Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Book Review: trans like me – a journey for all of us, by CN Lester

I was honoured to be asked by CN to offer a round of feedback on the manuscript for this book prior to publication (with Virago Press). I inhaled the text in a single evening, despite generally dragging my feet when reading longer pieces on my computer screen. The research was incredibly thorough, but at no point did this become dry or stuffy. This book isn’t an academic text in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a very educational one – I’ve already cited it in my own academic writing.

Once I got my hard copy of the book, I felt it had been a long enough time since that editing process that I should really read it again before reviewing – plus, it wouldn’t be fair to assess a pre-final version. Generally I struggle with re-reading books, as my attention often wanes as a result of half-remembering what I’m encountering and having to fight the urge to skim. I was surprised with trans like me, that I was touched more deeply second time around than the first. Divided into 15 chapters over 214 pages, Lester’s conversational style creates an intimate and effective sense of a meaningful conversation over coffee with a friend. Before the journey has really begun, they explain how “to learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we must first unlearn” (p. 5); their experience as a teacher comes through (which we are explicitly told about later, through their careful threading of personal anecdote through the narrative), and an attentive, skilled one at that.

Lester effectively conjures compassion in their audience through beginning by engaging with the worst exploitation of the tabloid press. Their points are consistently reasonable, relatable, and simple. There is no sense of polemic, only kindness. They give of their personal experiences and history generously, but without allowing any reader to fall into voyeurism. Lester gets us thinking about who has the power to tell stories, helping the reader to understand the incredibly invasive expectations, demands, and groping hands trans people can by explicitly targeted with. While there is a partial element of autobiography, trans like me reads as a collection of interrogative, well-evidenced essays that are absolutely committed to an empathetic and intersectional appreciation of many of the central discussions and concerns that come up when trans is on the discussion table. How race and class are profoundly relevant and necessary in any understanding of trans people is also not lost or buried.

It wasn’t far into the book that I started marking ‘wow moments’ in my margins. Brilliant, succinct ripostes to some of the most dangerous and disingenuous (yet pervasive) myths about trans people and communities. These are not incinerated in a blaze of adjectives, but quietly and decisively collapsed. The book manages to do this in a way that is not only affirming to those already familiar with the subject matter, but accessible to those who are not. Lester’s anger is something that one would hope everyone can agree with – anger about bigotry, injustice, violence, callousness, unequal rights, access, and experience. Lester hits the nail on the head by centring empathy in their education and discussion.

I mentioned that I was touched more deeply second time around. For me, this was most profound on page 35: “a question I am often asked is why, as someone who wants to subvert gender norms, i would want or need an additional gendered label. Couldn’t I simply refuse all descriptors? Or, failing that, call myself a feminine man or a masculine woman?”. This made me think of a line from Alan Bennett’s History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. Now I knew this wasn’t unique to me, but I remembered being asked by an exceptionally well-informed and sensitive friend “but aren’t you just a feminist man?” in relation to my own non-binary experience. The discussion that Lester unfolds in response to the rhetorical questions they use is far more helpful (and humble) than a discrete, essential ‘answer’. It made me feel better equipped to have these conversations when (and it is when, not if) they come about.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book. However from my perspective, any critiques feel embarrassingly trivial or unnecessary. When discussing how trans women have been portrayed in popular culture (“the victim, the freak, the joke, the threat” – p. 29) I felt a mention of Julia Serano as quite a marked absence – albeit undoubtedly many of the readers of this book wouldn’t be familiar with Serano’s work. Further, as an academic, while I was glad to see extensive references in the endnotes, I found the system of links listed by page a bit imprecise. These things say much more about me than about the book, and most certainly don’t detract.

CN Lester is one of quite a small handful of people capable of introducing so many aspects of trans lives so well. Doing so to a heterogeneous popular audience is doubly difficult. I can only echo Shami Chakrabarti’s back-cover comment that “I challenge anyone not to have both heart and mind a little more open after reading this book”. This is a book for everyone, living up to the title’s implication of ‘a journey for all of us’. I believe this book can make its readers both wiser and kinder, and makes an incredibly important contribution as a result, that I enthusiastically recommend.

Some thoughts on the intersections of class, femininity, and transgender

In preparing for class, I read a chapter of the book Formations of Class and Gender by Beverley Skeggs (chapter 6, ‘Ambivalent Femininities’). In it, she begins by giving some historical background where she argues that signs of femininity are always classed.

By this, Skeggs is referring to history. Being ‘feminine’ was, and is, constructed to be fragile, delicate, dainty, pretty, small, thin, submissive, and charming. Of course, this has been challenged, resisted and re-negotiated through feminism, but bear with me.

This traditional notion of femininity was and is “a projection of male fantasy”. It is assigned to those women who have ‘proved themselves’ through the way they interact with people and present themselves in the world. Such attribution has been tied not just to presentation and interaction, but also to work – think of the ‘respectable housewife’ image, the epitome of a 1950’s femininity.

Skeggs explains how “working class women were coded as inherently healthy, hardy, and robust (whilst also paradoxically as a source of infection and disease) against the physical frailty of middle-class women. They were also involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity from ever being a possibility.”

Let’s consider the experiences of transgender women. Trans women can experience pressure to ‘pass’ as female (that is, be socially read as if assigned female at birth through appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour). We can see how the same set of problematic norms that dictate what femininity traditionally is in relation to class can be used to exclude transgender womanhood. In this context, femininity is conflated and confused with ‘femaleness’. That is, in order to be viewed as a ‘real’ woman, one has to successfully perform a very constrained and normative interpretation of femininity. Again, this is quite fortunately being challenged, but those trans women who reject traditional/stereotypical femininity and gender roles can and do experience stigma because of it.

What about the intersection – what about working class transgender women? Cisgender working class women can, arguably, struggle to be recognised as feminine due to femininity’s class construction. Trans working class women thus can experience a double bind – exclusion from femininity for working class norms and practices instilled through environment and interaction throughout life, and a likely more difficult battle to perform a middle class femininity adequately in order to be taken seriously as a woman.

Also, putting in ‘too much effort’ can also lead to stigmatisation and be seen as a sign of deviancy! Think of the prevalent and toxic ideas policing women who ‘wear too much make-up’ or ‘try too hard’ – these narratives become connected to the notion of ‘deception’, which then strikes doubly hard for transgender women whose authenticity as women is already under question due to biologically essentialist transphobia (the idea that ‘being female’ is rooted in genitals, chromosomes, etc.)

This one particular example is, I would argue, representative of a systemic problem, whereby class dynamics and economic inequality undermine the fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality. This also emphasises that any attempts to position feminism and transgender rights as somehow at odds with each other are at best, an erroneous relic. Trying to separate them out will only create an under-nuanced model of the society we desperately need to improve.

 

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.

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Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

Queer Biography: Brenda Howard, Creator of the Pride March

For all she did, Brenda Howard is relatively obscure as far as queer heroes go – an injustice, given what she achieved.

Brenda Howard

A qualified nurse, Howard was born in New York in 1946, and throughout the 1960s was an anti-Vietnam war activist. She became active in LGBT and feminist politics – and was a distinct minority in all of these spaces as a bisexual woman. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Howard organised the commemorative rally one month later, as part of her activities within the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). This helped inspire the 1 year celebrations, also arranged by her, known as the Christopher Street (where the Stonewall Inn was found) Liberation March. This is still celebrated annually across the world today. It was also her idea to expand the celebrations to a week-long series of different events, nucleating all future Pride celebrations. She also was one of those responsible for the popularisation of the name ‘Pride’ for these events.

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Showing enormous dedication to social justice, Howard was chair of the Gay Activist’s Alliance. She also wasn’t afraid to get her hand’s dirty, as proven by her multiple arrests in the name of defending those trampled by an unjust establishment. She protested on behalf of minority groups beyond her own experiences of marginalisation.

Howard was arrested in Chicago in 1988, while demonstrating for national health care and the fair treatment of women, people of color, and those living with HIV and AIDS. She was arrested in Georgia in 1991 for protesting the firing of a lesbian from the state attorney general’s office due to Georgia’s anti-sodomy law.

If this wasn’t impressive enough, Howard also founded the New York Area Bisexual Network in 1988, and the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous specifically for bisexual people. She is also credited with aiding Lani Ka’ahumanu in getting bi people included in the 1993 March on Washington – where roughly 1 million people attended.

Howard also identified as polyamorous, and as part of the BDSM community – both strikingly controversial things to be public and proud about during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In recognising her world-changing work, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) created the Brenda Howard Award, presented for work done on behalf of the bisexual community.

Howard passed away from cancer on 28th June 2005 – by some small twist of fate, the date of the Stonewall Riots 36th anniversary. Her impact on a huge number of queer lives is important to remember.

The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why Gay Pride Month is June tell them “A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be”. – Tom Limoncelli

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Bisexual pride flag – image by Peter Salanki.

What Really is a ‘Pick-Up Artist’?

It’s a term some may never have heard of and others may have an inkling of the meaning, but it wasn’t until I did a little digging that I got some insight into the individuals who identify with this term. You might know that ‘pick up artists’ are guys who go about regularly trying to seduce women, perhaps with cheesy lines or a confident attitude. But it’s a little bit more involved (but not much, and in no good way).

Pick up artists, or PUAs – they really like pretentious acronym useage –  purport to use a range of (morally and technically dubious) techniques to increase their odds of getting given phone numbers, making out in a club, or getting someone to go home with them for sex. Learning these techniques and how to apply them is called ‘game’, and I’ll talk about the insidious misogyny even in just that name in just a minute.

One of the central ideas to many PUA’s ‘game’ is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. Tellingly, NLP is actually pretty difficult to define because of how ” those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people.” Wiki’s simple statement on it is that “Its creators claim a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (“programming”) and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.” It seems to be a combination of two things. On the one hand, changing yourself and your mental processes through the use of language in a manner similar to self-hypnosis, and on the other hand, affecting other people in a similar sort of way to create a favourable situation for yourself. Which doesn’t in any way sound coercive or morally dubious. Nope.

It’s also quite crucial to note that Neuro-Linguistic Programming is now academically understood to be a pseudoscience. As this quote from the Annual Review of Psychology  highlights: “after several years of conflicting and confusing results, Sharpley (1984, 1987) reviewed the research and concluded that there was little support for the assumptions of NLP.” Being reviews of multiple pieces of research, this obviously isn’t a claim based on one simple piece of debunking literature, even though I only cite this here.

I mean, you can’t literally be this guy. But don’t be a pick-up ‘artist’. Please. If you happen to be the guy in the photo reading, you can be this guy.

The psychology underpinning the ‘seduction community’ ultimately rests upon claims that ‘nice guys finish last’. That to attain your goal of sex with women, you can (and should) take a systematic approach that will enable you to manipulate people and situations so that you can get laid. Doing this reduces women to puzzles or challenges that have to be cracked for the sake of male gratification. This isn’t a method that is sincerely offered as a way for shy men to overcome personal difficulties and establish meaningful connections, or even engage in casual sexual fun in an egalitarian and consensual manner. You have men literally competing to see who can collect more phone numbers, or advocating a ‘technique’ whereby a man is advised to grab a girl by the throat, put a finger to his lips, and go ‘shh’. Yes, this is part of ‘game’, for some at least. By calling these techniques ‘game’, it implies that sex is something that can be won, and that the process is all just fun, not serious, no real consequences.

That last one sounds pretty outrageous right? You may have seen the particular guy who sells this idea, Julien Blanc, in the news recently when he was forced to leave Australia after his Visa was cancelled, and his pick-up seminars cancelled.

That men like Julien Blanc are able to make a living from this also highlights another important aspect – the sad extent to which men are prepared to pay huge amounts of money to people who offer the ‘secrets’ of how to succeed with women, and ‘what women really want’. For a start it rests on flawed and highly simplistic (but also highly prevalent) assumptions that men and women think in intrinsically alien ways, and that all men and all women are two broadly homogeneous groups. Many of the devices used by pick-up artists (and really, I hate this term. There is nothing artistic about what these people do) explicitly buy into such narratives. For example, ‘negging’ – defined as a deliberate self-confidence undermining insult veiled as a compliment or offhand comment, designed to make women seek that man’s approval. Because that’s apparently what women do. The comic from XKCD actually captures the idea in its entirety.

Credit: http://xkcd.com/1027/

But people actually do this! Though whilst it looks like a joke, relatively harmless sleaze that no woman would fall for, many of the devices are less detectable. Like professional con-artists, devices don’t work so well if people can tell that you’re trying to be manipulative. You might not want to give this guy the YouTube hit, but this video discusses how to, in quite predatory terms, manipulate situations to allow men to touch and kiss women without worrying about that annoying little fundamental issue of consent. He also explicitly talks about how ‘it’s easier to work the situation around to touching and kissing her when you’re the one talking, but some women just won’t shut up. When they’re talking you [men] are thinking about how to get them to have sex with you’.

Whilst NLP has been debunked, whether or not any of the techniques used actually succeed in getting numbers, or sex, is really besides the point. The point is that thinking about women in this way is inherently sexist. Manipulating women in this way is inherently sexist. This is made all the more obvious by members of forums, or local groups (somewhat fittingly and creepily called ‘lairs’) actually discussing ways to shrug off the guilt. Some of these men convince themselves that it doesn’t matter because “The average woman is 10X, no 100X more conniving than the most underhanded, slimiest pickup sleazeball on the planet.” Others don’t even care, through either a complete lack of respect or empathy, being so engrossed in succeeding at their ‘game’ that they don’t actually stop to think, or some kind of Randian philosophy that rewards unapologetic self-interest.

I’ve framed this discussion entirely around men picking up women – because of social power relations between men and women, and the way in which power and sexuality are socially constructed, this overwhelmingly makes up the majority of ‘seduction communities’. However, at least one female pick-up artist exists, and has talked about her experiences and reasoning. Whilst unpacking this would take a lot more time and thought, I feel that the bottom line is that any kind of pick-up philosophy ultimately rests upon manipulation, and the idea of people being there as a resource for you to get what you want. Which is gross. I’m certainly not saying that people can’t enjoy casual flings, or making out in clubs and bars rather than simply looking to settle down in a traditional manner. But one shouldn’t – and doesn’t have to – craft a method around murky, underhanded, or abusive ‘tactics’ in order to connect with people sexually.

 

A fresh look at art – Women and their understated part in history

This post was written for Gender Agenda, the Cambridge University Student’s Union Women’s Campaign termly magazine. Their website (where this and many other great resources and reads for women in particular) can be found here.

 

Whilst over the centuries it’s a horrible, abhorrent fact that women have had to struggle to be seen and heard in virtually all professional arenas, we are very, very lucky that art can endure. We are lucky that many women (though not as many as might have) dared to push against societal pressures by training in and executing their gifts in various times and places – when it undoubtedly may have been easier (albeit unhappier) to quietly run the home and children, and little else. Likewise it seems to me a further product of patriarchal systems that many female-dominated ‘applied arts’ such as weaving, embroidery, etc. are viewed with considerably less social significance compared to the historically male dominated ‘fine arts’. Embarrassingly, many fans of fine art may find themselves unable to name more than a handful of female artists. In contemporary terms Tracy Emin and Yoko Ono spring to mind though are often callously dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘talentless’. To go back further chronologically, could I even confidently declare Frieda Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth as household names with the same confidence as Van Gogh or Michaelangelo? I sadly doubt it. The following list of artists was selected to represent a cross-section across different times, cultures, and styles – I really hope you’ll Google these women, as the effort it will have taken to produce their works only heightens their deservedness of an audience.

1. Claricia (13th Century)

One of the few positions in life which provided the freedom for artistic expression in the middle ages was in monasteries and nunneries. Claricia was thought to be a lay student at an Abbey in Augsberg in Germany where she illustrated herself into a psalter – her body swinging as the tail to an ornate capital Q.

 

2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

The daughter of a professional painter, Artemisia was trained in her father’s workshop. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, in Florence. The vast majority of her work displays women in positions of power relative to men. Judith from the Bible in particular, who does some pretty knarly beheading of one Holofernes. Caravaggio painted the same scene, though if you compare the two paintings it’s Gentileschi who really captures a sense of brutal determination. Caravaggio’s Judith (here she is!) lacks this to me, perhaps because Gentileschi could better empathise with and capture such a sense in a woman. Caravaggio’s Judith comes across to me as a dainty flower who isn’t quite sure how she ended up with a sword in a chap’s neck.

3. Louise ÉlisabethVigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

Another artist whose access to teaching stemmed from having an artist father, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally by her early teens, progressed to be Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter, and caused a scandal by breaking convention when she painted herself smiling showing her teeth.

4. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879)

Cameron can be regarded as a pioneer in photography, despite taking the art form up at the age of 48, when given a camera by her daughter. Some of her images are unbelievably crisp as a result of her perfectionism, given she was working in the 1860s. Cameron was neighbour and friend to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the great aunt of Virginia Woolf.

5. Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907)

Lewis managed to obtain impressive success in her lifetime as a Neoclassical sculptor despite not only gendered barriers, but the fact that she was mixed race (Haitian, African, and Ojibwe Native American). Orphaned at a young age, Lewis made money with her aunts by selling Ojibwe baskets, and was able to attend college from the financial success of her brother. Through her determination Lewis was able to take herself to study in Rome, and later achieved hugely lucrative commissions and had the President Ulysses S. Grant sit for her. Many of her sculptures contain poignant messages on race.

6. Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)

A friend of Edgar Degas and a fellow Impressionist, Cassatt, whilst attaining tuition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after a privileged education around Europe, felt rightly restricted by the attitudes towards women (for example, being forbidden from studying nudes) so left without graduating and pursued her own study. She moved to Paris and applied to study privately with masters due to women being forbidden from the École des Beaux-Arts. Many of her paintings focus on themes of motherhood, and in later life she was committed to the cause of women’s suffrage.

7. Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)

Beaten by her father who viewed her sculpture as ‘graven images’ until she sculpted a Virgin Mary which changed his mind, Savage was able to make significant money from her clay sculpture in her early life, but did not experience widespread financial success. Upon rejection in 1923 from a French art program due to being black, her civil rights activism was begun. In 1934 she opened a multiracial studio where she taught anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt.

8. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)

If the term had existed, Claude Cahun may well have accepted the label of Genderqueer. Settling with her partner (also her stepsister) in Paris before later moving to Jersey in 1937, both engaged in resistance during Nazi occupation. They would take English-to-German translations of BBC reports of Nazi atrocities, paste them into poetic formats, dress as German military officers so as to infiltrate military events and leave the poems where they would be read. Whilst arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, both survived the war.

9. Ogura Yuki (1895 – 2000)

Ogura specialised in nihonga painting, which is the utilisation of strictly traditional Japanese methods and styles. She painted much nude portraiture of friends and family throughout the 50s and 60s, in natural, familial settings. Only one other female painter (UemuraShoen) has received the Japanese Order of Culture.

10. Kay Sage (1898 – 1963)

Born in New York, Sage floated around Europe with her mother during her early childhood, exposing her to a variety of culture and also giving her an informal fluency in French and Italian. Whilst she spent 10 years married to an Italian nobleman she found this life deeply unsatisfying, and later obtained a divorce. She was exposed to surrealism in the 1930s and impressed André Breton (the founder of the movement), though he did not believe her paintings could’ve been done by a woman.

11. Rachel Whiteread (1963 – )

Gaining some fame as the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, for a cast taken of an entire Victorian terraced house, Whiteread is also one of the artists to have a piece on the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square – an upside down resin cast of the plinth itself, potentially the largest ever object to be made of resin. Her work often explores ‘negative space’ – the space inside an object not actually taken up by the object itself.

It’s okay because he loves me! – Why Twilight is damaging, and why it’s still popular

(Trigger warning: Some description of domestic abuse)

Spoilers: Twilight series, Angels in America)

That the Twilight series has been called ‘the new Harry Potter’ over its rise in public awareness I think is utterly depressing, even for those who weren’t that fussed about J. K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Rowling’s work and the skill with which they were crafted are insulted by being compared to the flimsy, clichéd, mewings of two-dimensional pseudo-romantic escapism that Stephanie Meyer has wasted trees on. Comparative multi-kajillion pound sales does not a comparative standard of literature indicate.

But why my harsh words, given I’m not a rabid potter-fanatic? Dear J. K. probably doesn’t need my support, writing from her home which is probably made of gold. It’s a point that has been made by others before me, but there is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever that the relationship between Bella (often criticized as a Mary-Sue) and Edward is utterly abusive.

Surprisingly enough, I have a problem with literature (I’m being generous in using this word) which normalizes and excuses gendered violence to any audience, let alone the pulsating mass of hormones and peer pressure that are teens and tweens.

‘OMG Team Edward!’… ‘I want his sparkly babies!’… ‘My spine is being crushed…’

What is this violence you might ask? Well, in no particular order, how about:

  • Edward breaking into Bella’s home to watch her sleep is glorified as romantic, rather than pant-wettingly terrifyingly stalkerish.
  • The emotional manipulation and implicit blame placed on Bella by Edward through such choice (melodramatic) language such as “If I wasn’t so attracted to you, I wouldn’t have to break up with you.”
  • How about not only that after sex, Edward leaves Bella “decorated with patches of blue an purple” (because the word ‘decorated’ is hugely appropriate for describing the marks of violence, as if it were jewelry) but also that Bella tries to hide this because it would upset him to see. Such an empowering message for women right there.
  • When carrying their half-vampire baby (that was only conceived after marriage of course, Meyer being a good Mormon writer), the pregnancy causes Bella’s spine to break and so Edward tears open her uterus with his teeth to provide a supernatural caesarian.

Obviously (from the links) I’m not the first person to point these issues out either. Is Twilight a soft target then? I would say only in the way that George Bush was a soft target – yes a lot of jokes were made, but ultimately the man had (and has) a scary amount of support that ultimately got him into a position of huge influence. Spreading awareness of the critical inadequacies of large-scale yet damaging things is important.

A response often levied by fans in response to acidic criticism such as this:

‘Why do you have to be so analytical? That takes the fun out of it, it’s just a love story, and we enjoy it for what it is. Why can’t you just enjoy it?’

Okay. So without rhapsodizing too extensively on why normalizing harmful behaviour by accepting it as unproblematic is, well, problematic – this is a defense often used when one makes a criticism of something they like that has a millimetre more depth than simply saying what is immediately put in front of you. It certainly seems a little odd to me that the idea of putting a modicum of thought into something means you’re automatically stripping it of its ability to be enjoyed. To quote from a wonderfully useful article, this argument says nothing more than “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” Nice work.

The problems with the book series don’t begin and end with the horrific but nonetheless simple ways in which Bella is harmed and manipulated. As far as I understand it, two themes that repeat throughout the work as justifications are that 1. What happens is justified by love, and 2. What happens is what Bella wants. It’s not that often in works of fiction that when one partner of a relationship does something horrible to another, the victim actually says ‘fuck it, I’m not standing for this’. It’s more ‘romantic’ for even extreme violence to be neutralized even through a literary tactic as banal as ‘well, he then felt really, really bad about it’. A great example I can think of that goes against the grain is Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, where the character Prior is abandoned by his boyfriend Louis, who can’t face the physical symptoms of Prior having AIDS. In the end, the two are shown to have a deep friendship, but not before the dialogue:

Louis: I really failed you.  But…this is hard.  Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.  It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean…you’re free to not love.

Prior: I love you Louis.

L: Good.  I love you.

P: But you can’t come back.  Not ever.  I’m sorry.  But you can’t.

“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag…”

Whilst this clearly isn’t written as the same sort of dreamy escapism that is the big hook of Twilight, it’s a nice illustration that these characters have more depth to them than life having zero meaning whatsoever except for their one true love. How is this an attitude that receives admiration, anyway…?

To address the second point, what Bella wants is used as a justification for much of what happens in the stories that feminists have taken issue with. A main character who other than fawning over her undead boyfriend has no obvious hobbies beyond cooking and cleaning for her father? It’s okay, that’s what she likes doing. Meyer has claimed in interviews that because feminism is about choice, Twilight is a feminist book. But not one of the female characters in twilight work, or engage particularly with independent activity. An honest choice is not what is being made appealing here. The same idea is true when it comes to the issue of abortion. As a Ms. Magazine blog post states:

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

There are plenty of readers who are quite astute enough to realise all this for themselves. There’s no shortage of feminists who enjoy Meyer’s works. This seeming paradox is pretty common – there are plenty of film, TV and literature examples which we might enjoy, whilst also experiencing the nagging doubt in our minds that to be consistent with our politics, we really shouldn’t. Enjoying Twilight doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Feminist, any more than enjoying a MacDonalds necessarily makes someone a bad fitness trainer. Just be aware about what you’re enjoying.

A Feminists Guide to Curing Yourself of Twilight-Mania offers some amusing resources, including recommending the fiction of Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton. If vampires and love are your thing, these are definitely worth a try.

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