Thunder Thighs and Other Insults

Trolling and the treatment of women on and offline has been big news this week thanks to the Twitter Silence and events which proceeded it. My own encounters with such abuse have been in the ‘real world’ have been considerably milder, but still and have been very unpleasant. In truth, I am in awe of Caroline Criado-Perez and so many others for the strength and courage that they have shown in recent weeks, and no doubt continually before in their lives. As my own story shows, I would not have been able to cope.
Back in June when it first started to get sunny I wore a dress to work with bare legs. The sunshine, unsurprisingly, made me feel happy and as I listened to music on the walk, I barely heard the guy shouting “thunder thighs” out of his car window. He shouted it again though, for good measure, so there is no way I misheard him. I kept my control and managed to keep my facial reactions to a raised eyebrow and (I really hope) a look of icy amusement. I went home and after dinner ate quite a lot of chocolate in that automatic, untasting way where there is no pleasure to be had from it at all. The next day I shrugged it off, because how cool do Thunder Thighs sound? But it felt personal and like misogynistic random woman harassing all at once.
Then on the following Friday night I was walking home from work after an extremely hectic and tiring week. A young boy, young enough to not yet be sprouting hair in surprising places, leant out of his car window and shouted “Sweat it you fat fuck”. It was loud, there was no way I was going to mishear this one, even with my headphones in. I thought the car was driving away from my route so felt really horrified when it turned the corner I was going round and the boy shouted it again. I maintained the same icy look I had practiced the week before, but I felt persecuted. I felt persecuted by the fact that he was the second person to do this. I felt persecuted by the fact that the car now appeared to be driving in this direction simply in order to insult me. I felt persecuted because the insult was inherently misogynistic and was not in the least motivated by any real feelings about figure. Had I been model slim no doubt he would have insulted me by critiquing my skinniness. For the rest of the walk home I desperately wished I could jump on the bus, because I was now crying and would not be able to look icy cool if I saw them again. And seeing them again was a very real fear for me.
So I would like to say thank you to the woman who have shouted back, and shown that they will not be silenced by threats and insults.

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Sleeping Beauty – the Power of Fairytale

Matthew Bourne is probably one of Britain’s few celebrity choreographers. His name will be familiar to both the ballet going audiances, but also the larger and more lucrative musical lovers crowd.

His latest creation, which launched in 2011 is Sleeping Beauty, a ballet I first saw back in 1992 performed by the Moscow City Ballet. Dance has been a massive part of my life since I started ballet lessons aged four. There are things that ballet dancers do with their bodies which are so beautiful and perfect that I would sell my soul to have the ability to do them. Funnily enough I don’t feel the same way about writing, but perhaps that’s because I know that with enough work I can get my writing to those standards, whilst the devil’s magic is the only way I am going to be a boney ballet dancer who can turn 32 fouttés. Going to see a good ballet is a huge joy, but Matthew Bourne is commercially successful for a reason. His dances are not classical ballet but are strongly combined with contemporary dancing, and always relay on strong acting ability from his cast. He uses classical scores which he loves to explore the fairytales and stories which he produces in exciting new ways. His Swans in Swan Lake were male. Cinderella was set in World War 2 and now Sleeping Beauty is a Gothic Fairytale. And gothic it was. In a question and answer session following the performance Bourne explained that he chose the date of 1890 for the initial scenes as that is the year that the score was completed. In this period gothic was very much in fashion from architecture to painting and of course literature. And it is this literature which has inspired him and made this ballet so successful with me. Fittingly, it was also a period in British history when the belief in fairies was at an all-time high.
We all know that Sleeping Beauty’s plot is dodgy as dodgy can be. Like Snow White there is a seriously creepy aspect to a grown man falling in love with an essentislly comatose woman. It represents passivity in women sure, but taken to a terrifying new level. But Matthew Bourne recognises this. Not just by making the romantic hero someone who already knows and loves Aurora. Oh no! He goes one better and highlights the troubling core of the original story by having the sleeping Aurora’s captor fall in love with her so that even when she wakes she still seems to be a sleeping, passive vessel for his attentions.
This really was the perfect mix of fairytale and Gothicism. And it is a mix rather than a blend. The first two acts feel strongly like a fairytale set in the Edwardian period. It’s appropriately creepy and has a great deal of humour, delivered by Aurora, a satisfyingly rough and tumble Princess, and her lover, the gardener Leo. The gothic feel arrives with a Vampire’s bite at the very end of the act as the curtain falls.
I already want to see this again. I could have sat in the theatre and waited for the following night’s performance, I loved it so much. And a great deal of that love came from Matthew Bourne’s eye for a good story, told well. Whilst I wait for another opportunity to see this I will have to find a good solid book of fairytales, and bring out my collection of Victorian gothic novels. Perhaps inspiration will strike.

Dead Romantic

Dead Romantic is the newest release from Chicken House published author CJ Skuse.

I met CJ when I was lucky enough to get some work experience at Chicken House because at that time she also worked for them as the Office Manager. So, full disclosure, I know and like the person whose book I am (only kind of) reviewing.

I wanted to start actually doing more than mentioning books on this blog and Dead Romantic seemed like a good place to start. This is a rich time for me, publishing dates wise, as many people I am lucky enough to call friends have new books hitting the shops, and CJ’s was the first of the wave.

CJ has made her mark writing teen fiction which is both edgy and hilarious. Her first novel, Pretty Bad Things, followed two teenagers as they took to a life of crime in Vegas. Next came Rockaholic, in which teenage Jodie manages to kidnap the musician she idolises. Dead Romantic plays with the ideas of the Frankenstein’s experiment, though the story unfolds over the period of time in which the body is built, rather than focusing on the aftermath.
There’s so much to love in CJ’s books, and so much to learn as a writer. Her characters, who the Daily Mail would probably identify as troubled, are believable teens. They are all experiencing growing pains of one kind or another; poor parenting, grief, the loss of friends and subsequent identity crisis. All are clever and funny, but perhaps less loquacious than most teen narrators. CJ uses malaprops and similar techniques which mean that her characters don’t have the heightened vocabulary most teens in novels are blessed with, and feel more believable for it.
Sense of place is also very strong in all three novels. I have never been to Vegas, but you can tell CJ has. And the places she depicts in Rockaholic and Dead Romantic are finely drawn provincial English towns. Both identities are easily guessed by those who have visited them. One is based on Frome, where the Chicken House have their offices, and the other on Weston Super Mare.
CJ’s books always have great secondary protagonists and Dead Romantic is no exception. Whilst both girls involved in building The Boyfriend are believably weird, Louis, the human love interest is all indie-boy hotness and sweetness. I fell in love with him very quickly, and then could only despair at Camille’s blindness. But again here CJ’s use of language is subtle and clever. We see Louis through Camille’s eyes but her inability to recognise his adorableness, or his interest in her is perfectly drawn.
I would have loved to read these when I was a teen. I love CJ’s humour, a rare trait in high-end teen fiction. As a writer I want to become as clever at building strong, loveable and flawed characters to inhabit my own stories.
Thanks CJ for providing such enjoyable and inspiring reading material!

A hint at what’s to come.

A few weeks ago an old article by Suzanne Moore hit the headlines in a big way. Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger spoke to me in exciting ways because she wrote about the anger which seems to inhabit my core and I was so glad to not be alone. At the moment I spend a lot of my down time considering the world around me; the Twitter posts I have read before dressing, the news I have heard on the radio. I’ve always considered myself as a feminist: I’ve always wanted  to vote, to have power over my body and soul. Now though, at least in recent months, things have developed for me. I have read, talked and considered enough that I am now unable to filter out the a magnitude of misogynistic words and images I am surrounded by.

Now Twitter and the world at large are bear-trap waiting for me, pushing towards me things that I really don’t want to see. From page three to jokes about domestic violence to the world is full of people pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable, playing with feminists’ tolerances and trying to get back to a world where women were uneducated receptacles for sperm who were a dab hand with the iron and could be beaten about for getting dinner to the table late.

Many would consider the page 3s of the world tiny issues, barely worth talking about. increasingly people worry because they see it as part of the hyper-sexualising of children rather than because of the effect it has on society in general. I can imagine that even something as stomach-churning as Reeva Steenkamp’s  images splashed across the tabloid press being greeted by some as a fitting tribute, or an non-issue at worst. I have plenty of friends who would say, “Sure I get feminism; I want to vote and hold property, but why sweat the small stuff?”

The point for me is that this stuff is no longer small. It has become huge anvils dropping on me throughout the day. Send out a ‘comedy’ email where the joke hinges on women being bad drivers and I can feel my mouth turning into a cartoon-line as my insides whoosh down to the ground in disappointment. I am being ground down by emails addressed to ‘Dear Sir’, by football pundits discussing how a young male player has to do his own ironing now he’s not living at home, by baby girls being described as Princess and boys as superheroes.

I’m angry now, really angry, and feeling inspired by women like these vigilantes. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the rage and change the world? I hope so, and I hope I’m not alone as at the moment I feel more powerless than ever before.

Just Listen: What can we do about our attitudes towards rape?

I’ve just started reading Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. I was introduced to her work fairly recently by a friend and this is the second book of hers I have read, the first being her excellent Lock and Key.

Pretty early on in Just Listen it is clear that the protagonist is carefully not telling us that she has been raped. She’s not telling anyone else either, not even herself. Dessen is a master of the first person narrative, her protagonists are articulate, loveable and untrustworthy. They will lie to us, but it will be lies of omission rather than fact.
Annabel perhaps isn’t aware that what happened to her was rape, we the reader can be pretty damn sure it was before the reveal of what happened. After all, vomiting is not the usual response to seeing or talking to a man you have slept with.
It is also clear that Annabel is being slut-shamed by her peers and one-time friends. So clearly it is widely known that something happened ‘that night’ as Annabel calls it.
Dessen, like many writers of YA is keen to explore the issues that teens are coming up against in their lives and rape and slut-shaming are all too common.

Which brings me to real-life. I recently decided to stop following the excellent Jezebel on Twitter along with a couple of others as my dreams were increasingly full of rage and traumatic images and I felt sure that my evening reading choices were at fault. In the run-up to the 2012 election American politicians seemed keen to reveal their opinions on rape. In particular, where they affected their opinions on abortion. Since Christmas the BBC has been reporting the terrible case of a young Indian woman who was abducted along with a male companion, gang-raped by the six men who took her and then beaten with iron bars. She was lured onto a bus and the men who took her were not concerned that she wasn’t alone. What could two unprepared people do to fight off six who are following a plan? After over an hour of torment they were thrown back out onto the streets and the driver of the bus attempted to run her over. Her friend saved her life, but only temporarily, by pulling her out of the way. After being flown out of the country and undergoing intensive surgeries including the removal of her intestines, she died.
There has been an outpouring of grief in India, but also of rage. This is far from being an isolated incident.

I have decided this morning that I am fighting not just a losing battle in trying to avoid such horror stories, but also the wrong battle. I must not hide away from such horror, I must, we must, bear witness.

We must read fiction about difficult subjects, we must listen to victims we read about online and hear about in the news. But maybe we shouldn’t just listen. We need to stop and examine our own attitudes towards victims. All to often I come across discussions where the preventative methods circumscribe the victims. Women should drink less, wear more clothing, must always take taxis home, shouldn’t accept the company of strangers. Very rarely do we examine the perpetrators choices or actions in such ways. We assume we know the perpatrator, he is a man who has taken advantage of a woman, because he feels sexual desire for her, or he is some sick man who needs to be chemically castrated, as if that will prevent him from finding ways to hurt women.

Whenever the emphasis placed on men, with campaigns such as Don’t be That Guy there is a fall in rape cases.
As the article suggests this isn’t as simple as a few confused men walking away when they might have had sex, this is rapists of crime coming to see that they might not bet away with it this time, and choosing not to risk their freedom. Because campaigns like this make it clear that society as a whole demands a certain level of behaviour, and will not excuse rape as something committed in ignorance. As this illuminating article shows what often gets dismissed as accident very rarely is.

We must listen to victims of rape, we must listen with our full minds, not with pre-conceived ideas about what rape is or does. Because the evidence shows that when people get away with behaving as Annabel’s rapist does the worst is yet to come.