May 1, 2013

Sexism, censorship and the internet

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

 It now seems impossible not to engage with networking sites such as facebook. As more and more family members and friends sign up, facebook offers a way to stay in touch. There are also professional reasons to join. As I discovered recently while working with Moving Stories Theatre on the play of Vanessa and Virginia, networking sites are crucial in spreading the word.

For most of us, posting on our facebook wall or following the activities of those we accept as friends are safe and positive experiences.

But there is another, more alarming side to some of these sites.

The adverse effect facebook can have on teenagers is now well documented. They may be exposed to predatory adults, and there are concerns over the amount of time some spend on virtual relationships at the expense of live social interactions. Photos are frequently posted without permission which an individual might not like but cannot remove. Sometimes these images are edited through facilities such as photoshop with grotesque results. For a novel about the devastating consequences this can have on young people, read Ali Smith’s The Accidental.

There are other problems too. Facebook has content guidelines, but these can be reactionary when it comes to sexuality and gender. Pro-rape facebook groups may form without impunity, but a mother can no longer post pictures of herself breastfeeding her baby. It seems the female body is only acceptable when it is displayed for sexual titillation. Photos of breasts can appear as long as the nipple is hidden by a scrap of bikini. A baby’s suckling mouth will not do. Pictures of gay men kissing with the word ‘censored’ stamped across them are common – even if facebook eventually removes the label in response to protest. The fact that facebook censorship is implemented by poorly-paid workers in cultures where sexism and homophobia abound does not help.

There is a Big Brother quality to the internet. I felt for the actress who tried and failed to prevent amazon from broadcasting her date of birth because of ageist attitudes to women in the media. It seems wrong that such information should be posted without consent when here in Britain employers may not ask a job applicant their age.

A year or so ago I wrote a horrified blog about the lack of women in David Fincher’s film about the creation of facebook, The Social Network. Now, though I still don’t like it, I view it differently. I think it offers insights into some of what is wrong with the internet. The film highlights how facebook was founded by a group of undeniably gifted but immature and socially inept young men. And if one recent survey can be relied upon, that under twenty-six, predominantly male demographic of facebook employees has not significantly changed.

For google, at first glance the maths isn’t too bad. The male/female ratio of those working for the company is purportedly 70:30. What this figure doesn’t indicate is the proportion who wield influence. That percentage is rather different. Only one of the eleven-strong team advising Google leader Larry Page following a reshuffle in August 2012, it seems, is a woman.

Source: The New York Times

October 1, 2012

Spanish reading suggestions

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan


My blog guest this month is Marina Cano López, with a selection of interesting Spanish reads

When Susan first asked me what Spanish writers I would recommend, I wanted to come up with a list of female authors, because this is where my own research interests lie. In fact, the list I made had few women on it, and those it did were mostly contemporary. So I asked myself: why is it that the English canon has so many female authors, especially from the nineteenth century onwards, but this is not the case in Spanish literature? In Spain, women writers remain hidden to a large extent: they are under-read and under-studied. I don’t have the space to redress this imbalance here, but what follows are three texts I’d recommend to anyone interested in Spanish literature and gender. In fact, though they are all about women or traditionally ‘female’ subjects, only one is actually written by a woman.

Aunt Tula (La Tía Tula) by Miguel de Unamuno

Aunt Tula (1921) is the story of Gertrudis, the eponymous aunt. When her sister dies, Tula, a spinster in her early thirties, takes on the role of mother to her sister’s children and housekeeper to her brother-in-law, Ramiro. This work, by novelist, essayist, playwright and poet Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), is a provocative story of love and sexual frustration. Set against the backdrop of repressive Catholic Spain, Aunt Tula narrates the love between Ramiro and Gertrudis, who nevertheless refuses Ramiro’s offers of marriage. The story can only end in tragedy, but it is not for this reason less appealing: the indomitable Aunt Tula is a memorable creation, a determined woman who becomes the real head of the family. This novel was successfully adapted for the screen in 1964, with renowned Spanish actress Aurora Bautista as Tula. I’d recommend both novel and film very highly.

Onion Lullaby” (“La Nana de la Cebolla”) by Miguel Hernández

My second choice ‘Onion Lullaby’ (1939) is by Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), who was born in Orihuela (Alicante) only 13 miles away from my own Murcian home. He was a poet and an intellectual from the Modernist group known as the Generation of ’27. Hernández was a precocious writer, publishing his first book of poems at the tender age of 23. Like other Spanish intellectuals, he suffered the consequences of the Civil War. His anti-fascist protests repeatedly put him in prison until he was finally condemned to death – a sentence later commuted to a thirty-year imprisonment. Hernández died of tuberculosis at the age of 32, due to the harsh conditions of Spanish prisons during Franco’s dictatorship. ‘Onion Lullaby’, probably his best-known poem, is a reply to one of his wife’s letters, which informed him that their son ate nothing but bread and onions:

The onion is frost
closed and poor:
frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion:

black ice and
big, round frost.

In the cradle of hunger
my child lay.
With onion blood
he was suckled.
But your blood,
frosted with sugar,
onion and hunger.

La cebolla es escarcha
cerrada y pobre:
escarcha de tus días
Y de mis noches.
Hambre y cebolla,
hielo negro y escarcha
grande y redonda.

En la cuna del hambre
mi niño estaba.
Con sangre de cebolla
se amamantaba.
Pero tu sangre,
escarchada de azúcar,
cebolla y hambre.

The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty (El Verdadero Final de la Bella Durmiente) by Ana María Matute

What happened after the wedding of Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming? Did they really live happily ever after? These are some of the questions Maria Matute answers in The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty (1995). Ana María Matute (1926-) is one of the best-known Spanish writers of the twentieth-century (and a woman to boot!). She is the winner of the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honour (other recipients include literary giants Jorge Luis Borges, Rafael Alberti and José Hierro); Matute is only the third woman to have been awarded this prize. So, what does Matute add to the well-known story of Sleeping Beauty? She goes back to Perrault’s original fairy tale, and ends up writing a prequel and sequel to the “standard” story, one that is full of sexual violence and aggression. In The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty,Prince Charming is not so charming: he rapes Sleeping Beauty in their first encounter – while she sleeps, of course. And mothers-in-law, Matute seems to think, are indeed a problem: Charming’s mother turns out to be a cannibal, interested in tasting her grandchildren. Open this novella if you want to know the “real” story, but remember that, like most original fairy tales, Matute’s is hardly a book for children.

August 1, 2011

On writing essays

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

When Virginia Woolf wrote her now famous essay A Room of One’s Own, she began with a story. She described to her readers how she researched her topic while staying at an Oxbridge college. She ate two meals during her visit, and her account of the delicious fare she was served at a male college (sole in cream sauce, partridge, a confection for dessert that defies description), and the plain gravy soup, humdrum beef and prunes and custard she sat down to at a woman’s college, immediately pulls the reader in.

Her story is more than a way of engaging attention. Woolf uses it to make a serious point about the differences between men’s and women’s education. The men’s colleges benefit from centuries of endowment and can fund luxuries such as fine wine at lunch, while the recently created women’s colleges can afford only water.

Woolf tells another, more serious story to develop her thesis about the woeful neglect of women’s education. She invents the character of Judith Shakespeare, sister of the great playwright William, whom she imagines to be as intelligent and gifted as her brother. Judith’s trajectory is tragic. Unlike William she is not permitted to attend school. Though she teaches herself to read and write she is chastised by her parents for neglecting her household chores. When a husband is picked out for her – the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler – and she protests, she is severely beaten. She runs away to London and like William tries to earn a living by acting. Women, however, are not allowed on the stage. Finally, pregnant and in despair, she kills herself.

These stories are far more powerful than any statistic about women’s education. Through them we experience with Woolf the stark contrast in the way men and women are provided for at Oxbridge. We empathise with the plight of the imaginary Judith Shakespeare – and our frustration and anger at the waste of her life are real.

The genius of Woolf’s essay derives not only from her ability to pen gripping stories. She is a compelling writer because she is also a devoted word-smith. When she is chased from the forbidden lawn of the men’s college, she doesn’t simply invoke an irate porter, she paints for us ‘the gesticulations of a curious-looking object in a cut-away coat and evening shirt’. In her anecdote about lunch she is not content to list the menu, she engages all our senses in her depiction of partridges with ‘their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent’. Woolf deploys language with the care and precision of a poet. She understands that words are powerful: that when they ricochet and dance together they have the potential to make us see the world anew.

There is a popular image of Woolf as relying on flashes of inspiration to fuel her writing. The truth could not be more different. Her detailed, almost daily diary entries and voluminous correspondence prove she was a voracious reader, a thoughtful planner, and a dedicated practitioner. She read French and Russian literature as well as English; classical authors alongside her contemporaries; books from a range of other disciplines. Ideas were tried and scratched out and slowly replaced by better ones; word choices were revised over multiple drafts.

I have quoted Woolf at length not only because I think story-telling and detailing particular cases are effective in presenting ideas to readers, but also because the record she left of her creative process demonstrates that good writing almost never comes fully formed. It requires feeding through wide-ranging and daily reading; ferocious hard work as well as regular breaks (Woolf was a great walker and frequently came back from an hour out of doors with a fresh perspective); and above all an incessant delight in the potency and possibility of words.

April 1, 2011

The Social Network

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Allen Jones, Hatstand and Chair, 1969

This month I went to see David Fincher’s film The Social Network. It’s won a number of awards and there is much to admire. I particularly enjoyed the fact that an audience has to work hard to unravel the complex motivations of its main characters. This is a film where there is no obvious good and baddie – and it is all the better for that.

But if the psychological portrayal of the people who started facebook is rounded, the film’s gender politics are not.

I appreciate that part of the film’s strategy is to uncover a world in which boys will be boys –  and to be fair there is some come-uppance for the lamentable attempt to rate women as objects on the first face mash site Mark Zuckerberg creates. There are plenty of fun scenes such as the one where Zuckerberg and chums crash-land, drunk, from a zip-wire into a swimming-pool.

But what are we to make of the scene where the boys are wired in to their computers building facebook, while on a sofa in their midst two young women giggle helplessly in a state of near-undress? As if to re-enforce the gender stereotyping, Zuckerberg asks if the girls are enjoying themselves mindlessly watching television, while in the same breath exhorting the boys to go the extra mile. Women, it seems, are for decoration while the real work is done by the men.

And what abut the scene where two female students latch on to the now famous Zuckerberg and his pal Eduardo Saverin and proceed to initiate sex with them? This might have been liberatory – women making the first moves – except that the editing turns the women into vampires by emphasising the efficiency and ruthlessness with which they carry out out their mission. If we are left in any doubt that these women are anything other than predatory, we only have to wait. One of them turns out to be so possessive her behavior verges on paranoia. She makes Saverin’s life a misery and finally sets fire to his college room.

Then there is the party to celebrate facebook’s millionth client. What is particularly disappointing about this episode is that the only woman programmer in the film is shown snorting drugs from the table-top of another woman’s torso. ‘Shall I take off my bra?’ table-top asks, while Napster creator Shawn Fanning looks on. It might almost be a tableau by Allen Jones (see photo at top of this post).

True, Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend reappears to remind him there are alternatives, and there’s an intelligent young woman lawyer at Zuckerberg’s hearing. But these are peripheral figures. For most of the film, it’s as if decades of feminism never happened.

I saw the film one weekend afternoon and the only other people watching were young teenagers. They were attracted, no doubt, by the reference to what (if my young teenage son and his friends are anything to go by) is likely to be their favourite networking site.

I worry about the story these young people were given. I’m sure there was a great deal of sexism in the early days of facebook – and I’m not asking the director to change history. But did Fincher need to pile up all that gratuitous sexist cliché?

As it is, the message those teenagers will take away from watching The Social Network, is that women were only involved in the development of this planet-changing phenomenon in the most regressive of ways: as sex-toys, predators or (at best) the still, small voice of men’s consciences.