Nothing says “I love you” like reinforcing stereotypes for profit

Sometimes I wonder if the capitalist calendar is marked not by months, but by abstract concepts from which to draw profit. March is the month of maternity; October, horror; April, rebirth by the medium of chocolate. And so forth. February happens to be the month where romantic love is the money-spinner, by accident of having the feast of an early Christian martyr plonked squarely in the middle of it. This has been twisted into tawdry pink cards, oversized teddies, lavish dinners for two, knickers, flowers and chocolate. Nothing, we are told, says “I love you” like excessive consumption.

To sell this idea, the marketers and media-types operate in stereotypes. It’s easier for them, that way. In the first few weeks of February, therefore, we are bombarded with narratives of “getting him to propose” and “getting her in the mood”, because of course men only want to get laid and women only want to get married. The tropes of hegemonic monogamy are paraded around, playing on the niggling fears of the masses that they may end up alone if they do not capitulate and buy that heart-shaped box of champagne truffles.

It’s all grindingly awful for those of us who do not subscribe to the ideals of the default brand of monogamy. It is probably worse still for those who believe, but are single. It is the sort of thing that makes one want to leave the country and head far, far away, were it not for the fact that flights seem to cost more in the middle of February due to the glut of minibreaks for two. Instead, I learned to filter out the monotonous drone of “BUY BUY BUY”. It is only the truly terrible that makes it through. This year, I have noticed–rather fittingly for National Monogamy Day–two particularly horrid ad campaigns.

While walking through Waterloo, I encountered a set of billboards featuring a model in underwear covering herself with a bunch of flowers. LOVE STUCK? it proclaimed, before breathlessly telling me to hold my smartphone up to the poster and view it through an app to “see the model come to life” and get gift ideas. I didn’t bother. I guessed that what would happen would be that the flowers would fall away, leaving the nubile young model prancing about in her scanties. One quick Google later, and I was proved right.

This ad campaign features several of the oppressively tiresome Valentine’s Day ad tropes. It essentially says “Hello men! I know Valentine’s Day sucks, but if you buy her some nice undies, she’ll have to let you look at her in a state of near-undress. Then you’ll probably get to have a go on her tits.” It unabashedly, unashamedly advertises to the male gaze, taking the objectification of women to giddying heights. The only thing that differentiates this ad campaign from the dull static hum of the rest of it is the technological side of things. It is, at its heart, the digital age equivalent of pens that reveal a naked lady when you click the top.

The other campaign that came to my attention was one flogging gin, using the folk tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on the leap day by putting on murkily misogynistic events. Here, if you are a woman, you can learn “the knowledge and skills to trap your man” in a way which is presumably unrelated to how the words “gin” and “trap” traditionally fit into a sentence together. In order to provide equality in advertising, men may attend a “school for scoundrels” where they may learn how to “retain their liberty”. I would say that implicit in this campaign is the stereotype that women want commitment while men do not, but it is actually spelled out in the top of their publicity materials. 

Far too many young women run the risk of a Horrendous Disappointment – and too many men may succumb to dread ‘Commitment’…

What is to be done about such egregiously awful ad campaigns? So much of what they are trying to do is to gain attention, and by being so overtly hideous, they are bound to draw the eye. I have purposely avoided naming the brands in the post for this reason, and I have a personal policy of not buying from brands whose advertising has really pissed me off.

The problem is not so much that these campaigns will cause controversy: neither campaign has provoked more than a tiny murmur of frustration. The issue here is that to most people they are eye-catching not because of their flaws, but because they’re a little bit different, a little bit exciting. There is a fine line to walk between discussing misogyny in advertising and accidentally publicising companies that blithely push stereotypes to make a little bit more money in the post-Christmas slump.

The fact is, it is simply not acceptable to turn humans into cartoonish parodies: the ogling, horny man and the woman who will do anything to marry him.  It is patronising, dehumanising, and reinforces a power structure which reifies these archetypes, while wiping away any person who does not conform. This wearisome shit needs calling where its seen in the faint hope that one day we can chip away enough that February is just a short month and if you fancy giving a lover a present, then that’s absolutely fine, but nobody’s going to try and make you.

There is no ad-blocker for life, unfortunately. We need to work around that.

An actual product that actually exists

Hegemonic monogamy of the “default option” variety is usually rooted in the set of ideas that give rise to the erotic capitalist dystopia. It is a mutually-beneficial arrangement wherein both parties get the sex that they want and there’s two people to raise any kids, should the need arise. The hegemonically monogamous relationship generally means that neither partner strays: if one does, they will usually make an effort to cover their tracks, as breaking the rules means the partnership will end, or the cheater will be punished. Of course, monogamous relationships are often far more than this coldly clinical arrangement of mutually-assured destruction, and it’s an arrangement that works well for many.

Not for all, it seems, as this is an actual product that actually exists in the world: the Handzoff wristband. These colourful little bands bear the words “HANDZ OFF MY BOYFRIEND/GIRLFRIEND”. Once applied, they cannot be removed, a point the site is so eager to push that they wrote it in BIG RED CAPITAL LETTERS. Also in BIG RED CAPITAL LETTERS is a list of potential uses for these wristbands: perhaps the discerning customer may wish to mark their partner when they go on holiday or a business trip?

These lurid colour-coded bands–reflecting the traditional pink-for-a-girl blue-for-a-boy–have two important characteristics distinguishing them from the wedding ring, that more traditional “stylish… perfect symbol that you are in a committed relationship”. Firstly, they are far, far cheaper at only £2.5o a pop. Secondly, the only way of getting it off is by cutting or otherwise tampering. A boring old wedding ring can merely be slipped off; how will the suspicious wife know that her husband is cheating if he can hide his marital status so easily?

The product seems to be based on a fundamental mishearing of the phrase “keeping tabs on each other”: Handzoff bands are designed to “keep tags on each other”. This original phrase is loaded enough: it evokes ideas of spying, of checking those text messages and fitting a GPS locator to a partner’s phone. To tag one’s partner is simply taking this to its logical conclusion.

It is not polyer-than-thou to suggest that a relationship ought to be based on trust: all of my mono friends I know would agree with this. And yet there is this thread running through hegemonic monogamy which suggests that the person you are with just cannot be trusted. It manifests everywhere: the frequent magazine articles promising to tell you “HOW TO TELL IF YOUR MAN IS CHEATING”; the media fascination with non-wifely places footballers are putting their penises; the vast incomes raked in by private detectives for adultery cases. Mistrust seems to be the foundation on which we are told to conduct our relationships, sold to us part and parcel with the default optioning of monogamy. The only surprise with the Handzoff wristbands is that they didn’t appear earlier. 

And of course this isn’t the way we should live our lives, fretting every time a partner pops out to the shops, just in case she’s going to get a quick fingerfuck from the postman.  We need to rethink the way we view relationships and see that if there is no trust there, it is not a relationship worth keeping in the first place. A cheap rubber wristband is not going to help that.

When is an attack not an attack?

Today, I found myself in a position I hadn’t been in since early 2010: I agreed with Nick Clegg. On the proposed tax breaks for married couples, Clegg said the following:

“We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important, but not agree that the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form.”

I don’t take this to mean that Clegg has suddenly started talking sense. He has just spotted an open goal and managed to kick the ball in vaguely the right direction in a desperate bid to resuscitate his dead party, the political equivalent of slapping a corpse and screaming “PLEASE DON’T DIE ON ME, I LOVE YOU”.

He does have a very good point, though. The state should have no role in meddling with how a family should look. This suggestion has naturally pissed off some of the usual suspects like Cristina Odone and the bafflingly-still-alive Norman Tebbit. As always, when a socially progressive attitude towards families is expressed, they fall back on the favourite language: the language of being under attack.

It happens all the time. The notion of the family being somehow attacked crops up frequently in discussion of marriage equality, the rhetoric surrounding single-parent families, and more broadly in terms of socially progressive legislation. Put simply, they cry out THOSE SCARY HUMMUS-MUNCHERS ARE COMING FOR OUR CHILDREN. In fact, it is nothing of the kind.

The language of the attack on the family implicitly applies the capitalist narrative of scarcity to families. As with money, their line of reasoning goes, there is a finite amount of love in the world, and we’d better not let those scrounging single mothers or gays have any of it, lest there’s none left for anyone else. By their very existence, non-conventional families threaten the social order by apparently hogging some love which could better go to a family with a mummy, a daddy and 2.4 kiddiwinks.

Of course, this line of reasoning is patent gibberish. Love is infinite, and money is a fiction so the narratives fail to hold up in any way imaginable. I pity those who believe that a family with one parent, or four parents or two parents who happen to be of the same sex are in any way a threat to their wellbeing. They are hiding from an imaginary foe, terrified that the rug will come out from under them when that rug is perfectly secure.

Perhaps the fear is where all of this ends, yet I suspect that using the language of an external threat or attack serves a deeper, murkier function. When one is attacked, one has two options: to fight, or to surrender. While an unprovoked attack is generally frowned upon, few except the most peaceful of pacifists will have an issue with self-defence. Pretending that families are under attack therefore legitimises the genuinely coercive tactics that the state is using to regulate family structure. It stops being outright aggression and starts to look like reasonable defence against the phalanx of queers and single mums who are bogarting all the nice things.

There is no attack on the traditional family. If anything, it is quite the other way round: we are being gradually coerced into living in the way that suits the state. It’s so clear, even a Lib Dem can spot it.

Christmas songs that can fuck off.

It has come to the time of year wherein we cannot leave the house without an aural assault of jingle-riddled festive musical tedium. While most are equally intolerable, some merit special mention for the implicit horrors they conceal. These are the Christmas songs that can fuck right off.

Rampant consumerism ahoy!

Capitalism has done a fine job of co-opting Christmas, turning it into a festival of panic-buying and receiving things you don’t really want. It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the most-covered traditional Christmas songs is The Twelve Days of Christmas. In this song, a person is given a series of increasingly ludicrous Christmas presents from a lover, presented through the medium of mind-numbing repetition. The nameless narrator of the song tells us nothing about their lover except that they buy a lot of presents. By the end of the song, the narrator has received 12 drummers drumming, 22 pipers piping, 30 lords a-leaping, 36 ladies dancing, 40 maids a-milking, 46 swans a-swimming, 42 geese a-laying, 35 gold rings, 32 calling birds, 30 French hens, 24 turtle doves and 12 partridges in pear trees. Implicit in this is that there must also be 40 cows to be milked, 46 small lakes for the swans to live in and at least 42 baby geese to soon be hatched. Quite where the narrator is going to keep all of the birds is not explored. Neither is it ever discussed that perhaps sending people as gifts might be slavery, or at the very least prostitution.

It’s immoral, it’s impractical, and it’s a vision of the future the capitalists would like to see. Its bastard lovechild is clearly visible in this godawful Littlewoods advert wherein a choir of children sing about how brilliant their mum is because she bought everyone presents.

Merry Christmas. Buy things. Debt is love.

A woman is left in a horrible, horrible relationship

Fairy Tale Of New York is the Christmas song it’s cool to say you like, because it’s kind of ironic, has a catchy Irish folky riff and Kirsty McColl died tragically early. It features bitter lyrics of a life of hardship and alcoholism, but ultimately, in some sort of Christmas miracle they arguing couple in the song realise that they love each other very much, right? Actually, not quite. Listen to the resolution of the song, at around 2.48. The woman laments that the man “took her dreams”. He replies that he kept them with him, made them his own and can’t possibly live life on his own.

Now, this would be all well and good if he wasn’t consistently portrayed as a complete and utter failure with verbally abusive tendencies. So that woman’s dream-eggs are stuck in a basket of piss, vinegar and toothless uselessness simply because the man won’t let her go. She never gets the chance to point this out, as it immediately becomes a matter of utmost urgency to report on the song choice of the New York Police Department and a bulletin on bell status. After this, we can only assume she overdoses on cocaine as white as Christmas snow, hollow-eyed on the tinsel-strewn rotting corpse of her lover.

Happy holidays!

Let me sing my privilege to the noble savages

Bono is an unmitigated cunt, and when people talk of “the good things he did”, often they refer to his charity work. Bono’s charity work includes the single Do They Know It’s Christmas, and therefore his unmitigated cunt status remains intact. This is a song in which a crowd of mostly white pop stars patronise an entire continent with startling factual inaccuracies.

Africa, as portrayed by the song, is a uniform desert populated entirely by starving people who need Middle England to ride in with their wallets and fix everything. There’s no snow in Africa, not even on top of mountains. There’s no rain, not even in the rich rainforests. There’s no rivers, not even the sodding Nile, the biggest bastard river in the world. The dear little noble savage Africans apparently don’t know it’s Christmas because Africa is such an insufferable shithole, not because many Africans probably couldn’t give two hoots about Christmas what with being Muslims.

It’s a terrible song, with a hefty dollop of misinformation. It may have been done with the best of intentions, but it’s pretty fucking racist, and it seems to have pissed off a few people. Nothing says traditional Christmas spirit like a bit of casual racism with a sing-al0ng chorus.

The date rape song

Baby It’s Cold Outside is another song which can be categorised under “Christmas romance” and tells a tale even more chilling than that recounted in Fairy Tale Of New York.

It’s about rape. Straight-up, it is a song about rape.

A woman tries to leave a man’s house. He gives her a drink. It has some drugs in it. While still compos mentis enough to argue, the woman argues that she cannot stay, says “no” several times, lists people she knows who might be worried about her and again mentions that she cannot leave. We leave her having finally been forced to into sex with coercive tactics and drugs. We’re supposed to find this rape cute because it’s all Christmassy, and who wouldn’t want to be raped by charming crooner Dean Martin? Listen to the lyrics of the song and tell me it is not about that.

As it’s Christmas, I shall conjure up the happiest possible ending for the story. The next morning, the woman goes home. Her family enquire as to why she appears to be shaken and upset. She explains what happened, and her mother, sister and vicious maiden aunt are appalled. These women call round at Dean Martin’s house, just as he is about to pounce upon another trusting, drugged woman and intervene. They then chop off Dean Martin’s raping penis and use it as a Christmas tree ornament. Everyone is very lucky in getting away with this cathartically criminal act, as the police are currently occupied with singing Galway Bay over the frozen husks of a pair of addicts. With support, Dean Martin’s victims find themselves able to move forward from the incident and engage in community activism to try to build a world without rape.

That’s the happiest possible ending, and we still have at least one rape in it. Fills the heart with Christmas cheer, that does.

The song that is surprisingly awesome

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is a song which is intensely, intensely irritating. In all honesty, I would be happy if I never heard it ever again. The thing is, it has a surprisingly positive poly message hidden deep inside all of the twee faux-childish awe: the kid doesn’t give a shit that Mommy is necking with Father Christmas. In fact, the kid expresses dismay that Daddy can’t see the happy occasion.

Of course, Santa is Daddy, but the kid doesn’t know this. The kid is completely cool with Mommy playing with other people, and seems to think Daddy would be too. It is a glimpse at a non-conventional family set up which, for a twelfth of the year, gets played on loop. May the message one day sink in so we never have to hear that godawful song again.

Those are some of the worst, but let’s be straight here: all Christmas songs can fuck off.

The Tories, marriage and families: why are they removing choice?

“Choice” is a word beloved by our not-exactly-elected masters in Westminster. Almost always, when it is trotted out it means anything but choice. It means we are forced to eat a punnet of warm turds because it’s better than the wheelbarrow of kebab-chunder that’s also on the menu. This behaviour is hardly limited to the pantomime we’re told we voted for: society often forces certain default options upon us.

It is becoming abundantly clear, though, that the Tories are determined to remove all semblance of choice from the decision to marry, and we shall all have to marry whether we like it or not. It’s hard to identify exactly where it started, as so much policy in the last year and a half has been directed towards getting people married and forcing them to stay in marriages.

There are the carrots. The government has declared that it will bring in full same-sex marriage, meaning gay monogamous couples can be as married as heterosexual monogamous couples and therefore marriage statistics will jump up. They brought in a tax break for married couples, a little deal-sweetener to put a ring on it. This tax break cost around £550-600 million: which, coincidentally is identical to the figure which was cut from Educational Maintenance Allowance. The tax cut is a clear statement of priorities: fuck the future of our young people, let’s keep people married.

Then there are the sticks. Separating couples will be forced to pay to use the Child Support Agency, a stealth “tax” on divorce. In combination with cuts to Legal Aid, leaving a marriage suddenly becomes an expense which many cannot afford.

Finally, there is this: teaching children about “the nature of marriage and its importance to family life” has been written into the curriculum for free schools and academies. Very little is compulsory in free school curricula: they have to teach the general English, maths, science and RE, but the rest is supposedly completely open for the schools to decide (which is problematic in and of itself, and there are myriad  problems with free schools and academies, but that’s another issue for another day). Marriage, however, has been plopped firmly and prominently on the agenda. Not any other form of relationship, just marriage. Rather ironically, this provision is called Clause 28, a clear parallel with the last time the Tories decided to impose  control on how people had relationships.

Put all of these threads together and a picture emerges: this government is obsessed with trapping people in an antediluvian social arrangement. Even before he was elected, David Cameron was farting on about “family values” and how they would somehow magically solve all of the problems in the world.    These family values translate as something very simple indeed: the classic nuclear family with a breadwinner daddy and a nurturing mummy raising a generation of fresh young Tories. The cuts are hitting women disproportionately, forcing them into greater dependence on spouses. It is hard to believe that this was not by design. Marriage, as has been identified by many before me, serves to reinforce the conservative social order.

So why frenzied drive to remove any choice about how to build a family?

Perhaps it is to do with perceived scarcity: the mythical pot of money which is empty to all unless they are a friend of the Tories. Consider the perpetual bile directed at single mothers, who, if the media and politicians are to be believed, are almost wholly responsible for a financial crisis and are stealing All Of The Money to feed their crack habits. These are women who, for whatever reason, have chosen to raise their children outside of the approved model for a family and are vilified for doing it. It scares the conservative system, and so they are scapegoated.

Similar misdirected aggression is thrown at immigrants, who are apparently stealing all the jobs and all the benefits. Once again, this is nothing more than scapegoating: they are the Jews poisoning the wells, the reds under the beds. The scapegoating is down to nothing more than xenophobia. This is accompanied by hidden, dog-whistle racism from the tabloids, screaming loudly about the number of immigrants and how “British identity” is disappearing. Somehow “family values” are tied in Britishness, as though only certain people may ever breed in certain ways.

I find my lizard brain recoiling at all of this. The rampant scapegoating, the insistence on regressive family values; it reminds me of something utterly terrifying. Rising right-wing ideology has been linked to a perception of scarcity, and these are the times in which we live. Most people believe that there isn’t enough to go round. It is unclear whether the politicians likewise agree, but their social policy and rhetoric certainly seem to be rooted in the “scarcity” line. The great irony is, there is plenty for everyone if only it were distributed fairly. Instead of pursuing this, society is moulded into a shape which suits those in charge.

The policy towards marriage is all about control and removal of choice, whatever its function. It is about the tentacles of the state wrapping themselves around any relationships, choking love until it is a mere legal contract. If we are lucky, it is nothing more than a perverted Tory fascination with how people live and love. If we are not lucky, this is only the beginning.

How to stop your man from cheating

The Sun is hardly known for inhabiting the same universe as the rest of us. The newspaper dwells in this strange limbo where the line between fiction and reality is blurred to nothing. It is hardly surprising, then, that this drivel appeared:

Of course, the solution to partners cheating is not to become a perfect, pliant little domestic goddess. The solution is the following:

SMASH MONOGAMY

SMASH HEGEMONIC HETEROSEXUALITY

SMASH PATRIARCHY

I’m glad the Sun will probably go under soon.

__

Credit to @RupertNeate for bravely combing that rag and finding this, and @jedweightman and @TheNatFantastic for bringing it to my attention.

How to distract an angry population: WEDDINGS!

So, it finally happened. The government have announced that gay marriage–forget your silly civil partnerships, we’re talking full marriage marriage!–will soon be written into UK law. It’s a victory for gay rights, there’s no doubt about that, and one that I wasn’t expecting in the foreseeable future. So why does this victory feel so hollow to me?

First is the obvious: I’d like to see marriage abolished entirely and for people to love freely, away from church and state meddling. To me, this victory means that one more group of people are subjected to an oppressive seal of approval on their relationships–I explain these thoughts more fully here.

The part of this that leaves the truly bitter taste in my mouth, though, is that it is clearly nothing more than a political manoeuvre. The timing of it couldn’t be more obvious: it is the day of the opening of the Lib Dem party conference. What we see here is the senior coalition partners finally throwing their underlings a bone, something that makes them feel like they’re doing good. A little sweetener for their cooperation in their incremental dismantling of the welfare state. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement; the Lib Dems stop feeling so much like sellouts, the Tories move away from their image as the party which introduced Section 28.

It is a shiny distractor for everyone else, too. While we are all busy celebrating the victory for gay rights, and praising our government for finally doing The Right Thing on something, what will be happening? It is the time of year that the redundancies for public sector workers will start to kick in. It is the time when the students return to university, furious and ripe for radicalisation. It is the time of year that with a focus of concerted effort, there might a long shot to save the NHS. And instead, the government are hoping we’ll be cooing over gay marriage and flapping with so much gratitude that we shall not shout. Given the time the consultation is taking place, I wonder what they’re planning in March?

This is not the first time we have been distracted by a big shiny wedding. Back in April, in the midst of all of the Royal Wedding drama, the news slipped out, unnoticed, that the NHS was being cut much more than we thought. Squats were raided, people removed from their homes. People were arrested for crimes they had not committed, on the charge that at some point in the next few days, they might commit a crime. Much of it was lost in the noise, as everyone was too busy gawping at a bride, a groom and a bridesmaid’s bottom. Even those who were less than happy about paying for some aristocrats to throw a party join in with the mass distraction. We dignified it by talking about it. Our voices, when talking about the bigger issues, were drowned out.

The introduction of gay marriage is more important than a pair of toffs getting hitched. It is something big, and it is beautiful. There is now no longer a linguistic difference between a state-approved same-sex relationship and a state-approved heterosexual relationship. In a world where homophobia is still rife, though, and queer folk live at risk from violence, have we really won equality? We have made a baby step in the right direction. But it is being granted equality, rather than liberation. And fuck it, I want liberation. I want to be free from oppression and persecution, free to fuck who ever I like, set up home with whoever I like, without having to ask nicely for the approval from some rich bastards in Westminster in the hope they might grant me it when it suits them.

Of course, providing something that looks like equality is rather savvy for this government. They are courting the “pink pound“, using the provision of an illusion of equality to court voters and donors, and to further feed the wedding-industrial complex. I am not fooled by this. I hope many other people are equally sceptical, and that we do not simply lay down arms in the fight for queer liberation. We’re not liberated here. We’re just consumers, we’re just pawns.

We must not get distracted by this small victory. We must celebrate it by working harder. We must work for true sexual liberation, we must work for true social liberation, and we must liberate ourselves from a government who believe we are stupid.

Update: @helen_bop raises a very good point about the changes to legislation: as there will be no changes to the Gender Recognition Act. In an existing couple one or both partners are trans, they would still have to divorce and remarry; nothing will change for trans people. This is another case wherein the T in LGBT is being woefully ignored. We deserve better than these miserable scraps.