Friday, 5 October 2012

But Is It News?

I often wonder: how much of news is actually news, and how much of it is nosiness? A big serving of salacious detail to feed our bawdy curiosity? So long have I pondered this, that this post has been mentally written for a long time. After this morning's appalling journalism practices by Kay Burley on SkyNews, I decided it was time I got around to putting it into words.

In the heartbreaking hunt for a missing 5 year-old, Sky News reporter Kay Burley approached two members of a local search party. Realising these weary volunteers were unaware of the latest developments of the investigation, she revealed to them, live on air, that it had now been escalated to a murder case. It was the verbal equivalent of prodding a maimed animal to hear a yelp. As one of the women broke down sobbing and the other looked distraught, she waited for a moment, then thrust the microphone at them and asked them, “How are you feeling?”

The complaints are coming in thick and fast.

At what point did provoking an emotional response from someone become news? We can already assume neighbours and friends searching for a missing child will be upset to hear that the worst has happened. These are people who want to hold out hope. We've all got some degree of imagination: we don't need to kick people when they're down in order to confirm they're hurting as much as we think they are. Is this news? 

In that vein, I also think of zoomed-in images of Michael Jackson's corpse on a trolley, or Amy Winehouse wheeled out of her home. We've come to expect a fully-rounded novel of a news story. Character profiles, emotional narratives, twists, and gore. But there's news, and then there's nosy detail. It's this idea of "need to know", when we really don't. We've reached the stage where the nightly news is treated like some sort of episode of CSI: Miami – real people, suffering real heartbreak are suddenly characters in a live show, unveiled and revealed before us. We want it all. We are used to having our morbid curiosity quenched.

It's the same curiosity that leads us to believe that what goes on in the private lives of famous people is valid news. Take the recent cases of the semi-naked royals. Prince Harry caught on a camera phone, frolicking around his hotel suite in the buff, on a lads' night out. The Duchess of Cambridge photographed sunbathing topless, on a balcony of a secluded property. These photos are then published by a few sad editors under the disclaimer “It's in the public interest”. No it's not in the public interest. It's in the interest of nosy parkers and perverts. If you cater to them it's not because they need to know, it's because these people are hungry for gossip. We're so curious about other people's lives that we ignore any moral boundaries we might have, and feed off this sort of imagery and information. 

Think about the situation with photos of Kate. A man climbed up on a ladder and used a long range lens to take photos of a woman's breasts on a private, discreet property. If this happened to a non-famous person, that man would have been arrested. Just saying.

I believe it's the same hungry curiosity that drives news reporting such as Burley's emotional baiting this morning. I can imagine news producers calling in for a scoop, saying “find out whatever you can, get a story”. Hell, surely the story of the missing child, a massive search party and a suspect arrested is story enough?

So my question to you is – what is news, and what is just nosiness? I hope we can all wake up to the vast difference, between “need to know”, and “want to know”.

And if you want to know, please ask yourself why.

Friday, 7 September 2012

What Women Deal With

An incident happened a couple of months back which I considered blogging about, but instead decided to let it go. That is, until a friend shared someone else's story with me - one that made me realise this is happening all the time, and that perhaps more of us need to share our stories.

This blogger told a tale of regular harassment on LA public transport - hassled for no other reason than because she is female, and alone. At the time of my own incident I shared what had happened on Twitter, and received stories from other women of similar incidents. This public harassment happens regularly, globally, in different settings... but the one constant is that the victim is a female on her own.

It's not a case of a lone female in a dark alley being physically attacked - this is a different kind of assault. It's psychological. It's power play. It works to make a woman feel small, powerless, ashamed.
And for what?

A couple of months back I was walking down the Strand after work, heading to get an eye test. It was a sunny evening and the Strand was packed, but I quickly realised a man was walking a little too closely behind me. There are things which, as a woman, I am always in tune to: I am aware of my personal space, and when it is being breached. The man started muttering things into my ear as we walked, making kissing noises and murmuring "Ooh baby, I like it, keep walking like that", and other, suggestive things. These were said quietly - but so that I could hear them. Being in broad daylight I was feeling particularly bold and thought nothing of spinning around and confronting him. "Excuse me? What did you just say to me?"

Without hesitation or thought he immediately leaned right into my face, and screamed, in a threatening manner, "I wasn't talking to YOU, you ugly bitch! What an ugly bitch! Get out of my face!" Boom. Suddenly he was turning this around, and making it my fault.

The man was shorter, and a little younger, than me, but his body language was aggressive. I looked him up and down, and said "What a disgusting little man", then turned and walked on quickly, inwardly shaken, but trying with all my might to project body language which said I wasn't bothered by such nonsense.

The man, however, followed me down the street, calling for people to take note of me, shouting obscene things about me to everyone else in the street - things of a very sexual nature, peppered with how disgusting and ugly I was. Eventually I stepped into opticians where I was due for my eye test, and the man stood in the doorway, where he shouted, with the full force of his body, "UGLY BITCH!". Then he stormed off down the street. The staff in the shop all looked at me, but nobody asked if I was alright. I smiled wanely, and shrugged, as if I had no idea what that was about. To be honest, I really didn't.

I sat through my eye test in a blur; robotic, trying not to let any of what had just happened get under my skin. None of what this guy said bothered me - he was just using cruel words as a weapon - it was the attack itself that left me shaken. An unpredictable and aggressive person had just made me feel unsafe. Vulnerable in a crowd. It is not a nice feeling. And I did not deserve it. For the next hour or so I kept looking over my shoulder, in case he had waited around to follow me.

It's not fair that this should happen to anyone, to any woman, and yet it clearly happens far too often. I don't regret confronting this guy, but it is sad that my options were to listen to his sexual ideas, or face a verbal attack. Next time you see something like this happening, please don't pretend you don't see it. Men like this need to be brought down, and put back in their place. This is not our fault.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Uncommon Sense

All sorts of good things die out over time. Rainforests... elephants... the art of written correspondence... And, to this endangered species list we can now add one more creature. Increasingly elusive but once so valued, we need to protect this rare vestige of our natural world.

Common sense.

Ah yes, common sense. Native intelligence killed off by our increasing reliance on instruction, legislation, signs, labels, and other people to take responsibility for that which we are responsible for. This is a world where we blame anyone but ourselves when things go wrong. How did we get here?

Perhaps in some ways we've let emotion make us exempt from being responsible. Because bad things happen. Sometimes terrible, tragic things. And when they do, it helps if there is somewhere to point our anger, and on which to focus our grief. These emotions can be so overwhelming that we will naturally look for a way to shift the weight of it.

So we shout at companies and demand more warnings on things. This is despite the fact that you can have all the warnings in the world and bad things will still happen.

The truth is, the more we expect warnings and come to rely on them, the more danger we put ourselves in, because we will simply charge on ahead unless someone dangles a warning under our noses.

Our reliance on warnings is killing us.

Recently a New Zealand mother of eight died after excessive Coca Cola consumption. She would drink up to 10 litres of soft drink day. Her partner said "I never thought about it. It's just a soft-drink, just like drinking water." Her family says that nobody knew the dangers of drinking this much coke because the product didn't come with a warning. Coca Cola doesn't provide a caution label against binge consumption but their bottles do offer a list of ingredients. It's more than just water. "I never thought about it" says it all. 

So would a warning on the bottle really have been the answer, when this is a simple lack of common sense? After all, this woman was also a heavy smoker - a product which comes with a very obvious warning indeed. Warnings do not stop us making poor decisions. The sad thing is, this woman's body had given her warning signs but for some reason a label from a soft drink company is the only one worth listening to.

Being aware of what you are putting into your body – especially in such extraordinary quantities – is the responsibility of every adult individual. We have to stop relying on food companies to tell us what to eat and how to eat it. Chugging back fizzy drink until a company tells us to stop is not the way to go. We have enough intelligence and information at our disposal to be informed about what we eat. We have a choice.

The same goes for the risks we take. For instance, there was a case of a teenage girl who got tipsy at a house party and jumped into the shallow end of the swimming pool at the house. She hit her head and is now, sadly, confined to a wheelchair. A simple case of foolish decisions resulting in a tragic lesson, right?

This young woman didn't seem to think so. Instead she sued the family who owned the pool for not putting up... you guessed it... more warning notices. The young woman lost her case because she was entirely responsible for her own actions. I can appreciate it would have been much easier to point the finger than face the fact that she had caused her own suffering. It's hard to face sometimes, but we are in control of what we do.

With all the finger pointing going on these days, are we really letting other people and organisations run our lives? Are we actually handing over responsibility for the decisions we make to someone else? Why are we not able to stand up and say "I know what I am doing"? Surely it is a liberating thing to own our actions. At the end of the day there should be no one else to blame.

Let's please revive common sense and stop waiting for someone else to tell us how to live.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

How Can We Still Be Fighting This?

It seems feminism still has a long way to go. Lately I've seen so many instances of this that my blog seems to be about little else! This is not a feminism blog! But I can't just sit back and pretend we're not still living in an old-fashioned, chauvinist society. (Who can forget the "nice guy" on Twitter who believes that a woman owes sex to her partner even if she doesn't feel like doing it?) Certainly the same old argument about rape continues to rage – how is it that we're still having to clarify the meaning of rape, in this day and age? How are people not getting this?

Right now Indonesia is developing anti-pornography laws, the implementation of which is so misguided. Offensive criteria includes the wearing of short skirts; this means women who wear mini skirts will find themselves in trouble with the law. Why? Because (and I quote):
"There have been a lot of rape cases and other immoral acts recently and this is because women aren't wearing appropriate clothes". Who said this exactly? Indonesia's parliamentary speaker. Seriously. He then went on to say:
"You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things."

Good grief. Let's read that sentence again:
“You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things”.
Hang on... who is being cited as the cause of rape here? Who is getting the blame? Who is finding themselves facing restrictions on their rights? Men? Or Women?

When will the world stop defining rape as a natural, uncontrollable response to a woman's attire? What is wrong with these men who cannot help themselves? Why is it always the victim who gets blamed for "causing" rape?

The only person who causes rape is the person doing the raping. It's pretty freakin' straightforward yet I can't believe how many heated discussions I've had with people about this issue; people who certainly agree rape is bad, but think if women dress provocatively, they should expect reactions. I'm not going to argue with that fact per se. Personally I'd never go out in a mini skirt or a barely-there top but if I decided to do so, then yes, I would anticipate some people thinking certain things about me. But lewd thoughts are one thing – lewd actions are quite another. While “provocative clothing” might create a reaction, nobody has the right to force someone to have sex, or to do anything they don't want to do.

Others will argue that sometimes a woman will lead a man on, act like a tease, and then - when they get themselves into a compromising position - decline sex. I'm not going to disagree that this happens. Women have a right to decline. And yes, some women might behave like a big ol' tease and that must be frustrating. But that still does not give anyone the right to force someone to have sex, or to do anything they don't want to do. What is the MATTER with a man that feels a woman owes him something because she's turned him on? You can dislike a girl for leading you on; that's your prerogative. But if you think that's ok for you to force sex out of her, and you do so, then guess what - you're a rapist.

Yes, women have to take responsibility for themselves. As do men. For goodness sake, that's a given for all of us as human beings. But let me make this clear. Women do not have a responsibility to not get raped. The whole idea that women can prevent this from happening is so badly blinkered it's ridiculous. Women don't have control over rape. It is the rapist who has the control. And hell, I know so many men out there who will be appalled to think some of their fellow males are not responsible enough to wait for a woman's consent.

Whatever the circumstances, if you don't have consent, it's rape. It should be plain and simple. It IS plain and simple. So why are women still being targeted as the source of rape, rather than the rapists? Are we still going to be arguing about this ten years from now? Because it seems we've still got a long way to go.  

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Active Woman

Recently, Linda Grant and Dawn Foster collected a staggering number of stories on Twitter, revealing first-hand sexism by women across generations. It seems some of the attitudes bandied about decades ago are still alive and well today. Women still get asked about their relationship status in job interviews, and get harassed on the street. It makes for incredible reading. And it got me thinking about my own experiences with sexism and gender belittling.

I realised that most of mine seemed to revolve around the same topic. Sports retail.

Back in December 2007 my boyfriend at the time was buying me a new pair of hiking boots for Christmas. So, into Snow & Rock we went. The young salesman was like an eager dog running circles around my boyfriend; bursting with chummy trekking tales and stories of bravado. Me, I might as well have been invisible. Nevertheless, I got on with the task at hand: trying boots on. Then, the sales guy squatted, pressed down on the toe of the boots currently still on my feet, and turned to speak to my boyfriend.
“Make sure you check they don't rub at the toe. Women never check these things but mate, don't they love to whine about it!”
I never said anything - except to my boyfriend, after we'd left the store. He was equally taken aback by the sales guy, yet we'd just let it happen. I told myself I would not to let something like that go without comment in future.

Of course, I'd long since forgotten about this when I found myself dealing with similar treatment last year.

I'd signed up to cycle from London to Paris, and on my lunch break went shopping at Evan's cycles. Handbag on my shoulder, I strolled in and inspected various bikes, knowing exactly what I was looking for. Eventually one of the young salesmen huddled over the counter detached himself and strolled over. I told him about my impending cycle challenge.
“Oh I've done that,” he quipped. “It's hard.”
“Yes, I know. It'll be a great experience!”
“No, I mean it's really hard. It's a long way.”
“Yeees... And that's why I need a bike with...”
“My mate and I did pretty well... but you really going to have to train.”
“I know. I am.
(A casual glance at my attire)
“I'm guessing you'll be in the slow group?”

Needless to say, I didn't buy a bike from Evans. Of course, they didn't know they'd even offended me, because I'd said nothing. It wasn't until I had left the shop and wandered down the street that the reality of the conversation took hold in my brain. He had belittled me. That actually happened. A guy who knew nothing about me other than that I was a woman in heels, looking for a bike. From this he didn't assume I was a cycling champion on my day off... he assumed I was an incapable novice. (I am neither.)

I reckon if I was a man who had come in carrying a helmet and a sports bag full of lycra, and slapped the guy on the back, I'd be walking out with a set of wheels and a thumbs up. And I was annoyed at myself for not calling the guy up on his comment. How would anything ever change?

So I wrote to Evans' head office.
I don’t like being patronized. I don’t like being treated like I’m incapable of cycling with the best of them. I certainly don’t like someone speaking to me like that then think I’m actually going to fork out some money at the end of it. I’m cycling this for the British Red Cross. I’ve done long-distance cycling before. I know the kind of bike I want and I don’t need to be spoken to like that. I would love to see a memo go out to all your stores to remind them that women are cyclists too. Oh, and we also like to shop. So if you want to make a sale, wisen up. And get your hand off it.

Evan's were very apologetic and after initially trying to fob me off with some store vouchers they agree to donate to Red Cross instead. I was satisfied with their response; they knew they'd done wrong. But the experience irked me. I realised this casual sporting sexism was everywhere.

Sure enough, I soon stumbled upon it again when a couple of people recommended I get some of my cycle kit from To be fair, this seemed like a great site, until I noticed its category options:

Ladies. Ladies is an option. God, there are so many things wrong with that I don't know where to begin. For one, how about “Women”? But then this is really an invalid point. Quite simply, women don't need to be segregated from sports. Obviously males and females have different requirements for items of gear and clothing, but these are two perfectly acceptable options to choose from within each category. Someone might have thought that having a separate tab means women can go straight to all the female sports kit. Great idea. Hang on, though, why not an equally convenient tab for men?

Simple. Because men have all the other tabs.

That's right; men are the primary customer, women only secondary. Whether put there with good intentions or not, the Ladies tab is redundant, and it merely succeeds in leaving women in second place yet again.

Women are athletes. Women are cyclists, runners, swimmers, triathletes, as well as rowers, hikers, climbers, gymnasts, wrestlers and boxers. Why then, is this macho language and sexist attitude still so acceptable in the high street sports arena? We are slowly tackling gender inequality in professional sports (although we still have a long way to go) however, as with everything, change begins closer to home.

I don't wish to get into a rage about this. And I know that not all sporting companies, nor all men (or women, for that matter) are guilty of old-school sexism. But these gender assumptions and stereotypes are rife, and we must not tolerate them anymore. So next time someone makes a sexist remark, call them on it. If, like me, you can't seem to tackle the situation on the spot, then write in. Explain that this language or attitude is archaic and unintelligent. Let them know it won't be tolerated.

At the end of the day, most of us know that women are strong, enthusiastic, powerful sportspeople. Those who don't... they just need a little education. Let's teach them.