8 Dec 2014

Women as window dressing

If you're a woman, and especially if you're a feminist, and you object to the way that female bodies and body parts are regularly used as window dressing in films, TV programmes and music videos as well as in advertising, magazines and newspapers, you're likely to be accused, at some point, of being a prude. Of being jealous. Of being anti-sex. It's a quick and easy way to shut down valid complaints - telling someone, "You're boring. You're uptight. You're 'square'." And since in our heavily sexualised culture, women are regularly told that the worst thing they could possibly be is sexually unadventurous, that insult does tend to carry some weight. Still, it won't stop me from identifying the unnecessary, tedious and sexist hijacking of the female body that I see in popular culture around me.
If someone wants to accuse a feminist of being anti-sex, they might not want to pick a polyamorous, sexually active woman who makes no secret of her desire for physical pleasure without the restrictions of monogamous relationships. They might also want to pick a feminist who hasn't just written a book about BDSM and, while researching said book, spent a fair amount of time in kink clubs surrounded by moaning, writhing, sweating individuals, PVC, leather, floggers, chains and spanking benches. They might want to pick a feminist who hasn't written at length about various pursuits of pleasure, including visits to sex shops, why men's violent sexual fantasies are not necessarily a bad thing, casual sex and the female orgasm. If you're going to try and tell me that because I'm tired of bums, boobs and thighs being scattered all across popular culture like autumn leaves after a high wind, that must mean I have a problem with sex itself, you're going to be on a losing streak.

And you might also find yourself on the receiving end of my riding crop.
But I digress.

Last night I was slumped in front of Netflix watching The Dallas Buyers' Club, the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan man who, on discovering he was HIV positive in the mid-80s, went on a quest to get decent treatment (however illegally he had to do it). The film was OK; it went on a bit long. It had an interesting premise, and I learned a bit about how effective treatments for HIV were trialled (sometimes extremely inefficiently, and on the most vulnerable members of society, sadly). The character of Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) was generally pretty dislikeable: selfish, violent, homophobic and largely out for himself, qualities which are not mitigated by the fact that he might have helped a lot of poor, black or gay people extend their lives by giving them access to decent treatment. After all, he only did it to make money, and one does wonder why a film gets made about a white straight man with HIV when everyone knows that the black and gay communities remain the ones disproportionately affected by the condition. Also, does anyone ever mention how it was a woman who pioneered the first successful HIV treatment? Of course not, because those who run the show control whose stories get told. Privilege privilege privilege - twas ever thus.

But what wound me up more than any of this were the unnecessary tits and bum shots included in the film, which added absolutely fuck-all to the storyline. Yes, Ron Woodroof had a lot of sex, and that's how he contracted HIV. The first shot of the film is him having sex. We get the picture. So why do we see various women's boobs and arses but don't even get a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey's nipples? If the inclusion of writhing bodies is meant to signify that Woodroof is promiscuous, then why is it never his body that's shown naked or nearly-naked - only those of women? Women, by the way, who don't even have speaking roles and don't even get named, reducing them to literally naked extras, begging the question of why they need to be included at all?

In my post where I despaired over the totally disappointing nature of Kick Ass II, which reversed all the fantastic feminist good work done by the original Kick Ass movie, I pointed out that people will still - amazingly! - come to see films without the promise of female nudity in them. So why are film makers so timid about ringing the changes and leaving out totally unnecessary shots of the unclothed female body? Why does every film about a "troubled man" still have to include the obligatory strip club scene, and why is the audience always treated to a table dance regardless of whether any of us want to see it or not? I didn't need to see the thong-clad behind of a nameless woman grinding towards Matthew McConaughey for several agonising minutes on my TV screen last night. I would've paid good money not to see it. And I do pay good money to watch Netflix, so why is what I and millions of other women would like to see never a consideration in the minds of pop culture producers? Why does the shitty, objectifying dollar speak louder than the one that would like to see just a few more fecking films that pass the Bechdel test, and a TV screen free of women's bum cracks?

As I observed in the earlier post, perhaps the way the female form is constantly used as window dressing to the "real action" in films, TV and advertising is so prevalent that it "can anaesthetise intelligent, sensitive people to a point where they don't even realise how their art is throwing women under the bus until someone points it out to them." That's maybe the most optimistic possible answer. The worst case answer is that pop culture producers know that what they're making is tedious, objectifying and sexist, but they don't care. Or they actively want it to be that way, to keep women in their places. Yep, Jennifer Garner may be wearing specs and playing an intelligent, fully clothed doctor in The Dallas Buyers' Club, but she's merely the other side of the virgin/whore coin that women are still trapped in by the limiting portrayals that mainstream films offer them. Matthew McConaughey's character gets to run the gamut of emotions and bad behaviour yet remain the hero - the women characters get to be either good or bad girls. The bad girls, of course, are reduced to their bodies and their sex drives and don't have names. The good girl resists the sexual charms of Ron Woodroof and cares for AIDs patients. In terms of progressive portrayals of women, this film might as well have been set in 1885, rather than 1985.

And yet, it could've been improved in a few simple steps.
1) If you're going to show sex scenes, either film equal amounts of both parties' bodies, or don't show them at all.
2) Cut the strip club scene. Not just from this film, but from every film ever. PLEASE. Just ditch this shit. No film actually needs it. We know if a guy's sitting slumped at a bar swigging whiskey, it's a sign he's troubled. That's enough. That'll suffice.
3) Give more than one fecking female character a name.
4) And hey, maybe even have some dialogue between them!

If you're too lazy to do any of those things, then just admit it. Just admit you want to work a bit of soft porn into your film and you have no intention for apologising for it. Just tell us that you do really think of women as either whores or saints, and that's why you can't depict them as anything other. Come out and say that you do think the best way to portray the sleaziness of Ron Woodroof's existence was not to show his naked body humping and covered in sweat, but rather the bodies of the women he had sex with, because they're really the dirty ones. Just tell us. Rather than pointing the finger at me and saying I'm the one with the problem.

Because I don't hate sex, or men, or the women who take their clothes off in a film or on a strip club stage for money. I do, however, hate that the latter options are far too often the only ones offered to women, and that this is propagated by a massive and powerful industry capable of doing so much good, yet which chooses to be lazy, unoriginal and continue to perpetuate the notion that women are unimportant, that they're sluts, that they can either be beautiful or clever, or sexy or good, but never both, never rich and full and flawed and nuanced, and that it's fine to reduce our beautiful, amazing, sexy, pleasure producing-bodies to personality-devoid slices pasted randomly across films like motel wallpaper.

And after watching that film, I think I might even hate Matthew McConaughey a bit.
But give me a few days, and a viewing of A Time To Kill, and I may yet recover ;)

20 Nov 2014

Thinking Kink: The Book! Coming Soon

I'm thrilled to be able to announce that I will be publishing my next book with McFarland Publishers in 2015. The title has been confirmed as "Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture" and the book is based on the "Thinking Kink" blog series that I wrote for Bitch magazine back in 2012.
While it will refer to the blog series and the discussions it spawned, the book is all new material and aims to explore the issues raised by the intersection of kink, popular culture and feminism: three concepts which collided heavily when certain cultural commentators interpreted the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey as evidence that feminism had somehow failed.
Looking at examples of popular culture ranging from episodes of "Friends" to The Story of O, from the lyrics of Alice Cooper to the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and from "The Trailer Park Boys" to "Orange is The New Black", the book  takes on the different tropes that kink is often reduced to, how these are represented in books, TV shows, music and the film industry, and the resulting issues raised for feminists.

Chapter list (provisionally titled):
  • Subversive or Complicit? The Female Dominant 
  • Brave or Pathetic? Masculinity’s Troubled Relationship with the Male Submissive
  • Who’s Vanilla, Who’s Edgy and Why It Matters: The Mainstreaming of Kink 
  • Billionaires, Bullies and Lost Boys: The Male Dominant 
  • Safe Words: BDSM and the Concept of Consent 
  • A Heavy Load to Bear: Feminism and the Submissive Female 
  • Dykes, Daddies and Drag Queens: How BDSM and LGBT people are Portrayed 
  • Consumerism, Switches and Abuse: Different Faces of BDSM
  • Blinding Whiteness? Race and BDSM
I will publicise the release date as soon as I have it, and am looking forward to sharing my latest work with you!

6 Nov 2014

The crazy cat man: single men suffer too

Crazy cat lady. Spinster. Old maid.

Player. Bachelor. Ladies' man.

The difference in the way single men and single women are described is pretty well-established. Although some of the more archaic terms seem to be thankfully dying out, the thinking behind them still seems to be going strong. Single women generally don't clutch their chests and say "Oh God, please don't let me end up an old maid!", but you'll still find plenty of them making self-deprecating jokes about ending up a crazy cat lady, because the idea of an old unmarried woman can never be synonymous with dignity or sanity. We'll save the debate about whether a life spent doing what you want while subject to the adoration of numerous felines is actually infinitely preferable to an existence spent catering to a partner or children for another time, but the point is, female singledom is pitied. Male singledom is not.
And yet, as Zoe Heller wrote in her scathingly well-observed novel Notes on a Scandal, "It is bizarre, really, that spinsterhood is considered the uniquely pathetic destiny, when bachelors are the ones so fatally ill-equipped for a spouseless life." Yes, it's a massive generalisation to say that men are actually the ones who suffer more from being single, but it's something of a necessary observation to make if only to address the deep imbalance at work here: because there is no male equivalent of the crazy cat lady, no dotty dog man, no guy supposedly weeping into his Stella, gorging on Doritos and watching Die Hard every night to make himself feel better about singledom. A few Nick Hornby books and films aside, there is not an entire industry devoted to telling men that what they need is a wife, a baby and some nice shoes to make them complete. There is no implied threat in every beauty product aggressively sold to men that if they don't buy it and keep themselves appealing to the opposite sex, they will die lonely and cold in a garrett room in Skegness, smelling of wee.
And yet, this is probably the narrative that is actually more likely to become a reality. Men's rights activists love to bitch at feminists about all of the problems that men are more likely to suffer from than women, as if a) feminists caused these and b) we are not already engaged in a passionate fight against the patriarchy that is responsible for these problems. But yes, OK, MRAs, let's look at the things men are more likely to do: Spend time in prison. Have an alcohol abuse problem. End up homeless. Serve in the armed forces (and therefore be at increased risk of subsequent mental health problems, substance abuse and homelessness). Commit suicide.
Writing profiles for a charity that helps men who've lost jobs, homes and livelihoods, it occurred to me how many times the kind of problems described above happened after a relationship break-up (for the purposes of this piece, I'm talking about heterosexual relationships). Sometimes the cause and effect wasn't clearcut or linear (an existing substance abuse problem may well become worse after a breakup), but the outcome was the same - the loss of a steadying influence in the form of a partner always saw the individual go further down a path of self-destruction. The charities' beneficiaries were all male, but I didn't find that horrifically sexist - given limited resources and the fact that men were by far the majority of those who fall through the net in these ways, it made sense. But it made me think - why are single women pitied so relentlessly when single men are far more at the risk of such serious problems?
I do think cultural narratives have a lot to do with it. As I mentioned in my previous post on the lack of credibility afforded to women (like myself) who aren't interested in long term relationships, the dominant myth persists - that of commitment-hungry, baby-crazy women who, at the age of 30, start aggressively trying to lock down any creature with testicles, combined with the perma-adolescent, commitment-phobic, perpetual lad trying to avoid such a woman while still trying to get laid. Men who like being in long-term relationships and want to get married are erased from this picture. So are women who prefer casual relationships, or no relationships, or same-sex relationships, or who don't want kids. Women are portrayed as the needy, grabby, grasping ones. Men are portrayed as the ones who eventually "give in" to this tyrannical female demand for commitment. Yet, as Time magazine reported, despite the stereotype that "men are dragged to the altar, fingernails clawing the floor of the church aisle into splinters until the very last step", a survey of men showed them to actually be more pro-marriage (even divorced ones!) and more romantic than their female counterparts. Why might this be? Well, at least one study has found that: "In addition to being happier and healthier than bachelors, married men earn more money and live longer. And men can reap such benefits even from mediocre marriages, while for women, the benefits of marriage are more strongly linked to marital quality." 
In a lot of ways, I really wouldn't be surprised that marriage benefits men more than women, especially in terms of earnings and health. A married man is attractive to employers because he's a family man, seen as respectable, kind, trustworthy. A married woman is a flight risk, a woman likely to cost you big bucks when she inevitably decides to have children and go on maternity leave, and will then be an unreliable employee always running off to look after sick kids or leave early to go to school plays. (Think I'm stereotyping? Just look at what happens to men's salaries after they have children, compared to women's, although bear in mind this is white men only). And as for physical and mental health, well - while there are some marriages that I'm sure drive men to drink and despair, I'd like to think that most partnerships mean having someone to look out for you, to kick you up the bum to go to the doctor, to tell you you're working too hard, to give you someone to turn to rather than binge-drinking alone. The plentiful evidence of the paths of self-destruction that newly single and vulnerable men go on certainly imply that a lot of men are safer in relationships.
Yet it's not talked about. Why? Why is the myth of female dependence on men still so aggressively pushed, when it's men who may actually benefit more from the safety net of another person to lean on? Would it make those who like to comfort themselves with the stereotype of the playa and the sad spinster feel too vulnerable to admit that he could be only a paycheque away from a park bench himself? MRAs can't have it both ways (not that they'll care, of course, because logic has never been their strong point) - they can't demand that Those Mean Feminists stop focusing on women's problems and start acknowledging male vulnerability, while at the same time pushing the theory that men are superior to us unreliable, hysterical, hormonal bitches. You want us to start thinking about male homelessness, male alcoholism, male mental illness? By all means. But first I'll need you to see me an old maid and raise me a crazy cat lady. I'll need you to admit that men can be lonely, vulnerable, isolated and struggling - and that maybe, whisper it, they're more likely to be so without a female partner. And I'd like to hear that admitted not, amazingly, because I'm trying to institute a matriarchy or claim that women are men's saviours (UGH), but rather that I'd just like to see the social script flipped once in a while.

29 Oct 2014

What can I say to you? - for #GeekMentalHelp Week

Last night I listened to several people talk bravely and movingly about their struggles with mental health problems in the tech industry, as part of a series of conversations for #GeekMentalHelp week. Although I don't quite qualify as a geek, I felt I have enough of a connection with both the industry (translation: I have a lot of friends and relatives who can answer the question "So what exactly DOES it mean to get forked in the Github?") and definitely enough of an investment in mental health issues to go along and listen. I also think that more broadly, the term geek can generally apply to anyone creative, intelligent and curious who needs meaningful work in their life, and that I certainly fulfil those, plus a lot of less flattering categories (tendencies towards social anxiety and introversion, love of rituals, order and spreadsheets, a disdain for the superficial, lover of puns etck).
The organisers encouraged us to join the conversation, to write, to add our thoughts to the mix. I wanted to but wasn't sure what I could say that would be encouraging. My experiences trying to get my mental health problems sorted via the NHS have been mixed, to say the least. Like some of the speakers said last night, I don't always blame the system, usually rather the lack of resources it has, but that said, I did encounter deeply obstructive individuals (and practices) during in my fight to get help and a proper diagnosis, and I do firmly blame them for doing nothing less than endangering my life. I had to go private to actually get proper help, and to receive an accurate diagnosis. After believing for all of my adult life that I suffered from clinical depression, it took one visit to a private psychiatrist to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. That was 10 months ago, and I am still pretty angry that it took until the age of 30 for someone to just say those words and provide the answer to why my behaviour and moods don't respond to traditional treatments for depression. I first sought help for my mood swings when I was 21. That's 9 years of living under a misapprehension about what's wrong with you. That's 9 years too fucking long.
Private medicine is not an option for many people, so that's one of the reasons I felt it wouldn't be particularly helpful to share my story - although it was family members who actually swooped in and paid for it after I had hid my struggles from them for so long, and after things had got to such a point where there was no hiding any more. Perhaps the takeaway here, then, is that people can be more helpful than you think if they actually know what's going on. I let all the usual things stop me from saying anything - stigma, pride, sheer stubbornness, fear of being misunderstood - as well as the fact that, when my BPD is at its worst, it renders me actually mute.
I think introversion is a common personality trait amongst geeky people, and it manifests itself in the rather British attitude of not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting people looking at you, not wanting to be the person who "causes drama". I will physically go and hide rather than be that person, so embarrassing do I find my sudden and inexplicable outbursts of emotion. When I told one person about my BPD diagnosis, she said "You don't seem like it...you're not manipulative.." (manipulative behaviour being one of the markers of the condition). My only response was, I guess I hide it well. Because I don't want to be that person - who is seen as hysterical, unreasonable, demanding or needy. Who would? 
Silence is easy.
Confessing is hard.
But letting things get so bad that you end up in A&E is not going to protect your pride one bit, I can tell you that much. These days I try to say something before the sudden and violent mood changes that dictate my life close me down. I don't always succeed, but thanks to a decent psychiatrist and getting on the right medication, I also have some things in place to stop the runaway train before it jumps the tracks. For years I told people that my moods could change so suddenly, violently and inexplicably that I sometimes wished someone would just shoot me with a tranquiliser dart. People would nod, smile and empathise, but I don't think anyone realised just how valuable the option of a sudden chemical cosh would be. All the visualisation techniques and deep breathing in the world can't do a thing for me when I'm in the middle of a 2 hour crying jag. I am glad that I now have anti-psychotic tablets that I can take and know that said tranquiliser dart is going to come in and reset my brain. I carry the tablets everywhere I go -  in every one of my handbags, in my purse, my car, my roller derby kit bag. Knowing I had some backup was all I wanted, for so many years. And someone finally gave it to me.
This is not a tirade against techniques such as CBT or mindfulness, which many people use and do find helpful, but it's simply to say that these things don't work for all of us, and they have a much more limited chance of working when you haven't even been correctly diagnosed in the first place. I was offered both these things through the NHS, and they helped a little with anxiety, which experience tells me is very likely to affect intelligent, creative people, because they tend to be highly self-critical. However, nothing does the trick quite like just being able to take an anti-psychotic and slow the fuck down.
A lot of the talks last night centred around work, and how the pace in the tech industry can lead people to burn out, or immerse themselves in work to such a degree that they cease to face their emotional problems. Personally, I walk a tightrope between needing stimulating and challenging work which regularly involves novelty so I don't get bored, and feeling terrified and trapped and depressed and wanting to run away from anything that constitutes a full-time job. For this reason, I'm freelance and I work from home. That way, I don't run the risk of bursting into tears at my desk and a colleague having to hurriedly hide me in the boardroom (this actually happened). Currently I pride myself on doing great work, and never missing a deadline, and I'd like to think all my freelance clients would back that up. I've just written a book, and I'm immensely proud of myself for that achievement. I have no problem with disciplining myself to get work done. But put me an office, and I'll start to feel like a caged animal. I need that option for escape. I need that wiggle room so that if I can't get out of bed, it affects no one but me. I need that margin for error to be able to walk away from a freelance gig without worrying that I've pissed off an employer and am going to earn a black mark on my CV.
Mental health issues may be technically protected as a disability under the Equality Act, but who really feels brave enough telling an employer they need to work from home because they suffer from borderline personality disorder and otherwise run the risk of freaking out and crying in the middle of the office because they've suddenly been hit by a crushing boulder of depression while editing Tuesday's press release? Is any company going to provide 2 hour breaks so an employee can wait for their calming medication to kick in because a colleague made a throwaway comment which left them so angry they can't stop shaking? So, I do that stuff on my own time. The unpredictability of the freelance market is, to me, worth the trade-off of having my schedule and physical working location dictated by an employer. I've tried it, and I can make it work for a while, but when it stops working - it really stops working.
So what would I say to someone who feels themselves coming unstuck, given that my experience is so personal and unique? I suppose that despite that, the takeaways are broadly the same. I would say - demand the help you need, however you have to do it, even if you're so embarrassed that you need someone else to speak for you, then do it. Get an advocate. Put it in a letter. But get the truth out there. And then keep pushing. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease. Demand people listen - your employer, your family, your friends, and most of all, the medical profession. Ask for a second opinion. Ask to be seen sooner than in a fortnight. You may tell yourself that the system is already struggling with demand, but that demand is comprised of individuals, of which you are one. Each has an equal right to help.
I would also say: do the kind of work you know you can stand. I got a lot happier when I quit office work for freelance life, and quit doing unrelated jobs in order to start writing full time. It involved sloughing off a lot of socially ingrained expectations, and dealing with a lot of uncertainty, but ultimately it gave me my sanity back. If you are a geek - i.e. smart, creative, analytical, thirsty for challenge - chances are that the standard construction of work bores the shite out of you. If you're a square peg, don't try to push yourself into the round hole of a job that looks good to others. Only you have to ultimately live with your choices. If you're not happy in your work, change something.  
Reach out to the people you love, just like you would want them to reach out to you if they were in pain. 
Soothe yourself any way you can. Some people find animals therapeutic. My brother goes for runs to clear his mind. My dad is never happier than when he's power washing paving slabs.
Remember the words "Fuck the poets of the past, my friend - there are no beautiful suicides."
And remember to keep breathing.

20 Oct 2014

I wish Facebook had a "Polyamorous" option

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

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

25 Sep 2014

Feminism in Funny Places - Red Dwarf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Feminist Moment #4

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

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

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

Fantastic Feminist Moment #5

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

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

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