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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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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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.

Review of The Beguiled: Standing Up for Female Voices in Cinema

By Dean Pettipher

The Beguiled

Directed by Sofia Coppola

Written by Thomas Cullinan (based on the novel by), Albert Maltz (based on the screenplay by), Irene Kamp (based on the screenplay by) Sofia Coppola.

Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning & Colin Farrell

Barely two months have passed since the seventieth annual Cannes Film Festival and Sofia Coppola’s historic achievement as the second woman ever to win the award for Best Director. This was accorded for helming the enchanting motion picture masterpiece The Beguiled (2017). In the wake of recent discussions highlighting significant gender inequality within the film industry (see Jennifer Lawrence’s wage gap essay published in 2015) Coppola’s latest movie is crucial for maintaining the momentum towards a totally level cinematic stage. The Beguiled enchants, not just because it was directed by a woman, but principally due to a truly excellent collaboration that has brought about one of the most finely-crafted films so far this year. Thus, the various rewards earned for such efforts do not feel like tokenistic virtue-signalling by fake officials.

The primary sources for Coppola’s adaptation were composed by men. There was another movie, also entitled The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. There was, of course, also the novel that started it all, written by Thomas Cullinan and first published in 1966, initially titled A Painted Devil. Not least because of the elegant exploration of the passions that men and women share as human beings, Coppola’s latest movie is a believable illustration that a film with a female gaze at its heart can be as good, if not better, than those that have been projected with a male lens.

The acting is superb. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning in particular shine in their respective roles within the nineteenth century Virginian girls’ school. They each create their own uniquely compelling chemistry with Colin Farrell’s ostensibly charming character, a Union soldier, who desperately seeks sanctuary from the ravages of the American Civil War. Coppola’s script sizzles with tension in all its guises, courtesy of often cut-throat dialogue at the dinner table. The tension generally remains defiant when the dialogue gives way to action, thanks to some graceful and occasionally swift camerawork. While at times dulled a little by repetitiveness, the cinematography emerges triumphantly gorgeous in capturing the beauty of the white palaces situated upon the Southern plantations. The costumes thrive off of their intricate details; the women appear unquestionably fabulous in glossy dresses, and the guy that they aspire to impress looks pretty damn dashing as well. Consequently, the trill of the tale lies, to a great extent, in assessing which character is having the greater effect on their object of affection. All seem capable of rousing a state of limerence within those of the opposite sex, or at least prompting them to uncontrollably quiver in his or her presence.

The magic of the film fades not infrequently, but on each occasion quickly re-surfaces before the audience is lost. Kidman’s Southern accent slips from time to time, but fortunately not enough to tarnish her undeniably commanding presence and mellifluous voice. Perhaps the respective characters portrayed by Dunst and Fanning could have had their personal pursuits with Farrell’s character further developed through their dialogue, so that the stakes could have felt that much higher. On the other hand, a lot is communicated through both extremely subtle and very explicit displays of body language, which successfully maintain the central mysteries surrounding individual character motivations.

Ultimately, The Beguiled can seduce an audience. While Coppola’s Best Director prize is a well-deserved accolade, in the end, one must be more concerned about the opportunity than the awards. Women, like men, deserve to be given the chance to take the risk with their artistic visions in film and beyond. The Beguiled and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) are just two recent examples of that risk paying off both financially and in terms of positive social change.

Any drama set during the American Civil War will prompt audiences to consider the other tragic inequalities that plagued that period. During this film, they would then notice how those inequities appear to have been omitted almost entirely, as the film focuses on a particular set of female perspectives. Some have even ventured towards firm convictions that this is racism and whitewashing, elevating the image of the ‘Southern Belle’; of which many feel is a racist fiction. This is a useful criticism, which ties into the fact that feminist narratives must continue to reflect the intersectionality of modern feminism. However, it is still valuable to see the empowerment of female points of view. Therefore, this film does of course have flaws, but as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenin, ‘if you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.’

THE VERDICT: 9/10

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About the Author

Born in South Africa and raised in England, Dean studied for a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Chichester. For the second year of this endeavour, he took part in a one-year student exchange programme at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada. Dean later obtained a PGCE in Primary Education. He is currently based in London and working for a children’s charity.
Beyond the workplace, Dean enjoys reading, going to the cinema and spending time with friends whenever possible. In addition to Canada and South Africa, countries that he has visited include the United States, Malaysia and much of Europe.

Merge/Flow/Flux

By Jordan Harrison-Twist

In the flow of electricity, code is used to describe required actions for computer systems, distinguishing them from the limited specialized capacities of lowly machines. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer and contemporary of Charles Babbage, foresaw that code could hold symbolic value, so computers could behave outside of the boundaries of mathematics. Binary code, with its appearance of phallic 1s and vulvic 0s, begins as a morass of unordered possibilities, and in finding a moment of insemination in the flow, depicts a legible word or image. But the sexual metaphor in binary code remains bound to ideas criticized in cyberfeminist theory — criticisms which emerged in the late 1980s in relation to the advent of information technologies. The 1 represents a something — a phallus — and the 0 represents a lack — a not-phallus — illustrating the way our social lives were coded into the network: with the gender dualism intact, replete with immanent disparity. Thus, even in the domain of cyberspace, with its emancipatory and disruptive prospects, the woman remains servile to the militarized, commercialized technologies of patriarchal capitalism. Forever a nonentity, reliant on the 1 to determine her existence — he’s the one, I just know it — perpetually giving birth to legibility becomes her only function. Ada Lovelace in her programming wisdom had in the 1830s already criticised the limits of mathematical binary by inscribing it with nuance. Her first name ADA is now given to a programming language used by the US military.

Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995) investigates the flow of data in relation to consciousness and reproduction. In an information-oriented 2019, the world is connected by an electronic network that pervades all life. The network is accessed by implanting one’s consciousness, one’s ‘ghost’, into a cybernetic body, or a ‘shell’. Born from the sea of information, the Puppet Master is a military creation who becomes sentient, and as all life, seeks a body with which to reproduce, and ultimately, to die. In the film’s climax, the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi merges with the Puppet Master, combining their consciousnesses into a new body, to create something neither Motoko, nor the Puppet Master, but something else: a synthesis of motherless, fatherless mechanical replication. The line drawn between reproductive gender roles becomes permeable as the equal fluidity of merging displaces penetrative sexual intercourse — in a maelstrom of consciousnesses extra-utero.

Rupert Sanders’s less sophisticated live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017) has been much criticized for its gratuitous appropriation of Asiatic motifs, and the ‘whitewashing’ decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead. Strangely though, I actually prefer the iconic scene in which Motoko goes deep-sea diving. More tersely construed than in the anime, Johansson’s Motoko states that she relishes the fear of being submerged, the ‘cold, dark. No voices. No-data-streaming. Nothing […] Feels real’. Far from the indulgent philosophizing of the anime (based on Shirow Masamune’s manga), the transformative power of the disinterested, treacherous water works better with this simplicity of terms — this is, of course, the point: this dive is the opposite of Motoko’s digital ‘deep dive’ into the agitated data memories of a cybernetic Geisha assassin, a mission in which Motoko is tracked and hacked, and the haptic power of her shell is diminished.

One issue with the remake is that twenty years on, the same questions and dichotomies of the original are posed in quite the same way, just with more green-screened bombast. Paradoxically, the accusations of whitewashing have added a unique point of contention to the film’s conclusion. In the remake, we are faced with an Asiatic consciousness concealed in the body of a white woman — a body whose synthetic white ‘naked’ skin is exposed in full when ‘Major’ Motoko is engaged in battle, but whose heritage (in the narrative, as well as the film’s origins) is distinctly Japanese. Sanders’s film is as much about, as it is in service of digital enhancement — not just about ghosts and shells, but also about surfaces and skins.

The seminal text for discussions on gender and technology is Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1984), which discusses the liberating potential of breaking down the biological and technological dualism, as set out in Ghost in the Shell. Criticizing this, as well as the animal/human, male/female, and nature/culture dualisms, she claims that the perceived dichotomy has become a border war, the stakes of which are the ‘territories of production, reproduction, and imagination’. She characterizes contemporary human life as already technologically mediated, and looking at the meeting point of microelectronics and sex — genetic engineering and reproductive technologies — that it is not clear ‘who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine’.

The power to make is one attributed to both the machine and the mother, and as ciphers for this distinction, both electricity and water hold fundamental associations with the creation and maintenance of life. But just as electricity and water share a vernacular — both ripple, channel, flow, surge; floods can flash and dams can burst — the perceived dichotomy between the synthetic and the natural, replication and reproduction, is one in embattled flux. The cyborg’s legacy is not just a half-and-half synthesis of the human being and machine, nor is it one of the conceptions of male and female; rather the cyborg might be liminal, but not median; a network or a whirlpool or a wind; a spectre crackling along the fault-lines of the limitations of binary code, and public debates about Hollywood’s ersatz whiteness of skin.

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About the Author

Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer living and working in London and Manchester. In 2017, he graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Critical Writing in Art & Design. He writes about humour, pop culture, literature, and art and design.
His RCA award-winning dissertation is named A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines — and charts moments in literary texts, cinema, recent history, and art and design, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile. The text touches on the Surrealist attachment to the mannequin, the ethics of artificial intelligence, sex robots, and commercial space travel.

Learning Curves: My Experience with Sexism in Further Education

By Jack Ford

Childhood is a critical time – our early experiences shape the way we look at the world and everything in it. From what food we enjoy, to our tastes in music and indeed, our attitudes towards other races and sexes. Our early interactions with people who are different to us can be hugely influential, and for some, bad environments can form negative opinions.

The divide between boys and girls becomes apparent from a young age, as children of different genders are often discouraged from mixing socially. Boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play, whereas girls are kept passive and prescribed notions of femininity. However, this segregation is broken when young people desire romantic relationships – the invisible, cultural line is crossed when a boy asks a girl out, or vice versa. Perhaps this lack of early integration ingrains in us the idea that the opposite sex is only to be approached when there are amorous feelings involved, which just isn’t the case at all.

This idea came to me last year, when I made some observations on an Access course for young adults. The students, about three quarters male, were intelligent and very articulate, but unwilling to apply themselves and often boisterous and reluctant to do any of the work set for them.

During my time there I began to notice early on that some of the male students had unhealthy attitudes towards women. One in particular would never take instructions from female tutors. I can’t say for certain why, but it seemed like he refuted their being in a position of authority. Another would regularly tell sexist jokes either involving body parts or their usage, sometimes both.

These attitudes were best personified in one student who I’ll call Aaron. A young man in his late teens, Aaron was smart, funny and industrious, but fairly early on I became aware of his unsavoury views on women. He would brag about the number of girls he had been with and made weak jokes about how we shouldn’t look at his internet history. When there were excursions – the course had regular outings – you would often catch him using his phone to film passing women, strangers to him that he liked the look of. He was reprimanded for doing this, but that didn’t stop him.

This came to a head at the end of year presentation, where students and tutors along with families, friends and even representatives from the university that sponsored the course gathered to celebrate the year’s achievements. All students were asked to make a small speech. When Aaron took to the mic, he delivered a standard speech where he listed his achievements and started thanking all the course tutors, finishing with a young woman of whom all he said was, “She’s gorgeous.”

The room erupted in awkward laughter. A couple of his mates wolf-whistled. Perhaps this bolstered him, because he described her as either “beautiful” or “gorgeous” five more times. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe he had done that. I couldn’t believe he was continuing to do it. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t stopped him. It was so uncomfortable to witness that I had to leave the room. It was baffling that he would think that this attitude, broadcasted to everyone, was acceptable. I couldn’t imagine how the teacher he was speaking about must have felt, objectified in front of a large group of people. I asked her about it afterwards and she said it was fine, but she did look a little shell-shocked.

To my relief, some of the others agreed with me that this wasn’t OK, but not everyone. I even complained, but by then Aaron had finished the course and there was nothing that could be done. So instead, I pushed for the teachers to include some education on gender equality and discrimination as part of their curriculum.

I argued that one of the aims of the course was to prepare students for being in the workplace, and if any of them said some of the things I heard them say about women at work, they would have found themselves either at a tribunal, or fired (although the unfortunate reality is that so many incidents of gender based harassment in the workplace go unchallenged by employers). The teachers heard me out, but declined my proposal. This was understandable, I wasn’t a tutor and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to run their course. Their continued reluctance to penalise sexist behaviour is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave the course. (And to be honest, it was a relief.)

This is my experience with witnessing sexism in further education, and of course this is not an isolated incident. Last year The Women and Equalities Commission were told that young people nowadays are experiencing a culture where sexual harassment has become the norm. In addition to this, while sexual harassment and sex crime is down a lot from what it used to be, in the last two years the rate has risen.

There is no one answer to resolve this, but there are definitely more actions that can be taken to combat this institutionalised problem. In March, a proposal was put forward to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools. This is legislature we need to get behind. Teaching this to children who are at a pivotal age will lay the foundation for them to realise that sex, gender and difference are serious issues. Although young boys and girls are segregated, this type of education should include education which goes beyond binary concepts of gender – as well as discussing issues such as harassment, consent and equality.

The gender divide is a problem that exists in all cultures, and it’s about time we cross gender lines to come together and do more to see each other as equals. Until then, we will keep producing more Aarons, more people who think it’s still OK to publicly objectify women because the world they were brought up in, a world which said that they could.

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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.

 

Doctor Who (Will Jodie Whittaker Be?)

By Jo Gough

The 13th Doctor will be a woman. This is not simply a case of the BBC being ‘PC’ for the sake of it; this proves that a female hero can be realised within the Doctor Who universe. I would have thought that the plethora of complaints have begun to arrive, as they did when the Master regenerated as a woman (a pretty big hint). I imagine that many haven’t even been watching Doctor Who, and just want an ‘i’m not sexist but…’ grumble.

This is a positive step and is not particularly surprising, as should be the reaction if we ever get a more diverse James Bond. If these characters can be reprised looking and acting differently, why can’t this include skin colour or a change of gender?

This will keep the show fresh, as long as the writing mirrors the progressiveness of the casting; we want to see a reinvented Doctor with a new personality and character, as well as a new gender.

I was an avid fan when Doctor Who returned to our screens. However, when Steven Moffat took over the writing of the show, I did struggle to watch as I found the language and tone problematic from a gender perspective. Actions to and from women in the script became highly sexualised, which I found unnecessary. What statement was this making to a young audience? Women can be strong and clever, but only if we are framed in a sexual light?

The recent Wonder Woman movie is another example of this. It was hailed as a feminist success; however, there was still at the centre a male hero. This character teaches her how to behave and dress, and makes constant (and exhausting) references to her appearance.

This makes it more important than ever that we see beyond the fact the Doctor is a woman, but instead examine who she will actually be. Will she be scripted like a male with her companion besotted? Will she be saving male companions from the tedium of life, whisking them away in the Tardis? Or will men remain as the heroes, saving her from danger? Will she need a love story to seem interesting, or will the scenes be scattered with references to her female form? Will female characters work with her or be jealous of her? Will she be fought over?

When Mackie was cast as Bill, the first openly gay character in Doctor Who, she said sexuality was not the defining role of her character. This gives me hope that the gender of our hero won’t be either.

Hopefully, she is constructed through the strength of what makes the Doctor a role model, with all the trademark traits that we love: wonderment, enthusiasm for teaching and learning, puzzling out the science of the universe, needing help, taking advice, being protective … and ultimately saving the day, with compassion in her heart(s). Children and adults alike will then learn that women can be heroes based on their ability and personality, not because they look good or try to mimic a male stereotype.

This is a fine time to encourage hero status as a result of character and personality, regardless of the sex you were born, or regenerated as.

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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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DUP-ed in the City

By A. C. Phipps

My favourite signs on marches are always the ones which read “I CAN’T BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT”.

This sentiment seemed particularly apt on 24th June 2017, when I marched with hundreds of women to Downing Street, dressed in red, to protest the impending deal between the Tories and the DUP, which has now been secured to the tune of £1bn.

Needless to say, I wasn’t best pleased to have my body used as a bartering chip for political gain.

While we indulged in zeitgeisty witticisms (“MY OVARIES ARE NOT A FIELD OF WHEAT”) and stopped traffic in its tracks along Whitehall (one policeman told me “YOU’RE CAUSING ABSOLUTE CHAOS”, and I told him “THAT’S THE POINT!”), it was underscored with a palpable fear that the most powerful woman in the country was giving her approval to a party which are openly anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ rights.

I speak from a position of safety and privilege when I note from afar that austerity disproportionately affects women (it really does: see here), and when I recoil in horror at the fact that the government have found £1bn for political gain, while unashamedly slashing funds to domestic abuse services (outlined here).

But I speak from a position of personal and genuine vulnerability as a woman who wants to own her body, have control over her reproductive rights, and see free, safe and legal abortion become a universal human right. Pregnancy when wanted is a beautiful thing. But I also know that many women have felt the moment of fear as they watch the blue lines on a pregnancy test map out their future. The feeling that your body may go from personal to public ownership. For me, I always know that in the background there is the safety net of free and safe abortions in England. For other women around the world, they have no such reassurance. And as Margaret Atwood has recently said, forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy is a form of slavery (in this interview).

Our bodies should be sites of pleasure, tenderness, empowerment, lust, love and joy – all of the above, some of the above, or whatever else a woman wants hers to be. What they should not be is regulated, debated on by men, or used as sites of oppressive political discourse.

With the DUP refusing to shift their views on abortion in Northern Ireland, despite this deal, we will continue taking to the streets until our Prime Minister realises that her powers go beyond wearing a “THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” t-shirt. She must speak out in favour of both protecting and extending abortion rights, not just within the context of our new political dealings in the UK, but also with Trump and other world leaders. In doing so, she will acknowledge that all genders prosper in a society which is open to giving women choice over how they live their lives.

Stella Creasy’s victory in securing women from Northern Ireland access to abortions on the NHS in England is a stunning victory – but it is only one step in the right direction. The thing about rights is they can always be taken away, and where they are present, they are lacking elsewhere. That’s why, as frustrating as it is to “STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT”, I will continue with the mantra “MY BODY MY CHOICE”. Because my body is every woman’s body.

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Seeing The Light at the End of Divisive Party-Political Tunnel

What the Richmond and North Kingston by-election win means for young Feminists

By Katie Staal

Richmond and North Kingston, London

Richmond and North Kingston; a leafy, affluent area of South West London, comfortably tucked away from the hustle and bustle of more central areas like Wimbledon and Clapham. Kingston and the surrounding area is home to many schools and families, public sector city workers (and indeed in the case of Sarah Olney, accountants) who have retreated slightly from the sprawl of central London.

It’s also where you can find heritage site Richmond Park, heralded for it’s healthy deer population and the video of that guy shouting ‘FENTON’. Altogether, this is an area which seems unlikely to engage in a dramatic politics of collective alliance. Yet on December 1st 2016, a move was made which the national papers have described as ‘a shockwave’.

For a little context, this area has been traditionally a moderate Liberal Democrat stronghold. But in 2010 the tables turned, as newly-elected conservative MP Zac Goldsmith rocked-up; pretty-Eton-boy incarnate. Zac is the product of his own legacy: the millionaire son of James Goldsmith, a French member of the European Parliament until 1997. Despite being an MEP, Zac’s dad founded a ‘referendum’ party which campaigned for Brexit throughout the 1990s.

Visiting the House of Commons one day with a few school friends in 2012, I spotted the shock of golden hair and my MP strolling past us in the lobby. Frankly, the idea of approaching him to talk about my local area made me feel vom.

The Mayoral Election 2016

As a young person growing up in Kingston, I’ve often felt disassociated with local politics for this very reason. Zac Goldsmith didn’t speak to me, he didn’t represent me, despite his efforts to emphasise environmental policy and play up our local love of leafy green spaces like Richmond park.

He was our MP, and yet I made a habit of shooting daggers at the lovely big houses near the park gates, persistently plastered with posters brigade Zac’s shiny blonde head. At a summer BBQ one year, the activity of choice was vehemently roasting Zac’s flyers over the hot coals.

My axniety intensified leading up to the London mayoral election in early 2016. I sank at the thought of Zac becoming the Mayor of London. Yet another smarmy party politician, the mirror of national joke Boris, at the driver’s seat of our capital city. During this time, Zac represented an altogether less silly candidate than Boris, which had the double edge of a more serious conservative threat. Of course now Boris is the UK’s foreign minister (why, WHY?)

However, Sadiq Khan, MP for nearby South London constituency Tooting, won the mayoral election race in May 2016 in a landslide, crushing Zac into little smarmy pieces. Voting for Sadiq was the first time as a twenty-two-year-old feminist that I truly felt excited to vote. When the announcement came that Sadiq had won, I felt a physical un-clenching in my stomach. Zac’s frankly shady race-motivated election tactics had been defeated by the people of London, the popular vote. Goldsmith’s own sister Jemima criticised him publicly on twitter:

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Source: Twitter.com Tweets from Jemima Goldsmith criticising her brother’s divisive campaigning.

May 2015 – November 2016

But then May 2015 came. The Tories gained majority in Parliament. June 2016: Brexit. David Cameron resigned. Theresa May took his place. A flood of sexist journalism followed from the media. Confusion ensued for young feminists. We were once again represented by a woman, a strong and powerful party politician. However, it was for the wrong party, the ‘nasty’ party, and not the right kind of ‘nasty’ (ala Clinton). 

Theresa May has not been elected to her position, she is not accountable to the people, but yet again my stomach churned chunks as I saw the flood of news articles picking on her nail colour, skirt length, husband and hair. Why exactly it has only been UK Conservative women who have managed to claw their way through a traditionally sexist parliament to the top seats of our government? I’m still not quite sure.

The 2016 Financial Statement from the Tories came in a few days ago at the end of November. The big stand-out for me was May’s new money pot for Grammar schools – a recipe for a more elitist and divisive society.

Furthermore, if you scroll to the very bottom of the document, past the graphs showing our ‘economic growth’, you’ll find a table of caps on Welfare which will harm the very poorest people in our society. Cuts and restrictions are coming to Disability Living Allowance or DLA, a tax that has been provided to members of my family who I love. Tax on free childcare, which will have a negative impact on women most of all.

These are only a couple of examples from the many listed as ‘in scope’ for the Tory government to knock or destroy, and in its wake shred up everything that intersectional feminists, and of course that bloody includes men, hold close to their hearts.

You can read the Autumn statement on the DirectGov website here.

Now, December 2016

However, the first wind that Richmond and Kingston, my home, was changing political climate to something altogether more left, came a few short months after the Brexit decision. This was mere weeks after the disastrous election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and days after the Autumn financial statement was released by the Conservative Government.

Zac Goldsmith, following in the footsteps of fellow Etonian David Cameron, had resigned! The reasons for this were cited: ‘he had pledged to the people of Richmond to prevent the expansion of Heathrow Airport.’ Kingston and Richmond being positioned slap-bang in the middle of the LHR flight path of course was, and continues to be, an issue of great importance to Richmond and Kingston constituents.

However, May’s Tory government quickly steamrollered Zac’s plans to remain an elected representative, as the Heathrow expansion was given the government go-ahead in October. This triggered Zac’s resignation, and the by-election that took place on December 1st was born.

Goldsmith was caught between a rock and a hard place: the racist overtones of his disastrous mayoral campaign had (thank god) distanced him somewhat from the Tories. The once-popular Eton boy of the inner circle had lost his mandate after his mayoral defeat, as well as respect from the part. Therefore, Goldsmith made the dicey political move to run as an independent candidate: a poor attempt to see if the hangover from his previous popularity would see him through another election.

Particularly outspoken during Zac’s mayoral campaign was Mohammed Amin, a senior Tory party figure, read more about his Tory Forum here

Enter Sarah Olney, an female accountant from Surrey. Sarah Olney with a BA in English Literature like me. Sarah Olney who, like me, was horrified by the events of last year’s election and this year’s Brexit. Sarah Olney, a Liberal Democrat. A Liberal Democrat reminiscent of the liberal stronghold that was for so long entrenched by the people of Richmond and North Kingston.

The Liberal Democrat coalition with the Tories party in 2010 was, as we know, a massive cock up. Nick Clegg failed to effectively balance out the right-wing policies of David Cameron. Clegg as deputy Prime Minister was squashed under the foot of Cameron’s Tory vigour. He wasn’t even allowed to meet Obama when he came for tea.

However, Clegg has recently been popping up again on Channel 4 News, and bizarrely, Twitter. These morsels include his leading a cross-party conference with representatives from Labour and the Conservatives – they discussed the idea that everyone (across parties) thought that Brexit was, in practice, a very bad idea.

Read more about the ‘Open Britain’ conference here.

But what spoke to me as the by-election campaign was in full swing, wasn’t the Lib Dems as a party, but Sarah as a candidate and everything she stands for. Another woman with a husband like Theresa May, but this time on the left-leaning side of liberal. Despite her lack of experience, reading news about Olney and seeing Liberal Democrat boards scattered around houses on my commute to work made my pulse throb with hope.

The by-election in Kingston on the December 1st 2016 was one of those rare occasions that all parties, except for the Liberal Democrats and Bumsmith, sorry, Goldsmith, decided to take a step back. For better or for worse, The Green Party and Women’s Equality Party had endorsed Sarah Olney, and there was a limited campaign by Labour . UKIP, who had previously campaigned and won votes in the 2015 general election (ugh), endorsed Goldsmith. 

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Source: Twitter.com Sarah Olney tweeting the Women’s Equality Party, in thanks of their support.

I woke up early, voted, went to work. Waited. On the morning of Friday 2nd I was woken up by a WhatsApp from a girlfriend.

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Source: Author’s own

This highlights how meaningful this result is for young people and young women, whether they identify as feminists or not. If we share the stories of Sarah Olney’s win, we could finally tap into what the government has politely neglected for so long:

  • The voices of people passionate about the environment and the planet, as we live our lives trying to protect the resources that our predecessors have depleted.
  • The voices of those who strive to be represented by politicians who are recognisable, and who will actually represent us, and who are inherently empathetic and inclusive of minority voices.
  • Those who are still fighting to challenge perceptions towards the Brexit vote, and who want to work together across party lines to negotiate and communicate.
  • Those who are sick to the stomach of being force-fed the politics of fear displayed in some commercial media.

The UK, and indeed the so called ‘progressive’ Western World, has become sucked into in a dark and increasingly right-wing political hole, a tunnel if you like, which in turn emotionally has a knock-on effect on voter apathy. But if we bring our perspectives together, we too can elect those who represent as Sarah so eloquently delivered in her acceptance speech:

‘The Britain we love, [that we will] stand up for. The open, tolerant, united Britain we believe in’.

And maybe then, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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You can watch Sarah’s who acceptance speech on YouTube here.

Results table from the 2016 Richmond and North Kingston By-Election
Sarah Olney (LD) 20,510 (49.68%, +30.41%)
Zac Goldsmith (Ind) 18,638 (45.15%)
Christian Wolmar (Lab) 1,515 (3.67%, -8.68%)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 184 (0.45%)
Fiona Syms (Ind) 173 (0.42%)
Dominic Stockford (CPA) 164 (0.40%)
Maharaja Jammu and Kashmir (Love) 67 (0.16%)
David Powell (ND) 32 (0.08%)

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About the Author

Katie is a young musician, postgraduate and publishing worm who hates Zac Goldsmith.

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