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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Class Act

Every family has central values that help shape its identity. In my family those founding principles are Catholicism followed closely by Socialism. I once made a joke about joining the young Conservatives. It didn’t go down well.

So I grew up with a class consciousness and let me be plain, I hold no sway with any suggestion that today we live in a classless society.  I make no apology that this post will talk about the middle classes and working classes in a way that can feel uncomfortable in modern Britain because we would like to think these were antiquated ideas.

Indulging my liking for 1930s graphic design
 The more I look at the women’s movement, the more I notice a bias towards the middle classes.  There is an intellectual focus that encourages a certain discourse, which, I fear, works to exclude anyone who hasn’t been to university.  A quick look round the big players offers further evidence that the working classes are squeezed from the centre of the movement.  Take a look at the board of trustees of the Fawcett Society and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, it is natural that the middle classes, who are more able to take advantage of education and other opportunities that come their way, will rise to positions of power and influence.  However,  if I were struggling to make ends meet, perhaps working more than one poorly paid job, feeling the threat of being made redundant, facing class prejudice, I wouldn’t recognise myself in these faces and would perhaps assume that their work didn’t apply to me.

It’s easy to romanticise the working classes, especially when you come from a socially mobile, socialist family, proud of their (very) working class roots.  It might be easy to imagine that  poor women are DH Lawrence-esque matriarchs: hard working, tough, getting the better of the useless men around them. It’s easy to perpetuate the myth that poor women historically had more freedoms, that necessity drove them out of the home and into the workplace to experience an independence it took their middle class counterparts years to achieve. There is nothing empowering or romantic about poverty - this is as true today as it was in the 19th century.

It is also true that many women’s issues are universal. Rape, domestic violence, prejudice in the workplace, sexual objectification do not recognise class boundaries.  All women need to be concerned about political, social and economic rights.

You might argue that these mighty middle class women are capable of acting on behalf of their working class sisters, who have less of a voice.  Object is a decent case study on this point. It’s work focuses on the objectification of women, from advertising images to the opening of lap dancing clubs. Important stuff, I have no doubt. But is porn and prostitution really the main concern for most ordinary women? Especially working class women, who face all sorts of more immediate, more pressing prejudices.

As every good activist knows, real change comes from real empowerment; from grass-roots activity.  Disenfranchisement from the movement and its campaigning will only lead to disenfranchisement from their rights for working class women.

Rather uselessly (yet again) I offer no solutions. What I’d really like to see is a more conscious effort from mainstream feminist organisations to get working class women involved in the debate and involved in activism.

United we stand and all that.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Michael Winner, Breasts and Women's double standards

I found a curious tale of the English eccentric falling foul of the dangers of Twitter in this week’s Observer.  Victoria Coren has come to blows with the infinitely eccentric Michael Winner.  And it’s all over breasts.

 Perhaps when Michael Winner started drooling over the fullness and pertness of Ms Coren’s assets he genuinely thought that it was a harmless, private joke and when his followers  joined in, he thought it was just banter amongst friends.

Obviously, Victoria isn’t so happy about the situation.
 I felt embarrassed and sad. I can bluster my way through a comedy feud, but I'm not a stripper who confidently offers her assets for appraisal. I'm a writer, with an imperfect, private body. It was embarrassing to have a thousand people sharing public opinions about my chest.

There’s no arguing with that, is there? As Victoria points out herself, she doesn’t put her body on show for comment. Although she’s well known and obviously courts publicity, the wares she is selling are her writing and her wit and it is these things that she should be judged on.

So far, so feminist. But the whole premise of this blog is to explore the grey areas and face uncomfortable truths about modern women and modern feminism.

Dare I say it? (Of course I dare!) Many women often enjoy the objectification of their sexuality by men.  I need to be careful here, in so many ways, I’m treading on uneven ground and could easily fall flat on my face.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of weeks ago I was party to a conversation in which one woman related a comment she had heard about her friend’s bum, you know the usual crass, clich├ęd, slightly dirty remark. Were these women outraged? Made to feel uncomfortable?  Not at all. “I’m quite pleased with that -  I hardly ever get comments on my bum these days.” “I thought you would be -  that’s why I told you.”

Now, that sort of remark rarely pleases me: I just can’t get over feeling uncomfortable and yes, outraged. However, I also can’t help feeling a warm glow if I’m called pretty or, even on occasion, beautiful and it’s always better if it’s from a man.  

Should we be blamed for such reactions.? We live in a world where beauty, attractiveness and sexiness are key female attributes. Of course women feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction when they are complimented because they have just been validated on the terms society judges them by.  I’d be equally happy to hear comments about how clever I am (why, thank you, I do try…) but this hardly ever happens.

 We all want to be attractive, it’s natural. But surely, so do men? I asked a male friend if he ever gets  complimented and he said hardly ever; sometimes someone might say they like his tie. But people aren’t going around talking about how witty and clever he is either. I don’t really know what to make of this.

The main difference between the sexes on this issue seems to be an absence of sexual judgment in the everyday experience of men. I’d bet that nearly every woman has had some sort of unwelcome and unsolicited comment about her looks, and more specifically, about her sexuality. And it’s not just compliments. I’ve been told ‘not to bother – it’s not working’ whilst jogging past a gang of boozing men and have been told I’m a ‘stupid ugly cow’ for riding a bike. Both comments made me angry, and perhaps, to my shame, a little sad, because they chipped away at my sense of attractiveness.

I certainly have the right to go about my life without such abuse but perhaps until we can learn to treat the two imposters just the same, and stop revelling in the favorable comments, we’re giving licence to certain types of men to offer their opinions on our breasts and our bums and anything else they care to dissect for their approval or their judgment.

Because, as Victoria Coren says, it’s not always harmless banter.
How does Michael Winner treat a nervous 23-year-old waitress when he's showing off in the Ivy? What does he say about the daughters of his friends? And these critical men who rush to defend the principle of dirty personal remarks; how do they behave around girls who are more timid, less articulate, less battle-weary than I am?


Monday, 14 February 2011

The Chore Bore

  Chores are the single biggest bugbear of my life and my relationship. I love order and want one of those homes that is always clean and calm but I just can’t be bothered to devote the time needed to keep on top of it. My husband, whilst basically very clean indeed, is not as enamoured of order and tidiness. Cue an argument that I fear may last a lifetime. Literally.

Meg, over at reclaiming wife, does a good job of summarising the tensions as well as offering some practical ways forward.

I had intended to offer the link and leave it there, but I’ve never been one for letting the chance to air an opinion pass me by.

Meg doesn’t want to make it all about gender and to a certain point she’s right: male or female there are a hundred more interesting things to do than vacuum. There is, however, plenty of research to suggest that housework is generally not divided equally between men and women when the genders cohabit.

This research echoes my own experience. My husband claims not to notice the dust gathering, or the stains on the hob, or the crumbs on the kitchen side. I don’t believe this is because he’s trying to shirk out of his responsibilities or because he expects his good little wife to sort it all out for him; I suspect it’s because he spent the first 25 years of his life having his mother sort it all out for him and there’s a whole host of gender conditioning at work there.

Does it matter? It matters personally for me and I’ll continue to scream and shout and huff and puff until my husbands DOES notice those crumbs and it does feel like we’re sharing the chores equally. But I’m not sure that the tensions in my private relationship should be a cause for public concern. At the end of the day, I don’t feel oppressed by his reluctance to clean the bathroom.

 But then the whole premise of the movement had its roots in freeing women from the chains of the domestic sphere, enabling them to play a more fulfilling role in the public domain. I fear that the lack of balance in household chores betrays a still deeply held sentiment that women’s natural place is presiding over the home. We are allowed to go out and play at the career we choose, as long as we still have a handle on the washing up.

In which case, my giving in and cleaning the bathroom when it’s his turn takes on a whole new, political, significance.  And that’s what I’ll console myself with next time we let the limescale take over. 

Monday, 7 February 2011

Word on the Street

When I was at school I was always told by my English teachers that I should write about what I know. Well, what I knew at fifteen was a deep despair that had no grounding in reality; the cruel stab of unrequited love (and ok, the cheap thrill of being loved but not loving in return) and the endless bore of small town Derbyshire.  Writing what I knew churned out introspective, self-pitying drivel. Sorry for putting you through that Mrs Hannon.

Hopefully, I’ve avoided the same pitfall on my little blog. This week I’ve been struck down with a cold and I’m seeking easy inspiration. Writing about what I know right now would constitute the television (Baking Made Easy is on in the background) and burly, surly teenagers. My last post was about the telly, so teenagers it is.

One of the great things abut working in a secondary school is dealing with people on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how they’re going to make it all ok for themselves.  Slang plays a huge role in carving out their emerging identities. There are some really interesting examples of teenagers appropriating the language of previous generations. I’m thinking specifically about the rather quaint ‘oh my days’ (although it doesn’t seem quite so quaint when directed at you by a 12 year old rascal.) This phrase reconnects with an identity that could easily be lost. There are, however, plenty examples of slang that, at least to an outsider like me, feels less positive; language that seems to firmly have its origins in misogyny.

Much of this misogyny has its roots in sex (because we all know that female sexuality is a dangerous thing, to be derided and belittled.) There can be no better example than the word ‘beat’, which for those of you who don’t hang-out regularly with south London teenagers, means to have sex.  I have no doubt that to refer to sex through the use of a word that conjures violence, dominance and pain reveals a deeply misogynistic culture. I’ve challenged some of my students on this point (because if I don’t as their English teacher, who will?) and of course they defend themselves by claiming they are not using it with the same associations that I place upon the word. Probe a little deeper and they reveal that they wouldn’t say beat to refer to a long-term girlfriend: even on their own terms there is an acknowledgement of a lack of respect in the word and in the act.

Then there’s moist. It has it’s roots in sex too, a sort reference to the ever ready woman. Yup. That gross. And it’s usage? I’ve not had a decent explanation from a student but the general consensus is you don’t want to find yourself being called moist – you’d be branded a bit of an idiot.  So again, women and their sexuality are placed in the position of weakness and disdain.

You could say that these examples are merely words but if you did I’d give you a whole lecture on the social and cultural significance of language, what it reveals about our identities and biases, and you’d regret you’d said anything. And besides, the misogyny behind this language manifests itself in all sorts of ways.  Many boys are quick to interpret the female characters they encounter in the English classroom  as slags and if she’s not  a slag then she’s frigid, obviously.

I worry that this sort of language betrays a society that almost celebrates a violent and scornful outlook towards women. I worry what kind of partners and fathers these men will make, growing up in such a culture.

And so I’ll continue to question their interpretations and I’ll continue to challenge their use of misogynistic language, even if it feels like smacking my head against a very thick brick wall.


Friday, 4 February 2011

My Big Fat Guilty Pleasure

It’s been a helluva week at work , the kind where you have no room to breathe or think because you must squeeze as much productivity as possible out of each and every second of your day. I won’t bore you with the details but to suffice to say there’s been extra stresses on top of all the usual mass of human insecurities that is working in a large comprehensive.

So I’ve tended to come home completely spent with nothing more to give, which explains the lack of blog activity.  The post-work stupor has meant that I’ve watched more telly than usual this week. Usually I try to only turn it on if there is something I actually, really and specifically want to watch. It’s all very consciously bourgeois.

So my observations  this week are as follows: Kevin McCloud looks much more attractive as an older man than he does in the re-runs of Grand Designs from the late 90s.  And, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is an intriguing little show.

Who knew some men could look better with less hair?
It’s voyeuristic television at its worse, and as a consequence, is voyeuristic television at its best.  There’s no pretense of being invited into the heart of a community, as with the best of such documentaries. Rather we’re standing at the edge of a big goldfish bowl, staring in and very firmly laughing at the poor misguided creatures swimming around inside.

It’s a show that’s attracted a fair amount of interest on the old social networks, mainly larks and banter about fake tans and big dresses. And why not? That castle cake on this week’s show was pretty funny.

But beyond the 16-stone dresses , the diamante and the frills, there are darker revelations about the travelling community.

Now I’m a good liberal girl and I know that I should believe in cultural relativism.  This week’s programme ended with the assertion that we could learn from the way the travellers live their life – strict moral codes about sexuality that help young girls to avoid exploitation; defined roles resulting in happy and satisfied individuals.

I remain unconvinced.  Traveller girls are encouraged to leave school at 13, many of them unable to read or write (this also seems to be the case for many of the boys). This lack of education seriously limits the choices  and aspirations of these girls. They are expected to take care of the family home until they are married, sometimes impossibly young, when they are then expected to take care of their husbands.

When questioned on the fairness of this set up, they were insistent that ‘It’s a man’s world. It’s how it should be.’  Proper education is a powerful thing. It helps you to develop a questioning and enquiring mind. Pulling young girls out of education helps to maintain the status quo: they are not given the tools to query  their lot and the ways of the world around them. 

And then there’s the practice of ‘grabbing’. Young traveller girls aren’t allowed to be seen out with boys: that would put their reputation and honour in question. However, they are permitted to be physically carried off and isolated by burly boys who  then slap them around, asking for a kiss. It’s makes for uncomfortable viewing.  And what is the result of sanctioning violence at the very beginning of relations between the genders? Data is difficult to gather about such an enclosed community but one paper estimates that  between 61% and 81% of married Gypsy and Traveller women have experienced direct abuse from a partner.

I’m not suggesting that we go and seek out the travelling community with pitchforks and torches, demanding better treatment of women. I wouldn’t want to fuel further prejudice against this already disadvantaged group. But I’m  not comfortable with tittering at the big dresses and then turning my back on some of the more questionable cultural norms.  There is inherent criticism of these practices in the show, but no suggestion of how to deal with it. We are encouraged to laugh at their funny gypsy ways, are encouraged to harshly judge their traditional culture, but  we are offered no positive way forward or solutions to these difficult and important issues.

The rights of women are granted to all women, not just those in a position to ensure they can access their rights for themselves. It’s a huge problem for both the movement and government to ensure women on the fringes of society have access to their rights. I can offer no answer here and in any case it needs to happen from within the community . I fear the best I can do is feel a stab of guilt next week when I scoff at the see-through mesh wedding dress and the flimsy horse-drawn carriage.

Oh, and bring attention to it on t’interweb.