Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Not another bloody top ten list.

Guys, I am ill. This is not fun. It's New Year's. I had plans, I did. But instead I'm curled in bed with my laptop and a streaming nose, reading old skool feminism and vampire porn and feeling extremely sorry for myself. So, treasured readers, please help out and make my evening bearable and your future reading experience shinier by responding to the following short survey or meme. Participatory citizen journalism for, as Stalin used to say, the win.

1)What is energising you politically for 2009?

2)What have you enjoyed on Penny Red in 2008 (if anything)?

3)What would you like to see on this blog? Are there any topics I should be covering and haven't? Things I should be writing more about? Would you like more or less of the delightful little excursions into my life in real life? If anyone suggests post ideas, I'll try and get around to them in the New Year.

4) Introduce yourself! What does 2009 hold for you? Who are you and what are you doing in my house?

5) If I were to make you a lovely cup of tea, how would you want it? (Milk, sugar, blood of Christian babies?)

6) How do you respond to the statement 'it's political correctness gone mad!' ?

Thanks, comrades, and thank you for keeping up with PR this year. See you on the other side.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Senseless in Gaza

Look, I'm a Jew by birth, I've been to Schul, my family live just outside Natanya in Israel, I've travelled there extensively. If I don't get to have an opinion on this, I don't know who does.

I have just watched that profoundly moving episode of Babylon 5 where Ivanova sits Shiva for her father. It made my heart swell with longing for the profundities of a culture I haven't reclaimed in far too long.

Following this, I made a cup of tea and checked the news.

Two hundred and ninety, murdered. Fuck you, Israel, fuck your leaders and your mindless orthodoxy, fuck your forcing my cousins to do military service and my family to live in fear, fuck your killing and your killing and your sixty years of killing. I've seen your promised land, and it stinks of melons and terror. This isn't the way it was supposed to go. You don't get to do this because you feel 'threatened'; that isn't what it means to be a Jew. Have we remembered nothing?

The true promised land is nowhere but in our own minds, and your false Zion runs with blood.

Friday, 26 December 2008

But think of the kiddies!

One of the many things that royally pisses me off about this time of year is the endless bloody slew of articles about 'children of divorce' at Christmastime. Commentator after commentator calling for us to think of the children and 'make marriage work'. Column after column sopping with souped-up stories of 'suitcase kids' being shuttled between mummy and daddy, clearly innocent victims of Broken Britain (c.Cameron 2007). This helpful Daily Mail article includes heart-rending testimonies from Tilly, Archie, Freddie, Cora and other improbably-named crisis tots, accompanied by laughable illustrations: a pixie-hatted munchkin kisses daddy goodbye; a ringletted white toddler moops mawkishly by a window, the epitome of Victorian chocolate-box fantasy; and everything is covered in a dubious blanket of perfectly crisp, white snowflakes. Gimme a break.

My fingers are balling into fists thinking of all of the women reading this arrant bullshit and feeling guilty for being unable to provide their loved ones with the perfect, industrial-capitalist, heteronormative nuclear family Christmas. My pansy liberal heart bleeds for the parents of both sexes currently ruining their own happiness and their children's mental health by staying in bad marriages after buying this sick conservative propaganda.

Let me make it clear right now that yes, I come from a 'broken' home. My parents' marriage disintegrated shortly after their children were born, and several years of 'holding it together for the kids', racked by unhappiness and infidelity, culminated in a messy and drawn-out divorce when I was in my early teens. Christmas since my parents separated has generally involved two sets of presents, significantly fewer rows, freedom to watch as much telly as we like and the blessed relief of not having to see my mother grit her teeth whilst serving Delia's turkey to my father. These days, my mum, sisters and I scoff down chocolate from our stockings in front of Will and Grace and apologise to nobody. Cry me a fucking river. My one regret is that my mother didn't leave my father sooner - something she might well have done had she not been convinced that my sisters and I would never recover. For the record, we have.

Because living with divorce is not bad for kids. Bad marriages are bad for kids (they're not a barrel of laughs for their parents either), but divorces are symptomatic of family strife: they do not cause it. What divorce is extremely bad for is the maintenance of an increasingly outdated status quo, one in which a lifetime's unpaid domestic labour is extracted from one partner - overwhelmingly the female partner - and in which male partners are isolated from the emotional sphere of family life as workers and as breadwinners.
The nuclear family, sustained by the middle-class myth of everlasting love and marriage, is an incredibly efficient way of dividing labour in the context of industrial capitalism, as observed by nearly every brave leftist writer from Engels to Betty Friedan. The idea of organising a household around one married, heterosexual couple and their children is, in fact, a relatively recent one, dating back to the mid-Victorian industrial surge: under a system where women were first blessedly permitted and then practically required to acquire paid employment, and following a welcome period of socio-cultural change, the myth of the nuclear family has become increasingly unstable. However, that hasn't prevented it from being used as a stick with which to beat women who dared to imagine a life for themselves beyond the Nazi dictat of Kinder, Kuche und Kirche. The idea that divorce causes social breakdown is a colossal case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Don't get me wrong: I sometimes wish my parents had been compatible enough to stay together. But given that they weren't, my family and I are all a damn sight better off with this arrangement. Let's cut the pretense that the conservative pro-marriage, anti-divorce propaganda circulating at this time of year and in this political climate is anything to do with protecting the welfare of children. When the Mail squeals at us to think of the kiddies, it is lamenting the turning of a tide of social change which even the continuing torrent of right-wing propaganda cannot turn back. It's Christmas. Everywhere, up and down the country, alternative families are celebrating together - single-parent families, stepfamilies, families with multiple and same-sex parents, families of friends, families of choice, families everywhere which fall outside an increasingly irrelevant socio-cultural norm. Many of us are having a bloody good time. And David Cameron can suck it right up.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Hope and Humbuggery: a Christmas tantrum.

This sucks.

I’ve just arrived back from my mum’s place and been greeted with a bollocking HUGE gas bill that we have only a slim chance of paying, plus a plumbing system that’s still buggered to the tune of having to wash my hair and essential parts in the sink, with a saucepan. All this, and scrabbling to prepare for a parental visit: clean, fumigate, hide the S’M posters, hide the ashtrays, hide the kingskins, hide our same-sex partners, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll make 2009 intact.

At this most magical time of the year, I truly pity the undeserving souls who work in call centres. Having been on the line to a dogged unresponsive pissed-off hack for half an hour, you could hear a festering note of impending armaggedon in the weary British Gas man’s voice when he asked if he could keep me informed of any new products and services.

Talking of festering Armageddon, does anyone else feel like we’re approaching the end times?

Maybe it’s just me. But in the latter months of 2008, it’s become far less easy to be a freak in this country. The black dog of recession is crunching us in its bloody jaws and, unlike the States, we don’t have any liberal saviour preaching change who we can clutch at, whispering save us. The government is clamping down on everybody, no matter where they live or why. The poor, single parents and the mentally ill are going to suffer under the new welfare plan. The atmosphere in Whitehall is one of stunned denial, with ministers emerging over the ramparts to frantically fire desultory, mean sallies such as today’s announcement that bailiffs will be given new powers to enter debtors’ homes at will, physically restraining or pinning down the occupants if necessary.

Will Monaco and Jersey swarm with smart-suited Scrooges wearing knuckle-dusters?
Will hired muscle be sent to collect billions of pounds’ worth of debt from Britain’s richest tax-dodgers, like Philip Green? Will members of the treasury, recently found owing £645bn which my generation will have to stump up for in our middle age, be turfed out onto the street in their scanties? Nah, thought not. Once again, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are being targeted by this supposed people’s government, this government that promised us change, transparency, a new world order. Maybe that’s why Obamania is failing to cheer us up: we’ve heard this line before.

Meanwhile, in Vatican City a nominally celibate former Hitler Youth member in a dress has a Christmas message of goodwill and peace in our time. Yup, Ratzinger wants to defend holy heterosexuality from the despicable ‘gender blurring’ perpetrated by gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and women who don’t sit with their knees together in church:

‘We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as 'man' or 'woman' and asks that this order is respected.

"This is not out-of-date metaphysics. It comes from the faith in the Creator and from listening to the language of creation, despising which would mean self-destruction for humans and therefore a destruction of the work itself of God."

I would like, at this point, to swallow the greater part of the Fuck The Pope tirade that was going to be my inevitable next outburst and instead point Herr Ratzinger towards the roll-call of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christian saints recently enumerated by activist scholars, amongst them Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Sebastian and ooh, wouldn’t you credit it, Saint George, patron of this blinkered isle.

I apologise for the unseasonal amount of bile and hatred in this post. Believe me, behind this cold, hard exterior twitters the pink and fluffy heart of a perpetual six-year-old who bounces out of bed at 5am on Christmas morning and dreams in sugarplums and fairy lights. But behind that is the chill adult realisation that we’re going to have to take the long road home. 2009 will be a hard, hard year, we didn’t need the IMF to tell us that. The rest of this beautiful, broken, brilliant decade is going to entail threats to socialism, liberalism and freedom of thought and action from all sides, with governments offering no quarter and giving none. Those of us brave enough to weather the distance, those of us with the strength and temerity to hold on to our liberal ideals, will need everything we’ve got to keep the hope in our heads alive.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. [Tennyson, 'Ulysses']

And that’s my Christmas message. Hope, if nothing else: hope, because that’s all we’ve got, that we will come through this with our sanity and our integrity, everyone: the poor, the young, the mentally ill, the geeks, the freaks, the queers and their allies, the feminists and race-activists and socialists and war protesters and those who dare to dream of a better and a fairer world. When we have nothing else but hope, we will have to find the energy from somewhere to keep on getting out of bed, keep on striving, keep on thinking for ourselves. I’m certainly going to keep on writing; I hope you’ll keep on reading. Thank you all for keeping up with this blog over the past year, and please believe me when I wish you, whatever your faith, a merry Christmas.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Damn lies and statistics

Today I discovered that I am a migrant! Who knew?

Did North London secede overnight whilst I wasn't watching? (Again?) No, but since all the new jobs in Britain have gone to migrants since 2001, I must logically be one - three times over, in fact. Alan Green, Field and Soames' 'Balanced Migration' campaign is scantily concealed racism doing a desperate recession striptease to garner the 'send em home' vote with little regard for minor fripperies such as actual facts. As anyone giving the plans a cursory glance can tell. However, the distortion of its already distorted statistics by the right-wing press takes the cake.

The logical step at this point, being a patriotic soul, would be to follow general advice and 'go back where I came from'. Perhaps Ms Neeson and Mr Desmond, the Daily Star proprietors, could even pay for me? Islington is only ten minutes away on the bus, and I could visit a selection of its many fine coffee-houses with change for a tenner.

Are you a migrant, too? Take the frothing racist lies test to find out!

ETA: Because I didn't make it clear enough, this is a variant on a meme started by jacinthsong and theoxfordgirl over at livejournal. Meme, not original post. Propagate, spread, disseminate, internet children!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The writing's on the wall.

You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them - George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
I am seriously considering whether the best use of my time would be to torch myself on the steps of Parliament in protest - Withiel Black Esq., this morning.

I am angry, today.

But Ms Red, I hear you cry, you are quite often angry. Well, yes, that's so, but today I'm bloody angry, angry for a reason. I am sitting in a house from which my current family and I may soon be evicted, because we have failed to make our rent. We have failed to make our rent because we have failed to gain employment, we are paying off debts, and the pissingly tiny amount of benefits to which we are entitled have failed to arrive. We are spending our time watching ripped downloads off the interwebs and living on fried potatoes and tea and cigarettes re-rolled from the butt-ends of what we'd imagined our futures would be.

We're in our early twenties; the whole world is ahead of us, but a recession-bitten employment market and an increasingly punitive welfare system are making the immediate world look grim. It's going to be worse, still, for those friends of ours who are due to leave school or university this year and take their first faltering steps into a world that won't let them work and can't afford to keep them. This is not romantic. Poverty and hopelessness are not romantic. They're a fucking pain, is what they are.

When I met James Purnell in September he was half-cut, coming out of a party and manifestly didn't want to be talking to the small insistent girl reporter in black, but he took the time to explain to me why he thought his welfare reforms were going to help the poor and incapacitated. He genuinely impressed me. He knew his stuff. Three months on, with the recession steaming in and all my friends and loved ones poor and depressed and rejected by a nominally caring Labour welfare state, I'm beginning to think we've been had. I have a visceral fondness for energetic, hobbit-looking men, but not when they instruct the poor and needy to bend over and spread for a rogering, telling them in breathless pants that it's for their own good. Let's take a look at that party line:

Myth: 'work is the best way out of poverty.'

Fact: work is the best way out of poverty provided that there is work available, and provided that that work does not pay a poverty wage. Most of the journalists and politicians smugly licking Purnell's shiny arse on this one are lucky enough to have well-paid, fulfilling careers. But have you ever worked as a fast-food waitress? Have you ever worked in a call centre? You spend nine solid hours in a cramped, light-sputtering cage being bullied by your bosses and harassed by people who didn't ask you to call and harangue them. The work is soul-eatingly dull and draining and when you come home, blinking, dried-out, feeling ancient and depressed, you have to do it all again tomorrow, and you are still poor. You are still poor because you are being paid way below what might constitute a living wage, and you have no career prospects to keep you motivated. You get to choose between this and staying on benefits, being ever so slightly more crushingly poor but more physically and mentally well. What will you choose? (NB: call centre work is the only work many school leavers and graduates in the cities are currently able to find).

Myth: There is work there for people, and we believe they should do it. We can't afford to waste taxpayers' money on people who are playing the system. [Purnell]

This recession is not the fault of the poor. It is the fault of well-off wankers who live in large houses and go on holidays to Majorca, and now that the proverbial has hit the proverbial, nobody wants to take responsibility. Treating people like criminals for failing to find jobs that aren’t there is kicking us while we’re down. And that is what ‘"a system where virtually everyone has to do something in return for their benefits” means. Yes, it’s right that people take responsibility for their own lives – but what creates poverty, worklessness and drug and alcohol abuse is not moral decline, it's social and economic decline, and that's the fault of governments and the fault of a financial and business sector which sees no reason to look after its workforce in any way whatsoever.

The alleged lack of virtue of the working classes is now being exploited in order to offload the blame for what this Labour government has done – over 2 million unemployed, a toppling economy, another million so mentally and emotionally incapacitated that they cannot work. The idea that people without jobs are lazy, exploitative, ungrateful and engage in piffling class-defined vices places the blame for ‘Broken Britain’ on a group of people who have less to do with it than anyone else. The political and financial classes refuse to take responsibility for where they have landed us, and are now telling us that it’s our fault, because we are just not trying hard enough.

Don't for a moment imagine that the Tories are planning anything better. In fact, as David Cameron's latest editorial in the Hate shows, Tory contempt for the poor is if anything more shameless and ingrained than frantic Labour scapegoating could ever be: Cameron and his gang believe that the poor are lazy, and should be punished lest they all turn out like 'evil' Karen Matthews. As Matthew Norman puts it in the Indy, it takes a rich man to pour such scorn on the poor.

But I've had enough. I've had enough with trying so very, very hard to be a Labour apologist out of fear of the Tories. The Labour DWP's strategy is not just not good enough: it's actively immoral, scapegoating the neediest and making it more difficult for us to work and live just at the time when we should be carrying our wounded.

Fuck you in the fucking eyes, Purnell. It just saddens me that by the time that you see the wrong end of a dole queue in 2010, it'll be way too late for you to help even yourself.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

No more the meek and mild subservients we!

Thank you to Jennie for reminding me: sisters, brethren, today is the ninetieth anniversary of the first time British women went to the polling booths. Yup -less than a century ago, at least half of the population were forbidden from having any say in the political process whatsoever simply on account of lacking dangly nether bits and half a chromosome.

It has been said before, and it has been said better than I ever could. But I am grateful to my grandmothers' grandmothers: I am grateful to Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Charlotte Despard and Emily Wilding Davies. I am grateful to those crusading women and men who gave their social security, their freedom and sometimes their lives so that my little sisters and I could own our political inheritance. Our lives are immeasurably the richer for it.

We still have battles to fight, ninety years on; all over the world, women are second-class citizens compared with men, and in this country and many others we are still fighting for full cultural and political emancipation. But today, I think, we can take ten seconds to look back at where we've come. Catch your breath: you'll get dizzy.

Much as I abhor most Disney, this song is always rousing, and I can see no more fitting tribute to our illustious forbears. Rest in peace, ladies: you did good.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Left New Media: next meeting details

Comrades, as requested:


Reclaiming the internet

Chaired by John McDonnell MP

Next meeting: Monday 15th December 7.30pm, Grimond Room, Portcullis House, London, Near Westminster Tube (SW1)

If you're planning to be there, please email Owen at to confirm attendance and to be added to the forums. Thanks!

Yrs waiting for the van,


Monday, 8 December 2008

Youth power and the progressive future

I have had it up to here - higher than I can reach at my towering 4'11 - with standing by whilst my generation, one of the most enlightened, good-hearted, engaged, interesting bunches of young people ever to grace these undeserving continents, is slagged off as the root of all society's ills.

The last in the Guardian’s 2008 series of debates, fluffily titled Who Owns The Progressive Future?, was put down by its own keynote speaker last week as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party wryly declared that she’d rather share it. Lucas, Bea Campbell, Ken Livingstone and Aditya Chakrabortty made for an engaging panel, but the mood of the debate was distinctly glum. Who owns the progressive future? Not us, was the conclusion, where us was a gathered mass of Guardian readers, most of whom had voted for Blair in 1997. I was going to be good. I was going to sit there and eat my sandwich and be quiet and be grateful for my free ticket. But when the debate turned to blaming the moral failures of today’s youth for progressive political apathy, my fingers started to itch.

A man from the audience deplored the fact that he’d caught his teenage son stealing, and declared that the ‘post-Thatcherite’ generation were ‘politically vapid’ and lacked a ‘moral compass’, at which point I found myself yelling‘absolute rubbish’ across the hall.

Slander. Lazy, unthinking neo-liberal slander that tars a generation already unfairly dismissed as drunken, amoral, apathetic, selfish and useless, the 21st Century’s Gin Lane. I have no time for it.

First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent. And secondly, at no point in my political memory has this generation been apolitical. What we haven’t been is party political, and that’s a very different matter.

I'm sorry to go on about this. But when two million of us marched through London in 2003, demanding that our government refrain from following the United States into what we knew would be our generation's Vietnam, and when we were utterly ignored, many of us ceased to believe in the power of government to change the world. For a lot of us, that was our first experience of direct political involvement - and it wasn't a happy one.

No wonder, then, that we have reacted by abandoning the parties in unprecedented numbers. As the Stop The War generation has grown up, become voteable, fuckable, marrigeable, big enough and ugly enough to make our own decisions, we have inherited a distinct political cynicism combined with an energy to effect positive change in any way we can. As the youth vote has dwindled and membership of mainstream British political parties trickled into the low hundred thousands in every age group, membership of voluntary organisations continues to soar. It is estimated that a third - a third - of 16-25 year olds is directly involved in voluntary work. There are 20 million volunteers in this country, a figure that dwarfs party membership by several degrees.

Just take a look at Redwatch, the spotters' site where fascists can go and wank half-heartedly over mugshots of wooly-hatted crusty lefties on demos (I like to think that this is BNP members' version of the Man In Uniform sexual paradigm). Well, firstly, the leaked membership list now makes Redwatch worse than useless (come on, what are you going to do? Photoshop us? Go through our rubbish? Really? We know where you live now, you terrible useless scum, so come and have a bloody go if you're going to. Are you going to write a letter to the Mail? Are you, really? Bring that storm down!). And secondly, there’s a surprising amount of fit young commies on there: Redwatch is becoming young, taut and hot as under-30s flood the anti-capitalist, green, anti-globalisation, feminist and pro-equality movements.

More of us than ever are on the streets, and fewer and fewer are choosing to engage directly with the political process. In my many soul-destroying hours interning with think-tanks and in dealings with the leached-out little New Labour finishing school that is the NUS, most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across. They’re probably going to be in power in ten years, worse luck, and these will be the young people that MPs and political decision-makers spend most of their time with. But they do not represent the sum total of political energy amongst my generation.

Who owns the progressive future? Not Labour, not any more. They lost the young British Left unequivocally in 2003, and they might even have lost us anyway, finally sick of being screwed over HE fees, excruciating debt and an employment market that has failed to adapt to new workforce demands, leaving millions unemployed or afraid for their jobs at the start of a breathtaking recession and angry that the best Labour can offer us is ‘Not The Tories’. But despite watching our politicians fail us time after heartwrenching time, Generation Y has still not given up on the idea of saving the world: more of us than ever are socially and politically active; we are connected; we care. We just don’t care about the political process very much, and that's their fault - not ours.


PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: A new activist and social community has been set up to encourage and facilitate self-organisation amongst transpeople and their allies in the wake of last month's Stonewall demonstration. T-CAN, the Trans Community Activist Network, is live at

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Milking it

Human breasts are the most fetishised part of the human body, bar none. They have been drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, fantasised, mythologised and obsessed over by the men who are told to desire them and by the women who are taught to ‘make the most’ of them for centuries. Most girls’ and women’s rooms are stuffed with apparatus to push them out, plump them up, pull them apart, squeeze them together, flatten them down and otherwise force them to resemble the platonic ideal of the fantasy pneumatic breast, currently achievable only by surgery and a certain type of mesomorphic19-year-old. Walk down any street, open any newspaper and you’ll be confronted with bosom after computer-enhanced, barely-concealed bosom. And yet, whenever there’s the slightest risk of boobs being exposed in the course of their most natural function, we whip ourselves up into a moral frenzy.

Many cafes, restaurants and other social spaces, along with a significant part of the population in general, have a problem with breastfeeding in public. And occasionally, this will enter the public domain, feminists will clamour their protest, a legion of (mostly male) prudes will harp on about hygiene and social decency and the fact that it just isn’t done, and when everyone has calmed down nothing will have changed. Breastfeeding – the biological function of the human mammary gland – has remained socially unacceptable in public, a distasteful function of feminine biology seen as akin to leaving a streaming open wound unbandaged. In 2006, BabyTalk, a US magazine specifically targeted at pregnant women and new mothers was censored for showing a baby feeding from a human breast on its front cover (presumably BabyTalk shared display space with Playboy and Hustler, but these were deemed acceptable). Recent months have seen public prejudice flare up again against nursing mothers across the western world, and there has been a public outcry against the publication of pictures of a breastfeeding Angelina Jolie.

This week, a virtual storm broke around the humiliating expulsion of a nursing mother from a trendy cafĂ© in Soho, London, because it was ‘a place for eating’ (for everyone apart from the kid, apparently). The incident has caused viral indignation across feminist and anti-feminist cyberspace. Male commentators have compared breastfeeding in public to shooting up drugs in public, claimed that the practice spreads aids, and squealed that it makes them want to throw up. What nobody has so far mentioned is that breastfeeding is not just a bodily function: it’s a form of work.

Childrearing is still seen as 'women's work' in contemporary Western society, and is devalued as a result - but there are few parts of the task that cannot physically be acheived by either sex. Breastfeeding is one of them. No surprise, then, that this most technically female bit of 'women's work' is seen not only as a personal indulgence but a disgusting one at that - no different to squeezing a zit or bleeding in public. But, in fact, the woman breastfeeding in that Soho cafe was doing her job every bit as much as the young executives hunched over their laptops. Prejudice against breastfeeding in company is not only practical and extremely physical misogyny: from a marxist perspective it is also professional discrimination. In fact, it's already been recognised as such in New Zealand.

Next time you take a walk around Soho, just count the number of partly- or mostly-exposed breasts you see in any given street. I guarantee you that there'll be any number of trendy young girls (and boys, it being Soho) with far more boob on display than any nursing mother, the reason being, you see, that when you're breastfeeding, most of what you can see is the back of the baby's head. Wearing a low-cut top won't get you thrown out of a bar, though: it's alright, as long as you're getting your tits out for the lads.

Anti-breastfeeding stigma is not for a minute about modesty. It is about restricting women's choices and underlining the message that women's bodies are only acceptable if they are explicitly sexual.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Gender fucked: what does 'healthy womanhood' look like?

Starting posts with ‘when I was in a mental institution’ is really something I try to avoid. Penny Red is not my personal headspace blog, and it’s not all about Me and My Mental Illness. [If you like that sort of thing, like me, then you should do what I do and read Seaneen Molloy’s fantastic site, mentally interesting.] Penny Red is about politics, and gender, and activism, and poetry, and feminism and freak power. But the personal is political, and sometimes, mental illness is about those things, too.

When I was in a mental institution, a lot of otherwise well-meaning medical professionals conspired to screw up my gender identity pretty much permanently, for the best of reasons (they wanted to help me get better) and the worst (they believed that conforming to received ideas of ‘feminine’ behaviour was the best way for me to demonstrate a new, mentally healthy outlook). They were wrong. I am incredibly grateful for the inpatient treatment I received, which probably saved my life, but my political and personal feminism took a massive battering, and that’s less than entirely forgivable.

Give them their due, they tried. When I turned up, with my seventeen-year-old crew-cut, wild eyes and baggy hoodies, looking like the small scrawny one out of the Jonas Brothers and suffering from anxiety, depression BDD, self-harm and severe anorexia nervosa, their first assumption was that any young woman who wanted to look like a twelve-year-old boy must simply be a Secret Gay.

I am not a Secret Gay. I am an unsecret bisexual - about a 2 on the Kinsey Scale – I consider myself gender-weird and trans-curious, I enjoy wearing drag and I love, love, love the cock. I just love cock, I always have, I always will. I also find women attractive, but that’s not the whole story – in fact, that’s one of the few things in my life that I’ve felt uncomplicatedly comfortable with. My psychiatrist and some of the nurses tried to convince me otherwise, that if I could just come out of the closet I would magically start eating, stop having panic attacks, my family would accept me and all would be well.

Believe it or not, this represents a positive step for the psychiatric profession. They were prepared, within certain rigid limits, to accept non-heteronormativity as an alternative model for good mental health. At no point did anybody (apart from some of the other inmates) suggest to me that if I were a secret gay that would mean that I was somehow a pervert. And that would not have been the case a decade or so ago. It just so happened that they got it horribly wrong.

After months of my stolid defiance, they gave up and tried a different tactic. If I wasn’t Gay, it followed that I must therefore be Straight. If I was Straight, the only healthy option was for me to Accept My Womanhood. A lot of the received wisdom about anorexia is that it’s a method that young women turn to to escape the stresses of modern femininity. Anorexia, the logic goes, removes you from this struggle altogether because when you stop eating, when you cut down from 600 to 400 to 200 calories per day, your periods stop, your curves disappear and you return to an artificial pre-pubescent state. And young women behave like this because they’re scared and angry about the roles that they are being forced into.

Really? Do you think so? Well, gosh, I don’t see any way in which growing up female and Western in the 21st century could possibly be something to want to avoid. They must be mad, those girls.

Well, yes, we were mad. We were completely and utterly bonkers, mental, loopy, batshit insane – but there was a reason. Instead of analysing why we might be unwilling to go through the process of self-subsumation that represents the western journey into ‘womanhood’, the doctors prescribed a strict programme of feminisation for me. I was told in no uncertain terms to grow out my hair, throw away my old baggy black clothes, start wearing skirts, pretty shoes and make-up, sit with my knees together and be less ballsy and confrontational. The other women on my ward, with nothing to do all day, were only too happy to dress me up like a tiny mannequin, teaching me to paint my face and nails and lending me foofy dresses until I was allowed off the ward to buy my own.

Pretty soon, as a day patient, I was getting regular compliments from leery men on the tube about my nice pink low-cut tops and nice tights and nice impression of absolute submission. This represented progress, my doctors told me. Wolf-whistles were something I should be proud of. I was nearly at my target weight: the attention of men in public places, wanted or unwanted, was proof that I was nearly ready to return to normal society as a ‘proper grown-up lady’.

And the worst thing is that I believed it. Desperate and distressed, I was ready to accept that what the doctors told me was true – note that accepting and submitting to the doctor’s rules, however seemingly illogical, is officially an important part of the ‘journey to recovery’ for many psychiatric inpatients, at least in the all-female wards I’ve had the good fortune to visit. I got down on my knees, and I swallowed it all. I lost my feminism. I believed that in order to be truly well, I would have to behave like a ‘proper’ woman: no more demos, no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no make-up, a boyfriend as soon as possible and certainly no bisexuality. Being a ‘proper’ woman meant fitting yourself out for sexual and physical attention, and that was all there was to it.

It took me years. Years and years of relapse after relapse to even countenance the notion that the part I was acting wasn’t truly myself. Years to get up the courage to cut my hair short again and stop wearing mini-skirts. I listened to ‘normal’ music (whatever was on Radio 1) instead of the shouty punk-rock, riot grrl and folk that I truly love. I stopped reading almost entirely, which was a pain seeing as I was studying literature at the time. I’m still not there yet. I still find it difficult to leave the house without make-up on, and not just because I have low self-esteem, but because a part of me still believes that ‘healthy’ women should look ‘pretty’ at all times. I still try to dress in ways that flatter my body; five years on, I still spend far too much time, money and mental energy ‘fussing’ over my appearance. I’m still nervous to truly express my politics in person, when I’m not with my friends or writing online. I still think I’m too fat, and have to stop myself reading the diet supplements in trashy magazines.

Conforming to feminine norms doesn’t make you a good person. It doesn’t make you a healthy person. Facebook has allowed me to make contact again with some of the hollowed-out husks of desperate, beautiful women I met in hospital, and most of them have now relapsed. Most are too thin, smiling desperately out of fragile, oddly-angled bodies wrapped in clothes they can’t afford and polished for hours with make-up they don’t need. In pictures, their boyfriends and parents hold them like precious ornaments that might snap if they cling on too tight. If that’s real womanhood, I don’t want any of it.

But conformity is safe. No matter how much time and effort you put in to making yourself acceptable and well-behaved, never doubt that it’s the easy option. I never feel more alive, or more free, than days like today when I stamp into work in big boots, a baggy black hoodie covered with slogans, a bobble hat and no make-up. But it takes courage. Courage to step outside the cosy cage of automatic approval and be your own, real person, without rules.

I respect those few, fabulous women for whom living without conforming to stereotypes seems to come effortlessly. Those angels who stride down the streets of London and Birmingham and Brighton apologising to no-one, fizzing with life and snug in their own skins. One day, I’d like to be one of them, and until that day I’m reading all the feminism I can get my hands on and meeting all the inspiring women I can get my hands on I possibly can. I'm writing about feminism and gender identity to raise awareness of just how much these issues affect the lives of everyone in this country and beyond. You won't be hearing reams and reams about my own issues on this blog - that's not what it's for, and besides, a surprising amount of my time is spent trying not to become Elizabeth Fucking Wurtzel. But I thought it might be useful to explain precisely where some of the nebulous feminist rage comes from. I'm alright now. I'm not mad anymore. But I'm pretty damn angry.