Notes on Feminist Activism & the Repealed Eighth

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For as long as there  have been feminist activists, there have been ‘experts’ telling them ‘you’re doing it wrong’, until we’re proved right.

The personal is still political.

Neoliberal individualism may be shiny and seductive but collective action remains the only path to collective change.

​With time, openness and dialogue, once supposedly radical positions, like believing in a woman’s right to choose, ​can become the norm.

The struggle for reproductive choice is local and global. This is a great moment for women’s rights in Ireland but also for the rights of women and girls around the world. 

The Eighth was ushered in partly because of what Catholic hardliners considered to be the threat of Roe v Wade.  It is bittersweet and sobering that abortion laws in the US are being rolled back just as Ireland’s are being liberalised.

Our fight continues.

#Repealedthe8th

On Weaponised Silence: brief notes

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Yesterday, I, like so many others, tweeted a link to Rosita Boland’s remarkable interview with Ann Lovett’s former boyfriend Ricky McDonnell. I wrote: The Catholic Church’s weaponising of silence has devastated so many lives across this country. Anyone who doubts they are an empire of misogyny, as Mary McAleese so aptly put it, needs to read this.

I want to say a few words about what a weaponised silence is, and how it works. Silence can confer absence, a lack, a kind of emptiness. However, we can also understand silence as productive; sometimes by not saying something, we in fact say it all. It is silence which gives stigma its deadly weight; it is silence that erases and contains uncomfortable histories. In silence, we find complicity; silence is the bedfellow of the blind eye and the squinting window.

Over the twentieth century, silence was both part-cause and repository for the horrors inflicted by the Church, State and communities of Ireland against their most vulnerable. The suffering of girls like Ann Lovett was met with silence, denied by silence. This was not a silence of peace or reflection or healing. This was a silence cultivated to intimidate, indoctrinate, and for the worst offenders, devastate. It was weaponised, and would have remained so were it not for the bravery of victims who refused to be subsumed by its weight.

In a country so scarred by silence, conversations and truth-telling are a spoken revolution, forming the thousand tiny cracks that eventually fracture the whole. Enforced silence is a way to keep people from each other, to lock them into their individual suffering, sure in their shame that no one else could possibly understand. Incredible things happen when people refuse to be imprisoned this way. They are happening right now, a glorious, cathartic rabble of pain and hope and grief, shredding old ligatures, flooding our collective consciousness, bringing, at last, the light.

#Together4Yes

#Repealthe8th

Saying ‘Yes’ to Repeal in Rural Ireland

Women pushing buggies, glam young gals, a man walking his dog, lads heading into the pub to watch the rugby, an elderly gent in a peaked cap who said resolutely, ‘it should be left up to women.’

The people who stopped at the Galway East for Choice stall in Athenry on a blustery Saturday afternoon came from all walks of life – a terrible cliché but it is true. Galway East is regarded as a conservative constituency. As a consequence, the three of us running the stall were unsure what to expect. What we had not anticipated, what I will never forget in the months ahead, were the moments when a lump burned my throat.

A middle-aged man, his face heavy with emotion, approached us. ‘I believe in this,’ he said, proffering a donation, ‘I believe in ye.’

‘It’s your body, like,’ a woman with a scatter of children said, incredulous, as if it should be obvious. She went on: ‘Have you seen In Her Shoes?* Those stories would break your heart.’

Throughout the afternoon we sold t-shirts, badges and stickers. We had chats, answered questions, listened, gave out sweets. Our unease was replaced by something like elation.

Rural communities are often unfairly characterized as inward-looking, parochial, with windows that are ever-squinting. I know because I come from one, live in one. But Ireland has changed in the last ten years. The transformation is far from complete, but it is enough to get many people thinking in ways they have never been encouraged to before. They want to talk. They have questions – and stories. So many feelings, too. It is the work of the Citizens’ Assembly all over again except now it is in the streets.

If you are reading this in a rural community thinking, ‘but if I say I’m voting ‘yes’, what will people think?’ I hear you. God, do I hear you. ‘What will people think?’ has hung like a spectre over swathes of the Irish population for generations, with horrendous outcomes for women. Back when most people had very little, respectability, as determined by Catholicism, was precious; the one thing you could lord over the neighbours. But a new type of respectability is emerging in Ireland. ‘Enough judgement,’ said one woman at the stall, encapsulating it perfectly.

Sometimes, depending on the circles that you move in, the stifling effects of Catholicism and comely maidens can seem like ancient history. For many people however, they remain all too real. It isn’t surprising. While that era may feel long past, in reality the last Magdalene Laundry only closed in 1996 and as the Irish Examiner recently revealed, babies in Mother and Child ‘homes’ were still being buried in unmarked graves as late as 1990.

Even today in most of our schools, Catholicism is presented as an element; as evident and inevitable as fire or water, rather than the ideology that it is. Its power, while diluted, is still a repressive force in many people’s lives.  Voting ‘yes’ in May will be another step on the road to building a real republic where church and state are truly separate to the benefit of all citizens.

The emergence of regional groups over the past few years, all working together for a ‘yes’ vote, has been inspiring – and vital. They are helping people find their voices. I see their bravery, their willingness to make themselves visible, doing the work that many politicians avoid. If you can can support them, please do. If you feel unsure, remember the words of Emily Dickinson, ‘If your Nerve, deny you/ Go above your Nerve’.  The stakes are too high not to.

Above all, know that the fleeting discomfort of dealing with closed-minds and hard hearts, even face-to-face, pales in comparison to what Irish women have endured, and continue to endure. Standing at that stall, having those chats, waiting for the hassle that never materialised, I realised rural Ireland is ready to vote ‘yes’.  To make sure it happens, it is time for us to go to work. 

To find get involved with a group in your locality and to learn more about voting ‘yes’, click here.

*The creator of the In Her Shoes social media campaign is a member of Galway East for Choice – we are very proud of her.

Image: first edition cover of Edna O’Brien’s debut novel The Country Girls, banned in Ireland in 1960 for its depiction of sexuality.  

 

 

Talking About a Revolution

Years ago while working as a presenter in regional radio, I received an email from a teenage girl who wanted my advice. She had been on work experience with a radio station in another part of the country. While there, she expressed her desire to become a presenter only to be told something to the effect ‘don’t bother; sure everyone knows women aren’t good on air.’

Naturally, she was taken aback, as was I, both by the directness of the comment and its sheer nastiness.

‘Bullshit,’ I wrote, telling her if she wanted to be a presenter, then that is what she should put her energy and skills into, sexist naysayers be damned.

As research repeatedly highlights, women face an enduring battle for representation across so many sectors, to the point where doors that won’t open now deserve to be kicked down. The fundamentals of radio – knowledge, storytelling, creativity – are things no gender has a monopoly on. If the arts are about expressing and exploring what it is to be human, we are all under-served when the voices in our ears and the faces on our stages and screens do not reflect the incredible plurality of human experience.

While mainstream radio may be lagging behind when it comes to the female voice, the podcast format certainly isn’t. From Sarah Koenig hosting and co-producing the game-changing Serial to Lia Haddock, the fictional star of the bone-chilling sci-fi drama Limetown to Karen Kilgarff and Georgia Hardstark of the darkly hilarious My Favorite Murder, women are front and centre of the podcast phenomenon. Here’s to the day traditional radio catches up. In the meantime, below are some of my current favourite female-led podcasts.I would love to hear yours.

Literary Friction

Do you like reading? And writing? Warm, intelligent chats about the same? Blessed be – this is the podcast for you. Much like a book you pick up and can’t put down, discovering these gems I wanted to listen to them all in one gallop. Highlights include Sarah Perry discussing the theme ‘imposters’, Reni Eddo-Lodge on her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and vile bodies (the best kind of bodies, IMO) with Sarah Pascoe. Hosted by Carrie and Octavia.

 
Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?

The podcast format is great for many reasons. Chief among them is the way the it allows journalists the space and time to ‘go deep’ with investigations, pursuing stories that might otherwise remain out of sight. Alberta Williams was 24-years-old when her body was found along Canada’s Highway of Tears in 1989. The Highway gets its name from the many murders and disappearances which occurred along it, across decades, mostly involving Indigenous women like Alberta. In her quest to find out what happened to Alberta and bring her killer to justice, journalist Connie Walker explores the plight of Indigenous people in Canada, made all the more impactful by Walker’s own experiences as Indigenous woman. Who Killed Alberta Williams? politicizes the true crime drama, showing how legacies of abuse, poverty, exclusion and State-sanctioned violence impact communities and women. A must-listen.

 
Public Intellectual

Self-described ‘radical firebrand’ and she of Book Slut fame Jessa Crispin launched this sparkly new podcast in July. Crispin is entirely her own woman whose opinions are always worth reflecting on even if you don’t necessarily agree. Recent highlights include chats about feminist bogeymen (namely, second wave radical feminists who have been unfairly maligned by the contemporary movement) and the delightfully titled Heterosexuality is a Fucking Nightmare.

 

Strong Opinions Loosely Held (#SOLH)

Full disclosure: #SOLH featured my research last year, which I was thrilled about because I love what they do. The second series started a few months ago and if you haven’t already, I strongly recommend listening from the beginning. Presenter Elisa Kreisinger isn’t afraid to ask hard, complex questions about pop culture and the female experience, the results of which are always interesting. Recent highlights include a wild tale about race and family secrets, and a look at how property ownership drives but also destroys the American dream.

 

My Favorite Murder

I’m going to cut to the chase here: if you think sitting around cracking jokes and spinning yarns about murder is morbid and in awful taste, then My Favorite Murder is not for you. If, however, that sounds like something right up your dark and twisted street, come in and meet Karen Kilgarff and Georgia Hardstark, your new BFF. This podcast has inspired a cult-like following since its inception (hi, Murderinos) and although it is not without its (necessary) critics, it is a worthy contender for your next problematic fav.

 

Honorary mentions: do any podcast enthusiasts not listen to Karina Longworth’s painstakingly researched and produced You Must Remember This? If you don’t, get on it. I recommend starting with her exploration of the Manson Murders but there is wealth of material to choose from. Longworth’s look at the lives of Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda just finished up and would be another excellent place to start.

Lastly, although it is strictly speaking a radio classic in podcast form, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs online archive is a bonanza of good stuff. I could listen to host Kirsty Young interview people all day long – that Scottish burr, those well-observed questions – but to start, her recent chat with Sheryl Sandberg was a masterclass. Raw and emotional, Sandberg spoke at length about the sudden death of her husband, Dave. Two women talking frankly about the highs and crushing lows of life. More of this sort of thing, please.

‘Eclipsed’: Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries & Living History

Last week in Geneva, UN Rapporteur on Torture, Felice Gaer, suggested that the Irish government, “seems to be walking back from the famous apology by Enda Kenny.” It is not hard to see why Rapporteur Gaer would make such an observation. Despite Enda’s tears for the Magdalenes and the recent Tuam babies scandal, along with the myriad revelations stretching back to the 1990s, securing justice for citizens harmed by Ireland’s carceral-obsessed past continues at a glacial pace.

The public horror rightfully expressed whenever these histories are brought into the light is not matched at a governmental level by an urgency to address them. The danger is, of course, that longstanding inaction or insufficient action will lead to a ‘re-forgetting’ or a ‘re-silencing’, as victim’s voices slowly die away, public attention drifts elsewhere and the dark architecture of ‘homes’ and institutions is quietly erased from the landscape.

This point was poignantly and powerfully highlighted at Galway Arts Festival yesterday. In NUIG’s new O’Donoghue Centre, the all-female cast (save for one) from Punchbag Theatre’s original 1992 production performed a rehearsed reading of ‘Eclipsed’ by Patricia Burke Brogan. Set in 1963, ‘Eclipsed’ tells the story of Cathy, Brigit, Mandy and Nellie-Nora, who are imprisoned in a ‘penitent’ Laundry in the fictional Killmacha. The woman find joy in each other but they crave freedom and to be reunited with their children. Burke Brogan was moved to write the play by her experiences as a young novitiate. Disgusted by the Church’s treatment of so-called ‘fallen women’, she did not complete her training, becoming a writer instead.

When ‘Eclipsed’ debuted in 1992, Ireland was in the grip of the X case, skirting the brink of a series of revelations that would diminish the moral authority of the Catholic Church. In the after-show discussion, the cast recalled what it was like to perform the play at a liminal moment of social and political awakening, back when some Laundries were still operational. They spoke movingly of the audience reaction; how people waited to speak to them afterwards, to confide and share. They remembered the Magdalene women they had spoken to and the toll that institutionalization had on them.

Twenty-five years on, the points and reminiscences from the floor yesterday showed that the history ‘Eclipsed’ captures is a living one. Thousands of Irish citizens continue to be impacted by these events, struggling to uncover the truth, to process their experiences, to secure substantive justice. This is a problem that goes beyond our borders, as Rapporteur Gaer underscored last week, when, given the size of our diaspora, she queried how well the Magdalene laundries redress scheme has been promoted outside of Ireland.

Over the course of the twentieth century, many men and women who fell foul of Catholic orthodoxy and the suffocating conformity demanded by much-of Irish society, left the country. As one audience member put it, “People emigrated for economic reasons but also out of fear and rage.” Then there is the issue of the thousands of illegal out-of-country adoptions which continued to take place even after the introduction of the 1952 Adoption Act, alongside the extreme coercion faced by generations of vulnerable mothers to give up their babies.

One man in the audience, recalling his boyhood, described watching the women from the Magdalene Laundry on Galway city’s Forster Street being marched to mass every Sunday by the nuns, the only time they ever appeared in public. It made his father irate, he said, the way those women were ostracized. For all the advancements in Irish society, there remains far too many instances when outrage is a natural response – but it cannot be the only response. From Direct Provision to homelessness to the 8th Amendment and more besides, Irish state and society continues to fail those most in need of its protection. This is due, at least in part, to the  legacy of a bleak past not fully confronted. Without facing our history we cannot contextualize our present, nor can we reckon with the future. Without accountability and redress, there can be no justice, no healing.  

Bravo to the cast and crew of ‘Eclipsed’, and Patricia Burke Brogan, for helping to ensure we don’t dare to forget.

Can Fairy Tales Ever Be Feminist?

Fairy tales exert a powerful cultural influence, particularly when it comes to reinforcing traditional gender roles. Disney’s new version of Beauty and the Beast has undergone a feminist revamp but can such stories ever escape their patriarchal baggage?

In the run-up to the release of Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast, the story’s feminist reworking has been a constant theme. To underscore the film’s progressive credentials, star Emma Watson went so far as to bring Gloria Steinem to view the final cut in London. Watson told Vanity Fair, “I couldn’t care less if I won an Oscar or not if the movie didn’t say something that I felt was important for people to hear… Belle is absolutely a Disney princess but she’s not a passive character – she’s in charge of her own destiny.”

Given the current climate, Beauty and the Beast’s blending of feminism and fairy tale is commercially astute. In the mainstream, feminism of a type is having a sustained cultural moment. Disney’s popular 1991 animation and its various spin-offs remain hugely profitable. All indications are that this version will perform with similar gusto. As the ‘Beauty’ of the title, Watson is an ideal fit for the much-loved heroine, Belle. Alongside her acting career, she is also one of the most high profile proponents of contemporary feminism. To a generation of young women, Watson is something of a princess herself, plucked from obscurity as a child by the dazzling juggernaut of the Harry Potter franchise.

In the press, much has been made of the ways this version of Beauty and the Beast differs from Disney’s 1991 telling. Belle now has an expanded back story, we’re told. She has a career as an inventor. Her corsets have been banished in favour of more freeing attire. Yet, the fundamentals of the fairy tale remain unchanged. Belle still sacrifices herself for her father, is imprisoned and marries her brutish captor. From a feminist perspective, this seems like less of a fairy tale and more of a nightmare.

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In 1974, Andrea Dworkin wrote, “We have taken the fairy tales of Woman Hating childhood with us into maturity, chewed but still lying in the stomach, as real identity.’’ She added, ‘‘Fairy tales are the primary information of the culture.” The tremendous power of fairy tales caused much debate among Second Wave feminists, a discussion which continues to the current day. Some, like Alison Lurie, found positives in fairy stories, pointing to the presence, albeit limited, of strong female characters and the potential for tales to be read subversively or given a feminist revision. Others, like Marcia Lieberman, were much less enthusiastic. They emphasized that while the folklore from which fairy tales derive might offer a multiplicity of women’s experiences, dominant versions did not. Feminist critics pointed to the cultural lessons imparted by Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White and so on. They argued that these ‘lessons’ endorse, under the guise of ‘romance’, deeply troubling notions of masculinity, femininity and the reproduction of heteronormative, patriarchal institutions like marriage.

While perspectives on the genre’s pros and cons differed, most feminists agreed on the power of fairy tales in shaping cultural mythology and as a tool of socialisation. In the 1980s, feminist fairy tale researchers sought to challenge the male-defined canon, revising existing narratives and uncovering the ignored voices of female storytellers and characters.  Authors like Angela Carter reworked fairy tales or devised new ones, re-establishing elided aspects of popular stories and granting female characters autonomy and sexual freedom.

Studies exploring the fairy tale’s allure to female audiences showed that although women generally enjoyed such tales, the gulf between romantic fantasy and reality was a source of unease. As Kay Stone remarked in her essay The Misuses of Enchantment, “many females find in fairy tales an echo of their own struggles to become human beings.” It is interesting to wonder how much the norms perpetuated by traditional fairy tales contributed to the kinds of struggles Stone observed.

The likelihood of a tale like Beauty and the Beast easily lending itself to feminist reworking is complicated by its very origins. The story comes from the Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche, a great beauty and mortal woman, endures terribly at the hands of her lover, the god Cupid and his vengeful mother, Venus. After much suffering, Psyche becomes immortal and is married to Cupid in a lavish ceremony, with all the gods in attendance. Her triumph is predicated on extreme self-sacrifice and steadfast allegiance to the very person who is the source of her woes. The romantic aspects of the story are twisted and few, taking a backseat to pain and tragedy.

In the 1991 Disney animation, ‘feisty’ Belle was taken to symbolise a break with traditional, more ‘passive’ Disney princesses. She rejects Gaston, the local heartthrob, who proposes marriage, preferring to spend her time alone, reading. This earns the scorn of her fellow villagers, who call her ‘odd’, as if a bookish girl is an aberration. But Belle is rebellious. She expresses a desire for adventure, making the Beast’s imprisonment of her to secure his own liberty all the crueler. He is violent, petulant and threatening, taking his frustration out on a bewildered Belle. Still, her love for him is depicted as inevitable. Although he saves her from a pack of wolves, it is his temper that sends Belle fleeing into the woods in the first place.  At every juncture, her fate is orchestrated by external forces and the needs of others. She can only choose within patriarchal structures, never outside them.

In many ways, the reworking or ‘repackaging’ of traditional fairy tales is an inevitable consequence of feminism’s infiltration of public consciousness since the Sixties. These stories may be considered childish but they are ever present in our language and awareness, from ‘fairy tale weddings’ to ‘ugly old crones’, from Ella Enchanted to Unreal’s ‘Everlasting. Unsurprisingly, feminists continue to challenge their dubious lessons on romantic love and feminine identity. But the degree to which repackaging renders stories like Beauty and the Beast feminist is, at best, debatable. This is further complicated by the current fad for a commodified, politically-defanged brand of feminism that is often sprinkled on the most questionable of subject matter.

In Disney’s new version of Beauty and the Beast, much has been made of the fact that Belle’s back story has been expanded. Now, she has a ‘career’, which happens to be that of an inventor, just like her father. She designs a washing machine, which leaves her more time to read. This is positive – education is important, books are fundamental; Belle is shown helping a young girl to read – but, in feminist terms, it doesn’t do much to challenge gender norms in her wider community. In a scene from the film, weary women doing washing by hand at the local well look on as she waltzes by. Belle’s interest in freedom it seems extends mostly to herself.

“When I finished the film, it kind of felt like I had made that transition into being a woman on-screen,” Watson told Vanity Fair. Her evoking the idea of ‘transition’ is interesting and revealing. Feminist scholars of the fairy tale argue that it is precisely the daunting transition from girlhood to womanhood that many of these tales seek to address. Specifically, they function to ensure the continuation of the patriarchal order. Young women’s curiosity about the world and sexual awakening are safely directed down a path towards maternity and matrimony, thereby reinforcing the status quo.

In Beauty and the Beast, this process plays out through the use of familiar fairy tale tropes. Marriage is presented as inevitable, the only path to feminine happiness and fulfilment. Belle is desired primarily for her youth and normative beauty, ‘assets’ which serve to foster hierarchies and exclusions amongst girls and women. Her prince, once revealed, sweeps her into a world of privilege and wealth, with no question as to where such things come from or at what cost or why one would desire them in the first place. Romantic love is presented as all-conquering; necessarily difficult but ultimately rewarding.

Despite the Beast’s imprisonment of her and his often woeful behaviour, Belle loves him.  She is not undone by his ugliness or his abusiveness.  At a moment when issues like coercive control and gaslighting in romantic relationships are finally getting the attention they deserve, this alignment in particular is striking and troubling. If an aim of feminism is challenging harmful patriarchal ideas about love, then how can a film that upholds them claim to be feminist? It is a difficult if not, perhaps, an impossible line to walk.

In a contemporary context, it could be argued that blending feminism with popular fairy tales is a way to make the movement more palatable, by showing that it is not incompatible with traditional notions of femininity. What this approach forgets is that feminist criticism is about interrogating the very origins of what we understand as ‘femininity’ so as to dismantle the roots of systemic sexism and discrimination. The longstanding role of the fairy tale in the reproduction of this system is unlikely be revolutionized by the liberal application of feminism-lite.

Beauty and the Beast’s use of feminism is savvy and it is understandable why Watson views the film as a vehicle for changing perceptions. To a degree, it might. Of course, if it were marketed as a straightforward fairy tale, it would leave itself less open to criticism but in this age, that would be missing a trick. The film offers a narrative that is somewhat improved and makes for good press but in it, feminism is largely used as little more than feel-good window dressing.

In sticking closely to the original story, Beauty and the Beast undercuts its attempts at progress by restoring the patriarchal order faster than you can say “and they all lived happily ever after.” In trying to meld feminism with the fairy tale, what this retelling of Belle and her Beast perhaps does best is reveal abiding tensions and contradictions. This factor will hopefully spark some necessary conversations and whet appetites for new, more radical popular narratives that take us beyond endless retellings of princesses, princes and lands far, far away.

Feminism is for Everbody: A Response to the Sunday Independent

‘Feminist politics aims to end domination, to free us to be who we are – to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody.’

bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics

The following is a copy of my letter published in yesterday’s Sunday Independent (Feb 19th, 2017), addressing the repeated misrepresentation of feminism in recent times by one of its journalists. This kind of thing is certainly not new. Nevertheless, it does a dire disservice to a movement that, while not perfect, has won more rights for women than any other. In short, journalists and commentators: by all means be critical but in doing so, be fair and be factual.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to take issue with two articles by Niamh Horan (January 29th and February 12th). Both reinforce archaic gender stereotypes which do a grave disservice to women and men. Both also misrepresent feminism and its aims.

Contrary to what Ms Horan infers, feminism is focused on injustice, not domination. Its wins for women are wide-ranging. To list them all would be impossible but selected highlights include: the establishment of vital services for domestic violence, reproductive health, and sexual violence; outlawing marital rape; demanding equal pay for equal work and the right to maternity leave; ensuring women have equality of access to education; winning women the vote.

The success of second wave feminism led to a well-documented and sustained backlash, orchestrated in part by sections of the media. Ms Horan’s articles could certainly be construed as part of this effort to undermine the gains of the movement by misrepresenting its aims and misappropriation of blame.

Ms Horan should understand that feminism is not monolithic; it is a diverse, vibrant school of thought and activism. Feminism does not dictate what women want; it fights for the conditions that allow women to choose in every aspect of their lives.

A longstanding aim of feminism has been the realisation of a more livable world for all, women and men alike. Ms Horan would do well to remember the words of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in 1792: “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Yours sincerely,

Mary McGill

The Tyranny of ‘Transformation’

‘We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating, if you choose to see it that way.’

Sarai Walker, Dietland

‘Publicity…  proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more… Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Last week, at the age of 90, celebrated art historian John Berger died in Paris. Anyone with an interest in the visual culture of Western societies will likely have encountered Berger’s groundbreaking 1972 book and documentary series Ways of Seeing. By turns accessible, deeply political and incisive, Berger’s analysis of Western art de-naturalised and contextualised artistic practice, showing how factors like consumerism and patriarchy shape not only images themselves but the various gazes centred on the act of looking. In one of the book’s most famous passages, he observed ‘…men act and women appear,’ a critique of visual culture that remains essential to this day.

That such a powerful critic as Berger should pass away in January struck me as sadly ironic, for it is perhaps the cruellest month in the cultural calendar (save for the crushing predictability and barely concealed misogyny of ‘Bikini Ready’ season). Central to this cruelty, which is often dressed in the seductively peppy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of ‘empowerment’ and ‘#goals’, is the notion of ‘transformation’, a phenomenon almost always represented by persuasive, often gendered, imagery.

Berger was critical of the effects and empty promises of ‘transformation’ in Western consumer societies. Writing about the proliferation of what he terms ‘publicity images’ (those in advertising and in much of the media more generally ) he argued that they propose ‘to each of us that we transform ourselves, by buying something more.’ This system of images is designed to make us believe in the power of transformation by showing us people who have been transformed, thereby eliciting our envy, our desire and, of course, our cash.

Images, however, can only ever represent pleasure and suggest fulfilment. Like holograms, they may dazzle us but they are never the real thing. That is why commodities, which images are used to sell, so rarely live up to their promise and yet why they remain so compelling. Thus, the process of transformation stays forever incomplete, necessitating endless work, endless consumption. And, if your sense of self is deeply bound to the belief that the ‘real you’ will only emerge once you are ‘transformed’, endless misery.

I’ll leave you with one final insight of Berger’s which focuses on the dissatisfaction that occurs when we chase transformation. He emphasises that this dissatisfaction is turned inward by the individual, rather than outward at a society which encourages, nay preaches, the glories of consumption and the ever-increasing commodification of human existence. Perhaps if we make one resolution this year, it should be to reject the isolation and self-defeat inherent in that which is peddled by the prophets of transformation . And if January still gets you down, keep in mind this rather excellent observation from the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

Ain’t that the truth.