“Calm down, dear”

There was a great documentary by Kirsty Wark on the BBC last week called “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”. (Still on iPlayer if you want to watch it.) The title is from the hugely popular online video last year, with teh naked ladies dancing. (I point this out because I’m so clued up I hadn’t even heard (of) it when it came up in last year’s Christmas Quiz. Finger on the pulse, me.)

The focus of the programme was the culture of abuse, insults, sexual threats and misogynistic remarks commonly faced by women online, including high profile recipients like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez. [EDIT : Perez has just posted examples of the abusive tweets.] Coincidentally my wife was just telling me the other day about the constant unwelcome ‘approaches’ she faces when online gaming as a female character (“Are you really a girl?” “How old are you?” etc.) and there are examples of precisely that behaviour in the documentary too. Equally there are some in the programme who deny that this is a female-specific problem, and say that rape jokes and abuse faced by women are just one facet of the jokes and abuse targeting men, and that the only difference is women’s (hyper)sensitivity. I don’t buy that. Sure, abuse is faced by everyone. Men get online death threats, and that’s reprehensible too. But to say that women should simply “man up”, as one commentator puts it, is to ignore the wider society in which we live, and the sheer amount and extremely misogynistic overtones of the abuse against women versus the generic nature of the trolling against men. The playing field is not level.

I look at society and it seems staggeringly obvious that women are the subject of systematic objectification, exclusion and lack of respect. I know it’s not all women, and not all the time. I know it’s better in our society than in some parts of the world. I know it’s talked about more openly than it used to be. But it’s in the way TV shows and films are written and cast. In the age, looks and number of female vs male presenters. In comics. In music. In who gets book deals and recording contracts. In who wins awards. In the fact that the Best Actor Oscar gets announced after the Best Actress one (because, why exactly?) In advertising. In magazines. In who gets to participate in debates. In business. In politics. In the lack of respect for older women, or any women who don’t pander to male ideals of beauty. In dismissive attitudes to rape and domestic violence. In David Cameron ‘joking’ “Calm down dear” to diminish a female MP’s opinion. Even in which members of the crowd the TV camera lingers on. In a thousand thoughtless moments of chauvinism by men who should know better. Including me, quite probably. You get the idea. I’m not going to brainstorm the world’s first comprehensive list of all sexism ever.

This may all sound a bit born-again feminist. I know it’s a bit rich, me saying women are oppressed like it’s a revelation. I’m not trying to come off as more-feminist-than-thou. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, commonly and insidiously, many women face much more of an uphill struggle than many men. In ways so ingrained that often people don’t see them at all, or choose not to. Sometimes it takes real effort for men in particular to step back from the blithe assumptions they’ve benefitted from all their lives.

It’s why it drives me mad when blowhard sideshow-acts like Jeremy Clarkson or Godfrey Bloom poo poo the very idea that sexism still exists. Or, God forbid, claim that men are the disadvantaged ones. These are the high profile crackpots. Almost reassuringly barmy. Obligingly self-satirising. The high profile UKIP donor who says he doesn’t think women should wear trousers. But for every crackpot there’s an army of men who’ve never been near the ‘Have I Got News For You’ studio but who’ll nod along. Why should women even *want* to wear trousers when men prefer to see women in skirts? (Yeah, women. Explain THAT.)

In employment law, the classic feature of unfair discrimination is that you only see the stereotype, not the individual. Someone will decide that women can’t work in construction because they’re physically weak. Never mind that some women could beat me in a fair fight. (Okay, most women). Or they’re too emotionally fragile, or it’s improper, or it’s too dangerous. Leave that nasty stuff to The Mens. Recognising and challenging those preconceptions, treating people as individuals, recognising all the ways in which society is constructed to favour and pander to the desires of (straight, white) men, should not be controversial things.

At the risk of making this all about me, I sometimes feel paralysed in talking about feminism online because, although it’s a subject that I feel a passionate affinity with, it seems presumptuous of me to imagine that I can really understand. I worry that I’ll simplify, offend or patronise. I fear that even though I may imagine I’m a feminist, I’m wearing my own unchallenged sexist assumptions on my sleeve. (Memo to self: donate sexist arm-band to charity shop). I read powerful, illuminating articles on sexism like this or this and I feel that I have nothing to add. So I tend not to say anything at all.

But it’s worth saying something, no? I try to be aware of my stupid assumptions, sexist and otherwise. I try to be conscious that the playing field is not level. At least it’s a start.

(“Join us tomorrow, when our topic will be: Religion, which is the one true faith” – Kent Brockman)

“That makes you the racist.”

I just posted on Twitter the perhaps depressing truth that “At this stage I assume that any party with the word “English” or “UK” in the title is racist until proven otherwise.” And received from a random human being the, I hope you’ll agree, amazing reply: “So you are not pro England or Britain, but favour the rest of the world? That makes you the racist.” Even more amazingly, their twitter profile unironically includes the words “I’m not racist but…” Marvellous.

I know such sentiments are not new. But it feels as if the prevailing political narrative has now shifted pretty far to the right when it comes to immigration. It’s the normalisation of such transparently xenophobic, if not outright racist, sentiments that leaves me feeling frustrated, exasperated, powerless. The major political parties are queuing up, not to argue the value of diversity, not to remind us that we have nothing to fear from change, but to compete for how tough they can look on ‘controlling our borders’.

The UK is not alone in this by any means, with parts of Europe and Australia cheerfully demonising anyone who has the gall to think their country is lovely. It starts of course with ‘dastardly foreigners’ but then, even more perplexingly, travels back along the family tree to second or third generation immigrants like a racist genealogy show: “Who Do You Think You Are and Why Don’t You Go Back Where You Came From?”

It would be instructional to trawl back through the political debates of the last decade(s) to see how we got here. How worries about immigration came to be blandly accepted rather than challenged. I feel like I can glimpse a vicious circle where someone lands a punch with some statistically rare horror story about a sponging terrorist asylum seeker, that gets picked up by the right-wing media, that connects with the public, that the other parties have to respond to. (I say ‘have to’ on the unspoken assumption that they’re spineless and desperate enough for power to compromise their principles, just to lay my biases out there on the table.) And that begets further scare stories of the made-up or cherry-picked variety. And then mainstream news outlets like the BBC decide that the ‘public’ are worried about immigration. Immigration is an issue. It’s going to decide elections. So they start reporting the cherry-picked the stories too, which leaves those picking the cherries in the driving seat (…of their cherry-picking vehicle. Bear with me here.) And then a party like UKIP, that trades in … racist cherries… has a small victory, and that seems important because now the public are worried enough about immigration to vote for complete twats. So it must be bad. And naturally you need to report the complete twats, because in some sense they’ve come to represent the whole issue. And that party winds up looking like a serious contender, one of the Big Four, and somehow you’ve made the extremists look electable. And cherries look bigoted.

All of which still leaves me sitting here in my cosy little liberal democracy looking in blank incomprehension at the popular rise of the far right.

Free associating

There’s a very thoughtful opinion piece on the BBC website entitled “Is Barack Obama black?”. It’s a response to comments about Obama that frankly I hadn’t even been aware of. I think the article makes some very wise points about artificially absolute definitions of race, and also the societal nature of the labels we apply to people. And indeed even if Obama is regarded as mixed-race that makes his accomplishment no less great, albeit less symbolic.

Rumours continue to circle around Paterson Joseph as a contender for the next Doctor Who, and he certainly seems interested. I know I was cheerleading for him earlier on the basis of his role in Neverwhere, but I’ve been reminded that he can be a little broad in his performances so I’d be interested to see a recent performance to make up my mind. He’s in the BBC’s new remake of Survivors, along with the increasingly ubiquitous Freema Agyeman and Julie “Bonekickers” Graham. It looks potentially okay, potentially terrible. I may summon up the energy to find out. Or not.

On a related note I’d seen others refer to the recently released BBC Archive material relating to the genesis of Doctor Who. What I hadn’t realised is that the first two documents released, and particularly the first, are essentially internal BBC briefing papers trying to work out ‘what is this thing called Science Fiction?’ with a view to determining whether it could be adapted for TV. They propose to use Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham as consultants, and even met with Brian Aldiss. As such these documents represent brief but fascinating “as others see us” thoughts about written SF in the early 1960s; at once insightful, pragmatic and patronising.

The remaining documents are more about Doctor Who itself: ‘concept notes for new SF drama’ and ‘background notes for Doctor Who’ are fascinating glimpses into the origins of the TV show, with the latter representing a recognisable yet strangely different vision of the series. It goes some way to explaining just how unlikeable Hartnell’s Doctor would occasionally be in the early episodes.

Be excellent to each other…

I don’t normally embed videos, but I was emailed this today by Avaaz.org, and I’m sure this will be doing the rounds.

It’s a quite nice, positive video underlining America’s place in the world (rather than apart from it). The email claims “The ad doesn’t tell people who to vote for” (I assume they had difficulty saying this with a straight face since it’s explicitly anti-Bush) “but its overriding message of tolerance, diplomacy, human rights and equality is unmistakable”. And that part is tough to disagree with. It’s pro- things that, to me at least, sound like common sense. So I guess that makes it a pro-Obama advert. 🙂

Of course I don’t live in the US and can’t vote in the US election for quite sensible reasons relating to electoral fraud, but as the BBC like to remind us the election will affect the rest of the world. That’s clearly the point of this campaign.

The official blurb:

In just over a week, America will head to the polls. So much depends on this election — the fight against climate change, the war in Iraq, global efforts on human rights and many other issues.

But right now, US conservatives are employing the most divisive and deceptive tactics in the US election, portraying those who call for change as “anti-American” and even terrorist sympathizers. Check out this new response ad from the global online organisation Avaaz.org, calling for hope, unity, and change as Americans head to the polls.

If enough people watch the ad and sign its message to the American people and presidential candidates, it will be picked up by the US talk shows — who are looking for what is hot online. You can watch the ad and sign on here.

Hey, you never know…

EDIT: While I’m at it, here’s Joss Whedon praising a number of things including The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Hard Day’s Night, but Obama makes it into the list.