Monthly Archives: September 2014

Goldilocks: a colonial tale

Goldilocks is exploring a new part of the forest.

Now, Goldilocks is a good little white girl, who has grown up in a family that knows its place in the world, and that place is on top. They have fine clothes and plenty of food. They live in a large house that is never too cold in the winter. Her parents tell her good stories at bedtime and teach her that God put them on the world to go out and show all those barbarian races how it is supposed to be done.

She heard the story of how her parents got on a big ship that sailed across the big scary ocean and came to a place far from their own home. Here, they saw a rich and fertile landscape, with beautiful hills and verdant forests. They cleared some trees and built the house. Sure, they had to shoot at some of the nasty creatures that shouted at them and waved some sticks. It seemed that they didn’t want Goldilocks’ parents to build there. But build they did, and soon they had a house and a farm, and all was well.

Fast forward a few years, and she’s off into the forest on her own, skipping with self-assured steps as she watches the morning dew sparkle off the spiders’ webs, listening to the happy calling of the birds as they feed their chicks in nests high above. She comes across a house. A very neat little house. It’s been a while since she ate her breakfast, and the smell coming out of the neat little kitchen is enticing.

She looks around, but sees nobody. The back door of the little cottage is ajar, and she opens it and walks in. On the table, she sees the source of the delicious aroma: three bowls of lightly steaming porridge. The house, on the other hand, is silent. Clearly, the family who live here have popped out for a walk while their breakfast cools. She tastes it. Indeed, the first bowl is far too hot.

Hang on a minute.

Did she just taste the porridge?

She walks into someone else’s house, without being invited in, and takes their food without even asking, let alone receiving permission. How on Earth did she reach the conclusion that this was an acceptable way to behave? Let’s follow a little longer.

So, she decides that one bowl is too hot for her, so she has a go at the next bowl. No too cold. Next bowl. Aaaah, perfect! This bowl is just right for her, so she eats the lot.

In someone else’s house, without their knowledge or consent, she’s just eaten their breakfast. In fact, as it turns out, she’s eaten their young child’s breakfast.

She’s not finished either. No, she’s decided that the chairs are there for her comfort, too, so she tries the first: no, too hard; the second: no, too soft; the third: perfect. Except she breaks it. Oh, no matter. It’s not hers anyway, and it serves the householder right for having a rubbish chair.

That porridge is sitting heavily in her stomach, though, and she’s tired. Undeterred, she decides that she should have a go at their beds now. Again, the theme repeats. Too hard, too soft, just right. She sleeps.

When the householders return, we see that they are a very different sort of family to the one we’re used to. They are bears. They’re not beautiful, pale-skinned girls with golden locks. Oh no. They are big scary bears with big sharp teeth and nasty snarling muzzles and stinky breath. Never mind that they keep their little (they’re poor, you see) house neat and trim, the fact remains that they are bears. Poor bears. Poor bears who have no right to be upset that someone has barged in without invitation, eaten their baby’s food, broken their baby’s chair and is currently sleeping in said baby’s bed.

It’s an outrage.

“Hooray,” we cheer, as Goldilocks makes her daring escape from the scary “others” and makes it back, safely, to her own people.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, the bears are left counting the cost. The parents give up some of their food so that the baby can eat at all. Father Bear re-makes the beds, and Mother Bear does her best with the chair, but Duck tape can only go so far, and it’s in a perilous condition. They eat their much-reduced meal under a shadow of foreboding. It will only be a matter of time before the golden-headed human comes back with big people, with guns and with fire to drive them out of their home. They’ve heard the stories and even given shelter to some transient refugees over the years. Now it’s their turn. Sadly, they contemplate their future and gaze at their child with pain in their eyes.

Credit for the idea of Goldilocks being a colonial story goes to Kei Miller, who was on Radio 4’s Start the Week, yesterday morning.

Page 3

It seems that there is only one newspaper in the kingdom that has a page 3, and it’s not The Guardian. You never hear outrage and consternation about that particular broadsheet having a page after page 2.

No, the newspapers are in the news again, specifically The Sun which, when I was a child, had 8 million readers every day and was, by far, the most-read paper in the country.  I am not sure what the figures are like these days (I do know that the Daily Mail‘s website is the most-viewed in the country), but The Sun is still one of the biggest small papers around.

In case anybody doesn’t already know this, one of The Sun‘s distinguishing features is that, on every page 3 since 17th November 1970, they have shown a photograph of a woman with her breasts exposed (Stefanie Rahn was the first, apparently). Because this is news, I guess. Over the years, there have been many, many so-called “page three girls” showing off their breasts to the nation. I’d like to say something like “under various headlines talking about her appearance”, but I’ve actually not seen page 3 of The Sun since I was eight years old…

I was out playing with my friend Barry, and his mum asked him to collect the newspaper, so we popped round to the local newsagent and bought a copy. Barry showed me what page 3 was all about, and we hid behind a wall, holding the paper up so passers-by could see it (this was the height of naughtiness, of course, and we giggled all the way home). This was the first time in my life that I had seen a woman objectified as a thing to be looked at; the first time that I had been shown another person’s body and expected to react in a particular way. At eight, I didn’t find it “desirable” as such, but I knew that it was naughty to be looking at a person in a state of undress. The forbidden nature of the act made it tittilating, and the fact that this was in a national newspaper, freely available to children, was astonishing to me. To be honest, that sense of astonishment has remained with me for the thirty years since.

In the last couple of years, the No More Page 3 campaign has been piling on the pressure to get the bare breasts out of the newspaper. The paper has fought back with its “Check ’em Tuesday” series about breast-cancer awareness. To my mind, this has just the same problems as the normal page-3 line-up and is summed up more eloquently than I ever could by XKCD’s Randall Munroe in this G+ post:

The frustrating thing about the “Save the Boobies” campaign and similar things (like the “Booberday” meme going around G+) is that they get it exactly backward. Often, the point of breast cancer treatment is to destroy some or all of the boobies in order to save the woman.

Saying that we should work to cure this disease because it threatens breasts is really upsetting. For starters, it suggests that women are worth saving because they’re attached to breasts, rather than the other way around. But worse, it tells any woman who’s had a mastectomy to try to save her life that she’s lost the thing that made people care about her survival.  What a punch in the stomach.

(For the record, Randall’s wife survived breast cancer, so he has seen the effect these messages have first-hand)

It’s not all one-sided, of course. Whenever someone suggests that it is wrong to treat women like slabs of meat to be exposed to men for their amusement, criticism and tittilation, there is going to be someone (usually a rich, white man) standing up for the voice of reason, educating us that it is just a piece of fun, it’s a part of the furtniture, it’s voluntary, it’s popular, it is, somehow, our right to see naked breasts in a newspaper.  Because being popular makes it right, of course. Being “harmless fun”  makes it fine.

The articles defending the page make no mention of the fact that showing images of people simply to show off certain parts of their bodies, by definition, objectifies them.  This isn’t a photograph of a person: this is a photograph of a pair of naked breasts.  The person behind the breasts is incidental to the image, and is valued only for the pertness or whatever of her bosom.

The articles defending the page also make no mention of the fact that it is normallising the display of breasts for tittilation. If this image is OK in a mainstream newspaper, it is OK on calendars and in lockers. If a person has the courage to object to the display of breasts in a workplace, it is simple for them to be rebuffed with a “it’s no worse than Page Three,” as if that made any difference at all.  The message that this attitude sends is “this workplace supports the objectification of women”.  If we want to know why women don’t climb very high in certain workplaces, this offers us a clue about one of the reasons.

The articles make no mention of the fact that this is a newspaper, not a top-shelf jazzmag. People read The Sun on public transport, in waiting rooms, on streets, everywhere.  People leave it lying around after they’ve finished with it. People who do not wish to be exposed to it are exposed to it, against their will.

The articles make no mention of the fact that providing one image of a woman as an object encourages the viewer to see all women as objects.

But it’s just a bit of fun, so I need to get down off my high-horse and get back to the status quo. It used to be fine, so it is going to carry on being fine, now shut up and stop bothering us.

Page 3 is back in the news again, this week, because The Sun has been running a raffle , where the top prize is “a date with a page 3 girl”. Not a specific person, interesting in her own right, but a generic, interchangable “girl” (actually, that would be illegal, she is surely a woman) whose defining characteristic is that she has exposed her breasts in The Sun.

On the upside, it seems that the pressure is having an effect, and it may come to pass that The Sun takes a tiny step in the direction of growing up a little.

I’m not holding my breath.

Make me beautiful

I was having a conversation about Disney with my 7-year-old child, last night.  I was asked if I’d seen various Disney cartoons and I realised that I had never actually seen the films from my childhood or before.  I’ve only seen The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tangled, Frozen and Brave. I’ve seen countless images from Snow White, and seen some of the dance numbers from Beauty and the Beast, but that’s it.  I never even knew that Disney had a Cinderella until its eponymous heroine arrived on Sofia the First.

Either way, we discussed the effect that Barbie had on Disney princesses. I explained how the Barbie image of beauty meant that women were valued only for what they look like (and their ability to push out babies), and that someone somewhere had decided that women need long thin necks, HUGE eyes, broad hips, long legs, tiny waists and no internal organs. Looking at the various Disney princesses through the ages and at various other characters we’ve seen in Disney animations, we could chart the evolution of the modern Disney cartoon lady.

Tinkerbell has managed to evolve larger eyes, but the fact that she has been appearing for decades means she is protected from the worst of the pair-of-bowling-balls-in-the-face approach to ocular set-dressing. The girls in Frozen have the full-on giant eyes. Snow White, on the other hand, has a face that looks actually human. The fairies in Sofia do appear to have sensibly-sized eyes.

Anyway, we decided that this approach to women that denies them agency (right up to Brave, the princesses were all waiting to be rescued (maybe except for Mulan, but I haven’t seen that one)) and existing simply to convey what someone else has decided to show us as a model for what it means to be beautiful.

That conversation reminded me of this page where a person took one photo of herself and asked a load of people to use Photoshop to “make me beautiful”.  She compiled the results by country and produced a slideshow that is quite revealing.  Exactly why the British Photoshopper decided to move her hair is beyond me, but then again, most of the fashion and beauty industry is.

I have a complete and separate set of rants all devoted to Stuff magazine.  I won’t link because their imagery is vile.  If you’re curious, it’s not hard to find.  Trying to find a feasible link between the cover art and the subject of the magazine is much, much harder, as is trying to find a picture of a woman who actually looks human.  But, as I said, that’s the subject of another rant.

Sorry for being brief today, I’ve got lots of other things on at the moment.  Hopefully, normal service will be resumed soon.

Creepy, geeky and male-privilegy

My children are, as yet, all quite young,  but my wife and I are trying to impart messages about agency and bodily autonomy even now. We have an explicit house rule that says “no means no”, which we enforce. Hell, our four-year-old enforces it in a voice loud enough to explode windows.

This week, I’m looking at ways in which people routinely ignore this fundamental rule of social interactions. Doctor Nerdlove has insightful commentary on the subject here (and a pile of links at the bottom of the article for more). His audience is, specifically, the geek community, of which I am a card-carrying member. Geeks are wonderful people in so many ways, but we are frequently found wanting when it comes to social skills. This want can lead geeks into behaviour that is, for them the best they can do, but to others is downright creepy.

The film industry doesn’t help much. The geek is either simply laughed at and ultimately derided, or his awkward attempts to woo the female lead are laughed at and ultimately, she sees the lovable squishy inside and falls for him. Putting aside Eye on the prize, we can see that this portrayal sends all kinds of wrong messages.

It doesn’t matter how socially awkward a person is, that doesn’t give them the right to creep someone out. It doesn’t matter how lovable a person is on the inside, they still have no right to force someone to spend time with them, even if they know in themselves that the object of their attention will feel better for it in the end. The geek in the movies is, inevitably, a man (a straight man at that), which means that this hang-on-until-she-says-yes behaviour is merely another expression of male privilege and usually white male privilege (straight white male privilege) at that. It’s OK for him to creep her out because he’s white and male and those two features alone mean that she (it’s always a she) is obliged by society’s rules to endure discomfort and threat. It’ll all be fine in the end.

On his end of the deal, he can use the same tired excuse over and over again that he was bullied at school, that he doesn’t innately understand the social rules, that he is too geeky. He doesn’t mean to creep her out, therefore she has no justification for being creeped out. The audience is led to feel sympathy for our poor snubbed geek hero and outrage at the female lead because she is simply unwilling to see past his struggles and into his soft, loving heart.

Newsflash: she has no obligation at all to stay in a situation that makes her feel threatened. He doesn’t need very much social awareness to understand her wishes when she asks him to leave her alone, or when she says “no” to the interaction. The obligation is his to respect her boundaries and to learn how to modify his behaviour, not to continue to excuse his own creepy actions on the grounds that women are all too stuck-up to understand the ways of the geek, and that it is women’s collective duty to make his life simpler.

I’m going to invoke geek hero Albert Einstein here, who is on record as having said

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Each time the experiment is repeated, the results are the same. The way to get a different result is to change the inputs. The geek-on-film seems to believe that the input that needs to change is the attitude women bring to the interaction. This is very convenient, of course, as it means that he needs to do nothing: society is at fault for ostracising geeks and, therefore, society needs to change and he can simply repeat the experiment until the result turns out more favourably for him. If, in the meantime, a jock strolls in and wows our love-interest off her feet, we feel angry at the injustice of the situation in which a person with greater privilege uses that privilege against our hero.

Hypocritical, isn’t it?

We feel sympathy with the geek because of his relative lack of privilege with respect to the jock. We feel no sympathy for the woman because she has so little privilege that we don’t actually care how she’s feeling.

So, how do we fix it? Well, we can use geek culture. In geek culture, knowledge is currency and learning is prized above all things. Geeks learn. It’s our defining characteristic. If we can learn all about science, engineering and computing, we can surely learn some of the signs that people show when they don’t want to be near us, and we can also learn some ways to approach people in a way that isn’t threatening to them. We can also learn to take rejection in good grace. It really isn’t the end of the world. Maybe it is “her loss”, but we can be reasonably sure that she’ll survive it. We can regroup from the rejection, admitting that it hurts but not blaming her for making a decision she has every right to make. We can — no, we must — learn from every interaction and iterate towards a solution. Treat her like a person: that experiment will yield happier results.


I seem to have concentrated almost entirely on geeks in this post, which certainly isn’t something I was striving for when I sat down at the keyboard, but I’m going to take this opportunity to widen my net to ensnare all of the non-geeks too.

Our hypothetical movie-geek serves as a good example because his unawareness of social cues gives him an “excuse” for his creepy behaviour, and a convenient one too, because we use it to mask the underlying privilege transaction. All of us need to remember that everyone else is a person too, and that we don’t have permission to make other people feel threatened. The jock can use his popularity, his well-oiled muscles or his shiny car to impress someone he likes, but that doesn’t give him the right to that person’s body; the City/Wall Street trader guy can flash his cash to impress, but that doesn’t give him the right to that person’s body; the list can go on.

The only thing that gives a person the right to another person’s body is that other person’s permission, freely given, with the free option to withdraw said permission.

As I say to my children: no means no.