20 Oct 2014

I wish Facebook had a "Polyamorous" option

When you're female, people make a lot of assumptions about you. They assume your raison d'etre is a long-term, committed, heterosexual relationship ending in marriage and children. They don't stop to think that you might not want children. Or you might not be heterosexual. Or you might not 'do' relationships. Or that you might not even 'do' monogamy, full stop. However broad-minded we claim to be as a society, little has changed in terms of the belief that what women really want, despite all their cute little protestations that they want to have careers or travel or have sex with lots of different people, is a ring on their finger and a zygote in their womb.
Ah well.
I'm fortunate enough to move among a cross-section of people more accepting of the fact that we're not all secretly seeking a rom-com ending, but I still wonder how much people truly believe me when I tell them that monogamy bores the bejesus out of me, ditto long-term relationships, and were I not so highly sexed I might be quite content with just a lot of good friendships, but as it is, I like having multiple casual interactions with people I find attractive. I'm not sure people really know how to deal with a woman saying that. I think they make a fair few assumptions right off the bat. Such as:

- You do want a fairy tale ending, but you're just worried that admitting it will make you a bad feminist.
- You do want a fairy tale ending, but since you've been taught that men are sex-mad commitment-phobes, you're just pretending to be a sex-mad commitment-phobe too to set them at ease (oh, and trap them, of course!)
- You've got serious emotional problems which mean you're actually desperate for love but are just slutting around as part of a self-destruct programme.
- You're a big, greedy, predatory whore who's a danger to every one else's husbands/boyfriends/partners.
- You'll break down one day and admit that you do just want a man to look after you and babies to make you complete.
- Some shit about biological clocks.
If I had a pound for every time I'd heard phrases along the lines of "Men use love to get sex, and women use sex to get love", or, "Men are just programmed to spread their seed, but women are programmed to want babies and to settle down," or, "Women are the more naturally romantic/monogamous/insert-other -patronising-adjective-here gender", well, I reckon I'd have enough for a package holiday to the Canary Islands, at the very least.
So it'd be nice, for the purposes of re-educating a public fed on a diet of TV and movies that dictates however strong and sassy you are, you'll ultimately want to settle down (Yo! Sex and the City, Yo! Girls, Yo! very sadly, The Hunger Games), if there were more discourse on the alternatives that some people seek. It'd also be nice if there was some more discourse on the fact that sometimes men want to settle down, and sometimes it's men who are the more romantic, emotionally attached or naturally monogamous partner in a couple. If it were just women who imposed those things on their partners due to their crazy, female, hormone-driven desires, then why would any male-male couples ever marry or have children? Yet they do. People like to pair up with one special person. People like to nest and introduce little beings into that nest. Why put it all on women, when there's so much evidence to the contrary?
I know it's probably a bit much to ask that everyone's special snowflake status is accommodated in the form of a drop-down menu, but I'd really love it if I could put something on my Facebook profile that reflects how I actually operate instead of having to choose between "Single" and "In an Open Relationship". Neither is accurate. At any given time, I'm likely to be having flirtations, interactions and probably some physical fun with one or more people, so I'm not exactly single, but I'm also not "in a relationship" by any stretch of the imagination. "Relationship" signals hearts and flowers, anniversaries, Valentine's celebrations, but also shared homes, holidays, finances, shared lives. I don't do either that red-strewn world of commercial romance, nor the merging of my assets and space with any other human being. I've tried both, and neither ended well, believe me. I don't feel whatever it is that makes people go gooey-eyed over each other, and I've tried to pretend, but that's not honest and it's not fair. I love my friends and family with a ferocious passion and would lie on a railway track for them if needed. I care deeply about people and about issues close to my heart, and will get extremely agitated when either are threatened. I will always cry, without fail, at the bit in Dirty Dancing where Baby says "You let me down too" to her dad. I am not without sentiment. But I am without whatever it is that makes people feel able, or compelled, to share their life romantically with one other person.
And it's nice to be able to let people know that, but there's no easy or simple way to do it. You can't put "Polyamorous, no LTRs, casual only, but I'm not an emotional iceberg, and I really do mean this and I'm not just doing it because I'm a damaged nymphomaniac or secretly trying to trick you into marriage and babies" on your Facebook profile. You can, of course, have an adult conversation with people you're interested in and let them know, and I generally really try to do that, but it's not always easy to find a point in your interaction where you can say these things without the other person saying "Hey, hold on, we're only going for a drink, don't get ahead of yourself!" or "Why didn't you tell me sooner?!" And then, of course, there's the whole other side of polyamory--when people assume that because you're sexually open-minded, that you'll be more than happy to have an affair with them just because they're not happy with their monogamous relationship. Um, no. That's not how it works. I don't take this brave step of living outside how society expects me to, just so that you can enjoy the benefits of my courage while taking none of the chances yourself. And since when did polyamorous = entirely devoid of ethics? It's not polyamory without the consent of all parties involved - it's just cheating. Perhaps Facebook needs a "Get permission from your other half, and THEN get back to me" option as well...
I jest, of course, insofar as I know it's a more important step that people of non-binary gender orientations can choose options that they're comfortable with when identifying themselves online, than me demanding a bespoke option for my frisky leanings. And, of course, there can be such a thing as too much information: some folks are brave enough to announce that they're kinky (and sometimes their kink orientation too) in their Twitter biography, whereas I just tend to tell the world I'm a writer, feminist and I like roller derby. I figure that if you want to know the good stuff, you'll find me in person; and if we make it to the pub together, I'm sure you'll end up knowing all of it.

25 Sep 2014

Feminism in Funny Places - Red Dwarf

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was a big Red Dwarf fan. It was funny, it was silly, it was sci-fi without being boring or technical, it introduced the term 'smeg' into the national consciousness, and it made it difficult to leave a room without shouting "Smoke me a kipper, skipper - I'll be back for breakfast". When asked to choose my favourite episode, I usually say that's a toss-up between 'Queeg', 'Backwards' and 'Parallel Universe', but if absolutely forced to choose, I'd go for the latter.

Why? Because as well as being the usual jamboree of hilarity (significantly added to by the context-less inclusion of the 'Tongue Tied' video and song, which I still know off by heart), 'Parallel Universe' is simply one of the most feminist episodes of a TV show I have ever seen. Yep, you heard me right. Not just for a sci-fi show, not just for a male-written show, not just for a show that had a majority male cast and sometimes only men on screen for the entire episode. This episode just knocks it out of the park on every count when it comes to making some of the funniest, truest and most feminist observations when it comes to gender politics.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #1
Before socially inept, repressed hologram Rimmer, easygoing unreconstructed lad Lister and hyper-sexual, preening poseur Cat are transported to a parallel universe where they meet their female equivalents, there is a conversation that every human being, especially those of the heterosexual male variety, needs to hear. Lister despairs of Rimmer's terrible chat-up lines ("You could not pull a rotten tooth out of a dead horse's head with that") and attempts to pick up women through hypnosis, berating him with "You're a sad weasel of a man, you know that Rimmer?"
"No, I'm just ill at ease with the opposite sex," is Rimmer's excuse.
and Lister responds "That's because you see them as some alien species that need to be conquered with trickery. They're not. They're people."

Wow. Just - wow. Stop and think about those words for a second. Think about how they factor into every slimy stereotype of women as these irrational, flighty, somewhat stupid creatures that have to be 'caught', 'wooed', 'conquered'. Think of every rapey bit of 'Pick-Up Artist' advice that views women as targets and sex as a weapon. Think of every harmful piece of advice put out there by books, magazines, blogs and internet trolls that encourage men to do anything except talk to women like human beings, listen to them and respect them. And then throw them  all on the bonfire and listen instead to Dave Lister.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #2
Once the crew have met their equivalents (apart from Cat, who is to be devastated by the news that his opposite is not a cat, or even female), the men find out what a 'female-oriented society' actually entails.

Rimmer is soon made to feel like a prude when he objects to "semi-naked blokes draping themselves over sports cars" and is met with "What's wrong with that? You're not one of those boring masculinists, are you?". When he admits that seeing images of well-endowed men in states of some undress "makes one feel quite...inadequate", female Rimmer's reply is the patronising and sexist putdown that every woman has heard at some point or another "I wouldn't worry about that, my pretty," as she slaps his arse. No explanation necessary.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #3
When the crew go to the disco, pompous 'Arlene' starts coming on to 'Arnold' in an aggressive manner that every woman who has had her sexual boundaries disregarded will find all too depressingly familiar. Arnold is accused of sending out "signs" by "wearing such tight trousers", which apparently means he's "begging for it." Despite his protestations, Arlene leans into him, growling  "C'mon, give us a snog - I promise I won't try to take off your underpants!". Arnold is finally forced into gasping, "Sorry, I'm just not that sort of...boy." Arlene promptly labels him "frigid" and snarls to her mate "If you want to keep your beer cool, stick it between his legs."

Although the moment is played for comedy because it's deliberately inverting the stereotype that men always want sex and women are always the ones expected to be gatekeepers and refuse it, there are also some disturbing truths in it. How many women have had a man promise to not push past a certain boundary, only for him to later do exactly that? How many women have been accused of "leading a man on" "asking for it" and "sending out signals" for the supposed crimes of dressing a certain way, accepting a drink from a man, smiling at a man, even talking to a man? How many women have been labelled "frigid" "uptight" or "prick-tease" for daring to refuse sex? And is there a even woman out there who hasn't found herself grouped into either the whore or virgin category according to how she chooses to express her sexuality, because basically if you're female, whether you want to fuck or you don't, you will end up punished for it regardless?

The sketch is funny because it's true. But it's also sad and scary because it's true.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #4

The interaction between the two Listers is more promising but still involves a fair amount of operating at cross purposes. Dave Lister complains that his female equivalent "thinks of men the exact same way [we] think of women...it's disgusting". He's unimpressed by her hard-drinking, ladette persona, saying "She tried to impress me by drinking 6 pints of lager and belching the whole of Yankee Doodle Dandy". When Rimmer points out "That's your party piece, isn't it?", Lister backtracks "Yeah, but when I do it, it's really stylish, man..."

Meanwhile, female Lister and Rimmer discuss their potential for "copping off", with Arlene asserting that "there'll be TWO pairs of boots under the bed tonight - WALLOP! Eh?!" even though Deb points out "He doesn't look too interested to me. He looks more, sort of, petrified." Arlene's response is "Oh, he just doesn't want me to think he's the 'ship's bike.' But I'm getting the signs". This, you see, is a world where men wearing sock suspenders is considered outrageous sexual provocation to female predators...

I also can't give enough love to the moment where male Rimmer escapes from his female equivalent, saying to Lister "Tell her I've got a headache or something." I always nearly exploded with mirth/joy at the sheer accuracy of it all when Rimmer adds that "She's gone to get some sexy videos. She seems to think that seeing two men together might turn me on."

Fantastic Feminist Moment #5

The next morning, both Listers wake up in the same bed together, completely hungover and unable to remember what happened between them the night before. As they slowly begin to recall, the two Rimmers walk in, full of judgment, and female Rimmer calls male Lister a "cheap little tart", smirking "I hope you get pregnant." Lister snorts at the ridiculousness of this ("It's women who get pregnant!" "Since when?!" "Since always! Me mother was a woman!") before it dawns on him that in a parallel universe it's men who get pregnant.

He promptly blames female Lister - "How could you do this to me? Take advantage of me, fertilise me?" - and bemoans that he would've taken precautions had he not been drunk. Female Lister shrugs, "Look, I assumed you'd taken care of that side of things. It's the man's responsibility. It's the man who gets pregnant, it's the man who has to suffer the agony of childbirth...". Every woman who has ever given birth, had a pregnancy scare, worried about obtaining an abortion or had to alter her body or life in some way in order to practice birth control (so that'd be most of us, then), smiles a knowing smile as Lister gets a taste of his own medicine for calling his sex partner "Miss Yo-Yo knickers."

Compared to a comedy that's almost as old as I am (this episode premiered in 1988), I can't think of any modern pop culture artefact that comes close to making such a accurate and funny comment on sexual double standards. It saddens me that, despite some improvements, the issues remain broadly the same and just as troubling 26 years later. However, it's heartening to know that people were able to see sexist BS for what it was then, and still can now. Plus, Parallel Universe is also bloody hilarious. So much so that I just might have to watch it again - listen out for me singing Tongue Tied as I go...

18 Sep 2014

More things I've learned as a writer

After a summer spent trying and failing to get my children's book, 'Destiny Calling', to reach its target on Britain's Next Bestseller, and hence win that elusive publishing contract, I'm bloodied but unbowed and have decided to cut the middle man and publish it as an eBook. I'm pleased that my book is finally out there, as the BNBS campaign generated a lot of interest in it and I'm glad people can finally satisfy their curiosity and read it. However, this would not have been my ideal route. I didn't want to only put my book out digitally, as I feel that this discriminates against those who can't afford or aren't interested in purchasing an e-reader or a tablet. It leaves those who prefer physical books (still a pretty strong market) out in the cold, and as my book is a children's book, it's not going to be accessible to those kids whose households don't have e-readers and tablets.
Still, there's only so much banging one's head against a wall you can do, and trying to get 'Destiny Calling' published the traditional way meant coming up against that wall constantly. I refuse to pay to have my book published as I still hold on to a quaint belief that writers should be paid for their work, not forced to pay others to put it out there. So for now, it exists digitally, and that will have to do. Apart from the art of compromise, here's another few things I've learnt during my journey to try and publish my book on the BNBS platform:
Timing is all
Looking back, trying to generate interest in a kid's book during the summer holidays perhaps wasn't the best idea. I thought summer was prime book buying time, which it may be, but at the same time it's not prime time to get parents, teachers or children interested in a book they can't even seen yet. Asking people to pre-order your book on faith is quite a request, and you need people's full attention when you're doing it. The tight networks of parents and teachers scatter during the summer holidays, and any word of mouth you might have achieved will be severely limited. You need a captive audience - now that school is back in session, I might have a better shot at one!
Look at who has the purchasing power
Another thing I don't think I quite appreciated was the difficulty of generating interest in a children's book when it's not necessarily children who are the ones doing the buying. Generally, you have to hit the parents and hope there's a trickle-down effect, but that's easier said than done. Some parents are engaged in their children's reading habits and will seek out and buy books that they think their child would like - others will just wait to be asked. The latter strategy isn't likely to get your new book ordered, because the child isn't likely to know it exists. The age group my book is aimed at (8 - 12 year olds) is one that's generally too young to be on social media, so any promotion has to go towards adults. However, this means that anyone who's not a parent immediately tunes out (I'm childfree and treat most advertising to do with children as white noise), and that you're relying on parents to sift through the 57 other demands of their day and take notice of your pestering on Facebook. It's quite a gamble.
Librarians and teachers are your friends
By far the most support I got during my campaign, both in terms of willingness to publicise my book project, and willingness to order multiple copies, was from librarians and teachers. These are people who know, love and support literature. They know the constant struggle to get children to read, and they also know what children want to read, and they will give you an honest appraisal. I got fantastic feedback from the teachers and librarians who read my book, and whether it was in the form of ordering 11 copies at a time, or flyering every library in the county, I wouldn't be half as confident in the appeal of 'Destiny Calling' had I not had their support.
People are flaky
This is a bit of a rehash of a point in my last post on things I've learned as a writer, namely where I say "Everyone says they will buy your book. The ones who actually do are worth kissing all over". However, it can't be stressed enough. People want to be nice, they want to make you feel good, so they'll tell you what they think you want to hear. However, I'd prefer some honesty any day over wondering how many people are just blowing smoke up your backside by saying they'll support your work. If everyone who said to me they were going to preorder my book had done so, I would've hit the 250 target no problem. I'm sure I've failed to honour a fair few promises in my time, but generally I try not to raise anyone's expectations on false premises, and I loathe the modern convention that disorganisation, lateness and poor memory are acceptable, even lovable parts of a person, rather than character flaws. Maybe some people forgot, maybe some had no intention of ordering in the first place but thought that was too mean a thing to say. However, hand on heart, I'd rather they'd just told me "Nah, I don't fancy it" or "I'm pretty useless, it's doubtful I'll remember" than earnestly repeating "I'll preorder it tonight, I promise!"
People are great 
For all the flakes who make you want to beat yourself unconscious with your own book collection, there is a silent and fantastic faction who would rather die than shout about their generous actions, but nonetheless go ahead and do it. The amount of people who I wouldn't have even considered as possible supporters of my book yet came out of the woodwork and quietly placed their order was both astonishing and heartwarming. People I've only met a couple of times, those whose contact with me might have been limited to running into each other at roller derby games, plus total strangers, even the lady who cuts my hair - they all came out swinging for me. They believed on total faith that my writing was worth their money, and they clicked that button and showed me some love. Now that my book is actually live, the amount of people who've already ordered it and are telling me "I'm on the train, reading it now!" is also incredibly touching. It's a kid's book and yet most of those who've bought it so far are child-free adults, which I find rather lovely.
It's an interesting journey ahead and I hope it results in some success, however modest, in getting my writing to an audience wider than just the fantastic people I'm lucky enough to know. So, to that end - here's the pitch.
To order my book 'Destiny Calling', a story of family life, friendship and disability aimed at 8 - 12 year-olds, GO HERE NOW. It only costs £2 and 10% of all royalties will be donated to Wings for Life, a charity seeking a cure for spinal cord injuries.

27 Aug 2014

The final push

As some of you may be aware, I've spent a lot of this summer promoting my children's book 'Destiny Calling', which I've uploaded to the platform Britain's Next Bestseller. There, the book has to achieve a target of 250 pre-orders in order to get a publishing deal, and time is ticking by as the deadline is September 5th. If you're short on time, I'll just give you the link and reasons to order now:

- You get your name printed in the book
- You get the book two weeks ahead of general release
- Your money won't be taken unless the book gets published
- 10% of all royalties generated from the book will go to Wings For Life, a charity funding research into a cure for spinal cord injuries
- You'll be supporting a book that deals with disability, class and female friendship, and hopefully gets more 8 - 12 year-olds reading.
- You'll be releasing me from a two year slog through the slush piles of trying to get 'Destiny Calling' published the traditional way (see this post for more detail on my demoralising experiences with the publishing world!)

For those with more time, you can watch a video of me being interviewed about the book:

You can also read a review of the book and see me in the local press.

And of course, you can go straight to Britain's Next Bestseller, when you can read a synopsis, a sample chapter, hear me reading extracts from the book, and find out what inspired it. Then you can place your pre-order too.

Failing that, a share on social media would be lovely. Thanks!

13 Aug 2014

Appearance Policing: Learning to stop snarking about the way other women look

When I was growing up, I saw that, if you were female, criticising other women's appearances was a big part of your daily life. My mum would regularly change TV channels just to see what the female TV presenter or weather forecaster was wearing on a particular programme, ITV's This Morning would be watched with a commentary on how Judy Finnegan needed to get her eyes/face done and lose some weight, and Wimbledon season every year entailed a critique of Sue Barker's face/hair/outfit. I'd sit there thinking "Maybe she does look a bit crap, but who cares?" and wondering why the men presenting opposite these women were never singled out for a scathing attack on their appearances. Why was it OK for the men who were visible in the media to be wrinkled, grey-haired, fat, scruffy and never wearing anything more imaginative than a grey suit, yet the women were subject so such scrutiny?
Still, it's hard to shake off such conditioning, especially in a society that pits women against each other so viciously. We are allowed to compliment each other's appearances, but only if we criticise our own. "Oh, your hair looks lovely - I wish mine was like that," is the template for how we, as women, are supposed to address aspects of our appearance. We can't accept a compliment - if someone tells us we look great, we're supposed to reject it and disagree - "What, this old thing? God no..." and highlight something else about our bodies we don't like. And because we're taught to view all other women as competition, we must snark and bitch about and criticise the appearance of any woman we find threatening. Those are the rules of Girl World that Cady discovers in the fantastic film Mean Girls, where she watches Regina George tell a girl her skirt is "adorable" to her face and then turn around and say "That is the ugliest effing skirt I have ever seen" behind her back.
I thought I'd largely got past the compulsion to criticise other women's appearances and outfit choices. I know I'm not entirely there yet - there are still parts of me that apply an appearance hierarchy in my head whenever I feel threatened by another woman (usually, sadly, because I assume someone I want to be attracted to me is more attracted to her) frantically conducting mental maths to see who 'wins' - "Well, she's got bigger boobs, so I lose on that score, but she's bigger all over than me, so I win on that score, and I have a nicer bum, so I win on that one, but she has nicer hair, so I lose on that one..." It's sad and shitty and petty and one feels like an utterly foul human being for even admitting it, but there are no Feminist Awards and even if there were, I wouldn't want to win one by lying about my tendency to still instinctively compete with other women. I recognise it, I know it's not a good thing, and I'm trying to change it, but I have to be honest and admit I still do it.
Still, it pulled me up sharp the other day when I started snarking about what another woman was wearing, and the person I snarked to refused to join in. The item in question was an extremely high pair of spiked platform heels, and were being worn to perform a role that involved a lot of moving around. They struck me as deeply impractical, they hurt my feet to even look at them, and I wondered why the woman didn't just go for comfort and wear flats. When I voiced this to a friend, she didn't join in the snarking. She said she didn't have a problem with heels, and tactfully guided the conversation in another direction. In the nicest way possible, it made me realise exactly how unnecessary my comments and thoughts were. Was I focusing on any of the men in the room, and criticising their outfit choices? Nope. I was honing in on this woman, solely because she was a woman and because we see women's appearances as public property and up for scrutiny. I was tying her up in the impossible double bind of being expected to dress for other people's approval, and then condemned for doing so. Heels are sexy when society wants them to be, but when society wants to have a pop at women, then they're just stupid and impractical and vain and ha ha look at those dumb bitches tottering along how airheaded must you have to be to want to squeeze your feet into those ridiculous contraptions.
Perhaps karma came around quickly, because later that same day I found myself changing from a pair of hotpants into a pair of knee-length shorts, precisely because a group of us were going to a pub known for having sleazy old men hanging around who like to bother groups of young women. I'd seen such men approaching my friends on other occasions, seeming to believe that any group of young women could only be attending the pub for their entertainment, and I just didn't feel like having my mellow harshed by having to have an unpleasant confrontation with a drunk man who saw me as fair game simply because I was wearing short shorts. It made me incredibly angry that I had  to resort to changing my outfit just to avoid this, but I  just didn't have the mental energy to deal with it. To any man who wonders why women "don't just tell them to fuck off" whenever we're harassed, the answer is pretty simple - if we did this every time we're bothered by a man who thinks we owe him our time/conversation/smiles/body, we'd never get anything else done. And amazingly, we don't all relish the prospect of being forever involved in arguments with hostile sexists who are only going to call you an uptight bitch for confronting them in the first place. It's exhausting, and we'd like to have lives that involved some fun and relaxation, please, if that's not too damn much to ask.
But me changing my shorts and snarking over the woman in heels are linked. They're both a result of a society that makes everything women do about their appearances, and then punishes them for it. Get harassed? Your fault for showing your thighs. Get bitched about by other women? Your fault for wearing those heels. Dare to look casual, even scruffy? You'll be condemned for not making enough effort.
We all should know by now that we can't win, and therefore we need to stop playing the game altogether. Not the one of looking however we wish, because that's a right we should certainly never stop fighting for. But we need to stop thinking that hissing OMG what is she wearing is somehow a chummy act of female bonding, and instead recognise it as collusion with sexism. It's hard to break that conditioning - only last night my mum was criticising the hair of a woman on a property show on TV, and asking me if I agreed. So I can certainly see where I've picked up the habit, but I know that's no excuse. If I want to be free to look however the fuck I want - and I certainly do - then I have to respect other women's choices about their appearances as much as I respect my own. Otherwise I really am no better than a Mean Girl.


My children's book, 'Destiny Calling', is now available to pre-order! Help the book hit its publication target of 250 pre-orders by clicking here

18 Jul 2014

Control and The Cool Girl

A lot of my life is about control. As a formerly overweight person, I have to be extremely vigilant about diet and exercise, lest I gain the weight back. As a person with mental health problems, I have to remember to take my medication, and be constantly monitoring my mental state for signs of an imminent bout of self-destructive despair. As a freelancer, I am the only person responsible for when I work, how much I work, and how successful my career is - no one else is going to remind me, nag me or pick up the slack if I don't keep a grip on my work.
Being female, or should I say, successfully fitting the dominant stereotype of what a female should be, also requires a great deal of control. You're expected to control your body - how slim it is, how toned it is, keep it free of hair, marks, wrinkles, sags and yet still have flesh in all the right places. You're expected to control your face - keep it constantly fresh-looking, dewy, unmarked, unlined and of course always smiling, pleasing to others and preferably fully made-up. You're expected to control your hair - even if it's meant to look 'tousled' or 'just-got-out-of-bed', you should still have preferably spent hours colouring, conditioning, applying products, blow-drying, tonging and spraying in order to achieve that wild, devil-may-care look. You're expected to control your body's excretions - cover the smell of your sweat, mask any smells your suspicious lady-parts may emit, and hide the fact you ever menstruate from anyone, even those most intimately acquainted with your body. You're expected to control your emotions, lest anyone assume you are 'hormonal', 'hysterical', or behaving like a 'typical woman' and decides to use this to attempt to discredit the whole female race. You're expected to control your fertility, even if that means increasing your risk of certain cancers, or causing weight gain, horrific depression, migraines, nausea or an array of other side effects - you're simply expected to be grateful that you have any control over whether you have children or not, because your unfortunate foremothers did not enjoy such a luxury, and why should it be down to men anyway when they're not the ones who get pregnant? And, of course, you're expected to control your sexuality - it should be constantly bubbling under the surface and suggestible to everyone while not being 'blatant' or 'desperate' and not intimidating to the opposite sex, it should be apparent from the way you dress and act without, of course, making you come across as a 'slag', it should 'ask for it' without 'asking for it', and of course if you put a foot wrong in how you express it, you should resign yourself to the fact that you'll be labelled either a prude or whore, and if you're a victim of sexual aggression, the way you presented yourself will be the first thing people will focus on, rather than the person who attacked you. Because men's control of themselves and their actions is rarely, if ever, under the microscope the way women's apparent failure to control their wild and tempting sexuality is.
(Think about it. A man who attacks a woman is excused as 'not being able to help himself'; the woman is accused of 'leading him on'. Men are portrayed as passive victims of their own unstoppable, unquestionable sexuality, and the question of them exercising control over their desire to sexually violate someone is never up for debate. It's the woman who apparently should have exercised control - over how she dressed, how she looked, how she spoke to him. Funny how the only times we attribute power to women are the times when they are utterly powerless - just a way to add insult to injury, really. But I digress.)
I got to thinking about control while pondering the concept of 'The Cool Girl', as made famous in Gillian Flynn's psychological thriller Gone Girl (described by some as feminist, others as misogynist - I generally just view it as sociopathic with the odd pseudo-feminist rant thrown in to justify utterly self-serving behaviour, myself). Just a quick reminder of how Flynn describes the mythical 'Cool Girl':
"Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want."
I think a lot of women smiled wryly and sighed with relief when they read this passage. Finally, someone had identified this utterly false phenomenon and called it by its true name, and pointed out that no such person actually exists. Women who were tired of explaining to people precisely why you cannot throw caution to the wind and behave exactly how you want and still expect anyone to find it attractive now had a neat explanation, nestled within the pages of a best-selling novel. Everyone's seen the advert where the woman with jutting collarbones and visible hipbones pretends to get orgasmic over creamy yoghurt or full-fat chocolate and thinks "Yeah, like SHE actually eats any of that - bet she spat it out as soon as the director called 'cut.'" Everyone's seen yet another female character supposedly waking up au naturel when she's clearly in full make-up. And plenty of us have watched One Day and wondered why the makers were happily willing to age the fuck out of Jim Sturgess' character Dexter but could not bring themselves to put even a smidge of ageing make-up on Anne Hathaway who played Emma, even though we are supposed to be watching the character across the timespan of 20 years.
Still, it can hard to remember that no one possesses the Cool Girl Secret. We all will have some facets - some girls can eat what they want without gaining a pound. Some girls do genuinely enjoy football, video games, sci-fi and rugby. Some girls have a very high sex drive and are very adventurous in the bedroom, and some of us would rather eat broken glass than spend a Saturday trailing dreamy-eyed around Ikea or a wedding fair (yo!). But we'll all have an Achilles' heel that means we don't quite make the grade. Sometimes I become more conscious of mine when I feel like other girls are more 'fun' than me. I can't eat or drink what I want, because my shitty genes mean that it would not be difficult for me to gain back the 3 stone I worked hard to lose in order to be a healthy weight for my height. It would also not be difficult for me to be even heavier, and therefore even less healthy. If I never had to see another human being again as long as I lived, I imagine I would get obese pretty quickly, because we all have a catastrophic trapdoor that we could fall through if we truly 'lost control', and eating is pretty sure to be mine. But in this life, I would like to be reasonably healthy. I would also like to be attractive. I know I should be musing on higher things and telling myself that it's what inside that counts, but I'm honest. I want a life that includes feeling sexy, and I certainly want a life that includes having sex with people who find me sexy. If I were happy to be celibate and hermetic for the rest of my days, then great - bring on the red velvet cupcakes and deep-friend mac n' cheese balls. But I know where that would lead - so I have to keep exercising control.
There are other trapdoors that I know await me, and they also make me feel like the opposite of the cool girl some days. I can't stay out as late as I want, because sleep is massively important to my mental and physical wellbeing. I also have to take medication to help me sleep, and if I don't take it at a certain time at night, I won't be able to wake up the next morning. Which will in turn impinge on my ability to work, socialise and do the things that keep me sane, such as roller derby. So any night out involves a constant eye on the clock, and the luxury of full relaxation in the knowledge that it doesn't matter what time I get to bed is one I cannot enjoy. Drinking excessively is not open to me for this reason, and is also connected to the weight issue (when I was heavier, a lot of my body was composed entirely of Strongbow). I'm also an introvert at heart, and can only take so much group activity before I long for the satisfying intimacy of a one-to-one with a good friend, or an intense exchange with a small group of trusted people. Those who know me well enough understand this, and won't assume I'm rude or snobby or 'high maintenance' just because I sometimes need to be alone and haven't got the energy to assume a persona that's not true to me. But when I look at other girls drinking and joking and larking as I slope off to take my Quetiapine and read in bed, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a twinge of "Guh, why am I so dull, and how do they manage it?"
I've managed to hang on to enough self esteem over the years to be proud of carving my own path, to know that what I need and what I aspire to are very different from what the majority of women my age seem to pursue. I don't want: marriage, children, monogamy, a career that's 'stable' at the expense of being fulfilling, or pots of money at the expense of having a life. I do want: great friends, fun lovers, travel, adventure, a career that is nothing other than what I want and makes enough money to keep body and soul together, and a neverending supply of good books. Like most of us, I also want to enjoy physical and mental health. I'll probably never manage to balance these demands with the expectation that I be slim, smiley, fragrant, hairless, uncomplaining and 'fun', and in general I couldn't care less, since those in my life like me just the way I am and most of the time, so do I. It's just sometimes hard to remember that those other women, who in my shameful, petty and insecure moments seem to me like shining examples of all the things I can't be because I have to spend so much of my life exercising so much damn control, will also be nursing insecurities and fatal trapdoors of their own.
But that's feminism, innit. Being kind to yourself, and being kind to other women too, however much mental work it takes. Because the most feminist thing you can realise is that none of us are The Cool Girl, nor should we want to be, because she's ultimately just a patriarchal fantasy. What we all are is simply cool girls, every one.