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."
"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.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Perils of Shopping

How To Have A Not-Totally-Hateful Shopping Trip

1) Wear the right clothes. Do not wear anything that's even a little bit uncomfortable or 'unflattering' (whatever that means for you). Wear clothes that are comfortable, that fit you in whatever way you like best, and that are easy to take off and put on quickly. You do not want to be in a changing room, having just taken off whatever displeasing item you brought in with you, having to put on something that you don't like the look of yourself in. When you look in the mirror before you leave, you don't want to hate the sight of yourself.

2) Choose your company wisely. If what you're in need of is someone to say "wow, that looks great on you! It would be a crime not to buy it", then find that person (your mum, your partner, your best mate). If what you need is some honesty, no matter how cruel - "don't even think about it, your knees look terrible in that" - then find that person (your mum, your partner, your best mate). Do you need your most confident, outrageous friend to persuade you to try on the spangly playsuit? Or do you need your sensible sister to ask you whether you've got anything that goes with those trousers? Do you want someone to try on all the nail polishes in the shop, or someone who'd rather spin through the whole mall in 20 minutes and drag you away from the jewellery stand? Both of these are valid shopping partners, and confusing the two will probably result in a failure to get what you want or need.

3) Know your purpose. Do you want an afternoon of meandering around shops, trying anything that catches your eye? Or do want a quick trip to get a pair of jeans and some new socks? Do not confuse these two shopping trips. I guarantee this is a recipe for disaster, particularly if your shopping trip is for an event that is looming all-too-close on the horizon, and you waste your one free afternoon trying on bikinis and maxi dresses when what you really need is some shoes to go with your wedding outfit.

4) Don't wear make-up. There's nothing worse than pulling tops over your head and worrying about getting lipstick on them! There's also nothing worse than trying on something gorgeous and seeing someone else's foundation smeared over the collar. Do you want to be the person who put it there? Gross.

5) Know yourself. This is key. I was going to title this bit "Don't go shopping (unless you absolutely have to) if you're already feeling a bit bad about yourself."And then I stopped, and I thought "Come on, not everyone is going to be as delicate a flower as you are. Some people will be able to feel bad about themselves and still have a successful, enjoyable shopping trip. Hell, some people might not even feel bad about themselves at all! They might have a healthy, happy relationship with their bodies and their minds, and each shopping trip might not be fraught with fat hatred and insecurity and fear of even taking that dress into the changing room, in case another customer or the attendent sees you and sneers mentally at your audacity. Don't they know what they look like?!" Those people probably don't need this post. But it's here for them if they do, and also for those of us who sometimes suffer agonies of insecurity and self hatred at the very thought of trying on shiny new clothes. Know yourself. If you're that person, and you're having that day when things seem impossible, and you wonder why you ever thought that inflicting your body on the world was acceptable behaviour, DO NOT GO SHOPPING. (Unless you know yourself really well, and you know that trying on shiny new clothes will make you feel better, and you want to feel better, and you can afford it, and etc etc etc.) I know myself well enough to know that shopping will not make me feel good about myself if I don't already feel at least ok about myself. If I do feel good about myself, shopping can be amazing. I can strike poses in changing rooms and pout at mirrors and feel like the living embodiment of beauty and sexiness, womanly curves and boyish lines, strong shoulders and beautiful calves and the hippiest hips you ever did see. If I feel good about myself, I might take advantage of that feeling to go shopping, even if I don't intend to buy a thing. I go just to extend that feeling of power and joy, of rightness in my body, of my place in the world. And if I don't feel good? I stay home, or I go to the cinema, or to the library to get on with my work. I meet friends or I curl up with a book, I cook something delicious or buy myself some McCoys or tomatoes or almonds or a KitKat Chunky. I do not go shopping. I wait until the sun comes out in my mind, and I catch a glimpse of my toes and catch myself thinking "you know what? Those toes would look great in a brand new pair of flip-flops!"

And then I go shopping.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Anticipating Panto

For some reason, these last couple of weeks my mind has been turning frequently to panto. It's not quite like the season is almost upon us; when I actually think about it, I don't start this year for another three months. But I guess it's nearly autumn term, and once term has started the weeks will start to speed by faster and faster until before I know it, I'm heading home for five weeks of early mornings and late nights, scraping ice off the car twice a day, obsessive Neros visits, getting dreadful songs stuck in my head (and accidentally learning the dance moves), competitively climbing ladders, pulling ropes, choosing drill bits, taking all morning to construct an effect only to denounce it as not-good-enough, pulling it apart and starting again, spending fourteen hours at work followed by three hours at the pub and five hours in bed before it starts all over again in the morning.

It's my favourite time of year, despite how exhausting and all-consuming it is. Actually, it's because of those things. I love my friends there, both the new ones (cast and creative team) and the old ones, the crew who are usually there every year and who have at their core the same five of us who have met like this since we were teenagers, to live in each other's pockets for five weeks before we return to our normal lives for the rest of the year, occasionally managing to meet up for a meal or a show maybe once in between pantos. It's an odd kind of friendship in that way: we don't make much effort to see each other during the year, and normally that might suggest that we're not that close. But I don't see it that way, and I'm pretty sure my colleagues don't either. It's more that we are satisfied with the pattern of our closeness: we enjoy each other fully, to the exclusion of all other things, for a short, intense period over Christmas - and then we disperse, and move on, and remember other friends and other activities, and are content not to interact much over the interim. We even become somewhat emotionally dependant on each other - I hope not in an unhealthy way, but it's true that there is always a general atmosphere, and one person's grumpiness or sadness can affect the whole team. It's why we make sure there's always plenty of food available: hungry crew are grumpy crew! It's perhaps pretty weird, but panto is by its very nature pretty weird, and for better or worse, I have fallen for it hard in all its bizarre glory.

One of the things I am less keen on, however, is the proliferation of young girl dancers. We get a troop in from a local dance school, and they're always a mixed bag, because what group of humans isn't a mixed bag? But these are teen and pre-teen girls, aged from 4-18, and seriously, that comes with a whole heap of problems. Of course it is difficult, integrating a bunch of kids with a bunch of adults in a working environment. Of course we get issues every year, some serious (a group of girls bullying one rejected girl), some not so serious (overexcited children in the wings, giggling and getting in the way). Of course there are tensions sometimes with the older girls, who think they are too cool to be chaperoned around the building like the law requires that they are, and who want to hang around with the cast and crew, testing boundaries and stretching their new freedom. But there are genuine joys in working with kids as well. The littlest ones can be delightful - often we have a couple of brand new dancers, and watching a 4-year-old perform for the first time in front of a packed auditorium could warm the hardest of hearts. Seeing how dedicated some of the girls are to the art of dance itself is inspiring (although tempered by the sulky ambivalence of some of the others, inevitably). But the biggest joy, and naturally the biggest problem, is getting a glimpse into the lives of a group of girls in the wild, as it were.

Although the girls are deliberately kept as separate as possible from the adult staff (for legal reasons, the girls stay in their dressing rooms unless they are required on stage, at which point they are escorted to the stage where chaperones wait in each wing, watching until the girls are finished and they can be escorted back to the dressing rooms), there is inevitably a lot of crossover, and sometimes you can't avoid bearing witness to their behaviour. I'm not really talking here about the smaller girls, who generally are sweet and silly and annoying and obnoxious as young kids are. It's the slightly older girls who can be really concerning. That age seems like a long time ago now, but I definitely recognise a lot of the dynamics from my own adolescence. They are the ones who are keenest to dodge the chaperones, the ones who want to go out in between shows to buy chips instead of staying in the dressing room with the younger kids, the ones who are most obviously divided between dedicated dancers and those who are only in it because it's more fun than school. You can see the difference in rehearsals, where some are actually rehearsing, and some are skulking on the sidelines, giggling behind their hands and eyeing up the male dancers. Often the adolescent girls are the ones who most often have to be told "face forward! put some effort into it! for god's sake smile!"

And this attitude bleeds into the wings. It's not quite that cut and dried. I'm not saying the dedicated dancers are angels, either in behaviour or attitude, or that the girls who aren't quite as into the actual work are badly behaved. But I do see a lot of unprofessionalism from the dancers - unsurprisingly since they're not, y'know, professionals yet. However the difference is often between those who are aspring to professionalism (in behaviour if not actual career) and those who couldn't care less. And in some of those kids there is some seriously unpleasant behaviour.

A few years ago, I yelled at one of the girls for calling one of the other girls frigid. Both girls were thirteen. I can't even remember what I said, but I was absolutely enraged, and whilst it was totally not my place to get involved - we try to stay as separate as possible from the girls - I couldn't help myself. It was a year where the infighting amongst the girls was high: they were cruel to each other, they moved in packs where one false word seemed to mean instant expulsion, and the expelled girls would shuffle about awkwardly in the wings, red with misery and shame and frustration. One girl was so badly bullied that year that she hasn't been back since. And then I heard one girl accuse another of being frigid, and I lost it.

I wonder if I'm doing these girls a disservice by suggesting that they don't know how dangerous and damaging a word like "frigid" is? In a way, I hope that they don't. I know they've picked up from somewhere that it's an insult, that to be frigid is to be wrong in some way. I'm not naive enough to say that these girls can't know what sexuality even is yet - they are thirteen, and have probably been learning about sex in one form or another (and one form in particular) for some years. They're almost certainly old enough to have begun exploring their own sexuality, or at least to have begun thinking about it - as these girls obviously had. I'm willing to bet that while their knowledge may not be particularly honed or nuanced yet, certainly it's honed enough to know that being sexual is good and being frigid is bad. Certainly it's nuanced enough to perceive that there is no better way to bring down a peer than to go after their sexuality. I wonder if they've learnt yet that boxing other people into corners and holes only deepens their own isolation, even whilst they put themselves firmly on the side of the ones who are cool and knowledgeable and fun and sexy - the ones who are doing it right. Can any of those girls truly confide in each other? Did someone else - not the target of the hateful word, but one of the ubiquitous bystanders - overhear that and laugh along, all the while worrying that they themselves might be frigid, and knowing now even more than before that they could never tell their friends?

It's said that girls and women police gendered behaviour (in girls and women) more forcefully than men  and boys do, because they are more aware of what's at stake for the transgressors. Those girls are learning that early, too. They are learning what's acceptable, and what isn't, and who they can be honest with, and who they can't. They learnt not to say that stuff in front of me, but I doubt my little rant had any effect on their behaviour away from me. They laughed at me, as teenage girls will do, and rolled their eyes. No doubt they made judgements about my appearance, my sexuality, my life. I can't say it bothered me too much, to be sneered at by a group of thirteen-year-olds. But those thirteen-year-olds will be around seventeen now, and who knows what toxic beliefs they are carrying into adulthood? Who knows what dangerous knowledge and anti-knowledge they are taking away to university and drama school and first jobs? Who knows how many other, similarly isolated girls and women they will find, and bond with, and discover the same things over and over again with until it's fixed so deep that it can't be purged?

This is all a lot of handwringing and think of the children!-ing, I know. It's rather predictable, and very boring. But I can't help but feel its importance, as I look ahead to another year of panto, another year of cute children and awkward teenagers and all the things in between, another year of cliques and friends and excitement, of learning and policing, honing the edges, knocking each other into shape with each word, each look. The thing that I love about panto, that feeling of closeness and community, of living in  each other's pockets for a month before returning to regular life, will be if anything more intense for the younger members of that community, with all the positives and negatives that that intensity entails. Highs will be higher, lows will be lower, cliques will be cliquier and the girls who are rejected will be rejected totally, with no time to heal the wounds and allow other potential friends to come out of the woodwork to show that yes, there are other people, it's not the end of the world. I remember that very well from school, that feeling of devastation and desperation when it was my turn to be left out in the cold by a group of friends who had decided that, this week, I wasn't good enough. Next week it was ok, I was back in, and somebody else was out, or I had found somebody else to share my lunchtimes and conspiratorial looks. That freedom of time just isn't there in the condensed world of pro-panto, and for adolescent girls I imagine it's something like all the emotion and intensity of senior school packed into five weeks. Don't get me wrong, it can be a wonderful experience, and for adult me, it has been. But I don't think teenage me would have enjoyed it. And I just hope that those teenagers aren't learning all the wrong lessons.