It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

Subscribe to the Fashion Abecedaire newsletter

Twitter @FashionAbecedai

Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

With local and European elections just around the corner, this spring is a good time to revisit how many of us women, but also men, have enjoyed the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Ian Porter’s Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is a reminder that until 1918, non-propertied men, like the main character Alexander Nash, weren’t allowed to vote, and that until 1928, neither was any woman.

Porter packs a lot into the 374 pages of his second novel, including a lot I had never thought about: the Titanic as a defining moment of class identity, the difficulties of the shipwreck survivors, particularly the ones from steerage, and the specific struggles of disabled people who lived in the early 20th century, like “the cripple suffragette” Rosa May Billinghurst.

Although I like to think I am a feminist, Suffragette Autumn was a humbling read, highlighting how little I know about the suffrage movement. The gap in public knowledge about right to vote demonstrations is one of the reasons why Porter decided to write this book. “Before starting to research Suffragettes, I was shocked by how little I knew of them. And I was supposed to be a women’s early 20th century historian! If I knew so little, it was reasonable to think that most people were similarly ignorant,” explains Porter.

Looking into the topic, Porter discovered that his usual go-to places, like the local library, didn’t offer a single book about suffragettes. “TV, the great driver of public interest, has avoided the subject for the past 40 years. I suspect it’s because the women come out of the story well, whereas the government come out of it badly, but it could be argued that the women were terrorists. And in the troubled world we live in today, TV doesn’t want to show terrorists in a favourable light”, is how Porter explains the lack of knowledge in the movement.

With Abi Morgan’s upcoming film Suffragettes, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw, this might be about to change. At least, Porter hopes so: “I would imagine that with such a big star on board the film will receive a lot of publicity, so hopefully this will lead to plenty of interest from the public. Being a political issue, there is always both a right and left wing version of history, hopefully there will be plenty of debate and argument from women’s groups, historians, politicians, documentary-makers about women’s issues 100 years ago, how they relate to women’s issues of today and what we can learn from history, both regarding women’s issues and fights for a fairer society in general.”

The Pankhurst family, one of the driving forces behind the UK suffragist fight, appears in Suffragette Autumn, even though the storyline doesn’t centre on them. Ruby Martin, who survived the Titanic thanks to Nash, joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East End movement shortly after returning to England. She became an employee and was involved in high-profile publicity stunts such as the 18 April 2013 capture of London’s Monument and Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the June 1913 Epsom Derby.

Historians still disagree what Davison aimed to do when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse, was injured and subsequently died. Porter was careful not to take side.

A horseracing fan himself, Porter based his writing for the scene on two 1913 films: “The old theory that it was sheer chance that she happened to collide with the king’s horse is less persuasive. One thing is for certain, she did not ‘throw herself under the horse’ or ‘commit suicide’ as some people have believed over the years.” Based on the clearest of the two films, Porter thinks there is a possibility that “Emily did target the king’s horse and tried to place her Votes for Women scarf in its bridle. Her scarf was found on the turf afterwards. And having been to Epsom I can see how the incident was possible.”

Although a book about women’s right to vote, Suffragette Autumn isn’t a gendered story. Each chapter shows how much the suffragist movement was supported by men as much as women. Nash, who joins as Sylvia Pankhurst’s bodyguard, was modelled on “Kosher Bill, a Jewish 6-foot tall, ex-boxer”, explains Porter in his author’s notes. Ruby repeatedly notices that men make up the majority of attendees at suffragist public speeches. “Look at any old photograph of a Suffragette giving a speech, and all you can see is a group of men surrounding the woman. Working class women were too busy working 14 hours a day in a factory or sweatshop, or bringing up large families, to be at political speeches.”, Porter explains.

Obviously, the author himself is a man. “I have always had an affinity with the viewpoint of women and my main interest whilst studying history at university was women’s history, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps it’s because I am particularly interested in inequality and unfairness, and of course much of this has been aimed at women throughout history. I would like to think that I have approached the book as a novelist, a historian and a socialist, rather than as a man. Purely on a practical writing side, my wife was my editor, so if anything didn’t ring true to her, she would put me straight.”

Like Nash, Ruby is inspired by many real-life suffragettes, a storytelling device which allows her to be in multiple interesting places. Porter actually apologises to some of the suffragettes he replaced for the purpose of the plot, particularly to the memory of Mrs Watkins, who met with Prime Minister Asquith in Ruby’s stead to convince him to grant women the right to vote.

Constance Lytton, a real-life member of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union never mets Ruby, yet her activism is felt through one of the most harrowing scenes of the book. Jailed for partaking in suffragist demonstrations, Ruby start a hunger and thirst strike and ends up being force-fed. The torture, which was repeatedly used against suffragettes, as well as its effects, were described by Lytton in her memoirs Prison and Prisoners and was the basis for much of what Ruby undergoes in jail.

In memory of every single one of these women, and men, who gave time, money or even their life “to the cause”, go and vote on 22 May.

A complimentary copy of Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring was kindly provided to me by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Ian Porter on 1 March and 16 March 2014.

Posted at 5:51pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

Scene: A nondescript meeting room in a generic office. White walls, digital equipment, one sad potted plant, glaring electric lights, cups of coffee, a few biscuits.

Enter: a prospective supplier, represented by an all-white male team of presenters.

​As they start their pitch, introducing their company and the key stakeholders you would be interacting with, it becomes apparent that women and other minorities are something of an endangered, if not an extinct species, in their ranks. Or maybe they just haven’t discovered them yet.

You: are listening to the pitch and notice the imbalance. What do you do?

1) Have a Don Draper moment. What’s the problem honey? Ask these gentlemen how they’d like their coffee.

2) Despair but don’t show any outward emotion. This is what most meetings look like, this is the demographic of most existing providers. How will your protestations change anything?  

3) Challenge them during the Q&A at the end of the presentation. Do you employ any women or minorities? No, I didn’t mean your PA but that’s good to know. Next question.  

4) Talk to their bottom line. My company values diversity, real diversity, at all hierarchical levels, and I can’t imagine partnering with a provider, even a leader in its field, who doesn’t. (NB: Only works if your company actually values diversity. If everyone in the room is a white man, it will sound like a sick joke)

If you work in a corporate environment, chances are you’ve been in this meeting. How you react doesn’t just depend on your values and your beliefs, it also depends on your company and your standing within it.

I’ve been in this meeting and I have found that it is always easier to notice and shut up than protest, even during the closed door choice of supplier meeting that follows.  

As an underling, there to take notes, it’s probably better not to speak out of turn.

But if you are higher up in the hierarchy, and have a decisive voice in the suppliers you pick, not saying anything would be just as bad a choosing one job interview candidate based on nothing but race or gender.

The makeup of the panel you sit with - in majority male or female - is another variable. Picture the meeting, as an all male, one woman-audience. As this woman, even if you take issue with the absence of diversity, you probably won’t challenge it because your colleagues might not side with you, or it might start defining you. You don’t want to become known as the bitch around, still too common a problem in offices. Picture the same meeting, with only women in attendance. If you are one of this women, you are more likely to find echoing arguments, or at least sympathy, around the table, and therefore more likely to protest.

This is common day sexism and racism. Whether you are sitting in this meeting not seeing issues, whether I am sitting in this meeting and shutting up, whether you are the supplier who thinks it’s ok to have an homogeneous workforce or the company who doesn’t make its employees comfortable about speaking up in such situations, we are part of why there is still a 15,7% wage gap between men and women, and why people of colour earn less on average than white people. Isn’t it time we start protesting?

 

Posted at 7:31am and tagged with: feminism, work,.

In 2012, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women. To get women’s voices read and recognised, the literary world needs companies like Linen Press, the independent publisher set up by Lynn Michell to champion “great writing, by women. For women”.

Going against the current trend in mainstream publishing, Linen Press never prints the pastel, lipstick-illustrated covers too often associated with and “for women”. Rather, Michell picks manuscripts which are “tough, honest, relevant and brave enough to take a broad look at the world and women’s place in it”.

Enticed by the company tagline, I interviewed Linen Press founder and writer Michell and her team to learn more about the ethos and the concept behind the publishing house.

Michell got the idea for Linen Press after a serious and sudden illness cut her career in academia short. Having always enjoyed writing and editing, in addition to lecturing English and psychology and her anthropology research, she started a creative writing class in Edinburgh, where she realised working with writers was her true calling. Setting up her own publishing house was the natural next step.

Naming the company Linen Press was the first homage to women. “I was thinking of traditional female activities and came up with fabric, texture, washing, ironing, folding, washing on the line drying,” Michell remembers. “In Edinburgh’s Victorian terraces and houses, there are very shallow cupboards called ‘a press’ which are fairly useless except with the doors removed for bookshelves, so I was playing with the words Linen Press - a shelf or cupboard where Linen is folded and stored. The phrase ‘The story unfolds’ came next. And finally my name is Lynn. Blend ‘lynn’ with ‘women’ and you get Linen.”

2013 was a successful year for Linen Press with the publication of two well-reviewed books: Sailing through Byzantium by experimental novelist Maureen Freely and Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night by Michell and Stefan Gregory.

Although Michell is mum on her plans for 2014, she reveals the company is hoping “for a Booker long-listing”.

Linen Press isn’t just a place for great writing: the company takes its championing of women’s rights in every domain very seriously. Last April, it started backing the One Billion Rising campaign, which demands an end to violence against women and girls, by giving £1 from the sale of each Hema Macherla novel to the cause.

The author’s stories are the perfect fit for the campaign. “My Indian author Hema Macherla writes about taboo subjects like abuse in arranged marriages, the plight of child widows and fallen women, and the practice of suttee. Her approach is subtle and she is a born story-teller; her personal campaign is to write novels that tell the truth about women in India while pulling you into a page turner”, Michell tells me.

Raising awareness of women’s condition around the world isn’t limited to donating money. On its social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Linen Press shares links and insights directly related to the books and memoirs it publishes. “For those unfamiliar with Linen Press and its ethos, the social media networks are often a good introduction to what we are about”, Michell explains.

Followers can also click on general links about women and the literary world. Recent shares include a first person account by published novelist MM Finck of how she struggled to recognise the writer within herself and a New York Times op-ed by Amy Wallace about life as a female journalist. In other words, if you are a woman writer, or just interested in writing and or women’s rights, the Linen Press social media platforms are a good source of information.

This strategy is all part of Michell’s attempt to change the literary industry from within. “Women writers struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of publishing which gives many more prizes to and reviews to male authors and often doesn’t include women on the shortlists for the glittering prizes. Linen Press regards the publishing industry as a only-just-ajar door to women writers and our mission is to help redress the balance.”

Much of the social media content is run by female interns. How does she reconcile championing women and employing interns, a hot topic in the news for its unfairness and its favouring of the most privileged? For Michell, It’s all about making sure the interns get actual experience under her mentorship and leave Linen Press equipped with all the skills they need to secure that hard-to-get first job in publishing.

Interns also play a key role in responding to the numerous submissions Linen Press receives. Michell trains them personally to make sure they, as well as the manuscript writer, get the best possible skills out of the experience. “When I take on a new intern, I work with her on a batch of submissions, checking her comments and criticisms, and asking her why she would accept or reject a piece. Most can do this pretty well, but they need to witness the very high standard of writing I expect”.

Michell has some advice if you are a female writer after that all-important acceptance letter from a publisher.

First, study the company website and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Linen Press for instance is “looking for literary and top end contemporary fiction”. If your thing is illustrated stories or science fiction, your submission will be automatically rejected.

Secondly, “write about something that has truly moved you, changed you, or made you stop in your tracks to think and reflect, then make sure you have transposed that experience into fiction or memoir”.

Lastly, polish up your narrative voice. “I want to hear a strong, singing narrative voice that sucks me in and doesn’t let me go. That’s a lot to ask.”

Disclaimer: Linen Press has kindly provided me with copies of Sailing through Byzantium and The Making of Her for review.

Posted at 7:43pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

I didn’t go to see A Mighty Heart when it came out in 2007 because I didn’t think I could stomach it. I had a vague memory of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel “Danny” Pearl being kidnapped and beheaded by Pakistani terrorists in 2002, and I couldn’t face seeing it on the screen. 

A few years later, browsing an Oxfam bookshop, I found Mariane Pearl's memoirs of the time, A Mighty Heart - The brave life and death of my husband Daniel Pearl. In it, Pearl writes of her month-long search for her husband and remembers his life and their love. She portrays Daniel as a journalist in constant search for the Truth, a man determined to promote tolerance and understanding between peoples. 

Many in Pearl’s position would have broken down. Her husband had just been captured, she was heavily pregnant and in a foreign country. Nobody would have judged her for it. Instead, Pearl fought to find Danny. Rather than asking the people around her to take care of her, she took care of them. She inspired them and she gave them the hope and the will to keep searching, even when events took a turn for the desperate. In the film adaptation, where she is played by Angelina Jolie, the Captain leading the Pakistani side of the inquiry tells her that everybody in their party but her can break down. 

Pearl impressed people beyond her close circle from the day her husband was kidnapped. Expected to cry on national TV when calling for his safe return, she moved viewers by her calm demeanour. From the start, Pearl decided that not being terrorised would be the best revenge against terrorists. It was a conscious choice. “I had a very intimate understanding of what the purpose of the killers was and also what the purpose of terrorism was and I had to make a decision on how to I react to this”, she explained to Global Perspectives ten years after Danny’s death. 

Her whole journey has been about refusing the hatred promoted by terrorists. Pearl’s inspirational attitude and beautiful, clear writing makes A Mighty Heart as difficult to read as it is to put down. It is impossible not to feel that you want to delay the heartbreak that you know is at the end. It is one of the best first person accounts on terrorism, demonstrating a clear understanding of the forces at play.

Part-biography, part-autobiography, A Mighty Heart is a myth buster. It shows Pakistan not just as the corrupt, terrorist-welcoming dictatorship we hear about, including in Bernard Henry Lévy’s thriller-like account of his inquiry into Daniel’s murder, Who killed Daniel Pearl?, but rather as a country filled with people determined to do the right thing and go beyond prejudices. 

The Pearls were true global citizens. I usually hate the phrase because it reminds of a number of dreadlocked white men I went to the LSE with (as did Omar Sheikh, the man who organised Pearl’s kidnapping, possibly his killing, and might have played a key role in 9/11) who went from the fight for global justice to investment banking in the space of one graduation day. The Pearls had values, and they stuck with them no matter what.

Danny’s writings for the Wall Street Journal, collected in 2002 in the anthology At Home in the World, offer unexpected takes on foreign affairs. In June 2000, he discussed the evolution of Iranian politics, through the hard-liners’ revival of pop music (Danny loved music). His May 1992 feature ‘To be a black cop can mean walking a very fine line’ isn’t just a piece about Tyrone B. Powell, an Atlanta policeman thrown into race politics by the Rodney King verdict, it’s a feature on racial problems in America which still rings too true over 20 years later. Since her husband’s death, Pearl has continued to uphold with their shared philosophy and values. 

When you go down the Mariane Pearl rabbit hole on Google, you find nothing but positive articles, tribute to her desire to change the world, one small action at a time. Pearl turned her grief and her experience into a chance to further what she had started as a French journalist and what Danny believed in. For most women I admire, looking long enough, I eventually find a liberal columnist criticising her actions, a conservative one doubting her motives. Pearl, on the other hand, seems to spark off nothing but unanimous admiration. 

Over the past 11 years, she has been active in the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organisation set up by his family “to continue Danny’s mission and to address the root causes of this tragedy, in the spirit, style, and principles that shaped Danny’s work and character”. Recent initiatives include fellowships bringing journalists from the Middle East and South Asia to work in mainstream American newsrooms and Daniel Pearl Youth News, a free online certificate courses for young people wishing to become journalists. The only requirement is that they write about tolerance. 

In May 2010, Pearl was in the Oval Office, alongside their son Adam, when President Obama signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act that demands the Department of State identifies in its yearly human rights report the countries where freedom of press is threatened. She’s also been an advocate of stronger security measures and training for journalists posted abroad. 

Pearl has written of her experience and why she feels justice shouldn’t be taken in one’s own hands for the Forgiveness project. In 2007, she published In search of hope, the global diaries of Mariane Pearl, a collection of her writings for Glamour magazine where she highlights global problems by featuring women who fight to solve them every day, rather than writing pity accounts. Reading through each interview, you quickly realise there is a feeling of kinship between Pearl and her interviewees, not because they both have vaginas but because they both undertake to change things, rather than moan about them. 

More recently, Pearl has become managing editor for Gucci’s Chime for Change, a foundation dedicated to the empowerment of women across the globe. In an interview with The Independent ahead of the Chime for Change London concert, Pearl declared that she was focusing on women because “they offer more hope for the future”.

I tend to be cynical about any global company setting up a charity organisations since they too often are little more than marketing ploys and a way to buy a conscience. Pearl’s seal of approval however, makes me believe in the project, that it does have the will to truly change things.

For years, any introduction of Mariane Pearl started with some form of “the widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl”. She’s told the story of her husband’s imprisonment and how she reacted to it thousands of times. Saying that hardship can be an opportunity is a cliché but it’s been true of Pearl who’s had the courage and willpower to turn a horrific experience into a chance for the whole world. 

Posted at 5:44am and tagged with: mariane pearl, role model, feminism,.

Paperchase is leaning in

Seventy-one percent of Millennial women might have ambitions other than leadership but if Paperchase, the British high-street stationery chain has its way, these aspirations will change for the next generation.

For its 2013 Back to School promotion, Paperchase devised an advertising campaign featuring a little boy wanting to be a rocket scientist…and a little girl wanting to be a chief executive. Are nurses and teachers not selling to girls and their parents anymore? Or is the chain really trying for fairer advertising?

Says a Paperchase spokesperson: “We wanted to steer away from the preconceived ideas of what girls and boys want to be when they leave school, plus they make you smile.”

The concept for this gender-balanced ad was created in house by the company’s own team of designers. They were aiming to continue Paperchase’s tradition of unexpected Back to School advertising which has previously included a play on words and visuals with a vintage or tropical feed. 

The ads will be on display in Paperchase windows across the UK until the first week of September. Let’s hope they encourage girls to shoot higher and other brands to imitate them. 

Posted at 8:13am and tagged with: feminism, advertising,.

image

Audrey Hepburn is covering Vanity Fair this month, a few months after she covered Tatler. She’s also been the face of GAP and Galaxy. That’s a lot more covers and campaigns than many actresses alive get. 

Hepburn was an amazing actress, a dedicated humanitarian and, as a person who went from nearly starving during World War II to the heights of Hollywood, an inspirational tale of where hard work and resilience can lead. 

"Sometimes I ask myself, "How would Audrey Hepburn handle this?"" (Henceforth to be shortened to The Question), Natalie Massenet admitted to Hester Lacey (Financial Times) when asked, ”Who was or still is your mentor?” for The Inventory’s question last May. 

Who hasn’t asked The Question? When faced with a difficult situation or wondering how to improve our selves, we often look to people we admire, questioning how they would handle things.

The Question has given birth to a juicy business exemplified by Pamela Keogh’s book What Would Audrey Do?: Timeless Lessons for Living with Grace & Style, a part biography, part rule book suggesting following Hepburn’s attitude can better your own life. The Question even has its own Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest profiles that offer Hepburn’s "best quotes, photos, fashion tips and everything else you need to know to live a fabulous life". They are part of a marketing campaign by an author writing a teen book on Hepburn. Who cares whether Hepburn would actually have been a social media user (Keogh suggests not)?

When do you stop asking The Question? If Massenet “the founder of Net-A-Porter, the hugely successful luxury fashion retail website”, with style credentials equal to Hepburn’s and a vision and achievements spanning technology and fashion, is any indication, never.

In fact, Massenet’s career makes her the perfect subject for The Question. “What would Natalie Massenet do?” many professionals wonder. I most certainly do, alongside its sister questions focused on Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde, Coco Chanel, Sheryl Sandberg, my friend Stacy, some of the very impressive women I have the chance to work with, C.J. Cregg and Scarlett O’Hara. They’re fictional? Does it matter? The Question is purely theoretical. We build an answer based on the skewed understanding of a character, of her public achievements and image. This is not really about how she would handle it, it’s more about how she would appear to handle it.

Raising The Question to people I am close to has taught me that answering it is hazardous at best. On more than one occasion, when discussing a particular situation, I realised they didn’t have an answer any more than I did and that their way wouldn’t necessarily work for me. Not that it’s stopped me.

The Question is more about working out an answer by trying to glimpse alternatives through another personality, about getting advice, even if it’s fictional, and about being comforted in one’s position. I have multiple versions of The Question because each person can bring the answer I need most, which can often be translated as the answer which comforts me in my way.

Depending on my Monday morning mood, I can look up to Anna Wintour, famous for getting up at 5am to play tennis or to Audrey Hepburn, who according to Keogh, stopped exercising. And it doesn’t matter that picking the role model most practical for me at this time defeats the purpose of choosing a role model in the first place. 

In the Vanity Fair feature on Hepburn, her son’s new book on her time in Rome is anecdotal. What the media have picked up on is that she “never thought she was beautiful”. 

That’s the thing about The Question. We like looking up to these people for inspiration, but we also like knowing that role models have the same doubts and feeling as us, that they’re human. Because if despite all these doubts, they achieved what they achieved, why wouldn’t we manage to? 

Posted at 11:35am and tagged with: net-a-porter, feminism, career,.

I was late to the Millennium party, only reading Lisbeth Salander’s story in March. This is not something you can accuse UK crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw of. His biography of Swedish author Stieg Larsson displays all the characteristics of a book written and edited too quickly to make the most of a new phenomenon, or a current affairs event: the editing is uneven (people called alternatively by their first and last names is a particular pet peeve of mine), it contains too many repetition easily mistakable for page fillers (I understood Larsson’s death was accidental, despite the conspiracy theories, the first three times, ta very much) and it displays a botch structure.

The Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) is at the heart of the biography. In his introduction, Forshaw argues Larsson’s “biography is, to some extent, to be found in his books”, promising to discuss both the novels faults and felicities (his words). Yet he falls short of either, drawing parallels anyone with an Internet connection or a Psychology magazine subscription could have done: there is a lot of Larsson’s personality in Mikael Blomkvist, from his journalism job, engaged magazine ownership and disregard for his health to his wishful realisation of all women falling for him. Forshaw’s 152 pages long summary of the books won’t teach you anything if you’ve already read them (A few factual errors even found their way into the paraphrasing) and will either be lost on you or reveal too much if you haven’t. It displays few qualities of literary criticism, beyond regretting Larsson’s editing wasn’t tighter and remarking on his ability to keep the reader interested, after testing him with lengthy information, in a move Forshaw compares with Marcel Proust Swan’s Way. Forshaw’s biography could be put down to commercial accumen, intellectual curiosity, admiration or hatred of Larsson’s writing yet his summary, for all its flaws, is balanced, suggesting the Millennium description of sex and violence owes more to commercial imperatives and voyeuristic vibe than to narrative necessity.

The book really comes together in its seventh chapter, when Forshaw, making the most of his literary expertise and contacts interviews the best contemporary crime writers on their views on Larsson. The consensus is that the third book is the worse one, prompting questions on his ability to maintain momentum, that his untimely death added mystic to his books, that they sold well in the UK because the atmosphere is GB-grim and that his journalism and knowledge of the far right was laudable. Sadly, and rather lazily, all interviews are presented as lengthy quotes after an introduction of each writer’s crime credentials, leading to repetitions. These literary opinions would have been stronger split out by theme, for instance focusing on Larsson’s legacy (this was a trilogy with an agenda, has it changed anything in Swedish society?), his place amongst other crime writers, Nordic or else (chapter 6 lists biographies of the best Scandinavian crime writers without establishing links with Larsson) and the feminist aspect of his writing. This last point could have benefited from interviews with feminist thinkers, academics and campaigners.

The lack of original material is this biography’s biggest flaw. Beside the authors quoted in chapter 7, hindsight from Larsson’s international editors and translators on how they discovered the books and translated them, there is a lack of anecdotes on Larsson’s life beyond the usual chain-smoking, workaholic, far-right fighting journalist he’s known to be. Perhaps thanks to this reporting, Forshaw manages not to overtly take side for or against his character, reporting on facts such as his rumoured estrangement from his family and the controversy over his authorship of Millennium without delving in or bringing new material.

Forshaw’s crime credentials, expertise, knowledge and bibliography made him the perfect British writer to tackle Larsson’s life and writings. Yet, getting his biography out first only managed to highlight the holes in our knowledge of Larsson’s life, our understanding of his personality and the lack of proper study carried out on his fiction oeuvre so far.
Barry Forshaw, The Man Who Left Too Soon: the Biography of Stieg Larsson (John Blake, 2010)

Posted at 7:58pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

If Coco Chanel was still alive today, we’d have to call her Madame Chanel. Or at least French red tape would. After years of debate and lobbying from feminist associations, the French government signaled the end of the Mademoiselle box in all, but not beyond, administrative paperwork, effective immediately, as per Circulaire 5575/SG published by the Premier Ministre’s office 21 February. Mademoiselle was used for any unmarried French woman, no matter her age. The Prime Minister called it “a term referring, without necessity or justification, to the female marital status”(1).

Upon learning the change, Fashion Carrousel cried “non mais j’y tiens à mon mademoiselle !” (“But I do like my Mademoiselle”). She’s not the only one. In left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Obs, Lydia Guirous, founder of Future, au Féminin, a feminist association fighting against the Americanisation of French feminism,  denounced the move as “Tupperware feminism”(2), mentioning the “many women happy to be called Mademoiselle”(3).

Differentiating married women from unmarried women, without inflicting the same to men, was an administrative throw back to yesteryear, when women were defined by their marital status. Although an improvement, the decision, which had long been supported by feminist associations Osez le Féminisme! and Les Chiennes de Garde is little more than a symbolic gesture announced in time for the April presidential elections. Lacking support from the bodies guardian of the French language, such as the Académie Française, the circular is unlikely to start a radical mentality change.

Although inequalities need to be made right, one at a time, some matter more than others. Suppressing Mademoiselle from official forms is lobbying procrastination: doing the small tasks first because you feel a sense of achievement while dreading and postponing the ones which really need your attention.

(1) Circulaire n° 5575/SG du 21 février 2012 relative à la suppression des termes ‘Mademoiselle’, ‘nom de jeune fille’, ‘nom patronymique’, ‘nom d’épouse’ et ‘nom d’époux’ des formulaires et correspondances des administrations, Translation my own

(2)(3) Lydia Guirous, “Campagne féministe : je me rejouis que l’on m’appelle mademoiselle" 10 January 2011, Nouvelobs.com

Posted at 6:24pm and tagged with: feminism, france, chanel,.

Each year, 25 November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women, as designated in 1999 by the United Nations General Assembly. Over a decade later, in 2010, the French government decided to set up, on that same day, a Journée Nationale contre les Violences Faites aux Femmes. In France, 25 November also happens to be la sainte Catherine, commemorating St. Catherine of Alexandria, the third century Catholic noblewoman beheaded for her talent for converting people close to Emperor Maximinus, including his wife. This day is also the occasion to remind any unmarried 25-year-old she is unmarried and should pray to the saint to be given a husband, lest she becomes a spinster. The custom, which includes the gift of a silly hat, has somewhat died down since marriage is about as popular in France as anywhere in the Northern hemisphere but some companies still organise ceremonies where single women pose for posterity and the local newspaper in their hats. Without diminishing the horror of being beaten up by comparing it to the teasing received for being 25 and single, since men do not entertain a similar holiday, I consider the double standard an institutionalised form of bullying and a most unfortunate calendar superimposition.

Previously: Single and 25? Get a Hat.

Photo: France, Auvergne, Moulins-sur-Allier (03) : Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, XVe. : Sainte Catherine, vitrail; Flickr user Vincent Desjardins

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: france, feminism,.

With the UK broadcast of American TV series Pan Am (which I highly recommend), there’s been a lot of talk about how, back in the days, flights attendants had to wear a girdle, make-up and meet an airline-approved weight. Not-too-surprising horror stories have started circulating about sexual harassment by passengers and the importance given to look on the job, somewhat reminiscent of American Apparel and Abercrombie and Fitch HR policies.

Anyone having flown recently might tell you that, thankfully, not all flight attendants are models anymore, to the extent that some passengers complain about the lack of obvious beauty routine and scruffiness of stewardesses. British Airways however still fantasises over its employees upholding current Western, unrealistic standards of beauty as well as ensuring passengers well-being and security. Proof is, the current in-flight security video which displays a female flight attendant (never mind many in the profession are now men) teetering around the airport in heels with a waist so tiny and legs so long they would make Barbie jealous.

Posted at 10:01am and tagged with: TV series, feminism,.