One very clever woman fights back

It is exam term, and finals are in less than a month. As a result, posting will be (and already has been) light, as I struggle desperately to read everything tragic ever written. I’m also probably not going to be in the mood for delving deep into my own emotions when it comes to new and exciting sexual issues – seriously, I’ll be lucky just to be getting laid – so there may be less sex positivity than usual. In its place, however, I offer you something very close to my heart, that made me both angry and proud in so many ways, and took my mind of Othello for a minute or two.

Professor Mary Beard is one of my favourite people ever. As the majority of people who read this blog are not classicists, there’s a chance some of you won’t know who she is, but trust me, you ought to. She is probably the most famous living female classicist, which is pretty important if every bibliography you’re ever given as a student is just a list of men’s names, with a token ‘alternative’ article written by a woman at the end. But in case that seems like a pretty niche claim to fame, I’d say that if you asked the majority of Brits to name a classicist, any classicist, she would be the top response. Mary Beard is basically the face of classics in this country, due to her TV series on Pompeii and now Rome (BBC 2 and Tuesday nights – tune in!), her frequent appearances on shows like Question time, and her column for the Times, A Don’s Life.

I love her for several reasons. Firstly, she is a brilliant classicist. When I was studying ancient history last year, her books and articles on Rome were always the first place I’d look. I also very much enjoy the freelance features she writes in various papers, usually about some interesting insight into Roman life, or a classical take on a current news story. But she’s also a feminist, and has no qualms about showing it. I’ve read her thoughts on issues from the trials of being a female academic to her own rape, and find her inspirational. As a female academic in what is an insanely male-dominated field, and as a fellow at one of the last remaining all-women Cambridge colleges, she is someone I deeply admire and respect.

So you can imagine how excited I was about her new documentary, Meet The Romans. So excited, in fact, that I invited three non-classicist boys to watch it with me (including Leander). I was a little unsure of how they’d find it, especially since one of them had never studied Latin, Greek  or ancient history, so didn’t have the background useful for these kinds of shows. All four of us loved it. Mary’s style of presenting is a little eccentric, and she makes no concessions for people who might expect something more mainstream, but Leander called her ‘a total badass’, while the other two both said she was brilliant and inspiring, if a little weird.

Now might be a good time to mention that she is fifty-seven, with long grey hair, and dresses in her signature red coat and sparkly leggings. You can file that under ‘eccentric with no concessions’.

Cue feminist backlash. I should never had read A A Gill’s review of her show, published in Sunday Times (which I am unable to link to, though much of it is quoted in the link below) – I really need to get better at avoiding stuff I know is going to infuriate me. If you’ve been doing this feminist thing for long, you can guess the sort of article it was. A nuanced critique of the merits of the show and Mary’s style of TV academia? If only. A brutal and patronising attack on her looks, including lines such as ‘From behind she is 16; from the front, 60. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment’? Alas, this is the world in which we live, where insults as basic and pathetic as ‘lol, ur ugly’ apparently count as journalism.

(Side note: I am fairly certain that, had it been a woman who wrote the review, it would have been decried as ‘bitchy’ and ‘catty’, and led to a whole digression about why women are always attacking each other and can’t play nicely. See: the Samantha Brick saga, which I have deliberately avoided writing about.)

So here I am, all ready to defend Mary and talk about what an incredible academic she is, and how pointless, unprofessional and downright childish Gill’s review is. Except I don’t have to, because she is quite capable of doing it for herself. (Yes, it’s a Daily Mail article. I apologise. It helps if you put that aside for a moment.) She is not only witty and charming in her scathing response to Gill, but manages not to seem petty, happily admitting that she makes no effort to appear conventionally attractive on television, and refusing to apologise for it. You should definitely read the whole thing, but here’re the highlights:

‘Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds, and I guess, as a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, I’m one of them.

In a sense, I suppose, I should be used to such crass remarks as his. After all, they dog most intelligent women, even today — particularly  if they dare to put their head  above the parapet by appearing on television. For years, sexism was institutionalised in academic establishments. It is only since World War II that women were permitted to graduate from Cambridge University; before that, they could have the pleasure of studying, but only men would be honoured with degrees.

So what of my revenge?

First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the  crass assumptions he’s making  and why they don’t amount to anything more.

And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.’

The link also includes several photos of her, wearing her wonderful red coat, and looking every bit the brilliant academic she is.

This woman is an inspiration to me, and not just because she’s such a great classicist. I’ve written articles for student papers and had my looks torn apart in the comments – and I’m young and (mostly) feminine-looking. I’ve had heated discussions about feminist issues in bars, only to be shut down with ‘yeah, but real women don’t think like that’, or dismissed as yet another ‘angry feminist’. And I’ve had men talk down to me about issues I know far more about, then accuse me of being aggressive if I mention I’m actually taking a damned degree in the subject. And it makes me furious. No matter how many times I tell myself not to take it personally, it always stings, and I find angry tears pricking at my eyes as I desperately try not to be so ’emotional’.

And that is nothing compared to having your appearance – no, your very existence  as a person – condemned in a national newspaper, by someone who won’t even do you the courtesy of listening to what you have to say.

I’m not sure I could handle that. I’m not sure most of could. But Mary Beard did, and she did it beautifully, with style and grace and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour. And that’s an inspiration all on its own.



The bitter aftertaste of too many lovehearts

Only two days to go before Valentine’s Day! You see, I have a feminist blog, and I feel that what the feminist blogosphere really needs right now is another post on how ridiculous Valentine’s Day is. Not really. But I have thoughts on this, and no time like the present, so I’m going for it. If you wish to discount this post as just another single lady whinging about being alone on February 14th, feel free to skip it. Everyone else, it’s good to have you on board.

I have been in and out of a variety of relationships for over six years now, and I have never had a date on the infamous Valentine’s Day. This is for a number of reasons: I wasn’t actually anyone’s ‘girlfriend’ for quite a long time, and the casual on-and-off relationships I had didn’t really lend themselves to this Hallmark holiday. Last year, when I was in a committed exclusive relationship (not that this is to be valued any higher than any other relationship), I worked a barshift on Valentine’s Day, while my boyfriend was on a business trip overseas. The best thing I have ever done on February 14th is to go ice-climbing up a frozen waterfall, while on holiday in Switzerland with my parents. This was fucking awesome. Seriously, it is one of the most incredible and terrifying things I have ever done, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think any other Valentine’s Day could possibly live up to it. It’s hard to argue with a frozen waterfall.

I’m not one of those people who hates the occasion, who thinks it’s all just a commercialistic excuse for card companies to make a fortune. I’m fairly sure that everyone thinks this deep down, but I know how it all ceases to matter when you’re with the person you love. Just like that new couple in their honeymoon phase is the most nauseating thing ever, but when it’s you, calling each other pet names and kissing in public just feels perfectly natural. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a specific date to show someone how much you care about them, although I’m a little dubious about that date being the same for everyone. (Personally, I find anniversaries much more important, but who says it has to just be one day?) And if you want to spend money and go out on a lovely date, then again, I’m happy for you. Just because the card companies are making a fortune out of it, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be happy. (They make a fortune out of Christmas cards too, but no one is suggesting we ignore Christmas.)

What I really dislike is the mad frenzy to find a date. All the sitcoms and pop culture show a sad, unhealthy view of this holiday, where single women cry and are snapped up by pick-up artists on the prowl for some easy prey, while women with partners stress about it not being special enough. If Valentine’s Day is about spending time with someone you love, then dating a stranger for the night just seems a little pointless (and this is coming from a girl who enjoys dating strangers). And similarly, if you and your partner really do love each other, it shouldn’t matter what you do, if you can’t afford that meal in a fancy restaurant or don’t want to spend money on the perfect card. My best friend and her boyfriend are doing Valentine’s Day for 35p each this year, and I think that’s beautifully romantic. (I have suggested that she buys him an onion, complete with this poem.) Alexander and I went out the weekend after, and had a lovely dinner for prices that hadn’t been raised extortionately for that one special day.

I also have an issue with the idea that grand gestures can fix an unhealthy relationship. If your partner doesn’t care about you for the rest of the year, if they forget the things that are important to you and don’t make the time you feel your relationship needs, then why should one ‘perfect’ night change any of that? I would much rather have someone who treated me with respect all year round than someone who felt a card and some chocolates could make up for a year of disappointment. And the idea that it’s men who will give presents to women, in return for sex that is perhaps kinkier or more adventurous than usual is also total bullshit. Sex should be something awesome that you do (or don’t do, if you’re not a couple with a high sex drive) all the time, not something that needs to be bought or bartered for.

Then there’s the hierarchy of relationship that Valentine’s Day inevitably evokes. At the top, monogamous heterosexual couples, followed by gay couples, as long as they’re doing something suitably traditional. But what about people in open relationships? Or threesome situations? Or casually seeing each other? Or in the first tentative stages of a relationship where doing something for Valentine’s Day seem a bit over the top? What about me, in my series of ridiculously complicated situations? My style of dating and sex just doesn’t fit with the standard Valentine’s Day dynamic, and I’m mostly okay with that. I think if you’re with someone you really care about and you want to celebrate, then it can be lovely to have a special occasion to do that. But if you’re not, it doesn’t make you or your indefinable unconventional relationship any kind of failure. There isn’t a card that says ‘I like fucking you and I hope to continue doing so, along with various other people’, and maybe that’s a good thing! Not all things can be printed on cards with cute little messages. Not everyone likes flowers and chocolates, just like not everyone likes bondage and erotic asphyxiation. But I’d never call anyone a failure because of it.

So what will I be doing on Valentine’s Day then? Well, I’ve got a two-hour dance class, and then I’m heading off to the theatre bar with a group of friends, and we are going to drink G&Ts and sing songs from musicals. And the next day, we will all still be happy, successful, sexually confident people, whose lives don’t quite fit with the pink heart scenario right at this moment. Maybe next year, maybe not next year. I don’t need an anonymous card to know that I’m sexy and desirable, and I’m sorry, but if you need to mark this day somehow to be sure that your partner really loves you, then maybe your relationship needs some work.

As Holly Pervocracy put it so beautifully, I don’t need you, I want you is one of the sexiest things you can hear. And I hope to be hearing it a lot.

The adventure of reading free London newspapers

I am not pregnant. Which is kinda a huge relief, as I’m sure you can imagine. See this if you missed the whole worrying-that-I-might-be-pregnant panic. I also wanted to apologise for using cisgendered language in that post, and not taking into account that unplanned pregnancy isn’t just an issue for women, but for anyone with a uterus who may identify as trans*, genderqueer, or any other identity. I told myself when I started writing this blog that I  would make an effort not to marginalise people who are not cisgendered, but I can be insensitive and forgetful all too often. Mostly I am writing here about my experiences as a cisgendered woman, so a lot of what I have to say is aimed at other cisgendered women, but that’s not excuse. So I’m sorry, and I really will make an effort to be more careful in future. Please let me know if I screw up.

On to the exciting experience of reading a the Evening Standard (a free London newspaper) on the train last night. Normally I wouldn’t bother with it, but I was bored, and it was free. And the result? Well, people are always saying to feminists ‘Why do you look for stuff to get angry about?’ when we try to point out how something is sexist/misogynistic/homophobic/racist/classist/just generally offensive. Let me be clear here, I did not have to look for something to get angry about in this absolutely terrible paper. In fact, I had to look fairly hard to find an article that didn’t annoy me. Some of my personal ‘favourites’ were:

1) A photo of a famous actor married to an even more famous actress. The caption was something like ‘Daniel Craig takes his wife, Rachel Weisz (actress) to event’. And I’m like, um, she is just as famous as him, if no more so. What’s wrong with saying ‘Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz go to event together’? Or even, heaven forbid, ‘Rachel Weisz goes to event with Daniel Craig’? But no, he is the man. The famous, successful one in the relationship. The actor. She is just the wife. Oh,  look at the brackets, she happens to be an actress. Who knew.

2) A very short article on how female MPs need to learn to dress properly if they want to be taken seriously. But not too glamourously, that just makes them look like shameless entertainers. After all, how can a woman who chooses to wear the wrong shoes possibly know how to run a country? So remember, always dress smartly, and look your best, as long as you don’t look too pretty. That will just distract all the men. (It was written by a woman as well, which really annoyed me. I was all like ‘Nooo, the patriarchy has gotten to you too!’)

3) A fucking three page feature on how to look ‘natural’ this January.

It’s the last one that I really want to get my teeth into. ‘Natural’. By ‘natural’, do they mean no make-up? You know, like what the word natural actually means? Of course not. They mean that special type of natural that can only be the result of serious effort with the most expensive brands of make-up. The ‘it looks like I’m not wearing any make-up at all!’ look, that cannot possibly be achieved by actually not wearing any make-up at all.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with make-up. I wear it myself – bright shades of eyeshadow, thick black eyeliner, and dark red lipstick all form part of my costume if I’m going out somewhere special. If I’m not, a dash of lipgloss and a quick stroke of eyeliner usually does the trick. Mostly, I don’t wear anything at all, mainly because I don’t have the time for it, but I appreciate that other people do, and that’s cool. Each to their own. I don’t even mind people who like to wear lots of subtle make-up, which (they feel) improves their appearance without giving the impression that they’re wearing much at all. It’s a cool trick, if you can pull it off.

No, what I object to is the idea that this pretending to wear no make-up while actually spending hours perfecting the look is what ‘natural’ means. The article even went as far as to say that no one except for ‘those with absolutely flawless skin’ could pull of not wearing any make-up at all. I do not have flawless skin, not even close, but I don’t feel ashamed to leave the house without mandatory concealer and foundation, thank you very much. In fact, I think I can look great rocking the genuinely natural look. So please, random newspaper that does not even have the pitiful excuse of being a woman’s glossy lifestyle magazine, don’t try to guilt-trip me into buying fancy cosmetics that I don’t feel I need.

There’s also the issue that the natural-looking cosmetics are always the more expensive ones, and the natural look takes more time and energy than one where it’s obvious make-up has been used. What does that tell us? That looking natural takes more effort than not? And that’s not taking into account that foundation and the rest of it actually makes your skin worse. A three-page feature, on how you should feel ashamed in January unless you follow their steps to completely hide yourself behind their invisible shields.

Again, it is the article that annoyed me, not people who do choose to go in for that kind of look. It’s the pressure I’m objecting to, not the individual decision, which is of course perfectly fine. Personally, if I’m wearing make-up, I want it to be obvious. I don’t like hiding behind a more conventionally attractive version of myself, pretending it’s how I am ‘naturally’. But that is my choice, and I’m not going to inflict it on anyone else. I just wish the  editors and writers of the Evening Standard would afford me the same courtesy. Alas, too much to ask from a free newspaper.

I’ll be over here for the rest of January, rocking the actually-wearing-no-make-up look. I’m not sure what to call that now ‘natural’ has been commandeered. Suggestions?