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.