Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Book review: Girls will be Girls

When I saw this book at the library, it jumped out at me immediately. The cheery yellow cover was irresistible, and the inviting title GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS suggested writing on gender and representation. The tagline was even better: 'Dressing up, playing parts, and daring to act differently'. Goody! thought I.

I hadn't heard of the author, Emer O'Toole at all; but later that afternoon a quick Google led me to discover that she had apparently gone viral a couple of years ago due to making a point about not shaving her legs or armpits. I wasn't sure why this was groundbreaking stuff (personally I've never shaved my legs in my life) but tucked into the book with great interest nonetheless.

Girls Will Be Girls seems, at first, like a slightly strange text. It opens like a memoir and certainly the first few chapters read like feminist autobiography, reminiscent of How To Be A Woman' (but far less self-righteous and annoying). But then as you continue to read, O'Toole's anecdotes become crossed with feminist theory, queer theory, and theory of performance. It's Judith-Butler central. As someone with a similar academic background to O'Toole (she did a theatre studies BA, I did costume BA; and I wrote my dissertation about drag) all this theory was incredibly familiar to me and so I spent much of the first half of the book searching for how she might tell me something new. Of course, Judith Butler writes purely academic theory and is very dry; whilst O'Toole's book is far more approachable; so for those of you who didn't write essays on the construction of gender and theory of performativity at university, you might well find this section very enlightening!

The book really comes into its own when she switches from teacher to friend and makes suggestions on how to act differently and ignore our society's prewritten rules for playing the role of a woman. This is after often-hilarious descriptions about her own antics and experimentations, including pretending to be a boy in a night club and hitting on her friend; and the experience of going viral after an interview. Things she suggests includes experimenting with cross-dressing, not shaving your armpits, and tying your towel around your waist (like a boy) instead of above your breasts (like a girl). These are often very small things, and not always obviously groundbreaking, but she makes great points on how many things in everyday life are governed by a greater societal need to make women feel insecure.

Not everyone will enjoy O'Toole's overly-familiar, sarky, tongue-in-cheek tone of writing; but beneath the wit (and the puns) lies a heart of gold preaching encouragement, subversion, and the importance of questioning the status quo. And that's a very good thing indeed.

'Girls Will Be Girls' is published by Orion, 2015. Emer O'Toole also writes for the Guardian

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Can cycling be an anti-consumerist act?

By the Thames at Richmond, summer 2014, on my trusty lady's hybrid bicycle

On public transport it's everywhere. Posters slapped across tube platforms, and at eye level down every carriage. The sides of buses for you to gaze at when waiting at bus stops, and on billboards when you're on the road. On taxis doors. On your phone, on Facebook & Google, and those awful ones on Spotify, when you're taking the Overground. In our homes or out of it, advertising is becoming more and more intimate. 

Of course, we as humans are largely able to block out advertising, a problem faced by companies who have become ever-more creative with their campaigns over recent years. What started with brand logo T-shirts in the 1990s and re-useable calico tote bags in the 2000s has multiplied into the subversive act of following & 'liking' brands on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram. Through incentives like competition giveaways and discount codes, the desire to interact with the brands, or gain a feeling of exclusivity, consumers actually actively engage with brands' marketing and consume their advertising by choice. 

When we're feeling switched-on and clever, this is great. Yes, I will wait until bank holiday weekend to take advantage of a 15% off sale, to purchase things I genuinely needed! Fantastic - I've saved £1.86! On the other hand, when you're feeling bored, tired, slightly weak-willed, or when you've just been paid, there's a vast and never-ending range of goods and services you can spend money on, on the comfort of your sofa, or at the pub during a lull in conversation, or the bus stop bench, or on your lunch break at work; and it's available in seconds.

Since I moved back to my home city of London last year, I've been cycling more and more. It's wonderful how cycling in London has managed to endure fashion and fitness trends, and moved past being either a leisurely hobby or conversely, reserved for hardcore fanatics. It's finally becoming a viable transport choice in the city, with road layouts and traffic systems improving slowly but surely* over the past 3 years to accommodate cyclists. Saving money, a feeling of self-sufficiency, and a stab at fitness are all big advantages of cycling; but there's one thing more that I notice whenever I'm forced to swap my bike for Transport for London or driving. That is, the presence of advertising.

When I travel in a car, I listen to the radio and am always infuriated by the frequency and duration of ad breaks. On my bike, I have to concentrate on what's happening the road, and don't listen to music. If I do, it's on my mp3 player, so my own music collection, ad free. When I look out of the window of cars and buses, I see billboards; but these aren't really aimed at the eye level of cyclists, so they're really easy to overlook. I don't kill time for 25 minutes browsing Facebook or catching up on e-mails, unlike on trains. When I'm out and about on my bike, I largely want to get from A to B. The most distracting forms of marketing I see are interesting shop window displays, but to be honest I'm usually running late and rarely have time to stop and investigate them further!

Can cycling be seen as anti-consumerist? Cycling forces you to focus your attention on one thing (the road), with the aim of getting to your destination safely and speedily. There's not much space for distractions. You will have to spend on a strong lock and bike lights; and there's also the need of keeping a stock of inner tubes, and a good pump. But the cost of these doesn't match the weekly act of topping up your Oyster card - which often feels like money running down the proverbial drain. You also don't need to buy any of the unending gadgets and gizmos available for drivers. Later on, you might want  more storage like panniers or baskets, or better waterproof clothing and practical shoes. But by this time you might also be a cycle fanatic and have started bidding on carbon fork frames and specialist gear sets on Ebay. Or you might not. You can get by perfectly well with a basic bike, road or hybrid; and the same clothes that you walk around in. Lots of people do it. Cycling doesn't have to be a big deal. It can just be a mode of transport, like any other.

But with a difference: cycling can be a choice to be anti-mainstream. The obvious point is that it's good for the environment, with no carbon footprint. But by choosing two wheels, you also make an active choice not to support, for instance, the petrol industries and all the issues (trade, wars, corruption) surrounding them. You make a choice not to support a city's public transport systems, with all those issues too (soaring ticket prices, trade union squabbles, strikes, train delays and sudden timetable cancellations…the list goes on). You are reliant on yourself to get to places. As long as you buy a really strong lock and keep an eye on your bike's condition, you're unlikely to get nasty surprises affecting your transportation. And if you learn how to change an inner tube, punctures are no problem either! Cycling is cheaper because you don't have to buy tickets or pay the congestion charge or tolls. Cycling also allows you to bypass a huge majority of advertising. Cycling saves me money, and helps stop me spending money as well.

These are all reasons why I choose to cycle in London, and why I aim to cycle as much as possible in my commutes - sometimes up to 10 miles each way.

What are your opinions on this? Am I just a lovestruck bicyclist, or do you agree that cycling can be a political act? Are there any other ways to avoid consumerism?




*There's lots more to be done in London of course - our narrow, pothole-ridden bike lanes pale in comparison to the proper dual-carriage, off-road cycle lanes in Copenhagen, for instance. Yet over the past 12 months, I've noticed a real change in attitude from drivers towards cyclists. A few years ago, I was utterly terrified to ride around, and in fact only did it on very short local trips when public transport was either inconvenient, or too costly to justify. Drivers always seemed so impatient, revving horribly or being too close, even beeping the horn! (The worst thing to do to a cyclist, when a sudden jerky steer could result in their landing flat on the asphalt.) They never gave me enough space when overtaking, either. Of course, you still get this on occasion (black cab drivers being the worst culprits), but I have found that drivers seem more considerate of cyclists these days. Observing traffic rules -such as proper lane discipline and obeying red lights! - with clear signalling, eye contact, and a general confident attitude when on the saddle help towards a driver-cyclist harmony.