Good families make good Neighbours

This is a bit shaming to admit but here you go: I am a Neighbours fan. Neighbours is the only soap that I choose to watch on purpose. This has not always been the case. I’m a child of the 80’s and can remember when it became “big” but I wasn’t an avid watcher then and only really began to fall for its charms a couple of years ago. I am not addicted: I could miss an episode and I wouldn’t be devastated.

To be honest, missing episodes is not going to exactly impair my understanding of the storylines or characters’ motivations. The Wire, it is not. I am fully aware that much of the plotting is ridiculous, repetitive and predictable.  Some of the writing and acting is not always brilliant. But, it is fun. It can exhibit comedy genius; sometimes intentionally. The writing is often tongue in cheek and quite knowing. Frequenting the Facebook “Art of Neighbours” group can also add greatly to the amusement.

Its appeal is also due to its cosiness. It’s the TV equivalent of chicken soup (out of a can). Most of the people of Ramsey Street are “good people”. In Ramsey Street, bad people are always found out and punished before leaving. Unless they repent, reform and become “good neighbours”. The community spirit found in Neighbours and other soaps does not hold up a mirror to any reality that I have experienced. I do not spend all my spare time on my street with other people who live there. Travelling to another part of the city I live in or indeed a whole different city is not that exotic or difficult. Whilst the sense of community in soaps may seem nostalgic I don’t think people live like this 50 years ago either.

However, peel away the caring and sharing and moralising and you reveal a dark side. For a start, Nick Griffin would love living on Ramsey Street. And not because of the general store’s proximity. Ramsey Street’s not exactly multicultural. It is also heteronormative. I cannot recall any gay, bisexual or trans charaters. Please let me know if there have been (the recent brief peck on the lips between Donna and Sunny was a platonic gesture).  Characters with disabilities are only featured if it is relevant to the storyline and if they are regular cast members they recover miraculously. Basically Ramsey Street welcomes all careful white, middleclass, heterosexual, able bodied, cis people. Oh, and you must have a family or show sufficient interest in starting a family.

Soaps love family and Neighbours is no different. Families are the building blocks of their funny little communities.  The adult characters nearly all have children. The only biologically childless adults at present are Elle and Toadie. But Elle looks after Donna and Toadie fosters Callum, so they also are parent figures. In the past, other characters have often had previously unknown children suddenly appear or indeed long lost parents, brothers and sisters. There are currently 9 children living in Ramsey Street who are being cared for by someone other than the parent/parents they grew up with (I’ve not included Bridget Parker who is adopted). This is rather absurd for such a small cul-de-sac. Whilst the writers may need young characters and therefore parent-figures to attract young viewers, it does mean that they end up creating a world where it is decidedly abnormal to be grown-up without being a parent or carer.

Steph recently expressed the view that she did not want to have anymore children. This was considered acceptable because Steph already has one child and pregnancy would increase the risk of cancer returning. Thinking back about a year, though, when Rosie an ambitious young lawyer didn’t want children, the assumption seemed to be that she couldn’t really mean it and she was being silly and it was just her own issues and prejudices getting in the way of her making the sensible decision and not letting down her husband, Frazer. Then obviously she became pregnant, had an epiphany and changed her mind, realising that she was maternal. Phew, what a relief! And there we were worried that she just a cold, heartless, career-minded bitch! Similarly, when one of my favourite characters, garage owner and amateur boxer, Janae left the series, the reason given by the script writers was that Janae realised she wasn’t ready to be a mum to boyfriend Ned’s long-lost son Mickey. If you can’t handle being a parent then you need to get out of town., much like those other bad eggs who won’t reform into good neighbours”.

The status of characters seems to be tied in with their parenting kudos. Donna’s mother, is the only recent bad mother. She was characterised as manipulative, unpleasant, gold digging, self-centred and whorish. She was literally hounded out of Ramsey Street. Susan K. on the other hand is characterised as warm, wise, firm, kind, funny, determined and morally untainted. She is a super mum. As well as raising her own brood of Kennedy’s she has also raised Rachel and Zeke Kinski, (the children of the husband who bridged the two marriages to Karl) and considers them to be her children as much as Libby, Billy and Mal. In addition she is now effectively “mum” to Ringo and Sunny who lodge at the Kennedy residence. As if this wasn’t enough, this week she “reached out” to the Ramsey children and badgered them into moving into Ramsey Street so she could mother them too (eldest sibling Kate is giving her competition though with her own determination to be the new “parent”). A warning here to other fans- there is a spoiler coming up… So good is Susan that she is about to offer to be a surrogate mother so that Libby can have another child. Susan K’s status couldn’t be higher. She is without equal and the all conquering Queen of Ramsey Street.

Lately Neighbours has been infatuated with motherhood in particular. Current storylines include the impending motherhood of pregnant teen, Bridget Parker; Libby “not coping” with not being able to carry a baby following a miscarriage; Steph offering to be a surrogate to Libby in spite of the implications for her health and the death of single mother Jill Ramsey. Other recent plots revolved around the relationship between Donna and her “bad” mother and Bridget discovering her adoptive mother had paid off her biological mother.

The writers’ seem to aim to make the state of pregnancy as perilous as possible. Libby and Steph are willing to endanger their own health and “risk death” in order to be pregnant. Bridget and her baby’s health is put at risk by a falling theatre set. It’s as if the script writers need to wage war on all our medical advances that have made childbirth less dangerous for western women. It’s difficult not to see this as rather twisted. Whilst these “risks” are intended to add excitement they also mean that the women become more vulnerable and more martyr-like. They also have to endure more physical and emotional pain. Ultimately parenthood is seen to be worth all the pain. By increasing the pain and risk, the magnificence and importance of parenthood becomes even more pronounced. Life is not worth living if you do not have children.

Neighbours is not real or even realistic, but it does hold up a wobbly mirror to society and its views, reflecting and exaggerating underlying assumptions. I know I shouldn’t take it seriously (after all, it doesn’t) but the problem is that it feeds back to viewers that choosing not to have children is a less valid choice than choosing to be a parent. It does not state this information obviously as an opinion that we can choose to disagree with. Instead it emits it insidiously. Its world view that you “must create a family” is innate and shown as the one true right way of life.  I would love Neighbours to have a wider range of characters with different ways of life, showing that their choices are not less valid. Not having or wanting children does not make you bad or reduce your worth as a person. Meanwhile I will probably continue watcing, ignoring/enjoying its silliness and wishing for the return of Janae.

 

* Callum, Mickey, Donna, Zeke, Ringo, Sunny, Ramsey1, Ramsey2, Ramsey3.

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Violence vs. Motherhood

The murder of Darlene Haynes, reported this week, like any untimely, violent death is horrific and tragic. In this case, the horror is magnified: Darlene was 8 months pregnant and her murderer stole the foetus. The baby girl  has been found and has survived. The grotesqueness of the act is shocking but it is the intersection of violence and motherhood that disturbs us. And it is this that has raised the profile of the murder.

In our society women who are ‘good’ mothers are saintly and women who are ‘bad’ mothers are beyond criminal. Television and film are full of celebrated good mum goddesses and villified satanic bad mums (something that I had been about to write about in another post). Similarly, women who want to be mothers get the thumbs up whilst women who do not want children are still wrongly considered  abnormal. Haynes’s death jars with all expectations of maternity.  Women who want to be mothers are gentle, caring and self-sacrificing not selfish, violent killers. Of course hurting people is wrong but we are  more outraged by violent women than violent men. The fact that a woman with a deep desire to be a mother would also be capable of committing a violent murder is ‘unnatural’ to our society. Mothers, children and mothers-to-be are high on the list of who we consider vulnerable and worthy of special protection in crisises. That Haynes was taken advantage of rather that protected and reveered goes against our expectations. Or at least our hopes. That someone could in effect steal motherhood from Haynes makes her death all the more frightening.

In the reports in the British press there has been no mention of other family, friends or a partner. The implication is that Haynes was alone and now her baby is alone and motherless. The Washington Post adds detail though:  Haynes’s boyfriend of several years , Roberto Rodriguez, had moved out the previous month. It had been an abusive relationship; Haynes had survived dosmetic violence.  Haynes had three other children. Two were being raised by her grandmother and the youngest was in state custody. Rodriguez has stated that Haynes was a “nice girl” who had “her problems” (hmm, you, perhaps?) “… but no one deserves to go through what she went through”. No shit?! No one should need to affirm that someone did not “deserve” a violent attack. So with his denial Rodriguez actually implies that Haynes could be to blame. This is ridiculous and offensive. I really hope that the mainstream media do not take Rodriguez’s lead and try to squeeze some victim-blaming into their coverage. My sympathies go out to Darlene Haynes and her loved ones.

The burqa, hijab and women’s rights

The French governemnt  may consider outlawing Muslim women from wearing the burqa. Fadela Amara, a member of Sarkozy’s government and an activist for Muslim women’s rights, has said that she would support a total “banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms”. But whatever we may feel or think about the burqa, many Muslim women wear them through choice. Surely, taking that choice away is a violation of their freedom. It is not up to us to decide whether a woman who chooses to wear the burqa, or indeed a hijab, is oppressed.  If we go down the route of thinking that all women who wear the hijab are victims then we are merely strereotyping . I suspect many women feel more subjugated by the stereotypes  than their clothes. A total ban on the burqa would just be an alternative form of oppression.

The wearing of headscarves in French schools was banned in 2004. Whilst other religious garments and ornaments were also banned, the government openly acknowledged that their real aim was to remove Muslim headscarves. The reason given then for this attaack on freedom was that the wearing of headscarves did not fit in with the republic’s secular values. The same concerns are being repeated now about the burqa. But liberté is at the centre of the republic’s values. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right in the French Republic and freedom of expression is a basic human right. It is strange and wrong that France is attacking something that many wearers see only as a symbol of their religion, not as a straitjacket.

I teach 5-6 year olds in an inner-city primary. At the beginning of the year, none of the Muslims girls in my class covered their hair. Now they nearly all do. I have to admit that my first automatic reaction was a slight feeling of sadness. I wondered if the girls saw it as a nuisance or if they felt a loss at all. But I imagined how I would feel in their position. When I was 6, I worshipped my mum, other ladies and older girls in general. They had so many exciting badges of their grownup-ness and importance. I longed for slip-on shoes, earrings, a handbag and a woollen t-shirt like my mum’s. If I was a 6 year old Muslim girl, whose mum, sisters and friends wore  the hijab, I probably wouldn’t mind wearing one. I think I would have nagged my parents to let me wear one. The girls’ hijabs vary greatly. Some of them are pastel coloured and elasticised, designed so that they are child-friendly and easy to wear. Others are made of silky fabric and decorated with beautiful patterns and sequins. In other words, as a well being religious emblems, they are fashion items used to express individaulity.

When I asked one of the girls whether she liked wearing her hijab I was prepared for a big, resounding ‘yes’. The girl I was chatting to is usually happy, polite and quite softly spoken. I was surprised then, when she replied “no!” rather fiercely. “Uh oh” I thought. But it turned that it wasn’t the hijab that was the problem, so much as its colour. She only had the one hijab. It was purple and she hated purple. Her favourite colour was blue. A few days later she turned up to school wearing a new sky-blue hijab and a huge smile. Interestingly the other children in the class do not seem to notice or care that some of the girls cover their hair. It does not cause any problems or divisions.

I do understand why some people are uncomfortable with children wearing hijabs. They are traditionally worn when girls reach puberty so the very item that is meant to ensure ‘modesty’ can also be seen as signifier of sexual maturity. But I’m pretty sure that the families of the girls in my class are not focussing on this aspect of the hijab’s symbolism when they introduce it at an earlier age. When you are in country with a culture predominantly different to your own, you can end up emphasising your own culture and traditions.  I think this is understandable and human. Maybe this why some girls living in the UK wear the hijab when they are young.

Recently I read “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The heroine of the book is Amal who is 16 and lives in Melbourne. The book is aimed at teenagers. At first, the author’s insertion of her message into the story can appear a bit heavy-handed but the heroine’s voice soon becomes less clunky and more believable. The book, as a whole, is funny, moving and interesting.

 Amal smashes stereotypes. She is intelligent, outspoken, ambitious and funny. She is openly a feminist. Although, her family believe that you can be a good Muslim without wearing the hijab, when she feels ready, she decides to wear it. Wearing an emblem of her religion, makes her feel happy and she feels closer to god because of it. When the head-teacher assumes that her parents have forced her, Amal is surprised and when she hears people whisper ‘oppressed’ in the school corridors she is frustrated that she is misunderstood. During the story she learns to question her judgements about people and to try to understand other’s viewpoints even when she disagrees. Although this message may not be original or surprising it is one that is important.

Thinking Pink

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In western culture pink has become synonymous with femininity and homosexuality and is often used as a signifier of gender or sexuality. Historically, this has not always been the case. For a long time there were no such gender-colour relationships. Then, in the 1920’s, blue was aligned with girls, because of it was associated with the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness and seen as dainty. Pink was seen as being suitable for boys and men because red was a masculine, more definite colour. In the 1940’s this became inverted into the norm that we now experience. This is surprisingly recent, considering how imbedded in our culture this relationship between colours and gender and sexuality is.

Whilst in the past many 2nd wave feminists may have sidestepped pink in order to avoid conforming to stereotypes, for sometime now many different voices have been reclaiming pink and femininity. Femininity is not less legitimate or ‘good’ than masculinity so why shouldn’t femininity be a valid choice?  After all, feminism is about equality and freedom. If a feminist cannot choose to wear make-up, jewellery or pink, then this is not really freedom. So we have girlie feminists. We have CODEPINK. Under its hot-pink cover, Ellie Levenson’s The Noughtie Girls’ Guide to Feminism, carries the message that “you can be feminine and a feminist”. We also have Pink, the singer, who is involved in ‘take back the night’, amongst other charities and who took back control of her own career when she felt that her image was not true to her. The colour is good and bright and fun and strong.

But sometimes we are not getting the freedom to choose pink; sometimes it is forced upon us when companies stereotype to such an extent that the pink options far outweigh the others. This is especially noticeable if you try to buy sportswear. When I looked for trainers in the “suitable for sport” category in a large sports shop, if I wanted pink on my feet, there was LOTS of choice; if I didn’t, there were plenty of others… so long as I wanted touches of baby blue instead. The ladies’ footwear corner was awash with pastels. The large men’s footwear selection was a mixture of neutrals and primaries. When I have looked online, pink is actually used to designate that you are in the women’s department, even if the options are much better than those I experienced bodily in a ‘real-life’ shop.

 Elsewhere the choice is worse. The ‘UK Boxing Store’ do sell ladies’ gloves, pads, headguards and shorts. But if you want the headguard or shorts, the only option is for a certain bubblegum hue… because obviously a girl who chooses to box would definitely want to wear pink (maybe she would but maybe she wouldn’t). I don’t know if these  stores are trying not to stereotype sporty women as ‘butch’ or they presume that women will want to balance the supposed masculinity of sports with a pretty feminine touch… I just find it weird: pastels do not dominate other high street shops in the same way. Fashion shoe and clothes shops do have a much wider choice.

The choice again becomes narrower if you are shopping for children. Whether you want clothes, toys or general toot, children’s goods are highly gendered. I suppose it starts with babies. We can’t tell which gender babies are automatically so we label them. I imagine, that even if you decide to clothe your offspring in yellows and greens that you will presented with other less neutral items as gifts (not having a baby myself please tell me if your experience differs to my assumption). In my local tesco, if you want to buy party bag fillers, there are primary-coloured toy fighter planes, bright green bouncing balls and fluorescent water pistols. Alongside these, there are hot-pink glittery pens, pale pink and purple plastic pencils and pink lipstick-shaped rubbers. The ‘feminine’ colours are used mainly for stationary and the solid masculine colours are used for more active toys. In Victorian tescoland little girls sit and write passively and little boys do not. Obviously we know that this does not reflect the real world which is thankfully not so simple. Many of the young boys I know, love to write and would have loved a pen instead of a ball… but not pink one!

Whilst I think Ellie Levenson must approve of her new book’s pink design, I also remember at a Ladyfest discussion on feminism a couple of years ago, politcs lecturer Sarah Childs expressed deep frustration that  the books she authoured were automatically put in pink jackets because the titles featured the word ‘women’ as well as ‘politics’.

 Although I like pink, I also like other colours. I own some things that are pink and many things that are not. But pink is still used to signal ‘female’ and to stereotype us. Turn away from one stereotype though and you slam headlong into another: girls like pink vs feminists are not feminine. So, I’m wondering… how does this impact on our ‘freedom of choice’? If we wear pink whilst living as feminists will we be able to change the image of feminists and feminity? Or will the number of pink products increase until we’re drowning in a sea of cerise? Whether you love it, wear it, hate it, shun it or aren’t really fussed, I’d like to hear: what do you think about pink?

BNP voters, racism and migration

943,598 people voted for the BNP. UKIP, who aren’t much better, actually came second. Alot has been written on this but I don’t feel that I can ignore it. The mirror being held up to our society is just too frightening. Blame has been directed at the expenses scandal, Labour, the BNP’s rebranding . Apathy, protest votes, fear and recession all played their part but so did real racism. There seems to be an undercurrent in all the commentary surrounding this that the BNP have come by their vote by conning innocent nonracist (if stupid) members of the electorate into it. The BNP have attempted to veil  their true extemist nature and many who voted may have been unaware of the implications their real agenda… but this does not mean that the voters were  innocent of racism. I think that there are alot of misunderstandings still surrounding racism, its definition and its nature. Many of the people protesting that they are not racist just don’t get that they are. Amongst others things, a myth still persists that only actions or comments directly intended to be racist should be classified as such. Many of the voters who we may think were ‘fooled’ by the slogans ( “it’s not racist to oppose mass immigration and political correctness – it’s common sense”) are fooling themselves. There is no excuse for voting for the BNP.

Much of their campaign was,  of course, focussed on  ‘immigration’ . The word has become loaded with massive negativity and the BNP worked it to full effect. Migration has always been a part of our history.  If the BNP had their way and reversed immigration, the country would come to a stand still. Migration is not crime- we need it.

Fight the BNP at Hope not Hate.

Thoughts on Parental Leave Postponement

Coincidently, on the same day of Sir Stuart Rose’s denial of gender inequality, it was confirmed that deatheateresque business secretary Lord Mandelson had managed to ‘delay’ the government’s proposals that would enable parents to share parental leave. The recession is being blamed for their postponement but Dark Lord and ‘businesses were not exactly fans of the measures before the economic crisis. Business’s profit 1 Individual’s rights nil.

Labour’s plans were based on a pledge they made in their 2005 election manifesto. The proposals were not perfect but they would have been a start.  Both the conservatives and liberal democrats have policies for extended parental leave that actually appear to improve upon Labour’s by increasing flexibility. I prefer the Lib Dem’s policy overall (they also want to expand free children care and flexible working) but realistically I have to assume David Cameron will be moving to Downing Street in the not too distant future and pushing the tory package (greater choice in childcare = more options rich parents can pay for). It would have been interesting to see if Harriet Harman managed to get the proposals past The Dark Lord following the recession but it seems extremely unlikely that the government is going to make it that far. Instead we may have to wait to see how the tory’s policy fairs against business opposition.

In the meantime we can contact our MPs to ask them to press the government on implementing the proposals. We ask that they urge them to strengthen the equality bill. The Fawcett Society’s website has some brilliant resources for acting: letter templates and petition links on various campaigns including the equality bill, discrimination against pregnant workers and within the square mile.

The Apprentice, Bitching Women and The Glass Ceiling

It’s going to be an all female Apprentice final. This should be something to celebrate. It is brilliant for many obvious reasons: visible role models who have been successful and who are intelligent, ambitious and not relying (primarily) on their looks etc. However, alongside this positive message finalist, Kate Walsh’s various comments give less cause for rejoicing. Her lack of empathy for other women and egocentric view of the bigger picture have left me indignant. I had warmed to Kate and quietly supported her but in this week’s show that changed. As I watched Kate coolly smile through her interviews it was revealed that on her application she had written that her biggest challenge would be working with an “all female team”. Why? Apparently, women bitch, moan and whine… in her experience. She does not like bitching, moaning or whining. She prefers to be a lone ranger amongst men. And with that injection of lazy, harmful stereotyping I watched my quiet liking plummet over a steep cliff to its squishy demise. I was cheered up by Karen Brady as she took Kate on a slow-burning dance up a cul-de-sac. Her route was carefully planned to cause Kate to moan and whine, then to come out in support of moaning and whining, before Karen calmly pointed out her hypocrisy. Yay for Karen Brady.

In commenting on this I am aware that I am entering some sort of headache-inducing vicious circle where I am moaning and bitching about Kate moaning and bitching about moaning and bitching. Phew. The words are heavily caked in cultural implications: moaning and bitching = bad, women talking = moaning and bitching… women talking = bad.  Are they actually negative activities? For a long time now there have been many examples of feminists fighting attacks on female voices by reclaiming the word ‘bitch’ as positive. Furthermore moaning and bitching is not just a feminine trait- it is human.  Men and women sometimes bitch and moan. Sometimes it is annoying and negative; sometimes it is vital and cathartic. But women, like men say and do much more than bitch and moan. They communicate in a fantastic variety of ways and, importantly, they actively do things.

 Following Kate and Yasmina’s success in the semis, I came across a little Guardian piece hopefully titled, “Apprentice finalists fired with ambition for women”. Yasmina and Kate hope to ‘inspire’ other women. So apparently Kate does see herself as a role model. Whilst we really need more strong female role models, we really don’t need them to spout negative generalisations attacking women. It is Yasmina though who is quoted as hoping to “speak a lot of other girls” and “inspire”. Hopefully she will continue to be a more empathetic role model. Meanwhile Kate’s input was the killer assertion that the glass ceiling does not exist. The press association give more space for her comments. She appears to try back up her claim by pointing to Margaret Thatcher and Michelle Obama. Strong women, yes. Proof that glass ceiling has gone, no.

Kate, has done well in business. She has not experienced a ‘glass ceiling’. Surely though, common sense should dictate to her that not every woman’s experience is going to be the same as hers. Just because she has not encountered a glass ceiling (yet) does not mean that it does not exist. She wouldn’t have had to look far to find someone with a different experience. Semi-finalist Lorraine admitted she has found difficulties in trying to balance being a great mum with having a great career. The result: she felt her career had suffered, as had her self-esteem.

Kate’s opinion seems to be a scarily popular one at the moment. Only a few days earlier in his interview with the Observer’s Elizabeth Day, Marks and Spencer’s chairman Stuart Rose had smugly dismissed women’s “moaning” and the existence of any glass ceiling or indeed any gender inequality. What on earth was it that women wanted now he asked? Apparently he knows some women who have succeeded, he can even give a name, so obviously there’s not a problem, is there?

The facts do not support these assertions: only 9% of directors of the UK’s top 100 companies are female and the pay gap has increased so that women earn 17% less on average than men. Yes, women can break through the ‘glass ceiling’ and some do. Of course this should be celebrated and used to inspire people but other people still encounter direct and indirect discrimination. Even if we feel that employers are not discriminating in the way they pay and appoint, a system weighted against women impacts on what decisions we make. They are affected by a culture where, amongst other things, men cannot take parental leave for more than 2 weeks, flexible working is not always possible in higher paid roles, 30 000  women are fired for being pregnant every year and women who wear make up are like to be promoted. Some people do have genuine freedom to choose but for many it is any illusion.

Maybe Kate’s denial of the ‘glass ceiling’ is linked to fears about being seen as a moaning bitch or as a ‘victim’ if you state that there is a problem. Whilst we do need to take some responsibility and act as well as moan if we want to achieve in the work place, it is okay to admit that the system and culture should change. Change would not be a kind deed to women, tilting things in their favour. Change is needed to level the field; to give women and men the same opportunities. Recognising this does not make you less strong.  Acting and campaigning for equality, as well as for our own individual careers, will make us even stronger.