You go, girlfriends

Women A Success Story8

This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

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Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

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The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

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Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.

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Smirk and mirrors

MailLegsitMar28

Today’s Daily Mail mines a new low in sniggering, boarding-school sexism. Never mind Brexit, the groaning lever by which this country is being torn asunder! Who, out of two powerful national leaders at the centre of this tragic division of a nation, has the nicest legs? Come on! They were asking for it, wearing skirts and having their legs sticking out from under them! Legs-it! Geddit?!

The Mail is clever. It does what the Sun used to do, which is to demean women and put them back in the kitchen by objectifying their body parts, but it does so under the cover of being a respectable, Victorian-values “women’s paper”. The cover story here is essentially a bit of filler by star columnist Sarah Vine, which reads like a caption that’s supposedly dignified into journalism by its “decoding” of what Prime Minister Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon look, sit and dress like. “While May’s fingers, elegant with their classic red nails, were relaxed and open, Sturgeon’s grip appeared somewhat tenser,” it mutters in academic assessment. Marshall McLuhan need not shift in his grave.

“But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show.”

The legs do stand out. It’s a full-frame crop of a carefully choreographed press shot that presents an uncut, unabashed view of the two women in it. Chroniclers of our time like Sarah Vine can observe all sorts of details, such as Sturgeon’s “right thumb at an awkward angle” and her stiletto that’s “not quite dangling off her foot,” and May’s “stylish navy jacket, patterned dress and trademark leopard-print heels”. But here’s where typing out things that you can actually see turns to cod analysis, with the flourish, “There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed.”

Society is falling apart. People who voted for Brexit now shout from the stalls on Question Time, having been forced by draconian liberal thinking at the BBC to hand in at reception their flaming torches kept at all times in case the need to run foreign nurses out of town arises. UKIP is still invited onto television discussion shows despite having just lost its only MP. A violent man in his 50s drives a hired car down a pavement with intent to kill and maim and doesn’t even seem to have the excuse of believing in anything much. The views of 51.89 per cent (or in actual fact 51.89% of the 65.38% of the voting-age population that voted) keep being referred to as “the will of the people.” Boris Johnson, who fucked this country, is still in a job. George Osborne, who fucked this country, is in six jobs. Michael Gove, who fucked this country, is married to Sarah Vine. I hope he judges her every decision and act by how nice or horrible her legs are, because it’s all she deserves, according to Sarah Vine.

“May’s famously long extremities,” she slurps, “are demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance – knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal, feet neatly aligned.” This “studied pose” apparently reminds us that “for all her confidence, she is ever the vicar’s daughter, always respectful and anxious not to put a foot wrong.” This semi-pornographic fantasy about knees and alignment continues with Vine’s portrait of Sturgeon, whose Scottish legs are “shorter but undeniably more shapely”, her “shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing towards her audience.” End the bullshit!

No, it is not “a direct attempt at seduction”; she does not “seem to be saying. ‘You know you want to.’” This is what decrepit high court judges think about women who wear skirts and drink legally  and are sexually assaulted. (Forgive me, I can’t remember if the Mail still hates high court judges, or considers them pillars of a sovereign society. It’s one or the other, depending on the result.)

Here’s my own observation of our current politics: the men and women who promoted the instant fix of Brexit last summer seem incapable of treating its execution with anything other than smirking and laughter.

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Look at guffawing David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on last night’s special pre-Article 50 edition of Question Time.

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Look at smugly grinning Deputy Chair and Health Spokesperson of the UK Independence Party Suzanne Evans on the same Question Time. I know they feel victorious and vindicated by the result of a referendum which, in my view, should never have taken place, and if it did should not have rested on a tiny percentage for either bloc. The Tory government was running so scared of UKIP it tossed off a YES/NO referendum with constitutional and economic effects that will resonate for generations just to shut up Nigel Farage, when it could have very easily designed it so that, say, a 60% majority was required to decide it. Now that UKIP have wrought eternal damnation on the nation, they should really just fuck off. Why is Question Time still inviting representatives of a party with no MPs? The sooner it packs up and goes back to whichever country it came from, the better for the rest of us as we attempt to pick up the pieces of a golf-club dinner-and-dance they threw which frankly got out of hand.

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On the left – although not far enough on the left to have refused a coalition with a mandate-less Tory party – is Nick Clegg, a former yesterday’s man who seems to have found his spine since Brexit; on the right is David Davis, the sort of bully who leans into your personal space and stabs the table with his fat fingers. Look at him laughing his head off at Clegg’s attempt to keep order. He’s laughing because he thinks it’s a huge fucking lark that large parts of the British (if not Scottish) electorate voted to leave the EU without a clue how that would work. (I’m not saying the electorate was ignorant – politicians clearly had no idea how Brexit would work.) People were so disillusioned with a ruined, self-flaggelatingly spineless Labour Party on one hand and elite Westminster-bubble politics embodied by, well, stuffed suits like David Davis on the other, it lodged a massive protest vote against the lot of them. But the same electorate now wishes the same elites it gave a bloody nose to, to sort it all out, and quickly, please. (Or it will start shouting from the stalls again.)

Here’s the big laugh. It’s going to be slow. And laborious. And boring. And disappointing. And painful. And immigrants aren’t going to stop moving freely just because a sign on a lying bus said they would. And if EU nationals and other foreign nationals do leave the UK, it will be from jobs that British people would rather not do. Foreigners who come to this country do so to find work. British nationals who go to other countries do so to be on holiday.

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I don’t even have the energy to pillory this worldwide prick in a gold lift again. One vandal at a time.

I feel ashamed to be British, despite the fact that this country contains some of the most creative, funny, wise, resourceful, smart, community-minded, friendly, selfless, charitable, hardworking, pluralistic, non-xenophobic, Pointless-contestant, animal-loving people in the world. I feel ashamed that even when something objectively amazing happens, like two of our national leaders being women (not to mention the women leading Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, the woman leading the Green Party of England and Wales, and the woman who’s the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly), our press resorts to the smirk and mirrors of misogyny, and gets a women to do its dirty work.

 

Postscript

I woke up this morning, on the day Article 50 is triggered, with a knot in my stomach, again. The Brexit cheerleaders seem to be dismissing this act of national suicide as a “divorce,” as if it’s nothing really. This says a lot about them. If it’s a “divorce”, it’s one that has already lasted for nine months without anything actually happening, and negotiations are going to last for at least another two years, and nobody’s thinking about the children. That is more of a living nightmare. And the Mail’s response (“CENSORED BY THE LEFT”) says more than its disgraceful “Legs-it” cover did.

MailLegsit2Mar29

 

 

Hey ladies

By accident and not design, I saw two films at the cinema over the weekend that were about women. The first, Damsels In Distress, written and directed by a man, portrayed men in a very bad light; largely as thick-headed, arrogant dimwits or shysters. The second, Elles, written and directed by a woman, also portrayed men in a bad light; as desperate, shallow sad cases, sometimes cruel with it.

The first, and more successful, was Damsels In Distress. American indie auteur Whit Stillman takes his time. He’s only made four films since 1990. The first two, which I haven’t seen, were linked by low budgets, no stars, lavish praise and a concern for the urban haute bourgeoisie, Metropolitan and Barcelona. I’d like to see them. I saw The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, the third part of a loose trilogy apparently, because I was tempted by the subject matter, and I remember really enjoying it. It also revolved around two women.

Disco was set in the early 80s. Damsels is set now. Or, at least, I think it is; there are few clues that time has passed much since the 1950s, and because it’s set in a minor, fictional Ivy League college where the puzzling culture of fraternity houses still holds primitive sway, it all seems very remote and old-fashioned. That is, I’m sure, the point. (There is a subplot about the frat houses being closed down.) When I saw National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979, aged 14 – it was my first “AA” – this was my first exposure to the arcane college system of the United States, and I wasn’t worldly enough to spot that it was set in the early 60s. I realise that now, just as I realise that Happy Days was set in the 1950s, which I didn’t at the time. America seemed so foreign when I was a kid, I assumed it was still all about milk bars and the hop. Which, of course, to an extent, it still was in the 70s, and to a lesser extent, still is today.

Greta Gerwig is the only recognisable face. As Violet, she leads a group of prissy girls whose stated mission is to “save” dimwitted boys by going out with them and seeking to improve them. It’s a bizarre almost sexless set-up, but Stillman plays it so straight, it’s hard not to be drawn into this parallel universe. Nobody speaks as people speak; they are all dazzlingly eloquent and self-aware, and you will either find this a delight, or a massive irritant. I fell almost immediately into the former camp. If someone told me they couldn’t even sit through it, I would empathise.

It’s a 12A. There’s nothing in Damsels to frighten the horses. One subplot hints that a boy – duplicitous and untrustworthy, naturally – elicits anal sex with one of the prissy girls by claiming it’s a religious necessity for him, but this is as close to adult the film gets. It’s sort of the anti-Heathers. Gerwig’s troupe, who run a suicide prevention centre and offer tap-dancing as a therapy, seem brittle, remote and untouchable at first, but reveal deeper human feelings as the story progresses, even depression, all of which are whipped back into a fluff by an ending that comes as something of a shock, albeit a feelgood one.

It’s rare you see a film that reminds you of little else. Damsels is one such. (I gather it reminds people who’ve seen them of, yes, Metropolitan and Barcelona, the first of which was also concerned with an Ivy League college; Stillman went to Harvard.) It’s clever, wordy and weird, and if it puts women on too high a pedestal – and casts men into such a corresponding trench – well then, hooray for Whit Stillman. Better his breathless praise for the opposite sex, than Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s apparent disdain for her own, as we are about to see.

I’d read some lukewarm and hostile reviews of Szumowska’s French-language reverse-porn film Elles before seeing it, and such reviews are rare for anything with Saint Juliette de Binoche in. She plays an almost totally implausible journalist for Elle magazine, the kind who sits at home in her gorgeous Paris apartment staring at a computer and fielding calls about word-length from an unseen editor. (It may have been sloppy subtitling, but at one stage, she and the editor haggle over 8,000 “characters”, which must surely have meant words?) She interviews two female students who work as prostitutes to supplement their fees, and in doing so, unlocks her own inner prostitute. Not literally, of course, but that seems to be the thrust of the story.

It’s tosh. The studes, one French, Charlotte, one Polish, Alicja (hey, the director is Polish and she’s making her first French film, who can blame her?), seem not just guilt-free about servicing “bored husbands” for Euros, but empowered by it. They are certainly no damsels in distress. I may have missed a few meetings since becoming a feminist in the 80s, but the empowerment of women through submission to male needs and fantasies has always been a thorny one for me to grasp; clearly, women should enjoy nothing less than equality in all areas of life, from work to sex, but I’m not modern enough to see how pole dancing fits into this.

Anyway, Elles (rotten title) revolves around Binoche’s superwoman preparing a slow-cook casserole for her blasé husband’s boss, juggling the kids (including a particularly nightmarish teenage dopehead son), going food shopping and trying to fix the fridge door, while also attempting to finish her article, which chiefly involves listening to interview tapes that provide us with flashbacks mostly of the two students having frank sex with various men. Their clients run the clichéd gamut: from the businessman who bursts into tears after a premature ejaculation, to the shark in the hotel room who turns out to be a disgusting sadist (a rare instance of momentary distress there, but not enough for Charlotte to consider putting a stop to her extracurricular revenue stream). The only character who seems new is the middle-aged bloke who serenades his prostitute, naked, on an acoustic guitar. Was this odd moment of comedy supposed to show that not all men who pay women for sex are bad? That rather lets them off the hook, doesn’t it?

Although the sex is not titillating – or at least, not titillating unless you are titillated by seeing bored young women service older men – there is a lot of it, and I’m not sure it added much to the already fairly thin thesis. In the end, I found Elles infuriating, which wasn’t helped by the couple sitting next to me who had sought out the Noisiest Snack Available in the foyer and kept talking until I politely asked them not to.

I didn’t buy it. Binoche is literally never bad; and she gave the part her all – an “all” it didn’t really merit – imbuing a cardboard cut-out with life and radiance. But her grown-up journalist seemed to find the whole subculture of prostitution so shocking, you started to wonder if she’d ever read a newspaper article in her life. The scene where she gets drunk with the Polish student and they indulge in a sort of semi-erotic, quasi-Oedipal display of dancing to a terrible electro track is particularly embarrassing, and if it had been conceived by a male writer/director, you could have put it down to sleazy voyeurism. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps Elles is simply intended to be a protest about student fees. But a film about bar work isn’t really going to get the punters in, is it?