to do with the archaic sexual double standards their shitty site espouses.

Page after page of what would be termed ‘lifestyle articles’ if they were about a million times better written reassure lads that the essence of manhood involves drinking eight pints of lager a night and constantly imagining sex with the women around you despite it rarely happening. After all (and all quotes are genuine, apart from the spelling mistakes I had to correct); “thinking about sex all the time might cause a few misjudgements, but at least you’re misjudging tits”. I don’t know about you, but if my every waking moment was consumed with a mostly fruitless quest to shag anything that moved, I probably wouldn’t want people to know? I wouldn’t think it made me some kind of liberated latter-day Wildean hedonist, I would assume it made me sound deeply sexually and socially inept.

This view was only confirmed when I encountered sex tips like “a girl is sexually driven by her mind and not her body”, which reads more like a reprint of a Victorian sex manual (you know, because women are turned on by the thought of weddings and babies) than the expert advice of a modern man who has, I don’t know, had sex more than twice in his life. The creepy emphasis on going for ‘insecure’ girls with ‘daddy issues’ and ‘fat-thigh-complexes’ comes across as projection on a vast scale; if you’re looking for people who use 30-second sexual encounters in club toilets as a way to shore up their low self-worth, it seems to be less the ‘sluts’ the site constantly mentions than the writers of unilad themselves.

Anyway, if any LADS are offended by the content of this article, and my insinuation that their adoption of the norms of this tragic subculture speaks to nothing more than the abyss where their senses of wonder, revolutionary spirit and/or ability form relationships should be, I say only this – I am writing this for the purposes of HUMOUR. It’s just BANTER between me and my feminist chums, and failure to find it funny means you are totally unable to take a joke. Got it?

We are the 22%

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. We don’t need to sit around scratching our heads about what the problem is – the problem is sexism. That’s literally it. We’re not making it up.”

It would be hard to improve on Bidisha’s closing statement at the recent ‘We are the 22%’ event at Warwick University. I chaired a panel of four female speakers; Gabrielle Shiner, writer for Spiked, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a journalist and trade union organiser, Professor Shirin Rai, from the University of Warwick and Bidisha, the broadcaster, writer and journalist. 22% referred to the average level of women’s representation across the board in professional and influential industries. This level has stagnated for years; the debate was about why, and how to change it.

The first question of the evening came from Welfare Officer Izzy John, incidentally the only female member of the seven Sabbatical Officers at Warwick.   She asked what the panel thought of the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. They were pretty unanimous in hating it – ‘instead of smashing the glass ceiling, we need to blow up the whole building’. As with so many gender-based issues, instead of examining the structural inequality of a system built by men in the first place, the glass ceiling narrative refocuses the problem on women’s behaviour. It elucidated a wider debate about whether the problem of a lack of female participation in politics is a problem to do with women or a problem to do with  politics itself. I am certain it’s the latter.

This argument can come off as essentialist and patronising. I don’t think women (or men) are essentially anything, and I don’t think women are incapable of debate, combativeness or self-assertion. By blowing up the entire building, I mean that our entire conception of what it takes to ‘get ahead’ and what we mean by ‘success’ needs to be redefined. Part of the problem with masculinity is that is has been characterized by dominance, competition and acquisition for a very long time within our culture. This is not only bad because it hinders women from success in life, but it’s bad in itself because that whole definition of success is wrong.

We see a successful businessperson as someone who has acquired vast amounts of capital, and a successful politician as someone who has defeated his opponents and managed to hold onto power for as long as possible. This is the crux of capitalist ideology, which commodifies the idea of accomplishment like it commodifies everything else.

Men are trained to achieve this commodified success to a greater degree than women are. Women are encouraged to put more store by personal relationships, to co-operate instead of competing, and to put other peoples’ needs ahead of their own. The only reason these attributes are seen as weaknesses is because the dominant ideologies of capitalism and patriarchy have for a long time needed the model of masculine-provider and female-consumer-and-nurturer to sustain itself, and have rendered feminine-coded behaviour as inferior.

Most feminists agree that femininity as a social construction socialises women, generally, to act in certain ways that are anathema to what is needed to achieve what our society terms ‘success’. Thus, they can accept that women are largely socialised to be co-operative and not to put themselves first, without accepting that men’s socialisation is equally constructed, and possibly equally damaging. Furthermore, it’s not clear that a more feminine-coded way of doing things, is necessarily less productive or effective, particularly in terms of personal happiness, as the higher rates of male depression, alcoholism and suicide would attest to.

On a societal level, what with the crisis of capitalism and all, it seems as though the tide is turning towards more co-operative and collective methods of getting things done. Discussion of how feminine traits disadvantage women is far more common than discussion of how masculine traits disadvantage men, both individually and as a community at large. Yes, these traits may help men (and women who possess them also) to achieve what is commonly thought of as success, but the structure of achievement is all wrong in the first place. We live in a society where a hedge fund banker is described as more “successful” than a midwife, when it’s really not clear that the first deserves to be more celebrated.

Accomplishments such as a happy family, wonderful life experiences and a positive difference made to the lives of those around you fit uneasily into our capitalist model that defines success as accruing capital, and more readily equips men with the traits needed to achieve this. Depicting the mass acquisition of capital as the primary goal of human existence is threatening not only to our society, but now, through the threat of climate change, civilisation itself. Instead of smashing the glass ceiling, let’s deconstruct the whole building, and make something else – a “pagoda of equality”, perhaps.

What would this pagoda look like in terms of political life?

We currently have around 22% of female MPs, and a political culture that rewards winning arguments instead of finding solutions. How exactly does the jeering Punch and Judy culture of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with its emphasis on putting down one’s opponent, help to advance political debate?

Furthermore, our electoral system discourages coalitions, meaning that as long as a party can win about 35% of the vote, they need not take into account the ideas of any other party.  Even if women were rendered physically incapable of holding any professional position whatsoever in society tomorrow, the power structures of politics, business and the media would still need to change. That’s the thing with privilege – it allows the bad behaviour of privileged groups to be seen as the problems of individuals, whereas the behaviour of marginalised groups is used as evidence for their inferiority as a group. Ultimately part of the problem is the structure and behaviour of the dominant community in and of itself.

I love a good debate, and I don’t subscribe to the opinion that civility is always the most important thing even when confronted with bigotry and ignorance, but I do think that the best debates are conducted with the aim of furthering the pursuit of truth, and not of winning. This was exemplified by the one I chaired. The four panellists frequently disagreed – yet there was no talking over one another, no aggression, and no mockery.

Politics should be about finding solutions to the only question which matters, that of how we ought live, together. It should attract people with convictions, intellect and organisational skills; it currently attracts self-aggrandising people who aren’t put off by the expectation that they defend their beliefs incessantly despite all evidence to the contrary. The ability to perform Oxbridge-style rhetorical fireworks, much more easily acquired with access to all kinds of privilege, not just male privilege, don’t seem to have produced the best politicians we could possibly have. The best cohort of politicians we could possibly have would be 50% female, because women are just as capable as men of running the country, and the world.

The focus should be on structural issues, not women’s behaviour. These structures are bad; they exclude women, but they are also often just bad in and of themselves. They derive from a masculine culture that has as many mistaken stereotypes at its heart as does femininity.

Traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity can be damaging to men and women, hence why a lot of them need to be deconstructed and done away with. But we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we think that the solution is getting women to ape the selfish, aggressive, combative dick-waving that characterises so much of our political and business life.

Listening to other people, caring about what they have to say, and essentially, recognising we really are all in this together, is the solution – not only to the divisions within feminism, but perhaps to most of the crises caused by late capitalism. That women are taught to do this from an early age is not a weakness, it’s a strength.