Tuesday 29 July 2008

A smackdown for feminism in the courts.

Nice one, Mrs Harman. With her Equalities Officer hat on, the Leader of the House has championed one of the most innovative changes to UK murder law in the past century: it is now slightly less legal for men to kill their partners in anger.

More specifically, a new proposal from Minijust the Ministry of Justice is calling for an end to the hopelessly misogynist provocation defence. This is a defence dating back to the 17th century that can reduce a murder charge to manslaughter if a defendant can claim that he or, in rare cases, she, 'saw red' or was cajoled or insulted into lashing out at zir partner. It's used in cases of infidelity where a partner might be induced to murder an adulterous spouse in a fit of jealousy. It's used by husbands who claim to have been asked to take the bins out so many times that they somehow found their fingers around their partner's throat.

Although the provocation defence is not gendered, Harman was amongst those who bravely acknowledged that it is 'overwhelmingly' used by men. Yes, women too are capable of bullying, assaulting and even murdering their partners, but in 86% of all domestic murders the victim is a the wife or female partner of the male killer.

Quoted in the Guardian today, Vera Baird QC, the solicitor general, said that "The days of sexual jealousy as a defence are over. Exceptionally, someone who loses control and kills from a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged by the victim's conduct will ... have a partial defence. However, unlike the current defence of provocation, this can't be used when ordinary domestic conflicts cause friction and emphatically will not be available as a reaction to sexual infidelity."

Women have historically found themselves treated in a desperately unequal fashion by the British justice system in domestic violence cases, being labelled cold-blooded killers when they murder an abusive partner in fear of their own lives, as in the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who suffered years of torture at the hands of her husband, including having a hot iron held to her face, before finally turning on her abuser in his sleep.

In another welcome move, the same proposal will outline plans for a new partial defence when men or women kill 'in response to a fear of serious violence', without the current requirement for the crime to have been spontaneous. Finally, a recognition that women and men who are seriously abused by their partners turn to murder out of fear, not anger. That spontaneous crimes are committed in fits of rage, but crimes of fear are often premeditated, simply because they have to be. Finally, some acknowledgement that 'just losing it' isn't an excuse for murder, but that years of sustained violence and abuse just might be a bit of one.

Noone is born a cold-blooded killer. I'm certainly not of the school which believes that if you marry a man you'll one day wake up with a knife at your throat or a fist in your stomach. But, just maybe, once we've seen the back of sexist laws from a less civilised age, it'll make it easier for my sisters' generation to enter relationships and friendships with men without fear. These legal amendments are a targeted part of a broader goal to eliminate systems which facilitate domestic violence. It is never okay to lash out at a partner because they're nagging you or shagging another bloke. Violence is not an appropriate reaction to frustration with a partner, let alone murder, and in the society we want to build 'provocation' has no place as a legal excuse. This isn't about misandry. It's not about victimising men. It's about justice.

Saturday 26 July 2008

Comic-book politicians and the Goddamned Batman

Why is it that the big, important superhero films always hit us in times of political unease? Since the planes hit the towers we’ve sat through remake after Marvel remake, each with its own special ideology ticketed along with the tie-in merchandise.

So, it’s mid-June and the sun is fizzing in the sky like a malignant bath bomb. Crazy news season is dragging itself to a crazy zenith and everywhere we turn there’s a slick new politician who wants to be our summer fling, and batman’s in the cinemas again, and the British are in the mood for a spot of king-killing. On this inauspicious Sunday, I ask you: outside certain specialised industries, is a kinky black rubber bat-suit the workwear of a sane man?

Give Christopher Nolan his due, nobody does a better goddamned Batman. But it’s what Batman represents that fascinates me, why we come back to these particular lonesome superhero myths, and why it’s Batman in particular in Summer 2008. I wanted to see nuance, I really did. I’ve tried very hard to find the subversive gay elements in Dark Knight, for example. Yes, batman has been a camp icon and, yes, the chemistry fizzes between Christian Bale’s batman and Heath Ledger’s beautiful, doomed Joker, violent, kinky and thoroughly self-torturing. But the villain-as-warped-sexual-flipside-of-the-hero is hardly original, and Ledger’s maniacal screaming – hit me again! I like pain! – only makes this tired trope the more upsetting, a weary rehashing of a self-involved male sexual paradigm which can only ever be played out in violence.

We’re about ready to be rid of the prime minister now, it seems. In fact, we’re baying for his blood from Glasgow to Henley-on-Thames. But what has he done, precisely, to offend us so? He’s failed to be the Batman for us. We believed we were safe somewhere between neurotic mother Blair and daddy Brown, dour and puritan and firmly in charge of the purse-strings. But now mum and dad have proved themselves petty, human and fallible, what are the kids of 1997 going to do? Who can we turn to? We need a hero!

We seem to want a more charismatic, US-style politician in British tweeds. Someone with prestige. Someone like Mr Johnson, who knows he is entitled to power, who has the confidence to remake the law to suit his own ends. Someone dynamic, with heritage and perhaps a volcano lair and a butler or two around the place.
And all Labour seem to be doing about this is squealing faintly about toffs, forgetting, of course, that in times of economic instability a lot of the British fundamentally like toffs. Toffs make us feel safe.

Deep down, maybe we actually want uncomplicated, comic-book leaders, leaders who throw around words like good and bad, right and wrong. We fetishise them, quite literally. They are fictional characters given life and purpose. Batman is a fictional character; Boris Johnson is a fictional character, but with a real wanker behind the photoshoots. Batman is the living image of this, a specific entitled attitude to the world psychotically embodied in the shiny inherited keds of a millionaire playboy. Bruce Wayne has no higher mission except personal revenge wrung from a spoilt, traumatised, isolated childhood. Bruce Wayne has his privilege, which at the end of the day is all he wields in the face of forces he calls evil. Bruce Wayne wants nothing apart from his own sick, slick satisfaction, which for someone who already has their own butler and a trust fund which knows no credit crunch, means power. Sound familiar?

Why can’t progressive politicians stand up for once and say that this isn’t right? Where are the heroes on the left? We’d better come up with some of them pretty damn quickly if we don’t want another four years as henchmen to a comic-book Tory toff. Well, you know what they say. Some days you just can’t get rid of a blonde.


Tuesday 22 July 2008

Bipolitics and the fourth wave

I think extreme heterosexuality is a perversion. -Margaret Mead

It has taken me a long time to identify as bisexual. And before I go any further, I'm defining that as an attraction to self-defined men, women, transsexuals and the ambi-gendered, excluding noone apart from wankers, pro-life campaigners and people I just don't fancy. Or, as Stonewall puts it:

“Many members of bisexual communities tend to prefer the definition: 'a changeable sexual and emotional attraction to people, where gender may not be a defining factor'.” Stonewall, 2008

Part of the reason I rarely write or talk about my own sexuality is the suspicion that, as a bisexual woman who has had a string of male relationships and only a handful of experiences with women, I don’t have the authority to speak about it: I’m not a real queer. I am accustomed to defining my femininity however the hell I want – yes, I can wear biker boots and a short skirt and lipstick and shave my head, and my god I’m a feminist! – but I’ve been far more comfortable with letting others tell me what’s gay, what’s straight and what’s just plain perverted.

Growing up in Brighton had something to do with it. I’ve a vivid memory of standing below the stage at Brighton Pride, 2003, my fingers sticky with pink ice-cream, and hearing the DJ yell: ‘Let’s have a shout out from the gays!’ (there followed a suitably practiced mass squeal). ‘And let’s have a shout out from all the lesbians!’ (and a booming war-cry echoed across Preston Park). ‘And finally, let’s hear it from the straight people out there – yeah, we love you too!’ As the cacophonous cheer of support and solidarity went up, I stayed silent. Despite the free Haagen-Dasz, I felt cheated. I felt that there was more to my sexuality than the gimmicks, glittery costumes and sparkly dildos on show at the festival. I went home, and I haven’t been back to my home Pride since.
Brighton is unusual in that, in some parts of the city at least, queerness is entirely a mainstream trope. As the pink pound exploded under New Labour, the arduous process of self-definition that many queer adolescents go through became simultaneously far easier and far more rigid: you didn’t need to discover for yourself what ‘queer’ meant (just as in mainstream culture you aren’t encouraged to try to understand what ‘straight’ means) because there were already systems in place to tell you, and then to sell you stuff based on that definition. It’s taken me over a decade to conclusively reach the idea that there might be more to it than that, and oh, god, the winceably terrible clittease I’ve been in the process.

'I must confess that Garber's very multiplication of examples browbeat me into wondering whether I myself might not have been bisexual had I lived in another era. When I was a young man, in the sixties, before the beginning of gay liberation, I was always in therapy trying to go straight. I was in love with three different women over a ten-year period, and even imagined marrying two often. But after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 . . . I revised my thinking entirely: I decided I was completely gay and was only making the women in my life miserable. Following a tendency that Garber rightly criticizes, I denied the authenticity of my earlier heterosexual feelings in the light of my later homosexual identity. After reading Vice Versa, I find myself willing to reinterpret the narrative of my own personal history.' - Edmund White, "Gender Uncertainties: Marjorie Garber Looks at Bisexuality", from The New Yorker, July 17, 1995, p. 81

The noted philosopher and queen in shiny leathers, Foucault, argued that the category values of homosexuality and heterosexuality are relatively recent creations, with the language of monosexuality being used initially as a changing society accustomed itself to the fact of queerness as a legitimate social sub-group. Monosexuality was a useful generational rhetoric for similar reasons to those which made political lesbianism a fantastically useful concept for second-wave feminism – but the rigidity of such categories is no longer useful to contemporary gender politics.

Monosexuality as a linguistic phenomenon has influenced monosexuality as a dominant mode of thought in western discourse – leading to blanket bisexual invisibility. Stonewall, which has often been criticised for its neglect of the bisexual community, has a passably good digest on the facets of bisexual invisibility.

Bisexuality is not greed, or opportunism, or sexual posturing. It’s not a phase young men go through before settling gently into bourgeois monosexuality, and it’s not a trick that women play to turn men on. Bisexuality is what even that fucker Freud identified as a pre-social ground state of being for both and, indeed, all genders. Kinsey points out that human beings

“do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex." Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948)

Now that I’m older and arguably wiser, I’ve come to see desiring men, women and others as a choice as well as a compulsion. It’s about challenging the rotten trench of binary thinking that runs through contemporary thought, and it’s about accepting ambivalence as something I can work with, and it's about cherishing a little world in which women are definitively sexually autonomous. And, of course, it's about thinking tits are bloody fantastic.

Bisexuality is important as a way of thinking as well as a fun way of getting your rocks off, and as its language becomes more widely used it will be increasingly useful to contemporary feminism. Fourth-wave feminism encompasses a gender egalitarianism which rejects the notion of antagonistic binaries. Fourth wave feminism is, of course, many other things, and will become still more as it develops. But increasing bisexual visibility will have to be a part of it. So accordingly I'm opening a closet door on this blog. Hello, I'm Pennyred. I identify as bisexual, and it's a part of my life and a part of my feminism.

Misandry and miscommunication....

I am having, how do you say, a stomp.

Last week my little sister suffered exactly the same indignity I went through at fifteen: having a painstakingly thought-out and researched feminist debate beaten in the school debating competition by a dim boy with a grin and a guitar. In the questions round, a gang of energetic adolescents asked the same question: Do you blame men?

After years of reading and thinking and writing and talking about feminism in the nominally adult world, I face the same question time after weary time: why do you hate us so? Why is it all our fault? Why must you blame us?

And no matter how often and how exhaustively I explain that we don’t, that feminism and misandry aren’t the same thing, no matter how careful I am to distinguish between ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘male people’, the same frantic, antic, aggressive-defensiveness persists. The same terror from men across the political spectrum that feminism means sanctioned man-bashing and, worse still, that it might have a point. An inverted delusion that any feminist statement is automatically an attack on all men, everywhere.

Feminism isn’t, in fact, all about men and the terrible things they do. Feminism isn’t even all about women. Feminism is about categories, and assumptions, and prejudices, and how they work us all over at base level. The necessity of explaining this to supportive readers and wannabe trolls alike is a central dilemma for feminist bloggers. Do you take on people's assumptions and try to explain? Do you engage?

Well, of course you do. Cath Elliott at Cif and Liberal Conspiracy is a tireless and inspiring example of the practice. You engage, and you engage again, even when you find yourself attacked and wilfully misunderstood on all sides. Because the internet is a safe space, but it's also a hypertextual space - and the right of reply, the right to ask questions and pose challenges is a central part of that discourse. Yes, it makes the whole process a lot more tiring. But in the end, you step up or you step the hell away from the keyboard.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Get me a hot towel, a silly costume and some pointy shoes and I'll dance all night....

Buckingham Palace and Number 10 yesterday gave assent for Margaret Thatcher to be given a state funeral. The Graun reports:

The first since Sir Winston Churchill's in 1965, the funeral would acknowledge the exceptional impact of her 11-year premiership in reversing the decline in Britain's postwar fortunes.
As such, it would be certain to prove controversial among the many people who lost their jobs during the "Thatcher revolution" which reintroduced market forces into many fields of activity and for which she has not been forgiven by some.

So, a state funeral for Maggie? Why the hell not. Let's do it.

And whilst we're at it, let's have a frantic choir of badly-dressed midgets singing the ding-dong song. Hell, I'm only 5ft tall myself, I'll lead the chorus. Let's have a party. Let's have a gigantic piss-up to see the old girl off, and with her what remained of industrial Britain: its hatred.

Because once the witch is dead, maybe the progressive left can finally move on.

We lost, back in the mid-80s. Well, in fact, I was watching The Poddington Peas and eating a rusk on a sofa in Islington at the time, officer - but, vicariously, I lost too. We all lost. We need to face that, forgive ourselves and move on.

Thatcher killed British industry, warped it forever. We can never go back. We've watched our children drink and smoke and fuck in the ruins for a generation now, and it's time to give up the ghost, stop bleating and build something better. We've got reforms to make, bills to fight, protests to organise. We've got at least two years left with a nominally liberal party in power and we need to use them, to their fullest.

Let's have a party. Let's have a great, big doomsday party and, in the morning, knock back a tumbler of Resolve and start planning the next battle. We aren't beaten yet. We just lost. I see red in every possible sense when my elders and betters on the left confuse the two. There are issues still to promote and everything to win in this new post-Industrial Britain for the cause of social equality, workers' rights and reformist socialism.

'Socialists cry "Power to the people", and raise the clenched fist as they say it. We all know what they really mean—power over people, power to the State.'
Thatcher, Speech to the Conservative Council, March 15 1986

It is, of course, deeply disrespectful to speculate about someone's timely death before it happens. Which is why my comrades and I have quietly had a party-kitty going since 2003. A source said that one advantage of a state funeral would be to augment the public debate about the Thatcherite legacy. 'Doubtless there will be some people who will throw water bombs, and they will probably make themselves look very stupid in the process,' he said.

There is still a flourishing liberal conscience in Britain, and we need to deport ourselves with dignity, as more than the slathering, drooling proto-fascist reds that Maggie dismissed us as. We believe in hard work, civil rights, social responsibility and the freedom of the individual. We believe in justice and in leaving noone behind. When the Iron Lady finally goes, it'll be a moment for reflection for every young punk who promised to dance on her grave back in the 1980s. So let's send her out in style, and when the dancing's done, let's plan for what comes next.


And by the way: Commie Girl is now up at Red Pepper. Enjoy. :)

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Fucking hell.

Anti-racism and feminism are on the same stakeout in the 21st Century. And this is why.

This horrendous image is a still from the winning photoshoot on the show Britain's Next Top Model. Hundreds of people must have been involved in its vetting and dissemination. This means that, by the time the photo was aired, hundreds of people had failed to notice the gag-making racism and sexism implicit in its careful organisation, or had failed to speak out.

Images of unnaturally thin, groomed, flawless, poreless, white western women dominate the cultural exchange of the 21st century. As Naomi Wolf put it:

“'Beauty' is a currency system, like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West is is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”

Add to that 'white hegemony' and 'consumer-capitalist oligarchy' and we're just about cooking, Naomi.

The timeless white silk dress and focus on the unearthly paleness of model Alex (19)'s legs and body is a tacit reference to L.R Haggard's 1887 novel, She. This does not make the image or its semiotics one jot more acceptable - She is also a staggeringly racist tract and has been read as such by generations of literature faculties. The eponymous heroine is the immortal white witch-queen of a tribe of cannabalistic Africans, destructively beautiful and utterly evil, portrayed as a sexually monstrous being -i.e, she is a woman who expresses sexual desire. The image is here updated for the 21st century beauty industry, in that rather than expressing sexual desire the model in the photograph is stretched out provocatively, smugly entitled and entirely unchallenging.

And if that makes you spit, imagine how you'd feel if you were one of the guys in the bottom of the photo, snatched from central casting and shoved into a ridiculous leopard-print strappy-top and woolly hat in order to make you look 'tribal'.

Fucking, fucking hell.

Boris, Blake and the Chartered Streets....

Tonight, hopelessly lost in North London in the rain and twenty minutes' squelch in the wrong direction from where I needed to be, I found myself at a place called Bunhill Fields.
This blowsy little cemetery claimed in mossy mock-gold lettering to be the last resting place of William Blake. Without really knowing why, I went inside, and it didn't take me long to find the grave.
I lit a cigarette and, leaning against the rain-rilled headstone and feeling wildly adolescent, thought about the city, the old poem running in my head -

I wander though each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe...

In every cry of every man
In every infant's cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear...

I thought about the city. Three years ago we were reeling from a terrorist attack which killed fifty innocent commuters and wounded hundreds more. The young men with their mind-forged manacles who blew themselves up on the underground weren't the first desperate killers to target London, and they probably won't be the last. We survived. We said we weren't afraid, even if we were, and got back on the chartered streets with comparatively little fuss. One of those moments that makes a Maltese-Irish-Lithuanian kid like me proud to be a Londoner.

Chartered. A reference (possibly) to the Royal Charters of the late 1700s, put in place to control trade and slated by Thomas Paine as a manifestation of class opression. Chartered. Bought and sold, mapped and marked. The word was ringing in my head as I elbowed my way along the Jubilee line to work this morning.

He's a card, isn't he, that new mayor? Less than two months in office and already cocking up in good old Bullingdon style. Such a funny, funny guy. Well, I'm not laughing. This is my not-getting-the-joke face. Three years ago we held our heads high in the face of a senseless and apalling tragedy. We are better than this. I'm sick to the stomach that this city gave executive power to such an appalling, incompetent bigot, that we voted in the clunking fist of aristocratic patriarchy. And I'm terrified that another two years of this might not be enough to show the dissenting home counties just what happens when you vote for the Tory old boys' club.

As I finished my cigarette, the rain let up in a rather kitsch display of pathetic fallacy. I thought about Blake, and the city he loved. Let's have some hope, then, you mad old pagan you. We're better than this. Let's hope we realise it before too long.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Tube strikers and feminist socialism

What stories can we tell about poverty in the UK? As prices rise and wages stagnate, a new era of industrial action may turn up some new ones. The second Tube Cleaners' Strike this week is a flashpoint for a city and a country sick to its stomach of scraping by or stumbling over whilst the rich get richer under New Labour.

We are sick of market-licking policy promising us jam tomorrow; for a generation, now, we've been waiting for Thatcher's economic reforms to trickle down and lift the rest of us out of squalor, as we were promised they would.

But now the bubble has burst, and it's the poor who are taking the fall for the City. The recipients of Income Support in London who rode in with their discounted travel cards to vote Ken Livingstone out of City Hall are now feeling the pinch after Johnson cut that benefit, in one of his first acts as Mayor. The slashing of the 10p tax bracket will leave 5.3 million households worse off even after new tax credits have been accounted for. And with wages across the board failing to rise in line with inflation, Alasdair Darling's plea that we all 'tighten our belts' rings hollowly in the ears of those not earning an MP's salary of £62,000 plus expenses.

And when we're talking about poverty, we are often talking about women. The Tube Cleaners have brought home the fact that a large majority of those in low-paid, undervalued work are women and immigrants, and that a staggering 22% of women live on persistent low incomes as opposed to 14% of men; as such, feminism and neo-socialism go hand in hand in the 21st century, as the struggles of women and workers for equal rights cross the no-man's-land of cultural apartheid Saint Polly's column this week gets to the heart of the issue:

'Society can't do without cleaners, carers, caterers and classroom assistants. These are not "starter jobs", nor can they be filled for ever by migrants. Is it OK to pay below what Rowntree shows is minimum decency, so long as they are all proven to lack potential? Those jobs are fair only if people who do them have a respectfully decent salary that puts them at the heart and not the margins of society - and if the social ladder is short enough for children to move with ease. Consider this as low-paid public-sector workers strike against below-inflation rises, while prices surge. '

So I spent Saturday morning watching the sun rise over North London, sharing damp cigarettes and talking cunt and suffering with some astounding women. One of us, who had been a socialist-feminist activist in the 1980s, turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘but we lost. Your lot have to carry the torch, now, because we lost under Thatcher and now we’ve lost under Labour.’ When everyone else had finally gone to bed, I found myself lapping at a cold instant coffee and thinking: was that really what happened? Did we lose? Or is it just that we haven’t won yet?

This is an exciting time in UK politics. As America ostensibly swings to the left, we’re careering to the right at breakneck speed with no thought for the handful of massive achievements we can chalk up even to this disappointing Labour stewardship. Education and healthcare spending have soared. We’re just about to feel the real benefits of SureStart. But in 2008, we still live in a world where boys from the City win million-pound bonuses streets away from some of the poorest and most deprived children in Europe; where women’s struggles and workers struggles run against brick walls of political intransigence as the boomtimes fizzle out. It should be hard, but it shouldn't have to be this hard.


In response to all the uproar around BlogNation and various debates on the future of blogging on the left: yes. Leftist blogs are increasingly important. We're important for women, and we're important for the liberal agenda, and we need to get a lot better at coalition-building very quickly, and a spell in opposition may well send us back to Politics 2.0 school. A lot of very good people are working hard to make sure we hit the ground running. Now, can we please rein in
the meta-analysis and get back to the agenda?