Archive for February, 2011

My little lad is a huge fan of Lego. In fairness who isn’t? Although our house is overrun with the stuff and I’ve sustained multiple injuries by standing on various sharp little pieces in my bare feet, I love it too. It’s an excellent, durable, creative toy and has given him, and consequently us, hours and hours of pleasure for several years now.

Lately he’s been wary about showing me his most recent purchases – a series of top quality, mystery mini figures that come in sealed packages and are well within pocket money range. “Great idea”, you say. “Yes”, I agree BUT my objection is that in a world where half of us are women these cute little figures are overwhelmingly male. I know I may well be accused of carrying feminist thinking to its extremes in this instance but hey you have to get ‘em young! What does everyone else think? Is this merely coincidence, a non-issue, or yet another example of marginalisation? At less than 20% representation for women are they merely reflecting real life? Yes, I know I should lighten up (before anyone says it) but the pervasive invisibility gets me down.

Series 1

Look at them. Aren’t they cute! Amongst the first 16 the girls get to be nurses and cheerleaders. The boys have a lot more choice and can be zombies, magicians, clowns, deep sea divers, forest men, ninjas, spacemen, wrestlers, tribal hunters, cowboys, demolition dummies and cavemen. Even the robot is referred to as “he”.

Series 2

Things are improving. Next 16 figures and the girls get to be lifeguards (a la Baywatch), pop stars and witches. The men get to be explorers, karate masters, maraca men, mime artists, traffic cops, pharaohs, ringmasters, skiers, Spartan warriors, vampires, surfers, weightlifters and disco dudes.

Series 3

By now my lad has taken to hiding them from me. In the latest series the girls get to be tennis players, hula dancers and snow boarders. The men get to be samurai warriors, sumo wrestlers, rappers, fishermen, tribal chiefs, elves, race car drivers, pilots, baseball players, mummies (the bandaged variety), space villains and gorilla suit guys. The alien is not assigned a gender so perhaps we can claim her too!

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Meryl Streep as Silkwood

Since 1998, a significant number of Academy Award nominee and winning performances by women have gone to those in biographical productions.  Previously, the occasional movie about real-life women such as Norma Rae, Coal Miner’s Daughter or Silkwood garnered critical praise and ticket sales,yet for more than a decade, the biopic has been virtually the lone show in town for women in front of the camera or in line at the box office.  Only twice in more than a dozen years has there been an Oscar season free of the biopic represented in the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories: 2008 and the present 2010.  Otherwise, winners and nominees have included features such as

1998: Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II in Shakespeare in Love

1999: Hilary Swank won Best Actress as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (Chloe Sevigny was nominated for a supporting role in the film)

2000: Julia Roberts won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich while Marcia Gay Harden took home the Supporting award for her turn as Lee Krasner in Pollock

2001: Jennifer Connolly won Best Supporting Actress for playing Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

Judi Dench was nominated for Best Actress for playing Iris Murdoch in Iris; Kate Winslet was nominated in the Supporting category for playing the younger Iris.

2002: Nicole Kidman claimed Best Actress as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Salma Hayek was nominated in the same category for playing Frida Kahlo.

2003: Charlize Theron won Best Actress playing the role of Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

2004: Cate Blanchett awarded Best Supporting Actress as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.

Laura Linney nominated in the same category for playing the wife Clara in Kinsey.

2005: Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

Catherine Keener nominated in the Supporting category for playing Harper Lee in Capote.

2006:  Helen Mirren won Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen.

2007: Marion Cotillard won Best Actress as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

Cate Blanchett nominated for a Supporting role playing Queen Elizabeth I

2009: Sandra Bullock won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Touhy in The Blind Side

Helen Mirren (as Sofya Tolstoy) and Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) were nominated in the same category.

That’s quite the glut of prizes offered to women for playing biographical characters.  What should audiences make of the critical darlings of the last dozen years?  Do the tastemakers reserve their regard for famous ladies?  What was once a field of Hookers-Victims-Doormats, as Shirley MacLaine noted in a gimlet-eyed view of the roles for women in the movie industry, now seems overrun by a new trio made up of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks locked into a biopic.  Each one of the award-winning & nominated characters I’ve listed fits into one of the three boilerplate roles for women.  It may be a step up from the original three MacLaine identified, but holy crap, it’s not enough of an artistic treatment for the scope of women’s lived experience.  While the biopic trend spread to roles for men, those actors had multiple years where it was not the case, and plus, there’s never been an imaginative block for writers which prevented the realisation of compelling fictional characters for men to play.

This Sunday, for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, we can celebrate a refreshing change in roles available for women, especially in the race for the leading role.  This is the first year in recent memory to boast an absence of Hooker-Victim-Doormat standbys, or the biopic formula of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks of recent fashion.  This year we have two interpretations of a rare female archetype on film: The Fighter.  A fighter exhibits traits that are usually attributed to men, such as determination, courage, fearlessness, ambition and a single-minded pursuit of goals.  The female fighter has roots in Hollywood which extend at least far back as Joan Crawford’s award-winning turn as the titular Mildred Pierce in 1945.  She played one of the first women onscreen to have large-scale ambitions beyond the standard trope of getting a man or revenge.  Mildred worked her ass off as a self-made business woman.  She overlooked meals, sleep and social censure in the struggle to establish herself outside poverty.  Despite a bitch of a daughter and an inconstant man, Mildred survived by her own wit, energy and application.  She’s the original fighter.

This type of female character appeared again in 1950, when Judy Holliday won Best Actress in her role as Billie Dawn

Today's female fighter: Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone

in Born Yesterday.  Billie grew from gun moll to educated citizen; another chrysalis within muliebrity, like Mildred, a woman who moves outside of a relationship dependent upon men.  Folks cite the birth of the Second Wave with Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, when the possibility for a feminist genesis seems just as likely through Judy Holliday’s performance onscreen thirteen years earlier.  We also witness shades of the fighter during the 1950 Oscars in All About Eve, with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter nominated in the same leading actress category.  There have been several other notable versions of the lady fighter onscreen.  At least half of the roles Elizabeth Taylor took from the mid-50s through the next decade could be classified as such.  Barbara Streisand’s Katie was one in 1973’s The Way We Were.  She gives up her goy dreamboat for social activism.  Shirley MacLaine won for playing a formidable fighter in Terms of Endearment in 1983 in a standout performance.  Who doubted she would have popped one of those nurses for a delay with her daughter’s morphine?  Sigourney Weaver was nominated in ’86 in her second turn as Ellen Ripley, a badass fighter if ever there was one.  Whoopi Goldberg earned the nomination for Best Actress for The Color Purple as Celie, a woman who advanced from doormat to fighter when she gained the courage to curse an abusive husband and open a shop by the wit of her needle.

This year adds to the company of female fighters on celluloid in nominations for the lead actress category. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone exhibit the crux of the fighter archetype.  My vote was torn between the two actors for the first time in memory, because usually there’s no hesitation for who’s earned the golden statue.  Each woman is a fighter, a fully drawn character, a force of ambition with the will to achieve.   Nina Sayers battles self-doubt, anxiety, physical deprivation and competition in order to realise her dream centre stage in the dual roles of Swan Lake.  Ree Dolly contends with poverty, cross-generational divides, physical deprivation, demands as sole care-giver for her family and a drug-ravaged culture of silence in order to survive.  Each character stands up to punishment by right of her own vision and ambition to carry on.  Even better, these fighters break the stereotypes attached to either the vainglorious diva ballerina or depictions of impoverished women as dim or slutty.

I say hurrah for each character and performance.  Here’s hoping audiences are treated to more imaginative ladies who channel truth to the marrow.

And screw the Marky Mark version.

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There’s an interesting new interview with Kathleen Lynch over on Mediabite, in which the UCD Professor of Equality Studies

Professor Kathleen Lynch

discusses inequality in Ireland, her treatment on Tonight with Vincent Browne, and why some female politicians are so scared of feminism. Here’s a taster:

What do you think are the main obstacles to gender equality in Ireland and would you agree that Ireland still has a deeply chauvinist culture and that this too is a major factor underpinning the meek acceptance of gross injustice as a solution to what is essentially a crisis of and by the richest people?

KL: Ireland has an extremely chauvinist culture. I travel abroad a lot – in Northern Europe and have a lot of contacts outside the country. I have been a Visiting Professor and I work with many people in Germany and in France – which isn’t exactly devoid of sexism either. I also work in Brussels. I would say that we are going backwards because in terms of political representation it is self evident. We have only 16%. The two main parties have only 15% each and it’s almost nothing. The smaller parties have more. I think there are so many factors at play. Women are too polite. We have been socialised not to offend as women – don’t be too strident, don’t be too this or that. I suppose the backlash that you mention when I raised things that people don’t want to hear is one of the reasons that women will not put themselves forward because they are abused in a different way than men are abused. Men are abused for their ideas but they are not abused in terms of their appearance in the media if they dissent. Women are subjected to sexualised abuse. I think the political class in our society has no interest in this issue and women have not been resistant. We have been too conciliatory and accepting. My view is we should have marches on the Dáil – we should sit down in the middle of Dublin and stay there until something changes. We have no proper childcare, we have no infrastructure. Quebec in Canada has a very successful, non-profit childcare system because the women went out there and organised it. The Irish Women’s Council has no money, for example. There is no-one to organise it here. There have been all kinds of backlashes in the media against women who have dissented. The have actually been called nazis – or ‘feminazis’. A lot of women are afraid of that kind of abuse and it’s a form of violence against women that is accepted in Ireland.

MC: Lucinda Creighton recently felt the necessity to preface something she said with the qualifier “I’m no crazed feminist but…” – as if it would be a terrible thing to be thought of as a feminist.

KL: There are lots of sociological reasons that can explain that but if you have a young woman going into politics who is so fearful of that, what will she ever do? If she can’t defend herself as a woman, I’d be worried about what she will ever defend. You have to stand up for what you believe in and women are not equal to men in this country. For many, many years we have had second class citizenship. I’m not saying that I want a whole group of middle class women coming into politics. I’ve always said this – if we want gender balance we want it of men and women from different backgrounds which I think is as big an issue as gender. There is research from Norway and from a number of countries where they have gender balance, relatively speaking i.e. 40% and which shows that even women from conservative parties actually promote health, education and social welfare. It’s because they are closer to the vulnerable in society. It isn’t because women are morally superior to men – I would never say that, I think that’s nonsense. Or that men can’t care for children as well as women – of course they can. But because of the way our society is, women are the primary carers and a lot of the vulnerable people in society are cared for by women most of the time. Therefore policies that affect the vulnerable are more visible to women and they are more likely to vote for policies that are supportive of childcare, disability, healthcare and education. That is a simple empirical fact – observable from countries that have large numbers of women in their parliaments. I believe we will never get women in politics in sufficient numbers in this country without some sort of a quota system.

MC: I’ve argued before that in any other circumstance where you have such an obvious imbalance or social lack it’s only natural for some sort of remedial action to be taken to restore the situation to health.

KL: We need only have it for a period of time to overcome the problem, otherwise it’s not going to happen.

MC: And yet very disappointingly women in the Dáil – over half of them – are saying they are against gender quotas.

KL: Well you only have to look at who they are, a lot of them. Many of the women who succeed in politics in this country have family associations in politics and they get selected on the basis of their family connections – and that in my view is a form of a quota. They have already benefited from the family quota and they should remember that. And many of the others have benefited from their money. I’m sorry, but there are some women with wealthy backgrounds and that has greatly helped them. You’ve probably been to privileged schools and enjoyed all the privileges of your class and therefore of course you don’t need a quota because you belong to the privileged upper middle class. So bully for you! The vast majority of women do not. Any woman from a poor community down the country hasn’t a hope.

You can read the whole interview here.

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We did late dockets in our secondary school. There are variations elsewhere, I know – late slips (why dockets in ours, I’m not sure, unless it was along the lines of the ‘shifts’ in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and they feared revolt amongst the demure young ladies of the school), black marks, late marks, points, minus points, demerits, order marks for your form (though I think that one might have only existed in the land of Enid Blyton). The trick was to be let off the hook by the receptionist, pleading some kind of crisis – or to sneak past if she was away from the front desk for a moment.

Of course, despite the late docket – the proof that you’d already been chastised, reprimanded, and had clocked up one more mark against yourself – some of the teachers would still frown and demand an explanation. Parents were often blamed, especially in those pre-Junior Cert years when they could be held responsible for so many things, before the Leaving Cert era of ‘it’s your future – it’s up to you’. Others, conscious of limited time in the classroom, skipped over such things and moved on with the class. If you accumulated enough of these dockets, you received the particularly apt punishment of early morning detention – an hour before school began on Friday morning.

It was understood that being late was something to be avoided, but as the years crept by it mattered less. A couple of the girls in the school had their own cars, and could talk about traffic and/or car trouble in terribly grown-up terms as they stood in their crest-adorned jumper and pleated skirt explaining why they were late. It started seeming like something ridiculous, to be given out for being late. As the exams drew closer it became more common to arrive after a first class had ended, if it wasn’t a favourite. For the exams themselves, of course, we were on time, there was no question about that – and if parents had been lax or treating their offspring like responsible human beings during the year, they were taking no chances with the almighty Leaving Cert.

In college, that great world of freedom beyond the walls of uptight schools, it was possible to skip classes entirely (depending on one’s course and institution, of course), and certainly it was inevitable that the first seven minutes of any lecture would be punctuated with shuffling latecomers finding a space – sometimes including the lecturer themselves. If you were meeting someone for coffee, the text message to let you know they’d been delayed was a not-uncommon experience. And then out in the alleged real world it was more of the same – I’ve never been to a talk that’s started at its designated time, never known a concert or stand-up comedy routine to begin anywhere close to the ‘show’ time on a ticket. Theatres are usually a little bit better – I was at the Gate recently and there were apologies to the audience for being kept waiting three minutes. People looked at their watches in bewilderment.

It is, of course, considered something of a social faux-pas to arrive at someone’s house within half an hour of the given time, unless food is being served. And if you’re meeting people for pints, unless it’s within ten minutes of their workplace and their designated workday, you’d be a fool to turn up on time. I’ve done more than my fair share of sitting at the bar, looking intently at my phone, trying to exude an air of aloofness rather than desperation, wondering why seven o’clock really means half-past eight and whether this should be something taught in schools when they’re teaching you how to read the time.

At work meetings and other engagements one is generally expected to arrive on time, but not early, and in fact it’s often proof of one’s busyness and importance if you’re late – so many people to see, so many things to sort out, so little time! I remember adults always seeming very busy, very busy indeed, when I was growing up, but I wonder whether it’s worse now – with the various things to occupy us (we need to keep up with our email, with our phone, with what the Internet is saying, now now now now) and various ways of letting people know that we will be delayed.

At twenty-five I see myself slipping into it more and more – the feeling that actually it isn’t worth apologising for being five minutes late, because no one else does. How terribly childish and schoolgirlish – no one’s going to hand out a late docket, we’re so beyond that. Turning up on time doesn’t mark you as an organised person – it’s an indicator of how little else you must have to do, what a leisurely life you must lead. Aren’t we all too busy to remember that there’s always traffic this time of day, or that we meant to get back to someone? Deadlines? Prioritise, bargain your way to extensions, plead whatever you need to – it’s just what has to be done. Who bothers praising punctuality? That’s one of the things in a reference that means they don’t have anything else to say, isn’t it?

But I do wonder – if we all had some equivalent to that early-morning detention, that needing to reorganise our schedule, no excuses, so that we absolutely simply had to be somewhere well before a time that had consistently proved such a hardship – what would happen.

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Last Wednesday evening, around tea time, my daughter grew about three inches.

Growth spurts are bad news in our house because they inevitably mean the sudden relegation of an entire wardrobe to the charity bag. Then, only when there is one outfit, peering sad and lonely from a rail of empty hangers, do we admit the terrible truth. She needs more clothes.

Any colour, as long as it's pink...

If I was made of money, I’d only ever shop at Boden, from the comfort of my own sofa, accompanied by music I love and a glass of good champagne, but I should probably pay the bills this month, so we are forced to supplement the Boden buying with that dreaded place – the High Street.

What I hadn’t accounted for was how much more of an ordeal shopping would become now my daughter is about to hit the grand old age of ten. The problem is, she has no idea what JLS stands for, prefers Oliver! to High School Musical and has the audacity to listen to Indigo Girls and Seth Lakeman rather than Hannah Montana or Justin Bieber.

Until we hit the shops, I had no idea how many shades of pink existed in the world. From angelic off-white pink (clearly for girls who never eat ketchup) to the garish colour borrowed from the latest chick-lit best seller.

‘It’s not that I hate pink,’ my daughter informs me in the very first shop we descend upon. ‘It’s just that pink is for pyjamas.’

What about a sensible pair of blue jeans, then? A safe bet, you would think. Yet why do manufacturers impose the proportions of a woman’s size eight on young girls? Hipsters. At this age they do not have the hips to hold them up; ‘Skinny’ jeans. Now, there’s a body shape to desire! Blood circulation to the ankles is just so overrated, darling.

Probably the best of this bilious bunch are certain high street stores who cannot help but to ensure their shop logo glares back at us from the front of every item of clothing (we all know the culprits) If my daughter must be employed as a walking billboard, then is it too much to ask that we are at least offered a free outfit and a contribution to the college fund?

In the final shop, a girl, probably about seven, clonks past trying on a pair of heels and I grow all misty eyed over an off the shoulder number, with the word BABE spelled out in diamanté studs. Oh, the top has a point. It was surely only last week my bundle of joy stared up from my arms, cushioned by the promise of a whole drawer’s worth of teddy bear rompers to chose from … Yet, something tells me this isn’t what the top means, not what it means at all.

A laugh from beside me. ‘Mum, I’ve found something!’

She yanks a top from the rail and holds it up; ‘I HEART SHOPPING!’ the top screams.

You see, if not following the crowd has taught her anything, it has certainly taught her irony.

Tonight, when she is asleep, I’ll sneak up to her room to steal her sole trusty outfit from the floor; a good old Amy Ray youth t-shirt and a pair of currently unavailable M&S magic jeans that grow with her. I’ll pop them in the washing machine and if I hang them on the radiator they will dry by the time she gets in from school tomorrow.

And by the way, I’ve decided I prefer laundry to shopping any day.

Amanda Dixie works in a library and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She lives in Glastonbury and dreams of one day owning a pair of goats. She tweets at @MrsPelephant.

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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Today, there’s much fanfare about the discovery of a new Enid Blyton book. Jolly good, says a nostalgic generation, including me, who loved Blyton’s books as a child. That said, it’s hard to look at them now through the prism of “isms”s – sexism, racism and classism, even if they are of their time. Mr. Tumpy’s Caravan tells the story of an anthropomorphic caravan who, in a fit of wanderlust, goes off on an adventure and – hopefully – doesn’t encounter any evil gypsies on his travels.

More interestingly, is the recent rediscovery of lost work by another feted female writer. Five stories by Daphne Du Maurier, author of Rebecca, and short story ‘The Birds’ (both immortalised in film by Alfred Hitchcock) have also come to light. One of the stories, ‘The Doll’, sounds not just macabre and psycho-sexual, but way ahead of its time. Written in 1928 (when Du Maurier herself was very young), it’s the story of a man who discovers that the girl he’s in love with, is obsessed with a sex doll. Sex doll, you say? In the upper middle-class 1920s of Du Maurier’s life? There’s an almost prophetic modernity to that. And a bravery. Du Maurier’s books were often dismissed as romance novels with a literary sheen, but ‘The Doll’ reminds us just how much of her work is concerned with the murkier corners of human experience.

The new collection, The Doll, will be published in May by Virago.

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