Orange is the New Black: Feminism without the F Word

The Feminist Premise

o-ORANGE-IS-THE-NEW-BLACK-facebook Orange is the New Black’s female cast (image from Orange is the New Black Facebook page)

As I prepare to teach a Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Popular Culture class this coming spring, I have been looking for an example of a television show or film that can start out the term, offering a strong jumping off point for our feminist analyses of pop culture. And I am thrilled to have found it in Netflix’s newest original series, Orange is the New Black.

[Spoilers ahead, so only make the jump if you have seen the show; if you haven’t yet seen it, stop reading and go watch it]

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The Casual Vacancy

 

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s rather brilliant introductory immersion into the world of adult fiction. There is no magic, nor any hint of feathers and light. It’s as dark as the day is long, and it’s absolutely dazzling. I was skeptical when I heard my literary hero had decided to write for an adult audience, but she’s really nailed it. The book had me in tears after a few pages, because it’s powerful stuff. Suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide adorn it’s pages. This is not a story for children. The tale has recently been adapted for television too, and it’s fantastic. It’s a must see, and let me tell you why.

The story is set in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford – think the Costwolds in rural splendour, and you’re there. It chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother. We are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, varying from hideous and hypocritical snobbery in the form of Howard Mollison, the parish council leader, and Krystal Wheedon, the spunky daughter of a heroin addict, who is single-handedly bringing up her toddler brother and caring for her mother. Howard Mollison strives to bring Pagford to tourist status, and therefore wishes to wipe away the housing estate that surrounds the picturesque village. Other members of the council wish to create a rehabilitation centre for the less fortunate.

This clear societal division lays the groundwork for an in-depth exploration of many underlying issues in present day society. The main conflict is between those who believe in rural preservation and those who have a duty of care towards the less fortunate, and it’s gripping stuff. In last night’s episode, we see a battle of wits between both parties. Howard Mollison discusses the lower echelons of society. He states that they choose to ‘put needles in their veins,’ and that they should effectively be wiped off the map. He claims that they need to take responsibility for their life decisions. The hot-headed village GP argues that he is a hypocrite. His ever-increasing weight is a burden on the NHS. She states that his medication costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, because he has made a lifestyle choice to remain horrendously overweight. Howard Mollison is less than pleased, and takes it as an insult. His pompous ignorance and arrogance is exposed, and the audience are forced to re-think their sociological ideals. Are we all making life decisions that directly contradict our own value systems and beliefs?

This drama is superbly acted, and in episode 2, Howard Mollison has a harrowing dream about what ‘the casual vacancy’ truly is. It’s the grave that waits for all of us. It’s a powerful adaptation, and questions what our legacies will be. The Casual Vacancy deals very vividly with social conscience, and I think it’s superb. If you aren’t watching, then you really ought to.

Sorry, but can we stop saying ‘sorry’?

According to studies, British women apologise up to eight times a day. We apologise for being unable to attend social engagements, and for putting our health and careers first. We apologise for disagreeing with people, to avoid causing offense, and we apologise for the way we look and feel. We are apologising for our choices, every day, and it needs to stop. We don’t need to be the ‘yes’ girls all the time, and we don’t need to justify that either. We’re women, and the choices we make are our own. The mere concept of apologising for something that isn’t your fault, or hasn’t caused any wrongdoing is bloody ridiculous. It’s very British too.

There is a good explanation for our apologies too. Women are socialised from an early age to focus on relationships and nurturing. Any sign of strength can be off-putting, so we’re conditioned to soften communication that can be construed as assertive or aggressive. We undermine our decisions and choices by apologising for them, because we don’t want to seem aggressive or antagonistic, but we need to start taking charge of our decisions, and not apologising for them. Men put their careers first every single day, and they don’t apologise for it, so why should we? Emotional and financial independence is something to be proud of. It doesn’t warrant an apology. People should not be offended by your success. My point is that we can follow our heart’s callings and that’s ok. Do you think Hilary Clinton apologised for becoming the First Lady of the United States? I don’t think she did. She worked hard for it. She earned it.

There are too many pressures on women in this day and age. We are expected to reach certain milestones in a specified timeframe, but those pressures are not ok. Why shouldn’t we wait until we’re ready to have babies? Is it wrong if we don’t want babies at all? Should we all dress and act a certain way, for fear of causing offense? Should we hold back on our careers because there’s a man involved? Absolutely not. I’ve recently realised how often I use the word ‘sorry,’ and it’s a little embarrassing. I’m not taking credit where credit is due, and why not? Am I afraid of upsetting someone for the way I look, act and feel? Should my achievements be apologised for? No they shouldn’t.

In essence, we need to stand by our decisions, and believe firmly in them. It isn’t wrong to be in control of your own life. We should believe in ourselves. You won’t do any good by pretending to be anything less than you are. Let’s stop doing ourselves a disservice.

Four Tips To Help You Finish Your Novel

1) Schedule your writing time, and protect it with your life. There are 24 hours in a day, and those hours can be spent however you choose. During my college years, I would get up at 5am to get some writing in before classes, and then stay up late writing too. It wasn’t entirely healthy, but it taught me a lesson. I wanted to write, so I made the time to do it. I’m an adult now (or so I’m told), and so I schedule responsibly instead. I get up at a reasonable time, put the coffee on and sit down to write. I write from 9am-4pm. I work office hours, and my body and my muse finally seem in tune to that pattern. I’m also incredibly protective over that time. I turn the phone and television off, and if people invite me out for lunch? I politely decline. The problem is, non-writers don’t understand the process, nor the importance of your writing time. They think you have all the time in the world because you work from home, but that isn’t the case at all. You must treat your writing like a job, even if it isn’t yet. Make sure you turn up. 2) Set goals. There is no point in saying you’ll write that book or screenplay by January next year. That isn’t how it works. You must set yourself achievable goals, and by achievable goals, I mean word targets. I set myself the writing target of 2000 words a day. I don’t always reach that target, but that is what I’m working towards. On a bad day, I’ll only churn out 1000 words, but on a good day? I’ve been known to get 4000 words done. The point is, it’s all progress. Do the maths. 2000 or 1000 words a day x 365 days = a rather sizeable novel. 3) Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait for your muse. I’ve read many different writing blogs and spoken to numerous writers over the years, and all admit that their muse is unreliable. It’s a myth that writers are suddenly absorbed in a moment of sheer inspiration. They force themselves to sit down in the chair every morning, and they get to work. Inspiration will follow. Ideas will emerge, but this is still a job, remember? Creativity is only a fraction of it. Hard work is the rest. 4) Believe in yourself. I have battled with anxiety and self-doubt for many years, and it can be completely destructive. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because it’s unrealistic. Your voice is unique, and chances are you’re writing something unique too. If you sound like your favourite author, then you aren’t using your voice, and that’s a damn shame. Believe in your voice, and believe in your work. You can do this.

Depression – My Journey and the Unnecessary Stigma

We all experience variations in our moods, and everyone responds to situations differently. People with depression have vivid and frightening ups and downs, or highs and lows. Elation, happiness, sadness, disappointment, emptiness, and misery. There can seem no obvious cohesion or sense to it, and it’s very difficult to talk about it. Speaking from experience, talking about depression is a taboo subject for many people, and it has a terrible stigma attached. People are happy to discuss physical ailments, but mental health is a different issue altogether. People don’t understand it, and with that lack of understanding, comes misjudgements and misunderstandings. Some people even question whether depression is a genuine thing. This continually shocks me, because depression is very real for me. It has been since I was fifteen years old, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. I’m at peace with it though, because I’ve learnt how to manage it.

In June 2007, I was diagnosed with severe depression. I was experiencing highs and lows of moods, and they were completely unpredictable. One moment, I’d be happy and almost delirious with excitement for life, but an hour later? I would be lost in the dark abyss of depression and be contemplating suicide. I couldn’t control it, and it made me lose love for everything that had previous made me happy. I lost interest in reading, writing and studying, which had always been my passion. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I couldn’t stand leaving the house either, and I felt lost and empty. I could summon no hope for the future, and that frightened me. So I visited my doctor.

My GP was incredibly supportive, and I needed that. I was studying for my A-levels at the time, and I was terrified that the depression would ruin that for me. It didn’t. My GP talked me through my condition, and after several meetings with counsellors and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder. I know, it sounds terrifying, and I went home feeling very sick. What did that mean? Was I crazy? I just didn’t know, but I decided I wouldn’t let it wreck my life. I couldn’t. I’d survived a difficult and traumatic childhood, and that was more difficult than this, surely? My education had always been the rock that steadied me, and I didn’t want to lose that on account of mental illness. The prospect terrified me.

I started to attend CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and Psychotherapy, which helped me immensely. I started to identify certain triggers in my life that prompted my low moods, which included minor arguments and situations of conflict. I have always struggled to maintain healthy relationships, because I’d run away to avoid potentially upsetting situations. If me and my boyfriend had a minor argument over something ridiculous (ie whether to fry or scramble an egg, or where to go on holiday) then I’d flip out and decide the relationship was doomed. Rationally, I knew it was a ridiculous thought process, but I just had to accept that my mind didn’t necessarily function like others. With the help of CBT, I have managed to identify these triggers and train myself into thinking slightly differently. I still react emotionally, but I take a moment now and think things through. I’m capable of being more rational about it. It definitely helps.

My main comfort throughout the process is knowing that I’m not alone. I remember breaking down in tears at the doctors, and wailing that I was losing my mind. I questioned why no-one else felt like this, or appeared to. I felt so alone. My doctor regarded me for a moment, and then told me to go home and ‘google’ my condition. I was amazed at the results. I wasn’t alone, and that meant the world to me. I discovered blogs and websites dedicated to offering support, and discussing other people’s personal journeys and thoughts. It was an immediate relief. I wasn’t alone. I realised that there are people out there, who have been similarly diagnosed, and it’s wonderful to be able to talk to them about it. I love to hear other people’s ideas for coping mechanisms, and how they manage their anxiety and low moods. I believe this is crucial to the process of getting through it. I still don’t understand why mental health is still so difficult to talk about, because talking with other people is an immense help. It should be encouraged, and I wish people would do more of it. Communication is key.

Depression will always be a huge part of my life, and I have accepted that now. It’s part of me, and who I am, but it doesn’t define me. It will never define me, and I look forward to a time when people are more comfortable in talking about it. The stigma is so unnecessary. When I told my friends about my condition, they were genuinely shocked. They hadn’t noticed how I felt, which made me wonder – how many people out there are suffering in silence? My friends would have described me as chatty and happy. Some even said I was the loudest and most encouraging of our friendship group, but inside? I was truly struggling, and afraid to speak out. The stigma and reluctance to talk is more damaging than anyone realises, and that needs to change.

Lessons Learnt

I finished my first book recently, and I have absolutely no intention of getting it published. Why? Because it was part of a learning curve. I needed to learn how to write a book, and then how to edit one, which is harder than you’d believe. The writing part is easy. You’re creating something, and it flows beautifully when it works. The editing is difficult, because it’s technical, slow and methodical. You have to pull everything apart and look at it objectively. I started my first book whilst at university, and that process has stretched almost three years. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long, although I have a feeling it can be blamed on various things – procrastination, distraction, and having a proper job. My energy levels are not suited to working a 42 hour week and then coming home to work on a novel. I don’t have a clue how other writers do it. I absolutely admire your dedication. It needs to be one or the other for me.

 

I read through the first book, and decided I didn’t want to send it off for publication. I’ve decided to view it as part of the learning process. I’ve already started working on my second novel, and the process of writing has been entirely different. In essence, it’s better. I’ve taken time off to focus on attention wholly on it. I treat this writing process as a 9-5 office job. I rise in the morning, make myself a strong coffee, and then get to work. I set myself writing targets and individual deadlines, and it’s worked brilliantly. I’m now 27,000 words into my new book, and it feels less troubled by procrastination, focus and other commitments. It’s been great. Fluid almost, and better than I could have hoped for.

 

I think the key for me has been getting over the self-doubt. I questioned my abilities on a daily basis, which wasn’t healthy for the mind or the creative process. My first mistake was expecting the first draft to be perfect, which is absolute nonsense. ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ said Ernest Hemingway. This is comforting for someone like me, who read through the first draft of my first novel and decided I was doomed to be a failure. That doubt made me walk away from the book for a year, and I didn’t come back due to fear. Yes, fear. I was afraid of looking at it, and when I did? I picked holes at it, started edits and then abandoned them due to frustration. I didn’t believe in myself, or the book, which was the problem. When I finally began working on it properly again, I’d done my research, and realised that every first draft needs ripping apart and putting together again. I feel better equipped to be writing again now. I know what to expect, and this time? I won’t let self-doubt plague me into abandoning the work before it’s finished.

 

Wish me luck!

No more Page 3? I say no more body shaming.

So, Page 3 is over. The Sun has been heavily criticised for its sexualisation and anachronistic views of women for several years now, and have finally decided to replace images of women with bare breasts with images of women in bikinis. Apparently that 6 inches of fabric makes a big difference. I’ll admit to being skeptical when the feminist group – ‘No More Page 3’ – emerged in 2012, led by a woman called Lucy-Ann Holmes. It was an honourable movement, and yes, the sexualisation of women is prevalent in the current media. My issue is that this victory is pointless. This is nothing to do with the sexualisation of women. It is an attempt at body-shaming, by people who should know better.

 

Let me be frank. I posed for Page 3 in 2010, and found it massively liberating. I wasn’t ashamed of my body, and was quite excited about standing up confidently. I felt powerful. I felt in control. To me, baring your breasts for the newspaper is no different to breastfeeding in public. We are women. We’re allowed to be proud of our forms, and breasts are not offensive. Page 3 is not the problem. It’s people’s perceptions of it. We fought for the freedom of choice, and now other women are telling us what jobs we should and shouldn’t be doing? Modelling is a career choice. It isn’t exploitative, and we should be supporting each other as women. Where is the sisterhood? Where is the support? As a feminist, I am incredibly pro-choice, and Page 3 was a choice for me. Should I feel ashamed for that now? Are we making choices that must be approved by others first? That doesn’t really sound like a ‘choice’ at all.

 

Lucy-Ann Holmes, the leader of the ‘No More Page 3’ movement, once said that sex should be ‘beautiful,’ but now seems disgusted by the image of the human body. It’s an almost puritanistic view of nudity, which seems more reflective of a 1600s mindset. Will we be forced to cover our ankles eventually, to protect others against the seemingly offensive view of skin? It is also incredibly insulting to men, who apparently cannot be trusted to act sensibly around a pair of breasts. Many feminists argue that nudity in the media promotes rape, which is a ridiculous argument to make, and again, it is completely insulting to men. I’ll confess to seeing pictures of Vin Diesel in magazines that have made me feel gooey, but it doesn’t make me anymore likely to attack him in the street. You just don’t bloody do it.

 

Feminism is also quickly gaining a bad reputation, which isn’t good for the future. It is supposed to be a liberating movement, and not be forcing unrealisatic and puritanistic views on us. It isn’t healthy. Feminism should make us proud to be a female, and proud of our bodies. The dissolution of Page 3 feels like a step backwards, back into the shaming of the female form, and I am not in favour. My Page 3 days are over, but I’ll still look back on my pictures and smile. I look happy. I look happy, confident and totally in control of my life.

Confessions

‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’

They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.

My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.

Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.

It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.

When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.

To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.

My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’

Unfinished Business

Writing and I have a turbulent relationship. When things are going well, it’s the best love affair I’ve ever had. I wake up breathless and excited every day, and cannot wait to see my work again. I drink copious amounts of coffee as I delve into it, and the feeling of enthusiasm never fades. It’s like a damn drug, and I stay up all hours, contemplating our next meeting. It’s blissful. Manic, but blissful.

It isn’t always so. When things are bad, I tend to fall into a black hole of depression, and view my work as though it were a treacherous ex boyfriend. Why did it stop talking to me? Why did our love affair end, and on what terms? I can’t figure out what went wrong. Maybe we had a different endgame in mind? I wanted to finish in a well-rounded and credible place, but my muse had different ideas. It refuses to offer any more inspiration or guidance. It’s cruel, and I start to question my own abilities at restoring the relationship, or ever creating anything again. Maybe I don’t have what it takes?

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have suffered this, and it’s a bitter experience. Nobody likes unfinished business, and an unfinished book is just that. It started well. I spent a year researching my subject matter, and created a plot plan which seemed flawless. ‘Seemed’ being the important word here. The plot wasn’t flawless, and I often found myself at points where I wondered where to go next. My characters took strange turns which were both fascinating and frustrating. I followed these turns in the name of narrative flow, and I was genuinely excited at the time, but then I found myself ill-prepared when new turns reared their heads. To put it bluntly, my characters approached complex situations, and then they stopped talking to me. I didn’t know where to go next. I went from being unable to function without being inspired to write, to…nothing.

The love affair seemed to be over, and I made the mistake of stepping away from my work. I turned off the laptop, and returned the next morning, expecting to find my muse. I didn’t. I sat and stared at the same amount of words, over and over again. My muse didn’t return to me immediately, and so I gave up. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I walked away and stopped. I’d invested years into this, but it only took two days for me to give up. Needless to say, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth.

The New Year has come back around, and I’m thinking about the unfinished book again. I’m thinking about my inability to focus on something long term, and how I can fix it. During university, I didn’t have a choice but to remain focused on dissertations and assignments. Fixed university deadlines terrified me into focus, and I powered through the moments of self-doubt, and discovered inspiration again on the way. My New Years Eve resolution is therefore to make a plan, set myself deadlines and stick to them. I’m going to be turning off the internet when writing, and staying the hell away from social media. Facebook is an absolute curse to my writing. My self-control is weak, but things need to change!

And they will. Once I’ve checked Facebook one more time…only kidding!

Wish me luck!