Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fifty Shades of Feminism - Dublin Writers Festival

Dublin Writers Festival opened 20th of May and one of the first events was an exploration of the varying guises of feminism, as well as a plug for a new collaborative book, Fifty Shades of Feminism, in the Smock Alley Theatre.  One of the book’s editors, Rachel Holmes, was on hand to discuss issues that led to its speedy publication – and I mean speedy: it was thought up ‘over a glass of wine’ in September 2012, contributions sought immediately, and published by March 2013!  Each contribution, then, is more of a vignette – column length essays from more than fifty writers/activists/feminists.  Along with Rachel the panel consisted of book contributor Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties advocacy organisation, Liberty, in England; Louise Lowe, theatre director, playwright and Artistic Director of Anu Productions; Una Mullally of Irish Times fame (and a personal favourite of mine); and as chairperson, journalist Margaret Ward.

So, an interesting panel discussion seemed inevitable with such an interesting group of women, and the setting added to the feeling of collaborative thought – the main room of the Smock Alley Theatre is beautifully laid out, and the variety of age-groups taking up the pews was indicative of the head of steam feminism is building up throughout the country again.  It must be said, however, that there were moments when conversation flagged and the panel became little more than a self-congratulatory session, where battle wounds were compared.  Shami, in particular, came across as somewhat mocking at times – particularly when disagreeing with audience members, one of whom had the audacity to interrupt the panel before question time.  While the audience collectively sighed at the loud voice from the back of the room that interrupted what was becoming a fascinating back-and-forth on stage, it was unnecessary for Shami to take the role of the chair in poking fun at the woman.  This interruption was sparked by the attendee’s own interest in the discussion, and while I was one of the many who wished for her to shut up so that the panel could continue, surely Margaret Ward, as chair, was more than capable of bringing it back to centre.  I admire much of what Shami had to say, but it seemed at times that she wished to hear her own voice much more than others – something accentuated by her drinking beer on stage, slouching in her chair like a teenager, interrupting others as they spoke, and calling everyone ‘darling’ in a slightly sarcastic tone.  Obviously cultural differences do step in here – I’m really not a fan of that endearment, and it seemed particularly out of place when compared with Una Mullally’s intelligent and erudite contributions.
The youngest member of the panel, Una absolutely held her own with the best of them.  Obviously I was heavily invested in her being good, as she is a year younger than me and writing for a paper I would give my left ear to be working for, but she stepped up to the plate admirably.  Drawing the discussion back regularly from the brink of irrelevancy, her comments marked her as an interesting and interested feminist who thinks outside of the box.  Gaining confidence as the evening wore on, she became much better at responding and jumping in on questions – it was a pleasure to hear her belt out almost-statistics (who can ever remember exact numbers?!) and various studies.  Lacking this confidence, or perhaps shouted down at an early stage by Shami, was Louise Lowe.  I would have been very interested to hear more about what her theatre group does in relation to highlighting gender issues, but unfortunately she was loathe to step in on many conversations, and Margaret did not direct enough questions her way.  Rachel Holmes was very well spoken, and dealt with the discussion humorously and vigorously – clearly a woman of convictions, she knew her path and had worked hard to get there.  To alleviate some of my comments about Shami, it must be said that her contributions were often extremely interesting, and it is very clear that she works hard at her very laudable job – being an activist and advocate can often leave you disdainful of mere discussion, so it is perhaps inevitable that she might not always have taken the discussion as seriously as she might have.

Overall, the panel did not quite live up to what I would have hoped from a group of intelligent women coming together to discuss feminism today.  Irish issues were often not addressed, as statistics and reports were English based – a moment that stands out in my mind was instigated by Una Mullally, who pointed out that the Attorney General for Ireland (Máire Whelan) was female, which prompted muttering between myself and my friend about how the Director of Public Prosecutions (Claire Loftus), State Pathologist (Marie Cassidy), Ombudsman for Children (Emily Logan), the first Taxi Regulator (Kathleen Doyle), first Chief State Solicitor (Claire Loftus) and our last two presidents (Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese) were also women.  Ireland is slowly making changes, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgement of that – I’m not saying that the utopian meritocracy is upon us, but as a cloistered nation we have broken some of the bonds of patriarchy in recent years.  Indeed, the ‘Irish Mammy’ trope has had something to do with this – Irish women have always been strong, their strength just requires some direction.  We still suffer the general patriarchal impositions that most developed nations do – less pay in work, less advancement opportunity, childcare requirements not met, discrimination in the street, low rate of prosecution for rape and sexual assault cases, etc. etc. – and there is plenty of work to be done.  It took an audience member at question time to say ‘get out and march’, that this is the time to make sure our voices are heard, since the panel were not making that point – though ‘throwing bricks through windows’ should probably be taken more metaphorically than not.  There was far too much congratulation for writing the book as though that is all it takes to generate a discussion – the attendees were overwhelmingly female, and already in agreement with feminist as a tenet.  I would have welcomed a discussion on the damage post-feminism, societal pornification and raunch culture has done to our solidarity as a movement, rather than a cheap for-claps emphasising that ‘I’m not post anything, darling’.  I also felt that there was a contradiction in their allegation that women don’t generally help other women, yet each of them mentioned a strong woman who had helped them throughout their lives – again, it was Una who pointed out this crossing of lines, and I would have loved to have heard that developed.  This is especially relevant in terms of media portrayal of feminism – the ‘dirty word’ as it has become known, and that same audience member who wanted us throwing bricks through windows was again the one to confirm that is has never been a ‘clean’ word.

Having attended university as an 18 year old and again as a mature student, I can tell you that some general opinions on feminism have changed and some have become even more entrenched.  Perhaps that was why Una’s contributions appealed to me the most – she would have come through the ranks as post-feminism was gaining its foothold, suffered as I did through the ‘Mad Men’ resurgence of ‘gentle sexism’, watched as the internet became a medium both of freedom and of increased oppression of opinion, and seen first hand the effects the pornification of society has had on a young population.  It had moments of lucidity, and there were times when I would have jumped in on the conversation myself, but the length of discussion was too short and the book-plugging too necessary for it to rise above the normal in panel discussion terms.  In the end, a lot of it was preaching to the converted, and I doubt very many people left the auditorium with deeply renewed fervour in their feminist goals.  I did learn a new term for my type of feminism – socialist feminist – which I will carry with pride, but I can’t say that I will be hugely inspired otherwise by what occurred beneath the Smock Alley roof.  Enjoyable, then, but since I left the discussion feeling mainly passive, I can’t call it anything other than a cap-tipping exercise in mutually congratulatory feminism.

EDIT:  Another thought that arose through questions, but we didn’t have time to explore, is the fact that feminism as we discuss it, and revolt against patriarchy as we see it, all exists under the umbrella of capitalism – which leads to an interesting debate about where we go from here.  Does the entire system need to be torn apart before changes can be made?  Are we constantly just putting patches on an essentially unworkable system by propping up capitalist tenets even while making gains in our feminist agendas?  Something to think about, certainly, so very glad to have these questions arise on Monday night.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Angelina Jolie - Saint or Sinner?

An interesting debate has surfaced over Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventive double mastectomy to offset her increased chances of developing breast cancer later in life.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the debate has mutated into vitriol, raging over her Op-Ed in the New York Times in which she has 'the gall' to speak about her experiences as though she was a normal woman with normal issues.  After finding myself in an online comments battle with very angry users on Jezebel and The Guardian it became clear that Jolie’s revelations have raised a whole new raft of issues for women – not least the issue of bodily control and celebrity illness.  Most of the anger seems directed at the fact that Jolie could afford the quite expensive testing that allowed her to identify the faulty gene that exponentially raises her chances of contracting both breast and ovarian cancer, and at her decision to speak publicly about her experiences.

For many people money is the great divider – and certainly in the American health system it can make all the difference in the world – but the argument falls apart when you take into account that Jolie lost her own mother to ovarian cancer, and at the end of the day, has removed both of her breasts in order to do everything in her power to avoid leaving her own children motherless.  Money might have allowed her to find this gene and recognise its influence over her future health, but money doesn’t stop it from mutating and developing into a cancer that might take her life.  Cancer is, in a way, the great leveller – of course advanced healthcare can extend your life, better access to facilities and good doctors can aid recovery, and constant screening can catch the cancer before it spreads to other parts of your body, but very often none of these things make any difference.  Steve Jobs is a high-profile recent example of this, as is Roger Ebert, and Jolie can be added to this list.  She has not removed her chances of developing breast cancer, she has simply reduced it from the terrifyingly high probability it was.  She has also intimated that she may remove her ovaries, as she also stands a very high chance of developing ovarian cancer due to the gene she carries – no doubt this will raise yet another backlash of ill-feeling. 

I, of course, find all of this to be a very personal argument – hence my getting involved in comment battles that are unwinnable (as all internet wars are).  Having lost my own young mother to ovarian cancer in recent times, Jolie’s experiences are issues that arise with myself and my sisters on a constant basis; worries about what our body is secretly doing – is it silently developing faulty cells, are they mutating and spreading, will we leave our children motherless, will I have children before the cancer develops, etc. etc. ad nauseum.  Ovarian cancer has definite hereditary implications, and as it is a type of cancer that usually gives no signal of its advancement until it has already gone beyond recovery, it has a low survival rate.  For myself and my sisters, then, our bodies are possible time-bombs – something you keep out of your head in your day to day life and try not to think of, but the fact remains that one of us may develop ovarian cancer later in life.  For me, then, Jolie is doing what we have already thought of doing – taking control of our bodies before they take control of us.  I haven’t had children, and still hope to do so (in the not-so-near future), so removing my ovaries is not something I can think of now.  For others who have already had their children, having a hysterectomy so young will throw them into early menopause, which is not something any woman relishes.  There is also the psychological factor – removing your breasts, removing your ovaries, it’s almost as if you’re removing everything that makes you a woman…what are you without these symbols of femininity?  In answer I refer back to Jolie, who has long been defined by her sexuality, in her decision to make her surgery public and to speak honestly about her experiences.  She is standing up, as a woman in the very critical public eye, and taking control of her body in a way few would have the courage to do – and I applaud her decision.  I have a not-so-sneaking suspicion that a large majority of those who do not support her are responding out of a personal/celebrity dislike of the woman rather than on a health basis.

The Irish Cancer Society has already reported an upsurge in their helpline calls, and breast checks will no doubt rise too.  Perhaps women will become more aware of their bodies, and listen to them – maybe if something feels wrong they won’t do the ‘Irish Mammy’ thing and push those feelings down for fear of complaining.  Maybe, just maybe, it will get a few more people out from under the umbrella of ignoring the problem and into the ring to face it.  I know if my mother had the choice of losing her ovaries or losing her life I would not be without her today.  If it keeps one more woman from succumbing to cancer, then what Jolie has done is nothing short of amazing, and no amount of fame or riches makes that bravery any the less.

EDIT:  An excellent article on the subject from The Feminist Wire, by Bill Patrick.

Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

A review from last week that took returning to the IMAX for a second viewing last night to remind me to post it...

JJ Abrams’ name is swiftly becoming synonymous with a different sort of Star franchise, but for the moment it’s the Trek that occupies his, and our, time. Finally reaching our screens after what seems a never-ending onslaught of hype, Star Trek: Into Darkness follows on from where his wildly successful 2009 entry left off. The crew of the Enterprise are present and correct, from Kirk to Spock and all the token nods in between – and a fairly standard Star Fleet storyline means this Trek won’t be breaking a huge amount of new ground. BUT (and it’s a pretty large ‘but’), if you enjoyed the first one, then by Vulcan will you love its sequel!

From the second it hits the ground (running), Into Darkness reaches for the stars in terms of narrative, acting, exposition and flow. Largely hitting the mark on all counts, its pace is perhaps the most impressive thing about the movie. Considering the lengthy running time – it comes in at 132 minutes – the story moves from set-piece to set-piece with a seamless energy that means the final credits leave you wanting more. While the narrative itself may be slightly prosaic…wild despot wants to destroy everything Star Fleet holds dear, but is it all as black and white as it appears?…the villain who drives it is anything but. Hype aside, Benedict Cumberbatch was always the one to watch in this instalment, and he does not disappoint. He brings thespian finesse to an otherwise hammy acting ensemble – and I say that with full love for the essential, and irreplaceable, hamminess of Star Trek. There have been fan-led suspicions about his iconic possibilities, at least one of which is confirmed in classic theatrical fashion – a moment to really set the hairs on the back of your Trekkie neck on end!

Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk is as vacuous as ever, though he adds a layer of emotion to his performance this time that makes you almost forgive his doe-eyed interpretation of the schmaltzy captain. Zachary Quinto moves from impression of Leonard Nimoy to interpreting Spock in his own right – largely helped by the subtle love-story with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Simon Pegg manages the impossible as Scotty, becoming less annoying as the series continues rather than – as the first movie suggested – lazily making Scotty into an overblown caricature of himself. He’s still remarkably irritating in full Scottish brogue, though Karl Urban has taken up the theatrical mantle with Bones, delivering catchphrases rather than lines and allowing his eyebrows to do the majority of his acting.

An added character to the entire movie is the 3D and IMAX experience itself. Though the 3D has been added post production, it has little of the rough edges you might expect from this patchwork approach. Expensive and exclusive, the IMAX does also offer an extra layer to the visuals by enclosing the audience in a full ‘cave of dreams’ experience – there are no edges to your vision, as the movie fills every available visual space. Adding to his sparkly-space tricks from the first outing, Abrams has also gleaned some cues from Joss Whedon’s Avengers escapade – some tell-tale zooms and pans liken his direction to Whedon’s favourite way of seamlessly suturing CGI into the landscape.

What we have, in the end, is as good an addition to the Star Trek franchise as might be hoped. Amid accusations of mechanical storytelling, it nonetheless stands as an able expansion – there might be formula, there might be rote, but under it all is a devotion to the beloved characters of the Federation and a motion picture event that manages to retain the Star Trek audience, whilst adding new devotees all the time. An entertaining and visually splendid Star Trek experience rooted in one of the finest Trek-villian performances of all time…boldly going where many have gone before, but taking us willingly along for the voyage.

See the full review here, at Film Ireland.