Femspreading

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Genderspecs – changing gendered perspectives, one blog at a time.

It’s always a joyous moment when I receive an email telling me that the next podcast episode of ‘The Guilty Feminist’ is out. This time the theme was ‘Taking Up Space,’ and how women don’t tend to do it quite as much as men.

I’ve suffered from bad shoulders for years. Part of it is the curse of the writer/student I became in later life – carrying my laptop about on my back like a tortoise with a portable office. Running doesn’t help. WhenI get tired, I start to hunch over, my shoulders creep up and I find I’m tensing, without thinking about it. But the other culprit, which I’ve only just discovered, is the way I walk.

My ‘normal’ stance is weird – I hunch my shoulders, my head is down, and my arms tucked in. Part of this could just be crap posture, but there’s something else going on. It’s a way of carrying my body that makes the smallest physical impact on the world around me.

So today, buoyed up by the challenges on the podcast (if you’re not listening to it yet, please do!) I tried something different. I dropped my shoulders, let my arms swing and held my head up.

I felt enormous. I felt like I was taking up too much space, impeding on others. It also felt great. There’s a theory, based on the observation of chimps in the wild, that adopting powerful physical poses can have an impact on your sense of power and importance. Simply standing in a way that makes you look confident can lead to more assertive behaviour and boost your self-belief.

So why did walking like that feel uncomfortable for me? It’s no big shocker to discover that, statistically, men take up more space than women. From manspreading on the train to dominating conversation in the pub, men are far more likely to demand attention and physical space. It’s something that girls and boys are taught from a young age, especially if we look at notions of what is considered ‘ladylike’ or ‘manly.’

In relation to this, an interesting phenomenon is the way people move out of the way (or don’t) on the pavement. Next time you’re out and about, take note. As Deborah Frances-White discovered in her challenge, it doesn’t take very long to notice a pattern. More often than not, women move out of the way for each other and for men, while men are far more likely to stay their course, irrespective of whether someone is approaching from the other direction or not. And this stuff matters. As Sofie Hagen pointed out, feeling ‘invisible’ in the world impacts of feelings of self-worth, value and confidence.

So I tried it out. Along with my new, confident walking stance, I decided that I would play a bit of ‘pavement chicken,’ and see if I could stand my ground. Focusing on a point behind the person walking towards me, I kept my head up and strode purposefully, and took note about how others responded. Invariably, if I was a woman, she moved out of the way (I didn’t adopt this strategy for people with prams or who looked a bit unsteady on their feet).

However, there were some that just didn’t move. One in particular springs to mind. A large guy, tall and wide, who had clearly spent his whole life expecting others to get out of his way. I stayed strong. Keeping my path absolutely straight, I resisted the urge to move to one side, flinch or apologise. He didn’t move either. We got closer and closer together – neither altering our course. At the very last moment, he almost jumped to one side, looking rather surprised. Others smacked straight into my shoulder, a little grumble coming out for daring to intrude on their personal space. It was starting to get enjoyable.

I decided to take it to the tube, and do a bit of femspreading. After all, good ventilation is important to guard against yeast infections, so why should men get all the crotch space? I have to say, it felt pretty weird. I felt exposed, as if someone was going to sit down and tut at me. I felt unladylike, as if I was resisting every urge to be ‘neat’ and ‘modest,’ and other such terms that only get trotted out when talking about women. Perhaps if more of us took this awareness of the physical space we take up and acted upon it, we could start to make an impact on the way male and female space is perceived, along with giving ourselves a well-needed boost of confidence.

But there are other spaces we need to claim for our own. Multiple studies have shown the prevalence of men interrupting women, men dominating conversation in mixed gender groups, as well as the infamous ‘mansplaining’ phenomenon. Many’s the time when, after trying and failing to enter a conversation, I’ve slapped on my -oh-how-very-interesting face, inserted a few ‘hmms’ for good measure, and got on with thinking about a lesson plan or a plot point I’ve been working on, as I’ve admitted defeat at ever getting a word in edgeways.

There are a few techniques that can work, perhaps after I’ve been striding down the road and bashing into people, when I’ve decided that I simply won’t be left out. One is to just keep talking. Just continue the flow of your talk as if nothing has been said, and they will usually stutter and fall quiet, once they’ve got the hint. Another is to wait for the interruption to finish, and then simply pick up from where you left off, as if nothing had been said. A final possibility is to make it clear to everyone else – and him – that it’s happening. A simple, ‘actually, I haven’t finished’ might make people feel awfully uncomfortable (especially in the hyper-polite culture that is the UK) but by drawing attention to it, perhaps making eye contact with other people when you say it, hopefully they feel like enough of an idiot to shut up. Of course, there will always be some men that will not respond to any of this. Possible alternatives include changing jobs, wearing a wig and fake moustache to your meeting, or perhaps taking some sort of ‘interruption buzzer’ around with you, to be used whenever someone feels the need to cut you off.

So let’s make femspreading a thing – making our bodies and voices more prominent in society, in order to lead to a more positive future for girls everywhere.

Being Nasty

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There’s something pretty uplifting about meeting a hundred thousand people who share your views, even if you just walk down a road together making ‘woo’ noises every now and again. Or perhaps that makes it even better.

When I attended the Women’s March in London, after a slew of thoroughly depressing news articles read under the duvet (yes, this cold still won’t go away) there was undeniable hope and power in the footsteps of thousands who are feeling out of step with the way the world is.

And of course, there’s the placards. I’m not exactly a specialist (it was my first) but there’s nothing like other people to remind you that your rhetoric isn’t up to scratch. Orange Is The New Bollocks, Get Your Hands Off My Rights, Grab Them By The Patriarchy, We Shall Overcomb. Just a sample of the array of puns that people put together. Bonus points if you employed some sort of collage technique or glitter was involved in any way. My highlights have to be the papier maché Trump and the simple yet powerful ‘It Takes A Lot To Get Me Off The Couch.’

My slogan of choice; ‘Nasty Women Unite,’ was picked out by a few people for a photo, which made me feel better about my lack of punning. It encompassed the feeling that’s been blooming in me as I’ve witnessed a series of political decisions in which I don’t see myself, or anything close to fairness, justice or equality. I’m angry, I’m pissed off. I don’t want to be a simpering, smiling feminine cliché that pleases others. I want to do something about it.

On the escalator, on the way to the protest, a man asked me what my sign meant. I explained the backstory to it. He shuddered a little. “Oh, not too nasty, I hope,” he said.

And there it is. Those soft-bodied women, getting feisty again. Or possible sassy. Certainly not something we want to encourage, right? If women’s nastiness was equal to the injustices done to them against their rights and their bodies, they’d be the nasty equivalent of Gengis Khan after his horse got sick and his entire army took the wrong turn at a mountain pass. Heads would roll. Of course, the escalator had taken me away by then, so it was a bit late for a witty or thoughtful comeback.

In the crowds, it was easy to feel powerful. Buoyed up by the shouts, the singing, the chanting, the beeps of passing cars, there was an overwhelming feeling that anything was possible. Angry at a world that not even tolerates but encourages hateful opinions, and makes the most vulnerable more weak and afraid than ever before. The feeling that we could make a difference.

Even afterwards, there was also something emboldening about taking my sign home on the train. People read it, people nudged each other, darted their eyes from me when I looked over. I had power. But once I got home, unstuck the piece of laminate floor edging that served as a stick, it wasn’t as easy to be strong.

In the wake of Brexit, after a campaign fuelled with lies, it seemed incredibly possible to challenge the legitimacy of a marginal vote, when no-one really knew what they were voting for, and had been lied to about what they were going to get anyway. Somehow, this has translated to a country that seems fine with leaving the single market, and all we care about is the texture of the Brexit, not whether it will happen at all. Where did all that power of protest go? We need to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen this time.

As a woman, I am often invisible, or at least prized more highly for my decorative purposes than my intellect. Yet as a straight, white woman, I also enjoy privileges other women or femme-identifying individuals don’t have access to. And the terrible truth is, I’m not really that nasty. I apologise when someone steps on my foot. I don’t like phoning for a takeaway. I avoid making decisions. But I need to find some strength, if I am to live a conscionable life.

Now is the time to test how truly nasty we can be. In the aftermath of this glorious wave of protests, I want to use my voice, and my privilege, to carry that feeling I had when the sign was in my hand. To speak out for others who don’t recognise themselves in an ever-shifting political landscape, where the elite continue to thrive, and the disadvantaged continue to be bulldozed in the name of progress.

Now is the most testing of times. Will you be nasty with me?

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The Blackest of Fridays

She crept to her door, iPhone pinging deliriously in hand. It was out there. Waiting, just for her. She peered out. Nothing could be seen through the bobbled glass. She would have to go outside.

Stretching between the hedge and next door’s wall was a web, a brown-speckled spider brooding in its middle. She walked past it and out, seeking those things that were promised to her. The sky was cold blue, remnants of leaves squadged into mounds. She would need to go further.

The bus lurched, gorged full of swaying bodies. Each of them clutched phones, trolleys, bags, waiting to be filled. At their destination the bus vomited them onto the grey pavement. Hard concrete under her feet, huge signs shouted from windows. All those things, just for her.

She checked her phone. It took her hand, guided her to the best place. The one where she could get the most.

Hours spent dragging other people’s food over a barcode scanner. Mopping up the spilt orange juice in Fridge Aisle Three. Pinning the laminated badge over her shirt-enclosed breast. She was happy to help. And this was her reward.

Bargains dripped from the walls. Scavengers looted the racks, garments falling to the floor, trampled under shoes bought two weeks ago, ready to be replaced. In the distance were the electronics, recognisable from the heaving mass that throbbed around the shelves.

That could wait. A gaudy blue dress squawked at her from its hanger. But there were others it called, too. Applying her elbow firmly to the nearest set of ribs, she clambered over a heap of clothes, something solid under the fabric, and clawed it from the hanger. Such a bright blue. And that fabric, the hang of it. Hot For This Season, and definitely suitable to Transform From Office To A Night Out. She clutched it close, the scent of newness hanging over it.

But there was a jacket, too. Stripes To Flatter Your Figure. This was harder to get to. Another had it already in her grasping fingers. She reached over, smiled, scraped her fingernails up the exposed length of arm. The woman shrank back, easing her grip. Perfect. All it needed was some jewellery to go with it. Perhaps those people, the reporters, would stop her on the street when she wore it, her face smiling from those coloured pages, a beacon of fashion to the dowdy.

Scattered finery littered the floor. Necklaces, jangling bracelets, it was like walking over a dragon’s hoard. What she needed was gold. Something to Stand Out From The Crowd. A glitter caught her magpie eyes. Chunky chain, adorned with fake-diamond lumps and a cross at the bottom. Perfect. But there was only one left.

She watched as another swooped in. Lacquered nails clasped around the treasured item. The usurper started to walk away. She would have to act fast.

Grabbing a set of earrings, she lunged forward, tripping, falling to her knees. In one movement she drove the studs into the back of the woman’s leg. A trickle of blood could just be seen through the 20-denier tights.

With a shout, the trinket fell to the floor. She scooped it up, dodging round the display filled with hair accessories to avoid recriminations. Her prize was clutched in her hands. Such a good start, after only thirty minutes of shopping time. Imagine what she could achieve in a whole day.

Her key scraped in the lock. Heaving herself up the stairs, she collapsed onto the sofa in a satisfied lump. Bags were lined up each arm, a huge box clutched between her hands. As she leaned forward to put it on the coffee table she winced, the twinge in her back attending to the distance she’d walked back with this lot, unable to fit on the bus.

She peeled the packaging off the black hulk – Active Shutter 3D, curved screen, LED, 720p, High contrast ratio, Internet connected HDTV. Her reflection was muted in the 50-inch display. The smudge of a bruise on her cheek, the red ribbon of blood trickling down from her split lip. She dropped the bags, wincing at the pain from her cracked rib. They healed on their own. Better to try these things on, parade her body in front of a mirror, fragrance it, shave it, moisturise it, daub it with colour, style it, dry it, freeze it in a single click of a glorious selfie that would capture her in this beautiful peacock dress, sitting amongst her purchases after the Blackest of Fridays.

Y: The Last Man

I know I’m massively behind the times in reading this, but as I’m currently working on a similar narrative, several people recommended this graphic novel as a good place to look at how a gender-imbalanced dystopia played out. Interesting ideas, some lessons learned, and a few pitfalls to avoid.

On a day in 2002, a mystery virus simultaneously kills off every creature with a Y chromosome on the planet. Apart from one. Yorick (his parents liked Shakespeare) and his monkey Ampersand, are the only males left alive on the planet.

It’s a neat premise, that leads to a range of far-reaching narratives. There’s loads to explore, and the comic uses split narratives and unusual time-framing to quickly absorb us into the various effects all over the world. It acknowledges the immediate economic and political collapse, as these are areas almost completely dominated by men. The planes that would drop out of the sky, the trains that would crash, the nuclear plants that would suddenly be under threat.

But, where is the resilience? I refuse to believe that half of the species would simply sit about and get hungry. There are a huge number of women in a range of very practical professions, and the cavalier response to disaster just felt a little weak, as if over-exaggerating the impact it would have. Don’t get me wrong, it would be huge initially, but there is technology, systems in place, and the lack of order in the book smacked of the ‘helpless female’ stereotype I hoped this book would try to avoid.

The story is fast-paced and the characters interesting, leading to The Last Man embarking on a journey to discover why he was immune, and how he could find the secret and therefore, save the planet. With him are a secret agent and a doctor, who provide more nuanced characters than the rest, and give a foil for the often arrogant Yorick to bounce against. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I found it a really enjoyable read. Of course it is telling a female story, but ultimately, it is the man that is setting out to save the world, which was a little disappointing.

There were other problems with it. At times it was a little stylised. All of the people that we hear from in the story are beautiful, everyone from convicts to guerrilla fighters. Despite being in a world without men, we still had hugely sexualised female characters. The garbage collector just happens to be an ex-model, and we are given a very minimal range of female characters. I suppose with so many narrative threads running through, it’s hard to get completely rounded characters, and so far I have only read the first edition. However, for a world without men, I would have much preferred to have more variation on the scale from ‘nice girl’ to ‘psycho bitch/butch lady’, with a couple of ‘intelligent’ women thrown in for good measure. For a book that’s re-examining the world as we know it, I would like to think they could move outside existing tropes of femininity. I also didn’t understand why we couldn’t look beyond simple gender binary, with all the women apparently falling over themselves to be with Yorick. It was an opportunity to look outside these simple pairings, and I think it missed a trick.

Having said that, the level of violence is, in a way, refreshing. Far from the ‘mother earth’ nonsense that often turns up in feminine utopias, we see struggles for power, killing and chaos in the aftermath of the disease. It’s good that it acknowledges these things are human problems, not male problems. Desire for control and a search for understanding in the world is what preoccupies everyone, and it often leads to fatal conflict. Why should men not being around make any difference? Having said that, the Amazons were infuriating. Ridiculous characters with no believable back story, they form a sort of anti-male cult. Which, apart from anything else, is now entirely pointless. It seems they only exist to give Yorick something to run away from. A lazy plot device that sticks to the ‘feminists as psychos’ trope.

There are plenty of hooks dropped in to make you want to carry on reading the series. The reason the men died, a scientific accident, some loopholes drifting above the stratosphere, there is plenty of story here.

I just found it a little, showy. Yes it’s very compelling, I genuinely cared about the characters, but I felt too often the hand of the writer, creating plot twists with a little ‘ta da!’ in the background. Maybe comics aren’t for me, as the reviews I’ve read say that this is a refreshing break from stereotypical characters, so what must the other stuff be like?

Anything that questions gender politics is good in my book, but let’s try and do something a bit more complex next time. It opened up a lot of possibilities and questions for the world I’m currently creating (watch this space!) which is definitely what I was after. Perhaps we have just moved on a little from 2002. I would like to think so. Perhaps a version of this comic now would try to shock us in different ways.

We Are All Disordered

41gkmvzpzwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.

To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’

On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.

The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.

For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.

Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.

The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.

Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.

Why I’m Not an Angry Feminist

Today I had the joy of experiencing a running buddy while out on the streets. As I ran past him, he came into step beside me, waving his arms and making silly high pitched noises. After which he collapsed in giggles, so amused by the sight of a woman running down the road. All of this was done in the sight of, not a crowd of jeering lads, but what I assume was his young daughter. I can only imagine the lessons she has learnt about the value of women through her eyes as she watched this ridiculous display.

I wish it were rare. In the long time I have been running, I have experienced many things, such as a man stopping his car, winding down the window, then telling me I was ‘very nice indeed.’ There have been whistles, murmurs of approval, or sometimes just blatant staring. The other side of the reaction was a man telling me and my friend to ‘speed up, girls,’ as we ran past.

In the summer, it’s hot. What that means is, the most comfortable outfit for running is a pair of cycling shorts and a vest. I happen to have DD boobs. Believe me, this causes enough trouble in the choice of sports bra (Shock Absorber, absolutely brilliant), without having to factor in the reactions I might get in the street. A friend of mine, who is similarly endowed, posted on Facebook after being thoroughly pissed off after receiving a similar comment. Her (female) friend posted underneath that it was because of her boobs, and that she should feel flattered. What this is essentially saying, is that women of certain dimensions, or who happen to fit into socially acceptable views of ‘beauty,’ should not only expect and deserve unwanted attention, they should feel flattered by it. Extrapolate this argument, and it forms the basis of excusing someone who was groped on the Tube because they happened to have a nice bum and were wearing a skirt. Take it to the extreme and it’s exactly the same argument used to defend rape. Well of course it happened, she looked a certain way and was wearing certain clothes. Is it as bad? No, of course not, but it is a different shade of the same spectrum.

As always, I spent the rest of my run furiously planning a fantastic comeback for the next time it happened. I wanted to tell the idiot that told us to speed up that we were 8 miles into a 10 mile run, and already pretty knackered. I wanted to tell the guy on the street last week who told me to ‘smile, love,’ that my face does not exist solely for decorative purposes.

And there the floodgates opened. The times that people are surprised that I have an opinion about something political or scientific because I am blonde, or the times I have been advised to ‘steady on’ when enjoying a meal at the risk of getting fat. The time I had someone correct me when I said I had run 20 miles. Oh, you mean 20k, they said. The time someone had an entire conversation with me and didn’t look above my breasts. The time I saw a woman tittering and deferring to her boyfriend like a brainless idiot in order to appear more attractive. The times I’ve been told I’m ‘not like normal girls’ because I like playing computer games, or watching sci-fi films, or like drinking beer or whiskey. The time I was repeatedly charged for work on my car that hadn’t happened. The time I was pulled into the office by my boss (also a woman) who told me that my colleagues had complained about my clothing because it was ‘distracting.’

I could go on. There are times when I am so damn jealous of men. How lovely it must be to never have to put up with this shit. How beautiful it must be to walk freely down the road and not be expected to move out of everyone else’s way, just because you were born with a uterus.

These things exist in the world because of a patriarchal society. They do not exist because men are inherently horrible. Both men and women are to blame for perpetuating and excusing these behaviours, and it is a source of extreme annoyance that the idiot that waved his arms to me on the street today will cause me sleepless nights when I play the incident over and over in my head, and wish that I had thought of something to say before I had run past, that at least could have stayed in the mind of the little girl standing next to the wall, watching my humiliation.

I’m not an angry feminist, I’m bloody furious. And so should everyone be. Take that list of things that I have experienced in my life. Apply it to your sister, your niece, your aunt, your mother. It is not good enough that being born a different gender (insert colour, sexual preference, gender identification, any other ridiculous way people are categorised as ‘different’ here) means you are treated in a way that makes you feel humiliated. No-one should have to experience that. The next time some idiot says something like that to me, I sincerely hope I have the courage to call them out on it. Please join me. It’s the only way we can make this world a better place.

Empress Orchid – The Mistrusted Empress

I first heard about ‘Empress Cixi’ through a BBC documentary called ‘The Ascent of Woman.’ An impressive summary of a huge swathe of human history, the programme asked questions about the subjugation of women over the centuries, and examined the reasons behind it. Much of it was startling, such as the fact that covering women up with veils was considered appropriate to show status and sexual promiscuity, many hundreds of years before Islam existed as a faith. It also examined the deep suspicion of women, their sexuality and their motives, and the way they have been mis-represented in history. One of these cases is the basis for the novel ‘Empress Orchid,’ written by Anchee Min. In it, we discover the hidden past of the woman who went on to be the main political power in Imperial China for 47 years. Historically, she has traditionally been painted as a devious despot, who was largely responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, this may well be another case of the mistrust powerful women are afforded.

She started out her life as a relative pauper, her father holding a position in local government. When they came to Beijing, she was promised to a less than spectacular cousin in order to try and sort out the family finances. Instead, she decides to enter a kind of ‘lottery’ that chooses the wives and concubines of the emperor. Due to her Manchu origin (the Manchu ruled over the Han Chinese for thousands of years) and beauty, she is selected to be one of that ‘wives’ of the emperor. She is effectively a very high-ranking concubine. As the story progresses, her relationship with the emperor and his ‘main’ wife develops, and she finds herself in a far more favourable and powerful position than she ever set out to be.

The description of the wealth and luxury of the Chinese court are fantastic. Having visited the Forbidden City myself, I know how intricate and detailed the carvings, buildings and palaces are. To see it through the eyes of Yehonla as she enters, and as gifts are bestowed upon her, is wonderful. Jewels, gold, silk, diamonds, all of these things are lavished on each item she and the other woman possess. Shoes become priceless objects, trays and wall decorations are the work of gifted craftsmen. It truly transfers us to another world, a place where a man can have thousands of women to choose from to secure his future heirs, a place where bathing and making yourself beautiful takes half a day, and a funeral procession involves tens of thousands of people and can last for weeks. In hindsight, it seems impossible that such wealth and splendour were available to so many (admittedly, a tiny percentage of the population). But then, if you leave peasants to starve in fields, I’m sure there’s more than enough for your gold teapot. It gives us a window into a forgotten and lost world, full of extremes.

The personal story of Yehonala is an interesting one. Min decided to follow her story from her poor beginnings to the moment when she gains her power. That seems reasonable enough, there are many writings on her as an Empress and it is good to see the ‘hidden’ part of who she was, even if it is a fictionalised account. Nonetheless, I think I would have liked to have seen more of her afterwards, to get a sense of the woman she became, as well as how she got there. If you want to read more about that part of her life, The Last Empress, also by Anchee Min, follows her later life.

A rather frustrating element in the book is the timeline. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a researcher to take disparate events in a person’s life, especially when there is so little to be found for this particular person, and then weave it together into a coherent narrative. However, there were places where we seemed to shift forwards or backwards to a few months or weeks later, with little sense of progression. I suspect she wanted to include certain details and just included them in the ongoing story, but it might have made the book flow better if she had considered more carefully where to place them and how they contributed to the overall narrative.

I think the parts I enjoyed most concerned the diplomatic and political situation of the time. While all the fancy bits were pretty, I was fascinated to discover a country that truly perceived itself as far superior to others in every way, and considered the rest of the world to be barbarians in comparison. The mistrust and lack of diplomatic success of China historically is far more understandable in this context. The marginalised role of women and the careful and surreptitious ways Yehonala has to manipulate her way into having any influence over her life or that of her family is also very illuminating. No doubt this is where the label of ‘devious’ comes from. However, when viewed from her perspective, you can see that the only way such a person could have any say in her own world would be through less diplomatic means.

Ultimately, Empress Cixi managed to gain and hold influence over a global power for decades in an era that barely allowed women the right to choose their clothes, let alone their destiny. This book is an important fictionalisation of a remarkable woman. We must remember how skewed our view of history is, and try our best to rediscover the forgotten women that helped to shape it in ways we do not understand. That alone makes it worth a read.

A Little Life

a-little-life-9781447294832There’s something immensely satisfying in a novel that appears to start out one way, and then takes you somewhere you weren’t expecting.

Initially, A Little Life appears to be a well-written if slightly superficial account of a group of young men in New York. The prose is beautiful, but not laboriously so. At a moment of poignant observation, we are treated to a delightful turn of phrase. What separates this from wordy writers that just like to describe everything, is that these moments are always tied to the emotions of the character. I never felt that I was being told things for the sake of it, which is a rather tricky thing to do.

However, as the novel progresses, we discover that the stories that fit between this existence are far more complex than we imagined. From public displays of fun at parties or dinners, we are taken into the minds and memories of each character, finding out their insecurities and foibles, knowing them better than their friends ever will.

As a result of this, we see the nuance of all of the characters very early on. The chapters are weighty and dense, flitting about from present to past, disclosing the hidden parts of themselves, which of course colours the way we read them in the future. In this way, her characters cannot become stereotypes. Because we see the myriad reasons behind what they do, the reason they lie or cheat or let down each other, each one is a deftly written portrait, with unexpected hues in the background.

There are times it can feel a bit too weighty. The burden of responsibility, of knowing these people so intricately, can be a little difficult. This is especially the case if you put the book down for a day or two, and then come back to it to find you’ve forgotten what it was you found out about them in the last bit that was so important. This became more problematic when the voice shifted. I liked very much that we weren’t told exactly who was speaking. In one chapter, we see an event that has already happened, through the eyes of a different character. While I appreciated the shift, I had to flick back and remind myself of who it was that had that particular view of the beach that day they went walking. I am happy to be asked to work hard as a reader, and it is something I do a little too often in my own writing, but it did jolt the flow of the story when I had to interrupt my reading to figure out where we were.

However, my main concern was the lack of female characters. They skirted around the edges, coming and going, never leaving anything indelible on the male characters they interacted with. But a book about men can still explore gender roles. I can forgive it because the book is about male relationships, and egos, and the complex and problematic nature of friendships when they are influenced by external pressure to be ‘manly’ and conceal true emotions. In this way, it can be seen as an examination of the limits patriarchal society places on men, and the struggles they have to engage with each other when expectations of them are stilted and fixed.

I found myself more and more intrigued by this world, the light was going out later and later each night before bed. Although it is very much a large tome (720 pages) the length felt necessary in order to fully appreciate the depth of the characters and the scale of their life. After all, we follow them for decades. I even carried it around with me in my bag one day (my back did not thank me) because I couldn’t bear to leave the characters alone when I left the house.

Although we circle around the group initially, it soon becomes clear that we are focusing on a central character: Jude. He is a mild man, who always feels separate and different, but we are not entirely sure why. As we enter his head more and more often, we discover his disturbing past and the reason he pulls  away so frantically from those that love him. What was equally frustrating but also compelling, is that Yanigihara doesn’t let him make the right decisions. She allows his doubts to shape his actions, continually trying to damage himself and those around him in order to prove that he really isn’t worth the time and attention they want to lavish on him. It speaks all the more truthfully of the state of a human mind and its fragility.

On finishing the book, I felt I had met these people. Their stories were linked and woven with mine and it would not have surprised me to read about them in the paper or bump into them on the street. Rarely have I felt so completely that a person existed. In trying to put my finger on the reason why, I think it was the minute details of their worlds. An event here, a dropped item or scarf there, an intimate moment that is left dangling, all of these things build up a picture of, well, a life. This is what allows the reader, with the characters, to look back on a moment from the beginning of the book with yearning remembrance, as if we too experienced the passing of time and the weight it left.

It is indeed a little life that we all live. Yanigahara has managed to capture at least one between the pages of a book. An impressive feat.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Personally, I’m not a fan of the word ‘genius.’ It’s derived from ‘genie.’ The idea that a little imp comes and sits on your shoulder and gives you an idea, and that’s where your fantastic work comes from. To me, that detracts from the graft, the inspiration, the dedication, needed in order to produce something of wonder and beauty. As Adam Grant points out in his TED talk, one of the reason people end up with beautiful creative things is that they create lots of average or crap things first, which means that their practice and honing of talent produce something pretty impressive in the end. The word also implies a disconnection, as if a celestial firebolt has been flung at the head of some unsuspecting person.

For that reason, I wouldn’t describe Eimear McBride as a genius. She has produced something singular and beautiful that no doubt shows flair, imagination and rare talent, but I don’t want to give the credit to the little green guy whispering in her ear.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a tough read, for many reasons. Firstly, the prose. It is disjointed and poetic, freely flowing with unusual syntax and grammar (no commas!). This fluid style takes a while to get into and absorb, but somehow it seems to capture the voice of the narrator so much more internally than ‘regular’ writing does. The second reason is the ordeals that the central character goes through. It’s not light reading, but it is important reading, for many reasons.

Most reviews I’ve looked at tend to focus on the prose style. Which is understandable. At times it moves into something almost incomprehensible – when the protagonist is undergoing some deep trauma, the prose becomes barely anything but noise; a deep, guttural response to the awful things she is subjected to. It’s one of the things which makes this novel so special. The other, which I’ve not encountered nearly as much, is the exploration of female sexuality. Perhaps the interviewers were too embarrassed to ask, suspecting it was autobiographical (an assumption levelled far too often at female writers) or perhaps, like so much of the world, they’re terrified of the possibilities of female sexuality. An intellectual debate about her language neatly sidesteps the incredibly important issues she exposes.

Early on in the book, she is raped by her uncle when she is thirteen. The way she recounts this event is very important. She does the unthinkable – she acknowledges that a young teenage girl is a sexual being. Feelings she cannot name arise within her. She hears and knows of sex but cannot comprehend the implications of what it is. These feelings are aroused by her uncle. From her perspective, she feels as if it is reciprocal, that she has led him on, that it is a mutual act. Exposing this complexity is important. Grown men have claimed underage girls were ‘asking for it’ in order to defend themselves from statutory rape. Judges have even accused schoolchildren of ‘grooming’ adults in abuse cases. The graphic and uncomfortable scene in McBride’s book reveals the obvious truth – it is the adult that carries the responsibility. No matter how ‘flirtatious’ a young girl may seem, she is merely beginning to explore the sexual possibilities of her body, she is certainly not begging to be raped. Her inability to understand her abused nature is a central point in this heartbreaking narrative.

If female sexuality were not so feared, perhaps little girls would not feel the need to police their clothes, actions or speech in order to maintain archaic ideas of ‘propriety,’ be it inflicted by religious dogma (as it is in the novel) or to fit into societal expectations. The mantra that ‘boys will be boys’ and cannot help themselves is as insulting to men as it is to women. In the book, McBride shows us how the shame she is encouraged to feel for her sexual activities places the blame squarely in the lap of the victim, not the creepy uncle who continues to hound her into adulthood.

Later, too, we see highly promiscuous behaviour. While we can see that the girl is damaged, it is not necessarily saying that a sexually promiscuous woman has to be broken in some way. In fact, she uses it as a tool for power and control, in situations where she feels she has none. Dealing frankly with what young people actually do in bed and why is far more important than pretending that males still prowl around looking for targets, while females ‘let’ themselves be preyed upon, or not. The protagonist actively seeks out sexual partners, and enjoys it. That’s not to say her experiences are entirely positive, and all too often she is taken advantage of and abused, but it is interesting to see a female character so open and experimental.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending. Wouldn’t want to put spoilers in, but it did seem a bit of a disappointment, a nice arty way to round it off but not particularly convincing in light of the harsh realism that we were treated to up to that point. But endings are always tricky. What’s more important, is what we’re left with.

The ‘half-formed thing’ that Eimear McBride leaves us with is an objectified female, but not just a victim. She is marginalised and judged for her sex and her sexuality, and demonised for her knowledge and understanding of those restrictions placed upon her. Because she refuses to bow to religious dogma or traditional roles for herself, she is pitted against her family, her peers and the religious establishment. But she is so much more than this. The novel is a jarring yet harmonious call for the status of females to be reimagined outside the cages that are set up for them. I like to think that McBride is hopeful, that, for some girls, they flower into a fully-formed woman, and are given the grace and freedom to do so.

Wearing Makeup Isn’t Empowering

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Genderspecs – unpicking gender stereotypes, one blog at a time

There’s an awful lot that can empower you these days. Shower gel, pants and even socks are being held up as things that allow us to assert our rights. To a certain extent, this can be true. The physical expression of who we are can allow us to be noticed, taken seriously and even challenge stereotypes. Where I draw the line (a metaphorical one around my eyes which makes me look cross) is at the idea that wearing makeup is an empowering statement. It really isn’t.

I was reading a review for Room the other day, when one particular sentence caught my eye. “She [Brie Larsson] appears almost feral in ‘Room,’ without makeup and unwashed hair.” Feral, really? I’m pretty sure that’s just most women on a Sunday morning, not some wild and untamed animal lurking in the bushes waiting for prey. Expecting a woman to wear makeup in order to look normal is all the proof you need that it isn’t an empowering act.

But this is very often how it is sold. From ‘giving you confidence’ to ‘covering up that great night out from your boss,’ the language used to sell these products is very often skewed around this idea that you are taking control, sticking it to the man, even, by wearing that particular shade of blusher. Apparently it can even have positive psychological effects. This language is being used by massive cosmetic companies to manipulate women into thinking they are making a statement by covering their face up.

Gaining control over the thing that oppresses you is very important. Reclaiming sexist, homophobic and racist language and using it as a way to spread a message is very powerful. It takes the words and images that have so long been used to keep you in a certain space, and marks them out as your own. However, I’m not sure the same can be said for wearing eyeliner.

You only have to look at a social experiment into going without makeup to see what is considered ‘normal’ for women. Going without slap is called ‘brave,’ as if bearing your naked face to the world is some sort of act of defiance. People were told how tired they looked at work, were asked if they were ok. We are so used to seeing women’s faces as ‘normal’ when they have been doctored and enhanced by cosmetic products that we think someone is having an off day when they’re not wearing it.

Which leads to shocking double standards in the workplace. From the recent furore over a woman being sacked over refusing to wear high heels, it is clear that standards are demonstrably skewed for men and women. The same is true for makeup. There is some weird association that has arisen around the beauty rituals of women, that if they fail to present their face in a cosmetically-enhanced way they have ‘let themselves go,’ or they ‘haven’t made an effort.’ This is absurd. Choosing whether or not to wear makeup has no bearing on your professionalism or your respect for those around you.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I thank the god of L’Oreal for allowing me to cover up some godawful spot or to put a bit of fake cheeriness in my cheeks when I’m feeling crap. It must be hard for most men. Sure, they could colour in their eyebrows (I still don’t know why that’s a thing) or put mascara on to make their eyes really zing, but it might not be met with the same sort of enthusiasm. But judging me by wearing it at all? That’s when it’s not ok.

Make up only enhances one aspect of you. Your physical appearance. Which does nothing more than accentuate the level to which you are judged by it. Contouring does not enhance your intellect, a nice shade of eyeshadow does not highlight your practical or social skills. All it does is enhance the physical you. A tiny element of who you are as a person.

Let’s not forget the reason makeup exists. It is to airbrush the face, present a sexualised and ‘flawless’ face that is considered acceptable and desirable within social norms. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are a special gem who has decided to wear a shocking shade of red in order to get back at the patriarchy. If you want to wear make-up, go ahead. But don’t pretend that I’m making a bold statement for feminism. You’re not.