Wednesday, 31 March 2010

I would like to be a dot on a painting by Miro

I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro.
Barely distinguishable from other dots, it's true,
but quite uniquely placed.

And from my dark centre I'd survey the beauty of the linescape
and wonder -- would it be worthwhile
to roll myself towards the lemon stripe,

Centrally poised,
and push my curves against its edge,
to give myself a little attention?

But it's fine where I am.
I'll never make out what's going on around me,
and that's the joy of it.

The fact that I'm not a perfect circle
makes me more interesting in this world.
People will stare forever --

Even the most unemotional get excited.
So here I am, on the edge of animation,
a dream, a dance,a fantastic construction,

A child's adventure.
And nothing in this tawny sky
can get too close, or move too far away.

A Poem By Moniza Alvi

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

This is Hardcore: A feminist's journey into porn

It all started with Secretary. I was watching the film in bed one night, on my laptop. Maggie Gylenghall was bent over the desk, her pert bottom raised skywards, expectant. James Spader(so perfectly cast) did the honourable thing and spanked it to a pink, tender pulp. The next thing I knew my hand was down my knickers, and the rest is very wet, sticky, breathless history.

Why did it take me so long? I had wanked before, obviously. I'd watched sexy films before, of course. So why never the two simultaneously? The answer is short, and also long. I am a feminist, you see. I am a feminist the way many people are Roman Catholic, or Muslim, or Manchester United. I was just born into it. My Mum was a feminist, and her mum before her. I read Spare Rib when I was eight, went to Greenham when I was twelve, stormed a Pro-Life rally when I was eighteen. (I can still see the image on the screen now, a giant, pulsating feotus-'Fight Alton's Bill: A Woman's Right To Choose'. And then we were ejected from the building). But what I never, ever did, was watch porn. Feminists didn't do that kind of thing where I came from. We barely even spoke about it, except in dismissive, throwaway statements. Pornography exploits women. It sells a version of women's sexuality that is unrealistic, objectified, demeaning. It is part of 'rape culture'.

So there I was, aged 34, fricking myself off to a film about a woman who got her kicks from submitting herself to the will of a very unusual, slightly creepy, but sexy as fuck man. What did I do next? Did I rush to the internet to find 'Four Girls One Cup?' or to explore the complete back catalogue of Seymour Butts? No. Not yet, anyway. I did what I always do at times like this. I had a little think. And what I thought was this. Somewhere along the line, my beloved feminism has let me down. In theory, it has been nothing but laudable, teaching me that my body is my own, to do what I please with. That I don't have to be told by a man how to dress it, when to give it up, whether or not to use it to make babies. But feminism has also made me confused about pleasure. All those demos, all those meetings. We talked about rape, oppression, abortion, prostitution, but never about sex as fun, wanking as blissful release. What about a woman's right to cum?

A few years on, and my feelings towards pornography are incredibly ambivalent. I choose my stimulants very, very carefully, and when in doubt, I don't look. I agree with all the main feminist arguments against the industry, and I have added some more of my own (*'bareback' film companies:wtf?). I will return to what is wrong with porn at a later date. But this is a defence, not of an industry, but of a woman and her horn. You may be reading this and tutting, drinking your Starbucks cappucino, dressed in your H and M T-shirt, planning your Easy Jet flight to New York. But as soon as we consume anything, whether it is a cup of tea, or a harcore porn movie, we are implicated. We are part of 'the system'. Think about it. I did. And it has made me a better feminist, and a much more satisfied one too. Now I am off to watch the latest offering from Why not dive in with me?

Monday, 29 March 2010

Geek, C'est Chic

It seems everyone likes to call themselves a 'geek' these days; everyone on the internet anyway. But what does the term mean, and is it really chic to be a geek*?

As I write this blog, there is, somewhere in the depths of Russia, a tall, bearded 43 year-old geek by the name of Grigoriy Perelman, who is faced with a dilemma. Perelman has won the $1m Millenium maths prize, for solving the Poincare Conjecture, one of the most difficult maths problems in the world, that has been 'open' (unsolved) for 99 years. But he can't decide whether or not to accept it. He gave up the heady world of academic stardom a few years ago, and now lives reclusively, with his family. So for Perelman, accepting the prize would mean unwanted media attention, expectations and embarrassment. To think of all the i-pads and kindles he might not buy with the cash, makes one a little teary.

Is Perelman a 'geek'? Not according to the recent flood of TV shows, books, magazine articles, internet posts, tweets and blogs, on the topic. Because geek c'est chic. Gone is the time when bookworms and chess champions, with their oversized cardigans and bad hair earned the title of 'geek' (or 'nerd' or 'dweeb'). They knew it was an insult but they wore the moniker as a badge of honour. What else did they have? Certainly not a girlfriend, or a pair of converse, or a taste in macchiatos. I was in maths club at school. Yes, maths club. I knew where these kids were coming from.

Nowadays, you can't go online without someone proclaiming 'I'm a geek, me'. Over and over again. Geek blogs are everywhere: '7 reasons to date a geek boy', 'the chic geek* monthly newsletter:grooming tips' and 'Den of geek'. A handy venn diagram by the Great White Snark,
tells us that a geek has intelligence and obsession, but lacks the added characteristic of social ineptitude, which would make him/her a 'nerd'. The new geeks are really the archetypal 'new media' types: they have jobs involving laptops and coffee shops, they care about their appearance, their pockets are full to bursting with ipods, blackberry's, flat whites and cash.
Of course they are intelligent-that goes without saying. Well it goes with saying one word: 'geek'.

I'm not buying into the mythology. I don't think working with new technology and being permanently attached to bits of electronica make you intelligent. Or attractive. Call me old-fashioned, but my ideal 'geek' would be someone in shabby attire clinging to a dog-eared copy of Dubliners, specs misting up in the rain. I don't care if he's never even heard of Tech Crunch. Now pass me my cinnamondecaflatte, I'm going to post this baby up and tweet it within an inch of its life.

*I had the idea for this blog and title before I saw 'chic geek' newsletter

Monday, 22 March 2010

Blogging for Girls

What do Zoe Margolis, Sarah Lacy, Brooke Magnati, Charlene Li, Pip Lincolne and Julie Powell have in common? That's right. They are all well-known successful bloggers, read by millions. Most have turned their blogs into books and one has been adapted into a Hollywood film. Oh and they all happen to be women.

Sadly, it seems, Margaret Wente of Canada's Globe and Mail, has not heard of any of these accomplished women. She thinks blogging is 'a guy thing', like driving a snowmobile up a mountain 'at 120 miles per hour' is a guy thing (for James Bond maybe). According to Wente, women don't share men's urge to 'spit out an opinion about current affairs every 20 minutes'. And, as all phenomena in the (post)modern world are explained, Wente says the blogging gender divide is caused by a syndrome: 'Male Answer Syndrome'. This 'sexual' syndrome explains everything apparently, from boys putting their hands up before girls in Maths lessons (do they??) to women being quiet at dinner parties (are they??), to women's so-called inhibitions about writing stuff and posting it online.

This stunning revelation in a Canadian national newspaper must be backed up with some pretty shit-hot research and references musn't it? Well, you will be pleased to discover that yes, Margaret has done her homework here, girlfriends. She went to the trouble of rigorously asking her 'friend Sarah the other day (Sarah is 24 and several of her male friends have started blogs)'. Sarah and Margaret agree that though equally opinionated as men, women just 'aren't interested' in taking part in the 'peeing contest' that is male posturing on the blogosphere. That settles it then.

It's very tempting to dismiss Wente and her 'theory' out of hand. The women bloggers I sent her article to on twitter certainly did, succinctly summarising her ideas: 'bollocks' (@girlonetrack)and 'blah blah men are rubbish, nature/nurture will that do?' (@sarahditum) We had a laugh. Forgot about it. Went back to our...blogging. But Wente's words have got under my sensitive skin. Lazy, poorly written and generalizing they may be, but they tap into some very powerful discourses that impact on real gender divisions that do exist, in new media, in journalism, in RL (that's 'real life' Margaret dear). Wente is saying that men like to write talk and argue in a combative manner, that they do so impusively, aggressively and effectively all over the media-old and new. And women don't. This reductive stereotype of essential gender difference is infuriating and wrong. But, as with most stereotypes, there is a 'truth' to which it relates. Werte is right, there are many more men than women in highly paid news journalism jobs, including columnists and opinion leaders (some of whom have blogs). She is also right that when it comes to the comments sections on newspaper forums online, they are full of men, arguing the toss. Men's 'talk' in the media and online does hold more power, and earns more dollar, overall, than women's. Before I get lost down a 'blah blah nature/nurture' culdesac (thanks @Sarahditum!), I want to talk about this 'talk'.

I have been wandering around the 'twittersphere' recently, and reading comments sections on online newspaper pages. In doing so I have witnessed some of the difficulties faced by women who have a public and online presence. The main difficulty they face being, that they get shit from men for, well, speaking basically. On twitter for example, the TV critic and columnist @gracedent, asked why there were so few women on TV panel shows. One man responded in a very rude and aggressive manner, and when she argued with him he became more personally insulting so she ended the conversation. In another exchange, @JosieLong the comedian was harangued and personally insulted out of the blue by a man who'd seen her perform somewhere and had decided she was 'shit'. Online comments sections following articles can be just as fraught for women offering opinions and analysis. Zoe Margolis, in recent interviews about her new book: Girl With A One-track mind: Exposed, has had numerous abusive comments from men based on her open-ness about her sexuality. In a now well-documented irony, when discussing this and other issues in the Independent On Sunday, the sub-editor decided to call her a 'hooker' and now she's involved in a libel case against the paper. I am sure the women I have cited here are accustomed to this kind of hostility and are tough enough to deal with it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. And for women less successful and confident, maybe young women setting out on careers in journalism, comedy or other fields involving a public persona, personal attacks from anonymous and not so anonymous detractors can put them off pursuing their goals.

A blog can be a haven for women. It is a place where you can put down your thoughts and feelings, document your experiences, and even have some control over who reads and comments on your work (on sites like LiveJournal for example). A bit like a diary. When blogs become 'successful' , read by large numbers of people, that's when they become less easy to control. The person behind the blog becomes more liable to be put under the microscope, as Zoe Margolis found when she was 'outed' as Abby Lee, author of Girl With a One Track Mind. As Zoe has said, she has on a number of occasions since her outing, sat with her finger poised over the 'delete' button of her blog, wanting to put an end to the upset and abuse she receives on a daily basis.

My research into this issue of how women who blog, tweet and post articles are treated online, has so far been minimal (though not as minimal as Wente's!) I would really like to hear from more women of their experiences and thoughts. And, I would love it if collectively women might come up with some methods for dealing with the problem, if it is a widespread one, which I have a hunch it might be. Because they may just be words on a screen, but as all women bloggers and journalists know, words on a screen can mean making a living, forging a career, keeping or losing one's sanity, privacy, sense of self. Margaret Wente is wrong: it's not 'a guy thing' at all.

Friday, 19 March 2010

10 Things I Have Learned From Twitter

10 Things I have Learned From Twitter

1)People want to connect with other people

2)Feminism is not dead.

3)140 characters is the optimum length of utterance: basically intelligent people can use it to their advantage

4)Most social interaction is a question of filtering

5)Famous people are careful what they say

6)People who think they are famous are careful who they say things to. And talk crap to those people. But the rest of us can hear you, dickbrains.

7)Art is not dead.

8)Not all publicity is good publicity

9)The UK media really should make way for information coming from other parts of the planet. And even if it doesn't I can ignore it and listen...

10)I still fancy men in glasses. Even in a 3cm2 avatar photo that only shows half their head.
What's that all about?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Girl With A One Track Mind: Exposed
By Zoe Margolis (aka Abby Lee)
Pan Mcmillan 2010

‘Girl with a one-track mind’ first came into being in 2004, as a blog by ‘Abby Lee’, documenting her full and eventful sex life. The blog proved so popular that it was turned into a book. And that’s when the trouble started. ‘Abby Lee’ who had described her sex life in intimate and graphic detail under a pseudonym, was outed by a national newspaper as the very real Zoe Margolis. ‘Girl with a one track mind: Exposed’ tells the story of Zoe’s outing, how it impacted on her personal and professionally, and how she attempted to rebuild her life and continue to enjoy and blog about her sexuality despite the obstacles put in her way.

On one level ‘Exposed’ is an easily readable, refreshingly honest and funny account of a thirty-something woman’s sexual adventures. As such it works very well. If you pick it up feeling a little un-worldly or maybe even prudish about women’s sexuality, there’s a good chance that by the time you put it down you will be enlightened and persuaded that there’s nothing wrong with women enjoying their bodies and those of whoever they may choose to have thrust in front of them. You might even have picked up some useful tips. Margolis deftly and humorously explores issues such as masturbation, sadomasochism, experiments with same-sex sex, men’s genital hygiene, horniness during menstruation and other topics that are still left very much under-examined in our oh-so-sexualised but also sexist and censorious culture.

But there is much more to Exposed than one woman’s quest for sexual gratification and liberation. In the book Margolis documents how, until she was outed she was a runner on major film UK productions and had been developing her film industry career for a decade. The best passages of the book for me are when she describes the atmosphere of working on film sets as the only female crew-member. She had to deal with a daily barrage of sexist comments, sexual innuendo and sexual advances which to some extent she accepted as part of the territory. She describes how she developed a method of being more explicit and outrageous than the blokes so they could never intimidate her or catch her off-guard. But along with always being expected to make cups of tea at the drop of a hat, arrogant condescending actors and the extremely long-hours culture of the film business, this male-dominated, testosterone fuelled environment would have been stressful for any woman to thrive in and remain sane. When she was outed, Margolis immediately knew she would be the laughing stock of the set, and that her career was in danger. That she got sacked over the phone came as more of a shock. The film producers were worried about the effect revelations of her double life would have on the reputation, and presumably box-office returns, of ‘child-friendly’ brands such as Harry Potter.

So suddenly, the book changes from being a light-hearted ‘sex romp’ to a moving , honest and angry account of how women are punished at work and in the media for being their sexual selves. Margolis negotiates the shift in tone expertly and shows herself as a capable writer, not ‘just’ a sex-blogger. The harassment from the paper that outed Zoe included door-stepping her for photos, digging into her and her family’s personal life, publishing details of her mum’s career, and sending threatening emails. This was then followed by a stream of unwanted attention from the rest of the press and accusations, many from anonymous internet users, that her outing was part of a planned publicity campaign. Attacked by her former employer, the press, and then the internet ‘community’ which had first welcomed her, it is no wonder she felt ‘stuck in a kind of nightmare’ and narrowly missed having a complete breakdown.

Once she gets over the initial shock and sadness of her life as she knows it falling apart, Margolis manages to regain her composure and she injects plenty of humour into the tale. She describes her dad being threatened by builders for rummaging in their van, which he thought belonged to paparazzi, for example, and Zoe’s embarrassment when her mum reacts to reading an excerpt from her first book where Zoe and a man in America enjoy an intimate moment together (that includes plenty of cunnilingus) . She also raises some laughs with tales of dating minor celebrities after being outed, joined as they are in a mutual desire for privacy and no-strings sex.

The fact that Margolis is so honest about the struggle she goes through to maintain her sexual openness in the full glare of the media spotlight after having her confidence shattered, is heartening and touching. The reader is willing this story to have a happy ending. In many ways it does: in her new ‘public’ role, Zoe works as an ambassador for the young women’s sexual health charity, Brook, putting her media profile and expertise to good use. The work of organisations such as Brook is vital in a culture where young women are bombarded with sexualised images and role models, but also judged for being sexually active, when what they need is information and support.
She also mentions in the book being in talks with producers to make a film out of it, which as she said would be wonderful ‘karma’, after how badly she was treated by the film industry.

But there are clouds on the horizon. Since the second book was published, Margolis has already become engaged in a legal battle with the Independent on Sunday newspaper, who, in the headline for an article supposedly supporting her, called her ‘a hooker’ and ‘a good-time-girl turned agony aunt’. This distressing occurrence underlines why her book is so important. Women are still not able to enjoy and discuss the ins and outs of their sex lives without being frowned upon, harassed and labelled.

I don’t know quite what will come of her blog now that Margolis lives her life very much in the public- eye. She already posts much less frequently and explicitly on it, for obvious and utterly understandable reasons. But, blog or not, I hope Zoe continues her campaign for liberation from the small-minded misogyny of the tabloids, the film industry, the ‘respectable’ broadsheets and society in general. I am pretty sure she will.