Friday, 10 January 2014

What Is The Bechdel Test (And Why Should I Care)

I’m prostrate on the sofa watching Parks and Recreation back to back and cursing my inability to deal with hangovers.

‘The time really got away from me,’ I explain plaintively, ‘one minute it was 7pm, then 10, then boom, 4 in the morning.’

‘What did you guys get up to?’ asks Captain Tact.

‘Chatting, mostly.’

We also drank a bottle of amaretto and danced around the living room at length, singing at the tops of our voices - but I’m not ready to think about that yet.

‘What about?’

‘Social work, politics, the impact of social media on young people growing up, The Rapture’s new album...’

‘Congratulations, your conversation passed the Bechdel test.’

The Bechdel test, for those who have not come across it, is used to identify gender bias in films, telly and so on.

The test is simply to ask ‘do two or more women have a proper onscreen conversation about something other than a man?’

If the answer is yes, the show passes. Try it yourself - although 2013 arguably did better than previous years, a disconcerting amount of popular media fails.

Having said that, almost nobody in the media is representative of normal every day conversations, irrespective of gender. Film and TV characters are good or bad; intelligent or attractive. Sometimes there’s the twist that someone good was merely pretending to be horrible, or someone beautiful was actually quite intelligent, but by and large fictional characters are broadly drawn. 

I assume the reason for this is that writers don’t deal in the everyday – or not the everyday as it actually is. Fiction is supposed to provide an escape into another world, either one close to ours but better, or like ours but awful so we come out the other end going ‘golly gee, I’m sure glad I don’t live in the popular Liam Neeson film Taken!’

Either way the fictional world is not like your actual life, because why the hell would you watch that? You’re already living real life. Why would you want to watch average looking people with average real life jobs, talking about how their kids are getting on at school or cat pictures they’ve seen in the Metro? That isn’t an escape from reality, that’s rubbing it in your face.  We want a bit of excitement from our downtime, maybe romance and adventure - something to aspire to.

Whilst I absolutely agree TV and film are bad at showing realistic conversations between women, they’re often terrible at showing realistic conversations between anyone at all.  In fact, the level of unreality is so prevalent in terms of cast and content, it’s enough to make you wonder whether very beautiful people perhaps don’t have normal conversations.

Think about this. How often in your life do you see a human woman that looks like Beyonce, or Lucy Liu, or insert-other-beautiful-celebrity-of-your-choice-here?  Not often, unless you’re doing some Grade A stalking.  The beautiful ones exist in a bubble of others like them, people whose MO is to bewitch the world with their looks and do very little else (a theory supported by all episodes of 30 Rock featuring Jon Hamm).

Therefore, is it that much of stretch to suppose that the beautiful ones don’t have conversations about normal stuff? Maybe when female celebrities get drunk, they actually do spend the entire time talking about boys.  Sure, that sounds unlikely, but the tabloids would have a hard time finding ‘sources close to the star’ to reveal all her private relationship stuff if she spent her spare time bemoaning the lack of support given to Social Workers, or arguing about whether The Rapture’s new CD needs more cowbell like me and my normal looking friends. 

Perhaps TV and film consistently fails the Bechdel test because the women beautiful enough to be on TV also fail it.  After all, it can’t be because there is a perception held by the people making and paying for film and TV that audiences want to escape into a two dimensional world where women exist to talk about men, people of colour and the LGBT community exist to provide comic relief, and people with additional support needs do not exist at all.

Can it?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Ms vs Miss

‘Ooh, Ms is it?' says my pal, as if this term is in some way fancy, or an unusual one for women in their late twenties to be using.

‘Well… yeah,’ we chorus, somewhat bemused - then our paths diverge somewhat.

‘I mean, I'm not twelve,’ I scoff, whilst my sister is exclaiming ‘why the hell should I be defined by my relationship status?  My boyfriend isn't.’

On balance hers is probably the more persuasive argument, although I think mine is valid. I associate the ‘Miss’ moniker with youth, lack of life experience… innocence, I guess. That or the confirmed spinsterhood of unmarried ladies before 1950, when being single supposedly meant there was something wrong with you.  I am not a kid anymore, and as it happens I’m not single (although there are occasional FIFA filled afternoons where a halcyon pre-war existence of cats, gin and cardigans starts to look pretty good), so ‘Miss’ feels like it has nothing to do with me. 

To be honest it never crossed my mind that some of my friends might not feel the same – I made the apparently baseless assumption that everyone in my peer group was probably Ms (or Dr) by the time they finished university.*

This has not shattered my worldview, but it did make me think - not least because of the looks we got for thinking this was important.  I mean, I know it isn't going to solve world hunger, but symbolically I think the difference between Ms and Miss says a lot.

One of the main arguments in favour of Ms is gender equality – that it is a female equivalent of Mr that does not reveal anything about our relationship status.  Miss, meanwhile, automatically tells people of your unmarried status, which is irrelevant in most situations and is not the same for men.  There again, maybe you are looking for a relationship and want to be able to confirm your availability by casually waving your post in front of them (a red bill for Miss George? Ding dong), rather than flirting, or whatever it is people do at Da Club nowadays. 

I actually think that as far as titles are concerned, if you want proper gender equality then men and women ought to have the same one.  Except that would render all of them - Ms, Miss, Mrs and Mr - obsolete, so really no title at all is the more elegant solution. 

Elegant, but wildly impractical – that solution can’t be implemented overnight.  If we suddenly stopped using titles, electronic databases the world over would collapse.  You have to fill in the ‘title’ box in this job application / bank form / tax form, says the (newly anthropomorphised) system.  If you don’t, I will be forced to give you a red error message saying ‘information provided is incomplete.’  Also I will die of malnutrition, for the contents of the title box – all that tasty information on your gender and relationship status - is what sustains me. 

All of which means that at some point, you’re going to be asked which one you are and sorted into a marketing category that involves gin (Miss), washing up liquid (Mrs) or lesbian ham (Ms)  whether you like it or not. 

Unless you're a man, of course.** 

*Yes, much of my peer group completed further education – in case the title of the blog and content of previous articles hadn’t given away the fact I am white and middle class. 

** As we all know, in marketing terms a 'Mr' is into football, boobs and probably curry. 

Monday, 11 March 2013

Student Journalism

In my first year of university I signed up to work on the student paper, having read lots of advice to wannabe writers saying they must get involved with the student press to gain practice, clippings and contacts. 

Unfortunately, a couple of meetings in I discovered that many of my colleagues were pretentious and prone to navel gazing.  They also didn’t seem to have any concept of news – one thrilling expose revealed that some people *whisper* take drugs!  Whoever heard of a student experimenting with drugs?  Someone get that guy a Pulitzer, stat!

Said paper hasn’t gotten a lot better since I graduated.  Here’s an example sentence from a current column.  It is supposed to deal with issues around being a fourth year, which you might think would include stuff like stress over finals, what to do after graduation, and so on…  Not so much.

‘There is something highly satisfying about wrapping up in a multitude of layers in the morning as you leave to brave the ice cold air: dressed in my latest winter purchase – a vintage, dark blue duffel coat – over one of my favourite chunky knit sweaters (I hail from ‘the home of cashmere’), with my mum’s old University scarf looped my neck several times, and my trusty ‘I-can-walk-through-anything’ brown leather ankle boots, I feel like I can take on the world and all that it throws at me.’

Quite apart from the poor structure (seriously, full stops are totally OK), that entire paragraph says nothing of importance or even passing interest.  Dressing in layers for winter is not an insightful part of ‘the fourth year experience’, ‘the third year experience’, or any experience at all - it’s padding in the most literal sense.  Stop wasting your words and my time, unnamed student journo!

In summary, that paper was balls, so I joined the team who put together the spoof one instead.  This was how I met my other half, the enigmatic Captain Tact, who was editor at the time.  He doesn’t remember our first meeting at all, but I do.  Nervous, I walked into the pub and looked around for people that looked like they might write comedy.  I soon honed in on the table of blokes with bad hair who were having an animated discussion about the new series of Doctor Who, and my nerves evaporated.  These were my kind of people.

The spoof paper was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the sort of stuff that was going to win us any student journalism awards.   It mainly involved making up news stories (pirates attacking halls of residence, terror lizards, unusual meat in burgers, that sort of schtick).   On balance, it probably wasn’t the sort of thing older hacks were thinking of when doling out their advice.  And anyway, we were shut down in my third year following an incident with the ORLY owl and a local curry house, a harrowing experience of censorship that would only really have been helpful if any of us had got work on Private Eye.

Having said that, I still think wannabe writers should get involved with the university press.  You might get a boyfriend out of it, after all...  Or failing that, plentiful opportunities to network with the dynamic go-getters who are the editors of the future. 

Just try not to yawn too loudly when they commission a thousand words on what to wear in intemperate weather.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Why Everyone Should Be A Polymath

I’m in the park, dressed in black, taking pictures of the city by night and congratulating myself on my creativity.  A jogger pauses to pity the sad sack so gripped by despair she’s photographing darkness itself, before taking the executive decision to give me as wide a berth as possible.

My efforts stem from a weekly photo challenge I found online, something I’m doing as part of my on-going quest to be a Renaissance Woman (in the sense of having broad interests and skills, as opposed to the more historical measurement of marrying well and popping out lots of sons).   

If you want to scrape a living in the arts in 2013, you have to be willing to turn your hand to multiple areas.  For instance, journalists increasingly have to be able to write copy for print and online, create multimedia content, and use social media to find and break stories – in addition to traditional skills like grammar, shorthand and door knocking.  And in my experience, if you’re a freelancer and want to eat, you’ll need to know how to source copywriting work and be on the books of a temp agency to boot.

The idea that it’s positive to be accomplished at several things is not new.  We surely all remember from Pride and Prejudice how women can only get on in life with ‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,’ whilst Wikipedia’s bumper list of polymaths demonstrates that multifaceted humans have been around for thousands of years. Polymathery has always existed, and in a world of ever-increasing multitasking it is only becoming more prevalent.

As a general rule, I deem this A Good Thing.  Wide-ranging interests lead to cross pollination of ideas, which means more creativity.  More of that, please!  Still, you can’t do everything all of the time.  The danger with trying is that when you’re genuinely interested in several areas, you can be tempted to flit between projects without concluding any.  Let’s be clear: it’s never OK to give up on something half way, unless your arms have fallen off.  Creative work needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to a conclusion and revised within an inch of its life, and nobody else is going to put that work in for you. 

And that’s the real rub with becoming a true polymath.  You need to put in serious hours to get good at something, so gaining expertise on several things at once could take decades.  You may want to focus on one thing for a prolonged period, spending your twenties on becoming a novelist, your thirties as a director, and your forties on that astrophysics PhD.  My preferred method is to become a generalist first, splitting my hours between blogging, fiction writing, photography and my work on string theory to evolve my knowledge base over time. 

Both roads are long, but the walk will be worth it – just look at Da Vinci.  See you at the finish line...

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Ich Bin Ein Berlinner

Brief highlights of our first week of backpacking excitement back in April/May 2012.  We started in Berlin, as you may have worked out from the title of the post.

Day 1 – A man called Harry shouts at me to take a picture of the Reichstag, so I do.  Apparently I am more suggestible than I thought.

It looks different in Call of Duty.

Day 2 – See a lot of gammy sculptures in the Bode Museum, and try not to cry at the Holocaust Memorial.  Later on we eat doughnuts and watch Lewis in German.  It turns out neither of us speaks German.

St Vitus in a teapot. Why is he in a teapot? That's not important right now.

Day 3 – successfully relocate from hotel in Lichtenberg to a hostel on the outskirts of Berlin.  It is decorated in lime green and populated by 15 year olds who are all very excited about the prospect of karaoke later on.  We get the hell out of there, and end up spending most of the day at the zoo. I liked the baby ocelot.

NB - this is not the baby ocelot.

Day 4 – get a phone call from the Edinburgh International Film Festival asking if I can come in for a job interview. I can’t, obviously.  I eat an enormous cake and fall into a butter coma instead.  This is the best way to experience the many museums and galleries of Berlin.

In the interests of scale, Knitted Fifth Doctor is about 5cm tall.

Day 5 – spend several hours at the Topographyof Terror, which is an amazingly thorough account of everything that happened in the Second World War – it sheds light on the actions of members of the Nazi party you haven’t necessarily heard of and is fascinatingly horrible.  We also visit Checkpoint Charlie and the Stasi Museum, because we are interested in history even if the many hipster schoolchildren cluttering up the place aren't.

Day 6 – visit the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, before heading off to Warsaw.  The non-gallery side is covered in crudely drawn cocks and declarations of love for Justin Bieber (the wall, not Warsaw).  That’s modern society for you.

Captain Tact's contribution to the Bieber Fever

Obviously we did a lot more than this during our time in Berlin, but if I told you everything I'd have to kill you - or at the very least take a fortnight off work to put it all together.  But one final thing I would like to share is this photograph from a book shop.  Yes, we visited lots of book shops even though we couldn't read any of the contents.  You wish you were as cool as us.  Anyway, we were rewarded with this, presumably invented in much the same way as Peter Andre's definition of the word 'Insania'.  Fear not, for this year's NaNoWriMo I'll be all over it like a flannel.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Backpacking Adventures

In April/May 2012, Captain Tact and I went on a backpacking adventure around bits of Europe that are not the UK.  I didn't blog about it then because I felt that spending too much time on the internet would detract from the experience, but I did write a lot when we were away.  LONGHAND.  In a NOTEBOOK.  How archaic. 

Anyway I've been looking through said notebook and I thought I might painstakingly transcribe some of the contents for the benefit of the internet.  You're welcome. 

Item 1:

Wasp tried to eat my goulash.
What a prick.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Moving House

It's been predominantly good (with a smattering of less good) but now it's time to watch classic Doctor Who in a living room elsewhere - yes, I have just moved house.  People have been asking whether I'll miss the flat after three years there.  I have penned a letter to the place in response.

Dear Flat,

Thanks for the brinners, the Lord of the Rings drinking games, the nights of nintendo and the random booze box afterparties. Thanks for seeing me through the end of the libbiray times and into a fabulous new career in freelance journalism with a heavy side order of temping. Thanks for not falling down during Snowmageddon (although it seemed like touch and go for a while) and thanks for giving me shelter to complete 12 Books in 12 Months.

(I could have done it all without you, but as it goes I didn't.  So cheers.)

Goodbye fragile windows whose panes are held in mostly by mould because the landlord refuses to replace them even though it’d add significant value to the property.

Goodbye sloping floors that are slowly and inexorably tipping towards the Water of Leith - no amount of flood prevention will stop that subsidence now.

Goodbye number 8 bus, you unreliable sod (don’t think I didn’t see you drive right past that unfortunate tourist in the pissing rain last week).
Goodbye neighbour who still blanks me after three years (unless you meet me on the communal stair, but even then you stare awkwardly at those battered trainers rather than look me in the eye).

Goodbye fridge with your broken seal and tendency to freeze anything with the audacity to get nudged towards the back (you've destroyed so much perfectly good mayonnaise, you heartless robot).

Goodbye man across the hall who communicates mainly by post-it notes and likes to spend Friday nights lovingly painting the skirting boards wearing a nifty head torch.
Goodbye hole with wires hanging out where the buzzer used to be back in about 2010.

Goodbye constant redelivery fees because the postie couldn’t access the building to deliver anything larger than a red ‘sorry you were out’ card.

Goodbye paranoid lady downstairs who thinks junkies will invade if we leave the front door ajar for even a second.

Goodbye invisible junkies masquerading as innocent passers-by.

Goodbye army of overweight daschunds owned by assorted little old ladies with too many hats.
Goodbye 10pm ice cream runs to the garage.

Goodbye, proximity to the Botanic Gardens (I hope the baby moorhen grows up big and strong).
Goodbye Tanfield gable end, with your gorgeous autumn ivy.

Goodbye daily walk past bridesmaids dress shop (although I’ll be back to check your window displays, you crazy geniuses).

I hope it all works out for you, that you get a new fridge and sealant on the roof and that one day the landlord deigns to replace the windows.  May you bring your new tenants the same highs and lows you brought us in our time together. 

I think it would be best if we didn't see each other again for a while - I need some time to heal, and I'm sure you do too - but maybe in a few months or a year or a decade we could meet up for a coffee and talk about the old times.  Maybe.

So long, and thanks for all the Bumrod.