Category Archives: Charlotte’s Editorial

Charlotte Raven

Feminist Times: My Feminist Times ‘journey’

Intro

What a sad day! I kept thinking we would turn it around and praying for a miracle. Leaving our office for the last time last week, with the FemT box files in a shopping bag, I felt mainly sadness but also a little relief. No more sleepless nights worrying or fruitless hours writing supplicating emails to rich people. No more guilt about not being fully present for my husband and young children or my FemT colleagues. I’m looking forward to spending time with my family (as disgraced politicians say) with a clear conscience, and gathering my thoughts for the rest of the summer and possibly longer.

I won’t miss being resented from afar; I am privileged but my life is far from enviable. I am in the early stages of Huntington’s disease, cognitively impaired, and struggling with many aspects of every day life. I lose things, break things, hurt myself, rage at Tom and the children. This is a symptom and can’t be addressed by anger management techniques. My dad is in the late stages of Huntington’s disease; he can’t speak, read, swallow or co ordinate his movement but is otherwise compos mentis and so all too aware of his predicament.

I don’t think quickly now and have sometimes struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of this project. My short term memory is shot and my mind wanders. I exist much of the time in a state of terrified befuddlement. Furthermore, I can no longer multi-task, which might explain why I’ve struggled when too many things are going on at once during this project (i.e. most of the time) and there’s literally nothing I can do about it.

I haven’t previously written about Huntington’s Disease in Feminist Times and I was in two minds about mentioning it even now. On one hand I want to tell the truth, but on the other I worry that my condition will make FemT less credible (and perhaps less tempting to publishers and investors).

But not telling the truth is worse. The whole point about FemT is that it was true to life, unlike the other media. The truth is that my daily life recently has been assembled piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle with my family and FemT colleagues’ help.

Thank goodness for Deborah and Sarah; my FemT colleagues have been wonderful help for the hard of thinking. They can work magic on my half-formed ideas and sharpen my copy. They work and think a hundred miles a minute but, unlike most prolific writers, the quality of their output is consistently high. I didn’t think this was possible. I’m completely in awe of them because they are multi-skilled, and can balance the books and husband our limited resources very effectively. Because of them I have a clear conscience whatever happens next.

Like a Big Brother contestant, I come out of this project more vividly alive than when I went in, disinhibited and ready to reveal all. My wise colleagues have cautioned against full disclosure, so what follows is an edited account of the last 18 months rather than the whole nine yards. I hope you will forgive digressions and deviations as I want convey what it felt like as well as the whys and wherefores of how we got to this point.

Masturbation

The setting off point of all modern feminist ‘journeys’. You must begin with masturbation, whether relevant or not, if you want people to sit up and take notice.

Vivenne Albertine from the Slits begins her memoir with an account of a lifetime not masturbating. She says masturbating when you are single is like getting drunk when you’re miserable; it makes you feel more lonely. I liked this. Maybe the same is true of literary masturbation – I have read so many accounts, for business rather than pleasure, and felt lonely afterwards .

It isn’t taboo, as Petra Collins and Caitlin Moran claim. Moran’s new novel begins with a masturbation scene. The woman interviewing her on Newsnight looked thoroughly embarrassed. Who put her up to it?

Collins says: “We’re taught to hide our menstrual cycles and even to hide masturbation.”

Are we? In fact we are being goaded to reveal the intimate facts in public, on pain of being accused of prudery. I am not a prude or repressed, but won’t wank in public. Feminist Times isn’t a wank fest. I wanted there to be one place where authenticity didn’t equate to baring all.

In fact, it’s not talking about the intimate details of your sex life that is taboo. Men love it.

Distracting Lucy

I have known our art director Lucy for 32 years, but only recently got to know her. We were in the same class at secondary school and I kept distracting her with my big ideas and stopping her from concentrating. I tried to convert her to Marxism and Modism, but it didn’t work. She didn’t join the school students’ strike or beg her mother to let her see The Jam’s last ever concert. She was her own person; much less malleable than the people in my gang. They thought she was straight, and it took me a while to realise – we were the conformists.

We kept in touch, and she did get a word in edgeways eventually. I met Lucy for coffee in Foyles eighteen months ago and pitched this big idea to her. She took a long time to respond. I kept emailing her for an answer. She had been consulting (very sensible) and thinking and only when she had done so did she agree.

Lucy is the subversive soul of Feminist Times. She wouldn’t talk about wanking on Newnight and her reticence makes her stand out . We had such a good time mocking up concept covers. One was a full bleed cover of a bare breasted Femen activist with a chainsaw. Lucy said the straights (although she wouldn’t use that term) in her studio were giving her funny looks.

One of our digital consultants said Lucy’s logo would alienate Telegraph woman, Grazia woman and even Guardian woman. It looked like a stop sign and broke every design rule, including the one that said it was good to experiment as long as the results aren’t experimental. There was still time to rethink, but not much. Once we were out there on the margins, there would be no way back…

The unfocused group

It wasn’t a focus group and we weren’t brainstorming. I bought a whiteboard, because I was nervous, then hid it in the broom cupboard just in time.

“What are you doing?” Anna said. “Don’t you want to use it?”

“No!”

“Why did you buy it?”

“Shhh! They’re here!”

One of the brilliant things about this project was having an excuse to get in touch with people I admired. Playwrights Emma Crowe and Penny Skinner, Kat Banyard, writer and activist Jan Woolf, artist Marica Farquar and Hannah Pool were all mildly or moderately drunk around my kitchen in the early days (not all at the same time). It was a riff on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.

These conversations were respectful, revealing and hilarious. We were connecting. Kitty Finer thought of our brilliant strapline ‘Life not lifestyle’, Kate Tempest was very excited by our vision of a women’s magazine with no celebrities or brands that told the truth. It seemed more timely and necessary the more we talked about it. Why hadn’t this happened before? And why did Private Eye have the monopoly on humour? Bloody Woman’s Hour, with features on ‘do you let your dog sleep on your bed?’ and no SOH didn’t speak to us.

We wanted satire, investigations, columns and properly written features. Some of us really wanted a printed magazine, others weren’t that bothered. Radical empathy was a founding principle. We wouldn’t judge women or hold them accountable for the ills of society. There would be no shaming or blaming. We would have positive reviews. But they wouldn’t be bland.

So many open questions. How did we feel about lesbian mud wrestling if the wrestler was funding her art? And what price honesty? How would it play? Laying yourself bare was very risky as some of us had already discovered. Would positivity come out bland? We were at the intersection of life and art! It was thrilling and scary.

These women aren’t muses or ‘inspirational’ in a Woman’s Houry way. I often thought, we need a new word for this. I should have asked the unfocused group while you were there.

Crowdfunding

What a brilliant idea! I wanted a brand and sponsorship free space for women and the membership model seemed to have more integrity than one off asks on Kickstarter where the commitment was one sided.

Someone said crowdfunding is like a courtship. You show the public your best side, offer them presents and positivity, garlanded in tweets. An unwise crowdfunder sticks the ask on a site and gets on with his life. In fact you are meant to promote your project (and yourself) in creative and compelling ways continually. You are selling yourself. The paradox of crowdfunding is that it is still all about you and me, not really a form of collective ownership at all.

This sounded exhausting. Our membership model was a marriage; not a dalliance. We wanted a long term commitment; a relationship that could grow and deepen over time. I had never been in that kind of relationship with hundreds of people simultaneously. I’d also never tweeted so didn’t know the form.

We called in the ‘relationship based engagement experts’, then fell out with them. They said it was about making people connect with me by tweeting and communicating in my voice, which made sense, then said we should ask founder members for more money, which didn’t.

Our relationship with our founder members was the lynch pin of the project; I felt I knew them but couldn’t be sure. When we asked them whether they still wanted to commit to the project if it wasn’t called Spare Rib I still held my breath. But the vast majority did, which was hugely motivating.

It has been a privilege getting to know so many of you and I have happy memories of our time together. I’m sad that this relationship will be broken off rather abruptly at the end of this week. I’m sorry it didn’t work out…

I think the membership model might have worked if we’d had more time to reach critical mass.

Hashtag not Spare Rib

We needed a new name as good as Spare Rib. And fast. Crucially it mustn’t seem as if we’d tried too hard. From what I recall, that name had come about organically. A joke that stuck, like all the best names. I knew the more we thought about it the worse it would be, but what was the alternative? We tried to crowd source, but people were obviously struggling. There were a lot of biblical references, Lilith, some suffragette ones, Purple Sash. I loved Redstocking which was Shulamith Firestone’s activist cell but it was already taken. In fact all the good names were already taken.

This is how mad we were. One afternoon we were kicking around ‘fall’ ideas, specifically the feminist rehabilitation of Eve as the heroine of the piece. We were under a lot of pressure to deliver and then… a breakthrough. Someone had suggested Eve’s Apple several hours ago, I wasn’t keen. But what about APPLE?

It had a ring to it. Slightly surreal and edgy but not clever clever. I could see the logo in my mind’s eye. An apple with a bite taken out of it. A powerful founding myth and a feminist joke. We will gorge on the forbidden fruit and hang the consequences. I was so happy, then we all noticed the logo on the back of our computers at the same time. `

We had a short list, put it to a vote, then ended up with the second placed name. I hated Feminist Times at first it, as it seemed banal and literal minded. But quirky is the new normal in publishing. There is a magazine called Elephant, another called Tirade and an online women-fronted tv show called Fox Problem. A straightforward name is as radical today as weird was in the seventies.

Elle on earth

The lads mags are folding or recalibrating and feminists are delighted. Nuts is no more. Loaded has turned it’s back on lad culture after publishers felt it’s “lewd content was lowering the tone.” Will the strapline ‘for men who should know better’ be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Men are no longer behaving badly when feminists are looking, but women are. Women’s magazines are still full of hot chicks demonstrating the truth of the old maxim; a little bit of what you fancy does you good.

What about the lewd content of women’s magazines? Won’t Cosmo be lowering the tone when Loaded has a cover image of Antoina Byatt? The feminist gaze has been on lads mags, and our old adversaries have been growing in confidence and borrowing our clothes without asking when we were out campaigning.

The argument against women’s magazines is the same as ever. They pretend to be your friend, then stab you in the back. Mean girls who keep you guessing about their motivations. They are party animals. And killjoys. They preach indulgence and abstinence in the same breath. Spend, shag, repent. No wonder we’re confused. Lads mags weren’t conflicted. There were no ads for detox spas in the back of Loaded.

So why don’t womens mags “move with the times” like Loaded? Nobody’s telling them to. They appear to be making it new and constantly reinventing themselves into people with short memories. In fact, it is a repetitions compulsion.

Every few years, a womans magazine is launched for people who don’t like woman’s magazines. Marie Claire was aimed at women who feel patronised by the women’s media, and want long features and occasional references to A N Other country.

Now Elle is “the best of the bunch” because it has long features, according to Vagenda.

I wish we hadn’t taken part in Elle’s rebranding feminism project. Who are they to tell us we have an image problem? And imply that they can fix it by giving us a makeover. They flattered us, made us feel special by seeming to be interested in us. Such lovely ladies they are too, talking about how intelligent Elle was compared with its competitors.

I wanted Feminist Times to be a real friend, not a fake one, who would dump you over a fashion faux pas or a mistimed downward dog

Angry bird

Elle wants feminists to take a chill pill. If we use quiet voices, people will listen. That makes me so bloody angry. I was rational and reasonable when this project began, but no more. The newspapers all enrage me, Women’s magazines, ditto.

I’m angry with Ed Milliband for not being angry enough about food poverty and the destruction of the NHS.

And outraged that feminism has been co-opted by brands. Fuck Dove and all the others.

I’m angry about the new female stereotypes, and the old female stereotypes. Reports of the ladettes’ death were exaggerated,

I am even angry about the lack women at board level for the first time. The boards sound like a bear pit so this isn’t surprising.

And I’m angry about how the equal pay act isn’t being implemented and won’t be until there is transparency.

A year on I’m more convinced more than ever that feminism needs some firebrands, not milquetoasts.

The bottom line

We produced some amazing content and held some memorable events but some aspects of our business plan – no corporate sponsorship and no slave labour – didn’t pay off in the current climate. The project wasn’t supported by a phalanx of cheap interns because we believed that was wrong. And we were committed to remaining free from the dead hand of advertising and corporate sponsorship.

I wanted FemT to be different, but in the end the income from membership alone was not enough to keep it going. Rather than break our promise to reject intern labour and advertising, we decided to stop. We have kept our integrity and I want to put the project on ice while we work out if there is another way of funding the project that’s both ethical and sustainable. My Feminist Times email will be open for the next several months; please feel free to submit any suggestions and let me know if you want to get involved. If you have an idea of how you could relaunch it I’d be pleased to hear from you.

charlotte@feministtimes.com

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Charlotte Raven

A feminist alternative to asylums?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

“You’ll enjoy this piece,” my daughter just said. “It’s your specialist subject.”

She’s right and this a bit of a worry. I hardly notice how much time I spend discussing theraputic modalities with friends and colleagues, or how many Google searches of the side effects of psychoactive medications.

Some of my best friends are mad. One writes self help books using an online acronym generator and another weaves. And one is in an out of the emergency psych ward of our local hospital, which really does seem like a revolving door.

Trawling through recent statistics at the start of mental health week, I was convinced that my mad friends are ‘everyday people’; mad is the new normal, in fact. 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental crisis in the course of a year. It is a woman’s issue, unarguably: women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem than men. We may be getting madder but a rational discussion is taking place about all this for the first time and nothing is off limits.

Everyone agrees; the crisis in mental health care is a gathering storm. Politicians are responding strangely and uncharacteristically. The brutal reality of care in the community has drawn criticism across the political spectrum, although the reasons are different. The Tories are worried about the sane members of the public being attacked by the mentally unstable and the left are worried about the people left in front of the TV in lonely flats for decades, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

At Christmas I was mad as a brush; depressed and alienated with little fellow feeling. Our family home had been a war zone because of my mental crises which have all merged into each other. Until three months ago, I was chronically depressed. I wasn’t sitting quietly in front of the TV watching Friends like my other depressed friends; I couldn’t move but managed to station myself in the one spot in the house where everyone would hear my anguished perorations. I spent whole weekends on the only comfortable chair in the kitchen, complaining about the chores, my doomed existence and the internet age.

I spent 5 years wondering what to do. Having recently read Gone Girl I’m glad I didn’t relocate to a provincial town and set up a bar with an East London name. Then one day an epiphany: I should retrain as a therapist! Several of my mad friends had done this, and a few sane ones who found their skills surplus to requirements. The writer I most admired had gone down this well trodden path. Fortunately for my patients-to-be, I realised I’d be a rubbish therapist one year into a course at the Tavistock: “You’d go on about your problems and never listen to theirs,” my daughter said.

For those who made this leap, their business is sustainable, if poorly remunerated. It is recession proof; a booming industry in this crazy-making late capitalist era.

Why is anyone sane? This system is built on false promises; you are built up and knocked down. We are constantly reinventing ourselves to keep up – and failing. Jobs for life to zero hours in the blink of an eye. Poverty drives people over the edge and if they bear witness to their traumatic experiences of inform on this ‘structurally genocidal’ system, they are discredited. We are all being gaslighted all the time; capitalism dims the lights, murders our friends and relations, then tells us we are lunatics. This system is a suitable case for treatment.

The biological view of mental illness is appealing because the pharmacological answer is a quicker fix than global revolution. We are all drugged up to the eyeballs and increasingly cavalier about it. I recently read something about Ritalin that said few parents asked about the side effects, possible alternatives, what these drugs were whether these drugs are even effective. We think they’re mild because we give them to children. In fact, Ritalin was first synthesized in 1944 in an unsuccessful attempt to create a non-addictive stimulant. This amphetamine-like substance is similar in chemical structure and effects. Like speed, it keeps you awake, suppresses your appetite and makes you anxious and irritable.

I empathise with this desire for quick fix. Who the hell wants a long fix? I was in three times a week therapy for a few years, and barely scratched the surface. When I couldn’t afford it, I decided pills were the answer – I just hadn’t found the right ones. An NHS psychiatrist diagnosed double depression; major depressive episodes on top of persistent dysthymia. He prescribed two different types of anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer. It worked, in a way. I am no longer depressed, but do feel like I’m on drugs.

One recent documentary, Generation RX examines the rise in psychiatric diagnoses among American children and teens from 1980 to 2007. The producer was shocked to learn that the majority of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to kids had never been proven safe or effective. But the regulatory watchdogs colluded with drug manufacturer in supressing evidence of suicidal thoughts and other side effects before Ritalin and other stimulants came to the market. The predictable result; a spike in teen suicides and 7-year-old insomniacs. Our children are the victims of our quick fix mentality.

If not drugs and TV then what? It’s the right moment to re-imagine institutional care and thereby capitalise on public disillusion with community care, without reviving the fear of Nurse Ratched. I came across a magazine of ‘democratic psychiatry’ called Asylum, while Googling the word to find out whether anyone had reclaimed it as a place of safety. They had.

I’ve been heartened by the dialogues I’ve had with radical service users and activists. “We’ve been banging on about this for years,” they said. Now people are listening. A group called Madlove has set about creating a ‘designer asylum’, a safe space where you could go mad “in a positive way.” The project will bring together people with and without mental health experiences, artists, and academics to conceive “a unique space” where “mutual care blossoms” and madness is redeemed. Then it will be built, opened and operate as a voluntary day hospital for six weeks.

As well as model asylums there should be mental health hubs (but don’t call them that!) in the community, within walking distance, where you won’t be stared at. I have been stared at in cafes. What would I have done if my husband had bailed out to protect his sanity? Where would I have gone?

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Becoming Advertising

Like most free to access online entities we have explored the various options for monetisation, some more appealing than others. We’ve narrowed it down to three – sneaky ads, straight forward ads or a pop up feminist cat café.

Straightforward, olden day advertising was the line of least resistance but how would this play with our friends and supporters? I asked an unscientific sample – few were anti-advertising and some, surprisingly, were rabidly pro. One asked: “Why are you against advertising? Do you want to live in a Maoist state?”

Then I remembered, I’ve always loved the ads! They were the incidental music of my seventies childhood. My mum used to turn the telly off when they were on, but my brother and I preferred the ads to the programmes.

This early exposure to gender stereotyping didn’t Sindyise me as my mother feared. I kept telling her – you don’t turn into Charlie Girl or Shake n Vac woman from watching the ads. My brother and I were ad aficionados, not dupes or ironists. We didn’t buy into them or think ourselves superior to the ads or the people who were impelled to spend their hard earned money on Sure for Men or Ultrabrite.

I don’t feel as fondly about eighties advertising. The ads of that period were blunt instruments; “intimately terroristic” like Charles Saatchi and not as good or clever as everyone remembers. They were uber confident but as repetitive and ineffective as a coke addicted city boy.

When I got older I enjoyed ‘decoding’ ads in the manner of structural theorists like Judith Williamson, rather than reinterpreting them. Do people still do this? Are the ads a window on the world anymore? I’m less interested in specific ads these days than the modern malady of marketing which is constantly pushing the boundaries and overstepping the mark. Advertising is not OK when it’s delivered intravenously to children or women postpartum.

I pictured the ads in Fem T in a clearly circumscribed space that couldn’t be confused with editorial. We ruled out sneaky ads and sponsored content because we felt they broke the bond of trust we have built up with our readership. With a clear conscience, we started costing the redesign of the website and finding an ad salesperson to sell, sell sell the Fem T concept to ethical brands. (This wouldn’t take very long – the list was very short.)

The fabulously attired ad salesman on the Modern Review managed to convince a range of high end brands it was going to be a cross between the New Yorker and American Esquire in it’s heyday. They were bitterly disappointed, understandably, when issue one of Marxist Feminist monthly hit the stands.

This time round, if I sold my soul, I wouldn’t get anything for it. We were reliably informed that the revenue from banner ads would be unlikely to cover the cost of redesigning the website; the model that we’d given so much thought to was declared a busted flush by a range of media professionals. Sneaky advertising is the only game in town, unfortunately. Native advertising on Fem T would mean ads and content were seamlessly merged into a single website ‘experience’. If this is the future of publishing, I’d rather put Fem T out by carrier pigeon.

The founder and chief exec of Buzzfeed recently said:

“Nobody comes to Buzzfeed to look at the ads, but they’ll come for the content. When the advertising is content – good content they’re willing to click on and engage with, and share if it’s good – that’s the future for publishers.’

The internet will be colonised and co-opted by advertising in the blink of an eye. I never romanticised the web or thought of it as a ‘free space’; oddly the people who did are now signing it away and saying it will be good for it.

Online advertising is everywhere and nowhere – it’s the uninvited guest on every comment board and web forum that speaks your language and compliments you on your lifestyle choices. Sinister ‘urban communities’ like work.shop.play extract valuable information about our priorities and preferences which allows brands to create perfectly tailored pitches for allegiance. Modern advertising is as individual as you; it flatters and cajoles with perfect knowledge of your taste and aspirations.

I recently reread Dale Carnegie’s book How to win friends and influence people. Belatedly, brands and corporations have learned the best way to win consumers is to be genuinely interested in them, ask them about themselves, listen intently to the answers and make them feel intelligent.

This is also a failsafe strategy for winning commercial partners. The Guardian talked up its recent partnership with Unilever as a meeting minds. The company had absorbed Guardian Media Group’s ‘values’ and repeated them back… with bells on:

‘Our partnership with Guardian Labs presents us with an innovative and unique way of engaging with a greater number of consumers than ever before, in their homes and on the move, on a subject which is core to both Unilever and the Guardian’s values – sustainability.’

In this brave new world, you can’t trust anyone, enthusiasts least of all. Bloggers, hipsters and impoverished newspaper editors are contractually obliged to enthuse about their commercial partners, on pain of commercial death.

No one has asked the Guardian’s readership, or ‘highly engaged community’ as we are now called, whether we want to collaborate with corporations who ‘share our values’. We are extremely valuable; cheap at the million pound price. Unilever is buying access to skeptics like my mother and credibility by association with the former bastion of liberalism .

The last issue of Weekend magazine had several sponsored features, differentiated by a very slightly different font. I still confused one with the other.

My mum used to complain about billboards; they look increasingly retro! So many public spaces have been co-opted or colonised by a new type of advertising.

Great swathes of Angel tube station are given over to Barcardi’s rebrand. No longer a drink for teenage girls who can’t think what to order, it is the choice of renegades, non-conformists (and ruthless dictators.)

The 150 year old brand is understandably proud of its heritage! “Prohibition was a blast”; exiled to Cuba in the fifties, it was partying enthusiastically while Cuba was raped and pillaged by the US mafia and corrupt Batista regime. This “untameable essence” is unavoidably everywhere at Angel; swooping bats emblazoned on every square inch of pedestrian walkway (who knew you could buy the floors and ceilings?) Like the film character in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, brands are stepping off the billboards into real life, but behaving loutishly. They are invading our personal space and pretending it is a ‘blast’.

We recently lost our hearts to an all female new media company with inspirationality to spare. The feeling was mutual; they offered to host one of our events at their fabulously appointed HQ in Shoreditch. Should we do it? Yes we should – the quirkily named company were more credible and tech savvy than Fem T, but we were more serious. Would our brand essences synergise over free cocktails? I hoped so.

Arriving early on the night, it was immediately apparent that the young women were everything we’d expected; articulate, engaged and yes.. inspirational. Synergy wise, they were already spoken for. An exclusive agreement with a technology company had allowed them to go to the next level! We didn’t begrudge them; the deal had paid for the space, snazzy refurb, and wheely tables and stools with tablet computers embedded in every one. But brand ambassadors like them are marketing goldust. I suspect they undersold themselves.

Brand ambassadors are high res normal people, like you and me on a good day. Unlike adverts, they are continually on and excellent value for money. One day, they will replace logos; brands have learned that slapping their logos on everything is naff and counterproductive. They are all masters of the soft sell and have ‘debranded‘ to some extent. The logo will whither when it’s no longer needed and go the way of the jingle.

Experiential marketing, where the public encounters the brand in real life already seems arcane. You don’t need people dressed as Fruit Shoots to convey that brand’s essence; the meet and greet with advertising meme in a shopping centre has been superceded by an immersive, multi-sensory experience staged 24/7 in your ‘urban community’ by hip and alluring brand ambassadors. You can’t turn it off, or tune it out by turning up the volume on your headphones.

When reality does segue seamlessly into advertising, you won’t probably won’t notice. Come to think of it, it may already have.

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Charlotte Raven

#SexIndustryWeek: Review – Playing The Whore

Each weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we will be serialising extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing The Whore. Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off the week with her review of the book.

I wrote this review of Playing the Whore a week ago, while in a midst of an identity crisis precipitated by a marital crisis. My critical faculties have been disabled, along with my rhetorical élan – I no longer know who I am, or what I think. I have become ruthlessly fairminded and experienced a disturbing, unfamiliar ability to see other points of view. I’ve read positive and negative reviews of Grant’s book and heartily agreed with all of them.

My review reflected this willingness to listen and an unprecedented (and probably fleeting) desire to find the middle ground. I don’t want to be one of the people shouting that prostitutes are collaborators or the ones proclaiming that sex workers are hip, happening and here to stay (the first Bitcoin escort agency opened last year!)

This seemed reasonable. Then I got scared. I woke up at 3 am on Friday morning, terrified that my ambivalence about Grant’s book would be mistaken for complicity in the process by which sex work is being normalised and rebranded as a branch of the leisure industry. People will say, justifiably, that I haven’t defended feminists from the accusation that we are responsible for the oppression and persecution of sex workers. Not capitalism. Nor patriarchy. I was mightily relieved I had the chance to revisit the argument and redeem myself before anything was published. This time I would make a conscious effort not to be seduced by Grant’s theoretical savvy. My intention was to rewrite the piece as an abolitionist polemic pegged on the book rather than a review of it.

Then I changed my mind again and decided to stick with ambivalence and publish the review as was. Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself. I tried to tune into her wavelength, rather than cut and paste her points into my argument, as I usually do. The extracts we are publishing this week are an open question…

I approached this book with trepidation, expecting a reprise of the argument often made by sex workers in print that their work is an empowering and stimulating lifestyle choice. I have encountered the sex worker in Belle de Jour’s oeuvre but also met some myself, who had very little cultured conversation with their clients while ‘on the clock’ and a lot of depressing sex on cheap sheets. Like many feminists, I think the brutal reality of sex work is often obscured by the image. My job is to distinguish fact from fiction, and challenge false consciousness. I’ve been doing this since the eighties and never thought to question it until now.

I was also expecting lots of sex. As this is a book by someone in the field, I thought the analysis would be spiced with lurid confessional, or displaced completely by it. But Grant thwarts this reader’s expectation. She thinks our prurient fascination with the cut and thrust of sex work prevents us from perceiving the nuanced truth.

The sex worker is ubiquitous but invisible. There are no personal anecdotes here because Grant wants to draw the reader’s gaze away from the sexual mise en scene to what it means. There is no confessional money shot where Grant renounces sex work in favour of the writer’s life. We infer that this has happened but Playing the Whore isn’t a parable.

She doesn’t want to serve as an exemplar to sex workers and warns against seeing other types of work as morally superior and less threatening to personal autonomy. There are no winners in this system – the waitresses, hairdressers and other service sector workers are differently exploited (and less well paid).

I must own up – I have a weakness for deconstructive critical moves like the one Grant performs when she suggests that anti-porn campaigners are porn addicts! I’m also pleased when someone else says the unsayable. At least the resulting Twitter storm won’t be directed at me. Grant believes the anti-porn meetings and speak-outs of feminism’s second wave were pornographic spectacles, delivering the same ‘communal release of feeling’ as the Time Square porn theatres in the pre-Disney era.

She knows how contentious this will be but feels dissenting voices, particularly ones “who have modelled for pictures” have been silenced. “How can you say that the description of a child’s violation by a woman on a stage itself mimes a pornographic revelation?”

Those who presume to save sex workers from themselves have the same proprietary air as porn consumers; a self righteous coalition of NGOs, feminist organizations and high profile media figures have embarked on dramatic search and rescue missions. The American government is committed to “eliminating prostitution” worldwide and threatens to withdraw aid if poor countries don’t comply. Cambodian sex workers have been rounded up and sent to detention centres where they are abused, raped and starved. Many have died. Sex workers are being eliminated but the sex industry is alive and well.

Grant argues persuasively that the recent debate about ‘the sexualisaton’ of society and the pornification of sexuality constitute a standard issue moral panic and contamination fear. Sex workers are thought to have implanted depraved thoughts in ‘normal’ women and frog marched us to the Ministry of Waxing and on to swingers parties in Penge. Many analysts believe that the contamination of our sexual consciousness with pornographic tropes means ‘real’ sex is no longer possible. But Grant insists that sex workers are scapegoats: the burden of our pornographic imagination is placed upon those who will save us from it by their sacrifice. Forty years after Nancy Friday’s collection of sexual fantasies, The Secret Garden, we’re still scared of our ‘outlaw’ desire.

I love polemics and this one certainly carried me along with its energy and undeniable intelligence. However, while Grant’s argument that sex work is no different from hairdressing is well made and points to important ways in which female working lives do share oppressive characteristics, I still believe that selling sex is an abusive commodification of the self. But having read this book I will be much quicker to challenge the presumption of those who oppose prostitution that they also know what’s best for sex workers.

Read Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing The Whore each day this week.

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Charlotte Raven

Again! Again!

My conviction that I am a bad mother has cast a pall on Mother’s Days past. When I’m depressed, motherhood feels like an ironing pile that never goes down. I will be wiping bums, pairing up socks, adjudicating disputes, sweeping floors, scolding without end. Wracked with guilt, I want Mother’s Day to pass unremarked sans daffodils, sans nice-lie-in. It’s not the normal working mother’s guilt but something more subtle which sadly wouldn’t be solved by putting in more hours at the parental coal face. It’s not what I do, but who I am.

When a good friend was agonizing about whether to have children, I invited her round to discuss the pros and cons. My husband was away at the time and I was in sole charge. The cons were immediately apparent: the mess, fuss and constant clamour of competing demands. I knew she’d miss the freedom to create storylines and choose the dramatis personae in her life from an international cast of characters. She looked terrified and I hadn’t even mentioned the guilt! The cons list was as long as your arm. But were there any compensations? I said running jokes, because they are easier to communicate to a third party than unconditional love.

My kids love repetition more than me. “Again,” they say.  “Again.” Not again, I think. I try to distract them with a debate about the dumbing down of children’s fiction.

“In my opinion, Thomas and Friends was a wasted opportunity. The modernisation could have given birth to something whacky and off the wall like The Magic Roundabout. Amazingly, Thomas and Friends is more banal and no less offensive than the original. Over to you John. Where do you stand on this issue?”

“Mum, stop talking, read it again.”

Thank goodness for running jokes; the one repetitive bit of family life we can all get behind.

Every night, John asks: “have I got the ring of confidence, mum?” when he’s finished cleaning his teeth. A few weeks earlier I had commended his brushing and declared: “you have the ring of confidence,” when he bared his teeth. “What’s the ring of confidence mum?”

“It comes from a toothpaste ad from my olden days. The ring of confidence will make you feel a million dollars, even when you’re wearing your holey jeans.”

“Like you can climb Mount Everest?”

“Yes!”

“In real life?”

“No!”

John hates tidying up but loves polishing our taps until they gleam. “Mum, this tap has the ring of confidence.”

Running jokes can be redemptive as well as reassuring. Some of my personal favourites deploy black humour to alchemise angst and redeem family life from my depressive tendencies. When I was depressed ‘doom’ became a verb. My family maintained that I was more dooming than doomed. I thought it was the other way round. I was forced to exist in a house of doom, drive a car of doom and navigate biblical rainstorms every time I left the house.

In our family running jokes, rather than photographs, reveal us as we really are. I look terrible in pictures and feel more at home in one of the comic set ups I’ve had a hand in creating. I wouldn’t say this was in my DNA; it was nurture rather than nature that led me to understand the importance of catchphrases and comic tropes in rescuing family life from the quotidian.

I can’t picture the inside of my childhood home, but I do remember my dads catchphrases: “hit the switch titch”, “put it there pal” and the secret rabbit face my mother wasn’t allowed to see.

My dad liked running jokes because they allowed him to maintain his mystique. He never anecdotalised or reminisced.

Like fine wines, his running jokes get better with age . For forty years, he said “plagiarist” every time Germaine Greer came up in conversation. He repeatedly claimed that he could write a better Bob Dylan song than Bob Dylan and repeatedly assured us that he was within a whisker of finishing his poetic opus The Last Great Whale.

As long as families are full of people repeating themselves, there will be running jokes.  You can’t escape them, even if you want to; we are captive audiences!

My grandmother used to say: “I’ve got a lot of secrets, I will take them to my grave,” every Friday night after four huge glasses of Pinot.

Running jokes are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. My brother and I thought this was hilarious, but it irritated my mother. One evening, we found out why: “If you mean I’m not Mick’s daughter I already know.”

I don’t have any secrets I’m planning to take to the grave; my kids know that I’ve suffered from depression for years, and have found that running jokes and other rituals often cheer me up.

This Mother’s Day is the first one in living memory where I haven’t been depressed. Ironically, I am now in the early stages of Huntington’s Disease. I’m constantly breaking things and bashing myself. Yesterday I bashed the top of my head on a sharp edge of the bathroom cabinet door. “Shit”, I always say, and sometimes “fuck”.

“You must have your Mother’s Day present early,” John said. I got a beautiful installation of found objects on my bedside table and four letters full of kind words in blue envelopes. At least I think they were full of kind words – John favours highlighter pens over pencils or biros, so I asked.

Modern children are meant to be self-absorbed and unempathic. Mine are more accepting and tolerant than most of the adults I know. Now that we both have children, my friend and I agree that this capacity for forgiveness is one of the biggest surprises of motherhood. I thought John and Anna would retreat somewhere hard to reach and would mistrust me after all those years of dooming. Their forgiveness means I will have the ring of confidence this Mother’s Day.

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Charlotte Raven

Valentine’s Day: The anniversary of my mother’s death

My first Valentine’s cards came from my mother. In retrospect this seems slightly odd – I don’t remember her ever sending one to my dad. Susan wasn’t the hearts and flowers type, but obviously made an exception.

I don’t think of her every day any more. But always on Valentine’s Day, when she died. I experimented with secular rituals to perform on the anniversary of her death but none of them stuck. She wouldn’t have cared whether we let off fireworks or released balloons with messages tied to the string. I used to visit her bookshelves in my recently deceased’s family home as they charted her evolution from shy activist to shy PhD student and beyond. People often mistook her shyness for haughtiness – I didn’t.

I have nothing tangible to remember her by – no gee jaws or heir loom jewelry. But the 30th anniversary of the year long miners’ strike in a month or so has precipitated a trip down memory lane. She was happiest in 1984 because we had all convinced ourselves that a revolution was imminent. No pictures exist of the nights we spent in the Park View listening to striking miners’ tales of derring do, but I will never forget them.

She wrote a lot of letters calling attention to miscarriages of justice, large and small. She was always fighting my corner, even when I didn’t need her to! Aged about twelve, I brought the 12 inch single version of Duran Duran’s Is There Something I Should Know? home, fearing Susan would remind me of that risible line, “you’re about as easy as a nuclear war”. In fact she was indignant when we realised that the four so called ‘remixes’ didn’t contain all the lyrics or a recognisable melody. They were riffs on the single, apparently, but how would young fans know?

I wish I had an archive of her correspondence; there were letters about dog shit on the pavement and the racist bakery on the high street. She got a reply from Duran Duran’s record company apologising for any confusion that the word ‘remix’ may have caused in the minds of the band’s young fans.

She was often right. The Guildford Four were framed by the police… When Paul Hill got out of prison he sent Susan a letter thanking her for the money and time she’d given to the campaign.

But sometimes she got it wrong. Joy Division weren’t fascists! If she was still here I’d still be trying to convince her of this fact.

In the years before her death, Susan was disillusioned and disappointed. Capitalism hadn’t crumbled and cool Britannia was a very inhospitable place for someone who hated bombast. She distrusted Tony Blair before it was fashionable – there was no honeymoon period.

She had always believed that receiving her doctorate would boost her self esteem – but it didn’t! Dr Raven didn’t want to teach or write academic books or any more letters of complaint, so for the first time in her life she had nothing to do but worry about me. She spent substantial chunks of her last years on earth playing Tomb Raider.

Susan died on Valentine’s Day 2001. I’m so sorry she didn’t live to see all the things that would have revivified her and restored her faith in humanity: her grandchildren, Occupy, New Labour discredited, and commentariat split between those who think Tony Blair had succumbed to Icarus syndrome while in power and those who think he had a pre-existing personality disorder.

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Happy Birthday to Eu-nuch

Today is Germaine Greer’s 75th birthday. Charlotte Raven reflects on her life and work.

I first read The Female Eunuch when I was sixteen. There was no aha moment; I couldn’t understand the title – the what? – and didn’t identify with the main protagonists; the manipulative, weak willed, lame brained feminine cipher (the middle class Western woman) or the freewheeling, sexually rapacious liberationist who disdains activists and housewives (Greer). I took this personally – I had tried being promiscuous; it hadn’t agreed with me.

Free love in eighties Brighton wasn’t as warm and comfortable as a Californian commune. When I was 16, the painful reality of promiscuity was eclipsed by revolutionry zeal. Activism had given me a sense of purpose and an excuse not to have sex with anyone who suggested it. I remember sitting uncomfortably in my school assembly with love bites and carpet burns better than The Female Eunuch; I was disinclined to go back to the grind of casual sex at Greer’s behest.

When I re-read it recently, I felt differently alienated. I understand the title – that sexual repression has robbed women of their vitality – but was more aware of the misogyny. I tried not to take Greer’s disdain for the married, monogamous and committed or the ‘bourgeois perversion of motherhood’ personally but failed. I also realised that Greer was a libertarian who proposed herself as the acme of liberation and cared more about showing off her beauty and Reichian sexual energy; she never empathised with those of us with neither.

It is an energetic book, as many have pointed out; poorly argued but greater than the sum of its parts. I read it a couple of months ago and was sure the introduction was the best bit. It should have been a manifesto! Greer can’t sustain the polemic, and her later books also read as if she got bored a couple of chapters in. I know the feeling! Her best work has been short form, exhilarating contributions to live debates, journalism (I remember her piece about Big Brother better than anything about reality TV) and a ‘little book’ that argues that Australia won’t be healed until is accepts its identity as an aboriginal county.

These days I have an intellectual rather than visceral belief that the sexual revolution had been a disaster for women; I’d read accounts of communes and Gay Talese’s book The Neighbour’s Wife about free love and wondered what had happened to the woman next door whom Talese had slept with in a clothing-optional resort in the Sandstone commune as ‘research’ for the book.

I have felt ambivalant about Greer for years but didn’t dare say so in case my green tinted spectacles were affecting my judgment. I am jealous of her articulacy and ability to marshall    the mot juste in debates. At times I have been jealous of her childlessness, as it freed her to do the debates and TV programmes that have converted her ubiquity into a cultural currency. She finished her feminist book; mine ran aground because, unlike Greer, I was worried about extrapolating general truths about womankind from my personal experience.

Sometimes this works; she could effectively dismiss the idea of feminist porn because she had been there, done that 40 years ago. But a recent piece in Salon reveals the extent to which her books are self portraits presented as social realism: “Greer’s writing is ostensibly about women, at it’s palpitating heart its just about her.” The funniest illustration is “the supermarket rant from The Whole Woman“, in which Greer describes the general indignities suffered by “typical Everyshopper. The generic woman suddenly embarks on a hypothetical quest for a jar of pimentos. She searches the Tex Mex section then ‘among the pickles’ and finally resorts to asking a man with a company pin who tells her he has never heard of them ‘implying that the customer is mad.’ She shows him red peppers and explains that she wants small seeded pepper in brine.. And so on.”

Greer has more in common with contraversialists than feminists – more like Russell Brand than Lynne Segal. Brand’s recent Newsnight apearance was as thrilling and compelling as Greer’s set-to with Norman Mailer in a debate at New York’s Town Hall. They are both unrooted; Brand has no vanguard party or movement primed to enact his call to arms, and Greer had the same problem in the seventies. Their ideas seem arbitrary so I wasn’t surprised to hear Brand describe himself as a feminist. Ironically, he personified the idea of free love, which Greer abandoned when “sex gave up on her.” Both are mischievous at other people’s expense.

Like Madonna, Greer is constantly reinventing herself. She has been an anarchist, Marxist, and is now a Liberal Democrat. She hasn’t converted to Islam, like Lauren Booth, but nothing would surprise me. We are used to expecting the unexpected. In fact the unexpected has become tediously predictable.

Unlike Grayson Perry, Greer’s ubiquity has been diminishing. I wish Greer had a trusted friend or family member who would tell her not to take part in Big Brother or debate with Toby Young. My daughter would certainly do this, if I was ever asked.

Her transphobia has been the only constant. Greer’s essentialism makes sense the more I think about her. She is the only ‘real’ woman; the rest of us – trans and cis women – are faking it.

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Charlotte Raven

My last word on Reality TV

On the few occasions I’ve taken part in a radio discussion, I struggle to say what I mean, even if the subject is close to my heart. I can’t think quickly enough to be spontaneous, but don’t want to sound stagey and on message like a politician. While I’m adjudicating, they are still asking questions! I always think of the thing I most wanted to convey or the argument that would have clinched it on the bus home. I’m not sure how common this commentator’s version of ‘esprit d’escalier’ is, where one thinks of a perfect retort too late.. One of the pleasures of having this platform is that I don’t need to sit at home cursing myself or ask the producer for another go.

“Is there anything else you want to say?” they often ask at the end of a recorded interview or studio discussion. I always say no, because I don’t want this painful process to be protracted, then regret it. In a soon to be aired discussion about the dilemmas of reality TV, with Mel from the first Big Brother, I missed a golden opportunity to revisit the question of whether the consent given by the by the participants of reality shows is in any way informed.

Everyone thinks they are fair game because they signed on the dotted line, and knew what they were letting themselves in for. I don’t buy this argument but know the rationale: like turkeys voting for Christmas, the people on Big Brother and other reality shows are the architects of their own fate – or the engineers of their doom.

There is no such thing as ‘informed consent’ in reality TV.  Brian Winston’s book Claiming the Real, fleshed out what I had intuited; that the participants on reality shows and documentaries are all assumed to have given ‘informed consent’ but none actually have if you define it as rigorously as scientists and clinicians must.

“It has been well established in science that the informed consent of subjects involved in experiments requires that it has been obtained freely and without coercion; that the procedure and it’s effects and potential effects by fully understood by the subject and the subject be competent to give consent.”

The participants in reality TV can’t give informed consent because:

(1) They don’t know what’s going to happen. The subject of reality TV can’t foresee what’s going to happen until they have gone through it. The way a particular person will play with the public can’t be predicted, nor can their individual experience. Often their naivety is a seen as a bonus, as we watch them on a steep learning curve. It would be fair to say that many, if not most, participants in reality programmes are deluded when they sign the release form. No one goes in thinking the public and other participants will hate them, or that they will be abused and tormented on a multitude of different platforms rather than feted. They sign the form before all this has happened, when they still think they will be rich and famous.

The people on Channel Four’s Benefits Street were differently deluded. They thought the filmmaker would be an ally, and were probably told that the film would be a sympathetic portrait of the effect of the benefit cuts on human beings. Variations on this phrasing have been used to justify the most intrusive and exploitative ‘poverty tourism’, like Benefits Street and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The disparity between the thing that’s in their minds when they sign the release form and what appears on screen are often so great that legal redress is sought.  They feel violated, understandably, and don’t know how else to express it.

(2) They are differently coerced. Many of the subjects are vulnerable and might have trouble thinking through the pros and cons of this particular type of public scrutiny. Before she went in, would Jade have thought the public would interpret her lack of education as stupidity? Did anyone hint at this possibility that people would enjoy watching her because it made them feel better about themselves? Of course they didn’t. The omnipotent TV execs knew all this but didn’t tell her: she is being denied the information that would make an informed choice.

(3) They didn’t “ask for it.” Participants are assumed to be complicit in the whole process, from signing the release form to the moment when they are being publicly vilified. Once their uninformed consent is obtained they are held personally responsible for every envious tweet or journalistic brick bat that comes their way. The media and public wants this to be the case, otherwise the responsibility lies with them. It’s become so normal that we no longer see it as perverse.

Victim blaming is rife. It’s easy to blame the poor for their misfortune, women for sexual harassment and reality TV stars for their trolling on twitter. Women and poor people have people speaking up for them. But no one speaks for reality stars – they are the lowest of the low.

They often cut a ridiculous figure because they’ve been cast and emotionally styled into familiar archetypes; ‘the bitch’, ‘the weeper’ (Casey in CBB), ‘the one you love to hate (Katie Hopkins in The Apprentice). In this atmosphere, Hunger Games looks prophetic. If next year’s CBB housemates were asked to fight to death to maintain social order, they still wouldn’t get any sympathy.

Hating or loving reality TV stars makes you part of the storyline. I spent the last ten years doing exactly that – slagging off the crap and weird ones and hoping my favorites, like Mel, would make it through. I’ve been so engrossed in this three ring circus for so long that I never noticed how little I cared about the people, compared with how much I thought I cared.

(4) The pornographisation of reality. Reality TV is pornographic, by definition. The subjects are always dehumanised because the camera’s gaze is always objectifying, which explains why no one empathises with the participants. Like porn stars, they only exist for your pleasure. Reality TV is repetitive and addictive like porn: it doesn’t’ need to be innovate to keep you hooked. The same scenes are repeated over and over again ad infinitum, with minor variations, but we are still glued to the screen.

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Charlotte Raven

#IDontBuyIt: To have and to have not

As well as creating a lot more work for women, the gormandising of Christmas has seen tradition trumped by foodist fashion. This year, the middle classes feel compelled to invest in a festive ‘wow factor’. Demand for extravagant centrepieces and weird food has soared. All the best tables will be sporting a multiple bird roast, where different types of bird are stuffed inside a larger one; the more the merrier. Hugh Fernley Whittingshall’s ten-bird effort last year has been trumped by a 48-bird roast, created by a Norfolk farmer, comprising 12 different species. It weighs almost four stone and costs £665.

It’s fair to say the multiple bird roast won’t be on the menu for the 80,000 kids in temporary accommodation this Christmas. Even if they could afford the ten pound Aldi version there’d be nowhere to put it; a recent Shelter report said most families living in B&B’s this Christmas don’t have a table. Shared kitchens and bathrooms mean many kids are forced to share these intimate family spaces with strangers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said the emphasis on consumption was ruining Christmas for struggling families. I think the pressure to deliver a pop-up culinary experience with a wow factor, rather than just Christmas dinner, is just as guilt-inducing, possibly more so, for those whose Christmas budget won’t even stretch to the basics.

The whole point about Christmas dinner is that it isn’t a big culinary performance. It used to be low key and functional before the foodies turned it into a test of culinary mettle and set us up to fail. When I was growing up, women were pleased to be relieved of the drudgery of feeding a family: instant mash was perceived as liberating, rather than shameful junk. In the seventies, Delia Smith produced a popular recipe book called How to Cheat at Cooking, which advised “make up the onion sauce from the instructions on the packet”.

Stephen Poole’s fascinating anti food polemic, You Aren’t What You Eat says that it was “palpably subliminal feminism that enlivened How to Cheat at Cooking”. There was no need to pass the onion sauce off as homemade; why would you be ashamed of cutting corners when cheating was a feminist act?

My mother was a big exponent of cutting culinary corners. As a child I didn’t know you could make your own mince pies – I never had a homemade one until I was in my thirties. My mum hardly ever cooked, and never felt guilty about it. The focus of our family Christmases was the people round the table, not the food on the plate. Most of the Christmas dinner was bought: stuffing, gravy, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and brandy butter.

Now food culture has come full circle. Packet stuffing in Christmas Turkey and any number of other ‘short cut’s like Bisto granules are now perceived as morally reprehensible. If you don’t cook your roast potatoes in goose fat, maple-glaze your parsnips, or construct Mary Berry’s grade 2 listed gingerbread house, you are letting yourself down and, more importantly, letting your family down.

Middle class women are tied to the stove again, and food shopping is now called ‘sourcing’, which seems to take five times as long. It’s an anxious time for the middle class foodie; the must-have turkeys from the top organic online suppliers are just as likely to sell out as a must-buy outfit on net a porter; then what will we do? Buy a four-bird roast from Aldi for a tenner? Or go hungry?

And yet the Aldi roast would be aspirational to the countless families in food poverty. The food banks are distributing thousands of Christmas food parcels this season as the government’s Dickensian welfare reforms have bitten. Food banks are an ironic counterpoint to food culture. There was a 170 per cent increase in the number of people using them in 2012.

Research conducted for Ipsos Mori recently found that 9 per cent of London children – that’s as many as 74,000 children – may be suffering from inadequate nutrition. Behind the statistics are stories of people in precarious situations when a tiny misfortune precipitates calamity. One woman described sitting, unemployed and broke in her freezing flat on Christmas day last year, with no presents, no TV, nothing in the fridge, and no child – she’d sent her one-year-old to spend Christmas with his dad as it was the only option.

I first met the multiple bird roast in real life a couple of years ago. In the play Filth, about the Bullingdon Club, it was a symbol of decadent excess. Like the abused songbirds boiled alive and eaten whole by gourmands (including President Mitterand) with napkins over their heads to stop God from seeing, until the practice was banned, the roast in Filth was meant to be disgusting.

The online reviewers of the Aldi four-bird roast seem to have missed the point. They weren’t chowing it down in a salacious reverie, or reveling in its Romanesque vulgarity like the Oxonians in Filth, but judging it in the terms Aldi were marketing it – as a nice change from turkey – and finding it wanting.

The mass-market versions of fashionable foodist products cut a curious figure on the supermarket shelves. You can buy gilding glaze in Asda for less than the price of a bag of chips. Once a sign of wealth and opulence in the 16th century, now everyone can experience the vulgarity of the Tudor Court in their suburban dining room. Is this culinary escapism a good thing? What does it mean?

The most expensive Christmas dinner, costing £125,000, features a £3000-pound melon and a £5000-pound serving of pistachios. Most people will be experiencing it vicariously, as I did when I Googled “most expensive Christmas dinner”. Culinary escapism is a middle class sport that now has mass appeal. This year, many poor families will be experiencing the satiety of Christmas vicariously. Watching Christmas Bake Off on an empty stomach must be as tormenting and compelling as smelling the emanations from Willy Wonka’s factory was for malnourished Charlie Bucket. Unfortunately, there is no golden ticket out of their predicament.

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Charlotte Raven

All I want for Christmas… is a large measure of faux bonhomie

This Editorial is taken from the Charlotte’s speech at the Feminist Times Anti-Consumerist Christmas Party last Friday Night at Conway Hall, London.

Christmas is a terrible time for a depressive like me. The Pearly Queen singing carols at Angel tube seemed like an affront.

The worse thing about being depressed at Christmas is being mistaken for a Grumpy Old Woman. Unlike Helen Lederer and the other TV Grumpies, I like crap Christmas songs and the fact that Christmas gets earlier every year.

I don’t object to Christmas, just the lies we are susceptible to at this time of year. Santa is the biggest – parents still believe in him! My four-year-old son was visibly relieved to discover that his haul of presents isn’t dependent on good behaviour. Unlike Santa, my love for John is unconditional.

Like the Christians, I think the lie of consumerism has ruined Christmas. The lists of must-haves in the magazines at this time of year exert a particular kind of pressure that makes it hard to concentrate. And parents are under even more pressure. I’ve read about people trying to kill themselves because they can’t afford to get their kids any presents and totally empathise.

I can’t really afford to buy the kids a big present and lots of little ones, like I normally do, and have been wondering how to get round this. God knows what it’s like for people who can’t afford little ones either – if nothing else, my depression has helped me connect with those who feel as if they are on the outside looking in at Christmas.

What should Christmas be about if not God or stuff? My family Christmasses were about drinking, talking and telly. We never played consequences or charades. There was little physical activity; the novel idea of a walk on Christmas day was introduced years later by my in-laws. This break with tradition has been good for my health but does make me feel as if my identity and essential Ravenishness is imperilled during the festive season, now that my mum’s dead and my dad’s in a nursing home. The fact that I get Christmas cards addressed to Tom and Charlotte Sheahan doesn’t help.

One memorable year, when I was my daughter Anna’s age, I danced with my mother to the D:ream song, Things Can Only Get Better, before it became the anthem for new labour. We were both holding Dr Seuss string puppets with tufts on their heads that moved to the beat.

My favourite Christmas song is Fairy Tale of New York because of its realism. It’s more miserable than Slade by a country mile. Is it possible to be happy without lying to ourselves? I hope so. While I’m waiting to find out, I wish I could act festive and sport reindeer deely boppers like the receptionist at my doctors this morning. At this time of year, faux bonhomie is better than no bonhomie.

My psychiatrist says my black humour stops me from acting on my impulse to “do a jimmy” and chuck myself off Beachy Head. And the thought of being stopped on the cliff edge by the Christians who have been stationed there for the past few years is also a powerful deterrent.

Feminist Times has the same mordant wit, with the same redemptive purpose. We think modern life is crap but don’t moan about it like the grumpy old women.

I am a highly ambivalent consumer – in certain moods, I think scented candles are the key to happiness.

I left the Mumsnet blogfest with a massive goody bag and felt genuinely pampered and appreciated, until I ate too many New York Cupcakes and felt sick to the stomach about how easily I can be bought.

Working with Deborah and Sarah has made me realize that wonderful things can be conjured out of nothing. Deborah’s DIY ethic has rubbed off on me and I feel liberated from my belief that more is more.

You won’t leave this party laden with boob firming cream and beige nail varnish, because unlike Mumsnet we haven’t sold our souls. Our magical Christmas party was conjured by some amazing people with no commercial partners.

I wanted to take this opportunity to mention that Deborah is taking over as editor. It’s a relief to be able hand over the day-to-day management of Fem T to her and focus on writing, ideas and the big Feminist Times picture. Deborah’s the only positive person I’ve ever respected, mainly because she isn’t bland or deluded. And she respects my Ravenishness; she never tries to talk me out of my negativity, but I do always leave the office feeling better than when I arrived.

Deborah and Sarah have assured me that it isn’t a North Korean style purge, but I will be paying close attention to the pictures of past events to see whether I am photoshopped out…

Sarah is taking over as Deputy Editor – she’ll be brilliant. I never thank her enough. I just wanted to say publicly how proud and pleased I am with everything she’s done at Fem T, in fair winds and foul.

The party was an intimation of Christmasses yet to come. I hope to wake up one Christmas morning with no presents, feeling Sheahanish and up for life, because the depressed and depressing capitalist system has been replaced by comfort and joy.

Thank you to Gabriela Cala-Lesina, Ruth Barnes, Jenny Roper, Eleanor Westbrook, Carly Smallman, Sarah Campbell, Fari Bradley, Conway Hall, Tobias Amstall & 4th Floor Studios and all our other helpers on the day.

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Charlotte Raven

A feminist in high heels is like Dawkins in a rosary

I get irritated by the question “can feminists wear high heels?” so tend to answer facetiously. The last time I was asked, at a Mumsnet panel, I said “no”. I don’t want to waste time talking about bloody shoes – I can do that at home with my four year old son. John loves my “clip clop” shoes better than me and finds them easier to walk in. When I go on a panel about feminism, I want to talk about feminism.

Another reason I find it irritating: it seems rude. No one ever asks Richard Dawkins, “can you be an atheist and wear a crucifix and a set of rosary beads?” The answer is simple. You can, but you will look pretty silly.

Feminists look silly in high heels. No pictures exist of me in my five inch Westwood thigh boots last New Years Eve, fortunately. I was at home, mercifully, and managed to stay upright for three and a half minutes at a time. On drugs I found their impracticality compelling, but I was freaked out by the sight of my grotesquely elongated form – like the scary teachers in the Pink Floyd video The Wall in a full-length mirror at 3 am.

The post-feminist belief that heels and feminism are compatible is based on a category error. Feminism emphatically isn’t about making women feel comfortable about bad or harmful decisions or choices. We have the right to do stupid things, but feminism is there to try and stop us before we hurt ourselves, physically or psychically.

I wouldn’t say to a victim of domestic violence, “well that’s your personal choice”. I personally live with a man who doesn’t hit me but it’s cool with me if you have chosen not to. We can condemn the choice without judging the person

High heels are a form of self-harm. The poor laydeez setting forth in stripper heels need to be given this message and it isn’t going to come from Cosmo. We need to understand, but not consent to their behaviour. I understand and empathise, because I could have ended up in casualty myself last NYE.

In recent times some hip feminists and fashion writers have recanted and come out against high heels. At least they say that being maimed and immobilized are not for them, but they won’t stop the rest of us choosing that path.

Why are they cool with that? And that’s not the only annoying thing about this debate. No one would expect Ed Milliband to say his belief in social justice was a personal opinion. Politicians are allowed to have passionately held beliefs – but we feminists must be mealy mouthed and qualify everything so it doesn’t seem proscriptive.

This fear of offending the high heel wearing minority – and it is a minority – has stopped us from revealing the fundamental incongruity in the image of the high heel wearing feminist.

I want to convince the readers of Feminist Times to jettison their stripper heels. I hope our fear of seeming judgemental won’t hobble us.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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Charlotte Raven

The Face of Pussy Riot

‘Selfie’ has become this year’s word. I’m not surprised although I’ve never taken one, apart from when I was having my foot stitched in A&E recently. I felt moved to parody the sun lounger selfie – a sub genre where female holiday makers photograph their tanned legs with the sea in the backgrounds. The picture of my white hairy legs and frankenstin foot doesn‘t feature in the Google images if you search for sun lounger selfies, suprisingly.

Selfie journalism is all the rage too. My most successful (in terms of money and exposure) recent pieces were selfies – one about Huntington’s Disease and the other about stress. I have already written about my depresson, my cats and my children. How did this happen?! In my youth I wanted to be liked and never thought that I’d reveal so much biographical detail – it happened slowly, so I never realised what was happening until it was too late.

The media has changed dramatically in the past few years. When I started out in journalism commissioning editors seldom demanded a personal angle. I was a cultural critic when it was still fashionable and penned stern third person pieces about New Labour’s narcissism, usually managing to work something in about the on-screen lives of Big Brother contestants but very little about mine. It didn’t seem relevant.

It’s easy to write selfies – but hard to live with the lurking suspicion that you are becoming Liz Jones.

It’s impossible to make a living in journalism these days unless you’re prepared to tell all about your personal life, especially for a woman. I recently pitched a cultural piece about the journalistic cult of personality with no personal angle to a number of different editors and never heard back.

It isn’t just journalism; we seem to need a face behind everything. Political and charitable campaigns don’t work unless there’s an identifiable person to relate to. But the cult of personality has reduced cultural life to tittle tattle. Journalism is now all about the who, not the what, where or why.

In this climate, the anonymous female punk band Pussy Riot were a powerful challenge. One hard to spell philosopher said: “The message of their balaclavas is that it doesn’t matter which of them are arrested — they’re not individuals, they’re an Idea. And this is why they are such a threat: it is easy to imprison individuals, but try to imprison an Idea!’

Unlike One Direction, we knew nothing about Pussy Riot’s back story – how their mothers or old school friends felt about their performances, or what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave 110 per cent in their performance in Red Square, but didn’t use their global prominence to enhance their personal brand. Their individual quirks were subsumed in the idea of Pussy Riot – there was no ‘sporty’ one or ‘leary’ one.

Like many others, I was obsessed with the idea of Pussy Riot, while secretly hoping that they would be as gorgeous as it. I kept reminding myself that Pussy Riot were part of a movement that included Occupy and the Anonymous Collective of internet hackers who were choosing to obscure their identity – a radical decision in the age of the selfie .

The anonymity afforded by cyberspace has always been portrayed as a bad thing. But it’s not just the bad guys who need to hide behind false names. As well providing a cloak for ‘trolls’, anonymity has also allowed internet hacktivists to campaign with a unique new power against a variety of social ills.

The targets of the Anonymous Collective were surprisingly diverse. I thought they’d be fighting efforts to ban internet piracy, not campaigning against the Church of Scientology and child pornography. Their slogan is: “We are anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

According to an article in the Baltimore City paper, “Anonymous (used as a mass noun) is the first internet based super-consciousness. A group in the sense that a flock of birds is a group.” In other words, they act anonymously in a co-ordinated manner towards an agreed goal. It also presents itself as the collective conscience of the internet. One picture relating to the anti-child pornography campaign shows Guy Fawkes holding up a picture of a teddy bear with the slogan: “Don’t fear, the internet is here.”

Anonymous are against notions of creative ownership and in favour of piracy. They argue that copyrights should expire after five years, which would effectively mean the internet was a massive digital library. This demand strikes us as unnatural. We have everything invested in the myth of individual artistry, rather than a collective creative consciousness.

Some artists have responded enthusiastically to Anonymous’ call to freely share their output instead of making money for themselves. You can download all Pussy Riot’s recordings for nothing, if you want to.

Then something strange happened. During the trail, the members of Pussy Riot were humanised. It looks as if it happened naturally – as if our natural desire to find out everything about them was met by a surge of information in every media platform. Soon, I knew Nadya and Masha better than my school friends. Their childhood ambitions were filled in and Nadya’s child was held aloft outside the courtroom. Their parents were featured in the Pussy Riot documentary. There was a leary one and a posh one. I blamed media for personalising the Pussy Riot story, until I read this piece by Maria Chehonadskih in Radical Philosophy:

“The Pussy Riot balaclavas are not the Guy Fawkes masks of people crowded in the square in V for Vendetta. The thousands of protesters do not fit the narrative of lonely heroes, but the old Soviet dissident logic recognises only ‘personality’ in the revolt against the authorities. As a result, the faces and personal stories of the members of Pussy Riot have become of central importance. A humanization of the victims on trial passed through a self-promoted [my italics] media campaign, which made public their way of life (ascetic, selfless devotion), personal life (parents, babies, husbands) and other biographical details.”

In one interview Nadya reveals that she wanted to go into advertising. I wasn’t surprised. She has constructed a wonderful, PR narrative about herioc individuals battling against authority. And she is stunningly beautiful, fortunately,

A personality cult is growing around Nadya. She is now referred to as the [open quotes] leader [close quotes] of Pussy Riot. I wonder how the other members feel about this. Her open letter in the Guardian about the terrifying reality of penal servitude is compeling. We are hanging on her every word. Is that healthy? We are all in love with her – she is more heard than any female public figures.

The dark side of the Pussy Riot multitude is an extreme individualism, manifest in the gesture of the removed balaclavas, behind which a unique ‘Russianness’ appears: first, the face of the leader, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; second, dissident moralism, spirituality and asceticism – the brand identity of Russian revolutionaries since the populist movement of the nineteenth century.

What about the sixteen non-media-savvy anti-Putin protestors who are languishing in jail as I write? Anonmyity is being thrust upon them. With no brand identity, they have no leverage. How many letters are they getting? How many namechecks by globally famous pop stars, how many offers of flirty email dialogues with noteable philosphers?

The unmasking of Pussy Riot was part of the performance. By contrast, Anonymous kept their cover when I encountered him/her in real life at the Occupy protest at St Paul’s. I had foolishly imagined the protesters would only put on their ‘V for Vendetta’ masks when the TV news cameras were watching, so I was surprised to see so many of them got up as Guy Fawkes while preparing their tea on a quiet Tuesday night. The political point – that they represent a massive constituency of normal second and third persons, the potato-peeling majority – was powerfully conveyed, so I was extremely embarrassed by my childish urge to pull their masks off. The culturally instilled mania for personal identification runs very deep, as we will see.

The big political battles of the future won’t be between left and right, but between the selifie and an anonymous other. Anonymity does pose a significant threat to individualism – it’s terrifying to contemplate what would remain of our identities if we allowed our egos to be subsumed in the idea of Anonymous. Writing with my Guy Fawkes mask on would be frightening but liberating. I wouldn’t make a bean, but the lack of a byline would definitely free me to experiment, like Pussy Riot did.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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Charlotte Raven

The Allure of PR

I have been having lots of strange conversations in upscale coffee houses with eggs benedict on the menu about monetizing Feminist Times online. A little bit of paid for content from appropriate partners like female recruitment agencies couldn’t hurt, the siren voices say.

PR sirens are better dressed and more reasonable sounding than the evil Nicotine in the anti smoking ads screened in the seventies. But just as dangerous. One bit of paid for content and we’ll be in their grasp.

At the mumsnet blogfest last weekend I met lots of people who had successfully monetized their personal online brand.

I thought mummy bloggers would be obsessed with their children but was clearly behind the times; they are obsessed with vintagey gee gaws, fashion and free holidays, just like all the lifestyle journalists I know.

Is this progress? The earliest mummy blogs I read were all about maternal ambivalence, PND and infidelity. But today’s blogs are as conflicted as woman’s magazines. They started off as one thing – a place where they could talk honestly about the experience of motherhood and reach out for support, and became mercantilist – a clever way of marketing family life back to itself.

Mummys spend a lot of time enthusing, so they are perfectly suited to the role of brand ambassadors. The bloggers are proud of their commercial partners – the real ones hardly feature. Some speak about their kids as if they are soda streams and vice versa. Why wouldn’t they be plied with free stuff? It would take a great deal of concentration not to end up with statement cookware on every surface and a blog full of the cheapest kind of PR.

Of course I empathise. It has never been more expensive to bring up children and I applaud other types of mumpreneurs. I don’t feel superior to the mummy bloggers, as my principles have cost me dear. My refusal to ever contemplate writing for money, rather than for love, has meant that for years my husband has been the main breadwinner. Ironically, I am more dependent than the mummy bloggers, so I envy their pragmatism and commitment to a feminist ideal.

Feminist magazines are less expensive to run than kids; I nearly succumbed to the PR sirens’ logic during these coffee house consultations because the consequences of not doing so were dramatically conveyed. Like many free to access websites, we won’t have any money to grow or develop and the Fem T team will be content slaves working from dawn till midnight to feed the website – a constantly open maw. We will write everything ourselves because we won’t be able to afford (not to) pay anyone else, until we burn out.

We believe we’re right not to have a paywall, but worry that lovely free content might feel like an entitlement. Most websites are free after all, but those that survive usually have multiple income streams, unlike us. We only have one – you.

Crowdfunding is honourable but embarrassing. The ask is personal for one thing, involving a lot of emotions. Will I feel personally slighted if you decide to spend your money on sodastreams rather than Feminist Times? The ligger’s life is easier. I’d rather ask PRs for freebies and heads of recruitment agencies for paid for content than implore you to part with your hard-earned cash for my project.

The fear of being rejected has led me not to appeal to you directly. Unwittingly, Fem T may have given the impression that we/I are loaded. Would that we had family money to invest in the project. My poor father is too ill to even sign up as a member.

It’s a fine line isn’t it? I want to be credible and not desperate and may, in the process, have given the impression that the funding for the project would enable us to buy the little extras like aeron chairs, rather than the basics like paper.

Obviously if I’d been a bit more Bob Geldof about it we would have kept saying, give us your fucking money at the outset. I was backward in coming forward. The jokes on the membership levels were a way to avoid appealing directly.

We have over 500 members but need more of our thousands of signed-up supporters to join as members to sustain us. So now, belatedly, I’m being a bit Bob Geldof and saying we won’t survive for long with no paywall, PR or advertising unless you sign up as a member. If you sign up today you will be invited to our anti-consumerist Christmas celebration in the Conway Hall. As you probably know, the print incarnation of Feminist Times is a members only proposition. Our donations model (plan a) means we will need to keep on asking you proudly and shamelessly for the fucking money. Or plan b will be implemented; next week’s editorial will be brought to you by Nespresso.

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Charlotte Raven

Meets rather than Tweets

Feminism is suddenly fashionable, which means feminists like me are unusually popular. I’m sure it won’t last.

For decades, we struggled to be heard – dismissed as joyless puritans who were anti fun and anti life. To win back credibility in the nineties, some sisters tried to detoxify the term by getting into bed with the fashion industry and preaching the Blairite mantra of personal choice.

Post feminists had nothing to say about iPad addicted toddlers, porn addicted teens and the ludicrous new beauty norms. By comparison, old school feminists like me suddenly seem sane and rational. We are in the unusual position of having a public platform. Feminism seems like the only rational response to a mad world.

I’m glad I wasn’t a teenager in the Internet age. My son John always asks – in your olden days, did they have computers? No – which meant no emails. In my olden days we had to write letters of complaint to the powers that be on Basildon Bond notepaper. My mother was always writing letters about dog shit and miscarriages of justice. Her handwriting was very neat, fortunately.

The early part of my adolescence was spent reading Marxist tracts in a Soviet themed bedroom. Instead of uploading selfies onto youtube, I was highlighting passages of the Lenin’s What is to be Done and deliberating about whether the USSR was a degenerate workers state, as my Militant colleagues claimed.

Age 15, I was propelled into my first three dimensional political experience. I tell John, the miner’s strike was like a 3D version of the Communist Manifesto; all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices were swept away..

…the headmistress at my private girls school hosted a debate between my two young miner friends and an NCB boss, and I discovered that Billy Bragg, unlike Barry White, is not good music to shag to.

I spent a lot of time in mining communities and witnessed people changing from the inside out. Women left their degenerate workers for Open University courses and I beat my Militant mentor at tennis having never played before!

We didn’t have mobile phones in my olden days either. I remember seeing my first one, brandished by my sworn political enemy in the Serpent Bar in Manchester University Union in 1989. I told John this story and he asked ‘but who did he call if no one else had them.’ Good question!

I never saw the internet as a simple force for good. I was always slightly embarrassed by the Guardian’s cyberphillia and wondered whether their experiment in open journalism would work.

They thought Comment is Free would be like the Roman Forum, but it is more like the Coloseum. Oddly, the better the journalist, the more likely they are to get a roasting. Even innocuous things inflame the online commentairiat. There were 900 negative comments underneath a pesto recipe on the Guardian’s website recently.

I try not to look at the comment boards, but broke my own rule at 3 am on launch day, and read endless online threads about Feminist Times. Big mistake!

Like the tweens who upload their ‘pretty or ugly’ video, I was asking the internet is this project stupid or brilliant. Am I the new voice of feminism or a twittering self promoting narcissist.

We are all asking the same thing of the internet, looking to it for validation, knowing what will happen, but not being able to stop ourselves

I have protected myself by not properly going on Twitter, and hope she my daughter will be as sensible. I think Twitter will go out of fashion by the time she’s a teenager.

In the meantime, its important to try and understand where the trolls are coming from. I always think trolls must hate their jobs, and probably their lives. On Comment is Free, there’s a soupcon on envy thrown in. Great journalists get a roasting.

I went through a dark period when I wasn’t getting published. Sitting isolated in my office in the garden, I’m ashamed to say I used to ‘hate read’. I was obsessed with narcissistic bloggers like Linda Grant and Justine Picardie and my stepmother AKA the Galloping Gardener. I never left a horrible comment, but thought a lot of horrible things, but was compelled to return in the same spirit of anomie day after day.

I felt the same about digital feminism as I did about Comment is Free. It’ll never work – and it hasn’t really. It has changed a lot of small things like bank notes, but can’t change consciousness, the voice inside your head asking ‘am I pretty or ugly.’

I set up Feminist Times to get back to an olden day version of feminism – where everyone meets rather than tweets. The collaborations will change us and change the world.

Our vision of feminism is 3D. The idea of consciousness raising is vital for me. You want to meet up with like and unlike minds, in real life, and real time. We want the level of engagement to go beyond the comment board.

The members party at my house this Saturday was the embodiment of 3D feminism. So many of you had brilliant ideas to pitch and amazing stories to tell. There was so much creativity in the room, and camaraderie. Two young women had come all the way from Birmingham. I’ve had a few gatherings in this space over the years but never so many brilliant conversations. The issue of drugs was never mooted, as it usually is – no one needed them because it wasn’t boring.

I want to thank all the members for their incredible leap of faith. We are truly touched that so many have felt able to commit to our vision of an ad free space for women. Feminist Times is a voice for women who feel disenfranchised – it’s for people who don’t feel that their politics, bodies and interests are represented in the mainstream media.

Here’s to all our members whose hard earned money is making this vision a reality. And, if you aren’t a member yet, why not? If you join today, you will be on the list for our Christmas spectacular. See you there!

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Charlotte Raven

Femen – the beauty fascist fauminists

Femen are recruiting in Britain. Would the Fem Times team qualify for active service? It’s unlikely – the beauty fascist fauminists are more protective of their brand than the founders of Spare Rib were. Like the fashion industry, they have “high beauty standards”. Unlike fashion houses, they are a mess of contradictions. I predict they will soon collapse under the weight of these contradictions.

Femen are perfect post feminists, having their cake and eating it, or wearing their thong and professing to combat patriarchy. They were fashionable briefly, but their time at the top of the google search ranking for feminism is nearly done. Living by fashion, they will die by fashion – they will be out moded in the blink of an eye, when the global media’s gaze is trained on the next sensation.

Femen’s feminism isn’t rooted in the past. On the contrary, they are contemptuous of classical feminism, which looks like a “sick old lady”. It is year zero for them, they are the first feminists on the planet, elbowing their way to the front of the media scrum, which feels like storming the barricades.

There are no ugly members of Femen. Or plus size women. My sagging breasts and cesarean scars would disqualify me from active service. I’m glad I’m not young and impressionable though, and better looking; I can imagine my younger self rather relishing the role of the sextremist. Femen obviously speaks to the young and impressionable.

Femen are one of many depressing features of the internet age – an international brand with as much name recognition as Hermes that captures attention and doesn’t convert it into anything. Their version of girlpower is as sterile and alienating as the Spice Girls, and more patriarchal.

“No woman would think of that,” my nine-year-old daughter averred. “Running around the streets naked is a total man idea.”

She wasn’t surprised to learn that Femen were conceived and managed by a Simon Fuller esque Svengali. A recent documentary about the group outed Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the group.

These girls are weak,” he says in the film. “They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”

There was no male Svengali behind Feminist Times. Perhaps we would have benefited from a Patriach like Svyatski at the helm. I might have been more punctual and less prone to hysteria. We probably would have decided that getting our tits out in public was the quickest way of getting our message about 3D feminism across and found a vast international audience for our ideas.

In the present sexualized climate, staying clothed is much more radical than baring your breasts. When all around are disrobing, we at Feminist Times are going fully clothed into the fray, and hoping to find that the media won’t ignore us. We have been pleasantly surprised so far! Our vision of 3D feminism is all about meeting to change ourselves and the world. I think the members of Femen would benefit from joining a consciousness raising group to explore their psychological dependency on the patriarch and the paradox of exhibitionism which is an inhibiting feminine norm.

This an expanded version of a piece published in the Evening Standard Magazine on Friday 8 November.

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Charlotte Raven

Ode to Autumn

This week’s editorial is dedicated to the Stakhanovites on the women’s press, who labour so hard on their inspirational/aspirational autumn editorials.

Autumn, you are my number one guilty pleasure (don’t tell anyone!) You are more unpopular than Simon Cowell, but less scary. I have longed for you all the lazy hazy days of summer, and didn’t dare admit it.

Everyone loves lying on the grass admiring their pedis, except moi because (whisper it!) from the waist down, I am a right two and eight! Opaque tights cover a multitude of sins, including the scar on my foot and my hairy feminist calves!

There are many signs that Autumn is in the air, including the low lying mists rolling off the river and the all too familiar early morning visibility problems on the way to work!

Summer was a big guilt trip for those of us who have a love/hate relationship with the great outdoors! And summer drinks are never as nice as they look! Thankfully, it’s no longer Pimms o’clock, but red wine o’clock. I glug Merlot on weekdays as soon the kids are in bed, in front of my coal-look fire, swathed in eternally comfortable layers. And dreaming of a big win in the lottery of life.

You are a cheap date Autumn, compared with high maintenance Summer. You don’t rehydrate constantly with expensive bottled water. You drink whatever’s going. We compliment each other; you are the scratchy jumble sale blanket to my vintage throw.

In fashion terms, you are a tectonic shift; spaghetii strap dresses are jettisoned in favour of ravioli separates in dramatic umbers.

You are bold as brass Autumn; a true English eccentric who won’t drop your hemline when the temperature plummets. You are an inspiration to us all! Tis the season to set forth in witty apostrophes, like my eighties roller boots and jaunty ‘mother of the bride’ fascinator. To celebrate your arrival, I will be investing in a pair of Spats wellies and a talking umbrella, like the one in Mary Poppins that tells when I’m over my overdraft limit.

I fancy you rotten, Autumn: you are as tasty as a baked potato on bonfire night! I gorge senselessly on you while watching Homeland, and fantasising about being sodomised by Damien Lewis.

Although you are frowsy and disheveled, I don’t mind being seen with you. You can’t work a polished and pulled together look, but you are reliable, unlike a rollercoaster. I won’t get stuck at the top of you, fearing for my life.

Autumn throws up many challenges: it’s too cold to smoke outside! My tunic dresses are too draughty! Unfortunately, I can’t get into last year’s Gap real straight jeans. My feminist summer wreaked havoc with my waistline! The stress of launching a magazine was the perfect alibi for downing iced coffees and pain au chocolates at 4pm. As I write, I am wearing yoga pants covered with cat hairs, under a rust-coloured, coffee-stained duvet.

Autumn is a time for making plans! I will be thinking of the print incarnation of Feminist Times while stamping through the leaf-strewn streets of Kentish Town in my Carven boots and coat of doom. AKA my Uniqlo parka.

To celebrate, we’ve pulled together a covetable selection of russet toned writing to warm the cockles in the coming week. The ‘Running? It’s just jogging’ piece will make me think twice before donning my fitness tracker wristband.

In this week’s feminist toolkit, Julie Burchill hymns her thick skin. JB hates you, Autumn, I’m sorry to say, but please don’t take it to heart. A few years ago, she memorably cast fans of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness as lame brained nostalgists.

Happy thinking!

Here, in no particular order, are my autumn aspirations:

  • Dye my hair russet, a la Sylvie Guillem
  • Accost Tufnell Park uber-dad Damien Lewis on the school run
  • Remember the name of the Green Party leader
  • Campaign for Dublin Biscuit Folding to be included in the Great British Bake Off
  • Get a Feminist Times clothes line into Topshop
  • Learn beekeeping

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Charlotte Raven

In praise of interesting women

Where have all the interesting women gone? Is it capitalism that has turned us into one-dimensional consumerist ciphers? Or have Thatcher, Blair and women’s magazines rendered us all too self absorbed to be interesting?

And what has happened to all the interesting magazines?  There are over forty women’s titles on our local newsagent’s shelves but they all look depressingly, uniformly bland. Grazia, once the crack cocaine of women’s magazines, is now an eminently resistible blend of mid-range ‘must haves’ and Jennifer Anniston snore fest. Even Vogue has lost its hauteur: the fashion ‘bible’ now lacks the confidence it once had to preach, even to the converted.

Six months ago I floated the idea of producing a PR, advertising and celebrity free magazine aimed at interesting women. I knew there must be a market out there but couldn’t say how big it would be. The random, unscientific ‘focus groups’ I held to test the idea merely confirmed that a small circle of metropolitan artists and activists would buy it.

But who would be our role models? We all struggled to identify any we could agree on. Looking at the BBC’s power list didn’t help. Karren Brady wouldn’t inspire my Tomboyish daughter. She was also bored by Dora the Explorer, recognising that Dora was a sop to mums, rather than a genuine attempt to address the endemic sexism of commercial kids TV – much as Brady’s public presence is a sop to female TV-watching professionals. When Anna grows out of the Beano and casts around the culture for characterful role models, she may find, disappointingly, that everyone seems to be heading in One Direction.

I was lucky to grow up in the golden era of interestingness, even though I didn’t know it. I remember watching Ann Leslie and other larger than life grande dames of Fleet Street on Question Time in the seventies. Today’s Glendas seem rather one-dimensional by comparison.

My teenage heroines were punk and new wave scions Pauline Murray from Penetration, Poly Styrene and Siouxsie who were neither bland nor conventionally pretty. I planned to grow up interesting like them, whereas my girls’ school was trying to instill a blandly professional bearing that would equip me for life in the commuter belt.

There are far too few characterful women in public life; no female Nigel Farages (apart, perhaps from Grayson Perry). Women in the public eye come under enormous and explicitly gendered pressure to be bland, particularly if they’re doing and saying serious things. One of my most witty, acerbic and colourful activist friends has felt compelled to create a muted persona for her appearances on TV and radio. The fear of seeming unserious has led her to be tight-lipped and cautious. It’s a process of self-effacement that I empathise with. I have often wondered myself whether I should have media training to make myself feel less silly acting the role of someone in full possession of the facts on my very occasional forays into what we laughingly refer to as the mainstream media.

By contrast with women in the media, my female friends in real life are far more three-dimensional – they hardly ever talk about men or sex or shopping like the ‘girls’ in Sex and the City. (Or indeed like any women in TV fiction – when do you ever see two women on screen having a discussion that is not about men or shoes?). In real life we talk about the business of living and the complex reasons fulfillment sometimes seems elusive, even for people as privileged as us.

And those reasons turn out to be complex – equal parts personal and political, a combination of social forces and self-sabotage. I admire the way these real women struggle with the enemy within: the voice inside their head that’s telling them to obsess about Ofsted ratings and demand more ‘me time’, and the enemy without: the lack of affordable childcare and the fact that they are often working absurdly long hours, for less money. Consciousness raising is very unfashionable – my activist friends call it ‘navel gazing’ – but we will revive it.


In the 1970s, Spare Rib was lovingly fashioned by interesting women for interesting women. The founders attracted a wonderful ensemble of interesting and compelling sensibilities to the project. When I approached them, I therefore never suspected they would be affronted by my desire to revive that unpredictable spirit, nor that they would want to curtail it.  But following some enthusiasm for my initial approach, they soon began to question whether my ambition for a new Spare Rib was worthy of the original. The lengthy written exegesis that they offered as a rationale for refusing to let me use the name without a legal battle reminded me of my school reports, deeply wounding but also missing the point.

I had the same experience reading Marsha Rowe’s piece on The Guardian website a few months ago. It felt quite unnecessarily censorious – quite aside from the basic factual inaccuracies: our website isn’t elitist and there’s no paywall as she asserted. We have in fact identified a completely different way of paying for the quality content and staff wages that will go into creating a PR, advertising and brand free online magazine – a membership system that will involve all members not only in the website but also in an ongoing programme of members’ events that couldn’t exist any other way. Radical magazines have an ignoble history of exploiting their staff and being in denial about it. We don’t want to assume that people will work for nothing, or guilt trip them into doing so. And we don’t want to be limited to working with the privileged few who currently dominate all branches of publishing simply because they can afford to work for free – sometimes for years.

This project began as a series of conversations around my kitchen table, which soon broadened into a dialogue with hundreds of members and supporters. We rang everyone on our email list to ask what issues concerned then, and invited them to submit ideas. I’m proud that we are able to use the tools of the digital age to facilitate these conversations – rather than limit ourselves to talking to those closest at hand (North London, in my case).

The constituency of interesting women is of course much bigger than you would imagine from reading the women’s press. Our editorial team has been busy these past six months on an inspirational round of meetings with writers, feminist theologians, punk poets and teenage activists who remind us of (slightly more focused) versions of ourselves at that age.

The amazing response we’ve had since the name change was announced suggests that men and women throughout the nation are buying into the ideas we’ve mobilised and urgently want something more interesting than just another magazine – a place where people can detox from mainstream media culture and meet interesting, like and unlike minds. I have broken my Grazia and Mail Online habit and hope others will do the same. Unlike Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’, our desire to plug into the collective female consciousness is ideological not simply pragmatic.

Who knows where it will take us?

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Charlotte Raven

Complex Cassandras

I am the most pessimistic person I know – when good things are happening, I barely notice. When life is difficult, I am affronted but not surprised: my personal calamities confirm my belief that I am ill-fated, like the mythological Cassandra, rather than fallibly human and living in an imperfect universe.

Six years ago, when I took the genetic test for Huntington’s disease, I never thought for a minute that it would turn out to be anything other than positive. During this period, my husband had to do the hoping for both of us.  Cassandras, I realise, can make difficult partners; I can’t help blaming my family for my failure to live life to the full. In my life, ‘doom’ has become my most overused verb. I am doomed by the curtains that won’t close, the housework that won’t do itself and by the fact Victoria Beckham appropriated my fashion ‘secrets’.

For the past few years, I have felt compelled to write critical articles about Caitlin Moran and other successful feminists with a view to spreading the doom I feel. Like many professional Cassandras I have made a living from believing the worst.   Intellectually, I am comforted by Cassandras; my favourite political tract is a pamphlet by Lenin called ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It’ – a manifesto for Cassandras.

Given my propensity for doom, I empathise with the Cassandras who foretold doom for this project. If I was Marsha Rowe or Rosie Boycott, two of the best known founders or the original Spare Rib, I would probably have agreed that my proposals for reviving it didn’t have a chance of succeeding. And I would probably be writing critical emails to the Feminist Times team dooming us as a smug metropolitan elite who are playing at feminism.

I would find myself irritating, talking about my house and husband and kids in interviews. I’m extremely fortunate to have a public platform, but fear hogging the limelight.

In my present mood, I am drawn to dystopias even though they freak me out. I watched Channel 4’s nightmarish vision of a very British apocalypse in bed in flannel pyjamas. Like Threads in the 80s, Blackout was burnt onto my brain for days afterwards. The scenario – a week-long power cut precipitated by a terrorist attack on the national grid – was all too plausible.

The Feminist Times team spent the morning after Blackout speculating about whether we’d display Dunkirk spirit like the man with the electronic tag or turn feral like the smug middle class dad. In fact I think I’d do better in a genuine crisis than I do in everyday life.  Our environmental correspondent, Rachel Salvidge, thinks she’d rather enjoy the breakdown of social silos that the darkness would bring, as long as it were short-lived and she wasn’t hooked up to a ventilator. Her first article for Feminist Times has the same breathless urgency as the self-shot pieces to camera on Blackout. As such, I am more consoled than discomfited by the voice of this authoritative Cassandra, someone who’s au fait with science, instead of Margaret Atwood, and still believes we’re doomed. I take a certain perverse satisfaction from the fact that she arrived at her position not through a gloomy disposition but a clear-eyed assessment of the facts.

The global financial meltdown was cold comfort to us Cassandras. We had resisted the amorous advances of rampant consumerism, but were doomed to have our predictions about the crisis of capitalism disbelieved – even when they came true.

Rachel knows drinking fair trade coffee isn’t going to save us from calamity. Nor will make do and mend, as I discovered in September’s inaugural thrift festival in Darlington. Making do and mending rapidly comes to seem the ultimate displacement activity. Thrifters focus on managing money to avoid dooming the system.

In the age of austerity, mothers struggling to feed their children are doomed by the injunction to be thrifty. You can’t eat an up-cycled, shabby chic, dresser – slow cooking won’t make it palatable. Though of course if you could sell it on a market stall then you would probably find, in the blink of an eye, that you were taking orders for a thousand pieces from a top US department store. That’s how it was for Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway, the self-styled king and queen of thrift. At thrift fest, they described how they made a mint from marketing austerity chic to fashion savvy teens during the Thatcher years.

I remember the eighties ‘hard time’s look’ mostly because I wasn’t allowed to wear it. Old man coats with holey 501s were de rig back then, but my mum thought the poor would be offended by the spectacle of art school kids spending a king’s ransom to dress like depression era farmers.

Today’s ‘hard times look’ is chic and manicured in designer threads, pretending you’re living like an aristocrat on benefits, and dressing accordingly.  But there’s a cruel misconception about the real chance of stumbling on a fabulous vintage ‘find’ for a snip in the local Oxfam shops.  And anyway most of these have become the preserve of stylists and the fabulously frugal bourgeoisie, rather than the actually cash strapped.

If my mum were still alive, she might see the pressure to look fabulous on a budget as a worse affront than the original ‘hard times look’, which could at least be improvised, rather than bought.

She would have loved Lynne Segal’s obituary of post-feminism; my mum was more of a Cassandra than me and doomed the Blairite version of feminism.  She’d be mightily relieved that feminism is a movement for radical change again, rather than an exhortation to think positively about how wonderfully empowered we are by the freedom to choose what shape we wax our pubic hair into.

Feminist Times is not a displacement activity, but a conscious attempt to bring uncomfortable truths into view, which is why I’m proud to publish Garry Mulholland’s powerful piece about porn’s infiltration of his sexual consciousness.

These days mainstream glossy publications will, without apparent irony, happily attempt to convince readers they can avoid the doom by fashioning light fittings from polystyrene coffee cups. But their happiness doesn’t convince the Cassandras and for them I am thankful. Rachel Salvidge’s piece about the psychology of power commends them as an insurance against hubris. If only more of us megalomaniacs would surround ourselves with such dissenting voices and alternative perspectives.

Because Cassandra had the power to see the future.  She was doomed not to have her predictions believed because she refused to be seduced – but that is not to say she wasn’t right.

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ebranding feminism at Mother

Debranding feminism

A few months ago Elle magazine rang to say how exited they were to hear about our launch, and keen to collaborate with us! “Awesome,” I said. “We are very excited that you are excited!”

Like PRs, women’s magazine editors deal in hyperbole, so I took their breathless account of the global impact and reach of their ‘rebranding feminism project’ with a pinch of salt.

Feminism has an image problem, they averred. To make the f word relevant to Elle readers it needs to be detoxified, denuded of all its bad karma, then remade as something practical and appealing, like a vintage throw (or words to that effect.)

This task clearly couldn’t be entrusted to feminist organisations – we were part of the problem surely, so were surprised to be invited to take to part in the Elle project. It made more sense when we learned we were to be partnered with an ad agency! The branding experts would know how to make a silk purse from the sows ear of feminism. They would create an alluring feminist ad that would run in the November issue of Elle, we would sit around in their offices drinking endless cappuccinos – at least that’s how I pictured this collaboration. I was reassured, but scared as it meant surrendering control and becoming ‘muses’ rather than equal partners.

We thought and thought about whether to take part. My best friend counselled against it – “that’s never going to work hon,” she meant on a personal level. Politically we don’t think feminism has an image problem – the puritanical, anti-fun feminist looms large in the media’s consciousness, but not in mine. I’ve never met her, even in the women’s groups I attended in the 80s.

I did meet lots of hairy legged, DM-sporting lesbians. My uni women’s group was a blast – there were no vagina awareness workshops, but a lot of laughs. We always ended the evening downing pints in a lesbian nightclub called Folies. I have very fond memories of my hairy lesbian friends of that era – they were committed, but not joyless.

These days, it’s compulsory for a feminist to appear fun, fashionable and uncommitted. The ‘This is what a feminist looks like T shirt was an attempt to rebrand feminism – implying that the only acceptable feminist is one who doesn’t look, sound or act like one. Hairy Mancunion lesbians couldn’t wear those T shirts; they are meant to reassure the mainstream that feminists are ‘normal’: ‘this’ and not ‘that’.

I started Feminist Times because I wanted to have a forum to explore the tyranny of the choice agenda. In fact, post-feminism is much more judgemental and excluding than the other sort. And ironically, a lot angrier. If you’re looking for angry feminists, they’re not working for Feminist Times.

A friend recently wrote to me about an angry-post feminist he’d met at a party: “She was banging on about modern feminists, so I asked her what she meant; I think it meant the freedom to be a shopping, spa-going, celebrity endorsing, brand-aware member of the twitterrati, a kind of subtle, playful, ironic feminism that leant more towards feminine and chic.”

To help me decide whether to take part in the Elle project, I did a list of pros and cons, as my father is wont to do. In the pro column was the idea of reaching a broader audience: I want Feminist Times to be part of mainstream debate, so I thought I could survive a short stint as a muse for an ad agency if it meant getting our message across to a big audience without compromising its integrity.

My friend Kat from UK Feminista had also been love bombed by Elle, but managed to resist. She said they couldn’t take part in a project because they didn’t think feminism needed ‘rebranding’. Nor could she justify the time it would take away from campaigning. She was busy with the Lose the Lads Mags campaign and couldn’t take time out to brainstorm in Shoreditch

By that logic I couldn’t really spare the time either – we were meant to be putting together a brand new online magazine after all, but I agreed, then put the whole thing out of my mind. One morning, we found ourselves talking intently about our anti-consumerist message to a room full of intelligent and well-dressed people in an East London space. Funky doesn’t begin to describe the HQ of Mother, the agency we were partnered with. My eight-year-old loved the elephant’s behind in the breakout room but was disconcerted by the lack of a whiteboard.

“How do they brainstorm without a whiteboard?” Anna asked.

Mother seemed like Feminist Times’ dream date. They ‘got’ our sense of humour, shared our cultural references and seemed in synch with our punk spirit. They took copious notes while we were riffing about our vision of a feminist utopia, where PR people would be put to work as carers. They seemed to agree that the ad should have an anti capitalist message. Awesome! The only downer was one of the Mother women, who kept bringing the conversation back round to body hair.

We couldn’t believe that for these women, who said they had only come to feminism through Caitlin Moran’s book a few years ago, that the choice of whether to have a Brazilian or not was so empowering.  We doubted their stats and Deborah sent through the results of a quick Google search that suggested maybe not as many women as they imagined were compelled to have all their pubic hair ripped out.

I loved the ad people’s outfits – the woman opposite was wearing a vintage baby doll dress with colourful eighties mid heels and incredible robot necklace.  The cappuccinos flowed, but I didn’t feel remotely compromised. I loved being a muse and would happily have stayed there all afternoon, improvising on the theme of my personal feminist philosophy, but eventually I had to get my daughter home so I made my excuses. We had been brainstorming for five hours but it felt like five minutes.

We were excited to see what Mother came up with. In the dialogues that followed, they said that Elle had vetoed anything with an anti-consumerist message.  That was disappointing but understandable. The first idea from them was called ‘Proper Cunts’ – they would ‘crowdsource’ a variety of different vaginas and create a photomontage, which would make the Elle reader think twice before getting a Brazilian.

I was worried that the cunt shots would be differently objectifying, like the Channel 4 ‘real sex’ show that’s meant to be claiming sex back from the pornographers.  Surely the point can be made without the cunt shots, which would look like pack shots?

Deborah thought, in name only, the cunts were punky but we were worried it could be like an early version of Vice. I agreed to run with them after Mother put my mind to rest, but was relieved when Elle vetoed the idea. They’d be “taken off the shelves” if they ran the Proper Cunts ad, apparently.

The November issue of Elle has the ad we eventually signed off. It’s about equal pay, the line of least resistance. It seems to blame men, rather than capitalism for the pay gap, and holds them personally accountable for it.

“If he does the same job, ask him his salary.”

Debranding

They said this was very un-English to ask people about their salaries – we agreed but we tried to get them to change the emphasis so that the iteration was addressed to the underpaying boss, rather than the over-paid man. Apparently it’s illegal to ask a boss to disclose the details of wage differentials.

The pay gap felt like a more ‘serious’ and ‘worthy’ issue to pin our colours to than bikini waxing and, crucially, was something that was accessible to Elle readers. But it didn’t set our pulse racing and nor did it capture the issues we felt most strongly about.

The problem with ‘rebranding feminism’ is that feminism isn’t a brand to begin with. It’s a process rather than an idée fixée. There’s no easy way of capturing that process in an A4 visual advert – believe me, we tried – so any ‘rebrand’ would inevitably have been a compromise. A woman’s magazine, an advertising agency and the team from Feminist Times were never going to be easy bedfellows, because they exist to sell products and we are explicitly anti advertising; our slogan is ‘life not lifestyle’ and they make their livings from ‘lifestyle’.

With Elle’s deadline looming, we signed of the ad. The funny thing was that no one was enamoured of this idea – it was the least popular with all of us, including the people from Mother, but it was the one that appeared in the magazine. The experience was a fascinating parable about the constraints the mainstream media is operating under. My time as muse for Elle has taught me that women’s magazines are structurally incapable of originality. I don’t blame the Elle team for this, any more than I blame well paid men for the pay gap.

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