Tag Archives: femininity

Eating my Words

In case you missed all the other times I’ve banged on about it, I am doing something very cool this weekend. My pitch is pretty much learned off. I’ve done my homework on the agent concerned. I have my shiny business cards ready to be handed out. I have a new writing pad, and a pen which works.

I am ready.

Image: gameface.lyricss.org

Image: gameface.lyricss.org

Well – I am now, at least. Yesterday was an entirely different story.

I woke up yesterday morning and realised – rather abruptly – that my hair was looking sort of meh. (Bear with me, here: I’m not going to bore you with the chronicles of my follicles, or anything like that; there is a point to my talking about my coiffure, I swear.) It had been a while since I’d had it cut, and my poor old wig had grown slightly too long to be called a bob while still being slightly too short to be called anything else. Also, it was refusing to sit nicely because it’s a recalcitrant brat with a devilish kink. It looked about as professional as someone wearing a bird’s nest (complete with bird) atop their head.

So, something clearly had to be done, and stat.

I walked into my local salon hoping they had a slot, and they graciously agreed to squeeze me in last thing just before they closed for the day. When the actual hair-cutting began, I did my best to condense my panic down inside my chest (I’m slightly phobic of hairdressers; whether it’s the feeling of scissors so close to my flesh or just the fact that I hate having my hair washed by other people, I’m not sure), and let the stylist clip away.

They had the radio in the salon tuned to a station that plays the sort of soulless, thunk-thunk-thunk music that I normally can’t bear. At one stage, even the stylist rolled her eyes and muttered, ‘kids’ll listen to any old nonsense these days, won’t they?’ and we proceeded to have a good old chat about the dearth of decent music in our brave new world and how ‘things were better in our day’, and all that other nonsense that people of a certain age are prone to.

Then, a warbly love song started to play, and the following lyrics caught my ear:

I know you’ve never loved the crinkles by your eyes when you smile
You’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs
The dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine
But I’ll love them endlessly

‘What on earth is that?’ I think I may have said, appalled. ‘One Direction,’ smiled the stylist, chopping away. ‘You can’t get away from them these days.’ We shared a grin. I continued to listen to the song, hating the way it sounded and everything about it and lamenting, internally, its focus on female physical attributes – and then I realised I was being completely unfair.

This, by the way, is One Dimension... I mean, ha ha, One Direction! Of course. I never thought I'd be sharing a photo of them on my blog, but I guess there's a first time for everything. Image: little-mix.wikia.com

This, by the way, is One Dimension… I mean, ha ha, One Direction! Of course. I never thought I’d be sharing a photo of them on my blog, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Image: little-mix.wikia.com

The song was about a girl hating her physical appearance – her thighs, her stomach, her back, her weight, and so on – and a young man telling her that those things don’t matter; he loves her not in spite of these things, but because of them. These are the things which make her special and unique to him.

As I was having my hair blow-dried (it’s fabulous, by the way – totally professional and utterly competent-looking, so let’s hope that rubs off on the brain beneath it), I was thinking about this. One Direction is probably the most influential band in the world right now for a particular demographic, and whether that makes you weep or not, it’s still a fact. So, if these five young men singing about how a girl’s physical ‘imperfections’ (gah, how I hate that term! As if a living, breathing body can be in any way imperfect) make her beautiful and unique and lovable can have any impact at all on the millions of teenagers who listen to, and idolise, them, surely it’s a good thing. Isn’t it? They might be doing a disservice to music – at least, to a person raised on The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and ZZ Top, they are – but they may be doing something very positive for girls’ self esteem.

And, on balance, isn’t that more important? Yes, of course it is.

But I wish it was as easy as this. I wish one song by one band (no matter how influential) could undo the years of conditioning and pressure that bring some, if not most, young girls to the brink of despair every time they look in a mirror. I really do.

However, I will admit that I was wrong to judge One Direction’s song so harshly and thoughtlessly; I have well and truly eaten my words. I applaud them for trying to put forth an image of femininity which is counter to that shoved in girls’ faces from magazines and TV and movies and hip-hop, and even though the sound of their music makes my ears metaphorically bleed, I hope their message finds a wide, and receptive, audience.

I really can’t believe I’m writing this. Vive la change, mes amis. Vive la change.

Nah. Rock and roll till I die! Image: pitch.com

Nah. Rock and roll till I die!
Image: pitch.com



Recently, I was in the company of one of my best friends, a woman for whom I have the highest affection and regard. Her intelligence, work ethic and determination leave me in the shade, and her accomplishments, both personally and professionally, are many. We sat, and we talked, and we shared many things that day, but among them was a deep and painful thing, a secret that we’ve both been harbouring, and something that – sadly – I think may affect many women.

And this is it.

We feel like frauds.

Image: bartbusinessgroup.com

Image: bartbusinessgroup.com

My friend is extremely well-educated, and has worked harder, all through her life, than anyone I’ve ever known. Yet, she feels like any opportunity that comes her way is down to someone doing her a favour, or taking pity on her, or making a mistake. She convinces herself that whenever something good happens, it will all be taken away in the next breath when the error is discovered. She feels she’s not qualified, or not worthy, or not entitled to the fruits of her own labour, that she’s just ‘lucky’ or ‘in the right place at the right time.’ I was horrified and saddened to hear her say things like this, not only because she’s wrong – because everything she is offered, she has earned with her own toil and talent – but because she described, almost exactly, what it feels like to be inside my head.

In the last few days, I’ve read a couple of articles (The Confidence Gap and Time to Man Up!) which have really made me think hard about what it means to be a woman in the professional world, particularly a woman in a creative field. I can’t speak for all women, of course, and I’m not in a position to make claims on sociological or biological truths about gender and its relation to the workplace, but these articles did make an impression on me. Are girls encouraged, from a young age, to ‘follow the rules’ and be ‘good’, not to take risks, not to muddle through, not to learn on the job? Are they rewarded for being ‘perfect,’ for knowing everything about a subject before they start, for not embarking upon a task without being fully prepared for every eventuality? Are they trained – even implicitly – to value doing things by the book, without any room for improvisation, over taking a chance and seeing how it works out?

From my own experience, yes. From my earliest days of school, yes. This is how it was. Boys were allowed to be messy, praised for doing a ‘good enough’ job; girls praised for doing ‘pretty’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ work. A boy could colour outside the lines, and still be praised for completing his picture. A girl would be encouraged to do ‘better’ next time. Taking chances, approximating, imperfection which nonetheless worked well enough – those things are alien to a lot of women, because as girls we were rewarded for working hard to get things just right, and always doing our best to be perfect. The sad thing about this is that a lot of women grow up to believe that their best is never good enough; a person’s best can never be completely perfect, of course. So, your ‘best’ can never live up to the idea of ‘perfect’ that you hold in your mind.

And there's all this to live up to, too... Image: stepfordwives.org

And there’s all this to live up to, too…
Image: stepfordwives.org

Like my friend, I work hard. Like her, my professional life revolves around the world of the mind, a creative career which involves self-possession, self-confidence and an ability to ‘market’ the skills and talents in our possession. The major drawback to this is that, like my friend, I have very little self-possession and self-confidence, and self-deprecation comes far more naturally to me than its opposite. I also convince myself that any opportunities I am given are down to favours being done behind the scenes, or strings being pulled, or mistakes being made. I am constantly waiting for the ‘hand on the shoulder’, the apologetic email telling me that an error has occurred, terribly sad about it, please do forgive us. It’s a struggle to believe that anything I achieve is down to my own ability or hard work; I have to force myself to silence the inner voice that says ‘you don’t deserve this.’

It’s like taking a shovel and digging holes inside yourself, boring away at your self-belief, the foundations of your person. It’s like tunnelling away at the ground beneath your own feet, until you fall into a pit of self-doubt from which it’s practically impossible to escape. It’s nothing short of crazy, and yet I do it – and now I know that one of the women I admire most in the world does the very same thing. It makes me sad at the same time as it gives me comfort; I’m not alone, but it allows me to see how truly silly a thing it is to do.

Last week, I was given an amazing opportunity. I was chosen as one of seventy-five writers who will have a chance to meet face-to-face with a literary agent specialising in their field at an event called ‘Date with an Agent’, being held as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival. This is, of course, an incredible chance, for which I am immensely grateful, but I’ve spent so much time over the past few days telling myself I didn’t really earn it, that I’m just pretending to know what I’m talking about, that I have no idea what I’m doing. Perhaps if I’d been encouraged to think flexibly, embrace the idea of taking chances, and allowed myself to make intelligent mistakes when I was younger, I’d feel differently about this situation.

And perhaps I wouldn’t. Who knows?

I’m sure many men can understand what I’m saying here, too; women don’t have the monopoly on self-doubt or societal pressure, of course, and I know men who would struggle with the same insecurities as I’ve described here. It might also be the case that I’m putting too much emphasis on things learned at a very young age, things that – logically enough – should have been put aside in favour of adult thinking a long time ago. But all I can describe is how I, personally, feel: all I can say is ‘this is my reality.’ I’m not sure if it’s down to being a woman, or to any amount of other factors, which may not even be related to one another. It is an issue which is larger than me, though; it’s part of the larger challenge of negotiating the world of creative work, and the reality of being a woman in a world which rewards traditionally ‘male’ behaviour like confidence, risk-taking and on-the-spot learning.

All I know is: I’m going to have to put my tunnelling shovel down, and stop undermining myself. Perhaps, by doing that, I can show other women – like my dear friend – that they can do it, too, and if we all stop digging tunnels, it will shore up the ground beneath everybody’s feet – men, women, creatives and non-creatives alike.

image: rollingfruitbats.com

image: rollingfruitbats.com

Any thoughts on this? Do you empathise with the self-doubt I’m talking about here, or do you think it’s a load of hooey? Do you think it’s gender-based, or down to something else entirely?

Les Formidables

I’ve taken it a little bit easy this weekend with regard to writing, which was nice. Having said that, though, my brain has continued ticking over and I’ve been bombarded with flashes of panic about all the things I need to change and tweak and fix in The Novel. I’ve taken careful note of them all, and am poised and ready to dive into the work today after a couple of days away from the keyboard. But before I get there – some thoughts on What I Did for the Weekend. (Just a note: if you don’t know the story of Les Misérables, and you don’t want to spoil it for yourself, you may want to give this blog post a miss!)

As part of our celebratory/relaxation weekend, my beloved brought me to see ‘Les Misérables’ yesterday, and I really enjoyed it. We’ve been humming the themes ever since, and singing things like ‘Would you like a cup of teeeeeeaa?’ at one another. As you do.

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Before I share my thoughts on the movie, I have to admit that I had no prior experience of ‘Les Mis’. I’ve never seen it on stage, and I only had a vague familiarity with some of the big show-stopping tunes. I knew the bare outline of the story, and I was aware of certain things (like the eventual fate of Fantine and Gavroche, and the tension between Jean Valjean and Javert), but going into the movie, I had no real idea what to expect. I was glad of that ignorance, in a way, because it helped me to enjoy the story for what it is; I wasn’t comparing it in my head to x-stage version or y-stage version, or whatever.

I loved it.

From the very first shots of the prisoners working to pull in the giant galleon, to the emotionally draining ending, I loved it. Visually, it’s stunning – particularly the shots of the galleon, but also the barricades and Fantine’s experiences among the ‘lovely ladies’ – and emotionally, it almost wrung me out completely. From ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (which nearly killed me, I cried so much) to the final number on the barricade, I don’t think I had more than five minutes of dry-eyedness. (If that’s a word.) It touched me so much, thanks in huge part to the performances of the actors. I would challenge anyone not to weep at Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine, for instance. She put so much emotion into her role, and despite the inevitable fact that the character and the story are so melodramatic, she made it seem believable. When she’s weeping as she sings about her dreams for her life going wrong, and how she can’t bear where her life has led her, you believe every syllable of it. Plus, of course, she’s a wonderful singer, so that helps!

I was delighted with every aspect of the story, in fact, except for one – that of the grown-up Cosette. This has nothing to do with the performance of the actress (Amanda Seyfried, who I normally can’t stand, purely because she’s everywhere), but all to do with the character. She’s portrayed perfectly well here, the actress does a fine job of acting and singing the role, and she gives it her all. But I just really didn’t like the character. I’m sure that’s not the impression you’re supposed to get from Cosette – I’m sure you’re supposed to love her purity, her virtue, her gentleness, her loving heart, her loyalty to her father and her barricade-lover, Marius. Heck, you’re probably supposed to love her just because you loved her mother, Fantine. But instead I found myself thinking: ‘What a sap. What is Marius thinking? He should totally go for Éponine instead.’

I wonder if this is because of all the YA novels I’ve read, or if it’s just the way my mind works. Maybe it’s because I always root for the underdog, so I’m always going to be in favour of the girl who loves in vain, the one who realises the man she adores will never love her back and who – in the end, admittedly, and almost too late – does the right thing and helps him find his true love. Éponine (at least, in the way she’s depicted in this movie) is a brave, resourceful, intelligent character. Despite the fact that she’s grown up with two immoral, thieving parents who can’t have given her a good background, she shows herself to have a kind and generous heart and a courageous spirit. She loves Marius, and has the power in her hand to keep him apart from her rival, Cosette – but she chooses to do the right thing in the end, and enable them to be together.

Cosette, on the other hand, is a much narrower character. She’s treated like a slave as a young child and dreams of escape. Rescued and cared for by Jean Valjean, she spends the rest of the story being cossetted (which makes me wonder if there’s a connection between that word and her name!) and looked after like she was a precious jewel, guarded both physically and in terms of her reputation. Her ‘father’ (Valjean) goes through a horrendous experience in order to ensure her beloved Marius survives the barricades, and Marius himself falls in love with her as soon as he sees her. The question in my mind as I watched the movie was ‘why?’ What was lovable about her? Why did everyone who met her feel the need to go to Hell and back for her?

I’m aware, of course, that the source novel was written at a time when a woman such as Cosette would have been prized as the highest and most admirable sort of woman – the quiet, sweet, virtuous, even-tempered, pure sort of woman. Éponine, the survivor on the streets, the woman who takes a bullet for the man she loves, the woman who joins the fight on the barricades, would not have been an admirable character at a time when women were prized for their gentility and loveliness. A woman like Éponine – ‘fallen’, sullied by life, stained by experience – could never be the symbol of hope and renewal that the pure, angelic Cosette was. It shows how times have changed, then, that Éponine’s the character who made the biggest impression on me – and, I’m sure, on most modern readers/audience members. It seems so unfair that the story ended up the way it did!

Have you seen the movie? Any thoughts?

I hope you had a great weekend, too. I’m still on a high after Friday’s good news, but also on tenterhooks waiting for the shortlist to be announced this Friday. Fingers crossed!