Friday January 31st, 2014 14:02

On the genderisation of toys

ID-10012614

First published on here for Bea Magazine in January 2014.

I know that various writers have posted on Bea about the ‘genderisation’ of toys, but the reason I want to bring this up again is because 1) I was talking about this yesterday to a concerned mum-to-be who would like to avoid raising her unborn child, whether it’s male or female, according to all the stereotypes and 2) I’ve seen lots of people lately saying things like “what’s wrong with pink”? and “why can’t little girls just be allowed to be little girls?”. I wanted to address them, while also examining this topic in a little more detail and discussing exactly why the ‘pinkification’ of the toy aisle is undesirable. Many, many, people I know feel that too much genderising in the toy departments is problematic, but I also know lots of people who wonder what the fuss is all about, when pink is “just a colour”, people who don’t see why it’s wrong to encourage girls to play with dolls. The short answer to that last one is that it isn’t wrong to encourage girls to play with dolls, and that’s why misunderstandings about what the anti-gendered toys people want need to be cleared up.

I’m worried that what will follow may seem somewhat patronising. But I think it needs spelling out.

Let’s start with a confession: I like pink, and I always have. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite colour (and frankly, in recent years, I’ve been more likely to avoid it because of my distaste for the pinking up of girls’ childhoods) but I enjoy it in most of its variants, though I’ll concede that I find salmony shades a bit sickly. So, I am happy to say, here and now, proudly, that pink in itself is not the problem. So, people who ask “what’s wrong with pink?”, here’s your answer: It’s not pink that is the problem; the problem is in the way that it’s being used. And there’s a problem in the way ‘boy colours’ are being used too.

When you have a child, they are immediately bombarded by one of two colours. If you didn’t know what you were having, you might have gender neutral first size clothes, but as you progress up through the less newborn sizes, the availability of gender neutral clothes decreases. You have to choose blue or pink. So, most parents probably go with the flow and choose blue for a boy and pink for a girl. When we do this, we pigeonhole them. Girls’ clothes are unremittingly pink, frilly, busy. We send them two messages. That they are pink, that their favourite colour must be pink, and that they are frilly things meant for sitting quietly inside while the boys play outside. We’ve taken away their choices, because they don’t get to choose a favourite colour, they accept that they are a certain sex, and have to fall in line with the status quo. There’s a touch of leeway. A girl can get away with having purple as their favourite colour, boys are okay to like green (camo), sludge colour and perhaps red or orange.

So, your children grow up, dressed in pink and purple if they are female, blue and sludge if they are a boy, and they learn to define themselves as either pink, or blue/sludge.

So, when you walk into the toyshop, and there are a couple of aisles giving off a pink sparkly glow, and a couple of aisles giving off an un-glowing air of sludge with the odd dash of colour, your child, male or female, knows which one is meant for them, because they’ve been forced to identify with it. And what do you find in the pink aisle? You find baby dolls, fashion dolls, doll paraphernalia, you find kitchens, pretend cleaning sets, plus the sort of items that ought to be unisex, coloured pink. For older girls, it’s cerise craft kits, make up kits, make your own lip balm, make your own jewellery, make your own hair clips. In the boys’ aisle it’s trains, cars, building stuff, the sort of items that ought to be unisex, coloured the right colour, and then, for the older boys, science kits, engineering stuff, gory stuff.

So, what’s the problem with that? Well, some people don’t think it is a problem. Some people think that it’s absolutely fine to encourage boys and girls to play with different kinds of toys and some people even think you are being cruel if you try to broaden their horizons. Like James Delingpole, writing in The Express this week, clearly trying to be controversial so I probably shouldn’t bite, who implied that people who have a problem with genderised toys are basically being cruel to their children in denying their natural instincts. People like this see their offspring behaving in gendered ways and because they are tiny when they start doing it, therefore assume that this must be ‘natural’. Little children absorb messages about what constitutes male and female, and about the social rules they are supposed to observe, from being very tiny. It’s no surprise if they are already conforming to gender roles by the time they are two.

I think it’s fine for a little girl to play with a doll, but it’s also fine for a little boy to play with a doll. There is no earthly reason why a boy should not play with a doll. When girls play with dolls, they are imitating their mothers and (hopefully) fathers. Why shouldn’t a little boy play at being a father? I have no evidence or statistic to back this up, but I can’t help feeling that if boys played at being fathers more then they’d grow up to do a better job of it. Boys are allowed to grow up to think that looking after children is a demeaning task that they’ll never have to do, meaning that women are almost inevitably forced to shoulder the bulk of the care. It’s only anecdotal, but I see the evidence of that all the time.

Ultimately, though, I think the thing that irks everyone the most (well, it’s what irks me the most) is the fact that they are pushed so much stuff that focuses on their appearance, whilst boys are being encouraged to get interested in Science And Stuff. And that, to many people, seems deeply unfair. And not, as some would assert, because we are placing the emphasis on traditionally male skill sets, and diminishing the role of, say, a stay at home mum. We don’t care if there are mums who genuinely want to stay at home. We just want our daughters and our sons to have a genuine choice about who and what they become, and not be persuaded, by their toys, by the media, that there are certain things that they can’t be. We don’t want to discourage our daughters from taking up what we’ve come to regard as traditionally female pursuits, if that’s what they really want, and vice versa, for our boys. It saddens me when I see adults in shops persuading their daughters not to pick castles and pirate ships, and refusing to buy their son a doll. We are making our sons think it is shameful to do things that girls do. And we are making our daughters think that they are never going to be astronaut material.

And now… to that question I mentioned at the top: “Why can’t little girls just be allowed to be little girls?” I find it vaguely enraging (just vaguely) that people seem to have some sort of idea that there’s some historical precedent of what constitutes girlhood – that it’s always been this entirely pink thing that involved princesses, fashion and make up to the max, and that by trying to keep those elements to a minimum you’re being No Fun, and what’s more, going against some kind of time honoured tradition. No. It wasn’t always like this. When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, there wasn’t anything like the gender fascism that exists now. In fact, I do think little girls should be allowed to just be little girls, and not get hung up on looking pretty, doing their hair and wanting to wear make up by the time they are six. We are raising them to think that their value is in what they wear, how their hair looks, how well their make up is applied. We’re raising them to think they have to be beautiful to matter. And it’s sinking in.

Boys are raised to be doers, and girls are not. Last night, my daughter was watching the telly, and suddenly, angrily, turned to me and said “why are all the important people on TV boys?”. It’s a mostly accurate observation. When our girls look at the world, through the TV screen, through the media, through the way they are regarded by others, they see themselves reflected as window dressing, as add ons, support systems for men, toys for men, because that’s what the world reduces them to. The reasons for this are far more complex than just a proliferation of genderised toys, but those genderised toys are, in my opinion, playing a part.

It’s not just girls that suffer. It’s a pain for boys (especially those who enjoy more traditionally female pursuits) and it’s a pain for all those people who don’t consider themselves to be either male or female. Gender isn’t the same as sex, and it shouldn’t be just about male or female any more; the way we raise our children, the things we give them, should reflect that.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:52

Don’t be afraid of the jam

photo (12)

First published here for Bea Magazine in November 2013.

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d do consecutive Bea posts about crochet then jam I’m have told you that you were crazy. I’m not really the sort of person who does either crochet or jam, and, as I’ve previously written, I’m not really into the whole Cath Kidston/being a fifties housewife but with a job thing. I’m still dressing like a scruffy student, circa 1990-something. And I most certainly have absolutely no plans (and I mean NO plans) to join the Women’s Institute. Ever. I more than appreciate that its members are mostly fine, upstanding, lovely, but I’m someone who defiantly continued pretending to be a student until I was eight months pregnant and cheerfully took my daughter (in utero) along to noisy gigs and late night comedy until the very last minute. Am I really going to settle into a quiet village life and be happy with it? Am I going to join the gardens association or attend coffee mornings?

Well, I don’t know. It’s funny how easily one does slip into all of that stuff, and I’ve slipped into some of it. I’ve somehow ended up as a school governor, and I can often be found making a cake for some event or other, though once it’s been delivered, I’m usually conspicuous by my absence at said event. And in general, I do seem to be slowly mastering so many of the skills that come in handy when you’re in a small village community and have a child at the village school. Gardening, crafts, minor fundraising activity, baking, sewing… and jamming. Jam is one of those things that’s always there at village events, along with the cakes, the raffle and the dodgy tombola of terrible things. Though, to be fair, I only make jam for myself, and to give to relatives at Christmas.

Just as with crochet, before I began, I had a sense that jam was a bit beyond me. I have always been a relatively good cook; an instinctive cook. I don’t use recipes much, I just happily throw ingredients into pans and mixing bowls and hope for the best. This approach hardly ever goes entirely wrong and usually yields pretty good results, but I never dreamed I’d be able to apply it to jam. Jam always seemed to me to be an exact science; you needed a special jam pan, special strainers, jam thermometers, special pots to put it in. And of course you’d have to stick to the recipe. It’s a recipe where something has to *set*, of course you have to stick to the recipe. And sticking to recipes is something I assiduously avoid.

A couple of years ago, I found myself forced to make jam for the first time. Well, I say forced; no-one was standing with a gun to my head making me do it, but I felt a moral duty to do it because of a massive glut of fruit and vegetables that I couldn’t seem to get rid of. We were eating as many as possible, but everyone else around here grows stuff too, so giving them away wasn’t really an option, and there was only so much room in the freezer for the things that would freeze. So, I made pear jam, marrow and ginger jam, cherry tomato and chilli jam, and pear chutney. The best one was the cherry tomato and chilli jam. It was lovely with cheese.

But it was a faff. And the recipes I used all called for massive amounts of fruit or veg to make them. It made me feel as though jam-making is pointless unless you make tonnes of it, and that it has to be a big, painful, jar-sterilising, effortful effort. And of course, it can be like that. But what a couple of years of jam-making has taught me is that it doesn’t have to be like that at all. And boy, am I glad.

I discovered that:

1) I can get away with not weighing out sugar, just throwing it in until it tastes sweet enough
2) that I don’t need to make ten jars at a time
3) you don’t need all that insane paraphernalia like thermometers

I discovered that you need

1) a thick bottomed pan (too thin and it can easily burn)
2) any old amount of fruit that you like
3) jam sugar
4) a few old jars that you’ve put through the dishwasher and one of those jam making kits with the rubber bands, wax discs and cellophane discs in it.

I discovered that what you do is this:

1) put a couple of your old jars in a hot oven to sterilise
2) prepare your fruit and stick it in your pan, then boil it up until it’s gone mushy
3) add jam sugar until it tastes as sweet as jam usually is, then boil and boil and boil
4) once it’s boiled for a bit, drop a teaspoonful on a cold plate and once it’s cool, see if it goes wrinkly when you touch it.
5) When it’s wrinkly, spoon it into jars and put a wax disc on top. When it’s cool, dampen a cellophane disc and stretch it over the top of the jar and put a rubber band round it.

So, that’s it. Jam making is ludicrously simple, and I feel as though someone (Jam companies? The media? Recipe books?) has been selling me a lie about its complexitude my whole life. And it’s a shame. Because no jam that you buy in the shop tastes anywhere near as good as homemade raspberry and blackcurrant. And as long as you keep it simple, you probably have time in your life to do this.

And here’s how to keep it simple: Do it with fruit that’s easy to prepare. I had a massive grape glut this year and recently spent what felt like an entire day (possibly only an hour or so) standing over a massive pile of grapes, carefully washing the tiny snails out of it (don’t worry, I found a lovely place in the garden to re-home them) and getting the fruit off the vines. The resulting grape jelly is incredibly good. Amazingly delicious on toast. But god, I had to work for it. Don’t be like me, choose fruit you can just throw into a colander and quickly rinse under the tap. Raspberries and strawberries, for example. Remember that you have to peel fruits like peaches.

So there you have it. Everyone can have delicious home made jam if they want to, and it’s really not that hard. Buy a couple of punnets of strawberries when they are on special offer and give it a whirl.

Just don’t get involved with selling it at the village fete. For that way darkness lies…

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:48

Crochet: A Love Story

crochet

First published here for Bea Magazine in October 2013.

If there’s anyone out there that has read the majority of my posts for Bea, you’ll know that most often, I tend to quite angrily tackle something from a feminist perspective. It’s because I am indeed a feminist who is angry, and who sees sexism everywhere she looks. I am also beset by anger about myriad other things: death penalties, injustice, racism, ablism, any kind of different-ism, cruelty to animals, poverty, repression, slavery, the self-interest and messed up policy making of our elected politicians, people making annoying grammar or spelling errors, violent and aggressive behaviour, pointlessly rude behaviour… the list goes on.

And if you are wondering, I write more about feminism because it includes topics I feel I know best. I’m planning to get around to all that other stuff at some point.

Anyway, just read that long list again. Go on, go back to that paragraph and read about all those things that I spend all my time worrying about. There are a whole lot of things. You might read that list and think “yes, I am angry about all that too”. Let’s face it, most people must be at least a little angry about at least some of those things.

And… isn’t it exhausting? I get exhausted just thinking about it. I get beset by guilt, for not doing enough to change the world. And it’s awful.

I try to do some things to change the world. I can’t deny that a lot of what I do might be regarded as ‘slacktivism’. I share links, because I want my contacts to read about the thing that is getting me angry. I hope that they will get angry too, and that if enough of us get angry, and voice our displeasure, something will happen. I sign petitions, hoping that they will achieve an aim. I write letters of support, letters of complaint, I write to people who I think CAN make a difference to ask them to try to make a difference with regard to particular issues. Sometimes I take to the streets to involve myself in a march or demonstration (it can be quite hard to fit that sort of stuff around dealing with young children but I occasionally manage it), and I give money to causes that I believe in. I want to do more, but I don’t know what to do. Suggestions in the comments are welcome.

So, I get exhausted by the problems themselves, and I get exhausted by the guilt generated by not doing enough to fix the problems. They never go away. They keep popping into my mind. When I’m in the shower, when I’m writing, when I’m editing, when I’m out for a walk or a ride on my bike, when I’m on the train, when I’m playing with my daughter… they still keep popping up.

I’m not looking for sympathy, by the way. I know that there are loads of you out there, people who also can’t stop worrying about the state of the world and its people, and you’re probably doing more than I am to try and fix things. But I just wanted to say that I think we ought to allow ourselves the odd moment to stop worrying, and just be.

And, I achieved this with crochet. Not sure why. I think it’s because I’m not that good at number things, and so a lot of the time I have to concentrate incredibly hard to make sure that I’m counting the stitches correctly. Or it might be that, when I’m doing the simpler things, that don’t really need counting, that I can watch the TV at the same time, and combined, they make me stop thinking.

It’s funny how I came to crochet. My whole life I have tried to knit and failed. I am AWFUL at it. Every row I knit becomes tighter and tighter as I go along it, and I sit there, tense and hunched, angry that it’s not going well (yes, another thing to add to my angry list – not being good at knitting). Grim.

But, you know, I tried to be pragmatic about it. I have the skills I’m paid for (writing, editing, proof-reading, etc) and in addition to that, I’m quite good at watercolours, which is nice. I’m not bad at embroidery. I’m quite good with clay, and with crafts in general. I bought a sewing machine and worked on getting good at that. I tried to tutor myself a bit in the ways of gardening. I’ve got very good at cooking and baking. I can swim well, run pretty fast, and walk long distances. I know lots of facts that come in handy for quizzes, and am really good at estimating the height of celebrities. So what if I had to turn my back on yarn?

I still looked at the yarn, though, every time I was in a crafts shop. I eyed the colourful skeins and balls jealously. But I knew it was hopeless. If I bought it, what would I do with it?

About two years ago, my step daughter received a Christmas gift which turned out to be a craft kit, to make a crochet dog. She opened it up, tried to follow the instructions and failed. She asked her dad to help. He tried to follow the instructions, and failed. They turned to me and said “you’re the crafty one, you work out how to do it”. So I tried to follow the instructions. And failed.

My step daughter was disappointed, and, given her reliance on me to be the-adult-that-can-show-her-all-the-craft-stuff, I felt like a terrible failure. So I said “I will learn to crochet, and then I will teach you to crochet. I will do it soon”.

About a year later, my step daughter found the crochet dog in the craft cupboard (yes, I have a craft cupboard) and said “have you learned to crochet yet?”. I sighed (inwardly) and said “I PROMISE you I will learn how to do this this weekend”. I wasn’t optimistic, though. I completely expected crochet to be just like knitting. I would fail.

And as it happens, I didn’t. What I wasn’t really expecting was the vast number of free instructional video clips available to me on YouTube. It took me a while, quite a few watches, to get the general hang of it, but once I had it, I was amazed. This was something I could do with a small hook, no great long knitting needles knocking at my elbows, I could practically lie down to do it. I learned basic stitches and passed them on to my stepdaughter (who herself got ‘hooked’ – it’s her birthday soon, and one of her pressie requests was a bag of yarn).

Before long, I felt like following a pattern (lots of free ones on Ravelry), and tried that, got through it, and tried another. I suddenly discovered that crochet doesn’t actually have to look like those fusty old things my grandmother used to make… there are all sorts of things, useful and attractive and cute (amigurumi, anyone?) that you can make with crochet. And you can crochet with any kind of yarn, with fine cottons, with cut up strips of t-shirt. I’ve even been crocheting with twine and string.

And, it takes my mind off almost everything.

I think there’s a lot of unfair pressure on women these days to be good at crafts. I mentally call it the CathKidsonCupcake explosion, and it’s a vague social movement that seems to have the effect of making women feel a bit of a failure if they can’t make amazing looking celebration cakes, knit their own jumpers, grow their own fruit, churn out chutneys, and also whip up a delightful drawstring PE bag for their shiny faced, vegetable-eating offspring, all whilst looking healthy and perfectly dressed, and keeping a perfect, tidy house with shabby chic dressers and a pair of green wellies that lives conspicuously by the picturesque looking garden door. I suspect they’re also supposed to hold down a job too, while their partners just have to have a job and go fishing at the weekends. Or something.

I certainly can’t manage to find the time to do all of that, even if, in theory, I’m about capable of a fair amount of it. And in writing this, I’m not trying to sell anyone that kind of lifestyle. But I kind of am trying to sell crochet as a nice relaxing thing to do with your fingers when you find yourself at a loose end (I love doing it when in the passenger seat on long journeys). I love the way it’s a craft which travels so easily (one ball of yarn and one small hook) and I like what you can do with it. I love the concept of crochet squares: small ones can take something like twenty minutes to accomplish; do one here, do one there, eventually you have enough to make a blanket.

So, if you need something to close your mind down from the things that worry you for a few minutes, I think you could do worse than crochet. Yes you, you there. Reading this. You.

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:41

Warning: this is about rape-justification and victim blaming

First published here for Bea Magazine in September 2013.

My last two posts have been about the Edinburgh Festival; one was praising it loudly for its massive and diverse programme of events, its general and overall brilliance, the second being cross at the level of misogynistic humour to be found at it.

And frankly, I thought that I was done with Edinburgh for the year, really. I wasn’t planning to mention it again here (well, maybe in passing) for a while, given that I had allowed it to take over two consecutive Bea contributions. But then I read this post on Fringe veteran John Fleming’s blog, and wanted to cry. Because it is a post that features a transcript of some women talking about rape, and doing a whole lot of victim blaming.

I know that plenty of people will say that this is just the speakers’ opinions, and that they are entitled to have them. But I am entitled to say that it stinks, and so I’m going to say that. It stinks. It makes me incredibly angry when people pass judgement on other people for behaving a certain way. It makes me cross that they can’t empathise with someone else’s experience. It makes me even crosser when they basically suggest that a woman deserves to be raped if she decides that she doesn’t want to have sex with someone.

During an appearance at John’s Fringe chat show, doyenne critic of the Edinburgh Fringe Kate Copstick said this, on the topic of rape: “Well I genuinely believe – this won’t go down well, but – if you walk into Battersea Dogs Home with your legs covered in prime rump steak, you cannot complain if you get bitten.”

I can only think that she thinks/knows she can get away with saying something like this precisely because she’s the queen of Edfringe critics, because of a vaguely untouchable status and a reputation for saying exactly what she thinks and not caring – apparently – who she hurts in the process. No-one questioned her at the time, seemingly, and the women appearing alongside her appeared to happily go along with her viewpoint.

She moves on to speak about how there are different kind of rapes; you know, that thing where being physically violated by a man’s penis is only really awful and traumatic if it happened on a dark night, with a stranger, and rape in other circumstances doesn’t quite count the same.

“At the moment”, she adds, “it’s ludicrous, but that one word [rape] covers both someone who is wandering along a road and some person completely unknown to her leaps out – which must be horrendous and terrifying and it’s not about sex, it’s about violence. It’s a very specific form of assault… That is one thing… That is horrendous…But then there’s some twat of a 19-year-old who dolls herself up, covers herself in make-up, goes out, gets shit-faced, gets a guy, gets more shit-faced, takes him back to her place or goes back to his place, takes some items of clothing off, starts playing tonsil hockey, has her nipples twiddled, starts playing the horizontal tango … It’s too fucking late to start complaining. It’s not his fault any more. You can’t go Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes – Oh! – No! – It’s not fair.”

What she’s challenging, there, is a person’s right to decide when they want to call things to a halt. She’s saying that if a woman gets to a certain point with a man, that she owes him a happy ending. She’s saying that once she’s allowed a man to touch her, a woman no longer has the right to what happens to her body. That if she suddenly feels fear, apprehension, she’s not allowed to act on it. Not if she’s going to deprive that poor man she was fooling around with of his happy conclusion.

She’s also implying that men can’t control themselves. That all men have the capacity to continue when asked to stop. This is deeply unfair to men as a whole.

People talk and talk about what constitutes consent, they get hung up on whether someone said this one word – ‘no’ – when a lack of consent can be communicated hundreds of other ways. But when a person indicates, whichever way they indicate, that they don’t want to have sex, if the person they are with continues, then it is rape. We don’t need more than one word for it.

I’m very concerned about the tolerance of rape in the society around me and other societies the world over. I have observed in horror what happened in Steubenville, what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, I see the tolerance of violence against women evident everywhere (rape t-shirt, anyone?) and I abhor it.

There is of course no excuse for rape, ever. If someone is not consenting (and that includes being unable to consent, for myriad reasons) then it’s rape. And that should be where it ends. It’s just wrong, and that’s that, no matter who the raped person is, where they were, what they were wearing. We shouldn’t have to, and never should examine that person’s lifestyle choices, blame them, put them on trial.

So, it’s probably wrong, and un-feminist of me to want to say this to Kate Copstick: please won’t you try and understand these nineteen year olds that you’re dismissing as twats?

Wrong and un-feminist, because by trying to talk about why young women might behave like this, it might sound as though I’m trying to explain away “bad behaviour” – and I don’t, for a moment, think that women that say no at the last minute have behaved badly. But I’ve got a massive itch to answer Kate’s unspoken question – why do they get themselves into that situation?

Women have always been raised to try and please men. They are brainwashed into it from an early age. You’d think we’d have got past that, but I don’t think we have. There’s this common theme, when women admit to having accepted harassment and abuse in their pasts; they didn’t want to be mean; they found it hard to reject someone. They had to be nice to him, because that was what was expected of them. Some young women – don’t expect them all to be magically assertive and in control of everything by the time they are 19, by the way – get themselves into difficult situations with men because they are afraid to let them down, they are afraid to be strident; they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Perhaps the only time they feel they can really put their foot down is when it’s getting close to the point of entry…? Doesn’t mean to say they are a ‘twat’.

Women, young women especially, are also under a lot of pressure these days, from the sexual standards heavily imposed on them by the media and porn. The media is full of women (on every magazine cover, in magazine ads, in internet ads, on the telly) making ready-for-sex faces at every opportunity, and porn, which is increasingly consumed in massive amounts by young people (including younger teenagers) is full of women making actual sex-faces, and being represented largely as a set of holes to be penetrated. I think the result is that young women are brainwashed into feeling that they must act a certain way. I’m not condemning them for expressing their sexuality, there’s nothing wrong with that; what I am saying is that these media send the visual message that women are, or ought to be, in a permanent state of sex-readiness, for men. And whether it’s because they don’t want to lose face with their peers, or with the men involved, perhaps some young women end up going further than they’d like to, because of those messages that say “this is normal”. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean to say they have done anything wrong when it comes to the point that they say “no more”.

Or yes, this mythical 19 year old might simply have been all gung-ho about it to begin with. She might have gone out, had drinks, wanted to get laid, as is her absolute right to do so. She might have thought she wanted it to happen, with that particular chap. But perhaps she suddenly felt wrong about it. Perhaps he whispered something in her ear that made her feel uncomfortable. Perhaps she suddenly realised she was miles from home and on her own with a man she didn’t really know very well. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to any more, and in any scenario, she should be able to draw back without fear of rape or recrimination.

Or, maybe, just maybe, she always just wanted to fool around a bit, and not actually have sex. After all, that’s what ‘careful’ teenagers have done since practically forever.

Rape happens in all sorts of places and situations, and most often the attacked person knows the rapist well, so incidents following the plot of Kate’s scenario probably make up a rather small percentage. But if that scenario does occur, and rape ensues from it, it is not the raped person’s fault, or something that they should “expect”.

As I finish this (I could go on, really, for hours like this) I’d like to go back to that first comment about dogs and meat. What Copstick is saying is, if you go out looking for something, you can’t complain if you get it. I’ve seen many people espouse the same view. If a woman goes out looking to have sex with someone, that she can’t complain when it is forced on her. I don’t understand the people who think this; I don’t get why they can’t see that even if a person is looking for sex, it should be THEIR CHOICE as to WHO they do it with, and when. Do people REALLY think that by wanting sex, and going out looking for it, a woman has surrendered her right to choose the person she engages with?

Well, yes, they probably do. Men are entitled to women’s bodies, according to their thinking, and if the body is there, they should be able to take it.

There are clearly many people in our world that think this, whether they fully realise it or not.

And that’s shocking, isn’t it?

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:27

Misogyny at the Fringe – it’s just not funny

with Ida Persson and Jen Nicholson, first published here for Bea Magazine in August 2013.

theatre seatingI’m up at the Edinburgh Festival this month (as previously reported) because, in August that’s where I usually am, being the editor of ThreeWeeks, the biggest and best (so says I) of the specialist publications that cover the largest arts festival in the world.

The largest part of the Edinburgh Festival is called The Fringe (you may have heard of it) and the biggest section of said Fringe is the comedy section. It is absolutely massive, and the acts who perform here come from a huge variety of backgrounds and locations, have many different styles, and of course, extremely varied levels of skill. Many big name comedians make it up here for the Fringe, many complete unknowns take their first fragile steps, and many, many reasonably successful comedy acts use Edinburgh as a deadline for creating their latest touring show. I hear about all these acts, even if I don’t see them myself, and it’s easy for me to spot a recurring theme.

It seems to me, and to a number of other people that I’ve been in contact with in recent days, that there is a serious problem with misogyny and sexism in Fringe comedy. It wouldn’t be the first time that it’s been noted; last year Tanya Gold wrote for The Guardian a CIF article about the preponderance of rape and domestic violence jokes at the Fringe, and high profile veteran reviewer Lyn Gardner has also written about sexism at the Festival. But despite something of a backlash last year and this year (the number of actively feminist shows at the Fringe seems to have shot up in 2013), it would seem that the problem still very much exists.

And we’re not really talking about women in comedy here, though I will, for the moment; that old chestnut – the one where journalists ask female comedians what it’s like to be working in such a male dominated world – has been done to death. We know that traditionally, there have been fewer women comedians, but if we think about it logically we ought to know why that is; sociological reasons have prevented women from pursuing this kind of career, but other pressures and social mores have clearly had an effect too; men, historically, have lived in a society that encourages them to speak out, stand up, make jokes, make people listen to them, to believe that they have a right to be listened to. Women on the other hand, have been encouraged to keep quiet, and hang on man’s every word, not out-funny him. It’s taking quite a while to shake off those shackles, I think.

But women will. They are doing so. There are so many brilliant shows at this festival by women. Yet when nominations for this year’s high profile Edinburgh Comedy Awards were announced, only one woman, Bridget Christie, appeared alongside six men on the short-list for the main prize, and one woman, Aisling Bea, was the one woman of five candidates for the newcomer prize. If you speak out and say “there’s something wrong with that”, people will question it. Richard Herring expressed his surprise via Twitter that so few women were on the short list, despite the number of brilliant shows by women at the Fringe this year and provoked all the sorts of comments I’d expect; ones about how it should be done on merit, and if the women aren’t good enough, then they’re just not good enough. Well, sorry, but it’s not like that at all. There are plenty of very fricking funny women at this festival; what’s at play here is the widely pedalled and routinely accepted notion that “women just aren’t funny”. Ultimately, a woman has to work a lot harder at comedy than her male peers for the same amount of recognition.

In recent days I’ve been talking to Ida Persson and Jen Nicholson, who have experienced some of that sexism first hand at this festival. Jen explains: “When I was flyering I approached a woman who seemed a little interested, but when she discovered women were involved with the show, she explained that she didn’t like “female comedy”.” So it’s not just men who are writing women off as unfunny, it’s women too. Some might call that internalised misogyny, or, as I like to call it, being brainwashed by the patriarchy.

But here’s the crux: that wasn’t the worst of what they witnessed. “I sometimes feel like comedy has taken a step back towards the male working club attitudes to comedy material of the 1960′s and 70′s.” says Ida. “ Although I saw some good comedy that managed to step away from this, I saw some that seemed to go back to this. And what worries me is that sexist material is now labelled ‘daring’ or ‘edgy’, as opposed to what it is – demeaning, offensive, and belittling, and thus ultimately dangerous.”

While Ida was in Edinburgh, she came across exactly this kind of worrying material. “I saw one group, a group of fresh, talented performers, that included both men and women. Whatever I personally thought of their overall writing, there were some things that I found just borderline disturbing – partly because it was deemed by someone to be okay to present it as “funny”, and partly because there were women in the group buying into this “humour”

“Some of it was good, had potential, though some of it was just not to my taste. But they had a sketch about “inappropriate phone apps” – described by some reviewers, I believe, as edgy and daring and brave because it makes the audience uncomfortable. Maybe we were uncomfortable for a reason. One such app (others involved pregnancy, mother-in-law, and blow job gags) was the “girlfriend silencer app”. The punch line was that the girlfriend was hit across the head and knocked out by her boyfriend with his phone. I have no problem with things which are daring or edgy, but this goes beyond that. Making a joke of violence against women appals me. ”

Her colleague Jen adds: “I didn’t see the group Ida saw, but I did speak to several other people who had seen them (both men and women) who seemed disturbed by some of the material, in particular the girlfriend silencer app. I was surprised to learn that this is a group in which there are more female performers than men. I agree with Ida that calling this type of humour “edgy” and “daring” is dangerous.”

Jen had her own bad experiences, however, and not just of sexist material, but of homophobic jokes too. Speaking about another sketch troupe, one whose publicity material boasted multi-starred reviews, she explained: “there was no denying that these boys were incredibly talented performers, very gifted. I’m sure they are also lovely people. However, I was left upset at the end of their show because of the lazy stereotypes they employed for cheap laughs. This involved the wife who nags and complains, and it was frustrating to see in an opening sketch a group relying on this for laughs (though the sketch got much worse when a “gaybot” was introduced, which I felt was incredibly offensive and lazy).”

“The show also included a sequence in which a woman, portrayed by a man, simulated having sex (reluctantly, but in a jokey way) to ‘Blurred Lines’, a controversial song about anal rape (the lines “I know you want it” were repeatedly played – lyrics which I find not only disturbing but incredibly dangerous and not something that should be made light of).

And of course, it feels even more upsetting to think that so many women are able to accept this as normal. “What I found most distressing about the whole thing was that the whole room was howling with laughter, and many of them were women”, adds Jen. “Which I simply didn’t understand. It saddened me. It also saddened me because this group is obviously talented, and didn’t need these things in their show.”

It’s disturbing to think that any comedy troupe – even if they are not the most successful ones – are relying on such violent and sexist humour. Yet, as Ida points out, it’s not even just the outright violence that’s a problem; even more benevolent comedy acts incorporate sexism in ways which are perhaps less obvious, but just as damaging. “We all know there are some great comedians (male and female) who do not rely on the same tired gender stereotypes. But rather than increasing in number, they seem to be decreasing; rape jokes and violence against women jokes are on the rise (see the recent example of the comedian booked for American forces gig), all in the name of comedy and free speech. Why, when everyone understands, rightly, that racist jokes and jokes about minorities are unacceptable, is it still okay to place women on the receiving end of of jokes that demean and belittle them and seek to remind them of their ‘place’?”

She adds: “I do appreciate measures like “Funny Women” and others who seek to give female comedians opportunities but I wish that we could be at a stage where this was not necessary. I also think many women feel that to succeed, they have to conform, and produce exactly the type of humour that we find difficult when men do it. Men making jokes about women with regard to sex, breasts, periods, children. Yet many women I have seen do exactly that. Surely we shouldn’t just be doing exactly the same comedy that is demeaning when it comes from men?”

Jen, meanwhile, is keen to clarify that she has no problem with comedy being shocking; but some shocking things are more acceptable than others. “I don’t have a problem with shocking comedy, or even elements of violence in comedy, but I think there is a huge difference between, for example, Vic and Bob hitting each other with saucepans (obviously this is not something that would normally happen, as it is so ludicrous, silly and slapstick), and a situation in which a) the violent act itself is meant to be the main source of humour and b) the type of violence which is portrayed (i.e., domestic violence) is something which does frequently happen in real life and is something which people should be speaking out against: many boyfriends and husbands do abuse their partners when they have annoyed them. And let’s not forget men also suffer domestic violence at the hands of women. Perhaps it is the generality of the situation which is the issue here. Perhaps as writers we need to ask ourselves a bit more carefully (and I include myself in this) what it is we are asking people to laugh at.”

One take on this is that these groups are looking for ever more shocking ways to make a name for themselves, and while, as Ida says, they can’t possibly be be openly racist, or ablist any more, they can still be sexist. Another is that they are following the example of other, more high profile shock comedians like Jimmy Carr. Another is that these groups have come together in a time when misogynistic attitudes have actually increased, at a time when it is increasingly socially acceptable to hate women, and that these comedians are either reflecting social mores or are brainwashed by them.

People – by which I mean active feminists – are talking a lot, these days, about rape culture, about the tolerance of violence towards women and the forgiveness of male violence. Lad culture produces attitudes espoused by the likes of the publication Unilad, who not that long ago were happy to publish an article which ‘jokingly’ listed rape as an almost risk-free way to get laid. There are Facebook groups devoted to slut-shaming women. When a woman speaks out about practically anything, she may end up subject to rape or death threats. Mainstream pornography is uniformly violent and degrading towards women. Adverts are degrading and often imply sexual violence towards women. When I look around, what I see is a society that broadly thinks it’s okay to hate women, because it’s being taught that it’s okay, by all the many different kind of media it consumes.

Perhaps the presence of sexism and violence in comedy just reflects this. But one way or another, for the sake of future generations, we really have to make this stop.

Image courtesy of Apple’s Eyes Studio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:16

Ever been to the Edinburgh Festival? Well, why not?

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First published here for Bea Magazine in July 2013.

You know, when my thoughts turn to writing my monthly post for Bea, I usually have some feminist issue on my mind that I want to have a vaguely controlled rant about. But I must confess that there’s only one thing dominating my mind at the moment, and I can hardly think about anything else. My Julys are never the relaxed and sunny thing they ought to be (the sunny element, I concede, is beyond my control) because I spend most of that month inside, staring manically at festival programmes and my computer screen, feverishly formulating critical picks and promising PRs that I really will get back to them as soon as I possibly can, honest.

My company, UnLimited Media, produces, amongst many other things, the definitive guide to the Edinburgh Festival, which may seem like a cocky claim, but it’s true, really; I’m not usually very good at blowing my own trumpet, but ThreeWeeks (that’s the name of the publication) is something that I am very proud of. It’s a very necessary tool for the people who work at and attend the Edinburgh Festival, and I’m pleased to be one of its two editors, even though it does mean that my Julys are stressful and sleepless, and my Augusts doubly so.

But this post isn’t intended to be about boasting about my publication, actually; it’s no use to you unless you’re going to the Edinburgh Festival, so there’s no real point in pushing it to readers who aren’t going. But what I do want to tell you about is the Edinburgh Festival itself, not least because I feel as though there are so many people out there who really don’t know what they are missing.

It saddens me, actually; there are so, so, so many people in the UK who have no idea that the biggest, the greatest arts festival on the entire planet takes place here, on our little island. No festival, anywhere in the world, compares to it in terms of size, quality and influence. Yet so many people seem to have misconceived ideas about what it is. When you say “Edinburgh Festival” what do people think? At least some, I know, call to mind the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and think that that, in itself, is the festival. Others think the festival is all about the high arts – opera and classical music. Others think it’s just that weird experimental arty stuff. Others think it’s all comedy. None of those things is true (though there is, admittedly, a lot of comedy).

So, here are some facts about the biggest and best arts festival in THE WORLD, which takes place in the Scottish capital from late July to late August. Firstly, it’s not one stand alone festival. It’s made up of about seven. Yes, that’s right, seven. Plus, lots of mini-festivals and ones that come and go a bit. The first festival to be founded was the Edinburgh International Festival. That’s the one that tends to specialise in opera, dance, ballet… yes, the more highbrow stuff.

In the same year that the International Festival was set up – 1947 – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe also began, and it’s the Fringe that makes the combined festivals into such a gargantuan cultural event. When the 2013 Fringe programme was published earlier this year, 2871 shows and events had been registered, hailing from all genres, really – comedy, cabaret, theatre, physical theatre, music, children’s shows, spoken word, exhibitions, musicals, dance, talks, workshops… some of those are one offs, but a great many of these shows do a full three week run of performances, and it can be a long and difficult slog.

As well as the Festival and the Fringe, there’s also the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Festival Of Politics, the aforementioned Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh Mela.

So, all of these festivals, all happening at once, in one compact capital city… what can this be like? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s intense. If you like walking to places quickly, you’ll get frustrated, because the streets get so full; you can’t move for shows, for people publicising shows, for people performing street theatre and for locals, cursing and desperately trying to cut through the crowds to their homes and places of work. It’s an astonishing, tiring, hilarious, happy, stressful, vibrant place to be. And I think that everyone really ought to experience this at least once. You will never see a city so transformed by an onslaught of culture, you will never have so much culture in one concentrated place that you could see eight or nine shows in one day with ease.

This brilliant, colourful melting pot is where so many arts practitioners hone their craft. This is where young comedians compete with their peers and take their first steps towards successful careers; it’s where established comedians come to premiere their newest material. It’s a festival packed with new works by fledgling playwrights, actors learning their craft, musicians road-testing their new songs. It’s also a place for the tried and tested, though; as well as the new and experimental you’ll find the classic stuff. There are always at least a few Shakespeare productions, and usually something by Beckett… and a capella groups peddling covers of pop and soft rock ballads.

There is so much of this stuff, so much diversity, that I’m struggling to find the words to express just how all-encompassing it is. All its elements adds up to an amazing cultural smorgasbord. I’m just not quite conveying it well enough, just what a brilliant experience this can be.

So, you will just have to come and see for yourself, and that right soon.

 

Photo: Kat Gollock

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:11

It’s not easy, being hated

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First published here for Bea Magazine in June 2013.

I’m sorry to be slightly emotional about this, but I’ve had a very busy and stressful couple of weeks, and frankly, I’m really struggling to deal with rampant and violent misogyny.

Trigger warning regarding the page I’m about to tell you about. Violence, domestic violence, rape.

One day last week I had the misfortune to click on a link to this page here. It’s a few weeks old, and if, like me, you are following any of the Facebook groups dedicated to getting rid of this stuff, you’ll have seen images like these; but when so many are collected together, it’s pretty shocking.

I’d already seen most of those images, but seeing them all laid out together, it hit me harder. And I have to confess, it provoked a couple of tears. Because of my sex, I am hated. And what’s more, I have a little girl to send out into the world, one who doesn’t yet know that she’s hated, one who is full of life and positivity. I have to send her out there. I have a ten year old step daughter, and I worry that she’s already absorbing the kind of messages that will prove deleterious to her self esteem. How do I tell them? How do I reveal the preposterous truth of what so many men think of women, and the harmful, violent things so many of them are prepared to do to them?

I’m not stupid, of course, and I’m not completely self centred. I know that there are lots and lots of men that don’t think that way about women. They are, I hope, the vast majority. And I know that there are plenty of men who view women as their equals – I know lots of them, thankfully – and they are certainly not about to start venting violent angry rhetoric at me.

I also know that women aren’t the only ones who feel threatened by hatred. People harbour irrational hatred for others because of their race, their sexuality, their disability, their social status… I could go on.

But I think I feel so strongly about this because women are part of every race, every social status… They can be a member of pretty much any disadvantaged group. They are half the population (possibly a little more?) of the world, and yet they are, in so many quarters, by so many people, seemingly considered less than human. And the people who ‘joke’ about being violent towards them, or are openly hostile to them, seem to take such a visceral delight in the idea of really hurting them. Really damaging them. And they so often seem to have an air of self-righteousness, as though they feel that they are entirely justified about wanting to put womankind in her place, either by inflicting violence (and that includes rape) or by threatening us with the same violence, albeit dressed up as ‘joke’ on Facebook.

It’s in the interests of all sexes and genders to take a stand against this sort of disgusting, unacceptable behaviour. I am not pro-censorship, especially, but most of us are happy, in fact, to censor hate speech, against minorities, races. As a society (certainly on social media) we seem overly inclined to just live with hate speech when it’s directed at women. It’s certainly been the case with Facebook, an organisation which has tolerated images of violence towards women (though the campaign against this tolerance has met with some success), and will allow near pornographic images of women, but deems images of women breast feeding to be obscene. And it’s come to this: you get censored for portraying a woman with pubic hair, but it’s not offensive to show the same woman without it. So… Unless your naked body conforms to certain porn-induced standards, it’s also obscene…?

In any case, we need to take a stand, we need to call out this kind of stuff wherever and whenever we see it . We’re creating a world where our young men are going to grow up hating our young women, because their elders and peers taught them to. It’s a world where those same young women end up accepting and endorsing the idea that it’s okay for them to be hated. A world where a man can abuse a woman in public, and then think it’s socially acceptable to claim that he was grabbing her by the neck just to “emphasise a point”, while others fall over themselves to urge us not to judge him for what was very clearly an act of violence.

Two women are killed a week, in this country, by men who were their partners or ex partners, and countless more suffer varying degrees of violence at the hands of the men who are supposed to love them. The statistics on sexual violence against women are horrendous – this article uses the word ‘epidemic’, for heaven’s sake. The perpetrators, in my opinion, are silently given permission by society to attack women, and the preponderance of woman-hating material on the internet can only be perpetuating those attitudes.

When I first looked at that long collection of nasty images, I cried. I felt hated. And then I felt cross that I cried, not because I felt they’d won, succeeded in getting me down, but because I felt as though I was being pathetic. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that I’m not pathetic. I’m human, and a woman, of course the thought that some men hate us so much they’d like to eviscerate us is disturbing. It’s okay to be upset.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 14:02

Revisiting Anne

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First published here for Bea Magazine in May 2013.

When I was a small child, I was an avid reader. I still am, I suppose. I read fewer books these days, because I am always getting distracted by compelling articles that I find on the internet, and I’ve also inadvertently taken up a couple of hobbies I never thought I would…. like… <whispers> … crochet.

But back then, I lived on books. Many Saturdays, while my parents were shopping for food, I’d head to a library, and it was there that I discovered some of my all time favourites, and an addictive heroine. I never got on that well with Pollyanna, but oh. my. goodness. Anne.

If I remember correctly, I got the whole set of Anne books from the library, all at once. I had a habit of doing that, and still do to a certain extent; these days I tend to invest wholesale in an author, and buy their entire oeuvre before I’ve even read a word, and in those days, I’d leave the library with chunks of books by one writer. I left that day with a pile of the works of one LM Montgomery.

I loved Anne. A chatty, imaginative risk taker, who (initially at least) defied her adopted parents’ attempts to lady-fy her. I loved her story. I loved her brain. I loved the fact that she was able to use that brain for good. I loved the manner in which she fell in love. I loved her quirky nature, I loved her scrapes, I even sort of liked the message which came loud and clear – that you can look through your mind, or throughout the world, for excitement, for glamour, for love, for new ideals… but in the end, happiness doesn’t have to be out there, it’s within, it’s at home, where you make it. I say sort of because at that age, I planned to take over the world and have an impossibly glamorous lifestyle.

For I was old enough to be mildly irked by the vague sense that somehow, she settles; she becomes lady-like, and she eventually falls into the role of wife and mother to someone just a little bit more important than her… but it was a minor quibble.

I read all the books that were available in that library. ‘Anne Of Green Gables’, ‘Anne of Avonlea’, ‘Anne of The Island’, ‘Anne of Windy Willows’, ‘Anne’s House Of Dreams’, ‘Chronicles of Avonlea’ and ‘Further Chronicles Of Avonlea’. And then I noticed that there was one missing. ‘Rilla Of Ingleside’, a story clearly focusing on Anne’s youngest daughter. I’ve since discovered that there was yet another – Rainbow Valley – but ‘Rilla Of Ingleside’ was the one that I knew I had missed, and I was so disappointed that it seemed to be out of print. I asked the librarian, I asked in every book shop I went to. But then I forgot about it, because I didn’t get any results. There wasn’t any Google back then.

A few months ago, thinking about what might be an appropriate read for a five year old girl with a reading age of at least double that, I thought about Anne, and wondered if those books would do. And I thought about Rilla Of Ingleside, too, and did a Google search. And of course I was able to lay my hands on a second hand copy.

‘Rilla’ is such a sad book, really, and on a number of levels. It opens on the eve of World War I, a conflict that Canadian troops were very much involved in, and Anne’s large family and friends are considerably affected by it. I found it hard to enjoy the snippets where that formerly irrepressible red haired heroine appeared, for she seems subdued now, living in fear of losing her boys. I never wanted to see Anne living in fear. And Rilla is hard to like; she’s a little flighty to begin with, and, given that her predecessor is the ambitious and impetuous Anne, it seems a retrograde step to focus on someone who lacks ideals, whose aim is ultimately to become a wife, and whose most obvious growth is in those characteristics that will mark her out as womanly.

These days I spend a lot of time reading feminism, and political stuff. And I’ve also spent some time recently mulling over whether Anne is a suitable role model to offer to a small, strong girl who believes in herself. I’ve always thought Anne wasn’t such a bad character to look up to, not least because she is the complete centre of this story, not an accessory to a man, as so many women are in popular culture. And although there is a theme of romance running through it, it’s not the only element of the story. You get the feeling that Anne’s love for Gilbert, and his for her, is a transforming and enduring thing, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Anne isn’t validated by Gilbert. She is a person in her own right, a funny, witty, clever person, who is popular, gathers friends and followers, and isn’t measured by her ability to “catch a man”; at least, not in the readers’ eyes, though perhaps in the eyes of her fictional peers. She is determined, cunning, brave, doesn’t take no for an answer, and doesn’t see singleness as a problem – there are times when she embraces the idea of becoming – horrible phrase – an “old maid”.

I do want my daughter to read these books, because Anne is a heroine who attacks life with a vengeance, and that’s an example that I approve of. Like any other book, though, it reflects the times, and as we get to the later books, Anne’s focus becomes the lives and doing of her children. When I first read these books, I felt that Anne’s ‘settling’ was understandable, because it was set in the past, but in recent years I’ve been troubled to see childless women of the here and now being judged for their choices, and seen the achievements of mothers downplayed while their home-making skills were extolled; all of which makes these attitudes seem a great deal less historical.

I hope, hope, hope that girls of my daughter’s generation will read these books and see Anne’s actions in the context of the age she lived in, and not as a lesson that a woman should live her life through children, and that she is only validated by having them.

PS: When I posted this on Bea, someone pointed out the bigotry in ‘Rilla’, and they are right, and it was something that I intended to mention but it somehow got cut from my draft. Plus, I never intended to imply that someone who chooses to spend their life mothering is failing; far from it; I want women to have the choice to do that and not feel shamed by making that choice, but, importantly, I don’t want them to feel as though it’s the only choice they have. So in a world where many still assume that motherhood is a woman’s ultimate role, it’s nice to read about heroines who buck that trend.

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 13:46

Don’t Be Such A Girl

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First published here for Bea Magazine in April 2013.

A couple of months ago, I did a post on here that was about school teachers, and about how some people seem to think that there’s no way that little boys can respect their female teachers in the same way that they can respect a male teacher.

In it, I touched on the way that we talk about girls and about women, the way society views them, and since I touched on it in that article, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Well, not often, anyway.

There’s a phrase, and it haunts me. “Don’t Be Such A Girl”.

I can’t lie and say that I hear it every day. I don’t. But I hear it enough. I hear it enough that it makes me wonder where the children who are saying it are getting it from. I hear it enough to realise that at least some of these children are getting it from their parents. Because I hear their parents say it too.

The more I think about it, the crosser I get.

Think about how different that phrase would be if we swapped the word girl for ‘gay’. Or ‘spastic’.

Yes, I know people do say things like that. I hear people use the phrase “don’t be gay”. I hear people using spastic as an insult too. And of course I am appalled by it, because neither of those words should be being used as a pejorative. There is a difference, though, and it’s this: as horrible and prevalent as it is, I’d say that the majority of people know that it’s wrong to do it. In school, if they used these words negatively, it would be jumped on by teachers. Adults wouldn’t carelessly use those words in front of children. They know that it’s offensive, they know it’s not ‘politically correct’. Well, the adults I come across seem to know that, in any case.

But it seems that people, in general, don’t worry too much about using the word ‘girl’ as an insult. “Don’t be such a girl”. What does that mean? It means “don’t be so crap”. It means “girls are crap, and that’s what you are like”. Why should my daughter have to grow up thinking that the word that denotes her sex is another word for crap? Why is it acceptable for society to send my daughter this message? That no matter who she is or what she does, she is ultimately a bit crap? Why is this fair?

Of course it’s really just a facet of a broader problem; which is the general acceptance that it’s okay for a woman to do traditional man things (wear trousers, etc) but demeaning or comic for a man to have to do a woman thing (wear a dress, etc). Mothers and fathers worry if their boy wants to play with dolls instead of trucks. They get nervous about dressing him in pink in case it somehow undermines him. They might dress their daughters in pink most of the time, but I’ll bet you they don’t think dressing them in blue and grey is much of a problem. And though they might discourage them from playing with boys toys, I don’t really think there’s the same level of shame attached to it.

Of course, you might, like me, believe that essentially, gender is a construct, and that actually, men and women are pretty much the same, and that in fact, all of these things that apparently set the sexes apart are in fact not real. Women aren’t really the softer sex, the natural child-carers, the more ‘intuitive’. Men can be all these things, and women can be the opposite. And if you believe that, then actually, we need to go deeper than just learning to respect what women are, we need to de-construct everything, dismantle all these conventions that say that women do one thing and men do another…

But that might take a while. So in the meantime, please can we just try and lose the gender-based insults? And I’m aware that this can cut both ways – I’m sure that there are times when people carelessly write off all men as violent wife-beaters, say, or domestic idiots – but let’s be honest, it’s not as pervasive, is it? I honestly don’t hear the phrase “don’t be such a boy”. Ever.

I do hear “Don’t cry like a girl”. “He screamed like a girl”. “Stop being such a girl about it”.

So, this is a plea, to friends, to family, to readers, to people on the internet that I don’t actually know very well and only ever met via Twitter and Facebook… please, please, please don’t let phrases like these pass your lips. And if you hear someone else using them, please, please, please challenge them on it.

If we don’t, we’re allowing two things. We’re letting girls grow up to think they are, as aforementioned, largely regarded as a bit crap, and they could very well come to believe that it’s true. And we’re letting boys grow up to think that girls are, in fact, a bit crap, and it’s okay to hate and deride them.

That’s not okay.

Is it?

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Wednesday January 29th, 2014 13:36

Is there a right diet for you…?

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First published here, for Bea Magazine, in March 2013

Before I say anything else, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not talking about weight loss diets. There are a great many things in this world that make me extremely irritable and angry, but one of the most ire-inducing is the diet industry. I hate the lies it peddles, the unhealthy food it pushes, the pressure it puts on people to conform.

I despair of all the low fat diet foods you see lined up in the supermarket; with some products, the corporations seem to just pre-suppose that everyone in the world wants the fat free version of it. It strikes me that it’s pretty hard to get full fat, lovely, creamy cottage cheese these days. Because retailers seem to assume that you will want the low fat version (bits of polystyrene, I suspect, floating in some sort of yoghurty PVA glue blend).

I also hate the media for making people, especially women, feel as though they ought always to be on a diet. Making them feel as though any time they eat anything that tastes nice, they have to feel guilty about it. Making them feel that they have to behave apologetically if they decide to have cake. Making them feel they have failed at life just because they are not a size six, or a size zero, or whatever else it is that we are all supposed to be these days.

So, now that I’ve got that straight, I’ll get on with what I planned to say, which is all about finding a way of eating which is right for you. A diet that’s right for you; an ongoing diet that’s right for you, not one which makes you lose weight.

This is what sparked the writing of this post: a friend posted a link to a Guardian piece in which a scientist was saying that it’s sugar causing the obesity epidemic, not too much dietary fat. My response to this was… well, of course. Is this actually news? Surely people are starting to get that low-fat isn’t actually the way to go forward? After decades of cutting down to skimmed milk and lower-fat everything, we, in the west, are still getting fatter. Isn’t it obvious that sugar has a lot to answer for?

Reading that article made me think a lot about myself, and the diet I eat, the diet that I have ended up on. In order to stay healthy, I have had to cut down my consumption of sugar. Believe me, it’s the only way I can feel healthy. And this isn’t an emotional response, a response to just feeling as though it’s bad for me. Sugar has an actual, detrimental effect on my physical health, and I am better off consuming only very low amounts of it. If I’m to trust what that scientist said about sugar, I’m not the only person whose health is affected by it. But I also think that there probably are plenty of people in the world who can tolerate it a great deal better than I can, and would, in fact, not do so well without it…

This is all coming out a bit muddled, I think. But what I’m heading towards is this: in my opinion, different diets suit different people. And I think one can probably improve one’s health, and one’s life, if one can only work out what one is best suited to eating.

So, to attempt to prove my point, I’m going to offer the admittedly anecdotal evidence of my own experience.

I can’t eat more than a little sugar and carbohydrate over a sustained period. If I do, I get unwell, in myriad ways. I’m not talking about eating cake every day, but if I were to eat a daily menu of something like… cereal and toast for breakfast, a small sandwich for lunch, and a small bowl of risotto or a baked potato for dinner… I would gradually become unwell. After one day I would just feel a bit under the weather; after five days I would be feeling permanently slightly sick, and dizzy. After ten days to two weeks on a diet like this, or even one quite a lot less carby than this, I’d not only feel sick, dizzy, with a banging headache, I’d also be hyper stressed and extremely irritable, bordering on depressed. This is what happens to me. It does. It’s not psychological.

I should probably see a dietician about me and see what they say, but I’m worried that there are probably still dieticians out there that still adhere to the fat-is-bad mantra who would tell me I need my grains. Plus, there may be some kind of medical reason for this problem, yet it seems to be entirely cured by eating the right stuff. So for now I’m happy to reach the conclusion that me and sugar don’t do too well together. On the rare occasions I eat a big load of sweets or cake in one day, the next day I have a shocking hangover. Truly. It’s as if I drank a bottle of vodka by myself.

But I do know that not everyone is affected this way. Take my other half. He’s followed my diet for a while and lost weight almost dangerously quickly. If he followed my diet forever (it’s low on carbs, reasonably high on fat and protein, and very high on fresh veg) then he’d be close to death, I think. He definitely needs his carbs, and he easily tolerates reasonably frequent sweet treats. And I don’t think it’s a male/female thing. My brother’s tolerance for sugar seems to be about as low as mine.

Anyway, my conclusion is this, really: I think it’s important to experiment with what makes you feel healthy, in order to find a way of eating that really suits you. I’m extremely wary of the idea of some government expert giving out one-size-fits-all food advice – apart from the obvious, eat fresh veg, etc – and I think everyone else should be too.

And finally, if you are a woman who is bothered about her weight, rather than starving yourself, I’d suggest reading ‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’. Or taking a bit more exercise. And certainly don’t support the diet industry. They just want you to buy their stuff, and it’s bad for you.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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