Text by Heather Edwards
Motherhood is lonely. There, I said it. It feels like there is some stigma attached to discussing motherhood as anything less than perfect. As if somehow by saying that being a mum isn’t all sunshine, and rainbows and perfectly posed photographs in monochrome nurseries uploaded to Instagram, that I am ungrateful for the miracle of life that has been bestowed upon me. And, honestly, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. I truly love being a mum and couldn’t think the sun shines out my daughter’s, admittedly gross pre-potty trained, ass any more than I do. But that doesn't stop an overwhelming feeling of isolation from creeping in at times.
In this essay, I will be exploring the areas of Labour, Loneliness and Sisterhood to describe my personal experiences of being a mother thus far, and more wider, the damaging effect when we limit the narratives of motherhood.
During my pregnancy I worked for a company that, like 2.5% of the workforce, only offered zero hour contracts for people in my role. Zero hour contracts are especially prevalent in the socio-economic band I fit into, that being low paid service work, and are also particularly common for young women. I had worked there for two years with steady hours and so I had, perhaps naively, never questioned zero hour contracts. I had no reason to believe that my hours would change when I became pregnant. It was a desk job and I planned to work right up to my due date, to take full advantage of my maternity leave once the baby had arrived. Sadly, after announcing my pregnancy to my manager, my hours steadily reduced until I had none. I ended up unemployed at four months pregnant with no real explanation from my former employers, which alarmingly seems to be a pattern for women in zero hour contracted work.
Maternity pay is calculated on the amount of hours you do per month, making it “beneficial” for the company to keep hours for women - i.e. potential or expecting mothers - to a minimum. I applied for and got interviewed for numerous jobs that I was more than qualified for during this period, but as soon as I mentioned my pregnancy, even the most enthusiastic of employers suddenly lost interest in me. Despite it being against the Sex Discrimination Act of 2010 to turn someone down for a job based on pregnancy or intended pregnancy, employers either failed to give me a reason for not employing me, or gave thinly-veiled excuses. My partner and I decided to move from our home near London to Manchester. Our reasoning was purely so that we could afford to live on one wage. As a result of this, I moved to live in a new city, with no way of meeting people and no job to throw myself into.
Not working, it was hard to ignore the societal views of what motherhood should be and should look like in terms of familial roles and homemaking. This was amplified when I chose to stay at home beyond the year afforded by maternity leave. This was in part due to not being able to afford childcare, but also in part due to simply enjoying being home with my child. I felt it was important for both her and myself to experience bringing her up. I wanted to protect her from the micro-aggressions of language and the wider world, things that I could not control away from my home. Different women have different opinions on this subject, this was mine.
However, I did start to feel the weight and guilt that comes with not working. It was so ingrained in me that the only way to be a “successful” person was to be one who makes a financial contribution. Within a capitalist society, paid work absolutely seems to hold more value than the unpaid labour involved in motherhood. Financial Times calculates women’s unpaid domestic labour at £259 a week, with an additional £15.28 for women in roles as child care providers. The idea that as a “non-workers” you are not considered to be a valued member of society can weigh heavy in terms of feeling guilty and removed from society. This entirely undermines the importance and significance of child rearing, domestic duties and the role the household plays. “Workers” and children who go out during the day to jobs or schools then return to the household, maintained by the unseen worker doing the unseen and endless duties, to enjoy the benefits that essentially sustain them, i.e. dinner and cleanliness.
In the years BC (before child) I was active, socially conscious, travelled a lot and my world revolved around socialising, activism and being surrounded by people. What seemed to happen very suddenly was my big, wide world became one little room filled by this overwhelmingly, massive presence in the body of my tiny baby. The outside world became a terrifying entity in which to protect her from. Between me isolating myself from those outside influences, and others becoming completely uninterested in me, and my brand new label of ‘mum’, my life became very insular and repetitive.
My only real snapshot into the outside world and what motherhood should look like was social media; where there are reams and reams of photos of adorable children in incredible houses with mums dressed perfectly. Meanwhile I sat, phone in hand, while baby napped, wearing sweat pants I’d worn for three days. The basement flat we lived in was that was full of damp and I was in a constant battle to prevent the mould from reaching the baby’s room. This only further alienated me, scaring me away from meeting other mothers in fear of judgement. My old friends were far away or uninterested, and my route to new ones was peppered with anxieties and insecurities.
To add to the feelings of inadequacy I felt, there was an immense pressure to “lose the baby weight.” This came from a general cultural assumption that being fat, no matter the reason, is a negative thing. It is insinuated is that your body should never show signs of carrying a child. Some of the features most ridiculed or shamed about a woman’s body, for example: fat, stretch marks, “saggy” breasts, are things that naturally happen to some women’s bodies during pregnancy and postpartum. Beyond the normal societal pressure on all women to be thin, pert and flawless, women who have just had babies are being targeted more and more.
Before I even had my daughter, I had conversations regarding breastfeeding with others, professional and otherwise. I was often told that one of the benefits of breastfeeding was that it burnt calories and made you lose the baby weight quicker - planting the seed that the only good postpartum body is a thin one. During pregnancy, weight is watched throughout with the inclination being that you shouldn't put on too much weight, despite literally growing a human being inside you.
After giving birth, the pressure really starts. The second you dare to use hashtags regarding motherhood on social media you are jumped on by diet industry sellers sliding in your direct messages with offers for the newest weight loss fad. Slimming World accounts coincidentally start to follow you. The newsletters you are encouraged to sign up for (including Emma’s Diary and Bounty) sell your details onto a number of different companies, including diet providers, so your inbox is bombarded with the idea that you should lose weight and fast. I felt like I was slowly drip-fed the idea that I was fat and worthless and would not be relieved of vilification until my body resembled the ideal and unattainable postpartum physique.
Eventually I was diagnosed with postnatal depression (PND), an illness that statistically hits 10 to 15 of every 100 women who have had a baby. It was an incredibly scary thing to come to terms with. The only depiction I had ever seen of PND in the media was manic women who resented their children and that simply wasn’t me. My PND manifested myself in a form of agoraphobia, a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn't be available if things go wrong, and a pretty spectacular inferiority complex. On hindsight, this was hardly surprising when analysing the way that women are treated once in the role of “mother.” I was put on medication and although it helped, I found it hard to be open and honest about what I was going through, due to fear of being judged as a bad mother. I did not want the fact I needed medication to function from day to day be a reflection on my daughter, myself or our relationship.
I have been lucky enough to find a group of other mums online who are a fantastic support system. They have humanised other mothers for me, making me realise that my experiences are echoed by many women.This is a fact that is both comforting but also, in the grand scheme of things, really upsetting. It demonstrates that the pressures and alienation I have felt first hand after becoming a mother are part of the norm, and are something that women are expected to just deal with.
However, I realised that social media could also be my best friend, not just my worst enemy. I found a community of mothers who were into crafting and DIY, who organised meetups across the country. A Manchester meeting popped up and I requested to be added to a group chat. My anxiety reached an absolute peak and I very nearly backed out of going, but with pep talks from the few around me, I managed to go to Manchester Museum and join them. I'm so glad I did. I really connected with one woman in particular who ran a separate mum group. I then went on to join that group and became a very active member, processing a lot of admin as the group grew. Because of this, I have met more and more parents and we are now a sisterhood of 1500 women strong.
To be part of a group of feminist women who happen to also be mothers is something that has made me realise that I don't have to be alienated from the feminist movement. I have realised that you can be both a mother and care deeply about intersectionality, progression and inclusivity. In fact, these are issues that I believe are an integral part of bringing up children to be inquisitive, to celebrate diversity and above all to value others.
It was through this group that I was able to see that I had PND. I had a group of women gently persuading me to see a doctor, who worked with me to break down any internalised stigma I had about my mental health and instead to feel proud of my journey rather than ashamed of it. I had people that I could openly discuss my feelings, medication and therapy with and it has been deeply validating.
Through motherhood I have found sisterhood. I have seen the tenacity and brilliance of the women I surround myself with. I have realised how much the struggles of being a mum are feminist issues and ones that are often overlooked.
The feminist objective concerning reproductivity needs to go beyond the pro-choice campaign to providing support once/if choices are made. Women and the children they may or may not choose to have are entitled to a world that is wholly designed for them to thrive, regardless of their socio-economic background, contribution to labour, social media presence or the physical appearance of their bodies.
Women are most often the primary carers of society, from the next generation to the ageing one. Women are the physical and emotional labourers of the home. In other words, women traditionally and literally do the work that keeps the people around them alive. We can no longer go on pretending that the work women do is not the most imperative and fundamental work to society.
Text by Olivia Graham, Imogen Woolley & Emilia Bona
‘Dear Dick, I wrote in one of many letters, what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it's least described’ - Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
In the summer I was asked, ‘Where do you find yourself in the arts?’ and I found my response in one word ‘undervalued’, and it doesn’t stop with my art. Women, in society, are undervalued. We perform emotional labour to no financial gain. When the country was hit with cuts to services we felt the burden and, where possible, filled in the gaps and picked up the pieces. In society we’re not valued anywhere near as much as our male counterparts. Our job roles, expertise and opinions aren’t taken into consideration. We face street harassment, sexual exploitation, we are silenced, ignored and yet we’re still expected to ‘give smiles’ and keep the peace. There are innumerable aspects of my life that I feel undervalued because I am a woman and love, unquestionably, is one of them.
To be more specific, there are two areas of my love life that society, and those around me, have without cause or consideration, undervalued. Firstly, when I love women and we don’t have sex. And secondly, when I love women and we do have sex.
Due to the nature of being a woman, and experiencing womanhood, in a society that keeps everything honest about this area sacred, secret and therefore daunting and shit scary, so much of what I have learnt has come from other women. And while researching and reading externally has been invaluable, my real awakening and understanding has been continuing these discussions with the women around me. Another aspect of women’s lives that are undervalued, the opinions they share and explore in conversation with one another. And so, the focus of this essay will take place with two women with whom I’ve had these discussions, because it was through these conversations I found some answers, found my self and eventually found my handle on love. And the value of it. The collaborative nature of this piece is what influenced me to use other aspects of media and produce it as an audio essay. It has become, like most things in my life, a product of women working together. Figuring stuff out. Getting shit done.
Part one: Love with women when you don’t have sex
I love my friends. It is something I’ve said in diaries, on my Myspace page and in the early hours of the morning on fields in festivals. But truly, I do. They are everything to me. They are the people that without words handed me my favourite chocolate bar through a funeral car window. Held my hair back when I didn’t know my limits, and when I did. Went out with me, stayed in with me, fed me. Essentially, provided me with what I needed when I needed it.
Popular culture gives us a skewed portrayal of female friendships and these portrayals are categorically misrepresented. Society is dismissive of the weight, importance and strength in them. I can only account this to their nature being an act by women, for women, without men. It’s threatening and therefore must be dismissed. What we’re constantly being told is if it doesn’t involve, revolve around or lead to cock, it doesn’t exist. Or it does, but we must show the fragility and futility of it as being ‘bitchy’ or a relationship that revolves around conversations of the adoration of men.
This, as most women in strong friendships and Love, will tell you, is not the case. All these misconceptions and the persistent undervaluing of the love in female friendships leads us to dismiss matters of a woman’s heart when it comes to her friends. It was in Imogen’s Kitchen she talked me through the difficulties she faces returning home, after circumstances have forced her into a long distance friendship:
Imogen: It feels kind of shitty, mainly due to missing Tav, she's a rock in my life. We clicked from day dot and whenever I have to leave her it's just a big hole in my life and you inevitably crash from that. And it's hard cause people don’t really talk about it. It doesn’t really come up in conversation as much as, 'How's your partner, how’re they doing? How’s leaving them? It's just something that isn't really spoken about.
It's never been sexual, never even close. It has the intensity of what people might perceive of a sexual relationship but it's not got that label. We classify it as best friends but I think that doesn’t really have the weight to it. We're very very very close. With Tav it just kind of clicked, we've been together ever since and in many ways it's the best relationship I’ve ever had.
Olivia: Do you think there’s a difference here because you’re not having sex?
Imogen: Yeah definitely, I guess it's an easy fallback question, because when people have that significant other in terms of a sexual relationship it’s more widely known as a thing. Whereas with Tav it's just kind of seen as a best friend and that's it, nothing more. It's really limiting, it doesn't express that intensity in the same way as a relationship.
If people are in a relationship they get their alone time, they get to do things just them it's like, 'of course they want to spend time with just them' but then it comes to managing friends and managing relationships within those friendship terms people don’t tend to understand why I would want to be alone with her, they feel left out. It's just an interesting comparison when you look at why it's allowed for sexual relationships to be allowed that alone time and in friendships it just isn’t something that is recognised in the same way. It makes sense as well. It's just the categories we've created and how each has their own different definition and some things are allowed and some things aren’t. Which I don't think is cool.
Olivia: It's almost like a subset of rules for people who are in a sexual relationship are given space for that love to blossom kind of dictate their own direction and then when it comes to a friendship those rules are kind of withdrawn.
Imogen: Definitely, and that's made me fall out with friends, it’s made me get infuriated with them when they don’t understand. But they don’t understand because that’s not the way it is. It's not what people think of in terms of friendships and that’s not really their fault, it's just the way it is.
Olivia: Yeah, I guess we need to start talking about how we define friendships, and female friendships. I s there something there with the recognition of your relationship that bothers you?
Imogen: Since i kind of noticed that, it does bother me because it doesn't then fit. I think the term friends it's still valid and strong, but I see us in a relationship it's just without the sex and there is no real definition for that. It's like next level to best friends. I think it’s next level to best friends because in our society people don't really acknowledge it as a real thing in terms of giving. Society disregards female friendships, the term ‘Best Friends’ has inevitably lost it’s meaning. In the way we define us, we say it's best friends but in reality it's much more than that.
There are no words, or expressions for how I feel about it, except for maybe soul mate. But that's still very much relationship term, a sexual relationship term more than a friendship term.
Olivia: It’s almost like we’re left to define our friendships with default options, rather than having the options that give the relationship the weight and the consideration that they deserve. What do you want people to acknowledge when it comes to your relationship with Tav?
Imogen: I really want people to understand where I’m coming from and ask me about her. Do the same that they would in terms of a sexual relationship. Ask me how I’m doing, how I’m missing her, and just acknowledging it in itself and understanding what I’m going through is just as valid as someone who is in a sexual relationship.
Olivia: And what is it you want people to acknowledge when it comes to your female friendships?
Imogen: I want people to understand and acknowledge that this level of love exists without sex.
This girl, I’m falling in love with. And it’s clear, there are people around us commenting, openly asking, ‘is something going on between you two?’ And yes, there is. We’re coming into something amazing. We’re sharing, learning, we’ve been through death, hospital appointments, five in the morning taxis home and the bottom of bottles of rum. But it’s not taken seriously because it’s not about sex. And, let’s face it, because it’s not about sex between a man and woman.
Part two: Love with women when you do have sex.
It’s not easy being queer. When you’re growing up knowing that something, created by the standards around you, is definitely not right. And it’s scary, for so many people, having sexual and romantic feelings towards people of the same sex is terrifying. But there’s a saving grace when it comes to being queer and not gay, or in my case a lesbian, some aspects of you are ‘alright’. So you lean towards the ‘light’ and your queer awakenings take a back seat. And the queer you only exists in secret, dark places. The kind of secret dark places that shadow your thoughts way into later life.
I was in a feminist workshop when women in the room started discussing their sexuality, and how their queer sexuality is constantly dismissed when they’re in straight relationships. It was then for me I realised a big burden I had to bear was my own internalised heteronormity. That, because I wasn’t in a sexual relationship with a woman I wasn’t considered a woman who loves women in a sexual way. Something had led me to dismiss this aspect, this huge aspect, of my life once more. It was then I realised being queer wasn’t the same for me as being straight or gay, sounds so straightforward I know. But when you identify with a sexuality that is dismissed, undermined and basically non-existent in popular culture, where do you find your understanding and strength? I did the only thing I could do, I spoke to my female friends about it. I had to figure out what had gotten me to this point, and what do I do next.
I met Emilia in a feminist book club, through a friend who met her in roller derby. You can imagine the fierce impact this woman already had on my life. She talked me through what her queer sexuality means to her and how it was for her to come out to friends and family.
Emilia: Coming out is awkward. There’s never a good time to do it, and it’s not really the kind of thing where you can just send out a group Whatsapp and that’s it, boxed off. You come out every time you meet someone new. It took me until my twenties to start tentatively coming out to close friends, and it’s not because I was scared I’d get cast-out by them for my errant lifestyle choices. I was worried that they wouldn’t believe that I was actually queer, and when you’re only just starting to accept your own sexuality on a personal level you really don’t want to have to convince other people of its legitimacy.
I’m bisexual and my experiences of coming out aren’t unique. Bisexual erasure is a problem both within the LGBTQ+ community and in wider society. When I started telling people I was queer the reactions I received were entirely different to those normally portrayed in mainstream coming out narratives. I found myself having to prove my credentials as a queer person to friends who questioned whether I was sure this was real.
Olivia: And this need for proof and legitimacy is something we still strive for, no matter how long we’ve been ‘out’.
Emilia: Absolutely. Bisexuality is commonly derided as being a kind of a phase for experimental women to get out of their system, or for men it’s often portrayed as the final stop on the all-male express train to being a homosexual. Contrary to those tired misconceptions, some people are just bisexual. When I was coming out the problem was never close-minded bigots who were denying me the right to fuck whoever I wanted. Instead I was faced with an outright refusal to accept that I was a queer woman.
Olivia: And it’s a different kind of homophobia that makes our experiences something else entirely.
Emilia: Bisexual erasure isn’t this overtly aggressive force that you’d associate with homophobia in a way that sees people made victims of hate crimes, instead it’s a call for proof and this undermining of bisexuality is a toxic microaggression that isolates an entire section of the queer community. Rather than being oppressed and denied the right to express my sexuality, I was essentially finding myself having to argue its legitimacy – and that is really fucking frustrating.
While bisexual erasure doesn’t involve the kind of direct antagonism involved in homophobia, it does deny the existence of bisexuality and this is a dangerous microaggression laden with stigmas and it can have really negative effects on the mental health of bisexual people. I will never come out to my mother until I get to a point of wanting to bring home a woman because I’m really, really in love with her. That’s not because my mum’s a homophobe, she’s absolutely not – it’s because she just wouldn’t understand it. Having seen me with boyfriends and known me as straight for 23 years, she wouldn’t understand how I could suddenly love pussy or women without pussies.
Olivia: This constant need to prove your point and defend yourself makes this aspect of a queer sexuality exhausting. An exhaustion that you avoid by not bringing it to the surface when it isn’t necessary. But then, when you think of the bigger picture and lasting effect, it’s a contribution we’re making to our own marginalization and further invisibility.
Emilia: Bisexuality is marginalised even within coming out narratives because in general consciousness it exists somewhere between being straight and being gay – and the world doesn’t really know what to do with that. If it doesn’t fit neatly into the categories we’ve created to understand sexuality then it’s dismissed as some sort of phase or experiment, or not a legitimate sexuality.
Rather than being an outright rejection of bisexuality, I was faced with an inability to accept my queerness as legitimate. While no one was outwardly homophobic, and to be clear that was absolutely part of the privilege of passing that I has as part of being a femme queer woman. Instead of slurs and hate speech what I was met with were consistent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of my sexuality. Those experiences are part of a common theme of bisexual erasure, which de-legitimises the experiences of bisexuals and erases their presence from the LGBT community.
Olivia: How do you feel that your need to defend yourself has affected how you think of yourself when it comes to your sexuality.
Emilia: I felt like I almost didn’t back myself or didn’t believe myself as a queer woman and even personally until I slept with a woman I felt like I couldn’t say I was queer, like it wasn’t a label I was allowed to own. And even though I knew I was and knew I was attracted to women and always have been, I think that until I acted on it and was able to kind of say to people ‘look here’s proof I am’ I couldn’t accept it as my own. Which isn’t a nice way to feel.
I always feel that people think I’ve decided to be bisexual because it’s the latest thing after ‘I’m a feminist. I like growing out my body hair’ and now it’s like ‘and I also like having sex with women’. It’s because being queer is becoming more cool, or like queer culture is in Vogue that I think people think it’s something you’re doing. It’s the extension of ‘is it for attention’ when women have sex with women or when women kiss women.
Olivia: A friend of mine sent me a tweet today by that said ‘The perception that bi women are “experimenting” while bi men are “closeted gays” is some misogynist “all-roads-lead-to-dick” BS*. And it’s so true, heteronormativity is still patriarchy. It’s fueling a society that prioritises the needs and desires of cis-white straight men.
Emilia: Yeah, the all roads lead to dick bullshit is so legit when you look at the difference in the way bisexual men and bisexual women are treated. For women it’s fetishised, women are fetishised anyway, but it’s particularly intense in the bisexual realm because straight men manage to turn women’s sexual freedom into basically nothing more than something for the male gaze. You see that a lot in the relentless message that female-female-male threesomes are hot, and the masculine catcalls heard in bars when two femme queer girls get with each other. I think that’s very different to the way lesbians are treated. If expressions of bisexuality are performed for the gratification of men then they’re accepted, but still not legitimised as sexual acts in their own right. When we see bisexual women it’s usually for the arousal and entertainment of straight men – not because they are granted legitimacy and space in their own right. So it’s like, girl on girl is hot, but it’s not yours to enjoy. In erasing bisexuality you basically erase the unique oppression of bisexual women.
By contrast, bisexual men are almost entirely absent from most narratives. Bi men are marginalised and their either portrayed as being deviant or closeted gays. Whilst bisexual women are hot and hypersexualised, bisexual men are ignored or stigmatised, because essentially if straight men can’t wank to it, it has absolutely no value. Bisexual men are also less normalised in mainstream porn which I think is an issue in the way that we see bisexual women.
Within the queer community, bisexuals still don’t get a fair deal. Bisexuality is either dismissed as a phase or a stop on the way to being gay. No one should ever really have to explain themselves to gain legitimacy. If we spend all of our time flashing cards to get a pass into the queer club, we’re only really screwing ourselves over. At the end of the day, who’s in charge of the gates to the queer club? Is it cis white men who currently dominate the queer narrative?
Finding a queer community where I could finally talk about being bi was the only way I was able to finally start coming out, but I spent years questioning my own sexuality. I didn’t see it represented anywhere, and I wasn’t gay but I certainly knew I wasn’t straight. Bisexual erasure hurts us all and tainted my beautiful queer awakening. I’m not hiding under a duvet anymore, but we’re a long way from bi girls being able to confidently assert their terms.
These are two examples of the endless conversations I’ve had with the women around me. What I’ve learned through these dialogues is that although we may not be represented in popular culture, or our narratives aren’t always present in mainstream media, amongst ourselves we are represented, present, supported and valued.
Above all, it is important to acknowledge it is never acceptable to undervalue people, or the love that exists between them.
Pornography is an increasingly ubiquitous presence in society; its unprecedented accessibility makes it a source of heated debate. This essay will explore the morality of pornography. It will investigate the effects associated with the rise and availability of free porn that many believe has an inevitable effect on our sexual and social relations.
Sex is everywhere and moreover pornography has become so ubiquitous that 'porn culture' has seemingly infiltrated the public consciousness. Is pornography therefore an ‘evil force’ that is perpetuating stereotypes and providing the backdrop for the subjugation of women (amongst others)?
The fact that porn has become so readily available for free has led to a sharp decrease in the number of paying customers. This is reflected in pornography that is produced in the mainstream industry. Here, there is less money for productions and therefore the performers are not paid at the same level that they had been some years ago. There are more extreme acts on display, which may be due to lack of funds, reserving more extreme acts to porn that is paid for. Rashida Jones states that it is the ‘niche stuff that pays more, and the niche stuff is harder on your body.’ A 2010 study by Adult Video News reportedly found that most of the scenes from the top 50 rented films involved physical or verbal abuse towards the female performer. Others argue that more hardcore porn is a result of the onslaught of information which has desensitised us to more vanilla forms of pornography, with viewers expecting more shock value. Theorist Gail Dines remarks that this is due to pornography users eventually seeking out ‘more extreme acts as a way to keep them interested and stimulated.’
Gail Dines and Lierre Keith posit that porn culture is symptomatic of the wider subjugation of women. It is a visual representation in the most visceral manner of the endemic, systematic oppression of women (especially women of minority groups and non-gender binary women). It establishes the patriarchal value system and takes it to its logical conclusion, with interpersonal relations and interactions reduced to their most base level in which power is removed from the vulnerable, who are then taken advantage of. Pornography is not deemed the harbinger of the decline of 'civilised' society nor the root of a raft of social problems, but rather a cipher of the predatory patriarchal-capitalist society in which it is produced. In this way, pornography comes to represent the consequences of that system; a society demarcated by hierarchies in which many social interactions and relationships are delineated by a dynamic of domination versus subordination.
The emergence of violent porn (whether physical; hate porn or psychological; revenge porn) is viewed by some as emerging from the rise of free pornography. Reduced funding has meant that industry performers are often expected to perform more extreme acts in order to fulfil the insatiable demand of viewers. Furthermore, Gerard Schaefer, psychologist at the Institute for Sexual Psychology in Berlin, suggests that a performer's fear of being labelled 'difficult' plays a role in taking part in scenes that they are not necessarily comfortable with. This again can be attributed to a patriarchal system in which women feel the need to be unobtrusive. The paradoxical line between actual and staged violence is therefore blurred. Tabea Freitag, a trauma therapist, suggests that this line does not exist in the reality of those who work in the sex industry.
However, it can be argued that pornography is a form of empowerment. Why do people find it so shocking for women to have complete and full control over their body? The patriarchal value system is uncomfortable with a woman who is unashamed of her nakedness. A woman in full control, fully aware of her bodily autonomy and asserting her sexuality and sexual independence. This is a threat to the patriarchal hegemonic narrative; policing women's bodies and defining limiting rules on their sexuality is necessary in perpetuating their systematic oppression. To this end the expression of female sexuality also serves as a form of female liberation, reaffirming female independence. Those who asseverate their personal stance on pornography as a moral absolute, inferring that society at large should adhere to their viewpoint are refusing to respect and acknowledge a woman's individual voice and bodily autonomy, effectively repudiating a woman's right to choose - a central tenet of feminism.
At the heart of the new wave of independent pornography is consent. In a world where attention is being drawn to the propensity of ‘lad’ and ‘rape’ culture, to assert the rights of female bodily autonomy and to actively showcase healthy sexual relations is powerful.
Consent is sexy; pleasure is a turn on, ethically produced pornography showcasing consent and female pleasure is a powerful mechanism to counteract the pervasive rape culture (in addition to the manner in which the mainstream porn industry portrays sexual interactions).
The harm attributed to pornography, the lack of future career prospects, lasting emotional distress (as cited by Dines et al), can be (and have been by the likes of adult actresses Bree Olson, Erika Lust and theorist Emily Nagoski) attributed to the way in which society treats pornography and those involved in the industry rather than a symptom intrinsic to pornography itself.
Many lament the rise of the internet, believing it to be responsible for the death of eroticism and the harmful portrayal of sex which has lead to unhealthy sexual relations (a third of all internet traffic is pornography, this is an unmistakable reality). There is not enough communication around sexual relations and by extension pornography. Pornography is important in that it is the mode in which many first encounter sex, therefore the way it is produced and what it portrays is important.
Prominent porn decriers (theorists Julie Bindel, Gail Dines and Dr Julie Long) also suggest that pornography can be read as a construction of patriarchal capitalism. The feeling of 'needing' to watch pornography rather than merely desiring to do so comes from a system in which all things are commodities. They suggest that feminist pornography advocates have misread the system in which they exist, which reduces sexuality to a product for consumption. Are women then inevitably expressing a sexuality that is not an expression of themselves, but rather one that is constructed on the basis that it is to be consumed by others?
However, Anna Arrowsmith (one of the first female pornography directors in the UK) argues that within the current system commodification is unavoidable. Everything is a commodity 'from what you eat, to what you wear, to what you see.' The only way in which you can change the market is from within; you must first infiltrate it in order to change it.
Therefore, following Arrowsmith’s argument, the only way to counteract the harmful effects of mainstream pornography is to change the industry from within and provide an alternative narrative. Through the production of ethical, feminist pornography, independent pornography is presenting a healthy, positive sexual attitude, with consent and pleasure at its epicentre.* People watch pornography, it is therefore imperative to present sex in a form that does not negatively impact those who work in the industry or sexual relations on a wider level.
Independent pornography is not only important due to its emphasis on female agency but rather its portrayal of inclusiveness and its authentic and delicate portrayal of human sexual relations. Carlyle Jensen highlights this point; communities that are often underrepresented in wider society become stereotyped and fetishised in mainstream pornography, it could be taken further to denote the commodification of these communities. Now these communities are making pornography on their own terms.
Feminist, ethical independently produced pornography works towards inclusiveness, therefore breaking down the harmful portrayals in mainstream pornography that perpetuate existing stereotypes.
Beyond these moral implications, independent pornography places an emphasis on quality. The aesthetic care given to sex by these female producers is important not only due to their expression of artistic intent, but in the dignity it gives to the participants that is all too often conspicuously absent from mainstream pornography. The portrayal of authentic pleasure, with a sense of naturalism is a clear defence of a woman's right to choose.
When it comes to sexuality it is difficult to define what is right and wrong. Whether you agree with pornography or not, as feminists we need to acknowledge that pornography can be a weapon or a tool. To counter the prevalent mainstream monster, independent female producers are portraying sexual relations in a manner that subverts dangerous attitudes. They are emphasising consent, female autonomy and a healthy attitude toward sex. Furthermore they are expressing their artistic sensibility. Through the production of independent pornography they are undermining and rewriting the prevailing narrative of the patriarchal culture in which women are passive objects witnessed via the male gaze. Instead women are in control; they are the agents of their own pleasure. Issues surrounding consent, rape culture and inclusivity must be addressed and it is independent pornography that is doing so. Pornography is ubiquitous, it is therefore imperative that a culture around pornography is born in which women are respected and in control.
Recommendations/further information: Erika Lust (Xconfessions, Lust Productions) Vex Ashley (A Four Chambered Heart), GodsGirls, Suicide Girls, Emily Nagoski.
* “Feminist porn uses sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type, and other identity markers....It does not assume a singular female viewer, but acknowledges multiple female (and other) viewers with many different preferences. Feminist porn makers emphasize the importance of their labor practices in production and their treatment of performers/sex workers; in contrast to norms in the mainstream sectors of the adult entertainment industry, they strive to create a fair, safe, ethical, consensual work environment and often create imagery through collaboration with their subjects. Ultimately, feminist porn considers sexual representation — and its production — a site for resistance, intervention, and change”
From The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young
Text by Flis Mitchell
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
I know that when you look at me, you think it’s for you. Or all men. Or any men who want to look.
That’s why the Hijab makes you so angry, it’s the withdrawal of consent, for viewing. When it is your right to see all of a woman. At all times. She exists, only in front of you. Only for you.
A million websites and articles tell you. That you can approach her at any time. You know this won’t often, or ever lead to sex. But you like the opportunity, to penetrate their spaces. Making them aware of you, watching the effect that you have, play out.
A million websites and articles tell you, her hesitation isn’t fear, anxiety or outrage. But a test of your masculinity. Will you be confident enough to dominate this situation? Your right to have a girl give you attention, trumps any social prohibitions.
Nothing matters but your desire to have attention. You might not get her to talk to you, but she’s looking, she’s looking at you.
If, as an article suggests, you grab her wrist as she starts to walk away from you - as a test of your masculinity (not her desire to be free of you) (she has no desires, except responses, and reactions to you) if you grab her wrist.
She may feel like this is the start of an assault, or a rape. But don’t worry. Did she look at you, did you get her attention? Your inability to read her body language heightens her fear, her breathing is short. She looks for escape routes, she wonders (briefly, stupidly, but it flashes in her mind) if the flowers at her funeral will be white.
But did you get her attention? The attention she owes you?
She’s been coached, from a young age to be polite, quiet, and sweet.
She’s so used to de-escalating street harassment, that you get a false sense, that your behaviour is acceptable. But you know, do you know, it’s not acceptable.
Like when you message girls on dating sites and your conversation starts:
You know this won’t often, or ever lead to sex. But you like the opportunity, to penetrate their spaces. This isn’t about getting dates, this about getting to say violent things to women. You can’t admit that.
Culture tells you that everything a woman does is for you. Her makeup, must be for men. Her clothes. For men. Her hair. For men. Her shoes. For men.
She is all for men. Why would she do anything for herself. What is a woman’s self? Except a thing for men.
That’s why its legitimate to approach her at all times, because everything about her for men, you are a man. So it must be for you. And if it’s not for you, it must be for another man. Her refusal is a personal slight:
You switch to outraged aggression:
Fuck you bitch, fuck you slut, fuck you whore, fuck you.
There is violence in this language.
But there is violence in this whole process, so no one is surprised.
I am here to tell you. Despite what you hear,
That nothing about me is for you.
All your thoughts are irrelevant to me.
Men are irrelevant to me.
I am no longer your mirror.
Nothing about me is for you.
Love hurts. And so does making love. At least, for me it does, as well as for an estimated 8-21% of women at some point in their lives. Dyspareunia, vaginismus, vulvodynia; there are many difficult medical terms to describe the types of pain that some women have to deal with during intercourse, but they are all a pain in the hole. As a teenager, I thought I was the only girl with this problem. Around me it seemed my friends and peers were enjoying their first sexual relationships. I assumed they were happily exploring their own and each other’s sexualities. I eventually found out that the reason for feeling so isolated with my problem was that no one else was talking about it. In reality, some of my friends struggled with similar pains and conditions, but they were too scared to discuss them, like I was at first. This is why I want to share my story. I want to let other women know that they are not alone. I want them to know that their vaginas are not at all strange, and that there is help available. I would also like to shine a light on the way misogyny is deeply rooted into the way we think about sex and sexuality. I found this in the fact that multiple solutions offered by medical specialists are often more beneficial to the men that the diagnosed women have sexual relationships with, rather than the female clients that are seeking help for themselves.
Let me start off with a recent, very personal experience of mine that acts as a synopsis of the factors related to my problem. I am in my mid-twenties and I met a man of a similar age on a night out. We flirted, we danced, we kissed. As it was getting later, I was beginning to get my usual anxieties at the thought of his possible expectations. I hoped I could subtly leave without him noticing. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because I like to get to know someone better before telling them a very personal, and often disappointing, fact about my ability to have sex. Things didn’t go according to plan and he ended up at my place. I made my intentions clear and said I was not ready to have sex. By all means, I was attracted to this man and I wanted to kiss him and sleep next to him. Regardless of me being transparent about what I wanted, he kept trying for more and was very persistent. I explained to him why I was saying no: the opening of my vagina hurts. It hurts when anyone - even me - touches it, and sex can be very uncomfortable and painful for me. Sometimes it can even feel like a knife cutting through it. He backed off, we both went to sleep, and in the morning when he left he gave me a polite kiss goodbye.
Polite did not last long and soon after, he made a point of telling me that he is 'not a fucking teenager any more' and that he wasted his time on me. For a woman who has been dealing with this issue for years, it was really awful to be spoken to in such a way by a grown man. It is demeaning to have a man insinuate that I am being immature for trusting him with a huge personal aspect of my life and body. As if I have nothing better to do, he accused me of playing some sort of ‘teenage game’ simply because I had told him about my condition. I ‘wasted his time’ because as a heterosexual man, time spent with women that does not lead to sex is presumably time wasted; suggesting that women are for sexual gratification and not much else.
When I first started seeking help, I would have hoped that things would have improved now that I am older. I have been through those teenage years, a time when romantic and sexual relationships are intimidating enough without the added pressure I endured. I had to deal with teenage boyfriends sighing and getting frustrated with me. I experienced a huge invasion of my privacy when an ex-boyfriend told the whole school after we broke up, and I became the target of ridicule. I have encountered anxiety, judgement and alienation in ways that has been exacerbated due to the juxtaposition in which women are afforded sexuality in general: on men’s terms, or not at all.
At 18 years old I was referred to a psychosexual therapist for an assessment. She told me that they could not help me unless I was in a relationship of ‘at least six months’. Yes, those were her exact words. Her reasoning was that the treatment was aimed at couples working on the problem together. This is an extremely damaging message for an 18-year-old to hear. That being: I was not entitled to improve and enjoy my own sex life, unless I was in a long-term committed relationship with a man. This failure to help me as an individual is counterintuitive to having ownership over my own body and sexuality. I wanted to solve the problem before getting into my next sexual relationship - of whatever level of commitment. I could not help but wonder if they would have said the same to a man reaching out with a medical problem related to his genitalia. Whilst yes, it is true that at the time my main desire was to have ‘ordinary’ penetrative sex with a man, I also wanted to explore my body through masturbation and I was curious about sex with women. However, the message was clear: they would not help me if I was not committed to a man for a proven longer period of time. To be eligible for medical treatment for such an all-encompassing physical problem lies a hugely heteronormative premise. What about lesbian women? What about masturbation? It seems female sexuality can be easily dismissed if there is not a male partner benefitting from it.
I am grateful that I now realise how these conversations have affected me, that I have the support network to discuss and challenge them, and that I am mature enough to disagree and speak up when I need to. However, I do worry about other young women hearing the same outdated and detrimental ideologies from a medical professional or ‘expert’. I know first hand how easy it is to struggle and feel internalised shame about masturbation, gay sex, or casual relationships.
In my process of seeking treatment I have also been to a hospital vulva clinic. Here I was diagnosed with vulvodynia, a condition where a certain area of the vulva is painful with no explanation. Women can get it at any age, and it can also go away at any age. There is no real effective treatment for it; only different ways to work around it, soothe the pain, or learn how to live with it. Among a few options, which included counselling and physiotherapy, I was offered a numbing vaginal cream. The cream is to be applied approximately 30 minutes before expected intercourse in order to work and effectively numb the area. I refused; it seemed unnatural to me to numb the pain, as pain is usually an indicator that something is wrong. I insisted that I would like to feel when it gets worse so I know when to stop. The specialist then told me that it would not matter whether I feel the pain or not, as not only was the pain explained by the vulvodynia, but alarmingly that it is also normal for women to 'split', i.e. experience pain, when they are having sex. I could not help but notice her attitude towards me, for refusing the cream, was patronising and far from sympathetic or pleasant.
At the same time I was also seeing a therapist regarding my issue, and when I told her about the cream, she said that she wouldn't recommend it, because it also numbs the pleasure. Why would I want to have sex if I don’t get anything from it? It is absurd to think that in 2017 a recommended and prescribed solution for vaginal pain can be a numbing cream which prevents women from feeling anything, to the point it may even cause a woman to ‘split’ and inflict physical damage, for the sake of male pleasure. Female sexuality has become shrouded and saturated by misogyny and old-fashioned messages, resting on the premise that: sex is not for women. This is extremely disheartening to hear as a woman seeking help, especially when my primary motivation was as natural as wanting to enjoy my sex life, not to please anyone else.
Now that I am older, more confident and more assertive, I have learnt to talk about my issue. I now have a supportive network of friends, of different genders, who I do not shy away from talking about this with. Almost every person that I have ever mentioned it to knows someone who has a similar problem. Practically every sexual partner that I have told has had an ex-partner with similar symptoms. It’s heartening to hear from women that I have been friends with for years who, inspired by my openness, have suddenly spoken out about their issues and sought help too. They didn’t want to admit to themselves that they had similar problems, but are now comfortable because I spoke up about getting help. They also went to talk to their GPs and other professionals who are trained to shed light on the anatomy of the female body and genitalia. Above I have included an explanation of my experiences with medical professionals in detail because of the negative impact they have had on me and I want to make people aware. However, it is also important to note that I have also been consulted by brilliant gynaecologists who have made me feel less strange. Some have made me feel so comfortable and relaxed to the point I have laughed out loud during check-ups. I have been seen by gentle and patient physiotherapists who have helped me understand the muscles in my vagina and surrounding area. There are some excellent doctors, nurses and therapists out there. The detailed inclusion of my negative experiences is not to dishearten anyone, but to demonstrate how sexism can directly infringe on the health of women, and how we still have room to improve here.
For me, the best thing that has come out of seeking help is finding my current ‘vagina therapist’, as I like to call her. She is absolutely brilliant, and it is great that I can discuss my frustrations with her. It is thanks to her that things are getting better for me. She has helped me tick off every single possible diagnosis, and I have been able to discuss the different solutions and options available with her. She has encouraged me to get out there, to pursue the sexual relationships I want and to be more honest and less ashamed about my issue. It really does go to show the importance of honest and transparent conversations in relation to personal issues and women’s issues.
I had reservations going into this essay because of how personal this experience has been. There is an inherent loneliness in feeling vaginal pain because hardly anyone is talking about it. Addressing a wide audience felt intimidating and has forced me out of my comfort zone, but it is for that very reason I have laid out my experience in the hope it will help more women; to ask for help, to question that help, to access options, to not ignore their bodies or desires, to tell their sexual partners, to tell their friends, and to not feel bogged down with shame. I wanted to speak about it for the sake of women with vaginas. Women should not be ashamed or scared of their own bodies, nor should they let misleading advice and messages, whether that be from medical 'authority' or anywhere else, lead you to believe you do not deserve access to your own bodily autonomy and a pleasurable sex life.Thanks to my therapist, and because I actively sought out help, I have learnt better ways of approaching the issue with new partners and I feel less ashamed about my condition. Because of this new confidence, things are so much better for me now. My sex life has finally become enjoyable and satisfying, even though it is still not completely painless. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a light shining bright at the end of the tunnel. There is help out there. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right people, but please do not give up. I did not, and now I am happier than ever. Believe in yourself, and believe in your vagina!
This essay seeks to analyse the romantic evolution of a figure we all know - the Disney Princess.
The Disney Princess Phenomenology has captivated the world since the introduction of Snow White in 1937 and continues to hold audiences enthralled. This essay will discuss how The Walt Disney Company manipulated this infamous figure to convey its patriarchal paradigm of romantic love to an emotionally underdeveloped, pre-adolescent demographic.The Disney Princess is symbolic and illuminates the position of women in love within very specific time periods. From the birth of the ubiquitous Disney fairytale and the Disney Renaissance to the contemporary Disney Revival period, there is a lot to learn, and unlearn, about womanhood and romance.
Someday my prince will come…
Laurie Essig’s 2014 TEDXVienna talk, ‘Love Inc. - How Romance and Capitalism Could Destroy Our Future’ exposed some uncomfortable truths. She boldly declared, “we all dream about marrying a prince” and that, “we believe romance will get us to a better future,” because from a young and impressionable age we have been culturally homogenised. And the blame, according to Essig, can largely be directed towards The Walt Disney Company.
Disney Princesses do dream. Yet, in adulthood, I now realise that their scope of dreaming was narrowed, based on one principle aspiration; to fall in love with a Prince. Snow White dreamed that, “someday [her] prince will come”, Cinderella posited that “a dream is a wish your heart makes” and Aurora had already met Prince Philip “once upon a dream.”
The romanticisation of dreams is more sinister than it initially appears. For Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, love is not something which adds to their stories but, quite the contrary, it defines them. Love in these features is a means of escape from the suffering and isolation they endure from one dominant figure - the older woman.
The “little” and “lovely” Snow White is punished by her “vain” stepmother, the Evil Queen, simply because she is deemed more beautiful. The “gentle” and “kind” Cinderella is stripped of her wealth and position by her Wicked Stepmother. Aurora is cursed by Maleficent and is subsequently forced to spend her life confined within a woodland cottage. The fact that these narratives were transferred by Disney between 1937 and 1959 illuminates the social representation of women in these periods. Society confined women within two polarising stereotypes: the young and beautiful and the old and cruel, a receptacle of love or an obstacle.
The trope of the older female villain is not the only issue which is engendered by these classic Disney features. The concept of Love itself is manufactured by Disney into a product which can be immediately obtained. The narratives follow the same arc: a beautiful young woman dreams of love and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, she has found her prince and regained her social position.
Ironically, the Disney romance narrative is as fragile and transparent as Cinderella’s glass slipper. Aurora, “the maid who won [Philip’s] heart but yesterday”, is awoken by his ‘true love’s kiss’ - despite knowing him a mere 24 hours. The spoken word poet FreeQuency took issue with this particular plot device in ‘The Princess Poem’, questioning how Disney could convey this narrative as “romantic”, “consenting” or “future husband material” to young female viewers.
Disney romantic features are deemed ‘safe’ by parents but for young girls this representation of safe is wholly misogynistic. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty do not portray women who actively pursue their dreams. Instead the heroics are conducted by other figures such as dwarves, old lady fairies and various anthropomorphised domestic animals; unconventional figures who simultaneously heighten both the princesses’ attractiveness and helplessness. The overarching consensus connoted by these classics is this: a woman’s dream should exclusively be for men and ultimately won by them.If I do marry, I want it to be for love…
Sleeping Beauty, after poor commercial success, heralded the end of the traditional Disney Princess phenomenon and it would be 30 years before we would meet another. Between 1959 and 1989 second-wave feminism had incited a global conversation concerning the social, cultural, political and economic position of women. In this period of volatility there was no place for another rendition of a homemaking princess.
Although the Walt Disney Corporation experienced severe financial losses in the 1980s they sensed, as the second-wave feminist movement was supplanted by the third-wave, that there was a space in the market for a reinvigorated romantic feature. Thus, the company instigated a new era of filmmaking - the Disney Renaissance.The Little Mermaid was both a critical and commercial success, winning the hearts of young girls everywhere and increasing the company’s profits by 35%. Yet, Ariel does not signal Disney’s departure from the insidiously patriarchal narratives of the classics. Yes, she was a much more active character than her predecessors but, within the realm of romance, Ariel becomes even more restricted, sacrificing her means of communication, her angelic, unmistakable voice, to gain the love of a man she barely knows.
This narrative twist strengthens the troubling notion that love is an emotion which is sourced in aesthetics. The implications of Ariel giving up her voice are complex and multifarious, especially for the Disney demographic - one cannot help but infer that the feature is celebrating and condoning a woman’s sacrifice of self.
Technically the Disney Renaissance began in 1989 but I propose that the release of Beauty and the Beast in 1991 shifted the parameters of the Disney Princess identity. Belle, like her counterparts, is a much-lauded beauty who lives an isolated existence but there are fundamental differences. Belle was the first Disney heroine to reject a suitor, the odious Gaston, and remained true to her passion for literature and dream for more than a “provincial life.”
With Beauty and the Beast, Disney also (marginally) recodified their depiction of romantic love. Rather than the immediate, love at first sight variety, the romance between Belle and the Beast flourishes slowly as they come to know and understand each other. This romance has, by its very nature, divided critical opinion. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, wrote to The Huffington Post saying that “the idea that the right woman can ‘tame’ a beastly, abusive, troubled man and turn him into a prince” is a troubling message for young girls to be exposed to, not to mention the allegations that Belle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and has become complicit in bestiality.
As third-wave feminism gained momentum it became clear that the Disney Renaissance had a lot to answer for. Third-wave feminists denounced the exclusionary rhetoric of the preceding wave; they wanted feminism to incorporate issues of race, class and sexuality, issues which had largely been ignored by the Walt Disney Corporation.
The introduction of Jasmine in 1992, the heroine of Aladdin, was a positive step both representationally and romantically. Jasmine did not seek love or even dream of it, what she desired was freedom. Jasmine firmly stated “If I do marry, I want it to be for love.” It is the conjunction “if” that is important here; marriage and romance are depicted as options rather than obligations.
Renaissance is defined as a rebirth or renewal and it is towards the end of the Disney Renaissance that the company’s aim comes to fruition. After Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas were sworn into the Disney Princess collective but it is Pocahontas (1995) which, in my opinion, signals a turn from traditionalism.
Pocahontas was, according to Megan Condis, assistant professor of English at Stephen F Austin State University, “a very different type of character in that she isn’t as defined by romantic relationships and she’s a lot more active.” Unlike many other Disney princesses she has a community and takes an active role in governing her tribe. Despite only six years passing between The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas and both being classified as romantic features there are important differences between the two Renaissance films. Pocahontas, unlike Ariel, refuses to sacrifice her character to appease her father, Chief Powhatan, or adopt a “steady” lifestyle.
Nor does Pocahontas alter herself in order to attract John Smith. Rather, she critiques the Western fear of racial difference which John Smith and his company represent. She argues against the accusation that she and her people are “savages” and teaches him their customs and language. Their union, rather than falling into a fairytale category, functions more as a meeting of minds. Pocahontas and John Smith perceive each other as equals which is a unique quality in a Disney feature whose narratives traditionally take place within castles populated with royalty. Love is given a new meaning in Pocahontas; it is not about dreams or prosperity, it becomes a state of peace and acceptance. This romance of equality, however, was never going to achieve a ‘happily ever after.’ Considering that the Disney Renaissance strove to reinvigorate their romance genre it is strange that the first inter-racial romance depicted by Disney is cut short by violence and the fact that the violence was enacted by a white Western character speaks volumes about Disney’s inability to fully eschew their traditional connotations.
Love is an open door…
Classic Disney Princesses and those of the Renaissance period are emblematic of romantic love irrespective of whether they achieved their ‘happily ever after.’ The release of The Princess and the Frog in 2009 is symptomatic of this. The characterisation of Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess, broke countless stereotypes. Tiana was the first princess to inhabit a lower socioeconomic class and the first princess to harbour entrepreneurial dreams. Tiana’s dream becomes sidelined by the narrative as she and Prince Naveen, the self-confessed playboy, begin their adventure as frogs. The message that Disney seems to be espousing is that regardless of exterior appearances love originates from an interior space. This is all well and good until we consider that Prince Naveen needed to become a frog in order to shed his patronising and entitled persona. The character transformation exhibited by Naveen is reminiscent of the titular Beast which, again, seems to suggest that only a very specific kind of woman can salvage a man’s personality. Tiana ultimately decides to sacrifice her dream to remain incarcerated as a frog because her “dream wouldn’t be complete without him.” Far be it from me to question a woman’s life choice but, after waiting 72 years for an African-American woman to join the Disney Princess collective, I find the reactionary narrative arc mildly disheartening.
Although The Princess and the Frog is categorised within the Disney Revival period it’s relationship with romance echoes strongly of the Disney Renaissance. The premise of the Disney Revival period, however, is communicated by Frozen’s Anna when she sings “love is an open door.” The subsequent features produced by The Walt Disney Company, namely Brave (2012) and Frozen (2014), explore the concept of love independent of its romantic connotations. Where the classic Disney narratives posited women against each other the narratives of Merida and Elsa and Anna explore the complicated relationships between women. Brave’s storyline focuses on the consequences of broken female relationships and the importance of rebuilding them; teaching young children that they can respect their mother’s opinions even when they do not agree with them.
Frozen marks another departure from the traditional Disney romance as it’s two leading characters are female sisters who, in various ways, save each other and repair their fraught relationship. Formerly an act of true love was depicted as a romantic kiss of awakening, yet in Frozen, Anna sacrifices her life to save Elsa, which is a much more heroic feat. Although Frozen is not a completely revolutionising Disney feature in that it is not racially diverse in the context of romance, Frozen 2 could prove to be groundbreaking if the rumours of Elsa’s homosexuality prove to be true.
The Disney Princess has had a long and illustrious relationship with romance. She has been wooed, saved, transformed and educated by this most natural of emotions. The Walt Disney Company have spent 79 years, from Snow White to Moana constructing and deconstructing love paradigms to accommodate the societal transformations. The most recent incarnation of the Disney Princess, Moana , is an ode to self-love and self-actualisation. They are flawed and may not always be the role models we believed they were in childhood but they are cultural canvases which we can learn from, and strive to reclaim.
Barbara Kruger’s 1989 silkscreen, 'Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)', has arguably become one of the most iconic pieces of feminist art. Initially intended as a work of protest art for reproductive freedom in 1989, over 27 years later Kruger’s imagery and political message remains relevant: women are still protesting for the security of their reproductive rights.
Kruger’s powerful lettering alludes to the frontline of a combat zone and within the context of the ‘body’, prompts a reflection on a very different kind of war. ‘Your Body is a Battleground ’ is a statement about the fight for reproductive freedom. It highlights the external political decisions, often made by men, that have direct and indirect consequences on the bodies and lives of women. It is a statement about what it means to endure womanhood in a patriarchal society.
In a society which has traditionally controlled the way we think about and treat women’s bodies, the feminist aim concerning reproductive rights is to essentially give women choice. It is the radical notion that women should have access to safe healthcare, accurate information and be treated with respect when being cared for by the professionals who assist and enable them to make decisions about their own bodies.
In recent months I have kept coming back to reflect on Kruger’s work, and her words, and what reproductive freedom entails. The words ‘Your Body is a battleground ’ took a different meaning: I have felt a sort of battle within myself and with my own body, following my experience of miscarriage. It was the saddest experience of my life. I never anticipated it nor did I expect the anger, confusion and guilt I felt afterwards, towards myself and towards those I loved most.
People seem to have no qualms in asking women involved in heterosexual relationships about their reproductive plans. In fact, during my very first day of being married I was asked when my partner and I would start trying for a baby and, from then on, I have been asked if I want children, when and how many, countless times. Interestingly enough though, I have not been asked since my miscarriage. In fact, no one has asked me after the miscarriage if I still want children. So what is it that makes my body public property up until something such as miscarriage happens?
To quote Elizabeth Grotz, ‘some concept of the body is essential to understanding social production, oppression and resistance; and that the body need not, indeed must not be considered merely a biological entity, but can be seen as a socially inscribed, historically marked, physically and interpersonally significant product’. As Grotz’s quote suggests, the body, and I would argue especially the female body in it’s traditional form, has been policed, misunderstood and misrepresented to the point that we do not leave room to adequately discuss the reality of the body and it’s functions, or indeed why we perceive it the way we do.
There is a rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies that leaves a noticeable gap in terms of how we address the reality of women’s issues. Society is still failing to challenge the constraints of ‘taboos’ specific to the female body. The general narrative does not factor in the physical diversity of women’s bodies and bodily experiences, such as: the woman’s pregnant body, the woman’s menstruating body, the woman’s transitioning body, the woman’s aging body, the women’s ‘irregular’ body. This being the case, we leave little room for discussing what happens when women exist outside of the realm of what is deemed ‘socially acceptable’. In particular, the experience of miscarriage becomes alienating because not only is it traumatic, it is not a choice. As a society we place an enormous amount of worth on women as natural maternal pro-creating beings. Miscarriage is a quiet and cruel side effect of nature that shatters this otherwise ‘perfect’ illusion.
The answer and harsh reality is that society is totally ill-equipped to deal with giving women the airtime needed in order to challenge preconceptions and positively change perspectives, and support women through these processes. I have learnt this first hand. Immediately after my body went through miscarriage, I felt a sense of difference and exclusion. I felt ashamed to have been so naïve to the deception of promised motherhood and completely unprepared for anything other than a happy ending. From a feminist perspective, I felt even less in control of my body. It was not my choice or decision but it still happened to me. I felt betrayed by my own self.
The most painful aspect of miscarriage is the silence. To be more specific, this is the silence associated with the first trimester of pregnancy. The cultural practice of keeping the maternal body hidden, unseen and unheard, is a collective coping mechanism adopted to deal with the uncertainty of pregnancy and miscarriage. Reinforced by health professionals, women are advised to remain quiet up until the 12 week mark, after which point it is deemed acceptable to share your news with the world. Following my experience of a miscarriage, I felt cheated by this. I missed out on sharing my happiness, only to have to share my sadness. The closed door approach arguably comes from a place of benevolence, and is advised as a way to protect women because miscarriage is most common during the early stages of pregnancy. However if anything, it can be more damaging. Journalist and author Janet Murray’s recent article, ‘I had a miscarriage. Why can’t we talk about losing a baby?’ for The Guardian revealed 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The statistics show it is common, but creating a etiquette of silence around the higher-risk-of-miscarriage period can result in an unnecessary and avoidable loneliness in the actual experience of it.
The erasure of conversation surrounding miscarriage does not prevent the indignity for women having to inform people about the death of their baby. Women who miscarry still have to go through their loss, but with the addition of social pressure. The social pressure here being not to reveal a reality that is inconvenient to a society that associates a woman’s worth with her fertility. Traditionally, women have been encouraged to remain quiet in regards to their own issues, especially those that challenge the status quo. What this does is create a culture that embeds women’s issues in shame.
Miscarriages, like the entire conversation surrounding reproductivity, require open conversations. This lack of transparency is two-fold, demonstrating not only the dangers of silence for expecting mothers, but also the insufficient research in the area. Government statistics are limited. The current figures are based on the women who are admitted to hospital and don’t account for women who go to their GP or decide not to seek medical assistance. The message is clear, miscarriage, shrouded in secrecy, is not to be talked about. If there is no record, it never happened and therefore doesn’t require acknowledgement of it taking place. But where does this leave the women who have experienced miscarriages - the women who do require and deserve acknowledgement, understanding and space to grieve?
There is almost no serious conversation or consideration surrounding the mental health of pre- and post-natal women and how to adapt our customs in terms of their needs. The effects of society’s dismissal and unwillingness to talk openly about miscarriage is disturbingly highlighted within Murray’s article which discusses a recent study into women’s mental health. After miscarrying, 1 in 5 women were shown to have anxiety levels similar to those attending psychiatric outpatient services. This is evidence enough that we need to relieve women and men of the burden of suffering in silence.
Miscarriage is a feminist issue because it highlights a topic that disproportionately and directly affects women, yet there is almost no sense of urgency surrounding it. Our culture, saturated in misogyny, creates a one-dimensional view of women as ‘baby makers’, then pays little attention to and no time to understand a glitch in the system. Miscarriage is not a choice, it is something which naturally happens to women all over the world. Compare it to a natural malfunction of the traditional male body and instead what you get is extensive research and billions of dollars pumped in, and the result - viagra. When women see no attention being given to the issues that directly relate to them, we can deduct that we live in a society that does not care for or prioritise them. Overall it emits a message that ultimately suggests that women’s body politics are unimportant, which discourages women from stepping forward to give voice to areas of their lives that deserve recognition.
‘Your body is a battleground’ , may not have originally been intended as such, but the work strikes me now as a statement that works well in summarising both the external effects and internal events of the body. In terms of miscarriages, society has created a situation where the distress caused is unprecedented, the expectation is unrealistic and the situation is unequal. The combination of the notion of all women as mothers and the expected behaviours attributed by terms of gender, contribute to and perpetuate the silences surrounding women’s mental health and wellbeing. To quote Kat Banyard, ‘unless a woman can control her sexual, reproductive, and maternal life… her ability to access other fundamental human rights is severely jeopardized. Without this control, women are unable to participate in society as citizens equal to men’.A society that makes women’s bodies the location of conflict; a society that does not take seriously the autonomy of women over their own bodies; a society that does not give women access to safe healthcare and accurate information, leaves little room for protecting women when they go through bodily battles out of their control. It is as important as ever that we fight for our bodies, by speaking out and not being silenced by the fear of being criticised or marred for doing so. In order to progress as a community we must provide platforms to talk about miscarriage in order to destabilise the attitudes not just surrounding miscarriage itself, but mental wellbeing and feminist politics in general. Whilst some battles may be lost, we must take every small step forward as a victory to enable women to win the war and change how society views women, talks about us and ultimately treats us.
I am a chronically anxious person. There have been very few events in my life that have been completely spontaneous - despite my best efforts to be carefree, I am an obsessive public transport coordinator, a maker of lists and agendas, a persistent worrier about all things uncertain. If I am visiting a place I’ve never been before, I’ve already made a multi-page personal guide complete with headings and hyperlinks. My decisions come with a great deal of forethought, for better or for worse, and the people in my life know this about me. So why, when I came out as bisexual, did so many loved ones respond as if I hadn’t thought it through?
“Are you sure?” was a common refrain when I initially put forward that the idea I was bisexual, betraying myself with tentative qualifiers like “might be” and “I think”. Given that I had come of age in circles where many people either already identified as LGBTQ+ or came out as such later on, I hadn’t thought that coming out to the people I knew would be a particularly big deal. While it was true that in outright saying I was bisexual, I was expressing something new to their ears, I had thought that it would be obvious from my earnest awkwardness and prior interests that it wasn’t the first time I was considering the prospect - as all queer people know, there is long and sometimes insurmountable journey between realising something in yourself and allowing the people in your life to share in it. You don’t trot these thoughts out half-formed, like mentioning that you’re thinking of taking up yoga or trying to go vegan for a bit. If you’ve ever asked someone this in their moment of leaving the closet, understand though your intentions may not be bad, it’s insulting to suggest someone might be mistaken about their sexuality. It’s virtually guaranteed that they’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it than you ever have.
“Aren’t we all?” a number of people remarked, some of them straight and some of them not. In alternative circles and elsewhere, there is some social capital to be found in being openly sexually adventurous, but only in particular ways. To be bisexual and monogamous, to specify ‘bisexual’ as a label, to refuse to give details, to want to talk about your sexuality but not your sex - all of these have been taken as signs that I am not radical enough to deserve my orientation. It was frustrating that it seemed straight people into BDSM could be taken more seriously than me in their “queerness”, but not unsurprising - in some minds, there is no real structural difference between people with non-straight sexualities and people who have unusual sexual tastes, a fairly telling lack of distinction.
“When’s the threesome?” my straight male friends smirked, many of them leftists whose self-perceived sexual liberalism generously extended to an enthusiastic tolerance of girl-on-girl action. I suppose they thought they were being funny, too open-minded and revolutionary to consider themselves part of a larger problem, but the fact they read queer theory and had gay friends wasn’t enough to take the sleazy sting out of their words. I let it slide - I already had a reputation for being an uptight feminist killjoy - but there’s a specific sinking feeling to sharing something intimate with a friend and seeing porn credits light up their eyes. Anyone who has ever tried to come out and been met with sexual questioning can attest to that particular humiliation of having a vulnerable confession recontextualised as a titillating peek into your bedroom.
To each of these disappointing responses, I chose the path of least resistance: I compromised myself and didn’t speak up in order to minimise confrontation and keep the relationships intact. No one I had come out to had really made their comments with malice (though the question from one family member about whether my current relationship was a sham felt unnecessarily hurtful), and since I had been anxiously imagining outright rejection or burned bridges, it seemed only right to take what I could get. In some ways, I believed that since I was coming from a fairly privileged position, semi-publicly coming out as bi within the protective framework of a supportive long-term relationship with a man, it would be churlish and ungrateful to push my luck in asking for more. Instead, I smiled, cringed, dodged awkward questions and meekly stuck to my original message - my intention, failing actual acceptance and support, was to not have to have these conversations again. With most of these people, I will never really be able to have constructive, honest discussions about how their reactions and their biphobic implications made me feel, much less explain how admitting my sexuality has allowed me to transition into a more positive place in terms of gender and self-image. It’s not that I don’t want to do the work to make them understand - it’s just that navigating their discomfort and obliviousness comes at too high a price to my personal well being. I cannot explain my sexuality with the chipper detachment of an ally, no matter how privileged I may be; when you tell me you don’t understand bisexuality and disregard my coming out moment, it hurts.
The thing about anxiety is that is colours your world with doubt. I already move through life obsessing about the things I can’t confirm, no matter how ridiculous they seem - did I lock the door, will everybody at this party hate me, is my boyfriend dead or just not responding to texts? It doesn’t take much to knock me off my balance and send me spinning through an nonstop maze of self-questioning and confusion. This in itself was one reason why it took me years of guilty wondering and lurking suspicions to start thinking about perhaps being bisexual. Having been a depressed kid who had already felt variously accused of attention-seeking behavior by peers and authority figures, including medical professionals, I didn’t want to openly explore something that would probably be scorned as yet another histrionic teenage announcement. With anxious thoughts come a rush of nerves and guilt that your worst fears might be true, that you’re a terrible, fraudulent person and everyone around you agrees, and after it took me so long to come to terms with being bi on my own, I wasn’t prepared to have that fragile sense of self shattered by other people’s tactlessness and inability to understand. My energy for combatting bisexual agnosticism was already taken up by my own insecurities, with none leftover for external fights. In failing to stand up for myself in the face of biphobic responses, I felt as if I had been largely unsuccessful in my efforts to make myself heard, but gnawing self-doubt already goes hand-in-hand with bisexuality and anxious tendencies; I didn’t need the people I loved to make it worse.
Imposter syndrome is an age-old problem in the Great Bisexual Experience. People have all kinds of theories to explain their confusion at the unknown, suggesting that you’re a bored straight girl, a closeted gay man, unable to pick a side, inherently promiscuous or simply fictitious, a persistent set of indecisive tropes that Sheri Eisner, author of Bi: Notes on a Bisexual Revolution, puts down to the “social anxiety of identity instability, as well as fear of change.” Eisner largely points to heterosexual society for perpetuating this stereotype, but even the most resilient among us are not immune to internalizing some of these ideas, particularly as they are often replicated in queer circles as well as straight. Throw in an overpowering sense of generalized anxiety and lack of confidence in your identity, and it’s easy to see why so many bisexual people choose to quietly endure varying levels of biphobia from people around them rather than enter into conflict; nobody likes to make themselves the focus of a debate, particularly not one about whether or not you are valid.
In this sense, compromise is a survival technique - not the best one, not the most radical or the most effective for long-term positive interactions, but a means of getting by until you have the strength and confidence to push back on questions regarding your identity. It’s definitely not an option for all queer people, and on the societal level, the benefits of passing as straight undoubtedly remove me from virtually all social and material challenges that other LGBTQ+ people face on a daily basis. But it is still not morally wrong to feel as if being made to rely on an easy, misfitting label of heterosexuality to sustain your interpersonal relationships is an unwanted trade-off. Compromise should be beneficial to both parties, but when you turn to your nearest and dearest to offer a deeper understanding into who you are and are met halfway with biphobia and skeptical inquisitions, it’s hard not to feel like you got a bad deal.
Now that I am older and elsewhere, I’m a little more assertive in my interactions and have access to a large LGBTQ+ community that can offer me some of the specific support and solidarity that I haven’t necessarily been able to find outside of other bi women. I help organize a queer book fair and am extremely vague about it with more conservative members of my family, passing between what the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project describes as the “uncharted territory between traditional heterosexual society and radical gay culture.” While I am not a believer in a gender binary, there is an ironic poetic symmetry in the double-sided imagery involved in being an anxious bisexual - I frequently feel somewhat half-hearted and between worlds, both in the closet and out, perceived as two-faced and duplicitous in my presentation and attractions.
Not all bisexuals share my precise personal anxieties, but bi people, like all members of the LGBTQ+ community, tend to have particularly high rates of mental health issues compared to the general public. Although it is difficult to compare statistics across LGBTQ+ populations due to different sets of barriers, unclear category groupings and varying ability to collect accurate data, the Open University's bisexuality report to advise UK LGBT policy suggests a strong link between the increased prevalence of mental health problems in the bi community, biphobia and a lack of community. Many people don’t have the freedom or energy to ignore biphobia or homophobia in their interpersonal relationships, and I appreciate that my ability to compromise is a choice made out of a desire to stay comfortable. Still, it is not a bad thing to have gotten to a place where I have the internal assurance that I deserved a warmer reception from some of my friends and family than bemusement or jokes at my expense. It is a problem that straight people simply don’t have to deal with, unaware of how difficult it is to settle for less when it comes to talking about your identity. While I engage with a wider queer community and work on my anxiety, I know that the people who disappointed me won’t necessarily be falling over themselves to read up on bisexuality on my behalf. Though in an ideal world, I might have come out as bisexual to validation and support, I hope that I will get to a place where I feel more comfortable asserting my identity in public, and refuse, anymore, to compromise.
Sheri Eisner, Bi: Notes on a Bisexual Revolution
Tina Gianoulis, 'Passing' from the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project
Open University, The Bisexuality Report: Bisexual inclusion in LGBT equality and diversity
There are two types of relationships: those that stay together, and those that don’t. This is a simple breakdown used merely to present a practical analysis of love, and I mean no offence by it. My experience of love and heartbreak exists as ‘boy-meets-girl’. This is not the sole focus of this essay, but presents a key starting point as discussion into men asserting privilege and patriarchy, and forcing vulnerability and victimisation upon women.
A patriarchal society protects male privilege by definition of its purpose – this is to preserve the social, political and economical advantages of men. This essay seeks to unpack male privilege and male entitlement. I can only speak on behalf of my own heteronormative experiences, but hope that it may still offer solace and sense to others that exist outside of this realm as well as those within it. I will breakdown my experience of male entitlement and male privilege in an attempt to relay the serious ramifications both hold on women within the territory of love and relationships. This is an investigation into the unfair victimhood of women as a direct by-product of a sexist society. Please note that this essay will not present the victimhood of women through physical violence, nor does it mean to speak on behalf of women survivors of domestic abuse. With regard to this essay, ‘victimhood’ depicts the subjugation of women in terms of ‘the woman victim ex-girlfriend', ‘the irrational woman’and ‘the psycho woman’. This will be investigated alongside the consequences of male entitlement, as demonstrated within the male-centric narratives of, ‘I’m going to speak to her because I want to’ and, ‘that woman that must have a boyfriend, that’s why she’s not interested’.
My friend recently remarked how the ‘goal of patriarchy is to impose death on women’. Severe, yes, but for the purpose of this essay I seek to discuss a less literal sense of ‘death’. Instead, I present readers with the victimhood of women as a consequence of male asserted privilege in relationships, in break-ups and in bars. Existing as varying degrees of emotional abuse and/or manipulation, there are many hidden effects of privilege before we reach the ‘death’ mentioned above. Discussions into sexism are becoming more open in terms of campaigning for equality in the workplace and for fairer pay, however these are not the only examples of patriarchal privileges. A big part of everyday sexism still needs to be demystified, especially within love and relationships.
Misogyny in love is often a more subtle male privilege but it does exist. An ‘in between’ issue of life and death in the grand fight of sexism, it is the soft underside of society’s concern - vulnerable and prone to emotional scarring, but the pain inflicted is not considered enough to warrant change. My most recent example of this is being broken up with and unwittingly, yet still unwillingly, undertaking the role of ‘heartbroken woman’.
There was no choice in the matter. Seemingly ‘heartbroken’ I had become the feeble, victim woman. The language people used, ex-boyfriend included, when asking about the ended relationship placed me in an inferior position and came loaded with assumptions that I was not okay. It’s difficult to make sense of a relationship that has just ended, more so with the added frustration of having to undertake the gender-specific, subordinate role of being ‘broken’ or weak. My frustrations grew as I asked myself, ‘is he getting made to feel this way too?’
Sexism is built on taking space from women. If you are a woman, people will speak on your behalf and this occurs in many different forms. Male entitlement and privilege have become intertwined with women’s vulnerability, so much so that as a woman you are designated a role to reflect this lower standing, both in and out of love. Ultimately this is a translation into an unfair classification of your feelings. Maybe you weren’t ‘heartbroken’ but instead labeled crazy, irrational, psychotic or jealous? These diminishing stereotypes impose victimhood and vulnerability on women. Written off, you are unable to express yourself without being categorised. What I mean to say is this: it’s okay to feel feelings but it’s not okay for others to dictate what those feelings are. Men have been given the privilege to feel, act and do certain things that a woman can’t, and as a result leave situations unscathed of judgement.
Male entitlement is dangerous and is based on the assumption that you, a man, deserve something regardless of another person, more often than not, a woman. It is favouring your position over another. It is an inherent selfishness which, again, exists in varying degrees. Male entitlement has pervaded social situations amongst male and female interactions in the form of rape jokes, unfair judgement of overtly sexual women that isn’t imposed on men, and unwanted physical contact. Society is constantly excusing the misogynist behaviour of men and, because of this, makes the patriarchy of love and romance all encompassing. There are many examples of this, but for the purpose of this piece I’d like to focus on men coming onto women in bars.
Women are often approached in bars (and parks and streets and cafes) by men and, more often than not, men do not take no for an answer. It can often start with a simple, ‘can I get you a drink?’ to more a rude persistence, often met with awkward and uncomfortable eye-rolling between women friends, ‘not this again’, to much more serious cases of being made to feel unnerved or scared. Please note that I do not intend to deter men from offering to buy women drinks in bars or to demean women that accept them – the issue here is how a man acts when his advances are deflected and at what point he responds to ‘no’.
Men are protected by their entitlement. Physical contact is performed without consent and women are expected to graciously accept compliments in the street, feel comfortable with lingering hands resting on their arms, legs, neck and small of their back, and to accept drinks offered to them in bars. Without even venturing into rape and sexual violence committed against women, ‘no’ has lost its forcefulness as men remain shielded by their entitlement. The sheer audacity of entitlement doesn’t end there. Male privilege and entitlement has reached new, extended parameters: ‘no’ doesn’t register with a man until you claim to be taken by another man – you must have a boyfriend, that’s the only possible reason for you to reject their advances. Only now will they back away and seek out someone else.
The purpose of this piece has been to talk about those everyday, grey areas between life and ‘death of women’ in patriarchy. Love and relationships are stressful realms to navigate. The ideas presented in this piece may be subject to less public concern than more traditional, blatant forms of sexism however they still present valid concerns and deserve recognition. As a woman and feminist I spend most days learning to pick my battles against sexism, but I find that the most effective way to inspire change is dialogue, and this extends to less public-facing topics too.
Outside of my own personal examples, let’s speak more broadly. It’s horrible that a monster like Trump is President of America, a man that condones the sexual abuse of women. The only small comfort is that I don’t personally know any Trump supporters, but we must acknowledge that this man epitomises the 2017 pinnacle of male entitlement and privilege. He sits on a sliding scale that has permitted him to degrade women through morally repugnant behaviour, language and actions. We must ask ourselves, how did he start? At what point did he become so entitled and how has be been awarded this privilege that is beyond rebuke? I have reached my tipping point. The feminism that I prescribe to demands fairer representation in life and love, and now they are inescapably intertwined because deeply-rooted patriarchy has made it so. If you are a man and think Trump’s behaviour isn’t acceptable, please also reflect on how you treat and assert yourself on women too, in all aspects of life, love and relationships.
The unjust treatment of women exists in many different forms. The victimhood and victimisation of women preys on women as the weaker, lower sex. This essay has presented the sliding scale of male entitlement and privilege and it’s impact on women in the area of love. Male entitlement and privilege protect men from demonstrating proper, fair etiquette in bars, relationships and break-ups, right up to becoming the President of the United States of America. It absolves them from judgement and criticism. Speaking on behalf of the Heartbroken Woman, the Irrational Woman and the Psycho Woman, the subjugation of women is especially manipulative when carried out within the perplexing and emotionally-loaded realm of love. These examples sought to reveal the tremendous impact that male privilege and entitlement have on wider society. Feminism campaigns for a level playing field. Sexism does not just exist in the form of unequal pay, catcalling and gender stereotypes, but has become so ingrained in society that it pervades our closest and most intimate relationships.So, the next time you think you know how a woman is feeling or what a woman wants, please think about who is telling you this information. Because if it isn’t her, you, like men in power and like many men in bars, are getting it all wrong.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, paraphrased
I know you've never loved the sound of your voice on tape
You never want to know how much you weigh,
You still have to squeeze into your jeans
But you're perfect to me
One Direction, Little Things
Boybands, uniquely in popular music, are overwhelmingly consumed by women and girls despite the fact that that demographic is barely represented in the creation of their product. From songwriting to management and performance, it is mostly men trying to appeal to an audience of women. Arguably the three bands with the most vocal and ardent UK female fandoms have been The Beatles, Take That, and One Direction, and through them we can see band and follower relationships which move from adulation to romanticism, to symbiosis. Let’s examine how these three bands in particular have managed their respective relationships with their audience of women and girls. I’ll be looking at this in three ways: 1) Public opinion from the perspective of boybands and their approach to female fans 2) Public opinion of boyband fans in the media 3) Boyband fans’ opinions and reflections upon themselves as fans.And I Love Her - Trading off Chastity for Loyalty
Despite male musicians being objects of affection, the image of the lothario pop star who is beset by groupies sits uneasily beside that of the ideal romantic partner. And just as male celebrities have often been encouraged to play down, or just plain lie about their relationship statuses, it is in the interests of pop stars with a majority female audience to show respect and gratitude for their fans in interviews - to the point where there is an almost unsettlingly anodyne response from almost every interview where boyband members are asked about their fans. Trawl The Beatles interview archives and you will find from Sydney to Singapore they are asked by interviewers what they think of the local girls, and the answer comes back invariably as ‘they’re very nice’.
Most young men are subjected to at least a measure of behavioural censure by family, wider society, or institutions, but boyband members are set apart from this, sent on tour as teenagers without parental supervision and introduced to a lifestyle where their needs are met at every turn. It’s inconceivable that they would not have multiple sexual partners. Mark Owen recently confessed to having ten affairs during his current marriage, including one which lasted a number of years. Yet there is barely any inference of this behaviour in their lyrics. Contrast this to the young men who perform in the hip hop and R’n’B genres - whose lyrics can be explicit in their details of sexual conquest, because their audience is perceived as male. While they are bragging about their sexual exploits with the boys in the locker room, the boybands are texting their girlfriends telling them they stayed in all night because they missed them too much. And the women listeners wouldn’t have it any other way. The way that boybands are consumed as a form of escapism by women would not work if they were hearing about how many girls their idols slept with last week.
The direct form of address which is used in songs written to appeal to women and girls enables the listener to place themselves at the centre of the male singer’s attention. The centre of their love and affection. Even in the few songs which use direct address and also have negative sentiments, it is easy for the listener to interpret this as the boy talking to the ‘other woman’, the love rival or the one who has hurt him in the past. These songs which direct negativity at a female subject are so few and far between that rather than alienate the girls listening, they represent another way of raising her up, by drawing a favourable comparison. But they can be manipulative in a way that subtly dictates to women how they should behave if they want to be a ‘good’ girlfriend. Take One Direction’s Back For You from their 2012 album Take Me Home in which the girl is told to still hang around waiting even though her pop star boyfriend is jetting all over the world.
I've never been so into somebody before
And every time we both touch I only want more
So tell me nothing's gonna change yeah
And you won't ever walk away, yeah
Cause even though every night you'll know what I'll say -Goodbye.
In a 2016 interview for Another Man
magazine, Paul McCartney and Harry Styles are asked, “What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever done to get your attention?” Paul, very much post Beatles at this point, gleefully recounts the time a Playboy Bunny broke into their hotel room. Harry, still very much under the watchful eye of PR people even during the band’s hiatus, or perhaps genuinely protective of their fans, ignores the question completely. One Direction’s respect for women is being well adhered to. When asked if they ever called ‘dibs’ on their throngs of female admirers, Styles replied, “We feel like that objectifies women and that’s not what we’re about”. In an interview with GQ
when the topic of porn comes up, Niall Horan and Liam Payne respectively describe it as ‘objectifying’ and ‘derogatory’.
Perhaps the self-described feminist ideals of One Direction are a cunning PR ruse. Or perhaps they’re genuine? This band, after all, has a lot to be grateful for. One Direction more than any other boyband, owe their existence, their fame, and their riches, almost entirely to the guerilla marketing done by fans online. The early days of all three bands have been well documented; The Beatles dogged it for three shows a day in the Hamburg red light district; Gary Barlow’s demo tape was discovered by Nigel Martin Smith who happened to be manufacturing a boyband at the time. But One Direction may well have followed in the less than auspicious footsteps of others X Factor runners-up, if it weren’t for the fact that Twitter went from 18 million active users in 2009 to 54 million by the time 1D appeared on X Factor. The female fans understood Twitter, and used it to great effect to promote the band at every opportunity. They made One Direction using their phones and keyboards, and the band continually spin a line of worshipful gratitude and humility in their interactions with fans, ensuring their continued support.
How Deep Is Your Love? - Media Criticism of the Female Pop Fan
“Anyone else absolutely sick of seeing the worldwide trends consistently clogged up with bollocks relating to One Direction? It is incredibly rare to look at the trends and not see either "Harry" "Liam" "Louis" "Niall" "Zayn" "1D" "Directioners" etc somewhere in there. I can understand and tolerate things like "Congratulations 1D" if they get a number one or something, but when things like "Morning Zayn" trend when Zayn tweets good morning, or "#lastchancetocallonedirectionallteenagers (genuinely, this trended yesterday) start trending EVERY ****ING DAY it really pisses me off!”
Digital Spy forums, December 2011The representation of female fans of male pop stars in the media often takes this tone of irritation and intolerance. A writer in Berlin described fans’ frenzy as “a depressing sign of the stupidity, the insensitivity, and the aesthetic emptiness of the public”. It was 1842 and he was describing fans of Liszt. Journalist Paul Johnson infamously described screaming Beatles fans as “the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures”. The fans were not taken seriously, as in this comment from The Nation about The Beatles show at Carnegie Hall in 1964.
Even more startling to the male music commentators of the time was the primal nature of the girls’ love for the band. They screamed, yelled, climbed fences, charged the stage, broke the law. They acted like men do at football matches, but they did it in mini skirts and eyeliner. Female football fans are often accused of supporting a team only because they’re attracted to the players, and similarly we have the trope of the ‘Fake Geek Girl’, who doesn’t really like comic books but just wears her Batman t-shirt to get boys’ attention. Their love is dismissed because it is ‘polluted’ by lust, and therefore is invalid. This perhaps says more about how men experience love than women. In saying that being sexually attracted to someone negates any true appreciation of their more complex self, methinks the gentlemen doth protest too much. But still, the idea persists. Female Beatles fans have been sidelined because they both loved and lusted. The Beatles, having proven themselves to music critics to be a serious band, have been quietly moved away from women, and now if you are after a Beatles ‘expert’ for your documentary talking head, you can only choose from a number of men.
When Take That gave a 1996 press conference announcing they were splitting up, a journalist asked if they would be providing any kind of counselling to the throngs of girls who would be devastated at the news, to which the band replied in the affirmative, taking the comment seriously. Soon all of the news networks were running with the line that The Samaritans were setting up a special Take That hotline for despairing fans, which parsed their reactions to the split within mental illness. However, there is no evidence that a specific helpline was ever set up, though the general Samaritans number was printed in Smash Hits magazine’s Take That split special. The idea that female fans are so fragile and would require specialised pastoral help if their favourite pop group split was certainly a great publicity stunt, but the fact that this myth has persisted, even in the information age, says a lot about how easy it was to accept this story as fact. Even so, Take That fans have escaped any real grilling about their obsession, with virtually no articles, documentaries, or even mentions in prominent books on fandom. It seems the real ire about female pop fans was being reserved for a worldwide phenomenon.A one hour documentary, Crazy About One Direction, was produced in 2013 as the band’s third album was released. The laughably po-faced documentary fails miserably at understanding the tone of the fans’ ardour. In an almost exclusively teenaged female arena, the discourse is marked by hyperbole, language disruption, one-upmanship and real dry humour which seems lost on those outside looking in. Flashing up various images of One Direction photoshopped to be overweight, toothless, or ginger, the doc describes these dryly as ‘fantasies’ when they are clearly jokes. It cannot seem to rationalise such a young group of women as being funny and creative, and instead takes every comment or action as profoundly serious, eliminating any light and shade from their group discourse and relegating them to the level of the hysterical mob. As with the Beatles’ fans, the fact that they lust after One Direction, means they are not taken seriously as critics. Try to find a review of One Direction’s last album in the ‘serious’ music press - the NME, Billboard, Spin, Rolling Stone, which is written by a woman. I’ll save you time, there isn’t one. The closest we get is Tshepo Mokoena in The Guardian. It’s almost as if editors decided that a woman writing about One Direction might be dismissed as being in love with them if she rated the album highly…
Something which can still be learned from Crazy About One Direction, is that if women fans love the bands they follow, they perhaps love each other even more. Linda Ihle, who was 13 when she first saw The Beatles at the infamously loud Shea Stadium show, told Dorian Lynskey;
"You're not by yourself. Individually, teenagers are isolated and worried and scared all the time of whether or not they're doing the right things and wearing the right clothes, but everybody liked The Beatles so everybody was equal. It didn't matter what your clothes were or where your parents worked; we were all in it together."
In one of my favourite pieces of writing about fandom ever, Tumblr user ‘buttercreamdicks’ said this about 1D fans at their shows in 2015;
“I liked the shows I went to. But the thing I remember is the girls. At the Meadowlands they turned the men’s rooms into ladies’ rooms, just hung ladies’ room signs over all the men’s room signs. "Oh my god,” I said, walking in. "They turned the men’s rooms into ladies’ rooms, because they knew it was going to be all girls.” "This must be what it’s like to be a guy,” Isabel said. And that’s what I thought, the whole rest of the show, and all of Philadelphia: This must be what it’s like. To be the default. To be treated like what you care about is worthwhile. To not be looked down on, or told what to do. And then I thought, well, it’s because we’re all gathered here, in one place. This is happening. They can’t stop us, so they have to go along with it. In New Jersey, Liam stood on the catwalk talking about how amazing it was that they were playing stadiums, how amazing it was that the fans had done this for them, and then he laughed, like you do when you realized you just hit the heart of something: “I really think if you wanted to, you could take over the world.” I looked away from him, at 82,566 seats filled with girls and thought: You’re right. And you’re the only person telling us that.”
Perhaps there has always been a profound misunderstanding of why girls react to pop bands in the way that they do. The feeling that the writer talks about, of being the default, of being catered to exclusively, is one which groups of young women rarely feel. If empowerment means anything, then it means that sheer numbers, and sheer will, can force society to cater for you. That feeling of a crowd of people, the same gender as you, screaming out in love and excitement and fervour as one, the feeling that I imagine men have at sporting events, is only replicated at concerts, and in the gaze of the boyband. In so many other arenas, women and girls are treated not as equal customers, but as also-rans. With steadily growing respect and recognition as a movement capable of influence, The Beatles might have rolled their eyes and hoped for more boys to show up, but Take That and One Direction catered only for women and girls. Boys in the fandoms are few, far between, and pretty irrelevant.
The changes in opinions of pop fandom since the 1960s have seen fans go on a journey from being seen as screaming hordes of knicker-wetters, to fragile flowers in need of bereavement counselling, to hacker-level obsessives who treat their favourites as prey to be hunted. In reality, they were women and girls who found in them a release from the shackles of respectability, the chance to express themselves loudly and rawly, the chance to be a part of something unerringly positive and fun, and to be part of a group which has shown time and time again, that what you love can take you places you never dreamed you’d go.