Thursday, 13 December 2012

The House I Live In: houses no women

I went to a film screening on Tuesday, in an old warehouse in Hackney, feeling unimaginably cool. They served organic popcorn. Arguably, one could even say, more underground than Girls Aloud.

The film was The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki. From the website's blurb:
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN captures heart-wrenching stories at all levels of America’s drug war - from the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge. Together, these stories pose urgent questions: What caused the war? What perpetuates it? And what can be done to stop it?
It is astonishingly good, with a compelling cast of characters; with heartbreaking stories and academic discussion and cutting statistics expertly wielded to argue its point with devastating skill. Imagine The Wire, in documentary form - and fittingly, David Simon is one of its most impressive talking heads.

But I walked out thinking - and I'll be honest, this is possibly my most used phrase - what about the women? How can a film be so intelligent and incisive about the subtle interplay between class and race in the US blithely skim over the third player in the unholy trinity, the Axis of Evil Oppressions that cut through the lives of virtually every person on the planet?

It's not that women are absent from the film - a fair selection are present as academics, commentators, and interviewees sharing their stories. But just filling a quota doesn't mean that you're engaging with the issues that affect women.

There's a moment where two jaded cops are chatting about how to solve The Drug Problem, and one of them goes off on a rant about how addicts should be "spayed". It's a scene which is played for laughs (laughing at them, not with them), but, as I couldn't stop myself from muttering, "That would be hilarious if they didn't actually do that".

There are a number of cases where women convicted of drug charges have been offered reduced sentences if they agree to use contraceptive implants during a probationary period. Chew on that for a second: quite apart from being a violation of their right to a family life, a violation of their right to control their own fertility, and a fairly obvious eugenicsy attempt to stop the 'wrong' people from breeding - it's also imposing an invasive medical treatment on someone against their will. It's not like saying "you must promise to use condoms for three years" - it's saying "you must accept this implant, and the side effects that go with it, for three years - or you will go to jail". (Common side effects include disruption of the menstrual cycle - I know a girl who had one long period for four months straight after getting this implant - along with nausea, weight gain, headaches, mood swings, anxiety, acne, and depression.)

That's just one little way that gender comes into play in the War On Drugs, just one nugget of information I've gleaned from years spent idling my time away on the feminist blogosphere. I'm guessing that there are about a million other ways that it intersects - but this film wasn't interested in exploring them.

Responding to a less coherent version of the above rant on the bus home, the Flat-Boyfriend argued that gender "wasn't the story they were telling" (while conceding that "it never is"). But it is. It's part of your story, whether you tell it or not, because there is no part of our society that isn't touched by the patriarchy in some way. It's just that too many people don't bother to tell it.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

People are the same as each other! Also, people are different to each other! Theory is hard.

When saddling up my social justice steed (his name is Binky), I find it helpful to keep two things in mind:

1. People are pretty much the same
People are just people, you know? They sleep and eat and worry and poop and gawp at the stars and try to do good things, not do bad things, and not put socks in toasters. They fret about their loved ones and fight with their partners and try to make their lives better, whether they are Bedouin ladies living in the Jordanian desert*, or my mother.

It's easy to demonise people when you can put them in a little box marked Other, and see them as entirely defined by the thing that makes them different to you - as if all of the man-gays spend literally 100% of their time having massively gay sex up the chuffer, and all Muslims are just 'all pray all the time'.

Basically, if someone seems to be THE EMBODIMENT OF ALL EVIL, or REPRESENTING THE DOWNFALL OF CIVILISATION, think about them making a sandwich.

"His name is Jeff. He and his partner Simon just had a terse exchange of emails about whose turn it is to buy loo roll."
"Erm, EEEVIL... no, I've lost it."


2. People are not all the same
And yet! The fact that something is true for you does not mean it is true for everyone else on the planet. For instance, the original version of that sentence above was 'They sleep and eat and worry and lust...' before I remembered, hey, asexual people exist! Something which I see as absolutely fundamental to The Human Condition is in fact completely irrelevant to a significant chunk of humanity. A gentleman may be overjoyed at being approached by an alluring stranger in a lift - but with the situation reversed, a woman is more likely to be edging towards discomfort, if not terror, at being hit on by a guy in an enclosed space with no escape route. Just because I imagine I would find wearing a niqab uncomfortable and demeaning, doesn't mean that's how Muslim ladies who choose to wear it feel.

You can fill in your own examples, I'm sure. People are pretty much the same, despite superficial differences! Also, people are different from each other, and you don't know how they feel about stuff until you ask them! Both true. Both important.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Well, little Jimmy, LIFE isn't fair

Me, 1992: "But, mummy, why don't we just get all the money in the world, and take it down to the South Pole, and count how many people there are in the world and how much money there is in the world and divide it equally between them? Wouldn't that be fair?"

This kid is my imaginary spiritual mentor. "Yeah but WHY?"
 To give my wonderful mother the credit she deserves, in response to this question from her six year old daughter - probably while she was trying to mark some homework, or mow the lawn, or get back to sleep after I'd woken her up at two in the morning - she not only debated the merits of my argument, gave me a brief precis of socialism and communism, and told me stories about getting interrogated at the Czechoslovakian border in the 1970s, but she did not once fall back on that old parental staple: "Well, darling, life isn't fair."

Calling something "childish" is the ultimate conversation-stopper: if your line of argument is deemed childish, it's game over, and you've lost. But, actually, a whole lot of this social justice thing is based on that much-derided, undeniably childish complaint: "It's not fair".

Because it's not fair that women earn less than men across the board, for example. It's also not fair that only the uterus-enabled can make babies, but there's not much we can do about that - but the pay gap? Is eminently fixable.

It's not fair that some people are discriminated against and derided and raped and murdered because they're trans. We can't go back in time and magic them into a body which fits their gender identity, but we can stop fucking them over now.

It's not fair that some people are born with a rare genetic disease and some aren't, but fixing that isn't within our purview: making sure that our buildings and toilets are accessible to them is, because holding our meetings up "just one step" isn't fucking fair.

I could go on, but you get the point, right? No, little Jimmy, life isn't fair, but there's a difference between Unfair Stuff we can't change, and Unfair Stuff we can. Saying "well, suck it up: LIFE isn't fair" is a cop-out. It isn't fair. But we can make it fairer.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

the old jaw jaw: now endorsed by Richard Branson *

You know that feeling of complete bewildered disconnect, when something so unutterably bizarre happens, when you're sure you've picked up the wrong life at baggage reclaim?

Yeah, well: Richard Branson is wearing a jumper that I knitted. If you were wondering, it's meant to be a lemur; I've been staring at the damn thing for so long that I'm reasonably sure it looks more like a turkey wrapped in tin foil with the gigantic head of a particularly evil cat, but hey.

It's, uh, a long story. Happy Christmas to you all.

* This blog is not endorsed by Richard Branson. Opinions and sweary words all my own.