Friday, 27 January 2012

Judging a book by its label.

When I left university and wasn't working as a musician in any capacity at all, I had a slight crisis of self-definition. At uni and since (and now (not right now, I'm typing)) I conducted various different ensembles, and used to tell people that I was a conductor. But in this brief interlude in my life I wasn't conducting anyone, and since it really isn't a solo activity I didn't conduct at all. Could I still refer to myself as a conductor?

The answer mostly came back as yes; although this wasn't a career, that was a useful parallel to draw. An out-of-work estate agent would still call themselves an estate agent. But I had always felt that this label was one which should only be used adjectivally, to refer to people who conducted. (Possibly then, my insistence on being called Maestro by everyone I met during this period was a little over the top.)

My friend R just (ok, a week ago, I think slowly) wrote something about the word sexual, as an opposite to asexual. This is a label to prevent those of us who don't belong to a minority group from being referred to as, offensively, "normal", and so gets added to my exciting list of words which I can use to demonstrate that I am in fact The Man you should be sticking it to. R went on to say that many of eir sexual friends weren't too happy with the new label they had been assigned, and went to great pains to stress that not all sexuals are the same, and that in fact it's a stupid label which isn't necessarily helpful.[1]

Kind of like most labels then, yes? In this great breadth of humanity any label is only going to take you so far, and after it's been around for a while is going to come with too many preconceptions and prejudices to be overly useful. Aware that they were wary of some of the associations which they religion carries, I tried to describe someone as a "liberal Christian" recently, only to be told (by the person in question) that they weren't, and much preferred to be called something else (I can't remember exactly what, but it was three words long and the last one was Christian). This person had felt the need to qualify their label, to label it even, to remove or at least challenge some of the baggage that came with it.

And where does the baggage come from? It comes from people who have adopted or been given the label. R talks about eir difficulty self-defining as a feminist because a teacher at school gave em a view of what that meant, which ey has since rejected. Over at Gingerbread Feminists, Clare the Awesome (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) has written a wonderful post about what feminism is or has the potential to be, giving her use of that label a tighter definition, and attempting to free it of extraneous exclusions or assumptions.

I describe myself as a "feminist ally". Some women have told me that men can't be feminists, but I don't think that they're right. And it's not because I'm worried about picking up the baggage either - I do in fact have quite hairy legs. But sometimes, inevitably, I screw up, and do or say things which are decidedly unfeminist. This is hardly surprising, given that I am The Power we are all fighting, but am I less able to assist the movement just because I do not take ownership of its label? I would certainly much, much rather be less useful than I might be than accidentally sully someone else's battle flag, making the label less usable in the future.

Am I wrong to have this much respect for a word? Should labels be kept for pieces of writing, or objects, or actions, rather than people? Or, like my favourite literature, should I qualify every label I take upon myself every time I use it?

And, while you're here, can anyone give me a gender-neutral replacement for, "one-upmanship"?!

[1]  Given that a few weeks ago I saw Simon Hoggart of Guardian fame getting in a lather after his first encounter with "cis-gendered" (bless him) maybe this kind of concern isn't unusual.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

I spy, with my critical eye, something beginning with fail....

The prompt for me to watch the first episode of the new series of Sherlock was seeing a proliferation of blog posts about it's rewriting of the end of the episode. I managed to avoid reading any of the posts before seeing the episode, so all I noticed at the time (not having read the original) was that the ending was a bit pants, and the lead female character, who had been brilliantly written for throughout, wound up looking pretty pathetic. Which was a shame.

A friend of mine who enjoys Harry Potter (and who also gave the most rousing and convincing defence of the Twilight series I've ever heard, for which they get kudos) told me that they are really disappointed, not only by the fact that outing Dumbledore post-publication appears to imply that non-heterosexual relationships are somehow more "adult" than heterosexual ones, but also by the fact that Ginny Weasley's sole raison d'etre is to marry Harry. Which, in spite of rhyming, is not cool.

Another friend (yes I have more than one) has expressed disappointment in discovering recently that a couple of their favourite authors (namely Lois McMaster Bujold and Jared Diamond) are in their own special ways more than a teensy bit racist. Damn.

I really enjoy Steven Moffat's writing. I really like his dialogue, his pacing, most of his characters. I love what he's done with Doctor Who, and I'm willing to sit through a certain amount of potentially dangerous over-simplification / benevolent sexism to enjoy it. I'm also willing to ignore a certain amount of homophobia from the lead characters in Sherlock because I think their relationship is well-written enough to overcome it (Korea disagrees). But is it enough simply to be aware of these problems? Given that I have very little way of addressing them (apart from getting whiney on The Internet), by continuing to enjoy and consume this material I am tacitly endorsing it, and every time I recommend it to a friend I'm potentially propagating it. Should I be giving a list of caveats every time I tell someone about something I like? Because given what a fan of Lord of the Rings I am that could seriously impact on my free time. (There's a deeper argument I quite like here, which sheds some interesting light on a discussion I had a while ago about the rape scene in the Watchmen film.)

In some ways I feel that it's a mark of quality - the fewer caveats I need on something the better it is. I'm currently avidly consuming Avatar: The Last Airbender (a children's cartoon made for the American mainstream market) because it is remarkably progressive regarding gender, race, ability and so on. The number of caveats required in the first series is roughly one half (it also has a 10-tonne, six-legged, flying bison in it, which may explain much of the rest of its appeal). While that's all very well in contemporary media, it doesn't work for much else. Wagner was anti-semitic but still wrote great music (well, arguably great anyway). Gandhi beat his wife, but surely that doesn't invalidate his approach to protest? And obviously we can't discount Stephen Hawking's contribution to physics because, according to the BBC, he spends most of the day thinking about women, who remain "a complete mystery" apparently (poor dear).

Maybe it's about lowering expectations. Nobody's perfect, and even friends' opinions are bound to disappoint at some point. I guess for the moment I'll just keep playing "spot the fail" and then getting whiney on The Internet.