Tag Archives: Sociology

Hiding from Red: Men’s approach to menstruation

Crimson Smoke

‘Crimson Smoke’ by blary54

I wasn’t surprised by the reaction I got from talking to people about this blog post, but what surprised me was the number of times it happened. The first thing people did when I told them was ask, “Why would a man want to write a blog post on periods?” The easiest way to answer that question is to simply say, “…Because you asked that question.” Both in the media and everyday interaction periods are constructed as a taboo subject, regulated to women* and hidden from men.

My first memory of anything period related came from when I was 9 years old and running around the school playground; I noticed that three of my friends were all huddling together and excluding themselves from the other kids. I approached them with curiosity only to find that I wasn’t welcome, “Go away Luke, we can’t talk to boys right now.” They put a protective arm around my friend Kerry and only with some persistence did one of the girls break away to tell me to leave them alone as “Kerry has had her first period.” I let out a sympathetic “Ahh,” although I really had no idea what it all meant, only that I should understand this is something girls need to ‘deal with’ and boys need to stay well away from.

As I got older I came to understand that not only was this something that boys weren’t to be a part of, but that it was something that people were definitely not ‘proud of’ or spoke about freely. My religious upbringing reified this belief with the bible story of “The Woman” who had a constant period for 12 years. 1 Having exhausted all medical cures, “the woman” decided to find a cure for her “embarrassing and humiliating ailment” through Jesus Christ; she did this by inconspicuously making her way through crowds of people so that she could touch his garment. Both the moral of the story and the fact that the authors didn’t even give her a name demonstrate that in Mosaic law, and just about every other culture since, menstruation has been constructed as something ‘unclean’ and to be kept secret.

I’m sure that everyone has a memory or two which demonstrates this point, whether it’s girls being separated at school to receive a ‘period talk,’ or buying tampons which look like sweets in an effort to avoid any man from being aware that you have a completely normal functioning body. I’d like to now turn my focus however to the way in which periods are constructed around men.

Hiding from red: periods and men

The inspiration for this blog came as a reaction to a viral video from a tampon company’s advertisement, you can find the link at the bottom of the blog2.

The company’s reaction to Richard’s Facebook post is funny only because everyone can briefly share a moment where we all recognise the inconsistencies in tampon adverts, just so long as we can rest assured that it will all go back to normal after the commercial is finished. That is to say, the advert provides a brief comic relief to the perceived trauma of menstrual cycles.

What’s really upsetting about this advert is that they missed an opportunity to create a healthy debate about the misrepresentation in period ads by refocusing the issue completely around men. The blue liquid and montages of women playing sport are all a façade to protect men from a ‘horrifying’ reality. It never ceases to amaze me that in a society which socialises men with all the brute strength and emotional detachment that comes with masculinity they would be reduced to tears at the sight of period blood, the cleanest type of blood there is, and yet happily sit through a two hour action film where body parts are spewed all over.

The criticism that I’ve had for this argument from various friends has been that we can’t expect all men to want to have sex with women on their periods and that the reaction of those in the video are justified, “Some people can’t even look at blood!” Whilst there is some truth in this, I want to make it clear that historically menstruation has been seen as a barrier used either consciously or subconsciously by women to prevent men from fulfilling their innate sexual responsibilities3. I believe there’s a fine line between acknowledging people’s genuine fear of blood and creating an argument which reduces women to an object dedicated to men’s ‘natural urges.’ There is a lot more to periods than just sex.

What I hoped to achieve with this blog is to not only vent my frustration about society’s view on periods, but also to encourage more men to be confident enough to not only talk freely about periods, but reject the idea that they are something to be afraid of. I want young women to be free to express themselves without being made to feel unclean, weak or emotionally stunted. I want couples, friends and employers to openly discuss the issue without it being treated as a taboo. And finally, I hope biology lessons on periods can be shared with both boys and girls so that we can not only embrace the differences between genders, but more importantly look for similarities.

There is so much to say on this topic which I couldn’t fit in here but my hope is to just start a conversation about something that is too often remained silenced.

*In this blog I refer to periods being regulated to women, but want to acknowledge that not all cis-gendered women experience menstruation, nor that all women are cis-gendered. My intention is to highlight the construction of gender norms on an abstract level.

References

1Watchtower and Bible Tract Society (1987) ‘She Touched His Garment’ in Watchtower, 1 June, New York: WTBTS.

2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bpy75q2DDow

3Laws, S (1990) Issues of Blood: Politics of Menstruation, Hampshire: Macmillan.

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A drawer full of speeches

DrawerI think most, if not all, ex-Jehovah’s Witness have an imaginary drawer somewhere in their head full of speeches ready to go for the next encounter with people on the ministry. “Your interpretation is wrong because…”, “Yes, but have you thought about this…”, “Were you around to see ‘Armageddon’ in 1975?…”

In my head I’ve always loved the idea of having a blowout argument with a couple of would-be knockers, however each time they’ve come to my door I have always been greeted by very sweet elderly women. I really can’t break out the artillery on someone who could be my grandma.

Saturday morning was different though. I was awoken at around 9am which immediately put me at a disadvantage since I was scrambling to find the key to the front door, let alone the key to the speech drawer in my head. Nevertheless, I opened the door and stood blurry eyed at a middle aged women and her daughter of around 13. I responded to the opening statements by declaring that I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness and that my mother is still currently practicing; I’ve always found this either encourages them to leave or at least gets me some buy-in so that my remarks aren’t based on hearsay but actual lived experience. Following that, most of the conversation revolved around the many reasons why I not only left, but was unlikely to return: agnostic/atheist, feminist, gay, degree-educated, common sense etc. I began to wonder whether this would be my opportunity to have some closure and tell them what I really think. It wasn’t. Around half way through the conversation something suddenly changed the way I felt.

I declared that I believe in evolution and the little girl let out a laugh and smirked. Suddenly I wasn’t looking at a 13 year old girl, I was looking at myself, 10 years ago, standing with my father on the ministry. At that age I actually believed that I knew more about the world than any scientist or physicist. “They’re so deluded, they really believe in this crap?”, “Evolution and the Big Bang is such nonsense and these people have no idea.” I know for a fact that there was nothing any one could say on the door to convince me any other way, probably because any counter-evidence was too complicated for me to understand. After all, the big bang was so easily explained away by an Elder on the platform by shaking Lego in a Tupperware container and asking “why hasn’t my shaking built a house yet? This is why the Big Bang could never happen.” I was so dogmatic, convinced… brainwashed? Maybe. But actually, it all just made me feel sad. Sad that the little girl, like so many kids, having had only glimpses of what the real world is actually like, about the people who live in it, about science and even reason (which is ironic if you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading the ‘Reasoning Book’.

Coming away from it all I realised that there really is nothing that I can do or say to prove to them that I’m better off without them. There’s nothing I can do to show how wrong their organisation is, how it oppresses so many groups of people. I recognise that there are many good things that it can provide (comradery for example), but I also believe they can be better sourced elsewhere.

So maybe it’s time to take the speeches out of the imaginary drawer, perhaps I should archive them, or shred them. Whatever I decide to do with them, I think they’re best used with people who understand, those who have lived through it and who have left. Leave the JWs to do what makes them happy, but remain hopeful that kids like the little girl have the opportunity to make their own, well informed decisions about what they do with their lives.

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‘In the world, but not of the world’: The story of adolescents who defected from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah's Witnesses on the Ministry

Source: WTBTS (2009a) “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

It’s been exactly one year since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on this topic. I conducted a series of interviews with people like myself, raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and subsequently leaving around our teenage years. I chose to study this topic because it not only filled a huge gap in sociological literature but provided me with a chance to seriously reflect on how I was raised and whether those memories, good and bad, are shared by others.

For most the Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for knocking on doors from time to time, not celebrating Christmas or Birthdays and refusing to receive blood transfusions. That’s all true, but for a young person growing up within the religion there is a lot more to it than that. To put them into some context there are 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, established in 1870 by a Presbyterian born Charles Taze Russel. They don’t necessarily consider themselves a ‘religion’ since they disapprove of all organised religion, rather they align themselves closer with their name: ‘Witnesses.’ They witness to, or preach to, all those who need to know about Jehovah and encourage them to convert to a way of life which will protect them at Armageddon.

To put it simply, the Jehovah’s Witnesses distance themselves from mainstream society to protect themselves from what could ‘spoil useful habits.’ Sociology defines this type of religious movement as a ‘sect,’ whose entire organisational structure is based around keeping ‘purity within and pollution without’ (Holden 2005:52). If they were to relax their doctrines even slightly, it could lead to dissonance or schism within the religion. Therefore it is really important to them to keep their members symbolically separated.

This is what came out most prominently from my interviews. We look back on our childhood with memories which ultimately made us feel like we were ‘In the world, but not of the world.’ This is because there are many safety nets set up to prevent young people from falling into the trappings of Satan’s world. There were three themes which seemed to be most felt by those I spoke with: firstly, their views of the outside world, secondly their appearance and finally their education.

Views of the Outside World

For young Jehovah’s Witnesses, their contact with the outside world is kept to an absolute minimum, with school and door-to-door ministry being the only exceptions. For that reason, you tend to have a skewed view of the outside world. For myself, and most of those I interviewed, that tends to be how the religion wants you see the world. And only need to glance at the religion’s publications to see what type of view they are trying to create:

Front Covers of the Watchtower and Awake

Front Covers of the Watchtower and Awake

There was definitely a fear in my growing up that if I were to ever leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’d be consumed by a mixture of drugs, sex and earthquakes. Possibly all at once. I sometimes imagined my non-Jehovah’s witness alter ego being some corporate banker who was addicted to whiskey and gambling.

There are a number of symbolic doctrines which the organisation has which are designed to keep you far removed from the secular world. Popular culture must be engaged with at extreme caution, being on the watch for any hints of bad language and sexual profanity. This turned regular television watching really difficult, sometimes hovering my finger over the mute button to try and block out any sneaky swear words. They also have strict endogamous policy, making sure that all dating is kept completely inside the organisation. One time when my sister was about 16 she was presumed to be dating a boy simply because she ‘text him too much.’

Nevertheless, children are socialised into believing that there is a lot to be feared in the outside world whilst the Jehovah’s Witnesses try to recreate an impression of the future ‘paradise earth.’

Appearance

Appearance isn’t something that tends to be brought up much in the sociological literature on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, mostly because there really isn’t much to say. For the most part, they literally just blend in. For young people however, this isn’t quite the case. It was very difficult to walk around my local area wearing a suit; people would call me a ‘snob’ or most often just stare. For the girls I interviewed they found the rules quite restrictive, being forced to wear dresses to all formal meetings and never to wear a skirt higher than the knee. Some kids were refused to deliver their sermons because their hair was too long or didn’t have the appropriate clothes.

I’m sure that most would agree that finding your own style is hard enough without such strict guidelines on what you can or can’t wear. For myself and other Witness children, this meant making a daily decision of whether to fit in with the religion, or fit in with the other kids.

Education

Education was unsurprisingly the most talked about topic with the interviewees, not least because it’s the main social sphere that blurs the lines between the religious and the secular. Between the time you get dropped off at the school gates, to when you’re picked up, your identity is left completely in your own hands. You have to decide whether you’re going to be a Jehovah’s Witness today, or not.

What I mean by that is when your friends ask you to go to their birthday party, will you lie and say you have other plans, or will you tell them you (or your religion) doesn’t believe in Birthdays. When you enter the school assembly, will you sit by the door so that when the hymns are sung and the prayers are made you can make a quick exit? Or will you sit with your friends, where everyone has to watch as you climb over all the other children to find the door? When everyone in class is making Christmas Cards, Valentine’s Day Cards and Mother’s Day cards will you oblige willingly? Or will you tell your teacher that it would be more appropriate to make winter cards, or just sit out entirely?

How each Jehovah’s Witness child negotiated each day is completely different. Some wouldn’t even tell their friends that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, others would use the opportunity to preach to them. For me, I would keep it to myself unless someone’s comments or questions prompted me to explain why I’m different.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s a school of thought in Sociology which describes contemporary life as a ‘Risk Society’, ‘Liquid Society’ or ‘Late/Post-Modern Society.’ While each theory is slightly different, they all run along a theme which argues people have less security in how their life will turn out. People make daily decisions about who they shall be, or how they shall live. When someone cannot answer those questions, it can lead to a sense of normlessness, or as Anthony Giddens terms it: lacking a sense of ‘ontological security;’ meaning that people have no consistency in their self-identity and no predictability which provides us with a sense of routine or security.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses provide that security. They tell you exactly who you should be, and most definitely how you should live. All questions can be answered. Therefore you’ll find a lot of adult converts to the Jehovah’s Witnesses describing a moment where life wasn’t going so well and they turned to the religion for help. For those born into the religion, there was no such moment. They don’t know what it is to live in a fear-inducing world, or how safe their lives are in comparison. Therefore, the religion must teach it to them. And it does so by using all of the methods which myself and my participants recalled.

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness was a constant battle between what society expected of me, what the religion expected of me and what I expected of myself. There is a constant cost-benefit analysis which had to be made, whether all the effort which had to be invested in the religion was worth the benefits which it provided. For me, I realised that there really were no benefits. And it was when I decided to leave when I realised that I didn’t become my corporate alter-ego. I didn’t get addicted to drugs or die in an earthquake.

Suddenly, I realised that the veil had been lifted and I was seeing the world through my own eyes and not through a framework made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finally, I was living in the world and of the world.

References

Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.
Botting, H and Botting, G (1984) The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Giddens, A (1992) Modernity and Self-Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Holden, A. (2005) Jehovah’s Witnesses, London: Routeledge.
WTBTS (2012a) Awake! 1 May, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
WTBTS (2012b) Awake! 1 March, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

WTBTS (2011b) Watchtower, 1 December, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

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And the flag was still there (everywhere!)

American Flags

Source: Dakota Garilli, Chatham University PA.

It is possibly the most recognised symbols across the world, and certainly no one would dispute that no other nation has the same amount of reverence for their flag as the Americans do. The Star Spangled Banner, the Stars and Stripes or Old Glory is waved at almost all public events in the US. It’s placed on commercial products from t-shirts to food and features on the porches of almost any given street.

During my frequent trips to New York one of the most striking things I witnessed was the prevalence of the American flag. When driving through the middle-class suburban towns I would lose count of how many porches and front gardens showcased the flag, proudly, atop a pole. In the area I stayed in there is a scenic road which bridges together two neighbouring towns nicknamed the ‘Causeway.’ The road is surrounded by a lake on either side with a large mountainous backdrop covered in trees. For just a second, you could easily forget you were near any civilization. That is, until you notice the flags which hang from each telegraph pole which run alongside the road. For me these flags served as a patriotic sentiment to go alongside the scenery, saying: “This is America.” Or on some days with a little more confidence: “Of course this is America.” I get a similar feeling from the 19th century painting of the Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran, where it seems as though by the establishment of Yellowstone as a national park, there is nothing truly wild about the American sublime anymore. It has been literally and metaphorically framed by America, and that’s how I saw those flags along the causeway.

Whether the effects of the flag are a positive or negative one is something only we can decide for ourselves. I’d be very interested to know how you feel about the US flag, what message or emotions does it spark in you? Do they change depending on whether it’s displayed on a commercial product or a funeral? For me, my thoughts on the flag were shaped by a number of different theories, some of which I will share with you now.

Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Flags conjure up the most potent sense of patriotic or nationalist feelings, and rightly so. To be patriotic we need to have an imagined sense of community, a feeling of togetherness or comradery with our fellow citizens. That symbolic grouping together usually resonates around a particular ethnic group, or as some Nationalism experts say an Ethnie1. That feeling requires cultural symbols to create tangible and shared feelings, so that we can all look upon a particular object and feel closer together. That’s why flags play such a huge role within a nation, take for instance the way in which Geographers Jonathan Leib and Gerald Webster describe them:

“…flags are ‘symbolic containers,’ with most country flags today symbolizing membership in a national citizenry. National flags therefore ‘condense’ a range of meanings and emotions pertaining to a group’s perceived common historical experience, real or imagined cultural homogeneity, and efforts to define a similarity of outlook for the future.”2

There are two things which I find really interesting from this quote. Firstly, flags are important because they are not simply colours on a piece of fabric; they contain a huge number of conflicting and shared emotions and memories, something I will expand on later. Secondly, the imagined community which it evokes is exactly that, imagined. We all know that it is impossible to know everyone who lives within a given nation, so therefore we have to imagine them3. When you think of an American, who do you see? When you think of a foreigner, who do you see? This means that through the presentation of symbols we imagine who is part of ‘us’ and who ispart of them.’4

The path to reverence, how did Old Glory become the Nation’s Symbol?

The American flag didn’t, in fact, have the reverence that we all know today back when the USA was just establishing itself. When the declaration of independence was signed there was no adoption of a flag. In fact, one year later when such a law did pass, there were no specific guidelines as to how the flag should look:

“Congress did not set the dimensions, the proportions, the size of the canton or field … or even the shape of the flag. Nor did the resolution say anything about the shape of the stars or the pattern for the stars in the constellation.”5

USA Flag with hidden Confederate Stars

Confederate Star hidden within the flag.
Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15634606

So in true American individualist spirit, each flag maker could arrange the stars in whatever shape they wished. A case in point can be seen in the following image; a southerner’s attempt to hide the Confederate Cross within the stars during the aftermath of the Civil War. Clearly it would take some time before the American people would come to fully accept the Star Spangled Banner and what it stood for. This is also a great example of how flag’s inclusiveness has changed over time: for a Southerner the flag was seen as an oppressive force, whilst for slaves it was a sign of liberation. Skip ahead to contemporary society and the opposite may be true, those Southerners may see the flag as a symbol of traditional American values, whereas for others such as immigrants, the flag could be seen as a barrier. Remember that we’ve already established that the flag works as a symbolic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ well it could be argued it has moved from a domestic boundary to an international one. See for example the new immigration laws in Arizona which target certain ethnic minorities.

Raising the flag (ground zero)

Raising the Flag. Source: http://www.groundzerospirit.org/

In terms of creating national reverence, one such event can be summed up in the image opposite. A gallup poll conducted early in 2002 found that “83% of Americans plan to display a flag during the holiday weekend — up from 66% a year ago.”6

Images of the flag are often used in the context of war time (also see flag rising on Iwo Jima). They have a profound effect on the nation’s imagined community as they conjure up images of a nation under ‘threat.’ Being under threat supposes that there is someone out there who is dangerous and that there are us in here that need protecting. Once again, it reifies the cultural boundary between nations, cultures and people, manifesting itself in cultural symbols like the flag.

What does it all mean for me?

For me, it doesn’t come down to whether I should love or hate the use of flags. I think what is most important, and that I hope this blog might begin touch upon, is the importance of being reflexive on how powerful such a symbol can be. What’s more, I think it’s important to try to look at how our position within society reflects our view of cultural symbols and how they can be interpreted or felt by others. Benedict Anderson argues that the strong imagined comradery which comes from symbols like the flag “makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”7

With such a powerful social and cultural force, I think we all need to closely examine what the flag means to us, to others, and whether ultimately they have a positive or negative impact on people all over the globe. Please share your thoughts on your own country, or other country’s flags and what they mean to you.

 

References:

 

1 Smith, A. (2009) Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism, Oxon: Routledge.

2 Leib, J. And Webster, G. (2007) ‘Rebel with(out) a cause? The contested meanings of the Confederate battle flag in the American South’ in Eriksen, T. And Jenkins, R. (2007) Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America, Oxon: Routledge. Page: 31.

3 Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities, London: Verso.

4 Jenkins, R. (1997) Rethinking ethnicity, London: Sage.

5Leepson, M. (2005) Flag: An American Biography, New York: St. Martin’s Press. Page: 22.

6Gillespie, M. (2002) ‘Americans Feeling More Patriotic This Independence Day’ [Online] Available: http://www.gallup.com/poll/6337/Americans-Feeling-More-Patriotic-Independence-Day.aspx [Accessed 19 April 2012].

7Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities, London: Verso. Page: 7.

 

 

 

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The LGBT fallout of UK Immigration

Vincent and I in New York

Vincent (left) and I, together in New York

It’s been six years exactly since I first received a message on my MySpace account from my now soon to be husband. One year later, after many many Skype conversations, we met in Barcelona, Spain. Vincent turned out to be everything I expected, and more. For the first time I felt like I met someone who was not only a perfect partner, but best friend. Every time I think back to the first time I met him in person it sends butterflies straight to my stomach. Needless to say, we decided that we would make a real go of the relationship, promising that one of us would move over after we both graduated from University.

As with many bi-national couples who have decided to move closer together, we decided that the easiest way to make the leap was by getting married. The UK, being a step further along LGBT equality path seemed like the most obvious choice. This is because although the USA has some equal marriage laws at the state level, it is not recognised on a federal level and therefore immigration is not possible. Everything seemed rosy, that is, until the UK government changed a law which makes it almost impossible for bi-national couples to come together.

The new law states that for a spouse to come to Britain the sponsor must be earning over £18,600. Triple the amount of the previous law which only required £5,500 a year excluding housing costs. The reason? A government consultation decided that £18,600 was the minimum someone needs to earn for a two-person household to avoid being a “burden on the state.”

According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (2011) 40% of the UK population would not be able to sponsor their spouses under the new law if they had to. That’s twenty five million people. Not to mention that if you start looking at the average wages of particular parts of the UK, or particular groups of people like women and under 30s, that number goes even higher.

Initially my efforts to understand the law were directed at the many arbitrary decisions that were made on the part of the consultation. For example, four out of the five expert bodies that were consulted strongly argued for the law not to be changed, or that many countries have much more practical and sensitive laws regarding family immigration (Australia for example). Instead, my focus should have been on the question. Rather than “What income needed to support the family without them becoming a burden on the State,” it should be, “How effective is the current maintenance threshold for family immigration and what possible alternatives are there?”

By not asking the right question, the most important issues were left completely neglected. For example, the UK is only one of twenty nine countries which recognise same sex couples right to a family life. This means that many of the members of the European Convention of Human Rights are in breach of Article 8 (right to family life). Whether or not the new UK legislation also breaks that article are yet to be seen.

LGBT couples across the globe are suffering daily in their fight for equality and right to recognition of their relationships. It is ridiculous that the UK and America are still lagging behind on these issues and that laws can be passed with such disregard to the limited options couples like my fiancé and I have. Citizens within the European Union have freedom to move without such red tape and as two recent graduates with a lot to offer it makes no sense that we would be penalised yet again because we happen to be gay.

Love sees no borders and should never have to!


If you are affected by immigration equality then please stay up to date with the many charities that exist, as well as signing the UK Petition:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/34835 (UK Petition)

Organisations:

http://www.immigrationequality.org/ (USA)

http://www.afer.org/ (USA)

http://www.legit.ca/ (Canada)

Groups:

https://www.facebook.com/UniteFamiliesFightForLove (UK)

https://www.facebook.com/BiNationalCouples (USA)

 

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Where are all the women?

The other week I came across Empire’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Movie Character’s of all time. At first I thought nothing of it, but the other day I went back to perform a little experiment. The test was simply this: how many women made the list?

…Any guesses?

Twelve… Twelve, out of a possible 100. Out of those twelve, only three made it into the top 50. Out of those twelve, only five managed to score higher than Wall-E, the cartoon robot which has about 17 lines of dialogue in the whole movie! I mean, come on. Are film makers so bad that they cannot make a woman’s character better than an animated robot? …Because I know plenty of women who would be a lot more interesting without any words.

All this reminded me of what I should have blogged about a long time ago, the “Bechdel Test.” For those of you who haven’t come across it, I will briefly explain. The test comes from Alison Bechdel who created three simple criteria to see whether movies have adequate female representation. The criteria are as follows:

  1. The movie has at least two female characters, with names,
  2. Those two females talk to each other,
  3. The conversation is not about a man.

The test seems simple enough, right? Well, surprisingly – or not so surprisingly – a huge number of movies fail the test. For instance, at the last academy awards only 2 out of the 9 best picture nominees past this test; although one of those only passed due to a 5 second exchange between two women. But, why is this such a huge problem?

Well, I am sure that we would all agree that most films are designed to portray a part of human life. Most genres, except perhaps some fantasy/sci-fi are set in a time or place where the events could actually happen. Taking this into account, as well as the fact that just over half of the population is made up of women; wouldn’t it be okay to assume that just over half of the characters in movies would also be women? Well, I know that’s unrealistic – many parts of society are made up of just men, a film about politics, or corporate business(men) for example? Therefore a representation of the real world would in fact be mostly men, although in my opinion that just reflects the systematic sexism that we have in the world.

Nevertheless, aren’t most movies actually fictional? Whether or not they are based on true events, most writers and directors have the poetic license to add, remove or modify the story’s characters; couldn’t they decide to make some of them female roles? After all, we are supposed to identify with these characters, right? As it stands, young and adult women who watch these movies aren’t exactly spoilt for choice in terms of cinematic role models.

What is more, you’d be surprised at how many movies really abuse their female characters just to move a male character’s plot along. These are called ‘tropes,’ similar to a cliché – where the female character is usually portrayed in a negative light such as the classic ‘I’m going to use my dangerous sexuality to lure you in and then kill you’ type.

It’s not like I want every movie to be full of women, but I also don’t want every movie to be full of men. From the people that I’ve spoken to about this, most of their reactions are of surprise. They find it hard to believe they’ve been watching movies for so long without realising. I just hope that we can continue to raise people’s awareness of how women are portrayed in the media, and this goes just as easily for other marginalised groups too!

If this resonates with you in any way, please take a look at www.feministfrequency.com for really great videos and info on women in popular culture.

Also, to see if your favourite movies pass the Bechdel test, you can find out here: http://bechdeltest.com.

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Reflections on gay marriage

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Gay Marriage on Fox's 'The Simpsons'

With the UK Government’s marriage consultation underway and the USA’s snowballing momentum on gay-marriage laws it seemed fitting that I should contemplate my own position on gay-marriage. Not to mention that I have seen, listened to and taken part in a number of debates on gay-marriage but never made my opinion explicit, therefore this may be as much as a journey for me as I hope it will be for you.

Rather than responding to the conventional arguments against gay-marriage that you would usually read in the media, I am concerned with the anti-assimilationist perspective that derives from some strands of LGBT liberation and Queer theory (although I do often position myself within these perspectives for the most part). For a very clear and well articulated argument from this position I recommend reading Kieran Burn’s blog post written at the end of 2011.

It was not very long ago that I would have argued against gay marriage for many of the reasons Kieran so eloquently described, although it is both my studies at University and my long term international relationship which has evolved my perspective.

Is marriage an oppressive institution?

What surprised me about the gay-marriage debate was the amount of focus paid to religious claims of the “long history” of the “sanctity” of marriage. This was because for a while now I have been aware of how marriage itself has predated any religious claims. By tracking the concept of marriage as far back as ancient Rome it is clear to see that marriage for the most part has been more of an economic agreement rather than a romantic affair. In fact, it was only after the 10th century when Christian ceremonies could take place inside a church and then the 13th century when a priest took charge of the proceedings. In addition, the 16th century brought with it the Protestant reformation which then rejected the church’s involvement, arguing that it was strictly a government issue. So the idea of marrying for love is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The point I am trying to make here, is that marriage as an institution predates any religious stranglehold and certainly predates modern capitalism; therefore it would be unwise to reduce such a complex history to a neat blueprint which was recently designed by capitalists to necessarily oppress certain groups.

I do recognise, however, that throughout history women have consistently faired a lot worse in marriage than men. But to automatically associate marriage as an oppressive institution would not only ignore the historical structural and cultural changes but also undermine the individual agency that people have, presuming that they are unwittingly duped into an oppressive regime. Research has demonstrated that the nuclear family, despite being a popular paradigm, was never truly as prevalent as sociologists once made out. I believe that marriage has been infused with a larger system of patriarchy, rather than a route cause of it.

Marriage then should not be seen as a ubiquitous container of oppression, but rather as a social construction which is classified and perceived by a specific moment in time. It has consistently evolved and will continue to do so, therefore I argue that by allowing many LGBT individuals to get married would not assimilate them into a hetronormative culture. Instead, it would reappropriate the meaning attached to marriage and once again evolve the institution into a new age.

Who wants to get married anyway?

Following on from the argument that I have thus far made about religion’s recent claims to marriage, it no doubt plays a large role on people’s everyday realities and perceptions of what marriage is to them. Therefore allowing gay-marriage would allow a substantial amount of religious LGBT individuals the right to practice their relationship in line with their faith.

In addition, marriage is a globally recognised phenomenon which allows couples the right to apply for citizenship in the country their spouse is located. This is all too familiar in my case since my boyfriend lives in the United States, a country where federal laws would not allow my migration to America based upon marriage.

What this amounts to, is that to argue gay marriage is just a case of semantics is to ignore the real implications that the term has on actual people’s lives. To be recognised as ‘married’ carries a global significance. Marriage is a civil right – not an expectation – therefore we need not worry that the entire LGBT community will be swallowed up by the hetronormative beast. Many LGBT couples, like straight couples, will decide not to get married.

Concluding Thoughts

What I hope this argument does, is bring to light the complexity that the marriage debate has. That it has no claim to religious “sanctity,” nor to any modern capitalist endeavour and does not necessarily bring with it any innate oppressive features. I truly believe that the efforts made for equal marriage will bring a new level of global recognition to LGBT relationships, will help to reinvent the concept of marriage, as well as drastically improving the lives of so many individuals who wish to marry, not just civil partner.

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Emotion in Work

I realise that this image may be considered quite old fashioned by today’s 24/7 media standards, however I had to wait a while before writing this blog post since I was writing on this topic for one of my undergraduate assignments.

The image was taken in November 2011 at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) where members of the ‘occupy’ campaign had travelled to protest on the campus. The photograph depicts the incident where a police officer pepper-sprayed the students who were accused of blocking the path from police access, a picture which roused a lot of attention due to the disposition of the officer.

The officer is shown to be walking at a slow pace, with one hand by his side and a calm posture. The cop in the background facing the camera is also shown to be collected, clearly there is no sense of panic or urgency with the officers. It is for these reasons why many have taken issue with the way the police behaved on that day, including one of the developers of pepper-spray:

“I mean, look at the guy. He’s not braced for imminent attack by a foe; he does not move with tension as if navigating a hostile environment. He’s administering punishment, and his face says: “Meh.” (Jardin 2011)¹.”

This got me thinking about the ways in which emotion plays a part in our working lives. The emergence of sociological literature dealing with emotion in work was spearheaded by Alrine Hocschild’s the managed heart (1983). Since then, there has been numerous examples of emotion in work, most famously the forced attentiveness in airline workers – but also the negative displays of debt collectors.

What I felt was interesting about the above image, is the distinct lack of an emotional display – or at least, the attempt to hide any emotion. With the many recent clashes between Police and protestors, the question of how the police both represent themselves – and are classified by others has increasingly been on my mind. Have the days of local community ‘bobby’ past, or do they exist but only when they decide it is safe to emote kindness, empathy and compassion?

In my research on this topic one issue has consistently probed my imagination, what should our expectations of emotion be? Should I be disappointed by a lack of interest on the part of the shopkeeper when I am purchasing items, or should I be frustrated by the forced smiles of sales people? At what point should our expectations of emotions in human interaction meet the realities of paid employment, and exactly how can this be controlled and measured?

¹Jardin, Xeni (2011) ‘The pepper-spraying cop gets Photoshop justice,’ The Guardian [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/23/pepper-spraying-cop-photoshop-justice

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Undercover Boss

Undercover Boss

Source: cbs.com/shows/undercover_boss/

It’s been a while since I saw this program, but as it is about to enter into its third season I  was reminded about the premise of the show and the message it sends to viewers.

The Premise: The show begins by describing the company and then takes a look at the personal lives of (usually) the company’s CEO. Typically this is done in such a way so the company heads are made to look like the average Joe, making it in a tough world by merit and hard work. For the remainder, the show documents the CEO going undercover in their company to see what it is like to work at the blue-collar level.

What is interesting to me is that for each episode that I have seen the CEO’s ‘companions’ are always in a difficult personal situation, struggling to make ends meet, trying to ‘better’ themselves. I have yet to see them be paired with an apathetic worker who just goes through the motions of the daily grind. The result on the CEO’s part is to bestow money and rewards to these ‘fellow’ average Joes, usually these are promotions, scholarships or better work equipment.

Nevertheless the fairy tail ending always results in the corporate heads being presented in a night in shining armor, riding in on their horses to save the poor of their woes. Usually the blame for all these terrible circumstances are directed at the middle managers, no mention is made of corporate crime or pressure from above. And very rarely are any systematic changes made to benefit all workers within the company, only the lucky few.

So at a time of occupy protests and global recognition of the problems corporations present, the media still presents a rosy picture of the American dream. Viewers are lead along a rosy path of ambition and opportunity where your local Subway or Hooters can put you in a successful career based just on hard work and motivation.

It makes me wonder about how many people still believe this is what happens? Do these programs reinforce the blindness in so many people toward racial, gendered and class based inequalities (and more)? How many of us really see these programs critically?

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