Monday, 27 June 2011

'Bridesmaids' and the feminist argument

I’m trying to work out whether or not Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) is a feminist film. Maybe I’m only wondering this because of the unusual dominance of women in the line-up, but having a mostly-female cast certainly doesn’t make a film feminist – in just the same way that having a 100% female membership does not in any way make the WI feminist.

There’s been a lot of debate in recent days about this, not least from Zoe Williams, and I was inordinately excited about watching the film and making up my own mind. Bridesmaids was brilliant, hilarious, tear jerking and wonderful. Written by women, performed mostly by women, it is weirdly directed by a man… but you can’t have emancipation in one go, I suppose.

In a post Sex and the City pop culture world, Bridesmaids allows its protagonist Annie (Kristin Wiig) to be woefully aware of her societal failings as a single, unemployed, 30-something woman who has moved back in with her mother, while her best friend is preparing for marriage. Annie’s fuck buddy is Don Draper (aka Jon Hamm) – who treats her with the kind of disregard and casual indifference that surely strikes a chord with everyone who has ever experienced unrequited love for a cruel partner.

The poster and advertising for Bridesmaids (above) is very misleading about the film. It features the maids in cheap-looking dresses, leaning against a brick wall, looking borderline aggressive. The poster makes the film look like Shameless meets Alan Warner’s The Sopranos for a night of excessive drinking and shagging in the toilets. So much so that an hour into watching Bridesmaids, I found myself impatiently wondering when they were going to start throwing up in a gutter. Thankfully, it was round about this point that the street diarrhea scene kicked in. This was underscored by a perfect one-liner from Annie to the mortified street shitter: “Don’t worry, we’ve all done it.”

What Bridesmaids proves is that women can be funny, and by their own doing. While this shouldn’t need saying, it clearly does, as there are pitifully few contemporary films when women get to carry the gags and deliver the punchlines. Alongside Tine Fey, Kristin Wiig is making a valid point about women in the media. Much as I love Jennifer Aniston for enduring relentless public humiliation at the hands of a string of Hollywood bachelors, her films are appalling reinforcements of the idea that women are only and always victims of a male-dominated scenario. Which is unbelievably boring.

Which makes one of the major flaws of Bridesmaids the fact that what ultimately rescues Annie from her downfall is a charming Irish policeman (The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd), who inspires her to salvage her life through the medium of baking cakes. For fuck’s sake!

But is this a feminist film? Running it through the Bechdel test, the answer is ‘yes’. There are more than two women in it; they all talk to each other; and about things besides men… sort of. So I’ll say ‘yes’, for the purposes of ease (although some on the website disagree). And Julie Bindel has Tweeted me to say it is “definitely not” a feminist film, which may be the authoritative answer!

Regardless, Bridesmaids was hilarious, true and honest. I loved it, I laughed almost continually throughout, and even had to hold back a tear at one point – not because the film was sentimental, but because the relationship between the two women genuinely struck a chord. Such fun.

PS - Conversely, I also watched Bride Wars, which was on TV last night, and could unwillingly argue that it too passed the Bechdel Test, despite being a typical, romcom in which the two, named female leads discuss topics other than men – but only by definition, as their whole existence is centered around their urgency to marry in a repulsively extravagant manner, and to express their spite and bitterness for each other in a variety of grotesque fights that merely proves women are as hideous to each other as patriarchy likes to claim.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Caitlin Moran 'How To Be a Woman' - reviewed

The publication of this book was a momentous day for me. I’d pre-ordered it on Amazon two months ago, and periodically checked in to see how much longer I had to wait. And then, yay, it arrived at work… where it sat on my desk all day, taunting me until I could take it home and spend four solid hours devouring the first third of it. Oh joy unconfined, this was splendid.

Why was the publication of Caitlin’s book so exciting? Many reasons. For one, it was categorised as ‘feminism/humour’ on the back – proving that it’s not a myth that those two words can sit next to each other. For another, Caitlin comes across as a funny, intelligent and thoughtful person – which seems like a good combination for a book billed as the thinking person’s guide to feminism. For another reason – Caitlin is immensely popular, thanks to her 20-odd years as a journalist for Melody Maker, The Times etc, and also her Twitter presence. In short – she’s fab. Pretty much everyone agrees she’s good news for feminism, and that’s why I couldn’t wait to read ‘How To Be A Woman’.

My first four hours with Caitlin’s book were great fun. I feverishly made my way through the first third of the book, and wished that when I’d been a 12 or 13-year-old that such a book had existed to inform me about the realities of periods, and boys, and school, and siblings and, well, real life stuff. It even made me laugh out loud a few times, which hardly ever happens. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything she had to say, but then how likely is it that even her biggest fan will agree with every single word she’s typed?

Over the next few days, I dipped in and out of the book as and when time allowed. And slowly my relationship with it started to change, just as it seemed Caitlin’s relationship with it had changed while writing. The first third of the book is excellent, and seems to brim with a “Wooh, I’ve got a publishing deal and my word, I’m going to use it” zest. The middle section sags into an “Oh shit, I haven’t written anything for months and now my editor is hassling me for copy” lull. And then, towards the end, the book picks up quality and style again, and becomes much more invigorating and exciting. So ‘patchy’ is definitely a word I would associate with ‘How To Be A Woman’. Not least because there are quite a few inexcusable typos in this book, which surely someone at Ebury Press should have spotted?

There’s lots of things that Caitlin talks sound sense about: women’s relationship to body hair, fashion, shoes, weddings, for instance. There are some things I personally disagree with (though that’s not a criticism of the book): lap dancing being the big one. One thing I felt continually irritated by was her constant references to Lady sodding Gaga – which was eventually explained and then made sense. And I’m desperate to know why Caitlin is in the fifth wave of feminism when everyone else is still in the third (she Tweeted me so say that it’s because she drinks a lot of coffee, which didn’t really fill me in on what happened during the errant fourth wave).

Another gripe is how she continually refers to those who chose to be without children as ‘childless’ – as if children are something they are sadly lacking. ‘Childfree’ is the correct term, by the way – as those without children are consciously liberated. A Twitter conversation about this led to Caitlin saying we were “quibbling over terms”. Well, I’d disagree – ‘less’ and ‘free’ mean very different things. And I’ve recently had a painful first-hand experience of how much a casual misappropriation of language can upset people, so I really insist there’s a huge difference.

But moving on… A later chapter on her own abortion was extremely moving and a very brave inclusion, and it’s appearance after my anger over the previous few really put into context how, well, GOOD it was. Such a powerful and emotive thing to do, and surely one Caitlin didn’t include without a great deal of thought. For someone to open themselves up about such a sensitive subject, and on the top of the bestseller list, is to be loudly applauded.

In conclusion: yes, I’d recommend ‘How To Be A Woman’, but there are some chapters that could be skim-read. And I have to question why a woman who works from home, clearly earns well-above-average money, has the luxury of a cleaner and lives a generally privileged life, is the right person to write a guide to contemporary womanhood. But I will still be giving a copy to me eldest niece on the cusp of her teen age. There’s a lot to be learned, both good and bad. And here’s hoping the second edition has a new chapter about clown porn in.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Twittering Classes

The wonderful thing about Twitter is it not only enables you to eavesdrop on conversations you’d never normally be privy to, but it also allows you to interact with a bunch of people in the public eye. Which is fun.

I quickly cottoned on to the fact I could follow ‘80s pop heroes like @realmartinkemp, @BoyGeorge, @GeorgeMichael etc and turn my Twitter feed into Smash Hits for the middle-aged. This never gets dull.

But an unexpected side effect is that sometimes the well-known take it into their heads to contact the unknown. This is fun, too.

My first experience of this was a few months ago when I Tweeted that I was reviewing Gary Younge’s book (@garyyounge), and he sent me a DM asking what I thought of it, which led to a little exchange. Out of the blue, a few weeks later, he followed up with a friendly DM apologisng for being unable to make a Festival of Ideas event here in Bristol.

Then there’s the fact that Twitter (and Facebook) have opened up a sprawling network of interconnected people who you can access with a few well-placed RTs. Take the recent ‘Close Hooters in Bristol Now’ petition, which went viral in about an hour, thanks in no small part to Twitter, the RT function and a few sleb endorsements – again, all thanks to Twitter. Without Twitter and its impressive function of endless RT-ing, it seems unlikely that Jonathan Ross (@wossy) would otherwise have heard of it. Twitter also enabled me to directly contact regular Tweeters like David Mitchell (@RealDMitchell) and Ian Martin (@IanMartin) and ask them to get on board, too – and they in turn RT-ed their zillions of followers.

Another aspect is that, in many instances, you can Tweet a particular known person and ask a question that, on almost any other platform, they would have been unlikely to answer – but a 140-character Tweet is easy to reply to. Last night and this morning, I had a Twitter conversation with Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) about some points in her book that I took issue with. Before Twitter, this kind of casual interaction with a ‘public person’ just didn’t exist.

It took me three attempts over two years to get to grips with Twitter, but having decided to embrace it since January, I really can’t remember how we coped without it (thanks to some excellent tutoring from @polywhat). The immediacy, the availability and the speed of information is unrivalled… and while much of Twitter is filled with mildly amusing tosh, there’s also a huge chunk of Twitter that’s vital and vibrant and necessary. #win


Friday, 17 June 2011

This is a blog post...

There didn’t seem to be enough to do in my world, what with getting married in a few months, buying a house right now, having a full-time job, and being a feminist activist in any spare seconds. So I thought I’d re-start a bog to help me idle away the quiet hours.

Four or five years ago, when I was a London media type with a diary crammed full of parties, gigs, theatres, exhibitions and more, I used to blog my reviews and observations. Well, things are going to be a little different now. For one thing, I’m in Bristol and have a very different outlook on life – less shallow, more shouty.

So this blog is setting out to be my musings on being a feminist 30-something, who is trying to align my slightly lefty political beliefs with my seemingly conservative (note the small ‘c’) future as a wife, home-owner and unwilling domestic slave. To that end, in the short term you can expect a few snarky posts about the joy (or otherwise) of our house-buying efforts, my attempts to have a feminist-friendly wedding, and my pitiful efforts at learning how to cook better (this week, I’ve bought a book about steaming. Next week, I might try it out. Exciting).

But there’ll also be book reviews, films reviews and general cultural observations, as that’s what I love… and if it has a feminist angle, well, that’s just peachy.

So now I’ve set out what I’m going to do, I’d better go and do it.