Sunday, 14 August 2016

All the Wrinkled Ladies...

When you are a child the adult world is a very strange place - I'm not sure it gets any less strange with age but that's a different story - and you shape the things you don't understand to fit with the bits you've puzzled out. I know I'm not the only person who muddled up guerilla warfare with Planet of the Apes and as for the really scary old aunt who died of fleabites, I thought being bitten to death by a swarming hoard was a reasonable end given the stings she used to dish out. Eventually I learnt (in public, not lived it down) that phlebitis was an actual thing; I still think my diagnosis was better. It was with great amusement therefore that I learned that I had frequently and inadvertently (as opposed to deliberately and with glee) freaked out my then small daughter with the phrase: "we'll go out in a minute, I just need to put my face on." She's old enough to pay for her own therapy now, besides there may well come a point when a small child looks at her with the same level of confused horror and she'll get to have her own fun.

The point of all this? I like make-up. I've been pimping out my face since I was old enough to beg for a subtle-hued blue eyeshadow - given I was 14 and living in the Lake District the action-packed 10 hours promised by the ad was a bit of a stretch but I could always use the time to practice that naturally highlighted look. Whatever the terrible sight I must have presented with my bruised alien eyes, I was hooked. I like the repetitious ritual of it, I use the time to think to think myself into my day. I like the theatre - the pots and brushes and packaging - and I really like the colours. Not for me the age-appropriate nudes of a Daily Mail hate piece - if I don't go into that long night with glitter on my crepey lids, there will be a haunting. And, trust me, I'll really learn how to take my face on and off.

As anyone who reads these ramblings will know, I am a feminist, always have been and I'm well aware that wearing make-up and feminism has a long history of conflict and confusion. In the early years it was often used as a badge of defiance - the women who wore red lipstick at the New York City Suffrage Rally in 1912 made it a symbol of emancipation at a time when no 'nice girl' wore visible cosmetics. Nowadays, when there is so much pressure on women to conform to social expectations of what it means to look professional or attractive, painting your face can feel even more charged with meaning. It is annoying but understandable that women who are in 'serious' roles can feel they have to dismiss an interest in cosmetics as being somehow trivial and not worthy of them - you can bet that if men in mainstream careers wore it, there wouldn't be a problem. It's a complex issue but humans have always wanted to adorn themselves and, providing we are realistic about what cosmetics can actually achieve, I for one am happy to see the glitter and the lipstick for what it is: an extension of my personality that makes me feel more like me. I'm not sure, however, that's a concept many of the cosmetic companies trying to part me from my cash have actually sussed.

Beauty advertising is ridiculous: offensive at worst, barking mad at best. I swear some mascara adverts should be reported to the RSPCA: nothing short of gluing the fur off a dozen kittens onto your lids would achieve the lash effect promised by most volumising brands and I am increasingly of the opinion that all these models batting their lashes is what's causing this year's latest fashion for gale-force storms. Also let's be honest: only industrial-strength grout is going to really hide your wrinkles past a certain point so your skin achieves that robotic smoothness adored by foundation and I'm not convinced that's a great look, although the new fad or contouring might work with it.

Fads, that's another of the mad things about cosmetics: the adverts have nothing on some of the beauty trends that have been followed in previous centuries. The Ancient Mayans used to drill holes in their teeth and fill them with jade and turquoise stones (presumably spinach wasn't a foodstuff then); a uni-brow was de-rigeur for a while in Ancient Greece, made with goat fur and lampblack if you weren't sufficiently hirsute and the seventeenth century French took the fashion for mouse-hair beauty patches to its extreme by dotting stars and moons all over their faces. All of a sudden, the current vogue for Groucho Marx black eyebrows nestling on skin the colour of builder's tea, rainbow freckles and lip art - this really is a thing apparently, God help anyone who rocks it up here in Glasgow - now seem remarkably normal. And if all this is just a bit too much effort, you could try the 'natural, I wake up like this' look beloved of so many celebrity selfies and achieveable with only 25 products.

So, by using the genius type of word-play that proves I'm an actual writer, I'm going to finish with a celebration of my favourite 'made-up' characters - a segueway you have to admit is even smoother than anything achieved by a 1970s DJ and also less likely to end me up in prison.

My first choice is the fabulous Sophie Fevvers, heroine of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and a woman well-versed with a glitter-laden make-up brush. Sophie develops wings at puberty and, after a variety of dubious adventures, finds fame as an aerialiste. She is six feet two, a peroxide blonde, has adventures from London to Siberia and I have no idea why no one has made a film of her. Someone needs to wave the book at Jennifer Lawrence. Another woman who fits my criteria (strong-willed aka bloody-minded, knows how to rock an individual look, would be great out on the lash - the usual well-thought out list) has to be the wonderful Scarlett O'Hara. Yes, I know she was a spoilt-little madam but she also knew how to make a dress out of the curtains (and to see how mad that actually is, watch Enchanted) and could achieve fabulous cheekbones with a bit of cheek-pinching. Just think how devastating Scarlett would have been with the contents of an Illimasqua make-up box in front of her - Rhett would have been crawling back and begging her to reconsider not pulling the macho stomping routine. Never mind cell phones, a carefully applied streak of blusher is a plot changer.

There's two reasons for my final choice which is Martha from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. First because the character is a fantastically complex creation: a domineering, crude and terrifying exterior wrapped round a frightened, broken and deeply vulnerable spirit. Second because she was played in the film by Elizabeth Taylor, the epitome of made-up glamour with her violet eyes and the genetic mutation that meant she had two rows of eye-lashes. How lucky can one person get - my genetic mutation is child-bearing hips. Taylor gained weight for the part, wore a wig and used cosmetics to make herself look tired and old - make-up she did herself in the same way she did for Cleopatra and all her subsequent films. And she painted that fabulous face on until her dying day - presumably by that point with some assistance so that she didn't end up with her mascara on her lips as I feel will be my palsy-ridden fate. Mind, I'm also expecting to be too daft to care - pretty much my current philosophy.

Whether you're a bare-faced beauty or a make-up bag junkie, I hope you enjoy the face you choose to show to the world - it would be an awful waste of time not to and none of us have enough of that. My only advice if you're going to put the slap on? Never, ever forget to take it off...

Monday, 27 June 2016

If I Could Turn Back Time

Like many bloggers who chip at the humourous/cultural ramblings edge of the blogging coal face, it's been a bit hard to put pen to paper this week. I don't want to ignore the diseased elephant in the room that was the EU Referendum, neither do I want to pretend to be the political commentator that I'm not (there's enough of those crawling out of the woodwork with adding my two euros worth) but a lot of the stuff I normally witter about seems a little trivial.

I was going to go down the analogies route and do a divorce piece (trust me, I have good material on that) but I'm suffering a sense of humour by-pass none of you need be party to and I fear trolls/ex-husbands (possibly the same?) may go in for the kill. I had also thought of a witty diversion on hairdressing centred on Boris and Donald until I realised a page of expletives and a few dodgy pictures are a law-suit not a blog. So, along with far more of the UK than that spineless prat of a PM who has fled the sinking ship with a speed that puts the shadow-cabinet to shame had the wit to realise might not be thinking straight (yes it's a long sentance but go with it, read it twice), I'm going to take a bit of a departure from business as usual for this offering. Not a wander through history or a recast but a bit of a spotlight on some of the women who have emerged from the last few weeks looking pretty damn fine and a celebration of some of my favourite bits of European culture. While we still remember what that is.

Let's start with the women. First up are the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg and journalist Emily Maitlis who did such a great reporting job on the night of the Referendum. Yes it was billed as Dimbleby's show, it always is, but these two were total professionals for a ridiculous amount of time when most of us had reached the dribbling stage, were constantly brimming with pertinent questions and, in Kuenssberg's case at least, seemingly everywhere with the best scoops. And both, unlike Mr Dimbleby, have recently weathered dreadful personal attacks which has done nothing to diminish their determination to a great job: a stalker in Maitland's case and a sacking petition against Kuenssberg which released a torrent of vile abuse. Forget all the graphics, the leaping about and the old-boy cosy chumminess, these two were the safe hands - here's to them being the anchors for the coming general election, the Scottish referendum and all the Article 50 madness yet to come. 

Talking about women who are everywhere - how many Nicola Sturgeons are there currently in existence? She's been unstoppable and, unlike the rest of the 'leaders' she's actually been leading. Calm, visible and passionate - she's been the exception among politicians these last few days and I hope she's a blueprint for politicians to come rather than the ego-driven flavour that has clearly sickened too many people. As the UK becomes increasingly petition-obsessed, it's fascinating to see that currently only 65 people have signed the one asking Sturgeon to step down. Oh Mr Corbyn, how that must be smarting the wound. Three women who are acting as great role models for professional behaviour amidst a sea of backstabbing, stupidity and self-interest. There's a fourth: Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories. She and I are politically poles apart (except on the EU issue) but hats-off, her contribution to the referendum debate has been exceptional. She's one of the few people (and I don't know how she does it) who manages to consistently point out Boris Johnson's inconsistencies while not falling into the personal insult trap. To use a good northern phrase, she brought some real welly to the argument and gave us a new Scrappy Do now that Arya Stark is off our screens again. And perhaps that's my cultural reference point: where Game of Thrones was once all about the men, now its about the fearsome and fearless women taking control of the divided 7 kingdoms. Forget 7, we've managed to drive a wedge between 27 - it may be time for dragons.

So, an end to the rant (it was inevitable) and let's celebrate some European culture. I'm limiting myself to one film, one book and one icon or I'll be here all day and you'll have long gone off to apply for an Irish passport.

Let's start with the film. There is some amazing stuff coming out of Germany at the moment but my favourite has to be Victoria - it's a one camera, claustrophobic chaotic film of a heist gone badly out of control that you'll think you're part of. Our heroine is Spanish, it's set in Berlin and it's in 3 languages. All boxes ticked. Go see it and then go for a lie down.


For my novel I'm going all magical - and yes, I know the author is Mexican but the novel was written in Spanish, by a woman and it's about women so it meets my very loose criteria - with Like Water for Chocolate. It's magical realism, it includes recipes and it's set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution and the first waves of Mexican feminism. Buy chocolate, throw a sickie (this is probably a good time to do it as everyone's eye is off the ball) devour it in one sitting and wallow in its beauty. Just don't watch the film. Ever. Some things are better left in your head - perhaps someone could pass that thought along to Cameron?

And finally, an icon. Where to start, except I decided it had to be female and I couldn't plug my novel (the heroine is French, here's a link), so here are my criteria: feisty, a bit eccentric, great clothes and/or jewellry, ploughs their own path, opiniated and dark secrets. To plagiarise a football chant: there's only one Sarah Bernhardt. She slept in a coffin and wore Tiffany jewels - I realise there's a bit of a Spongebob riff to that but by any standard the women was a star.

We are living in interesting times and it feels, at the moment, like a curse. I'm an optimist, I hope common sense will somehow prevail and the voices we hear going forward will be reasonable, rational ones. Let's hear it for the girls.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Love is a Many Blended Thing

As holiday weekends and half-terms arrive, many people will be juggling families, increasing numbers of which will be 'blended'. It seems such a gentle word, conjuring up equally gentle scenes: children from family one running delightedly across the daisies towards the children from family two. There they go, grinning like little Disney bunnies at the new mummy/old daddy or old mummy/new daddy or whatever new combination of shiny parents this veritable smorgasboard of delights will present them with. And then off they skip hand-in-hand, all beautifully smoothed together.

Is it just me hearing 'blended' and having a Gremlins moment?

Do not panic. I have not morphed into a freakish Daily Mail worshipper of the traditional 'nuclear' family and, please, just take a moment to consider what that word means outside geeky science nerd world. It's surely more terrifying/honest (delete as applicable) than blended. I have no issue with divorce or re-marriage which you would know if you knew my history (a dark, dark world you will never see into) and adding rug-rats to the romantic mix as you re-entangle is what grown-ups have to do. It's not the doing that's the problem, it's the naming. If you are going to blend things, they have to be really easy to mix: no hard edges, no possibility of bad reactions, no ending up with combinations that leave a really disgusting taste in your mouth. I'm from the North. I like gravy, custard, whisky, eccles cakes, bacon and pie. That will all go in the blender but it won't make a yummy smoothie, although it might make a good trifle...

We've all grown used to the word 'blended', the problem is that it doesn't allow for differences and it doesn't offer space. Most families come with habits and traditions and, let's be honest, levels of tolerated weirdness that makes Arkham Asylum look like a holiday camp. New families for the kids, and the adults, who are forced to try to glue them together and survive the joins are a bit like cheese and chocolate: sometimes you fancy a bit of one far more than a sniff of the other. Try and pretend the differences don't exist or forget to allow some choices of movement and time and you end up with a cauldron not a melting pot.

There's lots of statistics and research about the need to tread very gently if you don't want the second family to explode. At Heroine Chic Towers, we prefer to ignore all these and turn instead to tv, film and books to back up our opinions. Just think how little popular culture we would have if re-marriage and child-raising was a doddle and there hadn't been two world wars - we might just have been left with sci-fi which has to be a cause of divorce on its own. Some of the stuff is brilliant. Who doesn't love/want to live in Modern Family and if you haven't seen The Way Way Back then treat yourself, although maybe not before a holiday road trip. Some of it, however, should be returned to the Hell from which it came. There is absolutely no excuse for the mawkish sob-fest that is Stepmom and, if you're still not convinced Blended is such a bad term, there's a film of that name starring Adam Sandler (no link, ever, under any circumstances). I rest my case.

We'll come back to the language in a moment, but let's take a slight detour to look at the families themselves and focus on the perennial villain in every tale. The Wicked Stepmother, or, as we should perhaps now call her: Magimix Mom.

The predatory, cruel second wife who favours her own children/the family cat/a nest of rats over the little sweeties who come packaged with daddy is part of our folk-lore and fairy tale heritage. The trope may have arisen from old feudal laws which made a widow and her children economically dependent on a new husband - medieval tiger-mum has to fight for one set of children's rights so the others hate her. It may be a creation that allows children to keep mother one all perfect, reserving all their anger for mother two. It may be plain old misogyny but it's certainly given rise to some wonderful characters.

So, rather than rant at the unfairness of it all, I thought I'd have a look at some characters who should, in theory, have made great step-mothers and celebrate their badness...

My first contender is Jane Eyre. How perfect should she have been: a miserable childhood, a dreadful school experience, a trained governess. There's someone who surely would understand the importance of a loving, nurturing home life. It looks good at first: Jane rushes off to the school Rochester has chosen for simpering little Adele, finds it far too harsh and brings the poor little mite home. For about a day. "I meant to become her governess once more, but I soon found this impracticable." Translation: "your 'father' doesn't need any reminders of fancy French strumpets around while I'm lying back and thinking of England/sin/the kinky missionary bloke. Get thee gone while I paint the nursery a nice deep red." Seriously, can you imagine what her and Rochester's son would grow into? I have a feeling the attic would be well-stocked with his toys.

Jane would be terrible but there's a worse contender: Mary Poppins. One more suffragette meeting and Mr Banks would be easy prey, divorced and re-married before you could say spit-spot. And would it be practically perfect for Jane and Michael? Oh no: how do you think Bert gets all the kids for his chimney-sweeping round? Mary is, in actual fact, a serial re-marrier who just hangs round long enough to drop the children into that capacious double-entendring handbag before delivering them to Bert's roof-top lair where he sits like a sooty Fagin. A spoonful of sugar indeed - clearly this is code for her second occupation as a drug dealer. Is no one actually watching these films?

And finally, let's go with one of the fiercest and unluckiest mothers in contemporary literature: Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones. One son paralysed, one daughter married off to a medieval version of Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre who has also got hold of the other son we'd all forgotten about and her youngest daughter lost in a plot-line which stopped making sense about 4 seasons ago. All very nasty. She deserved it. This was the step-mother who was nasty to Jon Snow. Yes, him of the puppy eyes and puppy brain and increasingly unfeasible accent. She sent him off to the Wall and basically got him killed, only to rise again after he's been dead for about 3 days - I'm not going down this road and please God who ever is now writing the scripts also stops. Right there. Catelyn Stark, Snow-hater: officially Heroine Chic's worst step-mother ever.

Blended, stepped, just plain weird. However your family goes, I hope you find the right words for it - mine invented the term 'weekday dad' but this was coined by a boy who wore an American Idiot sweatshirt to greet his now American Dad so don't trust me on any of this. Unless, of course, you want some step-mom tips...

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The First Cut is the Deepest

How can I reject you, let me count the ways... 

Let's face it, getting rejected is never pretty no matter how it's dressed up or who delivers the crushing blow.                                                                                                                                                                                                    Dorothy Parker's "this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force" is wittily put and may fall into the 'all publicity is good publicity' category but I can't imagine its recipient was any less bruised than the one clutching the standard 'thanks but no thanks' letter. At least it's a response. Nowadays, even getting far enough on the radar to merit an actual rejection letter rather than a black void of endless silence is probably a cause for celebration. I digress, bitterly...                                                                                                                                        
JK Rowling (who was already Queen of the rebuff after Harry Potter) has been tweeting recently about the withering go-aways she received when she tried to publish under her Robert Galbraith nom de plume. Whether merited or not is not for me to say - her continuing use of male-implying or just plain male names has already ground down enough of my teeth to make actually reading her work too much of a dental risk. There are countless stories of famous novels that have been rejected. Some of these are completely understandable the baffled publishers who turned down Ulysses must be surpassed in their thousands by the baffled readers.

Some, however, are a surprise - how could anyone not love Chocolat? Joanne Harris (making me love her even more) said she made a sculpture out of all the letters: I can only hope it was of Jonny Depp and she then did a wicker-man style burning of it to the gods of acting. There are times when pretty is just not enough. John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was another early casualty - I have no strong feelings about this, it's simply a tenuous reason to post a picture of Tom Hiddlestone. Sometimes pretty is more than enough. 

Rejection, of course, is not just restricted to writers (we just bleat about it a lot). Oprah Winfrey was fired from an evening news reporter job because, as improbable as it sounds, she couldn't separate her emotions from her stories. Walt Disney was sacked from the Kansas City Star because of a lack of imagination. Presumably his whole career was then an attempt to disprove this charge, culminating in the casting of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins - an over-use of imagination unsurpassed in the American cinema until Ronald Reagan auditioned for the role of President and everyone forgot to say cut.

To survive rejection you need to have armour-plated skin and a touch of the crazies. Walt, Oprah and other famous rejectees such as Elvis and Steven Spielberg were able to pick themselves up and get the career they dreamed of. But, however determined you are, it's not always easy to move on especially if your dreams die painfully in public. Let's hope Oprah gets Ben Affleck on her show soon to give him some tips: he's clearly not coping...

Poor Ben, brutally rejected across the world's media. At least he knew we'd all stopped loving him. 

Apparently the latest crazy in dating, or the latest excuse for journalists to make up another non-story so we'll stop worrying our heads with ISIS or Brexit, is 'ghosting'. For those of you who, to paraphrase Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally don't have to go out there again (I bet she wished she'd taken her own advice when Star Wars called), ghosting means you leave someone by, simply, leaving them. No calls, no texts, no communication at all, just a disappearing act. In other words the reality of life for those of us who had our hearts repeatedly trampled in the pre-social media/mobile phone world when this behaviour was actually the norm. These kids and their middle-class problems...
As depressing as it is to still be saying it, rejection in the professional world remains too often gender-related. A recent US study  revealed that code written by female programmers is more highly rated than code written by men, until gender is disclosed at which point approval tumbles. In 1998 Francine Prose wrote a brilliant article The Scent of a Woman's Ink on the subject of women's writing and attitudes towards it which, to my fury and sadness, feels like it could have been written yesterday. Read it if you're smarting about rejection of any kind - you'll be so fired up walls will be kicked down.  

So let's finish up on a more ass-kicking note: not with women who've been rejected but with female characters who've rejected society's expectations of their behaviour and done exactly what they pleased...

One of my favourite movies is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nicholson is amazing (or just playing himself) but the whole film turns on the brilliantly-underplayed, brilliantly-named Nurse Ratched. Far more of a sadist and a psychopath than any of her patients, she doles out lobotomies and humiliation with a smile that would freeze Hell. The media is currently full of Clinton/Ratched parodies - put Hilary and Trump in the scene below and feel the magic...

One of my favourite characters, although more of a narcissist than a sociopath is Scarlet O'Hara. Whether it's curtain-ripping, dancing in her mourning weeds or imagining the death of her best-friend (a term she would use with less sincerity than the cast of Mean Girls), Scarlett uses whatever she can to get what she wants. Her cat-yawning giggle remains the best sex scene in a movie ever and channelling that red-dressed poker-faced shrug has carried me through more tricky moments than I shall ever confess. Does she get Rhett back? Maybe, maybe not, who cares - I like to imagine her moving onto bigger and better targets like a heat-seeking vampire, taking down empires as she goes. Practise the shrug, perfect the eyebrow, we all need our Scarlett moments.  
And finally on my list of women who never get their come-uppance, the gothic glory that is Mrs Danvers from Rebecca. Manipulative, scheming and as mad as a box of frogs, Mrs D is the ultimate fairy-tale baddie with a photo of her beloved in one hand and a can of petrol in the other. Hitchcock may have gone down the witch-burning route, I don't think so - she's out there somewhere, she's certainly in every second wife's head...

So there we have it - next time rejection rears its head, imagine what one of these lovely ladies would do. It may not get you the job/contract/man/seat on the tube but it's a lot more fun that self-doubt and far better for your twisting soul...

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Everyday I Write the Book

So the Oscars came and the Oscars went and the controversy over diversity issues and invisible women disappeared from public view faster than an Adam Sandler movie.

Presumably the plaster that was Chris Rock insulting both Rihanna and Jada Pinkett Smith in one sad little sexist joke was enough to work its magic - not commenting, just wishing that Jada had been using the right remote that night...

Before we all move on to the next hot topic dominating the media - seemingly whether adults can tell the difference between a sloth and a pain-au-chocolat (I've added the link, you know you're going to do it anyway), here's the thing: Hollywood wasn't always such a male preserve. Apparently there were more women working in Hollywood up to the early 1920s than at any time since and one of the first movies ever made, in 1896, came from a female director Alice Guy-Blache. Her film, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) is a delight, not least for its insight into Victorian childcare, watch those babies...

It seems that the early Hollywood pioneers were real multi-taskers: major stars like Mary Pickford ran their own production companies, screenwriters became editors became producers and directors and women were at the forefront. According to the Women Film Pioneers Project, between 1912-1919 Universal Studios alone had 11 female directors who made 170 films between them, many of which they also wrote. And then motion pictures became big business, a rigid studio system came into operation which divided roles and pigeon-holed women and it was 70 years before Universal credited a female director again. The joy of progress.

This was all on my mind because I recently went to see Hail Caesar - and now I've done it, you don't need to, think of it as a public service. This movie promises George Clooney in a very short skirt (delivered but negated by the terrible hair) and a 'period caper about the golden years of Hollywood' (blame the Guardian, not me). It's nothing of the sort: it's a film about writers. Writers sitting round discussing Marxism, or maybe Communism - I actually think they had that discussion. See what I've saved you from?

Writers are strange creatures: we spend most of our days talking to people who only exist in our heads; when we go outside, we're not socialising, we're harvesting you as source material; we live in a permanent state of pretence, hiding our green-eyed monsters as our peers win awards and contracts we desperately crave/think we deserve, employing acting skills worthy of Mr DiCaprio staring blank-eyed at his Oscar-winning rivals for the last eight years (surely the role he should actually have won for). The natural habitat for many of us is probably Arkham Asylum. Or the pub. 

The drunken writer - a familiar figure from the glammed-up Hank in Californication to the less attractive reality of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson. We tend to associate the syndrome with male writers but it's an all too common pathway for female authors too. Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker - all brilliant writers whose battle with the demons in the bottle coloured their lives. This isn't the place for a detailed analysis of the many and awful courses for their addictions (brilliantly covered in Olivia Laing's Trip to Echo Spring) but there does seem to be one strand of commonality: society's disregard for them and their work due to their gender. 

The invisibility cloak: when only 20% of the Telegraph's 100 books every adult should read and less than 30% (which assumes someone points out E.Nesbitt and JK are female, don't count on it) of the 50 books children should read by the time they're 16 are by women, it's hard not to conclude that too many of us are still covered in the damn thing. And when Prue Leith prefaces a comment about publishers underrating women with "I don't want to sound carping and over-feminist" it's just hard not to bang your head against a wall.
In the interests of bringing this blog out of the dark tunnel it's heading into, let's do a bit of reclaiming: if there's going to be invisibility, let's use it. I want you to imagine our invisible female writer (perhaps George Elliot or a Bronte, pissed off with having to masquerade as a bloke in the days when you felt you still had to do that - explain JK to me someone, anyone) wandering through plots and messing them up with a well-chosen word or two...

Let's start her off with Shakespeare and more specifically Romeo and Juliet. What's the key problem with this plot? Too many unsupervised teenagers with raging hormones. What's the answer? A little whisper in Nurse's ear about Romeo's philandering ways, Juliet's on lock-down till his fancy passes (probably onto Mercutio), she gets to marry Paul Rudd and nobody has to watch Leo go through Oscar agony. Sorted.

Shakespeare done, let's move our writerly heroine on through the classics to Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility. Most of the problems arise here because of Marianne Dashwood's compulsive letter-writing which is easily solved by an early warning to her father about the dangers of educating women. Marianne is thus kept in a state of furious illiteracy and falls hopelessly in love with Colonel Brandon when he reveals himself to be a passionate advocate of education for all. Finally introduced to the world of letters, she goes onto become a famous novelist (M.D Brandon) and gets to marry Alan Rickman. That's a win win in anyone's book.
And finally, it's time for our invisible woman to save us all a lot of pain. I'm sending her off to New York and a timely chat with Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. A few well-chosen real estate brochures, a little snobbery about where the best people actually go and we'll have Nick summering in The Hamptons not Long Island where the parties are far more sedate and a daisy is simply a flower. Honestly, Leo will thank us for this one.

So that's invisibility reclaimed and DiCaprio restored. If you still want to watch a movie about writers, watch the genius that is Adaptation or get your faith back in the Coen Brothers with Barton Fink and, if you know any crazy writers, have a word with them about therapy before they reach for the bottle:

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Girls on Film

Perm-a-tan by the bucket load. Tiny shivering women wishing their stylists didn't swoon at the word coat. The Daily Mail in apoplectic rage at uncovered arms on the over 30s. The glory that is the awards season is upon us and the gods of the silver screen have descended to red carpets draped from LA to Berlin with a fearless disregard for Europe's plunging temperatures and our ability to live without kale.

As no-one can fail to notice, the 2016 oscars have cocked-up on levels usually reserved for Donald Trump. The flood of aging celebrities trying to prove they really are down with the kids and voted for diversity is as repellent as the nonsense spouted by Charlotte Rampling, proof if ever it was needed that some actors should stick to words written by people far brighter than them. It was great to see Spike Lee and the fabulous Jada Pinkett Smith show what morals look like in action but I can't have been the only one waiting for the power triumvirate that is di Caprio, Clooney and Pitt to do the same - with all due respect to the Smiths, that's a boycott that would have made a difference. Maybe the lure of a goody bag containing a sex toy and a walking tour of Japan was just too much for our billionaires, please God they don't combine the two.

Diversity issues this year are not confined to racism - try applying the Bechdel Test to the 2016 Oscar nomination list and you'll be done before Chris Rock has finished his opening joke. If you're not familiar with the test, it asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. To even get that far, you need two women - for 6 out of the 8 nominated films that's a struggle. Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Martian - it's boys club film-making and boys' club casting. But even these don't stoop to the depths of The Big Short, Hollywood's portrayal of the financial crisis of 2007-8 starring Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale as the financial gurus who predicted the crash in the housing market and the credit bubble that sparked the collapse.

Why am I so pissed off with this film? Meredith Whitney. Ms Whitney, not to put too fine a point on it, was "heralded as the oracle of the financial crisis". Michael Lewis, who wrote the book on which the movie was based (a book based on real events and real people) calls her one of the heroes of the crisis - so where is she in the film? Is she perhaps the woman in the bubble bath patronisingly explaining some of the financial concepts? Yes, there's a woman in a bubble bath...don't ask, more than that, don't go, boycott the damn thing. It's not the actresses who need a new diet, its the beast that is Hollywood - discussions about sexism around pay in Hollywood have been pushed centre-stage again but how can there be any progress if women are simply brushed out of films and, therefore (and its a logical conclusion) out of history? I'm glad actresses are refusing to play along with the manicam madness on the red carpet and support for the #AskHerMore campaign is a given but maybe its time to play tougher and boycott scripts where there's nothing but dicks on the dance floor or do a Big Short in reverse and start swapping out some of the men...

Let's start with The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's tale of beauty, duplicity and moral undoing. Dear God, the angst! This is every woman's dream - red wine benders that leave your face unmarked, no more fear that stopping using Protect and Perfect means your face will fall off, not demanding candles as your lighting of choice. No gothic horror here - The Picture of Dora Gray would be all whimsy and butterflies.

Sticking with the classics, let's move onto Peter Pan, the boy who gave emotional immaturity a respectable face. Petra Pan, that would have been different - one look at bad boy Hook in his frilly shirt and that girl would have sped up the aging process, married him in a misguided attempt at reforming his bad behaviour and got thrown to the crocodiles in the divorce settlement as Hook danced off with Tinkerbell. I see it as a Nora Ephron film, perhaps with our heroine washing up next to Tom Hanks in Castaway for the sequel.

Let's finish with a book that really would have fared better with a heroine at the helm: Frankenstein. So much misery would have been saved if the dear Doctor had had a lighter touch with the needle and a better choice of body parts. If my female doctor was turning out transformations like this, she'd have a thriving business in no time and the science of artificial intelligence would have leapt forward centuries. I see a Nobel prize and a new role model for girls aspiring to be scientists.

So that's the rant done and the recast done, let's leave the last word to the actresses - one warning though: they're women, they're adults, they're not censored, good luck...


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Put On Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

It had to be a Bowie lyric: the ashes may finally have gone to ashes but the shock definitely remains the same.

The start of the year had me, like many others for whom Bowie was part of the tapestry of their life, thinking a lot about music. When I was growing up in the 1970s, music divided the generations like a giant Berlin Wall built on judgements and outrage. My parents moved from Liverpool in the early 1960s to the wilds of the Lake District - read that sentence and weep for the musical opportunities flung away before my tiny hands could grasp them. My dad regaled us with tales of his mis-spent youth following Bill Haley's Comets but seemed to only own albums recorded by bearded men in huge jumpers. My mother made disparaging comments about The Cavern club that she used to work near. It was a confusing time.

I too went through my challenged phase. There was the David Cassidy flirtation, the unrepeatable episode with those tartan terrors The Bay City Rollers, the Led Zeppelin light-bulb moment and then the sun really came out - David Bowie and Marc Bolan were unleashed on our living room and my parents' gnashing teeth. Pretty boys in make-up playing with sexuality before I even knew that was a thing (1970s, Lake District, equates to 1930s in rest of the world, Irish Catholic family, you get it) - I was lost before I even began. 

And so began my life-long love of boy bands, defined here as: loud, black-clad, 3 minute-song playing, miserable if possible, pretty lead singer preferred, badly-behaved, black-clad...From punk, through goth to indie rock, my tastes have never changed and people, I'm fine with that. I've tried opera - too waily. I've tried classical - too dull. But the thing I really don't get? Musicals: burst into song in the middle of the street where I live and they'd, quite rightly, section you.

There are some exceptions - I'd rather spend an evening discussing the nuances of immigration policy with David Cameron and Donald Trump than sit through anything by Sondheim but I'll confess a liking for a parody or two. The Rocky Horror Show can do no wrong - and if I was going to recast that wouldn't Kate and Wills make the perfect Brad and Janet - and I am completely smitten with the madness that is Galavant:

Most of the time, however, I'm happy, if not determined, to have my viewing content delivered to me through the medium of speech. Then I got to thinking... perhaps there are some movies after all that don't need a re-cast but do need an overhaul and music might just help.

One of last year's biggest films, in terms of the press inches devoted to it if nothing else, was Suffragette. It was widely tipped to win Oscar nominations for Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep and yet the awards season has left it as unloved as a wallflower dressed in her mother's hand-me-downs. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Oscar committees which are 94% male, 77% white and have an average age of 63 may not be receptive to films about feisty women trying to break the status quo when there's all-male movies with  levels of violence worthy of an Islamic State posting to watch instead. Sometimes it's like feminism happened in a parallel universe.

But we need to be honest about something else as well: for all its worthy intentions, as a film Suffragette was miserable to the point of parody. I so wanted to like it, instead I felt I'd let the sisterhood down when I started to wonder whether Emily dived under the horse as an escape bid rather than a protest. 

Women in rubbish situations - that's where the best comedy is born. They even manage to raise a smile in Call the Midwife despite battling thalidomide, typhoid, squalor and that horrendous voice-over. So, with that in mind, I thought it was time to bring a little joy to Suffragette and reposition it as a musical...

The film opens with the women battling terrible working conditions in a laundry and an opening score redolent of state funerals and crepe-clad widows. Let's step it up and start with a rousing performance of Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves - this would also have the added benefit of encouraging a faster work-rate and improving production thus giving our jolly crew more time to blow up post boxes and save their children from really clumsily-acted child-snatching.

Moving through the action (I use the word in its loosest sense), we arrive at Oxford Street for some window-smashing. Ladies, you need a figure-head with a bit more command so let's develop our sound-track here with the doyenne of 80s pop that was Hazel O Connor and the biblical insanity of Eighth Day from the film, Breaking Glass. This would definitely get baby out of the corner...

Smashing things is one route, polite political discourse is another so our heroine Maud trots off to Parliament and makes an impassioned plea to Lloyd George on behalf of down-trodden workers...she doesn't, she mumbles a pile of cliches in a monotone to a man with improbable facial hair who's wondering what she might make him for dinner.

Time to take off that hat Maud and start busting some moves: get out your best Beyonce and let's rouse the room with a few verses of If You Like It, Then You Should Have Put a Vote In It. 

Poor old Maud, things continue to go from bad to worse: she gets menaced by factory-owners and detectives straight out of central casting's nasty-men with dodgy accents department; her strangely-wooden husband sells her child to a lady who knows how to behave and she has to go to prison with Helena Bonham-Carter's all-round good egg who co-opts her onto the local jolly hockey team, or something, I think I was praying for Tim Burton around about this point. But wait, what's this? Like an avenging angel in a fetching hat, Meryl Streep appears out of nowhere and glides onto a balcony above her adoring throng and, yes, unleashes yet another monotone speech on an audience now praying for the emergency text that will release them from this hell. Oh Meryl, it was your Madonna moment and you missed it - one chorus of Don't Cry For Me, Working Women and the world would have been yours...

It does end, eventually, with a funeral to complete the uplifting mood. It could have been so different: a rousing version of You Gotta Fight for Your Right to The Party and audiences would have left the cinema ready to kick the asses that still need kicking as opposed to downing a bottle of gin and wondering what the hell went wrong and why far too many battles are still not won.

So there we have it, a little feminist fantasy to prove that women really do know how to have fun. I shall leave the last word, as so often, to the delights of Psychobitches - if you're too young to know who she's talking about, there are pictures here but watch the video first or you'll really need the gin...