Archive for feminism

Father’s Day Feminism

It’s Father’s Day this weekend. It may be a manufactured holiday but I celebrate it anyway, so I’m in a shop trying to find a card for my dad in the three minutes before the toddler starts wanting to get out the buggy and start destroying things.* I scan the shelves, sigh, and give up.

In all the years that I’ve been buying Father’s Day cards for my father, I don’t think I have ever bought one from the Father’s Day section. My father is not into football, beer, fast cars or jokes about bodily functions, so that cuts out 90% of the options. And if I bought him a card with a message – or worse, a poem – about what a great father he is, that would feel weird. Not because he isn’t a great father, but because it doesn’t need saying. Or at least it doesn’t need saying in rhyme.

It’s all very blue.

It’s odd really. In some ways – perhaps as a response to the waning of the industry – there’s now more choice in cards than ever. You can buy serious cards, funny cards, sentimental cards, cards with badges, 3D cards, addressed to Dad, Daddy, Father, Stepdad, Grandad or Great-Grandad. But in other ways, the choice is tellingly limited. Colours, for example. If you can find me a Father’s Day card that’s pink, I’ll buy you a pint of raspberry beer. And if you can find one that references opera or painting, which are my dad’s two major interests, I’ll buy you an entire yard of it, if raspberry beer comes in yards, which I doubt. A card that features musicals or Dickens novels would be even better, since those are interests we have in common. I’ll be over here, holding my breath.

So what do Father’s Day cards tell us about the current perception of masculine parenting, as filtered through the imagination of the card industry?  Well, there’s not much about the parenting part. What fathers do, in this version of fatherhood, is play sports with their sons, address their daughters as ‘princess’, and earn the money. It’s a depressing vision. And what are children’s images of their dads? Apparently they’re unshaven, overweight lumps in string vests and boxer shorts. Nothing wrong with being any of those things, but again, it’s a bit limiting. Is the assumption that Father’s Day cards only appeal to an extremely specific and stereotypical working-class market? Why?

And yes, this is a feminist issue, of course it is. The perception of fathers and the perception of mothers are all tied in together, and so are the wider perceptions of What Men Are Like and What Women Are Like. Fix one and you start to fix the other**. In the meantime, I’ve bought my dad a card from the general section, with a picture of a giant rubber duck sailing up the Thames. At least it’s interesting.


*I am unfairly maligning her here, by the way. I let her wander around Boots the other day and she began tidying up the shelves. I should start charging shops to let her in.

**I could also write an entire post about how many of my daughter’s birthday cards I buy from the boys’ section. Because while she likes princesses and fairies, she especially likes football and computer games and Dr Who. This should not be weird to anyone.


A Genderswitched Anthology

But it isn’t only that Jeeves’s judgment about clothes is infallible, though, of course, that’s really the main thing. The woman knows everything. There was the matter of that tip on the ‘Lincolnshire.’ I forget now how I got it, but it had the aspect of being the real, red-hot tabasco.

‘Jeeves,’ I said, for I’m fond of the woman, and like to do her a good turn when I can, ‘if you want to make a bit of money have something on Wonderchild for the ‘Lincolnshire.’‘

She shook her head.

‘I’d rather not, miss.’

‘But it’s the straight goods. I’m going to put my shirt on her.’

‘I do not recommend it, miss. The animal is not intended to win. Second place is what the stable is after.’

Perfect piffle, I thought, of course. How the deuce could Jeeves know anything about it? Still, you know what happened. Wonderchild led till she was breathing on the wire, and then Banana Fritter came along and nosed her out. I went straight home and rang for Jeeves.

‘After this,’ I said, ‘not another step for me without your advice. From now on consider yourself the brains of the establishment.’

‘Very good, miss. I shall endeavour to give satisfaction.’

As detailed elsewhere, I have been making something of a hobby of taking out-of-copyright classics and mildly desecrating them by swapping all the genders round. Not just the main characters, but everyone in the story down to every ‘Oh God’ becoming ‘Oh Goddess’. It’s a simplistic, binary change. It’s not a rewrite; it doesn’t introduce any new writing into the mix, unlike such mashups as (the surprisingly good) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But it does have the effect of creating – not exactly an alternative history, but an alternative literary past. Where women get to own property and men get to do sewing.

After I self-published Prejudice and Pride last year, I decided my next endeavour would be James Eyre. However, partway through editing it, I started thinking of other books that would be just as interesting to switch, and before long I realised that my next project was going to have to be a collection.

I ended up with a dozen writers ranging from the early 19th to the early 20th century; a chapter or two from each, and I found I had an anthology which gives the sense of an entire alternative literary canon. I ordered them by publication date, with Austen the oldest and Edith Wharton the newest. Here’s a bit from Sensibility and Sense, just after young impetuous Matthew Dashwood has had a fall:

A lady carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round her, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Matthew, when his accident happened. She put down her gun and ran to his assistance. He had raised himself from the ground, but his foot had been twisted in his fall, and he was scarcely able to stand. The lady offered her services; and perceiving that his modesty declined what his situation rendered necessary, took him up in her arms without farther delay, and carried him down the hill.

And here, a century later, from The Age of Innocence:

He made no answer. His lips trembled into a smile, but the eyes remained distant and serious, as if bent on some ineffable vision. ‘Dear,’ Nuala whispered, pressing him to her: it was borne in on her that the first hours of being engaged, even if spent in a ball-room, had in them something grave and sacramental. What a new life it was going to be, with this whiteness, radiance, goodness at one’s side!

Virginal boys, chivalrous women and buffonish ladies-about-town advised by their wise ladies’ maid (or gentlewoman’s gentlewoman?) – and we haven’t even touched on The Wonderful Witch of Oz, June the Obscure or The Picture of Daria Gray, which is perhaps my favourite of all.

So if your curiosity is piqued, James Eyre and Other Genderswitched Stories is available in paperback for about £5.99 or on Kindle for about £1.50 depending where you are – links below. If neither works for you and you’d like a .pdf, email me on fausterella at gmail and we can sort something out. In the meantime, have a freebie chapter: Chapter 1 of The Picture of Daria Gray.

And finally, thanks to my father, artist John Harrad, for providing one of his drawings for the cover art, and to James Wallis for providing advice on formatting (though any mistakes remain my own. Or can be blamed on my toddler for climbing on the keyboard at the wrong moment).


Can men be funny?

It’s a question some people think shouldn’t even be asked. But today we put political correctness aside and have the courage to say openly: are men funny?

Let’s look at the facts.

- Very few men get to become famous comedians. Is that because it’s just too hard for them? Would they be better off going into a different field altogether, such as, I don’t know, football management or beer tasting?

- Abbot and Costello, Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson… Of course it’s unfair to give specific examples and use them as evidence, but still, look at them. Could a gender that produced these people really rise to the heights of comic genius?

Men can certainly laugh. But can they cause it in others?

- Are men disadvantaged when it comes to humour? Through the ages they’ve been seen as the serious sex: hunting, gathering, breadwinning, governing, all these are weighty pursuits. Meanwhile, women have been able to develop their comic muscles through the boredom that comes of being stuck at home with the washing up. They’ve gossiped with other women, perfecting their comic timing and character creation skills, while men exchanged the odd grunted monosyllable as they roamed the plains together looking for things to kill. Clearly there are sound evolutionary reasons for a difference between the sexes in term of joke-making. What would men even have had to joke about, apart from the odd funny-looking mammoth?

- And, of course, it has traditionally been the case that women do the majority of childcare: an excellent source of humour, partly because it allows for a lot of time to think while performing menial tasks, partly because babies and toddlers can be an endless source of amusement, and partly because the stress of bringing up children helps one to develop a robust sense of fun as a defence mechanism. By being on the whole less involved, men miss out on a lot of material for amusing anecdotes.

- It’s not a criticism, and I’m certainly not being sexist here, but perhaps men do rely a bit too much on male gender stereotypes for their humour. Is it necessary to go on so much about being bad at housework and how much women nag? It all starts coming across as a bit woman-hating, to tell the truth. Men should branch out, perhaps explore the areas that women have tended to cover such as physical comedy (like Miranda Hart) or observational humour (like Victoria Wood). Although it’s not really fair to compare, I suppose: because everyone knows women are actually funnier, there’s unfair pressure on men to compete. Often their stand-up gigs have an air of desperation about them.

- Of course, it’s true that other men might find men funny, but that’s a very niche market since a lot of men don’t really watch comedy in the same way that many men don’t read literary novels – they have a preference for, let’s say, less nuanced forms of entertainment such as rugby and fighting. Or whatever it is that men do for fun. I don’t really know. Anyway, like it or not, women control the comedy market, so that’s probably why women do so well as comedians.

Now, I’m bound to get wild accusations of being a man-hater from all this, so let me be perfectly clear: there are plenty of funny men. Like Stephen Fry and Julian Clary. But some heterosexual ones too: Lee Mack, for example, is often very amusing in his own way, and that cute smile of his doesn’t hurt either.

So don’t twist my words to say that I’m dismissing all men as unfunny out of hand. There will always be honourable exceptions. And given time – and perhaps, if I’m allowed to say it, a bit more effort – men may well be able to rise to the heights of Lucille Ball, Sandi Toksvig, Tina Fey and the other mistresses of the craft. We must be patient with our male wannabe comics. They’ll get there.


Women watch comedy more than men. Probably. I haven't actually checked the research.


(If you want to know why this post was made, please google for “can women be funny”)


The Truly Terrible Secret of Being Fat?

There’s an article in the Guardian today by Hopi Sen, the former Labour head of campaigns, about his struggles to lose weight. I liked it for being very honest and not melodramatic.

There’s one thing that struck me, though. He’s writing from his own perspective, of course, but at one point he generalises to say:

I discovered the truly terrible secret of being fat. It doesn’t greatly matter to other people whether or not you are. Given a certain level of talent, charisma or passionate interest, or even without any of these things, other people’s interest in your weight is pretty minimal, unless you’re some sort of celebrity.

Most people are not so superficial as to judge you on your weight alone, nor as interested in your flaws as you might wish. Unless you are the fabled One-Tonne Man, or mind-bogglingly boring, your weight simply cannot be the most interesting thing about you.

All of which may well be true – if you’re male.

Imagine a woman writing those two paragraphs. I can’t.

I have been lucky in that my life has contained very few people who have attacked or mocked me for my weight, but I cannot possibly be ignorant of the enormous cultural pressure for women to be thin.

And, of course, it’s not really true of all men either. But Sen’s statements really underline for me how different the cultural pressures are. It would have been useful if he’d noticed or acknowledged that too.


A brief note on women and work

There’s your basic sexism, the “women are just not as good as men” type. And then there are the two very slightly less obvious sexism types, which often don’t even sound that bad: the “men and women are different but equal” type, and the “women used to be oppressed but they aren’t any more” type. (Confusingly, even though these three variations contradict each other, many sexists still cheerfully use whichever version suits their argument best at the time.)

This isn’t a long in-depth article about sexism: it’s too dauntingly huge a subject, and there’s already loads written about it. It’s just that a couple of news items, about women and work, struck me over the last few weeks.

Firstly, the one about the dress code at Harrods. A woman has claimed she was forced out of her job because she wouldn’t wear make up. That may sound unlikely, but in fact Harrods apparently has a two-page long dress code for its female employees which includes a directive to wear “Full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly.”

This isn’t a trivial thing to demand. It’s expensive to afford that level of daily make up, it takes a while to apply it, and you need a level of skill. I for one would turn down a job that made me wear three different types of stuff on my lips, and I’ve never even been certain what base is (is it the same as foundation?). Moreover, as I saw mentioned in a discussion on this story, it’s far from being a fashionable look. And of course it doesn’t apply to the male employees. In fact, if they tried to wear something similar they’d probably find themselves dismissed too.

The second story is that Walmart has successfully avoided allegations of “a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy” against women because women were not seen as a suitably coherent group to bring the claim. The Guardian quotes some of Walmart’s practices: holding managers’ meetings in Hooters, referring to women workers as “Janie Qs”, paying women less than male workers in every job classification in every region. And one plaintiff was told that Walmart pays men more because “they have families to support”.

Which brings us neatly to the third story: an Italian engineering firm has recently been forced to make redundancies, and has selected only women for redundancy. Why? Well, a union official quoted the company as saying: “We are firing the women so they can stay at home and look after the children. In any case, what they bring in is a second income.”

Now this is your first and most obvious type of sexism, but the comments on the story fall more into the “different but equal” camp, and illustrate why “different but equal” strongly tends to turn into “different and not really equal at all”. (Do I even need to mention the many racism-based examples of this? No? Good.)

Two comments from the Guardian story about the Italian firm:

- Don’t get me wrong of course men and women are equal, but the idea of the man bringing home the bacon and the women taking care of the kids and the home seems natural to me.

- I believe in equal pay for equal work, but the mother is the ONLY person able to rear the child properly.

So there we go. We can have blatant sexism or we can have pretend equality that isn’t. Still, at least if anyone tries Sexism Trope No 3 – denial – they can be pointed at these stories and it might keep them quiet for a minute or two.


Update: Guest posts and more Austen

Guest Blogging

I have a guest post! Mr Brown has written 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Don Quixote and it’s well worth reading. This is part of a three-way swap where I write something for Choler, he writes something for Mr and Mrs Brown, and Mr Brown writes something for me. The only link between our three blogs is that the three of us are old friends, so it’s been a fascinating challenge. Here’s my post for Choler, on the subject of World Femininity Day and what femininity is, and here’s Choler’s entertainingly fictional post for Mr Brown.


Prejudice and Pride

Chapters 2 to 7 of Prejudice and Pride: A Cover Version are up, and not only that, the project has been covered by Austen blog Excessively Diverting and is being considered for review by the Jane Austen Society of North America. I feel somewhat imposter-ish about all this given that I didn’t actually write anything really, but an idea is an idea, and if people are enjoying reading it, that’s brilliant. Some of you are even buying copies!

On the subject of publications, many thanks to Shimmer magazine for posting about my short story collection! (And for publishing my story The Winter Tree in the first place, of course.)



A couple of links from The F Word: join the campaign against forcing young girls to marry; join the campaign to save the last women’s centre in Wales from being closed.


A risotto analogy

Ok, imagine you are a judge on one of those celebrity cooking shows. Got it? Good. Let’s say that you’re tasting two tomato risottos, one made by Andy and one made by Caroline. Andy’s risotto is slightly better, so you award the prize to Andy. So far, so fair.

But then after the contest, questions emerge. Caroline isn’t happy with the outcome. She’s a bad loser, maybe: she’s claiming the judgement was unfair. Which is ridiculous. You were the judge; you know your only criteria was the tastiness of the risotto. And although Caroline had clearly tried her best, hers just didn’t have that fresh, juicy tang to it that Andy’s did. Which, now you come to think of it, is odd, because you watched both meals being prepared and Caroline looked like the better cook.

Caroline demands an investigation. Not into you, but into the way the show was constructed. It turns out that when each contestant was provided with their ingredients, Andy was given the best tomatoes, the freshest herbs, the most expensive pan. Caroline was given tomatoes that were slightly off, not quite enough arborio rice, and olive oil that smelt a bit funny. There wasn’t time to complain, though, and Caroline is such a good cook she was sure she could beat Andy even with these handicaps. But she was wrong. The ingredients just weren’t up to it and Andy, who is technically not as good a cook, produced slightly better food. Andy was surprised by the result too, it turned out, but he was hardly going to turn down the prize; after all, he’d worked for it and had done nothing wrong.

Why did Andy get given better tools? Well, the people in charge of distributing them, Dan and Tony, didn’t do it deliberately. They just got chatting to Andy and he seemed like a nice guy, and then when it came to giving Caroline her equipment there wasn’t much left. Nobody meant any harm, really, or not consciously, or not much.

The trouble is, the same thing happened during the previous show with Rob and Sheila, and the show before with Dave and Harriet. And as it happened, Rob and Dave had won their shows too. So did Bob and Fred and George and Paul. And when you thought you were judging Andy and Caroline on merit – you weren’t.

And maybe you don’t like the idea of taking that kind of context into account. It makes everything a lot more complicated, and surely none of it should be your problem. You did what you were supposed to do. But it’s nagging at you, because the wrong person won somehow, even though you thought you were being fair. So you get involved, and you talk to Dan and Tony, and you make sure the process of handing out ingredients and equipment is standardised in future so personal prejudice isn’t such an issue in future. And from then on, you’re more aware, and more inclined to look below the surface. And a risotto is no longer a risotto. It’s a metaphor.


Ceci n'est pas un risotto.


Sense and Sentimentality

“Beware of the man who denounces women writers; his penis is tiny and he cannot spell.” Erica Jong

The male writer VS Naipaul is in the news this morning – well, a bit of the news – because he was asked, during a recent interview at the Royal Geographic Society, if he considered any woman writer his literary match. His answer was “I don’t think so.” He went on to dismiss Jane Austen for being sentimental, claim that he could tell a woman writer within a paragraph or two of reading her work, and explain that women had a “narrow view of the world”. Perhaps unwisely, he also used the phrase “feminine tosh” to describe his publisher’s fiction. Topping it all off, he added “I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

You know that feeling you get when you have a hundred things you need to say all at once and just end up standing there gasping for air and gesturing incoherently instead? That’s how I’ve been all morning with this story. And it’s not really worth paying attentuon to at all, in a sense. Male writer is arrogant misogynist: it’s hardly unheard of. But it brings up so much stuff! About the fact that women tend to read male and female authors more or less equally, but men tend to just read male authors, and why that is. About the fact that female authors don’t get reviewed as much as male authors. About the stupidity of the phrase ‘women writers’ in the first place – who says ‘men writers’? About the way that people use the term women writers to mean women who write about domestic life, and how writing about domestic life gets dismissed. About the enormous number of female writers who don’t actually write about family and romance and children, but about grisly murders, or aliens, or the nature of identity, or politics or, well, anything at all, just like men do. About the male writers who do write about love and marriage and children. About how none of these fictional subjects are necessarily more or less worthy of being written about than any other.

But when I stopped chasing all of that around – because one blog post can’t get it all in, and I hadn’t actually written anything but a series of half-formed angry sentences, and anyway my daughter just woke up – one more specific thought lingered.

Jane Austen? Sentimental?

The pejorative dictionary definition of ‘sentimental’  - and it’s fairly clear Naipaul meant the word in the pejorative sense – basically equates to over-dependent on emotions, mawkish. If Naipaul has read any Austen at all and has concluded  that she’s mawkish, then I can’t really have any respect at all for him as a literary critic. If he hasn’t and is simply using her as a hastily selected example of the kind of writing he dislikes, then he’s sloppy and I still don’t have any respect for him as a literary critic.

And as a writer? Well, I haven’t read any of his books; maybe I will at some point. But I looked up a couple of extracts and here’s a sample from A Bend in the River:

I began to understand at the same time that my anguish about being a man adrift was false, that for me that dream of home and security was nothing more than a dream of isolation, anachronistic and stupid and very feeble.  I belonged to myself alone.  I was going to surrender my manhood to nobody.  For someone like me there was only one civilization and one place — London, or a place like it.  Every other kind of life was make-believe.  Home — what for?  To hide?  To bow to our great men?  For people in our situation, people led into slavery, that is the biggest trap of all.  We have nothing.  We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves. ‘Here take my manhood and invest it for me.  Take my manhood and be a greater man yourself, for my sake!’  No!  I want to be a man myself.

Without context, it would be unfair of me to comment on the sentimentality or otherwise of this passage. But from a man who’s claiming to write better than George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Angel Carter and Isabel Allende and all the Brontes put together? Sorry, I’m not rushing out to buy your book.


A tiny nugget of purest sexism

On the way to work today I got shouted at by a man leaning out of a van. 

Now, this was a tiny and brief incident and I’m not particularly bothered by it as such – that is, I’m offended but I’m not upset. I find it interesting, though, because it’s an example of both bad behaviour and misogyny in its purest form. Here’s why:

- I didn’t catch most of what was shouted but from what I did catch, it was insulting, and there is no way that the guy in the van would have shouted it to a male stranger. 

- Men, when asked about the habit of addressing female strangers with comments about their appearance, will often claim that the women ought to be flattered. This is stupid, but in this case it clearly doesn’t apply anyway. I wasn’t meant to be flattered; I was being insulted. 

- The phrase ‘asking for it’ is often used in these situations or more serious ones. Just to be clear, the only time you should interpret anyone as asking for anything is when you literally hear them making a request. But even apart from that, I am currently wearing very boring clothes with no skin revealed, and I’m average-looking and don’t have any make-up on. Even if the man had been complimenting me, you really couldn’t say I’d invited it even in the most wild of sexist dreams. 

- At the time it happened I was walking down a street – the street next to the one I live in – at 8am, on the way to the train station to go to work. I was paying no attention to the van. The men in it were probably also on their way to work, and not drunk. The decision to briefly harass me was presumably taken, therefore, in a spirit of rationality. The man who shouted saw me walking along and decided on the spur of the moment that insulting a woman he had never met would be funny. Or perhaps that I needed to be informed that I wasn’t attractive to him, just in case I was wondering. Is the sight of a woman you don’t fancy perhaps threatening in some way, or offensive? I find it hard to empathise, as I encounter people I don’t fancy all the time and never feel the urge to inform them of the fact unless they utter the phrase “Do you fancy me?”

- Women are judged by their appearance all the time and taught that how they look is what really matters. So clearly this insult was intended to hurt. It was intended to devalue me, consciously or not. The assumption behind it was that any other attributes I might have were irrelevant in the face of, well, my face. 

So mostly I’d like to know what the man himself would say if asked why he shouts insults at women. (I’d bet large amounts of money I’m not the only one.) I genuinely can’t think what his considered answer would be. 


Candy punchbags

There’s an article in the comments section of the Guardian today, about Nick Clegg. I don’t have any particular issue with the article, but the title has rather annoyed me. (I know the author probably didn’t choose it.)

The title is: Nick Clegg, you chose to be coalition arm-candy, so accept being a punchbag

I don’t know, is that an implication that people who choose to be arm candy (i.e. usually young women) should be ok with being punchbags (i.e. beaten up) or am I reading far too much into it? I can’t decide.