Friday, 23 November 2012

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I have always loved crime fiction. My cousin introduced my sister and me to Agatha Christie before any of us were 10 - we would listen to casettes of the BBC radio adaptions on long journeys - and I have never looked back. Over the years I have devoured enormous amounts of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, as well as scores of less prolific or well-known writers. It's not surprising to me that, despite the overwhelmingly high proportion of male to female published crime writers, particularly well-known library-stock kind of writers, my list of favourites skews heavily female. For me, crime fiction (and particularly detective fiction) is comfort reading, and I am most comfortable with women authors, which possibly has something to do with the fact that one is less likely to be constantly bombarded with low-level sexism in books written by women. At the very least, one can expect there to be more than the one or two female characters which populate a lot of crime fiction with dreary regularity: the good-hearted prostitute who witnessed the crime, the long-suffering wife of the detective, the female police officer who is young, beautiful and brilliant and might possibly end up with the protagonist. There's nothing wrong with stock characters, and female authors are hardly innocent of their use, but as a rule I feel far safer with female authors such as Val McDermid, whose lingerie-clad dead bodies are as likely to be male as they are to be female.

So although I will pick up pretty much anything and give it a go, I often feel a certain amount of trepidation when reading a male crime writer for the first time. On the other hand, I particularly love discovering a new crime writer, no matter what their gender, especially when there's a good number of volumes in their back catalogue.

That can't truly be said of Alan Bradley, author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. To be fair, it was his first novel and it was published in 2009, so the fact that there are three more in the series is quite impressive. But it's hardly a glut which will keep me occupied for long, so I'm going to ration them out carefully and cross my fingers for more - and that should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed the book.

Bradley's detective is Flavia Sabina de Luce, an eleven-year-old girl who rattles around an enormous country house with her distant father, two superior older sisters and some charming domestic staff. She's a fantastic protagonist - quirky and precocious and rude and silly and clever. Being rather lonely at home she has an imaginative fantasy life and an unusual hobby: chemistry. She has inherited a laboratory and spends a lot of her time reading up on her subject and conducting experiments. This unusual knowledge and skill-set comes in useful in her detection. Flavia pits her wits against adults, buildings, machines and chemical compounds; she is fiercely protective of her family; when she is frustrated she addresses herself by name; she has a beloved bicycle called Gladys.

Although Flavia does have the ubiquitous older sister-who-likes-make-up-and-boys-and-is-basically-a-terrible-person, the novel is peopled with female characters who are diverse enough that this doesn't make me want to throw the book at the wall. There's the other sister, the cook, two librarians and a maid, off the top of my head. Although this makes them sound like minor domestic drudges, even those that are have a character of their own, and each has a meaningful, individual relationship with Flavia. The male characters are equally diverse and interesting. It's actually a pretty unusual book in that a huge number of characters are reasonably well-developed, male and female alike. And that's just one reason to love the novel.

It's rather old-fashioned in its plot and style, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction that I personally adore*. If you like Agatha Christie, there's a good chance you'll like this. If you like AA Milne's The Red House Mystery, you'll definitely like this. If you want to read about an effervescent, whip-smart girl detective, I couldn't recommend anything better. Although I normally don't worry about spoiling things, I'm not going to put any details of the plot here. I think you should read the book. The only thing I will say is that it is a crime mystery about philately. If that doesn't tempt you, you're probably irredeemable ...

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*In detective fiction terms, Golden Age refers specifically to the period of crime fiction writing which hit its peak in the interwar years. The supposed "innocence" which characterises Golden Age fiction mysteriously vanishes around 1945.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Skyfall: Women

I am the typical recent Bond consumer: I have seen a few of the old ones and enjoyed them, but I didn't get into it properly until the Daniel Craig reboot. I loved Casino Royale; I wasn't blown away by Quantum of Solace; I was optimistic that Skyfall would redeem itself. I don't pretend to be a Bond expert, or a film expert. My enjoyment of a film is usually closely related to whether or not it's enormously sexist, and whether or not it has musical numbers. Many films, however, slip through the net and find a place in my heart despite being neither musicals nor nice about women. And that's ok. I can love something and understand that it's flawed; I am capable of holding more than one thought in my head at once. No media is perfect.

So, to Skyfall (be warned: I spoil this film pretty thoroughly). Honestly, I loved it. No musical numbers, although Adele's theme is beautiful and haunting and the rest of the soundtrack is great. And it's not very kind to woman either. There are five: unnamed sex-partner#1, Moneypenny, practically-unnamed-plot-driver (and-of-course-sex-partner#2) Sévérine*, the MP who heads the enquiry into MI6, and M. Of these five, three are young and gorgeous and have sex with Bond. I would argue that none of them really get to be characters in their own right. Moneypenny, in addition to being a bad driver and a bad shot, becomes a secretary at the end, and unnamed sex-partner#1 is just that. Sévérine is a sexual possession who is passed between men until she dies. Her relationship with Bond is particularly upsetting: having learnt that she was a victim of sex trafficking when she was 12 or 13 and is now the miserable, terrified possession of the film's supervillain, Bond responds by creeping into her shower and feeling her up. Because this is a Bond film, she's actually pretty happy to see him.

Plenty of people have taken issue with Sévérine's death: when Silva shoots her, Bond quips "waste of good scotch", and a lot of commenters feel that this is rather callous and out of step with Bond's chivalrous character. Others think that Bond's quip is a ploy to cover up his true feelings, and allow him to regain the upper hand: Silva's MO so far has been to play with Bond's feelings, trying to throw him off his game, and his murder of Sévérine, coming as it does as part of a game which Silva sets up as a test of marksmanship in which the loser could accidentally kill Sévérine, could easily fit into this narrative. Either way, it's a nasty moment, and regardless of Bond's feelings about it, Sévérine's role in the plot is as possession, honey-trap, and motivation for Bond.

Honestly, though, I was bothered less by that unpleasantness than by the general treatment of women in this film. You don't have to make a joke about a woman's murder to be sexist. You have to only have five of them in a cast of hundreds, and make sexist commentary about all of them.

        1) exists purely to have sex with Bond (because that's what Bond does).

        2) is Bond's getaway driver in Istanbul, whose driving Bond criticises and even takes over by grabbing the wheel away from her. She also manages to shoot Bond when she's aiming for his opponent, knocking him into the river and (we think, but not really of course) killing him. Bond jokes about her incompetence for the rest of the film, telling her that "field work isn't for everyone". She ends up becoming a secretary, and she has sex with Bond.

        3) is a victim of forced prostitution, is the sexual possession and pawn of Raoul Silva, and her sole purpose is to bring the hero and the anti-hero together. Oh, and she has sex with Bond.

        4) is the snide, unnamed female MP who heads the enquiry into MI6, who talks so much that she is publicly upbraided by Mallory, allowing a glance of sympathy and understanding to pass between Mallory and M.

        5) is M. Despite being a fabulous character in her own right, there are significant problems with the portrayal of M in this film, not the least of which is that she, too, cannot shoot straight. That's two women who shoot guns in an entire film of men who shoot guns, and neither of them hit their target. It's a plot point that Bond's marksmanship is poor in this film, and yet apart from his test where he proves how bad he has become, this issue is never in evidence in the actual plot. Even if it were, I would require more to prove to me that this isn't about women not being good at shooting, because there are plenty of men in this film who shoot straight 100% of the time. And Bond still manages to shoot the lock off a door and a roomful of fire extinguishers, despite his supposedly poor skills.

So M has a different skillset from that of a secret agent. I can accept that. What I find more difficult to swallow is her role as a mother-figure in this film. The whole plot revolves around a kind of Oedipal nightmare in which Silva both loves and hates M, wants her regard and attention yet blames her for betraying him, wants to kill her and yet cannot stand to see her hurt. It's a good plot: gripping and powerful. But I can't help but be a little disappointed by it. I've not seen many Bond films, but were any of the male Ms before Dench's time treated in this way? Were they accused, as Dench's M is, of being "sentimental" about Bond? I have to doubt it.

I'm pretty much used to female characters being sex bombs in Bond films. That's what they're there for: even the ones who are spies / agents / double agents / otherwise professional are also sex bombs, because Bond having sex with everyone is kinda the point of the films. I've no beef with that. (Well, obviously I do, but it's so unremarkable that I'm over it.) What's upsetting about Skyfall is that M, the one female character who doesn't double as a sexual conquest for Bond, is in this film reduced to the only other available female stereotype, the mother figure. Dench is brilliant, as always, and pulls off the role beautifully, and the film is powerful and moving and lots of fun. I still love it. I just think that the Bond franchise's woman problem is not exactly solved by adding a maternal stereotype to the stable of sex symbols, especially at the expense of an already-existing great female character.

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* It's possible that someone said her name in the film and I missed it, but I've seen it twice now and I just had to look up her name in the credits. It's telling, I think, that of the four women, only M is consistently named: I'm fairly sure Sévérine isn't named at all, unnamed-sex-partner#1 certainly isn't, and Moneypenny doesn't get a name until the closing scene of the film, when it's revealed that she is the canon character Miss Moneypenny rather than another unnamed agent. Obviously that's a necessary trick, but there's something important going on with names and gender here. Consider Kincade's mishearing of 'M' as 'Emma'; the unnamed-ness of the other female characters; the fact that even though he's the secretest secret agent in the world, everyone knows 007 is Bond James Bond; and the psychological importance of M remembering Silva's real name, Tiago Rodrigues. Consider the fact that Mallory becomes M, whilst Judi Dench's M's real name is never known. To me, these little things add up to an interesting focus on names and naming, in which women are much less individual and much more interchangeable than men. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Girlcrush: It's the Little Things

I don't want to pick on Hugo Schwyzer - he gets picked on a lot already (although there are good reasons for that so I'm not going to get all het up about it). I'm highly suspicious of Schwyzer but I haven't written him off as the enemy, mostly because there's little point in doing so. Thus I do follow him on Twitter, in part to keep an eye on what he promotes of his own work, and in part because he often links to some really interesting things around the web. Sometimes, however, he just tweets about what he's up to - often which coffee shop he's in, for some reason - and what his family are doing. Here's this mornings:


I really dislike the phrase "girlcrush" (or, as I've also heard, "ladycrush"). If little Heloise had a crush on a male teacher's aide, would she have a boycrush? Almost certainly not. She'd just have a crush. Because that would be normal. The phrase "girlcrush" seems specifically engineered to minimise the gayness of having a crush on someone of one's own gender, particularly when the person doing the crushing is a child. It's a way of diminishing the importance of a crush; a way of announcing that it's different from a real crush, so there's no need to worry about it being all gay and stuff.

It's also sexist. Boys don't have boycrushes. I'm sure little boys of all sexualities have crushes on people of all genders when they're growing up, just as little girls* do. Yet I've not once heard the phrase "boycrush", and I think that's because boys of any age are not allowed even the hint of homosexuality anywhere near them, in case it stains. In girls it's cute, and it might even be part of that renowned "phase" that we've heard so much about. Boys, however, don't get phases. They don't get to be young and experimental and titillating. Boys are supposed to be ruggedly heterosexual from the get-go. That's why, when they pull girls' hair in the playground, it's a crush. You think they don't pull little boys' hair too? Who knows why, but as adults we are fixated to the point of obsession on coding this behaviour as evidence of an always-already present heterosexuality. Because the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

As well, then, as being sexist and heterosexist, it's also just boringly minimising. A crush is brilliant! It is fun and flirty and energising, no matter who the recipient is. School or work or a party or a hobby shines like a jewel when you know there is a certain person there, someone who presses your buttons or floats your boat, whose voice makes you a little weak or whose eyes make you blush when they settle on you. That's the same whether you're 6 or 60. Why do we have to make some crushes crushier than others by splitting them down the gender line? A little girl has a crush on her teacher's aide. That's life. Let her enjoy it, and maybe don't get all panicky and make sure that everyone understands that it's just a girlcrush, not a real crush.

(Equally, how about we stop diminishing basic admiration in this way? Just as I don't want to minimise crushes, no matter what gender the participants are, I also don't want us to assume that all crush-like behaviour means we have crushes, especially children. Why teach kids that any level of interest and absorption is a crush at all? Why not let kids admire, emulate, love, respect, or simply desire the company of people of any gender without making it all about romantic interest? This is why people get confused about who fancies them and who they themselves fancy: because we devalue platonic feelings in order to shore up romantic feelings.)

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with Schwyzer. He talks the talk - and what fine talk it is - but I'm not sure his heart is always in it. It's the tiny phrases that give him away. In an article written for Scarleteen in 2009, entitled 'Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man', Schwyzer makes lots of reasonable points about how much breakups hurt, and how to deal with them, and how not to be horrible while you're doing it. And then he gives himself away with one little phrase, buried deep in paragraph 8:
Most of us have seen something like this unfold in opposite-sex relationships: guy and girl break up. Girl initially seems far more devastated. She talks to her friends, mourns publicly, seems genuinely distraught. Guy seems, by comparison, to hardly be in pain at all. Weeks go by, then months. Because she’s dealt with the hurt immediately, girlfriend is getting over things, moving on, ready for what comes next. Boyfriend, meanwhile, has fallen into a delayed depression. He may suddenly start calling, frantic to get her back, having suddenly realized breaking up was a “huge mistake.” He may even progress to what seems like stalking, begging and pleading for “another try.” And while that might have worked on girlfriend six days after the break up, it comes far too late when it comes, as it not infrequently does, six months down the line! This delayed reaction is an obvious consequence of the fact that so many young men lack strong emotional support networks (other, perhaps, than that provided by the women whom they are involved with romantically or sexually) and are far more likely to adopt distraction or denial as initial coping strategies.
I'm not arguing with the overarching theme of this at all, but that little phrase "what seems like stalking" really throws up red flags for me. Seems like stalking? That is stalking! You don't get to say it's not stalking because the poor guy is just distraught that his ex-girlfriend isn't his girlfriend anymore. Intent is not magic, my friend. I'm also suspicious of his claim that it "might have worked on girlfriend six days after the break up". I'm not doubting its veracity, but it seems a little like Schwyzer is condoning that behaviour if it happens at the right time. After all, he's arguing that boys have a delayed reaction to break-ups due to a lack of strong emotional support networks, and that it would be better if they dealt with it right away rather than "adopt[ing] distraction or denial as initial coping strategies".

I'm getting away from my point, which is this: Schwyzer, I'm sure, would profess to be unconcerned if one of his children was gay or bisexual, as would a lot of adults. But words mean things, and it's the little things that give us away. Your girl child has a crush. It's not somehow magically unreal because it's on a woman rather than a man. And labelling it a girlcrush rather than just a crush is belittling, sexist, heterosexist and wrong.

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*and little queers and non-binaries and agenders ...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Comfortable Bodies

Since I have been an adult, my relationship with my  body has probably changed much more than my actual body has. I may have gained or lost a few kilos here or there, but not noticeably. What's far more noticeable - to me at least - is how vastly fluctuating my feelings about my body have been over the years, and how tied up with fatness those feelings always are. Rationally, I don't think being fat is a bad thing, but like most people I have internalised a lot of fat-hatred, especially self-directed fat-hatred, and much as I fight against it, I tend to equate fatness with badness and thinness with goodness, at least in myself.*

Recently, however - as in the last few years rather than few days or weeks - I think I've had a much healthier relationship with my body. I've been more comfortable with form-fitting clothes; I've been happier to expose my body to others (swimming costumes, sex, 'public' changing rooms etc); I've been less willing to denigrate my body either publicly or privately. I don't engage in fat-talk, about myself or anyone else. Happily, this is a self-perpetuating practice. I think these deliberate behaviours contribute to a general feeling of comfort and self-worth when it comes to body image. I don't feel better about myself because I'm thinner: I feel better about myself because I've realised that it's ok to not be thinner.

Importantly, for me at least, this 'feeling' is all that I have to tell me about my weight. Although I occasionally get into using scales, mostly I only know my numbers when I have to find them out in order to fill in medical forms. This means that I only have a vague feeling of being more substantial than usual, or less, rather than hard little numbers telling me that I'm heavier or lighter than I was the day before. I also get comments from other people, of course, but honestly I've realised that this tells me more about the commenters than it does about me. Someone who perpetually says to me "hey, have you lost weight?" is obviously much more preoccupied with weight than I am myself. I don't like it, but at least it gives me a chance to practice my response to these kinds of comments without engaging in or perpetuating fat-hate.

One of the things that has made me aware of this change in myself is a friend at work whose hugging style might at one time have made me quite uncomfortable. He tends to grip very tightly, sometimes approaching from behind and grabbing me around the middle to lift me up and crush my ribs, sometimes just gripping my middle tightly with his hands to scare me when I'm not expecting it.** This form of physical interaction is one that makes me very aware of my body. S can definitely feel every contour of whatever bit of me he's grasping, and other people who are around will be able to see any bits that spill out of his hands and squeeze outwards around his tightly clasped arms. And this actually doesn't bother me at all. I'm not embarrassed for anyone to know what my body looks like, because I'm not embarrassed about my body. It's a rare and delightful feeling, and makes me beautifully aware of how my relationship with my body has changed for the better over time. I can remember not liking to be hugged, because it would reveal my carefully-concealed fatness to the hugger. I don't feel like that anymore - hugging is my favourite thing! - and it's not because I'm carrying any less weight. It's because I'm carrying so much less care. Trans issues aside (and how I wish they were so easily put aside), my body is comfortable. I'm comfortable with it. And that's a comforting feeling.

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* Incidentally, just last night I had a minor revelation when I realised why I was looking at an unknown fat person with something very like hatred: I think when I'm feeling bad about myself I judge most harshly in other people the things that I dislike about myself. It's not just a physical thing: when I'm feeling low I judge behaviours harshly when I can see that they are similar to behaviours that I myself embody. It's not a kind thing to do, and when I catch myself doing it I feel even worse, so that's something I'm going to have to work on.

** I realise this might sound invasive and frankly terrifying, but S is an old friend and his behaviour is consensual and enjoyable - it's a long-standing interaction between us and this would definitely not be ok from someone I didn't know or have that history with. Having said that, I now realise that S has been doing this for a long time and I haven't always been comfortable with it, but when he started I didn't have the confidence to assert my boundaries. And now that I do, that particular boundary isn't there any more. I wonder if that's significant?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Oliver's Link Market

So I have been seeing such amazing things around the internet recently that I thought I'd do a little roundup. And here it is!

Firstly, the piece that inspired my roundup: meta: Give Sexy Actors Sexy Wheelchairs! is just fascinating. As an able-bodied person, I'm sorry to say that it has never occurred to me to look closely at the wheelchairs used by disabled characters on screen, so this was a real eye-opener. Possibly this will be a red pill moment: I doubt I'll be able to ignore wheelchairs in the future! (You should absolutely watch the video of 14-year-old Aaron Fotheringham performing what is apparently the world's first wheelchair backflip - just incredible!)

Next, something that I keep returning to recently: Removing the stigma of suicide discusses the potential for 'normalising' suicidal feelings - not trivialising them, as such, but making them more accessible, less "EMERGENCY!" and more, as Unquiet puts it, "just a thing I'm dealing with". The piece is really resonating with me recently, and it's something I want to put more thought into. (Trigger Warning for discussion of suicidal feelings)

Hipster Sexism is Not a New Concept comes from the always-interesting s.e.smith at xojane. It's an essential read if you're involved in blogging, as it lays out the importance of properly citing your references and giving credit to the originator of the idea you're discussing, not just the most recent link in the chain. It's something I'm always concerned about in my own writing (coming from an academic background, referencing is critically important) and would like to see more of in the blogosphere at large.

How an Invitation to Tea Curbed a Slew of Suicide Attempts is a slightly misleading title, but the story is amazing nonetheless: a man who lives near a notorious suicide spot asks people he sees "lingering a little too long" in for a cup of tea, often giving them a welcome distraction and sometimes causing them to reconsider their actions.

I'm fascinated by The Atlantic's Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes. It's a useful resource, and made me reflect on why someone might fake photos of the disaster in the first place, as well as how amazing it is that social media makes this kind of thing possible and probable.

I stumbled across Buttercup's Frocks recently and just had to promote it to my enormous readership, purely for the joy of seeing such colour in autumn/winter-wear. I'm not one to talk, since my 'winter wardrobe', such as it is, is made up of blue, black and charcoal grey, but I would dearly love to incorporate some brighter colours, and I think this fat frockaholic sets a great example.

Finally, I made these Brazilian Coffee Cookies, which turned out pretty nicely, but didn't last much longer than a day before getting a bit chewy.

Are there more things I should be reading? Feel free to let me know.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Fixable You

I keep hearing this song when I'm out in the world, innocently going about my day, and my teeth grind automatically every time I hear it.

It's not just the insipid poppy tune, or the irritating voice, or the fact that he really ought to drop this song a semi-tone or two so he can hit the top note without sounding like he's straining something. It's not the fact that this song is called a "dance ballad" as if those words mean something. All those things are pretty annoying, but the worst thing about this song is its lyrics. I submit for your consideration the first verse and chorus:
Much as you blame yourself, you can't be blamed for the way you feel
Had no example of a love that was even remotely real
How can you understand something that you never had
Ooh baby if you let me, I can help you out with all of that 
Girl let me love you
And I will love you
Until you learn to love yourself
Girl let me love you
And all your trouble
Don't be afraid, girl let me help
Girl let me love you
And I will love you
Until you learn to love yourself
Girl let me love you
A heart of numbness
Gets brought to life
I'll take you there.
I'm really not a fan of songs by men about women which take as their subject the idea that women need men to sort them out. I know they're incredibly popular, especially with young women (the comments on the Ne-Yo song are full of "marry me, Ne-Yo!") but I find them insulting, patronising, and not the least bit romantic. There's a real trend at the moment for boy bands and solo male artists to write 'love songs' in this style. The general gist of them is that the girl is awesome, but she doesn't know how awesome she is, so she needs the boy/s to show her. Consider last year's enormous hit by the ubiquitous One Direction, What Makes You Beautiful, which epitomises this trend. As if the chorus lyrics weren't bad enough ("You don't know you're beautiful; That's what makes you beautiful"), the introductory verse is infuriating:
You're insecure
Don't know what for
You're turning heads when you walk through the door
Don't need make up
To cover up
Because the way that you are is enough.
The only thing she could be insecure about is her looks? Check. Make-up is something women use to make themselves more attractive to men? Check. Make-up is something only used by unattractive women to 'cover up'? Check. I know better than you whether you're 'enough'? Check. "Don't worry honey, we can see the real you and you get the One Direction seal of approval!"Women and girls everywhere ate this rubbish up like they were starving. The fact that 1D are all about 12 years old makes this even more annoyingly condescending.

The Ne-Yo song, however, doesn't even have the decency to just stick to praising a woman's looks. What's wrong with Ne-Yo's woman is that she's broken psychologically: she's been deprived of "real" love, and so can't understand it when she sees it. Ne-Yo is offering her real love. He wants to help her. He wants to bring to life her heart of numbness, and love her until she learns to love herself. This song is in the mould of my all-time most-hated song, Coldplay's Fix You. Although the lyrics are slightly more abstract than those from the songs I've mentioned already, the idea is right there in the title: whoever Chris Martin is singing to is broken, and he will try to fix them. Like the other songs, there is the sense that he knows his addressee better than they know themselves: "when you get what you want but not what you need".*

I get that all these songs are intended to be flattering. I get that the writers/singers aren't intending to insult their (female) audience/addressee. And in some ways, I can understand their enormous popularity. A guy who will love you despite the fact that you're broken? Yes! A guy who says you're beautiful, even though you can't see it yourself? Yes! In a society that constantly tells women and girls that they're broken and ugly whilst they should be beautiful and whole, and that being beautiful (and also whole, but mainly beautiful) is the most important thing in the world, I can see how these songs are perceived to be valuable. But they're not the right kind of valuable. In fact, they perpetuate some damaging ideals which don't serve women and girls - or anyone - at all well. The 1D song is particularly troublesome in its claim that the addressee is beautiful precisely because she doesn't think she's beautiful. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful, but compare the sentiment with Christina Aguilera's lyric "I am beautiful, no matter what you say". Christina's acknowledgement of her own beauty is what would disqualify her from 1D's kind of beauty, wherein you are required to be beautiful but not know it. One of the most insulting things that can be said of a girl or woman is that they think they're beautiful/attractive/sexy, and yet self-confidence is surely a better goal to strive for than external validation. It would be nice if we could strive for things other than physical perfection in the first place, but since we can't, let's at least aim for self-worth rather than for a world in which men and boys will consider you beautiful only if you don't have the audacity to believe it of yourself.

These songs are just a tiny part of pop culture, and I get accused of taking things too seriously when I attempt to critique them. The truth is that, as small as they are, they are a depressingly accurate summation of attitudes to girls and women today. Accusing people who critique pop culture of "sweating the small stuff" or being "focussed on trivia" to the detriment of the 'important' things overlooks the fact that the important things are composed of the trivial; that a culture in which governments control women's bodies is a culture in which men police women's appearance, a culture in which men get to decide whether women are crazy or not, and which ones are beautiful or worthy. A bunch of adolescents reassuring a girl that she's ok in their book, or a man generously offering to help a woman understand true love, are small examples of this world in which women must be validated by men before they can even exist, whether that existence entails being beautiful, being sane, having a brain or a job or an abortion.

I don't know, maybe it is trivial. I'm just tired of hearing about all the things that are wrong with me (but that will be graciously overlooked) in pop songs.

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*Caveat: I'm almost willing to give Coldplay the benefit of the doubt, since it seems like the lyrics are self-addressed: the video is Chris Martin, alone, all sad-seeming until he gets to the gig where there is a real sense of community and belonging, which makes it seem like the 'home' referenced in "lights will guide you home". However, having never seen the video before, this song always gave me an uncomfortable feeling, and without the video, which is how we most often hear pop music, I think it's reasonable to assume that "you" is addressed to a listener and not the singer.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

So I just saw this film, without knowing much about it except that it's about misfits and stars Ezra Miller and David Bowie's 'Heroes'. That was enough for me. And honestly, if that was all that was good about it, it would have been plenty. But man, does this film have more going for it than that. (Spoilers ahead.)

This isn't a perfect film. But what is? The best compliment I can give Perks is that it is complex enough that I'm willing to give it a bit of a pass on the places where it falls down. It has more than one gay character. It has two kisses between male characters; one of the kisses is between a straight character and a gay character, and the straight character doesn't freak out or question his sexuality or respond with violence or disgust or anger. It has a suicidal character who has more than one dimension. It has sexual abuse of a boy by a woman. It has complex family relationships, full of love and casual cruelty and support and abuse. It has friendships. Real, messy friendships. And real, messy sexuality.

And on top of all that, it has Ezra Miller as Dr. Frankenfurter. I actually squeaked in the cinema. That's two of my favourite turn-ons in one delicious parcel!

One of the things I didn't like as much is the treatment of women. Although there are some beautifully nuanced portrayals in this film (Emma Watson is really, really good) and a host of good female characters, some of the details were a bit frustrating. Sam, Emma Watson's character, suffers from standard girl trouble: she used to be a slutty slut. We don't get all the details, but basically she spent 'freshman year' not studying, getting drunk at parties, and sleeping around. She suffers from cripplingly low self esteem, which results in her dating people who "treat [her] like nothing". Charlie, our hero, is the only one who loves the real her, and we know that he'll treat her right. Charlie moons after her for the entire film, selflessly helps her with her studies, evil-eyes her boyfriend and complains to people that she isn't dating him, despite the fact that he's never asked her to. I call Nice Guy-ism.

Charlie's one-time girfriend, Mary-Elizabeth, has her own girl-problems. From being a snappy, bright, independent girl, she morphs into a jealous, possessive, nagging shrew the moment she starts dating Charlie - which happens after they've kissed once and Mary-Elizabeth announces that Charlie is her boyfriend. Their relationship ends when Charlie is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and unthinkingly kisses Sam instead of Mary-Elizabeth. Patrick, Sam's step brother, tells Charlie that it would be best if he just stayed away from the group for a while, since there is "history" between Sam and Mary-Elizabeth - history that apparently involves guys liking Sam better than Mary-Elizabeth. Charlie, who has realised that one reason that he is currently fairly stable is that he has a good group of friends, suffers a rapid decline when he takes Patrick's advice and returns to being a loner.

There are other factors involved, of course, in Charlie's breakdown, but one thing this careful chronology encourages is the belief that these silly girls and their silly jealousy have contributed to Charlie's deteriorating mental health. I'd say that Charlie brings it on himself, by callously kissing one girl in front of the girl he's dating, but Patrick makes it clear that Charlie must exile himself not because his behaviour was insensitive and wrong, but because the girls are going to be unnecessarily dramatic about it.

I really don't have the energy to detail all the sexist tropes this film utilises to talk about women. For something that's otherwise so progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, it's a real disappointment. But there are other problems too.

1) I counted one person of colour who spoke during the entire film. I didn't even see any non-white people in crowd shots.

2) Everyone is thin and beautiful - not unexpected in a teen film (or, sadly, any film), but still disappointing.

3) Everyone is incredibly rich. The kids buy each other suits and typewriters for Christmas, and have free run of enormous mansions where no parents are seen. Nobody has a job, or talks of getting one. You know how ridiculously rich they all are, because nobody mentions money. There isn't even a token poor character to throw the others into relief. It's as if nobody even notices how ludicrously privileged these kids are - not the writers, directors, actors or characters. It's bizarre.

4) The bulimia joke. Early on, Sam tells Charlie that she's not a bulimic, she's a bulimist. What does that mean? "It means she believes in bulimia." She loves bulimia! That might be acceptable if the film went on to explore Sam dealing with bulimia, but it doesn't. It's never mentioned again. It's just a throwaway line, perhaps to show how quirky and cool they are, perhaps to show how screwed up Sam is. I think that's pretty screwed up in itself.

It's disappointing that the film falls down in so many ways, because in so many other ways, it is groundbreaking. The main character has dealt with death and suicide and sexual abuse by his aunt. Can we talk about how rare that is? I'm not sure I can remember another instance - in a teen film, no less - of a woman sexually abusing a little boy. Charlie's parents are appalled and disgusted and heartbroken, but there is no question that they believe him. I think, for this alone, I can forgive this film a multitude of sins.

And, on top of all this, it's a really moving film. The themes are complex and emotional and frightening, but there are moments of pure joy in the film, and moments of pure love. It's messy and grim and optimistic and terrifying. I'm no film critic, but I really enjoyed it and I think it's got some really important things to say.

I still wanted it to be better, though. One of the problems of engaging regularly with this kind of criticism is that I've been infected by more-ism. The status quo is not enough. Better than the status quo is not enough. I want more. I expect more.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Do I Look Fat?

Otherwise known as, Was-I-Just-In-A-Sitcom? or How-I-Totally-Failed-To-Be-A-Fat-Ally-And-Was-Subsequently-Really-Bloody-Ashamed-Of-Myself.

Recently I worked at a place from which I've been absent for three weeks. It was lovely to see some people (and not so lovely to see others!), and I had a lot of catching-up kind of conversations with both people I'd call friends and people I'd call colleagues. I had one such conversation with a woman which was interrupted when I had to go do some work (shocking), and when I next saw her she said "So, Ollie, do I look fatter to you?"

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Secretly Straight

I'm not going to say much about this piece from Sunday's Observer. I'm just flagging it up here because I think it's one of those things that's in a nice middle-class newspaper as a nice middle-class sermon on tolerance and open-mindedness. And it makes me sick.

Essentially, Timothy Kurek was homophobic as hell until one of his friends tugged at his cankerous, rusty heartstrings with her story about being kicked out of her home when she came out as lesbian. For some reason, his best response to this (admittedly devastating, but sadly all too common) tale was to pretend to be gay for a year in an attempt to "walk in the shoes of a gay man".

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Outed by Facebook

Oh my god, this. A story about how two sets of parents found out their children were gay due to the vagaries of Facebook's labyrinthine privacy settings.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Gendering Sports

Recently I have gone back to judo, a sport that I trained in until I was 17, and have only sporadically revisited since. It's been a long time, and I thought I anticipated the challenges of returning to it. I anticipated that I'd get horribly out of breath, and struggle to remember techniques, not to mention their names. I anticipated that my adult body would take longer to adapt to and recover from training than my adolescent body had. What I didn't anticipate, although I perhaps should have done, was how engaging with sport would highlight my gender.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

National Coming Out Day

I wasn't going to write anything about National Coming Out Day, because I've always found myself fairly ambivalent about the whole thing. Then I read this post over at Black Girl Dangerous, which is a really fabulous tumblr filled with radical politics, particularly the kind that's of interest to queer and trans* people of colour. I often find the writing there challenging and inspiring and difficult and brilliant, and this piece is no different.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Review: Wimbledon

Released in 2004, Wimbledon stars Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany as entrants to Wimbledon, she being young and ambitious and brilliant, he being 'old' and past-it and intending to enjoy one last Grand Slam as a wildcard entrant before retiring from professional tennis. Spoilers ahead.

I was really enjoying this film until about halfway through. There was a questionable scene at the beginning, where Peter Colt (Bettany) arrives at the Dorchester hotel and is given the wrong key, and walks in on Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst) in the shower. Instead of him being shocked and appalled and getting out of the room as fast as humanly possible, and Lizzie being angry and indignant, she smirks vampishly and displays her body unashamedly for Peter (if not, thankfully, for the camera). Peter stutters and stumbles and does his best Hugh Grant impression, hilariously getting his words mixed up so he accidentally says to her "good body" instead of "good luck": a classic error that could have happened to anyone. I know I always mix up those two words.

So far, so predictable. But that didn't make me angry, it just made me a little tired. He invades her privacy, she giggles and enjoys the attention. What made me really, truly angry was where the plot went from there.

Lizzie comes on to Peter, who can't believe his luck when she makes it clear that she'd like to have sex with him, mostly (as she also makes clear) because she believes "fooling around" on the night before a match improves her performance the next day. The two of them have sex; they have a montage; Lizzie's father/coach/owner warns Peter off Lizzie; Peter punches Lizzie's arrogant ex-lover in the face; Lizzie and Peter run away to Brighton and have lots of sex and pretend tennis and breakfast in bed. Then Peter's brother sells a photo of the couple to a newspaper, and suddenly the house is surrounded by press, and Lizzie's father arrives to shepherd her back to London. Lizzie, hiding, overhears her father's monologue to Peter about how Lizzie needs to remember her lifelong dream of winning Wimbledon, and how she's throwing it all away by falling for Peter, because actually liking someone means that her game suffers. Lizzie comes out of hiding saying "I still want it. I want to win Wimbledon. I'm sorry", and she leaves with him to return to London and training while Peter trails after them:

"You're gonna go?"
"Yeah. He's right. I'm sorry."
"Wait a second. Lizzie? Lizzie! Lizzie, this is ridiculous, you're a grown woman and you should be making your own decisions - 
"This is my decision! We can be together after the tournament."
"After the tournament - ! What does that mean, you can't just switch me on and off like a bloody lightbulb - I'll call you at the hotel."
"I'm sorry kid. When she's with you she just - can't play."

And so, back to the tennis. Peter, long assumed to be past it, has been playing surprisingly well in this tournament, and has enjoyed two shock wins to reach the third round, where he will face highly-ranked Englishman Tom Cavendish. In his first round match, he fought back from two sets down after seeing Lizzie in the crowd watching him, the day after they have first slept together. This becomes a trope for the two of them, but it only goes one way: Peter gains strength from her support, but we never see him attend Lizzie's matches - not until things have fallen apart. In this third round match, Peter is playing terribly and is on the point of losing when Cavendish injures himself, allowing Peter to capitalise on his advantage and secure his place in the semi-finals. Meanwhile Lizzie, whose matches have had a tiny amount of screen time compared to Peter's, is assumed to be a sure-thing, and has been whipping through her matches with ease. Now, however, despite assuring her father that she's focussed and that "he's out of [her] head", she is listening to Peter's match on the radio in the car on the way to her own match. After winning his match, Peter goes to watch Lizzie's, and happens to receive some top-quality counsel from his sponsor:

"Me, I hate making a decision. Like right now, I'm very very afraid. If you don't see that girl again it's gonna mess with your head, it'll screw up your confidence, on the other hand I'm terrified, I'm petrified if I tell you where that girl's camped out her father's gonna fire my ass." 
"Where's the girl camped out Ron?" 
"32 Kensington Place. First floor apartment. I made a decision."
"Me too."

Ron, who sponsors both athletes, has for reasons passing understanding chosen Peter over Lizzie. Lizzie is young and ambitious and has potential. This tournament is Peter's last hurrah: he has already announced his retirement. Professionally, the decision to help Peter win makes no sense at all for Ron. The only reason it does make sense is if Ron wants to help Peter get laid. Which it does. We cut straight from that shot into one of Peter breaking into Lizzie's house, surprising her in bed. Once again, instead of screaming blue murder and telling him to get the hell out, she looks slightly annoyed before calmly accepting the fact that Peter has just invaded her privacy yet again - not to mention committed a crime. Here's how it goes:

"Peter! What are you doing here?"
"That's an excellent question. The sad fact of the matter is, I can't seem to get through 24 hours without you."
"I've missed you, Peter, Peter Colt."
"You have?"
"But I need you to go."
"No, you need me to stay."
"Peter - "
"Lizzie.
"Peter - "
"Lizzie. People have fallen in love before, you know."
"Oh, is that what we're doing here?"

Giggling and kissing. Joke. Heavy breathing. Cut to the next morning and Peter leaving without waking Lizzie to go to his semi-final match. At Lizzie's match, things start to go wrong when a string on her racket breaks, and she is distracted by a man yelling at her and brandishing a newspaper with Peter's photo on the front and the words "Lover Boy". Lizzie loses her match. Peter wins his.

Peter does seem to care that Lizzie has lost, and accepts, however minimally, that he may not have acted in her best interests. But when they argue about it, he doesn't apologise for putting his needs ahead of hers, or for not respecting her wishes when she leaves him or when she tells him she needs him to go. Instead, the argument is a chance for us to see that Lizzie is a heartless woman who only cares about winning, and to whom "Love means nothing" (her words). The two part on bad terms, and Peter skulks tragically about the place until it's time for his final.

And who is Peter playing in the final, but Lizzie's arrogant ex-lover, wunderkind Jake Hammond who, in the tunnel, says to Peter with a shrug "I tried to warn you about her." The kid is clearly a nasty piece of work, displaying unpleasant gamesmanship and not seeming to care when he hits a ball boy in the face with his serve, something which has previously distinguished Peter from his competitors: he is a nice man, and when Hammond shows a callous lack of care about injuring a small boy, he gets angry. This doesn't improve his game, however: Peter only manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Lizzie arrives to give him a pep talk during a rain break when he is 2 sets and 5 games to 1 down. She has come to help him win after hearing his tear-jerking pre-match speech about how love - meaning Lizzie - is the only reason he is in the final at all, and how truly sorry he is for having let her down. She was about to board a flight back to America, but instead she rushes back to Wimbledon to tell Peter she loves him, and when he apologises for his behaviour, she tells him "Forget about that! This is about you. Go out there and decide who you are." She also tells him how to read Hammond's serve, allowing Peter to come back from certain defeat. When it's looking dire, right at the end, Peter once more catches Lizzie's eye in the crowd, giving him the strength to play a blinding final point to win the championship.

There's an awful lot to hate about this plot, and a large part of it is how it revolves around Peter rather than Lizzie. This is inevitable, since Peter is the protagonist - we are with him from the beginning of the film, and Lizzie is the love-interest rather than getting equal billing. On the other hand, Lizzie's tennis is so completely sidelined by Peter's that it's rather sickening. As I have said, her matches get a tiny amount of screen time compared to Peter's, and the fact that she has to be knocked out of the tournament is galling: not only does she have to lose in order to prove that it's true that she can't focus on both love and tennis, she also has to lose in order to be free to be there for Peter when he needs her. She couldn't have counselled him through his final if she was focussed on her own, could she? The bludgeoned-home message is that love is damaging to Lizzie's tennis. It is clear that having sex is helpful to her - she describes it as relaxing, and when she and Peter are just having sex before their matches, everything goes well for her. It's when the narrative shows us that they are falling for each other that Lizzie's tennis starts to suffer, whereas love only improves Peter's game. When things start to go wrong between them, however, Peter's game suffers whilst Lizzie's remains stable. Lizzie loses after they have reconciled - after Peter has broken into her house and told her that they're falling in love.

Yet more galling is Lizzie's treatment as a possession of the men in her life. Throughout the film Lizzie is controlled by her father, and although she rebels against him it's only in order to spend time with another man who wants to dominate her attention, sulking when it is refused. Peter, for his part, wants Lizzie to make her own decisions, but only if she makes the decision to stay with him rather than go with her father. Then there's Hammond, who is set up as a possessive ex-lover and, on discovering that Lizzie and Tom are sleeping together, tells her "I thought all those things they said about you were just rumours, but you really are a cheap little - " and that's when Peter punches him in the face. Lizzie, incidentally, is excited by this, telling Peter that nobody has ever fought for her honour before, and that she kinda likes it. It's telling that this is the man that Peter has to beat in the final. It's almost as if he has to prove that he's worthy of Lizzie, because of course women don't like losers. It's ok for Lizzie to lose, though, because Peter's last hurrah is far more important. And, after all, he does make it clear that, now that the important stuff is out of the way, he's ready to make Lizzie's career his priority:

"There's so much I want to say to you!"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Oh yes you are. You're going a long, long way!"

And in the voiceover at the end, over cute montages of Peter and Lizzie playing tennis with two little blond moppets, we learn that Lizzie did win the US Open. And Wimbledon. Twice. So that's ok then. She's allowed to succeed in her career - as long as she has succeeded in love first.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Menswear Sucks

I think this a great article, thoroughly and eloquently detailing the painful double-bind of rigid gender roles, the ways they hurt people of all genders, and how this filters into sartorial choice. I have no bones to pick with the article; I simply want to expand on my own thoughts on the issue here, particularly the idea that "menswear sucks".

As a 'female-bodied' person who embraces a whole range of clothing options, I can tell you that clothing sucks in many ways. If you want to wear a men's shirt whilst sporting some major breasts, prepare for a long, dispiriting search. If you want to wear men's trousers whilst wielding some major hips: ditto. If you want to wear women's shoes whilst bearing particularly wide/long feet: ditto. If you want to wear a dress and you are particularly tall/short: well, you get the idea. The fashion industry (and this is as relevant to George at Asda as it is to Marc Jacobs) caters to one kind of body: the kind that is 'in proportion'. Sometimes it doesn't even do that. If you're of average height and thin, you're perfectly catered to. If you're above-averagely tall and thin, you're fine. If you're below-averagely short and thin, you're probably ok, but might struggle in some places. If you're fat, no matter how tall you are, you're going to struggle a lot in most places. And this doesn't even begin to engage with the radical notion that not all bodies are thin or fat in the same ways. I'm not sure how it plays out with 'male bodies' and men's clothing, as I haven't had that experience personally, but I can tell you that searching for any kind of clothing as a 'female-bodied' person is fraught with difficulties.

You might have a big rib cage and small breasts: wrong. You might have wide hips and narrow thighs: wrong. You might have a tiny frame and a large arse: wrong. None of these body shapes, as common as they are, will make for a stress-free shopping trip. You know that ubiquitous bit of advice, dress for your shape? Wear things that flatter your body? Well, if you want to do that (and not all of us do), it starts with wearing clothes that fit you. And for some people, that is nigh on impossible. I, for example, have never bought a pair of trousers that I didn't have to shorten in some way, either with a turn-up or a sharp pair of scissors. And I'm barely below the national average in height. And that's not even a major problem, unlike, say, not being able to find a shirt that fits both your chest and your stomach. My sewing skills are not to be sniffed at, but that kind of alteration is beyond me. Don't forget that we're just talking about clothes that fit, here, not clothes that you require or clothes that you like. It's a minefield, is what I'm saying.

What I want to add to Greta Christina's excellent article is this: menswear doesn't suck - or not nearly as much - if you're not a man. Regardless of the fact that a lot of menswear doesn't fit me terribly well, I can wear it and be thought of (I hope!) as cool and quirky - at least sartorially so. When I wear a men's shirt and tie combo to work, I get compliments - especially when it matches my nail polish! This despite the fact that often my breasts make a mockery of the nice straight lines of a good men's shirt and tie. The sexist assumptions which lead to the poor clothing options in the menswear departments of most highstreet shops extend past the boring clothes themselves to the people who wear them. I could wear the exact same thing as a random office guy, and despite the fact that it probably looks better on him, I would be the one attracting glances and comments, gracing magazine pages with my 'quirky' looks, being thought of as fashionable / stylish / trendy. He would just be a boring office guy in a boring office suit.

Lest you think this is just because of interest in the transgression of boundaries, the same treatment is emphatically not extended to men who borrow garments / styles from traditionally female attire. That guy would probably struggle to get or keep a job, whereas I could waltz into any office in the country dressed in a suit and tie with impunity. Sure, depending on how I did it and what I look like, I might get called a dyke or have my gender identity questioned, but that's not going to be the end of the world for me. Men who transgress into female sartorial territory are at far more risk in all sorts of ways than women who transgress into male territory.

I don't want to get into a big thing about femmephobia, transphobia and transmisogyny, although frankly each of those topics could keep me going for weeks. I'd just like to point out that, although menswear seems boring compared with womenswear, the real restriction lies not with the clothes themselves but with the people who wear them. A boring suit on a woman is not boring, whilst a boring suit on a man is. This is sexism. Yes, it's sexism that also hurts women - as Christina explains, men get boring clothes because women are expected to care about fashion and appearances and, thanks to the complementary model, men are therefore not - but this is an issue that does hurt men.

I can't help but feel that I'm not adding anything to Christina's excellent argument. I'm simply expanding on her points, and agreeing all the way, and yet I still feel somewhat defensive. I guess what I really want to do is defend the clothes themselves, particularly since I like to wear some of them. They don't suck. They don't. Society sucks. Sexism sucks. Femmephobia and transmisogyny suck. Menswear is great; we just think it sucks because we are conditioned to see men's fashion as an oxymoron, as ridiculous, as laughable and pathetic and queer. Well, this queer likes men's clothes. And the problem is not in my boring clothes. It's in your boring mind.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Classic Literature

What makes a work of art a classic?

In case you're under the impression that this is going to be a thoughtful, well-constructed, analytical argument about the value of art in today's 'disposable culture', allow me to let you down gently before we begin. This notion popped into my head the other day, and I entertained it because it was a much nicer idea than all those proper, structured arguments about the value of classic literature and what constitutes it.

What if a classic is just something that you assume everyone has consumed? This came to me after I was chatting with a friend about books, and brought up The Post Birthday World as something that I had read recently: "it's by Lionel Shriver, you know, who wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin?" At which point my friend revealed that he had never read We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I was genuinely shocked. I had just assumed that he would have read it, and thus that we had a framework within which to discuss The Post Birthday World, and other books by other people and about other things. "But how could you not have? It's a classic", I told him.

So what made me think that? A few ideas spring to mind. Kevin was huge when it was released; it was all anyone talked about for weeks; its subject matter was dark and unusual and had shock value; it provoked discussions of morality. I mean, it's my privilege to move in groups of people where reading is normal and highly valued. I imagine not every social group passed around We Need to Talk About Kevin until the pages were literally falling out, until someone passed it to someone who passed it to someone else and somehow it got lost so that, when I wanted to re-read it a few weeks ago, I had to find a new copy. But I'm sure it wasn't just me. There were newspaper editorials, there were tv programmes, there were school projects. I remember learning some formative facts about my relatives and friends from how they reacted to that book, things that still stick in my head today. "Well, she was just evil, wasn't she? The mother. Didn't you just want to smack her?" I hadn't wanted to smack her, and I was fascinated by people's differing interpretations. To this day I like finding out what people think of that book.

And so, back to the idea of classics. It's medium-specific, I think. Although in some ways classics transcend their media, meaning that even people who don't, for example, like/watch films have seen Star Wars, there is perhaps a line to be drawn between the two types of classic. So when I talk to this particular friend about dystopian fiction, which we both love, and he reveals that he hasn't read any Margaret Atwood, I am surprised, as I class Margaret Atwood's work as classic dystopian fiction. Speaking to a non-reading friend, I wouldn't be at all surprised that they haven't read Atwood, because despite her massive industry fame, she's not the kind of writer who transcends literary culture into the worlds of people who aren't huge readers. She's not, for example, Steven King, James Paterson, Dan Brown, EL James, JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins: all recent examples of authors who overcome their specific media to reach a wide audience, including people who don't normally read. Oddly, I haven't read all of those authors. And it's often those authors that people ask me about, if they're people who don't read who know that I do read. But I digress.

We often talk of classics in very narrow terms. When someone asks if you like the classics, they mean Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville. Sometimes recent books get called "modern classics", which can mean anything from "this is a really good book" to "this is impenetrable; it must be clever". But for myself, although those usages are far from inappropriate, I most often use "classic" to refer to something that has hit a zeitgeist in some way - something that taps into a current concern and makes connections between people, objects, issues, events. Something that spreads like wildfire and causes conversations. So Moby Dick might be a classic, but I'm not surprised when somebody hasn't read it, whether they are big readers or not. I am much more surprised when a reader hasn't read Harry Potter, despite the fact that Moby Dick is, probably, the 'better' book. I wonder if the notion of the 'classic' novel - as we understand it - is just a stubborn hangover. Will we call The Hunger Games a classic in 100 years? It's surely doubtful, but I have no problem calling it a classic now, since for me, it means that something is noteworthy, of its time, thought-provoking and stimulating. I could ask a stranger on the tube what they thought of The Hunger Games, and probably 3 out of 5 times have a conversation about it. I doubt I would get the same odds with Moby Dick or, god forbid, Bleak House.

I imagine this might offend some people, who would prefer that the term "classic" be attached only to 'good' works of art, but frankly I think my definition is better and far, far easier to manage. We can argue all night (and some of us have) about what is 'good' art and what is not, but it's far harder to disagree with the claim that "everyone has read Fifty Shades of Gray" than it is to disagree with "Fifty Shades of Gray is really good". A much less bitter pill to swallow.

I'm as much of a culture snob as the next blogger, but I'm all about conversation. I'm all about - if it's not too much of a cliché - the exchange of ideas. I love Moby Dick, and I love Harry Potter, and I know which one I'm more likely to chat about at work. That's my idea of a classic.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Studying Trauma

Reading this post from Chally over at Zero at the Bone made me think about some of my own harrowing university experiences. In the final year of my undergraduate degree I took a module called Holocaust Fiction. I don't know how anyone else in my class dealt with it - I was hardly in a place to make friends with them - but for me the module might as well have been called 'How to make yourself cry every day for 3 months'.

I am half Jewish on my dad's side, and my paternal grandparents are both Holocaust survivors. My grandma, who came to England from Vienna on one of the last Kindertransport missions in 1939, had died a few weeks before her 82nd birthday, two months before I began studying Holocaust fiction.

Now, you might think that I made a spectacularly bad decision in choosing to study Holocaust fiction at this time. And it was a spectacularly awful experience. But I had chosen my modules months before this point, and anyway, I was never interested in making life easy for myself. I knew Holocaust Fiction wouldn't be an easy module, emotionally, but I also already knew what makes me tick when it comes to literature. I chose my modules because I'm interested in grey areas, and in how history is made - how we create narratives of our pasts, both individual and collective. I adored Writing America in my second year, which focused on how writers play with America's various creation myths, exploring themes of identity, personhood, freedom, community and the 'American Dream'. Many of my second year modules and all of my third year modules (with the exception of Detective Fiction which I took for pure fun) explored similar themes, looking at ideas of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality and identity. Being part Jewish, and interested in the idea of Jewish identity itself, Holocaust Fiction seemed like an obvious choice for me.

So I spent the classes themselves in muscle-clenched, jaw-locked, tight-throated agony, and my individual study time in gasping, tear-drenched misery, trying to numb myself with whiskey and forcing myself to keep reading.

I think it's pretty clear that Holocaust Fiction came at exactly the wrong moment for me. It got tangled up in my grieving for my grandma, and it was unremittingly awful. I hated every second of it, and when I wasn't caught up in hating it, I was panicking over the knowledge that I was screwing up my final year of university. I suffered a punishing few months, berating myself constantly for my weakness whilst simultaneously hating myself for appropriating a trauma that I felt didn't belong to me. I couldn't properly articulate the cruel, nasty mixture of pains to anyone who asked me about it, or indeed myself. The module tutor tried to be kind when I went to him in desperation to ask what I should do. I couldn't complete the work; not even the reading, let alone the writing. When I did manage to write something it felt like it was being ripped out of my flesh word by word, letter by letter. I had no idea if it was any good or if it was even acceptable. I couldn't read it back to myself to check. I couldn't show it to anyone because I was so embarrassed. I threw myself into my other modules, obsessively drafting and redrafting my Detective Fiction work until it was perfect. I took it to a study advisor - something I had never done before and that I had no need of at that point - because I was so committed to dedicating all my time to that essay, mostly so that no part of my brain was ever free to drift to Holocaust Fiction and 'All Holocaust fiction revolves around issues of authority and entitlement. Discuss.'

That was my essay title, and in the end, it was one of the best things I had ever written, which seemed to surprise nobody but me. My personal tutor, a brilliant, terrifying woman, explained patiently to me how emotional investment in a topic can be a gift as often as it is a curse, forcing a deeper connection with and a more rigorous examination of the issues at hand. Of course that's not always fun. Even if your emotional investment isn't bound up in trauma, the thing about emotions is that there is always the potential for pain. Say you're deeply in love with the idea of family as it is portrayed in one novel, and while you research for your essay you discover that that notion of family is a really bad idea - or that you've misunderstood, and the portrayal is not what you thought it was. If you're truly invested in that notion of family, even in a 'happy' or positive way, there is potential for pain when rigorous academic study reveals some other ideas.

If your emotional investment in a topic is complicated and painful, particularly if it tugs at the strands of your own identity (which is very likely) the potential for pain is that much greater. You don't have the emotional distance to take a discovery 'academically' as it were: you can only receive it in your heart, and you've no defences against what that might do to you.

Personally, I'm wondering whether an emotional investment can ever be truly uncomplicated; if it can ever be unpicked from your identity. Generally if I'm deeply invested in something, there are good reasons for it: I feel that it impacts on me in some way. As such, I'm far more likely to be deeply affected by criticism of / engagement with the issues, since they will be personal. If I read a book about queer identities, I am going to be more involved, more critical, more forgiving and more emotional than if I'm reading a book about 19c bridges. Bridges are interesting. But nothing I read about a bridge can make me question the core of myself. For some people, a bridge might make them question the core of themselves. Perhaps if their mother was the one who built the bridge. Or if that bridge leads to their home town. Maybe the bridge connects them with their lover. Any of those things could make you emotionally invested in bridges, and perhaps if you read a book about them and discovered something you didn't know, or something you did know but are in denial about, or simply found that other people see bridges totally differently from how you see bridges - see, there's the pain. Can you be simply, happily invested in something? I don't think so. You can enjoy something simply and happily. But investment is different. There can be joy in it, but the joy is tenuous. Ephemeral. Perilous.

You know how you can be flying high, loving everything in the world, enjoying the cracks in the pavement and the weeds and how the road stretches out tantalising before you, and then someone looks at you or says something or you see an advert or hear a line from a song, and everything tumbles down around you and you're just standing there bemused in the dark - that's emotional investment. You're invested in that moment - enjoying it, yes, but almost too much, almost like you're dependent on it - so when it is compromised it takes everything with it. The joy and the hope and the bright.

That's what it's like to study something you are invested in. It can be beautiful and validating and joyful, but there's always a lurking shadow that can tip you into the black before you know what's happened. In a way that experience is tremendously valuable, but it can also be painful and traumatic in its own right, perhaps adding to trauma you're already carrying. For myself, a lot of the pain came from a feeling of fraudulence: alongside feeling miserable about the issue itself, I was also feeling guilty about feeling miserable, which is down to the nebulous issues of Jewish identity and Holocaust guilt. This kind of double bind could just as easily be related to LGBT identity, racial identity, religious identity etc. It's rather like walking a tightrope, and the tightrope might be that much thinner if your connection to that part of your identity is unstable to start with. If you identify 100% as gay, for example, and you're happy and secure in that identity, then reading an argument that homosexuality is unnatural will almost certainly make you feel anger, sadness or despair. Or it could make you feel superiority to the person who espouses such antiquated, wrongheaded views. Or pity for them. Or a combination of the above. Your emotional reaction might be complicated, sure. But it probably won't be compromised by the little voice which asks you if you've any right to feel that way - if you're gay enough to feel legitimately insulted, if you're gay enough to feel angry about those opinions. I'm not saying that it's any easier to feel that way. Just that it's different, and having experienced both I can see the added layer of complexity that I personally struggle with when it's my ambiguous, unstable identity that is on the line.

I still wouldn't argue against pursuing studies of your personal trauma sites. For some people - for me, I think - it can be useful. Educational, enlightening, possibly even healing. It's an interesting thing to look back on. And despite the misery and the struggle, I'm not sure I would change my experience of it. But perhaps next time I will go into it with my eyes open. Perhaps next time it will be easier.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Review: Hope Springs

Date night! We went to Pizza Hut, stuffed ourselves with pizza and salad, had deep and silly conversations about the world around us, and went to the cinema to see Hope Springs, which we chose over Paranorman because, although Mark Kermode said nice things about Paranorman, it didn't seem as date-like as Hope Springs. Next time we're free on a Wednesday, maybe it'll be Paranorman's term. I love a good animation, and apparently it's got the same darkness that Coraline had, makes it even more tempting.

So, Hope Springs. I hadn't seen the trailer, but C said it looked fun, and I'll watch anything with Meryl Streep in it. It's partly because she's brilliant, and a little because I think she's incredibly beautiful. In this she plays a late middle-age wife, Kay, to Tommy Lee Jones's grumpy Arnold. The couple have been married for 31 years and have lost any form of intimacy. Although they eat together, they rarely talk, and they sleep in separate bedrooms. Arnold seems to accept this, but Kay longs for something more, and finally in desperation she books them into an intensive couples' therapy course in far-off Maine. (There be spoilers ahead.)

It's a funny little film. It's kind of formulaic and saccharine, but at the same time there's a real poignancy and tragedy to it, as well as some brilliantly awkward physicality between the two leads. The counsellor is played by Steve Carell, and the film is rather claustrophobic in that there's rarely anyone in the shot other than those three. There's a scene where Kay goes to a bar and bonds with the barmaid, and a scene where the pair have dinner in a fancy hotel. There are a few scenes at Arnold's office, and a couple of scenes where their children provide a backdrop for their lifeless marriage. But for the most part, the film is sparsely populated, rather quiet and intense, punctuated by awkward silences whilst Kay and Arnold try to answer the counsellor's questions.

In a way the film is terribly banal. Kay and Arnold's issues seem like they have been compiled from a list of "problems that long-term couples have". Kay longs for Arnold to touch her, both sexually and casually, and worries that he isn't attracted to her anymore because she's old and has had children. Arnold watches too much sport and has the same thing for breakfast every single day, which Kay makes, puts on the table in front of him, and then clears away while he goes to work. Arnold buys Kay gifts for the house like a hot water heater, and for their 31st wedding anniversary they "got each other the new cable subscription". Arnold is a partner at an accounting firm where his friend counsels him to keep his wife happy, otherwise she might leave him and then he'll be miserable and alone like he is; Kay works in a clothes shop where her friend advises her that marriages can't be changed: you're married to who you married, and that's that. The couple have to learn how to be intimate with each other, and that's as painful as it sounds. Obviously I can't speak for late middle-age people in stagnant long-term relationships, but to me it seems a bit cliched. Perhaps I'm wrong. In a way the film's banality is its strength: there's no dramatic reveal, no hidden trauma at the centre of their marriage. They have just spent so long together that they have forgotten how to really be together.

My main problem with this film, though, is its portrayal of the couple's sex life. They haven't had sex in a long time, and the film opens with Kay psyching herself up in the mirror to go into her husband's room and suggest that they sleep together. He is confused - "Why?" - and puts her off - he's tired, he's not feeling well, he had pork for lunch. She retreats to her own room. This sets the tone for the film, and introduces what seems to be one of the main issues in their marriage. Arnold isn't interested in sex or physical intimacy with his wife, whilst Kay craves both. I liked this, as it subverts the more familiar narrative of the sexually deprived husband and the "frigid" wife. However, this disruption is undermined by the later reveal that Arnold has retreated from his wife sexually because she lost interest in sex after their children were born. It is also made clear in their therapy sessions that Kay is stereotypically straitlaced when it comes to sex: she is rather inexperienced, especially in anything other than missionary position. She has never performed oral sex, although Arnold has asked her to, and doesn't understand when the therapist asks if she has ever received it. She is at a loss when he asks about her fantasies, explaining that she fantasises only about her husband and past sexual experiences with him. Arnold, on the other hand, is revealed as a 'typical man', awkwardly describing his fantasies of threesomes and getting a blowjob under his desk at work.

Their fumbling attempts to reawaken their sexuality are sweet and excruciatingly awkward, seemingly avoiding blaming either partner more than the other, but by the end of the film when, via some false starts, they have succeeded in rekindling their lost ardour, Kay is shown to be the one who has had to change most. This is illustrated by her reaction to seeing a neighbour that Arnold had admitted he fantasised about joining them in a threesome. Kay had been wide-eyed with shock, but on seeing the neighbour now that everything is rosy, she is giggly and mischievous, inviting the neighbour to come over later to see their holiday snaps, and then laughingly telling a shocked Arnold "That's not happening!" So, while she's still not actually up for a threesome, the point is that she's now relaxed enough to joke about it. The film ends here, and although I left feeling uplifted - you can hardly fail to be uplifted by Meryl Streep's laughing face - I can't help but feel a little disappointed by its closing message. Despite all the sweet awkwardness and lovely performances and apparent disruption of some overused narratives, in the end Hope Springs falls back on that tired old trope of the repressed wife who, with the help of a therapist, frees her latent sexuality and thus solves the problem of her stagnant marriage.

Sadly it's even more disappointing than normal, since the film set me up to believe that the problem was Arnold's sexuality rather than Kay's, allowing a faint hope that the narrative would truly be disrupted. It was a huge letdown to discover that what looked like Arnold's repression was in fact just a response to Kay's repression: the problems began with her. She wasn't exciting enough sexually to begin with, and then she compounded the issue by withdrawing from Arnold after having children due to her (completely unfounded, apparently) belief that he no longer found her sexy. That's not new. That's not progressive or disruptive. It's profoundly boring, in fact.

The sexual - and romantic - journey of the pair has more complexity than I have painted here. Arnold is not given a pass for his part in their stagnation, and there is more to their lack of intimacy than sex. It's not all bad. There are some truly sweet and sad moments as the couple struggle to rediscover each other. It's just a little bit disappointing, after the initial hope that a new story was being told, to find that in fact, when it comes to sex at least, it's the same story we've seen a thousand times before.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Doctor Who and the Transgender Horse

What else would I do on a Monday morning but write a blog post about a throwaway joke in Saturday's episode of Doctor Who?

Although I barely kept up with the last season of Doctor Who, and didn't really feel its absence, so far this time I am keeping myself interested. It's only 3 episodes in, so not much of an achievement thus far. If I get bored I'll stop watching it - autumn is full of brilliant (awful) TV to keep me entertained.

So Saturday's episode was good, I thought. I expected it to be a bit silly - remember how, last season, we had deep philosophical heart-wrenching episode followed by funny looking aliens / bow tie jokes with nary a character-development in sight? Well, I'm pretentious, and I always liked the first kind of episode better. I find the silliness of Doctor Who tiring at times. I suppose you could tell me to not watch a kids' show, but a lot of TV does the same thing. One of my favourites, New Tricks, is majorly guilty of this. I guess they're filling an odd spot: family friendly often equals lots of issues to play with and lots of masters to please. Doctor Who often chooses not to integrate silliness with seriousness in one episode, but I think perhaps I've noticed more integration in these first episodes of the new series. All three episodes have dealt with big questions, emotional turmoil and ethical dilemmas - and yet there have been plenty of jokes, both aural and visual, and a fair bit of silliness, particularly in episode two (Mitchell and Webb as cranky robot soldiers, anyone?).

But it's one particular tiny, barely noticeable joke that I want to discuss today. Take a guess? It's the transgender horse, of course!
"He's called Joshua. It's from the bible. It means the deliverer."
"No he isn't."
"What?"
"I speak horse. He's called Susan. And he wants you to respect his life choices. Hup!"
I exchanged a significant look with my viewing partner. Warning: I'm about to overthink this massively, so if that kind of thing makes you roll your eyes, feel free to move on!

So, is this a transgender horse? When I was looking online for a transcript this morning I came across this opinion that no, Susan is not a transgender horse, because the Doctor still uses male pronouns. Ah, but is he misgendering the horse? Obviously the horse wouldn't have referred to itself using a pronoun, so perhaps it's the Doctor's mistake and he should have referred to the horse as "she" not "he"? The author then acknowledges the absurdity of the question:
and the ridiculousness of that very question is also why I really hate the idea of gender issues being joked about, especially through animals because yeah, even if the horse is cis *snort* it's still being really flippant with name choices that don't necessarily match up to other people's gendered expectations and that's definitely a trans* issue 
so even if the joke wasn't directly targeting trans* people, it still perpetuated the idea that asking someone to refer to you by your chosen name (and since it's a name generally associated with "the opposite sex", it hints at pronoun usage as well) is ridiculous, laughable, and a lifestyle choice.
So, ok, maybe this conversation is absurd. But that's no reason not to have it. Hell, we're so starved of any trans* visibility on our TV screens, I'll take a horse if it's on offer.

I think I disagree with dearjimmoriarty on this one. Yes, the joke is flippant. But who are we laughing with? We see the owner rolling his eyes as the Doctor gallops away, but it seems to me like we're laughing at the taken-for-granted notion that we slap names (and genders?) on our animals and assume that we've had the last word. Kind of like the mice in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who are running experiments on the Earth, although not as fully explored of course. We laugh at the realisation that animals have 'inner lives': the joke is in the reversal. Having said that, why make the horse trans*? I do think that this is a bit of a fail, since it's clearly a case of "what's funnier than flagging up the notion that animals have their own chosen names rather than our arbitrarily applied ones? I know, it's transgender!" But don't forget that after this little exchange, which is clearly set up to be a joke, the Doctor calls the horse Susan. The joke for the audience may have been the reveal ("haha! transgender horse!") but the Doctor doesn't treat it as a joke. And the Doctor, whilst hardly the moral compass of the programme, does unfailingly sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of what's important. He always hones in on the salient point, whether it's where Oswin gets the milk from, or why there are electric street lamps, or that Amy and Rory need a little push from a social engineer to 'fix' their relationship.

It's also a kinda neat bit of commentary on the issue of names for trans* people. What do we do, but reject the name that has been chosen for us and replace it with our own choice of name? That's our real name, right? The name that we choose, that fits us, that makes us feel known when we hear it. That's more real than Joshua.

And actually, I do think it's a choice. I may not have a choice in how I feel about myself and what my gender is, but I make a choice every day to refer to myself by my chosen name and pronouns. I make a choice to ask others to do the same. Sometimes I make the choice to be strict about it, and sometimes I make the choice to let a slip go and not make a big deal out of it. Sometimes I choose to ask people to respect my pronouns, and sometimes I don't mention pronouns but make sure that they have my name right. No, I didn't say Holly. Trust me, I am making choices all day every day.

Maybe this joke doesn't deserve too many analytical words. But in a way, I think its brevity is its power. Throwaway joke, quick laugh - and then the Doctor calls the horse Susan. As representation, it could be a lot worse.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

On Choice

I have been through so many stages of Will I/Won't I on my desire to (not?) have kids. I have thought about so many potential situations of accidentally getting pregnant, and what I'd do, depending on my circumstances at the time (who, if anyone, I'd be seeing at the time, how much money I'd have, where I'd be living, if I had a decent job or a job at all. Could I do it while writing a PhD? Who knows). The variations on a theme are endless, and I almost never come up with a proper answer - a definite YES or NO. I've been through stages of thinking I would definitely have kids "one day", that being a parent is something I'd be great at, and stages of thinking "no way never, not a chance in hell". But almost all those thoughts, through all those years, have been to do with me.

I know my feminism. I know that it's all about me, and my right to choose, and anyone who puts pressure on me either way should be shown the metaphorical door (or at least, totally disregarded). I know all the stories of people whose partners or families or friends (or doctors or government or counsellors, dammit) put pressure on them to have or not have children, to get pregnant or stay pregnant, to prevent pregnancy or end it. And I know that it's my choice.

All that went flying out of the window when my mum casually(!) mentioned that if my sister or I had kids in the next five years, she'd still be at least 80 by the time they were 15.

Suddenly, I didn't think about whether or not I wanted kids, or how they would fit into my life if I had them. That stopped mattering. What mattered was that my mum is born to be a grandma. I'd never really thought about it, beyond the normal joking about that kind of thing that happens between mums and daughters (or is that just us?). But as soon as she said that, it hit me right between the eyes: the only way my mum gets to be a grandma is if my sister or I make it so. And I'm sure that's a dreadful reason to have kids, but damn I love my mum. I'd do anything for her, absolutely anything, and apparently that includes having children.

Quite possibly this is just my silly brain going "Phew! Someone else has made the decision, now I can just relax and go along with it". That sounds like something I'd do, on such an important life decision. Just go with the flow. I sometimes catch myself thinking that I'd quite like to accidentally get pregnant, just to see what I'd do if I was forced to make the decision. Obviously I am enormously privileged in being someone for whom choice is even possible. Equally obviously I'd have to do make that choice pretty fast, before the damn Coalition starts rolling back abortion rights. Otherwise someone else would be choosing for me, and that would never do! But, seriously. I think I would genuinely consider having a child solely so that my mum could be its grandma. Because she would be an even more amazing grandma than she is an amazing mum - and that is saying something.

Internet Dating Blues

This piece over at Raw Story really resonated with me. I'm sure many people who don't look like men are subjected to demands for their attention, and sulking when that attention is refused. It's not always a big deal, of course. If you have attention to spare, if you're in the mood for it, if you feel like engaging. But the problem is that you don't always have attention to spare, and you don't always feel like engaging. That's when it becomes apparent that you don't actually have a choice in these matters: if you withhold or withdraw your attention, things can get ugly fast.

Sometimes they don't even get particularly ugly, just banally irritating - like this exchange with a sweet looking fellow on OKCupid:


His profile suggested he was going to have time to kill in London and was looking to meet some new people. I thought we might get on. But then I forgot to reply to him - you know, life happened, like it does. For a start, I thought his reply, although keen, was brief enough that I shouldn't push it. Surely, I thought, if he wanted to meet up he might have said something more than that? Something encouraging, like "are you free later in the week?" or "I'd really love to check out this picnic spot!". Something which gave me something to reply to. OKCupid is not like trying to set up a job interview, you know? I'd like there to be mutual enthusiasm. It's not like I'm thinking "ok, I'm no catch on paper, but just a foot in the door: just agree to meet me and I'll blow your mind!" I'm thinking, "this guy wants to meet people, I like meeting people: let's see how it goes." I'm not doing him a favour, and he's not doing me a favour.

So time passed; I thought nothing more of it. But then I got another message from him, and not one which inspired good feelings. It sounded whiny and self-pitying. But I did feel bad about not replying, and when I checked his profile again, I discovered that he'd been the victim of a crime. He's in a strange city, he doesn't know anyone, and he's been robbed. And then this chick on the internet totally didn't reply to his message! After all, I had initiated contact with him. I owed him, right? So I responded, and prompted the charming little exchange where, somehow, I have started trying to persuade him to see me. Here's the times I'm free: pick one! I have no money. I'll pay! I'm too busy.

I didn't really do anything wrong in not responding to him. It's a dating website, right? That's how it works. But now I feel like he's doing me a favour if he agrees to meet with me. His first message back to me states that it's ok that he never heard back from me, except for how his life is a mess and his trip to London has been a fail, and now there's no time for anything good to happen ever. Now, I can see he's upset, but am I alone in also seeing this as a little manipulative? A little bit cheap? "I'm really sad and it's partly your fault. Placate me." It worked. My reply is conciliatory; rather pathetically so. I want to make things better. He is seeming to imply that meeting me would make it better, so I suggest that we meet.

It's a clever little trick, no matter how unintentional. I have apologised when there's really nothing I should be sorry for, and I've tried to fit myself to his requirements for meeting despite the fact that I'm not that desperate to meet him. I wonder now if regaining the power in this particular situation made him feel better. I really would have met up with him - I'd even have bought him a drink. But there are some little red flags going up in my mind, and they're to do with that demand for attention that Marcotte anatomises so well.

If someone doesn't respond to your attentions - be they internet dating messages, 'hello' on the tube, 'can I buy you a drink' etc - they've got reasons. You should trust them. You're not owed any response at all, and you're certainly not owed any positive response. By putting yourself out there, that's the risk you take. You might get a smile, a reply, a cup of coffee; you might not. Move on. If you make a polite request for attention, and get refused, nobody is going to think worse of you. It's when you graduate from polite requests to hammering on the metaphorical door with your fists, or resorting to underhanded methods to gain admittance that people are going to think worse of you. I don't take kindly to being manipulated into reopening contact with someone. It has made me exponentially less likely to meet this guy. Even if he'd just followed up with something like "hey, are you still up for that drink?" I would have likely replied with enthusiasm. It's the suggestion that I owe him something that has rubbed me the wrong way. My lack of response seems to be on the list of "wrongs that the world has done me". And while being a pain in the arse on a dating website is universal behaviour, treating a person as if they are an object that the world owes you is definitely gendered behaviour.

Let me be totally clear: I'm not accusing random OKCupid guy of that. I'm not labelling him a misogynist or demanding his head on a silver platter. I'm simply pointing out that there is a continuum of behaviours in which women are treated as objects on a list of things that the guy gets if he plays the game well - a good job, a nice car, a pretty wife - and that his behaviour plays into those tropes all too well. The saddest thing is that it worked on me. I played along, until I came to my senses and remembered that I don't owe anyone anything. That it's not my fault that things have gone wrong, and that I'm not merely a sweet reward in the game of life.