Saturday, May 31, 2008

Flipping it around

There has been much discussion and debate about the "Lisa" ALAC ad in a variety of blogs and other fora. Sexism in the MSM continues pretty much unabated, but something which addresses rape in the way this ad does takes it beyond the usual run of boring misogynist tropes usually used for marketing. Anna McM at the hand-mirror has bravely shared her story of the night something "Lisa"-like happened to her and it's important reading for anyone with an ambivalence about what the ad is trying to say. Victim-blaming in relation to rape is pervasive - and sadly, judging from Anna's story and the comments thread at Charlotte's Crazy, it would appear that a group of people very likely to do this are the victims themselves, because this is what they imagine everyone else is doing anyway, and, looking at the content of the Lisa ad, they are perfectly justified in doing so. How brave you have to be to run the gauntlet of public opinion in claiming you've been sexually assaulted and in confronting the person responsible. It's a very rare woman who does, an even rarer one who would be 100% supported in doing so and a still rarer one who ever gets justice through the legal system.

In a striking example of administrative incompetence, Julie and Joanna's complaints to the ASA about the "Lisa" ad were dismissed even before they arrived, on the grounds that they made the same point as an earlier submission. Both posts about this situation fully illustrate that the earlier complaint was made on a different basis, which makes the ASA look truly incompetent. Anyone interested in making an additional formal submission about the ad can find a full list of posts on this issue at the handmirror which has tips and Julie's new letter of complaint which could be used as a jumping-off point.

As per suggestions made in the comments threads at the handmirror and Charlotte's Crazy (links above) it's quite illustrative to address the issue of drinking in sexual assault from a different perspective. Imagine that, like the other two ads in the ALAC series, the "Lisa" ad looks at the implications of drunkenness in relation to MALE behaviour. Men are usually the ones who perform sexual assault whether on women or on each other. An American study (I couldn't find relevant NZ studies but if you know of any please let me know) has shown that alcohol is involved in sexual assaults at least one half of the time, and that these crimes usually occur between people who don't know each other well, but who have met in a bar or similar. The most common scenario is not that of a predatory, sober, male dragging a drunk woman off into an alley as in the "Lisa" ad, but a drunk man subjecting a drunk woman to unwanted intercourse.

If I was writing an ad that actually addressed this issue head-on, I'd start with a pub situation - a group of guys getting shit-faced, a few misogynist comments bandied about in relation to the women in the bar, a focus on one guy who drunkenly hits on several different women and groups of women and gets laughed at or repelled, some piss-taking by his mates over his lack of success in scoring, and his growing aggression. A group of woman come over to the table where his mates are and start talking. Our main character is pushed into a conversation with a shy woman. Suddenly we're outside in a dark street and our character and the woman get into a taxi together as our character's mates make approving hooting noises. Inside the taxi the woman smiles uncertainly and drunkenly at our character. Suddenly we're inside a bedroom and the light is flickering - the woman is partially undressed on the bed, coughing, crying and pushing at our character, saying "please, just get off me, get off me", and our character, on top of her, is confusedly going "what?". Final shot - the ALAC banner - "It's not the drinking - it's how we're drinking".

I can't imagine a broadcaster who would screen this even though it's not even a worst-case scenario and all of the most horrible bits have been missed out. But it attempts to place responsibility for rape squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator and address the role that binge drinking plays in sexual assault by men. It's crucial to remember in this scenario that a drunk woman behaving like a dick does not result in sexual assault. That part requires the addition of the perpetrator - almost always a man, probably drunk, and the permission/encouragement of his mates and all the people in the situation that the two people are located in. I'm not sure why ALAC decided that emphasising female vulnerability would be the most effective way of addressing this issue. Considering the way that alcohol aids and abets sexual assault through male drunkenness it seems beyond ridiculous.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This still pisses me off

I was subjected to C4 this evening since my flatmate was channel surfing while watching (gak) America's Most Smartest Model. After a few bilious minutes of various network travesties, the new song from Maroon 5 and Rihanna (If I never see your face again) came on like a bad trip. It's a bland and oven-ready kind of a deal, no surprises, but the video really made me twitch. There's something uniquely annoying about the configuration of white guy with stubble staring into the camera as "ethic"/black girl writhes in femme-fatale garb in front of him on a sofa, on a couch, on a bed, while standing and while seated at one end of a long table, alternately making eye-contact and then looking away. Even better - the song appears to be an explicit paen to casual sex. Thematically tight. What could I possibly have to complain about?

I had such a reaction I went to youtube for a second look. On further consideration, all the usual culprits raised their heads.

Adam Levine (Mr Stubble) tends not to look at Rihanna much and instead eyeballs the camera directly. For me the general effect of this is to convey that Rihanna is somehow something he's imagining - he is "real" because he engages the watching audience - performing for us- while Rihanna is more contained in the mis-en-scene. She only once looks directly into the camera so her performance is almost exclusively for Mr Stubble - he is all she's aware of. Stubble remains master of the domain.

Rihanna does gets to look at Stubble actively, constructing him as an object of sexual desire, a place usually occupied by a woman, and also gets to be the looker - a place usually occupied by a man. However when she addresses her look to Stubble she constantly looks away again, as if inviting his return gaze - it's only when she gets it that she looks at him continuously. Her outfits and behaviour strongly connote the femme fatale - women who get to look and be actively seductive also but are, at least in Hollywood, usually ultimately punished for this destablisation of the gender order. And in fact at the end of the song Mr Stubble grabs the back of her neck and bends her head backwards with more than a suggestion of impending violence.

The MSM can sometimes feels like an ever tightening noose of gender construction from which there is no escape - and tonight is one of those occasions. The tropes described above are old-school Hollywood. Heterosexual gender relations and identities are constantly iterating, evolving memes that never become any less constrictive. It's business as usual, except that femininity is getting younger, tauter, and less lined and it's now uncontraversial for a white guy to openly acknowledge that he wants to fuck a black girl 10 years his junior.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Slight travelogue II

I've got to the computer too late to make much of a go of this, but as a quick and possibly to-be-expanded update: the rest of my week in the deepest South was spent in chilly but contented congress with two old friends from primary and secondary school, an old flame and my darling olds. Mum's biopsy result wasn't flash but it wasn't the end of the world either - with luck and a fair breeze (and some fairly invasive surgery) it should be readily survivable. Go preventative medicine. This is her third lucky save, which is great on one hand, but seems simply unfair on the other..

Dunedin brought the delights of the aforementioned Regent 24-hour Booksale which could easily have gone for 36 or even 48 and still have been sporting masses of rabid bargain hunters - the theatre only started clearing out after closing time and even then it seemed to be a case of a Southern sense of politeness - more than one of the staff appeared to have been on for the entire sale and looked a bit crazed.

The sale is a fund-raiser for the Regent Theatre and means there will continue to be a venue for the New Zealand International Film Festival and many other events that would otherwise have no place in the city. It's always heartening to see it going strong. The strength of numbers at the sale also affirms Dunedin's position as the Athens of the South - nearly every inhabitant appears to love books, literature, learning and the arts. And who knew grannies liked to buy books in the middle of the night? The bands I saw/heard there were great too. It's an utterly immersive experience browsing the rows to live music and getting horribly jostled by one's fellow (hu)man.

On Saturday night I saw the Sami Sisters perform at Refuel - oh so funny, so entertaining, such great music - tight harmonies, and a sound that can only be partially encapsulated by the labels 50s girl-group (not Spectre), country cross-over and alt-pop. Two guitars, a tamborine (and un-PC jokes about Hari Krishnas) and a shaker with three divine voices, one of which was able to cover Kate Bush without wavering, and a casual shtick to die for between songs. It was like a big yummy dessert - no bones, no boring bits, and slipped down incredibly easily. They were on the same flight as me back to Auckland and I had to go and express my appreciation - embarrassing but true.

In between all this I visited my friends and their baby (he was fat and cute), I talked anthropology with another friend, I was a shoulder to cry on for my bestie and I appreciated the talent of his cat which he has taught to climb the curtains. They're already looking decidedly the worse for wear. Rain fell from concrete-coloured skies and it was cold and delicious. I'm looking forward to my next visit.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What Disney villain am I?

Well - I'm not in total agreement with this, but it's the original quiz's fault since I answered all the questions honestly. Hat tip to Dancer at the standard for a little Thursday diversion.

Which Disney Villain Are You?

You are part Ursula. You are the biggest and most powerful. Some may liken you to the business type; you drive a tough bargain, trading legs for voices. You single handedly made a whole generation distrust strangers, no matter how nice and caring they are towards "poor unfortunate souls."

You are part Lady Tremaine. You're the evil stepmother little girls have nightmares about. Hooray for you, who helped kids learn to love their birth parents and do everything possible to avoid stepparents. Next time, though, be careful not to get in between a girl and her dreams.

Find Your Character @

Monday, May 19, 2008

Slight travelogue

As a perfect coincidence my visit to the South so far has been quite literary. Before I knew Mum was having a biopsy last week I had already decided to come to Dunedin's Regent Booksale, an event I'm a huge fan of and which I haven't attended in about five years. However, unbeknownst to me when I booked the trip was the Writers and Readers Alive! Festival on in Invercargill (where my parents are domiciled), scheduled for the weekend just past. Because of this I was able to catch a lift from Dunedin with an old writer friend bound for Invercargill on Saturday, saving plane-fare and getting a free delivery of gossip, and since then I've attended three poetry readings, an open mic session, an interesting panel discussion on Otago/Southland poets and poetry and the book launch of Richard Reeve's Incontinence. (Before you judge me too harshly - Mum and Dad came to one of these events and I've also squeezed in two shopping trips and a visit to a family friend with my mother, with more to follow).

Members of the Otago Poetry Collective in attendance included Richard Reeve, Jeanne Bernhardt, Kay McKenzie Cooke, Emma Neale, David Howard, Michael Harlow, Jenny Powell and Peter Olds, in no particular order. They're all practised poetry readers/performers and for me it was a nice introduction to the work of Peter Olds and Michael Harlow who are both very established but whom I hadn't had a chance to read before. Michael in particular is a lovely reader and his work is mellifluous, simple but never predictable. A highlight was Richard Reeve's reading of a work-in-progress about a relationship between a wilding horse and sheep, possibly a treatise on what it is for two humans to be together. I was also rather enarmoured of Emma Neale's launch speech for Incontinence which was generous and incisive in its appreciation of Richard's incredible skill with form - which is, according to Emma, and in my comparatively uninformed opinion, unequalled in contemporary New Zealand poetry. The panel discussion about Otago/Southland poets concluded that poetic voices in the South are more distinctive than those in the North, possibly because of the influence of the two main writing schools (Vic's International Institute Modern Letters, and the Auckland University Master of Creative Writing) which tend to produce poets with similar flavours.

I read three of my own pieces at an open-mic event for Southland poets (I think I still count - being from Southland is not something one escapes) and received generous and thoughtful feedback from David Howard and Jeanne Bernhardt. All in all it was a great surprise experience. I remain hopeful that the week will continue kindly.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Out of towner

Apologies for the lapse in time since my last post and the brevity of this one. I've had a busy week preparing for some time off, and am currently in the South Island in the bosom of family and friends. My mum has just had a biopsy and is waiting for the results, and my bestie has just been gently let down and feels like arse - what better reason for heading into the cold than an attempt to bring cheer? I hope to blog on nevertheless....

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Presidential campaign illustrates my point

Recent-ish comments by Steve Pierson at the handmirror about the low level of female participation in the comments threads at the standard prompted me to reflect again on the issue of gendered space on the net. I was also interested to read an op-ed piece in Truthout about how having a female presidential candidate has increased female participation in the American democratic process.

As illustrated by the Truthout article, exemplars are really important to increasing the participation of individuals from groups who are under-represented, whatever the field in question. Ever noticed how you reach a point in your life where everyone you know is getting married? Or having kids? Or how children quite often end up in the same profession as one of their parents? Knowing someone who is doing something - like writing a blog for example, or publishing poetry, or film-making, or studying a tertiary degree, or going overseas (to name but a handful of examples from my own life) takes that something, whatever it is, from the realm of the imaginary into the realm of the possible. A prominent example of women on the vanguard of change - Marie Curie (scientist) was part of a highly educated, very bright family. Exemplars don't have to be the same as you - they just have to be someone you know and trust. But that said - in the arena of the internet, or where your main contact with an activity is through the mass media, being able to identify with someone doing the activity you want to participate in is very important. Mass media and even peer-to-peer communication demand that we identify with the "characters" that we come in contact with as we decode the text or film we're consuming. And it's much easier to do that with someone you can see is similar to you. Women in America are voting with their feet and getting into politics in greater numbers in the wake of Clinton's campaign.

And even though it shouldn't be necessary, exemplars can cause wider shifts in thinking about who does what. In the case of Clinton, seeing her taken seriously as a political contender (even despite the sexism of a good chunk of the political commentary surrounding her) suddenly means that the two main political parties in America can now sanction female candidates as likely to capture the vote in a way they were too conservative to do before. Male candidates were safe choices - now they're one of a growing plurality of choices.

Peer support is also hugely significant: New Zealand's first female registered doctor, Margaret Cruickshank was a twin who studied throughout her school life with her sister (a double masters graduate) and best friends with the first female medical graduate Emily Siedeberg. Suffragettes around the world worked together to get the vote. Second-wave feminism was based on shared experience and activity. The filmmakers (* * *) I most admire in New Zealand are women and I've honed most of my skills while working with another woman filmmaker.

These are disparate examples and anecdotal evidence (hey - this is a blog after all) but they do indicate that women doing something makes it possible for other women to imagine doing it. Getting back to my opening point, if the standard wants more women to comment then they should probably have more women writing. At the moment Steve is posting about 60% or more of all the pieces being run, and there are no writers who can be obviously identified as female. I assumed that all the posters were male, which is apparently not the case, but I bet I'm not the only one. Choice of topic might be an issue, and the stoushing style of interaction, coupled with some really brain-dead and/or sexist comments are not usually something that women indulge in when in more female dominated spaces. However - I'd be interested to see what would happen at the standard if there were more writers identifying themselves as women. Given all available evidence I'd be inclined to expect that the number of comments by women would increase and that this would quickly snowball, and that the change to commenting style would make it a space women would be more interested in occupying.

Whether I'm right or not remains to be seen....

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Conditions and possibilities

Last night I went to see On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking me as her Young Lover, a powerpoint presentation delivered with mouth-frothing intensity by a character called Richard Meros. Given the enthusiastic reviews I'd read it was about what I'd expected - less than hoped for but still quite good. Meros' tweedy pants were cliched but charming, as were his font choices, and AndrewE would have been impressed by his reliance on image and animation over text throughout most of the powerpoint slides. Never have pie graphs been so menacing or Condy Rice so positively portrayed.

Apart from an obvious bias towards Helen Clark, the "lecture" didn't engage much in partisan politics - Rogernomics, female prime ministers and the change in New Zealand's social landscape wrought by both were presented with wit of the funny variety and the Jane Austen kind, which is to say that the presentation was, at least in many parts, an intelligent commentary on New Zealand's current social and political landscape heading into the 2008 election, coupled with sexual innuendo and personal details that made one want to cross one's legs. The delivery was, as previously indicated, delivered in a uniformly fortissimo fashion, but this suited the character and his purported carnal intentions towards Aunty Helen uncannily well. Meros did *not* break stride at any point in the proceedings.

In short - anyone who reads or writes a polly blog, enjoys tweed, makes use of powerpoint, is part of a high-school debating team or parliament, or who is, in fact, Helen Clark, should make a date to see On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as her Young Lover. It is not devoid of charm and may still be playing at the Classic Basement here in Auckland, although some reports indicate it finished tonight.

Actual reviews and further information here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A visit from the parking fairies

My weekend has been interesting. So interesting I can hardly bring myself write to write about it.

The fun and games began on Saturday. I dropped friends, up from Dunedin for the Foofighters concert, to their hotel in the city and parked at the astronomically overpriced carpark next to the building. Next thing you know, some random French guy walks up to me and gives me his parking receipt - free parking till midnight. Sweet. We dropped luggage, got everyone settled and then I went to a family barbecue. So far so good.

Later on that night I came back to the hotel, picked everyone up again and headed to Skycity. The idea was that I would park there and we would all go to dinner in the Observatory up the tower.

What happened was this: I spent 20 minutes trying to find a non-existent spot in the Skycity carpark, dropped everyone off because they were, at this stage, late for their dinner reservations, and headed for the exit - sweating and with a cronking headache. I was pleased that the parking attendant didn't even try to make me pay for the priviledge of spending a fruitless half-hour wasting gas. His unhappy frown indicated that the stream of cars I could see leaving without being able to find a spot is probably a common occurrence.

I circled the adjacent blocks, impeded by pedestrians and other cars (giant SUVs primarily) and finally found a narrow parallel park on the right hand side of a one way. I was just shoe-horning myself in when a valet from the Heritage Hotel came out and volunteered to help. I was doubtful that the car would fit - it's a long-bodied liftback - but I decided to trust him. Five minutes later I was leaving my number having cracked the radiator grill on a GTO, and kicking myself.

And it just got worse. I unhappily relocated to the most expensive parking building known to man, and managed to stagger up to the Observatory - but only after driving into a pillar and damaging my own car. By the time I got to my cold entree I wanted to shoot someone. I managed to make some sort of conversation during the rest of the meal but it wasn't my best effort.

And yet - the next day I parked up at the overpriced park next to the hotel again, so I could head in and play some cards and drink some beers. And no sooner had I stepped outside the car than a woman walked up to me and gave me a parking receipt - free parking till midnight.

The GTO driver hasn't called. Yet.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Eroding freedoms?

Two things have recently got me thinking about the issue of social freedoms in relation to the current government. Yesterday No Right Turn drew attention to a piece of anti-graffiti legislation that, if passed, will allow people to be convicted for carrying materials that could be used to mark a surface (see here for the Law and Order Committee report).

A few weeks ago, AndrewE asked Helen Clark via the standard's "ask the leaders" series "I’ve always voted Labour (was even a member of the Party) but this year I’m planning on voting National as I’m very concerned by the erosions in our freedoms that have happened under your watch. Why am I wrong?" and got an answer that wasn't one: "I know of no erosions of freedoms which have occurred on our watch. Any such assertion is sheer spin from the National Party and its friends. If the writer is perchance referring to the legislation on disciplining children, he might reflect on the fact it passed through Parliament on a vote of 113:8 with the National Party voting in support of it!"

The current government has passed a substantial quantity of socially progressive legislation (I listed some of it here) but it's also passed laws that restrict social freedoms, most obviously in relation to opening political activity against the state. These include three pieces of anti-terrorism legislation. A recent example is The Suppression of Terrorism Bill 2007 (see here for a Global Peace And Justice press release) which increases grounds for arrest while protesting politically and takes its lead from US-lead policy.

While I don't believe that the EFB, for example, is going to substantially affect freedom of speech, and I'm comfortable with s59's outlawing of violence to children within the family, it's apparent that even though this government has been one of the most socially progressive we've possibly ever had, it's also certainly the most proscriptive that we've had in recent times. I'm saddened that Andrew's question wasn't used as an opportunity to address the issue of social freedoms. I suppose that would have been asking too much since no astute politician will volunteer to raise specific contentious issues if they can get away with not doing so.

Setting aside the issue of anti-terrorism, the idea that anti-graffiti legislation will soon mean carrying a spray can or a felt-tip is a criminal offence is ridiculous to me and it gives the police, (a group whose "discretion" I harbour perfectly reasonable doubts over since a gratuitous batoning incident I witnessed at close hand in 1993, augmented by Louise Nicholas's story and associated cases) far too much choice about how to enact the law. It could easily be argued that s59 gives the people in blue too much discretion also, but in reality it's much harder to police stuff that goes on inside the home unless someone actually calls them in. Anti-graffiti laws, by contrast, will probably create more necessity for police to stop and question people and assume that that they're criminals. We get deeper into territory where looking "dodgy" and being in the wrong place at the wrong time are almost crimes in themselves.

This is not to say that I'd advocate a swing to the right. National are not looking attractive as policy-makers at the moment. But, at least for me, it's time to start considering in more detail the policies of the Greens and the Maori Party. I may also cast a jaundiced eye over New Zealand First and United Future, but only because it's good to be fully informed.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Boobs on Thursdays

According to Nightline, a mall in South Auckland has a bar that drops the blackout curtains in the windows on Thursday late nights and staffs itself with topless women. The owner is a woman and she's all for it. The landlord is a man and he's all for it. The local councillor is a woman and she's scandalised and characterises the topless bit as a warm-up act for the hookers up the street. She also cites fears that children might see "breasts on display" while shopping. The topless staff were not interviewed for the story.

I'm not sure what I find worse - the sanctimony, the objectification, the hypocrisy (since when were the strip bars virtually next door to both the viaduct and density housing in central Auckland subject to the same moral outrage?) or a social system which makes all these options popular and easy. Or the telling fact that it's sort of ok to bare one's breasts in the name of commerce but probably not to be publicly identified to be doing so.

This is one aspect of gender politics I remain incredibly ambivalent about. Do we conclude that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (heh) if some women elect to be paid to be looked at partially naked and some men elect to pay for this in some way? What does it mean about the relationship between men and women more broadly? And what exactly does it say about New Zealand as a society that the women who go topless in South Auckland on Thursday nights don't appear to want to go on TV and talk about how it makes them feel to the rest of us?

Which brings me to the Danish boobs video (see commentary at kiwiblogblog - I can't find the original youtube article) - I'm so ambivalent about this piece of media that I've been unable to finish my post on it. But on the surface, I have to say it displays a healthier attitude to the human female form than we seem to be right now, even if it contains a lot of normalising discourse (young, blonde, thin, pert) about what's ok to find attractive. I guess, given that the Danish government is paying the women to remove their clothes it's not the same straight commercial relationship you see in the bar situation, but even so, there are parallels - the women are still being paid to be looked at topless.

I think it might be too late in the evening to unravel exactly what the relationships between sex, shame," the gaze" and the commodification of women's bodies in both situations are, much less where I stand on them. However, this whole mess is indicative of the fact that gender continues to be a heavily contested terrain, even if it's easier to ignore than engage with at times.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

English identifies an issue

On BFM with Mikey Havoc this morning Bill English raised as an issue the health risks associated with substandard state housing. However when Mikey asked what National planned to do about it English could only say they were looking into it.

On the back of The NZ Listener's report about dodgy referrals to private accommodation by Housing New Zealand this indicates we continue to have a serious housing problem among those on very low incomes. A serious problem that warrants serious attention.

I'm situated on the left of the political spectrum but right now my main concern with National is not their right-leaning focus but the very small amount of time left for them to actually get a massive chunk of complex policy in place before the election. What's there already seems ad hoc. As an example, National have floated the idea of creating a public television broadcaster. Who would have thought that was likely from a centre-right party? Inconsistencies like this in National's core approach indicate there is no clear vision of governance coming from within the party. I find this almost more worrying than a decisive policy move to the right. If they, once in government, start creating legislation without a clear conceptual frame, then we're going to have to wear those inconsistencies for a long time.

My other major concern is that National will get into office without a real mandate because they haven't presented enough policy for voters to be able make an informed decision about what they're likely to do once elected.

Hopefully I've either missed the boat completely or there's a monster press release in there somewhere waiting to reveal all.