The Jacket

It was bought for Harry’s christening. Sharp darts in the waist and a slippery blue lining. Mum kept it at the back of the wardrobe, shielded in a cover. Black makes anything look smart.

A baked late-September day; the interview. Perched at the back of the bus, the hum of the engine vibrated sweat into my skin. Keep the arms down. CV printed at the internet cafe with grades in a bigger font than the school name.

I’d tried to press out the cardboard shape from the shirt packaging. Iron too hot; a shine-streak down the front, a whiff of polyester plastic.

They put us in a room. The other candidates were beige flowing lines, rippling pages of magazines. I was the cardboard leaflet jammed through the letterbox.

The slick from the bus crept from beneath the fabric. That prized item. It didn’t belong here.

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.

We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

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.

The Dark Rooms Writers Have to Enter

Yes I’m a little late, but I have just devoured Emma Donoghue’s wonderful book, Room. Not since Christmas have I found a book that made me pause at every moment I could on my journeys around London, and even had me walking down the street reading in order to just get a few pages in before work.

One of the most beautiful things is the voice. A child narrator can sometimes be a little trite and affected, but Donoghue’s use of subtle syntax, vocabulary and slightly skewed perspective creates a powerful voice that’s delightful in its intimacy and disturbing through the reader’s external knowledge of the real situation Jack finds himself in.

With all the hype about the film, you probably already know the story. Just in case, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy who is trapped, with his mother – ‘Ma’, in a high-tech cage created by a man who kidnapped her at the age of nineteen and repeatedly raped her. The idea for the book is taken from the disgusting Fritzl case in Austria, where a man trapped his daughter in a basement and repeatedly raped her, resulting in three children. Having looked at images of where she was held, it was interesting to note the level of detail Donoghue has used, right down to the cork on the wall. The imagination and logic she must have used to put together exactly how this tiny world works is in itself impressive.

To see this harrowing story through the eyes of the child is to offer us a unique perspective. On the one hand, it gives us hope. The delicate and intimate relationship between the mother and her son is a truly beautiful thing. In the words of the character of Ma – ‘he saved me.’ Through each other, they find solace in their captivity. Later in the book it also allows for a possibility of recovery, although I was pleased to see that this wasn’t made too simple.

The other thing it does it heighten the claustrophobia and shudder-inducing reality that these women (and there have been a disturbing number of them over the years) have been subjected to. His tiny voice repeating the actions they do over and over again every day, the tiny space they do ‘laps’ in, all of it creates a stifling atmosphere that is unnerving.

But I think there’s more going on here, something that was missing from a lot of the reviews I’ve read. Once the pair have escaped, it’s the reaction of the world that really allows the author to critique society. Firstly, on gender roles. Jack is referred to as ‘sweetie’ and ‘little lady’ because he has long hair and likes Dora the Explorer. The adults he meets are perplexed by his lack of interest in ‘boy’ things, and find it difficult to interact with him. Parenting itself is up for scrutiny. While Jack of course has had the extreme of constant contact with his mother, the activities they do together are fantastic, and he shrewdly observes that most of the parents he sees in ‘Outside’ tend to ignore their children, preferring to look at their phones or chat to other adults rather than interact.

Perhaps most poignant is the general hype and hysteria surrounding their story. Much like the real case, they are hounded by the press. Through Jack catching some of the news stories in a desire to see himself, the response is everything from sainthood to some sort of psychoanalytic deconstruction of us all being in our own ‘cages.’

Most horrific for the reader and damning for the media is the interview she gives. I loved the sideways dig at people that are prudes about breastfeeding; when the interviewer raises it as a shocking detail (she continued to breastfeed him), ‘Ma’ laughs at the absurdity that this intimate sharing between them is the most surprising thing about her story. The ‘hype’ of the media is beautifully illustrated by Ma’s unwillingness to accept herself as a hero. She is a woman that has survived an awful situation. She gives a list of others that are worse off than her (the only place I felt the slight touch of the author was how she knew the statistics for solitary confinement in the US), that go through difficult things every day, but lack the ‘freak’ quality that makes stories like this so lauded by the media.

The language of difficult situations is rife. How the boy must be ‘damaged,’ how she must want to ‘forgive.’ I very much appreciated the pragmatic approach that the author took. Yes, of course there are repercussions and both will have echoes of their ordeal in their later life, but I liked the way it was seen as a problem to overcome, not a life-defining change.

So why on earth write a book about something so horrible? When I told a friend what I was reading, he laughed. ‘Light reading, then?’ was his question. And my answer is, not exactly, but this stuff is vital. In the words of Ma, people are not good and evil. Hitler was not Voldemort, Pol Pot was not Sauron. We like to simplify narratives but, as Ma says, ‘people are both.’ Confronting the darkest parts is incredibly important. In this most specific case, and in lots of others such as rape, sexual abuse, discrimination, the list can go on. Hopefully this is something we won’t have to face ourselves, but it is vital that we struggle to understand that these things can and do happen. A narrative has the power to fully absorb you in a situation that a news report simply cannot. Once you understand the feelings of those involved, it opens our eyes to the possibilities – good and bad – of everyone. Only by moving away from easy stereotypes and confronting the terrible things that happen can we hope to understand ourselves and each other more.

Genderspecs – The Gendered Gaze

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Genderspecs – unpicking gender stereotypes, one blog at a time.

The Gendered Gaze

Come on, you’ve done it too, haven’t you? Described your mate Terry as a ‘man’s man’ or as ‘bloke,’ your mate Fiona as a ‘girly girl.’ These are broad brushstrokes we all recognise. Terry probably likes football, or some sort of sport, while I can bet that the canine following Fiona round the house is not a wolfhound. Gender is a nice simple set of rules we can assign to people. The problem is, it isn’t as simple as that. Not only this, but Terry and Fiona deserve better. We all do.

The most interesting conversation I have with my A Level students happens around the time we start to talk about feminist criticism and literature. I get them to write down ‘male’ and ‘female,’ then get them to think of as many things they associate with each one. What they never fail to do is write down a whole lot of words that are associated with gender, not sex. The problem is, we’ve spent so long assuming that sex (as in, the contents of your pants) and gender are the same thing, the reactions we have to people that move outside of our expectations can provoke deeply uncomfortable, or violent responses. But these are all things that we’ve created.

I cringe at my own female gaze. The times I size up a woman, assessing whether or not I think she can pull off her outfit, if I think someone that age be wearing that length of skirt. It’s some sort of triggered instinct that surges into my brain before I can stamp it down. Changing the way we see each other takes effort. Not because it’s wrong, but because we’ve been trained to think in these simplistic ways from the first time we were swathed in either a ‘Mummy’s Little Monster’ or ‘Daddy’s little Princess’ babygro. But we can do it.

And the view isn’t as rosy on the other side either. As Norah Vincent discovered in her research for the book Self-Made Man, where she lived as a man for eighteen months, entering the privileged land of the patriarchy has its own drawbacks. From pseudo-emotional drinking in a bowling team, to stifled feelings in a monastery, to downright misogyny in the door-to-door salesman trade, she discovered that the magic combination of white and male isn’t so great. It meant scaling back her listening skills, repressing her emotions, not being able to say what she wanted to say. She felt far more restricted in her clothes, too. While assessing the wardrobe is never an easy task, I do think that having the binary option of suit or jeans might get a teensy bit boring. If my other half wanted to chuck on a skirt or a stretchy top that showed off his lovely chest, why should I care?

Recently, I’ve become for more interested in not just those who challenge gender stereotypes, refuse to be coloured by the male or female gaze, but those who actually cross boundaries between the two. I distinctly remember a time on the bus, I was probably eight, and there was someone on the bus whose gender I just couldn’t figure out. And how I stared. Trying to find some hint; stubble, makeup, anything that would allow me to settle into comfortable recognition and go back to thinking about what to buy with my pocket money. Where does this obsession come from? It’s not surprising, really. When I was growing up (old lady alert) the projections of gender I experienced were very rigid, and growing up in the 90s didn’t do much to dissuade that (although thanks to Sarah Cox and Zoe Ball I may have ruined my liver in the quest to ‘be as good as a man’). In every glance, we’re looking to seek comfort from categorising people. If we find people who seem fluid, or are dressed or portraying an image of something other than what we see as their ‘real’ gender, it doesn’t fit with our pigeonholing. And why should it? I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear heels and a skirt every day simply because I have a uterus, so who am I to assign strict rules of visual presentation to others? I can’t imagine how it must feel to not have your body line up with your mental image of yourself. It’s bad enough when you feel like a gorgeous sex bomb (usually about three drinks in) and you catch yourself in the mirror and get a full view of your wrinkles and red eyes in the harsh lights of the pub toilets, but to look in the mirror and not see your true self, that must be dreadful. If altering your dress, your mannerisms, your body, to something you feel more represents you makes you happy, then we should be applauding it, not denigrating it.

So that’s what, in my own way, I’m trying to do. Reaching across the virtual landscape to offer support to anyone who feels stifled or judged by the gendered gaze. Joining my voice with all the others who believe that a person is just that: a person, before they are anything else.

So here’s to the future, to change. To becoming more than visible. Personally, I hope that if I have kids, when they’re on the bus and they see someone who doesn’t fit with their ideas of a fixed gender, they don’t even bat an eyelid.

#TDOV #MoreThanVisibilty