Shakespeare, the Kardashians and modern role models

Today, I WAS planning on writing a blogpost about why I love RuPaul’s Drag Race so much, but something else has caught my eye- a headteacher at a girls school asking girls to be more like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra than Kim Kardashian. She does also mention other characters- Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola- but it’s Cleo who really has captured the headlines.

elizathe-taylor-cleopatra-ftr

I love Shakespeare, but have a few problems with this comparison. Firstly- yes, OK. Cleopatra is a ruler in her own right and is very powerful. But the story in the play revolves around her love affairs (and her power is somewhat tangled up in all of this) and she eventually kills herself as a result of her love for a man. So far, so feminist right?

Plus, I always find there’s an innate snobbery implied by suggesting that people turn to Shakespeare over modern media, as if it’s somehow better. As an English teacher, I know that Shakespeare is seen by the kids-and teachers of other subjects- as elitist, boring and unnecessarily difficult, that it’s not there to be enjoyed by everyone. Hell, I went to one of the worst schools in Leeds as a kid and could feel the antipathy radiating off my co-students whenever the name of Shakespeare was mentioned. (Also, it’s not just the kids who subscribe to this view. The one time I asked that we tried teaching Manga Shakespeare versions of Macbeth, I was looked at by some in my department like I’d grown three heads. Graphic novels also come under the ‘vulgar’ heading, apparently.) It drives me mad. Shakespeare writes about real life: feuds, scandal, romance, businesses gone awry, power-all of human life, in its devious and imperfect glory is there. Plus he could often be kind of a bit… sleazy. He would have loved the Kardashians.

Shakespeare would have been intrigued by today’s celebrities; imagine all the storylines he could have nicked off social media! I think he would also hate to have been seen as an either/or proposition; we kind of forget that he was a slightly shady character himself for much of his life and that acting and theatre owning wasn’t seen as a particularly illustrious career unless you got in with the royals, as he obviously did later on in his life. There was a reason that theatres were on the same side of the river as the bear bating pits and brothels.

Girls are not going to go out and change their behaviour because the head of a private school has created some lessons looking at how ‘inspirational’ some of Shakespeare’s women were (and let’s be honest- there’s scant pickings there. I think most of his women were weakly written, serving a purpose as a foil or a love interest. My favourites are Beatrice and Portia, and even they have issues.) However, I can’t dismiss any attempt to make Shakespeare’s work more accessible and enjoyable- I just wish we were more playful, more imaginative when it came to getting students to access the plays. I say this as someone who once got a bottom year 11 set to work out the issues in Macbeth for a speaking and listening exercise by performing a scene in which the characters were taking part in a Shakespearean version of Jeremy Kyle. It was… interesting, but they ended up doing pretty well in their coursework essays.

Would I choose Kim Kardashian as an ideal role model for young girls? Probably not. But then anyone I suggested as a role model would probably be viewed with suspicion because I’m seen as old, even though I’m a relatively young teacher. But here’s the thing- elders always recommend role models that they think are suitable because they see more ‘modern’ role models as ‘unsuitable’; it’s the old chestnut about the generation above despairing of the one below, forgetting that they too were once interested in people their parents disapproved of. And I bet they would have baulked at the suggestion that they go read Shakespeare instead of idolising whoever it was they had on their bedroom wall, too.

 

How I’m staying sane while pregnant…

Ah, pregnancy. A time of blossoming, blooming-ness. Also a time when you think the following:

“OH MY GOD,  I’M GOING TO HAVE NO MONEY FOREVER…”

“Um, this baby has got to come out of me somehow.. I wish the stork would deliver it overnight, like the Tooth Fairy or something.”

It’s actually pretty hard sometimes to keep your sense of perspective, or to not get really bloody paranoid at the slightest thing. I’m over halfway through now (and in total denial that this baby has to arrive somehow in eighteen weeks) and I’ve found that there are ways I can make myself feel slightly saner than I would otherwise.

1) Hoarding books. I buy lots of books. Secondhand, mainly, as we have a great Oxfam bookshop nearby. I know I probably won’t have time for much reading once Fidget arrives, but having lots of books in the house makes me happy. It also drives Benn mad, but that’s an added bonus. Of course, if something super-new comes out, or I’m bored of my collection, I’m lucky in that Brighton has some excellent libraries. I borrow a lot of my crafty books from them.

2) Pampering. I’ve got very into nail polish recently. I’ve always been a make-up fan, but I’ve found that changing my nails on a regular basis has become a bit of a ritual. I also found, during the first trimester (when you feel most tired/rubbish and generally in a bad mood) that using henna on my hair really worked as a pick-me-up. I got lots of compliments and felt brighter. Baths, lie-ins and lovely slow days have all helped me feel better, especially during times of massive work-related stress recently.

3) Saving.  I am an oxymoron- I am a spendthrift who worries about money. I know that I spend a lot of money on little fripperies; a lipstick here, a takeaway sandwich there. I’ve put a little money aside each month for when we don’t have so much. I can use this to take Fidget swimming, or to have a haircut or just to meet friends for a cuppa and a bit of cake. By having this money, I don’t have to rely on Benn to give me money and I won’t have to feel guilty if I have a bit of a treat. It’s helping my sanity by thinking about the future.

4) Regular exercise. My friends and family will tell you that, when it comes to exercise, I walk everywhere but am essentially lazy. However, it’s getting to the point where I feel like my legs are walking at twice the pace to cover half the distance they usually would. However, I’m really enjoying aquanatal classes at the local swimming baths. They’re half the price of yoga classes, much more fun and I feel like I’m having a real workout. Bonus, the baby appears to love them! I’m also finding that they’re helping me sleep (which can be hard, when you have the next Michael Flatley practising ‘Riverdance’ in your abdomen.)

5) Don’t feed the trolls. Ignore the internet message boards, where people post stupid and grammatically incorrect queries. Try and avoid reading too many horror stories that make you panic (ask me how I know). Don’t search WebMD to find out whether trapped wind is actually a sign of impending death. Actually, this advice is quite good even if you’re not pregnant. What I would say though, is don’t get involved in the so-called ‘Mommy Wars’. Read about them, if you like, but then resolve to take an ‘each to their own’ view of parenting. So what if someone does/doesn’t breastfeed or is an ‘attachment parent’? As long as no one is hurt, it’s really no-one else’s business.

6) Read sensible parenting books. There are loads of mad ideas about impending parenthood- just google Gina Ford to see what I mean (my favourite bit of her Wikipedia page lists Drs Penelope Leach and Miriam Stoppard as critics of her methods and, er, Eamon Holmes and Michelle Gayle as supporters. Wow.) I can recommend this book and I bought this book because I read an interview with the author and he looked sensible.

7) Be prepared for ‘surprises’. There are LOADS of things that the pregnancy books don’t tell you about. You might need breast pads from four months. You might grow lots of extra hair- everywhere. You’ll probably get weird muscle spasms. Actual mums won’t tell you this until you ask about it and you will always be greeted by the phrase, “If we told people about this NO ONE WOULD EVER HAVE CHILDREN.” You may feel slightly miffed at first, but then you will realise that you too shall one day be a member of this hallowed club of women with wisdom.

That Lush campaign

So. At the start of the week, I was intending to write a post about my recent experience of using Lush’s Cacao Henna on my hair. (Disclaimer in case anyone thinks I’m already a bad mother: you can dye your hair when pregnant with this stuff, as it’s plant based. I checked.) I had a really good experience with it and have had loads of compliments. I took some Dutch friends to the Brighton store to have a look and bought some bits and pieces for myself- I was all for Lush.

And then this happened. There is a massive trigger warning attached to watching the video, as it shows a female subject forcibly being  victimised and ‘tested on’ the way an animal is. If you don’t want to watch the video (and, having watched it myself, I don’t blame you), it’s basically that two male ‘scientists’ test products on the woman in the window of their flagship store in Regent’s Street, London.

There has been a whole (in my opinion, deserved, although your mileage may vary) hullabaloo about the stunt and Lush has responded with this statement. The questions, for me, that arise from it are:

1) Why did Lush feel it was “it was important, strong, well and thoroughly considered that the test subject was a woman. […]It would have been disingenuous at best to have pretended that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse”? Is this because women buy cosmetics? The thing that this point misses is that ‘cosmetics’ covers everything from toothpaste to shaving foam and I think that those are pretty much unisex products. Also, why was it vital to have a woman in the role of the abused? Why does Lush think that a man wouldn’t have had such an effect? (I’m pretty sure women are probably more informed about the testing that goes on for makeup than men, as we’ve been the target audience for campaigns against it for years.)

2) The campaign was going pretty well already in stores- every time I went in, I was asked to sign the petition and I saw that most customers did. This is a campaign that has been launched across all stores that many people had a lot of goodwill for. If it was as successful as it looked, why launch a PETA-style shock-tactic campaign? This to me just smacks of desperate publicity stunt. How many new signatures did Lush get on the street as a result of this? I bet it’s not that many.

3) Did you not consider the people in the street: for example, children. I’m very anti having anything forced upon me and this seemed hard to avoid. The imagery was violent and disturbing. A lot of feminist sites have pointed out that victims of abuse would also have been effected. So, you know, not everyone shares the views of the company and putting on such a protest that lasted TEN HOURS is kind of extreme.

4) Was it worth the ire that the whole circus has provoked? I’ve read a lot of comments and although some are very-pro what Lush did, an awful lot are against, for whatever reason. I think maybe it’s snowballed a bit out of where Lush thought it would go. There’s a lot of debate about the gender politics of the piece of ‘performance art’, whether all animal testing is bad (I was an ardent animal rights supporter in my teens, but still acknowledged that without animal tests, I wouldn’t be here, due to my mother’s diabetes, which would have killed her), or whether Lush has been naive/arrogant/preaching to the converted/smug. There’s also a LOT of talk about whether to boycott the company. I have to say, I’m torn. I love Lush products, but then again I can get cruelty free elsewhere. I live in Brighton, for goodness’ sake- everything has its vegan equivalent down here.

Overall, I’m sad. I’m sad that a company that had some good intentions has jumped on the odious women-as-campaign-meat bandwagon so adored by PETA. I’m sad that the ‘defence’ was not a defence, but seemed a bit smug. I’ll not be buying from Lush or featuring a Lush product on my blog until some kind of proper acknowledgement/apology is issued.

Debbie Harry’s Guide to Success

So, I turned 28 last Wednesday. This doesn’t really bother me, as I have never really been squeamish about my age (some may argue that I’m still young enough for it not to be an issue, but then I don’t think age should ever be an issue.)

It’s remarkable when I look back at the last ten years and what’s happened in my life. But I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m not quite where I should be. I never intended, at this junction, to be a teacher. I was so sure I was going to be a writer for a national magazine or newspaper. But at the crucial moment, I lost all confidence. I chose a different path. And although I’m successful in that career path I chose, it’s not ultimately where I think I will be for the rest of my life.

Sometimes, I think the boat has passed and that I am destined to stay on the same course. But then I think back to the statement at the start of this blogpost and think, “Why should I be held back?” Also, I then remember that Debbie Harry didn’t hit the big time until she was 31. I have three years left until I reach that.

Debbie Harry toiled for years until Blondie became big. I sort of do that now, what with the blog, the occasional freelancing and so on. I mean, I’m not saying I could be as big as Blondie (I’d never be so arrogant or assume so much- also my singing is horrendous), but I think Ms Harry can be an inspiration when I’m in the deepest depths of my despair.

I would love to finally have the confidence in my ‘novel’ ideas to actually get them down on paper and be really happy with what I produce. When I tell people the storyline, they always seem interested, but I can’t put down the thought that they’re feigning interest just to be polite. That nasty, vicious voice of self-doubt and self-loathing creeps in. FYI, it sounds a lot like a Disney villain. Ursula, to be exact.

To be honest, there’s not a lot I can do about it, except try and defeat the self-doubt and octopus lady voice. I need to get writing, rather than just talking about writing. I need to start asking around, offering freelance ideas. I need to be proactive, even though it’s uncomfortable. I should also stop putting the word ‘novel’ in inverted commas. How can anyone else take my ideas seriously if I don’t?

In short, I need to play Blondie really, really loudly and imagine I’m Debbie Harry.

“I’m not a feminist, but…”

A pet peeve of mine is when someone (usually female) says, “Oh, I’m not a feminist but…” and then rails against some indignity. When did feminism become a dirty word? If you believe that human beings are equal regardless of gender, you’re pretty much a feminist. You may not be a feminist of the placard-carrying, writing to politicians variety, but you do hold feminist views. That is not a bad thing.

By decrying feminism, we are turning our backs on our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and anyone else who fought for such rights as the right for all to vote, the right to decide whether or not to have a family, the right to work and so on. As the writer Linda Grant wrote on her revealing International Women’s Day twitter feed, “Whatever rights you have are because feminists went out and grabbed them for you. Feminists, not shoe designers or chocolate manufacturers.” If you are a woman who works, has an education, takes the Pill and votes, you have feminists to thank.

Although I was brought up in a family with strong feminist leanings, I became a self-identifying feminist in my early twenties, oddly enough through knitting. I had just moved to Brighton and my aunt taught me to knit in the hope that I would make some friend (not that I’m anti-social, but I didn’t know anyone when I moved here.) Through learning to knit, I discovered Debbie Stoller, who not only wrote the beginner knitter’s bible, but also edits the feminist magazine Bust. My conscience was awakening and I devoured everything I could on what it meant to be a modern feminist and I’ve since gone on to write for feminist websites and magazines. Interestingly, when I wrote about crafting and feminism last year, I was roundly, viciously criticised by someone on my Facebook page for not writing about ‘serious’ issues relating to the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia… a bit random, considering that I had been asked to write a fun piece about something I knew lots about. Of course, there are serious issues in feminism which we should all work towards eradicating, but sometimes, even feminists have to have fun. Although, as the great Suzanne Moore said recently, “The thing about being a feminist is you never run out of people to disappoint.” I guess I disappointed someone on that day.

I am proud to be a feminist. I am a skirt-wearing, lipstick-applying, writing-to-my-MP feminist. I think that everyone, regardless of the genitalia they were born with, should be paid the same money for doing the same job. I think that men should have more rights when it comes to paternity leave. I think that women and girls around the world should be equal to their male counterparts. I wish we didn’t live in a society where the sexualisation of young girls is commonplace. There is still so much to do.

Happy International Women’s Day.

 

 

 

 

I’d like your reading suggestions, please!

So, a couple of days ago, I wrote about how I was struggling with reading fiction and I’m still finding it a bit of a struggle. I’d quite like suggestions, if you have any, of books you think I should read or would like. To give you an idea of what I’ve read so far in the last few weeks:

 The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 I really, really loved this novel. So much so that I went out and bought a few more of hers. I still haven’t bought ‘Tipping the Velvet’, so I’d like to know others’ opinions on that.


Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

This had been on my bookshelf for a while and I remember buying it because I’d enjoyed the film. It’s a claustrophobic and uncomfortable read, which I think I would have enjoyed more had I not seen the film, but I really enjoyed reading Yates’ style.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a book that I judged by its cover (which was more exciting than the actual contents.) It’s a beautiful book in terms of description and visual imagery, but the story itself wasn’t particularly strong or compelling. I thought there were too many characters and that the story jumped around a bit too much.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

It’s not often I loathe a book. I loathed this one. I hated the story, I hated the main character, there were stupid grammatical mistakes… If one of the events that happen in this book, it would be remarkable. For all of them is stupidly unlucky. I was bored and only finished it because I hate leaving a book unfinished. This will be straight to the charity shop.

I’ve just started reading Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which I’m too early in to say anything about.

What are your favourite books? Which authors should I take a look at, in a bid to shake off my fiction ennui?

Why I hate ‘banter’

There’s been a lot going on this week, centred around the closing of the Uni Lad website and really, Eva Wiseman sums it up pretty perfectly in this article. But it also made me think about my own view of ‘banter’, a term I really, really hate.

Remember this woman from The Fast Show?

Yeah, that’s the 90’s version of ‘but it’s only banter!’ You can also add ‘Well, it’s not very PC, but…‘, ‘I’m not being funny, but…’ It’s used as an excuse to cover up when someone says something bullying/offensive. I really hate how it’s become a blanket excuse for bad behaviour.

Interestingly, it’s a predominantly male saying; I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard a girl or woman use the phrase. I hear men and teenage boys using it all the time and they clearly think it’s acceptable. Made a rude remark to a girl? It’s banter. Made an off-colour joke that you know might get you into trouble? It’s banter. Upset someone with an out-of-order comment? Banter. And it’s becoming acceptable. It’s seen as a catch-all excuse that is designed to get someone off the hook and it’s not on.

The sensible thing, really, if someone has said something they shouldn’t is to just apologise. By claiming the banter defence, they’re probably going to irritate the person on the receiving end more and look pretty arrogant. By saying it’s banter, the person in the wrong is saying that their target is being over-sensitive and humourless. It shifts the blame. What’s worse is that it’s becoming acceptable. People are just carrying on, afraid that if they try and counter the argument, they look like party poopers in a glorious band of male bonding and humour.

But if banter is becoming an acceptable defence to unacceptable behaviour, what does that say about us?

What’s the matter with Lana Del Rey?

I have had ‘Video Games’ stuck in my head for the last week. I don’t particularly like it, but there it is. I’ve not really paid attention to the hype; I was vaguely aware of her on Jools Holland a few months ago and I knew that ‘Video Games’ was a cooler song to say you liked than, say, ‘Moves Like Jagger’ (some people have no taste. I love that song.) But this week, the hype has upped ridiculously, due to the release of her new album ‘Born to Die.’ Although I don’t care for the song, or Del Rey’s persona, I’ve been pretty puzzled by the vitriol she attracts. There are whole websites dedicated to dismissing her.

I understand that if someone becomes successful (and it looks like ‘Born to Die’ will be the number 1 album  in the UK this week), criticism invariably follows. But some of the stuff I’ve seen this week has been utterly ridiculous. You’d think, if people hated her so much, they’d stop talking about her; maybe the online critics doth protest too much. After all, it’s much cooler to hate something everyone else loves, right?

The main criticisms seem to be as follows:

1) She’s changed her name from plain old Lizzy Grant to Lana Del Rey. This is apparently proof of the fact that she’s fake and should be dismissed instantly. But there hasn’t been outrage at the name changes of Stefanie Germanotta (Lady Gaga) or Myra Amos (Tori Amos). Hell, even Caitlin Moran was given a different name at birth- no one questions the validity of her writing because of this. And forgive me, for I’m a bit young to remember, but nobody was doubting the work of David Bowie, Prince or Freddie Mercury because they changed their names, were they? Show business has always been about creating and maintaining alternate images, so I don’t get the sudden anger in this particular case.

2) She’s from a rich family, she hasn’t had to try as hard; her dad was able to financially back her career. Lots of singers have been fortunate enough to be born into well-off families. Lady Gaga was sent to very exclusive New York schools. Beyonce attended stage school, which her parents probably paid for. Parents generally support their offspring, it’s kind of a given thing, right? Whilst Lana Del Rey’s dad might have gone above and beyond in the supporting stakes, it’s really no different to those parents who encouraged their children to be in the Mickey Mouse Club (Britney, Christina and Justin, to name a few.)

3) She’s changed her face! Those aren’t her lips! Why are we discussing this? Is she famous because she might’ve got collagen injections? No, there must be more to it. She signed up to a better record label to the one she was with before, who saw something they could market and ultimately make money from. It’s not because she had fillers put in her face.  (And yes, I’m guilty of discussing her facial change. It’s only after looking at stuff on the internet that I’ve come to these conclusions. I feel bad.) Loads of singers have plastic surgery. Cher changed her nose, loads of singers had breast implants. It’s not unusual in this day and age, is it?

4) She doesn’t write her own songs! Neither does Beyonce. Or Britney.

So, really, those are pretty shallow reasons to hate someone and declare them ‘fake’, right? I mean, I don’t really like the whole ‘gangster/Nancy Sinatra’ look she’s going for and I really dislike some of the lyrics in her songs, as they seem to be trading on a whole schtick where her entire life centres around the man in her life, rather than being a person in her own right. That disturbs me, as I thought we’d moved away from a lot of those sentiments.

But I can’t deny that ‘Video Games’ is catchy. I wish it wasn’t, but seeing as I’ve spent the week humming it and I’ve watched the video a couple of times, it clearly has something. And Lana Del Rey can sing, although whether that’s after it’s been played with in a studio and not as her voice actually is is debatable. But really, at the end of the day, she’s just a young woman who is succeeding in a career that not everyone could cope with and that is very hard to achieve. So, you know, maybe it’s just jealousy.

I do think ‘Born to Die’ is a terrible title for an album though. It smacks of teenage goth.

When I grow up…

In about six weeks, I will be 28. I reckon that 28 is probably going to be a good age. It must be, because I keep accidentally saying that I am actually 28. Obviously it’s already stuck in my mind.

I’m reading Revolutionary Road, which is all about growing up, and whether you necessarily grow up in the direction you thought you would or would liked to have grown. I still think I’m growing and I think this is a good thing. Do I think I’ll be working in the same career I am now in a few years time? No. Do I know where I’ll end up or how I’ll get there? Not at all. It’s pretty alarming, really, but I’m of a mind that everything happens for a reason and that we should take opportunities when they arise (that is, if they ever do…)

If you’d have asked me ten years ago where I thought I’d be now, I would have guessed that I’d be living in London, working for a magazine, with the lad I was with then. Fast forward to now and nothing looks like I thought it would. Is that a bad thing? Not particularly. I’m obviously on a path to something, I’m just not sure what it is yet.

My grandad was a bus driver for most of his adult career. When he signed up to work, he had a pretty good idea that he could do that job for the whole of his adult life if he wanted to. Heck, even in the 80’s, that wasn’t such an outlandish idea. Now, with the world feeling like it teeters on the brink on a daily basis and everything feeling just a little bit fragile, we know that we can’t take things for granted. And whilst that’s scary, it’s also… interesting. It means that, unlike the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road, chances to fulfil something or to do something new and interesting are more realistic, because we have the choice, whether we’re forced to make it or not.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up? I don’t know. Something where I can work in my pyjamas, preferably.