Friday, 30 April 2010

Is it really worth the bother?

Dear Early Learning Centre

I've been browsing your website looking for a gift for my youngest child's birthday, and was shocked to discover that you have a function that filters searches by gender. Perhaps this is considered a useful marketing tactic in a sexist world, but it is most definitely contrary to any message you may be hoping to convey about education through play. Why, precisely, are you suggesting that boys can’t play with the Rosie’s World Summer and her Camper van? Why isn’t Dino Mountain “suitable” for girls? Why are “Phantom Pirates” okay for girls, when “Ghostly galleon” isn't? (The only way I can interpret the latter and similar examples seems to be that it’s okay to spend a little bit on “male” toys for girls, but not worth getting them the expensive stuff, which is strictly boys only…). Like so many people of my generation, I grew up in a home where beliefs in strict gender roles were rampant, and it’s limiting and restricts horizons for no reason whatsoever. You might say parents can choose to buy whatever they like – they can and will anyhow – but to legitimise the idea that certain toys are “gendered” is damaging nonetheless. Everyone brings their own prejudices to parenting – it’s not your place to reinforce them.

I am old enough to remember early TV adverts for ELC in the eighties, which involved a Barbie and Action Man-type couple trying to break into a shop but not being deemed acceptable (the ads ended with Barbie then demanding to see her lawyer). How times change – I take it you think you’ve “done” anti-sexism now and can get back to being a “proper” toy shop (albeit one which is now actually more dated and sexist than all the rest)? I hope this marketing policy changes. In the meantime, I won’t be buying my children anything from ELC and will make sure all my friends who go in your shops are at least informed about this website search function.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Birth choices?

Lots of debate on the F-Word about Labour’s plans to give women more choice about home births and having partners to stay the night after a baby’s birth. The whole thing really irritates me and at first I couldn’t work out why. But finally, I think it’s because in all this no one seems to remember that a experiencing a successful live birth is not testimony to the power of womankind, but basically a massive privilege. I don’t mean this in the sense of “so think yourselves lucky and stop questioning the conditions of such births” (on the contrary, we should continue to do so). What I mean is that if you start presenting labour as an area in which women know their own bodies and can make choices from a position of authority, you have to consider how this might resonate with women who’ve experienced miscarriage and stillbirth. Since being fortunate enough to have my two sons, these things don’t get to me any more, but after a disastrous first pregnancy I would have found exactly this type of debate deeply upsetting. How can women who are having successful pregnancies lay claim to such knowledge and capability, just because they are more able than others to physically reproduce? It strikes me as a little similar to when people talk about positive attitude with reference to cancer and describe survivors as having “won their battle”. Those who don’t seem to be able to harness this apparently innate physical ability and instead experience their bodies as doing something beyond their control and desire are made to experience a personal tragedy as a personal failure as well.

Giving birth is such an extreme physical and emotional experience, yet most women only experience it a few times at the most. Birth experiences are so variable, yet the intensity of your own can lead you to see it as representative of something deeper, applicable to other women and what could or couldn’t be the “right” birth. To be honest, I think we should be more cautious and if anything, place less import on experiencing in a way which gives you the appropriate narrative at the end. No one should be using women’s bodies as a battleground for their own ideals (and I think some, but far from all, midwives and doctors do this, as though we’re pieces of meat to be fought over in a quest for professional status). At the same time, I wonder how helpful it is for us to shackle ourselves with birth plans and ideals which don’t respect our own physical responses and desires once the contractions kick in. We don’t have the breadth of experience to say in advance what should happen, not just to others, but even perhaps to us, since births are so unique and we’ll never go through the same birth twice for comparison’s sake. And really, I wonder how feminist it actually is to make experiencing a good labour an issue of empowerment and choice. I can’t see this doing much more that making women who’ve had good labours without intervention fail to appreciate how randomly lucky they’ve been, and women who for reasons beyond anyone’s control have horrendous experiences feel they have somehow let themselves and their bodies down.

Can’t we just aim for an okay birth experience, one which treats all women with respect as autonomous human beings, whether it’s in an NHS hospital or at home? I found the former, while not exactly a luxurious experience, absolutely fine, but would hope to have the latter, were I to get pregnant again, as simply the safest bet, as I have a history of very fast labours. My second son, in his eagerness to arrive, was born via an unorthodox “compromise” option, between our house and the hospital, delivered by my partner on the ground next to a portakabin. I still think of those moments just after he arrived, when there was just the three of us in the world, as perhaps the most magical I will ever experience. Still, I’m not about to recommend open-air freebirthing for all (if, as had been the case with my first son, the umbilical cord had been wrapped around my second son’s neck, a minor hiccup could have turned into a tragedy due to the absence of a midwife, however bossy and overly-officious [and the midwife I had with the first one was just that…]).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while I’d also have liked to have had my partner there on the night after our first child was born (I too was very scared) and may have liked a home birth with our second (however special, it was not as safe as I'd have liked) I don’t think we should allow labour, birth and the time immediately afterwards to gain too much import in terms of perceptions of our own power. Whether or not a partner is or isn’t there for one night or you are or you aren’t at home is simply scratching at the surface, beneath which lies such a vast number of things you can’t control, however organised and forceful you are. We should fight for control over any decisions made regarding our own bodies, but we should not confuse this with believing that our bodies will thereby always be controllable.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Charlotte Raven tells us all how to be feminists

Really annoying, offensive article on The Guardian Review today, telling us how the 'new feminism' went wrong. Apparently, according to Charlotte Raven, it's all down to women of her generation selling out to marketing somewhere in the nineties.
I was at university in the nineties. I once dressed as Geri Halliwell for a student party and I'll admit it wasn't my finest hour. Nevertheless, it wasn't because I was strangely oblivious to the fact that "the girlpower we were all getting "into" was in fact a bit of marketing aimed at getting tweens to buy records". Nor was it, as stupid and anti-feminist actions go, anything like as bad as writing an article for a mainstream newspaper in 2010 in which you assert that we women "only have ourselves to blame" for the hyper-sexist and hyper-sexualised culture that confronts us.
I really, really hate this kind of thing. Someone, somewhere, realises they were completely wrong in their beliefs and actions many years ago, yet, in a fit of sheer arrogance and self-aggrandisement, decides that it can't just have been them - it must have been the whole damn generation. Well, no, Charlotte, no. It was just you. Or at the very least, I can think of very few people whose experience of the nineties was as follows:
In my Dolce & Gabanna number, I believed I was free to be what I really really wanted. Like Tony Blair, I felt I was a person of destiny.
Honestly, it was not like that for the rest of us. And perhaps the reason no one challenged you in your delusions wasn't because we were all too busy "dancing around in bra tops". We were just doing our best with the same old sexist crap we confront every day, the same as now, with the daily frustrations compounded whenever someone claiming to have our best interests at heart wrote another self-serving article of the kind you've just produced.
The Geri Halliwell thing was one evening of my life. I still have my leopard print Spice Girls top, but can only see a problem with that if you're unimaginative enough to read into it an ideology that was never there. Yes, you can say it's treating things that may have misled and distorted with frivolity and carelessness. But that's not beyond redemption, at least not in the way that getting paid to kick women, all women, in the teeth in the national press might be.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Selling my soul to the pink/blue orthodoxy

Another post at the F-Word on what Philippa Willitts calls "the widening chasm between girls and boys' things", as exemplified in particular by the dominance of blue for boys and pink for girls. No matter how trivial this seems to some, I find this incredibly worrying, not least because the orthodoxy is so powerful even those who don't believe in it feel they have to promote it.

I work in education. A few years ago I was at a conference during which technology for girls was being pushed - pink websites, online activities based on shopping and make-up, that kind of thing. I commented to a colleague that I found it sad that the very stereotypes which limit girls' aspirations are being perpetuated in supposed attempts to counteract them. She looked at me like I'd said something utterly insane. I haven't said anything like that since.

Several years on, I've sat in meetings where people have raved about educational materials which are "really motivational for boys because they use logic", and taken the suggestion that boys can't necessarily respect female teachers as an immutable fact. I offer no dissent. I've never said this kind of thing myself yet but perhaps, one day, if I feel it necessary, I will. Lots of teachers don't believe its true, lots of educational resource providers don't believe its true, but we all play along with it because we're not sure when and where we're allowed to disagree, and we're told, from the Government downwards, that it's the latest "research" and who are we to question it, anyhow (only women and men and boys and girls who aren't what you say we are). So it's only a matter of time, providing I play the game well enough, before I present the latest pink website to the latest set of victims. Oh well. At least I can spend my earnings on Barbies for my sons.

Expressing milk: the hidden dangers!

Two days back at work and I am called into HR to discuss the "health and safety issues" arising from me keeping a steriliser, breastpump and expressed milk in the company kitchen. Now, if you are a Daily-Mail-type, you may hear the words "health and safety" and immediately think of "political correctness gone mad", a world in which the insane lefties won't let us do anything, dammit. I am not a Daily-Mail-type (and am quite unsure of my use of hyphens here, but that's another matter). I think, rather more boringly, that "health and safety issues" are sometimes valid concerns, and, more rarely, concerns invented to promote a particular agenda, which could be left-wing, right-wing or neither. Even more boringly, I think in this case it's a mixture of the valid and invalid which I won't ever be able to disentangle forcefully enough to make anyone change their mind. And so, on to the issues:
  • The bottle steriliser could get hot and people could burn themselves. Fine, I will put a label on it saying it might be hot.
  • The steriliser takes up space on the worktop. Fine, I will put it in the cupboard when it's not in use. I only later discover it is too big for the cupboard, meaning I need to dismantle it each time and hence stop it being in any sense sterile. But I say nothing. God forbid I disturb the wide expanse of space for cooking ready meals and making instant coffee with the Hadron Collider that is an Avent steam steriliser.
  • People open and shut the fridge, so it might not stay cold enough for the milk. Fine, is there anywhere else I could put it? No? Well, I'll put it at the bottom in the back. You want me to put it in a coolbag too? I say yes and only work out later that this doesn't actually make any sense, given that the milk will be body temperature when I put it in said insulated bag (physics not being my strong point). But I do nothing, put extra cool blocks in the coolbag itself to make it more like the fridge I was keeping things in in the first place.
  • Older people in the company are not as "baby-orientated" and don't know what these things are. Okay... It's at this point I'm not so sure what to say. I don't feel particularly "baby-orientated" at work either. I'm just ensuring my son doesn't have to have formula milk. I make some totally irrelevant reference to the fact that I got "into" expressing (like it's some kind of wacky craze) when my son was seriously ill as a small baby, and just thought I'd carry on. Random emotional blackmail, which I shouldn't have to use, somehow seems to work.

For the rest of the day, I don't think anything about this. Then the next day I find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable about something I felt fine about before. It gradually comes back to me, in bits and bobs of conversation, that the equipment's appearance in the kitchen has been discussed at meetings, along with certain complaints that this place "isn't a crĂȘche" (the man who tells me this also tells me that his wife breastfeeds, which he thinks is "good, I suppose, I won't stop her, it's her choice" - I suppose this is a good thing to say, overall...). It seems to me that while some of the health and safety "advice" is fine - I don't want anyone to get burnt - much of it seems less about safety and more about decreasing visibility, more about ensuring that, in a company of hundreds, where most employees are women, where many women return to work before their babies turn one, we keep it as well-hidden as possible that only one of their number has a child who's still fully breastfed.

It makes me want to get to work pumping at the desk, there and then. But I don't. The colleague across from me asks what the meeting yesterday was about. "Health and safety", I say. "It's political correctness gone mad."

Thursday, 11 February 2010

From the pages of "Reveal"...

An government advert on page 70 of this week's "Reveal" is promoting the benefits of breastfeeding. Fair enough, you might think. And while I find all the references to "mum's milk" a tad overfamiliar and prim (what's wrong with "breastmilk"?), it all seems fine, until you get to the claim that breastfeeding "also helps mum to bond with her baby, as well has giving her the chance to sit down and relax". Because yeah, I don't know where I'd be without my extra-special "breastfeeding breaks", given that it's apparently not acceptable for mothers to just sit down and relax anyhow. Although I have to say, quite how your baby needing a feed suddenly creates the space and time for you to sit down and relax isn't exactly made clear - it's not like my toddler suddenly stops needing exactly the same amount of attention as before, something which ultimately makes the physical restriction of breast- as opposed to bottle-feeding less of a relaxation-excuse/opportunity and more of a pain in the arse. Sigh. Yet another example of breastfeeding being "promoted" through the sanitised representation of something which isn't anything like breastfeeding at all. Oh, and the photo's great, too - not a bit of breast in sight, let alone the dreaded nipple...

Friday, 5 February 2010

White, middle-class, heterosexual ... so I would say this, wouldn't I?

I've just read a review of Natasha Walter's Living Dolls. I am not a huge Natasha Walter fan - her feminism has always struck me as rather over-polite and toothless, a plea for equality as long as it doesn't upset any sexists out there - but for once, I find myself feeling rather more annoyed at the reviewer than at Walter herself.

Syma Tariq attacks Walter for writing a book which has an appeal restricted to British, middle-class, heterosexual readers. Which may be fair enough; I've not read the book yet and would resent any claims made for a universal feminism which in practice excludes most women. Yet this part of Tariq's review infuriates me:
Some of Walter's ideas about what feminism is and does - complaining to Marks & Spencer about sexist advertising, finding gender-neutral toys for her children, having a good career - are disappointing, and irrelevant to many people.
It is odd, to say the least, to find glib dismissals of the concerns of others as "disappointing" and "irrelevant to many people" within a piece entitled "Feminism shouldn't be exclusive". Tariq seems to suggest that on the contrary, it should, only in this case, she should be the one to decide what gets left out.

Several years ago Barbara Gunnell wrote a great article for the New Statesman on how middle-class women have become the acceptable target for left-wing sexism. I won't go into this in detail, as the piece itself says it all, but I can't help feeling that within Tariq's own language, there's an internalised misogyny, a suggestion that sexism is not a valid focus for concern unless it's sexism + Something More Important, a personal distancing from the concerns of those who are "just" women and don't have a more legitimate label or cause for complaint. Tariq plays into the hands of those who dismiss feminism as a white, middle-class and hence trivial movement, and she does so precisely because she trivialises the concerns of white, middle-class women. What is "disappointing" and "irrelevant" about not wanting your own environment to be steeped in gender bigotry? Nothing, as far as I can see. This doesn't have to be an endorsement of everything else to do with the environment itself, but an acknowledgement that no one should be considered inferior on the basis of their sex. Which seems heartbreakingly basic to me.

I am aware that Syma Tariq's view has some currency amongst many feminists, including white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists such as myself, but personally, I am tired the self-imposed paralysis of others like me, the fear of demanding anything which may be of restricted value and hence considered a mark of privilege, the reluctance to ask for circumscribed equality as long as there is no such thing as absolute equality. If something is worth asking for, however small, it's worth asking for, without apologies, even if it's a complaint which sounds a bit old hat (sexist advertising), a bit mumsy (gender-neutral toys), a bit eighties-retro (a good career). Yeah, it's not the worst that can happen, but that's not the point, either. It's a shame Tariq just doesn't get it.