Public ambiguity over “no makeup selfie”…

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Image via Independent

Why was the public so angered or allured by the “no makeup selfie” trend recently? For those of you who missed it, this was legions of girls snapping photos of themselves on their smartphone cameras without any makeup, posted with the hashtag #nomakeupselfie on preferred social media channel and making a donation to a selected cancer charity by text. Participants also publicly nominated other women to do the same. The movement wasn’t started by Cancer Research, the main cancer charity involved, but they received £8 million in six days – and ultimately enough to fund 10 new cancer trials.

Apparently, the “no makeup selfie” people were making the mistake of suggesting that something which requires only as much effort as prodding the screen of your phone and uploading to Instagram was akin to running a marathon or a hosting a bake sale. This apparently insulted cancer sufferers, because not wearing makeup is nothing like losing all of your hair and feeling terrible as a result of chemotherapy (and potentially dying, of course).

While this is serious indeed, many celebrities frequently do idiotic things that are woefully contradictory, and no one has actually said that not wearing makeup is analogous to the physical changes caused by cancer treatments. When all the men grow moustaches, no one accuses them of comparing it to the experience of prostate cancer or losing a testicle, and letting hair grow is at least as little effort as going bare-face.

At first, I wanted to understand what had led some people to lampoon this sensational trend, cast aspersions, or others to embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s undeniable that the whole thing can teach charities a lot about the fundraising potential of social media.

I toyed with the idea of suggesting that the reason so many people posted a no makeup selfie (with or without donating to a cancer charity) is because it appeals to our sense of vanity. It engaged our obsession with constant sharing and comparing: the glut of digital stimulation that has so distinctly pervaded our lives in the last twenty years. I was going to make some kind of comment about modern life, but I lost interest in that idea.

So much of what we absorb, especially if we inhabit the thinking sphere – with its higher education, broadsheet newspapers and political engagement – is judging the wider collective for a perceived slide into nihilistic retardation. We wring our hands and insist that people are so apathetic and easily entertained that they will mindlessly gorge on whatever is slopped in front of them – whether that’s a smart phone, a widescreen television, juicily exposed flesh or extra-large french fries.

When making these judgments, to be found in the columns of newspapers, magazines and personal blogs, this collective never includes ourselves.

We frequently say, “Everyone is obsessed with fiddling with their smartphones, even whilst in company… Isn’t it sad to see those couples sitting together not talking to each other? I hope we never get like that-” even while our own partner’s eyes glaze over as we launch into full rant.

It’s never us struggling with our weight and consuming too much fried chicken. We’re the ones smugly scoffing sushi and looking down our noses at people who might actually just be doing something because they enjoy it, and thinking rapturously, “Fuck my health!” Maybe.

The complaint most grating on me right now is: “digitisation is spreading like a noxious weed and ruining our lives! If we don’t curtail the rampant dissemination of technology into the very womb, then childhood itself will crumble. Children won’t be able to tell the difference between a cat and a pokémon!”

We argue that people don’t talk to each other anymore because it’s much easier to be entertained by the electronic device constantly attached to our persons. I wonder how much more accurate it would be to suggest that those people never really liked each other that much in the first place.

Perhaps the public isn’t as easily swayed by the behemoth forces of modern life as we might suggest when we’re feeling a sense of moral superiority over others. Maybe people, just like they always have, sometimes want to talk to each other and other times, they’re frankly bored with the conversation.

Maybe the no makeup selfie is not a sign that superficial vacuous celebrities (and their homunculi, the popular girls at school who can now digitally lord their superiority over you directly to your own home) are taking over the once-sacred charity world, with its “innate” moral purity. It could actually be that vain girls and celebrities are doing what they often do: glorifying themselves in mildly inappropriate settings.

Criticising human weakness is a way for many of us to shore up our own egos. Whether it’s snootily mocking someone for spending too much time on their phone, being selfishly materialistic or posting self-obsessed Facebook status updates, we love to look down on the superficiality of others.

The world of charity is a bastion for people who want to feel superior about themselves. I work in this sector and I love it, but I do sometimes feel a creeping sense that I could justify thinking of myself as morally superior because I’m working towards the greater good of humanity – even if I may only anticipate a disappointingly-average maximum salary.

We were angry because the no makeup selfie was narcissism masquerading as philanthropy, and it had infiltrated the charity community. Ostensibly, the charity world is earnest, other-focused and lacking in coiffed glamour, but the no makeup selfie smacked of contrived artificiality. Some people tried to say they were angry because the phenomenon indicated that people have become especially egotistical and superficial as a result of the spread of social media.

I think there is probably the same number of vain people now as before the birth of Twitter and Facebook – it’s simply that they now have a much more public outlet for self-expression.

We’ll always find something to panic us and complain about, all the while feeling smug that we’re not a part of it. In reality, sometimes people choose to do nice, good things and, lots of the time, they don’t. I choose to believe that, most of the time, people aren’t corrupted by social decay but are making a conscious, sometimes shallow choice – whether that’s taking a photo of themselves and posting it on the internet or growing a moustache for Movember. Image

What’s in a name?

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This blog post has taken a long time to write. I’ve been thinking about it, but starting a new job and finding a new housemate do eat away time.

So, what’s in a name? I thought of this post because I read Heather Long’s article about Greek women being legally bound to keep their maiden name rather than adopting their husband’s moniker. She ends with a typically ‘progressive’ conclusion that we are 30 years behind Greek legislation and should give women more legal options to choose their own name.

The issue of naming makes me realise how far we’ve come, and how antiquated traditions really throw this progress into relief.

I’ve always carried around the name Heath, but over the years it took on a different hue.

First it was just my family name, though my parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember so it never represented marriage to me. They finally parted ways when I was ten and just as I started university my mum got remarried, resulting in her shedding the name ‘Heath’. We don’t talk to my father any more so now it’s just my sisters and me, all sharing a name.

I sometimes feel like my name is imbued with a past long gone. Family days out are no longer, and never will be again – yet I have no desire to eradicate my identity with the name of a distant future husband. Why should I disembody years of study, jobs, degrees and creative output to feel the comforting embrace of domesticated romance?

Partly I feel that marriage is a longing for the family nest that one must fly upon becoming an adult – but I never had that. My nest was dismantled for me and I’ve never believed that marriage is my ultimate destiny.

It seems outmoded in an age where we vie for civil partnerships and women are no longer governed by their husbands. It’s obvious that the erosion of the institution of marriage – demonstrated by rocketing divorce rates – is not going to result in Babel.

But if you do want to get married, for love or money or security, or whatever, what should you do with your name? Emma Barnett, Women’s Editor of The Telegraph online, considers ‘meshing’ (combining two surnames to create a new ‘married’ family name) upon feeling sadness when observing her childhood friends’ names changing on Facebook, before concluding that she prefers the tradition of taking her husband’s name.

She feels a warm glow inside when her husband confesses, “I wanted my wife to become my family and part of that is taking my name so we are one unit,” and ends with using her maiden name for the professional world and her husband’s at home. She sees this as liberally ‘choosing’ tradition.

I think this is a fairly right wing feminist viewpoint and I don’t really agree with her reasoning. All fair and good to form a new unit – but it has to be his unit.

I kind of like my unit. My name may ultimately derive from someone I don’t see any more, but it’s also the name of my grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and sisters. My name is my identity, and belongs to the person that writes my blogs, stories and poems. What’s in a name? No more or less than you give it.

Perhaps I should think about a nom de plume.

What does it mean to be middle class, and why should we care?

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Cost of Living Crisis (or, “Economics for Lazy People”)

As you can’t help hearing on the news at the moment, a core part of Ed Milliband’s campaign strategy is to wage war on the “cost of living crisis” on behalf of “middle income families”. Drawing attention away from Labour’s reputation for haemorrhaging money through benefits, he suggests we need to siphon some cash from the top-earners in entrepreneurial business, banking and finance.

By “middle income,” presumably he means what most people would call “middle class”. Indeed, a subheading in the Telegraph reads: ‘Foundations of middle-class life – well-paid jobs, strong pensions, housing ladder and university education – have all been “undermined”’, in reference to his Labour Party Conference Speech in Brighton during 2013.

But, before we all descend into chaos and panic, and even though we’ve only narrowly escaped the slavering jaws of a “triple-dip” recession, I’d like to conduct a short foray into what it means to be middle class in modern Britain and why we should care.

What does it mean to be middle class and why should we care? According to this BBC diagram, the middle class is to be defined by a history of consumption, from mass-produced cars to the modern-day farmer’s market – similarly to Ed using an exclusively economic definition.

I will naturally approach the question from a very British standpoint, as someone who has grown up eating chip butties, was educated at a local comprehensive and watched the BBC every evening.

Crisis of Confidence (See Urban Dictionary for Help)

Just who is having a crisis? What is the middle income bracket? Figures show the average UK family income (two parents and two children) is £40k combined, so probably a lot less than you might think. Urban Dictionary defines the middle class in exclusively cultural terms, suggesting that they are:

“Usually, working professionals and often take residence in suburbia or greenbelt areas. Generally speaking, their children attend university and do well within the education system, often following in their parents’ footsteps to maintain some sort of professional job.”

Being middle class seems to be defined by educational and economic attainment, and revolve around the family unit. Urban Dictionary isn’t completely certain, and admits that there are other factors to consider.

Many middle-class children don’t do well in school and never go to university. Plenty of working-class children perform excellently at school, and the figure of the eternally-unemployed, middle-class “waster” is well-known. On the other hand, being middle class does seem to provide a degree of immunity to being convicted of a crime, being a serious sexual offender or having mental health problems.

Angela Monaghan in the Guardian wonders the same thing: just who are these middle class? Monaghan says, ‘Research suggests membership of Britain’s middle class depends on personal perceptions as well as incomes.’ But what are these perceptions? Who decides whether one can enter the middle class, and does everyone actually want to? Is it a definable category or simply a fluid zeitgeist of feeling privileged, intellectual and future-oriented, ‘living by your wits rather than your hands’?

University and Class Consciousness

I went to the University of Southampton and there were plenty of privately-educated students, with the rest of the student body comprising a mixture of public school, grammar school and state comprehensive. I didn’t pay much attention to the stratification at first.

Eventually, I learned that the politicians who represent us in the Houses of Parliament are predominantly privately-educated, which will probably mean that their parents are rich. Someone explained the concept of ‘rah’ within the first few weeks of Freshers’.

Urban Dictionary defines it as:

“Someone who went to private school… likes rugby (not football), probably a member of a rowing, sailing or yachting club, refer to their parents as “Mummy and Daddy”. Boys: often seen to be wearing a lemon (or any pastel shade) sweatshirt slung casually over their shoulders and deck shoes. Girls: Dress similar to that of boys along with pearls, numerous shopping bags and Daddy’s credit card.”

Again: linking class to culture. Oddly enough, there hadn’t been any rah people at Poole High School, which is free to attend. In my time, it had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the area and apparently failed an Oftsed report (I can find nothing to substantiate this though). Southampton, on the other hand, is a Russell Group university (but not in the same league as Oxford or Cambridge) so it had many rah people. To call someone “rah” is to express disdain towards them for consciously choosing to align themselves with a privileged elite (by wearing Jack Wills, flip flops in winter and Ugg boots when it rains). You can be rich and not rah, but not rah without being rich. 

Tea and the Times Crossword

Middle class-ness is a category of identity learned from others, and therefore is an aspect of culture transmitted by sets of behaviours and common modes of thought. I found I liked these middle-class things – prizing education, equal rights for women, good food – a cup of tea whilst doing the Times crossword.

No one ever had to explain being middle class to me. Suddenly, I had found a culture I fit into, where no one mocked you for wanting to learn or liking to read. I learned about the wonderful history and cultural context of books, new ideologies to analyse and absorb, as well as how to turn food into a substantial leisure pursuit. I slowly but surely started reading broadsheet newspapers, going to art galleries and discovered BBC Radio 4.

But how does all this relate to Ed Miliband’s “Cost of Living Crisis” for the middle class?

The Middle Class makes it’s “Marx” in History

During a module called ‘Novel in the Literary Marketplace’, we were taught that in the seventeenth century, the “rising middle class” were comprised of merchant capitalists, clerks and small landowners, some of whom eventually accumulated enough wealth to rival the influence of the landed aristocracy. The Industrial Revolution cemented the fact that power would reside with those who own the means of production, hence the decay of the landed aristocracy (see popular ITV drama Downton Abbey for further details), and the mechanics of it are evolving still.

Thus, aristocratic Britain was no more, and the middle classes sprang into being as a result of capitalism, flourishing well into the nineteenth century and Queen Victoria’s long reign. Partly as a result of this, I think being middle class is upholding the values of: freedom, equality, education and enterprise (I can see an acronym emerging).

This section of society historically has had members who exhibit traits such as intellectual independence; are often explicitly feminist, environmentalist or atheist; are educated beyond the national curriculum (but not necessarily formally so); make decisions based on some level of reason, have the interests of others at heart; strive to succeed and aspire to equality between sex and race. These personal and intellectual freedoms have been enabled by the middle class of history, who made money and fought for the right to vote, insisted on free education for all and the right to free speech. Naturally, these values are not exclusive to the middle class, but I digress.

That class isn’t so readily identifiable anymore, because now those battles have been mostly won. Class is created by inequality, but in modern Britain social mobility is prevalent: that’s why the term “middle class” now pretty much covers everyone. This is why using a purely economic definition doesn’t work anymore. Middle class culture survives: the enterprising, principled and intellectual middle class, who give us cause to celebrate.

The appropriation of the term ‘middle class’ (or the sneakily disguised ‘middle income’) by politicians like Ed Miliband has rendered it nearly meaningless. It’s being used as a tool to encourage people to fear a crisis and therefore vote for Labour; apparently this is called ‘dog whistle politics’.

Class is an outdated term, reliant on immutable social structures which no longer exist. It’s a smokescreen employed by politicians in a calculated attempt to increase personal power.

There seems to be a penchant for Marxist theory now, as the 2014 electoral race begins – and no wonder, since Conservative policies really do hit the poorest people hardest. Hopefully recent political and economic developments don’t suggest that the privileges won for us by the historical middle class might be revoked. There’s so much more to class than Marxist theory – a downtrodden proletariat oppressed by the greedy, heartless bourgeoisie – but the whole class of society is certainly more important than the few. We should not sell our hard-won privileges for a feee.

NB: that’s not a typo.

The Career of a Pessimistic English Literature Graduate

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Well, I’ve finally made it into a profession I actually wanted to be in. It’s been a long journey and fraught with many a tear and wail. Sometimes it seemed impossible that I would reach the dizzying heights of the (digital) communications world, but I’ve done it – and neglected to blog along the way.

Sorry about that. It’s things like blogging that keep you going; sharing your thoughts with the world, lifting you above tedious (and sometimes humiliating) tasks – the bidding of over-inflated and under-competent senior management members.

It’s a hard place to reach and one you can only get to through being well-connected or extremely committed; supported by eternally generous family and long-suffering friends. I never realised just how important a workplace was or how wrong you can get it, especially when you’re young and desperate for a job, any job.

Interestingly, as ever, job prospects have evolved. I’ve grown up in the era thinking that City bankers and lawyers are some of the most highly-paid and high-profile professions (failing incredible beauty and a talent for acting), whilst being a journalist romances the writer in me. However, the reality is that news journalism is, figuratively speaking, back-breaking work, some jobs that seem glamorous or lucrative might not be as rewarding as Mad Men would have us believe, and hardly anyone reaches the baffling status of people like Justin Bieber or Colin Firth. Read this article for a sobering look at the world of Wall Street (in contrast to the recent DiCaprio film) from a former banker. TV and film have warped our expectations of what we can reasonably expect from a satisfying life.

All those years of higher education are finally worth it, and now I work in higher education as Digital Communications Assistant. To me, this is an amazing job that I have struggled hard to get but to others, it’s probably a little dull and technical (it’s not). Whatever your aspirations are, it’s important to keep going even when it seems like you’ll just never get there. I will never know what it’s like to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher – those professions that immediately jump to mind when a child casts around for typical “grown-up” jobs – unless I make a somewhat unlikely career change.

I suppose I’ll have to revise my goals and give myself something else to strive for; focus on actually being great at the job, for instance. Being an English student is an interesting path, and one that I’m still observing radically different forks within. There are some I know who are making it as journalists, the top prize of the second-tier glamour professions (journalism, broadcasting, advertising, publishing). In case you were wondering, top-tier glamour professions refer to the film, sports, movies and fashion industries. There are internal communications specialists, editorial assistants and jazzy PR professionals. Some fellow English grads have diverged and started forging their way into the related and equally as competitive areas of “the arts” and museums.

According to my 1982 Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word glamour means “bewitching or enchanting”, “magical” in some way, but Google says that it can also mean “an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing.” In this context, I am using it to mean exciting and attractive professions that seem to require little actual drudgery compared to the high levels of recognition and financial reward – though neither are always the case.

Still, hardly anything matches the thrill of seeing your name in print – though this medium is clearly dying out. That’s okay, because in a few years I’ll have a vast knowledge of digital communications under my belt, a rapidly developing field (sometimes mysteriously known as “new media”) that emerged with the internet explosion a few years back. Social media, websites, e-comms and tinkering with HTML will all be things that I can be quietly proficient in.

I think it’s important to challenge preconceptions, and maybe there are amazing careers that I haven’t even thought of. Hardly anyone wants to work in engineering or manufacturing, but apparently this is the industry to watch. If you ever thought being a B n’ B owner would be dripping in glamour, check out this website to find out why it’s not. The working world is more complex and alluring than I ever suspected it might be; even accounting for my previously rock-bottom expectations.

I’m pleased and I’m proud; I hope to revel in these sensations for a while, though I’m not really sure if communications can be described as glamorous. One thing that is true, is that the buzz still hasn’t worn off when people actually ask me for ideas about projects that are interesting. It’s funny to think that I could (or would) not imagine post-university life before I lived it, like some dark abyss beyond the reach of sanity.

Well, here we are, and it’s looking good.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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unbearable lightnessTitle: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
Published: 1984

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera’s book is both bewitching and moving. Richly textured, it is the embodiment of all that is mysterious, beautiful and horrifying about the modern world. The story itself follows the happenings of a Czech couple, Tomas and Tereza.

Tomas is a serial and mostly unrepentant philanderer who Teresa is madly in love with, and she endures incredible pain at the hands of his infidelities. The Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia reduces Tomas from a respected surgeon in Prague to a window cleaner, then truck driver. His fall from grace does nothing to hamper his philandering.

The novel charts their adventures. The narrative is intertwined with piercing philosophical interjections – hence, the unbearable lightness of being. Parmenides is the philosopher of choice for Kundera, who floated the idea that at the heart of the universe is a fundamental binary principle, which determines the manifestation of everything else, and was an early proponent of dualism.

The novel is complex and apparently postmodernist. Kundera himself often breaks the spell and enters the narrative as an authorial voice, much like in the Victorian novels of yesteryear. This only serves to emphasise how absorbing the novel is. It’s like lifting your head above water and staring round for a few seconds, before submerging, beneath the water, once again.

This novel is a triumph, for reasons I can hardly begin to articulate. The language and drama are taut and captivating, whilst the juxtaposition between high philosophical musings and the visceral realism of bodily excretions and furtive sexual fumblings is masterfully written.

The backdrop of totalitarian, Communist Russia pervades the entire novel like a slumbering beast, but never quite takes centre stage. At first this seems like it could be an ambitious political critique like Orwell’s 1984, before it slowly becomes clear that the focal point is character. The emotional struggles of Tomas and Teresa writhe across the page until the dramatic, comedic and tragic ending.

Hardly ever have I enjoyed a novel this much. The Harry Potter series, of course, was number one choice in my younger days; when my mind wasn’t quite mature enough to enjoy much “serious” literature. Next, Stephen King and his pacy modern horror novels, then Terry Pratchett’s kaleidoscopic Discworld and the laconic Rincewind. After that, trashy teen fiction.

Once at university, with pretensions to serious intellectualism and a new taste for the feminist canon, I worshipped Virginia Woolf’s outpourings and also the magnificent T.S. Eliot. There have been others along the way but these are the diamonds. Finally, Milan Kundera, who I assumed was a woman until I typed his name into Wikipedia halfway through the novel, has taken literature a step in a new direction for me.

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being over several tube journeys with fascination, pathos and amusement. Kundera says that character is not in fact the representation of the author, but the manifestation of his own stunted possibilities. I was rapt.

The unbearable lightness of being – as well as being one of the most inspired titles I have ever come across – is the futility of existence, which through being liveable only once can never have any weight. The wars and tragedies of history, acted out only once, dissolve meaninglessly into the dusts of time.  However, traditional dimorphic representations of opposites are turned on their head in this novel, and Kundera asserts that heaviness, which is achieved through repetition, may actually be a burden. The novel itself ends somewhat hopefully, though you’ll have to read it to find out how.

I don’t know if I completely understand this novel, but that probably doesn’t matter. While the subject matter is often ethereal, philosophical or historical, it never feels like you’re ploughing through a weighty tome (pun definitely intended). The stark beauty of Kundera’s prose and the realism of his characters has inspired me to seek out more Eastern European authors, and indeed there are many recommended on Google. I’m actually considering reading War and Peace (1869) by Tolstoy next.

How to Feel Better About not Getting a Job Interview

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I’ve had eight job interviews now, I think, and not a single one of the interviewers has seen fit to give me the job. You parade yourself in front of these legions of people, prancing like a pony hoping to impress, and it all amounts to nought.

Somewhat depressing, you might think. And yes, it is upsetting; I’ve entertained all the usual clichés. I’m no good, everyone else is better than me, what was I thinking, blah di blah.

And yet, I am haunted by the old adage… that tough times show you what you’re made of. Nothing worth attaining is easy. The most striking realisation I’ve received recently is that there is no external arbiter striking off the number of times you’ve tried and failed on a chalk board; that no one seriously has to know how many job interviews you’ve had and not “passed”.

Maybe Gmail knows because it’s the receptacle for all those rejection emails. Gmail knows my dark secret; and so does anyone who cares to search it now I’ve immortalised the fact in a blog post. I suppose I wanted to make something productive out of my pain, and I am and always will be a writer, so this is the result.

You feel better because you have to. Because there are many kind people in your life, hopefully, that will repeat platitudes at you until you do. They are platitudes because they are true – “there’s always hope”, “just keep going”, “I know it’s hard sometimes” – but they are hard to remember. The emotional fraught-ness clouds your judgement until you are just howling in despair.

If you dig deep, you’ll find you’ve always got that tiny reserve of effort that was just lurking out of sight. It doesn’t make it any easier and maybe there’s still a very long way to go, but you will keep going and that’s the important thing.

What does make it easier is your flatmate sharing his dinner with you because you were too ill to trudge to the shop and buy something yourself. Or your boyfriend nattering with you for ages because that’s what girls like to do, and, well, he likes it because you like it. Or your long-suffering mother photocopying pages from self-help books and emailing them to you at work.

People make it easier. Getting a job is one of the hardest things to do in the world; or a job you actually want, anyway. I suppose all those insecurities will never go away: that I’ll never amount to anything, there’s a fundamental flaw in my character, or, worst of all, I’m just a girl.

But you don’t have to listen to them.

Out of Place? Media Workshop for Self-Help Groups

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I went to a social media and press training course for self-help groups in Wandsworth today. I was a little out of place, to say the least, but in good company.

Many people were making jokes about leaving the social media to younger members of staff (namely Alice from Life Time, another attendee of the group), and not having a smart phone. Everyone was terribly earnest and we sat in a circle, just as if we were attending a real self-help group; though I’ve never personally been to one. It was like tapping into another world; the world of communities and vulnerability and age.

It was oddly movie-like, abounding with familiar stereotypes – the young liberal volunteer who confesses to checking the Guardian news on her smart phone every day. “News finds me,” says the tech-savvy social media lecturer, and for her, “getting lost in the news” is a frequent problem. Bombardment. This course is like a master class for keeping up with the modern world for many of the group, who are middle-aged or older.

It was like meeting the archetypes of society… The elderly man who quit his high-flying job because his wife has cancer. The fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked girl who a boy somewhere must be madly in love with, with scarf, boots and box fringe. The sweet, shy black lady who is reluctant to join the circle. The earnest, motherly group leader who has been running self-help groups for thirty years. The Vod-like (Fresh Meat) happy helper with a buzz cut, geeky glasses and Doc Martens. The sweet older lady with a degenerative neurological condition, who is highly intelligent and jokes about her walking sticks being sexy.

I am a hair’s breadth away from becoming Communications Officer (hopefully my next job) and yet it wasn’t until recently that I learned how to make a blog.

This group of self-helpers, out to improve the lives of others, occupy a strata of society often championed by the government, and yet at the same time is trampled by the Bullingdon Club boys, who possess little to no idea of the reality of grassroots community.

I don’t have much idea of it, really. Well, I didn’t until today.

All it makes me think, is, money gives you chances.

It is a slice of life; a useful workshop after all.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness

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Nudge-cover

Published: 2008

Authors: Richard Sunstein & Cass Thaler

No feminist academic journey is complete without a sound understanding of economic theory.

Failing that, I read Nudge, a pop economics book about the role of libertarian paternalism and choice architecture in government.

Written by Richard Sunstein and Cass Thaler, two American economists, Nudge refers to the fallibility of being human in a capitalist economy and democratic society. They challenge traditional economic theory by treating people not as completely rational “econs” but irrational, imperfect creatures often ruled by inertia, confusion or impulsiveness.

Libertarian paternalism is a somewhat bipolar political ideology, espoused by theorists that believe you can “nudge” people to choose what’s good for them, while still maintaining freedom of choice.

Choice Architecture is the art of designing these choices so that people are encouraged to choose what’s best for them, as determined by experts in the field. Scenarios in which choice architecture may be applicable include choosing a pension plan, becoming an organ donor or voting in political elections.

If an individual is given too much choice and is lacking in expertise, they are typically overwhelmed by information and end up making a choice that is as bad as making one at random. On the other hand, if an individual is given no choice whatsoever, then they would be living in a totalitarian state (depending on context, of course).

It would seem that guided choices, subject to regulations and transparency measures, may be the way forward. And indeed, David Cameron reportedly included the book on his shadow frontbench team’s list of required reading. Thaler has been advisor to the Conservative “Behavioural Insight Team” or “Nudge Unit”, while Sunstein has been advising American president Barack Obama.

Nudge is, for the laywoman, accessible and entertaining. The authors never assume that the reader understands even simple economic concepts, such as ‘stocks’ (which I didn’t). Even better; for the first time, I now understand what stocks are. The postscript added to the book even makes me hopeful that I may finally be coming close to vaguely comprehending what the term “2008 economic crisis” means (apart from boarded-up shops and really expensive food).

Reading this book is like sitting down and having one of your parents explain an aspect of the world to you, with lots of hopeful theories about improving society thrown in. For the first time in a long time, I felt like governments might be able to achieve something good.

Watching Prime Minister’s Questions is enough to exterminate anyone’s faith in the efficacy of modern democracy, entertaining as it is. Overgrown Oxbridge graduates jeering and catcalling each other, overseen by a judge-like Speaker who constantly berates the rabble, is enough to make a would-be voter walk past the ballot box without a second thought.

Public opinion is generally equally unfavourable towards both British main parties: the Conservatives are greedy, out-of-touch toffs who don’t care about anything but protecting their own inherited wealth and privilege. Labour are envy-ridden, hand-wringing Northerners who are incapable of planning policy for the long-haul. Belief in political change is undermined by the four-year terms in which a party, once elected, is awarded power; any effective policies will almost certainly be scrapped by the next government in a bid to create attractive mirages that will please voters (rail fare caps, free school meals) but solve nothing, eager to prove the incompetence of the previous party.

My interest in politics is only nascent but so far the picture has not proved any brighter than this. I didn’t think it really worth mentioning the liberal democrats.

Nudge takes a giant leap over the politician-hating public to point out that those in power are probably trying to do a good job. The authors seem to offer a path through the maze of inter-party squabbles: no wonder they are so popular with current government, who are under ever-increasing pressure from the social media mob to do something about rising unemployment, skyrocketing house-prices and threats from religious extremism. Libertarian paternalism may not be the answer to all social ills but it at least provides an optimistic stab at a solution.

The Female Eunuch | Germaine Greer

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777333-germaine-greer

Image via Herald Sun

Title: The Female Eunuch
Author: Germaine Greer
Year: 1970

When it was first published in 1970, The Female Eunuch became an international bestseller, bringing fame and controversy to its author, Germaine Greer. All this was much to her surprise but she claims in a recent interview that she still agrees with everything she said in it.

I have just finished reading the book and am not sure what to make of it. I certainly bring it up a lot in conversation, not least because you’re apt to spot sexism in every corner after first putting it down. The title refers to the book’s central theme: that women have been separated from their libido, and are unaware of just how much they are hated by men. Women, also, are not particularly keen on men.

These are weighty topics and I’m sure all my readers will have a staunch opinion on them.

The important question I want to answer is, what do I have to say about Germaine Greer?

Born in Australia in 1949, she is considered a major feminist voice of the twentieth century – and beyond. Both loved and reviled, Greer is known for her academic works, journalistic output and her never-ceasing spray of colourful opinions.

Not one to shy away from making outlandish claims, even with fairly minimal evidence, I can see why some people particularly dislike her. Often confusing, always radical, Greer’s character leered up from the pages and never let you forget her. For this reason, I will say The Female Eunuch is not a bad book.

It was stuffed with insights, lurking among a kaleidoscope of radical feminist opinions continually hurled at the reader. Often devolving into a series of rants, the stylistic structure paled in comparison to that of The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, meaning that it almost tailed off at the end without coming to any particular conclusion. It is, I have found, impossible to separate the book from the woman.

In part caused by my recent reading list, but also inspiring the choices, I am drawn towards the goal of identifying what I think are the most important feminist voices for my generation of women.

There was Mary Wollstonecraft writing in the late eighteenth century, igniting the whole modern movement towards female liberation through the publication of her book The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Every woman with her own bank account, her own vote and her own job is indebted to Wollstonecraft. Since then, there have been many notable advocates of the feminist cause, but there are a few who spring immediately to mind.

Charlotte Bronte was the English female author of an outstanding literary output from roughly 1830-60, including Jane Eyre (1847), when women still found it almost impossible to become published. Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the English suffragette movement in the early twentieth century and played a key role in obtaining the right to vote for women – only a hundred years ago.  Simone De Beauvoir is the famous French feminist author of books like The Second Sex (1949) and The Mandarins (1954), also the lover of Jean-Paul Sartre.

The breadth of Greer’s argument covers many bases, ranging from Victorian tracts regarding appropriate and morally-approved behaviour of women, to syrupy Romantic poetry from the eighteenth century, to horrendously trashy romance novels from the 1950’s. Many anecdotal examples supporting her rousing declaration of the patriarchy’s oppression and abuse of women parade through the pages.

I think if I’d read The Female Eunuch at university we’d have studied her as part of the course ‘Images of Women’, perhaps attempting to psychoanalyse her frequently seething anger towards men.

Greer maintains that she is not promoting any particular concrete solution to the problem of female oppression, merely creating discussion of the issues through her provocative and often foul-tongued pages. There were times when I almost wished someone would look over my shoulder on the underground to see me reading a book that recommends all women should taste their own period blood.

At times, Greer claims things like, ‘Joy does not mean riotous glee, but it does mean the purposive employment of energy in a self-chosen enterprise. It does mean pride and confidence. It does mean communication and cooperation with others based on delight in their company and your own…’ In these passages, she truly shines.

Yes, Germaine Greer is indeed a powerful feminist voice of our time – if only for her sheer audacity and lack of respect for any tradition or established norm. Her writing is original, fiercely intelligent and unapologetic. We definitely need more women like her to join the ranks of the literary canon.

It’s interesting to compare her to other feminist authors. As with most feminist texts, I found that she did not satisfactorily explain just why men actually want to oppress women in it for them; what exactly is in it for them, besides money and not having to wash the dishes? Mainly economic gain, Naomi Wolf argues, or pure vanity and egotism the other (Virginia) Woolf asserts.

I liked The Female Eunuch because it never pretended to be anything that it wasn’t. It’s easy to feel disconnected from bra-burning, banner-waving strident feminists if you don’t think about how far we’ve come. And yet, not that far; considering the debates raging around the issues of Page 3 girls, Miley Cyrus’s twerking, and the legal definition of rape.

It’s important to remain connected to this era of bold women and appreciate just how much they achieved. When I compare my life to portrayals of women in film and books of the 1970s era, I count myself extremely lucky that I was only born twenty four years ago.

Sexism is still rife but it’s a lot easier to speak out against, now – on this blog, for example. I don’t agree that feminism is a ‘first world problem,’ and over-debated, because you could say that about most things people concern themselves with. There’s a reason that a topic is on the agenda, and if something has affected you, it’s important. Germaine Greer is never going to be one of my favourite authors, but she said her point – and she said it well.

Greer

Image via ABC

Art Nouveau in the Age of Downton Abbey

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Alfons Mucha, 1897.

F. Champenois Imprimeur-Éditeur, lithograph, 1897

Art Nouveau, spanning roughly 1880 to 1910, was the people’s design, ushering the art world into the twentieth century. Dominating the cultural scene for a brief period, its end is marked by World War One and Modernism.

As Downton Abbey’s fourth season is well under way on British television screens and across the pond, everything historical is all the rage. Turn of the century glamour is again en mode. Vintage style dominates current fashion, trends centering on the 10′s, 20′s and 30′s, and high waists and muted colours are popular. We are also nostalgic for older forms of art, as the revival of Art Nouveau has shown.

Art Nouveau’s legacy can be found in architecture around Europe and is easily recognisable. Some key features of Art Nouveau are sumptuous shapes and smouldering colours, dramatic “whiplash” lines and stylised flowers.

400px-Blaue_Kirche_Bratislava

Church of St. Elisabeth in Bratislava, by Ödön Lechner

Art Nouveau is not limited to buildings, however, and spans the fine and applied arts, including furniture, textiles and graphic art. Famous artists who painted in this style included Czech painter Alfons Mucha, English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

To the twenty-first century eye, the emphasis on flowers and natural shapes directly contrasts the industrial modernism of the movements that followed it. Hindsight and context affect our perception of a modern movement that now seems quintessentially antique, infusing it with the golden hue of a better time.
However, its name quite obviously means ‘new art’ in French, representing that which is modern and the beginning of a break with the past.

The Irony of Nostalgia

Art traditionally emphasises legacy, but Art Nouveau provided the foundations of the later Modernist movement, which sought to break from the past. Artists of the time wanted their work to be modern, whatever that might mean.

This interest in “modern” art has in no way abated. It’s been a wildly successful year for the Tate gallery as Damien Hirst has helped to break visitor records by attracting almost eight million people to the four South Bank London galleries.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Hirst, 1991

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – Hirst, 1991

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine) is Hirst’s most lucrative work, worth £7.4 million, and could hardly be further from the feminine, floral predispositions of Art Nouveau.

What we consider modern seems to have come full circle, but the past still plays a huge part in the creation of art. Whether it’s Wassily Kandinski’s purposeful break with tradition in his seemingly random colours, shapes and lines, or John Piper’s British affection for rural landscape styles, we cannot avoid our captivation with history – especially when it seems to be fading before our eyes.

Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)

Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)

Perhaps in response to the pull of the new, when technology is developing at an eye-watering rate and we are fully immersed in a “digital age”, what we now consider to be nostalgic forms of art can provide comfort as well as a much-needed point of reference. Or, perhaps Matthew and Mary really did just belong together.

Recent Interpretations of Art Nouveau

There has been a popular BBC Four series broadcast in January this year, called ‘Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau’, emphasising its racier characteristics and the factors that encouraged the movement to flourish. You can still catch it online.

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in East Anglia is currently holding an exhibition called ‘The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, from Nature to Abstraction’, treating Art Nouveau as the first modern design movement, exploring the progression of style from natural to more abstract, geometric form. It is curated by Professor Paul Greenhalgh and highlights the role played by Art Nouveau in the advent of Modernism. The exhibition runs until December 13th this year.

Click this link to find out even more about Art Nouveau.

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