Archive for the ‘misogyny’ category

Marie Kondo and Miranda Priestly

February 10, 2016

I’m still working my way through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. It’s a super-quick read; the slow bit is actually putting Marie Kondo’s suggestions into practice.

And yes, her approach is not for everyone. Any regular reader of this blog will be able to guess without reading a word of the book that this professional declutterer has a lot of privilege and is writing for people who also have a lot of privilege. Her simple (but powerful) idea is that you only keep the things that “spark joy” in your heart; taken literally, that would involve getting rid of a lot of boring but essential things. Fine if you have the funds to replace them, maybe, but disastrous if you don’t. (And, actually, pretty irritating even if you do. I could afford to get rid of my boring raincoat and buy a new one, but the thought of going shopping to buy one that “sparks joy” fills me with dread.)

So every time I mention something from the book to my partner, they sing the word “Pri-vi-lege!” in the way that we imagine Geri Halliwell sings “Protein!” at lunchtime. But I have a lot of affection for the writer. For a start, she’s so clearly on the autistic spectrum. She’s been obsessed with tidying and reorganising spaces since the age of five, possibly younger. She feels as if she can relate to objects in a way she can’t relate to humans. She’s astonishingly good at rearranging objects and spaces in her mind – so good that she doesn’t need to physically be in a space to come up with ideas for organising it. In fact, she can conjure up a picture in her mind of every single house she’s worked on and tell you exactly where her former clients keep their different categories of stuff. But because her obsession is in a domestic, traditionally female area, I suspect her Aspie nature has gone completely under the radar.

Same with Miranda Priestly, the bitch boss in The Devil Wears Prada. If you read the book, you start to suspect that 99% of the nightmarish crap she puts her assistants through is because she lacks theory of mind. Time and time again, she forces Andrea (the junior assistant) to play detective by withholding some important piece of information. For example, at one point Andrea is tasked with contacting an antique furniture shop that Miranda has recently visited; all she is told is the rough area of the city it’s in, so she travels from shop to shop asking people if her boss has been in recently. It turns out that all along, Miranda has been in possession of a business card with the full address and contact details for the shop. When Andrea admits defeat, Miranda gives her the business card and insults her for not using this information in the first place. The book is full of incidents like this. Does Miranda withhold information on purpose, to make life difficult for her assistants? Or does she genuinely not grasp that not everybody will be in possession of the information she has unless she shares it with them?

At another point, Miranda throws a party. Andrea is tasked with obtaining pictures of the guests, then memorising their faces so she can identify them correctly and greet them on the night. Is Miranda just putting Andrea through another trial? Or does she in fact need Andrea to do this because she herself has big problems recognising faces? At the party itself:

I didn’t have to hear what [the guests] were saying to know that she was barely responding at the appropriate time. Social graces were not her strength […] I always enjoyed the rare occasions when I got to watch Miranda trying to impress those around her, because she wasn’t naturally charming.

Towards the end of the book, Miranda is told she’s going to receive an award and will be asked to give a short speech.

“Why the hell was I not informed that I’d be receiving some nonsense award at today’s luncheon?” she hissed, her face contorting with a hatred I’d never seen before. Displeasure? Sure. Dissatisfaction? All the time. Annoyance, frustration, generalized unhappiness? Of course, every minute of every day. But I’d never seen her look so downright pissed off.

A sudden change of plan involving having to give a speech at short notice is enough to stress most people out, but is the intensity of Miranda’s reaction because she’s on the spectrum?

You shouldn’t internet-diagnose real people, so I guess you shouldn’t internet-diagnose fictional characters. But Miranda Priestly ticks a lot of ASD boxes. And yet…she works in the frivolous, female-dominated world of fashion, so of course she must be neurotypical, right?

Miranda Priestly can tell the difference between two seemingly identical white scarves with just one glance; that must be because she’s a silly frivolous woman obsessed with fashion. She can look at a person and instantly identify the designer of every single item of clothing they’re wearing, even if she can’t reliably recognise the face of her own assistant; that must be because she’s a label snob. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like an absolutely terrible person as well as an Aspie, and it’s her awfulness that moves the book forward. But if a book depicted a male editor of a magazine about model trains and kept every other detail the same, would it take 13 years for someone to suggest that he might possibly not be neurotypical? (The book came out in 2003, the film came out in 2006, and yet as far as I know, I’m the first person to suggest that the Miranda Priestly character could be on the spectrum.)

Since a female friend of mine came out as Aspie recently, I’ve been wondering how many other women have gone undiagnosed because their Aspie traits have been masked by stereotypically female interests.

Why isn’t rape defined as terrorism?

May 24, 2013

People are talking about what terrorism is. Do you define a crime as terrorism by looking at who the perpetrator is? Or by looking at the victim(s)? Or is it about the crime itself, or the stated reasons for the crime? There’s no legally binding international definition, but M15 gives one possible definition:

The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; and it involves or causes:

  • serious violence against a person;
  • serious damage to a property;
  • a threat to a person’s life;
  • a serious risk to the health and safety of the public; or
  • serious interference with or disruption to an electronic system.

When these discussions come up, I always think the same thing: if what you’re describing is terrorism, why aren’t we defining rape as terrorism too?

It’s an act, or threat of action, designed to intimidate a section of the public (usually women) for the purposes of advancing an ideological cause (usually male dominance) and it involves serious violence against a person. It’s a global problem. The actual incidence of rape seems to vary wildly from country to country, but the message is universal: women should do the work of avoiding it, change their own behaviour to reduce the chances of it happening to them. And men who’ve been raped are under huge cultural pressure to keep quiet about it.

The ideological aim of the rapist has been achieved if we’re not talking about the perpetrators and how to stop them. It’s been achieved if we carry on behaving as if rape can never be stopped, only managed and dodged. It’s been achieved if a huge section of the world’s population is amending its behaviour, living a less free life, because of the threat of rape.

I’m not claiming that rapists are an organised group with stated aims. They don’t have to be. The individual actions still add up to a clear pattern with a clear message.

We talk about rape as an act of terrorism in conflict areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we don’t talk about rape as an act of terrorism happening globally, all the time, with the effect of frightening half the world into behaving more submissively. We talk about rape as a war crime; we don’t talk about it as a war in itself.

And the amount of money we spend on fighting rape is, needless to say, a pittance compared to what we spend on fighting the “easy” kind of terrorism, the kind carried out by bearded foreigners with bombs instead of our friends and colleagues and brothers and sons. The questions we ask and the assumptions we make about the two kinds of terrorism are wildly different.

Pretty letters

April 10, 2013

Chinese “poem” was an advert for a strip club:

This is what happens when you decide that Chinese text can be used as cover art and focus exclusively on how pretty it looks rather than what it means. This is what happens when you treat another culture’s language as decoration.

The deeper irony is that the advert itself was for a strip club. Strip clubs are all about the visuals too.

It’s a hard-knock life

February 25, 2013

Apparently an Associated Press reporter told actress Quvenzhané Wallis: “I’m calling you Annie now.” Quvenzhané’s response is all over the blogosphere: people are talking about how assertive she is, what a smart comeback it was, to remind the reporter of her real name.

Within a few hours of this, The Onion “hilariously” called this award-winning child actress a c***, in a tweet which has since been deleted.

I hope nobody doubts that names have a serious role to play when we’re thrashing out power differentials.

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.

Why is government never “just right”?

November 30, 2008

I’m having trouble with “small government”. Not the concept itself, but the phrase. I know it’s meant to mean a hands-off form of government, but to me a small government is one that’s little enough to fit into the small details of people’s lives and affect them at a minor level.

A big government should be one that’s too large to concern itself with individuals’ personal business, focusing instead on sweepingly large concepts like life, liberty and justice.

So why are the phrases the other way round? Is it because government looks smaller when it’s further away? But if so, why not call it distant government or something like that?

A further difficulty with the small government v. big government concept is that some libertarians who claim to oppose “small government” are absolutely fine with taking reproductive rights away from individuals and putting them in the chilly hands of the state. Perhaps they’d like government to shrink so small that it can fit inside the womb.

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!