Friday, 11 August 2017

An Open Letter to Tea Circle about THAT Article

Dear Tea Circle Oxford

I am writing in response to your article “The Myth Myanmar can Afford to Ditch”. This is not intended to be a direct rebuttal to the argument put forth by Brandon Aung Moe, as I understand there are plenty of those in the works, including one forthcoming for Tea Circle itself – rather I want to ask why a platform hosted by an Oxford University programme would publish such a piece in the first place.
Based on your affiliation and the academic credentials of your editorial team, I assume you have the critical thinking and analysis skills necessary to realise that this piece is garbage[1], even under the guise of an “opinion”. The author himself calls into question his credentials early on, but like so many men before him, this does not appear to have bestowed the necessary self-awareness or humility to conduct basic research into the factual relevance of his opinion on before plunging in. The piece shows minimal understanding of the meaning of the word “empowerment”, central to the argument, and makes unfounded blanket generalisations about a diverse country from a position of male and (apparently) Burmese ethnic privilege. Most disturbing is the inflammatory turn taken in the middle, where Brandon Aung Moe decides to label feminist activism which targets representation of women in male-dominated areas as “a virus”. In a country where open political discourse is fragile and contentious, suggesting that women who fight for representation in areas like politics and media are suffering from, or a symptom of, a deadly sickness, is a rhetorical turn which skirts dangerously close to hate speech.
Assuming your editorial staff are familiar with the qualities of a well-researched, intelligent article, this limits the likely explanations for your publishing a piece which is neither. Perhaps you believe that this opinion piece is justified under the terms you set out on your website of “offer[ing a] unique perspective”, in which case I regret to be the one to inform you that unexamined male privilege is extremely common, and Brandon Aung Moe is far from the first man to use this many words to describe his own. You may also be justifying the publication of this piece under the umbrella of platforming Myanmar voices, but suggesting that one has to throw basic integrity to the wind in order to include Myanmar people – even those without traditional academic backgrounds – in a debate is frankly offensive to the millions of intelligent, thoughtful people in this country who are capable writing of interesting and well-supported arguments. I also can’t discount the theory that you were aiming to provoke a strong negative reaction and in doing so “spark a debate” on gender in Myanmar, either for lofty academic purposes or to draw attention to your site (or both). Starting on the controversial side, pushing back against feminism, I guess gives you a better claim to cutting edge independent thinking, as well as giving you the convenient opportunity to suggest that anyone who passionately disagrees with your argument or its quality is just “offended” and needs to calm down and get into the proper spirit of rational debate.
Here’s the sorry truth, though: it’s a waste of everyone’s time to engage with the ideas as presented in this garbage article. By offering your prestigious platform to a man with no qualifications on gender theory or social science beyond “being from Myanmar and having a mother”, you disrespect the entire pool of talented, knowledgeable writers from Myanmar who do have the skills to write intelligently and sensitively from a range of positions on this subject. And you insult the intelligence of everyone with a passing knowledge of these topics by presuming that the debate we should be having is the one in which activists need to fight, over and over again, for the most basic recognition and acceptance of their work. Inevitably, this takes time away from the work itself – which, as has been well documented and is inevitably about to be demonstrated to you in exquisite detail, is real and pressing, and has the potential to save and transform the lives of millions[2].
If this utterly basic debate is truly the one you believe is most worth having – rather than, say, platforming a conversation with actual ground-breaking potential on the state of structural gender inequalities in Myanmar and the challenges inherent in tackling them – then you could at least have done your readers the courtesy of publishing an intelligent piece on the subject[3]. You have instead chosen to contribute to the rich patriarchal tradition of reducing the debate on inequality and diversity to its absolute lowest form, erasing the contributions of anyone in Myanmar who might have wanted to go beyond “Gender Awareness Kindergarten” and setting us back at square one, in which women must once again carve out the basic space to articulate the inequalities and barriers they face, against rhetorical opponents who are enabled in using fallacious, puerile and inconsistent arguments to slow them down. It’s exhausting at best, destructive and idiotic at worst.
I understand that you have your own response piece to this article in the works, but I am not particularly excited to read it, or anything else published on your platform, for as long as this piece remains an indication of what you consider acceptable quality for your site. You can clearly do better, and your failure to do so in this context is insulting and damaging to this debate, and to your own integrity as a source of analysis on Myanmar.

Yours in solidarity,


[1] I have a personal stake in this assumption, as my own undergraduate degree is from Oxford, and I like to think that’s worth writing on my CV.
[2] Of women and men, of course.
[3] Admittedly, from my perspective, a well-argued anti-feminist work would be just as infuriating, but I accept that in theory it’s not an oxymoron.

Friday, 10 February 2017

6 Books on a Friday: Tempest BHM Challenge edition

2016 was the year I fell back in love with reading - especially science fiction and fantasy books - in a biiiig way (like, 200+ things logged on Goodreads big), but I didn't do a lot of talking about that reading because I didn't really do any writing that wasn't strictly necessary for work, or a Star Wars prequels rewrite (more on that someday). 2017 is the year I promised myself I'd change that, but here we are already almost halfway through February. Whoops!
No time like the present to begin. I was inspired by K. Tempest Bradford (of the Tempest Challenge, in which one stops reading all white male authors for a year), who at the beginning of the month released a related challenge to, every day in February 2017, "read something by a Black person that isn’t only about pre-Civil War American slavery, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Era."
I have not been tremendously successful with this in the first ten days - I did kick off the month with The Shadowed Sun, which rounded off my N.K. Jemison novel backlist, but then I read this white dude (slow but recommended) and this white lady (disappointing). But there's no reason not to start now! I therefore present a 6-book list of things I will totally read before the month is out.
(Why 6? Because 6 is the number of books displayed on each page in my Kindle library, and is therefore the perfect number of things to put in a read-now collection that you can see all at once and choose from without being overwhelmed).

1. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. Magic-influenced urban dystopia about an inner-city Toronto abandoned by the rich and the people who live there - and what happens when the rich decide they need them again. This has been languishing in the Samples collection of my Kindle for almost as long as I learned I could download samples of books I wanted to hold off on buying. I think it's because of the combination of urban fantasy and sci fi dystopia, which are both genres I don't usually seek out. However, I do think Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Caribbean writer) is a huge gap in my reading right now and I'm looking forward to finally getting to experience her stuff.
2. The Best of all Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. Why are all the covers for this book so terrible? Especially the sample on my kindle, which has flowers and a hummingbird, by which I mean no disrespect to flowers and hummingbirds or the covers that include them, but it doesn't exactly scream "aliens and culture clashes and ancient mysteries!" to me, and I'm quite particular about having at least one of those things in my reading most of the time. Ah, but such trivialities won't matter soon. Lord is a Barbadian writer with a few other interesting-looking books to date, but again new to me, and I've got high hopes for this one.
3. Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou. I love the Virago covers of Angelou's books almost as much as I love what's been inside the couple I've read so far, which makes the fact that I've not read very many even more embarrassing. The sooner I read this one, the sooner I can justify buying more pretty-covered books!
4. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Maybe I should read Imago, which is the third book in the Lilith's Brood trilogy, before this, but really I have a very strong sense that this is required reading in the reality we currently inhabit. Faith and struggle in a divided, declining world. Apparently it specifically references the 2016 US elections as the moment humanity begins to fall apart, which given Butler died in 2006 and wrote this book in the early 90s is... impressive.
5. Babel-17 by Samuel Delany. Delany is, of course, the logical choice if I'm going to add a dude to this list. I'm going for this book particularly because Arrival is making me want some more "linguists save the universe" stories, and it's also way shorter than Dhalgren, which is the other one of his I probably ought to read (but will need a holiday to do so.
6. Acacia by David Anthony Durham. Alright, one more man (and urgh another USian, sorry). I only found out about this series recently (through the Tempest Reading Challenge youtube series!) but it sounds super intriguing: taking on the epic fantasy doorstopper genre in a subversive morally ambiguous way. And who doesn't have time for more fantasy doorstoppers in their lives? (Also, as both this and Delany prove, the best way to get me to read books by men is to find ones with women on the cover. Ayep).
And a bonus audiobook: I've been listening to a lot of novella-length things recently, as getting through a full novel, and the next thing in the collection I'm working through is the Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. Yet another USian! But what can you do (read Lovecraft homages without ever reading Lovecraft, that's what).
I'll be back to tell you all how these things went - if I've inspired you to consider your own near-future reading list, I'd love to hear what you're planning! Reading lists can never be long enough.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

She returns!

So I’ve been doing a few things since my last update, including but not limited to:
  • Enjoying the return to form in the new Legend of Korra show, which has finally hit its stride on characterisation and dynamics between characters, and set up an interesting and morally ambiguous storyline where we actually can get wholeheartedly behind the protagonist for once. Also every location has been amazing, early-20th-century-sci-fi-aesthetic metal flower cities are the greatest thing ever I will fight you.
  • Buying rattan furniture, and other furniture, and a washing machine, and then putting the furnitures and appliances into an awesome new flat. For a while I was living in a different flat that already had someone else’s furniture in, but that someone else turned out to be The Worst. New furniture and new place, on the other hand, is great!
  • Going dancing at clubs in flip flops and then having women in heels step on my feet, then wondering if the strange hard lump on the top of my foot that this incident created is literally going to be there for the rest of my life.
  •  Playing Bastion. Playing Transistor. Thinking about super beautiful apocalyptic indie games for a while. Then downloading DOSBox so I can play a super old shareware Capture the Flag game forever. (A lot of FTL and King of Dragon Pass have also happened.)
  • Listening to Development Drums, a podcast which I discovered through a recommendation that read “why would anyone pay for a development degree when they could just listen to this podcast instead?” After listening to 4 episodes I am sympathetic to this statement – though luckily I never paid for a development degree, so that is something.
  • Haircut!
  • Walking a lot and eating much less processed sugary crap and consequently losing over twelve kilograms. Now I have very few items of clothing that fit me properly, whoops! But hurrah for healthy life choices regardless of their incidental consequences.
  • Supporting losing teams in the World Cup, then failing to follow the Commonwealth Games.
  • Oh yeah and also moving to Myanmar to intern for the EU delegation. Possibly should have put that one first.

As you may have noticed, one of the things I have not been doing is writing. Or rather, I have been writing, but the writing has been thousands of words of political analysis which is sent away to highly important people (probably) with someone else’s name at the bottom. I have not been writing for me, or for you: an unforeseen and disappointing consequence of a job which has otherwise been one of the best things I have ever done in my life.*

Since March, I have learned many important things. Some of these things have been about this country, which is beautiful and overwhelming and difficult and vastly different to engage with compared to the inscrutable and ridiculous happenings of China.** I have had the opportunity to learn about many fascinating political processes and events, and talk to some equally fascinating people about said political processes and events. On a no less extraordinary note, I have discovered many things about what happens when it rains literally every day for three months and counting. Did you know that unopened packets of spaghetti can develop black mould inside and disintegrate within weeks? I did not know this, but now that I do it will probably influence my pasta buying decisions for the rest of my life. Other things that happen in endless rain include flooded roads, constant grime, wooden doors which inexplicably no longer want to close, having one’s covered balcony turn into a refuge for half the neighbourhood’s pigeon population, and a growing sense of emotional discontent and misery. Luckily, the rains cannot last forever… I hope.

Besides, the ins and outs of monsoon weather (and also political transition and conflict resolution, let’s not forget those), I’ve also been learning a few more things about myself – silly, trivial things about priorities and relationships and affirming my own self-worth and discovering what I want to do with the rest of my life, stuff like that. I will never regret the time I spent in China, or the things I got up to while I was there, but at the same time I’m aware that in many ways those were years of stasis – I studied some fascinating stuff and made some lifelong friends, but I didn’t really grow in the same way that I have here. This new growth is exciting and terrifying, and it’s also made me a little unsure of where the “new” me (oh dear, how pretentious) stands in relation to my old stances and interests. I’m no longer the “gender expert” in a classroom full of interested peers, nor am I in the UK trying to figure out where I fit into the domestic feminist movement. I’m in Myanmar, as feminist as ever but focusing on a very different set of issues in my regular work. Where does that leave AAF?

The short answer is, I don’t know. But I’m also aware that if I don’t reclaim my space for personal writing soon, it will only become harder in future. So I am coming back, and I am writing weekly again (although I know I have said this before and it has not happened, so we’ll see), but I am making absolutely no guarantees about subject matter for a little while. I still have tons of thoughts on media and British politics and China and gender in development, but these are also competing for space with a lot of new thoughts on life and politics in Myanmar and on the complexities of being a 25-year-old intern finding out what her career might have in store. I have no idea what is to come of this, but there is only one way to find out. Adrienne’s blog is back!

*I was also not writing for a little while before then, because being unemployed for many months with no end in sight was not very good for my mental wellbeing or upkeep of hobbies. Let’s not dwell on that too much though.

**This is not to say that things here are never strange or inscrutable, but in terms of second-guessing motives for political decisions, trying to figure out what is going on in the minds of the Chinese government is a very special kind of futile.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Reasons I liked Frozen even though that one thing happened

The end of 2013 is upon us, and with it a greater than zero number of movies that I actually want to see in cinemas. Having missed most of the worthwhile films of the past two years (apart from Pitch Perfect, which obviously was the must-watch film of 2012 and which I will hold in the deepest place in my heart forever), it's been nice to be in range of an english language cinema with films I really want to see, and have a schedule flexible enough that I can go for early afternoon adventures any day I choose. In the last couple of weeks I have seen Catching Fire and Frozen, and hopefully I will even get to see the Hobbit in 3D glory when it comes out... which is tomorrow, how did that happen? Where is the year? Oh well.

The Hunger Games movies and Frozen have both quite rightly taken criticism for being films which, despite ostensibly subverting trends and putting feminist themes into the mainstream, made some indefensible decisions in production which put people's backs up for the finished product. The decision to whitewash Katniss Everdeen and District 12 from their initially described "olive" skin is one which no amount of sublime acting from Jennifer Lawrence can ever make up for - yes, Jennifer, you are magnificent, I want you to make well-acted movies opposite slightly-shorter leads all the time and then back them up with your brilliant interviews, I just don't want you to play POC characters ever again please. And Frozen, which claims its origins in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, was called out for also being unnecessarily full of white people, as well as changing the original's majority female cast into a set of predictable male supporting characters. It's not a great start.

In all its incarnations, though, the Snow Queen is a love story between people and reindeer.
However, in their own right, both Catching Fire and Frozen turned out to be fantastic movies. Catching Fire, indeed, is plotwise pretty much the perfect film adaptation, although part of this does ride on the white-knuckle speed of the first movie in introducing most of the necessary characters and plots (and the first movie correspondingly suffers). Every character in that movie down to the most minor part is absolutely spot on, and the adaptation itself is thoughtful and clever, including some really nuanced aspects of the book that in creative ways. This doesn't make it any less disgusting that they whitewashed the film, and I can fully understand why some people don't enjoy the films purely on that basis, but hating one aspect of a production does not automatically reflect on everything else that happens, although it may undermine it.

So onto Frozen. The brilliant feminist fangirl blog over on Tumblr has been vocal for months about the problems with Frozen compared to its source material. Although the film itself is as far from the source material as it can possibly get without being a totally separate story, it's pretty obvious that at some point in the production process, somebody read a story that is full of old women and robber women and women with eyebrows down to their knees and women writing coded messages on fish, and said "you know what, this needs instead? Insidious masculine political authority, a Swedish stereotype and some male-voiced animal sidekicks. Oh and my goodness noooo body hair, disgusting." I'm not sure if it's better or worse that I don't think they ever had a meeting about "oh let's just make everyone white except some random people in the ballroom scene" (were Tiana and Naveen there? Flynn and Rapunzel definitely put in an appearance). Point is, the powers that be that made this movie clearly seem to have started off at the same gross place that it would just be wonderful if our pop culture could avoid. God forbid we ever have a Disney movie where the majority of characters are female! Especially since we got this unfortunate gem from the film's head of animation:
"Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry."
You heard the man, it is very hard to have more than one female character when they all have to look the same! I have seen this quote read as frustration by the animator at having creative limitations imposed by higher-ups, who need saucer-eyed snub-nosed pretty girls to go on lunchboxes at the Disney Store, but it could go either way. Some other enterprising fans coupled this with early leaked pictures which used Anna and Elsa's colours on Rapunzel's character model, to prove that Disney was in fact animating the same face over and over again. While this would be pretty awful if true... it's not.

I'm not saying I don't want them MORE different, but credit where credit's due guys.
Of course, the crime of having a quite similar character model was nothing compared to the issues of enormous magnitude which later picked up on. Perhaps unhappy about having to boycott a possibly good film over appalling production decisions, there seems to have been a significant drive to find every single thing that is wrong with the film and use it to prove how unremittingly awful it must be. For example, introducing a talking snowman as a cute character for kids? AWFUL. Inventing a program to create unique snowflakes but not inventing a program (?) to create unique woman faces? RIDICULOUS. But the worst crime, the biggest flaw in this film, the achilles heel which should bring the entire thing crashing down, is a moment in Elsa's song "Let It Go", which is also the best song in the movie and not really a spoiler if you know anything about plot structures and you should watch it:

Did you think that was fun, well-sung and visually interesting? Well you are wrong, because in this split second her hair goes through her arm:

That's right, folks. The film is ruined. There are other instances of animation not being exactly like physical reality as well, and they completely negate the idea that this could possibly be a film worth watching. This is so much worse than the lack of diversity or other female characters guys. Her hair went through her arm.*

What this movie is actually about, if you can tear your eyes away from that gif for a moment, is two sisters who love each other but through the actions of their equally loving but sadly misguided parents, have a really strained relationship. Elsa, the older one, has magic ice powers and is constantly trying to protect her sister and those around her from being hurt, having to repress her own feelings in the process. Anna, the younger, is playful and silly and has no idea why her sister won't spend time with her any more. Parents die, Anna falls in love in about 5 seconds flat at her sister's coronation, and then shit goes down and she ends up letting her super-new fiancee take charge while she goes off to find her sister with the help of Kristoff the reindeer-loving ice merchant. Hijinks and subversions ensue! The overriding message of the film is about the importance of accepting and loving people for who they are, even when they have flaws or are a reindeer. Although there are some heteroromantic bonds forged - including enthusiastic consent in the final kissing scene how awesome is that - the end of the movie makes it pretty clear that the two great loves here are between sister and sister, and man and reindeer.

If big corporations like Disney are going to take steps to make their films more progressive, Frozen is pretty acceptable in its end product. It's not raging radical tear-down-patriarchy good, but I don't think I cringed at a single scene, and it's a better film than Brave. This doesn't mean we should not criticise or even boycott for the enormous mistakes the production did make, because one day I want an animated film where women are just casually the majority of supporting characters, or voice the creature companions (has there ever been a female creature companion in a Disney film? I can't think of one), or fall in romantic love with each other, and the only way those films will happen is if people early in the process don't stop them. On the flipside, this means accepting that the mistakes made in production might not stop films from being good films. Frozen is a great film, even though Olaf the snowman is designed for children, even though the women are the same body type as Rapunzel and each other, even though yes her hair clips for a millisecond please guys come on. That does not mean that everyone will personally like it, and it does not invalidate the critique on how it was made and how it could have been better. But given how much scrutiny patriarchal media places on any female-led media and how much we already have to fight (just look at the superhero genre! Ever think we will see a Wonder Woman film if her appearance in Batman vs. Superman isn't FLAWLESSLY received?) I think it's high time we separated good, feminist critiques of films from "things we make up to make ourselves feel better about missing out on a good film."

APPENDIX A: Other miscellaneous things I liked about Frozen.

- I'm not actually that interested in fairy tales in general but I really like that this is a youngest sister story! It both confirms and subverts the trope by having the older sister be magical, but giving the younger one the "adventure". Good stuff.
- Enthusiastic consent in the end!
- The lack of villainous characters. It's not quite Studio Ghibli, but... well, I won't spoil it.
- The finale is not quite as good to its heroine as Enchanted was to Giselle, but it's close.
- There's a really interesting range of background women animated in the ball sequence. I would have liked to see them more prominently in later crowd scenes, which rely too much on militaristic men.
- Enthusiastic consent, seriously that was the best romance confirmation since Shang's "You fight good" in Mulan.
-  Kristoff gets a much better deal of the whole "accompany the sheltered offbeat girl to do a task!" deal than his predecessor Flynn. He gets to remain the same crotchety nerd from start to finish, whereas Flynn had to go through that tiresome moral awakening. THIS WAY IS BETTER.

And a miscellaneous thing I really, really didn't: It'll be hard to time, but if you go to see this film try to go late enough to avoid the Mickey Mouse short they put at the start. Apparently Disney can draw Mickey and co. in 3D colour now, but they couldn't think up a story to demonstrate this that didn't involve sexual harassment, a damsel in distress and mocking sexuality in unattractive women. 2013, folks!


*According to the animators, it was on purpose and everything!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Rebranding and guilt

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of 4 Privet Drive Vagenda Magazine is proud to say she's perfectly normal, thank you very much. She likes normal stuff, like the Mail Online, diets, twerking in the kitchen and updating her popular feminist website. But trouble looms on the horizon! Other women - feminists no less! - appear to have suggested that a life that is not constantly 110% dedicated to the Advancement of Women People, every second of the day, might not be the life of a feminist at all. This is a problem for Cosslett, who describes herself as a "half-arsed, accidental feminist" and who therefore cannot conform to the impossible standards of full-arsed, on-purpose feminists. The conclusion is that feminism must be rebranded to accommodate the myriad of women who, metaphorically or literally, are missing 50% of their bums.

The "rebranding" of feminism is a concept that's been doing the rounds for a few months now, and it's fair to say that its a bit divisive. It kicked off with Elle Magazine's decision to team three feminist groups with three ad agencies in order to make some pictures that the average Tumblr user could probably have done in half the time and none of the budget:

The shapes! The colours! The mention of gender pay gaps! I have no doubt that this will be a game changer, thanks Mother.
The Vagenda was one of the organisations which participated in the "rebranding" exercise, resulting in an advert which looks pretty much like the one above but with more words and using white instead of yellow. They also started an "Iamawomanand" campaign - which needs to be said really fast, as one word, for the full effect - which might look similar to the "I need feminism because..." placard campaigns that have been running since well before this reblanding (that was a typo but you know what, let's run with it) but it isn't the same thing because this was an "Iamawomanand" campaign.

Anyway, those things happened, almost two months ago now, and everybody cared for about five minutes about the campaigns themselves before they disappeared into internet history, probably to be reinvented again as completely new and exciting ideas in a few months time. As far as I'm concerned, nothing about Elle's campaign or the people involved in it was wrong except for the word "rebranding", which turned out to be a pointless word anyway because the end product was about as generic and already-been-done as it comes. Taking the f-word out of pro-women messages and putting them in a mainstream magazine doesn't change the fact that this has all been done before.

And, hey, you know who has done all of this before? Feminists. And probably not full-arsed, on-purpose feminists either. Because when Cosslett starts comparing her part-time feminism to people who allegedly give all of their internal organs to the Matriarchal Conspiracy when they join the movement, she is in fact comparing herself to people who do not exist. No teenage girl wakes up one day and goes "You know what, I'm a feminist now, I will devote my life solely to the sisterhood and do nothing except smash patriarchy for the rest of my natural life". We all have to divide our time between smashing patriarchy and living in the actual world. 

It is a necessary difficulty of feminism - a necessary difficulty of being a person! - that living in the actual world involves a certain amount of Getting It Wrong. We are tuned into a struggle for equality in a world full of systemic oppression, which is designed so that many of our choices reinforce that inequality no matter what we do. And it's a normal human reaction to feel guilty about those choices, even if there's nothing we can do about them. Feminism can't exonerate even the most full-arsed activist from sometimes screwing up and feeling bad about it. All we can do is try to balance minimal damage with maximum activism whilst making sure to take care of ourselves and the people around us.

This is not a defence of feminism's status quo, which does have problems with inclusivity both because of patriarchal misrepresentation and more importantly because it still lets down women on the margins, who are then told that their infighting is part of the reason the movement needs "rebranding" in the first place. But these glaring problems are unlikely to be solved by advertising agencies and Elle magazine, and working towards solving it is not going to make the Rihannon Lucy Cossletts of the world feel any better about reading the Mail Online sometimes. We are all going to have to bite the bullet and accept that, metaphorically, perhaps we are all a little lacking in the arse department.

NOTE: I just had a culturally impaired friend question my decision to "dox" Cosslett, so for anybody else out there who doesn't recognise the opening line from Harry Potter on sight: 4 Privet Drive is not the address of anybody in this article, it's the address of Vernon and Petunia Dursley, that is the joke, I swear upon my honour that never ever ever will I threaten the privacy of another person on this blog unless they are a fictional character from a popular wizarding franchise. This is a nice blog with standards, innit.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Why femen should probably just stop. now.

Did I say update last Sunday? I did. Back to the old habits so soon!

This will be up on Femusings tomorrow but here's a sneaky preview for blog readers. I love you guys! I mean, go to Femusings too. But also keep coming here.

Boobies in this post!

It’s always quite inconvenient when feminist things get ruined by manipulative men. Just ask anybody involved with the dismal Hugo Schwyzer, who set himself up as a paragon of reformed male feminism only to have a lengthy meltdown involving twitter marathons, manipulative semi-apologies, a (hopefully!) career-ending confession about sleeping with students and perhaps the most obtuse Jezebel article ever written. Of course, plenty of people were already well aware of how sleazy Schwyzer has always been, not a difficult conclusion to come to given that his main man-feminist tactic was to tell sob stories about awful things he used to do but now virtuously refrains from. The discovery that the virtuous refraining was in fact compulsive lying therefore came more as a depressing confirmation rather than a stunning revelation. A manipulative man ruining a thing? Not really so surprising to most of us, unfortunately.

So it goes with Femen, who this week are sending their activists into damage control mode with a new documentary, “Ukraine is not a brothel”, which reveals that the entire movement was masterminded by their “advisor” Victor Svyatski. On camera, Svyatski claims that “on some deep unconscious level” he probably started the group to meet girls, which is pretentious manipulative man speak for “I am very clever and self-aware and am going to tell you nasty truths in a really clever way so the intelligence and honesty will cancel out my utter moral bankruptcy”. He also makes a long statement about how his presence was necessary because on their own the women of Femen are weak and directionless and need a strong male hand. Clearly these are not the words of a man who expects to endear himself to a wider audience, so it’s probably not surprising that “leading member” Inna Shevchenko has come out to say that Svyatski has been out of Femen for a year, they all knew how awful he was most of the time, and anyway they came up with topless protests on their own and didn’t need him. Except they sort of did. But they don’t any more! All is well and feminine in the land of Femen.

The damage has been done, however. In March, Tunisian Amina Sboui’s topless protest and subsequent arrest provoked a range of Islamophobic responses from Femen members in various cities: prompting Sboui herself to publically leave Femen at the end of August, suggesting that a more specific anarchist movement might be more her thing. She and others have pointed out the lack of transparency in the group’s finances, with most members apparently completely unaware of how the group funds itself. And it’s long been an open secret that the group selects its members based on their conventional attractiveness. Scouring both press photographs and the pictures the group takes of themselves reveals very few muffin tops or stretch marks, and racial diversity is limited to a couple of shots of light-skinned black women. Sometimes these perfect-bodied women paint “breast feeding army” onto themselves, to demonstrate how great breasts are even though most mothers could tell you that post-natal perfect bodies look a bit different to the pornographic ideal.

Could I find this scene recreated in any number of demeaning videos on RedTube? Absolutely.

Because the thing about Femen, really, is that they are trying to “smash the patriarchy” by upholding the pornographic ideal of women. While writing this article, I spent a very long time refreshing the Femen website to check out the different banners they have. My favourite is a beautifully-dishevelled slim naked women glaring sensually at the camera with white semen-like liquid oozing out of her mouth. This is made feminist by the fact she is flipping the audience off and “Fickt die Sexindustrie” (fuck the sex industry) is written over the top of the picture. The “X” in sex is a swastika, for that extra edgy touch! When they’re not taking these sorts of subversive selfies, Femen are out on street protests which are designed to attract media attention by setting up one of two kinds of shots: either straight-up male gaze objectification shots of hot naked bodies, or images of nearly-naked women being dominated and controlled by fully-clothed men. Now, where else have I seen nearly-naked women being dominated and controlled by fully-clothed men this summer? Oh, that’s right, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. That feminist classic.

Nudity and objectification are regularly used as tools to degrade women, and that makes a movement to reclaim the female body an incredibly important part of the feminist movement. It also makes it a very difficult thing to get right. The difference between pictures of nude activists in newspapers about men with their clothes on, and pictures of nude glamour models in newspapers about men with their clothes on, is a quite nuanced set of concepts about intent and power and ownership that make it enormously important that the work of groups like Femen is done right. If, as the latest allegations suggest, this work is being done as a result of male desire to manipulate women into being naked, this all becomes a lot less nuanced and a lot more straightforwardly awful. That there are women like Sevchenko who do appear to passionately believe in their organisation’s goals is a step in the right direction, but if Femen aren’t constantly considering how topless protests fit in to a wider feminist dialogue involving more than just hardy nubile white girls, and particularly into the massive grey area that is female nudity and pornography, then they are failing in their job as anti-patriarchy provocateurs. And if they have been producing male gaze pornography and images of women being dominated on the directive of a man who believes that his own presence is necessary to make the movement happen at all, then the group’s use of nudity becomes effectively indistinguishable from any other male-mandated use of women’s bodies. Femen’s message turns from women smashing patriarchy to patriarchy having a bigoted, self absorbed conversation with itself, using women’s bodies as notepaper.

When Robin Thicke turned around and said Blurred Lines was a feminist manifesto, nobody gave him the time of day- rightfully so, both because he was already on record saying “what a pleasure it is to degrade a woman” and because you can’t just add feminist meaning to any random act that involves women. When people who are in favour of Page 3 suggest it’s a tool of empowerment because Censorship Is Wrong, we laugh at them or facepalm, or maybe both if we are feeling particularly co-ordinated on that day, because that is missing the fundamental point about what the intention of Page 3 is. If the Stunning Revelations about Victor Svyatski came at the end of a stunningly successful year for Femen, in which they challenged pornographic ideals and promoted an inclusive movement and designed strong, clever protests which made for rallying symbols and furthered the feminist cause, the information in “Ukraine is not a brothel” would be shocking and sad but also not insurmountable. But, as with Hugo Schwyzer, the fact that Femen are not who they say they are is frankly old news. Pessimists win, the world gets a little sadder, but it’s time to close the door on this particular group. The movement to reclaim the female body is going to need some new and better champions.