Monthly Archives: May 2014

she deserved to be a “mrs”

To the man on the train,

I was sitting near you on the 7:58 this morning. I was trying to read my book, but you were talking so loudly that I ended up listening to your conversation instead.

You were with your friend and her teenage daughter, who is doing work experience in London. You and your friend were going to the Chelsea Flower Show. I hope you had a good time. You don’t seem like a bad person.

But I thought you were a little dismissive of your friend’s daughter when she spoke so enthusiastically about her work experience. When she said, “They’re a kind of design company who, like, design websites and stuff”, you cut across her, saying, “They’re kind of a design company, or they are a design company? Do they like design websites, or do they actually design websites?”

I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but that was kind of rude. She is young, and a product of her time. She may not have spoken very eloquently, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t worth listening to. But you embarrassed her, and she shut up. Criticising the way she speaks will not make her more articulate; it will simply discourage her from speaking at all. She is not Eliza Doolittle, and you are not Henry Higgins. I wish you had encouraged her to talk about her ambitions, rather than belittling her.

A little while later, I overheard you say the words “Miss Brown”, and I tuned in again, because I know Miss Brown. In fact, her name isn’t Miss Brown at all, but something very unusual and distinctive. She was my teacher at the local primary school, where she has taught for nearly thirty years. To be fair, you were saying how wonderful she is, which is true. She is an inspirational teacher who has taught a generation of children in the local community.

But then you said something which outraged me.

“I could never understand why Miss Brown was a Miss, and not a Mrs. She deserved to be a Mrs. Not like Mrs Smith. Now, she was a dreadful woman. She deserved to be a Miss.”

I don’t think you quite realise this, but that was pretty insulting towards the “lovely” Miss Brown, as well as “dreadful” Mrs Smith. You thought you were saying something complimentary about Miss Brown, but actually, it was really quite demeaning.

Miss Brown has had a long and extremely worthwhile career. She has helped shape the lives of hundreds of children, many of whom have gone on to achieve great things. And yet, you seem to regard her as some kind of tragic spinster, doomed to a life of loneliness. An person to be pitied. But maybe she never wanted to get married. Maybe she is a lesbian. Or maybe she just never met the right person, and preferred to live on her own terms rather than settle for a mediocre relationship with Mr Wrong. Maybe she has a varied and fulfilling social life, and is far less lonely than she would be if she were trapped in an unhappy marriage.

Mrs Smith also taught at the school for a very long time. She may not have been as universally beloved as Miss Brown, but she also made a very valuable contribution to the school. I know Mrs Smith too, and she is a good person. She has been incredibly supportive to her daughter, who got pregnant at eighteen and raised her little boy as a single mother, whilst studying for a university degree and eventually getting a good job.

You clearly don’t know either of these women well, yet you chose to make judgmental remarks about them in a public place, where the chances of being overheard by people who knew them were very high. We live in a small community. Almost all the people in that train carriage got on at the same station. Your voice carried a long way.

Reducing two highly-respected professional women to their marital status is patronising and wrong. Expressing surprise that a woman should be single, despite being “lovely”, implies that marriage is a reward for being charming and attractive, whereas spinsterhood is a punishment, reserved only for those too unappealing to be “chosen” by a man. (The very word “spinster” has connotations of lonely old maids, crazy cat ladies and Miss Havisham. By contrast, the word “bachelor” suggests a worldly and carefree man who enjoys the finer things in life, free from any obligations or commitments.)

Unfortunately, you are not alone in holding this view, which is why so many great women who happen to be single past the age of thirty believe that there is something wrong with them. Why else would they not be married yet, when so many other perfectly ordinary people are? I wonder how much views like this encourage young women to rush into marriage with the wrong man, because they’re afraid of being “left on the shelf”? How many of these couples end up divorced ten years later, fracturing their children’s lives as a result? (For many such children, a teacher like Miss Brown or Mrs Smith might be the only stable influence in their lives.)

Young women have more opportunities available to them than ever before. But we haven’t achieved equality yet. Girls frequently outperform boys at school and at university, and there is evidence that at the beginning of their careers, women are beginning to out-earn men. Yet men still enjoy much greater prospects for promotion, and in the long term, still earn far more. Having children has very little impact on their career trajectories, because society still believes that the mother, and not the father, should give up work or go part-time when children are born. Even women who do not intend to have children find they struggle to compete for jobs against male candidates, who are seen as being lower risk by potential employers.

Women are far less likely to push for a pay-rise or promotion than their male colleagues, and they tend to be more modest about their achievements when it comes to appraisal time. (Modesty has long been seen as an attractive quality in a woman, whereas assertiveness is often seen as a negative.) Women generally do not occupy positions of power and are notably underrepresented at senior levels, both in politics and in business. This feeling of being less valuable than men sets in at an early stage, when girls are encouraged to choose career paths which are more “family-friendly”. Are we really teaching girls to curb their ambitions on the assumption that their careers will naturally grind to a halt the moment they pop out their first child?

In 2013 Hillary Rodham Clinton said that women are “the world’s most underused resource”, echoing an earlier very similar statement made by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister. They are absolutely right. Imagine what we could achieve as a society if all children were truly given the opportunity to achieve their full potential, regardless of gender or background.

I wish you had not made those unhelpful and unkind remarks on the train this morning, particularly in front of your friend’s daughter. In doing so, you inadvertently told her that what she has to say isn’t worth listening to, and that having a successful career is less important than finding a man who wants to marry her.

Sometimes the most seemingly benign remarks actually cause the most damage. What you said was relatively harmless, on the face of it. But the fact that you weren’t being overtly sexist makes what you said appear more acceptable. I realise that you’re not responsible for your friend’s daughter, and that your influence on her life is probably negligible. Other people have said, and will continue to say similar things to her, and none of these comments would be particularly damaging in isolation. But each one is like a drop of water from a leaking roof, dripping away relentlessly until it becomes a flood of low self-esteem.

Individually we make very little difference. But collectively we have a responsibility to think about what messages we are sending to young people. We should try to speak to them in a way that encourages them to be the very best that they can be. Only then can we finally rid ourselves of these damaging and archaic attitudes which have no place in the modern world.

Yours,

Pépère the Cat (a 28 year old spinster)

sarah millican’s excitable red balloon

Yesterday, I was idly flicking through Twitter when I came across a link to this article by Sarah Millican.

In case you’ve been living in a remote hill tribe in the Himalayas, Sarah Millican is a highly successful comedian from the north of England. She started performing in her early thirties after going through a divorce, and within a few short years has become a comedy superstar, with sell-out tours and regular TV appearances. Pretty impressive by anybody’s standards, let alone for a woman in a career typically dominated by men. In the entertainment industry (and, let’s face it, in life in general), women are often judged first and foremost on their looks, rather than on what they have to say. Women are supposed to be beautiful and sexy, not smart or funny. Whoops. Someone tell that to Sarah Millican…

In her article, published in this week’s Radio Times, Millican describes her joy and elation when, in 2013, she was nominated for a BAFTA.

“The quiet girl at school. The awkward girl at college. The funny woman at work. A BAFTA.”

In the entertainment world, this is basically like winning the lottery, only knowing that you have won through talent and hard work, rather than pure luck. As Millican writes, “If winning is chips and gravy, then being nominated is still chips. Lovely, lovely chips.” (A woman after my own heart.)

She recalls how she and a friend went into John Lewis and picked out a new dress for her to wear. A dress which made her feel special. She then describes how she and her husband drove to London, how she posed awkwardly on the red carpet, and how they then went on to have a thoroughly wonderful evening. She didn’t win, but it was still fabulous. Until she got in the car to go home, checked Twitter, and discovered thousands of hateful tweets from perfect strangers, bitching about how fat and ugly she looked in her horrible dress. And she cried and cried.

In her article, Millican explains that the reason she chose to buy her dress from John Lewis, rather than a “fancy expensive designer” was because she is “a size 18, sometimes a size 20”, and that designer shops simply do not make clothes for people like her. However, this is a woman who has made a lot of money. She could have paid a seamstress to make her a beautifully flattering dress in her favourite colour. The BAFTAs is, after all, no ordinary event. But she didn’t. You see, Millican understood why she was attending the BAFTAs, even if her critics did not. She was attending because she had been nominated for an award in recognition of her achievements as a comedian. Not as a model, or even as an actress, but as a comedian.

Actresses are usually cast in either lead roles or character roles. Which category they fall into depends largely on how young and beautiful they are. Actresses who are not slim and conventionally attractive are seldom cast as the romantic heroine, and on the rare occasions that they are, the fact that they eventually manage to get the guy, despite not being “a looker”, is usually central to the plot. (Bridget Jones, anybody?) This implication that only beautiful people should be allowed to fall in love and live happily ever after is disturbing enough, but that’s a discussion for another day. The point is, actresses who are cast as leading ladies know, however talented they may be, that their success is in no small part due to their looks, and that when they attend events such as the BAFTAs, people will notice, care about and comment on what they are wearing. They therefore take great care in selecting the perfect dress with which to wow the media, because it comes with the territory.

Comedians, on the other hand, do not achieve success or fame by being beautiful, but by being funny. If anything, conventional beauty is a disadvantage to a comedian, because a large part of what makes them so successful is the fact that ordinary people can relate to and identify with them. They are often self-deprecating about their own appearance, talking about their wrinkles and stretch marks and rolls of fat, and audiences find it hilarious because they are plagued by the very same imperfections and insecurities themselves.

Millican was nominated for a BAFTA because of her success as a comedian. She therefore expected any media attention which came her way to be focused on why she was there, not what she was wearing. Her physical appearance is not relevant to what she does or why she was nominated for an award. Don’t get me wrong, she wanted to look nice. But she assumed (naively, in retrospect), that since she is Sarah Millican, and not Keira Knightley, a dress from John Lewis would suffice.

And, really, what could be more perfect for her than a dress from a department store? Until a few years ago, she was a perfectly ordinary woman with an ordinary job. She wasn’t a rich celebrity. She had experienced the same everyday triumphs and disappointments as everybody else. Wearing a dress from John Lewis to the BAFTAs says, “Hello, I’m Sarah Millican. I’m just a normal person like you. I might be rich and famous now, but I’m still the same person I was before, and if I met you in the pub, or at someone’s wedding, we could be friends.”

In fact, if she had worn that dress to someone’s wedding, people probably would have said, “What a lovely dress! Where’s it from?” But because she wore it to the BAFTAs, people somehow think they have the right to criticise and sneer.

This is the kind of behaviour we expect from nasty little bullies in the school playground. Most people have to deal with it as children, some more than others. We don’t expect to have to put up with it once we are successful adults. We assume that, now we are in our twenties and thirties, we have left the playground behind us. Apparently Twitter is now proving us wrong. The particularly odd thing about Twitter is the way it provides direct access to celebrities, in a way that we have never had before. This enables bitter, unfulfilled people who are stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships to make unkind remarks to people who are hugely successful and have achieved far more than they ever will. It is, quite literally, playground bullying, magnified by the power of the internet. But, as my head teacher once told me, “Nobody kicks a dead dog.”

The other thing I find really distasteful in all of this is the blatant sexism. Only in this case, it is sexism liberally dished out by other women, who really ought to know better. (I doubt whether many of Millican’s Twitter trolls were male, because most men simply do not care what women wear to the BAFTAs.) Men are simply not subjected to this level of scrutiny over how much they weigh or what they wear. On the red carpet, they will all invariably be wearing black suits. No one will tweet about who wore it best, but about what they said, and whether they won. Millican’s critics on Twitter live in the same world as she does; a world in which women still have to fight to be recognised for their accomplishments rather than their appearance. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of making the problem worse, they used Twitter to congratulate Millican on her huge success? (Or, as Thumper’s mother taught him, in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”)

Dress shopping is expensive and stressful. If my boyfriend and I attend four weddings in quick succession (as we did last year), he can wear the same black suit every time, whereas I need several dresses. In this age of social media, I would very quickly be busted for wearing the same dress to four weddings in a row, even if none of the guests are the same. And because I am only human, I care about what people think. So I stick my credit card back together with sellotape and go shopping again, whilst complaining about how much easier this is for men. And yet, there’s something magical about trying on a new dress in a shop, feeling like a million dollars, and getting excited about wearing it. I would be the last person to suggest that all women should wear black suits to weddings, parties and the BAFTAs, in the name of gender equality, because I love getting dressed up and seeing what everyone else is wearing.

Would you ever go to a party and tell another guest that you thought she looked awful in the dress she had chosen? No, of course not. Neither would I. Because that would be deeply unkind. And I doubt whether any of Millican’s Twitter trolls would either, because they simply wouldn’t dare to say something like that to someone’s face. But for some reason, when people say mean things on Twitter, they appear not to realise or care that what they have done is essentially just that. The person they are being cruel about knows what has been said about them. And so does the rest of the internet, which makes it a hundred times worse.

In Millican’s own words, she “felt wonderful in that dress”. And as I read her account of how her discovery of what people had been saying about her was like a pin to her “excitable red balloon”, my heart ached. I wanted to cry for her. She had had a wonderful evening, and deserved nothing less. What right did those small-minded people have to spoil that for her? She may be a “celebrity”, but she is first of all a human being, with feelings, just like everyone else. Her vulnerability is part of what makes her so funny and so touching. It is her ability to stay true to herself which makes her so unique.

To Sarah: you are fabulous. Please don’t ever change.

And to all those mean-spirited little bullies: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Get off Tw*tter and do something worthwhile.

the city that never sleeps

OK, I’m on a roll now. New York, Part II, coming right up!

Our last full day in the city was Easter Sunday. It was a glorious spring day, without a cloud in the sky, so we decided to check out the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue, before spending a lazy afternoon in Central Park.

We strolled through Manhattan, enjoying the sunshine and taking in some of the more famous New York sights.

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When we arrived at the top of Fifth Avenue, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of New Yorkers (and their dogs) wearing some fantastic Easter bonnets. Everyone was laughing and talking to strangers, taking pictures with the people in their fancy hats, and having a great time. The smell of hot dogs wafted through the air from the many street vendors’ stands, and the overall atmosphere was that of a carnival.

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Yes, that dog does have painted nails. Of course.

We spent a good couple of hours wandering around talking to people and taking pictures, before deciding it was about time we continued on our way to Central Park.

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Until you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine just how big Central Park is. Or how surreal it is to be in the middle of an enormous, lush green park, surrounded by trees, with skyscrapers visible overhead. I can’t help but admire the fact that in a city like New York, where land is at such a premium, this massive space has been left as a park for everyone to enjoy.

After a delicious afternoon in the sun, we made our way over to the Rockefeller Center, for what was to be the highlight of our trip. I can’t resist a good view. (My favourite thing to do in Paris is go up the Montparnasse Tower.) We had been told by various people that the best view of New York is from the top of the Rockefeller Center. So we arrived as the day was drawing to a close, and stayed up there until night had well and truly fallen.

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It was the perfect way to round off our trip.

The next day, we had just about enough time for one final walk around the neighbourhood, one final breakfast of bagels and fresh orange juice at the local Jewish bakery, and then it was time to say goodbye to New York, and head off to the airport.

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