To mark the seventieth anniversary of the Ravensbrück war crimes trials, I wrote a feature for Broadly on the camp and its prisoners. Ravensbrück was the largest Nazi camp for women and the most notorious. Its story is shocking and should never be forgotten. You can read my piece here.
To mark the BBC’s new drama To Walk Invisible on the life of the Brontë sisters, I chatted to RTÉ’s Arena about the life of Emily Brontë (author of Wuthering Heights). Of the three Brontë sisters, Emily is perhaps the one we know the least about and it is hoped this drama will shed more light on her life. She is a fascinating character and speculation around what inspired her ever-popular novel still rages to this day. You can listen back here.
There’s something about cold, dark winter evenings that lend themselves beautifully to ghost stories. Susan Hill is one of the greatest contemporary writers of spooky tales and it was a real treat to review her latest short story collection, The Travelling Bag and Other Stories. While the collection may not reach the spine-tingling heights of her classic The Woman in Black, there are frights aplenty to be had none-the-less. You can listen to my review here.
Back in 1868, Wilkie Collins gifted the world a book that helped usher in the genre of detective fiction. Since then, crime fiction has flourished. We’re in the grip, so to speak, of the ‘girl’ phenomenon, when psychological thrillers, often written by women and set in the domestic sphere, are lighting up the bestseller lists. So it was fun to return to Collins’ The Moonstone and consider it from a modern perspective. The BBC have produced a new adaptation of the classic tale as part of their #LoveToRead campaign. You can listen back to my take on the book on RTÉ’s Arena here.
I’m a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series. Through a darkly comic, often disturbing lens, the show explores cultural anxieties about the deepening role of technology in human life. I reviewed the third series for RTÉ’s Arena. It didn’t disappoint. You can listen here.
“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Gloria Steinem
Last week on a trip to London, I ended up covering the Repeal protests at the Irish and Polish embassies for VICE UK. As Irish women fight to remove their country’s abortion ban, Polish women are struggling to retain the limited abortion access they have in the face of mounting political threats. Speaking to activists, it was impossible not to be struck and inspired by the solidarity between both groups. You can read my VICE piece here. Wherever you are in the world, check out galsforgals.org and find out how you can support Polish women.
It has been a very interesting week in Irish women’s long-running quest for bodily autonomy. First we had the brave duo, Two Women Travel, using Twitter to document their journey to the UK to avail of abortion services there. The international news media paid attention but coverage in Ireland was patchy. Next we had Brianna Parkins, a contestant in the Rose of Tralee, who, when discussing women’s rights, expressed her desire for a referendum on the 8th Amendment.
Parkins’ statement was met with applause from the crowd. The seventh circle of hell did not open, nor did the Dome spontaneously combust. Two Women Travel was the focus of much sympathy and solidarity in Ireland and right around the world. Critics have been quick to argue that there is, apparently, a time and a place for such ‘political’ conversations. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t on one of the country’s most viewed television shows or on social media. They maintain that using such platforms for ‘outbursts’ and ‘stunts’ is sensationalist and trivializing. Faced with the question of what the right time and place might be for such a long overdue discussion, the sound of a can being booted down the road is so deafening it would split an eardrum.
Activism has always meant being creative and opportunistic enough to capture the attention required to win hearts and minds. And, note to successive Irish governments, there is surely nothing more trivializing of an issue (and its lived experiences) than ignoring it. How interesting it is that an event like the Rose of Tralee which professes to be a celebration of Irish womanhood should be seen as the last place on the island to discuss, never mind mention, that which harms women. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much the talking about the difficult realities of women’s lives as having to listen to them, to acknowledge them, to act.
What did take a battering in the past few days, and has been under attack for some time, is a uniquely Irish myth of femininity which is one part Lovely Girl, one part Irish Mammy and three parts Virgin Mary. ‘A lovely mammy named Mary,’ if you will. The kind of chimerical comely maiden so beloved of de Valera and his ilk. A cailín álainn with a twinkle in her eye and rosary beads in her handbag, who doesn’t backchat to her husband or (God forbid) the priest, bears suffering like a stoic and births nine children before her fortieth birthday.
As the scars on Irish landscapes and psyches show, silence never saved the comely maiden who became a fallen woman. It never won her a single right. Instead it exiled her to Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, on early morning flights to Britain. It condemned, and still condemns, generations of Irish women to live in its shadow, its cold fingers clamped over their mouths.
There is never a ‘right’ or pleasant time to talk about that which has been rendered unsayable for so long. Such conversations are necessarily emotive, frustrating, heartbreaking and uncomfortable. But the mark of maturity, of a society, of a person, is to face what must be done. In the words of the poet Audre Lorde who wrote so movingly, so precisely about ‘the tyrannies of silence’, ‘My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.’
For Irish women, it’s time to live the truth of our lives out loud.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down is a lush, frenetic love letter to the early days of hip hop. The show is the most expensive in Netflix’s history, costing a whopping $10 million per episode. The soundtrack is incredible as is the young, talented and diverse cast but Luhrmann’s directorial flourishes are likely to divide audiences. You can hear my fully review of The Get Down here.
“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Do you have a soft spot for the children’s classic The Little Prince? It’s one of the bestselling books of all time, so its quite likely that you, or someone close to you, does. The good news is that a gorgeous new animation based on the book has come to Netflix. It’s a little gem for the young and the young at heart. You can listen back to my chat about the book and its latest incarnation on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena here.
I’m just gonna come right out and say that this memoir, by longtime music journalist Sylvia Patterson, is one of my books of the year. Patterson has had an incredible career, spanning over thirty years and some of the most influential music magazines of all time. Whether writing about Bros, Britpop or her tough childhood, she is never less than witty, compassionate and engaging. The woman has a way with a killer sentence and a bonanza of wild experiences. You can listen back to my review on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena here.
The role of social media in our lives is an on-going cultural conversation which doesn’t seem to be about to resolve itself any time soon. In the meantime, we struggle to figure out the best, or most healthiest, way to navigate these new spaces and the demands they present. As ever, this results in specific problems for the female of the species. In this feature I hear from parents of teenage daughters and young women themselves about their experiences and perspectives on Instagram beauty culture.
This post is in response to an article published in Ireland at the weekend. It lambasted young girls attending a Rihanna concert in Dublin on the basis of their clothing and general appearance.
In my research, I spend a lot of time exploring the ‘mythology of femininity’. This refers to the ways in which the feminine has been represented socially, politically and culturally throughout human history. Femininity today is a vast church, better described as ‘femininities’ to appreciate the multiplicity of identities and desires it groups together. Despite this variety, however, contemporary femininities remain haunted by the spectre of femininities of yore. One particular dichotomy – fresh out of the Bible ! – is that of the Virgin/Whore, which continues to exert a depressing level of power.
So what does this have to do with 12-year-olds dressing like Rihanna? Everything, as it happens, but this story is not new. It is as old as Western civilisation. As human beings, we learn ‘appropriate’ behaviour from the world around us. Institutions like the family, the education system and the media provide us with norms and benchmarks against which to measure ourselves. This a serious undertaking for, in order to be accepted by society, the individual has to learn to play by the rules, rules they usually have no part in making, rules they are told are natural and universal. Throughout the 20th century up to the present day many of these rules have been rightly and effectively contested, their ‘naturalness’ dismantled, but all too often their influence prevails in new ways.
The Virgin/Whore complex is a type of rule. It decrees that there are two types of female: the good, who is chaste and biddable, and the bad, who is sexual and assertive. A woman can only be one or the other. From birth, girls are told to turn their attention to their appearance, to value male attention above all else. This arrangement is reinforced at almost every juncture by our culture, a culture ruled by capitalist-patriarchy which relies on sexualized, commodified female bodies to sell everything from cars to music to ice-cream – and newspapers, of course.
We do not live our lives in a vacuum. History, society and culture shape our sense of self and our choices in complex ways. In trying to understand why it is we do what we do as humans, context is all important. If you want to begin to understand why teenage girls dress the way they do, open your eyes. Look at where they take their cues from, both today and traditionally. Consider how and why these images, practices and stories came to be and their effects. Have the compassion to understand that teenage girls are trying to navigate a world that expects the impossible of them: that they be simultaneously sexy but chaste, beautiful and smart, strong but nonthreatening.
Finally, if you want to start a conversation about the effects of hypersexualisation, begin by examining the language you use to use to provoke that discussion – is it rife with Virgin/Whore inferences? Does it belittle and objectify the bodies it claims to be so concerned with and indeed women in general? Does it use terms like ‘slutty’ and ‘tramp’, contrasted with an example of ‘appropriate’ femininity? And if the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these, then maybe this particular conversation, while much needed, is not one you are best positioned to give voice to.
I recently read Dawn Foster’s excellent Lean Out, a badly needed and critically sharp take-down of the corporate and choice feminisms that have come to define mainstream feminism in recent years. That a certain strain of feminism has become fashionable and highly marketable is undeniable but will it result in meaningful change in the majority of women’s lives or just a few? I consider this crucial question and review Foster’s book in a piece for The Coven entitled ‘Feminism Inc’, which you can read here.
When I got an email from my students last October asking if they could nominate me to do a TEDx Talk, my immediate reaction was ‘hell, no.’ As a broadcaster and lecturer, I’m more comfortable than most at dealing with public speaking but the TEDx format is a specific type of beast. No notes, no script; a live audience, yes, but not one you can volley with. It’s just you, on a stage, talking for up to 18 minutes about your big idea with no where to run and no where to hide.
I said ‘yes’ to the nomination because I believe in the power of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quip about doing something every day that scares you. Doing a TEDx Talk, I figured, would be my quota of being scared filled for the year. Anyway, there was no guarantee I would be accepted – until I was.
On February 6th, 2016, I stood on the stage of the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and spoke about my PhD research, which examines young women’s engagement with the selfie. A PhD is a knotty and sprawling piece of work so I focused on a small but I think significant finding of mine: how Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of women and narcissism in The Second Sex can help us better understand the appeal of the selfie to young women today.
The idea of the TEDx Talk format is that you finish by issuing a ‘call to action’. Mine was simply that instead of dismissing young women’s engagement with the selfie as narcissistic and self-objectifying, we should be striving for a deeper understanding, keeping in mind that female representation in our cultural, political and social institutions remains a work in progress.
I would never have gotten this opportunity if it wasn’t for my students from the MA in Gender, Globalisation and Rights at NUI Galway. This talk is dedicated to them.
In Tatler this month, I look at the lives of women living in Ireland who have undergone female genital mutilation or FGM, as it is more commonly known. FGM has a host of longterm effects. For those dealing with it, the Irish Family Planning Association now runs a specialized clinic to help which free to use. More information here and here.