Friday, 21 March 2014

Yes, Facebook nomination crazes are lame. But do we really have to use the ‘N’ word?

Wednesday morning was like every other morning. I woke up, kissed John, bid good morning to my children, reached under my pillow for my phone and dabbed my finger onto the blue and white F on the touch screen. Ok I didn’t kiss John. Or say hello to my children. I basically did what I always did and jumped straight onto Facebook, getting my first fix of the day before anyone realised I’d woken up and I’d be forced to get involved with the pre-school run hunt for shoes, reading diaries and an ever elusive clean school jumper. I scrolled through the feed to see a couple of selfies of my friends looking a bit paler/younger/older/cleaner/sadder/happier than they normally do, nestled in amongst an alarming number of posts ranting about the N word: Narcissism.

This was day 1 (in my feed at least) of the #nomakeupselfie craze that has filled up most of our Facebooks for the past 48 hours or so. The craze – in which women post pictures of themselves wearing no make-up and urge their friends to text BEAT to 70099 to raise £3 for cancer research – follows hot on the heels of the recent #necknomination phenomenon, in which people (mostly male, mostly young, mostly not middle class) were nominated by their friends to down a pint of booze in one, and nominate their friends to do the same in 24 hours. I have, much to the horror of many of my friends I’m sure, gegged in on both of these daft scenes, just as I geg in on pretty much all the wonderfully meaningless (and of course narcissistic) opportunities for ersatz connection that facebook affords. You post a petition? Oooh lemme sign that!; You get a year older? HPYBDY DUDE!; My kid farts? Here’s a pic!; Ooh a CiF article on student fees? Sharing that bitchesssss!; You die? RIPing and weeping right here for ya bbz!

But I’m an unusually social person stuck in rural exile and I can’t drive #soalone #prayforkate

However, this isn’t some elaborate exercise in justifying my participation in any and all of the lameness that is life on Facebook (honest). What has been bugging me today is the difference in the public reception of the #neknomination and #nomakeupselfie crazes, and in particular, how that reception has been framed by a troubling, gendered discourse that circulates around the issue of narcissism.

‘Narcissistic’ ‘martyrish’ ‘Pathetic’ ‘needy’. These are some of the words that have filled up my FB news feed in these past few days of the #nomakeupselfie. These are harsh, contemptuous words. Words that have been used time and time again to insult, demean and pour scorn upon women. Words that have a very deep and profound resonance in the historical representation and experience of women under patriarchy. Words which have been borne and lodged under the sign of ‘WOMAN’ for centuries as testament to our inherent passivity and our inferiority to our ‘actively’ creative male counterparts. The well-worn trope of female narcissism feeds into bullshit ideas about the passive nature of female desire, it infantilises us, and it justifies the continuing objectification of women in western visual culture.


"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." (John Berger)

                                    Helmut Newton, Self Portrait with Wife and Models 1980



The difference between the reception of the self-representations of women and the self-representations of men can be seen clearly in the history of art. When men make art using their own body, when they perform naked and use their own flesh as their material, they are invariably understood to be saying something unspeakably profound about the human condition. When women artists do the same, particularly if, God forbid, they happen to be attractive?
Well, they’re being totes narcissistic innit.  



Above: Vito Acconci, Trademarks, 1970

Left: Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-82

“She is a narcissist. And Vito Acconci, with his romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.”  - Lucy Lippard






Forty years on and the reception of the creative display of the male and female body performed in the #necknomination and #nomakeupselfies on Facebook has played out in pretty much exactly the same way. It will be of no surprise to anyone thay the N word was completely absent from my feed in the discussions following the #neknomination phenomenon, despite all the hench nudity, the self-aggrandizing behaviours, the arrogance and the evermore desperate and competitive performances of spectacular virility displayed in the videos. But as I say, the #neknomination craze was a predominantly male phenomenon so, rather than reaching for the vocabulary of narcissism, lazy tabloid journalists turned straight to the section on ‘hackneyed tropes of white working class young men’ in their thesaurus, and squealed in age old moral panic about the ‘dangers’ of this ‘extreme’ ‘challenge’, this ‘deadly game’ that ‘was out of control’ and threatened to ‘claim another victim’. All the posturing, showing off and peacockery of these young white lads has nothing to do with narcissism oh no! It’s their wildness, their daft laddishness, their untutored, disaffected, un-productive, insufficiently middleclass MASCULINITY writ large, leaking out all over the internetz and threatening to destroy society. And of course it had to be stopped. But narcissism, nahhhh. That’s just for the girls spending 30 seconds posting a selfie in no make-up for cancer research.


I get that posting a selfie on Facebook is pretty narcissistic. Just as necking a pint of Blastaway naked in a stream and posting it on Facebook is too. But dudes! Facebook IS narcissistic. It is self-serving and self-aggrandizing and needy. All of it. Look what I signed! Look what I ate! Look what I read! Look what my kid did on the potty! Narcissism is as essential to Facebook as the desire for an illusion of communalism in an increasingly atomised society is. Calling out a bunch of bare-faced women for being narcissistic in the interminable sea of MEEEEEEEEEE that is Facebook is, by my reckoning, pure projective identification (and, as I say, a bit sexist).  So rather than wringing your hands about female narcissism and #nomakeupselfies, move on, sign a petition, post a picture of your cat and then, you know, text BEAT to 70099. 
Peace x

Monday, 15 July 2013

Screen Time

A few nights ago, John and I were sitting and talking over a glass wine at the end of the day, when I burst into song: “The road is looooooooong..... With maaaaany a wiiiiiiiinding turn.....”
I spun round to face him: “What does that song remind you of?” I asked, grinning in anticipation of an instant identification of the connection I was making. But he didn't know. This was odd. Usually our cultural references are in perfect harmony. He remembers Prize Italiano yoghurts, the lyrics to Shonen Knife songs, Beebop and Rocksteady from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, and all sorts of other totally irrelevant stuff that no one else seems to know but which has inexplicably woven itself into the fabric of who I am, and who he is, and how we see ourselves and each other. A sort of faded 90s poncho from Afflecks Palace, patchworked from washed out band t-shirts and 19 inch wide Joe Bloggs jeans, under which we smugly snuggle together, marvelling at our infinitely compatible cultural unconsciouses. I'm sure it's one of the main reasons we continue to be so amused by each other, even after all these years. So I was genuinely shocked when he didn't immediately call out “The Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster!”

“The Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster!” I exclaimed in a way that made the whole sentence sound like the word “duh!” He laughed at me for being a weirdo, and, like the good citizens of the 21st century that we are, we both turned to our phones and started Googling in earnest.

We soon found out that He Ain't Heavy wasn't anything to do with 'Ferry Aid'. The song selected to represent the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster was actually a cover, by an erratically talented cast, of The Beatles' Let It Be. Who knew?! Google has a cheeky way of taking your treasured childhood memories and tearing them into a 125 million reasons why you're totally full of shit. I can't figure out whether it makes me think of The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... Either way, I'm beginning to suspect that Jim Carrey might be installed as some sort of undercover big cheese at Google HQ.

Ferry Aid, Let it Be, 1987


So anyway, yes, I was wrong. I had misremembered the memorial. The remembrance of things wrong. As you might imagine, I felt terrible for the victims of Zeebrugge that I'd got 'their song' wrong (maybe we need Simon Bates to sort out a political history version of That Show?), so we spent the next 10 minutes soothing my damaged ego by giggling over (thankfully shared) recollections of 'blue ears' for the Telethon, and trying to remember whether it was You'll Never Walk Alone or Ferry Cross the Mersey for the Hillsborough disaster (to save you Googling, it was in fact Ferry Cross The Mersey, although, coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, in recent years some pop stars did a charity single of a version of He Ain't Heavy to raise money for the victims of Hillsborough. Circularity, eh?).

Anyway, eventually, after a few more impromptu renditions, John asked: “so why are you thinking about [/sapping my will to live by constantly singing] 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'?” And it dawned on me that the awful, excruciating, embarrassing truth was that the song had been in my head since the weekend, when I had met my half siblings – a brother and a sister - for the first time.

Reader, I was mortified. How could my subconscious be so desperately uncreative? Here is this huge, profound, emotional experience (and it really did feel genuinely special and incredible and important) which, in a greater mind, could inspire novels or symphonies or challenging modern dance ensembles, and yet the most poetic thing my brain could come up with was a Hollies song learned by osmosis from a Miller Light commercial that includes the phrase “He's My Brother”. I may as well have started absent-mindedly whistling “We Are Family”.

I don't know why I was surprised by the shameless literal-ness of my unconscious; it's certainly not a new thing. I am physically incapable of walking over Waterloo Bridge without humming Waterloo Sunset; Alice Cooper booms into my brain every time I see the words 'last day of term' scrawled on the calendar in the kitchen; during a stay on a friend's narrowboat last summer I had the theme from Rosie and Jim in my head for 3 fucking days. My internal jukebox is about as lateral as Phoebe from Friends (and yes, I'm pretty sure I have sung 'Smelly Cat' to a smelly cat).

I can't be alone in feeling that my experiences, my relationships and even my identity are filtered through a screen of often lame, sometimes mis-remembered cultural references. Ersatz emotions purloined from popular culture and remembered as my own. Nowadays we live our lives in, if not constant, then almost oppressively close contact with screens. When we first see our children, it's as blue and black blobs floating on a screen. We Tweet, blog, Instagram, and update our statuses compulsively (well I do); if it isn't on Facebook it didn't happen.

Nearly a year ago I almost died from internal bleeding caused by a ruptured ectopic pregnancy (they 'knew' this because all they could see on the screen during the emergency scan was the black nothingness of blood). The surgeon came in and informed me that, although a huge road traffic accident meant that I might have to wait a while for the life-saving operation, they 'weren't going to let me die'. Once the theme from Casualty had finally started to fade from my mind, and the blood clotting drugs had kicked in, I passed the time waiting for the op laying on the gurney and texting a friend about the breakdown of her marriage. Screens screen us. For better or worse they stand between us and an authentic experience.

When I get wobbly I read psychoanalysis; it allows me the indulgence of a fantasy of an explanation. Psychoanalysis is good for talking about screens. Freud spoke of 'screen memories' – part actual, lived experience and part fantasy. An image injected with the memory of a feeling; memories of the past that did not “emerge” but which were “formed” later on. I can't be the only one whose clearest childhood memories can be accounted for in a selection of re-heard songs and a handful of photos from the family album. We take an image, a song, a piece of clothing and we turn it into a screen that, for us, stands for what childhood felt like.

For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan the whole ego - the Self itself - begins with a screen: the mirror. As Lacan tells it, at some point between about 6-18 months, the baby looks in the mirror and (mis)recognises the kid on the mirror/screen as her 'Self'. But the Self she sees on the mirror/screen doesn't add up to the self she experiences. The Self she sees looks so coherent and whole and all the different parts join up... yet she can't even stand up to wave hello without her mum holding her up. I think I know how that baby feels. Looking like unity but feeling like chaos. A vague sense that somebody else is holding me up. I feel that wonderful narcissistic boost and the accompanying shattering alienation every time I post up a perfectly posed Selfie - shot from above, remembering the lippy - on Instagram. But what if they could see me in real life!

It's got a little long. I don't know if I've made a point. I fear the chaos has leaked onto the screen. And I need to leave the screen. John's in the living room and he's got a whole stack of Look-In annuals from the charity shop that we need to go through...



Sunday, 23 June 2013

We Need To Talk About FEMEN



I've been asked a lot recently what I think about FEMEN, the Topless Ukrainian Feminist Sextremists who, if you spend a lot of time on the internet, you may be forgiven for thinking are the sole feminist activists operating at the moment. If you don't know who they are, and you would like to, you could watch this short (8 minutes-ish) film. HERE .

When people ask you what you think about FEMEN they usually mean one, or both, of two things: What do you think about FEMEN and their apparent raging Islamaphobia?; or 2) what do you think of FEMEN and their fantastic and very visible breasts. Of course you can't really talk about one without the other, but I'm going to have a go, due to the fact that I know rock all about Islam and I haven't done anywhere near enough research to be able to say anything sensible or valuable on the matter and it's far too important to throw a lot of stoopid platitudes at. I might come back to the religion thing when I know a bit more and when I'm a bit more confident with the blogging, but for now, I'm going to talk about something I have plenty of first hand experience of (Oooh Matron!) – boobs.

                                         FEMEN

Boobs occupy an appropriately prominent position on the body of feminist discourse, as central to debates about women's autonomy as the issue of reproductive rights, with which they are of course deeply entwined. The politicized, feminist breast is there, or not there, in the protests against Miss America and Miss World pageants in the late 1960s; in burned bras; in the folded pink ribbons that encircle millions of women in sisterhood and solidarity against breast cancer every year; in binding; in Primark padded bras for 4 year old girls; in the current Ban Page 3 campaign; it goes on...
In recent years, I have never felt my own, personal need for feminism more acutely than when I've been asked by a man to breastfeed more discreetly; or, conversely, when I have been feeding at night: shattered, touched out and totally desiccated by a clingy, insatiable baby, staring jealously and resentfully through the darkness at John's flat, breastless chest rising and falling slowly in deep, snoring breaths beside me.

My own feminism was suckled not on the fabulously bra-less breasts swinging loose within the pages of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, but rather on the lager-soaked 'tits' of sexy 'ladettes' like Denise van Outen and Geri Halliwell, squished together in a vice-like Wonderbra, screaming “Hello Boys!!!!” through padded lace on the cover of FHM. In the years before, I'd been a huge fan of L7, Hole and Bikini Kill, but the actively feminist element of Riot Grrl had, until now, somehow passed me by (I'd been too busy planning my wedding to Kurt Cobain). This felt different.



Twitching with the dream of emancipation, feeling the spirit of Emmeline Pankhurst tingling in my nipples, I quickly got rid of all my baggy t-shirts, saved up for a bright pink, skin tight, v-necked top from Morgan and, with the help of Gossard's finest, Girl Powered UP! My boobs looked fantastic: Feminism was ace! I worked hard on developing my feminist persona – I hosted Anne Summers parties (surely just like Consciousness Raising sessions?); I drank alcopops til I was unconscious to showcase my liberation; I planned my wedding to Kurt Cobain....

But crucially, I felt empowered and, most importantly, I started identifying as a Feminist. What that means to me changes with the tides – some days I'm reaching for the shears with Valerie Solanis, other days I'm fighting for my right to make a cupcake. But that founding, empowering identification – I Am A Feminist - however bizarre its provenance might seem in retrospect, stayed with me and continuously informs how I choose to live my life.

So when I first saw FEMEN - tits out, slender white bodies scrawled with FUCK YOUR MORALS in black marker, flowers in their hair and looking more like 'super-groupie' Pamela des Barres' merry band of GTOs than the likes of Dworkin, Firestone or hooks – I felt, perhaps, differently from many Feminists of my generation. My overwhelming feeling wasn't one of disappointment at how their nakedness courts the desiring, objectifying male gaze; or frustration at their unwillingness to challenge the age old reduction of 'woman' to 'body'; or anger at their wholesale subscription to the dominant (patriarchal) model of ideal (white) femininity. Of course I get all that. Of course I feel all that, I'm older now and there's a lot of books, conversations and experience between me and The Girlie Show feminism of my youth. But just as much as all that, in fact MORE than all that, I felt a huge wave of pure bloody excitement for all the teenage girls (and women) who were about to fall in love with, and be empowered by, FEMEN. Because if girls feel like they need to talk about FEMEN, then they are still talking about Feminism. And we need to talk about Feminism.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Call Me Maybe?

So I met a lovely young anarchist on the way to Venice. I don't actually know if he was an anarchist but it's a fabulous first line for my first blog post, eh? But yes, lovely, young, and if not an anarchist then at the very least an activist; he had the tattoos to prove it and his eyes still shone with visions of mischief. But that was later...

I had arrived in Venice without a map. I thought I had an app for a map but my apps weren't working, in fact neither was my phone. I was completely in-apperable and it suddenly struck me that I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying, or how to get there, or how to find out where there was. Of course over the course of the journey I had developed a relationship with the young anarchist already. The sort you have with someone you've never spoken to but who has happened to be sitting nowhere near you, reading a good book, at the same time as you, in several disparate locations – from The Bus Stop at Derby train station to the Piazella Roma in Venice - over the past 5 hours. The three mini bottles of wine I had drunk on the way to Venice assured me that we were basically best friends, we had a history, we were fatally entwined together by a shared love of precocious holiday reading and budget airlines. Brazened by the booze and with a nod (or perhaps a staggering Kate Bush hair toss) to the spirit of Venetian serendipity, I decided to ask him if he had a map.

Of course, being an anarchist, he didn't have a map either. So I proposed we go to a bar for Spritz and, in between desperate texts and emails to Kathy and his girlfriend, through which I managed to establish a vague sort of plan to meet Kathy 'at the Rialto Bridge in a bit', we – Lewis and I - got to know one another, liked what we found out, and pledged to meet again on the last day and travel home together.

The next night I met a lovely young artist called Ed on the balcony of a beautiful Palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. What?! I'm only saying this shit cos it's true. No doubt my next 2 years worth of blog posts will be stuff like 'one of the kids headbutted me and then poured cereal milk all over the carpet and then I cried', or 'I went out to look at the woman in the moon and it felt like she was giving me dead eyes and I couldn't work out what I'd done wrong and then I cried'; or 'I went into the garden and this one flower had produced so much pollen that it had overburdened itself and drooped over and I realised that all of nature was a metaphor for the inevitable destruction implicit within fecundity itself and then I cried'. So indulge me...

So I was on a balcony, drinking prosecco and watching the setting sun bleach out the domed roof of the Santa Maria della Salute (ahem) and I met this artist Ed, and his lovely boyfriend Simon, and another wonderful man called Simon. And they were ace. And over the next few days I massively gegged in on their scene. It was incredible and we had so much fun and it felt like I'd made friends for ever.

On the last day Ed and I were sitting on some steps (I'd love to tell you where but I didn't have a map), waiting for Simon while he went to some exhibition that I couldn't get into, and who walked along but Lewis, the lovely young anarchist! Venice is like that. We decided to all go for some food and some Spritz and then we spent the next few hours wandering around, eating gelatos, looking for coral and being gently educated by the infinitely knowledgeable Simon. It was ever so dérive and utterly wonderful.

At some point, conversation got around to the US Military 'Call Me Maybe' youtube video, which I had never heard of nor seen. A discussion ensued about whether it was a consciously gay parody (Team Lewis) or whether it was unknowingly uber camp (Team Ed). Being a massive perv, upon hearing all this talk of semi naked men prancing in front of a camera my interest was, as you might expect, piqued. So when I got home, I mentioned it to John and we watched it. It is amazing and if you haven't seen it then you should go and watch it now. It turns out it is actually a response, 'a tribute', to a version by Miami Dolphin's Cheerleaders, which you should also watch and which, as a point of reference, goes some way in 'heterosexualising' it for those that want it, but far from clears up the whole 'is it massively gay?' issue.

(Video shows Dolphin Cheerleaders & US Military simultaneously but watch them separately if you're interested)

So after watching the videos with John I was so hyped that I decided I needed to start a blog just so that I could write about it. And look! I'm doing it! I spent the last hour before I began writing this blog watching the videos one after the other after the other after the other after the other. I decided I would write a serious art history blog about it, on.... the homosocial continuum: Walt Whitman's Guide To War?... the contemporary omniscience of male gaze: the 'feminization' of (any and all) sexual display?... the weird racial pairings going on between the respective actors in the two versions (unless it's a really gay bit – White Men Can't Grind?)... But then....


But then... Watching the US Military version second time around, things started to get a bit sad. I got distracted by a sort of weird, tugging melancholia; a low, insistent hum droning along behind the sashays and lip-synching, the butt shots and pec flexing. It was there in the bulky, unfathomable weaponry around the soldier's waists; it was in the endless sand; in the tanks; in the pitiful row of too-narrow camp beds; in a gun run up a leg. It was the persistent, insistent signifiers of real life war. And I started to think about how fucked things were for these guys, so far, far away from their loved ones and so dissociated, so expatriated from their 'real lives' (and yes, so, so subjugated to a male, male gaze). I started to think how terribly, horribly sad it was that they were out there, fighting for fuck knows what. Bored, missing their loved ones (male and female), desperate to make contact, to stake a claim for existence in the real(er) world of the internetz. Dying for someone to Call Me Maybe. And then I cried.