This article came out today. I Have Concerns.


1) BUT PHRACK. I am massively, massively invested in Phryne and Jack, and I would wager     literally all the money I have (which is admittedly not very much, possibly enough for           one of Miss Fisher’s lesser hats at 1920s prices) that the same is true of a vast majority         of the devoted audience on which the producers are counting. If there is no Phrack, we         will turn off in our droves. AND WE WILL BE BITTER. If there is Phrack for the first ten         minutes before Jack is conveniently disposed of for an alternative love interest, WE WILL     RIOT. (Possible exception if we get Queer Miss Fisher temporarily, but she’s been                   demonstrably quite heterosexually orientated thus far in the series.)


1b) Relatedly: with the possible exception of my beloved husband, Nathan Page is blatantly      the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth, and despite the obvious gloriousness         of Essie Davis (lovelovelove) it will Not Be The Same without him. HIS FACE IS AN                 OCTOGON OF CHEEKBONES AND SORROW. If another actor is positioned as Miss                   Fisher’s ‘sexy sassy sidekick’ (thank you Anna!) or love interest or whatever, he will             both i) inevitably fail to live up to Page’s standards and also ii) cause MASSIVE                         RESENTMENT. (See 1).


2)  What about Dot and Hugh? It stretches credulity somewhat (shut up) to have them                 pitching up in exotic locations continually, and Hugh wouldn’t even be a policeman.             Neither would Jack, of course, but see previous re. sexy sassy sidekick. The Miss                       Fisher/Dot relationship is delicate and beautiful and touching and has gathered a lot of         depth over 3 series, and whilst Miss F is clearly heading to England without her at the           end of S3, it would be very sad to see it dissolve entirely for sustained periods of time             (although that does sound terribly like the kind of thing producers regard as an                       unavoidable casualty of moving from TV to film).


3) And Mr Butler! Same issues. *suspicious glare* It sounds a lot like the things that made      the series so joyful and glorious could be sacrificed in the generic transition from drama      series to ‘action movie’, and that would be SAD.


4) What if it is massively racefaily? The Lin Chung’s Chinese family episode was pretty               heavy on cliché and problematic racist troping, and whilst I am basically unmoved by          ‘but it’s not like the books!’ as significant criticism in this particular case, if this                    problematic and othering attitude is repeated with films set in ‘Arabia’ ‘India’ and other      ‘fun…destinations’ it would be a terrible letdown (not least for non-white fans of the          show).


4b) I am not qualified to comment – read, shamefully ignorant – about the show’s                         representation of Aborigine people, but I gather there were also issues here that                     increase the likelihood of 4).


5) What is with this ‘young Miss Fisher’ bullshit? There are a not insignificant number of           representations of beautiful young women kicking ass in popular culture, albeit not              enough compared to representations of men kicking ass, and one reason for the series’        appeal (and success) is its aspirational and three-dimensional representation of a                  woman who ISN’T in her teens or twenties, and has a bit of age and depth. Essie Davis,        heroine of all of our hearts, is 46 and looks at least two thirds of that, and her Phryne’s        self-assurance and self-knowledge are both commensurate with her age and                            immensely attractive because of it. I don’t want to see a hot 18-year-old being                        implausibly brilliant in all the ways. I want to see an older woman who has been                      through life and learnt *how* to be implausibly brilliant in *some* of the ways being          just-about-plausibly brilliant with a little help from her friends. I suspect I am not                alone.


6) BUT PHRACK (See 1).


7) This is a side note, but ‘focusing on a younger, 18-year-old Fisher, the spin-off would          follow the aristocrat character as she migrates from the UK to Melbourne and stumbles        into her detective work’ is a massively inaccurate representation of Miss Fisher’s                    history as we’ve been shown it so far. She wasn’t born aristocratic, she grew up in                  poverty in a rough Melbourne suburb, and we’ve already seen her childhood in                        flashback in some detail as well as hearing it discussed because of her sister. The                    implication here is that a poverty-stricken teenager somehow migrated to the UK and          then…migrated back to Melbourne at 18? I mean what? Unless this is bad journalism            and/or they’ve got the locations muddled – which is WORRYING IN ITSELF – that just            isn’t going to work. We are already swallowing that a poverty-stricken child inherited          money from distant relatives who died in the war (fine). But that’s one leap, it’s not the      700 leaps necessitated by ‘and then she managed to migrate to the other side of the              world and back again before turning 18.’


8) BUT PHRACK (See 1).


9) “I reckon we could do three Miss Fisher movies, absolutely,” Eagger said. “The fan base      is so passionate. If you’ve got a successful franchise, why not (make more than one                movie)?”

Okay, let’s see, shall we?

a) Because unless you do it well and with careful attention to the elements of the show said fan base is passionate about, you will lose that audience.

b) Miss Fisher is a franchise based on a particular formula – ensemble cast, slow-build narrative arcs behind episodic storylines, attention to character as well as action, three-dimensional and emotionally charged central relationships, etc etc etc. By shifting the medium of that franchise you are already shifting the nature of your product. I want to see brilliant 3-dimensional Essie Davis-led Miss Fisher films (with Jack as loyal, combative, sexually charged and hopefully satisfied sidekick) as much as the next Miss Fisher fan. But I need more assurance than I am currently being given that the aspects of Miss Fisher I value and respond to will be maintained in *shudder* action movies.

c) Film franchises tend to get worse as they go along (with a few honourable exceptions). We would all like to assume this wouldn’t happen to Miss Fisher, but on this evidence, we are hardly assured.

d) You run the risk of destroying said fan base and diluting the best aspects of the show by bending it to new medium/generic conventions. This is bad.


10) “We want it to be like the Indiana Jones movies,” Eagger added. “We might not have            Steven Spielberg’s budget but that is what she (Phryne Fisher) is – an action hero. She          got to be able to fly the world.”

Yay Phryne, but she isn’t just an action hero though, is she? See 9. I like Indiana Jones and all, but that franchise hardly has the same emotional depth as Miss Fisher does. (Unless, apparently, you are an archaeologist/paleoanthropologist, which I am not.)


11) “It could be ‘Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears’ so she has to go to Arabia. We’d love to       go to India. We have fun thinking about the destinations.”


See 4).



13) Forget all this nonsense. What about Dr Mac? Is Dr Mac going to travel with Phryne?             Because Dr Mac is the absolute best thing ever and she is funny and sharp and dry and         also a great representation of queer, and I would be SAD if this got jettisoned for the             sake of compulsory action movie heterosexuality.




This is an incomplete list. I look forward to the resolution of said concerns by any means necessary, preferably the addressing of all these points by the producers….


So, I’m in the library and instead of novel research the best thing to do is CLEARLY to ramble about Elementary, which I’ve been watching obsessively for the last ten days. I’m 20 episodes into series 2, and in general, I am really impressed – the characterisation is thorough and subtle, the relationship between Sherlock and Watson sensitive and carefully calibrated and Watson starts out as a determined character in her own right and becomes an increasingly independent detective agent as the series (plural) go on. Series 2 has its flaws – I don’t buy the Mycroft/Watson thing at all, there’s no chemistry, and do not get me started on relocating New Scotland Yard to the South Bank or Baker St to Redchurch St five doors down from Top Office Machines – but still a good series.

In particular: I loved the Irene Adler/Moriarty thing also. Yay for kickass female characters! Yay for villainesses! Yay for an excellent play on how they both appear in the original stories! Yay for psychologically realistic complication! Yeah, okay, the ‘her only weakness is her love for Sherlock’ thing was a bit annoying, but hell, we’ve been there before in infinitely more problematic ways. And I like that Sherlock positioned himself as a tool, the linchpin between the conflicting emotional awareness of two women with agency, Watson and Moriarty. Huzzah, we all cry.

And then. And then. Season 2 ep 10, I think it was. Tremors. Moriarty shows up again, in custody – forces her way into a kidnapping investigation – only to go critical, escape, find and ‘relocate’ the missing girl and allow herself to be taken back into custody, BY SHERLOCK, bemoaning that she couldn’t have killed her guard as it would have been repugnant to him. Why? Because apparently the kidnapped girl is her daughter. I mean what. This woman is a criminal mastermind with networks that span the globe and yet she can manage neither contraception nor abortion? A woman HAS to be maternal at the core? Domesticity and family is always woman’s weakness? Moriarty can murder hundreds of people without a thought, and run criminal syndicates than threaten many more, but still she has to be limited by maternity. Fuck that.

It’s a real shame, because Elementary’s gender rep is usually good – as a wise friend pointed out to me earlier, the second series even dealt with the ‘every female cop is crooked’ problem of the first series. Watson is kickass, and there are a variety of women represented, including a trans woman played by a trans actress, Candis Cayne (some ace discussion here). It makes me SAD that Moriarty has to go all inconsistent.

edited to add: currently watching the season 2 finale story arc, and massively unimpressed. Joan gets kidnapped so she has NO agency? Sure the authors wanted Sherlock and Mycroft to have to team up, but this is NOT the way. And then the whole Mycroft/Joan thing – really, they are actors, could they not at least PRETEND to be attracted to one another? I am MORE SAD NOW.

I am a nosy cow, and I am all for people sharing intimate details of their sex lives in whichever ways they feel comfortable. I think Kate Munro’s Virginity Project does a good and important job in fostering empathy and providing space for people to open up about their personal histories in ways they may find difficult with friends and lovers, and tells some lovely/important/disturbing/enlightening stories about people and how they do sex. But in Losing It, her published book version of the same, it’s hard not to notice a) the problematically heteronormative structures into which everything is shoehorned **even when the storytellers themselves structure and present themselves otherwise** and b) the equally problematic and difficult gender essentialist ideology. Allow me to explain.

The most immediately obvious issue is that Munro makes no real attempt to acknowledge her cultural background or ideological framework, she just assumes all her readers share it. Eg.:

‘one of the first stories that we are taught is about virginity loss. We all know the story of Adam and Eve. No sooner had these two hapless teenagers given into…temptation…than the course of their lives, and ours, was irrevocably changed.’ This may come as a shock, but not everybody interested in a book about virginity loss (esp in the context of the ‘universality’ of the subject you’re repeatedly touting, ffs) is going to be Christian. (Let alone have that interpretation of Adam & Eve, but I digress.) By no means all of the people you interview are Christian, so why make that kind of assumption of universal experience?  I wasn’t taught Adam and Eve first off, because my mother is a lapsed Jew and my father an aetheist. I went to a Ba’hai kids’ class for a bit. I went to C of E school, but I don’t remember Adam and Eve, only Noah and trying to bargain with God so my family didn’t die (I was a pretty fucked-up child, in retrospect). You can’t take for granted that all your readers share your cultural background, nor your current thinking – I can’t really see why you’d want to – and yet she repeatedly does. Again:

We all have the desire to fit in.’ – well, no. I certainly have the desire to be recognised and understood for what I am, and to share experiences and be loved and nurtured by friends. But not everybody constructs that as ‘fitting in’ – I construct that as being ‘recognised and accepted’ by people who are various and different and intelligent and interesting and caring, not all of whom share similar backgrounds or desires or histories or outlooks on life or tastes in popular media. Yes, groups cohere around identities, particularly marginalised ones (‘queer’ and ‘goth’ being two relevant examples from my own life), but we are GROWNUPS ffs. It’s not about finding people you match, it’s about finding networks of individuals prepared to engage with you as an equal.

(And for the record, I am not interested in experiences of virginity loss because I am concerned about my own experiences and whether they’re ‘normal’, or in fact in the existence of ANY ‘normal’ when it comes to sexuality – nor am I backward in exploring this and related topics with friends and lovers and partners (rather the reverse, in fact.) Like many others, I suspect, I’m…basically nosy. I’m interested in human diversity and the impact of culture on intimate experience and how other people negotiate vulnerability and desire. I and my ilk may be in the minority, but assuming I don’t exist or patronising me is…really NOT a helpful way to go.)

There’s an ongoing dichotomy in Losing It between some pretty sensible statements and the methodology that ensues.

‘I discovered that the definition of virginity loss is a deeply personal issue. It can be defined in any number of ways, largely depending on how we feel.’

‘Even today, our benchmark for definitions struggles to move with the times and establish a more all-encompassing view of intercourse [than PIV] and, ultimately, of virginity loss?[…] What constitutes ‘sex’ for one person might mean something very different for someone else.’

‘The passage of time changed the way that people perceived their virginity loss. Definitions were not carved in stone.’

‘I knew that I didn’t want to present a homogenised, two-dimensional view of virginity loss. I wanted every sector of society to be represented in all their shapes, sizes and permutations.’

[This last – to my recollection there is only one gay man in the book and one bisexual lady, although several contributors with disabilities, for which Munro gets points.)

With all of which I can most heartily concur. Human sexuality is infinitely various! Everyone gets to define and interpret their own experiences! There is no single heteronormative definition! So why, why, in the name of all that’s holy, conclude an interesting chapter containing various definitions and viewpoints with ‘Despite the contrasting viewpoints of my interviewees, most people in the street, and in fact most people in this book, will tell you that they lost their virginity when they first had penetrative sex. In the ‘traditional’ sense [no, it’s really not clear what she means here, especially given the discussion of hymens earlier where one girl ‘lost her virginity’ falling onto the crossbar of a bike], virginity loss is a physical experience and most of us know exactly when it has happened.’

Why? Why do this? Why spend a whole chapter discussing the variety of perception of virginity loss, and then narrow it down? Similarly, why then spend the beginning of the *next* chapter discussing the ‘historical’ emphasis on female virginity [which I am not disputing, I am partly a c17th feminist academic ffs] and then coming out with *this* little gem, which annoyed me sufficiently that I am writing this *whole goddamn post* because of it:

A woman is more physically vulnerable than a man. [As an unusually small woman, I’m not necessarily in a position to dispute this in an average/wider sense; however its specific application here is HUGELY problematic.] Our anatomy is such that the loss of virginity [note how heteronormative her definition has become here, in direct contradiction to – eg. – the gay dude from the last chapter who defined his virginity loss as oral] requires us to allow another human being into our bodies for the very first time. You cannot alter the dynamics of that exchange any more than you can stop night from becoming day. Losing virginity for a woman requires a level of trust that a man does not have to heed, whichever way you look at it.’

Let’s just take a moment here for me to sink my head into my hands, before returning to enumerate all the many, many ways in which this is utter crap.

Okay. 1) The idea of PIV as ‘penetration’ of a passive female orifice by an active male phallus is a CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION. The ‘dynamics of that exchange’ are CULTURALLY dictated and constructed. There is a famous feminist essay about how different the Western concept of sexuality would be if we continually conceptualised PIV as ‘enclosure’ rather than ‘penetration.’ It makes a very, very good point.

2) we would not have a millennia of cultural imagery of vagina dentata, masculine engulfment, monstrous births, etc, if the placing of a sensitive part of one’s body inside another human being (one with the potential to change and mutuate, cf. centuries of cultural imagery of the changeable feminine) was not also *inherently vulnerable*, and equally so.

3) What about non-PIV types of sex, regardless of the gender of the participants? What about gay or bi men doing oral and anal? What about lesbians or bisexual women who lost their virginity to a lady? What about genderqueer people, or people who prefer non-penetrative sex, or who can’t have penetrative sex for various reasons? What about kink? Why posit such a narrow, problematic, exclusionary definition of virginity loss and then suggest that *by its very nature* the power dynamics involved only flow one way, when this is so markedly and noticeably BY YOUR OWN EVIDENCE not the case at all?

4) why entirely erase women’s sexual agency? A few sentences after, Munro continues ‘”I was very much the driving force,” says Sherrie, but in the end, this is only ever a subjective type of control and an unspoken agreement of trust that exists between two people. Any victim of date rape will confirm this.’ So, essentially, even when both participants in a sexual act perceive their power dynamics one way, you and your not-culturally-influenced-at-all omniscience get to swoop down and redefine them? What makes your perceptions more valid than theirs? What about situations (such as those you’ve described) where participants share a gender, or a woman is physically larger and more powerful than a man? What about male victims of date rape? Why can women not own and express their desire and perform an active, initiatory role in sex? Why is all that meaningless in the face of your unthinking replication of problematically binarist constructions of gender to which there are so many counterexamples we may as well all give up and go home?

Anyway, this whole line of rhetoric comes along with hugely problematic, despair-inducing binarist thinking. I here quote the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3:

If you had asked me when I began this project if I thought men would have the patience or the motivation to sit down and talk to a stranger about their virginity loss experiences, I would have said you were quite mad. I was wrong…We women like to think that we differ from men emotionally as much as we do anatomically. I beg to differ.

…Women talk to each other the whole time. We understand each other’s worlds because we have a constant, comfortable dialogue with one another  but, in my experience, men don’t generally share this fluidity…as I delved into the minds of the opposite sex, it became apparent that men have had to change and it hasn’t always been easy. Furthermore, they were more adept at talking about it than we ever give them credit for.

And then, immediately after this supposed revelation that ZOMG MEN CAN TALK ABOUT THEIR FEELINGS AND EXPERIENCES LIKE THEY’RE PEOPLE:

Women are so much better equipped to deal with flux…Women are built to flex and change in a world that’s flexing and changing. They have an advantage in the modern world that doesn’t come naturally to most men.

Has it not occurred to the author at any point that these ‘natural differences’ she continually refers to and reinforces may be the result of social conditioning, and it is this that’s broken, not the changes in the modern world or men’s place within it? We are not built to do anything, ffs, and I’d be surprised if she was even considering trans women there given the amount of time she spends conflating body parts with gender elsewhere. Yes, I like the author am a cis woman, yes I have a uterus, but that doesn’t make me ‘built’ to do anything other than carry children (and actually, in my particular case, not that so much at all.) Stop conflating physical characteristics (that vary hugely across all genders, actually) with social roles or psychological aptitudes or thought processes that vary from individual to individual. All this ‘men don’t talk about stuff’ nonsense. Surely that varies from, well, person to person?  Cultural environment to cultural environment? Socialisation to socialisation? There are stories IN THIS VERY BOOK that illustrate that such supposedly ‘natural’ differences develop as a result of environment or choice or circumstance – why spend pages trying to shoehorn them into a gender essentialist framework that doesn’t fit? Yes, patriarchy and assumed gender roles hurt men as well as women and others – so why adopt them, instead of saying that and then letting everyone be people?

And finally, SPEAK FOR YOURSELF. Possibly because I’ve never made the blanket assumption that anybody male-identified is completely incapable of having an in-depth personal, emotional or psychological conversation, I have a wide variety of male friends (and, currently, a male partner) with whom I discuss mental health, sexual history, relationships, feelings, body issues and all the rest of the bullshit that comes with contemporary western culture. I’ve NEVER ‘liked to think that I differ from men emotionally as much as we do physically’ (AND HOW FUCKING TRANS/QUEER ERASING IS THAT?) because I have always felt that EVERYBODY IS PEOPLE, and therefore has a unique and interesting experience of the world and of all these things. Can you not see that continually assuming that men can’t and/or don’t want to talk about things or be flexible or domestic or any of the other examples you cite as feminine contributes to a cultural environment where they have to struggle to do so? Can you not see that this is a problem and you are contributing? Did you learn NOTHING from the immense variety of stories even in this book, let alone the hundreds of others on the blog?

If somebody who genuinely thinks they’re challenging the status quo spends this much time reinforcing it, I despair.

So, in a radical move born of semi-unemployment, accidental residence at my lovely boyfriend’s house in Sheffield, a twenty-year history of being a filthy goff and an obsession with Tilda Swinton, I went to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive yesterday. Although I might miss this afternoon for the sake of writing this review, the chances of me seeing it again every day this week are pretty goddamn high. A window into the erudite worlds of vampire lovers Eve and Adam – yes, really – as they reunite, it is one of the most beautiful films I can think of, both visually (all glowing colours and warm wood and gleaming musical instruments and the unfeasible human perfection of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddlestone) and musically (oh god the SOUNDTRACK. I’m still wet).

They so pretty

They so pretty

Living separately despite their centuries-old attachment – Adam a reclusive rock    musician in downtown Detroit, attended only by human (‘zombie’) fixer Ian, and Eve  in Tangier Old Town, surrounded by books, music, people, and the equally undead  Renaissance playwright Kit Marlowe – Adam’s ongoing despair at the antics of the  human race brings Eve to his side, only for her troublesome younger sister Ava to  take in upon herself to visit. Such a summary makes it sound much more plot-driven  than is actually the case; one of the absolute joys of this film, to me at least, was the  impression it leaves of momentary immersion in the dreamy stasis of these  intellectual and emotionally aware lives.

My enthusiasm is not to be taken as unequivocal ideological endorsement. To my inexpert and white-privileged eyes, it’s pretty problematic racially – it’s possible to read a subtext of white supremacy, given that all the vampires are white and beautiful and superhuman and the only POC with an actual character is Balil, Kit Marlowe’s carer and implied subordinate (he addresses Kit as ‘Teacher’, and demurs when the latter suggests he is a fine writer ‘in his own right’.) There are POC around, it’s not whitewashed, but in Tangier Tilda Swinton’s distinction from the population and culture of Tangier is used to establish her otherness from humanity as a whole; there are uncomfortable white intellect/racially othered body echoes here. I’m not sure about the racial background of Ian, Adam’s human friend/servant, but he’s at least part white. So this is not an unequivocal endorsement. But there is enough about the film I found genuinely good as well as beautiful to write this as well as staring at Tom Hiddlestone in nothing but leather trousers and ohgod Tilda Swinton several times this week.

Did i mention they were pretty?

Did i mention they were pretty?

For a start, this is the first vampire film I’ve seen that makes a pretty decent stab at  conveying the emotional and intellectual consequences and rewards of living for  multiple centuries. No screaming, murdering, adolescent Anne Rice-type antics here,  for the protagonists at least, although Adam’s unfeasibly cheekboned and soulful  sadness comes poetically close to stereotype. (But it’s a stereotype I find sexy, so  shoot me). Intentionally or otherwise, Ava, Eve’s destructive little sister, works as  both snide commentary on and a nod to typical film vampires – pretty, melodramatic,  murderous, heedless and self-indulgent with no thought for consequence despite her   age. Both Eve and Adam, in contradistinction, are immersed in learning and creating music and art. Adam’s house contains instruments dating back centuries and we are introduced to him through his astute and accurate knowledge of the minutiae of music instrument manufacture. Eve is multilingual, surrounded by books, and continually receptive to and appreciative of her surroundings and her companions, her interests ranging from art and architecture to the unexpected appearance of a particular fungus. Her intellectual curiosity, like Adam’s musical creativity, is relentless. It’s made mischeviously clear that Kit Marlowe, too, has sustained himself over the centuries by writing many an acclaimed masterpiece, from the works of Shakespeare onward. Only the parasitic Ava refuses to learn, from empathy or from art.

To be fair, in its litany of references and apparent erudition Only Lovers could legitimately be accused of both intellectual snobbery and pretension – it namechecks musicians of all eras, literary figures, Detroit history, musical production techniques, various flora and their Latin names – but the sheer existence of any intellectual dimension renders it both unusual and compelling in the context of contemporary mainstream cinema. Admittedly, I am plenty enough of an overeducated pretentious snob myself to absolutely relish the allusions I get and the suggestion of intelligent consideration in areas outside my field. (If anything, it jars somewhat when the significance of Christopher Marlowe is underlined for those less attuned to such matters than I). Fortunately, Lovers looks good enough to provide plenty to appreciate for those more visually inclined. And let’s be honest, how many films portray a woman’s intellect as something to be celebrated and part of her appeal? Particularly outside some kind of homosocial rivalry scenario? No punishment, criticism or curtailment? Eve is just…clever, for the joy of it, and that alone would be radical and unusual enough to get me. But further, the clear implication is that music and art give joy and meaning to these long lives; that centuries of existence bring one irrevocably either to the creation and sustainment of knowledge and beauty or to ruin and destruction, and that the choice is made consciously and continually. Above all, Eve and Marlowe are wise, accepting of their choices and their fate; although Adam, slightly younger, struggles with the human folly to which the others have become inured and tolerant, amused and accepting, he still turns to music and to his lover as sources of salvation.

only lovers left alive 4

You see, they’re cute as well as pretty

And that’s another thing. Eve and Adam is one of the first portrayals of a functional,  loving, understanding relationship based on knowledge of self and other I’ve seen  for a very long time. They plainly adore one another – constantly touching,  glancing, recognising – and even their dialogue when separated rings with trust and  awareness. They tease and quip and riff off one another. Incongruous use of archaic  endearments – ‘my liege lord’, murmurs Eve – may be jarring but underlines the  extent to which their bond is based on the constancy of centuries. In countless other  films the arrival of a difficult sibling and unpleasant situations would be the catalyst  for tension between the central couple, probably before a posited split and difficult and emotional resolution. Not here. Even at Ava’s most awful they are united, Adam accepting (however unwillingly) Eve’s desire to care for her sister, Eve understanding his dislike. Adam’s suicidal impulses disturb and distress Eve but she does not condemn, rather offering herself and her rather different perspective in some sort of mitigation. In marked contradistinction to the majority of cinema couples – because narrative equals tension, right? – they are unfailingly calm with one another, interested in one another, aware of the other’s needs and wishes even when these diverge. In crisis, whether disposing of a body, dying of thirst or booking a plane, they act unthinkingly in concert, their movements rhythmic and reflective of one another. As a result, the film as a whole feels not like a story so much as a depiction of a constant but ever-changing state – these characters who have met and parted thousands of times over the centuries, and loved each other throughout.

You see? They're THIS cool.

And besides, they’re THIS cool.

For all its opulent mise-en-scene and attention to minutiae, Lovers is commendably non-flashy. There’s very little gore (in marked contradistinction to, say, Interview with the Vampire or Blade) and much greater focus is placed on the vampires’ intellectual superpowers (such sensitive fingers they can age an artefact perfectly) than the strength and lightning reflexes that appear only fleetingly, and all the more impactful for that. Again, the intellectual and emotional is given much more weight than any superficial superpower, and yet in their beauty and their passion and their power these vampires are infinitely more seductive than anything Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt managed to rustle up. Talking of seductive, oh lord Eve and Adam are gorgeous, especially together – their pallor, Eve’s shock of white hair against Adam’s dark curls. And they can DRESS. It feels like cheating, this film – it’s like porn specifically produced to cater to my tastes without any actual sex. All the old books and music everywhere, the lovely old antique clothes and deserted houses, the taking-oneself-dreadfully-seriously of it all. But it’s just about clever and funny and well-made enough to carry it off. Which is sort of the point – its self-awareness, not least about the emptiness of the vampire clichés it’s bouncing off. If all that melodrama is missing, what’s left? Feeling, it appears, and thought. Which is the point. To me, it’s as much a film about the constant value of intellectual and emotional awareness – and love and care – as it is a ‘vampire movie’. All the latter does is shift the scale a bit. The film’s pacing – lingering and rhythmic, dizzying and direct by turns – reflects the cumulative intellectual and emotional depth of its characters’ experiences, the camera’s attention to detail and outline reflective of the imagined reality of a life lived over centuries, in instead of under the shadow of death. On such a scale, it suggests, what matters is awareness, love and care and art and creation, not drama and death, and that’s as seductive a suggestion as can be.

Image  —  Posted: February 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

This review appears in this month’s Marylebone Journal, but they’ve taken the book reviews off the website, and I think the issues matter – so:

I’ve never had a huge amount of time for high fashion, or Vogue and its ilk, and so Kirstie Clements’ memoir of her twenty-five years at Australian Vogue (thirteen as editor) was probably never going to really impress me with its glamour and excitement. The ostentatiously glitzy lifestyle (international travel! expensive restaurants! champagne! chandeliers! jewellery!) and lavish events costing millions of pounds for products that often never make the market I find faintly nauseating rather than enticing. We live in a world where millions are dying in poverty and you expect me to read about the roller disco held in a spaceship specially built in a Tokyo park without raising a cynical eyebrow as to how the money could have been better spent? Good luck with that.

Lest such an opening seem uncharitable, let me point out now that Kirstie’s trajectory is fascinating, her writing engaging and humorous, and the self she presents likable and attractively direct. Her detemination and commitment to fashion journalism with intelligence and integrity is not in doubt. But if there’s one thing that comes out of Vogue Factor, it’s how monumentally, utterly fucked up the fashion industry and its assorted hangers-on are – and by extension, it’s difficult to absolve Clements of her dedication to its perpetuation. If you know your models are exhausted from starvation and spend half their time as in-patients, stop using them. Instead of wailing about how you can’t do that because the sample sizes designers send are minescule (to the extent that in one particularly shocking anecdote a ‘fit model’ to whom samples are cut spent most of her time in hospital on a drip), showcase the work of other designers who make clothes for human beings. You’re Vogue, create the damn market – you have the platform, and your readers have the demand. The repeated excuse that clothes ‘don’t hang right’ off non-skeletal bodies does not, to me, suggest the employment of anorexic twelve-year-olds to ensure the requisite proportions, but that designers should damn well learn to cut clothes for healthy bodies, and the ‘industry standard’ should be some approximation of physically functional. You know, girls with breasts who menstruate.  It’s really, really hard to come away from the Vogue Factor not raging – and although Kirstie details  her ‘horror’ at the shattering levels of body dysmorphia amongst her colleagues and her ‘complicity’ in what ‘the industry was covering up’, that doesn’t let her off the hook for allowing the ‘fashion department’ on whom she blames the obsession with thin to have their way, issue after issue. She details the slide from showcasing ‘a healthy, toned Australian [or UK] 10’ to permanently dieting, skeletal girls who acquired ‘mood swings, extreme fatigue, binge eating and sometimes self-harming’ to replace their lost kilos, and her ban on models under 16 – and a single fashion shoot with a size 14 model – really don’t seem to cut the metaphorical mustard in terms of combating the problem. Even Vogue’s much-vaunted 2012 Health Initiative – banning models under 16 or those suffering from eating disorders – seems somewhat like using a sticking plaster to stem a brain haemorrhage, all the more so given that, as Kirstie says, the ‘no eating disorders’ bit is incredibly difficult to police. (And, one would imagine, difficult to enforce when fashion houses are using regularly-hospitalised anorexic patients to dictate their clothing sizes.)

The Vogue Factor is a stimulating, fascinating read, and if you’re interested in the real-life experience of a jetsetting lifestyle full of free luxury and socialising with royals, Gwyneth Paltrow and Armani, it’s probably a godsend. But by far the most notable aspect of the book is the terrible price we as a culture pay for fashion – and no amount of glamour is ever really going to cover that up.

So, I wrote a review of the excellent DoubleR Club at London Wonderground. Its charming and aberrant host, Mr Benjamin Louche, wrote an eloquent response. Here is my reply.

Hello! I am the reviewer who wrote the piece that prompted this – and I am flattered and pleased that you considered it important enough to respond to so eloquently. Part of the reason why I do the job I do is because it enables precisely this kind of dialogue, and I hope it’s clear both from the original review and this response that I am in general a huge fan of the DoubleR, I love your work, and most of the things about the show I think are great and challenging/unsettling/disturbing in good ways.

A few things, though, in response. Most importantly for the sake of everyone’s integrity, I absolutely was not in any way accusing you of exploiting the dancers, the performers or anyone else – nor, for the record, am I accusing the performers of being cultural dupes enslaved to oversexualised feminine norms, or some suchlike. They are all, regardless of gender, obviously very talented, hardworking and self-determined people in control of their performances and their actions, and fair play to them, say I. Whilst the point of the review was that I was particularly interested in and impressed by those acts that deliberately challenged and subverted traditional gender assumptions, that certainly does not constitute the implication either that the performers have no autonomy or that they were being exploited.

Relatedly, and I suspect fundamentally to this discussion, I very deliberately did not accuse you of misogyny. If I meant that, I’d’ve said it; I have many faults as a reviewer and as a human being, but a lack of directness isn’t one of them. Nor did I submit a review drenched in invective to TIC only to be instructed to tone it down; rather the reverse, in fact. I deliberately didn’t use the term misogyny, both because I don’t think (as you point out) it’s justified or necessary in this particular case, and also ‘misogyny’ is a big, ugly, many-headed cultural monster, about many more, varied, different things from the ‘funamental…concern with narratives of female victimhood’ that I wanted to discuss in this particular instance. Saying Lynch is concerned with narratives of female victimhood is fairly difficult to dispute, but that does not necessarily equate to an accusation of misogyny – it’s always in how the tale is told. There are any number of ways to explore female victimhood, many of them interesting, troubling, subversive, critical, ultimately empowering or culturally challenging ones, and I’m not sure I’d even define Lynch as misogynistic, let alone the DoubleR – I think it’s a bit more complicated that that, and if I’m honest I’m not sure my knowledge of Lynch is sufficiently encyclopaedic to come to a truly informed judgement. My point was, simply, that as a female audience member, I would like to see more acts that take those narratives of female victimhood and undermine them, subvert them, play with them, problematise them, discuss them – as some of the Double-R acts I mentioned clearly did. If it comes down to ‘well, if Lynch did it, it’s good enough for us’, then fair enough – but as I hope the last line of my review implied, I love the DoubleR, I love your work, and I think you’re in a really good position to discuss this stuff as well as recreate it.

To move onto some more specific points:

‘’ Lynch: “[P]eople have an idea that Dorothy [in Blue Velvet] was Everywoman, instead of being just Dorothy. That’s where the problem starts. If it’s just Dorothy, and it’s her story – which it is to me – then everything is fine … When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities.”

I’ve never come across that quote before, but I find it a bit disingenous (and problematically like Stephanie Meyer defending Twilight: If there are a billion different stories and possibilities, and you (general you, not ‘you Mr Louche’!) **always choose the ones in which women are victimised, dismissed, exploited, violated or otherwise subject to various forms of cultural violence**, then I reserve the right to question and dislike your choices.

Your piece said: ‘it’s worth noting I think that while it’s true the victims in Lynch’s work are invariably female, so the purveyors of evil are invariably men, or male manifestations of evil’.

I actually wasn’t aware that the latter aspect there was the case. I think I’d vaguely assumed that evil could have many faces but the victims were almost universally female. (If there are female or androgynous perpetrators of violence or evil in Lynch’s work, acts based on those would go a long way to answer the criticisms in my review, for reference! But I’m not an expert.)

‘I’m not convinced Lynch is suggesting that all men are evil any more than he’s suggesting that all women are victims.’ – I would hope not, in either case, although i wouldn’t claim sufficient expertise to say for certain. I didn’t mean to imply that all Lynch’s women were victims, and i’m pretty sure I never said that – I simply meant that for the most part Lynch’s victims were women. For the sake of authenticity I’d assumed there are a few characters of both genders who are just, y’know, people, manifestations of nightmare, hidden facets of the human character, neither evil *nor* victims.

Lynch: “The worst thing about this modern world is that people think you get killed on television with zero pain and zero blood. It must enter into kid’s heads that it’s not very messy to kill somebody, and it doesn`t hurt that much. That’s a real sickness to me. That’s a real sick thing.”So, if you are to deal with such subjects (and Lynch does and therefore so do we) theyshould make the audience feel uneasy.

‘Violence against women in Lynch’s work is often explicit and difficult to watch, but shouldn’t it be? To portray it in any other way surely diminishes its impact and therefore its horror. Take away the horror from violence and you’re left with something like Tarantino’s execrable Kill Bill, which plays like the bloodier scenes from Monty Python but without the laughs.’

That’s precisely my point. Traumata’s performance, which iirc immediately preceded the dancing bloody girls number, was uncomfortable, disturbing and brilliant precisely because it drew attention to and called into question the ways in which the traumatised, violated or otherwise damaged female body is used for a variety of purposes in popular culture. Her bleeding and inferred pain wasn’t easy or comfortable, but clever and disturbing – explicit, and difficult to watch. Not to cast aspersions on the excellent dancing of the women concerned, or their autonomous engagement in the matter, following that with some undoubtedly talented dancers who happened to be covered in (obviously fake, in contrast) blood and displayed no other signs of the consequences of violence *did* diminish the impact of assumed violence or violation. Having read your explanation:

Additionally, “the writhing blood-covered girl dancers” we saw as more threatening than superficially sexy; whether they were resurrected dead girls, or the dreamselves of girls trapped in some nightmare, or figments of the nightmare itself, the idea sprang initially from wanting to illustrate the Fred Madison-like sax appearing in the song being sung. A horrific Lost Highway-like hallucination.

…then yes, that makes sense; but at least to myself and my (female) companion, that certainly wasn’t the impression we received  – from our perch at the side of the stage, we saw no threatening behaviour or suggestion, rather a kind of, well, sexy dancing often objectified in popular culture and  common in music videos and suchlike, whose performers happened to be covered in blood. It certainly didn’t explore or demonstrate the experience of violence or its control in the way the previous performance (entirely commendably) had, or (as you say) Snake Fervor’s went on to do, or even feel particularly uneasy – simply, in context, a bit inappropriate.

‘Acts that were, I think, unfairly mischaracterized in the review in pursuit of something upon which to hang the term misogyny, were those of Hotcake Kitty, Sabrina Sweepstakes and Snake Fervor.’

I never used the term misogyny, very deliberately. Just for the record. Any hanging there is yours, not mine!

Some of that is simply difference in interpretation – I think it’s possible for Hotcake’s Audrey, for example, to be in control of her sexuality *and* giving a fairly traditional innocence to experience narrative which I would feel more challenged and engaged by were it more subversive, but that isn’t to reflect negatively on the quality of her performance, and I fight quite shy of discussing Sabrina Sweepstakes’ nudity and its sexuality or otherwise in detail because it feels disrespectful to the performer concerned – original and highly skilled, certainly. Again, I never used the term ‘misogyny’, much less suggest it was ‘used to dictate the order of the day’. I think the word I used was ‘ambiguous’ – eg, open to multiple interpretations – and ‘hmmm’ genuinely wasn’t sarcastic, but intended to signal thought. I can see how that itself might have come over ambiguous, though!

‘Snake Fervor told us that she dreamed up her act while in hospital following a serious performance injury: “[I] picked my character for that act because she was tortured and traumatised. I could relate to her when I was lying in hospital injured, and I wanted to create an act that made the audience feel uncomfortable” adding “It’s not a glittery, prissy, let’s all leave smiling and happy show.” Snake’s last point I think speaks directly to the nature of The Double R and what we have tried to create from day one. It is not the usual ‘happy-clappy-wall-to-wall’ frivolity of many cabaret shows. Its very aim is, while entertaining, to unsettle, wrong-foot and disorientate its audience, to amaze, amuse and yes, sometimes arouse you; but also to show you things that may, to quote my ridiculous signature hyperbole “scare you beyond the capacity for rational thought.”

My point was that there were more ways to unsettle, wrong-foot and disorientate an audience than those referencing female trauma – i would be totally up for some acts featuring women as perpetrators, gender-bending, reversal of expectation, gender ambiguity, turning the tables. I didn’t accuse you of misogyny and I didn’t accuse you of exploitation – my point was you do great stuff, maybe mix it up a little, including in terms of gender. And I stand by that.

Posted: November 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

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...a can opener in a worm factory...

trigger warnings for misogyny, violence, sexual violence, general kyrarcial bullshit

That I don’t know how to start this post is somehow part of its point. Prompted by recent online discussion of feminists covering or reinterpreting misogynist works of art, I wanted to talk about the multiple intersections between sexuality, (potentially gendered) violence in my head, and the artistic and cultural representations thereof. But those intersections are so various, the layers of influence and response and impulse and connection so intertwined, that it’s tricky toknow where to begin. Perhaps, in accordance with outdated tradition/hidebound convention, with my personal beginnings.

A lot of the art and music and visual media I grew up with, and formed my identity from and around and through, has problematic sociocultural constructions in there somewhere. Certainly I’m not the only one who finds a clash of ideals difficult sometimes , and I’m probably not even the only…

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The Femfresh ads scattered all over London have been annoying me for a while, with their relentless insistence that ‘loving your la-la’ (translation: looking after – because ‘loving’ means ‘looking after’ for women, obviously – your genitalia) equates to buying a specific product whose sales are obviously down and who’re therefore going on a huge marketing campaign to convince us that yet another aspect of the female body is unacceptable without having money thrown at it. Complete with relentlessly false joviality and a litany of ridiculous euphemisms, it’s a one-way train to seething incandescent rage at the pressures contemporary culture and the forces of capitalism put on women to continually focus on manipulating tiny details of their bodies to perceive themselves acceptable rather than, eg, taking over the world. Nowhere is it implied that possibly ‘woo-hoo for your froofroo’ (really) might consist of, eg, having really good sex, learning about one’s own desires, masturbation, not feeling under pressure to behave physically in any particular way, conducting your sex life in whatever way maximises your own personal fulfillment (however that may be achieved), or even (FSM forbid!) simply wearing comfy boypants rather than a lacy thong, rather than purchasing a scented was you had no idea you needed until 5 minutes ago. Sure, maybe some shower gels irritate genital skin, but some shower gels irritate my skin full stop, and I took the revelatory measure of *not using those ones*. Shocking, huh? Personally speaking, I shower 2 or 3 times a day (swimmer, sorry), with or without shower gel, and am lucky enough to have a fantastic, healthy and fulfilling sex life. I suspect my genitalia are about as a) hygienic and b) ecstatic as they’re likely to get without immediate manual assistance, and even were this not the case, I’m damn sure a new concoction of chemicals with which to wipe my cunt wouldn’t quite match up to multiple orgasm.

Even more irritating, therefore, is the special ‘promotion’ in September’s Cosmo. Just for the fuck of it, here’s a breakdown of why it pisses me off.:

‘Any Cosmo girl will tell you that knowing how to party, looking good and taking care of our bodies improves our overall confidence’. Because using a genital wash = partying, obviously. Jesus. It doesn’t appear to occur to anyone that confidence could conceivably work the other way round, that confident women spend less time obsessing over minute details of their appearance as instructed by Cosmo.

59% of women spend most time on their faces, with only 2.7% spending an equivalent length of time on their genitals. Well no, really? Apart from anything else, surely a significant proportion of Cosmo readers apply make-up daily, which obviously takes some time. Not to mention that the face is constantly exposed, and so the continuous round of cleanse/tone/moisturise women are supposed to engage in (oops, yet again I fail at femininity…) has at least some logical justification. The implication that somehow we should be lavishing equivalent attention on our cunts is just mystifying. Who for? Mine feels quite comfortable untoned, thank you. And what lover actually wants a mouthful of moisturiser or scented wash if they’re going down on you? Don’t cunts taste hot? It’s not like vaginal secretions can be made to taste of anything other than, well, cunt. Possibly, at a pinch (hah!) cunt and lube. Or am I missing something? And by the way, is anyone telling men they need special washes to make their penises acceptable? Serious question, because if so I’ve missed it. How is it fair that women, specifically, are made to feel anxious abt their bodies’ acceptability? I know there’s a vastly increased male grooming market, but please in the name of all that’s holy tell me it hasn’t got as intense and relentless as the feminine equivalent. I may have to kill someone.

Buying product =/= ‘being kind to yourself’. Rinse and repeat.

Not trying to put unrealistic pressure on yourself = being kind to yourself. Are we clear?

I DO NOT HAVE A VA-JAY-JAY. I have a vagina, a cunt, possibly a vulva (i’ve never quite figured out exactly what that is; the word sounds too much like a brand of family car for my comfort. ‘The drive of your life!’), and sometimes a pussy, if the beautiful person I’m with is that way inclined. I certainly do not have anything so absurdly euphemistic as a va-jay-jay, which takes 3x as long to say and is basically a phonetic adaptation of ‘vagina’ with a cutesy ending. (I’ll draw a veil over the rest. Hur hur.) And all the above feel fantastic or otherwise dependent on factors like recent sexual activity and time of the month; I doubt use of any product is likely to change that massively.

46% of women would feel more uncomfortable without washing their faces that without washing their genitalia. Presumably this is because most women do not go out with their genitalia on show, and are more concerned about the comfort or reactions of others than adherence to a rigid washing routine. (I have been known to go straight to the gym without a shower first. Shoot me now.)

Underneath all this are the same problematic, continuous cultural assumptions, viz:

For women, loving = looking after = purchasing specific products. Failure to do so = failure as a woman = failure at life. YOU WILL NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH. Etc.

Women should be concerned about every minute detail of their physical appearance – and here, not only appearance, but self. The entire ad is calculated to trigger anxiety – am I ‘fresh’ enough to be acceptable? Does my nonscented vagina make me unsexy? dirty? repulsive? Am I just not trying hard enough?

And there’s an unpleasant subtext, too: forget working hard at your job, having fun with friends, having a family, building functional relationships, challenging cultural dictates that oppress and annoy you, campaigning for political change – what *really* matters, ladies, is what you wash your cunt with. That’s what you’re *really* judged on, not your words or your actions or your achievements.

Welcome to femininity in the 21st century. Please leave your independence of mind and your natural body at the door.

So, the Millenium trilogy. Like Laurie Penny, bless her fierce little heart, I avoided reading them for a while, ignored the films (which I still haven’t seen, but fully intend to in the nearish future; the following rant therefore should not be taken to apply to them) and eventually picked up Dragon Tattoo on Friday. All credit to Larsson, I’d practically finished it by that evening, which takes some doing since i joined jaded and cynical professional reviewing circles. Pacy and engaging, yes. Fascinating, well-drawn and aspirational heroine, yes. Women on boards of international companies as happy ending, fair enough. Gripping plot that did, yes, hinge in a simplistic sense on ‘Men who hate women’ (although the book’s original title never made it into the English translation – too confrontational, apparently). That such men could be neatly identified by the conveniently symbolic tendency to rape, torture and murder women rather that simply disrespecting or denigrating them in countless small and belittling ways is one thing. But the numerous other ways in which for all their ostentatious claims to feminist credentials, the book/s**  manage to perpetuate damaging tropes bothered me sufficiently to stay up far too late on a school night enumerating them. Viz:

1) Salander is repeatedly describe as ‘anorexic’ or ‘anorexically thin’ despite supposedly eating normally. Whilst this is theoretically possible, not only does it put her in the >0.5% of the population for whom such a body type is compatible with eating normally***, it implicitly reinforces the aspirational nature of thinness and that the exercise of female power is contingent on the possession of a body manifesting the outward signs of extreme self-denial.

2) She then gets a boob job, which made a ‘dramatic difference’ both to ‘her looks’ and ‘her self-confidence’. Because really, if you are a woman, even if you are a hyperintelligent, deadly, enigmatic uberhacker and security genius with a history of autonomous, successful and self-directed violence and chosen promiscuity, really your only source of confidence is your body, and the possession of assets stereotypically used in contemporary culture to attract heterosexual men. Heaven forbid that having miraculously possessing the skinniness and apparent fragility associated with aspirational femininity in contemporary culture, not to mention exceptional physical and mental capacities belying it, a woman might regard the possession of voluptuous breasts as unimportant and be satisfied with her body’s appearance and capabilities. Oh no, the boobs are the thing. Because a small-breasted woman can’t possibly be confident in her skin, any more than a non-skinny one can, so to be an effective aspirational heroine (and love interest for the Mary Sue hero Blomvist) Salander suddenly needs to acquire tits. Good-oh. Anorexically thin and now with extra mammary glandage. Because that bears *no* resemblance to the culturally projected ideal feminine body. God forbid any woman might be satisfied with a non-cartoonishly perfect form, whatever her other attributes (and apparent skills/priorities). Lara Croft here we come.

3) Salander’s weaknesses, like that of every woman (!), is sexuality and emotionality. She (inexplicably, conveniently, self-indulgently on the part of the author) falls for Blomvist/Larsson at the end of the first book, can’t deal with the strength of her feelings and so (implicitly endangering herself) blocks him out of her life; a development repeatedly described in terms of ‘love’ and her awareness of it as her ‘only weakness’. Welcome to millenia, hah, of literary troping, folks. Dido, Cleopatra, the female weakness is love. At least we (presumably) escape her suicide, but (equally presumably) at the expense of Salander eventually adopting Blomvist and acknowledged love for him as her weakness instead, and thus abandoning the selfhood she spent three books struggling to establish.

Further, like every other woman in the books, Salander’s sexuality is where her vulnerability lies. Blomvist aside, she – and they – are repeatedly sexually violated.  Although Salander deals with the first sexual assaults with which we are narratively presented in her own imitiable fashion, by returning the favour with a giant buttplug and tattooing ‘I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST’ across her attacker’s torso, not only does he reappear later in the series in search of revenge, in the next books we get to see her imprisonment and violation by her father and brother. Joy.

4) These scenes of sexual violence increase in detail and voyeurism as we go through the books, as if the depraved and disgusting murders in the first weren’t enough. Once again, as per thousands of years of literary history, from Philomela and Lucretia to TS Eliot, we are presented with violation as some kind of female rite of passage (from which even our ubertough heroine isn’t exempt. In fact, given her defensiveness and passion or privacy, possibly Blomvist’s own attempts to ‘tell her story’ and the centrality of her sexual ictimisation to the stories ‘in the public eye’, it’s possible to figure Salander’s supposed salvation as a very special violation all its own).  In contrast, however, when Blomvist is trapped in the murderer’s lair in the first book, he is saved from rape in the nick of time by Salander herself. So it’s suitable for every woman in the book, possible exception of Berger, but heaven forbid a *man* might be similarly treated.

5) Worse, the series uses the prospect of misogynistic sexual violence as a hook, first to establish and develop Salander’s character and then to form the basis of the central mystery. And depictions of this violence are almost voyeuristic in their intensity. Possibly it’s unfair to blame Larsson for the effectiveness of his writing, but a little more attention to *male* sexual vulnerability wouldn’t come amiss.

6) I’m sure all writers see themselves in their characters to some extent. But Blomvist is so painfully obviously an idealised vesion of Larsson that it’s painful. Not only is he inexplicably irresitible to women (why? how? it doesn’t even fit with his character or behaviour as it is show to us) but from a position of effective inferiority to a powerful and vengeful Salander in the first book, by the last it is he and his writing, not her skills and qualities, that save her from wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Salander’s dynamic, genius, unscrupulous and often almost superhuman, but she still needs Blomvist, both as a companion and as a saviour. She’s ultimately more physically, socially and culturally vulnerable than he is, so he gets to save her. Ultimately, women get raped, even Salander; men get to save them, even Salander.

Social truths, maybe. But to recreate some of the most damaging tropes that have created a culture where ‘men hate women’ in supposed denunciation of it is just lazy. If all men who damaged women did it by raping and murdering them, we could all hate, denounce, fear and revile them. But unfortunately, much of the time the damage is far more insidious – it’s in presenting women’s violation as inevitable (a rite of passage marked by a tattoo ‘as a reminder’?), their subjugation as unavoidable, and their bodies as the only place from which they can properly draw ‘confidence’. It’s in declaring that all men who hate women kill them. It’s in telling women they’ll ultimately need ‘good’ men to be safe from the bad ones.

**I’m only halfway through the 3d, I’ll update should its conclusion miraculously resolve my concerns.
***Deb Burgard, ‘Developing Body Trust: A Body-Positive Approach to Treating Eating Disorders’, Margo Maine, ed. Effective Clinical Practice in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: the Heart of the Matter, Ch.4, p.49.

For those unfamiliar with Jodi Picoult, whether through luck or good judgement, she is ‘Britain’s biggest-selling female novelist‘, who writes contemporary stories of Heartwrenching Moral Dilemma. (Her books’ covers each feature a basic outline of the story in the form ‘scenario – but problem’ with the strapline ‘What Would You Do?’). Her bestselling novel to date is My Sister’s Keeper, made into the 2009 film with Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin. It’s quite openly discussed that she essentially writes the same novel repeatedly; to be fair, as an anonymous person in the publishing industry commented to me ‘it’s a winning formula, why change it?’ (A selection, nay slew, of possible answers to this question will follow.) Anyway, one of her most recent efforts is the charmingly-named Harvesting the Heart, a title whose possible pastoral, affectionate connotations are somewhat undermined by its reference to the surgical process repeatedly performed by its male protagonist. In essence, chronologically, the story runs thus: Paige’s mother leaves when Paige is 5; she grows up in rural Connecticut with her father, and runs away aged 18. She gets a job in a cafe by drawing the proprietor (her Subconscious Psychic Drawing abilities, unintentionally including visual aspects of her subjects’ psyches, is one of the book’s more irritating conceits). There she meets Nicholas, arrogantly handsome trainee heart surgeon and son of Old Money photographic genius Astrid Prescott and her New Money husband Robert. He’s mysteriously drawn to Paige, does a bit of the playing-mah-bitches-off-against-each-other thing with his current girlfriend Rachel (more later), before he and Paige hook up and marry (much to his parents’ displeasure). Paige predictably abandons her dreams of art college in favour of looking after (and helping to fund) Nicholas and (in her early twenties) having his baby. Unsurprisingly, it’s hell; Nicholas works long hours in his relentless clamber to the top, appears to have had his capacity for empathy surgically removed at birth (along with his nascent senses of decency and responsibility, one assumes), and a post-natally-depressed and exhausted Paige abandons them both in favour of seeking out her long-lost mother. Whom, predictably, she finds, via her ex-lover Jake, and returns to camp out outside her house in the attempt to convince Nicholas to let her see her son. Astrid intervenes, Paige continues her relentless shadowing of Nicholas, and when baby Max falls ill, they are reconciled. How sweet.

I’m not quite sure where to start with criticism of this, to be honest. So much, so much is problematic: the abusive nature of the central relationship; that inexplicable American blind doctor-worship (at one stage Paige actually visualises Nicholas as God) ; the harking back to Victorian ideals of women as Angels of the House; unquestioing narratorial acceptance of Nicholas’ self-absorption, selfishess, cruelty and bluster; the underlying endorsement of self-sacrifice as the cardinal female virtue; and above all the poisonous, pernicious insistence that if someone doesn’t love you, all you have to do is keep sacrificing yourself for them long enough and finally they will give in and love you. The same ideal, of love conquering all, that keeps a million women all over the western world in unsatisfactory or abusive or just plain bad relationships; that same endless narrative arc that globalised media feeds us in a thousand different versions every minute of every day. Unhappy? All you need is Love. Being ill-treated? Love will conquer all; Love Them Enough and eventually the remorse (which the majority of abusers alternate with abuse) will win out. Partner won’t listen, won’t acknowledge your needs, mocks you for them? Maybe you’re not trying hard enough, being Loving enough, go back and self-abnegate again. Living in an unjust society? Unhappy with cultural pressures on your body? Unhappy with yourself? Love will make you feel better. If you’re a woman, even grand narratives of ideological struggle are only a backdrop to your (hete)romance. Partnered, but not feeling loved? Then you’re Not Trying Hard Enough. Sure, they may be a selfish inconsiderate jerkwad who disregards your feelings and uses you as domestic-slave-cum(hah!)-whore, but if they won’t acknowledge your needs or help you meet them, don’t leave them in a spirit of good riddance, maybe you’re not Loving Them Enough. Try doing what Paige does: enrol as a volunteer at his workplace, and follow him around all day; then go home when he does and camp on his lawn. As long as you’re doing it for Love – and don’t get me onto the things Picoult’s characters do for maternal love, for maternity is the apotheosis of female affection and destiny – it’ll All Come Right In the End. All men love a doormat, even if they don’t know it yet and you have to spend your whole life doormatting before they realise…

I wouldn’t even mind so much if being wth dickhead Nicholas was the sacrifice; if staying with him was the dramatised Price Paige Has To Pay for closeness to her son ; it would suck big donkey balls, but I suspect it’s a far from alien decision for many women. But that’s precisely the opposite of how her return to him is portrayed: the happy end of a love story, never mind the childish, selfish, vindictive behaviour he’s displayed throughout.

Lest you think I’m overreacting, let me share with you some particularly egregious elements.

  1. Nicholas continually sees – and treats – Paige in relation to himself, refusing to ackowledge or accept elements of her not relevent to him (her drawing, so prevalent in sections of the book when she’s not with Nicholas, disappears whenever they’re together). His reality is all about his perceptions. Examples: ‘She’d said 18, but he couldn’t believe it. Even if she looked old for her age, she couldn’t be a day older than 15’, believing she’s a virgin ‘child-woman’ (without ever asking her) and hitting the roof when he discovered she’d (gasp) not only had sex before him (with her childhood sweetheart, it’s not like she was promiscuous or anything, oh no) but (shock, horror, cue accusations of betrayal) had an abortion, that cardinal female sin. He ‘finds the sound of [her] voice soothing’ without listening to her; the narrative voice further trivialises her words in traditionally misogynist fashion as ‘gossip about the waitresses’.
  2. Paige essentially seduces him through housework, for God’s sake. She does the Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing for a bit, in achingly stereotypical fashion (describing invisible fireworks, walking barefoot after rain, chasing ice cream trucks, ‘act[ing] so much like a kid’, helping him See the Beauty in Everyday Things) then in a completely inexplicable flash (they have’t even fucked at this point, it’s before all the child-woman guff) proposes to her and takes her home. Whilst he goes out to his Important Masculine Work, she bakes him ‘butter cookies’, buys groceries, ‘clean[s] the entire apartment, decorates (‘in one afternoon, Paige had made his apartment resemble any other lived-in apartment’, through the judicious use of throws). When Nicholas comes back, he promises her ‘anything she wants’ – as long as it suits him, of course. If what Paige wants is recogition, indepedence, kindness or empathy, of course, she’s fucked – but never mind, her husband is a famous heart surgeon!
  3. Connectedly: the Angel In the House symbolism: ‘To come home to Paige every day would be a relief. To come home to Paige would be a blessing.’ If there’s a way to make this *more* creepy neo-Victorian – the chaste woman’s function is to stay in the house and create a domestic state to purify the man who goes out to work; her function is to support him, wash away the stains of the sordid Real World; her selfhood is subsumed in his – I can’t find it. How very 21st-century.
  4. To continue with the Creepy Victorian Bullshit theme, Nicholas fetishises Page’s supposed virginity. The first time they have meanigful sexual contact, ”Intact’ he whispered. ‘Perfect’.’ [I’m not joking]. When Paige interjects ‘You don’t understand’, in an admittedly feeble attempt to tell him otherwise, of her previous partner and abortion, he simply asserts ‘Yes I do’ and pulls him alongside her. His concept of her outweighs her objective truth. See point 1.
  5. Rachel. Ohhh, Rachel. When we/Paige first meet Nicholas, he has another girlfriend, who apparently lives, or at least stays a lot, at his apartment, and whom he’s evidently been with long enough for his mother to ask after. All we are told is that she is beautiful, a medical student, and ‘possibly the smartest woman Nicholas had ever met’. The first time he meets Paige, he goes home to her; she then mysteriously disappears, leaving Nicholas to spend time with Paige, and take her home to his parents’. When they are rude to Paige and she (fucking Hallelujah) gets out of his car on the way home, he goes back to Rachel, drags her across the city to the cafe where Paige works, kisses her in front of Paige, and announces to Paige she wants a portrait drawing. Rachel is slightly possessive – she takes Nicholas’s hand in front of Paige – but compared to Nicolas’s later possessiveness over Paige and/or his intentionally sticking his tongue down Rachel’s throat in the doorway of Paige’s workplace, this barely registers on the scale. However, Paige draws a vicious caricature of her, later referring to her as his ‘witch of a girlfriend’ (?!). Nicholas loses Rachel immediately in places and manner unspecified, and then goes back as Paige is closing up, telling her he ‘likes’ her vicious portrait, congratulating her on ‘making me come back’, and again promising her ‘Whatever you want’, then asking her to marry him. In other words, Nicholas cheats on his girlfriend with Paige, is upset by Paige’s quite legitimate hurt at his parents’ dismissal of her, so goes back to her to flaunt her in front of Paige, only to abandon her without a word and go back to propose to Paige. Both Paige and Nicholas appear to blame Rachel entirely; narry an acknowledgement from Nicholas that he was a dick, or the merest hint from Paige that Nicholas’s behaviour may have been a trifle unreasonable, manipulative, selfish, etc. There follows the previous scene highlighting Paige’s domesticity – fuck being the ‘smartest’, girls, or your own career, what you need is a really good recipe for butter cookies, a way with coffee table arrangement and the yen to be a domestic goddess. *slides despairingly down desk to floor *
  6. Just for fun, I went through some online abusive relationship checklists. This one, from the excellent Dragon Slippers (a book I still think should be taught in schools), had Nicholas scoring as abusive on almost every point:

Moving too fast – yep. What with proposing and moving her in on their third meeting and all.

Requiring Paige to give up her dreams – hell yes, a major theme of the book

Insisting his plans are more important than hers – ALWAYS

Being derogatory about her background – yes, especially in front of his fellow doctors, and then getting angry when Paige gets hurt by it *spit*

Being inconsiderate, disrespectful, and putting her down in public – repeatedly

Isolating her from friends and family – a recurring theme. Her having ‘no friends’ and her dependence on him are repeatedly referred to in both their narrations

Illogical incidents of abuse in the middle of bliss – again, repeatedly. Abandoning her after the disasterous visit to his parents’, everything to do with Rachel, see (5) above; repeatedly puttng her down or criticising her for being hurt, see above; unwarranted personal criticisms or refusal to listen or taking her service to him for granted, etc etc

Acting like nothing has happened – YEP

Blaming Paige – yep, see his reaction to her hurt over being humiliated in front of his collegues, her requests for help with childcare, etc etc

Intense unwarranted jealousy – on a couple of occasions

THAT’S 10/13 of the classical signs of abuse. On this quiz (‘Is it love or control?) Nicholas and Paige’s relatonship scored 13/15, with four ‘serious warning’ signs. And those are just the first two I pulled off the net. THIS IS NOT A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP MODEL, LET ALONE A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH TO BRING UP A CHILD.

7) The climactic scenes of the book see Paige camping on Nicolas’s lawn, infiltrating his parents’ house, enrolling as a volunteer at the hospital where he works and following him everywhere…. I repeat,THIS IS NOT A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP MODEL, LET ALONE A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH TO BRING UP A CHILD. 

That any narrative with such destructive emotional elements is being packaged and sold to women as wish fulfilment, or a happy romantic triumph over adversity, makes my blood run cold. That self-sacrifice and the ongoing tolerance of domestic abuse is Paige’s happy ending *twice over* showcases just about *everything* wrong with contemporary (American?) ideals of femininity. It’s like Twilight, but with white coats instead of shiny skin. Go on Jodi, if you’re that good on contemporary cultural dilemmas, *that* willing to engage with ongoing socio/psychological problems…sort it the fuck out? And everyone else, next time you read one of these moral dilemma novels, think about what they’re *really* trying to tell you.