Tiffany Dufu’s ‘Drop the Ball’: Women Blaming Themselves, Again

A quick post, in irritation. Today, I read in the Guardian that women should expect more of their partners, and less of themselves. Not terrible advice (though not really a revelation either). The article is a puff piece for a book I never plan to buy, written by new mother and bringer of epiphanies to the oblivious, Tiffany Dufu. In her book, so we are told, Dufu describes her revelatory experience navigating the return to work after her first child’s birth, and her growing realisation that her partner would have to do some of the work around the home, since they both had full time jobs. The experience that brought on this revelation sounds depressingly familiar. Back from a full day of work, while struggling with breastfeeding difficulties, Dufu heard her husband return home to the meal she had prepared, past the dry-cleaning she had picked up, only to dump his dirty plates in the sink for her to clean.

I sympathise with Dufu. As I have sympathised with, quite literally, dozens of friends who’ve talked about variations on this theme. It’s the subject of Susan Maushart’s brilliantly incisive, well-researched book Wifework, which discusses the imbalances of male-female work around the home, backed up with some interesting statistics and studies. But, where Maushart mostly analyses and uncovers, Dufu – or, at least, the author of her puff piece – falls back on a cloyingly upbeat set of conclusions. Women who work too much around the home – conditioned, by their upbringing, into ‘Stepford wives’ (I really wish this term would die a death, incidentally) – should take lessons from (who else?) their husbands. Apparently, once called upon to act, Dufu’s husband turned out to be practically a domestic superman, marshalling children to school in perfect order and discovering clever short-cuts to domestic work Dufu had never found out. The article confides:

‘One of the big lessons she learned was that when you drop a ball and your partner picks it up, you have to let him pick it up his way.’

In Dufu’s case, this meant letting her partner cook the same meal for a week, which doesn’t sound terribly like picking up the ball to me. It sounds more like fucking up. And fucking up is, of course, occasionally absolutely fine. We should probably all be better at doing a half-arsed job and cutting ourselves a break for it. But let’s not pretend it’s the same thing as, well, not fucking up. Shall we? Because one imagines that, in the end, eating the same meal for a week is actually not a great thing.

I’m irritated by this article, not because I don’t recognise that both it and the book it promotes, speak to a genuinely hard choice a lot of women face: the pinch between social pressure to be superwoman and the knowledge that their partner (whether deliberately or obliviously, whether through lack of ability or firm belief in the triviality of domestic tasks) will only step up to do a fraction of the work that is needed. I’m irritated because this revelation is still presented as something women need to learn – and moreover, something women need to learn from men.

Dufu refers to what she was struggling with as ‘home control disease,’ as if the problem in her life were a virulent organism poisoning her, from which her saintly husband saved her, with his panacea of half-arsed domestic help. It would be nice to think that, every now and again, we could look back to our feminist foremothers, who diagnosed a very different disease, and prescribed a very different solution, which didn’t involve requiring women to blame themselves for the pressures on them.

Pillars of Salt: Divorce and the Systematic Erasure of Women’s Voices

At the moment, I’m doing a lot of thinking about how medieval women’s emotions, thoughts and desires are often misunderstood, dismissed, or simply not recognised – because women expressed these thoughts and desires in ways that do not resemble those of men. Because they stand outside the masculine paradigm, they are effectively invisible. The situation is further complicated, because when we scholars search for examples of vivid, emotionally expressive, thoughtful, complex medieval women’s voices, we tend to fall back of characters like the voluble Wife of Bath or the anxious Criseyde – that is, characters whose voices are not in fact their own, but written by male authors.

All of this was on my mind as I read Tim Lott’s latest column in the Guardian, here. It’s a sobering piece, and in many ways, one that should make us feel sympathy. In it, Lott announces two deeply personal struggles: the first concerning his impending divorce, and the second his recent diagnosis of ADHD. I could only nod when Lott begun by saying that this was a difficult column to write. Neither divorce nor ADHD is an easy thing to contend with, and according to Lott, the ADHD itself played a significant role in the maital problems he chronicled so publicly in his column over the years – indeed, even the process of ‘oversharing’ in this column is, he acknowledges, likely a symptom of ADHD itself. Publishing the column, Lott writes, caused his wife ‘frustration I well understand, but can do little to alleviate – other than quit writing this.’

At this point, although I acknowledge the profound difficulties living with ADHD can bring to those with the condition, I couldn’t help seeing the parallels to wider debates. I couldn’t help seeing how this column replicated wider inequalities.

ADHD is one of those conditions that is under-diagnosed in girls and women. The standard reason given for this is precisely that which I encounter when looking at medieval women. Women present differently, voice things differently. They are socially coerced to keep silent. They are not given a platform. When Lott writes about his practice of discussing the tensions within his marriage using the privilege of his public platform in the Guardian, he claims that it is the ‘compulsion’ to overshare that has ‘left my wife feeling that she is without a voice’. One could applaud his honesty in acknowledging his wife’s feelings (difficult, that). But … it’s not really the ‘compulsion’ that operates to amplify one voice while silencing another. It’s the fact that Lott is writing a column for a national newspaper, and a column that gives validation to his views. We need, so the Guardian implicitly informs us, by publishing this material, to hear the views of a middle-aged man sniping at his wife. It’s important that we listen. In my mind, I run over the columns about daily life written by women for the Guardian – Michelle Hansen, Lucy Mangan – and I can’t think of any compare to this. Women are not regularly given space to air their marital grievances, and if they do, it must be a process carried out in comic, self-mocking mode, or an outburst primly labelled as shrewish, nagging, or shrill.

Women’s voices are still systematically ignored, marginalised, silenced – and yet, writes Lott, what could he do to alleviate his wife’s frustration ‘other than quit writing this’? The question is posed almost rhetorically: how can a man be expected to give up his voice, his public platform to speak?

In a week in which we read of a judge informing a woman that she was not permitted to be unhappy within her marriage, Lott’s column speaks more loudly (and with more privilege) than he knows. In the legal case in question, Judge Robin Tolson decided that the unhappiness, discontent and emotional bullying Tini Owens described was not grounds for divorce. After all, Owens’ husband felt he knew his wife’s emotions better than she did herself.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a double standard here. How will we ever learn to recognise the ways in which women express their thoughts, emotions and desires, if we constantly hear from men telling women what their emotions must be, how ‘well’ they ‘understand’ those unvoiced frustrations women must feel, how confidently they can dismiss women’s petitions?

Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

The Guardian ran a piece today, reviewing the upcoming exhibition at the V&A, Opus Anglicanum, which focuses on the dazzling medieval embroidery produced in England in the fourteenth century. I was especially interested, because the book chapter I’ve been working on recently has to do with medieval textiles as objects that fire up the imagination – specifically, Chaucer’s imagination.

This is a really fascinating period for the textile trade in general: English weaving, for example, is just beginning to shift from being a craft carried out by women on a small scale, producing fabric from their own looms, to a more lucrative business on a larger scale, using a bigger, fancier loom, and dominated by … yes, of course, men. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, though set in France, is a beautifully imagined story of a household of weavers in such a situation, a story told partly through the eyes of Christine, a skilled weaver banned by her town’s guild from contribution to the official (and taxed) labour of her husband’s workshop.

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Penelope, cheerfully weaving away as Odysseus murders her suitors, in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. From London, BL MS Royal 20 C V, f. 61v (detail).

But many aspects of the trade were, and remained, associated with women. In this period, embroidery – the specific subject of the exhibition – was taking on a distinctly seedy reputation, for this very reason: its women practitioners were suspected of involvement in the sex trade. Women were strictly banned from moonlighting in the opposite trade – sex workers as well as textile workers – and a delightfully scandalous legal record of the late fourteenth century concerns the famous cross-dressing prostitute known as John (or, alternatively, Eleanor) Rykener, who electrified his witnesses by coolly declaring his habit of having sex with men while posing as a woman, and preferring to seek out priests for the better money they paid. Who was Rykener’s formative influence in this piece of (presumably, successfully constumed) deception? A embroideress known as Elizabeth the Broderer, already known to the courts for her role in trafficking young women into the sex trade, using her embroidery shop as a front. Such sensationalism about women and the textile trade persisted long after the Middle Ages, for what it’s worth: there’s a fantastic piece of writing by an anxious Parisian doctor in 1886, who claimed that the, ahem, stimulating friction caused by peddling a treadle-operated sewing machine was leading to a sexual frenzy amongst the city’s female garment-workers, leading to a generation of young women exhausted and weak from the debilitating effects of near-perpetual orgasm.

Well, if you say so.

But women working in the textile trades could, of course, be thoroughly respectable: we have plenty of records of solidly reputable medieval citizenry making their money from their cloth merchandise, and plenty of evidence of women in the trade organising morally improving situations for their young female apprentices. Indeed, as I wrote on this blog in 2014, by the fifteenth century, we can see parallels between highbrow courtly literature and the most prosperous London families working in the cloth trade, including women and their young female apprentices.

My interest in medieval textiles is piqued by these kinds of contextual detail – the scandals, the insights into ordinary working conditions, the changes in production that changed real women’s lives. But, I am aware that these textiles were also, often, incredibly beautiful and skilled products in their own right. The exhibition photos show sumptuous clerical vestments, spread to show the magnificent embroidery that would have draped over a priestly body, as well as rarer survivals of the humble equipment used to make them, and the fragments of material treated less kindly by time and the ravages of unscrupulous collectors. Reviewing the exhibition, Jonathan Jones admits to the significance (as well as the impact) of this work:

In the 14th century, if you wanted the very best cope or orphrey (a kind of long bishop’s scarf) you ordered it from embroidery workshops in London – the finest gothic embroideries in Europe were being done a stone’s throw from Old St Paul’s. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for “English work”, and it was in huge demand. In the middle ages, the embroidery makers of London had the kind of status that Flemish tapestry weavers were to achieve in Renaissance Europe.

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The Jesse Cope (detail) ca. 1310-25, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

So far, so positive, right? Admittedly, if you’re not particularly clued up, you might find the clarifying comparison of the last two lines about as clear as mud: I didn’t know what kind of status Flemish tapestry weavers had in Renaissance Europe, to be honest, and now I’m not much clearer. But ok.

Jones’s review provides the kinds of intriguing details I enjoy finding out in an exhibition – such as the fact that much of the clothing shown is, in fact, taken from the opened graves of medieval churchmen by archaeologists of later periods who did not scruple to remove even shoes and stockings. But it also seems ambivalent about its own displays of knowledge. Ultimately, Jones condemns

… the dry manner in which this exhibition relentlessly demands that we admire its orphreys. It misses the point about medieval religious art. … For no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.

I do find this a bit rich coming from someone who presumes we’re all up to speed about the state of Flemish tapestry making circa 1550. And I could certainly quibble about the rather bizarre idea that everyone in the fourteenth century enjoyed the kinds of unimpeded sight-lines to the altar that Jones seems to imagine here (medieval churches and cathedrals tended to have rood screens, blocking much of the view to the altar, and allowing the priest to get on with his business, as it were, in a semi-private space with God. It’s also, arguably, slightly dubious to talk about ‘harmonious’ singing in this context, at least as I understand medieval music, which is to say, not very much. But the major point that bothers me here about Jones’s rather style-over-substance image of medieval art as a vast multimedia experience is that it suggests that embroidery, on its own, just isn’t very much worth bothering with. It’s not like proper art, is it? The kind we are, of course, accustomed to seeing without the supervention of tinkly recorded plainsong or gently strobe-like light patterns mimicking the effects of stained glass.

And – cynic that I am – I can’t help wondering why medieval embroidery attracts this particular kind of criticism. Why is it so unworthy of an exhibition to itself, so direly in need of some kind of leavening of spectacle and show? Why does Jones cling so desperately to the nice chivalric image of the Black Price’s embroidered grave clothes and to his own vision of the bishop animating the robes with his busy masculine body?

Hmm. I wonder.

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Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Note: There is a more positive (and, frankly, for my money more interesting) review here, also from the Guardian and written by Maev Kennedy.

The Not-So-Mysterious Female Orgasm, Medieval Clitorises, and the Definition of Sex

A couple of weeks ago, I read the following exchange, posted on the facebook page of a social group to which I belong. One of the social group women reported how her daughter replied to a question put to her class during PSHE:

Teacher: “What can a woman do to not get pregnant when having sex?”
Child: “Not do it with a man?”

I enjoyed this. And the comment was still in my mind when I read this article, published in the Guardian yesterday. The headline – which is a fair representation of the way this particular bit of ‘news’ was reported everywhere else – is the awe-inspiringly confidence-inducing claim, “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved”. While biting back the uncharitable question to whom this phenomenon is supposed to be a mystery, I was still left with the suspicion that this ‘solution’ might not be quite as groundbreaking as it was represented. I’m not that likely to pay attention to this kind of news story – only in part because I get irritated with the intersection between science and misogynistic guesswork, and mostly because I’m absent-minded – and I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen several versions of the ‘female orgasm mystery solved’ storyline over the years. I’ve seen theories about production of oxytocin and bonding, about muscle movements aiding the movement of semen, and about identification of a physically well-matched partner. Strangely, though – mysteriously, even – no matter how often one of these theories hits the headlines (and hit the headlines they do, because it’s Weird Sex Facts About Women, innit), it always seems to have dribbled wetly out of the popular consciousness and been scooped up by the tissue of collective memory loss by the time the next one comes along.

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of socio-cultural vested interest in preserving the idea of female orgasms as 1) mysterious and 2) almost totally useless, isn’t it?

But, to the article itself. “The purpose of the euphoric sensation has long puzzled scientists,” it begins confidingly, “as it is not necessary for conception” – at this point, just to be a pedant, I will point out that male orgasms are not, strictly necessary for conception, as anyone who has googled the perils of the pull-out method will be aware. But I understand where they’re going, until the sentence continues, “… and is often not experienced during sex itself”.

Now, since my mum occasionally reads this blog, this would be the point at which I deny all knowledge of the meaning of the word “sex” and take recourse to the dictionary. Or, I would if I didn’t already know what a wide range of them, and a wide range of irritated feminist academics who write about language, say. Defining “sex” as “the activity during which a man ejaculates” is remarkably common, and remarkably convenient for the hetero-patriarchy. As this blog over on (Re)Marks on the History of Sexuality fascinatingly explains, for prolonged periods of time extending well into living memory, people have found ways of defining “sex” such that it excludes acts that the participants in those acts – notoriously including Bill Clinton – would much prefer to think of as “not sex”. The child’s comeback to her teacher quoted at the top of this post illustrates how unconsciously we accept this interpretation in everyday life: although few polite, politically-correct people in Western Europe would, if asked, consciously define “sex” as something only heterosexual and/or male people can have, the default assumption is that “sex” involves a male orgasm. And thus, the Guardian can casually make the assumption that, whatever defines “sex itself,” it is not a female orgasm.

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Not the Female Orgasms. Image from Besancon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 0457, f. 273v (Avicenna, Canon medicinae)

The idea that female orgasms – and, indeed, female anatomy, notably the clitoris – are the subjects of ever-more-recent discovery, is a popular one. Certainly, the biographical apocrypha surrounding a remarkably diverse catalogue of rather prudish and/or sexist Historical Men include stories of how John Knox, or John Milton, or Charles Dickens, or Todd Akin, had unfortunate sexual experiences of their female partners shaking, juddering and trembling during intercourse and withdrew in profound concern for said female partner’s wellbeing. In reality, though, the literature discussing female orgasms goes back a long way. I know this, because one of the perks of my job is that I’ve spent the last few days reading up on medieval men’s medical and didactic descriptions of how to bring a woman to orgasm. They’re (un?)surprisingly sound, and matter-of-fact.

Medieval authors also discussed the topic from an anatomical standpoint, and identified several (mostly fairly bizarre) roles for the clitoris and other ladyparts. The author Galen – a huge authority, who clearly deserves to be credited as the original inventor of the concept of vajazzling – claimed that the labia were worn “for the sake of ornament,” but that they also (unlike vajazzling) served a practical purpose: to keep the uterus from becoming too cold. Galen interprets the euphemistically named ‘nymph’ (clitoris – the term was used by other medieval medics, too) as another kind of miniature heating element, also designed to keep women’s bits from getting too cold. For a malfunctioning clitoris, he prescribes some necessary manual stimulation designed to result in the all-important heating effects of orgasm, whilst also warning against the potentially scandalous involvement of a man in this manual stimulation. To avoid any hint of deviancy, one should (of course) engage the services of a responsible and skilled woman, such as a midwife.

These prescriptions concerned what we might think of as ‘normal’ medieval women, but – according to Karma Lochrie, whose book Heterosyncrasies is my source for much of this post – authors rarely turned a hair when they came to discuss what the more prudish amongst us would probably like to think of as unusual medieval women. Early Modern writers, later on, would interpret lesbianism as a disorder with biological origins, an innate deviancy whose identifying symptom was an abnormally large clitoris. But in medieval writings, there are a number of medical texts that describe, in quite pragmatic terms, the problems arising for women with over-sized clitorises, as there are for women who did not menstruate, and for women whose bodily functions and high sex drives fell into the category these writers interpreted as ‘masculine’. Such phenomena were seen as temporary conditions, conditions that could occur in otherwise perfectly unremarkable women, conditions within the realm of the treatable spectrum of usual ailments.

This history places the contemporary ‘discovery’ of an evolutionary reason for the female orgasm back in its proper place. As a piece of scientific research, it is potentially interesting, but represented as a super-modern “solution” to something presumed to be a long-standing source of amazement and disbelief, it is part of the ongoing patriarchal narrative that insistently defamiliarises the female body and excludes female sexuality from consideration. This is not to suggest that medieval medical writers were atypically humane and feminist, but rather the reverse: a suggested ‘cure’ for a woman suffering from the results of an over-large clitoris is, horrifically and predictably, excision, or what we would now know as female genital mutilation, a practice still recommended by some doctors in the West well into the twentieth century.

The Guardian piece reporting on the ‘solution’ to the ‘mystery’ of the female orgasm is presented as a new and hyper-modern development, an insight that elevates a useless quirk of female physicality to the dubious status of a once-useful bit of obsolete muscle tissue. But, it historical terms, it is this article itself that is – deliberately, by design – obsolescent. It is intended to make a splash on the front page, lingering, weakly swimming in our minds, for a few days, before dying out of our memories. Then, we are to expect the next sensational discovery of a rationale for the inexplicable aspects of female biology – and another, and another – while the need to explain the existence of a Y chromosome carrying tiny fragments of genetic data, will never arise. Such a question would not fit with the narrative of the patriarchy.

Note

Karma Lochrie’s book, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a fantastic read, for many reasons other than its amazing and absorbing discussions of medieval women’s sexuality. It is very academic, and largely focussed on medieval texts, but it is very much worth reading for people outside academia, and outside medieval studies.

A quick rant about Tories who tell me what ‘Christians’ think of Marriage

I’m absolutely certain someone other than me has already deconstructed what Andrea Leadsom – potential Tory PM – has said about her views on gay marriage, with much greater eloquence, restraint, and theological authority than I can bring to bear on the subject. But what the heck. Following Leadsom in the fine tradition of speaking when you really should shut up, I’m going to talk about this anyway.

So, the background for people who’ve been hiding in bunkers since Brexit and/or American readers. Hi there! Here’s a quick and dubiously accurate summary of the situation. A few days ago, pig-botherer David Cameron resigned, catapulting a motley group of bigots, idiots, and the sort of people who think admitting to a lack of charisma is beguiling and delightful, into a race to avoid getting the job. One amongst them is Andrea Leadsom, who has decided to share her views about her voting record on gay marriage. You can watch here.

Leadsom opens with that thoughtful and sensitive approach Tories always use to show their deep commitment to morality: that is, by reducing the whole issue to a question of economics. “I believe that the love of same-sex couples is every bit as valuable as the love of opposite-sex couples,” she explains earnestly, in a way that suggests she thinks ‘love’ is something roughly equivalent to the output of the British Steel Industry, only slightly less important for the GDP. Lest you fear that Leadsom is being misinterpreted, and by the word ‘value’ actually means something warm, fuzzy and dangerously socialist like ’emotionally, spiritually or morally important’, check out her stance on maternity pay and the minimum wage.

The meat of the speech comes when Leadsom explains that many Christians subscribe to the belief marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that to allow gay marriage is to ‘hurt’ these many Christians, even though she herself, of course, doesn’t hold in any such reactionary belief. Or rather, as she puts it, “I don’t actually agree with them, to be specific, I don’t agree“. So, despite disagreeing with many Christians that gay marriage is wrong, it’s pure concern for their hurt feelings (oh, and the authority of the Anglican Church, that shaky and tottering edifice, propped up by no rights or privileges whatsoever) that caused Leadsom to momentarily act like a homophobic bigot.

Whew, thank goodness we cleared that up.

Leadsom’s speech is a master class in making sure you’re shifting the blame in multiple directions at once, as she hedges “Marriage – in the Biblical sense – is very clearly, from the many many Christians who wrote to me …”. I am not, as yet, familiar with the theological school of thought that advocates you read the Bible, attend to its message, and then think ‘nah, no idea what that means, I’ll rely on any idiot who’ll write me a letter about it and trust to them instead’. Just for Jem Bloomfield, I could make a St Paul joke here, but I won’t. The issue is that Leadsom is trying so, so very hard to make it clear she both is and isn’t in favour of bigotry, that she manages to make it sound as if she’s a Christian who doesn’t actually subscribe to what she sees as Christian doctrine, and a defender of the authority of the Church of England who nevertheless prefers to listen to the unofficial views of anyone with a pen and a ready line in homophobia.

Not all of the confusion is cynically created, I will admit: Leadsom also seems fairly confused at points in her speech, notably when she explains “Civil partnerships are called marriages as well, as you know, as in registry offices, marriages are still marriages …”. Interestingly, this is the same mix-up – whether it comes from dishonesty or actual lack of understanding – that sees Leadsom try to give letters written to her by constituents the status of authoritative statements on Anglican doctrine. It’s a confusion of ordinary language – wherein, yes, I have heard people refer to their civil partner as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ – and language that has the status of law. In law, civil partnership is not “called marriage as well”.

At this point, I admit, I’m so irritated by the debate that I don’t really want to get into the absurdity of Biblical justifications against gay marriage. Just look at the pretty picture.

marriage.jpg

What bugs me more than the theological tangles, is the way Leadsom seems genuinely certain that what will convince people of her genuine piety and her genuine compassion for the unfortunate deviants, is to claim she has absolutely no argument of her own. She’s a self-proclaimed Christian, who relies on chance letters from constituents to help her interpret the Bible, and a defender of the legal and religious rights of the Anglican Church who purports not to understand the distinction between casual conversation and legal proclamation.

I suspect Leadsom knew it would play rather less well to say “I subscribe to the official line of the Anglican Church, who have not yet come round to gay marriage, even though quite a lot of them do seem quite keen, quite often, and they did have that thing with women priests that did make quite a lot of people look like shocking old bigots a few years later.” So, instead, she claims her approach is the populist approach, the approach that defends the anonymous ‘many many Christians’ who want marriage to be marriage ‘in the eyes of God’.

I have to admit, now, that I am particularly pissed off by this argument, and that it is reasonably topical for me. I’m Anglican. I suspect (forgive me the hubris) I have as good a grasp of Anglican theology as Andrea Leadsom. I have a lot of friends who are Anglican – and who belong to other Christian denominations – who are also hurt about gay marriage. But they’re hurt because of people like Leadsom. Why, exactly, are we the kinds of Christians who don’t seem to matter here?

There is a long-repeated theme to the way Leadsom hides behind the fiction of ‘many Christians’. It’s the same excuse that’s trotted out to hide all kinds of bigotry in all kinds of contexts. We just don’t want to hurt people – you know, the people who believe these things. The devout, Christian magnates of the eighteenth century, who argued that the Bible really wanted the slave trade to flourish. The sincere, pious Christian men who campaigned against women priests and the emancipation of women. These nice, churchgoing, Bible-reading letter writers, who feel a little bit queasy at the idea of consenting adults who want to participate in the sacrament of marriage. It is always, you see, the people like this who are seen to be ‘hurt’. And that’s because chipping away your bigotry does hurt. It’s not actually about having your well-cushioned social status confirmed, so you can go about your business moneylending in the temple and claiming a monopoly on the idea of spiritual ‘value’. It’s about accepting that there are also Christians ‘hurt’ by the idea that marriage is something not to be extended to them.

“She Should Not Gaze On a Man”: Distrusting the Female Gaze, 1300-2016

Earlier today, a friend of mine posted a picture, which had been put up in the gym her daughter uses at school. The poster was made as part of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. It aims to improve numbers of girls and young women doing sports, which is a health issue. All sounds great, right? Only problem – and what made my friend’s daughter angry – is, here’s the picture:

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Now, the reasoning behind the text isn’t completely absent. Surveys of teenage girls – apparently – claim that they rate worries about their appearance as a significant reason not to want to do sport. But the poster manages to shoot itself in the foot. Taken in isolation, it only reinforces the idea that appearance (and specifically, a very particular performance of femininity) is crucial. Yes, the nails may be temporarily hidden, but let’s never forget they’re perfectly buffed and painted. Until I see the wording of the survey in question, I’ll take its results with a pinch of salt anyway – ask any group if they’re worried about their appearance, and you’re liable to prime them to believe they should be. But what bothers me most about this poster is the way it doesn’t trust you – the viewer – to decode its messages without verbal text.

That may seem rather trivial. It isn’t.

The image purports to draw its drama from the tension between what we see (the boxing gloves) and what’s hidden (the manicure). But the messages the manicure would send are right there in plain sight. The girl in the picture looks to be wearing heavy mascara and earrings already. She is already visibly performing the kind of femininity that is commercialised and dependent on modifying your appearance. The poster doesn’t just send the message that you need to be pretty while doing sport. It also conveys its own anxiety about the need to control the way women will view this image and its text. Oh, damn, they might not understand the girl is pretty without her pretty nails on show! Better make sure she’s blinking off the mascara too. The makers of the image don’t really have the confidence in their (young, female) audience to understand the caption and the juxtaposition of the visible and the hidden that it requires in order to function. The undermining effect is doubled: we get the message that we’re supposed to think being pretty matters, and we get the message, too, that the people who made this image don’t really think women are capable of decoding anything terribly visually complex.

It’s deeply depressing that a campaign that sets out to be feminist – or at least, woman-friendly – ends up reiterating the same old messages. But it’s also telling that even this message is tangled up with assumptions about the way women relate – or fail to relate – to the messages in visual culture.

For some years now, I’ve been hearing MRAs claim that objectification has now (against all evidence) become an entirely male-gendered problem.  Women, so the story goes, have begun to act as sexual aggressors. The conspicuously dull Cosmo centre-fold has single-handedly done more harm to men than centuries of misogyny did to women. Poor, timid Daves and Steves must now contend with in the oestrogen-heavy atmospheres of the woman-dominated nail salon, mothers’ meeting or rape crisis centre, wincing each time a loud, drunk woman called Sonia hoiks up her skinnies over her bum crack and pinches his nipples suggestively. You get the picture.

It’s not a new idea. Back in the thirteenth century, Robert of Blois writes sternly that women should police their excessively visual desires:

She should not gaze at a man, as the sparrowhawk gazes at the lark.”

This is exactly how I picture a predatory woman: taloned, feathered, and slightly inclined to shit on her perch if the going gets tough.

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Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 42r.

Medieval literature, theology and scientific writing is full of claims about women’s intensely visual orientation, their affinity – both as a result of nature and as a result of (lack of) education – for pictures and images. Some writers claimed that medieval women were innately more fixated on sex than men, and more easily sexually stimulated – perhaps especially by physical and visual material – than men; others stressed the predatory nature of women’s visual activities.

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I imagine it as something similar to Evil Willow’s eyes in Buffy, but with extra wimple action.

Women’s responses to visual culture were, as a result, heavily policed. Their sight itself was held to have profoundly powerful, sexual, and dangerous power. The Franciscan Peter of Limoges offers a delightfully piece of pseudo-science:

“It seems probable that some kind of poisonous rays are given off when a woman looks at a man lustfully, for then a libidinous vapour arises from the heart of a woman up to her eyes. From then on, the vapour infects her visual rays … whence the infection enters the heart of the man.”

These writers’ monitory attention to women’s visual energies are, plainly, an excuse for policing women’s actions, thoughts and identities more generally. Relating sight to a whole network of stereotypes of women as more earthy, physical and embodied, these writers represent women’s visual attention as a source of danger, a source of excessive sexual desire.

It’s a delightful irony that, in modern-day culture, women’s relationship to visual imagery is policed in precisely the opposite direction – rather discrediting the pseudo-scientific language of both medieval and modern commentators. Contemporary pop culture pieces on sexuality insistently claim that women are “just not very visual,” “less visually stimulated,” “less image-focussed”. Even when one slightly suspects what may be meant is “not interested in the kinds of images you, scientific reviewer, imagine might be sexy,” the claim gains tenure through endless repetition.

An example from pop culture – or rather, the responses to this example that I saw – illustrates the way this claim functions to push women into accepting themselves as the non-default viewer, the viewer who cannot be expected to respond properly to visual material.

A friend linked to one of those repeatable quizzes that claim to identify something improbably complex about your psyche, your cognitive processing or your life history: in this case, your sexuality. This particular quiz was based on those images that trick your eyes, the ones we’ve all played with at school. Instead of the standard eye-trick images of an elderly woman and a young girl, or a vase that’s also two faces, what you saw was more along these lines:

The title of the article from which this came was “Can this quiz really tell your sexual orientation based just on images,” and the answer, I think we can safely say, is no. But you don’t really need to know the accuracy of the quiz in order to recognise – as you begin to click through it – how it is supposed to work. You, the viewer, should respond by seeing naked women everywhere, even in the most mundane images of voluptuous mountain ranges, suggestively curvaceous architecture and vaguely pubic trees. Should you achieve this mighty feat, you’ll discover you are, in fact, attracted to women. Or as the quiz result puts it, ‘straight’.

Of course, the quiz doesn’t need to work to hold our attention (and we probably know, not very deep down, that there’s no reason it should work). We are supposed to recognise, as we click through this quiz, the message that sexual attraction to women’s bodies is a powerful visual force that literally determines the way in which viewers see and interpret the world. We’re not supposed to notice – or respond to, or find our reactions are shaped by – the objectifying dynamic here through which women’s bodies are quite literally represented as part of the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation. But that’s part of the message too. It’s a message that reinforces the idea that women cannot be trusted to act as the default viewer, the viewer who needs no guidance to arrive at his interpretation, the viewer who is not hampered by nagging doubts about objectification.

The images I’m looking at – the poster campaign, the pop quiz – are a problem not just because they objectify. They’re a problem because they come with an ingrained narrative about women’s visual processing that teaches us to distrust what we see, that teaches us that we are not reading images the way the viewer should read them, that teaches us we cannot be trusted to make the ‘correct’ interpretation.

 

Please Vote Remain

I’m currently polishing up the (final, I hope) draft of my book. Amongst other things, it’s about the way in which people buy into certain ideas of ‘Englishness’ for strategic reasons, and in particular, the ways in which people exploit the rhetoric of their own powerlessness in order – paradoxically – to police and perpetuate conservative social and economic structures. Although I’m writing about fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, it feels uncomfortably close to the bone today.

I can’t express the reasons to vote Remain better than anyone else you’ll hear. Many will stick in my mind, but in particular this piece by Jenni Hill, the series of heartbreaking posts by my fellow medievalist Sjoerd Levelt, and the conversations I’ve been having with my partner, who is the only person in her working group – a group who are working to find a cure for TB as incidence of the disease rises in the UK and elsewhere – eligible to vote in the current election. I can understand the fears and feelings that make people want to vote ‘leave’. I can understand the dogged optimism that convinces people it will somehow be alright if we do – that we won’t, against all predictions, crash economically and culturally. That we won’t give credibility to the sort of politics that clamours for the UK to leave because it harks back to a twisted image of British rule. I can understand it, but I don’t share it.

Please vote. Please vote ‘Remain’.