Our Week Summary 25/10/12

Here at the blog we like to roundup the best posts made on our discussion board every week because sometimes it they get buried under piles of even more great debate.

With a week to go, Tilly Wood linked to a Facebook campaign against ignorant and racist Halloween costumes made by the same people who did a similar campaign last year called We’re a culture, not a costume. The omission of ‘Native Americans, which is by far the most common costume.’ in this year’s campaign was pointed out by Zoe Ashley Meeken. And in the comments there was a great conversation about racism and class-ism, where Annie Mary-Kate Kelly made some clear, informative points about the differences between xenophobia towards white people and racism.

As this week’s discussion topic is chivalry and sexual harassment, member Sam Clark helpfully posted something he’s created – a .pdf file advising survivors of sexual harassment/assault of where they can go to report their experiences, both within UEA and other resources within Norwich. One such resource, is Norwich Against Street Harassment (NASH) who describe themselves as “a safe space for the people of Norwich, or even further afield, to discuss and report the harassment they face on the streets, support each other and investigate ways to deal with it.”

And finally Tessa Gilder Smith, the student union’s women’s officer linked to this informative GOP rape advisory chart. We already knew their awful views on rape, but here is a collection of especially sickening quotes if anybody was in doubt that feminism was still needed. It’s colorful and depressing in equal measure.

Oliver Balaam & Tilly Wood


Why Every Feminist should be mourning Sybil Branson

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone  etc etc. On Sunday night, the unthinkable happened. Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey, the most gloriously silly period drama ever to grace our screens) mercilessly took the life of its most feminist character, Sybil Branson, nee Crawley.

The cry as Sybil took her final breath and left her husband and newborn child to go on without her was heard across the country. Twitter exploded. Three days later, many are still in mourning. “I’m still in a right state over #Sybil” Victoria Finan, UEAFS member, tweeted – “had another little cry earlier.”

For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about, I suggest you watch Downton Abbey. It seems unlikely that a Period Drama, which must by its very nature hark back to the glory days of a ruling class of white men, could possibly be in any way feminist. And yet the female characters of this show kick the arse of every male in it. While the men are chasing their own coat-tails, tying themselves up in knots of “honour” and “duty”, the women are pursuing their own lovers, securing their own dowries and fighting for their own suffrage. The women deliver all the wittiest lines and pull the mens’ socks up before the whole estate crumbles into the ground.

And Sybil was at the forefront of these battles. Sybil, who got her dressmaker to stitch her a pair of trousers without her family’s permission, who was knocked unconscious at a socialist rally, who trained to be a nurse during World War One and who gave up her fortune to marry the chauffeur… Sybil was an unmissable critique of the patriarchal period, the one constantly reminding viewers that there was more for young ladies to be concerned with at the turn of the century than just who they should marry. Her marriage to the Irish socialist revolutionary Branson was a clear sign that women’s liberation was tied with that of the working class – Branson wants to burn Downton Abbey to the ground, while all his in laws are battling to save it.

The plots of the show were becoming increasingly ridiculous, but Downton Abbey never lost its humanity, an aspect of the show that always overtook without eclipsing its politics. Branson wants to see an end of the nobility, but at the same time he knows his in-laws are people too and wouldn’t want to see them hurt. For Fellowes, the personal is the political, and every character-driven storyline could make you laugh and weep.

And yet for all its insanity, I never thought it would come to this. Perhaps I should withhold my judgement and wait to see how the series plays out, but I have to say it – Julian Fellowes has shown his true Tory colours and fridged my Sybil. For those of you who don’t know about the “Women in Refridgerators” trope, it is where a main, well-developed female character is killed off for the sake of the character development of her male counterparts. (Here is a great Feminist Frequency vid to explain further) Death by childbirth is a crafty way of doing this – leaving her husband with a newborn baby and her father with a shedfull of guilt at not trusting the doctor is a great way to develop their characters. And though many women do die in Childbirth, particularly in 1920, it doesn’t stop this death being no more than a random and brutal plot device.

We can only hope that Lady Edith, a developing political writer and probable spinster, will be able to fill her younger sister’s feminist shoes. Until this happens, I will be mourning Sybil Branson, our fallen sister. Dying at the age of twenty-four when only women over twenty-five were awarded suffrage, she never even got a chance to vote.

Hattie Grunewald
UEAFS President

Our Week Summary 11/10/12

Here at the blog we like to roundup the best posts made on our discussion board every week because sometimes it they get buried under piles of even more great debate.

There was a lot of discussion this week regarding the unfortunate tradition of sexism in freshers’ party culture, society inductions and general lad culture. Hattie Samuel linked to an article on the Independent that eloquently discusses the “horrific normalisation of sexist attitudes and sexual pressure during the week’s festivities.” Callum Hughes linked to a similar article in the Guardian that pointed out the institutionalised sexism inherent in event such as: “Slag’n’Drag”. “Geeks and Sluts”. “CEOs and Corporate Hoes”. They’re both great and relevant reads.

Duncan Smith linked to a video in which the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard calls out opposition leader Tony Abbott for his history of unapologetic  misogyny. Gillard is Australia’s first female prime minister, she’s unmarried, has no children and is an atheist. While her term hasn’t been without questionable and illiberal decisions (see the terrifyingly xenophobic ‘Pacific Solution’ that sees asylum seekers transferred to offshore ‘processing centres’ where they can be held indefinitely), she’s completely right on this front and it’s nice to see her calling out misogynistic bullshit when she sees it.

Last but not least Hannah Dunlop, Charlie Goodkind and others shared the ongoing story of an amazing young Pakistani woman, 14 year old Malala Yousafzai. Malala campaigns for and writes about women rights and education in Pakistan but was tragically shot by Taliban militants this week. Incredibly she survived the attack and as she recovers people, schools and organisations throughout Pakistan and the world have shown signs of support and solidarity. Novelist Nadeem Aslam once remarked that: “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.” Malala is an incredible woman and deserves all of the praise and support she has received.

Thanks for everyone’s contributions this week, see you next week for another discussion group roundup.

Oliver Balaam

Why I listen to Taylor Swift but probably shouldn’t

Nowadays, it’s difficult to avoid the sensation that is 22 year old Taylor Swift. Country singer and songwriter, Taylor’s popularity has grown exponentially ever since her debut album in 2006. In 2007, when I first heard her music, I was a typical 15 year old girl and had not yet discovered feminism. I liked Taylor’s songs because I was a teenage girl who was interested in teenage boys but felt awkward and unattractive. She successfully expressed what I was feeling so that I didn’t have to. However,  since then I’ve grown older and more critically aware. I still guiltily listen to Taylor Swift but I recognise that a great number of her songs and the ideas behind them are actually quite problematic.

Firstly, by almost exclusively writing songs about boys and relationships, Taylor Swift feeds into the patriarchy. She reinforces the idea that “normal” teenage girls should be preoccupied with boys and that their happiness is dependent on whether or not they’re in a relationship (I’m Only Me When I’m With You). Taylor also perpetuates the image of a “perfect relationship”, an idea that doesn’t exist as it does in her songs.

Furthermore, in promoting the image of a perfect relationship she critiques what she sees as imperfect relationships and this often leads to slut shaming. In arguably her most famous song You Belong With Me she sings about how she wants to date a boy who is already in a relationship with a popular girl. The music video, which won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video, features Taylor Swift playing the role of herself, but also the antagonist. The video perfectly embodies the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which women are either portrayed as perfect and virtuous Madonna figures who should be idolised or, if they have any sexual desire, a worthless whore with no morality. In Taylor’s video, she as “herself” is the Madonna. She dances, she reads and she shows up to prom looking like an angel. On the other hand, the mean, popular girl is Taylor in a brunette wig. She pulls faces, flirts with all the boys and turns up at prom with a revealing dress. Although this argument is complicated by the fact that Taylor Swift assumes both roles, she is still dividing her identity into these two tropes and her promiscuity is still associated with the popular girl (whore) who ends up being rejected.

A side by side comparison of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy presented in ‘You Belong With Me’.

About her first album Taylor said, “although “it sounds like I’ve had 500 boyfriends, a lot of the songs are observational” but as she has gotten older and into more serious relationships which has been extensively reported by the tabloid media, the songs on her recent albums can often clearly be paired with well known celebrities. By writing about her life experiences in great detail, she is divulging personal information and harmful rumours about real, identifiable people – most notably seen in Better Than Revenge which contains the lyric: “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”.

The song Fifteen is also problematic. It preaches abstinence in the form of Taylor’s anecdotal high school best friend Abigail. In the song Abigail is portrayed as a naive girl who sleeps with her high school boyfriend because they love each other, but actually he ends up breaking her heart. However, what’s sexist about the song is that Abigail is portrayed as stupid for believing her boyfriend when he says “I love you”. The song includes the lyric “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy” when referring to her virginity, basically equating a woman’s worth with her sexual purity. With abstinence only sexual education receiving $55 million dollars of federal funding in the US this year alone, Taylor is feeding into an already dangerous myth that leaves young people unprepared and uneducated sexually.

Taylor Swift’s attitudes have arguably improved over the years and she shows willingness to admit past wrongdoings. She recently revised the song Picture to Burn on her first album which contained the homophobic lyrics “so go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/ that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay”. Lyrics which have rightly been critiqued because they casually compare homosexuality to mental illness and also perpetuate the idea that there is something wrong with being gay. After the critique, Taylor changed the lyrics of the song to “so go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/ that’s fine you won’t mind if I say/ by the way…” which then leads into the chorus.

Although it can be difficult to reconcile enjoying songs as problematic as Taylor Swift’s, I believe that in a patriarchal world, sexist media is impossible to avoid and we should be able to enjoy it as long as we stay aware of the misogyny it contains and are open to its critiques. Which is why, although listening to Taylor Swift has become a bit of a guilty pleasure, I won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Tilly Wood

The Misogynists take Manhattan? Steven Moffat’s Dr Who.

I will quite happily call Steven Moffat one of the most talented writers working currently in British television. I will also quite merrily declare that he has issues, either inherent in his subconscious or assaulting him on a daily basis in his dreams.

Let us be serious for a moment. I’m not going to claim that Steven Moffat has a secret agenda of writing deliberately ill-formed, ill-considered characters that are, more often than not, women. He’s clearly an intelligent and educated man- it is simply that his tenure over Doctor Who is flecked with the enraged spittle of thousands of fans, both confused at the lack of coherent plotting and believable character, and concerned that female figures in the show seem to have undergone an apparently accidental but alarming transformation. This level of concern and discussion has clearly sprouted from somewhere, but to what extent is the criticism justified? Let us start with the most obvious candidate.

Amelia Pond. The Scottish girl in an English village, with no parents, meets a time traveller in the middle of the night. He vanishes, and returns twelve years later. In the meantime, Amelia has become Amy, been a guide to her errant, yet-to-be-born child Melody and fallen in love with the good ol’ useless Rory. Oh, and bit four therapists and become a kissogram, as you do in rural 21st century Gloucestershire.

The Doctor and Amy save the world. He leaves, but returns two years later, on Amy’s wedding night. She agrees to run away with him. Obviously. They have adventures. Amy tries to proposition him for no-strings-attached sex. The Doctor, alarmed, picks up Rory, because, you know, Amy’s sexuality is dangerously out of control or something. Rory dies. Rory becomes a Roman. The universe blows up. Amy gets parents then totally forgets about them. Amy and Rory marry, and then leave with the Doctor because running off into time and space is something you do once you’ve got everything you ever wanted and missed.

(And that’s only Series Five. We haven’t even mentioned her cloning, giving birth whilst imprisoned and living 37 years alone in isolation)

Of course, Amelia Pond is like this because, by Moffat’s repeated assertion, women are three things: sexy, maternal and mental.

Whether it be time-bending ‘Mother Christmas’ Madge Arwell in The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe or the repeated appearances of gun-toting cleavage display team River Song (played by a drunk Alex Kingston, seemingly), the women of the Steven Moffat era are repeated characterised as sexually promiscuous, heroic breeders or simply psychopaths. Sure, they can be in positions of power, witty and even driven, but this is generally balanced by thoroughly impractical or revealing outfits (see Liz X in The Beast Below or Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks) and an eventual capitulation to the threat of the story.

The only woman that is ever seen to truly ‘win’ is Amy Pond, but only by throwing bullets about willy-nilly (The Wedding of River Song) or sacrificing her life twice for marriage, the ultimate holy grail of being human, seemingly (The Angels Take Manhattan). There are no true triumphs of intelligence, wit or individuality- both Amy and River’s ‘strengths’ derive from sass, technology, verbal dexterity (mostly flirting) and recreational violence.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with being married, a good mother, or even a confident, sexy woman (I understand they’re very popular in some circles). However, when the field of representation is so narrow, modern audiences can quickly become disenchanted and lose belief in the emotional integrity of characters that provide so little variety. The fervent online criticism of Moffat’s approach says much about previous show runner Russell T Davies’ massively diversifying impact on fandom demographics. Once an audience typically dominated by fathers and sons, so-called New Who drew in fan audiences that would never have considered the show before its transformation- namely, the female 16-24 demographic. Thus, it would seem that Russell T Davies not only understood the construction of character more effectively, but the composition of modern audiences for sci-fi drama.

It is a truly sad state of affairs that from recent seasons only UNIT’s new leader Kate Stewart from Chris Chibnall’s The Power of Three seems to be alone in flying the flag for independent, progressive female characters. Whilst she was a step in the right direction, the debut of Jenna Louise Coleman as Oswin/Clara didn’t fill fan communities with confidence for the future. Despite a competent performance, unnecessary flirting, a whimsical reference to bisexuality and a costume with a ‘utility belt’ that didn’t seem particularly utilitarian, hinted at a very similar future.

Even the Doctor himself, in Moffat’s tour-de-force of stupidity Lets Kill Hitler, inverts his entire character to acutely surmise both the unconscious attitude of the show, and its head writer’s riposte to such criticism.

Of River, he says:

“Well she’s been brainwashed. It all makes sense to her. Plus, she’s a woman. Oh shut up!

Matt Tidby

Our Week Summary 03/10/12

Here at the blog we like to roundup the best posts made on our discussion board every week because sometimes they get buried under piles of even more great debate.

As we’ve got a metric butt load of new members this month it feels appropriate to start with Emily Crocker’s contribution. She linked to a video entitled ‘What Do Feminists Have Left?‘, which accessibly and amusingly points out why feminism is still relevant as well as introducing some widely used feminist theories such as the Bechdel test.

The theme of this week’s meetings is ‘women in sport’ so in the run up we encouraged you to post about just that. Tilly Wood linked to bitch media’s rundown of sexist Olympic advertising which features QR codes on female volleyball bottoms, ESPN encouraging female athletes to pose naked and P&G selling detergent by reinforcing the link between mothers and domestic social roles.

On the other side of the Atlantic Robyn McBurney snapped a spectacularly ignorant Arizona bumper sticker that manages to be homophobic and misogynistic in equal measure. Tessa Gilder-Smith observed that ‘people who display political opinions on bumper stickers are the worst kind of people’, and she’s spot on. Fuck that dude.

Closing out on a more positive note, Tessa also linked to ‘We Can Stop It’, a Scottish campaign that places blame for rape firmly on the rapist. It aims to erase misconceptions about what rape and consent are and is a breath of fresh air when compared to other victim blaming anti-rape campaigns like the posters below.

Thanks for everyone’s contributions this week, see you next Wednesday for another discussion group roundup.





Ollie Balaam

Review: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

“There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality – and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls ‘going wild’ aren’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity – the idea that such a thing even exists – is ensuring that young women’s perceptions of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.’

Jessica Valenti is touted as one of the great feminists of our generation, being named among the Guardian’s Top 100 women for her efforts in bringing feminism to the mainstream media through her popular blog, Feministing.com. Her book The Purity Myth was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim and has even been made into a film.

In The Purity Myth, Valenti explores the concept of virginity and how various conservative organisations have manipulated the idea of sexual purity to pin women’s morality to their sexuality.  It is arguably somewhat limited in its view; the concept of female purity is an issue the world over but Valenti focuses solely on its impact in the United States. Nonetheless, she provides a solid argument, supported by well-chosen statistics and quotations from both pro-abstinence movements, to highlight the flaws in their methods, and well-known feminists, including bell hooks.

The book is broken up into clearly defined sections that flow well from one to the next. Valenti dissects the concept of virginity itself, of which there is no conclusive medical definition, to the various facets through which the myth of sexual purity is fed to young women. Particular attention is devoted to discussion of abstinence-only sex education, which received over $178 million in federal funding at the time of The Purity Myth’s publication, despite providing young people with dangerous and incorrect information about contraception and sexual health.

Her writing style is fast-paced, interspersed with witty footnotes. It does make it a light, easy read, coming in at just under 200 pages. At times, however, it feels like Valenti is just skimming the surface of the issues discussed. There is still much more that could be said, particularly regarding the treatment of women of colour and women from low-income households by the purity movement. Valenti mentions these cases but in brief detail. Some may enjoy her snarky tone, finding it makes the book more accessible, but it can often feel too blasé and almost patronising, given the seriousness of the subject matter.

At times it may feel that Valenti is preaching to the choir. Her target audience, those already familiar with feminist rhetoric and the concept of female sexual purity and its treatment, may not find a great deal of brand new information in this book. However it is a well-structured argument and a good resource to refer to when looking for facts and figures on abstinence movements and purity in general. The Purity Myth is definitely worth a read although it may not prove to be the groundbreaking seminal text on the treatment of purity that it stakes claim as.

Rachel Knott