Another Brick in the Wall: Schools are Still Letting Girls Down

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

By Freya Turner

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

Well, quite frankly, it prepared me to live in a country where gender is rigid and sexism is not only practiced but celebrated too. There are so many things that I could say about my five year secondary (state) school experience. I could talk about the lack of class time scheduled for arts subjects, or the absence of healthy food in the cafeteria, or the neglect of a student’s autonomy and independence (as demonstrated through the archaic rules, such as having to ask a teacher to remove your blazer). But in light of recent, scary statistics that a quarter of young girls have depression by the time they reach the age of 14, I think it’s necessary for me to discuss the experience that girls at my school had.

In the UK, we begin secondary school aged eleven and are prompt thrown into a new school uniform. Cumbersome, and sweat-festering, our school’s uniform consisted of black trousers or a skirt, a white blouse, a horribly synthetic blazer complete with shoulder pads to bulk you up and appear more ‘fit for work’ – i.e. masculine, which was completed with a tie. Nothing like preparing the young for the long years of professional, misogynistic work ahead, am I right… am I right? Or perhaps it would be more suitable to ask how many of us will actually end up donning this sort of pompous attire in our careers? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that from the first day at school, girls from my school, in fact, all schoolgirls have long struggled to identify themselves within an education that boxes them in a blazer and tie-d institution. Their education literally doesn’t fit them.

Girls don’t have to be at school long before other problems arise. The insults ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ begin to fly around on a daily basis, boys are continually lifting up girls’ skirts, twanging their bra straps, making unwanted advances on them, and girls will simultaneously feel the need to make their skirts shorter and shorter to appear attractive. Teachers will, consciously or not, tolerate boys’ bad behaviour because it’s just ‘boys being boys’, listen to boys more often, and involve them more than girls in classroom discussions. We can deny all this as much as we’d like, but in my five years at secondary school, I noticed this being very real and the effects of this were very noticeable.

If girls are going to undertake years of education, whether this is up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one, then they must be listened to and encouraged on an equal basis as their male equivalents. If they’re not, their confidence in their abilities are obviously going to be lower, and therefore, the likeliness of them pushing themselves and taking academic risks is going to be much lower. It would be an injustice to deny that this is linked to males generally outperforming females at University. After years of being encouraged to think outside of the box and think boldly, it’s no wonder that when faced with independent assignments at university, boys are psychologically better equipped at executing them than girls.

There’s the added fuel to the fire of sexism flouted at my school with teachers telling us that it was forbidden to wear coloured underwear beneath our white blouses. There was the girl who received the prom queen award because final year students voted for her on the basis of being sixteen and pregnant. You constantly had an ear out for both subtle and all out brash comments from boys about the way girls looked. There was the culture of girls not eating during the school day, or being on a diet because they wanted to lose weight. For me, there was the issue of wanting to wear a skirt, but wearing trousers instead, because I was worried that I’d wear my skirt too long (and not appear attractive), or too short and (and get criticised for the same reasons).

I went with trousers instead because I couldn’t be bothered with being scrutinised by other students, whilst getting into trouble with the teachers for looking too sexualised, on top of the already frustrating experience of being a girl at school. I knew that I couldn’t win. And this sentence really sums up the experience you have as a teenage girl.

We also experienced the painfully significant lack of professional sex education, which in my experience, was based on a shrewd, Victorian discourse of negative reinforcement, where it was all about ‘do not’s’. We had the school shows which often shared sexist, inappropriate themes and costumes. Even the teachers themselves were targets of differing treatment based on their gender. I noticed that female teachers were generally more likely to be interrupted, teased, and taken less seriously than the male teachers. It’s just the way it worked, and this happened whether people were behaving consciously or not. We are so wired to a gender hierarchy that we’re not even conscious of it a lot of the time.

We can disregard these issues as insignificant, trivial realities of British education, but to do so would be to exacerbate the problem of gender rigidity and disparity in the UK. Our younger years are so, so crucial to our development. They have a lasting impact, and to undo the discourses we have been taught in our younger years would be a challenging, if not nearly impossible feat. If schools are taking responsibility for addressing (whilst often fixating) on the ways in which students are behaving outside of the national curriculum, regarding matters such as attendance, punctuality, and ‘professional’ appearance constructed through a uniform, then why isn’t gender finally being treated as a subject worth taking some responsibility over? Why on earth are we teaching young people about criminal punishment, ancient scriptures, and STIs without even touching upon sexism- in classrooms, assembly halls or tutorial time?

Our education system needs to grow up, otherwise the same patterns of oppression and limitation will get played out again and again. But how likely will this be in a culture of academy schools with ever narrowing curriculum options, funding cuts, and 1% pay caps debilitating our teachers? Pretty unlikely. The urgency with which we need to change our education system is therefore pretty much a state of emergency.

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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.

Is Feminism ‘En Vogue’?

The link between fashion and Feminism is one that has appeared throughout history – from the liberation of women in the 1920’s, represented by flapper dresses and short hairstyles, to the mini-skirt revolution of the 1960’s, coinciding with second wave Feminism.

By Shannon Carey

The link between fashion and Feminism is one that has appeared throughout history – from the liberation of women in the 1920’s, represented by flapper dresses and short hairstyles, to the mini-skirt revolution of the 1960’s, coinciding with second wave Feminism. While fashion has often reflected the development of Feminist politics, 2017 has seen fashion embrace female power in an entirely new way. Earlier this year at arguably one of the most prestigious events in the fashion industry, New York Fashion Week, the catwalks displayed models sporting not their typical elegant dresses and avant-garde creations, but simple t-shirts bearing Feminist slogans from the likes of Dior. High-street stores have begun to replicate this trend, with companies such as Topshop showcasing T-shirts adorned with the female gender symbol, as well as the aforementioned slogans such as “Females of the Future” and “Babes Unite”. To some, these may just be T-shirts, however, this new trend highlights a change in the relationship between Feminism and fashion. Fashion is no longer just a reflection of Feminist movements, but instead Feminism has morphed into fashion.

‘Feminism’ historically has been treated as a dirty word by the majority of people (particularly those who are not politically engaged) and internet spaces in particular often seem to reflect an antiquated perception of Feminism. Anyone who has ever deigned to even mention the ‘f’-word on social media will be able to describe to you the backlash they’ve received from so-called ‘Menists’, online trolls and other commentators. ‘Feminist’ has become synonymous with terms such as ‘Feminazi’ and ‘man-hater’, showing that for many, the Feminist ideal isn’t a welcome one. With such a backlash, it’s hardly surprising that some women shun the label ‘Feminist’. Only a few years ago, there was a trend of female celebrities distancing themselves from Feminist ideology, with big names such as Kaley Cuoco, Shailene Woodley and Lana Del Rey all publicly refusing to call themselves Feminists. While their reasons for this were varied, and while they all still advocated the need for equality, the refusal to associate themselves with Feminism spoke volumes: for these women, Feminism was a negative label, and something to play down quickly. For a long time, this was the common trend, with the ‘Feminism’ label being associated with hard-line activists, rather than the ordinary girl on the street wanting to be equal with her male acquaintances. That is, until the fashion houses stepped in and reclaimed Feminism for their own.

This new trend of Feminist fashion is welcome for many reasons. Rather than being hidden away, the confidence with which female consumers go out and purchase ‘Feminist’ clothing items suggests identifying a Feminist is no longer a source of shame. Now that women are consumers with spending power in their own right, they can chose to invest in products which speak to them. Therefore, as fashion reflects the world around us, brands create products to cater to the world their female customers live in. Judging by the popularity of ‘Feminist fashion’, this can be a method of empowerment for women and girls alike.

Of course, as with most things, there is a controversial side to the Feminist trend. Whether it’s Tamagotchis, Pokemon Go or butterfly clips from the 1990s, we all know that trends rarely last. While it’s great to see Feminism featured in fashion now, will we see a dip in the number of Feminists out there once the trend is no longer relevant? And what about those of us who have been fighting the Feminist cause long before Topshop decided to stock T-shirts with slogans on them? The reality is that Feminism isn’t and can never be just a trend. Decades of struggle and strife cannot be represented in fabric. An item of clothing cannot tell you that the gender pay gap in the UK still stands at 18%, or that one in 5 women in the US will experience rape during their lifetime. While it might be fashionable for a young girl to wear a T-shirt boasting a Feminist statement, it’s much more important that she knows the reasons why we still have to fight for female equality.

Additionally, there is a lingering hypocrisy surrounding the image of the ‘female empowerment’ as a fashion trend, in contrast to the conditions and pay of the (outsourced) female workers who produce our high-street fast fashion. There has been vocal criticism of Beyonce’s fashion label Ivy Park for this very reason, and soon after this of fashion giant H&M (this backlash in particular was catalysed after the release of a diverse advertisement, which although perceived as a move in the right direction, highlighted the need for more work in other areas to improve the ethics of the brand). Some have raised the issue of ‘Empowertising’ – that female consumers are merely manipulated by fashion advertising into exchanging their cash for a superficial sense of empowerment[1].

This illustrates how Feminism itself is a complex issue, and Feminist fashion trends trigger the discussion of different issues such as capitalism, fair pay, working conditions for women and whether girls are really engaging with Feminist thought. Of course, it does not matter if Feminism is fashionable or not, a trend should never take focus from the roots of the fight for gender equality. However, if a few garments can convince a new generation that Feminists is something we should all be, and if it can help shift the perspective of Feminists from feminazis to trendsetters, then it is clearly positive. Regardless of how many T-shirts Dior or Topshop sell or how long the trend lasts, the fact that fashion is embracing Feminism represents its growing acceptance into society – and that is something to celebrate.

[1] For more on this, the podcast ‘Stuff Mom Never Told You’ discussed this in depth. [http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/empowertising.htm]

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About the Author

Shannon is an English Language graduate, with a passion for writing. She has been interested in gender studies since her school days, and believes equality should be achieved for everyone, everywhere. In her spare time, she enjoys exercise, blogging and drinking a cocktail or two.

The Handmaiden: Exploring Gender Roles, Relationships and Changing Attitudes

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film.

By Jack Ford

Guest Edited by Dafydd Jenkins.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film. On a base level, it’s an expertly crafted multi-layered story that becomes far more interesting and intriguing as it goes on. Furthermore, it deals with complex, difficult and even repellent issues in a thoughtful and highly sensible manner; presenting them in a way that’s easy for audiences to engage with. Thematically, The Handmaiden is largely concerned with the roles of women and their fight to control their own destinies in a male-dominated world.

Based on Fingersmith, (Sarah Waters, 2002) The Handmaiden’s main deviation from the source material is the change in setting: from Victorian England to wartime Japan. Despite this, remaining true to the book’s intentions caused Waters to respond positively about the treatment of her work. “Though ironically the film is a story told by a man,” she says, “it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.”

One of the great joys of the film is to watch its plot unfurl, so the less detail given about it here, the better for the uninformed. At its core, it’s the story of a relationship between reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the Korean thief hired as her new handmaiden.

Lying somewhere in the subtext of The Handmaiden is a harrowing and haunting historical event – the ‘Comfort Women’ of the Second World War, where many young women and girls were kidnapped, held hostage and repeatedly raped by the invading Japanese army during their wartime occupation of Asia. This event continues to cause tension in particular between Japan and South Korea to this day. While there is not a single mention of these Comfort Women anywhere in The Handmaiden, the film can’t help but echo this horrific piece of history.

It might be, subconsciously, investigating whether the values and attitudes at the time could have caused the event to happen. Without doubt, the characterisation of the film’s male contingents make it easier for the audience to understand the mind-set of someone who would have committed and allowed such an act.

As well as Hideko and Sook-hee, there is a con man who calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who hires Sook-hee as part of a plot to make off with Hideko’s fortune, and the heiress’s Uncle Kouzki (Cho Jin-woong). Neither are respectful to the women of the film – approaching them with an air of superiority – and they both allude to their views on how sex is for men to enjoy and women to endure, along with a belief that women enjoy the act more when it is ‘forced.’ An alarming mind-set, yet one that will no doubt sound familiar to many of the audience.

These flippant sexual attitudes branch into much darker territory. For as long as Hideko has known, her uncle Kouzuki has threatened female family members to read graphically sexual stories from his vast library of erotica to a crowd of high-paying aristocrats. When Hideko comes of age, she is no exception. In some cases, she is even made to perform the acts she describes with a mannequin.

Both Sook-hee and Hideko eventually go on to destroy Kouzuki’s book collection, in a lengthy and gleeful montage. The sheer screen time dedicated to this sequence serves two purposes: the destruction of the wide array of antique books which emphasises how long women have been depicted as sexual objects, whilst also acting as a symbol for the two, liberating themselves from sexual subservience. When Kouzuki finds his collection destroyed, he barely seems moved – he claims they can be repaired, and those that can’t can be re-created. This is the film making the point that chauvinistic attitudes continue to exist, and at the same time asking how long will it be before they change.

As the film moves on, the female leads’ defiance of their male oppressors’ will extends to the passion they start to feel for one another. Yes, they both go nude and, yes, there are sex scenes, but these moments are not in the film for sensational reasons. They are there to show the growth of the intimacy between the characters, and the awakening of emotions that have long been dormant within them.

For Hideko in particular, her only experiences of this supposedly wonderful thing have left her feeling jaded and unsatisfied, even sad. It’s only after falling in love with Sook-hee that she starts to feel any sort of excitement. She realises that the act of sex itself is meaningless, it’s the emotions that go with it and whether you feel a deep connection with your sexual partner that makes it valuable.

The central themes sexual liberation and the gender hierarchy are some of the key elements that make The Handmaiden such an absorbing experience; these ideas linger with you long after the film has ended. The Handmaiden is generous, not only with its inventive storytelling and lavish production, but how much thinking space it gives to the audience. It allows everyone who sees it to take away as much or as little from it as they want to or feel they can, and for that it is a highly commendable achievement.

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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.

What About Feminism Today?

I have always been concerned with global issues on a personal scale.

By Ruth Ankeres

I have always been concerned with global issues on a personal scale.

The Individual.

The way one feels when they wake up in the morning, and the way they feel when they go to bed at night.

Feminism is that. Equality is that.

It is the human, painful, feeling, every morning and every night, no matter how big or small, that somehow “It’s not fair”.

And it isn’t.

Amazing women and men all over the world are fighting to put this right. Going out into the world and doing amazing things to ease some of those feelings, to lift some of the weight for us.

Women and men worldwide are making speeches which are demanding change. Intelligent, thought-provoking pleas which beg for understanding.

And here I am, not there, feeling just the same, but not having a platform to voice it.

And here you are, reading this article and feeling the same?

What can we do? How can we feel like we are part of this? How can we wake up every morning knowing we are not complacent, that we are doing something towards the cause, to make a difference? If all of these wonderful men and women are making changes and all of this oppression isn’t going away, where do we fit in?

Are you ready?

Be the change every day. Wake up every day and be the change.

Change starts here. Today. Right now.

Change is defending the woman breastfeeding on the bus. (Well done her!)

Change is defending the girl who is getting wolf whistled.

Change is defending your mother who is being spoken to like a fool.

Change is holding your best friend’s hand in a green and grey abortion clinic.

Change is telling your boss he is wrong and his actions are unjust (Even though he is your boss).

Change is talking about it and challenging it and making other people aware (even if it’s only in the pub, or over dinner to begin with) You have to start somewhere!

In a nutshell: t’s waking up. Waking up and seeing that you have the power to step in, you have the power to make sure every day, that our rights aren’t stolen.

It happening everywhere and until we see the smoke and we do something about it, we will never put out the fire.

Feminism boils down to something so simple, it’s so ancient that it’s a wonder we even need to write about it, to pick it apart, to make speeches to “important people,” to “intelligent people”.

Feminism is this: Treat other people as you would wish to be treated.

It’s not all that complex is it?

There is no longer any good enough excuse.

Wake up every day and defend that, in the same way women have been doing for years, decades. Wake up and make it your duty to defend that, because it needs defending. It’s not going to go away by itself.

Opposition won’t respond to violence, they won’t respond to words, they won’t respond to seeing criminal things happening before their very eyes?

So, let’s go back to basics. For all of you who can’t understand this?

We will do what we do with our children; we will do just as our teachers have done for us: we will show you. We will show you how to behave. We will show you how to treat each other. We will set an example, for everyone. And then maybe you will see that in practice it isn’t hard. It isn’t scary.

It’s just fair.

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About the Author
Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. Although this is her first publication she has been writing for years. She favours writing poetry and short plays. Ruth is a firm believer in equality of gender and is really exited to be writing for Gender in the City!

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Image credit: Hannah Barczyk

Wide Sargasso Sea: A prequel, for our times

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention.

By Freya Turner, guest edited by Dafydd Jenkins

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention. What also struck me was that if there was any time in the year to read this book, it would be summer. What is summer but a period of stretched-out days set in a shimmering daze from the heat, where we feel increased pressure to do more, where work and study breaks often feel intimidating and difficult to navigate? For me, these qualities of summer align with the ideas in this cult feminist prequel that re-thinks Jane Eyre.

The novel is set in 1830s Jamaica, and narrates the back-story of Jane Eyre that was never told; the story of Antoinette Cosway (Jane Eyre’s Bertha), Mr Rochester’s first wife. It threads together the oppressive and scarring structures of imperialism, in regards to masculinity, femininity, race, mental illness, and storytelling itself, through the eyes of Antoinette and Rochester. Written by Jean Rhys in 1966, the novel is a noted work of post-colonial fiction, and experimental in its writing style and creation of character. The novel has a breadth and depth that very few much longer novels are able to master, through writing which does not blame people, but structures in society, with a style that is at once lucid yet dream-like. Rhys makes the political a dream-space, where the narratives of lives are lost, interrelated, snowballed, and positioned in relation to ‘truth’ – whatever that may mean. Even feminism itself inhabits a new space where its purpose and discourse is called into question. For a short novel, it’s a mighty one, consistently cut through with the oppressive heat of the sun.

Antoinette is the daughter of ex-slave owners in Jamaica, and is a victim of the intolerance of both the freed black slaves and the white, imperialist aristocracy laying in tatters. She is undoubtedly liminal, much like Jane Eyre, but not in any positive sense. Early on in the novel she becomes an orphan, due to her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s mental illness, and her aunt moving to England for a year. An unnamed English man, who has connections with Antoinette’s mother’s recent and distant husband, Mr Mason, comes to Jamaica to marry Antoinette because he is bribed to by Mr Mason’s son. He is the victim of patrilineal inheritance as – being the younger son – his older brother inherits his father’s estate, meaning that he must quickly find his own financial security.

When the couple move into Antoinette’s inherited estate, the heat quickly feels more oppressive as things grow intolerable for the unnamed man (Rochester), Antoinette, and their servants. The couple are the victims of an imperialist system that prescribes roles and strips autonomy. Rochester and Antoinette’s misconnection goes far beyond communication difficulties, and their cultural victimisation is played out through anger towards one another, to the extent where the head servant, Christophine, rather ironically tries to be the mediator of this imperialist marriage. The system appears to be eating itself. It is in this part of the novel that Rhys’ writing is acutely sensitive and explosive, where it feels like each minute of their dizzying experiences hit you with a sense of loss so severe that you struggle to label what it is you are feeling or mourning.

All the novel’s perspectives create a static, with different stories harshly rubbing against each other, created not only through the first-person narrative from both Antoinette and Rochester, but through the disjointed and impassioned stories from the servants Christophine and Baptiste, and distant family members. We struggle to put our trust in anyone, and here’s where feminism is put on trial. I began asking myself whether different truths are inherent in the feminist discourse, and why this is necessary. I asked myself whether Christophine is the most plausible character, simply because she is the most threatening to the imperialist white male discourse. I also asked myself how much free choice men have in modern society, when their choice is constrained by archaic masculinity. These are interrelated thoughts that very few other novels open up so well.

It’s through the novel’s dream-like narrative that this becomes so effective, particularly in regards to Antoinette’s perspective. It is said that our dreams are a way for our brain to process the masses of tangled information that we are faced with every day, and Rhys proves that this is so. She even takes this further by touching on the uncanny of Freud, through Antoinette’s increasingly doll-like state. Rhys is continually exploring new structures, in form, character development, writing style, and even emotion, which further stresses her argument that it is the structures of imperialism and gender roles, rather than the individuals of patriarchy, that are the most important and powerful things to focus on and take action upon.

Why is the novel so relevant for our times? Jane’s ‘gilded cage’ is shown for what it really is; namely, a focus on one woman’s story, instead of other sides of the story, such as those of non-Westerners, non-whites, and poorer women. It draws comparison to the glass ceiling today, which, by focusing on it, demands us to ask whether it allows the exploitation of the majority of female labour and, if so, whether this mirrors the imperialism in the novel? We can go even further and mention other products of capitalism such as the #likeagirl campaign, and artists who use a movement to make a quick profit (I hate to say it, but Beyoncé’s Lemonade). You’ve got to give it to Jean Rhys for warning us about capitalism stunting the growth of feminism.

The other thing that rings so true to our moment now is the extent to which truth is fought over. Truth is fragmented, certain events are ignored, and jumping to conclusions and not listening are tools that are ironically used for self-protection from a societal structure that is reductive and exploitative. Our society is infiltrated with ‘fake news’, leaders and peoples who refuse to listen, believing what they want to believe, because their neo-liberal ideology tells them that’s what they’re entitled to. In this novel, you get a vision of what effect this has on gender and race, and it’s powerful.

Lastly, and most importantly, we are wrapped up in the devastating emotional effects of the imperialistic, gendered world which makes everyone suffer. Antoinette becomes increasingly hollowed out, lifeless, her mental health deteriorates, and Rochester is plagued with lifelessness, lack of empathy and passion, and dangerous anger. Both genders become bereft of the emotional range that they deserve, and this resonates strongly with the way that we are bringing up children today. Young girls very often have shockingly little self-confidence or ambition, and boys struggle to express any emotion other than anger – for just a few examples, read Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism or watch BBC’s recent documentary, No More Boys and Girls. Funnily enough, those children eventually grow up to not fulfil their potentials.

And despite all of this, the richness of Rhys’ language somehow points us towards a glimmer of hope. As if, through all of this, there is a contemporary discourse that is shouting out, encouraging us to do more and express ourselves in better ways which could eliminate the shackles of imperialism and gender roles for good.

If you’re worried about the state of the world right now, read this 124-page beauty; it’ll tell you a lot.

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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.