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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.

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.

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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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.

What the ‘Consent’ Conversation is Missing

Recently, a man complained about being forced to go to ‘consent’ lessons at University. I can see his point. Not only is it a little bit insulting, but it’s probably a little bit late. But what else are Universities supposed to do? When one in seven women in University will experience some form of sexual assault, it’s not surprising they’ve decided to do something about it.
To me, the word ‘consent’ is, in itself, a little misleading. It likens any sexual activity to a transaction; something is offered, and either accepted or refused. If only it were that simple.
Just imagine the scenario:
Man: Would you like a biscuit?
Woman: Ooh, maybe, it does look tasty.
Man: Here you go (offering biscuit).
Woman: Actually, I’m not sure I will.
Man: EAT THE BISCUIT (shoves biscuit in her face).
Reduced to this, any discussion about consent seems pointless. But there are so many other assumptions and social narratives happening, that it isn’t quite as simple as all that.
For starters, I hate the assumption that it’s something that is ‘given’ to a woman. All the words to describe it focus on the action; the poking, if you will, rather than any other element. Even though ‘making love’ might sound a bit cheesy, at least it focuses on the idea that two people are working together, to produce something, as if they’re making biscuits, each one having a go at stirring the bowl, before something delicious comes out of the oven that they can both enjoy (ok, I may have overused the biscuit analogy).
The other massive issue is the pervasive idea that men are the ones that get sexual urges. Look at what happens at puberty; there are tangible (and, quite messy) situations that allow you to pinpoint the moment when things start looking a bit different for boys. I don’t remember anyone telling me about my clitoris, or what it was for. No wonder we’re all a bit lost when we start out. Girls are exactly the same. They get funny feelings they don’t really know what to do with (mine were directed at a teenage Johnny Depp in Cry Baby) and sudden urges to do things they don’t understand. Later in life it persists, this idea that the female who likes and *gasp* wants sex is somehow naughty and wrong (those are the nice words), or that if she does indeed want sex, she’s not going to admit it (thanks Robin Thicke, that really helped us all out).
Male stereotypes don’t help much either. Your typical ‘lad’ is supposed to have sex as his ultimate end goal. He needs to rack up his numbers in some weird ‘competition’ that places sexual knowledge of a woman alongside equalling his mates’ top score on Fifa. If we go along with the idea that only a certain type of female will ‘permit’ sex to happen, then the males are left rather lost. You might be pretending to be a good girl, but actually like it, and because I know you’ve let me kiss you/put my hand up your top/you had sex with my friend, then obviously I am going to assume that on this occasion, your ‘no’ means yes.
Put all of that into a night out, add a few shandies and some questionable ideas about how your mode of dress signals how ‘up for it’ you are, and no wonder things get tricky.
Let’s say a woman goes home with a man. At this point, she is feeling pressured – she’s exhibited the ‘expected’ behaviour for wanting someone to have sex with her. The man is feeling equally pressured – he’s got to follow through and do what he’s supposed to. It’s no use pretending that half-pissed teenagers are going to take this moment to enter into a responsible conversation about how they would like to proceed from this point. Which is where we enter into ‘grey areas.’ Perhaps she decides she doesn’t want to, but feels threatened, or nervous, and decides to shut up and wait until it’s over. The accusation afterwards would be that she didn’t say no. Simplifying it to this one-word refusal is unhelpful, and leads to upsetting accusations levelled at victims. If she freezes up and offers no form of encouragement, I would take that as a no. Let’s remove fixed roles, so women don’t have to feel like victims and men don’t have to feel like they must sexually dominate.
Or he decides that he wants sex, that it’s now unfair for her to withdraw her assumed ‘offer.’ That she’s being a prick tease. We need to get away from the idea that certain behaviours automatically lead to sex, on both sides. Until the answer; “well, we went back to mine but we were a bit drunk so we decided to kiss and have a cuddle and leave it until the morning,” is an acceptable answer to the question; “how did you get on last night?” things are not going to improve.
So yes, until that point, you might have to go to a consent class. And we might have to face up to the fact that the most sexually educated young people go on to experience far less sexual abuse, whether we like the idea of sex being discussed in the classroom or not. Abstinence doesn’t work. Assuming women don’t like sex doesn’t work. If we can’t talk about it in front of each other at school, the danger is that we might not have that conversation at all. Broader ideas about emotions, sexual urges and feeling pressured in the moment need to be included in order to leave everyone feeling as comfortable as possible when they’re faced with the real thing.
Let’s call it making sex. Or creating sexy time. Anything that makes it clear it is a verb, an action entered into enthusiastically by both parties. You bring the butter, I’ll bring the flour. We’ll make some lovely biscuits. Together.

Writing the Unwriteable

So what’s your book about then? It’s the obvious question, once you’ve fessed up to what you spend a large chunk of your time doing. There are several options here. You can keep it vague, although you run the risk of sounding pretentious: It’s about gender identity. You can make it very specific, more about the actual style: It’s a dual narrative, looking at the same event from a male and female perspective. Or, the more blunt reply (which probably gets everyone looking terribly uncomfortable): It’s about rape.

There is, as always, a wider issue here. To what extent should literature be exploring these areas of life? And if they are, what is the author’s moral responsibility when it comes to shaping a plot, or characters, that explore such a violent and unpleasant aspect of human nature? I read two very different books recently to get a sense of how others have handled it.

In the first, instance, both books make the issue the central point of their plot, the lens through which the entire narrative is viewed. Having only recently been aware of the term ‘fridging’ (a plot device whereby you rape/murder the wife/girlfriend/mother/little sister of the hero to drive him forward on his quest) I nonetheless was fully of the opinion that these things shouldn’t be used as a throwaway item or a trick to push a story forward. However, should it be ‘true’? Lucky by Alice Sebold is a true account of her experience as a young woman in college. But that isn’t necessarily what makes it a great book. Shadows of Truth by Angie Robinson is a fictional account of a woman who looks back on a violent attack in her past. But that isn’t necessarily what makes it a terrible book. No matter the content or factual accuracy, what makes something interesting and compelling is often the same.

Novels about unpleasant things tend to walk a line between horror and depravity and hope and recovery. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, in a way that doesn’t have your reader so disgusted they put it down, or so drowned in the cliche of human triumph over adversity that they also put it down. And it still needs to be, a story. Sebold’s novel is not a simple memoir, she’s shaped the narrative order of events so that it is absorbing. Her description is delightful and evocative, but not to the extent where we find ourselves plodding through every single emotion with her. We feel her pain and frustration, there is a clear sense of narrative tension built up, but it isn’t all laid out for us to examine. That leaves nothing for the reader to discover, and so loses our interest. Which I think, fundamentally, is where Shadows of Truth falls down. The feelings and thoughts of every character are laid bare so openly that there is nothing left to feel for them. As an example: “I was surprised to hear that she lived below the poverty level, but was astounded by her gratitude to be an employee of the farm co-op.” I had no empathy, no interest or desire to find out what happens (I knew from the first part anyway). Interesting to note that I also knew what was going to happen in Lucky, as it told me on the back of the book, but I was absolutely captivated, desperate to know how her story ended, how she got through the struggle, because the writer painted her story with loose and articulate brush strokes, rather than stating feelings and intentions baldly.

Cliches are a writer’s worst friend. In the first instance, when you write a scene, it’s incredibly hard not to use them. When you read back over your scene, you suddenly realise that the wind is howling, the birds are chirping and the person is fighting for breath. Our first thoughts will undoubtedly be our least creative. It’s taught me how important it is to revisit description and ideas until they have a sense of uniqueness to this character or this situation. Which I just didn’t get from Shadows of Truth. The characters are hopeless cliches: a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, endures a terrible sexual ordeal, becomes a sex worker until she finds God and meets a banker husband. The banker that has chiseled features and doesn’t need a personality because he’s strong and a man so doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. A rough cop from the tough side of the street whose been in the job for years, all gruff and haunted by that one case,  a confirmed bachelor who doesn’t need anyone. Or does he? Not only that, but there were no surprises. I knew that she would have her terribly tempting time where she wasn’t sure she could make it, and she’d hit rock bottom. It was like writing by numbers. Don’t get me wrong, getting to the end of a novel in itself is an achievement, but a decent editor should have picked up on these glaring cliches of character, plot and expression. I don’t think the only reason Lucky isn’t a cliche is because it ‘really happened.’ She was a young co-ed student, a virgin, raped by an older black man in a deserted tunnel, with an uptight family. The possibility of something stayed and recognisable would have been all too easy to produce from the bare bones of this narrative. It’s the techniques used to present the story to us that makes it compelling. I am a firm believer that any story can be engaging, if it is well written.

I have received criticism for worrying too much about where my characters are looking, what they’re thinking, how they’re doing it. When you are so immersed in the scene, it can be very hard to pull yourself out and think about what is needed in order to get a sense of place and feeling, but without spelling it out. After reading Angie Robinson’s book, I can see why. Here are a few examples: “Robert shrugged and smirked,” “I glared at his eyes,” “I mumbled under my breath as I watched his car turn the corner,” “a smile of satisfaction crept across my face,” “my lips quivered at the thought.” Apart from the fact that, in first person, there’s no way you would actually think about how a smile is creeping across your face, it is too exact, too precise, too measured, which takes away from any sense of emotion in the scene. Compare that to Sebold: “I felt like I had as a child. The adults in the room were not getting along and it was up to me to be a good girl enough to drain the tension from the room.” So much more subtle and interesting, because it leaves the reader to bring to the scene their experiences of being a child, of what it is like when there is tension in a room, without needing to plod through each emotion.

In both books, the overall message is, primarily, one of hope. That the women involved in some way ‘get over’ what happened to them and find a way forward after it happened. Here too, is tricky territory. The idea that a woman is somehow stronger or better, has become a more resilient version of herself, is dangerous. Are we implying that without being raped she wouldn’t have discovered this? While Shadows of  Truth was quite simplistic – I have been through something difficult and now I help others, Lucky allowed the aftermath to be far more complex – it changed me in ways I didn’t realise for many years afterwards. When a traumatic event is used to shape a narrative, an overly neat ending could end up trivialising the event itself, implying that there are neat solutions to complex problems. For, after all, the novelist is creating a story, and stories need endings.

In answer to my initial question, yes. I think books should be revealing unpleasant things about human nature, exploring sides of ourselves we would rather not admit existed. If we only experience them in literature rather than in real life we are indeed lucky, but this way we can try to better understand those who have had an experience like this, to better understand ourselves and every other person that lives on this planet. It’s not a startling discovery to find that those who read books often are more empathetic than those who don’t. As to how well you achieve your aim, that’s up to the writer.

So, it is possible to write a very successful and interesting book about rape. It is possible to write a mediocre book about rape. Where, I wonder, will my book fit on this scale?

Roll Up, Roll Up

Honestly, the way everyone keeps on going on about boring politics (apart from, unsurprisingly, The Metro) anyone would think there was a major election about to happen. Oh, hang on…

So what is a person to do? In the UK, it would seem, this is a far more complicated question than you would think. You might assume that just voting for a party whose policies you actually mostly agree with, and are a little bit more how you would like the country to run, seems like a safe bet. Apparently not.

But why does it have to be so complicated? The first place to look is, of course, our voting system. After having read what people from other countries think about our the way our votes work, it was interesting to note that this ‘First Past The Post’ nonsense is seen by others as a bit of a strange UK habit, rather like having beans for breakfast or putting milk in our tea. If it weren’t for this absurd system, there would be no need for the website that allows you to ‘swap’ votes with someone in a pivotal seat, or for the cry for ‘tactical’ voting not just by the people, but by the MPs themselves. Which I would treat with extreme caution. Of course the main political parties want you to think it’s a two-horse race. When I told a friend I was voting Green, I was greeted with “oh, you don’t want your vote to change the government then.” I was incensed. Of course I do, that’s the whole bloody point. As long as voters continue to buy into the idea that they only have two (or at best, three) options, the ‘minority’ parties will not be treated with the respect they deserve. Until we get a better voting system, it’s the best we can do. Here’s a radical idea; what if everyone that believed in them voted for them? Then the powers that be would be forced to reconcile with them, accept that the majority of the public are no longer happy with their limited view of the progress of the country, and actually be forced to take their policies seriously. Seems obvious to me.

Or, you could not vote at all. Russell Brand says so (well, apparently now he wants you to vote Labour). But then, he says a lot of things. While it’s great that someone so prominent gets us thinking about politics, let’s not get too swayed by someone just because he looks good in skinny trousers and has opened a trendy cafe in Hoxton. So yes, you could be a ‘protester,’ and say that the parties have nothing you believe in, and refuse that right to vote. But the problem is, no one will know. Or rather, no one will be able to tell the difference. You might be sat at home tweeting furiously about your brilliant slap in the face to modern politics, but when the votes are counted, how will they tell the difference between you and the person that couldn’t be bothered to get off the sofa? Or got the date wrong? If you genuinely believe you are protesting, then actually protest. Go to the ballot box and mark your slip with your dissatisfaction. Lobby your MP, start a protest group, do something. Because until you do, you’re just another person moaning about the system without actually doing anything about it.

Whatever you decide to do tomorrow, don’t buy into the rhetoric that nothing you do makes any difference, that it’s all the same. It isn’t. If we don’t stop bouncing around between two same-yet-different parties, this country will bear the scars. More than it already does. Having worked in the education system for years, I was completely disillusioned at the new ‘policies’ that got thrown at us on a daily basis. At one point we were teaching three different year groups three completely different syllabuses, all because of knee-jerk reactions to concerns about ‘standards of education,’ rather than real change fuelled by actual research. Until we send a clear message to MPs that we are not interested in this kind of politics, that we want a more stable, mixed government, that looks for long-term solutions to problems, not quick fixes, we won’t get anywhere.

So I’m voting for a party whose policies I mostly agree with, and have a vision a little bit more how I would like the country to run. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that difficult after all.

Just remember, not so long ago, the only people that could vote were white, privileged men that had no connection to the average person. How ironic that this same demographic now basically runs the country. We don’t want that anymore, do we? See you at the polling booth.

But I’m Not Ready!

It’s definitely a reason to be cheerful. In Devon last week, people were on the beach in actual bikinis (I was in my boyfriend’s shorts as I’d packed a little pessimistically). Flip flops were flapping well into the night, despite plummeting evening temperatures (I couldn’t feel my feet) and everywhere the glow of red faces that hadn’t seen the sun for about seven months warmed the streets. Spring has indeed sprung, with an early hint of summer.

Arriving back to London, I was brought back to earth with a bump. Underneath the exuberant smell of early barbecue smoke, something more sinister has raised its head. On my way back from a book reading (yes it’s a massive plug, click here for details) I was greeted by the sight of an enormous woman in a bright yellow bikini, not a blemish or blobby bit anywhere, and the highly accusatory tagline, “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” Fantastic. No doubt the gyms are already full of sweaty women,  images of themselves in a pretty dress or said bikini looming large in front of them (the name escapes me but I do remember another ad campaign based entirely on this premise, as if reducing your risk of heart disease or, you know, preventing early death were simply about a quest to look good). It would be so lovely if the arrival of a few days of sunshine could be greeted with a walk in the park, a glass of wine outside a cafe perhaps, rather than a mad dash for the juicer or a new gym membership.

It seems horrifying that such a blatantly sexist advert is still allowed in this day and age. And yes, it is sexist. Having recently devoured How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (If you haven’t, you should) a lot of complex issues are reduced to some wonderfully simple questions. One being, ‘are the boys doing it?’ And in this case, no, of course they aren’t. While I am aware that there are plenty of unrealistic representations of men’s bodies, the tone is rather different. I don’t see them being practically screamed at from a billboard by a giant headless woman for being a lazy cow and daring to let your figure morph into some sort of hideous slop that self-respecting people don’t want paraded in front of them while they’re trying to defend their ice cream from a marauding seagull. I don’t appreciate being told I can’t wear what I like on the beach unless I’ve substituted real and natural food for some protein powder that turns you into a fart machine. Believe me, I know.

It is ridiculous that we are still subjected to such a narrow ideal when it comes to beauty. I am aware that they have a job to do and a product to sell, but it is so all-pervasive I find myself swayed by it even when I am aware of what it is doing. I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Personally, I stare at her flat stomach and thighs, an area of personal concern, while others will look at the round boobs or the narrow top of the arms. And it gets everywhere. I restrained myself from protesting to someone on the train that I’d actually been for a run, when I overheard comments about obesity while I was eating a Mars bar on the tube (have you noticed? Women hardly ever eat chocolate in public). The impact of this stuff is too important to be understated. A frightening study recently found that being underweight could drastically increase your chances of dementia. This does not surprise me. Bouncing on and off fad diets, starving yourself, juicing, eating nothing but carrots and kale, none of these options is going to give you the right amount of nutrients in order to secure proper brain and body function. It reminds me of that bit in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where she had genuinely forgotten that calories were necessary, rather than people just being greedy and breaking their diets.

Not to mention the psychological strain it puts us all under. I was incredibly moved by a TED talk which discussed the impact body image can have. It questioned all the things that women could achieve if they weren’t worrying about how they look. I know I’d get a damn sight more useful things done if I neglected my hair removal routine, or didn’t spend twenty minutes deliberating over what to wear, or whether or not to eat a creme egg. I could have sorted out world hunger by now. Or at least learned a language. Maybe figured out how to make scones that rise. It wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t perpetuating this crap ourselves. Just this week Pink had to defend herself to abusive comments about her weight (some of them couldn’t spell which cushions it a bit) and Kelly Clarkson has also been criticised for daring to stop constantly worrying about how her body looks. All of which continues to support the notion that a woman, first and foremost, is defined by her external looks. Enough is enough.

So what is to be done? In sync with the fabulous Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet in The Guardian, I think it’s about time we stood up to these companies and made it very clear that we are sick of being bullied by their lazy excuse for advertising. Next time you see something that is encouraging you to feel ashamed of how you look, do something. Tweet about it (including the brand), mention it to a friend, put it on Facebook, take a picture on Instagram, anything that allows the message to be disseminated as widely as possible. And then the question can be turned on its head, asking them if they are ready to stop disgraceful and sexist body-shaming to make a few quid.

Being A Man

We all like being in a club. It gives us a sense of belonging, camaraderie, having someone on your side. It also usually helps if you have an opponent you can set yourself up against. The one ‘club’ that is often presumed to be pre-ordained, is that of your gender role. I’m not sure it’s quite so straightforward as that.

Just the other night, me and my friends got into a discussion about Gigi Gorgeous, a transgender Youtube sensation (apparently) whose boyfriend insists that he is a straight man. It’s understandable. From a sociological and anthropological point of view, the straight man is pretty much the strongest position to be in, from the perspective of the species. Unfortunately, as with any membership, it carries an inherent disavowal of belonging to any others – i.e. so I’m not gay. Which carries a value judgement.

Call me idealistic (although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that raising a child as ‘gender-free’ is entirely necessary or desirable) but I think we’re all overcomplicating the issue in order to feel like we have a sense of belonging. Rather like the autistic spectrum, people occupy different places on the scale in terms of gendered and sexual identity. Thus many females display what are considered ‘male’ characteristics, and many gay people display what are termed ‘straight’ characteristics – and everything else in between. Ditching these gendered and sexualised polar opposites and adopting an outlook whereby we all carry a range of gender-determined behaviours would place us all in the same, while possibly occupying different sides of, the boat (at this point feel free to extend the metaphor and decide which crew member you’d like to be, port v starboard etc.)

Which is why I was intrigued to read Larry’s Party by Carol Shields. Partly because I am a woman writing a male narrative voice, but also because I was curious to see the elements she would include in order to communicate ‘maleness’ through the close third person point of view (interesting that she chose this rather than first person).

In part, we are on fairly ‘traditional’ and well-trodden ground: A straight white male, living in Canada/the USA who gets married, has a kid, gets divorced, the usual. She does give him a passion for flowers and plants, which is a nice touch. Arguably he displays more ‘male’ behaviour here as he gets obsessed with mazes and privet. It’s quite common to attribute pseudo-scientific characteristics to show maleness, as opposed to the ’emotional’ feminine side. But I digress. It does allow for an interesting inter-generational point to be made about changing attitudes towards what constitutes a man – spanning twenty years. The book takes us from 1976 to 1996, a period of enormous change in these areas. Larry has to work within completely different parameters to his father, as does his son as he begins to grow up. Each generation seems perturbed by the next.

Part of the ‘maleness’ is the topics covered. The entire chapter when he turns 40 is entitled ‘Larry’s Penis,’ and includes many musings on his use of it, the importance of sex to him, and how this has developed over his life. Over the course of the novel, these self-aware sections allow for a much wider critique and exploration of what it means to be a modern (at the time of writing) man. The fact that she allows her character more inner musings as he gets older also fits the way she develops the narrative voice over the years. The writer shifts his vocabulary and syntax subtly as the novel progresses, allowing the later chapters to be more verbose and ‘literary.’ She does insert a plot point around the middle when he suddenly gets obsessed with words and their meanings, which I think is a slightly sneaky way of allowing that to happen (note to self).

In other ways, he does very much fall into the ways we usually see maleness. He can’t express himself very well emotionally to his friends, he only cries once in twenty years, he is obsessed with the female form and he struggles with how to relate to his son. It is refreshing that he doesn’t go to college, and that he works in a flower shop for a very long period in his life. These are lives that, while on the surface might seem ‘dull,’ are worth exploring and commenting on.

Which leads, perhaps circuitously, to what literature may or may not be all about. So often we turn to forms of art or entertainment to reassure of us of the things that we want to be true (American Sniper being a good current example) because it is comforting to have the world represented as we want it to be. At other times, we want to be challenged, to have our expectations turned upside down (think The Wasp Factory or the Smack my Bitch Up video). Frankly, I’m greedy and I want them all.

Living in someone else’s head for a few hours/days/years is the privilege of book reading. Losing myself in Larry’s head taught me that not everyone is willing to crowbar gender into ‘accepted’ shapes, or that even if they do, the outcome can be far more subtle and intriguing than you might expect.

I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on gendered roles. Also how you write a post like this without using an excessive amount of inverted commas…