Archive for the ‘feminism’ category

On IWD and “just getting on with it”

March 16, 2016

Vintage lingerie vendors What Katie Did got a few knickers in a twist on International Women’s Day when they tweeted:

what katie did screenshot

#InspiringWomen – yes! But do we really need #InternationalWomensDay? At What Katie Did we’re to [sic] busy #WomenJustGettingOnWithItDay

Great point! Why don’t the women in sub-Saharan Africa who don’t get taught to read and write just get on with it and open a boutique on Portobello Road? Why don’t the women who spend five hours a day fetching water just get on with it and do some 1950s-style lingerie design?

There were a few more tweets along those lines, all deleted once they realised they’d annoyed more people than expected. The screenshot above is courtesy of illustrator @MurderofGoths, who then asked people to suggest names of women who’ve done the work that makes it possible for others to just “get on with it” so she could celebrate them with drawings. (Melitta Bentz, Leona Chalmers, Elizabeth Smith Miller.)

In this context, the privilege behind the concept of “just getting on with it” spills out like cleavage from an ill-fitting “vintage” bra. It means ignorance of the hidden (or not-so-hidden) labour of others. It means ignorance of the structures that some people have in place and others don’t: water supply networks, courts, human rights, healthcare…(I could go on. I could go on for a long time.) It means ignorance of the sad fact that some basic rights have to be fought for, not just once but repeatedly. It’s not just an acceptance of the status quo, but an inability to imagine that things could ever be any different.

So yes, many of the people who use this phrase about themselves are expressing their privilege. But it’s also used to silence the powerless and discourage action. Remember the warthog in The Lion King who “solves” his problems by shrugging them off? On the subject of that damn warthog, I once wrote:

So much of what’s wrong in the world is perpetuated by people who put up with bad stuff instead of trying to change it. I’m not necessarily blaming people who choose this course of (non-)action; if you’re powerless and focused on survival, maybe it’s your only option. But that doesn’t mean we have to think that endurance or denial are good strategies for dealing with bad stuff.
[…] If you think that denying problems is the happy-go-lucky approach, people who actually face up to problems look uptight and boring in comparison.

Yep. The concept of “just getting on with it” frames the people who want to make things better and fight injustice as trouble-makers. The problem-solvers are magically recast as problem-creators, in contrast to the people who “just get on with it”. There’s a false dichotomy being set up between the two groups. That false dichotomy rests on the false idea that raising problems is incompatible with doing your work well or caring enough. Of course, I would actually argue that the people agitating for better things care a hell of a lot more than the people “just getting on with it”. “Fitting in” is not the same thing as actually being invested in your community or workplace (or whatever).

But mostly, when I hear people using the “getting on with it” line about themselves, it’s not about their privilege at all. I hear it a lot from people working in industries that are hostile to them, and it’s a way of rationalising their powerlessness rather than expressing any privilege. Yes, really the boss should give you ear-defenders when you’re using that equipment, but you just get on with it. Yes, it would be nice if the site had a toilet for women so you don’t have to use the men’s and run the gauntlet every time, but you just get on with it.  In this kind of context, “getting on with it” might mean damaging your hearing, or developing a urinary tract infection, or developing PTSD, or doing unpaid overtime, or working for below minimum wage, or trying to laugh off unwanted sexual comments. In other words, “getting on with it” means that your health or safety or self-respect takes a hit in order to keep someone else comfortable.

Maybe it’s now clear what a loaded term it is. There are two real meanings: benefiting from the unacknowledged work of others, or putting up with a situation you think you can’t change. If you find yourself using that phrase, ask yourself: am being clueless about how other people’s hard work benefits me, or am I eating shit?

Our Manic Pixie Dream House

June 5, 2015

My partner and I have decided to sell our house. We’ve followed the conventional wisdom, as set out in a thousand telly programmes, how-to guides and magazines: tidy, declutter, deep-clean, carry out minor repairs, etc, etc. But the reality of getting your house ready for marketing photography or for a viewing is more than that: it’s about trying to hide the fact that the house is currently inhabited by humans with bodies.

To make your house into a desirable object, the evidence of your actual inhabitation must be removed from view. This means (temporarily, thank God) hiding the hundreds of tiny things that make your house a comfortable and convenient place to spend time in: the bins, the spare loo roll, the much-used appliances that normally sit on the worktop, etc. This week, as we shoved the soap-dish into a cupboard and drank straight from the tap to avoid getting any cups dirty, it came to me: selling your house turns you into a manic pixie dream girl.

For anyone who’s not up on the concept, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Twitter account will give you a good idea. She has no interior life of her own and exists as a human reward for the male protagonist. She is quirky, bubbly, attractive and in no way an actual person with needs. In other words, she’s the human equivalent of the house with no shampoo in the shining bathroom, no mugs on the coffee table, no shoes in the porch. Despite the surface quirkiness, she’s a blank canvas for you to start sketching your own character development.

Laurie Penny nails it when she writes that it’s easy for youngish women to get shunted into the manic pixie mould. Are you an attractive-ish female-identified person who can tick three or more qualities off this list?

Creative in your spare time
In a “creative” profession
In a job you dislike but can joke amusingly about
You enjoy an unusual hobby
New to the area/country or in the middle of travelling

If so, I’m guessing that at some point in your life you’ve been mistaken for a manic pixie dream girl  (who does not exist) by some straight guy (who was slightly disappointed when you turned out to be a person). And when I say “at some point in your life”, obviously I mean “at a point in your life when you were young, attractive and probably thin”.

For others, selling your house is the first time you have to pull this crap. “Soap? Shampoo? No way! I just jump into a mountain stream! Possibly I yelp adorably while doing so and then encourage you to jump in as well. Shoes? Hell no, you won’t see any shoes when you come to view my house. I just walk barefoot to my adorable job at the quirky bakery. Or perhaps I don’t actually have feet. Maybe it’s just a cute haze from the ankle down. And before you ask, no, of course I do not eat or go to the toilet or do laundry or wash dishes or file any paperwork.

Meanwhile, the house itself backs you up. “Bins? I have no bins! (Please don’t look behind the hedge.) My floors have never witnessed cat-sick! I always have a vase of fresh flowers! I always smell of something nice like vanilla or coffee but don’t worry, no food or drink is ever prepared here because there are no human bodies here! No human bodies! None! I am here to help with your character development. Maybe you’ll be living in me when you meet your soulmate, quit your job for something better or take up snowboarding!

I haven’t felt this bad about owning a human body since I was a teenager. And – maybe coincidentally, maybe not – my body has recently been going out of its way to remind me that it’s real.

Manic Pixie Dream Girling is work. Hard work. If you’re doing it to sell a house for thousands of pounds: marvellous. If you’re doing it for no reward, because your existence has been framed as somebody else’s reward: terrible.

Read the articles about how to prep your home for viewings. Imagine they’re talking about a person and not a house. I hope the psychic violence behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl framework jumps out at you like a murderer jumping from behind my super-clean shower curtain.

Leaving your car unlocked

December 18, 2012

Imagine that you live in a parallel universe where everybody owns a car. Not just rich people; everybody. You’re actually born with a car. If you want to travel anywhere, you absolutely have to bring the car with you. Leaving it behind in a secure place is absolutely not an option, ever.

There’s no way of locking your car, no way of even removing the key from the ignition. But it’s sort of OK, because that’s just how things are. Anyway, there’s a widespread understanding that stealing someone’s car is one of the worst things you can possibly do to them, and that decent people would never do it. Roughly half the world’s population have never worried at all about the possibility of having their car stolen. Of the other half, perhaps a third have had their car stolen. But the funny thing about this parallel universe is that the vast majority of thefts actually happen to cars inside locked garages, where you’d think they would be at their most secure. And most car thefts are perpetrated by friends and relatives of the car owner, people the owner could be expected to trust.

Some people are under huge social pressure to bring their car everywhere, to make it visible, to modify it so it makes more noise. Other people are under huge social pressure to stay at home with their cars and hide them if possible – but oddly, they’re the ones more likely to have them stolen.

Despite widespread agreement that car theft is a terrible thing, there’s a very low conviction rate for it. When you head out to meet friends in your car, you always know there’s a chance that your car will be stolen and that the thief will get away with it. But you have no way of preventing this, not even if you hide away at home – especially if you hide away at home.

Your choice isn’t between possibly getting your car stolen and definitely not getting your car stolen. Your choice is between living your life (and possibly getting your car stolen) or living a grey, ghostly husk of a boxed-in life, full of fear (and still possibly getting your car stolen). You choose the former option and you go out, with your car.

In that parallel universe, Mia Freedman’s comparison between leaving your car unlocked and walking home at night after a few drinks would be valid. But in the universe we actually live in, it’s victim-blaming bullshit.

Why “bad feminist” is a dangerous humblebrag

May 30, 2012

I hear this a lot.

Oh dear, I’m a bad feminist!

Don’t tell the sisterhood, but…

And if that makes me a bad feminist, tough!

[Tweet inexplicably followed by the hashtag #badfeminist]

And why exactly does this annoy the fuck out of me? Well. Assuming “bad feminist” means someone who does not actually fulfil the requirements of being a feminist, you might expect to hear something along the lines of:

I want my daughter to grow up believing she’s inferior to men. I’m such a bad feminist!

But you never do hear the phrase in that context. Instead, you hear:

Actually, if we could afford it I’d be happy to give up work. I’m such a bad feminist!

Pink is my favourite colour. Oh dear, bad feminist!

Being dominated turns me on. Don’t tell the sisterhood!

I wasn’t offended by that thing that offended some feminists. Guess I’m a bad feminist after all!

Gloria Steinem may string me up by my toes, but I want to be there for my kids and my husband.

In other words, you almost always hear the “bad feminist” boast – because, yes, it is a boast – in a context where the speaker is telling you they’ve somehow failed to live up to expectations, or failed to fit in with accepted thinking. In other words, a context where the speaker is setting up a proscriptive straw-sisterhood in order to contrast themselves with it. A context where the speaker is none-too-subtly telling the world about their unique snowflakicity.

There are several deep ironies here. One is that the right to determine your own thoughts and actions is a core goal of feminism. Another is that this straw-sisterhood, meeting regularly and laying down the law on all aspects of feminist life, only exists in the fevered imagination of the “bad feminist” herself. But the deepest irony of all is this.

When you describe yourself as a bad feminist, it sounds on the surface like a minor, charming admission of failure. But scratch that surface very gently and it’s revealed to be a boast. Scratch the surface a tiny bit further and it becomes clear that you’ve created a whole imaginary phalanx of nasty, bossy feminists to help you make that boast. And when a fresh batch of imaginary nasty feminists is released into the world, it undermines feminism because it misrepresents feminism. The self-proclaimed “bad feminist” is throwing an entire human rights movement under the bus for the sake of being able to say: “Tee-hee, aren’t I naughty?”

In other words: when you boast about being a bad feminist, you are being a bad feminist. Just not in the way you think you are.

Hath not a woman eyes? Hath she not hands, organs, dimensions, senses?

October 21, 2008

I don’t want to get into the general debate surrounding the C-word – whether or not it’s misogynistic, whether it’s possible to “reclaim” it, whether it’s unacceptable to say it on television. But it is a very good example of how a euphemism in the wrong hands can prove more offensive than the unobscured meaning.

It probably started in the way that many euphemisms start: with the dilemma of how you report someone else’s speech if you think that one of the words used is unrepeatable.  In the case of the C-word, people started saying things like “a coarse word for part of the female anatomy”, “a slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy”, etc.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of people are happy to use long words without troubling to check what they mean. Many of those people have (incorrectly but understandably) guessed from context that “female anatomy” is a posh phrase denoting the vagina (and nothing else) and begun using the phrase with that intended meaning.

I hope it’s obvious why seeing “female anatomy” as synonymous with “female genitals” is misogynistic as well as a great way of failing medical school. But I want to go back and look at the misogyny in the original euphemism.

People using euphemisms like “a certain part of the female anatomy” are trying to convey that the word they’re talking about is a well-known swearword which can be both an insult and a slang term for a woman’s vagina. But there’s no need to do this. If you have a genuine desire to protect the listener from swearwords, you don’t need to make any effort to convey the specific swearword. Just say “He used a swearword to insult him”.

If you get specific in your description of the swearword, you are trying to evoke that word in the listener’s mind. That’s an acknowledgement that both you and your listener are familiar with the word. And by choosing a euphemism that emphasises the word’s literal meaning, you are bringing the literal and non-literal meanings together.

Then, of course, there’s the odd choice of vocabulary. A lot of people, when faced with the task of reporting offensive speech, will go for a kind of jokey floweriness in the language they use, e.g. “go forth and multiply”, “extracting the u-rine”, etc. But I think the choice of the phrase “female anatomy” is more significant than that. For a start, why not use one of the hundreds of existing synonyms for “vagina”? Or, if you really can’t bear to say any of those words, why not go for the more natural-sounding “part of a woman’s body”?

Because saying “a certain part of the female anatomy” is a distancing technique in which the quasi-medical language makes the object of the description seem more dirty and problematic.

So you’re reminding your listener of a word which links the vagina and insults; you’re reminding your listener that our culture connects women’s bodies with bad language; you’re implying that even ordinary words for the vagina aren’t suitable to say out loud; and you’re doing all that without even cursing. Talk about having your c*** and eating it.

As for the idiots who think that “female anatomy” is a fancy way of describing a woman’s genitals, you can’t stop them being stupid but you can have some fun with them. From this moment onwards, I therefore decree that “synecdoche” is an even more fancy euphemism for, y’know. A woman’s… y’know. Spread the word!

Typo of the week

March 8, 2007

An accidentally insightful typo from someone called “kate” commenting on I Blame The Patriarchy:

“Wasn’t Lacan a Freud worshipper? Isn’t psychoanalysis considered a little old hate these days? Just askin’.”