Sunday, 29 April 2012

Crooked Rib publishes 'Mothers in Fiction: the marvellous, the mean and everything in between' by Carrie Dunn

Renowned feminist writer Carrie Dunn’s collections of literary sketches of the relationships between mothers and their offspring is a must read for fans of fiction and feminism, and for anyone who is, or has, a mother.

Dunn takes the reader on a journey through literary history, visiting Mrs Capulet, Mrs Bennett, Sue Bridehead and Mammy Walsh along the way. Her well-observed portraits bring to life this often-neglected relationship, as we rethink our attitudes to the marvellous, the mean, the flighty and devoted mothers that populate our favourite books. 

This collection of portraits is a joy to read. It was a great opportunity to revisit some of my favourite novels (as well as discover some new ones) through the mother characters that we often miss, or take for granted, or fail to appreciate. Whether it’s the horror of Mrs Reed in Jane Eyre, or a new way of looking at Pam Jones, this book took me on a journey through literary history and introduced me to its key players in a new and refreshing way.”
                                                                                                            Sian Norris, blogger

Dunn notes that throughout history, mothers have been silenced or ignored by literary criticism, or else their motivations and actions have been dismissed as trivial. Her book aims for us to take a second look at the role motherhood has played in literature, and demands that we re-evaluate and question our often negative reactions to mother characters – from Mrs Bennett’s superficiality to Mrs Capulet’s abandonment of Juliet. She examines how sexism or male bias in literary history has led to condemnation of mothers in fiction whilst failing to recognise or evaluate the social and cultural norms of the period that influenced or shaped these characters. Do we judge and ignore literary fathers in the same way?

The portraits Dunn paints in her book are very funny, very knowing and sharp. The 20 short sketches take us on a literary journey of 500 years of literature’s mums. This book is for anyone who is, or has, a mother, and for anyone who loves great reads.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Light Bulb Moment: My chapter

The book launch of the Light Bulb Moment is only two weeks away (where has this year gone?) and so as a little taster I'm going to share with you my chapter from the anthology. 

The event features contributors to the book reading their chapters, followed by a panel discussion on the future of feminism, featuring Natasha Walter, Zohra Moosa, Chitra Nagarajan, Mara Clarke and Anna van Heesvijk. 

You can buy tickets here:

Anyway, here's the chapter:

Finding my sisters
Siân Norris

Considering it was my idea to put together this anthology telling the moment we became feminists, I have found it extremely difficult to discover and tell my own. Was it, as I often joke, the influence of watching Maid Marian and Her Merry Men on TV as a child, with its outspoken female lead who ruled the roost of men? Was it when I was 16, and my friend Nadia lent me The Whole Woman, a book I devoured and then parroted for years, until as I got older I began to question some of the things in my feminist bible (notably the transphobia and her comments on female genital mutilation). Was it my feminist teachers at school and university who encouraged me to write essays on Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys whilst everyone else was doing Joyce and Milton. Was it my early activism in the anti-homophobia movement and the influence of having two mums, a dad and a step-mum?

It was, of course, all these things. As well as organising Ladyfest Bristol 2007, writing a feminist zine and blog and ultimately co-ordinating a feminist network of a few hundred women and men.

But the more I thought about it, the more I put my actual, lived and activist feminism down to a period in my life of depression; and the decision I took to stop it, to move forward and to be happy. And I think a big part of this for me was in learning about and discovering sisterhood.

In the anthology that inspired this book, Click, one of the writers says that feminism was her consolation prize for surviving an eating disorder. I feel the same way, except that my form of self destructive behaviour wasn’t around food, but self harm. Self harm is lonely. It is about struggling to deal with emotional pain, so turning that pain on to yourself to try and control it with a physical pain. I cut my arms and legs with shaving razors from the ages of 16 to 20, with a few gaps in between. I don’t know now if I could really articulate what the emotional pain was, if I even understand now what it was. But I know that it was real and it was big, even though now I can’t really name it. And the only way to make it manageable, to make it small, was to turn it into a physical pain.

During one of these bouts of depression I wrote the following story. I can still remember the anguish and the anger that fled out of my pen and into the A5 ringbound notebook on my lap, in that freezing cold room I lived in in Dalston (this was 2005 guys, before the hipsters moved in). I wrote it after having been sexually assaulted on a bus by a man who leaned over and grabbed me and tried to kiss me: 

“The bus is making me feel sick. Everyone is playing a game of musical chairs that they haven’t told me about. Every time it jolts to a stop, everyone seems to get up to swap seats, and I’m just left sitting here. The man behind me is talking about the weather.
This is the most awful bus journey. It is worse than the one with the woman talking to me about her boyfriend who used to beat her up, or the one where the man tried to kiss me and I had to push him away hard.
It jolts again to a stop and it is my turn to leave the game. I walk fast down the street, it’s dark, and each time my foot hits the pavement I jump that it is someone else’s. My whole life I have been afraid of the no one behind me on the street.
My key sticks in the lock, but I battle it open. The living room is crowded with lived in mess. There’s drinking, but I go to bed instead.

My body slides down, sinking into the valleyed mattress. The covers are heavy, but I’m not warm. I daydream about a mattress that I don’t sink into. That doesn’t collapse along with me. My room isn’t dark, but it’s peaceful. The water pipes gurgling remind me of my childhood. Being afraid of the witch that lived in the boiler cupboard.
Next door, I can hear my housemate having sex. She has thoughtfully turned the music up, but all it does is emphasise the fact that there is another noise to cover.
The mattress is swallowing me. My back is melting into it in a sticky mess and I can’t unglue myself. My legs have stopped working. I grab the top of my left thigh to see if it is still there. I think maybe it is. I imagine my hand is yours. Whichever one of you.
My fingernails are dirty.
It’s disgusting. I know I should clean them, but you can pretend they’re not.

Sometimes, when it starts to go this way, when it gets to feeling that my bones collapse; I can feel every filament in my body. I can feel my brain moving against my skull, it is creaking, and when I move my eyes, I can sense the scraping of them against the sockets. I feel it in my neck. I can see every little pore in my lungs open up. I can track the blood rushing to all the drought-ridden places in my body, I can hear it squealing. I can feel the cells’ pain when they split and break and crack into two parts. I can feel a tension under my breastplate every time my heart remembers to try and convulse.
It makes me wonder what my body looks like to an outsider. How it feels to the hands that grab it and to the tongues that smear it. What it is in my body that inspires such strength in another, that triggers that burst of love and steals that loss of control, and what it is in my body that defies all that, so the hands scuttle away like little crabs.
Slut body.
Sick body.
My body.
It belongs to all of you.

It isn’t that no one cares. It is that no one cares enough. And the hands that grab and touch, and the lips that grab and touch, push me away and I fall back on the mattress that swallows me up. Gulp.
Lying in bed, my body shrinks to the size of a pin. My legs retract and my head and my arms are pulled in and I lie there, a pin. I’ll prick your prick your prick pricks me.
But it’s changing. Now my body crumples in on itself, and I crinkle and crack and all that’s left is a piece of dirty newspaper, with two hands kneading it, and I can see my mouth in its folds. Or is it more than two?
The hands pull the paper flat, and suddenly I’m white and clean and smooth and plain. I lie there still and blank, and you can write me, as you will.

You draw me a face of the wide eyes of your ex, while You and You put on the big lips of the girl you’re in love with, and of course there’s You who paints on the cute smiling cheeks of the girl that You are in love with still, whilst You let me keep my nose, to remind you that it is me you’re using, but You lengthen my hair and give it a new shade to suit a generic fantasy. Then I’m ready for all of you. And I lie here for you all, I’m hidden, I’m curled under my flat stomach and I love you all and I love you all and I think yes this is it this is it this time surely one of you will stay. But then you collapse on my breasts and then you rumple my hair fondly and then you stand up. My eyes behind her wide eyes are blinded. You lift the white sheet with its attractive additions and go back to who they really belonged to all along. You leave me my nose and my flat stomach.

Anytime you want me to, I can make you happy.
There’s nothing I won’t do, just to make you happy.
And you all know it.
And you all know it.

So you can leave me with the safe knowledge that I won’t.
So you can go back to the real wide eyes and the real big lips and the real cute cheeks and the original better, bigger, brighter mix of parts, and know that you can always come back. Lay a clean sheet over the crushed blood and bone on my dark dark dirty sheets and re-draw me to make you happy.

It’s good to be here.
It’s some kind of bliss.

But you know and I know that my bed isn’t enough. You are all frightened to admit it, but I know that you all know. So although I lie here in wait, it is no surprise to me when you don’t come back.
I lie here in wait for the next time you need attention and flattery.
And for you, I lie in wait for the next time you argue with her and need some comfort.
Whilst you know I lie in wait for you for when you want to feel good about yourself and your power over me.

The longer I wait, the more changes you all need to make to the paper. Soon you must close your eyes when you come; to make sure you don’t catch sight of my real face behind what you paint over it and I fake it oh and I fake it ah and I fake it don’t stop and I fake it that’s right and I fake it harder and I fake it faster and I fake it yes!

Anytime you want me to, I can make you happy.
There’s nothing I won’t do, just to make you happy.”

I decided to use this piece of writing to tell my story because writing it was my light bulb moment. I think that despite having always called myself a feminist, despite reading Greer and writing academic essays on gender and mouthing off about all sorts of feminist subjects; despite all of this I hadn’t been acting like a feminist. I had been careless with myself and I had been careless of other women. I had let patriarchy in through the cracks of my book-ish armour and not only had the result left me unhappy and struggling; it had also left me silent on the subjects of how men were treating the women around me, as well as how they were treating me.

Years later, when I thought about this period of my life, I remembered a man I had slept with laughing about how he had pulled this woman, had sex with her and then left because he realised how ‘ugly’ she was. At the time I remember thinking this was awful, but not challenging it.

After I wrote that story, I realised that I couldn’t call myself a feminist if I continued to refuse to treat myself with respect and failed to treat other women with respect. So, a few months later, I stopped self harming. I stopped sleeping with people that I didn’t want to sleep with. I stopped reading celeb magazines and joining in their mocking of other women’s bodies. I stopped judging what other women were wearing, or saying or doing. I started to treat the women around me as sisters. I realised that I wasn’t going to like every woman I met, but that wasn’t what sisterhood meant. Sisterhood, in a feminist sense, meant seeing a commonality with women, and a commonality in the way patriarchy harms us.

This didn’t happen over night of course. It was a process of years more consciousness-raising. But it started then.
Some say that the concept of sisterhood is an outdated one. But I disagree. Sisterhood was my saviour. Now, many years later, I am surrounded by sisters in the feminist movement. Of course I owe my change in confidence and happiness to lots of other things too, including counselling, friends, family, boyfriend. But my feminism, my strength in my sense of sisterhood and community – that’s what started the change. I saw that I had to wake up to how women were being treated, and how I was complicit in patriarchy’s project. And that feminism and sisterhood could make my world a better place. So, slowly, I started working within this feminist sisterhood to ensure that the pressures of patriarchy that hurt me would not be around to hurt my one-day daughters.

Now that I am a fully-fledged feminist activist, sisterhood is even more important to me. As I learn more about global inequality and how patriarchy impacts on women and men in so many destructive ways, the need to reach out to women across the world has become vital. The fight against patriarchy isn’t just about fighting the ways in which it hurt me. Being part of this global community, this global network, gives me the strength and enthusiasm to keep going, to keep fighting. Together, a better world is possible.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

33 women in 111 days

It’s been a year since I wrote my letter to our political leaders regarding the cuts to domestic violence support services, and just under a year since I received my (sole) reply from Theresa May. Since then, despite May assuring me that councils were being asked not to see this area as an ‘easy cut’, along with a vague reference to investing in ‘people’, everything that we predicted would happen to the sector and the women it supports, has happened.

In particular, refuges are closing down or losing their funding. Women’s Aid are reporting that refuges are turning away 230 women a day (, often with advice to sleep in occupy camps or A&E departments, or even in bus stations. Of course, many of these women, having found the courage and strength to leave a violent home, often with children in tow, will be forced to go back. They might not have anywhere else to go.

The warning from the domestic violence support sector was stark. Make these cuts, they said, and more women will die. And they have, devastatingly, been proven right.

According to Nia Central, between 1st Jan 2012 and 20th April 2012, 33 women and girls have been murdered as a result of gender-based violence. The suspects are their husbands, their boyfriends, their exes or male family members. That’s 33 women in 111 days. That’s one woman or girl (as some of the victims are under-18) every 3.3 days (

There is little to say in the face of such horror, such damning evidence. Other than that this is a war against women. As a comparison, less UK military personnel have died in Afghanistan (15) than women have died as a result of gender-based violence in the same time period.

The government cuts are leading to the destruction of a support system that was – despite always being underfunded and overstretched – helping 1000s of women every day escape violent homes (and men too – Gemini for example provides refuge places for men). The closure of refuges has resulted in hundreds of women being told every day that there is no-where for them to go to escape violent homes. And this lack of support, this lack of escape route, is resulting in a higher rate of domestic abuse deaths – a figure that some evidence suggested was decreasing (from 2 a week to 1.5). 

A report published last month found that funding from local authorities to organisations supporting victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse had fallen from £7.8 million in 2010/11 to £5.4 million in the current financial year ( This is in spite of official reports that there were 400,000 domestic violence incidents reported last year and the police receive a domestic abuse related phone call every minute.  Some local authorities have made funding cuts to this sector of nearly 50% ( Despite Theresa May’s promise to me last year, councils are seeing domestic abuse support services as an easy cut. Victims and survivors of domestic violence are being silenced and they are being forgotten. And with the continued closure of refuges, women are being offered the impossible choice of staying in a violent home and risking being killed, or leaving and sleeping rough with their children. This is not a choice at all.

When I write about domestic abuse murders, I am often questioned on my statistics. People who don’t believe the numbers, who think they are ‘too high to be true’. On the flipside, I’ve (unbelievably) had people comment that 104 murdered women a year doesn’t seem ‘very much’. I now feel that the government and local authorities have joined those online ‘trolls’ who don’t see the terrifying domestic violence figures as ‘very much’. Because, really, how many women have to die, before they say enough is enough? Before they stop these cuts? Before they see that closing refuges, cutting domestic violence support services is leading to the deaths of more and more women every week?

33 in 111 days?

Mr Cameron. Mr Clegg. Mr Osborne. Ms May.Ms Featherstone.  Enough is enough. 
I will be sending a copy of this blogpost to above names.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Hi all

So it's been a big week for me.

First of all, I've started my new job. I'm working as a conceptual copywriter for a small agency in Bristol that specialise in charity clients.

Which is great!

And secondly, I got a publishing contract for my children's book Greta and Boris. Which is basically a dream come true for me.

So it's been champagne and cava all round!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Feminism's back and you're gonna get in trouble

Feminism’s back, exclaims the Guardian (, in what by my count is the 6534th article of this nature since my own missive in November 2008 (

Feminism’s back and this time we don’t fit into those ‘stereotypical moulds’. We’re fun and feisty urbanites and country dwellers and some of us are even…men! Yay!

Ok. As you can probably tell from my tongue in cheek intro I’m going to critique this piece and media bias, but first of all I want to point out all the wonderful things about the article. The great thing is that this article highlights how many young women are engaging in feminist activism and running their own campaigns – girls who are still at school, the same age I was when I first read The Whole Woman and only had one friend my age who identified as a feminist. It is fantastic that these young women are getting angry, and active. It’s also thrilling that from being one of few feminist networks in the UK back in 2007, we are now one of many. And I have so much love and respect for Kat, Anna and Matt (all quoted in the article) and the brilliant work they do in empowering women and men to get active in feminism and tackle sexism.  I consider them friends; I’ve known Kat for a while, Matt contributed to my book and Anna is speaking at my book launch.  

However, just because this article celebrates such great achievements, doesn’t mean it is beyond criticism. It is an example of media bias and stereotyping of feminism. Please note that this article is not a criticism of anyone quoted in the article, but a critique of the way the ‘feminism’s back!’ narrative tends to go.

The fact that this is the 6534th article about feminism making a comeback is my first issue.

There was a point when the feminism making a comeback articles were met by us feminists with glee. After decades of the media declaring us dead whilst we stood shouting in the corner ‘we’re over here!!’, we were suddenly recognised, noticed! We were inspiring articles excitedly revealing that feminism had never died. But four years on, and the same articles are still being churned out. Feminism’s back, a lot of them are young, they don’t burn their bras (grr!), they wear lipstick (yawn!), and they love men (double yawn).

The reason this repetitive rhetoric about feminism’s Lazarus moment irritates me is because by endlessly concentrating on us being ‘back’, there’s very little concentration on what we’re doing, and what we’ve always been doing. Namely, fighting the patriarchy to end the oppression of women and liberate us all. And a lot of that activism is focused in ending violence against women and girls (in all its forms – I have a very broad definition that includes the sex industry, representation and cultural femicide) and how the patriarchy allows and excuses violence. So often I find that the celebration of ‘feminism’s back!’ goes hand in hand with articles that seek to de-politicise the movement by assuring us that we’re not like ‘stereotypical feminists’.

Almost every ‘feminism’s back!’ article spends time reassuring readers that the new, 21st century feminism isn’t like the stereotype of old, 20th century feminism. In short, these articles endlessly re-hash the old media stereotypes that feminists are ‘fat hairy lesbians’ in order to encourage readers to understand that nowadays feminists aren’t always ‘fat hairy lesbians’. But what this narrative spectacularly fails to do is demand to know why there’s this belief that it’s wrong to be fat, or hairy, or a lesbian. Because one of the HUGE points of feminism is to question repressive beauty ideals invented by the patriarchy that waste women’s time, energy, money and self-esteem; as well as question hetero-normativity and compulsory heterosexuality. Feminism means standing against patriarchal beauty ideals that say women are only acceptable if they’re thin, shaven and straight.

It simply isn’t acceptable for the media to be using offensive and homophobic tropes to try to ‘sell’ feminism. Yes, it’s important to break down stereotypes, but if that isn’t coupled with an understanding that these stereotypes are a typical way that patriarchy seeks to shut women up, then we’re not moving forward. Especially if it means the same media is simultaneously silencing the women who don’t fit feminism’s so-called ‘new mould’.

Like many ‘feminism’s back!’ articles, this piece in the Guardian focuses on the fight against sexual objectification and the sex industry. This is a fight I have been long involved in myself, and it has become one of the key feminist issues. Organisations like UK Feminista, Object and the Anti Porn Men Project are well versed on the links between sexual objectification and violence against women and girls – how one can cause the other and how we cannot fight one without fighting the other. As feminist groups, these organisations are active in fighting VAWG and in discovering the links between how various means of oppression are linked, and they work in solidarity with other feminist orgs who might have a primary focus on violence. As a co-ordinator of Bristol Feminist Network, I’m a member of UK Feminista and Object and I am awed by the incredible work they do. However I find that all too often ‘feminism’s back!’ articles are reluctant to make these vital links between objectification and violence – de-politicising a political issue. 

Further, the ‘new feminism’ is repeatedly portrayed as being only and always focused on matters pertaining to sexual objectification in itself, away from its impact. They also tend to refuse to acknowledge that there are other feminist orgs beyond UK Feminista, Object and the Anti Porn Men’s Project. I’d love to read a ‘feminism’s back’ article that interviewed other organisations that are active on a range of vital feminist issues. Sexual objectification and the sex industry is a huge issue that impacts on many, many issues that need to be tackled. It doesn’t exist in isolation and it shouldn’t be reported without investigation of its impact. By portraying the movement as only focused in this area, the media is doing feminism, and the orgs being represented, a big disservice.

Another problem is that by tending to always focus attention on three organisations, the media tends to make the rest of us invisible. The media loves leaders, it loves a spokesperson. But the beauty of the feminist movement is that we don’t have leaders. We’re all standing together fighting patriarchy. I don’t believe that the women and men promoted to leadership by the media see themselves in that role. Again, it’s patriarchy demanding that we play by their rules and have a hierarchical structure where someone’s in charge.

My final comment pertains to men. Now, I have to point out that I am not a separatist although I understand and support the need for women-only space. I believe that men should be feminists because I believe everyone should be a feminist. I think anyone who looks at how patriarchy and male privilege is used to oppress women (and looks at how intersectionality and privilege works to oppress others) and doesn’t go ‘woah – we need to sort this mess out’ needs to ask themselves some serious questions. I co-run a feminist network that is mixed (although most sessions are women only because only women turn up). When we feel it is necessary, then we will specify that an event will be women only (open to all self-identifying women). This mainly happens if we are having an open space to talk about male violence against women and girls. I don’t believe, as someone said in an activist group meeting once, that we should be grateful that men want to be feminists. I don’t feel I should be grateful because I feel we should demand that everyone stands up for liberation and equality.

The (majority of) men I know who identify as feminists are incredibly supportive and respectful. They don’t fall into the old traps of talking over women, telling women how to be feminists or denying women’s experience.

However, I can’t help but feel a little aggrieved when ‘feminism’s back’ articles spend so much time talking about how men are involved now, at the expense of talking about what women are doing. I also find it incredibly frustrating that these articles fail to recognise the necessity of women-only space and the necessity of radical feminist views and actions. I feel all too often that these articles expect feminists to put aside our political and valid reasons for critiquing patriarchy and, particularly, male violence, in order to make sure men feel included. And I feel doubly frustrated because the (majority of) feminist men I know do not make this demand. They don’t complain about women-only space, they respect women’s experiences, they are willing to tackle their privilege and are part of the fight against patriarchy.

The other incredibly angry-making thing about this media bias is that when we spend so much time talking about making feminism acceptable for men, a focus is lost on how feminism needs to be relevant and real to women, all women.

Last year annifrangipani of BFN and I spoke at an academic conference about feminist activism. During our Q&A, a woman in the audience asked us where the men were at this conference (there weren’t any there). But she didn’t ask where the BME women in the audience were, or the women from non-university educated backgrounds (there weren’t any there). Sometimes we are so concerned with making sure we get men in the room, we forget to get women in the room.

Feminism is a movement for everyone. As I said, I believe everyone should be a feminist. I love the sense of solidarity and sisterhood that I get from being a feminist, the feeling that I am standing shoulder to shoulder with women and men across the globe, fighting for liberation. What I don’t love is the media creating an acceptable version of feminism that de-politicises and silences big chunks of the movement so that they can reassure everyone that it’s ‘cool’ to be a feminist now, whether you’re a woman or a man.

It IS cool to be a feminist. Because we’re leading a revolution that will change the world. Not because we’re ‘country dwellers or urbanites’. Because we have the power to liberate everyone from patriarchy. And we’re going to piss people off along the way.

I wouldn’t have written my post if I hadn’t been inspired by this first.

Here’s The Angels singing the song that inspired this post title:

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Throwing Bricks and feminist hotties

I actually feel guilty writing about this. Like I’m playing into the hype that’s distracting us from the cuts to domestic violence support services and the continued marginalisation of women in public life as a result of the impact of the cuts. But there were a couple of important feminist points about the Samantha Brick article, and the subsequent, entirely predictable, backlash that followed, that I want to investigate further. 

I’m not going to link. If you haven’t seen it yet, then Google is your friend. And where have you been?

So, on Tuesday 3rd April, Samantha Brick wrote a rather dull article about how women didn’t like her because she was so pretty. Never a bridesmaid. Disliked by women bosses. Hated by jealous wives. She explained how she was never smug or used her looks to get her own way (despite having written an article about how women should use their attractiveness and sexuality to get ahead – kind of a Honey Money for people that don’t like books) but that women just don’t like her because of her blonde locks and slim figure. That she works hard to maintain (after all, as another article said, her hubby will divorce her if she gets fat). It was basically a Daily Mail women-hating article by numbers. Find woman who writes in that special Mail way. Have her write about how women are jealous bitches. Bring in a healthy subtext about how great it is when men act in an old-fashioned, chivalrous manner. Remind us again that women are jealous bitches. 

So far, so boring Mail troll article. Then the backlash started. 

Now, because I follow amusing, articulate and intelligent people on Twitter (ha!) there weren’t that many tweets commenting on her personal appearance. But unfortunately, outside my own feed, these tweets abounded. Women and men talking about how even if Samantha Brick thought she was attractive, they certainly didn’t think she was fit, they didn’t fancy her etc. 

It’s kind of understandable that this would be the reaction. Her article was nasty about women in general, perpetuating negative ‘catty women’ stereotypes that are harmful. And sometimes it’s hard to respond in a measured and politic way. However, that doesn’t make it right. 

As soon as we criticise a woman by bringing it back to whether she is attractive or not, then we are buying into the lie that the most important thing about a woman is whether she fits the beauty ideal. And this simply isn’t good enough. It’s still the easiest way to put down a woman, to silence a woman – tell her she isn’t hot, that you wouldn’t fuck her. 

Because we, as a society, still place a woman’s value on her ability to fit into a false and narrow beauty ideal; we still think it’s acceptable to make any woman’s worth all about whether or not she ‘measures up’. It’s why, when Claire Short protested against Page 3, the Sun stuck her head on a topless model. Or why, when I speak out as a feminist, I have legions of people speculating on what I look like. Or why, when there’s an article about eating disorders, you get men commenting that they ‘don’t fancy skinny women anyway’ (cue: it’s not all about whether you fancy us or not!). The same thing happened with Catherine Hakim. Deal with the argument. It doesn’t matter if you think she’s attractive. 

This morning (4th April) I took part in a phone in on BBC Radio Bristol about Brick-gate (sorry!). I made my points above, about the beauty ideal and the pressure on women (and increasingly men) to conform to it. The presenter then turned to the negative stereotypes about how feminists look. He asked me ‘is it possible to be a beautiful woman, and a feminist’. 

I was shocked. I knew what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to talk about what I look like, what my feminist friends look like. But as soon as you do that, as soon as you play that game, then you are perpetuating the idea that what we look like is what matters. Not what we do, not what we say. We’re agreeing that our worth is predicated on our ability to fit the beauty ideal. 

And, like I say, this simply is not good enough! I explained to the presenter that what we need is for this to no longer matter. That the point is that we no longer judge and value women on their ability to match an ever-shifting idea of what is sexually attractive. 

It also raises interesting points about beauty and powerlessness. That being attractive negates your voice or your action. That you wouldn’t be a feminist if you’re beautiful, because men already have given you the power that they think women should have – the power of being considered fuckable.

Which brings me on to my second feminist issue with Brick’s article. And that’s about power. 

Brick writes about how men buy her bottle of bubbly, pay for her cabs and generally ‘treat her nice’ because she’s beautiful. But the reason they actually do this is because she currently conforms to the current beauty ideal – she’s slim, white, blonde and looks young. What happens then, if the beauty ideal changes? Or when you no longer match it? This was also my argument with Honey Money by Catherine Hakim. It’s all very well (actually it isn’t, it’s crap) using your ‘erotic capital’ to get what you want, but what happens when that erotic capital runs out? Where’s your power then? How do you get what you want then? In another article, Brick explains how her husband will divorce her if she gets fat. It’s very scary when our worth as women is predicated on how men respond to what we look like. It leaves us very vulnerable. Because all the not smoking, not drinking and exercising in the world isn’t going to help you if the beauty ideal changes, or if you change away from it (which, considering the ideal is ‘young’, we all do eventually). 

By valuing women on their ability to conform to the beauty ideal, and by giving a male-approved form of power to those who do, we aren’t valuing women very highly. Beauty ideals are transient, changing, and it isn’t hard to no longer fit. Just think of all the articles that go into dissecting celeb women’s weight losses and gains. You might be ‘hot’ one week, and ‘not ‘the next. 

The reasons articles like Brick’s make me angry as a feminist is because they are so disempowering. They perpetuate the idea that women are worth so little, that our success and power is based on our looks, and they remind us that if we fail to conform to that ideal, then we have failed. 

If we had equality, true equality, then women would be valued for who we are, what we do, what we say. Not because men want to fuck us. If we had equality, we wouldn’t be ignored, undermined or silenced by being told men don’t want to fuck us. 

Power doesn’t lie in men buying you champagne because they think you’re pretty. It lies in being valued as a full human being, with a voice. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Book tickets for book launch NOW!

My book launch and the panel discussion on Future of Feminism is happening on the 15th May.
What inspires women and men to become feminists? Bristol-based writer and activist Sian Norris' new book, The Light Bulb Moment, seeks to answer this question. Contributors share their funny, moving and inspiring stories. After the speakers share their stories there will be a panel discussion on the future of feminism. Speakers include Natasha Walter (Women for Refugee Women); Zohra Moosa (Actionaid); Chitra Nagarajan (Southall Black Sisters); Anna van Heesvijk (Object), and Mara Clarke (Abortion Support Network).
Fee: £7.00 full/ £6.00 concessions.
When? 15th May
What time? 7.30pm
Where? The Watershed
Huge thank you to Festival of Ideas for hosting the event.
See you on the 15th!

Thoughts on war

This post is quite personal. I'll be on strictest mod-ing mode as a result. You have been warned! :-) 

My brother and I, and my two paternal cousins, are the first generation in our (paternal) family to have not fought in a war for HRH for over 100 years. My great great grandfather fought in the British army during the height of colonialism. He was stationed in India and Sri Lanka during Queen Vic’s reign, and I think he fought in the Boer war. My great grandfather and his brothers fought in the First World War, and all survived. He was in Gallipoli and the Somme, and then he joined the Flying Corps. My grandpa, like many grandpas, was in the Second World War. And then my dad sailed off on the HMS Ardent to fight in the Falklands conflict, which started 30 years ago yesterday.

Quite how after four generations they ended up with a bunch of pacifist feminist socialists kids I don’t know! Although my dad joked how he was the only member of Greenpeace on a nuclear sub (he really was!).

I of course wasn’t born when the Falklands war started. I came along two and a bit years later in 1984.

My dad was on the HMS Ardent. I’ll forgive you if you haven’t heard of it. It isn’t called the ‘forgotten frigate’ for nothing. The ship sailed across the ocean to eventually provide support for Operation Sutton. On 21 May it was attacked and on the 22nd May it sank. The crew fought and fought to save the ship but eventually, as my dad put it on Twitter yesterday, they were outnumbered. Survivors were rescued by HMS Yarmouth and they sailed home on the QE2. Twenty-two men didn’t make it home.

If you were of a Newsround-watching age at the time, you might have seen my mum and dad being interviewed by John Craven as he arrived back! 

If you watched The Iron Lady, it gets a mention. It doesn’t get many mentions. The Guardian interactive guide to the conflict reported a few British sinkings but missed out this ship. I don’t know why.

At this time, when there’s lots of reporting about the Falklands, I go off in my head and start thinking about war. And the impact war has.

As well as the forgotten frigate, one of the forgotten statistics of the Falklands conflict is the number of suicides of veterans. A 2002 report found that more veterans of the war had committed suicide since 1982 than had died in the conflict itself ( I think it is important to talk about this. Because sometimes, in the horrors of the reporting of wars themselves, in the ensuing patriotic celebration of war, and in the general revisions of history that always inevitably happen, the actual lived impact of being in a war can be forgotten.

From the children growing up in Gaza, to the women in Afghanistan, to the families in Somalia, to the men and women on the ground – what happens to them when the cameras go away, when the footage stops rolling? What happens to the children who have seen people being killed, what happens with PTSD, what happens when there’s no-where to go home to from the refugee camp?

In 2007 dad, bro, stepmum and I attended the 25th Anniversary memorial parade. I was in a funny headspace at the time, the next day I was in hospital having an ultrasound for suspected gallstones so the whole day I was in unprecedented agony and panic about how the hell I was going to get home from London when I could barely move (god knows how I made it!). Despite me nearly fainting from the pain as we stood up again to sing the National Anthem, it was a very moving and solemn event. Tony Blair was there, sat next to Thatcher.

I was reminded of the two of them sitting there, when watching Channel 4 news last night. A Marine veteran from the conflict was interviewed by Jon Snow. His closing comment was:

‘There are no winners in war… politicians can make grand gestures but they never have to fight in wars”

I think we could all do with remembering that. Every day.

I don’t know why I’m writing this really. I wanted to write something about the ship, my own mini-tribute to an event that gets forgotten about so often but had such a profound effect on my family and my life. I wanted to explain why my anti-war beliefs exist precisely because my family has fought in and survived wars. That my anti-war beliefs are not about being against the women and men who are there but against the structures and politics that put them there. And because I have always believed that we need to think and consider what happens after the wars – beyond the medals and the parades, what happens to those left behind and those who come home. I want us to respect and remember the reality and the lasting impact. I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve never been there. I’ve never had to go through what the four generations of men before me went through, or what those in conflicts are going through now.

‘There are no winners in war… politicians can make grand gestures but they never have to fight in wars”