Farewell, Fleabag

Before we begin, I want to re-iterate that this isn’t a Phoebe Waller-Bridge fansite (although it probably looks like it). I want to talk about Fleabag and that ending.

(SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.)

Admittedly, I came to Fleabag later than most as part of my research into Phoebe Waller Bridge’s work. I was hooked and watched the whole first series in one afternoon. It was sharp, witty and the heroine was like most of my friends- slightly messed up carrying a tote bag in place of the handbag we’d have been expected to have twenty years ago (I’m convinced that those of us in our 30s today are ‘younger’ than our parents were twenty years ago.) She had an emotionally frigid family and seemed determined to pinball her way around London and a host of men who were the very epitome of ‘meh’, screwing up but doing it fabulously, Nancy Mitford for the 21st Century. Honestly, I have a whole Twitter thread on how Waller Bridge is the reincarnation of Mitford.

It was funny and weird and voiced those thoughts we have in our heads that we think no-one else thinks and she’s voicing them directly to us as she breaks the fourth wall. The fact that Fleabag is nameless, along with many of the other characters, means that we can project ourselves onto her and those around her. This is a common transference we make whenever we watch TV/read books, but it’s unusual to be so included in the process, invited into a character’s life in such a blatant way.

And whereas Series 1 one is about a character (and her family) who can not and will not communicate properly with those around her, the finale finally allows them to admit how they feel, albeit obviously in a very British, middle-class reserved way. The seeds are initially sown during a squirmy counselling session foisted on her by her father early on, but the process is there throughout Series 2, culminating in her father’s wedding when everything that has been so contained finally spills forth. Her sister Claire, the very epitome of a Type-A personality, admits her feelings for both her husband and Finnish Klare, as well as admitting that she loves her sister; closure is achieved with her father as he dithers over marrying her divinely vile stepmother; and, after two series, we finally see Fleabag as properly emotionally vulnerable. We’ve seen flashes, but it takes her realising that the priest will never be available to her in the way she wishes for her to allow her to show us emotion. It’s at this point that she walks away and does not allow us to follow- we’ve seen her having sex, her best friend’s death, but this is a step too far for us to go any further- because she has finally achieved a calm that has eluded her until this point.

To me, the acceptance of the priest’s semi-rejection (he loves her, but of course he loves God more) it feels like she has achieved a maturity and moved away from the class clown persona she’s sometimes cultivated. It’s raw and hard won, a fitting end to something that has gripped so many people. It feels like it was always going to have to end this way- we knew, deep down that the priest would never leave God for her and I think she does, too. So she has to change and to change, she has to leave us- her co-conspirators- behind.

And, because we feel like her friend, we let her go.

Me and Killing Eve

Like pretty much everyone in the latter half of 2018, I was gripped by Killing Eve. I watched it (savouring it weekly rather than bingeing, taking my time over it) and I read the first book, struck by the difference in tone to the series. It was, I reasoned, a product of a male novelist being adapted by a female screenwriter. After all, I spent a decade of my life looking at the representation of gender in minute detail as part of my role as an A-level Media Studies teacher. This was my bread and butter, something I was deeply interested in. I threw a tweet out about how I felt there were differences and then sort of forgot about it.

Until I got an email asking whether I would like to write a short piece about it to mark the publication of the second book in the States and the upcoming second series. Oh, and it was for The Washington Post- a paper I’d long admired right back to my uni days when, as a journalism student from a very working class background, working for newspapers like it seemed like an unreachable dream. Of course I said yes.

And so I set about researching everything I could about Killing Eve and its print counterpart, the Codename Villanelle books. I read the latest book and watched Fleabag, to better understand Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing style and how this had shaped Killing Eve into the phenomenal success it was; it struck me that as a spy novel (a genre traditionally very male-dominated), it had amazing resonance with women and seemed to be coming as part of a shift in TV drama. We’re now seeing more female-led writing rooms, with showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes, Tina Fey and Phoebe Waller-Bridge becoming more prominent and a move towards female led shows.

I spent hours re-watching Killing Eve, taking a whole notebook of notes on minutiae that I would never use but that helped me formulate my essay. I even took apart the fireplace in our living room to rescue a birthday card that had fallen down the back in an attempt to procrastinate. To me this was the most important piece of writing I’d ever done. THE ACTUAL WASHINGTON BLOODY POST.

I had 850 words. I had to keep it to the bare bones. I had to decide if ‘thrush cream’ would translate to an American audience (not really. Stephanie, the commissioning editor, explained that in the States ‘thrush’ is usually considered to be passed between mother and baby during breastfeeding. Nice.) I wanted to write about Fleabag and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s weirdness around parent/child relationships and how this transferred to Killing Eve. I wanted to write about how the mostly female soundtrack made us feel that this was a more feminine environment than traditional spy dramas and how the attempt to make Charlie, in the recent adaptation of Little Drummer Girl, a fashion icon in the mould of Villanelle didn’t work. I also could have legitimately mentioned Olivia Colman twice, but I resisted the urge.

Anyway. I submitted my piece a week and a half early- despite my best efforts with a screwdriver and the mantlepiece. Mainly because once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. I remembered that I love writing and I love pop culture. Also, I can now actually say I’m a proper writer who has written for The Washington Post. And that’s really cool

You can read the article here.

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.

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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.

 

Why learning to make my own clothes is a feminist pursuit…

The other day, I was talking to somebody about my continuing (and often disappointing) quest to make my own clothes, whether through knitting or sewing. I was describing how I was making progress and asking my friend for her own advice when someone piped up. “But Steph, aren’t you a feminist? Why are you making your own clothes? It’s a bit… old fashioned housewife-y.” And, lo, a blogpost was born.

Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

It was one of those moments where I wish I’d been quick and witty with an answer but alas, I wasn’t. However, the comment stayed with me for the rest of the day: was my attempt to make my own clothes a genuine feminist pursuit? There are undoubtedly some feminists who would say that I was a terrible feminist and that I’m subjugating myself to do traditional ‘women’s work’, that our predecessors managed to free us from.

But from my point of view, I believe making some of my clothes is a good thing:

  • It frees me from what society ‘thinks’ I should wear and a shape it ‘thinks’ I should be. I am therefore liberating myself from a narrow arena when it comes to buying clothes.
  • I know where my clothes have come from; I haven’t participated in the exploitation of workers in poorer parts of the world. In this vein, I am starting to seriously research where my raw materials- yarn and fabric- come from and how they are made. As well as being ethical, it’s also an environmental issue.
  • I am not forced to do this, I choose to do this. Previous generations of women had no choice but to make clothes for their families in a bid to save money. I’m lucky that I’m not in the position where I HAVE to make stuff, but I CHOOSE to make stuff. (This is clearly a “check-my-privilege” moment.) I understand that not everybody has this luxury.
  • In a funny way, I feel connected to my female ancestors: a lot of my family came from the wool mills and cotton factories of the north and these would have been prized skills. I feel like I’m learning what they did.

So, to the person who asked whether it was feminist to make my own clothes, I say yes- and that it’s fine if others think that it’s not. My feminist credentials are not affected by my ability with a knitting needle.

A Handy Guide To Work Out Whether You’re A Feminist

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I thought that, among all the Twitter fighting and internet discussion, I would add my own twopenneth-worth.

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How do I know I am a feminist?

Aha! Well then, do you believe that EVERYONE, regardless of gender should have access to the same:

  • healthcare
  • education
  • human rights
  • job opportunities

regardless of their:

  • age?
  • race?
  • gender identity?
  • class?
  • sexuality?
  • religion?
  • nationality?

Hooray! You believe in equality. Of course, feminism is a bit more complex than I have presented it here, but it is 6am and I am very tired. However, I am also tired of all the fighting on Twitter and in newspaper columns about what feminism ‘is’. The thing is, if we fight each other, we’re not fighting for the things we should be.

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.

The problem with women in the media

I thought long and hard before invoking the name of a certain Daily Mail writer who caused a furore this week… I think that Hadley Freeman pretty much wrote the definitive piece on Ms Brick. But it got me thinking about the way women are portrayed in the media and thought that Samantha Brick was a good place to start.

Do I agree that Ms Brick is beautiful? I think she is probably attractive in person, although no more so than most ‘normal’ attractive people and that also she was misguided in a lot of the things she said. I also think that she over-exaggerated some of the things that have happened to her (for example, how does a man in front of her in a queue at a train station know where she’s going in order to buy her ticket?) Do I think the Mail sold her down the river? Absolutely. For example, in the pictures in the piece, the photographer seemed to want to project more Matalan than Milan. I also think that the Mail deliberately decided not to photoshop out various bits of normality from Brick’s body- the bits that are normal in a woman in her 40s. If this was an article about how normal middle aged women look, bravo. But not when the Mail wants people to comment on her relative unattractiveness to cause a story that will run for days and days. So,when it comes to the images used in the article, that’s the paper’s fault.

This is not to say that I think Brick is blameless. Saying that the ‘sisterhood hates attractive women’ is lazy and plays right into the Mail’s anti-woman agenda. She has spectacularly misunderstood that she has been done a number on. (Was anyone else surprised to learn that she made about £30,000 for the two articles that originally appeared?! That’s more than my yearly wage. Still wouldn’t write for them.) The whole thing has read like a parody- and the Mail is rubbing its hands together  in glee. 100 million hits. We’re fuelling its agenda by reading about a woman with self-esteem issues.

But I think the Brick debacle shows us something else about the general media reaction to women. We’re either “worryingly thin”, “dangerously curvy” or judged on the way we look. This is not just the Daily Mail, most media outlets do it every now and then to some degree.

For example, think back to the start of the hacking scandal at the News of the World. Whose appearance was commented on? Was Andy Coulson referred to as an odd-looking chap? Nope. The whispers and sniggers were aimed at Rebekah Brooks and, later, after pie-gate, Wendi Deng.

Brooks’ picture was used to illustrate the story more than the men involved. There were snide jokes, or off-the-cuff remarks about her hair (described by Vanity Fair as a “pile of red, ringleted hair”.But no-one breathlessly commented on James Murdoch’s hair. I bet he was gutted.) So why did Brooks attract attention? Because of her position in a mainly male dominated top flight career. She has also been described in masculine terms: ‘ruthless’ and ‘ambitious’ are words often used to describe her. Because we all know that if you want to get ahead, you need to act like a man. I don’t agree with what Brooks is alleged to have allowed to happen, but that doesn’t mean I agree with how the media has portrayed her. She’s the calculating bitch to Brick’s daft ditz.

Talking of ditzes, this leads nicely into one of the stories that really gets my goat at the minute. Jessica Simpson’s pregnancy. For some reason, Jessica Simpson is an easy target for the American media. She has said some stupid things (like on her reality show ‘Newlyweds’, when she asked whether tuna was really chicken…) She was also blamed for a then-boyfriend’s poor performance on the football field. Her weight is a constant issue and now she’s pregnant, it’s exploded.

The thing I really like about her is that she has a really great sense of humour and an awareness of the ridiculousness of the whole situation. Simpson is big, but says she’s carrying a lot of fluid. She’s also admitted to odd cravings (deep fried Oreos anyone?) But this has led to tabloid commentators saying she’s ‘too’ big and one doctor, who doesn’t treat Simpson labelling her as ‘an absolute porker’. So what gives this doctor the right to say this? The fact that the media is encouraging her to. Tracie Egan Morrissey over on Jezebel– a new mum herself- wrote why this is wrong. We live in a society where women are encouraged not to put too much weight on during pregnancy; this is initially dressed up as “oh, you don’t want to suffer health problems” (laudable) but in the media is reduced to “But think of the weight! How will you get back to your pre-baby weight in two weeks if you eat crisps?!” Simpson is already  in talks to be the new face of Weight Watchers after the baby is born. This just depresses the hell out of me, because she’ll be on a diet as soon as she’s out of the delivery room and surely that should be the last thing on your mind after giving birth?

To be honest, I’m bored of the constant media need to compare women. It’s a bullying tactic designed to make women feel insecure and undermined. The question is, how do we counteract it?

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the film critics who said Jennifer Lawrence was ‘too fat’ and ‘too womanly’ to play Katniss in The Hunger Games.

“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.