The Untold Story of Rosemary Kennedy

By Jack Ford.

The sad but true story of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of former US president John F Kennedy, highlights a lot in terms of the treatment and portrayal of women with mental health issues in the 1950’s

The third oldest of Joe Kennedy Sr.’s children, Rosemary Kennedy had difficulties from a young age. She was regularly excluded from her siblings’ games, as she found it hard to take part, and she also had big problems with reading, which saw her fail twice to graduate from kindergarten.

At 15, her parents had her removed from public school, largely out of shame, and sent her to a boarding school in Rhode Island, where she was kept separately from all the other students. One letter she wrote home read: “Darling Daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome every day.”

Despite her educational struggles, she was seen as an even-tempered and happy young girl, who had a number of hobbies and interests, enjoyed social outings and showed a great interest in social welfare and education. Rosemary was briefly educated in England, where the family had moved to after her father was appointed US ambassador. It was during this time she was said to have made great strides in her character and school work.

A young adult when the family moved back to America, those around her would see sudden, evident changes in Rosemary. She had become boisterous, combative and was prone to mood swings. In an attempt to remedy her new behaviour she was placed in a convent, but she would regularly sneak out.

The family did not know how to control her, and with her two oldest siblings – John and Joe Jr. – about to enter the world of politics, there was a fear that Rosemary’s behaviour would threaten their chances of winning office.

It was then that a doctor friend of Joe Sr. told him about a procedure that could fix neurological problems like his daughter’s – a lobotomy. Without hesitation, and not hesitating to inform anyone else in the family, Joe whisked 23-year-old Rosemary away to Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility in New York to have one performed. He ignored all the warnings about the risks associated with the procedure, and any possible wishes of his daughter, and Rosemary was lobotomised.

She went silent on the operating table, and when the doctors tried to get her to respond, not only was she unable to speak, she was unable to move. The operation had gone wrong. The Kennedys’ fought to keep Rosemary out of a mental institution all their lives, but following the botched procedure, there was no other option but to commit her. It took months of physical therapy to get her to move again, but she never regained the ability to walk or speak.

Rosemary spent the rest of her life in Jefferson, Wisconsin, at a specialist support school. The family largely played down her disappearance, and when they did eventually acknowledge her, they cited mental deficiencies as the reason for her absence from the public eye. Aside from her mother, on one occasion, she never received a visit from any family member, and in 2003, at the age of 85, Rosemary Kennedy passed away.

Rosemary Kennedy’s actual condition is open to speculation, but in a new age of understanding of mental conditions, it’s easy to see signs of a variety of illnesses that today are easy to treat and manage.

She was not alone in her persecution either, history has seen innumerable people with easily treatable and manageable conditions either being given the wrong care or institutionalised. Women have fared particularly badly; with their own feelings not regarded. Often, any change in personality was jumped on and scrutinised, and until recently, emotional changes associated with the monthly cyclecould have been classified as ‘hysteria.’

Accounts from history like this go to show us is how far we’ve come in how we view and treat mental illnesses.  Rosemary’s sad story unfolded at a time when there was little known about the causes for mental instabilities and stigma surrounded them, not helped by the Kennedys trying to protect their now famous name.

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.

The Pill and Me ♥

A note from the Editor

Dear Friends,

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Gender + the City would like to send you a Valentine’s Day card this year…

It’s an amalgamation of our stories and perspectives, pains and pleasures, experiences and insights on the subject of the contraceptive pill. I’d like to thank all our lovely contributors for sharing so candidly.

To start off our hot V-day date with the pill, here’s my own contribution to our contraception collective:

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Katie Staal

I was on the pill for seven years; from the age I started having sex with my first boyfriend up until last year. I went on it because that’s what every girl did when they started having sex. For seven years I went to the doctors alone and picked up my prescription alone. I was weighed and questioned, the blood pressure armband squeezed tightly around my upper arm. My contraceptive world ticked along, invisible to eyes of my boyfriends who in total peace and serenity, came inside me.

I loved my little sugar-coated dose of Microgynon every day, it made me feel safe and protected. I trusted it. I never missed a day. Taking it became so much a part of my sense of self, that it seemed abnormal when I stopped consuming them (for one week of the month to have my period.)

It was only last year that confusion and concern began to invade my contraceptive bubble. In reality, I knew very little about the long term effects of my daily dose. What happens to your body when you stop taking it? What about if you want to come off, and then go back on again? Was I still too young to think about quitting? All of these questions simmered as I eyed my pill with suspicion. 

There are over one million pill takers. And yes, the pill can have a damaging effect on the long term health of women and girls[1] The pill is a Feminist issue, and men (the very men that fuck women on the pill all the time) are often ignorant of the emotional, mental and physical labour that we go through to avoid unplanned pregnancy. To be truly equal, shouldn’t both sexes share the load? What the hell happened to the infamous male pill?! We’ve been ‘five years’ away from male contraception for fifty years! 

Then I began to get really pissed off. Do all these questions fall on deaf ears because contraception is still deemed a ‘women’s issue’, and therefore irrelevant, unimportant and underrepresented in scientific and medical research?

The pill just didn’t cut it for me anymore. I needed to go cold turkey.

As it turns out, the most useful advice on how to quit the pill came from sharing stories with my girlfriends. In a bar in Soho one night, a friend looked me straight in the eye and said ‘come off it, trust me, The Pill fucks you up, and then you can’t go back’. She continued gravely: ‘The side effects makes it feel like we still don’t really have a choice, it’s a lose/lose situation.’

The Pill was introduced in 1961 and yet in 2017, my friend echoed the same sentiment expressed by the first wave of Feminism. Their fight has become ours, and it’s clearly not over yet. Even worse, there’s a superpower cheeto out there who at the flick of a pen, seeks to reinforce the oppression female bodily autonomy.

I’ll admit, I’ve been off the pill for over a year now and I’m still a little confused about what’s going on in my body. Many of my original suspicions have continued to simmer, taking on new shapes and forms. Alarmingly, I lost a lot of weight in a pretty short amount of time and experienced painful period cramps and other weird PMS symptoms that I’d never had before. The worst was something I affectionately named ‘fart brain’, where for the first couple of days of my period, I basically feel like I’m on another planet! I can’t think straight and struggle to concentrate.

Through all of my frustrations and anxieties, my friends provided a listening ear. Talking to them helped me check in with myself, and eventually, realise how I really felt about the changes I was going through. I hope the stories to follow in this article are equally valuable, and can help you to find comfort in solidarity with our pill taking sisters.

[1] Side effects of the pill include: heart disease and stroke, depression, DVT, blood clots, migraines and an increased risk of cervical cancer to name a few.

Please like GATC on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter. You can also follow Katie on InstagramSpotify and Goodreads.

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Anonymous 

The Contraceptive Saga: A Series of Limericks

There once was a young girl at school
with pills as her protective tool.
She didn’t know others,
but came to discover
an IUD was not as cruel.

Once she missed the pill and got stressed.
Plus side effects made her depressed.
A nurse gave advice:
“This copper device
will have all your problems addressed!”

Though she met the change with intrigue,
the coil gave her cramps and fatigue.
She squirted much blood,
proclaimed “It’s a dud!
A method for men is in need.”

But she hadn’t quite lost her will:
protection without getting ill.
She spoke to her doctor.
His answer did shock her:
“Not condoms nor coil? Try the pill!”

Tried condoms, an NFP app,
but these were refused by her chap.
Why should she feel sick
for the sake of his dick?!
She gave up and told him to fap.

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Angelique Jones

My experience with the pill is by no means unique: the doctor told me so.

When I was 15 I went to the GP with my mum, because I had a few pimples on my chin, and (something called) period pains; but, I didn’t really have a period: I had an extremely long one once for a week when I was 13, I had to sit on towels, couldn’t go to school. What I hadn’t mentioned was that I heard at school, that it makes your boobs bigger, too, but that so-and-so got fat. It was a risk; but I was 15, and so foresight – what’s that?

The doctor said Microgynon would clear up my skin and give me regular, painless, bleeds. Sweet, whatever that means. So, I took the tiny pill for 3 weeks, stopped and had a bleed. But, most of the time I chose when I would have a period, sometimes I took it every day; periods are annoying, especially when you have to wear shorts for P.E, and you have to buy tampons because it’s “ew, gross” to wear pads.

After two and a half years of playing around with the pill, I was getting pretty depressed, and a bit fat – but I was also binging on sugar, and skipping meals because I didn’t know how to express myself: girl, age 17-18 years. I would just cry, and then eat a loaf of bread and 5 KitKat Chunkies.

The doctor’s told me to take Citalopram 20 (anti-depressants) and keep taking the pill to regulate my hormones. I didn’t feel good.

I stopped taking the pill after 3 years, and the anti-depressants after 5 days. I bled for 10 days. I haven’t bled since. I’m now 26.

The doctors keep telling me to take the pill, so that I can have a “normal” period.

Angelique is Film Editor for both The Rational, and On the Beat. You can follow her on Instagram @Angeliquejones_

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Ariane Laurent-Smith

I am 22 years old, I’ve tried four different types of contraception, and fingers crossed, I think I found my perfect match. I was put on Loestrin 20 at the age of fifteen because my periods hurt so badly that I was near to fainting. When I became sexually active, it made sense for me to go on Loestrin 30, deemed a ‘proper’ contraceptive pill. I took it for two years, but never trusted it enough not to use condoms at the same time. Really, it was more of a back-up. It’s funny that I took something with awful side-effects as a ‘back-up’.

I didn’t connect the dots until much later, but every time I stopped taking my pill, whether it was to have my period or I forgot (we’ve all been there!) I would feel extremely emotionally fragile for following week or so. I felt like I could cry at the drop of a hat. After this, I tried the contraceptive injection. Also, a no! The emotional side-effects were even worse than the pill, and I refused to accept the idea that I should stick with it for another three months because the side-effects ‘should’ tail off. It’s just not worth the risk.

Enter my knight in shining armour. I’m not talking about a man. In fact, men don’t even have an option for hormonal contraception, since development of the male injection was cut short. No, my knight is the IUS. Otherwise known as intra-uterine system, the hormonal coil, the Mirena, heaven in a contraceptive. That is, unless you’re unlucky to be on the receiving end of one of the major side-effects. Although these are rare, in some cases it can pierce your womb (I love being a woman!) Even my dream contraception hurts to get inserted – the cramps and contractions I experienced, I can only compare to what I imagine the pain of labour is (oh the irony).

My boyfriend at the time rubbed circles on my back with one hand and called a taxi to go home with the other. The pain lasted a few hours but since then, I’ve felt like I’m floating, with a peace of mind I never knew was possible.

Hear more from Ariane on Oxide News Radio.

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Ellis Taylor

After 8 years, I made the decision. My life was good; I’d overcome some really tough experiences and gone through plenty of counselling. But I still didn’t feel right.

I was 18 when I went on the combined pill and 24 when I came off it. I was 18 when I started to feel anxious and low. When I was 21 I was prescribed antidepressants. Was this a coincidence? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think it was.

Before making my decision, I spoke to friends and researched the effects of the combined pill on mental health. Finally, I decided that it was time to stop taking it. I thought it would fix my mood swings – hell, I thought it might even ‘cure’ my depression.

When I first came off the pill it was wonderful. I felt like I was meeting my body and my natural rhythm for the first time! My body was doing what it was meant to be doing – not what it had been instructed to do by a little pill. My antidepressants reduced, I was getting closer and closer to being totally medication free for the first time in years.

It’s now been a year. My natural monthly rhythm lasted a couple of months, but now that my body has had time to adjust, problems that I never knew existed have revealed themselves.

When I came off the pill it was because thought it would ‘fix’ my mental health issues. It has helped, but coming off has also revealed a new knowledge of my body, an awareness that uncovered potential problems, problems otherwise discovered.

Follow Ellis on Instagram.

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Freya Turner

Drug in Greek is Pharmakon. This word refuses to define whether it means to cure or to poison. ‘Kon’, as if to cheat us of meaning.

Granting me my last resort for acne treatment in a little windowless office, some doctor put me on Yasmin. It was a flippant decision for him, and a hesitant one for me. I was living in Amsterdam at the time; my first time living abroad. Just outside the clinic, one of the beautiful and unsure canal rings was winding away and away, coiling together a paper cut-out city. It made me lose my way home.

Washed down somewhere, into my blood, silently. It’s an intoxicating idea. It is tiny and slight and light, barely detected by the tongue. Is this dangerous slightness the feeling of a womanhood?

I took it for the time it takes to grow a baby. At least that’s what I remember. Having ‘moderate’ acne, it felt as if I had a clinical diagnosis warning me of my constant uncertainty and wavering.

Is this a numbness? // Maybe it is hyper awareness. // How am I to ever know when I am feeling drug mood or my mood? // Then what is mine? // Is medically constructed good skin a contract; all moods suddenly mine? // What is more possible: absence or unusual movement of emotion? // And who is to say which out of frequency or size of spot, is the most destructive?

I couldn’t answer the questions. This medical exchange became a project, I realised, in a woman’s capability of tolerating what she thought and her own and others’ politics of health and superficiality.

Like many projects, this one ended. I now let the acne thrive, and I use nothing for it.

Freya is a regular contributor to GATC, you can read more of her recent writing here and here

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Polly Hember

Discussions on birth control are deeply political, revolving around reproductive rights, female autonomy, body politics and so on. Second-wave feminists in the 1960’s and 70’s argued that control over a woman’s own fertility was, in no uncertain terms, power. This was a power that gave women access to more control over if and when they wanted to have children. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) stated in 1920 that a woman who relies on men for birth control, is a woman ‘exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.’

However, a trend I have noticed with young women in their twenties now is a deep sense of resentment about their pill. Why should women have to risk blood clots, weight gain, mood swings, acne, loss of libido and more in order to enjoy sex and avoid pregnancy, when men get all the benefits without the side effects?

At 19, I experienced inconsolable mood swings due to the brand of my contraceptive pill. At 23, I was nearly hospitalised because of an infection caused by the copper coil. At these times I have to admit that I have felt it unfair that women shoulder the burden, the risk and the sole accountability of pregnancy-free sex.

Contraception is always going to be a multifaceted, emotive and complex discussion. President Trump is attempting to enable US employers to deny women insurance coverage that pays for their birth control. Whether you feel empowered or resentful, the issue is freedom of choice. The support, education and the availability of birth control one decides on more critical than ever before.

Polly Hember is Art Editor for The Rational and found of On the Beat.

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Izabella Karasinska-Stanley

When I got a boyfriend, I knew it was time for me to get the pill. Oddly, I never considered any other option. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who was using the coil, or the implant. For me, it was this, or condoms, and condoms break, or we might run out. The pill was entirely up to me. That’s what I wanted.

I was slightly nervous when I waited in the Sexual Health clinic, but mostly I wasn’t. It seemed so easy. You just ask the doctor to prescribe you a contraceptive, as if ordering a pizza in a restaurant. You say what you want, they ask follow-up questions, like if you want added parmesan, or if you have multiple sexual partners, and then you wait a bit, and then they give it you. It’s very easy.

It’s been just as easy ever since. I know I’m lucky. I have plenty of friends who reacted badly to it, or who keep forgetting to take it. But for me, it works fine. I don’t forget it. And most importantly, it hasn’t completely fucked me up. I’m really lucky. I can have sex all the time, whenever I want. I’m never scared. I’m always protected.

And yet, I think I might stop taking it soon. Switch to something else.

That’s the thing about the contraceptive pill. It’s like social media stealing your data, or your GPS tracking your every move. Those sites are convenient, but something about them seems wrong. It’s the same feeling. You don’t get real periods. Your hormones aren’t working right. So many things about the running of your female body line up with your menstrual cycle. What about all of that?

It’s the same feeling Miss Clavel has in Madeline, you know?

“Something is not right”.

Follow Izabela’s film photography Tumblr and find her on Instagram @izabela_ks.


Illustrations by Anna Sudit
@annasudit
http://www.annasudit.com

A New Perspective on Bodies

By Ruth Ankers

‘You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while and look for another reflection. Like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you’[1]

Stacy London’s got it right.

There have been countless articles, books and ideas created around discussions of body image and body shaming. They often conclude that we should love our bodies no matter what.

Don’t lose interest yet, this is not another one of those articles.

I’m not here to tell you to feel better by eating a bag of kale, nor am I going to assure you that “big is better”.

In fact, I think on the whole that both these types of expressions miss the point.

So what is the point?

If you ask me, addressing our bodies shouldn’t be limited to “celebrating” our different sizes and shapes. The conversation has the potential to extend in focus to consider our obsessions with the body.

I’m sure you’re ready and armed with your “healthy body healthy mind” shotgun, and yes, that would be a valid shot. But, I’m not suggesting that eating well doesn’t have a positive impact on your state of mind. However, an obsessive mind is not a healthy mind, and we need to be careful where we draw the lines.

This is a particularly pressing conversation, as millennial women are labelled by their seniors as the most ‘self-obsessed’ of any generations that have come before.

It would be pointless to open up a debate about the types of food which are right and wrong to eat. I’m not a nutritionist, although I am a good cook. I cook healthy food, I eat healthy food … and I eat cheese, bread and pasta and all the things which make my mouth water.

This article isn’t about food, exercise or diet plans. It’s about perspective.

Can we take the heat off ourselves, please? Can we eat and be healthy and well without having to plaster it all over the internet. Social media can be more dangerous than we often notice. When we jump on the public body bandwagon, we push our obsession with bodies to the forefront, keeping them in the spotlight. A spotlight which could be shifted and distributed to different issues.

I’m not suggesting you should abandon your relationship with your body. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t love and enjoy your partner’s body. After all, we are all beautiful, and deserve to be admired. But is it possible to have a time out?

Is all the chatter around bodies getting a bit much?

Stacy London thinks we should spend more time looking into the eyes of the people we love, instead of at our reflection. I agree. We need to make sure, going forward, that we save looking at our own bodies (or other bodies on the internet) and use this time to look more into the eyes of people we care about.

That’s how we find “body confidence”, no matter what shape or size you are. We can always find beauty by looking at someone we love, and recognising that they see you – your soul, your views, your experiences and your kindness. Not your jean size.

[1] http://www.thehumangathering.com/stacylondon/

About The Author

IMG_20170907_103552_343

Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. 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 + the City!

Illustration by Laura Callaghan
http://www.lauracallaghanillustration.com/
@lauracallaghanillustration

Vegetarianism, Gender and Consumption: Are your politics what you eat?

By Ruby Martin

I recently read Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang after picking it up in a charity shop. I had picked it up largely because of the title alone, but as a self-identifying (somewhat) vegetarian since the age of eight, I was quickly intrigued by the blurb selling vegetarianism as “the ultimate act of subversion”.

My interest was piqued. How could choosing the falafel wrap at Tesco be a subversive act? With even the most mainstream chains such as Pret embracing veggie branches, my dietary lifestyle hardly seemed ‘fringe’, despite being a leftie creative type in a liberal bubble. It seems that vegetarianism and veganism is the trend du jour in the UK, with veganism rising by over 360% in the past decade and – among women in particular – general meat consumption across the UK having been reduced, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

But why?

There are various possibilities, but evidence from a recent Mintel survey suggests that health is the top reason for limiting meat consumption. Does this mean that women are more health conscious than men? And if so many people cite health as a reason for giving up meat, can we still interpret that as a subversive act? In the same Mintel survey, around half of respondents had also said they had tried to lose weight, with 57% of those respondents being women. Now whilst losing weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are various industries who profit from the population dieting, the most obvious being weight loss, but more general food companies such as Quorn and Linda McCartney will still profit off those who think that eating less meat will help lose weight.  This affects gender as advertising companies have been known to target different audiences and throughout the years, companies have sold very different ideals to what men and women should be.

Whilst no doubt men are encouraged to lose weight, they are also encouraged to get “ripped”; women are often simply encouraged to be thin and talk purely in terms of fat rather than muscle. This is shown in the examples below, in adverts for the same diet products, HCG. To men, HCG sell the idea of keeping muscle whilst to women, muscle is not mentioned at all; instead the focus is on losing pounds and reducing bodily size.

This is shown in the same way Instagram fads such as ‘clean eating’ and other diets are aggressively sold towards women. Now this may seem like obvious stuff, but combined with the notion that vegetarianism is a healthier way to live, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that more women may incorporate it as a weight loss strategy thanks to cultural pressure.

However, before all hope is lost, we can now address how vegetarianism can be a force for good.

Whilst we could assume that all these women are turning veggie for them sweet inch losses, I believe that fails to recognise the individual agency and personal reasons behind the decision. When asked, each person I know who identifies as vegetarian had a completely different combination of reasons for giving up meat, and while health (and weight) played a part for some, other factors such as the environment, personal taste, financial considerations and animal welfare were given equal importance.  When asked why they became a vegetarian, these were just a few examples given:

“Primarily upbringing”- T, London

“Environmental reasons. The final reason why was a book I read which, in the epilogue spoke of the downfall of the west due to our over-exploitation of resources, the effects of which could be mitigated by, for example, eating less meat.” -A, Switzerland

“For me it’s a mental health thing. If I eat meat, I feel that ‘this animal died for me’. I can’t live with that” – J, Oxford

This admittedly non-scientific straw poll reminded me that everyone lives within a different cultural context which needs to be considered, and indeed that those contexts can be weaponised and used in women’s everyday politics. This idea of using consumption – or indeed non-consumption – as a weapon is something that captivated me in Kang’s book since the main character, Yeong-hye, is seen to not only reject a staple element of the cuisine that surrounds her, but she also rejects and defies her husband’s and family’s wishes and expectations through her actions. She refuses to make the meals her husband wants and implicitly expects from his wife, simultaneously rejecting entrenched food traditions and normative husband/wife power dynamics of marriage. In fact, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian becomes a catalyst for other behaviour seen as rebellious and very much in opposition to expectations of her as a wife and daughter.  In this context, vegetarianism is a potent act of subversion.

Interestingly, all of the flexitarians (and some meat-eaters) I talked to, told me how they still eat meat as part of family traditions such as Christmas, to avoid what they believe to be inconveniencing their parents or family. This is in contrast to many of the full-time vegetarians I know (including myself) who have at least one other vegetarian family member and thus for whom the decision not to eat meat seems less controversial. Whilst in the ‘cushy London bubble’, to go veggie is a minor rebellion, for those elsewhere in stricter upbringings this gesture could perhaps have far more force.

More radical interpretations of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism in The Vegetarian – and indeed vegetarianism more generally – might follow those feminist philosophies which endorse the all-out rejection of every practice and material goods deemed as forced upon women by the patriarchy, e.g. the wearing of bras or marriage. However, some voices in the newer feminist waves call for a more individualist take, where women’s agency and individual desires are acknowledged and there is a belief that each woman should  be able to do as she pleases, without shame, e.g. dressing up in a sexy manner for your own pleasure than someone else’s.  This individualist stance relies heavily on the notion that this woman does what she wants for herself and that no external and possible patriarchal force is at play.

Now this individual stance certainly makes day-to-day living easier as it does not focus on complex sociocultural factors, but it is worth remembering that many ideas have been engrained in popular culture that we unconsciously absorb and accept to the point we may no longer question its historic roots, having been sold other notions along the way to make it politically more acceptable.  This can range from hair removal to marriage, and this more accepting strand of feminism can sometimes be used to avoid critically engaging with our consumption choices. This is not to say this isn’t a usable feminism, but to think about why we do things can allow us to change the systems in place as to ignore history can allow for the same mistakes to be repeated.

A politicised view of consumption that sees the choices women make as potential acts of rebellion might seem a far cry from the simple act of choosing the vegetarian option at lunchtime. However, the decision to go meat-free can bring up questions and thoughts that either buy into or reject current ideals of not only how women ‘should’ look, but how the current capitalist system can manipulate our supposed free will. Whilst most companies in the past have targeted consumers (and particularly female consumers) by making them feel bad, some companies seem to be realising that young women are on to them and are not happy. This has led to some brands starting to sell themselves as allies through mainstream ‘feminist’ notions. For example, Dove’s Real Women campaigns aligned themselves with body positivity, while many clothing brands such as H&M often incorporate feminist phrases into clothing to tap into the shifting market. The importance of motive is definitely worth thinking about with food companies, a prime example being ‘clean eating’ and similar diets selling themselves as a healthy option to ‘empower’ women. However in reality the product or the message hasn’t changed, just the wrapping.

To be vegetarian for environmental reasons amongst others is to reject a level of consumerism which is damaging our world as we know it, since meat farming has been shown to be damaging to the rainforests amongst many. Also, to be morally against the murdering of animals can show a reaction /resistance to the idea that we must kill to survive, a notion that is still somewhat fetishized in the variety of ‘one man against nature’ shows such as Bear Grylls. The moral dilemma can be problematic however, as vegan dish favourites such as quinoa can be shown to be harvested in tumultuous conditions which damage human workers, so it’s often a case of deciding where your ethics lie.

To conclude, our politics can be what we eat, with vegetarianism being just a small example of how the choices we make can buy into or subvert consumerist or cultural narratives imposed upon us and our gender. Whilst we must work hard to challenge these ideals when it becomes unhealthy, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the pesto pasta meal deal either!

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About the author

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

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Image credit

Unnatural Selection by Maggie Chiang.

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Editor

Lucy Wheeler

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About #Allies

By Giulia Boggio

Today I want to discuss a concept that is related to feminism and gender politics, as well the LGBQIA+ movement: Allyship.

What does it mean to be an ally? The dictionary definition is: “a person, group, or nation that is associated with another or others for some common cause or purpose”.

Pretty simple, innit?

In 2017, according to the recent neo-vocabulary of politics and gender movements, the meaning of this term has shifted to a more specific definition: an ally is a person (generally coming from a more privileged position) that supports and seeks to work in solidarity with a more marginalized group by fighting along their side. Crucially, an ally  listens, unlearns and re-evaluates their conditioned belief systems. Being an ally doesn’t necessarily imply being a part of the group that are supported, but being rather – showing empathy with their fights and using their voice and actions in support.

“We’re not asking you to be on the front line of all our protests, just to use your privilege to help us speak to who’s not listening to us, at least part-time.”

As a femme, I often feel like a lot of people around me are “getting what I mean” but not really doing anything to help it. Being it feminism or gender politics, I feel like a lot of people that “support it”, but are not really being allies. Personally, I would divide the path to allyship into three steps:

  • listening & re-evaluating,
  • (un)learning
  • speaking & doing

If a good amount of people are available to listen and open to learning and discussion, then why are there fewer individuals who translate this new knowledge and sensibility into words and actions? As one of the “y so serious, u should laugh sometimes” feminists, I find this frustrating and incomprehensible.

What is stopping people from taking the last tiny step into vocalising their allyship?

And yes, as ever, this is mainly addressed straight cis men (sorry guys, the spotlight is on you now, get used to it or do something about it).

On a sample of my Facebook friends (a good mix of people I know, friends, and people I’ve barely ever met), I see a shocking difference between women and queer people being vocal about social issues, feminism and gender politics, and the other half of the sky, apparently unaware of it but definitely ignoring it.

B o y  you always have opinions on everything where are your opinions now?

I don’t have fingers enough to count the many men I know that are almost perfect ‘on paper’, but then don’t do anything to bring this out in their world, or to their friends and family. Why are so many men feminists, but go “I don’t want to label myself” when you tell them they are? Just think about it practically: if I tell one of your dickheads friends that they’re being a misogynist piece of trash, I will be automatically labelled an Angry Feminist™, while if you do, then maybe there would be a space for discussion ( and possibly understanding) of what’s wrong and why. We’re not asking you to be on the front line of all our protests, just to use your privilege to help us speak to who’s not listening to us, at least part-time.

It almost seems like men speak out only when they’re ‘against’. Is this a consequence of toxic masculinity pressuring you into conforming to a hyper-masculine idea? Here’s a recipe: if you bite into the feminist apple, you’re now ‘woke’, and you must speak out. It won’t make you soft or less-of-a-man, it’ll make you a decent human being and it could actually help someone.

Also, being purposely politically incorrect is so 2009, just get over it, it’s not funny anymore, it just makes you look stupid and anachronistic.

If you feel pressured to be funny and easy going and think being openly political would turn you into a boring person, that’s toxic masculinity kicking in, and I suggest trying to check yourself and try to understand where this pressure is coming from and how it affects your actions. If you hear a friend of yours making fun of queer people, making rape jokes or acting in a misogynistic or racist way, just tell them they’re not funny, tell them how they’re wrong, tell them to check themselves. Help. Them. Wake. Up.

And if you find it boring to have to be “politically correct”, maybe you should check your privilege and understand why you’re in the position to find it boring and someone else is not.

Overall what we’re asking of our “woke” friends is to help us be loud about our fights, educate people and make space for everyone. We’re asking you to channel your privilege and turn it into actions. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something big, start from your circle of friends.

It’s not inherently bad to be in a privileged position, if you use your voice and space to be a good ally.

***

About the Author

Giulia Boggio is a graphic designer and photographer from Italy. Her interests move from art to gender politics. She worked as a freelance writer for different magazines and is passionate about poetry.

Social : @bojjoe

Image

Illustration by Javier Jaén

 

What Makes #MASSEDUCTION A Gender-Fluid Masterpiece

By Zana Wilberforce

St. Vincent, known offstage as Annie Clark, released her new single New York back in summer 2k17 and then tickets went on sale, and then her sixth album was finally released in October. Moments before the show, I listened to her album in full whilst I was jogging away on the treadmill, and I listened very intently to her lyrics. I wanted to understand everything about New York, a ballad that laments her relationship with Cara Delevingne according to various internet sources swirling around. I wanted to understand Los Ageless too when it was released shortly after New York. I wanted to give the album a theme and unravel its intricacies, a familiar practice following Ms. Clark’s latest releases.

The show itself was less theatrical than I had expected. A static image in bright pink latex could be seen flung far across the room, statuesque and sturdy in form. She travelled across the stage almost robotically through each song, from left to right, as the curtain revealed more and more of the stage. St. Vincent moved from one microphone to the next, journeying on to her next song, and then finally taking centre stage. Once she made it to the middle, she pulled out her classics: Digital Witness, Birth in Reverse. I was moving my bum and shaking my hips and loving every minute of it. Then she disappeared and reappeared in a silver dress that resembled something I imagined to be worn by the Future Female; a Martian dress with blue sleeves made out of a reflective material and a reminder of David Bowie’s gender-bending and multifaceted costume changes.

Instead of a theatrical performance, the show was verging on a spectacle. The screen revealed video clips of bums and robust breasts marked with tape across nipples. Long legs appeared from TV screens as Ms. Clark vibrated casually and oh so calmly on what might have been one of those electric massage chairs you find in a motorway stop-off. So much was occurring on a screen behind St. Vincent as she stood like a sturdy Martian. Small clips repeated in the background and the backdrop rushed from hot pink to a mesmerising galaxy backdrop.

Similar to Bowie, who would hybridise elaborate bodily movements and routines played out in theatre, music and cinema, St. Vincent often incorporates dance and theatre into her live performances (think Rattlesnake), so I was looking forward to seeing how she does this in the flesh. This time, dance and theatre were swapped for art and cinema, an experimental gesture used to subvert essentialist notions of bodies and challenge normalised gendered behaviour.

On the tube home I thought more and more about gender in MASSEDUCTION, and how St. Vincent’s live performance brought this theme to the forefront of my mind. Throughout the album, there’s a flirtatious gender-fluid voice switching roles and oscillating from one to the next, and then back again – most prominently in Sugarboy: I am a lot like you, BOYS, I am alone like you, GIRLS. Ms. Clark’s repetition in this song becomes a ritualistic back and forth movement, making her mutating personas ceaselessly ambiguous.

I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)

This oscillating fluidity was also delivered vividly in her performance. The ambiguously-gendered pre-Martian (i.e. St. Vincent before she changed into the Martian dress) standing before an audience of onlookers, appeared erect in stature and very pink. Quite naturally, you’re thinking of a penis right now, right? Except St. Vincent’s erect and pinkish form was far more abstract and alien, especially matched with lyrics that scream something along the lines of “guess what world? I’m a lot like a boy and I’m a lot like girl too.” Such fluidity challenges everything we were ever taught about those classic “phallocentric symbols” of swords and sausages in Wuthering Heights. And good riddance!

Notably, the subject’s gender is unspecified in the entire album, instead referred to as a ‘young lover’, ‘hero’, ‘motherfucker’, but never ‘he’ or ‘she.’

Young lover, begging you please to wake up
Young lover, I wish that I was your drug

By omitting gender-normative pronouns and playing around with gender roles, Ms. Clark escapes definitive labels and captures the essence of fluidity both lyrically and visually. In this sense, MASSEDUCTION is more of a celebratory masterpiece about gender fluidity rather than a lament about a past relationship – although, I too, hear a deep and dark sadness in Slow Disco as the lovers slip away from each other:

Slip my hand, from your hand,

Leave you dancing with a ghost

Slip my hand, from your hand,

Leave you dancing with a ghost

On an early morning commute the next day, I re-listened to MASSEDUCTION for the umpteenth time – excluding gender from it all; imagining a pink and sturdy Martian picking me up and carrying me home to safety. Our hands in a firm grasp.

***

About the Author

Zana is a writer based in South London. Since graduating with an English Literature and French degree from UCL, she has been writing about fashion, music, travel and tech for various publications. She cites Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Michel Houellebecq as some of her favourite writers, and particularly enjoys reading about gender and queer theory (preferably with a warm cup of coffee).

Editor

Daffyth Jenkins

 

Saying ‘No’ & Other Metaphors

Nota long ago I read a thoughtful article on the concept of ‘the unbearable lightness of being the ‘chill girl’. This concept bounces inside women’s heads constantly, rendering the surface of their social appearance under a heavy burden of the ‘ultimate chillness’.

By Clara Dona

Nota long ago I read a thoughtful article on the concept of ‘the unbearable lightness of being the ‘chill girl’. This concept bounces inside women’s heads constantly, rendering the surface of their social appearance under a heavy burden of the ‘ultimate chillness’. The chill girl is not emotionally bound to anyone, able to configure huge amounts of patience and, ultimately, living life without any mood change, which I, personally, find extremely abrasive (and complicated considering my hormones jump once a month). The article highlighted the importance of showing oneself as you feel, as discussing how you shouldn’t have to explain what your negative response to certain stimuli (or men) means. This idea, that concept, that monosyllabic word, is still what I consider to be a ‘leap of faith’, and the ultimate reason why this article is being written. Because whereas writing our faults might be easy, it is not easy to act accordingly. Being conscious of a mistake does not mean being proactive about it. My personal experience has taken me to consider and analyse why ‘no’ is such a difficult word to say, even in the face of a pestering presence, or the reason why the guilt overcomes my senses once I  have or haven’t said it.

I have lied, twisted my words, played with my discourse in order not to pronounce those two letters, compassionately, for the other person. I have faked, put on a mask, smiled and even kissed not to declare my rejection about someone or something. As if rejection didn’t exist. As if  I hadn’t suffered it before. And then, the guilt. The most overcoming guilt arising from the trick and the self-deception: ‘Have I done something wrong? How horrible of a person shall I be to trick someone into believe something that is not? Is not more frightening the possibility of rejecting someone than the lie? How valuable is the truth?’ and so on.

I have wondered, after these episodes, if I’ve been made into a wax figure of disposition. While being more or less of strong character, I still fall into the charade of being a pleasing presence, a character of compliance on certain issues. And most certainly, that has led me to feel like a one-sided sword, that could cut but does not choose to. And I say to myself ‘change to the other side’. And it is in vain. And it is not in vain to argue that, as society or culture or history wants us to be the ‘chill girl’, but these institutions also want us to be in gloves, soft to the touch, motherly and caring. So much that the pure possibility of rejecting something or someone feels like I am armed.

But the problem comes when a negative answer does not hurt anyone but ourselves. Because saying ‘no’, in some cases, also hurts ourselves: it falls like water on fire. This happens mostly when in the presence of the rejected. Maybe it was unexpected because it is not expected of women to be assertive (please add infinite quotation marks), but you will always be reminded of your wrong choice not to comply. And sometimes it makes us feel scared, and believe the rejected, and feel weak. Sheathe the sword.

And maybe the metaphor of the sword is more interesting to me than the wax, because it gives me the possibility to say ‘no’. I can cut with my words and I will, if I need to reject what doesn’t interest me. I need to arm myself with options, the two sides, the oppositions that sustain the equilibrium of all and my own. And please note that feminism is an arming of ourselves, in a non-violent manner, nevertheless never again passive.

***

About the Author

Clara Doña is a Spanish recently graduate MA in Comparative Literature at UCL. Her interests move from gender issues to philosophy, by the way of Judith Butler and women’s poetry. She dearly appreciates reading in the early morning and writing late at night.​

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Mind the Gap: Children and Gender Stereotypes

BBC’s No More Boys or Girls: Can our Kids Go Gender Free? confirmed many of my suspicions. Today, gender differences for young children are still significant and our supposed accepting values regarding individual creative gender expression have regressed.  

By Giuliana Friselli

BBC’s No More Boys or Girls: Can our Kids Go Gender Free? confirmed many of my suspicions. Today, gender differences for young children are still significant and our supposed accepting values regarding individual creative gender expression have regressed.  In this observational experiment girls articulated a total lack of self-confidence and boys were unable to articulate emotion at all, displaying extreme over-confidence.  But when taught under a new atmosphere of gender neutrality, within weeks vast improvements were made.  They displayed more mixed play, with boys able to show more emotion and girls showing more confidence, performing better at spatial awareness tasks.

We’re in the middle of a progressively liberal ‘gender revolution’ where young adults are thinking outside the gender box, so why on Earth are we contradicting this by polarising gender for children when it should be the last thing on their minds?

Growing up in the late eighties I was never denied playtime with my favourite He-man toy or told to stop wearing boys’ clothes.  Outdoor adventure was always readily available, with little-to-no restriction under a watchful parental radar.  Even at primary school, my gender expression came with no barriers, allowing me to enjoy a natural freedom to explore my identity, equipping the tools of tolerance for my later years.  Like many androgynous girls of the nineties – and now a seemingly endangered species – we were commonly known as ‘tomboys’.   A sleep deprived parent on the wrong side of 30, my identity is an infinitesimally small part of my life now, but had children like me been around today we’d probably be destined for the gender identity clinic.   Similar sentiments have been echoed by actor Rupert Everett: “I really wanted to be a girl. Thank God the world of now wasn’t then, because I’d be on hormones and I’d be a woman. After I was 15 I never wanted to be a woman again.”      Consequently, it has jogged recent memories of seeing parents reduce the opportunities for gender creativity to occur, from boys being reprimanded for wearing Mum’s lipstick to energy-fuelled young girls coaxed into wearing highly impractical party dresses.  Yet, the happiest I’ve ever seen kids behave at a party was when they yanked their clothes off at the end of a sunny day and proceeded to run around the garden naked, in sheer delight.

It’s baffling that modern society is exhibiting a visible downward spiral of old fashioned gender stereotypes which live at the Darwinian North and South Pole of the gender spectrum, in which females are choosy, submissive and coy and males are strong, unemotional and systematic.  Bizarrely, in our walking-on-eggshells politically correct era, we avoid using such stereotypes among adults in the fear we will be deemed ‘sexist’, but are quite happy to unleash them on children who do not have the maturity or experience to distinguish satire from reality.

Children are not simply children like we could be – they are now either strictly boys or strictly girls with no movement for anything in between.  Despite being among those parents who endeavour to avoid excessive stereotyping we recognise the neon pinkness of our daughters is a stark contrast to the muddy boots we grew up in.  My daughter is yet to attend a birthday party without all the girls garbed in en vogue sparkly dresses, where everything is centred on looking like a ‘pretty princess’ – all the time.  Whether they’ve just been glued to watching Frozen and others alike, there’s a persistent breeze of superficial gender-specific commodification whirling around.  In much greater quantity.

It may be harmless fun to the parents, but this superficial world of gender socialisation is the foundation upon which children start to build their gender identity and it’s sleuthed its way into our lifestyles, reaching the acute senses of our children and encroaching the pure spaces of their natural world.  Greater traffic on roads means children spend less than half their time outside than they did just 10-15 years ago.  An increase in smaller families and older parents together with an internet culture of shock stories has made helicopter parenting more common.  Nurturing children in such attentive measure is being done under a binary spotlight and with more screens around there’s greater opportunity for a narrow notion of gender behaviour to shine before their very eyes on a perpetual basis.  Experts suggest this cultural shift of screen-watching is a huge paradox, building an enclosure which stifles natural creativity and thwarts healthy imaginative play that they would otherwise get from engaging with nature.  The need for an expert to tell us this is worrying on its own.

Mainstream entertainment and video games project unrealistic androcentric narratives spawning degrees of misogyny.  Young women are frequently sexualised with airbrushed femininity because of instant, often uncensored, internet content and we are yet to know how the explosion of this social-media-obsessed ‘selfie’ culture will impact our children, but it’s not looking promising.  Phrases like ‘man up’, ‘you kick like a girl’ and ‘grow a pair’ to describe boys who aren’t ‘macho’ enough, still litter our language and girls as young as seven –  yes, seven – are now having spa-pampering parties for birthdays.  It’s an insipid, sickly hyperbole of masculinity and femininity, for the worse.  The latter of which has been exacerbated by the vacuous decade-long Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Although helpful for busy parents-especially when you need your toddler on silent for half hour to catch up on endless chores-even Peppa Pig resorts to old fashioned gender stereotypes of the ‘nuclear’ family with Pepper always in pink and George, unsurprisingly, in blue.  I’m not inferring that a family of cartoon pigs is unsuitable, but reasonably, a ubiquitous reiteration of gender difference in a child’s environment will mould their brains to override a harmless nature of gender creativity.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, the full flow of consumer capitalism and sexing scans since the ’90s has caused a hackneyed trajectory of the boys-are-blue-and-girls-are-pink rhetoric to be much more pronounced today, especially within marketing and advertising.  The colour concept was brought in to brand the genders to maximise profits for baby wear companies which is why so many kids’ companies still heavily categorise the sexes, especially in toys and clothing.  Even Clarks made archaic steps on gender by thinking it was appropriate to bring out a range of shoes called ‘Dolly Babe’ and ‘Leader’ this summer.  What next, for heaven’s sake?  For our daughters to slip back into the tight corset of a repressed coquettish Austenian character to impress their Mr Darcy?  (Well, it won’t work for John Lewis.)

It’s painfully clear that society is entrenched in a technological age where our consumer market is projecting everything but a healthy view on gender in children and is perhaps the cause for well-meaning parents inadvertently reinforcing these stereotypes, whilst naively underestimating its consequences.  It’s easy to forget we grew up with far less technology and with a better balance of outside and indoor time in our crucial early years.  With a primeval past of dial up and delayed gratification the outdoors was sometimes a revered distraction for many.

Unlike Jaden Smith and Shilou Pitt, unless children are born into the privileged and artistic realm of the super-rich elites where gender expression is unbounded then they’re set for this gendered world -a rigid binary construction which doesn’t reflect the rich tapestry and intricacy of our gender spectrum.  At all.  And in conjunction with gender identity cases soaring to unprecedented numbers where three-year olds are being admitted, it raises suspicion that this should happen in a supposedly gender-equal country.  If science shows that most boys and girls are biologically the same until puberty, then is it our environment which is partly the cause for this emergence?

Children are the most impressionable members of society and if we continue to widen the gap between boys and girls then those who creatively or innately digress from society’s expectation of their assigned gender may feel lost between two extreme worlds, possibly falling on a breeding ground of confusion and doubt.

It’s time to lessen the disparity between how boys and girls are treated.  This doesn’t mean responding with another extreme by making boys wear pink dresses or arming girls with toy guns.  Simply soften the emphasis of gender altogether by creating opportunities to encourage the freedom of individual creative expression.  It will allow for better adaptability and encourage natural talent whilst preparing children for a potentially difficult job market in the future.  Interacting more with the natural world will productively keep the inhibitive forces of stereotypes at bay whilst extending the mental wellbeing of our children in a positive and natural way.  We need to be aware of gender as a social construct and resist the temptation to pressurise children into being the extreme version of their assigned gender whilst being consciously aware of the external cues that dangerously reinforce it.

Let’s fill the gap for all children to walk freely.

***

About the Author

Giuliana is studying for an MA in Politics at the University of Essex.  Her areas of interest include current affairs, gender, sexuality, the environment and political philosophy.

Read more of Giuliana’s work here: http://through-our-senses.org/

 

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.

***

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.

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.