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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today - or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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Ava Gardner adopts the confident poise of a non conformist

A lo-fi internet connection coupled with inventory lapses in both Laser and HMV has left me with a hard-nosed jones to watch Mogambo, the 1953 flick starring Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable.  After reading Ava Gardner’s memoir Ava: My Story, where she highlights the role in terms of one she wore as a second skin, as I turned the page I needed to see it like yesterday.  (Plus the book is worth reading because it’s filled with vivid detail, including Gardner’s descriptions of the arguments if not battles she carried on with third husband Frank Sinatra, as well as candid assessments of the first two marriages to Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw. Gardner’s memoir is so juicy it should come with a napkin). What most peeks my interest about Gardner’s recollection of Mogambo is that the storyline takes a radical departure from the Hollywood playbook wherein so-called ‘Bad Girls’ such as her character Eloise Kelly seldom land the man and have the happy ending.  Eloise, a tippling fast-talker, lands her guy over the prim Linda Nordley, played by Grace Kelly. (Have to admit that I was never a fan of Grace Kelly.  If she were on the Hollywood scene today, she’d be the type to marry Tom Cruise.  She’s creepy and bloodless onscreen).

Traditionally, celluloid narrative arcs set for the ‘Bad Girl’ stock figure dictate she never gets the guy in the fade out.  Trangressive women onscreen have existed to receive punishment, comeuppance, even death in order to underscore the normative morality culture proscribes, as the stuff of which conservative gender roles play a significant part.  Whether uppity, slutty, boozy or back-talkers, all such offending women have been served a lesson on film.  Cinema screens have produced a sizeable catalogue of Bad Girls in need of correction, from Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929); Bette Davis as Julie in Jezebel (1938); Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen in The Women (1939); Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar winning turn Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1959) (a film which she—to her credit—referred to as a ‘piece of shit’); Ava Gardner later in Night of the Iguana; up to the plot resolution of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, audiences have become primed for the Bad Girl to be issued a smackdown before the final scene.

There are two qualifiers which offer an alternative ending for Bad Girls on film: mistaken identity or reform, resulting in vindication or transformation for the lady in question. Rita Hayworth as titular Gilda set the gold standard for the conception of Emma Stone’s character Olive in Easy A,or other films featuring the message about the danger of hasty judgements of a lady’s character, but only when she hasn’t actually earned the defamatory slut shaming.  Then there’s the case of reformed Bad Girls,those ladies ranging from Eliza Doolittle to Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman who share the same reformation-as-fairy tale ending, which reminds the Bad Girls that they just have to become whatever a man wants in order for their happy ending to be realised.  Cue the eyeroll, right?

The elusive fourth option, to stay a Bad Girl and still get the man seems the point of Mogambo.  Maybe we need to gather to screen this rare gem?

So what about an Anti Room Film Club?

Anyone interested in meeting up to screen and discuss classic films?

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In her late teens, Jillian Lauren was snapping up luxurious evening gowns and lingerie on shopping sprees at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She was driven to shops by private chauffeurs and escorted inside by hired security guards; the shop girls scrambled to get her whatever she desired. Her evenings involved wildly elaborate parties, complete with bottomless bottles of expensive champagne and endless heaps of caviar.

What sounds like an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” was Lauren’s life at age 18, only she wasn’t so much the guest of honour as she was the high-priced entertainment. Back in the early ‘90s, the young New York University drop-out was a harem girl of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Lauren, now a wife and mother, is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, about her experience as a high-class prostitute.

So how did a young girl from Jersey end up half-way around the world in a palace vying for the attention of a playboy Prince with two-dozen other call girls? A series of rebellious choices, most likely fueled in part by a troubled childhood, saw Lauren go from college student to part-time stripper to live-in working girl within a year. At first she thought she was going to Singapore for a two-week stint as company to a wealthy businessman, but when the plane landed in Brunei she was told otherwise. While she admits she was taken by surprise she also says she had the choice to leave. Lauren stayed six months before going back to New York City only to return for another six month period a short time later.

While some may hear her story and think Lauren was misled by those who brought her to Brunei, she takes full responsibility for her decision to stay.

“I was never hoodwinked by anyone and I walked into the situation in Brunei with my eyes wide open. In fact, I think that the people who led me into that line of work were pretty forthright and respectful. Probably more so than most women who enter the sex industry at a young age,” says Lauren. “At the same time, I sometimes look back and bemoan my lack of role models. However, I was so headstrong and independent that even if someone had been around to talk sense to me, I probably would have done exactly the opposite.”

What attracted her to Brunei at first was the promise of something better, a fantasy life beyond her wildest comprehension. The willful teen was all about taking chances and seeing where life would take her. She’d had enough of the mundane, often suffocating suburban life of her childhood and was struggling to find her place at university in New York. The unknown, with all its possibilities, was more appealing at the time.

“I had absolutely no idea where I was heading. I was running entirely on the boldness of youth and my utter ignorance of consequences. If you had told me where my life would lead when I was first traveling to my dorm at New York University at the age of 16, I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years,” says the author.

Where Lauren found herself after arriving in the desert country was a richly appointed palace with a large house staff and a constant party atmosphere. The girls slept in their own private rooms, ordered whatever they desired from the palace kitchen and had full access to a state-of-the-art gym. In the evenings they’d dress up for parties – the guest list was always comprised of the Prince’s well-heeled friends – that started at 11 p.m. and didn’t wind down until dawn. The sex part didn’t even come into play until two weeks into her journey when the Prince, who selected whatever girl he wanted for an hour or for the night, chose her. This open selection process encouraged an often bloodthirsty nature among the girls; there was a sense of power that came with being the Prince’s favorite, though once attained keeping that intangible title was an entirely different effort. Not exactly Pretty Woman, not that prostitution ever is, says Lauren.

“In Some Girls, I’m pretty clear about where I stand on [that movie]. I say that the part about not kissing tricks is true and the rest is an insulting crock.  It’s the absolute worst manifestation of the Cinderella story – presented with no sense of consciousness or irony,” says Lauren. “There is no attempt at all made to deconstruct the myth, to make it relevant in some way to the complexity of modern relationships and power dynamics. What is the message, really? That we’re whores until we’re validated by a rich man, at which point we transform magically into princesses?”

The experience eventually led Lauren to a better understanding of herself, and while she says she would never go back to that life she’s clear that she doesn’t regret what it did for her emotional and spiritual growth. After leaving Brunei she went to college, struggled with drug addiction and worked a series of odd jobs before working her way through the past (a process that started only after she started “loving and trusting” herself) into the life she knows today. Lauren is now a successful author and journalist living in Los Angeles with musician husband Scott Shriner (bassist for Weezer). They are doting parents to son Tariku, who they adopted two-and-a-half years ago in Ethiopia. She credits her experience in part to helping her be a better wife and mother.

“The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much? I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn’t see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself. I can’t think of a lesson that I use more as a mother, wife and friend than forgiveness.”

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is available at Amazon UK. Lauren’s second book, Pretty, will be released in August. Learn more at her website: http://www.jillianlauren.com/

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I started writing a comment on the highly thought-provoking guest post by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller, ‘Women in the Media – Not’ and Motherhood v Careers, but it began to balloon, veer, swoop, and all sorts of other alarming things, so I decided to make it a post all of its own.

The discussion in the comments on Anna-Lena’s post is riveting and wide-ranging, as debates about parenthood and paid work tend to be. To tell the truth, I have a habit of shying away from such debates, because the emotions they evoke in me are fairly raw.

The Job of Being a Parent But what the hell, she said defiantly!

Here’s my experience:

I have a permanent, public-sector job, from which I’m currently on my second career break. I’ve done the work/parenting balance various ways since my two children arrived. At first, I went back to work full-time, then cut to four days, then took a one-year break. When I went back after that, it was half time, and when my second baby was born I took the career break I’m on now.

(Where is the father? I confess we fit a modern stereotype: he’s a committed feminist, an engaged parent, who earns considerably more than I do, in a career that doesn’t accommodate the kind of chopping and changing that I’ve undertaken – and even if it did, he wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea. And at the same time, he is uncomfortable at being the sole earner in our household. Hooray.)

So, yes, obviously I’m enormously “lucky” to be in a position to do all this – the “family friendly” options available to me are a privilege denied thousands of other parents.

(The quotation marks around “lucky” and “family friendly”? We’ll come back to those.)

When I was working full-time in 2005, with my baby in a crèche, the economics of it angered me: the only reason why the crèche was “affordable” to us was that the women (yes, of course they were all women) who cared for our child were paid far less than my partner and I were. Their work, which was so utterly crucial to our family’s wellbeing, was apparently of considerably less “value” to society than ours.

To me, this is outrageously messed up. Yet in our current system, in the absence of free childcare from relatives, it’s usually the only way in which parents can sustainably work for pay – and as we know, a second or third set of childcare fees puts it out of reach for many.

(At my job, incidentally, I edit scholarly journals and monographs. I believe passionately in the effective dissemination of peer-reviewed research. But I don’t believe it’s intrinsically more valuable than providing a loving foundation for the development of a whole new person.)

Many children are happy in group care – and more are happy enough that it’s a good solution for the family.

Ours wasn’t.

I took my first career break largely for personal reasons: I had ignored my physical and mental needs to the extent that I was close to a breakdown, and in fact it was the HR manager at work who first suggested that I apply for time off. But within weeks, it became clear what a beneficial change it was for my child, too. I’ll never forget the transformation, in fact – from timid anxiety to … well, a much less heartbreaking native caution.

Lesson One: insofar as possible, parent the child you’ve got. One size does not fit all, and the size that seems a good fit for the parents may be overwhelming to the child.

Lesson Two: if the current setup isn’t functioning, it’s OK to try something else. (I wish I’d learned this one about six months earlier than I did.)

On career break, my anger became more raw. Suddenly, I was seen as “not working” – despite, from my perspective, working harder than I ever had in my life. The same caring tasks that the women in the crèche had done for low pay, I was doing for no pay and (it seemed) largely invisibly. The drop in status was as much of a shock to the system as the disappearance of my income.

We may note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-privileged-middle-class daughter of two (full-time) academics: nothing in my life had prepared me for the notion that my chosen contribution to society might be seen as anything less than completely worthy and valuable. Call me naive! It was an awakening.

Even my parents didn’t seem to get that I was doing “real” work by caring for my child. And actually, even I didn’t get it at first. My mother has worked full-time all my life, as did hers, and as I settled into the so-called “stay-at-home” routine I was shocked and ashamed to find myself revising my unarticulated opinion of my aunts, who had left their jobs when they had children. Oh my actual god, said I to myself, all these years, they were working, and I never knew!

Ah, but is it really work, Ted?

Some people – including feminist friends whose opinions I hold in high regard – disagree with me that caring for one’s own children is “work”. In my experience, though, that’s exactly what it is. I’m talking about things like changing nappies, preparing and serving food, managing hygiene, mediating conflicts, administering first aid, handling emotional squalls, providing a safe (and age-appropriate) environment to explore, introducing and enforcing behavioural conventions, maintaining a social circle, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, these activities are work. They might often be enjoyable, or feel vocational, but plenty of paid work fits those criteria.

I mean, if they’re not work, what are they?

LEISURE?

I don’t think so.

The fact remains, of course, that caring work, especially if done for no pay by parents or close relatives, is largely invisible. The reasons for this are complex, but chief among them is a widespread preoccupation in our culture with tangible, preferably measurable outputs. At the end of a day with my children – and I imagine the same is true of caring for a sick or elderly relative – all I really have to show for my work is their own inscrutable selves, one day older.

And yet Studies Show (no, seriously, they do) that the quality of care, particularly for younger children, matters enormously. Not to be sentimental about it, children thrive on love, and on the practical manifestations of love that a committed carer provides. Children who aren’t given a loving foundation are at risk of developing affects and behaviours that are harmful to themselves or others.

(NOTE, incidentally, that I am BY NO MEANS suggesting that this care need come exclusively from a parent – never mind a mother. Any loving adults with whom the child feels safe and happy can potentially provide it. Furthermore, children do best when their caring adults feel good about their choices. So you can put that straw man away, please.)

That’s all very cerebral. Where’s the anger?

Partly, it’s in the disconnect between society’s description of me as a “non-working mother”, on the one hand, and on the other hand, my experience of working enormously hard all day (and all of the night, too – neither of my children was “a sleeper” … though the elder one figured it out eventually, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the younger one does).

Paid carers generally get to do things like, oh, arriving at work and, concomitantly, going home again, after all. Many of them even get unaccompanied loo breaks – which in my recent life have been for considerable periods a halcyon dream.

So, to summarise, if you do a job that allows breaks every day, weekends, sick pay, holiday pay – and, in fact, pay in the first place – you’re “working”. BUT if you perform exactly the same tasks, without any of the breaks or the pay and with a 24/7 on-call clause, you’re “not working”. Run that one by me again?

Partly, it’s in the resonant unease I feel at the phrase “stay-at-home mother” – as though I’ve completely withdrawn from some notionally bounded space called “the world” into a mysterious sphere called “the home”, from which I rarely emerge. See also: feminist discourse of the last two centuries.

Partly, it’s in the fact that my paid work is totally incompatible with my unpaid work: I have to make an either/or choice, and even though my employer is “flexible”, relatively speaking, that choice feels very constrained. (Here, by the way, is why calling myself “lucky” to have such a “family-friendly” employer isn’t exactly straightforward for me.)

This is about the traditional workplace, which conceives of a “worker” as being free to devote uninterrupted chunks of daily time to the employer. You can’t do that while actively caring for a young child. The problem is often articulated as the assumption that a “worker” has a “wife” – in other words, is supported by somebody doing care and maintenance work in “the home”.

Partly, it’s in the idea that by choosing to care for my own children, rather than pay someone else a meagre sum to do so while I go and sell my labour to a third-party, I am in some sense no longer “contributing”. My work isn’t reflected in the gross national product at the moment, ergo it’s “less valuable” than when I was earning a salary. Bizarrely, this would be true no matter what I might have been doing to earn that salary.

Partly, it’s in the way our current structure for rewarding work completely precludes the possibility of anyone ever paying me for the (difficult, valuable) work I’m doing at the moment. The “product” of my caring work, if you like, will be my adult children. (This is of course a collaborative project between me, their father, and several other adults in their lives, but currently, I’m putting in the greatest number of hours.) If we do a “good” job, the children are more likely – though not guaranteed – to grow up to be happy, functional, thoughtful members of society. What’s that worth? Classically, nothing, because nobody is prepared to pay for it.

Hello, rage.

I think we need to do two things

First, we reframe the concept of “work”, so that it encompasses more than just labour sold for money.

Some of my starting points:

  • Anything I could reasonably pay someone else to do is work. (Yes, this unsettles some categories, such as “hobbies”; I’m OK with that.)
  • Work can be joyful or arduous, or anything in between, and this bears no relation to pay.
  • Everybody deserves opportunities to perform joyful work, and to be fairly compensated for some or all of the work that they do.
  • The cultural bias against unpaid work is strong: we need to pay attention to where we unintentionally fail to see such work and thereby denigrate those who do it.

Second, we restructure the traditional workplace to get rid of the notion that a worker needs a wife.

To do this, we might adapt my favourite approach to the “problem” of maternity leave – change the default so that every worker is treated as though they were pregnant – and treat every worker as though they had caring responsibilities.

(Actually, when I put it like that, wouldn’t it be fabulous to live in a society where that were true? Where the burden of caring for those who needed it was in fact shared by everybody who could contribute? Let’s do that, shall we.)

What this might look like, I’m not sure. On-site care facilities in all companies? Across-the-board reduction and flexibility in working hours? A move away from the traditional obsession with working at a specific time and place? Massively increased carers’ allowances? Mandatory burden-sharing agreements between the employers of co-parents? Bring Your Child to Work Day, every day? Certified Work-Life-Balance Counsellors helping to design an individual solution for each family?

I don’t know. It’s a huge question. Perhaps, in our lifetime, we won’t get there from here. But I’d like to think that we could try.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the revolution, ahahaha, and in parallel with my caring work, I’m pursuing various creative and entrepreneurial projects (fiction writing, textile art, blogging), which may or may not bear fruit before I return to my job next spring. I have all kinds of complex feelings about work, pay, value, and so forth, and I don’t imagine they’ll get much simpler as time goes on.

Note on language: You may have noticed that I didn’t state either my children’s assigned genders or my marital status in this piece. This was deliberate. They’re not relevant to what I’m saying here.

Right then. Off we go.

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Fresh from having to buy his own Guinness in Moneygall (didn’t we learn from Primary Colours that elected officials never carry their money?), the Obamas have now been subjected to the Great British Barbecue. The name in itself is bothersome because to an American, a ‘barbecue’ is a deep South tradition involving whole chickens, racks of ribs bigger than the average Corgi, and heaps of ‘special recipe’ barbecue sauce with lashings of Jack Daniels.  It’s a very different meal from the array of charred processed meats that we Europeans might indulge in; that’s ‘grilling’, a softy Yankee art form.

Now *that’s* what I call a barbie

(image c/o Wikipedia’s ‘Southern Barbecue’ entry)

Still, semantics aside, the men were  jockeying for position over the burgers (cue much giggling about Nick Clegg being relegated to coal-prodding duty) whilst Michelle Obama and Sam Cam served the salads.

The obvious political photo-ops aside, this was bound to provoke yelps of ‘but why can’t the women be on sausage duty?’ (perhaps more tastefully put than that, and ignoring the obvious point that the real work will be done by a bunch of Secret Service guys dressed up as caterers).

The whole idea of the barbecue as the last bastion of testosterone makes me giggle. In my ‘mixed marriage’, my vegetarian husband is firmly in charge of any kind of ‘green shit’, whereas the position of Meat Mistress is equally firmly mine. Every year, when the weather gets good, my thoughts turn to firestarting in the proximity of gas canisters, to finding the best short ribs known to (wo)man and to experimenting with the marinades to see which bring the best flames (what’s a barbie without a blaze atop it?).  After ten years with my husband, I’ve learned to love the green stuff, and all winter long, we generally eat the same veggie food. But at the first glimpse of sunshine, the carnivore in me rises up from the core and my thoughts turn to juicy steak, to salmon with soy sauce, to prawns with roasted garlic. OK, so we’re pretty good at figs and balsamic, at grilled asparagus, at Portobello mushrooms in Hawaiian spices. But there’s nothing masculine about THIS grill queen. If I were the President’s wife (one can dream), I’d be barging in there, apron akimbo, desperate to get at the good stuff.

And it does beg the question; what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primaries? Would she have been allowed her time with the tongs whilst Bubba, a Southern-barbecue aficionado, tossed salads and discussed Erdem with Sam? Perish the thought.

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As a sport, and as an abstract concept, badminton has always seemed pretty inoffensive. Professional badminton players do not take out super-injunctions. Badminton fans are never accused of starting riots that tarnish their country’s image abroad. For many years, badminton was the non-sporty person’s sport of choice. It was the type of Tuesday evening activity to which a man brought his wife along for a spot of mixed doubles against an equally married couple, who would argue furiously about the best way to hold a shuttlecock, and then win.

So it’s kind of surprising that the root of almost all evil appears to be lurking within the Badminton World Federation.

On June 1st, its all-male executive board is scheduled to implement new clothing regulations that force women players to wear skirts or dresses as “part of an overall campaign to raise the profile of women in badminton and the profile of the sport”.

Acceptable attire for female competitors, according to guidelines issued by badminton's governing body. The lucky ladies will also be allowed wear "skorts" or skirts over tracksuits/leggings.

It is sexy time on the back alley. (That’s a badminton term.)

The new rules have already caused uproar among Muslim players, prompting the Islamic party in Malaysia, where the BWF is based, to call for a boycott of top tournaments. Perhaps sensing that Islam has the greater experience when it comes to dress code enforcement, the BWF delayed the introduction of “Rule 19.2” by a month and “clarified” its stance: “[The new regulations] will not in any way discriminate against any religious or other beliefs, and respects women. Players will continue to wear shorts if they wish but simply wear a skirt over the top of the shorts.”

But what reason could there possibly be for making female athletes – people whose success depends on the strength of their smashes and the delicacy of their drop shots – wear a superfluous piece of fabric? I’m stumped. Could it be that the unnamed “external international marketing agency” that advised the BWF on its policy are closet Kournikova-ites?

BWF deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpho believes the new skirt rules will “enhance the presentation of the game in general” and help the sport attract “a wider target group amongst both younger and older people, and amongst both women and men, where an aesthetic and stylish presentation of the players is certainly an important factor”. The guidelines do not “push any women to wear clothing they are not comfortable with” and the BWF is certainly not portraying women as “sexual objects”, he insists.

“However, they have to wear a skirt.”

There are no double faults in badminton. Doublethink, on the other hand…

Lady shuttlers! What are you thinking wearing these hideously unfeminine items?! You'll empty the arenas in no time.

If the BWF wants to talk about style rather than sexism, allow me to examine its statement on those grounds for a moment. Its stance is that having a piece of material flouncing against their thighs (but not joining up between them) makes women athletes aesthetically pleasing enough to pull in hordes of hypothetical spectators – even though if there’s one female fashion trend that reliably infuriates the men I know, it’s skirts-over-trousers.

One of the hallmarks of the “stylish” is that their clothes are some kind of twist, with varying degrees of rebelliousness, on the norms of the context in which they are worn – usually by borrowing from the style tradition of another context. It’s a subtle negotiation. I would no more wear my high-waisted black tulip skirt to a badminton session than I would sport one of Sue Sylvester’s Adidas tracksuits to a tango class.

Badminton bosses have their sensitive eyes on the sponsor-friendly style showcase that is the ladies’ tennis tour. That’s their context. But they’ve forgotten that style, by definition, is personal. Take away the element of choice and there is no style, only a uniform. And what players and spectators alike will recognise is that this uniform is crafted from unpleasant, exploitative motivations. Come see our cuties perform!

Objections from Australia, China, Indonesia, India and the Scandinavian countries mean the BWF’s plans for world domination via the swish of a few A-lines may yet be thwarted. Worryingly though, it seems badminton isn’t the only sport where the governing bodies are seeking to glamorize and feminise women athletes in accordance with male, corporate ideas of glamour and femininity.

Even more bizarrely, the International Boxing Association is reportedly quite keen that women boxers wear skirts at the London 2012 Olympics. This has spurred Peter Taylor, father and coach of Irish boxer Katie Taylor, to put in a pre-emptive strike by telling The Examiner that his daughter simply won’t box in a skirt: “We’ve got morals that go above marketing. It’s discrimination. It’s obviously men making these decisions and it’s wrong.”

There may be alternative ways to resist, other than refusing to compete. “I have an idea for how I am going to combat it, but I’ll keep it secret for now,” the Scottish badminton player Imogen Bankier has tantalisingly said of her sport’s “silly” and “unnecessary” clothing regulations.

Perhaps all the women players could show up to the next high-ranking tournament in fishtailed maxi dresses and make a mockery of the BWF with every hobble and lurch.

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Here’s a bizarre dichotomy to consider: corrective rape. Yes, raping a person to make them see the error of their ways. I wish I could tell you I’d made it up, but it seems it’s all the rage at home, in South Africa. Now take a moment to consider and remember the following women, all victims of corrective rape, all black, all young, all lesbians, all dead:

* Noxolo Nogwaza — raped, stabbed and stoned to death in an alleyway in Kwa-Thema, near

Eudy Simelane - murdered.

Johannesburg, in April, simply for being a lesbian. She was also a mother. Her eyes were pushed out of her skull, used condoms littered the scene, a paving stone lay near her crushed head, and there was a beer bottle against her vagina. She was 24. Her name means peace.

* Luleka Makiwane — contracted HIV when she was raped by a cousin hellbent on trying to “prove” she was a woman, not a man. Cock does that, you know, it sorts the women from the men. Luleka ultimately succumbed to Aids.

* Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana — gang-raped by five men, and now dead from crypto meningitis, believed to have been contracted during the attack, or possibly as a complication of the trauma she suffered.

* Nokuthula Radebe — strangled with her own shoelaces and found in an abandoned building with her pants pulled down and plastic covering her face, at the age of 20.

* Eudy Simelane — gang-raped, brutally beaten and stabbed to death at the age of 31 because she was a lesbian. Eudy was a talented footballer who had played for the acclaimed South African national women’s team. She worked with the handicapped and was an HIV/ Aids counsellor. Her naked body was found dumped in a ditch.

These are some of the 30-odd women known to have been murdered in my homeland in the last decade merely because of their sexual orientation. Countless more have been raped for being lesbians, a crime now dubbed “corrective rape” because the perpetrators seem to believe that a violent, demeaning shot from the old meat injection is all it will take to make lesbians see sense and realise that a penis is what they needed all along. This is precisely what happened to Millicent Gaika (pictured), a lesbian who was raped and beaten for five hours by a man she knew who said he was going to turn her into a woman.

Millicent Gaika after being repeatedly raped and beaten for five hours.

Yes, I know: it’s about as logical as suggesting a gang of gay thugs raping a straight bloke will change his sexual allegiance, but some people really are pig-ignorant, illogical and deluded, while bloated with dangerous machismo and immense hubris.

Stupidity and ego are a toxic combination. Some men think their love is all you need.

Let me get one thing straight though: on paper, South Africa is one of the most progressive places on the planet when it comes to gay rights. The country’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to stipulate that nobody may be discriminated against due to sexual orientation, or gender or race for that matter. South Africa was the first country in notoriously homophobic Africa (where 37 countries outlaw homosexuality completely) and the fifth country in the whole world to legalise same-sex marriage. There’s none of that civil union lark. Lest the First World feel smug, please note that 42 Commonwealth countries still have homophobic legislation on their statute books.

Equally, South Africa was the first republic to provide non-heterosexual people with the same rights regarding adoption and military service as heterosexual folk. We’re very proud of our constitution. Well, some of us are.

In the thriving cities and metropolises, being gay is pretty much accepted, while there are Gay Pride parades, and there is a thriving gay scene.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t always filter down to the boneheads on the street, to the cretins who see lesbianism as a direct affront to their manliness, an insult, a rejection of the lads, and something they must self-righteously fix with a brutal beating from their own beloved love truncheon. It’s a growing problem as the poison of homophobia seeps through the dust and the shantytowns.

Yes, rape as therapy.

Gay rights' protesters remember Eudy Simelane.

Countless women are raped each day because of their sexual orientation. One estimate based on calls to a Cape Town-based action group alone puts the figure at ten a week in that city’s informal sprawl. Last Thursday (5 May), a mere 13-year-old girl was raped in Pretoria’s Atteridgeville because she was open about fancying girls.

Yet, very obviously, rape is not a cure for anything at all, and being raped has never changed a person’s mind — except, perhaps, to confirm a woman’s suspicions that some men are barbaric and, in the case of gang-raped lesbians, to confirm that they were right all along.

Finally,  possibly ten years too late, the South African police are setting up a task-force to tackle the issue.

What is needed, however, is a complete change of mindset, a realisation that in every civilization since the beginning of time between three and ten percent of the population were gay. It’s seen in frescoes from Pompeii, in ancient Greek mythology, from Michelangelo to Marlene Dietrich, from Ottoman sultans to Oscar Wilde, from King Shaka to Billie Jean King… It’s frequently seen in the animal kingdom too. It was rife and widely accepted in Africa before the missionaries came.

And why should anyone care what another adult does with their own genitalia anyway? What goes on between consenting adults is nobody else’s business at all. Not that any of this is consolation to the families, friends and lovers of all the victims of corrective rape, or any salve to the jagged memory of Luleka, Nosizwe, Nokuthula, Eudy and Noxolo, whose name means peace…

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The death this week of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, has proved something of a “Diana” moment for science fiction fans. It’s not just me having this tearful response to the loss of someone I have never met. Middle-aged men who claim never to cry are telling The Guardian they’ve shed tears, while young viewers of the CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures leave pages of heartfelt tributes on a Newsround forum, saddened by Sladen’s death from cancer, aged 63.

So why did Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane make such a connection? Regularly cited as Whovians’ favourite ever companion, she appeared in the series for three-and-a-half seasons from 1973 to 1976 during a period of high viewer ratings for Doctor Who. Indeed, the reason Sarah Jane is so feted partly relates to the overall strength of the show in the mid-1970s, when under producer Philip Hinchcliffe it achieved the mix of horror, humour, adventure and pathos that became the template for the tone of the show’s modern era.

The character of Sarah Jane, a critical element of this success, is introduced in a story called The Time Warrior opposite the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). She is a spiky journalist who has infiltrated a military research centre by pretending to be her aunt, a virologist. The Doctor rumbles the ruse, but promises not to expose her, joking that he needs someone around to make coffee. “If you think I’m going to spend my time making cups of coffee for you…” she replies, automatically indignant. The writer, Robert Holmes, immediately establishes Sarah Jane as a modern feminist who will castigate anyone who treats her like a child.

Sarah Jane’s refusal to be patronised by either the paternal Doctor or her pompously chauvinistic co-companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) gives rise to some teasing. In the 1975 story The Ark in Space, for example, Sarah Jane volunteers for a dangerous mission but succumbs to tears as her body is jammed in one of the space station’s narrow cable conduits.

“That’s the trouble with girls like you,” the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) shouts up the shaft. “You think you’re tough but when you’re really up against it, you’ve no guts at all. Hundreds of lives at stake and you lie there blubbing.” The accusation incenses her and spurs her to winch herself out, only for the Doctor to reveal his reverse psychology tactic. “Conned again,” she says, relieved. “You’re a brute.”

It would be wrong to say Sarah Jane was the first feminist companion, as that title belongs to scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who appeared in a single series in 1970, only to be replaced by dolly bird Jo Grant (Katy Manning) – an ultra-screamer who was infinitely more likely to require rescuing. Sarah Jane’s era was bookended by the blonde helplessness of Jo and the instinctive aggression of warrior Leela (Louise Jameson), whose feminist appeal was inevitably undermined by her notoriously skimpy leather costume. Sarah Jane – or just plain Sarah as Tom Baker’s Doctor usually called her – exhibited both Leela’s toughness and Jo’s vulnerability. It was a practical combination for the show’s scriptwriters, as it meant she was brave enough to wander off on an alien planet, but prone enough to abduction to provide the Doctor with heroic opportunities.

So while Sarah Jane had her share of screaming companion moments, this was balanced by her daring and defiance, even when in danger. She was independent, chirpy and a little chippy. Sladen, described as “ferociously talented” by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was skilled at controlled tremulousness and the kind of wide-eyed curiosity that blends into panic when confronted with evil.

Towards the end of her tenure, the character’s status as inquisitive reporter gave way to a more passive function, reflected in her softer styling. Sarah Jane was granted a wardrobe of Seventies fabulousness, with Christmassy jumpers, wide-collared shirts and sleeved floral dresses that would sell out in Topshop today. An Andy Pandy get-up in The Hand of Fear is probably best forgotten, but a pink nautical-themed trouser suit in The Android Invasion was a classic against the odds, while the hooded yellow raincoat in which she wanders around the planet Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks is sci-fi’s contribution to festival fashion.

I watched these episodes as a child when they were repeated in the 1980s on the satellite novelty known as Super Channel. Having waited two decades to see Sarah Jane again, her return in the 2006 episode School Reunion was brimful of the kind of emotion that only the trigger of childhood memories can produce. I like to think that the tenth Doctor, David Tennant, is not acting, but channelling his own fan-boy memories as he joyously greets Sarah Jane, who we learn is still an investigative journalist and still vocal when it comes to gender politics.

“You can tell you’re getting older. Your assistants are getting younger,” she says when introduced to companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Sarah Jane glumly suggests that she has found it difficult coping with life on Earth after her “taste of that splendour” in the Doctor’s Tardis. The Doctor, meanwhile, implies he didn’t come back for her all those years ago because his Time Lord lifespan is so much longer than that of humans, hinting at the unbearable sense of loss that comes from outliving those you love.

It was this appearance in School Reunion (written by Toby Whithouse) that reignited affection for Sarah Jane and prompted the commission of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a kids’ show in which she leads a band of teenagers through various perilous encounters with alien foes. The status of her character as wise matriarch stood out at a time when the BBC was attracting increasing amounts of flak for “disappearing” older women from our screens – another reason why Sladen’s contribution to television should be celebrated.

“It is not logical that you should feel sorrow,” says the robot to Sarah Jane in a 1974 story called, er, Robot. And yet I, like many fans of Doctor Who, just do. The fairy tale continues this Saturday, however, when the opening episode of its 32nd season looks set to be dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen.

Laura Slattery is a journalist with The Irish Times, where she hides down the back of the newsroom and blogs about commerce and current affairs at http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/theindex. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraSlattery


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Orla Shanaghy asks why, when it comes to gender issues, Irish telly is still in black and white….

It was with great reluctance that I turned on my TV last night to watch the latest episode of RTE’s The Frontline. Not because I wasn’t interested in the topics (I was), or because Pat Kenny and John Waters don’t irritate me (they do). I am always reluctant to tune in to The Frontline and other current affairs discussion programs like it because their false-dichotomy format makes me physically squirm.

Pat's Chat

Take last night’s program, titled “Do women need a quota to get ahead in business and politics?” As the producers clearly recognise, there is no better vehicle for a good false dichotomy and the ensuing media-friendly spat than a gender-related issue.

In the arena sat, on the “men’s” side, John Waters, prominent advocate of men’s rights. On the supposedly opposing, “women’s” side, sat Camille Loftus of the National Women’s Council. The audience speakers had, as always, been selected on the basis of which “side” of the “argument” they stood. Pat Kenny as facilitator did excellently what he is paid to do: ensuring that the debate never strayed far from black-versus-white. For example, he lead in to the first audience speaker, Crumlin youth worker Jody Garry, with “The whole business of ‘It’s a man’s world – oh no it’s not…’”. When Rosemary McCabe, also in the audience, made a deceptively simple and hugely important point, stating “I don’t really understand why we can’t all just be human together”, Pat did his best to pull things back to dichotomy territory with a cringingly simplistic remark on “the feminist lobby”.

Clearly, it is the purpose of programs like The Frontline to present a topic in a way that engaged and sustains viewers’ attention. The black-versus-white format works well in this context. However, this format is seriously damaging when it comes to issues as complex as the under-representation of women in public life. How many viewers watched the credits roll after last night’s program believing that they had listened to a serious debate and feeling that they had gained a more rounded perspective on this issue? Several, I am sure, as The Frontline presents itself as a serious, analytical program and is widely regarded as such.

Sadly, despite the excellence of the individual participants, what we saw last night on The Frontline was an over-simplified, tabloid-style representation of the issue that does justice to nothing and nobody: black versus white, women versus men. Sad, and ironic too, because one thing that unwittingly emerged from the program was that issues such as the lack of formal paternity leave and the gender pay gap, as referred to by Jody Garry, affect everyone, not just one gender or the other. Fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave, so their partners are obliged to shoulder more of the childcare responsibilities, which reduces women’s ability to participate in the workforce, which means that women’s economic contribution to society appears to be less than men’s, which reinforces a perception of men primarily as breadwinners and producers of economic output, which mitigates against anything that takes them out of the workforce for any length of time, with the result that fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave.

This illustration of a perfect circular system that ultimately benefits nobody was there in last night’s program. It was the unacknowledged nub of the whole debate. You just had to look very, very hard to find it.

If the format had been one that facilitates nuanced debate and shades of grey – such as allowing speakers to avoid coming down completely on one side or the other – this holistic view of the issue could have come to the fore. It would then be possible to move the discussion to the next level of “What can we do about it?”

As it was, the battle-lines remained clearly drawn, chests were beaten, everyone got their say, and the status quo remained firmly in place. As long as the dualism-based format continues to be the dominant one in current affairs programs, the nubs of many important arguments will continue to go unacknowledged on the airwaves.

Orla Shanaghy is a native of Waterford where she lives and works. Her work has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany and Lyric FM’s Sunday Serenade. She has also been published in The Stinging Fly magazine and in the forthcoming The Sunday Miscellany Anthology 2008-2011. Orla blogs at curmumgeon.wordpress.com.

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Rosita Sweetman

Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. She has published three books, On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland.

Chupi Sweetman-Pell

Rosita’s daughter, Chupi Sweetman-Pell, is a food writer and fashion designer, author of What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything: The Complete Allergy Cookbook. She sells her main fashion line, Chupi, through Topshop and at the The Loft Market.

What’s the first record you ever bought?
Rosita: The Beatles, ‘Love, Love me Do’
Chupi: The Streets of Philadelphia, the single, on cassette – for my Mum

What’s your favourite smell?
R: Coffee
C: Fresh Basil leaves and tomato plants.

Have you ever had a nickname?
R: My dear bro, Roger, nick-named me Zebo, which turned into Zibb :)
C: No. No need!

What is your favourite room in your house?
R: The kitchen – with family, friends, food.
C: The kitchen! Where else can you eat?

What are your guilty pleasures?
R: Sorry, can’t divulge, too guilty.
C: Cheese, chocolate, all food related things.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
R: That I’m a closet exhibitionist?
C: I’m not actually a nice person :)

Who is your closest female friend?
R: Ooooooo that’s a hard one. If I choose one the others will be horribly hurt. Love all my female friends dearly.
C: Lydia.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
R: Ears. Done millennia ago in boarding school, with safety-pin, (the Child of Mary medal pin was too blunt).
C: Got navel pierced at 16 but took it out at 21 (it had reached its sell by date).

Where would you most like to live?
R: In a yellow submarine.
C: Don’t think the where is very important, it’s more the who with.

Who was your first kiss and where did it happen?
R: With MG, in the orchard. Hot and salty – we’d been swimming.
C: A guy called Ciaran. In Dunlavin, Co. Wicklow. (He’s since emigrated :))

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
R: Does that hurt?
C: The last one!

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
R: My children, Chupi and Luke. Nothing Compares to Them x
C: Yardi, my corgi, when I was ten.

What is your favourite word?
R: It was really Luke Kelly’s favourite word: Un-be-fucking-lievable. Kind of suits the times that are in it…
C: F**k!

Who was your first love?
R: Michael G. We were 10 and knew everything (little horrors that we were).
C: Brian :)

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
R: A ballerina. No, that’s a joke. How about a member of the Arts Council so I could torture penniless writers?
C: Someone who does cooking and eating and writing – full time.

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
R: Edna O Brien’s barely known but absolutely wonderful biography of James Joyce. Everyone I’ve bought it for, including artist Barrie Cooke, adores it.
C: I’ve mostly given cookbooks; lots of my own, What To Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook, Plenty.

What happens after we die?
R: It’s the Big Secret, isn’t it?
C: The people who love us remember us.

What female historical figure do you admire most?
R: Grainne Uaile was pretty cool. I love the story of her marching, bare breasted, into Queen Elizabeth 1st’s court. Attitude is everything.
C: None that I can think of.

Sum yourself up in three words:
R: Female. Mum. Hungry!
C: Impatient. Demanding. Enthusiastic. (and Hungry!)

And finally…What are you anti? What are you pro?
R: Pro the young, the old and the in-betweeners. Anti bullshite in all its myriad forms; particularly my own.
C: Oh God, how much time have you got? Anti ignorance – where education has been an option, and laziness, and religion. Am pro eating, love and friends :)

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