When Smart People Make a Boo Boo (#DistractinglySexy & Tim Hunt)

Generally speaking I think it’s a good rule of life to never engage with online debates, mostly because ‘debate’ usually means ‘people SHOUTING THEIR OPINION with NO INTENTION of EVER listening to OR learning from the other side(s).’

But  I must say I’ve enjoyed the #distractinglysexy hashtag.

For those of you who try not to listen to news about people being sexist: Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning science professor at University College London, recently told a conference that when one is working with female scientists, ‘three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.’ I’ve never worked in a lab, but apparently it’s just one of those things.

I suspect someone has had a few fleeting/wonderful/awkward workplace romances in his time. Which is okay. When you’re attracted to someone, they are incredibly distracting. If I did work in a lab and liked a colleague, I would have to transfer workspaces until they moved or it blew over, just in case I accidentally spill polonium on my shoes when they take their coat off. (That sentence in itself may be why I’ve never worked in a lab.)

So it’s okay, Tim Hunt. We get it. What we don’t get is a) why you are distracted by all the girls, b) why they cry why you criticise them (the best teachers do not criticise, they merely point out what we can improve), and c) whether or not your views have ever genuinely impacted someone’s career.

I’m really not that bothered about a 72-year-old thinking a certain way about a certain type of person, and he’s perfectly within his rights to say it – although he might not be all that smart if he thought it would be a good idea to be sexist in front of a room full of women. The only really worrying thing is that people with ignorant views, whether they’re sexist of racist or homophobic or whatever, are often in positions of power and responsibility – and not everyone can separate their personal views from their jobs. I’ve no idea if Tim Hunt was ever involved in allocating grants or awarding places, but some people are and it makes me want to petition a law preventing CVs from showing anything but skills.

Still, at least the people on Twitter are making light of it all.

Scoffed at the HeForShe Campaign? Right, Let’s Talk

If you haven’t seen it already, the next thing you should do today is watch the entirety of Emma Watson’s UN HeForShe speech. There has been a lot of news articles quoting it, but some of the most interesting parts weren’t cherry-picked as far as I remember, and watching and listening coveys her emotions a lot better than just reading:

Just to get it out of my system, let’s all take a moment to admire that intense outfit.

Okay, moment over.

By show of hands, who here considers themselves a feminist? Good for you. Who doesn’t, or didn’t before watching that video? That’s fine too, because Emma’s right (can I call her Emma? I always think anyone who works with or at the UN should be addressed more formally). Feminism has become a dirty word and synonymous with hating men, because it’s so easy for people to hate oppressors and turn to violence or extremism, which is of course the only aspect of any social movement that gets noticed by the general public.

When I was growing up, I thought vaguely that feminists didn’t shave their underarms, burnt their bras and hated their boyfriends. Thankfully I live in Britain in the 21st century, am moderately intelligent and have had access to education and evidence to the contrary. I now know that if someone doesn’t want to shave their underarms, likes to burn bras or hates their boyfriend, that’s their choice. None of the above are my gig, personally, but if I have a problem with a woman who does any of those things, it’s my problem. I can judge from afar, get grossed out or even ask them to explain their reasons but it’s not my place to tell them what to do. When I learnt the dictionary definition of feminism, I automatically knew I was one. Why wouldn’t I want the same rights as men?

From bbcone.tumblr.com
From bbcone.tumblr.com

Women who declared they didn’t “need” feminism upset me, because there really isn’t a country in the world where women have the same rights as men. When I was writing the ad that’s now on the sidebar for examples of indifferent ignorance, using “women who think we don’t need feminism” as an example was an obvious choice because one only needs to read about the girls raised as boys in Afghanistan or the women in India attacked for refusing a marriage proposal, or see the realities of gendered marketing, to understand that no one in this world is created equal.

The interesting thing is, I’ve never particularly not wanted to be a girl, because I like ‘girly’, things. I like to wear colourful dresses (they’re pretty) and a load of silver rings (they’re shiny), I like getting my hair done (it feels nice) and sitting around a table in cafes and restaurants, looking damn cute and chatting to people (I like people watching). But I live in a country where I’ll only be heckled or refused a job because of my gender. I won’t be forced into an awful marriage or refused education or abused; it’s not too dangerous for me to be myself.

That being said, I’m typing this wearing a three-day shirt and four-day jeans (I’m not going out), having only partially brushed my hair (I lost my favourite brush, and I’m not going out) and sitting in a room which really, really needs cleaning (cleaning is a lot of effort and it’s boring). I very rarely wear make-up because I’m highly affronted by the suggestion that I don’t already look perfect. I also grew up with a strong dislike of most beauty products, because they promised a different version of perfection, one that involved spending half an hour every morning painting my face. I’d rather be asleep, thanks.

Those traits are traditionally seen as ‘masculine’, or at the very least ‘not feminine’. My favourite example of society’s warped perception is my mother blaming my brother’s disgustingly messy room, refusal to put crockery in the dishwasher and inability to move his school or boxing bags from the hallway on the fact that “he’s a boy”. What, and the Y chromosome renders him incapable of clearing up after himself? He doesn’t do it because he knows my mum will do it, because she likes a tidy house and because she was raised in a society where women do the tidying. My brother’s not a bad person, and when he tidies he does it just as well as my mum – and probably far better than me, because I have the attention span of a gnat and always find something more interesting than housework.

But if my brother openly enjoyed dusting, or wearing lots of silver rings or colourful dresses, he would be abused heartily by his peers, our parents and the media. If I gave in to my desire to never vacuum again or started boxing or never replaced my hairbrush, I would be abused heartily by my peers, our parents and the media. That’s stupid enough, but what’s really strange is that I’ve never actually met a man who displays solely ‘masculine’ traits or a women who displays solely ‘feminine’ ones. I know girls who love make up and cooking but never clean. I know boys who like to keep their bedroom spotless and worship football. I know men who do the ironing and women who earn the most in the household. If straight couples have got any sense, they split the household chores and cleaning equally depending on each person’s strength. It works for gay couples, or the intelligent ones at least.

From moseisleywelcomingcommittee.tumblr

So I’ve given my two cents and now it’s time for you to. If you’re a bloke and you’ve got even the slightest inclination to agree with Emma or me or any of the feminists you know, you’ll sign up for HeForShe. If you already have or are a lady, you can email me your examples of inequality-based indifferent ignorance at transmissions@indifferentignorance.com. I’ll always change names and I might go off on a rant… I’ve collected a tonne of feminist/sexism/equality material to show you guys and I want to ask more questions about gender-based issues and social conventions.

What are your thoughts about HeForShe or any of the topics I’ve discussed? Leave a comment below or email me. If you’re happy for me to cite you in a blog post, contact transmissions@indifferentignorance.com; if you want things to stay private send them to tobequitefrank@indifferentignorance.com.

Slight Smugness and a Poster About Slugs and Snails

Today is the day I would have gone back to school were I still a student, and it felt really, really strange going about town seeing people in my old uniform trotting to and from that wonderful institution/seventh layer of hell. My feelings are kind of mixed about the whole thing; on the one hand, I’M FREEEEEEEEEEEE. On the other, I’m broke and spent a large portion of today ironing.

Still, in the spirit of change, I decided to try out WP’s new post editor. It’s clean and simple, which I like, but I also miss the insane intricacy of the old editor, which has about a billion links to click if you’re bored. Now I have to go on YouTube more than normal.

Okay let’s get down to business and learn how to upload images here:

SugarAndSpiceByFrancescaBurke SlugsAndSnailsByFrancescaBurkeWhat do you reckon? I had a bit of a moment when I was browsing Etsy and everything I saw seemed to be focussed around gender, especially gifts for babies – who, let’s face it, are not aware of their gender. So I came up with a couple of alternatives to those cutesy little nursery rhymes people like to sing!

They are available here as prints and here as downloads.

Excellent, the link button is the same. Hmm. Maybe I’ll flit between the two editors depending on my mood, like those rich ladies who go from a cafe to bar on a whim.

Bugger, I can’t find spellcheck.

Hughes Verses Plath: Fifty Years On

If I’m being honest, the title of this post sets it up to be far more intellectual and well-informed than it actually is. You’re reading said post, however, so my marketing ploy has worked and now all I need to do is actually discuss Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, fifty years on from Plath’s death.

Sort of.

See, I’ve only just started learning about the pair – Hughes because part of my English coursework requires knowledge of his Birthday Letters and Plath because reading Birthday Letters requires knowledge of her life. So I’m now going to attempt to advocate feminism while bitching about five generations’ worth of feminists.

Because I’ve always believed that feminism is all about fighting for women to have equal rights as men. Same wages, same legal entitlements, same car insurance and same chance of being offered a seat on a crowded bus.

It is not, as I’ve seen in my class’s Birthday Letters background research, blaming a man for his semi-estranged wife’s suicide and ripping both him and his work for shreds over it.

For those of you who clicked on this because you were on Twitter when it published and have very little idea what I’m talking about: in the late nineteen-fifties an English poet named Ted Hughes met and married an American poet named Sylvia Plath. They were very happy for a time and had two children, but the relationship suffered on account of a) two artists living in the same house, attempting to make art simultaneously, and b) Plath’s homesickness (they lived in England), depression and obsession with her dead father, for whom she may have had the Electra Complex. In 1962 Hughes left Plath for one of the married tenants of their London flat and on 11th February 1963 Plath locked herself in her kitchen, put her head in the oven and turned on the gas. Because they were still married at the time, Hughes inherited Plath’s estate and had control over the publication of her unfinished work. This made a lot of people, especially feminists, to whom Plath had become something of an icon, quite angry. They berated Hughes for both his Plath’s-work-publication decisions and his I-won’t-discuss-my-dead-wife-in-public decisions (this amplified when Assia, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, also committed suicide via gas oven, this time before ensuring small children were safe from the fumes; their daughter died too). Finally, in 1998, when Hughes knew he was terminally ill, he published Birthday Letters – a book of letter-like poems that mostly addressed Plath and alluded to her work and their lives together. This was seen by many readers to be Hughes’ ‘confession’, his version of their marriage and his part – if there was any – in her death.

Hughes and Plath. From 'The Times'
Hughes and Plath. From ‘The Times’

To be honest, I think it’s all bullshit. Not the feminism part. Not the poetry part (despite what my English teacher may tell you). But the part where generations of people think it’s okay to scrutinise someone’s private life, to probe into the untimely death of a young mother regardless of the feelings of her widower and their little children, and to pass judgement on the whole debacle.

Like I said, I may have a few of the facts back-to-front, since my class has done a whirlwind investigation into Plath’s life – and really we just focussed on what’s relevant in the poems we study in Birthday Letters. But I’m not sure if that’s the point. I think the point is that for some reason, the general public thinks that it has a right to know every single detail of a person’s life once the person has become well-known, died, or both. When they – we? – don’t. Not really. Maybe if details are in the public interest, like the Jimmy Savile scandal/investigations. If those details have been divulged by the famous person, then they are in the public domain and free speech entitles everyone to their discussion. So in many ways, we’re perfectly within our rights to talk about Hughes and Plath and their life together. If they didn’t want us to know, they wouldn’t have let their work be published. But that does not give people the right to vandalise Plath’s gravestone. It gives university professors the right to pen scathing reviews of Hughes’ work and to refuse to teach his poetry, sure – but to refuse to acknowledge that he was a good poet? I’m sorry, Mr. (or, I suspect,  ‘Ms.’ in these cases) University Lecturer, but you are no better than those bastards who didn’t want us to get the vote. I might have limited (seriously, seriously limited) understanding of what makes a poet good, great or terrible, but I like Hughes’ work. It’s lighter on the brain than Edward Thomas’ and mentally more colourful than Thomas Hardy’s, at any rate. I’ve not read much of Plath’s work, but when I have, I’ve had generally good impressions. I mean, art is subjective and really I’d like to study Storm… but at the end of the day, even the most ardent religious person can – or should – listen to Storm and admit that, despite its complete derision of all things religious, it’s a damn clever piece of beat poetry.

The same goes for the Hughes verses Plath debate. If you go into the Birthday Letters thinking Hughes a murderer and Plath a heroine, you’re automatically ruling out any enjoyment or learning of new ideas. You’re refusing to remember that there are always two sides to a story and you’re forgetting these are people too. They’re the same as the dude you passed walking down the street: complex, occasionally screwy and sometimes of questionable moral behaviour. They’re also artists, so they may be more screwy – at least more outwardly screwy – than non-artists… but at the end of the day, Hughes and Plath were two human beings. The only people who have the right to judge them are their families and God (unless you’re a Storm-esque person, in which case it’s up to their families).

And if you aren’t their families (or God) then I recommend that you sit back with a copy of their work, toast literary excellence and reflect upon the sadness of early death, wasted talent and grief.

Or you could write an essay comparing Hughes’ presentation of his memories of his late wife with Thomas Hardy’s, which is what I was supposed to start doing three hours ago…