Zeitgeist

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.

Abraham Lincoln

Gender Equality
Gender Equality

When I first went to see The Vagina Monologues in London about 15 years ago, everyone was talking about the play. It had gained massive popularity. But despite the fact that it was being performed to huge audiences in theatres throughout the world, it was still considered pretty out there.

The funny thing (and by “funny” I mean really, really depressing) is that when I told people that I was performing in the play last month I realised that popular perception is still pretty much the same now. I don’t think Eve Ensler would mind if she heard me saying that I wish the play was no longer of interest. I wish the issues she described in the Monologues had been resolved to such an extent that the play had become a bit of a yawn. Gender inequality? I want to hear people say. That’s so last century!

Things have arguably improved for women over the last few decades. One only needs to watch Mad Men to see that we’ve taken huge strides in gender equality in the workplace since the fifties (although I did once work in an office in Suffolk, England, which, as much as I loved it, bore considerable resemblance in many ways to those times!)

It’s very difficult to describe the zeitgeist of a period of time that you’re still living through. There’s so much going on at any one moment in history that all sorts of issues get blurred and shadowed, each by the other. When we look back on this decade in the 2030s or 2040s, we’ll no doubt think about financial crises, Middle Eastern conflict, governments spying on their own people, and global whistle blowers.

But I think we’ll also look back with gratitude on the beginning of the fourth wave of feminism. There’s a brilliant article here which details exactly what that looks like.

It should be pointed out that men need not fear this fourth wave. In fact they should embrace it. I’ve just found a Tumblr site, fantastically named MA’AM, for Men Against Arseholes and Misogyny, that lists Ten Ways Feminism Benefits Men. The whole point is to make things better for everyone.

At the The Vagina Monologues after party in Geneva last month, one of my fellow cast members introduced me to a friend of hers, a lovely young man who was interested in knowing my thoughts (probably as a member of his mother’s generation!) about feminism today. I told him that I think progress had pretty much plateaued during the nineties and noughties, but that I was excited about the massive upsurge in determination to make things better that I see now.

There is a rise in consciousness. And to give the last word to the woman to whose work I’ve dedicated this last month of writing, “When you bring consciousness to anything, things begin to shift.”

Yet

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.

Noam Chomsky

Optimism
Optimism

I am, by nature, an optimist. I don’t really have a choice in that – it’s just the way I was put together – but I am grateful to have been born with that outlook. I just can’t imagine how awful it must be to be otherwise, always anticipating the worst possible outcome in any given situation.

But I’ve been thinking lately about “data porn”, as Eve Ensler describes it in The Vagina Monologues:

2 million women raped and tortured
1 out of 3 women
a woman raped every minute
every second
one out of 2
one out of 5
the same
one
one
one

I’ve been thinking about data porn in terms of optimism and pessimism. How can I be an optimist when such statistics are still true?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my optimism lies in the word yet. The pessimist thinks, “We haven’t eradicated violence against women.” The optimist thinks, “We haven’t eradicated violence against women yet.”

“Yet” gives us a reason to rise and strive and insist that things get better, and a reason to work to make it happen. The Suffragettes didn’t think, “Women don’t have the vote.” They thought, “Women don’t have the vote yet.” Saudi Arabian women are not thinking, “Women in this country are not allowed to drive.” They’re thinking, “Women in this country are not allowed to drive yet.”

Let me try it with some more sentences.

We have not yet put a stop to female genital mutilation in the 29 countries where it is practiced.

We have not yet ensured that women’s reproductive rights are enshrined in law in all countries in the world… or even in all states in the USA.

We have not yet empowered women to refuse the devaluation of their bodies.

We have not yet ensured that girls across the world can go to school without having to brave verbal taunts, stone throwing, kidnapping or shooting.

We have not yet stopped blaming rape victims for the trauma they’ve endured, accusing them of dressing inappropriately or drinking too much or simply being out of the protective custody of the home.

We have not yet stopped describing men who celebrate their sexuality as studs or players and women who do the same as sluts.

We have not yet assumed equal responsibility for housework and childcare in homes where both partners work.

We do not yet have equal representation of men and women in governments or positions of corporate leadership.

We do not yet encourage girls to enter the sciences.

We have not yet stopped attacking female public figures because of their physical appearance or dress sense.

We have not yet achieved equal pay for women. (Although if enough people watch this light, funny and inspiring short video all that might change sooner rather than later.)

YET.

Such a tiny word.

Packs such a lot of bang for the buck.

 

XXX

We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.

Marilyn Monroe

Vagina vaudeville
Vagina vaudeville

Roll up, roll up! See twenty women on a stage talking about vaginas! R-r-r-r-roll up, roll up! Get your tickets here!

No, really, it’s not easy to imagine this being said in Victorian England, is it? Or in Geneva in the same period. Such a performance certainly couldn’t have taken place in America, and Australia as we know it barely existed then. The most an expectant theatre audience could hope for in terms of saucy titillation was a briefly exposed stocking top or a cheeky knowing wink, and even that was only in the lower-class establishments. So perhaps I was exaggerating slightly the other day when I said that we hadn’t come very far, and that our attitudes in 2014 are shy and puritanical. And yet…

People who’ve read more than one of my blog posts might have noticed that I like to start off with two things – 1) a quote from someone far wiser and more articulate than me and 2) a photo. Let’s deal with the quote first.

You might be shocked to learn that I don’t have quotes about every subject on the tip of my tongue (you read it here first) so sometimes I have to enlist the assistance of my favourite search engine. This is great when I’m looking for quotes about work or inspiration or life or books or education. But the other day when I wrote a post called Vajazzles and Vajayjays, I was distressed with what I found.

If you type “quotes about vaginas” into Google, it starts off well – the first one you’ll find is a quote from the piece in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues that I had the honour of performing on stage last month. But it all goes very rapidly downhill from there. Vile, misogynistic “pussy” jokes are pretty much all there is to find.

And about the images… I usually use my own photos for my blog (or, this month, those that my lovely friend Helen took of The Vagina Monologues, Geneva) but very occasionally I don’t have anything that’s relevant and so borrow from the internet. Like today. But man, you can imagine what happened when I typed vajazzle and vajayjay into Google Images… Enough said about that.

Some lovely friends of mine in London have a cartoon stuck to the door in their downstairs loo which always makes me feel simultaneously sad and amused. A man sits with The Sun newspaper open to the very busty, topless page three girl, and next to him sits a woman breastfeeding her baby. The man pulls his small child away from the breastfeeding woman and says, “Don’t look, son. That’s disgusting.”

This seems to me to be a good summary of the current state of play. Women can be reduced to less than a sum of their parts for the purposes of private and public sexual consumption, but if they dare to talk about those parts then they’re considered vulgar. There’s a virtual vagina X-travaganza out there and yet women sometimes struggle to describe symptoms they might have to their doctors because they’re too embarrassed to say the word.

Things are seriously out of kilter.

So just a small question… Erm, can I have my body back please?

Work

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

J.M. Barrie

Subtitling and stuffing my face
Subtitling and stuffing my face

Back in the very old days when I worked in schools and offices, and didn’t have the flexibility of working from home, I thought I’d be hopeless at trying to do a job when surrounded by the comforts and temptations of my own abode. I thought I’d spend all day gazing into the fridge or watching daytime TV or vacuuming under the bed.

But I’m not like that with subtitling. I really enjoy it. As soon as M leaves the apartment at 7am I sit down at my desk and throw myself into it. I enjoy the tick-off-the-list nature of the work – I’m given a programme to subtitle, I download the video, I subtitle the programme, I do a detailed review of my work, I spellcheck, integrity check, save the file and send it to the client. Tick. The job is done and I move onto the next one. It’s quite mechanical but there’s something in that that appeals to me. And I do, of course, appreciate the fact that essentially I’m getting paid to watch TV.

But on Thursday last week, I was distracted. I’d wrapped up one season of The Only Way Is Essex and was moving onto another, and all I could think about was food. I kept getting up from my desk to grab another chocolate Easter egg or make another coffee. Or have a sandwich. Or eat the leftovers from last night’s dinner. Or wish that I’d bought that packet of Zweifel paprika crisps that I’d eyed in the supermarket so that I could now sit here and scoff the lot.

On Friday morning, when I sat at my desk and tried to get back into the awful mind-numbing rhythm of TOWIE, I felt the same way. There was a Lindt bunny with my name on it. But as I got up to grab the doomed rabbit, I spied my camera. The SD card, I knew, was still full of the hundreds of photos that I’d taken during our hiking holiday. So I slotted the card into my computer and 90 minutes later had chosen some of my favourite pictures, uploaded them to my Flickr account, and thrown myself back into TOWIE with a level of energy and enthusiasm that had been absent since we’d got back from our break. The lovely Lindt bunny lived to tempt me another day.

This was such an important reminder for me about what I already know to be true about work – that you have to choose a job that you love doing. Sorry, I know it’s obvious but sometimes I forget the glaringly self-evident and have to beat myself over the head with it. Don’t get me wrong – I love subtitling. It’s harmless and it’s helpful and it appeals to the pedant and the geeky grammarian in me. But as a freelancer I have the gorgeous joy of being able to mix it up a bit. I can do the work that I get paid for and I can intersperse it with some “work” that makes my heart sing. And that prevents me from eating my own bodyweight in chocolate. And I think if I didn’t have this flexibility in my scheduling then I’d have to come home from the nine-to-five and learn to paint or write a novel or knit jumpers or start trying to recreate the Bayern Tapestry. Or something. Anything to remind myself that work is important but fulfilment matters more.

I’d love to have a chance to ask Eve Ensler whether she felt like she was working when she wrote The Vagina Monologues, or when she first performed it as a one-woman show.

I’d be prepared to bet that she didn’t.

Vajazzles and vajayjays

Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. 

Henry Ford

I have never claimed to have my finger on the pulse of popular culture. I probably had my best shot of zoning into the zeitgeist during the years I spent living within walking distance of all my favourite music venues and theatres in central London. But even then I think my tastes were a bit too obscure to really get what was going on. And in the last four years, living sans TV first in Israel and then in hippest Switzerland… Yep, you’re right. Not a bloody chance. If you want to know what’s hip, ask a hipster.

Often I have to rely on the freelance subtitling work I do to haul me kicking and screaming into the modern day. And I have to admit that sometimes, when I’m hauled here, I want to block my ears and screw my eyes up and shout, “La, la, la, la, la!” until someone makes it go away and lets me crawl back to my happy place. Because in that happy place, I’ve never heard of The Only Way Is Essex, and nobody expects me to know how to spell the word vajazzle

Yes, in the last few weeks, when I’ve not been scaling mountains, entertaining lovely friends or writing this blog, I’ve been sitting at my desk working on yet another “reality” TV show that’s given reality a very bad name. I’ve subtitled conversations in which people didn’t know where in London they might find a place called “North London”. I’ve endured about a gazillion monosyllabic exchanges between two sub-humans called Mark and Lauren, who are too moronic to realise that their matching idiocy means they’re obviously made for each other. And to my horror I’ve learned that a vajazzle (and this is a word that even I, in my cultural no-man’s land, have heard floating about in the last number of years) is a Swarovski crystal vaginal decoration. To use a good TOWIE expression… What the actual fuck?

But I have to admit that (shockingly) I have learned something as a result of hearing this word. (I’m afraid that the rest of you, you know, the ones who haven’t been living on planet Gen-Jerusalem for the last four years, will already know this, but for me it’s news so bear with me…)

In the same way that I’d heard the word vajazzle and failed to know its meaning or origins, I’d also been aware of the word vajayjay and failed to know anything about that.

But in being shaken down from my happy Sound of Music hilltop, I’ve learned that vajayjay was first popularised by an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and has since become pretty much mainstream. And I think, weirdly, that I’m kind of comfortable with that (and not just because it apparently has Queen Oprah’s official stamp of approval.)

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, is right when she says that “what we don’t say becomes a secret, and secrets often create shame and fear and myths.” And that’s a powerful argument for calling a vagina a vagina. But the fact is that like it or not (and just for the record, I don’t like it), we are still squeamish and oversensitive about a wonderful thing that’s in the possession of 50% of the world’s population. Vajayjay seems to me to be a fairly acceptable transition word. If we can go from silence to vayjayjay to vagina before, say, 2015, then I’ll be forced to admit that the people at broadcast standards and practices, whose puritanism inadvertently brought the word vajayjay into popular use, have accidently done us all a favour.

But hey, since I’m so far behind the zeitgeist, perhaps I’ve missed the fact that people have already become comfortable with the word vagina… Hooray! Hey, Eve Ensler, apparently your work here is done!

 

 

Universe

To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

 

Celebration
Celebration

My BFF has always been rather amused by what I describe as my “relationship with the universe”. And she’s right to be. She knows that religion is not an affliction that I suffer from, and she probably thinks that it sounds like quasi-religious fervour when I say things like, “I’m so grateful to the universe for X” or “The universe is not there to fuck you up.” This kind of talk sat far more comfortably in my Catholic childhood than in my rather more rational adulthood (well, maybe not the “fuck” bit), but for some reason I can’t seem to shake the words “the universe” out of my lexicon.

In theory, I totally agree with Richard Dawkins when he says that, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” I agree that the universe is utterly indifferent to my happiness and well-being, but it’s actually that that makes me feel so unbelievably fortunate. Since there’s no all-powerful being forever on my side, how is it that I get to inhabit such an incredibly beautiful world and live so happy an existence?

When I refer to “the universe”, I think it’s just because I need words with which to express my gratitude. And it seems to work for me. Unlike some believers in a malignant and vengeful God, I don’t blame anyone when things fail to go my way. But it does make me feel better to be thankful when I experience the kindness of friends or strangers, or when something good comes my way, or when I see something beautiful. And those things happen many, many times every day.

This desire to express gratitude is part of the reason why I’m enjoying getting into photography. Every picture that I take is an attempt to express my gratitude for the fact that I was there in the moment when a particular thing happened, or that I was able to visit a particular place or spend time with particular people. I need to get better at taking pictures so that I can more accurately document some of the incredible moments that I’m privileged to witness. (A few early attempts can be found on my Flickr page here if you’re interested in taking a look. I promise that I will get better.)

Other things that I always thank the universe for are the beautiful opportunities that spring up in the course of an ordinary life. Like the opportunity to speak regularly on Skype with a father who’s quite recently embraced the joys of technology. Or the chance to have beautiful times with friends and family who visit my home, or invite me to visit them in theirs. Or the ability to speak frequently with much loved family members who live far, far away. Or the opportunity to join an extraordinary group of women to perform a wonderful play in a theatre in Geneva.

I don’t know how else to express it.

And so I say thanks to the universe.

Travel

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

onebillionrising.org
onebillionrising.org

One of the best things about having a vaguely itinerant lifestyle is the fact that you get to meet so many extraordinary people from all over the world. Last night I had dinner with three lovely friends, one of whom was from New Zealand, one from Ireland and the other from the US. Our lovely English friend was up to her neck in work and wasn’t able to join us, but if she’d been there we would have represented five English-speaking nations. And the fact that we were all English-speaking made ours quite an unusual gathering for Geneva, where international organisations attract people from every possible ethnic background.

Last night our Irish friend reminded me of a story that I’d told her once before. In 2001 I’d been living abroad for about ten years and decided that it was time to make up my mind, once and for all, where I wanted to live on a permanent basis. I put my stuff in storage in London and landed on the doorstep of my fantastically obliging little sister in Perth, Western Australia, and stayed with her for an amazing six months.

There are many things that I could write about that time (and I’m sure one day I will) but my point for this piece is that for the six months that I was there, I only met one person who spoke with an accent that wasn’t Australian. I don’t remember this Belgian girl’s name or very much else about her now, but what I do remember is that I absolutely adored her. And all she had to do to earn this adoration was speak with a foreign accent, so starved were my ears of a variety that had become familiar after years of living in London. Of course there were “foreigners” living in Australia, but for some reason they weren’t in my circle of acquaintance during that time, and I missed them.

I was very young when I left Australia and I think it was probably my youth, while I was there, that made me feel disconnected from problems in other parts of the world. The distance was also a factor, of course, but I think it was mostly the fact that I find it much easier to identify with other places when I’ve been on their shores and/or met their people. It’s much more difficult to have an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude when the people of whose suffering you read are people with whom you’ve eaten and talked and travelled.

That’s why it was so important for me to be involved in The Vagina Monologues and by association with One Billion Rising. I had the random good fortune of being born into a society where my very existence wasn’t threatened because I was a woman. But I’ve met people who didn’t have that same chance. I have no more right to life, freedom, self-determination and dignity than they do. There are some rights that should be inalienable.

Perhaps this three-minute video will give you a better understand of what trying to say. Be warned that it’s not for the faint of heart. And be aware that it concerns issues that everyone in the world should know about.

 

Sorority

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems

The orgy moan
The orgy moan

I’ve never been much of a joiner. My current lifestyle – which includes paid-up membership of a book club, a writers’ club and a photography club – would seem to contradict that fact, but historically it’s been true.

For that reason, I find the idea of sororities something of a nightmare. To be honest I don’t know that much about college sororities other than what I’ve seen on American TV – thankfully no such system exists in Australia (at least to my knowledge)  – but the thought of initiation, membership and exclusivity makes me feel at best claustrophobic and at worst a little nauseous.

This is partly because of the separation between men and women that fraternities and sororities imply and reinforce. I’m generally uncomfortable in big groups anyway, but when I see big crowds of just men or just women out together, it always strikes me as a little odd.

But when the idea of sorority is pared back to its Latin origins I feel altogether different. The Latin stem of sorority is soror, which simply means sister. And sisters are something that I simply cannot imagine my life without.

It’s a terrifying 22 years since I last lived in the same country as my four sisters (and, of course, my beautiful big brother). But still many of my happiest memories revolve around them. Often it’s the small things that make me laugh when I’m talking with them, but those small things make me laugh until the tears stream down my cheeks, in a way that I don’t laugh with any other person on the planet.

I never know where or when I’m going to see my sisters next but I am never in any doubt that when I do see them it will be spectacular. We’ve grown up together and are growing older together, in spite of the distance between us. It’s my sisters that I’m planning to wear purple hats with when I’m old, as we laugh through the lines on our familiar old faces and wipe away the tears of mirth as we look back on the hilarious magnificence of life.

As well as the honour of having four sisters by birth, I also have the joy of honorary sisters – women who have been in my life for shorter or longer periods, who’ve become embedded in my heart and my brain and who are inextricably linked with who I am. You know who you are and you know I adore you, and I thank you for giving me so many amazing times and magnificent memories.

There are also the women with whom I share extraordinary and unexpected experiences, all of whom contribute to the wonder and humour and vitality of life. They are all part of the wider sorority and I’m privileged to know them.

Among those women are the cast of The Vagina Monologues, Geneva.

Girls, you are gorgeous.

 

Quills

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

www.tiki-toki.com
http://www.tiki-toki.com

A couple of years ago I was tired of the spectre of writing.  All my life I’d dreamed of being a writer, but now that I had the time to write the words weren’t forthcoming and I was sick of the constant niggling feeling that whatever I was doing, I should really have been writing instead. I thought at that time that if some fairy godmother or genie in a bottle had given me permission to never write again, I’d have been relieved.

I do not feel that way anymore.

Have you ever seen the movie Quills? Geoffrey Rush plays the scandalous Marquis de Sade, a (real-life) writer and revolutionary in 17th-century France whose libidinous acts landed him in prison, where he spent much of his life and did most of his writing. When, as part of his punishment, the Marquis de Sade is deprived of pen and paper, he takes to writing with wine on the bed sheets, or with his own blood and excrement on the walls.

The whole film is a treatise on the act and importance of writing. Apparently the tune that the Marquis de Sade constantly hums is the children’s song Au Clair de la Lune, the second line of which translates as “lend me your quill so I can write a word”. Apparently every line that was cut from the film’s script made it into the film in one way or another, either written on clothing or bed sheets or on the walls of de Sade’s prison cell. Not a word that was written was lost or wasted.

Not every writer achieves the Marquis de Sade’s notoriety. Not every writer is even published, and some successful writers are scathingly critical of the fact that in these days of blogging and self-publishing, every wannabe writer can find a voice. I don’t think Milan Kundera meant it in a positive way when he wrote, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: ‘We are all writers!’

But sometimes the words that we write can make a difference. They can make a difference to those around us, or just to ourselves. Or, like the words that sprung from Eve Ensler’s pen when she sat down to write The Vagina Monologues, they can make a difference to millions around the world.

If a genie in a bottle were to grant me three wishes now, I would not wish never to have to write again, but rather that I will always have the right words to say what I need to say, and the tools with which to say them. I admire the Marquis de Sade’s determination, but I think I’d rather drink my wine and leave my blood flowing in my veins so that I might write another day.

Give me a quill or a computer. And leave the rest to me.