Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Stop Please, No, Please. Please Stop Blaming Rape Victims.

Anyone who lives in or regularly visits London will be familiar with this little gem of a poster:

I am honestly stunned that this campaign is still around. According to The Internet, it began in November 2009 - so despite widespread condemnation of them by feminists, it's managed to last a year. This suggests to me that perhaps the reaction against them hasn't been as large or as vocal as I assumed it to be. After all, when I look at that poster the problems with it are immediately obvious. I don't understand how anyone could ever think that an appropriate anti-rape strategy, let alone one suitable enough to last a whole year. But clearly my reaction is not a universal one. So, for those who don't see any problem with it, or who feel uncomfortable with the poster when they see it but aren't sure why, let me break it down for you.

1. The victim-blaming

The message of the advert is: 'Take an unbooked minicab and you'll get raped. If you get raped after taking an unbooked minicab, this is your fault, as you shouldn't have been taking an unbooked minicab.' In case anyone thinks I'm "reading too much into this" let's take a closer look at the small text.

'Whether you approach the driver, or they approach you, there's no record of the journey and you're putting yourself in danger.'

YOU'RE putting YOURSELF in danger. The guy who rapes you isn't putting you in danger by raping you. You did this to yourself. It's an incredibly simple message, and it's one that permeates our culture: rape victims bring it upon themselves. The fact that a Mayor of London-sponsored initiative is championing it so heartily just goes to show the extent of the victim-blaming problem.

2. The triggering

The whole point of the advert is that the main part of the text comprises of things we imagine rape victims say while they're being raped. Just in case this text isn't enough of a reconstruction of an actual rape scene, they've also included the visual aid of a woman terrified and screaming in the back of a car. Basically, they've done everything they can to recreate within a poster the experience of being raped.

I find it astounding that apparently no one on that marketing team thought to bring up the fact that actually, recreating the experience of being raped might not be cool for someone who has been raped. That seeing this poster even once, let alone multiple times every day, might cause them to relive that moment of their lives. That it might compound the trauma even further by repetition. That it might prevent rape victims from being able to draw a line between the incomprehensibly awful experience of being raped and the everyday experience of going about their lives, using the tube. Surely all of that is obvious. We have to assume that the ability of rape victims to carry on with their lives was considered a necessary sacrifice.

What's harder to explain is the sick feeling in my stomach that I, and other women who have not been raped, get from seeing it. The reasons for that might be many, but I think it has something to do with the knowledge all women have of our vulnerability to rape. We know it might happen to us - not only in unbooked minicabs but in our own bedrooms, on the street, in a trusted friend's house, in a nightclub, anywhere - and the poster serves to give us a daily reminder. Living life as a woman, that fear is always lodged somewhere in the back of our minds. Thanks, Boris, for bringing it to the forefront as well, several times a day.

3. The pleading

The more I've seen the poster, the more I've felt that there was something wrong with its message beyond mere victim-blaming. It's not just that the message of the poster is "if you take an unbooked minicab, you're getting yourself raped" - it's the execution of that message, the way it pleads with women like a woman would plead with a rapist. In what situation would you say "Stop, no. Stop please, no, please. Please stop"? Any situation within which the person or people you are talking to is doing something terrible to you. Once we see the poster as Cabwise / the Mayor of London talking to women through the advert, this becomes rather grotesque. The implication is that women, by continuing to take unbooked minicabs, are doing something terrible to Cabwise. Our actions - blithely supposing that we might be free to do something as simple as taking a taxi without having to be vigilantly on our guard - are so abhorrent that they merit PLEADING with us to stop. Women, by taking unbooked cabs, are doing something that is analogously as bad as raping someone. Let that sink in for a minute.

How can this poster be defended? I suppose it was chosen for its "shock value", its "hard hitting", "attention grabbing" approach. Frankly, if your marketing people can't think of a more appropriate way to get people's attention than simulating a rape, you might want to get new marketing people. This message might have been communicated in any number of different ways. Maybe one day - dare to dream - we'll see a campaign which recognises that it's the men who rape who are doing something wrong, not the women who are raped.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Speaking Up

This blog has been a little quiet on the subject of feminism recently. Appropriately, what I want to talk about today is the way in which we (in particular, we feminists) find ourselves not speaking out about things that appal us, keeping quiet about things that enrage us.

Those of you who know me might not think this is something I suffer from. I do find myself talking about feminist issues an awful lot and often with some force. But don't be fooled into thinking I - or anyone like me - is immune from being silenced. Knowing I might be faced with such an accusation, I spent about a minute thinking of examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of those that occurred to me off the top of my head.

- when a van driver or builder whistles at me in public, I do not shout at them to fuck off or noticeably retaliate. The furthest I can usually stretch myself is to shoot them a look of weary disdain.

- when a certain academic at the University of York started talking in a seminar about female genital mutilation as "FMG", making sure to pronounce those quotation marks so as to show that it was clearly a problem feminists have made up to entertain themselves, I said nothing.

- when I noticed an exceptionally sexist poster advert for credit card company Capital One, I didn't write in to complain. I got as far as googling it, noticed someone else had written a blog post about it, and felt that was enough.

- when I had a (fairly robust) feminist criticism to bring against a different academic's paper in a political theory workshop, I didn't feel confident enough to bring it up in the workshop itself and only mentioned it to the author afterwards, when he didn't have the opportunity to think about it properly.

- when I was waiting at the bar at The Duchess nightclub, I was approached by a male stranger who kept trying to put his arm around me, and ultimately succeeded at kissing me on the cheek; although I physically recoiled and attempted to extract myself from the situation, I did not go apeshit at him for sexually harassing me. I didn't even say anything.

Why does it happen, and keep happening, that when we're put in a position we don't want to be in or when we are faced with something we abhor, we keep quiet?

Answering the question, my first instinct was to give the disclaimer that sometimes, obviously, it is simply about pragmatism. There's a time and a place for behaviour like yelling at people, and in some circumstances certain reactions may be inappropriate or may only make things worse.

The more I think about it, the more I think that is pretty much bullshit. When faced with manifestations of patriarchy, what's "appropriate" - in every time and every place - is keeping quiet. That's kind of the point. To do anything else is inherently subversive, whether it's yelling at someone who harasses you or schooling a seminar leader on the finer points of acronyms. It's okay to have these concerns, but for goodness' sake, don't bring them out into public! People might think you were some kind of psycho radical feminist.

Speaking of which: can we talk about this for a moment? The way in which some kinds of feminism are considered socially acceptable while others are mercilessly derided, even by feminists themselves. It seems like it's okay to be a liberal feminist in the minimalistic sense of thinking that people are in some vague way equal and that we shouldn't discriminate and that's pretty much it. A step above the category of "I'm not a feminist but [insert feminist statement here]" is the category of people who do say they're a feminist but are very quick to qualify what they mean by that. Because they wouldn't want anyone thinking they were at all vocal or aggressive about their feminism. God forbid.

I have been guilty of this and looking back I find it inexcusable. Yes, some feminists are more radical than me. Some take it to extremes that I find hard to understand, or that I don't feel are compatible with my personal brand of feminism. But every time I, or anyone else, says "I'm a feminist - but not like that", we are publicly degrading feminism. We are adding to the atmosphere of silencing that stops feminists, all feminists, of every stripe, expressing their views. We have to stop doing that.

Going back on topic: is it that simple? Is patriarchy the reason we don't speak up, acting on us both consciously and subconsciously, telling us our views are unwelcome and making us feel unwilling to express them?

To a large degree, yes. But it's also about energy. To express the kind of feminist sentiment I'm talking about is to fight, and we can't be fighting every moment of our lives. No one is capable of that. We all have our own coping strategies for this. A lot of people, wisely, don't bother fighting with strangers on the internet (whether about feminist issues or something else entirely). I myself have largely given up fighting on Facebook, preferring to simply remove the offending friends. But the energy to fight can also desert us when we most need it - in serious conversations with good friends, or when we feel sincerely violated.

I haven't come to this question with a quick-fix solution, an answer that will empower us to reject being silenced and speak up every time we want to. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we recognise it in ourselves when it happens, so as to better combat it the next time. There are a lot of things that are terrifying and difficult the first time you do them, but the more you practice, the more capable you feel. Maybe speaking up is one of them. We could probably all do more to test that theory.

I was going to close this with something about "picking our battles" and putting the effort in to fight only when we think there's some small chance of it making a difference. But again, I'm tempted to dismiss that as bullshit. Speak up whenever you can, and if you do that, then you don't have to beat yourself up about the times when you can't.

[P.S.: tying this post and my previous one together, one of the catalysts that got me to actually sit down and write this was a Feministe post 'on language, and body, and fear'. It's a really good explanation of the way we can silence one another, even when we (ostensibly) agree with the view that's silenced.]

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

My Very Own Obesity Crisis

Someone asked what my BMI was recently, and, given that I haven't weighed myself in a long time, I had no idea. I plugged my height and the weight that I thought I was the last time I was weighed into an online BMI calculator and the answer immediately flashed up: 31.1. Obese.

My heart started pounding. I was prepared to be in the 'overweight' bracket, even fairly high up in it, but this felt like something else altogether. I had stopped being a person and become a Public Health Concern.

A day or two later I realised that the weight I had entered was wrong, and upon weighing myself (I bought a fancy set of bathroom scales, so jolted was I by the BMI's judgement) I found I was actually slightly below the threshold of obesity. Phew! But why should this be a big deal? How does it make sense that I'm allowed to feel okay-ish about myself at 11 stone 9.5 lb (163.5lb), the upper limit of 'overweight' for my height, but not at 11 stone 10 (164lb), the lower limit of 'obese'?

Pretty much everyone knows by now that BMI is an unreliable way of measuring individual health (though, more on this later). What is perhaps less fully realised is that its categorisation of normal/overweight/obese often does not match up at all with our culturally-ingrained standards of those categories. Kate Harding's Illustrated BMI project is a great way of showing this. I recommend browsing through the whole thing, but photos like this one, of a BMI-overweight woman, are where it makes its point most profoundly:

Similarly, when we think of what obesity looks like, we have a pretty specific mental image. Here are some of the top Google Image results for the word 'obese':



...and here's me.

Most people are bound to think that because I don't look like the women in the four pictures above, I can't be obese. But the BMI is used to define those categories. The meaning of obese, strictly speaking - and don't forget, this is the meaning that's used in the media - is the meaning that the BMI gives it. And according to that meaning, I am a mere few pounds of weight away from being part of the Obesity Crisis.

So, I'm asking myself, what is it about this word 'obese' that has us all running scared? Obviously, our visual association of what it looks like to be obese is wrong: not all obese people look like those women. But there's also the other side of the equation - when you hit obesity, you are alleged to be an automatic health risk, more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. And this is, perhaps, where the BMI is at its most troublesome.

Now, I'm no model of perfect health. I try to eat healthily but I do indulge on occasion, and while I go to the gym a couple of times a week I also sometimes choose to drive when I could cycle. On the whole, however, I'd say I live a healthy lifestyle, probably healthier than average. If you're under 25 or so, you probably know at least a few people who find that they can eat junk food regularly, do almost zero exercise, and retain a slim figure, which is upheld as 'normal' (read: healthy) by the BMI. I suspect that those people may be equally at risk from a health perspective as me; possibly even more so. This is supported by research that shows that thin people can have very high levels of visceral fat surrounding their organs, which makes them prime candidates for the health risks associated with obesity. (

This all brings me on to my main point. While there is a correlation between size and health, the two obviously do not walk hand in hand. Yet overweight and obese people are singled out by health professionals and the media as needing to change their lifestyle, regardless of what lifestyle they actually live, and normal-weight people are designated as healthy, regardless of their actual health. The fact that weight is associated so closely with lifestyle choices, and thus with health, is the source of the persecution that overweight people face daily, and it's simply misguided.

Weight is seen as something chosen or controllable: it is acceptable to bully and abuse overweight people, so the story goes, because they made themselves that way. This is not true. I could lose a lot of weight if I starved myself and spent hours every day working out. To say that by choosing not to do that I choose to be overweight is absurd: it's like saying that the thin person who eats junk food every day and rarely leaves the sofa is choosing to be thin.

In conclusion: obesity does not mean whale-like. Obesity does not mean sudden risk of death. In fact, it doesn't seem to mean anything meaningful at all, which leaves me wondering why we consider it a useful label.  I have to wonder whether we keep it around simply as a scare tactic: by building up all these deeply negative associations around it (people who are too fat to get out of bed! heart attacks!), we make sure that people who cross the line into obesity know that their bodies are not socially accepted. Of course, they usually know this already, thanks to those helpful, health-conscious co-citizens who find it appropriate to hurl abuse at them and treat them as less than human.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Immediate reaction to Lost series finale.

Um, spoiler alert. Obviously.

So it's been a little less than an hour since I finished watching the End of Lost and I've had a little time to mull over it. Did I like it? Was it a satisfying conclusion? What did it all mean? Well, since I want to work through my thoughts on these weighty matters a bit, I thought I might as well share them with you.

First off. Can people stop saying "they were dead all along"? There is absolutely no reason to believe this. They were dead all along in what we've been calling the 'sideways universe'. We were led to believe this alternate universe split off from the original one when Juliet detonated the bomb, and it was an alt-verse in which the incident never happened, the hatch was never built, the plane never crashed, etc. That was revealed not to be the case, and the sideways universe was in fact simply an afterlife for all the Losties to catch up with each other before they headed off into Heaven or whatever.

Anyone who watched it in hopes of a grand unifying theory explaining what the island was and why it was so mystical, and anyone who tries to extrapolate such a theory from this finale, is fundamentally misguided. The show's creators previously said that the only question they felt they had a responsibility to answer was the one posed in the final season - i.e., the sideways universe. That's what they did. Of course there's still a lot of mystery surrounding Lost, but I think that's for the best. When the questions are directly answered it can be clumsy and unsatisfying. "Oh hey Michael. Are the whispers the ghosts of dead people?" "Yeah." "Oh. Sweet." No one can claim that was a satisfying scene, and if all our questions had been answered in the finale it would have looked like that scene extended by two hours.

So, what happened? To paraphrase Daniel Faraday, everything that happened, happened. Knowing that the original universe is the only true one makes things a lot simpler. Sawyer, Kate, Claire, Miles and co. flew off the island. Jack stayed and died. Hurley stayed and became the island's protector. Ben stayed as his second-in-command; the new Richard to Hurley's new Jacob. Desmond, presumably, took Locke's boat (though wasn't it Penny's boat all along?) and went back to his constant. At some point, everyone died. And even though they all died at different times and in different ways, they were still all together at the same time in the afterlife. That's just how it works. It's an afterlife, it doesn't really need to make sense.

Now onto some problems. There were notable absences from the church at the end: Michael and Walt. What could this be about? It seems unlikely that the actors' relationship with the show made it impossible for them to return - remember we only saw Michael a handful of episodes ago as a ghost. I have a more complex theory about why Michael wasn't there that would take too long to go into, so for now, let's just remember that Hurley and Desmond came across Ana Lucia in the episode before, and when Hurley asked why she wasn't coming with, Desmond said she wasn't ready. Clearly, there are Losties who weren't supposed - for one reason or another - to be at the church with the rest of them. It's not a very satisfying explanation, especially since the producers obviously pulled the stops out to get characters like Shannon and Boone back, but it can tide us over.

Speaking of Shannon. Is anyone else bothered by the way her post-death reunion with Sayid was portrayed like their one true love when the show has consistently been pushing Sayid and Nadia as the epic love story? No? I saw some commenters wonder if Sayid saying "the only thing I ever wanted died in my arms" as referring to Shannon and I thought they were being stupid, but now it seems like they might have been right, and that kind of negates Nadia's existence, which bothers me.

There are things about the alt-verse which sit uncomfortably with it being an afterlife. Like the fact that Jack and Juliet had a child together and yet never had any of those flashing "OMG I REMEMBER YOU" moments... or the fact that they were even a couple in an afterlife which primarily involved distorted or inverted versions of real-life events and relationships. And as an explanation in itself, I found it a little disappointing. I was hoping that the two universes were going to merge in some way that left everyone better off, and that still made sense. But I guess having one "real" universe that still involves extensive time travel is probably enough for us to be dealing with.

I'll round off with a few things I loved. The glorious return of Vincent! Kate saving the day in the end after 6 seasons of being a generally disappointing lead female character. The line "Christian Shepherd? Seriously?". Benjamin Linus in general. Sawyer and Juliet's reunion, even though it did turn out to be post-death.

All in all, I think it was satisfactory as a finale. Of course there are still loose ends, and it's those that we fans will have plenty of fun trying to get to grips with when we obsessively rewatch our dvd box sets over and over again, but it did enough. It felt like a proper goodbye - not least, of course, because for the characters it really was. I understand frustration that the finale didn't live up to the general epic awesomeness of what Lost has been over the last six years, but really, no single episode could have done. We just have to take what we got and be able to, finally, let it go.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Boys save the world, girls get a manicure: naming and shaming David Lloyd York

Here's something I came across at my gym (David Lloyd York) earlier.
I had to shrink it down to fit it on the page, so here's a clearer version:

Now, I have issues with my gym in the first place. It sends out an unbelievable amount of messages enforcing the idea that thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, thin = morally good. But I tell myself that this should come as no surprise, this should be nothing more than we expect from a gym. After all, they directly profit from their customers' self-loathing and self-recrimination about their weight and appearance. Here, however, David Lloyd are actively pushing the most outdated and face-palmingly stereotypical ascriptive gender roles possible, and worse, they are pushing them on children - and as far as I can tell they are doing it for no particular reason.

Now, hopefully I don't need to explain why this is problematic. But I am going to spend a little time deconstructing how it is, by pulling out the different threads that feed into this offensive poster and examining them each more closely.

Value of the activity

Let's look again at how the invitation is extended to the boys. "We need you to save the world!" Now, any adult reading this poster knows that the two activities offered to the kids on the basis of their gender have no major difference in value. They're both means of keeping the children occupied for a while so that their parents can relax. David Lloyd doesn't really need little boys to save the world. But the activity they undertake is loaded with value by the advertisement. The boys are told, and are encouraged to pretend, that their playtime will save mankind. Pretty empowering stuff! Fed ideas like that, they might just grow up and go into the world believing not only that they can make a difference, they'll know that they're the right people to be making a difference.

Let's try and find some value assigned to the activities for the girls.


In contrast to the boys' section, there is nothing here to suggest that there's any reason, value or purpose in undertaking the task of being a princess. All we're told is that girls will love it! You hear that, girls? You. Will. Love. It. Now sit down and enjoy your pedicure, goddammit.

Focus on attractiveness

I'll just comment on this quickly, since it's so obvious. The activities appropriate to being a girl involve prettying oneself up - not for any particular reason, just because it's what girls do and it's what makes girls happy. Going back to the assessment of value, in so far as they are permitted to achieve something valuable (becoming a princess), the only way of achieving it is by heightening their physical attractiveness. Again, awesome message being sent out here to young children.

The boys, meanwhile, have no reason to believe their physical attractiveness will make a jot of difference as to whether they can become superheroes and save the world. Woah, it's just like being a grown up!

Nature of the activity

Here that classic old gender dichotomy of passive/active rears its head. Sexists throughout history have employed the idea that men carry the vitalising force of life, while women are mere vessels, to justify and underpin their ideas. So it should be no surprise that what boys are given to do involves actually doing something - flying leaps! karate chops! round house kicks! - and probably making a lot of noise and a lot of mess while doing it (which will of course all be forgiven, because, you know, boys will be boys). Meanwhile, as alluded to before, the girls are required to sit still and be demure and have things done to them. There shall be no running around: that might mess up your hair and make up.

Along similar lines, the boys are encouraged to exercise their skills of creativity by designing their own super hero outfits. At the end of the day, there will be something they can take home and keep, knowing that they made it and put something of themselves into it. The girls will each be presented with "their very own crown". Except it's only their own in so far as someone else is deigning to give it to them. Yay?

A final note here: traditional male gender roles are just as damaging to equality as female ones, primarily in the way they promote violence and aggression. Fittingly, these are endorsed equally here alongside the equality-damaging female gender norms - what the boys are actually doing is being taught to fight.

Approach to food

This point might seem petty, but anyone who has had a troubled relationship with food (which I expect will be the vast majority of women reading this, and relatively few men) ought to be able to appreciate why I bring it up. We're told "obviously saving the world is hard work, so the boys will have fresh fruit, crisps and drinks to sustain them." The high level of physical exertion the boys will have undertaken in their extremely valuable task demands that they be fed; they'll need food to replenish their energy after all that saving the world. This treats food as exactly what it is: a form of nourishment that we need to balance out the energy we expend.

Girls, on the other hand, will have "fresh fruit and crisps to nibble on". Not only does their form of activity not require any energy replenishment, they are only permitted to eat in a particular manner: in very small amounts, in a ladylike fashion. They're not to devour their crisps or wolf down their fresh fruit. They may nibble, and then they may collectively shame themselves about the calorie content of what they've just eaten - oh, sorry, passed into grown up world there for a second.

The gender complement

Has anyone else noticed how the two roles assigned to boys and girls here fit together perfectly? The boys will be super heroes, and the girls will be princesses - and we all know that the main ambition of a princess is to be rescued by a man. It's not just gender roles that are being taught here, but overtly heterosexual gender roles. The kids have to be reminded that the proper behaviour of boys and girls fits together perfectly and naturally! How else would they learn that the only right kind of partnership is that between a man and a woman? You know, other than from all the messages they receive every day from the media and society in general.

Now, you might think, perhaps I'm coming down too hard on David Lloyd. After all, what they aim to achieve is giving parents a break from the toils of childcare, and since that's primarily undertaken by mothers, this is kind of good for gender equality, right? And besides, there's always that gender-neutral option of a movie night at the bottom! If parents don't want their kids to grow up fitting strictly into the received notion of what men and women are supposed to be, or if their children are a little resistant to being superheroes or princesses, they can watch a movie. So there's really no need for all this fretting. Right?

I thought that at first too, but then I figured I should pay the gender-neutral option as much attention as I paid the other two, and having done so I'm not so sure whether it's a positive alternative. It's the option "for the kids who just want to chill out". In the boys' case, I assume, this means the kids who are too lazy to want to do flying leaps and round house kicks, or too apathetic or cynical to be duped into thinking these things will save the world. For girls, it's the only alternative to spending the evening primping yourself to achieve maximum physical beauty. So, if you're a girl who doesn't feel so great about the way she looks, maybe you'd rather "chill out" at the movie night.

I don't think it's a coincidence that "lazy" and "physically unattractive" both correlate to "fat" in our culture (and even more so in the culture of David Lloyd, as I mentioned at the very start). After all, look at how food is presented here - very different to both the sustenance model of boys' eating and the nibbling model of girls', what's on offer here is gorging oneself. "Endless amounts of popcorn and soft drinks" is rather different to the balanced combination of fruit and crisps offered elsewhere, and the fact that it's endless is presumably intended to appeal to the crowd of childhood overeaters. This isn't so much a gender-neutral alternative as it is an alternative for the boys who are too lazy or fat to be super heroes and the girls who are too ugly or fat to be princesses. What's implied is that you can't choose to opt out of ascriptive gender roles, you can only fail at living up to them. (Again, we recognise this in grown up life - remember how all feminists are ugly, hairy, alone and bitter?)

A final note - I mentioned at the outset that David Lloyd are pushing gender roles on children for no apparent reason; they don't have an obvious profit motive here, as they do when they try to convince their adult customers they are too fat. But it occurs to me that not only is it for no reason, it's also counterproductive to their own line of business. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least half of David Lloyd York's clientèle are female. Telling a little girl that physical activity is only for boys, and what she ought to do is sit quietly and have her nails done, is hardly going to encourage her to grow up to be the kind of person who pays an extortionate amount of money to use a gym (which involves physical exertion, and getting sweaty, ew, and messing up her hair, omg!). Western society spent a lot of time thinking that women were too frail and delicate to participate in physical activity; I'd like to leave that in the past, and it would be in David Lloyd's best interests to do the same.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Maybe Do It Nick: Why a Lib-Cons coalition might not be as terrible as we imagine.

As I write, the top trending topic on Twitter in the UK is #dontdoitnick. It seems most Lib Dem supporters, and doubtless all Labour supporters, oppose the idea of Nick Clegg selling his soul to the Tories for a slice of the government pie. Most are actively supporting the alternative of a Lib-Lab coalition. There are good reasons for feeling this way; the ideological chasm between the Lib Dems and the Tories is just cause for doubt over whether there can be a coherent platform for the two parties to stand on; the Tories and the ideas they represent are generally reviled by Lib Dem voters; the two parties clash on major issues, and the concern is that the only "concessions" Cameron would make to the Lib Dems are policies he is already on board with, like scrapping ID cards. But I don't think Clegg should be warned off this coalition quite so quickly, and for several reasons.

1) Electoral reform

So, we know Cameron & co. are against PR and against electoral reform in general. In his "big, open and comprehensive" offer to the Lib Dems he did not bring to the table the one thing they really want - his offer of an all-party committee of inquiry amounts to nothing (Jenkins, anyone?). But I think it'd be premature to assume that this is non-negotiable. If Clegg makes a referendum on electoral reform the single necessary condition of an alliance, Cameron might have to reconsider, given that Labour have offered this on a silver platter. And if electoral reform was achieved, the face of British politics would be changed forever - and in the Liberal Democrats' favour. Yes, we would have to put up with playing second fiddle to an unpleasant government for a few years, but beyond 2015 there would be real representation for Lib Dems, not the systemic unfairness that means 23% of the vote gets us 8.7% of the seats.

"But," the Twitterverse cries out, "the Lib Dems will never trust Clegg again if he betrays us all and coalesces with Cameron! PR will do nothing to help them when their supporters all abandon them!" Well, if they do, they'd be foolish to. Our electoral system as it stands prevents the Lib Dems from ever being anything more than a third wheel in the Labour-Conservative relationship - they have no power and relatively little influence. Being part of a government coalition would mean recognition and would make it possible for some of their policies to actually be implemented. As a small third party, the Lib Dems have approximately zero chance of getting electoral reform through, or any of their other policies. Why are Lib Dem supporters so quick to turn their back on something that would ultimately benefit them?

2) Cameron's proposed compromises

This brings me to my second point. Let's assume Cameron gets his way and a Lib-Cons coalition is entirely on his terms - that means no electoral reform, no budging on Europe, immigration or Trident. What he has suggested he's willing to compromise on is the tax system. Remember that the Lib Dems would raise the threshold of the lowest band of income tax to £10,000. If Cameron caved to this, not only would it mean one of the most important and fairness-centric Lib Dem policies getting through, it might also give us a reason to hate the Tories slightly less in the first place. Isn't the reason we're all so opposed to them at least partly because they represent the vested interest of the richest in society? Bringing in left-wing tax policies ought to counteract at least some of that revulsion.

3) What is the alternative?

A Lib-Lab coalition undoubtedly makes more sense ideologically. Both parties sit on the centre-left of the spectrum and share core values, and there would be much more room for agreement. Plus, Labour sorts are quick to point out, more people voted against the Tories than for them - it's simply unfortunate that the centre-left vote was split between two parties, and to get a true representation of the electorate's feelings, those two ought to bind together. This is, however, problematic. There's something counterintuitive about suggesting that the people who have the right to govern are those who came second and third in the contest, and Clegg's ostensible reasons for trying to negotiate with the Tories - that it is the right thing to do in terms of democracy, and that he alone ought not to be the kingmaker - are on my view very good ones.

However, there are tactical reasons as well as reasons of principle to favour a Lib-Cons coalition over a Lib-Lab one. Let's assume a Lib-Lab coalition results from the hung parliament. Based on current election results (with only one seat left to declare, which will not do so until 28th May) it would comprise 315 seats out of 650 - not even a majority. They would have to bring MPs from at least two other small parties on side in order to create a working majority. This is probably doable, so let's say they get to the requisite 325 seats. That majority would be so tentative, and met with such a large Conservative opposition, that getting anything through - let alone radical Lib Dem policies - would be very difficult. Any small back bench rebellion would throw it off kilter. Someone who wants to see Lib Dem policies implemented would probably not end up preferring this state of events, even though the coalition itself makes more sense.

Plus, Labour isn't all happy fuzzy rainbows and puppies. One of the few policy areas that the Lib Dems and the Tories share ground on is also one of the most important for the Lib Dems - civil liberties. A Lib-Cons coalition would emphasise this and we might see some real steps to counteract Labour's appalling record. There would also be something dispiriting about voting for change in the form of the Lib Dems and getting it in the form of a coalition which gives primacy to the party that's been in power for 13 years. Labour have a lot to answer for, not least in the Middle East, and for some Lib Dem supporters (though probably a minority) propping up a Labour government would taste almost as sour as bolstering a Conservative one.

Let's also remember that if Clegg does not side with Cameron, Cameron might look to form a temporary minority government and then re-call the election in hopes of getting an outright majority, which he would have a pretty good chance of achieving. Then we would be much worse off - electoral reform has a snowball's chance in hell of getting past a Conservative majority, and the Lib Dems would be relegated once more to the position of insignificant minority third party, their policies once more dismissed as implausible, unworkable and just plain mad.

I am no Conservative, and I don't mean to assert that a Lib-Cons coalition is definitely the best option for the country. I know there are good reasons why it may not be. I've simply tried to identify some reasons why it is a genuine option that should not be dismissed out of hand, and one that might end up benefitting the Lib Dems in a real way - and why the alternative might not be so rosy. Undoubtedly there's more to be said on the issue, but I think I've rambled on sufficiently for now. Commence commenting, trolling, flame wars etc.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Pop songs that piss me off: She Said by Plan B

As a feminist, a lot of things in our pop culture piss me off. That's a given. But nothing in recent weeks has come close to provoking the sheer rage that this song does:

You might be watching this and thinking, what is this song about? Why is it making Helen so angry? It's catchy and musically interesting and the video has some cool dancing! All of this is true and it makes me sad that I have to hate Plan B for it. Let's get the lyrics up for closer inspection.

she said i love you boy
i love your soul
she said i love you baby oh oh oh ohh

she said i love you more than words can say
she said i love you bayayayayby

so i said, what you sayin girl it can't be right
how can you be in love with me
we only just met tonight
so she said.. boy i loved you from the start
when i first heard love goes down
something started burning in my heart
i said stop this crazy talk
and leave right now and close the door
so now up in the courts
pleading my case in a witness box
telling the judge and jury
the same thing that i said to the cops
on the day that i got arrested
i'm innocent i protested
she just feels rejected
had her heart broken by
someone she's obsessed with
she likes the sound of my music
she makes out a fan of my music
so i love them diamonds to lose it
cos she can't separate the man from the music
and im saying all this from the stand
but my girl cries tears from the galleries
got bigger than i ever could have planned
like that song by the Zutons Valerie
so the jury dont look like they're buying it
and she's making me nervous
and i'm just screw faced like i'm trying it
their eyes fixed on me like i'm murderous
they wanna lock me up
and throw away the key
they wanna send me down
even though i told them she...


so i said why the hell you gotta treat me this way
you don’t know what love is
you wouldn’t do this if you did
oh no no no noo
...sorry about that. But I think it was necessary - you have to watch the video and hear or read all the lyrics to figure out what is actually going on. If you let it wash over you, you'll probably miss what the song is about. It's about a woman who falsely accuses him of rape. If you don't believe me, watch it again.

Where am I getting this from? Okay. The lyrics make it obvious that he has been falsely accused of a crime by a woman other than his girlfriend. The video together with the lyrics make it obvious that he slept with her and then rejected her, causing her to make this false accusation against him. I ask you: what other crime is there that she might accuse him of in this situation? I've tried to think of one.

Now comes the tricky part: explaining why this makes me incandescently angry. The immediate objection that is bound to be raised is: 'but this happens! Sometimes women do accuse men of rape, [insert case here as read about in tabloid of choice], why are you angry about Plan B rapping about it? Do you want to pretend it never happens?'

No. I am aware that there are occasions on which women have made the appalling and horrifying decision to falsely accuse someone of rape. It is of course an utterly detestable and unjustifiable thing to do, but it happens. Now, when this terrible thing happens, what do the tabloid media do? They sensationalise it, of course! They put it up in a big flashy headline to let everyone know: this is what women are like! Careful what do you (or who you do), boys, because they're out to get you! This has a threefold effect:
1) It puts the idea in people's heads that an accusation of rape is just as likely to be false as it is to be true.
2) Consequently, it makes it even harder for genuine rape victims to report their case and convict their attacker (more on this later).
3) It makes women aware that if you want to ruin a man's life, here is a way you can do it.

In other words, it makes everything worse for everyone.

So, back to Plan B. Is he sensationalising it? Actually, it'd be very difficult to argue that he is. The crime he is accused of is never directly referred to, and it doesn't seem to have been widely discussed (a Google search for "Plan B" + "She Said" + rape only turned up a few reviews stating that his music deals with subjects such as rape). So, given that he's being fairly subtle about it, why am I so angry?

Not being a Plan B fan, I had to do a little research into the album from whence this song came. It turns out the album tells a story about a singer who is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit (this one, I guess) and his whole life is ruined. So, to clarify: he's the victim of a false accusation of rape, he is imprisoned for it and it ruins his life. Guys! This is exactly what the tabloids were trying to warn you about! False accusations of rape ruin lives!

You know what else ruins lives? Actual rape. And it's a hell of a bigger problem in our society than fake rape cases. Research suggests 1 in 4 women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. Only a small proportion of actual rapes are reported. Only a small proportion of reported rapists are charged. And only a small proportion of charged rapists are convicted. The BBC news website gives me a conviction rate of 6.5%*. Everyone (who knows anything about the reality of the situation) knows that the justice system is not a friend of the rape victim. So why is Plan B presenting us with a story in which an innocent man ends up among that 6.5%? How unlikely does that seem? What motivation does he have for concocting such an unlikely story which also supports the negative effects on both women and men that the tabloids create?

I wouldn't like to speculate. I can only assume his reason was that it was an edgy, controversial subject. And that's just not a good enough justification for bolstering our society's tendency to disbelieve a rape victim.

Plan B, allow me to adapt your lyrics: you don't know what the reality about rape in the UK is. You wouldn't do this if you did. Oh no no no no.

[Thanks to Rosie, resident Plan B fan, for confirming my suspicion about the song.]

* to see a clearer breakdown of the increasingly small percentage, click here:

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Liberal Democrats: The Invisible 1/5 of the Electorate

So, like many others, I watched the first televised pre-election party leaders' debate last night. Although I felt Nick Clegg did quite well for himself overall, I was still surprised at the results of the polls which asked who had been the most successful. Let's look over those poll results, shall we?

ITV: Clegg 43%, Cameron 26%, Brown 20%

YouGov/The Sun: Clegg 51%, Cameron 29%, Brown 19%

Channel 4: Clegg 58%, Brown 28%, Cameron 13%

Sky News: Clegg 37%, Brown 32%, Cameron 31%

(thanks, BBC News.)

Why was I surprised? Because as someone who's quietly supported the Liberal Democrats my entire politically-aware life, I know very well how whenever they come up in conversation the almost unanimous reaction is "voting Lib Dem is wasting your vote, they'll never be in power, they haven't got a chance, etc etc". The political climate since 1945 has been structured along a two-party line: the two parties being Labour and the Conservatives. That's the choice you have. Liberal Democrat voters have been seen as bizarre anomalies, people who refuse to accept reality.

Yet put Clegg on tv alongside the other two - the representatives of the two parties received wisdom says we should vote for - and not only does he hold his own, he comes out on top! What's going on?

And this is where I drop the bombshell. You might want to sit down.

The Liberal Democrats are not a non-entity. They are not only now emerging from a swamp of total political obscurity. There are in fact people who regularly vote Lib Dem. And they are not an insignificant minority.

Time for some statistics!

In the 1997 general election, in which Labour stormed to power, the Lib Dems got 16.8% of the vote.
In the 2001 general election they moved up with 18.3%.
In the 2005 general election they took it up a notch again, with 22.1%.
(thanks, Wikipedia.)

Nowadays, support for the Lib Dems hangs pretty steadily around the 20% line. That's one-fifth of the voting electorate.  The point I'm trying to make is: that ain't nothing.

So why are the Lib Dems so marginalised? It's the electoral system, dummy. Our First Past The Post system means that where support for a party is spread thinly across the country, instead of being concentrated in certain areas, it will get disproportionately few seats. In the 2005 election, with 22% of the public vote, the Lib Dems got 9.6% of the seats in the House of Commons. Even I can admit, 9.6% does look like nothing.

So, to recap. About a fifth of voters support the Lib Dems, but in the public consciousness they are seen as non-existent. Or they have been, up until now. My sense is that the tv debates might change everything. With the majority of public support post-debate, no one can now claim that voting for the Lib Dems is voting for a non-entity. No one can claim that you're throwing your vote away and ignoring reality. We're not invisible any more.

The next couple of weeks, and the poll results that come out after the next two debates, will be fascinating to watch. For now I leave you with this nugget of information. Labour's landslide victory in 1997 was achieved with 43.2% of the popular vote. If the results of the debate polls are maintained, that's the kind of percentage Clegg and co. might be able to attain this year. Anyone who tells you the election is still a two-horse race is full of shit.