Saying ‘Yes’ to Repeal in Rural Ireland

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

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.

Can Fairy Tales Ever Be Feminist?

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.


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

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

Sisterhood is Powerful: Polish Women, Irish Women and the Fight for Reproductive Justice

Sisterhood is Powerful: Polish Women, Irish Women and the Fight for Reproductive Justice

“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 and find out how you can support Polish women.

Feminism Inc : why 1% feminism will never change the world

Feminism Inc : why 1% feminism will never change the world

women's liberation

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.

Reevaluating Young Women’s Love of the Selfie: TEDx Galway

Reevaluating Young Women’s Love of the Selfie: TEDx Galway


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.







Daddy Cool: looking at Ireland’s new paternity laws for Irish Tatler

Daddy Cool: looking at Ireland’s new paternity laws for Irish Tatler

Irish Tatler Jan 2016

One of the greatest struggles facing families in modern Ireland is how difficult it is to get the time and support needed to successfully juggle careers and child-rearing. Much of this responsibility still falls on women. Thankfully, Ireland’s new paternity leave law will ensure all fathers have the right to two weeks paid paternity leave when their child is born, a step in a right direction. For this edition of Tatler, I look at what the new law will mean for women, men, and changing Irish attitudes to parenting.

All Joking Aside – U Magazine

All Joking Aside – U Magazine

u magazine imelda maye

Casual sexism is no joke. In this edition of U magazine I look at sexism in Irish workplaces, showing that old attitudes die hard, particularly when it comes to women moving into spaces traditionally seen as ‘male’. For the feature, I spoke to business consultant and entrepreneur Olwen Dawe about her experiences and, crucially, her advice for women caught in this tricky situation. Olwen’s writes a cracking blog on her website which I heartily recommend.

Who’s Afraid of Gender Theory?

Who’s Afraid of Gender Theory?

vintage woman with arms in the air

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Emer O’Toole’s debut ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ for the Irish Independent. What I enjoyed most about the book, aside from O’Toole’s chatty style and unfailing honesty, was the accessible manner in which she weaves gender, performance and sociological theory with personal experience to illuminate the ways binary gender limits our lives.

I’ll admit: ‘gender theory’ and ‘accessible’ are words not often featured in the same sentence, unless the sentence also contains an expletive and a frustrated looking emoji.  As someone who has lectured in the field and who knows on a personal and intellectual level how transformative such knowledge can be, one thing I still grapple with is the perception that these ideas are too difficult, too navel-gazing, to serve any useful purpose outside academia.

This perception is not new and it is certainly not helped by the style of some academic writing, which can reduce even the most hardened scholars to slack-jawed befuddlement. Having said that, I find that so much of the gender theory I’ve been exposed to, both inside and outside  university, actively informs my activism and my feminist identity in an empowering way. Most importantly it equips me with the political weapons – to steal a term from Laura Mulvey – I need to navigate a hostile society that would much rather I just sit down and shut up.

Academic writing styles aside for a moment, lets consider the idea that gender theory/feminist research is removed from the real world. In fact, a hallmark of this kind of research is often an appreciation for the lived experience of subjects, that is the practise of acknowledging and respecting the humanity of those you are studying. The insights of Kimberle Crenshaw, Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey – just as an example – are all drawn from the real world. Crenshaw writes about women struggling to access domestic violence shelters in California, whose lives and choices are shaped by intersecting inequalities. Butler talks about the violence and hate directed at bodies and desires which fall outside the ‘norm’, while Mulvey looks at the treatment of women by one of the West’s most powerful cultural institutions, Hollywood cinema. The language used may be clunky, the theoretical lens complex, but the motivations are rooted entirely in the real.

The development of new knowledge, research methods, and models of critical reading have long been central to the feminist project, plotting a course towards liberated societies and challenging the patriarchal hegemony that has silenced women for centuries. It’s a mammoth job, an imperfect job but a vital one and much work remains to be done. Hell yes academic writing can be stale and obtuse but not all feminist/gender researchers write in that manner (hurrah!) and for those who do, there are excellent resources that break their ideas down in fun and informative ways, like this.

Thanks to the internet and to books like O’Toole’s there have never been more resources available to help feminists of all eras and stripes get to grips with whatever strand of theory appeals to them. While the latest papers are often pay-walled many of the key texts from second wave and third wave are just a Google search away. No one needs an MA in Gender Studies to appreciate powerful ideas clearly explained or to use them. Yes, it takes time to read and research this stuff. Not everyone can can find that time or access the internet freely while struggling to feed themselves and meet the responsibilities of a daily grind. However, if you can, it’s a solid investment in yourself and in your feminist belief system. In the end, knowledge is power and us feminist gals need all the power we can get.

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

marilyn as clara bow

Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’

In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.

The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.

It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’.  In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.

As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon

On Academia & Climbing A Tidal Wave: The Sibéal Conference 2014

Gender & Met pic

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams, Stoner 

Over a reader’s lifetime there are a handful of books that linger in the mind forever. Often these titles are consumed in the blaze of youth, when life’s possibilities – actual and intellectual – spill forth like a psychedelic tapestry. For many of us, as we age, life becomes less about the highest highs and more about the eternal questions of what life is for and what constitutes living well. To this end, John Williams’ reclaimed classic Stoner blew me away in a manner I associate with the usual literary suspects of youth (The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, etc. both of which I still love, without apology).

William Stoner is possibly the greatest literary hero many people have never heard of and perhaps that’s the point. Williams’ exquisite reflection on life and living is a gentle antidote to the 21st century’s obsession with a specific type of bombastic, materialistic version of success. In Stoner we see the quiet majesty of a life well-lived. It is not perfect, it is not constructed with technicolour and jump-cuts but it is imbued with purpose and passion.

Stoner is also in many ways a love letter to academia, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and those who create and share it. Williams’ insight about the art of learning came to mind this weekend as I presented my own work and delightedly binged on gender and feminist research at the Sibéal Network’s annual conference for early career and postgraduate researchers. To say that it was a pleasure to listen and absorb the wealth of thought and research that comprised the programme is an understatement, not to mention the excellent, equally invigorating chats over wine and coffee. The theme ‘Gender and Metamorphosis’ was brilliantly chosen as so much gender research is concerned with transformations of society and the self. The papers I enjoyed are too numerous to list here but among the issues tackled were performing masculinities, intersectionality and international human rights law and the gendered construction of perpetrators and victims in sexual assault cases (the full programme is available here).

As Williams observed, our lives are short and there is so much to know and sometimes, for me at least, it feels like trying to climb a tidal wave. As a scholar it’s so good, so important to be reminded that you’re not alone and also to see the fantastic work being done to address and give voice to the myriad of inequalities sheltering under the umbrella of gender and feminist research.

To read more about the great work Sibéal do, to get involved and see their slick new website click here. And if you’re thinking of getting the fiction fan in your life a book that will warm their hearts while simultaneously breaking them (in a good way, I promise, it’s what all the best books do) then I recommend Stoner a thousand times.

Photo Credit: FuturePresent via photopin cc

Read: On Radclyffe Hall, Judith Butler & ‘The Well of Loneliness’



“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990.  Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.

By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.

Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’

Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.

Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’

Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.