Now That’s What I Call Misogyny

Happy 2014, ladies! You’ve probably overindulged a bit this Christmas, I know I have. I had to go to bed early last night after eating so many Quality Streets that I missed out on the exciting sugar rush and just had bad stomach ache instead. So I’m feeling a little bit below my best and wondering if there will ever be a time in the near future when I can sit up again without going “oooooh” accompanied by a pained expression. Thank god that Now magazine has just the tonic:

via @gillesoffthenet on Twitter

via @gillesoffthenet on Twitter

I mean, if this cover doesn’t cheer you up I don’t know what will.

Here we have, in 2014, a mainstream weekly that has taken no less than 21 pictures of women in the public eye, in their bathing suits, and deemed them unfit for purpose. Purpose, of course, being to look runway-ready at all times.

(Sorry, I seem to have referred to the images above as women, when they are in actual fact, as Now magazine screams from its front cover, just “bodies”.)

One of the “bodies” is a new mum, one is a supermodel just turned 40, one is an actress deemed too fat, another too thin. And the accompanying tagline is that looking at these images will make you feel “normal”. The whole thing is too horrific to know where to begin. It’s like something out of a sick satire; but this is actually being displayed in the magazine aisles of shops up and down the country. This ‘feature’ was brainstormed, written about, OK’ed, and published by real people in the media industry.

I have history with these sorts of magazines, and know that they can be damaging. I bought into their philosophy of what’s “normal”. When I was in primary school I was quite skinny, I never ate lunch but only because I was one of the world’s fussiest eaters and never liked what was being served in the dinner hall. When I started secondary school I was allowed to take in packed lunches – the dream! But I started developing quicker than many of my friends, and I was eating more and I suddenly became conscious that I was getting bigger.

The thing is, I was never fat. I was very aware of my body, though, as by this point I was swimming training nearly everyday with dreams of being the next Ian Thorpe. I tell you, there have been so many occasions over the last ten years when I wished I had stuck with a sport where you get to keep your clothes on. I was too young to appreciate that I was training my body to do things and continue for distances that not many others my age were able to do. I was too focused on the fact that my hips looked bigger than they should and my thighs met at the top.

I started buying these magazines, like Now and Heat, and cutting out pictures that I then kept in a scrap book. It was around the time that Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie were everywhere; when the media pretended to be horrified by the tiny sizes these girls had shrunk themselves down to, all the while glamorizing and even encouraging them. Kate Moss was heralded as ‘the perfect size 8’. It was the era of the society girls, who had time and money to eat nothing all day and party all night. These were the sort of pictures I was cutting out of magazines.

These publications are obsessed to the point of distraction by women’s body weight. What message are young girls supposed to take away from these articles? That women have nothing to offer, nothing else worth mentioning, than their number on the scale? Why was I made to think, at age 13, that a picture of a nearly emaciated woman, with her tracksuit trousers hanging off her body, was what I should aspire for?

The women on the cover above all appear to have been photographed without their knowledge, and whatever their own feelings with regards to their own bodies, they look happy in the moment. The photos are unstaged, un-airbrushed, and actually, Now magazine, what I think they show is 21 versions of normal. How dare Now think they have the right to make anyone feel less than they are, by slapping irresponsible taglines over intrusive pictures and zooming in at the merest hint of un-taut skin.

In the ever-contradictory world of the weekly glossy, the latest edition comes with the headline “Screw the Diet!” and three more women, in their swimsuits, talking about how they’re happy to be carrying a bit of extra weight.

Is it wishful thinking to hope that, at some point in the 21st century perhaps, women will be judged on something other than their waistline?


What’s in a Writing Credit?

If I was to write this post and retain some credibility, it would involve airbrushing over what actually inspired the idea in the first place. After several attempts at beginning with vague allusions and substitutions, I figured it best to just bite the bullet and get on with it. Basically, I have been listening to my Christmas albums (not actual festive music – surely a bit sad after the event – but the CDs I received as presents) while walking the dog each day. Yesterday, I got round to the Little Mix album. There, that was my stumbling block. I own – nay, bought with a voucher, so truly chose to own – the latest offering by the X Factor girl band winners.

I will not justify the choice here, and merely move quickly onto my point. As I was playing this album, with its exciting 90s-influenced upbeat numbers and less exciting ballad-y type offerings, I was listening out for the songs I knew certain people had written; other writers or singers that I like, who had contributed to the Mix-tape (ha, ha). And then I started to think about how no-one really seems to mind that Little Mix don’t write their own music, as long as it’s got a good chorus and an interesting dance routine. In fact, rather than criticised, they get kudos if they’ve managed to work with some well-respected industry names, responsible for other big hits.

This then led me on to thinking about that other rather successful X Factor group, One Direction. Have you heard of them? They sell quite a lot of albums. They also have to put up with being told they’re not a ‘real band’ for not playing instruments or writing their own material. Why is it that females get a (mostly) free pass in the music industry as long as they can create a spectacle, while men – particularly the young ones – get a hard time over ‘authenticity’?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Consider the likes of Rihanna and Britney: this is the first year since 2007 that Rihanna has not released a new album. She churns them out. How is it possible in between the world tours, the clothing line, and the excessive Instagram posts? Quite easily, really, when your record company is paying other people millions to do it for you. Npr ran an interesting story a few years ago that broke down the cost of creating one of Rihanna’s multi-million selling hit singles. It is no secret that, on the whole, Rihanna just lends her voice and image to the outcome of one of these writing bootcamps rather than getting involved. But that doesn’t stop the likes of Eminem and Jay Z from wanting to work with her, and hasn’t affected the mammoth sales she enjoys.

As for good old Britney, she’s been plugging away for nearly a decade and a half now, but has contributed to barely a fraction of her musical output. According to those who have worked with her, she’s very involved in making the albums; though not, it would seem, when it comes to putting pen to paper. I suppose Britney, since she appeared as an all-dancing, midriff-baring school girl, has always been about image as much as, if not more than, the music itself. Reviews from her new Vegas show have been favourable, despite the fact that Britney rarely sings live. In fact, USA Today excused her miming by describing her routines as comparable to an American football player having to run and sing at the same time. These girls/women/not-girls-not-yet-women are let off for not really participating in their own music as long as they project the right (also likely manufactured) image, put on a good show, and competently sing, or mime along to, the songs they have been given.

Meanwhile, any article about One Direction that appears anywhere on the internet with a comment section, I would bet my life onedsavings (pitiful as they may be) that there is at least one comment that says, “Yeah, but they don’t play their own instruments, do they?” ‘Beatlemania’ is the media’s obvious comparison for One Direction’s global appeal. Yet – unfortunately for the boys – apart from being British, the comparisons end there. The Beatles will forever be acceptable, even to those who aren’t fans, for writing and playing their own stuff. One Direction have to put up with the manufactured label, particularly given that they come from Simon Cowell’s conveyor belt of ready-made popstars. I am not a crazy One Direction fan in disguise trying to make people see the light with regards to these five dashing, walking haircuts, but they should be given some slack. They’re no different to the likes of Rihanna, Britney, and countless others who are just as micro-managed. And it doesn’t make any of them less of an ‘artist’ – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of manufactured pop. What would the music purists have to moan about otherwise?

Is a Woman’s Place Really in the Kitchen?

chef hat

Even though I can’t properly cook an omelette to save my life (or, less dramatically, to provide myself a decent lunch), I love cookery shows. Can’t get enough of them. I’ll be any channel’s audience statistic for a shot of a mixing bowl.

previously posted about my newly-discovered adoration for The Great British Bake Off, which was far more tense and emotionally draining than the bunting and cute marzipan shapes suggested. Similarly, I recently became hooked on Masterchef: The Professionals during its six-week run. Where Bake Off featured talented amateurs, Masterchef: The Professionals (from hereon in ‘MasterPros’) saw 32 professional cooks battling it out for the distinguished honour of appeasing the taste buds of, surely the biggest wide boy on TV, ‘fine diner’ Gregg Wallace.

There was something that struck me about MasterPros, and I mean something other than Monica Galetti’s eye expressions (if eyes are truly the window to the soul, then I can only deduce that Monica’s is a cross between Captain Hook and the Chesire Cat) – that is, that there was a distinct lack of female contestants. Out of the starting line-up, just four of the chefs were women. And they all left within the first week, thus paving the way for a testosterone-fueled final. (And semi-final, for that matter.)

To restate my opinion on this issue, I do not believe women should be selected for their gender or to cover some nervous Executive from claims of sexism. The female presence on MasterPros is only slightly lower than the per cent-age (20) of professional female chefs working in the UK, so the show is a fair representation of the situation nationally. What I am interested in is why, given the old adage that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’, there so few employed in a professional cooking environment.

Bake Off finalist, Ruby Tandoh, wrote a piece for the Guardian shortly after the show’s finale that addressed the uncharacteristic vitriol aimed at the most recent series, specifically the misogynistic remarks directed towards the three female finalists. They were criticised for seeming either too assertive, attention-seeking, or manipulative, and even accused of being too thin to be any good at baking!

Ruby says, and I agree, that ingrained attitudes and gender politics pits “a culture of frilly baking” against “macho Michelin stars” and “real chefs versus domestic goddesses”. Women have Cath Kidston ideals to live up to; men get to watch the likes of Jamie Oliver and The Hairy Bikers making their fortune being laddish (and hairy). When thirty of the country’s best chefs were gathered to sample a menu by the three MasterPros finalists, it appeared only one woman was in attendance.


So are societal pressures to blame? The kitchen in which women are supposed to remain is crucially within the home, where they feed their families and act out the vision of the perfect housewife; whereas a chef in a professional environment needs to be confident and assertive to make their mark. These traits, so lauded in men, are viewed unfavourably and with suspicion in a woman, as Kimberley over on Bake Off found out after she was targeted for appearing ‘cocky’ and ‘smug’ for having belief in her own ability. If women are repeatedly reminded, unconsciously or not, that speaking up often results in negative attention, it is not hard to understand why the thought of commanding a station in a kitchen and barking orders seems alien and unappealing.

Stresses of the job could also be a factor: judging by what I have seen on the show, professional kitchens are hotter and more pressurised than an Italian pizza oven. There is scientific research to suggest that women are more susceptible to stress than men, with the female brain proving more sensitive to a hormone produced during times of anxiety. This biological predisposition is not a weakness or necessarily a disadvantage, but whether it is always suited to the scenarios presented by a professional kitchen is another matter. Having said that, I could only gaze in awe at the all-female team in my local Costa yesterday lunchtime, as they dealt calmly, efficiently, and humourously with a queue that snaked out of the door. Perhaps we need to see more women showing that it can be done: many of the female chefs on television are not shown, or do not work, in service environments. Emulating Nigella Lawson seems almost unobtainable, bar the fact that she does everything in the comfort of her own kitchen.

And while it seems tired to play the family card, it is a valid point. The female contestants this year were still in their twenties, and I can’t remember any of them mentioning that they had children. Some of the men of a similar age did, and praised their wives for holding the fort while they took part in the competition. Arguably there are gender expectations here at play again. I believe it is still the case that a woman who leaves her children for long hours is more harshly judged than a man, with the idea of the father going out to work early and getting back late still a common conception of ‘normal’ family life.

The hours in a professional kitchen are long and demanding: one of the finalists said that he had been getting into work at 5AM to practice his dishes for the show, and then staying on to work a 15-16 hour day. Would a woman with young children be afforded this opportunity without anyone passing comment? Would she want to?

There is proof that it can be done: the aforementioned Monica Galetti is the senior sous-chef at Le Gavroche and quite possibly the best thing about MasterPros. She can most certainly cook; doesn’t bite her tongue when it comes to critiquing the contestant’s meals; and has a young daughter whom she clearly adores. She is fearsome, fun, powerful, and talented. I just wish there were more of her.

“Think Not I Am What I Appear”

Against better judgement I have started watching the current series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I’m not here to defend this choice, as tempting as that is, but to write about some significant points that the show – in less than a week on air – has raised about appearance, achievement, and the media’s approach to the female body.

Rebecca Adlington is one of this year’s contestants, and a personal hero. When I was younger (I’m talking 14/15) it was my dream to be an Olympic swimmer. I blame some incredibly slow twitch muscles for my failure to succeed (if you can’t join them – blame your genes!), but would like to think I have a small inkling of the sacrifice and dedication it takes to make it to the starting block of an Olympic race, let alone finish with a medal.

That is why it has been particularly heartbreaking to witness, despite all her achievements, Rebecca’s deep insecurities. Earlier this week she was reduced to tears by what began as a discussion of Miss Universe winner Amy Willerton’s life as a model/beauty queen. Rebecca acknowledged in the privacy of the camp’s ‘diary room’ that she had spent almost her entire life dedicated to making her body perform in the most active sense of the word. Wiping away tears, she admitted, “It’s making me very, very insecure that I have to look [a certain way]. For me, I was an athlete.”

Would a male athlete have been reduced to tears in the jungle, comparing himself unfavourably to a male model? A large part of perfect bodyRebecca’s reaction stems from her own self-esteem (or lack thereof), but this has been compounded by the ideals of femininity presented in the media, coupled with targeted attacks on her Twitter account. The likes of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Sir Chris Hoy do not have to put up with relentless messages that tell them their thighs are too big, or that their ears stick out too much.

Men’s achievements are still taken more seriously in some quarters (I stress – in some quarters); the spectacle of the race is entertainment enough. The topic of outfits is another discussion entirely, but consider all the ridiculous commentary surrounding the women’s volleyball during London 2012. Women are expected to be able to perform and present an appealing aesthetic. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter if she comes last in her race, as long as she looks good doing it.

Really taking the biscuit has been the subsequent coverage of Rebecca’s upset. *Certain* media outlets – I am referring to the ones that perpetuate the idea of what constitutes female beauty and belittle any who fail to achieve it – have taken this golden opportunity to partake in their own favourite sport. That is, pitting women against each other. Yay! There’s a fun pastime, right there: highlighting women’s ‘flaws’ and ‘mistakes’ and then sitting back to watch as they tear each other apart.

The same paper that took such glee in reporting on the supposed “showdown” – it was a tetchy discussion! – between Amy and Rebecca, posted another article (for want of a better word) a day later blatantly squaring them off. There is a table of comparison and everything. You can have a look here if you have the stomach for it.

The tone is deliberately skewed to make those in the comments (oh god, the world of internet comments) pick a side. The same paper that has been salivating over pictures of Amy in her bikini since before the show even began has decided that women should hate her, because she represents an industry that makes women hate themselves. Amy is obviously beautiful: slim, tanned, long hair, the works, and she knows this. I mean, you don’t win Miss Universe and still question your own attractiveness. But why should knowledge of her own beauty be a Bad Thing?

In the bizarre world of tabloids, Rebecca’s pre-existing insecurities have been used to black mark Amy. The thought process is that tea“real women” (a phrase that deserves to be trapped in an eternal bush-tucker trial) must devalue Amy in order to empower all the women (probably, sadly, a majority) like Rebecca made to feel that they are not good enough because they cannot fit into a pair of size 8 jeans.

How, how, is this in any way a viable form of female empowerment?! Instead of dismissing Amy’s successes – pitted against a gold medalist I’m sure most of us would feel our achievements pale in comparison – why not celebrate both for rising to the top in their respective fields, no matter what your opinion of their respective career paths? By fueling these petty rivalries and playing on women’s self-doubt these media sites manage to distract from the real issues facing women both in the public eye and in ‘normal life’.

There was another significant moment during the week, which involved fellow camp mate Matthew Wright and a women’s swimsuit. For those who know anything about I’m a Celebrity…, Myleene Klass and the white bikini is folklore. Basically, by the simple act of showering under the camp waterfall everyday in a certain two-piece, former Popstars winner Myleene was able to successfully reboot her career upon leaving the jungle.

The “subject” of ladies in swimsuits has been turned into an annual competition; another classic divide and conquer tactic. Matthew, a television presenter and newspaper journalist, took the chance to poke fun at the tabloids’ barely contained excitement over who would provide the “Myleene Moment”, by donning the famous white bikini and taking the role himself.

It was funny, it was ridiculous, but it also made a point. The roles in the jungle are much more tightly defined for the female contestants than for the men. As fun as the show may be, I’m a Celebrity… is not immune to the frequent reality series’ pitfall that sees women compared and judged, not for what they can accomplish and overcome, but how they present themselves.

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Matthew’s joke (that I understood as poking fun at the sort of showbiz commentary he once wrote) has been misconstrued by some articles as his attempt to mock “attention-seeking” female camp mates. How reassuring to know that women will always be responsible for their own bad press.

“Literature is Strewn with the Wreckage of Those Who Have Minded Beyond Reason the Opinion of Others”

How do you write?

howdoyouwriteThere’s a lot of it going on at the moment, with NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo currently taking place. (Both acronyms sound like a weird kind of digi-pet project to me.) I admire the people doing NaNoWriMo in particular, because I’m not sure it’s a challenge I’d be able to tackle while maintaining either my sanity or an acceptable level of personal hygiene. I don’t want to say outright, “there’s no way on earth I could ever write 50,000 words in a month,” as I’m currently going through the job application process and therefore having to exude confidence in my own abilities. This ain’t an easy task, given that this week I gave myself food poisoning for the second time in five months. I’m a VEGETARIAN. Which root vegetable or lentil could I have possibly cooked so ineptly that it left me lying in bed for a day groaning ‘woe is me’…?

I appear to have digressed. The main reason for my unwillingness to take part in something like NaNoWriMo is that I know, too well, how I write. I am so envious of those of my friends able to splurge onto a blank page and then go back and fix what they’ve written. I have tried, but more often than not I spend ages agonising over what word or turn of phrase to use in each sentence before I can move on. It makes editing a much quicker process, but it doesn’t half make life difficult when you are sitting with a blank document and a looming deadline.

I am currently writing a short story (with a much more manageable word count of 3,000) for a magazine competition. I don’t expect to win; I am doing it simply to take the excuse to write. I am finding it more enjoyable than if I was trying to get out that many words in a single day, every day this month. But with an interest in publishing/journalism I realise that I have to stop being so precious about what I am doing, and get into the habit of writing regularly and at a speed that doesn’t leave me with grey hairs by the time I’m finished. For this reason I have loved getting back into blogging and reading other’s posts, and wondering how long it takes people to put together their uploads. Most of mine have taken longer than I’d like to admit, as I tend to sit on them for a few days and keep tinkering with structure, wording, etc. (It also keeps them warm in these cold winter months – sitting on them.)

I’m currently reading a collection of Christopher Hitchen’s essays, which are often so dense and complex that it is taking me far longer to finish than a book would normally. Though despite the intense mind-workout that each essay gives (for this reason, perhaps not the wisest choice of bedtime reading), Hitchens writes in a way that seems almost effortless. This is impressive, given that it is also apparent just how much personal reading and research must go in to each of these well-formed and -argued opinions on a whole range of subjects. I believe this is the trait of a great writer – one who can spend hours, days, weeks, months, and longer agonising over a piece of work, yet for the finished piece to read as though it was no bother to produce at all.

“The Rest is Silence”

I completed my secondary schooling at a local comprehensive, which had a wide catchment area and  accepted students from all backgrounds. Like every kid going through the education funnel there were parts of school life that I detested (growing up can be quite rubbish, can’t it?), but I speak for my inner nerd when I say that I loved school itself. In comparison to the separate grammar school experiences of my sister and best friend, I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an institution that placed value on the individual rather than the grade. This may have had a lot to do with the school’s Christian philosophy, but I think it was mainly down to many of the teachers wanting pupils to find their niche and develop as well-functioning members of society.

I have loved writing since I was at primary school, and it was an easy choice to pick predominantly Humanities-based subjects that had plenty of essay writing involved. I loved my English A-Level course: I was introduced to Michael Frayn and Arthur Miller, developed an undying love for Chaucer’s Tales, and got to re-read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, one of my favourite novels, while taking a luxurious amount of time to analyse nearly every page. During the final year of my English degree I was reading up to three novels a week, and remember being told by people to savour the opportunity as it would prove difficult to achieve even half that amount in the same time once away from the bright lights and red bricks of campus.

I am therefore lost for an appropriate reaction to the news that the “Rt Hon” Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is pretty much annihilating English literature from the core English GCSE. “English” will instead revolve around grammatical correctness and right or wrong answers. This scenario destroys what it was/is that I loved about English as a subject: for me, it provided a relief during the relentless grind of examination from the age of 14/15. I found I was able to write much less rigidly than in my other subjects, as there wasn’t the requirement to relentlessly check fact and accuracy. English is subjective, fluid, and encourages imaginative thought. Take away the literary aspect of the course and you are taking away the whole point of the subject, not to mention a generation’s engagement with the likes of Orwell, Austen, and Sassoon. It denies pupils freedom of thought and the chance to have an individual reading that can’t be declared utterly, one hundred per-cent wrong. But this is precisely why Gove cannot understand the value of studying literature: it does not fit in with his desire to reduce everything to a final mark and a table of results. Imagination cannot be measured in numbers.

The official party line is somewhat different, of course. Gove claims that it will be schools’ choice; English Literature is still being offered as an optional extra. What he does not publicly acknowledge is that it is unlikely to be a viable option for schools struggling to meet the requirements of Gove’s league tables. It will be these schools that most rigidly adhere to his prescribed curriculum of sciences and language, and it is these schools in which inspiration and engagement is so crucial. Yet students will be denied the opportunity to study so-called ‘soft’ subjects – drama, art, and now literature – and will be straitjacketed by an education of facts and figures. This can only serve to better demonstrate this country’s social difference, if not widen the gap further.

Applications for the 2012 university intake were in sharp decline after the rise of tuition fees to £9,000, with Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences the hardest hit subjects. There is an increased desire to choose a vocational subject or one that will lead to a well-paid job after university, which I can understand – I studied English and am still looking for a ‘graduate’ job eighteen months down the line. What’s more, the rate for my limited sessions with a subject tutor work out at roughly at £50/hour under the new fees (I paid around £17/hour). But despite my difficulties and comparatively worse (with science students) value-for-money when it came to contact time, I wouldn’t change my choice. The many books that I read, a large proportion of which I would probably not have otherwise come across, have stayed and will continue to stay with me for much longer than the time it took to get in and out of the exam hall.

One of Gove’s ministers spoke of these changes as “rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects” (my italics). This snobbery – to what I suppose would be referred to as “low-value subjects”, then, minister? – suggests anything outside maths, science, computing and language is a waste of time. Something that always sticks with me is the story of a boy from my school, who wasn’t especially academic and didn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom. He unexpectedly joined in with the vaguely uncool school eco-club set up by one of the teachers, which included giving up weekends to build a wildlife habitat on the school’s grounds. He left school at 16, but was awarded at our GCSE prize-giving for his contribution to the club and, we were told, had since begun training as a landscape gardener. My school allowed and encouraged people to find what interested and excited them. I’m not saying that it succeeded every time; some students are likely to have a very different perspective to mine. What cannot be denied is that there was plenty of room for individuality, and it is this that Gove, with his rote-learning and no second chances, appears desperate to stamp out.

“Is then Variety reserv’d for Man?”


Something about film has been bothering me for a while. Admittedly I am not a cinematic connoisseur; my ‘Top 10’ list is dominated by bizarre comedies and features of less than two hours. (I have an unreasonably short attention span in this area.)  But I’ve sat through a fair few, and read many more reviews and synopses, and one thing is frequently apparent: that there are painfully few decent, interesting, well-rounded parts for female characters.

My annoyance was recently piqued by a Guardian feature on Kerry Washington, who currently has a starring role in *television* drama Scandal, which listed her most notable film parts as such, without any comment on their common qualifier:

“…she played Idi Amin’s wife in The Last King of Scotland, Ray Charles’ wife in the biopic Ray and Broomhilda, wife of the slave Django, in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.”

The brief description of each role makes it clear that in every instance her purpose on screen is restricted to her relationship with a male character. I have only seen Django Unchained out of the films quoted, and from my viewing I understood Broomhilda ultimately as a plot device around which Django’s character and journey could be built. As for the other films, the clue is in the titles. The men are the subjects, and I guess that makes women objects, available to be manipulated in the manner that suits the story best: acting as a catalyst; a symbol for downfall or redemption; and/or to highlight and provide explanation for the flaws/strengths of a male character.

Literature in the past has not been kind to women, either. Up until an embarrassingly recent century, the idea/ideals of woman were always a male construct. I spent much of the three years of my English degree getting wound up over the dichotomy between reality and expectation of female appearance, ambition, sexuality… As Virginia Woolf said, “It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex”. Thankfully, there have since been countless brilliant female writers that have portrayed women in an honest and interesting way – though let’s willfully forget the horrors that are the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sagas, which set back these developments by about two hundred years. In film, the ratio of female to male screenwriters is worryingly askew. Hollywood mirrors many other industries with its dearth of women in powerful and decisive roles. Yet here it poses a particular problem, as the film industry is responsible for the output of influential visual representations of society. Yes, yes, yes, it’s largely fiction, I know that the chances of a dashingly blonde Norse god running around with a hammer are, in reality, slim, but even so, why is Natalie Portman reduced to a boring earth-bound role with the main purpose of showing that, for all his muscles, Thor can be sensitive? If you’re going to make this stuff up, at least make the attempt to suggest that women have a bigger part to play in intergalactic battles than simply a sounding board for male characters’ emotions. (NB: I am aware that Thor was originally a comic, a medium with all its own inherent controversies regarding sexism and diversity.)

The Bechdel Test was devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to ‘measure’ women’s interaction with each other on screen, and whether the extent of their interaction went beyond discussing men/male characters. In 2013, women are still represented as a minority group in film, despite making up over half of the cinema-going audience. Consider the films you have seen recently in relation the criteria below, and see how many come up trumps:

The Bechdel Test

1) The film has at least two (named) female characters…

2) …These women actually talk to each other…

3) …About something other than a man.

The last film that I watched was Lawless, which I greatly enjoyed and would definitely recommend. But it doesn’t pass Bechdel’s test. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska have the rather obvious function of providing some testosterone relief to this Western themed cock fight, which the opening and closing credits make sure that we are aware is based on a True Story. All the more problematic – the women in this film have little else to do than, respectively, serve up refreshments and act the dutiful daughter. While the Bondurant brothers live a life fueled by adrenaline, acting on the wrong side of the law and taking revenge (and certain parts of male anatomy) into their own hands, their lady loves sit at home peeling potatoes and feeding goats. Is the reality of being a woman really so boring?! Movie statistics show that in order for a female character to get some decent action and more than a word in edge ways onscreen, there needs to be a woman behind the camera. Otherwise she is a veritable mute, likely to be a lover or female relative. The sitcom title Two and a Half Men also happens to be the average ratio of men to every woman on the silver screen.

After some research to help me write this post, I have discovered that there is a lot of discussion surrounding this and similar subjects online, and that there plenty of statistics to more than prove the point. But I’ve also realised that my frustration has been misplaced. It has always irked me when a talented female actor has taken a ‘bit part’ in a film, no matter how critically acclaimed or successful it is, or when some seem content to take the same backseat roles in different pictures. The real problem here lies higher up in the film food chain, with a severe lack of women in key positions such as script writing and directorial. There is an obvious solution, sadly easier said than done; so, until the balance is redressed, I guess I’ll just have to keep vigil at my Bridesmaids shrine.