Monthly Archives: November 2012

‘Baby, I was born this way’

About a year ago I was sat at my kitchen table with two male friends. There was a bit of a ‘bro fest’ underway. They were putting our female friends in to various categories, such as ‘cute’, ‘hot’, ‘attractive’ etc. I’m not sure how frequently guys actually do this (films tend to suggest it takes up 50% of their time) but I am conscious that it is not uncommon for women to be defined as a certain ‘type’.

Naturally, moments like the one in my kitchen have led to my wondering ‘What type of woman am I? Where do I fit in this extensive catalogue of female types? If there was a magical supermarket of women all on display, would I be weaving a basket in the organic vegetables section or batting my eyelashes and suggestively sucking sweets in the confectionary aisle?’

Or just think of the Spice Girls. Remember sitting around with your friends (boys you must have done this at some point…) and deciding which spice girl you were? Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby, Ginger! Which girl did you want to be?

To generate ideas for this blog post I googled things like ‘types of girl’ or ‘categories of women’. Sure enough the lists came flying out (sexy, sweet, serious, cheeky, bubbly etc.) and the quizzes I could take if I wanted to find out what kind of girl I am. There they all were at my fingertips – all the different ‘types’ of women you can come across in this world. I’m yet to find the ’21 year old, British, Art Historian, Eats mountains of peanut butter, Strangely proud of her pants, Has eyebrows you could keep as pets’ category. And there’s our problem.

How on earth are women really supposed to fit in to these categories? What if we want to switch between them? What if we’re not suited to any of them?

People struggle to categorise me – I’m just not fitting these types (I once cried in senior school over the fact that my class just couldn’t seem to find a chocolate bar I would be most like – oh, tragic teenage Rachel…). It always felt like a bit of a failure on my part. I was clearly not being cute, sexy, giggly or… really anything enough to be a type. There’s a sense of security in being a (fill the blank) girl.

So, this is my starting point – what I think we need to address first and foremost. There is no way to be a woman and there is no such thing as a ‘type’ of woman. We’re all such unique souls how could there be? Yes, we all have vaginas, breasts, periods etc. but why does physical similarity (and even then think of the physical variety amongst women) imply psychological, emotional and characteristic similarities that can then be sorted in to categories?

Now, let me ask you this. Why have I started thinking of Sarah Bernhardt, Cindy Sherman and Lady Gaga all in the same brainwave? No, they have not all shot fireworks out of their bras – as far as I know… (What a fabulous female fantasy – being so powerful you can shoot fire out of your breasts. Just me?) They have all challenged the notion of what it is to be a woman, or a single ‘type’ of woman. I think that rather than going on a furious rant about my teenage trauma and the categorisation of women I would like to indulge in a celebration instead. Let’s celebrate these three women. Let’s learn from what they have shown us. Let’s all be a little more gaga.

So, firstly, Sarah Bernhardt.

‘The Divine Sarah’ was a French stage actress of the late nineteenth century. It seems extraordinary that she gained the title of ‘The Divine Sarah’ considering the intense criticism she received for her lanky, un-ladylike frame, Jewish background and bisexuality. There were numerous spiteful cartoons created by critics emphasising these so-called ‘flaws’. Yet, Bernhardt was still a sensation. How did she manage to work against her critics and thrive as a beautiful, strong, independent woman?

(Side fun fact for everyone, in her older age she had to get her leg amputated and people were offering to pay her thousands of francs to attain it and put it on display – Oh celebrity culture how strange you are! “Come on kids, we’re going to see good old Sarah’s severed leg today!” – See, people think Art History is a strange subject but I’ve just given you all such a good icebreaker for a party…)

Back to Sarah. She worked with, not against, the media. Bernhardt took the weapons of her critics and put them to her own use. Bernhardt was constantly having photographs taken of herself and controlled the public’s image of her. In terms of gender and sexuality Bernhardt was essentially an early Gaga. Thanks to her height and thin body she regularly played the role of men (for example, she performed as Hamlet more than once) and had photographs taken of herself in costume for these roles. Not only was she playing with the confinements of gender, but also embracing her status as a beanpole. This is remarkable when you consider the standard response to criticism – defiance. Bernhardt could have taken seductive photographs (and yes there were some of those in her photographic arsenal) but she also embraced her androgyny – the ultimate ye olde ‘Baby, I was born this way’ statement. These photographs scream “This is who I am. Look how amazing this thing you perceived to be a flaw is.”

Furthermore, I think the contrasting photographs she had taken of herself as emotionally tortured Hamlet, a prim high society debutant, a rugged sculptor in fabulous white heels, the raw sexual Cleopatra, befuddled Pierrot, naked under a velvet robe etc. show what kind of a woman she was – an indefinable one. She constantly morphed before the camera, and made sure that everyone could see that by purposefully having these photographs taken. Just when the media thought they had her pinned, usually through criticism, she would play to and morph out of that criticism. Bernhardt showed to the world that she was a complicated individual, capable of embodying all sorts of different characteristics.

Now, Cindy Sherman.

Sherman is an American photographer and film director. Through her artwork she specifically raises questions about and challenges the representation of women by society (Oh yes, I’m a gal sold to my subject – Art History is my base). Sherman is best known for her series ‘Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80). This series consists of sixty-nine photographs of herself. In each of these photographs Sherman portrays a different ‘type’ of woman. She appears as the neat, doe-eyed student, the domesticated, sexy, young wife, the ferocious, hard-working woman and more. Each photograph is entirely unique, with no sense of overlap between the various ‘characters’ she plays. What I find particularly interesting about this project is that you get no sense of Sherman as an individual. She completely disguises herself through these various roles. Bernhardt maintained a sense of herself as a multi-faceted character throughout her representations – they were promotions of herself. By contrast, Sherman as an individual is completely lost amongst these various female roles. I think this spoke to me in two ways.

Firstly, I was hit by Sherman’s loss of individuality. Secondly, by the way one can so freely alter their identity. Which, naturally, are linked. I think in both cases, it is clear how one can disappear and evolve in to something else through appearance. Honestly, I feel that the fundamental difference between men and women is biological (a pretty straightforward observation that even an art history student could make…) But then why is this the basis for societal beliefs in the characteristic differences between men and women? I believe that this series picks up on that. Through physical appearance alone Sherman can lose herself and find new characters. Furthermore, by showing that one person can embody all of these characters destroys them. Whilst there is a human desire to categorise a woman as one thing, it is utterly impossible and Sherman’s photographs show this.

On to my final woman, Lady Gaga.

I can remember the first time I saw (technically I should say heard, but there really is something about seeing her) Lady Gaga. My reaction was like that of many people – “What on earth is going on here??? Does she go to bed wearing outfits as extravagant as what she wears during the day? Can someone please identify a disco stick for me?” But then I thought about her a bit more and have come to adore everything she stands for. Every time she releases a new music video I’m there watching and decoding it with my friends. However, I’m not actually going to discuss her music but her appearance. When Gaga arrived on the music scene she was blowing people away, often with confusion, but she was making a statement nonetheless.

Just to give people who don’t have a degree in Gaga (seriously, if there was a course about her I’d ace it…) a little background – she has a creative team under the title ‘Haus of Gaga’ who put together her outfits, make-up, stage sets, accessories etc. For the real keen beans here, there is such a thing as Gagapedia – an extensive online catalogue of her various outfits – and if any woman has merited such a catalogue it is her. Just to name a few outfits – the bubble dress, the Kermit the frog jacket, the meat dress, the silver lobster hat, not to mention her male alter ego Jo Calderone who she has dressed as for music videos, photo shoots and award shows. All spectacularly out of the box and shocking.

I see Gaga as the ultimate example of celebration of the individual – a celebration that extends beyond gender. Just think of the contrast of someone like Taylor Swift next to Lady Gaga. Taylor is girly from head to toe – whilst I do enjoy her music, the girl vomits kittens. Lady Gaga – what is going on there? She usually transcends beyond human, let alone woman – and that is what makes her so mind blowing. Gaga is the sort of role model I want young girls looking at (well… maybe avoid some of the more sexual outfits but adopt the attitude!). You don’t have to be a little darling like Taylor; you can be a ferocious, flaming beast like Gaga! Of course, I don’t want to totally bring down Taylor – if you are naturally characteristically inclined to be of that manner then that’s the sort of person you are – but what I love that Gaga totally challenges is that as a girl you have to be this way – she claims that you are a person, you can be anything – be individual, be yourself! This brings me back to my post title. “Baby, I was born this way”. This is the song I listen to when I’m having a bad day. It’s the motto I make my heart scream when things get rough. Yet again, this lyric reinforces what she has been saying with her appearance all along. Embrace that individual, not that type. You are a complex, beautiful being.

So what have we learnt from my BernhardtShermanGaga combination? Female ‘types’ have been a long-standing problem. But, there have been a number of fiery females out there ready to challenge them. If there is anything to be taken away from this post, it’s that gender should not be a restraint, and the ‘types’ expected from your gender should not be either. In fact, whilst discussing this topic, a male friend reminded me that the same expectations are held of men. Just think of the categories we provide for them – ‘sporty’, ‘brooding’, ‘joker’ – we should show them the respect of also not putting them in boxes – and I thank my friend for reminding me to not have a blinkered view in my discussion of feminism. I think it is easy to focus upon the female situation and forget that men encounter these problems too. So, whilst I have curved my discussion towards the female experience, let us all remember to not categorise each other. Sex is an inherent, biological difference. Gender is not. Characteristically, there should be no notions or expectations of ‘types’ of women or men.

To end this post I’ve had an idea. I would like to keep this a creative and fresh blog. Whilst writing is well and good, maybe we should branch out? Sarah would never admit this but she’s a wonderful photographer and I… I have a mac photobooth… How about we create our own BernhardtShermanGaga photographic project? Morph in to five different women each before our cameras? Not just contemplate but engage with this notion. Well, keep your eyes peeled for future blog posts… Lets see if Sarah agrees to my idea!

Rachel

Watching women on TV becoming who they are

After a brilliant start that led to rave reviews (reviews that, if you don’t mind me saying, we’d love to find under here, in the comment section, open for discussion, although we are quite fond of your private messages and other impromptu library discussions) this might feel like a bit of a let down. We haven’t forgotten you or the blog! Both of us have actually engaged in deep reflections on complex topics and thus have exciting but massively elaborate posts in the pipeline.

In the meantime, I watched telly.

The Hour is back! Maybe it was because it was announced the same day Barack Obama was re-elected, but I barely could contain my excitement. There are many reasons why you should feel this way too (one of them is that in the first episode, Ben Whishaw is sporting a very seasonal beard) but for the purpose of this post I will try to stay topical.

Amongst the messages I’ve received relating to this blog, one from my friend Jess was objecting to its self-announced purpose under the following terms:

“I don’t know what it is specifically, but I find the idea that women in general need to wonder what being a woman means a bit annoying. Like, self analysis is great, but starting to examine yourself based on your gender and to even bother defining terms that you think are feminine and not feminine is silly.”

This is a debatable opinion (and a very good example of why you should use the comment box) but an interesting one. I guess what she wants to say is that being a woman is such a part of you that it is not relevant to define it even further (and why bother creating a blog about it?) “By nature of being a woman” she added “everything you do is feminine.”

This is particularly relevant to the difference of treatment of gender dynamics between The Hour and another historical TV show it has been compared to (mostly because of their stunning art direction), Mad Men. The comparison is, in my opinion, less relevant than it seems, as the narrative of the two shows are very different (Mad Men is the chronicle of an era through the identity quest of its main character, The Hour is a historical suspense drama). However, both these shows are set in a particular era and in well-connected milieus (advertising and media) and as such are expected to reflect on the time’s social and political mindset. Mad Men features extensive story lines about women’s struggles (in fact, if it weren’t for Don Draper, this would primarily be the story of a young naive but determined catholic girl professional ascension, or else the tragedy of a perfectly WASP and suburban Madame Bovary) in a way that Jess, if she doesn’t mind me extrapolating, might feel revolve too much about the fact that they are women. The Hour does it very differently. None of the story lines in the first episode of this new season are this conditioned by the gender of its protagonists despite the fact that the main character is a woman. Bel Crowley takes all her strength and independence just by being who she is (the head producer of a prime time news show in 1957) without her gender ever entering into consideration. In fact the brilliant first scene (a countdown to the show going live on air) reverses an expected paradigm as she is nervously waiting for her star presenter to show up, and when he does, he smiles to the camera and reads news that he is obviously presented with for the first time. She is the journalist, he is the diva. She is the brain, he is the pretty face.

I think one of the great strengths of the writing of the show is that this dichotomy is not made explicit, this is just the state of things presented to us. Whether Bel is an exceptional case or the rule, is not elaborated on, she just is in this place she rightly feels entitled to and that is fine. By putting it here in the show, rather than explicitly showing her having to fight her way up to her place, Abi Morgan is effectively telling us “this is where she should be, deal with it” and that might be even more powerful than Peggy Orson’s hardly fought position in Sterling Cooper. She is not there despite or because she is a woman. She is just a woman, and she is there.

Bel, and indeed all women on the show, even the ones cast in more traditional roles (Hector’s lonely wife, the club prostitute), are not telling exemplary tales of struggling femininity, they are telling their own personal stories and their struggles, as bound as they are to their social conditions, are ultimately their own. They are not assessing themselves as women, but as complicated, confused and ultimately diverse human beings.

Maybe Jess is right and it is what being a woman should be about and where Mad Men is often saying “those are the stories of ‘being a woman in America in the 1960’s'”, The Hour is right to subtly reply “these are people, some of them women, and here are their stories.”

Oh and in this episode, brilliant and gorgeous Romola Garai does not get the boys either, despite trying twice, which, as you know, resonates so much with me too.

As representing women goes, one show at least has caused much discussion this fall, dragging even Caitlin Moran into tweeting a rather harsh and controversial statement. (see first paragraph for the story, next ones for its analysis) Girls written by and featuring Lena Dunham was reaching 50 Shades proportions of fame before I even got to know what it was about. I must admit the mix of hype and controversy did not particularly appeal to me but when it was screened at a film and series festival in Geneva and that even my local paper featured a double page about it, I feared that I would encounter one of these many scenarios where I catch the train way too late and I watched it. To be honest, for all that the infamous Moran’s comment and the ensuing controversy sparked of thoughts in me I do not feel that these reflections are matured enough for me to engage in a whole post on feminism, representations and intersectionality. Yet, I understand the importance of all these questions. Should these important issues apply to Lena Dunham’s Girls as well or in priority? For the moment I simply don’t know and will leave it to that.

There is no doubt that Girls is a charming show. It’s sweet, quirky, and in my case, hits extremely close to home. And yes, it does present female characters and way of life that are more realistic than say, Sex in the city (which is winked at during this episode as well). But despite how refreshing it can be to watch a main character that is not physically perfect having awkward sex (in a way that is not played for laughs that is), I don’t feel it has blown my mind in terms of female representations, or even narration yet. Let’s say that I was pleasantly entertained during the whole 30 minutes where the lives of a group of New Yorker graduates and their sex, love and professional lives unfolded in front of me, which, for a first episode, is perfectly fine if not life changing. Ultimately, if things go by my own standards, I think being heralded that much and that early as emblematic of a “new feminist revolution” can only do harm to a show that is genuinely trying to be honest in its treatment of women. And if it does it well in an endearing and entertaining fashion, the new Deuxième sexe it ain’t. The only thing I can take back to my life from this first episode is that if I have to be a twenty-something literature graduate stuck in an underpaid publishing internship, surrounded by friends that are either cooler or more successful than me, having the occasional awkward casual sex encounter (one of these does not apply) and having yet to figure how to become who I am, I’d much rather do it in Brooklyn than Geneva. Alas.

Sarah

Welcome

Hello friends, family, and, most importantly, fiery females…

The creators of this blogging venture, Rachel and Sarah, are two young women who met at a strange remote university that takes up more than half of an absurd and quaint medieval village on the Scottish coast. After befriending each other, confessing to each other their deep fear of not being cool enough and eating lots of cake and cheese together, they both stumbled upon a book – a very good, very funny, very smart book. Indeed, it seemed that all that the cakes, the fear of lack of coolness and their friendship was about was expressed in this book. Unfortunately, the time of the book’s discovery coincided with the time when Sarah had to go away (to a very dark place called ‘the real world’ outside of the medieval academic bubble). However, since they kept needing to talk to each other about the book, or their lives, or how the book was relevant to their lives, they wrote to each other spectacularly long messages. Many long and late messages that need to be scrolled back over for pages to be answered properly. Thanks to this book they realised that despite their fears, the book trusted that they were cool, so ultimately, they decided to prove it – so, here it is, the blog that Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman prompted (assisted by lots of cheese and cakes, and personal insecurities). A very cool, and very fiery, blog of our own.

Now, to understand more about the authors of this blog:

Hello, I’m Rachel. The British fiery female of this Anglo-Swiss partnership. I am an Art History student, so I’m frequently smacked in the face by artistic representations of the ‘perfect woman’. In fact, my friendship with Sarah began after I went on a caffeine high in the library over an Art History essay – I started jabbering away mindlessly at the poor girl to rid myself of my excess energy – thank you caffeine, you found me a dear friend. So, how did I come to decide to write this blog with Sarah? Where do I begin? Let us start with my childhood. From a young age I was a bit of a hungry caterpillar, and when I hit puberty my puppy fat turned in to big, bold curves. Surely this was the moment where my natural female instincts should have kicked in? Surely this was the time when I would become more bootylicious than Beyonce? Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Despite anatomical developments, I have had a long lingering sense of not being ‘girly enough’. I have always been far too serious, ungainly and awkward to ever be dubbed ‘cute’, or perhaps the alternative, ‘sexy’. This is where Caitlin Moran struck a chord with me. All those years of wondering where my inherent feminine qualities had disappeared to. Why am I not cute and soft-spoken like the rest of the girls in this world? Why am I not a real woman?

Over time, and especially thanks to Caitlin’s personal accounts in her book, I have come to realise that maybe there never has been anything wrong with me. In fact, there is something deeply wrong with societal notions of womanhood. We have been conditioned in to thinking that there is a certain way to ‘be a woman’, or perhaps a more desirable ‘type of woman’. Deep voiced girls who don’t know how to be quiet or handle their curves don’t fit that bill. If these artistic representations that I frequently come across in my studies have taught me anything, it’s that throughout history there have been notions of the ‘perfect woman’, sadly for her she’s normally naked and laid out like a roast turkey for our delectation with her eyes cast to the floor. However, on the upside, lucky for us, there have been glorious artists, like Cindy Sherman, who have set out to challenge this. So, my contribution to this blog, and primary concern, shall be to expand upon and explore Caitlin’s challenge against the notion that there is a way to be a woman.

Naturally, I feel this challenge leads in to further feminist debate. Is the woman dressed in next to nothing on a Friday night objectified or liberated? Why is there such a spectacular taboo around menstruation that you cringe at the thought of talking to a boy about it? Why when I wear a low-cut jumper do men fall over themselves to help me, as opposed to when I’m wearing something with a high-neck? (tried and tested by yours truly – the results are depressing). To answer these questions, and many more, we need a strong re-evaluation of societal notions of womanhood. We cannot hope to restructure the treatment of women without first addressing conceptions of them.

***

Hi readers,

I’m Sarah, the other half of this fiery writing collaboration. I met Rachel at university, but actually, the proper beginning of our friendship came quite late in my time in Scotland, and has blossomed perhaps even more so since we parted and started writing each other insanely long messages. These messages were so brilliant that we thought it was a shame the rest of the world could not profit from our inputs. (Yeah, that’s a plausible genesis tale).

As my experience since I left university a couple of months ago is teaching me the hard way, there is a gap between theory and reality. I know, without thinking about it, that men and women are equal, and ought to be treated accordingly. However, since I was instilled with this notion at a very young age, things don’t seem to have unfolded that smoothly around me. Let it be clear, I personally haven’t particularly felt that I was heavily discriminated against because I am a woman, but I have acknowledged that there have sometimes been ways I am expected to behave or react. Never aggressively, no, but I have had minor discussions about trivialities that appear to have been undercover debates about what it is to be feminine, and how bad it feels to not be it. And sometimes, though rarely, I have had proper heated arguments about it too. Despite the position I have held in these debates, I think that on these occasions I have worried and doubted myself because I felt I wasn’t doing that right either.

In theory, I have come to terms with the idea that there is no absolute right or wrong way to debate these issues. I say this but in practice I’m agonizing at this very moment over whether or not any of my experiences or opinions are valid enough for this blog. And I can pretend to be screaming “who can validate you and who needs validation anyway?’, but inside I am still reasoning against myself – “well, no social validation, fine, that’s all very nice… if you want to be alone”.

Strangely enough, I think my utter lack of self-confidence ultimately made me a more self-affirmed woman. Not attracting boys and feeling unable to do anything about that has forced me to focus on other things. I’m not blaming being single on being a feminist, nor do I use one as an excuse for the other, nor do I feed a despicable cliché about both these facts. I’m only assessing that the years of relentless self-scrutiny have had the logical outcome of making me aware of my little self and its failures (to an absurd degree), but also of all the other ways to avoid feeling like you’ve failed without actually earning the damn prize. This is a way too elaborate metaphor to say plainly – but too often the prize of being ‘the right kind of girl’ is presented as getting the boy. And as I wasn’t getting the boys I had to develop others ways to feel that I was ‘the right kind of girl’. Now, I’m still not getting the boys but at least I can affirm that it does not make me less of a girl. However, the fact that I have to go to such a length to express it is a clue that this is still an issue I’m struggling with, and what I thought was going to be a blog is turning into therapy.

So, to paraphrase, Caitlin Moran (whose book I loved for articulating these things in not only a more eloquent, but also much more funny way than me): this is not so much “how to be a woman” as “how I’m somehow trying to be the woman I think I want to be (maybe).” This blog is not the answer, this blog is all of my freaking questions!

***

So, as Caitlin once said, she was hoping her book would open doors to other discussions, and challenges of her version of what it is to be a woman. Here we are, with our combined neurosis, trying in our own little ways to emulate her. We can’t pretend this is going to be as good as her book, but it’s because it’s not going to be like it. Both our experiences are not the same, and they definitely aren’t Caitlin’s, and that is what should be interesting. We can’t write about our maternity experiences but we can talk about coming of age at a time where the Spice Girls were around – so you know, plenty to get excited about.

And as little seeds grow to form flowers that disseminate pollen and other seeds to make more flowers (we think – we’re arts students…), our blog can only have the ambition to prompt even more reactions and discussions about the subject of womanhood. Perhaps even just make people think with us, against us, or even for a moment on their own. At the same time we’ll also try to nurture our own fears and insecurities better, because obviously, we still haven’t got a clue about what we’re doing.

Welcome all.