The Science Museum: Forthcoming exhibitions*

Following on from the brilliant Who am I? exhibition, what’s next for The Science Museum in teaching us who we are today?*

No-tails – our closest relative?

A fascinating look at the lives of those primates who many say are our closest relatives: the no-tails. Born into human communities, but without penises,  the no-tails possess an incredible ability to emulate human behaviour, even acquiring language and, some claim, having thoughts. Most of us are familiar with the ways in which no-tails help us in our daily lives: washing underpants, making sandwiches, even gestating and bearing human children with real, human penises. But what else can no-tails teach us about ourselves? What is it that makes us, so close in so many ways, so much more special than them? And how could this help us to get even more out of human-no-tail relations in years to come? Join us for an amazing exploration of the lives of what some scientists have affectionately called “the lesser humans.”

Where do I come from?

An entertaining, informative response to age-old question: “how are babies made?” While scientists, philosophers and clerics have always known that men make babies, theories as to how they do it have varied. From Aristotle’s idea of menstrual blood as the “matter” which develops the male life principle, right through to today’s more detailed understanding of conception and gestation, men have always been the universe’s experts on the origins of human life. Today we find them pushing the very boundaries of medical science in order to find new ways of planting mini-humans in the potting soil that was once referred to as the “female” body. What could the future hold? Will it always be necessary to gestate new beings in the primitive boundaries of a womb, or can mankind find more sterile, civilised environments? Is a global surrogacy market in which “female” bodies are strictly controlled and force-fed medication from birth the answer? Explore all this and more in this fascinating look at the miracle of life.

Community voices: Pro-ana

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and perhaps none are so fascinating as the bodies of chronic anorexics. In this, an exhibition set up with the co-operation of the pro-ana and pro-mia communities, we explore what it means to be anorexic or bulimic, the complex interactions of body, mind and community that go to shape what we call “the anorexic experience” and listen to the story of Mary, a young woman who discovered her true identity by starving herself down to five stone and dying of heart failure. Our display includes objects selected by members of the community: laxatives, scales, an actual toothbrush used for self-induced vomiting, carrier bags of actual bulimic vomit, Mary’s daily diet (two Polo mints) and some age seven jeans worn by Mary shortly before her death. A fun way for young people to explore issues of identity and self!

Isaac Baker Brown, medical pioneer

A retrospective on the work of Isaac Baker Brown, 19th century English gynaecologist, surgeon and pioneer in the performance of clitoridectomies on women who didn’t behave like women. While disgraced in his own lifetime, we now recognise him as a forerunner of today’s doctors performing mastectomies on teenage non-binary folk and prescribing testosterone to non-feminine womb-owners. A true Galileo of the medical community, Baker Brown is a fascinating figure, tragically misunderstood as an abuser of “females” in his own unenlightened times.

(*These aren’t real exhibitions. I just think, on past evidence, they really, really could be)

New Statesman: Allowing boys to be boys won’t bridge the GCSE gender gap

According to Tory MP Karl McCartney, UK schools need to spend more time celebrating the traditional masculine roles that men were “born to do.” As a mother of school-age boys, I’m obviously very concerned about this. Does my sons’ school offer lessons in manliness? If not, how can I be sure they won’t mistakenly end up doing things women are “born to do,” such as hoovering, ironing and remembering to send birthday cards?

Not only that, but how can I be sure that girls – any girls, I don’t care which – won’t get better exam results than my brilliant boys? This stuff keeps me awake at night (this, and fuming over white male MPs standing up in parliament to complain about the “shrill equal pay brigade,” but best not to dwell on that now).

There’s a long history of boys underperforming, by which we mean “not doing as well as girls.” The assumption is that boys should naturally be doing as well as their female contemporaries. This is not an idea of equality we apply to all areas of achievement. We do not, for instance, talk about women “underperforming” at sports. We do not insist that men have no innate physical advantage (something that would be quite obvious were the Olympic 100m sprint to be replaced with competitive menstrual bleeding or breastmilk squirting). Yet we refuse to accept that girls could just be better at certain academic subjects. Of course not. There must be something wrong with the way these subjects are being taught.

Read the full post at The New Statesman

New Statesman: Anorexia, breast-binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Why we should let all boys wear skirts to school

As Paris Lees once wisely observed, “sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers.” This is sad but true. Trousers, while a practical item of clothing, have not yet brought an end to sexual violence, reproductive coercion or the male appropriation of female labour and resources. Depressing though this is, there is one glimmer of hope. What if, argues Lees, men were allowed to “adopt feminine styles”? Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all along. It’s not that men benefit from male supremacy; they just haven’t discovered the joys of a nice tea dress or a fetching pair of kitten heels.

I am all for clothing equality. Being 5’1” with an ample chest, I never shop in menswear sections myself, but have always felt the strict divisions in terms of styles – in particular, the prohibition on men wearing skirts or dresses – to be arbitrary and wrong. It is a means of reinforcing the belief that the social and psychological differences between men and women are far greater than those between women and other women and men and other men. While women, having fought for their trouser-wearing rights, are now permitted (in most countries, at least) to emulate the dress sense of the dominant class, for most men, “women’s clothing” remains off-limits. Even the comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said of his wardrobe “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes, I bought them,” has since backtracked, now describing himself as “somewhat boyish and somewhat girlish” (despite being 54).

When it comes to children’s clothing, the differences are even more stark and ridiculous. Apart from the obvious, the bodies of pre-pubescent boys and girls are not significantly different, so it is not as though shape and size can even be said to be a factor. But enter any children’s clothing department, and you will find the flowery pink-for-girls, rough-and-tumble blue-for-boys stereotyping impossible to avoid.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: One year on, has shared parental leave made any difference?

So it’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake amongst new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40% reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.

I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Does Eddie Izzard like bananas? The Wibbly Pig guide to gender

My children have a book called Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas. In it, a little pig called Wibbly reveals his likes and dislikes and invites children to think about theirs, too. Do you, like Wibbly, like bananas, or do you prefer apples? Would you, like Wibbly, play with the ball, or would you rather cuddle the bear?

The message, as you might have guessed, is that we’re all different and that’s perfectly fine. I like this message. It’s a message with which I can get on board. However, I’ve started to wonder about the identity politics of it. If Wibbly likes bananas and hats and balls, is he even a pig at all? Continue reading

New Statesman: Trousers for all: Why are girls still being required to wear skirts for school?

Who wears the trousers in your relationship? In my case, it’s definitely my partner. I’ve always been a skirt and dress person. Unnecessary cloth-based leg separation just isn’t my thing.

Nonetheless, while I question both the practical and stylistic merits of trousers and shorts, I will defend to the death the right of other women to make their own sartorial choices. For this reason I am broadly in favour of Trousers for All, a UK-wide group campaigning to give girls the option of wearing trousers as part of their school uniform.

While most schools already permit this, there remain a number who do not. This week, as part of The University of Manchester’s social justice festival JustFest, academics Dr Katia Chornik and Professor Claire Hale will argue that this is in breach of the Department of Education’s School Uniform document and The Equality Act 2010. “Both documents,” says Chornik, “emphasise the need to avoid uniforms which are expensive and which treat one sex less favourably than the other. In our view the practice of banning trousers for girls is gender discrimination and prejudice against females.” But is it really?

Read the full post at the New Statesman

How to dress your son as a female character in Frozen

So this week I found out that I am just like the singer Adele. Not in the being any good at singing or having loads of money or attracting legions of fans way, but in the one way that truly counts: we both let our sons dress up as female characters from Frozen.

Turns out Adele’s son is an Anna. My middle son’s more of an Elsa, complete with a little plastic crown to hurl off dramatically whenever he gets to “the past is in the past” in Let It Go. I don’t know where Adele does her shopping, but my son’s blue dress and sparkly wig were £15 at Sainsbury’s (paid for by a grandparent, who then sent me an email expressing concern at my son wearing his new outfit anywhere other than at home. He’s since worn it twice to the school disco, with no ill effects). Continue reading

Plastic Woman, Cardboard Man, or, Can you have a feminism which doesn’t expect men to change?

In her masculinity-in-crisis moananthon The End of Men, Hanna Rosin introduces us to two characters: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Their purpose is to help us understand why today’s men are losing out to their female counterparts. It’s not that women are better than men, nor even that this whole “losing out” thing is a myth. It’s because women are adaptable and men aren’t. Lucky women. Poor men.

According to Rosin, Plastic Woman has “throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility” while Cardboard Man “hardly changes at all.” On the face of it, this sounds rather flattering to women. Men just plod along, being man-like, whereas we get to transform ourselves, Mr Benn-like, depending on whatever the circumstances (i.e. men) require. How cool is that? It’s in line with a lot of recent commentary on gender difference, which seeks to celebrate supposedly “feminine” characteristics – flexibility, patience, empathy – at the expense of supposedly “masculine” ones – rationality, stability, individualism. Women are, we are told, the new winners, both in the home and in the newly “feminised” workplace (it’s just unfortunate that those who live with us and those who decide on our salaries haven’t quite cottoned on to this. But never mind, the future’s female – it’s only the present that never is). Continue reading

Contemporary feminism needs a broader definition of “woman”

What is a woman, anyway? This question has been asked time and again, and still we don’t have a definitive answer. Why would that be? I have a theory: because under a system – patriarchy – which is invested in dehumanising females, the obvious response – “a female human” – would give the game away. Conscious of their own humanity, women might get uppity and stop letting men objectify their bodies, exploit their labour and generally piss about being violent. This would never do. Hence “woman”, unlike “man”, has to be really, really hard to define (so hard that you need a super-clever brain – the kind of brain that shares a body with a penis – to get it just right).

Mount Holyoke’s cancellation of its yearly production of The Vagina Monologues has given rise to a great deal of pseudo-philosophical babble regarding “reductive” and “exclusive” definitions of womanhood. According to a student spokesperson:

At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.

Oh dear! According to Jezebel this is all part of an “ugly battle” regarding “the expansion of the definition of ‘woman’ on college campuses”. Clearly, women are not walking vaginas (they are, as previously stated, human beings). But it seems to me that all the current “let’s make womanhood more inclusive” statements are rather missing the point. Continue reading

On lady staplers and feminine weakness

Today I found out that a special “light touch stapler” is being marketed as “easy for ladies to use”. I for one am relieved to hear this. I am sick and tired of asking male colleagues to staple together my documents for me (right after I’ve made them forge my signature due to the fact that my office refuses to stock pens that are suitable for my delicate lady hands).

Of course, even with light touch staplers, the world is still a rough, tough place for a weak, fragile woman. Office stationery is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that are too hard to handle. Take doors, for instance. We can’t open doors to save our lives. What’s more, the evils of feminism have left men unsure whether to help us with this or not, leaving us standing helplessly outside rooms until we’ve forgotten why we wanted to enter them in the first place. Then there’s driving (despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re crap at it) and holding positions of authority (hormones – which only women have, apparently – always get in the way). And as for politics – until they make a cutesy, mini Houses of Parliament, ideally one that looks more like the Happlyland Fairlyand Bluebell Boot, we’re all just going to feel alienated. It’s not that male politicians remain braying, misogynistic boors who talk over women; it’s the fact that the seat of government is not pink (and the doors are too heavy, and the stationery just too male).

Thankfully there are some things women are physically and emotionally strong enough to take on, which is just as well since otherwise we’d be really bloody useless. Take caring work, for instance. Delicate ladies who cannot lift a pen unless it is “designed to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand” turn out to be just fine at wiping shit-covered toddler arses and lifting sick, elderly relatives twice their weight. It’s funny, isn’t it? Women – those fragrant little flowers – end up doing the vast majority of unpaid caring work: fetching and carrying, cleaning up blood and vomit, doing all that emotional heavy lifting that men just aren’t equipped to do. We even give birth to the next generation (ideally not by being “too posh to push”; let’s face it, staplers are hard but pushing a human being out of your vagina? Piece of piss).

Of course, a cynic might say that the whole weak woman construct is there to create the illusion that men are caring and providing for women when in fact it’s the other way round; we’re the ones providing the physical and emotional resources that enable men to faff around earning money, kicking footballs, killing each other and whatnot. Obviously that’s a crude way of putting it. I prefer to take a more nuanced line, which is that: yes, we women are clearly crap at staples and pens and power (the important things). It’s just as well we have our magic unpaid carer strengths to compensate. Sorry, men, that we can’t be more useful than that.

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and Paddington the Movie: A time-saving joint review

Last weekend I engaged in two rather different cultural pursuits: I started reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and I took my children to see the film Paddington. Now, I say they were different (certainly I enjoyed one a lot more than the other), but there were some similarities nonetheless. The challenge to the gendered status quo, for instance. On that point, Paddington and Serano are as one. Yes, I know that might sound weird, but you’ll just have to bear with me.

Whipping Girl is one of those books that you’ve read before you’ve actually read it, at least if you’ve spent any time on feminist twitter. For me it was a bit like Harry Potter: I kept hearing the same things about it until I started to feel sure people were misrepresenting – there had to be more to it than bloody Hogwarts – but no. It is what it is. Serano genuinely claims that “while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered fair game”.* She also talks about feminists “buy[ing] into traditionally sexist notions about femininity—that it is artificial, contrived, and frivolous; that it is a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men”. She writes about “empowering” femininity.*** She also claims to know that “certain aspects of femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex”.**** It’s actually really disappointing. I did hope for at least some glimmer of insight, or perhaps a bit less misogyny (but what would I know? I’m too busy making the world sexist simply by pointing out that sexism exists). Continue reading

International Men’s Day: So what is a man, anyway?

It’s International Men’s Day! A day upon which we recognise that not only does masculinity make life crap for women and girls – it tends to fuck things up for men and boys too! What a swizz! Best get busy dismantling the whole damn edifice.

Only joking. Of course, nobody’s really going to challenge male supremacy on behalf of men. What kind of madcap idea would that be? God forbid. Let’s just keep on polishing the same old turd. It can’t make things any worse, right?

We know the facts: men are by far the most likely to commit violent crime and the victims are themselves most likely to be men. We know that men are more likely than women to commit suicide. We know that there’s plenty to do with being a man that is, quite frankly, a bit shit. But when it comes to achieving gender equality, who do we focus on changing? Women. Because, despite the obvious opportunities for self-analysis and change, it seems the dominant class isn’t the problem; it’s the subjugated class for letting themselves be so, well, subjugated. Continue reading

Between sexism and inclusion: CBBC

According to the online commissioning briefs of CBBC, the channel is “for everyone, everywhere”. Still, let’s not get carried away. The whole thing might sound diverse but apparently “children haven’t changed as much as we might think: girls are still girls and boys are still boys”. But what does that even mean?

If you’re hoping that “Our Guide to the CBBC Audience” might offer further details, you’re out of luck. That webpage is now blank, following complaints about sexist stereotyping earlier this year. Back then anyone hoping to pitch to CBBC would be informed that male viewers were “task focused” while female ones were “emotionally focused”:

Girls are more socially adept and motivated than boys. They will chat enthusiastically, try to support the people they care about and form profound friendships and relationships and develop an interest in boys from age 10. […] [Boys] enjoy achieving goals and completing physical challenges. There is a focus on doing, confrontation and physical strength, and for many their football team is a top priority. […] They often think girls of their age are annoying but like to talk about their body parts and sex.

Interesting, right? And handy, not just if you’re penning the latest white male hero plus ethnic minority male sidekick plus equal-but-not female helper cartoon series (hello, Mike the fucking Knight!). It’s almost as though CBBC commissioners were planning ahead, for a future in which today’s young girls end up passive, patient carers for today’s young boys, who will be out there having their own adventures and not giving a shit about anyone (because hey, supporting people you care about is girls’ stuff!). It’s such a shame that Mumsnet feminists caught wind of all this and forced them to cover their tracks! Continue reading

Guest post: What if schools were assessed on gender equality?

I’ve been doing God a lot recently.

The reason for my conversion is a school inspection. 100 years ago people in the small village where I work wanted their kids to be educated. Passionately, desperately wanted them to be educated. And the landowners, who were exploitative patronising rentiers but not yet living in an age where they were convinced this was just because they had worked a bit harder at uni, felt they ought to help out a bit. And everyone came together under the one organisation that had united them for generations, and they founded a Church of England school for a village that chose Christianity in the same way it chose breathing. And across the country people did the same. And as a whole it was probably the greatest, most positively transformative charitable act in English history. And because of that act of charity, the Anglican Church Inspectors came, saw and reported.

Since this is education in 2014, though, they didn’t just look at whether the school delivers what those original founders would have wanted. Instead we had to show a Distinctive Christian Character ™. School needed to be saturated with that character, values and prayer boards all around.  And, evidence was needed that our DCC produced improved standards. Which is why I found myself trying to explain how it Christianity (not God, the inspection doesn’t quite demand that) had improved our maths results. And so the original breath-taking act of redemptive charity led 100 years later into a neo-liberal hell where choice and brand is key, and where performance related pay rules: if this school has the added value of being Christian and is supported by the Church, then the Church has the right to ask how that support adds value to anything and everything. Continue reading

Narrating female oppression, or, Does it matter whether Harriet Capon was trans?

This morning @FeministPics tweeted a newspaper report on the fascinating story of Harriet Capon, who spent two years presenting as a boy. When asked to explain herself, Capon claimed her motivations were economic:

I am one of a family of six. My mother, I regret to say, is in very precarious health, and about two years ago I started thinking seriously about how I could add to the household income to the best advantage. Of course everyone knows that a man can make more money than a woman in industrial employment. I cogitated for a long time, and finally I decided to become a ‘man’.

All of this took place a century ago. There was no Equal Pay Act, no anti-sexual harassment legislation, no maternity leave, none of the safety nets for which feminists have fought long and hard. Capon’s assumption – that if one wanted to make money in industrial employment, it was easier to be a man, even easier than it is today – was absolutely correct.

A short while after @FeministPics put out the report a tweet from another twitter user appeared, mentioning “Charles Capon, #trans boy for 2yrs during WWI”. It referred to the same story, only now it was presented in a completely different light. Suddenly it is suggested that Capon acted, not in response to a gender hierarchy which values males more than females, but because she was indeed one of the ‘higher value’ individuals. I’ve rarely seen a clearer example of neoliberal identity politics being privileged over economic, social and political oppression. Given the pitifully low status of women and girls the world over, this matters. Continue reading

Femmephobia: What are we really afraid of?

Recently I started coming across the word “femmephobia” to describe critiques of pinkification, female stereotyping and the beauty industry. The femmephobe is someone who exhibits an irrational fear of all things traditionally associated with femininity. She is prejudiced against people who use femininity as a means of expression. It’s not because she’s identifying an oppressive structure which limits everyone’s choice, but because she just doesn’t like girly girls. She is, in short, a bigot.

I’d say I’m a bit of a femme myself. I like make-up and prefer dresses to trousers. I think cars and football are boring (because they bloody well are). I’d rather do crochet than play on the Wii, unless it’s a relatively fluffy platform game that doesn’t involve too much killing. Hence I have a degree of sympathy with those who cry “femmephobe!” I can see the position as a distant relative to that adopted by earlier feminists who sought to re-evaluate traditionally female activity and culture. There is nothing inherently trivial about the work “feminine” people do, the poses they adopt, the means by which they express themselves. Moreover, devaluing “the feminine” is not just sexist but culturally imperialistic, since definitions of femininity vary between cultures. Continue reading

So gender isn’t a binary. And?

In response to yesterday’s post I have received a lot of well-meaning messages informing me that “gender is not a binary”. This is, I assume, to disabuse me of the foolish notion that there’s only boring old male and female. I am reliably informed (as if I didn’t know it already) that there is plenty more in-between. Hence we don’t need to panic about gender itself oppressing people. There’s enough to go round! Don’t fear it, queer it! Everything is awesome! etc.

I am not convinced by this argument, not because I have any doubts about the number of gender identities currently on offer. There are loads. It’s like being in an Eastern Bloc country just after the Fall of Communism – look at the choice! No more shall we join a uniform stream of Men and Women trudging miserably out of the People Factory. We’re free at last! (Or at least we would be if it wasn’t for those pesky TERFs still clinging on to their Stalinist views on gender equality.) Gender is not a binary – it’s not! That Facebook drop-down provides all the empirical evidence we need. The trouble is, it might not be a binary, but it sure as hell is a hierarchy. Continue reading

Womanhood, girlhood and shared exclusion

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

Continue reading