March 2007


Courting penguinsThis documentary film follows the breeding cycle of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic.

Around March of each year, all the penguins head for the ancient breeding grounds, safely inshore where the ice will not melt even in summer. Some of them trek for 70 miles to get there, walking in great caravans, single file, day and night for up to a week. They all arrive just about simultaneously – those who don’t get lost and “simply fade away” as the narrator Morgan Freeman coyly puts it. The path is never the same because the ice and snow shifts each year yet somehow, mysteriously, they find the way.

Once there, the penguins go about selecting a breeding partner. This again is a mysterious process as nobody knows what they are looking for. There are more female than male penguins, so not everybody gets to pair off. Once they have found a partner, they mate and await the egg – just one egg.

There is no food at the breeding ground, and no water other than the snow that gets blown there in harsh freezing winds and icy storms. Thus, once the egg is laid, the mother passes it to the father for safekeeping while she treks back to the sea to refuel. If the egg leaves the protection of that warm space on the parental feet and under the parental snuggleflap for more than even a few moments, it will freeze and the chick will never hatch. It is a tricky business swapping it over and the parents take great care, rehearsing many times before the egg is actually transferred.

By now, the mother penguin has lost up to a third of her bodyweight in the two months since she left the sea, in the trek and the starvation and the production of the all-important egg. She treks back to the shore, much further away now that the antarctic winter has frozen the sea over, and feeds until she has regained as much weight as she can and stored a bellyful for her chick. Meanwhile, the father penguins have been huddling together, taking care of the egg, fending off unbelievably harsh weather, and eating nothing but snow. If the mother penguin does not return before the chick is hatched, he has a little milky something saved up to cough up for the chick, but that’s all.

Once the mother arrives, and once the chick has hatched so that it can bond with the father and they can learn one another’s calls, the father leaves to find the sea. He has been without food for up to four months now, and has lost up to half of his bodyweight. The mother penguins leave to re-stock with food even before the fathers return, which is why it is so important that the father and the chick should learn one another’s calls – they must be able to find each other when the father comes back. From now, until the summer comes, mother and father take it in turns – one tending the chick whlie the other treks to the sea for fish. As the weather warms, the sea gets closer and the trek shorter. Finally, the sea is close enough for the adult penguins to leave, and the young penguins are left behind. After a few weeks growing stronger, they too take to the sea and live there until, in their fifth year, instinct calls them somehow, mysteriously, to return.

It’s an amazing story. Many penguins and many chicks don’t make it. Both the mother and the father are needed to raise the chick, and if either one of them falters in the treks back and forth from the sea – particularly those first journeys after months of starvation – the chick too will die. If either one of them is taken by a predator, the chick too will die. If either of them fails in its duty while tending the chick, it will die. Predators even come to the breeding ground to prey on the chicks.

I loved the story, I loved the penguins, I loved the camerawork and I loved the scenery. The narration, however, was disappointing.

Firstly, it was a shame that the darker aspects of penguin life were so glossed over. The death of many penguins and chicks was played down as “disappearing”, “fading away”, “not making it”. There is minimal predator action – one scene of a predator leopard seal where all you see is the seal snapping about under the water, some penguins jumping out of the water, and one penguin that gets half way out of the water and slides back in; and one scene where an unidentified (!) bird of prey probably takes a chick, although again this is all implied rather than shown. Even the sex is a romanticised slow-motion affair, in which the male appears (because of the slow speed) to caress the female with his beak when in reality he is more likely to be holding her in place so that he can line himself up. The narrator does not even advert to the fact that they are having sex, you just get the pictures. No doubt all this was designed to avoid offence to parents of young children, but frankly as a parent of a young child I would rather she should experience truth than some Disneyfied version of real life in which death and sex are never seen.

Secondly, there was an awful lot of anthropomorphism. (Perhaps this is a British / US thing, and the original French version, La Marche de l’Empereur is less annoying.) You just longed for David Attenborough to be doing it. There was a lot of sentimental claptrap about how the penguins were doing all this “for love” and interpretation of their activities that was so human-centred it was unreal, such as when the courting rituals were underway and the “ladies” were fighing over who got a man and who was left out.

Finally, it really bugged me that the female penguins did not get their due. The male penguins were described as incredible, and amazing, and committed, and enduring and all the rest of it as they clung onto the eggs while the females went for food, with the implication that the female penguins were just copping out, with the men having to take the slack and starve themselves while the females filled their bellies. There was barely a word about the epic strength of the female penguins as they too underwent remarkable privations for the sake of their eggs. Even in penguin documentaries it is all about da menz!

(If you don’t believe me, here is one review I found which describes the story straight: “Once the egg is laid, the female penguins nick off back to the sea where they swim around, eating and having a great time, whilst the males are left to hatch the eggs. After two months, the eggs hatch and the females return with food, at which point the males begin a constant trek to the sea and back in order to gather enough food to keep the penguin chicks in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.” Where do they get off, those lazy high-maintenance penguin laydees?!)

One line in the narration was telling – the male penguin’s egg duties were described as “one of nature’s most endearing and amazing role reversals” (or words to that effect).

What exactly does that mean? Nature has reversed roles? What is the role that is being reversed? If it is the male penguin’s role to sit on eggs while the mother gets the fish, then that is the male penguin’s role. It is not a role reversal to fulfill one’s role. The only “reversal” here is of the roles that we, as humans used to living in patriarchy, expect male and female to play. We expect male animals to sow their seeds and then clear off, just as we expect females to do all the nurturing and self-sacrifice to raise her young. What is challenged by the penguin’s breeding patterns is not the male penguin’s natural role, but the male human’s social expectation.

Otherwise, we have to imagine, perhaps, the female penguin nagging at her partner – “Look, Percy, I know it’s my job to look after the egg, but y’know, I want to go out and find myself and there are all these fish I just want to go and eat. You always get the fish and I don’t see why we female penguins should have to stay at home all the damned time in these icy storms. So I’ll tell you what – you stay here and do my job and I’ll see what it’s like to be a liberated feminist hairy-legged penguin laddette for a bit. And if you think I’m going to bring you any fish back then you’ve got another think coming. Down with patriarchy!”

Hmm, that would be quite cool, too. [wink]

In this regard, it is worth noting that many other species also have much more male involvement in chlidrearing than this male-centred narration would have us believe is the norm. Seahorses for example.

So, yes, the narration and interpretation was annoyingly human-centred and specifically it was annoyingly male-centred. But the film, utterly beautiful. And those penguin chicks are cu-u-ute.

Helen Mirren, The QueenThis is a fictional / imaginative account of the week immediately following the death in 1997 of Diana, Princess of Wales. Watching it was a slightly strange experience, as the scenes (including authentic news footage) were both startlingly familiar and somewhat surreal.

The images of flowers heaped up outside Buckingham Palace, the speeches made, the bizarre outpouring of public sentiment were all very familiar, recalling that week with total clarity. Many of the fictional scenes also rang so true that they felt familiar – the ushering of newly elected Tony Blair into the Presence, the flippant irreverence of Blair’s assorted secretaries and aides, the fierce dignity of the Queen, the Royal family’s awkwardnesses. All this was beautifully captured.

Other scenes were clearly fictional and inserted mainly for wry comic effect rather than historic truth. For example, the Royal family all sitting around in their living room in the evenings – and in their dressing gowns on the night of Diana’s death – watching the television, made me think each time of The Royle Family. The Queen’s meeting with Cherie Blair on the occasion of Blair’s election is hilarious – they clearly detest one another. There are scenes of the domestic Blair, doing the washing up, having burned fishfingers dished up by Cherie for a family tea, and so on. It made me think of the way Blair would probably like us to think his private life runs, although I don’t think for a moment that it actually does. And there was the slightly embarassing moment when Blair blows up at Alistair Campbell with a seriously pro-Queen rant, in which we are clearly shown that, despite his accomplishments as a smooth political operator, there was still – as perhaps there has always been – a bit of genuine, unpolished idealism beneath the veneer.

This film is a respectful tribute to the Queen, unglamorous and humourous in a very British way, and it examined what was possibly the strangest week in British public life since I first started paying attention to the news. It deserves the many plaudits it has received: there was not a jarring moment.

Noughts and Crosses

“I was trying so hard to understand how and why things were the way they were. The Crosses were meant to be closer to God. The Good Book said so. The son of God was dark-skinned like them, had eyes like them. The Good Book said so. But the Good Book said a lot of things. Like ‘love thy neighbour’, and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. If nothing else, wasn’t the whole message of the Good Book to live and let live? So how could the Crosses call themselves ‘God’s chosen’ and still treat us the way they did? OK, we weren’t their slaves any more, but Dad said the name had changed but nothing else. Dad didn’t believe in the Good Book. Neither did Mum. They said it’d been written and translated by Crosses, so it was bound to be biased in their favour. But the truth was the truth, wasn’t it? Noughts… Even the word was negative. Nothing. Nil. Zero. Nonentities. It wasn’t a name we’d chosn for ourselves. It was a name we’d been given. But why?”

This is the story of Callum MacGregor, a “nought” – a white person, a nothing, a blanker. He has no prospects, his family are becoming involved in the terrorist / freedom-fighting organisation the Liberation Militia and he desperately wants a different path, if only the world would let him find one.

This is the story, too, of Persephone Hadley, a “Cross” – a black person, the daughter of a government minister, a person with a bright future. She does not know how to live in a world where noughts are so despised, and her naive attempts to change that world only seem to make things worse. Is her approach really any more likely to succeed than the bombs and guns of the Liberation Militia?

And this is the story, of course, of a forbidden love affair. Callum and Sephy are childhood playmates (his mother worked for her mother) whose close friendship blossoms into secret love. But they can never be together, because much as they may dream about it, the world will not let them. At every turn, things seem to get more difficult for them both. Especially for Callum, whose prospects were so dim right from the start.

This novel offers some nice insights into the nature of racist society, and some chilling reminders about our own world. The “twist” of switching black and white so that in the novel it is the white people who suffer at the hands of the black people was an interesting idea, and a reminder that the way things are is no more or less than an accident of history.

A good one for white middle-class teenagers to read, especially those suffering from undiagnosed entitlement complexes. They will learn something.

(Warning – Spoilers)

Erykah BaduThis is the film that Ariel and I watched yesterday. It tells the story of Homer Wells, an abandoned child left by his unwed mother at an orphanage run by one Dr Large. He becomes like a son to the doctor, and is trained in all the medicine that comes about in an orphanage where children live, and where women give birth, or are given illegal but relatively safe abortions.

Dr Large intends that Homer will carry on this work, but Homer does not wish to fall in with these plans. He wants to get out and see the world, so he hitches a lift with a couple who come for an abortion, and becomes an apple picker. He falls in love with the female half of the aforementioned couple while the male half is away at war (see? there has to be a love interest or there can’t be a story).

I like the film for its openly pro-choice themes. Homer is anti-abortion, arguing that he himself could have been aborted since he was an unwanted child, yet that he is glad to be alive and would not want any other future-Homers / potential-Homers to end up in an incinerator rather than having a chance at life. The doctor insists that it is better to give women a safe abortion rather than to let them suffer serious injury by trying to carry out their own abortions, or going to dangerously incompetent abortionists for help. Indeed, one woman who comes to the orphanage has done just that, and ended up with a punctured uterus and an infection so bad that she dies of it. By the end of the film, Homer recognises the truth of this, and changes his views to the point where he himself performs an abortion.

I dislike the film because it annoys me that women’s voices are not heard in the debate – but only the voices of Nice Guys who witness what women suffer. I guess this is what happens when you leave a manly man like John Irving (on whose book the film is based) to write your stories.

I also dislike this film because of its portrayal of incest. Homer lives in the eponymous Cider House, with the rest of the apple-picking gang. The leader is Mr Rose, and in the group is also his daughter Rose Rose (pictured above, played by Erykah Badu). In the course of the film we discover that he routinely rapes his daughter late at night, when the other apple-pickers are asleep. We discover that the rest of the gang all know this and tolerate it. We discover that Rose is pregnant.

What I dislike about the incest / rape storyline is that we see very little of what Rose thinks and feels – just enough for us to know that she is pretty unhappy at the whole situation, but absolutely no more than this, no real sense of her experience. Her brave and dramatic escape isn’t even shown onscreen, we just have to guess at what she did, by what happened afterwards.

Instead, we get to see and hear a lot about Mr Rose and his feelings and motives. When challenged by Homer, he says “I would never harm her! I love her!” – as if somehow it’s OK to rape your daughter if you do it with love. When Rose eventually escapes, the focus is on how Mr Rose nobly sacrifices himself to protect her from repercussions, with the suggestion that somehow this makes up for all the damage he has done her. The others are never called out for their total failure to challenge Mr Rose. Although Homer challenges Mr Rose for his actions, he never takes it any further than shouting at him one day and leaving it at that. He accuses Mr Rose of “having sex with your own daughter” but never uses the words rape or incest – nobody uses those words. There is a lot of talk from Mr Rose about how the apple pickers make their own rules (instead of abiding by the cider house rules typed up and hung on a tack in the house), with pretty clear hints that under the apple pickers’ rules, incest and rape are just fine and dandy, as long as it is done with love – that it is just a different way of life, and not for the likes of us to judge.

If I had made this film, I would have unsilenced Rose.

(11 minutes, watch it here

Submission, Part 1 - StillThis is a short film made by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh. In it, Islamic women’s stories are told, of how their submission to Allah and to the demands of their religion and culture has led to beatings, floggings and daily miseries.

Two powerful images recur in the short film.

The first is of a woman dressed in a burka and veiled so that only her eyes are uncovered. The burka, however, is made of sheer black fabric reminiscent of a sexxy negligee, so that her naked body is clearly visible underneath.

To me, the burka is a powerful symbol both of oppression and protection. It is meant to afford a woman protection – from inappropriate and unwanted male attention. It is her barrier against violation. However, as a compulsory and cumbersome garment, which focusses attention on the woman’s body as a cause of male violence, it is clearly, to me, a symbol of protection by oppression rather than protection by liberation. To make the burka, instead of a heavy, impenetrable garment, into a sheer, transparent one – this is a comment on just how flimsy a protection it provides. To make the burka, instead of a sexless shapeless drape, into a sexually vocal item of lingerie – this is a comment on just how effectively it prevents unwanted sexual attention*. And to focus attention on the naked body of the covered woman is to point out that burka-wearing is just as much about control of rampant female sexuality as it is about control of male urges. One image says so much.

[* It is worth remarking that in Princess, Sultana describes her transformation from unveiled girl to veiled woman. Before she veiled, men ignored her. Afterwards, they watched her, ogled her, desperate to catch a glimpse of the flesh under the fabric.]

Submission, Part 1The second key image in the film is that of Koranic scripture inked onto naked female flesh. Inked onto the naked female flesh of a woman beaten or flogged. Such an image illustrates the effect of Islamic law, as currently interpreted in many countries, on women. It shows how women pay the price of the strict, violent, antiquated notions that predominate in such places. No translation is needed for such an image.

Sadly – very sadly – the film does fall down a bit on the casting and the acting.

This was really disappointing, because it was a film that I really wanted to love. It was visually powerful, the script was great but the acting let it down. I did not hear an oppressed Muslim woman speaking out about her ordeal. It was too – flat.

Sigh.

Moby Dick“The spouting canal of the Sperm Whale, chiefly intended as it is for the conveyance of air, and for several feet laid along, horizontally, just beneath the upper surface of his head, and a little to one side; this curious canal is very much like a gas pipe laid down in a city on one side of a street. But the question returns whether this gas-pipe is also a water-pipe; in other words, whether the spout of the Sperm Whale is the mere vapor of exhaled breath, or whether that exhaled breath is mixed with water taken in at the mouth, and discharged through the spiracle. It is certain that the mouth indirectly communicates with the spouting canal; but it cannot be proved that this is for the purpose of discharging water through the spiracle.”

If you’ve never read Moby Dick, let me assure you that the above is a fair indication of just how dull it is. Dull, dull, dull. 536 pages of dull.

Nominally it is about a chap (“Call me Ishmael”) who goes on a whaling voyage with his pal Queequeg, a tattoed-cannibal-savage type about whom we hear very little given that he is supposed to be bosom buddy to the author. Perhaps this is because poor stupid savage Queequeg can’t actually speak without saying “lookee, him biggum dam Whalo” or something equally ridiculous. The voyage on which they set out is aboard the Pequod which, as we discover, is captained by one Ahab who lost his leg to the Great White Whale, Moby Dick and is now monomaniacally (oh, how often we see that word) obsessed with his pursuit of and revenge upon said terrible beast.

However, you spend far less time reading any actual story than you do hearing the author’s great and interminable mumblings about whales. You get pretty much the sum of mid-nineteenth century whale lore, complete with conjectures that appear to be entirely the author’s own. It’s a hoot. No, really.

There’s also a lot about how noble it is to be a man. Yawn.

Here’s an Amazon link, if I haven’t put you off yet.
Got mine from the library.

Cunt “Without honoring Whores, we cannot truly understand and transcend the dynamics of violence, destruction and ignorance fostered in our cuntfearing society. The fact that some women are considered “bad” is a puritanically based value judgment that reinforces a fatal division between women.”

“The measure of respect Whores receive is in direct proportion to the measure of respect all women receive. Until there is an established, respected place for Whores in this society, no woman will have an established, respected foundation of power.
There is no circumventing this.

Until there is a shift in consciousness about the potential of Whores, we will continue to live in a society which offers no formally acknowledged Teachers to awaken us to our power as sexual beings.
Aint no getting ’round this one either.”

“Whoredom is a constant. Perception fluctuates evermore.
I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of respecting things that have been around a lot longer than me. I drive old cars and live in old houses. I gravitate towards old souls and listen to what old folks say. My favourite games – chess and backgammon – are old, old, old.
So you see, if I were to find Whoredom and the Perception Surrounding Whoredom at a garage sale, I’d definitely buy the Whoredom.
Even if it was dented up, needed a new paint job and cost a coupla bucks more.”

Wow. Just wow.

This is to cunts what Fresh Milk was to breasts – and then some.
It is to The Vagina Monologues what Fresh Milk is to, say, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.

It is the sort of thing you can’t read cold, but also the sort of thing which, if read warm, will fire you and inspire you and make you think. And think again.

Although it was intially grating, Muscio’s voice and style soon grew on me. She is fresh and colloquial – she refuses to let her vibrant ideas and her amazing personality be bogged down in the careful, perhaps formulaic style of the typical work of non-fiction. She lets it all shine through in bright colours. (And it sure beats the jargon-filled sociological doublespeak of certain other writers I have tried to struggle through.)

Drawing on her own life and that of her sisters (biological and otherwise), Muscio covers one heck of a lot of ground.

She starts with the word. I’ve made my peace already with the word, so let’s skip that for now, except to savour Muscio’s most luscious contribution to vocabulary, a word that you must love even if “cunt” still freaks you out. The word is Cuntloving. Oh, yes.

Moving on, we note that what all women have in common is one thing: cunts*. We go on to celebrate the coolness of Blood and to drink in the suggestions that we get totally in touch with our bodies and their cycles, embrace cuntloving ways of dealing with the Blood, and start throwing menarche parties for girls on the appearance of their first period.

[* Ahem. What about transwomen? We’ll get to that later.]

Now we come to reproductive control for cunts.

Abortion. The absolute necessity of choice. The idea of being able to avoid the physical trauma of a medical abortion by the kind of oneness with our cunts that is needed to bring on, with the help of a few choice herbs, a natural abortion. (And, while we’re at it, some thoughts about male gynaecologists and why the hell any cuntloving woman would give such a man any money when three are perfectly good cunts we could pay for our cuntcare.)

Contraception. Such as: chemical birth control methods; condoms or other barriers; using oneness with our bodies to absolutely KNOW when the blighters might stick. And some thoughts about using alternatives to heterosexual penetrative sex (e.g. masturbation and sex with women). The politics of the birth control industry.

We move on to Whores – the cunt queens. I think the extract cited above gives you an adequate flavour. Wow – a brilliant chapter with a new perspective that gave me a different way to think about women who before I had more or less only thought about as either exploited or, at best, perhaps the “happy hooker”, oblivious to the harm done to all women (exploited participants and commodified bystanders alike) by the existence of prostitution.

Then to Orgasms, with a nod at educating girls on the OK’ness of their sexuality and a fantastic comparison between Aristotle and Valerie Solanas which leads onto some thoughts on why it is that male-specific health problems get so much more attention than female-specific ones. And some gems like this: “if I were a man, and had no biological idea what it was like to have such a complex orgasm mechanism as a cunt – with so many intricate, endless and fascinating possibilities for achieving pleasure – I’d be pretty nervous making love to a woman. And I might find millions and billions of ways to camouflage my nervousness, rather than be like Jesus and just humble myself.” And, even, a reading list!

Acrimony deals with female cunthatred. It deals with the way we don’t like each other much and don’t support each other like we should. Racism. Classism. Bad stuff.

Then there is the chapter on Rape. Muscio is big on self-protection. I have mixed feelings about that. I do however totally adore her remarks on SILENCE. And her proposal that women should get together to publicly humiliate men who have raped their sisters. How would you feel if, say, all the women in your street built a giant severed penis and burned it on your front lawn?

In the final part of the book, Muscio sets out her “womanifesto”. The chapter is captioned “I will kick your fucking ass – Ancient Goddess Mantra.” It just gets better from there. She then sets forth about a hundred and three ideas for how women can get together and be cuntloving superstars. Many of her ideas will inspire you. She talks about woman-centred culture, woman-centred business and woman-centred life. It’s brilliant.

My edition finishes up with extras. There is an afterword, and there is the Cuntlovin’ Guide, which lists cuntloving resources and businesses for use by the cuntloving American woman. The former is of more interest.

The afterword gives a few further thoughts on how Muscio’s ideas about the world had changed since writing Cunt. She completely missed out transwomen, and she redresses that balance. She clarifies her pro-choice stance in relation to abortion, in response to claims by some anti-choicers that her anti-surgery/pro-self-help remarks represent an opposition to abortion per se. She talks a little more about rape, broadening the perspective from men raping (biological) women to the powerful raping the powerless. Broadening again, we are treated to a cuntloving perspective on planetary crisis before the last hurrah.

As I mentioned, a lot of ground is covered. I can’t say I totally agree with all that was said. But I can say that I totally love this book. It is inspiring, bloody, honest and vocal. It speaks loud, and it tells us all to speak loud, to shatter the silence.

Let’s talk about cunts, it says. Let’s talk about what they mean and what they do and how we can look after them. Let’s talk about how cunts can look after each other. Oh, yes.