Category Archives: Feminism

The feminist problem with InRealLife

[Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault]
Some of you may have seen my review of InRealLife over on ORGZine. Something that didn’t quite fit in that context but that I still wanted to discuss was the squicky nature of the film when it came to sex and sexuality – online or AFK.
One of the stories that Beeban Kidron was (unsubtly) trying to tell in the film is that, thanks to the internet, young people are forgetting how to have sex “properly”. There’s a scene fairly early on where 15-year-old Ryan, having talked us through the kinds of porn he watches, bemoans how he is no longer able to form a connection with girls. From memory, the argument goes like this: I want them to do the things that women in porn do, but if they do those, they are slags, and the others have had their hearts broken. (The thought occurs that Ryan might have less of a problem with forming connections if he dropped the slut-shaming.) The final scene of the film is the queer couple who meet online and eventually have an AFK meeting, lying in bed together and transferring data between their phones using NFC. Subtle, isn’t it? Add to this the following quote from Kidron’s CiF piece and a picture emerges:

As teenagers increasingly learn about sex from pornography, their sexual norms change. I sat with a group of boys who, when asked about where they imagined ejaculating, took more than 20 minutes and considerable prompting to come up with a word that indicated vagina. “In the face”, “over the tits”, “up the arse” and “blow job” came to their minds immediately – they were all 15.

What’s disturbing about this is that Kidron clearly has an idea of what “proper” sexuality looks like, and penis in vagina intercourse is high on the list of criteria. Now, don’t get me wrong: young men objectifying and slut-shaming women is never a good thing, regardless of how they came by those attitudes. But thinking beyond penis in vagina (PiV) intercourse in your grasp of human sexuality? I’m all for that.
Let’s face it, PiV is simply not the most pleasurable way to have sex for the vast majority of women. Only about a quarter orgasm from penetration alone. And yeah, PiV may be fun for some, or sometimes, as part of a wider experience, but its fetishisation in our culture is deeply problematic for both men and women. Do I want young people to learn about other forms of sexual pleasure from porn? Depends on the porn, frankly. But do I think a move away from PiV in our sexual culture is problematic in and of itself? Hell no. Subtlety like that, however, eludes Beeban Kidron.
The second, and much more problematic aspect was the treatment of 15-year-old Page, the only young woman featured in the film. Page describes how a group of young men stole her phone, made her follow them to a house and sexually assaulted her. She says she let this happen in order to get her phone back, because this is how much her phone means to her.
Page’s treatment by Kidron is deeply disturbing and offensive to survivors of sexual assault. Taken within the wider context of the film and the addiction narrative, Page’s story looks rather like the stereotype of the crack whore. Attitudes to sex work aside, at no point in the film is it acknowledged that what Page experienced was sexual assault, and that it was not her fault. Page is clearly traumatised by the incident, blaming herself and trying to deal with it by rationalising it. Yet Kidron chooses to serve her own ends by portraying her simply as a “fallen woman”, willing to do anything to get her next hit.
That last issue in particular really makes me doubt Kidron’s integrity and credibility as a documentary maker. It rather looks like she needed a fallen woman to make her addiction narrative stand up, and if that meant using a sexual assault survivor in this way then so be it.

Colliding Worlds – The Feminist Reprise

Below is the talk I gave today at the Virtual Gender conference. It’s another take on the colliding worlds theme, this time aimed at a feminist rather than a digital rights audience.
ETA 30/09/13
There is now partial video of this talk which you can see below. Huge thanks to @drcabl3 for this!

When Worlds Collide
I’m a feminist of the queer, sex-positive, and intersectional kind. I value allies to my causes and I believe in trying to be the best ally I can to other, less privileged people. One of the causes I’m engaged with is LGBT domestic abuse; another is violence against women – I’m an abuse survivor. But for longer than I’ve been a feminist, I’ve been a digital rights activist.
I grew up in a communist country where freedom of expression, freedom of association and political activism didn’t exist. There was one version of the truth, it was the Party’s version, and you lived with it. And so I believe the freedoms we have in this society – the freedoms to have conferences like this one, to imagine a better world, to meet and work with likeminded people on common goals – are to be cherished and protected. I also believe that the internet provides us with both unprecedented opportunities and never before imagined threats in this.
The internet allows us to organise and exchange ideas beyond the narrow confines of geographic proximity. Where in the past we may have thought we were alone, the internet now opens a window into the world. It allows us to find many other people like us, no matter who we are. It gives even the most marginalised and oppressed groups a voice. It allows disabled people to fight government cuts. It enables trans* people to speak out against media portrayals that are often phobic and downright vicious. It allows sex workers to share their experiences – good and bad – and fight for rights the rest of us take for granted.
At the same time, inherent in both the technology and our use of it is the potential for censorship and state surveillance. When most of us rely on Google to access the information and spaces we need, you only need to stop Google from displaying results for certain search terms to consign an issue or a group of people to eternal obscurity. When most of our communications rely on a relatively small number of undersea cables, it is easy for agencies of the state to monitor everything we say. When each and every one of us carries a tracking device in our pocket virtually day and night, reconstructing your movements from the data your mobile operator holds about you is trivial. As politically active feminists I am sure we will all agree these are clear threats to civil society, freedom of expression and freedom of association. They are threats to women and to feminism.
At a high, abstract level, issues of censorship and surveillance of the internet seem like a no-brainer to political activists of pretty much any flavour. Yet often when it comes to the intersection between feminism and digital rights, what was a no-brainer five minutes ago is suddenly a deeply divisive and contentious issue. On more than one front today, superficially feminist arguments are being made to justify censorship and surveillance of digital spaces.
I want to talk to you today about the importance of looking past those superficial arguments; about the dangers of trying to solve social problems with technical measures; about our duty as political campaigners to understand the technology we use for our campaigns, and not to let our causes be used to harm that technological infrastructure. And I want to talk to you about how we can best engage with issues at the intersection between feminism and digital rights in ways that find constructive solutions that work.
All of us in this room know that being female on the internet can be a less than pleasant experience. A recent example of this is the case of Caroline Criado Perez, the campaigner behind the initiative to put more women on banknotes. The abuse she and other prominent women received on Twitter over the course of several days in July included rape threats and death threats. It was vicious, violent and despicable. It was highly organised and intended to intimidate and silence. Having said that, the vast majority of these threats were not credible in the sense that most of the men behind them were unlikely to leave the safety of their own bedrooms to do real physical harm.
The immediate, knee-jerk fix demanded here by many feminist activists was for Twitter to implement an “Abuse” button – an instant way to flag tweets or users as abusive that would lead to the quick and automatic suspension of accounts. I can see where these calls are coming from. I can sympathise with them, I have been on the receiving end of similar abuse. But the digital rights activist in me, the one who believes that freedom of speech is sacrosanct, balks at the idea.
The irony here is of course that the first use an abuse button would be put to is to silence exactly the same people who were previously receiving the abuse. Because let’s face it, if the abusers are organised enough to sustain a campaign of threats in shifts over several days – and they are – they are also organised enough to hit the Abuse button until an activist’s account is suspended. What’s even worse is that the more vulnerable and marginalised a group is, the more disproportionately affected they would be by such campaigns. Sex workers and trans* activists in particular expressed serious concerns about the proposed Abuse button, and as an ally to those groups, as well as a digital rights activist I cannot in good conscience support those proposals.
This is not a simple issue, and knee-jerk reactions will not solve the problem. We need to look at the different facets. As digital rights activists we need to recognise what we already know as feminists: that campaigns of misogynist online abuse are a free speech issue in and of themselves. It doesn’t matter if it’s the state doing the censoring, or Facebook, or a bunch of trolls who make you feel unsafe about speaking out – the effect is the same. As feminists we need to acknowledge what we already know as digital rights activists: that automated censorship is open to abuse and tends to create more problems than it solves.
And we need to use that knowledge to find solutions that work. One blogger has suggested a “Panic” button that restricts the mentions a user can see to those from people they follow. This way the user is not silenced by having to make their account private or take a break from Twitter entirely, and they are not subjected to the distress of having to see the abuse in their timeline. I would add to that a way to identify credible threats – for instance the publication of personal details like address and telephone number – and enable the user to report those to the police. Distributed block lists are another way of dealing with this issue. Ultimately what matters here is finding solutions that address the real issues, not implementing a quick fix that may look good but does more harm than good.
Let me give you another example: David Cameron’s proposals to filter the web in the name of “protecting children”. In his speech at the NSPCC in July Cameron proposed three measures:

  • Default on web filters at ISP level filtering out pornography and other “harmful content”;
  • Forcing search engines to not return results for keywords commonly associated with child sex abuse material;
  • And a ban on the possession of visual depictions of simulated rape.

I know many anti-porn feminists welcome these measures. But as a feminist, as a digital rights activist, and as a survivor of child sex abuse, I find them deeply objectionable. None of them will do anything to tackle real issues, like the fact that many children do receive their sex and relationships education from hardcore pornography. The way to tackle that is to provide mandatory, high-quality SRE in schools – something this government voted against nearly unanimously. Instead, the proposed filters are highly likely to restrict young people’s access to vital materials on sexual health, pregnancy and abortion advice and LGBTQ issues.
But what is even worse is how open to abuse these measures are. Let’s say the NSA and GCHQ don’t want us discussing their programmes of mass internet surveillance? Google already has the technology to filter search results, the PM is about to strengthen legal powers to do so. Internet Service Providers are already filtering pornography, self-harm websites and “esoteric material”. It doesn’t take much to add “internet surveillance” to the list without anyone noticing. Think that sounds unlikely? If on the 5th of June, the day before the Snowden revelations, I had told you that the legal and technical framework enabling the NSA’s PRISM programme existed, would you have called me a conspiracy theorist? The potential for abuse is there – it’s only a matter of time until it happens.
These are the issues where my worlds collide. They’re the issues where the intersection between digital rights and feminism for me becomes really, really difficult. What I hope you take away from this is that difficult is good. Being able to see more than one side to an argument is good. Being able to see past the kneejerk reaction that invariably will cause more problems than it solves is good.
And I also hope that this has convinced you that it is vital for feminists to engage with digital rights issues. It is vital for us to understand technologies as well as their social impacts. It is vital to examine the motives behind proposed technological fixes and the effects they will have on different groups. We as feminists get intersectionality, we get oppression. We have a responsibility to ensure technology is not used for oppression, particularly not in our name.

Ruining your enjoyment of pop culture – Part 3

Welcome back to my meandering series on feminist critques of pop culture. In Part 1 we looked at some very crude tests to see if a work of fiction contained any even vaguely realistic female characters at all and were perhaps surprised by how much of our current cultural output fails these basic tests.
In Part 2, we looked at some common, and generally sloppy, writing techniques which serve to marginalise female and minority characters in fiction.
Today, I want to talk about how women are allowed to act in fiction. I’ll cover three concepts that are deeply interconnected: Objectification, agency and disempowerment.
Spoilers ahead for: Sandman (Brief Lives in particular), Firefly/Serenity, Doctor Who (the Donna season), Casino Royale.
Women as objects
In grammar, the subject of a sentence is the one who acts, the object the one being acted upon. So in the sentence “Jill threw the ball”, Jill is the subject, and the ball is the object. The objectification of women is one of the most prevalent phenomena in our popular culture today. If you think back to the Sexy Lamp Test for a moment, you’ll realise that objectification is precisely what it tests for. In many works of fiction, even the few female characters that are around often don’t act of their own free will but are acted upon instead.
Let’s take River Tam in Firefly as an example. The first time we meet River, she is quite literally delivered in a box. To make matters worse, she spends most of the first episode being naked and afraid, presumably for someone’s viewing pleasure. Throughout the series and in Serenity, River is repeatedly silenced, wheeled around in boxes and chairs, and generally prevented from doing anything of her own accord. At the start of Serenity, we see Simon and Mal arguing over whether River should join the crew on a bank robbery. River’s own will is never taken into account in this. River is acted upon, she is not an actor. The only two exceptions to this in the whole Firefly universe are in the final episode of the series when the entirety of the Firefly crew is incapacitated by the bounty hunter and in the final ten minutes of Serenity when, again, everyone else is busy being dead or dying.
Another great example is the pair of stories You should date an illiterate girl and Date a girl who reads. At a first glance, the second story intends to challenge the treatment of women presented in the first. Yet in both stories the “girls” are seen through male eyes, what is highlighted about their lives is what matters to the male observer and ultimately it is only that male observer’s opinions, views and happiness that seem to count for anything in the worlds created by both writers.
Objectification of women in our culture often goes hand in hand with sexualisation: in addition to being merely objects that are acted upon, women are often presented as sex objects in particular, there entirely for the sexual pleasure and entertainment of male characters and a male audience. Some feminists use “objectification” as shorthand for “sexual objectification”, but I find it useful to keep the two separate, as a character doesn’t have to be sexualised to lack agency.
Agency is the opposite of objectification. Having agency is being the subject, being the one who acts, who has an effect on the world and others. It’s making choices as a character for one’s own, internally consistent reasons, rather than purely to advance the plot. It is remarkable how few women in our fiction seem to have true agency. Our culture is full of tropes that make female characters little more than plot devices, there only to motivate the male lead in one way or another: the romantic interest, the wife, girlfriend or mother of his children, the sidekick who is there simply to ask stupid questions so she can have the plot explained to her. One of the most jarring examples of the latter is the scene in Casino Royale (the 2006 version) where Vesper Lynd – ostensibly a Treasury accountant, so presumably quite good at maths – has the interminable and dull game of poker explained to her, including basic addition of the amounts of money at stake.
Sometimes, two characters can seem superficially very similar, yet a second look reveals profound differences in the amount of agency they have. Looking at Delirium in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Brief Lives, there are some remarkable similarities between her and River Tam in Firefly/Serenity. They both appear as young and vulnerable teenage girls, both have mental health issues and spend large chunks of the story not being very coherent, both actually have considerable powers. Both have moments of clarity where they hold things together while everyone around them falls apart: River in the final episode of the series and the last ten minutes of Firefly; Delirium in Destiny’s garden when Dream works out what he needs to do to find Destruction and has a breakdown as a result.
River’s fight scene at the end of Serenity is fun to watch and it’s pretty epic. It’s also just another way of highlighting how little agency River’s character has. She has spent the entire series and movie being acted upon, being hushed and silenced, being used by others, and her pulling it together enough to save everyone’s ass at the end is just another form of her being used – this time by the writer, as a kind of deus ex machina. River remains an object throughout.
Delirium on the other hand is a fully fleshed-out character, with meaningful relationships with those around her, and heaps of agency. Her siblings may not agree with her, may not want to help her, may even try to use her sometimes, but they listen to her and they talk to her. One of the things Simon pretty much never does with River is ask her a question. Del’s dialog with her siblings in Brief Lives is a constant exchange of questions and answers. They ask her what she wants, why she wants it, how she would achieve it. When Dream mistreats her, she calls him out on it, and he apologises. When she realises that he’s been using her as a distraction and never intended to help her in the first place, again she calls him out on it and after some reflection he apologises and actually resumes their quest. Delirium shapes the events in Brief Lives just as much as Dream does if not more so – it is ultimately her quest that has such a profound impact on him and his relationships with the family.
Despite their superficial similarities, it is the differences between River and Del that highlight quite how much agency one of them lacks and the other has.
Disempowerment is the process in which a character goes from having agency to becoming an object. It is, unfortunately, the fate of many female characters in our fiction. Simply the act of portraying as tropes, objects and cardboard cut-outs whose lives revolve around the male protagonist disempowers real women. Sometimes, however, the process of disempowerment is made more explicit in the text.
The example that continues to fill me with rage is the fate of Donna Noble in Doctor Who. Donna is taken from her “mundane” existence as a temp, “uplifted” by the Doctor and shown a universe much bigger, scarier, and more wonderful than she could ever have imagined in her previous life. For me personally, Donna was an incredibly powerful character. Due to her age and experience compared to the other modern-era companions I found it much easier to empathise with her. It also felt like she had a more profound impact on the Doctor in many ways, particularly compared to Martha whose defining characteristic was a crush on the Doctor.
As hints began to emerge of a terrible fate lying in wait for Donna, I imagined a gruesome death to save the Doctor, or the Universe, or both. Donna’s actual fate – a mindwipe, completely erasing all memory of her time with the Doctor, and returning her to her everyday life to get married and drudge on in mediocrity ever after – was a low blow indeed. To add insult to injury, the Doctor rocks up incognito to Donna’s wedding and hands over a winning lottery ticket, as if that somehow makes up for stealing a part of her life and personality. She has gone from someone with incredible power – the Doctor’s power – and agency to someone who is acted upon with little free will of her own. Let’s be clear, Donna Noble deserved to die saving the universe and have her name sung in every galaxy until the end of time. That would have been a considerably less disempowering ending than the one she got.
The reason the concepts of agency, objectification and disempowerment matter, the reason the prevalence of the latter two when it comes to female characters in our fiction is problematic should by now be obvious. We tell stories in which women don’t act but are acted upon; or where, if they do act, their agency is immediately taken away and their fate is worse than death. These are the stories we tell little girls about how the world is and how the world should be. Sleeping Beauty is there to be decorative, unconscious, and kissed without her consent; Snow White is there to be poisoned and then revived; Cindarella is to be dressed up – both by her fairy godmother and the prince. Women can be anything but the protagonists of their own stories. Stories matter. They have power. Until women are equal in story, they will continue to struggle to be equal in life.
I will leave you with one final, poetic thought from Google:
Part 2
Series Index

Ruining your enjoyment of pop culture – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my introductory series on feminist critiques of pop culture. In this post, I’ll cover tokenisation, othering and the Smurfette Principle – all lazy writing techniques in which minorities and oppressed groups tend to get the raw end of the deal. I am particularly interested in how these features of our fiction and culture translate into the real world, so I’ll also discuss some of the damage they do in our day-to-day lives.
Tokenisation is when you throw in a character from a minority or oppressed group in amidst all the cis, het, white, male characters. Woo hoo, aren’t you progressive! One of the many problems with token characters is that they are generally barely even sketched in. From a writing technique point of view you have to rely on tropes and stereotypes to allow the audience to fill in enough blanks to make your story hang together. What that leads to is that we see the same trope or stereotype repeated again and again until we begin to believe that people from that background (women, black people, gay people) are all like that. We get to a point where we only have a single story about a certain “type” of people.
Hogwarts is full for token characters. From Dumbledore, to the Patil twins, to a particularly badly written Cho Chang. Though I must say one of the things I love about the Harry Potter films is that Cho has this amazing Scottish accent. It’s an inspired bit of casting that adds a huge amount of depth to an incredibly flat character. It doesn’t address many of the other issues with Cho, but it does defy the viewer’s expectations and at least make you think. It offers you a different story.
Further Reading
Token Minority on TV Tropes
Some stuff I wrote about token and otherwise stereotypical bisexuals in fiction
Related trope: Black Dude Dies First
Token Gay Guy and his sidekick, Strong Black Chick
To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Danger of a Single Story
Othering is tokenisation’s equally evil twin. Take Pacific Rim for instance. We have an ensemble cast of token characters: the Russian siblings, the Chinese triplets, the “boffins”, the black CO, the meek Japanese woman. These characters’ entire identity is that they are not “wholesome American white boy”. The Russians, despite being just as white as the lead character look profoundly different, and they barely speak. The triplets don’t even have individual names – they are simply the Wei Tang triplets. Mako, despite being raised by Stacker Pentecost from a very young age is a caricature of Western fetishisation of Japanese women, right down to the blue hair streak.
Othering is used as a device to establish distance between a character the audience is meant to identify with and everyone else, thus making the main character more sympathetic. Oh look, this one is like you, root for him. Those others aren’t, don’t worry about them. Othering allows us to forget that these people are just as human as the main character – and as us. It creates a false dichotomy between “them – the others” and “us”. We are in fact so used to thinking that any character we find sympathetic must be just like us, that we are sometimes surprised when they are not, as happened with Rue in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series.
Othering is often a sign of lazy writing, though it is also sometimes used deliberately to make us feel sympathetic towards a character who is themselves “other” to their audience. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, a novel set in a fictionalised 8th century China, the main character Shen Tai and his family are shown to have moral values closer to those of a 21st century Western audience, thus othering the rest of Chinese society. Of course the best writers can make you experience the “other” and immerse you in a culture alien to your own to the point when you begin to appreciate the intrinsic humanity. If you are white, read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to get a sense of how that can be achieved. Manda Scott also does a good job in her Boudica series, as does Cory Doctorow in For the Win.
Othering is a common tool used in politics, and its overuse in fiction makes us all the more receptive to it. When Nick Clegg speaks of Alarm Clock Britain while Cameron and Osborne tell us about skivers, shirkers and scroungers, that’s good cop and bad cop playing a game of othering. When Gillian Duffy talks about flocking Eastern Europeans, that’s othering. When the Home Office live-tweets arrests of “immigration offenders”, that’s othering. And because we’re so conditioned to accept othering in the fictional stories we tell, we swallow it hook, line and sinker in real life too. And the extreme version of othering? That’s when soldiers call the enemy krauts, or towelheads, or terrorists – anything but admitting they are human beings, with lives and families, like you and me.
Further reading
White until proven black: Imagining race in Hunger Games
Othering 101
The Smurfette Principle
The Smurfette Principle is a form of tokenisation. Anita Sarkeesian over at Feminist Frequency does a great job of explaining it, but the short version is that when there is a single female character among an ensemble of male characters you have, for what should be obvious reasons, a Smurfette. Princess Leia? Smurfette. Uhura? Smurfette. Trinity in The Matrix? Smurfette. The interchangeable reporter in The A-Team? Smurfette.
Now whereas for minorities a certain amount tokenisation may perhaps be excused by virtue of them being, well, minorities[1], this is rather more problematic when it comes to representation of women. So if say, roughly one in ten people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and you have a cast of five, it’s sometimes okay to have only one LGBT character, or none at all. Women on the other hand make up just over half the human population on earth – women are not a minority. But you wouldn’t know that from the stories we tell.
What is particularly terrifying about the Smurfette Principle is how prevalent it is in real life.
In media…
TodayPresentersThis is the presenter team of the Today Programme, Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs show. Today has been on air for 56 years. For 35 of those, there have been female presenters on the programme, but for 18 of those 35 the female presenter has been a Smurfette.
In politics…
ThatcherSmurfetteYou’d think things have got a bit better in the 25 or so years since that photo was taken…
StillSmurfetteCabinetAnd they have. There are a total of five women in David Cameron’s cabinet[2]. At this rate, it will take another 50 years to get equal representation in cabinet.
In business…
VodafoneBoard2010This is the board of directors of Vodafone in 2010. Yep, that’s a Smurfette you see there. Vodafone have acquired another female director since, but I’ll let you do the maths…
Remember: Our stories tell us how the world is, but also how the wolrd should be. And right now they’re telling us that Smurfettes are the thing to be! But there’s only so many of us who can be the token woman in an epic fantasy adventure. What do the rest of us do?
Further reading
The Smurfette Principle on the Feminist Frequency
The Smurfette Principle on TV Tropes
In Part 3 I will (probably) talk about agency, objectification and disempowerment.
Part 1
Part 3
Series Index

…in which I ruin your enjoyment of pop culture forever – Part 1

It was pointed out to me that I tweet a lot of feminist critiques of pop culture and that some of my followers would like an introduction or 101 of the concepts I use. Be warned: this series of posts will ruin your enjoyment of popular culture forever. You will go back to your favourite movie or book or TV show and it will never be the same. Proceed at your own peril.
The way this is going to work is that I’ll cover – briefly – some of the key concepts. I will try to give examples (many bad, hopefully some good), and I will try to link you to some further reading. Let’s start by setting the bar as low as it gets, with a couple of numerical methods of analysis: the Bechdel Test, the Austen Exemption and the Sexy Lamp Test.
The Bechdel Test
Coined by Alison Bechdel, the test checks a piece of popular culture (originally movies but works just as well for books and TV shows) for three things:

  1. Does it have more than one named female character in it?
  2. Do these female characters at any point in the plot meet and have a conversation?
  3. Is that conversation about something other than a man?

What is utterly terrifying about this is that the vast majority of our current mainstream cultural output fails this, often at Step 1. Think about the last movie you went to see at the cinema. Mine was Pacific Rim. That has Mako and the Russian mech pilot who did have a name which however escapes me. They never talk to each other. Fail. I actually tracked the Bechdel pass/fail rate in books I read for about a year. Barely half of them passed, and for some of them you really had to squint to see it.
The reason the Bechdel Test is important is that our culture by and large does not tell women’s stories. And stories do two things: they tells us how the world is, but they also tell us how the world should be. They tells us what our society as a whole has decided is good, beautiful, valuable, important and true. Women are romantic interests, tokens, side kicks, objects (we’ll come to all those later). Women are not heroes of their own stories. This is, according to the stories we are telling right now, how the world should be.
Let’s be clear though, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t get you a feminist gold star. Acknowledging in your work that women exist and are human beings just like men is the bare minimum of human decency. Once you’ve managed that, there’s a whole lot of other issues to contend with, which we will cover in more detail throughout the rest of this series.
Further Reading
A Bechdel Test movie guide
The Bechdel Test on TV Tropes
10 famous films that surprisingly fail the Bechdel Test
The Austen Exemption
This is my very own personal corollary to the Bechdel Test, and it’s that Jane Austen gets a free pass. Why does she need one? Well, her books do have plenty of named female characters who all talk to each other, but on the face of it at least they only ever talk about men.
Except that when Jane and Elizabeth and Charlotte talk about Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, they talk about £5,000 and £10,000 a year respectively. These are conversations about economics and sociology much more than they are conversations about men. They are conversations about whether you will be able to survive after your parents die and whether the man whom you will be utterly dependent on for said survival will treat you halfway decently. If anything, it is Bingley, Darcy and the like who are utterly objectified in Austen’s novels, and this amuses me somewhat.
No further reading on this one I’m afraid, as I made it up. But feel free to collect your own examples of the Austen Exemption and post them in the comments.
The Sexy Lamp Test
Another test, this was was coined fairly recently by comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. It asks a simple question: for any given female character, could you replace her with a sexy lamp without affecting the story? Every Bond girl ever is a sexy lamp. So is Lieutenant Uhura in most of Star Trek (a point beautifully made in Galaxy Quest).
There are subtle differences between the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test. It is possible for a work to pass one but not the other. The Harry Potter books, for instance, pass the Bechdel Test easily, but plenty of female characters (Cho Chang comes to mind) are sexy lamps. The converse can also be true: In Run Lola Run, Lola never speaks to another woman through the entire movie, yet she is anything but a sexy lamp.
The Sexy Lamp Test effectively checks for agency (which we’ll come to later, but which essentially means “Does the character do stuff of their own accord?”). Of course the risk here is that we end up with a few token strong women among an army of male characters. The Bechdel Test checks for tokenisation (“Do we only have one female character?”) and encourages more rounded female characters who break out of the “romantic interest” mould, but it can sometimes be passed on a technicality by really rather unremarkable characters.
It’s not that one test is more appropriate or better than the other. Frankly, they are both very basic and crude forms of analysis. The fact that so much of our cultural output still fails one or both of these tests, however, tells me that we might not be ready for anything much more sophisticated.
In Part 2 I will (probably) cover tokenisation, othering and the Smurfette Principle.
Part 2
Series Index

Date whomever you like

This is a response to Date a girl who reads which is itself a response to You should date an illiterate girl.
Date whomever you like
Date whomever you like: a woman who reads, a woman who writes, a woman who does both or neither. But know, above all, this: It is not about you. I, who am all those women, tell my own story.
I am the one with the thousand-page tome in an alphabet you don’t read and a pot of oolong in the teahouse. No, it’s not an awfully big and clever book for a girl like me. I am not a girl, for starters. I am the one next to you on the bus, reading on my phone things that will make you blush and want to reconsider your life. Look over my shoulder at your own peril. I am the one who can barely stutter my way through a menu. I know if I don’t tell my story no other will. I am the one writing insulting notes in the margins of Descartes. It is my book and I can break the spine if I want to. And I am the one with no books but a notebook, scribbling away. If it is about you, you probably don’t want to know.
By all means, ask me if I like my book. But if I glare at you, have the decency to leave. Know that a cup of coffee is not a fair price for my attention – for an hour or even a minute – and that if I choose to talk to you, or sleep with you, it is because I want to, and not in exchange for anything.
Do not assume that if I tell you I understand Ulysses I do it to sound intelligent. For all you know I am the world’s leading scholar on Joyce. I read Austen, Atwood, Le Guin, Parker – as in Dorothy, not Robert or Geoffrey. Look them up. You will be surprised.
If I take you home, I may fuck you – like wildcats in thunderstorms. Or I may make love to you, sweet and gentle, until you fall apart under me. I may have a cunt or a cock, neither of which tells you whether am I a woman or not, and if you don’t like that, the door’s that way. If I stick around, I may choose to be celibate for five years. Again, the door’s that way.
Do not be surprised if I, who can barely read a menu, have a better grasp of language, and of syntax, and of story than you ever will. I know that your language doesn’t have the words for my reality, your syntax cannot circumscribe me, your stories are not mine. Shakespeare never wrote to be read anyway. Do not be surprised when I learn to read.
Do not propose. Or if you do, do not expect me to say yes, or wear white, or want to have your children. I may do all of these things, or none. I will not make you the meaning of my life, and I will thank you to not make me the meaning of yours.
You can tell your own story. You can come along for the ride. But this story? It is mine.
ETA 04/09/13: I recorded a reading of this. You can listen to it:

Not talking about Thatcher

I wasn’t going to talk about Thatcher, but the Daily Mail today is treating us to a spectacular trainwreck of a headline: “‘They danced in the streets when Hitler died too’: Drama teacher who organised Thatcher death parties remains unrepentant as it’s revealed she had NHS breast implants”
To which, I must admit, my first reaction was “Surely Maggie could afford to go private”.
If Daily Mail editors read more material that involved long passages of exposition talking about two people of the same gender (slash fiction for instance), they would be aware of the pitfalls of connecting the wrong subject with the wrong predicate in a sentence. Frivolity aside, though, it strikes me that this particular crash blossom is more likely to have its roots in our culture’s assumptions about who holds power rather than in the dubious reading habits of Daily Mail staff.
As a former Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher may have had the “body of a weak, feeble woman”, but I rather suspect that in the minds of the Tory faithful she had “the heart and stomach of a king”. I’m not sure it even occurred to the poor sod who wrote that headline for the Mail that Thatcher, too, had breasts.
I may be reading too much into this, but I do think it illustrates quite nicely that for many in our society those in power and those with female bodies are still two very separate groups of people.

When is International Men’s Day?

When you ask me the above question, here’s what I hear:

  • I think I am funny and original. I live in a bubble so privileged and sheltered from the real world that I cannot even imagine that at eight o’clock in the morning on March 8th I’m not even the first person to ask you that question.
  • Despite this International Women’s Day clearly being a thing, I have never even given a single thought to why it might be a thing; why people feel there may be a need for it; how women’s lives are different to my own little bubble of privilege.
  • On a day deliberately designated for the celebration of diversity and inclusion, I can’t be bothered to take a second to think about whether my behaviour and comments are inclusive, or within the spirit of that day. Let’s not even talk about all the other days of the year.

When you ask me the above question, here’s how it might make me and others around us feel:

  • Dismissed and trivialised. It’s bad enough that there were cupcakes involved.
  • Put on the spot. I can either stand up to you and be a role model to those around me, at the price of some significant personal discomfort, or I can not look in the mirror for the rest of the day. Either option will upset me sufficiently to distract me from doing my job.
  • Disappointed. Because really, you should know better, and there is no way in hell that I should have to deal with this.

And when I finally answer the above question, here are some things you maybe shouldn’t do:

  • Be surprised that I spoke up for myself.
  • Look at me like I just kicked your puppy for telling you that “That’d be all the other days of the year.”
  • Tell me you don’t think that’s quite true.

Just some food for thought.

Mili’s 5-step guide to being a great ally

Following on from last week’s rant about intersectionality and @pozorvlak‘s request for an explanation of solidarity “in operational terms”, I thought it might be a good time to actually write up some thoughts I’ve been having on what makes a great ally.[1] So here’s a five-ish step guide to being a great ally.
Step 0: Can I be an ally?
No matter who you are, you can always be an ally. This is not a role reserved for the ultra-privileged straight, white, middle class man. You can be the proverbial disabled black lesbian [This link will probably make you angry.], and chances are that there is still someone out there for whom things suck harder. That’s what intersectionality is all about, and ultimately that’s what solidarity and being an ally is all about.
Step 1: Check your privilege
If we accept the basic premise of intersectionality – that for some people things suck harder – and we want to do something about it, the first thing we need to do is be aware of our own privilege. This will help us understand the kind of power we have, the kind of power we don’t have, and who we can be an ally to. Being aware of your privilege is not some kind of point-scoring game that you win or lose. It’s an exercise in self-awareness, perspective, and humility.
Here’s an example. I am a member of three oppressed groups: I am female, bisexual and an immigrant. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a whole bundle of privilege:

  • I am white.
  • I speak English well enough that few people can actually tell I’m an immigrant from a brief interaction.
  • Even as an immigrant, I am an EU citizen so I have the automatic right to live and work in this country.
  • I am in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender, so unless I deliberately out myself, I have assumed heterosexual privilege.
  • I am quite disgustingly middle class, both in background and in current living standard.
  • I am, as Julie Burchill would put it, “educated beyond all common sense and honesty”. (I have an MA in European Politics; some day I may want to do a PhD.)
  • Though I’m an atheist, I am culturally Christian in a country that is dominated by cultural and historical Christianity.
  • I am in my early thirties.
  • I am (for the moment at least) able-bodied.
  • I am cisgender.

Every single one of those points has a tangible impact on my day-to-day life that makes things suck less. If you want some concrete examples of how that works, the Invisible Knapsack (white privilege version, sexual orientation and gender identity version, the male privilege version) is a good place to start. It also gives me a certain amount of power and credibility with particular groups of people – it gives me a voice that someone who is not of the same group may not have.
Equally, some of these points also give me huge blind spots in my experience and view of the world. I don’t know what it’s like living as a non-white, or Muslim, or working class, or disabled person. Some areas are bigger blind spots than others. The closer I am to being under-privileged in a category, the more pre-existing knowledge and empathy I will have with people in that category. So even though I am a very privileged immigrant (see points 2 and 3 above) I have a relatively good understanding of what it might be like being a less privileged immigrant.
Checking our privilege allows us to start mapping out the “unknown unknowns” we have in our experience and world view so that we can begin to turn them at least into “known unknowns”. It’s a basic prerequisite for being an ally or showing solidarity.
Step 2: Do no harm
There are lots of ways in which we can do harm or perpetuate oppression, sometimes even with the best intentions. Probably the most common ones are denial, silencing, and dysfunctional rescuing.
A classic example of denial would be “Why do you need an LGBT group at work? Sexual orientation is not relevant to the workplace.” If you’re finding yourself questioning the validity of someone’s experience because it’s different to yours, you’re probably engaging in denial. This is harmful in several ways. Even if you only engage in denial towards the target group (say, LGBT people) themselves, you are likely to upset people and maybe even cause them to question their own experience which can be very hurtful and counterproductive. If you do this in public, you are actively using the power and platform given to you by your privilege to undermine a target group.
“We have bigger problems – we’ll get to yours once we’ve sorted those out”; or, of course, “Transsexuals should cut it out”; or talking of “lesbians and gays” at an explicitly LGB or LGBT event. As someone more privileged you have the power to give a voice to someone else, or to silence them in all sorts of subtle and entirely unsubtle ways. Don’t do it. Just like as, say, a woman you don’t want men to speak for you or silence you, make sure you’re not speaking for or silencing others.
Dysfunctional rescuing
This one is subtle, insidious, and much like the road to hell, paved with good intentions. In a workplace LGBT context, it might be not offering the fantastic job opportunity in Saudi Arabia to the employee you know is gay, without even consulting them. The problem with this kind of “rescuing” is that, while it is indeed well-intentioned, it rarely addresses the real underlying needs of the person or group you are trying to rescue and more often than not it robs them of their own agency.
The thing about doing no harm is that you need to accept that you will get this wrong. None of us is perfect. We will commit microaggressions and sometimes macroaggressions in thought, in words or in actions sometimes on a daily basis. There are a few things you can do to minimise the harm you do with your privilege:

  • Become more aware of when you might be causing harm. Think about past experiences where you think you might have got things wrong, and learn from them – don’t repeat the behaviour.
  • When you do put your foot in it, and someone calls you out, don’t get defensive. Think about it, apologise, learn from the experience. Yes, this is difficult. I get it wrong all the time. Practice. If you find yourself becoming defensive, think about the “dental hygiene approach to racism” (and other -isms).
  • If in doubt, shut up. For more advanced allies who may have someone they can ask, ask. But the minute you begin to doubt whether something is a good idea, put it on ice until you can validate it.

Here’s an example: I’ve been known to use the words “just because I have a uterus” as a convenient shorthand for gender discrimination. Then I started actually paying attention when trans people on Twitter kept saying “penis != man and lack of penis != woman”. Now I’m looking for a different shorthand because my previous lazy phrasing actively excludes and silences trans women and men.
Step 3: Listen!
We’ve already established that our privilege gives us blind spots in our world view, and that those blind spots can cause us to actively harm others and perpetuate oppression. So now that we have some “known unknowns” and we’re at least trying to not do harm, we can move on to turning some of our unknowns into knowns.
There are many ways to do this. If you are a novice at being an ally to a particular group, then just listening to or reading around the current discourse in the field will give you a good grasp of the key issues, the key problems, the needs of the group, the preferred language and terminology. Thanks to the magic of the internet, we live in an age where even the most marginalised groups have ways of at least talking to each other, have a little corner of the world they can call their own where they have a voice. Google will take you to it. Any type of material, from first-person accounts like to academic research can give you new insights.
Asking people from the target group about their experience is also generally a good idea. However, be aware that they may not want to talk to you about it – now or ever. While I think a lot of people will be happy to answer questions if they are respectfully and sensitively framed, they are under no obligation to educate you. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get answers the first time – sometimes it’s just not right for a person to share their experiences with an ally. That’s fine – ask someone else, ask when a better time would be, don’t give up on other ways of listening and understanding.
The act of listening and trying to understand will probably lead you to question and discard some of your assumptions – some things you thought you knew. This is a great achievement as it puts you in a position where you are less likely to do harm and more likely to be able to move on to the next step of being a great ally.
Step 4: Use your power for good
The simplest thing you can do with your power, once you have listened and understood the oppressed group, is to be the one dissenting voice among the in-group you are part of. As a straight white man, you have credibility with straight white men that a woman doesn’t. As a cis woman you have credibility with other cis women that a trans woman may not. Use that to challenge prejudice, hateful language or abusive behaviour. Call out sexism, tell your friends that rape jokes are not okay, go to Pride as an ally. Those are all great ways to show solidarity.
Having said that, sometimes it may not be the right time or place to speak out. If your actions or words may put the people you are trying to be an ally to at risk or create an unsafe space for them, then consider staying silent. Also see “Do no harm” above, and this great post on being a feminist ally.
There are other things you can do to be a great ally. The rule of thumb though is that they should always be driven by the needs of the target group. You goal as an ally is to make things suck less for them. Sometimes in the short term that may be through shutting up and not drawing attention to them, while in the long term you want to ensure that you are not part of a silent majority that tolerates or commits oppression.
The more you have listened and understood the target group, the more confident you will be in challenging oppression and doing the right thing as an ally. When I speak out against the government’s rhetoric on immigration – even when as a white, English-speaking EU citizen I technically count as a “good immigrant” – I speak both as an immigrant, but also as an ally of less privileged immigrants. Because of my own experiences, this is a topic I am very confident speaking out on. Ask me to comment on race issues, however, and I’m likely to look around for someone more qualified and point you in their direction. That’s fine too.
Some of the best allies I have worked with will go beyond speaking out. They will proactively look for opportunities to further the target group’s cause and then, in consultation with the target group, go after those opportunities. As well as accomplishing important things, this kind of behaviour can be a huge morale boost to the target group. Knowing that someone believes in you and is likely to put their personal reputation and influence on the line for you is a huge motivator. Allies like that make me work harder for my own cause as well as strive to be a better ally to others.
Step 5: Be prepared to have the difficult conversations
Every once in a while, as an ally you will be in a position where you have a better insight into how to achieve something than the target group. It may be because you have better knowledge of the privileged group, better connections, more influence. Sometimes the right thing for the target group to do may be to take a step back, to take a different approach. Those are difficult conversations to have. They can be incredibly frustrating for the target group, cause a loss of confidence or momentum. They are vitally important conversations to have, and to have respectfully and sensitively.
If you are ever in that situation, make sure that you make your commitment to the target group clear. Sometimes, from the target group point of view, it is difficult to tell whether someone is a genuine ally trying to help or just making the “right” noises while putting obstacles in your way. Make sure there is no doubt about which side you’re on, and make sure to explain why you believe a certain course of action is necessary. If you have built a trusting relationship with the target group, if they have a reason to believe in you, these conversations will be a lot easier. Ultimately, though, also be prepared for your advice to not be taken, and respect that.
As an ally, you may never get beyond step 2 of this process. That is perfectly fine and you’ll be doing a hell of a lot better than many others out there. I would encourage you to at least try step 3 – challenge your own assumptions and preconceptions; you will find it rewarding. How much you speak out and put yourself up as a target in the cause of being an ally is up to you, will vary by situation, and as long as you’ve done your homework with steps 1-3, will be greatly appreciated.

[1] Solidarity is a term you are more likely to hear in overtly political left-wing discourse. Ally is a term that is slightly less scary for corporate types. Operationally though there is enough of an overlap between the two concepts that I’m going to use them interchangeably. I do have a slight preference for “ally” not only because of the warm fuzzy feelings it gives corporate types but also because the nature of the word is less abstract and puts responsibility on individuals.

Intersectionality is not rocket science

Did someone declare Transphobia Week without telling me? The torrent of vile hate speech that seems to be making its way around the Internet, from Twitter to normally at least vaguely respectable sites like Comment is Free, started earlier this week with the publication in the New Statesman of an essay by Suzanne Moore on female anger, which contained the ill-advised throw-away line

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

What does that even mean?
I watched the ensuing train wreck “live” on Twitter, as Suzanne Moore – instead of taking the high road, saying “Oops, my bad, lazy writing, sorry” and asking her editor to remove the line – degenerated into a veritable tirade of genuinely shocking hate speech. Much though I like some of Moore’s writing, the comments she made were unacceptable to me, and I unfollowed her, expecting – perhaps somewhat naively – that that would be the end of the story.
Of course, the next day Moore went on the offensive in Comment is Free, and the article ended up in my Twitter feed anyway. What got me this time was the following line:

Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else.

If Moore was trying for self-parody, she’s right up there with the Church of England. Before we go on any further though, let me make one thing very very clear: I am a cis woman; Moore’s comments are transphobic; Julie Burchill’s comments, spawned by the reaction to Moore, are also transphobic; they make me feel physically sick.
But let’s talk about that incredibly complex, difficult to grasp, highly theoretical concept that is intersectionality. Stavvers in another similar debate recently put it wonderfully: for some people, things suck harder. Think things suck because you’re a woman? Try being black, or disabled, or non-straight, or a trans woman. Things suck harder. This does not mean that things don’t suck for straight, white, able-bodied, cis women. But it does mean that for some women they suck even harder. This is not a difficult concept to wrap your head around if you have a minimum level of human empathy.
Now let’s go back to Suzanne Moore’s comment above: Intersectionality means that no one can speak for anyone else. Imagine the same comment being made by David Cameron; or Nick Clegg; or, frankly, any straight, white dude. Imagine a straight, white dude complaining that they weren’t allowed to speak for women, or people of colour, or gay people. Suzanne Moore would be the first on the barricades. That’s precisely what her original, unfortunately formulated essay that started all this is about.
When she complains about men legislating on women’s reproductive freedoms, she is objecting to others speaking for her. When she complains about certain parts of the left rallying around Julian Assange, she is objecting to others speaking for her. When she complains about David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to “calm down dear”, she is objecting to others speaking for her. What kind of cognitive failure does it take to write all that and then complain that intersectionality means she is not allowed to speak for other people?
There are some cases when it is appropriate to speak for others. They are few and far between, but they are there. They are those occasions when you have taken the time to truly listen and understand others. They are the occasions where your privilege – no matter how limited – gives you a voice more likely to be heard. They are the occasions when you can act as an ally.
Unless that is what you are trying to do – and you have truly taken the time to listen and understand – you are better off keeping your thoughts to yourself. And if, occasionally, you do slip up, then have the backbone to apologise and learn from the experience when called on it.