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.

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.

 

Books 2015: Yes Please- Amy Poehler

Yes Please (Jan)

I was dead excited to get this at Christmas from my in-laws; I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her SNL skits as Hilary Clinton. I also love Parks and Recreation and get the impression that she’s an all round good egg.

Yes Please is best described as a memoir, but with general life advice. It’s kind of like having a lunch date with your cool, feminist aunt who always bought you the best presents and now she’s acting like your fairy godmother and is telling you all the stuff she’s learnt over the years. There’s loads of stuff covered in the book- growing up, relationships, giving birth, Amy’s struggle to build a career that she loved- and it’s all got a friendly, funny and supportive tone to it.

It especially struck a chord with me when she talks about raising her sons; I’m not one for mushy mum-ness, but I just got what she was saying. I felt the same way when reading how Tina Fey described going through labour.

I think it might be a bit ‘showbizzy’ for some people- at times it reads like a who’s-who of popular American comedians- and I didn’t really feel terribly interested in the bits that discuss improv theatre. But I loved the tone and humour and the fact that it felt like I was talking to a good friend.

Also: I need a pair of the shoes Amy wears on the cover.

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.

“Winter is coming” or: how Game of Thrones temporarily took over my life

Recently I fell down a massive rabbit hole: that of Game of Thrones. It’s been a while since I finished my marathon X-Files catch up and I haven’t really had the time or inclination to pick anything else up, but I decided that I would give GoT a go.

Image: splatter.com

Image: splatter.com

I had tried to read the first book a couple of years ago, but gave up after being utterly confused by all the different characters. A friend of work offered to lend me the first two seasons and so I made a decision that, I have come to realise, was a bit of a folly. Not because I hated it- but because I became OBSESSED with the whole thing. I decided to read and watch at (roughly) the same time. At one point, I had to have a day off from both the DVDs and the novel because I was becoming swamped.

I realise I’m a bit behind (I’ve just watched the first two episodes of season 2) and I know that there have been some scenes that have made people uncomfortable- you know, if you managed to get past the quite significant amount of inter-sibling relationships and baby murdering- but at the moment I’m really enjoying it. It’s a bit like the Wars of the Roses but even messier than the real thing.

I have been asked how, as a feminist, I feel about the series and the clear answer is, honestly, I’m not sure. I can see the problems with how the female characters are portrayed (although I stand by the claim that I think Dany is a bit more in control in the book than she is in the first series) and also the amount of what appears to be superfluous sex scenes for the most part, but I can also see how there are strong women (Arya!) in the cast too. One of the things I like about the programme is that all of the characters are flawed- and often massively so. I do intend to read up on feminist posts about GoT, so please do point me in the direction of any good ones!

I have made a decision regarding the rest of my GoT watching. I’m not going to read the books at the same time. Otherwise, I will be able to talk about nothing else but how weird they all are on Westeros.

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.

Books 2013: July

A bit of a mixed bag this month; lots more fiction than usual, which is unusual, but necessary. My brain needed a bit of a rest from really factual stuff!

*All images from Waterstones

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town- Mary Beard

pompeii

This is actually a sneaky inclusion from June that I finished just after I published last month’s books. I read it in the run up to attending the exhibition at the British Museum and it was brilliant to read about some of the things we’d seen in the museum and their history. I love Mary Beard’s approach to history and this book is no exception; witty, full of interesting facts and not afraid to deal with some of the less unsightly areas of Roman life. I would also credit this with being partly responsible for me becoming interested in learning Latin. id bonum est.

The Damnation of John Donellan- Elizabeth Cooke

damnation

What do you get when you have a dead, syphilitic aristocrat who is a couple of months’ shy of his 21st birthday (and thus his inheritance), a mother who is perceived as a bit dim and a brother-in-law who, although seems devoted to his wife and children, has a bit of a reputation of a social upstart and past reprobate? The answer: a book very much in the mould of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where social class, scandal and terrible legal defence combine to produce what could be one of the first high profile cases of miscarriage of justice.

Pompeii- Robert Harris

pompeii2

My boss insisted on lending me this after hearing me talk about the exhibition. I’d never read Robert Harris before (I’ve since been told that this isn’t his best work…) and I found that this book was a bit hit and miss. I found it hard to get into and the female characters were a bit frustrating. However, as a fictional account of Pompeii in the lead up to the eruption, it was very vivid. Also, if you like knowing about Roman aqueduct systems in your fiction, you’re in for a treat…

The Daughter of Time- Josephine Tey

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This is another recommendation, this time from our school librarian. The Daughter of Time is apparently quite a famous mystery novel from the 1950s, but if you’re expecting a Miss Marple type, think again. The novel tells the story of a policeman who, in hospital for a few weeks after breaking his leg (ah, the old-style NHS!), is bored. His friend suggests that he do some historical detective work and he chooses the story of the Princes in the Tower. I’ve not really done it justice in my description, but it’s an interesting read, even if some of the theories about Richard III have since been debunked.

Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies- Hadley Freeman

beawesome

I love reading Hadley Freeman’s work- it’s often like she’s written exactly what’s in my head, but with a slightly more fashionable twist. This book is no exception; a guide through life that is funny and thought provoking (the bits about new mums made me chortle and nod my head in agreement- Hadley later told me on Twitter that she’d written it for her sister who had just had a baby.) What I like about this is that although it’s a feminist book, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, merely points out common sense. To anyone who isn’t sure if they’re a feminist: read this book.

Books 2013: May

I’ve had loads of reservations arrive at the library this month, so it’s pretty non-fiction heavy. I’m beginning to yearn for some fiction, though, so hopefully I’ll find the time in June to remedy this!

(All images Waterstones unless otherwise stated)

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery- Eric Ives

ladyjanegrey

This was an interesting, albeit slightly dry, account of Lady Jane Grey’s reign and the political machine that surrounded her. What’s interesting is that Ives turns the traditional narrative of her father-in-law being power mad on its head. He was, Ives argued, nothing more than a loyal courtier who believed he was carrying out the law and the wishes of his king, Edward VI. Not surprisingly, we hear very little from Jane herself, but she comes through as a spirited, intelligent young woman when we do.

Celebrity- Marina Hyde

celebrity

This is the polar opposite to the previous book! A take down on the often ridiculous nature of modern celebrity, The Guardian’s gossip columnist deals with everything from Hollywood religion, how celebs fare when it comes to the law, their pets and their children with a biting wit and sharp satire. A very quick read that would be perfect for a plane journey!

From Hell- Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

fromhell

I am a big fan of graphic novels and I’ve wanted to read this one for ages. I like the film for its utter bonkersness, but it is clearly VERY different to the original book. From Hell is HUGE, complex and very good for stretching the brain. It deals with the Jack the Ripper murders and a masonic cover-up. Anyone who says graphic novels aren’t clever hasn’t read this book.

Girl Trouble- Carol Dyhouse

girltrouble

Carol Dyhouse works with Benn’s dad and a couple of years ago very kindly gave me a copy of her book Glamour, which I loved. So when I saw that the library had a copy of this book, I knew I had to read it! It deals with the way Britain has dealt with the ‘problem’ of young women through the 20th Century. From early fears of white slavery, to flappers, Teddy Girls and ladettes, it looks at how society has coped with the changing status of young women and how feminists have fought to ensure that girls and young women are able to fulfil their potential in all aspects of life. Absolutely fascinating from both a sociological and historical viewpoint.

Fifty Shades of Feminism- Lisa Appignanesi, Susie Orbach Rachel Holmes (ed.)

fiftyshadesfem

I don’t really need to explain the name, do I? However, inside are fifty short pieces by a range of women about what feminism means to them (or doesn’t, as the case may be.) All bases are covered here: fashion, history, politics, motherhood, gender identity, sexuality, international feminism and so on. I found this a very quick read and also really quite reassuring. There’s been so much bickering among the feminist community in recent months that it was good to be reminded that although we may all have differing takes on what feminism means to us as individuals, we all want the same thing ultimately.

The Third Sex: Kathoey, Thailand’s Ladyboys- Richard Totman

kathoey

After seeing The Ladyboys of Bangkok, I wanted to learn more about kathoey, a group of people we now refer to as ‘ladyboys’. I knew that they had some cultural resonance in Thailand, but what really surprised me was how ancient this subculture was. This was a fascinating book that linked kathoey to Buddhism.  The view of ‘ladyboys’ we have in the west is a relatively recent phenomenon and one that initially confused the first westerners to arrive in Thailand. A fascinating sociological read.

Interview: Katie Allen (Just Sew Stories)

Hooray! Katie Allen‘s new book Just Sew Stories is out today (you have until 6pm to win a copy on this very blog, by the way…) and she was kind enough to allow me to interview her for the big occasion.

What inspired you to write the book?

I suppose my jumping-off point was very personal, for two reasons. Firstly, I love making things, but my real creative passion is sewing. I wanted to pass that on in a book, to inspire other people. I’m quite inspired by the DIY, punk movement – of making your own things rather than buying something from a chain store.

And secondly, most of the things I have made over the years have been presents for other people.. I really love making something personal for someone which suits all their idiosyncrasies, plus it’s not often you make something and get lots of thanks and applause afterwards! So I wanted to include simple, imaginative projects in the book which people could make for their nearest and dearest (handy in the run-up to Christmas!) but also cool enough that they might just want to just keep them for themselves.

What’s your favourite project in the book and why?

Probably the “I’m dotty about you” quilt. Not to come over all Winona Ryder, but I think there really is a story in every quilt. Not just in the fabrics you choose and the colour combinations you pick, although those are of course important and fun decisions to make – but in what you think about while you’re stitching all those little squares together. I find making a quilt is a balm for any troubled soul…

I also wanted to show that making a quilt is not as hard as it looks – nor as slow! My dotty quilt took me just a weekend to put together.

What was your soundtrack when writing the book?

A ha! You’ve caught me there. I listened to everything on my iPod at least twice I think – especially Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which I think is very conducive to a pleasant sewing rhythm. In fact I’ve included a playlist in my book! But when I started to get a little demented with sitting in my kitchen on my own sewing or writing night after night, the radio became my surrogate friend, particularly BBC 6 Music, and BBC Radio 4. Desert Island Discs is particularly good…

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get started with crafting, but was maybe a little nervous?

Go for it! Crafting of all ilks is a wonderful way to spend time creatively- and to make things prettier too. Think of Lisa in Dirty Dancing, whose role is to “decorate” the world. Nothing wrong with that!

I would say do a little research into what you might like to make first. Craft fairs are an excellent way to see what’s out there and get ideas. Then find a nice simple project from a book (ahem!) or a blog – having someone lead you step by step through something is a great confidence boost, especially when you have a lovely little project at the end to show for it. Then demand praise from everyone you know– that always helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

 What would you say to someone who said that crafting was anti-feminist?

I think it comes down to the old ‘choice’ argument. Crafting – or sewing in particular – was only ever a hindrance to women when they were forced to do it as a way to keep them quiet, particularly in the 19th century when “accomplished” women had to spend hours embroidering teacloths and what not. I think sewing was rejected by many in the women’s lib movement of the 70s and 80s because it became a symbol of domestic oppression. But today I don’t think embroidery or dress-making are foisted on anyone – it’s a choice to make things, whether for pleasure or for retail, and anyway I think we should celebrate those skills. There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about say embroidery compared to painting a portrait.

Which four celebrities would you like to start a crafty collective with and why?

Sue Perkins because I suspect she would be as witty and entertaining in real life as she is on TV – plus we could discuss cakes!

Kirsty Wark because I’d love to talk to her about what it’s like to be on Newsnight, and about all the interesting people she’s met

P J Harvey – just because I love her, and perhaps she could sing a song or two

Lady Grantham – of course! I think she’d bring a certain something to proceedings, although I can’t see her getting to grips with a glue gun…

Just Sew Stories is published by Hardie Grant and is out today, priced £16.99. Check out Katie’s blog at www.katiestitches.wordpress.com

If you buy the book and make something, let me know!