Monday 27 July 2009

Media lies and the 'Me First' generation

Ooh, look. Here’s some probably-quite-new-fairly-meaningless statistics about youth, gender and mental health from which people with no knowledge of psychiatry and little conception of the complexities of mental health difficulties and young people’s lives can extrapolate almost anything they fancy. What fun. Let’s see how insensitively we can completely miss the point, shall we? That’s probably what I’d be thinking to myself were I an overpaid broadsheet grunt; as it is, I’m an angry blogger, and a youngish woman with mental health difficulties to boot, so all I can do is stand at the sidelines with my modicum of inside knowledge and carp at the immense cocking stupidity that’s been hashed out in the press over the past few days.

Let’s start with the earth-shivering ‘revelation’ that gets wheeled out every year or so: that feminism has failed to make women happier. It’s been standard Mail and Telegraph fodder for ages, but now the Graun have stepped in too, spinning Madeleine Bunting’s piece on how ‘consumerism’ is ‘damaging’ women for all it’s worth. Bunting’s moderate article is drawn from the more thumpingly derivative conclusions of smug pop-psychologist Oliver James, whose job is to travel around the world being surprised that people as rich as he is aren’t happy. He, too, is deeply concerned for the moral and spiritual health of young women, given that recent studies have shown that – shocker – some 15-year-old-girls aren’t very happy and also like a drink. He deplores the fact that “Victoria Beckham [is]consistently the girl they most want to be during this era”. Yes, that’s right. Because as far as Mr James is concerned, Victoria Beckham – 35 years old, world-famous model, fashion designer, businesswoman, former singer and mother to three children – is still nothing more than a “girl”.

James, like Bunting, is simply appalled that women and girls aren’t happy. After all, what more could we want? Haven’t we got the vote now, and the right to work almost as good jobs for almost as much money as men whilst still carrying out 80% of unpaid cleaning and caring duties? Haven’t we got the right to behave however the hell we like as long as we’re not old, or ugly, or overweight, or lesbians, or left wing, or non-white, or happily unmarried, or disabled, or poor? If we’re not all gurning beatifically now, surely that means that we were wrong all along? Shouldn’t we get back to the kitchen and find husbands to bear cookies and bake children for, if we’ll be happier that way?

If you hadn’t guessed, I find all this gawping media speculation about women’s mental health disgusting, if far from surprising: down the centuries, casting aspersions on our mental health has been the number one way to keep women in check and limit our choices, from lobotomies for ‘nymphomania’ in the 19th century, to forced hysterectomies for hospital inpatients in the 1970s, to today’s handwringing over the mental health of women who choose to have abortions, as if women weren’t mature enough to take that risk.

Our choices are pathologised and moralised and muddled together with the very sensitive, completely separate subject of mental health difficulty in ways that are achingly archaic and damaging. Not to mention demeaning, because as well as leaping to the assumption that ‘Women’s Liberation’ has actually achieved its aims, the attitude presumes that what women want – politically and personally – is to be ‘happy’. Who said we want to be happy? I thought we wanted to be free, to be fulfilled, to have the power to make our own choices and to lead our own lives, to be happy or miserable on our own terms. The suffragettes didn't fling themselves under the hooves of royal horses for 'happiness'. They had much more important things to fight for.

Ah well. At least the same sort of crass, derivative statistic-bending media hypocrisy isn't being applied to the mental health of young men as well this week. O hai, Anne Perkins.

New statistics from Childline
show that the proportion of boys calling the helpline to seek support for abuse, bullying and other distressing situations has doubled, from one in five to one in three. Rather than something to be applauded - suggesting that the millions of hours poured in by teachers, care workers and child psychologists trying to make boys more comfortable with seeking help have not been wasted - Anne Perkins suggests that this is in fact a sign of the moral weakness of our generation, what she calls "the 'because I'm worth it' generation'" in her rather unfortunately titled article When self-love is out of control.

Perkins' analysis of what makes boys unhappy is no less sexist, patronising and hateful than James' summation of the "toxins" ruining the lives of the young girls whose periods, let's not forget, are according to Mr James dependent on how attentive their fathers are:

There is a long list of candidates: laddette culture, Wags as models…and a massive sense of relative deprivation – always feeling you deserve better than what you have got, be that your boyfriend, MP3 player or your body. This was the It Could Be You era, one stoked by the advent of reality television in which girls such as Jade Goody, who would never have had a chance in previous times, became rich and famous just for appearing on Big Brother.

It was James, Perkins and their ilk in the first place, gangs of privileged media pundits from older generations, who decided that we were the generation that ‘had it all’, rather than, say, the generation who were trying their damn hardest to remain human despite being saddled with the highest expectations and least support structures of any group of young people in living memory. Not that that’s news, of course. Every generation tries to embody in its young its worst fears for itself, and our narcissistic, materialistic, addicted, self-centred, phenomenally up-fucked parents’ generation pointing the finger at us and telling us we’re moral degenerates is hardly news.

In fact, we are one of the less socially mobile generations of the past century; the real ‘It Could Be You’ generation, the generation with the most genuine opportunities for kids from lower income families, is the generation now making these ridiculous pronouncements: Oliver James and Anne Perkins' generation. To recap:

1.We didn't signed up to the women's movement to get happy; we'd rather be miserable on our own terms than Oliver James' fantasy grinning bovine housewives

2.The mental health of women and girls cannot be morally measured, and to suggest otherwise is highly offensive

3.The mental health of men and boys has no cultural value: it is not a sign of weakness or even of increasing distress that more young men are seeking help. In fact, the Childline statistics are to be welcomed

4. Mental health is not a gender issue: your mental health is not related to, or a predicter of, how good a little boy or girl you are. External arbiters of gender are, in fact, something that implicates your mental health rather than the other way around. Mental health difficulty has no moral value, and it cannot be placed on a map of social or gender deviance: it's simply a problem that a lot of young people, as well as a lot of not-young people, are trying to deal with from day to day.

5. Columnists: take your jealous mitts out of your cloth ears and try, please, to understand that the generation you so readily dismiss as narcissistic and frivolous has problems of its own that you can't even begin to comprehend, mainly because so far you haven't bothered, unless you're Nick Cohen.

Here ends the lesson


  1. *double-takes* Um, this is the generation of people that have caused the recession and they want to accuse US of 'having it all'?

    Pardon my language, but- bitch, PLEASE.

    Maybe if the world stopped lying so hard to young women and men alike, we might all be 'happier'.

    I really love it when journalists trot out 'ladettes', a species I've only ever seen in news video clips.

    Maybe feminism needs to be rebranded as 'women's liberation.' We got out of the kitchen; now we want to liberate ourselves from rape culture and the sincere belief of privilege-addled morons that everything is about 'choice.'

    Many kids nowadays DO think they have an entitlement to a lot of things and many don't understand the value of hard work, but from what I see in most cases, it's naivety and a misguided sense of rebellion that leads to that. As well as peer pressure, of course.

    I don't see how those issues are going to be dealt with, though, until we intersectionalise and drop the race-bomb good and proper.

  2. Wow, that Anne Perkins article is vile. She deplores 'self-love'; but when boys try to seek information about 'other-love' (i.e. sexual intercourse) this merits a parenthetical sneer...? The fact that childline is their resource for sex education is pretty damning of schooling in the UK. Presumably she would prefer that kids just work out what to do by trial and error, with the natural consequences that entails. But that doesn't matter to her because she thinks their girlfriends are 'playground Paris Hiltons' anyway, and asking for it. And then in the next paragraph she implies that these anxious boys are on a continuum with psychopathic murderers. wtf?!

  3. Another wonderful post. Thank you. :-)

  4. I like this post, I really do, but that last paragraph is so very Kevin the Teenager. "You're so OLD and you don't UNDERSTAND!"


  5. I think the problem with young men in modern Britain is that they have been convinced (by people like you, penny) that people in general and people in authority in particular, actually care about them. They clearly don`t.

    So, here`s the thing. Complaining about your problems all the time is deeply unattractive and highly unlikely to get you anywhere. instead of relying upon the kindness of our families we have all been driven into the arms of strangers, which is an exceedingly dangerous place to be.
    Also, the emphasis on relative poverty does blind people to the incredible riches and opportunities at their disposal, while the assumption that they are "owed" the same as everyone else, means that they refuse to work for it. Basically, leftist materialism and the anti-family, pro-state/nation emphasis are a massive problem.
    Finally, the problem here isn`t an excess of choice - it`s the illusion of choice, while our real options have been made less favourable (due to the gradual destruction of the family as an institution).

  6. I mean honestly, you women complain for all that time and we go to the trouble of giving you the vote and the Equal Pay Act and you have the temerity to be unhappy?! Continuing societal inequality actually affects your quality of life?!

    Seriously for a second, although I take your very valid point about feminism not being primarily concerned with happiness but equality, the study, if taken at face value, is still worrying - (even if feminism isn't aimed at greater happiness for women, it should hopefully be a consequence of diminishing inequality - insofar as this has occurred)

    I wonder if perhaps the reason for the change seen in the West and Sweeting statistics is actually similar to reason for the change in the Childline statistics. As in, neither statistic actually indicates a greater amount of mental ill-health now than ten years ago - instead, more boys are calling Childline because they're more comfortable with seeking help for their problems than before. Similarly more girls/women are admiting to mental health difficulties because of increasing (if still worryingly limited) public awareness of mental health issues twinned with lessening pressure from outside for them to conform to a particular conception of girls as always sweet and sunny-natured. These two (as well as other factors I must have missed) might explain the rise.

    On that note, I'd be interested on looking at the text of the West and Sweeting report - I've tried to find it but the internets don't seem forthcoming, suggestions please? :-)

  7. Hey, you don't know me, but you might have heard of me? Name's Leeanne. El directed me to your blog. Just wanted to let you know I've been reading and really enjoying it. So you may see more comment from me as time goes on. :)

  8. As people become wealthier they simply find more complicated ways of being miserable.

    It is good that people are being raised out of dire material wants, & this is happening worldwide, albeit slowly. But it's not as if the human condition is abolished by this, is it?

    More & more people now have time to think rather than putting all their efforts into raw survival, so of course a lot of us will be frustrated. It's still a better life than our forefathers had. We should still support prosperity for those who are currently suffering hunger & complete lack of anything, & for those of our own poor who can juat about keep their bodies together but whose souls are groaning.

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  10. Well, for pure bone-headed stupidity it takes a lot to beat Anne Perkins apparent suggestion that killing a lover in a jealous rage - an activity so old-fashioned that it probably precedes the invention of language, let alone the age of the internet - is more prevelant now based on an incident involving one disturbed individual in New Zealand.

    Oliver James is a prize fool dressed as an expert. I'm still laughing at his recent claim that CBT is crap because it makes people experiencing depression think they're feeling better. This is obviously significantly different from actually feeling better but it's a shame for all those people who were feeling better but are now feeling worse after James told them they weren't really feeling better.

    I don't think any of this commentary tells us anything valuable or interesting about the experiences of the current generation. But it's stuff that 'commentators' can knock off in an hour or so and get a few hundred quid for it. Times are hard. I'd happily churn out crap for cash, too.

  11. I am a perverse young lady. I enjoy proving people like Anne Perkins and the rest of that rather abominable crew wrong.

    I vote, I seek work, I pursue relationships that are not heterosexual or even monogamous, I shan't ever be getting married, I enjoy and use all the rights now available to me- work, voting, contraception and more.

    And you know what? I'm actually pretty damn happy. My rights and freedoms to choose my livelihood, to own my own stuff, pursue my own happiness instead of being a cooki cutter wife... they do actually make me happy. They let me keep my future in my hands.

    Screw Anne Perkins, Oliver James and the rest. They don't live in our world any more. They're fading while we are on the way up. They can tell us that we're miserable, mad little psychopaths and hysterics if they like, but their offensive wittering will only serve as an amusing backdrop to a generation that is willing to work harder than ever to overcome and ignore boundaries of race, sex, disability and more.

    TL;DR - Actually, you can be a very happy female these days, our generation is better than theirs, they're on the way out.

  12. @KJB well, exactly, thank you.

    @Anonymous - hello! Yep I've heard of you, all good stuff. Good to see you on here, glad you like it so far :)

  13. @Red El you put it beautifully. Do you think I might quote from that in the future?xx

  14. "In fact, we are one of the less socially mobile generations of the past century; the real ‘It Could Be You’ generation, the generation with the most genuine opportunities for kids from lower income families, is the generation now making these ridiculous pronouncements: Oliver James and Anne Perkins' generation."


    At a time when social mobility has fallen through the floor, you'd think that these pundits might more usefully spend their time wondering about the sinister and worrying nature of a society obsessed with celebrity.

    The message now widely prevalent is: anybody can make it if they conform to aesthetic stereotypes, switch off their brains and go on reality TV (or the equivalents).

    The truth is: fewer and fewer people can "make it" even in the narrowly defined terms of conforming to aesthetic stereotypes, becoming wealthy and in turn famous for no worthwhile achievement other than being famous...let alone "making it" in terms of securing a reasonable income, being contended, secure, and happy etc.

    Instead of looking at this disparity and worrying that the celebritisation of culture, and the mythical equality of opportunity society that attends it, these pundits decide to point the fingure at young people and deride them for a "me first" generation, which they neither asked for nor created, but had foisted upon them often with no indication that there might be alternatives.

    Instead of lamenting the victims of a "me first" society of unequal opportunity sugar-coated with celebrity, they victimise the victims.


  15. Oliver James seems to be seriously misreading the research he's quoting. He says:

    In fact, a new study suggests that 15-year-old girls - and especially offspring of the class of person who reads this paper - are probably the most mentally ill single group of people in the whole country: a staggering 43% of them are seriously emotionally distressed (ie mildly depressed or anxious) and 27% are suffering a full-scale major mental illness (severe depression or anxiety).

    Hang on a minute, the research he's citing is here.

    The study is a comparison of three surveys of Scottish teenagers conducted in 1987, 1999 and 2006, in which they were all scored on the General Health Questionnaire 12 (GHQ-12).

    The GHQ-12 is basically a quick'n'dirty assessment questionnaire based on 12 questions about your sense of happiness or wellbeing. You wouldn't make a diagnosis based on it, but you might use it to gain a snapshot for statistical purposes (as in this research study) or you might get your patient to fill it out every month or so to get an idea of whether they're getting worse or better.

    What the study shows is that levels of reported unhappiness rose among girls between 1987 and 1999, and among both boys and girls between 1999 and 2006. That in itself is a worrying result, and you can argue about the reasons for this (rising social inequality, greater media pressure, maybe just more willingness to admit to psychological distress - take your pick). But what it doesn't do is make statements like "27% of 15 year old girls have severe depression or anxiety". Apart from anything, else, that's a ludicrously high statistic, and would have over a quarter of our 15 year old girls showing palpable physical symptoms (psychomotor retardation, concentration and short-term memory shot to bits, sexual libido dead in the water).

    After all, the GHQ-12 is a 12-point questionnaire. It would have to be a pretty godawful child psychiatrist to diagnose severe depression on the basis of 12 questions on a sheet of paper.

  16. Oliver James treats statistics like a drunken man treats a lamp-post... actually, that's being kind. He treats statistics like a wanker treats his cock - something to be massaged vigorously until you get the result you want. As I have explained on my blog.

    of course he is far from the only person who likes to throw around numbers such as 43% of people are seriously emotionally distressed and 27% are mentally ill. I think we can all agree he is the most annoying though.

    However a little nitpick with Penny's piece - lobotomies were not performed in the 19th century. They were invented in 1936. (Technically I think Burkhardt did 6 operations before 1900 that could be considered lobotomies in retrospect but they weren't for nyphomania at any rate.)

  17. This shows, to me, the continuance of a disturbing trend in modern society! It's the education system to blame I believe...

    After all, it can hardly be blamed on these people that they do not seem to know what statistics or, for that matter, experts are for.

    If I had my way, I would make it an actionable offence for people in positions of power to publicly (put polls to preposterous purposes) and knowingly misrepresent statistical data for their own ends. What do you think?

  18. Penny: "...we were the generation that ‘had it all’, rather than, say, the generation who were trying their damn hardest to remain human despite being saddled with the highest expectations and least support structures of any group of young people in living memory."

    Erm, I'm amazed. In an earlier paragraph, Penny writes about Childline, a support facility for young people that didn't exist twenty five years ago. We now have dedicated units within the police to support survivors of sex crime. Universities have support teams to provide learning assistance to students who would never previously attended them. Schools identify dyslexic pupils and others who require special help.

    I don't claim that these services are perfect, but they exist, and they weren't around twenty-ish years ago. Perhaps if they had existed, we'd have fewer embittered journalists.

    Penny in first paragraph: "I’m an angry blogger". That's not healthy; you'll end up being a libertarian.

  19. As Christiane Rochefort said so well, oppressors just can't understand what oppressed say: to them it's not words but noise.

  20. Pretty damn fine, as ever, save only that you say that the mental health of of boys ringing Childline:
    (a) has no cultural value yet,
    (b) the fact that it's going up is a Good Thing.
    Surely this can't all be true, unless 'no cultural value' is being made to mean something rather technical and weird? If it's irrelevant going down it must also be irrelevant going up.

    Otherwise, carry on.

    Chris Williams

  21. Red El
    Will you marry me?

  22. I love this post, and would still love it even if I wasn't a mentally -ill feminist tranny :-D

  23. PS Still waiting for full answer to actress question, and for Penny to reveal if she admires Andie MacD more than the other actresses listed (and, if not, why not).

  24. PennyRed- you're quite welcome to it. Anything I post as a comment is fair game for reuse, recycling and anything else that comes to mind.

  25. Thanks Zarathustra for the link
    I read the report but had some problems with the jargon within it - but from what I could tell the survey consisted of asking these 15 year olds whether they felt that they were "..." - with 6 of the "..." being indicators of negative mental health and 6 of the "..." being indicators of positive mental health.
    If I understand the report correctly, it showed that affirmative responses to all the indicators had gone up in the more recent surveys but actually, if you average them (which is crude, I know) the response to the positive indicators went up MORE than the response to the negative indicators (measuring 2006 against 1987).
    Um, which is an entirely different story to the one that everyone seems to be telling .....

    Am I reading it wrong? Any statisticians out there?

  26. One point - Victoria Beckham may very well be aaspirant role model, but can we look beyond what she has achieved, to what she means and what she represents? That is : nothing. After all, we all know people who achieved a lot with their lives - just not anything that benefited anyone else. I was thinking of Hitler, but do not want to invoke Godwin's Law.

  27. Vanilla
    Was Andie MacD a burlesque performer in the past while the rest of them weren't?

  28. Are Penny Red and Vanilla Rose actually the same person?

  29. I have to say, I find your rejection of utilitarianism rather unsettling. See here:

    Not to mention demeaning, because as well as leaping to the assumption that ‘Women’s Liberation’ has actually achieved its aims, the attitude presumes that what women want – politically and personally – is to be ‘happy’. Who said we want to be happy?

    Who on earth would not want to be happy. Happiness is the aim of near enough everyone on earth, be it themselves, their family, their species or their deity who they aim to please.

    I thought we wanted to be free, to be fulfilled, to have the power to make our own choices and to lead our own lives, to be happy or miserable on our own terms.

    The entire point, surely, is that a lack of freedom was making them unhappy. Unless we are to get into nonsense talk of "natural" rights.

    The suffragettes didn't fling themselves under the hooves of royal horses for 'happiness'. They had much more important things to fight for.

    A single suffragette was killed by a horse, & it remains unclear as to whether that was an accident (she was trying to halt the animal & misjudged) or was indeed an intentional martydom performed by a disturbed woman. Again, your lionisation of the suffragettes (a bunch of window smashers practically designed to confirm fears of silly, irrational, hysterical woman getting out of hand as soon as they forgot their place, led by a cowardly fool who strutted around Paris penning screeds on the evils of sex and the need for "Chastity for men" while her mother was being force-fed with a tube) is both inexplicable, and disturbing.

    I have nothing but respect for the women & men who actually got results (i.e. the suffragists), but the suffragettes were a crew who abandoned women's rights for jingoistic nationalism the second the First World War started, making it their aim to get as many men fed to the meat-grinder as they possibly could. Are these sex-hating harridans really your heroines?

  30. @ James, I suppose the "chastity for men" slogan made more sense before widespread contraception. Although in general your comments are food for thought.

    @ Divine Steve, I don't think she was. The question is about something the others did, and which she was asked to do but refused to.

  31. Very well-put, Penny, and I must say a few good points in comments too, not as much wank as usual (although I do see deleted bits...)

    A perspective on happiness: "I see happiness as a byproduct. I don't think you can pursue happiness. I think that phrase is one of the very few mistakes the Founding Fathers made." James Hillman, whose book Healing Fiction I'm reading now on recommendation. I'd recommend it too, unless one has something against rogue Jungians. :)

  32. Vanilla
    Did the others perform nude or topless while she didn't?

  33. Correct, Divine. As far as I recall, it is on record that during the filming of "sex, lies and videotape", Steven Soderbergh actually asked her and Laura San Giacomo if they would do a bit more nudity and they both refused. In my opinion, that was also the right decision for the film as well as for them as individuals.

    There are things to admire about the other actresses listed, but Ms MacDowell deserves a little credit for saying, "No, I didn't sign up to do nudity/toplessness and I'm not doing it". However annoying I find her adverts, especially the one where she is on holiday and her wrinkles are not, she does deserve some credit for not being talked into taking her clothes off when she didn't want to.

  34. Where have all the commentors gone?

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  39. "... not in the mood..."

    That's what my girlfriend usually says when I suggest strenuous sexual intercourse on a Sunday, Penny. Either that or "Sunday is the day of rest". (Which doesn't wash because she's Jewish and is usually up for it on a Saturday morning, noon and night, the official semitic sabbath.) All I wanted from you was permission to leave a simple comment on your Blog and you deny me this innocent pleasure in the self-same manner.


  40. I find the comment by James particularly interesting. Indeed, wasn't/isn't it the lack of freedom/liberation/respect making women unhappy? Stopping them from being 'free and fulfilled'? Isn't being free and fulfilled the same thing as happiness? Or as close to it as any of us ever get?

  41. "James, I suppose the "chastity for men" slogan made more sense before widespread contraception."


    I can see it making more sense, but I'd still argue that this is basically the crux of the Pankhurst's problems: they were still very much biological essentialist sex warriors, rather than binary eliminationist feminists.

    If you read what Christabel wrote about men & venereal disease it's quite obvious that she found the courser sex nothing short of scum (whether it was VD or men that were the "Scourge" is up in the air, really). I think that this was an opening volley in the misandrist nastiness which radfems were to pursue later on in the century.

    But again: there were many, many women who bought none of that bullshit. It's just a pity that they get heralded so less often, & that even one of the finest contemporary feminists is starry-eyed over a group which had as their dracon a man-loathing sex-hater.

  42. I detected a bit of anachronism in my last post, I'm sorry: expecting the Pankhursts to be "binary eliminationist feminists" is ridiculous given the unsophisticated understanding which existed at the time of the whole gender/sex thing. My point was that there were groups, individuals & strains of thought that sought to bring the genders closer together, while the WSPU was clearly trying to drive them to war.

  43. Sorry Penny, had one too many


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