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Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

My daughter and her all-female class made their First Communions recently. The massed ranks in the church were quite a sight to see. Immaculately coiffed hairdos, amazingly stylish frocks, even a few fake tans.

Yes, the mothers looked stunning. Of course all the little Communicants were beautiful, and they could never be overshadowed by their Mums on their special day. But it has to be said, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Once I had my gúna purchased, I had thought my own preparations were more or less complete. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, sartorial and cosmetic arrangements were the talk of the playground. Who was wearing what, were the blowdry appointments booked, would the few pounds be shed and had the right shoes and jacket been located?

In spite of myself, I gradually found myself being swept along by all this.

A life-long hater of fake tan, I cautiously purchased a bottle of moisturiser which promised a hint of built-in tint. I slapped it on for a few days and fretted about smelling like a biscuit or ending up with orange palms and elbows. As it turned out, I’d been too cautious; the light shade I had chosen made no discernible difference to my skin colour. I did emit a slight biscuitty fragrance though.

I also bought slightly higher-than-normal-for-me shoes (with wedge heel to enable me to walk) even though I’m not that fussed about shoes. I had the eyebrows threaded. I booked a professional blowdry for my very easy to maintain hair.

I realised I was losing it when, seized by a last-minute anxiety about being out-glammed in the church, I began desperately experimenting with different make-up the day before the Communion. Confronted by the slightly scary results in the bathroom mirror, I told myself to get a grip. After all, it wasn’t about me.

Well, we all love dressing up, don't we?

The maternal glamour quotient was extremely high the next morning –  noticeably higher than at my son’s Communion four years ago – and I was glad I’d made the extra effort. Though I did wonder who we were all trying to impress. Each other? The viewers of the family photos in years to come? Was it significant that it was our daughters making their Communions – were we subconsciously trying to compete with them? Surely not.

Of course, on the day our daughters were the stars of the show. Every parent’s heart was full of pride as the girls sang their well rehearsed hymns, brought up gifts and did readings. Whatever your feelings about the First Communion ritual (and stepping back from it a little, the white dresses and the cash gifts are a bit odd really) it was difficult not to be moved by the innocent seriousness with which they took it all.

A wonderful day – and the photos turned out well. Phew.

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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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A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going –  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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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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This is a small rant, or maybe it’s not really a rant but an appeal. I was at the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland meeting titled ‘Women in the Media, Not’ and it was generally brilliant. There was an initiative to encourage radio and television producers to air more women, including an innovative list of possible experts in a wide range of areas so that the old excuse of ‘there are no women’ would not hold up. However a big element of the conference seemed to be to encourage women to say yes! if they are asked to give their opinion on any subject, as hesitation and unavailability are the real enemy to female participation in the media. A very encouraging and motivational atmosphere so far, the underlying message seemed to be that individual women had to take some responsibility for being out of the limelight, and increased exposure of any description is good for all women and especially girls who are used to taking a back seat.

However, one member of the panel got up to speak and revealed that a year ago she had been handed her ideal once-in-a-lifetime job. As editor of a newly launching news website she was being given creative and directional control, and full respect and power, by her financial backers, the only reservation she had going in was her two young children. She then rather painfully revealed that she had decided to give up this position, which she admitted to loving and being good at, as she could no longer cope with the responsibility of motherhood and a more-than full-time job. I say ‘painfully’, as the decision was still raw and the language she used to describe her obligation to her children was of guilt for neglecting them and uncomfortableness with leaving her children in substandard childcare (being unable to afford a more stable solution). I did not know what I expected after such a statement, but I’m still in shock over what did happen. Over the course of the conference audience members were allowed to talk and shortly one women rose to say she supported this journalist fully and that motherhood was the most important function of women and the youngest years were the most formative yadda yadda yadda and then someone else at the back concurred. Susan McKay as chair did emphasise that the NWCI supported all women, no matter their position, yet the one voice suggesting mothers and fathers be joint parents was lost.
Now, I do not know this journalist or her husband’s profession, and it’s none of my business personally how she arranges her work and childcare, but I was dissatisfied with the response from the room full of experienced worldly women. I realise now that I expected genuine sympathy for this journalist, and anger that she has all the opportunities in the world and is unable to take advantage of them. At a conference detailing the lack of women available to talk on radio, or appear on television, or write, we did not lament this loss of one more fiery journalist.
Parenthood is great, I’m sure and people do find it fulfilling, but in Ireland it is also a trap. By elevating expensive childcare out of reach of the poorer classes we denigrate their struggles as working parents and by elevating motherhood over parenthood, or any ‘other one versus the other’ mentality we will always feel guilty over our choices. That is another argument. This argument is: where is the anger? It may be an unanswerable question for the women’s movement, but that does not mean we should feel helpless. Why is no one else angry that this accomplished, intelligent woman has to sacrifice her dream job because she simply cannot juggle anymore? So I will say it now, to this woman. I am genuinely sorry that she had to give up a position that had obviously brought her much joy and professional satisfaction. I understand that she wanted to give her children the best childhood possible and I hope that they appreciate all that she does for them. I also hope that in the future there are more options available.
Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller is an Irish-Trinidadian artist studying Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of  her work will be shown as part of the ‘Queer as Political’ art exhibition in Cork opening on June 3rd at The Other Place.

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By releasing his birth certificate last month, Barack Obama was hoping to silence the ‘birthers’ who’ve been blabbing on about his place of birth for years. The image of his live birth certificate was instantly picked up by the media and bloggers. I happened upon it on some website and wanted to take a closer look. My eyes scanned down the page – yes, he was born on American soil. Case closed. But then I spotted a detail about his mother. I probably knew this before but I either forgot or never really took it in at the time. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (Anna), was 18 when he was born.

I suppose I was struck first by the fact that Anna was so young when she had him and she went on to create a stable environment for her son and herself. You could say this mother did good – to have her son go on to become the President of the United States, be such a role model to millions of people and become a good father to his two daughters.

The other aspect, of course, is that Anna was a white woman who had a child with a black Kenyan man. The year, in case you forget, was 1961. Mixed race relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time – it couldn’t have been the easiest of environments for Anna to raise her child (although the family did move to Indonesia for a while and Barack lived in the more multi-cultural Hawaii during his teenage years).

But then again, from all reports, Anna was always a woman who marched to her own beat. She was smart, did well in school, was interested in culture and hung out with a crowd of liberals who read Sartre and Marx. She started classes at the University of Hawaii, which is where she met graduate student Obama Senior – he was seven years older than her. When she fell pregnant, the two married but it wasn’t to last long. They divorced in early 1964 and Anna went on to re-marry the next year.

I suppose what is most admirable about Anna is the fact that as well as bringing up the young Barack, she completed her degree and went on to become a leading light in the field of anthropology. She also devoted a lot of her time to human rights, women’s rights and helped support small industries, particularly those in rural areas of Indonesia.

Sadly, she died at a young age – just 52. She died within a year of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995. A film on her life is in the works and Barack Obama has expressed, on many occasions and through his writings, his profound respect and love for his mother. While the eyes of the world have been on that all-important birthplace on a birth certificate, Anna also has her presence on that document. The 18-year-old college student without a clue of what the rest of her life would be or what her son’s life would go on to be.

Lisa Jewell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who writes mostly on health, lifestyle and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaJewelldub.

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Came across this project when someone tweeted about it recently: the Look At Me! project. Based at the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield, it aims to harness the power of the creative arts to transform the way society views older women.

This project uses a variety of visual methods to enable older women in Sheffield to represent their own experiences of ageing.

Useful? Interesting? Any thoughts?

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Get your body beach ready! Get your bikini body now!
What? Why? My body IS beach ready thank-you, lumps, pale skin, wobbly bits and all. I just want to swim, not to enter Ms South Beach. I’m not going out there to titillate the surfers. I simply want to build an enormous moat with the kids, skim perfect pebbles, and maybe look for interesting critters in the rock pools.
What I do want though is a new swimsuit. No, actually I want genuine fullblown swimming costumery, preferably Victorian, something that ends at my knees, that blooms over my bumps, that shovels up the ole boobs into a grand shelf and hides at least some of my sins.
I want to be comfortable.
I want it in stripes.
I want.

What I really want (from a 1950s Vogue photo shoot) only in Lycra, with support panels please.

I suspect Nigella Lawson wanted the very same when she tossed her languid, luscious self into the ocean off Australia dressed from head-to-toe (quite literally) in a startlingly unflattering black burqini. You’ve seen the photos taken by the paparazzi she was doubtless trying to avoid: our lovely Nigella plopped about in the waves looking remarkably like a clumsy sea lion with her button nose and shiny black roundy body, and I sighed in deepest sympathy, along with thousands of women on the curvy-to-morbidly-obese spectrum the world over.
Nigella, I feel your pain. I don’t want to prance about on the beach in the equivalent of Lycra underwear either.

Hold on a sec though: did I say I want a new swimsuit? Actually, I want a swimsuit full stop, with no “new” about it, for I currently don’t own one. Several years of swimwear shopping trauma, changing-room rage and scuttling to the water in baggy T-shirts worn over whatever I can borrow have brought me to this sorry point.
See, swimwear is not made for women like me and Nigella, women with hips and thighs and, dare I say, real-life labia. Swimwear is all bikinis and tankinis, with tummy-tucking ruching and breast-hoiking cups for those jugs, but I have yet to find a cossie for the classic pear: smallish on top but abundant down below. Equally, there’s nothing out there for the Nigellaesque hourglass either, unless she’s a size eight.

Nigella's burqini

The hot-pant style often suggested to us pears simply cuts straight through the meaty hip-thigh circumference like a rubber band, causing the sections above and below the elastic to bulge much like a squeezed balloon. The legs (often dumpy on a pear) are foreshortened, the bum oozes out and the body is often too short (we pears are long-trunked). Trying on a longer body and bigger size means the straps are too long and sad little boobs are left stranded, a couple of floppy fish sagging in spandex.
You can get two-pieces that are meant to do the job, with high-waisted bottoms to marshall the gut and a cute, padded bikini top — handy because two-pieces can be ordered in separate sizes for each half — but again, the bottom cuts straight through the leg at its widest point. There are great 1940s and 50s styled swimsuits out there too, but I just look squat in them all.

So I want a modern take on a Victorian swimsuit, only body-fitted, and with Lycra and support. All my friends want one too. It must end at my knees, lift my boobs, support my tummy and not go transparent when it hits the water. A cute frill (sewn down so it doesn’t billow in the water) or a bit of ruffle is optional. It must fit a size ten on the top and a size twelve… okay… size fourteen at the bottom, with a long body.
I have scoured the internet. The closest I’ve come so far is a picture of a cartoon hippopotamus doing ballet. It’s either that or a wetsuit.

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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It might be that I only became hyper-sensitive about female TV characters after I had my own daughter, but I don’t think so. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t rolling my eyes over the hair-twirling, doe-eyed, boobalicious depictions of female “empowerment” in popular media, but then again, I am a product of The Age Of The Spice Girl (now, I know that it was also The Age Of Grunge, but I wasn’t bombarded with very many images of Courtney Love as I ran the gauntlet of pubescence. Probably just as well, now that I think about it).

Anyway, the message seemed to be that being obnoxiously loud, wearing a Wonderbra, and going out dancing with fourteen other girls was the essence of empowerment, which really got on my nerves, because I didn’t have fourteen girlfriends. It was more than likely the lingering discomfort of this baptism-by-Impulse-body-spray that made me such a cantankerous critic, so when I do come across a brilliant, real, intentionally likeable female character in pop culture media, I tend to expound her merits over-enthusiastically. And it’s not as if there are a shortage of real and likeable female characters on television! There are those who state that TV holds more opportunities for actresses, and they’re probably right.

Most of us have a television. For many of us, the television is on from tea time right through til bedtime. We are bombarded with information through the bloody thing, with a carousel of pretty products and powerful lifestyle options dazzling us every fifteen minutes. The ads themselves are pretty awful in terms of female characterisation – there’s the smug cow who teaches the menfolk how to use a washing machine, or the barely conscious waif offering her bones to the perfume gods. Yet, outside of the commercial breaks, you can find some brilliant ladies on prime-time television, making up, in a big way, for the amount of times I have to explain to my daughter that that’s not Cheryl’s own hair, or that subsisting on two bowls of Special K will make you malnourished rather than vivacious.

Great female characters on television are thick on the ground, but still, I think it’s a fact worth celebrating. So I thought I’d make a list!

I’ve left quite a few out, I know. In some cases I haven’t been familiar enough with the shows in question to add any of their characters, though I’ve heard people wax lyrical about this actress or that role – Mad Men, or Ugly Betty, Damages, etc. I haven’t made room for anyone too ridiculous (Patsy Stone, I love you, but you just ain’t real enough for this), anyone too martyr-like (much as it pains me to turn my back on you, Marge Simpson), or any characters who exist purely as a collection of wisecracks and whose traits change according to a pop culture Hot or Not index (yes, Lois Griffin, I’m looking at you). Nor am I including anyone who you’re not supposed to like or identify with (any of the glorious witches related to Tony Soprano by blood).

I can think of eight off the top of my head, just to get you started. Shall we crack on?


8: Donna Pinciotti – That 70s Show (Laura Prepon)

Oh, gosh, how delicious it was to have Donna Pinciotti as a female lead in a teen sitcom? She’s a outspoken, witty, and intelligent, and … and … a self-professed feminist! And not in any radical, man-hating, ridiculously over-the-top TV comedy way; Donna is self-possessed but never shrew-like, her beliefs and values merely part of who she is, neither a joke nor a burning flag to the audience. And yet, like many of us, she’s betrayed by her insecurities – her big feet, her fear of not being seen as feminine, her worries about her boyfriend’s loyalty. This makes her not only awesome, but real and flawed and very, very loveable. Donna really is a proper arse-kicking Girl Next Door.

7: Calamity Jane – Deadwood (Robin Weigert)

It’s not because Jane is such a tough cookie that I admire her. It’s because she’s such a crumbling cookie. Headstrong and foul-mouthed, she takes her place alongside the boys of Deadwood with an abrasive swagger that barely hides her insecurities, her fear of confrontation, and her heart of gold. Jane spends most of her time in Deadwood spitting and snarling, but we’re never in any doubt that she does so because she’s really not sure how else she’s supposed to fit in. She’s loyal and bright, but I think it’s when she admits to being terrified of Al Swearengen she ceased to be the stereotypical mannish broad and became someone you could really root for. A barrel of complexities and contradictions, constantly at war with herself; how could you not be on her side?

6: Clair Huxtable – The Cosby Show (Phylicia Rashād)

So yeah, Clair Huxtable was, traditionally enough, the feminine voice of reason on The Cosby Show, the calm and collected foil to her eccentric husband Cliff. This would hardly be notable if she wasn’t also professionally successful and devastatingly witty, and Cliff’s equal in every sense. Perhaps she’s not the most empathic character, for being outspoken is no “flaw”, but she’s elegant and fun and you wouldn’t be at all embarrassed about her turning up, all folded arms and raised eyebrows, at the nightclub you weren’t supposed to be at. You’d be terrified, but you wouldn’t be embarrassed. Clair was the original Mom Who Has It All, but unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, she wasn’t an insufferable knob about it.

Here she is being astoundingly awesome, reprimanding her daughter Vanessa for sneaking away to an out-of-town concert.

5: Lois Wilkerson – Malcolm In The Middle  (Jane Kaczmarek)

While Clair Huxtable is admirable for being the Mom Who Has It All, Lois Wilkerson is even more admirable for being The Mom Who Knows She Can’t Have It All But Is Going To Give It A Crazed Shot Anyway. Frazzled disciplinarian is her default setting, but she can’t see any other way to act when she’s mother to five sons and one extremely childish husband. And if frazzled disciplinarian is what she has to be, then by golly, she’s going to do it in the most rambunctious way possible. She’s a hard-working realist who’s far too hot-headed and yes, at times outright tyrannical to ever play victim, and because of this she’s both the heart of the show and the funniest character in it. I don’t wish she was my mother. But who said mothers are supposed to be perfect?

4: Sybil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers (Prunella Scales).

God, I love Sybil. I’ve loved her since I was a wee girl. I think she was my first real ranting inspiration; that scrumptiously scathing dressing-down she gives errant builder O’Reilly is one of the finest monologues ever filmed, I’m sure of it. And yet Sybil is much more than just a sharp-tongued bitch. Yes, she shows very little in the way of affection towards her husband Basil, but you can understand why. She’s extremely hardworking, professional, and self-reliant, much-loved by the guests, her staff, and her social circle; it’s only Basil that can no longer appreciate her for the gem she is. It’s implied that she’s working class, but she strives towards a better life by working hard, not by hanging on to her social superiors like her “aging, Brilliantine stick-insect” husband. The queen of the put-downs? That, and a whole lot more.

3: Claire Dunphy – Modern Family (Julie Bowen)

Claire is … dun dun DUUNNNN … a homemaker. She is a Mammy. That is what she does. But oh Lord, does she do it well. She’s protective of her children (and equally so of her hapless husband Phil), always concerned about making the right decisions for her family’s welfare, always trying to create the perfect home environment. It’s that she fails as often as succeeds that makes her so likeable. I’m not sure if any other contemporary character defines the challenges of modern motherhood quite as brilliantly; there’s a bit of all of us in Claire. She’s a nagging perfectionist who knows it. She’s a vixen who’s often gut-wrenchingly scuppered in her attempts to show it by her husband’s dim-wittedness and her soccer mom status. She’s an intelligent, reasonable woman constantly at odds with the insecure girl she keeps failing to hide from the audience. She is adorable.

2: Fran Katzenjammer – Black Books (Tamsin Greig)

Black Books is an absurd TV show. Bernard staples betting slips to Manny’s hands so he won’t lose them. Manny accidentally ingests The Little Book of Calm and turns alarmingly Messiah-like. But Fran is not as ludicrous as either of her male associates. She’s a very real person in a very strange world and that’s what makes her so bloody fun. Fran is kind, clever, manipulative, sarcastic, resourceful, impatient, unforgiving … the kind of train wreck you hope never, ever changes. She doesn’t settle down with either male lead (although it’s hinted that she had a brief sexual encounter with Bernard that she now won’t allow him to remember). She doesn’t have boyfriend issues (she’d rather just have sex). She doesn’t behave in a manner befitting of a lady; though she frequently tries to infuse her life with more respectability, prettier things, healthier pursuits, she always gives it all up ten minutes later in extreme irritation to return to her boozy, grouchy ways. Which of us can’t identify with that? I must moisturise more often. I must do yoga. I must take up a class. Oh, fuck it, I’ll just have this bottle of Shiraz and bitch with my best friend instead. And I love the fact that her best friend is a straight man on whom she has no designs whatsoever.

1: Turanga Leela – Futurama (Katey Sagal)

Futurama’s Leela is the least cartoony cartoon hero there ever was and probably ever will be. In fact, the only cartoonish thing about her is the fact that she has one eye and … well, was conceived by Matt Groening. Captain of the Planet Express delivery ship, pretty much because she was the only competent person around when her boss was doling out roles, Leela is your typical strong, independent chica – straight-talking, capable, athletic, a literal ass-kicker. She’s also vulnerable. Now, I know that the strong woman who’s also vulnerable is a grating cliché, but what I love about Leela is that she’s never vulnerable enough to stick with a shitty relationship because she’s afraid to be alone. She’s happy to boot a guy to the kerb (again, literally) if he doesn’t share her intrinsic decency; she refused lovelorn, slobbish Fry for years because she knew he wasn’t good enough for her. And for all her straight talking, she still has enough patience with her privileged friend Amy not to kick her into the teeth when she’s being condescending. Oh, and she had pity sex with Zapp Brannigan. And has regretted it horribly ever since. We’ve all been there, love!

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