Guess where I had to go today?
Heels up and knees out
let those folks with microscopes
probe your sexual sins.
Guess where I had to go today?
Heels up and knees out
let those folks with microscopes
probe your sexual sins.
A while ago in a Meeting for Worship I was thinking about old anger.
Someone particular came into Meeting, and suddenly I was feeling defensive. This person annoys me because they comment on how I (and others) are or are feeling, based purely on posture and appearance. As, when I am ill, it is usually an invisible illness (chronic fatigue syndrome can be an entirely invisible disability), I find this irritating and sometimes even distressing.
Generally, I am only aware of my posture in the vague way in which I check that I am comfortable, able to type, read, or whatever without hurting myself. In Meeting, though, I become keenly aware, especially of that fact that I adopt postures which are Not Approved by people with Opinions about how you Ought To Sit in Meeting. One Ought, I have been told, to sit with both feet flat on the ground and your palms open on your knees. It recommends this in various books, and people say it from time to time if you ask what helps them to centre in Meeting.
Now, if it’s comfortable for you and it helps you to centre and be calm, that’s fine by me. What upsets me is the policing of it. I cannot sit for long with my hands open in that way; I can sit with my fingers laced and my palms up for slightly longer, but in the end, in a cold meeting room, I am usually going to need to cross my arms and tuck my hands in near my body. Perhaps that makes me look defensive or angry, but I assure you that apperances can be decieving. (Also, if I am defensive or angry or whatever, what does that matter? Are those emotions to be policed out of our Meetings?) Similarly, I often can’t sit with both feet flat on the floor. If the chair is even slightly the wrong height, it can be more comfortable to cross them at the knee; if I am wearing a skirt (as I always am), I often can’t sit with my knees apart without been taken back to school teachers who told me to ‘be more ladylike’ and keep my knees together.
I’m never quite sure what to do with this kind of old and residual anger or distress. There seems to be little point expressing it to the person who triggers it, because it is mostly not actually about them nor something they can do anything about. On the other hand, I feel that I want to express it somewhere.
I guess that’s one of the things blogs can do.
I’ve seen a number of people do this as a meme on livejournal, but it seemed to me to be more about real life than my fannish life, so I’m putting it here instead.
2000: I took two out of three of my Year 9 SATS (the third one was the day of my grandfather’s funeral), and began 10 GCSEs. At October half term, my brother and I both had flu; he recovered fully, and I did not. After a raft of tests, I was diagnosed – quite speedily, as it goes for the condition – with Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and M.E.. I remember very little of the remainder of 2000.
2001: For most of the year, I was ill. I was never bed-bound – my parents were determined not to let me be – but at times I was house-bound to all intents and purposes. I had home tuition, with varying degrees of success, in some of the things I was meant to be studying for GCSE. We managed to carry on with English and Maths, but dropped German after a brief attempt, and delayed science. It must have been about this time that I first went to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.
2002: I took three GCSEs that summer – double English (A*A*) and Maths (A). We bought a desktop computer with an internet connection so that I could study with an online tutoring system from another two GCSEs. Essentially unlimited internet access also gave me a chance to enter community and what I later learnt to call fandom. I also tried to begin an A-level in English Literature. I was ill again that winter and didn’t complete it, but the seed was sown that I could attend school for just a few classes, supported by kind members of the local Quaker Meeting who were able to save me bus trips or taxi rides by offering lifts to and fro.
2003: I took two more GCSEs – double Science (AA). In the autumn (I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have arranged this by academic years, since they give my life shape), I began two A-levels, English Language and Literature, and Religious Studies. I literally chose the latter because it was downstairs; I think I would have preferred history, since I still harboured an ambition to be an archaeologist, but they taught it in upstairs classrooms. Science and maths were right out because they were on the other side of the school site. I studied hard at school, made a very few friends in my new year (having effectively dropped back), and began a distance learning A-level in Classical Civilisations. Around this time, my local Meeting privately published a volume of poetry, in which they included some of my work.
2004: I took two AS levels, beginning to settle into the January and June assessment which rules student life these days. My results were acceptable but not what I had hoped – an A and a B. I resolved to work harder. I was told that I needed three A-levels to go to Oxford. I resolved to finish the full A-level in Classical Civilisations rather than taking it as an AS as originally planned. I investigated the financial effects of going to university, realising for example that I could take a gap year and still be under the old rules (i.e. cheaper) if I applied quickly. I missed the Oxbridge entry deadline due to a PVFS relapse, but applied to Durham, Bristol, Nottingham, Cardiff, Bangor, and Lampeter. Only Durham rejected me.
2005: I took three A-levels, only a year behind. The scores were good (AAB; the B is the distance learning one) and accepted Nottingham’s offer. (I’d have loved to go to Lampeter, but without a car, the place in a trifle inaccessible, and everyone was still concerned that I might not be strong enough to study full-time.) I tried to decide what to do with my gap year. In the first instance, I spent several months on JobSeeker’s Allowance, and then a month in the run-up to Christmas working on the tills in an M&S food store. I decided to live on my savings for a while. Oh, and I changed my name – by use rather than deed poll at this stage. Confusion abounded!
2006: I spent the first part of the year doing voluntary work – I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery near York, and seven weeks with an ecumenical Christian community in Scotland, for example. I visited all of England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals. (The Church of England technically has 43 – the extra one is Peel.) I attended a course on Quakerism and Buddhism with Jim Pym and Andrew Burns which has lent both vocabulary and form to my spiritual life ever since (for example: stilling frog, metta meditation). I gained a lot of independence and a lot of experience with public transport. I also got a warrant to work with Brownie Guides and a Senior Section Camp Permit. In the autumn (that’s when everything starts!), I began a degree in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Nottingham. I enjoyed studying; I wrote ecstatic poetry about being on campus and in the library; I hated almost everyone else in my hall with a passion. (Drunken 18-year-olds do not mix well with people who need 8 hours’ sleep a night.) I went to sci-fi soc and made all the friends I needed: short-lived crush, long-term hug-buddy, and three future house-mates. My first week, I decided to continue my gap year spirit of exploration, and went with the Christian Union to an evangelical church. I spent the sermon wondering whether they could be any more wrong, and the lunch trying to work out how to come out as a non-believer. The next week, I went to the local, tiny, Quaker Meeting. “Have fun!” said the CU leader when he heard I was trying a different church; against my expectations, I did.
(I gave ministry, and was gently rebuking afterwards for not adding a footnote about the various possible interpretations of the word ‘God’. My kind of people.)
2007: At the end of my first year, a senior member of the Theology and Religious Studies department asked me where I thought I’d do my postgraduate work. He is to be commended on his foresight, although I think my marks were a clue. In the summer, I spent two weeks volunteering for a Quaker cafe during the Festivals – I did serious plays and religious talks the first week, heard Rabbi Lionel Blue as a turning point, and the second week went to stand-up and other comedy shows with a couple of friends from Nottingham. Back at university, I studied hard, coped with long-term hug-buddy moving to Leeds, joined the Nottingham Quaker Quest organisation team, had a brief fling with someone I met on a dating website, and got tendonitis in my right arm from typing too much. Oh, and they made me Chair of the TRS Staff-Student Feedback Committee.
2008: I went to the physiotherapist and went on the Pill; much complex medical nonsense resulted. I still managed to do pretty well in my exams, though. I’m sure I did something this summer, but other than getting involved with City of Sanctuary, I can’t remember what. By the time term started again, I was beginning to be frustrated with the lack of attention paid to a theme which was becoming more and more important to me: gender. I went to a Women’s Network meeting and managed to made contact with a PhD student. We founded a Feminist Reading Group which ran for the rest of the year and nurtured me a lot. Nottinghamshire and Derby Area Meeting welcomed me into membership.
2009: I finished my first degree – two dissertations, 100% attendance at seminars and lectures, three years of service to the Staff-Student Committee, and a First. I was quite pleased, though not so happy when they made me take my hat off to actually walk across the stage and graduate. I paid for a silly hat! I wear a hat all the time! Why do I have to have a ‘religious reason’ to wear it? What counts as a religious reason anyway? Answers to these questions were not forthcoming. They did at least get my name right. I spent a week volunteering with Oxford MENCAP, and as usual quite a lot of time at Brownie Pack Holiday and Guide Camp. I also attended Yearly Meeting Gathering at York, quite an amazing experience in many ways. Once again, the new has begun in the autumn: I started an MA in Gender, Sexuality, and Queer Theory with the University of Leeds; I changed my name by deed poll; I got a provisional driving license and starting learning to drive; I began to try and decide in earnest what my PhD should be about. (Suggestions which involve Wilde as well as feminism and Quakerism and theology welcomed!)
When I was, I suppose, about eight, I very briefly had a bike. It was kept in my grandparent’s garage (there was no room for it at home, and not really anywhere to ride it), and I tried to ride it a maximum of twice, always with my grandparents hovering nearby. I never spent very long trying, because when a small girl falls off and cries her grandmother is wont to take her back indoors to play with craft materials.
To this day, I cannot ride a bicycle (I haven’t found a way to try again since I was eight). This fact is used to support other claims about me: my balance is not very good, my coordination is poor, and so forth.
In the last week, I have made two, very brief, attempts at joining in when other people are playing Rock Band. Rock Band does not belong to me, and I am unfamiliar with most of the mechanisms involved in making the game work (for example, I cannot off hand name the console on which it is played, though I am aware that there are two and Guitar Hero is for The Other One). In the course of those attempts, I have tried singing four songs (very variable; it depends a lot on how well I know the song, in turn affected by the failure of Rock Band Marketplace to reflect my actual musical tastes), and playing guitar on one. My fingers seemed like jelly; I could not hit the notes at the right time; obviously, I failed, and failed hard.
Something similar happens when I try and play most other video games. I usually abandon all attempts quickly, as looking stupid in front of people isn’t my favourite activity. (The occasional stand-up comic aside, does anyone enjoy it?)
My failures in this area are frequently taken to be evidence that I have a poor coordination, that my spacial awareness is bad, that my reactions are slow, etc.
Added to my history of failure on the bicycle, this is usually taken to conclude that I will find it difficult, or impossible, to learn to drive, something I have recently decided to attempt. (Any Green readers who are crying because this will prevent me from reducing my carbon emissions 10% in 2010, you are quite right, but consider these points: a) experience of previous attempts to get a job and consideration of the kinds of jobs I might want, and might get, have lead me to conclude that a driving license is a worthwhile investment; and b) that I live in Leeds and am repeatedly invited to visit Cornwall. By refusing to go, thereby avoiding the flights from Leeds/Bradford to Newquay and back, I have probably cut my potential carbon emissions by at least 10% – it all depends how you calculate it. Back to my main point.)
However, I suspect some selection bias in the evidence presented here. OK, so I can’t ride a bike. I can walk and swim perfectly well, though, and when I had the chance, I could ride a horse without physical difficulty (the problems came when teachers pushed me too far, too fast, with anger but without rewards). Similarly, I can’t pick up a computer game and play well at first attempt; on the other hand, I can sew, plait, make lace, and have in the last year learnt to knit. (If you’re sensing a gendering of activities, in the latter list in particular, I do not think you are wrong.) These things demand a high level of coordination and muscle-memory, and don’t present me any problems.
Therefore, I’m turning my attention to my learning style and the situations of my learning, and trying to draw out some things to remember when choosing how, where, and with whom to learn to drive.
Not conductive to learning:
- not being able to see when I’m doing (source: Rock Band; occasional people trying to teach me to type ‘correctly’)
- being rushed into situations in which I am not confident (source: learning to swim; learning horse riding)
- being told that a method which suits me and achieves the desired effect is ‘wrong’ for arcane reasons (source: my methods of typing and making lace patterns)
- not having any motive to learn
- public humiliation following a mistake
Conducive to learning:
- being in control of the pace of my learning
- being extremely clear about the aims and expected outcomes of an exercise
- having a motive to learn
- being supported in trying again rather than punished for failure (where ‘punishment’ includes the disappointment of others and claims that it would be easy if I’d just try)
I take the following as axiomatic:
1. When you consume media – read a book, watch a TV show, whatever – you become part of the audience of that piece of media.
2. The creators of that piece of media will have had an audience in mind, an audience with characteristics which you may or may not possess.
3. To what extent you are part of the intended audience will have an effect on how you relate to a specific piece of media.
For example, if you are a secondary school pupil reading a book aimed at undergraduates, you can expect to find it a difficult read. Whether you do or not will depend on your own abilities and background knowledge, and on the clarity of the writing.
Sometimes the effects are less clear. For example, I am a white middle-class British woman with a mild interest in cooking, so it would be reasonable to expect that a British cookery show aimed at middle-class women with a white female presenter would be accessible to me. Despite this, I find Nigella Lawson nearly unwatchable. Why? Perhaps partly because she shades into upper-middle class, while I tend towards lower-middle. It is also because of the exact kind of cooking she does: she cooks with meat frequently and alcohol nearly as often, and I never use either. Finally, it seems to have something to do with her appearance and apparent aims. I will never be ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ in the way that Nigella is held to be, and I long ago gave up trying, preferring the comfort and warmth of more modest clothing and the convenience of going make-up free. (This links back into my childhood ‘realisation’ that girls were either beautiful or clever but never both, which may be a post for another day.)
I said once to a friend that no other TV show makes me feel like a failure in the way that Nigella does – by embodying that to which I feel people expect me to conform, she makes me aware of my non-conformity.
On the other hand, some shows whose apparent intended audience is more markedly different from me – for example, where it seems to be aimed at men rather than women – can be much more comfortable to watch. It would be reasonable to expect that a show about cars aimed at men would not appeal to a woman who doesn’t even have a driving license, and yet I find Top Gear watchable, even entertaining. I’ve not quite convinced myself about why this is – perhaps a childhood of reading books and watching shows aimed at boys makes it easy for me to imagine myself into that role, by sheer dint of practice (Dar William’s song “When I Was a Boy” seems to encapsulate perfectly my experience of this: “I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand/
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check”). Wickedday suggests that it’s an effect akin to the Uncanny Valley, in which things close to yourself and yet different give you the creeps. I’m beginning to suspect, though, that as well as those things, there is a level at which it’s about whether you are trying to compare yourself: Nigella is within the range of ‘people next to whom I fall short’ in gender performance, while Jeremy Clarkson is simply in another competition.
This continues to work when I turn to another case: in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I didn’t mind Buffy or Anya or Angel, I liked Spike and Giles and Tara and Xander, but Willow, especially in the early seasons, could make me quite uncomfortable. This feeling intensified after I was explicitly compared to her in a family conversation. The effect is not as strong as with Nigella, but Willow is part of an ensemble rather than a solo presenter, and is not depicted as a perfect role model in the same way. Of course, this example also shows that it’s about things beside gender (perceived geek-level, for one), but I think it’s enough to show that I’m onto something, and that’ll have to do for now.
I don’t usually publish poetry in this blog – or, indeed, online, or anywhere – but this response to the second part of this week’s Read Write Prompt seemed relevant to my themes here, dealing as it does with the effects (on this middle-class white woman) of an incident of street harassment.
* * *
Curled up, shadows drawn in
and the window shut:
he’s back, in full sun,
yelling, “What a skirt!”
His mate whistles agreement.
I climb a tree.
From above me, ravens
fairy-dark and raging
drive into his mind.
Thought and Memory depart.
* * *
The prompt was “Select a memory from “what you want to forget,” [a previous part of the exercise] and write in this scenario: You are in the future, in bed, dreaming. The forgotten memory appears, haunting you, perhaps. A magical animal also crosses your path. In your narrative, incorporate images invoked by photo #1, the light through trees.”
You might also like to look up Huginn and Muninn.
I went to Creswell Crags on Saturday – I’m trying to hit the tourist spots before I leave Nottinghamshire – and saw, among many other interesting carvings on rock and bone, (a replica of) the Pin Hole Man. You can see a picture here at the Creswell Crags website. Our tour group discussed briefly what might be depicted – a man (clearly, there’s a phallus), a woman (clearly, there’s a bosom – it doesn’t pass for an arm when compared with the legs), someone in a mask (the head is large and the nose huge). I suggested, in that joking tone I usually adopt when unsure of the reception of my ideas, that perhaps the person was cross-dressing. Much laughter. The tour guide asked for permission to use that in future.
My first response was to be pleased to have created laughter and to have been ‘approved’ by the group in this way.
My second, much more considered, response is to be sorry that nobody else had considered that even a possibility, and that it wasn’t been taken at all seriously. Art of that date is hard to interpret in any case, but why should cross-dressing be any less likely than mask-wearing?
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged about me, Africa, bell hooks, binary, capitalism, City of Sanctuary, fair trade, Feminism, gender, hospitals, peace, privilege, reading groups, results, snapshots, spectrum, treatment, university, war on June 20, 2009 | Leave a Comment »
Some snapshot images I want to remember.
Five white women on sofas reading bell hooks, sipping Fair Trade tea, and trying to get to grips with the message.
A group hear directly from sanctuary-seekers, including a woman from Zimbabwe who has started an African Women’s Empowerment Forum. The microphone is far from the table so I offer to click her powerpoint slides.
Nothing actually comes in totally opposing pairs: left and right have forward and back, peace and war have careful friendship and non-physical conflict, male and female have intersexed. The ability of some to move from one end of a spectrum to another does not automatically make the spectrum into a binary.
My shoes, my watch, my deodorant: things which belong to feminine me, and yet were sold as “men’s”.
Rejecting treatment is hard to do, when you’ve been told all your life that hospitals cure things. Sometimes, though, the treatment is worse than the disease, and it’s better to stop stressing and to take the medical professionals out of what should be your private life. Having turned down two courses of possible but not certain long-term treatment for a condition which only bothers me occasionally and has an acceptable cure-for-symptom which doesn’t involve anything invasive or causing myself pain every day, I feel like some of my agency has been restored.
A conversation with a friend about being annoyed with one’s body when it goes wrong reminds me that I let go of that a long time ago, when I have PVFS if not before. I don’t have energy for it.
Standing in the university corridor – polished wood-block floor, cream painted walls covered in boards covered in pinned-up papers, the slight hum of desktops behind closed office doors – and reading one of those papers. At the very top of the list (my name is early in the alphabet) the pass-list announces that I have a First Class degree.
In this post, I want to try and explain clearly and analyse a common argument which is rarely discussed specifically, though it is very frequently used in anti-oppression discourse. It is the argument which takes us from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ (an empirical fact which can be checked by observation) to ‘this is an issue about which feminists should take action’. A similiar argument can be used to take us from ‘there are few or no people of colour in science fiction and fantasy novels’ to ‘this should change’.
For the time being, I want to set aside the issues raised by the initial empirical observations (accepting, for the time being, that there are in fact some empirical observations which are worrying), and the issues raised by the conclusions (in particular, the issue of what action should be taken if these arguments are right is an issue too big for this post). Instead, I want to focus on the step or steps which take us from the empirical observation to the conclusion. This is intended to reply to a possible counter-argument which moves from the same empirical observation to an alternative conclusion, i.e. from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ to ‘and that’s fine’. Such an argument might run as follows, expressed briefly:
Premise 1: Women in advertising (as it is produced in Western English speaking countries) are only shown in certain stereotypical roles (the precise roles chosen for them vary along race, class, and other lines).
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: Women seeing adverts know that they are not realistic. Therefore,
Conclusion: Women are not harmed by their stereotypical portrayal in advertising.
I hope that this argument, which I shall call the no-harm argument, seems strong. It is not intended to be a strawman, though I do intend to disagree with it. On the contrary, it has a certain appeal: it accepts the empirical facts about advertising and actual women, and it grants that women are strong enough of mind to resist messages from advertising, which is also consistent with the experiences of at least some women.
However, I think that it does not reflect two aspects of advertising as it is currently practised in Western English speaking nations. Firstly, the no-harm argument ignores the way in which advertising is constant and repetative. I wrote in a piece of private journalling recently about the pain I feel when people, who have accepted that television advertising and programming carries harmful messages, suggest that merely not watching television will prevent the harm. In the UK today, it is impossible to walk down the road or use public transport without being exposed to advertising. Furthermore, a single advert does not truly stand alone. The stereotypes found in one (the woman who cannot think about anything except food) are found in another (the women who only cares about her appearance) and another (the girl-child who only wants to play with a toy cooker) and another (the woman who is desperate to get married) and another… One specific advert is not the problem. The pattern is the problem, because it creates an artificial normality – the world of what we expect to see in adverts – which is, for one thing, not diverse enough to reflect reality.
Secondly, adverts are not only seen by self-aware confident message-rejecting feminist women (we just happen to be ones who talk about them most!). They are also seen by children of all genders, men, unconfident women, and women who know that however hard they try, they will never live up to the beauty standard held by the world-of-advertising. (I think that’s almost all women, but some are born closer to the white-slender-symmetrical-straight-etc. standard than others.)
A new set of premises, then, might look like this:
Premise 1: Women in advertising are shown exclusively and repetatively in a small selection of stereotypical roles.
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: The repetation of advertising images creates an artificial ‘normality’ which is not representative of the real world.
Premise 4: All people who are exposed to advertising may be inclined to believe that some or all aspects of the artificial normality of premise 3 are better than the actual world and should be emulated as far as possible.
From these premises, it seems much easier to draw the conclusion that all people exposed to advertising are at risk of having their opinions affected by it. Premise 3 seems to me to follow fairly obviously from 1 and 2 (repetation creates expectation – if you doubt this, trying singing ‘Poor Old Micheal Finnegan’ with some children of your choice – and expectation implies normality: we expect things to be normal, therefore what we are trained to expect is what is being normalised), but perhaps 4 requires some more support. Can’t everyone be like the strong women of the no-harm argument and simply reject the normalising messages of advertising?
No. And I have empirical evidence for this. Think about it from the point of view of the advertising company for a moment. The aim of the company is to persuade you to act in a certain way (usually, to buy a product, but adverts asking for money for charity, for you to do your taxes online, or to Change 4 Life, all function in the same way). In order to get you to act in this way, they have to create a belief that it is worth the resources (time, money, effort) required to do so. This takes the form of a proposition ‘undertake action X and your life will be better in way Y’. For example: ‘shop at this supermarket and you will have more money for other items’, ‘buy this make of car and driving will become easier and more fun’, or ‘buy our perfume and people of your desired gender will want to have sex with you’. I hope those examples make it clear that I am not concerned here with the truth values of the claims made by adverts, only with the idea that in order to persuade people to act in certain ways adverts must make claims that the requested action produces a result which is desireable to the target audience.
Why, then, are we liable to believe these messages? Partly it is repetation, and that we are surrounded by other people who also believe some or all of these messages (not just people we know: if you differ significantly from the standard, for example if you’re very overweight, strangers feel free to comment). Partly it is that human quirk, wishful thinking: it would be nice if we could solve our problems by buying a certain product, and so we entertain the idea that we could. And partly it is that the advertisers are good at their job, at making the untrue seem plausible. It’s quite likely that one supermarket is cheaper than another, so why shouldn’t it be true that one kind of make-up will make you more beautiful than another? The catch there is that beauty is more complex than price: as I see it, either beauty is not what the adverts say that it is, or it is what the adverts say, but it’s not worth having.
If we accept those premises, then, it seems reasonable to reach the conclusion that advertising as it exists in Western English speaking societies today is harmful to at least some people at least some of the time. If this is true, there is a need for action: what action should be taken is a debate for another day.
I spend a fair amount of my spare time volunteering with GirlguidingUK, specifically as a Brownie Assistant Guider. In fact, I spent my Easter weekend at Pack Holiday with seven other leaders and eighteen girls.
I’ve been a member of Girlguiding since I joined the Brownies at age seven. I enjoyed Brownies, as far as I remember, and mostly enjoyed Guides, although my problems with other teenagers did not disappear when we were at Guides. It did give me real experience of leadership, though, and the sensation of being capable at all sorts of practical things. If I learnt it at Guides, I know I can do it: tie a reef knot, light a fire, pitch a tent, wire a plug, lead a prayer, work in a team, identify edible woodland plants… not all of it directly useful in my ordinary daily life, perhaps, but no more useless than the things I learnt at school that I couldn’t do: use an electric saw, make things in metal, appreciate mathematics, play netball. To this day, my involvement in Girlguiding gives me chances to feel useful, to feel needed, to feel and be seen as strong and capable and worthwhile. It gives me a validation as a person which I don’t get anywhere else; even my academic work (which is often well-regarded and gets high marks) doesn’t make me a useful member of society.
I hope that the girls and young women I work with now find the experiences they have through Girlguiding as empowering as I did. I do think that there is a value in spending some time in women-only groups, and Girlguiding is such a space which doesn’t have the explicit political agenda of a feminist discussion meeting or reading group, though I personally value those things as well; I fear that that political agenda keeps as many women away as it brings in, especially when they are at a young age. I also think that there’s a value in spending time in mixed groups: my balance was that I was in a comprehensive school and a single-gender youth group, but there are many other ways of creating that balance. (A feminist friend once argued seriously that taking children into single-gender groups would reinforce their gender roles. I would argue that it need not necessarily be so, because my experience is that single-gender groups allowed me to break out of my assigned cis-gender woman’s role, and mixed-gender groups were those in which I was, for example, forced to do the washing up while boys watched me and played with knives. That said, I’m sure there are cases – the Scout camp I once visited where the young boys spent all their time playing and the cooking and washing up, things we would have made girls of that age help with, were done by middle-aged women – where the single-gender space reinforces gender roles.)
Overall, then, I think that Girlguiding and its sister organisations have much to offer my society which is good and in line with my feminist ideals. However, I also think that some aspects of our actual practice could do with reform, and that there are elements of our history which are distinctly problematic. For starters, Scouting, Baden-Powell’s original movement from which Girlguiding as exists today in the UK has evolved, was both located in a colonialist mindset, and culturally appropriative in offensive ways. Scouting for Boys, the original (1908) handbook of the movement, is classist and racist as well as jingoistic (the edition I’ve linked to has an excellent introduction which covers those points in more depth than I am able to here). However, we don’t teach from that book today, and I am much more interested in today’s movement: not least because I cannot change the past, but I can potentially alter our actions in the present.
The symptoms of B-P’s ideas and appropriations are visible today. I take song lyrics and other material passed down by word of mouth or tradition to be especially illustrative, and it is especially difficult to change and question. The Brownie Story, the ‘foundational myth’ of the section for members of GirlguidingUK aged between 7 and 10, was updated recently, adding some extra characters (including a girl with a non-English name), and making it clear that we don’t actually expect children today to go off into the woods at night. The colonialist lyrics of the Gang Show theme tune*, however, remain (“we’re riding along on the crest of a wave… and the world is ours”).
* In that thread, note that the very next post after the lyrics, a joke from ‘Bernard’, makes clear something about the underlying assumptions of the social atmosphere in which it exists (e.g. a “loin-cloth clad foreign looking burly bloke” must be a slave).
There are also clearly offensive songs in the Girlguiding singing tradition. I’m very fond of a song called ‘Red Men’, having learnt it in my youth: “We’re the men of the Old Dun Cow- How! All of us are red men, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men (mime cutting throat), Pow-wow! Pow-wow!” (I hope that the offensiveness of this doesn’t need explanation, but if it does, the phrase ‘stereotyping of Native Americans’ is going to be key.) I have heard it said that this is ok, so long as you know where you’re singing it and with whom, and that you’re being slightly offensive. I suspect that this means that the speaker thinks it’s not something for which she’s going to be punished so long as those who hear it aren’t offended or are too young to understand why it’s problematic. That she won’t be punished does not, however, make the action morally right.
In the UK, though, we’re unlikely to have any potential members in the Native American community to drive away. The problem becomes more pressing when in an area with a strong Asian community you are singing songs like this (I give it in full, as it’s short and an extract wouldn’t convey the whole problem):
I live in an itsy-bitsy housie,
I live on the third-third floor,
I take in a big amount of washing,
Frillies on the panties ten cents more.
I like chow-chow better than pow-wow,
I like pretty girl, she likes me.
Way down Honga-Kong,
Bigga man-a come along,
Take away my pretty girl,
I refuse to sing this song, though I’m currently struggling to come up with an age-appropriate explanation which I can give the Brownies about why. (For that matter, I haven’t yet managed to explain to my fellow leaders, who are still singing it.)
Why are there no British-Chinese Brownies in our Pack? The answer seems obvious.
If we did have them, though, I wonder if we would be able to deal with them appropriately. I met a British Afro-Caribbean Brownie once who was being told off for taking much longer than the other girls to colour in her pictures of people. After a few minutes watching her, I realised that it was because where the white girls felt that the colour of the white paper was just fine for everyone’s faces and hands, she was finding pens in different shades of brown and pink and colouring in every area of skin. Colourblindness, colour-carelessness, develops in white children at a very young age, and usually lasts throughout adulthood.
Only this weekend, I found myself asking a group of Brownies to prepare a Brownie’s Own, a short service usually including a little drama, a suitable song or two, and a prayer either of their own composition or chosen from a book. We have a few resources for this, which are both outdated (our songbook is Come and Praise, a fine work in its way but one which contains mostly songs they never sing at school any more), and religiously narrow: the two prayer books are called ‘Prayers for Children’ (on the twee side, and too young for Brownies), and ‘Hello Jesus’ (nicely done, age-appropriate, but unmistakably Christian). I did not feel comfortable handing any of those to the one Muslim girl who is currently in our group. (We wrote our own, with her full participation.)
As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that GirlguidingUK has much to offer British society. (I suspect that offering it unchanged, perhaps at all, in other countries, especially former colonies, has a very different set of implications, in which I’m not well-versed.) Before we can really do that well and inclusively, though, we need to challenge some of the implicit structural and traditional racism which is silently embedded in the movement.
I’d like to end by noting that racism isn’t our only problem. We struggle to make it clear that it’s open to non-Christian members (though it is true non-Buddhist atheists and republicans cannot currently join without lying, as our Promise, the membership criterion, has us promise “to do my best to love my God” and “to serve the Queen and my country…”). We have not yet really addressed the issue of transgendered members, assuming in a haze of cissexual privilege that women just are people with female bodies. And we’re working on including girls and young women with disabilities.
(Tangent: I was once at a Girlguiding conference where we were asked on a questionaire what could be done to get more disabled members. The woman next to me suggested that we “take a hammer to the ones we have.”)
She was joking, but she was also onto part of an answer: this must be changed from the inside. Publicity campaigns won’t help if people are put off by what they find; and if they find something worthwhile, accepting, inclusive, useful, they will stay and bring their friends along too. I think I’ll start by editing my songbook and investigating multi-faith prayer books for children.
Edited 26/4/2009 to add: a very good paper on race in classrooms also happens to note that Brownies is restricted to white girls (page 6).