Boris Johnson Made Me An Angrier Feminist

The Context: at a science conference in South Korea earlier this year Sir Tim Hunt, a famous biochemist, told his audience about his “trouble with girls…Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” He claimed he was joking but lots of people didn’t find it funny.

In case you’re struggling to see why his comments are sexist, offensive and crass let me summarise: calling women ‘girls’ is demeaning and disturbingly sexually predatory. Reducing all women to an overly emotional caricature is inciting and purposefully ignoring their brilliance as scientists. If you still don’t get it why not replace ‘girls’ with a different group, e.g. homosexuals, Jews, immigrants, blacks. Being homophobic, racist or xenophobic isn’t OK but why is it alright to make jokes at the expense of women?

The backlash was big and Hunt went on to resign from his position at UCL. However, the backlash faced its own backlash. Many people, especially female scientists, who spoke out against Hunt’s sexism were hounded online and issued with death threats. It seems lots of people are passionate about defending a man’s right to be sexist. But it was when London Mayor Boris Johnson weighed in on the debate that I really got angry.

Enter Stage Left Boris Johnson: in an interview Johnson said Hunt had fallen victim to the “ferocious stinging bees of the Twittersphere” thereby trivialising the views of people who use Twitter. This just shows how desensitised he has become to his own power – he’s the mayor of London, a journalist, an MP – his voice can be easily heard over and over again, yet he doesn’t seem inclined to care about the views of those with less easy access to power. He then said people should take Hunt’s comment “in the spirit in which it was meant”, so basically asking us to enjoy sexist and misogynistic jokes that demean women. Really!?

He went on to write an article in the Telegraph, highlights include: “…the world’s leading expert on crying, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, has shown that women on average cry 30-64 times a year, while men cry only between six and 17 times a year…Whether you say it is a function of biology or social expectation, it is a fact that – on the whole – men and women express emotion differently. There is, in other words, a gender difference, and it should not be an offence to say that.”

Hunt was categorically not merely stating a “gender difference” – he was making a joke at women’s expense. That Johnson attempts to back this up by referring to some scientist who has analysed how often men and women cry is somewhat comic. Furthermore, the study (withstanding questions of its validity and reliability) actually tells us very little because it doesn’t tell us why women might cry more than men. Perhaps living in a repressive, patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic, body shaming, slut shaming, rape culture as we do does make the victims of oppression cry a lot but Johnson doesn’t seem inclined to explore this context. And that’s just it, neither Johnson nor Hunt care because they’ve never been made to – they haven’t experienced oppression in the way women do and they clearly haven’t exercised their empathetic capacities to try to understand what it might be like to be discriminated against. That’s why Hunt can make such casually sexist remarks and why Johnson will defend him in doing so, they just don’t get it.

Contextualising Johnson: it’s not enough just to lambast Johnson, as fun and easy as it is, we must also try to understand how someone can make comments like his and not realise how offensive they are. So who is Boris Johnson?

He is a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male. He’s also privately educated having gone to Eton boarding school for (predominantly white) boys and he studied at Oxford University, founded around 919 years ago but only letting women in 90 years ago. The political world he navigates is dominated by men just like him making it far easier for him to rise through the ranks as he’s one of the ‘old boys’. In other words, he is exceptionally privileged – his suitability for a job will never have been questioned simply because he is a woman, he will rarely have found himself a minority figure in his chosen profession, he won’t have been cat called on his way to work or judged meriticious for his job based on his appearance or forced to accept a lower salary than a colleague of the opposite gender in the same position or slut shamed or a whole host of other acts of oppression and violence that are perpetrated against women in our society.

But Johnson isn’t only privileged he’s also ignorant. In a society rife with information he’s still managed to ignore the lessons that feminism tries to impart. Combine that ignorance with a lack of empathy – the ability to imagine what another person’s experience is like – and it’s no wonder he can’t fathom why people would be offended at Hunt’s ‘joke’. In the video below he gives his defence of Hunt – he cites his great work in science and his Nobel prize – in fact he defines Hunt’s worth by what he has achieved. But his achievements cannot excuse a terrible attitude that trivialises the continued prejudice women face, within and without of the scientific community.

With regards Hunt’s resignation Johnson says it’s a “bit hard”. Yes, it is a bit hard and it’s going to keep getting harder and harder for out of touch sexists to maintain positions of responsibility whilst they continue making women’s lives more difficult. Anyway, far worse than Hunt’s resignation is the continued prejudice women face within the patriarchy – that’s the real issue here, not Hunt’s job position, and that’s what we need to unite in challenging and changing. Hunt and Johnson will be key figures in this change but first they need some serious re-education and a few basic lessons in compassion because, at the end of the day, the trouble isn’t with “girls” it’s with sexists.

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The Many Mixed Messages of Meghan Trainor

The tube strike last night was the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with Meghan Trainor’s back catalogue. The walk from Piccadilly to Paddington (the buses were just too full) gave me plenty of time to enjoy both her number one hits and her lesser known numbers. There’s many an inspiring message in Trainor’s songs but the more I listened the more I began to realise that the messages were really rather mixed.

You may know Meghan Trainor from her number hit All About That Bass – a lively piece that contests the mainstream’s obsession with slim woman and instead celebrates a diversity of body shapes. “I see the magazines working that Photoshop,” sings Trainor, “We know that shit ain’t real, come on now, make it stop. If you got beauty booty just raise ’em up, ’cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” This is an inspiring message about celebrating one’s big behind (mine is not inconsiderable in size) until it becomes clear that the point of one’s body is to attract the opposite sex. “My momma told me don’t worry about your size, she says, boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” So it’s not about embracing your body, whatever size it is, it is about trying to find a man. To make it worse Trainor then calls out slimmer women for being “skinny bitches” but quickly covers it up by saying she’s joking. So it certainly is a jumble of mixed messages as it both subverts and conforms to the media it challenges.

Dear Future Husband deserves a whole blog post of its own but for now I’ll just focus on the highlights. On the one hand she calls out her future husband for expecting her to stay at home and cook because, like him, she has a 9 to 5 job. This is great, equality in employment for men and women (of course, this is not to shame women who don’t have jobs and who do enjoy cooking). Then she sings a little about sex: “I’ll be sleeping on the left side of the bed, open doors for me and you might get some…kisses. Don’t have a dirty mind, just be a classy guy, buy me a ring, buy, buy me a ring.” This is somewhat more problematic as she asks her potential partner not to have a dirty mind immediately after leading him on to believe she was going to sing about follatio: she’s set him up for a fall there. Meanwhile, the request for a ring falls somewhere between a demand and a plea  – if people happily consent to marriage then that’s fine by me but it seems as if Trainor seeks matrimony for matrimony’s sake and perhaps to fill a hole in her life, arguably not the best reasons to get hitched. But this is understandable given the pressure young people are put under to find the ‘right mate’ and the way love is presented to us in terrible Hollywood movies. But there’s still a while to go before pop successfully challenges this propaganda.

Somewhat more explicitly in Title she tells her future boyfriend to “treat me like a trophy, put me on the shelf” – so here she is demanding to be objectified. This, I’m sure, would be fine in some sort of consenting sex game but here it does just seem that Trainor craves the validation of men and actively encourages them to reduce her to inanimate object status. This is not a good message to be spreading. Close Your Eyes is a nice song in which she eschews trying to fit in and look good even though she recognises that “everybody wants to be cool, yes they do, and I’m just like them.” Here, Trainor highlights the very mixed messages themselves that pepper her lyrics.

Perhaps, the most bleak of Trainor’s messages comes in her song Never Ever, a ballad about getting over dumb guys and embracing being single. “Never ever ever will I need someone, never ever do I rely on one, ‘cause I’m all grown, I’m all grown, and I’m okay on my own, okay on my own…Well you can try, to say that I am co-dependent, but I depend on me, yes me and only me.” The sentiment is clear and the desire to be independent strong but I worry that these lyrics could only have arisen in an isolated, consumer society such as our own in which the very existence of society has been denied (thanks Margaret Thatcher) and atomisation and isolation are on the rise. As community and social cohesion suffer so we try desperately to find meaning in relationships, normally with just one other person, and this often results in too much stress and expectation being put on a partnernship. It seems that community oriented co-dependence (or perhaps inter-dependence) is off the cards and we may well end up being forced to rely purely on ourselves. Perhaps Trainor’s lyrics are a grim prophecy of things to come and she is a modern day oracle. Perhaps.

Now, enjoy this post modern reworking of a Meghan Trainor classic…

Jurassic Out-Of-This World

All willing disbelief suspended, all fond memories of the original shelved and all expenses paid for an average seat at the Odeon – yup, time for Jurassic World. And my Gobisaurus, there was not a lot that film didn’t do – a blazing example of anti-capitalist, Marxist, feminist critique. Here are a few of the highlights.

Jurassic World

Consumerism Will Destroy Us: So, the two young white male protagonists arrive at Jurassic World, twenty-two years after lots of people got killed at Jurassic Park, and it’s basically a giant zoo. Screaming kids are riding baby Triceratops, screaming crowds are watching great white sharks being fed to Mosasaurus and profits are screaming (in delight) as the park rolls out its latest asset – a genetically engineered new dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. The film paints a pretty grim picture of humans as greedy, selfish consumers. Meanwhile, it swiftly becomes apparent that the money behind the park is corporate, so much so that the companies want their brands to form part of the dinosaurs’ names – the Nokiasaurus, iRex etc. The dinosaurs are also referred to as ‘assets’ and seen as profit-making objects rather than real living creatures. Put this alongside the film’s own product placement, what with Mercedes, Coca-Cola and Samsung all getting an appearance, and there’s a pretty strong anti-consumer capitalism message going on here. Not to mention that the entire park actually forms part of an elaborate military project to breed dinosaurs as weapons – so it’s not just the greedy business types pulling the strings it’s also the war generals, quite the military-industrial complex going on here.

Of course, this would not be part of the Jurassic Park franchise if the dinosaurs did not escape and kill lots of people – which they do. We see one woman get chomped by the Mosasaurus, multiple people get flayed by Pterodactyls and the Indominus Rex goes on a feeding frenzy.  The moral of this story: consumerism will destroy us – in a wonderful irony, befitting of even the most esoteric of French philosophers, the very products of consumerism (namely, genetically modified dinos) will turn on those that consume them by…consuming them. Ouch.

Nature Does Not Exist: First there was the earth – a barren lump of rock, then there was nature – trees, rivers, animals etc, then there were humans. We labour under the belief that humans are not part of nature, hence our endless quest to reveal nature’s secrets and dominate it. Simultaneously, we idolise the time of pre-human nature and in Jurassic World they try to recreate it by breeding extinct dinosaurs. However, as one of the chief scientists in the film reminds us, “nothing in this park is natural” because the humans have been tinkering with the dino DNA right from the start. But that still begs the question “what is natural?”

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer if we still believe in the binary of pristine, nonhuman nature versus dirty, human artifice. We can never win if humans are the ones that render everything unnatural simply by existing. So, I suggest we give up this confused notion of nature and accept that that sort of nature never existed. Instead we can place humans alongside animals, rivers, plants etc, in a broader understanding of the natural world. This can also include all the mechanical and technological contraptions that humans like to create. Thus, rather than having degrees of ‘natural’ we could have degrees of ‘engineered-by-humans’ – i.e. a rock-as-hammer being a less engineered human technology than, say, a car. Of course, this says nothing for how humans treat the world they form part of, pretty badly basically.

White Men And Families Will Save Us: Jurassic World is a 12A, it’s a film for all the family. Thus, it’s only right that Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing – the park’s white, single, overly organised, female stereotype operations manager, ends up with Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt), the white, rugged, dino fighting, sexist, male stereotype Indiana Jones knock off. Meanwhile, Zach and Gray (yes, he is called a colour) the two white, siblings who start the film squabbling end up fulfilling male and fraternal stereotypes thanks to numerous near death experiences with dinosaurs. Also, the implication at the end of the film is that their possibly-divorcing parents will stay together now the dinosauar attacks have put everything in perspective.

Indeed, the majority of characters that do positive things in this film are white, whilst the evil scientist is of Chinese descent and the dubious billionaire that owns the park is Indian. However, there is one white baddy – a gun-toting  military man who wants to use the dinosaurs as weapons, he ends up getting eaten by a Velociraptor. At least the film passes the Bechdel test as Claire talks with her sister, Karen (the mum of Zach and Gray), about something other than men…how to raise children.

In brief, the moral of this story is that it helps to be white, male, heterosexual and part of an atomic family, or planning to start one. That’s how to survive the dinosaur apocalypse.

Redemption: Just when we thought all was lost and the Indominus Rex was about to eat everyone the T-Rex, Velociraptor and Mosasaurus all come to the rescue and render the Indominus Rex very much dead. So, there is a happy ending of sorts as the friendly dinosaurs  help the white, heteronormative humans restore some form of order. It’s a confused message perhaps but it does imply globalised consumer capitalism does not have to spell the end of humankind. There may well be hope for us yet, thank you dinosaurs.

The Wrong Direction

One Direction. They’re popular, they’re big (but not quite as big as they used to be), they’re successful, they’re chart toppers (8 at the last count), they’re on posters…but one thing the One Direction boys don’t appear to be are feminists. My case study shall be their number one song ‘Steal My Girl’ and for those of you feministically inclined alarm bells might already be ringing.

Everybody wanna steal my girl, Everybody wanna take her heart away, Couple billion in the whole wide world, Find another one ‘cause she belongs to me.”

For something to be qualified as ‘able to be stolen’ it must first be considered property. Thus, Harry, Liam etc are suggesting that women are belongings. A proposition already championed in places such as the Bible, what with marriage traditionally being a ritual in which a woman became her husband’s chattel – an article of movable personal property or a slave. For young men of the 21st century to hold such reactionary views is deeply concerning. “Find another one” they sing as if said “girl” is some sort of Pokemon card that can be traded with carefree abandon.

I don’t exist, If I don’t have her,” sings Louis, alluding to the feeling of deep, unconditional love. This might be touching if Louis’ existence did not depend on his ‘having’ (aka owning) total possession of his partner. Christian Gray anyone? “She knows, she knows, That I’m never gonna let another take her love from me now,” croons Harry. This, quite simply, is a threat. What if she doesn’t want to love you Harry? What if she doesn’t want another to ‘take’ her love and just wants to be independent? Meanwhile, we’re seeing love treated as a quantifiable, discrete entity that has to be given exclusively to one other person, for ever. Not much room for manoeuvre there.

She belongs to me” completes the song, summing up the 1D’s views toward women. It seems they don’t want ‘their girls’ to have opinions especially with regards how or who they love. Looks like 1D have a few lessons to learn. We’ll just have to introduce them to some of pop’s more famous feminists including Miley Cyrus and Meghan Trainor. They can remind the boys that women, or any human for that matter, are not collectables and their organs are not for trafficking.

Now enjoy their video, starring Danny DeVito and a boatload of stereotypes.