Friday, 16 March 2012

Adventures in Form out now!

Excited to announce that the ever-curious Penned in the Margins has just released this handsome delight, the PBS-commended Adventures in Form. Jon and I were lucky enough to be included in this tribute to constraint, which features a wide range of forms, from the classical to the very recently invented. Out to prove that there is life in form beyond the Petrarchan sonnet, Aventures in Form celebrates play, challenge and the strange and often beautiful results that issue forth from the poetic lab. Get your copy pronto.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Fighting the programming: self-confidence and equal achievement

In college, a friend conducting a survey for her A level Psychology class asked a range of girls to name a strong female role model. When she came to me, I hadn't got a clue. Finally I came up with Anita Roddick. Not because she had particularly influenced me, but because it was acknowledged that she was a Strong Female Role Model.

"Anita Roddick," sighed my friend. "Everyone seems to say her."

So we come to another International Women's Day, and the release of further depressing studies showing that women still make up only 13.7% of the boards of top European companies. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, 59% of European university graduates are women, but 82% of the continent's full university professors are men.

Of course, we're way beyond the days women being written off as less intelligent. Perhaps the answer lies in studies such as Stereotype susceptibility in children: effects of identity activation on quantitative performance (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001), which showed that girls performed worse in traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as maths, when their gender had been highlighted beforehand.

If others give up hope on you and saddle you with lowered expectations, however baseless their reasons, it makes it doubly hard not to give up on yourself. If we really want to normalise the idea of women, or any under-represented group, in positions of power, authority and respect, we need to start by fostering the self-confidence that enables women to believe their gender isn't the deciding factor.

Take the oft-lamented pay gap. It's just sort of accepted, really. Women are paid less than men for the same work. A recent European Parliament feature explained that women have had to work until 2 March 2012 to catch up to the amount earned by their male counterparts as of 31 December 2011. Sucks, doesn't it?

Since it's illegal to overtly offer more money to a male candidate than a female one, what's actually happening to maintain this disparity? I suspect, although some pay-bartering is perhaps done through old networks or rapport, a sizeable part of the problem is that women don't feel as comfortable asking for the salary they believe they are worth as men do. Or perhaps they're not confident enough that they are worth that salary; they just feel a vague dissatisfaction with the status quo, but don't want to rock the boat, for fear of judgements based on their sex.

I've been wondering recently whether there is in fact a critical period for the development of self-confidence, the results of which travel with children into adulthood, greatly affecting their self-perception. As someone who experienced bullying in quite a few arenas in childhood, it's only been very recently that professional and personal discussions have thrown up exactly how these early experiences have knocked my willingness to take risks, value my own work or try new things. The last time I was invited to put forward a statement as to why I should be given a pay rise at work, I didn't even bother. I felt too exposed, as if I were setting myself up for failure.

The intense scrutiny I felt I was under may have been, in part, my imagination. But when girls grow up being told that doctors are men and nurses are women, or that fluffy, bland programmes like the 1980s version of My Little Pony (the new series is going some way to making things right), or Care Bears are their programmes, and the exciting, proactive shows about winning battles and inventing things are only for the boys (leaving aside the problematic Smurfette principle), I wonder if the message of acceptance, meekness and passivity gets welded to gender identity in the long-term. Let the boys do all the challenging, dangerous tasks - we've got hair to plait! Of course it's not the fault of cartoons, but a general gassing with perfume that has the potential to negatively affect womens' self-esteem.

On top of this, there are those areas of industry that thrive on relentlessly undermining women's confidence. They have a knack for it. The beauty industry is the obvious one - a facehugger targeting younger and younger females with a slow-acting poison - but there are many other businesses heavily invested in sucking women's money, time, energy and security dry, hence their social and economic power. Today I walked past a sign in a salon for Hair Botox. Hair Botox - where does it stop?

Say a woman does make it onto the board of a company. She will almost always be in the minority, and so will stand out. She unwittingly becomes a representative for 'women'. Any criticisms of her way of working are all too easily attributed to her sex. Is it surprising that few women consider this career step? The gut reaction to outspoken women and girls by many male commentators is to resort to gender-based insults and threats. This is particularly noticeable in internet commentary. Are online forums really such a world away from the macho environment of big business?

When I was small, I didn't shy away from the dream of becoming a pilot or a mathematics professor or a free-runner or an MD at any point because I consciously filed them under 'for boys'. They were simply never suggested to me. It never occurred to me that women could be doctors. Growing up, I recognised that, logically, of course they could, but it still felt unusual and somewhat of a novelty to see a female in such a role. I'm concerned that, just as with age we lose the ability to naturally absorb new languages, so too do we lose a degree of openness, and the ability not just to consider new possibilities, but to believe in them. If we want to normalise women making global business and political decisions, women creating and curating, broadening views everywhere, women conducting ground-breaking research and saving lives, we need to start spreading the message to young children that they can achieve anything. And don't just tell the girls: tell everyone.

Happy International Women's Day everybody!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Guest Blogger: Sebastian Manley on 'The Birds'

Like many people, I love The Birds (1963), Hitchcock’s tale of love troubled by dark forces in sunny California. And it’s a film I’ve been thinking about recently, partly in response to the various bird images and poems that have been circulating the Sidekick Books command centre ahead of the publication of Birdbook: Freshwater Habitats, volume two of Kirsty and Jon’s planned series celebrating the bird inhabitants of Great Britain. What I’ve been thinking about in particular is the relationship between the birds and the people that the film depicts and what we might make of it, particularly if we are interested in the relationship between animals and people in real life. Is it right to say, for example, as many critics have said, that the birds are there to express something significant and meaningful about the human characters or their relationships? Is there something else that they are there to do? Or is it possible to see the film as being in some way ‘about’ birds and our relationship with them?
            The Birds is a frightening and shocking film in some respects – I can’t imagine many viewers forget the image of Dan Fawcett with his eyes pecked out – but it is also a self-consciously arty one, amply supplied with enigmatic compositions and Freudian banter and committed to a fairly radical form of narrative in which strange phenomena remain unexplained and the protagonists’ fate still hangs in the balance when the screen fades to black for the final time (Hitchcock had arranged to watch European art films by Antonioni, Bergman and others before making The Birds, and a number of his ideas for the film were a good deal stranger than his scriptwriter, Evan Hunter, was comfortable with). In its general ambiguity the film does seem to encourage some sort of metaphorical reading, in which the birds symbolise particular human emotions or desires. The critic Margaret Horowitz argues, for example, that the birds are an Oedipal symbol: a manifestation of Lydia’s wish to prevent her son becoming involved with another woman. Camille Paglia sees the film in similar terms, the horrific attacks in her reading representing ‘a release of primitive forces of sex and appetite’.
            The philosopher Robert Yanal is not sure about all this psychoanalytical stuff, which in his view raises more questions than it answers (why would Lydia’s jealousy strike at her friend Dan Fawcett? why should the attacks get worse once Lydia and Melanie have started to bond?). Yanal’s alternative reading is that the birds express nothing specific about the emotional relationships between the main characters but are instead simply scary monsters made scarier by their ultimate inexplicability – an unsettling narrative truth that is, for Yanal, a far more plausible ‘subject’ of the film than the characters and their underdeveloped relationships. So maybe the film is in fact about the unknowable, and maybe – this is me speculating now – it plays on the slight apprehension with which we regard birds, perhaps the least easily anthropomorphised and most enigmatic of the vertebrate species with which we share our various habitats (I think it’s also possible that these are qualities that make birds appealing subjects for poets and other artists, but see the introduction to Birdbook: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland for some other suggestions).
            But the film also seems to suggest, to an extent, that the attacks are a kind of retribution, a vengeful strike by the bird species at its human exploiters or oppressors. Like another animal horror film, Jaws: The Revenge (1987), whose first post-credit shot is a close-up of the eye of a fish being cheerfully fried by the protagonist, The Birds includes an early scene that features animals being ‘used’ by humans. Long before we see birds attacking anyone, we see birds in cages, at the pet shop where Melanie and Mitch first meet. ‘Doesn’t this make you feel awful?’ asks Mitch, ‘Having all these innocent little creatures caged up like this?’ (he is pretending at this point to think that Melanie is a salesperson). In the later scene in the Tides restaurant, an amateur ornithologist, Mrs Bundy, offers a sceptical response to the reports of bird attacks, asserting that birds are not aggressive creatures. She then starts to make a point about the aggressiveness of humankind, but she is cut off by the waitress’s call for an order of fried chicken (that is, a bird killed by a human) – a kind of coincidental illustration of Bundy’s point that seems to be served up by the film itself and that leaves us with the feeling that, at the very least, the birds have got cause to feel aggrieved.

Avenging animals? The birds attack Melanie and the schoolchildren.

            Dialogue drawing attention to humans’ mistreatment of birds is more common in the final-draft version of the script, which includes a bit where Melanie argues that the birds are attacking because they’re protecting the species (‘Maybe they’re tired of being shot at and roasted in ovens and ...’) and an exchange between Mitch and Melanie in which they half-jokingly imagine the bird attacks to be part of a bird ‘uprising’ led by a kind of sparrow Marx fighting for an end to humans’ dominion over birdkind (see here). But there is a similar flavour to some of the materials that did get a public release, including a radio announcement that ran: ‘If you have ever eaten a turkey drumstick, caged a canary or gone duck hunting, The Birds will give you something to think about.’ Hitch himself, in a similar vein, described the film as a parable warning us not to take nature for granted (1).
This sort of analysis, I think, is likely to look a little out of place in the literature on Hitchcock’s work, which in keeping with cultural studies writing in general has tended to see fictional animals as metaphors rather than as things that might have some connection to real animals in the real world. Of course, one of the features of The Birds is that the birds don’t act like the birds we know – what kind of horror film would it be where they did? – and I wouldn’t want to suggest that films should always strive to capture the reality of animal behaviour or identity. But one important part of reality is the relationship we have with other animals, and that seems like a good thing for artists and critics to spend some time thinking about now and again.  

1. See Paglia’s book The Birds for more on the radio announcement and on Hitchcock’s interpretation of the film.

Works referenced

Horowitz, Margaret, ‘The Birds: A Mother’s Love’, in Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (eds.), The Hitchcock Reader (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986).

Irving, Kirsten, and Jon Stone (eds.), Birdbook: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland (London: Sidekick Books, 2011).

Irving, Kirsten, and Jon Stone (eds.), Birdbook: Freshwater Habitats (London: Sidekick Books, forthcoming).

Paglia, Camille, The Birds (London: BFI, 1998).

Yanal, Robert J., Hitchcock as Philosopher (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2005).


I maintain a blog on animals in film at