Apparently, I’m one of the only few people who enjoyed the film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Based on the YA fiction books written by Cassandra Clare, the film is about Clary who, on her 16th birthday, discovers she isn’t a normal girl but a shadow hunter – born to fight demons. Being YA fiction, there is the usual love story between Clary and the boy who saves her life, Jace. But, at it’s heart, City of Bones is a book about a group of teenagers fighting to save the world whilst dealing with friendships and love. All are brave, intelligent and loyal. And the two female characters, Clary and Isabelle, are both kick-ass fighters. Granted, its all a bit silly and escapism but, as the new Ghostbusters film has shown, girls want to see more films with brave girls. Not less.
This is why the new television series being shown in the UK on Netflix is such a disappointment. Much was made by the producers of having more space in which to be creative with the source material – something that definitely required better writers than they’ve hired (teenage boy in lust with teenage girl: “you’re so interesting” said no boy ever.) Instead of having two brave girls, they’ve gone with a much more whiny Clary and, most appallingly, Isabelle is no longer a brave shadow hunter equal to the boys. She’s a sex kitten who spends most of her time naked or having sex. Shadowhunters is aimed at an older audience so sex isn’t a problem. It’s the fact that the only person, out of all the main characters, who is having sex is the girl. And, not just having sex but her form of fighting demons involves being sexual.
This is Isabelle Lightwood in the film
Everyone else is dressed for battle in black leather.
Isabelle is in kitten heels and a tight red dress – one she’s just put back on covered in fairy dust having had sex with said fae to find out how to enter the vampire’s lair. Because, despite having access to a IT department that would make Apple jealous and, therefore, access to city planning information, the only way to discover how to enter the vampire’s clearly marked out lair through abandoned subway tunnels is for Isabelle to writhe around a bed half-naked with a random fae dude – something none of the boys are expected to do.
I know Netflix wants to be edgy, you just have to look at how much time Jessica Jones spends having sex rather than being a superhero to see that, but erasing yet another brave girl and turning her into nothing more than a sex-obsessed plaything for the boys isn’t edgy or exciting. It’s just the same old porn culture insisting that girls can’t be brave fighters. Their only role is victim or sex toy.
Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid by Rufi Thorpe is beautiful, heart-breaking and enraging on how mothering impacts women’s abilities to become a published author recognising the selfish and narcissistic behaviour of male writers is rewarded whilst women are held to impossible standards. Yet, buried within this incredible piece of writing are the following two paragraphs:
“I have never worried that the mundane world would muddy my celestial paws; I’ve always been perfectly able to lick my stamps myself. In fact, I have been far, far too able. The older I get, the more I recognize the leveraging power of ineptitude. My husband can’t cook well; I do the cooking. My husband accidentally shrinks a few sweaters; I do the laundry. My husband can’t lactate; the baby comes to New York. In his inability to do things, he is excused from labor. In my rush to excel, to shine, to be a good wife and mother, I have done nothing but ensure my labor will be lengthy and unpaid.” …
There are other ways too in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, “Here, wife, pick up after me.” Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself.
Women are expected to do all the unpaid caring work. That Thorpe recognises this but gives her husband a pass on being lazy, thoughtless and inconsiderate is just too distressing.
It would be nice if we all lived in a house where a cooked from scratch, nutritious meal was served three times a day. But this isn’t the Victorian era and servants aren’t a mandatory statement of social acceptability. You don’t need to be a great cook to make dinner for a family – pasta and soup aren’t hard to do (and I say this as someone with dyspraxia where following instructions and accurate measuring aren’t actual skills, as my children can attest).
Men do not believe they live in ‘enchanted castles’. They believe that other people (read wife or mother) are going to do the shit work. Men who consistently leave dirty underwear lying around are making a point about who actually matters in the relationship. It takes 30 seconds to put your pants in the laundry basket. It takes 30 seconds to turn the washing machine on and 15 minutes (max) to put away clean laundry. Working long hours is not an excuse for being unable to pick up your own dirty underwear – unless you think childcare and housework are not real work. A man who can operate a smart phone can read the instructions on the label of clothes and the manual for a washing machine.
Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid isn’t heart-breaking simply because it evidences the extreme inequality between women and men, but because Thorpe sees this as inevitable in her own relationship. Thorpe thanks her mother for sacrificing so much, including never writing her own book, in order for Thorpe to succeed. That her husband is unwilling to put his own dirty underwear in the laundry basket to help support Thorpe is male entitlement writ large.
A collation of brilliant writing by women
Jo Cox, the Laboour MP for Batley and Spen, is the 57th woman to be murdered in the UK in 2016 by a male perpetrator.
Whilst the police have yet to confirm the name of the perpetrator, named as Thomas Mair by the media, or eyewitness accounts of Mair shouting ‘Britain First’, what we do know is that the police are investigating the possibility of white supremacist political motivations. We also know that another man had been arrested in March under the malicious communications act. The Times claims that the police were considering changes to Cox’s security due to the three months of harassment leading up to the arrest in March but that there was no link between the harassment and Cox’s murder.
The media are already using terms that minimise Mair’s responsibility such as ‘loner’, and ‘mentally ill’. Sky New has tweeted this headline based on a quote from Mair’s brother Scott who claims Mair was ‘non-violent’ without a hint of irony.
Because shooting a woman three times, repeatedly stabbing her, kicking her and pulling her by her hair are not somehow multiple acts of violence? Our experience researching media representations of domestic and sexual violence and abuse across multiple media platforms in 4 countries suggests that this refers only to public forms of violence – those committed in the home against intimate partners or other female family members is rarely recognised as forms of violence. Soraya Chemaly’s coverage of the massacre in Orlando evidences just how far the media will go to erase a perpetrator’s history of domestic violence.
The Guardian and BBC are quoting neighbours using the term ‘quiet’ as though not knowing your neighbour socially mitigates personal responsibility for criminal acts of violence. The Daily Mail summed up much of the current media coverage in this one sentence:
“There is unconfirmed evidence Mair supported far-Right causes and claims he had mental health problems and had been released recently from psychiatric care.”
The conflation of mental illness with violence is simply not tenable. People who live with mental illnesses are statistically far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Yet, white men who commit crimes of violence are frequently labelled ‘mentally ill’ by the media despite very little evidence to support the label. People who support white supremacist organisations, including paramilitaries, do not suffer from mental illness either. The media linkage of Mair’s history of mental illness as a precursor to femicide is irresponsible; as is ‘humanising’ Mair by writing about his love of gardening.
What we do know is that the vast majority of violence in the UK is committed by men; not because they are ‘mentally ill’ but because we have a culture of hyper-masculinity and male entitlement that not only condones but actively encourages violent behaviour in young boys and men.
Whether or not we learn if this murder was politically motivated act of racist terror or a targeted personal attack, we can contextualise this murder within the framework of violence against woman and girls. The murder of Jo Cox is not an ‘isolated incident’; not when Cox is the 57th woman to have been murdered by a man already this year. It is part of the continuum of violence against women and girls which includes the harassment of Cox and other female MPs who have also received rape and death threats, the 85 000 women will be raped by a male perpetrator in England and Wales, the hundreds of thousands of women who are living with domestic violence, teenage girls who are sexually harassed on the streets by adult men, sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, and the women currently detained in Yarls Wood fleeing sexualised violence in their countries of birth only to be sexually assaulted again whilst supposedly ‘safe’ in detention centres.
Statistically, it is far more likely that the murder of Jo Cox was an act of political terrorism by a man who supports white supremacist organisations and who will have a history of misogyny. As Chimene Suleyman writes for Media Diversified:
In all likeliness this was not symbolic brutality against the system — not an act of a random nature against any old representative of the political class — but a fundamentalist attack on a woman whose ideals, both in her charity work and as MP, placed human rights for disenfranchised Syrians, oppressed Palestinians and immigration at the core of her narrative. What an appallingly upsetting shame then that she should die, not because of her stance on human rights but instead killed within a British climate that has confused social sociopathy for economic debate and scaremongering immigration laws.
Jo Cox was murdered by a man who made a choice to kill – a man who also has a documented history of ties to white supremacist organisations during a political campaign that has seen racism and xenophobia replace debate, whilst we congratulate ourselves on not having a misogynistic and racist candidate like Donald Trump running for political office.
Whilst we mourn the loss of Jo Cox, some reflection on why people living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones is required. Men like Thomas Mair are not aberrations. Racism and misogyny are not ‘isolated incidents’. They are British culture and we need to fix this.
The family of a 6th grade* girl living in Texas have filed a $3 million dollar lawsuit against Live Oak Classical School in Waco, an expensive private school that the child attended through scholarships, accusing them of “negligence, gross negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress”.
The lawsuit lists a history of bullying behaviour by other children leading up to the final assault on the child known as KP. The lawsuit alleges that one incident of bullying, in which another boy repeatedly kicked and pushed KP whilst in a play rehearsal, was dismissed by the school’s principal Allison Buras with the following statements:
“It sounds like he may have pushed on the back of her leg to make her leg buckle, which is something the kids sometimes do,” Buras wrote. “Rarely is that done out of meanness but more out of a desire for sport.”**
This minimisation of inappropriate behaviour is, in and of itself, deeply concerning. Suggesting that children deliberately push a child into making their legs buckle, which inevitably results in falling over, as ‘sport’ fails to recognise that this is frequently undertaken by children to humiliate others. It can be used between groups of close friends, particularly boys, playing because we socialise boys to believe that physical actions that can result in harm to other children is ‘normal’; that is part of being a ‘boy’. It is done out of ‘meanness’ because we socialise boys to believe that cruelty to one another is funny.
We need schools to challenge the idea that pushing, shoving and kicking other children is ‘sport’. And, we need schools to step up when children (or their parents) report such behaviour as part of a pattern of bullying.
This is how the Daily Beast has reported the most serious assault:
But the main complaint against the school comes from an April field trip to Germer Ranch in Blanco County, Texas. KP and several other children were said to have come across a swing with long rope was attached so children could pull it, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit states KP was standing to the side of the swing when three white males, including one who allegedly bullied her in the past, pulled the rope back and wrapped it around her neck. The boys then violently jerked KP to the ground, the family claims, leaving abrasions on her neck.
The lawsuit alleges that the school failed to access appropriate healthcare for KP and did not inform the parents, at any point, of the assault and injury. As this happened during a school residential trip, the parents did not find out about the injury until the following day. They immediately took KP to the hospital and it was the hospital who informed the police due to the severity of the injury. The police investigation is ongoing. This a huge failing of child protection.
The school itself claims that the incident was an accident.
Make no mistake, this is an assault. Children of 11-12 years of age know perfectly well the consequences of wrapping any material around the neck of themselves or another child. Their cavalier attitude to the safety of another child does not reflect well on their parents or the school demonstrating a failure of safe-guarding. It also speaks to a culture of bullying being excused by the school.
This is without addressing the issue of racism.
Even without the history of lynching in the US, children who wrap a rope around the neck of another classmate and then pull should be sending huge red flags about their propensity to violence. That the victim was an African-American child attending a prestigious and mostly white private school and the perpetrators white boys only reinforces the schools failure to deal with this incident appropriately and to recognise the role of racism in the assault and in how the school dealt with it.
Whilst the erasure of African-American history in schools is well-documented, these children were sixth graders. They will have seen films, television and video games in which the lynching of African-American people is used as entertainment. Criminalising children is not appropriate as it does address the real issues at play: racism, hyper-masculinity and white, male privilege. But we cannot pretend that these boys did not understand the potential consequences of wrapping a rope around the neck of any child or that they were not aware of the specific history of lynching in the US.
What this story demonstrates is the failure of schools to deal appropriately with violence committed by boys and an unwillingness to recognise the role of racism in bullying and in the failure of child protection.
*The average age of a sixth grader in the US is 11-12 years old.
** Raw Story claims this comment was made in relation to the assault involving the rope swing, whilst Daily Beast and New York Mag suggests it was made in response to a previous incident. I am assuming that the Daily Beast’s version is correct insofar as I can not believe anyone would suggest that wrapping a rope around the neck of a child could be construed as ‘sport’.
I love Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: a fictionalised account of the unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet in San Francisco in 1876. Donoghue’s strength as a writer is both the quality of her historical research and her ability to centre women within history. You can see this in her anthology Astray, Slammerkin, and The Sealed Letter.
Frog Music‘s heroine is Blanche Beunon – a former circus performer from France who became a ‘soiled dove’ in San Francisco working as a stripper and a prostitute. Beunon is both the archetype capitalist in search of the American Dream and a mother of questionable ability (or desire). She only discovers the tension between these two competing ideologies due to a chance encounter with Jenny Bonnet – a woman who wore men’s clothing and tried to live outside the expected social constructions of working class women. We only see Bonnet through the eyes of Blanche, who is not the most aware character caught in an abusive relationship.
Frog Music is about women’s friendships, motherhood, male violence, women’s sexuality and survival. Donoghue ends Frog Music with this:
There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves’ gang. Attractive though this image is, it seems to derive from one highly colorful article that was not published until three years after [her] murder (“Jeanne Bonnett”, Morning Call, October 19, 1879) and an equally unsubstantiated popular history from 1933 (Ashbury’s The Barbary Coast), and I have found no evidence to substantiate it.
Frog Music is a powerful testament to the history of women’s gender non-conforming behaviour. There should be no need for these types of statements since there is no evidence for Jenny Bonnet (or Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I) being ‘proto-trans’ because they predate the trans movement. This ‘transing’ of women’s history is ahistorical nonsense forcing a anti-feminist political agenda on the bodies of women who simply would not recognise queer theory or, indeed, see themselves as “men born in the wrong body”.
Queering history and literature can be quite fun – just take a look at the brilliant Lucy Allen’s breakdown of the new Anne of Green Gables films – but you can’t rewrite history in order to push a postmodern narrative of transgenderism onto women who have fought the gender straitjacket throughout history. Women have been gender non-conforming – at great personal risk – for centuries. And, we should be celebrating their accomplishments. Not erasing their activism or their bodies. After all, the Suffragettes learned JuJitsu not because they believed they were men – since fighting and self-defence was viewed as a male pursuit – but to protect themselves from male violence – sexual and physical.
The history of women’s gender non-conforming is an essential part of women’s history. Erasing women to claim them as ‘trans’ is misogyny. It is no different than the constant erasure of women from history by male historians.
As bell hooks says, feminists are made, not born. None of us are perfect and every single day is a challenged to address the internalised misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and disablism that we are taught from birth within a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy . We all make mistakes and we all fuck up.
The problem is not in the mistakes we make. It’s in the refusal to reflect on the mistakes when someone raises the issue. Clearly, there is a real issue within online feminist communities on how issues are raised – abuse and bullying are not all that uncommon. But, someone pointing out your comment might be racist or classist or lesbophobic isn’t abusive behaviour. Nor is people disagreeing with you abuse.
Self-reflection is essential to feminism – both in theory and praxis. The following are all true:
You can support more than one campaign at once.
Refusing to support a campaign because you dislike the person who started it is childish and anti-feminist.
Refusing to support a campaign because the person who started was an ass to your mate once is also asinine.
Dismissing campaigns or petitions because you don’t like the way they are written is infantile – and usually involves elements of classism, racism and disablism.
It is perfectly possible to support a campaign even if the person who started it is an abusive bully.
Feminism is a political movement to liberate all women from the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. We don’t have to be friends. Hell, we can actively loathe one another as individuals without compromising our feminism or the goal of liberation.
We need to stop thinking of feminism as a popularity contest and start focusing on the issues of male violence, male entitlement, VAWG and a political and economic system predicated on the unpaid labour of women. This does not involve making decisions based on who is friends with who but on the individual campaigns themselves.