Review: Jamila Rizvi’s Not Just Lucky

9780143783534Jamila Rizvi’s recently released book Not Just Lucky is basically a very long riff on the old saying, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”. This is a very useful adage, which works as a reminder of the ways that women are socially conditioned. I find myself repeating this saying to women in my life frequently, and it’s useful to have a  book that spends time unpacking ways that women are brought up with negative self-beliefs.

Rizvi is intent to present “solutions” not just “problems”, and so the book also provides a lot of extended advice on how to speak, dress, think, and act in ways that might get you ahead as a working woman (even though the book claims it’s not a self-help book, but a “career book”). It’s funny and well-written. I also appreciated the very organised bullet-point lists of recommendations – I daresay Rizvi and I are a similar collection of letters on the esoteric Myer-Briggs test.

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Obligatory selfie of me reading Not Just Lucky

But while I found myself nodding along to many of the passages exploring the sexism that women experience in the workplace and beyond, Rizvi’s solutions fall short. What is offered is at best a band-aid to the problems described, and at worst, a cruel promise that working hard and undertaking individual self-betterment can lead to certain success.

To be fair, Rizvi acknowledges from the outset that her book doesn’t have the solutions for fixing structural problems like childcare and the wage gap, but simply offers ways women can change their thinking that has resulted from structural enculturation.

I’m on board with women undergoing some gender-CBT, heck my job is literally to talk about gender and double standards and how things we think are innate are in fact social.

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I am more than ready for the “lady boss” obsession to end. Please end.

But presenting the antidote to women’s ills as endeavoring to be “brilliant” and offering a blueprint for how to succeed as a “lady boss”, is not what we need right now. In this day and age, when humans are staring extinction in the face, capitalism is in a late and hideous form, and there are right-wing forces mobilising around the world, these kind of liberal feminist solutions feel a little like over-prescribing antibiotics. Sure, it might help you feel in control of getting better, but it will make all of us more unwell in the long run.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but the biggest blind spot is: you guessed it, class. While Rizvi acknowledges her own privileged upbringing as a limit to her ability to empathise, what is needed here is not an alternative individual view but rather a different analysis of how to fix a broken system. Of course proposing a workable solution requires identifying the underlying problem. If you ignore class, then you’re destined to merely tinker around with the symptoms.

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Rizvi’s book is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In

The thing is, all our problems don’t just boil down to how we are socialised. Rizvi claims that “the challenge for each of us is to rise above our own conditioning”. But thinking about the pitch of my voice at work, or asking for a salary increase, isn’t really going to make a huge difference – except of course, for me as an individual. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question gender norms, but it does mean that we might have to go beyond ways of individually speaking, dressing, thinking, and acting, if we want to make substantive change.

I was a little surprised that Rizvi stayed so closely to discussing things individuals can do, given that she claims in the beginning of her book the work is “unashamedly feminist”, and also notes at the end that “it is only together that we can change the world”. These words remain, for the most part, vague gestures. I can well imagine my grandma reading this book and saying to me “we were talking about these issues in the 70s”. That’s the point isn’t it: gender inequality is a persistent problem. If you want to acknowledge the changes in our lives for the better that have occurred, you have to talk about the struggles and the tactics that have gone before.

ednext_20124_guthrie_openerWhat’s interesting here is that Rizvi and I are the same age, and we went to the same university, at the same time (and did student politics together – I was in the Labor students club that she was the leader of). Unlike Rizvi though, I came from a very poor single-parent family. Yet, we both were able to get stellar educations. Despite my low SES background, there were quite a few structural supports in place such as public housing and welfare support, as well as decent free primary and secondary schooling, that meant I could get a leg up. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of these structural supports were targeted by the very Gillard government Rizvi fondly remembers working for.

Rizvi does suggest that there are policies that need to change in order to best address gender inequality. Rizvi also makes one note about unions, and a worker’s strike in Brisbane in 1912. These pages provide a short breath of fresh air in the discussion about how to make change. But strangely Rizvi moves seamlessly from discussing the importance of joining your union, to how to treat the symptoms of an unfair system which includes how to be a great boss.

I think is somewhat of an indicator of what’s wrong with contemporary Labor politics. It’s not really about representing the working class, because the interests of bosses are seen as equally important. Rather than seeing how being in the position of boss under capitalism necessitates exploiting those below you, not attending to class at all means you can’t acknowledge nor resolve that power dynamic. Here’s the rub: CEOs and working class people do not share the same interests, even if they share the same gender identity.

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Rizvi brings up Elsa quite a bit so this feels relevant

This book is explicitly inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In idea: the cruelly optimistic notion that you too can succeed, if you employ the correct tactics. But in a world that is becoming more and more unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth, where a handful of corporations own pretty much everything, and where capital and profit is valued over human and environmental well-being, success cannot be measured by how well you individually survive the fire.

Rizvi proposes that it’s not really luck but hard work that gets you ahead as a woman. We would do well to question whether the ceiling is really a class one that needs to be broken, in order to make lasting change for the lives of women at large.

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Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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In America you don’t just aim for a home, you aim for the ultimate: The White House

The widely discussed “American Dream” is the belief that anyone is free to climb up the ladder of success and be extraordinary. In contrast, the lesser known “Australian Dream” – so the story goes – is the dream of owning a house in the suburbs. As a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in public housing and precarious rentals I feel a strong affinity with this latter dream, even though it seems on the unreachable horizon (as it does for many in my generation). But whether the accessibility of home ownership  is truly as bleak as it seems, the concept of the Australian Dream warrants fleshing out. And, what better place to begin an examination of the heart of Australian consciousness, than the Olympic Games.

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

On the surface of things, the Australian coverage (so far) of the Rio Olympics seems to suggest that the Australian Dream is very close to the American one. For example, Australia’s initial lead in the medal tally was strongly emphasised by Australian news broadcasters (to the detriment of hearing about what was happening elsewhere at the Games). This focus on success, domination, and being number one, seemingly echoes the obsession with being on top à la the American Dream. But the whole point of the American Dream, as historian James Truslow Adams first defined, is specifically about anyone being able to succeed despite their early circumstances. The American Dream is about everyone having the capacity to be an extraordinary individual, as he states:

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”

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American Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hints at the bottomless aspirational quality of the American Dream

US media coverage of individual Olympic athletes exemplifies this narrative. For example, this discussion of wrestler Jordan Burroughs from USA Today highlights his innate ability (apparently visible at a young age), his hardworking attitude, and the importance of holding very high aspirations. The article states: “Though his parents stressed the importance of hard work and being true to his word, dreaming beyond their horizons wasn’t something a lot of people did in his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J. No one had shown them how”. The stress here is on aiming up and ever up. This means not just being number one, but always striving to do better and to work hard to be the best, not just of now, but of all time. As discussed previously, this kind of aspirational attitude has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant, who denounce the American Dream as a kind of toxic promise that always fails to deliver but that nonetheless keeps people enrolled in the idea that things might get better. So we might wonder, how different is the Australian Dream from this toxic attitude?

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Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe (who competed at the same time as Phelps) emphasises staying normal

Looking at Australian media coverage of the Olympics, we see the expected focus on stories of success (the Olympics are about competition after all), however, a slightly different dream is visible. While there is a similar story about the importance of hard work, there is an emphasis on ordinariness rather than extra-ordinariness. For example, in this discussion of recent gold medalist shooter Catherine Skinner from the Sydney Morning Herald, the story follows Skinner’s tribulations trying to balance school and shooting practice. While there is a clear message here that you should keep trying and stick to your guns (literally in this instance), there is also sympathy for Skinner wanting to be a normal university student doing assignments and partying with friends. The article labours on Skinner’s hard work ethic, but doesn’t allocate her success to something innate. Rather, there is a sense of luck, as the article quotes her: “I was really lucky to come into the sport at the right time. There were a lot of development programs coming in. It’s really nice to see them all pay off”.

the lucky country ....

From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

In comparison to the American Dream then, the Australian narrative isn’t just about anyone being able to nurture their unique natural talents to reach stardom, but rather, anyone being able to achieve anything through a blend of hard work and luck. It is useful to remember here that Australia is often culturally defined as “the lucky country” after all.  The best thing you can be in Australia is extraordinarily ordinary, as you don’t want to risk being a “tall poppy” (someone who is too far above everyone else). A great example of this is Stephen Bradbury, who won a gold medal in speed skating in 2002 after everyone else in the field fell over. With his mix of persistence and sheer luck, Bradbury came to epitomise the Australian spirit.

c_13181_234_234_true_trueLooking at these examples, we can see that the Australian Dream is different from the American one, but presents perhaps another version of cruel optimism. Rather than highlighting one’s difference and unique abilities that one can harness for success, there is an emphasis on the importance of sameness and chance. Of course, Australia is also marked out as a land of the “fair go“, that being the idea that anyone should have a chance to make it, to get lucky. Interestingly, in the recent federal election opposition leader Bill Shorten made an appeal to the need for a fair go for all central to his economic plan, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the fantastic opportunities already available to Australians. In other words, Turnbull turned up the volume on the myth of the lucky country, and quietly side-stepped the notion of the fair go that might call for some recognition of deeper inequalities.

Perpetuating this particular narrative covers over the social constitution of “luck”, that is, the structural privileges that  contribute to success. The toxic promise here is the lie that anyone can be a champion, if they keep working hard and are in the right place at the right time. There is no mention that as part of this you have to win the lottery of life, that is, be born into the best class position, race, gender and so on, that will guarantee a leg up. The perpetuation of this myth ignores the numerous indications that inequality and structural disadvantage is on the increase in Australia.

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Australia’s Next Top Model, where difference is played down

We also see this myth play out in Australian reality television. Anyone can be a Masterchef, and in fact, anyone can be as good as the superstar chefs. Never mind that if you’re not white or not emphasising your Aussie-ness rather than your complex ethnicity, you don’t stand much chance of winning. Similarly, anyone can be Australia’s Next Top Model, as long as you’re white and have that girl-next-door look exactly like everyone else. There is very little labouring on the unique talents, or features, or traumatic backgrounds of the contestants in any of these shows (which is surprising, given how much we still see the contestants cry). If anything the emphasis is always on how very normal the contestants are, and how normal they will continue to be despite their successes.

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

As I was watching the coverage of Rio last night, I was struck by the frequent remarks by the Channel 7 commentators that “anyone can be an Olympic champion”. Not only does this seem patently false in a way that papers over important advantages and disadvantages that people experience, it seems to diverge so much from the American narrative of everyone being special individuals. In Australia the best you can be is extraordinarily ordinary. The Australian Dream says: rather than wasting your time fighting for equality or better conditions or more affordable housing, your best bet is to put your head down, work hard, and be grateful for what you get in life. If you play by the rules, you too might get a home to live in one day, heck, you might even win a gold medal in speed skating! After all, this is the lucky country, isn’t it?

Impossible futures and the torture of refugee women 

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Protestors outside the High Court in 2016

It is fair to say that Australia’s refugee policy is cruel and punitive. We have a migration act created specifically to contravene our international human rights obligations. Men, women and children seeking asylum are locked up in offshore islands – a neo-colonial imposition on these neighbouring countries – under the thin excuse that this will stop refugees arriving by boat to Australia and thus will “save lives at sea”. Never mind that the Navy boats out at sea monitoring refugee arrivals have been complicit in ignoring distress signals, towing boats back to other countries, and paying for people to take refugees elsewhere (rather than simply rescuing these boats!). Like we are seeing with the rise of Trumpism in the USA, refugees are made into a scapegoat by the Australian government. Making refugees a “problem”, with xenophobic ideas about Islam trumpeted particularly loudly, distracts from the harsh austerity measures being imposed across the West. This isn’t a humanitarian issue so much as a class issue, when we consider who anti-refugee arguments are aimed at and why.

A militarised response, not rescues

From this perspective we can begin to understand the government’s cruelty. From here we can start to understand how we need to undo the rhetoric we are pummelled with.

What is hard to understand however, is how and why the government manages to get away with openly torturing women and children, who are so often seen as the most vulnerable in society. However problematic that idea might be in itself, there is no denying that these groups are generally seen as more/most in need of care.

Protestors for baby Asha

Indeed in refugee activism, at protests for example, we often see a focus on children. Signs like “Do we really have to protest torturing children?!” are prevalent. And when it comes to specific issues like Abyan (the woman seeking an abortion last year after being raped on Nauru) and baby Asha (who the government is still trying to deport) we do see a greater mass outburst of protest.

The group Mad Fucking Witches says it like it is

But despite the limited public backlash on these specific cases of refugee women and children, the government continues to publicly demand their deportation and incarceration. Why? Why not just let the women and children out, and leave the men locked up as a way to continue to “deterrence” project? How can they keep getting away with it, and why is it seemingly SO important to them that they torture babies, for example? On the surface this appears quite incomprehensible. Doesn’t everyone want to protect women and babies? Doesn’t this trump the class argument?

An Australian Immigration poster saying clearly: “no future!”

Indeed the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently publicly champions women, stating: “I call on everyone to work together to lead the cultural change ensuring women are respected, secure & safe from violence”. How on earth can he get away with such hypocrisy?!

In her article “From horrorism to compassion” feminist theorist Griselda Pollock argues that:

“Killing women with children or women who might bear children is, of course, the horrific core of genocide. War kills the men and uses the rape of women against other men. Genocide locates a future in the feminine. Hence genocide must destroy all women and children; they carry a future” (p.178).

Protestors at Lady Cilento

Now, obviously the torture imposed here is operating within a slightly different framework (though we may note that the detention centres are often referred to as “camps”, which they quite literally are in some cases). But I am suggesting is that in the case of refugees women and children symbolically represent the future. If these people were allowed to remain/come to Australia this would mean an Australia opened up to the Other. They would represent a porous and shifting Australia where “anyone” could be a part. They represent a future that isn’t white. They represent the outside coming in, the border collapsing, the fence coming down. To those who have little, and are at risk of having more taken away by austerity, they represent a future of “taking” – of having to share what is already not much, with an even greater number. In other words: they represent a threat.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has made a specific example of refugee women and children

That’s why the government – to maintain its own policy – must not only continue to torture women and children, but to make a specific example of them. Those futures must be both perceptible (a threatening horizon) and utterly rejected (“you have no future here”) for the government to continue its cruel measures. Of course there is push and pull around this. When you’re making a “necessary” example of women and babies you have to pay some lip service to their welfare as well so you don’t look too bad.

Women are often made symbolic of culture as a whole

In contrast we should not expect that the government will make an example of gay asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, because symbolically they represent “no future”. As queer theorist Lee Edelman suggests, homosexuality is seen to signify a dead-end insofar as it (symbolically) means an inability to reproduce. In these terms we can see why the government doesn’t bother making an example of gay refugees: they don’t present the same future vision and thus cannot be used as representative of a general threat to Australia in the same way as refugee women and children. Yet to let them come and resettle in Australia would be to acknowledge the fact that not only are these refugees genuine (i.e. fleeing real persecution) but would be to affirm homosexuality more generally, which presents a different kind of threat to the dominant ideology (and the government has much easier targets for this, such as safe schools). Thus they must remain rejected, but cannot be used in the same way to spread fear of refugees specifically.

This image is interesting because it interrupts the traditional future narrative and as such says “everyone is welcome here”

It is important to realise that refugee activists cannot win against the government’s rhetoric by focusing only on women and children because it is not about the women and children themselves, but what they represent. Indeed those championing women and children often forget to tackle the underlying symbolic issue of what “future” is at stake. They often erroneously reduce the argument to a purely “rational” humanitarian one, when the government’s logic: a) isn’t actually irrational; and b) is clearly about class not purely humanitarian concerns. This creates the illusion that the ordinary people arguing against refugees are monsters, yet (in contradiction) that we can simply win by yelling our humanitarian arguments louder and louder. I have heard in many an activist meeting for example that “the biggest supporters of refugees are those who have PhDs [laughs]”. This is a horribly elitist perspective that needs to be challenged at every opportunity because it will never help us win.

No, the arguments that must be made to undo the cruelty must address the future the government wants so many to fear. When we advocate for refugee women we must argue for a future for all refugees. We need to keep behind all of our arguments the idea of a future that is open, porous, more than white, borderless. But most importantly we need to argue that the only people who “take” from us are the same ones torturing refugees. We need to argue that austerity is imposed from above, not by those who come across the seas. We must argue for boundless plains to share, and we must remember who it really is that threatens our collective future.

The #Tay4Hottest100 Controversy

Taylor_Swift_Hottest_100_640x360Lately there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle going on in social media land about the recent bid to get Taylor Swift’s song ‘Shake It Off’ into the Triple J Hottest 100 this year. Instead of a straightforward essay-style argument about it, my girlfriend Geraldine and I decided to record a video of us discussing the issue. We had fun talking about it, so you might enjoy listening to it. If not, there’s always this instead.

How (Not) to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation”  – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.

A picture from Animals Australia shared on Facebook

A picture from Animals Australia, shared on Facebook

But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.

I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, 978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverwhich gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.

American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.

another_world_is_possibleThe lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.

Let’s Talk About Class: Hierarchies of Taste and Gender

Posh man: I ain't one

Posh man: I ain’t one

Recently, I found myself at a wine-tasting session with a friend, only to be confronted with the embarrassing reality that I had no idea how to act “appropriately” in the situation. The whole thing wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing an outfit much like Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, as I sometimes care to do (it’s a great look). Trying to “be myself” rather than affect a more refined countenance turned out to be quite the faux pas in terms of the disdainful/pitying/embarrassed looks I got from other patrons. While on the one hand I was rather “f*** you” about it, it also later resulted in me crying into my pillow.

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Later, I came across this article about the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his comments that working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life. The basic gist of Gove’s sentiments is that upper-middle class kids are mostly the ones in charge and working class kids need to develop more refined cultural tastes so they can fit in with the elites and get a leg up. The whole thing reminded me of my wine-tasting misadventure. I thought, should I read the ancients, learn Latin, listen to classic music, learn what the f*** foie gras is, so I too can run the world one day? I’ve spent much of my life trying to dress and appear more middle-class than my background would suggest and I definitely understand the mobility that this has afforded me. This is not to mention the fact that the (relatively free) education system of Australia has allowed me to work my way up to doing a PhD and now I have the privilege of education giving me a leg up to even comment on all this. 

Struggling with this issue, I showed the Gove article to my first year sociology classes yesterday. They rightly pointed out that while Gove brings to light the important issue of cultural capital, his solution reinforces the same hierarchy of inequality he’s talking about (<3 my students those smart little beans). 

In Australia we refer to working class people with "unrefined" tastes as "bogan"

In Australia we refer to working class people with “unrefined” tastes as “bogan”

The idea of cultural capital comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and as this handy quote from McLaren (1994) suggests, cultural capital is “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior.” So, the whole wine-tasting biz revealed my lack of cultural capital in this arena – probably owing to the fact that I was raised in a single-parent welfare-dependent family in a rural area and wine-tasting was something we had no access to, let alone interest in. But cultural capital isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about taste, as Bourdieu (1984) himself states, “…art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”

Pro-tip: don't mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

Pro-tip: don’t mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

I talked about the hierarchy of taste with my classes and asked them what was at the top versus the bottom – i.e. if someone loved and knew lots about X what would make them seem really sophisticated, but if they loved Y would be looked down upon? People had some difficulty identifying what would be at the top – Mozart perhaps, Kafka? But when I asked them what was at the bottom, they all knew instantly – pop music, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, basically anything that was seen as the stuff of the masses. I joked with my students that I decide what I like based on what carries the least cultural capital, because f*** that sh**. When I came across this article in The Guardian about how horrifying it is when “pop and rock collide” I couldn’t help thinking it might be because pop is seen as such a low art form that it contaminates all “true art” that it comes in contact with.

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze (for reals).

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze.
(FYI I do love it also)

You may be thinking, well hang on, rock is also the stuff of the masses isn’t it? Why would rock be above pop in this crazy hierarchy of taste? Jimmy Hendrix ain’t no Mozart…right? Here we come to the gendered aspect of this culture war. I can’t help but see how within evaluations of “good” versus “bad” taste, often what is seen as of interest to women (or made by women) is way down the ladder. For example, what ridicule do writers or readers of romance fiction face compared to those of crime novels? How often have you heard someone bemoan how problematic Girls is, but how amazing Game of Thrones is? Or how Kanye West is some kind of genius and gets played on alternative radio stations, but Beyoncé stays within the realm of commercial radio (unless she’s featured by Kanye)? It’s as if something carries more cultural value if it’s seen as belonging to the realm of men’s taste, men’s stereotypical areas of interest like action-adventure, if it’s made by men or simply features men being awesome.

While Kanye is a world away from the cultural capital Michael Gove is talking about, the gendering of taste also plays a huge part in what counts right at the top of the hierarchy. The ancients, classical artists and musicians, the writers of classic texts and operas…predominately men (well, at least the ones we value/know about – the erasure of women from history in all this is another story). 4916523Feminists and cultural theorists have been fighting this for years, to try and turn the tables around. That’s at least part of the reason why you see university courses geared toward taking popular culture more seriously, particularly that which is seen as “women’s interest” areas (like romance).

Of course none of this means we shouldn’t critique popular culture for its downfalls and the way it reproduces other problematic norms around sexuality, bodies, consumption, race, ability, etc. But it does mean we need to hold ourselves to account when we’re critiquing these things. When we judge “popular” culture who are we judging along with it? The working-class? Women? The under-privileged? And we might also ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?

Photoshopocalypse: there’s more to be worried about than airbrushed legs

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The Vogue in question

This week popular feminist site Jezebel embarrassed itself by offering $10,000 to anyone who could provide the before-photoshop shots of Lena Dunham’s US Vogue cover. Now, I love reading Jezebel on a daily basis. It’s a bit hit and miss, but generally I appreciate its mixture of popular culture and feminist analysis. Though this latest stunt has got me wondering: when it comes to cultural analysis, what is worth spending our time worrying about?

This has really been on my mind since I read this article from The Guardian, that asks “should popular culture be a site for political debate?”. Aside from the bit about the “deluge” of Miley Cyrus analysis (which gave me pangs of PhD fraud-guilt), I generally agree with the gist of the article. We should be careful not to get too caught up in deconstructing particularities of entertainment, lest we forget the bigger issues – of binary gender, economic disparity, racial prejudice, and so forth. 

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When we focus on the small stuff we can get lost (or stuck in the refrigerator)

In other words, we want to be careful that we can still see the political forest despite the pop culture trees.

Given that popular culture is a huge part of daily life and a source of enjoyment for many people (whether we agree it should be or not) it certainly warrants attention. But I do agree we should make sure our critique doesn’t become so narrow and specific that we miss the point. From what I can see going on in the Dunham-cover debate, there is a pretty narrow focus not on a tree, but on a tiny bug sitting on a leaf.

And it’s not like the issue of photoshopping doesn’t deserve attention, it’s just that we have the same conversation time and time again. It goes something like:

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

Prosecutor:
“BEFORE this woman looked NORMAL and BEAUTIFUL…
But then society deemed that she was NOT BEAUTIFUL ENOUGH.
Oh the TRAVESTY that we can’t just be our bumpy NORMAL selves”

Defendant:
“What do you EXPECT, the public want to see BEAUTIFUL people.
I mean, if you want to see FAT and UGLY just go out on the street.
This is FANTASY, this is fashion, it is MAKE BELIEVE”

Vogue-Nippon-No-Crime-to-be-RichAnd so the banal conversation continues, until we have it again next time someone’s leg or muffin top is lopped off by photoshop. And we’re so busy having this debate over whether it is permissible for fashion magazines to have shiny airbrushed people in them, that feminism goes over to the corner and dies from boredom.

I mean, if we’re going to spend our time and money ($10,000, really Jez?) critiquing Vogue, why not look at it’s full-on reinforcement of class disparity? Why not look at it holistically, as a cultural artefact: what does it keep us aspiring to? That it proposes a vision of beauty that isn’t just a particular form of femininity, but is perhaps more grossly white, upper-class and heterosexual?

Is it just me, or are "real women" all veeeeery similar looking...

Is it just me, or are “real women” all veeeeery similar looking…

And part of the problem with focusing on photoshopping as *the* political issue, is that we then so readily accept “normality” as a selling point. Take the various Dove campaigns around “natural beauty”. We dance in jubilation – finally a company willing to show normal women! Never mind what might be left out, or the fact that this is all done in the name of profit.

ritz-kate-moss-0412-VO-WELL61_112745722452

No photoshop here? No worries!

When we’re doing these analyses, why don’t we ask: who is the *real* enemy?
The women posing, willingly participating in their objectification?
The individual photoshoppers, for being so brutal with their brush?
The editor of Vogue, for dictating what is socially normal and acceptable in fashion and beauty?

…Or, something bigger?…

I’m not saying that individuals are devoid of ethical responsibility. I’m not even saying we should stop reading Vogue or Jezebel, and strip off all our clothes and makeup and run into the bush and live like a hermit (that’s a different conversation). But I am saying that when we invest our time in critical analysis and commentary, we also need to make sure we focus on the wider picture.