Monthly Archives: July 2014

Eye on the prize: the dark side

Trigger warning: rape

We looked at the function of female characters in storytelling, a couple of weeks ago.  This week, I watched another film with a woman as a prize.  Yup, A Bug’s Life is the story of an innovative ant who breaks the mould and saves the colony from a gang of bullies.  His reward?  He gets to hold hands with Princess Ata.  Previously, she was bumbling along, worrying and fretting but not actually doing anything beyond waiting to be rescued.  When she is, she is, of course, happy to be the protagonist’s prize for his manly leadership.

This week, I’d like to look a bit at the consequences of the attitude that women are there for men’s reward, enjoyment and pleasure.

In August 2012, a 16-year-old high-school girl attended a party in Steubenville, Ohio with a bunch of people who also went to the same school.  At this party, she drank to excess and passed out.  All pretty standard stuff so far.  When she awoke the next morning, however, she was in a different house and her underwear was missing.  Over the course of the next few days, social media began to fill in the blanks for her.  It seemed that some people had put parts of their bodies into parts of her body, that other people had watched this and that everybody thought this was great entertainment.

To cut a long and sordid story short, two boys from the school went to prison for about 12 months each, convicted of rape.

Ma’Lik Richmond was released early this year, to get back on with his life.  Quoted in the Huffington Post, Richmond’s lawyer said

The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’Lik and his extended family. At sixteen years old, Ma’Lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagine for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life. As with each other obstacle, Ma’Lik has met it squarely, lifted his chin, and set his shoulders; he is braced for the balance of his life. While away, Ma’Lik has reflected, learned, matured, and grown in many ways. He is a better, stronger person and looks forward to school, life, and spending time with family. At this point, Ma’Lik wants most to be a high school teenager.

Reading this, I was reminded of the tone of the coverage at the time.  Several news outlets were very concerned about the effect that being sent to prison would have on these promising young athletes, the stars of the school sports team.  It will ruin their lives, so sad to see boys so young stuck with the term ‘rapist.’  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that missing the point somewhat?  Being sent to prison was a direct consequence of these boys’ decision to abuse, assault and rape a person who had no possible way of giving consent to what was happening.  They decided to do that to her.  If the consequence of that is that they end up with a criminal conviction for rape, then nobody has any grounds for whinging about it.  It was not the police, the courts or even the girl who drank too much who made them do that thing.  Had they chosen to let her sleep off her stupor in peace, they would never have gone to prison and would never have carried that stain on their character for the rest of their lives.

Obviously, Ma’Lik’s lawyer isn’t Ma’Lik himself, so we cannot tell from the quotation above whether Ma’Lik has changed during his time behind bars.  His lawyer, however, is still missing the point.

Ma’Lik may well have faced prison with all the strength and dignity he could muster, he may well be looking forward to getting back to school and beginning the process of piecing his life back together.  That’s fine.  What we do not see is any acknowledgement of why he was in prison in the first place.  Prison is not a happy place for anyone to be, and it is never a pleasant prospect to be sent there.  Ma’Lik’s lawyer neglects to mention even in passing that his client was sent to prison for rape.  A rape that he committed against a living, breathing person.  Being that drunk takes away your consciousness: it doesn’t take away your humanity.  He, and a crowd of his friends, treated that girl like a piece of meat, lying there for their own amusement.  After that, they destroyed her reputation with photos and stories on the Internet.  The press release makes no mention of this, and makes no mention of Ma’Lik’s regret for his actions.  We are left to hope that he does, indeed, regret what he did rather than simply being annoyed at being caught.

When we see women’s bodies as prizes for manliness, when we see women as things to be acquired, when we see them as objects for our pleasure to be taken whenever the opportunity presents, we take away their humanity.  We treat them, not as people, but as things.

If we see a thing lying in the street, we might stop for a moment to pick it up and play with it.  If the thing is tied down, or its owner is nearby, we will probably leave it alone.  If the thing actively prevents us from picking it up, we will also probably leave it alone.  When she drank too much, the girl in this sorry tale left herself without an “owner” to protect her and without the ability to say no.  The boys who raped her decided that this meant that they could pick up the shiny object and play with it themselves.

They didn’t see a person there, they saw a thing.  And Richmond’s lawyer’s statement suggests that he still hasn’t admitted the humanity of his victim.

Micah, Israel and ISIS

Yesterday’s first reading was taken from Micah, chapter 6.  It got me thinking about Israel’s current military operations against… well, anyone breathing in Gaza.  The casualty figures from both sides are staggering.  Palestinian casualties because of their insanely high number (over 500 already by yesterday, not helped when Israel fired tank shells at a hospital); Israeli casualties because of their insanely low number.  This is not an even fight.  This is a well-armed and well-trained army with modern weaponry (supplied largely by us and the US) against a bunch of guys with small arms and some rubbish artillery.

Israel keeps going on about how Hamas is a terrorist organisation and that it will not negotiate with terrorists.  Israel keeps going on about how Hamas keeps firing rockets into Israeli towns.  Fine.  That’s bad.  Has anybody stopped to look at the slightly larger picture?

Israel built and continues to build towns in Palestinian land.  That would be like France hopping over here and building a town in England.  If the English object, the French respond with tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships.  If the UK government goes to the UN to complain, the UN shakes its head and tuts at France, but nothing happens and rich nations continue to supply big weapons to France.

Maybe this treatment will annoy the English, but nobody cares about them and, anyway, we all still feel guilty about the way the French were treated in the war, so we are going to turn a blind eye when they start to crap on others from a great height.

Fine, so Israel points out that it dismantled all settlements in Gaza some years ago and Hamas keeps on firing rockets at us.  Maybe that’s because of the economic blockade against Gaza enforced, mostly, by Israel.  Maybe the Palestinians in Gaza are upset about the wall that Israel is building in the West Bank; maybe they are upset about continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank.  I don’t know quite what anyone there is thinking, but it looks like Israel is the bully on the primary school playground that is international politics. One thing that is clear is that you can only push someone around so much before something snaps.  I’d say that the Palestinians snapped decades ago, and Israel has only itself to blame.  Every other nation on Earth is required to remain within its borders and leave its neighbours alone, I fail to see what makes Israel so special.

Apparently, Micah shares my view, for the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.  The blood of the widow and the orphan are crying out to Heaven and God will hear their cry.  But what does he ask of his people?  Simply that they act justly and walk humbly with their God.  Strangely enough, there is no mention of tanks, helicopter gunships or bombing hospitals in that list.

In other news, Christians are being turfed out of ISIS-controlled towns in Iraq. Great. And Muslims were turfed out of their homes during the Crusades. And Jews were hunted down and killed within living memory.

If I had one wish, I’d make it happen that a person about to commit a deliberate act of violence against another was instantly given a flash of what that person’s life was like, who their parents were, who their family members are, what they hope for their own life and for the lives of those around them.  The aggressor would get to experience their target as a person, just for a moment.  I’d wager that war and oppression would stop in a heartbeat.

Alas, that is not to be.

In the meantime, I pray for people involved and affected by armed conflict around the world.  There’s no shortage of them at the moment, and it all seems to be caused by people forgetting that the people in the cross-hairs are people.

We are all people; we are all different; let’s celebrate that. (New post every Tuesday)

Bullies are people too

I was bullied at school.  This is not news.

For reasons unknown, I just looked up the name of one of my bullies.  A particular one.  One whom I remember specifically for a definite incident.  I wrote a (very short) story about it, in fact.

So I googled him.  And there is his Facebook page.  And it shows him, same age as me, obviously, and with a child on his knee.  He looks happy and the child looks happy: it’s a perfectly normal photo of a man and a child in a garden in the UK.

And it occurred to me: this man is a person.  Sure, he bullied me horribly when we were in middle school, but that’s getting on for 30 years ago.  I am sure he has moved on from that and hasn’t spared me a moment’s thought in all that time.  I, of course, have been running that period of my life over and over in my head for decades.  Not constantly, but it has occupied me on-and-off ever since it all began in 1985.

That’s a lot of time wasted.

By me.

It’s time I let go.

I often preach about the virtues of forgiveness, and I have, more than once, suggested that the family of the victim of the Moors Murderers that the Sun trots out every time Ian Brady is in the news has suffered enough and need to move on.  They must forgive in order to be free of the evil that was delivered to them all those decades ago.

It seems that I was preaching to myself.

I have taken many positive results from that time already, but I have always held on to the pain of being bullied for no reason other than someone else chose to bully me.  I have always held onto the outraged sense of injustice that it happened to me, that someone else decided to deny my personhood.  This fed into an outraged sense of injustice that those same people denied the personhood of my friends too.  A big, vicious circle that has kept me on a low boil for 30 years.

Enough now.

Luke, Robert, and countless, faceless other half-forgotten bullies of Middle School, I forgive you.

Eye on the prize

My wife and I watched Cuban Fury recently.  It’s a fun film where a guy overcomes past and present bullying, and finally is able to express himself fully, through the medium of dance.

From a story-construction point of view, it’s fairly typical, where Bruce, the protagonist, faces an early challenge to his self-esteem and must face his old demons and present difficulties.  By calling on inner strength and help from friends, he is able to rise above the forces holding him down and win in the end.

Characters-wise, we have the protagonist, the antagonist (over-confident workplace bully who thinks that he is entitled to everything he sees and who delights in publicly shaming the protagonist), the side-kick (protagonist’s sister and former dance-partner), the mentor (protagonist’s dance coach from long ago), some light comic relief in the shape of an extremely camp member of the mentor’s dancing class, and, of course, the prize.

Julia is the new boss in the company where Bruce and Drew, the antagonist, both work.  She is beautiful and powerful and American.  And she does nothing in the story.  Her entire role in the film is to be beautiful and out-of-their-league.  The two agonists literally fight each other for her (she is nowhere near the action at this point).  Drew claims her as his own (it’s the 21st century, so she sends him packing without needing to be rescued), and she realises how wonderful Bruce is and she presents herself to him as just reward for him overcoming all the obstacles and they dance the night away in perfect harmony.

On the upside, she is able to deal with Drew’s obnoxious advances without external assistance and, although he clearly has claimed her as his possession, he does ask for consent prior to sex and is able to accept her resounding “NO” without recourse to the threat or application of violence.

On the downside, Julia’s entire role in the film is to be the prize that Bruce is striving for, particularly after Drew makes it clear to him that he has already staked that claim.  Her role as the boss in the company is only there to give her extra value as the prize when she is finally won.

I enjoyed the film, don’t get me wrong.  It was good to see someone who was bullied rise above the pain and destruction that causes and to win in the end, but it left a bitter taste in my women-are-people-too sensibilities.

Another film I watched recently, this one with the whole family, is the 2010 version of Karate Kid, with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.  Another fine film in which a bullied kid overcomes adversity with the help of friends and mentor.  Another film in which a major motivation is a woman (or, in this case, a girl).  Another film in which the triumph of the protagonist is rewarded by getting the girl.  Maiying, played by actress Wenwen Han, is a gifted violinist and could have been the subject of a film all of her own.  In Karate Kid, however, she is the pretty face that brings the protagonist into conflict with the principal antagonist, thereby driving the story.  In that regard, it is very much like Cuban Fury.

Watching these got me thinking about other films in which a woman is a prize to be won by a man’s heroism in overcoming adversity.  I tried Googling for films where the woman is a prize, but that didn’t work.  A friend suggested Wolfram Alpha as a place to try.  That looked much better until I realised that the engine had re-interpreted my search as “all movies, sorted by total box-office revenue”.  It is telling that I was initially unable to tell the difference between results for “films where a woman is a prize” and “films”.

Here’s what it came up with:

Avatar, in which Zoë Saldana plays a beautiful native woman who provides our heroic protagonist’s motivation to save her world.  Naturally, his reward in victory is her everlasting love.  On the upside, she does get to save his sorry arse several times in the process.

Titanic, in which Kate Winslett plays a beautiful woman who provides our heroic protagonist’s motivation to rise above his lowly station such that, when the ship sinks, he is able to rescue her.  She later uses his tragic death to inspire her to live as a survivor of the disaster.

Star Wars, in which Carrie Fisher plays a beautiful woman who provides our heroic protagonist’s motivation to discover his inner strength and free the galaxy from an oppressive totalitarian regime.  Princess Leia is dragged around from one captor to another, being rescued left, right and centre.  On the upside, she’s not entirely passive: she inspires rebel forces, rescues a man and strikes her own fatal revenge on one of her captors.

The Matrix, in which Carrie-Anne Moss plays a totally kick-ass martial-arts and computing whizz who is completely out of the protagonist’s league for all of an hour before she steps back and leads everyone in adoration of The One.  When The One emerges, she is at the front of the line, offering her body as a prize for his manly heroism.

Anything by Disney, in which a simpering beautiful girl/woman in a ridiculous ballgown gets into trouble and must be rescued by a handsome man who rides off into the sunset with his justly-earned prize.  Possibly with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome thrown in for good measure.

That said, two recent Disney offerings suggest that it’s not all awful, at least since the acquisition of Pixar.

In Brave, Princess Merida is offered up as the prize for the successful challenger but she is less than happy with the role and enters the competition herself to win her own hand.  Of course, this nearly results in war between the clans, but she faces this and, overcoming great danger, she is able to heal the rifts.  The film ends with her being allowed to choose her own mate when the time comes, and the clans sail off across the loch in peace.

In Frozen, the storyline constantly flirts with girl-as-prize.  In fact, one of the girl-as-prize storylines gets young Princess Anna to set up the situation that drives the whole story.  The viewer is left constantly wondering about Prince Hans, for he does good and bad in the story and might well be the key to fixing the peril that Anna finds herself in.  The other heroic male character, Kristoff, is more lovable and is presented as the other possible winner in the girl-as-prize competition.  At the very last moment, the film usurps this model and Anna’s self-sacrifice saves the day.  In the end, Anna and her older sister resolve the story for themselves (with a little help from the cast): they don’t need men to do the hard work for them.

In conclusion, it seems very difficult to find a film that doesn’t use women principally as prizes to motivate the men to move the story forward, but there are a few, and freedom from the norm is refreshing and to be sought out.

Friday bonus: Jock o’ Hazeldean

I have a soft spot for folk music in general and Scottish folk music in particular.  I’ve just got back from a lunch-time walk and have had Jock o’ Hazeldean running through my head (here’s a rendition by the Corries for you).  It’s a lovely song, and I can play it on my violin without making too many mistakes.  There’s a reason it’s here, though.


The song is a monologue by a Scottish laird to a beautiful young lady.  He sees her in distress one day and decides he can fix her problems.  I’ve spoken about this kind of thing before, but here it is in ancient lyric.

Why weep ye by the tide lady,
Why weep ye by the tide,
Ill wed ye tae my youngest son,
And ye shall be his bride.
And ye shall be his bride lady,
Sae comely tae be seen,
But aye she let the tears down fa
For Jock o Hazeldean.

So, in short, he approaches her and decides that he can fix her by marrying her to his son, and consoles her with the prospect of looking beautiful.  Because looking beautiful and marrying someone she’s never met is the desire of every woman…

Now let this willfu greif be done,
And dry that cheek sae pale.
Young Frank is Chief o Errington,
And Lord o langleydale,
His step is first in peacefull ha,
His sword in battle keen,
But aye she lets the tears down fa
For Jock o Hazeldean.

She’s still crying at this point, so she’s evidently not all that impressed with his offer.  Now, he turns to mansplaining: if she would only see things from his perspective, she would be happier and would allow her wilful tears to abate.  Frank, you see, has huge tracts of land, and he’s got a really sharp sword.  Very manly.

A chain of gold ye shall not lack,
Nor braid tae bind your hair,
Nor mettled hound, nor managed hawk,
Nor palfry fresh and fair,
And you the foremost o them a,
Shall ride our forest Queen,
But aye she let the tears down fa
For Jock o Hazeldean.

She’s clearly not impressed with Frank, so he turns to promises of riches.  He’s not actually found out what she wants.  The only question he asked her was rhetorical, serving simply as the handle he used to give himself authority over her destiny.  He hasn’t let her speak or act for herself for the whole song up to this point.

To quote A Question of Sport, what happens next?

The kirk was decked at morning tide,
The taper glimmered fair,
The priest and bridegroom wait the bride,
And dame and knight are there,
They sought her baith by bower and ha
The lady was not seen,
She’s ower the border and awa,
Wi Jock o Hazeldean

Well, she takes her destiny in her own hands, that’s what.  She’s decided that she’s going to choose her own man, thank you very much.  The laird gets to lie in the bed he made for himself: he will be publicly shamed by being stood up in front of all the big-knobs .

For the lady, well, it might work out or it might not, but she is the master of her own destiny.  She has claimed her right to be a person.

Like a girl

This week’s inspiration comes from an advert from sanitary towel brand Always, who put together a revealing little piece entitled “Like a girl”.   Like as in resembles, in case you were wondering.

The performers are asked to do various activities “like a girl”, like running, walking, throwing, etc.  Everyone over the age of about ten takes “like a girl” to mean flouncy, arm-wavey and, generally, rubbish.  The younger kids simply ignore the qualifier as irrelevant, one even saying that “to run like a girl” means “to run as fast as I can”.  That kid is going places.

I could ask when “like a girl” became a bad thing, but I think the answer “thousands of years ago” is probably obvious.  We’re not there now, though, are we?  Are we?  Are we genuinely stuck so far back in the Stone Age that sex and/or gender is a meaningful way to divide roles and, naturally, the “male” roles are best.  I mean, going out of the cave and into the big wide world to track down and kill a large and toothy animal is far more useful to society than ensuring that the next generation is warm enough to survive until dinner time: if the kids are hungry, the women can feed them from their own bodies while the men are out.  Of course, we don’t have the Attenborough documentary of Stone Age humans, so we can’t see if everyone in the hunting party were men, and equally, we can’t see if everyone who stayed at home were women.  Also, we have no idea what Stone Age society did with their intersexed offspring either.

It may be tempting to blame pre-history for like a girl, but we’ve had thousands of years of recorded history to fix it, but we haven’t.  In Leviticus (that awesomely positive book), chapter 12, it outlines how long mothers are ritually unclean after giving birth to their children.  If the child is a boy, the mother is unclean for a total of 33 days.  Bear in mind that being unclean means that you cannot touch anyone or more-or-less anything without the unclean-ness spreading like a cold, leaving everyone and everything in your wake requiring ritually cleansing baths, washes or even being broken and thrown away.  It’s a tough gig.  So, how does that compare if the child is a girl?  Well, being born like a girl means that your mother is unclean for 66 days.  That’s two whole months where the mother is unable to do anything at all.  Not to mention that she’s ritually unclean during her period too.  It gets difficult for a woman to do anything at all in Biblical times.  No matter, daughters and wives are property anyway, and can be traded like cattle.

Fast forward 3000 years and we still see the same.  I gather that, in Victorian times, even the legs of pianos were covered, lest the ladies be offended by such a wanton display of… well… leg.

Today, “like a girl” is still a synonym for “a bit rubbish”, and that has many offspring.  It tells all girls and women that they are, in their very identities, lower in status than people who are not like girls.  It tells all men that doing anything that might be identified as feminine will undermine their own, superior, identity.  It tells everyone that we still, in the 21st century, believe that it is OK to judge people on what they look like and not on the content of their character.

It tells everyone that a girl wanting to wear trousers to school wants to claim equality with boys, and that is a good thing, an empowering thing, a way to enhance her status.  It tells us that a boy wanting to wear a dress to school wants to claim equality with girls, and that is a terrible thing, a disempowering thing, a way to diminish his status.

It tells us that the last British winner of Wimbledon before Andy Murray was Fred Perry in 1936.  Because 1937 saw Dorothy Round Little, 1961 saw Angela Barrett, 1969 saw Ann Haydon Jones and 1977 saw Virginia Wade.  They don’t count, of course, because they play tennis like girls.

It tells us that it’s OK that the most successful women’s football team in the country can pay its entire wage bill out of a fortnight’s wages for a single player on the men’s team.

It tells us that women get their value from the men around them.

And that’s not OK.

Sticks and stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Of all the lies I was told growing up, this is probably the worst.  As far back as primary school, I was told to respond to unkind words, teasing and outright bullying by repeating that handy phrase.  As far as I can tell, I was not the only one to whom this advice was given, either.  As bad advice goes, this one takes the biscuit.  It is the exact opposite of “The pen is mightier than the sword“, which is hugely closer to the truth.

The first clause of the idiom is quite true: sticks and stones may very well break my bones.  The implication that this is a bad thing is perfectly fine.  It is, indeed, unacceptable for us to deliberately injure someone’s body.  The body is where they live, and they have a right to bodily integrity and to go about their life unmolested.  So far so good.

Unfortunately, the second clause is utterly untrue and has two consequences.

Consequence the first is that the lie, being a lie, is ineffective as a defence mechanism.  Stating that something hurtful doesn’t hurt is not a useful way of making it not hurt.  Having a thorn in my foot is painful.  It doesn’t matter how many times I say otherwise, it is still painful and it still makes it hard to walk.  The actual cure is probably closer to taking the thorn out of my foot.

Consequence the second is worse: it tells us that we are not supposed to feel the hurt when it happens.  It tells us that, when we are hurt by someone’s words, we have failed.  Words are not supposed to hurt us, but the words did hurt us, so we are obviously wrong, broken and stupid.

If someone says something hurtful to me, it hurts.  At the moment, that hurt is an injury caused by an external agent.  He chose to hurt me by his deliberate actions.  The hurt I feel is a simple and direct result of someone else’s decision to cause pain.  So far so good.  Watch what happens, though, when I sprinkle on a bit of words will never hurt me.  Well, now, I have told myself that that person’s words cannot hurt me, that their weapon was blunt and never really hit me anyway.  The problem is that I am still in pain; the hurt is still there, only now I have taken away the external cause.  His words will never hurt me, but I am hurting.  How could I let that happen to me? Normal people aren’t hurt by words like this: I must be weak, or stupid.  Maybe I hurt because what they said was true.  Maybe I really am like that but I have never considered it before.  And so on.

With one simple phrase, we have turned someone’s external action which, given time and care, will heal almost completely, and turned it into a cancerous growth: our own cells turned bad and trying to kill us.  We have taken the seed of hurt sown by another and embraced it and nurtured it; planted it deep in our own mind, where we water it and feed it and wonder why the bramble is crowding out the tulips.