‘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.
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.
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.
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 the current edition of U magazine – which has Amy Schumer on the front, looking very demure – I have piece on gender identity and gender fluidity in modern Ireland. If you’ve been effected by these issues or are interested to know more, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland’s (TENI) website teni.ie is a fantastic resource.
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 olwendawe.com which I heartily recommend.
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.
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
Last week I took part in a radio discussion about the impending cinematic release of 50 Shades of Grey. I was not an obvious candidate. I haven’t read the books (I like my erotica Nancy Friday style) and find the cultural hysteria around them and the film unsettling, even depressing on a bad day. The subsequent chat would not have been out of place in an episode of that famed Irish documentary series Father Ted, part ‘careful now, down with this sort of thing, wink, wink’, part ‘Jesus Jim, we can’t be going to that – what will the neighbours say? We’ll get the DVD instead.’ I used the term ‘dirty film’ far too many times. I felt like I was trapped in a Carry On nightmare of crass innuendo to which I unthinkingly contributed ten-fold by blurting out, ‘well, this will be massive exposure for Dornan, in terms of his career.’
Scanning Irish news sites afterwards I realised this tittering-school-kid tone is almost ubiquitous wherever 50 Shades is mentioned. The troubling facets of Anastasia Steele’s and Christian Grey’s relationship (and there are many) are rarely referenced but whips, handcuffs and naked male torsos sure are. On the other hand, the lusty Irish women who are supposedly responsible for pre booking 55,000 tickets are treated with a patronising sneer that is as snide as it is snobbish. Crap films get released every week but a potentially-crap film aimed at female audiences? Well, that’s the absolute worst.
Our childish frenzy over such a notoriously sex-centred popular phenomenon says a lot about Ireland’s relationship to sexuality, none of it inspiring. Despite the long shadow cast by Catholicism, our culture today is sex-saturated. We watch it, read about it, we talk about BDSM and vibrators on morning radio. But unlike so many other countries in the West and elsewhere, we lack the basic maturity and yes, backbone, to treat the messy, unpredictable consequences of human sexuality the compassion and nuance they demand.
Newspaper pages away from the 50 Shades coverage are the latest reports about the on-going heartache and irreversible damage being caused to Irish women and those who love them by the 8th Amendment. We giggle about 50 Shades, then look the other way when someone raises the unforgivable lack of sex education in our schools. We raise our little girls on fairy tales in which a handsome prince saves the princess, making her his forever and ever. Then we ridicule grown women for being drawn toward what they’ve always been told to be, towards the floaty white dresses, towards the beauty that never fits quite right or lasts like you’d like it to, towards the man who loves her so much he could kill her.
I won’t be going to see 50 Shades in the cinema (surprise, surprise) but I know I’ll still hear about it, in crushing, minute detail, especially the ‘wild’ sex scenes. ‘What does this film’s massive popularity say about Irish women?’ the media will ask and hordes will rush to answer. You see, in Ireland we can talk for as long as you like, as openly as you like, about dirty films but not our ‘dirty’ secrets. When all the smut and stifled giggles are pushed aside, therein lies the real shame.
“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.
“…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.