Where For Art Thou, Geoffrey? Or, the Perils of Safe Seat Complacency

There was once a fairly sizeable list of phrases I imagined would remain forever unutterable. Forever unarticulated. “I do” for one“Oh yes darling, we simply MUST fly with Easyjet again” for another. And if I flipped through a few pages, down to the section marked ‘too preposterous a scenario to even contemplate’, I’m sure I would have discovered this:

 “Geoffrey Robinson is ignoring me” 

But that was back then. Then: before I made my first electronic, and admittedly largely formulaic, overture to my MP. Then: before I wrote a more lengthy, personalised and impassioned entreaty. Then: before I followed the object of my unrequited attention to Wesminster – in pinching shoes – and stood about for longer than I should have wondering if he would eventually emerge, satyr-like, from within the corridors of power.

A bit of background will probably help. On October 24th UK Feminista orgainsed a mass lobby of parliament in an attempt to increase the political will and engagement necessary to tackle gender inequality and discrimination. Hundreds of constituents met with their MPs inside the Houses of Parliament, calling on them to take urgent action on a range of issues affecting women and girls. I had decided to take part as a logical extension of my burgeoning activism and of my long term interest in issues surrounding gendered violence and the exploitation and objectification of women. I had wanted to focus on the evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Object and Turn Your Back on Page 3 (jointly),  Equality Now, Eaves and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. These submissions powerfully highlight the routine discrimination and objectification of women in the press and the way violence against women is trivialised, minimised and even sexualised. Seeing page after page of examples, printed in bare black font is haunting (Give them a read and then echo the words: How they hell do they get away with this? How on earth can this seem normal?) I had wanted to ask my MP if he would support any proposals that would ensure regulations are put in place to end the routinely harmful representation of women. And, indeed, if Levenson omits any proposals, to request further action. I had also wanted to discuss the increasing violence, sexual bullying and harassment suffered by young women and the increasing levels of acceptance of such violence in teenage relationships. I would have asked him to take an interest in raising awareness of such issues in local schools, and of working with some of Coventry’s wonderfully committed charities in order to achieve this.

I wrote to my MP twice detailing my concerns and requested a meeting. I heard nothing in response.

So, when I travelled to London on an excruciatingly early train, those two ignored emails and a watery cappuccino clinging – stinging – inside me, something else travelled with me. This was, unfortunately, the gnawing feeling that my efforts would be in vain. Actually, it was less of a gnawing and more of a knowing. So this is where we turn to Geoffrey the man, and the perennial issue of whether the greatest battles are the hardest fought or the ones that create the biggest show. You see, my MP is not already a committed feminist with a substantial knowledge of the issues at hand, ready and able to forcefully articulate these to the House. My MP is not fresh, new, sound-bitingly youthful and endearingly eager to please. My MP is a 76 year old male with a somewhat checkered history and, so legend goes, a predilection for sweeping up all concerns and questions into nice, comfy empty sentiments. If I could get him to attend to my concerns, he who routinely speaks of transport, of industry, of finance, then surely this would send a more powerful message than someone with a more ‘expected’ adherence to gender equality. I don’t think, for example, that many MPs would fall, open mouthed, off those uber-polished House of Commons benches at the sight of Harriet Harman decrying the shocking underfunding of rape crisis centres. What a coup it would be to have Geoffrey Robinson MP listen to my concerns on the safety of young girls, and to work with me on setting this right. According to www.theyworkforyou.com Mr Robinson – bizarrely – uses a high content of alliterative three word phrases in his speeches. Hey, Geoffrey, why don’t you try ‘stop sexualisation in schools’ or ‘prostitution, pornography, power’ for size?

As it turned out, my initial assumption was accurate. I queued in the central lobby of parliament and filled out a green card, requesting the presence of my MP. I then waited. And waited. Admittedly I did not wait vacantly. I nattered away to some stunningly bright women, some just about young enough to be my daughters, many certainly old enough to be my grandparents. I listened in on meetings taking place in corridors with other activists and MPs and, shamelessly, indulged in some political celeb spotting (I stared too long at Simon Hughes. Long enough for him to look mildly perturbed). They tried to get Geoffrey’s office for me but there was no answer. I was told, as per procedure, that he would write to me upon receiving the green card.

As I write this, it is over two months since I wrote my first email, and three weeks since I left my green card. I am bereft of a response. I would have thought politeness and sense of obligation would dictate some form of acknowledgement for my troubles. A simple and polite ‘I can’t help you but I appreciate the issues’ although disappointing would have been accepted – and expected – by me. To be completely ignored speaks volumes about his regard for his female constituents. Perhaps if I sexed up a pothole story and threw in something about a factory – maybe massive potholes outside a factory – I’d have more success at turning his head.

Yet I will not turn to bitterness, or defend my principles by attacking his. I will only give the vaguest reference to the flat in Mayfair, the villa in Tuscany (holiday home of preference for Tony Blair), the drink driving incident, the loan to Mandelson and the alleged dalliance with Robert Maxwell. In fact none of this would matter if I were able to at least say that he listens to his constituents; that he, in the least hackneyed sense possible, cares. The salient point is this: Geoffrey Robinson has represented Coventry North West for thirty six years. Despite comparatively dwindling support for Labour, he still retained his seat with a 42.6% share of the vote. People in Coventry vote Labour. A forklift truck couldn’t move our dear old incumbent and therein lies the problem. He could probably do nothing, literally nothing but fester away in his plush apartment over 90 miles from Coventry, and still get re-elected. Because people in Coventry vote Labour. Labour MPs retain large majorities. But, if you have that sense of inevitability, that cosy knowledge that your seat is safe, where is your motivation to reach ALL sectors of your electorate, to really work to win new votes, and to tackle new issues?

At the time of his comparatively smidgeon-like loan to Peter Mandelson, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson was worth around £30 million. Thirty. Million. I am not saying substantial wealth precludes you from having left leaning principles. Indeed, if this were the case my-mates-the-Milibands would be, as per the Newsnight fiasco(s) adjective du jour, toast. What I am saying is that all of this makes him feel that bit more unreachable. I do not think Geoffrey Robinson represents me, or the vast majority of his constituents. I think he represents the perils of safe seat complacency.

Maybe he doesn’t check his emails. Or pick up his green cards. Or open his letters. Maybe he is so overwhelmingly busy doing stuff and moaning about how shitty Coventry looks these days that he hasn’t got round to it. I will nobble him the next time he deigns to attend a constituency meeting and call him out on this. Because, Geoffrey, I am not an hysterical, hyperbolic harpy. I am not trying to find weight and substance in the trivial. I am a smart young woman with something to say.

In the meantime, I think he looks a little something like this:

So, If you see him before I do, please tell him that I’ve been looking for him.

Say It Like You Mean It

If the XFactor hadn’t descended up it’s own backside several years ago it would have been more profitable than it is to open this post with a string of searing barbs, at least in part to mitigate the pain I felt through the show’s exposure of Gary Barlow as, well, a bit pissy. A certified exercise in redundancy, but I want to ensure I relieve myself of the majority of my XFactor acidity before I commence with the heart of this.

Oh! the vitriol I could pour onto my TV set every Saturday (if I didn’t know a bit about science, and know that this may cause a fire). There are a plethora of irksome XFactor factors: the booming, elongated annunciation of the voiceover guy; the fact every post judge’s house makeover seems to rely heavily on PVC, stratospheric level backcombing and three sticks of eyeliner; the Village of the Damned style dead eyed repetition of the phrase ‘you made it your own’; the way Tulisa pronounces her name ‘Tulisaw’ (which can also, presumably, be found in isle three of B&Q). Yet only one XFactor trope has the ability to inflame: the culture of poormeism. That is, the coldly cynical way the producers stretch and contort any vaguely disconcerting aspect of a contestant’s life into a grotesque parody of sorrow, into minutely engineered pageantry played out by unwitting pop puppets who see only the swiftly receding light of transient fame, not the manipulation and exploitation of their private lives. These tales have ranged from the insultingly innocuous (the cross Andy in series one had to bear was his employment as a bin man) to the punchy yet overstated (Rachel in series five was a former crack addict and petty criminal and also, as it turned out, not particularly nice). Yet, as with everything that continues to exist in it’s current form, there is the potential for someone to come along and scrawl all over your preconceptions.

Despite my seeming infinitesimal knowledge of the XFactor I haven’t, for years, watched it for longer than it takes to count a few cliches and wince at a few bum notes. So, it took a while for one of this year’s finalists, Jahmene Douglas, to filter into my consciousness. And then he seemed to be everywhere. Jahmene, for the uninitiated, has spoken out about living with an violent and abusive father and the subsequent, far-reaching aftermath. This daily torment culminated in a sustained and torturous attack on his mother, Mandy. She was imprisoned in her own home and abused for days with a blow torch; with fists; with knives. Then followed a series of refuge stays, of aliases and of trying to bear the seemingly unbearable. Coming to terms with a life lived in the shadow of abuse proved too much for Jahmene’s brother Daniel who took his own life. Yet this sequence of events has been imparted without sensation, without the vaguest whiff of self pity. It is hard to imagine Jahmene’s heartfelt words accompanied by the obligatory pre-performance ‘vote for me I’ve had a hard time’ piano refrain of a Coldplay or a Take That song. I hope I am not wrong.

Whilst the publicity generated by all of this has surely not hindered Jahmene’s progress in the competition, I think to focus on this is to miss the point. I have before seen contestants use their fleeting fame merely as a springboard to vacuity: entry into trashy celeb hangouts;  dubiously rendered carol concerts in shopping centres; posing and pouting in mens’ magazines. Never before have I witnessed an XFactor contestant use the temporary platform granted by the show to do something worthwhile. Yet here we have Asda selling ‘Vote Jahmene’ T-shirts and donating the profits to the national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid; The Sun donating to Women’s Aid following an interview with Jahmene; the XFactor’s own website providing a link to a site about domestic violence; Women’s Aid and Jahmene retweeting each other on the subject of Domestic Violence Awareness. We also have #raiseawarenessofdomesticviolence trending on Twitter, at Jahmene’s behest. We have his young followers opening up about their experiences of domestic violence and giving money to help support services. One follower had proudly told Jahmene she had donated £10 to Women’s Aid, as that was all she had, but was worried that this was not enough. I am not a sucker for a sob story and can root out the coldly cynical at ten paces. I am also aware that the ubiquitous hash tag alone does nothing to reduce the statistic that two women every week die at the hands of a violent partner. I do, however, think that all of this has brought further into public consciousness a very trenchant point. With regards to the reporting and awareness of domestic violence, and to quote Mandy Douglas, “everything at the moment focuses on the aftermath”. The story of Jahmene and Mandy played out in the popular press and on social media websites is surely that indictment writ large. We hear them in retrospect, we hear them reach back painfully into the past and recall how – somehow – they managed to survive. The focus needs to stretch, to incorporate and give equal weight to prevention, to early intervention, to increasing routes to help-seeking and to eradicate the shame that is so attached to all of this.

And I know from whence I speak. I have been – I am – that aftermath. I know what it is to cower and to fear, to listen to the anger and see the pain, to be a child and to not know how to make it stop, to be conditioned to see your suffering as shameful, as wrong. Reading Jahmene say that “the thing that stays with you is hearing your mother scream and not being able to do anything about it” made me feel, for that moment, that he was the bravest person alive. I have worked for a women’s refuge service and seen women time and again feel that no one is listening, and that to fight to be heard, and to fight to be given the right options is a battle too far. I know that teens and young adults are at most risk of suffering violence at the hands of a partner, I know that there are ‘worrying levels of acceptance of abuse’* in teen relationships. This increasing normalisation of abuse needs to be tackled at the earliest opportunity, through education, and the services need to be there for people to come forward. Crippling cuts to refuge services need to stop, for we cannot continue to live in a world where 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid in one day as there was not enough refuge space to accommodate them**.

If young people are talking about the destructive nature of domestic violence on Twitter, or during XFactor advert breaks, it is surely a start.

http://www.womensaid.org.uk 

http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/education

*Home Office 2004; **Women’s Aid 2011

The Hunger Artist

***Disclaimer: This post is short on statistics and features virtually no referencing. If you would like citations or to be pointed in the direction of studies I will be happy to oblige***

When you’re in deep, so deeply entrenched in the recesses of an eating disorder that you believe the lie, you cannot conceive of the notion that what you’re doing isn’t somehow special, somehow different. You cannot address the reality: the reality that you share your affliction with an estimated 1.6 million others. The reality that one day you will wince at this mindset the way you now wince at the contact of bone on acrylic during aborted attempts to sit comfortably in the bath. And worst of all the reality that you will, ultimately, somehow feel less of a woman for the experience. I could drone on for hours about my experience of living with an eating disorder, of losing my formative years and a large helping of my twenties to what ultimately amounted to a waste of time as much as a wasting of flesh. But I don’t think the world needs another confessional. I will leave the poetically articulated misery memoirs, the eruditions on the netherworld, to the experts. Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher have probably, between them, covered all that it meant to be miserable and starving in the ’90s.

Yet I do have something to say. Certain ideas have continued to preoccupy me long after the awkward and brutal manifestations of disordered thinking and eating became quieter. One of these ideas was brought sharply and acutely into focus at the recent UK Feminista lobby of parliament. There is nothing like sitting in a room full of inspiring and creative feminists, all clapping and whooping at the usurpation of emaciated models by those healthy, positive female forms generated by the Olympics, to make you feel small. And by this I mean small on principles, as if being in some ways a casualty of the representations of women I so vehemently oppose precludes me from helping to shut them down. I was fooled, I believed the lie. Ergo, being a skinny feminist is a problem.

Of course I know that this is nonsense and that my hang ups about how I am perceived as a former anorexic are one facet of what I find problematic about the way eating disorders are perceived in general. I, of course, worry deeply about how young girls today are exposed to pornification; to hyper-sexualised and unrealistic images of women. I am hugely concerned about the fact that the liberal, almost commonplace, use of airbrushing and photoshopping has created an impossible ideal. The message is painfully and destructively clear: to do more and to be more women have to be, physically, less. Yet to focus exclusively on this as the ’cause’ of eating disorders is a massive oversimplification. It is, I feel, a possible impediment to help-seeking and recovery, and limiting to our understanding of where eating disorders might fit into a broader spectrum analysis of femininity, gender and sexism.

For example, recent press coverage of the alarming statistic that referrals to eating disorder clinics have risen by 16% in the last year has in the main focussed on issues of visual representation. The twin evils of the media and the fashion industry have had blame heaped at their door. Of course I would never say that they are not culpable. Their, respectively, intense scrutiny of the female form and haunting ideal of sickness and bones are as repugnant as they are discriminatory. Yet I can’t help but feel that the dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness, or various celebrities fuels these problems. I am not an avid follower of showbiz gossip so forgive the less than contemporary references but I always remember Victoria Beckham chomping on about how she has a chocolate bar a day, and (the later to be revealed as severely eating disordered and clinically depressed) Gail Porter espousing her filling but healthy daily diet. They were both, clearly, full of shit. Yet Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten (I know) was vilified when she replied candidly to the question of how she stayed so slim with a steely ‘I don’t eat much’. Such honesty, whilst low in the role model stakes, should be applauded for debunking the myth that you can eat what you like and stay skinny, and that if you can’t there is something wrong with you.

The studies are also there: girls felt their self esteem plummet after looking at pictures of fashion models and celebrities; the majority of young women said they’d prefer to be thin than have a career; younger and younger women are having tummy tucks, breast enlargements and liposuction. The latter no doubt influenced by the fact that the triad of supreme sexual objectification, Nuts, Zoo and The Sun, propound a cartoonish ideal that filters it’s way into the minds of young men, in turn dripping poisonously onto feminine self perception.

All of this is part of the problem. But only part. What of psychology, of the fall out from rape, from violence, abuse or exploitation? Or from an inability to determine our position in a society that still largely deems women as secondary?  Here, if you look, there are the studies: the prevalence of eating disorders in women and children who have experienced domestic violence; of women de-sexualising their body after abuse or harassment; of girls expressing a fear of making the wrong choices, of not living up to the career-mother-happiness ideal and so instead turning to something they can control. And this is to say nothing of the rise of middle-aged women suffering. The International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed that 13% of women aged 50 and older struggle with disordered eating — some for the first time in their lives. I would suggest most of these women would be insulted at the suggestion that they are starving themselves to the risk of heart failure, osteoporosis and stroke because they looked at a picture of Cheryl Cole.

There is something going wrong for women.

What I have discussed here has touched upon the perpetuation of destructive myths and misconceptions; the issue of disempowerment and the compensatory, redirected control of the body; of the long term effects of rape and violence and of the uncertain place of women and girls in society. All of these sound incredibly familiar to me and feed into a wider debate on the issues affecting – and disaffecting – women today. To stereotype sufferers of eating disorders as vainly chasing a body like this months’ hottest celebrity will do nothing to bring the statistics back down.

Commission This!

The upcoming Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections carry more than a whiff of impending disaster. They nestle, shivering, between the twin impediments of voter apathy and an I-can’t-be-bothered-to-go-out-in-the-cold-and-dark polling schedule. Combine this with an unfathomably muted publicity drive (a smattering of adverts during the X Factor? Really? Unless we’re going to have a PCC clap-o-meter on the iphone you’re wasting your time) and the results look bleak. At best, newly anointed PCCs shouldering teeny tiny mandates will hold little power in real terms. At worst, an absolute stinker of a candidate will be elected by virtue of the fact that those people with a political and social will, with valid viewpoints and progressive ideals, couldn’t muster the energy to care.

There are a lot of things I care, and care deeply, about. Some but not all of these things are related to my gender. Some but not all of these things may be affected by the election of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner. There is certainly scope within the PCC role to address the issues I am most passionate about: the, if you like, holy trinity of my activism. In an ideal world the PCC would become involved in increasing provision for victims of domestic violence and rape; in providing education and awareness sessions on gendered violence to schools and youth clubs and in supporting a prevailing opinion of ALL sex workers as victims of coercion and exploitation. And so, on Wednesday I attended a question time with all seven of the West Midlands candidates. I attended with the hope of clarifying the murky waters of an initiative about which I am, at best, skeptical.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

Instead, I watched seven individuals blunder and sound bite their way through a series of questions, questions it was searingly obvious they knew little about. The event was planned months in advance. The event was planned by Coventry Women’s Voices. The event came attached with a manifesto (on issues affecting women and girls) that the organisers were lobbying candidates to sign up to. There are several clues in there as to the likely content and tone of the evening. You know? WOMEN? Issues affecting WOMEN? Coventry WOMEN’S Voices? Although I doubt event rampant capitalising and size 60 font would have alerted this lot to the necessity to perhaps engage in a little light research before attending.

And so.

There are the usual suspects.

There are several things that are going to happen here tonight.

A man in an ill-fitting suit jacket will try to appease by pledging his attention to ‘crimes that affect ladies’ (this man will also represent UKIP so there really will be nothing else to say). The sole female candidate, our great hope for equal representation, will demolish the prospect of respect by closing her opening gambit with a bizarre cheerleader style chant cum hand gesture (which, come to think of it, is eerily reminiscent of something a doggedly loyal family member of an X Factor contestant may do. Maybe those adverts were onto something). Derek, dear old Derek, will raise the hackles of the audience by refuting the idea that street sex workers are subject to coercion and exploitation, stating that many are there because they want to be, because they are making an economic decision (You won’t remember much else of what Derek has to say, he lost you at ‘choice’). A lithe, lanky Tory will also distract you from the content of his questions by reminding you too much of the character Phil Smith from The Thick of It. The Tory and the Labour candidates will engage in a vitriolic spat, the source of which will remain elusive. Everyone’s opinions will appear based on a few hastily read briefings and the odd Panorama on sex trafficking (apparently British women engaging in street prostitution isn’t fashionable to talk about anymore…).

I am, of course, being glib. Yet my disappointment is sincere. I perhaps naively expected that at least one candidate would have a grasp of the issues that affect so many women and girls every day. The phrase ‘under reporting’ was repeated mantra-like by all of the candidates. Yet this was said with no sense or idea of how to increase reporting, or of how the provision of responses and support far removed from the criminal justice system are vital. Apparently the candidates, if elected, would hold regular meetings with the public. Not really the ideal setting for marginalised and vulnerable groups to make their opinions and needs felt and heard. What of the lack of access to rape and domestic violence services for LGBT victims, for disabled victims, for BME victims or for ‘looked after’ teens? There was a distinct failure to comprehend the reasons that people do not come forward. There was a further failure to suggest how access to justice and support can be increased, and also how to increase the trust in statutory agencies that is so lacking for some members of society.

I appreciate that there was a limited time frame for discussion and that many of the questions asked could not be given an unequivocal answer without research and careful planning. However, if a question time such as this is a glimpse into the hearts and minds of our candidates I can say only this: I may have ventured out on a cold, dark, rainy night to see what these candidates had to say for themselves. I certainly won’t be repeating the gesture on November 15th.

Lady Grey

I am about to make a courageous statement. I am about to disclose something that might possibly change your opinion of me, or at least divert you away from apathy and towards something approaching mild pity. I am 31 years old. I have had grey hair since I was 17. I dye it. It looks better. It looks less like I have threadworms bursting, David Cronenburg style, from my scalp. And all of this, despite the fact that gendered perceptions of grey hair rankle (silver fox versus wiry spinster,  distinguished, debonair and Clooneyesque versus invisible and absent from the boardroom) and that admitting to concealing my grey feels akin to betraying the sisterhood, or the spinsterhood. Or something.

It certainly seems as if prematurely greying women are, for one reason or another, coerced into concealment. And when I say ‘prematurely’ I don’t, of course, mean pre-20s or 30s or whatever arbitrary cut off point people want to use. I mean, as I have been conditioned to, anyone who could still conceivably pass society’s test as a functioning, capable and dynamic woman. Fiona Bruce provides a salient example. She recently ‘admitted’ to dying her hair because ‘age is still an issue’ in the media. Although I’m not sure whether this argument holds weight: three of her sidelined BBC colleagues Moira Stuart, Arlene Phillips and Miriam Reilly all sported (dyed or not) shiny dark manes. Maybe it is the case that visible signifyers of age are still an ‘issue’for women, but not for purveyors of early stage male greydom such as Georges Lamb and Clooney. Nor for Charlie from Casualty who has, I believe, been grey since forever. Unfortunately George Entwhistle, the still bedding-in director general of the BBC, who expressed his desire to see more grey haired women on TV only succeded in sounding like a fetishist.

I firmly ahdere to the view that great pressure is placed upon women of all ages to conform to a ludicrous conception of beauty centred around a photoshopped ideal of absence; the absence of flesh, of wrinkles and yes, maybe of grey hairs. But women dying their grey hair is perhaps about more than an attempt to make time recede, to hold onto that promotion or to compete with a nubile set of hungry young things.  I went grey at an early age for several reasons: genetics, a long term eating disorder and a rarely known but lingeringly destructive condition called trichotillomania (look it up, it’ll make you wince). For me, exposing my greys would be like having my own little confessional memoir atop my head and a constant and visible reminder of an early life not well lived.

Ageism and sexism is about a lot more than grey hair and whether women choose concealment or celebration (and I’m talking about you, Caitlin Moran with your beautiful bold stripes of ‘look at me’ grey). The lack of visibility of successful grey haired women is, of course, detrimental to feminine self perception. The lack of flesh and wrinkles on most modern celebrities is to my mind infinitely worse.