Monday, 7 December 2009

The Problem With Beyoncé & Sasha Fierce

(Another BitchBuzz post)

After watching Beyoncé's 'Video Phone' about 163 times today, I've decided that I'm no longer content to waste hours watching her on Youtube, I want to be her. I want to be able to dance like her, sing like her and wear her clothes. There is a small problem though, according to Beyoncé, the 'her' I want to be isn't 'her' at all but her alter-ego Sasha Fierce.

Sasha Fierce is the one stomping about in the 'Single Ladies' video, proclaiming 'A diva is the female version of a hustler' and getting down and dirty with Lady Gaga in 'Video Phone'. Beyoncé explains,

“I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am”.

Creating a persona for performance is something that many musicians do - Madonna and David Bowie are probably the most obvious examples. I can understand the need to do this in some ways. I'd imagine it can help with nerves, and you can disassociate yourself with more outrageous parts of your act.

This behaviour isn't confined to performers though. Many of us have probably found ourselves putting on an act when we're out with friends, scoping out potential bedroom-buddies. And in the bedroom, it gets more pronounced. Women's magazines are always telling us to dress up and create fantasy scenarios for our partners.

The problem is, you can hold an Anne Summers party and take the pole dancing class but the moment you stop performing and make it real, you are made to feel ashamed. Women's sexuality and sexual history is used against them in rape and harassment cases. We're supposed to be Sasha Fierce in the bedroom and Beyoncé everywhere else.

Whilst I understand that creating an alter-ego can be useful for performers, in this context, Beyoncé's insistence that Sasha Fierce protects who she really is seems a bit sad. Obviously, her sex appeal has helped her to sell a lot of records, but underpinning this is the idea that she's not really sexual, she's a good girl. Because, of course, women aren't allowed to be both.

This seems cynical to me. She knows that sex sells but she also knows that she must avoid being labelled as a 'slut' so she distances herself from her own behaviour. It's not totally her fault though, you only have to look at women like Gaga, Xtina, and Britney to see how woman who are openly and unashamedly sexual are demonised in the press. Who would willingly put themselves through that? Certainly not me.

People often talk about Beyoncé as a great role model for young women. In lots of ways I suppose she is. Her lyrics can be empowering and she seems pretty down to earth and clean living. The sexuality she portrays in songs like 'Single Ladies' is also mostly positive. It's assertive and powerful. Here's a woman who would be just as comfortable saying 'no' as she is saying 'yes'. If she owned this as part of her personality, she could well be a brilliant role model but as long as she distances herself from it, I can't quite buy into the idea of Beyoncé The Ultimate Empowerment Queen.

Monday, 23 November 2009

5 Inspiring Women to Get You Cycling!

(This is another post that I did for BitchBuzz)

More women than ever are taking to the London streets on their bikes in a bid to go green and save some money on bus fares. We enjoyed a summer cycling in chic city shorts, mini skirts and whimsical summer dresses. We didn't have to worry about getting cold or wet, we felt proud about getting around under our own steam and we acquired a healthy glow.

And then, over night, everything changed. It's freezing cold, rainy and blowing a gale. On days like these, cycling doesn't just seem unappealing, it seems like total idiocy. Your steely resolve to cycle into work every day starts to waver and soon it's been a fortnight and your bike needs therapy for its abandonment issues.

So to give you that little shove through the door with your two-wheeled ride in tow, here are a few women with serious pedal-power. If they can do it, you bloody well can too.

Beryl Burton

Beryl Burton is one of the greatest female cyclists of all time. And it wasn't just her fellow women that she beat. In 1967 she set a record for the twelve-hour time trial that wasn't beaten by a man for two years. If the Olympics hadn't thought women too fragile to cycle competitively, she would probably have dominated there too. Sadly, the seven-times world champion died of heart failure at 58.

Suffragettes (Susan B. Anthony)

'New Women' at the turn of the century recognised the revolutionary potential of the bicycle. Susan B. Anthony, the feminist civil rights campaigner, said, "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Victoria Pendleton

Victoria Pendleton is a British world champion track cyclist. She also won the gold medal for the individual sprint at the Beijing Olympics (apparently we're not too fragile to pedal really fast anymore). Amazingly, Pendleton is no longer allowed to run because her muscles are honed specifically for cycling. That's how good she is.

Juliet Elliot

It's disheartening to see this great fixed-gear rider drooled over, rather than admired, by hipster boys. She's sponsored by Charge which is something most of these plaid-shirt-loving guys could only dream of. She pulls off some pretty brilliant tricks, proving that she's not 'cute', but awesome. I do wish she'd wear a helmet though.

Jemina Pearl

Jemina Pearl was the ultra cool singer from now the sadly defunct Be Your Own Pet. There are so many reasons to love Jemina - she used to puke onstage and throw it at boys for goodness' sake - but her love of cycling is what gets her a mention here. I'll leave you with some lines from their classic 'Bicycle, Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle', “Have fun, and be safe with it, Just kidding, f*** s*** up! We ride bikes, cars are for idiots.”

Exactly Jemina, exactly.

Image via RandomDuck's Flickr

Monday, 16 November 2009

How Rihanna Became a True, Real Life Role Model

This was originally written for BitchBuzz Go and look at their lovely website. I'll be writing a piece for them each week which I will cross-post here.

Following the coverage of the Rihanna and Chris Brown abuse incident has been almost universally depressing. First there was the harrowing photograph of her battered face that was leaked by police, Brown’s fans relentlessly blogging about how she must have deserved it and, most recently, people saying she’s using her ‘victim’ status to sell records. If there was ever an event that showed how wide-spread misconceptions about intimate partner violence are, this was it.

I was so pleased then that Rihanna decided that she felt strong enough to be interviewed. Commenters have said that they had admired her silence on the matter, that it is more dignified to keep quiet than to speak out. A lot of people would rather Rihanna remained quiet. Chris Brown beat her allegedly because she would not be silent, because she wanted answers about his behaviour. She should not have to be quiet now if she doesn't want to be.

Importantly, she didn't just have things to reveal about her personal experience. Although the details about what she endured in the car that night are the most immediately shocking part of all this, the fact that this experience is shared by so many other young women is the real controversy. Approximately one in four teenage young women experience violence and abuse from a partner. Clearly Rihanna is not alone.

And it seems she is acutely, painfully aware of this fact. A few weeks after Chris Brown beat her up, she flew to be with him. In the interview, she describes the confusion she felt about her feelings towards him. She wasn't able to cut herself of from him immediately, which is understandable. As Rihanna points out herself, women are often abused eight or nine times before they leave a violent partner for good. The problem is, Rihanna is a huge star, admired by millions of young women around the world, one in four of whom will experience violence from a partner. Concerned that other women will follow her example, Rihanna advises abused women to distance themselves from their relationship and act for themselves in their best interests, "...don't react off of love, eff love. Come out of the situation and look at it third person...because love is so blind."

Encouraging women to leave physically abusive situations is important, but it's also important to be able to recognise the early signs of an abusive relationship. Rihanna mentions that Chris Brown had 'shoved' her before this happened. Even now, after having been beaten by this man, Rihanna plays down the prior physical abuse because it didn't leave her bruised. Commonly, women see some of the tell-tale signs of an abusive partner as flattering or loving. Jealously is seen as romantic and rows are often off-set by charming apologies.

When people wonder why teenage girls stay with violent boyfriends, this is often the reason. Relationships in the media are often portrayed as tempestuous and arguments are just a sign of passion. But there is a fine line between passion and abuse and it's important that young women and men are educated as to where that line is. Hopefully Rihanna's bravery in talking so candidly about her experience will educate other women in her position and help them to see that they do not need to be ashamed or alone. As Rihanna says "I am strong...this happened to me, it could happen to anybody."

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Featured Feminist: Kathleen Hanna

(I know I was supposed to have been a more regular, disciplined blogger as of two weeks ago. My grandma died though and now I have swine flu so I'm starting late.)

So my first featured feminist is Kathleen Hanna. Because I love her.

Who is she?

Kathleen (I hope she won't mind me calling her that) is probably best known as the singer in legendary riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and, more recently, Le Tigre. She's a D.I.Y. scene legend, responsible for some of the most influential zines ever, Revolution Girl Style Now and Bikini Kill. She also wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto (which I quote from at every opportunity) which was published in Bikini Kill #2. Outside of the Riot Grrrl Movement, Kathleen has been involved in pro-choice campaigns since she was much younger, speaking openly about her abortion which she had at 15.

Why do I love her?

Isn't it obvious? Kathleen Hanna's emphasis on women's solidarity and creativity is inspirational. In the individualistic days of post-feminism, when women are told we have everything we want, her Manifesto seems more relevant than ever. Women getting together to do constructive and creative things is a two-finger salute to this capitalist 'handbag feminism' bullshit.

Kathleen Hanna, I salute YOU!!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Weekly round-up

It's Sunday, so it's weekly round-up time! The first EVER one no less!

Response to transphobia in Seventeen magazine article

This is filed under, 'great response to a maddening article'. Seventeen magazine in the US recently ran a 'real life' story of a high school girl who boyfriend turned out the be a a female-to-male trans man. The boyfriend is branded a liar for not revealing his trans status and is repeatedly un-gendered. This blog post unpacks it (in all its transphobic glory) really clearly.

Street harassment in Egypt

I found this fascinating. I think it's striking that street harassment seems to happen for similar reasons in different countries and cultures. This article also looks at the Egyptian establishment's reluctance to take this issue seriously.

Jessica Valenti on her wedding

I'm not sure what I think about this blog post from Feministing, but I thought it made interesting reading whatever your views on marriage and weddings.

And because I feel like this blog is often depressing, I'm including this:

It's from this AMAZING blog which always inspires me and makes me smile.

New Swimsuit Issue features

It's time for me to face the truth: I am a bad blogger.

I am well aware that I don't blog enough, probably once every one to two weeks, which is a pretty poor show.

To counter my chronic idleness, I'm adding two weekly features to Swimsuit Issue.

The first is a weekly round-up of articles, from the news and other blogs. They'll be a mixture of things I enjoyed or was interested in or angered by. (Knowing me, it'll be mostly stuff that makes me angry.)

The second will be a profile of a well-known person who will usually be a feminist or somebody who is involved in other liberation movements. I'd really like some help with this one. I have a list of people I want to feature but I'd love some suggestions.

I'll also be doing at least one regular update a week.

Working (almost) full-time is a poor excuse for not doing something that I really enjoy.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Hollaback Grrrl

I was so excited to hear that the UK now has its own Hollaback blog. For people who haven't come across one of these blogs before, they're essentially accounts of street harassment from women in various US cities. It's a great way for women to vent their experiences, rather than just bottling up that impotent rage that many of us feel after dealing with sexual comments from strangers.

After all, how many of us feel up to confronting these swines after we've been humiliated and degraded? We often just slope off red-faced with our skin crawling, angry at them for daring to speak to us like that and angry at ourselves for saying nothing in return. And this is exactly the reaction they want. If you turned around and said, 'Yeah, I'll fuck you. Let's go back to your place', they simply wouldn't know what to do. A street harasser's aim is to make women feel powerless, not to compliment us or make us feel 'special'. I often feel that it's a way to keep us 'in our place'. Like we've got a bit above ourselves walking about in the world, living independent lives. We need reminding that we're are objects, only useful in the home and particularly in the bedroom. One of the most frustrating things about this is the fact that if you ignore them or tell them to fuck off, they shout that you're stuck up or you're a bitch.

I'm aware that none of this is particularly new or interesting so here are are a couple of my own memorable experiences with street harassment.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at uni to meet a friend and I was locking up by bike with a combination lock. I looked up and saw the postman heading in my direction. I smiled and prepared to say a cheery 'good morning'. Except that I didn't get a chance to say anything before he said, 'If I come back to yours, will you tie me up like that?' It took a second to register that that was what he said and I was still wearing my fixed grin. I was so angry that I hadn't managed a retort. I hated that he might have thought I was OK with his disgusting behaviour.

But whenever I feel like that, I remember the time that I did manage (just a little bit) to get my own back. I was walking past a tiling shop with my friend on my way home. We heard somebody behind us saying things as we walked away and turned around in time to hear, 'I love the way your ass looks in those jeans'. This schmuck was sitting outside the shop in his uniform, he clearly worked there!! We went in and spoke to his manager who assured us that he would be disciplined. As we were leaving he started saying, 'Oh I get it, you're shy. Can I get your number?' What did he think we'd done? Asked his manager for this guy's number so we could get a date with him?!

It was small but it made us feel a bit more powerful.

Anyway, you can find Hollaback UK here and you can tweet them at @hollabackuk. Congratulations to all involved, it's a brilliant idea.

(Picture from

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Girl Germs: The Aftermath

So it appears that all our shameless promotion for Girl Germs worked. We were at capacity and then some on Saturday night. 100 cupcakes were consumed, free zines were nabbed and we all thrashed about to some amazing grrrl music. In fact we thrashed so much that our cds kept skipping.

We had a brilliant time and met some fantastic people who want to help us out. Anyway, the upshot of it all is, Girl Germs is going to be bi-monthly at the Camden Head from February 13th when we're probably going to do an anti- Valentine's Day themed bash.

We plan to do lots of different themed nights to keep things interesting, so if you have any ideas or just want to help us out, you can email

Here are some photos that I didn't take:


The brilliant We Are Words And Pictures stall.

Me and Laura djing. We're so cool now.


There you have it. You can follow us on our new Twitter page here, and become a fan of us on Facebook here.

Hope to see you on February 13th.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Girl Germs club night October 17th

Shameless self-promotion here!! I'm putting on a club night this Saturday at the Camden Head with the radiant Laura Wilson Here's what it's all about and why we're doing it in the first place. (Cross-posted to the F Word and hopefully Subtext later on).

Girls Germs is a grrrl-tastic night of music, zines, cakes and dancing. Everybody who comes gets a free cupcake and a chance to buy zines from the fantastic We Are Words And Pictures zine stall. We’ll be playing le tigre, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, The Slits, The Kills, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bikini Kill, M.I.A. and plenty of other amazing tunes by amazing grrrls. It’s going to be a celebration of women’s creativity, proof that girls making music is more than just a faddy trend.

More importantly, though Girl Germs is a grrrl-safe zone where we won’t have to listen to degrading song lyrics. Girl Germs was partly born out of frustration; we were sick of having to dance to songs all about male-angst, or that referred to women only as objects to be abused or put up on pedestal. We wanted to throw ourselves about to music that related our experiences, made by women who are like us. We know there are other women in London who feel the way we do but they’re hard to find. We’ve started Girl Germs in the hope that we’ll meet you, collaborate with you and dance with you. And eat some cake with you.

Date: Saturday 17th October

Location: Camden Head Pub, 100 Camden High Street

Time: 8 ‘til late

Price: £3/£2 with flyer

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Raincoats play the National Portrait Gallery

This is also posted at the F Word blog.

For just over three months, the National Portrait Gallery has been celebrating Gay Icons. This impressive exhibition features photographic portraits of people deemed iconic by some of the most famous and influential gay figures alive today. Alongside the main exhibition, the gallery has hosted a number of events designed to explore the meaning of the words ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’. On 25 of September, The Raincoats played as part of ‘Icon-i-coustic’, a series of concerts, held at the gallery, by iconic musicians and bands including Patrick Wolf and Beverley Knight.

Ana da Silva and Gina Birch formed The Raincoats in 1977, in the midst of the boy-dominated punk scene. By 1978, they were joined by Vicky Aspinall on violin and the legendary Palmolive, of The Slits, on drums. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1979, has rightly achieved iconic status. The Raincoats is the sound of women finding their own way of expressing themselves through music. Its off-kilter rhythms and feminist subject matter combined with Ana and Gina’s incredible vocals are like nothing else that came out of the macho punk scene. Their strictly DIY, lo-fi approach has been admired by other iconic musicians including Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain, who wrote the liner notes for the 1994 re-release of their debut.

It’s easy to see why The Raincoats were chosen to perform at this event, then. But this was much more than a gig. All of the musicians in the ‘Icon-i-coustic’ series were invited to present their own icons before performing themselves.

Shirley O’Loughlin, the band’s manager, went first. There was a fantastically sinister reading of some choice passages from Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto and an equally creepy performance of ‘Blue Moon’ as well as a poem about, well, shoes.

Next up was Ana who had decided to present her icons to us in the form of illustrations; there was one for every member of the audience to take home. Peeking over other people’s shoulders I saw drawings of Pure digital radios and Telecasters. I got Raincoats lyrics, “My feelings were killed by laws, The walls that surrounded my city”, with a picture of two love hearts and barbed-wire.

Gina showed us a film in which she talked candidly about her icons, from the hippy movement to Tracy Emin, Enid Blyton to Vivienne Westwood.

There were few surprises here, except maybe Enid Blyton, but their icons reflect absolutely who they are as a band; dedicated to music, art and punk aesthetics, as well as being openly and unapologetically feminist.

And then it was time for them to play. They rattled their way through a 10-song set, which included favourites like ‘No Side to Fall Into’ and ‘No Looking’.

One of the most charming things about The Raincoats is that Ana and Gina have never been technically brilliant guitarists or bassists. They’ve found their own way of playing, one which is far more interesting than the three-chord punks or air guitar inspiring rock gods.

More than 30 years after the release of their first album, The Raincoats are as vital as ever. Their vocals, which range from lush harmonies (‘No Side to Fall Into’), to yelps and barking (‘Babydog’), represent women empowered by their creative freedom.

Watching women collaborate in this honest way is an intoxicating experience. After their final song (their excellent, queer cover of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’) I left more desperate than ever to be in a band with other grrrls. The fact that they continue to inspire in this way makes them more than worthy of the accolade of ‘Icons’.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Chris Brown: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

So I'm finally doing a Rihanna and Chris Brown post. Well, really just a Chris Brown post. I've put this off for a number of reasons. Firstly, I didn't see the point in writing a post when it first happened, just sort of saying it had happened and that it was terrible because, well, we all know that. Secondly, I wanted to see what happened to Brown in the months after the incident, his trial and his career. I feel that there's more to talk about at this point, mainly to do with the way Brown has dealt with the media.

I have to admit that I knew very little about Brown before this incident, not being particularly fond of the brand of dull as ditch-water r'n'b that he's been so successful at selling. From what I've read though, he was viewed as a real 'good guy', this was an integral part of his branding and image. Part of the shock people felt when this story broke was a result of this squeaky-clean image. And to be honest, many of his loyal fans continued to defend him on the blogosphere, some even going as far as to say that Rhihnna must have done something to deserve the brutal attack. Obviously Chrissywiss just isn't capable of doing anything his Mom wouldn't approve of. Men saying this is a worrying trend, but perhaps more worrying is that this defence often came from young women. Apparently there is a large group of young women out there who really feel that if they checked the text messages on their boyfriend's phone and accused him of cheating, they would deserve any violence that came their way. Or maybe they don't believe that, but they'd prefer to think that than accept the fact that Brown's behaviour was unjustifiable.

Then there is the apology. Call me cynical, but this came across as scripted (by a lawyer most probably) and a calculated attempt to create some closure and sympathy so that he could continue with his career. From his conservative (and, frankly, bizarre) outfit to his constant references to G-d, his mother and spiritual teachers, this was Brown trying to claw back his nice-guy image. His reference to the domestic violence he witnessed in his own home as a child, in the context of everything else he said, sounded hollow. Domestic violence is not simply 'uncontrolled rage', it's about entitlement and subjugation. The fact is, he felt entitled to hit Rihanna, probably because she's a women, an incredibly successful woman to boot.

Another public appearance, another ridiculous nice guy outfit. Brown appeared on Larry King's show with his mother. King asked him how he felt when he read the police report which details what he had done to Rihanna. His answer? 'I'm like, wow' and 'that's not the person I am'. Way to avoid answering there Chris. It clearly is the sort of person you are, you did it. This is obviously another attempt to distance himself from what he did, like it was another person who committed the abuse, not him. This is even more apparent when he claims that he doesn't remember it happening. Oh, using the old 'blackout' excuse there are we Chris? He clearly isn't worried about becoming a cliché. Brown never really addresses what he did, he never answers anything. It strikes me that it is only men who get away with this behaviour. Where womens' lives are scrutinised, men are often allowed to bluff their way out of uncomfortable situations.

It's a shame that Rihanna doesn't have the luxury of escaping from what happened, the leaked photographs of her abused face preclude this. She's been blamed for teaching girls that abuse is acceptable (because she accepted his apology and apparently took him back) and has been criticised for appearing in raunchy photo shoots, with people questioning if this is acceptable behaviour for a domestic violence victim (survivour). Brown seems to have avoided this level of scrutiny despite the fact that he was convicted of a violent crime. It seems there is no limit to the amount of blame that women are expected to shoulder.

At this point, it's hard to say whether Brown will go on to regain his success. His fans, or former fans, seem to be split roughly between postions that almost condone his behaviour and a sort of patriarchal, 'you don't do that to a woman, I want to beat him up'. He does seem to have lost the respect of lots of young fans though, which is generally positive (it would be better if it came from a place of gender equality rather than wanting to protect Rihanna's honour), but I'm sure many will just accept his apology and continue to throw girl-hate at Rihanna. It almost makes me wish I was a former fan, just so that I could stop buying his records.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

My Wordle...

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Riot, grrrls.

A couple of months ago I blogged about what it means to be a female musician today. Recently I've been thinking about what it's like to be a female music fan/geek as well and I've decided it's just as weird and shit. This was summed up for me the other day when I was in Sister Ray, a record shop in Soho, and I was the only woman there. And this isn't a one-off. I've always found independent and second hand record shops to be full of boys. The same goes for gigs, at a fairly recent Sonic Youth gig I attended girls were outnumbered by boys by at least three to one.

Are girl music geeks invisible on the music scene? Are there thousands, even millions, of us listening to bootlegs and b-sides in our bedrooms feeling intimidated by the macho atmosphere of many gigs and record shops? Absolutely. I know I was worried recently when I thought I was going to a Sonic Youth gig (yes, another one) alone. Last time was pretty rough, everybody was taller than me, male and going nuts. There's no way I'm going to hide away at the back when I could be thrashing about at the front but it's always good to know that you have a friend there to haul you up from the floor if needs be. There's also the problem for girls at gigs that some horrible boys will use their proximity to you, and the fact that you are stuck, to get 'handsy'. This can range from people rubbing up against you and groping because they think you won't notice in the throng (I did notice, and I know you noticed my elbow in your ribs and the bruise it must have left), to more serious sexual assaults and even rape and gang rape (during Limp Bizkit and KoRn at Woodstock). Most women who attend gigs will have dealt with some sort of behaviour on this spectrum.

I've written before about women feeling like they can't take up space and I think this is apparent at gigs which can become dangerous. It's safer to move and thrash along with everybody else than to stand still in the midst of everything and get trampled. Perhaps we're too scared to be rude to the asshole rubbing up us because we're taught to be polite and that if he gets angry we won't be able to defend ourselves. I remember being so pleased that I wasn't wearing a skirt as I crowd-surfed my way out of Pixies at Reading Festival, you hear of so many girls being violated in that situation.

And if it wasn't crap enough to fear being assaulted at a gig or embarrassed at a record shop, we also have to look out for girl-hate based on our love of music. If you wear a band t-shirt you face girls talking behind your back, 'She's just wearing it coz she thinks it's cool. Eurgh, I hate girls like that, it's so desperate.' People who wear band t-shirts of bands they don't like are lame, but why assume that somebody isn't a genuine fan just because they're female? I'm sure her boyfriend wouldn't be accused of being a shallow hipster if he was wearing it. I almost feel that some girls view themselves as the only real female music fan in the world, the rest of us are faking to get a boyfriend. I'm not saying you should be friends with every girl you see wearing a t-shirt of your favourite band, but I wish people would acknowledge how sexist and macho the alternative music scene can be and not buy into that bullshit. I'm reminded of a couple of my favourite points from the riot grrrl manifesto:

BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-heirarchical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad categorizations.

BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.

I want girls to be happy when they see another girl in a t-shirt, it means more female faces at gigs. We should be getting stuck in at the front with our girl friends, teaching those boys who take advantage of the fact they're lucky enough to be near us in all our awesomeness exactly what happens if you touch us without our permission. One last point from the riot grrrl manifesto:

BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock "you can do anything" idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Want to be a hipster girlfriend? Look like a child.

It's probably not that surprising that an American Apparel advert has been banned. For the last few years they've consistently produced adverts featuring young women spread-eagled in their boyfriend's underwear, on all fours in hot-pants or topless in gym wear. It's not clever or interesting, just quite grim when you consider that the CEO, Dov Charney, has been accused of sexual harassment and once masturbated in front of a female journalist.

The reason it's been banned is that the woman looks as if she is under sixteen, and also because it is said to resemble an 'amateur-style photo shoot'. I'm not sure if I think the model looks THAT young, but the latter part is true. American Apparel have claimed the ad demonstrated that the hoodie is "soft to the touch" and that the model was not supposed to be viewed as"a sex object or in a negative or derogatory light". (Ta, Guardian) I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that hard to believe. After all, these photographs show a young woman gradually gradually revealing that she's topless under a hoodie whilst wearing teeny tiny shorts.

But it's not the most controversial of their adverts that I've seen. Check out this. I wonder if they would also claim that this was not sexual? When I first heard about this story, I really thought (hoped) it would be this one that had been banned. I'm sure that none of the models are actually under age, Ryan from the banned advert is 23, but they point is that they look young and vulnerable which is unsettling to say the least.

They've also tried to justify the ad by saying that because it ran in Vice magazine, it was unlikely to cause offense. I would agree that the ad won't have been the most sexist, offensive part of Vice. In fact, using very young looking women wearing very little in their photo shoots is something that the magazine is pretty obsessed with. A recent issue featured an extremely young and ill looking woman in a little blue swimming costume, playing about like a child. Ew. There's certainly a weird Lolita-esque thing going on in hipster lifestyle catalogues these days. The models appear as children, but are posed so as to that suggest they would be crazy in bed. Again, ew.

American Apparel has been lauded for the ethical way it treats it's LA base labour force, and this is certainly commendable. However, the way the women on its workforce are constantly simultaneously sexualised and infantilsed in its advertising is reprehensible. I guess it's understandable in a society that still wants women to be subservient and pure, but also up for having sex all the time. These American Apparel adverts are nothing more than pictorial representations of this tension and they deserve a collective 'YUCK' from the women they want to sell to.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Black models as 'Wild Things'

So, we all know there are myriad reasons why the fashion industry is terrible for women (and I say this as a Vogue reader who wrote 1000 words on what to wear to 2008 Christmas parties). It makes us feel bad or not being sample sized, for not having enough money to buy designer or keep up season to season. But one of the things that has really struck me over the last few years of being a fashion junkie, is that it is often blatantly racist. I'm referring to the lack of black faces in magazines but also to the way black model are exotisised and fetishised when they do grace the pages.

I was going through a pretty heavy obsession with Stefano Pilati's YSL Autumn/Winter 2008 collection when I found this quote from the man himself on black models:

“To me, it is a matter of proportions and the bodies I choose. My fit model was a black model. When I wanted to translate what I put on her, it was a disaster. It would need 13 times more work in the atelier to modify it to put on a more Caucasian anatomy. Sometimes, it’s not your choice. You can’t find “black models” that are beautiful and with the right proportions. I prefer them with lean proportions with no big hips.”

Wow. This is the current creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, a label who were among the first to regularly use black models in their catwalk shows. So we're supposed to accept this as an explanation? That black women never have both beauty and the 'right proportions'? I call bullshit. If Pilati can't make his clothes fit, that's his problem. He can't blame ALL BLACK WOMEN for his shortcomings. Models are considered to be the most beautiful of all women. If black women aren't represented in the industry, it's tantamount to saying they are not the right kind of beauty.

And if a black woman does make it into the big time as a model, she can expect to be treated pretty much as a novelty. A sexy, exotic novelty. I writing about this now because of this. What a surprise, the fashion industry's chosen black woman cavorting with animals in Africa. The spread is even called 'Wild Things', implying that Campbell is 'wild' like the animals that she's photographed with. All woman have suffered from this idea that women are close to nature and somehow more earthy and elemental than men, but black woman are constantly portrayed in this way. Photographs of black models are often far more sexual than those of their white counterparts, they are naked far more often. It seems to me that the fashion industry views black women as wild and sexual and white women as beautiful and ethereal.

It's interesting then that Naomi Campbell appeared naked on the cover of i-D magazine with Stefano Pilati last year. She hasn't shied away from calling the industry out on its prejudices saying,
“Women of colour are not a trend. That’s the bottom line. It’s a pity that people don’t always appreciate black beauty. In some instances, black models are being sidelined by major modeling agencies.” (

The pictures of her, naked and pressed up against Pilati fit in perfectly with the way that black models are sidelined. The things is, it is hard for black models, even those as famous as Campbell, to be constantly addressing issues around racism. What they say would no doubt be distorted by the media, and often the problems are so complex that they would never been given a platform to express them. They are expected to be spokeswomen where white models never are. There's certainly an argument to be made that if black models turned down these jobs, the industry would have to change. This isn't necessarily the case though, and in such a precarious and fickle industry, it would be easy for photographers and editors to simply replace models who refused shoots. Far more problematic though than Campbell appearing in this shoot, is Pilati's involvement. Does he really think that embracing a naked black women absolves him of racism?

Campaigning for representation of women of all ethnic backgrounds in magazines is important. What may be more important is ensuring that the industry does not get away with vile, racist stereotypes when they do decide to use black models.

(The quotes from Pilato and Campbell come from

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Filament magazine and the female gaze.

'Filament' is a new magazine for women which describes itself as, "72 quarterly pages of intelligent thought and beautiful men". It doesn't run articles on fashion or cosmetics and prides itself on publishing high quality, intelligent features as well as pictures of hot boys not wearing very much. Sounds AWESOME.

I love the fact that they have done their research rather than just going along with the notion that women don't find visual stimulus exciting. They found that women really wanted erotica, and that the images they wanted to see were not the same as the ones common in gay porn. They found that women wanted:

* men who are not muscle-bound
* men with more feminine face shapes
* men with attractive faces
* images that show the subject’s character and the environment he is in.

The problem is, they also found that women wanted more than just semi-nudity. They were asking to see fully naked men with erections. OK, fair enough, walk into any newsagent in the land and you'll find the female equivalent of this. Up above Cosmo, Heat, Vogue and Grazia you'll probably come face to face with a women on a magazine cover with breasts bigger than your head, grabbing at herself 'passionately'. Except their printers said they were concerned about causing offense to "the women's/religious sectors". So women are going to be offended by erections but not page three girls, religious groups are going to be more upset by a boner than a female crotch-shot? Oh, please. This is almost certainly another attempt to deny female sexuality, and to 'protect' men from it.

I'm sure that many people will disagree with me, but I tend to agree with Kristina Lloyd and Mathilde Madden at The Guardian when they say,

"But there's nothing inherently sexist about depicting nudity. It's sexist when only women are deemed to signify the erotic; it's sexist when eroticised images of women are so normalised and widespread that women stand to be viewed first and foremost as sex objects – their value inextricably linked to their sexual desirability. The sexism is in the inequality."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of the porn industry and I have a special well of hatred reserved especially for lads mags. The thing is, I don't think that all sexual images are necessarily exploitative or degrading. Nudity and sexuality shouldn't be frowned upon, after all, do feminists want to be on the same side as people who have denied female sexuality for eons? It's the industry that often deserves our scorn. 'Filament' say they are dedicated to ensuring that the men who model for them are treated fairly. Models have the right to withdraw their images and the team have even turned models away when they feel that working for 'Filament' may not be a good career move for them.

I'm willing to bet that a lot of lads mags editors would say a similar thing. The problem there is that it ignores the fact that many young women are growing up now believing that their only worth lies in their sexuality. Women's ability to really choose any involvement in the sex industry is often more problematic than it is for men because of intense societal pressures. Even women's magazines constantly impress upon women the importance of 'pleasing your man'. Women's sexuality is dictated to us by the mainstream press which defines it as passive and willing to please but never demanding. In other words, in a classically post-feminist marketable way.

I think a publication that acknowledges female desire and caters for it, as well as promoting positive body images and providing intelligent comment should be applauded. It worries me that there seems to be two main camps on porn and female sexuality: the 'all sexualised images are wrong/women don't want to look at cock' camp, which is inhabited by some feminists as well as religious and right-wing folk and the 'women are really nothing but a pair of tits and should act as such' camp inhabited by the editors of lads mags and the lads themselves. Neither positions are realistic or helpful. Although I think lads mags are beyond reform (due to the blatant misogyny of the articles that goes along with the images), I'm happy to see more women behind the camera in porn and erotica.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Is Lars Von Trier really the Antichrist?

"If you see this film you will be putting your money into something which deserves to bomb – and give a grain of validity to the sickest general release in the history of cinema." (From the Guardian)

This is Julie Bindel on Antichrist, the new film by controversial director Lars Von Trier who has been accused of, amongst other things, hating women. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe as parents of a child who dies tragically. They retreat to a cabin in the woods called 'Eden' in an attempt to help Gainsbourg's character, 'She', to exorcise her grief. However, as in all horror movies set in the woods, nature becomes a malevolent force and the rest of the film charts 'She''s descent into madness and self-mutilation. The film has been criticised for its depiction of graphic sex, female madness and, most controversial of all, for the scene in which Gainsbourg cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. Nice.

The Guardian has an interesting article on the film entitled 'Antichrist: a work of genius or the sickest film in the history of cinema?' (which I have linked to above). It features opinions on the film from women and feminists such as Gillian Wearing and Samantha Morton who have a range of views on it, although many of them are favourable. Morton, for example, admires the performances of Gainsbourg and Defoe as well as the cinematography whilst Joanna Bourke, a History professor, is full of praise, even for the way Von Trier has depicted the violence.

However, Julie Bindel seems almost vitriolic in her hatred of this film, likening it to torture-porn movies like, 'I Spit On Your Grave' and condemning it as gratuitous and poorly acted. She says she'd like it to 'sink without trace' and bemoans its likely inclusion on Film Studies courses. I should mention at this point that I have not seen this film yet, and I'm not sure if I will as I'm incredibly squeemish and affected by horror movies. Despite this, I feel compelled to defend Antichrist from some of her heavy-handed criticisms.

Firstly, I don't understand why she would object to film students studying this film and analysing the ways in which it could possibly be a violent male reaction to 'female emancipation'. This seems to be the way Bindel herself is interpreting it. If the film is indeed as abhorrent and problematic as she says, then surely it is important that it is studied critically rather than just being allowed to 'sink without trace'.

Bindel also takes issue with the fact that she finds the violence to be unjustifiable, in that it doesn't teach us anything about why humans commit violent acts. This negates the idea that the film could be about the futility and meaninglessness of human violence. Perhaps the violence in this film doesn't teach us anything because the violence here has nothing to teach. She refers specifically to the genital mutilation scene saying,
If I am to watch a woman's clitoris being hacked off, I want it to contribute to my understanding of female genital mutilation, not just allow me to see the inside of a woman's vagina.
From what I know, this scene has very little to do with the female genital mutilation that occurs in places like Uganda. For one thing, Gainsbourg's character inflicts this upon herself through madness caused by guilt and grief. The act is surely about these themes, not about female genital mutilation itself.

If I see this film, I will probably also argue that it isn't comparable to torture-porn movies like Saw or Hostel. This film may feature graphic sexualised violence like many of these films, but it seems to be symbolic of important themes like grief and guilt rather than contextless like it so often is in mainstream torture-porn movies. It should also be remembered that Von Trier has consistently made films that push the boundaries of what is acceptable, even making a foray into the world of pornography for women. I want to believe there is a degree of artistic merit in this work, just as there is in much of his other work. I don't believe Von Trier would make a film full of gore and sex for the shock alone. Many other reviews point to a sense of desperation in the film, perhaps a desire to convey meaning and emotion that came from the poor state of his mental health whilst writing this film.

I have no doubt that this film is problematic. It features the familiar trope of the mad woman being connected to evil forces of nature which is an idea that has hurt women throughout history, and the gender stereotypes of emotional woman and rational man may turn out to be hamfisted and over-simplified. But I won't be able to tell you until I pluck up the courage to see Antichrist for myself. And I'm not sure when that will be.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Rape alarm

(The following article is from this blog.  I'm not really a hot news reporter so I thought I'd spare you my own attempt to write this up.  But I was one of the five women who took part in this Rape Crisis protest.  We've had a lot of support and we just hope that Boris does the right thing.  One thing I would add to the following article is that we targeted Richard Barnbrook's speech in solidarity with Southall Black Sisters. Southall Black Sisters have been forced to boycott a committee looking at strategies for dealing with violence against women because they (rightly) object to the racist, sexist homophobe Barnbrook also having a seat on the committee. You can read more about that here.)

FEMINISTS released attack alarms in City Hall today in a protest calling for Mayor Boris Johnson to secure funding for rape crisis centres.

Five women smuggled the alarms through security and set them off just after 11.30am as assembly members discussed how much money should go to referral and support centres.

The protesters were wearing t-shirts painted with the slogan “rape crisis in crisis” in red as they sat in the public gallery of the GLA centre next to former mayor Ken Livingstone.

They linked arms but were eventually escorted out by security, allowing mayor's question time to continue.

Beth Evans, 22, who has just graduated from King's College and is a member of Mind the Gap London Student Feminists was among the protesters.

She said: “The total annual funding for Croydon Rape Crisis Centre is £250,000 which is the same amount Boris gets paid by The Daily Telegraph – what he calls 'chicken feed.'

“The mayor has failed to keep his promise to voters that he would increase support for women who have suffered sexual violence.

Boris was answering questions from Green party GLA member Jenny Jones about the policing of rape in London and the funding of rape crisis centres.

A consultation by the GLA on preventing violence against women, named The Way Forward, will run to Monday next week.

Evans said: “We welcome the fact the mayor is finally talking about rape crisis but at the moment everything he says sounds like more empty promises.

“We desperately hope people will take part in the consultation online and hold the GLA and the mayor to account. This is why we had to raise the alarm today.”

The mayor stated before the elections last year that he would open three new rape crisis centres and continue to fund Croydon, the only such service currently available.
Johnson promised £744,000 towards rape crisis centres during his campaign but has currently budgeted just £467,000.

The costs of the Croydon centre, which has a four-month waiting list, stands at £250,000 and campaigners fear there is not enough cash.

Laura Harvey, 27, a PhD student from south London said: “Every girl and woman who has suffered violence has the right to specialised support to rebuild their lives.

“But London only has one rape crisis centre for 3.9 million women. Only one in four councils provide this support so there is a post code lottery for women in the most desperate need of help.”

According to the latest figures, there were 1,792 rape cases in the year to 2007 of which only 7.4 percent resulted in conviction. Studies have shown that less than seven percent of rapes are ever reported.

UPDATE: Lee Jasper, former Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities to the Mayor of London, said in response to article: "Ring the alarm! When the number of women being raped is n the increase I cant see how such a decision is justified or remotely defendable?"

UPDATE: The alarms were set off as Richard Barnbrook, the BNP GLA member, stood up to speak. This was to highlight a BNP member's statement that rape is "like eating chocolate cake".

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Rebel girl?

Sometimes I feel like a Contrary Mary. A lot of my favourite musicians are women, people like PJ Harvey, Patti Smith and Kristen Hersh, as well as bands like Le Tigre and Bratmobile. I even put on a clubnight, Girl Germs, with a brilliant friend, celebrating awesome music made by awesome women. You would think then that I would be pleased about the much-hyped influx of young women making records and selling loads of them.

And I guess I would be if I felt that this was at all sustainable rather than just another fad. I think these two quotes (given to the Guardian) sum up the problem:

"The best thing about it is that it's glamorous," he says. "It's more interesting than a bunch of boring blokes, singing drab bin-men music." (Paul Rees, editor of Q magazine)
"I've spoken to a couple of A&R men recently who have said 'Please don't send us to see any more girl singers. We're just so bored of them'." (Steve Lamaq)
Obviously, the answer is not to get out of the boring indie slump with better, and more interesting music made by men and women alike, it is by creating an 'indie totty' genre. Women have become a genre. This is why we are seeing such disparate artists as La Roux (more on her later), Florence and the Machine and VV Brown lumped together in lazy articles all over the press. If this is true, we'll see this 'phenomenon' go the same way as the ill-fated 'nu-rave' genre once the 'girl' quota is filled and they've all released albums. It's obvious that women are still a glamorous novelty in a world that's still, for the most part, dominated by men.

And, disappointingly, the women who have made it (for however long) don't seem to be too concerned with taking this system to task. Take La Roux for example. Now, this is old news but I really want to address her now infamous quote about violence against women from an interview with The Quietus:

What's your stance on the way that female musicians either choose to or are forced to use a sexuality that's essentially just designed to appeal to men?

"It's really patronising to women. I know that there's far more ways to be sexy than to dress in a miniskirt and a tank top. If you're a real woman you can turn someone on in a plastic bag just by looking at them. That's what a real woman is, when you've got the sex eyes. I think you attract a certain kind of man by dressing like that. Women wonder why they get beaten up, or having relationships with arsehole men. Because you attracted one, you twat.

Oh Elly, it could have been so good. You could have said all of the right things, but you chose to say this. I can't applaud La Roux for her rejection of a 'traditional' feminine aesthetic anymore because she so clearly sees this, and herself, as superior to it. Instead of holding men responsible for their abusive actions, she blames women who make a choice to wear 'miniskirts' and 'tanktops' in order to feel sexy. Instead of a positive message about female individuality and diversity of sexuality, she scorns women who make different fashion choices to her and indulges in some old fashioned 'slut' blaming.

In fact, because of the crappy way the music industry works, La Roux has these 'twats' to thank for her position today. If they didn't exist and dress this way, there would be nothing for La Roux to be positioned against. Women in music can't just exist and do their music thing, they have to be pigeon-holed and divided up.

What I'm trying to say is that the music industry sucks. It allows a few women in for their sex appeal, and fewer in because they are 'different'. They then have to spend their entire career proving either how sexy or how different they are in order to sell records and keep the label happy. It's not fair that La Roux has to be a spokesperson for her gender, in a way that her male peers aren't expected to be, but she certainly needs to re-think blaming women in this callous and uninformed way.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Cycling like a girl.

I hardly ever feel more like a minority as a woman than when I'm cycling. It is fantastic that the number of cyclists in London has increased an incredible amount over the last few years, but it is a sad and worrying trend that the vast majority of the cyclists in London are men. I refuse to believe that this is because women are afraid of 'helmet hair' or that they're worried that they won't be able to wear heels on their bike. I think this discrepancy has far more to do with the fact that women are conditioned from infancy to take up as little space as possible and to believe that they have little to no physical potential.

The statistics show that women are more at risk on the road than men. Of the 7 cyclists killed by HGVs in London this year, 6 of them have been women. Most fatalities involving bikes and HGVs happen when a lorry turns left and a cyclist is caught on the inside and gets crushed. It seems that male cyclists are safer because they are more likely to cycle faster and escape from the inside of the lorry, or to go round the outside of the lorry, into the traffic. Because of this, women cyclists have been encouraged to make themselves as visible as possible, ensuring that they are at the front of the traffic at red lights and as far forward as is safe. I believe there is a real feminist issue here about women being less willing to take up space due to a lack of confidence.

We've probably all allowed ourselves to be squashed up against a window on a bus or train because we felt bad for taking up too much room or just couldn't face the confrontation. Women are taught from an early age to be kind and to think of others before ourselves. We're also taught that we're not good at physical activities, that we should leave that to the boys. Studies show that parents vastly underestimate female babies' physical abilities and it's still the case that many schools still don't teach girls more boisterous sports like Rugby. The message from birth is that being strong and fast is not valued in women because it is not 'feminine'. In fact, girls and women that achieve highly in sport are often 'accused' of being gay. Consequently, many women are left doubting their physical abilities. Usually this only results in being a bit squashed on the bus, but now it may have led to the deaths of six women.

This insecurity is visible not only in statistics but also in the bikes that men and women choose to ride. My compulsion to check out other cyclist's bike is now chronic and I have put it to good use. My unofficial, mental survey reveals that despite the current trend/craze for fixed-gear bikes, few women are choosing to ride them. Instead, women seem to be opting for slow, stately 'Amersterdam' bikes. It's understandable in some ways, the fixed-gear scene is notoriously 'macho', but I fear that another reason is that women feel that they just won't be strong enough to ride them or that they are worried about how fast they are.

I'm by no means a Sporty Susan, but since I started to cycle a year ago, my fitness has improved, I've saved money and I'm completely independent. Cheesy though it may be, for me my bike is a type of freedom. I'm still not fully confident though. Despite sometimes cycling twenty miles a day and taking to my fixed-gear like a duck to water, I know that I could so easily become a statistic any and every time I hesitate or doubt myself. It pains me to see men constantly flash by women (including me) on their bikes. I don't know how we can change this though without women's liberation. Until the sexist culture around sports and physical activities is changed, many women will suffer from a potentially dangerous lack of confidence in their physical ability.

P.S. I recommend Iris Young's essay, 'Throwing Like a Girl' if you found this remotely interesting. It's fascinating.
P.P.S. If any women cyclists read this and are interested in setting up a regular women's bike ride in London, let me know by commenting.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Racism, sexism and gang rape in the city.

This week, the subject of Channel 4's ever sensational Dispatches was gang rape. 'Rape in the City' (was that supposed to echo 'Sex and the City' in some perverse way?) featured testimonials from women and girls who had been gang raped as well as interviews with young black men about their attitudes to women and sex.

I watched this documentary knowing that it was going to make me angry for several reasons. Warning bells started to ring when I read the programme information; it was going to explore whether or not this is a problem with black men. We were presented with some fairly shocking statistics about gang rape and its perpetrators: 86% were committed by non-whites, 66% were committed by black gangs. However many times presenter Sorious Samura referred to these figures, there was never any in-depth analysis of them. If only 1 in 8 gang rapes are reported, how representative can these statistics be? And if it is mainly black men who are committing gang rape, where was the discussion of why?

Saying that it is because of a pervasive negative attitude towards women and female sexuality in this community does not go far enough. Sexism is pervasive in all sections of our society. It sounded to me worryingly like the racist idea that 'black men cannot control themselves' whereas white men can hide their contempt for women and keep their libido in check. It's telling that the first result Google finds from the search 'dispatches gang rape' is a post from far-right website Stormfront. It also seemed relevant to me that in almost all of the cases mentioned, these rapes were taking place on council estates and yet there was no mention of poverty and what role it may play.

The interviews with the young men were chilling but again, another important factor was skimmed over. It is hard to believe that young men were being entirely honest, there certainly seemed to be a strong element of sexual bravado involved. I have no doubt that young women are being treated in the horrific ways described by the interviewees, but perhaps their accepting attitude towards such behaviour was exaggerated.

From the testimonials of the young men interviewed and comments from the police, it seemed apparent to me that the focus of sex education needs to change. Young people know how to have sex, they even know about safe sex. The real problem that needs to be addressed is ignorance surrounding issues such as consent and its intricacies. They may not think about the fact that a woman or girl faced with many men who expect sex from her may be willing at first but the fact that she is outnumbered may men that she may not be able to change her mind without fear of reprisals. A police officer reported that one man arrested for a gang rape said that he didn't know that forcing a woman to give oral sex was rape. Whilst this is in many ways a separate issue from that of gang rape which is deliberate and intended to damage their victim physically and emotionally, an ignorance of issues surrounding consent cannot be helping.

Equally as galling was the way in which each girl's account of gang rape was introduced, with a brief rundown of her sexual history. One girl 'had only just started to date boys and was still a virgin'. What is the relevance of this please? If the girl in question had had sex with everybody at her school, it wouldn't have made what happened to her any less terrifying and appalling. Whether this stemmed from a belief on the part of the programme makers that raping a virgin is worse than raping a sexually active woman, or from a desire to sensationalize an already shocking documentary, it is reprehensible. Such sensationalism detracts from the gravity of what happened to these women, the horror of which is apparent from their brave and devastating personal accounts.

Having a black presenter does not make a programme immune from being racist. At a time when race relations in the UK are precarious, it seems irresponsible to make a programme that merely scratches the surface of what is an extremely complex issue. And given that the presenter talks so much about the denigration of women by men, it is sad and ironic that he uses the virgin/whore dichotomy to sensationalize a subject that could hardly be more shocking. This documentary is not going to help prevent future gang rapes or encourage a real productive discussion on this subject. It came across as a poorly researched, lazy 'shockumentary', which does the victims of this crime a disservice.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Our mini feminist magazine

The previous two blog posts come from a feminist issue of Play, the culture supplement of the University of London newspaper, London Student. I co-edited Play through the academic year of 2008-2009 with the marvelous Ms. Chalcraft. We always tried to give it a feminist sensibility but we devoted an issue to our favourite topic and it's available online for you to read.

Here it is.

Zines: the basics

Zines as we know them today roughly date back to the 1970s with punk fanzines like 'Sniffin' Glue' but they also have links to the 1930s amateur science-fiction press and even political pamphlets of the 17th century. Nothing new then but they've always been a medium for minority groups to express marginalised, and frequently subversive, ideas.

Zines are self-published, d.i.y. magazines which are often produced using little more than scissors, prit stick and work's photocopying budget. Because of the use of these materials and techniques, many zines have retained the cut and paste aesthetic of many of the punk zines of the 70s. This is simply the cheapest way to produce your own publication and it reflects the anti-establishment stance taken by many zines.

Although many people think of zines as simply being linked to musical movements like Punk and Riot Grrrl, the subject matter is actually very varied. There are zines about anything: mental health issues, politics, bike maintenance, knitting and female ejaculation. Zinesters are an eclectic bunch of people.

From a feminist point of view, zinesters have created a community and network of women who support each other and reassure women around the world that they’re not insane. Many of the major zine distributors are women, supporting the women who write and produce them and friendships are often formed between readers and zinesters through letter writing. The publishing world is notoriously a boy’s club, difficult for women to infiltrate and rise to the top of especially if they retain a feminist sensibility. A sense of solidarity and a do-it-yourself spirit are ensuring that women’s ideas are being heard. It isn’t glamorous or glossy but in a world of Heat magazine and lads mags, it’s an honest and vital alternative.

Feminist porn: the review

What are the common complaints made by women about mainstream porn? That it has no plots, that there are too many un-sexy close-ups, the women in it are ‘faking it’, that it’s all about the ‘mighty phallus’, and, very importantly, the soundtracks are terrible. All very understandable and off-putting points I would say.

So you’d expect feminist porn to be different, to address these issues, right? I decided to put this to the test and settled down with a slice of marble cake and a pot of jasmine tea to watch ‘The Crash Pad’, an award-winning lesbian, feminist porn film directed by Shine Louisa Houston.

I don’t really know what I was expecting to be honest, but whatever it was, it wasn’t what I got. The Crash Pad is a place where women can go and have sex with each other whilst they have the key. After 7 times, you have to pass the key to another lucky lady. This isn’t a plot though, just a kind of framing device, the twist at the end being, all the women are being filmed.

The women who star in ‘The Crash Pad’ are certainly not your average porn stars. They don’t seem to be surgically enhanced and some of them even have love handles, horror of horrors. Lots of them seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, looking authentically flushed and sweaty. Interestingly, all of the women in the film are real-life couples.

The weirdest thing about this film (apart from the part when one of them uses the loo and then doesn’t even wash her hands), is that it is still all about the peen. There are huge strap-ons everywhere. And lots of close-ups of them being put to use. Before being introduced to the framing device we are introduced to the vaginas of two and then three of the stars. And the soundtrack to all this hardcore action is uniquely terrible. Although these women are not the Barbies we usually expect in porn films, most of them don’t deviate massively from the norm. Although a little less tanned and toned than other porn stars, most of their pubic hair is missing and the majority have hairless underarms and legs.

This film is made for lesbians, not for men who just want to watch gay-for-pay girls get ‘naughty’ with each other. The problem is that despite being made for women by women, the director hasn’t managed to escape the tropes of traditional, non-feminist porn. I’m not saying that women want to watch soft-core, romantic, take-me-roughly-in-the-barn films, but this film doesn’t really address many of the issues that put women off porn. If I had to write a (naughty Catholic) school report for this film, it would read, ‘Could try harder’. Lol, harder.

We're not laughing, Andrew Lowe

Feminists don't have a sense of humour. We know this because the media tells us so. At the risk of perpetuating this idea, I don't see what's so funny about an Oxford College's decision to elect the position of White Heterosexual Male Officer.

Many universities in the UK, have a Women's Officer. This role is designed to represent women and to provide female students with women-specific support and services. We also have the positions of Black and Ethnic Students Officer, LGBT Officer and Disabled Students Officer, amongst others. These officers are elected to represent groups within a university that could potentially face discrimination based on their sex, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. Automatically, surely, you can see why the idea of having a White Heterosexual Male Officer is problematic. You don't need a specific representative for a group who are the most privileged in a patriarchal society really do you? There are certainly problems facing young, white men; their high suicide rate is indicative of that. They aren't, however, facing discrimination and this is what these specific positions are created to deal with.

But whatever. The students at St. Anne's college don't seem to be arguing that they need an officer to represent their interests. They see it as a hilarious joke. Let's look at Andrew Lowe's manifesto pledges shall we:

To replace St Anne's college crèche with a finishing school.
To ban women from the library.
To save money by getting female students to serve food in halls instead of kitchen staff.
Extra funding for "middle-class activities".
To prevent college authorities from banning "any act succeeded by the word 'lad' or 'banter'".
(Thank you Rowenna Davis for this information which you can't access on the St. Anne's website anymore.)


No, sorry, I just can't do it. In a place like Oxford University which is shockingly white, male and middle class, this is not funny. Having a Women's Officer is not 'political correctness gone mad', it's necessary. The same goes for a Black and Ethinic Student's Officer, or LGBT officer. These are underrepresented groups who need a representative. This new, arbitrarily created, position undermines the work of officers who have a real job to do; supporting minority groups within the student body and encouraging a more diverse range of students to choose to study at their prestigious university.

Call me cynical, but I believe there is more to this than meets the eye. A backlash against women's rights, racism that Andrew Lowe and his supporters would no doubt deny, and homophobia. And a dose of good old fashioned snobbery.

Really not funny.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Police vans and prom dresses

(I wrote this originally for London Student, the University of London newspaper. For a bit of background on the contest have a look here.)

Loony liberal left, the great unwashed, ugly, jealous. Just a selection of charming comments from the Daily Mail website about the women, myself included, from Goldsmiths Feminist Society who blockaded the Miss University London contest on Tuesday 10th March. We arrived at 9pm with our bicycle locks and, after a bit of a door-pushing battle with the people inside, managed to secure the entrance and ourselves using chains and our limbs. Inevitably, the police and press arrived. The police made it clear from the start that we would have to be moved unless we moved ourselves. While we waited for the bolt-cutting team and police vans to arrive, we were interviewed by various members of the press who responded with incredulity when we told them that we were prepared and willing to be arrested for our cause. Women with the courage of their convictions? Whatever next?!

Eventually we were arrested for ‘Obstruction of a Highway’ and taken away in a van, to several whoops and cheers, but eventually released without charge. The D-Lock on the door took them another thirty minutes and two fire crews to remove.

We have all been asked over and over again why we object so strongly to what has been called ‘light-hearted fun’ and even ‘empowering and educational’. In our opinion, this pageant is part of post-feminist ‘raunch culture’ which masquerades as liberation but in actual fact is patriarchal society selling women’s sexuality back to them on its own terms.

It objectifies women and turns them into commodities, feeding into a culture where domestic violence is the biggest killer of women world-wide and women are blamed for their rape. Contestants have said that this pageant is about their personalities too. We would disagree and say that it is about portraying a very specific type of personality, one which fits into the narrow idea of beauty upheld by the contest. This is doubly sad because the contestants are all intelligent, educated women who most likely hold some interesting and challenging opinions. This competition has sold them short.

Our protest wasn’t just about a beauty pageant and it wasn’t meant as an attack on the women involved. We don’t believe that the fight for women’s liberation has been won so we believe that we’re far from post-feminist. As long as women are being raped and abused on the streets and in their own homes, there should be no place in our society for events where men sit and ogle women for entertainment. And I’m happy to be arrested for that cause.

Luke Janklow in Vogue

I read Vogue. Phew, it feels good to get that out. Although it always frustrates me, I buy it each month for my fix of couture and Tim Walker photography. I find that because it's so beautiful, I can avoid the women-hating articles. Being a music-loving feminist though, I felt compelled to read an article about the way men and women experience music differently. I knew I was going to be annoyed and I was right. Luke Janklow's article, 'Food of love?' left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The argument of said article can be reduced to: 'Men have a very visceral reaction to music' where 'Women respond to the melody, the story, the beauty'. What Janklow is really saying here when you scratch the surface is, 'men experience music in a deeper, more important way than women.' They experience it physically, primitively where women experience it at the obvious surface level of pretty tunes and sad lyrics. I hope I'm not alone in taking umbrage at this assumption (which seems to be based purely on the different musical tastes held by him and his wife.) I also hope I'm not alone (as a woman) in my love of shouty, stompy, raw music. I really don't think that I am.

My favourite thing to do when alone is to stomp, stomp, stomp to my favourite songs and believe me, there's nothing beautiful about it when I get going. The soundtrack for this apparently male behaviour is usually growly, shouty, filthy and frankly ugly. Garage rock, Riot Grrrl and anything else dirty and loud always provokes a physical reaction from me especially when I'm getting dressed. At these moments when I'm in a partial state of undress (personal favourite: tights/vest/mega-heels combo) I'm not thinking about the beautiful story that the lyrics are telling as Mr. Janklow would assume. I'm not really thinking much of anything to be honest. I'm just stomping. (Although sometimes it occurs to me about how gosh-darn sexy I look doing it.) And it doesn't just happen in my room either, I flail about in clubs and get goose-bumps at gigs and I don't have any control over any of it. I know I'm not alone in this. I see women throwing themselves about on dance floors with abandon whenever I go out. They're not thinking, 'These lyrics are so moving. And the melody? So beautiful!' They're thinking '??#!!£@??!' All of these women are experiencing music in the visceral way that Janklow attributes to men.

I just don't understand how this article slipped through the editorial net with it's outdated, easy assumptions about gender. How can somebody write and believe such nonsense in 2008 when we're confronted with images of gender subversion on a daily basis? It's probably more comfortable to think that we fit into neat little gender labeled boxes. More comfortable for somebody who's frightened to think that perhaps women aren't ethereal beings, devoid of physicality and who's too scared to confront the fact that he wants to wear his wife's knickers to work.

(For legal reasons, I have no proof that Mr. Janklow wants to wear his wife's knickers to work.)