Sunday, November 09, 2014

Clothing does not the woman maketh

 "Perfect body" - you're kidding me, right?  I flicked through the news item about a petition "forcing" Victorias Secret to modify an ad campaign with a sense of bemusement.  For a start I don't know this retailer at all.  I don't visit underwear retailer quite simply because I feel, well, I'm not exactly their target market.  M&S will do for me.  Or Debenhams underwear dept, maybe.  But something makes me feel "unwelcome" in the likes of VS and its far preceded this AD campaign.

Not that I really have a case to answer for.  I'm probably thinner now than I have been for 28 years.  I weight in at about 9 stone (and I should ad, have probably been around this weight for about half of the last decade).  I'm only 5 foot so that's about exactly right for my height, but thin - well, you know, as I've discovered after nearly 9 years of successful if what some would regard as extreme eating and exercise regimes, well actually I'm not a perfect shape.  I have a middle that is perfectly , well, middle aged, no matter what I do.  I've figured that, yes, I could continue on a relentless mission to reduce my unflaggingly resistant beer gut to nothing, but by which stage I'd probably have to be about 7.5 stone and a size 2 if not zero.  Given that I already have a problem with finding a wristwatch petite enough for my slim wrists, I'd probably be skin and bone by that point.  So while yes, I still work out every day if possible, and very carefully manage my diet on a rigorously low-carb base, I'm not actually trying to lose any more weight, just maintain it.

Anyway this isn't about me, its about you.  Its about all of us.  This obsessive overemphasis on body image doesn't just hurt people who are genuinely overweight, or underweight, or suffering from an eating disorder: it hurts all of us.  It hits our perception of ourselves and others.  It creates unfair distinctions between those who can and cannot attain certain sizes, without any regard to the fact that those shapes are merely the arbitrary result of nature.  It doesn't take into account the shifts and changes an average person experiences over a lifetime, nor does it take into account normal occurrences such as illness, childbirth, poverty or genetics.  It rewards somebody solely on the grounds of having a certain kind of genetic makeup, while punishing somebody who doesn't.

Yet we routinely buy into a whole subculture of fashion, media and society simply on the grounds of this.  We don't really question it, and what is worse that instead of correctly simply ignoring it, we actually reinforce the damage by ridiculing and degrading those who do meet the stringent criteria of this unfair judgment set, instead of elevating those beneath (references to "stick insects" and various other barely-hidden misogynist comments are rife).  It comes through every walk of life, even including areas previously assumed to be immune (the now notorious "Octaviangate" scandal where 5 male critics lacerated an operatic performance by a young artist simply because she didn't meet their psychical criteria).

The reality though, is that we still shop in the very same stores that promote exactly this culture, we still buy the magazines they advertise in, and we often make choices on a day-to-day basic, often unconsciously, that reinforce the very system that hurts most of us.  Why?

One thing I've persistently complained about in the last couple of years is the infantilizing setting in which women's fashion is sold: the blaring teenage pop music, the uncomfortably awkward displays complete with plenty of unreachable rails designed to humiliate anybody under 5'4", the overwhelming overemphasis on sizes for so-called "adults" that are "normal"  only for 12 year old girls.  You are infantilised in so many ways: from unrealistically tiny sizing, from the music and lack of service, from the humiliating communal changing rooms to designs that only flatter a (very thin) 12 year old teenage body.  And yet 95% of women's fashion is STILL sold in exactly this way.

This doesn't even take into account the near slave trade which exists around manufacturing.  The Bangladesh Accord is a great starting place because it explicitly shows you gaping holes where manufacturers choose local, ethical manufacturing rather than sweatshop offshore labour (note the entire absence of Portugal, and the very few Italian designers for example).  It is laughable that what is supposed to be a signatory of a more ethical system is in fact almost a calling card for those accused of exploiting cheap labour the most.  (Which incidentally, isn't unique to manufacturing: IT service providers just LOVE countries without labour standards so they can deny workers breaks, leave of absence, sick pay, holiday pay and cut wages by around 80-90%).  While it is excellent to move as much work as possible into the developing world, it is of little value if it is merely a cynical attempt to undercut workers rights and exploit lower living standards merely to increase net profit margins.

I had a discussion recently on Twitter where I was expounding my desire for a fashion shopping experience based on the more "adult" male experience where shops have a quiet, adult like ambiance and customers are treated as such.  A contact suggested what she described as a "radical" proposal which, when you think about it, sums up the problem: why don't we have female dress sizes that actually reflect female body sizes?  I mean, male clothing sizes take several things into account: waist size, height, chest size and neck size.  Incredibly, men even sometimes have the luxury of being able to select multiple sleeve lengths, as if (laughably) women somehow all have identical length arms.  In contrast, unless you are buying a bra, chest size is basically assumed to be the same in all female sizes, your waistline and hips are also assumed to be similarly proportionate, which incidentally doesn't even take into account height, which often means that if like me, you're short, means that you end up buying a shirt 2 sizes bigger than your shoulder size in order to fit the waist and hips, which fall in the wrong places.

I buy my clothes at a variety of different retailers, mostly mid range ones, in an effort to find a balance between my day to day clothing needs and the sizes and pricing available to me.  It was an extremely depressing experience when I was (very) overweight as the vast majority of retailers just had nothing for me at all.  My purchases were for a few years basically dictated by the very limited choice available, not what I would have liked.  Now that's different, with a bigger disposable income and a small size, I find most retailers have something to offer.  However I still find a lot of them simply pointless.

Thing is, right, even though I'm now a lithe size 8 in trousers mostly my bloomin beer gut means I need a size 12 in a shirt, and sometimes bigger.  Problem is, (thanks to lots of press ups and lateral pull downs), I've very well toned shoulders and upper body, so shirts in standard sizes just don't fit.  Next are good for this, as are Zara (who I suspect cater better for the shorter woman even in their standard ranges).  So I find that even in Mango, I could be wearing any size from Small/8 to large/14, which is annoying.

H&M are another culprit of the cult of "normal sized equals FAT" disease.  Try going in there at any size over a slim built, tall 10 and you won't find anything at all.  I was at the size 8 before I was able to find a single item to buy in this store.  In retrospect I question why I persisted.  If a shop isn't going to cater for me, why should I even WANT to spend my hard earned cash there?  What is wrong with us that we get angry about persistent displays of impossibly emaciated physiques but still want to consume their wares?  Why do we simply not walk straight to the next store and buy there?

A big part of the problem is the lack of choice.  Sure, you can skip the vile Abercrombie & Fitch, but most people who do so simply end up walking into a store with a less aggressive sizist stance, but the same absence of service for anybody over a size 10.  You go home then with magazines and newspapers full of glossy ads of the same emaciated bodies and if you walk into an office you quite probably compete as much on clothing as you do work quality and productivity.

On the last point, its extremely interesting to note the huge variance in individual workplaces.  As a contractor, I have spent a lot of time in 4+ years visiting very different kinds of workplaces with massively different values.  One thing I've noticed is that where there is a largely male workforce, like in a technical company, there is a massive diversity of dress styles for women and no real dominant "types."  However, one thing I've noticed is that in commoditized services companies, like retailers and banking services, where there is a large proportion of women and a workforce bigger than 500 or so, there is a huge swing towards hyperfeminized styling for women.

To suggest this is oppressive would be to oversimplify the gender and social dynamics at play on such sites.  While it was interesting to note that during my time subcontracting at a series of client sites in retail sectors, there was a marked difference between how women dressed on, for example cash and carry outlets (casual), and in purely administrative offices (hyperfeminine).  At least one of my female colleagues noted the same.

The significance of this is linked to the kinds of jobs being done by the women on different environments.  On the sites with less hyperfeminisation, women broadly were doing the same type of work as men.  However, on the hyperfeminised workplaces, women were frequently doing "admin" roles only.  In my current client site, there is a marked difference in style between the women in my own department (largely male and technical), compared to the most administrative service roles in other departments.  Funny enough, one all-female department is actually very diverse.  Otherwise, its extreme girlie for the women, especially in the less specialist teams.  Its not the first time I've seen this.  I wonder sometimes is it an age/education thing?  Generally I find that more educated women tend to be more individualist about fashion, but I could really be generalising there.

Anyway, if we really rejected the subliminal messages of Victoria's Secret and other fashion houses, they would cease to exist, because we'd skip them in favour of old school Bustenhalter retailers of Triumph and other makers that cater for "earthy" women.  But I think there are still enormous gaps in the market where larger or more differentiated women are being failed.  My ex partners current partner told me that she simply cannot buy a bra to fit her at any high street retailer and has to resort to ordering from a specialist mail order service.  This isn't somebody who is especially large or unusually shaped, yet she is forced into the psychical anomaly of "difference" in order to buy a very common clothing item.  Why is this even acceptable?

In fact this question is in itself begging an answer as to why it is OK that the ONLY differentiated women's clothing item is itself in danger of being commoditised to a narrow range of sizes.  For example, recently I was in M&S and delighted to find a very nice design at a reasonable price in the underwear dept that fitted snugly.  But here's the thing, I couldn't help noticing that the basic band size was the smallest on offer.  So it struck me: what if I did actually lose more weight?  Would I then be condemned to mail order retailers?  This is hugely problematic as it would mean being unable to try on in advance of purchase.  You wonder why in this age of increasing diversity of populations, retailers are in fact moving in the opposite direction: catering only for an ever narrowing centre of consumers, while at the same time, struggling to compete as competitors do the same.

In fact, the entire direction that fashion houses are taking is directly the opposite of the phenomenon which Michael Porter et al ( describes in his latest HBR missive: that companies are increasingly catering for the outcomes of customer needs instead of just providing a product.  Yet none of this is hitting the fashion industry, which I suspect is being increasingly hurt by increased re-use, the re-skilling of populations in traditional crafts such as dressmaking, and a tendency to re-use rather than treat clothing as disposable.  Why is fashion failing so badly to move with the times in terms of customer needs?  And why is this almost entirely a gendered tendency, as fashion houses that cater for men continue to carefully cater for a wider range of customer needs?

I suspect the problem is connected to the delusion of savings still linked to the obsessive off shoring of manufacturing in textiles, which is still preoccupying a commodity-minded fashion industry as it tries to cope with the negative CSR implications of job displacement, worker exploitation in the developing world, not to mention the almost complete collapse of end product quality which is the big dirty secret of noughties off shoring mania.

Yet in an industry which actively excludes many consumers, not to mention failing to gather proper information regarding its remaining customers, is there not a huge gap for a more heterogeneous experience, coupled with better quality products, better customer outcomes and in the long run, more customer loyalty?  Increasingly, I am starting to see kickstarters for clothing houses looking to cater for very specialised niche customers (for example, a clothing house in San Francisco which designs masculine styled clothing for butch women and transmen) and I suspect that fashion will eventually be disrupted by such niche businesses.

Also, I suspect that as it becomes increasing more obvious in the textile industry that off shoring has been a failure (as it has long since been quietly recognised by IT services), resulting in lower quality products, more patent abuse, worker accidents and returns that ultimately hurt customer loyalty, manufacturing will slowly be returned to more reliable areas such as the middle East and niche areas in Europe (Portugal for example) in order to restore consumer quality.  In doing so there will also be resumed emphasis on preordering with the end store acting as more of an order house for pre-placed orders, which will enable not only more pithy customer data gathering, but restored trust.  The current trend for ultra cheap but very low quality mass produced clothing may turn out to be nothing more than another fad.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

why I won't be supporting the Russian games boycott

Folks, I'm as unhappy as anybody about what's going on in Russia, but not comfortable with a boycott of the games. I never had any plans to go anywhere near them so this doesn't impact Me either way.

Who it does impact is athletes who've worked & trained hard to get so far, some of whom will be Lgbt and who have enough crap on their plate without the inevitable witchhunt that campaigns like this bring to those who don't conform. (I'm referencing the way artists who plan performances in Israel are currently harassed by boycott campaigners: it would be unfair and counterintuitive to persecute sportsfolk the same way.)

So please bear this in mind when supporting such campaigns. If somebody decides to work in, visit, perform or compete in Russia, this is matter for them too decide, not you or I.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dublin Pride spits at its own history in Fairview Park "Family Picnic"

I was horrified to hear of the venue for Dublin Pride's Family Picnic yesterday.  I think its great we have picnics, yes, and even more delighted that finally the scene is comfortable in crossing the river here to the northside.  Great.  But Fairview Park was the scene of one of the worst atrocities of our gay history.  In 1982/3 an RTE worker, Declan Flynn, a gay man, was murdered there.

Fairview Park in those days had turned into a spot for gay guys to find each other for sex.  Lets not beat about the bush.  I'm neither going to condemn or justify it.  But the fact remains that in a year where we try to rebember his untimely death by murder, its hardly appropriate to throw a family party on the same spot.

My Mum's family are Coolock/Artane and the previous year nearly 50 kids lost their lives in the fire at the Stardust complex in Artane, a badly converted jam factory whose daily alarms I used to hear while playing in my Grandmother's garden on the Malahide Rd in the 1970s.  For years relatives groups have diligently fought, amongst other things, against planned developments by the site owners to turn it back into an entertainment complex.  It would be like dancing on the graves of their dead.

Shame on Dublin Pride for dancing on the site of the murder of one of our own dead.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Absolut Hijack of Pride & the rise of the new queer conservatism

Recently, I was invited to put a few lines together about a kneejerk reaction from a veteran activist on the scene in reaction to a horribly sanitised video by a drinks company regarding pride. I put together a short piece, but though about it after watching the white, eurocentric, middle class video over and over. However I realised how much this debate is bringing to a head a curtural gash in the LGBT movement, between traditional "sexual outlaws" of the past, and the new conservative movement which I've christened "vanilla monogamists" for want of a better word. From my original few words, from my general patterns of writing, and from what I am about to say, I'll admit to being largely biased in favour of the outlaws, for reasons that will become clear.

So what exactly is going on?

As you'll notice from looking at the Absolut video (you can find it on YouTube or, we've all been airbrushed to become 20-35, white, urban, Irish (or at least western), affluent and neatly dressed. No transsexuals, older people, people with extreme visual styles or disabilities. No blacks, no unemployed, and no nasty northside accents or foreign accents. I made the point that if the video was dubbed you wouldn't actually know it was Dublin at all. It was visually so inane and urban it could be any provincial European city. If there was to be a LGBT community of the so-called idealised "one per cent", this would be it.

In reality, like the mythical 1 per cent/99 per cent split, we know the reality isn't that simple. You have affluent foreigners, deprived people with good educations, successful people with mental health problems, disabled people from wealthy backgrounds. Intersectionality (or more correctly, to give its older title, transversal politics) developed to cater for just that: real life doesn't fall into the convenient categories. At the same time we shouldn't over simply differences, especially those of values and culture. However, the real problem with the video is that it imposes a worldview on LGBT life that assumes that the struggles of the past are, well, past. It does not recognise the scars that being LGBT can put on your life. It is the LGBT world of the pampered elite: those who haven't had to live with lack of family or environmental support, those who've fallen foul of unjust laws, those who've experienced real discrimination or violence. For that reason, it makes very uncomfortable viewing for everyone for whom being LGB or T has meant making trade-offs, entering battles, making sacrifices.

For some people that sacrifice was life. So it was for Declan Flynn, brutally murdered by thugs in Fairview Park in 1983. But lets not talk about what he was doing there. Flynn, an RTE worker, was cottaging. For the new puritans, that means like many gay men, and not just of his time, he was out looking to meet somebody for sex in a public place. But that will of course be airbrushed out by the vanilla monogamists. They'll say, he was killed for being gay, and thanks to us, that doesn't happen anymore, because WE don't need it. WE have our cool hipster jobs, understanding families, delighted friends and adoring publics. WE are young enough, hip enough, wealthy enough to sip cocktails in the latest cool hipster gathering with other gorgeous people who adore us. WE are not too ugly, fat, disabled, unemployed, marginalised or just lonely enough to spend Friday and Saturday night at home alone. So WE feel free to sneer alongside hetero conservatives at saunas, bathhouses, sex parties, bear bars, burlesque nights, porn of any kind, cottaging and prostitution, because WE don't need it. Pardon us while we design our cool hipster homes and ideal designer weddings. Nobody thinks for 10 seconds at the fact that some people don't have all of these things and might, might just, hand onto seedier practices of the past in order to get through life, however distasteful this might be to the pampered gay elite.

I can see why this incenses activists. The old outlaws fought repressive laws not because they were nice people who lived nice hetero-esque lives "just like you" with mortgages, babies and tupperware parties, but on the grounds that we were not like you, that you had no right to persecute us for not being you. And so an entire generation of activism has been redrawn to pretend that, as Bret Easton-Ellis wrote a while ago, we are "magical gay fairies" who represent no harm, no threat whatsoever to a (sometimes oppressive) hetero-monogamy with its vanilla bedroom antics and squeaky-clean lifestyle.

The reason that lifestyle exists is because of 1950s and 1960s marketing. The "American dream" was sold as a marketing slogan, not a life choice. It based itself on the most conservative and oppressive of lifestyle modelling - the nuclear family. And its adoption as a societal ideal by an LGBT community terrified by its animal desires and steamy backroom past is cringeworthy. There was a price to be paid for such clean-living perfection in the past and it still haunts us: judgement, blackmail, fear of exposure, shame. And the old outlaws fought the shaming of sexual difference with REAL pride, not sham pride because we're now just like you, but real pride based on being yourself despite all of the odds.

Its high time somebody turned the mirror on the gay community and let it see itself in ALL of its colourful diversity and not just the sanitised, clean-living segments that we never had anything to be ashamed about. Its time we recognised that while its fine and good to want to settle down with your husband or wife in quiet suburban bliss, it does NOT make you superior to the paunchy guy next door who likes a night in a sauna because he doesn't attract the quiet steady type of boyfriend he'd love to have. You have no right to criticise or censor his porn habits, nor have you any right to criticise his or her choice of casual sexual partner, as long as they consent and are of legal age. You do NOT have a right to believe or act as if you are superior to anybody else, because the fundamental raison-de-etre of pride, stonewall etc, was to enable difference to be respected rather than simply elevating one lifestyle as the ONLY way to live.

So next time you choose to turn up your nose at somebody who isn't part of your pampered elite, think twice. Because its because of the fights of the outlaws that people have nice corporate jobs, good public sector roles including roles that involve working with children, who in many cases have legal protections and proper treatment most of the time under the law. And don't you dare try to suppress or silence us because we will fight you just as bitterly as we fought the hetero establishment you now choose to model yourself on.

PS: On a happier note, it does seem that the Dragon, at least, recognises that some folk enjoy a little raunch with their pride.  So on the Sunday after the parade, French porn star Jordan Fox appears in a show in the same bar.  If you like it, do go and tell your friends, and if you don't, well shut the fuck up and go to whatever it is that floats you boat, and let the guys who enjoy this sort of thing enjoy themselves for one night.  Kudos to GCN for once for publishing this article about Jordan.  I'd love to see the "straight" film he made about an opera fan who travels the world looking for the perfect Don Giovanni, but unfortunately it hasn't made it outside Luxembourg.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A call for an end to Baba Politics in Ireland

I've actually hit a point lately where I leave my parents house if the Late Late Show is on the TV, and I resolutely react with horror if I accidentally land on a news broadcast, a current affairs programme, or worst of all, a chatshow. Which is difficult, because for about 15 years at least, about 90% of ALL talk radio during weekdays are chatshows. Even the sports shows are essentially chatshows, indistinguishable from each other to such an extent I personally cannot detect any difference between the Newstalk Spot programme now and the one that allegedly walked off the air a few months ago. Different? I can't hear it, or see anything different.

Unfortunately one thing never changes and that is the persistent infantillism that exists in our politics, and indeed our mindset. This was best exemplified last week in an incredible statement by a family member of one of the sadly perished seafarers that unfortunately are all too often drowning on the waters. I dread to see the red coastguard helicopter flying over my home, because sometimes it indicates a search. Anyway, a family member apparently has blamed the government for their relatives drowning. How about that? Drowning at sea is now the fault of the government. Tragic and sad as it is, as far as I was aware, the government did not have power over bad weather, strong currents or dangerous waves. Nor did it have a magic wand to wave over unsafe work practices, missed safety opportunities, or just plain bad luck. But it typifies the mindset in Ireland of the adult child wanting their life to be "fixed" by a benevolent parental government.

And we have an opposition worthy of such a system. When you were at school the bold boys sat down the back, didn't wear a proper uniform, made smart comments and tried to constantly outsmart the system. We have our bold boys in government now, elected by an idiot savant public who are happy to take the piss out of the system like Dustin in the Eurovision. The Micks, the Mings, the Socialists, Shinners and People Against Profits. Except the Shinners are a slightly more malevolent form: they are the equivalent of the guy who'd box you on the way out, take your lunch money and demand you do what you're told. And like good little children there is no end of morons willing to vote for such figures and give them power. And so they don't provide any credible opposition, instead choosing to indulge in playground games and gratify themselves.

Somebody joked last week that only in Ireland would somebody resign in disgrace because they paid their taxes. Well one of the bold boys has done just that. Apparently a Socialist councillor resigned in shame because a family member inadverently paid their property tax bill. Only in Ireland would "socialists" be fighting for the entitled middle class property owners while nearly a quarter of the population, mostly representing the poorer 25%, rot in the rental sectors. Idiots abound willing to follow this pied piper: I hear otherwise adult colleagues (some Shinners I suspect) who've resolutely refused to pay their tax as a form of "sending a message" or "making a statement." Well guess what: my Dad used to "make a statement" every year by putting his tax return in late. The response was a slap of a 11% penalty for late filling. Like all bold boys, he wore this as a badge of honour, despite the fact that it diminished the rest of his tenuous income by around 5-6%. Those thickos who choose not to pay their property taxes will see it doubled and removed from their wages alongside income tax - meaning somebody with a 300 euro tax and a 150 back charge will end up losing nearly double that. Forgive me for seeming naive or something, but surely all they are doing is giving EVEN MORE to a hated government?

Meanwhile, the slowest voters of them all have reverted to form and are back, cap in hand, to their FF masters. This is the equivalent of Squire Hockey back on his horse looking down on the rest of you peasants. Mehole Martin, a clever speaker, has done his choirboy routine well enough to scrape things back. The problem is, the retards ready to vote for him don't want change: they want their toys back. They want the celtic tiger back as it was, they want the corruption, the political patronage, the bribery, the jobs for the boys (their boys), the glorification of the idiot over the intelligent, smart person. The triumph of the moronic.

We'e missed such opportunities during the last 5 years such as a chance to really change the grossly unfair housing system that created such problems in the first place. With such excess housing, we could have offered social or quasi social housing in hard-to-let/sell rural areas such as Leitrim and Roscommon in order to REPOPULATE their populations lost to decades of emigration at attractive prices, and avoided decay and ruin. We could have let out commercial units simply decaying as bargains to regenerate local business to aspiring entrepreneurs. We could have retrained staff being let go from dying industries in new ones - instead letting these go to other countries. We could have penalised companies who shat their already heavily state subsidised staff onto the dole by pulling their attractive tax reliefs - instead we tipped our cap to them and incentivised them to lay off even more by subsidising redundancy payments. And we continue to tip our caps to the Apples, the Googles, and others, who repay us by secretly allowing other states to them spy on us.

I think its high time we grew up and demanded accountability. From all elected reps, not just the winners. We need a credible opposition, not a back-of-the-class lynch mob. We need an end to the bully-boy politics of Sinn Fein IRA. We need an end to cosy deals between sporting organisations and political ascendancies. Only then, are we worthy of independence, because right now, we've made a dogs dinner of this country, and continue to do so.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Myth of the Male Gaze in queer films about women

I wrote a recent piece for Gaelick on the Cannes prize-winnng film "Blue is the warmest colour" and its controversial sex scenes.  As I had no chance to see the film, I scoured the net to see if there was a website or better still, a blog from the author of the book the film is based on.  And sure enough, there was.  Even better, the latest article about the film and Maroh's feelings about the scenes in question kindly translated into English, which is great as my French is really terrible.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that the author is uncomfortable with the scenes in question, which she found cold and clinical.  This raised a discussion with fellow twitter users (thanks Val in Chicago and Belenen for their thoughts, apologies for disagreeing with you both!) which really led me to this.  I've also intermittently questioned the existence of a distinct "male gaze" with Dr Elly Tams, otherwise known on Twitter as Notorious_QRG, who is one of the few people who actually agree about the levels of presumption that exist about the phenomenon.

Despite my ongoing mission to remove limiting, restictive, highly politically charged LABELS from the world of women-who-sleep-with-other-women I will use the descriptive noun "queer [+women]" for want of a better one.  By this I mean ANY woman, whether cisgendered or trans, who desires, or has a history of desiring other women, regardless of current relationship status.  Sometimes I use the acronum "WSW" as a simile to "MSM" which is commonly used in academic and medical communities to describe people who have sex with other men but may not identify as gay.  I think a similar turn of phrase is badly needed for women as I think even more women are anxious about association with what is now a very strong identity in western society, but still a powerful taboo in non western cultures.

Anyway, it rather struck me that no other bunch of people get as upset about depictions of ourselves than queer people in general.  In the last year I've seen constant complaints about depictions of transwomen (98% of the time justified), gay men (Bret Easton Ellis' diatribe against the magical fairy etc), and queer women too.  But nothing bothers queer women half as much as a good or bad depiction of sex.  A lot of people were really, really unhappy about the L-Word.  Not just the highly feminised embodiment, but its whiteness, its wealth, its blatantly LA-ness.  Of course, as I discovered during my 3 week sojourn around California 4 years ago - this is LA in general, not just TV LA.  It has its quirks.  I think people gradually realised that, and the production company also went out of its way to try to put across different perspectives - women who were not out, or whose families were unsupportive, women of colour, Latino women, women in the millitary, etc.  Class was a weaker issue, or at least its consequences in terms of income disparity was poorly handled, but its gender variance, though obviously biased towards F2M and those born female, was one of the few shows that actually showed some understanding of the complexity of gender ambiguity.  What it struggled with, ironically, was a fair representation of queer women who also like men.  That fell into the laughable clich├ęs you really can only feel once you've been 10 or more years away from he last heterosexual encounter or relationship.  Except they are not really funny when people don't actually realise that these are your own distortions!  The reality, of course, is that whole hetero thing becomes increasingly alien once you've distanced from it for a few years.  Even if you actually quite like men.  Even if you desire them too!  I'm no friend of the uglier side of the radical feminist leftovers, but I suspect a huge reason for their ignorance and insensitivity towards the other gender is simply that its been so long since they properly engaged with them.  Thats why, I think, separatism at any cost is so dangerous.  It allows myths to develop and persist, and no myth is more persistent than the "male gaze."

Many feminists from Irigay to Butler discuss the Lacan notion of engenderment as having/not having the male sexual organ.  In Lacan, the gaze is a state of awareness of being looked at.  In the 70s, writings of Laura Mulvey suggested that of most films being made from the perspective of a heterosexual male viewer resulted in a perspective that was distinctly male and forced the viewed to see through their eyes.  This introduces notions of imposed voyeurism and that even women are forced to view film through the same, notionally patriarchal perspective.  This completely ignores the film making, incidentally, of gay men such as Pasolini, Zefirelli and Jarman, or later female film makers such as Dietch, Rozema and Chaiken.  For example, it assumes different viewpoints that are gendered - this may not always be the case.  It also makes assumptions about masculinity and femininity that simply are not true.  It assumes heteronormative viewpoints, it ignores disparate views within same gendered and same sexualitied viewers and it ignores other issues of worldview and perspective that lie outside the world of gender.  In defies the fact that like the photographers shadow, people who make film may be conscious of their perspective and go out of their way to expand beyond it in film making.  In short, reducing the worldview of the film maker to a "gaze" of any kind ignores the filmmaker themselves and their ability to understand their role in projection.

There was a very interesting article recently in the New York Times about studies for a pill to reinvigorate the sex lives of monogamous women.  Female viagra?  No, not really.  The researchers had figured out that the problem wasn't so much a physiological one as a neurological one, possibly even something emotional.  I posted a link on my Facebook page and it started a little banter with two female friends on this without actually discussing the detail of the subject matter: nobody wanted to mention the war.  We've all one thing in common: we all regularly moan about not being in a relationship.  So here are 3 red blooded, 40-something, gay/bisexual, attractive, lusty females, who aren't quite getting what they want but absolutely the antithesis of what used to be known as "frigidity."  It served as a timely reminder to me that women are not half as simplistic as the media, books or medical sciences would lead you to believe.  One interesting finding in the study, was that through use of monitoring equipment and (don't laugh) lie detectors, they found that women have exactly the same physiological reactions to pornography that men do - i.e. they do become physically aroused, even if they deny it!  This entirely throws away the notion that a "male gaze" is "sexual" (in a hetero male sense) but a female one is not.  And thats where I start from.

The anxiety that exists among queer women about representation of themselves runs not just into sexual representations, but nowhere is it more acute.  That said, every single media depiction of queer women immediately is subjected to a checklist of criteria for values over femininity/masculinity and other aspects that are taken to see the depiction as "real" or "fake."  "Fake", of course, is "bad" and best exampled as the archetype mainstream porn depiction as "curious", hyperfeminine, exhibitionist, inviting in the male viewer as the unspoken third party in an imaginary orgy that is rarely shown.  Mechanics are obsessed over as literal depiction of personal anxieties about sexual performance that I suspect are present though hugely silent in the womens community.  (Like any woman, I've had my fair share of crap shags down through the years and anxietize as much as anydbody to what extend it was my fault?  I guess this is a huge unspoken taboo).  The traditional feminist view of the male viewer is that of a self-entitled voyeur who imagines himself as the active third party in such encounters.  In the most extreme projections this is expanded into some kind of connection to the phenomenon known as "corrective rape" (a term I have an issue with, since it suggests that "normal rape" is not in some sense, "corrective" - all rape is in some way an attempt to force a "lesson" on the victim, regardless of their perceived sexuality).  In reality, however, the imaginary third party, who has invited himself in, is only implicit: while there is a subgenre of porn which shows threesomes, generally the imaginary third man remains just that: imaginary.  So the question I have is: whose imagination is this really?  If its left open to interpretation that the prowess of a male partner arrives to save the sexual day, why isn't this explicitly played out?  In truth, it rarely is.  The traditional feminist will probably argue with me saying that the reason it is not shown explicitly is to avoid placing a specific "other man" in the picture.  I'm not sure about this.  A big part of the "male gaze" is empathetic viewing between the male viewer and male hero.  So why not in porn?  It is, after all, very much part of traditional hetero porn.  At the same time, nobody really talks much about the male hetero performer in male porn - he becomes anonymous in order to relate, perhaps, to the anonymous (and often assumed to be slightly pathetic) male viewer/voyeur.  We're too busy being focused on the lot of the female performer and how women are viewed.  So why does everybody assume that porn is heroic for men?

The truth is that its not.  So many of the plays of porn are in truth, as unrealistic for men as they are for women.  Guys are physically more perfect than ever, especially nowadays, ready to "perform" on demand, they "get lucky" but in reality there have always been similarly restrictive "standards" for straight male porn actors.  We don't look at guys who in any way resemble the perceived dirty mac brigade viewer we imagine is looking at them.  Depictions of men in porn tend to oscillate between the anonymous "I" and the macho man - often accompanied by a level of control that is passed to the woman - but of course, there are so many subgenres for which this doesn't apply.

But to get back to the communal anxiety regarding on-screen sex between women . . .

This anxiety is expressed at all media, whether targeted at a notionally queer audience or a mainstream audience that may include any interested parties.  However, the greatest criticism is reserved for mainstream media formats, especially TV and film.  Its not lost on me that nobody ever criticises particularly filthy depictions of sexual activity in literature.  Indeed, they tend to be widely praised.  Is this because queer women assume men can't read?  One of the 2 bantering buddies mentioned above produced a collection of screenshots strung together of strong females in film/tv and queer women in particular to project on a wall at a BBQ in her Sydney apartment while I was over on holiday.  What to call it: "Its not porn."  Sardonic and droll as the comment may sound, it certainly flickered the notion that ultimately, ANY media containing girl-on-girl action, however redrawn, is frequently seen to be in some way sexualised beyond the actual intention of both writer and performer.  This is what has happened with "Blue is the warmest colour": the writer, Julie Maroh, has described the noted 10 minute long sex scenes as cold and clinical and serving only to titillate a male hetero audience fixated on the matter of "how they do it."  But is that really a fair depiction of male heterosexual viewing habits?  And why exonerate books as being permitted to depict the most lascivious of sexual acts while any media based depiction is unfairly judged as voyeuristic?

The reason I ask, is because, as somebody who has been "out" for a very long time, long before it was trendy or even socially acceptable to be so, this was not the predominant reaction of heterosexual men.  The dominant reaction was of revulsion and fear - fear of contamination mainly, and I find it mildly bemusing that many of the same men now suddenly find the whole thing to be great wank material these days.  The tacit social shift from horror to smutty delight isn't one I can understand.  It in no way reflects the shift around attitudes to gay men that E M Forster once described as a move from "ignorance and terror" to "familiarity and contempt," never once allowing it to be seen as a positive phenomenon.  This, of course, was written maybe 50 or 60 years before the shift I describe above, and still retained that slight teeth-on-edge attitude to male homosexuality that so defines generalised homophobia.

The parallel, of course, is precisely there.  Its no secret that the most virulently vicious homophobic ranting often contains a noticeable element of fetishised delirium.  Nowhere was this more so depicted than in the notorious letter sent to a Dublin TD last year by a constituent perturbed at gay marriage campaigns.  It caused blind amusement when published on the said TD's website simply because of the obvious unconscious fetishisation of male homosexual physicality.  So much so that myself and my youngest sister made a recording of it to dramatise the sheer hysteria of delight the writer must have felt while writing it.  More recently, however, in the context of an article I wrote for Gaelick, a rejected post, which was quite harsh on the subject of an Amercian teenager who is being charged with sexual battery because her girlriend was below the age of consent in her state, drew my attention to the posters blog.  It was an eye-opener.  While the language of the site is clothed in the typical quasi-rational hate-mongering you often get from conservative sites, the writer was female, and specifically unhappy about queer female behaviours.  This is highly unusual, especially the tacit fetishisation that appeared to lie behind both the attempt at rationality and the actual hate.  The writer, I would assume, wasn't actually tearing into the supposed sexual depravity of the young woman she was criticising, she was tearing away at her own deep-seated sexual depravity.

I have occasionally seen virulently negative reactions from (mostly older) conservative hetero women about other womens sexual choices, but unlike those I've previously seen, I've never seen the kind of personal anxiety thats actually extremely common in homophobic hetero males - where it shines through the discomfort that much of the discomfort is actually about their own sexuality (though in fairness - this is not always the reason for a gut level negative reaction - it is presumptous to assume that most homophobes are reacting to something buried in their own psyches - its possible, at least theoretically, that your average homophobe may in fact be perfectly well adjusted about their own sexuality, and simply reacting to something they cannot understand).  So its new to me to see a gut level reaction from a woman that smacks of internal anxieties about their own sexuality, but it makes sense that as queer female behaviour normalises, such reactions will be more obvious.

This has happened more slowly in parallel with the increased social acceptance and legal change around queer life that is marked in the western world, though causing a series of knee jerk reactions in the western world and in the global south (and most particularly Russia), where perceptions are less changed.  Thus the sense of siege isn't entirely gone, and potentially the sense of a fear of violence around it.  This isn't just about voyeurism, fear of violence or invasion of territorially bounded "safe spaces", its a categorical terror of a loss of autonomy that has been generated by fearmongering amongst 2nd wave theorists about bodily integrity, coupled with a lack of engagement with the wider community (and men in particular) caused by a midguided obsession with separatism that has done more harm, causing increasing levels of fear of the outside world rather than confidence building.  For example, a friend, at a meeting for new residents of a social housing block in Cork in the mid 2000s, was struck by the morbid terror of the external world by a group of her lesbian neighbours, whose persistent question for the management company seemed more focused on disconnecting themselves from the rest of the residents (and the outside world) than anything else.  This is a perfect example of that kind of paranoia.

I think this paranoia about the external world has fed into perceptions of pornographers eye biases in visual media.  I don't think it is present, however, in static visual art, except for photography, because of its connotations with "glamour photography."  The paranoia queer woman who has been innoculated for years by complaints of a lack of "representation" in the media is persistently disappointed with depictions that do appear because they do not exactly meet her need for self-representation.  In other words, she demands not only that the media depicts her, but that it is biased to see through her eye.  In a community as diverse as the queer community, this is generally impossible.  Therefore, the assumption is made that no effort was made to account for self-invasion of the maker in the media, regardless of whether it actually was considered.  The demand for absolute precision and personalised depiction is the problem here.  In fact, it exposes the deeper problem that is common to the entire gay community, regardless of gender: that the community is not culturally monolithic and has not been for a very long time, where a large cultural rift has emerged between old-school "outlaw" gays who defy society, and "conformist" gays who want to unite with greater society.  Nowhere is this rift more gaping, and more unspoken than in the womens community.

Yet the appearance of any film, TV series, or indeed any large scale artistic endeavor that encompasses a queer-centered approach to storytelling, is greeted with whoops of delight in queer womens circles.  For example, BBC's Lip Service - despite a largely fantastic storyline worth of a soap opera, it never failed to delight viewers.  The depiction of infidelity and a Hollinghurstian, almost gay male format of promiscuity, actually delighted the majority of viewers, despite the sense that it wasn't realistic.  This said an awful lot, I think about queer women: far from being po-faced and victorian in sexual mores, some queer women have hearty sexual appetites and would delight in a wider and more casual range of sexual opportunity.  It has been lamented by some commentators of the lack of any effort to write about such unbridled passion, and given the level of serial monogamy and infidelity on women's scenes, it seems surprising.  The problem, I think, is that so much of this goes on in a disorganised, unpredictable, and sometimes surprising pattern.

In short, I think the unease about presumedly masculine-centric depictions of female sexuality has fed back into more repression, not less.  Such fears serve only to limit the boundaries of sexual oppotunity, not expand them.  Obsessions with the "realism" of representation trump the fact that 90% of hetero and gay male moving media depictions are far from accurate, yet nobody seems to worry about this.  So I think its high time that we permitted ourselves the opportunity of unbridled fantasy and the expansion of that fantasy beyond base realism.  Who knows, we might get off on it too.