Friday, 9 September 2011

On the 'This Is Abuse' campaign.

Over the last couple of years I've been updating this much-neglected blog with my thoughts on news stories, music and film from a feminist perspective. I haven't felt the need to share much about myself. I hadn't thought it necessary.

This changed when I heard about the government's, 'This Is Abuse' campaign, which aims to tackle the problem of violence within teen relationships. Unfortunately, I don't have the privilege of 'professional' (ha!) distance when it comes to this subject.

I'm 23 now, but between the ages of 18 and 19, for just over a year, I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was 4 years older than me. It started slowly, but, when I look back, the warning signs were all there. I was always a shy, awkward girl. I was bullied a lot at school and suffered from extremely low self-esteem and anxiety. I was easy pickings for somebody like Sam*. He was good-looking, and when we got together at my 18th birthday party, my more popular friends were jealous.

Soon after, he was asking me to see him every day and lie to my Mum about where I was. He would make me feel guilty if I said I had homework to do, or that I wasn't comfortable with this dishonesty. This guilt-tripping became anger. Slamming doors, using his height to intimidate me, shouting into my face. He criticised my family and friends, trying to isolate me from people who cared about me.

And then the inevitable happened, and it turned violent. He pushed me down the stairs because he didn't like the fact that I had a crush on the bassist in my favourite band. His Mum and Dad saw it happen and did nothing. After that, he'd regularly hit and shove me. When I moved to London for university, he'd come and visit every weekend, and call several times a day. I didn't dare go out because if I did, there'd be hell to pay when he came down to see me that weekend.

One weekend, we were both out at the Scala in King's Cross. He hit me in front of a crowd of people, and tried to push me down the stairs of the venue. I don't know what it was that made that time different, but I knew that was going to be the last time he came anywhere near me. I broke up with him over the phone later that week.

It didn't end there, though. He called me 60 times or more a day, and sent death threats. He'd taken photos of me getting changed without me knowing, put them on a fake Facebook page, and invited people I knew to 'friend' it. I was afraid and devastated so I called the police.

I showed them the number of missed calls, the text messages containing death threats, and detailed the numerous assaults I had endured over the course of that year. Their response? He's just heartbroken. They said there was nothing they could do, and it wasn't their job to get involved in teenagers' relationships.

So I left it there. Angry, but tired and defeated. Over the last few years, I've been learning to cope better with what happened. I still have flash-backs, and I find it very difficult to trust people. I'm extremely touchy about being bossed about by anybody. But I'm ok.

The scariest thing about all of this, is the fact that my story is incredibly common. According to Women's Aid, 1 in 4 girls experience relationship abuse. This is the same rate at which adult women experience it. It may not look the same, because teenagers tend not be married to their abusers, have children with them, or even live with them. But to dismiss their experiences as petty drama, or to say, 'why didn't you just dump him?' is to fundamentally misunderstand what makes women of all ages stay with an abusive partner. Many women who are abused suffer from low self-esteem even before they experience abuse, and abusers systematically grind down any confidence and independence their victims have left. It's easy to believe you don't deserve any better when that's the message that is, sometimes literally, beaten into you.

If publicised widely enough, the 'This Is Abuse' campaign could have a positive impact. Teaching young people to recognise the signs of abuse, on both sides, and providing them with resources to help themselves out of dangerous situations is undoubtedly important. I hope that if I had been aware of the prevalence and early warning signs of teen relationship violence, I might have been able to end things earlier on. One thing I know I would have felt off-putting about the site is the number of comments from men and boys saying that the initiative is 'bigoted' because it focusses on girls as the most common victims, and boys as perpetrators. The 'Have You Your Say' message board is swamped with such comments despite the fact that throughout the website, there are references to teenage boys being victims too, and resources to help both them, and girls who perpetrate violence against their partners. However, the site could do more to address the diversity of relationship violence. There are few references to violence outside of relationships between 2 straight, cis people.

This campaign won't have the necessary impact on its own. We live in a society that fosters feeling of low self-worth in women and girls. That becomes dangerous when coupled with the sense of entitlement that many cis men are brought up with. Education about the intricacies of consent and respect in relationships should form an important part of sex education in schools. In the Guardian Women's Blog post about the site, they quoted a statistic that I found particularly uncomfortable:

When the Boston Public Health Commission did a 2009 survey of 200 young people aged 12 to 19, they found that 46% of respondents blamed pop star Rihanna for the brutal attack by her then boyfriend, Chris Brown.

It's awful to think that there is a percentage of teenage girls who think that if they get a bit gobby with their boyfriends, they deserve to be punched in the face. We need to be teaching them to expect more for themselves, and ensuring that the police take allegations of this sort seriously when they are made. However, as a fan of patriarchy-smashing and capitalism-destruction, I think there's a limit to how much this sort of education can do to end violence against women in all its forms. As a short-term measure to make things a little easier, it's fine. But as long as we live in a society that relies on oppression and violence to function, violence against women will occur.

(If anybody reading this needs some help, here's a pretty comprehensive list of organisations who can provide support and advice.)

*Name changed.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Quentin Tarantino: Empowerment or true Exploitation?

Being a feminist is awesome. Having a patriarchy-based explanation for the unfairness you see in the world around you helps to make sense of things. It provides a frame of reference for your frustrations and helps to you construct coherent arguments against oppression.

The problem is, once you've switched on your feminist radar, there's no switching it off. You start to see the whole world in these terms. This is fine, until you being to scrutinise things you once enjoyed without question. You soon discover that lots of your favourite things are riddled with oppressive stereotypes and tropes, sexist or otherwise.

The problem is, the world isn't divided into easy categories. Everything that we consume, has been created under a capitalist, patriarchal system and will reflect this in some way. The upshot of this is that basically everything you enjoy, every nerdy fandom, every favourite novel, film and band, will end up bleeping 'Patriarchal Bullshit' on your feminist radar at some point.

Annoying, isn't it?

I'm a long-time Quentin Tarantino fan. For a while, I refused to sit anywhere but the third row at the cinema because he once said that he'd never go on a second date with a woman who sat anywhere else. Oh, the shame of it.

I love his films. I love the heavy referencing of other films and genres, the sassy dialogue, the soundtracks, the casting, the stylised nature of them. These days though, I find myself wincing a lot at some of the violence and depictions of women's sexuality, amongst other things. I don't enjoy the films less, I'm just more critical of them.

The main accusation levelled at Tarantino, is that his graphic depictions of violence against women are fetishistic. It's hard to argue with this when you recall the crash scenes in 'Death Proof'. There's something grimly pornographic about the way Rose McGowan's character is desperately begging to be freed from Stuntman Mike's car, and the close-ups of her violent death are extremely painful viewing. There's also relish in the slow-motion replays of the crash in which the first group of women are killed. Julia's long leg being ripped off as she hangs it out of the window of the car, seems particularly poignant and gruesome. I do think though, that it's important to see this film, more than his others, as a genre film. As part of the 'Grindhouse' double-bill, it's a straight-up Exploitation film, with everything that entails: hot girls, violence and a killer soundtrack. Of course, this in itself is problematic for obvious reasons.

One thing that doesn't get talked about too much is the trope of the vengeful woman that appears regularly in his films. The Bride in 'Kill Bill', and Zoe Bell and her cohorts in 'Death Proof' are enacting sweet revenge on the people who have harmed them. In 'Kill Bill', The Bride kills off every member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, as well as a man who raped her whilst in a coma. In 'Death Proof', Stuntman Mike is killed for attempting to murder a second group of women with his stunt car.

Although on the surface, this seems a somewhat empowering idea, women enacting revenge isn't really very subversive. They are reacting to violence rather than instigating it, which doesn't really do much to upset the idea that women are incapable of being truly violent. The idea that 'Hell hath no fury...' isn't empowering. It's a way of reproducing the stereotype that women are calculating and bitter, rather than spontaneous in the way that men are. This is off-set slightly in 'Kill Bill' by the number of women assassins, most notably the frenzied Gogo Yubari. These characters do represent the cold-blooded killers so rarely portrayed on screen by women.

These vengeful women aren't exactly girl-next-door types either. Tarantino's women can kick serious ass, but they don't look like you or I. The actresses in his films are fairly standard Hollywood-types; mostly slim and conventionally attractive. I would say, though, that they are probably more ethnically diverse than the women stars of other Hollywood films. But it's not just their looks that mark them out as different from us 'normal' women. Tarantino seems to idealise these characters, making them cooler, sassier, stronger and sexier than the rest of us. This is particularly true of the women in 'Death Proof'. They're also worshipped by men. Think, for instance, of the effect that Mia Wallace ('Pulp Fiction') has on the men in her life. As much as we'd probably like to, it's pretty hard to relate to these women. You often end up wishing you were more like them, in the way that watching a film starring Angelina Jolie often makes you despair at what you see in the mirror.

And then there's the issue of the man himself. Joking about an action figure of himself called 'Rapist #1' kind of precludes him from being known as Feminist of the Year(to say the very least). So does saying Gwyneth Paltrow isn't “isn’t trampy enough” to be cast in porn films. But sexist comments from him as a man, don't mean that his work is without any feminist merit.

For example, casting women in leading roles, is still relatively rare and is indicates that he values women's narratives and may even understand the importance of women seeing themselves represented on the screen.

As Carol Pope and Katherine Pearson write in their book The Female Hero in American and British Literature, “any author who chooses a woman as the central character in the story understands at some level that women are primary beings, and that they are not ultimately defined according to patriarchal assumptions in relation to fathers, husbands, or male gods.” They argue that, whether explicitly feminist or not, “works with female heroes challenge patriarchal assumptions.”

(From an excellent post on Bitch Magazine on Taratino.)

Putting women on screen not just as a girlfriend, a wife, a mother or plain old titillation, is saying that women are worth watching. That they're interesting enough to carry a film themselves. How depressing that this is unusual.

Also unusual, is the way that women's bodies are portrayed in Tarantino's films. Being a Hollywood director with a fondness for exploitation cinema, there are plenty of scantily-clad women in his films. However, these women do far more fighting than fucking (excuse my language.) They're often bare-foot and dirty, scrapping or fighting for their lives with samurai swords, guns, boots, and even cars. Their bodies are seen as strong as often as they are portrayed as sexy, and they use them to ensure they are not made victims of. They're not afraid to say 'no' and to fight back.

In this refusal of victim-hood, they take agency in their situation. This is a stark contrast to the women who are routinely brutally murdered on screen in so-called 'torture porn' films. Those unhappy women have usually transgressed in some way (for instance, they've had sex) and are now paying the inevitable price. Even when faced with the Crazy 88s, there's nothing inevitable about The Bride's situation in 'Kill Bill'. Instead of the traditional, passive role women take in the cinema, Tarantino often portrays women controlling their own destiny. There is definitely something empowering about women believing their lives are worth defending, and then having the strength to defend themselves. In a society where only a tiny percentage of rape cases end in a conviction, it's refreshing to see women get some justice even if it's just on screen and ugly as it may sometimes be.

Tarantino may not be a feminist, he may even be a sexist pig, but he is a clever and imaginative director. Where his contemporaries fail to cast women in powerful lead roles, and instead give them bit-parts as murder victims and bickering girlfriends, Tarantino recognises the power women and their stories can have on-screen. His portrayals are often problematic, but that doesn't mean we should write his work off as entirely sexist or anti-feminist. If women leave the cinema feeling a little tougher, rather than feeling a little uglier or less successful as usual, then that's something to be celebrated.

(As a special treat for reading the whole of my ramble, have one of the best songs ever written. And it's on the 'Death Proof' soundtrack.)