Monday 31 July 2017

Hungry Children | Responses from the Left and the Right

earlier in the year: cooking with kids
On the 28th July 2017 Jeremy Corybn MP re-tweeted, and commented on, an article on food poverty over the summer school holidays. He wrote:

This is a national disgrace. We can't have millions of children going hungry over the school holidays.

The Labour leader was picking up on comments made by Angela Rayner MP, reported in the Huffington Post piece:

It is a national disgrace that millions of children across the country are at risk of going hungry this summer...

The government has admitted it has no plans to assist children who are facing hunger during the school holidays.

The Conservatives are failing in their duty of care to children in poverty, whose numbers are increasing to Dickensian levels under Tory austerity.

With the IFS forecasting that child poverty will rise to 5 million by 2022, Labour is demanding that the government brings forward a new strategy to tackle child poverty.’

In response to this, and to an opinion piece of food poverty, written by Dawn Foster and entitled:

I know what it’s like to spend school holidays hungry. So do today’s kids’ 

I wrote a letter which was published in The Guardian (online 28th, print 29th July).

For a longer version of my letter (including a Dickens' reference) and further examples of food related communications see:

As ever, Mr Corbyn’s tweet received attention. At the time of writing (31st July) it has been re-tweeted 4180 times and received 5,051 likes. Amongst the positive comments (847 comments in total) there is the, sadly inevitable, callous and uniformed trolling. For example:

            That’s millions less than would go hungry under your socialist agenda.

            People shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to feed them.

But the comment that shocked and distressed me, and many others, the most was in a re-tweet (28th July) by the Conservative MP for North Dorset; Simon Hoare:

Go on Jezza: do your thing with the loaves and the fishes! Best to stop walking on the water before you do though.

I’ll leave it there …

Sunday 30 July 2017

Sex, Gender and All the Rest | Hidden, Airbrushed, Suppressed and Oppressed PART TWO (reproductive rights, experiences, identities)

Following on from Sex, Gender and All the Rest | Hidden, Airbrushed, Suppressed and Oppressed PART ONE (adverts, jobs, Dr Who etc.) here I consider specifically the issue of non/parenthood, reproduction and reproductive rights. NB: for anyone who is watching the second series of Top of the Lake (BBC 2) and hasn’t seen the whole of it yet there is a spoiler or two.

I have been researching and writing about the reproductive experience, identity and rights of and for girls and women, and to a lesser extent, of and for boys and men, for 28 years. Just a couple of examples follow: 

It is commonly assumed at the issue of reproductive health is ‘woman’s business’ and arguably for some women this assumption has been instrumental in their control over reproduction. It has also been the cornerstone of many feminist campaigns, which have demanded the right for women to ‘control their own bodies’ … However, the majority of women do not make reproductive choices in isolation from men (Earle and Letherby, 2003) and men both as medics and as partners have significant influence … (Marchbank and Letherby 2014: 234-235)


Motherhood is lauded as inevitable and desirable for all BUT only if achieved in the so-called RIGHT social and material circumstances. It is very easy for one’s ‘choices’ to be labelled as inappropriate and for one’s identity as mother or not to be frowned upon. For example, teenage mothers are often labelled irresponsible and those who seek technological help to conceive may be accused of ‘playing God’. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy of motherhood in that biological motherhood is often defined (in relation to social motherhood) as ‘real’ and ‘natural’. Thus, just as it is possible to be other than mother, it is also possible to be an other mother. . . .  (Letherby forthcoming).

So girls and women's reproductive choices and experiences are often controlled and/or judged by others. One of Donald Trump’s first orders as president was to sign a memorandum reinstating a policy that originated under Ronald Regan's presidency:

. . . .prohibiting the granting of American foreign aid to health providers abroad
How many men does it take to decide on a women's right,
or not, to choose?
who discuss abortion as a family-planning option.
 . .  It freezes funding to nongovernmental organizations in poor countries if they offer abortion counseling or if they advocate the right to seek abortion in their countries.

In the UK following the general election in June 2017 and the subsequent ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, it is likely that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will support the Conservative Government in key votes (e.g. the Queen’s Speech (already passed), Budgets, Brexit and security matters). There remains many concerns regarding this relationship including those surrounding women’s basic reproductive rights. The DUP has consistently opposed the extension of the 1967 Abortion Action to Northern Ireland ‘forcing women either to cross the channel for abortions they must fund themselves, risk prosecution for procuring abortion pills, or to carry pregnancies to term even if their foetus has no hope of survival' 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then, as Pam Lowe’s research has found, that ‘anti-abortion activism’ outside clinics in Britain is changing:

British activists have prayed outside clinics before, but the targeting of specific clinics, especially by people who are paid to be there, the focus on pavement counselling and the use of graphic images are the kind of tactics seen in the US, where the anti-abortion movement is more aggressive  and has included vandalism, arson and shootings.

Lowe argues that the concern of activists is a much about ‘saving’ women, who are 'ignorant' about the 'reality' of abortion, as it is about 'saving the foetus'. 

Saving women from themselves seems also to have been the motivation of Boots, Britain’s largest chemist chain, when it recently announced it did not intend to lower its price for the morning after pill (MAP) following a request to do so by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The justification given was that Boots did not want to be accused of ‘incentivising inappropriate use’. Following a petition that received more than 25,000 signatures and a letter signed by 35 female Labour MPs Boots apologised:

Pharmacy and care for customers are at the heart of everything we do and as such we are truly sorry that our poor choice of words in describing our position on emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) has caused offence and misunderstanding, and we sincerely apologise.

Labour’s response to this was, quite rightly I think, to acknowledge the apology but to also question the use of the reference to a ‘misunderstanding’ given Boots' infantilisation of and moral judgement on women. 

Research and autobiographical accounts contest that whilst women (and men) who are unable to have children often feel pitied by others those that decide not to become parents are often stereotyped as selfish. As I have argued for many, many years such labelling is simplistic and offensive (Letherby 1994, 2002, forthcoming) for the reality of ‘living without children’ just like life as mother or father, is always more complicated in reality. One (just one) inaccurate assumption concerns the issue of relationships. Thus:  
… the only words to describe a woman who does not mother children is in reference to what she does not have: not mother, nonmother, ‘childless’, ‘childfree’. All of which (and perhaps particularly the last two) are most likely a simplistic, and often inaccurate, description of a woman’s actual experience (e.g. as godmother/guardian, aunt, friend, nurse, teacher. (Letherby forthcoming).
Despite this it seems that cultural depictions of women who do not mother (biologically related) children still often draw on oversimplified caricatures. The 2015 novel (I couldn’t bear to go and watch the film but hear it was as bad) The Girl on the Train and the 2016 BBC drama The Replacement were each guilty of this. In both outputs the women who do not mother biological children/do not have children of 'their own' are damaged, disturbed, unbalanced. Here, it seems we have moved on from pity as the ‘childless woman’ is depicted as not only lesser but as a danger to herself and to others.
Along with many others I am currently gripped by Channel 4's depiction of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a long time since I read the book, which was published in 1985, but as I watch I remember it well. In a recent article the author Margaret Atwood wrote: ‘The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet’. Also commenting on Trump’s vision for healthcare Atwood added:
Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care – many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale the themes of sexual and reproductive violence and exploitation take centre stage in the second series of Top the of Lake (China Girl). Also highlighted, I think, are the differences between women who mother children and women who do not and women who are able to bear and give birth to children and women who can not. All the women in The Handmaid’s Tale – the handmaid’s, the wives, the Martha’s (servants), even the aunts (who train and have considerable power over the handmaids) – are victims within the ultra-religious, patriarchal Republic of Gilead (once the USA). Many of the women in Top of the Lake (China Girl) whether (biological) mothers or not experience reproductive disruption and/or lack of control and some are abused and manipulated emotionally, materially and sexually. And (am I the only one to notice this?):
-      both of these series are currently on terrestrial TV,
-      the hero in each is played by the same actor Elizabeth Moss,
-      both Offred (Handmaid’s) and Detective Robin Griffin (China Girl) are mothers who (in different) ways have lost their daughter/had their daughter ‘taken from them’.
-      And in each case there are subtle and not so subtle suggestions that biologically childless women are at best distressed and desperate, in need of pity and help and at worst villains colluding with, even initiating, the exploitation of their sisters. 

Elizabeth Moss as Robin Griffin/Offred
Don’t get me wrong I am enjoying both of these representations and I welcome the serious consideration of reproductive and human rights. What I hope for though are more, many more, representations – in adverts, books and films and also by politicians and others in powerful positions – that break free from stereotypes (in terms of roles and abilities) and focus on women (and men) as complex, holistic beings in their (our) own right, irrespective of either domestic or public expectations. Roll on Doctor Who No 13 (here's hoping) ….

In this two part blog entry focusing on Sex and Gender I have focused largely on issues that concern girls and women. Yet, I do not, and never would, deny that the gender order works against men also and that at times men’s and women’s experience of disadvantage intersects as class, ethnicity, sexuality, age (and so on, and so on) impact on our life chances and challenges. All of our lives are affected differently by the different aspects of our identity as different times. At the Auto/Biography conference (mentioned at the start of Part One of this piece) I attended recently alongside papers highlighting the contribution of women war correspondents; the value of sisterhood (both biological and social); academic achievement and advancement through the female family line (and more) there were also papers on the significance of childlessness in men’s lives (presented by Robin Hadley and particularly relevant here given my discussion above); men’s reflection on gender roles following traumatic brain injury and male undergraduates negotiating masculinity (and more). Read also this piece which explains how age and masculinity are significant with reference to suicide and mid-life men.

With all of this in mind I can only paraphrase Christine Di Stephano (1990) and agree with her that sex and gender are differences that make a difference even if they are not the only differences, or even the defining features of a person’s life.

References (for part two)

Di Stephano, C. (1990) ‘Dilemmas of Difference: feminism, modernity and postmodernism’, in L. Nicholson (ed,). Feminism/Postmodernism. London: Routledge

Earle, S. and Letherby, G. (eds.) (2003) Gender, Identity and Reproduction: social perspectives London: Palgrave

Hawkins, P. (2015) The Girl on the Train Doubleday

Letherby, G. (1994) ‘Mother or Not, Mother or What?: problems of definition and identity’ Women’s Studies International Forum 17:5

Letherby. G. (2002) ‘Childless and Bereft?: stereotypes and realities in relation to ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary childlessness and womanhood’ Sociological Inquiry 72:1

Letherby, G. (forthcoming) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): thinking about mothers and others through literature and social science’ in Browne, V. Giorgio, A. Jeremiah, E. Six, A. L. and Rye, G. (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe  London: Routledge

Marchbank, J. and Letherby, G. (2014) An Introduction to Gender: social science perspectives (revised 2nd edition) London: Routledge

Friday 28 July 2017

Sex, Gender and All the Rest | Hidden, Airbrushed, Suppressed and Oppressed PART ONE (adverts, jobs, Dr Who etc.)

Last week included three of my favourite days in my working year: the British Sociological Association Auto/Biography Study Group annual summer
Chanel 4 The Handmaid's Tale 
conference. This year the theme of the conference was gender.  Auto/ Biographical work accepts the dynamic relationship between the self (auto) and the other (biog) and along with others I would suggest that all writing is in some ways auto/biography in that all texts bear traces of the author and are to some extent personal statements (e.g. Lincoln and Denzin 1994, Letherby 2014) within which the writer works from the self to the other and back again. Such writings then include intersections of the public/private domains of the researcher and the researched / the biographer and the biographee / the autobiographer and his/her significant others, and always acknowledges the significance, the presence, of the writer (Stanley 1993). So, as Liz Stanley (1993: 49) notes:

The notion of auto/biography is linked to that of the ‘auto/ biographical I’. . . The use of ‘I’ explicitly recognises that such knowledge is contextual, situational, and specific, and that it will differ systematically according to the social location (as a gendered, raced, classed, sexualised person) of the particular knowledge-producer.

With this in mind I acknowledge that what follows is of course influenced by my own ongoing socialisation and experience of living in a gendered world. 

Sex and gender concerns are very much the topic of conversation at the moment. In this two part Blog entry I focus on just a few of the (interconnected) issues that those active in mainstream and social media and politicians, celebrities and everyday folk are talking and writing about.

I begin with the issue of gender stereotypes and experiences with reference to both occupation (paid and unpaid) and the representations of these. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), following a series of complaints about ads that featured sexist stereotypes or mocked people who didn't follow traditional roles, has recently announced its aim to ‘crack down’ on such adverts 

Guy Parker, the chief executive of the ASA, said:

While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole. 

Whilst of course I welcome the challenge to the depiction of girls as only ballerinas and boys as only engineers (e.g. Aptamil Baby Milk Formula advert), rather than both girls and boys as both ballerinas and engineers it distresses me we are even having this discussion in 2017 given the long-time resistance to such representations. The spray-paint response to this Fiat advert dates to 1979 →  

And yet, still for some this latest move by the ASA is ‘an attack on freedom of speech’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’. If you know anyone who thinks this encourage them to view this YouTube video. Look at the shock on the children’s faces, and listen to the reference to 'dressing up', when the identity of the surgeon, fighter pilot and fire fighter are revealed →

Sadly, it seems that it is not only children that need educating. We have been reminded yet again how much women’s contributions, in history and to-date, are denied following Philip Hammond MP’s suggestion that trains are so easy to operate now that even women can drive them. (Hammond is not the only member of the Conservative Party to resort to casual sexism when discussing such issues: remember Theresa May's reference to 'girls' and 'boys' jobs during her general election BBC One Show appearance). Amongst other works Hammond needs to acquaint himself with 
Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph (by Helena Wojtczak). Journalists need some help too. If you haven't already watch Andy Murray educate one here  → and then ask yourself whether or not the laughter in response is appropriate. 

My favourite (twitter) response to the announcement that the actor (which is a generic term, so NO need to describe her as an actress, or female actor) Jodie Whittaker is the be the 13th Doctor Who went something like ‘I don’t care what sex my doctor is as long I get to see him or her before the Tories sell of the NHS’. Alongside much praise of Whittaker as a performer and the celebration of her as a role model for both girls and boys there is the uproar and incredulity that a fantasy figure who variously claims to be between 450 and 2000 years old, has two hearts and travels through space and time in a phone box, could possibly regenerate as a female. This wonderful Doctor Who bingo (not sure who to credit it to) highlights just some of this weird, sad critique:

Even more depressing is the coverage in some of the mainstream media that deems it important for us all to be reminded of what the new Doctor’s breasts look like. Strangely that they have never felt it necessary to show us either of the previous dozen ‘in the flesh’. There is speculation, of course, about how much Whittaker will be paid for the role and whether or not this will match that of her recent predecessors. Unlikely, given that we know now that the BBC values, in monetary terms at least, the work of men much more highly than that of women which according to some is, like many things, women's own fault . . . . 

For those interested in The Handmaid's Tale reference see PART TWO of this Blog entry to follow soon

References (for Part One) 

Letherby, G. (2014) ‘Feminist Auto/Biography’ in Evans, M. Hemmings, C. Henry, M. Johnstone, H. Madhok, S. Plomien, A. Wearing, S.  (eds.) Handbook on Feminist Theory London: Sage 

Lincoln, Y. S. and Denzin, N. K. (1994) Handbook of Qualitative Research Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’ Sociology 27(1): 41-52

Wojtczak, H. (2005) Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph Hastings: Hastings Press

Monday 24 July 2017

Soundbites and Humble Pie: The 2017 (alternative) Great British Menu Banquet | A Small Morsel of a Story

This year’s Great British Menu Banquet, in recognition of the austere times in which we live, was only two courses; a main and a pudding. On the positive side, at least as far as some were concerned, instead of a sit-down affair in a posh indoor venue, the food was served to, the many not the few, in Albert Square, Manchester. The earlier proposed site, a field of wheat in Sussex was easily rejected as too naughty a suggestion given both the likely upset to farmers and the inaccessibility to anyone other than the elite.

Given the size of the crowd and the diversity of the diners the first course, comprised a selection of bite size morsels in the hope of covering all tastes. Served on the right side of the square there was meat, fish, vegetarian and vegan pastries with gluten and nut free options available. By negotiated mutual consent, which took a while, the preparation and cooking was coordinated, by two chefs. Given the excessive cost this entailed it was especially disappointing that the results dashed all expectations. Over-confidence maybe given pervious praise and popularity or perhaps a sense of entitlement as cooks with similar abilities had regularly and recently been successful, especially with older connoisseurs. In sum the compromised menu was weak and the responding national interest wobbly. The spinach and mozzarella filos proved to be anything but strong and stable and the parsnip, prune and pepper tart was overwhelmingly agreed to be a coalition of chaos, which despite the supply received little confidence. Still, at least no one suffered food poisoning. Just as well given that NHS and other public service personnel are overstretched in the city, as across the nation.    

The much anticipated dessert, which the feasters turned to the left of the square to receive, was the brainchild of a chef hailing from North Islington, the winner of the London heat who continues to attract support from all over the country. An unexpected hero this one which, pardon the cookery pun, left egg on the faces of quite a few. Although many, including some previous sceptics, ate with relish, returning for a second helping of pie others remained unbowed. The reluctantly humbled ate what was offered but clearly found swallowing difficult whilst a number who had long denied the skills of the candidate refused to try more than the smallest morsel. Believing themselves to be culinary experts beyond critique they stuck to their previous bias; ‘he won because the others were so bad’, ‘the judges only voted for him because they thought he wouldn’t win’ and such like. Some refused the treat altogether, preparing to stick to their prejudices, believing the unwarranted judgements and smears perpetuated through various media.  

Event over, organisers, judges and participants would normally give little thought, time and attention to the ingredients necessary for a win next time. Just now though there appears to be appetite for another contest, which might be sooner than we think.