cathannabel

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Beyond the Bechdel Test: seeing ourselves on screen

Women in Hollywood.  Women wearing black to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, wearing Time’s Up badges, white flowers at the Grammys, standing up at the Oscars, women saying #MeToo.

tdy_radford_180127.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMuch has been said about the way in which the voices of women, silenced for a long time by fear of retaliation or of lawsuits, of humiliation and denigration, of career suicide, are now being raised, and amplified, and the way in which this has given courage to women in other professions and environments, to speak up not only for themselves but for women who have even more to lose.

I’m not going to be directly addressing these events.  But I am talking about the culture of Hollywood – a culture in which women are marginalised and isolated on screen as they are off-screen.  And it’s all connected.

I’m going to look at ways in which we can assess the movies we watch, and analyse their portrayal of women,  and think about what change might look like on the screen.  I will touch on other aspects of diversity but in this half-hour slot I can’t do justice to it all!

The Bechdel Test has been around since 1985.  But the essential idea actually goes back a lot further than that:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …  (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

There are actually only three requirements for passing the test:

.Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

(Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For)

It’s been developed slightly since then, and the usual formulation now is that the film must:

  • feature at least two named women
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than a man.

The first thing to say about these criteria is that they set the bar pretty damn low.   (Just think for a moment about how many films would fail if you reversed the genders here.  Er, no, me neither).  Indeed, Alison Bechdel never intended the test to do anything other than to draw attention ‘to the severity of the problem by showing how low you could set the bar and still watch Hollywood executives trip over it’.  Because an awful lot of films still fail, and a surprising number only scrape through with a bit of special pleading.

Does this matter?  Well, yes it really does.  When we – girls and women – go to the cinema, do we see ourselves on screen?  Do we see the kind of women we are, and that we work and live with, that we encounter in all aspects of our lives – women who make decisions and have opinions, women who act and change things in their lives and in the world around them?  If we don’t, that doesn’t stop us being that kind of woman, but it makes it harder, given that it’s already hard, to keep on keeping on in the face of everyday sexism.

Given the howls of horror from some men when a rare film does feature lots of women doing stuff, or when the Ghostbusters or Doctor Who are reimagined as women, it’s clear that the status quo is comforting to those men who would much rather we didn’t make decisions and have opinions, that we didn’t act and change things in our lives and the world around us.  And note that when we get one – ONE – superhero movie with an overwhelmingly black cast, there are trolls on Twitter ready to call it racist.   Dear lord, one could so easily despair.  But one won’t.

If I ever doubted that it’s powerful to see ourselves on screen, I had two reminders last year.  Firstly, I went to see Wonder Woman.

themoscira

It passes the test.  It’s a while before we see a bloke at all, and when we do, he needs rescuing.  By a woman.  I’d underestimated how intensely exhilarating and moving it would be to see those scenes of the Amazonian women on Themyscira, and to see Diana Prince sorting out all the blokes who tried to tell her to ‘just wait there’.  I wanted to weep and punch the air.

And then, not long after, we heard that the Doctor would be a woman, and at Christmas I watched as he regenerated into she, and she said, oh, brilliant.  And it was.

DR7PEBzX4AEpuLw

But back to the test.  It’s important to recognise that passing the test doesn’t make a film a good film, or a feminist film.  Elle passes the test, as does Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, but both are intensely problematic in their sexual politics.  And Dunkirk unequivocally fails but is a brilliant film that would not have been enhanced in any way by shoehorning in some Bechdel-conforming female characters to supplement the unnamed WRENs and nurses.

It’s also important to remember that – once you’ve achieved the ‘two named women’ criterion – it’s not primarily about how many women there are on screen.  If there are only one or two significant female characters, then the female characters may have to carry the burden of representing their whole gender, something male characters are rarely required to do. But the most important thing is not the number of women but, as Neda Ulaby put it,  ‘the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’,  women as characters rather than as cliches.  If there are loads of women on screen but they say very little (an analysis of Oscar winning films shows that men have the vast majority of words, even in films that pass the Bechdel test) then we cannot really see and hear them as rounded characters.  And if the women that are there on screen, however  well-written they are individually, are disconnected from one another, connected only to the men, we’re still not getting what we need.

I had a look at the films that I’ve seen over the last year or so, to see how they measure up.

FAIL – Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of theApes, Dunkirk

Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It.

PASS – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Twentieth-Century Women, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Elle, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Annihilation

Now, obviously my movie list is a personal one and reflects my particular preferences.  Nonetheless, the balance isn’t so far out of kilter with wider ranging surveys.  A recent analysis showed that one-third of 50 movies from 2016 failed.  Between a quarter and a half of my list fail.

However, of those that pass, several pass gloriously.

I’ve already spoken about Wonder Woman.  And The Last Jedi features

a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.

jedi

Twentieth Century Women lives up to its title, with women front and centre in the movie and on the poster.  Hidden Figures similarly features three women at the forefront – and those women are black.

224076-L-LOhidden figures

Hidden Figures is a reminder that the Bechdel test addresses only one aspect of diversity.  Which is one of the reasons that a variety of alternative or supplementary tests have been proposed.

Some of these look behind the camera to the involvement of women (currently around 18%) and/or people of colour in the writing, direction, production of the film. Clearly this is crucial.  When the vast, overwhelming majority of films are written and directed by white men, this will skew the presentation of women.  Not necessarily through conscious sexism, but because a male writer will inevitably identify more with the characters on screen who are most like him (the I-guys, as Stephen King calls them), and will then think of the other characters in relation to the I guy.  They may well not even notice that the women are under-represented, under-developed, under-used.

There’s another reason too why these things are important.  The endemic sexual harassment of women in the movie industry is aided and abetted when a woman on a film set is very much in a minority, and when few of the women who are there have the clout to challenge undermining, belittling and humiliating behaviour – let alone predatory abuse.

There are tests that directly address ethnicity AND gender.  If white women find it difficult to see themselves on screen, it’s so much more the case for women of colour.  One test asks that a film features a black women who’s in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Another that there is a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks English.  Against the first of these, most films fail.  The second does better.  We could apply the same kind of methodology to the portrayal of gay characters, transgender characters, disabled characters.  But I suspect we know what the outcome would be (and we’d have to address the issue of straight actors playing gay, cis actors playing trans, actors without disabilities playing disabled).

A more qualitative approach is to focus on how women are portrayed on screen. Do films show

women as characters who have needs and desires and who take actions stemming from those desires over the course of the film. (You know, they act like real people.) A surprising number of films fail to do even that much basic character development work with women. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist.

Some of these tests are quite subjective.  Whether we can identify and empathise with a character on screen may vary according to our own experiences, our age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc etc.  But whilst these more complex tests may not be as easy to apply, they reflect what we’re actually responding to. That niggling dissatisfaction we feel may well be because the women we are watching don’t have needs and desires that they pursue through dramatic action, because we see them as stereotypes, because what they do matters only in relation to the male protagonists.

Another way of looking at it is the proportion of women in supporting roles or even in crowd scenes.  What if half of all one-scene roles go to women, if the first crowd scene features at least 50 per cent women (currently it averages 17%), and/or the supporting cast is 50 per cent women?

You’ll note that none of the tests involve counting the number of ‘strong women’ on screen.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  As Helen Lewis put it, ‘nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses’. You can’t solve the problems of the representation of women just by inserting a strong woman into the plot and thinking, there, job done.  We want women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women may indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. We want a variety of women characters – not all beautiful, not all clever, not all strong, but, well, like real people.  Just imagine!

Actually we don’t have to just imagine because if you watch TV these days things are very different.  It’s fairly unusual to see a crime drama without a woman in a lead role (e.g. Spiral, Scott & Bailey, The Bridge, No Offence, Unforgotten, Marcella, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Witnesses, Fargo, Vera).  And in the realm of fantasy, just think of Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead and, of course, Doctor Who.  These shows smash the Bechdel test, and many of the alternative tests noted above, without apparent effort.

TV’s not perfect, obviously, but writers for that medium don’t seem to have been getting the message that aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood were not very long ago.

had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. …“The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” … According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.

https://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

This may have been the belief, but even if it was true then,  it no longer is.  Some recent stats from IMDB show that:
  • Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the starring role are more profitable than their male-led counterparts.
  • Female-led films (defined as films where the female actor had the first starring name on Internet Movie Database) earn higher box office returns – despite usually lower production budgets, according to BBC analysis.
  • On average, every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back $2.12 (£1.53). For male-led films this figure is $1.59 (£1.15).
  • Just 28% of films nominated for an Oscar since 2013 have had an actress taking top billing.
In 2017, for the first time since the 1950s, the top three highest-grossing US films all had female leads: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman.   Meanwhile, Hidden Figures made back at the box office over 6.5 times what it cost to make.  We can also consider the success of Black Panther, the response of audiences worldwide to a film whose protagonists are almost all black, and many are black women – to quote a review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places:

The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is.  For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume.

I should say, not all films have to be about women, or even to include women.  It would be entirely unreasonable to demand that every film carry the burden of representing the diversity of the human race.  For example,  there is no reason on earth why a film should not be set in an environment where, for given reasons of historical accuracy or realism there are no, or almost no women present (I refer you again to Dunkirk).  It’s just that when no such reasons apply, we should expect to see ourselves on screen, in the crowd scenes, in supporting roles, AND in key speaking roles that play a part in the action and that relate to each other as well as to men.

It is particularly disappointing when realism is ditched in favour of a science fiction/fantasy universe, but things don’t change as much as they could have done.  Why be constrained by gender and racial stereotypes when you could tear the whole thing up and start again?   I suspect that one reason is that this genre is traditionally assumed to be the white boys’ province.  You create whole new universes, and want to run them all?  Well, I don’t think much to that.

Things are changing.  We’ve got Wonder Woman and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Valkyrie and Gamora and Nebula and the Doctor.  And in Black Panther alone we’ve got Shuri and Okoye and Nakia and, as The Daily Telegraph (yes, really, again), says:

Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.

And Frances McDormand (my hero!) had two words for us at the Oscars.  Inclusion rider

This refers to a proposal by Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative:

“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot,” Smith wrote. “If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”

I may be being naive, but it seems to me this could be huge.     Already,  Brie Larson, Michael B Jordan and John Boyega, among others,  have said they’ll use this as a way to bring about change, on and off screen.  Let’s hope.

We’re half the human race.  We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all.  We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers.  We are beautiful and we are ordinary.  We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above.   We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists.  We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men.  We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.

That should provide the screenwriters of Hollywood plenty of scope.

And just to make the point, that I don’t, I really don’t, want to see nothing but white middle-aged middle-class short bespectacled women when I go to the movies, I had the same emotional response to Black Panther as I did to Wonder Woman.  I wanted to weep, and to punch the air.

636499246365485042-Black-Panther

Because ultimately, it’s not Me me I want to see there.  It’s all of us. The human race in all its wild and ridiculous and glorious diversity.  And if some straight white guys have to hutch up a bit to make room, well, Time’s Up, dudes.

times up

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24 hours of inspiration

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Only six days to go.   Then, for considerably more than 24 straight hours, I’ll be not only awake, but busy setting up ticket and book stalls and coordinating volunteers, interviewing a friend and colleague about her desert island choice of records on our pop-up radio station, and then at 17.00 on Thursday 19 April welcoming audiences to the first talk of the 24 hour marathon.  And then I’ll be buzzing around, keeping an eye on everything, looking after our speakers, MCs and volunteers, taking a few photos, tweeting, listening to as many of the talks as I can and listening into the radio when I can, changing into my PJs at around 11.30, giving a talk myself at 2.00 am on Friday 20 April, introducing the Goth slot at 3.00 am, changing back into daywear at around 6.00 am, doing a radio show with Mike about places and music that mean something to us at 11.00 am, and then, after Tony Ryan brings the talk programme to a close, saying some possibly incoherent, unavoidably emotional words to thank everyone for their contributions, and to send our audiences, speakers and volunteers safely on their way home.  My family will scoop me up, pop me in a taxi and get me home, where I will almost certainly be asleep over a pint of beer by around 8.00 pm.

It does regularly occur to me during the course of this event that it is pretty incredible.  During the night shift especially.  It might seem a bit like one of those anxiety dreams – you’re in a lecture theatre in a University (a fairly normal setting, for many of us), but it’s 2.00 in the morning, and you’re in your jimjams.  But unlike those dreams, it’s not uncomfortable, far from it, because you’re not the only one – many of the volunteers will have slipped into panda onesies or whatever, and the speakers, however eminent, have all been advised of the dress code, however they choose to interpret it.

24 Hour Goth Slot

But it’s not just the uncanny nature of the night shift, it’s the whole event. It’s the fact that each year I send out invitations to colleagues at all levels asking them to give a half hour talk on any topic they like, at some point over a 24 hour period, accessible to non-specialist audiences.  And before I know it, the programme is full, and I’m turning people away.   Some people come back, year after year, but usually around half of the speakers  are new to the event.  And each year we recruit student volunteers from across the University and all around the world, who throw themselves into the event with enthusiasm and creativity and energy.  Each year people offer more than we’ve asked of them, wanting to be involved.

Initially this was down to the Tim factor.  That first year, our student volunteers had all been taught by him, and inspired by him, and they all loved him and missed him terribly.  Most of the speakers had worked with him – one flew over from Lausanne, another came up from Oxford, just to be part of it.  It was inevitably, at least in part, a memorial to someone who had played a vital role in the University, in the Physics department, and in the academic life of generations of students.  Obviously, five years on, the undergrads at least never knew Tim and the majority of speakers probably didn’t either.  But his story still touches people and in any case, almost all of us have our own cancer stories.

Almost all of us have lost someone who we loved, someone who inspired us.  Each year I think not only of Tim and Victoria, but of my mum and her mum who I never knew, of Jos and Dorrie and Anne.  I think of the survivors too, of Lorna and Sarah and Linda and Bev, amongst others.  Each year names are added to the list.  This year I will think of Maryam having treatment in the US for ovarian cancer, Jennie about to go into round 2 of chemo for acute myeloid leukaemia.  I think of Jonathan and of Sheena.

Tim’s story is of course not just a story about cancer.  It’s the story of a teacher who connected with his students, who encouraged and inspired them, who made complicated ideas accessible and who was passionate about not only teaching but learning as a lifelong activity.  And that’s the other reason why this event goes on, from strength to strength.  Because the University is a place dedicated to teaching and learning, full of people who are passionate about teaching and learning.  Because we get a buzz out of encountering stuff we don’t know, didn’t know might be interesting, didn’t know we might be able to at least begin to understand.

24 hours of inspiration.

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If you’re in the neighbourhood, do pop in.  For however much time you can spare, for as long as you like.  It’s not just talks, there’s 24 hour boardgaming too, if that’s your thing.  And live music too.

And if you’re not in the neighbourhood, you can listen in to Radio Inspire, which will be broadcasting a mix of music, interviews, spoken word, quizzes, and more music throughout the event.

Radio flyer

Everything we raise, through selling tickets and cups of tea and buns, goes to this year’s two charities, Rotherham Hospice and Impact Living.  What we do in that 24 hours makes a difference to the charities we support and this year it will help to provide end of life care in people’s homes, and to support vulnerable young people with cancer.

Come along if you can, listen in when you can – and if you can, please donate.

 

 

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Nevertheless, she persisted #IWD2018

 

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I’ve just finished reading Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History and that phrase came to mind pretty much on every page.  Just as women around the world have turned Senator McConnell’s rebuke to Senator Warren into a rallying cry, so Jewell turns Donald Trump’s insult to Hillary Clinton around, and uses it to celebrate women in history who were ‘brilliant, badass and absolutely fearless’, and in many cases, pretty much unknown.

Some of these nasty women were indeed pretty nasty.  None of this is about saying that women are good, or do good (#notallwomen).  It’s saying that women can’t, won’t, never did, never will, fit into the restrictive little boxes that centuries of patriarchy have tried to confine them to.

Men keep on  warning us.  They keep on explaining why we need to leave things to them, to stop being so pushy, so strident.  And nevertheless we persist.

We always have.  The women that Jewell celebrates all had to deal with men telling them that they couldn’t do things simply because they were women, because their brains weren’t sharp enough, they weren’t rational enough, they were too emotional, too fluffy, because trying to be otherwise would make them poorly, shrivel their ovaries or something, stop them getting a man, or being able to bear children.  We’ve been told we’re too pushy or not ambitious enough to succeed, too plain or too pretty to be taken seriously, that our choices are all wrong (have babies/not have babies, go back to work/stay at home).

And nevertheless we persist.

Women throughout the centuries, across the continents.  In cultures far more restrictive than our own women have nevertheless become warriors, monarchs, visionaries, writers, leaders, artists, scientists, inventors.  And we go on, pushing at the barriers, cracking the glass ceilings.  We carry on speaking out when they interrupt or talk over us.  We carry on campaigning in the face of internet abuse and threats, or worse.

We’re half the human race.  We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all.  We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers.  We are beautiful and we are ordinary.  We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above.   We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists.  We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men.  We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.

We don’t agree with each other, we don’t always understand each other.  There’s no unifying glorious, supportive and empowering sisterhood – how could there be, when we’re half the human race?  But we can choose to support each other, to celebrate achievements that otherwise might be dismissed or forgotten, to amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard, to bring into the light wrongs that otherwise might be hidden.

We’ve come a long way, baby, but not yet far enough, no way.  We still lack anything resembling proportionate power, resources, influence.  We still face horrific violence, on the streets and in our homes.  We still carry disproportionate burdens when it comes to feeding and raising our families.

But we will persist.

 

 

 

PS – Oh, and BTW, International Men’s Day is on 19 November.  Just in case anyone was about to ask.  Richard Herring is doing a sterling job on Twitter (@Herring1967) for what he calls International “When’s International Men’s Day?” Day, encouraging anyone who asks the question (and each of them seems to think they’re the first person to do so.  Bless.) to contribute to Refuge.

IWD

 

 

 

 

 

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Time to Talk

A few years back I took the step of talking publicly about my experience of depression, as part of Time to Talk Day:

a chance for all of us to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

The responses I received to that blog post were uniformly supportive and understanding, and reinforced the message of Time to Talk Day, that so many people are struggling with issues of mental health – their own or that of people they are close to – and are grateful and reassured to find that they are not as alone as they might feel.

Since I wrote that blog post it hasn’t been plain sailing.  I didn’t really think it would be.

It’s a part of me, I think, that propensity to slip into the pit.  I stay out of it mainly by being busy enough, with lots of things I care about and that bring me joy, but not so busy that I succumb to anxiety and sleepless nights and feelings of panic.  I know the signs now, and can usually take preventative steps before I start to slip.

That holds true – but I was overwhelmed for a while, not long after writing that piece, and needed a lot of help (not just self-help) to get through.  I was lucky to find a wonderful counsellor who worked with me for almost a year to help me to develop strategies to relax, to allay panic, to feel more confident when I went into what I knew would be difficult situations.  Some of those strategies were physical – putting my arms on the table rather than crossed defensively,  with my hands open rather than clenched, and popping into the Ladies and standing, feet a little bit apart, hands on hips, shoulders back.  A little bit like…

wonderwoman

 

Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success.

I can vouch for this. When you feel under attack your instincts are to drop your shoulders, to make yourself small (less of a target), to protect yourself physically, which stops you breathing so freely, which in turn creates or increases a sense of anxiety.  If you stand like Wonder Woman you’re changing your breathing – it’s an expansive posture.  Now, no one is suggesting that you swan into whatever situation it is that you’re dreading, and take up that stance.  That’s a hell of a sassy stance, and it might be counter-productive.  But a few minutes, in private, standing, and breathing, can help you get through what follows.

I used these approaches as survival techniques in an ongoing crisis rather than as a long-term strategy to enhance my confidence.  To be honest, outside of that situation, I didn’t lack confidence in the workplace – I knew I was knowledgeable, experienced, capable, intelligent and a good communicator.  I just didn’t know it right then.

That situation is long over, and I have had no serious brushes with depression since it was resolved.  But it contributed to my decision to retire from work, rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, and it’s made it harder for me to look back with pride and pleasure at my achievements throughout my career.

I can live with that.  I’m doing other things, things that I am unequivocally proud of.

What is becoming a bit of an issue is anxiety.  I’m more or less continuously anxious these days.  For me it’s a physical sensation, a tightness in my chest and throat, there most of the time with particularly strong twinges at seemingly random moments.  And of course at 3 am – or 5 am – things look ‘worse and worse and worse’…

Fleur Adcock – Things

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/things

The tightness becomes almost painful, there’s a weight on me that’s affecting my breathing.  I can feel my heart thudding, racing, skipping beats.

The uselessness of it is infuriating.  Of the things that are on my mind, there are some about which I can take sensible action – but not at 3 am.  And often it’s a carousel of worries, round and round, from one to another, from real things that I might be right to be concerned about, to general forebodings, to things that any sensible person would not waste a moment’s panic about, round and round, on and on…

I’ve tried my usual ‘how to get back to sleep when the thoughts come crowding in’ techniques but they aren’t really working at the moment.  I have yet to meet a relaxation tape which hasn’t made me want to throw it across the room and then stamp on it very hard indeed.  Right now, the one thing I’m trying which is working – at least in the daytime – is to visualise the particular worry that’s constricting my breathing right now as a thread that I can let go of and watch it float away.

I know I’m not alone with this struggle.  But I also know I need to get better at coping with it, because anxiety at this level – and the sleepless nights that go with it – can push me into the depression that I dread.  It can also stop me doing things that I need and want to do.

Why am I sharing this?  Because I know I’m not alone, and you need to know that too.  Because we can maybe share our experiences, share the strategies that have worked for us, give each other a virtual or a real hug when we meet, remind each other that this too shall pass.

I know that my depression and my anxiety are minor irritants compared to what so many people have to deal with.  But the walking wounded, those who probably aren’t on medication, or using mental health services, may be missing out on so much joy, on the possibility of pleasurable rather than dread-filled anticipation.  And the world is missing out too, on the energy and passion and talent that we can give in so many fields, or could, if we weren’t lying awake every night with a heavy weight of anxiety pinning us down and sapping our strength.

The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable.  So just be kind.
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl

We need to remember that, and this:

As you look around you, in a lecture or a meeting, at a party or a gig, there will be people there, talking and laughing and making decisions and relating to those around them, who are or have been in the grip of depression or anxiety, who are struggling with or have struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders, who are experiencing or have known the intense highs and lows of bipolar disorder.  You’ll never know, unless they dare to share it with you.

It’s time for change.  It’s time to talk.

time-to-talk-day-2018

time to change

https://www.rethink.org/about-us/our-mental-health-advice

https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us?

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/#.Wm7wnahl_IU

http://whatdidyoudowithjill.com/tag/anxiety/

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The Power of Words: Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

In my first HMD blog, six years ago, I talked about how, in preparation for genocide, the power of words is used to dehumanise the intended victims:

The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives.  First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity.  For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice.   Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents  is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability.  As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed.  This load may also scream.

That’s why we must call out such language when it is applied to refugees, immigrants, or any group of ‘others’, whenever we hear it and whoever is using it.

“How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?” she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. “They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring.”

This quote featured in a 2007 interview with a well-known television writer.   The interviewer, who herself was Polish, didn’t challenge her, partly, I suspect, through shock.  Much more recently (in 2015) a notorious ‘newspaper’ columnist, speaking of the deaths of up to 700 migrants in a Mediterranean shipwreck, said:

“These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.”

This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

Perhaps neither the TV writer nor the notorious columnist was familiar with the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I don’t know.  But surely anyone, however ill-informed, should baulk at describing other human beings in such terms?

It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.(Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

For the sake of the future, we have to oppose, vocally and vociferously, those who use the language of genocide whether through ignorance or with deliberation.

But it’s equally important, as Zoe Williams says, to articulate human empathy, to talk about the lives of others as cherishable.  And that includes those who are lost to us, who were murdered because they were seen as less than human.

I have reservations about fictionalising the Holocaust, when there are so very many first-hand stories yet to be told, and when there are still – always – those who claim that the whole thing is a fiction.  But then I recall the TV series Holocaust, broadcast in the late 1970s.

Holocaust_(TV_miniseries)_dvd

For all its faults – and it had many – and for all the opprobrium that it attracted, from critics and from Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it served a tremendously important function.   For many viewers it was a shock – it was for me, and I thought I was well-informed – and in Germany especially so.  Despite all of the efforts post-war to educate and inform, it was this fictionalised account, not the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, that really made many people understand.  They saw  people like themselves, living lives not unlike theirs, and then they saw what was done to them.  In the course of the Holocaust mini-series, the Weiss family experienced Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Sobibor. Wiesel argued that this was a mistake, that ‘the story of one child, the destiny of one victim, the reverberations of one outcry would be more effective’.

What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.

The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show

Clive James was more positive, although he acknowledged that no character existed except to make a point, or to illustrate a particular aspect of Holocaust history, and that (crucially) the script was clunky (‘the use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase’).  However, he concluded:

There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. Holocaust avoided that.

If Wiesel is right, and it is both impossible and vital to tell these stories, it is a task to be undertaken with trepidation.  There are so few survivors now, so few still here and able to give their own accounts.  But the way we tell their stories must honour the witnesses, the living and those who did not survive.  It must be truthful, not just in terms of getting the facts right (details matter, when those details are disputed by those who would wish to assign the Holocaust to the category of fiction or myth), but in terms of creating people who ‘ring true’, and enabling us to invest in their lives and in their fate.

In Louise Doughty’s devastating and powerful novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, she draws us in to the world of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into their rich and complex culture, into the lives of one family, Josef and Anna, their new son Emil, and the kumpania to which they belong.  We see even then the beginning of the assault upon their culture, with the introduction of laws that require them to be registered and fingerprinted and to inform the authorities of their routes and destinations.  And if we know anything at all of European 20th century history, we know this will not be the end of it.

Much later, Josef, dying of a fever in a camp, reflects on the nature of loss:

How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss.  You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have.  When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine.  Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads.  Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more.  Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in.  When we got here, they took those.  They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp.  So many people have been separated from their families.  Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … If I cannot even move my limbs, let alone raise my body to relieve myself with dignity, then I cannot really call my body my own either.  All I have left are my thoughts – and breath, each small breath that comes so shallow and strange into my lungs.  (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)

We do not need to share Josef’s (or Louise Doughty’s) Roma heritage to feel empathy, to recognise the humanity here.  Within this one passage we follow and feel that inexorable progress from a bureaucratic attack on the Roma way of life (‘The implementation of Law 117 … to curb the nuisance caused by so-called Gypsies and other Travelling Persons and Vagabonds’) to the man alone and reduced to ‘the next small breath’.

hmd

There are many first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, from those who survived and from those who did not, but very few from its Roma victims.  The destruction of whole communities, and with them of customs, and dialects, and names and histories, means that creative works of imagination are vital, to bring them back to life for us.  And so what Louise Doughty does here is of profound value.  Richard Rorty, in a passage which Doughty quotes at the beginning of her novel, talks about how human solidarity might be achieved:

It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?” This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel.  (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. xiv)

The power of words, used to increase sensitivity to others, to extend our sympathies, as George Eliot put it.

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne – The American Notebooks)

Words have immense power to hurt or to heal, to damn or to save.  And when we say of a novel or a play that it’s ‘only a story’ we are forgetting that.  Those that have the skill to create or recreate a world, to draw people in whom we can believe, to give those people words to move and engage us, their ‘stories’ can shake us from our facile assumptions and prejudices, and can arm us against those who want to make us hate ‘them’.

We need those words, now more than ever.

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart

(Primo Levi, If this is a Man)

 

 

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“A roof over their heads…”

Phil Davis, who works on refugee projects in Birmingham, is as always articulate, passionate and compassionate in his assessment of how our society treats asylum seekers.

A darkened room

“A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said:

‘Our position is that every person should have the security of a roof over their head, and tackling homelessness is a complex issue with no single solution.

But, we are determined to help the most vulnerable in our society. That’s why we are providing over £1 billion of funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.’”

Metro News. Thursday 25th January 2018

“Every person should have the security of a roof over their head.” Well, yes. Quite.

Here’s a thought. A genuinely helpful contribution towards achieving this clearly laudable policy objective. Stop making asylum seekers homeless and destitute immediately after an unsuccessful appeal. Keep them in a house until they either overturn the refusal in the courts or are removed. I mean, I know homelessness is ‘a complex issue’, but not turfing people onto the streets is a big step forward.

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Remainers Assemble

Funny how swiftly a mood can change.  I wrote a fairly despairing piece about Brexit, just over a month ago.  It was a bit of a rant, an expression of my deep frustration at not seeing a way forward, a way out of the mess.

And suddenly, just in the last few weeks, the thing that I didn’t dare hope for, that I want so badly, is being talked about openly.

Stopping Brexit.

It’s not straightforward, obviously.  The loss of face for May & co. will ensure that they set their faces against it.  And, sadly, Corbyn seems unlikely to come out as a Remainer and lead the charge against the government.  I also know that if it is stopped, damage will already have been done, and recovery will take a long time.

But the tide does seem to be turning.  Surprising numbers of people who want Brexit to happen, as well as people who want to ensure it doesn’t, are now saying ‘if’ rather than ‘when’.

Those of us who voted Remain have been told, over and over again, to shut up and accept it.  To get over it.  We’ve been called whingers, ‘snowflakes’, ‘Remoaners’.  We’ve been accused of being traitors and saboteurs, of betraying the Will of the People.  Some of us had death threats.

Funny kind of snowflake, that withstands the vitriol, the hate, the threats and keeps on keeping on.  Because we had to call out the lies that tricked people into voting for Brexit, and the incompetence and ignorance that characterised the government’s attempts to negotiate with the EU.

We didn’t do that out of pique.  We’ve kept on about it because we believe that Brexit is an act of national self-harm, and that whilst we will all pay dearly for it, those who will suffer its consequences most acutely are the most vulnerable in our society (the poor, those most in need of the NHS), and the young.  We’ve kept on because we care about and love this country.

Whilst I do get tetchy about the assumption that it’s my age group that landed us in this mess, statistically there is some evidence for Brexit appealing particularly to a generation that can remember the old (blue?  black?  who knows/cares) passport, pre-decimal currency, imperial measurements, and all that nonsense.  The people who got terribly agitated because Big Ben’s bongs might briefly be silenced.   The people who want to return us to some fantasy version of the 1950s – post-rationing, pre-counter-culture.

passports

But, to put it somewhat brutally, many of those who look back with such fondness to the past won’t be around by the time Brexit really kicks in.  Whereas the generations that will have their freedoms curtailed by this ‘taking back of control’ will be losing so much and gaining what, exactly?  A different coloured passport.  Perhaps a crown crest on their pint glass.

I want freedom of movement, for myself and for my children and their children.

I want the economic benefits of EU membership, for myself and for my children and their children.

I want our nation to continue to be diverse, to embrace people from Europe (and beyond Europe) who can contribute to our economy, our culture, our health service, our education – and those who need asylum.  I want those Europeans who have made their homes here to feel secure, to feel that they are indeed at home, and welcome.

I want to be part of Europe, part of that group of nations forged after horrific conflict, based upon shared values, facing shared challenges.  The greatest challenges we face are global – terrorism, climate change, the flow of refugees from war zones and famine.  Our best hope of dealing with them is to work closely with our neighbours, not to shut them out.

I am convinced that there are many people who voted Leave – for a wide variety of reasons – who now regret that choice.  Many must have been horrified by the open racism that followed so swiftly on the vote, the abuse offered to anyone who appeared to be ‘foreign’, the glee with which they were told they didn’t belong here any more.  Others have been dismayed by the disparity between what they were promised and what the government now says about what might be delivered, and the obvious disarray of those who are responsible for negotiating on our behalf.  I am also convinced that there are many who didn’t vote, maybe because – like so many of us who voted Remain – they assumed Remain would win.  If those who voted Leave and now regret it, and those who stayed at home on polling day and wish they hadn’t, were to join forces with those who voted Remain and still believe it was the right choice…

So, strengthened by the solidarity of on-line communities that are pressing for an exit from Brexit, I will not only not shut up but will go on, and on, and on, relentlessly, until we find a way of stopping this madness.

And my vote – at local and national level – will go only to those who are pledged to the same cause.

 

A Manifesto for Europe

The EU was built on the words of Winston Churchill. It was founded on the same values that we recognise as British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect.

The European Union has enabled neighbouring nations to overcome historic differences, create new alliances and build bridges where previously there were walls.

For the past 70 years, the United Kingdom has enjoyed peace, prosperity and enhanced standing in the world as a result of its role at the heart of the European Union.

We believe:

  • In democracy and the rule of law.
  • In the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.
  • That the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union amplifies the rights, freedoms and interests of the British people.
  • That UK and EU law underpin our economic, social and political rights.
  • That the UK can only be truly global and outward facing as a fully committed member of the European Union.
  • That the life prospects of young people and future generations of British citizens are augmented by continued UK membership of the EU.
  • That the four nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are stronger when united as a sovereign country, and as a member of the European Union.
  • That continued UK membership of the EU is necessary to ensure the UK is relevant and effective in tackling global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples, and global economic adversity.

We reject:

  • All forms of hate, racism and xenophobia that have been exacerbated by the referendum campaign and ballot.
  • Nationalist protectionism, imperialism and isolationism.
  • Treating EU nationals, EU member states and the EU itself as our enemies rather than our friends

A strong, free and united European Union, with Britain at its heart, is capable of facing up to the challenges of today and tomorrow, and of playing a leading role in championing international peace and prosperity.

 

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