Tag Archives: Freedom

#ThisGirlCan?

I’ve made the decision to get fitter, lose weight, and so on.

This means running.

Running’s pretty easy; you don’t have to go anywhere special to do it. You don’t need expensive equipment. You just put on your trainers and some sloppy clothes and hit the streets.

Except, it’s not that simple, is it?

You see women running, and they’re all skinny and fit, jogging easily with their bright-coloured Lycra and their purpose-made water-bottles and their headphones.

They are not like me. They do not puff and gasp, red in the face, hair everywhere. I don’t have all the right gear; my tracksuit bottoms don’t quite reach my ankles because either they’ve shrunk since I got them, or I’ve grown. It could be either, because I had them when I was at school, and, not making any specific statements about age… but I do have grey hairs.

In short, my whole appearance just screams “I’m not good at this.” I am neither efficient nor decorative. And, really, one is expected to be one or the other. If you’re whizzing past lesser mortals, you can be forgiven for crappy clothes. If you’re decorative enough, nobody cares how fast or how far you run.

So, my strategy? Run at night, when nobody can see. Only, of course, running alone as a woman may not be the smartest idea, so my husband has to come with me. He’s pretty nice about the fact that I slow him down.

So, #ThisGirlCan? It’s a media campaign by Sport England, intended to encourage women to do more exercise, and more sport. Research has, apparently, shown that what holds women back from physical activity is the fear of being ‘judged’.

When I first saw an advert, it pissed me off. Yet again, I thought, we have a bunch of people who think women need help and guidance. Of course women can. They don’t need to be told that. If women want to jog or cycle, or do karate or rock climbing, they can. They don’t need to be reassured that it’s still OK to be seen in public looking less than sexy and gorgeous.

Then I took a step back, and thought, “You who dare to run in broad daylight in your grotty old jogging bottoms, gasping and wheezing, may cast the first stone.”

Even though I’m generally pretty uninterested in what other people think (you only have to look at my wardrobe choices), I still don’t like running where people can see how unfit I am. And women-only gyms, or sessions, are not the answer.

In my experience, other women are usually much nastier than men. Men might call out a comment, but then they get on with their day; it’s just a joke that they probably don’t even understand is quite as confidence-sapping as it is (plus, you can put it down to male chauvinism and ignore it). Women, on the other hand, are spiteful. They’re not just making a joke; they deliberately set out to hurt, to destroy confidence, and to position themselves in a superior position in the pecking order to you.

So yes, #ThisGirlCan has a point. At the very least, putting pictures of women who aren’t skinny and fit, and who do their thing – whatever it is – without being prevented by the fear of what other people will think, might give some women the confidence to get out there and do what they want to do, regardless. Sometimes, that’s all it takes – the knowledge that you’re not the only one who wheezes and jiggles and looks as if she’s about to either melt or have a heart attack.

 

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Why I am not a feminist

I’m not a feminist. Never identified as one; never wanted to be one.

I’m an equalitarian.

Firstly, there’s the word itself. ‘Feminism’; I’m no linguistic expert, but it seems to have its roots in the belief in the superiority of, or at least support for, the feminine against the alternative, or alternatives.

Why don’t I like that?

Because I don’t believe women are superior to men; neither do I believe men are superior to women. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, but neither is better than the other. Equal, but different. Additionally, I don’t believe that all women (or men) are the same, that they can be easily put in a box marked ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. People are people; some women act or think more like the average male than like the average female, and the other way around. If I am a feminist, then what am I supporting? A chromosome type, regardless of the qualities that the person expresses? Or if it’s a set of personal qualities, then what if I don’t feel I share them?

The difference in male and female cultures is not just down to societal conditioning; on a population level, men are bigger, more aggressive. It’s a biological thing. Testosterone and all that. It’s hard to separate nature from nurture – do fewer women take part in traditionally male pastimes and careers because they just don’t want to, or because of lingering societal pressure even when the way is officially open to them? – but the research says that men are different from women. End of. So if we agree that men and women are fundamentally different on a population level, what about those individuals who fall outside gender norms? The girl who likes combat sports, and whose friends are mostly male? If we’re talking about feminism as promoting the feminine, does she count? She doesn’t display the ‘usual’ feminine traits.

If we’re talking politically, that feminism is about changing women’s status as the second sex, discriminated against either openly or subtly, why don’t I connect to that? Even as a not-very-feminine woman, surely I can relate to that?

Well, yes and no. But for me, it’s not about ‘up the women’. It’s about equality. For everyone. It’s not just about women wanting to be engineers (in case anyone was wondering, I don’t) and soldiers, and not having it implied that they have to sleep with the boss in order to get promotion. For me, it’s also about men not being discriminated against – being able to be primary school teachers without their female colleagues looking askance at them and treating them like a paedophile-in-waiting. About men being able to be midwives, if they want, without anyone making comments about them only wanting to do it because they get off on it. (To which I would reply, in that case, what about lesbians, and also, sack all the male gynaecologists too.)

Everyone has the right to make their own life choices without being discriminated against, not just women.

Then there’s the whole dungarees-thing.

I’m not against dungarees per se; I even own a pair. But even though dungarees are not nearly as fashionable as they used to be in feminist circles, their ghost is still alive and well and rattling its chains.

This is the school of thought that says that since high heels and nice dresses are symbols of male-dominated society and thus the subjugation of women, a feminist does not wear them because that’s Selling Out.

I mean, WTF? To be a feminist, I have to look dowdy?

Firstly, I object to anyone trying to make my wardrobe choices for me. Secondly, by refusing to wear high heels just because men see it as sexy, that leaves a woman’s wardrobe choices still in the hands of the men. The dungarees-wearers are still the prisoners of male choices, as it were – only instead of wearing high heels because men find them sexy, they’re wearing dungarees because men don’t find them sexy. Personally, I think that’s even worse, because not only are they still allowing others to make their decisions for them, but they also end up wearing something that they don’t like either. Which is, to me, a net loss and I find it hard to see how that could possibly be thought of as an advantage. Bra-burning (or not wearing) is another. I’m not making any comments on my level of endowment, or otherwise, but I will remark that the bra performs a very practical function, especially if one is going to do something more strenuous than a little light flower-arranging, or leaflet-distribution.

I prefer to be an equalitarian and wear what I please, without reference to whether people I don’t even know might consider me a sex object, or not. My choices are my own.

Then there’s the modern feminists who are now saying that it’s not just right for a woman’s place to be in the home, it’s better. A wife and mother is the best thing anyone could possibly be, and it’s an option only open to women. Women should stop wanting to ‘compete with men’ and concentrate on the things they are ideally fitted for by nature, which are more worthwhile, more morally valuable, than ‘men things’. Women should celebrate being women.

This kind of thing doesn’t leave me speechless, because very little ever does (have you noticed that?). But it does make me spitting mad.

This is another reason why I am not a feminist. I object to being defined as a person by my chromosome type, even if it’s a superior chromosome type. Allegedly. A patriarchal society puts all women in a box, saying ‘Women are all like this; these are the things they are good at, and these are the things they are bad at.’ Assigning qualities such as nurturing, compassion, gentleness, and so on to women and then lauding these qualities has a long tradition. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and usually been done by men who wanted to keep women subjugated. Now the feminists are doing it. This can be translated as ‘You can put us in a box, but that’s OK because we like it there; it’s a good box. We don’t want to go outside the box.’

I don’t want to be shut in a box, even a nice box. I want the freedom to choose whether to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, or a top-flight professional, according to my personality and talents. I don’t want it forced on me by anyone else, even by people who say that one way is ‘better’.

To finish with, I have a little illustrative story. It’s true, although it didn’t happen to me; it was told to me by the person to whom it happened.

The year is 1983; the height of the Cold War. The Russians have shot down a South Korean airliner; things are tense, to say the least. And CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) is holding a protest at Greenham Common, outside a Royal Air Force base which is one of the two from which planes would be launched equipped with the nuclear Cruise missile.

A young man, an ardent member of CND, goes on an organised bus trip to the protest camp. Wandering around the camp, he encounters a woman and makes some perfectly respectable comment (about the weather, or the camp, or the protest). He is told to “F*ck off, we don’t need any more men around here. Men are the cause of all the problems.” Supported by her friends.

The young man, astonished by this, leaves, and goes to talk, instead, to the guard on the other side of the wire. This guard is female. And they have an interesting talk about nuclear disarmament, the political situation, the protest, and several other things.

After that, the young man left CND.

OK, the moral of the story?

Well, the obvious thing is that, as my friend remarked to me, that kind of uncalled-for rudeness is enough to make even a man who supports equality into a male chauvinist. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

But think, we have two women here – who was the better ‘feminist’?

Firstly, the dungaree-wearing (she was, apparently, with a lumpy jumper) political activist feminist who antagonises the very people she should be trying to make into allies?

Or the guard who has forged her career, presumably successfully, in a male dominated area? She proves, every day, to everyone she meets, that she – a woman – can do ‘a man’s job’.

Yes, we need political activists – but we need people who do not automatically see everything as ‘if you’re not with us (and we define that by criteria such as chromosome type, so not everyone is allowed to be ‘with’ us whatever their beliefs) then you’re against us.’ We do not need people who are gratuitously offensive, or who play up to negative stereotypes, thus giving ammunition to our opponents. We need people who will show that women are to be respected, that we can be trusted with authority (a weapon as dangerous as the female guard’s rifle). We need people who can show that women are equal, and therefore it is wrong not to treat us as such.

We also cannot afford to see equality for women as a separate issue to equality for people of all races, or for people of all sexual orientations, or all ages, or equality in any other area. Equality is equality. Inequality spreads, like disease; you can only wipe it out if you wipe it out everywhere.

The Life of Brian

This film is allegedly a comedy. People laugh when they watch it, which is how I know it’s supposed to be a comedy. Personally, I think it’s a tragedy.

This is the story of a man who is trying to mind his own business and just live his life the way he wants, but his friends and family – and increasing numbers of others – won’t let him. They insist on forcing him into a role he does not want, even over his protests. In the end, Brian has no freedom not because he is arrested by the Romans but because no matter what he does, his family and friends force him back onto the path they have chosen for him.

There are plenty of funny bits in the film, especially the bit with the People’s Front of Judaea… or is it the Judaean People’s Front? But for me they are overwhelmed by the tragedy.

Not only does poor Brian end up being crucified, and when he begs his family to take him down, they refuse, telling him how proud they are of his nobility and sacrifice, but some innocent Good Samaritan type also dies for the grievous error of judgement of trying to help someone in need. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed.

It makes me think… Do I do that to other people? We are all the stars of our own lives, with other people as Supporting Cast. But do I forget that they are the stars of their own lives too, not just bit-part actors in mine?

Do I pay attention to the people around me, or am I so focused on what I think, what I feel, and what I want, that I don’t see people for who they really are?

When Brian’s family go to him when he’s up on the cross and refuse to take him down and thus save his life, they think they’re doing what he wants. They think they’re doing the right thing. But because they never really pay attention to him, they end up depriving him of everything he values including, finally, his life.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian