New Statesman: HBO’s Divorce is uncomfortable viewing for feminists

In Episode 2 of HBO’s Divorce, Thomas Haden Church’s Robert visits his friend Nick in hospital. Nick has had a heart attack following a violent row with his wife Diane.

“Seems like it’s open season on men around here,” notes Robert, before adding that it must be “hell” for Nick to be lying there, “can’t speak, clucking hens all around you.”  In case Robert’s anger at womankind has not yet been made clear enough, he then tells his wife Frances’ friend to “get the fuck away from me you old harpy.” As far as Robert is concerned, women are the enemy.

One could say he has good reason to be mistrustful. Not only was he almost shot by Diane, he recently found out Frances has been having an affair with a granola-making academic. Having changed the locks on their home, he asks Frances whether she ever slept with both her lover and him on the same day: “Because officially that would mean you were gang banged.” He tells Frances that he is going to make her miserable: “And more to the point I’m going to make our children hate you.”

Divorce is written by Sharon Horgan and executive produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, who also plays Frances. It would be difficult – and unfair – to argue that this is a dramedy in which female perspectives on relationships have been sidelined. Even so there’s something about Robert’s embrace of misogyny, almost as a form of liberation following years of repression, that I find deeply discomforting. It’s not unfamiliar territory in TV shows or films relating to the topic of separation, but still it leaves me, as a viewer, on edge.

Read the full post at the New Statesman.

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On not watching the older women

I’m not especially surprised by the report that only 18% of UK television presenters over the age of 50 are women. Like most people, I occasionally watch TV and see a world in which craggy, authoritative men lead conversations on serious matters, ably assisted in this by smoother-skinned, brightly dressed women who “add a bit of colour”. Of course, such women are capable of doing far more; even so, the discrepancy between them and their male counterparts is distracting. You know at first glance where the priorities lie. Pretty woman may be just as eloquent as craggy man, but how can you believe her, knowing that in five years’ time she’ll be on the scrapheap, replaced by a younger model? The face you can trust can’t be a female one; she won’t be around long enough. Women curdle when they’re placed in the spotlight for too long. Continue reading

Proposal for a CBeebies show: The Chums of Normality Wood

CBeebies – they’re a bit sexist, aren’t they? By that, I don’t mean the cute  yellow blobby peeps; I rather like them. I mean the people behind them. Because the smiley blobs, they’re just a front. A front for the blind, unquestioning promotion of patriarchal and racial dominance. This has been made clear to me through years of being a shit mum who plonks her kids in front of the telly while she indulges in a bit of washing up. But hey, I don’t want to make a fuss. The only thing worse than being a mum who plonks her kids in front of the telly is being a feminist mum who then makes a massive fuss about it afterwards.

Rather than embark on another mad feminist rant, I’ve resolved to look at things from a different angle. Inspired by the CBeebies formula, I’ve decided to create my own TV series! Just call me Oliver Postgate (or rather, one of the many latter-day rubbish versions thereof):

The Chums of Normality Wood

A story of four friends finding their way through the moral maze that is life, here represented in the form of a wood, containing lots of twisty metaphortastic pathways on which to get lost.
Continue reading

Women: We’re Really Useful too!

My youngest child is totally into books. Every day he toddles over to me, his story of choice in hand, saying “weed to me, mummy! Weed to me!”. And obviously I wish he were more like his brother, staring gormlessly at CBeebies and allowing me to have a quiet cuppa. Maybe Youngest will grow into that. Still, in the meantime, I generally try to give the old “weeding” a go.

Today Youngest dug out the 2009 Thomas the Tank Engine annual, which I haven’t read since 2010, a year throughout which I read it every fucking day. I know this book off by heart. After the contents and intro (“Hello, I’m Thomas! I like being Really Useful blah blah blah”), there are four pages rehashing the theme song (in case, like, you’ve had major brain damage and don’t therefore have it going round your head ALL THE TIME anyhow). After that there’s a bit on the not-so-useful engines, ie the scummers who don’t get to live in Tidmouth Sheds and aren’t in the song.

First you get the narrow-gauge engines – Duncan, Peter Sam, Mighty Mac and Freddie, and then the cranes from Brendam Docks, Rocky and Cranky (good cop and bad cop, if, um, cranes are like cops, which to be honest they’re not). Then you get two vehicles who, as far as I can see, have nothing in particular in common, as one is a lorry and the other happens to be a tank engine. The caption for this pairing isn’t much help either, telling you only that “Madge and Rosie are Really Useful, too”.

You may well be ahead of me in working out the connection. Madge and Rosie are, of course, girl vehicles. They have no other distinguishing features (well, I suppose strictly speaking that’s not true: Madge, “the green and white snub-nosed lorry”, is matronly and reliable, while Rosie “has purple paintwork and lots of freckles!” but is nonetheless a “tomboy”. So no gender stereotypes there).

In the grand scheme of how much everything about Thomas pisses me off, it may seem petty to get irritated by the tokenistic relegation of Rosie and Madge to some girly holding pen at the end of the double-page spread.* It may seem petty, but hell, I’m going to get irritated nonetheless. Because frankly, this is just introducing children to a trend that will continue for the rest of their lives. Girls! You can be Really Useful, too! As long as you remember it’s within the male domain (and don’t give me “what about Emily?” Emily is one priggish engine out of eight posho Tidmouth engines, the rest of whom are all male, and anyhow she was only brought in to replace Duck, who had a number and Emily still doesn’ t, as far as I can see. So no mention of Emily. She’s like the Margaret Thatcher of tokenistic tank engine politics, and I’m having none of it).

My partner used to be a history lecturer and a couple of years ago, a male student produced an essay for him on the lives of women in the Middle Ages. Being a right-on sort, said student noted that things were much better nowadays, because “we now allow women to help us in the workplace”. My partner wrote “who’s “us”?” in the margin. The student didn’t get it (he may have been the same student who voiced the question “was Queen Matilda really a victim of sexism or was she just a stroppy mare?” He may have been that student, but I’ve a horrible feeling that this was a different one).

Don’t get me wrong: I like being useful. I like supporting men in their manly endeavours, believe me, I do. Just as I also like supporting women in theirs. But this is not because I feel it is my place to provide the back-up while men lead the way. IT IS BECAUSE I AM A LAZY FUCKER. This has nothing to do with me having a uterus or wearing a skirt or whatever. It’s to do with me not wanting to do stuff (or rather, I don’t mind doing stuff. I’m just not that keen on asking others to do stuff, so I let the middle managers get on with that).

So anyhow, I read the sodding book. And I said “Madge and Rosie are Really Useful, too, and the fact that they have not been correctly categorized is the fault of the patriarchy”. And then Eldest looked up from CBeebies and accused me of not reading it properly. Sometimes I just don’t know why I bother.

* Reading through this, I wonder if “girly holding pen” sounds a bit rude. On reflection, I suspect it does, but I’m still going to leave it in.

Confessions of a plonker

Years ago, soon-to-be-ex-Archbishop Rowan Williams made some snide comment about women who “plonked their children in front of the TV” (presumably so we could get on with some serious wimmin’s activities like thinking about shoes and chocolate). This comment probably annoyed me more than it should have. I mean, at least this was Rowan Williams saying something with a slight edge to it, as opposed to the usual fence-sitting bollocks he comes out with. But the fact is, I didn’t like what he was implying, and I particularly didn’t like his use of the verb “to plonk”. It implied that this was something we mothers did casually and briskly, and also that we then wandered off to bigger and better things. If only that were the case. The truth is, we don’t all live in houses the size of Lambeth Palace, and once a child is “plonked” before the telly, it’s not just the child who gets immersed in Cbeebies. It’s all of us, and believe me, it can get nasty.

In the spirit of this, I would like to present my personal Cbeebies Hate List. It’s constantly being updated (so you’re on borrowed time, Tree-Fu Tom), but this is where things currently stand.

  1. Balamory, aka the island from the original version of the Wickerman (my personal theory is that PC Plum was meant to replace Edward Woodward’s character as the new virgin-fool-whatever sacrifice person, but the islanders realised he was just too inane – way beyond your average “fool” – for it to have any impact on the gods, so he’s just stayed there, hanging around and occasionally doing the “different coloured houses” dance while Josie Jump and Archie the Inventor hatch alternative plots to save the next harvest). I have to say, even the opening credits of Balamory fill me with outrage. I mean, what’s this about rhyming “today” and “nursery” in the theme song (no, pronouncing it “nurseray” won’t cut it)? Having said that, my partner, for reasons best known to him, did manage to mishear one line of said song as “Edie McCredie’s a fucking machine”. And that still makes us giggle, although we’re not sure why.
  2. Come Outside. In which Auntie Mabel lives alone with her dog and no one else for miles around, and hence seeks spurious reasons to “come outside”. Such as the need to find out more about peas, wool, recycling and sewage. Interestingly, for the recycling episode, she flew to the recycling centre in her private jet. I mean, we’d all be more environmentally aware if we had private jets to take us to the bottle bank. To be honest, I think Auntie Mabel is just lonely and probably regrets turning down Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours. Now it’s just her and Pippin, although she’s always losing him, thereby providing him with the opportunity to get into scrapes. Altogether depressing viewing, rather like an extended charity infomercial for Help the Aged.
  3. Show me, Show me. A bit like Playschool from days of yore, only the presenters, Chris and Pui, are dead inside. You can see it in their eyes. They hate what they’re doing and what they’ve become. At least with Playschool you have outtakes of Fred Harris kicking Hamble and Humpty around, calling them “amateurs”. That man had spirit. Can you imagine Chris doing the same to Toddler Tom and Miss Mouse? No, you can’t, because for that he’d need some remaining spark. It’s all gone. Ten worms wriggling, waving goodbye…
  4. Third and Bird. In which most of the birds are fine, apart from Muffin, who is a whiney, pathetic, self-centred, utterly pointless ball of pink fluff who can die, die, die for all I care. I have NO IDEA why Samuel and Rudy put up with her. They’re bigger, they could surely take her out, given a push. Stepping outside the internal narrative, I once tuned in to BBC Breakfast and for the entertainment slot just before 9am they were interviewing the man who does the whistling for the Third and Bird characters. I’m sure it’s a very hard job, but well … I’ll just say I was surprised.
  5. Justin’s House. I first heard about Justin’s House last year, when Justin announced it to the crowds at the Wychwood Festival where he was performing for kids. We were in that crowd. See, we really believed in him. We loved Something Special, chortled away at Gigglebiz, felt that here was someone who was truly down with the kids. It wasn’t just a job to Justin. Man, he really lived it. Yet Justin’s House marks the beginning of the end. The whole feel of it is eighties, a bit like The Pink Windmill, but without anyone as cool as Grotbags. It most certainly is not “the place [I] want to play in”. Justin, I’m disappointed in you. But hey, come to me in your rakish Lord Tumble guise and all will be forgiven.
  6. Lazy Town. I am just baffled by it. Well and truly baffled. Eldest likes it. He wants to be like Sportacus when he grows up and work as an “exerciser”. I haven’t yet had the heart to tell him that chocolate pancakes do not count as “sports candy”.
  7. Mr Bloom’s Nursery. Actually, I don’t really mind this, but I resent the media expectation that I, as a mum, must fancy Mr Bloom. Look, I don’t. I really don’t. It’s just that bit right at the start when he addresses Joan the fennel with a pervy “‘ello my dear, ‘aven’t you grown” – I’ll admit that that bit gets me every time. But that’s all I’ll admit to.
  8. Waybuloo. In which children supposedly “learn more about emotions and friendships as the playful Piplings welcome us to the tranquil, happy land of Nara”. So Sturm und Drang it ain’t. Indeed, said emotions tend to be along the lines of “De Li sad. De Li not know where other Piplings are. De Li find other Piplings. De Li happy again”. A veritable rollercoaster ride. Interestingly, the BBC did experiment with getting the man who does the voiceover to Come Dine with Me to do a voiceover forWaybuloo. But alas the kids didn’t like it, so it was back to letting the Piplings talk about themselves in the third person, using rubbish grammar and displaying even more rubbish self-knowledge.
  9. Zingzillas. A show which seems to be based entirely around making use of some ropey old gorilla costumes lying around the BBC studios (I also suspect a similar drive towards reuse is linked to David Tennant taking on the role of Twig in Tree-Fu Tom. “So, David, you may have wangled your way out of being Dr Who, but now we’re sending you to Treetopolis. Forever”).
  10. Baby Jake. Jake is the tenth child in a family who live in a windmill. The parents never looked stressed and their somewhat narrow home never looks messy. This may however be down to the fact that their alphabetically-named brood each, conveniently, only have one distinguishing characteristic each. These include stuff like eating peas, writing on knees, having a psychotic delusion about being a tree etc. etc. Which, at first glance, might sound challenging, but think about it. If that’s all one particular child does – eat peas – then caring for him or her is probably a piece of piss. So don’t get all smug on me, Baby Jake’s mummy (who is a very minor character in the programme overall, which is mainly about Jake’s own adventures, but still. The whole set-up really gets to me).

Of course, it’s mean of me to single out Cbeebies when there are other channels full of offensive rubbish for kids. Channel 5 has Thomas the Tank Engine, for instance. Don’t get me started on that (yet). But it’s Cbeebies that we generally watch (once the kids are safely “plonked”).

But then, it’s not all bad. Cbeebies does have Andy the continuity announcer, who has now been given his own series, Andy’s Wild Adventures. I like Andy. My friends like Andy. Hell, even my partner likes Andy (his description: “you can tell he’d embarrass you by dancing badly at a wedding, but make up for it with really great sex afterwards”). Yes, Andy is just tops. He may even be responsible for keeping a bit of spice in the relationships of the perma-exhausted parent. That’s just the kind of thing Rowan Williams wouldn’t understand. The plonker.

Loose Women and the End of Civilization

I very rarely watch Loose Women, as I’m at work during the day. Actually, that’s not true. Even if I were at home all day, I can’t see myself watching Loose Women. Anyhow, I could probably pick it up on ITV Player later if I really wanted to. Truth is, I very rarely watch Loose Women because I’ve a strong suspicion, based what little I have seen, that watching the entire programme would make me want to slit my wrists.

Not having much direct experience of a cultural phenomenon has never stopped me having an opinion on it. My partner and I frequently refer to things being “like the Matrix”, even though it’s a film neither of us have seen (and we’re now determined never to see it, lest this spoils what’s become a useful shorthand for anything vague/overblown/mildly pretentious). I’ve also only ever seen the first Harry Potter film and haven’t read any of the books (but given that the film was EXACTLY how I pictured it would be, I reckon I’ve absorbed the whole thing by osmosis* anyhow).

I tend to witness the impact of Loose Women on our cultural consciousness at lunchtimes (probably at around the time it’s on the telly). This is because I am usually in WH Smiths fretting about what to buy for lunch, so I end up gazing gormlessly at the rows and rows of magazines informing me of Denise’s Meltdown, Carol’s Crisis, Coleen’s Big Decision, the Loose Women Weight Wars etc etc. Best and Bella are particularly obsessed with the whole Loose Women phenomenon. They didn’t used to be. Mind you, I can remember when they were obsessed with Di and Fergie, so least said about that the better.

The impression you get from the magazines is that everyone in Loose Women is drinking too much / having an affair / on the verge of a mental breakdown / hates each other etc etc. This week, for instance, Denise Welch is on the cover of Bella telling “the truth about my engagement” while looking totally frazzled (let’s assume that “the truth” ain’t that great).  Meanwhile Andrea McLean is on Best having apparent issues with “binge eating” (fingers crossed that Ruth Langsford can rush to the rescue again). It’s odd, because when you see them on TV they’re all pretending to be sassy, old-enough-to-take-no-shit women of a certain age who tell it like it is and don’t give a damn about decorum. But no, beneath the cackling lies a true vulnerability, and a desperation. It all feels like some kind of carefully engineered morality tale. The uppity women having their moment in the limelight, before scurrying off home to contemplate suicide while the men get on with the serious programmes. It’s even there in the title: Loose Women. Those women who briefly take over the set with their bitchin’ and gabbin’. The women of whom we disapprove. But don’t worry – deep down, they’re not happy, y’see.

A few years ago Bridget Orr wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian on the many levels upon which Loose Women is shit. I don’t agree with all of it. For instance, Orr rehashes the old chestnut (can you hash a chestnut??) about how “Male viewers embarrassed at the lechery on Loose Women could well complain that this is a case of feminism “going too far””:

There could never be an all-male equivalent to the show called Talking Balls, where a crew of laddish reality-TV rejects and failed boybanders leered at the female soap stars brought on to sate them.

That’s probably true (as Orr points out, programme schedules “would naturally expect the core demographic for such a non-politically correct, hyper-masculine show to be at work by then”). But then again, since you can get to see topless women just by purchasing a national newspaper, a Loose Women equivalent for men would just feel rather tame. And there is no USP in having an all-male discussion panel on any subject whatsoever.

If it’s to be believed that misogyny can be combated only by misandry, Loose Women strikes me as a drop in the ocean. At the same time, given that a core tenet of misogyny is the belief in the fundamental inferiority of women – silly, cackling, frivolous, messed-up women – then the whole Loose Women phenomenon is the misogynist’s dream. Hell, it almost makes me ashamed to be female.

But then I remember that I’m not the one sitting in front of a studio audience, leching over Enrique Iglesias before going home to drink myself comatose. I’m not sassy or “loose” enough for that. I’ll have to find another way to get onto the cover of Bella.

* “Osmosis” is a word I’ve never looked up but I’m not doing it now, in case, as with the Matrix, I find out I’ve been doing it all wrong.