Thursday, 17 February 2011

Book review: One Dimensional Woman

This review was written for the F Word website and can originally be found here:

This explosive book with its pink and black cover should have pride of place on every woman’s book shelf. Written by renowned academic Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman is a roar of anger against the co-opting of feminism by consumerism and right-wing politics.

The book is only 69 pages long, but in that space we explore how the right has co-opted the language of feminism to defend its wars and anti-choice stance, how the market sells us empowerment in a glass of Chardonnay and a shiny shampoo, how the feminisation of labour puts women’s bodies/goods on display and how looking at the history of pornography can provide us with new narratives with which to talk about the performance of sexuality.

The book opens with an introduction delineating its key themes. Power asks the reader “where have all the interesting women gone?” Based on an assessment of pop culture, you would believe women are a dull, homogenous mass excited by handbags and giggling over vibrators.

Her book predicts Finn McKay’s closing speech at Feminism in London 2010, when she said “feminism has to mean something, or it risks meaning nothing at all”. She argues that feminism has come to mean anything that makes a woman feel good, that shopping for designer shoes and eating chocolate bars has become as feminist an act as marching for your right to choose or volunteering at a rape crisis centre. The idea of ‘it’s good for me’ feminism, that puts the individual’s happiness at its centre, regardless of the effect individual actions have on those around us, is an idea that chimes with a capitalist and consumerist outlook. As Power says in her introduction:

That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time.

The first section of the book deals with Sarah Palin, the self-styled pitbull in lipstick, who uses the language of feminism - of choice and empowerment - to pitch herself as a powerful woman who stands equal to the men, but is still a hockey mum at heart.

Power asks us: if Sarah Palin, a war-mongering, anti-choice, anti sex-education, gun-toting Republican can call herself a feminist, then perhaps we really are at a crisis of what feminism means. She cites three examples of differing definitions of what feminism can mean today, the philosopher Jacques-Alain Miller who “fears” the “castrating Palin” and sees feminism as being like a man; Jessica Valenti who sees feminism as being pro-choice and about equality; and Palin, a pro-war, anti-choice ‘feminist’.

Power touches here on how Palin, Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher have all shown that feminists don’t just want to see a woman in power, that a woman in power is meaningless if it is not the right woman. Should Palin have won the vice-presidency (or, indeed, if she wins the 2012 election), then anti-feminists would have had the perfect opportunity to point at her and say ‘see! You have equality now! There’s a woman in charge!’ The token woman shows just how far we have to go before we do get true equality and real power.

Power moves on to how the Republicans in the US used the rhetoric of feminism to ‘sell’ the wars in the Middle East as a way to emancipate women from the repressive regimes of the Taliban.
I hasten to add at this point that, contrary to John Pilger’s recent essay in the New Statesman about feminist support for war in the Middle East, I believe it was primarily feminists in the US who took this line, and that UK feminists were generally opposed to war being fought in our, womanly, name.
Power argues that the line taken by Bush and Co, that the women needed to be liberated in Afghanistan via military action, handily paints women as victims who need to be saved by an incoming (male) hero. The conviction that women need to be rescued by carpet bombing that would kill women, their children and their families, and that this was ‘feminist’, was shouted from the rooftops by a president who was anti-feminist enough to cut off all funding to international providers of abortion and abortion counselling on his first day in office. As Power writes:

Feminism is something merely to invoke to convince the fence-sitting morally-minded voters that war is the only option on the table… feminism has become so broad that it can be used to justify almost anything, even the invasion of other countries.

But where has this broad, and ever broadening, definition of feminism come from? Nina Power argues that it is linked to ‘Feminism™’ - the idea that feminism is a lifestyle choice that might be political, but is really concerned with making sure that you’re having fun.

So, what is Feminism™? Power links it to Valenti’s book Full Frontal Feminism and Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ book Manifesta - confidence building manuals full of sass that treat feminism as a tool to a better life and to ensure we all have more fun. She writes:
In these books, the political and historical dimensions of feminism are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual. As a response to the ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ pose it’s very successful. Almost everything turns out to be feminist - shopping, pole dancing, even chocolate.

Power argues that the ‘liberating’ mode of this style of feminism is remarkably similar to ‘liberating capitalism’. If feminism is a lifestyle choice about the individual, rather than a political movement intent on making the world better for all woman and men, then this creates a space for the market to sell us ‘empowerment’.

And this selling happens at the expense of exploited women the world over, from the women working in appalling conditions stitching the clothes you buy, to the woman for whom lap dancing isn’t a fun, ‘empowering’ workout or lifestyle choice. This form of feminism desperately tries to scrabble away from its perceived ‘unfun’ and ‘hairy’ predecessors (as if there is something wrong with being hairy and not something wrong with false body ideals) to portray itself as something hip and fancy-free. The result? Feminism lite that tells you that all choice is a feminist choice because it’s your choice, with no thought for how your choice affects the women in the world around you.
Of course feminism can be fun. I have lots of fun being a feminist. But the idea that feminism is something solely to improve the individual’s life, a reason to buy a designer handbag or ‘treat yourself’ to a chocolate bar, or buy a vibrator, is a dangerous one. If feminism becomes something you define for yourself, as Valenti has it, then what stops feminism becoming defined as being anti-choice, pro-war, anti-sex education and gun-toting, like Sarah Palin? What stops feminism being used as a rhetorical term to justify harm to women?

The feminisation of labour is another key issue to Power. She argues that the presentation of many forms of work are now ‘feminine’, and that the selling to women of the idea that they are ‘caring’ and ‘good communicators’ has pushed them towards the instability of temping life, flexible working and gives them a lower status in the job market.
Women’s skills are seen as valuable and simultaneously de-valued. She argues that this has an effect on discrimination against mothers who can’t be ‘flexible’ and that women are pitted against each other to be the most obliging, while still looking after most of the housework and childcare, because, after all, that too is woman’s work.

This leads us to the idea and image of the ‘working girl’, bright eyed, glossy haired, suited in stilettos, selling herself to her employer and to the women behind her. You’re “an advert for yourself” at all times. Power argues that this has caused a blurring between free and labour time - a woman is always selling herself, and that selling is often predicated on her body. We are on display, we are looked at, we are the object. She cites the porn series Girls Gone Wild where women are having their ‘free time’ but using their bodies as part of a business transaction, giving something away (their breasts) to receive something (their Girls Gone Wild souvenir hat).

As Power puts it, in this situation “you are your breasts”. That is where your value lies and from here breasts have become increasingly something that are separate from a woman’s body and instead are objects with a market value.

The final section of the book deals with pornography and its links to capitalism, before exploring how historic studies of porn give us an alternative visual language of sexuality. Power believes that looking at pornography from the past shows us that porn’s “future need not be as grim as its present”.
She argues that, unlike porn in most other points of history, the porn we see today is divorced from the human. It’s all about the money shot, porn as sex is sex as work: boring, grinding and with a cash prize at the end of it.

Comparing this endless show reel of “grim orgasms and the parading of physical prowess” to porn made in the early 20th Century, Power notes how silly, funny and slapstick much of porn was. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t explicit, but that as well as having a range of bodies and faces on display, the participants in early 20th century porn seem to actually like each other, consent to and enjoy sex, unlike in today’s mainstream porn that seems to relish violence, force and expressions of actual pain rather than pleasure.

This is only a fraction of the many interesting, complex but always accessible arguments and themes in Power’s wonderful book. Re-reading it to write this review, I was amazed at how much is crammed into these 69 pages, from feminist analysis of Sex and the City, a discussion on the Bechdel test, the politics of choice, advertising and fashion magazines, self harm, socialism, shopping and philosophy. There’s a lot to take in but even though the book is so short, you don’t feel that the information is crammed in, or not developed enough. This book is angry, imaginative, subversive and perhaps most of all, it is exciting.

Perhaps the one thing worth mentioning is that a lot of the criticism of modern feminism in the book feels very focused on the US. Maybe it’s because I’m a UK feminist, but I feel that most the feminists I speak to don’t believe in the “any choice you make is a feminist choice” line, that this is something encountered more in state-side feminist writing. It does happen in the UK (The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism by Elly Levenson) but I feel that right now, UK feminists are closer-aligned to Nina Power’s thinking than the Fun Feminism™ stance she is criticising. Power is UK-based herself and it would be interesting to know if she shares this thought, or whether she sees this happening in the UK also.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Column for Fresh Outlook

I have started writing a column for the Fresh Outlook newspaper.

You can read the first one here:

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Airbrushing in the Media

I wrote this in 2009 and interviewed Jo Swinson MP regarding the anti airbrushing campaign. Unfortunately it never got picked up by anyone so, 2 years on, here it is:

Pop culture fans may have realised that Barbie, with her smooth skin, impossible anatomy and perfect coiffure, celebrated turning fifty this year. Not that you’d know it to look at her. Her face is free of wrinkles, pores or spots; her body as firm and pert as the day she first graced the shelves of toy stores way back in 1959.

Barbie, we could argue, is the ultimate in airbrushing. Her smooth features say no to “flaws”, her unlikely physiology says the unreal is the ideal. And in the month when Barack Obama suggested the controversial botox tax – charging more money for non necessary cosmetic surgery operations, over in the UK, MP Jo Swinson has proposed to her party that airbrushed images in ads and mags should come with warnings, indicating to the reader where images have been digitally “enhanced”. She also more radically asks that all airbrushing in images aimed at children should be completely banned.

Swinson’s argument is simple – by exposing young men and women to airbrushed images we are presenting them with an unrealistic representation of the human body. She hopes that by raising the public profile of the effects of airbrushing the media will be encouraged to “portray women as they are, images of women looking good but without this ideal narrow fixation on thinness and particular shapes that we have at the moment.”

The evidence does suggest that unrealistic representations of women’s bodies can have damaging effects on body image and self esteem. Psychologist Dr Emma Halliwell has conducted extensive research into the ways body image and self esteem are affected by media imagery. She believes that “ultra thin models can lead to body dissatisfaction, low mood and low self esteem in women who are vulnerable and who have internalised the idea of being thin as being ideal. Increasingly we are growing up in a culture where we see being beautiful as being thin.”

Airbrushing is everywhere in the media. Women’s shoulders are made smaller and narrower by the magic of photo manipulation; arm hair is carefully erased; cheeks and eyes are made brighter and hair gets an added lustre. The result? An ad or fashion shoot is created featuring the unreal woman. And because we use “enhancing” technology to change the image, the implicit suggestion is that the altered body and face is also the perfect or ideal body and face.

“Throughout time we have looked at pictures of beautiful women,” explains Swinson. “But this idealisation of extreme thinness is something new, and the current media ideal of a woman’s body is a shape most women can’t achieve. This is then made so much worse by airbrushing to extreme levels.”

The problem with airbrushing, both Swinson and psychologist and Co-director of the Centre of Appearance Research, Professor Nichola Rumsey have argued, is the way that digitally altered images perpetuate the beauty myth. They, quite simply, contribute to the pressures on all women, and increasingly men, to achieve the “perfect” body.

“We are increasingly under pressure to conform to these ‘perfect’ faces and bodies we see in the media. This discrepancy between what we actually look like and what we feel we should look like has been identified as one factor in why young people, especially young girls but increasingly young men, feel dissatisfied with the way the look” argues Rumsey.

The perfection airbrushed images demand is impossible. Women can’t match the software’s paintbrush. Yet we are allowing airbrushed images to dictate what women should look like even though we know that the images themselves are not even real. As Cindy Crawford famously quipped, even Cindy Crawford doesn’t look like Cindy Crawford. So how is anyone else going to?

Swinson is proposing a ban on all airbrushed images aimed at under 16s, and warnings or notifications on images that have been airbrushed which are aimed at adults. “I want to make people think twice about these images as an interpretation of reality,” she explains. “A public debate around this issue is so important, as it allows us to really ask what is ideal? Is it health, is it a body shape, is it confidence and inner beauty? We want to say that airbrushing no longer has to be the norm, celebrating a more natural beauty.”

The issues are beginning to reveal themselves at younger and younger ages. Research conducted by the Girl Guides has found that girls under 10 equate beauty with happiness. According to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty in the USA, 80% of women and 92% of girls were dissatisfied with their body. Although it would be fatuous to just blame airbrushing for women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, it would be as equally disingenuous to say it plays no part at all. The media and the images we are exposed to affect us in many strange and subtle ways, from making us want to choose this cleaning product, to thinking that one body type is an ideal, compared to our own.

The beauty myth goes this way. We open a magazine and see a digitally altered image of a beautiful woman. Societal codes have made us believe that she is successful and happy, because she is beautiful. We want to be successful too, but we feel like we can’t be, because we don’t look like the image in the magazine.

“Thin models contribute to the societal ideal that is then communicated through friends, family and even the health service that being thin means you are successful, happy and healthy,” explains Halliwell. “But this isn’t necessarily the case, especially when you consider that on average models are 20% underweight, and the medical diagnostic for anorexia is being 15% underweight. This is made more problematic in that women are super critical of their bodies, but aren’t allowed to admit to dieting or exercise regimes.”

As all international readers will undoubtedly recognise, this is not just a UK problem. The rise of women worldwide wanting cosmetic surgery, from botox to boob jobs, can be linked to our airbrushed culture. Have we reached a point where we have become so isolated from the reality of women’s bodies that we see airbrushed images as representing what is “right”, and aspire to copy it? The cosmetically altered body more closely resembles the airbrushed body than the women’s bodies we are born with.

So where can we find solutions? The first, Swinson argues, is the banning of airbrushing of images aimed at children, and having mandatory warnings on all airbrushed images. But airbrushed images are only part of the problem in a culture where if we’re not looking at Charlize Theron’s perfected torso, we are looking at a red circle of shame highlighting Julia Roberts’ body hair.

One solution lies in encouraging greater discussion on body image and self esteem issues through media literacy as part of social and health education.

“With proper training available to teachers we would encourage classes to look at the media, maybe use before and after photos to learn about airbrushing, engage with journalists and have more discussion about this issue with young people,” explains Swinson. “Many young women and men feel insecure about their bodies; these lessons would help young people to gain the skills to deal with these pressures, to teach them that people in the media aren’t ‘perfect’.”

Halliwell agrees. “There is a lot of evidence that media literacy interventions work, reducing the classic examples of the effect of women feeling bad about their appearance due to images in the media. Media literacy shows young women that media images are not appropriate comparison targets. By having these discussions we shift our evaluation of ads, it gets women to talk about what they feel about what the ads are saying, which can then help reduce ideal internalisation and disordered eating.”

And perhaps even more importantly than media-led solutions are those that we can find within ourselves, and act out in our own homes and peer groups. An even greater impact on body image is the way we talk about bodies, weight and appearance amongst our friends, colleagues and family. If those around you have a negative body image, then this can affect the way you view your own bodies. This is particularly true of the mother and daughter relationship, with research suggesting that if your mother has self esteem and body issues, then you are likely to pick up on that, and experience the same worries.

“Our relationship with our appearance is complex and is influenced by a number of factors” says Prof Rumsey, “our culture, family and peers all play a part in developing how we view ourselves and therefore, can help us develop a positive relationship with our appearance, but can contribute to dissatisfaction”.

So what can we do? Well, we can celebrate our appearance, our shapes, sizes, colours and styles, and we can learn to really help ourselves overcome the negative messages we hear about our bodies, and rejoice in our beautiful diversity. Try to question it when someone criticises a celebrity’s weight, or tell your mum to put the calorie counter away. Tell your friends how beautiful they are and tell yourself the same.

The fact remains however that you can’t always stop your mum from worrying about her weight, or convince your friend that she’s a goddess. But media regulators can do something about unrealistic representations of men and women’s bodies. And with more and more young women suffering from low self esteem and the continuing rise in eating disorders in teenage girls, it’s time they did something about it.

Why I love Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory and her strong, doomed women

I have a secret which is about to be revealed. Despite my bookshelf being crammed with Blake, Woolf, Eliot and Dostoyevsky, I absolutely love romantic historical fiction. The fatter the book and the glossier the cover the better. And most of all I love my recently discovered Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels.

Gregory is first and foremost a really good writer. She has a deft use of language and a density of description that means she fully recreates the world of the Tudor courts she writes about, the smells, the colours, the landscapes, the houses and the costumes. Reading her novels, she puts you right there, timid behind the throne, absorbing the action. Secondly, she has a brilliant way with characterisation, particularly in my mind of her female characters. They leap out of the page, alive and strong and passionate, often angry and often sensual. They are full characters who invite your love, hate, distaste and admiration. And thirdly, her books are well researched, from the details of the colour of the gown Mary Boleyn wore at a gala, to the complex hatreds and schemings of Jane Boleyn and Thomas Howard.

David Starkey recently spoke out against the 'feminisation' of history, that we are all so obsessed with Henry VIII's wives that we don't care about his rule. As the F Word rightly pointed out, this was an absurd statement to say the least. In the main, history has been written by men, for men and about men. Although there are ever more wonderful female historians coming through and being published, the names we associate with popular history are still overwhelmingly male. This very masculinist way of writing and looking at history has often put me off a subject I love. For me, Gregory's novels (and Alison Weir's fiction works) have opened up a feminine and feminist angle in history, particularly Tudor history, that has enticed me to move from the novels to non-fiction history books (Alison Weir again!). They have introduced me to a history beyond the male perspective, a history of women. And although I know that the novels Gregory writes are just that, novels, her works have inspired me to discover more about the women behind the fiction.

Gregory's most renowned novel is The Other Boleyn Girl, which tells the story of Mary Boleyn, the less-well known sister of Anne, who was mistress to Henry VIII before he fell in love with Anne and turns the whole country upside down to marry her, before turning it upside down again to murder her. (it's not a spoiler! We all know the story!)

What comes across most strongly in The Other Boleyn Girl is the sense of powerlessness of the women in Henry's court, and yet the independence of spirit, bravery and loyalty that they also embody. According to the fictional account, Mary is married at 12, becomes Henry's mistress at the age of 13, having been pushed into Henry's bed by her uncle, father and mother. She is a pawn in the political game to get the Boleyn and Howard power on the throne, and she plays her part willingly. As she says later on in a rage 'I have always been obedient!' She doesn't have any choice. She is Henry's mistress for a number of years and (in the fictional account) has a daughter and son by him, children whom she must leave in the country in order to serve Henry sexually and in court. It is the extent to which she misses her children and adores being a mother that leads to her eventually forging her own path away from the power games of her family. During the Tudor period, women could not have sex whilst pregnant, or afterwards until they had been 'churched', and so to keep Henry's eye in the direction of the Boleyns, Mary's uncle pushed Anne into his flirtation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So far, so woman victim, Mary appears to be someone who is pushed from man to man by other men. But as she grows up and becomes a mother, you see a woman who is determined to form her own way and her own independence. She recognises that as a member of the Tudor court she is not allowed to live her own life, and as Anne's star rises she stays by her sister's side and supports her as she moves from favourite to wife. But eventually she stamps her feet, falls in love and has had enough. She scandalises the court by choosing her own path and creates her own happiness. She is marvellously self aware, self-determined, and a woman who is incredibly aware of her sexuality and sensual pleasure. After a youth of being pushed and pulled in every direction at the whims of an increasingly deranged and power hungry king and family, as an adult she forges her own way. In her determination to choose her own destiny, Mary Boleyn is painted as a very modern woman, a woman you can respect.

As well as the feminist portrayal of Mary, The Other Boleyn Girl viciously exposes the destructive nature of sexism and hatred of women. As we all know, Henry VIII was determined to have a son, and both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had daughters. Gregory terrifyingly portrays the absolute fear inherent in being pregnant with a daughter, and the terror the queens felt at not falling pregnant at all. It was treason to suggest the King was impotent, even though clearly his health was such that it was difficult for him to conceive. Therefore, the lack of pregnancies are blamed squarely on the women he marries. Gregory portrays a court where women were driven to desperation in the fight to have a son, where women were seen as nothing but breeding machines (the reason for a wet nurse was to minimise the period after birth when the woman was unable to conceive) or sex toys. We see Anne driven to terrible deeds to conceive a baby, knowing that her life depended on her ability to produce a son.

The novel ends with Anne's execution, as Henry's love for her is poisoned to hatred at the lack of a son. It is a devastating scene, where we truly realise the terrific power of the King and the affect of such a male-centric court on the lives of women. Despite Anne's often appalling treatment of Mary, Gregory beautifully portrays the relationship between the two sisters and their brother George. We see Mary's loyalty and love of her siblings, who, in so many ways, are marooned in a court which sees them not as fully human, but as conduits to power and breeders of sons.

What really stands out about this novel is that Gregory doesn't patronise the reader by making the characters one dimensional – purely heroes and purely villains. In this way she almost rescues women such as Anne Boleyn from their historical legacy. We often think of Anne as either a victim or a whore. Yes, she was a victim but she was also a viciously ambitious woman, willing to tread on anyone in her path, including her sister and Katherine of Aragon. She could be brutal and single minded in the pursuit of the power that she craved. Yet, she was also a woman trapped in a plot determined to destroy her, she was a pawn in a male dominated court and the wife of a King who was becoming increasingly power crazed and paranoid. One of the most poignant scenes in the novel comes when she helplessly faces the King, holding aloft her daughter, pleading for him to love her again. Gregory refuses to make her a simple character, and whilst at moments you want to scream at her to be nicer, you can't help but feel devastated by her downfall at the hands of such vicious, unrepentant and greedy men.

The Boleyn Inheritance picks up on many of the themes and characters of The Other Boleyn Girl, including the monstrous Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Mary and Anne. Just as in some ways we see Anne Boleyn's character being rescued from historical stereotype, so she does the same for Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. Rather than 'the ugly one' and the 'stupid but pretty one', we see two women who are again, at the mercy of male power, trying to forge their own paths. And whilst Anne achieves it, surviving her marriage to Henry and after his death, having the freedom to live a life away from fear, on her own terms, Catherine follows the path of her cousin to the block. Catherine's story is heartbreaking, married to the King at 15, and executed at 17. Again, we see a story where women are persecuted for not getting pregnant (although it is clear that by this stage, Henry was most probably impotent) and subject to the whims and jealousies of a King who is deluded by power. Yet whilst in some respects, Anne and Catherine are powerless women, Gregory imbues them with a spirit and bravery that has perhaps been missing in the public's general view of the two short lived queens. We see a woman such as Anne determined to escape a destructive home life and be a woman on her own terms, and Catherine who despite her frivolous nature is incredibly self aware about the paranoia and idiocy of the court.

But tragedy is still, clearly, inherent in her story. Gregory heartbreakingly describes Catherine's intense sexual frustration and disgust that she can't put into words regarding her relations with the king, and the unspeakable sadness she feels about having her youth wasted and ultimately destroyed.

As in The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory explores the still present today sexual double standard for men and women. Anne learns to 'pleasure the king' to keep him in love with her, her sexuality is then used against her to brand her a whore and a traitor. Similarly, Catherine uses her sexuality, her 'French whore tricks' to try and get pregnant by the King, and her sexuality is obviously something he enjoys, until he chooses to see it as evidence of wantonness and treachery. And whilst Henry can have a mistress at every turn, from Mary Boleyn to Madge Shelton and many more, the idea that his wives were not virgins or the rumour that they were unfaithful puts their heads on the block. Just as these women weren't free to love who they chose, neither were they allowed a sexuality. In this way, by choosing to pursue her love and express her sexuality, I believe Mary Boleyn is portrayed as a very modern, very feminist heroine, whilst the repression of Catherine's desires go a long way to explaining the ways in which sexual women are seen, then as today.

Gregory's depiction of Jane Boleyn is another stroke of mastery. She has a much bigger role in The Boleyn Inheritance than in The Other Boleyn Girl, a woman who is so damaged by jealousy and greed, and yet who we almost feel sympathy for, she again is just another pawn in male games, and perhaps the most powerless of them all, for her ambition are never her own, but those of the men around her.

I'll finish with a word about Gregory's latest novel, The Other Queen, about Mary Queen Of Scots. Gregory said that she avoided writing about her as she thought she was 'an idiot', but after discovering more about her she realised that she too had been caricatured by popular perception. Rather than a silly frivolous queen ruled by her heart, we see a woman of bravery and determination, who could have fulfilled her promise to rule Scotland. There is a terrifyingly modern moment in the book when Mary speaks to her hostess/jailer Bess of Hardwick, about her rape by Bothwell. In response to Bess asking why she didn't accuse him in court, Mary says how could she, when men believe that woman are easily seduced and say no when they mean yes, when juries will always believe a man's words over a woman. A truth in 1569 as much as it is now.

I hope I have given a flavour of why I believe Gregory's books can be read from a very real feminist perspective. As well as being fast paced, well written thrilling reads, we see a writer who is very focussed on giving a female perspective on a period of history where women were seen as breeders and wives. She presents characters who are determined to form their own lives, or who are helplessly caught up as pawns in destructive games of powers. She rescues women from their historic stereotypes, presenting a female-centric view of history that allows us to see women who we so often only think of in relation to men, as real fully formed characters, flawed and brave, trying to break free.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

My Top 100 Books

In the spirit of Richard and Judy, and Book Elf Leeds, here is my list of 100 books that i love and that you should all read.

It's all fiction btw. Some poetry, some short stories, some plays, some novels.

I expect I have missed zillions out! and there are so many books i haven't read.

What books would you put in the list??

1.    The Brothers Karamazarov by Dostoyevsky
2.    The Devils by Dostoyevsky
3.    Pride and Prejudice by Austen
4.    Mansfield Park by Austen
5.    Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
6.    The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe
7.    Northanger Abbey by Austen
8.    Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos
9.    Othello by Shakespeare
10.    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
11.    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
12.    The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
13.    Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
14.    Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
15.    The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
16.    Middlemarch by George Eliot
17.    The portrait of Dorian Grey by Wilde
18.    The Importance of being Earnest by Wilde
19.    East Lynne by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
20.    Vanity Fair by Thackerey
21.    Great Expectations by Dickens
22.    Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
23.    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
24.    Victory by Joseph Conrad
25.    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
26.    The Awakening by Kate Chopin
27.    My Antonia by Willa Cather
28.    The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
29.    The Voyage Out by Woolf
30.    Mrs Dalloway by Woolf
31.    Orlando by Woolf
32.    The Waves by Woolf
33.    The Waste Land by TS Eliot
34.    The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot
35.    The Claudine Novels by Colette
36.    Cheri by Colette
37.    The Vagabond by Colette
38.    1984 by George Orwell
39.    Dr Zhivago by Pasternak
40.    Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
41.    After leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys
42.    Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
43.    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
44.    Goodbye to Berlin by Isherwood
45.    Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
46.    The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein
47.    Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
48.    The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
49.    Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Seberg
50.    Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
51.    Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
52.    A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo
53.    Manhattan when I was young by Mary Cantwell
54.    The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
55.    Ariel by Sylvia Plath
56.    South Riding by Winifred Holtby
57.    The Magus by John Fowles
58.    Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
59.    Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier
60.    Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
61.    House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier
62.    Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier
63.    The King’s General by Daphne Du Maurier
64.    The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
65.    The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
66.    The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
67.    Cat’s Eye by Margare Atwood
68.    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
69.    The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
70.    The Women’s Room by Marilyn French
71.    Wise Children by Angela Carter
72.    The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
73.    The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
74.    The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory
75.    The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt
76.    The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
77.    Small Changes by Marge Piercy
78.    The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
79.    The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis
80.    The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe by CS Lewis
81.    The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
82.    Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
83.    The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson
84.    Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
85.    Home by Marilynne Robinson
86.    Moominpapa at Sea by Tove Jannsson
87.    Beloved by Toni Morrison
88.    The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
89.    Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami
90.    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
91.    The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
92.    Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
93.    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
94.    Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
95.    The Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield
96.    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
97.    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
98.    I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou
99.    Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
100.    The Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries by Carola Dunn

Daphne Du Maurier's Feminist Fairytales

This is something i wrote for the F Word in 2009 and thought I would post it here because I am hoping to write about books a bit more.

When I was a young teenager, I loved Daphne du Maurier’s novels - the suspense in Rebecca, the romance of Frenchman’s Creek, the cold horror of Jamaica Inn. I devoured them, imagining myself on the Cornish coast, face to the wind, splashed with sea spray. But as I got older I forgot about her, did my literature degree and read only ‘high’ literature.

Then, last Christmas, at my parents’ house with no books to read, I picked up my old copy of Frenchman’s Creek and was instantly hooked again. I scoured second hand bookshops for old copies of her novels, ordered those I couldn’t find in the shops from Amazon and rediscovered the love I had held for her books when I was younger, as well as reading other, less well-known novels, such as the horrific novel of obsessive sadism, Julius, and the dark myths of Flight of the Falcon. As an older reader, there was one element of the books that really jumped out at me that I had missed as a teenager, and that was the thoroughly feminist, strong-willed and self-determined women in her novels.
Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn is, in my view, one of the strongest female characters in du Maurier’s early novels. (Spoiler alert!) This is a woman who, after her father’s death, helped her mother run a successful farm, and nurses her through her long and final illness. She goes to Jamaica Inn, where she stands up to her brutish and criminal uncle, she protects her frightened and abused aunt, she fights off a potential rapist, and keeps her pride and her head throughout the horrible things that happen in the inn. She has the upper hand in her love affair with a horse thief and follows her heart and independent spirit, in control of her destiny.

Yellan is the protagonist in what can be called the ‘feminist fairytale’. She is strong willed and brave, bad things happen to those who cross her and good things happen to those who help her. She is a child of nature and, despite all the events that aim to shake her will and wreck her courage, she maintains a strength and light of purpose that sees her through her trials and leaves her with, if not an entirely happy ending, then one that promises her an adventurous and exciting future.

It’s impossible to overlook how controversial Jamaica Inn was when it came out. So controversial, in fact, that when Hitchcock made the movie of the novel in the 1930s, he had to change the plot so that the ‘baddie’ was a magistrate and the horse thief lover was changed to a sailor. It would not have got past the censors for a good female lead character to have a happy love affair with a thief. That du Maurier chose to have Mary follow her heart in this way shows just how daring and passionate her character is. She refuses to be bound by social convention and, eventually, her love turns her horse thief into a (slightly) more honest man.

Du Maurier’s characterisation is masterful, rich and colourful, and she paints a horrific portrait of why some wives choose not to leave violent husbands. Her rendering of terrified Aunt Patience, ruined by the violent, drunken and criminal activity of Uncle Joss, is a careful and sympathetic portrait as to why women can be drawn into these violent relationships.

Du Maurier also pulls off a master stroke in her characterisation of Joss. We see his violence, his horrible drunken behaviour, but we also see why he was attractive to Patience, why he was able to seduce women, why he is confident that he would have succeeded in seducing Mary had they met when both young. Like a grotesque reflection of that other anti-hero, Heathcliffe, we see the attraction of the passionate nature that hides and deceives, the ease in which the violence could be excused as passion and vitality, until it was too late.

One of the questions we ask in the book is, why doesn’t Mary leave? She knows her uncle, she knows what he is capable of, she sees what he has done to Patience. Yet what motivates her to stay is love and compassion for her aunt. An example of love and sisterhood, of a woman banding together with her fellow woman to protect her, to make sure she is kept safe.

Mary is brave, passionate and headstrong, a woman sure of her own heart and head, who is happy to throw caution to the wind in order to protect her aunt and love her thief. In this she is similar to that other du Maurier herone, Dona St Columb in Frenchman’s Creek, one of my absolute favourite du Maurier novels.

Dona is a woman motivated by her love of freedom and her desire to live the life she feels she has been denied. Tired of her childish rebellions in London, where she fights convention by dressing as a man and having dinner with prostitutes, her heart yearns for real rebellion, real freedom, where she can express her innermost self and escape the silliness and pettiness of society life in Restoration London.
So she goes to Cornwall, falls in love with a pirate and sails the high seas with him, tasting the salt air on her lips and feeling the sea breeze rustle her hair. She experiences the passion and understanding of true love, defends herself against the man who seeks to destroy her, saves the man she loves through cunning, daring and raw courage. Dona is a truly modern heroine, self determined, self aware, loyal and brave. She wants to live her life in independence, she wants to feel the full strength of her emotions and to taste, see and hear everything, with force. She is also a mother and devoted to her children, like a lioness or a tigress she defends her children from danger.

The reason I loved Dona so much as a child and as an adult is that she is so bravely uncompromising in her understanding of her self, in her love for her family and her love for Jean-Benoit, the pirate. The relationship between her and Jean-Benoit is one of equals, of mutual respect and understanding, a meeting of bodies and minds. And it occurred to me how this can be rare thing to find in a novel, especially a ‘woman’s’ novel, a rare thing seeing as it hit me so strongly. They meet and love each other as equals. He is not the centre of her life, nor she of his, their love is not painful or obsessive but mutual and loving and, that word again, equal. He risks his life for her and she risks her’s for him. He teaches her things, as she does him. It is one of the most careful and tender depictions of love I have read.

Du Maurier has sometimes been criticised for not always having a literary style, for writing thrillers, but I don’t believe this criticism stands up - just read her descriptions of the moors surrounding Jamaica Inn. She wrote novels for people to read and enjoy, fast paced and with characters you take sides with, characters with whom you live the experience. She is one of the most popular writers of the 20th century, inspiring new writers, films and prequels/sequels to her books. She wrote her first novel in her 20s and carried on until her 70s - a remarkable writer and an inspirational woman.

Du Maurier has been praised for her ability to portray the male psyche, from Julius to Max de Winter. Yet her depictions of strong, brave and loyal women populate her books and shine beautifully in her work. From Mary and Dona who I have focused on here, to the daring Isobel in House on the Strand, crippled and forthright Honor in The King’s General, angry campaigning Mad in Rule Britannia and, my childhood favourite, scheming yet honest Mary Anne Clarke. I believe she should be honoured for her incredible depictions of women and the way she allows her women characters to stand alone, telling their own stories, refusing to be defined by men. Her women defy convention and refuse to be categorised. They are fighters in a man’s world, lovers and mothers and sisters.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A blog about social media

I wrote this for my work blog originally but have decided to post it here instead on advice from @ericbratislava

A helping hand with social media

Social media is a fantastic channel for marketing campaigns and a handy way to check out what that mean kid from school is up to these days. However increasingly we are finding it’s a vital tool when spreading the word about not-for-profit, charity and voluntary groups.

Why? Well, because it’s easy to set up a social media profile for a start. It’s also cheap (people hours aside). And, perhaps best of all, it has that grass rootsy feel where people can feel that they are getting involved with, contributing to, and being part of a cause they are passionate about.

So, where should a not-for-profit or voluntary organisation start when it comes to social media?

Firstly, set up a Facebook page. If you are a small and local organisation, then a Facebook page can be an even more valuable resource than a website. With, of course, the extra bonus of being free. After all, it allows you to share content, encourage and engage with members, organise events and make connections.

Use your Facebook page as a hub of information about the issues your group cares about. For example, if you see an article in the news, or on a blog, then put a link and share it on the wall. If you hear of events happening across the country, link to them. And encourage members of related groups to get involved with your page. They may be able to share info that you might have missed.

It’s also perfect for advertising and promoting any events your group may be running. Once the event is created, attendees can invite their own friends and connections, thereby widening the net and encouraging new people to get involved. It’s quick, easy and instantly gives you a big reach. 

Integrating Twitter and a blog is a great way to encourage greater reach for your organisation. When you create new content for your blog, pop the links on Twitter. It’s far easier to reach people this way, instantly, than to rely on your blog followers checking their updates. Just as with Facebook, use Twitter to share content from other sources that relate to your group, and post links to events and campaign pages. Your followers will then share this content, and encourage more people to get involved.

Social media works by being a channel with which to create, share and discuss content. If you set up a Facebook page or Twitter account for your group, and then leave it to ‘form itself’ then you won’t have much success. It needs to be nurtured, filled with fascinating and relevant content that positions you as an expert and advocate of your field.

The beauty of using social media as a voluntary organisation is that the members of your group are empowered to contribute to your cause. From attending the events that you create on Facebook, to leaving comments and links on your wall, to RT-ing tweets and sharing blog posts. The relationship between you and your members becomes equal, based on a shared love or belief in a cause, making you much stronger.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Sexism and homophobia

Some words on intersectionality.

This is a post that has been whirring round my mind for a while now but for one reason or another I just haven’t got round to writing about, although I have written and spoken a lot about homophobia in the past (not forgetting my seminal performance at the anti homophobic bullying police conference aged 17 – oh yeah! And a couple of uni essays…and speaking at the NUJ LGBT conference…and running workshops for school kids…and writing about gay parenting for the guardian…and talking about gay parenting for radio 4…).

The links between sexism and homophobia are vast and manifest and it is important when we look at fighting for gender equality we explore and discuss how sexism is informed and supported by homophobia.

Take an example cited in Natasha Walter’s superb book Living Dolls, where a mother interviewed is concerned about her husband’s attitude to their son, who loves dancing, dressing up and being creative. Her husband sees these things as being intrinsically feminine, and therefore is panicked that his son might ‘turn out’ gay. This is both a sexist and homophobic attitude to take, firstly because we have stereotyped certain behaviours in children as being ‘ok for girls’ and secondly that he sees these characteristics in boys as being symptomatic of homosexuality, which he perceives as “bad”.

There is no room in her husband’s attitude to suggest that creativity and dancing is fine for boys, and fine for girls, and fine for straight or gay boys and girls. The panic that he feels is based on his belief, informed by sexist stereotypes, that his son is feminine, and that feminine behaviour in boys is wrong, and an indicator of his perceived-to-be-wrong sexuality.
What we see here is the marking out of certain hobbies and character traits as only being suitable or ok for boys or girls, based on sexist stereotyping and resulting in homophobic attitudes.

To put it simply, think of the intro to Madonna’s ‘what it feels like for a girl’ where the narrator says ‘because for a boy to be like a girl is degrading. Because you think being a girl is degrading’. The feminine is seen as lesser, so if a boy acts in a feminine way he too is seen as lesser, and in a homophobic culture you see where this leads to. 

Young girls, as anyone knows who reads Pink Stinks, also have gender stereotyping and homophobic attitudes impressed upon them. Raised in a pink bath of Disney Princesses, the alternative tomboy identity that was open to girls of my not-so-long-ago generation has pretty much vanished. Even my friend’s amazing little girl who loves playing outside and being a cheeky monkey still cherishes a love for Disney Princesses, which completely bemuses her mother. Whereas we had George in the Famous Five and Pippi Longstocking, they have Bratz and High School Musical. Tweenies always had games around boys (does anyone remember that board game with the phone where you planned dates?) but as we see an ever-increasing avalanche of pink, fluff, and boy-crazed dialogue, an alternative message for girls is increasingly absent.

Cordelia Fine’s recent book, Delusions of Gender neatly debunks the persistent myths that boys like blue and girls like pink; that it is innate for boys to play with guns and girls to play with dolls. Unfortunately, the bio-deterministic pseudo science that has tried to “prove” innate gender difference is enthusiastically reported by the press, whilst studies that show opposite findings are left ignored. It is these gender stereotypes that are not only fuelling sexism, but emphasise and promote homophobic stereotypes too.

Feminists often talk and explore how hetero women are portrayed in the mainstream media, particularly in lad’s mags and porn. It is important when discussing these issues that we also question and challenge the portrayal of lesbian women. If lad’s mag culture tells us that women are only and always sexually available for men’s consumption, and that their sexuality is based solely on male pleasure; then lesbians share this issue of being portrayed as performing their lesbian sexuality for men’s pleasure. If we want to fight sexualisation and commercial sexual exploitation, then we also need to address how lesbian sexuality is completely erased from our cultural discourse other than when we see it as a performance for men, as opposed to a real and valid sexuality in its own right. (I wrote my 3rd year course essay on this issue in 20th century literature so could go on all day…)

Last week, Melanie Phillips wrote a sickeningly nasty and spiteful article about the ‘gay agenda’ ruling the UK. Her argument, that mentioning gay people in lessons would turn kids gay, is so ridiculous and her anger at the thought of gay people even being mentioned in schools has a supremely negative impact on kids and young people. When I was at school, I read maths problems and reading books that were all about mummy and daddy. My reality of growing up with lesbian parents was never reflected back on me. The same is now true for my friend’s daughter. Her life is silenced in the schoolroom. It is isolating. It makes you feel different, when you are not. It magnifies, and refuses to challenge, institutionalised homophobia. When schools don’t address or talk about homosexuality or homophobia, gay children are more likely to be bullied and experience depression. When these issues are not talked about, little boys who like pink and little girls who like climbing trees are stigmatised for not fitting their gender stereotype, resulting in homophobic bullying that ruins lives – leading in some cases to suicide.

The recent sexist comments made by Keys and Grey can also be seen as being informed by homophobia, as can a lot of macho posturing and sexist behaviour in general. The desire to prove heterosexuality, the sub-conscious need to quash any thoughts that the speaker might not be straight results in the speaker making comments that are offensive to women. The one up-man ship of saying ‘I want to smash that’ – of performing a macho masculinity to a male audience, is a way of proving heterosexuality. This internalised homophobia, the fear of being thought gay, the fear of other men thinking the speaker is gay, plays itself out via being disrespectful to women.

It is a sad, sad thing that we still live in a world where being gay is seen as something so bad that (some) men feel the need to disprove it by proving their heterosexuality with the use of sexist, violent and demeaning language. Where boys who love dancing around the lounge are discouraged from this activity because their parents feel insecure about it. Where girls’s energy is channelled into loving pink, make-up and getting boys rather than creative, sporting or academic pursuits. Where it is ok for Mel Phillips to compare teaching about Alan Turing to child abuse.

My whole life I have been aware of the impact of homophobia. From my mum’s best friend abandoning their friendship when mum started a gay relationship, to attitudes from family, to the education issues mentioned above, to the fear of schoolfriends finding out that my mum was gay. When I was in a lesbian relationship I was spat on as I walked down the street, had abuse shouted at me, had rumours spread about me at school and, in one charming action, had so-called friends call my girlfriend and shout abuse at her down the phone. I had friends who were chucked out by their parents, beaten up and attacked.

Before I became a feminist I was primarily an anti-homophobia campaigner. As mentioned in the first paragraph, I actively campaigned to tackle homophobia as a school student and beyond. As I became more and more feminist, I realised that equality for men and women was nothing if we indulged in heterosexism, did not tackle homophobia or only achieved equality for white, straight, middle class men and women. I believe very strongly that by recognising how gender stereotypes are layered with an accepted or mainstream homophobia can we begin to tackle sexist definitions and labels of gender. If we refuse to explore the intersectionality between how we view gender and sexuality, and how we allow sexist stereotyping to fuel homophobic beliefs, then we will never find true equality.