I’m going to write a proper post about Burnout when I have a moment (hah!), but in summary, this is a mostly useful book. I found the chapters on the science of stress particularly helpful and have changed my own behaviour in response. It’s written for women and it’s nice to have a self-help book that actually names the problem (‘patriarchy ugh!’). However, I don’t think the book is so strong when it comes to long-term solutions and, while it nods to intersectionality, it lacks any class consciousness.
Book six in the Ruth Galloway series, which has been keeping me in bedtime reading for a few months now. In this one, Ruth is involved in a TV show about the bones of a woman accused of being a child murderer, while her police friends deal with the case of a mother whose three children have died in mysterious circumstances. Then another child disappears. I found The Outcast Dead enjoyable enough, although Griffiths has failed to make me care about Judy and her relationship with Cathbad, which is a major plot point in this one.
Last, but definitely not least, Nalo Hopkinson’s fantasy/horror collection, Fallingin Love with Hominids, was no question the best book I read during February. I’m hoping to write a post about it, so I won’t dwell too much here, but it’s a wide-ranging collection of thought-provoking and often startling stories, which ‘mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore’ (Goodreads). Hopkinson has an incredible imagination and a straightforward, direct style of writing that lures you into her tales of zombies, ghosts and monsters before usually subverting your expectations.
If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.
A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.
But let’s be clear, this is about far more than just hurt feelings and humiliation. This kind of body terrorism means that fat people get denied jobs, housing, affordable and adequate healthcare, and various other services simply because other people don’t like our bodies […] Everywhere we turn, everywhere we go, we are reminded about how much people hate us and our bodies, and how much they think we should hate ourselves and our bodies, too. We are continually told, in one way or another, that we are not allowed to take up this space and that we will not be valuable unless we shrink. For many of us, this has been happening our entire lives, or for the vast majority of it. It’s deeply dehumanizing and demoralizing, but for a lot of fatphobic people, that’s exactly the point. They think we don’t deserve to have a good relationship with our bodies. They think we don’t deserve any other kind of existence. They often think we don’t deserve to exist at all.
I have found that almost all of the romance novels I have read achieve something that sounds mundane, but remains quite radical: they model a form of female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature. Imagining stories for women (too often, but not always, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and monogamous) that end optimistically, these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy.
Post-rehab, Maggie Terry is single-mindedly trying to keep her head down in New York City. There’s a madman in the White House, the subways are constantly delayed, summer is relentless, and neighborhoods all seem to blend together.
Against this absurd backdrop, Maggie wants nothing more than to slowly rebuild her life in hopes of being reunited with her daughter. But her first day on the job as a private investigator lands her in the middle of a sensational new case: actress strangled. If Maggie is going to solve this mystery, she’ll have to shake the ghosts—dead NYPD partner, vindictive ex, steadfast drug habit—that have long ruled her life.
Individual loneliness is a fickle, nebulous sensation. Like other emotions, it is deeply situational—it makes a difference whether you feel lonely because every time you walk down the street a slur is shouted at you or you feel lonely because the spouse you beat every third night has finally left you. As individuals we are not owed freedom from loneliness any more than we can demand love from those we want it from. But collectively we can recognize patterns of loneliness as symptoms of awful structural injustices. And we can use our loneliness as impetus to work toward systems that ethically meet our social and emotional needs. The way to help alleviate the loneliness of the oppressed is to continue to destroy oppressive structures and support organizing and resistance. The only way to ethically survive loneliness is to look at labor: to ask who performs care work for me, who I perform it for, what systems are viable and where I transmute being abandoned to resistance.
Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.
Jean: “So the act of writing can be an act of pleasure, of reparation?”
Sara: “I’d go further than that and say an act of power. You invent these people, you can make them do what the fuck you like, if you are fed up with them you can bloody kill them off. They’re absolutely mine, I created them and I control them. Writing is a real act of power which I achieve nowhere else”.
Jan Radford, ‘Women Writing’, published in Spare Rib, 76, November 1978.
This is an interesting post from NPR’s blog, At the Movies: The Women are Gone. It makes the important point that the lack of women in the movies has nothing to do with the popularity or income-generating potential of women-centred movies:
They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by “we,” I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says “win some, lose some” and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every “surprise success” about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.
I was at my mother’s house yesterday sorting through the stuff I’ve stored there over the years. Being reunited with so many past selves was an enjoyable, if slightly unsettling, experience and the contents of one dusty box were particularly poignant. When I opened it I found, to my surprise, my favourite Barbie and Sindy dolls from choldhood carefully packed away in there, most of them wearing their now rather tatty original outfits. I’d assumed they’d all been given away years ago.
My Barbies and Sindys were very important to me and extravagantly loved. I would pick out the one I wanted months in advance of Christmas or my birthday. My mother would then buy it with her Brian Mills home shopping catalogue credits and hide it on top of the wardrobe until the date came around. My parents were the sort of back-to-the-land hippies who probably didn’t approve of Barbie at all, but having both experienced neglect in their own childhoods, they wanted to try and give us the toys we asked for and didn’t interfere very much.
Left to choose for myself, I did not pick the more sensible looking models, such as astronaut or vet Barbie. No, I always asked for the most fabulous Barbies available, the high femmes with with the biggest, shiniest dresses. I even had the glow-in-the-dark Barbie. You might not believe it to look at me now, but I’ve always had an interest in glamour and a liking for shiny things and the Barbies and the Sindys of the 1980s more than satisfied this desire. As I opened each new doll and carefully removed her from her box, I would swear to myself that I’d keep this one in pristine condition, a resolution that never lasted more than a couple of weeks.
My only noticeable break with convention was my insistence that the dolls lived in a woman-only commune to which Ken dolls were refused admittance (someone did eventually buy me one, of which more in a moment). We had friends who lived in communes and there was womens’ land in existence near to where I grew up, which may have been the inspiration. I remember that the womens’ land was viewed with much suspicion in the local community. I didn’t understand the reasons for this suspicion at the time, but it gave it a thrilling whiff of transgression.
The all-time favourite – Crystal Barbie (1983)
Her stoll is in quite good condition, but the dress is sadly worn. It should be shiny all over. I’ve lost her jewelry, which I thought one of the most special things about her. Imaginatively renamed ‘Christina’, Crystal Barbie went on to become one of the leaders of my doll commune, along with ballet dancer Sindy (who later died tragically in a dog attack). I gave Christina a “daughter” (an appropriately sized Pippa doll), which made her into a single mum because she never had a husband or a boyfriend. I think this was quite daring.
The second favourite – Masquerade Sindy (1984)
Words cannot describe just how much I wanted this Sindy doll. I got her for Christmas and wouldn’t put her down for days. I’m sorry I didn’t photograph her with her opera mask because I do still have it. The hairdo has collapsed and that red and white flower thing is not exactly original (This is how she’s supposed to look). Her outfit was apparently designed by the Emmanuels (remember them, 80s kids?), the same people who did Lady Di’s wedding dress. I found that very impressive. Masquerade was renamed ‘Elizabeth’ and was always a bit full of herself.
Jewel Secrets Barbie (1986)
Another extremely fabulous Barbie, Jewel Secrets came with a weird skirt that could double as a bag – for jewelry, I presume. I now think it makes her look a bit like one of those dolls my Nan used to cover up spare toilet rolls in the bathroom. She did have a second outfit underneath the bag, as demonstrated here. I was very pleased with Jewel Secrets because she had extra long hair, which I was obviously having fun styling right up until the day she went into the box. Jewel Secrets did however lead to someone giving me ‘Jewel Secrets Ken’, who was a slightly creepy looking individual. My mother insists that I asked for this Ken, but I have a feeling it was more the case that someone in my family, concerned about the obvious lack of Ken dolls, persuaded me to accept him. We ended up making him into someone’s brother and, eventually, the on-again-off-again boyfriend of one of my sister’s Barbies.
If anyone can identify this Sindy doll, please let me know in the comments. I can’t remember what she was called, but I can see why I wanted her – great fishtail dress, feather boa and diamante necklace. I think she may have been created to compete with Barbie and the fact that she’s still wearing her necklace shows her treasured she was.
Day to Night Barbie – 1984
Day to Night Barbie is the only one of my dolls to make the Muse’s approved feminist Barbie list. She may have spent all night partying, but she at least appeared to have a job in the daytime. I called her Samantha (very Sex in the City, eh?) and loved her so much that her original outfits have completely disintegrated. I obviously still cared about her enough to dress her in what looks like one of Jewel Secrets’s spare outfits (it has one of the weird bag skirts and that’s the sort of necklace Jewel would sport). My partner is jealous because she wanted this Barbie and never got it.
I’m not attempting to defend what these toys represent because it’s reprehensible. Their existence is symptomatic of sexism, capitalism, consumerism and racism, and that’s just for starters. But finding my old dolls did make me pause and think about the ways in which children will work with what they’ve got, attach meaning to toys and create narratives around them that make sense in the context of their own lives – hence my Barbie woman-only commune.
Nobody plays with Barbie in a cultural vacuum and I’m troubled by the unacknowledged classism that often crops up in feminist discussions about these toys (“I didn’t play with Barbie because I was too busy out in the back garden building a telescope out of old lolly pop sticks with my Dad etc.”). You can also end up playing not very helpful games of “more-feminist-than-thou” or “not-like-the-other-girls” which don’t really get to the root of why children like these toys, or indeed why they might be problematic.
Did my Barbie habit do me any harm? She’s often blamed for causing body-image problems and, while I think my own issues with food had far more obvious causes, I’m sure these dolls did give me bad messages about femininity, sexuality and value of women: in the world of 1980s Barbie, “beauty” equals whiteness, wealth and a completely unachievable body type. I think children should have access to toys that help them explore adult femaleness and femininity, but it would have been better for me to have had dolls that represent adult female bodies more realistically and with more diversity.
Why was I so fixated on these fabulous dolls? I think they were so enticing, partly because their appearance was so different to anything I experienced in my daily life. We lived in a poor rural area and the women I knew impressed me as sensible, hardworking types who always seemed to be digging up swedes or plucking chickens. People had to be very thrifty and makeup and dresses were strictly for special occasions, if ever. I admired these women and identified with them far more than I did with my dolls, but I also wanted the fantasy escape offered by Barbie. So my Barbies did their farm work and them came home and sat around drinking tea in their ball gowns.
I think were was another more profound and uncomfortable reason. My world often seemed chaotic and frightening and I experienced the regular gift of the Christmas or birthday Barbie doll as extremely reassuring. No matter how bad things got, the dolls appeared reliably every year. They meant that my stressed out parents still cared for me. This reminds me of a little girl who was friends with my sister. She lived with her mum in a tiny house in the village. Her father had been killed in a freak accident and they had very little money. I’ll never forget how proudly she showed us her My Little Pony collection and how she treasured those toys. The ponies are comforting because they are a group of friends, but for this little girl I think they were also a sign of love, because her mother must have really struggled to buy them for her. Even as my parents were going bankrupt, my mother continued to save up her catalogue credits to buy us those dolls.
More food for thought: Gabriel Galimberti, Toy Stories, photographs of children from around the world with their favourite toys (thanks @infamy_infamy)
When feminism exploded into my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality. It saved me from either giving up writing entirely, or the worse prospect of writing lies in order to achieve some measure of grudging acceptance. But at the same time, Feminism destroyed all my illusions about Literature. Feminism revealed the city as an armed compound to which I would never be admitted. It forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men, judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body. If that was so, all my assumptions about the worth of writing, particularly working-class writing, were false. Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold, but all acting in the service of a Great Lie — what the system itself labelled Universal Truth. If that truth erased me and all those like me, then my hopes to change the world through writing were illusions. I lost my faith. I became a feminist activist propelled in part by outrage and despair, and a stubborn determination to shape a life, and create a literature, that was not a lie.
— Dorothy Allison, ‘Believing in Literature’, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 167.
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).
Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world. In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.
“The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music“, Sue Ellen Case, ‘Tracking the Vampire’ in Differences (1991) (p. 3).
The other day, an online conversation reminded me of my teenage love of musicals, in particular, my obsession, between the ages of nine and thirdteen, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. My cooler friends were into Les Miserables, which even I had to acknowledge had a better score than Phantom, but I’ve always had a taste for glamour, the gothic and, of course, the queer, and on all those fronts, Phantom won hands down.
My early love of Phantom is an example of how queer kids often cultivate interests that appear acceptable on the surface of things, but privately rewrite their meaning to meet their own emotional and erotic needs. No one objected to my love of Phantom because an interest in musicals is considered acceptable for white, middle-class teenage girls and because they assumed that I identified with Christine and her romance with Raoul.
In fact I identified passionately with the Phantom himself, the queer figure who lurks underground (and outside heteronormativity) and who exerts a mesmerising power over beautiful women, a figure who isn’t what he appears to be and who hides a terrible secret under his mask where he bears the mark of his ‘queerness’. The Phantom/Angel of Music/Erik allows us to face our fears of being literally unmasked and seen for what we really are. I even had my own Phantom of the Opera mask and hat.
In attempting to drop a chandelier on Christine’s bland boyfriend, Raoul (see video below), the Phantom in his role as return of the repressed, acts out a queer rage against the dominant discourse. From a feminist perspective, (and I’m sure there must be cultural critics out there who’ve talked about this), the Phantom can also be seen as an avatar of Christine herself, since the death of Raoul would save her from the fate of a dull marriage to a painfully boring man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career. The Phantom may be creepy, but at least he wants to unleash Christine’s creativity and show her what she can achieve. In gothic and horror fiction, the queer monster often allows women to dally with possibilities beyond heterosexual marriage, but only within the context of a parasitical or vampiric relationship that threatens to destroy them. For the monstrous queer figure, the attempt to express him/herself through the woman ultimately it leaves him/her voiceless. If you’re interested, Rhona J. Bernstein’s book, Attack of the Leading Ladies is very good on this special relationship between the monster and the ‘leading lady’.
When I was thirdteen, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was fourteen I took up with the Rocky Horror Show, but that’s a whole other post. For now, here’s the original video starring an unblinking Sarah Brightman as Christine, a rather stiff and awkward Steve Harley as the Phantom, and the most amazing mullet on the guy playing Raoul. It now looks like a particularly bad Meatloaf video, but I loved it at the time.
Last week we got together with some women friends to talk about the music that’s influenced our relationships with feminism. We put together a playlist, listened to each track in turn, and then discussed the reasons why it had made the list.
Talking through the tracks, I was reminded of just how powerfully music becomes associated with particular moments in our lives. After we listened to L7’s ‘Shove’, the women of around my age talked about Donita Sparks’s legendary tampon throwing moment at Reading Festival in 1992. I’ll also never forget Donita blowing my poor little repressed mind on British youth television show, The Word, when she pulled down her pants during a performance to reveal a serious lack of underwear. These may not have been the most helpful feminist acts ever taken (or maybe you think they were), but we agreed that they made us feel that something was changing and it was exciting. For similar reasons, but from a few years later, Andy talked about No Doubt’s song ‘Just a Girl’ which threw stark light on her suburban upbringing, a childhood of bedrooms being painted pink by parents and an adolescence of being told not to drive at night.
Andy also nominated Lesley’s Gore’s proto-feminist 1964 hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ which was part of the soundtrack to her childhood because her parents love all of that 60s pop, but which took on new meaning as she came to appreciate the lyrics and discovered that Gore later came out as a lesbian, a piece of queer knowledge that gives an added twist to the song’s meaning. When we first started dating she put the song on a mix CD for me, as a bit of homage to the way that music has become a method of communication between lesbians. I think the song still sounds fresh and relevant.
Speaking of leshian music, I was quite glad to find that I wasn’t the only one who thought Kathleen Hanna was singing ‘She’s got the hottest dyke in town’ on ‘Rebel Girl’ rather than ‘She’s got the hottest trike in town’. And the oldest woman in the group brought along a vinyl copy of Alix Dobkin’s Lavender Jane Loves Women, the very first album made by and for lesbians, released in 1973. We didn’t get round to listening to it, but maybe next time we will, even if it is, as she says, “a bit scratched”.
The politics of Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’ surprised us when we stopped just listening to the pretty production, actually read the lyrics, and found that they address the way that poor kids are sent off to die in war. Kate Bush is very important to me; I spent a lot of time in my childhood dancing in the kitchen to her album The Dreaming.
Andy recommended Ani DiFranco’s ‘Talk to me Now’ from her first album released when she was 19 years old, which features the great line, “I was blessed with a birth and a death and I guess I just want some say in between”. There was a general agreement that DiFranco is particularly good at drawing the political implications out of personal experience.
Patti Smith’s extraordinary ‘Gloria’ was universally loved and still has the power to make me blush. I actually bought her album Horses because of her photograph on the cover, not because I knew anything about the music. There was a lot of discussion about Smith’s self-presentation and although I hate the word ’empowering’, right now I can’t think of another one to describe the effect people said she continues to have on them.
It was interesting that the Throwing Muses’s song ‘Hate my Way’ was liked and disliked by different people for the same reason – because it’s so raw and angry. I think those of us who like it do so because it represents a woman completely owning her negative thoughts and feelings. The part when Hersh lets rip with ‘My pillow screams too/But so does my kitchen/And water/ And my shoes/And the road’ still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s not the line itself so much as the way she delivers it. Incidentally, I had a nightmare the other night in which I found out that the Throwing Muses were playing in my town and I couldn’t find a computer with internet access to book tickets.
Someone put Sonic Youth’s song ‘Swimsuit Issue’ on the list, causing me to reappraise a band I’d always rather resented because when I was a teenager, only the coolest kids at my school were allowed to listen to Sonic Youth. I would never have dared to listen to them because it would have just looked like I was trying too hard.
I’d never really been convinced by Le Tigre before, but had to admit to enjoying ‘Decaptacon’ and ‘What’s your take on Casevetes?’ I am now persuaded to give them another chance. The same goes for Chicks on Speed and even Peaches. The list introduced me to some new artists to explore, M.I.A who sounds amazing and Fever Ray. Other people were introduced to new music too, and some were espeically bowled over by the gorgeous mystery of Nina Nastasia’s ‘Dear Rose’ from her album Dogs.
Possibly the most important track for me on the list was P J Harvey’s ‘Dress’ from her first album Dry, which a friend put on a mix tape for me way back around 1996 and which started the ongoing love affair with Harvey that has brought me so much joy and pain. I don’t think I’ll try and articulate my feelings; I’ll just post a video of her performing the song live.
We realise that we’ve hardly scratched the surface and that the list had many limitations, so we’ve decided to keep adding to our collaborative playlist and do it all again in a few months time.