Does Blade Runner 2049 succeed as a Reproductive Dystopia?

By Polly Hember

The reproductive dystopia has become an increasingly popular thematic trend within the sci-fi genre. Global human infertility causes societal collapse in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Margaret Atwood’s blazing novel The Handmaid’s Tale sits at the centre of this anxious exploration into what the future might look like for women, with the recent Hulu dramatization planning to take Offred past the last pages of Atwood’s masterpiece into a second season. So, a film about the creation of bioengineered androids (replicas) and the creator’s morbid obsession with making them able to reproduce, in a world filled with sexbots (sorry, “pleasure models”) and larger-than-life holograms dancing naked in the billboard streets of the sprawling, nightmarish L.A. of the future, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 fits right into the trend. Except… it kind of doesn’t. There are intensely anxious themes surrounding reproductive rights and gender politics that resonate profoundly with contemporary polemics, yet they are never pursed or unravelled in Blade Runner 2049. The portrayal of the female form is central in this film and almost wholly problematic, begging the burning question: is this an inherently sexist film or a clever exploration of the reproductive dystopia?
The villainous Wallace, played by a brilliant Jared Leto, is fascinated with finding a way to make female replicas fertile. A particularly nasty scene sees him slice open the womb of a helpless, newly-birthed replicant, as if to show her utter lack of value as infertile in his (very creepy) eyes. The main plot sees K (Ryan Gosling), a beaten-down replicant “blade runner” who chases down old models to “retire” (read: kill), search for the missing miracle child of Rachel and Rick Deckard, as seen in Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner.
There is an ominous underbelly to Wallace’s Frankenstein-esque desires; is he attempting to create an android race that has no need for “human” women at all? What does this mean, then, for the women of 2049? Is he attempting to outdate or perhaps “retire” an entire gender with the invention of synthetic wombs? Why, then, is there no mention of this plot that precipitates the possible extinction of an entire gender?
Well, because, as many other critics have pointed out, this is a man’s film. It is a film aware of and solely driven by specifically male desires. This is critically apparent in K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram that he can switch on and off at his will as he walks into his cell-like apartment. Programmed to please, she learns and stores K’s likes and dislikes, playing the doting housewife, switching instantly to sexy, then simply switched off when no longer needed – or else paused as a telephone call comes in, interrupting her Siri-like control system, flickering comically, waiting for a kiss that never comes.
The critical questions that swirl around in the swampy L.A. nightmare of Blade Runner 2049 are the same ones as the book the original film was based on. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks what it means to be human. K seems to place value on being physically born, on having a soul. Replicants, we are told, cannot lie or disobey orders, but we see K do both of these things. Does this mean he’s human? In Joi’s case, I feel it becomes a crucial issue of autonomy.
She is a sexy simulacrum, she is “a sci-fi fan’s wet dream” who is programmed into servitude and therefore has no free will of her own. Their love story is touching, yes, and it attempts to ask the viewer whether this can be genuine emotion the android and the hologram feel. However, this question seems concerned with K’s hurt feelings rather than gender politics. A distraught Gosling looks up at a rainy, urban swamp of advertisements; swirling Sony projections and Coca Cola signs blare in the background as a giant, nude version of Armas looks down at him, designed to advertise the very ‘Joi-ous’ personal hologram product K purchased. He looks beaten, as he seems to question the validity of such a (critically male) consumer-driven society and whether Joi is unique and her feelings for him are valid. However, even when it asks these questions, the film remains problematic. When their entire relationship is built around a one-sided fulfilment of male desire, it becomes exploitative.
Joi’s complete opposite, the cut-throat and cold Luv (Wallace’s personal replicant companion) is fierce and fantastic, but the power politics are still inherently problematic. She is governed by Wallace’s whims and follows orders imperiously, which results in her nightmarish and dramatic death. Lt. Joshi, played phenomenally by Robin Wright, is fantastic as K’s strong but worn-down director, however she is severely underused and her character unexplored, killed off before the film gets going. The politics of the sex worker and underground rebel Mariette are muddy and never fully explored; she seems trapped in the same cycle of exploitation as that Joi operates in. In fact, Mariette is hired by Joi to act as a sentient, soulful sex-puppet so K and Joi can consummate their perturbing relationship, then bitterly ordered away by a jealous Joi, who tells her: “I’ve been inside you, and there’s not as much there as you like to think.”
Blade Runner 2049 is a cinematically spectacular film. It is visually stunning with a fast-paced plot, engaging characters and clever nods to the original, it’s highly enjoyable and attempts to ask interesting ontological polemics concerning the human condition. It presents a fragmented, polluted world that explores the horrors of what might be. However, the evocative female characters are all tied into reductive narratives where they simply serve and comply to the male drive behind the story. By neglecting to unravel Wallace’s sinister intentions with his reproductive replicas, the film avoids stating the true horror of this reproductive dystopia. It’s a film wreaked with a perturbing and persistent male gaze, which, seen through this lens, makes the nightmarish landscape of L.A. look even more frightening. Whilst K continues to seek out the answers to questions like “what does it mean to be human”, the women of this film are killed, silenced, retired or simply switched off at the flick of the button on their remote control.

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About the Author

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Polly Hember

Polly is a Freelance Writer, Editor-in-Chief of On the Beat, Art Editor at the The Rational Online, a coffee-drinker and country-music listener. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Bristol where she focused on feminism and early twentieth-century women’s writing. 

 

 

 

Editor

Daf Jenkins

Image:

Photosource: Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Allstar/WARNER BROS.

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.

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

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.

Are We Choosing Marriage Consciously?

By Taniya Shandil

“So, have you been thinking about boys and relationships then?” said Kal, one of my inquisitive neighbours. She popped over to my house for a cuppa and a catch-up, which we did whenever we met up. I was venting to her about how my dad had been hinting that I should be ‘doing certain things in time’. He would occasionally joke about posting my biodata online for some suitable matches to come through, so that he can get rid of me (quite literally is own words!). He said it teasingly, as a joke to wind me up, but to me it was more than a joke. He never said it directly but to me, but I felt like he meant there was a time to do everything, namely: a time for studies, a time for career and a time for marriage.

So, I being totally unready to even have that conversation or think about marriage at 25 was something that Kal found a bit surprising too. As we were discussing our life experiences, she said, “Well, you know, I got married at 24. I didn’t know what it would be like. But I learnt to understand how my life would change, and how to understand Ravi better. And now, two kids later we know each other well … we share our own little banter and that’s what it’s all about!”

She then went on to say, “You know marrying early is good because you can have your children, play with them and see them grow up while you’re young. I have some friends of mine who were very career-minded – now they’ve turned 32, 36 years old and they can’t have all that now!” “All what? Marriage and children?” I asked.

“Yes, you know. When you turn a certain age, it becomes difficult to have children. Also, it’s harder to marry!” she said.

I listened to her intently, yet had this strange feeling that she wasn’t entirely confident in her marriage at such a young age. Surely, we need to learn a little more about marriage before we go ahead and do it – just like you learn about the job prospects of a career before entering into it. Marriage being one of the life-defining decisions that we make deserves to be thought about, and not just ventured into blindly because it is the correct age to do so.

Practically speaking, the thought of ‘marrying at a certain age’ might be somewhat true since the biological clock exists, and has its limits. However, do we need to marry to have our children? Are we consciously choosing marriage and then kids, or is the choice being made for us?

Is it easy for a person, especially a woman, to make her own decisions without being judged? What happens if a woman decides she wants to marry when she is 40 years old, when she is filled with life experiences, financially stable and comfortable with herself as a person? Not to mention, she can emotionally support her partner better! Yes, with the biological clock ticking perhaps it would be difficult to have children. But isn’t this mind-set the stability that lays the foundation of a successful, and emotionally communicative marriage?

Why does it seem easier for men over 35 to find a younger woman to marry but not so vice versa? Logically speaking, isn’t there a higher risk of the marriage not working out when the woman is young and coming to terms with the idea of living with someone, discovering herself and trying to begin her career? Or does marriage choose her because she is of a certain age and can bare children? Is it biology, or our own conscious decisions? Do we feel incomplete if we don’t marry or don’t ‘have it all’? Is it necessary to ‘have it all’?

I am not saying that we should ignore our biology or shun marriage as an institution, but I do think it is important to question whether we looking at women as autonomous individuals? Are we accepting the fact that people will choose their marriage decisions? What about same-sex couples, are they similarly restricted by the social constructs which seem intrinsic in heterosexual couples? Are we acknowledging the fact that people will grow into more evolved beings with age who can provide better emotional, mental and financial support to their partners? Or are we associating a woman’s age as old = loss of youth = not a child bearing age?

Is the idea of ‘not having it all’ and ‘being left behind’ scary?

As I sit here and wonder about what Kal said, all I can surely say for now is that I don’t know what path I will eventually end up taking. Whether I will be ready mentally or not, whether I will find a decent partner or not, whether I end up having children or not. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, I want to make sure that I choose it and not the other way around.

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About the Author

Taniya Shandil is a recent Chemistry postgraduate student from Cardiff University who is interested in gender and feminism issues. She has recently completed her master’s in Chemistry, and has took to writing for the purpose of self expression, creativity and making a difference by challenging perceptions of gender.

She also enjoys music, dance and reading as hobbies. One day, she wants to make a difference in the chemical industry with her work, and at the same time become a writer who can make a difference.

Taniya Shandil

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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The Role of Gender in Harnessing Social Capital

By Shani Akirov

Is it a boy or a girl?

Typically the first question asked of a new-born baby. Across the diversity of human societies, the question of gender arises at the very beginning of life and plays a central role throughout. Our experiences and perspectives are all shaped by this accident of birth. If humans are a gendered species, they are also a social one. But what difference does gender make to the way we use our social networks to harness social capital, and our success at doing it?

Social capital generally refers to our social network and our contacts (our friends, acquaintances, business contacts and wider circle) as if it were an economic resource – something with a value. Not necessarily a financial value, but a value – something that has the potential to be transformed into things that can bring us concrete benefits which either propel us forward in our lives or which make life more enjoyable or enriching. This could be as simple as being friendly with a nightclub owner who can ‘hook us up’ with a table on short notice, allowing us to impress an important business contact on a night out by appearing to be well-connected. Or it could be finding a lifelong friend and mentor who can steer us through key moments in our lives.

The term social network refers to any social network in the broadest sense. Let us make this clear – we may be millennials, but we fully appreciate that ‘social network’ does not necessarily mean an online social network, like Facebook. We understand that social networks have existed for centuries and that Facebook is simply a piece of technology that helps us to maintain our social network – it is arguably not a social network in itself. However, we have tended to focus on online social networks in our study. That is simply because online social networks are easier to study and to measure. A typical Facebook user can tell you (with reasonable accuracy) how many friends they have, the gender split, geographic split, etc. The technology exists to measure who ‘added’ who, in a way that isn’t possible in real-world social networks.

All of us will seek to use our relationship with another human being – be it social, romantic, professional, familial or other (or a combination thereof) – in order to realise a concrete benefit for ourselves or for someone or something of importance to us. We will seek to harness our social capital. We ‘harness’ our social capital whenever we successfully convert our social contacts so as to deliver concrete results like those above. It is not only the person seeking the favor who harnesses their social capital.

The ways in which we seek to harness social capital – and the opportunities to do so which are available to us – will differ considerably depending on the gender of the person seeking to harness and the person being harnessed. Much of this is due to the relationship between sexual dynamics and power. In most human societies, power has traditionally been (and largely still is) concentrated in the hands of men. If we find ourselves in the position of needing to harness a social contact, the person whom we need to harness is more likely to be a man.

We conducted a survey in Tel Aviv, Israel. The sample was 30 anonymous users from our social networks. It comprised 24 questions. The majority (57%) of participants were aged from 18 to 24 years, while 33% were aged 25 to 34 years, 7% between 35 and 44 years, and 3% were aged 45 years or above. The ratio between sexes was roughly equal with 53% female and 47% male (16:14) participants. In terms of relationship status, 60% described themselves as single and 37% in a relationship (whether married or otherwise). A stubborn 3% said ‘it’s complicated’.

Most of the population (73%) believed the gender balance of their social networks to be roughly equal. When asked about random people messaging the participants from the opposite sex it revealed a gender difference in networking. The data revealed that the 37% that said they would not answer a message of the opposite sex, were mostly female while the 33% that said they would answer at face value were mostly male. This also rolls over to the other options where suspecting negative motivations based on sex came from women and suspecting negative motivations based on money came from men. The other two answers came from two women where one said she would answer after two days and the other said it depends. In addition, when asked how confident the participant is in asking for help the majority all were in the average medium area while few fell to the sides, but most revealed the comfort they have in their social networks.

The differences were measurable but less pronounced than may have been expected. We suspect this may be due to the sample group being younger, more affluent, more urban, more liberal and more cosmopolitan than the norm, and hence exhibiting less gender difference and less strict adherence to gender norms than would be shown in a broader societal survey.

The above is based on academic research conducted by Shani Akirov and Sivahn Gottlieb at IDC Herzliya, Israel, 2015.