Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

Of Men, Mothers and Mercy

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe'en costume.

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe’en costume.

Recently I picked up a copy of Dr. Christiane Northrup’s classic (and colossal) book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and haven’t been able to put it down. If you know any hippie women, you will almost certainly have seen it on their homes, alongside Healing With Whole Foods, B.S.K. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, and an amethyst geode propping up the shelf above.

Far more useful than a piece of furniture, however, this book has revived my appreciation of the feminine principle, a principle so easily suppressed or chased away in a city where everything is judged on how it scores in the masculinity charts.

An OB/GYN, Northrup shows the relationship between women’s negative attitudes towards their bodies, especially when it relates to sexual abuse or trauma, translates very clearly into their sexual health. Positive changes in these attitudes often have immediate effects on their physical symptoms. But I am shocked at how deeply the negativity runs for so many women. So many who attended her practice manifested signs of loathing or being ashamed of their bodies, and of giving up responsibility for its health by expected a paternalistic doctor to ‘take charge’ and ‘do something’. It made me so thankful not to have absorbed that thinking – at least, not enough to have ended up in her surgery.

The Gulf of Mixed Metaphors

It is clear that for thousands of years, qualities we think of as being ‘masculine’, such as winning by brute force or imposing authority on others deemed to be inferior have trumped such delicate, ‘feminine’ qualities as understanding, nurture, patience, and sharing in responsibility and success equally. Yet few women embody these qualities fully; one of the failings of western feminism is that in order for women to be considered as successful or empowered they must prove themselves by ‘masculine’ criteria by reaching the top of their profession (even if it be by hook or by crook), imposing authority on others, or winning accolades that distinguish them as being superior. Between Mother Teresa and Maggie Thatcher there’s a awfully big gulf.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe'en costumes, please - let's be civil.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe’en costumes, please – let’s be civil.

Another aspect of this ‘patriarchy’ – which Northrup calls the ‘Addictive System’ coined by Anne Wilson Shaef as an alternative to the negative, man-bashing term ‘patriarchy’ – is that of hierarchies. A tribal chief, so the theory goes, must impose authority on elders, who in turn impose it on the ordinary men of the tribe, who in turn impose it on the women, who in turn impose it on the children. Everyone has their place in the pecking order. Thus patriarchal (or addictive) thinking instills the idea that some men are born more equal than others.

I’ve noticed how hard it is to convince women (and often men) that they are able to write something beautiful, or do something creative. Why is that? I think it’s because we’ve learned that experts do these things, experts whom we’ve placed above ourselves in the hierarchy of creativeness, whose work we happily consume but wouldn’t dare try to rival. The opposite approach is to see all people as being essentially equal and all people’s subjective experiences as being equally valuable. Coming from this angle, workshop participants can relax into the idea that they don’t have to compete with others to produce something ‘good’, and in the fact that the whole criteria for quality needn’t come from others in the first place. No-one need judge themselves higher or lower than others because of their creative output.

Birth: the Ultimate Oscar

There is a creative power in pregnancy, birth and childrearing that trumps all of the worldly trophies that a culture obsessed with masculinity can offer. Women giving birth experience more pain than any man is capable of experiencing without passing out, and also the highest levels of endorphins that any human being can experience (immediately after a drug-free, non-interventionist birth – and the baby shares the same high). After the birth of Caveboy, I came back from having a bath feeling ready to deliver an acceptance speech for an Oscar: “I’d like to thank my mum for making me tea, my midwife for not hurrying me along, my birthing pool for being so floatatious…”

Seems so relaxing...

Seems so relaxing…

While there are men who witness this awesome process, and male midwives are privy to it on a regular basis, men can’t fully understand it because they can’t live it themselves. It occurs to me that God shares a secret with women – both those giving birth and those witnessing it – that men have to strive through a lifetime of personal and/or religious efforts to learn. Nevertheless, if we start crowing about how amazing we are for going through this process, we’ll get sucked into the same story of competition and hierarchy that we’re trying to escape. Unfortunately, even having a ‘natural’ birth can end up a kind of competition, with women blaming themselves when things don’t go according to plan or envying mothers for whom things did.

Blaming patriarchy is part of the very patriarchal values that divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, encouraging some to assert their superiority over others, and leading to a perpetual cycle of reaction and aggression that has left most of the Middle East now (not to mention DRC, Sri Lanka, Burma, and countless other places) in bloodied shreds. Of course Muslim societies have become patriarchal; so have all societies around the globe. That’s not because patriarchy is superior all round, only that it’s physically stronger, and the more powerfully destructive military technology becomes, the more difficult it is to stand up against it.

The rhetorical expression ‘fighting fire with fire’ doesn’t work if you’re a firefighter. You calm fire with water. Hatred cannot neutralise hatred; you have to practise its opposite.

Of Men and Mercy

When Islam first emerged, it was in an Arabia so deeply entrenched in a vicious form of patriarchy that not only would internecine wars go on for decades and claim the lives of tens of thousands of people, but quite literally baby girls would be buried alive in the desert. A Bedouin man once bragged to the Prophet Muhammad (s.): “I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them,” to which the Prophet replied, “He who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

Attitudes towards masculinity at the time were that men had to be tough, brutal warriors who didn’t just stand up for themselves but would fight aggressively to defend their ‘honour’ (whatever that meant to them). Muhammad (s.), on the other hand, refused to fight the Quraysh of Makkah, who responded to his early attempts to talk them out of their oppressive economic and cultural practices by throwing stones at him, boycotting him and his followers and drowning out his voice with jeers.

At the time he lived in the house his wife Khadijah (r.) built for them. She, incidentally, was 40 when she cajoled him into marrying her when he was 25; was a wealthy, respected, educated, literate noblewomen, as well as his boss; and was twice widowed with three children when they married, upon which she bore six children! Even years after she died, whenever her name was mentioned Muhammad (s.) would turn pale and tremble from missing her so much.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah's (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah’s (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

In the courtyard of this house was a stone shelf under which he would hide under when the neighbours threw stones at him in his own home. He didn’t move house, or throw stones back, or even complain. There was also an elderly woman who would leave thorny branches outside his door each day; when one morning he saw that the thorns weren’t there, he went to her house and asked after her health. He even send his own daughter together with a number of the Companions to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to live under the Christian Emperor Nabash, where they could live in peace under a just ruler.

All of this was utterly astonishing to the Quraysh. What kind of a man would refuse to stand up for himself with violence, telling his followers to return evil with good, to forgive your oppressors when they ask for forgiveness, and prefer emigration over retribution? Mercy was considered a feminine quality, and therefore something that represented weakness and inferiority. The word rahma, or mercy, is related not only to the two most oft-repeated Names of God, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, the Merciful and the Compassionate, it is also related to the word rihm, meaning womb.

All of the battles between the Muslims and their opponents occurred not in or around Makkah, but around Madinah, once the Quraysh and their allies came to the doorstep of the new Muslim community seeking bloodshed, and it became clear to Muhammad (s.) that they would have to defend themselves or die. When the Muslims wanted to return to Makkah to perform the annual Hajj – a ritual that dated back to Abrahamic times, but which had been monopolised by the Quraysh, who had filled the Ka’abah with effigies of their deities – the Muslims came to Hudhaibiyah, a village outside Makkah, and signed a treaty with the Quraysh effectively rendering them second-class citizens, simply in exchange for being able to perform the pilgrimage. They entered Makkah unarmed, performed Hajj, and a flabbergasted Makkah surrendered without a drop of blood being spilled.

This might all sound like a rose-tinted picture of the history of Islam, and certainly there are narrations that seem to tell a different story. What is clear is that when under duress, including starvation and threats of murder from his own clansmen, the Prophetic example was to remain kind, tolerant, and forgiving. He taught that patience, service, humility and gentleness were qualities elevated far above forcefulness, egotism and aggression. Restoring family ties, helping enemies to make peace, and being on the same level as even the most lowly and vulnerable of society were praised in the highest terms.

Referring specifically to childbirth, a man once came to the Companion Ibn ‘Umar (r. – some narrations say it was the Prophet, s.) and said: “I have carried my mother on my back all the way from Iran. Have I done enough to repay her?” to which he replied: “Not even for one contraction.” More recently, a Sufi master called Muhammad Ibn al-Habib (rahimahu Allah) told a bunch of English converts who visited him in the 1970s: “Don’t argue with your wives. Just tickle them until you both fall to the floor laughing.”

Feminism Free From Finger-Pointing

All this seems a far cry from the misogyny that is now endemic, whether in the Muslim world or the planet at large. Yet I can’t point fingers at patriarchy, or men in general; men have excellent qualities that women also benefit from. If I were giving birth in a real life cave I’d feel quite safe with a big burly bloke stationed at the mouth of the cave with a burning brand to scare away the sabre-toothed tigers.

"Go, on shoo, you lot, I'm 'avin a baby"

“Go, on shoo, you lot, I’m ‘avin a baby”

I recently dreamed of a friend being pregnant and going to see a male healer, who gave her what I can only describe as an incredibly feminine, loving, nurturing kind of healing. It made me realise that I dismiss the idea of men having this depth of love and care – despite being married to one who does!

Abandoning our internalised patriarchy means rejecting blame, dualism, competition, envy, and judging self and others based on a hierarchical criteria of superiority. It means taking stock of ourselves from the inside out, addressing our relationships from our own failings and projections before blaming others, taking responsibility for our own problems instead of expecting Big Daddio to come and rescue us or bring out the big guns.

This may or may not be ‘feminine’ thinking, but it certainly links up our emotional intelligence with our rational minds in a much more rounded way, just as the female brain connects right and left hemispheres with a thicker bundle of nerves. Patriarchy might be nothing more than lopsided thinking after all.

Back Where the Path Begins

Last Rabita in Spain

Some men love the idea of Islam
for its manliness and its femininity
the gendered garb
strokable beards
scarves like petals round a woman’s face
feet marching with a purpose
and heart stirred with beauty
but then the allure of being manlier
kicks a kink in their path
and the lamp shining
on womanhood bashfully admired
disappears behind a brick wall.
The frowns deepen
the march becomes military
the segregation obligatory
no touching hands – don’t break
my wudu – and the beards are now
not thoughtfully stroked but
firmly put in their place.
Chivalry is confused with chauvinism,
gallantry with a glutton’s blind greed.
Man ascends to the position
he feels is owed to him,
a towering throne from which to judge
how well the womenfolk
are keeping their earlobes covered
lest the animal within him wakes
and he grows so comfortable there
it seems this seat of power was
made purposely for them.
Barbed wire goes up to warn off girls
who might think they
could grow learned and give advice
and every passing decade sees
fewer of them sneaking through the palisade
until the lookouts start confirming
the old ones’ belief:
those lady lumps mess up their brains –
they just don’t do intelligence like us.
Meanwhile sunlight dashes
fleetfooted over beardless faces
laughing in private, weeping in private
knowing in private, loving in private
cracking almonds, brewing tea
holding a lost one in their arms
stroking her hair while she finds herself
seeking in dreams and the unseen
for guides whose hands
they are forbidden from kissing
and all this round the crook in the path
where the lamp still flickers
and the watchtower sentries
have forgotten the path begins.

Twisters

Women, we do not need
to be tornados
in order to be known.
Causing chaos, being in it
wrecks good roofs and
delays good living.
We don’t need to be
lipsticked hurricanes
sucking at the attentions
of the sighing world.
There is no calm at the centre
only tears and broken plates.

When the silt settles
on a calm shore
life can get back to work.
Seaweed and shark egg pods
freshly left in jungly
salt-streaked lines
leap at the silence hungrily
palms stretch cloudwards
fish bask in sleepy shallows
and the water can release
the breath it held when we
stormed in.

Maybe it’s the ‘man’.
He throws the rope and pulls
one end and sets us spinning.
No – we held the other end
too tightly too, tried
to whirl him in,
thinking one was not
a good enough number
to be. We
assumed we must be huge
and terrifying if we were to be
respected – aren’t the big shots,
the skyscrapers, the
powers that be?
So are the skunks.

This whirling would make
any plant strangle its own stem
and drip out all its juice.
Stop spinning.
There is no disaster that
hasn’t already happened
and been forgotten.
Don’t be the drama;
you’re too big, too good,
too beautiful for that.

Be the ocean
that feels the tug
of a twister
like a kitten
at a mother cat’s
teat.

The Elephant Sisterhood

A strange erosion seems to be happening in the togetherness of humankind. I cannot tell you how many women I know who, over the last few years, have seen their relationships with their children’s fathers disintegrate between their hands, like some decrepit sacred document worried to shreds by damp and worms.

The circumstances are almost identical; she, horrified at the idea of mothering alone, relinquishes almost all sense of self, does baby night shifts with the devotion of Florence Nightingale, changes nappies, mops floors, makes meals, cleans dishes, shops for food (oh, that endless circular mill of work!), and barely has the time or energy to comb her hair. He, confronted with this ratty-haired woman, whose clothes smell faintly of breastmilk and whose youth seems to have been extracted from her by the chubby creatures her body has painstakingly produced, this woman who was previously so attractive (for which read, used to have so much time for him), suddenly loses faith in the relationship. In her.

But despite being spurned, these women sacrifice what it is that makes them them in an attempt to win back that love. Smiled are rigid, unbalanced by grieving eyes. They believe in healing the rift by offering unconditional love, or by complying with his demands, and abandoning all hope of whatever might fulfil her . And as the spark of who she is sputters beneath this wet canopy of longing, he turns ever further away.

Sometimes the rejection takes an absurdly cruel twist. One friend of mine, unable to support herself with her two small children, is obliged to continue living with her ex (and doing all the wifely things he expects of her), because he does not believe that men should have to finanically support the mothers of their children. (He’s a lawyer.)

Another friend, who had arranged to get married to the man whose child she was carrying, even gave him money to buy a suit for the wedding; he didn’t show up. Yet another has to endure her son’s father sending him incessant abusive text messages about her. And now that I am thinking about it, another friend told me that the father of her son (the son has Asperger’s) is so hopeless she has to send him money.

One close friend has recently separated from a husband (and father of her two kids) who had constantly criticised, nitpicked, and told her how unattractive he found her – whilst pointing out to her women that he did find attractive. Apparently he was not the marriage type; it made me wonder if this was some prehistoric nomad gene in him spurring his heels out of domestic life, or if, perhaps, it was just a very stupid, immature, self-centred gene leaping out of his DNA.

My mind is drawn back to the moments after my own bombshell. We were on holiday in Portugal, a whole month, and in the last week my (then) husband announced that we had to end our relationship. Done. Over. Sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? But there were still the trips to the beach with the kids – might as well make the most of the holiday time, eh – and the lunches with friends, so glib in their acceptance, and the afternoons spent lounging in the rental house, with the owner’s books to pore through to keep my head from spinning.

One of those books was about elephants. I did not know, before that holiday, that a herd of elephants is entirely composed of females, the head of the herd being the oldest (the matriarch). Males are born, and at about ten or eleven years of age they leave (or are thrown out?) of the herd to live as loners, only approaching another herd to mate before disappearing.

The young are raised happily by mothers, aunts, sisters and grannies, who never worry about when the child benefit will come in or if Daddy will turn up this weekend. Things are so different for us in the human world. I bet there are a few female invertebrates looking at us right now, saying, “Poor things. After mating we just eat our mate’s head.”

The trouble is – apart from the slavery of needing money and things to spend it on – that woman in industrialised societies cannot exist like a herd of elephants, without the necessity of a male figure to help with disciplining, making the odd dinner, helping out with the rent. We feel embarrassed asking a husband to pay for things, as though we’re spongeing. Time spent child-rearing clearly isn’t measured the same way as paid work when you are the child’s mother.

It seems impossible to imagine kids growing up in a community of women, without the nuclear family units that break humanity up into house-shaped blocks. And yet this is exactly how women have always lived all over the world, and even in Europe if we look far back enough. Even where segregation is not imposed, men and women will naturally drift into groups of their own gender; think of how stilted it feels to attend a formal dinner party with name tags on plates alternating chap and chick. Conversely, men who support sisterhoods are rewarded with cheerful, belly-laughing, radiant women who give back to their relationships the joy they nurture there.

Fortunately for everyone, sisterhoods are alive and growing. You find them in mother-and-child groups, in choirs, in yoga and bellydance and zumba classes and languages lessons and art workshops and crafting groups and writing groups and basketmaking courses and even doing karate. Then there are the events that do not find a slot in the local listings paper, the picnics and group missions up the mountains to get fresh goat’s milk, or pot lucks thrown together on the barest pretext. (“Kazoo workshop?” “Wicked!”)

I am feeling tremendously thankful right now to be living in a place where such a sisterhood does exist. We are united by our extraneousness, people of a mind-boggling number of nationalities united by this peculiar and beautiful place we live, by compost loos and organic veggie plots, by the desire to live without money (Orgiva has its own alternative currency, the Olivo), by a rejection of the crushing grip of consumerism. But we are not so different from women elsewhere. Whenever the urgency of needing to have a cup of tea and a natter whilst kids play together arises, gangs of women gravitate towards one another with a common interest: to know themselves through loving others. How do you love others? By knowing their stories and being a part of them.

We laugh. We shake our stretch-marked hips. We lay down our pretenses at the door, along with the all-weather wellies. And a wave is created between us, a spiral of storytelling and listening that encircles us subtly, bringing us close. We might be scattered between houses and towns and countries, but the herd exists, and it’s calling us home.

The World, Retranslated

Lately, I have been feeling an unusual pang of envy towards men.

It’s not penis envy. You can get one of those quite easily on eBay these days, and in any case I rather like sitting down to pee – it is by far the more convenient position for reading.

No; it’s more of a vague, pervasive, unsettling feeling that there is some wonderful thrill in being masculine. It was perfectly expressed, I noticed as I stood in line to pay a bill at Banesto yesterday, in the exhilarated faces of the Spanish football team as they raised the European Cup trophy. The bank, which sponsors the Spanish team, had printed an enormous, shiny, cardboard poster of this moment, which occupied a good size of the grey-tiled space that was otherwise completely empty. A bit like the coffers of most Spanish banks.

The faces of the lucky footballers were the picture of euphoria: hair flying, teeth exposed right back to the molars, fists raised in jubilation, heady yells of triumph captured and banished to a poster in a lonely bank office in a silent cardboard image. In that original moment, their happiness exploded out into reality with the sheer rush of achieving what they had worked for years untiringly, with nothing but massive amounts of money as an incentive.

The pang of envy, if it were to be put into words, felt something like this: ‘Here I am juggling a small child and bag and buggy and being polite and doing endless menial jobs without the distinction of a wage with all sorts of ideas for my novel/short stories/poems/songs/articles/plans for workshops/cure for cancer and only scraps of time to try to put them together meaningfully between the washing/lunch/school run/endless toddler toilet trips and there are those men with shiny hair and muscles standing out in exultation at their achievement with the world’s approval roaring in their ears. Wouldn’t that feel nice?’

It’s the classic feminist gripe, that men do things that women don’t. They walked on the moon. They developed the theory of relativity. They invaded Poland. It’s as if all of male-kind gets the credit for the actions of specific men who did specific things and got a pat on the back (or, er, the Allied forces down their throats) for it. They may have been stingy, unreliable, arrogant, unkind to orphans, overly fond of alcohol, neglectful of their children, terrible at making steak tartare, or just plain stinky. But there is this trophy raised glintingly in their hands, and they win the day and the approval of the masses (or, er, the Hitler Youth movement…OK, this was quite a confusing example).

The longer I stared at the poster of the selección española, however, the more their jubilation started to make me a bit queasy. The sweat was just a little too shiny; the muscles really did stand out in quite a grotesque way, especially on their necks; the teeth seemed too sharply pointed in the canines. The glory of winning made their eyes leap out in crazed bulges. They could have had a severed head hanging from their heads and flecks of blood on their medieval tunics, but the expression would have remained more or less the same, bar the nicely bleached teeth. The rush of vicarious adrenaline turned cold in my blood; perhaps that analogy about the Nazis wasn’t so far off the mark, after all.

So it got me thinking. Where does this man-envy come from? If we are all well aware of the heinous acts that male-kind has inflicted and continues to inflict on humankind, through political repression, warfare, abuse of prisoners, domestic abuse, criminal banking mismanagement, or making snarky remarks when we can find our handbags, why do we still feel that men have the upper hand when it comes to human value?

There might be many theories out there, interesting ones, but here’s by two bits: the world is, and always has been, in the grip of the major delusion that life is all about what people get. I mean by that the acquisition of status or credit or acclaim as much as material objects. But it amounts to the same thing; everything we acquire or achieve hangs heavily in our hands like the severed head of the blood-lusting warriors. They weigh us down, day by day more heavily, until they finally take us into the grave like leaden lumps.

What is the alternative to this spiritual gravity? Giving. There is a saying in Islam that whatever you give in life you are given in paradise, so when you give a gift, make it the things you love the most, and not some crummy thing you’d rather not have anyway. In my personal view, paradise is not only a state of consciousness that person finds after death, if they are open to it, but a state of consciousness that a person can at least get glimpses of while alive, if they are open to it. With every thing you sacrifice or give away, your attachment to the world and all its trappings become looser, and you begin to float above it, free.

If we look at the achievements of men compared with those of women, it is clear that men dominate the outward, the public, the world of prizes and accolades and severed heads – I mean trophies. There are more male comedians than female, more male CEOs, politicians, theatre actors, judges, university professors, and so on.

But if we are looking at things from our new and improved perspective, all of that is nothing but ten-tonne weights mooring a soul to the world, to the endless mill of seeking approval from others, of getting pole position, beating our records, outdoing our rivals, being number one. In whose eyes? The man (or woman) who wins a gold medal in the Olympics might be a total prick at home. Only the people who are most distant, the newspaper-readers, the television-gazers, the status-enviers will admire him (or her) for that achievement, not knowing that perhaps his (or her) family loathes the very sight of him. (Or her. Can I stop now?)

On the other hand, women, in a very general and blanket sense, are prize-winning sacrificers. We offer up our nutrients, abdominal cavities and breastmilk (not to mention perkiness) to bring the next generation of human beings into the world. The vast majority of women still do the vast majority of housework – an issue that the feminist champion Selma James has addressed in her many campaigns to make governments pay women a wage for doing housework.

We look after young children, elderly parents, siblings having life crises, friends going through divorces, dogs and cats needing treatment for mange – we even take part in collections of dry and tinned food for people hit by the financial crisis, like the one the Spanish supermarket Coviran is currently running. We give up careers to care for families. We give up afternoons rehearsing for charity pantomimes or putting on benefit gigs or selling raffle tickets for this or that good cause. My wonderful friend and fellow blogger Norah at Life in Marrakesh has just managed to set up a charitable initiative that offers cookery training to Moroccan women who have no means of supporting themselves, and then helps them sell their goods in a restaurant (see her latest blog post if you want to donate).

Here’s the politically correct bit: OF COURSE it’s not fair to say that all men should be blamed for the disgraceful actions of a few, simply because they are male. By the same token, we women can’t suddenly start thinking that we are all perfect enlightened beings who are always tolerable and lovely, even when we are ovulating. We can be downright horrendous when someone takes our – OUR! – role in said charity pantomime.

But here’s the thing. For a very long time, probably millennia, women have been thought of as inferior to men BECAUSE OF A LIE. We work ourselves silly trying to catch up to the giddy heights of male achievement. Mothers often do the work of three people – paid job, childcare, housework – and end up exhausted and frustrated because they can’t give all of them their full attnetion. We are stuck on a hamster wheel, racing in the wrong direction.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the value of an action depended on how much benefit it gave to other people. Imagine a world where the measure of a person’s worth is turned upside-down, where the people who own the least are considered the luckiest while the rich are pitied for their anxiety over their burdens. Imagine a world in which people compete to be the most generous, the most genuinely humble, the most compassionate.

This is the world that women excel in. This is the world where things regain their real value. This is the real world; we are living in it right now. All it needs is to be retranslated.

Feminism Rethunk

There seems to be a revitalising feminist spirit in the air at the moment. 

Susan Jeffer’s Abandon-Your-Children-And-Get-A-Life self-help ‘classic’ Feel the Fear…And Do It Anyway is being reissued after a quarter of a century (which I will address in a separate blog piece, so virulent are my reactions to this approach). Much more enjoyably, How To Be A Woman by the queen of Wolverhampton gonzo journalism Caitlin Moran is currently at the top of the bestseller lists in the UK. 

Moran’s book has been not only putting me at risk of a National Express fine for peeing on their seats during a fit of hysteria, but also getting me thinking. Yes, using my brain. Alright ladies. The way we women see ourselves – not to mention addressing the 30% pay divide and sex trafficking and age warnings on music videos – definitely needs to be reexamined, something we don’t do nearly as much as examining wobbly bits on our middles or potential warts on our chins.

But I have to say there is a point I disagree on. The basic effect of feminism so far seems not to have been the liberation of women, but making women feel more miserable because we aren’t doing ‘as well’ as men.

Most men, from where I am sitting, are not free. They are trussed up in boring, soul-extracting jobs in order to pay ever-spiralling costs of living, with simultaneous pressures of status and CV worthiness. Their value as men is defined by how much they earn, how good their golf handicap is, how hot (for which read brainless) their girlfriend is, and whether or not they have recently bought an iPad/Audi Quattro/private Stealth bomber. 

And the more hirsute sex is just as neurotic (well, almost) as us ladies. Pelted constantly by ‘information’ from free media (and even more maddeningly, paid-for media), they are encouraged to worry about premature hair loss, penile dysfunction, and looking not a lot like the cover of Manliness Monthly. Not to mention whether or not their tadpoles could win the uterine equivalent of the Olympic hundred-metre butterfly.

I would venture that the effects of feminism have been more to subject men to the same terrors of not looking good enough as women have always been subjected to. However, instead of being able to have a good old chinwag/snuffle about it with mates over a packet of HobNobs and a cup of tea, they cannot talk about their feelings over a beer at the pub for fear of being branded gay, metrosexual, or Woody Allen.

And if something is really troubling them, say, resentment over parents splitting up decades ago, or bullying at work, or just a really weird fungal-type growth in the crotch area, they have to pay through the tearducts to see a therapist – who will probably also tell them they are, unbeknownst to them, gay.

Women have a freedom of voice – among our own sexual cohorts, at least – that some men would die for. Or maybe just have a sex change for. This freedom of expression, of finding a patient, listening ear to wail about our disappearing jawlines and unfulfilled artistic ambitions into, is massively, scandalously, practically criminally, undervalued. What’s the good of being the CEO of a colossal, natural-resources-raping company if you have zero ability to acknowledge your unhappiness? Plus they have those things between their legs that need constant attention. I mean, periods have nothing on all that.

Men are about as free as a turkey being ruthlessly entangled in string and speared with those ridiculous red paper tassley things on Christmas Day. Why are we are using their freedom as a benchmark for our own? Why not scrap the whole ‘Anything you can do I can do better’ gender competition and just encourage everyone to be themselves, work out what is an authentic way of living, and strive to be happy regardless of the weird itchy fungal growth thing? 

Feminism needs to be rethought, that’s for sure. We just need to have our heads screwed on right to rethink it.