The Bechdel-Wallace Test, as reimagined by me, part 10


A good friend of mine, and one of those most excellent men who are also feminists, commented yesterday that the reason that Peaky Blinders isn’t about the period during the First World War when Helen McCrory’s character ran the gang is because Peaky Blinders is about the post traumatic stress disorder suffered by the men who returned from the war. Which is true, and a fair point. But my own point also still stands, which is that someone, presumably the writer and commissioning editor, made a choice about which story to tell. And they chose to tell a story about men. They could equally well have chosen to tell a story about women, but they didn’t, and I suspect that the reasons I listed yesterday are accurate.

This is not, of course, to say that Steven Knight and whoever bought his idea thought consciously that women were boring, men wouldn’t watch them, and that gender discrimination* should be the order of the day; I’m sure they didn’t. But I think they did tend to believe, probably without even being really conscious of it, that stories are generally about men, with men at their centre and women reacting to the men, because that is what our society teaches us.

Which leads me on to another thought which has been buzzing round my head recently; the reason why some TV series and films are so insanely popular. Take Sex and the City, for instance. When it first came out, I loved it, and commented to a chum that it was the first TV show I’d ever seen that reflected my life. She laughed, and pointed out that I didn’t live in New York or wear designer clothes or hang out in insanely fashionable bars and restaurants. Which was true. But equally, as a single professional woman I didn’t spend my time in a nuclear family either, or as a male detective or time-traveller, or drilling for oil. I was overwhelmed with joy to see women on screen, the heroes of their own stories, hanging out with their mates, as I did. The same went for Friends, which was strictly gender equal. Mamma Mia, although an excellent musical and film in its own right, I’m sure succeeded so wildly because middle aged women were just so overwhelmed to see themselves depicted positively on screen, rather than as the usual mother figures or bunny boilers, mad, sad and dangerous to know. Call The Midwife is an excellent series, but its vast popularity probably has as much to do with women being delighted to be able to watch a bunch of other women doing stuff in their own right rather than in relation to men, as to the quality of the drama.

More shortly.

* Other forms of discrimination are available. Sadly. Not to mention the whole shitty swamp of intersectionality, which is why you so rarely see dramas starring a black lesbian detective in a wheelchair, although there seems to be endless space for white able-bodied cis male detectives.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test, as reimagined by me, part 9


I’ve been thinking about this whole issue of the representation of women in popular culture recently, spurred on by a thread attached to a Facebook post by a friend of mine about the TV series Peaky Blinders. Now, I have to admit, I know pretty much nothing about this particular series, other than that a lot of people like it a lot, and I said as much on the thread, adding that the trailers had never spurred in me the slightest desire to watch it. A mutual friend commented that it isn’t fair to judge anything by its trailer, with which I totally agree. However, I did make the point, which I think is correct, that since trailers are specifically designed to give viewers a taste of the series (or film, or whatever) which may be taken as representative of the series itself, it is absolutely valid to decide on the basis of the trailer that you’re not interested in watching that particular product of our culture.

A further thread by the same friend about McMafia spurred another comment from me, along the lines that I hadn’t watched it and didn’t want to, based on the trailer. The McMafia trailer, like the Peaky Blinders trailer, featured lots and lots of men, plus the odd woman, but mainly men, doing *ironic inverted commas alert* “manly” things like running, shouting, fighting, etc. The women were, as far as I can recall, standing there looking either tough or appalled or sexy. I elaborated in my comment that I was sick of series (and films) which showcased men and mainly featured men and had women only in ancillary roles, and had no interest in watching any more of them.

When I made a similar comment in the Peaky Blinders thread the friend who commented about trailers remarked that there were in fact some strong women in the series. I went onto Wikipedia for a look, and indeed there are quite a few. Which is good, but, to quote one fan website:

“While the cast is predominantly men and there’s plenty of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and stylized violence, Peaky Blinders is very much a show about women and disrupting women’s roles in a post-war society.  I’ve said it before, but to reiterate the point, the supporting cast, particularly Polly, could keep the show running if Tommy were to be offed.  That’s how important her and the rest of the dames are in this series.  Cheers to you, Steven Knight, for giving the media landscape strong, realistic, intelligent female characters we can’t wait to see next season.” (My italics)

I absolutely maintain that I’m not that interested in shows in which there is a relatively small peck of women to a bushel of men, clearly there because, you know, FEMINISM. But even here, in a show about which this can be written, the cast is predominantly men with women in the supporting cast, and the fact there are strong realistic intelligent female characters who are, y’know, important is considered something we ought to be grateful for. Oooh, oooh, thank you, Mr Male Writer, for being so generous as to give us in your manly series some female characters whom we’re actually interested in watching! (NB If you think this is me being a bit petty, try reading the above passage back, substituting “woman” for “man” and vice-versa and transposing the male and female names, and see how weird it sounds.).

Well, fuck that. Why is it Cillian Murphy who is the leading character, and not Helen McCrory? Why is the series not about the period before the show started, when McCrory’s character ran the gang? Why is it not the men who are the supporting characters rather than the women, eh? EH?!? I’ll tell you why not. Because women aren’t interesting enough. Because men won’t watch a show about women. Because men are still valued more highly than women in TV world. Because of systemic gender discrimination in the world of TV and films, that’s why. Grrrrrr.

More tomorrow.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test, as reimagined by me, part 8


At long long last another post on the subject of feminism, at least obliquely. Yayyyy! This series (which has been so interrupted I might as well call it an occasional series) is about a number of the books, TV series and films that I love, from the point of view of how those artefacts of popular culture depict women. The title, The Bechdel-Wallace Test, is a fairly well-known test which commonly run on films to see how they depict women. It’s a pretty simple test: to pass it, a film (or book, or TV series) must feature a conversation between two named female characters which is not about men. Simple, no? And yet it’s astonishing how many highly acclaimed, successful, and otherwise excellent films do not pass it – there’s a list here. It’s usually dubbed the Bechdel Test, but Alison Bechdel, who popularised it, prefers it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test to acknowledge the fact that the original idea came from Liz Wallace.

You will have realised (or remembered) by now that the reason I’ve picked these films, books and TV series is because they all without exception, feature absolutely kick-ass female heroines. In fact, Snowcrash, the book with which I started the series, wouldn’t actually pass the test. YT, the female protagonist, is pretty much the only major female character in the book, and whilst she does have several conversations with her mother which aren’t about men, her mother isn’t named, as far as I can recall (other than being called Mom, of course). However, YT does have a lot of conversations with herself, all of which are faithfully recorded, and she really is so totally and completely amazing as a true feminist heroine that I decided to completely forgive this.

More shortly.

Christmas Intermission: “HOPE & SOCIAL | WHAT A YEAR”


And so… my traditional Christmas Intermission, in which I post about something Christmassy and reflect on it. This year, Hope & Social playing What A Year in Otley Courthouse with a whole lot of other people with handbells. I post this every single year because I absolutely love it, and if you haven’t already seen it, I strongly recommend you watch it, partly because much of what follows won’t make sense to you otherwise, but also because it’s fabulous. Well worth six minutes of anyone’s time!

So (I mean, apart from the Christmas hats and the elf with a laser pointer, obviously), why is this particularly Christmassy? And the answer is, because it contains a lot of the things that make people happy – genuinely happy, not the fake neo-liberal happy that comes with mindless consumerism. Working together with others to accomplish something. Cooperation. Laughing. Being in the moment, concentrating in order to do something which is almost, but not quite beyond us. Being challenged, and meeting the challenge, together. And celebrating together when we succeed.

Look at the smiles on everyone’s faces as they get exactly the right notes at the right time. Look at the rapt concentration, and the growing sense of excitement as they realise they’re doing it, they’re making it work, and getting close to pulling it off. And, at the end, when they bring it home perfectly, exactly on the button, the cheers and joy, and then the spontaneous celebration as everyone raises their bells in the air and rings them triumphantly. Such a stupid simple thing, and yet it makes them all so happy. And it makes me happy, too – I love it, and it brings tears to my eyes every time.

For these are all the things we seek at Christmas. Being together. Singing and laughing. Celebrating. Belonging. My brother-in-law remarked this morning that one of the lovely things about Christmas is that it’s celebrated so widely around the world, everybody doing the same thing (more or less) at the same time (more or less). And yes, it is of course a Christian festival, but it’s also a non-Christian human mid-winter festival as well, a celebration of light and life in a time of darkness and cold, a celebration of community. So many people around the world come together at this time, whether they are Christians or not, in a spirit of love and togetherness and hope for the future.

As Hope & Social say, what a year it’s been, and not always in a good way. These have been some very bad times for us woolly liberals. And yet there is hope, in coming together, in the so many times that good people have stood up and said “No. This is not right. Not in our name”. In the numbers of people who are wanting to see more equality, more commonality, more sharing, more coming together and working for a truly global future. And as people are discovering, there is more happiness, more real Christmas joy, in working together to achieve something meaningful than in any “must-have” gift.

So, in that spirit, make mine a large one, and I’ll drink to a day and a year full of joy and meaning for all of us. Wherever you are, however you are spending it, and whoever you are spending it with, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and joyful New Year.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 14



And that was about it, really. We had one more day of lying around relaxing after our epic swims, and then we flew home, back to the greyness of a British November and a Lido which was a full fourteen degrees colder than the water in Barbados, which was a rude shock to the system, I can tell you. Which leads to the question, holiday: marks out of ten?

First off, I should say that I’m in an incredibly privileged position, being able to mark a week in Barbados out of ten, rather than just dream about it, and I’m totally aware of that. And from the sun, sea and sand angle, it was amazing. The beaches are beautiful, as good as any of the pictures in the holiday brochures, and the weather is glorious.

The swims were brilliant!

On other fronts, the organised swims were fantastic, and the company second to none. We had a couple of fabulous tours of the island and saw some glorious sights, including the north west coast where you definitely can’t swim because there are no beaches. The Atlantic ocean rolls in unchecked and carves the cliffs into fabulous caves and extraordinary, razor-sharp rocks. It’s a sight to see, especially on a bright sunny day when you can stand by a sink-hole carved by the storms and watch the waves rush in and boom and spray beneath you. And there are other sights we didn’t see, including some beautiful gardens in the interior of the island. And of course, there were also the turtley awesome turtles, which I’ve already written about.

Animal Flower Cave, in the island’s north west.

So what wasn’t great? First off, it’s a small island and dependant on tourism, and a lot of the tourists are very wealthy, which means, as you’d expect, that it’s very touristy. Almost everywhere seems geared to tourists. Personally I prefer to get a bit more into the day to day life of a place, which didn’t seem that possible in Barbados. First off, many of the local places seemed to be located in American-style strip malls behind the beach road, so they weren’t that different to being in a bar or sandwich place anywhere else. It seems a bit spoilt-bratty to say I want the authentic Barbados and then complain that it’s not sufficiently picturesque, but it was a choice between pretty for the tourists and functional for the locals. I guess that’s what I mean by very touristy – all the nice beachy bits had been snaffled by hotels and tourist places.

I also didn’t feel that I would be comfortable or, perhaps, safe, exploring around on my own as I have done elsewhere. I suspect that’s not particular to Barbados but is a feature of any place where there’s a lot of wealthy tourists and a lot of unwealthy locals. I have to add that all of the locals we met were absolutely lovely and there was only one time when I felt that any of our party might possibly have been in any danger, and it was brief and minor. Nevertheless, the whole place felt to me as a tourist as though it was divided into the bits where I was supposed to stay corralled and the rest of the island. It’s very hard to judge on a week and I’m aware that this may be entirely unfair, but I didn’t get the sense of a place which I could just wander around.

Also not great, from a touristy point of view, was that it wasn’t really possible to swim anywhere, any time, because of the preponderance of jet-skis and motor boats off every beach. We did swim, but nervously, and with one eye looking out for motorised lunatics who might not have seen us, which isn’t very relaxing, especially when you want to be concentrating on the glorious sea life below you.

For me particularly there were a couple of other disappointments. Firstly, the food. Barbados is an island and I’d been hoping for some lovely seafood, but the standard tourist fare was a Bajan Barbecue, which was generally a choice of barbecued fish or meat with rice and beans and macaroni. It was nice the first time, ok the second time and a bit boring the third and subsequent times. This is not to say that we didn’t have some lovely meals, but the Bajan Barbecue was a bit too ubiquitous for my taste. The other issue for me, as a hearing-aid wearing deaf old bag, was the music. OMG, the music! Amplified wrap-around pop music which was REALLY LOUD and also, sadly for me, ubiquitous.

But these are small niggles, and probably say more about my unrealistic expectations of what the Caribbean would be like than anything else. And, happily for me, they have a greater effect on the question of whether I would go back than on the week I had. The important things, the people and the experiences, were amazing, and thanks to that, I had a fabulous week. As for the Barbados Open Water Festival, if you’re looking for a wonderful open water swim, in beautiful surroundings, I can recommend it!

At the airport, having marked the holiday a strong 7 1/2 out of ten. Cheers!

And that’s it for What I Did On My Holidays. Next up, another intermission – Christmas!!

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 13



So, Clare and Anne set boldly off* into the waves. The rest of us, including Mick, an incredibly strong swimmer, walked along the beach parallel with them, carrying their gear, keeping an eye on them and scanning for boats or jet-skis, ready to beckon them in or head out to assist if needed.

In fact, no assistance was required. They were both swimming strongly, handling the big waves with no problems at all and making exceptionally good progress. Considering that Anne in particular had been, only twelve months before, nervous about her ability to swim even a kilometre in the sea, with support, it was a cracking good swim.

About half way along we met Sam, Anne’s son, who advised that other members of the party had turned up at the hotel beach and notified Chris that his wife was attempting the swim back from the café with Clare. Heroically, he plunged into the waves to swim with them; somewhat less heroically, he underestimated their speed and ended up quite a way behind them.

The two ladies, meanwhile, calmly carried on until they were level with the hotel beach. There was one point just before the man-made breakwater where there was less coral and it was easier to swim in. I knew from my own experience that it can be difficult to sight the right place from the sea, so I stood at the correct spot with my bright pink flip-flops held up like those paddles that ground crew use to direct aircraft to the right spot at airports; Clare said when she landed that they made it very easy to see the right spot, so my willingness to make a tit of myself wasn’t wasted.

The two women came ashore to huge congratulations, including from Chris when he caught up. It really was an amazing swim, not just for the accomplishment but because they had been willing and able to do it, having increased hugely in both confidence and ability over the week. Two more fantastic performances to add to the weekend’s haul!

More shortly.

*Yes, that is grammatically correct, according to the Star Trek rule.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 12



One of the lovely things about our group of swimmers was that we were not all distance nuts. There were quite a few other less experienced swimmers nevertheless doing the fun and guided swims, and doing them very well. I’ve got huge admiration for swimmers tackling any distance which is a challenge for them, and the challenge is no less if the distance is shorter. Swimming in open water is pretty challenging in itself (my young friend who couldn’t swim in a straight line to save her life being a good example), and particularly so when there are waves to take into account.

Clare and Ann were two of our less experienced swimmers, both tackling bigger distances and waves than they were accustomed to with aplomb and growing in confidence every day. On the day of the big swim a bunch of us had lunch after our exertions at a small café on the beach road about a mile from the hotel, those of us who had done the swims luxuriating in our achievements. Once lunch was over Clare and Ann announced that they were planning to swim back to the hotel. It wasn’t a huge distance, true, but there were big waves rolling in and breaking. Furthermore, because of the way the beach shelved very gradually, it was shallow for a long way out, which meant they would be swimming a fair distance from the shore. It was, I have to say, a pretty chunky swim.

More shortly.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 11



You will remember that we left our hero, Mick, swimming towards the wrong side of the finish buoy, the disaster of disqualification beckoning and those of us on the beach shouting and waving increasingly frantically in a vain attempt to direct him to swim around the buoy rather than past it. Had we still been in swimming costumes it wouldn’t have been a problem, as one of us could have gone out to intercept him, but we had all changed and were covered up in long sleeved shirts and so forth to protect ourselves from the sun on the shadeless beach. What, oh what to do?

In the panic of the moment I thrust my phone at Helen with a cry of “Hold that!” and plunged into the waves towards Mick. Within a few yards I’d managed to get his attention, not surprisingly, since I was waist deep despite being fully clothed, and getting deeper. It was the work of a moment to direct him the right side of the buoy and return, dripping, to the beach. As we applauded Mick home Helen returned my phone and helped me to dry out my wallet, which had been in my trouser pocket the whole time. It’s lucky that Barbadian currency uses those plastic notes that can take a ducking without incident, as, indeed, can I, and the rest of my clothes were light cotton which, in the 30° heat, dried in a jiffy. Problem solved – hooray!!

Mick’s was not, however, the only heroic swim of that day. More shortly!

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 10



Those of us who had swum shorter distances were standing on the beach at the finish line and we could see Mick swimming in, aiming for the wrong side of the buoy. Earlier in the competition there had been an official stationed there to direct swimmers to the correct side. She was needed, as there were a lot who automatically aimed to go outside the buoy heading straight to the beach, which appeared much more straightforward than the correct course, requiring a sharp turn around it to come into the beach. Unfortunately at this point she was nowhere to be seen, and despite our shouts and gestures, Mick was swimming doggedly towards the beach on the wrong side.

I can’t be surprised about this at all. It was at the end of a long and tiring swim, he was probably on autopilot just aiming for the shortest way into the beach, and as for our antics, it’s incredibly difficult when you’re in the water, particularly swimming front crawl, either to understand shouts or to correctly interpret gestures. This is why Swimtrek teach their swimmers a small number of very clear and unambiguous gestures which their guides use to instruct the swimmers in safety and other matters whilst they are in the water. Importantly, there are pretty much static, so that you can clearly interpret them even if you have to glance up two or three times to do so. The gestures cover such matters as “Stop”, “Swim to me”, “Go left”, “Go right”, “Circle back”, “Are you ok?”, and “I’m ok”. Unfortunately there isn’t a Swimtrek gesture for “You’re going the wrong side of that pesky buoy, Mick”, and all our jumping, arm-waving and shouting was doing no good. Mick ploughed on, to the right of the buoy.

Well, what does it matter? you could be forgiven for thinking. Buoy, schmuoy, who cares if he goes left or right provided he finishes the race. The problem, of course, is the rules, designed to ensure that everyone swims the designated course without cutting corners, so that places can be allocated based on the times recorded by swimmers’ timer chips as they run up the finish funnel. Times are recorded in seconds, so a swimmer who cuts off a few yards by going past a buoy rather than round it can gain valuable time. There were paddle-boarders stationed at every buoy on the course to make sure that swimmers rounded them on the outside for this reason, but, as I say, no-one at this buoy at this moment. If Mick swam to the wrong side of the buoy and then finished, he would be disqualified. After ten k and more than three hours, disqualified! Disaster beckoned!

More shortly

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 9



You will remember that yesterday we left our heroes bemused by the vagaries of the swim course, which required us to swim to the right of one particular buoy except on the final lap, when we had to swim to the left of it. I actually didn’t have a problem remembering this since, if there’s one thing I have in mind at all times during a long swim, it’s how I’m going to get out at the end of it.

This is possibly why I’m not a particularly good marathon swimmer. I can’t do this “Swim to the next feed” thing, which always reminds me of revision for exams, when I would spend hours and hours staring in desperate boredom at my notes while I tried to memorise facts and figures, with only the prospect of a five minute break once an hour to sustain me. How swiftly those minutes flew by, and how long were the hours in-between!

I know that this isn’t the point; you’re supposed to “fool” your brain into thinking just about this bit, now, which is eminently achievable, and not about everything else. This is an excellent idea if you can achieve it, in marathon swimming as in everything else. However, my brain ain’t fooled. It knows perfectly well how long it has to swim and wants to be at the end of that time as soon as humanly possible. Thinking “Oh, let’s just swim to the next buoy/feed/break” are met with the sneering response “Oh, yeah, and what about the bit after that? What about that, eh? Eh? Come on! What about that!?” In some ways my brain is way too smart for its own good, which is not a humblebrag, more an observation that my life would on many occasions be a bit less of a struggle if my brain were more easily fooled.

Mick is more Zen than I am, and possibly better practiced at fooling the cynical bits of his brain, since he was clearly not, as I was, thinking each time he swam past the last buoy “TWO more laps till I can leave that b*stard on my right and get out, ONE more lap until I can leave that b*stard on my right and get out…” The result of this was that, when he reached the end of his final lap, he aimed for the right of the buoy in question rather than the left.

More shortly.