Tag Archives: feminism

Insecure

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-8-10-52-am-www-imagesplitter-netI have long been a fan of Issa Rae and her particular brand of wry humour. I loved Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and I’ve just finished watching her new show, Insecure.

I can’t recommend it enough. It’s funny but painfully real. The secondary characters are well-developed and I love how complex the lead character is. It’s the sort of complexity that’s usually reserved for male characters, who are never under pressure to be likeable. Issa is flawed, human, hilarious. Real.

But for me personally, her best friend Molly really resonates. Her series of dating dramas just speak to me powerfully and I know I’m not alone. There are so many great characters in the show and her portrayal of that interconnected web of relationships, colleagues and friends is just pitch perfect.

At the moment, watching this, Atlanta and Crazyhead, I feel like I’ve been spoiled for good TV with Black leads. Susan Wokoma (Crazyhead) played my favourite character in Chewing Gum and in Crazyhead she tears up every scene she is in, giving it attitude, pathos, reserve and humour as appropriate and with ease, switching gears with a quiet self-assurance. I hope to see more of her and that we don’t lose her to the States when Crazyhead lands there this month*

 

*I wish her well of course. But if we want to keep talent like hers on this side of the pond, the roles need to be there. I hope the industry takes note!

 

 

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How Language Betrays Our Thoughts on Equality

I am having a nerdy week. So to kick it off, here’s a fascinating TED talk on how language betrays our thoughts on equality.

Language matters to me a great deal. I believe that one of the scariest things about this “post-truth, post-facts” age is that the language we use is slipping. It’s not the vintage racial slurs that are back in fashion; what’s sending my bat senses mad is the framing of issues around equality – be it racial, gender etc.

These are being framed as an “elite” concern and it’s not just the right, it’s liberals too, who are talking down “identity politics” like it’s a merry game we’ve all been playing in the last few years for our own amusement, and now it’s time to get back to the serious business of dealing with class and economics. (and Whiteness as the default. It’s not said, but the erasure of other groups is a whitewashing.)

It’s frightening though how that then informs what is “authentic” and worthy of political action. So, working class people of colour are erased in favour of dealing with white working class grievances. Which are just presented as neutral working class.  This authenticity dovetails into the discussion on nationalism which is only celebrated for its imperialism; any efforts to colour in the picture with the contributions of people of colour and indeed the effects of this imperialism on other people’s globally is seen as somehow inauthentic and invalid. Identity politics again.

Who we consider authentic has a bearing on citizenship. As we expand the hostile environment and move the endless border to encroach ever more on the lives of citizens – the rental market, at the doctor, where you are asked to perform citizenship again and again it throws into stark relief who is more likely to be considered “foreign” and therefore singled out. Every time you’re singled out it’s a reminder that you don’t belong, regardless of what your papers may say.

So, language matters. Framing matters too, because it shapes how we discuss the matters at hand. The right’s biggest victory has been in reframing the discussion on immigration, citizenship, belonging, Europe etc and liberalism’s failure is in trying to win on that turf.

We need to mind our words. They betray what we’re really thinking.

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Poor Imitation

I am an avid fan of the Eloquent Woman blog, which I’ve mentioned here before. And in a thoughtful post, the speech trainer Denise Graveline reflects on Melania Trump’s disastrous speech in which she plagiarised Michelle Obama:

“No matter how you vote, I think it’s a shame that this happened to a woman speaker on only her second speech of the campaign. The Republican National Convention had just 34% female speakers on the stage, with this speech the most prominent by a woman. I’m ending the week feeling as if Melania Trump was not, at a minimum, well supported for this now-famous speech, in both the speech preparation and the spokesmanship about the controversy. In the end, this major stumble at what might have been the start of a high-profile speaking career is going to dog her steps going forward. Should she become First Lady, she might well want to avoid speaking publicly, which would be a big step backward for that role. This will frame her media coverage and her credibility. Her unfavorable rating was high going into the convention, and it will only increase now. And it should. In the end, the responsibility for a speech begins and ends with the speaker, no matter how many speechwriters you throw under the bus.” – Denise Graveline

In a subsequent post, Denise looks at the Melania memes. I like this post because although I’m no fan of the Trumps and I think Melania pales in comparison to Michelle Obama, she makes some good points about women in public life and how some of the mocking of Melania tips into slut-shaming and misogyny. Even if we disagree with her, she should be heard (and vociferously disagreed with).

“Even if we don’t agree with what she might say, we shouldn’t be about silencing her… I still plan to hold her to account for her words or her delivery, if those become a problem at a policy level or provide a poor example.” – Denise Graveline.

I think her post is a good reminder that as we go into the next eight years (I guess) of Trump, we should not shy away from challenging him and his policies, but we should be mindful of not letting that tip over into something more nasty. And while Melania married a dangerous bigot and is unelected, she will still be part of the Trump infrastructure in the White House so we should not discourage her from speaking. As the proverb goes, we should let them hang themselves by their own petard.

As the unparalleled current FLOTUS said, “When they go low, we go high”.

 

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Grey Ambition

anthea.pngThis is going to seem really shallow, but I’m going grey and it has really unsettled me.

Getting older is a funny process. It’s only when you mention something in passing to your friends that you think is only happening to you that you realise everyone is figuring out what to do with wrinkles, the odd errant chin hair and skin that might go from oily to dry or even from flawless to teenage-style oily.

But the real issues are below the surface. For women especially, the ageing process is reveals so much about your conceptions of femininity and what expectations you have for yourself in terms of family and career.

It’s rare to see women with grey hair in the workplace, particularly in more corporate environments. It’s not perceived as distinguished and dashing as it is on men. Dyeing your hair to mask grey is not dissimilar to wearing makeup – For some, it’s an imperative to subscribe to the cult of youth, to others it’s just fun or they like how it looks. I don’t judge. But I was struck that whereas some of my friends may or may not wear makeup, or shave their legs, or pluck their eyebrows, the friends who have told me they are going grey all dye their hair or have weaves, wigs or braids that cover it, even my friends who wear their hair natural.

There’s something about hair. Perhaps because woman’s hair is almost emblematic and traditionally there has always been pressure for women to have long hair that conforms to the “feminine ideal”. Less so now; but still: everyone remembers the apex of Britney Spear’s troubled year in 2007 as the point when she shaved off her hair. The natural hair/weave/relaxed hair debate continues to roil in black communities. Shaving your head or growing a huge afro is seen a bold political statement.

Hair is tied up in our notions of femininity in a way that wrinkles are not. I have found myself unsettled, I’ve realised, not because I’m upset about ageing but because I expected to be in a different place in my life when this process became most visible.

This is stupid – I’ve had friends who went grey at 15 – but having interrogated my emotions, I feel like I did turning 30. It’s not the date that bothered me, just the disappointment of unmet expectations – expectations that I didn’t know I had. (to be clear: that I would be married, further along in my career, that I would have a career, children).

And that’s why the grey hair has thrown me for a loop this year. I didn’t really know that I had any thoughts about it until it happened and I feel strangely vulnerable still being “on the market” dating-wise as a visibly older woman. (I know, even as I type this I’m thinking, REALLY? But yes, this is an honest post).

I don’t want to dye it because I actually like my hair and all its colours (black and brown in different lights, now silver too) and I am loathe to change it. So I won’t. But it took me a little while to summon the courage to decide this, even though when it comes to other matters of hair removal or makeup or body image I am totally comfortable drawing my own line and walking it.

I’m disappointed in myself; I’ve clearly still got some way to go in terms of growing into my confidence as a 34 year-old. I’ve put a picture of the academic Anthea Butler here because I’ve always loved her look and thought that I’d try it perhaps when I got older.

Well, the first silvery threads are here and they brought friends, gathering into what appear to be two streaks at the front. They catch the light and keep surprising me. But I’m not going to dye them. I am learning to lean in and show up as that creature that society is alternately fascinated and repelled by – the (visibly) older woman.

 

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Trump, His Critics and Women

I wrote my first article (in my personal capacity) for Christian Today about Trump, his critics and how their condemnations of his comments on women are revealing. It’s a different audience than I’m used to, and I’m still learning how to bring all of me more explicitly to the proverbial table – my faith,  my feminism and of course my preoccupation with politics.

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Not Leftovers

I was incredibly moved to see this advert about China’s “Leftover Women”, the phrase for women over 30 (maybe even slightly younger than this!) who are not married.

It’s meant to be an empowering ad for a cosmetic company, so yes, consumerism and all that, but in a few minutes it goes to the heart of an issue that’s close to so many hearts – including mine.

I don’t feel like a “Leftover Woman” but being over 30 and unmarried has its frustrations and anxieties, particularly if you harbour hopes of having children one day.

It’s usually more about others than you, though. A single woman is sometimes perceived as a threat by attached women – no one quite knows what to do with you when it’s mostly couples socialising together.

And there are the assumptions – that you must be very picky or impossible or that you have a lot of free time and money as a result.

A while ago I would have probably written quite bitterly about the assumptions that some people make that your life is somehow less meaningful, particularly if you’re not a mother. Or about how you can be perceived as a failure.

But I’ve been on a journey. I discovered that I was becoming a bit bitter because felt like a failure. Looking at other people’s joy (sigh, social media) began to grate. The endless Facebook posts and photos of engagements, weddings and children chafed, irritated me.

At the time I was reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, now one of my favourite books of all time. In it, she writes (about covetise or envy):

“I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offence at the beauty of it”

That really resonated with me. I prayed. I reflected. I sat for a time with my (frustrated) hopes and expectations and tried to practise more gratitude for the place I was, rather than hankering after the place I wanted to be. (Perspective: it’s not like I am singularly obsessed or anything; let’s just say that every so often -more so if I went on Facebook – this feeling of ‘failure’ rankled.)

Now, I watch that video and it resonates with me, though I am lucky not to feel pressured by my family to settle down. And I am able to share my friends’ joy.

But most of all, things feel unbelievably sweet. Perhaps because I’m happy with where I’m at* instead of focusing on the alternative.

*Incidentally, where I’m at is a busy place because I’ve barely had time to blog for myself. But I’m back!

 

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In Formation

Beyonce-Knowles-Pepsi-Super-Bowl-50-Halftime-backup-dancers-zana-bayne

So…I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not a member of the Bey-hive but I’m not archly against Beyonce. I find her music fun but I’m not expecting her to be everything for me as a Black woman and a feminist.

Nevertheless I found it bewildering that without exception, the British press reported on her Superbowl performance as “race baiting” or “stoking a race row”. I would hazard a guess that they all subscribe to the same news agencies. But…even so, to reflexively take that editorial line without question in their news pieces (there have been a range of comment pieces) shows how such overt Blackness is seen as a negatively provocative and threatening, even by the liberal media (looking at you, Guardian).

Of course, the performance was political and made reference to the Black Panthers and more than a passing nod to current movements such as Black Lives Matter. This was done even more explicitly after the show when her dancers gave the Black Power salute and held up a sign in protest about the death of Mario Woods at the hands of the police. Taken together with her new video dropped the day before, Formation, it was all political. The fact that was instantly read as inherently threatening a race war and prompted hyperbolic comment from people such as Rudy Guiliani, who interpreted it as an attack on the police, shows that the politics are still salient.

It’s something I’ve been turning over in my mind as I look at the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US and Corbyn over here. These old Socialists, derided as dinosaurs and dreamers by their own parties and most of the media, have captured the imagination of a great many young voters. It’s galling for Clinton that younger women are more likely to support Sanders. Of course, they shouldn’t plump for Clinton just because she’s a woman, but it’s interesting that her historical run (as a woman who actually stands a chance) hasn’t lit a fire.

And as with Corbyn, I’m with Gary Younge in that I expect the reaction to Sanders’ rise to be dismay, hysteria and ridiculing his supporters. In the UK, no one has stopped to ask why Corbyn’s ideas and some of his ideals have traction. Could it be that the problems he’s identified – with capitalim, privatisation, austerity etc- are still crying out for a solution? As with Sanders. And….the Black Panthers. The conventional wisdom goes, well, capitalism won, it’s awesome and we’re all doing fine. Oh, and we’re post-racial now, too, so why the Black Panthers thowback?

To an extent, their reaction to the apparent resurgence of these ideas (and I would say that Black politics has never gone away, just retreated from the spotlight perhaps – that’s not to say that many activists have not been campaigning or organising in the time before Black Lives Matter – and nor is that the only movement in town) is illuminating. If these movements are redundant are the ideas have been defeated by progress, why the panic?

Maybe the renewed fire in these movements is because the solutions advanced for the problems they identified have been found wanting –  and the cosy political consensus isn’t interested in solutions because they don’t see the problem.

Could it be that we had a financial crash in which no one was held responsible but for which everyone else but in particular the poor, disabled and the young have had to pay? Could it be that politicians have waxed lyrical about cutting welfare and gleefully shredded the social safety net while increasing corporate welfare and being pathetically grateful when the likes of Google deign to pay some tax because the mood caught them on a Friday afternoon? Could it be that the issues the civil rights movement was fighting for – voting rights, economic inequality, housing, policing, social justice – have seen progress but are still outstanding? Black Lives Matter is articulating all this for a younger generation of digital natives.

Which brings us back to Beyonce. It was a risky performance (for a very mainstream bankable performer), but the fact that it resonated (horribly for some, gloriously for others) shows that these conversations are live, right now. I also find it interesting that her Formation video roots itself in New Orleans – an article I read recently on Black Lives Matter pointed out that the backdrop to the movement isn’t just police violence but a post-Katrina political context.

I won’t go into the detail of her performance at the Superbowl and the Formation video- the visuals, the representation, the politics, the blackness – not when so many others could do and have done it so much better. Like these two women:

One: “On Jackson 5 Nostrils, Creole vs Negro and Beefing over Beyonce’s Formation” by Yaba Blay:

A work as racially and emotionally charged as “Formation” is bound to cause tension. And because Beyoncé so often evokes something very personal, we need to approach one another with more care and caution. After all, it is very possible to enjoy the “Formation” song and video and take issue with it at the same damn time. Because we’re human.- Yaba Blay

Two: “Beyonce and Forms of Blackness” by Michelle R Smith:

When Beyoncé does something like turning out the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show, and black people start arguing about whether that was a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, we’re not really arguing about Beyoncé’s performance.

I mean, yes, some people love her singing and dancing, and others don’t, but that’s not really the root of the conversation, I don’t think.

I think what we’re really arguing about is how we want to see blackness represented in the media. And underneath that I think we’re arguing about what we really think black people need to be doing with themselves and doing about our collective “situation.” – Michelle R Smith

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Strong woman

Still partaking in the seemingly endless process of sorting through my bookmarks and came across this:

What the Hell is a Strong Woman Anyway? , a video reflection for the Guardian on the representation of women in film by director Chanya Button. It was timely, produced to coincide with this year’s BFI film festival.

The theme of this year’s festival  was Strong Woman – prompting Button to probe what we mean by that. It’s an oft over-used term which can sometimes imply that strong women are the exception rather than the norm.

I like her video. I also feel a bit of ambivalence towards the term. I love films and TV shows with a strong female lead. I could write ode’s to Saga from the Bridge or Patti in Damages or Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.

I gravitate towards media with interesting images of women, in particular those who are allowed to be three dimensional. Perhaps that’s it – what so many of us are yearning for is complicated female characters, because we are all complex in real life. We use the phrase “strong” because so often women are the foil for male characters, caricatures and stereotypes; so often they were just objects to be desired or rescued. What’s great is that in TV especially, we are seeing a range of characters – the sort of roles that men have taken for granted for decades.

Just – women.

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Three on Race and Charleston

Three great pieces of analysis on Charleston and race, incidentally all by women *fist bump* What unites them all, for me, is the blunt honesty therein. And how each of them speak to this situation but also wider, into the present, the past and the everyday.

ONE The Cost of White Comfort by Chenjerai Kumanyika . A very honest reflection from Chenjerai on how the work of healing post-Charleston is more vexed than it might first appear. I feel that she also speaks to a wider, universal truth about Black minority survival – something that’s articulated in lesser degrees in smaller, more mundane interactions – and one that’s as applicable to the UK as the US.

“Survival for black folk during slavery, Jim Crow and well beyond necessitated thousands of small demonstrations of pleasant compliance toward white people. This didn’t just mean crossing the street when a white person approached; it meant keeping your eyes down while you did it. It didn’t just mean stepping off the curb for a white person; it meant smiling as you did it.

Today, it means that when I discuss these shootings with my white students and my heart is bursting at the seams with outrage and grief, I must keep my voice and gestures gentle and calm and validate my students’ most hurtful comments so they don’t feel personally indicted.

And it means not just acquiescing to unwarranted police interrogation and arrest. It means being friendly, even gracious, throughout the ordeal. Black survival has so often depended on white comfort.”

TWO I Don’t Want to Be an Excuse for Racist Violence Anymore by Chloe Angyal. A hardhitting analysis of how the concept of White women’s purity is often marshalled as an excuse for racist violence to be perpetrated on Black men and women. And a good reminder that Black women are so often the bottom of the proverbial pile when conceptualising womanhood in this way. This has been said time and again by Black feminists, and this timely intervention by an ally is welcome.

“[the attack at Emanuel AME] was also the latest in an unbearably long line of lethality meted out in the name of white womanhood—in my name, and maybe in yours. In the name of my purity and virtue and perfect femininity. We must not ignore the role of white womanhood in this act of white supremacist violence, or in any other. We must not find a way, yet again, of avoiding talking about whiteness. And until white women decide that we will no longer be used as an excuse for violence, until we decide that we will no longer tacitly condone and benefit from the violence, we will continue to have blood on our pale, “perfect” hands.”

THREE Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof by Roxane Gay. I love Roxane Gay long time. Her book, Bad Feminist is up there as one of my favourite feminist reads. This article, with excerpts from a longer interview, is thought provoking. While not detracting from the right of the families and church community in Charleston to offer forigiveness, she explains why she can’t. I admire the families for their grace, and I can only hope and pray that I would have the courage to do the same in their position. So, in that sense, I disagree with Gay, however, what she speaks to is a more political forgiveness, or how Black people’s forgiveness is used to move the conversation along and forego any deeper analysis of events like this. On that I absolutely agree with her. Forgiveness must not excuse us from the hard work of excavating this attack and the White supremacist system feeding it – it’s beyond just one man. Furthermore, the onus is not on the minority to make the majority feel comfortable (it ties back quite neatly to Chenjerai’s piece in this regard).

“In the bail bond hearing, the judge was talking about how there are two sets of victims: the families of the nine slain and then Dylan Roof’s family. And I was stunned because he spent more time talking about Roof’s family and what they must be going through. And that really, for me, exemplified the power of whiteness. And we’ve also seen a lot of this expectation that as black people, ‘OK, we forgive this so that we can move on, so that we can heal.’ But I don’t think that it’s our job to forgive anymore. I think that it’s time for reconciliation on the part of people who enable this kind of racism.”

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Shondaland

I’ve been catching up on my favourites list; articles and shows that I have bookmarked and not got round to reading yet.

One of these was Shonda Rhimes’ acceptance speech from October last year when she received the Sherry Lansing Leadership award for being a pioneer in her field. Shonda owns Thursday night TV with her shows Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy. She is the first woman to have that sort of TV real estate and definitely the first Black woman to do so.

I have to say, I enjoy all her shows. They are full of action, drama, ridiculous, breathless dialogue and fabulous music. She also makes some great (though at times quite heavyhanded) points on sexism, racism and other issues. She makes the pill sweet to swallow. Her shows lack the subtlety and devastating finesse of The Good Wife or Damages, but they are punchy and assertive; much like the woman herself.

Her reflections on leadership and women breaking through the industry remind me of Hillary Clinton’s comment about cracking the glass ceiling when she lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.

“I know this isn’t an award because I’m a woman or because I’m African-American. I know that it’s really about breaking the glass ceiling that exists in the face of being a woman and being black in this very male, very white town.,”

“But I haven’t broken through the glass ceiling…If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know..If I had broken through a glass ceiling, I would have felt some cuts, I would have some bruises, there’d be shards of glass in my hair. … If I’d broken the glass ceiling, that would mean I made it through to the other side, where the air is rare. I would feel the wind on my face.”

“The view from here  —  way up here where the glass ceiling is broken  —  would be incredible. Right? So how come I don’t remember the moment? When me with my woman-ness and my brown skin went running full speed, gravity be damned, into that thick layer of glass and smashed right through it? How come I don’t remember that happening? Here’s why: It’s 2014. This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs, that could only be happening right now.”

She went on to pay tribute to all the women who have gone before her. It’s easy, as a woman living now, to forget that the privileges we enjoy are hard-won, that so many women fell at the first hurdles so that we could walk over them later.

My maternal grandmother left the home to work as a postmistress in rural Jamaica. My paternal grandmother was one of the first primary school teachers in her region in Malawi, outlived two husbands, built a life for herself and her children. Even in my small family, there are stories of breaking the mould, of the power of education for women, stories of sacrifice and strength. They paved the way for me; crucially, they and other women in my family expanded my ideas of what I, as a woman, could achieve. I have been nurtured, encouraged, challenged by a whole host of remarkable, understated women who would never make a song or dance about it, but who have powerfully shaped my life.

As Rhimes put it:

“How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?” Rhimes said. “How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through  —  I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had worn itself away.

“So I didn’t have to fight as hard. I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and called it my target. And I ran. And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”

 

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