Exploited or Empowered? A Review of Netflix’s Glow

There are two series I have managed to finish this year: Dear White People (seriously, watch it!) and Glow.

By Ruby Martin

I hadn’t intended to watch Jenji Kohan’s most recent project Glow, as I was struggling to wade through a plethora of Netflix series’ (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). At this point, I believed I had physically lost the ability to binge (gasp!). However, there are two series I have managed to finish this year: Dear White People (seriously, watch it!) and Glow.

For me, DWP was a great series that blended multiple narratives on socially conscious issues with seriousness and humour to get the tone just right. However, Glow shifts slightly in genre in contrast to Kohan’s previous work (Orange is the New Black). Glow is a comedy with dramatic moments, as opposed to OITNB’S drama with moments of comedy. Whilst the two shows have similar success in employing a diverse cast and passing Bechdel test with flying colours, Glow’s strengths are let down by some fatal flaws.

One of the most uncomfortable and confusing points in the series is when the diverse cast of women are shown to embrace the racist and misogynist stereotypes they have to play in their roles as female wrestlers. Their moments of protest are overcome far too easily, for example, the Indian character Arthie readily accepts the role of ‘Beirut’ the terrorist. Interestingly, the creators of the show discussed how they wanted to examine the aftermath of the 1970s Woman’s Liberation movement, and to explore the ambiguity of whether it was in fact, a success. This supposedly explains the aforementioned problems with the portrayal of archetypes in the show, as perhaps the writers intended to play with the blurred lines between accepted exploitation and political empowerment.

While this does serve as a commentary on this movement in the time, this can only be presented as a successful critique on society if you can access the intention, and it isn’t necessarily obvious from first viewing this was the aim. Also, this leads to significant plot-holes where characters seem to react with surprise when their racist stereotypes embolden racist attitudes. There is a clumsy attempt to rectify this when Cherry and Tammé, the two black characters, change up their opponents to fight against the Ku Klux Klan instead, but this is swiftly dismissed by their male director Sam.

Also, whilst the cast themselves are all excellent (especially Alison Brie, who plays melodramatic actor Ruth in a beautifully subtle and human fashion), it feels that the other characters’ storylines such as Cherry and Carmen are skimmed over. It is a shame that they are afforded less time in order for Gilpin and Brie’s characters to have an enduring (and in my opinion, detracting) conflict. This ‘conflict’ is over Gilpin’s husband no less, whom, to be honest, I did not give a hoot about and frankly wished he didn’t exist.

This is not to say all is lost in this series, as I found the core plotline of the show to be enjoyable and more-ish in classic Netflix style. Perhaps we can forgive this programme for simply trying to achieve too much in very little time. It is also wonderfully shot with a gritty realness to contrast the tacky sheen of the television shows the characters all seek to create. Despite its flaws, I am in fact looking forward to watching the second season, and I hope it will allow more time for the characters to develop and to watch their stories unfold.

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About the Author

Ruby is a writer and comedian based in London who when not taking on too many projects at the same time, likes to spend her time watching videos of animals being friends and carefully curating her Twitter.  She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from UCL and spent a year living in Venice, which has only fuelled her addiction to pizza and ice cream.

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The Gendered Experience of Time and Numbers

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible.

By Freya Turner

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible. The clothes shopping experience isn’t intuitive. It isn’t about holding an item up to the body and seeing how it looks and feels. It’s instead carried out through a prescribed number with huge significance. But of course this number has no inherent human meaning. The meaning behind this number is faux, established only by the marketing, fashion and beauty industries.

Our experiences are coloured by undefinable, subjective movements that are ever changing and shifting. Our body shape alters over the course of a day due to what we’ve fuelled it with. It changes due to our cycle and hormones. We can have a different body shape from one year to the next depending on the type of exercise that we’ve been enjoying at any certain time. Why are we still finding value in a compartmentalised unit, a category, and in self-branding? We do this because it is easy; it transforms our experience into one that is recognisable and relatable to society. However, subjectivity is complex and difficult. Of course, we also find value in a clothing size because we see what sizes are available and we make judgements on where we fit in those available or unavailable sizes.

The woman’s experience is defined by a spectrum of units, where every part of our existence is precisely definable, dated, and set within boundaries, unlike the male identifying experience. The majority of men’s sizes occur in some version of small, medium or large, with trouser sizes defined in waist measurements. Men have a somewhat meaningful language to describe their clothing, along with a scale that reflects the truth. Women experience clothing their body through an arbitrary scale that is unrelated to body measurements. The industry for planners, diaries, organisers, calendars and lists is huge, and the majority of it is marketed towards women. This perpetuates the idea that women must log, sensibly plan, and organise their lives in secret, inaudible, and beautiful ways. Those who identify as men are barely a part of this world.

It used to be commonplace for women to ask whether their bums looked big in something. Now we barely hear it. Now women pay money to get bigger bums. Whether that’s through gym memberships or surgeries, people are paying to the look. Women’s ideal body types change all the time. Our bodies are commodified, dated trends.

Think about one of the most recent women’s razor adverts, where we are sold three different razors for three different sides of you. Women’s bodies, personalities, and day to day experiences are things to endlessly measure and label as if they are a material item. This is happening whilst it is becoming more commonplace for women and men’s experiences to be tracked and compartmentalised, through the spread of new technology. Myfitnesspal and fitbits have taken the fitness industry by storm. Youtubers share their daily or weekly eating and fitness routines with their followers. The same thing happens on Instagram. It seems like it is more vital than ever before to measure the productivity of our bodies and share it with others. But the way this rhetoric is shaped and used is gendered. Online influencers who are in the wellness/fitness area are predominantly women. The majority of Myfitnesspal users are women. The majority of Instagram users are women.

Women are expressing themselves through these platforms, but it is done in a way that limits their experience. For example, the language of wellbeing often involves words like ‘clean’ and a string of hashtags. Women, conscious of this or not, are believing the false idea that we must oblige to compartmentalise our experiences into single words. This is a sign that women still lack the sense of autonomy, spontaneity, and expression that men do.

Also, this ties into the issue of time. Men are more able to live their lives feeling as if they have time on their sides. Women, on the other hand, will be more likely to feel as if they are on the wrong side of time. This is because in Western society in 2017 it is still a common perception that when women age, they become invisible, resentful, and worthless. And if women decide to have children, they then risk triggering the end their own autonomy. They lose themselves, their time and even their own names as they become ‘mothers’. Employers still fire pregnant women, and rearing children still entails mothers joining an institution where it is commonplace for women to do the majority of the unpaid, intensive childcare and emotional labour. Women are painfully aware that with age comes disadvantages and distrust from others. All the more reason to get more organised and use a weekly planner.

What I have found particularly disturbing recently is what I’ve heard from women who have experienced some sort of body change; namely weight gain or loss. They find it almost incomprehensible. They feel disembodied, as if that cannot be them, and that they must revert back to what they used to be. This body change may be the result of some sort of emotional trauma, or physical illness. Regardless, she will likely punish herself, due to the guilt and shame of occupying space in a new body, through implementing a strict diet and exercise regime in order to get back to ‘herself’. God forbid that a woman does the amazing feat of having a baby and has a body which has grown in size to enable and support the entire process. She must lose the baby weight, of course! Erase your body’s ability and adaptability. Why is this still happening?

But we are societies who, in reality, are inflexible about identity. In the era of the individual, where the individual is free in the midst of a disjointed, disparate political society, it is no wonder that we are seeking to say something about ourselves in a way that is audible and comprehensible to others. We want our identities to be consistent and definable because it seems like that is the only way that they can be noticed. This works paradoxically for women, for the more that they self express through the numbers of their bodies and experiences, or reductive codes like hashtags, the more that they are exposing the instilled belief that women must be kept an eye on, tracked, and defined. A woman’s true experience is defined by subjective changes but we are not happy with this. We are playing a numbers game which cannot grant us our freedom.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

 

A New Take on the Slasher Movie: A Review of Lichtenstein’s ‘Teeth’

By Jack Ford,

Guest Edited by Dafydd Jenkins.

While on the surface it may appear to be lazy gore, Teeth is in fact, a highly sensible social allegory masquerading as a fresh and inventive re-invention of the traditional horror film. Unfortunately overlooked on its original release, ten years on it still makes for subversive viewing and its ideas have only become more prescient.

As the film opens, young abstinence campaigner Dawn (Jess Weixler), an innocent, good-natured Christian teenager, is talking to a group of school children about her strongly held belief in the importance of remaining ‘pure’, extolling the virtues of abstinence and waiting for marriage before sex.

However, she is blossoming, and when a handsome new boy at her high school catches her eye, she can’t ignore her urges for much longer. Though she has feelings for him, she wants to wait until they’re married to act on them. He doesn’t. Instead, he tries to force the issue, but his actions end with him inexplicably losing a pendulous asset, the act of which causes him to pass out.

Dawn is shocked and baffled – she’s never had sex before, but she’s certain that wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t intentional, but she has no explanation for what happened. She investigates and comes across a legend from Native American folklore – vagina dentana (you can probably guess what that means.) She doesn’t want to believe it, but it makes sense.

Writer/director Michael Lichtenstein explores different attitudes toward sex and objectification of women, and focusing on this centuries-old myth illustrates how long women have been discouraged from embracing their sexuality. History is littered with such myths created to keep women as a subservient sex, and digging up this piece of history and re-framing it in the present day shows how we’re still holding on to these antiquated views about women’s virginity.

In line with its themes, the film uses Dawn’s sexual encounters to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual manipulation and abuse of women. Even in a place a woman believes to be safe, or if they are with someone they feel to be trustworthy, there will, unfortunately, always be the risk of malicious intent. As Dawn attempts to find out what’s happening to her, she has two such encounters. She trusts the men to whom she reaches out for help, only for that trust to be abused. Just as it was for the first boy in high school, it doesn’t end well for the male participants of these scenes.

On a technical level, Teeth is a highly effective sideways take on the slasher film. It takes the traditional trope of the genre – a couple getting frisky who meet a sticky end at the hands of a male assailant – then adds a layer of unflinching realism, and makes the female both the assailant and the hero at the same time. Dawn is the victim – for which we sympathise with her – but she’s also the cause of the gore in the film. In doing so, she saves herself and provides relief for the audience, as we did not have to see a horrific scene unfold. This endears us to her all the more.

As well as Dawn, we also have a glimpse into the peculiar life of her adoptive half-brother (John Hensley), who, protected by an attack dog he names ‘Mother’, seemingly spends all his time in his bedroom coercing his girlfriend into progressively extreme sexual acts. Despite his dedication to increasingly manipulative sexual pursuits, he lacks complete satisfaction. His subservience to his libido means he doesn’t come to his real mother’s aid when she calls for help – though it’s doubtful he would have helped her even if he had not been at the point of orgasm the time.

Teeth can be seen in a number of different ways: as a comment on the prevalence of sexual assault; the need for greater sex education (something that is severely restricted in many places around the world); an exaggeration of the changes experienced by young girls during puberty; an examination of the sexual restrictions of women throughout history and a subversion of the roles and conventions of its genre.

It is unusual for a film like this to be the product of a male filmmaker, especially with a female lead, but Lichtenstein approaches this sensitive subject thoughtfully, with integrity and an absence of flippancy. He also manages, in the key horror moments, to both shock the audience and also make them laugh – a penis-eating vagina is just an inherently funny idea.

Teeth comes together when Dawn finally works out how she can use her internal abnormality for good, and it ends on a bittersweet note. The film makes the point that even though Dawn has overcome the events of the film, and knows she can do so again, she will continue to encounter men with bad intentions. Given how much she has already suffered and how much she has had to give up, it’s sad to see her bad experiences will continue. Unfortunately, it’s also the same in the real world. Sexual assault still remains a problem, and real women don’t have the same means as Dawn to protect themselves from unwanted encounters.

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About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

Sun, Skirts and Shorts: What is Acceptable?

By Jo Gough

When the sun comes out, so does the issue of ‘appropriate’ school uniforms. In some schools, shorts are off the uniform list – seen as too immature for young boys, whereas skirts for girls are mandatory. Does this suggest that it’s acceptable to infantilise and sexualise girls? That the exposure of female bodies is normalised? Whatever the case, school uniforms should be practical and comfortable, and not a patriarchal vehicle to control the bodies of young people.

In the workplace these power dynamics continue: a man on Twitter showed himself wearing a bright pink dress, having been sent home from work for wearing shorts. More recently, in a row over uniforms, boys at a school in Exeter made the news for wearing skirts to school, to protest the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear shorts[1]. In a previous workplace, working outdoors with no shade and no shorts, a male colleague asked for a skirt and was denied. Wearing a skirt was unacceptable to the employer – as this would challenge the heteronormative structures put in place by institutions.

Traditionally, shorts were seen as clothing items for boys. From around puberty onwards trousers were given as a marker of becoming a man. The idea that trousers equal masculinity is pervasive, and the clothing revolution (unlike the era of the miniskirt) has not happened for men. Clothing symbolises male status and the conformity of being ‘a real man’.

Perhaps the refusal to allow shorts is also because tights cannot be worn. One of the school boys being interviewed in Exeter explained that they were told they would need to wear tights – as hairs were unsightly. Boys think that they are getting the raw deal, but tights are also part of a uniform, so girls rarely get more air flow than wearing trousers on a hot day.

Female clothing is made with no pockets, thigh rub is painful, skirts are poorly designed for the wind or sitting comfortably, and there is a sexualisation and vulnerability that comes with skirts and dresses. Why it that skirts is aren’t also seen as too immature for young women once puberty hits? How come there isn’t a transition, as with men, in becoming ‘a real woman’.

It’s natural to feel concerned over pleats in skirts, short summer dresses and frilly stark white socks. Girl’s school uniforms are sexualised symbols in the media, pornography, fancy dress and fantasies (see Brittany Spears). Teenage girls feel pressure to hitch up their skirts to feel more attractive. One school decided to ban skirts, because teenagers were making them so short that it was:

‘Not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it’s a complete distraction. After a while it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue[2]’.

Girls have to wear tiny tennis skirts for PE, but are told that this is inappropriate in other areas. Femininity is enforced through tiny skirts, but somehow it is unfair on men when women continue this past puberty. Women then enter the world of work, and the expectations for a professional female are tight skirts and high-heels. That schools are concerned for male teachers is a stark reminder of the victim blaming culture we live in, and it’s an insult to men to assume that they have no self-control, even in the presence of children placed under their care.

Therefore, school uniforms are framed to sexualise girls and women, and banning shorts because of antiquated notions of masculinity is archaic. It should be more acceptable that boys and girls should have the choice to wear whatever version of their school uniform that suits them. With the multitude of gender identities being expressed in our increasingly intersectional world, it’s crucial that we make room for autonomy in young people’s clothing choices. However, this seems disturbingly far away.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jun/22/teenage-boys-wear-skirts-to-school-protest-no-shorts-uniform-policy

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/school-bans-skirts-after-hemlines-5988614

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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Gender, Race and the Pay Gap

By Zena Gainsbury

My friend works in the finance industry, where there are no black women in senior roles. There are no black people, period. It’s hard to see the race/gender pay gap in an environment with an unsettling absence of a minority group. Although yearly pay for a senior figure in the finance sector isn’t the norm, it is arguably the higher pay grades where the enormous disparities are more visible; this is where salaries are negotiated rather than fixed.

Look at the BBC, for example, which exemplifies the fact that the higher the salary, the greater the gender and race inequality. Claudia Winkleman, the highest paid female at the BBC, earns merely a quarter (okay, it is £450,000 so hardly ‘mere’) of Chris Evans’ 2 million. Of course, salaries in the millions and hundreds of thousands are unusual, but if we have Winkleman on 25% of her male colleague’s salary, this translates in layman’s terms to a man earning £25,000 a year, whereas a woman would only earn £6,250.

This isn’t even the biggest gap in BBC pay: the highest paid and only black man on the list, Trevor Nelson, earns £250,000 a year. The highest paid black woman, Tameka Empson, earns £150,000. Yes, the work of these individuals is different, but the highest paid black man earns just 10% of the highest paid white man, and the highest paid black woman earns just over 5% of the highest paid white man, and just under half of a white woman’s salary. This doesn’t project the equality we expect at the BBC. I don’t think that we need to put this in ‘average-joe’ money to explicate the inequality here.

It’s difficult to express what these figures mean. When we are talking about salaries in the hundreds of thousands, we’re not implying that there is any financial hardship. In fact, this isn’t really about money at all, it’s about value.  The value we place on someone’s work in the Marxian ‘Labour Theory of Value’ way. It’s also about why black women in particular aren’t reaching the most senior jobs. It’s about a racism that still pervades modern society and work culture. When black women are successful it’s forgotten (see the interview with Andy Murray where Serena Williams’ is forgotten) or challenged (see John McEnroe stating that Serena Williams would be ‘700th’ if she played in the men’s league).

On Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on the 31st of July 2017, the day in which black women in the US finally accumulate the same pay as their male counterparts in 2016, stories of racism in the workplace were trending on twitter with the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. The stories shared on this public forum include accounts of black women who have been reprimanded in the workplace for wearing their hair naturally and ‘failing’ to wear a weave, as well as women who have been typecast as an ‘angry black woman’ for voicing their opinions or concerns. These examples demonstrate the two-fold discrimination against black women. Women’s natural Afro hair is ridiculed due to racist prejudice, and also in terms of patriarchal control of female bodies. In the case of black women, racism and sexism are inextricably linked, creating a new type of discrimination unbeknown to other groups.

It’s not surprising that Serena Williams weighed in on the sexism she has received as one of the most famous Tennis players in the world. Serena’s impassioned essay draws on her personal experiences, she may be an elite athlete, but even this hasn’t protected her from an onslaught of racist and sexist remarks from competitors, reporters and the public. Serena states:

 “I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and—in the most painful times—I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.”

Her account of the racism she has faced is shocking. But perhaps the most painful part of this sentence is Serena’s matter-of-fact tone. This is the day-by-day reality for black women. And if this is the experience at the top, what about the other black women in the US and the UK? ‘At least it’s getting better’ I hear white feminists say. Yes, if ‘it’ refers solely to pay gap between white women and white men. For black women, there has been literally no improvement in the full-time pay gap since the 1990’s. If this isn’t a call for white feminists to reflect on what mainstream feminism has looked like for the last 20+ years, and reconsider the use of the term ‘better’ with an intersectional lens, then I don’t know what is.

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About the Author

Zena is a Masters student at UCL, studying for an MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History whilst also holding a managerial position at a bank. Her interest in feminism began during her undergraduate degree in English and History at Queen Mary University of London, where she began to engage with feminist discourse. Zena has written about feminism and gender in a number of different ways, but she is particularly interested in changing concepts of ‘woman’, Marxist/Socialist feminism, intersectional feminism, and psychoanalysis. In her master’s, which is in a field overpopulated with dead white men, she has challenged herself to formulate all of her essay questions, on women/gender and/or feminism. She also writes at zenaeloise.com and can be found on Twitter @zenaeloise.

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Stranger Danger, Street Harassment

By Noa Sasson

My four-year-old has a very cautious nature. She likes rules, predictability and routines. She has always been shy, so when she reached the age to talk about about ‘stranger danger’, it all made perfect sense to her. I explained that if she was ever out and lost sight of whoever was looking after her, she must look for another mummy with children and say ‘please help me, I’m lost’. She’s a stickler for rules, so it was important to spell out the exception to the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule.

She also managed to get to grips with the idea that sometimes I talk to strangers. Shop or transport employees made sense to her, but she was less comfortable with me making chit chat with other adults in the park or on the bus. It’s not something I do very often, but every time she bristles, I explain that adults can sometimes talk to strangers because we can make judgements on how to stay safe.

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On the last Monday of term I was collecting my daughter from school, which is next to a pub on a busy London high street. It was lovely weather and people spilled out onto the road, enjoying their drinks in the sunshine.

My girls (aged 4 and 2) were less than ten metres ahead of me on their scooters. I saw them suddenly stop, far earlier than where they usually wait for me to cross the road.

A man, probably in his late sixties, definitely drunk, was talking and gesturing to them. The girls retreated a step or two, drew together. Even though I could only see the backs of their heads, I knew what they were feeling. If you identify as a woman reading this, you too know exactly how they felt.

This was not a case of stranger danger. I don’t think he was a paedophile. I think he was just a drunk old man who thought my girls looked cute and wanted to talk to them. Who ‘meant well’ but had no regard for their obvious discomfort and lack of desire to talk to him. Who was ‘just being friendly’ but didn’t care that he came off as intimidating. Who was ‘just paying them a compliment’, but it never occurred to him that they were enjoying their little lives without his validation. This was not stranger danger. This was street harassment.

I swiftly caught up to them and they drew into my legs. I did not acknowledge the man but in a brisk, perky voice said “come along, this way!” I did this so the man did not think that I had seen him and was being rude, instead giving off the impression that I was busy, with places to be, which would hopefully encourage him to leave us alone.

Of course, he did not.

“Oh well hello Mum! Come on then darling, oh go on then, where are you going? Come over here!’. Lurching towards us. Blocking our path.

With the speed of a rabbit changing direction to escape a hound, I quickly rotated the two scooters around so that we could cross the road. Not where we usually cross, as this way will lead us right into a fruit and veg stand, but at least there are plenty of sober people over there.

I say something cheery to the man like ‘have a nice day!’ and steer my little women through the traffic.

I do this instead of saying what I long to with all my heart.

“Please don’t talk to my children.”

“You’re a stranger.”

“Your actions are intimidating.”

But of course I don’t say those things. He was bigger than me, drunk and even in a busy place I still felt scared. I didn’t want my children to witness a man being threatening towards me.

(I did once confront a man in a shop for unwanted attention towards my daughter, and naturally, it was unpleasant.)

When we had disentangled ourselves from the fruit and veg stand, my four-year-old asked me

“Mummy, was that man a stranger?”

“What do you think baby?”

“Yes”

“You’re right darling, he definitely was.”

“Then why did you talk to him Mummy?”

I didn’t answer; I distracted her with it being time for us to board our bus. But my eyes behind my sunglasses swam with tears because I knew the answer, just as one day I know that she will know it too.

“To protect you baby. Because I was scared. Because the only defence I have is to smile and be polite and hope to be left alone. Because that is what we have to do. Because some strangers are dangerous even for grownups. Because women never stop feeling scared.”

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About the Author

Noa Sasson is a fourth generation Londoner, who studied History at the University of Nottingham before doing a PGCE. Having two babies during these student years made her passionate about child development, and she was very disappointed to discover there was little room for treating children as individuals in the primary school system. She now follows her other passion of birth and babies and works as a birth and postnatal doula, but hopes one day to go back to her first love of education.

Feminism and the ‘Obesity Crisis’: Production, Autonomy and Health in a Society of Guilt

By Freya Turner

At Hay festival 2017, in a talk about food with Rosie Boycott, there was a Q&A to close the session and one woman stood up to ask, ‘do you think that feminism has led to the obesity crisis?’ I don’t know whether she asked this believing it or not; I couldn’t tell. The audience responded with a loud murmur and more laughter than I was expecting. I remember my own response clearly, my heart rate surged and a cold sweat formed across my upper lip and underarms as physical manifestations of my anger. After having some time to unravel my thoughts more methodically in response to this, here is my reply to this question.

Feminism gives us the opportunity to transform subjugation into a dignified lived experience for all people. As soon as someone asks whether this movement is responsible for a loss of health, and in this case, morality (more on this later), several things are implied which need to be broken down and addressed.

In this question, the ‘obesity crisis’ is code for ill health. However, is it? There is a reason why people aren’t asking whether poor health is linked to feminism, whereas obesity is. Obesity is a moral issue that we have transfixed on for years, whereas bad health and sickness more generally is removed from the notion of morality. Feminism is entrenched with morality, and women are discriminated against for an abstract lack of moral ‘pureness’. ‘Obesity’ is a visual phenomenon, and ill-health is most often not. Visual spectacle and archaic concepts of morality therefore, underlie the woman’s question.

In the UK, it often seems that we couldn’t think of anything more frightening than a fat person. It’s no wonder that the ‘headless fat person’ trope exists, because things that we are scared of are what we turn into spectacles. A fat woman? Even worse. Why? Because she threatens what others possess. Fat people, women, and fat women threaten our money and resources, or that’s what we’ve been led to believe. The notion of feminism is threatening because it entails women getting paid equally for the services that they provide, challenging cis male privilege. Feminism in practice would radically change the rules of supply and demand. For example, the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament this year justified patriarchal rationale for not having as many women’s matches on centre court; simply because less people wanted to watch women’s tennis. Thus, sexism was maintained because of a threat to a seemingly delicate monetary infrastructure.

Fat people are presented as a drain on our resources because they are wrongly labelled as lazy, unintelligent, selfish, weak-willed, and generally unable to physically and mentally ‘keep up’. The work they do will therefore be subpar and workforces cannot afford to use people like this. Fat people are a scapegoat for an epidemic of consumption, where they are targeted as individuals who suck up our resources and give nothing valuable back. The idea of homogenising women and obese people through their monetary value is unjustified and shameful. More lives, regardless of appearance or gender, would have human value and better health if these destructive concepts were eradicated. Fat people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy. Slim people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy.

Perhaps the woman’s question suggests the flawed, illogical idea that the fact that more women are in work is the reason why there is a rise in family’s consumption of convenience, i.e. unhealthy food. Ill health is not caused by more women just going to work and cooking a bit less (are men not capable of cooking family meals?). Poor health is the product of a neoliberal society that pushes the individual to believe that it is ok to juggle a lot more of both work and play. A life is not the responsibility of the state or society, but the individual. This framework has been both producer and product of zero-hour contracts, the gig economy, overtime, home-work, cuts to public sector care work, intensive unpaid emotional labour like childcare, and the unending connection to work life from the home through emails, online networking websites and general digitisation. These common practices perpetuate the idea that work and play are naturally intertwined, and that care work, and therefore typically feminine work, has little value.

These issues have arisen through what Donna Haraway called the feminisation of work, in A Cyborg Manifesto. But this is not feminism within work. This is a society where sporadic work practices push all genders to consume and produce more. We are made to feel as if we should always be doing more, where stress and anxiety becomes our lifestyle, thanks to work and leisure getting tangled up together.

It just so happens that more women feel the brunt of it; they earn less than their male equivalents, generally undertake more unpaid work in the home, and they will be more likely to feel the effects of a poorer quality of life due to cuts in the (predominantly female) healthcare sector. They are conditioned to invest their valuable time in ‘taking care’ of their appearance and, broadly speaking, will invest more in the health and wellbeing industry in order to escape and improve the reality of everyday life. Poorer health develops as a result; the individual has been encouraged to consume more products and produce, or do more, all whilst eating less. It is coined as the culture of bulimia; a culture shrouded in an irony that is deep rooted in guilt. It is this guilt which leads to unhealthy mental and physical conditions. Feminism is our opportunity for all genders to have autonomy, free of guilt, where care is enough, eating is eating, and not a moral statement or magical drug, and size does not equate to worth.

Some women cook, and some don’t. They certainly don’t belong in the kitchen. But until we rid our homes of ‘more simple times’ Cath Kidston prints, the Scandinavian wellbeing guides advising a return to the home, along with the clean eating books from our bookshelves, we’ve got a long way to go before society will change.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.