Feminist Press Review

The weather has forced me to stay indoors most of the weekend, which has been much welcome. The stacks of magazines and books had been piling up the last weeks and the last 48 hours were an excellent opportunity to read through most and report back here. We shall start with Vanity Fair

The international edition runs a big cover story about Beto O’Rourke and his fancies for becoming the next US President. The main show, however, is the big joint interview of ​Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph (there’s also a big picture spread from the VF Oscars afterparty, but I reckon we have already processed that). The official fun women of the United States and the ur-feminists of Hollywood, you could not go horribly wrong with these two. The interview is PR for their latest cinematic endeavours, which are personally not terribly much to my taste (I only really liked The Bridesmaids from this feminist slapstick-genre), and much else. I liked the “much else” part more: where Poehler and Rudolph explain how they started out, how it’s been for them in Hollywood, how does it feel to plough your way through in an industry where female characters still only have 35% of the speaking roles in top blockbusters. 

The French edition of ​Vanity Fair has #metoo -related speculation from France, involving movie director Luc Besson, who is the suspect in one of the latest bigger court cases in France. There’s a fantastic story about a former Parisian judge Constance Debré, who was born to a grande famille de la République, and then went through a huge reinvention of giving up her job, husband, bourgeoise life and the prestige and became a writer and started to live with her female partner instead. Does not sound like much, looking at it like this, but the point was that her family name made it hugely difficult for her to walk out of her life. She wrote a book Play boy about her experience. Have not read it, but might give it a shot. Also, the theme of tomorrow’s MET Gala, camp”, is discussed in the magazine, through Susan Sontag, who wrote a novel called such in the 60s. Thoroughly interesting in the preparation for the gala.

French ​Vogue has the usual gorgeousness (safari theme is back for summer), and on top interviews with Rebecca Solnit, the author of Men Explain Things to Me and ​The Mother of All Questions, the latter of which has just been translated into French. On an equally feminist beat, there’s also an interview of Anja Rubik, Polish model, activist and philanthropist. Amongst many, many issues, she also discusses the sex education in Poland. Rubik has fronted big campaigns in Poland by authoring a book about homosexuality and contraceptives. Highly interesting.

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Then, have you ever been caught up in a situation where you are directly challenged to quickly bring about concrete, actual examples of gender bias in everyday life and your mind just draws a complete blankThis is maddening, because your head will be bursting with examples the minute the situation is over and you are mentally gathering yourself from the floor. Since everybody nowadays wants to talk about artificial intelligence,  data bias is an extremely interesting topic even for a non-geek. 

Invisible Women is a very thorough take on this subject, and does not require any prior knowledge or particular interest in gadgets and nerdery. Much of Criado Perez’  findings rest on how women are excluded from the creation of basic algorithms and many societal norms, such as dosage of medicine (this part will knock your socks off). It’s all done in a very non-whiny way, and is a fabulously practical antidote to all those “aren’t we getting a bit paranoid here?” comments when this topic is being brought up. 

There’s much talk about the need to have more girls studying STEM and more women in tech, but without educated debate on why this is actually something to be encouraged and something that is absolutely essential, these messages might not hit home. There’s another book about biases in apps and algorithms which is very practical: Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, who made her own career in the Silicon Valley bro-atmosphere, so she knows what she is talking about. Excellent read. 

Why Paying for Journalism is Non-Negotiable

I have tried to explain to myself why the world has gone so bonkers lately. Because I have not been able to do that, I’ve resorted to reading what other people have to say about it. It seems like all of the old cliches are true: politicians know what they should do, but do not know how to get elected afterwards. It is easier to please than to be right. Correct that: it’s more important to please than to be right.

If you were going to huff “Oh well that’s just how politicians are!” think again. This is how we are living our lives: begging for likes and followers and yearning to please so much that we have started to alter and filter our appearances online. How should politicians be any different from others? Why should facts mean any more than opinions, if the latter get more reactions on social media (and possibly votes)? Most people trust the opinions of their friends and acquaintances on their social media feeds more than newspapers anyway. 

Two things happened in parallel recently. I was reading the biography of war correspondent Marie Colvin when some Instagram influencers broke a story how their sponsored luxury trip to Bali had been everything but (they were made to stage the pictures, heavily manipulate the surroundings, even by using cardboard backdrops, and photoshop any locals off). While I apologise for a shaky analogy, it is an interesting thought all the same: a correspondent is sent abroad to report facts. She does this. We read the reporting, think it’s probably not true and/or biased propaganda and switch on to Instagram. We see a photoshopped-to-death picture of bikini-clad models larking around on Balinese beach, sponsored by a travel agency, and immediately think “​If I book flights to Bali now, my life will be like this! This is so real!” 

Exaggeration? Not really. Think about the thousands of people who were punk’d by the Fyre Festival -organisers. They forked out thousands of dollars each, basing their decision to attend solely on retouched adverts on social media, only to be completely ripped off in a tent-village in the Bahamas.

Colvin dedicated her life to reporting us what war does to people. Recipient of many prizes and decorations, she was a fêted war correspondent, who suffered both mental and physical damage during her extraordinary career. She reported from the trenches in Palestine, Chechnya, East Timor, Afganistan, Iraq and Syria, where she was killed in 2012. In Extremis is a biography about her, written by a fellow journalist Lindsey Hilsum, and I cannot but recommend the book.

There are the international superstar hero-journalists like Colvin and Christiane Amanpour, and then there are those who do not get their primetime-show on CNN, but end up writing literature with impact. I grabbed Wendell Steavenson’s Paris Metro in the bookstore because I read everything that says “Paris” in the title. Turns out, the book was less about sexy people idling away on the Rivé Gauche and more about a tangled mess of an Anglo-American journalist woman marrying an Iraqi- diplomat while covering the Middle East, and then returning to Paris with an adopted son, bumping into ex-husband’s Iraqi-relatives during a gig on Kos about the European migration crisis, and then suddenly being held in detention by the French police in the aftermath of the Bataclan-attack in Paris in 2015. 

Understanding anything Middle East, especially the political crisis, its origins and most of its consequences, is beyond my comprehension. This is probably a mix of my own ignorance and the sheer complexity of the issue. However, what is absolutely brilliantly explained in Paris Metro is the work of a journalist: You are not reporting your opinions. You are depicting life as it happens: always asking second opinions, verifying sources, calling just one more person to be sure. Often reporting about things you don’t like, things that scare you and disgust you, but you have not been sent away to write rants about your feelings, anyway.

Most journalists are not foreign correspondents, but still work according to the same principles: making shit up is not your job. I’m struggling to understand why we don’t believe the stuff they put in the news, and also why so many of us think they should work for free (such has been the reaction to paywalls). 

I am one of the last people to glorify journalists and journalism, and the first to acknowledge that yes, some of them do not always buy my spin and some of them are otherwise crooked little shits with their biases, and there are surely some downright corrupt ones (fun fact: journalists are humans). Still, all their pieces are run past more scrutinising eyes before publication than any Facebook status update of an opinionated friend. 

There are no excuses not to pay for journalism. This world will go to shits without free (and professional) press – and we are actually well on the way already. Pay for quality press like you pay for quality food, clothes and cosmetics. Should you have any interest in the insights of hardcore correspondent work, I recommend the two books above. Even if you don’t, Paris Metro is a masterfully thought-provoking, contemporary novel about European multiculturalism.

To finish, a quote by Wendell Steavenson, a former foreign correspondent herself: 

“I’m a bit less: Must go to Mosul. I’m more scared. I don’t know if it got scarier. I think it did. You just see the toll it takes and you lose too many people. There are too many people close to you kidnapped. I got scareder, no doubt about it.”

*This post is not sponsored by my journalist friends. But to anyone of them who’s reading, I am totally accepting drinks anytime.*

Body, And Other Parties

If, after scrolling through newspapers and social media feeds, for some reason you still have appetite for something extra to throw you off kilter, let me recommend a book for you: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s a collection of short stories about women’s bodies which make for an eclectic mix of fantasy, horror, anarchy, punk, science fiction and comedy. 

The stories are mainly quite weird, but in a very fabulous way – Machado is a brilliant (and much accomplished) writer. I read this book already last year, but I thought about it again after I read a recent article in ​The Guardian about how women’s mutilated bodies are still being used as exotic props in pop-culture (the article was referencing an exhibition about Jack the Ripper and his famous victims, whose faces decorate paraphernalia from posters to T-shirts). 

​Her Body & Other Parties is quite far off the chart I usually read in terms of its level of fabulism and queer horror-ness, and while I’m generally no fan of science fiction, I thought Machado’s provocative literary fireworks were actually very refreshing. I did do the semi-audible “what?!” gasp once or twice, but I don’t mean it as a negative thing: events in the real world make me want to scream out loud on an hourly basis these days. I had to eliminate twitter before breakfast lest my forehead vein explodes before I’ve nourished  my body with a coffee and pain au chocolat – so yeah, real world lunacy considered, if reading fiction still manages to tease out a reaction, I’m buying. 

Speaking of bodies, and back to the bourgeoisie, I acquired* the full line of Weleda’s Skin Food. We already know that Victoria Beckham and other important people are fans of the original Skin Food (the fact that Beckham uses the modestly priced Skin Food actually made UK-headlines and she was almost sainted for resorting to something a normal person can afford without selling their child’s placenta to cosmetics industry that can then use it for a cream for Victoria Beckham’s neck)**. The line has now expanded to include a lighter version of the greasier original, Skin Food Light (excellent hand cream), a body butter and a lip balm. I like the light version of ​Skin Food more – though the original grease does have its place for extreme heel-situations. 

While I do, on occasion, want to worship my miraculous body by offering it rare, lush and expensive ointments (the millennials have taken to call the post-shower slapping on of body lotion self care, but whatever), I’m often very happy just to smear my old bones with something decent, and I find Skin Food Body Butter to fit the bill quite nicely. While Victoria Beckham mixes her greasy original ​Skin Food with coconut oil to keep her tan and to really “give her skin a drink”, I am not sure I have the patience to wait for such concoction to absorb, and also I have no tan to preserve. But it sounds interesting and doable, thus I’m putting the tip here. 

* I bought everything myself.

** I am not dissing Victoria Beckham. I think she is quite fabulous, has an excellent style and taste in fashion, clearly works hard and has done really well by staying the f**k out of the desperate attempts at reviving the Spice Girls ruins.

Book Recommendation: Liar

First of April is the only day of the year when people exercise healthy criticism when they peruse news: “Can this be true?” Otherwise it’s pretty much everything goes, thumbs up, poke, like and share. There are actual companies whose business rationale is based on checking and verifying how many times the POTUS has lied in public. What was once something one did not want to get caught doing, today is very much the modus operandi for many recent political movements, media outlets and influencers of various kinds. Liars have firmly established themselves amongst us, and their followers keep racking up the numbers.

I spotted the book Liar because of its cover. I like pink, and I like ice-cream. I didn’t know the author, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, but I proceeded with the purchase. So glad I did. What happens when your lie becomes the trigger for such an avalanche of events affecting so many people, that rectifying matters no longer becomes viable? 

Set in Israel, the book tells the story of 17-year old Nofar who would like to spice up her teenage life, but is not quite sure how. Then a life-changing chain of events takes place in the ice-cream parlour where she works during the school recess, and she becomes a national celebrity overnight. Only her celeb-status is all based on a lie, or rather other people’s assumption she did not correct on time.

Things spiral out of control and it soon becomes evident to her that it is impossible to unscramble the scrambled eggs. And the fame feels delicious! The interviews, the attention, the free clothes, the sympathy! Her schoolmates’ interest! She’s finally someone!

So that we are not lured into thinking that it’s only young people who lie, an old woman is introduced to us, and she gets caught in a tangle of a big fat deceit herself. The characters, of course, meet in the book, but the older lady seems more like the side story to me. 

The message: everybody lies, for various reasons. The characters in the book (there are more liars) either want to be loved or want to please, or to avoid confrontation, but all of them tell lies to each others or to themselves.

The other message is possibly that people are willing to believe an awful lot of horseshit. Mostly to reinforce their views of the world, to make it easier for them to make sense of the world or to feel that they belong in a group where everybody believes in the same thing. 

Liar was a beautiful surprise. I liked the eerie suspense and the absence of the most obvious cliches. The book is scattered with unexpected examples and iterations. Such as this, when the accused man tried sarcasm in his interrogation (probably to impress the detective) “Yeah, I’m totally into making passes at pimply-faced sixteen-year-old girls!”

Sarcasm is a dangerous ally, much like the perfumed notepaper young girls buy: after a while the fragrance evaporates and only the paper remains. And in truth, in only a few hours the sarcasm had evaporated and only the confession remained.

Strong recommendation should you be interested in a literary anatomy of a liar. 

Women Bleed. Period.

Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama, ​Alyssa Mastromonaco, wrote her first book Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? about her life in the White House and what it was like to have spent over a decade working with ​Barack Obama. 

The book opens with Mastromonaco’s observations that toilets in the West Wing were far and few. Women’s toilets basically didn’t exist. There was nowhere to buy tampons if you had forgotten yours – and the time-consuming security protocol meant that you could not nip out to get some whenever you had the need, because it would take forever and there was never time for that. She eventually negotiated a tampon dispenser to be installed in one of the toilets. 

I explained this bit to my friend when I told her about the book. “Isn’t that a bit lame, to make such a point of being a woman by writing about your periods? Surely her menstruation was not the most important thing in the White House? “, she proffered. I was not sure. Was it? 

There was a time when my periods almost became the most important thing in my professional life. Or, rather, hiding I had them. In my early thirties I had a job which required me to travel quite a bit with my boss. We once had a small 8-seater jet to transport a small bunch of us. I had my period, and it was hell. The tiny plane had a toilet, but there was no proper door. Despite the usual airplane noise, we might as well have relieved ourselves on the aisle, so close was the toilet and so useless its door.

It is a universally known rule that toilets on board any means of transport shall be avoided. However there’s an exception and it is this: when you’re bleeding dry and know that unless you immediately stuff yourself with more bleached cotton wool, a mortifying red pool will be left on the beige leather seat once you stand up to leave with the rest of the delegation.

I did not want to announce to all and sundry that I had my period when I lurked to the tiny makeshift toilet, so I put up a solid effort to simultaneously navigate the holding of the piece of shit sliding door closed, open the cellophane of a tampon using my teeth so as to liberate my other hand for removing the old tampon and fix the individually wrapped-in-plastic pad that had multiple sticky surfaces and wings and bells and whistles whiletrying to figure out where all the plastic crap, pads and stuff should go, as there was no bin anywhere. I nearly failed, dear reader, but my colleagues’ moment of enjoying their Ruinart was not ruined

Throughout the trip I was drugged to my eyeballs, as the cramps were becoming intolerable. The only thing that lifted my spirits was arriving at a dining hall where the chairs were upholstered in dark red velvet – if disaster struck, no-one would know. I didn’t know at the time that the excessive bleeding, cramping, diarrhoea, throwing up and fainting were caused by endometriosis that was operated a few years later.

A male-dominated environment that it was, I actually scheduled the surgery to take place during my annual holiday, so that I could avoid having to request my (all male) management for medical leave to deal with “some women’s issues” (this is how my colleague’s difficult IVF- process was described as). I was desperate to remain one of the guys. If it meant pretending that I did not have a functioning uterus, so it was to be.

Since the operation I have been on hormonal medication to treat endometriosis, which means that for years I’ve lost any sense of my natural cycle. Therefore I do not really think about periods at all. I came across Notes to Self by Emilie Pine last week and her essays brought this topic right back on my radar. Interestingly, I also just watched Amy Schumer’s Growing, which came out last week. Both Schumer and Pine discuss periods, menstrual blood and why they are still such a taboo. 

While periods clearly only ever concern women’s bodies, there is a political side to them as well: access to hygiene products. There are hundreds of thousands of girls and women in Europe alone who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads regularly (10% of girls only in the UK!). Addressing this is a political decision.

The shame of both talking about menstruation and ensuring that any blood always remains forever hidden, however falls on women’s shoulders alone. This is astonishing in many ways. I spent decades bleeding and stressing whether I’d left red marks on the chairs or sofas at my friends’ homes (I did), whether I’d soiled a man’s bedlinen with my blood after spending a night (I had) or whether I’d ruined the only pair of Levi’s 501 that I owned throughout ​collège (that’s French for junior high school) by bleeding into them, then soaking them in a gardening bucket (I was a resourceful child) so that my mum would not see, and the soaking just made it worse and left the jeans covered in faintly rust-coloured blotches. 

How I hate the pseudo-feminist slogan of how a woman can do anything a man can do, and do it while bleeding! I could barely hold myself upright on the worst days. Women have always been over-identified with their bodies, by having to prove their intellectual capacity over and over and over again, but there’s rarely a threshold for claiming menstrual pain, other than “being female”. 

Mastromonaco, Pine and Schumer make for an excellent combination for food for thought on this issue – and periods are not the only thing they discuss, far from it. I recommend Mastromonaco to anyone who’s ever had or would like to have a cabinet job. Pine’s Notes to Self  is heartbreakingly excellent contemporary Irish writing, and I cannot recommend her essays strongly enough. Amy Schumer’s Growing is currently available on Netflix and it is brilliant. 

Related: the case of unisex toilets

I see the point of them, and I’m totally fine with the idea. Who needs the segregation of sexes when you just need a bucket to pee into? Totally fine in many places where you are not exactly expecting to spend a long time and/or to have the state of the art comfort.

At the same time only women get periods. While we should all be lassoing our tampons around in public and embrace the lovely gift nature gave us, periods can be painful and messy.  No-one in Ally McBeal was ever caught fiddling with the noisy wrappers of their tampons or sanitary pads in the office unisex toilet, where the cubicles were flimsy enough to facilitate the transcribing of whispered conversations. 

Maybe that should be the goal; that we are all totally fine with each sharing the information about our bodily fluids and functions at all times with the rest of the toilet-goers. The first step, however, needs to be the total removal of any shame that comes with menstruation. Period. 

Where I Write

I am extremely curious to know how and where writers write. Had I used all the time I’ve wasted on trying out various writing locations in actual writing, I would never have missed a deadline, and also I would be updating this blog far more frequently.

To start with, I usually write at my dining table. It finds itself in an open plan-area that combines the living room/dining area and kitchen area. There’s a window in front of the table, tea-making facilities right behind it, and the table itself is large enough to hold insane amounts of junk that I pretend I need to produce sentences.

Some time ago I started thinking about changing into something jazzier location-wise, so as to spark not only joy, but possibly creativity.

Coffee places

This would be the obvious choice. Every morning upon collecting my brew I used to shoot a jealous glance at the people sprawled across the coffee house, working on their laptops. That was until I tried it myself.

Because I have a job that requires me to spend time in a confined office-space during the week, I could only try this experiment on a weekend. Far from being the serene spot for adult creatives quietly jamming to the beat of Spotify’s coffee house playlist, for some inexplicable reason the place had transformed into a fucking zoo.

–        Every toddler within two-kilometre radius was brought in for a group-screaming exercise.

–        People stopped respecting my personal space and acted as if we were all extras at some big fat Italian family reunion (“Yes, I do need the chair next to me because it holds my coat and an assortment of my personal objects. Also I’m not interested in your opinions about anything, so thanks“).

–        I don’t know the protocol. How long am I allowed to hoard a table after I’ve finished my coffee? This stressed me out so much I kept buying fresh coffee until my heart was beating so fast I nearly keeled over and died.

–        Also, how do we navigate the toilets? Who’s responsible for my laptop and various other items spread across the table while I take a toilet break?

–        Other people.

All this is surprisingly stressful. 

Writing by hand so as to have more options regarding location

J.K. Rowling is famous for having penned Harry Potter at Edinburgh cafés. Ever the optimist, I made pilgrimage to Edinburgh to live such writing experience myself, but I had overlooked the fact that Rowling wrote in longhand, whereas I cannot produce text without a keyboard (this requires a laptop/iPad, which brings back the issue with toilet breaks when at a coffee place).

I also ended up having so many notebooks that I could no longer keep track of which sketchy beginning was in which notebook.

I can do lists and write down anecdotes that I absolutely need to remember, but writing anything longer than a postcard by hand is not going to happen.

Home office

I have an extra room in my apartment, which is a very luxurious thing to have. People in Belgium live in spacious apartments, which I think is Karma’s way to balance out the country’s public transport system.

So I thought about turning this extra room into a nice little space to write – after all it’s what Virginia Woolf basically told all of us to do. Between wasting a lifetime online looking for workspace inspiration and storming to buy new furniture, I sat in my extra room one evening with my laptop, test-driving the ambiance. I experienced the worst FOMO ever, convinced that the open plan area in my apartment was in fact the most happening and inspiring spot in Brussels.

I also felt I missed the window, which allows me to observe my neighbour occasionally having a cigarette on his terrace, or a pigeon taking a shit in one of the potted plants on my terrace.

Public transport

Airplanes and trains don’t work because I don’t like people next to me giving nosy side-eye at my unfinished texts and judging them. I do it all the time myself, so I know.

Anywhere

An exception to everything above is a looming deadline.

Alas, I continue to write at my dining table. The most hassle with this solution is the rare occasion of me having invited human beings into my apartment and having to clear up the junk to make space for plates and such. Given that this isn’t the most natural of my urges, there has been no immediate need to change this arrangement.

My go-to reference book for tips for writing is ​Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by an amazing biographer and writer Dani Shapiro.