Posts Tagged Feminism

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 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 it is very relevant to 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.

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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.

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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 the Apes, Dunkirk

Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It.  (NB my inclusion of Rogue One in this category is disputed…)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2014 – some of the best bits

Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre.   However, I did manage a few outings…

  • Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight.  I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed.  The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals  – see also Poppeia).
  • Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme,  and The Coronation of Poppeia.  And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location. 

poppeia la boheme

  • Tramlines!
  • Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’),  Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
  • Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture.  Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes.  We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015.  Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Lifegoes from strength to strength.
  • I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager.  That was a great game.  We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated.   If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around.  I hope he can.  I really, really, hope he can.

Top TV of 2014

No attempt at ranking.  How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy?  So, what do all of these shows have in common?  First, excellent writing, and great performances.  Essential to have both.  So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks.  Second, great female characters.  All of these programmes  basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park.   It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  It’s about having 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 do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to.  So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.

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  1. Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
  2. Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it.  They did,  and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it.  Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes.  But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising.   The rest of the cast was superb too.
  3. Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year.  This valley was pretty damned grim.  But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
  4. Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4.  The three central women (count them!  three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
  5. The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time.   It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations.   Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout.  There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
  6. Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right.  It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well.  And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
  7. Community made me laugh more than anything else this year.   Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
  8. Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere.  I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
  9. Homeland redeemed itself.   Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
  10. Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year.  Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved.   And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others….  Cracking plot too.

Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic  reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon.   I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order.  Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front.   Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).

guardians 2 cap america x men lego dallas white ribbon mr turner  slavedragonaurielcornelia

Women of the year:

  Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty

Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science

kate Kate Bush – for doing it her way, as always

fahma Fahma Mohamed – for telling men three times her age what they needed to be told about FGM and how to protect young women in the UK

malala Malala Yousafzai – it’s all been said really.  A young woman of remarkable maturity and dignity, as well as courage.

adedevoh Dr Ameyo Adadevoh – helped to curb the spread of Ebola by quarantining a patient in the face of pressure from his government, but succumbed to the disease herself

 

laura bates Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.

In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, footballW G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who.  I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!

Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion.  This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance.  A fascinating project, beautifully documented.

To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you.   I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!

 

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Patron Saint of Prostitutes – the extraordinary Josephine Butler

The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be.  Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature.  Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.

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Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long.  She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett).  There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar.  The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace.  But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.

As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact.  Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’.  Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.

josephine butler patron saint of prostitutes

Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules.  She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting.  Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option.    A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’.  She minded that, terribly.

Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade.  She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities,  of voting rights, of rights for married women.    And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.

But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work.  She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.

Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’.  She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.

Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it.  In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine.  He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife.  But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.

If she were with us now, what would she be doing?  She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes.  She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence.   She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism.  Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.

I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements.  A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer.  She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart.   Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note?  Would she want a statue?  Perhaps not, who knows.  But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began.  And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.

It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring.  We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver.  Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:

God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

(Church of England Common Worship texts, 30 May, Collect)


Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014.  ISBN: 9780752492094  It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.

A Kindle edition is available from Amazon.     Order a Kindle edition

Signed copies are available from the author at:

£11.50 + postage. Email helenmathers1@gmail.com.

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Why Who?

In future my blogging energies will be shared between this site and Doctor Her, a new blog about all things Doctor Who, from a feminist perspective.   Given my previous post in defence of fantasy, this might not be too much of a surprise.  But I’m very well aware that to declare one’s love for Doctor Who, or Buffy, is to be dismissed with a contemptuous curl of the lip by some.  Their loss, clearly.   I have strong views about what’s worth reading, watching or listening to, increasingly so as I grow older and realise that I really may not have time to read/watch/listen to all the great stuff that’s out there, so I really don’t want to waste time on the merely OK, let alone the poor.  But my criteria don’t include genre categories – I may have a preference in televisual terms for fantasy rather than costume drama but I’ll only watch something if it’s written intelligently, if it has some emotional truth and weight to it, whatever category it’s in.  And that, most decidedly, includes Doctor Who.

We go back a long way, the Doctor and me.   Back to the mid-sixties, when he was a cosmic recorder-playing hobo.  I followed him as he regenerated, and whilst I did love some Doctors more than others, I never gave up on him altogether.  The BBC pretty much did though, and I wasn’t expecting the reboot at all, let alone expecting it to be – the odd clunky episode notwithstanding – a return to the quality of the very best era (Four, need you ask?).

As a kid, of course, I hid behind the sofa (metaphorically, I don’t recall literally doing so) and the limited budgets (the quarry which doubled for every alien planet ever visited, the visible zips on the monster costumes) didn’t make it less scary.  But it was always about more than scaring the kids, it was about ideas.  The first series had an overt educational mission, both historical and scientific, which has become less evident over the years.  But what has been constant is the real heart of speculative fiction, exploring what it is, what it could be to be human.

The reboot of Who, for me, has succeeded marvellously in that arena.  It’s explored love, loyalty, loss and longing.  It’s made me laugh, and its made me cry.  A lot.   It’s made me think, it’s prompted vigorous debates, on and off line, wild divergences of opinion amongst fans.  And I’m really excited about a forum where I can share and explore these things in the context of what it is, what it could be, to be a woman.

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