Monday, May 29, 2006

Public service announcement

Apologies for the lack of posts - I feel I should concentrate on these exams that I have paid so much money for the privilege of taking so will be back in a couple of weeks when it's all over :)

( half a day revising the sexual offences act and various other sticky issues have inspired some posts for when I particular I fail to understand why rape is classified as a sexual crime and sadomasochism is a crime of violence...)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


This post is, I suppose, influenced by Big Brother (although not by the hideous debacle of bullying and prejudice currently surrounding Shebhaz). BB follows a pattern and this year, as with every year, one of the young men has expressed his discomfort at being touched by a fellow male housemate who is gay. This year it was Glyn but it is an issue that invariably arises in every series.

Overtones and undertones of homophobia are a deliberate part of this show, which chooses participants with extreme personalities and beliefs in order to generate conflict. This isn’t great and it’s another reason why I know I shouldn’t watch this terrible programme.

However I have to say that I am generally opposed to excessive touching. I don’t think proclaiming yourself to be a tactile person should allow you to invade other people’s space and make them feel uncomfortable. Everybody should have a right not to be touched. The issue is interesting on BB because it arises when men who are unused to unwanted sexual touching experience it for the first time. In comparison the women in the show have a much worse deal. They are pawed and petted, poked and prodded from the minute they enter by the predatory heterosexual males. However, as women, they are used to this. More than that, they have been encouraged by society to accept it.

I do empathise with the men who are made to feel uncomfortable by those around them but I also feel like shouting ‘see that’s what it feels like’. When I have discussed my own experiences with unwanted sexual touching, the men who I am friends with have been almost disbelieving. But it is true. As a woman I am regularly touched by men in an invasive and intimidating manner. I have felt someone’s hand inside my pants at a gig (it’s true!), random men do put their arms round my waist in the pub, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been pinched and ‘playfully’ slapped.

This is something that most men simply do not experience. There is no reason why women should have to experience it either but we do. Again this is one of those issues where any objection is treated as a lack of sense of humour, where the person with a legitimate complaint is treated like they have done something wrong. It is an example of objectification, of exerting power, of sexual offences being normalised. So I really can empathise with those men on the programme who suddenly experience this horrible invasion but I think that perhaps they should look around them and see what the women in the house are experiencing because this is more extreme, more invasive, and passes without comment.

Monday, May 22, 2006

"What's wrong with porn?"

Thanks to Jamie for the tip off - documentary "What's wrong with porn?" tonight at 9pm on radio1. I may tune in if I've got through this pile of revision by then - otherwise the website lets you listen again.

Where does the male gaze end?

An article in The Observer Magazine caught my attention yesterday. It is a brief interview with Corinne Bailey Rae, a musician who I have generally avoided purely because she seems to be this year’s Gay Dad*. There is some discussion about Christina Aguilera and the Pussycat Dolls and she is then quoted as saying:

“I think it is both an interesting and a sad thing that some women don’t understand that there’s a link between them being portrayed like that and how men view women in general. I never saw the Madonna image as powerful – it just seemed like a woman running her hands over her breasts for the benefit of the male gaze”.

It is good to hear such thoughts from a mainstream pop musician, but the really interesting thing about this article is the contrast between what Bailey Rae is quoted as saying and the way she is portrayed by the photographer.

Five photographs accompany the article. The least innocuous is one of her performing on stage. However the other four, presumably set up for this interview, are a prime example of the male gaze Bailey Rae says she tries to avoid. The largest image is of her head and shoulders. She is looking down, away from the camera, at a dandelion. The pose is coy and childlike and sets a theme for the rest of the photos. In the next she is making eye contact with the camera, but from a distance as she skips across a field, her arms flung out. Again, childlike and really quite unnatural. Then she is depicted with her head tilted at an angle, glancing coyly at the photographer, arms hanging at her side. She wears a white dress and is submission and innocence personified. The final image is also the most disturbing. Bailey Rae sits on the grass, legs crossed, dress rolled up, arms hanging in her lap. The way her body is positioned creates a ‘V’ shape so that the eye of the observer is drawn towards her barely covered crotch. The photographer looks down on the subject, while Bailey Rae looks up at the camera from beneath her fringe, coy and flirtatious. Again she is submissive and powerless, both because of the angle the photograph is taken from, and because, in the corner of the photo, we see she has removed her shoes.

This article effectively, although unintentionally, reveals the layers and layers of perception that surround us. Bailey Rae sees objectification in images where women are blatently sexualised and speaks out against it. However she is apparently not aware that she can still be objectified and sexualised despite keeping her midriff covered. I think a certain blindness to aspects of the patriarchy can affect us all, purely because we are all products of it in one way or another. For example, I had never considered why I was taught human biology through images of the male body. Never questioned it once. It took several strongly worded articles and blogs to raise my awareness.

It also raises the question of whether Bailey Rae really was comfortable with these images. The article refers to her squealing with embarrassment at the prospect of having to skip across the field for the photographer. That she felt uncomfortable with this and yet was coerced into doing it is slightly sinister, and once more demonstrates inherent problems with the British and American music industry.

*hype by the music press resulting in miserable disappointment and failure a few years back

Friday, May 19, 2006

He's watching you...

Channel 4 briefly earned some brownie points yesterday as Jez disclaimed any interest in pornographic magazines saying they are degrading to women – who says Hollyoaks doesn’t support the feminist cause!

However the channel soon let itself down with the latest influx of Big Brother contestants, and in particular Mikey who introduced himself as hating feminists. He doesn’t understand why they demand equal pay and furthermore dislikes ugly people. All in all a bit of a prat, but the most worrying extract from his interviews was the suggestion that if he found a girlfriend he wanted to settle down with he would manipulate her into becoming a housewife without her even realising it. Sorry if I’ve misquoted slightly I only had half an eye on the telly, but what is all that about? Lots of people claim anti-feminist politics and generally quite effectively undermine their arguments through their own stupidity, but the impression that I get here is that he is advocating emotional and verbal domestic abuse. Slightly less insidious but still worrying was the ‘sexual terrorist’ Richard who suggested that he would be pouncing on the other men in the house as they desperately fled his advances. Oh and, bless him, he also has a phobia of pregnant women.

I have to admit I do watch Big Brother. I gave up half way through the last series because it became just too sinister to bear, but in general the aspects of this programme that disgust me are, in equal measure, the things that attract my interest as a viewer*. However over the years the contestants have become increasingly extreme to the point where this year domestic abuse and implied rape are accepted as normal things. Perhaps not normal in society, but normal in the microcosm that is Big Brother. I’m going to keep watching for the moment, if for no other reason than relief from the boredom of revision, but first impressions are less favourable than any previous year.

Check out gendergeek for some initial comments.

* when I find the courage I think an analysis of my dubious television choices will appear as a post, but somehow I don’t think I will come out of it very well.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's just a joke

I’m generally quite an outspoken person. My first degree was in literature and I am now studying law, both of which appeal to me because I love expressing my opinions, learning about other people’s thoughts, and generally having a good old fashioned debate. However I find that I am very reluctant to comment if those around me make uninformed or offensive comments about women. I know why this is, and the reason doesn’t make it any better. It is somehow seen as humourless, aggressive, negative to call people out in this situation. Rather than appreciating that you have been made to feel uncomfortable, you are quite often left feeling even more uncomfortable and out of place.

In a seminar yesterday a few comments were passed. We were discussing the role of ‘undue influence’ in contract law. This doctrine was developed to assist people who have entered a contract because of pressure put upon them by someone with whom they have a ‘special’ relationship. This could be a solicitor exerting pressure on a client, a grandchild bullying a grandparent, or, quite often, a woman who is being controlled by her husband or partner. Now there were obvious discussions around this issue, where it was suggested that if a woman enters a bad deal it is effectively her own fault. Obviously silly, obviously ignores the inherent problems caused by patriarchy, but these comments weren’t actually the ones that got to me. Perhaps this was because they were structured as discussions and therefore I felt that there was a place for me to discuss my views.

It is the passing comments that get me. The ones that are always followed by “don’t look like that I was only joking”. You know the ones - in this case a joke about women not being good with business anyway they need all the help they can get chortle chortle followed by my tutor chipping in with stand up comedy style comment about his ogre of a wife. Jocular male laughter all round. I just don’t find this funny. I find it insulting. When I have said anything in the past I have been shot down, after all, it’s only a harmless joke. So now I don’t say anything. I just keep my distance. And that isn’t great, I’m not proud of myself, and I’m not happy that in an environment where I should feel comfortable even the tutor is involved in it all. Ultimately it isn’t just a harmless joke, it reveals something about the way they feel about women, and when someone who objects to it is dismissed as humourless it demonstrates this lack of respect even further.

It was great to get home and read lelyon’s positive experience of challenging thoughtless comments and inherent sexism. It made me feel like perhaps I can do it too, although I know from past experience that with some of these particular people the behaviour is just so ingrained maybe the best thing I can do is just ignore it. But more of that in another post, revision calls.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"The Accidental"

I am slowly managing to work my way through the Orange Prize shortlist. I finished “The Accidental” by Ali Smith last week but revision and the like has got in the way of me giving it any kind of post-read thought.

It is a truly beautiful novel. I am a big fan of the modernists and this captures the stylistic experimentation that they epitomise. The characters are a mother, step father, son and daughter on holiday, and their enigmatic visitor Amber. Perhaps enigmatic is not quite the right word, but mysterious and catalytic in any case. Each chapter is inhabited by the thoughts of an individual character and the style of writing does as much to animate the characters as the thoughts they express and the things they say – for example at one point in the novel the arrogant, oversexed and self absorbed step father thinks in terrible poetry, which is both funny and desperately sad.

It is a great portrayal of a broken family, with a fantastic cyclical storyline, but I found that the plot and the themes were secondary. The writing is so beautiful, every word used and every method of expression chosen is exactly right. I would put this novel alongside anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison in terms of sheer literary perfection. Don't want to write too much about this one though as it is the subject of my bookgroup!

Although I would highly recommend “Beyond Black”, “The Accidental” is currently my favourite. Next up “The History of Love” if my friend from college will lend it to me – not sure I have high hopes for that one but fingers crossed anyway.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Links and such

I'm in the process of updating my blogroll to cover the sites I love to look at every day. If anyone is unhappy with being linked, or I've got your name wrong please let me know.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Over the hill with a bun in the oven?

All over the news today is the story of Dr Patricia Rashbrook. The 63 year old who is seven months pregnant following IVF treatment has sparked the increasingly familiar controversy over how old is too old to conceive by IVF.

I have found myself in a quandary and not really sure what to think about it all. The arguments for an upper age limit to fertility treatment are obvious and often repeated. They include concerns for the health of mother and baby, issues surrounding the capacity of older parents to successfully bring up a child, and the effect the reduced life expectancy of the parents may have on the child. I don’t feel I can comment on the health related aspects of this debate – it makes sense that there are more health problems in older mothers and their children. However the other arguments strike me as somewhat judgemental. There really is no such thing as the nuclear family in today’s society, grandparents regularly take on a parental role within families and this is not criticised. As a child my grandparents looked after my sister and I in the school holidays and coped just fine. If the individual concerned thinks that they can handle it, then who are we to say that they can’t? Equally illness and death is unfortunately a part of life. Perhaps it may be statistically more likely to happen the older you get, but dealing with this is not necessarily going to harm the child. And who is to say that the experience that comes with age won’t dramatically benefit the child?

The arguments against older parents are trotted out regularly but, perhaps excluding the health issues, they are all so subjective. This is the key point surrounding any discussion of reproductive freedom. It is personal and it is individual. The medical option to control fertility is now available to all women, and it should be left to the individual to decide what is best for them. The media attention that surrounds these pregnancies ignores this. It views any woman choosing to get pregnant outside of the socially acceptable boundaries as fair game, whether they are younger or older than the ‘correct’ age. This was demonstrated in the uproar a while ago about the fact that increasing numbers of women are ‘choosing’ to delay having children in order to establish themselves in a career, and then (how selfish) having IVF in order to begin a family. Women are controlling their reproductive choices and this is threatening. To make a moot point if it were a 63 year old man having a child no questions would be asked. Ultimately reproductive choice is now just that, a choice, and a personal choice. Dr Rashbrook did not choose for it to become a headline but the media insist on retaining control over female fertility.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bits and pieces

Saturday or Sunday morning I woke up and for about five minutes watched what seemed to be the television equivalent of a gentlemen’s club. T4 had televised parts of Friday night’s Carling 24 – a series of gigs across London. All fairly mainstream bands, unsurprisingly, and all of the musicians were male. Actually I have to clarify that. There may be the odd female drummer or bassist in one or two of the bands but the bands playing were overwhelmingly male.

The presenters were the delightful Steve Jones, Anthony Crank (I think) and Alex Zane. This programme and the gigs that it covered made me so angry I still can’t write about it. Women are consistently excluded from the musical community in so many different ways, and this was just another example. I’ll admit that on a global scale this is pretty unimportant, but on a personal level I am sick and tired of being silenced in this way. Anyway I kid you not, so angry I can’t even write about it.

So I’ll leave you with a couple of unrelated quotes from the very quotable “the accidental” by Ali Smith – another Orange Fiction shortlist novel.

“All the girls look the same this year, Anton said in his ear. He was pleased someone like Anton had singled him out to tell him something like that in his ear. Look, Anton said. They all look like they’re off porn sites. It was true. After you’ve looked at sites, all girls start to look like it.”

“The film is supposed to be about love. But its only message, as far as Magnus can make it out, is not to be too fat if you’re a girl or everyone will think you are laughable and no one will want to marry you”.

Very perceptive that Magnus character. Anyway if I get a chance a post about the novel will be up soon. It must be one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I have ever read so would definitely recommend it.