Wednesday, 8 July 2009


I recently bought a copy of Glamour magazine (yeah shut up they were giving away my favourite brand of mascara) and, among all the body snarking, unflattering clothes and general feminist-baiting nonsense, I noticed this golden nugget-

Hey, it's OK... secretly enjoy a construction worker's wolf-whistle, but give him the death stare anyway.

Heh, yeah. You know what else I secretly love, ladies? When an old guy is chasing me around the park when I'm in my underwear and we disappear behind a bush and when we come out the other side, I'm chasing him! So funny.

But something interesting happened yesterday. I was out in my short shorts and boots and my route took me past a building site. I braced myself for the usual nonsense when I got looked over, but then this builder did something different- he smiled at me. And, partly out of surprise, I smiled back. Obviously the guy only thought I was attractive; having never layed eyes on me before he clearly wasn't interested in my sparkling personality. But instead of reducing me to parts, he chose to treat me like a human being. I'm always going to respond better to a smile than a hurled comment like "Show us your beaver" (tragically genuine).

I've had a lot of nasty, abusive supposed come-ones hurled at me and I'm not sure how anyone expects me to respond positively to "Nice legs love, you want to wrap em around me." It took me a disturbingly long time to realise that these weren't supposed to work like that. These men didn't want to get me into bed, they wanted me to know my place. They wanted me to know that I didn't have the freedom to just walk down the street in an outfit I look good in and expect not to get hassled.

That said, I do believe that it is possible to come on to a stranger without completely objectifying them. The "humourless feminist" trope is often used to label women who resist objectification as anti-fun and anti-sex, but I know the difference between being hit on and dehumanised. The builder who smiled at me, or the man in Boston who yelled "Girl, you're looking good! Are you feeling good", were making an effort to engage with me as a person rather than just tits and ass for their viewing pleasure. And I check people out, I think many of us do. We all know where to draw the line, it's just that some of us choose not to. Like I keep saying, men are not animals. Men have control and the ability to make decisions. We just need to kick away this frame-work that allows many to make bad ones.*

There is still a problem with even the most well-intentioned heckles, though. We are so used to being accused of leading men on and this being used to defend crimes against our minds and bodies that it shouldn't be a surprise when we don't smile back. I have had pleasant conversations turn unexpectedly to forceful demands for my number, or coffee, or insistent offers of a ride, so I stopped conversing with strangers. I guy on a bus leered at me hitching my tights and after I expressed my disinterest, he loudly conversed at a girl who clearly didn't speak English well, shouting about how "nice" it was to meet a "nice girl" on a bus for once. Why should we be game and giggly when the fact of "being nice" may be taken down and used as evidence against us?

Obviously, a lot needs to change and so much of it is out of our power. The pick-up culture needs to go, the culture of disrespect, the culture of expectation and objectification. It's so ingrained and needs to be whittled down over generations as we teach our children to respect their minds and bodies and the minds and bodies of others. In the short term, we have to try to be less afraid of being called boring or frigid or no fun. Smile back or don't smile back, but don't be scared.

*There is a thought provoking comment about this article- which suggests that, if men are such uncontrollable primal creatures, then why the hell do they have all the global positions of power? You can't have it both ways, Berlusconi. I recommend this article, and indeed the site, if you like science and hate misuse of it to further unpleasant personal aims. Thanks to Paul for the link.

Friday, 3 July 2009

On Not Getting Married

I think the most offensive thing that's ever been said to me was by a very close friend. We were discussing marriage and I was asked for my take. I said that I didn't really believe in it. The response was "You don't believe in love?". Now, I doubt the person in question even remembers this exchange and would possibly be kind of embarassed by now, since it was kind of a while ago. But it made a deep impression on me and got me thinking very deeply about why we still can't really divorce love and marriage.

The origins of marriage are pretty mysterious and lots of theories have been thrown out, including controlling the spread of disease, identifying genetic lines (which makes sense if the results of inbreeding are seen), contol of female sexuality and property laws. Marriage cropped up independently in a great many of the world's cultures*, leading both religious and secular to the conclusion that it was a pretty important thing. But most of these factors are no longer relevent. We don't live in tribes, we have health-care and the world has been taking tentative steps towards treating women as equal citizens for a while. Marriage these days is ideally about love, and while the taints of misogyny linger in the associated gender roles of "husband" and "wife", they are very rarely seen as being good motivations for marriage. It's all about the love.

Now, having been exposed to our culture at all growing up in this society, I too felt from an early age that I was going to grow up, fall in love and get married. I had Disney-fied fantasies of princess weddings, horses and family-members weeping with joy. My playmates at primary school would act out little weddings under the doting eyes of our supervisors, even as their parents fought and cheated and divorced. My father dying young, I got to mythologise my parents marriage. They married on the cheap, the church decorated by donated flowers, and it is still one of the most beautiful scenes I could imagine. When I was older my mother, sensibly, pointed out that we can't have known how their marriage would have turned out, but I knew, because they were in love.

I think this child-like idealism has permeated society to the point where the symbol of marriage, the wedding, is much more important than the marriage itself. The wedding industrial complex is cynically built upon our fantasies and people are encouraged to spend much much more money than they can afford on a single day, rather than the rest of their lives that that day is supposed to signify. In media geared towards women in particular marriage is a milestone that proves one's worth. Not the falling in love, it is the act of getting married that proves that you have made it as a human being. Divorce continues to be rife, the recent drop turning out, sadly, to have rather a lot to do with the fact that couples could no longer afford to seperate. If anything, the rise in divorce as acted as fuel for the idealistic passions of the young and in love; our love is different. Our love is special. Our love will survive against all odds.

Now this makes me sound pretty cynical, but this is the point. My romantic lack of cynicism is exactly the reason that, in recent years, I realised that I didn't want to get married. I am in love and that is between me and whoever I'm in love with. I don't have anything to prove.

Firstly, I don't have anything to prove to the church. I am not religious and it is merciful that the condition of my hymen is no longer pertinent to my suitability as a partner. The fetishisation of female virginity in the form of the white dress, which permeates even secular weddings though virginity itself is now present in ever fewer cases, was brought in by the Victorians and should have gone out with them. The stigma of being born out of wedlock is becoming out-moded, so I don't have to justify the existence of children. Secondly, I have nothing to prove to the state. Even with the ridiculous legal bullshit and bonuses still given the married, I fail to see how it is the government's business who I share my bed with. Both institutions also currently grant themselves the right to deem what kind of love, between consenting adults, is legitimate and which isn't. I want no part in such baseless, crass discrimination. Depending on how my life turns out, I may not have the choice.

I would be lying if I said that my feminism didn't in any way inform my stance against marriage. As I've pointed out elsewhere, gender roles have been shown to become more traditional once a couple marries. Domestic violence usually emerges after the honeymoon or during the first pregnancy, with stunned women feeling obligated to stay now that they are married and/or having a child together. Women are expected to identify themselves by their married status in a way that men are not. I'm still surprised by how many organisations refuse to acknowledge me as a Ms, as if a wedding somehow affects my right to buy plane tickets or try to win a bicycle. I am not a maiden or a crone, I am me and that is enough. Similarly, the practice of changing one's name is still common place. My mother didn't change hers, so I've never understood this one. Even though the notion of labelling property has receeded to the background for the most part (especially with fewer women promising to obey), there is still an unsavoury flavour to a woman signifying a change of identity upon signing a contract; I am no longer my father's girl, I am my husband's. Falling in love shouldn't be expected to completely alter the identity of either party, since if you fall in love with a person, you fall in love with them and not who you want to change them in to. In this day and age, it is still expected that a woman accept a new identity as Mrs while men carry on as Mr all their lives. For me, the label of "wife" carries too much baggage for me ever to feel comfortable in it.

I used the word contract above and I suppose that this is the bottom line about marriage and me. I don't need to sign a contract to prove that I love someone. I have the romantic and rather uncynical notion that love is enough to keep to people together. While it is shown that those who co-habit without marrying are more likely to break up, the happiness of those who marry is not taken into consideration, a socially smiled-upon "stable foundation" for children being deemed much more important than the happiness of any of the parties involved. It would mean more to me that my partner could easily leave and choose not to than stay, feeling that they are under contract to do so. It is expensive and stressful to divorce, and more likely to be acrimonious than a simple break-up, where there's still a chance we could remain friends.

I need to know that I'm in a relationship for the right reasons. If I married my partner, I could no longer trust myself that I was still with them out of love. The stress of this is more likely to break up my marriage than any other factor. I have nothing to prove to anyone. My partner knows I love them, the people who care about us know we're in love, so who else needs to know? I don't need the aproval of anyone else or a symbolic and lying white dress to let the world know I'm in love. No-one can feel the love I feel, no-one can really understand anybody else's relationship, so why do we pretend? It was a freeing feeling to look at the expected life progression, say "Why?", and realise that, for me, there was no good reason.

*I should point out that I'm talking Western attitudes to marriage here. I'm no anthropologist and wouldn't have much of a clue about the genealogy of marriage in the rest of the world.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Death of Satire

If I were writing a satirical or parodic feature, for the Onion or McSweeney's or something, I don't think I would have the imagination to come up with "On the issue of same-sex marriage, we have much to learn from the writers of ancient Rome". This sentence is a perfect storm of multifaceted stupidity by itself; it can only be overegging the pudding to note that the author of that sublime phrase is being quoted by a pundit (David Klinghoffer, author of How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative) whose thesis is that the general acceptance of same-sex marriage would lead to the general population of men being so enamoured of the sexual joys of other men that they would find themselves utterly uninterested in women. I simply cannot bring myself to mount any criticism of this argument. Just look at it.

Monday, 29 June 2009

I'm already sick of today

I'm just going to have to stop reading the news for the sake of my blood pressure:

Overweight celebrities such as Gavin and Stacey star James Corden are making dangerous weight gain appear normal, a medical expert is warning.

Professor Michael McMahon of Nuffield Health says fat stars are seen as role models, helping to make being overweight acceptable.

He says it is akin to the dangers of skinny media images and anorexia.

For fuck's sake. There are about three fat celebrities, and they're all named in that article. And James Corden and Ruth Jones are famous for one show, and Beth Ditto's had one album. That's it, I'm seriously stretching to think of another celebrity who might credibly be called fat. Chris Moyles doesn't count, he's in radio. But apparently the danger of fat people not self-hating for five consecutive waking fucking minutes is so great that we must consider any deliberate portrayal of anyone larger than the accepted standard as a dire threat to the sanctity of our nation. How on Earth can a few fat celebrities possibly outweigh (AHAHAHAHA) the entire modelling industry?

The excellent Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister said it best:

If you're fat, you're not only meant to be unhappy, but deeply ashamed of yourself, projecting at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of your everlasting remorse for having wrought your monstrous self upon the world. You are certainly not meant to be bold, or assertive, or confident—and should you manage to overcome the constant drumbeat of messages that you are ugly and unsexy and have earned equally society's disdain and your own self-hatred, should you forget your place and walk into the world one day with your head held high, you are to be reminded by the cow-calls and contemptuous looks of perfect strangers that you are not supposed to have self-esteem; you don't deserve it. Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.

The patronising tone of this bullshit is just too much for me.

Researchers found many obese people refused to take any action about their situation with almost one in five not contemplating doing anything to lose weight.

Imagine that! As many as twenty percent of overweight people think you should shut your fucking gob about what you think is best for them!

Tired of this shit. I'm off to found a commune or something.

Say what?

In an article about the Metropolitan Police's botched handling of the G20 protests, something jumped out at me:

Chairman of the committee Keith Vaz said the public "clearly don't understand" the reasons for using kettling and other public order strategies.

"What's acceptable, what's within the police rule book - the use of distraction tactics, for example, slapping or hitting people - shocked the public," he told the BBC.

Wait. Unprovoked violent attacks on protesters is an official police tactic?

You're right, Vaz - I don't think the UK public quite understands that.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

This is interesting as hell. A Swedish couple are refusing to impose gender norms on their child, Pop.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child's parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop's wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop's hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

There seem to be two great benefits here. Firstly, greater autonomy for the child - avoiding all the "don't play with dolls unless they're soldiers" crap. Secondly and most importantly, a lot of people find that their gender doesn't match their sex, and I can only imagine that being raised without the weight of society demanding that your behaviour match what's between your legs helps in those cases.

The article quotes an essential psychologist who disapproves, but I don't buy her objection:

“I don’t think that trying to keep a child’s sex a secret will fool anyone, nor do I think it’s wise or ethical,” says Pinker. “As with any family secret, when we try to keep an elemental truth from children, it usually blows up in the parent’s face, via psychosomatic illness or rebellious behaviour.”

But what truth is being kept from Pop? They know what they look like naked - Pop knows hir biological sex. And Pop's gender is not decided, and wouldn't be decided even if s/he were being raised traditionally. We don't realise this because we expect everyone's gender to conform to their sex, and are totally shocked if our child turns out to be trans. But the fact that the majority decide their gender does match their sex doesn't change the fact that that is a decision. Pop's parents are taking the step of waiting for their child to answer that question in their own time. I think that's great.

Easy Pickings

In September I start my MA in History of Philosophy, and if all goes to plan I'll start my PhD in philosophy a year after that, meaning that in five, six years tops I should be a doctor of philosophy and looking for work. This is an intimidating prospect, for all that it's far off - competition is fierce for academic jobs given how few are available.

But here's a ray of hope - I could become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto! I would certainly do a better job of it than Professor David Novak, the latest to tilt at windmills and try to make a secular case against gay marriage.

His arguments here are a rehash of long-debunked idiocies, with a patina of pretension. You've heard it all before: the point of the institution of marriage is allegedly to encourage, protect and to a certain degree control procreation and the raising of children. Ergo, vis a vis, concordantly, no queers allowed. I'll quote him directly:

If the public reason for the institution of marriage is to facilitate procreation and the exercise of parental rights and obligations as well as filial rights and obligations, then it follows that marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples. Only they are capable of procreation.

No, it does not follow at all. I have a knife that was designed to cut vegetables, but I am violating no moral law if I use it to open a package. The public reason for the institution of the playground across the road is for children to play in, but I can still have a go on the swings. This is the genealogical fallacy: marriage was "originally meant" for one man and one woman to raise kids in, and nothing can, will, or should ever change. As an aside, here, it's absurdly ahistorical to claim that this is marriage's Eternal Purpose. Control of virginity, economic domination of women, not ringing any bells here?

To the well-known objection that we commonly allow men and women to marry despite their inability or unwillingness to have children, Novak waves an airy hand and quote some Latin:

But I would answer that objection by citing the old legal principle: de minimis non curat lex, which could be translated (freely) as: The law is only made for what usually obtains. The fact is, the overwhelming number of people who marry are fertile and are of an age to be fertile.

But, given the comparative portion of straights to non-straights, this would still be the case given gay marriage.

And then, of course, in reality many gay couples actually do raise children together. But Novak thinks this is gross and mean:

First, consider surrogacy or artificial insemination. This involves a violation of a child’s natural right to have both natural parents raise him or her.

Oh, please. Yes, it is quite properly the assumption that a child's birth parents will raise them. But how on Earth does that become a hallowed right? Where is that right found? Novak barely bothers to argue for this very strange-sounding right, except by a lazy appeal to the presumed feelings of "overwhelming numbers" of children, a tactic eerily reminiscent of this hilarious and revolting NOM ad. Why should, of all things, genetic resemblance - because that is the only criterion for "natural parenthood" being invoked - create mind-forg'd manacles binding two people? That's Blake, by the way. See, we can all quote old things and sound smart. Novak's bizarre hostility to the idea goes so far that he calls it a "conspiracy ab initio to prevent the child so conceived from being raised by —often not to even recognize—his or her own natural mother"! "Ab initio" means "from the start", by the way - why Novak couldn't just say that, I don't know.

The paragraph continues on in that vein, all a hysterical condemnation of homosexuals and liberals based on phantasmagoric "natural rights". He even manages to slip an anti-choice message in there! That's a bonus.

What about adoption, though? Some bright-eyed moppet cruelly abandoned by the doubtless God-fearing heterosexual couple whose natural and decent copulation brought said moppet into this vale of tears, couldn't this kid be raised by Two Daddies? Novak grudgingly admits that it's probably better for an orphan to be raised by a gay couple than to labour their short life in some Dickensian workhouse, but het couples should still be given preference! Why?

That is because a heterosexual couple can better simulate—perhaps improve upon—the heterosexual union that produced this child and should be raising this child. It better simulates the duty of the natural parents to this child, a duty they would not or could not exercise. This, by the way, is not arguing empirically that opposite sex couples are necessarily better at raising children than same-sex couples. My arguments are based on the concepts of rights, not on the concept of utility. Thus my arguments are a priori, not a posteriori.

Because heterosexual parents look more like the kid's genetic parents! What an utterly specious bit of logic. It's a fun concept to play around with, taken to its logical conclusion ("Okay, apparently Timmy's mum liked Star Wars, how do you feel about that? And would you consider dying your hair? We're really trying to create as much resemblance as possible...") but an utterly silly standard for adoption. The logic here seems to be "heterosexual unions do produce children, therefore heterosexual unions ought to raise children". This involves two logical leaps in one bad argument - from "do" to "ought", and from "produce" to "raise"! Kids, try and colour in the blanks! Why a heterosexual couple's duty to children in their care differs substantially from a homosexual couple's duty to children in their care would seem to be the cornerstone of this argument, so it's a shame that Novak doesn't even bother to mention it.

This is illogical, insubstantial nonsense, which I strongly suspect is an attempt to justify a pretheoretical dislike of homosexuals. Surely someone, somewhere, can do a better job than Novak.

Monday, 18 May 2009

On Rationality

So, among the myriad sins of the New York Times is that they let Stanley Fish blog, which seems unfair, like how people used to make bears dance. This meandering shout-out to Terry Eagleton has mostly attracted criticisms of Eagleton, but since I haven't read Eagleton (nor will my limited book budget stretch to buying publications I already know are idiotic from the quotes pulled by its supporters) I'll settle for stepping up to Fish on the nonsense he's peddling.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Of course, what religion does exactly is not a question any of this lot are interested in answering. This appeal to literature and ballet is smoke and mirrors, because then they'd be in agreement with the atheists. We're happy to treat the Bible as a work of literature, fold RE classes into English classes and regard somebody who treats the New Testament as a guide to life with much the same suspicion as we'd regard somebody who treats the Iliad as a guide to life. But no, religion isn't just literature, it's something more. Well, then, what the bloody hell is it?

After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.”

ARGH. You know, what I find the most apoplexy-inducing thing in this paragraph is Fish's blithe "of course", there. It really exposes the poverty of these arguments. Fish and Eagleton happily excoriate atheists for not understanding "what religion is going for". Look how stupid Hitchens is for thinking that religion explains the world! And then, "of course" Fish and Eagleton can't tell us what religion is for. Do you know, at the end of this article Fish has the nerve to sigh over how irritating it is to waste energy over the "shallow arguments" of "school-yard atheists"? I think I need to go to bed.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, mail, upgrade it

The story above - sorry if anyone outside the UK can't see it - is about a "manga-style" Bible being developed for students. As a teaching aid, I like it. Comics are a great way to communicate complex information in an engaging way; Scott McCloud's nonfiction works, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, are probably the best-known examples. But what really draws me to this is my love of reinvention, reimagining, rethinking. I'm reading Borges' collected fictions at the moment, and he's very fond of retelling stories from new perspectives - he imagines the point of view of the Minotaur, or the Ring of the Nibelung told from Fafnir's side. Film adaptations of books are obviously a matter of course. Musically, DJ bc's brilliant Wu Orleans album mashed up the Wu-Tang Clan's vocals with Dixieland jazz to create something completely new.