On Vice and “honest” expressions of misogyny and disgust

When I was growing up, my dad had one of those family in-jokes – a “dad joke” – that went on for years and years. Whenever I entered a room, he’d put on a ridiculous gameshow host voice and announce “It’s the Fat And Ugly Show! Starrrrriiinng Victoria!”

Obviously I knew this was meant to be a joke and that therefore it was impermissible to show any displeasure (beyond the requisite withering “da-a-ad!” protest). I knew my dad didn’t literally think I was fat and ugly. Nonetheless, whereas ugliness may be a subjective quality, I was measurably overweight, so the “joke” was based in a sort-of truth. My brother was overweight, too, but he never got the Fat And Ugly Show treatment. It was therefore made clear, through the medium of dad humour, that fatness and ugliness were particularly underdesirable qualities in girls.

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that there are many ways in which men express their prescriptions for and/or distaste of the female form. The fact that now few do so directly – that few would write religious tracts comparing the vagina to the gates of Hell – does not mean that many do not find more subtle ways to express their views. One way is humour – the I was only joking, why is she so touchy? approach to making women feel ashamed of their flesh. Another is the I’m only being honest tactic, in which men “bravely” confess to their discomfort with various aspects of women’s bodies, as though to do so is taboo and therefore a courageous act. Continue reading

Advertisements

A few thoughts on politics, dependency and care

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes the way in which foetal scans both reflect and influence our contemporary view of how human beings are formed and how they relate to one another:

The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. […] The picture don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.

Of course, this isn’t true. The foetus depends on the gravida for sustenance and growth, and the baby would die if no one bothered to feed it and keep it warm. But it’s a nice image. Dependency, we are taught to believe, is for losers.

And yet all of us are dependent on others, not just as foetuses, but as adults. And we’ve just voted in a UK government who would like us to think that none of this matters at all. Dependency and care – not as temporary states, but as human inevitabilities – are politically unspeakable.

To be fair – and why not, since what difference will it make? – I don’t think any of the mainstream parties has truly stood for a politics of care, one that recognises the inevitability of dependency and the value of labour that takes place outside of what is called “the world of work.” I don’t mean by this “therefore all parties are the same”; they aren’t, not by a long shot. But not even the most well-meaning will commit to speaking the truth: that we are not all viable little economic units, just waiting to be fired up by the right opportunities and policy incentives. We are none of us self-sufficient and there is no programme that will make us so.

Dependency is a fact of life; unpaid care work will always be with us. Sometimes dependency is temporary (we are children, or we are ill, or we have caring responsibilities which leave us unable to do other “duties”); sometimes it is not (we are old and will never work again, or we will never be capable of undertaking paid employment). Even when we are earning money, our quality of life depends on subsidies and inequalities (we might suspect that many of the clothes and electronic goods we purchase are the result of slave labour – people we sponge off just because they happen to have been born somewhere else – but we don’t like to think about it too much).

The richer we are, the less we acknowledge our dependency on others (indeed, we might even have the nerve to consider ourselves “wealth creators”). Wealthy people – like David Cameron, like George Osborne, like all of them – have no idea how much they leech from others. Perhaps they suspect it – indeed, maybe an subconscious inkling of it makes them all the more eager to make dependency itself taboo. Because once you accept that it is natural and universal, instead shaming others you might be forced to acknowledge your own dispropportianate allocation of resources.

Many people in my family “don’t work.” My grandma is 96 and my children are five and seven, so I think they are excused. My brother is 42 and due to ill health has never been in paid employment. My mother is retired and my father is semi-retired, working part-time. I have a paid job and so does my partner. Considered as a nuclear unit (that is, ignoring everyone older than me) we are a “hardworking family,”™ but in reality all of us depend on one another to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, the care that is offered and received is not inevitable. Many people in my brother’s situation do not have family support in any meaningful way, not because of “broken Britain” or some abstract lack of moral values, but because it is hard and it costs money (for instance, I’d have to give up my job to do the care work my mother does). Some people see such things as “choices” because to them, that’s what they would be. Do I do it or do I pay someone else to do it? But dependency is not an indulgence and care is not a lifestyle choice. They are the very basics of life.

Tony Blair claims that Labour needs to be “for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.” As though election defeat is down to showing weakness, looking soft, not standing up for those who believe they’ll never be ill or old or poor. Perhaps, given who the electorate will vote for, there is some truth in this as an image, if not in any deep, moral sense. But there is also the problem of inconsistency. If you never commit fully to a politics of care but remain apologetic, treating it as a means to an end until everyone magically becomes “useful,” you will be far less convincing that the person who just doesn’t give a damn. Because most of us know the truth; care and need are part of our daily lives, whatever we would prefer to believe. And it would take a lot of courage to risk appearing “weak” enough to say it. It is easier to deface monuments, or to revert to myths of a “centre ground.” Take either of those options and at least no one will call you a mug. Dependency and care are a much harder sell, and a much harder fight.

On starting motherhood again

This morning I had a long bubble bath, with a cup of coffee and a book – a pleasant Sunday morning treat. Nothing strange about that, except for the fact that my partner was out and I had one child still at home. I have long felt that treats are not something one should have unless one’s children are out, soundly asleep or with another responsible adult. This morning, however, it crossed my mind that my elder son did not really need me to monitor his Minecraft adventures and that, should he require anything, his knowledge of which kitchen cupboards to position a chair beneath was sufficient. So I left him to it.

It has taken me years – years and years and years – to get to this stage (needless to say, I’m not quite there with the younger one). If having a baby snatches away all those freedoms you’ve taken for granted, raising a child is a long, slow process of winning them back, with some sadness, yes (why doesn’t he need me now?), but far more appreciation than ever before. It’s been a while since showering and going to the toilet alone were not possibilities, but  I still remember those early restrictions. On one level I can’t imagine ever going back, which makes me all the more bewildered as I stare down at my bump looming out of the bubbles, a future restriction kicking away.

I am getting back on the treadmill – in theory, at least. Part of me does not expect this next baby to really be a baby. I have done babies. I am over that. There were those four or five years which I still see through a kind of haze – tiredness, probably – but I have come out the other side. My next child will have the body of a baby (for ease of birthing purposes) but the mind and capabilities of a five-year-old. A well-behaved five-year-old with inexpensive tastes. Things can’t possibly be like they were before.

The distance from baby- and toddlerhood has allowed me to become increasingly honest, and scathing, about some of the realities. There are toys I have in storage I now look upon in dread. Red fox running about, are you in? Or are you out? Let’s play! I can/cannot believe that such activities and mantras await me again. And childcare fees. I have, I think, paid enough over the years. I can’t be expected to pay again. Ditto sleeplessness. With my first two there were difficulties I could not admit to myself at the time for fear of being someone who couldn’t cope. Crying in the car on the way to toddler groups (but not real crying, obviously, so I’d tell myself). I have since taken the liberty of acknowledging how things really were, meaning that this next baby must come on easy mode. Which obviously it won’t.

I am having another baby for the same reason I had a first baby and a second: because you can’t half-have one. You can’t dip your toe into the water, enjoy the good bits, discard the rest. You either do it or you don’t. And to be honest, I can’t wait. Unless I win the lottery (which I don’t play) this will be my last ever pregnancy, my last ever baby, the last chance I have to feel and be all this with another tiny person. The excitement I feel at this also makes me feel irrational because this time I know. I can’t plead ignorance. So I am torn between bring it on, savour the moment and I hope he does me a favour and gets to seven or eight pretty quickly, then I can have more Sunday morning baths. All this mixed with the knowledge that by the time he gets to one, I’ll inexplicably want to do it/not do it again.

This should no doubt lead to some great conclusion about what motherhood is “really” like but it doesn’t. Only that feelings are not straightforward and I am someone who likes straightforward feelings almost as much as I like being able to go to the toilet alone. Which, for the time being, I can still do (hiding away in the bathroom with a book, yelling to the kids that “Mummy needs extra time because Mummy has to go for the foetus, too!”). Soon I won’t be able to and, as will be the case for years to come, I don’t mind and I do.