Be what you want to be…

One of the reasons I started the list of 100 Science Fiction Women was to address the idea that science fiction, in particular, but genres like horror and fantasy as well are primarily the realm of men and boys. I wanted to showcase the fact that we can find women role-models within “nerdy” genres, and that these women can be powerful and action-oriented, or intelligent and wise, or, quite often, both. Women in science fiction can love men or women or can be strong alone; they can be mothers and grandmothers or can be without children. What the spread of women we see in science fiction shows is that there is no one path for women, and that as a young girl, or as an older woman, we should be free to make choices and follow what appeals to us. I have loved science fiction and fantasy since I was quite young and I don’t think this in any way detracts from being a girl.

In that context and with that background it has been interesting to follow the discussions on girls’ toys and boy toys, which, while already ongoing,  has been galvanised around Lego’s introduction of its “Friends” range for girls.

ImageI must say that I agree with many of the commentators that this Lego ad from the 1970s is a much better representation of how I would like to see Lego marketed to girls. I played with primary block colour Lego as a child and continue to be a big fan. We used Lego alongside our doll’s house, our Fisher Price toys, our blocks and my brother’s cars to build sprawling cities which were inevitably struck by natural disasters (usually floods). These were games in which my sister and brother and I participated equally (actually, to be honest, as the oldest I was the bossy one and the director of the mise-en-scene) – not games for boys or girls.

Anyway, a fabulous discussion on the Lego decision from The Age is worth a read. Lego is trying to respond to a market it sees, and it is that broader notion that toys are gendered which is increasingly problematic. Another good discussion of the general approach is here. There have been some alternative views – that little girls can under-cut stereotypes and play subversively with Barbie (and I certainly know some mothers who do that) or that constant attacks on pink or girls’ toys is another form of anti-womenness. While I see these views, it is easier for girls to be subversive if exposed to different ideas and not subsumed in princesses and hairdressing, and while there is nothing wrong with pink per se, why is it all girls can have and forbidden to boys? The fact that pink and Princesses are so confined to the world of girls leads to the denigration, and that same notion that girls are best when they are decorative and house-making. Do serious people of business wear pink? It is funny how mothers of toddler boys (including myself) often end up investing in girls’ pyjamas or shoes because their boys want some pink like their friends. At 3 and 4 children are relatively gender-blind and do not understand the binaries of society.

As I have said in another post, feminism should be about having choices, not having choices made for you. If girls (or boys) like dolls, then dolls they should have. But if they like trucks or trains they should have those also, and not be judged for it. Choice is more than everything being physically available to you – choice is about being able to do things without social approbriation. My concern is that the more girls and boys are forced in gender-based choices of toys and the like, the less choice they have as people around them expect more and more conformity. I had a chemistry set at 11 and bug catchers before then, and I would love my nieces to want the same things. If their choice is genuinely different, then that is their choice, which should also be respected and not denigrated because it is a ghetto for girls.

For Christmas this year I bought my 2 and a half year old niece a train set – not because I was trying to force non-gender specific toys on her, but because I am told she loves Thomas (personally, I’ve never really been a train person). I bought the similarly aged-daughter of a friend a Playmobil castle with a Princess and a pink unicorn, but I did buy her a Self-Rescuing Princess t-shirt to go with it. My boys have all had dolls, which they played with to a greater or lesser extent, but various teddies have been nurtured and put to bed and played with over time. They have also had tea sets and have served us endless cups of tea and muffins, and have learned to cook themselves. I was impressed this year when our 9 year old got real cooking equipment from two different sources. But they also love nerf guns and Star Wars and endless Lego and cars and all those things too. All kids can and should be allowed to be multidimensional, as the following young social theorist says:

Update: Here is a link to another fabulous article on pink-ification and Pink Stinks from The Guardian

Random irritating sexism or Why Feminism is Still Relevant

So, we are going on a holiday.

I called Qantas and booked the tickets.

I used my Frequent Flyer points to book the tickets.

They were booked using my Frequent Flyer Profile with my email address.

I paid the taxes using my credit card.

I have the superior Frequent Flyer status level.


Yet, when the email came confirming the tickets, tickets I had booked using my Frequent Flyer points, using my credit card, using my email address

the email was addressed to my partner.

My male partner.


Is it because men are still considered more important? Is it because men are still considered to come first in a relationship?

Or perhaps I am just a paranoid feminist.

What do you think?




Upstairs, downstairs and the fantasy in between

So I have finished watching the first season of Downton Abbey. And I did enjoy it. It is beautifully cast and filmed and the sets and outdoor locations are beautiful. So are the costumes. The scripts are strong and the performances good and it is not overly melodramatic.  In fact it captures a certain, stereotypically English, emotional stoicism and repression. But I think there are elements of it which are worth considering, because it is such a romanticised, nostalgic, and, ultimately I think, conservative interpretation of an imaginary history.

The central themes of Downton seem to be about loyalty and betrayal, family and the challenge of finding one’s way in the world. It is also about class. When I have written previously about soap opera, in an academic space, I discussed the class based nature of much British soap opera and the fact that class mobility was highly restricted and unusual. It is interesting that two television series of the past which focused closely on class mobility were comedies – Keeping up Appearances where the central joke of the show was that Hyacinth could never quite cut it as a class milieu beyond her working class roots; and To The Manor Born where the class-climbing Richard will never be an aristcrat and Audrey will always be one, no matter how poor.

In Downton we seem the same challenges with Matthew. He is not to be allowed to inherit the title and the money without his absorption in the aristocratic society. He has to become one of them in order to be worthy, and the dynamic of the plot sees us applaud his conversion from middle class lawyer to budding aristocrat-with-no-job. He is scolded when he objects to his butler helping him dress, and made to see that he is in the wrong – the man is a butler and should be allowed to do his work. As Matthew allows Molesley to help him dress, we celebrate that he is assisting this man with his self-worth, inducting himself into the aristocracy and reinforcing the class divide. Matthew is liked and respected for the way he comes to accept and absorb the aristocratic culture and it is then that he becomes an acceptable potential husband to Mary. It is not only Mary and her relatives who have doubts about whether she should marry him when his inheritance comes into doubt, as audience members many of us do too. The wife of a suburban lawyer?!?

The importance of the static nature of class is also reinforced by the lauding of the loyalty of servants who serve and give their lives, essentially, for a family which, as Thomas says, “hardly know their names.” But Downton demonstrates that this is all fine, even good, because they are such great people who will look after them in return. Sack the cook who is going blind? Of course not – we’ll pay for expensive surgery for her because We Are Noble People. Overlook a possible shady past – of course – because we are fair and just and happy to give people a second chance. The depth of the betrayal that O’Brien has enacted upon the family is palpable and we shake our heads at her saying How Could You Have Doubted Them. O’Brien’s doubt and betrayal is indicative of her unpleasant nature – had she been a better person she would not have doubted, nor acted, so. On the other hand, Mrs Hughes is shown to have twice sacrificed the opportunity for love for service, and this sacrifice is viewed as noble, with only the barest nod to the kind o yearning lonely emptiness it may result in – something captured so well in The Remains of the Day. The depiction of aristocracy as noble, as benevolent, and that loyalty to them is similarly noble, is laid on with a trowel, and a prime contributor to this romanticised fantasy of history that we see here.

The benevolent aristocrat trope is also reinforced with Lady Sybil and her quest to help Gwen find a job as a secretary. Sybil is the most thoroughly likeable of the sisters, and it is interesting how the show gives her space to be a bit radical, but the stomps down hard on her for disobeying her father or lying to her family. It is totally fine for her to have a radical choice of “dress” but when she sneaks Gwen off to an interview, her horse ends up throwing a shoe and she and Gwen must tramp home enduring all manner of hardship. And yet this is nothing to what she faces when she dares to step out to a political rally, in direction defiance of her father. Defying her father and following her own very slightly radical intentions end her up knocked unconscious. She has to be saved by Matthew, the heir apparent (that socialist chauffeur isn’t able to protect her). Here we see that radical intent is all very well, as long as it is displayed in only socially acceptable ways, approved by one’s father.  It is telling that is only when Gwen is interviewed under the roof of Downton that she gets offered the job. And of course Sybil isn’t crazy enough to miss the season and being introduced at Court – a season where of course she is a great success. Our radical ladies aren’t that radical.

With Lady Mary there is also a tilt toward changing roles for women, as she bemoans the fact that really there isn’t much for her to do in her life, that her role is to wait for a husband. She doesn’t seem particularly motivated to change this though and her lack of much to do can be see contrasted with Matthew’s surprise when he learns that the Earl has never had any job “except Downton.” The lack of anything as mundane as a job is a class issue, and one that is not depicted as such a terribly bad thing. The family’s job is to keep Downton and tradition and life going, to ride the horses and ensure the flower show goes off fairly. The fact that the show rarely depicts anything of the world outside the estate and the village works to ensure that this comfortable depiction is not challenged or disrupted, and it will be very interesting to see how the advent of World War I might impact, as it seems likely to draw characters out into a wider world.

I also find the depiction of Lady Edith highly problematic. She is characterised as petty and jealous, a sneak who reads her sister’s mail and goes behind her back. By the end of the season her mother and grandmother and even the sainted Earl are all essentially referring to how plain she is and how unlikely to find a husband – “beggars can’t be chosers” and she then calls her sister a slut. I think we are not meant to sympathise with her, but to understand the shaken heads and looks of resignation the elder members of her family adopt when speaking of her. What Mary does to her in the final episode is cruel, but the logic of the script seems to be that she, at least in part, deserves it, and we are given almost no chance to sympathise with her. Her plain-ness makes her mean, and we should like her less for it.

Finally we come to Thomas. There is nothing subtle about the way in which Thomas is portrayed. Thomas is gay, a blackmailer, scheming, disloyal, grasping, gay, a thief, a backstabber, heartless, manipulative, gay, disrespectful and coldly calculating. There is absolutely no reason why Thomas has to be gay, even if an early plot point utilises it. His character is utterly one-dimensional and the lack of a wider social milieu means that the difficulties and challenges of being gay in the period are barely even touched on. And it isn’t like it is a secret – even blind Mrs Patmore can see it. Such an unnuanced villain whose speech in the kitchen in the last episode is so openly reviled by his fellow staff members seems like an odd dramatic mis-step, almost vaudevillian (which Mr Carson could relate to).

It is interesting how Downton Abbey has captured such a giant audience for a show which is relatively slow-moving and, like the lives of most of its characters, fairly uneventful. It does clearly tap straight into the vein of beautiful nostalgia though, and a yearning for a time which was better, and simpler, and when the frocks were fabulous. I wonder how many of us see ourself as Anna though, if that nostalgic dream came true. Then again, the servants always seem to be hanging out in the kitchen or heading off to fun fairs, so maybe a servant’s life was not that bad after all.

Sons and Slutwalk

Signing the Slutwalk manifesto

Even before the whole Slutwalk issue came up, I have believed and said that I would feel I had failed as a (feminist) mother if my sons grew up to call women “sluts”. To denigrate women based on their perceived sexual behaviour. To view male and female sexual activity through different lenses, subjected to different standards. If they ever judge a women they have had sex with, I would despair and ask them – what does that make you?

I want my sons to grew up to understand that there are three important components to a great sex life: safety, respect and consent. I want my sons to have lots of safe sex and sex with respect. It can also be passionate, wild, outrageous, kinky, uncontained, joyous,with women or men (or women and men), but they need to understand that the best sex involves respect and consent. Without those things it is not something that is shared and enjoyed – it is imposed. And there is no joy in that.

So I’ll be taking my boys to Slutwalk in Canberra. They need to understand that labels are used as objects of violence and power, that they are there to oppress and to create an atmosphere where the unthinkable and unreasonable can be excused or tolerated. Reading the blogs and tweets about Slutwalk over the past couple of weeks has reinforced this belief. The visceral reaction so many of us have to “that word”, the fact that so many dismiss the protest as being about “dressing like a skank or a prostitute” shows just how much people fail to understand. As many women have attested over the past fortnight, we are called sluts when wearing jeans and t-shirts, for walking down the street and, quite often, for refusing the sexual attentions of a man. Being labelled a slut is not about sexual promiscuity, it is about power, just as rape is not about sex.

And even if women are sexually promiscuous, what of it? Who judges what is acceptable and what is not? Is “promiscuity” sleeping with one person, three, six, twenty, one hundred? All answers are arbitrary, all represent the imposition of one value system on someone else. All are again about judgement and power. When I was at university, I remember having a male friend imply that I was being promiscuous because a recent sexual encounter. At the same time, he’d had three times as many sexual partners as me in that year. Our view of promiscuity is subjective and results from in-built value systems. Or personal insecurities and inadequacies. That kind of judgement says more about the person making the judgement, than the person they are judging.

It is never OK to rape. Never. The arguments I have seen in comments on blogs and on Facebook that imply that going out dressed “sluttily” is the same as leaving your front door open and expecting not to be robbed are totally bogus and miss the point. Most rapes are by someone you know, and often in your own home. Should women lock themselves in a room and never see anyone or expect to be raped? As I have said before, most men are not rapists. Why can’t we put the blame on the ones who are, and not make women feel guilty for being raped, or live a life expecting that they may be raped at any time.

Like Catherine Deveny, I want my boys to grow up to be the ones who intervene, who say ‘that’s not cool”, who help the passed out girl home. I’ve had friends like that, I will treasure them for ever. I want my boys to be good sexual citizens, I want them to treat women (and men) with respect, no matter what they wear, no matter who they have (or haven’t) slept with.

The time to start learning respect is now. When they are 9,7 and 5. Not later. And that is why they’ll be coming to Slutwalk with me. And with my male partner.

* Update: So the 7 and 4 year olds came long to Slutwalk – the 9 year old was playing football, so had to miss out on this occasion. While the 4 year old was more interested in shooting droids, the 7 year old when to the front to listen carefully to the speeches. While I don’t think he fully understands the concept of rape, some concepts were very clear to him. He was very keen personally to sign the Slutwalk manifesto, engaged in some chanting, and, when asked what he had learnt from the experience, said that it was “important not to blame the victim.” A message clear enough that even a 7 year old can articulate it.

Power sluts

When Gail Dines claims that the idea of  a SlutWalk undermines feminist causes, she both conflates issues and misses the point.  While her argument that women are excessively sexualised in society is not wrong, it is also not a new phenomenon we should be surprised about. It is perhaps true enough to argue that some of the manner in which this sexualisation of women occurs is different, but I think it would be challenging to argue that it is a massive or radical change. For example in the 1980s, Kellner and Ryan wrote about the “pornification” of mainstream movies that had occured from the late 1970s. Advertising from the 1960s and 1970s showed women in much more overtly sexualised way than current advertising can, due to codes of practice and community standards. And earlier than this women have generally been viewed as a dichotomy – sexualised or respectable, with men having the right to treat sexualised women however they like, with little fear of reprisal. The concept of “Raunch Culture” is a catchy title this used by those older to tut-tut at the younger, when really it is just an extension of an approach to women that has been around for an extraordinarily long time.

What Dines et al miss is the idea of a SlutWalk is not about longing to be sexualised, it is about saying that though women are sexualised, they should not be mistreated. It is an intensely radical act as a woman, to embrace the choice to be sexual but respected. By tut-tutting about women who embrace the sexualisation which is thrust upon them, Gail Dines  and her ilk buy explicitly into the same attitude which tells women they should not be dressing like sluts if they want to avoid rape. Which puts the onus for rape on women, which forces women to police their own behaviour to avoid violence to them. These attitudes remove the responsibility for rape from men, giving the rapists a free pass.

It is disturbing also to see how early women are forced into a policing of their own sexual behaviour. At a sleep over for 7 year olds, I have had a girl tell me she couldn’t possibly “sleep near a boy”, while the boys are oblivious, and another girl report that she couldn’t sleep over because there are “too many boys who might be rascals.” These girls are already being inducted into the idea that it is their responsibility to avoid sexual assault, while boys miss out on this kind of social conditioning.

We don’t want to see 7 year olds overtly sexualised, but we also don’t want to see them fearing their own sexuality and feeling that it is their responsibility to avoid being a slut. A slut is a label given by others, making it one you can embrace yourself, while rejecting the oppressive intent, would be liberating.

To understand what a Slut Walk is really about, read the inspiring words from Jaclyn Friedman at the Boston SlutWalk. Similarly see the signs from another Slutwalk.  Then I defy you to argue these are anti-women or oppressive.

Updated: For some further good commentary see It’s Not Rocket Science and The Red Pill Survival Guide

Common sense or not?

Layered within the writings of Antonio Gramsci is the notion of “common sense”. This kind of common sense is not the kind of common sense that means you don’t cross the road when a car is coming, it is the kind of common sense which leads to statements like “communism can never work” “renewables could never provide baseload power” “women shouldn’t be in combat roles” “proportional representation would never work” etc etc etc. The kind of statements that reinforce dominant ideology without any real evidence base; the things we all believe just because “it makes sense.”

These common sense ideas are not mystical revelations that have come to us from on high. They are learned ideas which are reinforced and reinforced through our exposure to ideologically driven notions which are there to reinforce the status quo. They are the kind of assumptions that we, as active citizens and intellectuals, should always question, always challenge, always look for what the dominant social hegemony is that is driving the idea.

That is why articles like this one from the Sydney Morning Herald today about women not supporting other women just drive me insane. It is blatant generalisation dressed up as fact with no questioning as to why this generalisation might have been made in the first place. And more annoying it is written by someone whose writings I usually enjoy. Yes, it is true that some women do not help out or mentor or support other women and might actually actively undermine them. But guess what – that is also true of men! And it is true of men with men! And men with women! Some women, on the other hand, actively support and go out of their way to support other women. But it serves the purposes of patriarchy to consider in general that women are horrible to other women. It reinforces the stereotype that women who succeed have to be brutal and brutalising, mean bitches who care about no one but themselves.

So, while I didn’t really mean this to be a didactic rant, it has certainly turned out this way. So I’ll finish by saying, please please please question the stereotypes, question those ideas which are common sense. Ask for the evidence which goes beyond anecdote and “well, everyone thinks this way.” Otherwise we can never change anyone’s ideas. Ever.


Women & Alcohol: A combination not to be trusted

It seems that alcohol is the new front line in the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and behaviour. This has been true for some time now – over the last few years we have had a spate of current affairs beat ups bemoaning how much young women drink nowadays; there was the whole alco-pops thing which was totally infused with Young Women Should Not Drink flavour; and of course the wonders of Ladette to Lady and its ilk in which young women learnt to sip champagne rather than chug bourbon.

While most alcohol related violence, death, assault, vehicle accidents and the like are caused by men, as a society we see women drinking as the real cause of concern.

This irritates me because I like to drink. I find enjoyment in a quiet drink or two, and sometimes I find a great deal of pleasure in getting completely plastered. I am not unaware of the consequences – I know how I will feel the next day, I know that I run the risk (less now than in the past) of getting into stupid and pointless arguments, I know that I will become loud. I also know that alcohol consumption will increase my weight and my unhealthiness. So I resent the way that the bad effects of alcohol are used to control women’s behaviour.

This was horribly reinforced to me yesterday in two completely separate arenas.

First, there is the ongoing sorry story of the way some (limited and specific) people in the media chose to treat sexual assaults where alcohol may be a contributing factor. Apparently women need to be careful about this. Women, apparently, need to assume that they will be raped, and modify their behaviour accordingly. Don’t go home with men, don’t wear short skirts, don’t be sexual and, most important of all, don’t drink. It doesn’t matter that the criminal code in every Australian state and territory notes that consent is not present when a person is drunk to the point of insensibility. It seems to me that the Kerri Anne Kennerly’s and SpidaEveritt’s of the world haven’t thought this through – really, are all men rapists? I think that is more than a little insulting to men. And the social control that is being exerted here – if you do anything that might have put you at risk, rape is your fault. Clearly in these discussions, alcohol is the short skirt of the new century.

So no, we haven’t really moved on on that front. But it seems women can’t be trusted in other areas as well.

Pregnancy. So a scientific study comes out which suggests that very low levels of drinking during pregnancy might not be harmful to your soon-to-be baby. In fact, it might be a good thing. The study still reinforces that heavy drinking has a very significant downside. So what does the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre do? It doesn’t question the methodology or suggest that the results should be treated with caution. No, it says it should be ignored? Why? Well, for apparently no reason other than it doesn’t fit with NDARC’s defining ideology – alcohol is bad. These are the same people who seem to suggest that 4 alcoholic drinks in a day is “heavy” drinking for women.

So apparently women can’t be trusted to take a balanced approach to these things, to make informed sensible choices. No, they should just “ignore” anything which suggests that and get back in their box. Other people should continue to maintain their control of women’s bodies, because women can’t be trusted not to harm their unborn children or to not get themselves raped.

Now, I have objections to these things on purely theoretical grounds, but I also have objections to these which are based on my own experiences and life. So I am going to get a little personal here.

Sexual assault laws are such that women do not have to face identification in the media when they are raped. And nor should they. Turning women who have been assaulted into public figures would serve to decrease the already low levels of reporting of sexual assault. However, the down side of this anonymity, is that the same kinds of people I was discussing above feel free to fill in their own descriptions about the women in these situations. And so women who may be sexually or romantically interested in footballers become sluts, whores, trophy seekers, groupies etc etc etc. Now, while I would be quick to point out that no matter what name you might want to call a women, no matter what her sexual history, it is not OK to rape her. Not even a little bit. However, I also find the whole slut-shaming around the tropes of women-who-like-footballers fairly offensive, so time to add my own story.

When I was 17, still at school and still a virgin, I went to the football (the SA AFL) pretty much every week. I had friends whose fathers worked at the club, so got free tickets to go with my friends. We also got to hang out at the club, and often went out to the places that the footballers went. I was 17 and guess what – all of those athletic young men who were my age or a little older seemed pretty attractive, so flirting ensued. I was 17, I was out with older friends, so sometimes drinking ensued. Sometimes there was drinking and flirting and possibly even snogging. And, one night, at about 3am, after a few drinks, I ended up alone at the house of one of these footballers. It was not my intention to have sex with him when I went there – I was 17, and a virgin, and was still silly and naive enough to have romantic ideals about how I would like my “first time” (I also hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that romance is just another form of patriarchal social control, but I was young). And guess what? This footballer accepted that no meant no. That having sex with me would have constituted rape.

I have never been raped.

I will let you conclude your own morals from that story. But what I would like to say is, assumptions should not be made about people – not men and not women. I have to remember this story myself when I see all the stories about footballers and rape and start to be ready to classify them all as the same. They are not. And neither are the women involved.

My second story is a simpler one. I have had three children. When I was thinking of getting pregnant, I read widely on the issue of alcohol and pregnancy. Across the range of literature i read, the approaches which were recommended went from total abstinence to two drinks per day. I thought about the dangers and I made some sensible, informed choices. For the first 15 weeks of my pregnancy I completely abstained. After that, I had one to two drinks from time to time. I avoided beer and spirits completely, and confined myself to the odd glass of wine with a meal or celebratory glass of champagne. My children are robustly healthy and have developed normally (or in advance of time) both cognitively and physically. I feel no guilt about my alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Why can’t other women be trusted to make up their minds about alcohol and pregnancy? Fetal alcohol syndrome is an awful thing, but having the odd drink or two is unlikely to present a higher risk of damage to your unborn child than standing next to a microwave or breathing in cleaning agents when you scrub the shower. If we are not going to lock woman in a hermetically sealed box while they are pregnant, can we just get real? I don’t advocate or encourage drinking during pregnancy, I just think that women should be able to make up their own minds.

Alcohol is a drug and not without side effects and problems. But these side effects and problems should not be used as a way to control women. Women are capable of making sensible decisions and choices about alcohol during pregnancy. And if alcohol-fueled sexual assault occurs, maybe it is the drinking of the assaulter rather than the victim which we should condemn.

Or perhaps I am just dreaming?

Feminism: providing choice not making choices

I was reminded today of the opinions of Australia’s own light-weight Camille Paglia, Virgina Haussegger, and her inane opinions on feminism. Particularly her view of the failures of feminism, and, specifically, how feminism failed her.

For the record, feminism didn’t fail Virginia. Virginia failed Virginia. Feminism provided her with choices in her life, choices which women have not always had before. Feminism did not point a gun at her head and make her make these choices. No, Virginia made the choices.

So I want to talk a bit about choice, and the way that feminism has enabled choice. I want to celebrate the choices feminism has enabled in my life, while recognising that, sadly, not everyone has the same privileges as me as a straight, white, able, Western woman to make those choices. I want to recognise that, while I owe many of these choices to feminism, I also owe these choices to my position in the luckiest 1% of people in the world, with access to education, food, water, health care. I want to acknowledge that if all women are not able to make these choices, this is not a failing of feminism, it is a failing of the world, of a world which is structured around inequity and inequality. Feminism is not a panacea, it can’t cure everything, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of the choices I have made were made possible by the struggles and courage of western feminists and pioneers over a very very long time. And, I want to thank these women.

I chose to be educated, I chose to get three degrees – a BA(Hons), a MA and a PhD. This is a choice I would not have had without feminism.

I chose not to be married, to have a range of sexual partners and male friends in my early 20s; to live together with my partner on a committed basis without being married for more than 14 years now. This is a choice which would have been hard, would have attracted significant social stigma and may not have been possible without feminism.

I chose to control my reproduction through contraception until I was in my 30s, and now in my 40s. This is a choice which I would not have been able to make without feminism.

I chose to travel alone and live overseas at different points in my life. This is a choice I would not have been able to make without feminism.

I chose to work while I had children, while I studied. I chose to use maternity leave and childcare and a supportive partner to enable this. These are choices I would not have had without feminism.

I chose to be the primary breadwinner in my family. This is a choice I would not have had without feminism.

I chose to have a career, to aspire to seniority in my workplace. This is a choice I would not have had without feminism.

I have chosen to vote, I have chosen to run for public office and be active in political parties. These are choices I would not have had without feminism.

These are just some of the choices I can make. It saddens me that these choices are not available to all women – to all people. Claiming that feminism has failed if they aren’t available to everyone is not the point. Celebrating what feminism has achieved, what the women who have come before us has gifted us, is.

And, if someone makes the wrong choice, is that feminism’s fault?

Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.

We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.

Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.

While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….

So what’s it about now?

Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….

All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.

Class, superiority, spectatorship and Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver has taken his crusade of improving the way people eat to the United States and, as he did in England, is beginning his challenge focussed on the eating habits of children. Quite a sensible strategy really. I recognise that he is doing this as part of a television program, but I think that the screening of it plays a two-fold role; first it provides funding and a rationale for undertaking this work, and secondly it may assist in spreading the message. It also, no doubt, provides access to schools and people’s homes and so forth in a way that might otherwise be challenging.

But what I am interested to think about today is what we, as the viewers see when we watch these programs. There have been a number that Jamie Oliver has done – from the original work with the fifteen working class kids to the school dinners, the Ministry of Food series and now Jamie’s American Revolution. I haven’t seen all of any of these series, but I have seen some of all of them., And let me say, I like Jamie Oliver and I do think he has genuine motivations in what he does.

But what do we see when we watch these shows? Why do we watch them? I think I have to acknowledge that my thoughts here are probably quite culturally specific, and that the views of Americans and British viewers might be different, for a number of reasons.

In Australia, where we don’t have a system of school lunches in the way that either Britain or the US does, where many schools in fact are already the policemen when it comes to food (no chocolate! No lollies! No chips!), our attitude is immediately different. It is this fascination with the grotesque, this superiority of the better educated, that I think underpins aspects of spectatorship of these programs. There is an enjoyment in the horrified fascination that the program exerts, and our ability to consider ourselves better than those we are viewing which helps to draw us in. “How could they” we think. “We don’t do this,” we think, and lean back, contented in our smug superiority.

The producers of these programs are not unaware of the pull of this kind of spectatorship. Watching the episode of American Revolution which screened last night, in one set of scenes there was a lot of camera lingering on the fat, uncomprehending face of the mother. As viewers we were being drawn to look at her, not with identification, but in as an object of sympathy, contempt or possibly scorn. We are drawn to Jamie’s point of view, to share his disbelief and concern when the lunch lady wonders aloud why you would give children a knife to eat their lunch.

Class based humour or scorn, in the broadest sense, is something which has always existed, but has perhaps been more emphasised with the increased unacceptability of race and gender humour. Humour, or superiority, is found in difference, in the creation of Others against who we can form our own identity. Shows such as Kath and Kim and the writings of people like Catherine Deveny which are riddled for contempt for those of the suburbs are demonstrations of the way this class/education based differentiation occurs. For a reasonably educated middle class Australian who buys Jamie Oliver’s cook books, obese Americans who never eat vegetables are a perfect point of opposition. As seeing these people as lesser, as contemptible, we reinforce the security of our own identity. The people in these shows are thus held up to us as objects, as others – whether we view them with humour, scorn or even compassion.  The objects of these program (for surely Jamie is the subject) are offered to us in a floating contextlessness, and their achievements, when the great middle class representative leads them to better eating, are seen in the same light as all Great White Man mythology. The Great White Man brings wisdom, enlightenment – he is a saviour – in the case of Jamie’s shows, cast as actually saving, or at least extending, their lives through better eating.

This does not negate the good that may (or may not) be being done by the approach that Jamie Oliver takes. He may genuinely want to bring about a revolution. However, sustainable revolutions really require the leadership of the oppressed, not the guidance of a superior other. It does not make the food habits of some of the people shown less frightening, nor the social implications of it. But I think we need to critically examine our own position as we sit back on our couches, sip our shiraz and nibble on our organic snacks or brie while consuming the food habits of others, paraded for our entertainment.