‘Hard Out Here’ by Lily Allen and Intersectional Feminism

After this summer’s Blurred Lines debate, the way women are presented in the media, especially the music industry, is certainly a hot topic at the moment, which is no bad thing. The industry for years has been one of the worst for objectifying and sexualising women, to the point where harmful and degrading ideas about women have become commonplace in your average top ten single.

Cue Lily Allen.

Back from her self-imposed retirement, Lily has just released a song named ‘Hard Out Here’, a satirical commentary on her experiences in the media spotlight. Allen has often used her music to make a statement about her political opinions, most notably in her song ‘Fuck You’, a lyrical letter to former President, George W. Bush. It’s unsurprising, then, that for her new release she parodies the likes of Robin Thicke, with lyrics such as ‘have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?’ a play on the delightful lyrics ‘I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two’ from ‘Blurred Lines’.

While the unsubtle middle finger up to the likes of Robin Thicke is fantastic, the song does feature quite a problematic take on feminism. The line ‘don’t need to shake my arse for you, cause I’ve got a brain’ has some serious issues, especially in the context of the video, implying that women who do shake their arses only do so because they’re stupid. Not like Lily, because she’s smart, apparently.

The video itself is a parody of hip-hop and rap music videos, and features several dancers twerking in bikinis next to a fully dressed Lily. Most of the dancers are black, and the two that aren’t both happen to be slightly more clothed than the black women, who are clearly the subject and focus of the video through the objectifying close up shots.

Therefore, in an attempt to parody the way women in the music industry are presented, Allen has used black women to make her point. Groundbreaking stuff.

In my opinion, for satire to properly work, it should be generally understood as satire. As in, you watch it and there’s pretty much no doubt that it is not being serious and that it is simply making fun of conventions or ideas. The problem with this video, while it does get its point across, is that it completely sexualises and objectifies black women’s bodies in the process, and leaves you confused as to whether it’s actually intended to be satire or not.

The slow motion, close up shots of black women’s backsides while twerking is no better (and is arguably worse) than anything I have ever seen in the kinds of music videos this is meant to parody. And while Allen has denied on Twitter any intent towards racism, or even any racial discussion in the video, the portrayal of black women in the video is undeniably negative. Also, the references to rap and hip hop, music genres usually dominated by black artists, are intended to be mocking, with Lily throwing money around and dancing on expensive cars, common signifiers of wealth in the genre. As well as this, not just Lily is more covered up than the black dancers, but the Asian and white dancers are also wearing more clothing, and are sexualised considerably less than them, with fewer close ups on their bodies and fewer shots of them in general. The black women’s bodies are the focus of the dance scenes, and they are completely objectified so that Lily can get her point across.

One of feminism’s problems is that a large portion of feminists are white and unaware of their privilege, meaning that other sections of society can often be pushed aside or deemed as ‘not as important’. It’s for this reason that feminists of colour have coined the term ‘womanism’ in order to separate themselves from the internalised racism that is common in the world of white feminism. This video is a perfect display of why women of colour feel alienated from feminism: Lily uses and objectifies black women’s bodies in order to lift herself up. While she states in her tweet that she feels ‘in no way […] superior to anyone,’ the message the video presents remains clear: Lily is superior to these women and is using them to further her message, rather than being in a position of solidarity with them.

Lily also states in terms of the exposure of the dancer’s bodies “If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too.” So in other words, Lily felt uncomfortable with wearing a bikini in the video, but was happy to make her dancers do the exact same thing. She claims that she would have also been the one twerking into the camera, had she been any good. The fact that this was her intention for the video is also worrying, as the main complaint about Miley Cyrus’ latest video for ‘We Can’t Stop,’ is that Miley is appropriating twerking. How, then, is doing it for comedic effect any different?

In summary, If Lily’s only way of getting across a feminist message is by oppressing black women, then maybe she needs to rethink the message she is trying to send, not just to white women, but to all races, ethnicities, genders, and anyone in any way affected by the kyriarchy. You can’t just ignore something that looks problematic, just because it’s supposed to be satire. Even if it is meant humorously, it doesn’t make it ok to do the same things. Many are calling her song a ‘feminist anthem,’ but it is a very dated, very white version of what I call feminism.

To end on a positive note, here is possibly the only shot in the entire music video that isn’t problematic:

Lily Allen has a Baggy Pussy

While I have tried to be as objective as possible in this post, I am white and I do speak from a place of privilege, so here are some links of black women also discussing the topic of ‘Hard Out Here:’

http://newwavefeminism.tumblr.com/post/66886842189/lily-allen-saving-white-women-from-the-dangers-of-hip

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/zeba-blay/hard-out-here-lilly-allen_b_4274209.html

http://www.blackfeminists.org/2013/11/13/lily-allen-hard-out-here-video/

 

Charlotte Earney.

Why You Should Vote ‘Yes’ In The ‘Blurred Lines’ Referendum

On Thursday 7th November, Union Council voted to hold a referendum on whether to ban ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played in Union premises. I am the Union of UEA Students’ Women’s Officer and I made the decision to propose a ban on the song for many reasons, but mainly because women students, my constituents whose welfare I am constitutionally bound to protect, had come to me and told me that the song made them feel unsafe. You can read the full details of the motion I proposed to Council on the Union’s website (ueastudent.com). This is the speech I gave to Council explaining why the song should be banned. I urge you to read it and vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum on this issue. Because women students have the right to feel safe in Union venues and, as Women’s Officer, I will do everything in my power to protect that right.

“As a Students’ Union, I am proud of our values on the need for sexual consent, and I’m proud of the work we do to create a safe environment for our students. We have the right to choose what we play in our venues, based on its reflection on our values. We are not stopping students from purchasing Robin Thicke’s record, or listening to it elsewhere. We simply choose not to play it in the LCR or student-run media. Following the recent successful motion to play Livewire in Union premises, this policy will make it easier to control what is played in our Union premises.

This song contributes to rape culture and its normalisation on our campus. What is rape culture, you may ask? Rape culture is the condoning and normalising of physical, emotional, and sexual violence against women and girls and marginalized subjects. It is the production and maintenance of an environment where sexual assault is so normative that people ultimately believe that rape is inevitable. 1 in 7 women students have been the victim of serious physical or sexual violence. 1 in 4 women students who have been assaulted said it had a negative impact on their studies. The rape conviction rate in England is 6%, which is only for the rapes that are reported – which are in a minority. Still today when women are raped, the first thing they are asked if what they were wearing or what they were drinking. That is rape culture. We live in a rape culture.

There are no ‘blurred lines’ about consent. Let’s be clear, Council, the lyrics of this song trivialise the need for consent and promote the normalisation of themes of sexual violence against women. The language used in the song mirrors that of sexual predators and rapists, and has been documented by rape survivors as being the exact words their rapist used. This Union upholds the need for sexual consent and the need for a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment, and would look like a hypocrite if it continued to actively support this song’s message through playing it in our venues. The right of people to use the language of rapists should not take precedence over the right of our students to feel safe in our venues. We are a Students’ Union that recognises that ‘no’ means ‘no’, victim-blaming is never okay, and that rape is not ‘blurry’.

The first Student Union to choose not to play ‘Blurred Lines’ was Edinburgh, followed by Derby, University of West Scotland, University of London – the largest Student Union in the country, and Leeds, among others. This shows that it is has been recognised as a wider problem right across the UK. This is the student movement collectively saying that rape culture and the trivialisation of consent is not acceptable and that we can do better.

The question of whether this motion will create a ‘slippery slope’ has been mentioned to me. Of course other songs are problematic. These do not go unchallenged either by the media or feminist organisations across the world. But this song was the fastest selling record of the summer, reaching Number 1 in 14 countries worldwide, and also created international controversy around its content. If you are concerned about other songs being problematic, that is a separate debate – these things must all be decided on their individual merit. We are not out to ban all songs we disagree with – this individual song is symbolically and politically important.

Disagreements are okay in politics and ideology but I ask you, Council, is rape okay? Is promoting the trivialisation of consent okay? I say no. No, it’s not. I’m sure you as Council say no, it’s not okay and if you don’t think that it’s okay, then I hope you’ll join me in voting for this motion.”

Rachel Knott (UEA Women’s Officer, Vice-President of UEAFS)

union.womens@uea.ac.uk

Top 10 Shitty Things To Do As A Male Feminist

You’d think that it would be easy to be a male feminist, after all, you’re campaigning against discrimination while not having to face that discrimination yourself. Being a male feminist should be as easy as passing an eye test when you’ve already got 20/20 vision and there’s a man standing behind you whispering all the right letters in your ear. But for some reason a lot of self-declared male feminists seem to be determined to shut their eyes and block up their ears and stumble around senselessly while shouting about all the good things they’re doing for women. So here’s an easy ten point reference guide to avoiding the common pitfalls of male feminism.

  1. Telling women how much of a feminist you are.

There are a lot of women who, for a variety of valid reasons, don’t think that men should be able to identify as feminists. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have feminist opinions or want to further the feminist cause, but you have to realise that it’s a word created by women to describe themselves, if you argue with women about how much you want to help them then you’re probably more concerned about being able to wear a t shirt that says “I’m a feminist” than with actually being one.

  1. Being a part time feminist.

There is a time to talk and there’s a time to keep your mouth shut and listen. If you go to a feminist gathering and you just can’t keep your insightful commentary to yourself for long enough to let any of the actual women speak and then you go to the pub and stay stoically silent as your friends ogle women and make the odd casual rape joke you are probably doing those things the wrong way round. This is especially rich since when you form a feminist society or put on a feminist discussion group the number one question you receive is “well what do you actually do?” “What do you think you’re going to achieve?” The men who ask questions like that need to realise that they have daily opportunities that women don’t: you can exist in male environments and bring a feminist voice into them, rather than going into feminist environments to enlighten everyone with a male perspective.

  1. Playing out your hero fantasies.

When Ellie Cosgrave returned on International Women’s Day to the scene of her sexual assault to put on an artistic protest there were a lot of women who commended her bravery, and there were a lot of men who had other suggestions. Strange men on twitter told her that rather than coming to terms with the ordeal in her own time what she actually should have done was punch the guy right there and then (“that would have shown him!”) or better yet they reassured her that if they’d been there they would have taught him a lesson. Men need to realise that telling a woman how good you are at protecting her can just sound like you’re telling her that she needs to be protected.

On top of that there’s the danger that if women fight back against street harassment they have a very real chance of being killed. You need to understand that women are generally conditioned to respond passively to violence, and that conditioning isn’t something you can change by telling them about how many imaginary rapists you’ve fought. What you could do is think about how your immediate reaction as a man was to respond by considering violent retaliation.

  1. Wearing this shirt.

I mean, it shouldn’t really need saying, but treating your dick like an exclusive member’s club does not strike a blow for gender equality, it just shows people that you’ve managed to strike a balance between being hugely judgemental of others while retaining absolutely no self-awareness. Women don’t need you to tell them that the yardstick by which you measure their worth is whether or not you want to bone them, and they definitely don’t think that the entire reason they want to be feminists in the first place is so that you will bone them. It’s not your job to judge women, the point of feminism is not to create the kind of women that you want to have sex with.

  1. Offering a little perspective.

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times a male feminist has decided to derail a discussion with the claim that they think people should have a little perspective. Yes we do know that there are wars going on in the world and people dying every day, and there’s cancer, and malaria, and Ben Affleck being cast as Batman. But if you honestly think that it’s impossible to care about more than one thing at the same time then there’s a joke about men and multitasking being set up here that’s just too obvious for me to possibly make.

There is no one who thinks we should decide what the one most pressing issue in the world is and focus on that alone, we do not undergo social change in descending order of what you think is most important. You might want to consider the fact that the reason you consider problems like catcalling and rape jokes to be relatively small problems is that you come from the privileged position of never having had to deal with those things. Unless you are actually training to be a plastic surgeon who fixes female genital mutilation or a politician working to reduce the pay gap then introducing those topics into conversations to try and “give perspective” is really just using the suffering of women who face those problems to score yourself some points.

  1. Mansplaining Feminism.

If you decide to have a conversation with a feminist, the odds are she already knows what feminism is. A lot of men seem to take issue with the term mansplaining; obviously people of every gender can explain things and people of every gender can be patronising. But the phenomenon of men lecturing women on topics that they themselves know far less about is too common and too obviously gender motivated to ignore. You only need to glance at a blog like mansplained to see that there are a lot of men who seem to think that your fancy degrees and book learning can only get you so far unless they’re slowly repeated to you by big men using small words. Feminist groups are not full of women who’ve accidentally wandered into a room and are waiting for a man to come in and tell them what to do. If you want to have a conversation with someone you should do them the courtesy of assuming they know as much as you do, if not more.

  1. Acting like one of the girls.

Being a feminist does not make you an honorary woman, you don’t lose all of the advantages that you have as soon as you crack the spine of a bell hooks anthology. The most important thing you can do as a male feminist is think critically about yourself as a man, and you can’t do that if you’re too busy writing yourself into the stories of women. Nobody’s claiming that you personally are responsible for the fact that we live in a patriarchal world, but don’t try to deny the fact that you benefit from that world. Why not try using those benefits in a way that is constructive for people of all genders. Being a male feminist is wholly unlike being a woman: their challenges are not your challenges.

  1. Keeping score.

Renowned feminist scholar Robin Thicke has said that the pleasure he takes from degrading women has been hard earned from a lifetime of respecting them, because as we all know, the only reason anyone would collect feminist points is so that they can get enough to trade them in for a free lap dance. Women do not owe you anything in exchange for going to the trouble of not assaulting them; feminist men seem to think that their participation earns them some kind of reward. If you think you shouldn’t have to stop casually calling your female friends bitches because you already gave up catcalling and creepshots this week then you are really missing the point. Feminists don’t need your contribution so badly that they should have to compromise for you.

  1. Being provocative.

For some reason a lot of men who identify as feminists like to make sexist jokes to “provoke a discussion.” If I were to push you down the stairs then you could guarantee that we would have a conversation about why it’s not ok to push people down the stairs. However it should be pretty obvious that just because my actions were the reason for the conversation this doesn’t put me on the anti-pushing people down stairs side of the conversation. When you say something sexist “ironically” or to play devil’s advocate or provoke a reaction you have to remember that someone is still getting pushed down those stairs. You can’t disguise sexism by claiming to play devil’s advocate.

  1. Telling jokes.

There’s a time and a place for feminist humour, there are feminist comedians and feminist comedy shows, if you want to start cracking some light humour in the middle of a conversation about rape culture or sexist advertising or trigger warnings then all you’re doing is reminding women that these are things which ultimately have little effect on your life. You can dip in and out of these discussions when you want but all it really is to you is a hobby. A lot of the time misogynist trolls will try to intentionally derail conversations with humour, but it seems like just as often it will be some well-meaning male feminist who just wants to remind everyone that he’s still here. By doing this you’re just saying to women “ok, serious discussion time is over, I want to tell jokes now”.

  1. (Bonus shitty thing.)

If you’re more concerned about the fact that this list is criticising you than you are about the fact that you might have been doing the things on this list, maybe feminism isn’t for you.

Hywel Wilkie

Why I Love Your Body But Hate Mine

I told Tilly I would write this months ago, and each week when she’s asked where my post is, I’ve shrank away with muttered excuses of ‘too much work’ and ‘nine articles to edit by tomorrow morning’.

And this is part of it of course, the unending exhaustion and boredom of third year, but the bigger part, the part I didn’t tell Tilly, was that I don’t know the words to choose to talk about the body that I carry around with me each day. I don’t know the words I can use to talk about my fear of it, my occasional hatred of it, my awe that it has brought me this far.

It’s a complicated thing, this relationship we have with our bodies. They are the one constant of our lives, we are born with it and we will die with it, it is inanimate at the same time as being the most animated thing we hold in this world. It has no feelings but it expresses itself with every emotion that flickers through our brains throughout the course of the day.

And yet for all its wonder, for all the amazing things it can do, as women the discourse that surrounds our bodies is invariably to do with the size of them. ‘You’re so tall, I’m so jealous’, ‘Wow, you’ve lost so much weight’, ‘I don’t want to sound like a bitch but she’s put on a couple of pounds recently, hasn’t she?’

I can’t remember the last time I heard myself say the words ‘My body is so strong! It helped me swim twenty five lengths in the pool today without stopping’, or ‘My body needed a rest today.’ However I can tell you that I say things like ‘I am so fat’ (and unfortunately, I am not one of those women who can happily accept her fat, even at a size 12 I am constantly bullying myself to fight against it) and ‘I can’t believe I didn’t exercise today’ on an hourly basis. Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why do women do this to ourselves?

I think it’s because we’ve been taught to value ourselves primarily for our bodies, and for that belief to be validated, they must look and act a certain way. We’ve been taught by the media, by society and by our mothers that our body is what must be developed and punished, that we need to occupy a small amount of space and our bodies need to compress to fit it. We’ve been taught that our bodies must always be a work in progress, that we will never be the complete and perfect finished product. We have been taught that eating a lot of food is ‘greed’. Men are taught that eating a lot of food is ‘manly’. Look at the example of Joey from Friends, compared with Monica. Joey’s overeating is endorsed, he is a character we laugh WITH, yet he miraculously stays skinny. Monica, on the other hand, presented as an overweight teenager is a character we are encouraged to be relatively disgusted by. We laugh AT her because she is fat, and her ‘significant character growth’ into an adult is not represented by her financial or emotional development. It’s represented by the fact that she gets her eating ‘under control’ and becomes skinny.

My one, flawed, example is presented time and time again not only in the media but in real life. Two years ago, I became very unwell with anxiety and depression and lost one and a half stone in the space of six weeks. Even friends and family who were aware of my illness congratulated me on the loss, as if it was something to be proud of, as if it was even in my control. My body was being praised whilst my mind was in the depths of self-destruction, and it was the most warped thing imaginable.

I sit, two years on, with that extra one and a half stone plus some, resting on my tummy and hips. And rather than being contented that I’m no longer depressed, I sometimes catch myself looking at pictures of myself in that time and thinking ‘Yeah, your head was a state but damn girl, you looked hot’.

And that thought, whenever it catches me unaware, is so ridiculous, so destructive, that I have to write about it. And I have to write about it to make myself believe that I am my body, and yet I am so much more than it. And that for every moment I spend fat-shaming it, I am dishonouring not only myself but the feminist values that I try my best to live my life by.

Some of us can’t change the way we feel about our bodies overnight. Some of us look on the women who accept their bodies happily with awe and jealousy. Some of us don’t know how to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the great things first. Some of us don’t take joy in clothes shopping, convinced that the cute dress is not meant for women like us.

And the thing is, I’m not just talking about fat women. I’m talking about skinny women, about short women, tall women, women who strike others with envy. Because no matter how we look, there’s always something, something that can be better.

I don’t know what I can do to change this for myself, let alone anyone else. I’ve tried a lot of positivity techniques, I’ve heard every compliment standard to ‘curvy girls’. So I’m going to concentrate on making my body as strong as it can be, for its own sake. I’m going to jump in the swimming pool tonight and work my feminist legs. Because even though, to many of us, they will never be perfect, our bodies will carry us to the places we need to go. And even though I might not love what mine looks like, I’ll try to love it forever for what it can do.

“Honey, not tonight…” Consent in Long-Term Relationships

I read a lot of articles about consent in hook-up culture, about how we should be careful when we’re with a new partner to learn about their boundaries and respect them. We talk a lot about “enthusiastic consent”, and I can see how, if you’re thinking about the first time you take someone home after a date, that would be important. If it’s the first time you’ve had sex with a person, you  better both want to do it, there’s not really room for any grey areas in that regard.

However I don’t read as much about how consent changes when you’ve been sleeping with the same person for a long time. Sex when you’ve been together for a year is different to when you’ve been together for three months, and it’s very different from your first time. You get used to your partner, you know what they like. You’re used to their rhythms. It’s easier to know which buttons to press. You may start to take them a little bit for granted.

I think, in the vast majority of long-term relationships, you begin to realise that one person’s sex drive is higher than the other. I expect many people reading this will immediately know which person out of themselves and their partner wants sex more often. This situation inevitably involves compromise. Before you leap to any conclusions, I’ve been on both sides of this, and I know how both feel. I know what it feels like to know your partner isn’t really as into it as you are; I know how it feels to just feel a little bit too lazy.

If you want sex less than your partner, it might be that, for the sake of your relationship, you consent to sex less than enthusiastically. But I don’t think, in these circumstances, we should be arguing that this isn’t consent. People have sex for a wide variety of reasons – horniness, loneliness, love, revenge, money. If we start putting some of these reasons on higher levels than others, we begin to devalue some kinds of relationships – an asexual person may have sex in order to keep their partner happy, despite having no desire for it themselves. That is their choice.

So, when does compromise become a lack of consent? It’s very hard to say, and it depends on the power dynamics of each individual relationship. If one person is worried that the other may leave them if they don’t fulfil their needs sexually, that’s not OK. If one person feels physically threatened by the other – for example, if there is a difference in size or strength – that’s not OK.

Pressure is difficult to identify in relationships, though, because you can only feel it if you’re on the wrong side of it. And even if one person desires sex more than the other, it is important that both partners have equal amounts of sexual agency; that they both feel equally able to initiate and deny sex. If one person initiates more frequently, it might be important to step back and check with your partner that things are OK – simply asking the question can never be a mistake.

It is also important to remember that “no” means “no”. This is particularly important for men to remember, as they have often been socialised to regard a woman’s refusal as the start of a negotiation. We see it in films all the time – a woman who at first is uninterested in a man’s advances is eventually won over by his persistence (see: Will Smith in Hitch, Zac Efron in The Last Kiss… the list goes on). If your girlfriend says she doesn’t feel like having sex, when you do, that’s tough. Don’t ask again – trust that if she changes her mind, she will initiate. Surely you would do the same if roles were reversed?

So many friends have told me stories of their boyfriends trying to change their minds about things they don’t want to do, from cunnilingus to period sex to anal. Maybe she will change her mind as she becomes more comfortable with you, but if you’ve already flagged it as something you’re ok with, you don’t need to keep asking her. Trust me when I tell you, she will remember the time she told someone she cared a lot about that she didn’t want to do something he wanted to, and if she ever changes her mind, you’ll be the first to know.

Because that’s the thing that makes consent in long term relationships a lot more difficult than in firs time encounters – the fact that you  have grown to really care about your partner. You hate disappointing them. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s not enjoying their favourite film or cancelling a date because of work or not wanting to have sex, letting  your partner down does make you feel guilty. It’s really important that you never manipulate this guilt to put pressure on your partner. Every time you have to answer the same question with the word “no”, it gets harder. You shouldn’t have to ever say it more than once.

Hattie Grunewald

The Handmaid’s Tale and feminism: Examining characterisation in Atwood’s novel

Although a feminist story, The Handmaid’s Tale gives some surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of men while those of women can be critical. Men are the most mysterious characters; they are the ones we know least about and the ones that Offred can provide the least insight into beyond patriarchal society, dominant male figures, and sexual predators. Few male characters have more than functional roles of the patriarchal state. Most have no names, only group identities such as the Angels, the Eyes, and the Doctor, except for those who Offred has immediate relationships with such as Nick and the Commander. Atwood herself states that feminism is a broad term covering anything from ‘pushing men off cliffs to allowing women to read and write in Afghanistan’. Through the characters of Serena Joy and Moira she looks at how women’s own misunderstanding of men and feminism could result in a backlash and repression leading to a women’s way of survival that could be critical.

Nick is a romantic rather than a realistic figure, the mysterious stranger who is Offred’s rescuer through love. He is more relaxed than other members of Gilead society, wearing his hat at an angle and winking at her. She also describes details of his appearance which prevent him from seeming threatening, ‘creases around the mouth where he smiles’ p.28, whereas everyone else is described by the clothes that they wear, symbolising their status. At household prayers he presses his foot against hers causing a sensual warmth that she is unwilling to acknowledge. During the daytime he is a comic figure, at night her lover, which is made more particular as he is acting under orders either by the Commander or Serena Joy. Like Offred, he is subordinate and therefore has to remain passive until ordered to go to bed with Offred by Serena Joy. Of this first encounter Offred gives three different descriptions; his attitude is not directly described and he remains a figure that cannot be fully understood, realised or analysed. However, in defiance of danger she repeatedly returns to him and clearly falls in love with him, yet the lack of emotional response and understanding between them that is described and revealed to the reader makes it difficult to ascertain to what degree it is love or simply sexual desire. Nevertheless her description of their lovemaking is suggestive rather than simply erotic. At no point does the reader witness a direct conversation; therefore it is difficult to establish an analysis of him and his motives. Importantly she tells him her real name, something that is not even revealed to us, underlining the intimacy of their relationship. We want to believe that he is in love with Offred, yet he is the only member of the household not present when she departs. It can be taken from the Historical Notes that he did rescue her and was a member of the Mayday resistance. As a character he is very lightly described and his most significant role is as her lover, yet it is not a romantic story. Instead her relationship with him underlines the conflict she experiences of loyalty and sexual desires which eventually outweigh her loyalty to Luke and desire to escape.

The Commander is the most powerful authority figure in Offred’s life. He is a high-ranking government official and it is to him that she is assigned so as to take his name. This is similar to slavery before the abolition; once slaves were freed from their masters they would often take the same surname. Yet the Commander is an ambiguous figure, substantial and shadowy, whose motivations remain constantly unclear. An elderly man with ‘straight neatly brushed silver hair’ and a moustache and blue eyes, his manner is mild p.97, and Offred likens him to a Mid-Western bank manager. She sees him lurking by her room and trying to peer at her as she walks past, p.59. demonstrating that he presents himself as a typical male power, isolated and benignly indifferent to his domestic affairs. He performs ceremony in dress uniform and she describes his actions as ‘fucking’, with his eyes shut – making him into a comical figure. As Offred begins to know him his typical male power stereotype starts to fall away. He asks her to meet him in his study ‘after hours’ and it is revealed that he is a lonely man who requires friendship and intimacy. He does not ask her for kinky sex but instead to play scrabble, the most domestic and mundane of pastimes which appears an incredulous past normality to her. He offers her books and magazines consisting of a once normal life which are now forbidden to her, asking only for a kiss at the end of the night. This reveals a more complex characteristic to the Commander. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who treats her in a somewhat patronising way, ‘In fact he is positively daddyish’ p.193. Despite his obscure motives they manage to develop an amiable relationship. However it is still a matter of sexual power politics in which the Commander is dominant. He is traditional in his views and patriarchal assumptions, ‘Natures norms’ p.232 with which he describes Jezebels where they have a private sexual encounter. When Offred is taken away from the house of the Commander for the last time she sees him looking ‘old, worried and helpless’, expecting his own downfall shortly and in this way Offred had her revenge upon him for the balance of power between them, ‘Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking’.

As the Commanders wife, Serena Joy is the most powerful female presence in the daily life in Gilead. Offred can observe her in her social role as one of the Wives but also at close quarters in her own home and she appears as more than just a member of a class of hierarchy. Unlike the other Wives she is referred to by her own name, but she is elderly and childless and therefore has to agree to having a handmaid in her own home as she cannot produce children herself. She clearly resents Offred as a reminder of her inability to have children and as a violation of the sanctity of marriage. It is ironic that we learn she was previously an ultra-conservative voice on domestic policies and the place of women within the home. Offred observes this as she is trapped within the ideology which she created, ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her’, p.56. Serena Joy’s only place of power is her living room, where she has nothing to do but knit scarves for the Angels, and her place for expression is her garden. Yet even there she has to be assisted by her husband’s chauffer. Despite her apparently submissive status as a Wife, there is a harsh toughness and masculinity about Serena Joy. She lacks femininity, which juxtaposes her husbands ‘daddyishness’ and perhaps susceptibility to manipulation or pliability by Offred for hand creams, magazines, and pieces of information. Serena Joy, unlike her husband, has no weakness of ‘nature’s norms’ and therefore no susceptibility. It is impossible for anyone to know what she is thinking. In Serena’s cigarette smoking and use of slang we see evidence for this toughness. It is at her suggestion that Offred sleep with Nick to become pregnant, ‘She is actually smiling, coquettishly’ p.216. Serena Joy represents two aspects of Gileadean society, the role of dutiful Wife as a privileged status, as well as a twisted plot in infidelity and the extremes that people are willing to adopt in able to conceive. This is arguably a method of survival for perhaps desperate women, pushed to this extreme by inability to conceive and the social structure, which she ironically contributed to herself. However Serena is still unforgivable for she has her own revenge too, deliberately with-holding from Offred the news of her lost daughter and a photograph of her which Offred has been longing for. Serena is beside the commander when Offred leaves the house, her farewell to Offred holds none of the pieties of Gilead, ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ p.299. Serena Joy demonstrates the very ineffectiveness of falsity of Gilead society and the criticism of her from a feminist perspective is criticism of anti-feminists and also of the perfection, which is a symbol of a decaying and flawed society.

Moira is the only female character within the narrative that is portrayed positively and with admiration by the narrator as she constantly resurfaces in the narrative. She is the embodiment of resistance and rebellion, identified by her own first name because she never became a handmaid. From Offred’s point of view she embodies female heroism, although from the point of view of Gilead she is criminal. Although brought to the Red Centre, she manages to escape on her second attempt, disguised as an Aunt, which was not only comical but is symbolic of her refusal to conform to the Gilead class basis. She therefore becomes what all other Handmaids would like to be but don’t dare and Offred envies her courageous resistance, ‘Moira was our fantasy… We hugged her to us, she was us in secret, a giggle; she was the lava beneath the crust of daily life’ p.143. However when Offred last meets Moira at the Jezebels, she finds that she did not manage to escape to freedom but was instead caught at the border and sent to the brothel where she says she will have three or four good years before being sent out to the colonies. In this final meeting it appears that Moira’s spirit has been broken by Gilead, yet she still declares herself to be a lesbian and her values as a feminist and as a heroine lie in her speaking out and challenging tyranny and oppression.

In conclusion, although written from a feminist perspective The Handmaid’s Tale allows for closer analysis of characters to understand the complexities of an oppressed society. It does not simply deal with the oppression of women; Gilead outlaws choice, emotion and free will. Pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are all outlawed but so is love. It is not merely oppression of women, but oppression of human rights. Atwood is highlighting that we see gender roles too plainly, that this is both true of men and women.

 Sophie Peters

The Problem with Young Adult Fiction

Trigger Warning: Date rape

The prominence of Young Adult fiction over the last decade or so has seen a wide range of interesting and challenging topics covered in novels marketed towards the teenage reader. But alongside this there has been a sadly popular trend of the “damsel in distress”: female characters who do just fine until they meet a handsome boy who comes riding in on his white horse and renders them useless to any kind of plot that isn’t romantic.

I will make one mention of Stephanie Meyer and it shall be brief – after all, Twilight is the most high-profile offender. Its protagonist idealises her relationship with a vampire who insists on controlling every aspect of her life. And she is okay with this. And he, being a super-vampire, goes off to save the world while she sits and hopes nobody kills her. Just like he told her to.

Unfortunately, this seems to have kicked off a trend for great female protagonists who become damsels in distress as soon as the male protagonist announces himself. I’m an avid library user and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve put down a book, sometimes before opening the cover, because of the damsel storyline.

Two subsequent bestsellers to Twilight come in the form of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read and reviewed the first Hunger Games last month on my own blog, and I like how Katniss seems more than capable of looking after herself, and how the author dealt with her relationship with Peeta. But without having read the sequels, I can’t yet decree it a resounding anti-damsel success. Better is Divergent, where Tris doesn’t bow to the will of her love interest – in fact, she seems to make a habit of doing the complete opposite.

One book I did pick up from the library was Night School by CJ Daugherty. It’s your run-of-the-mill ‘mystical boarding school with secret stuff happening’ plot. But there is one scene where the female protagonist is with the (first) oh-so-swoony love interest and he tries to date-rape her. Luckily he gets stopped by a fellow pupil, but to quote a Goodreads review:

“Bloody hell. I can’t believe I have to say this: would-be date-rapists are NOT LOVE INTERESTS. No, okay. Just no. A guy who, by his own admission, encourages a girl to keep downing alcohol, then takes her outside and engages in pushing her into a situation she’s clearly not into, and only stops when he’s interrupted, is not a love interest. Hear that? I have NO SWOONS to give. NO EFFING SWOONS.”

The redeeming feature, if it is indeed redeeming, is that the female protagonist calls the character out on it and he apologises. His behaviour is not romanticised in any way. But the demand for a love triangle – from publishers, editors, maybe even the writer herself – means that this character will inevitably be seen as a love interest for the subsequent books in the series.

(Spoiler alert: she forgives him. Way to ruin what could have actually been a decent discussion in a book about how Edward Cullen-like behaviour is NOT OKAY.)

There are books out there without boy-dependant heroines, but the more young girls are fed novels that tell them just to wait for a man to come and sweep them off their feet, the more they are told that controlling, and abusive, behaviour is okay. And that’s not a message we should be sending to young people. And so I’m still waiting for a damsel-free bestseller. I just hope I won’t have to wait very long.

Katherine Wilson

Body Negativity

Trigger warning: Eating disorders, body image, body-shaming

Let’s talk about Body Negativity.

I’ve read countless blogs about body positivity. Blogs that tackle the issue from every possible angle. I’ve read about so many people, so happy, not giving a fuck how they look. I’d love to feel that way. I’d LOVE to be able to call myself body-positive.

But I went to a single-sex girls’ school. I also had at least three times the number of maternal figures during adolescence than most people have (my mother, my father’s girlfriend, my nanny). I have a very beautiful younger sister. I’ve internalised a lot of toxic shit in my time.

I’m not trying to be body negative. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t find the kind of confidence I read about on body positivity blogs easy to practice. I don’t think many people do. I feel shamed whenever I read these blogs. I end up checking my most basic thought processes on a daily basis and feeling furious at myself.

There are two schools of thought in the body positive movement. The first is that “all bodies are beautiful”. It holds that beauty is subjective and that every single body – fat, thin, black or white, disabled or able-bodied – is beautiful to someone, and that that someone should be you.

It holds that the best way to make someone feel less insecure about how they look is to compliment them, and build their confidence. It’s quite an old concept, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all, but as easy as it is to understand, philosophically speaking, it’s difficult to embrace. We have grown up seeing one kind of body type represented in the media. It’s a hard message to deprogram. And we’re not idiots, because we know that most people don’t live in this slender world we’ve created for ourselves. A lot of us are ugly, in that the majority of people who see us will think we are.

It feels terrible, as a feminist, to say this, but we do ourselves no favours by pretending that’s not how the world sees us. In doing so, we deny a patriarchy that places the young, the white, the thin (often referred to as “fit”, though we all know the two do not necessarily go hand in hand) and the able-bodied head and shoulders above the rest of us. As Louise McCuddon says:

“There’s something very unhealthy about the narrative of ‘women are our harshest critics.’ I’m not mine. And it’s insulting to be told, however kindly, that the problem is in my own head. You can’t tell a person who simply is being told that they’re ugly in the eyes of heaps and heaps of people – whether its TV shows, comedians, their classmates, ‘lads’ and their nonsense banter – that they’re just, bless them, incapable of interpreting other people’s actions .”

McCuddon’s quote brings us to the other school of body positivity – the “what you look like doesn’t matter” school. This contends that, when you get down to it, it doesn’t matter if you love your body or not. There are fifty thousand other things about you – your intelligence, your compassion, your bravery, your integrity, or whatever else you have going for you – and really, the best thing you can do is to stop worrying about how you look. It tells us that we need to stop talking about our bodies all the time, that instead of talking to little girls about how they look we should talk to them about how they think, and that we should cut out “fat talk” altogether. We should stop greeting each other with “wow, have you lost weight?” because the compliment itself is transient, whereas the message that “the first thing I have noticed about you is your appearance” stays much longer.

But, again, maintaining this level of confidence is difficult when the vast majority of the world isn’t behind you. I’ve been trying, but unless I completely avoid people, at some point someone is going to talk to me about my appearance – from a compliment from a till assistant in the supermarket or a stranger on an escalator, to a long conversation with a work colleague about how fat she feels. As a woman, it is impossible to avoid this, and if you’ve stopped bothering to see yourself as “beautiful”, these moments can start to hit you even harder.

We do ourselves no favours by talking about this as if it is a straightforward decision each of us can make. The world is not body positive. If you are a woman, you exist in a society that literally hates your physical presence. It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re not right. The women in the media who we are told are beautiful have been photoshopped and airbrushed into impossible forms. If you need more convincing of this fact, I learned last week that 98% of women develop cellulite, about the same percentage that develop breasts. Yet when did you last see a woman with cellulite in the media, except in the celebrity shame columns in women’s magazines? This is a natural reaction between fat cells and oestrogen, and yet for some reason, as a society we’ve decided it’s disgusting. That having both oestrogen and fat cells in the body – without which the vast majority of people would not survive – makes us ugly, that the result shouldn’t exist. That 98% of women need to be “cured.”

So we can talk about how ludicrous and arbitrary it all is, but we cannot overlook how serious it is, how difficult it makes women’s lives. Women engage in habitual body monitoring, we think about the position of our legs, our hair, the light, who is looking at us and who is not looking at us. That is a massive amount of wasted cognitive function. Around 3.5% of women suffer from Anorexia or Bulimia, and 18-20% of anorexics die within 20 years of developing the condition. Last week the Vagenda retweeted a large number of pictures of men’s “thigh gaps”. The men found it funny, they’d never thought about this aspect of their bodies before. I expect the vast majority of women think about the size of their thighs on a daily basis. The tag “thigh gap” on tumblr brings up a message that says “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.” To most men, a “thigh gap” is just a natural feature of their body with no reflection on their worth as a human. Meanwhile, some women think it is worth more than their life.

Self-love is not easy. It requires constant affirmation and can crumble any second. So I understand why we don’t want to talk about body-negativity. But we have to. Because we can only stop ourselves internalising the thousands of messages and negative feelings we experience every day if we acknowledge and critically examine them, rather than burying them out of sight.

Hattie Grunewald