Sunday, 23 December 2012

What I learned in school today episode 1: Gender mainstreaming

Alas, it’s the end of an era. That’s not me packing it in with blogging before I’ve even really begun, or worrying about the Mayan calendar (although I did spend far to long on the 20th thinking about Majora's Mask, culminating in this, which is amazing if you get the references). What actually happened is I’ve now done my last ever class presentation for this master’s degree, and although having to do class presentations has not made me particularly happy or, it has to be said, much better informed over the last year and a half, it still feels like a bit of a milestone. No more will I break out the Foundry theme to explain the wonders of urban planning in Hefei, or the European tax haven structure, or… whatever else I did presentations on, it’s all a bit vague now to be honest. I am surprisingly reluctant to be educated at times, it has to be said.

Useful things I did with my degree #431

Anyway, I was expecting to commemorate this final one by churning out something super rushed and boring given that it’s Christmas and term is almost over and, really, who does good stuff when it’s so cold outside oh god, but actually I ended up getting really into the topic, which was about gender mainstreaming. I’ve already whinged enough about how studying in China and being interested in gender is a bit like being a camel specialist in Newfoundland- i.e. very confusing for everyone involved. So when I discovered I needed to do an end of term presentation for a social policy course, which is incidentally the only academic course I’ve had taught by a female professor*, I figured this might be a good opportunity to get a vague handle on the world of gendered policymaking- given that it’s sort of what I want to do and all.

So, here's my version of the gender mainstreaming story. Back in 1985, at the end of the Decade forWomen (you know, one of those international things where if you put a label on a period of time it automatically makes it SUPER EMPOWERING), someone who was chilling out in Nairobi for a conference was like ‘hey you know what would be amazing’, and a nearby person was probably like ‘I am familiar with a lot of potential amazing things but not sure which you are specifically referring to’, and the first person said ‘so I had this crazy idea, where maybe when governments make policy, they could take into account not only the needs of man people but also the other half of the human population as well.’

And the second person probably raised an eyebrow and was like ‘do you mean to suggest that we should consider gendered analysis not just as its own separate policy area, or as something that should be tacked onto existing policies, but as a necessary aspect of all policy which should after all take into account people as they are, not just work from a rubbish reductionist definition of “people” which actually just means “heterosexual men of culturally dominant ethnicity?”’

And the first person was like ‘yeah that’s exactly what I’m saying mate**. It’s like if policy is a river ecosystem, right, and at the moment gender is in the backwaters, like with specific gender equality policies, or in the sidestream, like with gender related updates to “gender neutral” policies- and we all know what gender neutral really means, yeah- and what we should be doing is moving it from those places into the mainstream, and then maybe policies will actually be better and stuff.’

And the second person was like ‘Well that certainly merits further thought, let’s discuss it further at this women’s conference that we are conveniently at.’




And that is my story of how gender mainstreaming made the agenda at the Nairobi women’s conference. Fast forward one non-female decade, and a group of similar people decided to have another conference for women (I know, one every ten years, how superfluous), this time in the land of Beijing! This time, gender mainstreaming was not only talked about, but was actually made a focus of the conference. That’s right, in 1995 it was finally made crystal clear that policy should be formulated taking into account the needs of both genders rather than assuming that what is good for men must be good for women. They talked about it at an international conference, it must be important.

After this, of course, what happened is that the entire world realised what a good idea it was to include the interests of women in all policymaking and men and women lived happily ever after. No, I’m joking, that’s not what happened. What actually happened is that a lot of institutions wrote a commitment to gender equality down in their constitutions and then decided that writing down that they were doing a thing absolved them from actually doing the thing, or, indeed, continuing any previous initiatives related to the thing that they were involved in before they decided to show how committed they were to the thing.


Interestingly, most of what comes up if you image search "Gender mainstreaming" is in German, because Austria is big into the concept. It's also a key concept in Taiwan.

Which brings us to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the wonderful, wonderful things that have been going down in the government for the last few years. As most of my readers are probably aware, we currently have a government in the United Kingdom whose policy leanings aren’t exactly in line with the desires of a woman with a Marxist double entendre in her online handle. Whilst British women are able to live in a country with a fair bit of decent gender equality legislation, and there is no co-ordinated political attack on our rights like our sisters over in America have to deal with, there are some pretty eyebrow raising gender implications of some of the government’s decisions over the last couple of years which suggests they really weren’t paying attention to the cool kids over in Nairobi and Beijing back in the day.


Here is a helpful picture of George Osborne to channel rage at whilst reading on.
Most of these exist in that big disastrous realm of The Cuts- the things that the country must go without so some elites can continue to get very rich out of fiddling around with imaginary numbers. Gender budget analysis of the cuts in 2010 showed that over 70% of the costs of cutting benefits and public services will be paid by women. How about job losses in the public sector? Well, 65% of their employees were female (again in 2010), disproportionately concentrated at lower-end jobs, so that’ll also hurt women more than men. Women receive 20% of their income in benefits and tax credits, compared to 10% for men, but changes to the benefit system from 2013 onwards will “simplify” the working age benefits system by paying all benefits to the family’s “primary earner” (read: manly breadwinner types, except in the 90% female headed single parent families, but what are they doing existing anyway, haven’t you heard of family values, keep your legs shut next time because immoral sex is literally the only way this situation could have come about etc. etc. etc). This particularly means the loss of directly paid child tax credits for a lot of mothers and increases women’s economic dependence on men when they are in families. And unfortunately, as long as we retain parental leave systems which focus specifically on maternity rather than providing flexible time off for both parents, we lock women into being the caregiving economic dependents unless families are well enough off to completely lose the second income.

I draw a couple of things from this. The first is that I honestly do think feminism is incompatible with right wing politics not just from a social perspective but from an economic one as well. The economic system we operate on is predicated on an enormous quantity of unpaid work that is disproportionately done by women, and ensuring an economic fair deal for is not going to happen just because the door is also open to earn money in the current system when we’re not too busy discharging our natural womanly caring-and-housework duties. Redistribution seriously needs to happen, and whilst the ideal would be a radical overhaul of the way we value and reward work so that traditionally “female” labour is valued just as highly as “male”, in the interim having governments provide benefits and services is a decent enough medium. So when, as a government, you design your budgets without taking into account gendered effects, and you end up enacting a double whammy of both disproportionately firing women and taking away government assistance***, and then you still leave gendered analysis to other government branches even after the Fawcett Society takes you to court about it, I have to seriously doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion gender mainstreaming.. It’s all very well and good saying you want more people in work, but when you’re also from a socially conservative party and are trying to uphold “family values” which are traditionally all about using women as unpaid carers, you are failing to take into account what most women actually need from your government and the fact that it is often different from men’s needs.


But seriously George I doubt your commitment to these girls. I do. Sorry George.

Another thing also worries me, however, and it goes a bit beyond “ugh Tories”. When systems do take into account gender differences in providing social welfare, by recognising women as carers, the implication isn’t of reward- it’s about utilising a carer to pass on money to their dependent. That’s why the two big working age benefits for women are child tax credits and child benefit, and their existence is supported by research that shows that benefits paid to women tend to be spent on supporting the family (i.e. children) whereas benefits paid to men are more often spent by the man on himself. This is a worldwide trend, and is very similar to one of the main arguments used to advocate education for girls- that female empowerment is valuable primarily in terms of the benefits it provides for children, rather than being inherently valuable to, or a fundamental right of, the woman herself. 

On the benefit side of things, this is why we’re able to have negative stereotypes of “welfare queens” who apparently reproduce in order to force innocent men to give them child support which they may then partly spend on themselves- the fact that they are spending time looking after said man’s child is not considered an activity worthy of remuneration, because women are supposed to be carers and caring involves necessary and natural sacrifices that we must make in order not be morally awful. I’m not saying neglectful single mothers don’t exist at all, but the way the system is infused with gendered norms seems to suggest that anything short of angelic sacrifice on the part of mothers can be construed as women “playing the system”. If we don’t have the policy making ideology to recognise and combat these potentially damaging ideologies within politics, how are we ever going to eradicate them from real life?


Forget institutionalised poverty or climate change or global epidemics, the greatest problem faced by humanity is definitely "spending decisions that strangers can't immediately endorse" 
Hence: gender mainstreaming. Because the personal is political, and politics is personal, and, contrary to general belief- or, indeed, the make-up of our elected representatives- most people are in fact women. If policymakers aren’t recognising that in everything they do, things are a bit hopeless really.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

*I specifically say academic because all of my Chinese classes have been with women. Language is a ladylike teaching topic, after all! Hard academia is more for men.

** I’m not actually sure if the person who invented gender mainstreaming was British or Australian or indeed perhaps part of the much larger group of people who would not use “mate” in this context. But roll with it. I’ve also got a translate link on the side if you’d like to put the whole conversation into another language instead of the lingua franca of the oppressor!

*** Triple whammy if you take into account that these cuts are necessary largely because of the actions of elite decision-makers in banks, who are 96% male. But saying that low income men and male public sector employees should bear the brunt of something caused by elite men just because they are both men is definitely a bit far even for this rampant misandrist...

Friday, 14 December 2012

The lowest common denominator

(TW for discussions of rape)

Sexism has had quite the run over the past few days. For example, there’s been FHM’s lad-to-lad exhortation to not wear your “victim’s” socks,



Virgin Media’s “rape or present” Christmas advertising campaign,



and ruminations by Australian Zoo readers on which half of a woman’s body can be dehumanised more.
Because the top can make you a sandwich but the bottom won't answer back! What wit.

Plus, Michigan’s abortion super bill passed, the global labour gender gap has increased since the financial crisis, and Republican opposition means like the USA’s new secretary of state will probably be John Kerry and definitely not  Susan Rice*. Add this to the normal background noise of oppression that goes on- largely unreported- everywhere else in the world and it’s not looking like we feminists will have the war over by Christmas, so to speak.

Perhaps the most explosive debate that’s been going on over the last two weeks, however, is the spectacular and continuing fail of ostensible feminist allies “The Good Men Project” over some utterly disastrous rape articles. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a huge amount about the GMP- I’d been to the website a few times prior to the incident but I don’t remember reading anything particularly insightful or particularly offensive at any point, so I assumed they were a mediocre incarnation of a potentially good idea and decided to continue life as normal. Apparently in doing so I missed some grand decay into one-step-above-legit-MRA-craziness but hey, I’m a development student, I only have a limited amount of time available for watching the self-conscious cogitations of white western men. Anyway, what brought the GMP crashing back into my consciousness, and into full-blown notoriety, was this article from Alyssa Royce on her nice guy rapist friend.

For those who haven’t heard about the case and don’t want to wade through the article itself, I’ll summarise: Alyssa Royce’s friend was flirting with a woman at a party. She passed out in the same room as him, and so he raped her. According to the article, this is a very insightful case of how complicated the real world is and how those complications can tragically lead to wonderful men raping women. We are told that because before she was unconscious, said woman was “[walking] like a fuck and [talking] like a fuck”** and therefore all valid logical inference pointed towards fucking, and this poor nice logical guy is for some reason exempted from also processing “flirtation partner is now unconscious” and making the logical inference to, uh, not fucking. Or, rather, he’s not, because in the moments when the article isn’t excusing rape it’s blathering on about “I know it’s rape guys, it’s totally not OK, but no this guy is so nice so here are more reasons no not justifications or excuses why would I do that Rape Is Bad but seriously NICE GUY OH GOSH”, but.. well, yes. If it walks like an excuse and it talks like an excuse, it’s probably an excuse.

The article is horrible on several levels, but it’s followed by something that people have taken even more offense to: ananonymous piece by an actual rapist about how having a party lifestyle justifies a bit of rape (presented here with Jill Filipovic's excellent commentary). He was once drunk at a party and took a kiss from a woman as a sign to push her up against a wall in full view of the rest of the party and rape her. He also believes he has been raped at parties, which is presented as an additional complicating factor in how we should view his own raping. Again, this is all against a backdrop of “goodness, isn’t the world so darn confusing, how will we ever get consent at all?” which initially seems to be played completely straight by GMP as well, although they’ve since stressed that clearly this guy has some deep psychological issues that it’s probably best for them to distance themselves from. Both articles have since been accompanied by editorial responses justifying the decision to publish these in the name of good intellectual discussion, because these are clearly the insights we need in order to combat rape and rape culture. If we don’t understand how confusing the world is for these poor rapists, how will we ever be able to give them the love and support and easily obtained consensual sex they need to stop raping?

I’m not going to wade in any further on the actual cases presented here, besides hoping that both (especially Royce’s nice guy friend, admittedly the other one is a little less well-described) seem far too insultingly clear-cut to be the catalysts for a frank discussion about the apparent deep complexities of rape and consent. If any friend of mine, no matter how close or nice (and regardless of gender!) told me they’d had sex with a sleeping stranger, I would be deeply, deeply angry with them, because there is absolutely no excuse for what a fucked up thing that is to do***. And yes, I would also be deeply angry at culture, but not in the way GMP seem to want me to be. I would be deeply, deeply frustrated not at the tragic lack of discussion about rape and consent and why rapists rape, but at the fact these discussions do exist, and it’s their very existence that stops us from being able to enshrine some of these super simple facts and actually getting on to discussing some real grey areas.

If you want to read well informed, rigorously researched, interesting articles about the composition and mindset of rapists, they exist. They’re out there. The original studies are admittedly shut off in academic journals which aren’t universally accessible, but they’ve then been reported on by other people and that means pretty much all facts are out there in free form for anybody with five minutes and an internet connection. The question “why do men rape” has been asked, and people have already spent significant amounts of time and energy trying to answer this question as thoroughly and insightfully as possible. This is the point at which we were at when GMP decided to present “my friend raped a woman once” as an aspect of the discussion which we should take seriously. Royce’s response to being told by other women that she was missing a lot of really fundamental facts was to suggest that the existence of said facts has stifled debate and atomistic anecdotal posturing is therefore justified in rekindling that.

But this isn’t what research is for. Yes, having rigorous studies which state that a tiny number of men carry out a large number of rapes does stifle potential lay speculation about a large number of men all occasionally raping, or a rape-amount pyramid dependent on wealth and social status, or a top secret sect of twenty four men and a non-binary identified person with a penis who co-ordinate global sexual assault from a hidden base on Easter Island. It also lets us move forward from having to endlessly debate that point. Want to have a productive discussion about rape and consent? Here’s the facts, let’s take it from here! Said facts are almost certainly missing some nuances- from a development perspective, what jumps out at me is that discussing who rapes in the USA may not be directly applicable to who rapes elsewhere, particularly in conflict zones- and it is important that findings are demonstrated to be repeatable and generalisable, so the existence of a few academic studies certainly doesn’t mean closing the door on a subject forever. However, they do have important implications for where we take our rape and consent discussion next.

For example: we know from facts that consent is actually not this enormous complicated nebulous issue that poor men are on the wrong side of misunderstandings about all the time, because to the vast majority of everybody these things are already utterly crystal clear. Evidence: 94% of men are not rapists. So why are we still pretending that it is hard and stressful and oh maybe we know somebody who was once confused by it and accidentally raped, poor thing- pretending that this is a point that a debate should start from!- when the majority of people this actually protects are serial rapists, whose behaviour we generalise at the expense of our own moral integrity? That is a discussion worth having, but we only get there when we actually use the knowledge we already have to inform where we’re going, instead of just wandering around in little discursive circles all the time and pretending it’s for the sake of debate.

It is, I suppose, an unfortunate byproduct of how much brilliant feminism goes on in blogs and open online communities, that for every discussion we’re constantly open to the noisy, stupid opinions of the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s high level stuff like the protracted GMP fail, more usually it’s comments and responses from people who seem utterly devoted to their opinions on subjects on which they know nothing and are committed to learning nothing about.

For one tiny example among millions: A good friend of mine wrote a fantastic letter to FHM and Bauer News Media about their little victim socks “joke”, whose comment section was entirely co-opted by some very concerned gentleman who insisted that a call for a magazine to respect the ethical reasons for not publishing damaging offensive jokes about men having victims was equivalent to us asking for legal censorship on all jokes that could be construed as offensive by any person ever- painting a picture of a dystopian future where the price of women not being assaulted would be the non-existence of “Family Guy”.

Discussing the things that might actually have been interesting about the letter was therefore subsumed by beating our collective heads against the immovable wall of this guy’s ignorance. None of us learned anything, because the “debate” was beneath the level where anything interesting could be learned. There’s actually a word used by some of the race blogs I follow, whose owners are also too often trapped going around in circles with the obnoxiously ignorant (including, unfortunately, some white feminists), which describes these sorts of people perfectly: “basic”. People who are not on the right level to be debating topics, and who are completely unwilling to get there. Unfortunately, the more open we are to everyone’s “opinions”, the more we run the risk of simply rehashing the most basic of debates with the most basic of people. In doing so, we leave less time and energy for actual progression to non-basic topics.

I’m aware that this might sound horribly elitist, and that’s not my intention at all. One of the most vital points of feminism is in changing and diversifying the voices we hear in our societies, and providing platforms for people to speak is the most important part of this. We also live in a world where intellectual capital is not equally accessible to all people, and where women are far more likely to underestimate and undervalue their own expertise than men are, meaning that the terms of participation for these platforms can’t be academic or elitist in nature and still meaningfully achieve their goals. But listening to more voices is not the same as legitimising everyone, and it’s an insult to the entire concept to suggest that the voice of an unrepentant rapist needs as much (or more!) of our time as rape victims, or women who can’t leave their houses after dark for fear of rape, or even of repentant rapists. It’s impossible to cut out nonsense entirely of course, or even for any one person or group of people to objectively say what is and isn’t listening to. But at the very least, trying to provoke or lead a debate about rape or any other feminist topic carries with it a responsibility about knowing the point of having that debate- what came before and what it teaches us, and what gaps in our knowledge we still need to explore. Similarly, participating requires having insights and being willing to be educated when our own knowledge is incomplete.

This requires creating the right spaces, making information accessible and readable to as many people as possible, and these are definitely areas to work on. It may also involve denying access to debate for people who have proven themselves utterly unwilling to learn. However, it does not involve saying controversial, incorrect things and then stating that “provoking discussion” justifies their existence. Doing that, as GMP have proved, just leaves us stuck in the realms of the lowest common denominator, and that’s not a discussion that’s truly worth our time.

(P.S. For a better discussion of the actual case, this is amazing. That is all.)

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

*Just to clarify, feminism doesn’t mean I automatically support all female candidacies above all male ones, but all else being equal I do think putting people who aren’t white men into visible political positions (especially ones with such international weight) sends out a much better signal than business as usual. China, take note.

**I’ve made you scroll all the way down here just to meditate some more on how horribly regressive and objectifying that statement is. “It” is not a “fuck”. She is a woman. Good grief. Anyway, yes, carry on.

***Related: George Galloway just won a sexist of the year award for calling previously discussed scuzzbucket Julian Assange’s use of this tactic “bad sexual etiquette”- even beating Assange himself, apparently.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Infamous vampire franchises I watched instead of talking to you


So I left you again. On a cliffhanger, no less. Like an annoying British telly schedule from the days before Freeview, I got you hooked on an interesting and entertaining program of feminist delights before callously rescheduling for several weeks in favour of broadcasting the snooker of silence. We should not dwell on why I was gone, because it is not very interesting. What is important is that I am back, and more importantly, I got to watch more things and therefore have even more fascinating insights to impart- a win all around, I’m sure you will agree!

I don't care if you have pretty boyband hair, Stephen Hendry, you ruined the lives of early evening TV watchers all over my country.

Unfortunately, this also means that I am going to have to invoke the modern pop culture equivalent of Godwin’s Law. Yes, I’m sorry, I’m going to talk about Twilight now. I watched the final film on Monday and now it is on my mind, and not just because I want to talk about how they were only able to give it a decent climax by completely ignoring one of the most important rules of the second book, what’s with that*? I know, I know- the dead horse of Twilight hate has been beaten to a mushy pulp just as much as the dead horse of Twilight love. Blogs have been made, t-shirts have been printed, weird contrived rivalries with Harry Potter have played out, alt-universe BDSM fanfictions have become standalone bestsellers. It’s all so done these days, especially now the last movie is out and we can all move on with our lives. But hear me out. I promise I will make this worth your while.

I first learned of Twilight the day before my 20th birthday, when an old friend asked me to go and see the movie with him. Neither of us really had any idea what to expect- unlike me, he’d actually heard of the books and the fact they were a teen sensation, but I’d not long come back from my first round in China so I was pretty out of touch. We arrived a bit late so had only just taken our seats when golden eyed R-Patz burst broodingly into the cafeteria, to a chorus of laughter and “wooo” from the rest of the audience. “OK,” I thought. “So this is how it’s going to be.”

Be still my beating heart.

Two hours later, we emerged, looked at each other, and went “OK, I legitimately enjoyed that.” And whilst we’ve already established that my tastes are a bit of a mess, my friend J.’s are significantly more developed. Sure, it’s all a bit faux-intense and having missed the first ten minutes, I was under the impression that I was watching a groundbreaking film about a protagonist with a legitimate motor disease rather than somebody whose childlike clumsiness is their biggest characterisation point. But beyond the silliness was something that actually did capture what it’s like being an awkward teenager with feelings. It was in many ways a perfect send-off to my own awkward teeny feeling era.

I went home to discover that my bookaholic librarian mother had already bought the book (yes, everyone in the world knew about Twilight before I did) and, though as we all know reading the book after seeing the film is a massive intellectual faux-pas, I was intrigued enough to do it anyway. And, again, I really enjoyed it, in a “yes this is exactly how it felt to be fourteen”** way. There’s some weird shit in it, sure (I especially liked the book’s one reference to sex, where it is called “being married” and it’s sort of implied that Rosalie and Emmett are refraining from having sex because they’re pretending to be schoolkids and not “married”) and it’s definitely not portraying a healthy relationship, but there’s enough of a sense of an unreliable narrator about Bella that it doesn’t really come across as problematic for the book in general.

Full disclosure: I had an ENORMOUS version of this poster hanging on my wall in second year. I'm not entirely sure why.

Then the other three books happened. And the other four movies. In all their stalky, disturbing, Mormon propaganda filled glory. Thousands of pages of mediocre prose about Edward’s Impossible Angelic Beauty and pissing contests over who loves who more (is it the person who wandered off like a dickhead because of a paper cut, or the person who literally stopped thinking after the wandering off happened? A compelling narrative) and contrived love triangles which are solved by having one of the parties actually be in love with an ovum that later gets born and fulfils everybody’s predestination requirements. Pages both loved and loathed the world over. If you’re not familiar with their contents, and want to be, I have been recommending this summary of them for years and I’ve never come across anything better.

So, an objectively mediocre book achieved unintentional brilliance and went on to resonate culturally with a large portion of a generation whilst simultaneously getting worse in its execution and message. Why is this actually considered novel or interesting? There have been rubbish and popular books for pretty much as long as there have been books, after all. I spent a considerable portion of my English literature A-level reading gothic novels, and I can personally attest that most of them are just as pulpy and awful in their execution, and often just as weird in their depictions of sexuality. The Mysteries of Udolpho, aka the 18th century’s answer to Twilight (it’s the book that Catherine Morland is reading in Northanger Abbey), is one of very few books that I have physically thrown across the room with frustration- imagine every reference to Edward’s impossible perfection being replaced with the words “and then we had repast and repose” and you’ve pretty much got the idea. My copy of Dracula started with an introduction which has an entire section wondering why the book had become so classic when its prose style is so dismal. And if we’re worried about the poor relationship models we’re providing for our young women in Edward’s stalkery weirdness and Jacob’s overentitled nice guy overtures, then we should be really worried that books like Wuthering Heights are being rebranded specifically to appeal to Twilight-loving young women!

I suppose this is fine...
We can talk about almost all artistic endeavours in this way. Everything can be criticised, and everything can be hated. There is no film, song, book or TV show that can be held up as some sort of objective ideal of human culture. Some things objectively come closer (real Disney movies are better than those awful budget knockoff Video Brinquedo films) but with the majority of stuff, we can spend just as much time picking it apart and knocking it down as we can building it up as the Greatest Thing Ever. What’s more, even when we believe something is objectively “better” than another thing, we still might not get as much entertainment out of the better thing as we do from the worst! It’s why Tommy Wiseau’s The Room will always be one of my favourite films, and why my mother has spent countless futile hours trying to get teenagers to read Mortal Engines or Skulduggery Pleasant rather than Captain Underpants. Captain Underpants and Tommy Wiseau aren’t actually wrong! Unfortunately, we tend to regularly forget this, or are told to forget it by the various people who make a living telling us that there is a grand canon of human artistic achievements that we should be looking to in all our decisions.

One of these films is genuinely worth your time.

Because, surprise surprise, those people are men. Guardian critic Mark Kermode had a great article last month about how weird it is that we have to listen to the “collective mooing” of a whole load of middle aged men to tell us what is good for teenage girls. But for some reason we’ve set up that opinion as something objective, and it’s an opinion which is far less accommodating to anything made for young women than any male equivalent. As I said last week, I’m considered weird because of my lack of knowledge and interest about a whole range of what, in my head, just look like different permutations of Men  Doing Things (In The Parallel World Where Women Do Nothing). And as literally everything I directly experience in my life involves a woman doing something, I struggle to suspend my disbelief about this parallel world long enough to care about what exactly the men are doing. So I enjoyed Twilight, because it resonated with a way I remember feeling***, and I enjoyed the latter three books because I thought they were ridiculous and I enjoy reading ridiculous things. A lot of people presumably also enjoy them because they resonate and/or because they’re ridiculous; others dislike them because they’re poorly written, long-winded and have some really troubling implications- which are also important things to keep in mind, especially when talking about media that is aimed at minors. We can respect the taste and fantasies of girls and young women and provide information about what healthy relationships actually look like. But it’s really unfortunate that the discourse about these sorts of things isn’t really run by either of these groups (or by me personally, more’s the pity) but by the group of people to whom something that resonates with teenage girls can’t be enjoyed without derision because teenage girls (and people who have been teenage girls) don’t get to define what is “objectively awesome”. Old white men do.

            I can only imagine how terrified these people must be by what is happening to the world of art now that we have the internet. Because the difference between Twilight and the gothic novels I mentioned before is that, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, reading was still largely the province of the wealthy and distributions of books were, compared to now, absolutely tiny. Now, millions of people from around the world can read and watch the same things, and in many cases they can then go online and share their opinions on what they’ve read or watched with fellow fans everywhere- and even creators themselves. This creates the potential for a massive cash cow out of every vaguely popular fad- there were no Team Heathcliff and Team Linton t-shirts back in Emily Bronte’s day, more’s the pity- but on a less cynical note it also means that the forgotten, niche demographic of everyone who can’t be bothered to pretend the concerns of white men are universal to everyone for the duration of their media experience can actually have their voices heard. Teenage girls are being listened to, and whilst the ones doing the listening might be the same old dudes who have been making everything forever, having the voices there in the first place can only be a good thing.

Historical accuracy thanks to Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant
          And doing so raises another exciting possibility- that there are people who are currently wedded to this “objective canon” who are finally being proved wrong, and embracing the media that proves this to them. The adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic- bronies- are an interesting case study in this regard. Frankly, the fandom terrifies me with its constant pompous postulating on the nature of their own existence (yeah, yeah, you’re “uniquely studying a fandom from its inception”, not constantly trying to justify yourselves as Men Who Like A Cartoon With Female Main Characters), but the fact that this postulating is being used to celebrate their own existence rather than defending it is a really nice step forward in my eyes.

            So, having talked so much about things that other people like, I end this on an unreserved recommendation for my current favourite TV program- ABC’s Once Upon A Time. This program takes “Fairy Tale Retellings” and completely avoids any irritating stereotypes, and it’s one of the first programs I’ve watched where the gender equality is presented as pretty much unconscious- Snow White and Prince Charming are both badasses, their child (Jennifer Morrison, who is actually the same age as them all because of magical shenanigans) is even more badass and rocks the whole “hardened woman with trust issues” thing without it being stupid and stereotypical, motherhood is a key part of the story and discussed as a complicated issue which women tackle differently, and even the women who are subordinate to male characters have backbones and traits and aren’t just there to prop up the storylines of the men. Fairytale land even has gender neutral conscription, who knew! Basically, if you want to watch a TV program in which a woman pulls a sword on another woman within the first five minutes, and then it only gets better from that point on, ABC has finally made something for you. Personally, I’d go for that over Twilight any day- but hey, your choice!



-----------------------------------------------------

*I’m talking about the “Alice can’t see the future when it involves werewolves” thing. I can’t directly remember if it’s in the second movie or not but I can’t imagine how they get around Jacob saving Bella and Alice not figuring it out if not through that weird little plot point. And yet by film number five she can project an entire hypothetical of vampires and werewolves into Aro’s mind, right down to Jake’s salty wolfy tears when Seth dies (but not Leah because who the hell has ever cared about Leah, come on).
**The characters in the book are seventeen and over a hundred respectively, but they act like I did as a year 9 and I was by no means an emotional early developer, so I don’t know what that makes them.
***I’d just like to point out again that I went to see the film with a male friend who also really enjoyed it, so I’m not saying that lived experience as a teenage girl is necessary or sufficient for enjoyment. Just that it’s why I enjoyed it.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Telly I watched instead of talking to you


This entry has spoilers for Downton Abbey Season 3! Frances should not read it!

Long time no see (or, as we say in actual Chinese, 好久不见), comrades! Things all got a bit stressful over the last couple of weeks and unfortunately when you’ve got seventeen presentations and a debate to prepare and hundreds more characters to learn before your Chinese assessment and true Beijing winter has descended in all its smoggy, windy, painfully dry* glory, it’s the 2000-words-a-week feminist blog that is the first thing to fall by the wayside**. Thankfully, the presentations are over now, and whilst it’s still going to be an uphill struggle to the end of this wintry semester, I should at least be able to get there with some more feminism to keep me warm and you entertained every week.

Many things have happened, or not happened, in the world of feminism whilst I’ve been labouring away on non-gendered real life things. Both the US and China had political shake-ups with markedly different results for female representation- Washington DC is now looking more female than ever, thanks solely to an increasingly less white-man-dominated Democratic contingent (although perspective is key), whereas in China a new Standing Committee was appointed whose biggest cosmetic change is going from 9 middle aged Han Chinese men to 7 middle aged Han Chinese men, whilst female representation in the Central Committee decreased from 13/204 to 10/205, despite assertions from important people and some of my professors that China is totally interested in getting women into politics Adrienne, stop suggesting that the lack of women in leadership problems might indicate wider societal discrimination! So that’s a thing.

At least their ties are different colours? Image via Xinhua
Meanwhile, in the world of women in British politics- well actually the less said about Nadine Dorries the better, moving swiftly on. Elsewhere, Ireland’s legal system just killed a woman thanks to religious “respect” for the sanctity of life, which is also something I don’t want to talk about until there is some good news to put on the table. The rest of the world probably kept on turning as well, with most of its happenings shamefully off my radar as I buried myself in radicals (the linguistic construct, not the fun kind of people) and 19th century liberal political thought and the fan-shaped development of Hefei.

When real life comes knocking hard, there’s only one thing that I, rather counterintuitively, manage to keep doing, and that’s watching the telly. Not the actual telly in my room, which is just full of bland uninspiring permutations of CCTV- the CC here being China Central rather than Closed-Circuit, although the fact that Chinese state TV shares its name with a form of surveillance is an irony that doesn’t escape me. Instead I try to keep up with an eclectic mix of British and American TV shows through means I don’t care to discuss here. Being as I am incapable of giving my concentration to one activity at once, particularly when that activity is learning 1,200 Chinese characters, having a constant stream of relatively unimportant audiovisual information intended to be understood by people half my IQ works to keep me away from more self-sabotaging methods of semi-distraction, like hours refreshing Facebook or Tumblr or starting a game of X-COM: UFO Defence only to discover I’ve sunk 6 hours into trying to capture a psychic alien without losing half of my fragile pixelated comrades in the process.

Important studies for a student of development. Source
There’s two side-effects to this. One is that I’ve become infamous in numerous circles over the years for an appalling lack of knowledge and experience with the cinematic canon, and I’m not much better where TV shows are concerned- if you want to talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender or Doctor Who I’m all over it, and the same goes for The Room or Studio Ghibili films, but I’ve only ever seen one James Bond film and got bored after two episodes of the Sopranos. Part of it is the aforementioned attention span- honestly, movies are just too long for me to sit and watch unattended unless they’re really fun, and I couldn’t keep track of all the generic New Jersey accented men in the Sopranos and write characters at the same time. I also have a growing scepticism for most media aimed solely at adults, which is most prevalent in my reading choices*** but definitely also spills over into my viewing decisions as well. Clever, well-written stories for children and young adults or “families” manage to skip so much of the “edgy”, self-conscious blustering of a lot of grown-up stuff gets mired in.

But a lot of it is also due to a wider malady suffered by many of us feminists, and illustrated beautifully by the incredible Kara Passey: I’m addicted to feminist media criticism.


Or, not quite. As I’ve covered before, feminism isn’t something I turn on and off when I decide I want to think about vaginas more or annoy people or start arguments with defensive femi-muggles. So I don’t think that being irritated by female representation in a lot of what I nevertheless avidly consume is an “addiction”, as such, because that implies that it’s a shortcoming in me rather than a problem with mainstream cultural thought. Unfortunately, having my feminist power switch permanently stuck in the “on” position even when I’m supposed to be enjoying entertainment leads to a lot of unintended and unhelpful side-effects- mostly rage, to be honest- when things on the screen don’t fit in with the way I’d like them to. And as a former English Literature student and one of comparatively few people in the world who has been able to write “playwright” on the job section of a US immigration form and get away with it, I’ve unfortunately got both the academic background and the delusional self-confidence to pretentiously analyse the shit out of the things I do spot.

Take, for example, the only decent thing to come out of ITV in the last decade: Downton Abbey. I love Downton Abbey. I want to get a civil union with Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is full of interesting female characters with character flaws, one of whom is mired in a two season long unfulfilled romance that has been so successful at skipping my conscious thought processes and wooing my ovaries that I inexplicably find this man attractive and want to write stories about the two of them kissing.

(I was going to take screenshots to go with this but instead I'm just going to shamelessly thieve the hard work of one of my absolute favourite Tumblrs in the world, Telegrams from Downton. Seriously if you haven't seen it or its parent, Texts from Last Night, leave here now and read them in full. They're not desperately empowering but they are desperately amazing.)


Unfortunately, Downton Abbey also has the plotline of Sybil Crawley. The youngest, radicalest sister who joins the suffrage movement and wears trousers! She is also completely not class-conscious, despite being the daughter of an Earl, and helps the ginger maid from season one to get a sweet typist’s job and thus Social Mobility. How amazing for feminists have a character to relate to, in a time period where a significant number of people today seem to think we belong. Said character has a really fascinating relationship with a moderately attractive radical Irish chauffeur, and that’s where the feminist in me- the feminist that is me- starts to get a bit annoyed.

Exactly how it goes down in the real thing.
Radical Irish chauffeur is an interesting character, and the way he gets to demonstrate being an interesting character is by taking over the storyline of youngest radicalest sister. This starts in the first season- when, for example, she goes to a political rally despite being a weak upper-class woman, she of course gets injured and goes unconscious and he has to meaningfully carry her away- and is sort of an undercurrent in the second, although it’s subordinate to the several years of Sybil going to Branson’s garage and going “I can’t marry you yet I’m a posh nurse”. But by the third, Sybil turns into literally nothing but the pregnant wife of her more narratively prominent husband. Watch Tom be hilariously out of sync with upper class dress codes, and his wife be quietly conflicted! Watch him escape the country for being involved in separatist escapades, and then her follow him without having done anything interesting of her own (except be pregnant!). Then, for the grand finale, watch the previously really important feminist suffragette character die in childbirth because of the incompetence of a well-to-do male doctor and the snobbiness of her dad, and then watch the rest of the storyline be entirely about the Irish radical and his scandalous Catholicism (and also he watched whilst they burned down somebody’s house one time and he doesn’t know how to play cricket, what’s with that.)



Curse you, Julian Fellowes, for not only killing off everybody’s favourite character but also for doing it in a way that sends my feminism into paroxysms of endless amateur analysis. I was just trying to watch people with awesome hairdos make googly eyes at each other, why do you have to go and ruin it? Especially when other parts of the show and its creators impress me- Edith’s development has been a highlight for me, allowing to her find a place for herself in an in-character way that isn’t just about “OMG HUSBANDS”- and although it’s something that they should have fixed already, the fact that Fellowes’ response to being called out on a lack of racial diversity was “you’re right, we should include X and Y historically accurate but diversifying categories of people”- better than some “feminists”, isn’t that right LenaDurham. Perhaps my terrible lack of cinematic experience means that I just haven’t found the right thing to compare this to, but I can’t think of a gender reversed corollary where a pivotal male character gets shoved to the sidelines in favour of the woman who was originally a prop for his development.



Of course, the problem with getting mired in media criticism is that you can’t actually make a factual case for any of this. The actual circumstances that led to Downton Abbey sidelining and then killing off Jessica Findlay Brown’s character are probably super complicated and spread across both the real and fictional world, and much the same as my particular feminist reading leads to a strong dislike of the storyline, I’m sure there are probably decent interpretation, both feminist and patriarchal, which see the situation very differently. With this in mind, perhaps it is my fault that I can’t just sit down and weep over Lady Sybil like a good media consumer without breaking down the universal implications for female empowerment?

I’ve got other problems too. I can’t decide whether Chasing Amy (which I watched for the first time two weeks ago, I told you I was behind the times) is a fantastic subversion of lots of tired societal tropes about women and lesbians or whether that one scene in which Alicia’s lesbian friends universally deride her because Man Hating instead of being able to enjoy her self-professed happiness negates all the positive aspects. Merlin’s female representation has always been poor but since the knights became the prominent secondary cast I feel like it’s got even worse, and the loss of Morgause and the fact that none of the few female characters are allowed to exist without displaying gravity defying cleavage at all times really bothers me, especially as this slide is going on whilst the show as a whole is getting better. I enjoy How I Met Your Mother but I have no idea why- similarly, watching Spy on Sky 1 almost solely because of the beautiful majesty of Mat Baynton doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s two notable adult women are depressingly stereotypical (in fact, it makes it worse. I’m literally just watching it because it contains the fittest man ever to grace a children’s historical sketch comedy show. Also it is quite funny, in a patriarchal sort of way). And the less said about Doctor Who and Amy Pond, the better. I am very apprehensive about soufflé girl. You have no idea.

On that note, I hereby declare that this blog is ending on a cliffhanger- as befits my first entry about things I watch on telly. I’ve got more to say on representation, depth and also about something that’s it’s not possible for me to complain about (I know, right!), but even I can’t go on much longer in a single entry. Tune in next week!

Sentiments are not those of the author!

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*except during the freezing rain

**The second is my participation in National Novel Writing Month, which is definitely also a sore spot. Although there’s still time! I theoretically can write 3,333 words a day. It’s just unlikely.

*** Related: I’m almost to the end of the latest not-just-Percy Jackson book and oh my goodness I’m so worried how are they going to escape the nymphs aaah! Just had to get that off my chest.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

In which our hero talks about her actual degree

As my audience is probably aware, when I’m not writing down my lengthy musings on links between feminist theory and popular video games/Greek literature/things I learned in Year 7, I’m studying for a Master’s degree in International Development. I made this life choice as I tend to make all my life choices: by reaching a point where a life choice was necessary, refusing to consider the life choice too hard, having a decent option smack me in the face and deciding it might be worth a try. Then, when said life choice needs to be made, the single option I have actually made progress towards becomes the natural choice. There were some justifications as to why I decided to specifically study in China, and doing International Development (mostly because I try to make life choices based around being both vague and awesome, and degrees with no obvious subject matter in far off countries are definitely that), but mostly it was all just another happy little accident.

It’s not a decision I’ve ever really regretted. I spent a year in the opposite end of China before coming to university (on my Gap Yah, if you will), and always knew I wanted to come back for more. And studying international development looked like a great decision, at least on paper- another degree that would let me study basically everything and might even give me skills to Help People, fantastic! I remain sceptical about some of the practical details, of course. By the end of the year I’ll probably be a Master in Public Administration, which is a laughably useful-sounding for somebody who once got a visa to work in the USA under the job title “playwright” (vague and awesome, guys, vague and awesome). But I made one big, frustrating academic mistake when I came here: I decided to study gender in a country where gender studies don’t exist.

It becomes more frustrating the more independent I become. I exist in a world where classes are about policies and technical solutions and urbanisation and transport and food security and economics and Beyond Economics and the environment and endless, endless debates about China’s Hukou system- but we touch so little on gender and development that it might as well not exist. Meanwhile, everywhere I look in the rest of the development world, enormous weight is placed on questions of gender- try UNDP’s #equalitymonday hashtag on Twitter, for example, which provides link after link to statistics and measures trying to conceptualise and tackle global gender inequalities wherever they are found. China’s own development plans and white papers normally do include female empowerment as a goal, but it’s never considered important enough to be discussed. Meanwhile, the China Women’s Federation is too busy shaming single women into giving up their ridiculous standards and dreams and marrying off as soon as possible to tackle women in development in any more than the rhetorical sense.

In one of my first assignments here, I decided to study some of the recent work on gender and climate change, to the utter bewilderment of a couple of my classmates- how could there possibly be any overlap between those two topics? After all, climate change is a hard, serious, scientific topic that deals with facts and numbers and data and gender is something studied by fluffy academics in pretentious hats who invent complicated words to talk about simple things. They are literally things from different worlds. That is, until you start actually analysing the current effects of a changing climate: the increasing rate of natural disasters whose casualties are disproportionately women and children, or the increasing unpredictability of weather systems which put subsistence farmers- again, disproportionately female- at risk from food insecurity. Or if you look at the people targeted by a lot of climate change mitigation policies, where adopters of household-directed policy initiatives once again tend to be women in both developed and developing areas- changing heavily polluted coal stoves for solar powered ones is both an environmental issue and one of women’s health. The messy intersection of environmental degradation and poverty reduction and gender is not a fiction- it’s a real thing being discussed by plenty of important and concerned people. Except not here.

            It’s so frustrating, because there’s so much to discuss! And not just from a practical point of view, although clearly this is the most vital part of the operation. But beyond that lies the other big challenge of development- understanding what actually works in what context. And to do that, we need to start seriously looking critically at the diverse normative structures we built around “women incubate babies”, how they work and what might- or should- be done about them. Saying this to people when trying to get a thesis supervisor was eye-openingly frustrating- speaking to one of the underlings in the office of our department’s biggest climate change “star”, for example, her only insight into gender and climate change was “oh, it’s interesting that most of the doctoral students in our office are women”. She wasn’t interested in getting me in contact with anybody higher-up in the office, and frankly I don’t think I missed out on much.

As I’ve mentioned before, gender is everywhere. In societies like the UK (and the rest of Western Europe and North America) it very explicitly shares space with discourses on race and sexuality and ability, but on a global scale even the most homogenous societies, where distinctions along the other three lines either don’t exist or are repressed, gendered norms and organisational structures are always still present. In development, gender clearly goes way beyond the rather specific example of climate change: poverty reduction, agriculture, patterns of urbanisation and migration, healthcare, education, labour patterns, population*- all of these are development issues which are hugely affected by gendered norms in the ways they work. Pretty much every society across space and time has turned “females incubate babies” into a fundamental pillar of the human condition, and from there we have constructed normative systems which become very hard to separate from the biological facts entailed by “females incubate babies”. It seems pretty obvious that those of us who are interested in how human beings can live better are going to need to take these structures into account, or we’re not talking about human beings at all- we’re just talking about men.

And of course, it’s important because in almost every society, these normative structures make women’s lives notably more difficult than men. This ranges from femicide (female infanticide and neglect of female children in societies with strong son preference, with big negative consequences both for demographics in general as well as for both men and women in the societies in question) to double burdens and economic insecurity and enforced childcare to restricted movements to all the other various insidious ways that societies have of keeping women subordinate to men. And because these are the products of millennia of human society, tackling these inequalities requires more than simply pointing out their existence and allowing them to speak for themselves- we’ve installed so many systems around explaining why female biology necessitates this death and neglect and overwork and subordination that meaningful equality often requires nothing short of full upheaval. Unlike racial discrimination, which is presented in international law as factually wrong, the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) presents gender inequality as being a question of values- equality activists can only present norms to fight other norms.**

            This framing presents an interesting, if implicit, dilemma when it comes to gender sensitive policy, developmental or otherwise. Is it better for us feminists to focus on policies and discourses which change these norms- join in the moral discourse about our own equality and what it actually is? Or is it better to focus on policies which work within these norms, or even use them, to provide good outcomes? We certainly see plenty of the latter, mostly utilising the implications of the double burden and the undervaluation of female labour- in the majority of places, women still have control over household and children, so any policy aimed at improving household living conditions really still needs to focus on women in order to be effective. What these policies often do, in both development and in policy more widely (enforced recycling is a fabulous example of this in developed countries!) is increase the workload of the [female] household manager in order to bring about better outcomes. In less developed areas the burden that women are assumed to be able to take on is greater; so you get initiatives about education and healthcare, particularly, which rely on telling women what they need to do and assuming that as they are good householders and mothers and they don’t really do much else with their time, these good basic development objectives will get done. I’m not denying that it can work- and in rural areas where men have migrated away, there’s not exactly anybody else to put the burden onto. But the values and systems that these systems rely on to work mean that when we gender them, we lock women into “naturally” having to take on greater workloads- empowerment and trust at the cost of devaluing what their labour is actually worth.

            The alternative is very tricky, however, because the question relies on a “we” that cannot be assumed to exist: “how do we break down these systems to actually free women from restrictive societal expectations and empower them to actually be free to make fulfilling life choices?” The answer is not for those of us in privilege to tell other people how they should be changing to fit our personal preconceptions of equal societies- mostly because we still have no leg to stand on when it comes to a lot of our own societal organisation. The UK still has a “missingmillion” women who don’t work because childcare choices aren’t adequate to let them (although it’s unclear how many of these missing million are just lucky enough to be able to make a positive choice to concentrate on childcare alone), and growing inequalities which disproportionately affect women and children, particularly in the lower 50% of wealth. In talking as if there is a single path which some of us are further along than others, we risk drowning out voices of people who are coming to this question from different points of departure, and coming up with equally valid conclusions. I’m not talking about accepting that “it’s in some cultures to oppress women” because that’s not something worth respecting. But we do need to entertain diversity more than we currently do.

It’s important, because when we don’t ensure our debates are noisily and obviously about the “how” of normative change, then we risk reverting to debating the “why” of normative change. We’re already implicitly vulnerable to this, because gender equality is so full of qualifications and confusions about what is “natural” and to what extent things need to be “different-but-equal” (because more female chimpanzees play with stick babies, etc. etc.). Recently, left wing writer Medhi Hassan opened himself up to a storm of criticism when he wrote an anti-choice piece for the Huffington Post- his response rightly points out that the level of internet vitriol that people can bring on themselves can be excessive, but it also shows a level of arrogance in expecting that he should be able to have a normative debate about a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body. Too many people in this world, men and women, think that there is still a productive debate to be had about whether women should be equal at all, and this can’t be tackled either by silence or by prescribing a model from the “top” that still isn’t anywhere near perfected.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Here our professor did know his stuff when it comes to gender, so it's not universally bad!

** The exception to this is the argument to allow women to participate in the labour force to some extent, which can easily be justified in terms of increasing economic productivity. The positivity of this is, of course, a normative good masquerading as a universal fact. But let’s not get too into that.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Are women superhuman?


In my arrogant imagination, I tend to imagine my undergraduate college is a darker place these days. No more do my friends haunt its staircases and quads (well, a couple of them still do, including my college husband, but he hardly counts); no more the evening gatherings outside the dining hall trying desperately to put off late-night library trips, or having indoor curry picnics whilst watching the latest episode of Doctor Who. The Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness is now likely lived in by men of all people, its true members scattered to the four corners of the world: Beijing, Vienna, North London and South London. To be fair, I am talking about part of what is literally the oldest university in the English-speaking world, which does not usually approve of frivolous modern things like “change”, so I imagine that the rooms still look the same and the staff are still mostly recognisable and the cafeteria still serves the same Mystery Fish with Inappropriate Vegetables every Wednesday. But all the people who really made it awesome are now off living in the Real World, and it’s a depressing thing to think about.

There is one exception to my pessimism, however, and that’s the fact that in the year since the Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness disbanded and my presence in the Class of 2008 ended, my college now has its very own feminist discussion group, complete with Facebook presence! I am only tentatively familiar with the exact reasons for its creation (although I’m definitely familiar with the general ones!), but it’s heartening to know that I come from a place where these things are becoming more institutionalised. And having access to the Facebook group means I get another regular feed of interesting news from back home.

One thing which turned up a few days back and got me thinking was the Union’s first Women Forum, the theme for which was the latest tired rehash of that tired feminist debate, “Can women have it all?” Well-read people will remember that Princeton Academic Anne-Marie Slaughterdecided to “reignite” this in the Atlantic a few months back. The fact that this was being brought up again intrigued me, although sadly the events page itself is completely devoid of anybody taking apart how silly this question is as the basis for a gender debate, especially one that’s supposed to introduce freshers’ to women’s issues and campaigns at university.

Because, I’m sorry, but anybody who expends more than 5 seconds cogitating on the problem of “Can women have it all?” needs to have a serious little think about their life choices. If you don’t agree, try de-gendering it: “Can people have it all?” The answer is pretty obviously no. You cannot have an incredibly high-flying career and hang around with your family as much as you want and watch enough telly to be a hardcore pop culture reference guru and speak twenty languages and read all the super-important news sites in your bookmarks every day and play accordion in a punk ceilidh band every weekend and write a novel a month and go drinking with your friends every night and still find time to eat and sleep and wash and have soulful technicolour Naomi Wolf orgasms on a twice-daily basis. Believe me, if I could make the above life work, I would. But I can’t, and it’s not because I would have to learn the accordion and the other seventeen languages and live on the same continent as my family. It’s also got nothing to do with being lazy, compulsively negative about my own abilities or, most importantly, female. What restricts me most, alas, is the fundamental limits of human capacity!

If you need more evidence, just try playing the Sims- maybe you can get your Sim to the top of their career path, or to have indoor firework shows with 20 other people, or get abducted by aliens and have weird green babies, but if you try to do all of those things the game just falls apart. You end up getting exhausted, wetting yourself, crying and then refusing to do anything but sit on the sofa watching the same thirty seconds of cartoons on a loop whilst burglars steal all of the priceless art out of your house. And this is in a universe where hired help is affordable to all income levels! What hope do those of us who actually do have to do our own washing up have for living ultimately fulfilled lives?

Of course, this broad definition of “having it all” is not what Slaughter is referring to- to her, the big juggling act is between career and family, which is understandable as I suppose not many people make aspirations to accordion playing stardom one of their unattainable life goals. She talks about the difficulty of going to work in government for two years when her teenage sons were growing up in a different state, and how despite believing beforehand that her position, under Hilary Clinton, would be her dream job, after two years she realised that she was quite happy to give it up in order to be with her children. Ergo, women cannot have it all, despite the fact that an amorphous blob of older feminists told an amorphous blob of younger feminists that this would be the case. Now Slaughter reports that the amorphous blob of younger feminists are incredibly betrayed because apparently they have not played the Sims enough to know that “having it all” is ridiculous.

I’m actually being unfair on Slaughter herself. Buried deep inside this article (which is twelve hundred words long) is the analysis which I think really matters- that Slaughter decided to stop doing her “dream job” after two years and go back to her tenure at Princeton because that’s what actually made her happier. Turns out that when you make judgements about what your dream job would be before you’ve tried that job out, it is quite possible that when doing said job you might change your mind! Despite our collective inability as a species to process that prestige does not always equal fulfilment, the case that this article is predicated on is one in which a person realised that having a very prestigious job in politics was not actually what she wanted to do with her life. So she stopped.** End of story.

Except not end of story, for one simple reason: as a woman, and especially a woman in a prestigious position where gender imbalances still exist, Slaughter’s experiences are not just the stories of one person trying to live a balanced and fulfilling life based on the constraints of keeping the real world equivalents of those little hunger and hygiene and toilet meters high enough to not collapse or wet yourself at inappropriate times. Instead, they are a Tale of Woman, a view from the top that demonstrates to the rest of us lady-people that if this super successful, eloquent, fertile woman cannot find a balance between a family and an extremely demanding job, then the rest of us losers are highly unlikely to have a universally fulfilling life either. Therefore, critics of Slaughter’s piece, and some of her friends whose words she reports in the article, are able to believe that by giving up her job and then telling people about how it made her feel, Slaughter has betrayed the entirety of womankind- as a successful woman, her life experience should be constantly reinforcing a particular view of liberal feminist empowerment, and by living her life as her own rather than living up to this, feminism suffers.

But it’s just too demanding for us to think this way; as if every single action of our lives is keyed into this big woman empowerment scale whereby actions either advance or hold back a single feminist cause. For one thing, there isn’t just one scale. Slaughter’s tale of hard choices at the top is a totally relevant story, but it’s the story of one high-flying middle-aged white woman. At the time of writing, the New Statesman has just run a piece by Vagenda about what a waste of time “intersectionality” is (inexplicably their argument is that it makes feminism too elitist!) which is quite rightly causing an enormous stir on both my Twitter and my Tumblr. The unfortunate idea that feminism can be reduced to the struggle of white middle class educated women is probably the movement's greatest flaw, but it's one that every half decent feminist is trying to confront. However, even aside from the webs of discrimination that come with race and sexual orientation and ability, plenty of women live extremely demanding lives juggling work and family without any of the fulfilment which Slaughter can obtain from her jobs. Real people, unlike Sims, cannot hire a maid in a sexy outfit for 10 simoleons per hour to look after their children, and when they do have domestic workers they are also real women facing a very different economic reality from that of their employers. Whilst stories at the top should still be told, postulating on whether women can “have it all” at this level when so many women are striving for fulfilment with so much less seems a little blinkered, to say the least.

However, I think a wider problem is that framing these questions as if “Can women ever be optimally successful and fulfilled in their lives” as if that is a meaningful line of enquiry hides the actual gendered issues going on here. One thing that confused me immensely in the first page was the way in which Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravscik, is discussed. During her time in Washington, he was primarily responsible for caring for the children, for which Slaughter professes extreme gratitude and fortuitousness. I actually had to look the guy up on Wikipedia to see if he was actually the biological father of her children, as he’s never referred to as “my sons’ father”. He is, but the idea that he is willing to act as a primary caregiver is seen as a great, almost selfless act. This would be unimaginable the other way around- in fact, the male equivalent of “having it all” seems to be “being the provider”, which manages to conflate work and family into one single question of economic productivity, at the cost of having a larger presence in actual family life***. Over here in China, UNRISD has just released the first long-term gendered time use survey, which shows that women spend three times as much time as men in unpaid work, and almost half of their proportional working time in unpaid as opposed to paid labour; for men the ratio is about twenty percent. The fact that being a woman still comes with this bundle of “background labour” in almost all societies puts fulfilment that much further out of our grasp. It’s worth noting that almost all of this discrepancy is in housework, rather than childcare (largely because childcare timings across the population were pretty negligible, likely thanks to the one child policy!), which suggests that for so many women, having time to genuinely pursue fulfilment is still further out of reach than for their male equivalents.

I do feel that in terms of time use, and childcare, and what constitutes fulfilling family choices for men, women of my generation, and the generation who just sat through “Can women have it all” in freshers’ week at my university, do live in a different world. None of the men I consider my peers have particular gendered expectations about housework or childcare****, so I am optimistic that we are moving at least somewhat to a world where women can make their own choices about fulfilment without the fact of “being a woman” getting in the way. What does get in the way is the idea that our ideology could ever take away the fact that there will have to be choices, and they may be difficult. Spending time at university wondering whether your gender means you can do everything just detracts from the real point of university- figuring out what you want to do, trying to make it happen, and being able to learn from your mistakes without worrying that you are proving some grand point about the Limits of Woman.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

*Not direct ones, alas, my college children never college-married (although one did real-world-marry so I guess that’s something?)

**Then she wrote a 12,000 word piece on it. Which sure puts my wordiness into perspective!

***Though this is of course a grand morally excellent sacrifice, rather than a state of affairs which should cause us to wonder if men can have it all. That question would just be silly!

****To be fair this is probably because I don’t consider sexists to be my peers, but I honestly don’t know guys who are openly like this at all. Incompetent men, yes. But actually just as many incompetent women too. It’s a whole new incompetent world out there!