This article was originally published on TheVine on 17th October, 2014.
I recently spent a weekend in August listening to international guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, wax lyrical about the “golden age of prestige TV” and its respective “antiheroes”. While we’ve been watching the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites for the past fifteen years it’s time for a new dawn of television where women are the focus, such as Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black and pretty much anything Shonda Rhimes puts her Midas touch to.
One such show that comes to mind is Masters of Sex, the second season finale of which aired on SBS last night. Masters might seem to focus on the man it’s named for, the steely, socially awkward OBGYN, Bill Masters, played by Michael Sheen, but who it’s really concerned with are the women in his life. These include the long-suffering wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose trajectory sees her struggle with the changing attitudes of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the woman her husband is having an affair with: research assistant in Masters’ study of human sexual response, Virginia Johnson, played expertly by Lizzy Caplan. Both Masters and Johnson justify their extramarital activities by being adamant that “it’s for the work”. While nary a facet of Masters isn’t shown to Virginia at some stage or another he recoils from Libby, runs his mother out of town, slut-shames former sex worker cum secretary Betty and Virginia at times, and I don’t think there’s been an instance in which he interacts with his two infant sons. In a scene that echoes Breaking Bad’s “I’m the one who knocks!”, Bill rages at Libby when she confronts him about their money troubles that “I provide the roof!”
Audiences may struggle to reconcile the way Masters treats the women in his personal life with his important medical work, not unlike Don Draper, for example, in the “masculinity masterpieces”—as Nussbaum put it in her presentation at the Writers Festival—of yore.
Masters of Sex is a show that has almost unbelievably advanced attitudes towards sex for the time it’s set and the fictional Masters and Johnson are held up as paragons of progression. At work Masters masquerades as the good, bleeding-heart doctor stuck in the conservative ’50s, as seen when he refuses to perform gender assignment surgery on an intersex baby. Masters similarly declines a teenaged patient’s parents request for her to undergo a hysterectomy to curb her sexual appetite. Careful, Bill, your God complex is showing.
Like Orange is the New Black, a show that follows a wide range of incarcerated women’s lives using a middle-class white woman as the Trojan horse to gain entry into that world, Masters’ focus on a male doctor is a cipher to take a better look at Virginia, Libby et al. in a time when women were viewed as second class citizens. (Some would argue that nothing much as changed.)
Also like OITNB, perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a created by women, not “prickly auteurs and the antiheroes they love”, to borrow yet another line from Nussbaum. A different Emily—this time Emily Tatti, editor of online literary journal Ricochet—tweeted that “You can tell it’s written by women, you just don’t get female characters like that in other shows!”
Showrunner Michelle Ashford explains Masters of Sex’s portrayal of women thusly:
“[In season one] three of our episodes were directed by women, our staff was half women, my producing partner is a woman. A lot of the people that have interviewed us say, ‘Wow, this whole show is run by women.’ We look at each other and think, ‘We didn’t design it that way.’ And that’s actually pretty great.”
The capable, relatable women who are received by audiences as such outnumber the titular Masters. Where Breaking Bad’s Skyler White was eviscerated by armchair commentators for expressing concern over her husband’s drug dealing and the actress that played her subsequently wrote a New York Times op-ed about it, Libby’s “problem that has no name”, for example, is portrayed as empathetic. And Virginia might get around but she is never characterised as wanton to the audience. Other such “strong female characters”, to use the clichéd term, that aren’t so much likeable as they are realistic portrayals of women in the world include How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating, Hannah Horvath of Girls, and any number of the women on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and OITNB.
Masters of Sex is busy ushering in this new era of television that sees antiheroes shift ever so slightly out of the frame and the women who love them—or, in many instances, merely tolerate them—have their time in the spotlight.
Anne Helen Peterson dissects the ultimate family Christmas movie, The Family Stone. What’s your ultimate Christmas movie? Mine have always been the Home Alones (I’m partial to the second one, Lost in New York) (whose haven’t?), the Miracle on 34th Street remake with Mara Wilson and the trashy ridiculousness that is Olivia Newton John in A Mom for Christmas. The plot, for those of you unlucky enough to have never heard of it, is this: Jessica is a motherless girl who wants a mum for Christmas. She makes a wish on a department store wishing well for, you guessed it, a mum for Christmas. Next thing Jessica knows, Amy (Newton John) shows up for the holiday season to act as a housekeeper and babysitter for Jessica and her dad. Plot twist: Amy is a department store mannequin come to life. Hijinks ensue. [LA Review of Books]
This journalist should have written that the Montreal massacre of 25 years ago was an explicit attack on feminists rather than sanitising the crime to make it more palatable to readers. [Ottawa Citizen]
As tensions between police and unarmed people of colour continue in the U.S., here are the 76 unarmed people of colour who’ve been murdered by police in the past 15 years. [Gawker]
Feminist writers of the Aussie and NZ persuasion, including yours truly, are featured as part of the 79th Down Under Feminists Carnival. [Hoyden About Town]
I went as Beyoncé standing in front of the feminist sign at the MTV VMAs to my work Christmas party. Head on over to my Twitter page to check out photos from the night.
My friend, colleague and important disability advocacy worker Stella Young died on the weekend. Below are some of her pieces I have linked to in the past.
And in her piece from Destroy the Joint, Stella insists she’d like to just be allowed in the joint! [ABC Ramp Up]
How to speak to and about people with disabilities. [ABC The Drum]
“The Case Against Peter Singer.” [ABC The Drum]
MamaMia spoke to Stella about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and she also wrote there about the disability pension myth.
I didn’t know Stella Young too well. We worked together for a few years but it wasn’t until she started getting heavily involved in—or I just started noticing on social media—feminism, disability advocacy and social justice in general that we realised we had more in common than we thought. She even commented on this when I bumped into her at a party.
I was quite shocked to get the news of her passing yesterday morning, as it seemed like only a few days before she was live tweeting Four Corners and posting pictures of lunch with friends.
As others, most notably Stella’s good friend, Clementine Ford, have written, Stella wasn’t interested in being your inspiration. (Though when discussing her death at work yesterday, that word was thrown around a bit.)
In addition to me checking the language I use to speak to and about people with disabilities, though, Stella did teach me a few things, whether directly or through her important work. They are:
Make noise about inaccessibility. It’s shocking to come to the realisation that not only are the majority of places and services inaccessible but that most people don’t even think twice about it. For example, Stella spoke at a Melbourne Writers Festival event in 2013 about the book Destroying the Joint. Stella managed to get in the joint but the event started late because it didn’t occur to the organisers that she couldn’t get onto the stage. She told a story of some of the hired help offering to lift her and her chair onto the stage, but she’d long since stopped accepting such assistance. Why should she be made to feel infantilised when the embarrassment should fall to the event organisers?
A few months ago Stella traveled to the U.S. in pursuit of her work (what exactly I wasn’t privy to). I remember seeing something on her Facebook or Twitter about how proactive the U.S. is about accessibility and that returning home to Melbourne made her realise how far behind the eight ball we actually are. I was shocked at this revelation as, looking back on my trip to the U.S. last year, I don’t remember accessibility standing out to me. This proves my above point that so many people for whom accessibility is not an issue are oblivious to it, even those who claim to be allies.
One of the more popular rants Stella went on on social media was about an accessible toilet at a Melbourne bar being used as a storage area. The pressure she and her followers put on the bar (whose name escapes me) saw them making changes almost immediately.
And just a couple of weeks ago, when Stella was live tweeting Four Corners, she influenced the language I use to describe support workers. In my job, I have to interact with support workers quite regularly, whom I’d always referred to as carers. From the point of seeing her tweet onwards, I now call them support workers.
Stella left us with an impressive body of work including comedy stylings and written words in addition to her advocacy. Perhaps most touchingly, her final piece was published recently as part of the book Between Us: Women of Letters. It was a letter to her 80-year-old self.
It’s that time of year again and, in the spirit of tonight’s Reading Hour, I thought I’d tell you what I’ve been reading since last years’ event.
Rookie Yearbooks 1 & 2 by Tavi Gevinson.
I fell in love with Tavi Gevinson at last years’ Melbourne Writers Festival and had to snap up Rookie Yearbook One at the event’s bookstore. The second yearbook I got after visiting the U.S. late last year. They both compile the best of the Rookie website for those who don’t always have the chance to check it out. My favourites were anything by Sady Doyle and Lena Dunham’s interview with Mindy Kaling.
Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger.
My former housemate bought this at a secondhand bookstore in Geelong when we went there for an exhibition and surprised me with it for my birthday. I ended up using some of the intel I gleaned from the book for an article on the dark side of Hollywood that I’m shopping around, and it informed me when I went to the Museum of Death in Los Angeles, to which Kenneth Anger is a benefactor.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.
I read this around the time the second movie came out and I think I enjoyed the big screen version much more than the print one. I liked how the film streamlined much of the at times unnecessary plot additions.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.
Gillian Flynn has fast established herself as one of my favourite writers, and this is not only my favourite book of hers, but also one of my favourites in general. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough. A gritty page-turner that kicks Gone Girl’s ass.
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany.
I was unimpressed by last years’ Stella prize winner.
Inferno by Dan Brown.
I made the mistake of taking this hefty tome on my trip to the U.S., thinking I would get most of it read on the plane but I was still lugging it around for weeks after I returned home. I think because I read it pretty sporadically throughout the trip I didn’t get as into the story as I have with other Brown books. I did like the notions of overpopulation and the need to eradicate part of the population for the greater good of the human race, though.
Well Read Women by Samantha Hahn.
This is more of a picture book than anything with read substance, but I was gifted it in the States for my birthday after having mentioned it months and months before!
Floundering by Romy Ash.
I really enjoyed this debut novel from Ash, which was shortlisted for many a prize upon its release. If you like evocative Australiana in an alternative style, I urge you to pick up Floundering.
The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dominick Dunne.
A sort-of pictorial autobiography of my favourite author that I picked up from New York’s famous Strand bookstore.
Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible on Film by the Museum of Biblical Art.
I couldn’t tell whether this guide to the exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art was propaganda or, as it asserts in its title, a history of the Bible on film. Either way, if you ever have some spare time in Central Parker West, check out the free museum.
How Did You Get This Number? by Sloan Crosley.
Crosley seems to have lost her allure since I last read her work in book form, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a few years ago.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.
What a horror show this was! I primarily read it so I could watch the Lifetime movie of the same name starring Heather Graham and Kiernan Shipka, but I had been wanting to satisfy my curiosity for it for quite a while.
The Family Law by Benjamin Law.
Laugh-out-loud funny as Law always is.
The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle by Mary Lillian Ellison with Larry Platt.
Another one I got in New York at Westsider Rare Books and, as an autobiography of perhaps the most famous—and certainly the longest active—female wrestler, I had to snap it up.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.
This marks the third and final Flynn book I’ve read, and while the colleague I borrowed it from found it boring, I loved it almost as much as Sharp Objects. It features another eleventh-hour plot twist that Flynn has become famous for. Can’t wait to see what her next release will be.
John Belushi is Dead/Hollywood Ending by Kathy Charles.
I’d been wanting to read Hollywood Ending for quite a few years, but little did I know that the book was also published under the title of John Belushi is Dead, so there I was with two copies of the same book and no place to go. It turned out to be a spectacular waste of money as I was sorely disappointed by this narrative.
Tragic Hollywood: Beautiful, Glamorous, Dead by Jackie Ganiy.
This book nicely elaborated on much of what I learned on my visit to the Museum of Death and a Tragical History tour of L.A. but, as a self-published effort, it was riddle with spelling and grammar mistakes and continuity errors.
Audition by Barbara Walters.
While I think Barbara Walters gets kookier and more conservative with age, she was once a pioneer for women in broadcast journalism, and her autobiography was fascinating if, expectedly, long.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
Another one I’d been putting off, but it lived up to the hype. I’m excited to see how the story of the last woman executed in Iceland will play out on the big screen as it has been optioned for film.
2Pac VS. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle by Jeff Weiss & Evan McGarvey.
Didn’t tell me what I didn’t already know about Tupac Shakur, but I’d never really been a Biggie fan, so this book did shed some light on one of rap’s biggest stars.
An Inconvenient Woman by Dominick Dunne.
I picked this up along with Dunne’s autobiography at The Strand, and it was quite enjoyable.
Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin.
I always enjoy Maupin’s stuff, and this marks the likely second-last installment of his Tales of the City saga, in which he revisits his beloved characters from 1970s and ’80s San Francisco in the modern day.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.
You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Joyce Carol Oates, which can be thrilling and disconcerting. I’d have to go with the latter in this instance.
Changed for Good by Stacy Wolf.
Two of my favourite things: feminism and Broadway musicals. For anyone who’s got an interest in either of these things, this is a fascinating look at both, with a particular focus on Wicked, which I went to see for the seventh time on the weekend!
The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss.
Perhaps the Aussie book of the year, Tara Moss can be seen everywhere promoting her latest book—part memoir, part exploration of female tropes and stereotypes—and talking about everything from the Bechdel test to her rape and miscarriage. She writes in accessible terms and makes strong points.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.
This book, a present from my housemate, has been languishing on my to-read pile for three years, so I thought it was high time I see what all the fuss was about. I’d watched the series so I was familiar with the premise and its aftermath, but I was quite taken aback by the misogyny and racism of pretty much all of the characters. Whether that was impeccable storytelling by Tsiolkas or the author’s biases I’m not sure; I guess I’ll have to read more of his work to find out. Next of his on my list: Barracuda.
The First Stone by Helen Garner.
Speaking of ingrained misogyny, Garner attempts to unpack the alleged sexual assault of two female students by a male authority figure at Melbourne University in the 1990s. What she actually ends up with is an out-of-touch, victim-blaming, second-wave VS. third-wave piece of misogyny. I would direct all readers away from this and towards Anna Krien’s Night Games: a much more balanced take on similar events.
Animal People by Charlotte Wood.
I’d been wanting to read this since I saw Charlotte Wood as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and I devoured it in the space of the day. (I was without electricity so there wasn’t much else to do!) Pretty easy reading with a nice juxtaposition between human idiosyncrasies and animal mannerisms.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
I’ve already read this book, but I’m rereading it currently as research for a piece about the upcoming film adaptation. This is the third Flynn book I’ve read in the past year.
What are you reading for the Reading Hour?
Related: The Reading Hour 2013.
Elsewhere: [Rookie] Sady Doyle.
The opening paragraph of disability activist and writer Stella Young’s chapter in the recently released tome Destroying the Joint begins thusly:
“Destroy the joint? Shit, I’d be happy just to be allowed in the joint.”
And on Sunday, when the Melbourne Writers Festival event Destroying the Joint? was held in Deakin Edge at Federation Square, Young might have been able to get in the joint, but she was certainly not able to get on the stage.
While inexcusable on the part of Fed Square and MWF, Young’s imposition did serve to remind us of a very important point: as a disabled woman, she cops a double-whammy of discrimination.
The event started only a few minutes late as organisers scrambled to move the stage to an accessible level, and Young explained that sadly, she’s come to expect things like this. Whereas when she was younger she might have consented to being lifted onto the stage and having a little cry about it, as a disability activist she will not allow ignorance to infantilise her anymore.
I definitely take my able-bodiedness for granted, but I can sort of relate in the sense that as a woman, I’ve come to expect to be harassed when I leave the house. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, to be sure, but it happens far too regularly for my liking. I’m sure many women can empathise.
This is why I will be attending SlutWalk this weekend; to have an opportunity to strut the streets in solidarity with likeminded people who won’t put up with street harassment, victim-blaming, slut-shaming and just plain bigotry and discrimination. Young will also be there as a speaker.
But back to last Sunday’s event, in which a show of hands indicated the amount of people who’ve protested or engaged in activism in some form in the past six months. Young and her fellow panellists, Destroying the Joint editor Jane Caro and author of The Activists’ Handbook Aidan Ricketts, stated the importance of physical protesting, like marching for refugees or marriage equality or attending SlutWalk, as opposed to slacktivism, which movements such as Kony 2012 and Destroy the Joint itself. Young even joked that she fantasises about chaining her wheelchair to a W-class (well, pretty much all except C- and D-class) tram in protest of their inaccessibility.
There has been much maligning of Destroy the Joint, with vocal opponents of it, such as Gretel Killeen and Helen Razer, deriding its angry tone. While I think getting outraged about things you’re passionate about can be useful, Caro asserts that spewing outrage doesn’t work. Young tended more towards my way of thinking, in that outrage as the primary emotion can be moulded into more constructive outlets and avenues: like SlutWalk and Destroy the Joint.
Caro also noted that it’s important to set small goals and always be moving the goalposts. Small aims are easier to reach, engender positivity and allow you to always be setting new victories to achieve.
Related: Hating Kony is Cool.
The coup of the 2013 Melbourne Writers Festival, which kicked off late last week, is undoubtedly 17-year-old blogging wunderkind Tavi Gevinson.
Her keynote address on Friday night at the Athenaeum Theatre sold out in a matter of hours, and we were stuck up the very top, practically in the rafters, which is what we get for arriving nigh on 6pm. Anyone who’s been on the internet in the past five years can see why Tavi is so popular; she’s an anomaly who attended fashion weeks before she was in her teens and now runs one of the best online magazines out there for not only young girls, but people in general, called Rookie. If I can’t be Tavi or have her as a friend, I’d like to know how, as Carrie Bickmore mused on The Project, to make a child like her. She’s got her shit exponentially more together than most adults I know.
Having said that, though, I’ve never been a die-hard Tavi fan. It wasn’t until she launched Rookie and started writing about feminism that I really caught what she was kicking. Her TEDx talk sealed the deal for me.
So apart from what I read on Twitter and in the odd interview, there was much that was new to me in Tavi’s talk. For example, I didn’t realise what a stone cold geek she is. If anyone else revealed they colour-coded Beyonce and Taylor Swift lyrics and made maps of the locations mentioned in Lana Del Rey songs I would have thought them tightly-wound nerds. (This coming from someone who spent hours cataloguing pictures from WWE.com by wrestler, colour-codes her bookshelf, and still stuck pictures of celebrities all over my school books well into university, mind you.) But Tavi has an endearing authenticity (which was a theme that ran through her talk) about being a “professional fangirl”. Her mantra, which I’m now going to adopt, is “let others like stuff the way you like stuff unto you.”
When many kids her age are more concerned with partying and their iPhones, it’s amazing that someone who’s still in high school and runs a business that sees her jetsetting across the world (and road tripping across the country) has time to compile in-depth journals about “Strange Magic” (the synchronicity of a location reminding you of a song reminding you of a memory reminding you of a movie reminding you of another song…) in between utilising her “pop culture tools” (the books, movies, tv shows and music that take her to her happy place; another Tavism I’m stealing).
I am so in awe of Tavi, honestly. It takes so much courage to reveal her fangirl idiosyncrasies to worldwide audiences whilst going through the awkwardness that is adolescence. Again, how do I make one of her…?
Elsewhere: [The Project] Tavi Gevinson.
While I’ve only begun calling myself a feminist in the past few years, I think I’ve always had feminist tendencies: I’ve always believed in reproductive rights, I’ve tried never to judge a woman based on her choices and it’s been instilled in me that, as a woman, I can do and be anything I want to.
A lot of this is thanks to my mum, who is a ’70s bra-burning hippie feminist through and through.
Though recently, as I increasingly immerse myself in current readings of feminism, I see just how far we’ve come, baby, and how the second-wave feminism of my mother’s era is worlds apart from today’s discourse on gender equality.
There have been many debates between second-, third- and fourth-wavers about who did, and is doing, more for the movement.
At a 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival presentation on why we still need feminism, Sophie Cunningham asserted that feminists under 25 can’t really grasp the concept because they’re still young and beautiful and have men falling at their feet. She also observed “a sort of ‘bottleneck’ in modern feminism”, where white, Western feminists aren’t able to incorporate intersectionality into the fold, which was a criticism of SlutWalk, one of latter-day feminism’s most high-profile conquests. Pardon me, but wasn’t it foremother Betty Friedan who was accused of being racist and homophobic with The Feminine Mystique?
Perhaps the most contentious issue is the constant bickering amongst young feminists as to what, exactly, feminism is. You’ve got women undertaking such obviously feminist tasks as Marissa Mayer overseeing Yahoo! and Beyonce nearing total world domination, yet they’re reluctant to call a spade a spade. And the non-feminist media would have you believe there’s infighting going on about who is allowed to be a feminist (definitely not Taylor Swift!).
But, I think, the feminist movement of today would like to believe it’s accessible to all kinds of women (and men): straight, gay, bi, male, female, trans, black, white, mixed-race, rich, poor, able-bodied and non-able-bodied, sex workers, etc. Can second-wave feminism of yesteryear say that?
This divide is illustrated by Germaine Greer’s infamous comments about Julia Gillard’s clothing choices and how they accentuated her apparently undesirable body shape last year on Q&A and feminists everywhere taking to their respective platforms to mostly disagree with her. One such vocal detractor was Mia Freedman, who said Greer “broke my heart a little bit” when she took herself “down in a hail of self-inflicted friendly fire while the world watche[d] in embarrassment.” When the two women appeared together on a recent episode of Q&A, Freedman was asked to clarify her response: did it mean she wasn’t a fan of the “ground-breaking, arse-kicking lightening rod for social change who ignited a feminist movement from which every woman in the western world has benefited” anymore? Was this an example of the abovementioned feminist in-fighting?
Freedman responded that while she has nothing but respect for the woman in whose water she grew up and who influenced her mother’s feminist awakening, “feminism needs to have a lot of different voices… It should be really, really broad and inclusive.” Essentially, feminism should accommodate both the foremothers and their daughters.
Freedman went on in that same episode of Q&A to—what some would describe as—shame sex workers, or “prostitutes” as she archaically called them, which ignited a backlash of her own. So much for that broad inclusion she waxed lyrical about…
While liberating housewives of Germaine and Freedman’s mother’s era from “the problem with no name” and ushering in the birth control pill are milestones women of today must be thankful for, they’re very much narrow-minded accomplishments: The Feminine Mystique appealed to white middle-class women and many women can’t afford the birth control pill, a predicament that still exists today. And second-wave feminism was very much responsible for the sexual liberation of a generation of people, but I’m not so sure that transfers to the hook up, raunch and porn culture/s of today (as Freedman’s comments about sex workers above would indicate).
For example, when I was living at home and Girls of the Playboy Mansion came on the TV, my mum would make me turn it off (keep in mind I was 22 by the time I moved out and this was not long before that). When I brought this up recently as an example of her generation’s reluctance to embrace sex positivity, she launched into a tirade that ended with her calling into question the women who pose for Playboy’s sexual promiscuity.
We must acknowledge that media like Playboy is an inherently patriarchal construct, but I think making the assumption that any woman who uses her sexuality as a commodity is a slave to said patriarchy is buying into the notion that feminism works against: women have no autonomy. Much like the debate over women in Islam (and don’t even get me started on the fight I had with my mum about asylum seekers that, similar to the Playboy exchange, ended with her defensively inquiring about the legality of people seeking asylum via boat), certain kinds of feminism need to broaden their scope to take into account the lives of all women, whether we agree with their choices or not.
This close-mindedness comes from a lack of access to new information and technologies and willingness to learn from and hand the reigns over to the feminists of today, I think. While many feminists of all ages count the works of Greer, Friedan and Naomi Wolf amongst their collection of feminist tomes, how many second-wavers can say the same about the musings of Jessica Valenti, Clementine Ford, Rachel Hills and the myriad feminist bloggers? That face of feminism has certainly changed to make it much more accessible. What once was narrowly accessible at rallies, underground meetings and in academic journals is now available wherever you look: Gillard speaking up against sexism in parliament, movements like SlutWalk and Destroy the Joint and all across the interwebs.
So on this Mother’s Day eve, it’s important to acknowledge the gender equality path paved for me by my feminist foremothers, including my actual mother, but also to recognise that we have, indeed, come a long way, baby. Maybe that’s something that second-wavers need to consider, too.
Germaine Greer is an Aussie feminist icon who’s kind of passed me by. After the whole “Julia Gillard has a fat arse” debacle earlier in the year, I officially declared her irrelevant to a friend when the opportunity to buy a book of hers came up.
Nonetheless, I attended her talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, hosted by Germaine’s new bestie Benjamin Law, whom she met at that infamous episode of Q&A, in the hopes that she would address some of those issues in more depth.
I wasn’t wrong, but instead of Greer herself admitting she was, she dug a deeper hole for herself, both at the session and on 60 Minutes the week prior, where she was interviewed in relation to Samantha Brick’s months-ago comments that women find her threatening because she’s beautiful and she enjoys being a “trophy-wife” to her chauvinistic French husband.
Sometimes I just wish public figures would admit it when they’ve said the wrong thing, instead of trying to justify or cover it up (Todd Akin, I’m looking at you). Where Germaine could have taken the opportunity to own up to speaking out of turn about Julia Gillard’s appearance, a snarky phenomenon that most women—and, indeed, most feminists—succumb to at some stage or another, and use it to start a dialogue about how we treat female politicians based on their looks and not their policies, she just said “women have fat asses” and “a woman is not her jacket”. Greer’s a smart woman, no doubt, but I think she needs to think more before she speaks, as her comments on cosmetic surgery, genital mutilation and the morning after pill on Q&A will attest.
However, Germaine did make some good points about her past, present, our ecological future, and “what turned her into a feminist” (a question I was asked at the work watercooler a few weeks ago when I revealed I write about gender studies and feminism. That co-worker is so misogynistic he now avoids me. One less woman-hater I have to make nice with on a daily basis: score!), citing her work on the 1974 university porn magazine she helped create, Screw. After concluding that the name “screw” was too “sadistic” and implied that a woman was “ruined” after she’d been “screwed”, they changed the name to Suck, which connotes a more female-friendly vibe.
Germaine talked about her willingness to get her gear off for the magazine in an effort to portray women differently in porn magazines. She was offered money to pose for Playboy and she insisted her pose be standing with her body away from the camera, bent over, and looking at the photographer through her legs, her vagina and anus on show. They rejected the image, obviously, which turned up in Suck, an alternate copy of which someone in the audience had brought along!
She also had some interesting things about our definition of consent and SlutWalk to say and, to my surprise, they weren’t out of step with current feminist notions of the two. She championed women who take their rapists to court and show their faces to the public to lend support to the wider anti-slut-shaming movement.
Those who still follow Greer’s work know that she now leans towards writing about Australian culture and the environment as opposed to being the authority on all things feminism (see abovementioned irrelevance), and she concluded with a conversation with an audience member, who probed her in overtime about recognising the similarities between feminism and vegan-/vegetarianism. Indeed, feminism these days is about human rights, and most people I know who are for feminism are for human rights, animal rights and practice vegetarianism. I, myself, am a budding ecotarian.
These days, Germaine Greer is someone to be hated, feared or admired, as Law contended in his introduction of the great Australian thinker. While these women don’t necessarily practice feminist acts or even call themselves feminists, Madonna and Lady Gaga are two iconic females Greer mentioned during her sermon. They’re also two icons who polarise almost as much as Greer. I don’t think she’s that different to them, really… They’re all outspoken, brash females who have undoubtedly contributed so much to the plight of women, and culture as a whole, some more recently than others.
Related: Should Meat Be Off the Menu?
Symposiums about the ethical treatment of animals are some of my favourite kinds of public debate. Earlier in the year I attended an Intelligence2 debate about the ethics of eating meat, and while the arguments put forth didn’t change my mind (or palate), I think we can all agree that to treat animals humanely is something most normal people would endeavour to do.
But after researching her Quarterly Essay, “Us & Them”, Anna Krien closed the session with the assumption that humans just aren’t that great. You only have to look at our treatment of asylum seekers to realise our view of treating “others” differently extends to them, too. In fact, that’s why Krien named the essay “Us & Them”: not only to signify that animals are the “them”, but after the Four Corners meat exportation exposé last year, so are the Indonesians.
The other three intellectuals and authors on the panel were equally as intriguing, if not all as equally pro-animal. Charlotte Wood, author of the novel Animal People, about people who don’t like animals—or don’t understand our adoration and obsession with them—echoes the sentiments of her characters in the book, saying that she doesn’t get how we dress our toy dogs up in clothes and put them in bags and coo over them like they were babies, but that we should ultimately respect animals and not treat them as objects, like we are so wont to do.
Tim Flannery, environment expert, needed no introduction, and he talked about how our modern culture doesn’t allow for the inclusion of animals as equals. Interestingly, he also added that 10% of our bodies aren’t even us: it’s animal matter, like mites that grow in our eyebrows. Eww! But that demonstrates how highly evolved and diverse animals are, much more than humans, I would say.
Speaking of evolution, Flannery also mentioned that animals from the parts of the world where people have been living the longest have a hatred of humans more deeply ingrained. Like water buffalo in Africa who will circle back around on humans who are hunting them and try to beat them at their own game. Whereas in America, their water buffaloes are relatively tame by comparison. And in Australia, we can coax native birds and wildlife to eat apples out of the palms of our hands, like my dad and grandfather used to do when I was a kid. But most animals are still so terrified of us because we destroyed their habitats, just as we are scared of exotic, archaic and extremely dangerous animals, like the cassowary or a crocodile.
It was obvious that author Sonya Hartnett likes animals a whole hell of a lot more than humans, which is also evident in her books, most of which are about or draw inspiration from animals. She said she’s happy to be the slave for her cats and dogs if they will “show me their secrets”. She made the observation that a bunch of crows she passed scavenging over a rubbish bin looked at her with such disdain that she had no doubt they not only fear us, but hate us, too.
I guess this is part of Aussie culture: domesticated animals are cute, wildlife is cool to look at in zoos, but none of this must come between us and them our meat. As Wood wrote in The Age last year:
“We force a dichotomy in which animals are either so like us that we cannot separate their needs from our own, or so unlike us as to be aliens, undeserving of any rights at all. The more we sentimentalise, the more we also brutalise.”
But animals have culture, too, as Flannery asserts. They use tools, forage for food, talk to each other, love, mate, and engage in group dynamics, just like us. (This culture was evident when a friend and I took our dogs away on a holiday last week and saw the dynamics occurring between them: my friend Deb’s dog, Minnie, is older and definitely in charge, whereas my dog, Mia, is happy to go along with that. Minnie even had the audacity to jump up onto my lap and sit there proudly while Mia was napping beside me in a nook between the couch and a blanket.) After all, who do you think we evolved from…?
Speaking of foraging for food, being a vegan doesn’t allow you immunity from contributing to the devastation of the animal kingdom. For example, wheat for bread—a staple in many vegetarian and vegan diets—is grown on land that has been cleared of its natural, animal-dwelling terrain and unless the proper practices are used, the soil may be rendered obsolete and more wheat won’t be able to be grown there. It’s a catch-22 between being a vege- or ecotarian and throwing up your hands because nothing we do will ever be good enough.
Flannery believes that as higher intelligence beings, we are the arbiters of the future of the planet and its animal (and human, for that matter) inhabitants, and to fully understand this and to be fully human we have to realise that “we’re animals, too”. After all, the four-legged, fury, feathery and fishy animals “are so much more than we’ve ever allowed them to be”. Maybe it’s time we loosened that chain a little bit.
Related: Should Meat be Off the Menu?
Image via The Vine.