In which I defend Nadine Dorries ever so slightly

You might have noticed, I am not the biggest fan of Nadine Dorries. I really, really wish that she will get raptured and piss off and leave the rest of us alone. When I saw this, though, even I felt a little bit sorry for her.

In the clip above, Dorries asks a question at Prime Minister’s Questions. It is a silly question, a rather standard PMQs jeer jeer guffaw pantomime piece attacking the government from the right. Cameron’s response–and the response of much of the rest of the House of Commons is far nastier than Dorrie’s unpleasant question.

Cameron declares, with a schoolboy grin on his face, that he knows Dorries must be “extremely frustrated”. The House hoots like gibbons and claps like seals. HO HO HO! THE LADY ISN’T GETTING ENOUGH WILLIES UP FANNY!

This is hardly the first time Cameron and his cronies have displayed casual sexism in the House of Commons: he has a previous record of telling a woman MP to “calm down, dear“, to great honks of laughter from his regressive boys’ club buddies.

Not in the clip is Dorries storming out of the House following this.

What is shown is fairly interesting: Dorries’s immediate reaction. The face she pulls is a classic: I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it a thousand times before. The expression that says “that’s totally fucking not on, but I don’t want to look like a cunt by expressing anger, so if I just laugh sweetly, maybe they’ll like me.” Presumably after this, Dorries had her “fuck this shit” moment and stormed out.

And I’m with Dorries. It’s totally fucking not on, and fuck that shit. That sort of behaviour in a place of work is never acceptable. That sort of behaviour is never acceptable anywhere. To laugh at a person because of presumed amount of sex they are getting is not on.

The last time I received street harassment, I got told I “need a good length” when I failed to react to the “hey baby, wanna party” with the good grace the beery bastard wanted me to. This is a fairly standard response, based on some kind of notion that women are only pissed off because they are not receiving the adequate dose of cock. A similar situation takes place with men: consider the insult “sad wanker”. The implication here is that oodles of heterosex is the only thing stopping people from becoming a cavalcade of miserable gits.

With women, though, a double standard applies. We can use Dorries as an example here, too. For a short while, Dorries was dating a married man. She was met with scorn for this, and a lot of the response to it looked like slut-shaming. Certainly, there is a legitimate criticism of hypocrisy when Dorries claims to believe in abstinence and the sanctity of marriage, but is it really acceptable to attack her for the sexual behaviour alone? Of course not.

Dorries manages to be both a slut and a sexually-frustrated harpy. The attacks come from both critics and her own allies. And that isn’t fair, and I do not think that this should have to happen to anyone.

My sympathy to Dorries stretches as far as this. However, on the same day Dorries encountered sexism in Parliament, she pushed her own sexist agenda and tried to shove through an amendment which would pave the way for biased abortion counselling. She also voted to begin the destruction of the NHS that same day.

In terms of basic human rights, I have Nadine Dorries’s back, and do not think she deserves some of the shit she gets, because nobody does. As a politician, though, I sincerely hope that come the revolution she finds herself at the back of a human centipede. Nobody deserves oppression, but, equally, people must not pursue oppressive policy.

Pecking over scraps and calling it feminism

Spoiler warning: if you have been asleep since 1997 and only recently woken up, this post will contain Buffy spoilers.

Lately, I have been watching a lot of Buffy.

I adore Buffy. It is far and away one of my favourite shows. The characters are wonderful (except two-eyed Xander), the dialogue crackles, the fight scenes are awesome and generally I love it. It is also rather refreshing to have something which passes the Bechdel test with flying colours–a lot of conversations between the multitude of female characters revolve around “how do we kill it?” instead of shoes and boys. Buffy herself kicks arse, as do Willow and Faith and Anya and even Buffy’s mum sometimes gets in on the action. Buffy also gives us good female villains, ones that subvert the traditional dull femme-fatale-villain role. The creator of the show self-identifies as a feminist. Surely, then, Buffy is a feminist show?

Except it isn’t. A lot of people more eloquent than I have explained exactly why it is not. For those not click-inclined: the arsekicking strength of the female characters tends to come from supernatural means rather than their generally being awesome. The show has a strange attitude to sex and female sexual agency: Buffy’s sexual actions make Angel turn evil and Spike turn into a rapist, for example. There are rather a lot of scenes of women being attacked by hyper-masculine monster figures–and most of these women do not have the magically-bestowed powers of Buffy: Dawn and Cordelia fit into the trope of women who need to be rescued far too easily for what is supposed to be a feminist show.

In short, it is problematic as hell.

I also rather love Lady GaGa. Catchy pop music is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. GaGa has been declared a feminist icon by some, including Caitlin Moran. GaGa certainly subverts the usual sort of narrow sexuality found in pop music videos and acts: she takes “sexy” to such an extreme that it becomes thoroughly ridiculous. You are not really supposed to fancy Lady GaGa. She is there to shock, instead. GaGa works hard campaigning for gay rights. She writes her own music. She seems strong, independent, in control of her personal brand.

Lady GaGa is not a feminist icon. She has a nasty habit of appropriating cultures and disability in order to shock. She is still a cog in a machine of objectification of women. She recently came out with this quote:

“You should wait as long as you can to have sex, because as a woman, you don’t even begin to enjoy it until your mid-twenties. When you’re 17, you don’t even know how to operate what’s going on down there and you shouldn’t try.”

Like Buffy, Lady GaGa is too problematic to represent feminism.

Why do we do this? Why do we leap upon something so flawed and stick the label of feminism on it? I think the answer may be because there is nothing else out there.

The film, television and music industries are run by men. They are patriarchal institutions which produce patriarchal goods. Feminism, to these industries, is thoroughly unmarketable, as the point of women is to scream, get rescued and look cute in a little skirt, or to fall deeply, madly in love. Media for men, by men. Media for women, by men.

Every so often, they throw us a bone of apparent female empowerment. Buffy. Lady GaGa. Perhaps even Sucker Punch was an industry attempt at female empowerment. It was one of the worst films I have ever watched. If they were aiming for empowerment, they missed the mark by miles.

Often, we jump on the scraps, the little thing that they give us, because there is nothing else for us to have. When we switch on the TV and see a woman kicking arse, it is a damn sight better than the usual sight of her screaming. When we see a woman wearing a dress made out of meat at an awards ceremony, it is a refreshing change from the standard-issue floor-length Dior gown.

In the mainstream, there is precious little for feminists to enjoy, as it has all been processed and greenlit by the patriarchy. It is like how Fox allow The Simpsons to put in the odd joke about Fox. Permitted subversion that is not subversion at all.

And yet we take what we can get. We delight in GaGa’s speeches about gay rights, or Buffy fighting the forces of capitalism with a hammer and sickle. We delight because there is nothing else to delight in. We push the twinge of cognitive dissonance to the backs of our minds, minimising the flaws just so we have something to enjoy.

It has been this way since time immemorial. Consider Jane Austen, who is generally thought to be somewhat feminist. Her feminism is said to be down to writing novels where the female characters are presented as intelligent and independent. Despite this, they still spend an inordinate time talking about men. The addition of zombies makes Pride and Prejudice far more tolerable, demoting the guff about marriage to a subplot, and promoting Lizzie Bennet to an arse-kicking heroine. Nothing has really changed since Austen. We still seize what we can and call it feminism.

Here’s the thing: being a feminist does reduce enjoyment of music and films and TV, because so much the media is so horribly problematic. Sometimes I watch Buffy just to watch some women talking on TV. Once, I even ended up watching Sex and the City for that purpose. There was a small moment in SatC where they were talking about neither clothes nor men that I rather enjoyed (though for the most part I find it utterly insufferable).

It is gratifying to find something better than the usual bollocks that is out there, even if it itself is riddled with questionable content. We take what we can get.

With the bulk of production lying in the hands of the patriarchy, it is unlikely that this will change. Almost two hundred years have passed since Jane Austen began writing, and people are still vociferously defending her fluffy rom-coms as feminism. What comes out today is no different.

It is good that these small scraps get us talking. To discuss whether Buffy is feminist requires discussion of what feminism is, and flawed as these things are, discussion of feminism becomes more mainstream. The subversions of tropes become tropes themselves–Buffy brought us the arse-kicking woman; Austen brought us the intelligent, witty woman; GaGa brought us the beautiful freak. They still play by patriarchal rules, but slowly we talk. We discuss what the fuck that meat dress meant, or what the hell the writers are doing with the Buffy/Spike rape scene.

Outside the constraints of these media, ideas can grow. As we realise that nothing mainstream will be any good for us, we can work to change this. Change can take place in non-mainstream art, or by attacking the root cause of the lack of mainstream feminist media: smash the patriarchy.

In the end, Buffy taught me something very important: a gang of sufficiently determined women and allies can change the world. Who wants to join the Feminist Scoobies?


Special thanks to Jed for conversations which helped this post happen.

In which I rant about Torchwood and queer stuff

Like any good geek, I stick with my shows, even when they’re thoroughly awful.

Take Torchwood. I think I might have hated Torchwood much more than I ever liked it, yet I have stuck with it even as it moved to the States. I feel the urge to vent something that has been bothering me about the latest series. This post will contain spoilers up to episode 3 of Torchwood: Miracle Day. I think, though, that the experience of watching the bloody thing is much worse than the experience of being spoiled.

I have watched Torchwood since it started. I enjoyed the fact that it was essentially Doctor Who fanfiction with a standard fanfiction-inspired dose of slash. All of the characters were at least a little bit queer. It was one of the central tenets of the show: sexuality, for most of the characters was flexible. The gay-or-straight narrative simply did not apply to Torchwood. Most people were somewhere in between. I cannot think of another programme where bisexual characters are so visible.

Even though I find Captain Jack Harkness a gratingly annoying character, I very much appreciated the idea that he came from a future where people had stopped giving a shit about sexual orientation and anything goes. I would love to go and live in that future (except for all of the haunted libraries with shadows that come and eat you).

And here is the problem: Torchwood stopped being queer. I think the rot set in towards the end of season two, when they killed off Toshiko, a main character who happened to be a bisexual woman. Captain Jack begins a serious relationship with Ianto, and stops flirting with everything that moves. That is understandable, I suppose; he has gone monogamous. In the end of season three, Ianto was killed off, another bisexual main character. Ianto died because he had been written into the role of Love Interest Of The Hero, a role usually reserved for a woman character. The trope played out just the same.

After a purge of all of the mortal queers, Torchwood went American. With that, it stopped being anything remotely resembling a queer-friendly show. In the second episode of Miracle Day, the characters are on a plane. There is an air steward there, a well-groomed man. For the entire duration of the episode, the nameless air steward is repeatedly mistaken for gay, presumably because he is well-groomed and an air steward. This “joke” is so tired and hackneyed that it was used in such cinematic masterpieces as Snakes on a Plane.

In the first two episodes, this is literally the only mention of anything remotely pertaining to sexuality: HAHA! LOOK AT THE CLEAN MAN! HE MUST BE A GAY!

By the third episode, the writers have remembered that Captain Jack is supposed to be queer, and throw in a thoroughly unnecessary sex scene between him and a nameless bartender. I will give the show credit where credit is due: the scene is more graphic than one would expect from an American TV show, and safe sex is mentioned. However, this does not make up for the whole of the episode before, which was such a homophobic cliché that I’d been sure it would have been leading up to some kind of humorous subversion. It did nothing of the sort. All the gratuitous bumming in the world can’t change that.

I had always joked that Torchwood was the only fandom not requiring slashfic because it was sufficiently queer all on its own. This is no longer the case, and it makes me a hell of a lot less forgiving of the fact that the writing is terrible, the plot makes no goddamn sense whatsoever, and all of the characters are irretrievably irritating.

To summarise: don’t bother with the new series of Torchwood. I will keep you updated if it improves.

More Magazine, male-centred sexuality and kissing girls

Let me start by saying, I did not buy More magazine. I found it, and out of sheer curiosity, I read it. I sort of wish I hadn’t.

Imagine my horror, as a queer woman, a feminist, and a person with a tendency to get a little bit angry to be greeted with this article:

How would your man feel if you kissed a girl?

How would your man feel if you kissed a girl?

Apparently this is the most important issue in the world when it comes to discussion of kissing women. Whether it turns men on. In the text of the article, there is absolutely no acknowledgement that perhaps queer women may exist. Kissing women is, according to More magazine, exclusively something that women do in nightclubs “in front of an appreciative male audience”.

The article provides the opinion of two men. One man declares that it is “seriously hot” and that he “can’t help but fantasise about joining the party”. The other man thinks that it is “just attention seeking” and “ugly” and “insecure”. Both men are falling prey to objectification.

What is perhaps worst about this, though, is that no opinions of women are sought. From the title of the article and all the way through, how a woman might feel about kissing another woman is not mentioned at all. This is because, to More, sexuality is constructed as something which is entirely male centred.

The magazine is utterly riddled with such articles. A story about Victoria Beckham’s post-birth weight loss is framed as “POSH SHAPES UP FOR DAVID”. An interview with a pop star which largely discusses her music and her weight is titled “I LIKE MY MEN RUGGED”, as if that were the most interesting thing about her. A story about Cheryl Cole casts her as a passive bystander in the crossfire of a fight between two men. The horoscopes page provides horoscopes for “your man”, so the reader can discover whether the line up of stars will make her boyfriend a little grumpier than usual this week.

The phrase “your man” occurs repeatedly. More‘s construction of sexuality is entirely monogamous: you get your man, and that is who you have sex with. More provides a “position of the week”, which explains “what’s in it for him”. If you are worried about him cheating, it is perfectly acceptable to look through his phone. Beauty products and clothes exist to “wow your man”. The most important thing about a woman is “her man”.

There is no space in More for anything outside of this heteronormative monogamous relationship. You are either in one, or you are seeking one. Someday your man will come. Perhaps you can tempt him with a little bit of girl-snogging?

The picture of sexuality presented in More is as unrealistic for many as the position of the week, which starts with “stand on the edge of your villa’s private pool”. For many women, the heteronormative ideal is undesirable or unattainable: it makes women who wish for the heteronormative ideal feel like failures for being unable to “bag a man”, while queer women may feel invisible and marginalised. It is also bloody awful to suggest to women that their boyfriend is the most important and interesting thing about them, as this is categorically untrue.

Sexuality is so much more than impressing a man or pleasing a man. I do not expect a mainstream women’s magazine to provide good detailed advice on polyamory or lesbian practice (though it would be brilliant if they did). What I would like to see, though, is some acknowledgement that ultimately, one’s sexuality should revolve around oneself: not about “what your man might like”, but about what you might like or want. The things that make you feel sexy.

Perhaps that is kissing women. Perhaps that is fucking women. Hell, perhaps it is kissing another consenting woman just to turn men on. Personal jollies, rather than constant thought of existing solely in relation to men.

It is so thoroughly miserable that even a magazine targeted to women will maintain the patriarchal notion that a man’s opinion is the alpha and omega.

And this is why I am adding More  to my library of publications to burn.

Wrong on so many levels

Sometimes a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Other times, the broken clock is so thoroughly fucked that it manages to so completely tell the wrong time that space distorts around it.

This article is even more thoroughly and completely broken than the metaphor above.

The story is short: a man went to donate blood. He was turned away from the blood donation centre because the staff thought he looked gay. There is much to be angry about here.

It is wrong that the blood donation centre failed to even bother screening a potential donor, following good practice. Every time I have ever given blood I have been given a questionnaire which asks about prior sexual behaviour. I am sure that practice is not that far removed on the other side of the pond. If it is not, that is something which must be changed. That is because it is also wrong to believe that one can gauge a person’s sexual orientation from their “appearance and behaviour” as the staff in question did in this incident. There are no magical markers of homosexuality. A heterosexual man may moisturise. A gay woman may wear frivolous shoes. To say there are visible indicators of sexual orientation is to fall into an unpleasant well of stereotypes. In this case, the man was turned away for being “noticeably effeminate. It would seem that only gay men are allowed to display any kind of feminine traits. This is grubbily unfair to all men.

Ugly generalisations of groups aside, another incredibly fucked up thing about this situation is that men who have sex with men are barred from blood donation. This blanket ban is highly discriminatory: the ban currently applies even to men who are in monogamous gay relationships or those who practice safe sex. It is a product of crude Bayesian statistics, and could easily be rectified by fine-tuning the screening procedure. Furthermore, in the UK, more heterosexuals than gay people have HIV. The move in the UK to lift the ban for men who had sex with men more than a decade ago is not good enough. Completely banning a group of the population from giving blood is wrong.

The wrong does not stop here, though. I wish it did.

The title of the article gives a clue as to what another layer of wrong is: “STRAIGHT MAN TURNED AWAY FROM BLOOD DONATION CENTER BECAUSE HE “LOOKED GAY”.

The actual sexual orientation of the man is thoroughly irrelevant to the story; to reference it shows a nasty pile of distasteful attitudes towards gay people. It makes it seem as though it is worse that a man is labelled as a homosexual than it is that a clinic is failing to follow good practice, falling prey to stereotyping and is a cog in a wheel of systemic oppression. It is sad that a man being mistaken for gay is what makes news, rather than the millions of men who are actually gay facing this sort of bullshit every single day of the year. Unfortunately, that is how society is.

It doesn’t help that the man who was turned away is a bit of a weeping syphilitic chode himself (as are the writers of the article and those who thought it fit to publish). Not only is he so mortally offended by being mistaken for gay that he told his story to a magazine, he also displays prejudice against another group of human beings:

Pace told the Sun-Times he felt “humiliated and embarrassed.” “It’s not right that homeless people can give blood but homosexuals can’t,” he said. “And I’m not even a homosexual.”

Those dirty homeless people, with their AIDS and their promiscuity! They’re worse than the gays! Did I mention I’m totally not gay, because that would be thoroughly icky!

The article tells the story of a cornucopia of wrongs in our society, and its write up reinforces prejudice. I would be impressed at how wrong it manages to be in less than 200 words were I not so thoroughly disappointed that this shit is still roaring on in 2011. Isn’t it supposed to be the future now?

How To Be A Woman: in which I review a book that I read

I have just read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a semi-autobiographical book which has been hailed as The Next Big Thing in feminism, and has received rave reviews from noted feminists such as Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson. On the back, it says that Moran “rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller”. Overall, it seems exactly like something an angry feminist such as myself should despise with all of the burning fires of hell.

The short review is that I didn’t hate it. I only hated some of it, actually quite liked some parts, and the rest only left me with a bitter tinge of disappointment.

The writing style veered from engagingly, chattily conversational to annoyingly CAPSLOCKY and RIDDLED! WITH! EXCLAMATION MARKS! It is easy to tear through, in the manner of a sunlounger bonkbusting tome, and I found myself rather liking Moran: she has a good sense of humour and an honesty about her own flaws.

Moran is absolutely spot-on about some issues, and I found myself nodding in agreement in sections on pornography and lapdancing, where Moran argues that while there is nothing inherently wrong with fucking on film or stripping, but it is a problem with the industry. I also very much liked her discussion of what to call one’s cunt (Moran favours “cunt”, but was reticent to teach it to her daughters as it is still a taboo word), and her very frank account of her abortion and her suggestion that this is something we should talk about honestly and openly, and it is all right to feel good about having had an abortion. Moran also puts across good points about society’s expectation about how women should want babies, and this is not right, and not reproducing is perfectly all right, too.

This last good point, though, is sullied by a massive clanger. Talking about childbirth, Moran says:

In short, a dose of pain that intense turns you from a girl into a woman. There are other ways of achieving the same effect–as outlined in Chapter 15 [the chapter on abortion]–but minute for minute, it’s one of the most effective ways of changing your life.

Right there, Moran has declared that use of one’s reproductive organs is the only way to truly become a woman. This line of reasoning is a minefield: it automatically writes off the experiences of infertile cis women, of trans women, of cis women who have been fortunate enough with contraception never to find themselves pregnant. It jars with the rest of the book, the “anything goes” approach, yet it says it there as clear as day. Reproduction is the only path to womanhood. Before that you’re a girl.

When I read that paragraph, I considered rethinking my embargo on burning literature and setting fire to that book there and then. I decided to plough on. Perhaps Moran did not mean what I thought she had meant. Indeed, this is never mentioned again. I still cannot think of another way to interpret that sentence, though.

No other individual part of the book is quite so starkly, shockingly problematic: much of the rest of my issues with it lie in the tone. It smacks of privilege: an amusing point-and-laugh at the working classes here, a throwaway usage of ableist language (“retard”, “thalidomide pasties”) and fat-hating (Moran draws the distinction between “fat” and “human-shaped”) there, and a sort of vaguely patronising view of gay men as nothing more than arbiters of excellent taste in music bars. I prickled in rage each time I saw these.

This privilege also fans out into what is part of the central thesis of the book: that perhaps everything would be improved if we treated humankind as “The Guys” and sexism as “just bad manners”. For a woman in Moran’s position, perhaps this is possible. For many, it is not, and sexism is not dead, and is unlikely to be killed without confronting it head on. I take umbrage to her phrasing viewing everyone as “the Guys”, too, particularly as it jarringly occurs pages after I had been smiling in agreement at Moran’s acknowledgement that men are viewed as “normal” with women as the other. This hypocrisy goes unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed by the author.

The thing is, for much of the book, I was not angry. I was just disappointed. Firstly, Moran seems to have a confused relationship with feminism and feminists. She identifies as such, and, indeed, encourages her readers to identify as feminist as it is not a dirty word. This is laudable. Unfortunately, Moran seems to have a rather dated view of feminist writing, falling back frequently on Germaine Greer as though this is the only feminist she has ever read, and beginning statements with “feminists think”, then falling back on to a straw feminist trope. While Moran wishes fervently for more women to identify as “strident feminists”, the book itself is not particularly stridently feminist.

Most of the issues discussed in the book were very trivial concerns. An inordinate amount of space was dedicated to clothes and shoes and bras and knickers. Rape is given a cursory mention in one sentence somewhere. At no point in the discussion of whether marriage is necessary was it acknowledged that perhaps romantic relationships or traditional monogamous relationships may not be necessary either. The truth is, it all feels a little superficial: talk about handbags is favoured over broader feminist issues. For many women, after all, there are a lot of things more worrying than pubes or ill-fitting knickers.

Take, for example, a point where Moran recounts the story of having met Jordan and being struck by how obsessed Jordan was with selling things and selling herself as a brand. At this juncture, it seems like a fairly obvious place to segue into discussion of the relationship between capitalism and feminism. Instead, Moran just tells the story, then contrasts it with meeting someone whom she considers to be a genuine feminist icon: Lady GaGa.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps Moran knew she could have done this. Much of the book seems to be driving at good points which are never made. Perhaps the editor of the book cut all of the good bits out? Certainly, the editing of the book was poor; I noted numerous typos and the editor was very lenient about allowing all of the CAPITALS and ENHUSIASTIC! PUNCTUATION! to stay in. As I said earlier, I rather like Moran, and I wanted this book to be better than it was.

In the conclusion to the book, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Moran’s feminism–at least, as presented– is shallow, bourgeois feminism, concerned with consumerism: just don’t buy the things you think might be oppressive, is her message. I was thoroughly disappointed by this message. I had hoped for much better, much more. I had hoped for depth.

If this book is our generation’s The Female Eunuch, as it says on the back cover, we are well and truly fucked. The good news, is, I do not think we are. This book is not harmful, it is simply trivial, inconsequential fluff. It is something to read on holiday, and then forget about once the tan has all peeled off. Had the book ended with a list of other (better) feminist books and resources to check out, I would probably see it as a decent, readable, primer to feminism for those who had never thought about the issue before and may be inclined to learn more. It may have also been improved vastly by shaving out the patronising bits and replacing them with something vastly more substantial.

As it stands, though, it is just fluff. This book will not change the world, for better or worse. For that, I am thoroughly disappointed.