15 Sep 2016

Lionel Shriver, Race and Privilege

Reading the comments on The Guardian's transcript of Lionel Shriver's speech, recently given at the Brisbane Writer's Festival about cultural appropriation, fiction writing and diversity, it's apparent that many see her words as a victory for "common sense," and view Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of the speech (and wrote about why), as a "special snowflake" who was just looking to be offended or pulling a publicity stunt.

I'm going to make a massive assumption here: that most of those commenters were white. And since Shriver is white, and so am I, I'm not sure my analysis is going to be tremendously helpful, so I'm going to suggest that it's up to those most affected by cultural appropriation to decide where the boundaries lie, not those of us who have benefited from and continue to benefit from white skin, the legacy of colonialism, an expensive education and the privileges of being middle class. In other words, I'm not going to examine Shriver's speech (much) as I think writers of colour have much more to add to it than I ever can. However, I do want to add a perspective that makes it much harder to defend Shriver as "just talking common sense," and which suggests that maybe she does actually have a worrying sense of white, European superiority.

Let me preface this by saying I did (do?) love Shriver and her work. As a proudly child-free woman who often found very little community or empathy from other women, it was a revelation to me to read her 2005 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin and find there was an author capable of speaking my thoughts so baldly and articulately. Finally, a woman was saying all the things I'd ever suspected: that motherhood was tedious, unfulfilling, robbed women of their mental, physical, social and career potential, and for most people was simply a method of keeping the wolves of life's futility from their door. Pregnancy meant being colonised and turned into public property in a way that men's bodies will never be, and motherhood inevitably meant some degree of return to 1950s-style gender roles--perhaps temporarily, but the damage would still be done--however hard one tried to resist the tide with feminist parenting. Basically, Shriver articulated all the uncomfortable truths that a pro-natalist society doesn't want said, and then raised the stakes even higher by suggesting you could do everything right to raise your kid and still create a monster. It was breathtaking to me. I loved that book so much I wrote excerpts of it on index cards and pinned them to bedroom walls, as if warning visitors that these were my beliefs (i.e. both life and having kids is pointless).

I've loved many of Shriver's books since then: So Much For That, which excoriates the American healthcare system, Big Brother, which takes on the twin devils of obesity and the obsession with thinness with surprising compassion, and The Mandibles, a no-punch-pulling view of a not-too-distant future America in economic freefall, predicting what might happen when the shit really hits the fan. However, some passages in the latter did point to what I've suspected about Shriver ever since I read her essay in the 2015 anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers on The Decision Not to Have Kids, which is that, frankly, she is a bit of a closet racist.

Maybe not even a closet one, actually: after all, Shriver's fiction writing is always bold, unapologetic and advances a pretty misanthropic view of humanity, so it stands to reason that her non-fiction would be similar. But it gets harder to defend her when you read phrases from her essay "Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later" like "Maybe the immigration debate has sufficiently matured for us to concede that white folks are people, too."

Wow. Where to even start with that one.
It's so disappointing to see such an intelligent, clear-eyed author fall for the same moronic propaganda that causes people to ask "Why isn't there a Straight Pride day?" or "What about White History Month?" or, as any feminist is so utterly sick and tired of hearing "There's sexism against men, too!" I mean, as if there has ever been any question that white people are human, nay, the default human, the dominant stereotype by which all other races have traditionally been measured and found wanting! 

She goes on to ask why the British can't be proud of their Yorkshire pudding, White Americans their apple pie, to which I found myself scribbling down the side of the page "They can be proud when those things stop being a pretext for racism and xenophobia!" Trust me, I'm a Brit and live amongst our fragile multi-cultural peace every day. In my very own town, Milton Keynes, just a few days ago, a pregnant woman of colour was kicked in the stomach so hard she miscarried, in a racist attack by a white man. I read with horror the story of the xenophobically motivated murder of a Polish man in Harlow just a few weeks ago. I've heard with dismay the tales of women walking up to Eastern European mothers at the school gates and saying "When are you fucking off back home, then?" the day after the Brexit vote. I am not going to buy for a second that we live in a world of "political correctness gone mad," or that "things have shifted so far in favour of minorities that white Brits are now second class citizens!" when this culture of casual hatred for other nationalities/colours is still on my fucking doorstep. 

I said I wouldn't talk about Shriver's speech but I do have to link this thinly veiled whine of "WHY can't I freely express my view that whites are the superior race?!" to the total straw man example she gives of complaints about sombreros at a student party. This is a deliberately selected, caricatured example of what Shriver and the "anti-PC" (far too often sadly, a synonym for "pro-the freedom to express one's bigotry") brigade deem a growing culture of thin-skinned crybabies who can't abide any expression of stereotypes, however "harmless"--and it's deployed for one reason only. To remind oppressed groups to get back in their boxes and fucking stay there.

Well, y'know what - my radical suggestion is that as a white, non-Mexican individuals, it's not actually my place to tell people affected by Hispanic stereotypes that they're being over-sensitive. And it never will be. As long as I enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to constantly carry my passport everywhere I go (as a Latina friend of mine currently does), as long as I will never have to worry about being called "beaner" or "wetback" or reduced to the stereotype of an overly fertile, hypersexual, big-bootied hot'n'spicy mama, and as long as I will never have to endure humiliations such as the waitress who a white couple refused to tip because "we only tip citizens," it's clear that I have massive privilege. So I'd rather hand off to those directly affected by the sombrero stereotype, and hear their voices. I don't get to decide what's offensive to Mexican people. Neither does white, middle-class, European-American Lionel Shriver.

And I'd believe her complaint that she's simply trying to strike a blow for creative freedom so much more if she hadn't previously penned an essay saying that if white Euro-Americans like herself continue to refuse reproduction (as she herself has), we might end up a minority, and wouldn't that be a shame. Seriously. That was the point at which I lost so much respect for this writer. Not just because she admitted that she had changed her tune since being portrayed as the "anti-Mom" at the time of releasing We Need To Talk About Kevin, (everyone changes over 10 years, and at least she hadn't changed it to the point of giving in and having kids, which everyone who fails to take my childfree status apparently somehow KNOWS I will do). It's her reasons for doing so that astonish and appall me. Which are that, despite her sneer that "liberally minded white Americans are not supposed to care. . .that by 2043 whites will constitute a minority in the US," she clearly does care (why else mention it?), and never gives a reason why except presumed racial superiority.

Her essay is cleverly couched; she uses the words of three other white women (couldn't find any non-white childfree women to speak to? Hmmm) to say what she doesn't want to just come out and admit. One says "Many Western cities will be largely black/Hispanic/Asian in fifty years' time. Does that bother me? Well, I vaguely regret the extinction of gene lines that in their various ways played a part in the establishment of Western civilization..."
...a civilisation often built on the invading, colonising and outright robbery of other countries and cultures, but do go on....
"But the gene lines coming in from the developing world will have their own strengths, energies and qualities, I guess." Not quite brave enough to stand up and simply say "Look, I think white people are superior, I prefer to be around them, I like it when they're in the majority, and if I could be arsed to have kids that would be my main reason for doing so," Shriver instead does it through her interviewees' words, saying "That poignant but politically charged "I guess" captures a conflicted melancholy that many liberal white Westerners will only give expression to in private--if then."

Who are these multiple closet racists masquerading as cheerful lefties for whom Shriver claims to speak? This here lefty is sure as shit not one of them. I think that the idea of anything being "truly British," "truly European" or "truly American," is both nonsensical and laughable, when all of these places are mongrel nations, built on the backs of immigrants, benefiting hugely from colonialism, and very good at forgetting both those facts when they want to pretend that there's something inherently superior about whiteness or speaking English. I am not proud to be British. It was an accident of birth. I'm definitely glad about and aware of my privilege at living in such a diverse, well-off, country where bonkers abortion laws and mass shootings are noticeable by their absence, but I have no "pride" beyond the occasional smile when we do something good at the Olympics, and that pride ain't got shit to do with white Europeanness (indeed, I do love the sarcastic memes that fill Facebook the moment British long distance runner, Mo Farah--a black Muslim immigrant--wins gold again and the right-wing newspapers all fizz with fury and swallow their own tongues). 

And what is this whitewashed "heritage" that I'm supposed to be proud of, exactly, anyway? Am I proud to have been born on the same landmass as Shakespeare? Meh, I suppose it's kind of cool. But I'm not proud that it took "my" country until 1928 to give women full voting equality with men, or until 1945 for every university to award women degrees. Not proud that the Equal Pay Act didn't pass until 1970. Not proud of Enoch Powell, the National Front, the BNP, Britain First, UKIP and the fact it was acceptable to display signs saying "No Blacks No Dogs No Irish" in boarding room houses until only a few decades ago. Not proud that "my" government spends taxpayer's money on illegal, pointless wars. Certainly not proud that people are being fucking beaten and murdered in this country for the crime of trying to live their god damn lives. Sure, I love Jane Austen and the Beatles, but ultimately national heritage is only something you can feel proud of once you've cherry-picked all the shit away--and my God, that's a lot of shit.

But Shriver never explains why she feels "oh, a little wistful about the fact the country of my birth will probably in my lifetime no longer be people in majority by those of European extraction like me," or why she gives considerable attention to the "the Lats" becoming the dominant population in her latest novel, The Mandibles. I guess she isn't quite gutsy or tell-it-like-it-is enough to give her reasons. And she, of course, would blame a culture of PC-gone-mad for her hesitancy to just come out and say that she prefers a world where the majority of people look like her. But she is not being censored; she clearly has a massive platform. Books, newspapers, writing festivals; the kind of free rein to say shit that most of us will never be awarded. What "PC gone mad" might just mean is that she actually has to face some consequences for saying she thinks white Europeans are superior, and naturally, she doesn't like that. But people holding you accountable for your words when they appear hateful and baseless is not a crime, nor is it going to hurt you that much when you're rich, educated, white, middle class and Western. It might piss you off, but it's not the same as someone's boot in your stomach, or their knife in your jugular. Which are acts you tacitly condone by pushing this bizarre, faux-inoffensive "wistfulness" for a society that never even fucking existed in the first place.

That's why it's so disappointing to see someone as intelligent as Shriver disingenuously setting up false equivalences, like claiming because she's German and she doesn't mind anyone donning lederhosen and perpetuating Bavarian stereotypes, that gives her carte blanche to dictate what's acceptable to people of other, usually much more globally shat-upon, nationalities. Funnily enough, I don't mind if anyone dons a moustache, deerstalker cap and pipe and runs around drinking tea and being overly polite, because that stereotype cannot hurt me (and not just because it's inoffensive/funny/accurate in some ways). No, it can't hurt me because my nationality can't hurt me. I'm never going to be turned down for a job because I'm white British, or assumed to be intellectually inferior, or lazy, or denied the right to stay in someone's country (more likely I'll be waved through customs without a glance and never referred to as an 'immigrant' but rather an ex-pat), or have shit put through my letterbox, or be sworn or spat at in the street, simply for having been born in Britain. I have the immense privilege of hailing from a first world, rich, politically powerful country who used to own half the world, whose language is widely-spoken as a result of this fact, and that is why I do not have any right to be telling people from economically disadvantaged, colonially ravaged, developing countries, that because I don't mind the deerstalker they should stop being such wusses and accept whatever reductive stereotypes being imposed on them. We are not coming from a level playing field. To pretend otherwise, as Shriver is doing, implies she thinks her audience is either a lot less intelligent than she is, or simply as racist and xenophobic as she is.

So, defend Shriver's words to the Brisbane audience all you like, but don't fool yourself that this is bravery or an important act for "freedom of speech." Defending the dominant group's right to assert its dominance isn't brave--it's easy. Standing up to that nonsense when you're going to be at best, shouted down as a crybaby and at worst, lose your fucking life for it; that's bravery.

3 Sep 2016

When feminists fuck up: loving men and betraying other women

Reading Emma Cline's massively acclaimed new novel, The Girls [SPOILERS UPCOMING] - which I believe deserves nearly all the hype it's had recently - it occurred to me how much of the story is really about the terrible lengths women will go to in order to earn the adoration of a man. Loosely based on the horrific true story of the Manson Family, the book follows a fictional teen girl, Evie, who is seduced into the world of a cult, consisting mostly of young women like herself, and led by a charismatic older man. Competing for the male leader's attention, and all making themselves sexually available to him, the young women resort to more and more extreme acts, until the story ends much like the real Manson Family's story did - in a bloodbath. This really got me thinking about how one of the trickiest parts of being a feminist (and a polyamorous one at that) is resisting the conditioning that tells us to hate, fear and treat other women as our competition. And how, like loving your neighbour as yourself and turning the other cheek, the hardest thing of all is remaining generously disposed towards women who are willing to mistreat you in order to gain the approval of a man.

So much of the book ponders on the asymmetry on the way girls and boys are raised to view their selves and their romantic lives, it does a fantastic job of setting up exactly what makes it so easy for Evie to get sucked into the cult. Passages such as these absolutely nail just why, however strong and sassy teen girls may seem, they are trained to wait for male validation for day one, and this is exactly what sets them up to become victims:
"I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you--the boys had spent that time becoming themselves."
If you've ever been a teen girl, chances are that passage will ring painfully, painfully true.

I loved Russell T Davies' Channel 4 drama, Cucumber, which I watched last year - not just for its frank, hilarious and real portrayals of the lives of gay men in the 21st century, but also for its commentary on the sad fate that seems to befall every heterosexual girl sooner or later. In my favourite bit of dialogue, protagonist Henry is confronted by his sister Cleo, regarding the soft porn YouTube channel he's been helping her teen son to run (yup, it's all a bit dysfunctional from the off). It's not the involvement of her son she minds so much, but the effects that this pornified world is having on her daughter, who has been plucking out her pubic hair until her skin is raw. Cleo rails against the world that has driven her clever, amazing child to this self mutilation:
"I looked on her phone. And there they are. All the photos. 12 years old and she's giving regular updates on her vagina. To the boys. Because that's what they do now, the boys. They tell a girl she's dirty if she's got hair, she's filthy, she smells. So she's literally pulling out every hair as it appears. And then she photographs herself. Because that's her currency. That's where she ranks. On the league table of vaginas. 
Since they were eight, nine, that gang of girls has sat in this house and said 'No boy is ever going to tell me what to do.' And then they hit puberty and it's like someone flicks a switch. All of a sudden it's like, a boy can walk into the room, and they become slaves. On the spot. They are enslaved to him, like's it genetic. And there's nothing I can do to stop it."
It's a depressing thought, but if you're a woman who sleeps with men, you feel the truth in it, even if you hate to admit to it. I've asked myself; were I not interested in having sex with men ever again, would I shave my head, let all my body hair grow out, gain the three stone that my body is perpetually aching to accumulate again? Stop moisturising, never wear make up again, snap the heels off the (few) pairs of stilettos and platforms I own? Hard to say. Perhaps I'd have to go further, entirely opt out of the modern Western world in order to feel fully able to let go of all these acts of self-polishing and go live in a deserted cabin in a deep forest first. I did think to myself the other day, as I put on make-up before a meeting with a potential employer, would I have to take so much care over my appearance if I were a man? Nope. Would I even worry that the way I looked might come between me and a potential job? Probably not. That, my friends, is one of the main reasons I need feminism. 

It's hard to admit to this stuff, though, lest it show us up as feminist failures, traitors to the sisterhood. Similarly, it's hard to admit that you may have screwed over other women in pursuit of a man, or to then be charitable towards the women who do the same to you. Emma Cline's book lays out exactly the distance between the idealised world of free love - "I understood without anyone exactly saying so, that [all the girls] slept with him. The arrangement made me blush, inwardly shocked. No one seemed jealous of anyone else. 'The heart doesn't own anything,' said Donna. 'That's not what love is about.'" - and the sadder, more mundane reality of jealousy and possessiveness - "My mother must have known [that my father was cheating], and yet she stayed anyway, and what did that mean about love? She had to have known--but she wanted him anyway. Like Connie, jumping up for the beer knowing she would look stupid...your hunger could expose you."

I know that I've been both perpetrator and victim in this instances of accepting shitty treatment from a man, pursuing that man regardless of his abysmal moral character, and treading on other women to keep doing so. It's horrible to admit, both as a feminist, and a polyamorous person who works hard to never treat other people unethically in my pursuit of romantic or sexual happiness. But I did let one person get to me, and I let him tempt me away from ethical non-monogamy (although I must point out the non-consensual non-monogamy, i.e. cheating, was on his side, not mine, not that that makes me much less culpable, but still), and I ignored the warnings of, and eventually ghosted, the woman who was his previous victim, because I didn't want to hear what she had to say, and I thought she was acting out of jealous self-interest. Which she probably was, but it doesn't mean she was any less right. 

And I had some fun and excitement, and then I had a lot of pain and depression when that man turned out to be exactly what he always was, a coward, an opportunist, a leech, a manipulator, and I was just starting to get over it when karma bit me on the arse in the most spectacular way possible.

Because then he went after one of my friends.

Not my best friend, not my oldest friend, but someone I'd spent time with, laughed with, bonded with, exchanged gifts with, broken bread with. And I had to watch slowly, agonisingly, as she went running off to answer his seductive call.


And slowly, she started pulling away from me. Stopped contacting me, stopped reaching out to me. Started blanking me and speaking to me coldly whenever I dared to talk to her. I asked her if I'd done something wrong. Asked her if he'd said something to prejudice her against me. She played dumb. Said there was no problem. But continued to look at me like I was something that had crawled out from under a rock, whenever I ventured a friendly hi. Eventually I gave up, and now she treats me like I don't exist. Like we were never friends. Looks right through me. I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt. 

I've been told that this is probably her own guilt talking. My friend knew I could see what was going on - i.e. that she was making a play for an attached man who had previously been close to me- and was terrified I was going to call her on it. I had no intention of doing so - why would I feed the gossip mongers with what was clearly a private matter, and when I had no leg to stand on judging her actions? - but it made sense. I understood where she was coming from, because even though I'm not the one doing anything wrong this time around, I have feelings of guilt too. I ghosted the woman who had warned me, because I didn't want to face the reality of the man I was pursuing (i.e. that he was, and is, a piece of shit). I had trodden on other women to get what I wanted - i,e. this man's partner, even though I did attempt some sisterhood by telling her when things had started to get inappropriate between he and I. However, his partner's response was to tell him to cut me out of his life, rather than kick him to the kerb (another example of how it's always easier to attack other women than face losing a man? Maybe.) And that's the point at which I said fuck it, I've tried to be a good person here, I've done more than "the other woman" usually ever does to make things right, and I'm the one being punished, so to hell with this ethical living.

I guess that's what my ex-friend is doing now. And in doing so, she's treading on other women - his partner, me - but she can carry on secure in the knowledge that she won't be called on it, because revealing her would be mean revealing ourselves. It would mean revealing the lengths we went to for a man, and the way we shat on each other for a man, and no self-respecting feminist wants to come out and confess to that. And also, it would be a perfect opportunity for people to throw the word "karma" around. Which is why I've just taken the multiple assaults on my dignity that this situation has caused me, the forced absence from a community I used to have so much fun in; because I figure I got what I deserved.

I'd hope there's more than one difference between myself and the protagonist of The Girls, but the one from which I take some solace is that I didn't have a dalliance with this man because I needed it to affirm anything about me. At the age of 32, I'm confident enough to believe in my desirability independently of any particular individual being sexually interested in me. Being polyamorous, and identifying as solo poly in particular, means I'm also not looking for those things that people still assume all women must aggressively be in pursuit of - marriage, children, a nest. A man recently told me I'd make someone a great wife; this same person had regularly told me about his own extra-marital affairs. He couldn't see the link between the way he had treated his wife and the role he was telling me I should happily adopt. Is it any wonder I have no interest--nor arguably much faith--in marriage or monogamy? Too many men have told me about cheating on their partners - usually with a smirk on their faces. I'm ashamed of myself enough that I enabled even one such man.

But I didn't give in to his charms because I wanted love, or because I wanted him to leave his partner for him, or for him come nest with me (urgh, the very thought of giving up all that independence just to become another taken for granted "ball and chain".) I went with that person because of lust, and I knew that - as the excellent spoof song One Track Lover says in Garth Marenghi's DarkPlace - it was going to be too hot to last. It was going to blow up in my face or let me down sooner than later - I just never predicted the ugly, painful twist it would take that saw an ex-friend of mine treating me like I was a scumbag - or simply invisible - while she pursued someone who she knew had treated me like shit. Perhaps, then she is the one more like Evie in The Girls, who "didn't really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you."

Even the story of The Girls isn't as simple as just women doing stupid things for a man's attention though; a lot of Evie's almost hypnotised fascination is reserved for Suzanne, the mysterious, seductive older girl who brings her in to the cult but who also saves her from its most violent excesses at the last moment. She is mentally and physically drawn to Suzanne, while the male cult leader is something of a secondary interest for her. My hugely talented and fantastic friend, the writer Lidija Haas, proposed in her review of The Girls that the book explores "the intriguing notion that there is something about being a girl, about what girls are subjected to, that might make you capable of murder." The author herself, Emma Cline, puts it even more chillingly: "The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl's face--I think Suzanne recognised it. Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife. The particular give of a human body. There was so much to destroy."

There is, indeed, so much to destroy. The culture that pits women against each other. The culture that holds men up as prizes for which it's always worth throwing other women under the bus. The twisted logic that means cheating is somehow more acceptable than consensual non-monogamy in our society. The world that teaches boys to become themselves and girls to become attractive to boys. It doesn't make me want to kill - well, not always and not literally - but it does make me thing so much has to change. I guess we can only start with ourselves, and by walking away from one amoral, cheating man and returning to a life of ethical polyamory, I hope I have.

22 Aug 2016

Latest writing by me

It's been an uncharacteristically busy summer for me, possibly the first ever in my life as a freelancer! As a result, I haven't had the time to post. However, here's a round up of the few bits of writing I have managed to do this summer:

A piece for The Daily Dot on feminist porn producer Pandora Blake's victory over the censors...

and another for the same outlet on women embracing the hashtag #BloodyDifficultWoman.

My review of Ghostbusters for Bitch magazine...

...and another piece on the same film for the Women's Media Center. (Spoiler: I liked the film - a lot!)

Hope to be back with some exciting news soon!

7 Jun 2016

Will it ever be enough?

Recently a friend of mine who is going through major weight loss publicly wondered if they would always feel like "that huge person" or if their mindset would eventually catch up with the reality of the mirror/scales. It took me back to my own musings on weight loss, where I wrote "What no one ever mentions in a weight loss success story though, is that you'll always be a fat girl in your head. It never leaves you." It seemed like it would be dishonest, then, to try and reassure my friend that eventually your mind updates and starts to believe the photographs and realise you're smaller than you were. It's partially true, but it's not the whole truth. This was highlighted by another thing she said - that even her friends who are a "normal" weight still refer to themselves as "so fat." This put me in mind of being 17, maybe half a stone overweight (thanks for highlighting that, doctor who could see from my records that I already had serious eating problems!), and resenting the fuck out of my perfectly slim friend as male attention continued to fly her way, passing me over as if I was a houseplant, yet she still complained about her weight, body shape, face, hair and seemed to loathe the way she looked as strongly as I did my own body. I didn't get it. Why weren't the skinny girls celebrating and walking around like they were hot stuff, when they had clearly won the contest of Who's Allowed to Be Attractive According to Incredibly Narrow Social Dictates? And yes, many teenage girls may appear to walk around like that, but if you've ever been a teenage girl, or spent time with one, you know that any veneer of smugness and arrogance is paper-thin, and will always be stretched to breaking point over acres of self-loathing, self-doubt, and the conviction that they are unsalvageably ugly.

That's the real pisser, though - by the time you've reached an age where your mental defences are sufficient to protect against the waves of confidence-destroying beauty bullshit that assault women every day, there will then be a new battle to fight (ageing, w00t!). The time when you're in possession of the universally worshipped looks is unlikely to align with a time when your personality is strong enough to realise how gorgeous you are and work it for all it's worth. In my case, being something of a, if not ugly, then somewhat grumpy duckling ultimately stood me in good stead, because it taught me never to rely on my looks for anything, and meant that when I did actually start getting some male attention in my late 20s, I was confident enough to feel like it was confirming what I already knew, rather than lavishing upon me something I lacked or wanted. But the point is, society never wants women to get too comfortable. You can be young and good looking, but not confident. You can be older and confident, but then you'd sure as shit better start worrying about ageing. Which leads me to the conclusion that the window in which a woman's confidence and the socially-approved version of the way she should look actually align with each other probably lasts about two days, and even that might be a generous estimate.

In her memoir Shrill, Lindy West echoes exactly my experience:
"As I imperceptibly rounded the corner into adulthood--14,15,16,17--I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. I waited. I remained a stump. I wasn't jealous, exactly; I loved them, but I felt cheated.
We each get just a few years to be perfect. That's what I'd been sold. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. I was missing my window. . . Deep down, in my honest places, I knew it was already gone-- I had stretch marks and cellulite long before twenty [Chas: I had both at 12!]--but they tell you that if you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab just a tail feather or two of perfection."

That's exactly what they tell you, and that's exactly why my school friend--who I thought was ridiculous for loathing her looks when they were clearly exactly what society and those pesky things known as 17 year-old boys demanded and approved--was tormenting herself in grasping for that feather. She knew that no one, however much they may appear to fit the thin, white, young, long-haired, clear-skinned femme template, is allowed to rest on their laurels. A beauty culture that profits off women's self-loathing simply cannot have that. Because, as Lindy puts it "The real scam is that being bones isn't enough either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection."

And that's exactly what my friend going through weight loss now is discovering as she looks at the women who she thinks have perfect, enviable bodies--you never arrive at the promised land. As John Candy's character so wisely said about winning medals in every 90s child's favourite film Cool Runnings, "If you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it." Whether it's medals, flash cars, the latest bit of shiny nonsense from Apple or a certain amount of weight loss--none of it can make you someone new, someone better. I want to tell my friend that she was a great person before the weight loss and she remains that same person now. But I don't want to devalue what she's achieved, because I know what a journey it is: I've made it myself, albeit on a smaller scale, and I'm proud to have maintained the results for 7 years. I just want her to know the limitations of physical changes. Yes, I sweat less than when I was three stone heavier, I get acid reflux less frequently, I might even be a bit physically fitter although I'll still always view most forms of exercise with the horror of an overweight child being asked to run in front of the whole class. But my thighs still rub together so much that I have to wear lycra shorts under a dress or a skirt in summer. The scales at Boots still tell me that I "could" lose over another stone and still be in the "healthy weight" bracket for my height. I choose to reject their advice, because this is the weight I decided to stop at. I'm a size 10. I once mentioned my weight loss to a co-worker and she said "I wouldn't exactly call you slender." Instead of interpreting this as the mortal insult it could be perceived as (because the worst thing you can say about a woman is that she's *not thin*), I just figured she was being honest; I hadn't dieted myself down to the spindly-armed, visible-clavicled, bird-legged standard of the modern female celebrity, because I had no desire to. Incidentally, I stopped at the weight I did because once, when the light hit my chest I realised I could see the bones in it, and I'd never seen that before, and I didn't like it. Call it sod's law that even at that point, I still had plenty of flesh around my thighs and stomach, and still do. But funnily enough, I don't see possessing flesh as a sin, and I never saw the end goal of my weight loss to be the annihilation of every millimetre of me that might jiggle. I just wanted to fit back into my old clothes and for the doctor to stop bugging me. I also wanted to reclaim my body after a sedentary office job that I hated had made me depressed and driven me to comfort eat so much. So I quit the job, I lost the weight: achievement unlocked, as they say.

So what would I say to my friend, who fears that she may struggle to ever see her body clearly? I'm not sure there's much I can say that's of use, except to raise the point that the quest to like yourself once you're lighter requires an opposite; the fact you hated yourself when you were heavier. That's not a good starting point from which to proceed. Your body is you - you can't separate the two. Or as Lindy West puts it "I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece." When I was three stone heavier, I still wore revealing clothes, bright dresses, tight tops, high heels, bold jewellery, colourful make-up, and met the world head on. I never hid or apologised for my weight. I shared my body only with partners who found it gorgeous and sexy and considered it a privilege to see it unclothed. (Incidentally, I was with the same partner during the 9 months that I lost all the weight and I'm not sure he really even noticed the change. Much as women think they're altering their bodies for male approval, I think it's usually other women who really do the scrutinising. Because we're trained to. Whereas a grown man recently asked me the difference between cellulite and stretch marks, because he genuinely didn't know, he just knew they were both things women worried about pertaining to their bodies.) 

Ultimately, I still decided to lose the weight, and maybe that makes me a traitor to the body positivity movement, or a bad feminist, but I tried to at least do it on something approaching my terms--no public self-flagellation, NO being a diet bore, no shaming of my old body, no fooling myself that anything other than my weight was going to change, no bullshit about "I'm SO much happier!" I'm still the same grumpy, misanthropic militant feminist who loathes diet talk, people tracking their jogs on Facebook (no one CARES about your faux-virtue) and the fact weight loss is still considered the apotheosis of women's ambitions. Recently I got violent, awful food poisoning and when I was slowly recovering from 24 hours of vomiting and diarrhoea, a woman in my life who will remain nameless said to me "Did you at least lose some weight from it?" As if that would necessarily be a positive side effect. As if, whatever my weight is, I must automatically wish to reduce it, as if it's impossible that a woman might actually want to stay the weight she is and might consider going under it a negative thing. And as if losing weight from all the food in your body deciding to violently and foully exit from both ends is a good way to go about it. I love this unnamed woman very much, but lady, please fuck off with that nonsense.

It's so culturally ingrained though. Another friend recently posted that they had found themselves gaining weight, and the comments underneath were all from other women either commiserating or sharing their own gripes about weight gain. I suppose there's no point patronising the friend in question (given that they made it clear they were unhappy with the gain) with the suggestion that getting bigger is only seen as a negative thing because we believe that fat is the worst thing a woman can be, and that what every woman must automatically want is to always be smaller. I still did think it to myself, though. That's why I call MAJOR bullshit on Polly Vernon's breezy suggestion in her book Hot Feminist that wanting to be a bit thinner is an entirely neutral act. Yes, she reassures her readers that "wanting to be a little bit thinner is just wanting to be a little bit thinner. It doesn't have to be an unsisterly act of simpering compliance with a restrictive physical ideal." Well of course, no woman is going to stick her hand up and admit to being unsisterly or a simpering idiot, is she - so Vernon's dubious argument gets to stand. But her second point doesn't stop her first point from being utterly untrue. None of us exists in a vacuum. As I've demonstrated above, we exist in a world where the imperative to reduce your physical size permeates every aspect of women's life. I can make all the arguments I want about why I wanted to lose weight, and I'd like to think that health was a factor in there somewhere, but I would never be stupid enough to try and argue that cultural pressures weren't also a factor in my feeling unable to remain three stone heavier and tell every doctor, nurse, family member, colleague, 'well-meaning' friend, magazine, TV show, online article etck to get fucked because I loved myself the way I was. It's enough of a battle just to defiantly refuse to lose any more weight, to refuse to become the bones that will still never be enough.

Wanting to be thin(ner) is not a neutral state of being. It's certainly an understandable reaction to a society that tells you you'll end up unloved, unfucked, unsuccessful, bitter, matronly and sexless if you don't dare to want it hard enough. But it's never just a context-free desire that emerges out of nowhere, and as someone who wrote about how she lost weight through illness and loved the props she received for her her new skinny figure, Vernon should recognise better than anyone the instant acceptance conferred by a (potentially physically dangerous) level of thinness. Who wouldn't want that? 

Ultimately, it's a battle that'll never stop - the friend I originally mentioned might always feel like "that huge person", her slimmer friends may still publicly criticise their bodies. They may do so because they genuinely feel that way, or because it's considered part of female bonding to slag your body off, and it's seen as arrogant to refuse to do so; we'll never know.They would all do well to remember Lindy West's warning that the game is indeed rigged, and you will indeed never win if you're trying to play on our culture's terms, because it will always find you wanting. We agree to love spouses for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Yet we see no contradiction in then telling our bodies we'll only love them for younger, for thinner, and we wonder why they can never measure up. Goals become the ever-moving end of the rainbow, forever just out of our grasp. Realising all this is the first step to standing up and walking away from the gaming table.

19 May 2016

Feminism ruins everything

Feminism has been accused of a lot of ills. It's been said that feminism causes women to leave their husbands, take up witchcraft and become lesbians (seriously). Feminism has been accused of emasculating men and boys, demanding special treatment for women, wanting to institute a matriarchy and much, much more.

As a feminist, obviously I can see these accusations for what they are; the resentful cries of those who benefit from the status quo disliking the fact they might actually have to cede some spaces at the table of power. I recognise that feminism has only ever benefited my life, as well as that of the men and women around me. Do I have rights over my own body? For that, I need to thank a feminist. Do I have the freedom to have my own bank account, passport and own property? Yup - and for that, I need to thank a feminist. Is any job I wish to do open to me? Yup - thank a feminist. Am I educated? Thank a feminist. Am I free to choose a life without marriage or children should I wish? Thank a feminist. And so on.

However, one way in which I will concede that feminism seriously arses up one's life is when it comes to dealing with popular culture. Once you start becoming aware of the myriad ways in which pop culture perpetuates sexism, it becomes very difficult to enjoy any of it any more. I love music videos, but I've given up flicking through the music channels because I'm tired of the fact that female artists don't seem to be permitted to wear more than a few handkerchief's worth of fabric in them any more, while male artists are of course, always fully clothed. I love films, but I can't watch any of them any more without considering if they pass the Bechdel Test (and pitifully few still do); I was also seriously depressed by the fact that the last two films I went to see at the cinema (The Big Short and Deadpool) both contained totally unnecessary scenes in strip clubs, yet again using the sexualised female form as window dressing to films whose storylines gained absolutely fuck-all from the inclusion of those scenes.

"In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you." 
- Lindy West

Recently, I tried watching Blazing Saddles, the famous Mel Brooks cowboy film spoof from 1972 that everyone tells me is so hilarious. Given the era, I expected the humour to be somewhat retrograde, but in the end I lasted about 15 minutes after hearing racial slurs against black and Chinese people and homophobic slurs pepper the dialogue so casually that it turned my stomach. I gave up watching; I just couldn't find it funny. It was too vile. Seeing privileged white men leaving two black men up to their necks in quicksand didn't seem like a funny relic from another time - it seemed more like an eerie metaphor for what's still going on in many parts of the USA today.

Intersectional feminism has given me such exacting standards for pop culture that it's ultimately very hard for anything to measure up. I still haven't bothered watching Jessica Jones because 1) I'm tired of being told to be grateful any time a 'kick-ass' female protagonist features - after all, are men expected to cheer every time a man who's not a total twat features in a film or TV show? I think not - and 2) because I'm not sure what exactly is supposed to be so progressive about another young, long-haired white woman who's so slim she looks like she'd struggle to lift a spoon of cornflakes kicking the crap out of baddies. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was showing that nearly 20 years ago. Also, I was pretty dismayed, but not surprised, to read about fat-shaming in Jessica Jones. Seems you can be a heroine as long as you're not fat, or unfeminine, or not conventionally attractive. Woo fucking hoo for progress.

Whenever I watch a film, I'm not just looking out for whether it passes The Bechdel Test - even though it is seriously depressing how few films still contain two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, I mean how fecking LOW is that setting the bar! - but I'm looking out for whether it portrays women as anything other than slim, young, white and femme.  I'm also asking myself questions like: does the female lead constantly have perfect hair and make-up even when she's just woken up, or is supposed to be trudging through a war zone? Points off (and yo! Jennifer Connolly in Blood Diamond). Are there any old, fat or butch women who are allowed to be full, richly drawn characters? Orange is the New Black has torn up the rule book on how TV shows can depict women, now it'd be nice if film-makers would catch on to the notion that there's a captive audience happy to see women portrayed just as they actually are and give us some female ensemble movies. It'd be even nicer if we reached a point where female ensemble movies were no longer considered worthy of comment. A male friend of mine watched the criminally underrated movie Set It Off the other day, and remarked how he didn't even really notice that the four leads were women.
Maybe that's because women are people, and when you write roles for them that treat them like this, rather than like some exotic, incomprehensible species, gender is irrelevant to whether they're good characters or not.

So yes, I blame feminism for making me aware of all this. I blame it for making me unable to watch the trailer for Eddie the Eagle without thinking "FFS, another underdog film about a man's story. Where's the fucking film about Flo-Jo, or the Williams sisters?", for making me head straight home after watching The Big Short and going online to find out that one of the major players who predicted the 2008 financial crisis was actually a woman; Meredith Whitney, who features precisely erm, nowhere amongst the main (all male) characters even though she was in the book that the film is based on (and also, CHRIST how badly did that film waste the fantastic Marisa Tomei?!). I blame it for making me not willing to give a pass to men who tell me they "just didn't notice" or "just didn't think it was that big a deal" when I mention the above to them, and invariably leave me having to bat away their bruised egos and butthurt demands that I don't lump them in with AllOtherMen when I suggest that perhaps not noticing and not thinking it's that big a deal are actually pretty typical reactions when you're not a member of the group being shat on.

But I thank feminism too, for giving me the confidence to not put up with any of that shit, to not give my attention and money to media that demonstrates little but contempt for my gender, to not tolerate in my life men who are immediately hostile to any mention of feminism while simultaneously demanding to be acknowledged as Nice Guys, to go out and buy books by women, about women, see movies directed by women, starring women, and not just twenty-something slim long-haired white women sporting perfect make-up, but women of color, fat women, butch women, punky women, gay women, trans women, completely average women, ugly women, old women, consume TV series that do more than just pass the Bechdel Test, support art made by women, and pretty much fight the stereotype of the passive moronic consumer who will just take what they're given and therefore justify executives saying "we have to keep making more of the same thing because that's what people WANT." I thank feminism to alerting me to the fact I have a choice in what media I consume, and a choice to make people aware of it (they too, of course, have the choice to reject this awareness and paint me as unreasonable and reactionary, but that itself is also a silver lining because it alerts me to the fact this is a person with whom I probably don't want to have much interaction). I thank feminism for showing me there are other options.

So yes, in one way feminism ruins everything. But it also forces you to wonder: was that "everything" really worth so much anyway? Was it really "everything?" Or was it just the sexist, racist, heteronormative, capitalism-loving slice of mainstream media you were taught to blindly accept?
Long may the ruination continue.

11 Apr 2016

To the anti-choicers who trolled me: Thank you.

I'm no stranger to the wasps' nest that is the American fight for reproductive rights, having interned for Ms. magazine, written various pieces about anti-choicers'* legal tactics that seemed to emerge almost daily, attended a rally in LA against the War on Women, and volunteered as an escort outside a women's clinic. Yet the other day I achieved what must be a true milestone in the life of any feminist writer who covers the reproductive rights beat: I got my first anti-choice trolls.

This was as a result of reporting in my capacity as a Lifestyle freelancer for the Daily Dot on Indiana's new restrictive abortion law, which has to be some of the most transparently pointless legislation I've ever seen. It requires aborted or miscarried foetuses to be cremated or buried, effectively furthering the anti-choice position that foetuses are full human beings, plus the emotionally manipulative tactic of "waarrrgh you've killed a BAYBEEEE, we must now have a little funeral for it just to make sure we don't miss out on any opportunity to guilt-trip you, you heartless bitch." And don't even get me started on the horrific emotional burden this hands to survivors of miscarriage, who are given no choice about how they wish to process the already horrible experience of losing a wanted pregnancy. It's also just a massive waste of time and money and presumably adds to the financial burden already on women paying for what is a simple medical procedure. The law also directly flies in the face of the basis of Roe v Wade (which was the constitutionally protected right to privacy) by stating that foetal abnormality is not an acceptable reason for an abortion. Basically, wimminz, if you don't fancy subjecting a child to a life of disability, pain, limitation and discrimination, or carrying to term a foetus that may immediately die after it's born, or may not even make it that far therefore causing you to carry a dead foetus around inside you, you're shit out of luck. Your "reasons" are not good enough for the mostly male senators and congresspeople who thought up this batshit law and voted it in to practice. 

Anyway, having reported on Indiana women's fitting response to a male governor signing this bill into law (which was inundating him with calls about their periods until he was forced to disconnect his office's phone lines), I saw my Facebook Author page blow up with shares, Likes and... yup, here they came...the anti-choice commenters. The first one was a nonsensical image about Planned Parenthood allegedly selling foetal parts, a report that has been widely debunked. Quite what the poster hoped to achieve I'm unsure; did they imagine that as a journalist who keeps abreast of reproductive rights news that I would somehow have missed that particular attempt by anti-choicers to discredit an organisation that does a fantastic job of providing sexual healthcare? Did they think I'd give any credence to the idea that PP is an evil organ-harvesting profiteer that entices women - who are obviously always too weak and stupid and easily influenced to know what they really want - into having abortions just so they can make a buck on selling on the results? 

Sorry folks, you underestimate me. I know you anti-choicers. I've met you. I've seen you handing pictures of what is most likely doll parts covered in fake blood to a woman who's just come out of a clinic and is standing on a roaring hot city street recovering from an anaesthetic. Your credibility with me is less than zero, not least because two of your folks who tried to sting PP have themselves been indicted by a grand jury on counts of fraud (hoooo, ain't justice sweet?). Also, you know what?  - PP are legally allowed to use or pass on fetal tissue for stem cell research as long as the woman who terminated the pregnancy gives her consent (funny idea, isn't it! the crazy concept that the contents of a woman's body is her business to exercise her autonomy over). They're also allowed to claim back their costs for storing or transporting said tissue. What they're not allowed to do is profit from it, but the rest? Well, I'm sure this will confirm in your heads an image of pro-choicers as heartless murdering harridans, but I'm going to stand up and say Planned Parenthood can go apeshit doing whatever they like with foetal parts as far as I'm concerned. Because I support stem cell research. Because I don't equate a foetus with a baby. And because I'm soooo over tactics nakedly designed to try and emotionally blackmail women out of exercising their legal choice by making aforesaid false equation. Take that foetus-fetishising ridiculousness to someone who's actually fooled by it, please.

Which brings me on to the next commenter (after I had deleted the first comment, and of course banned the commenter from my page and reported him to FB) who posted one of the aforementioned pictures of what's probably corn syrup with red food colouring plus some doll parts in a kidney dish designed to look as gory as possible. Well, shit, have they ever seen what childbirth looks like? That isn't a pretty picture either, and it's 12 times more likely to kill you than an abortion, but anti-choicers don't ever mention that little fact, or even care about it because women are expendable whereas foetuses need constitutional rights, apparently. The snidey comment accompanying it was "Doesn't look like a clump of cells now, does it?" Ah, where to even start with that one. Well, how's about the fact that most abortions, if you could see them (and as if anyone working in an industry so regularly threatened with fatal attacks that security in all abortion clinics has to be better that Fort Knox's would somehow be allowed to photograph the aftermath of the procedure anyway, come the fuck on) would look indistinguishable from a heavy period, because 90% take place before 13 weeks? How about the fact that the ones that take place later are often of wanted foetuses that didn't present with serious deformities until the 20-week scan? Or that other reasons for having later abortions including being abandoned by your partner, being prevented from accessing abortion services by an abusive partner, being diagnosed with cancer, being homeless or being misled by an anti-choice doctor? But ultimately, again, to hell with having to justify ourselves to those who think we should fall to our knees and beg for forgiveness just because they wave around pictures of blood and body parts. I don't give a fuck if abortion is gory. I am unmoved by talk of heartbeats, little hands and feet, of foetuses screaming in pain as they're ripped to pieces (and please, fuck all the way off to Uranus with your medically inaccurate fairy tales anyway). Why? Because my belief in a woman's right to control her body is non negotiable. It will not be chipped away by the goriest story or picture you can manufacture. It will not be softened in any way by romanticising of a foetus at the expense of an already live human. It will only ever be strengthened by your nonsense.

(Which, in case it's not already clear, will earn you instant deleting, banning and reporting if you wish to post more of it here or in any of my social media channels. So before you post that meme, why not use your time better by going and volunteering at the local children's home, seeing as you're so invested in mandatory childbirth regardless of whether kids are wanted or not. Better yet, go get some papers and start the process to adopt or foster as many unwanted children as you can. It's called walking the walk, folks. You want no woman to ever abort again? Then you've got a fuck of a backlog to clear first, folks - 102,000 children are currently awaiting adoption in the US alone)

The fact that anti-choice tactics only ever serve to bolster my determination to fight for women's freedom to choose goes to the heart of the matter, I think. We spend so much time pandering to anti-choice jackasses that we forget to stop and ask ourselves, why are we even bothering? Why are we letting them set the terms of the argument, when they would never extend the same courtesy to us? Why should we feel the need to point out that Planned Parenthood don't just provide abortions, but also provide mutiple other crucial sexual health services such as smear tests, contraception, STI testing, tubal ligations (the woman I mention above, who I witnessed being handed a picture of blood and body parts after she emerged from the clinic, visibly woozy, told me that she had just had that very procedure) and that terminations constitute a miniscule percentage of their overal services? As Imani Gandy says, it doesn't matter how much of PP's services are abortions. It wouldn't matter if 100% of them were. Abortion is legal. They are not doing anything wrong. Except in the eyes of anti-choicers, who will always say that PP are doing something wrong, however we try and mollify them. So why do we bother?

On that note, this pro-choicer is announcing that I'm done with respectability politics. And I'd like to thank the anti-woman morons who reminded me of that fact by taking time out of their day to post the most predictable, easily debunked propaganda on my Facebook wall (oh, and for giving my writing more exposure! Really. Cheers, guys). I'm going to say it all, loud and proud.
I don't care if Planned Parenthood provide nothing but abortions. I don't care whether they make money from it. I don't care if they make use of their legal right to pass on foetal tissue for stem cell research. All I care about is that women who need abortions have access to them.
I don't care if women abort in the 9th week or the 24th week, and I don't give a damn what the foetus might look like at any of those stages. All I care about is that women who need abortions have access to them.
I don't care if a woman has an abortion "as a form of birth control," if she has ten abortions in a row, if she has an abortion at 24 weeks because she just lay around eating chocolate and watching Netflix for the previous 23 weeks and then suddenly decided to get off her butt and do something about her situation. I seriously doubt that's ever actually been the case, but my point is, I'm here for that woman's rights just as much as I'm here for the women who were raped, who were let down by contraception, whose circumstances changed, who got cancer, who were already mothers and couldn't care for more kids. I'm here for all those women. I don't need them to pass a respectability test for me to believe in their right to do what they fuck they choose with their bodies.
Because that's a right that men sure as hell enjoy every single day.

*I refuse to use the term "pro-life" as I believe it's a deceptive and manipulative term that paints those who would deny women access to safe and legal abortion as somehow merciful and positive. They are anything but. They are not pro women's lives, safety or autonomy. They are not pro unwanted babies being supported by the state, or pro single mothers, or low income mothers of colour. They are pro sadistically mandated births, and thus they are anti-woman and anti-choice and deserve to be described thus.