Monday, 22 April 2013

First women

The conductor for this year's Last Night of the Proms will be a woman for the first time in the event's 118 year history. Obviously this is excellent news. It's taking out one more shard of the glass ceiling that prevents women from rising to the top of so many professions. And it's a sign to other women and girls that their gender does not need to stop them.

Marin Alsop conducting
The woman to brave the splintered glazing is Marin Alsop. I've written about her before. I'd never heard of her until I went female conductor hunting, but then I've only ever heard of about four conductors, and half of them are probably dead.

Being the first lady

As far as I know, I've not been the first woman to do anything, but I imagine that this 'first woman' label is quite irritating. You worked hard and you got there on your own merits, but somehow you're being proclaimed as leading other women to where you are. There's also a hint that it was inevitable that a woman would get there eventually, it was just a matter of time, and it happened to be you.

I imagine that many people in this position would rather be known as the Prime Minister/Nobel prize winner/conductor than the first person to do it with a pair of tits. This 'first woman' business detracts from the fact that you're doing what you do best, and you do it very, very well.

There's the first time something happens - the first man on the moon, the first Nobel prize, the first man to climb Everest. Then after a decent interval, long enough to show how very hard it was, the first woman gets there. Hopefully we'll reach a point where these 'firsts' become just as likely to be accomplished by women as men, so we no longer feel the need to talk about the first woman and first man to do something - just the first person.

First women and feminism

We have a tendency to see first women as feminist icons, because they are going where only men have gone before - see my thoughts on Margaret Thatcher from last week.

But I can see that being proclaimed the first woman in this irritating fashion might actually have the effect of turning women off feminism. Maybe that's why Maggie disliked feminism. Maybe she felt that being the first female prime minister was about as relevant as being the first person in her family to have twins (I made that up, it may not be true).

All that said, Marin Alsop is a different kettle of fish. In her interview on the BBC website, she says the there needs to be 'more opportunities for women to be seen in these types if leadership roles' and explains that she has herself established a fellowship scheme for young women conductors. She ends by saying that she is 'appreciative' of being the first woman.

It's good that, unlike Maggie, she's doing something to hold the gate open to the women who follow her. But I wonder if she's a teensie bit irritated about being asked how it feels to be a woman, and wishes she could just get on and do her job.

It's sad that it's still so exciting for a woman to take a big public job like this. I hope that changes soon.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - feminist icon or devil incarnate?

White House Photo Office
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
So it finally happened - the Iron Lady breathed her last.

Maggie and me

I was/am a child of Thatcher - I was six months old when she became Prime Minister, and just passed my 12th birthday when she made that memorable good bye to Downing Street.

In our house, there was no worse insult than 'Conservative', and 'Maggie' symbolised all the evils of the world. For me, she was a towering eight-foot powerhouse of a woman, part Spitting Image doll, part political Hulk, synonymous with power, with Britain, with doing evil. I had no concept of any other prime minister - after all she had been the only one.

I remember the moment I was picked up from school and told that 'Maggie' was finally 'out'. Whilst being delighted that this monster was finally toppled, I couldn't conceive that the world might actually go on without her. I swung between disbelief and optimism about what this brave new Thatcherless world could hold.

Women at the top

Britain did manage to carry on without Thatcher at the helm, and it's been 24 years since then, but in all that time we've had no female leader - there's not even been anyone come close to leading any of the three main political parties.

Far from opening the gates to allow women into power, Thatcher seems to have been a single exception.

Was Thatcher a feminist?

By all accounts, Thatcher didn't consider herself a feminist and didn't have much truck with feminists, or for that matter, women. Only one woman made it into her cabinet (Baroness Young), perhaps because Thatcher felt herself better equipped to dominate men than women, and dominating was what she did best. 

But you don't have to be a feminist to be a feminist icon, in the same way that you don't have to be gay to be a gay icon (look at Marilyn Monroe). Whatever we think of Thatcher and her politics, as a woman she's one of the big achievers. 

We (the UK) have had female rulers before - Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, but they both inherited their positions, only because there weren't any suitably closely related men. Thatcher got there on her own merits. She wasn't even born into the ruling classes. The very fact that she managed to persuade one of the most conservative countries in the world to vote in a woman as prime minister, let alone getting the Tory party to accept her in the first place, is remarkable. And then stayed there for 11 and a half years. That's mind boggling. 

As a feminist (me not her), I might dislike her, but I have to admire her. She proved that you can be a woman and still get to the top. Or, to put it less positively, you don't have to have a cock to behave like one.

Hating Thatcher

This is easy and fun and I heartily recommend it. I'm not going to list the horrible things Thatcher did, there are plenty of places you can read about them. Nor am I buying a copy of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, although I appreciate the sentiment. I hate her more for the self-centred individualist ideology that she stood for, than for the individual things she's done (which I was quite young to comprehend), although many of them were hateful.

And if you disliked someone in life, I see no reason to go all soft and 'respecting the dead' on them once they're gone. The fact that we are no longer there to defend ourselves doesn't undo the wrongs we did. The comedian Mark Steel said this far better than me in the Independent: 'You can't just shut us up now that Margaret Thatcher's dead'.

It seems the Iron Lady's death is proving as controversial as her life. At a time when benefits are being cut so some of the poorest in our society are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, it's pretty disgusting that we're spending £8 million on her funeral. I'm not saying she shouldn't have a decent send off, but the living people who are struggling to get by should be the priority, not a dead woman, who may have been loved by half of the country, but was equally hated by the other half.

Hero or villain?

So what was Margaret Thatcher - the ultimate female pioneer, or a friend to oppressive regimes (apartheid and Pinochet), who thought nothing of bringing crushing unemployment onto the very people she was elected to serve? Feminist icon or devil incarnate? Both, if you ask me.

No matter how anti-feminist she was, she will  always have a place in history as the woman who got there first. Even if you say she did it like a man, she did it as a woman, and we can't forget that. Just bring on the next female leader so we can prove that other women can do it too - and maybe next time they'll take a few of us with them.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Topless Jihad Day

Femen outside a Berlin mosque. (source:
This week my favourite angry feminists declared Thursday 4 April Topless Jihad Day.

The Ukranian-based radical feminist group Femen, announced a jihad on Islamic attitudes to women and their bodies - the attitude that says that women need to keep themselves covered so as not to tempt men.

Protests around the world

Activists in Paris, Berlin, Rio, Milan, San Francisco and Montreal bared their breasts, painted with slogans, outside Tunisian embassies and mosques.

The protests were in support of Tunisian student Amina Tyler, who last month posted topless photos of herself on Facebook, with the slogans 'Fuck Your Morals' and 'My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honor' painted on her body. This was not popular.

Islamist hackers responded with an attack on Femen's Tunisian Facebook page, replacing topless photos with quotes from the Quran. Tyler was threatened with death by stoning.

Montreal (source:

Is the extreme way the right way?

I'm not an extremist, and I'm not sure how far this particular protest is really helping promote equality for Islam women. It has been argued that the nature of their protests could actually set back the cause they are fighting for in the Middle East, which would be hugely sad for millions of women. 

But let's not forget that when it comes to equality, the softly softly approach often just doesn't work. 

Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes were extremists - and if they hadn't used extreme tactics it's very unlikely that we would have reached the level of equality we have today in the UK. Maybe we would have achieved the vote by now - just - but I'm guessing that things like maternity leave and equal pay would still be distant dreams. 

Sometimes you need to fight to get what you're owed. And equality between the genders is something we're owed worldwide. 


One of the many great things about Femen, is that they are pretty much guaranteed good coverage (coverage, get it?), because what newspaper will pass up the opportunity to publish a photo of an attractive woman baring her breasts in the middle of the city, for a political ends? You don't often get politics and boobs in one snap. 

Some of the coverage they get may be gratuitous, but their message, that women's bodies belong to them, and them only, is not. Whether you agree with the way they operate or not, you have to admire them for having the balls, or tits, to stand up for what they believe. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Is it OK to show violence against women on TV?

Of course we have to depict violence against women on TV, in print and on stage. Violence against people is a fact of life, so we must confront it, and it would be ridiculous to decide it was alright to show violence against men and not women.

But there is a certain kind of fetishised on-screen violence, exclusively directed towards women, which receives far more screen time than it needs to.

The delightful King Joffrey, on a thrones made of knives

Game of Thrones

I am watching the second series of the medieval fantasy TV show Game of Thrones. In one episode the adolescent King Joffrey is presented with two prostitutes, in the hope that a night of revels might make him slightly less unpleasant. However, instead of gratefully resigning his virginity, he gets his rocks off by instructing one of the prostitutes to beat the other, in increasingly vicious and painful ways, until she is either dead or severely wounded.

The strongest effect of the scene is to make the audience dislike Joffrey - previously he was a deeply unpleasant teenager, whereas this reveals him as something much more sinister.

Eroticised violence against women

Game of Thrones doesn't at any point condone these kinds of violent sex acts. But the context in which it presents this violence - a luxurious bedroom, with two attractive and entirely naked women, prepared to do anything to satisfy the demands of their adolescent client (although they are slightly reluctant to beat each other to death) - is fetishised.

Whilst the main message is that this young man is bad for wanting to do this to women, there is a subtext that suggests that abusing women is a form of pleasure for some men.

I read a piece about the BBC's Ripper Street, when it was on a few months ago, which suggested there is an appetite for seeing horrible things happen to beautiful young women. These kinds of eroticised violence against women are presented to both disgust and titillate. And it's not a new thing - if you don't believe me read the Marquis de Sade, he reaches levels of abuse and depravity that Game of Thrones couldn't go near.

I can't think of an example that is the opposite way around, with women deriving pleasure from inflicting serious physical pain and damage on men (please tell me if you think of one).

Censoring violence

The episode left me feeling uncomfortable, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - I want my light entertainment to challenge me a little bit (although Game of Thrones is not an obvious choice for intellectual challenge).

It's not the violence that disturbs me - there's a lot of gore in this series - but the sexualised way it is presented somehow makes it worse than all the torturing, maiming and killing that goes on elsewhere.

I wouldn't censor TV, I think there is a responsibility to depict the real world, and even though Game of Thrones shows a made-up world where most of the population has a claim to the throne and a woman can give birth to dragons, the human behaviour it depicts, is realistic enough.

But I think that programme makers should think seriously about the ways in which they present violence against women. If violence against men isn't presented as a sexual thing, then must violence against women be shown so frequently in this way?