They come for the artists first

shepard-greaterthanfear-copy-768x1024Like many people across the world, the words of Pastor Martin Neimoller have been foremost in my mind these days.  Set on permanent repeat actually.  A bass chorus chanting under my daily conversations and routines ever since Trump assumed occupation of The White House, and particularly in light of Holocaust Memorial Day.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a communist.

I am assuming you are familiar with the poem and its chilling reminder of how dictatorships begin and where they end.  If not, I advise you to commit it to memory and keep its message close to your heart in these troubled time.

But this morning I realised something important: the poem is wrong.  They—the big, faceless (well, no longer faceless, actually), all powerful, fascist THEY do not come for activists first.  They come for the artists.  Upon realising this, I felt stupid for never seeing it before.

As a second generation Drama teacher, actor, writer, singer and advocate of the arts, I have always known that The Arts frequently go unacknowledged and under-appreciated.  In my student days at an American High School, I raged about the fact that The Speech Team I competed and regularly won for never received the same sort of recognition given to the football team who regularly lost.  Out amazing, talented, hardworking Music Department had to sell candy bars every year just to afford the basics of uniforms, instruments and travel expenses.  I never once saw the sports teams having to do this.  It enraged me.

Thirty years later, as a teacher of The Arts, little has changed.  Arts programs are always the first to go.  Artists accept this.  We hate it but we accept it.  We are not viewed as essential or important or necessary to the world, no matter how deeply we know in our hearts that we are.

But this morning I woke up and realised I had it all wrong.  Not only are we essential—of COURSE we are essential—but those in power know we are.  The Big, Bad They knows exactly just how essential and powerful and necessary artists are and that’s why The Fascist They is terrified of artists.  That is why artists become targets, and not just for budget cuts.

Who did terrorists attack not once but twice, in 2011 and 2015?  Charlie Hebdo.  A magazine.  Why was Charlie Hebdo targeted?  Because of art.  According to inside sources, Trump plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Corporate Broadcasting.  Even before assuming office, Trump began a Twitter war with the artists of Saturday Night Live and Hamilton and, of course, with the press.

In the seventeenth century, Cromwell shut down the theatres.  Before him, the medieval church did the same.  Both Cromwell and the Church he despised believed the arts were sinful and dangerous.  In the cast of the latter, this did not apply when the arts were used to glorify their version of God.  Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain—all suppressed the arts through censorship and media control.  It’s practically step three of The Dictator’s Handbook: control the artists.  If you can’t control them, shut them up.

Why?

Because The Big Bad They knows artists have power.  Possibly more power than the military or the agitators of the opposition.  Art stays.  Art expresses.  Art hits us in the head and the heart.  Art makes us laugh at the people who want to scare us.  Art changes everything.

jimmy_c_anne_frank_street_art_berlin_10081In English classes, I teach about the importance of art in World War One propaganda.  How poetry and poster art rallied the reluctant to the cause.  A century later, poetry is all that remains of Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and August Stramm.  Anne Frank never meant to use her diary to change public understanding of The Holocaust, but it did.  She showed the world what it lost through the experiences of one little Jewish girl and her family.

And what did we see in the streets last week across the Globe?  Wave after wave of art in the form of protest signs.  The craft of knitting on display, topping the heads of the mob in fabulous pink.  And music: glorious, noisy chants and song.  Poetry from the podium.  Angry art on the march.

Hitler knew about the power of The Arts.  He was an artist himself and he used art to manipulate the image of Jews.  Music too became an important rallying cry for German Nationalism.

But The Art must be controlled.  It must serve The Them.  It cannot be allowed to flourish.

So what?

My history teacher was forever asking us: So What?  Why is this important?  Why do we need to know this?

Because we have to keep making art. It is an essential part of the resistance.  Keep arting, keep acting, keep writing.  Keep expressing your truth and sharing it with the world.  That last part is essential: share it with the world.  If you are not an artist yourself, become a supporter of The Arts. Go to galleries, concerts, theatres.  We need art more than ever now.

Fascists fear art, so we who wish to resist have an obligation to be their worst nightmare.womens-march-on-washington

Isn’t it all a bit rapey: Sansa Stark and the Line in the Sand

got_wallpaper__sansa__season_three_by_mcnealy-d5ujhgiTwenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago).  While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin.  Yeah.  THE G.R.R.M.  The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction.  Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah.  To this my mother said one word: FICTION.

This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort.  What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate?  Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men?  Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?

‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M.  ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.

I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont.  But there is a wider issue at stake here.  What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction?  Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space?  Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?

And what do we do about rape?

This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me.  As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss.  He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are.  These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do.  Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three.  That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it.  The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).

But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”? 

I love it when people use that word.  As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived.  Rapey.  Rape-like.  Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish.  Because of the truth of it is too much.  Too much truth.

This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.  A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow.  Another woman was raped on television.  I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt.  It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.

Another woman was raped on television.  Enough.  The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough.  I get it.  I really do.  I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.

One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books.  Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion.  I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei.  Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me.  Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.

Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different.  What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark.  The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya.  Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to?  Hell yeah.  It’s far more painful.  I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly.  Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.

Another woman was raped on television.  “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue.  True.  Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated.  True.  But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.”  It was horrendous.  I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience.  When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest.   And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life.  But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television?  Should we not attempt to represent it at all?  Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?

What do we do about rape?

This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction.  I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world.  The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road.  Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.

Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life.  Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape.  For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser.  Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties.  For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types.  If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored.  To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.

But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation.  As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way.  The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience.  Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response.  It worked on me.  I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.

Was it awful to witness?  You bet.  Was it unnecessary and excessive?  Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay.  Sansa knew what was coming.  None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion.  The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together.  Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another?  Possibly.  But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality.  Why would it start now?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans.  I totally understand why, but I do not agree.  I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting.  The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it.  Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull.  I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.

If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly.  Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated.  Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience.  Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?

Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence?  Totally.  But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific.  Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out?  No.  Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?  Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity.  There is violence, suffering and horror.  Any fairytale can tell you that.  But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way.  Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show.  This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.

I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud.  I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons.  Here’s hoping.

A Question of Comic Art

Emma_Frost_(Earth-811)I have recently become a fan of comic books.  Sorry, graphic novels.  Mostly because of my husband.  That’s what happens when you marry a geek.  You learn stuff.

While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff.  Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything.  Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.

As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art.  Predictably, it was about boobs.  To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe.  It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels.  Realism and proportion were at issue.  The conversation soon evolved into something more.

It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection.  Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs.  Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous.  I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.

This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion.  You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable.  My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.

I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous.  The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image.  But that is a minor point.  My main issue with the argument is one of equality.  Cause there ain’t none.

ThorWCAnytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong.  Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on.  Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women.  Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact.  You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none.  There never has been.  We live in a patriarchal world.  Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.

If this still confuses you, let me break it down.  A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it.  But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks.  That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it.  Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy.  Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects.  Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality.  There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.

But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys.  Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want.  What they have always wanted.  What they are hardwired through nature to want.  And that cannot change.  Ever.

Bullshit.

Not bullshit that men desire women sexually.  Lust away.  It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with.  Even more the idea that men can’t change.  Of course they can.  We can.  Humans are adatable.  We’ve been changing and evolving since day one.  You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?

And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument.  Boys will be boys.  That’s men for you.  Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis.  I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time.  I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.

sandman1_deathCulture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women.  Culture can change it.  Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to.  Patriarchy benefits men.  If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus?  Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why.  Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice.  And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women.  Plans that do not always benefit all men.

Lots of men get this.  They truly do.  I know many men who identify themselves as feminist.  One of those men said something once I will never forget.  He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters.  “I have never believed this to be true,” he said.  “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change.  It is an act of respect not hate.  It’s an act of love.”

Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books.  Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men).  But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel.  The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do.  I’ll help you do it.  I’d like that.  With respectful anger and love.

 

 

 

 

The poster was totally asking for it.

It’s been a very long time since I last committed an act of civil disobedience but, as you can see, the poster was totally asking for it.

10492375_10152595739093659_7632263138585660036_n

This is not the first time I have seen this particular poster.  We’ve met on several occasions, exchanging glances across the short distance outside of a multistory car park.  It tempted me, I know it.  The insidious, misogynist message.  The graphic imagery straight out of 1950s era pulp fiction cover art.  The victim-blaming propaganda pouring from its tight-fitted lamination.

This poster was totally asking for it.

And so, after a lengthy period of intense flirtation, I acted.  I ripped it down.  I shoved it into my car.  I kidnapped it, defiled it and then stuffed the ruined remains in the bin.10410861_10152595740718659_3437244459888679975_n

Of course, before its final desecration, I had to make it understand just what it had done wrong.  But that would be selfish.  After all, I had the supreme pleasure of tearing down the poster.  I decided other forces should have the opportunity to vent their anger.

My daughters are aged ten and five.  Ten and five.  I wish they lived in a world where this poster didn’t exist.  I wish they lived in a world where a lot of things didn’t exist.  But I cannot let them live in a world of ignorance.

I didn’t tell them what to think.  I asked them to tell me what they thought of the poster.  My girls did me proud.

‘What does the poster show?’ I asked.

‘Someone scared.’

‘Someone getting murdered.’  The five-year-old is a bit more bloodthirsty than her sister.

‘Someone?’  I asked, emphasizing the last syllable.

‘A girl.’

‘And what is happening to her?’

‘Someone is hurting her.’

‘Someone?’

‘A man.  Probably.  It’s usually men who hurt women.  I don’t know why.’  My ten-year-old looked solemn as only she can.

‘Who do you think the poster is meant for?’

‘For girls,’ they chorused.

‘Who do you think it should be meant for?’

In unison they pointed to the disembodied black hand wrapped around the woman’s face.

‘Why?’

‘Because the hand is doing the murdering.’  That was the five-year-old again.

And here is where I took over the lesson.  There were many things I wanted to say but I have no desire to terrify children.  I kept my message simple and honest.

‘Two things I want you to understand about this poster.  First, if anything happens to you that makes you scared or hurt or uncomfortable you can tell me and I will be on your side to help you anyway I can.  Second, if anything happens to you that makes you feel scared or hurt or uncomfortable it is not your fault.  Not ever.’

For a moment, they both looked from the poster to me and back again in silence.

‘Can we tear it up now?’ asked the five-year old.

10561820_10152595739863659_7967071806040704692_nI gave them each a pair a scissors.

To the well-intentioned people of Harrogate District Community Safety Partnership, I have this to say: you should know better.  I realise you have a message to convey and I suspect, at least I hope, that you and I are on the same side.  We both want to keep women safe.  This poster and its message will not keep women safe.  It will keep them scared.  It will keep them ashamed.  It will keep them silent.  But it will not keep them safe because they are not the ones putting our community in jeopardy.

Blaming the victims of crime and violence does nothing to prevent crime and violence.  It does nothing to address the problems which lead the owners of black-gloved hands to commit crimes and violence.  And that’s not even beginning to address the fact that violators of women seldom wear black gloves.  They have no need for protective clothing because our misogynist culture protects them.  Every day, every hour, every minute women experience violence with gloves off and the patriarchal world lets it happen mostly without comment.

If you like HDCSP, I would be more than happy to offer advice for an alternative public service poster.  One aimed at the men who commit these crimes.  One which might stand a chance of keeping us all safe.

PS: if you put up another poster, I’ll just take it down again and I don’t think I’ll be alone.