The Replacement: Worst Maternity Cover EVER (spoilers)

Women regularly have it tough in the workplace. Sexual harassment, lower pay, the glass ceiling, general misogyny and the tricky fact that many women can get pregnant. Yup, even the miracle of childbirth can be used against women to deny them jobs, get them replaced and ensure they don’t return to work. Naturally, the BBC thought it was high time to sensitively delve into this issue and what we got was The Replacement. Ellie is a successful architect (cue the odd reference to ‘sight lines’ and sky lights) working on a fancy, new library when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Her employees are more or less thrilled and help Ellie find her replacement. Enter Paula. She’s nice. So nice. Like, really nice. All pearly, white smiles and over zealous efficiency. She does work ahead of schedule, makes friends with everyone in the office super quickly and is just so darn friendly. Naturally, everyone thinks Ellie’s a little mad when she suggests that maybe Paula is out to replace her for good. That is until Paula kidnaps Ellie and tries to get her to kill herself so she can take her baby to replace the daughter she tragically lost in a car accident even though she was pretending her daughter was still alive. Who knew maternity leave could be so dangerous!?

Now, don’t get me wrong this was really well acted and it had me compulsively clicking ‘watch next episode’ until it ended (ok, I was recovering from a virus, that’s my excuse) but I couldn’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Two women go head to head in mortal combat to prove who is a better mother and colleague. Sure, they’re being defined by their motherhood and ability to function as a decent capitalist worker but I feel the show knows that. It must be aware of the constant hum of sexism throughout the episodes given that the men in this show are just awful: Ellie’s husband turns on her, tries to take the baby away and nearly ends up with Paula. Ellie’s boss, also wooed by Paula, reveals that on the night his wife, Kay, supposedly committed suicide she’d accused him of having an affair with Ellie which he didn’t deny (even though it wasn’t true) but he did tell Kay that if he’d been with Ellie at least he might have had a child. Good news is that this didn’t actually lead to Kay taking her own life because it turns out Paula killed her because Kay wouldn’t stop going on about the fact that Paula’s daughter wasn’t actually alive anymore.

If this all sounds quite farfetched and just a little silly that’s because it was (and don’t get me started on what the library ended up looking like..there weren’t even that many books in it and it was super kid unfriendly, or the bit with the baby basket being left on a window ledge, or the bit when Paula clearly hasn’t researched her effective poisons etc). Yet this steady patter of sexism was never really commented upon because what we ultimately saw was two women coerced and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism forced to fight each other to the death. It proved entertaining(ish) but I did feel the team behind it may have just thought “Girl On A Train in an office” just like those behind Apple Tree Yard probably thought “middle-aged Gone Girl“. So whilst the programme does showcase some epic acting from Vicky McClure and Morven Christie and passes the Bechdel with flying colours this doesn’t classify it as novel or even offering something verging on feminist critique. It doesn’t need to (I hear the defenders of the status quo cry) but just because Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff and the 9-5 crew got their happy endings doesn’t mean more women can’t take on the patriarchy in style. There was scope here to see something interesting done with the genre and have Ellie actually try to team up with Paula (ok, minus the whole Paula-murdering-Kay bit, which really didn’t make sense given Paula ends up telling loads of people her secret anyway) and have them transcend the patriarchal binds of the work place. But instead they were forced to endure the limited plot devices that their hackneyed characters had to offer. So whilst The Replacement could, at a push, be critiquing our culture’s obsession with defining women by the children they may or may not have I feel it’s just cashing in on this trope and maybe even making matters worse especially as just after Ellie’s shut the door in her dire husband’s face her boss appears in the background implying that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get together because heaven forfend Ellie be a single Mum.

Bake Off: Why Women Aren’t Good Enough (Spoilers)

There’s always a lesson to learn during the final episode of the Great British Bake Off and this one came right at the end. The camera is focussed on a tearful, victorious Candice who just won herself gold with some tasty little pig sausage roles, moist chocolate cake and custard tarts. She’s got a bouquet of flowers in one hand and the random, glass medal thing in the other (oh, it’s a cake plate) and this is what she says: “I did it, I am good, I’m good enough.” And it’s funny because when I watched Candice ace it through each round of the final I never doubted whether or not she was good enough, for me, she was always more than good enough. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard a woman doubt her self belief and I wonder if something’s going on?

The two female finalists got a lot of flack over the past few weeks. Candice was disliked for her varying shades of lipstick and her pout. She was disliked for her accent and her choice of clothes. Meanwhile, Jane was disliked for being old (she’s only 61!), for her hair and for her supposed headmistress sternness. All of these things are, of course, bullshit and we should have been cheering both them on for being such star bakers. Yet patriarchy is as patriarchy does and in a world where women are constantly made to feel inferior to men they have far more work to do to get to the top. But get to the top they did without a soggy bottom in sight.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of too many generalisations but it saddens me when people don’t think they’re good enough because often that attitude is the product of a misdirected over-ambition and an inability to see the good in oneself. Can’t we all just give ourselves a break and allow ourselves to be good enough? However, as our history is one of so much misogyny it’s often women who have even less self-belief. Anecdotally, I have never heard a successful man say he suffers from the imposter syndrome (i.e. the belief that you shouldn’t be where you are professionally and you’re just a sham waiting to be uncovered) but I have heard many successful women say it. Goddammit. Success is for all of us and we should be free to enjoy it without guilt (providing it’s the right sort of success, i.e. baking great cakes, not earning loads whilst crashing national economies).

So I hope winning the Bake Off helps Candice realise just what a blooming brilliant baker and person she is but I hope she knows she’s these things anyway, even if she hadn’t won. For me, the final showed that woman absolutely rock as lovely, earnest Andrew was forced to cash in on his male privilege and step aside. And what’s even better is that Candice and Jane, who shared a great rivalry throughout the show (for which they got much online flack), are now off on a baking road trip together. There are a lot of stereotypes out there that suggest women can’t be friends because they’re always bitching about each other and competing for men (or star baker) but, once again, the women of Bake Off showed us what a load of unbaked, bullshit that is. And here’s a funny penis cake.

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Oprah Winfrey And Brené Brown Are Not Cool

And the funny thing is, they are totally fine with it. So, we all know Oprah – famous, American talk show host, but we might not be as clued up on who Brené Brown is. Well, she’s got a doctorate in social science and a few years ago blasted the world with a great TED talk on vulnerability and has an ace RSA short on empathy – how the ability to feel with people is hugely empowering for both the person in need of support and the one providing it. And now she’s telling us not to be cool. Why?

Because cool “is the biggest armo[u]r ever. It’s almost like disengagement is cool now. You’re not supposed to care.” And she’s right. Cynicism is pretty fashionable nowadays whilst actually trying to care about something is decidedly uncool. But the sad thing is that being cynical about the world and expecting the worst of people doesn’t actually make us right. Cynicism is a defense mechanism not an opinion. It stops us having to engage with the really terrible stuff that is happening in the world because that can be overwhelming and devastating. So we build walls around ourselves to stop the world getting in. But a further irony is that this cynicism distances us from others by making it harder to connect. We become more isolated and in turn get lonelier and sadder. And to protect ourselves further we get more cynical and we fortify those walls.

However, the tougher thing, as Brown would say, is daring to be vulnerable. Admitting that something makes us sad or that a certain state of affairs isn’t okay even if there’s not a huge amount we can do about it. So a crack appears in our armour and through that the world might get in. Unfortunately, it will hurt because there’s a lot of pain out there, as well as in ourselves, but we will also have access to other more positive feelings like joy and happiness. And now I realise I’m sounding like a self-help guru and you’ve probably clicked onto a different blog. But I’ll end with this. Being cynical and being cool do not equate to being strong. We can be vulnerable to our pain and the pain of others and still be strong because that strength will come from resilience (rather than sceptical resistance) which is an organic and human form of armour not an artifice of indifference. Of course it’s not easy and, if you’re cynically inclined, you’ll probably retch at the video below but surely what we need now are people who are uncool enough to care. Equally, we can just redefine cool to include being vulnerable because, hey, I have no intention of joining Brown and Winfrey on the uncool sofa.

What About An International Men’s Day?

Today is International Women’s Day. Now, I get it, women are half the world’s population and they give birth to the whole of it. And sure, they’ve done some important things. Apparently they’ve contributed to science (something about X-Rays and DNA), a couple of them run businesses, some female poets are OK, I think there are some female playwrights, some of them save rain forests, some led armies, there have been a few alright Queens I suppose, others got into politics whilst others didn’t get into politics but still stood up for social justice, I think there was even a woman who is famous for taking a seat on a bus (is that really newsworthy?), some are quite good at sports and there’s the odd, alright female singer. One even got famous for writing about wizards.  So, sure, a day to celebrate women is alright I suppose but…what about men?

Men do important things too. They’ve mastered the art of whistling at women in the streets, whistling is actually really hard. They send dick pics, lots of ’em, and photography is an art form. They get jobs their Dad’s used to do which they then pass on to their sons, men know how to look out for each other. Men are confident and independent whilst women are just bossy and high-maintenance. They’re full of great sartorial and dietary advice for women, yeah, you could do with losing a few pounds. And most of us are really nice guys, we’re so nice, we behave like gentlemen – opening doors for hot birds, only looking briefly at cleavages. Chivalry is not dead and all we ask in return is that women return the favour and act more ladylike. And, unlike, feminists who all hate men we have a lot of time for the opposite sex, we really like women, especially when they’re fit and do what we tell them to.

So, I think guys are pretty great, which is why I’m starting an Avaaz petition to establish an International Men’s Day to remind the world of the glory of man. I mean a patriarchal system designed by and for men predicated on the abuse and denigration of half the world’s population isn’t enough. Nor is the ability to ride on the wave of centuries of unquestioned privilege whilst assuming we are entitled to the power that is arbitrarily given to us. Nor is the systematic undermining of female advancement in professions across the sectors. Nor is a culture that glorifies the objectification of women and trivialises rape and abuse. This isn’t enough, we’ve still got a long way to go. So guys you know what to do. Man up.

The Museum Of Statues

You might have heard that Oriel College, Oxford, has come under a lot of scrutiny recently with regards whether or not its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate who made lots of money from diamonds and the exploitation of labour, however, he did give some of his cash to Oxford University to set up a scholarship for international students. On one side are the students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanding that the statue be removed because Rhodes was a notorious racist and it’s pretty offensive having to walk past his effigy on a daily basis. Then there are the conservatives (for want of a better word) demanding that the statue stay because students these days are too easily offended and removing a statue is tantamount to erasing history. And there’s Oriel College staff – caught in the middle of it until a recent article revealed that a bunch of wealthy college alumni threatened to withdraw hundreds of thousands of pounds if the statue was removed. So, because money speaks louder than students (unless they’re very rich students) the statue will stay. I agree – I think the statue should stay – just not in Oriel College.

Different sides of the debate keep asking us to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ – be it the reputation of Oxford University, the literal whitewashing of history, historical legacies of racism and not forgetting the contemporary incidences of racism in a notoriously white university, brilliantly explained in this article. However, there’s another bit of the ‘bigger picture’ that I would humbly suggest we are missing – our obsession with statues. I mean seriously, they’re everywhere, whole buildings festooned in big blocks of stone carved into the likenesses of…well…mainly white men. White men who led us into war (Winston Churchill, Nelson), white men who got rich (Cecil Rhodes, George Peabody) and white men who fought dragons (St George). Sure, women get statues too – Queen Victoria and Elizabeth, two women who by the sheer accident of birth ended up ruling our country. There’s Justice and Britannia, not real women who existed and actually did things but personifications of moral sensibilities and countries. And Jane Austen gets some odd statue-plaster-thing outside her museum in Bath but then it’s not as if her novels were known for their diversity.

Nowadays we tend not to erect statues to random rich and belligerent men – it’s not as if Cameron and Blair are getting plinths any time soon (at least I hope not). But back in the day people loved it or at least the people who actually had the money and power to demand a statue be built in the middle of London or on an Oxford University college. And that’s because back in the day rich, white men were writing history – a history far too many of us take at face value when we decry that removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue is akin to rewriting history. No, it’s recognising that history tends to be some terrible, bigoted agenda written by the victors (aka supremacists) with whom we no longer want to associate ourselves.

So where should the statues go? Into the fifth or sixth empty home of some random rich person who would rather their house lie empty than house people in need of accommodation. So it can accommodate statues instead. They could all be lined up for people (well, overly sensitive people who get easily offended when people ask for old statues to be taken down) to look at and underneath each statue there would be a plaque that contexualises it according to the latest, historical findings. Thus, underneath Cecil Rhodes would appear, amongst other things, the word RACIST. And we don’t approve of racism anymore which is why we don’t need statues of racists lining our streets and educational institutions. And rather than faff about spending lots of money on new statues we can build affordable housing instead.

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The Museum of Statues (aka The Ashmolean)

Suffragettes, Lipstick & High Speed Internet

Seat found, popcorn in hand, fizzy drink in the other. I was ready to enjoy Suffragette, the new movie about the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century, when Emmeline Pankhurst was rallying thousands to the cause, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse, and when bricks were being thrown through windows and wires were being cut because women did not have the vote. I couldn’t wait. I love feminism, I think it’s awesome, and a whole movie about it is a right treat. But before the film, the adverts…

First there was the make-up one. John Legend takes a seat at a piano and starts singing La Vie En Rose. Then in comes Julianne Moore followed closely by Naomi Watts, Blake Lively, Leila Bekhti, Eva Longoria and a whole host of famous women. They gather around the piano in their pink dresses and friendly smiles. The camera lingers briefly on their lips, hair, chins and breasts. Legend carries on singing and sometimes the women offer a word or two, you get the impression they don’t really know the lyrics. And it’s all for Color Riche Collection Exclusive, a new line of pink lipsticks from L’Oreal. The advert ends with Moore telling us “we’re worth it” and the impression I was left with is that everyone involved with the advert (hopefully) got paid a lot of money. Ok, famous women using their celebrity status to help promote a product and a brand, it’s hardly new. I mean, it’s not quite on a par with what the Suffragettes did but it’s great that these brilliant women have made it…made it onto the set of a L’Oreal advert. It’s fine, I won’t think too much about it, can’t wait for the movie.

Then it’s Heineken and Daniel Craig. James Bond nicks a speed boat to escape some bad guys except a female water skier is attached to it. Dragged along by the boat she deftly navigates waves, rocks, a wedding, a bar (she even has time to grab a tray of beers) and one of the enemy speedboats. Jumping aboard the boat she throws a top hat at the baddy currently attacking Bond. It doesn’t do much. Bond then prompts her to tie the bad guy up to a parachute who then gets dragged away. Bond then asks her if she’d like to join him for a boozy lunch. Ok, quite funny, yes the woman is unnamed and wearing a swimming costume the whole time whereas we all know Bond’s name and the men are all wearing suits but it’s a beer advert, what can you except? Maybe a little more, maybe? Anyway, nearly time for the film!

And just before it begins a truly inspiring advert, finally! A mum and her young daughter are watching clips of great women doing great things, people like Emmeline Pankhurst, Paloma Faith, Billie Holiday, Steph Houghton, and they’re all winking at the young girl inspiring her to join the movement and become awesome. And what an inspiring way to advertise…Vivid, the new high-speed internet connection service from Virgin. Right, because that’s how we celebrate feminism throughout the years by truncating the narrative and shoehorning it into an ad for broadband. And lipstick. And beer (although I doubt Heineken has even thought about co-opting feminism into their beer-selling cause).

So there was I, excited for the movie, but a little perplexed. As I watched these adverts I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the receiving end of an agenda – an agenda that appropriates amazing moments in our history/present to inspire us, not to try and replicate these events or even celebrate them, but to buy stuff. Consumer capitalism is really rather brilliant at reducing everything to an act of consumption. It also objectifies the female body and uses it as a vehicle for selling make-up and alcohol. None of this is new but it is exceedingly boring especially when it’s juxtaposed with the ensuing film, namely one about women who risked their lives and died so women could have greater equality. And the advertising agenda wasn’t even subtle. I mean lip stick and a feminist themed broadband. It’s clear these brands did some lazy ‘market research’ before crassly targeting their presumed captive audience with the ‘appropriate’ products. But the minutes before a film like Suffragette make for prime time virtual estate. So as I finished my popcorn long before the film started I couldn’t help but feel that despite all the amazing gains that have been made there is still a very long way to go. Time to smash some beer bottles, stamp on some lipsticks and cut some fibre optics.

Trolls Just Wanna Have Friends

In response to my previous post on angry men a friend had this question: “I wonder what the best ways are to redirect mass anger towards positive change rather than destruction?” I kind of feel it’s the million dollar question and in the context of angry men, who have a habit of trolling online, I think it is about trying to redirect that anger away from women and feminism towards actually oppressive and dangerous political elites and economic systems. But the political is personal too and on an emotional level anger is often the flip side of sadness, loneliness and insecurity. So, like the rest of us I think trolls just wanna have friends.

This clip contains explicit and offensive content as it uses the language of trolling in order to parody it.

Imagine I’m an angry man troll: I’m sat in my room at my computer watching one of Anita Sarkeesian’s vlogs calling out sexism in the gaming industry. I am not OK with this – I enjoy video games just as they are and don’t want some random feminist dissing my favourite games and dissing my gender. I sign into my anonymous Youtube account and issue Sarkeesian a death threat, I describe in graphic detail the way in which I’ll kill her and then I go off to make baked beans on toast. Why am I doing this? Perhaps it’s because in a world where people like me are relatively powerless (I’m struggling to find a job, the rent’s too high, no one ever spoke to me about feminism when I was younger, James Bond and Iron Man are my role models, I may be suffering from mental health issues and unsure how to seek support) this is finally a chance to exert some power. Quite a lot of power actually: from my computer I can threaten to kill people and I’ll be able to get away with it.

The above might be what goes through the head of an angry guy and it might not. But the point I want to make is that in the mind of the angry guy his response is perfectly normal – given the world he lives in his reaction makes sense (to him). To change this we’ve got to be able to show him why this response might not actually make sense. Firstly, his anonymous death threats have real world consequences – the psychological suffering caused is immense (Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, befriended one of her trolls, told him about the effects of his trolling and even wrote him a job reference!). Secondly, living as we do in a consumer, capitalist society why does the troll waste so much energy attacking those calling for greater justice rather than those who cynically profit from consumerist capitalism – the loaded elites who are quite happy for the ‘masses’ to squabble amongst themselves as it lets them off the hook? Perhaps it’s easier to attack closer-at-hand feminists rather than distant, exceptionally powerful elites who have a knack for staying in power. But surely one things gamers know is that it’s way more fun to take on the big bad guy rather than the scapegoat – Luke Skywalker didn’t diss Princess Leia for having opinions, no, he teamed up with her and took on the entire Empire!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the ‘angry man troll’ doesn’t actually exist because it’s a trope and a stereotype commonly used to essentialise people and explain them away. People are far more complex than any box we might wish to put them in. It’s important to remember this as we seek to get to know people beyond our usual social circles and before we go off on one complaining about angry men trolls…woops!

They say it takes a whole village to raise a child and I guess it takes a whole society to create an angry man troll. There’s no one person to blame, not the individual himself, because there are just so many factors that contribute to how someone grows up and lives – media, education, entertainment, economics, politics, etc. Our challenge is to make sure all these pillars of our society act in a way that promotes equality and well-being (not exactly a small challenge). And guys, even if they do get angry, are an exceptionally important part of this movement. Indeed, there’s a lot in it for them too – more friends, a greater diversity of video games to choose from, free lessons in emotional intelligence and how to relate to people, more confidence, self-esteem, job opportunities, and even more chances to have great, consenting sex with other adults (because they’ll have the guts to ask for it (in a mature, respectful way) and the decency to not ask again when someone says no). But this equal and just utopia, surely it’s just a pipe dream, a waste of time, why bother? Well, before I get onto that here’s Lily Allen poking a little fun at trolls aka URL Badmen. To be continued…

“Luke, Use The Patriarchy…”

Light sabres, Tie Fighters and Jabba the Hutt – it’s all a bit phallocentric (willy orientated). Yup, the Star Wars films are just one of many Hollywood franchises that promote patriarchy and under-represent women. And the reason for this isn’t just that Hollywood is full of sexist men with limited imaginations but it’s also because George Lucas based the plot of the original trilogy on one of the most enduringly sexist story structures – the Hero’s Quest.

This story structure was explored and popularised by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in the mid 1900s. In brief, the quest is as follows: a young, male hero is called to action, he leaves home, learns new skills from (usually male) mentors, begins his quest, faces trials, proves his heroism, overcomes the dark father figure and eventually triumphs. Women tend to be tokenised as nasty seductresses in need of vanquishing or pretty trophies in need of saving. Campbell examined cultures around the world and throughout history and argued that this structure kept repeating itself hence the title of his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces – yup, 1000s of male heroes doing their phallocentric thing (probably with swords or giant laser sticks). Campbell adds in a bit of Jung, Freud and fairytale analysis – suggesting that these characters are manifestations of our psyche (as if we all have lots of little libidinous armed men running around our heads). He deigned the Hero’s Quest an archetypal story structure and called it a monomyth – a monolithic mythic structure because he’s it’s such a big deal.

George Lucas, good friends with Joseph Campbell, based the first three Star Wars films on this structure – Luke is the hero, Yoda is his mentor, his call to action is the death of his foster parents, he rescues a princess, he fights a lot and there’s even the dark father figure who is both vanquished and made peace with. Of course, the twist was that the princess turned out to be the hero’s sister, so instead of the girl Luke got a bit of fame (and a metallic right hand).

However, one thing both Lucas and Campbell appear to forget to do is contextualise the Hero’s Quest. Rather than just assume it is some universal manifestation of the human subconscious in story form what if it’s such a pervasive story because it’s constantly used to justify the patriarchal conventions that many societies depend on. So many societies are run by and for men and it seems quite natural that this phallocentric (it’s a great word) bent appears in their stories, novels, movies and TV programmes. As is ever the case if we want to understand the human condition – and in this case it’s the recurrence of masculinist story structures – we need to contextualise it.

But there may be hope. Watching the trailer for the next Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, reveals characters of colour and female characters having lead roles (as well as being able to use The Force). Maybe the all-white boys club is finally coming to an end and the patriarchy is going the way of Darth Vader and the Old Republic. Of course, there will always be those who want to grab their phalli light sabres and defend oppressive traditions but it’s time the next generation taught them a lesson. The lesson being that it’s not the princess who needs saving it’s the hero – saving from the clutches of an oppressive, violent and creatively dull (so dull it rewrites the same story over and over again, 1000 faces…more like 1000 yawns) patriarchal system.

Equally Objectified

The video to Sigma’s latest long ft. Ella Henderson, Glitterball (see below), consists of a group of people going swimming in the sea. This isn’t your usual Brighton family holiday, no, it’s a group of conventionally good-looking and toned young people larking about. The women wear bikinis, squeeze each other’s bums, hug frequently, and show a lot of cleavage, whilst the guys, well the guys tend to be wearing quite a lot of clothes with perhaps the odd flash of six-pack in the background. So why, given that there are a plethora of semi-naked bodies and a roughly even gender split in the video, couldn’t they have objectified the men as much as the women?

We’ve been conditioned to view women’s bodies in a certain way on-screen whilst men’s bodies are often treated very differently. Blurred Lines, the infamous Robin Thicke song, epitomised this attitude with a terribly misogynistic and sexist video (and that’s saying nothing about the lyrics). However, it’s interesting to watch a parody version of the video (see below) in which the female models are replaced by men in g-strings and tiny underwear. It seems there’s something a little ridiculous about men having little stop signs stuck to their bottoms and dancing so provocatively, whilst it was presented as almost ‘normal’ for women to be treated and viewed in this way in the original video. At least that’s what I think we’re being made to believe – that treating women like this is OK and when it’s guys it’s just quite silly and comic.

The feminist film critique Laura Mulvey calls this phenomenon the male gaze – the way in which visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer. A guy (usually white, cisgendered and heterosexual) isn’t going to want to see a video of a man rubbing sun tan lotion into his six-pack or bending over to pick up his beach towel, no, he wants women to do that, or at least that is what the relentlessly objectifying world of music videos and advertising tells us. Equality is a long way off and sexism towards women is just part of the culture.

So there’s a long way to go until men and women are equally objectified in music videos (come on guys, time we stripped off and started massaging ourselves provocatively) and even further still until people aren’t objectified at all (because people are people, not just bodies). Until then here’s Marina and The Diamonds evening the scales a little…

The Slightly Sexist Song Of The Sea

The Song of the Sea is a new animated film for children and adults. It tells the tale of Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. It’s beautifully animated and based on folkloric Irish tales of Selkies – mythological creatures that are seals in water and shed their skins to become humans on land. Unbeknownst to Ben his mother was a Selkie and so is his little sister. It is a stunning story about grief, growing up and family. However, the more I watched it the more I realised that I had seen this story many, many times before and it’s one that has been told over and over again – it’s the one all about men.

Song of the Sea

I’ll start with a brief plot synopsis (spoilers): Ben lives in a lighthouse with his pregnant mum and dad. The mum gives Ben a magic shell and then goes missing into the sea leaving behind Saoirse, his little sister. Six years later and the dad’s still pretty unhappy and Saoirse still hasn’t said a word. Meanwhile, Saoirse discovers a magic coat left behind by her mum which lets her transform into a seal. She goes swimming for a bit and that’s when we learn she’s a Selkie. Unfortunately, nasty granny arrives to take Ben and Saoirse back to the city. Ben doesn’t really like Saoirse and is annoyed when she follows him as he escapes from his granny’s house. Some magical fairies inform the siblings that Saoirse’s a Selkie and must sing the Song of the Sea to free all the trapped spirits – it’s a shame she doesn’t speak. Unfortunately she gets kidnapped by a witch, Macha, who bottles up people’s feelings (literally) thereby turning them to stone. Her reason is that she couldn’t handle her son (a giant) being so sad when his wife died so she bottled up his grief and turned him into a giant cliff (the dad is basically the giant and the gran is Macha). Ben rescues his sister who starts playing the magic shell which causes all the bottles to break. Macha, part stone, is overwhelmed by her feelings but relents and helps transport Ben and Saoirse back home. There, Saoirse finally speaks and she sings a magic Selkie song that frees all the ancient spirits so they can finally return to their magical land far away. The mum reappears to take Saoirse away with her but instead Saoirse relinquishes her Selkie abilities so she can stay with her dad and brother. Everyone lives happily ever after, even the nasty gran who shacks up with the old ferry driver.

It’s a nice story full of metaphors, folklore and fantasy but there are some all too familiar and all too sexist tropes. To start with there aren’t many female characters – there’s the mum who vanishes within minutes; the gran who is the typical crone character – old, haggard and someone no one would ever want to grow up to become and Macha – the evil villain who is basically an even worse version of the gran. The main female character is Saoirse.

Firstly, she is voiceless, she literally has no voice for most of the film, which means Ben gets to do all the talking. Whilst she is often portrayed as more intelligent than her wilful, older brother, who drags her around on a dog’s lead for quite a bit of the film, she is still forced to follow him, even when she knows he’s going in the wrong direction. He becomes less ambivalent towards her once he’s learnt she’s a Selkie. As the film progresses she becomes weaker and weaker and ends up getting kidnapped. This inspires Ben to take even more action and battle the film’s antagonist. It seems a little bit as if Saoirse only has worth as a character once her brother has realised she’s useful – i.e. has magic singing abilities.  He’s the one that puts the magic shell to her lips so she can play it and break all of Macha’s magic bottles. It’s almost as if little girls are being told to tolerate the whims and bullying behaviours of their elder brothers until their brothers realise they have voice and worth, and only then can they become somewhat empowered.

After her rescue Saoirse is even weaker meaning it is Ben  that must overcome his fear of swimming and dive deep to uncover Saoirse’s thrown away Selkie suit. So despite the fact that the sea is Saorise’s element and true home it still ends up being all about Ben and his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, Saoirse’s singing and shell playing skills appear somewhat arbitrary given that she just inherited them and they’re basically magical.  Saoirse’s voicelessness also means that apart from one brief chat with her mum right at the end the film categorically fails the Bechdel test. FInally, when Saoirse does eventually speak her first word isn’t hello or help or patriarchy, no, it’s Ben.

There are some nice messages in the film – namely that stories are very important, be they ones that run in the family or older more mythical stories that came long before the stories of the Bible. The film reminds us that our culture suffers when we lose our stories but it’s just a shame that the film’s own story tells us that men are the active ones whilst women sit around either trying to muck everything up (the gran and Macha) or are basically just there to sing at men’s command. The film also has something to say about men’s inability to emote, namely because the father remains confused and grief-stricken long after the disappearance of his wife but even this is implicitly traced back to his overprotective mother (the nasty gran) who constantly tells him she knows what’s best and lives a repressed, devout Christian life. This story is reflected in the mythical one with Macha literally turning her giant son to stone so he would no longer have to suffer the grief of the loss of his wife – if only women would stop meddling seems to be the point here. Other male characters include the comic ferry driver, the faeries (we see a few female faeries in the background at the end but none are given a voice) and the Great Seanachai – a mythical storyteller who remembers all the old stories and is thus a font of cultural knowledge and wisdom, oh, and he’s a man.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century and what do we get – another mythic adventure about boys and men saving the day. It’s nice that Saoirse sings her special song at the end and frees all the spirits but this is basically the same as Pepper Potts donning Iron Man’s suit at the end of Iron Man 3 in order to blast the main baddy to smithereens – it’s great a woman saves the day but it’s all a bit last-minute and tokenistic. Why not a whole film about an interesting and three-dimensional female character doing awesome and exciting things?

But that’s just it, it’s not that this film is a sexist travesty and should be banned, no, it’s just that this film follows in a long, long line of films and stories just like it – ones that portray men as the active and characterful heroes whilst women are painted as passive and regularly in need of rescue. The Song of the Sea slots so easily into this pervasive cultural narrative when it had so much scope to start rewriting it – why couldn’t it be Benjamina running off in search of her fey little Selkie brother? Why couldn’t the father have vanished right at the start? And why are there no characters of colour, or trans and queer characters partaking in the action, surely ancient Irish folklore isn’t just for white, heterosexual cisgendered people? The film has been described as a “timeless delight for all ages”- it’s only timeless because this masculinist and sexist narrative is so seemingly unkillable. It’s great to be inspired by old stories but it’s time we started telling some new ones, fit for the 21st century.